Three anecdotes:

  1. Several weeks ago, watching Joe Buck and Tim McCarver call a game on Fox, I got all worked up–apoplectic, really–as McCarver dismissed and derided the high fives some player got after flying out to conclude a 13-pitch at-bat.

    McCarver’s point, of course, was that the guy made an out, after all. McCarver is old school–at times, just to be a contrarian–and doesn’t buy in at all to the notion of pitch counts as a method of measuring a pitcher’s likely effectiveness late in a game, let alone a means of preserving a pitcher’s arm. Mine, of course, was that those pitches are ticks of one of baseball’s clocks, moving the batter’s team toward the opposing bullpen, and moreover, that the skills of patience and contact necessary to get that deep in a plate appearance represent a sound process the importance of which supersedes that of the outcome, positive or negative.

  2. More recently, maybe a week ago, the Orioles were playing the Yankees in New York. I was listening to the game on At Bat, and over the course of the first four innings, I flipped back and forth between the two teams’s feeds.

    Both broadcasts noticed something pretty early on in that game, and made repeated references thereto: The Yankees were working over Jason Hammel, forcing him to throw a ton of pitches. The number that sticks out in my memory was 51, a figure he reached during the second inning. The Yankees play-by-play voice pronounced that figure like a death sentence. Both teams’ pairings agreed it was a red flag not only for Hammel, but for Baltimore as a team.

    Only here’s the thing: The Orioles won that game. Hammel only went five frames, but then again, he only threw 102 total pitches. The Baltimore bullpen shut down the Yankees, and the club won when they came back with two runs in the ninth inning.

  3. I saw a few tweets Friday night referring to the A’s having drawn more walks (four) off John Lackey “already” than any other team had in any of Lackey’s starts on the year. I was just settling in for an evening of radio baseball, so I found the Boston-Oakland game and tuned in. Lackey, as it turned out, had allowed just one run through six innings. He’d hand over one more on a home run by Jed Lowrie, but in the end, Boston won the game 4-2, and Lackey had a very strong overall pitching performance.

You’ve no doubt pieced together part, or maybe all, of what I want to say about these. I am as firm an advocate of patience, working counts and making the fifth and sixth innings problematic for opponents as you’re likely to find. I love more than anything when entire teams commit to simply working the opposing pitching staff, back to front, until it breaks. I also love good process, and value it more highly than good results.

I’m coming to the conclusion, though, that some of the saber set’s insistence upon those two tenets is becoming obfuscatory, and maybe even counterproductive. I do care about long at-bats and plate discipline, and I don’t like when announcers seek personal virtue in the team effort represented by a clutch two-out hit. On the other hand, one of the things that makes baseball exciting and gripping from pitch to pitch is the awareness that any missed opportunity to score could turn the game the other way. I think we numbers people lose that sometimes, and I think people who disdain or struggle to grasp the numbers get altogether too lost in it.

A 25-pitch inning by the opposing starter has some value, even if no runs score. I think, though, that a lot of people have come to overestimate that value. A scoreless inning with runners left on base is a missed opportunity. A pitcher you wear out doesn’t have to trudge back to the mound, unless he wants to. Getting to the bullpen does not have the value it used to have, since most every team has four relievers who, inning-for-inning, are better than any reliever ever prior to 1990.

Don’t demonize guys who seem to make more outs than you expect in those important situations. There are mechanical reasons some batters struggle with runners on base–in particular, a batter with a long load phase and many moving parts pre-pitch can have trouble catching up once a pitcher goes into the stretch. It’s also, often, simple random variance.

On the other hand, when watching a game, don’t dismiss the value of any opportunity. If a runner reaches base with nobody out, he should score half the time or more. If he doesn’t come home, no one has failed a test of character, but the whole team has failed a test of baseball. A precious chance has gone by the boards. Seeking too much solace in the degree to which the opposing pitcher labored in escaping the jam is a dangerous self-delusion.

A lot of this is probably obvious and self-evident to everyone reading it. I just wanted to reinforce the necessity of balance, and nuance, when trying to enjoy baseball. Don’t glibly point to the pitch tally, even if it shows up on your TV screen after each pitch.

I still don’t really agree with McCarver, of course. While he may be right that the players lining up to congratulate the player who flew out were there for the wrong reason (the mistaken notion that his wearing down of the hurler was worth more than a theoretical hit), he overlooked a perfectly valid reason for those teammates to have been supportive and pleased: That batter gave a great effort.

It’s neither about value nor about aesthetics, and some people struggle to appreciate the elements of sport that don’t pertain to either of those. But that is a real virtue. Fighting off the number of pitches necessary to work a 13-pitch at-bat suggests great focus, quick hands, sharpness, relentlessness. It demonstrates a fierce competitiveness. After eight or nine pitches, a lot of guys would take a pitch almost automatically, and either walk or strike out. A lot of guys would simply not feel ready enough for some pitch late in that sequence, and would never get the bat off their shoulder even if they wanted to.

This guy (wish I could remember whom, but can’t) had a great at-bat. He showed tangible tenacity. He worked hard, did a bit more than is usually required of a player in a given game. He earned high fives from his co-workers for that, whether his effort translated into production for the company or not. If Ted Williams was, as John Updike wrote, “the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill,” he probably would have loved that plate appearance.

It’s really hard to remember, at times, that players are employees, going about a certain job, and that while they want the same things we want from them–big hits, great diving catches, mob scenes at the end of pennant races–they need to focus on the smaller things, the things they can control, like whether or not to give in, when to swing and when not to, or where a ball might best be hit in a given situation. I think it’s okay for a player to add nothing to his team’s chances, even at the margins; make an out; and still get positive feedback from his peers for the way he strove to do better. Otherwise, why are guys who miss free throws always getting fist bumps before the next try?

Athletes are employees. They invest effort in their work. They should occasionally be acknowledged and rewarded for thorough and steady effort, even absent success in their pursuit.

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