Baseball’s strategic non-command

Warren Spahn

That was then: “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. This is now: “Pitching is timing. Timing is supposed to make Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops!”

When Steve Dalkowski died a little over a year ago, the legends and myths about the nine-season minor league lefthander arose from the dead one more time. Howitzer arm? Dalkowski threw fastballs like cruise missiles.

Fans with seats behind the plate said no thanks when he was going to pitch—they didn’t want to come away with holes in their heads. He was that fast. And that wild.

Dalkowski finished his professional pitching career with 37 hit batsmen. That’s an average of four drills a year. The wildest pitching oat of his and many eras was kale compared to what’s going wild today, when as of this morning the Cubs pitching staff has hit a Show-leading thirty batters. (One batter drilled by a Cub every 44 plate appearances against them.)

At that rate, the Cubs staff is liable to do in less than two full months what Dalkowski took nine years to accomplish. The last I looked, there isn’t a Cub on staff whose fastballs inspire the kind of thing Red Sox utility infielder/pinch hitter Dalton Jones said of Dalkowski’s gas: “Hearing him warm up was like hearing a gun go off.”


The outlier Dalkowski was in his time has become the norm in our time, and with about 200 percent more batters taking it on the chin . . . and anyplace else today’s uncontrollable fastballs can reach. As of this morning 476 major league batters have been hit by pitches—one drill every 80 plate apperances.

They’re not just free-floating knuckleballs or curve balls that break inside unexpectedly, either. These days, for whatever perverse reasons that only begin with the misuse of analytics, baseball organisations hunt and capture human howitzers who can throw lamb chops past entire packs of wolves—and practically nothing much else.

The trouble is that the newest generation of speedballers has about as much control as a politician’s mouth. The further trouble is that someone has the potential to become the next Tony Conigliaro—if not the next Ray Chapman. And the poor soul doesn’t even know it.

“Starting at the amateur level,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, “the baseball industry has come to value stuff over command, velocity over artistry. According to, the average velocity of a four-seam fastball in 2008 was 91.9 mph; this season, it’s 93.6. The trend is not just a threat to the health of hitters, but to that of pitchers as well.”

Threat to their health? How about the night Cardinals reliever Genesis Cabrera opened an assignment by hitting Bryce Harper in the face-then-wrist—knocking his helmet right off his head between face and wrist, too—and Didi Grigorius in the back . . . back-to-back. Harper and Grigorius may have been lucky they weren’t beheaded back-to-back.

Cabrera wasn’t trying to relieve either man of a head or another part of their assorted anatomy. He looked and acted positively pained when Harper went down and Grigorius spun on the back drill.

Both players knew it, Harper going so far as to send Cardinals manager Mike Schildt a text message saying he knew Cabrera wasn’t trying to leave his head on the ground separately. Cabrera apologised after the game, too.

But you couldn’t ignore what Harper’s former Nationals teammate Ryan Zimmerman told the Sports Junkies podcast, either. “A couple years ago, these guys would be in Double-A or Triple-A for another year trying to learn how to pitch, but these teams just call them up to see if they can kinda hit lightning in a bottle,” Zimmerman said.

“If not, they send them back down. They don’t care if they hit four guys on the other team. What does it matter to them? The [general manager] of the other team is not in the box, so he doesn’t care. It’s a different kind of game but it is what it is and that’s where we’re at.”

This past Saturday night, Ronald Acuna, Jr. got hit in the hand by Phillies reliever Sam Coonrod, on a pitch that would have been ticketed for reckless driving and traveling 32.8 mph above the highway speed limit. After gripping his limb in obvious pain, Acuna managed somehow to return to the Braves lineup the following day and score their first run. Coonrod and everyone else in baseball were lucky Acuna’s X-rays showed nothing but a contusion on his left pinkie.

One particularly interested observer was a Hall of Fame pitcher, John Smoltz, working the Fox Sports One broadcast of the game. Not only does pitching inside have elevation now that it didn’t always have in his day or past generations, Smoltz told his viewers, matching velocity with elevation equals playing with fire if your control panel goes AWOL.

“To pitch inside waist-down, there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a (batter),” said Smoltz, who hit 57 batters himself in a 21-season career for an average three a year. “And there’s nothing really bad that can happen to a pitcher, other than you maybe leave it over the plate and it’s a homer. Now everybody through analytics is trying to get it to the letters. You throw that at 98 mph, there are not a lot of pitchers who know where that pitch is going.”

