"Wait For Your Pitch"

Written by - Posted 2009-07-08 23:17 in Blog

“Wait for your pitch.” I remember it like it was yesterday. My little league coach, pulling double duty as third base coach, would yell to me and most of my teammates. “Wait for your pitch.”

I guess I should clarify something before we continue. In Dwight, Kansas (population 350) we didn’t actually play “Little League” (all rights reserved, etc, etc, etc). We were part of the Flint Hills Baseball Association, and my age division at the time, the first in which we pitched to ourselves instead of our dads pitching to us, 10-12 year olds, was called “Juniors”. (A significant step up from the 7-9 year old division which was called “Biscuits”.) So, I use the term little league generically, to indicate all levels and types of youth baseball, and not to mean the gestapo like jackass organization with which I have a love/hate relationship, Little League Baseball, Incorporated.

The point was, don’t just swing at anything the pitcher threw. Be selective. Wait for the pitch you wanted. Even with what the rules specified as a “liberal” strike zone, asking the umpires to call a strike if the ball was “hittable” (can you provide the geographic dimensions for hittable?) the young arms would give up a lot of walks. Sure, if a ball was in your wheel house, kill it. Otherwise, “wait for your pitch.”

While there are many differences between the Flint Hills Baseball Association and the Potomac Wiffleball League, the one that is causing this rant today is called strikes. While the debate in the PWL over called strikes is as old as the league itself, the issue has become a central sticking point in an even larger, stickier debate about pitching in general.

Starting in Summer 2008, just two seasons ago, the rules were changed that previously required pitchers to rotate each inning, similar to a batting order. That meant that everyone who played pitched. Sure, a smart manager would have a bad pitcher throw the 3rd inning and then sub them out for the 6th, or even have them bat the first three innings, but skip both pitching rotations. The old rules also meant that games were slower, as some people had no business pitching, and batting averages were higher.

For the most part, the change to eliminate required rotation of pitching has been a huge success. Not only did it add new stats (Win, Loss, Win%, Save) it has made the pitching awards more relevant, and allowed a culture and competition to emerge among pitchers in the league similar to hitters that didn’t exist before. It also, for a time anyway, eliminated the ten minute at-bats where a pitcher couldn’t get the ball across the plate to a batter who couldn’t hit, which used to drive everyone crazy. Now at least, the ten minute at-bats are between “good” players, and a little more palatable.

Even before the pitching rotation was eliminated however, the culture of what is acceptable pitching started changing. It changed a little bit when the league expanded dramatically to twelve teams in 2007, and almost became unrecognizable to early league veterans when we moved to Ft. Reno in 2008.

You see, the rules for pitching say “All pitches must be slow and have an arc on them. The batter may ask the pitcher to slow pitches down.” (Rule 4) While the word “slow” isn’t defined in the rules, nor is the word “arc”, it’s a pretty safe bet that most of what you see being thrown in the PWL these days wouldn’t hold up to anyone’s definition of slow or arc. A case could even be made that we’re already a fast pitch league, even without a rules change.

In seasons prior to the move to Ft. Reno, batters would routinely ask for pitches to have more arc. (Some players would say “arch”, like the St. Louis, rather than “arc”, pronounced like Noah’s, but you knew what they meant.) Very few players asked for slower pitches, as the request for arc naturally covered this, but the arc requests were often, usually multiple times in a game. Even the good hitters requested arc. It was common. A player requesting arc these days would likely be laughed off the field. Certainly their lineage would be called into question, as well as their man (or woman) hood.

The other little used rule that comes into play in this argument is “batters may choose, if they believe a pitch was a strike and they should have swung, to call a strike on themselves at their sole discretion.” (Rule 5)

This rule, while never used now, was actually, though sparingly, used by players from 2005 to 2007. Players did do it, at least, those with honor. Sure, you’d give a guy a break on not calling a third strike on himself, but players on a regular basis called strikes on themselves. And yes, some also called a third strike on themselves. And, even if you didn’t call it on yourself, if you “chose not to” as the rule allowed, the peer pressure was on you. People made comments. There was pressure to not do it again, even if it was unofficial. Again, it was the culture of the time to call strikes on yourself, and to have pitches that were slow and had arc.

In fact, the only actual on field fisticuffs in league history was over a player not calling a strike on himself. A pitcher, pissed about several perfect pitches not swung at, but not called as strikes by the batter, lost his cool…and then the batter did too.

This trip down memory lane isn’t because I want to return to the old ways of doing things. I’m excited that many of the changes we’ve made have moved the league forward. If we never evolved, I’d still be doing the scorebooks on paper and taking three weeks to post the stats.

In fact, I don’t even care in principle if we are a fast pitch league or a slow pitch league. What I do care about though, is being consistent in playing the game, even if it means changing the rules to accommodate that, and being clear about what kind of league we are.

