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From Fastballs To Greaseballs, 'K' Offers A History Of Baseball's Most Iconic Pitches


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Spring's here, and baseball's back. It's a comforting tradition for a lot of us, but big-league baseball evolves over time. And our guest, New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner, keeps track of that. He notes, for example, that for the first time ever last year there were more strikeouts than hits in the majors, which he thinks is connected to the widely shared complaint that the game moves too slowly and takes too long.

Kepner's also a student of the game's history, and he has a new book about the countless ways pitchers have learned to make the ball dance and dart on its way to the plate. He writes about fastballs, screwballs and knuckle balls as well as the shady pitches - spitballs, grease balls and baseballs doctored with sandpaper, thumbtacks or even the sharp edges of a catcher's shin guard. His new book is "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches."

Tyler Kepner, welcome to FRESH AIR. Well, if I have a favorite chapter, it's the one about the spitball (laughter) - spitters. Pitchers have been doctoring baseballs for a long time, and the stories are endless. Give me one of your favorites.

TYLER KEPNER: A lot of guys still don't want to sort of admit to, you know, their trickery on the mound. But sometimes when they get caught and it's a big public thing, they really have no - nowhere to hide. So I was a little embarrassed talking to Rick Honeycutt, who was the longtime pitcher for - mostly for Oakland and some other teams. And now he's been the pitching coach of the Dodgers for a long time. I was a little bit embarrassed to ask him about sort of the worst moment of his career, but he took it in good humor.

When Rick Honeycutt was a young pitcher for the Seattle Mariners in 1980, he had made the All-Star team. But the second half of the season was just a fiasco. He couldn't get anybody out, it felt like. And he was losing. It was a big losing streak. And so before a late season start in Kansas City, he absentmindedly passed a bulletin board and he saw a thumbtack. And he got the brilliant idea to put a thumbtack in his glove and see if he could just scratch the ball in the strategic location and get the ball to have a little more movement and maybe change his luck a little bit.

Of course, this was illegal. And Rick Honeycutt had never really done this before. But he was desperate and willing to kind of cross over into the dark arts of the game. There was no MLB Network back then. I don't even know if the game was on - was televised. So it's not as many prying eyes as you have today from the cameras.

So he thought he could get away with it. But the problem was - first of all, it wasn't working too well. One of Rick's problems this day was that the home plate umpire was a guy named Bill Kunkel who had happened to pitch for the Yankees a little bit with Whitey Ford, who was well known for defacing the baseball late in his career and having many ways to get a little scuff on the ball to...

DAVIES: The mud ball, right (laughter)?

KEPNER: ...Give it a little - the mud ball, the - you know, his catcher Elston Howard would, you know, sort of subtly scratch the ball with his sharp edge of his shin guards before he threw it back to him. So Bill Kunkel, the umpire, knew what a deformed, defaced baseball looked like and how it behaved. And so it wasn't very long until he asked to see what was in Rick Honeycutt's glove. And he saw the thumbtack. And he threw him out of the game. And Honeycutt thought he might have been banned from baseball, had a long career ahead of him. And he never scuffed again.

DAVIES: Wow. And then you read about interviewing, I guess, a pitching coach in his 80s named Phil Regan, right?

KEPNER: Yeah, right.

DAVIES: And he had a great story.

KEPNER: Yeah, Phil Regan is a guy who, you know, you'll see him around spring training with the Mets right now. He works with some of their minor leaguers. I went up to him, and I asked him about his - you know, his reputation back in the day. And he said, who told you that? And then he - you know, I said, well, you know, it's pretty well documented. And then he just drove right into the story about how he was cited twice for throwing illegal pitches.

In fact, he had thrown a pitch and the umpire told him to redo the at-bat. You know, like, he said, no, that's invalid. You got to pitch to Pete Rose again. So, you know, he said, you know, the catcher was tossed from the game. And he kept pitching, though, because the umpires found nothing on his hat or his glove. And the next day, they flew in the league president to Chicago for an emergency meeting. And the league president called him a fine Christian gentleman. And he believed Phil Regan's story.

And Phil Regan said to me there was only one problem. He said, they said they called 14 illegal pitches. They actually missed three. And then he sort of winked, and he smiled. And he walked away. So, you know, back then it was much more of the culture. You know, like, the umpires had to sort of look at you. But, you know, the league president could come in and sort of overrule you. And they gave you some latitude with it.

