September 11, 2012
Mistake Swings and Forbidden Steals
There was an axiom tossed about when I was in college, one that I and my other bench-warming teammates were only too happy to co-opt, which held that the dumber you were, the better you played. In other words, the less intelligent a player was, and the less he had going on in his mind (colloquially, the less "in his own head" he was), the more focused he'd be on playing to the best of his abilities. Some rebutted that we spent too much free time during games coming up with theories about why we weren't playing, but you get the idea.
The big leaguers we see on TV have found a way to circumvent this problem, if it even exists. Nevertheless, there remains a mental aspect of the game that often goes ignored, both by sabermetricians (because it's nearly impossible to measure) and by the players themselves (because these mistakes are usually too small to affect their club's opinion of them). I don't mean visualization or Pedro Cerrano's Jobu doll or Turk Wendell's animal tooth necklace—I'm talking about the nuts-and-bolts logic of baseball that, when ignored, costs teams outs and runs, which eventually cost them games.
I always enjoy watching batters deal with a pitcher who throws only one pitch. Ronald Belisario, the Dodgers' right-handed reliever, is one such pitcher. He doesn't care who's batting or what the situation is: he wants to bore his low-to-mid-90s sinker down in the zone, and he's betting you can't square it up. He does have a slider, it should be noted, but he throws it about once every 10 pitches and, interestingly, negligibly more often to righties than lefties.
To no one's surprise, Belisario threw a sinker on 2-1, but this one started on the outside corner and dipped off the plate. A smart hitter sees this pitch is away and takes it with relative ease—it's akin to taking a four-seamer that remains in the zone because it just wasn't in your wheelhouse—but Pagan started his swing and, too late to realize his mistake, couldn’t hold up. It was a nasty pitch, no doubt, but its movement had no bearing on Pagan's decision to start his swing: he should have been spitting on everything away as soon as he saw it. So what could have been a 3-1 count to a speedy leadoff man against a pitcher struggling with control was instead a 2-2 count. Pagan, now needing to protect the plate with two strikes, grounded out to short on the next pitch.
Pence's philosophy ought to have been the same as Pagan's, only inverted because he's a right-handed hitter: with less than two strikes, he should have been looking for the ball away that would drift back to the middle of the zone. Instead, like Pagan, he got a pitch on the wrong side of the plate, pulled the trigger, and gave away the critical second strike that forced him into protection mode. To make matters worse, Pence is an excellent opposite-field hitter: with his team needing only a single to take the lead, he should have no qualms looking away in a one-strike count. He struck out three pitches later to end the inning.
To be clear, there is a reason why Belisario gets to throw 90 percent sinkers: he has a good one, and like all the best fastballs, it’s very difficult to hit even when the batter knows it’s coming. Far be it from me to blame Pagan or Pence for not being able to put their bats on Belisario’s sinker, but the distinction here is that their mental approach betrayed them, not their physical skills. In fact, Scutaro, who drew one of the walks between Pagan’s and Pence’s at-bats, provided the gleaming counterpoint to their shortcomings by using the information available to him to formulate a winning strategy, despite inferior physical tools.
Scutaro fell behind 0-1 on a sinker that he appeared to be taking all the way. Then his plan of attack kicked into action. Remember, it was a one-strike count, so he didn’t have to protect the whole plate and could still afford to look for the ball away. Here’s Belisario’s 0-1:
It was a sinker that didn’t sink, and it looked strikingly like the pitch that Pence nearly caught with his teeth. But Scutaro, uninterested in the inside corner, had a much easier time holding up. At 1-1, he found something to his liking. You can probably guess where this pitch started:
The ball started away, and Scutaro knew it was a hittable pitch. Obviously, he didn’t hit it the way he wanted to, but you can see the philosophy at work. (Note also that Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis set up inside—the battery knew where it wanted the ball to go, but Belisario missed his spot.)
The plan changed with a two-strike count, but Scutaro fought his way to a full count before displaying incredible plate discipline in a situation where one could have actually excused a check-swing strikeout. Having seen 12 straight sinkers—five to Pagan and seven more himself—and hitting in front of the meat of the order in a situation where Belisario would have been eager to avoid a walk, Scutaro could not have considered the slider a very likely option. But Belisario broke off a hellacious one anyway. Watch what happened:
Not even a wobble of the front knee! When the ball started over the plate, Scutaro must have been thinking his bat would be in a million pieces if he didn’t bring his hands through quickly, but then… nothing. It was a remarkable showing from a guy who (as Dan Brooks noted on Twitter recently) is leading the bigs not just in fewest whiffs per pitch seen but also in fewest whiffs per swing. He’s an incredibly smart hitter, and on Saturday, he showed us why.
One of Luke Hochevar's problems, allegedly, is that he doesn't respond to adversity very well. (In fact, as I was typing that sentence, the Rangers' play-by-play broadcaster referenced Hochevar's "anger management skills, or lack thereof.") He's like a skilled basketball shooter who, angry after a missed free throw, bricks the next one, too. His numbers don't match his overall talent.
