May 11, 2005


Another piece of baseball lingo: Stephen Laniel points out that "only pitchers have stuff":

Hitters don’t have stuff. When a pitcher comes out and rocks his opponents with pitches that loop and drop and do all kinds of craziness, commentators say that the pitcher has “good stuff.” If the pitcher consistently does this (Josh and I discussed Pedro), you stop talking about how he “brought out good stuff”; instead you say, in a tone of awe, that his stuff is amazing.

But still there’s always stuff. Only for pitchers, though. If a batter comes out, has a great stance, lots of power, good speed, lots of base stealing — in other words, he’s doing everything that a batter should do — you never say that the batter brought out his stuff.

He's surely right. Google News currently has 4,400 hits for {pitcher stuff}, mostly stuff like this:

Sparks thinks he's a better pitcher, stuff-wise, than he was in his first stint in Winnipeg, seven years ago.
He didn't have his best stuff today, and that's the sign of a good pitcher: When you don't have your best stuff, and you go out and win.
When your stuff's the way you want it to be and you've faced a team already that you pretty much know the hitters, it gives the pitcher a little bit more of an advantage
I had good stuff, but I never figured out how to throw strikes.
His secondary stuff also was effective.
The stuff is there, but the consistency isn't.
But for all the stuff a pitcher may have, it's more important that he has the right stuff.
I'm not afraid to go out there with nothing. I had better stuff at the end. I just waited and waited and waited until it came around.

Although {hitter stuff} also has 3,350 hits, the stuff is all about pitching:

I go with my strong stuff first, and then go with my junk.
Maddux (2-1) handcuffed the Mets with an array of off-speed stuff.
Her stuff is really doing well. Her stuff is moving around and she is using all of her pitches.
Brandon Webb, who has one of the game's nastiest sinkers (just ask any major league hitter), has ace-like stuff.
It is tough for a hitter to hit his stuff, especially when his pitches are ranging from 75 to 95 [mph].

And similarly for {batter stuff}.

Natalie just didn’t have her good stuff, and I could tell she was a little frustrated.
That would be Pat McCrory, 8-1, who came on in the sixth and showed a fastball and breaking stuff maybe a notch better than Whitmer's.
"Josh elevated his stuff tonight and they didn't miss 'em," said New Hampshire manager Mike Basso.

For some reason, pitching is viewed as a substance with varied characteristics (strong, secondary, off-speed, breaking, elevated) as well as qualities (good, better, best), while hitting isn't.

There's a similar way of talking about writers and writing:

And not everything that King wrote was as outstanding as his best stuff.
Like I said before, I love his older stuff. I really, really do. He's a great writer.
Her earlier stuff is better than her latest.
Her Celtic stuff bores me a bit, although I still read the whole book.
Or CL Moore if you can find any of her stuff in used book stores.
I read him in the Voice, so maybe I missed his good stuff, which people say was in Creem, which I didn't read.
Read her better stuff, like 'Hollywood Wives'.

So maybe pitchers, like writers, create stuff, which batters, like readers, react to?

The earliest use of pitcher's stuff that I've found is from the 1915 NYT, though the example is a marginal one since it talks about an essential property -- what stuff a pitcher is made of -- rather than a variable one:

[October 10, 1915: WILSON WATCHES RED SOX WIN, 2-1] Then Foster pulled himself together. [...] He has been knocked and bumped until now, in the heat of battle, he is as cool as a cucumber. he showed that he was made of real pitching stuff today. He settled down after the fifth, and for the rest of the game the Phillies made only one hit.

This example from 1924 is a bit closer to the modern idiom:

[July 2, 1924: YANKS AGAIN DIVIDE 2 WITH ATHLETICS] Hoyt had no time to warm up and he had but little of his best pitching stuff with him.

In 1950, the NYT still used with scare quotes for some versions of this idiom, suggesting that it was still in the process of formation:

[January 13, 1950 (by Roscoe McGowan): Hartung, Lohrke in Giants Fold] One of Clint's weaknesses, in common with many other strong-armed young pitchers, was lack of control of his "good stuff" -- with the usual results.

