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The Straight Dope

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Two questions that bug me: (1) Why can't pitchers hit? (2) Why do catchers tell the pitchers how to throw? --Earl Adkins, San Rafael, California

Pitchers, shmitchers. Having watched the play-offs, I gotta ask, why can't Andre Dawson hit? Being a Cub fan is such a burden. But on to business. Easy stuff first: Catchers tell the pitchers what to throw because the two have to agree on the pitch, lest the pitcher heave it where the catcher ain't. If the pitcher did the signaling, everybody in the ballpark would see it; ergo, it's up to the guy with the big mitt. The pitcher can shake off the catcher's signals if he wants to, although occasionally he does so at some peril to his ERA, as demonstrated in the movie Bull Durham.

As for pitchers, they can't hit for basically one reason: they don't bat often enough to get good at it. A National League starting pitcher would be lucky to get a hundred at bats a year, whereas a regular position player might chalk up five hundred or more. The fact that starters are being yanked earlier in the game today makes things worse. With only so much coaching time to spread around, most NL clubs don't even have their pitchers take batting practice except on the days they're pitching. (AL pitchers, of course, don't routinely bat at all because of the designated hitter rule.)

But there's nothing about pitchers that makes them physically unable to hit. The classic case is Babe Ruth, who began his major league career as a pitcher and had a lifetime record of 94-46 (a ratio so awesome some say Ruth would have gone into the Hall of Fame if he'd never hit a home run in his life). During his pitching years Ruth averaged around .300, frequently playing outfield or first base on his off days. More recently there was Don Newcombe, who in 1955 hit .359 in 117 at bats with the Dodgers.

Why don't we see guys like that anymore? Mainly because pitchers have become victims of their own success. What with split-fingered fastballs and all, pitching has become a sophisticated art. Batting averages have dropped even for the best hitters. For a part-time slugger like a pitcher, the situation is hopeless. These days you can hope to become good at hitting or pitching, but not both.

I've been playing tennis for 15 years, and I still haven't found anyone who can adequately explain to me why a racquet strung at lower tension produces more power, while one strung at higher tension produces more control. The last "professional" who strung my racquet explained it this way: "Think of the strings as if they were rubber bands. The lower the tension, the more the strings flex, and hence the greater the power (acceleration?) imparted to the ball as it comes off the racquet." I would think the more the strings flex, the more power you'd lose, because the strings would absorb it. --George Icsman, Chicago

You'd think that, all right. But you're forgetting that two things get deformed when the ball hits the racket--the strings and the ball. The ball wastes a lot of force when it flattens, whereas the strings waste relatively little when they stretch. For max power, therefore, you want most of the give in the strings rather than the ball. Ergo, keep 'em loose.

This is easier to understand if you think of a trampoline. On an extremely taut trampoline you'd barely bounce at all--most of the force would be absorbed by your legs. Loosen things up and bounceability improves. A tennis racket works the same way.

Tight strings, on the other hand, give you better control. A tight racket is essentially a flat surface, like a Ping Pong paddle. This makes aiming easy--you can judge exactly how far the ball is going to go and in what direction.

A loosely strung racket is less predictable. The strings form a pocket under the ball's impact. If the ball hits the racket off center, the pocket will be shallower and more lopsided than if it hits dead on. This affects the way the ball bounces and makes aiming tougher. The pros, who don't need the extra power, go for tightness to get more accurate ball placement.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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