Real Baseball Help for a Fake Vice President

Stephen Strasburg

“If you start me up, I’ll never stop…” (til I’m tired or losing…) The Washington Nationals’ ace Stephen Strasburg (Scott Ableman/Flickr)

Tonight begins the second season of one of my favorite new shows, HBO’s Veep, in which Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays Selina Meyer, a feisty, foul-mouthed female vice president to an invisible POTUS and a staff that routinely battles each other and her many gaffes.

For example, though from Baltimore, Meyer knows little about her hometown’s superior sports. When asked on Meet the Press about the Super Bowl champion Ravens, she’s been briefed on quarterback Joe Flacco—but not the star running back:

“Ray Rice? Ray Rice. Um. He play nice.”

Her situation worsens when she visits Camden Yards to meet the Orioles, most of whom are pitchers—an illogical quandary she quietly laments to her staff: Why isn’t there just one?

But to a non-fan, I can see why pitchers would be confusing. They are a separate team of their own, all shapes and sizes, with different roles for different times of the game, different types of hitters, even down to whether they bat right or left.

I even catch myself looking up from texting (or otherwise wasting my Nationals season ticket) to see that Strasburg is now Rodriguez; then I go for a hot dog and come back to find Stammen. What gives?

Starters
These are the marquis guys who start the game and, if things go well, pitch most or all of it—up to 100 pitches or so. They tend to be tall and specialize in fastballs. Because of the strain on their shoulders, they pitch every four to five games. The “ace” pitcher is the best of all the starters.

Relief Pitcher
“Relief” is a general term, beginning with the first pitcher to relieve the starter after he is failing, tired, or other reasons for removal. Relievers constitute the “bullpen,” the area where pitchers stay warm during game and hope for the call-up. Relievers include specialists, middle relief, long relievers, setup men, and closers.

Left/Right Specialists
As a rule, when a pitcher and batter both favor the same hand, the pitcher has the advantage; the batter has it when handedness is opposite because balls will cross the plate more often. When you alter the “handedness” of the pitcher, it forces the batter to switch-hit, or face balls coming in non-laterally. So, while these specialists often come in for just for one batter, they can change the tempo of an entire game.

Middle Relievers
You’ll see the middle guys in action just like it sounds–around the fifth, sixth, or seventh innings to relieve the starter or after he has been replaced by a pinch hitter (in the National League, pitchers must hit or be permanently substituted for a pinch hitter). If they game isn’t tight, the reliever may stay in; if not…

Long Relievers
The long reliever comes in when the starter is in trouble, in hopes of calming the game while the offense regains control. He will try to save other relievers from having to come in. They tend to be former starters whose skills may have declined but they have wisdom and experience to offer.

Setup Man
This pitcher usually appears in the eighth inning with the team losing or the game tied, followed by the closer in the ninth. They are the lowest on the totem pole of pitchers but can be promoted to closers.

Closer
Closers are critical and the team’s best relievers, specializing in getting the final outs when the score is tight but the team is ahead. Baseball’s most famous current closer, the Yankees’ Mariano Rivera, is pitching his final season and, with the most saves of all time, will likely be voted to the Hall of Fame.

So, hopefully this helps you understand the mound a little better so you can enjoy the “old ball game.” Or at least not be embarrassed on a real news show within a fake HBO sitcom. Vote for me, and God bless America!

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