Last night, Brett Lawrie went 0-for-4, making the game’s last out as the potential tying run. Worse, he had four strikeouts. Worse, he saw 12 pitches. It was the perfect golden sombrero, and, seldom am I given a more obvious article topic. Indeed, seldom is the Internet given a more obvious article topic, and this has already shown up everywhere. As such, I want to begin with an anecdote that isn’t showing up everywhere. Phillies fans already know about this, but you probably aren’t a Phillies fan, so this is probably new.
1983. Mike Schmidt is 33, and one of the best players in baseball. He’ll eventually finish third in MVP voting, and he’ll be worth 7 WAR. He’ll lead the league in dingers. On May 28, he starts at third in a game against the Expos. Montreal’s started Charlie Lea. The Phillies counter with John Denny. That part doesn’t matter.
Up in the first with men on the corners, Schmidt strikes out on three pitches. Up in the third with a man on first, Schmidt strikes out on three pitches. Up in the fifth with men on first and second, Schmidt strikes out on three pitches. Up in the seventh with a man on first, Schmidt strikes out on three pitches. Word gets around. Schmidt’s being taunted even by fans of his own team.
Goes to the ninth, 3-3. Montreal turns to Jeff Reardon. Schmidt comes up with two down and the winning run on second. The homer is Schmidt’s eighth of the year. The Phillies move a game north of .500, and go on to win the division and lose the World Series. Schmidt’s game was by no means forgotten — it’s now a minor part of Phillies franchise lore.
What happened to Brett Lawrie happened to someone as outstanding as Mike Schmidt. All Lawrie was missing was the dramatic walk-off dinger.
There are other details, of course. The first pitch Lawrie saw was a fastball. It was also the last fastball he’d see. The game saw him take strikes. The game saw him chase balls. It all comes together to paint a somewhat misleading picture. Absolutely, what happened happened. But, what happened wasn’t a great reflection of Brett Lawrie, the ballplayer. He has been more or less an average hitter. He’s never had a strikeout problem. He’s never posted crazy chase rates, or crazy take rates. He’s seen about an average rate of fastballs, suggesting he doesn’t have an obvious breaking-ball problem. Brett Lawrie didn’t play like himself, which happens. Kyle Kendrick has a 0.00 ERA.
What interests me: how does something like this happen? How can we try to explain Brett Lawrie’s perfectly golden sombrero, given that he didn’t face Aroldis Chapman four times? The initial premise: for Lawrie, it was just one of those days. But we can also find additional signal in the details.
This is, obviously, the first time up, against Colby Lewis with nobody on. Lawrie’s first at-bat of the game. Lawrie is neither a passive nor an aggressive first-pitch swinger, but when he goes after a first-pitch fastball, he tries to hunt for them over the middle, or in. Lewis did a good job of placing his along the outer edge. It’s a good pitch to throw, and a good pitch to take. That strike put Lewis in command of the at-bat. Now, the second pitch might’ve been an opportunity. It was a slider left up, albeit a slider away, and maybe Lawrie would’ve done something if he hadn’t been guessing fastball. But with his timing off, Lawrie had to let the pitch be. That set up the 0-and-2 slider, the classic low-away 0-and-2 righty-righty slider, and that needs no explanation. Lawrie chased. Hitters chase this a lot. It was a well-executed slider, and Clint Barmes just struck out against it twice while making a sandwich.
Lawrie’s second look against Lewis brought a different plan, slightly. Lewis, this time, came with a first-pitch breaking ball, and Lawrie took it for a strike. First-pitch breaking balls are taken more often than first-pitch fastballs; hitters gear up for first-pitch fastballs. Lawrie was looking for a first-pitch fastball, and Lewis screwed with his timing, which is why first-pitch breaking balls over the plate can survive. Then came another slider, a mistake, in the low-inside quadrant of the zone. Lawrie put a fine swing on it and nicked the ball foul. Could’ve easily been a homer. Could’ve easily been a single, or a line-out. Talking about milliseconds and millimeters. Lawrie partially missed a pitch, then he completely missed a pitch. Down 0-and-2 again, he saw another slider out of the zone, but this was closer than the first 0-and-2 slider. Still out of the zone and diving. Pitch that’s frequently chased and missed. Not a good thing for Lawrie to do, but you kind of get it.
Another first-pitch breaking ball for a strike. It’s the seventh, with two on and none out. You can’t blame Lawrie for taking the curveball. For one thing, it was a first-pitch curveball. For another, the previous batter walked. And for another, how should Lawrie know Keone Kela has a curve? How should Lawrie know Keone Kela? Do you know Keone Kela? Do you even believe me that that’s the name of the guy who was pitching? For Kela, it was his big-league debut. All his pitches before facing Lawrie:
Taking the first-pitch curveball? Totally. That’s just good execution by Kela. And then, even better execution. Consecutive curveballs down, but not too down — close enough to entice swings from a hitter simultaneously on the defensive and trying to make something happen in a close game. Lawrie doesn’t know how much Kela’s curveball drops. He can’t reasonably take those pitches in pitcher-friendly counts. Big pitches by a rookie. Kela’s first pitch to the next batter after Lawrie: changeup, called strike. The balls on the kid.
We end with Neftali Feliz. Man on, two down, 3-1 score. Feliz in the inning has thrown only fastballs and changeups. Historically, of course, Feliz has had good heat, and it hasn’t completely abandoned him. So once more, you can forgive the first-pitch called strike on a breaking ball. It’s not like Lawrie has a long history of seeing this slider. You can’t always let it go by, but, it’s understandable, in isolation.
And then, another slider. Lawrie was looking fastball. This is kind of the thing about pitch-mixing. It doesn’t really matter that Lawrie had seen a steady stream of breaking balls. It seems obvious now that he should’ve been looking for another slider, but that’s not the way the game works. Pitchers and catchers are smarter than that, which means hitters are also smarter than that. They have to isolate individual pitches, trying to forget about any perceived patterns, because those perceived patterns shouldn’t really be actual patterns. They’re just distractions. While it seems obvious a slider was coming, you could just as well make an argument that the Rangers had Lawrie perfectly set up for a fastball. Which is right? Lawrie, obviously, was still thinking fastball. Doesn’t mean Lawrie is an idiot. It means pitchers are good about randomizing. Not always, but usually. Feliz throws fastballs to righties most of the time. It’s a pitch to sit on. So a slider, up and away? Opportunity for some damage, but Lawrie was caught in between. Which set up yet another 0-and-2 count.
And he got the same slider Lewis put him away with in the second. Same result. Those pitches look enticing for hitters who have to protect the plate. They chase those pitches for a reason.
Every single Lawrie pitch result makes good-enough sense. It’s just, when you put them all together…the probability of that happening is low. I’m sure, by the end, Lawrie was at least a little frustrated, so maybe he became a wee bit more strikeout-happy. Maybe Lawrie got in his own head a little bit. But maybe Mike Schmidt did, too. Didn’t affect him the fifth time. Lawrie didn’t get a fifth time. He’ll play again real soon, and I bet he even hits a ball fair.
Bad day. But, Lawrie made four outs in four plate appearances. Ben Zobrist made four outs in four plate appearances. Marcus Semien made four outs in three plate appearances. Something tells me Brett Lawrie has enough confidence in himself to get over this.
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.