The Worst of the Best: The Month’s Wildest Pitches by Jeff Sullivan May 1, 2014 Hey there everybody, and welcome to the first part of the year’s first edition of The Worst Of The Best. If you don’t know what this series is all about, here’s a link to the complete 2013 archive. As an alternative to reading through the archive, you might elect to not read through the archive. The idea, it turns out, is very easy to understand, and I explain it in plain English every time, and there’s never any carryover from one edition to the next. Some people have been asking if this series would return. Quite obviously, now, the answer is yes, but this’ll be running every month instead of ~every week. The public explanation is that, week to week, there isn’t enough diversity. The private explanation is that this is a lot of work. Thankfully, you guys are only privy to the public explanation. I don’t need to get stuck with a lazy rep. Here, we’re going to look at the wildest pitches thrown in April, and thrown in March, too, since March only had a couple days of games. We’re going to look at the wildest pitches thrown so far. It’s based on PITCHf/x, so excluded are any and all pitches that didn’t generate PITCHf/x data (remember that there were two games in Australia). Sometimes that means I leave something out, but I’d rather make the occasional omission than watch every pitch of every game. The MLB Fan Cave sounds like a nightmare. I’ve defined the wildest pitches as the pitches ending up the furthest from the center of the strike zone. It works as a proxy and you’ll take what I give you. In detail, we’ll run through the top five. I’ll also present to you, quickly, the next five. Here now are five wild pitches, that were not among the five wildest pitches. 10 Pitcher: Neil Wagner Batter: Yan Gomes Date: April 18 Location: 61.0 inches from center of zone 9 Pitcher: Zack Greinke Batter: Wade Miley Date: April 18 Location: 61.3 inches from center of zone 8 Pitcher: Danny Salazar Batter: Eric Hosmer Date: April 22 Location: 61.3 inches from center of zone 7 Pitcher: Chris Archer Batter: Alexei Ramirez Date: April 25 Location: 61.9 inches from center of zone 6 Pitcher: J.P. Howell Batter: Xavier Nady Date: April 1 Location: 61.9 inches from center of zone —– Now for the words to join the pictures. 5 Pitcher: James Shields Batter: Ian Kinsler Date: March 31 Location: 65.6 inches from center of zone This is a curveball. A terrible curveball, but a curveball. Rex Hudler spent the time talking about James Shields’ changeup. Hudler then tried a number of times to say and pronounce the Spanish word for changeup, and when he thought he had it, he noted that it was a nickname, and that James Shields really likes his nicknames. Hudler subsequently noted another Spanish nickname Shields had been given, and while I’ll grant that I’m biased having grown up in southern California, Hudler pronounced his Spanish like someone who thinks everyone should speak English, and I’m certain he played with a lot of Spanish speakers in his playing days. He also hails from the Southwest, himself. I got the impression I was listening to something stupid, so I listened closer, and rewound, and listened closer still. Then I paused and realized what I was doing. I was being the Internet. The Internet is so ever-ready to pounce on the incorrect or obnoxious that we spend a disproportionate amount of time paying close attention to the sources. As we listen for the next thing to rip, we listen too much to the rippable, and therefore not enough to the insightful and clever. And is that really working to anyone’s benefit? The Internet model is broken. I’m a part of it. I at least was able to stop myself, but I had to get in the way of my own instincts, and it’s meaningful that it was my instinct. And I still kind of ripped on Hudler anyway. This might be hopeless, this Internet thing. It’s time for the year’s first edition of Find The Baseball! That’s not the baseball behind Shields on the mound, but it might as well be. If you find the baseball, proceed to your nearest busy street corner. You are entitled to make a new friend. The new friend can be of your choice. Said new friend initially will not be aware of the entitlement awarded, so, try to make a good case. They’ll see it your way in the end. Pitchers and catchers often have a close relationship. Because of the way they have to work together, the develop a special bond. But, like so many close relationships, pitcher-catcher relationships can sour over time. Every close relationship is exciting at first; most close relationships fail in the end. It’s seldom a surprise when a relationship fails. If anything, it’s the likelihood. But sometimes two people end up back to back, hardly even speaking. They resist even simple eye contact. For a relationship to fail is for a relationship to follow a normal course, but the course never feels normal along the way. “How did this happen to us?” Shields thought, back turned. “How did this happen to us?” thought Salvador Perez, back also turned. It was the only thing they had left in common. Perez: all my fingers Perez: the pitch sign is all my fingers Perez: throw this pitch like a starfish would throw it Under-explored on each of the broadcasts was that this was a showdown between two of baseball’s leaders in open-mouthed resting face. Shields walks around in what I’d refer to as impatient disbelief, and Kinsler would squint at a candle in a dark auditorium. 