Some players weren't quite themselves during last week's wild card games, which made for some of the best baseball we've seen this season.
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.
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R.A. Dickey will make his final start of the season tonight. You know how good he's been at retiring batters, but you might not know about something else he excels at.
R.A. Dickey, who makes his final start of the season this evening in Miami, doesn't lack for résumé bullet points to sway Cy Young voters. Unsatisfied to elevate his career at an age when most pitchers are heading out to pasture, Dickey has also elevated the standard to which knuckleballers can aspire. He leads the National League in strikeouts, innings pitched, complete games and shutouts. He has an ungodly 4.1 K/BB ratio. He’s been one of the few bright spots on a Mets team that might be in last place without him. And fine, I’ll say it: Dickey is the first Met to win 20 games since Frank Viola in 1990. He even offers enough charming human interest angles to fill several episodes of This American Life.
Allow me, then, to toss a molehill on top of that mountain of accomplishment: R.A. Dickey is doing a historically great job of holding runners on base. With agility, poise, and a deep understanding of the fundamentals—as well as some out-and-out flaunting of the rulebook, which we’ll examine later—Dickey has overcome the highest possible degree of difficulty to not only hold his own against the running game, but become one of the very best in baseball at shutting it down. In 2012, only three qualified starters in all of baseball have allowed fewer stolen base attempts per stolen base opportunity than Dickey (defining “stolen base opportunity” as a man on first or second with the next base open). The average qualified starter has allowed 5.81 stolen base attempts per 100 opportunities this season. Dickey has allowed 1.85.
Inside the batter-pitcher matchup: Can the pitches a pitcher just threw help us predict which ones he's about to throw?
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of devouring Dan Brooks’ and Daniel Mack’s introduction of Brooks Baseball’s newest toy, pitch sequence visualization. To me, this is a major step forward in deciphering how every aspect of one pitch—be it type, velocity, or location—affects the strategy of the next. I’m not even so concerned with the results of the sequences—ultimately, well-executed pitches get results irrespective of other factors—but the massive insight we now have into a pitcher’s plan of attack is exciting whether you’re an amateur sabermetrician or a young player looking for a strategic edge.
Pitch sequencing is one of the great white sabermetric whales; we’ve been trying to get into pitchers’ heads for years, but in a game where all hurlers aspire on some level to complete randomness, that’s a very difficult thing to do. One sentence from the piece struck me as particularly insightful, however, and I think it bears repeating. It’s exactly how we’re going to refine this holy grail of baseball into as useful, practical, and applicable a tool as it could ever be. Write Brooks and Mack,
For one pitch in Friday's Mets-Brewers game, neither batter nor pitcher knew what the other was up to.
Okay, here’s one for the comedy department. On Friday night, for reasons that remain unclear, I found myself watching a bit of the Mets’ 7-3 win over the Brewers. I was flipping back and forth, only half paying attention. Then, in the bottom of the second, with one out and men at first and third, Norichika Aoki and Jon Niese revealed they were paying about as much attention as I was:
Is something about Salvador Perez's catching technique costing the Royals runs?
Jeff Zimmerman wrote an interesting post on Wednesday morning over at Royals Review, in which he claimed that Kansas City catcher Salvador Perez was tipping Will Smith’s pitches during his start on Tuesday night against the Twins. Zimmerman shows Perez, preparing to receive a breaking ball, remaining in his rest position until Smith lifts his leg, rather than giving his pitcher a firm target. Zimmerman’s interpretation was that the Twins noticed this and used it to try to steal on Smith’s breaking ball.
My first impression was that it would be awfully difficult for a baserunner to ascertain the catcher’s posture and try to get the jump necessary to steal third at the same time. I went back and looked at some of the footage, and although I believe Perez is hurting is team in a rather subtle way—as we’ll examine later—I have something of a different take on how and why. Here’s one of the examples Zimmerman cited, a curveball to Pedro Florimon in the fifth with men at first and second and none out. Note the change in Perez’s stance as Smith goes through his motion:
Shining a spotlight on the minor mental mistakes and successes that often go overlooked.
There was an axiom tossed about when I was in college, one that I and my other bench-warming teammates were only too happy to co-opt, which held that the dumber you were, the better you played. In other words, the less intelligent a player was, and the less he had going on in his mind (colloquially, the less "in his own head" he was), the more focused he'd be on playing to the best of his abilities. Some rebutted that we spent too much free time during games coming up with theories about why we weren't playing, but you get the idea.
The big leaguers we see on TV have found a way to circumvent this problem, if it even exists. Nevertheless, there remains a mental aspect of the game that often goes ignored, both by sabermetricians (because it's nearly impossible to measure) and by the players themselves (because these mistakes are usually too small to affect their club's opinion of them). I don't mean visualization or Pedro Cerrano's Jobu doll or Turk Wendell's animal tooth necklace—I'm talking about the nuts-and-bolts logic of baseball that, when ignored, costs teams outs and runs, which eventually cost them games.
Taking an in-depth look at a two-inning stint by Francisco Rodriguez in order to understand why he threw certain pitches.
What follows is a story of a pitcher who lost command of his fastball, and a hitter who approached him as if he could throw it to a teacup. The Mets were clinging to a 3-1 lead over the Giants on July 18 as their game entered the late innings at AT&T Park. After another eight-frame master class from Johan Santana, Mets manager Jerry Manuel called on Francisco Rodriguez to lock down a victory. It was a game the Mets desperately needed; they opened the second half of the season by scoring just four runs in their first three games, and if the week following this game is any indication, they aren’t good enough to waste Santana’s brilliance and still make a run at the postseason.
Now that we’ve set the scene, let’s think along with its principal players, and observe how Rodriguez and his opponents adapt—or fail to adapt—to the Mets closer’s uncharacteristic lack of a reliable fastball. We’ll follow K-Rod’s two innings in hopes of learning a thing or two about the mysterious art of pitch sequencing, and see how the information Rodriguez sends with each pitch of this outing may be more predictive of what he’ll throw next than simply relying on his overall tendencies.