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July 30, 2012

Baseball Therapy

Seven Minutes of Terror

by Russell A. Carleton

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There are two types of days in my world, both marked by how they begin. One day involves my waking up, going downstairs, having a leisurely glass of orange juice, and packing my lunch. Soon enough, my daughters will wake up, so I get breakfast ready for them and mentally prepare for the demands that come with having a three-year-old and an almost-one-year-old. That's a good day.

Then there are "seven minutes of terror" days, and they have nothing to do with landing on Mars. There's usually a predictable rhythm with kids (and most humans). They wake up at roughly the same time each day (in our house, around 7:30), and I've adjusted my sleep schedule to wake up a little before that. And then comes the morning where somewhere on the downswing into Stage II sleep, I hear the sounds of the three-year-old bounding across her bedroom floor and opening the door and calling out. This inevitably wakes the baby. At 6:30. My body is not ready for this, but soon I'm surprised to discover that I'm vertical and parenting.

There's an odd awareness in those first seven minutes. First, there is the woozily confused thought of "Why are you up so early?" followed by the equally irrational "Why don't you just go back to bed?" (Oh right, you don't understand time yet...) Then there's the realization that I've mentally had no time to prepare for what's about to happen. Then comes the panic. I need to debrief the previous night's dreams, orchestrate a diaper change, keep both kids from jumping off the stairs, and figure out what's for breakfast. And I can barely put together a sentence...

Baseball games have rhythms too, particularly in the modern bullpen. There are relievers who pitch to protect leads, those who pitch when the team is losing, LOOGYs, ROOGYs, seventh-inning guys, eighth-inning guys, and closers. Whatever inefficiencies are present in the construction of the modern bullpen, it has one property that probably explains a lot of its popularity: it grants a certain amount of predictability to what's about to happen. If I'm the closer, it's a close game, and we're winning, I'm going in when the ninth inning rolls around. So, around the seventh inning, I have a good idea of whether or not I'll be needed.

But baseball is a strange game. Things sometimes change quickly and unexpectedly. Sometimes, the home team goes from two down to one up thanks to a well-placed three-run home run in the bottom of the eighth with two outs. The ninth, which probably would have gone to the "ninth inning, we're down by two" guy, suddenly becomes a job for "the closer."

Wake up... the toddler wants breakfast, a hug, and three outs against the heart of the order.

Does a closer need time to prepare himself for his big moment? Does it matter whether he's felt this one coming since the sixth or if circumstances did not show themselves until a few minutes beforehand? Let's find out.

(As always, if you don't like numbers, you can close your eyes and skip to "What it Means".)

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
(Although I have to say that this is about Care Bears-level gory.)

I popped open my Pitch F/X data set covering 2008-2011. There's a much-neglected variable in there—a timestamp on each pitch (well, most pitches). I isolated all games that contained a ninth-inning save situation (or in the case of a blown lead in the top of the ninth, two save situations!) I figured out when it was, prior to their turn pitching in the ninth, that the pitching team had most recently established a lead that was three runs or less. (Or alternately, when they had a lead of four or more runs cut to a lead of three or fewer.) This could have been in the first inning (but it's been close all game), or it could have been in the bottom of the eighth/top of the ninth. I then found the time that the relevant half of the ninth inning began. I calculated the elapsed time between those two points. This was the amount of time that the pitcher had to prepare mentally for the save.

I looked at how a quick turnaround might affect a pitcher, specifically the properties of his pitches themselves, including their speed and movement. I constructed a graph of how much time a pitcher had to prepare against how much each fastball that he threw deviated from his overall average fastball velocity. Here it is:

(Note on graph: the x-axis is coded in seconds.)

What it Means
Take a look at the area bracketed in red. The guys on the left side of that graph found out about their closing assignment shortly before taking the mound. Notice that for most of the graph, most of the fastballs thrown are within about two mph of the pitcher's usual velocity. But the further to the left you go, there's a funnel-shaped part of the graph where there are a lot more pitches in the range of 3-4 mph different, in both directions. The effect seems to die down around 900 seconds (15 minutes) of notice time.

The graphs for fastball movement, curveball velocity and movement, and slider velocity and movement all looked similar.

There are two possibilities here. One is that in these cases, a pitcher may have to get ready in a hurry without time to get a good warm-up in, and his mechanics might suffer for it. But there might also be a physiological component to it. Preparing to enter a high-pressure situation will no doubt cause a pitcher to feel a little shot of adrenaline. It's not fair to say that all pitchers will react in the same way, but some might be a little keyed up. Physiological studies show that neurochemical levels will return to baseline after a short amount of time. (By the way, this is also the reason that you should show up for a big test or meeting about 15 minutes early if you are able.) But if a pitcher hasn't had enough time to allow this process to occur, he'll enter the game with a little extra juice flowing through his body. He might over-throw. He might over-compensate in his mechanics. But clearly, there's something going on.

Perhaps after that dramatic three-run home run, the best thing that the on-deck hitter can do is to take a little time to adjust his batting gloves. And hat. And belt. And the closer can have some time to get ready.

Last week, I suggested that it's rather important to understand the circumstances in which a player has to perform. Consider this exhibit one in my attempts to prove that hypothesis.
 

Special thanks to my daughters for "inspiring" this article.

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

1 comment has been left for this article.

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