Marwin Gonzalez’s Rajai Davis Moment

The simplest, fundamental truth about closers is that none of them are perfect. Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith, Craig Kimbrel — they all blow saves, and they all take losses. Give them enough time and the bad outings will even pile up. It was Rivera who took the loss in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. Maybe the best playoff pitcher in history took one of the most devastating losses in memory. Baseball perfection is on a relative scale. All that baseball actually guarantees is that somewhere, somehow, sometime, it’ll piss everyone off. No one is safe from the baseball menace.

No closers are perfect. No closer ever has been perfect, and no closer ever will be perfect. But there’s another fundamental truth about the position. By public perception, closers are binary, black and white. There are the closers — the overwhelming majority of them included — who’ll just never earn trust. The closers who make fans roll their eyes and say “here we go again” when they come in and throw their first ball. Fans have no patience with closers. There’s little tolerance for hittability or wildness. In that sense, it can be a terrible job. There’s limited praise, and limitless blame.

Then there’s the lucky few. It’s a rare breed, but there are closers who’re considered automatic. Closers you don’t even feel you have to watch that intently, because success is a foregone conclusion. Why closely watch a baseball game that’s already over? These closers have all blown saves, each and every one of them, but they retain the perception of invulnerability. Maybe it’s more of an illusion, but one can’t deny its existence.

Kenley Jansen is one of those invulnerable closers. In the same way that Rivera was one of those invulnerable closers, Jansen comes in and basically throws one pitch, and after five or ten or fifteen of them, he gets to go change his clothes. Kenley Jansen is effectively bulletproof. Wednesday night, Kenley Jansen blew a save.

The individual events get lost in the chaos. There was the ball that hit off of Chris Taylor’s hat. There was the pickoff that bounced off of Laz Diaz’s leg. George Springer, ultimately, hit the biggest home run in Astros franchise history. Before that, it could’ve been Jose Altuve who hit the biggest home run in Astros franchise history. That one was erased by events after the fact. Yet as wild as the extra innings were — and there were only two of them! — Marwin Gonzalez had to go deep to open the door. The game had to be tied before it could be untied. The game was tied in the ninth.

Jansen had entered the inning before, and the lead then was twice as large. Jansen, though, could hardly be blamed — he inherited a leadoff double, and a run was driven home by a thousand-bouncer up the middle off the bat of Carlos Correa. The pitch was well off the plate, and Correa didn’t even make good contact. He just made the right contact, and the lead was cut in half. It mattered, but it didn’t. This was Jansen, and Jansen is automatic.

Automatically, in the ninth, he threw a first-pitch strike to Gonzalez. Automatically, he then threw a second-pitch strike to Gonzalez. Jansen is no stranger to getting ahead 0-and-2, and we should pause to consider how these at-bats have gone. Jansen, this year, had 98 plate appearances pass through an 0-and-2 count. Opponents hit .063, with 60 strikeouts and zero home runs. Jansen, already, succeeds as if the average hitter begins in an 0-and-2 hole. Gonzalez was put in the most impossible of impossible positions.

Gonzalez was one of this year’s many breakout stories. It got lost, in part because Gonzalez used to be anonymous, and in part because the entire Houston offense was terrific. Then there’s the sheer number of other breakout stories that stole the bulk of the headlines. Gonzalez is a little like Houston’s own Chris Taylor, except that he didn’t have to change teams to tap into his strength. Between years, Gonzalez went from 13 home runs to 23. He’s a switch-hitter, but the real improvement happened for him from the left side. As a left-handed hitter, Gonzalez is hitting with the most comfort and confidence he’s ever felt.

Gonzalez was batting lefty against Jansen. Gonzalez, already, had a recent history of choking up. Here’s Gonzalez, for example, from the other week, against Chad Green.

Here’s Gonzalez from Game 1, against Brandon Morrow.

Here’s Gonzalez from earlier in Game 2, against Ross Stripling.

