Sunday Notes: Melancon, Anthopoulos, Tracking Pitches, more by David Laurila September 20, 2015 Mark Melancon has 47 saves this season – a franchise record – and 96 since coming to Pittsburgh three years ago. In 214 games with the Pirates, he has a 1.75 ERA and a 0.93 WHIP. Those numbers must seem unfathomable to Red Sox fans. In 2012, Melancon came out of the Boston bullpen 41 times and put up an ugly 6.20 ERA. Torched in high-leverage situations early on, he subsequently took up residence in then-manager Bobby Valentine’s doghouse. He rarely pitched with a lead and logged just one save. That winter, Melancon was sent to Pittsburgh in the six-player deal that brought Brock Holt to Boston. Earlier this week, I asked the 30-year-old right-hander what has changed since his disastrous stint in Beantown. “I was a different type of pitcher when I was there,” responded Melancon. “Percentage-wise, I was throwing more of my other pitches – my four-seamer, my two-seamer, and my curveball — and now my cutter takes precedence.” Melancon credits Russell Martin for instilling confidence in the cutter, and for helping him learn how and when to use it. He’s using it a lot – 58.9% this year, per PITCHf/x – and delivering it at a crisp 92-93 mph. April’s diminished velocity – “I wasn’t up to par yet, but it was really just fatigue” — is long in the rear view, much like his time under Valentine. Melancon believes in the idea of closer mentality, a quality many in Boston felt he didn’t possess. That perception existed largely within the fan base, but there was doubt in the organization as well. “I know one guy who questioned it and he’s not there any more,” Melancon told me. “I guess I don’t know for sure that he questioned it, but I didn’t get a chance to close.” He’s getting that chance in Pittsburgh, and the results are telling. Once maligned, Melancon’s makeup is now beyond reproach. —— Pedro Martinez wasn’t shy about throwing inside – he plunked 141 hitters and buzzed numerous others – and he’s not scared admit it. Pedro being Pedro, he owns up to his intimidating ways in his own inimitable fashion. The following excerpt is from his autobiography, which came out this year: “I never understood why other pitchers, especially those who were taller, heavier, and stronger than me – which was nearly everyone – would give up on the inner half. It was as if they feared the drama that pitching inside would generate from hitters, hitters who had grown way too comfortable with their pussy pads on their elbows and some with their steroids flowing through their bodies, making them even more ornery when a pitcher dared to challenge them. I was never afraid of that drama, because I was never afraid.” —— Alex Anthopoulos is a big believer in blending scouting and analytics. Many general managers are. The extent to which they balance the two, relative to each other, is a matter of conjecture. Ditto what they value most within each discipline. The Toronto GM has an idea where his contemporaries lean, but only to a degree. “You can see certain themes, but I don’t know that we know all that much,” said Anthopoulos. “There are certain GMs who have strong relationships with each other and might talk about more, but we’re all competing with each other. I don’t know that people really divulge much philosophically, other that what’s obvious in their transactions.” Anthopoulos predictably wouldn’t go into detail, but he did divulge some tasty tidbits regarding personnel decisions the Jays have made. With Marco Estrada, “the scouting reports didn’t fit with where we’d go from an analytics standpoint.” Justin Smoak was “maybe more on the analytics side than the scouting report.” Dioner Navarro was “probably more scouting than analytics.” Edwin Encarnacion “might have been” (more scouting than analytics). Signing Jose Bautista to an extension “was both scouting and analytics.” Anthopoulos went on to say while there exceptions for everything, you shouldn’t make a decision without both. As for how other organizations go about the balancing act, he only knows that everyone is out to win. “I think everybody studies everybody else,” opined Anthopoulos. “Everybody is always trying to get an edge, but at the same time, certain people have strong beliefs, opinions, and so on. I won’t say we have all the answers.” No one does, but his club has enough of them to be playoff bound for the first time in over 20 years. —— If you read this column on a regular basis, you’re aware of my recent interest in the backup slider. I wrote about the pitch three Sundays ago, and revisited it the following week. The almost-always-inadvertent offering is surprisingly effective, for a simple reason: Hitters react to slider spin, only to have the pitch not break like a slider. With that in mind, what exactly do hitters see after the ball leaves a pitcher’s hand? When do they recognize spin? How do they track the ball? How do they control their bat paths to account for movement? Given the fraction of a second it takes for a pitch to go from release point to hitting zone, those are difficult questions to answer. Six hitters – Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Josh Donaldson, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and Troy Tulowitzki – gave it their best shot. BETTS: “Sometimes you see a dot (on a slider) when the lighting is good. But it’s tough to explain, because it happens so fast. It’s more of something you have to feel and experience. Hitting is so much instinct. I think they’ve said the last 10 or 15 feet you don’t actually see the ball, you’re just kind of guessing where it is. Sometimes you guess and miss it, and sometimes you guess and end up hitting it.” BRADLEY, JR: “I see speed and the actual trajectory. I see spin, but I don’t see a dot. Sometimes you alter your swing, mid swing, because you think the ball is going to do something and it doesn’t, like with a backup slider. It’s just instinct. I don’t think you can pinpoint a certain time that you know you’re going to start your swing. That’s too complicated for me to figure out.” DONALDSON: “If you’re willing to hit the ball the other way, the slider becomes an easier pitch to hit, because of the angle you’re approaching it from. That being said, what’s difficult about hitting is that you’re pretty much taking an educated guess where the ball is going. The balls are going at high speeds and they’re moving late. But your approach