Did you see Giancarlo Stanton’s homer that went out of Dodger Stadium? Stanton hit and the Dodger fans went “OOOOHHH!” and then 467 feet later, when they saw it go out, they went “OOOOHHH!” again. The Marlins color guy punctuated the moment by saying, “You don’t see that every night!” which indeed is true but maybe undersells it a bit. I mean I’d go so far as to say you don’t see that even every other night! In 4,000 lifetimes you and I could never do that, but Stanton did it in this one. Amazing.
Less amazing but more pertinent to this article is what kind of effect that has on the pitcher. As a former high-school pitcher (second-team all district, baby!) I’ve given up a homer or two and, in my very limited experience, when you face that guy again one of two things happens. The first is you challenge him again because he can’t hit your best stuff and also you’re an idiot. The second is you stay the heck away from throwing him the pitch he crushed in the first at-bat and probably stay the heck away from throwing him anything hittable in general. But that’s me in high school. Are major-league pitchers like that? At least one is!
Mike Bolsinger was the starting pitcher for the Dodgers last Tuesday. It was his 86 mph cutter at the top of the strike zone that Stanton hit so hard it briefly turned the fans of Dodger Stadium from Dodger fans into Marlins fans. An inspection of the relevant at-bat reveals that Bolsinger missed his location on both pitches he threw Stanton. The first cutter was supposed to be low and away but was up at the top of the strike zone. He was lucky Stanton missed it. The next one was supposed to be belt-high inside (there was nobody on base so I’m going by where the catcher set up). Bolsinger got the height right but left the pitch just a bit further over the plate than he probably wanted, a few inches which wound up endangering the well-being of anyone walking outside the left field area of Dodger Stadium.
So how did Bolsinger react to facing Stanton a second time? So this is interesting! Bolsinger threw Stanton six straight curveballs! Common perception is that you don’t want to throw too many of the same kind of pitch consecutively for fear the batter will hone in on the specific movement of the pitch. Mike Bolsinger may have many fears — groundhogs and people who don’t use coasters potentially among them — but what he definitely isn’t afraid of is throwing the same pitch twice.
All six curveballs to Stanton were supposed to be low and away. Bolsinger did not appear to be worried about walking Stanton. Indeed, he seemed to welcome the outcome short of having the catcher stand up and stick his arm out. If Stanton swung at pitches out of the strike zone, fine, but otherwise, Bolsinger looked like he wasn’t up for getting embarrassed again. The catcher, Yasmani Grandal, went so far as to sit on his knees behind the outside corner to physically express his desire for a pitch low and nowhere near the plate. Unsurprisingly, this at-bat ended in a walk.
Just for fun I checked on Stanton’s third at-bat of the game because it also came against Bolsinger. It was in the top of the sixth with Martin Prado on first, one out, and the Dodgers up 6-1. There was admittedly less danger to facing Stanton in this situation. Bolsinger started Stanton with a cutter that was supposed to be low and away but was up and away (missing his spot again). Then he threw Stanton a curve, representing the first time Bolsinger had changed pitches mid-at-bat against Stanton. The curve was also intended to be low and away but was up and on the inside portion of the plate. Stanton hit it hard for a line-drive single to left field and that’s when Don Mattingly decided Bolsinger should totally try out this new shampoo he got.
The funny thing about all the above is that, since it happened, Stanton has hit two homers that went further. On Friday, he homered off Cody Martin of the Braves, a blast that traveled 474 feet and disappeared into the camera well inside the batter’s eye in straight away center field. That was also his second home run of the day. So how did Martin pitch to Stanton after giving up the monster homer? Answer: he didn’t! It being the bottom of the ninth when Stanton next came up, he faced Jason Grilli. Grilli started Stanton off with two sliders intended to catch the bottom of the strike zone. They both missed. Down 2-0 in the count, Grilli came back with a beautiful 94 mph fastball on the outside edge for a strike, a sign he seemingly wasn’t going to abandon the at-bat. Then, he seemingly abandoned the at-bat. Two more fastballs both well away and Stanton took his base.
Then Saturday, in the bottom of the third inning, Stanton hit one 475 feet off Alex Wood, also of the poor, poor Braves. Wood faced Stanton again in the bottom of the fifth. Wood started Stanton off with a fastball above the belt and outside that Stanton swung through. Wood, following Tom Petty’s law, did not back down, though it appears he missed his location as A.J. Pierzynski had set up low and in. Then there was a fastball way inside for a ball, followed by a challenge fastball over the heart of the plate at thigh level. Stanton fouled it back. Then Wood, up 1-2 in the count, threw a backdoor knuckle curve that caught the outside corner for strike three.
Not breaking news here, but, as it turns out, every pitcher would be wise to avoid throwing Giancarlo Stanton anything in the strike zone. The issue is, avoiding throwing a pitch over home plate presents a strategic issue for a pitcher, especially when facing a batter who isn’t prone to chasing pitches outside the zone. Do you stay away, hope you catch him in a particularly dyspeptic mood and he gets himself out, but sigh in relief if you end up throwing him four balls first? Unless you want to walk him, sometimes you do have to throw a few over the plate, even if the guy standing next to it took you deep the time before. So do you challenge him with pitches that, if not properly executed, could very well end up even further away from home plate than in the previous at-bat? Major-league pitchers, as good as they are, can’t always throw pitches where they want them to go.
The book on Giancarlo Stanton is out and its three chapters are titled “Stay Away,” “Stay Away,” and “Darn It, I Said Stay Away!” but the Catch 22 is throwing a pitch to a precise spot can be as difficult as hitting a 94 mph fastball. Having a strategy is important and no doubt helps get batters out, but in all three post-massive-homer at-bats, Stanton got something over the plate to swing at even if the pitchers didn’t want him to. The pitchers were either good enough to throw Stanton off his game through a combination of deception, movement, and speed that he missed pitches over the plate, or they got lucky. Judging from Stanton’s prior at-bats that game, it might be more the latter than the former.