Early in Major League II, while the team is still in spring training, Jack Parkman, Cleveland’s prized free agent acquisition, steps in against staff ace Ricky Vaughn. Vaughn is fresh off leading the American League in strikeouts, and makes his living throwing fast fastballs, and lots of them.
(Note: Despite it being only 4 1/2 months since the Indians defeated the New York Yankees in a one-game playoff, Vaughn appears to be about seven years older and 20-30 pounds heavier.)
Parkman watches a fastball go by and asks Vaughn, “What do you call that garbage?”
“It's my eliminator,” responds Vaughn. “I've got another pitch. You get a piece of it, I'll let you name it."
Vaughns winds and delivers another fastball. Parkman puts it over the left-center-field fence.
Yordano Ventura is a fastball pitcher. More than 60 percent of the pitches he threw this year were hard, and the four- and two-seamers averaged 97 mph, the fourth-fastest pitch in baseball among starters this year. (His career average, at 98 mph, makes him the only starter in the PITCHf/x era to throw harder than Noah Syndergaard's 97.7 mph avearge.) In the postseason, his fastball frequency rate goes up to nearly 70 percent, and on first pitches in the postseason it has gone up to 85 percent.
He's also a struggling fastball pitcher, which is to say not that he's struggling so much as that as a fastball pitcher he's struggling. Batters are slugging .710 against the four-seamer this October, and after he started Friday night's game at 95-97 in the first, he settled in at a much more human velocity, sitting 92-94. He has struggled to locate with regularity and, when he has missed, it has often been up and over the plate.
Yet despite his fastball difficulties entering the game, his four-seam and sinker were still effective at setting up his curve. In the postseason, Ventura had gone to his curve 44 percent of the time with two strikes, picking up 14 of his 21 strikeouts with the bender.
When he faced Curtis Granderson to lead off the game, he looked to be sticking to that FB/CB script, starting him with a 96 mph sinker that darted late for a called strike one, then going to a 97 mph four-seamer at the bottom of the zone for strike two.
Ahead 0-and-2, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to break out the curve, or maybe even the change. Instead, he went with another four-seam, which Sal Perez wanted way off the plate away. It came back across the plate inside and low for ball one. For Ventura, it would be the first of many failures to locate.
On 1-and-2, Perez again set up on the outside corner, and again the four-seamer came back over the plate, this time right down the middle. Granderson hit the ball hard on the ground to Zobrist, positioned in shallow right field, who made a tremendous diving stop, but had no shot of throwing him out.
Ventura’s postseason trends suggested one of the two-strike pitches would have been a curve, but he went with two fastballs against a hitter destroying fastballs from right-handed pitchers this season. Part of Granderson’s 2015 revival was an improved ability, at age 34, to hit for power against fastballs from right-handed pitchers:
Two pitches later (both four-seams), David Wright homered on a 96-mph pitch that drifted from a low/away target to a belt-high/in location. In a span of two batters, Ventura had thrown six fastballs, and four had missed badly.
In the second inning, Travis d’Arnaud got a 93 mph fastball that missed in almost the same the pitch to Wright had. D’Arnaud, though, missed the pitch and flied out.
But in the third, with Noah Syndergaard on first, Granderson came back to the plate. Here’s how Ventura attacked him:
1. 86 mph change, off the plate away, ball
2. 95 mph four-seam, down and inside, ball
Behind 2-0, Wright looming on-deck, and struggling to locate any of his fastballs, Ventura was in a precarious position. In 2-0 counts this season, Ventura threw about 92 percent fastballs, and Granderson had seen five fastballs in six pitches from him on the night. He was getting chances to time fastballs from a pitcher whose velo was down 3 mph and location was guesswork.
3. 93 mph four-seamer, over the plate, called strike
Granderson took all the way for strike one. With the count still in Granderson’s favor, and Wright still waiting on deck, would Ventura stay with fastballs, despite having little feel for them all night? We interrupt the narrative to first ask…
What had Granderson done on 2-1 this season?
Not surprisingly, major-league hitters excel in 2-1 counts, with the league slugging .537. Granderson, however, was especially dominant, hitting five home runs, slugging .971, and posting a 200 sOPS+. Only Brian Dozier and Shin-Soo Choo hit more home runs in 2-1 counts. It’s not a shock, as 2-1 counts are fastball counts, and as we detailed above, that's Granderson's jam.
What had Ventura done on 2-1 this season?
Compared to the league average, Ventura was successful when behind 2-1. Hitters slugged .444, about 18 percent below league average, without a home run. In this situation, he went to each of his four-seam and sinker about a third of the time, while mixing in his changeup 20 percent of the time.
Perez set up knee-high inside, just off the plate.The pitch, a 94 mph fastball that Ned Yost would later refer to as “backup cutter” but was recorded as a four-seam, rode back up over the heart of the plate, in almost the exact location as the previous pitch. Granderson had a short load with his front foot, got the barrel of the bat through the zone, and roped the ball into the first row of the right-field stands. The two-run home run put the Mets back on top 4-3, sending Citi Field into a frenzy, and earning a nod of respect from Chris Rock. The Mets would never again trail in the game. Ventura got himself into a predictable, fastball count, and didn't have the eliminator in his pocket.
As detailed above, Granderson had prodigious power numbers against right-handed pitchers, especially middle-away:
He is vulnerable inside against right-handed pitchers, but they have to be sure to stay up and in or out of the zone low. Ventura and Perez were attempting to come inside off the plate with the fastball, where Granderson has a hole, in hopes of picking up strike two. With the count even, the opportunity for the curve would again present itself. Instead, Ventura missed with the fastball and Granderson capitalized.
It's odd to think that the hardest-throwing starter in the AL's strenght isn't his fastball, but right now it simply isn't, unless it's being used to set up his two secondaries. But in eight pitches over two plate appearances, Ventura threw Granderson seven fastballs, and never once went with his true strength, the curve (.209 SLG in the regular season). Granderson has naming rights now, and the Mets are a win away from evening the series.
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