Take me out to the ballgame, please.
April 16, 2012 3:00 AM   Subscribe

I want to learn about baseball. I've been able to crack basketball and football, but not baseball. What should I read? What should I watch? Who should I pay attention to?

I grew up without much exposure to popular U.S. sports--I played soccer and lacrosse, and I sailed competitively through high school. But I never picked up a football/basketball/baseball except once in a while in P. E.

I went to University of Maryland in the mid-90s, and my friends dragged me to the free basketball games in Cole Field House. I learned a ton about the game by watching it up close, and I really enjoyed the narratives that played out over the course of a season. I loved the anticipation we felt when Duke or Carolina was coming to town, and I learned a bunch by listening to my far-more knowledgeable roommates talk about the game. I fell in love with basketball.

Five years ago I decided I wanted to learn about football. I bought some reference books (ESPN Pro Football Encyclopedia and NFL Record & Fact Book), but what really resonated with me was John Feinstein's Next Man Up (NYT review), Hard Knocks on HBO, and Inside the NFL, also on HBO. Again, narratives pulled me in. 2007 opened with spygate, New England had a perfect season up to the Super Bowl, and David Tyree made an incredible catch against his helmet to set up the winning touchdown against the Pats. I fell in love with football.

So, I want to love baseball, but so far I haven't had much luck. I think I need to find a narrative. I read most of Feinstein's Living on the Black, but it felt like a chore.

I've read this thread from 2008: Help me learn to love baseball, and some of the suggestions look really good. (Watching Baseball Smarter looks great, for example; so does Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball.) But it's been four years, and maybe there's more to add to the list.

I think this incredible answer from cashman to a similar question about the NBA is what got me thinking about baseball again.

Relevant info:

- I have a limited budget, and I no longer have cable.
- I live in Greensboro, NC, so several minor league teams are close by, but the budget really is pretty slim. I can imagine spending up to $30 on tickets between now and mid-August. Maybe $50 if I can swing it.
- I'm considering spending $20 on the MLB Gameday Audio package
- I don't have a team, but because I'm from Maryland I'm partial to the Nationals and the Orioles. I have seen the Orioles play twice; one when I was a little kid at Memorial Stadium, and later in college at Camden Yards.
- I have a Netflix account (DVD + streaming)
- I have a reasonably zippy internet connection
- I respond well to homework. I like to understand things/solve problems.
- I don't know if this helps as guide, but: I really liked the analysis of Inside the NFL, but I get bored/irritated with Greg Easterbrook's Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Maybe the latter tries too hard to be clever and also seems too fragmented/stream-of-consciousness.
- This is a real shot in the dark, but just in case (please, please, please): I'm going bananas over the game Economies of Scale (MeFi). Is there anything like this for baseball? Where I could push buttons and look at a chart or two, without it becoming totally overwhelming? (I know nothing about economics, but I can keep up with Economies of Scale, and I feel like I'm getting something out of it.)
- I have a knowledgeable friend who says he'll sit with me on his porch with a cooler and a game on the radio once a week and answer my questions.
- I'm male and in my late thirties, if that matters.
- I really want to love this game.

Thank you.
posted by kortez to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (39 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Give Moneyball a shot, either the book or the movie (both are excellent). A compelling narrative that deftly lays out the inside baseball (heh) of how modern teambuilding came about in a way that even non-fans can appreciate.

Also, check out last year's dramatic collapse for Boston (discussed here, with eye-popping graphs here) for another recent stunning story.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:19 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a fiction book, but I found that Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding gave me a new appreciation for baseball. You won't learn anything about real players, but it gives some insight into how a fielder thinks and anticipates the ball being hit. Not to mention that it's just a well written and enjoyable book.
posted by barnoley at 4:58 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: I find that baseball (and boxing) have produced the best writing. My favorite bit is this essay, by A. Bartlett Giamatti, President of Princeton and later Commissioner of Baseball (also, Paul Giamatti's Dad: "The Green Fields of the Mind." It's short and great.
posted by ecab at 5:18 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

President of Yale, rather.
posted by ecab at 5:18 AM on April 16, 2012

For nonfiction, George Will's "Men At Work". Not as current as Moneyball, but otherwise still a good overview from a lifelong major fan.

For fiction, since you're not American, start with the poem Casey at the Bat - it's become one of the American classic myths at this point, and if it won't give you any new insights, it has all the elements of a great baseball story -- and for a lot of fans, baseball is almost more about the mythology and the stories than the game anyhow.

For movies, there are so many - my favorites are The Natural and A League of their Own.
posted by Mchelly at 5:24 AM on April 16, 2012

(oops - just realized you didn't say you weren't American - I misread. Sorry.)
posted by Mchelly at 5:27 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Jim Bouton's Ball Four is on the list of classics along with Men at Work. (I must admit I have somehow managed never to read Men at Work, though I'm pretty sure I own a copy somewhere. Haven't read Moneyball either, which is probably heresy around these parts.)

