Play Ball

by Russ Roberts on April 1, 2007

in Sports

Finally, baseball season is here. When your team isn’t playing, check out The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, by J.C. Bradbury. He takes a look at a number of empirical questions and uses economics and statistics to explore them. What’s particularly good is how he uses economics to point out, for example, that a pitcher doesn’t give the same effort on every pitch. He saves extra effort for extra important situations when the incentive to higher effort is there. So it’s not clear that having a better batter batting behind you in the batting order means that you’ll have a better chance of getting a hit. The standard argument is that the pitcher won’t want to walk you and give the next guy a chance to drive you in. Bradbury observes that if the next guy is really good, the pitcher might try extra hard to get you out. A clever observation and then he tests it. He tests lots of interesting questions. Check it out.

I’m excited to read Crazy ’08 by Cait Murphy, the story of the 1908 baseball season. It was an extraordinary season. It’s hard to believe the drama and twists and turns off the field that made that season special. One of my favorite sports books of all time is The Unforgettable Season the story of that season from the news stories of the day. It’s back in print. Looking forward to Murphy’s version.

I’m the coach of my son’s little league team. One of the things I’ve struggled with is teaching kids to hit and pitch. (I know—what’s left? Rules. Throwing. Fielding. Where to throw. Where to run. When to run.) It’s surprisingly difficult to find good instructional guides on hitting and pitching. Most of them are surprisingly opaque. What is striking to me about hitting (pun unintended but left anyway) is how differently a professional hitter hits compared to the rest of us. Look at any major leaguer when he makes contact. His head is over his back knee. His front leg is straight and his back leg forms an L. There’s nothing intuitive about it. Learning to do it requires instruction and lots of practice. The secret turns out to be with the hips. The only thing I’ve found on how to teach a kid to hit the right way that you can actually figure out is by Phil Plante and is here. Download the first file at the top. Then check out the rest of the stuff.

On pitching, the best stuff I’ve seen is this page by Chris O’Leary, which has a healthy emphasis on what NOT to do, which is very important for young arms.

Finally, the best stuff on baseball you’ve never seen before is Alex Reisner’s elegant work. Don’t miss the dead bird page in the history section. 

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Russ Nelson April 1, 2007 at 9:54 pm

Just like in a Tai Chi punch, the power comes from the contact with the ground, flows up through the legs, the hips, the torso, and finally (in time order) the arms. If only the arms, no power. Every muscle is relaxed until the moment of the hit. If tense, no power.

Ray G April 2, 2007 at 12:43 am

It's exactly like a punch. I've taught kids to hit a baseball and throw a decent hook using the same technique.

The body is big spring, and the unwinding starts with the first step. The thing that most people seem to miss though is the role that the arms play.

They don't so much as get the bat around the body, as they "snap" the bat whip like past the pivot point. Think about it, and watch some footage slo-mo if possible. The first half of the swing, the bat has a rearward attitude, and of course the second half it has a forward attitude. The power of the hit comes from how quickly the bat makes the transition in attitude, or in other words, how quickly the hitter "gets around on the ball."

That's why you'll hear (or read) people talk about bat speed. Sounds like a no-brainer, but it's not just getting the bat off of the shoulder and all the way around as quickly as possible. It's the "snap" at the transition. Some coaches go so far as to have the hitter kind of cock the lead the wrist upwards in order to exaggerate the snap.

Bruce G Charlton April 2, 2007 at 1:43 am

Thanks a lot for these fascinating links – they are a real gold-mine for a UK baseball fan rationed to one televised game per week!

Mikie V April 2, 2007 at 12:24 pm

For the kids that are "itching" to throw breaking balls, I suggest teaching them the 'slip pitch'. It's the little league version of a modified palm ball.

I know this is one of the biggest concerns for little league parents and coaches. You want the kids to have fun winning but you don't want them to ruin their careers in the process. At that age any pitch that isn't straight tends to give a monstrous advantage and unfortunately the price is usually elbow and rotator cuff damage.

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