The Importance Of “The Good Miss”

Sometimes you hear something, an anecdote or an observation, that sounds very obvious but, upon reflection, you realize you never pieced it together in such a succinct manner. All the ingredients might have been there but until somebody experienced or smart laid it out just so, it never really clicked.

A big league pitcher once explained to me that his catcher insists that when his pitchers miss, they miss on the “right” side of the target. The correct side, if you will. If the target it is inside, miss inside. Set up away, missing off the plate is preferable to a pitch leaking back over the heart. Same applies up and down, high and low.

In golf, they call it a “good miss.” Not quite on the target but a shot that avoids disaster and gives you a chance to salvage a decent score. In baseball, it seems simple and isn’t an earth-shattering revelation but, if you watch for it, it often reveals a lot about the pitcher. It is a window into the value of stuff and velocity, as brute force papers over a lack of finesse.

On Tuesday night, Chris Sale ran over the toothless San Francisco Giants offense, mowing down 12 Giants against just one walk in eight mostly spotless innings. It was vintage Sale, a powerhouse performance by one of the three or four best pitchers in the game.

Powerhouse describes Sale pretty well, as he is one of the nastiest pitchers in the game, with three very tough pitches, as you know. Giants analyst Mike Krukow described his raw stuff perfectly during a fifth inning demolition of rookie Adam Duvall.

You don’t often see a guy with three swing-and-miss pitches but that’s what Sale’s got. His fastball, changeup, and slider are all strikeout pitches.”

What Krukow says is true, as all three of Sale’s pitches carry high pitch values – a metric that doesn’t even consider the sequencing aspect that makes a good pitcher great. With three pitches to worry about in nearly every count, Sale has leeway against hitters. He can miss spots and make some mistakes without repercussions (there are exceptions, of course).

In the fifth inning, with Joe Panik at the plate and the count 0-1, Sale attempts to fire a fastball past the young infielder. He fails, creating the image below.

sale missed spot

Plainly, Sale missed his spot. Catcher Tyler Flowers is set up on the outside corner but Sale’s offering forces him to reach back across his body. Panik puts a decent swing on it but fouls it back.

Panik managed a good swing on this pitch but, because he’s facing Chris Sale, couldn’t do much with a 96 mph fastball on the inside corner. The difference between Sale hitting his spot (on the outer edge) and where the ball ended up is noteworthy. Even against an arm-side batter like Panik, Sale is more hittable in the upper inside corner of the strike zone compared to the outer edge.

The moment after the ball left his bat, Panik spun on his heel in the batters box, admonishing himself – he missed his chance and as a pitcher as good as Sale rarely makes the same mistake twice. Except in this instance. he did. Sale left a slider on the inside half rather than down and away, where Flowers wanted it.

sale missed spot single

Panik managed to squeak this ball through the right side of the infield for a single. It wasn’t hard hit but, as we can see, Flowers reached back for an 0-2 pitch that missed on the “wrong” side. If Sale misses outside, it’s a harmless pitch off the plate and a 1-2 count.

The White Sox ace survived this mini-crisis, though he did manage to miss over the plate once more this inning, leaving a fastball designed for the inside corner over the middle against opposing pitcher Ryan Vogelsong, who lashed it hard but foul. Sale, of course, struck out 12 Giants in eight shutouts innings after allowing just four hits. His stuff permits him these tiny blips in command.

Not all pitchers are so lucky to avoid disaster when the miss their spot the wrong way. The big leagues are absolutely full of batters ready and waiting to pounce on any such mistake. Not many are as prolific in the field of mistake punishment as Giancarlo Stanton, who teaches Shelby Miller what happens when pitches called down-and-away end belt high on the inside half.

Justin Verlander was once a pitcher with the stuff and command to make him the best in the game, although injury and slipping velocity proved him mortal in 2014. His one-inning outing on Monday night against the Pirates was rough, of course. But watching his labored start through the lens of “missing on the proper side” offers a different perspective..

Though Verlander walked two batters in the first inning, he wasn’t hit particularly hard as his defense let him down repeatedly. He missed down in the zone frequently before leaving with shoulder stiffness. The big blow came after Starling Marte tripled on a slider reasonable people would describe as “not terrible.”

From this perspective, the single JV allowed to Jody Mercer qualifies as the worst pitch of this shortened outing, one in which he still struck out three of the ten batters he faced. Verlander’s problems are very real but, on this day, his command wasn’t the issue. Learning to live with lessened stuff is his lot in life now. It becomes more and more difficult to overcome the obstacles your defense places in your way without triple digit heat to bail you out.

Command F/x never really became a reality, at least not for public consumption. Without it, it is difficult to determine a sound way to analyze the ability to hit the glove or, if not hitting the target, then giving the heart of the plate a wide berth. As our own Jeff Sullivan showed this week at 538, meatballs get hit hard. Even the best pitcher fails to execute with every pitch they throw, the matter of minimizing the damage when you do miss is crucial.

We do know that not all strikes are created equally. Missing within the strike zone can have disastrous results just as missing the zone altogether. To “miss to the proper side” of the target seems like an oversimplification, mostly because it is. That doesn’t make it any less valuable or any less interesting as something to keep in mind when watching the game at its highest level.

Drew used to write about baseball and other things at theScore but now he writes here. Follow him on twitter @DrewGROF

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Chito Martinez
8 years ago

That Stanton HR–good Jesus!

Bluebird in Boulder
8 years ago
Reply to  Chito Martinez

Needs a NSFW tag.