How to Enjoy Baseball for My Foreign Friends, Part 5: Traditions and the Experience

Over the last several weeks, I’ve tried to explain the ins and outs of baseball–the central drama, the basic rules, and a little bit of strategy. Today I’m going to shift gears and explain some of traditions and the history and atmosphere that surrounds the sport and amplify the fun of it all.

Ballparks

It may sound funny, but in Major League baseball every park is a unique experience, and many of them based on configuration and orientation have an impact on the game. Every stadium has a different experience for the fans as well.

The outlines of every MLB field.

Consider:

AT&T Park, with it’s incredible view of the San Francisco Bay, and the seagulls showing up in the 9th inning to pick up food scraps.

Fenway Park in Boston, with the Big Green Monster in the shortest left field in baseball.

Or Turner Field in Atlanta, which started its life as the venue for Olympic track & field.

Traditional Songs

Every single major and minor league ballparks sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” during the “Seventh-Inning Stretch” (the break in the middle of the the 7th inning). This song is so quintessentially American that nearly every schoolchild will learn this song within the first several years of elementary school.

In addition to Take Me Out To The Ballgame, individual parks often sing other songs: many will sing “God Bless America” before the 8th inning on Sundays; Fenway Park will sing Sweet Caroline, Yankees fans sing New York, New York, and Giants fans hear I Left My Heart in San Francisco as they head for the exits.

Umpteen other traditions

The catcher always throws the ball to third base after a bases-empty strikeout. The first baseman ball always keeps a ball in his glove in the dugout. Nobody steps on the baselines when entering or leaving the field. Fans throw home run balls back on the field when the opposing team hits them. Every player has a song they play as they walk up to bat, and many relief pitcher have music that plays when they come out to pitch. A VIP with throw out a ceremonial first pitch (including the President of the US!) This just scratch the surface of the many, many other traditions beyond just the game itself that make baseball America’s pastime.

Baseball, the constant

Baseball serves a really different role for me than any other sport. During football season, we sit down and watch games on Saturday afternoons and sometimes Sundays. There is little football during the week. However, baseball is always on, and when we’re just watching at home, it’s something to keep on in the background, checking in and watching a little bit here and there. Even at the park you can easily sit back and just enjoy the atmosphere and nearly lose track of the game going on.

Additionally, baseball is the one major professional sport left where the average person can easily afford a ticket–we could regularly get $10 – $15 tickets for the Atlanta Braves while we lived there, and as a result, we attended 5-10 games a season. For contrast, tickets for the Atlanta Falcons (the football team) cost a minimum of $50 each even for meaningless exhibition games.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this short series, and I hope when we next see each other that I can take YOU out to the ballgame!

How to Enjoy Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 4: Exceptions and Strategy for the Defense

Last time I talked about offensive (batting and baserunning) strategy. This time, I have a shorter piece on defensive strategy, mainly pitching.

Substitutions

As I pointed out before, once a player has been removed from the game and replaced with a substitute, he cannot return to the game. The player most commonly substituted for is the pitcher, which typically happens because of one or more of the following reasons:

  • The pitcher’s performance has degraded from what is needed and expected from him.
  • The pitcher has thrown a large number of pitches (100+) and further pitching is likely to degrade his performance, in addition to causing fatigue and long-term damage that affects his performance in future games.
  • Especially in high-leverage situations (ones where the outcome of the game can hinge on a small number of events), another pitcher provides a better chance of striking the batter out.

Starters

A starting pitcher is the one who starts the game and typically throws the majority of pitches. A starter tends to have more endurance and a wider variety of effective pitches, because he has to throw longer and change his tactics to keep batters guessing the third or fourth time the bat against the starter.

Relief pitchers

In general, relief pitchers have less endurance and fewer pitch types to throw, and thus will struggle to get the same batter out multiple times. Conversely, since relief pitchers know they don’t have to face that many batters, they often throw pitches at maximum effort and have higher pitch velocity.

Middle and long relievers

Middle and long relievers come in the game if the starting pitcher is having a bad day, struggling to get batters out and prevent runs. A good middle reliever is often similar to a starter, but he is usually not as good.

By the way, the group of relief pitchers is called the bullpen for reasons mostly lost to history.

Lefty specialists

Left-handed hitters are rarer in baseball than right-handed hitters, as are left-handed pitchers. Left-handed batters typically hit better against right-handed pitchers, so a left-handed reliever will come in during key situations against left-handed batters to negate this advantage. These specialists will often face only one or two batters before being substituted again.

