Learning The Basics of Baseball
Being around theater kids has truly opened my eyes and mind to a plethora of new ideas, worldviews, and personalities. Since I greatly enjoy sports, especially baseball, it was a quite a shock to find people who knew little to nothing about sports. You guys accepted me and showed me how theater works and how to have a hobby outside of sports. Now, I want to attempt to show you all how baseball works and why I love it so much.
Sports is much like theater in that it appears simple from a distance but when you are in the game or show, it is a complex system that relies on teamwork and trust to be done correctly and well. When done right, a production or sporting event is awe-inspiring and extremely beautiful. So theater-people, its my turn to make you sports-people too.
The picture of the field above gives a basic idea of where players are positioned and important parts to a baseball field. Each position is connected to a number, which can be confusing but it is really not too hard to understand once you see them used enough. The picture below will help a lot with the understanding the numbers. I'll start with 1 (pitcher, the best cough... cough) and end with 9 (right field) and since a hitter isn't a position, I'll put them between 2 (catcher) and 3 (first base).
The pitcher is the determining factor in most games. They are on a mound called the "pitcher's mound," which is about 10 inches high and 60 feet and 6 inches away from where the hitter is. The pitcher's main job is to throw the ball to the catcher, so that the ball is called a 'strike' or hit weakly for an out. A strike is determined by an umpire whose zone may be different depending on who it is. The strike zone is typically from the hitter's knees to the sternum and must cross home plate which is 18 inches wide. If the pitcher throws four balls to a batter the batter is goes to first base, which is called a "walk," but if the pitcher throws three strikes and the third one isn't hit the hitter strikes-out. The pitcher doesn't have to throw only strikes though, because different pitches will move in different ways making the hitter think it will be a strike until it moves and by then the hitter will likely swing and miss resulting in a strike.
Speed/velocity and location plays a large role in pitching. Location is key to make the hitter hit miss or not hit the ball well but without velocity the hitters will eventually start to hit the ball harder and get hits. Without location though the pitcher will walk hitters and likely will give up more runs. Last year in the MLB (Major League Baseball) the fastest average speed last year was 101 mph and the slowest average speed was 63 mph. For perspective of how fast that is, 101 mph pitch gives the hitter 0.4 seconds to see it, determine if it is a strike, and hit it. Believe it or not people do hit baseballs thrown at these speeds but it is extremely difficult. Thus, mixing up speeds and locations deceives and confuses hitters and usually induces outs. The pitcher's goal is to get the most outs he can get, in as few pitches as possible. I will stop rambling about pitching here because I could go on for years.
The catcher is the captain of the whole field. He is positioned behind home plate and the hitter. His primary responsibilities are: calling pitches for the pitcher to throw, catching the pitch and making it look like a strike, and blocking the baseball if the pitcher throws it in the dirt. Although these are his main jobs, he also attempts to throw out hitters who make it on base (called runners or base-runners), calling out specific plays the infield (numbers 1-6 in the picture) will do, and making sure the fielders are in the correct position. There should be a ton of trust between the pitcher and catcher because the pitcher picks the pitch the catcher shows through signs, and the catcher has to catch or block the baseball the pitcher throws. To me the catcher is the second most important defensive position, second only to pitchers. A good catcher can allow a team to quickly go from a solid team to a great team.
The batters make up the offensive side of the game. They have three possible jobs: get on base, score someone on base, or make the pitcher tired by making a long at bat. The main ways hitters can get on base by walking (not swinging at 4 non-strikes, called balls), hitting the ball in play and getting a hit or causing the fielder to make an error, and getting hit by the ball the pitcher throws. The hitter can hit the baseball and as long as the ball is not caught before hitting the ground and stays outside the lines that stretch from home plate to the walls, it a foul ball. Foul balls can occur until the hitter either gets on base or gets out. The pitcher will typically have a pitch count to keep the pitcher healthy so the more pitches the batter sees the more tired the pitcher will be and the fewer batters the pitcher can face before he is replaced by a new pitcher.
If the hitter gets on base, then he becomes a runner and attempts to get to home base before the defense gets three outs. The more runners get to home plate the more runs the hitting team gets. Hitters have an incredibly tough task to hit the ball hard, not swing at balls, and help the team score runs, but that is why there are nine hitters and not one. A lot of trust and teamwork plays into hitting and running bases.