I love Stolen Season by David Lamb. Basically, he is/was a foreign correspondent for the LA Times and ended up back in the US after a number of years working overseas. To get reacquainted with the country, he decides to follow minor league teams around the country in an RV. It's not going to teach you much about the game, per se, but it will teach you plenty about the culture of baseball. There are a couple more books out there about minor league baseball. The Boys Who Would Be Cubs notable to me because it's about the Cubs. (No idea if I would have liked it otherwise.) Somewhat more recent and more popular was Slouching Toward Fargo, which I admit to not having read in the ten or however many years I've had a copy, but it's about the St Paul Saints and the Northern League and you should probably steer clear of the independent minor leagues when trying to understand baseball in general.

There are a couple of books on statistics/sabermetrics that I'm blanking on the titles of at the moment. They may be more technical than you want, though. There are a couple of baseball simulators out there, but they may be not very instructive. I suspect the good ones are too complicated and the stripped down ones lose too much in the process. (I'm playing in a Dynasty Baseball league at the moment. It involves stacks of cards and multiple d10s. But it still concocts situations where the 'correct' thing to do isn't what would happen in real baseball. For instance, closers tend to lose their heads a bit when they come in in non-save situations, but in the game, your players are just cards, so closers become disproportionately good short relievers to be used whenever.)

Definitely learn to keep score. Baseball's admittedly a bit boring if you don't care about the outcome, aren't keeping score and aren't just trying to get sloshed at the game. But keeping score makes it instantly interesting and keeps you engaged.

If you go for the GamedayAudio option, definitely try and hunt down teams that have a consistent set of broadcasters. It blew my mind when I moved to the Bay Area and discovered that neither (I think) the Giants or the A's had the same guys on the radio ever day. I am naturally partial to Pat Hughes on WGN doing the Cubs games. In any case, you listen to these people virtually every day and you develop a one-sided rapport with them because they transmit the game to you.

This is, of course, my own bias showing, but I'd push you towards following a National League team. The difference is fundamentally that the American League has the Designated Hitter Rule, which means that the pitchers don't bat--there's a guy (called the DH, often an aging power hitter) who doesn't field, but hits in the pitcher's spot. This means AL managers don't have to contend with the pitcher's spot in the batting order. Pitchers tend to be weak batters, so you want to be strategic in replacing them. For example, maybe the pitcher's spot is up first in the next inning. So you really want your pitcher to finish the inning, so you can pinch hit (send someone else in to bat) and then put in a new pitcher, rather than put in the new pitcher now and either have to let him bat or pull him straight away to get a pinch hitter in. Or you can do a double switch and pull your pitcher now, but, say, have the new pitcher bat in the current shortstop's spot, pull the shortstop and have the new shortstop batting in the old pitcher's spot. In the AL, it doesn't matter, you just pull the pitcher without having to worry about where in the batting order you are. Easier to follow (no trying to track an absurd sequence of changes on your scorecard), sure, but I think it's taking something out of the game. Plus, with apologies to the heartbroken Expos fans, the Nationals could do with some fans.
posted by hoyland at 5:58 AM on April 16, 2012

If you're up for a road trip to Washington, D.C. or Baltimore you can probably get a really cheap ticket (less than $10 if it's anything like Toronto) from Stubhub. It won't be the best seat in the stadium but at least you're there.

I was a big fan as a kid but I kind of lost interest after the 1994 strike. Actually attending a game a few years ago got me interested again because there is nothing like actually being at the park. That being said, though, you should definitely get the MLB Gameday Audio package. There are some great radio broadcasters out there. Also MLB.tv has a free game of the day but I don't know if that goes on all season.
posted by sngbk at 6:30 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Tim McCarver is a fairly polarizing announcer, but a good introductory book is his Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans. Detailed, but accessible.

A favorite of mine is Scorecasting, though it also analyzes other sports. The idea is that it researches age-old questions like what influences home-field advantage (and why it's stronger in some sports), and the existence of the "hot hand." In regards to baseball, one of my favorite parts was how it gets into the subtle difference in how umpires call a strike zone for the home team vs the road team.

I wasn't crazy about the "Watch Baseball Smarter" book... The guy comes off as trying too hard to sound hip, and the material itself was a bit too basic anyway.

Going the other way, one of the sabermetrics books hoyland's thinking of might be Baseball Between the Numbers. It tackles a lot of interesting questions (comparing players in different eras, economics), but I did feel like it gets bogged down by too much number-crunching, making it feel like a textbook. (If there's a lighter book on sabermetrics, I'd like to read it.)