I mean, you know, we mentioned Whitey Ford and the umpire. You know, if he was onto what Whitey Ford was doing, he wasn't going to embarrass him. He was a legend of the game. He would just - came out to him and said, look, Whitey I see what you're doing there with your ring. And I'm going to ask you to go into the clubhouse right now. And you'll tell people that you just needed to change your jock strap. And when you come back out, I don't want to see that ring on your finger. And we'll just continue this game like nothing ever happened. And so, yeah, they looked the other way. But they didn't really bring the hammer down.

DAVIES: He had a ring with some kind of a little sharp tack, and he had it upside down with a piece of - what? - a Band-Aid so it wouldn't...


DAVIES: ...Look like he was wearing a ring.

KEPNER: He had a jeweler sort of specially make this rasp on this ring. And so Whitey Ford would wear the ring and cover it up with a bandage, which you're not allowed to do. But, you know, and then when he'd get the ball back, he'd kind of pretend like he's rubbing the ball just to - you know, like pitchers do just to get a little moisture on it. And - but he would be scratching it with the ring, so - you know, which was in his glove. So, yeah, these pitchers had a lot of different ways to do things.

DAVIES: Yeah, hit the dry side of the ball, not the spit side.

KEPNER: Hit the dry side, right. What are you going to do? That's what Joe Torre said. Oh, these guys - you know, he's wetting the ball. Well, hit the dry side. You know, our guy's probably doing it, too.

DAVIES: How does it help a pitcher to put grease on a ball or to cut or scuff a ball?

KEPNER: Well, a really savvy pitcher will know how to use that scuff or how to get the air currents to kind of counteract it. Mike Mussina told me about how - you know, he was never really accused of scuffing the ball or anything. But if he got a ball that was sort of naturally scuffed, you know, through just hitting the ground, he could use it. He would say, you know, it would make - it would basically make your sinker even better. In other words, like, you know, if I'm throwing a pitch that I expect to move a little bit down and away from a left hander, it'll move a lot down and away from a left hander.

DAVIES: And do you grip the scuffed part or you - it just affects the aerodynamics in flight?

KEPNER: It does affect the aerodynamics in flight. Basically it gives you an even better sinker a lot of times is how Mussina and others would describe it. You would throw it the same, and the - the action will go in the opposite side of the scuff. And Mussina said every ball he got that happened to look - you know, hit the ground, he would look to see where the scuffs are. If they're on either side of the laces of the stitches, it's going to counteract. And it's not going to mean anything. But if it's on one side and not the other, then he could use that to - yeah. Yeah, it'll affect the aerodynamics, and it will - it'll give you even more run on your sinker.

DAVIES: Well, and anybody who watches baseball nowadays knows that typically when a pitcher's ball goes in the dirt, the catcher will usually hand it to the umpire who will discard the ball. And he'll come back. And I guess that's to avoid giving them that advantage.

KEPNER: Oh, man. And, you know, pitchers, that is one thing that the previous generation and before they just - it drives them nuts is to see these catchers just volunteer baseballs that have scuff marks on them to the umpire. And now hitter - a smart hitter will ask, you know, make sure that ball goes out of play. But sometimes the hitters won't ask.

But now it's just automatic - catcher scoops the ball, puts it up in his right hand, umpire takes it and tosses it out of play. And to a pitcher like Jamie Moyer or Mike Mussina, that's a bar of gold you're given away because they would know how to do it. Nowadays, they're like these kids don't even know how to make the ball do funny stuff. Jamie Moyer said, like, that funny stuff can work for you. Like, use it.

DAVIES: Yeah, I...

KEPNER: And they don't want to use it.

DAVIES: And the thing that always puzzled me was, like, they will throw away a ball that goes into the dirt to the catcher. But then a ball that's hit into play bounces twice, the shortstop picks it up, goes over to first. Maybe it bounces to the first baseman. That ball stays in play. (Laughter).

