He’s living a dream I’d guess 60-70 percent of children have at some point in their lives. After all, how many times have you thought to yourself that a flamethrower would help out a situation? As George Carlin noted, some genius decided he wanted a way to set someone on fire, but from way over here. So at least Kipnis is living the dream. But it got me wondering, who could most benefit from having a flamethrower on a baseball field? He has one, so it’s not like it’s totally out of the realm of possibility.
It appears Kipnis got something akin to the Boring Company’s Not-A-Flamethrower, though those don’t ship till spring. So I’m going to be generous on the specs of the thing, mostly because it make the article better. Let’s say it has a range of 40 feet, and burns at 1,000 degrees. The M2 deployed by the US Army hit roughly these specs in the 50’s, so surely flamethrower technology is just like computers, getting more compact and better, right? And the thing probably weighs 30 or 40 pounds, since there’s no backpack. If I were going to buy a flamethrower, it would have to do the job required of it - literally throw flame somewhere else - so this is what I’d go for.
This has a pair of applications actually — the batter or the potential base-runner. The real issue a hitter would face, if armed with a flamethrower, is that he still usually needs to swing the bat. Doing that one-handed severely restricts extra-base opportunities, to say nothing of simple bat speed and control. Making contact would be a struggle. And I don’t think you could blast it at the ball as it approaches the plate - 1,000 degrees is hot, but not enough to incinerate the ball or whatever. Which wouldn’t really serve a purpose, would it? If a pitcher throws a ball and it never gets to the catcher, is that a ball, a balk or what? You could intermittently fire it at the pitcher, and since the range of it isn’t enough to get them but just spook them, you could really mess with their ability to throw strikes. But again, you suffer from bat control problems. I suppose you could just work walks over and over, but I’m against that only because the constant free passes almost negates the flamethrower awesomeness.
On the base paths, the major drawback is not being able to slide and having to carry a 40 pound weight with you. Your ability to steal bases via raw speed would be reduced, but that reduction itself would be negated by simply running while shooting flame at second base. What infielder is going to brave a fire cyclone just to get an out? It really makes that part of base-running much easier. It would like hurt the taking of extra bases though. So there’s a trade-off.
Like with the hitter, the big problem here is that you need at least one hand to actually pitch, and unlike hitting, you do need the other hand to both hide the ball while selecting your grip and field batted balls occasionally. That said, a column of fire directed at the hitter probably adds just as much deception as hiding the ball in the glove would since the guy would be fearing a few eyebrows and skin layers lost, and you would probably have guys be very jumpy in the batter’s box. Even if it’s not reaching them, a gout of flame is unnerving.
I would just be worried about being able to maintain command of the pitch while holding a flamethrower. And eventually, somebody is going to get enough guts to stand strong in the batter’s box and get a swing on a softly thrown probable meatball and clobber it. After all, the range doesn’t go all the way from mound to plate. Baseball is a game of adjustments, even in the presence of flamethrowers. Even if the pitcher is quick enough and can get the pitch off while firing the flamethrower and set the ball on fire in the air — which would be pretty rad - there comes a point where these guys are just too tuned in to let a BP fastball coast by them. To say nothing of the walk rates.
Simply by virtue of their being able to stand around for the majority of the time and not having to throw or react to a pitch, this is where the flamethrower might be the most successful. The outfield wouldn’t find much use in it except to impress the fans, but if you armed the shortstop or second baseman, they could both use it as a distraction by unleashing blasts of flame at random moments while the pitcher is pitching and also fire it at base runners to hinder base stealing. Plus they could use it to char the infield grass so that bunts are faster, easier to field and harder to get a hit on. This would require a very nimble infielder. Luckily, the Indians have at least two of these.
The one downside, again, is the needing two hands. Jim Abbott was able to pitch and field balls with just one hand, so it’s not out of the question. But those speedy grounders up the middle might end up giving pitchers some elevated BABIPs. As distracting as a blast of fire a hundred or so feet away is, professional hitters probably deal with worse. And you might run into problems with the umpire saying you’re being too distracting. Like batter’s eye rules, you know?
I suppose the first baseman could just blast it at guys running to first. Again, not to harm, just scare and slow down. But this seems unsporting. Same as if you gave it to a catcher to help with plays at the plate. Sportsmanship does need to be considered, even in the presence of flamethrowers.
This all considers that only one team is given just one flamethrower. If each team had one to employ as they saw fit it could really make for some interesting game. What if one team decides to give it to the pitcher, the other to the batter or baserunner? In short, a lot of flinching. And no matter what happens, a lot of groundskeepers would be goddamn furious. But at least they’d have the work. So that’s a positive.