It's from the people at Baseball Prospectus, which has a web site you may eventually want to subscribe to. If only for blog gems like Watching the Worst Game of 2011.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 6:32 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: It's been a while since I was there, but the Greensboro Grasshoppers play where you live and it's extremely cheap to go see a minor league game. I think it was 5 or 6 bucks for the cheap seats and maybe 10 for the good ones. Listening on the radio is fun, but treat your buddy to a game and get good seats behind or near home plate and ask all your questions that way. Then save up some money and have a day where you watch Bull Durham (watching Bull Durham is a mandatory part of the curriculum, by the way) and go see the Bulls play over in Durham.

Don't pick the Orioles. Their ownership is terrible, the team is terrible, and even if it was good, they play in a division with two bona fide powerhouses (the Yankees and Red Sox), a team on the rise (the Jays), and a team that always manages to make things interesting and come out swinging (the Rays). You'd be entering a world of pain.

The biggest thing to remember is baseball does a lot of things because it's tradition and things have always been done that way and it doesn't always make sense.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:34 AM on April 16, 2012

Whoops, my "Baseball Prospectus" link goes to the "Worst Game" post.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 6:36 AM on April 16, 2012

In my opinion, you're overthinking this. Baseball is America's Pastime, not an undergraduate course. Just watch a lot of baseball! Whatever is available on your local OTA channels. You will probably end up rooting for whatever team you have the most exposure to; that's OK :-).

But here's the trick: don't listen to the TV announcers. They're terrible. Instead, mute the TV and tune into your local sports radio station. The radio announcers (generally) really know what they're talking about and will give you insights into the game that you wouldn't pick up otherwise.

I see that you don't have cable, but you can still view game highlights on ESPN. That's good just to have an idea of what's going on in the league as a whole, and who the good players are.

If you do want to really dig deep into the statistics, then fantasy baseball is a good way to get intimately acquainted with that aspect of the game. I'm in a ESPN fantasy league and it's pretty good.
posted by verdeluz at 6:36 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might enjoy reading Rob Neyer. He's written a bunch of books, any of which would be a good start. He's a big stathead, which you might find to be right in your wheelhouse. So to speak. He also writes for sbn, which I don't read, but hear OK things about in the baseball nerd community.

I can't recommend A Game of Inches highly enough, both volumes. If you want to know about the history of the game and learn some about U.S. culture at the same time, those books will help.

Lastly, anything Bill James writes will be good for you. He's a bottomless well of baseball knowledge, and his writing skews toward the stathead side, but he's acquainted with the other side as well.

I guess I should tell you that baseball writing and analysis falls into two categories, though the lines can be indistinct: Statheads, who overthink everything, believe baseball performance can be measured, and wish to devise ways to do so; and scouting/conventional wisdom types, who believe in playing hunches, bunting, and whatnot. It can get a little like science vs. religion in this debate, so gird your loins.

Casey at the Bat means a lot to me, but it's treacly, so don't feel bad if you don't respond to it. And when choosing a team, feel free to look at the Orioles. It's a time-honored tradition in baseball in this country to love a team that has no chance. And I say that as an Orioles fan and a season ticket holder of the Kansas City Royals. Scorn me if you must. God knows I'm used to it.
posted by S'Tella Fabula at 7:07 AM on April 16, 2012

Learn to do score sheets and then score along. It's a great way to learn what's going on and you can get a better feel for the underlying flow and strategy in the game.

One good SABR book (I'm told - I haven't read it) is Can He Play? and I've heard Baseball Between the Numbers is a good follow-on to Moneyball.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:08 AM on April 16, 2012

Go to games in person and sit high enough so you can see everything. There's a lot going on and it's easier to see in person than on TV, where they mainly show the pitcher and batter and then follow the baserunner. In person you can see the catcher run to back up first base on a play at first, for example, which is harder to pick up on TV.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:18 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: I learned about baseball by keeping score. I would get the game day audio package, pick a team to follow (one with good announcers; I highly recommend my Tigers!) and score along. Watch the games that are on regular tv (Fox has games on the weekend) and score those, as well. Go to games, sit high up, and listen to the radio announcers then so you can see what they are describing - when the "shift" is on, where the gap is, when the pitcher is pitching from the stretch.

Baseball is awesome.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:20 AM on April 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Buy Gameday Audio, listen to Vin Scully announce the Dodgers games. Revel.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 7:34 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Several other people have covered this better than I can, but I'll offer a couple things.

Baseball is a lot better in person than on TV, so try to catch a couple of minor league games. North Carolina is lousy with minor league teams, and your local team is the Greensboro Grasshoppers. They're on one of the lower levels of the minor league system, so the tickets should be cheap. The Durham Bulls are close and are AAA (the level below the major leagues), it should be a slightly bigger deal than the Grasshoppers although the tickets will probably be more expensive. I grew up going to Bulls games at the old Durham Athletic Park, so I've got a soft spot for them.

