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June 8, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Best Pitches Thrown This Week

by Sam Miller

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Welcome to the Three Best Pitches Thrown This Week. There are many more than three pitches featured here. They also extend beyond this week, in one case to a time that predates many of your favorite things: The Wire​,​ and all varieties of Skittles, and every dog currently alive. You might consider this a flaw, but we consider it bonus material, and no refunds will be given. Enjoy the Three Best Pitches Thrown This Week.

3. Francisco Liriano, slider to Jeff Francoeur

I'm not going to quit watching baseball over it, but as far as dumb rules in baseball go, the uncaught third strike has to be up there, right? Maybe the dumbest? The point of pitching is to get outs; the most reliable way to get an out is via strikeout; and the best way to get a strikeout is to get the batter to swing at a pitch he can't possibly hit hard. So here we see Francisco Liriano throw perhaps a perfect pitch to Jeff Francoeur, and beat Francoeur so badly that... the rules allow Francoeur to go to first base. Why, that makes no sense at all. Does a running back who jukes a defensive player have to stop if the defensive player loses his balance and falls to the ground? Is a basketball player's three-point shot declared void if the shooter is too far behind the line? If a hockey player does a thing that something about the other guy's thing, does the thing get unhockeyed? No! Of course not! And yet, here we are, watching Jeff Francoeur run to first. Does anybody in baseball pump his arms while running more than Jeff Francoeur?

(Note: According to the Dickson Baseball Dictionary, "the rationale ... comes from the principle that the defense has to make a proper fielding play to record an out." Except for all the exceptions, the many, many exceptions, such as: infield fly is called, foul bunt with two strikes, batted ball strikes a runner, fan interferes with a fly ball, batter runs into his own batted ball while out of the batter's box, batter steps out of batter's box while swinging, batter obstructs catcher's throw on a stolen base attempt, runner leaves the baseline, batter swings at a two-strike pitch that hits him, fielder intentionally drops a line drive or fly ball in the infield, runner collides with fielder attempting to field a ball, or batter has too much pine tar on his bat. Geez, the rule is just so arbitrary! You could put any stupid obstacle in front of any player during any routine play and call it colorful, but why? Why do that? Stupid, stupid rule, which doesn't actually lessen my enjoyment of baseball at all.)

Anyway, to be honest, I'm not even sure that Liriano's pitch to Francoeur was all that good. It's one thing to waste a pitch, and it's one thing to try to get Francoeur to chase, but even Liriano had to be like, "whoops, sorry, didn't mean to throw it so far in front of hahaha you swung." But it's the third-best pitch this week because we're grouping it with the rest of his punch-out sliders that inning:

Four strikeouts in the inning. Liriano threw eight sliders in the inning, and one of the eight was in the strike zone. The Royals swung at all eight: three fouls, five whiffs. It was just a very good inning for Francisco Liriano's slider. "He's probably going to have a good second act as a closer," R.J. Anderson said after I showed him this inning.

2. Ernesto Frieri, fastball to Josh Hamilton

I wasn't sure which Ernesto Frieri pitch belonged here, because just about every Ernesto Frieri two-strike pitch looks exactly the same: high fastball, 94 mph, arm-side tail, swing and miss. And his two-seamer looks basically like his four-seamer. On 0-2 counts, for instance:

There's just not much to it, but he has struck out 30 of the 57 batters he has faced as an Angel, and batters are whiffing on well over half of his fastballs, and that's Josh Hamilton getting absolutely smoked with the bases loaded in a one-run game on Frieri's 32nd pitch of the night. Hamilton whiffed on three fastballs in a row to end the game. Okay, very good pitch.

More importantly, that was Frieri's fourth save, and the second one that ended in a strikeout. So we can repeat the Kenley Jansen exercise to see how Frieri's save celebration has moved up the Jeff Sullivan Closer Celebration spectrum. In his first save, Frieri was so quiet:

It's an adorable little hop, a kiss of the ball, an acknowledgement of creator and/or deceased relative. Now go back up and watch our first Frieri GIF a couple times. Watch it closely. When he struck out Hamilton on the second-best pitch of this week, Frieri had moved on to showstopper.

Josh Hamilton: Whoooof
Ernesto Frieri: /clenches fists, rectum
Earth: Whoawhoawhoa I'm totally shaking
Ernesto Frieri: /impregnates Hera
War Between The Gods: /is on

We are slowly zeroing in on how long it takes for a new closer to believe he is a closer. It is not greater than four saves.

1. Bob Gibson, slider (?) against Bill Freehan, Oct. 2, 1968
I have a friend who runs marathons. He's really fast. He's really fast, but he's not an Olympian, and he doesn't win the Boston Marathon or anything like that. Just a guy who is fast. He told me his marathon time once, and I looked it up, and I figured out that it would have been the world record marathon time as recently as 1960. In 50 years, the greatest marathoner in the world became just a guy I know who is fast. So it's hard to know what to make of things like Bob Gibson. Was he just good for his time, or would you be impressed if you saw him pitching today? Are you impressed by this?

This is from the time that Gibson struck out 17 in a World Series game. I love this camera angle. Modern broadcasts show pitches from behind home plate now and then, but I guess it's never quite this close, and it's never from this angle. This is an entirely new angle, and it gives us a beautiful look at the break. I sent this to a friend, whose immediate reaction was: "The umpire called that a strike?" The pitch is so sexy that he didn't even notice the batter swing.

Kevin Goldstein showed this pitch to an NL scout. "It's a 70, maybe an 80. It's a terrific pitch with filthy late break," the scout said. Is it a slider? Gibson threw two different sliders, and describes one as "my hardest one and it would just break abruptly and mostly downward," which seems to fit the picture. Goldstein says it's not a slider, but he's not sure what it is. Ian Miller wonders if it's got spit on it, but no spitball is listed in the Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers. I saw a very poorly sourced message board comment that called it a curve, and quoted the batter as saying "it went behind me, and then across the plate."

Bill Freehan, the batter, had a 145 OPS+ that year. He struck out in his first five official at-bats against Gibson that World Series, and later in the series he walked over to Gibson during batting practice and gave him his bat as a gift. "He hasn't hit the thing yet. It's his."

I've watched this pitch at least 300 times.

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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