Pitching is beautiful. Speaking from an aesthetic point of view and at the risk of unbearable pretension, it’s easily my favorite expression of the human body in motion. The flight of the ball is the sum of an irreducibly complex series of contortions that directs the body’s kinetic energy from the feet and legs into the fingertips of one hand. I’ll take a pitcher over the Bolshoi Ballet, Cirque du Soleil, or the Olympic decathlon any day. And it doesn’t even have to be a great pitcher on his best day to be enjoyable. It can be someone like, say, Justin Germano.
Justin Germano is not a good pitcher. Nor is he really even a mediocre one. He’s pitched 7.1 major league innings in the last two seasons combined, and given up 9 earned runs on 14 hits in that brief window of opportunity. Since the start of the 2011 season, he’s pitched 89.2 innings, mostly in relief, for five different teams; he has a 6.52 combined ERA, which translates to an even uglier 63 ERA+. He’s a 32 year-old journeyman bullpen arm who’s probably best suited to being a Triple-A swingman for a couple years until his pro baseball career comes to an end.
This spring, he’s in camp with the Mariners. He got into the late innings of an early Cactus League game against the D-Backs last Saturday. The M’s had the lead when he came in, when he left, they no longer did. I was at that game in Peoria with my Off Base colleague Will Templin. Around the 8th inning we were able to move from our seats up the 3rd base line down to the first row directly behind home plate, which had been entirely vacated. Our new position afforded us a head-on view of the pitcher as well as the umpire’s ass with our eye level just about the same as the catcher’s. It was remarkable, from that vantage, the pitches suddenly seemed to spring to life in a way that simply can’t be captured by a television camera or even from other angles in the same stadium.
It wasn’t the velocity that was so impressive, it was the movement. Just as we were settling into our new surroundings, Justin Germano came out to throw his warm-up pitches while Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5” pumped through the stadium PA. A backup catcher known to me only as “Littlewood” came out to receive for Jesus Sucre, who was putting his gear back on in the dugout. Germano started out with a few two-seam fastballs, maybe they were cutters. Regardless, they were sharp. I didn’t get a sense of the speed, but they seemed to tail about 4-6 inches towards the RH batter’s box as they approached the plate, tons of late life on these. When Sucre came out, Germano switched over to what appeared to be his only secondary pitch, a curveball. And it was a gorgeous curveball, a high, looping one with tons of break, 11 to 5. Remember, this is a guy who can’t get anyone out.
Well, he did get one guy out. It was Ben Francisco. Yes, that Ben Francisco. He is still playing and his recent major league career has been no more successful that Germano’s. He entered the game as a pinch-hitter that inning and stepped into the box against Germano, who started him off by pounding the zone with his two-seamer, quickly getting two strikes on him. Then Francisco started to adjust to the movement on the pitch, which as a righty broke in aggressively towards his hands. He fouled off one, then another, weakly down the third base line. Then Germano missed, once, twice, 2-2, he couldn’t put him away. Another fastball, another foul ball. We were watching two absolute scrubs fighting for their professional lives at the tail-end of a meaningless Cactus League game and it was completely exhilerating. That’s when Germano reached back for the curveball, started it high and inside and it broke middle-in over the plate, waist high. Francisco was completely frozen, he couldn’t offer at it, just walked back to the dugout in defeat. It was the only strike Germano threw with the curveball that day.
If I had to guess why Justin Germano, a pitcher with two above-average pitches, struggles to get major league hitters out, I would say that’s it because it appears he can only throw one of them for strikes consistently. His curveballs missed the zone far more often than not. A quality hitter will simply eliminate that pitch and just focus on hitting the fastball. He might catch a couple guys looking like he did with Francisco, but when you give a big league hitter only one option to zero in on, they’re gonna succeed, regardless of how swift it is or how much movement it’s got. This touches on broader, more maddening questions like, what exactly is it that makes a pitcher effective? How can a righty with an 86-mph fastball be an ace, while guys with killer stuff sometimes do nothing but get torched? It’s no single thing, of course, there is no formula or blueprint for successful pitching at the major league level, which is part of why it’s so endlessly fascinating to watch. There’s as much to be learned from watching a losing team’s 6th-inning man try to make his living as there is from watching a beast like Clayton Kershaw. These are the kinds of questions I plan to revisit throughout the season in similar small essays about pitchers and their craft.