*begin plug for Washington Nationals* If you're looking for a team to follow, you could do a lot worse than the Nationals. They've got some good young players, they're going to be decent, but probably not fantastic this year, and probably be contending to win their division next year. They're decently local to where you are now, decently local to where you grew up, but they're not mired in a never-ending period of sucking like the Orioles. *end plug for Washington Nationals*
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 7:56 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 0. Start reading FanGraphs all the time. Also bookmark SBNation MLB, for Rob Neyer and Grant Brisbee. Optional supplements include SBNation blog(s) for teams you follow (I know the Nats blog, Federal Baseball, is great), Baseball Prospectus, ESPN for a mainstream non-stathead take.

1. MLB.tv's "Free Game of the Day" feature is a great way to see games you wouldn't otherwise be paying attention to; it's particularly convenient if you run the Gameday app on iOS. (The selection of free games seems not entirely random, perhaps biased toward matchups with smaller expected audiences; you'll end up seeing the Royals more than pure chance would dictate.) Over the course of a season this will expose you to a ton of players and styles of play and teams and broadcasters that you wouldn't see just by rooting for a single team.

2. The biggest things that distinguish baseball from the sports you've been enjoying are, first, the long season, and second, pitching.

The long season means that each individual game is less full of high drama than you might be used to from a sport like NFL football — the stakes are, seemingly, lower; the season doesn't hang on every pitch — but also allows for baseball to build to a kind of ongoing drama, season-long story, and statistical depth that the other sports lack. Read a bunch of pre-season previews and predictions. Notice how quickly they're falsified.

The ongoing pitcher-batter battle is something totally unlike anything you've known in other sports, and understanding pitching is probably the key to enjoying baseball. Start by reading The Neyer-James Guide to Pitchers, maybe. Listen to radio announcers' discussion of pitch selection, and try to understand the ways that pitchers are aiming to deceive and disorient batters; watch each pitch on Gameday and, more importantly, on TV (you can see pitching much better on TV than you can in person at the park, actually). Watch all the TV/internet games you can; try to learn to see pitches as they come, predict the next one along with the hitter, and see what happens when they guess wrong. Try to understand the insane hand-eye coordination involved, and the hyper-rapid decisions and skills that decide each pitch and each swing. This is the key to understanding and enjoying baseball; you can focus on the other stuff (baserunning, defensive positioning, roster moves and bullpen management, etc.) later on, but you have to begin to see the skills of pitching and hitting to get anywhere with baseball. Otherwise it all looks much too simple.
posted by RogerB at 8:37 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: P.S.:

I live in Greensboro, NC, so several minor league teams are close by

College ball is great, too! And tickets are usually cheap or free. You can get very close to the action, and crowds are often sparse; you'll probably be able to hear the chatter from the bench, and the managers and umpires talking. And the differential between a really good player (one who's getting scouted) and the average player is larger in college ball than it is even in the low minors — talent will be more easily visible to the casual eye (you just have to mentally discount the hitters, relative to pro ball, because of the aluminum bats). If you're outgoing you might also be able to chat with players' families, coaches, even visiting scouts as the game goes on.

Schedules: UNC-G Spartans; NC A&T Aggies.
posted by RogerB at 8:50 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If you go to college games, keep an eye out for an old retired guy who likes to talk. My dad used to go to college games in Florida, just because he loves baseball so completely, and he would have been a great person to watch games with - he would love to explain to you the nuances of the game, the history of the game, and bet you $.10 that every pitch on a 3-2 count will end in a foul ball. I bet lots of college teams have similar followers, especially when its a non-MLB state. Sit by that guy, buy him a beer, and you might have found a baseball mentor!
posted by dpx.mfx at 10:00 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Video: Ken Burns' Baseball is a great start for both history and interviewees waxing philosophical about how great the game is. (It's on Watch Instantly — and was recently updated with a '10th Inning').

Book: Lots of great suggestions above. Although I don't like McCarver/Buck, seconding Tim McCarver's Baseball for Brain Surgeons. If you want a couple quirky fun reads, The Umpire Strikes Back and The Code (Baseball's Unwritten Rules).

Homework: Once you pick a team (Nationals would be a good one), listen to as many games as you can and examine the box score every day. Learn what all the terms mean. Track your favorite player's stats. Make note when your best pitcher is starting and make extra effort to watch/listen to those games.

Baseball is great because of its design (90 feet between bases is perfect, as is 60'6" from mound to home plate), tradition, history, and drama. It also has so many games and at-bats that statistics actually mean something and can be fun to explore (memorize the all-time leaders in home runs, hits, stolen bases, strikeouts, no-hitters, and batting average. Marvel at perhaps the most impressive stat of all, Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak).

There are a lot of different things you can focus on during the game that makes it interesting. I'll just touch on one part watching of the game: the at-bat.