4 Pitcher: Chris Sale Batter: David Ortiz Date: April 17 Location: 66.7 inches from center of zone Chris Sale is well-known for his delivery, and his delivery is often characterized as being all knees and elbows, or something along those same lines. There’s something pointy flying in every direction, and it’s for that reason people remain skeptical that he’s going to be able to stay healthy and durable in the long run as a starting pitcher. Now, Sale also has feet, and hands, and a head, and a midsection. Sale has all the same parts that we do, in all the same places, in varying relative sizes. But now imagine a pitcher that was literally all knees and elbows. He’d probably throw pitches this bad, and worse. He probably wouldn’t even be on the Astros for more than a game or two. Even when someone else is at the plate, pitchers still find a way to hit Shane Victorino. Separate point: in the screenshot above, Sale’s body looks like football uprights being torn down by frenzied students after an upset. You could at least argue that Sale pitched to his target. I’m sure this came up last year, but last year was last year, so I’m going to go back to the well. Let’s say you’re on a game show. It’s a new game show that doesn’t exist in our current reality. On the game show, as a contestant, you’re shown baseball action screenshots, and you’re supposed to describe to the best of your ability what’s taking place, and why the picture looks as it does. Let’s say, as a contestant, you’re shown the above screenshot. Odd shot, right? Here’s one handy rule of thumb, to help you win your thousands, or millions. If the catcher is in a catching position, but if the catcher is facing in a direction other than out to the mound, what probably happened was that the pitcher threw a genuinely godawful pitch. Sale threw a pitch so bad the catcher wound up with his body rotated 90 degrees. That’s Chris Sale, upset with himself following two bad low-away sliders. You know Chris Sale as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. That he threw these sliders doesn’t do anything to change your opinion. He’s still one of the best, obviously, and just look at his results. There’s an important life lesson here. Sale, statistically, is almost the perfect pitcher, but even perfect pitchers make mistakes, sometimes back to back. And you hold yourself to what standard? It’s fine to want to be as good as you can be. Admirable, even. You can be a perfectionist, but don’t beat yourself up over mistakes or bad days. Don’t expect to be awesome all of the time. Nobody is awesome all of the time. Not even Chris Sale. And you love Chris Sale. 3 Pitcher: Scott Feldman Batter: Salvador Perez Date: April 17 Location: 69.3 inches from center of zone That’s Jason Castro, catching. Watch him. Now watch Tyler Flowers, from the Sale pitch above: Castro, so far, has been one of the better receivers in baseball. Flowers has been either average or below-average, depending on your metric of choice. Given two incredibly wild pitches, Flowers moved his body an awful lot, while Castro remained much quieter, despite having to reach a considerable distance. The conditions were different, and the pitches were different, and the sides were different, so you can’t compare these two .gifs perfectly, but if you begin with the assumption that Castro is always a better receiver than Flowers is, then you can use this as supporting evidence, as Castro did a better job of framing an unframeable pitch. I wonder if the better receivers are usually quieter with wild pitches, or if the quietness can be switched off mid-pitch. Relatedly, I wonder if the better receivers are worse about letting balls get by them. The pitch has basically hit the ground, and Castro hasn’t moved yet. That looks like a screenshot of an ordinary pitch with the baseball just erased. It looks like a breaking ball headed for the outside edge. Sweet pitch, Scott Feldman! Sorry for erasing the baseball. The child in the first row turns to his dad. “Dad, why did you bring me to an Astros game?” The dad stares blankly ahead. “I’m just winging it, kid”, he thought. “I don’t know how to parent any more than you do.” The Astros are a clever organization and a clever ballclub. They had Perez shifted heavily to the left. When Perez read the infield, he probably wasn’t expecting the next pitch to be almost six feet away from his wheelhouse. It’s all about avoiding predictability. Castro: /returns ball to mound Castro: /crouches Porter: No so fast there, Jas. Porter: What was that? Castro: Giving the ball back to the pitcher. Porter: You didn’t tell me you can throw, too. Porter: Go warm up in the bullpen. Porter: I’m going to want you to pitch. Porter: I’m going to want you to pitch and catch. Porter: I’m going to need you to pitch and catch. 