Secondary leads are one of those funny baseball tactics whose origins predate statistical analysis: no one seems moved to decide how much of a lead is too much, because it's all good hustle, and hey, it's probably not killing the club anyway. Over the long haul, managers accept that aggressive secondary leads are beneficial to the team, even knowing that their runners will get picked off a few times per year. Now, you don't need me to tell you that Gentry made a mistake by getting picked off, but the circumstances at play tell us that in this particular instance, Gentry’s risk was greatly enhanced while his reward was almost nil. Here are four reasons why this was the wrong time to be inching toward second:
We’ll end with an open-to-interpretation play from that same Dodgers-Giants game on Saturday afternoon. In the top of the ninth, Hanley Ramirez put the Dodgers ahead 3-2 with what proved to be a game-winning RBI double and stood at second with none out as Andre Ethier came to bat. With a full count, though, Buster Posey caught Ramirez stealing third.
No sooner was the tag laid down than we heard Tim McCarver’s gears grinding about the mortal sin Hanley had committed. “Terrible play. You can’t do that,” McCarver said. “This is a terrible baserunning play right here; you can’t make the first out at third base, or the third out.”
Are you sitting down? Because a writer at Baseball Prospectus is about to quibble with Tim McCarver. I know, the room is spinning.
In the abstract, we have the data to assess whether this was a decent play. Ready, set, run expectancy: with a man on second, no outs, and two strikes on the batter, the breakeven rate for an attempted steal of third was approximately 72 percent. Hanley’s career stolen base success rate before the play was a healthy 75.6 percent. Ramirez may not have spent much time with run expectancy tables, but he made a calculation of his own. He saw how little attention Affeldt was paying him, and he decided he could make it. Although McCarver’s chirping of a centuries-old truism wasn’t really off the mark, there were some circumstances at play in this instance that might have made the normally risky move a better bet.
With a full count and the left-handed Affeldt throwing to the left-handed Ethier, Ramirez may have realized that A) if Posey had a chance to throw him out, it likely would have been because Ethier had struck out, meaning that Hanley would have represented the second out of the inning rather than the first, and B) if Ethier had walked, it would have meant that Affeldt had thrown a ball, which is usually more difficult for a catcher to throw than a strike.
You also may have noticed in the above GIF that for a play that allegedly angered the baseball gods, this one was pretty darn close. We’re talking fractions of seconds on a 92-mph fastball up and away that essentially functioned as a pitchout for Posey. On top of that, with first base open and Ethier having seen three straight fastballs, you couldn’t blame Ramirez for anticipating an off-speed pitch that would have virtually guaranteed his safety at third. (Affeldt had already shown both the curveball and—oddly, against a same-handed hitter—the changeup in this at-bat.)
By now you’ve probably realized that, in his debut article about the cerebral side of the game, a writer just spent 400-odd words praising Hanley Ramirez’ approach to the game. In my defense, A) I did take a slight dig at McCarver, and B) there is one major blight on the logic behind this play: Ethier is a left-handed batter, which means that Posey had nothing to block his view of third base. On such a close play, that might have made the difference between Ramirez being thrown out and sliding in safely.
Moreover, Affeldt’s de facto pitchout wasn’t merely bad luck for Ramirez: a fastball away was fairly likely to be the next pitch in the sequence. Not because of the possibility that Hanley would try to take third; that would have been a lot of attention to pay someone who caused an uproar in the broadcast booth just by considering a steal. But batters are taught to hit the ball to the right side to move the runner over when they come to the plate with none out and a man at second. This is an easier task for a left-handed batter, but the opposing pitcher will do everything he can to prevent a southpaw from pulling the ball. That translates to hard stuff away, coincidentally the same pitches on which stealing is most difficult. Sure, you’d like to prevent a right-handed hitter from slapping one to the right side by busting him in, but you can’t very well ask most pitchers to live on the inside corner for an entire at-bat. Fastballs away, though? Affeldt could throw those, and he showed Ethier four in a row to end the plate appearance.
(Side note: this may also help explain that weird first-pitch, lefty-on-lefty changeup, which was just the 34th changeup Affeldt has thrown to a lefty in the PITCHf/x era. Traveling at a higher speed and with less downward movement than the curve, the changeup would have been less likely than the curve to be grounded to the right side.)
So McCarver wasn’t wrong, per se. But maybe the maxim isn’t absolute. It wouldn’t be fair to say he lucked into the worst possible pitch speed and location on which to steal, since that pitch in that place was pretty likely. Still, we can understand what Ramirez was thinking: there were situation-specific factors working both for and against him that shifted the breakeven rate. You can weigh them how you like and reach own verdict, but hopefully you now have more circumstantial evidence at hand.