Exit under launch. Please.

2019-05-16 AaronJudge

Do this man’s launch angles and exit velocities make his skyrockets any less moon drives?

You thought “runners in scoring position” fancified men on second and third? Welcome to the era of “exit velocity,” “launch angles,” and other locutions you might have thought more appropriate to a space launch than a baseball game.

Somehow it had to come to pass, unfortunately. All those years we obsessed about which pitchers hit three figure speed on the radar guns were bound to send someone off to give the hitters equal time. Continuing hangover from the Year of the Pitcher? Who knows?

So now for every Aroldis Chapman who throws a 100 mph pitch, we have to hear about an Aaron Judge (or we will, again, when he returns from the injured list) who hits one over 100 mph. That was then: the pitcher who threw the lamb chop past the wolf. This is now: The hitter who drives the lamb chop past the wolf.

One of these days the wolves are going to sue for willful starvation. It’ll happen sooner than language mavens sue to stop turning baseball into coverage of the space program, whatever’s left of it. It betrays my age but I never thought of Frank McGee as Vin Scully’s heir apparent. Though it might have been more fascinating to hear Scully report Alan Shepard’s Mercury flight than to hear McGee calling a World Series.

It’s one thing for my newly-minted friend Bill Denehy (former pitcher) to say the bomb Dick Allen hit off him in his first major league start “wasn’t a home run. That was a moon drive.” (It sailed on a rising line up toward the overhang of Connie Mack Stadium’s upper deck, stopped from landing in Delaware, as Denehy described it, only by the Coca-Cola sign on top of that overhang.) It’s something else now to hear and read baseball commentators and reporters discussing launch angles. Not to mention front office analytics departments as concerned about launch angles as astronauts were about re-entry angles.

Lots of players from the advent of the home run as a regular weapon have used uppercut swings. And we called them uppercut swings. Some of us described it a little more colourfully. “Dave Kingman’s like me,” Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle once said. “Swings from his ass.”

Kingman was a 6’6″ galoot with a long, loping uppercut swing and power equal to a nuclear weapon when he connected right and equal to a wind tunnel when he didn’t connect. Mantle himself once saw Kingman connect right and then some. “I know I never saw one like it,” he said.

He spoke of Kingman a brand-new Met facing brand-new Yankee Catfish Hunter in the first spring training 1975 exhibition between the two teams. Kingman caught hold of a Hunter slider and drove it so high and far out of the park that, according to Roger Angell in a piece collected in Five Seasons, it sailed over several palm trees before hitting the ground on the practise field behind it. Almost all the way to that field’s second base.

“A six-base blow,” Angell remarked dryly. In the same piece, he suggested the real impact of Kingman’s moon drive was to welcome Hunter—the first huge-money free agent, after he was made one thanks to Charlie Finley reneging on a contracted-for insurance payment—to his new Yankee mates: “There is nothing like a little public humiliation to make a five-million-dollar executive suddenly seem lovable.”

They didn’t talk about Kingman’s launch angle then or for any of the 442 major league home runs he hit in his career, enough of which homers traveled surrealistic distances. But they didn’t have to talk about his launch angle, either. The blast he sent clean out of Wrigley Field onto a porch three houses down on Waveland Avenue in 1979 may have been only the most obvious evidence. As also one of his nicknames, Sky King.

Today they’d analyse Kingman’s launch angles nigh unto death. Just the way they do with Cody Bellinger, Chris and Khris Davis, Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, and Christian Yelich, to name a few. They shouldn’t be wearing baseball uniforms, they should be wearing NASA space suits. And maybe Houston should recommission the Astrodome, where once upon a time grounds crews in mock space suits manicured the Astroturf with upright vacuum cleaners.

Statcast figured out that balls hit in the air were more likely to become hits than those hit on the ground. So did enough players, with or without a little help from their analytically rounded front offices. “Ground balls are outs,” Josh Donaldson once said. “If you see me hit a ground ball, even if it’s a hit, I can tell you: It was an accident.” So why don’t we just say fly balls anymore?

