The Angels and Twins were tied 1-1 after six innings on Thursday night. Jorge Polanco led off the top of the seventh inning with a single, knocking Angels starter (and former Twins prospect) Alex Meyer out of the game. Eddie Rosario greeted rookie reliever Keynan Middleton with a well-struck fly ball to center field, but Shane Robinson made a good read and a rolling catch, sending Polanco back to first base.
That brought up Byron Buxton, in a critical spot. This season has obviously been a struggle for Buxton, but just as obviously he’s a staggeringly talented player with the potential to turn the corner and become one of the league’s best players. The Twins, who are still over .500 and in the thick of the AL Central race, badly need that kind of star turn if they’re going to remain competitive. The Angels are a contender, too (if only for a Wild Card berth), but with Mike Trout out for the next month and a half, they will need just about everyone with impact potential to realize it in a hurry.
Middleton is such a player. He wasn’t much of a prospect as a starting pitcher, but he moved to the bullpen last year and took off nicely. His fastball has no problem reaching the mid-90s, as he showed by pumping in 95 and 96 on two pitches to Rosario. He also has a slider, and it’s a pitch with which he seems able to do a lot of different things. If he can keep up the work he’s done in the big leagues so far—and last year provides some foundation for the belief that he can—the Angels’ bullpen could continue to surprise people. (Anaheim entered Thursday’s play with the ninth-best relief DRA in baseball, despite the prolonged absences of Huston Street and Cam Bedrosian.)
Middleton started Buxton with an 84 mph slider, more or less down the middle. Having seen just the two fastballs Middleton threw to Rosario, though, Buxton was frozen for strike one. Our scouting report on Middleton this spring indicated that his slider can sometimes get lazy and loopy, and based on velocity and location, one could levy that charge against the first pitch to Buxton. Truthfully, though, the pitch had some bite and deception, and against an inexperienced hitter like Buxton, it was a good one.
A secondary reason for the decision to call a first-pitch slider, from the Angels’ perspective, might have been the possibility that Buxton would be bunting (for a hit, to sacrifice Polanco to second, or some blend of the two). The Angels didn’t have the corner infielders pinched in anticipation of that, though, and after the first-pitch strike, third baseman Yunel Escobar played well back onto the infield dirt. Buxton never did try to lay one down.
Middleton threw Buxton a high 97 mph fastball for strike two. Buxton swung right through it. The next pitch was 97 again, this time more away than up, and Buxton fouled it off. Once there were two strikes, the Angels’ infield visibly relaxed a bit. Television viewers, as ever, got just a glimpse between pitches, but Escobar, Andrelton Simmons, and first baseman Jefry Marte all took a step back and to their left after the second strike.
Buxton did go to his B-hack on the two-strike fastball. It was clear that he was ready to take a pitch the other way, if Middleton forced him to, and that might have been the only way he was able to make contact and foul off the pitch. Middleton had another trick in his bag, though. His second 0-2 offering was a slider that started on the same plane as the previous fastball, then dived into the dirt. It hummed in at 88 mph. Buxton swung helplessly, hopelessly, over the top of it.
Adding and subtracting on a secondary pitch, for a rookie relief arm, qualifies as impressive feel for pitching. Throwing it both for a strike and as a strike-to-ball chase pitch, and knowing which would work best at each point in the plate appearance, is perhaps even more laudable. It’s not quite the same thing, but it’s worth noting that when Middleton has thrown his slider on consecutive pitches this year (15 times, through Wednesday), he’s had greater variation in speed from one to the next than all but nine other qualifying pitchers. In other words, that ability to throw the slider anywhere from 84 to 88 seems to be a real skill for Middleton. So, too, does his impressive spin rate, on both the fastball and the slider. His command is a bit loose and he won’t rack up ground balls, but Middleton seems like a legitimate weapon for the Angels.
Buxton’s side of the plate appearance is interesting for a different set of reasons. Stuff that good, coming from a right-hander, will give even great hitters fits. Buxton has an ongoing problem, though, and the bookend sliders from Middleton help highlight it. Like so many things Buxton does, his swing is a study in extraordinary athleticism under subordinary control. A hitter relies on his first movements—his leg kick, toe tap, or other lower-body mechanism, and whatever motion triggers his hands—to create rhythm and timing. The more fluid and modular those movements are, the better a guy can adjust to changes of speed—the better he can avoid being fooled.
