Welcome to One At Bat! I’m going to assume that this is your first visit to our weekly feature. Surely the exponential growth in the popularity of these posts means that it is entirely likely this is your first time here. So, tell your friends, and next week they can read another introduction like this one, and it won’t be a meaningless repeat of the same information.
This is an opportunity for you, the reader, and I, the author, to spend a little time together. During our little visit, I am going to pick out one at-bat from the previous week. Hopefully one of the more significant or interesting ones, and I will analyse it pitch by pitch. You… will sit there and read it. No talking for you.
This at-bat is from Monday, June 9th, a night game at Rogers Centre, featuring the Minnesota Twins and the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Setup: There is an ebb and flow to the tension in a baseball game. I’ve talked about it before, and about the number that Fangraphs has devised to quantify that tension. We call that number “Leverage”. measured by the Leverage Index (LI). The average plate appearance has a leverage of 1.00. When the leverage is high, somebody is about to be a hero, or, as they say, a goat.
In the top of the sixth inning, R.A. Dickey, labouring towards 100 pitches, has induced a groundout, allowed a triple, a controversial hit-by-pitch, and then walked a batter. The Blue Jays only have a 4-2 lead, and the leverage for each Minnesota batter in the inning has changed as follows. 1.24, 0.87, 1.67, 2.57. With Trevor Plouffe ready to take his turn, the leverage is 3.96. Up until this moment in the game, the leverage hasn’t risen above 2.0. This is, literally, the most critical moment in the game up to this point.
Now, John Gibbons, our intrepid manager, probably does not have a printout with the leverage index on it in the dugout. He has a pretty good idea though that with the bases loaded and only one out, the Twins are really in a spot to damage his teams chances of winning in this upcoming at-bat. What he doesn’t have is a crystal ball. He doesn’t know if this will be the toughest at-bat of the whole game.
Who does he bring in to handle Trevor Plouffe? In previous games, before the 7th inning, Gibbons has gone to Todd Redmond…. with grand-slammish results. Tonight, sensing this is the moment, Gibbons picks his best right-handed non-closer, the fireballing Dustin McGowan.
Before we head to the sequence, I would like to take a little detour, over to this chart from Dustin McGowan’s player card at Brooks Baseball. There is a generally accepted wisdom that relievers throw harder than starters. It is said that starters have to “pace themselves” for up to 100 pitches. Now, I personally think that they don’t throw as hard because their arm strength does not return to 100% before their next turn in the starting rotation. McGowan provides a wonderful case study below.
He began the year as the surprise fifth starter in the Blue Jays rotation with his average fastball at 93.5 mph. After struggling as the innings piled up, he was moved to the bullpen. His first relief appearance is the one against Texas, May 18th. His fastball velocity instantly jumped by over one mph, to 95.3. By his June 4th appearance against Detroit, he was airing it out at 97.3mph. So, unlike much commonly accepted wisdom, like “lineup protection“, relievers really can amp up their stuff when coming out of the bullpen.
The Sequence: McGowan is, as just noted, packing some serious heat, but he opens the plate appearance with a slider. If the Jays were using the Brooks Baseball info for Plouffe, this would make sense, as Plouffe is a better than average hitter against fastballs, and is below average against breaking stuff. Plouffe, perhaps focused on the fastball, takes the slider right at the bottom of the knees for a called strike.
Having gotten ahead in the count, and perhaps seeing that Trevor wasn’t interested in the slider, Dustin doubles up with it. This time he misses outside. Pitch f/x, in fact, indentifies this pitch as having no horizontal break. It misses, but does not slide. The count is evened up.
The Payoff:It is time for Dustin to turn to his prime weapon, and he rears back and delivers a 96mph fastball. Right down the pipe. Now, for some hitters, ‘right down the pipe’ is a recipie for disaster, but this is Trevor Plouffe, and missing just a little above the middle of the zone is not the end of the world.
And the world does not end.
Plouffe gets on top of the ball, and hits it on the ground. It ends up being turned into a successful double play that ends the inning.
John Gibbons has pushed the right button, even though “baseball wisdom” may have said it was too early for this particular reliever. When the game is on the line, it pays to have your best weapon on the mound to rescue you from a dangerous situation. As it turns out, this plate appearance was the highest leverage situation of the entire game, including a 9th inning rally against Casey Janssen in which the Twins tied up the game.
The Jays would, eventually, win this game in walk-off fashion after giving up the lead in the 9th, but one well hit ball in the above sequence, and they may never have had the chance.