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October 8, 2012

Head Games

The Weirdness of Wild Card Friday

by Will Woods

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Leading up to last week, there was some kerfuffle over how teams would manage their rosters for the first-ever Wild Card Friday. Would we see six LOOGYs? A player-manager? Three catchers? No catchers? Turns out the question we should’ve been asking was how the players themselves would handle the novelty of a single-elimination game. The answer? Not very well: we were treated to seven errors in two games, including a Braves infield that couldn’t have won a teddy bear at a carnival and dueling errant pickoff throws from Derek Holland and Darren O’Day that their first basemen hardly bothered to reach for. Between the errors, the botched (?) infield fly call, and the possible ends of two great careers (Chipper Jones and Jim Thome), there were enough storylines in play on Friday to keep Dick Stockton on script for the rest of the month.

I loved every second of it. Look, there are plenty of practical reasons to support the second wild card—it leads to more money and higher ratings, it puts a premium on winning the division, and it gives more teams late-season hope, all without cheapening the achievement of making the playoffs—but in retrospect, one of the best reasons to like it is that it gave us two unbelievable games. It should continue to do so in future years, too, for the reason stated above: the new format is putting the players in situations with which they’re unfamiliar. How many players have ever been thrust into one winner-take-all contest to keep their seasons alive? Even the College World Series isn’t so cruel. Everywhere you looked, players seemed just a little bit off, and I defy you to tell me you didn’t have fun watching, or that it wasn’t good for the game.

(And if that’s not a good enough reason for you, remember that a Braves game got Atlanta fans got so riled up that they actually threw bottles onto the field. I’m pretty sure they thought they were watching Georgia Tech football, but still.)

Naturally, given the baseball anarchy we just witnessed, a few players did things they might have found time to rethink on a less stressful day. To the grab bag!

***

No points are awarded for guessing Andrelton Simmons would feature prominently in this space. On an evening marked by a palpable sense that players lacked control of the moment, that anything could happen at any time, Simmons somehow stood out as particularly geeked out of his mind. There was the bobbled grounder that he should’ve thrown to first but instead fired to the backstop; there was the running so far out of the baseline that he almost tripped over the pitcher’s mound; there was the incredible overswinging that looked like he was trying to pull a branch out of a swamp; and then there was the top of the fifth, when he called time, bent over, and snorted the left field line. Fine, that didn’t happen, but the two plays that follow made us question his mental state.

Let’s first be clear that we’re not establishing causality here—Simmons is a-23-year-old rookie making his playoff debut, and he likely would have been a little tight regardless of any other factors, wild-card format or otherwise. Still and all, he put down one of the more inexplicable bunts you’re ever likely to see. In the bottom of the fourth, after David Ross had just bunted for a base hit, Simmons came to the plate with men at first and third, pitcher Kris Medlen on deck, and one out. Not, one would think, a bunt situation. But Simmons bunted the first pitch nonetheless, and the Braves’ moment of joy when Kyle Lohse's throw hit Simmons in the back was snuffed out when he was called for runner’s interference.

This play generated a ton of discussion in BP’s (wildly successful) Wild Card Roundtable; further complicating matters was Fredi Gonzalez’s in-game interview, in which he claimed to have called for the bunt. Just what the heck could Gonzalez or Simmons have been thinking? Among the theories proposed in the roundtable:

  1. Safety Squeeze:  Possible, since neither runner started early, and the bunt wasn’t good enough for Freddie Freeman to try to come home. But do you really want to safety squeeze with Freddie Freeman at third? Also, Andrelton Simmons: zero big-league sacrifice bunts.
     
  2. Freeman Missed a Suicide Squeeze Sign: Seemingly impossible, since a suicide squeeze sign is usually accompanied by a sign (sometimes spoken directly to the baserunner) that requires some sort of acknowledgement from the runner.
     
  3. Simmons was Bunting for a Hit: And here’s your winner, the one possibility that couldn’t have come from the bench. Dan Evans was all over this as it happened, saying Gonzalez was likely just covering for his young shortstop on national television. So we’ve cracked the case—Simmons in fact was not thinking at all, and as Dan put it, his compound mistakes “stopped an inning.”

