A Game of Inches

A sore left arm that put him on the
Philadelphia Phillies disabled list nearly became the least of starting pitcher
JA Happ’s worries. 

During batting practice on Saturday, the
banged-up Happ was in the outfield when slugger Jayson Werth launched a
350-foot shot in his direction. Happ didn’t see the ball whistle past his head
and was startled by the sound as it thudded into the outfield wall next to him.
In baseball, outcomes are measured by small things, in inches–and not just when
you are standing in the outfield during batting practice.  

Just ask Jamie Moyer, the 47-year-old
Phillies pitcher, for whom the word “veteran” feels like an understatement. Hit
around badly in his first two starts of the season he was looking for more
success against the Marlins–a free-swinging team that he had dominated during
most of his career, but who seemed to catch up to him late last season.  

moyer11.jpg

Moyer’s fastball tops out at around
81-83mph – easily the slowest in the league and about 10mph slower than the
league average. And yet he is successful because he is able to get hitters out
through knowledge of every hitter’s weaknesses, through changing location and
speeds with his pitches to keep hitters guessing, and by being able to throw
consistently a baseball from 60 feet away to within an inch of where he wants
it.  

Saturday’s game perfectly illustrated the
highs and lows of that approach. The first inning of the game saw the Marlins
send all nine of their hitters to the plate, scoring five runs in the process
and establishing a lead they would never relinquish. Of one of the hits he
conceded, Moyer later said, “The ball to Maybin I thought was a good pitch,
down and away. Last year he rolls over that ball–99% of the time.” 99 out of
100 is a ratio that works…99% of the time. Saturday was the 1% that Moyer knew
was coming sooner or later. 

After that first inning, the Marlins
couldn’t do a thing with Moyer for the other five innings he threw. He even struck
out the side in the 5
th inning, a feat so uncommon for him that when
asked when it had last happened, he said, “I dunno, maybe 1986?” (That was the
year he debuted in the major leagues.) 

In the clubhouse after the game, Moyer was
downbeat at the defeat (the final score was 5-1) but taking it in stride. With
the line between success and failure so narrow and so frequently traversed
during his career, he was able–in public at least–to focus entirely on his job
and not on the results.

I asked him whether, after getting hit
around during the first inning, he was able to stick with his game plan, and he
said: “Simple game plan for me is down and away. I pitched that way for the
rest of the game, but I also pitched in. I’ve gotta do both to be effective.” He
might have added that when he did so, he was aiming for the edges of the strike
zone–he more than anyone else cannot get away with leaving a pitch over the
plate.  

Understanding the impact of small things
is just as important for a hitter. Victorino has been arguably the team’s most
consistent hitter over the last five seasons, hitting between .281 and .294
every year, but has hovered between .200 and .240 so far this year. He was
moved down the order to start the season and then back to the leadoff position
after the injury to Jimmy Rollins (who married his fiancée at the Ritz Carlton
here in Cayman in January).  

Speaking before the game of his early
struggles, Victorino said that he has been “over-analysing what was going on
instead of see-ball, hit-ball…in my own head I’ve started to think too much…do
they walk me here, do they pitch around me…” He wasn’t trying to do anything
different, he didn’t feel pitchers were pitching him any differently and he
felt he was hitting the ball well, and yet it was over-thinking his at-bats
that made the crucial inch of difference in his swing.  

Moyer and Victorino, as with all baseball
players, will keep trying to be inch-perfect, knowing that failure to do so
results in…well, failure, and that even when they are perfect success is not
guaranteed.  

Happ meanwhile, when he returns from the
disabled list, may need to focus first on simply paying attention during
batting practice. 

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