With Jansen pitching, though, Gonzalez choked up even more. It wasn’t just a two-strike approach — Gonzalez choked up extra from the at-bat’s beginning. It wasn’t because of Jansen’s velocity. As much as Jansen counts as a hard thrower, he doesn’t throw as hard as Morrow does. Gonzalez wasn’t concerned so much with velocity as he was with movement. Jansen’s cutter spins in such a way it seems like it has late break, and Gonzalez wanted to maximize his own bat control. He wanted to sacrifice a little bit of power for contact. I’m not suggesting that Gonzalez consciously went all Joey Votto, and batters have been choking up for decades, but it remains far from the norm. Most batters in 2017 want to do the opposite of cut down on their swings.

With the count 0-and-2, it was fairly obvious how Jansen wanted to execute. There was the chance he might go with his slider, but looking there at Austin Barnes, the call was for a cutter up. Jansen throws plenty of cutters up. The ball didn’t go quite where it was supposed to.

That’s about as middle-middle as any pitch can get. There’s not a pitcher on the planet who intentionally goes middle-middle in an 0-and-2 count. Said Gonzalez after the game:

“He made a mistake,” Gonzalez said, almost surprised, though it was neither the first nor the last of the night.

It’s true that Jansen failed to execute. He wanted the pitch to be higher, and he wanted the pitch to be closer. Jansen made a location mistake. But it’s worth wondering if there’s even such a thing as a Kenley Jansen mistake in the first place. Here are his 0-and-2 cutters from this season, from Baseball Savant.

Maybe you can spot the pitch to Gonzalez. You probably can’t. I promise it’s in there. Jansen has better locations and worse locations, but even at 0-and-2, he’s thrown plenty of pitches over the middle, and he’s seldom been burned. He’s such a good pitcher that even a location mistake can’t render him ineffective. I looked at every pitcher in baseball this year who threw middle-middle. Jansen ranked second in swinging-strike rate. Last year, when going middle-middle, he ranked fourth in swinging-strike rate. The year before, when going middle-middle, he ranked third in swinging-strike rate. Part of Jansen’s dominance is that he’s so good even over the heart. This season, Jansen had a higher swinging-strike rate middle-middle than he did on all pitches in the strike zone, overall. There are Kenley Jansen mistakes, relative to Kenley Jansen, but relative to everyone else, a Kenley Jansen mistake might look like an average pitcher’s perfection. Nothing is easy.

But the count was 0-and-2, so Gonzalez was prepared to swing. He was choked up, prepared to make contact. Roughly a year ago, in last November’s Game 7, Rajai Davis batted against an impossible closer, and swung with two strikes. He hit the most improbable home run most fans in Cleveland had ever seen. There’s maybe nothing quite so improbable about Marwin Gonzalez going deep, but the parallels are evident.

Gonzalez choked well up the handle and swung on a prayer. Davis, too, did the exact same thing. The ball left Davis’ bat at 102 miles per hour. To be more precise, 101.5. The ball left Gonzalez’s bat at 102 miles per hour. To be more precise, 101.9. Davis yanked his fly ball to left, while Gonzalez stayed up the middle, but both fly balls left the yard, tying the score where the game felt mostly over. Neither Davis nor Gonzalez probably felt the ground they jogged on.

There’s a difference, of course — two innings later, Davis’ team lost. Two innings later, Gonzalez’s team won. Both home runs wound up buried by subsequent events, events which determined the final outcome. Maybe Gonzalez’s home run will also stand as just a delay — maybe the Dodgers win this series in seven, or six, or five. They cannot go on to win it in four. That’s not all because of Marwin Gonzalez, yet the game was extended when Gonzalez went deep. Standing in a wasteland, Gonzalez’s wooden rod found an oasis, and the Astros lived to tell an incredible tale of survival. Kenley Jansen remains as good as it gets, but there’s this fundamental truth about closers.

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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Jetsy Extrano
4 years ago

Sullivan’s Law of Command: command is a myth. Even command pitchers don’t have the command we think they have. They miss by a foot all the dang time.