Nobody’s blaming Coonrod, either, not the Braves or anyone else. Not even knowing Acuna tied an early April game against Coonrod by reaching for a slider going away and hitting it out. All Coonrod wanted to do was pitch Acuna to the inside of the zone, which pitchers must do to stay in command. The problem was Coonrod’s lack of command.

When Angels pitcher Jack Hamilton threw the pitch that blasted Tony Conigliaro in the face, the horror of Conigliaro going down caused too many people to believe Hamilton was nothing more than a reckless headhunter. And Hamilton didn’t pitch in a time when organisations and scouts lived by velocity uber alles without a thought of anything else.

To the day Conigliaro died there remained a considerable crowd remembering Hamilton as a hard thrower who was borderline careless. To anyone who’d give him a reasonably fair shake, Hamilton would say he couldn’t have been a headhunter if he tried—he didn’t have the kind of control to make it possible.

Indeed. He pitched eight major league seasons and actually hit only thirteen batters—short of two a year lifetime. (Charlie Morton hit thirteen in 2017 alone and he’s averaged sixteen a year in his career—including leading his league three times with sixteen, thirteen, and sixteen, and the entire Show once with nineteen.) If that’s a headhunter, watch me paste this pathetic palooka with a powerful paralyzing perfect pachydoimis percussion pitch.

Carl Mays took it on the chin for just about the rest of his life after one of his submarine spitters coned Ray Chapman in 1920. Not only did it provoke baseball to make the spitter an illegal pitch, it left Mays with a slightly unfair reputation as a headhunter—he retired with 89 hit batsmen in a fifteen-season career (average: seven a year) . . . and he’s not even among the top one hundred drillers of all time.

With the relief pitchers there’s an issue a few more have started thinking about. Normally, a manager who sees his pitcher wild would have gotten him the hell out of there before he got an opposing batter clobbered or his own team facing retaliation. Then came the three-batter minimum for relief pitchers, the sole exception being if they come in during a jam and get out of it facing less than three men.

It was a foolish rule to begin with even before Cabrera’s fateful drills of Harper and Grigorius. (Harper’s wrist injury kept him from playing in seven of the Phillies’ following eight games.) That relief minimum kept Schildt from taking Cabrera out of the game until after he faced a third Phillie, on a night he had absolutely no control. How long will Commissioner Nero and his head-up-their-you-know-what bosses let this stupid rule continue before someone does get killed?

And who has to have a career compromised or destroyed a la Conigliaro before the analytics mavens in today’s front offices quit chasing speed elevation uber alles and start chasing or developing pitchers who can learn how to control what they throw and think as well as thrust on the mound?

I don’t ask that question lightly. I’m an analytics maven myself. I believe more deeply than the deepest pennant contender that statistics are what Allen Barra has called them, the life blood of baseball. I can’t and never could watch every single baseball game ever played in my lifetime, so I look at the deepest of the deep stats when I want to know who really made the difference in those games and who really was (or is) as great as his Hall of Fame plaque suggests (or will suggest).

Those deepest-of-the-deep stats can also tell me whom among non-Hall of Famers actually belongs in the Hall of Fame (Dick Allen and Tony Oliva, anyone?) and whom among the Hall of Famers had no business being there except as a visitor. (Harold Baines, anyone?) One of the things those deeper stats can also tell me within all reason is which pitcher had Dalkowski-like heat or voluptuous breaking balls but had the kind of lack of control that might have made Dalkowski resemble the mature Sandy Koufax.

If I’m running a baseball organisation, and I see a young pitcher who can throw a ball through a cement wall but has no idea where it’s going, I should be crucified if I let that kid get anywhere near a major league mound before he gets the idea. Not before someone teaches him all the speed on earth means nothing if you don’t know where the ball’s going—or the one you get within the zone in spite of yourself gets hit into the Delta Quadrant.

Because one thing will remain true no matter the era: Show me a kid who’s got a sound barrier-breaking fastball, I’ll show you a major league hitter who’ll catch up to that fastball soon enough if the kid hasn’t got much of anything else to show that batter. Assuming he lives long enough after he gets coned by one of those speedballs.

Some of the old-school should still prevail. “Hitting is timing. Pitching is destroying timing,” said Hall of Fame lefthander Warren Spahn, whose fastest fastball would resemble a Lockheed Constellation compared to today’s Dreamliners. Today, hitting is still timing but pitching seems bent on making Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan resemble a junkballer. Batter down? Oops.

Spahn also had solid breaking stuff, a screwball he developed later in his career, and the kind of control an android would envy. Want to know how many batters Spahn hit in a 21-season career? Try 42—an average two a year. He also averaged only four wild pitches a year. Today’s impatient front office would deem him unsuitable for major league competition.