Setup Man

The setup man comes in near the end of the game to keep the other team at bay and protect a tie or a lead. The setup man is often in line to become …

Closers

A closer is a special pitcher who is brought into the game usually in the last inning when his team has a narrow lead because he has the capability to record three quick outs. Closers tend to not have a wide variety of pitches but often throw harder than any other pitcher (98+ mph).

Aroldis Chapman, one of the best closers in baseball with his 100+ mph fastball.

Pitching Strategy

Pitchers have three basic tactics they can try to get the batter out:

  • Throw the ball in the strike zone but convince the batter to not swing (“take”).
  • Throw the ball so the batter swings the bat and misses.
  • Throw the ball so the batter makes contact with the ball in a way that is easy to field.

Types of pitches

There are many variations of pitches, but they boil down to some combination of the following:

  • Fastball: the pitcher throws the ball so fast that the batter can’t react in time. The natural backspin on ball causes the ball to sink less gravity alone would dictate.
  • Changeup: the pitcher throws the ball with the same motion as a fastball but at a slower speed to disrupt the batter’s swing timing.
  • Curveball: the pitcher throws the ball with forward spin to get it to sink unusually fast.
  • Slider/Screwball: the pitcher throws the ball with sideways spin so that it curves toward or away from the batter.
  • Knuckleball: the pitcher throws the ball with virtually no spin, which due to alternating vortices on the back of the ball cause it to move erratically.

Pitchers study film and statistics of opposing batters to try to pitch toward their weaknesses; some batters hit high balls better than low ones, some batters can’t hit balls that pass close to their body.

Pitchouts and pickoffs

In a situtation where a runner is on base, pitchers can attempt the throw the ball to the first baseman to tag out the runner while he is leading off the base. This is called a pickoff move, but the pitcher has complicated rules he has to follow to ensure he doesn’t fake a pitch. Faking a pitch is called a balk and results in the batter being walked. Pickoff moves rarely work, but they keep the baserunner from getting too large of a lead, and gives the pitcher a chance to rest as well as throw off the batter’s timing.

Occassionally, the pitcher will throw a ball outside the strike zone intentionally to bait the runner into stealing second base, after which the catcher throws the ball to second base to tag the base stealer out; this is called a pitchout.

Fielding

Fielding strategy is a little less interesting; with one exception, most strategy involves relatively small adjustments of the fielders’ positions based on the situation and the batter’s tendencies. The one exception, which has only become popular in the last roughly 5 years, called The Shift. The Shift is a major adjustment of the shortstop and the second baseman toward the first base side, while leaving the third baseman to cover the entire baseline between second and third base. This has been employed against left handed batters who have a major tendency to hit the ball to the right side of the field.

How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 3: Some Exceptions and Strategy for the Offense

My previous two posts about this topic were oriented on understanding the basic rules, the basic tension and drama of the game, and the things that you might see happen most commonly if you watch a game. In this post, I’m going to focus on the offense to explain a few exceptions to the rules and some of the strategy that goes into scoring runs.

Batting strategy

I said in the last post, the batter’s primary objective is to get on base by putting the ball in play or taking four balls. Batters’ objective are actually a bit more sophisticated.

Elevating Pitch Count

A primary concern for the starting lineup is tiring out the pitcher. Good starting pitchers have the energy to pitch 7 to 9 innings at 10 to 15 pitches per inning. After a lot of pitches (say, more than 80-90), the pitcher’s performance typically starts to sag. They have less ability to throw the ball hard and accurately, and are more likely to make a mental mistake and pitch into a batter’s strengths.

Accordingly, batters do their best early in the game to hit a lot of foul balls, keeping themselves from striking out, but extending their turn to bat. This in turn causes the pitcher to have to throw more pitches, which will a) make the pitcher easier to hit later in the game, or b) will force managers to put in a (less capable) substitute pitcher. Every pitcher dreams of getting a batter out with a single pitch; they dread batters who hit foul ball after foul ball, and a really good at-bat may require the pitcher to throw 9-10 pitches to get the batter out.

Swing Adjustments

Very good baseball players can change their swing based on the situation. They can start their swing far behind their body as soon as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand in order to accelerate their bat to the maximum speed possible when the bat makes contact with the ball. This “long swing” is harder to control and make contact with the ball (and thus more likely to result in a swinging strike), but when it does the ball is much more likely to go far.

Alternatively, the batter can start his swing more in front of his body and a split second later, which gives him more time to recognize the pitch and put the bat in the right place, but in a short swing, the bat’s speed is much slower and more likely for the ball to travel a shorter distance.

Advancing the Runners

The other objective for a batter is to advance the runners already on base, even if he is likely to get out through a sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly (more on both later.)

