Jalen Beeks and the Case of the Fun Fact

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday, Jalen Beeks had a thoroughly unimportant day at the ballpark. With the Rays trailing Toronto 5-1, he came in to pitch the top of the ninth inning. The stakes? Helping the team hit the showers 10 or 15 minutes earlier, I’d say – he wasn’t going to catapult Tampa to a win with a good performance, what with a four-run deficit and only three outs remaining, but everyone on the team would surely appreciate an efficient outing.

He did it! He got three straight groundball outs. After that, while he presumably changed into his street clothes in the clubhouse, the Rays failed to score in the bottom half of the inning, and the game ended. Thank you for coming to this episode of “FanGraphs Narrates Low-leverage Relief Outings.”

But wait! After this humdrum appearance, an anonymous tipster lit the FanGraphs signal (it’s like the Bat Signal, only with the FanGraphs logo instead). There was more to this half inning than first met the eye. I was on the case.

The investigation began with the first out. Pitch sequence? There’s none to see. Matt Chapman was up there swinging. Er, well, half-swinging:

Okay… maybe we’re looking for something about soft contact or efficient innings. A first pitch swing leading to a 42.7 mph grounder sounds like a nice day at the office for any pitcher, and probably a rare one. Next batter, please:

Three pitches, two soft grounders. Not just two soft grounders, either: two unassisted grounders to the first baseman. Let’s see that third out:

Saw that one coming. Three straight unassisted grounders to the first baseman. Getting the same result three times in a row is rare as it is, but unassisted grounders to first are particularly uncommon. After a trip to the archives, I knew just how rare. Since 1974, when our play-by-play logs start, there have been 76 innings featuring three unassisted groundouts to first base.

That counts innings where those outs weren’t the only plays in the inning, like the last time a pitcher got three unassisted groundouts to first base in a single inning, in 2018. It was the Rays that time too, because of course it was. It was even an iconic Rays pitcher. Chris Archer, in his first stint with the team, got three unassisted grounders to first in the second inning of a game on April 20, 2018. His streak wasn’t perfect, though: Logan Morrison smoked a home run to right field, 98 mph off the bat, a towering blast that put the Twins (because of course Archer was facing the Twins) ahead 1-0.

The last time a pitcher threw a perfect inning with three unassisted grounders to the first baseman? It’s time to remember some guys, because Ricky Nolasco accomplished the feat in the bottom of the first on May 1, 2012. The victims? Ángel Pagán, Melky Cabrera, and Pablo Sandoval. That’s a perfect three-for-three on guys worth remembering, and four-for-four if you count Nolasco. These triple-grounder-to-first innings happen once in a blue moon – actually much less than once in a blue moon, which NASA tells me occurs once every two to three years.

We did it! Case closed. Call Inspector Lestrade… only, something was still off. Go back and watch the videos again. Notice anything? All three batters are righties, and righties basically never ground out to the first baseman unassisted.

Righties have batted 24,569 times this year. They’ve grounded to first unassisted just 139 times. Lefties have already done it 496 times in 16,057 plate appearances. Even if you get a grounder from a righty, it’s almost never an unassisted putout by the first baseman; that’s 1.9% of grounders, as compared to more than 10% for left-handed hitters. Hey look, more evidence that the shift makes sense.

Anyway! The point of this isn’t to talk about the shift; it’s to point out that what Beeks did is vanishingly rare. Forget three straight righties grounding to first base unassisted; only four pitchers since 1974 have thrown an inning where they got three righties to ground out to the first baseman unassisted, period. And don’t worry — I used the side they were batting from in their specific at-bat to account for switch hitters. (I know you were very worried.)

Why do I keep harping on unassisted? It’s yet another limiting factor, but it also happens less often for righty hitters than lefty hitters. In many infield alignments, the first baseman will field the ball quite far from the bag against a right-handed hitter; the teeth of the defense are shaded the other direction, and the first baseman has a lot of ground to cover as a result. That results in a 3-1 groundout, which isn’t as rare or as satisfying to score.

Those four pitchers I mentioned above? They’re pretty fun: Beeks, Scott Schoeneweis, Jimmy Key, and Derek Lilliquist. Schoeneweis is a classic journeyman, Key an under-appreciated great, and Lilliquist – well, he was a pitching coach later, notably the coach the Nationals fired just before embarking on their scorched-earth run to the 2019 World Series.

Schoeneweis didn’t accomplish his groundouts in succession; he gave up a single in the inning. But Lilliquist and Key both did, and what’s more, they did it within two months of each other. On May 15, 1993, Lilliquist accomplished the feat for the first time since our play-by-play logs start in ’74. Pitching with a four-run lead in the ninth inning, he faced the bottom of the Milwaukee order and got Tom Brunansky, Joe Kmak, and Pat Listach to ground quietly to first base. He did it on just three pitches; each Brewer jumped on the first pitch and then wished they hadn’t.

As best as I can tell looking back, there was no fanfare around Lilliquist’s feat. Why would there be? It’s such a strange accomplishment; it’s not clear that the pitcher has much to do with it, and it’s more notable for its rarity than for any particular talent being on display. Maybe Jayson Stark would write an article about it these days, but it wasn’t quite as easy in 1993 to look up historical play-by-play data as it is now. I’m doing it from home in my pajamas, just to give you an example of what I mean.

Plus, how rare could it really be? Key accomplished the same ultra-rare trifecta 44 days later. Amazingly, he also did it on three pitches, in the top of the first inning of a Yankees-Tigers clash. Tony Phillips, Dan Gladden, and Travis Fryman each grounded out to Don Mattingly on the first pitch they saw. No one swung on the first pitch of the game back then; that in itself was strange, and it just got weirder from there.

With that, I’m prepared to declare my investigation complete. Jalen Beeks did something nearly unprecedented last Saturday. He did it in obscurity – there was no champagne on the field, no ceremony sending the cleat Harold Ramirez used to step on first to Cooperstown. But fanfare is overrated, and obscure achievements are under-celebrated. Put Beeks in the Hall of Weird Innings, next to Lilliquist and Key. You’d first have to make a Hall of Weird Innings, but I’m very much in favor of doing that, too. And extinguish the FanGraphs signal; we’ve discovered all there is to see here. Thanks, anonymous tipster!

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

All four pitchers were lefties!