Let’s over-analyze. It’s why we’re here, right? We’ve got one baseball game to talk about, and we have a few more hours until we have another one baseball game to talk about. This is when we’re supposed to make a lot of a little, so let’s do just that, focusing on Game 1’s ninth inning. More specifically, let’s focus on Jeurys Familia facing Alex Gordon, with a one-run lead.
Gordon and Familia had never before faced off. So Gordon was trying to figure out his opponent, and after three pitches, you could say he did his job, tying the game with a homer to straightaway center field. It wasn’t a homer that won the ballgame, but it was a homer that later allowed the ballgame to be won, a stunning blast against an otherwise incredible closer. The Mets don’t expect Familia to fail. If anything, they’ve come to take him for granted. But the Royals went all Royals on him, and you know the rest. Familia would later admit that he made a mistake.
It’s easy enough to leave it there. Familia threw a bad fastball, and Gordon punished him for it. But why not go deeper? Why go deeper, you might ask? Because we can. Because the numbers are there for us to look at. This is the best time to be alive, so far.
“It’s part of the game. I just left my fastball up in the zone,” Familia said. “He made the swing. That’s it. I missed the zone a little bit. I wanted to go away, down. I left it in the middle, a little up.”
Entirely reasonable; perfectly level-headed. Spoken like a guy who realizes pitchers make frequent mistakes. Spoken like a guy who’ll have no problem getting the ball again in the next game or two. There’s nothing wrong with what Familia said. Left a fastball up. Got hurt.
But, we have PITCHf/x. Technically, Familia also has PITCHf/x, but we’re nerdy enough to look at it. And it’s interesting what it says. Before we get to that, it’s important to make sure Familia threw the pitch it seemed like he threw. It wasn’t a split-fingered fastball. It wasn’t a slider. Of the other options, Familia mostly throws a sinker, but from time to time he also mixes in a higher, straighter fastball. This is where signs come in handy. Here’s Travis d’Arnaud, calling for a sinker in the previous at-bat:
One finger down, twirly motion. (Ignore the first sign; Familia shook it off.) Here’s d’Arnaud against the Cubs, calling for a four-seamer:
Annoyingly, that got more pixelated when I uploaded it, but if you can’t tell or if you’re tired of squinting, it’s one finger down, with no twirly motion. It’s the classic, fundamental No. 1. So what it looks like: if d’Arnaud wants the straighter fastball, he puts down the index finger. If he wants the sinker, he puts down the index finger and moves it in a circle. Great! Now, the sign for the pitch to Gordon:
There’s the twirly motion. d’Arnaud moved his finger, so we can be pretty confident Familia was throwing a sinker here. Another clue: Familia said he was aiming down and away, and d’Arnaud set up down and away. Here’s the setup, and then the actual location of contact:
Sinkers are supposed to stay down. Familia generally wants his four-seamer to stay up. It all seems pretty conclusive. Which means we can proceed with the PITCHf/x analysis. In Game 1, Familia threw eight fastballs. All of them look to have been sinkers. They averaged a little shy of eight inches of run, with a vertical-movement measurement of about five inches. The fateful sinker to Gordon had a bit over six inches of run, and the vertical-movement measurement came in a hair above seven inches. In plainer English: the Gordon sinker had less run, and it had less drop. It had almost an inch and a half less drop than the next-least sinky pitch.
Gordon hit the third pitch out. The first two pitches were sinkers, and they had similar movement. Compared to those two pitches, the third sinker dropped by about two and a half fewer inches. The second sinker actually hung up, but Gordon swung and tapped it foul, hitting the top of the ball. The location of that sinker was bad, but the movement helped. The location of the third sinker was bad, and the movement didn’t help. Gordon was very obviously right on it, and within seconds the ball was more than 400 feet away.
So the problems were twofold: Familia didn’t put the sinker in a good place, nor did he give it his usual movement. Gordon tracked the pitch in, but consider the margins here. Gordon hit the pitch right about square. What if the pitch had one more inch of sink? What if the pitch had two more inches of sink? Gordon might still have made solid contact, but instead of a tying home run, maybe it’s a one-out line-drive single. Maybe it’s a grounder. Maybe it’s a foul. Probably, with a normal sinker there, the game doesn’t become tied, even with the missed location.
Why the missed location? Why the worse movement? As it happens, Familia tried to quick-pitch Gordon. According to Statcast, Familia got less extension than usual. That suggests he didn’t have everything streamlined in his mechanics. A quick-pitch can cause a pitcher to hurry, too. Yet, Familia had also quick-pitched Salvador Perez — in fact, that’s what tipped Gordon off that Familia might try it again. Against Perez, the pitches were fine. Familia didn’t suffer. Only against Gordon did it all go wrong.
So maybe that’s reason enough for Familia to quick-pitch less often. His stuff seems like it ought to be sufficient. But he knows better than I do, and it takes some balls to do that in the World Series in the first place. Maybe the quick-pitch doesn’t deserve the blame. But Familia’s delivery was abnormal. His release point cost him, in terms of location, and something about his fingers cost him, in terms of sinker movement. When the sinker doesn’t sink, and when the sinker hangs up in the middle of the zone, that’s one way to generate October heroics. Just, not for your own team.
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.