Pitchers Make Mistakes

The first 15 pitches St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Lackey threw to San Francisco Giants batters on Tuesday were four-seam fastballs. It was the darnedest thing. Lackey isn’t a guy who throws tons and tons of fastballs. Here’s his pitch breakdown for this season:

John Lackey Pitch Usage, 2014

Pitch Percentage of All Pitches
Four-Seam Fastball 50.94%
Slider 19.44%
Curveball 14.84%
Sinker 9.75%
Changeup 4.78%

(h/t brooksbaseball.net)

Of course, some pitchers feel the need to establish their fastball early, but there’s no evidence that Lackey does this regularly. Consider this representative sample, the first inning of a start against Milwaukee in early September. Lackey may mix in the fastball more heavily early on, trying to withhold his breaking stuff for later on, but this choice was anomalous.

It’s especially jarring given the horrendous results.

The Giants teed off on Lackey. Leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco went quietly enough, but Joe Panik crushed a ball to the gap in right-center field, run down by Jon Jay in center field only thanks to winds that seemed to knock down everything and that pushed the ball back toward Jay. Lackey had two outs and nobody on for the meat of the San Francisco batting order, but he’d already gotten away with one.

Buster Posey did not allow that to continue. Lackey left a 1-1 fastball fat, and Posey lined it for a single. Lackey got ahead of Pablo Sandoval 0-2, and ahead of Hunter Pence 0-2, but they each got hits on very hard-hit balls, and it was 1-0 Giants. All on fastballs.

Now, Lackey has a very good fastball. It’s underrated, really. He goes to it more often than most pitchers do with two strikes, because he gets a good number of swings and misses on it, and foul balls are frequent when they do make contact. Still, that he never went to his slider at all, on two very good fastball hitters, in 0-2 counts, is baffling.

Finally, Lackey began to mix it up. He fell behind 3-0 on Brandon Belt, though, and decided to intentionally walk him from there. Thus, Travis Ishikawa came to bat, with two outs and the bases loaded. Lackey’s first pitch to him was his first sinker of the day, but it was a few inches above the knees, a bit too high for that pitch. Here are the results of Lackey’s sinkers against left-handed batters over the last two years, by pitch location. The figure shown in each box is the opponents’ slugging average:

The pitch to Ishikawa ended up in what appears as the lower right-hand quadrant of the strike zone, low and in. You can see how, if Lackey gets the ball down just a bit more, he’s in good shape. He didn’t. Ishikawa crushed the ball. Lackey was extremely fortunate that the ball stayed in the park, caroming off the strangely-angled wall in right-center field, instead of flying out of there. That made it 4-0 Giants.

Lackey got Brandon Crawford to end the inning, but the damage was done, and the Cardinals had their work cut out for them.

In Games One and Two, Brandon Crawford had hit seventh, and Ishikawa had batted eighth. In fact, that had been true in all seven previous postseason games for the Giants. Crawford had done nothing good since hitting the grand slam that sent the team on its way to winning the Wild Card Game, though, so manager Bruce Bochy flipped the two batters in the order. Few hunches in managerial history have paid off so hugely, so quickly.

From that point on, though, the game slowly came back to the Cardinals. In the fourth inning, Jay made his second crucial contribution to the Cardinal cause. He worked a 2-2 count, then took a Tim Hudson sinker off the outside corner the other way, lining a single to left field. It was beautiful hitting. Jay stayed short to the ball, didn’t spin off and kept strong balance. When he does that, he’s an exceptional hitter.

Hudson’s first pitch to Matt Holliday, batting next, was one of his worst offerings of the day, a sinker elevated to just about the belt level. The Cardinals are a dangerous offense, in large part, because they never miss a mistake, and Holliday stayed true to that, singling sharply. Hudson rallied, though, inducing a Matt Adams lineout on a sinker shin-high, then fanning Jhonny Peralta with a great curveball low and away.

Maybe the tingle of that well-snapped curve was still in the back of Hudson’s mind. Maybe he knew that Kolten Wong had hit just .143 against curveballs in the Major Leagues, and had just one extra-base hit (and no homers). In either case, after painting the outside corner with a sinker for strike one, Hudson tried to get strike two by throwing Wong a curve on the outer half. He left it up, though, and Wong killed it. It should have joined Ishikawa’s blast in the right-field seats, but like Ishikawa’s blast, it ended up swallowed by the angles in right-center field. Unlike Ishikawa, Wong motored around to third base, netting a triple from his visit to Triples Alley. Both runs scored easily.

The sixth inning began not so differently from the fourth. There was Jon Jay again, taking a perfectly good pitch and ruining it, lining another single into left field on a splitter well below the strike zone. This time, Hudson did better against Holliday, inducing a weak ground ball from him for one out. He got another with another tepid grounder from Adams. Jay scooted to third base as the two went down, but Hudson was doing alright. He just needed to get past Peralta to finish the inning, and he did his part.

