The Science of Hitting, by Ted Williams

Ted Williams’s The Science of Hitting has been on my radar for a few years now, though admittedly, since it has been so long since I last played ball, I wasn’t in any real hurry to read it. But now that I have, I’m glad that I did because even though I no longer play, I learned a lot from this book.

First published in 1971, The Science of Hitting serves as a guide on how to improve one’s performance at the plate. Even though it is a very slim volume, only 81 pages long, it is a goldmine on hitting technique and about the game as a whole. Ted Williams, with the help of John Underwood, manages to walk a fine line between elaborating on the technical aspects of hitting while maintaining a very readable style of writing.

Despite the fact that Williams originally wrote this book more than 50 years ago, the observations and advice within are timeless. Some of the advice is commonly heard today, such as being selective at the plate and making the pitcher work until they’ve got two strikes on you. Other bits of advice flies in the face of popular coaching today. For example, the recommendation to maintain a level swing, parallel to the ground, is something I heard throughout my playing days. Williams argues and demonstrates why a slight upward swing is the better approach. The book is full of pictures and diagrams depicting Williams’s teachings in a visual format.

Nevertheless, Williams’s approach to teaching the art of hitting is not strictly proscriptive. He provides numerous examples of variations on hitting styles, naming some of the greatest hitters in the game as examples of these variations. (As new editions of the book have been released, the lists of players named have been updated to include some who played in more recent years.) A hitter’s swing is unique to that hitter, so if what a player is doing is working, stick with it. If it’s not working, or if that hitter is looking to improve, then The Science of Hitting provides a number of things to consider.

This book doesn’t just stop at hitting, either. Williams briefly discusses pitching and touches on his thoughts on the approaches of various pitchers. He talks about what approaches work on the mound, which do not, and the importance of studying the game and being able to make adjustments.

As a whole, Ted Williams emphasizes the importance of practice, practice, practice. Given the number of factors that go into a single swing of the bat, this book is aptly named — hitting is a science. And in order to improve at it, players need to study, think, adjust, and continually practice.

Nines

Today is my birthday: September 9th. 9/9. Oh, yeah — and I was born at 9:50 in the morning.

When an employee at the local running store measured my feet a couple years ago, he informed me that my left foot is size 9.5, and my right foot is size 9. (Don’t laugh, I’ve heard that having differently-sized feet is more common than you would think.)

It seems that the number nine is a big part of my life.

The number nine is a big part of baseball, too.

A team is made up of nine players — there are nine defensive positions and there are nine spots in a batting lineup. In fact, in the early days of the game, a team would often be referred to as a “baseball nine.”

A game consists of nine innings. An immaculate inning is comprised of nine thrown strikes. A baseball is nine inches in circumference.

Scott Flansburg, a.k.a. The Human Calculator, takes the exploration of the number nine in baseball, and in other parts of life, even further in this video:

A bit unrelated, this blog is currently over nine years strong. It’s been a fun run thus far, and I’m excited to continue it!

Baseball 101: Doctoring the baseball

Doctoring the baseball is something that has existed pretty much as long as the sport itself has existed.  But what does it mean to doctor a baseball?

In short, to doctor the ball is to apply a foreign substance to the ball or otherwise alter it in order to put an unnatural spin on a pitch.  A doctored baseball, therefore, is more difficult to hit.  

The most notorious type of doctored baseball, of course, is the spitball.  As the name implies, the spitball involves applying saliva to the surface of the ball.  Other substances utilized in doctoring baseballs have included Vaseline (petroleum jelly), pine tar, sunscreen, and shaving cream.  Altering the baseball isn’t just limited to applying a substance to it, though.  Other forms of doctoring a baseball include scuffing it with sandpaper or an emery board or rubbing vigorously to create a shiny area on the ball (known as a shineball).

Doctoring baseball - Deadspin
Deadspin

Prior to being banned, doctored baseballs gave pitchers all kinds of advantages, and the practice was rampant.  In the period known as the Dead Ball Era, game balls were in short supply, which meant that dirty baseballs were commonly used throughout ballgames.  On top of this, pitchers slathered mud on balls to make them even dirtier and, thus, harder to see.  They rubbed wax, soap, or grease on them, or they would scuff or cut up a ball using sandpaper, or a tack, or anything else they could find.  As a result, pitchers could make pitches drop, fade away, or ride in on hitters all while using their same old throwing motions.  Thus, the Dead Ball Era was characterized by low-scoring games and a lack of home runs.

Then, in August 1920, Ray Chapman was killed when he was struck in the head by a spitball thrown by pitcher Carl Mays.  After the 1920 season, the use of the spitball was banned with the exception of a group of 17 existing spitballers, who were grandfathered in and permitted to throw the pitch legally until they retired.  With the league now cracking down on doctored baseballs and using clean balls throughout games, the live ball era was born.

The spitball hasn’t been legally used since Burleigh Grimes retired in 1934.  That’s not to say that baseballs never get doctored today, of course.  Doctoring pitches can help extend the career of an aging pitcher, helping him to maintain am edge on the mound.  There’s an old saying that says that it’s not illegal if you don’t get caught, and that mindset can be found all over the league.  

According to the Official Baseball Rules (8.02), the rules against doctoring a baseball are as follows: 

8.02 Pitcher Rules

The pitcher shall not –

(a) (1) bring the pitching hand in contact with the mouth or lips while in the 10-foot circle (18-foot circle in Intermediate (50-70) Division/ Junior/ Senior/ Big League) surrounding the pitcher’s plate; EXCEPTION: Provided it is agreed to by both managers, the umpire, prior to the start of a game played in cold weather, may permit the pitcher to blow on his/ her hands while in the 10/ 18-foot circle.

