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Friedrich Schiller and Baseball’s Most GIF-Able Pitcher

It is, I believe, uncontroversial to suggest that the object for a base-and-ball pitcher is to prevent runs. It is slightly more — but still not very — controversial to suggest that, per DIPS theory, the best way for a pitcher to prevent runs is to record strikeouts while avoiding walks and home runs.

The precise means by which a pitcher achieves the end of run prevention will vary, of course. Consider Jake Westbrook and Max Scherzer, for example. The pair have almost precisely the same exact xFIP (3.31 for Westbrook, 3.32 for Scherzer). Their respective processes, however, are quite different: Westbrook has demonstrated above-average control (6.0% walk rate) while sitting among the league leaders in ground-ball rate (59.8%). Scherzer, meanwhile, has been bested only by Nationals Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg in terms of strikeout rate (28.6%) among qualified starters, while allowing walks (8.6%) and balls in the air (37.6% GB) at rates that are worse than league average for starters.

Even among elite pitchers, there are different approaches. Watching Cliff Lee, for example, one is struck by the degree to which his approach is based upon precision. Except for a slow curve he’ll occasionally throw, and which is capable of embarrassing opposing batters, Lee’s starts are dedicated less to isolated and ecstatic moments and more to a brutal efficiency. Cut fastballs on the hands, changeups falling below the bottom of the zone: Lee’s strength is his command of a varied arsenal. To say that he’s surgeon-like would be a compliment to surgeons.

On the other hand, there’s Kenley Jansen. Jansen’s xFIP is basically the same as Lee’s (2.44 for the former, 2.36 for the latter). Unlike Lee, however, Jansen’s method is informed not by the constant application of reason nor by a systematic dismantling of the opponent, but rather by brilliance and flourish. Per PITCHf/x, Jansen throws his cut fastball almost 90% of the time. The pitch does not appear to obey familiar physical laws — and for this reason (combined with its effectiveness), it is the most GIF’d thing at NotGraphs.

Writing about Friedrich Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, Christian K. Messenger provides this diagram in an attempt to summarize Schiller’s suggestion that beauty is the product of matter (on the one hand) and form (on the other).

Diagram from Sport and the Spirit of Play in Contemporary American Fiction.

A slightly modified version of that diagram gives us a sense of what makes Jansen’s cutter so pleasing — and, generally speaking, what is necessary for the perfect GIF:

Velocity and movement (matter) by themselves are fine, but only conspire to make a beautiful moment when used in the service of preventing runs (form). Conversely, despite the other joys he might provide, a pitcher who prevents runs effectively (like Cliff Lee) does not necessarily possess the ability to create beautiful moments. Nor, I should mention, need the diagram above apply only to pitchers. Adrian Beltre hitting a home run on bended knee, for example, is beautiful; however, because he is initiating the action and because he is used for longer stretches, a pitcher is a more dependable source of the beautiful.

This discussion, though, is merely a long-winded prelude to a very short question: does anyone rival Kenley Jansen in his capacity to marry matter and form? If so, I’d like to know.