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April 4, 2014

Pebble Hunting

The Best Pitches Thrown This Week

by Sam Miller

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Baseball's back, which means: PITCHES! Literally. Without the pitches, we'd still be waiting for the season to start. Thank heavens for pitches!

3. Jose Fernandez’s changeup
In his remarkable Opening Day start, Fernandez threw just seven changeups. This isn’t an entirely insignificant thing to note; late last year I tracked Fernandez’s emergence as an ace to Jeff Mathis’ emergence as his personal catcher. Mathis generally calls fewer changeups than his teammates, and Mathis often pocketed Fernandez’s changeup completely for entire starts at a time. Overall, Fernandez cut his changeup usage nearly in half as he worked with Mathis, and in his first start throwing to Jarrod Saltalamacchia he maintained the reduced changeup usage. By the way, this is what that changeup looked like on Monday, and what a batter swinging at that changeup looked like:

At 91 mph, we could be talking about one of the league's better two-seam fastballs, more or less. Now, the world is full of stories of masterpieces overlooked, of unpolished treasures that go unnoticed by their owners. Some old couple that has a dusty Gutenberg Bible propping up the wobbly leg on their kitchen table. Hey, bless their hearts: They didn’t need vast riches to be happy; they just needed something to keep the dadgum table steady. Fernandez doesn’t need a ridiculous changeup to make stupid dumb lefties look stupid, and dumb. (Though he said early in the spring that it’s the pitch he was most working on.) He’s perfect as he is. He couldn’t possibly be better than he is. But some day, I promise you, Fernandez is going to take the glasses off that thing, he’s going to put it in a cute party dress, he’s going to let its hair out of that tight bun, and he’s going to realize that the sexiest pitch in school was right in front of him the whole time.

2. Samuel Deduno’s Curveball
What we have here is a pitch that doesn’t exist:

As Deduno began his motion, C.B. Bucknor or some such umpire called Deduno for a balk. As you’ll recall from our discussion of balks last summer, it is relatively common for balks to go entirely unnoticed by nearly everybody in the park, including the announcers, and in this case the Twins announcers a) declare Eaton out, then b) confusedly wonder how they apparently lost track of the count, then c) wonder why Alexei Ramirez was allowed to steal second base in apparent slow motion, then d) conclude that they were definitely right about the count. Some number of pitches later, they finally realize that there was a balk. Which means that, after approximately 90 seconds of living in a world in which that Samuel Deduno curveball exists, we now live in a world where it didn’t exist. It never happened. If you go look at Deduno’s Brooks Baseball profile, the pitch is on no zone charts, it appears in no tables. It is not in his pitch count, and it does not count as a demerit on Adam Eaton’s contact rate.

Which is difficult to reconcile with the fact that, 87 years from now, when Adam Eaton is sitting contentedly in a senior-living facility, he will suddenly slump over in his chair. Nurses will attempt to revive him, but—aside from a sudden spasm in which he bites each nurse on the hand—he will not move again. When the coroner performs her autopsy, she will discover that every cell in his body had rotted and festered, like avocado slices left out overnight. How can this be? She will dig deep into his past, his medical background, his family history, his dreams and memories (by this point all dreams and memories will be automatically recorded and saved in massive databases), his PITCHf/x profiles. Because this pitch was never recorded, however, she will not discover that, on April 2, 2014, in the 11th inning of a baseball game in Chicago, Samuel Deduno threw a curveball that utterly destroyed a part of Adam Eaton’s soul.

She will not put the pieces together and discover that, from that point on, a deadness spread slowly throughout Eaton’s mind and body; by his 90th birthday he was more zombie than human, but he continued to plod along, until that day in 2101 when his final healthy cell slouched over. The coroner will know none of this. So, when her examination room is suddenly darkened by shadow, and when she looks up and sees the zombie horde; and when, years later, the final survivors search through this examination room looking for clues on patient zero, they will find nothing. History will forget Deduno, and the one good pitch he threw.

1. Matt Albers’ Slider
This is pretty amazing:

Even more amazing: He faced one batter (Derek Jeter) the previous inning and got another swinging strike, along with a foul tip into the catcher’s glove. That’s nine swinging strikes in 1 ⅓ innings. You know who didn’t get nine swinging strikes in a game last year? 138 of the Minnesota Twins’ 162 starting pitchers. Craig Kimbrel never got more than six. Same for Kenley Jansen. In 25 starts, Barry Zito’s median was 6.5.

Oh, but there's more. In 2013, in all of baseball's more than 43,000 innings, there were only 14 innings in which a pitcher got eight or more whiffs:

Webster, in case you're wondering, led the way with 11 in an inning, but he faced eight batters. Everybody who induced eight or more whiffs in an inning required more pitches than Albers. If you really want to get crazy with this, you could plausibly argue that Matt Albers has had the most dominant inning of the past 370 days.

He did it with a combination of 94 mph two-seam fastballs under the hands of right-handers and sliders way off the plate inside to left-handers. Like this one, to Brian McCann, which is somehow caught like a foot behind him:

Albers faced five batters. He struck out four of them. And he threw a total of five pitches in the strike zone. He threw five sliders, and all five were swung on and missed. All of which is impressive, but also all of which is amazing because: Matt Albers! Since he debuted in 2006, 89 pitchers have thrown at least 300 relief innings, and Albers’ 6.5 K/9 is the 15th lowest among them. From 2012 to 2013, he has the 10th-lowest strikeout rate among 250 pitchers who have thrown at least 50 innings of relief. Last year he managed to get five swinging strikes in an outing, twice. Both took more pitches than he threw Wednesday.

Albers has a long career as a reliever, yet nobody has ever thought of Albers as a closer. I can say that more literally than I can say it about any just about any other reliever. If you’re not an Effectively Wild listener, you’ll need me to explain this: Albers has finished more games in his career without collecting even a single save than any pitcher in history. He is, unbeknownst to him, in a race with Ryan Webb, who trails him by about 15 games finished. What that means is that Albers has spent a lot of time near closer celebrations without ever getting to celebrate himself. But at the end of this outing, we got a look at the move that he has no doubt been practicing, alone in his hotel room, all these years:

Not bad. Checking Jeff Sullivan’s closer-celebration taxonomy, this would appear to make Albers a fist pumper, though with what almost feels like vaguely political undertones. This isn’t just amped; it’s amped and angry. Of course, it’s impossible to extrapolate with perfect confidence how a non-closer’s almost-save celebration will translate to a closer’s save celebration. A couple more outings like this and we might find out.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance.

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

Related Content:  Jose Fernandez,  Matt Albers,  Samuel Deduno

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