Thunder Bay

Border Cats GM talks the art of baseball

Ted Williams called baseball "the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer."

Baseball players and coaches do what they can to make an unpredictable game predictable.

Dan Grant, general manager of the Thunder Bay Border Cats, played with the team in 2003, which was its first year in the city. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

Are you a casual baseball viewer? Or new to the game?

Do you still feel like you're playing catch-up as you watch the action unfold on the field?

Don't worry: We've got you covered.

Sure, baseball can seem complex and complicated and unpredictable. But it's really not as inaccessible as it may seem at first glance.

Daniel Grant, general manager of the Thunder Bay Border Cats, recently sat down with the CBC to talk the often-hidden art of baseball — the little things teams, players and coaches do to try and make a notoriously unpredictable game predictable.

And it's pretty simple at its core: a big part of baseball strategy boils down to gleaning, processing and passing on information that will give your team even the smallest edge in a game that's built on failure.

For a fan, the trick is simply knowing what to look for.

Batting

In the Northwoods League, pitch speed — in miles per hour — can range from the low-80s to the mid-90s, Grant said.

Grant said one key to a successful at-bat is simply watching the pitcher.

Really, really closely.

"If you really watch a pitcher ... and he's not conscious of what he's doing, there'll be little tendencies that he does that give away his pitches," Grant said. "You'll see, at the start of the game especially, the leadoff hitter will go up, he'll look at some pitches, he'll try to get a read on stuff."

"He tries to get the guy to throw a curveball just to see what it looks like and if he gets out he can walk back and talk to the guy on deck," he said. "There's information being passed the entire game just to get you ready to hit a fastball."

A runner on second base may get a look at a sign thrown by a catcher to pitcher, as well, and may tell the pitcher by how he stands — a closed fist may, for example, means fastball, while open palms means offspeed.

"Things are happening all the time to give you some sort of edge so you can take advantage of a weak moment on a team," Grant said.

A young fan cheers as a Thunder Bay Border Cats player starts his run of the bases at Port Arthur Stadium. (Cathy Alex/CBC )

Pitching

Grant said a college pitcher needs at least two above-average pitches, and a third average pitch, at minimum, to be successful.

As for choosing when to throw those pitches, that's situational.

"Where's the guy standing in the batter's box?" Grant said. "What kind of swing does he have? Does have have an inside-out swing? Does he have slow hands? If he has slow hands, then throw fastballs inside. He's not going to be able to catch up to them."

And a lot of hitting comes down to timing, and if a batter's timing is off, a pitcher can use that to his advantage.

"If you notice that a guy's struggling with his hitting, and his timing's off, or all of his weight's going on his front leg so he's leaning a bit, you can take advantage of that with certain pitches," Grant said. "That's really up for the catcher to notice, that's up for a coach to notice."

And don't forget the power of a good, old-fashioned fakeout.

"Sometimes in certain counts, you've created a rhythm as a pitcher where they're going to have a good idea of what you're about to throw," Grant said. "Sometimes a catcher will just shake his head."

That's telling the pitcher to shake off whatever pitch the catcher is calling for, and then throw the pitch anyway.

"If he shakes at that moment, there'll be a thought that goes through your head that says 'oh, maybe he's not throwing this pitch," Grant said. "But then, boom, there it goes, but you're frozen because you're looking fastball."

Baserunning

​Good baserunners will be crunching numbers while they're out there on the bases.

"A lot of damage can be done on the basepaths just by figuring out a pitcher's rhythm," Grant said. "All good baserunners should be counting in their head. So they'll take their lead at first base, they should see a pitcher come set, and go 'one one thousand, two one thousand.'"

"And if they keep doing that, and if they see a consistency in this guy's rhythm, they're going to go one one thousand, two one thousand, and they're just going to go, because they've timed this guy."

Runners will also keep an eye on the catcher, looking for an offspeed pitch, such as a curveball, which is his best bet for a stolen base.

"It just takes that extra bit of time to get to the plate," Grant said. "There's more of a chance of it maybe being a lower pitch, so it's harder for the catcher to transition from down to up to throw to second base."

"Everything's timing," he said. "If you've got a catcher who throws 1.8 seconds to second base, then you have coaches who are timing the pitcher like 'okay', how long does it take him to lift his foot off the ground to the point where the ball gets to the plate?'"

By adding those times up, Grant said, coaches can figure out when a player has the best chance to steal depending on what pitch is thrown, who the pitcher is, and who the catcher is.

The Border Cats do keep a working binder of scouting reports on other teams and players, mapping out their hits.

"You kinda learn throughout the season, the more you play them, this guy tends to hit to this direction, so that allows you to make adjustments," Grant said. "We're just kinda playing the chart."

Members of the Thunder Bay Border Cats celebrate after scoring some runs during a game at Port Arthur Stadium. (Northwoodsleague.com)

Fielding

Grant said fielding sounds simple — putting the right player in the right place. But how do you know who's the right player?

"You really gotta pay attention as a coach as to what works in what situation and who kinda works together," Grant said.

And that information thing come back into play, as well. The players at shortstop and second base, for example, are able to peek in and perhaps see the signs being flashed by the catcher.

They can then relay those out to the outfielders, Grant said.

"Let's say an off-speed pitch is coming, so a curveball, changeup," he said. "Shortstop or second base can relay to the outfielders, either with a number or a closed fist or an open fist behind their back."

An outfielder can then adjust their positioning. For example, if an offspeed pitch is coming, a batter has a slightly-higher chance of pulling the ball, so the fielders can shift over a bit to get a jump on the ball if it's pulled.

Other things, such as infield positioning, is situational, Grant said.

"If you're up by three or four runs in the eighth inning, you go into something called a no-doubles defence," he said. "The outfield is going to play back a little bit, you're going to see the third baseman play a little closer to the line to prevent that ball from getting down the line, because that's doubles territory."

"You open up the holes between shortstop and third base, but being up like that, you kinda take that risk," Grant said. "Let's give up a single, let's just prevent doubles at all costs because that's going to hurt you more than a single."

This is just the tip of the baseball iceberg, but it'll give baseball fans — whether they're new to the game, a casual viewer, or even a lifelong fan looking for a bit more insight into how the game works — some things to keep an eye out for next during the next trip to the ballpark.

And speaking of that, the Thunder Bay Border Cats host the Wisconsin Rapids Rafters at Port Arthur Stadium Sunday night.

Game time is 5:05 pm.

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