I think it’s ridiculous to have 10+ pitch at-bats that take forever. I think it slows down the game, and makes it less fun. However, I also think it’s ridiculous for some pitchers to throw fastballs all the time in a slow pitch league. Most leagues that are fast pitch put the rubber at 42 feet. Ours is at 30 feet. That twelve feet, going from slow to fast, makes a huge difference.

Over the last several seasons there has been lots of discussion about called strikes, speed of pitches, and other changes to make the game better. I think before the managers can address these issues in the form of rules changes for next season, we have to answer two basic questions about the league.

  • 1) Are we a slow pitch league, a medium pitch league, or a fast pitch league?

All three are fine, but which do we want to be? In the season ending survey, the league was split on whether pitches should be slow and have arc. Almost dead in the middle. So, it’s a bit murky. I’d say right now, we’re a medium pitch league, bordering on a fast pitch league. If that’s what people want, we should probably move the mound back a bit. We started as a slow pitch league, but that’s not what we are now.

  • 2) Do we want to have called strikes or not?

Several times rules proposals have been rejected by the managers to add called strikes. The league is also split on whether or not this rule should be changed in the post-season survey. Also about 50/50 each way. Personally, I like the idea of called strikes, I think it will add a good dynamic to the league, increase the art of pitching, and also speed up some of the long at-bats. However, I don’t feel so strongly about it that I’m willing to strong arm managers to get a rule passed. (And maybe that’s been part of the problem.)

League opinion gets even less clear when you talk about how to implement called strikes if we moved forward with it. There are three basic ways to implement called strikes. They could all have different nuances, or be changed slightly, but at the end of the day, there are three.

  • Umpires Call Strikes: Just like in the MLB, the umpire would stand behind home plate and call pitches that were in our defined strike zone a strike. This would happen 180+ times a game and we would likely have 30+ fights per game about these called strikes.
  • Strike Board: A board that stands in the air a few feet behind the plate, about the same size as the strike zone that if the ball hits in the air, it’s a strike. Sure, some major curves could be unhittable and still hit the board, and some real strikes could drop off too soon and not be called a strike. But, it’s at least consistent, and everyone would know if it was a strike or not. Downside to the current rules is it messes with the catcher and will cause people to throw faster and flatter.
  • Strike Mat: Same principle as a board, except it’s a mat that lays on the ground behind home plate. They use it for slow pitch softball strikes in a lot of leagues. This would only work for slow or medium pitch with an arc. Fast pitches or medium pitches that are “flat” wouldn’t hit it. So, it would cause pitches to be slower and have more arc naturally as a result. Pitchers could still throw faster when they wanted to trick batters, they just wouldn’t get a called strike on it.

If you care about my personal opinion, speaking as Chris Gallaway, not Commissioner Gallaway, I think if we’re a slow pitch or medium pitch league with an arc requirement, then the mat is the best option. I also like that it doesn’t get in the catchers way like a board would. Most leagues with a board don’t have a catcher.

If we’re a fast pitch league, then the board is the only realistic way to go.

Under no circumstances do I want umpires, who don’t show up half the time, and who aren’t that great at getting the call at first base right to be making 180+ judgment calls per game on strikes. It’s just not feasible. If we went with paid umps, I could go for this. But, then dues would probably have to go up a bit, and paid umps were something that the league was clear they didn’t want to pay extra for.

If I was a dictator, and could just change it how I wanted it, I would keep us a medium/slow pitch league, with arc, and use the mat for called strikes. I think maybe because this is how the London, Ohio tournament we’ve played in the last two years works, I think the system works really well. They are an underhanded pitching tournament, which I do NOT want to be. But the mat would also work for overhand, just slow and arc.

If we want to be flatter and faster from the mound, I would also be happy to support a strike board and a medium pitch speed. In fact, there is a league in Minnesota that does this, and they use a radar gun so they have a maximum speed a pitch can be. This allows them to have the board, be medium fast, but not throw too fast. My fear is that with a board, pitching will just get faster and faster, so without a radar gun, if we go with the board, we need to move the mound back and become fast pitch.

The thing I don’t like about fast pitch is that it is a strike out game. I like a hitting game, not a strike out game.

Also, some people have asked if we have called strikes if we should add walks too. Again, I’ll do whatever a majority of the managers want, but walks are total bullshit and have no place in wiffleball. It’s a hitting game. Sure, it’s fair to strike out. But if we added walks, I can’t imagine any big hitter would ever get a pitch. Balls? Seriously? Go fuck yourself.

Regardless of how the conversations go over the off-season, and what the managers ultimately decide to do when the first pitch is made in the Summer 2009 season, I think it’s good to have the discussion. Nothing might change. Everything might change.

What I do know is this. We average 32.4 at bats per game. If every at bat took nine minutes and forty seconds like the final at bat of the Western Division Championship series did, then each game would be five hours and fifteen minutes long. Sure, not every at bat is a walk off home run to clinch the series, but something seems just a little crappy about that. Don’t worry, it is ok, Alex, I know, you were just “waiting for your pitch.”

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