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April 10, 2012

Overthinking It

Seven Things You Didn't See Last Season

by Ben Lindbergh

There were 2429 major-league games played last season.* Most of the things that can happen in a baseball game happened in one of those. With a few exceptions, teams and players will do all of the same things in 2012 that they did in 2011—they’ll just do them in a difference sequence and more, or less, frequently than they did before. When and how often they do those nearly identical things will determine which teams win divisions and which players win awards. We’re suckers for those things, so another season of the same, reshuffled, is enough to suck us in. But we're not completely content with repetition. We also watch in hopes of seeing something we didn’t see the season before.

*There would have been 2430, but no one felt like seeing another Dodgers-Nationals game in September. That missed game may have deprived us of history: Matt Kemp finished the season one home run away from 40 home runs, and Dee Gordon finished the season one home run away from one home run. For the alternate-history buffs: the man who would have started that game against the Dodgers, had it been played, was Tom Milone. Milone had the fifth-lowest home run rate among Triple-A starters last season, so that extra game might not have made Matt Kemp baseball’s fifth 40-40 man. Then again, that home run rate might not have meant much, since there weren’t many Matt Kemps in the International League. More on Milone a little later.

Most of the fresh sights we were hoping to see this season were headline-worthy events: players making their major-league debuts, a ballpark opening, a new playoff format in action. Sometimes, though, an old player doing something new is all it takes to remind us that the game still has surprises in store. Only 60 games have been played, about 2.5 percent of the season, but we’ve already seen several players or teams do things they didn’t do all of last year. These are those things.

1. Jose Valverde blows a save
Jose Valverde had 49 save opportunities last season. He saved all 49, plus three more in the playoffs. Entering this season, he’d converted 51 consecutive regular-season saves, the longest non-Gagne streak on record. It took him one game to blow a save in 2012.

This is what Valverde looked like when he saved a game last season:

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This is what he looked like after allowing a game-tying triple to Ryan Sweeney last Thursday:

Most people probably weren’t disappointed that Valverde didn’t get to dance. He did get the decision, though, since when the Tigers want to win, they just draw straws to see whose turn it is to get a walk-off hit.

2. An Oakland Athletic hits a baseball more than 450 feet
Home runs that travel 450 feet or more take a long time to leave the park and even longer to leave our memories. The player who hits one has plenty of time (maybe too much time) to admire it, and so does everyone else in the stadium. Homers hit that far are replayed endlessly in the clubhouse, on SportsCenter, and on our computer screens. They aren’t so rare that they trend on Twitter, but they’re rare enough that we don’t take them for granted. Last season, 89 home runs were hit 450 feet or more, according to Hit Tracker. Over the last six seasons, major-league hitters have averaged 103.

The A’s don’t hit 450-foot home runs. They’ve hit only one since Hit Tracker started tracking hits in 2005 (Jack Cust in 2010), and they haven’t hit any in Oakland. A’s fans probably haven’t seen a blast like this since Jason Giambi left town:

That was Cespedes’ second major-league home run. It traveled 462 feet, which makes it the longest homer anyone has hit so far this season. This was the longest home run hit by the A’s last season, a 446-foot shot by Josh Willingham:

Willingham’s wasn’t a cheap shot, but it wasn’t in the same class as Cespedes’. Willingham on the left, Cespedes on the right:

No one knew quite what to expect from Yoenis Cespedes on the field. At the very least, though, we knew his signing had made what looked like a boring team a bit more interesting. That home run may have been the most interesting thing to happen to the A’s since Dallas Braden’s perfect game. The A’s won’t contend in 2012, no matter how many moonshots Cespedes hits. But at least A’s fans can count on one player whose at-bats are appointment viewing.

3. Barry Zito throws a shutout
The last time Barry Zito threw a shutout, he wasn’t Barry Zito the $126 million bust, the first person people tend to think of when they think of bloated contracts. He was Barry Zito the All-Star and defending Cy Young winner, whose exploits for the Moneyball A’s would one day lead to silver-screen immortality his contributions being overshadowed by those of Scott Hatteberg and Ricardo Rincon. In April 2003, when Zito shut out the Rangers in Oakland, he was on the precipice of decline but still effective. In 2012, Zito’s decline is so advanced that he’s been, for the past few seasons, on the verge of being declared a sunk cost and condemned. This spring, he struck out 13 batters and walked 12. His fastball averages less than 84 mph.