First of all, the pitch count means a lot. Especially in the playoffs where fans hinge on every ball and strike.
But let's say the pitcher gets a first pitch strike. This is huge, because it gives him a lot of options where to go next. Fire in another strike to get the batter behind? Or throw something outside the plate and hope the batter chases something difficult to hit?
If the pitcher falls behind right away, it's in the batter's favor. For every ball thrown, the batter has better odds of a pitcher throwing a strike, and better odds for a batter to have a hittable ball.
The more the batter falls behind, the less chance he has at getting a good pitch to hit. But it's a bit unpredictable because both the batter and the pitcher know this. So, with the batter behind in the count, will the pitcher try to trick the batter with a pitch outside the zone, or will the pitcher come right at the batter?
It's difficult for the batter because they don't want to let a good pitch go by for another strike, risking a strikeout, but on the other hand they know their odds of getting a good pitch to hit are low when they are 0-2 (0 balls, 2 strikes).
On the other hand, if the pitcher is behind 3-0, the batter knows something good might be on the way, unless the pitcher doesn't care that much about putting the batter on base (if there is a weak hitter up next, or if first base is open with someone already on second base).
So, there is a lot going on depending on what the pitch count is. Another big factor is whether someone is on base.
If someone is on first, especially a slow runner, look for the pitcher to throw a slider or some kind of pitch that will get underneath the batter's swing, hopefully resulting in a ball hit on the ground and a double play for the infield.
Not only that, a pitcher's entire delivery is changed once someone gets on base.
When the bases are open, pitchers can throw with a slower windup delivery. When someone gets on, to help prevent a steal, most pitchers will throw from the "stretch" position, which can be sometimes detrimental to the overall effectiveness of the pitch.
Also keep in mind that right-handed batters tend to hit the ball to the left side of the infield, while left-handed batters tend to hit it to the right side. So take a look at the infield when a left-handed batter is up: the infield will often "shift" to the right, playing the odds that the baseball will end up in that direction.

P.S. A while back I did a link round-up of a few classic baseball moments.
posted by starman at 10:01 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: This is perfect--thank you! Keep it coming!

Rhaomi's link to the Boston collapse is great because it gives me a recent-ish narrative to latch on to. I can pay attention to how they're doing and put it into context.

I'm making four lists of readings: non-fiction narrative, non-fiction statistical, literary, and web. I really like the Giamatti piece ecab linked to, and FanGraphs looks really good.

I'll definitely learn how to keep score. It seems non-trivial--any resources you'd suggest?

I think I'm leaning toward the paying more attention to the Nationals, (thanks Bulgaroktonos), though I'm not averse to the pain of loving a failure of a team. I find the idea of the loving the Mets more appealing than loving the Yankees, if that makes sense....

I'll make more of an effort to go see live games, but at $9 a ticket I'll go through the budget pretty quickly. (I used to go more regularly when $ was less of an issue--but it was more for $1 beer and the company. I never payed attention to the game.)

College baseball! Of course! Semester's winding up, but this will be a good option next year.

I have an Android phone--do you use an app regularly to follow the games?

On preview: I'll keep an eye out for the retired guy. And homework! Thank you, starman! And your description of the play count is exactly what I need. Thanks!
posted by kortez at 10:29 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: The book mentioned above, Ball Four by Jim Bouton, is as far as I'm concerned a must-read. Baseball season is long - 162 games in the majors - and there's still 6-8 weeks of spring training and playoffs on top of all that. The book chronicles the day-to-day life in such a long season. It's hilarious and you get an idea of the various dynamics that come into a play in the clubhouse.

If you learn to keep score, you'll find that radio announcers will give you all the information you need to fill out your scorecard. Even things that a lot of fans don't pay attention to, such as the attendance, will show up in the box score.

Here's a few things that are my opinion, as well:

Ever see a team win 15-1? That's usually a fluke, not domination. Games happen where one team can't hit anything and the other team can't miss anything. Players and managers know this and will usually just forget it and go out the next day.

Ichiro Suzuki may be slowing and may not be the player he once was, but he is one of the most dynamite players ever to grace MLB.

2001 World Series rivals the 1991 Series as the greatest ever. Arizona was two outs from winning that in five games. Randy Johnson won three games in that one - games 1, 6, and 7.

Baseball is full of obscure trivia. It's part of what makes the game great.

Great pitching always beats great hitting.

Baseball on the radio is a vital ingredient to any summer evening.

Bull Durham is indeed required watching. At least once per season.

If a foul ball is coming your way at a stadium, you are not allowed to try to duck it. You MUST make a play on it if at all possible. (If you're a beer drinker, you must prioritize the ball over the beer. If you catch the ball and save the beer, you're a winner. Best fan catch I ever saw - it was at the home run derby at the 2011 All-Star game in Phoenix. A ball was hit to the pool area - a fan jumped into the pool, holding his beer, made the catch in mid-air, and kept his beer above water after he landed in the pool.)