First Base (3):
First Basemen have a simple yet hard role in the game. Their two tasks are to field any ground balls near them and catch all throws to them. Sounds easy enough, but in reality, it is a tough position to master. Any ball that hits the ground in the infield dirt is called a ground ball and most of them are caught by an infielder. The infielder then has to throw the ball to the first basemen at first base before the runner can touch the base. The runner forces the infielder to be quick and have relatively fast and accurate throws to first base. Infielders, like everyone else, make mistakes, though, and thus, sometimes make inaccurate throws which can force the first basemen to jump, stretch out to the ball (possibly all the way to the splits), and catch the ball when it bounces. The individual playing first base also has to keep his foot on the base or tag the runner to get the out. This is quite a feat, especially since many professional infielders throw 80-90+ mph. Imagine a hard baseball coming at you at those speeds, bouncing right in front of you, and you have to get it out of the dirt. You also have no padding on, so if the ball hits the ground, it can bounce and hit you. It is an extremely difficult position but is essential to the success of a team.
Most infielders and outfielders would likely be called an ensemble role. Just like in theater though, a great ensemble can make a show incredible and a bad one really hurts to watch. There aren't a lot of theater roles that compare to first base, but the closest would likely be a dancer. They have to be superbly talented, strong, and if there is a mistake, they have to be act like it didn't happen or make something work. This is similar to how if a first basemen gets a bad throw they have to make it work and get the out.
Second Base (4):
Second base is an interesting position. They have many jobs but it is one of the "easier" positions on the field. The second basemen's main job is field any ground ball nearby or near the first baseman. Second base has to get to the baseballs hit near the first baseman because first basemen are typically more concerned with being on first base to catch a throw than they are fielding ground balls. Because of this, second basemen are usually fast runners and are accurate when they throw. One advantage second basemen possess, though, is that they have the shortest throw to first base, except for the pitcher on occasion. Another important job second basemen have is that they have to catch almost all throws that come from the outfielders (on their side of the outfield) that are going to the infield . This is called a cut-off, and it allows for shorter throws, and thus, fewer errors.
Second basemen are most like an ensemble role. As I said before though, both baseball and theater require all roles to be strong to put on a strong show. If one person makes a mistake, it makes the performance or game less beautiful and smooth. Second basemen support a lot of what occurs on the field too, just like an ensemble supports the story of a show.
Third Base (5):
You might be thinking, "uhhh... Nathan you forgot the position between third base and second base." This is a good observation but just like in theater there are things that don't make sense, and that position between third and second base (shortstop) is given number 6, not 5. I would tell you why but I'm not entirely sure. I always think bases then non-bases which helps me remember shortstop is 6 and not 5.
Regardless of their number, third base is a happy medium of infield positions. Their basic task is fielding ground balls and throw accurately to first. What makes third base ground balls more difficult than others in the infield is that they have the longest throw to first base of anyone in the infield (almost always over 120 feet with accuracy). Although, they have long throws, their toughest job is to make sure if anyone bunts they don't get on base. Bunting is intentionally hitting the ball softly in order to move a runner to the next base or to catch the infield off guard, and thus get on base. The hitter can fake bunt to bring the third basemen closer to the hitter, though, which gives the third basemen less time to react to the ball, if it comes at him. These are just some of third basemen's tasks, which shows why it's a tough position to play well.
Third basemen are similar to an ensemble member, who, when on stage, has to own the stage. If the third basemen doesn't own his position and/or doesn't know what he is supposed to do, it is obvious and easily taken advantage of by the hitters. If the actor or actress wastes his or her moment, it is typically seen by the audience and the moment can be easily forgotten, but if the part is done well, it can be an enjoyable and memorable point in the show.
Shortstop is the captain of the infield and is a part of almost every play. The shortstop has a large portion of the infield to cover, like the second basemen, with a long throw to first base. If any ball is hit high in the air in the infield and is called for by the shortstop, all the other infielders have to move away and let him catch the ball. Even some balls hit into the outfield are caught by the shortstop. They, again like second basemen, cut throws off from the outfield and often cover second base when the fielders are trying to tag a runner out, the main exception is if the shortstop is cutting the ball off in the outfield. Shortstops by far have the most impressive and fun plays in baseball, and possibly all sports. Typically, shortstops are fast, throw well, and are overall terrific athletes.
In theater, a similar part would be a supporting lead who leads a group of other actors. Both can be extremely enjoyable roles to watch, but the individual in the role must be a strong leader to achieve the part's full potential. The person has to be a leader in their actions, but they are typically a leader in their words, as well. Done correctly, the person acting the role, or the individual playing shortstop, can quickly become the center of attention in the show or game and quickly become the best part of the performance.