KEPNER: Right, yeah. And that's a story that - that's actually one of the better stories that I left out. A.J. Ellis, the longtime catcher for the Dodgers, was talking about how, in a playoff game against St. Louis, he was facing a veteran, you know, a sort of a grizzled old vet, John Lackey. And A.J. hit a foul ball really sharply. And he wasn't paying attention, and the ball went right back into play. And he should have asked for the ball go out of play because John Lackey, with a ball that has a scuff mark on it, is going to know how to make that ball dance.

And A.J. struck out on a pitch that moved much more than it should have. And he's like, you know what? That was on me. I wasn't paying attention. I should have made sure that that ball went out of play because it skipped real hard on the dirt, and John Lackey's going to take advantage of and give himself a better movement on this next pitch.

DAVIES: And a ball that has tobacco juice, spit, mud, you know, hair cream - what does it do?

KEPNER: (Laughter) The guys who would do it back in the day - they could make sure that it was on one side and not the other. Like, the old thing, hit the dry side, right? I mean, if you have it overloaded on one side, the aerodynamics are just going to affect the flight of the ball differently. If you think about the way a baseball is shaped, with the seams and the smooth edges on the ball, the leather, if one of those is different than the other - whether it's tobacco juice or overloaded with Vaseline or a scuff or dirt or something - it's going to move differently. And the pitchers do enough experimenting to know that, you know, if you've got something on this side and not on this side, it's going to break a different way.

DAVIES: So besides cutting the ball and scuffing it with sandpaper or tacks, they would put tobacco juice on it. They would put Vaseline, right? And hair cream. In fact, wasn't there a commercial that Don Drysdale made to spoof all this - this thing?

KEPNER: Yes. In 1968, you know, Drysdale threw a record - until Orel Hershiser broke it 30 years later - a record 58 and 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings. And he found a way to capitalize on his well-founded reputation for occasionally throwing a spitball, a grease ball, by getting a commercial for Vitalis hair tonic. And in this commercial, he looks in for the sign against the Giants hitter, and the hitter calls time out. And Drysdale casually removes his cap and runs his fingers through his hair. And Herman Franks, the Giants' manager, bolts out of the dugout, and he says, greaseball, greaseball. See him rub his hair? He's going to throw a greaseball. That's illegal.

And so Drysdale grimaces, and he's disgusted. He tosses his glove on the grass, and he goes back to the clubhouse. And there he finds a bottle of Vitalis and returns to the mound and holds the bottle high for all to see. And the announcer says, Vitalis has no grease and spreads easily through your hair. If we all use Vitalis, we could help put an end to the greaseball. So it was just - just having fun with it.

DAVIES: So does it still happen? Do still see doctored balls?

KEPNER: Well, the consensus is that there's not the kind of classic spitball or, you know, using Vaseline or anything like that that we would see so much through the '60s and '70s and ever since it was banned in 1920. It's just because there's so many cameras now, and people who are - literally, it's their job to watch film and look for anything that a pitcher's doing different. We have data and technology that can capture just how much a pitch is moving. And if something is out of the ordinary, you're going to spot it really quick.

What is sort of tacitly allowed now - not by the rules, but sort of by the way that, you know, hitters act - is just getting a better grip on the ball. Hitters want - hitters don't want the ball to slip out of the pitcher's hands. That can be, literally, a deadly weapon in a pitcher's hand. So they want pitchers to know generally where the pitch is going to go. So pitchers have ways of concocting a substance that can just give a little more tackiness to their fingers - let's say, a combination of rosin and Bullfrog sunscreen. And or, you know, colorless, odorless Tuf-Skin, which is kind of something you can use to put tape - you know, to make tape stick on your wrist, or something. You just put a little dab of that.

A hitter showed me - a former hitter showed me how to do that. And just a little spray on your arm. No one can see it. But it creates a little oasis of tackiness on your arm, and so between pitches, a pitcher can just sort of casually touch that spot and no one might even notice. But you get a little more of a grip on the ball. And that's generally OK, as long as it's not overt, as long as it's subtle.

DAVIES: Tyler Kepner is the national baseball writer for The New York Times. He has a new book called "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tyler Kepner. He is the national baseball writer for The New York Times, and he has a new book called "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches."

One fascinating story about pitchers sharing skills with another involves Roy Halladay, the late player for the - I guess Toronto and for the Phillies, and how he learned the cutter from the master of it, Mariano Rivera, when they were together at the All-Star game.

