In Praise Of The Slowball
10:13 AM EDT on August 8, 2021
We live under the tyranny of velocity. The story of 21st-century MLB is the story of speed, and of the accompanying loss of diversity of outcomes. As three-figure fastballs became routine, and as every bullpen now has like four or five guys who routinely touch the high 90s, the game of baseball was increasingly reduced to a game of catch between pitcher and catcher, with walks and strikeouts soaring and only the occasional home run to liven things up. Contact is further between; baserunning is vestigial; the distillation of the sport to flamethrowing has resulted in something longer, more predictable, and less fun to watch. If it does not rise to the level of crisis, it is at the very least a big fat bummer. It was inevitable that a reactionary would arise.
It was Brock Holt standing athwart history and yelling "slow down." The Rangers infielder has played every position but catcher in his career, including a pair of mound appearances, and so came on to eat the eighth inning of a 12-3 Athletics win on Saturday. His very first pitch, to Josh Harrison, was a piece of baseball history, a 31.1 mph rainbow that registered on pitch-tracking as a "slider" only because Statcast doesn't have a reading for "crosstown bus at rush hour."
Harrison thought he was ready for the ol' Holtball. He was not ready. "He actually pitched for us in D.C. last year," Harrison said, "so I knew what the scouting report was, but actually facing [it], it’s a lot slower than I really remember.”
Holt, the spiritual successor to Bugs Bunny, had the eephus working, retiring Harrison on the next pitch, a relative bolide at 33 mph. But it was that first pitch that belongs in Cooperstown—according to MLB's Sarah Langs, 31.1 mph is the slowest strike registered during the pitch-tracking era, which dates to 2008.
On his first pitch to Matt Chapman, he dialed it down even further, to 30.4 mph. On the next pitch, he broke the radar gun, either throwing too high or—and I choose to believe this one—too slow for it to even register.
Most inspiring of all was the reveal that Holt does this by choice and not by necessity. He retired Tony Kemp to end the inning with a series of perfectly respectable fastballs, reaching as high as 82.7 mph. But anyone can serve up meatballs. Few are capable of putting up a pitch chart like this, and even fewer are brave enough to try.
Holt's entire inning of work is worth the watch, and not just because he was Texas's most effective reliever on the afternoon. I believe that if God could pitch, He'd throw an eephus.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 30 mile-an-hour pitch before," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "And then when he throws it 70 or 65, it looks like it’s 100.”
Holt is the hero we need and deserve, reinforcing the dreams of every beer-leaguer who thinks their stuff could retire major leaguers, and ushering along a blowout to a merciful conclusion with plenty of time for fans to enjoy the rest of one of our dwindling summer Saturdays. As an added bonus, Holt's slowball was deemed unworthy of a gunk-check, though he was willing:
In a world of fireballers, the slow-motion junkballer is king. Efficiency is his watchword, contact his mission. Would that more among us aspired to tortoise rather than hare.
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