Calling a Pitch to Adrian Gonzalez

Way back in July, when the Cardinals were good but unsure how good they would be, Adam Wainwright turned in a strong start against the Angels. Edward Mujica, however, blew a save and took the loss, the Angels walking off in the bottom of the ninth. It was an uncharacteristic show of weakness from a guy who to that point had been a dominant closer, and afterward Mujica knew exactly what he’d done wrong. For the first time since joining the Cardinals, Mujica shook off Yadier Molina. The first time he shook Molina off, the Angels hit a tying homer. The second time he shook Molina off, the Angels won. Mujica swore to follow Yadier from that point forward.

One of the exciting things about pitch-framing research is that we’re able to quantify a part of catcher defense that, before, we just had to guesstimate. We might’ve had a sense of who was good and who was bad, but we didn’t know what that meant. Now, we’re closer than ever before to understanding catcher value, but we’re still dealing with a massive blind spot. We don’t know how to quantify good and bad game-calling. True, pitchers get the final say, but pitchers and catchers work together, and some catchers have better plans than others. They say Molina’s the best, that he gets in the hitters’ heads. This October, Molina has taken very good care of Wainwright. Monday night, Wainwright and Molina had one particular disagreement. Moments later, the Dodgers had the only run they’d need.

Make no mistake: the Cardinals lost Game 3 for a variety of reasons. They didn’t lose because Adrian Gonzalez fisted a ball over Matt Adams. They lost more because Jon Jay looked absolutely lost in center field. They lost more because they managed four hits and no runs. They lost more because Daniel Descalso got himself thrown out on the bases right when the Cardinals were threatening, right after Descalso entered the game as a pinch-runner. The Cardinals as a team hit poorly this year against left-handed pitching, and that was mostly with a healthy Allen Craig. Monday, they were dominated by Hyun-Jin Ryu, and now a crippled Dodgers team is back in the series. They’re back in the series because of a lot more than one decision by Adam Wainwright.

But I’m personally fascinated by what happened, and my inclination is to write about what fascinates me. Unfortunately I just missed what sounded like some promising quotes during the TBS postgame broadcast, but in the bottom of the fourth, Wainwright shook off Molina. He shook him off twice, as a matter of fact, the pair settling on Molina’s third choice. I should draw up the setting real quick.

It was scoreless in the bottom of the fourth, and the Cardinals still didn’t have a hit. Mark Ellis led off with a double that should’ve been caught, and he moved to third on a fly by Hanley Ramirez. Up came Adrian Gonzalez, with a hobbled Andre Ethier on deck. The Cardinals elected to pitch to Gonzalez — that would be a silly time for an intentional walk — and the first pitch was a low curveball in the dirt. Wainwright and Molina then came back with an inside cutter off the plate, and Gonzalez grounded it foul.


The count then became 1-and-1, and after Gonzalez stepped out and stepped back in, this was the sequence shown on TV:


The shakes are subtle, and maybe needlessly subtle. But, you get a good idea of what happened. Molina signaled first for an outside curveball, and Wainwright said no. Molina signaled next for an outside fastball, and Wainwright again said no. The third call was for an inside cutter, much like the one Wainwright had just thrown. There were only so many pitches to cycle through, and clearly Wainwright wanted to go back to the well. Molina, initially, wanted to look at the other side of the plate.

Wainwright threw that cutter. There are two questions, related to one another: was it a good pitch? and, was Wainwright in the wrong to shake Molina off? Of course, we can’t have answers. We can’t know what might have happened had Wainwright thrown an outside curve. Maybe Gonzalez would’ve driven it the other way. Maybe Wainwright would’ve bought a strike. What we can do is look at an assorted handful of data points.

