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May 18, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Best Pitches Thrown This Week

by Sam Miller

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Here are the three best pitches of the week, or rather some number near three in some period of time that is roughly week-like. 

3. Andrew Miller, slider, against Jose Molina
There's a tendency to judge these pitches on how the batter reacts to them. This seems like a flaw in the judging, but maybe this is actually just right. Without being in the pitcher's head, we don't really know whether the pitch was exactly as he intended it. A two-seamer with nasty movement can look an awful lot like a two-seamer that gets away from him. Even if he did execute his pitch perfectly, exactly as he intended it, we can't know without being the hitter whether it was actually a difficult pitch to hit. Brian Moehler probably executed a lot of garbage pitches exactly as he intended them, as slightly less-garbagey garbage. Our understanding of the value of pitch sequencing is primitive. Catchers' targets are often inexact suggestions, or they allow for the movement of the pitch, so it's hard to say the pitcher hit his target exactly right. Our view of these pitches on TV is misleading and inconsistent. So we're left with the one thing we can clearly observe. 

Jose Molina, everybody. 

My second-favorite part of this is how consistent it is with what it would look like if Jose Molina had been shot in the stomach with an arrow. My favorite part of this is absolutely how the umpire fulfills his obligation to signal "strike." 

2. David Price, fastball-fastball-cutter, against Nick Swisher

So here's an example where it's hard to appreciate just how great the pitches were, or where it's easy to overestimate just how great the pitches were. From my view, the first pitch is basically unhittable, as shown by Nick Swisher kicking his leg back hoping to get a call, the equivalent of a beaten defender flopping in basketball. Can we be sure that seemingly perfect pitch was really where Price was trying to throw it? Yes, he confirms, by throwing the second one almost exactly where the first one was: about a half-inch further inside, and about four inches higher, perhaps a recognition that the first pitch was the low end of the strike zone and he might not get the same call twice. Now Price knows that Swisher knows that Price has established that pitch and could throw it a hundred times in a row and probably get 100 strikes. So Swisher is geared for that spot, and if Price misses over the plate a few inches, Swisher is going to be able to hit it. So Price moves to the outside edge. He throws the hard cutter toward the top of the zone for good measure so that, on the off-chance Swisher recognizes the cutter and figures out what Price has done, he won't be quick enough to react and spoil it.

Or maybe I'm imagining all this and Swisher was just distracted by a hummingbird. Does it matter? David Price made Nick Swisher's face explode! 

1. Zack Greinke, slider, against Buster Posey

The GIFs below are the remnants of some high-concept thing I was going to do in this space but that I mostly scrapped and am not now bothering to explain. So the series of GIFs is going to look nonsensical, but they do tell a story. Yes, they are out of order. 

Good broadcasters will tell us when some pitch sets up some other pitch to come. An inside fastball sets up a changeup away, or a slider away, or a fastball up, depending on the pitcher's strength. But hitters can't be oblivious to this set-up, right? If it's so obvious, surely the hitter sits on the changeup away, and if the hitter is sitting on a changeup away and gets a changeup away then the first pitch has set up nothing but sadness and self-examination. But if the pitcher knows he's going to sit on the changeup away, maybe then the inside fastball actually sets up another inside fastball, or an outside fastball, or a changeup inside. Maybe every pitch sets up every other possible pitch, because there's simply no way to know whether the pitcher is setting up a pitch or setting up a set-up. Maybe every good pitch stands alone as a good pitch on its own accord. I just don't know.

The fastball you see Posey whiffing at is the 12th-furthest inside pitch he has seen this year, nearly a half-foot inside. He has swung at just one of the other 11. The pitch he makes contact with, the slider, is the 53rd-lowest pitch he has seen this year, and he has swung at just six of them. What I'm saying is that Buster Posey is not generally like Aaron Rowand. I have to think that Buster Posey swung at that slider because he'd been set up by the fastball. In this at-bat, Zack Greinke makes Buster Posey look like Aaron Rowand, and Buster Posey makes Zack Greinke looks like Zack Greinke. And that's why, my friend, Buster Posey is doing a Sad Charlie Brown back to the dugout.

BONUS CHAMPION PITCH: Chris Davis, changeup, Adrian Gonzalez

The existence of this strikeout tells us that playing major-league baseball is either unfathomably difficult, so difficult that one of the best hitters in the world struggles to hit even a non-professional pitcher, or way, way easier than we think. You think you could strike out Adrian Gonzalez? I bet you could, occasionally. I mean, not a lot. But once in a while. On a long-enough timeline, we'll all strike out Adrian Gonzalez. 

Not sure whether the GIF or the still is better, so here are both: 

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

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