His fellow Hall of Famer Koufax once tied a single-season record for wild pitches—before the flaw in his delivery got spotted at last and corrected in spring 1961. Koufax had a fastball that exploded upward as it arrived at the plate and a curve ball voluptuous enough to make Jane Russell resemble Olive Oyl.

In twelve Show seasons Koufax hit only eighteen batters—an average two per year. But he didn’t just fix the hitch in his delivery in ’61. (He’d previously reared back far and hard enough that he cut half his strike zone sight off as he threw.) He learned at last how to think while he pitched. He knew what he was doing on the mound. Today’s front office would probably write him off for thinking too much and destroying radar guns too little.

It’s taken baseball’s best pitcher today eight seasons to hit twenty batters, an average of four per year. The last time he hit one was two years ago. This season he’s been shown throwing three figure speed—at almost any time of the game while he’s on the mound.

But he has something the rest of the pack with a couple of exceptions lacks: He knows what he’s doing on the mound and he also knows there’s an awful lot of real estate to cover within the perimeter of the strike zone. He also has more than just cruise missiles to throw—he’s got a wipeout slider and a changeup that could be accused plausibly of embezzlement.

You won’t see Jacob deGrom on the mound again until 20 May or later, thanks to an issue in his side that started with a lat muscle strain. Did he get it throwing one or two pitches a little harder than even he can throw them without great physical effort? Did he get it swinging the bat and/or running the bases? (DeGrom the Outlier is 7-for-15 as a batter this year.)

If the former, rest assured deGrom knows better. If the latter, it’s yet another argument for the defense on behalf of the universal designated hitter.

It might be fun watching deGrom bop hits but there’s no fun watching him get hurt swinging the bat or running the bases. Especially when you’re not paying deGrom (a converted shortstop) to get up there and slap his mound counterpart silly with his bat. But that’s an argument for another hour.

“[W]hy are pitchers such as Jacob deGrom, Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer at the top of the sport?” Rosenthal asks, then answers. “It’s not simply because they throw hard. It’s also because they know how to locate. More of that, please, before more players get hurt.” Letting the kids play isn’t supposed to mean letting them blow someone’s brains out.

A terrible anniversary

2020-08-17 CarlMays

Carl Mays, demonstrating his submarine-style delivery. This was once the most famous photograph of him. (National Baseball Library.)

Tomorrow we ought to win pretty easily. I can’t hit this man Mays, but the rest of the team sure can.
—Ray Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop, 15 August 1920.

On 20 September 1920, New York Yankee pitcher Carl Mays was scheduled to appear in traffic court on a speeding charge levied three weeks earlier. Mays didn’t appear, but a Yankee secretary named Charles McManus did on his behalf, entering his guilty plea and paying his $25 fine.

Events three days earlier, and a hundred years ago today, compelled Mays to stay out of sight for what proved a full week: the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, 29 years old, fifteen hours after a Mays pitch caught him in the head with a sickening crash leading off the top of the fifth in an overcast New York.

On the same day Mays was due in traffic court, a priest named the Rev. Dr. William A. Scullen presided over the Chapman funeral that crammed St. John’s Cathedral in Cleveland and backed up traffic and crowds outside the church. After commemorating Chapman’s skill, character, and faith, all of which made him beloved in Cleveland and liked around baseball, Scullen turned his attention to the pitcher whose service felled him.

May there be no hostility in any heart to the man who was the unfortunate occasion of his accident. He feels it more deeply than you, and no one regrets it as much as he. This great game we play, that is our national pastime, could not produce anybody who would willingly do a thing like that. Remember those would be the words of him who lies here. Do not hold any animosity.

The priest may have been too late for his words to have any impact on Mays’s behalf. Mays wasn’t exactly Mr. Popularity even before the tragedy. Even Chapman’s opponents testified to his sterling self. Even Mays’s teammates and managers often testified to his less-than-agreeable self.

The Indians weren’t the only team demanding a boycott of subsequent games in which Mays was scheduled to pitch. Yet their Hall of Fame player-manager Tris Speaker was the only member of the team not to sign a letter calling for such a boycott. Nothing could bring Chapman back, and Speaker wasn’t about join the chorus calling an accident murder.

A Kentucky-born, Missouri-raised son of a Methodist minister himself, Mays was known for a submarine-style delivery, an oft-remarked reputation for head-hunting on the mound, and a then-legal spitball at least as effective as the other pitches through which he lived mostly on ground balls.

