October 19, 2012
Two ALCS-Altering At-Bats
When I was in high school, the thing to do was play poker. Kids would play during free periods, lunch, whenever, sometimes winning and losing over $100 in a day. (And some of them could actually afford it.) Like any high schooler worth his salt, I followed suit, and soon I was a dependably willing player, relatively conservative but always game to try to fleece a freshman who’d just looked up the rules on his expensive new iPhone. As an editor of the school newspaper, I even planted this quote in a cover story we ran on the poker fad: “It’s the most intellectually challenging thing I’ve ever done.” Yeah, when it came to antagonizing our teachers, we had a lot of tricks in our bag.
Poker may not have taught me as much as I wanted my teachers to think it did, but I did introduce me to one piece of advice that has stuck with me ever since: a successful poker player focuses more on his opposition’s holding than his own hand. I find that’s true in many walks of life, nowhere more so than in the duel between batter and pitcher, when it’s just natural to do what feels most comfortable to you, rather than what might feel least comfortable to your opponent. In the most extreme example, Aroldis Chapman walks a Little Leaguer on four sliders because he fears he doesn’t have his best heat that day. In a real-world example, the Yankees don’t adjust to the way their ALCS opponent’s pitchers attack them, and their season ends because of it. (Oh, and Justin Verlander somehow allows a home run to Eduardo Nunez. But we’ll get there.)
Most of the Yankees’ hitters—Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira et al.—are used to holding all the cards; that is, they’re used to actually being good hitters. (Despite his recent decline, Rodriguez especially looks like someone who has been dominant for so long that he can’t cope with a lesser skill set. That’s how all those missed fastballs make it seem, anyway.) This postseason, for reasons that defy explanation, the Yankees weren’t good hitters. To a certain extent, there isn’t much you can do about that. Joe Girardi repeatedly stated during the ALCS that his hitters didn’t adjust, as managers love to lament when their stacked lineups don’t deliver. While that’s true, the necessary adjustments should lie as much in reading the opposition’s game plan—which seemed tailored toward going after weaker hitters rather than respecting feared ones—as tinkering with one’s hitters’ own swing mechanics.
The Yankees are famous for working the count. That’s why Yankees-Red Sox games, the ones that are supposed to represent Major League Baseball’s marquee rivalry and the very best baseball a fan could see, are actually unendurable, four-hour dirges. Well, working the count is a great plan when you’ve got the most potent lineup in baseball, but when nobody can remember his last hit, it seems like a recipe for 0-2 count after 0-2 count. The Yankees struck no fear in anyone, and the Tigers showed none.
Take Game One, for example. By the sixth inning, the heart of the Yankee order was coming up for the third time against Doug Fister, who was anything but unhittable, allowing six hits and four walks over 6 1/3 innings. In an unbelievable streak stretching from the sixth to the eighth inning, 11 consecutive Yankees took first pitch strikes.1 Eleven! Keep in mind, this wasn’t the beginning of the game—five of those 11 batters were coming up for the fourth time against the same pitcher, down by two runs, and still weren’t ready to hit him. Fister took advantage, getting himself ahead in the count and prolonging his outing a few outs longer than his pure stuff probably deserved.
It would be unwise, of course, to assign all the blame to the Yankees—after Fister and Jose Valverde’s blown save later that evening, the Tigers’ pitching was utterly dominant. So let’s take a look at an example of one Tigers pitcher who read the opposition’s hand perfectly, and one whose failure to do so was conspicuous in contrast to his incredible performance to that point.