What are we watching when we watch baseball?

marlinsThe great thing about baseball is that it’s as simple or complicated as you want it to be. I’ll always love passively watching ballgames, but I’ve been doing that for a decade, and I feel like I know almost nothing about what I’m actually seeing.

Getting inside the heads of players and understanding why they do what they do seems impossible, but I do know at least a few things. I know Alcides Escobar isn’t looking to blast something 500 feet, and I know Aaron Judge doesn’t see an opposite field double as a best-case scenario. Players know what they can and can’t do better than I ever could, but I can at least observe them and try to deduce it for myself.

Let’s start with the most reasonable assertion in baseball: Giancarlo Stanton, one of the biggest, strongest players in history, goes to the plate trying to hit home runs. What does it look like when everything goes right and he accomplishes this goal?

Here are all his homers over the last three years:

Pretty straightforward: he likes to pull low-and-in. Not much reach, but he’s lethal in his comfort zone.

I now know more about him than I did a minute ago, but I’d like to get good enough at watching baseball that I could intuit this just by observing. What tangible physical actions is he taking that would lead to this outcome?

It’s hard to not have a long swing if you want to hit for power, but Stanton can cheat by leaning backwards. The swing stays long, but he’s still able to throw the barrel right through his favorite spot. You can tell he plans on leaning back even before a single pitch is thrown because of his closed stance, where the front foot crosses over the other. He’s tinkered with this to varying degrees (as you can clearly see from the start of that video to the end), but he’s always closed and always leaning back.

That makes a large part of the plate an absolute no-go zone for pitchers, but it limits his range and he consequently gets killed on breaking balls he can’t reach. This is where end-of-the-day stats come in handy, since I don’t think we could ever weigh extreme strengths against extreme weaknesses intuitively and accurately.

And that is, I think, a pretty solid beginner’s explanation for why Stanton is Stanton. I could always go deeper, but this is enough for me as a fan to have a basic idea of what’s going on when I watch him play. From there, I can spot anomalies, draw comparisons to other hitters, and progressively understand the game more and more.