StubHub is your friend for major league games. Tickets for under $5 are not uncommon.
posted by azpenguin at 10:30 AM on April 16, 2012

Response by poster: ...description of the at-bat, rather.
posted by kortez at 10:31 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: There are lots of different methods for keeping score, in the sense that there are different ways to write it on the paper. What's important is that you do it in a way so that you know what happened to any given player. If someone asks you "what did this batter do the last time he was up" you want to be able to say "he singled up the middle, then was caught stealing at second base." so don't get too hung up on writing it down the "right" way - just make sure it makes sense to you.

Here's one basic explanation.
Here's MLB's explanation.

Add your own information as you see fit!
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:29 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You want stories? There's a lot of great baseball fiction. The mythic qualities of the game have been used to good effect by a number of top tier American authors. My faves are The Natural, The Universal Baseball Association, and Mark Harris's series featuring Henry "Author" Wiggen, principally The Southpaw and Bang the Drum Slowly.
posted by chrchr at 11:35 AM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Some other things to note:

• In match-ups where both the hitter and pitcher are the same 'hand' (say, both left-handed), the pitcher has the advantage, both because of the angle of the pitch trajectory and the way the ball 'breaks' (curves).
So when you see a relief pitcher come in, usually they will be the same hand as the batter.
• Starting pitchers can usually go about 100 pitches before they lose effectiveness. Some more (Justin Verlander), some less. Going a complete game as a pitcher now-a-days is fairly rare and pretty impressive accomplishment, especially if the other team doesn't score any runs.
• Batting order. Usually you'll put your fastest player in the 1st spot ("leadoff"). The number two batter is good at making contact, putting the ball in play, and sometimes helps if they can switch-hit.
The number three hitting position is considered the most prime of all the spots, and usually reserved for the player with the best batting average. The number four spot ("clean-up") is usually reserved for a power hitter. If you have another good power hitter, usually they will end up at #5.
Often times there isn't a whole lot of difference between the 6-9 hitters, although you want to put the best ones up front. Also, if you are in the American League and you have a position player in the 9 spot, it's smart to put someone speed there so you can have two fast players up to bat consecutively (9, 1).
• Defensively, usually you'll put the weakest defender in left field, your best/fastest in center (they are the 'captain' of the outfield), and the one with the best arm in right, since they might have to fire off a strong throw to third.
• For the infield, the shortstop is the 'captain.' They are usually the best-all around defensively. The shortstop and third basemen need really good arms, while the second baseman doesn't need to through quite as far to first, but does need quick hands and feet to turn double plays. First base is usually reserved for a power hitter who doesn't need to be able to move around as much defensively.

Twitter can be a great resource for fans as well. Start with @MLB and then find beat writers/bloggers/players/owners/etc for your team.
posted by starman at 11:50 AM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Again, that's really helpful starman. For example, I've heard the term clean-up a million times, but I had no idea what it meant. And to have a glimpse at the strategic thinking behind the batting order is really helpful.

Baseball for dummies. More please.

A couple other things, and then I'll get out of the way: 1) I just looked at StubHub--wow. Wish I lived closer to DC/Baltimore. I could really stretch my budget on $1 tickets. 2) verdelus points out above that I may be over thinking things a bit. You may be right, and I promise I plan to immerse myself in the games. But a structured list of tasks--a curriculum--really helps me get my head around things.

I'm really starting to look forward to this summer. Bull Durham is in the queue. Thank you so much.
posted by kortez at 12:09 PM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: For the infield, the shortstop is the 'captain.' They are usually the best-all around defensively. The shortstop and third basemen need really good arms, while the second baseman doesn't need to through quite as far to first, but does need quick hands and feet to turn double plays. First base is usually reserved for a power hitter who doesn't need to be able to move around as much defensively.

As a follow on to this, it's also generally true that your "corner" position players (1st, 3rd, right field and left field) tend to be better hitters than the "middle" position players (2nd, SS, CF), because the defensive responsibilities of the middle players are greater (the center fielder covers more ground than right or left field, and is also the "captain" of the outfield defense, responsible for ensuring that the outfielders don't do things like run into each other).

Among the corner positions, the right side (1st and RF) tend to be better hitters than the left (3rd, LF) because most hitters are right handed and tend to "pull" the ball to left field, the RF therefore has fewer balls to deal with (if you ever find yourself coaching a little league team, you can put your least athletic kids (people like me) in RF where they can eat grass and go blind staring at the sun without much problem).

Oh, and another thing I should have said earlier: go find some batting cages! Put in a few quarters and try to hit something. It's fun and give you an appreciation of what's going on at the plate (only at much, much lower speeds).
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 12:29 PM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: Batting order. Usually you'll put your fastest player in the 1st spot ("leadoff"). The number two batter is good at making contact, putting the ball in play, and sometimes helps if they can switch-hit.
The number three hitting position is considered the most prime of all the spots, and usually reserved for the player with the best batting average. The number four spot ("clean-up") is usually reserved for a power hitter. If you have another good power hitter, usually they will end up at #5.
Often times there isn't a whole lot of difference between the 6-9 hitters, although you want to put the best ones up front. Also, if you are in the American League and you have a position player in the 9 spot, it's smart to put someone speed there so you can have two fast players up to bat consecutively (9, 1).

posted by starman at 12:50 PM on April 16

This is a really good bit of info, and it helps make a lot of sense of the batting order. I'll expand on this a little more.