Vin Scully, calling a monstrous Darryl Strawberry home run in Game Seven of the 1986 World Series: “High drive into deep right field, Evans to the track, at the wall—gone!” Now, try to imagine Scully compelled to toe the launch angle lines: “Thirty degrees into deep right field . . . ” There’d be a degree of madness in that mangle.

When showing television viewers a replay of Strawberry’s bomb, Scully began, “Here’s another look at that skyrocket, a towering drive . . .” Prose poetry. Thirty degrees into deep right field isn’t even “There once was a man from South Central . . .”

As much as I’ve accepted, embraced, and bathed happily in statistics and analytics, as profoundly as I reject the notion that statistics are the blood poisoning of a game whose very life blood is statistics, even I have my limits. Not just because it doesn’t matter how you hit your home runs as long as you hit them, period.

As I’ve written in the recent past, Roger Maris didn’t have launch angles; his homers were somewhat high line drives most of the time. And they were no less home runs than Darryl Strawberry’s skyrockets or Dick Allen’s moon drives or . . . well, who knows what to nickname Babe Ruth’s bombs? In his day transoceanic flight was done mostly by low-altitude flying boats. Or, by airships like the Graf Zeppelin and the Hindenburg, which weren’t that high and weren’t that fast. Man on the moon was science fiction.

One of those flying boats, a Boeing 314 flown by Pan American World Airways, inspired nicknaming Joe DiMaggio the Yankee Clipper. The 314 had a kind of rough beauty on the outside but inside it was a textbook model of beauty and grace. Which is how they thought of DiMaggio—likewise kind of rough looking as a youth (he became legitimately  handsome in his retirement), until he swung the bat or ran down a ball in center field.

And who cares how fast a ball sails for a base hit or over the fence? Unless you’re really that obsessed with pace-of-game, of course. The problem is that it doesn’t matter whether a home run reaches the seats faster than a speeding bullet or floats there like the Goodyear blimp. No matter how fast the ball travels, it’ll still land before the bombardier even reaches first base running it out, whether he’s pimping or running full speed.

When the opportunity arises, I argue that analytics divorced from scouting means the kids torn unnecessarily between two contentious parents. Scouting can’t tell you everything about a prospect’s potential deep value, and analytics can’t tell you whether you’re going to get a committed baseball avatar or a first class jerk. (By which I don’t mean players having, God help us, fun playing the game.)

But I know analytics can turn baseball’s lingo into something between poeticide and gobbledegook. Let me go as analytical as I please, but don’t ask me to eliminate the skyrockets, the moon drives, the bullet liners, the frozen ropes, and the seeing-eye grounders. (And don’t go there about “contact hitting” unless you can show me a batter who can breathe a base hit or home run.)

When Hall of Fame manager Casey Stengel was doing what he could with the absurdist Original Mets, one of his pitchers was future pitching guru and pennant-winning manager Roger Craig. As Hall of Famer Willie McCovey approached the plate in one game, Stengel went to the mound to talk to Craig. “How do you want to pitch him?” the Ol’ Perfesser asked. “Upper deck or lower deck?”

Stengel might be one of the arguable founding fathers of analytics (Baseball is percentage plus execution), doing the things analytics people adore decades before anyone ever heard of sabermetrics. And he created his own distinctive lingo of triple-talk. (It was known far and wide as Stengelese.) But he knew. He didn’t have to come right out and say it. Even accepting that he couldn’t just come right out and say something if he studied with Henry Higgins himself.

Launch angles and exit velocity matter a lot more for making New York to London in six hours or less than for putting runs on the scoreboard. A homer is a homer is a homer is a homer. Doesn’t matter whether it’s imitating Apollo 11 or the Yankee Clipper. It isn’t rocket science.

