Herald the Crack of Bats
June 12, 2013 | by Adam Sobsey
I am a pitching chauvinist. The mechanics of it are so complex, so cerebral, so deliberate—so difficult—that in the past, I’ve compared pitchers to authors and hitters to readers. Hitting a baseball is essentially reactive and instinctive; it seems like the sort of thing almost any big lug could do with enough practice, as long as he has wrists strong and quick enough to swing a bat, and decent hand-eye coordination.
This year, the Durham Bulls have a prized young slugger, twenty-two-year-old Wil Myers. Myers hit thirty-seven home runs in the minor leagues in 2012. He was so good that the Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, traded one of their best major-league pitchers for him. Myers was assigned to Triple-A Durham for a final polish, but for the first third of the season he appeared to need much more than that: on May 23, he was batting just .244, had hit only four home runs, and had struck out in 28 percent of his at-bats—among the league’s highest rates.
Then Myers went on a tear, hitting five home runs in just six days, including one of the longest Durham Bulls Athletic Park has ever seen: a moonshot off the highest balcony of an office building that towers over left field. His home-run binge started a general surge of hard hitting, during which Myers’s OPS (the ultimate total-production stat for hitters) leaped from .712 to .874. The right-hander is so strong that balls he appears only to reach out and poke to right field hit the wall on the fly. He even fails with more intensity, looking more hotly annoyed with himself lately when he strikes out on bad pitches (rather than indifferent or chagrined, as he had before). Myers’s call-up to the major leagues seems imminent.
Though he grew up in nearby Thomasville, North Carolina, Myers has not been eager to talk to the local media. He’s unused to all the attention accompanying the high-profile trade that brought him to Durham, and has no natural ease in the public eye when he is outside the batter’s box. He answers questions so quickly and tersely that he comes off as dismissive (he’s really just shy), and he has already developed the habit of showering and leaving the clubhouse before reporters can get there following games. Consequently, I’ve interviewed Myers only a few times, and in short bursts. He doesn’t have an awful lot to say, fouling off questions like a hitter spoiling curve balls outside his comfort zone. He ascribed his recent hot streak to an increase in “confidence,” even though his demeanor on the field seemed confident, even cocky, earlier in the season, when he was struggling. Myers punctuates nearly every ball he hits into play, including infield pop-ups, with an insouciant toss of the bat—the sort of thing that could get him drilled by an affronted pitcher’s fastball if he does it in the majors.
Interviewing Myers, the first truly elite hitting prospect to come through Durham in the five years I’ve been covering the team, initially confirmed my opinion of hitters vis-à-vis pitchers—especially with his disarming Tar Heel twang and slang (“naw” instead of “no”). Hitting, it seems, is an innate, inarticulate, fully-formed ability, something the blessed can do as naturally and thoughtlessly at fourteen or forty. As former Bulls manager John Tamargo puts it in Lucas Mann’s new book, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere—literally, in ink on the whiteboard, as a standing message to his charges—“It ain’t that complicated. See a fastball, swing the fucking bat.”
Simple enough. Yet if you ask athletes and those who study them, you’ll find general agreement that the single hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball. It must be: as hitters are fond of telling any sympathetic listener, if you fail at it seventy percent of the time, you’re an All-Star. So how do professionals hit speeding fastballs, not to mention curves, changeups, and other pitches full of wrinkles?
No, really, how do they do it? In that fraction of a second it takes a pitched baseball to reach home plate, is it really possible for a hitter to follow its trajectory, make a choice to swing, and hit it on a line somewhere?
The answer is, scientifically speaking, no, according to a recent article in the journal Neuron. Promotion for the article used baseball as a hook: “When a baseball player hits a home run off a 100-mph fastball, how can the slugger’s brain track such a fast-moving object?” The study showed that our minds process visual information too slowly to follow a pitched baseball in real time, so we compensate by predicting where the ball will be a millisecond into the future.
Well, not “we.” You and I, given fifty chances, would probably fail to make contact with a single major-league pitch. We may have the wrists, the balance, and the refined swing mechanics, but we lack the gift of professional hitters: they live a little further into the future than the rest of us, not in the present moment but the one that lies just beyond it.
That uncanny, almost mystical ability has been on my mind all year following my encounter with the C. P. Cavafy poem “But Wise Men Apprehend What Is Imminent,” an homage to Philostratus:
Mortal men perceive things as they happen.
What lies in the future the gods perceive,
full and sole possessors of all enlightenment.
Of all the future holds, wise men apprehend
what is imminent. Their hearing,
sometimes, in moments of complete
absorption in their studies, is disturbed.The secret call
of events that are about to happen reaches them.
And they listen to it reverently. While in the street
outside, the people hear nothing at all.
One of the many ways in which baseball differs from other team sports is that you don’t generally see plays develop before they unfold. This is largely because the defense controls the ball, so the offense can set very few strategic formations, sets, and screens, as they do in basketball and football. The most important moment of nearly every baseball play takes place without buildup, design, or precedent: a pitch speeds toward the plate and a batter makes a snap decision to swing or not to swing—with unpredictable results. Baseball’s action thus gathers less in the present or the future than in the liminal moment between: in the imminent. Look at the grave face of a man at bat, absorbed in his study of a pitcher on the mound preparing to deal, and you can see the wisdom of the hitter.
Press box denizens enjoy trying to tap into this kind of wisdom. “Bell’s gonna hit a homer here,” I’ll announce, and be wrong when he flies out instead. But absorb yourself in your study of pitchers, as hitters do, and you, too, may occasionally apprehend what is imminent, predict where an object in motion will go. This goes not just for a given pitch, but for the larger arcs of the game.
It happened recently. On May 31, the long-suffering Durham Bulls pitcher Jim Paduch threw his best game of the last two seasons, stifling the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders for six innings on three hits before fading in the seventh (reliever Matt Buschmann came in and saved the victory for him). Nonetheless, Paduch was sent down the next day to Double-A Montgomery, where he had pitched for most of 2011.
That was not entirely a surprise, despite Paduch’s good showing against the RailRiders. He is thirty years old, not a prized prospect, and for over a year has performed poorly with his middling arsenal and tentative deployment of pitches. Paduch spent much of his midtwenties prime in unaffiliated baseball, suiting up for far-flung, independent-league teams like the Chico Outlaws and Lincoln Saltdogs for four years before the Rays decided to give him another chance. It was rewarding to see him climb back up and succeed in Triple-A, where he had previously pitched exactly one game, way back in 2006, before he was cast away to the indy-ball wilds. But Triple-A was Paduch’s ceiling. He had no chance of ever reaching the major leagues, and was little more than an aging minor-league roster-filler.
I balked at the news that Paduch had been dispatched back to Montgomery, refusing to accept that he’d actually go there. At his age, and with his history, a return to Double-A seemed an intolerable, shameful outcome. Paduch would have been the oldest player on Montgomery’s roster, from which two players near his age had recently risen and arrived in Durham. One of them, in fact, the twenty-nine-year-old Buschmann—that is, the guy who had saved Paduch’s win over Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 31—usurped his spot in the Bulls’ starting rotation.
But none of that crossed my mind. I simply thought, no, that can’t be, that won’t happen. And I was right: the day after sending Paduch from Durham down to Montgomery, the Rays announced that rather than report there, he had chosen to retire instead. Yet the pleasure of having the secret call of events reach me was muted by the ensuing melancholy that never seems very far away in baseball—always imminent—especially in Triple-A. I recalled not Cavafy but another Greek, Heraclitus, the weeping philosopher: the way up is the way down.
Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a columnist for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to its recently published guide, Baseball Prospectus 2013. Follow him on Twitter.