June 21, 2013
The Longest Plate Appearance of the Week, 6/21
Longest Plate Appearance of the Week, 6/13-6/19
Every Thursday I run a query on the BP database that returns the longest plate appearances of the previous week, and in the 0.411 seconds it takes to finish, I hope that the names at the top of the results list will be big ones (because you might want to read about them) or intriguing ones (because I might want to write about them). This week, the names at the top of the list were Neil Wagner and D.J. LeMahieu. Okay! Not exactly how I would’ve wanted that to go, but I’m doing the damn thing anyway.
You might be wondering who or what a Neil Wagner is. I know I am! Wagner is a 29-year-old, right-handed career reliever about whom we wrote this in Baseball Prospectus 2013: “Neil Wagner is a prospect because he packs some serious heat and strikes guys out, but he’s still looking for a second pitch.” He’s not literally looking for a second pitch—he has a slider, which he’s thrown about a quarter of the time in his 10 1/3 innings this season. (He’s also thrown 10 changeups, according to Brooks Baseball.) The implication of that sentence is that the slider isn’t very good, although it seems to work against Triple-A hitters—Wagner struck out 32 of them in 20 1/3 innings at Buffalo this season. But in the majors this season (small sample), Wagner’s slider has a 22.2 percent whiff/swing rate, which, for reference, is half the whiff/swing rate of Clayton Kershaw’s slider.
The “packs serious heat” part is true: Wagner’s average four-seamer has averaged 96.3 mph. But because of the second-pitch problem, Wagner seems to have trouble finishing hitters off. He threw 4.26 pitches per plate appearance in Triple-A, and that rate has risen since his promotion.
LeMahieu is a 24-year-old utility infielder type who’s been playing base with Josh Rutledge filling in for the injured Troy Tulowitzki at short. He’s a high-BABIP type who hits a ton of grounders and beats out infield hits, but has little power.
Those are the backstories for this 14-pitch play. Now we can begin.
The plot (catcher’s perspective):
The exhausted player:
And we also have Wagner’s reaction to being unable to retire D.J. LeMahieu in fewer than 14 pitches, which was to chastise himself publicly and repeatedly, or possibly to give himself a profanity-filled pep talk:
1. 0-0: 82-mph slider, called strike
Wagner starts LeMahieu with a slider just off the outside corner that goes for a strike. A Rockies broadcaster says “Nasty slider from Wagner...With that arm, you wonder, where's he been?” Not everyone thinks Wagner is still looking for a second pitch.
2. 0-1: 96-mph four-seam fastball
Soft away, hard inside, with a 14-mph difference in speed between pitches. If Wagner could execute that sequence consistently, he could get opponents out consistently.
3. 0-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, ball
Too high with the fastball.
4. 1-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, ball
And too far outside with the fastball. Wagner's first three heaters haven't really hit J.P. Arencibia's target.
5. 2-2: 95-mph four-seam fastball, foul
That one does hit the glove, or would have if LeMahieu hadn't fouled it off first.
6. 2-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, foul
This one gets a lot of the plate, but LeMahieu is late. Wagner's fastball looks somewhat straight, but it gets to the plate quickly.
7. 2-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, foul
Wagner goes up the ladder, and LeMahieu chases. That would've been ball three.
8. 2-2: 84-mph slider, ball
Another slider, and not a bad-looking one, but this time Wagner misses the zone and runs the count full.
9. 3-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, foul
Wagner jams LeMahieu with 96 inside, but LeMahieu inside-outs it and pops it up the other way. In any other ballpark but the Coliseum, this probably would've landed in the stands, but Arencibia can't get to it in time anyway.
10. 3-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, foul
After going up and in on the previous pitch, Wagner aims low and away. He's doing a good job of changing LeMahieu's eye level.
11. 3-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, foul
Probably ball four. That's the second pitch that LeMahieu has chased well above the strike zone.
12. 3-2: 97-mph four-seam fastball, foul
More or less a meatball, but also the fastest pitch of the plate appearance, which may be why Wagner gets away with it.
After this fourth consecutive foul, the Rockies' announcers are in full "14-pitch plate appearance" mode. "He's going to have to call a timeout and get an energy bar," one of them says about Wagner. And: "Right now somebody's underneath the stadium by the umpire's locker room rubbing up more baseballs."
13. 3-2: 94-mph four-seam fastball, foul
This pitch is almost exactly where the previous one was, and a few miles per hour slower. Not a great recipe for success, but LeMahieu misses again.
Now the announcers are just chuckling. Arencibia goes to the mound to talk to Wagner, and one of the announcer narrates: "Heya, Neil? Throw the pitcher that misses his bat." Broadcaster banter might be the best part of long plate appearances.
One of the announcers also adds the old maxim that it's "to the advantage of the hitter, after seeing so many pitches." As I noted a few weeks ago, this isn't strictly true. Russell Carleton looked into the topic and found that "after the count evens, there’s no particular advantage to fouling off a lot of pitches."
14. 3-2: 96-mph four-seam fastball, in play
Wagner knows that LeMahieu will expand his zone up, so he goes up even higher than before. LeMahieu swings at the plate appearance's farthest pitch from the strike zone and predictably pops up. (LeMahieu has the eighth-highest infield fly ball rate among batters with at least 100 plate appearances this season.) Wagner wins, but he's understandably upset at himself for making mistakes he got away with and leaving the outcome undecided for as long as he did. We don't get a reaction shot, but LeMahieu probably isn't happy himself. No one's happy! Not even us, the lucky people who just dissected a 14-pitch plate appearance between two fringy players.