Thursday, March 15, 2012

A James Shields Changeup

March 15, 2012

There is absolutely nothing wrong with liking baseball for the statistics. Statistics are entirely inextricable from baseball, they are the core of the game and provide meaning to otherwise obscure events.
            Consider that you are an uninformed observer at a mid-August game against the Rays, perhaps dragged to the game by your significant other for his birthday. James Shields is on the mound and he stymies your team through six innings. Then, he gets into trouble, a few hits drop in and Shields walks a batter to load the bases. As an uninformed observer you can read the tension in the building; the budding enthusiasm of the home fans who know that with the bases loaded and no one out their team stands a good chance of scoring a few runs. As an uninformed observer you might notice Shields return to throwing from the windup, or you might not, you certainly see Shields buzz 91 mph fastballs past the batter for strikes one and two. The fans recover, some who are inconveniently located directly in front of you stand up and wave signs. Shields throws a pitch that registers at 81mph on the scoreboard, the batter swings through the pitch and ends up in the other batters box before he can arrest his momentum. The entire crowd is deflated, and some turn to each other and shake their heads, muttering words like “unhittable,” “pulled the string,” and “Big Game James.” As an uniformed observer, these phrases, particularly the last one, are remarkably confusing. Even more confusing to you is how a slow pitch that didn’t seem to do anything particularly exciting could excite such a near-universal reaction of disgust tinged with admiration.

To the well-informed baseball fan, however, each event on the field is accompanied by the whispered context of the game’s history and statistics. These whispers do not appear distinctly or even consciously. They are instead summoned into the mind of the baseball fan by every twitch of the pitcher, every action and reaction on the field, mixed together and half apocryphal, these whispers give drama and meaning to baseball.

Shield’s masterful change-up, his superb control, his fluctuating relationship with balls in play… all these factors are immediately apparent to the well-informed fan. When Shields gives up two bloop hits the whispers of his BABIP issues comes to the fore. The ill-timed walk is even more meaningful to the fan who knows how rarely Shields surrenders a free pass.

The change-up is what separates the true baseball fan from the uninformed observer. Or rather, it is not the change-up itself, but what the change-up represents. James Shields has one of the best change-ups in baseball- 4th best over the last three years to be precise. Thus, for the fan that knows how good James Shields’ change-up is, the three-pitch strikeout is not an isolated example of physical dexterity and mental trickery. It is instead James Shields, recently christened “Big Game James,” deploying his most dangerous weapon to combat the evil luck dragons that had conspired against his ERA in seasons past.

Bill James would say that that change-up gains the power of language when its proper context is understood. To an uninformed (uninitiated would be a more accurate term) observer, 81mph and strike three are just numbers, James Shields is just a name, and bases loaded is a phrase overused by popular culture. To the rest of us, that change-up is baseball.

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