Baseball: A Matter of Time


"Hitting is timing. The pitcher's job is to upset the hitter's timing." - Warren Spahn.


For a game that isn’t governed by the clock, baseball is endlessly effected from start to finish by the way players handle the timing of just about everything thing they do. Even batters work beyond the wisdom of Mr. Spahn to upset the timing of pitchers too. A good hitter may sometimes take a certain hittable pitch for a strike in a non-critical situation in the hope that his decision will make its way into the pitcher’s book on what to throw the batter at a later time. When that strategy works and the batter then delivers with a key hit, we must fairly conclude that batter, indeed, has upset the pitcher’s  timing on when and where and to whom he throws that last hit-bound pitch.

Mr. Spahn’s statement, of course, comes up on every pitch. If a batter is thinking fastball, up and in, and the pitcher throws him a curve, low and away, or a change-up that left the hand looking just like a fastball at its release point, the chances are strong that the batter’s timing will be way off any chance of hitting the actual pitch delivered.

A pitcher who can do that sort of thing often enough will keep the batter’s club off the ball’s sweet spot marriage of objects often enough to make pitching look like a piece of cake or a walk in the park. In the old days, when pitchers like Spahnie were allowed to finish what they started, one of the great joys was watching the innings roll by as a succession of pop flies, easy grounders, and occasional strike outs. Warren Spahn was on his game, upsetting the timing of the batters he faced, and well on his way to winning again.

Beyond the pitcher-batter cat-and-mouse game on timing, look at all the other ways it comes up in baseball. Take base runners, for example. Good base stealers aren’t all speed, although no one can deny the importance of fast feet. Quickness enters into the picture too, along with a runner’s ability to note facts like how much of a lead he can get off a certain pitcher, how the catcher watches and throws, how many precise steps are open to him on a lead from any base, how’s the running soil he has to travel. All these considerations and other go into the runner’s timing on an attempted steal – and they are probably 90% of the timing differential between safe and out.

On defense, fielder positioning is absolutely key to the timing on all “make-the-0ut” plays. “In or out” and “left or right” are the cross-hair choices on where each fielder is going to play every pitch in every game situation. Connie Mack, the fifty year manager of the old Philadelphia A’s, was an obsessive proponent of these micromanagement points throughout each game. If Mack did not think a fielder was handling that function, he would be up on the dugout steps, signaling the changes he wanted from a fielder with a rolled-up scorecard.

The less range possessed by a fielder, the more important ii is that he starts out standing nearest the spot of greatest batted ball probability. The timing on a Carlos Lee catch, for example, is helped a lot by how easy it is for him to be where he needs to be when the ball comes down from the sky. Because of his limited foot speed, the balls that Lee cannot reach often make him appear to have no range at all. I’m not here t argue that point, just to note that the better you are at anticipating the flight plan of the batted ball, the easier its going to be to cover your range deficiencies.

Now, Joe DiMaggio, for example, was noted for his graceful timing on long run catches. That quality, I think, goes back to Joe D’s uncanny ability to position himself in personal range to the space he would need to cover over the area where the ball was most likely to fly. Things like moving a couple of steps left on right-handed batters hitting against a fastball pitcher were second nature to the great DiMaggio. His shifts got a lot more subtle and complex than simply that one single example – and on every pitch too.

Timing is everything, but on defense, it starts with positioning.

Corner infielders position themselves to defend against all kinds of hitting possibilities on balls hit though the infield. Late in a close game, they may defend against the extra base hit down the line to the potential sacrifice of their positioning on bunts or singles slapped through the wider holes that now exist between their spots and the middle infielders. The middle infielders make their own positioning adjustments too. Play for the double play? Get the out at first? Defend against the hit? All these questions and more go into the positioning decisions that will influence an infielder’s timing on the play that actually unfolds.

And the whole time this is all happening, the pitcher and catcher are quietly thinking: “What can we do on the next pitch to upset the timing on what this guy at bat thinks is going to happen next?”

Speaking of timing, the Houston Astros play their 2011 home opening game this coming Friday night, April 8th. It can’t come soon enough. In fact, it may already be coming too late to spill unadulterated springtime hope all over us longterm Houston fans. As with timing in the actual playing of the game, positioning is critical to the instillation of fresh season hope – and starting off the new year 0 and 3 in Philadelphia isn’t exactly expansive to the range needed for reaching anything close to great expectations for a 2011 playoff berth in Houston.




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2 Responses to “Baseball: A Matter of Time”

  1. David Munger Says:

    You can’t win the second one until you win the first one, good
    luck in CINCY ‘STROS.

  2. Marjorie Hilton Says:

    We are writing a book about people who lived in Brighton, MA; Warren Spahn did.
    I would like to use the photo (with the raised leg) to go with the bio.
    Do you have the rights to this?
    If so, could we use it and could you send it to me at a high res (at least 300 dpi)?
    Thank you so much.
    Margie Hilton

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