The book: “Off Speed: Baseball, Pitching and the Art of Deception”
The author: Terry McDermott
The vital statistics: Pantheon Publishing/Penguin Random House, 224 pages, $23.95, will be released May 6
Find it: At Amazon.com, at Barnes & Noble, at Powells.com, at Vromans.com, at the publishers’ website, or the writers’ website
The pitch: With all due respect to Rich Hill, we learned how to throw a curveball that wouldn’t give us blisters once we got into high school.
A pitching coach with a former big-league pedigree showed us how to grip it, flip it, and hope for the best.
Until then, we threw spin balls at various rates of spin. It was mixed in with slower spinning balls.
They often moved, but in what direction, we could only assume we had control of it. They made up their own minds, and the hitters took full advantage when a curve, drop or accidental screwball came up there like a coach’s batting-practice toss.
Yet, when trying to explain to someone recently the difference between a slider and a sinker, if felt like we were sliding off the rails.
The go-to analogy we had was describing the difference between a slice and a hook with a golf club swing. Both balls start out deceptively straight, but intent is to either have them dart down to the left or the right, depending on the desired effect and overcompensation on the wrist action. We kind of shanked that one.
All that said, we have been led to believe that the five forces involved in what happens to a pitch – direction, velocity, spin, gravity and atmosphere drag – are predicated on one’s ability, flexibility and mobility on getting out of the way of a ball that irrationally will be hit back through the box with much more speed than it was delivered.
We recommend a helmet on both the batter, pitcher and center fielder. And, perhaps, the official score keeper.
All of that is worth keeping in mind as you wrap your mind around perhaps the best-constructed essay-account of what happens in pitching with this memoir/history lession by a former L.A. Times national reporter and author of three previous books that had nothing to do all with baseball.
So, nice change up here.
McDermott is a Seattle Mariners fan who uses the 2012 perfect game thrown by Felix Hernandez against Tampa Bay as the backdrop to how demystify the way nine different pitches can be effectively used in a game. The starting point is how it came to be, and then it goes into how it affected the way Hernandez mastered some of them in his historic effort.
The knuckleball isn’t yet in Hernandez repertoire, but it deserves its own chapter because, after all, entire books have been written about it.
Same with the spitter, which could get its own documentary by Ken Burns.
But as for the rest, Hernandez is about as good as it comes to demonstrate varied effectiveness.
A glossary as well provides the basic definitions and intent of 13 different pitches (a fastball that’s a two-seam versus a four-seam is another way to expand on one simple pitch).
Had we just settled for an instructional book by some former not-well-known player, there would not be near enough enjoyment in learning about the pitch from the way McDermott presents it here, tied to his experience growing up near Dyersville, Iowa (the future Field of Dreams) in the ‘50s and ‘60s and how he messed around as well with this slight of hand.
It’s imperative that a baseball fan know this stuff – if a broadcaster says a pitcher delivered something that’s not a fastball, but isn’t sure what it was, the generic term is that he threw an “off-speed pitch.” Don’t get caught in that habit.
The title of this book captures that umbrella phrase but really puts a finger on why any knucklehead can sound half-way intelligent when trying to converse with Little Leaguer about why they shouldn’t worry about trying to throw a curveball/split finger/cutter/changeup right now until they learn to master just a simple, straight fastball.
As fast as all reality will allow.
== McDermott has book-signing appearances at Manhattan Beach’s Pages: A Bookstore on May 16 and at Chevalier’s in L.A. on May 17, and in Laguna Beach in June.