Shelby Miller almost made it, the Cubs keep surging, Michael Pineda's follow-up sucked, and the best defensive play of the weekend.
The Weekend Takeaway
On May 10th, the Cubs had just lost 3-2 to the lowly Brewers, and stood with a 45 percent chance at the playoffs; entering Friday’s contest against the Bucs, they were the winners of five straight and had jacked their playoff odds to 59 percent. In contrast, the Pirates came into Friday having dropped their last two to the Phillies and saw their playoff odds sink by 13 points to 24 percent since the beginning of May.
A few years ago, Jeff Zimmerman published a study he had done, in which he found that the typical aging curve for hitters was changing. To be specific, hitters had more or less stopped improving. Instead of entering the league with their physical gifts outpacing their skills, improving throughout their 20s, and declining as they reached and surpassed 30 years of age, batters were having their best seasons between ages 20 and 25, and then began declining immediately.
I’m not aware of a significant update to that work, nor of any corroboration of its findings. Assuming it's a real change, though, it’s a sort of sad development. One of the joys of baseball is its difficulty. Succeeding in this game is supposed to be hard, gut-wrenchingly hard. It’s supposed to take years to master the craft. Even in a league where BABIP drives offense more than ever, and where athleticism is therefore more important than ever, it’s fair to hope for some sign that batters can gain something significant from their years of professional experience. We should want exciting baseball, but we should also admire most those whose success is hardest-won, and if it’s true that the balance of power tilting toward pitching has robbed batters of their ability to grow and evolve, that’s a shame.
How Kris Bryant has proven us right, and wrong, thus far.
This piece originally appeared on BP Wrigleyville, Baseball Prospectus' local site for all your Cubs needs. Join us for Baseball Prospectus Night at Miller Park to watch the Cubs play the Brewers on May 9th. Order Your Tickets Today.
What goes through a lefty's mind when he's staring at a baserunner.
Colin Young was a left-handed pitcher who spent six seasons in the minors with the Rockies and the Red Sox, reaching Double-A with both organizations. He also, as of this season, covers the Texas League for Baseball Prospectus. Here's what he sees when he watches Jon Lester struggle with his pickoff throws.
Scrutiny is alive and well. In the days of death by analysis, we get obsessed with the subtle character flaws and moments of weakness in our superstars. We grasp at anything within our reach to knock them down a peg. So it is that we get the recent intrigue over Jon Lester’s bungled pick-off throw. Cries of the “Yips” or “Mental Block” follow, and suddenly we imagine that Lester has the mental strength of a tired 6-year-old at the end of a 10-hour excursion through Disneyland. But Lester, historically, has been as mentally tough as it comes. The dude has straight ice water in his veins. If you’re looking for someone to pitch Game 7 of the World Series, to make a 3-2 pitch with bases loaded and the game on the line, and yes, even attempt a crucial pick-off throw, I’ll take Jon Lester 10 out of 10 times.
But, numbers don’t lie, and the numbers here—the year-plus without an attempt, the 50 percent error rate on two tries this year—are astounding to say the least. Visually, we can see discomfort when he throws over to first, and quantifiably, the attempts are basically nil. These two components reasonably lead me to believe that there is something going on mentally with him.
We’ve seen plenty of guys unable to field their position as a pitcher, making errant throws to a base, overthrowing/underthrowing pickoffs, or tossing lollipops to the catcher on pitch outs or wild pitches on intentional balls. Lester’s has been magnified into a “What’s wrong with him” conversation, but his quote in the Chicago Tribune following his throwing error last week sheds some light on the situation: “When you’re not used to doing stuff like that, I got a little overexcited and threw the ball too soon.” Pickoffs are worked on during spring training and maybe a couple times a month in season, and pitchers may only get a few reps a few times a week practicing this move. I have yet to see a pitcher dedicate any great amount of time to perfecting his pickoff move following morning workouts or an intense bullpen session. In baseball talk, quality reps are what make you better; however, pickoff moves are not high on the to-do list. So one explanation is that Lester has simply fallen out of practice, it affected his ability to perform a deceptively complex move, and the lack of rehearsals snowballed. Another is that he’s just saying the right things to cover up a more severe underlying issue.
THE MENTAL GAME
For a left-hander, the pickoff move—and other means of holding the runner on—can be almost part of your repertoire. Lester, like many pitchers, appears to prefer to focus on the hitter and make a quality pitch with runners on base. There’s a case to be made for this.
Pitchers talk about focus, conviction, and execution when it comes to pitch selection and attacking a hitter. It requires a laser-like mindset dedicated to executing the pitch; Kevin Costner’s character in For the Love of the Game captures it when he tells himself to “clear the mechanism.” When runners are on base, a pitcher’s focus becomes divided and his attention is split between the runner and the hitter, detracting from his focus on attacking the hitter. Now we have two variables at play: slowing the running game and getting the hitter out.
What separates the Cardinals and the Cubs? So far this year, it's been catching baseballs.
This piece originally appeared on BP Wrigleyville, Baseball Prospectus' local site for all your Cubs needs. And be sure to visit BP Boston and BP Bronx for Red Sox and Yankees analysis as well.
The St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs are the two most serious contenders for the NL Central title. If that wasn’t apparent coming into the season, the Pirates’ early unsteadiness should throw it into relief. While the Cardinals are the heavy favorites—as of Monday morning, the Playoff Odds report gives them a 59.3-percent chance to win the division, more than double that of the Cubs—the Cubs have a lot going for them, too. Their long-awaited offensive metamorphosis is matriculating from tantalizing possibility to tangible reality: they have the second-best OBP, second-best walk rate, and tied for the most pitches seen per plate appearance in the NL. They also have more pitching depth than any Cubs team in recent memory, though that depth has been tested by an early spate of injuries.