The reason you put your fastest guy in the leadoff spot is simple - he's the first guy who hits in the game and you'd love to have him on base. This is usually not a power hitter. You don't need a home run threat here, you need someone to get on so that the 2-3-4 guys have someone to bring home. If a guy gets on base, the pitcher has to pay attention to him to hopefully keep him from stealing, and that distracts his attention from the batter.

And this guy is also the reason you have your most consistent hitter at the number three spot. If the leadoff guy gets on, you don't want to waste the chance to get him home. You want the guy up with the best chance of getting that hit. Which leads to...

Your number 4 hitter, the cleanup hitter, is usually your big hammer, and he's there to protect the number 3 hitter. If the pitcher can't get the number three hitter out, or if he intentionally walks him, then he's now got another guy on base and he's got to deal with someone who can hit the ball to another area code*. As starman mentioned, if you have another power hitter, you put him at 5, because he provides the same protection to the number 4 hitter.

All this is why you will often hear the 3-4-5 hitters referred to as the heart of the order.

Another big turn in the order is the 8-9 spot. See starman's post for the American league version. However, in the National League, the pitcher has to bat, and he's almost always batting ninth. Manager's will try to put a guy who's decent at getting on base in the 8 spot, because then the pitcher can bunt the runner to the next base instead of swinging the bat. Pitchers often hit below .150, so you have to do what you can to maximize the value of that spot in the order. This is also why it's very important to get the pitcher out - if he walks or gets a hit, you've lost what is basically a free out. It's also considered a good thing for you if the other team's pitcher leads off an inning. If he does, it's a near certain out, and then the 1 spot in the order comes up with one out already on the board. Unless you can't get him out. One of the worst mistakes you can make in baseball is to walk the pitcher.

*Fun fact - in 2005, Adam Dunn hit one so hard that it flew completely out of Great American Ballpark. It continued going until it bounced into the Ohio River. The river is part of the state of Kentucky, and the Ohio stateline is the shoreline. This means Dunn literally hit a ball into another state, and he's the only guy to do so.
posted by azpenguin at 12:58 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I haven't played Economies of Scale, but the closest thing to that is probably going to be Out of the Park Baseball, which lets you control a team from budgeting to drafting to when in a game to steal a base if you want to get down to that level of control. They're pretty comprehensive, and I have no idea if it would be too complicated to figure out if you don't come in with a base of knowledge, but I've also generally found that sports simulators are built to be frequently re-started after horrible crushing failure. I think the simplified iOS app version is $5, so that's not a huge investment if it turns out to not be to your taste.
posted by Copronymus at 1:19 PM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: A quirky thing about baseball is the interchangeability of positions. It's usually preplanned but once in a blue moon you'll have a guy play several positions in one game (even all nine). Or a pitcher will be reliever for one hitter, play the field (LF or RF), then pitch again. This happened just last year. Or position players will come in to pitch (usually out of desperation in late innings).

What usually dictates who plays where is physique and athleticism. CF, SS, and 2B are usually smaller and quicker so they're less likely to be sluggers at bat. Catchers are usually defensive specialists and not speedsters (constant crouching doesn't help). 1B and 3B are usually where your slower sluggers are.

There are plenty of exceptions all around, but you usually don't want a slap-hitting speedster at 3B, say, because it's thought to not be getting "full value" at that position. Similarly, if you're a slick-fielding SS who can hit for average and power, you'd be considered to have more value than if you played 3B, where those attributes are more common.

Also, the concept of "5 tools": field, throw, run, hit for average, hit for power. Position players get rated on each, and true 5-tool players get salivated over because they're so rare.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:47 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

First paragraph: reliever = relieved.

To elaborate, it's a zany way of getting around the rule that players who leave the game can't come back in, ever. It's relatively rare though.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 3:51 PM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: My parents were not baseball fans, and I grew up in an area with little interest in baseball overall (the South is football, football, football). My first game wasn't until 2007, and I didn't know a damn thing about anything beyond the basics. I'm now a season ticket-holding baseball nut, and I hope to be watching the game when I die. So, what you want is possible!

-For your Android phone, MLB At Bat is a great app. You can download a lite version of the app for free, which has access to scores, news, and a free game of the day to watch. A subscription to the service ($14.99 for the season) allows you to listen to the radio broadcast of any game, in any market, and you can choose which team's broadcast you want.

-Nthing any and all recommendations for keeping score, even if you're watching a game on TV in the bar. I learned to score last year, and it adds a whole new dimension to baseball for me. I view my scorecards as a logbook of the various intrigues and dramas that occur throughout the game. I use Bob Carpenter's scorebook, which I love, and there's a helpful set of instructions on how to keep score in the front. Bob is also great about responding to emails, if you have questions.