2 Pitcher: Jorge de la Rosa Batter: Jeff Baker Date: March 31 Location: 74.7 inches from center of zone I feel like it’s a very basic rule that runners cannot advance on a hit-by-pitch. This was an unambiguous hit-by-pitch, as evidenced by the pitch, and by Baker’s reaction, and by de la Rosa’s reaction. Yet, some fans stand up in the background, because: The runner tried to score. On an unambiguous 0-and-2 hit-by-pitch, the runner on third advanced to home and proceeded toward his own dugout, the score having moved to 3-0. Walt Weiss had to come out of his dugout and the umpires needed a minute to confirm that, hold on, no, the runner goes back to where he was. That’s the way that baseball works, and the fans just didn’t know it, because the runner didn’t know it. Or the runner was just trying to pull a fast one in case nobody was paying attention. Stranger things have happened, right? Like the three weeks where baseball forgot what a catch was. That’s something that happened in this season. Remember when the NFL went a few weeks with the replacement referees? Remember how we somehow aren’t still talking about that? We should probably only be talking about the impossibly stupid temporarily adjusted transfer rule. How did that happen in Major League Baseball, and how did it sustain for as long as it did? I feel like I’m going off the tracks. Jorge de la Rosa hit Jeff Baker with a pitch. It was a bad pitch. Everything that was supposed to happen happened, in the end. Sponsors, behind the plate: a televised MLB production the stadium itself an empty green panel. Muammar Gaddafi? Seems to capture things pretty well. In the season opener, things were going well for the Marlins. But, Jeffrey Loria is always in the background. And so no matter the circumstances, any Marlin in the foreground will be terrified. 1 Pitcher: Mike Carp Batter: Kelly Johnson Date: April 24 Location: 96.9 inches from center of zone The wildest pitch was two feet wilder than the next-wildest pitch. The pitch was a knuckleball, instead of an ordinary pitch, and it was thrown by an outfielder, who is really an infielder, who is really a designated hitter. It happened in a game the Red Sox were losing at home by nine runs, and while there was a runner on third base, nobody scored on the play. This doesn’t capture the essence of baseball. A .gif of a step-off and look to first in the fourth inning of a Royals/Twins matinee more accurately captures the essence of baseball. But this definitely captures the weirdness of it. Was Mike Carp also responsible for the month’s wildest swing? Stay tuned tomorrow! And the answer is, no, almost certainly not. The thing about that is really best demonstrated by the following .gif, which is made by the slow reveal: I haven’t measured the distances. I’m not about to figure out the distances. But, Carp threw this knuckleball to Johnson with Ichiro standing and waiting on deck. There’s some likelihood the pitch was closer to being a strike to Ichiro than it was to being a strike to Johnson. Even if that wasn’t actually the case, I doubt any other pitch this season is going to come closer to making that sort of achievement a reality. After the pitch above, Carp had to look in for a sign. Probably, he did not have to. It was a fastball, and Johnson popped it up into foul territory for the final out. Carp walked five guys, but he didn’t give up a hit. Score one for the defenders of BABIP. One of the interesting things we’ve observed about knuckleballs is that they even out the competition — good hitters and bad hitters are just turned into regular hitters, and pitchers don’t strike out against it as often as they do against everything else. I wonder if position players pitching also break our baseball models. Hitters are trained to hit against guys who know what they’re doing. They’re trained to look for pitches and patterns and locations. I wonder if position players are so bad they benefit from the badness, in that you can’t prepare for anything. You never know if you’re going to get a strike. You never know what the pitch is going to do. Position players, when they pitch, really suck, but it feels like they should suck worse. Farrell: In conclusion I don’t think we should start Mike Carp on the mound tomorrow. Farrell: And now we know! Farrell: And now we know that! Position players have their own clique, and pitchers and catchers have their own clique. Who has time for Dustin Pedroia? Not this guy — this guy is a bonafide knuckleball pitcher in the major leagues. Mike Carp is a new man. Has he forgotten his more humble beginnings? One can expect Pedroia to get to the bottom of this. Pedroia is usually closest to the bottom of everything.