Before yesterday, no pitcher had thrown a shutout in Coors Field in more than three years. Only one lefty—Tom Glavine—had ever thrown one there. Zito was one of the least likely pitchers in baseball to throw a shutout in that start. He threw a shutout anyway. Without allowing a walk.

Zito did something else yesterday that was almost as unexpected as throwing a shutout: he had an 11-pitch at-bat. Not only that, but it ended like this:

That at-bat was the longest by a pitcher since Chris Volstad singled on the 12th pitch he saw from Chris Capuano last August. Image courtesy of Chris Quick at Bay City Ball, who pointed out that Zito looks like he’s “swinging a boat oar.” Remember this: as bad as Zito looks (and is) at hitting, you would look (and be) even worse. 

4. Jeff Keppinger hits cleanup
This is Jeff Keppinger (the Giant) facing Hiroki Kuroda (the Dodger):

This is Jeff Keppinger (the Ray) facing Hiroki Kuroda (the Yankee):

In the first picture, Keppinger is hitting in the second spot in the order, where he’s started more often than he has in all the other lineup slots combined. In the second picture, Keppinger is hitting cleanup, where he’d never started before last Friday. (According to him, he didn’t even hit cleanup in high school.) Keppinger isn’t the worst player to hit cleanup in the majors since 2005 (which is as far back as we have complete lineup data)—that distinction goes to Casey Kotchman—but he’s close, though at least it was against a lefty. He went 0-for-3. Joe Maddon works in mysterious ways.

5. A starter throws eight scoreless innings without a strikeout
I told you Tom Milone would be back. Last night, Milone became the first pitcher ever (or at least since 1918, which is as far as Baseball-Reference’s Play Index goes) to pitch eight innings and allow three hits and three walks without recording a strikeout. No other pitcher has done precisely those four things in the same outing. Whatever Milone does after this, his legacy is secure, or at least more secure than his rotation spot. He’s Mr. 830030. He’s the Greatest Living Ballplayer to pitch that many innings with that many hits and that many walks and that many strikeouts. He’s also not in Triple-A, which probably makes him happy.

If we remove the hit and walk qualifications, Milone’s line looks a little less rare, though rare enough that we haven’t seen it for some time. Milone is the sixth pitcher since 2000, and the first since 2006, to hold a team scoreless for at least eight innings without striking out anyone. Two of the other five were Jamie Moyer and Justin Verlander, who have so little else in common that they’re both technically pitchers only in the sense that whale sharks and catsharks are both technically sharks.

6. Carlos Gomez makes an error
Carlos Gomez isn’t a perfect player. We already knew that. For one thing, he’s made outs in roughly 71 percent of his plate appearances, which is about as often as you can fail to reach base and still be in the big leagues. Even at that rate, you have to be a nearly flawless fielder to keep your job. That’s what Gomez was last season, at least according to the official scorers, who hadn’t given him an error since September of 2010 before dispensing one on this play:

This is Gomez making a better play in error-free 2011:

One botched transfer aside, Gomez is probably still really good at catching baseballs and really bad at hitting them.

7. Pablo Sandoval gets hit by a pitch
In 483 plate appearances last season, Carlos Quentin was hit by 23 pitches. In 466 (plus his last 464 in 2010), Pablo Sandoval wasn’t hit by any. Ichiro wasn’t hit by any pitches because Ichiro is a professional hummingbird. He hits pitches, but it doesn't work the other way. Jose Reyes wasn’t hit by any pitches because he’s also quick, and because he knows that if he were hit by a pitch, the force of the impact could cause catastrophic hamstring failure.

Sandoval doesn’t look much like Ichiro or Reyes. For Sandoval, avoiding pitches is a battle between an immovable object (his body) and an object that won't stop moving (his bat). At various times during the never-ending dine-in Sandoval is conducting to protest the efforts of San Francisco’s conditioning staff, his belly has spent long stretches of the season close to the strike zone. You’d think that at some point, it would have gotten in the way of a baseball, or at least slowed Sandoval down enough that some other part of him might have met that fate. Instead, it seems that Sandoval’s inability to stop swinging at pitches has protected him from being hit by them. With Vladimir Guerrero at least temporarily out of work, Sandoval is officially the freest swinger in baseball. This is Sandoval last season, swinging freely at a pitch that might have hit someone else:

And this is Sandoval this season, unable to get out of the way:

Thanks to Bradley Ankrom and Andrew Chong for research assistance.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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