KEPNER: Yeah. And I thought that story, first of all, took on an added, you know, poignant element because they both were elected to the Hall of Fame this year in the same class. And, of course, Roy died in a plane crash, and he won't be there to - you know, for the ceremony. But he has this connection with Rivera because of the pursuit of excellence. I mean, if you're at the All-Star game, you're already, obviously, an All-Star. You're one of the best. But Halladay took the opportunity in 2008, being a teammate with Rivera just for a couple days, to ask him about the cutter. It is the pitch that made Mariano famous and took him to the Hall of Fame. And Halladay threw it, but he didn't feel like he was throwing it well. He thought that he was doing something wrong with how his fingers were placed on the ball - his thumb placement, in particular. And so he went to Rivera. And he said, I think I'm doing something wrong with my cutter. I think this pitch could be better. How do you hold yours? And Rivera showed him. And Rivera, you know, was very open about it, and Halladay noticed that his thumb was in the wrong place.

And so once he made that adjustment - just by tucking the thumb under the ball, rather than just holding it sort of parallel to his index finger - that - then the pitch started behaving just the way he wanted. And what Halladay did was he took a pen, and he traced his fingers on the ball, just as Rivera had showed him. And then whenever he would get out of whack for the rest of his career, he would have that ball in his travel bag. And he could just put his fingers in the Rivera spots and know that that was where they needed to be.

And, really, it took him to the Hall of Fame because he was already great. But those next three years - '09, '10 and '11 - he threw the cutter more than any other starting pitcher in baseball, and he had three of the best years of his career. And without that last burst of dominance, I don't think he would've made it to Cooperstown.

DAVIES: All right. So this information is shared when - what? - they're just standing around, shagging balls in the outfield or sitting...

KEPNER: Exactly.

DAVIES: ...In the dugout - what? - just hanging around.

KEPNER: Yeah. There's a lot of downtime, you know? I mean, players always get to the ballpark, you know, four hours, three hours, you know - no later than three hours before a game, so there's a lot of downtime. And, you know, even once they put their uniforms on and they go out to the field, there's - there is sort of a lot of time in the outfield just sort of lazily shagging balls. There's a lot of downtime during games, if you're in the bullpen, to talk with your fellow pitchers. And the, you know - pitchers naturally talk shop, and they sort of naturally play with different grips. And the really curious ones never stop learning. They never stop trying to find new ways to get hitters out by how they place their fingers on the ball.

DAVIES: What always surprises me about that story is that, I mean, these are two pitchers that are pitching in the American League at the same time.

KEPNER: Right.

DAVIES: And I just wonder how Mariano Rivera's teammates on the Yankees feel about how - him instructing this guy, who they're going to face, on how to throw this nasty pitch which gets them out. I mean...

KEPNER: Right.

DAVIES: ...Isn't there kind of a...


DAVIES: ...Competitive loyalty here?

KEPNER: Well, yeah. They ended up finding Mariano in kangaroo court. You know, there were all these various, you know, non-offensive, you know, crimes. They'll dock a player - their teammates - a few bucks here and there. So they did - you know, Halladay was always really tough on them, and he got even tougher. And they were like, really, Mariano? Come on. You couldn't have held that one back a little bit?

But I think it's part of their brotherhood of pitchers that, you know - that you're going to help each other because even if you show someone the grips - that it's still up to the player to not just put in the time, but also get lucky enough to have the right physiology for it. I mean, a lot of these guys, like I said, can't throw a certain pitch. So Mariano can teach that cutter to anybody he wants, but only a select few can have anywhere close to the success he had with it.

DAVIES: OK. And this is something I never understood, anyway. I'm sure a lot of people don't. What does a cutter do?

KEPNER: A cutter is if - is - it looks like a fastball till the very last instant, and then it sort of veers sharply almost on a straight line - you know, straight horizontal path - whereas a slider - it's very similar to a slider, but it's its own distinct pitch because it's really designed to break bats. You know, imagine - if you're a right-handed pitcher, imagine there's a left-hander at the plate. And you throw something that appears to be a fastball until the hitter has already decided to swing at it, and then it takes a sharp left turn right into your bat. That's probably going to shatter your bat handle or, if not, you'll hit it in a place where you can't do much damage with it.