A few years after the Chapman tragedy, Mays had so alienated Yankee manager Miller Huggins that Huggins used him sparingly until finally starting him against the Indians, of all people. On a day Mays didn’t have his best, the Indians jumped him for twenty hits, thirteen runs, and a 13-0 final. Asked why he wouldn’t change pitchers, Huggins didn’t flinch.

“He told me he needed lots of work,” the manager said, perhaps with a tiny sneer, “so I gave it to him.”

As likeable and respected as Chapman was, the shortstop was known concurrently for crowding the plate, which would have made him prone to a plunk even if a pitcher wasn’t trying to hit him. That didn’t stop only too many from stopping just short of calling for criminal charges against the suddenly hapless Mays.

One week after Chapman’s funeral, The Sporting News published an editorial that barely stopped short of calling Mays a murderer, while Mays continued to stay out of sight in the tragedy’s immediate aftermath:

Mays knows what all the world is saying. He can not dodge the finger of accusation by keeping himself from public view. Nor is it “hysteria,” as his defenders would charge, when critics everywhere remind us of frequent previous complaints against his style of pitching and recount the disputes it has caused on the ball field.

No one accuses Mays of a direct intent to injure any batter, living or dead, but there are few who do not feel that Mays took the chance and made the batter take the chance, and there are many who wag the head and say such a thing as has happened was bound to happen some day.

Mays stayed in seclusion for a week after the tragedy, while talk of boycotting games Mays was due to pitch crawled all around the Show, except to talk to a Manhattan prosecutor the day after Chapman died, according to both the Society for American Baseball Research and Mike Sowell’s The Pitch That Killed: The Story of Carl Mays, Ray Chapman, and the Pennant Race of 1920.

He thought at first that the pitch ricocheted off Chapman’s bat, fielding it properly and throwing to first for what he thought was an inning-opening out. Not quite. Chapman was down in a heap. The next day, a Yankee employee knocked on Mays’s apartment door. Sowell:

2020-08-17 RayChapman

Ray Chapman. (National Baseball Library.)

Mark Roth, one of the ballclub’s secretaries, did not bother to identify himself.

“Carl, I’ve got some bad news for you. Ray Chapman died at five o’clock this morning.”

The words hit Mays like a sledgehammer. He stood there stunned, then slowly shut the door in Roth’s face.

The next few hours were a blur to Mays. He did not know how long he sat in his apartment in a daze. Finally, he was jarred back to reality by the ringing of the telephone. It was a police inspector, offering his sympathy and a police guard if Mays felt one was needed to ensure his privacy. Mays accepted.

Later that day, a Yankee attorney, Frederick Grant, escorted Mays to a police station where he met an assistant Manhattan district attorney identified only by the surname Joyce.

“It was a little too close, and I saw Chapman duck his head in an effort to get out of the path of the ball,” Mays told the A.D.A. “He was too late, however, and a second later he fell to the grounds. It was the most regrettable incident of my career, and I would give anything if I could undo what has happened.”

When Mays returned home, Sowell learned, his wife told him she received two threatening telephone calls, one of which threatened that her husband would be shot when next he drove his car across a viaduct on 155th Street in the Bronx. When he returned to action and beat the Detroit Tigers, the fury continued apace.

Set the Chapman tragedy to one side for a few moments. Mays’s pitching record includes that he led the American League with fourteen hit batsmen in 1917, when he pitched for the Boston Red Sox. He hit eleven and ten in each of the next two seasons. You’d be hard pressed to suggest that Mays hadn’t earned a head-hunting reputation on that record alone. Even in a time when baseball players weren’t exactly renowned for couth.

But Mays never again hit batters in double figures in any season, hitting as many as nine in a season only once, and that was the year after the Chapman tragedy, when he also led the Show with 27 wins.  His final career total of hit batsmen was 89 in a fifteen-season major league career, and an average of seven per 162 games.

He isn’t even in the top 100 all-time drillers. (He’s tied at number 128.) Mays having committed the notorious hit batsman in Show history singles him out. (Two minor league players, Tom Burke and Johnny Dodge, died in 1906 and 1916, respectively, after being hit in the head by pitches. Those pitchers, Joe Yeager and Tom [Shotgun] Rogers, didn’t earn a fragment of Mays’s infamy.)

Mays wasn’t exactly an outlier among pitchers when he once said, “Any pitcher who permits a hitter to dig in on him is asking for trouble. I never deliberately tried to hit anyone in my life. I throw close just to keep the hitters loose up there.”

Chapman’s death shattered the Indians to a man—until it didn’t. Speaker swore the team would grind it out and win the pennant in his memory, the way they believed he wanted.

