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Pitch perfect - ‘K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches’

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Baseball is a team game made up of individual battles, a series of one-on-one confrontations where one man throws a ball and the other attempts to hit it. Yes, the action evolves after that, but at its heart, baseball is about pitcher versus hitter.

The man at the plate has a weapon – his bat – and protection in the form of gloves, a helmet, perhaps some armor in the form of an arm guard or shin guard. The man on the mound has none of that. But he is not unarmed – he has the ball. And the ball can be a formidable weapon indeed.

That weapon is the focus of Tyler Kepner’s new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (Doubleday, $28.95). In it, the New York Times baseball writer digs deep into the myriad ways that players have tried to put the ball over the plate over the course of the game’s long history. It’s an exploration of one-half of that ever-present central conceit of hurler against striker.

Each of the 10 pitches – slider, fastball, curveball, knuckleball, splitter, screwball, sinker, changeup, spitball and cutter – is examined at length, with Kepler speaking to a number of pitchers and coaches (including close to two dozen Hall of Famers) while also drawing from the game’s considerable and thorough lore. He contextualizes each offering, sharing not just a pitch’s origins, but its evolution.

It’s curious that Kepner started with the slider; one would think that the fastball would come first. Even the catcher’s sign for it is one finger. But Kepner’s case is a simple and perfectly valid one – the slider was the best pitch of his childhood hero, Steve Carlton. And Carlton’s has a very good case to be the best ever. That personal connection makes for a wonderful introduction.

Next up – the fastball. The heater. The cheese. The pitch that most impresses in terms of raw, unflinching power. It’s a discussion of how the fastball is a distillation of the one-on-one nature of the pitcher’s journey. Guys like Nolan Ryan, Bob Feller, Walter Johnson – each was THE legendary arm of his generation. All blessed with the ability to rear back and let fly faster than anyone. There’s no weapon more effective than a well-placed fastball.

The curveball follows, looping its way into the narrative. This is another chapter where Kepner delights in the technical, talking with an assortment of folks about what it means to throw a good curveball. Whether it’s a slow 12-6 breaker or something a little tighter, there are few pitches more delightful to watch than a well-snapped curve – a karate chop with a ball, as the chapter’s subtitle states.

What follows is one of those few “more delightful than a curveball” pitches – the knuckleball. The knuckler was, is and always shall be the black sheep of the pitching world. More art than science, it’s a pitch that precious few have mastered. Its practitioners, a motley collection of shaggy-dog baseball weirdoes who have chosen to hitch their wagons to a spinless, stuttering star. This one is fun.

And so it goes throughout the book. Roger Craig and Bruce Sutter, the Johnny Appleseeds of the split-fingered fastball. The lost art of the screwball. Mariano Rivera’s omnipresent and devastating cutter. The messy mayhem that comes with spitballs and other ball-doctoring. The once-mighty sinker’s slow fade in the age of swing angle elevation. The gentle majesty and subtle trickery of the changeup. It’s all here.

“K: The History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” delivers exactly what its title promises. It is a fascinating deconstruction of the nature of pitching by those men who did it best. It is a cross-section of the game’s history, showing us the ebb and flow of the craft and how pitches have come into and fallen out of favor over the years.

Kepner’s passion for the game permeates the narrative he has constructed. The book offers intricate detail mixed with stories of the game – he blends the tangible notions of grips and spin rates and throwing motions with the ethereal myths of baseball’s bygone legends. It’s a combination that serves to elevate each element, a rich and engaging reading experience for any true fan.

An immaculate inning is when a pitcher strikes out the side on nine pitches. Kepner gives us 10 – perhaps a curveball bounced or a cutter at the hands was fouled off or a knuckler wandered away – but what we get is certainly immaculate. One swing and a miss is merely a strike, but 10 swings and misses equal one fascinating “K.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 03 April 2019 14:24


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