And so that was what - when I covered the Yankees for eight years in the 2000s, Halladay was probably the best pitcher in baseball at that time. And I just loved watching him pitch because the Yankees were so good, and no other pitcher could make them take such sort of feeble swings as Halladay did. I mean, they would have little pop-ups, little harmless ground balls, little broken bats. And it was the same thing over and over when I would see Rivera pitch against other teams. You know, they just - they would take their best swing, but the ball would move just a few inches in on their hands or, if they're a right-hander, away from them. And it would be a harmless hit off the end of the bat or the bat handle.

DAVIES: Tyler Kepner is national baseball writer for The New York Times. His new book is "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches." After a break, he'll talk about how the game is changing and why we can't seem to speed it up. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews the novel "Lost And Wanted" about a physicist whose rational understanding of the universe is challenged by the death of a friend. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with New York Times national baseball writer Tyler Kepner. He writes about how the game is evolving. And he has a new book about how pitchers learn to make the ball dart and dance on its way to the plate, sometimes with the help of a little spit, hair grease or tobacco juice. It's called "K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches."

You write about a modern practitioner of the curveball, Mike Montgomery, who played with a lot of teams and was struggling and gradually learned this pitch and learned to work it well. And you wrote that after his games, he would log on to brooksbaseball.net to learn how many inches vertically and horizontally his curveball had actually moved. This is measured on a daily basis.

KEPNER: Yeah, the data that these teams have is pretty remarkable and it's only growing more and more refined every year. I was startled a few years ago walking around the Houston Astros spring training complex - and the Astros are very progressive and advanced in these things - and there were cameras everywhere. There were cameras monitoring every, sort of, movement these pitchers and these players made. They can tell exactly how many revolutions the ball was making, all the RPMs, the spin rate, the precise direction and angles these pitches are taking. And for the pitchers who are open-minded to it, it can really help them. They know exactly what they need to do to fix a pitch or to design a pitch and how to do it.

So Mike Montgomery interested me because he was the guy who threw the pitch that won the World Series for the Cubs. In 2016, in game 7 - the Cubs hadn't won the series in 108 years. And here comes this middle-reliever fifth-starter kind of guy out of the bullpen when Cleveland mounts yet another rally. And he was called on because Joe Maddon, the Cubs' manager, specifically wanted the curveball. And Mike threw a good one. And he's a guy who - he started throwing the pitch that year. He had thrown it previously in his career and mostly in the minor leagues. But that year, he - when he started practicing the curveball, he was throwing it in the street with his mom back home in California. And she wasn't too impressed with the curveball, so he thought, I've got to...

DAVIES: (Laughter) His mom had a catcher's mitt.

KEPNER: Right. Right. His mom was a former college softball player. And Mike - you know, he respected her athletic ability. But he was like, jeez, you know, that's supposed to be a major league curveball. And my mom's having trouble with it here, so I better work to improve this. And the Cubs encouraged him to really develop that pitch and that that pitch was better than even he realized. And I think that's one of the things we see that technology can do for these pitchers - is to point out what they do well objectively; not just taking a coach's word for it, showing them that the data says that you throw this pitch really, really well. So let's really concentrate on developing that pitch. You might not think it, but that pitch is a major league pitch.

DAVIES: Pitchers have all kinds of grips that impart all kinds of spin on balls. You know, there are sliders and spitters and screwballs and all of these things. And hitters have to try and recognize them and anticipate how they might break. Can they tell from the spin on the seams what's coming at them?

KEPNER: Sometimes, a slider - for example, a lot of hitters will say they look for the red dot in the way the ball's - the red seams are sort of coming together. And if it's a big sort of dot the shape of, let's say a quarter - the size of a quarter - then it's what they call a cement mixer. And it's just sort of spinning there obviously, and it's not going to do much. But then again, you've got a guy like Matt Williams, who played a long time for the Giants and Arizona Diamondbacks and some other teams. He said he took 7,000 at-bats in the big leagues. He said he never saw the dot on a slider. He's like, I'm not saying it's a myth. I'm just saying I never saw it. So, you know, a pitcher who could throw a slider without a dot for anybody - a guy like Brad Lidge for the Phillies - had a big advantage because hitters just didn't know what they were looking at.