Let’s start the counterrevolution. How do you want to pitch Aaron Judge when he comes back from the injured list? Upper deck or lower deck?

Watching your language, baseball division

Detroit Tigers Manager Sparky Anderson watches his

Sparky Anderson, who murdered the King’s English now and then but whose baseball lyricism was second to few.

There are times—in cyberspace or otherwise—when stumbling upon something you missed when it first arrived can sting rather than charm. Especially if it’s a fine essay on baseball jargon, and you discover you’re just as guilty as everyone else of making mincemeat out of it. Or, you rediscover that you’re a repeat offender who’d better be grateful he doesn’t live in a state with a three-strikes law.

The essay in question is Allen Barra’s, from The Atlantic, in June 2012. He took a good, long look at what became of baseball’s language and was not amused. More saddened than infuriated, Barra decided, with apologies to Yogi Berra (whose biographer Barra admires him for his syntax as much as his baseball virtuosity), that he wished baseball people really hadn’t said half the things they’ve said since, oh, around 1980.

I’d love to be able to say much as changed. But then I’d love to be able to say I’m not guilty of failing to pay my syntax, too. Say, regarding runners in scoring position, which bothered Barra as “an ugly and imprecise term, originating mostly with broadcast announcers.” Once we had a runner on second, a runner on third, or runners on second and third, customarily. We’ve had runners in scoring position since the Reagan Administration.

“The new phrase means, of course, a runner in position to score on a single,” Barra wrote, “which is true only if the base runner is not Jason Giambi, who generally needs a double to have a break-even chance of scoring from second. Used indiscriminately. . . it is not merely vague and confusing, it’s incorrect. You can just as easily call the batter’s box a ‘scoring position’.”

Especially if the batter is someone like, say, Tommy La Stella, the Angels’ new toy, acquired in an offseason deal with the Cubs where he’d made himself into a useful substitute (wait, just wait) but didn’t exactly threaten to become the next Mike Trout. Oops. At this writing La Stella has hit exactly as many home runs this season (ten) as he’d hit in his entire previous major league career. He also has a season’s OPS just 72 points below Trout’s. At the rate he’s going now, La Stella is in scoring position when he merely checks in at the plate.

On the other hand, someone did come up with something other than “the bases loaded” to describe, well, the bases loaded. I could be wrong but I think it was Rex Hudler, then an Anaheim/Los Angeles Angels broadcaster, who went swimming and came up with a beauty: “ducks on the pond.” He didn’t say “ducks in scoring position, either.” One up for Raspasaurus Rex.

Barra had no great love for pitchers versus position players, either. Hard to blame him. “When I played Babe Ruth League ball we had pitchers and regulars, the latter term referring to players who play every day,” he wrote. “Now we’ve got something called ‘position players,’ which takes up two more syllables than ‘regulars’ and is misleading, since pitcher is as much of a position as the other eight spots. We also have ‘role players,’ which says nothing and takes up two more syllables than ‘subs,’ short for substitutes. ‘Role players,’ too, is inaccurate; doesn’t every player on the team have a role?”

Yankee substitutes of the late 1950s-early 1960s had a term for themselves. Tell me scrubeenies doesn’t sound friendlier, and funnier, to the game and to the ear, than “role players.” It won’t cost you an extra syllable, either.

Coaches and managers have roles, too. But let’s not get too technical. I’m pretty sure the announcer who dreamed the term up decided “position players” was a sensible way to distinguish everyday men from not-quite-everyday pitchers. I’m also pretty sure men walked on the moon, women won’t become pregnant from a mere kiss, and children think of only one thing when it comes to their parents. (Divide and conquer, and thank you, Danny Thomas.)

Barra also didn’t like “velocity” for extremely fast fastballs, “location” for what we used to call “pinpoint control” or “excellent control,” or “walkoff hit/home run” for “game-ending hit/home run.” (I’d also like to know just when and just why “home run” became a compound word.) But he didn’t complain about “gas,” “bullets,” “BBs,” or “cheese” for extremely fast fastballs.