PENALTY: For violation of this part of the rule the umpires shall immediately call a ball and warn the pitcher that repeated violation of any part of this rule can cause the pitcher to be removed from the game. However, if the pitch is made and a batter reaches first base on a hit, an error, a hit batter, or otherwise, and no other runner is put out before advancing at least one base, the play shall proceed without reference to the violation.

(2) apply a foreign substance of any kind to the ball;

(3) expectorate on the ball, either hand or the glove;

(4) rub the ball on the glove, person, or clothing;

(5) deface the ball in any manner; or

(6) deliver what is called the “shine” ball, “spit” ball, “mud” ball, or “emery” ball. The pitcher is allowed to rub off the ball between the bare hands;

PENALTY: For violation of any part of Rules 8.02( a)( 2) through (6) the umpire shall: Call the pitch a ball and warn the pitcher. If a play occurs on the violation, the manager of the offense may advise the plate umpire of acceptance of the play. (Such election must be made immediately at the end of play.)

NOTE: A pitcher may use a rosin bag for the purpose of applying rosin to the bare hand or hands. Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag; neither shall the pitcher nor any other player be permitted to apply rosin from the bag to their glove or dust any part of the uniform with the rosin bag.

(b) Intentionally delay the game by throwing the ball to players other than the catcher, when the batter is in position, except in an attempt to retire a runner, or commit an illegal pitch for the purpose of not pitching to the batter (i.e. intentional walk, etc.)

PENALTY: If, after warning by the umpire, such delaying action is repeated, the pitcher can be removed from the game.

(c) Intentionally pitch at the batter. If in the umpire’s judgment, such violation occurs, the umpire shall warn the pitcher and the manager of the defense that another such pitch will mean immediate expulsion of the pitcher. If such pitch is repeated during the game, the umpire shall eject the pitcher from the game.

 

How far can we throw a ball on other worlds?

Continuing with the theme of interplanetary baseball, yesterday, the World and Science Twitter account shared this captivating video graphic, originally created by Dr. James O’Donoghue. The graphic shows how far a ball would travel on the surface of other celestial bodies in our solar system, assuming said ball is thrown at a speed of 45 mph and at a 45-degree angle. A ball thrown on Mars, it seems, would travel more than twice as far as a ball thrown on Earth. A particularly interesting data point is for Pluto, where the same thrown ball would travel a whopping 667 meters!

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Neil deGrasse Tyson discusses baseball on Mars

The concept of interplanetary baseball is a totally fascinating one. In this clip, Neil deGrasse Tyson fields a question about the physics of baseball if it were to be played on Mars. Not only does Tyson answer the question, he demonstrates his own knowledge about the game — I particularly like the idea about allowing a batter to go to second base if hit by a pitch that would have been ball four.

Will we ever see baseball played on Mars? Perhaps not in my lifetime, but the idea is not entirely outside the realm of possibility.

Baseball 101: Road grays

Major League Baseball fans watching a ballgame today can usually differentiate between the away team and the home team due to the color of the teams’ uniforms. Most teams will wear white uniforms (or team-colored jerseys with white pants) when playing at home, whereas when a team is playing on the road, uniforms are typically gray.

Much of this has to do with history. Looking back in baseball history, traveling teams did not have time or access to laundry service to wash their clothes in the late 1800s. As a means to hide the dirt and the mud that would accumulate on the road, teams opted to wear gray uniforms. Over time, with the expansion of the laundromat industry and the ability of teams to bring along multiple uniforms, hiding dirt became less of an issue. It became simply a matter of tradition for teams to wear gray for away games.

dodgers home-road uniform

What a fastball looks like

This is an interesting illustration that demonstrates the difference between what three different pitches look like as they hurtle towards home plate.  That four-seamer is quite the blur, and it seems you would need quite the discerning eye to distinguish between the two-seamer and the curveball.  Factor in how fast many pitches travel toward the plate, and it goes to show how much batters really need to be prepared for anything.

What a fastball looks like
ESPN the Magazine, 2014

Baseball 101: Base hit

The Baseball 101 series is one that I started a long time ago with a vague idea that it’d be nice to sprinkle in some posts for folks who aren’t familiar with the game, but would like to learn more.  This has, admittedly, fallen a bit by the wayside.  As someone who has been a fan of the game for years, and knowing that much of my audience have the same kind of familiarity, the idea of writing about something as fundamental as a base hit seems like unnecessary overkill.

However, while visiting family this weekend, I learned that my sixteen-year-old nephew is not familiar with the rules of baseball (the real irony here being that his father had once played college baseball — that affinity for the game evidently didn’t get passed on).  This discovery has me thinking again that there might be some value in this after all.

See the source image

Therefore, today we shall define the base hit. In baseball score keeping, a hit is credited to a batter when that batter safely reaches base after hitting the ball into fair territory. The batter must reach first base before any fielder can either tag him with the ball, throw to another player protecting the base for a force out, or tag first base while carrying the ball. The batter must also reach base without the benefit of an error or a fielder’s choice in order for the at-bat to count as a hit.

The hit is scored the moment the batter reaches first base safely. A hit may be classified as a single (reaching first base), double (second base), triple (third base), or home run (making it all the way around the bases to score), depending on how far the batter makes it around the bases safely. If he is put out while attempting to stretch his hit into a double, triple, or home run on the same play, he still gets credit for a hit, based on how far he made it safely.

Doubles, triples, and home runs are also called extra base hits. All four types of hits are counted equally when figuring a player’s batting average, though other statistics may be impacted differently.

See the source image