But yes, some pitches have telltale spin. I talked to Wade Boggs about it. I looked at his stats. And I said, how were you able to hit split-finger fastball pitchers so well? - guys like Jack McDowell and Dave Stewart and Roger Clemens and others. And he said, well, I could see the ball tumble. I could pick up the action on the ball, and I could tell when it was going to tumble. And based on where he was throwing it, I knew where it was going to end up. But I said, well, how did you do that? He said, well, I had 20/12 vision. So...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

KEPNER: When my vision got a little worse and it went back to 20/20, I couldn't see the tumble. And I struggled just like everyone else. So I'm like, OK, well, if you're - if you have Wade Boggs' hitting skills to begin with and you have 20/12 vision, then maybe you can see the tumble on a split-finger fastball. But for the rest of us mere mortals, it's going to be tricky.

DAVIES: You know, the change-up is a pitch that I've always thought was just a little piece of baseball artistry when it's done right. I mean, it just can make a batter look foolish. Explain what it is - where it came from.

KEPNER: A change-up is basically a fastball where you take your dominant finger and tell it, you know what? Stand down, buddy. I'm going to use the weaker fingers to throw this pitch. So you take your index finger, and you slide it off to the side of the ball. And you sort of make a circle with your thumb and your index finger. Let's say you're making an OK sign to someone. Make the OK sign, and then you put your weaker fingers - the middle finger and the ring finger - on top of the ball. The trick is to disguise it as a fastball - to throw it with the same arm action, the same conviction, all that stuff as a fastball but with your dominant finger off. And it can be really tough.

A lot of pitchers - John Smoltz, Clayton Kershaw, Mariano Rivera - they've never been able to throw it as much as they try. But for the guys who can do it, it's a great weapon because it looks like a fastball. And then it just fades. It just dies on the way to the plate. It'll generally go the opposite direction of your slider. So if I'm a right-handed pitcher, it'll fade a little bit to the right. You know, it's a good pitch to throw against the opposite-hand hitter. And it just is a wonderful weapon because it can make these guys look foolish.

DAVIES: So the hitter is timing their swing for something that's coming 92 miles an hour and then it comes in at 78.

KEPNER: Yeah, he's seeing fastball. The pitcher is selling it as a fastball with his arm action. And he's way out in front of it because he swings a fastball and it putters in 10 - usually 10 or so miles an hour slower.

DAVIES: You know, you said pitchers are a different breed. And I think that's right. They have a whole different role in the game. And part of it is mechanical, you know, knowing the grip, knowing the motion of the release point. And a huge part of it is mental. And I thought I would play a little clip from a conversation I had with Jamie Moyer, who is a guy I know from your book you really enjoyed talking to - a great for the Mariners and the Phillies and others who played well into his 40s and was effective.


DAVIES: And this is just about kind of their demeanor on the mound. Let's listen.


DAVIES: Do you think hitters sense doubt in a pitcher?

JAMIE MOYER: Oh, yeah. Body language or your posture on the mound, the way you act and react in situations - hitters feed off of that. And you could tell on days when guys are showing bad body language on the mound, you know, it would almost be like the hitters were running up to home plate to hit. But you could also flip that too. As a pitcher, when things were going really well, you could read hitters. If - say you threw a pitch, and a guy took the pitch. And it was a called strike, and you got a reaction like, you know, his shoulders went down or he complained to the umpire. All of a sudden, now - you know, it was like, hey, that wasn't a strike. Now they've become distracted with what was going on. So, you know, for me, to be able to read that - and now I'm ahead in the count - maybe now the next pitch doesn't have to be a strike. But if I can make it look like a strike as it's approaching the plate - but when it gets to the plate, it's not a strike, and I get them to offer at it - again, they're swinging at something that they didn't really want to swing at or they weren't comfortable swinging at.

DAVIES: And that's being aggressive. You're taking...

MOYER: And - yes.

DAVIES: ...This hitter out of his focus and...

MOYER: Exactly.

DAVIES: ...Him reacting to what you're doing. Now, you say that a pitcher can have bad posture, which will indicate that he's frustrated. What's the posture you want to never show on the mound, and then what's the posture you do want to show?

