Sunday Notes: Saber Seminar, Backup Sliders, Gose, more

Jason Bere had an interesting observation about Joe Borowski, who saved 45 games for the Indians in 2007. According to Bere – currently Cleveland’s bullpen coach – Borowski threw a lot of backup sliders. Contrary to what you might think, that was a good thing.

“A lot of times when he got a guy to swing and miss, it was with the one that just kind of stayed,” Bere told me. “They would react to what they were seeing out of the hand, the spin, but while it had the tightness of a true slider, it didn’t break like one.

“Hitters will tell you that something that backs up on them is hard to hit. A hanger, they’ll crush. But something that backs up – that last second it’s not going where they thought it was going to go – they”ll have trouble with it. You can see it from the swings they take.”

Intrigued by what Bere told me, I set out in search of further opinions on the effective, yet almost always unintentional, backup slider.

Alan Nathan, the man behind The Physics of Baseball, shared a scientific perspective.

“It’s a slider that doesn’t move,” explained Nathan. “It’s a gyroball, and a gyroball has pure bullet spin. Sliders have a mixture of bullet spin. which doesn’t contribute to the movement, and side spin, which does. Hitters talk about the red dot. When the spin axis is tilted forward, and it passes through a seam, the ball is rotating about that seam and a batter sees a red dot. For someone with good eyesight, that’s a signal that the pitch is a slider.”

Dustin Pedroia told me doesn’t see a red dot – not all good hitters do – but he agrees with Bere’s premise.

“A backup slider can be hard to hit, because it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do” said the Red Sox second baseman. “We’re trained that if it’s a slider, it’s going to break away from you. If it doesn’t, you’re probably not going to hammer it like you would a hanging slider.”

Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall said the same thing, making it a point to differentiate between “backup” and “hanging.” When I asked Boston pitcher Craig Breslow to explain the difference between the two, his first words were “A swing and a miss.” The lefty then echoed the others, saying “If a hitter sees the spin he associates with a breaking ball, and the pitch doesn’t have true breaking ball action, he’s more likely to swing and miss. A hanging slider has breaking ball movement, but stays up in the zone.”

What causes a slider to back up? According to Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland, it’s primarily hand position. In his words, “They really get around it; they don’t get over the top and pull down. It’s unintentional, more of a mis-fire, so to speak. If you could do that intentionally, you’d have a decent pitch. But I don’t think there’s anybody who can says thry do it on purpose.”

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Brian Bannister experimented with a backup cutter. (Raise your hand if this doesn’t surprise you.) “Banny” told me about his flirtation with the pitch at this weekend’s Sabermetrics, Scouting and the Science of Baseball seminar in Boston.

“My primary pitch was a traditional cutter,” said Bannister, who currently works in a hybrid scouting/analytics capacity with the Red Sox. “It wasn’t in the spin axis range of a cut fastball, like a Josh Fields, a Kenley Jansen, or a Mariano Rivera. It was more of a traditional cutter and what that requires is, at the end of your hand action, to finish with your fingers in front of the ball.

“I didn’t have deception with my four-seam fastball when I threw it up in the zone, so I found that the more effective pitch for me was a bad cutter. When I did was kind of push through where I should be finishing the cutter. It’s kind of like when Dice-K came over with that gyroball thing; it’s more of the football spin, or bullet spin. I found that I got swings and misses or pop ups when I was able to do that.

“It’s one of those things where I don’t think anybody can throw it perfectly every time, but it’s one of the more effective pitches in baseball if you do. I definitely experimented with it.”

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Five years ago, while he was playing in the Florida State League, Anthony Gose told me, “I like to think I’m exciting on the field.” Two years later, as a Blue Jays rookie, he told me “I want to be an exciting player.”

As you read this, Gose is a frustrating player. The 25-year-old outfielder – now a Detroit Tiger – has tailed off considerably after a hot start. Two months into the season, he was hitting .314/.355/.436. His slash line is now a mundane .254/.306/.361.

He’s exciting at times. Gose is fast and will flash power on occasion. He also covers a lot of ground in the outfield and has a strong arm (defensive metrics don’t like him, which strikes many as curious). He simply hasn’t been able to perform well over an extended period.

“I’m just trying to get better,” Gose told me this summer. “That’s what it comes down to: trying to figure out what it takes to stay at this level. And the only way you’re going to learn to play in the big leagues is to be here and actually do it.”