-Seriously, follow the Nationals! I say this not only because they're my beloved home team, but they're a fun young team on the rise, with lots of interesting careers to follow. They're off to a solid start and will possibly have a shot at the playoffs in the next few years. Right now they're missing their best slugger (my favorite player, Michael Morse) and their fantastic young closer (Drew Storen), and they're still managing to hang. On Saturday I scored a complete game from Edwin Jackson - the team is full of stories and potential.

Baseball is seriously wonderful, and it makes my life so much better. You won't regret learning to love it!
posted by timetoevolve at 4:45 PM on April 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

To elaborate, it's a zany way of getting around the rule that players who leave the game can't come back in, ever. It's relatively rare though.

I'd disagree with the idea that having people play multiple positions is 'getting around' not being allowed to put people back on. (Though, on re-reading, perhaps that was specifically referring to stashing a pitcher in the outfield for an inning, which is pretty zany.) It's using your resources to their full potential and part of the strategising that makes baseball interesting.

Like... if you're the Houston Astros of five years ago, that little voice in the back of you head might be saying "Well, if things really got desperate, Craig Biggio could probably still catch."* That's going to influence what risks you're willing to take with your catchers. That's sort of a bizarre example.** In a more realistic example, the Cubs occasionally used (pitcher) Carlos Zambrano as a pinch hitter when the bench got thin enough. That's highly unusual, but I wouldn't call it getting around the rules if you used Zambrano to pinch hit and then left him in the game to pitch. TheSecretDecoderRing's example is probably about as extreme as you can get, but if you happen to have a former outfielder as your pitcher, it's something you keep stashed away as an idea.

(Along similar lines, the Cubs had a pitcher who was a former position player and the idea of using him in an emergency would get floated once in a while. I want to say it was Kevin Foster, but google is not confirming this. It is, however, informing me that he died of renal cancer a couple years back.)

*For the OP: Biggio started off as a fast catcher. He got moved to second base after (I think) his first season in the majors with the idea being to save his knees, since he was more valuable as a leadoff hitter than as a catcher.
**In the baseball card game I referenced above, I ended up using the 'emergency catcher' card when my catcher got ejected after I'd already used the backup to pinch hit. (I think we have a rule that you have to carry three catchers, but can stash the third in the minors.)

posted by hoyland at 4:45 PM on April 16, 2012

Best answer: I've recently gotten back into baseball after a hiatus of a few years--the McGwire/Bonds steroids thing destroyed a lot of the love I had for the game as a child, but I'm recovering--and I've found that Yahoo's Big League Stew blog has been a good way to get into some of the more human-interest aspects of the long season. For example, there you can see a video of your-new-favorite-team-the-Nationals' center fielder Rick Ankiel's amazing throw from center in last night's game.

There are some really good fan blogs for all MLB teams under the SBNation umbrella. I really wish the Nationals blog there, Federal Baseball, was better than it is, but YMMV.
posted by arco at 9:36 AM on April 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: A quick update:

I love baseball. Holy smokes. Thank you so much for pointing me in the right direction.

Scoring games has been key. It has given me a real sense of what is happening in a game--so many details I missed before because of the pace of the game and my lack of intuition. Also, I have all these score sheets to look at so I can see longer term patterns. ("That fellow on deck? He hit a single and two doubles last game I scored, so I'll keep an eye on him.")

MLB Gameday Audio and the At Bat app have also been important. Whenever there's a game on, I'm probably listening. The app for my phone has been great because I can listen while I'm mowing the lawn or driving home from work. I love listening to the Dodgers, Giants, St. Louis and Atlanta games when they don't conflict with Nationals games. Baseball broadcasters are an interesting, sometimes literary and often nutty bunch.

I listen to far more games than I see. I watch the occasional daily free game online, and occasionally I'll catch a game on Fox over the air. YouTube, though, has been great for putting an image to what I've heard on the radio. I happened to hear a game R. A. Dickey pitched a few weeks ago, near the start of his impressive run, and the coverage made it sound like dark magic. I was able to pull up videos of knuckleballers, and I got it. (And I got to learn about Phil Neikro.)

I've been reading some, too. I'm well into Moneyball now. This coincides nicely with a statistics class I'm taking this summer. Also, as for numbers, baseball-reference.com has been a great resource. Before I head out to the ballpark or listen to a game on the radio, I can build my own stat sheets by importing the data I want into Excel.

I love the language of baseball. A couple of weeks after Bryce Harper got called up, Davey Johnson said about him in a press conference: "He covers right field like the morning dew." I hear a lot of this.

Anyhow, thanks for all the good advice!
posted by kortez at 3:30 AM on July 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yay! Glad you're enjoying the game.
posted by rmd1023 at 6:00 AM on July 3, 2012

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