Let’s Watch Kevin Gausman Walk Javier Báez Twice

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how good we are at what we do, mistakes are inevitable. They happen. That doesn’t make them any less embarrassing, of course, but such a reminder helps us to get over our mishaps. And though I’m no major leaguer, I assume hitters and pitchers alike need the occasional self-therapy session. Baseball is a taxing and capricious endeavor – one week you’re striking out batter after batter, the next you’re getting shelled. It takes quite a bit of mental fortitude.

Saturday, Kevin Gausman didn’t have the best start. It wasn’t a disaster by any means – he went six innings and gave up a single run – but with three walks and just four strikeouts, it paled in comparison to his typical dominance. Not only that, two of those walks were issued to Javier Báez. If you’re reading this, you know how unlikely that is. No qualified pitcher in baseball induces a higher rate of swings against pitches outside the zone than Gausman. No qualified hitter in baseball swings at pitches outside the zone more often than Báez. Based on the numbers, it seems like a foregone conclusion: Báez would struggle, while Gausman would triumph.

And yet… that didn’t happen. So today, I want to take a close look at the pitches that led up to these unexpected walks. Was Báez suddenly touched by the holy spirit of Juan Soto? Or did Gausman simply fail to execute his plan? Let’s find out, starting with their first encounter:

A first-pitch slider from Gausman? Sign me right up! He doesn’t throw his slider very often in 0–0 counts, especially outside the zone, but maybe that’s why it worked. It’s well executed, too, resembling a strike for quite a while before veering away, which is more than enough incentive for Báez, who swings here with pretty much max effort. If you think this sets the tone for what’s to come, then I have a surprise for you. Now ahead in the count, Gausman elects for the splitter, his signature pitch. He tried to get Báez to chase again from the looks of it, but he releases the pitch a tad early and ends up spiking it in the dirt:

Báez has certainly swung at worst pitches before, but because the previous pitch was also down and away, perhaps he no longer felt as tempted. It’s one ball and one strike against arguably the most aggressive slugger in baseball. Do you dangle the bait a third time, counting on Báez’s voracious appetite for bad balls? Or do you float in a sneaky strike with a fastball, which Gausman has yet to introduce? Here’s what the righty decided on:

That’s… not a good slider. Unlike the first one he threw, it barely (if ever) looked like a strike, meaning even Báez could turn a cold shoulder. It’s okay, though. You’ve fallen behind, but this isn’t a hopeless situation. One of Gausman’s greatest strengths is his ability to record outs even when in disadvantageous counts; this season, his xRV (expected run value) in 2–1 counts ranks in the 83rd percentile. His next pitch provides insight as to why that’s the case:

First off, I absolutely love this choice. Gausman supplies a change in speed, movement, and location all at once. And look, Báez almost swung! Almost. Had the pitch ended up slightly lower, it’s very likely that would have been an actual, tide-turning whiff. On appeal, however, the first base umpire disagreed, and Gausman found himself in a corner. Side note: I also love the near-synchronous pleas towards first base, performed in a manner that’s almost theatrical. There’s a satisfying rhythm to it all, and I have no shame admitting I’ve watched those two seconds about a dozen times.

Anyways, fine, Gausman is stuck in a terrible count, but it’s not as bad one might expect. Over his entire career, Báez has swung 73.8% of the time in 3–1 counts, an astronomical rate emblematic of his horrid discipline. All that’s required is a decent-enough pitch that doesn’t leak over the heart of the plate. So what will it be? Another high fastball? An improved slider, or maybe one more try at the splitter?

The answer: just about the worst pitch imaginable. It’s genuinely shocking, because that’s not who Kevin Gausman is. Adding insult to injury, you can catch a glimpse of Báez triumphantly chucking his bat into the off-screen ether, as if congratulating himself on a job well done. To his credit, Báez did exercise restraint in key moments. But this one is mostly on Gausman, who looked nothing like his usual self for several pitches.

It’s easy to chalk up a single incident as a fluke. The problem is that on Saturday, Gausman walked Báez not once, but twice. The start of the second confrontation is utterly deflating: Gausman opened the at-bat with a slider nowhere near the strike zone, followed by a meager 91 mph fastball that missed low, making the count 2–0. Just when it seemed like Gausman was on track for a train wreck of a inning, though, he finally found the zone:

There we go! The vertical drop on that pitch is gorgeous; you really can’t blame Báez for wanting to hack away, especially when it lands in for a strike. That’s top prospect Gabriel Moreno who’s catching by the way, and he gives a slight nod of encouragement before tossing back the ball, which is one of those small, wholesome baseball moments I think we can all enjoy. And I’d like to think it gave Gausman the boost he needed:

The camera angle makes it tough to tell, but Gausman pretty much threw the exact same pitch for the exact same result. Hey, maybe facing Javier Báez isn’t so tough after all! Unfortunately, a recurring theme here is Gausman turning a relatively simple task into a nightmare for himself. After all that trouble getting to two strikes – which is usually a death sentence for Báez – Gausman kills his building momentum with, uh, this:

You probably know where this is going.

Looking through all the prepared videos, it’s still stunning that Gausman allowed this to happen. This start against Detroit did translate into his second-lowest zone rate so far, but most of that is because he threw a gazillion balls to Báez. Against the other hitters in the lineup, Gausman wasn’t sharp, but he was at least serviceable, allowing him to limit the damage to one run. Somehow, Báez gave him all the trouble. The last two offspeed pitches from Gausman weren’t necessarily bad, yet Báez almost acted like he knew what was coming, unfazed the entire way through. I don’t know when he made up his mind to stop swinging. What I do know is that after Gausman left the game, Báez collected another four balls, producing just the third three-walk game of his 910-game big league career. Baseball is ridiculous.

Leading up to this game, Báez’s swing rates on out-of-zone pitches (i.e. his chase rate) stood at 49.2% (per Baseball Savant, for consistency’s sake). Gausman, in total, offered nine such pitches; Báez swung at one. The basic binomial probability of this occurring is about 2%, or the near-equivalent of flipping a coin nine times and landing on heads once. Granted, it doesn’t account for the fact that Gausman threw a fair share of uncompetitive pitches, but also, what are the odds of that? There’s so much baseball in any given season that statistical weirdness is bound to pop up. Case in point: Around the same time Báez was refusing to give into Gausman’s splitters, Matt Swarmer was busy giving up six solo homers in a single start. If anything, it’s Swarmer who needs a pick-me-up.

But it’s often the little errors that bother us the most. When we muck up royally, we’re often too shell-shocked to register what’s going on or even know how to react. It’s the small things, then, that can taint an otherwise good day. Maybe you left something small out of an important presentation. Maybe you said misspoke slightly, or thought you did, based on your own perception of others. Maybe you didn’t commit an identifiable mistake but merely felt like it’s been a not-so-good day. No day is ever perfect.

If I was a pitcher, I probably wouldn’t be happy to have walked Javier Báez twice, but I also have never been in a situation to potentially do so. I don’t know Gausman personally, and he didn’t show any notable signs of disappointment from what I can tell. But I hope he got to head back to a fancy hotel, relax, and forget about the whole ordeal. There’s a long season ahead, after all. As for Báez, well, I doubt he’ll be inspired to change his free-swinging ways, but I hope he’s happy, too.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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18 days ago

This reminds me of a game I actually remember watching live, where Jeff Ballard became the first pitcher to strike out Don Mattingly three times in on game (in Mattingly’s seventh MLB season).

Ballard averaged 2.6 strikeouts per 9 innings that year, while Mattingly only struck out in 4.7% of his plate appearances.