MOYER: The posture that you never want to show, for me, is to throw a pitch and, you know, you kind of - your body gets a little droopy. You're whining. You know, you just - everything kind of - your body kind of crumbles. And, you know, you catch the ball, and you snap at the ball. You know, you're glaring at the umpire. You're whining to the umpire. And that's very visible from, you know, 60 feet away. The hitter sees that. Your teammates see that. The fans see that. The broadcasters see that. You know, everybody sees that.

But to me, you want to show absolutely nothing. You want to have strong eyes. You want to be staring at your target, and you're really showing no emotion. And you want to show that, you know, I am in control here. You want to get the ball back. You want to create a good tempo between pitches. You want to get the ball. You want to get back up on the mound, take your sign and make your next pitch.

DAVIES: So that's Jamie Moyer. Tyler Kepner, did the pitchers you talk about talk about mound presence and the psychology of it all?

KEPNER: Oh, sure. The thing that always amazes me about pitching is every pitcher will tell you that you need to fully believe in every pitch you throw. If you don't have total conviction in the choice that you make as to what pitch to throw and where, you have no chance. Pitchers will say that if there's any doubt in the choice that they make, that's going to be a bad pitch. But yeah, so much of pitching is the mental game.

And Jamie - I actually quote him in the book as - he's one of the nicest guys, as you know, you'll ever meet. But he understands just what kind of control the pitcher has over the game. Jamie says something like, the umpire can come up to me and say, we're starting at 7:05 tonight. And I'll smile and nod, and I'll think to myself, we're starting when I say we're starting...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

KEPNER: ...Because I'm the one with the ball in my hand. So if I want to start at 7:06, we're starting at 7:06. And that's what pitching is, right? Pitching is - you are the planner. You are the decider out there, and hitters just react to what you do.

DAVIES: Tyler Kepner is the national baseball writer for The New York Times, and he has a new book called "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches." We'll talk more in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tyler Kepner. He is the national baseball writer for The New York Times. He has a new book called "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches."

Let's talk a little bit about the state of the game in 2019. Pace of play is a big thing these days. I mean, it just seems that games take forever. Are they slower? What are the rules that are being imposed to try and move the game along?

KEPNER: Well, mainly, they're cosmetic. They got rid of the intentional walk - at least the aspect of having to go through with throwing the pitches. If you want to intentionally walk a guy, you just - the umpire just waves him down to first. But, you know, most games don't even feature an intentional walk, so that's not going to do much. They shaved five seconds off of commercial breaks. Again, it's not much that you're going to notice. They are - tried to regulate how many mound visits you can take - not necessarily just the pitching coach, but even a fielder coming over and talking to a mound. It was six last year and now five.

But most of those things really don't affect the pacing of the game. The biggest factor is that there are so many strikeouts now and that pitchers need, obviously, three pitches to strike out a batter. And there's probably going to be a ball or two in there and a foul ball. So hitters have also learned that the more pitches they see, the better they are paid. And so it pays to draw walks. It pays to work cheap counts and run up the pitcher's pitch count and get him out of the game and force him into a mistake.

Really, if you think about it just mathematically, the more pitches you see in an at-bat, the better chance you have that the pitcher will put one in the wrong location and that you can take advantage of that. So the more pitches there are, the longer the game's going to be. And as long as hitters are incentivized to see a lot of pitches, I think baseball's going to have a really, really tough time trying to cut down on the time of game.

DAVIES: Is there any restriction on how long a batter can take? I mean, is the batter always allowed to step out of the batter's box, stretch, take a couple of swings, tighten each of the batting gloves and get back in, which takes 30 seconds?

KEPNER: They've tried to tighten that up, too. You know, you're - if you don't, you know, foul the ball off or swing and miss or something, you're supposed to keep yourself in the box the way guys used to. That has helped a little bit. It's easier to enforce in the minor leagues 'cause, you know, the major league's umpires just generally still let hitters, for the most part, do what they want to do up there. They're not - you don't see this big epidemic of calling a ball on the pitcher who dawdles or calling a strike on the hitter who takes too long.

DAVIES: But they can.

KEPNER: So it - they can, I mean, by the letter of the law, but you just don't see it. Mostly, pitchers will get a fine - a nominal sort of slap on the wrist from the league. It's something that baseball's always aware of because baseball just does have a different pacing, naturally, than other sports. But baseball is really worried about the more strikeouts than hits thing because they will tell you that it's - yes, it's time of game, but more importantly, is the pace of the action. They want more balls in play.