A hit-and-run is a coordinated play where a batter and runner coordinate using hand signals. The runner is going to start running to steal the base, which will draw the defense out of position, while the batter employs a short, contact-type swing to put the ball in play in a space left vacated by the defense. This in turn means the runner may have an improved chance of scoring when the ball is put in play. The risk, however, is that the batter will swing and miss, meaning that the catcher can throw the runner out (see ‘caught stealing’).

Speaking of defensive positioning, most players have strong tendencies to hit the ball to certain locations. Left handed batters in particular tend to hit the ball in the gap between first and second base. Defenses, especially recently, will drastically move players around in the field to cover the batters’ most common hitting direction and distance. In this case, batters will try to adjust to hit at the weaknesses of the defense–the very best players can actually control the direction they hit!

Bunting

Sometimes, instead of swinging the bat at the ball, the batter will hold the bat out in front and let the ball hit the bat. This results in the ball being put slowly in play right in front of the plate. If the bunter misses the ball, it is counted as a strike. If the bunted ball rolls into foul territory, it is a strike even if it is the third strike.

This play can happen for several reasons:

  • The player at bat is the batting team’s pitcher, and there is a runner on first base. The defending pitcher or catcher usually field a bunted ball, and only have enough time to record an out at first base because the baserunner had a good lead. This is a sacrifice bunt because you sacrifice an out to advance a baserunner to 2nd base. This is a good option for the pitcher because he is usually a terrible hitter, and bunting is much easier than regular batting.
  • The player at bat is very fast, and the bunt comes during an unusual time and is thus a surprise bunt. Because the catcher or pitcher can usually reach the bunted ball quickly, only the very fastest players have a chance of reaching first base in time.
  • There is a fast player at third base and the game is very close in the late innings. The batter bunts the ball in coordination with the baserunner hustling to reach home plate and score a run. This is called a squeeze play and is a very exciting and risky play but not very common.

Lefty-Righty Matchups

Another surprising aspect of batting strategy is the handedness of the pitcher and batter, and managers make decisions about substitutions around this phenomenon. Left-handed pitchers are more likely to strike out left-handed batters than right-handed ones; for right-handed pitchers the opposite is true. Some players are skilled enough to bat left- or right-handed, depending on the pitcher–these are called switch hitters.

Hit by Pitch

If the pitcher hits the batter’s body anywhere but on the hands, and the batter hasn’t swung the bat, the batter is awarded a free base just as if he had taken four balls.

Baserunning

Leading Off

Baserunners usually leave their base before a pitch is thrown and take 2-3 step in the direction of the next base. This gives them a head start when the batter puts the ball in play. In this case, the pitcher can only get the player out if he can throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner before he can get back to the base.

Stealing

A baserunner is allowed to attempt to advance to an empty base before the batter has put the ball in play. If he does, usually the pitcher or catcher try to throw the ball to a nearby defender to tag the baserunner out. If the baserunner successfully makes it to the next base, he is said to have stolen the base. If he is tagged out, he has been caught stealing. The best base stealers tend to be exceptionally fast runners.

Tagging Up

If a batter hits the ball in the air (a fly ball), the baserunner cannot safely leave his current base until the ball is caught. If he has left the base, he has to return to touch it before he can advance to the next base. This is called tagging up and the rule is in place to prevent scoring on fly balls that go very high in the air. The defense can get a player out by either tagging him with the ball or holding the ball and touching the base the runner has left prematurely. This rule does not apply if the ball touches the ground first. If a player hits a fly ball, where a baserunner tags up and scores a run, it is called a sacrifice fly.

Substitutions

First of all, an important rule to know is that baseball teams have a limited number of players (25) that are allowed to play in a game. There are only 9 players in the game at any given time, called the lineup (with a slight exception, in a second). The decisions the manager (coach) makes to substitute players into the game are critically important because once a player in the lineup leaves the game, he cannot return to the lineup for the rest of the game.

Managers will typically start the lineup with players that represent the optimal balance between offensive and defensive ability. As the game goes on, normally in the 7th inning and beyond, he may substitute stronger defensive players into the lineup if protecting a lead, or stronger offensive players in when the score is close, there are runners on base, and one of his reserve batters can hit well facing the current pitcher. The manager may substitute for a player that has reached base; for example, if the substitute is a much faster runner, he will have a better chance of rounding the bases and reaching home plate when the ball is in play. A player that substitutes for another while batting is called a pinch hitter, while one who substitutes for a player on base is called a pinch runner.

