I watched Corey Kluber pitch for the Cleveland Indians in the World Series and thought, what an odd game baseball is, and what odd skills are necessary to it. Hitting a round ball with a round bat is difficult enough (and hardly a skill useful in other contexts); pitching, arguably, is even more difficult.
Kluber showed the equanimity that is one of a pitcher’s greatest aids. He didn’t throw all strikes by any means, but was usually able to make a great pitch when he needed to, most often a cutter on the left side of the plate that broke back over, sometimes a curve, also to the left side. Between pitches he looked absolutely unemotional. He didn’t give up a run.
The first thing a pitcher needs is to enjoy throwing. I did, when in my teens, often throwing gravel because I could do that alone. Eventually I graduated to baseballs and actual pitching in high school. I couldn’t take it very far after that, but remain fascinated with pitchers records and the process of pitching decades later. My pitching never achieved any level of sophistication: I had three pitches I tried (often unsuccessfully) to throw over the plate. I wish I still could pursue it, and try to actually apply the strategies I’ve gotten some idea of since high school.
Pitching is possibly even more difficult than hitting because the ball is lively enough that a mistake could lose a game. Until about 1921 that wasn’t the case. With the sudden stardom of Babe Ruth and the scandal about the 1919 World Series the spitball was outlawed and the ball made livelier. Suddenly there were many more home runs. Suddenly pitchers became more anxious and won fewer games. After 1920 there were only three more thirty game winners. Bill Veeck, in his autobiography, told about Grover Alexander, one of the greats, who always put a man or two on base before really starting to pitch. Nobody does that on purpose anymore.
An announcer told us Kluber had begun with a four-seam fastball which a pitcher throws at the top of the strike zone–something that works well for a pitcher able to throw the ball past a hitter. It’s always popular to apply brute force, but it doesn’t always work very well. For pitchers who aren’t overpowering the two-seam fastball works better: depending on what it does, it’s called a cutter or sinker. Kluber was using the pitch as a cutter. It broke as much over as down, at the last moment, and befuddled both left- and right-handed batters. When a someone has that much movement on pitches and can be that precise, he’s cruising. That’s what pitchers desire, but often can’t achieve. Sometimes it’s nothing but struggle. Kluber is a past Cy Young award winner, and has been pitching like it in the post-season this year.
Pitchers have to make sure their pitches move and that they’re locating them where they want to. When their pitches don’t move they’re unlikely to fool hitters, and when they can’t locate they walk people and give up hits. Neither is attractive.
Pitchers began learning how to make pitches move quite early, even before the founding of the National League in 1876. Candy Cummings has been credited with first throwing the curve, and that may well have been before the National League. The spitball was well established by the beginning of the twentieth century, though it was outlawed later (which didn’t stop some pitchers from using it), and other pitches were invented as time went on.
An important pitch for Christy Matthewson was the fadeaway, later to be called the screwball. That pitch breaks like a curve, but the opposite direction from usual (which makes me wonder if his pitch, and some thrown by others, may not have been thrown in the same way as Kluber’s cutter). A curve thrown by a right-hander breaks to the left, and the opposite by a left-hander. Thus, a screwball breaks to the right from a right-hander, and left from a left-hander. Carl Hubbell, Warren Spahn, and Fernando Valenzuela were outstanding pitchers who used this pitch a lot.
The slider is a variant of the curve, but tends to look like a fastball and to break more suddenly, and usually smaller. Very useful if one can put it in the right places.
The knuckleball, which is thrown with the fingertips instead of the knuckles, goes entirely against what pitchers are most tempted to do: throw the ball as hard as they can. The knuckleball works because the thrower removes spin instead of imparting it. It’s even more important to make sure one is throwing the knuckler correctly because it works better when thrown slowly, which makes it very easy to hit when it doesn’t knuckle.
With all those potential tools, pitchers still have a difficult job. A game can change with one swing of the bat, so pitching requires a lot of concentration. A pitcher like Kluber probably enters something resembling a meditative state, but can’t stay there forever. That’s why bullpens and rests between starts are necessary.
And even the greatest pitchers get bombed sometimes. It happened to Sandy Koufax when he was winning twenty-six and twenty-seven games in his last two seasons. His team several times took him off the hook by coming back to tie or win. Seasons like the one Bob Gibson had in 1967, when he won twenty-two games (thirteen as shutouts), are rare because home runs are easily hit, it’s easy for a pitcher to lose the movement on the pitches he throws, or the control to throw them where he wants. Such seasons can still happen, but few pitchers can achieve them often.
But winning championships requires good pitching in combination with hitting and fielding, but maybe pitching above all. As I write this, the World Series is tied at three, and the Cubs have the momentum, after being down three to one. One thing can keep them from winning, and that’s great pitching. We’ll see if Corey Kluber can do it again.