Many people have a superficial understanding of the game and think baseball is a rather boring spectator sport. With a deeper understanding of how much communicating goes on inside the game, baseball becomes a fascinating spectator sport. Inside baseball is a term used across the media nowadays to describe the depth of understanding that practitioners inside a particular domain have, compared to outside observers.
George Will synthesized the best description of inside baseball in his classic book, Men At Work, The Craft of Baseball. His macro- and micro-analysis of communications between batter and pitcher, pitcher and catcher, fielder and batter, and coaches and players provides an exceptional case study on how communications give the better players and teams a significant edge in what most people think is simply a contest of athletic ability.
This excerpt from Will’s book summarizes this relatively misunderstood aspect of America’s favorite pastime.
Thinking infielders who want to cheat must do so at the last minute, lest they telegraph to the hitter the kind of pitch that is coming. Kubek recalls that Rick Burleson of the Red Sox lacked quickness, so he moved two steps to his right on off-speed pitches to right-handed hitters and two steps to his left on fastballs — and he moved too soon.
He moved as soon as the catcher gave the sign to the pitcher, before the pitcher started his motion. Kubek says that Mickey Mantle feasted on Red Sox pitching during the season when Jimmy Piersall was the Red Sox centerfielder. Piersall was a fine outfielder but he, too, moved too soon. The Red Sox shortstop would signal with his glove behind his back indicating a fastball (no glove meant a breaking ball). Piersall would move and Mantle would sit on whatever pitch was coming.
Of course an intelligent outfielder can use disinformation against an observant batter. When Tony Gwynn briefly became a center-fielder after five seasons (and two Gold Gloves) in right field, he discovered a way to mislead hitters. From center field he could see the catcher’s signs, so he would shift “wrong” before the pitcher started his motion, then he would quickly move back to where he really wanted to be. His hope was that the batter would make a mistaken inference from his first move.
In these few paragraphs, Will summarizes the extent to which communications go on inside baseball. His book is packed with many other examples of communications— both information and disinformation—within the game. Just as poker is much more than a game of odds and card playing, baseball is much more than a game of hitting, pitching, and fielding. Communications play a crucial role, and knowing your opponents or, in other words, adjusting to their context and communicating better than they do are crucial to success.