What's so exciting about a pitcher's duel?
April 17, 2008 12:47 PM   Subscribe

Baseball question: Why is a matchup between excellent pitchers considered a "good game" from a fan's point of view?

This has to be more than a sportswriting cliche, because these kinds of games seem to sell out, get high TV ratings, etc. But what's the attraction? If I'm going to watch a couple of Cy Young candidates go up against each other, I know going in that the game is going to have very few hits, therefore very few baserunners, and very low scoring. In other word, very little of what makes baseball exciting (to me). Sure, there are plays to be made in the field, but the better the pitcher, the less interesting the plays (routine grounders, lazy flyballs)

I understand the appeal of a no-hittter -- in the last half of the game. We're waiting to see if the pitcher can do it or if it gets broken up. I have no sense of why people would enjoy watching a 1- or 2-hitter performance.

Help me understand what's so compelling about watching batters fail.
posted by luser to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: One other thing: I do appreciate good pitching. But REALLY good pitching is what I'm talking about here -- where only a few guys reach base over the course of the game. It just seems from a logical point of view, the ideal (most exciting) game would be one where the offense and defense is more evenly matched. I don't want a 1-0 game, but I don't want an NFL score, either.
posted by luser at 12:52 PM on April 17, 2008

Because some people enjoy watching great pitching, that is, the pitching itself, and don't view a brilliant pitching performance as "watching batters fail." There's nothing necessarily boring about a 1-0 game. Watching an ace hanging on to a one run lead can be just as exciting as watching your team's lineup light up some rookie.
posted by 1 at 12:58 PM on April 17, 2008

In general, you want to see everyone playing at the highest level, and good pitching beats good hitting. A game with lots of offense is a badly played game.
posted by alkupe at 12:59 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Because people like to watch the best players. That's why there's more attendance at major league games than minor league games. If you just want to see lots of scoring, I invite you to come watch my rec league softball team. We won a game 18 to 16 last week. And we only play seven innings (Note: very few people come to watch my rec league softball team).
posted by Dec One at 1:00 PM on April 17, 2008

Speaking strictly for me, it's because the dynamics of play and the value of each individual pitch are magnified if there aren't going to be many chances to get hits. Baseball is all about nuance and subtlety, which are diminished in an offensive bloodbath.
posted by andifsohow at 1:03 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with the people who have said that everyone wants to see both teams put all of their best players on the field. The big name fielders play everyday, but there's only a 1 in 5 chance that the best pitcher on the team will be on the mound.

Low scoring games also tend to be more exciting near the end, as opposed to blowouts. Teams will try to suicide squeeze to eke out an extra run, and one homerun can be the difference in the game. When a bad pitcher is pitching, yes there are a lot of hits and runs, but they all seem fairly random and chaotic. Two teams with bad pitchers playing against eachother turn the game into kind of a crapshoot. With two aces playing, though, both teams need to fight for every hit, and the best hitters are expected to step up and be the only ones who can score.

For example, take the famous playoff game where Albert Pujols hit a homerun against Brad Lidge to keep the Cardinals alive in the series. If Lidge had been injured and some no-name guy came in to try to get the save, it wouldn't have been nearly as exciting.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:05 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: Well, by your logic an exciting game would be one where both teams field their worst pitchers. But your premise is wrong - the average top-pitcher duel is not a low-hits game.

In 2007, most of the best pitchers had ERAs between 3 and 4, but this means in some games they gave up no runs and in others they gave up 5 or more. And that's runs; you're talking about hits. The best 40 pitchers in MLB in 2007 gave up 7482 hits in 7980 innings pitched (stats here), so on the average one hit almost every inning.

So, really, just because you have two good pitchers facing each other doesn't mean you're going to watch a game of catch between the pitchers and the catchers -- you'll see all kinds of hits, all kinds of fielding, all the stratetic maneuvering that makes the game interesting.
posted by beagle at 1:08 PM on April 17, 2008

Response by poster: It just seems from a logical point of view, the ideal (most exciting) game would be one where the offense and defense is more evenly matched.

So yeah, I get that an offensive bloodbath is a badly played game and not that interesting. Nobody watches your slo-pitch softball games (or mine) because there essentially is no pitching. What I'm wondering about is why people seem not to mind the converse -- when the pitching overwhelms the offense.
posted by luser at 1:09 PM on April 17, 2008

I absolutely love baseball, but I hate long games.

A two-hour game is pure heaven, and because every man reaching base is meaningful, the suspense/minute ratio is off the charts.

