Welcome back! It’s time for One At-Bat again! Yes, just one. This is a semi-regular feature, and I would confuse everybody if I started adding at-bats at this point. We will keep it to our usual custom of working our way through one critical plate appearance from the past week, pitch by pitch.
Looking back at the last week, I have selected an at-bat in the game from Friday May 23rd, in the 8th inning.
The Setup: This is the opening game of a very interesting series. The Blue Jays are coming home following a sweep of the Red Sox at Fenway, and have won five of six. You could argue that the Jays are the American League’s hottest team at this point. Oakland is first in their division and has the best record in the AL, with some of the best pitching and hitting in the league. They might be the best team in the American League this season.
By the eighth inning, the Jays have worked their way to a 3-1 one lead. Brett Cecil is following Steve Delabar, who has walked the leadoff man and recorded one out. Cecil promptly allows a single to the first hitter, and gets the second man he faces to pop out. Then another single, and the runner from second comes home. The score is 3-2, 2 out, and runners on first and second. Derek Norris is up, looking to put Oakland out front.
So, if you’re Brett Cecil, how do you approach Norris? Derek has thrived with two outs and runners in scoring position this year, with a 1.228 OPS in these situations. If you’re Norris, what do you look for? Knowing all too well that you hit lefties very well (50% better than league average). Norris and Cecil haven’t faced one another since 2012 and Norris hit a home run in the one game they did one another, but Cecil was starting back then, and wasn’t the same pitcher he is now.
The Sequence: Cecil, the 2014 version, likes one of his pitches over and above all the others. It is, as I like to call it, his Uncle Charlie, or, more commonly: the curveball. Cecil throws his curve more than any of his other pitches. In fact, he throws it almost twice as often as his cut fastball, his next most used offering. He’s not crazy to rely on it so heavily either. It generates a ‘whiff’ 59% of the time when a batter swings at it, the most of any of his pitches, and when it is put in play it has the highest ground ball (60%), and the lowest line drive rate (13.3%) of any pitch he throws. It is the safest bet for Brett, when used properly.
Cecil is in a tough spot, and he starts Norris off with curve, low and over the plate. Its dips below the zone, and Derek swings over it. Strike one.
The next pitch is much lower, and crosses the plate about seven inches off the ground. Norris still takes a cut at it, and he’s down 0-2.
At this point, Cecil has a lot of choices. Norris is in a tough spot, and hasn’t recognised either pitch as being a ball if he had laid off it. If Cecil were to change the plane of the next pitch, or the velocity, he would be showing something that Norris hadn’t seen yet. Norris might be running through cutter, sinker and changeup in his mind.
Cecil delivers a third curveball, but doesn’t release it quite right and buries it in the dirt in front of the plate. Norris lays off this one.
Now its wide open, the count is 1-2, and Derek Norris has seen three straight curveballs. The curve has betrayed Cecil already in this inning, as this one earlier led to a base hit via the bat of Brandon Moss.
Note that Brett’s leg lands awkwardly, and the pitch doesn’t break like usual because of his poor release point and loss of balance. Will this recent hiccup change how Cecil feels about the curveball? If you are Derek Norris, trying to defend the strike zone, running all he possibilities through your head, what seems most likely at this point? A curveball, for the fourth time in a row? Fastball or cutter? Changeup? He’s trying to see the pitch, but surely his mind is trying to narrow it down to help him time his swing.
The Payoff: Cecil rears back and delivers…. a fourth curveball. He goes to the well, an incredible fourth time in a row. And also, incredibly, Norris is fooled for the third time in four tries, swinging his way back into the dugout.
Uncle Charlie wins again, and the inning is over. The Jays will win the game by a score of 3-2, and Derek Norris will have to wait a few more months to find out what Brett Cecil’s fastball looks like.