Thorn: Pitching evolution and revolution

From SABR member John Thorn at Our Game on August 6, 2014:

With the rise of pitching (or decline in batting) capturing everyone’s attention lately–as if it had not been inevitable–I think it worthwhile to take the long view. History may exist for its own sake but, unlike art, it may also be useful. Before we lower the pitching mound, increase the pitching distance or the length of the basepaths, permit aluminum bats, or move in the fences, let’s buck up for a moment and realize that we have been here many times before … since the very dawn of the game. Here, modified only slightly, is the opening chapter of The Pitcher, which John B. Holway and I wrote in 1987.


In the first survivng rules of baseball, drafted by William R. Wheaton and William H. Tucker for the Knicker­bocker Base Ball Club in 1845, Article 9 (the only one pertaining to the pitcher) read:

The ball must be pitched, not thrown, for the bat.

Only ten words, but how much they reveal about the humble origins of baseball’s pioneer players! First, we see that the pitcher came by his name from the underhand, stiff-armed, stiff-wristed pitch borrowed from cricket’s early days—a delivery much like that seen today at the bowling alley. Second, we see the disdain of the “gentlemanly” Knickerbockers of New York for the un­couth throw, which characterized the rival version of baseball that flourished in New England until the Civil War. (Indeed, the term pitcher has been a misnomer in baseball ever since the mid-1860s, when the wide­spread—though not yet legal—wrist snap transformed the respectable pitch into the lowly throw.) And third, we see that the pitcher was not required to throw strikes rather than balls (the former did not exist until 1858, the latter until 1863), but instead to pitch for the bat: In other words, he and the batter were not adversaries but very nearly allies, each doing his utmost to put the ball in play for the valiant barehand fielders. Of all the positions in the game’s original 1845 design, only right field was less demanding and less prestigious than pitcher.

That began to change in the game’s sec­ond decade, as pitchers realized that, de­spite the restrictions on their motions, they could muster considerable speed and, with no “called ball” system in place, could whiz fastballs wide of the bat for as long as fifteen minutes until the impatient batter finally fished for one. The former alliance of batter and pitcher was thus breached and the breach was soon to widen.

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Originally published: August 6, 2014. Last Updated: August 6, 2014.