Abetted in no small part by the end collapse of the Chicago White Sox, when the Black Sox scandal graduated from rumour to explosive fact and eight White Sox were suspended by the team post haste, the Indians won the pennant and beat the Brooklyn Dodgers (then known as the Robins) in the World Series.

Absent Chapman’s death, Mays might have been remembered best as a tough pitcher who was lost for explaining why his personality rubbed enough people in baseball the wrong way. “When I first broke into baseball, I discovered that there seemed to be a feeling against me, even from the players on my own team,” he once said. “I always have wondered why I have encountered this antipathy from so many people wherever I have been. And I have never been able to explain it, even to myself.”

He didn’t always seem to think that questioning his managers’ intelligence or his teammates’ play behind him on rough days might have had a hand in it.

If you believe in karma’s bitchcraft, you should know that life after baseball wasn’t always kind to Mays. Sowell exhumed that he lost his life’s savings ($175,000) in the 1929 stock market crash and his wife to complications from an infection in 1934. That left him to raise his two children alone, until he met and married the former schoolteacher who came to him at first as his housekeeper.

But Mays also became a longtime baseball scout and teacher who mellowed as the years went by and who made a particular point of teaching his charges to play the game as safely as possible within reason. One of his charges would become a major figure on his former team, the Red Sox: shortstop Johnny Pesky.

The Chapman tragedy caused two major rules changes. Change one: the Show outlawed the spitball officially, while allowing pitchers already throwing the pitch (including Mays and, more famously, Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes) to continue until their careers ended.

Change two: fresh, clean baseballs in play at all times. (Mays showed an umpire a scuff on the ball that hit Chapman as well as how wet the ball still might have been from light rain earlier that day, indicators that Chapman may not have picked up the flight of the ball until it was too late.)

Harry Lunte pinch-ran for Chapman played shortstop the rest of the game, which the Indians held on to win, 4-3. Then, a rookie named Joe Sewell, swearing to anyone who’d listen that he’d become the next Chapman, became the Indians’ regular shortstop—all the way to the Hall of Fame, after playing his final three seasons with the Yankees, of all people.

Mays had the credentials for the Hall of Fame when it was born in 1936, but he never made it. Not because of the Chapman tragedy, but—according to Sowell and numerous other researchers—because of suspicions never really proven that he’d tanked in the late innings of two 1921 World Series games didn’t dissipate easily. (Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis actually investigated, hiring detectives as part of it, and found the suspicions to be just that.)

It didn’t stop Mays from going to his grave believing in his heart of hearts that Ray Chapman was the number one reason he was kept out of Cooperstown. Mays was elected to the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in 2009; that Hall notes among other things that not only did Mays stay close to his roots but often brought grosses of used major league baseballs home to give to local children.

Mays picked himself up, dusted himself off, started all over again, and finished his pitching career with a kind of stubborn courage that might have been lacking in another pitcher who might also have caused such a tragedy without malice aforethought.

Yet when he told San Diego sportswriting legend Jack Murphy the Chapman tragedy wasn’t “on my conscience, it wasn’t my fault,” the sense was that Mays said it not because he believed it in the depth of his heart of hearts but because, from the same depth, he still couldn’t bear that a sickening accident caused a death that marked him for life.

Chapman actually planned to retire after the 1920 season, having married before the season started, and having planned to enter his father-in-law’s business. He was buried  in Cleveland’s Lake View Cemetery—four miles north of Calvary Cemetery, where his wife and daughter were buried eventually. A plaque in his memory now hangs on a wall in Progressive Field’s Heritage Park.

Mays finished raising his children before living an uncontroversial life to follow with his second wife, stubbornly continuing to hunt and fish despite age forcing him to walk with a cane due to arthritis and depriving him of some of his hearing.

Much as he loved his Missouri roots, Mays was buried next to his first wife in Portland, Oregon’s River View Cemetery. His headstone mentions not his baseball career but his military service in World War I. He once ran an Oregon baseball school whose students included a young Oregonian who became a Red Sox legend, shortstop/manager/coach Johnny Pesky.

Living well enough is usually the best revenge. But it’s also the next best thing to an absolution that’s only God’s to give when men and women can’t or won’t. That as well as the dozens of used Show baseballs and other kindnesses Mays gave children back home may help to brighten his memory. Even a little.

Ray Chapman didn’t deserve to die playing the game he loved. Carl Mays, who loved the game likewise, didn’t deserve to be stricken with the next worst thing to the mark of Cain for a terrible accident.