There’s the reality that, the pitch right before, Wainwright threw an identical cutter, that Gonzalez grounded foul. Maybe, just maybe, that allowed Gonzalez to cheat a little looking for a pitch in the same spot. It put that pitch in his head. There’s also the reality of how Wainwright retired Gonzalez in the bottom of the first:


In a 3-and-1 count in the first, Wainwright got Gonzalez to hit a soft liner on a cutter on the fists. That cutter was on the edge of the plate — the cutters in the fourth were more inside — but as Gonzalez stepped back into the box, he would’ve remembered Wainwright twice having success with high inside cutters. It wouldn’t be crazy for Wainwright to try a third time, especially with a runner just 90 feet away, so maybe Gonzalez did prepare himself to look inside. It was Molina’s instinct to pitch him away, maybe thinking that very thing.

Also from the bottom of the first, here’s Molina before the 2-and-1 pitch, which came before the 3-and-1 pitch:


Molina indicated that he thought Gonzalez was going to try to pull the ball, that he’s good at pulling in his hands, so the next pitch was a fastball away. Gonzalez took it, and it just missed the zone. It had, at least, changed Gonzalez’s idea, so on the fifth pitch Molina was comfortable coming back inside, and that got the job done. Molina didn’t want to come in at 2-and-1. He did want to come in at 3-and-1. Wainwright played along.

Back to the fourth. When Wainwright and Molina settled on the inside cutter, Wainwright didn’t miss by very much. If anything, he missed a little bit up, but that just meant he missed more near the hands. The pitch was more than 16 inches inside from the center of home plate, according to PITCHf/x. It was more than three feet up off the ground. It was a pitch you’d expect to successfully jam a hitter. Over the PITCHf/x era, I identified 69 Adrian Gonzalez swings at pitches in roughly similar places. Only one of those swings missed. However, 22 hit the ball foul, and of the 46 that hit the ball fair, only ten hit the ball fair for a hit. In the past, this has been a decent place to pitch Adrian Gonzalez.

But in the past, maybe Gonzalez wasn’t looking for those pitches. In this circumstance, maybe he was doing exactly that. If Gonzalez was more prepared for an inside cutter, it stands to reason he’d be more successful against said inside cutter, and what he managed to do was get himself to second base:


Gonzalez tucked his hands in a little more, opened his front shoulder up a little more, and he lined a pitch several inches off the plate. It was the same pitch as the pitch before, and it was a similar pitch to the last one Gonzalez had seen in his previous at-bat. We don’t know exactly what Gonzalez was thinking, but the way that played out, he swung like a guy who was ready for that pitch to come in.

The run was the Dodgers’ first of three, but it was the only one they’d need. It happened after Adam Wainwright twice shook off Yadier Molina, who first wanted to go with different pitches away. What’s unclear is whether Wainwright made a bad decision, here. Results-based analysis says yes, of course, but that’s a tough pitch to pull hard and fair. It’s a good kind of pitch, normally, to get the sort of contact that won’t bring in a runner from third. If Molina really thought Gonzalez was looking for this pitch, it wouldn’t have been his third choice. But there’s a reason this wasn’t Molina’s first or second choice. We don’t know what would’ve happened had Wainwright gone with one of those first two choices, but now we get to wonder how much we ought to trust in Yadier Molina’s game-calling. It’s going to look bad to shake him off. Maybe that’s too simple, maybe that’s giving Molina too much credit, but I’m not sure if it’s possible to overrate Yadier Molina’s defense. He was more confident in other pitches. Wainwright didn’t want to throw them.

Now, because of the Gonzalez hit and other things, the Cardinals are dealing with a missed opportunity, an opportunity to ride Wainwright to an almost unloseable series lead. They’re as far away from the next Wainwright start as they can be, but I suppose on the other hand, the teams starting Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, and Adam Wainwright so far have lost. Baseball’s about a lot more than the starting pitcher. The Cardinals would like to get some of that other stuff working. The Dodgers would too, really. There could be time in the series yet for the rest of the rosters to wake up. So far it’s been all pitching and game-calling, in some kind of unknown ratio.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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moral of the story: don’t shake off Yadier.