How One Little Call Helped the Red Sox Beat the Tigers

The Cardinals felt like they were in a good position, handing the ball for Game 3 to Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals lost, not because of Wainwright, but because they couldn’t score. The Tigers felt like they were in a good position, handing the ball for Game 3 to Justin Verlander. The Tigers lost, not because of Verlander, but because they couldn’t score. Verlander, on Tuesday, turned in one of the better postseason starts all-time, I’d say. Over eight innings he struck out ten and was made to pay for one mistake. But John Lackey and the Red Sox bullpen kept the Tigers shut out, with Koji Uehara slamming the door. And Uehara’s outing was not without its moment of interest.

It was bad for the Tigers when Miguel Cabrera struck out with two on in the eighth. It was bad for the Tigers when Prince Fielder struck out right after. But according to the play log, the worst play all game for the Tigers was Jhonny Peralta‘s ninth-inning double play. After Victor Martinez‘s leadoff single, the Tigers’ win expectancy was an estimated 35%. After the double play, it dropped to 5%. Hope was torn down as quickly as it was built up, and Alex Avila’s closing at-bat felt like a formality. The game effectively ended on Peralta’s grounder, and that grounder came on a pitch that followed a 1-and-1 fastball.

As long as people are going to write about pitch-framing, we should try to understand how it can matter. Pitch-framing isn’t all about extra walks or extra strikeouts. It’s about extra balls or extra strikes, and the differences those can make. Given that a pitch is kind of the smallest component of any single baseball game, it doesn’t feel like one pitch can be that significant, but, consider the Peralta case. This is one example of how pitch-framing, or a strike call, can influence subsequent events.

Martinez singled to lead off, and he was replaced by a pinch-runner. The first pitch from Uehara to Peralta was a splitter, high, for a ball. The second pitch was a splitter, low and away, for a swinging strike. The count was even at 1-and-1, and Uehara and Jarrod Saltalamacchia came back with a fastball. I can’t yet access video of this pitch, so Gameday’s the best I can do:


Update: and now a .gif


Trust me when I say the pitch was down. Trust me when I say the pitch was received well by Saltalamacchia. Trust me when I say the umpire had a pretty good zone all game. Trust me when I say Peralta disagreed. The pitch was, at best, a borderline strike, and at worst it was an obvious ball. Uehara didn’t miss his spot, but low’s low. Before the game, when there was talk about David Ross maybe starting over Saltalamacchia, the first thing I thought of was Ross’ considerable framing advantage. Ross is one of the best; Saltalamacchia’s something like average. On this particular pitch, Saltalamacchia helped to do Uehara a solid.

As a result, the count was 1-and-2. As a result, Uehara threw a splitter out of the zone, and Peralta could barely do anything with it.


That pitch worked out as a double play. Now think about the pitch before it. What if the low fastball had been called a ball instead? Rather than 1-and-2, the count would’ve been 2-and-1. Would Uehara have thrown the same pitch? Would he have thrown it in the same spot? Would Peralta have attempted the same swing? Would Peralta have attempted any swing?

For the record, this year, in 1-and-2 counts, Uehara has thrown 62% splitters. In 2-and-1 counts, he’s thrown 47% splitters. He’s thrown a far greater rate of 2-and-1 pitches in the zone than 1-and-2 pitches. It also stands to reason hitters would be less defensive at 2-and-1 than 1-and-2, when they feel like they have to expand and protect. That plays into Uehara’s strength. That plays into every pitcher’s strength, but Uehara in particular has a terrifying breaking ball that’s downright lethal when there are two strikes on the board.

We can look at this a different way:

Jhonny Peralta, career

  • After 2-and-1: .818 OPS
  • After 1-and-2: .521 OPS

Koji Uehara, career

  • After 2-and-1: .673 OPS allowed
  • After 1-and-2: .386 OPS allowed

Peralta’s way worse behind in the count, of course. Everyone is. Uehara’s almost unhittable ahead in the count, of course. Just about every great pitcher is. The third pitch to Peralta influenced the fourth pitch. Because the third pitch went Uehara’s way, he could make the fourth pitch better. He could think less about just throwing a strike, and more about putting Peralta back in the dugout.

It’s a shift in probabilities. That’s what everything in baseball is. Peralta doesn’t make one or two outs every time he falls behind Uehara 1-and-2. He doesn’t do something productive every time he gets ahead of Uehara 2-and-1. But the odds are so much more in Uehara’s favor when he gets that low fastball. That allowed Uehara to put his splitter anywhere, and Peralta had to be on the defensive. That’s exactly what Uehara wants out of every at-bat.

The specific point: Jarrod Saltalamacchia got an important strike, ahead of the game’s most important play. The more general point: individual pitches matter, sometimes quite a lot, because all pitches are connected. One pitch in part determines the next pitch, and so much of baseball comes down to the sequences. It’s important to understand the counts, and it’s important to understand the differences between them. Get there and it can start to make sense how pitch-framing research can yield such significant run values sometimes. Over a season there are a whole lot of pitches.

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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10 years ago

Maybe it was just me, but I felt like the ump was calling the low strike all day? The zone definitely seemed to extend more toward the bottom than it did toward the top. But there was definitely some solid framing on that borderline pitch.

10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

I want laser beams making the calls on balls and strikes. No seriously. Have the calls signaled to the umps or something.

Jason B
10 years ago
Reply to  Cybo

No! Broadcast them in circa-1950’s robot voice.

By a circa-1950’s robot.

Baseball is all about tradition for some folks. What could be more traditional white-bread than Robbie the Robot?

10 years ago
Reply to  B N

I don’t think it absolves the ump to say that he’s been calling low strikes all day (if indeed it was a ball; I don’t know). Hitters should not be expected to change their approach day to day according to the whims of the umpire.

10 years ago
Reply to  Brian

I agree. It seems to me that this whole “batter has to adjust to the strike zone” thing is nearly impossible. Your talking about a choice, to swing the bat, that has to be in something like the first 1/10th of second as the pitch approaches the plate (I remember reading about what this number actually is somewhere, but am to lazy to find it). How do we expect hitters to adjust to a few inches here or there once its over the plate every game when they have to make the choice to swing when the pitch is only a few feet out of the pitchers hand? Its absurd. This is a skill, to predict what’s a ball or strike so quickly, that takes them decades to develop and they have to, not exactly relearn it, but sometimes greatly adjust to on any given day.

I think this is why we see the crappy swings on pitches that wouldn’t even be called strikes by the given up of the day. Its because hitters are pushed out of what they know and they try to force something they aren’t comfortable with because, in effect, this ump says they have to try.