Buxton just doesn’t have that kind of adaptability. He got locked up by the first slider, and was nowhere close to the second. He’s hitting under .200 on plate appearances ended by sliders this year, and he’s whiffed on nearly half his swings against breaking pitches. Until that changes, he’s going to remain a non-factor at the plate. He had a safety valve available to him, in this particular trip, but didn’t use it. With Escobar playing back, a drag bunt by Buxton would have ended in nothing worse than a sacrifice. It might well have turned into a hit, because Buxton’s speed always creates the possibility of a hit on a decent bunt, and because Middleton falls off the mound toward first base.
Of course, it’s likely that no one even spent much time considering the possibility of a Buxton bunt. He’s been asked to lay down a few bizarre sacrifices this year, but bunting a lot (even if it’s primarily for hits) is no longer considered a viable strategy in general. Too many extra-base hits are lost, and too few singles gained, is the logic in a nutshell. For the same reasons, we’re largely numb to strikeouts. Buxton drew panicked blog posts and criticism from the team’s old-school broadcast team when he fanned half the time over the first few weeks of the season, but since he’s lowered that figure to around 30 percent over the last month and change, things have quieted down. The game is, more than ever, a showdown between the pitcher and the batter, and we’ve all become comfortable with that.
Observing any object, process or phenomenon alters the thing being observed. We’ve known this for a long time. Measuring the inner workings of any system requires a degree of intrusion that inevitably alters the system itself. I think most people who have given it considerable thought are aware that the changing ways in which we consume and understand baseball have changed the game itself, especially at the highest level. I wonder, though, whether we’ve underestimated to just how great an extent this has been true, and whether we’ve given sufficient consideration to the possibility that the way we view the game is, itself, a driver of the changes we’ve lately seen to it.
Baseball as we know it, in 2017, is a game played on television. I’ve written more than once about the way that TV contributes to the pace-of-play problem (insofar as one admits that to be a problem), and about the way TV contracts have shaped the macro-level decisions across the league, including the last two CBAs. Take all of that away, though, and the fact would remain that TV is the primary medium through which MLB reaches its fans. Live broadcasts are more easily accessible than ever, and hardly anyone’s relationship to the game is shaped primarily by the accounts of radio announcers or beat writers. We think of the game the way we find it when we turn on our TVs, and on TV, the game is condensed.
The center-field camera shows us the pitcher, the batter, the catcher, and the umpire, and we spend a healthy majority of the game looking at those four figures. That’s for the best, on balance. It’s easiest to get an intimate and easily visible look at the action that way. Still, it’s shaped our understanding of the game, and over time it’s probably reshaped the game itself. Fielders seem less important than pitchers and hitters, because we see them less often. A foul bunt with two strikes seems like a criminal waste, because a bunt is a bore to watch from the center-field camera, and a swing for the fences is exciting.
Forty years ago, broadcasts had just two possible primary cameras. One might be behind the plate, looking around the umpire and catcher and batter and on out to the mound. The other, preferable one was the center-field camera. Any panoramic view, anything that attempted to show audiences the whole field, would be indecipherable on even the state-of-the-art TVs of the day. You just couldn’t put a camera in the upper deck behind home plate and expect anyone to see the ball leave the bat.
On today’s TVs, that’s not the case. We could have a broadcast revolution, one in which the center-field camera becomes a nice reverse angle, reserved for replays of aesthetically pleasing yakkers like that first pitch from Middleton to Buxton. We could always be looking at the whole field—at whether and how the defense is shifted, and at all the space to which a hitter might direct the ball, and at the leads being taken by a baserunner—without losing anything vital to the viewer’s experience of the action. At this point, it would probably only ruffle feathers. We’ve come to expect to be able to see the grip on Carlos Martinez’s sinker in real time. Most people would feel completely lost if they needed a replay to tell whether a close pitch was in the zone, or just low. Still, it’s worth noting this.
Byron Buxton doesn’t bunt for hits, in part, because he’s been raised in an environment that never learned to view a bunt as an exciting play, a way to move the ball and apply pressure to the defense. Optimal strategies find their way to the field no matter what, and bunting really isn’t optimal for most hitters in most situations. I’m not necessarily saying that Buxton ought to have bunted against Middleton in the seventh inning on Thursday night (in a game the Twins eventually won, by the way). I’m only saying that if we watched baseball from the inside out, from behind and above the action, seeing the whole field, we might have more interesting conversations in situations like those. Everything Middleton did could have been properly appreciated on replays. The constantly unfolding decisions and possibilities in front of Buxton and the Twins couldn’t be.