There is an important distinction here for Major League Baseball: half of the teams, the ones designated National League, play exactly as I’ve described. The other half of the teams, the American League, allow teams to designate a player to bat in the place of the pitcher (pitchers are notoriously poor hitters). This has the effect of boosting the number of runs scored in the American League as compared to the National League, but also simplifies the strategy of substitution (which I’ll talk about more in the next post when discussing pitching substitution).

How to Appreciate Baseball for my Foreign Friends, Part 2: Now Things Get Exciting

Last time, I explained the central drama of a baseball game, the duel between pitcher and batter. I covered that one first because 90% of the time in a baseball game is spent watching just the pitcher and the batter, and if you know nothing else, you can at least appreciate how this conflict builds the tension in the game.

Now to explain how that tension pays off.

Let’s look again at the field.

You can see three small squares in the field forming a diamond with home plate. The square along the right foul line is 1st base, the one in the middle is 2nd base, and along the left foul line is 3rd base. A team scores a point (called a run) by advancing a batter around the three bases and back to home plate. Here are the basic rules:

  • The batter can attempt to reach first base when he puts the ball in play. If he instead draws a walk by taking four balls, he automatically moves to first base, and any player on first base moves to second, and so on.
  • The batter (now called a baserunner after he puts the ball in play) can be put “out” by the defense unless he is touching one of the three bases.
  • In order for a run to count, he must touch each base in succession.
  • A baserunner cannot advance past another baserunner who is ahead of him.
  • Only one baserunner may be on a specific base at a time.
  • A baserunner may attempt to advance to the next base at any time the ball is “live” or “active”. I’ll discuss some of the implications of this rule in another post.
  • If a baserunner has no open bases behind him, when the ball is put in play he must attempt to advance to the next base; his current base is no longer safe.
  • If a defender holding the ball touches the base that this baserunner is attempting to reach, the runner is out–this is called a force out. The most common play in baseball is a force out at first base.
  • Two force outs can happen in a single play, most often second and first bases. This is called a double play. Double plays typically happen once or twice per game. Three outs can also happen on a single play, but these are exceedingly rare (on average, about once in every 500 games).
  • If a defender touches the baserunner
    • With the ball or a glove holding the ball,
    • Maintaining full control over the ball,
    • While the runner is not touching a base,
    • Then the runner is out. This is called tagging out.
  • And finally, there is a very common exception to the rules that must be explained: a runner who has just hit the ball can run past first base and be considered safe as long as he makes no attempt to advance to second base. This rule exists to prevent injuries.

So what does this all mean?

When the batter is able to put the ball in play, the distance and direction he hits it makes a HUGE difference. The different situations that can happen are too many to enumerate, but they can boil down to four basic outcomes:

  • He could hit the ball beyond in fair territory beyond the barrier marking the field of play (in Major League Baseball, usually a spectator area). This is called a home run and the player may advance around the bases to score without the threat of being tagged out. If there are one, two, or three runners on bases when he hits the home run, then each of those runners score a run as well, meaning a home run may be worth up to four runs. A four-run home run is called a grand slam, and is quite unusual (there is a grand slam on average only once every 20 games).
  • He could hit the ball and a defender catches the ball before it hits the ground for an out. This is usually called a fly out. The effort that defenders make to catch a fly ball for an out makes for spectacular plays:
  • He could hit the ball so that it touches the ground but is picked up by a defender who then relays the ball as necessary to force him out or tag him out.
  • He could hit the ball to that it touches the ground and is able to run fast enough to reach first, second, or third base. The runner has to be able to judge whether it is wise to attempt to reach the next base or remain at the current base.

I’ll go back to what I said before: the pitcher-batter confrontation builds the tension of the game, whereas the payoff to that tension, the exciting part, comes when the ball is put in play and the defense must orchestrate their actions to create an out. While some plays in the field are pedestrian (so pedestrian, in fact, I had a tough time finding an example on Youtube!):

Others make your fist pump:

And still others you wish would happen far more often:

Incidentally, since I’ve only mentioned outs as something to avoid, let me expand on their meaning. There are nine periods of play in the game, known as innings. During each inning, the visiting team gets an opportunity to bat and score as many runs as possbile before receiveing 3 outs. Then any remaining baserunners are cleared, and the home team has a chance to bat; again, to score as many runs as possible before receiving three outs. The two halves of the inning are the top and bottom. If the home team is ahead after the top of the ninth inning, the bottom half is not played as the home team cannot be beaten. There is no clock for the game, and play only advances by recording outs.

In these first two posts, I’ve talked about the basic idea of the game so you can follow the action. In the next posts, I’ll talk about a) some important exceptions to these rules that make the game a bit more interesting, and b) some of the strategies used by pitchers, batters, baserunners, and defenses to accomplish their objectives.