As Tyler Kepner notes in his new book “K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches” (due out next week), a pitcher’s gears are always turning. Baseball may seem to have a number of lulls in action, but this doesn’t pertain to the man on the mound. The pitcher constantly evaluates how his pitches feel on that particular night, how the hitter looked against a certain pitch, who is on deck, the list goes on.
Kepner. a national baseball writer and former Yankees beat writer for the New York Times, uses his book to dissect those thought processes in finite detail. How? By going right to the source.
From traditional hurlers like Bob Gibson to spin rate obsessives like Trevor Bauer, Kepner leaves no stone unturned, diving into the history, evolution, mechanics, grip and usage of every major pitch that has been recorded in our National Pastime, while using plenty of Yankees hurlers to tell the story.
Kepner explores pitches as varied as Mike Mussina’s dazzling knuckle curve to Mariano Rivera’s devastating cutter. Each pitch is examined through the scope of history and perspective, from on the mound, behind the plate and in the batter’s box. Learning about Stephen Strasburg’s approach to pitching is interesting. You know what’s even more interesting? Reading about how Strasburg tries to lay down a bunt against a mid-nineties cutter.
One of the main study subjects of the book is new Hall of Famer and former Yankee great Mussina, who sums up the mental seesaw of pitching in the book’s early chapters when discussing all the factors that go into choosing just ONE pitch. “Who’s hitting? Is he hot or cold? Where are the baserunners? Are we on the road? Is it nighttime?” are among just a few of the questions Mussina poses.
It’s overwhelming, but don’t worry. Kepner finds a beautiful balance of intricate analysis to satisfy the big-data stans of the modern day while keeping a strong blend of humor and storytelling. Kepner walks this line deftly, maintaining a balance as strong as Roy Halladay’s symmetric windup. Kepner also adeptly spans eras, with accounts of such instances as Max Scherzer taking notes from Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax.
Some of the images of Kepner’s storytelling take the reader onto the pitcher’s mound for a few of the most memorable pitches in baseball’s rich history, from Ralph Terry’s cutter to Bill Mazeroski in Game Seven of the 1960 World Series, to Dennis Eckersley’s biting slider to Kirk Gibson in the 1988 Fall Classic, to Madison Bumgarner trying to close out the 2014 World Series. To relive these moments in the eyes and mind of the pitcher is a nostalgic treat in itself.
The entertaining stories in between the big moments keep the pages turning, like when certain baseball minds, befuddled by the action of a curveball, insisted that the pitch was an optical illusion and set up a pole in between the mound and home plate to test if the ball actually curved around the pole. We also have memories of former Yankee reliever Tom Gordon practicing his arching curve by aiming for a bucket on the other side of a fence, or Eckersley physically preparing for his split-finger fastball by wearing a cast that slowly stretched his index and middle fingers out, until they were able to grasp the outside of the ball. The determination of a pitcher to get ahead is unparalleled, perhaps only rivaled by the diligence of Kepner’s research.
”K” also manages to examine the numerous controversies that have swirled around the pitcher’s mound over the years. The spitball and use of pine tar is a late highlight of the book, as is the discussion of intentionally hitting batters to assert dominance of the strike zone. There are interesting findings along the way, like when the legendary Bob Feller explained that “If a manager had ordered me to stick a ball in a batter’s ear, I would have told him to stick it in his own ear.” Wouldn’t it be nice to see Feller’s mentality in today’s game?
Back to the book, it’s loaded with former Yankees to satisfy any fan of the Bronx Bombers, from Mussina and Gordon to Jim Abbott, and hitter’s perspectives from sluggers like Reggie Jackson, who talks about the challenges of hitting a Bert Blyleven curve. Kepner’s Yankees background helps pack the book with points of view from numerous pinstriped greats, and it’s the perfect read to welcome in the new season.