Mike Fiers and Pitching Rattled

Perhaps the biggest problem with sports analysis is believing too strongly in one’s ability to understand the future. Perhaps the biggest problem with sports commentary is believing too strongly in one’s ability to understand the present. We’re always more than happy to play psychiatrist when it comes to discussing people we know and talk to every week, but then we allow this to carry over into sporting events, with completely unfamiliar people trying to navigate completely unfamiliar circumstances. We pretty much never know who a player is, and what he’s going through. That doesn’t stop people from analyzing the activity waves in his brain.

You know what I’m referring to, and it happens with every sport, in particular down the stretch and in the playoffs. Choking. Stepping up. Wilting. Clutch. So many people offer so many psychological explanations, yet, we never know whether there’s actually any truth. They’re just explanations after the fact, even though, in every competition, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. So rarely can we actually speak to the psychology of sport. We don’t know when we’re observing a certain mental state, so we can’t analyze what that means.

Which brings us to Thursday night and Mike Fiers. Let’s say that professional athletes are mentally strong — mentally stronger than most. So let’s say it would take a lot for one to be rattled. What kind of event might rattle more than anything else? I’d volunteer a high hit-by-pitch. When you throw a ball that hits someone around the head, that goes beyond competitive adversity. So given what transpired, perhaps Fiers is an actual, observable example of a player playing while rattled. These examples are exceedingly rare things.

Yet, maybe it still didn’t matter. Turns out this stuff is complicated.

I know what happened, you know what happened, I’m not going to show you any video of what happened. Here is how I’ll choose to represent Fiers hitting Giancarlo Stanton in the face:

fiersstanton

The game was delayed for several minutes. Stanton remained on the ground for several minutes, before being carted off. The batter’s area had to be tended to before play could resume, because Stanton had lost such a volume of blood. Fiers was present for everything, mostly responsible, mostly thinking about his responsibility. He stayed in the game, and eventually he faced Reed Johnson, who took over Stanton’s at-bat that was not, officially, a hit-by-pitch. Fiers was given a low-away target:

fiersjohnsontarget

Fiers then immediately hit Johnson with a pitch as high as the one he threw to Stanton.

fiersjohnson

Johnson struck out. Which means Stanton struck out, from a gurney. Fiers, officially, still hasn’t hit a batter this season. It was weird. But immediately, it was suggested that Fiers just wasn’t in control of himself after what he did to Stanton. After hitting Johnson he was overcome with emotions, and then after the game he remained shaken up. Here’s a brief video interview. A quote:

“I’ve never in my life experienced something like that. It was very hard for me to take in everything at the moment and come back and throw another pitch.”

It’s seemingly a straightforward thing to explain. Fiers hit Stanton, he felt awful, and then he couldn’t concentrate and he hit Johnson too. It feels like a clear example of a player being affected by being rattled. But what if it’s not so clear? It’s pretty much never so clear. I mean, look at the target for the pitch to Stanton:

fiersstantontarget

Fiers missed that target by as much as he missed the target for Johnson. And while the pitch to Johnson was similarly high, it was actually two feet closer to the plate, to the point at which it nearly crossed over the edge. Look at how much Johnson’s crowding the plate. It’s not an accident he has one of the highest hit-by-pitch rates in baseball history. It feels explicable, and earlier in the same inning, here’s a pitch to Jeff Mathis:

fiersmathis

In fact, from Brooks Baseball, here’s Fiers’ whole game, adjusting locations such that both lefties and righties are put on the same side of the plate:

fiersmarlins

That’s a whole lot of activity up and in. And this is a part of Fiers’ game. Among starters this year, Fiers has the fifth-highest rate of pitches thrown at least three feet off the ground. His high fastball gets fly balls and strikeouts, and sometimes that means Fiers buzzes the tower. Sometimes that means he gets closer. Pitches that’re too high don’t necessarily indicate a problem with Fiers, because he throws pitches like that normally. It’s just, those pitches usually don’t make contact with flesh. Batters take up only so much space, and they get to react to the ball coming in their direction.

So we can’t actually say whether Fiers hit Johnson in large part because he hit Stanton. To some degree it would make total sense, but given that there was a two-strike count, pitching up on purpose also would make total sense, and accidentally clipping Johnson would make total sense because pitchers do that all the time. Seemingly one of the most obvious examples of a player under-performing while being rattled is muddied by details. How mentally strong are these players, actually?

Let’s take a look at one more thing, with the help of Baseball Savant. So far this year, there have been 59 cases of a pitcher hitting a batter way up high, then remaining in the game. Not every one of those instances was as dark as the Stanton accident — few are — but a beanball is a beanball. Batters go down and get checked out, and pitchers think about the reality that they could accidentally change someone’s life. Where have the subsequent pitches gone? Like, what about the 59 pitches after the 59 pitches?

Putting lefties and righties on the same side, again:

pitchafterlocation

There’s not a single pitch up and in, like Fiers’ pitch to Johnson. There’s not much activity in off the plate, and there are plenty of pitches away. Two of these first pitches are at least a foot in from the middle of the plate, against a player-sample first-pitch average of 7%. A quarter of these pitches are at least a foot away from the middle of the plate, against a player-sample first-pitch average of 16%. The average pitch here is more outside by almost three inches. Despite the small sample, it reads like a response: after hitting a guy up and in, pitchers try to go a little more away. That’s probably about what we’d expect, and considering we’re selecting for a sample of guys who just hit batters around the skull, the execution isn’t awful. I’m not sure what results would’ve meant what in the plot above, but if anything, the theoretically-rattled pitchers have overcompensated by missing away.

This is such a small thing that one could try to use to support a big thing. Why does it matter how pitchers respond to ugly beanballs? If a pitcher can perform after something like that, it follows they’re probably not susceptible to having issues with pressure or crowd noise. Nothing’s more jarring than hitting a guy in the head. And if pitchers can’t perform well after something like that, or if they perform worse, then that opens the pressure door a crack. That opens analysis to considering emotional effects, for better or worse. To what degree are these highly-trained humans actually human in some of the most human moments?

Based on his written and vocal responses to the accident, Mike Fiers clearly has a human side. Yet it remains unclear whether his human side plays any role on the mound. What I can say is that Fiers immediately hitting Johnson is definitely evidence of something.





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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Brian
7 years ago

Very interesting article, but I don’t understand the conclusion.

I’ve never been a pro, but hitting a batter sucks. Hitting a batter high triple-sucks. Even if you’ve pitched hundreds or thousands of innings, if you endanger someone’s life you’re going to be rattled.

In my rec league, I’ve been playing in for over a decade, I’m a control pitcher. I’ve probably hit seven or eight batters in about 300 innings. I hit one guy in the head. It was a scary experience. I promised myself to live down and away until I got through the inning.

I choked up real tight, determined to fire a fastball on the outer half. I hit the next batter on the first pitch.

Jason
7 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Target fixation, pure and simple.

Brian
7 years ago
Reply to  Jason

Also I realized after posting that my comment isn’t a very fangraphs-y comment but cannot find out how to delete it, so please be kind. Sorry guys. The article just reminded me of that experience.

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  Brian

It may not be FanGraphs-y but it is excellent-y.

Rick Ankiel
7 years ago
Reply to  Brian

C’mon Brian, really how hard is it to lose your control that quickly?

Steve Blass
7 years ago
Reply to  Rick Ankiel

Agreed. It’s not that hard to place a fastball in the zone, you know.