The OED doesn't recognize this usage, but the AHD gives sense 5 for stuff as:

5. Sports a. The control a player has over a ball, especially to give it spin, english, curve, or speed. b. The spin, english, curve, or speed imparted to a ball: "where we could watch the stuff, mainly curves, that the pitchers were putting on the ball" (James Henry Gray).

This gloss doesn't entirely correspond to the current facts of usage, it seems to me. Stuff is often used as if it were the opposite of control; and pitchers always impart some amount of spin, english, curve or speed to their pitches, but they don't always have their stuff. But more to the point, it's not just any player who has stuff or imparts stuff to a ball -- no one seems to talk or write about the stuff that a batter puts on a ball, and I haven't seen stuff used to talk about a catcher's throws to second, or other non-pitching throws.

[Update: Benjamin Zimmer sent in some stuff citations back to 1910:

1910 _Washington Post_ 22 Feb. 8/4 Lack of control was Gray's only failing last season. He had as much stuff as any lefthander in the league, but when he got himself in a hole he would have to let up in order to locate the place, and under such conditions he was usually hit hard.

1910 _Chicago Tribune_ 3 Jun. 10/1 It was at this juncture that McIntire called into usage all his stuff and struck out both Frock and Collins.

1910 _New York Times_ 21 Oct. 8/5 Coombs pitched much the same kind of game as in Philadelphia last Tuesday. When he started out he was wild and didn't seem able to put all his "stuff" on the ball.

1910 _Washington Post_ 23 Oct. S1/8 In today's game Bender seemed to lose his stuff toward the finish, and the way the Cubs switched their plan of attack would seem to indicate that they figured that he was going. ... Cole worked his strike-outs in at the right time. He did not seem to have as much stuff as Bender, who had extreme speed and a finely breaking curve ball, up to the last few minutes.


[Update #2: Ben took the pitching stuff citations back to 1905:

1905 _Washington Post_ 27 May 9/1 Long Tom Hughes, on the other hand, had plenty of undecipherable stuff, and the Browns had no key to his hieroglyphic code. He pitched magnificently throughout.

And amazingly, he found some some 1905-era examples of stuff referring to the spin that a batter is able to put on the ball:

1905 _Los Angeles Times_ 5 Jul II8/4 A good outfielder ... must know the kind of stuff the batsmen get off the delivery of the pitchers, so as to make allowance for the kind that curve in an eccentric manner as they shoot out toward the lots.

1906 _Washington Post_ 19 July 8/3 As Hahn got to it, the ball dropped fair then quickly turned with a reverse English curve and dashed under the stands. Not a batter in a million can put that reverse on there like "Cy." It had just enough stuff to accomplish "Cy's" fiendish purpose.

Ben also turned up some examples where the "stuff" that a pitcher puts on a ball is of the salivary variety:

1908 _Los Angeles Times_ 13 Feb. 7/5 Harry Howell, one of the original exponents of the spitball, says that he will continue to use the wet ball this year. "Deprive me of the wet ball," said Harry, "and I will be forced to quit the game. Regardless of the talk of Fielder Jones, Clarke Griffith, Chance, Jennings and the other leaders, you will find Walsh, Chesbro and myself using the same stuff the coming season."

Ben wonders whether the spitball is at least partly the linguistic source of pitching "stuff" -- as it surely was in some cases the physical source -- and suggests that "it would be interesting to see if the term shows up in other sporting contexts, e.g., cricket or billiards, to refer to the spin or 'English' placed on a ball". ]

[Update #3: Richard Hershberger emailed:

I set out to see if I could beat Benjamin Zimmer's 1910 citations of "stuff". I wasn't able to, but I found this interesting, from the June 8, 1910 New York Times, reporting on a game between the Giants and the Cardinals:

"St Louis not only worked all their baseball stuff to win, but they used all the chin music within reach."

"Stuff" here seems to be used in a more general sense, but I'm not sure if it means "general baseball skills" which could be better or worse, or if it is the common use of "stuff" with "baseball stuff" contrasted with "chin music". (The subsequent sentence makes clear that "chin music" means arguing with the umpire. Nowadays it more commonly means pitching the ball at or near the batter's head.) I am leaning toward the latter interpretation, which makes it not so much on point to the topic at hand, but still interesting.


Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2005 10:12 AM