Left Field (7):
Left field is the first outfield position we will go over. Left field's prominent roles are: catch any balls hit near him and sprint to any ball that hits the ground on the left side of the outfield (the side behind the shortstop and third basemen) and get the ball to the "cutoff" fielder as soon as possible. The "cutoff" fielder will typically be the shortstop for plays to the left fielder. The left fielder also has to backup any ground ball hit to the shortstop or the third base, in case the ball gets passed them, and backup any throw to third base. This seems like a lot of tasks but left field, as with most outfield positions, has a lot of boring stretches where nothing happens. When an outfielder is needed in a play, though, it is a lot of work. Typically, left field has the shortest throws in the outfield, but even so, nearly all of the left fielder's throws will be farther than any throw made in the infield. All outfield positions require a lot of running and focus, especially since there is a lot of time in which nothing really happens. For these reasons, left field is usually an individual who is moderately fast and has a solid arm.
For theater comparisons, left field is most similar to a backstage techie who switches sets. They are both heavy relied upon and must be focused on their task. There can be a lot of boring times backstage when there aren't many set changes, which is similar to when there are parts of the game, in which, the outfield is barely involved in any plays. There are also games and shows in which there are tons of plays for outfield or set changes. Regardless, both the left fielder and the backstage techie have to stay prepared to do their task, and they have to execute it cleanly in order to support either their team in the game or the actors' show.
Center field (8):
Center field is the captain of the outfield, much like how shortstop is the captain of the infield. Center field has many of the same jobs as the other two outfielders, but they also have the added tasks of stopping any off-target throws from the infield to second base and of backing up any ball hit to the right or left fielders. The reason that center fielders are labeled "captains of the outfield" is because if any ball is hit to the outfield and the center fielder says something to the effect of "My ball!" (which means the center fielder believes he has the best chance of either catching the ball or getting the ball back to the infield the fastest), then center fielder has to get the ball and the other nearby fielders either back him up or move out of the way. Typically, center fielders communicate to the other outfielders on where to be positioned for certain hitters, as well. An example being that, if a hitter crushes the ball to the fence the first time he hits in that game, then the center fielder will tell the other outfielders to play closer to the fence when that hitter comes up to hit again. Center fielders have many roles, but they must trust their fellow outfielders since they receive a lot of support from them.
In theater, the role most related to center field is the stage manager. The two have to take control of their position and direct others to do their tasks as optimally and smoothly as possible. Any error in the outfield or by a backstage crew member is usually extremely obvious and can hurt the game or show severely. Center fielders and stage managers are the leaders of these groups and often have to make up for any mistakes made by them. Confidence in others is an integral part of both roles and allows the two positions to be less stressful and, typically, provides more successful games or shows.
Right Field (9):
Right field is the last fielding position to go over. Right fielders are extremely similar to left fielders but with a few slight differences. Right field has to catch fly balls and stop ground balls just like the other outfielders, but they also have to backup the first baseman. Since almost all throws in the infield go to first base, the player in right field has to backup first base quite a bit throughout the game. Right fielders usually have the fewest balls hit to them over the course of the game (in comparison to the other outfielders). However, they do have the longest throw (that is pretty frequently made) on the whole field, from right field to third base. Thus, right fielders typically have a great arm but they don't have to be as fast as center fielders or left fielders. This is not true all the time, though.
Since right field is very similar to left field, right fielders would most likely be backstage techies in theater too. Just like left field, there are games where the right fielder can truly standout, but there are other games in which the right fielder is barely a factor. Similarly, some scenes don't require much work from backstage techies to setup, while others require an incredible level of detail. Whether or not backstage techies or right fielders are consequential in the scene or game, they are important, and if they do not do their jobs, it will severely hinder the scene or game.
Every person, whether on the baseball field or in theater, is important and plays a part that is essential. That person's efforts, talents, and results will show if they did their job well or not. Even if the person does not know it, they are needed and have their own specialized abilities and jobs. The key is to match that person's abilities to a role which will allow them to thrive and improve.
How to Throw:
Throwing is obviously an essential aspect of baseball. Whether you are throwing to warm-up before the game, throwing as a infielder or outfielder in the game, or pitching in the game, throwing the baseball is key. It may appear quite easy but there are lots of ways throwing can go wrong. When someone throws with poor form, it can cause increased stress on the arm, back, hips, and various other parts of the body depending on where the specific problems are. There is also not only one way to throw, which makes it hard for coaches to teach proper throwing form (also called mechanics). This is just like how in acting there is not one proven way to "become" a character. Similarly, everybody has their own way that is comfortable to throw, which may work for a time. Regardless of the various styles of throwing, there are flaws in certain methods that are only antagonistic to the main purpose. An example in acting would be assuming that a fully developed character will come to you without any work. Although, this may occasionally work, more often than not, it'll lead to subpar performances. Similarly in throwing, if someone consistently lowers there elbow below a certain point when they throw, then it will induce more stress on their elbow. Different bodies can have different reactions, but typically, dropping the elbow below 90 degrees (relative to the shoulder) is a bad habit and can cause injury.
