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October 15, 2012

Playoff Prospectus

NLCS Game 1 Recap: Cardinals 6, Giants 4

by Sam Miller

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Guess the MLB.com headline!

a. Beltran, Freese Deliver Giants a Bummer
b. New October, Same Deep Freese
c. Death, Taxes and Freese and Beltran Owning October
d. One-Two Punch Has Bumgarner, Giants Seeing Birds
e. Bumgarner Can’t Deal With Cards Pair

Answer at the bottom.

***

During Madison Bumgarner’s Game Two start against the Reds in the NLDS, Ron Darling noted this about the lefty’s long, limbsy delivery:

The hard part about this motion is that the Catch 22 is there’s deception, but when he drops his arm back there so far it’s hard for him to get inside against right-handers.

The broadcasters went on to note that right-handers had a higher batting average against him than left-handers, veering from the potentially interesting to the holy-cow head-slapping obvious. Of course, Bumgarner does allow a higher batting average to right-handers, but that’s true for nearly every pitcher ever and forever. His OPS against lefties in his career is .602; against righties, it’s .707. That means righties have an OPS 17 percent higher against; league-average lefties this year allowed an OPS 16 percent higher in 2012. So that part is just talking.

But what about the trouble going inside to righties? Whether it’s a permanent feature of Bumgarner or not, it was certainly on display Sunday against the Cardinals. Bumgarner is in an awful nine-game stretch, going back to August, in which he has allowed a 6.25 ERA, struck out 37 and walked 19, and surrendered eight home runs in 31 innings. But Sunday’s was the worst of the lot: He failed to finish the fourth inning. Most of the damage came on two swings, both of them home runs, both of them to right-handed batters, both of them on inside pitches:

And here's the home run he allowed in the NLDS, to Ryan Ludwick, the second-longest home run in this year’s postseason. It came on a pitch that was outside, but it was supposed to be inside:

What, exactly, is the culprit here? Simply, that Bumgarner is throwing to inside targets and missing, over the plate or worse:

  • The pitch Beltran hit was mostly on Posey’s target, but given the pitch type it was probably meant to be lower and further in;
  • The pitch Freese hit leaked a few inches over the middle of the plate;
  • The pitch Ludwick hit was on the other side of the plate.

This is a recap, so forgive me for taking some shortcuts and (perhaps) overemphasizing a select few pitches and (perhaps) making too much out of them. Pitchers miss location constantly, on almost every pitch; most just get away with it. But one of the great ironies of pitching is that pitchers are often punished for missing their target by a little but rewarded, or at least not punished nearly as badly, for missing a lot. I can’t show you every target that Buster Posey put down for Bumgarner, but by my loose count the majority to right-handers were on the inner half; yet look at the pitches he actually threw to right-handers:

Far too many of the fastballs that ended up outside were thrown to targets on the inner half. Bumgarner missed by two feet or more on those pitches, but his penalty in those cases was merely a ball. But it’s awfully hard to consistently either hit a target or miss it by two feet; eventually, a pitcher with such poor command will come just close enough to his target to get into trouble.

Bumgarner is going to have to continue to throw inside; it’s his preferred location for the slider, and it’s a common spot for his four-seam fastball. In his last good outing, against the Dodgers, when he struck out 10 and walked nobody in a scoreless effort, he spent much of the game inside:

Presumably, Buster Posey’s targets were about the same that day as they were on Sunday night; the difference was in the execution. Is Madison Bumgarner struggling to execute inside because, as Darling says, his motion makes it a particularly challenging exercise, or just because he's lost all around, or just because things happen in small samples and unhappen just as quickly? Who knows? Maybe Bumgarner knows. But the Cardinals’ lineup isn’t going to get any less right-handed between now and Game Five. Bumgarner is going to need to find that pitch that Posey kept calling for. In the meantime, his leash will be short.

***

Remember Josh Hamilton at the beginning of this season? Remember how glorious it was? Remember? If your heart isn't beating a little faster, think hard and really try to remember, because it was truly spectacular and if you’re remembering it correctly your heart will beat a little faster. He hit four home runs in one game, the day after homering, and two days before homering again, and three days before homering twice, and then homering the next day? You’ve never seen anything like it. On May 12, he was hitting .407/.463/.873, in 134 plate appearances. Gawsh.

Carlos Beltran’s career in the postseason is now 133 plate appearances long. He is hitting .370/.481/.824. Without Hamilton’s park effect. And against post-season pitchers. I should have probably told you that line before Sunday’s game, in which he homered but lowered his OPS. We should all be so lucky as to have the best performance of our lifetime come when we have our biggest platform and the stakes are the highest, like Chesley Sullenberger and like Carlos Beltran.

***

Tim Lincecum pitched in relief for two innings, and at first you thought “oh no that means Zito is going to start a game in this series” but then he was pulled after two innings and 24 pitches and you thought “wait maybe he won’t,” but who really knows. Tim McCarver is pretty sure he knows: “Not allowing Lincecum to hit with two outs (and nobody on, in the sixth inning) guarantees he’ll be starting in Game Four,” said McCarver. That seems like the best idea. On the other hand, Bochy has been pinch-hitting aggressively early on all October, so maybe he just wanted to get Aubrey Huff to the plate so he could cross that name off his scorecard. Maybe crossing off Aubrey Huff is like filling in your expense report on a Friday afternoon. Weekend, baby. Bochy gonna get crunk. 

For what it’s worth, Lincecum threw two hitless innings but wasn’t as sharp as he was in his four-inning appearance during Game Four of the NLCS. Of his 24 pitches, 12 were balls. He got one swinging strike, and it was on a high changeup. 

***

Again, this is just a reminder that Pete Kozma isn’t just a good story because he came out of nowhere; he’s the best story, because he come from Absolutely Teribbleton. How terrible? Well, this year he slugged .355 in the Pacific Coast League. It was his second time in the Pacific Coast League. The first time he was in the Pacific Coast League, he slugged .289. That year, eight teams batted at least .289 in the Pacific Coast League. That’s what Pete Kozma was thinking about one year ago. Kozma went 1-for-4, with a double that drove in a run. He also scored.

***

By my math, a team that wins the first game of a seven-game series is 65 percent likely to win the series, but somebody should probably check that math. 

***

Answer:

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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