Also, there's a special breed of purist who absolutely hates Moneyball-style baseball and the three true outcomes, finding that kind of game completely lacking in nuance and strategy.
posted by Kwantsar at 1:12 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

In a low scoring close game everything gets magnified. The bunt becomes crucial, the unturned double play deadly, and a bloop single can win the game.
posted by ozomatli at 1:18 PM on April 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Echoing others thoughts. If a pitcher is pitching to the peak of his ability then the opposing team isn't getting any hits despite possibly having the best offense in baseball. If both pitchers are pitching to that standard, then it is down to whoever makes the first mistake or tires first.

The only thing better than a pitchers duel (IMO) is the type of game where the lead is constantly changing hands... not necessarily a high scoring game, just one where there is constant jockeying for the lead with it going back and forth.
posted by worker_bee at 1:20 PM on April 17, 2008

Deep baseball fans play a mental game that's not apparent to the casual fan. They're playing along with the pitcher/batter duel. (What's the pitcher throwing next? Fatball? Breaking pitch? Changeup? Was that slower pitch away just setting him up for a moving fastball on the hands?) Watching a pitcher do this well is a treat. Also, two good pitcher will generally hold the score close. That means all the other happenings – defensive plays, bunts, bloop singles – acquire greater significance. For some of these reasons fans love duels between two good pitchers.
posted by lpsguy at 1:23 PM on April 17, 2008

Nobody watches your slo-pitch softball games (or mine) because there essentially is no pitching.

Actually, the reason nobody watches mine is that we're a bunch of out-of-shape nobodies. I don't think there are people in my town who say "Should we go to the major league game or the rec league game tonight? I think the major league game - the pitching and offense in those rec league games is just too out of balance."
posted by Dec One at 1:28 PM on April 17, 2008

So, in terms of fans in the stands, can they even see that stuff? Because in the few games I've ever been to, I've never been able to tell anything other than 'yep, pitcher threw the ball again' if it doesn't get at least swung at. At least on TV, you have an announcer telling you what's happening.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:29 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Because watching a pitcher at his peak and when he's "dealing" is one of the most amazing things you can see in sports - to have the kind of pinpoint command to control and lock down an entire game is EXTREMELY rare. I'm talking about the kind of game where a batter knows exactly what's coming, but can't do anything with it even with that knowledge. THOSE are amazing games to watch.

For example, look at two Felix Hernandez starts - last year against Boston, and last night against Oakland. On both occasions, Felix was unhittable - and last night's game was just a shade over two hours. The intensity of a game like that has to be seen to be believed.
posted by pdb at 1:45 PM on April 17, 2008

You favorited beagle's answer, but I think it's off base. Sure, occasionally in a pitcher's duel there's "all kinds of hits," but that's uncommon (because they're great pitchers, duh), and the answer evades the question, which is why do baseball fans like such games even when there are few hits and little "action." The real answer is provided by lpsguy. Basically, there are two kinds of fans: casual or thrill-seeking, and true. The casual fan only sees "action" and thus is bored by pitcher's duels. The true fan is immersed in the details of the game, knows to look at the fielders rather than try to follow the ball in the air, knows whether the pitcher tends to get ground balls or fly balls, understands why the infielders are deployed the way they are for a given batter. The true fan knows that the pitcher has long had trouble with this particular batter and needs to pitch him low and inside to avoid an extra-base hit but runs the risk of walking or hitting him. I think I watched every single Mets game in 1986, and I got to where I knew in advance whether Darryl Strawberry was going to get a hit or not. I was at Shea for the fourth game of the playoffs in 1988 (the game that ended it all for that version of the Mets), and I knew (as did the guys with me) that Gooden had to come out of the game right now, and when Davey didn't take him out we knew it was going to be nothing but heartbreak and the fucking Dodgers were going to win.

If you have that level of intense involvement, pitchers' duels are tremendously exciting, even in the early innings. If you don't, it's like watching a chess match between grandmasters without knowing much about chess.
posted by languagehat at 1:46 PM on April 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

If pitching duels between great pitchers were popular just because they were pitching duels, then teams would purposely field inferior hitters and invest all their resources in the pitching staff. Then every game would be a pitching duel!

But that's not the right reason. Pitching duels between great pitchers are popular because they're between great pitchers.
posted by Dec One at 1:52 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: To me (and this may be heresy here), a really good pitching duel isn't visible until at least the 4th or 5th inning. Until then it's tough to distinguish a cold round of batting from excellent pitching. In both cases, the batters will look the fool.