On a basic level, throwing should include these main pieces: a step forward, a short circle motion with the throwing arm, a pushing force from the legs toward the intended target, the throwing elbow being above 90 degrees (relative to the shoulder), and a finish (a term referring to the point after the release of the baseball , where a person's arm keeps moving and eventually stops by the throwing arm's opposite hip, so if you throw with your right hand, then you should finish with your right arm near your left hip). There are many other facets to throwing, but these are the primary ones. Excluding the step, a problem in anyone of these can cause damage to your body if done incorrectly repetitively. A key to throwing in any sport is using power from the lower-half of the body. This is why almost all throwing athletes do leg workouts, it's not for running and standing only, but for power and stability in order to throw at high speeds with accuracy.
Personally, to warm-up, I mainly do two things right now, rocking throws (rockers) and crow-hops. Now, I know you're thinking, 'What the heck are those words? And why?' I'll explain them, then I'll show you a video of me doing them. I have had struggles with keeping my arm circle short. Arm circle is all the throwing arm's movement between the time a person's throwing hand leaves his or her glove to right before they are about to throw the ball. The shorter the circle, with other proper mechanics, the faster the arm moves, which creates less room for error and, typically, more throwing velocity. Rockers, if done correctly, make your arm move quickly in a short circle and create a consistent timing for throwing (much like the timing of a song you are singing, or in a dance). To do a rocker, you must have your feet well beyond shoulder width apart and shift your weight from your front leg to your back leg. Shift your weight back and forth 2-3 times then, as you move backwards, remove the ball from your glove and when you come forward throw the ball. Here's an example:
Moving onto to crow hops, you might be thinking, 'Ummm... why are there birds? Do you throw the birds?' The answer is unfortunately no, in baseball throwing birds is not practiced. Crow-hops are merely a way to gain forward momentum towards your target. Forward momentum usually increases the velocity of your throw, and can increase stability in your throw and finish, if used properly. There are two primary ways to do a crow-hop, either move your back foot together with your front foot, then move your front foot forward toward the target and throw, or move your back leg behind your front leg, then move your front leg forward and throw. I have almost always done back leg behind the front leg, but some people prefer the other way. These throws are often done when a long throw is required, such as when an outfielder throws a ball to the catcher at home plate. These throws can cause "overthrowing," (trying too throw hard, which can result in poor mechanics) but if done with control and consistent timing at first, you can begin to throw with crow-hops faster and faster until your mechanics are not frequently hindered by the extra speed you add to your throw. Here's an example of a crow-hop:
As I said before, there is not one set way to throw. There are a plethora of styles that people practice and are taught. Some are beneficial and some are detrimental. The basics I mentioned before, though, are basic steps which nearly all throws must have, except occasionally a step, like in rockers. Those basic movements are the building blocks to throwing a baseball or pitching, and, as with anything, with a lot of practice, you can learn more advanced and complex movements, processes, and ideas in and about throwing a baseball to the best of your ability.
How you hold a baseball when you throw it plays a huge role in the velocity, spin, and movement of the ball. There are many factors that go into gripping a baseball, especially while pitching, such as finger placement and finger pressure. Pitchers, and most other baseball players, can make baseballs move left, right, down, or in various diagonal directions. They can also make a ball go straight. This movement is all due to grip which influences how the ball comes out a thrower's hand (also called release). How the ball is released has a direct effect on the amount of spin the baseball will have, and this spin is what allows the baseball to move. The amount of spin the reason why sometimes a baseball will move and other times it will not.
The most fundamental grip in baseball is the four-seam fastball grip. When a players throws during warm-ups they will use this grip, fielders throw with it as often as possible, and almost all pitchers use this grip. The reason why so many people use this is it is because, if thrown correctly, it will travel straight to a target. This does not mean if you throw a ball facing the wrong direction and with one arm tied behind your back, then the ball will magically travel to your target (however, that would be very impressive). What it means is that when a player throws with this grip and with correct form, the ball will stay on a relatively straight plane towards the spot the ball was released from. Thus, if someone releases a ball straight at a target while using this grip, then the ball may miss high or low but the ball should not miss left or right of the intended target. If thrown properly, then the ball could only miss left or right if the ball was released too far to the left or to the right of the target. This assured lack of movement is comforting to anyone who is catching a baseball that is thrown at them.
The four-seam fastball grip typically produces the highest velocity of any grip, as well. The "maximum" velocity and lack of movement is often why pitchers use it.
The picture below is how I grip a four-seam fastball. Every grip has a plethora of variations that cause different "reactions" from the baseball, and the four-seam grip is no different. in that regard. The picture simply shows how I have learned and chosen to grip a four-seam fastball.