Baseball Basics

Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
Braves pitcher Russ Ortiz
Unlike most games, a running clock does not limit the length of a baseball game. The two competing teams play over a period of innings, which are subdivided into halves. Professional and college games are generally nine innings long.

During the first half of each inning, the visiting team bats and attempts to score points, called runs, while the home team players take their respective defensive positions in the field. The defense's goal is to get the offensive team's players "out" in a variety of ways. After three outs are recorded, the teams switch -- the offensive team moves to defense, and the defensive team moves to offense. The batting team sends one player at a time to try and hit the ball.

The engine of the sport is composed of two players -- the pitcher and the batter. All of the action in a baseball game revolves around these two combatants. The pitcher stands on a raised mound of dirt, called the pitcher's mound, which is 60 feet 6 inches (18.4 meters) from home plate in Major League Baseball. The batter stands on either side of the home base, called "the plate," holding a bat and facing the pitcher.

The pitcher and the batter are at the center of the action.

To set the game in motion, the pitcher attempts to throw the ball past the batter into the catcher's glove or make the batter hit the ball to put it in play. As the ball is put in play, the eight fielders try to catch it or throw out the batter (more on this later) so he can't get on base and ultimately score a point (a run). The batter's goal is to put the ball in play so that the eight fielders can't catch the ball or throw it to another fielder to record an out.

Now that you have a basic understanding of how the game works, let's take a deeper look into the game of baseball, starting with the basic equipment.

The Hardest Task in Sports

Photo courtesy Atlanta Braves
Atlanta Braves outfielder Chipper Jones at bat
Even the best batters in Major League Baseball today get a hit only about 38 percent of the time at best. Most players only get a hit 25 percent of the time. Why are such poor numbers considered successful, or at least adequate? It is because hitting a small sphere moving at 90+ miles per hour (145+ kph) with a round stick is the hardest thing to do in sports?

According to Robert Adair, author of The Physics of Baseball, a baseball thrown at 95 mph (153 kph) reaches home plate in 0.4 seconds. In that split second, a batter must determine where the ball is and where it will be when it reaches home plate. He then must swing the bat so that it connects with the ball at the exact moment the ball reaches home plate.

The task of hitting a ball is made even more difficult because pitchers have developed special pitches to deceive batters. There are changeup pitches, which is when the pitch appears to be faster than it is. A curveball is, as it sounds, a ball that curves in toward or away from the batter. A third deceptive pitch is the slider that comes in like a straight fastball, but then suddenly drops down a few inches.

All of these factors combine to make hitting the ball a very difficult task.