Hudson’s location wasn’t perfect. He was aiming for the knees at the outside corner (really, aren’t we all?), but his second sinker crept back toward the heart of the plate, and was up, though not way up. It was still below the belt on the outer half, and when Peralta tried to yank it, he rolled it over and grounded the ball toward third base. It was hit sharply enough, but it should have been an out. Pablo Sandoval moved to his left, but as he slid to attempt the play, he simply missed it. The ball bounded by his glove and into left field, and the score was 4-3. It was a clean single, as scoring goes, but Sandoval should have gotten it, and the inning should have been over. Hudson stopped the bleeding, at least, by getting Wong this time.

Hudson’s velocity was sliding quickly, from 90-91 to 89 miles per hour on his sinker, by the end of the sixth inning. His first pitch of the seventh was a flat 87. He got A.J. Pierzynski out with his next one, at 89, but then Randal Grichuk stepped to the plate. Hudson’s first pitch to Grichuk was a cutter. From where catcher Posey set up to receive it, it appears that Hudson was aiming to get the ball low and away, where the majority of his previous cutters Tuesday had been thrown:

He missed, badly. See the red square the highest up, the one that would be middle-in and thigh-high on a right-handed batter (like Grichuk)? That’s Hudson’s last pitch of the day. Grichuk launched it off the foul pole in left field, and the game John Lackey had seemingly overheated for the Cardinals was suddenly winnable again. The score was tied.

That Grichuk was in the lineup to do that to Hudson is Matheny’s feeble answer to Bochy’s great gut-feel lineup switcharoo. Grichuk has seen the majority of the action in right field during the Cardinals’ playoff run. He’s a better defender than Oscar Taveras, the left-hitting option and rookie non-sensation, and a better hitter than Peter Bourjos, an exceptional glove man. There were no shortage of people clamoring for one of those two to get the nod in Game Three, with a right-hander on the mound and in the spacious, quirky AT&T right field. (Presumably, Jay would have played right had Bourjos started.) Maybe they had legitimate points, but Matheny felt Grichuk was the best overall choice, and I can’t argue with him. The fact that Taveras and Bourjos each do one thing better than Grichuk (in theory; Taveras has scuffled somewhat in his first go-around at the plate, but he has the best pure hitting ability of the three) make them well-suited to opportunistic substitution, but Grichuk is the best starting option right now.

From then on, pitching took over. Hudson left the game immediately. (As an aside, I hate the managerial notion of sending a starting pitcher out to begin an inning if any single hit or walk will lead one to remove them. This happens all the time. It betrays an utter lack of strategic thinking in terms of when a pitcher is relieved. If you have sufficient reason to mistrust a pitcher that one baserunner, or even one home run, will exhaust your faith in them, they shouldn’t take the mound at all. Anyway.) A Matt Carpenter single came to nothing, and that would be the last baserunner for either side during regulation play. The Cardinals bullpen took over for Lackey in the bottom of the seventh, and shut down San Francisco for three innings. All in all, the two relief corps retired 18 straight batters.

Jon Jay (him again!) broke the streak with a single in the top of the 10th, but the Cardinals mounted no rally around it this time. In the bottom of the 10th, Randy Choate came on to dispense with the Giants’ three consecutive left-handed batters—Crawford, Juan Perez (double-switched into the pitcher’s spot) and Gregor Blanco. Choate is as good a lefty specialist as the game has had the past five years, but October has been unkind to him. That would only continue. He walked Crawford, then (when Perez failed to get down a bunt in two tries) gave up a single. With runners on first and second and no outs, Blanco laid down a sacrifice bunt—a foolish move, giving away an out for no reason, especially when the trailing runner had no value—that Choate turned into the game-winning strike. Charging, Choate scooped the ball and threw down to first base, using almost the same side-armed delivery he employs on the mound. It was a poor throw, wide to the inside of the bag, fair territory, but it would have been possible to field in other circumstances. Unfortunately, with the fast Blanco running, Choate had to throw hard and fast, and Wong (coming over to cover first, dutifully) was too busy racing to the bag to set himself to grab a throw that ended up behind him. Even so, a larger man makes the catch, or at least knocks it down. Wong is listed at five-foot-nine, and there’s almost no way he’s that tall. It was a bad play, but also a bad confluence of circumstances, that gave the Giants a 2-1 NLCS edge.

This series has been delightful so far. I didn’t anticipate liking it so much. Madison Bumgarner’s dominance made Game One compelling, if not dramatic, and the two 5-4 contests since have been unbelievably taut and thrilling. The circus of the 10th inning aside, the games have been crisply played, too, not fraught with mistakes and bad bounces like these clubs’ 2012 NLCS was.

