Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Control and Command

    I'm a baseball fan.  Most readers of this blog probably know that already, but you never know--anyone with access to the Internet can read it, so maybe my love of baseball is new to somebody.
    Some people say baseball is boring.  On a superficial level, I think I understand what they mean.  For much of the time, the defenders stand around in the field waiting for something to happen.   Meanwhile most of the team at bat sits or stands in their dugout, waiting for their turn to hit.  Clearly, much of the important action--in literary terms, the conflict--of baseball occurs in the confrontation between pitcher and batter.  The rules require that the pitcher throw the ball into a small area near the batter (strikes) or else the batter will get a free base.  The rules further say that if the pitcher does throw strikes, the batter must hit it fairly or be declared out.  The contest between pitcher and batter is a constantly changing battle, affected by the ball/strike count, whether there are runners on base, the score of the game, which inning it is, and other factors.  Generally speaking, people who say baseball is boring have not learned to recognize the subtleties of the pitcher/batter confrontation.
    In regard to pitching, baseball people distinguish between "control" and "command."  We say that a pitcher has "control" when he is able to consistently throw strikes.  In youth baseball, from little league through high school, mastering control is the number one essential task of would-be pitchers.  Many are the parents of youth baseball players who have had to endure the slow torture of a team whose pitcher has lost control.  Walk follows walk, the batters stop even feigning interest in swinging, and the runs mount up.
    In higher levels of baseball--high school, college, and the various levels of professional ball--pitchers without control have been weeded out.  All the pitchers can throw strikes most of the time, except that now they must move to a higher level: command.  We say that a pitcher has "command" when he is able to throw the ball precisely where he wants it to go.  He throws a strike on the edge of the plate or at the bottom of the strike zone.  Sometimes, the pitcher deliberately throws a ball out of the strike zone, but close enough to tempt a batter to swing.  Command requires a much higher level of precision than does control.  Even at the highest level, major league baseball, most pitchers fail to command many of their pitches.  Major league hitters (the good ones anyway) try to anticipate pitches thrown without command--that is, pitches in the strike zone but not where the pitcher intended.  The difference between a "pitcher's pitch," thrown exactly where the batter can't make good contact, and a "mistake," thrown where the batter can make contact on the "sweet spot" of his bat, may be as little as four inches.
    There's an analogy between writing and pitching.  Anyone who writes stories must learn the authorial analogue of control.  Authors must create a plot, a story line that will interest readers.  Excellent authors also have "command."  They are able to tell their stories with zest and beauty.  They tell the story in precisely the right way.  Like pitchers, even pitchers at the highest level, it is a constant battle to put the words together just so.
    I'm pretty confident I have "control" of the story in Castles.  I know, at least in general, how the story goes, and I like it.  Like most authors, I have the temerity to think that if I like the story, other people will as well.  But what about "command'?  That is an everyday battle.


  1. I remember an article I read about Orel Hershiser's approach to a key at-bat in, I think, the 1988 playoffs or World Series. The article had a chart showing where each pitch was, and quoted Hershiser's description of what he was trying to do.

    Hershiser demonstrated control, of course -- he was one of the very best pitchers in baseball that year. He also had command. But the article described another, deeper dimension in Hershiser's approach: each of his pitches was an attempt to manipulate the batter's mind.

    Hershiser said he planned the sequence of his pitches bearing in mind that the batter would use what he saw from one pitch to formulate his expectations about the next one. In fact, the smartest batters study each pitcher's tendencies over many games to help them anticipate what the pitcher is likely to do. (Kirk Gibson, for example, was able to hit the famous walk-off pinch hit home run off Dennis Eckersley in Game 1 of the World Series because he precisely anticipated the nasty slider Eckersley threw him.)

    Hershiser wanted to use these hitters' best preparations against them. So he would do things with pitches early in the count to nudge the batter toward anticipating a particular pitch later. Then he'd throw a pitch that would at first seem to fit the batter's expectations - the very expectation Hershiser deliberately created -- but that would in the end do something enough different that the batter could not adjust.

    That strikes me as being as far beyond control and command as three dimensions are beyond two. Do you have a label for it? And are you doing it in Castles? (I presume the purpose would not be primarily to fool us, but instead would be to delight or inspire or move us.)

    1. Don't ask for too much! I will be happy if I can make sentences say just the right thing--in my analogy, achieve command. A Hershiser level of writing? Such ambitions are beyond even my vanity.