Oh, and later in the game there was an infield fly you may have heard something about. With one out and men on first and second, Simmons faced Mitchell Boggs and eventually hit the popup that nearly caused a riot among the Falcons fans in attendance. I was curious to see how Boggs would deal with Simmons; after taking a titanic swing-and-miss on a first-pitch fastball, Simmons laid off a poor slider and then cued another slider up the first-base line. A cue shot is the kind of thing that tells a pitcher that the hitter is totally out of whack; if I’d been catching, with Boggs facing a same-sided hitter, Simmons wouldn’t have seen another fastball until 3-2. To Boggs and Molina’s credit, the next pitch was a slider, but Boggs didn’t understand the philosophy behind the pitch.

Instead of trying to take a little more off and catch the edge of the zone, he yanked at it; at 91 miles per hour, the pitch was way too hard (he averaged 86.8 mph on the slider this season) and in the dirt. Simmons laid off, and the next two pitches were fastballs. While you can never really second-guess a guy who wants to throw a pair of sinkers at 98 and 97 mph, respectively, I think it’s fair to say that Boggs was more worried about the pitch he wanted to throw than the pitch for which the batter might have been least prepared. The final sinker was right down Broadway, but Simmons’ Ruthian hack yielded nothing but an infield fly and a 19-minute delay.

(A similar situation arose in the Orioles-Rangers game, when Nate McLouth ripped a 3-0 fastball from Joe Nathan about 30 feet foul. Unfortunately, Nathan felt he had to come in with another heater on 3-1, rather than capitalize on the hitter’s eagerness with a breaking ball. McLouth squared up the 3-1 fastball but settled for a sac fly.)

***

Coaches who preach aggressive baserunning will often tell their players to run as soon as they see the catcher’s knees go down. It works well at lower levels where most catchers aren’t prepared to jump up, gather the ball, and throw a runner out, and it probably worked pretty well a few generations ago, when most catchers looked like David Wells. These days, of course, the catchers are as athletic as anyone on the field, and two players last Friday were fortunate to have slid in safely and avoided crippling outs and a scolding from their manager.

In the seventh inning of the Orioles-Rangers game, Robert Andino stood at second with two out and saw Geovany’s Soto’s knees go down:

(Okay, so Geovany Soto isn’t as athletic as anyone on the field.)

Andino can’t make this play unless he’s “reading knees,” as they say—that is, going as soon as he sees Soto’s knees heading for the dirt to block the ball. Any hesitation, and he’s a dead duck to end the inning. As it turned out, the gamble paid off—doubly so, in fact, because McLouth’s subsequent single might not have scored him from second—but the philosophy in the first place is highly questionable. Going as soon as the catcher moves to block the ball, in a one-run game with two outs, seems a nice way to run yourself out of an inning. And not in an Andrelton Simmons kind of way.

Finally—and sue me, I’m borrowing from Saturday’s Giants-Reds game—Joaquin Arias was at third when Buster Posey came to the plate down 5-1 in the ninth inning as the tying run. San Francisco had scratched and clawed and taken advantage of Aroldis Chapman’s wildness to give their best hitter a chance, but Arias nearly took the bat out of Posey’s hands with this play, which requires no explanation. Frankly, I don’t think there is one:

You can imagine how the headlines would have read in San Francisco if Arias had taken away their golden boy’s chance to make a miracle.

***

Notice a theme to these mistakes? It seems to me that they jibe with the myriad other miscues we saw on Friday: they all stem from players in big situations, with their hearts in the right place, who are trying to do too much. After six months of same-old, same-old,  it’s a shock to the system when every play is supercharged, and so we get ill-advised bunt attempts, balls thrown all over the field, or even Coco Crisp’s catastrophic Willie Mays homage. Some in the BP community see the play-in games as a cruel way to measure six months of hard work; to me, they’re a fair test of each man’s mettle. Wild Card Friday should be a baseball holiday, not a cause for argument, and if we can rely on chaotic, frenetic baseball like this in wild card games to come, it won’t be long before the anti-second-wild-card crowd is converted.

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

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Andrelton Simmons,  Wild Card Games

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