One last thing to note: In the first inning, Pablo Sandoval called time as Lackey began his motion, and it was granted. Lackey looked livid. He stared off into the second deck for a while, his jaw set but not firm, seemingly quaking with anger. In Sandoval’s next at-bat, Lackey hit him, albeit with a back-foot slider. In a later Lackey at-bat, Hudson hit him with a 2-2 pitch.

Did either bean-ball appear intentional? No. I suspect nothing will come of this. It bears watching, though, as the Cardinals are prone to:

  1. enforcing unwritten baseball rules with senseless rigidity and fervor; and
  2. using conflict with the opponent to create a spark when they’re otherwise flat.

The Giants also used the latter tactic after Matt Holliday ran over Marco Scutaro on a would-be double play in the 2012 NLCS, coming back from 3-1 in the series after that. If either side needs to fire itself up, they’ve collected just enough kindling to start a fire.

Other Matters Over Minds

Ned Yost is very close, so close one could taste it, if one were so creepy as to have that visceral a connection to the MLB Postseason, to ousting Buck Showalter in a best-of-seven series. Coming into the series, the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles were adjudged to have roughly equal talent, although very disparate styles of play, and the biggest difference many people took time to emphasize was the difference between the men at the helms.

Showalter is beloved not only by statheads (even he isn’t beloved by statheads, you understand, but we like him better than we like most managers), but by nearly every person who consumes and analyzes baseball. He earns waves of praise for his preparation, his strategic mind and his honest, proactive, strengths-based treatment of his players.

Ned Yost is the reason the Royals lost several games this season, or so we like to think. He’s bunt-happy, unfortunately rigid (a rare problem for a man his age, if baseball’s most preferred postseason sponsor is to be believed) when it comes to bullpen management and lineup construction, and too slow to change his mind.

It has not mattered in the least.

Showalter out-managed Yost in Games One and Two in Baltimore, but the Royals players outplayed the Orioles. Yost out-managed Showalter in Game Three (although by a narrow margin, and really only by being even more push-button than usual), and the Royals players outplayed the Orioles again.

A great manager might earn his team as many as seven or eight wins more than a terrible one, over the course of a 163-game regular season. In the postseason, the skipper’s level of impact sometimes rises. It still determines the outcome of fewer than 15 percent of all games, and even though each of the three games in the ALCS to date has been close, none of them fall within that 15 percent.

That’s great, by the way. That’s wonderful, really. I have long enjoyed debates over the right tactics and the creative opportunities to shave a run here and there, things too many managers miss. I do like that part of baseball fandom, analysis, gameplay. However, it’s not the highest form of baseball. The best games are the ones without an egregious managerial gaffe, the ones that are defined by the success of failure of the players and nothing else.

Baseball is a game of small margins. That’s why we wring our hands and tug at our hair over bad managerial decisions. The best teams win 65 percent of their games. The worst win 35 percent. That’s at the extremes. Most baseball games are toss-ups. At their end, many games aren’t a conclusive result at all; they’re just more information about each side, punctuated by a win awarded to the team who played slightly better that particular day, or on whom the fates smiled for a few hours.

Since the margins are so small, though, and since the results are often arbitrary or unsatisfying, we drill deep into it all, we embrace minutiae. I’m all for that. I prefer, though, to enmesh myself in the actual plays, in the execution of each team’s plan, in what makes a certain player good and why. The Royals won Tuesday night because good defense helped Jeremy Guthrie overcome some hard-hit balls; because they have four excellent relievers (hey, Ned, great job rediscovering Jason Frasor!) who cruised through the latter half of the game; and because they put the ball in play very often and have very good speed, which creates many opportunities to push across a run or two. The Orioles lost because their hitters couldn’t figure out those Royals relievers.

That sounds sort of boring, when it’s just me telling you in simple terms. That’s one reason so much goes into analyzing in-game moves. A lot of people want to make a living writing about baseball, and one of the ways we try to create enough value to do so is to talk your ear off about these tiny margins. Again, I’m not remotely saying that that’s wrong. It’s fun. It’s also true that, tiny margins or not, right is right and it should help to put the percentages on your side whenever possible. But the best way to enjoy baseball is to watch it, so let my writing guide you not to more of my writing, but to your TV when the next game comes on. In the meantime, check out Sam Miller doing a much better job than I of coping with the meaninglessness of the managers, by looking at Yost’s moves in Game Three.

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2 Responses to “Two Game Threes: Giants Win Classic Over Cardinals, Royals Outplay Orioles”

  1. DPassovoy

    Really nice write up. A good balance of advanced tools and narrative/ insite on the game. Keep it up.

    Reply

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