In one of our earlier conversations, the toolsy left-handed hitter told me that he was guilty of thinking too much instead of just trusting his instincts. That hasn’t changed.

“I still have those issues now,” admitted Gose. “Sometimes you think yourself out of situations that you should be in, and think yourself into situations that you shouldn’t be in.”

Tigers general manager Al Avila is certainly putting a lot of thought into his center fielder’s future. Gose was exciting in April and May, but since that time he’s been an enigma,

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Scott Spratt and Joe Rosales of Baseball Info Solutions shared new findings at Saber Seminar. I unfortunately missed their presentation, but received a recap from Spratt later in the day.

“A full Ted Williams shift is one where three infielders move completely on one side of second base,” explained Spratt. “A partial Ted Williams shift is two and two, with one of the fielders near or behind second base, but not all the way across.

“Both are designed to prevent pull-heavy hitters from getting a lot of hits to the pull side, however, we’ve noticed that they’re not equally effective. In fact, full shifts have been dramatically more effective, regardless of who is being shifted, whether it’s a right-handed hitter or a left-handed hitter.”

The data goes back to 2010, when BIS started comprehensively tracking shifting.

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Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon did a good job of keeping things in perspective after a 22-10 loss to at Fenway Park last weekend. He also displayed a good sense of humor.

“Contrary to popular belief, those games are easy,” said McClendon. “You just turn the page. I don’t think we had to check the weather on that one.

“I got a call from Jim Leyland (after the game). He said, ’22 runs, that’s nothing. I once lost a game 27-6. Top that one.’ I said to him ‘No, I hope I never top that one.’ “

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As usual, FanGraphs is well-represented at Saber Seminar. Bill Petti presented on offensive consistency as it pertains to Runs Created. After his talk, I caught up with him to get a snapshot synopsis.

“I looked at how a player distributes the runs that he creates throughout the year,” Petti told me. “Basically, whether their runs come in a smaller number of games – in bunches — or whether they’re more evenly distributed on a game-to-game basis. I found a distribution difference between players, both within seasons and across seasons.”

One thing Petti found is that a player with a higher OBP tend to be more consistent, while a player with a higher ISO tends to be more inconsistent. He also discovered that players tend to become more consistent as they get older.

“If you trace how a player would age, performance-wise, the curve matches up really well,” said Petti. “With ISO, for example, guys hit the ball the farthest the younger they are. As they age, their power begins to decline. On-base percentage doesn’t necessarily follow the same path.”

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Michael Taylor is a little on the quiet side. I learned as much when I talked to him earlier this summer. On Thursday, the Washington Nationals outfielder hit the loudest home home of the season. According to StatCast, Taylor’s blast traveled 492.8 feet with an exit velocity of 110 mph. The 24-year-old went yard against Colorado’s Yohan Flande, at Coors Field.

In April, Seattle’s Nelson Cruz catapulted a pitch from Wandy Rodriguez 482.7 feet. Cruz’s clout, which was hit in Texas, had an exit velocity of 116 mph.

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Ben Cherington spoke at Saber Seminar on Saturday. It was a classy move considering his recent departure as Red Sox general manager. Many in his position would have chosen to bow out, thus avoiding the inevitable questions about iffy personnel decisions.

Cherington was admirably honest when asked about the signing of Pablo Sandoval, specifically how Panda’s hitting profile wasn’t necessarily an ideal match his new home.

“We actually didn’t think Fenway Park would have a positive impact on Pablo’s performance,” admitted Cherington. “That was not the driving force behind signing him. The driving force was that we were trying to build a winning team and we had a black hole at third base for two years.”

There’s no question Red Sox third baseman have provided precious little punch in recent seasons. Even so, paying Panda $95 million over the next five years is questionable. Sandoval is hitting .258/.306/.391, and all too often playing his position like a bullfighter. (Can you say ole?)

Cherington said he approached Oakland GM Billy Beane about the possibility of acquiring Josh Donaldson, but was told he wasn’t available. Cherington offered kudos to Toronto for convincing Beane to subsequently deal Donaldson.

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Rich Donnelly caught Bert Blyleven in 1969, when the two were minor-league teammates in the Twins system. The Mariners third base coach remembers those days with a glint in his eye.