toward a pitch dictates how you’re going to hit a mistake versus how you’re going to hit an executed pitch.” RIZZO: “Sometimes you think it’s a fastball, and you swing at it, and you end up looking like an idiot because it’s not. Other times you recognize it right away. It’s just your mind telling you where it’s going to go. I’d like to say I see it out of the hand, but I don’t think that’s the case. I do feel like I track the ball pretty well when I recognize it and see it. But it really all depends on the pitcher.” SCHWARBER: “You like to think you recognize a pitch right out of the hand, but that’s not possible. It’s hard to say where you recognize it. You’re picking up spin and velocity, and with a slider, sometimes you see a dot and change your swing direction off of that. Part of it is how your pre-pitch happens – knowing his tendencies – but once the ball comes out of the hand, it’s pretty much all based on instincts. It’s the instincts of your eyes, because you’ve seen the pitch so many times and kind of know where it’s going.” TULOWITZKI: “I’d say you can determine if you’re going to swing when the ball is about half way. You start recognizing spin about half way – not right out of the hand – because it’s so quick. Against some guys, you’ll see the ball for a long time, but for the most part you’re just trusting your eyes and making an educated guess. And a good swing is going to stay in the zone longer; some hitters take a better pass at it than others.” —— Leafing through my unused-quotes folder, I came across the following from Oakland Athletics assistant general manager – and former St. Louis Cardinals scouting director – Dan Kantrovitz. It’s from last year, and of particular interest given rumors that Kantrovitz is a leading candidate to fill the vacant GM chair in Milwaukee. KANTROVITZ: “One of the scouting traits we try to bear down on is to control the strike zone, whether that’s how well a hitter controls it, or how a pitcher controls it. Being disciplined enough to not swing out of the zone, and being able to throw quality strikes within the zone, are tough things to teach, especially to someone coming out of college.There are obviously exceptions, but we want to be realistic about who is going to be able to make those adjustments and who’s not. From a scouting perspective, there’s more room — more time — for a high school player to make those adjustments.” —— In my opinion, the slide that injured Jung Ho Kang was within the parameters of fair play. The result was unfortunate – no one wants to see a player get hurt – but the rules allow for the type of takeout slide we saw from Chris Coghlan. I feel they should allow it, and so does Cubs manager Joe Maddon. “You can’t automatically – when somebody gets hurt on a hard baseball play – want to legislate it,” said Maddon, after the game. “It’s like the play at the plate (which) I think is the worst rule in baseball. I believe the umpires want to get rid of that also. I’m not into over-legislation. That is a good baseball play; it’s been going on for the last 100 years, with no intent to hurt anybody.” Maddon’s mention of the blocking-in-the-plate rule was notable, because his team was the beneficiary of it not being enforced the previous night. The ruling cost the Pirates a crucial run in a game they went on to lose 3-2 in 12 innings. Miguel Montero unquestionably blocked the plate, but – according to the video replay review – did so while “reacting to the trajectory of the throw.” Whether that explanation is simple or complicated is subjective. Then again, so are the rules in question. —— A straight steal of home is a rare play. It is also potentially a confusing one. Take this unlikely, yet by no means impossible, scenario: Runner on third, two out, two strikes on the batter. With the pitcher paying no attention to him, the runner breaks for home. He gets a huge jump and is most of the way down the line before the pitcher realizes what is happening. Without stepping off the rubber, the pitcher throws a legal pitch – he doesn’t balk – and it arrives after the runner has slid across the plate safely. The pitch is in the strike zone, hence the batter is out and the inning is over. Does the run count? This is a good question, because – to my knowledge – it’s not spelled out specifically in the rule book. The closest I’m aware of is Rule 5.09, a14: “With two out, a runner on third base, and two strikes on the batter, the runner attempts to steal home on a legal pitch and the ball touches the runner in the batter’s strike zone. The umpire shall call “Strike Three,” the batter is out and the run shall not count. Before two are out, the umpire shall call “Strike three,” the ball is dead and the run counts.” Presumably, the call would be the same if the pitch did not contact the runner. That was the opinion of a former umpire I consulted. He’s never heard of it happening, which by all accounts is a good thing. The rule appears somewhat nebulous. RANDOM FACTS AND STATS On September 19, 1964, the Phillies lost to the Dodgers when Willie Davis stole home in the 16th inning. Two days later, they lost to the Reds as Chico Ruiz stole home in the sixth inning for the game’s only run. The latter defeat was the first of 10 straight losses for Philadelphia, who blew a six-and-half-game lead in the National League with 12 games left on the schedule. Aramis Ramirez has made 2,102 appearances at third base, which ranks tenth all-time. He has 2,295 hits, 385 home runs, and an adjusted OPS of 115. Ron Santo, who ranks ninth all-time with 2,130 appearances at third base, had 2,254 hits, 342 home runs, and an adjusted OPS of 125. John Lackey has pitched in 385 games and been credited with 164 wins. Sandy Koufax pitched in 397 games and was credited with 165 wins. On Thursday, Anthony Rizzo became the second left-handed hitter in Cubs history to have multiple 30-home-run seasons. Billy Williams is the other. The Pirates have a 32-17 record in one-run games, the best mark in MLB. The last time the Pirates had the best one-run record was 1958, when they went 30-19. Tyler Olson of the Mariners and Atlanta’s Shelby Miller have each issued seven intentional walks this year, the most of any pitcher. Olson has pitched 13-and-a-third innings, Miller 186 innings. For those of you who like to plan ahead, the 2016 SABR Convention will be held in Miami from July 27-31. The Marlins host the Phillies and Cardinals that week.