Showed him the high cheese, then I punched him out with the yakker—Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley. In case you wondered, “yakker” in what was once known as Dial-Eck referred to a curve ball. Curve balls are also known as benders, 12-to-6, and Uncle Charlie. Then Dwight Gooden had to spoil it: his curve ball was so curvy and so deadly when he was on it became known as Lord Charles. Lord, have mercy.

I may be wrong but I think we have legendary Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone to thank for turning pinpoint control into a real estate pitch. It did and does get a little sickening after awhile, listening to pitchers talk about “location, location, location.” Even if they were such Mazzone charges as Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz.

Just once, I’d pay money to hear any pitcher talk about painting, working, climbing, hitting, or using the corners the way Hall of Famer Whitey Ford or anyone speaking and writing about him once did. Let a pitcher speak of his failure to “locate” his pitches, I’d like to ask him when, where, and how he misplaced them. Maybe that was the problem. “Sorry, Skip, I lost that hanger.” We found it for you, kiddo, we retrieved it from behind the ballpark.

(Which reminds me: If there’s one sportswriter question that should earn immediate excommunication, it’s “What were you thinking?” after a hitter’s been humiliated with a called third strike breaking into the zone when he least expected. Or, after a pitcher’s been hit for a ten mile drive. What do you think a hitter was thinking about getting frozen alive? What did you think a pitcher was thinking about getting taken across the state line? In front of 35,000-55,000 in the ballpark and about ten million on television or next to radios? I guarantee it wasn’t, “I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.”)

The game-winning home run gave the winner great praise, Barra wrote, referencing Bobby Thomson and Bill Mazeroski specifically. The walkoff home run, he frowned, is “a term that thumbs its nose at the loser since the team in the field begins to walk off as soon as the ball clears the fence, while the batter is still circling the bases.”

And, while the winning team pours out of dugout and bullpen at once, and en masse, the better to commemorate the blast by turning the blaster into game-winning hamburger. “I’m just about out of breath,” heaved David Freese after he hit that staggering game-winning, 2011 World Series-tying home run in the bottom of the eleventh of Game Six. “I just got beat up by thirty guys.”

Barra admired Virginia Woolf’s admiration for Ring Lardner, whose best stories and articles were “about games, for one may guess that Mr. Lardner’s interest in games has solved one of the most difficult problem of the American writer; it has given him a clue, a center, a meeting place for the diverse activities of people whom a vast continent isolates, whom no tradition controls. Games give him what society gave his English brother.”

In other words, Barra continued, “millions of immigrants, no matter what language they spoke when they came here, came together around baseball. And that happened because even if you knew just a little English you could, by listening to the broadcasts, learn baseball Baseball language once drew newcomers into the game. Now, it’s becoming a language that shuts many people out, one that makes them feel as if what’s happening on the field is something a little more complicated than they thought. The ultimate result is that we all end up knowing less—particularly about baseball.”

And yet. “We try every way we can think to kill this game, but for some reason nothing nobody does never hurts it,” said Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who could have been tried by jury for murdering the King’s English (not to mention the Queens, the Bronx, the Manhattan’s, and the Staten Island’s) now and then, but whose baseball lyricism was second to few. And who never saw men in scoring position sent home on walkoff hits off misplaced pitches. (I think.)

But I’m getting a little ahead in the count. (In baseball, that’s a good thing. In writing, it isn’t.) To Barra, turning fielding into defense and hitting into offense is, well, offensive. “When, exactly, did ‘fielding’ become ‘defense’? The word fielding perfectly described what a baseball team in the field was doing. Defense was the term common to basketball.”

I have one answer: I can remember Mets broadcaster Bob Murphy, of blessed memory, opening a 1960s home game broadcast by “setting up the dee-fense for the New York Mets.” Little by little I heard more people doing it. Defense was also a term common to football and hockey, too. The last I looked, sporting goods stores still don’t sell defenders’ gloves.

