For my money the stars of the 2013 Championship Season were Koji Uhehara, John Lackey, and Shane Victorino. If all three of them played in the same game they probably shortened it by thirty minutes with their no-nonsense, step-up-and-play-ball attitude. I love to watch them play.
Then we have Junichi Tazawa, Felix Dubront and Jonny Gomes with their stalling, fussing, fidgeting rituals that slow the game to a sputtering crawl. Their shenanigans between pitches resembled golf more than baseball, as they tried to break their opponents’ rhythm, spiking my interest at the same time.
Leaving aside the conferences on the mound (often called from the dugout), there are two ways for players to slow down a baseball game: fouling off pitches till the pitcher gives in and taking breaks between pitches. The first is an art that the Red Sox cultivate in their hitters, the second are stalling rituals adopted by both hitters and pitchers to summon their scattered resources.
The Red Sox are less interested in cultivating the deliberate approach to batting and pitching. Josh Beckett was given the bum’s rush out of town partially because he would not speed up his game on the mound. Look at the pitchers the Red Sox have acquired since then: Ryan Dempster, Jake Peavy, Craig Breslow, and Koji Uhehara. These veterans are masters of aggressive pitching and they look like they’re in charge even when they’re getting pelted (especially Dempster and Peavy).
Tazawa is the sole exception to this trend. He looks like he’s staving off an attack of gastritis as soon as he comes in. He adds drama and stomach acid to his performance by grimacing and walking around the mound until he finally decides to deliver–what will it be–ball one! He managed well in the post-season with this ritual, so it looks like more of the same in 2014.
At the plate Gomes and Pedroia are the worst offenders, adjusting their wristbands with every pitch a la Nomar Garcia-Parra, and Gomes has an intractable problem getting his helmet to sit comfortably on his head. Ortiz likes to spit on his batting gloves, but he gets back in the box with business-like intent. Nava likes to back out and re-group, but he gets down to business with the same intensity as Ortiz.
Jon Lester was a portrait of anxiety and frustration early in the season, but come August as his control sharpened, he worked faster and faster. By the World Series the hitters were starting to back out on him, so methodical was his delivery. When hitters uncharacteristically begin to stall at the plate you know your mojo is working.
Baseball is a slow game, so you might think the true masters are the slowest ones. But quite the contrary, the masters are the ones who make opponents try to slow them down, the John Lackeys, the Koji Uheharas, the Justin Verlanders. When those guys are pitching for your side, it’s a pleasure to watch. At the same time, the Shane Victorinos and the Mike Napolis, who step up and glare down a pitcher, give you that feeling that no nonsense is happening here. Their posture says, “Let’s get on with it!” We are here to play ball!
I see that Jonathan Papelbon, unlike a host of other relievers, acquitted himself well on Opening Day and got his first save with the Phillies. I’m glad for him, because he is a fierce competitor and deserves some success for his dedication to his craft and his team. But I’m thrilled that I don’t have to watch him painfully labor through another ninth inning.
For Papelbon and many other relievers, every pitch is a game unto itself with an exposition, rising action, a climax, and a falling action. That works well for the final pitch of the game or even in an intense rivalry like the unforgettable contests with the Yankees. But for Papelbon every pitch was like that and his deliberation was exhausting and deadening at the same time.
Relief pitchers will argue that they can break the rhythm and concentration of the batter and take control of the face-off by setting their own pace, but no one else on the field is going to argue that the ninth inning should go three times as slowly as the first eight. The drama quickly becomes melodrama, as it becomes possible to go the refrigerator between pitches. It is almost as annoying as the way commercials interrupt more frequently as an hour-long television show enters its final fifteen minutes.
This pitch is brought to you by . . .
Of all the ways to speed up the game of baseball, the timing of pitches seems the most plausible to me. Sure, it will return some advantage to the batter, and it could cost the reliever some mistakes in location, because he can’t recalibrate from the previous pitch. But the game should be played “with all deliberate speed”, not at the pace of retirement. Batters stepping out of the batter’s box should be controlled as well.
I noticed Papelbon pitching more briskly in Spring Training, so I’m curious if he will keep the pace during the regular season. It seems like pitchers who work quickly have more confidence, more of the “here-it-is-give-it-your-best-shot” approach. Most of them are effective. I love the Tigers’ Doug Pfister for that approach. He’s always ready to throw before the batter is ready to hit. I’m sure his infielders appreciate it as well. No napping before the wind-up.
How do you spell “relief”? A brisk, but determined reliever keeping the game moving. Good luck to the gritty and sometimes comical Jonathan Papelbon. I’ll miss that fierce stare into the catcher, but I won’t miss the extra trips to the refrigerator.