How Gregory Polanco Threw Out Trevor Cahill

It’s mostly a matter of aesthetics. A little bit of pride, but, for the most part, an out is an out, if you did nothing wrong. Batters make outs most of the time, especially if the batter’s name is Trevor Cahill. The Cubs, presumably, aren’t bothered that Cahill made an out in the fifth inning on Tuesday. They would’ve expected as much, and if anything, they’d be happy about his hitting a line drive. But ultimately, Cahill was thrown out by Gregory Polanco, and he was thrown out at first base, despite his quality contact. Maybe even in part because of his quality contact. Cahill found himself the victim of a 9-3 putout, and though Cahill didn’t make any mistakes, it’s naturally the sort of play that generates attention. It can’t not be dwelt on.

As you can imagine, the 9-3 putout is rare. Here’s a post that August wrote a year ago. We see an average of roughly one of these a season, and of the 9-3 putouts that do happen, it’s relatively common for them to happen to pitchers. What Polanco did isn’t nearly as remarkable as what Jose Bautista did last year, but it’s kind of like comparing a no-hitter to a perfect game. Or like comparing a three-homer game to a four-homer game. Yeah, events do get more freaky. But what Polanco did to Cahill was freaky. And, as we’ll see, also somewhat simple.

Generally, 9-3 putouts look kind of alike. At least, those that don’t feature a stumble. Here’s Cahill basically lining a single for an out:

The two main things you notice: Polanco had Cahill positioned perfectly, and he threw Cahill out by a mile. You come away thinking, boy, is Trevor Cahill ever slow. And that isn’t untrue, but if you analyze this, you see Cahill’s speed barely even mattered. If he were a world-class sprinter, he would’ve made it to first in time, but this was basically all about Polanco, and Cahill’s bat.

Here’s a field view of where Polanco was stationed with the pitch on the way. You see him over there behind Pedro Alvarez.

polanco-cahill

That seems awful close to the line. It seems like Polanco was playing Cahill to go the other way, somewhat extremely. And with just this play in mind, it doesn’t matter whether this is normal or abnormal. But for the sake of comparison, here’s where Polanco was when the camera cut to the outfield:

polanco-cahill2

Toward the line, kind of shallow. Now, here’s where Polanco was in the same game, with righty Addison Russell up to bat.

polanco-russell

The change in the mowing pattern makes this next part easy. Now, when the camera cuts to the outfield view, the outfielders have already moved a little bit. But not very much — the cameras switch quickly. So below is the shot of Polanco with Cahill at bat, only in this image, there’s a red dot about where we see Polanco in the Russell image.

polanco-cahill3

That’s a pretty substantial shift, given that both batters are righties. Polanco was playing Cahill far more toward the line. You’ll rightly observe: Russell is a decently powerful shortstop, and Cahill is a pitcher who might have a hit or two in his career, off the top of my head. Pitchers aren’t good at hitting. But then, here’s Polanco in right field with pitcher Mike Leake at the plate. This is from earlier in the season, with the same Pirates pitcher on the mound.

polanco-leake

No extreme shift there. I know Leake is a good hitter for a pitcher, but he’s still a bad hitter, with a career .100 ISO. Polanco treated him similar to how he treated Russell. The Cahill reasoning? Perhaps we can draw from Brooks Baseball and look at his career spray chart:

cahill-spray

Look at all those shots to shallow right. Look at the near-dearth of activity in left and left-center. When Cahill has batted, he has very frequently hit the ball pretty weakly toward the opposite field. The Pirates, as a team, are somewhat obsessive about their defensive shifts. You’d think that, with a guy like Cahill at the plate, the Pirates might go to some generic positioning. What it looks like is they might’ve positioned themselves for Cahill specifically, and though maybe that’s a leap, maybe instead it’s a sign of how the Pirates don’t take any assignments off, no matter how pathetic the opponent. Every edge is an edge.

Anyway, Polanco played Cahill shallow, and close to the line. Cahill hit the ball shallow, and close to the line. It all went perfectly for Polanco, who said:

“I let Pedro (Alvarez) know before it happened,” Polanco said. “…I tell him I’m playing shallow if he hits it over here, I’m going to throw it. I know he’s not fast.”

Polanco was anticipating this specific opportunity. And when he got to the ball and threw it, he threw it just over 87 miles per hour. It’s not Polanco’s hardest throw of the season, even just among those measured by Statcast, but it’s a very strong throw, covering not all that much in terms of distance. Statcast gave Polanco a throw distance of 106 feet. Here’s a Manny Machado throw to first from third, measuring 131 feet. The ball got to Machado quicker, but Polanco’s throw had to cover less ground.

Cahill took a little over 5 seconds to get to first base. That is very slow, and that’s why he was thrown out by so much. But you can see him pull up a little short of the bag, as he realizes he’s dead. He wasn’t busting it the whole way, and this is because, from contact, it took 4.3 or 4.4 seconds for the ball to get to Polanco and to then get to first base. If Cahill had gotten to first in 4.3 – 4.4 seconds, the play would’ve been an approximate tie. That would give him average to slightly below-average speed, for a right-handed hitter. This is the very thing: Cahill wasn’t thrown out because he’s slow. He was thrown out because his bat sucks, and Polanco has a really strong arm. If you think of it like that, it’s less embarrassing. There wasn’t really anything Cahill could’ve done. Circumstances conspired to make him look bad.

After Polanco threw out Cahill, the Pirates broadcast talked about how the Cubs might respond. The Cubs tried to respond immediately in the bottom half of the inning:

That’s Chris Coghlan, trying to do to Jung-Ho Kang what Polanco did to Cahill. Coghlan didn’t come close. He wasn’t playing as shallow, and he didn’t have the same throwing momentum, so his throw was worse. The ball took about a full second longer to get to first base, compared to the Cahill/Polanco play. And Kang was easily safe. But of some note, look at these screengrabs of Cahill and Kang running, from my video editor. These are grabs from exactly 4 seconds after contact.

kangvscahill

It’s not a great comparison, because the angles are different, but Kang and Cahill were in similar places. Cahill isn’t as fast as Kang. That isn’t the point. Kang didn’t bust it right out of the box. Cahill slowed down when he realized he didn’t need to keep sprinting. The two runners made similar progress for most of the path to first, and the big difference was all about outfielder positioning and outfielder arm strength. The legs themselves were only barely involved.

A point that came up on the Pirates broadcast: sometimes, revenge would come from the pitcher thrown out. To even attempt a 9-3 putout might be considered an affront, so an insulted pitcher might do a little something when the right fielder came up to bat. After getting thrown out, Cahill went to the mound. He faced six more batters, getting replaced by Zac Rosscup right when Polanco was due. Polanco grounded out on the first pitch, and that was that. The Pirates won, and later the same day, they lost. As part of the win, Trevor Cahill made an out. Nothing weird, when you look at it that way.





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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