And pitchers are just so good now. They throw so hard, and they have such sophisticated breaking balls that pitching is just - is harder to hit. We see more foul balls than ever 'cause hitters can't square these pitches up. And also, somewhat of it's tactical by the hitters. They realize that - pitching is so good that, what are the odds of getting three hits in an inning, three singles to score a run? It's probably easier to hope that a pitcher will make a mistake and that you can put a ball over the fence and get a run that way.

So there was a record number of home runs in 2017. You know, the 2019 pace is up there, too. And so home runs are up, and strikeouts are up. And what does that mean? There's not a lot of balls in play, and that's where the action happens. That's where possibilities are. That's where you get guys on base to steal a base or bunt a guy over. All those things are sort of being lessened in the game as we gear more and more up for home runs or strikeouts. And that's a problem for MLB, and they don't quite know how to solve it.

DAVIES: I wonder sometimes if our expectations are not changed by living in a digital age where, you know, we're always entertained by our smartphones and other screens, and we just have less patience for a game that moves slowly.

KEPNER: I think there's something to that. I think, though, also, that I've been hearing these things about baseball's pace - I'm 44, and I've been hearing them since - you know, since I was 14, probably - that baseball was too slow for kids, and it was not fast-paced like basketball or hockey or soccer. You know, you keep hearing these sort of things.

And I still think - you could pass out as many surveys as you want that say football is the No. 1 sport and all that, but I think it's a dishonest comparison because football has 16 games a year. Colleges have fewer than that. Baseball has 162 games a year with an industry of 30 teams. Most of them do quite well. There's only one or two teams that continually struggle with attendance - two or three teams, let's say. Attendance was down last year, and that was an issue. But they still - it's a $10 or $11 billion industry. You have a minor league system that is spread out all across the country in small towns everywhere. And people watch games, whether in person or on television, at just tremendous numbers. Baseball does struggle nationally to get ratings that they used to, but locally, these teams tend to do great.

The point is, you know, like, the first game in the history of the Mets in 1962 or the Padres in 1969 - yeah, there were acres of empty seats. Like, baseball now is a happening, whereas in this golden era that we remember, it just wasn't that way. New York only had one team in 1958, '59, '60, '61. I mean, baseball is doing pretty well when you put it in a historical lens. And yes, they have problems with pacing, but I think it'll sort itself out.

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit about your own experience writing about baseball. You're now the national baseball writer for the Times, but you spent a lot of years as a beat writer - I think first for the Mets for a couple of years and then longer for the Yankees, right?

KEPNER: Right.

DAVIES: That's kind...

KEPNER: I had two years out on the West Coast, too. I covered the Angels and then the Mariners for some papers out on the West Coast. Yeah.

DAVIES: OK. That's really kind of a grind, isn't it? I mean, traveling with the team, covering - I don't know how many - 130 games or whatever in a year. You get to know them. They get to know you. Does that make it harder to write tough when they deserve it?

KEPNER: It can. I think most guys, though, will understand that you have an obligation to write about them in good times and bad. And if you're there every day - or just about every day, as a beat writer is - they see that. They see that you talk to them when they do well, and you talk to them when they don't. And most guys just ask you to be fair and to not take cheap shots.

And you'd be surprised - especially now with Twitter - how easy it is, if you're not thinking about it, to, you know, make a joke of someone or just to have a - you know, poke fun at someone. Even if you don't really mean it, I learned early on in my beat writing career that that can be pretty damaging and that you really want to put yourself in their shoes and think that these guys are trying their best. And it's a really, really tough game. It took a lot of struggle to get to the big leagues for almost all of them. And just be fair. Just don't take cheap shots.

DAVIES: Well, Tyler Kepner, it's been fun. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

KEPNER: Yeah, thanks a lot. It was a lot of fun.

DAVIES: Tyler Kepner is national baseball writer for The New York Times. His new book is "K: A History Of Baseball In Ten Pitches." Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the novel "Lost And Wanted" about a physicist whose rational understanding of the universe is challenged by the death of a friend. This is FRESH AIR.

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Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.