After 4 innings of excellent pitching, the game suddenly shifts to the classic pitcher's duel. The pitcher has mown down the meat of the order twice and now you're watching his stuff, seeing if he's withering or getting stronger. The home plate umpire will start to get more animated, feeding off the energy of the increased crowd attention. The focus shifts away from the basepaths and outfield.

Story: I was watching a town game last year where our college-age pitcher had started off with 12 straight and now faced their big wood at the top of the fifth. The hitter defended the plate well, fouling off strikes and forcing the a full count. He fouled off one more and we were all on the edge of our seats. The P stood there watching signals for a long time, went into a windup and tossed the ball.

The batter swung so hard that he did the twist-around-and-fall thing while catching nothing but air.

We went nuts. It was awesome. I will always love baseball.
posted by unixrat at 1:52 PM on April 17, 2008

(What's the pitcher throwing next? Fatball? Breaking pitch? Changeup? Was that slower pitch away just setting him up for a moving fastball on the hands?)

Hee. Fatball.

I love watching pitcher's duels. I love watching games go to extra innings tied up 1-1. It's the tension - you're waiting to see who's going to break. You're seeing how the bullpen will hold up to longer stints, and you're seeing which starter is going to be crushed with a no decision or even a loss with an amazing start. Like others have said, each defensive play becomes crucial, as does each stupid swing by the batters at a high fastball. Absorbing.

Some of this love may be because I grew up watching test cricket.
posted by gaspode at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2008

Don't forget that pitching duels don't just happen randomly. Baseball is almost ridiculous in its depth and so much of the game takes place off the field. Good managers need to decide the rotation of their pitchers ahead of time: which pitcher will start the game, who will be relief, and who might need to close if things get tight. A good manager should know how many pitches any pitcher is good for, who's better in which batting situation (against right-handed batters or left), and have to consider that if they use them in Game A, they can't use them in Game B. So in general, when you have two great pitchers facing off, it could also indicate that the game means something in the context of the season and coming out with the win is that much more important.
posted by krippledkonscious at 2:47 PM on April 17, 2008

Help me understand what's so compelling about watching batters fail.

As mentioned above, batters will "fail" seven out of ten times, if your only metric for success is a base hit, not including walks and such. In reality, there's much more action going on, defensively. It's not like when batters fail, they never touch the ball.

That being said, may I suggest you take in a few college baseball games? Colleges use aluminum bats, which significantly increases the offensive output.

I was a sportswriter that covered major-league games. I agree that the MLB can be boring. I love college baseball.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:59 PM on April 17, 2008

Also, remember the mental games going on between the pitcher and hitter. They stare each other down. They try to throw off rhythm. Not only that but pitchers study the hitters they face an awful lot. They know a hitter's tendencies and what they're likely to do in a given situation. Pedro Martinez once remarked that he's not thinking of the next pitch, he's thinking two or three pitches ahead. That makes a really stalemated pitching duel an awful lot like chess. There's not much going on outwardly. Inside? It's war.
posted by tcv at 4:34 PM on April 17, 2008

Late to the party, but I think andifsohow nails this one.

In a high-scoring game, hits and runs seem cheap and easy, so the game itself feels trivial. Giving up a home run to make a game 13-12 game doesn't mean much, mainly because it's so "obvious" that your own team could get it right back pretty easily.

In a low-scoring game, those same hits and runs seem precious and scarce, and each pitch, swing, and tiny piece of baseball action takes on more (relative) significance. A home run that makes a game 2-1 is much more significant and dramatic, in part because it seems unlikely the other team will be able to recover... due to that good pitching.
posted by rokusan at 7:33 PM on April 17, 2008

In an average baseball game, there are something like 25 baserunners. So the default is "a bunch of baserunners".

"Special" would therefore be "few baserunners".

The opposite case is not "special"; it is merely "more".
posted by Flunkie at 9:06 PM on April 17, 2008

Also, to add on to what unixrat posted above, by the time a pitcher has gone through the order a few times, the batters have seen most of their stuff and have some idea what to expect. So when two good pitchers can continue to mow people down in spite of the batters knowing how they might be pitched to, it makes the outs that much more exciting. For me at least, watching a pitcher buckle some guy's knees with a nasty curve is that much more exciting knowing that the batter had to at least expect it on some level. To be able to do this at the professional level is pretty awesome.
posted by friendlyjuan at 3:18 PM on April 18, 2008

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