“I was playing in the Florida State League and he joined us right after the June draft,” recalled Donnelly. “The first game he pitched, he struck out 14. I’ll never forget it. I told my wife, ‘His curveball sounds like a rattlesnake.

“From there we went to instructional league, which back then wasn’t like it is now. Half of the players were big-leaguers. We played Cleveland in the championship game and Ed Farmer, who’s now an announcer (for the White Sox), pitched for the Indians. We won 1-0. Bert went all nine innings and struck out 10 or 11.

“I remember another game we played. It was against the Phillies – they had Larry Bowa and a bunch of other big league guys – and he went through them like a knife through butter. Bert had the best curveball I’ve ever seen. It was a 12-to-6 and hard. It went “Phoom!”

Blyleven, 18 years old at the time, went 5-0 in the Florida State League and 7-0 in instructional league. He reached Minnesota the following season.

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John Farrell was scheduled to speak at Saber Seminar, but was unable to do so because of his recent lymphoma diagnosis and chemotherapy treatments. Curt Schilling pinch-hit for the Boston manager and told a story about accountability and veteran leadership on the 2004 Red Sox. Manny Ramirez and Orlando Cabrera were the protagonists.

According to Schilling, Cabrera asked “Manny Being Manny” why he wasn’t in the lineup one day. Ramirez answered that his hamstring was a little tight. Cabrera responded, “Bull****, your hammy is tight. You’re messing with my playoff paycheck; you’re playing today. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen: I’m going to walk out of here, and in 30 minutes I’m coming back. If your name’s not in the lineup, you and I are going to fight.”

When Cabrera came back, Ramirez’s name was in the lineup.

“There are billions of stories like that,” said Schilling. “You never hear about them, but they’re key reasons that teams win championships.”

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Last week’s column included the explanation of a rule regarding whether a run would count in a certain situation. A somewhat similar scenario exists in which five outs can be recorded in a half inning. Here is how it works.

The bases are loaded and the batter hits a fly ball that is caught for the second out. All three runners advance one base, but fail to tag up in doing so. While the normal course of action would be for the defensive team to appeal at third base – that would be the third out and negate the run – they could also do it a more complicated manner.

They could first appeal that the runner at first base left early (three outs), then appeal at second base (four outs), then at third base (five outs).

Why would they appeal beyond the third out? As explained in last week’s column, if the runner coming from third crossed home plate before the final out was recorded at another base, his run would count. It’s not until he’s ruled to have left early (the fifth out in this scenario) that his run is negated.

Of note, the appeals at first and second base could happen in either order.

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Curt Schilling was a data hound when he played. The borderline Hall of Famer was a power pitcher, but he prepared like a tactician, poring over reports to get any possible edge that he could That extended to his perusal of the men in blue.

“(I wanted) data on umpires,” Schilling said at Saber Seminar. “Understanding the human element of umpiring… I don’t care what the rule book says, because first off, the rule book strike zone doesn’t exist. Secondly, the strike zone for umpires is different. If I put up a game plan to pitch a guy on the outer half of the plate, and I had an umpire who didn’t call that half of the plate, I felt like that was on me. That kind of data was crucial.”

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Earlier this season, Huston Street became the second youngest pitcher to amass 300 saves. Francisco Rodriguez, at 31 years, 166 days, is the youngest to reach that milestone.

Francisco Rodriguez was credited with career save 378 on Thursday, moving him past Joe Nathan and into seventh place all-time.

Albert Pujols has passed Mike Schmidt, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Willie McCovey and Frank Thomas on the all-time home run list this season. Pujols has 553, two behind Manny Ramirez, who ranks 14th on the illustrious list.

Per Bill Chuck of Gammons Daily, Delino DeShields of the Rangers has the most plate appearance (338) this year without hitting into a double play.

On this date in 1989, Rick Dempsey hit a home tun in the top of the 22nd inning to give the Dodgers a 1-0 win over the Expos.

We hoped you liked reading Sunday Notes: Saber Seminar, Backup Sliders, Gose, more by David Laurila!

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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Shane Tourtellotte
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Shane Tourtellotte

Correction to your Random Fact: Dempsey was playing for the Dodgers when he hit that 22nd-inning homer. An Orioles-Expos game before interleague play was my tipoff that something was askew.