“For that matter, when did hitting and base-running get lumped together under the leaden term ‘offense’?” Barra added. “Were ‘batting’ and ‘hitting’ and ‘base running’ too quaint for an audience that also watched football and basketball? When did we decide that because football and basketball had offense and defense that baseball had to have them, too?”

Unfortunately, people who ought to know better decided long enough ago that baseball itself had to have things football and basketball had, too. Things like diluted championships, salary caps, and other cancers.

When baseball first went to divisional play, it didn’t have “playoffs”—it had League Championship Series. Then, baseball introduced the wild cards. In 2012 it introduced the second wild cards. And speaking of wild cards, leave it to baseball—which makes gambling Original Sin—to describe a batter hitting with two balls, two strikes, two out and two men on, as “deuces wild.” That one’s aces in my book.

Once upon a time, baseball’s only known wild Cards were the Gas House Gang, that bunch of particularly randy, rowdy 1934-35 St. Louis Cardinals. (The 1957 Braves, the 1986 Mets, and the 1993 Phillies were just a bunch of wild and crazy guys.) How long, now, before baseball’s governors, arbiters, and shepherds introduce not just every team in a division, practically, going to play for a championship with the World Series becoming something with an unrecognisable name?

Hey, it could be worse. At least three major team sports have identifiable championships. We have the World Series, still; not even Rob Manfred is willing to throw that one out of the game. The National Football League has the Super Bowl, and they’re welcome to it, never mind that it sounds more like something—in hand with the scrambled brains of football play—you’d see involving a wrestling title.

The National Hockey League has had the Stanley Cup Finals to itself since the folding of the original World Hockey League in 1926, after the Montreal Maroons defeated the Victoria Cougars. The National Basketball Association has . . . the NBA Finals. They can’t even call it the Naismith Finals, never mind that that’s the trophy the winner wins. How boring, for a sport of perpetual motion, whose championship trophy is named after its founding father.

Once upon a time, if the occasional fight broke out on the baseball field, we had Red Barber to thank for telling us we had quite a rhubarb going there. Wouldn’t you rather have a rhubarb than a bench-clearing brawl? (We once had Barber to thank, too, for describing the bases loaded as “FOB”—full of Brooklyns.) It beats the hell out of “donnybrook,” which sounds more like naming a soap opera super couple than a rhubarb, anyway. (I wonder: did the couple have themselves a donnybrook over the rhubarb?)

We have Barber’s disciple and successor, Vin Scully, to thank for the can of corn—the easy outfield fly. The can of corn probably originated in the old-time grocer picking off a high-mounted can of food with a hook stick, prompting it to drop almost lazily into his apron, unless the rest of the shelf’s contents came down upon his head first. Name me one football, basketball, or hockey term that was born in the A&P. (Oops! Today we’d say Wal-Mart.)

I once promised to send every last gasp of gibberish in my baseball writing out (at the plate and otherwise) to the best of my ability. And I know I broke that promise so liberally so often you could mistake me for an elected official. Or, decide to run me for office in the first place. William F. Buckley, Jr., wherever you are, may I borrow your immediate response to the question of the first thing you’d have done if you’d been elected? (It wasn’t, “I’m going to Disneyland,” either.)

I’ve sent more than my share of men in scoring position home on misplaced pitches turned into walkoff hits, and I didn’t even show them the high cheese, never mind that I couldn’t punch them out with the yakker. (Guilty, Judge Robinson: I’ve used “punchout” for strikeout. Yes, I know it wasn’t Muhammad Ali throwing one at Joe Frazier. I throw myself upon the mercy of the court, Your Honour.)

I plead no contest. But as Michael Corleone once said to his wife—when she reminded him it was seven years since he promised the Family would be completely legitimate in five years—“I’m trying, darling, I’m trying.” As James Thurber once said, you could look it up. But I’d rather you take my words for it.