Arms and Three Men: Notes on the Nats-Cards Series

It is known by the educated and handsome everywhere that Virgil’s Aeniad begins with the words “Arma virumque cano” — or, in English, “I sing of arms and the man.” After that part, much less is known — except that, at some point, a she-wolf saves a human child via suckling.

In any case, everyone knows that Virgil sang of arms and one man. What this post presupposes is: what if he sang of three men? And what if by arms he didn’t mean weaponry but actual arms on a person’s body? And what if Virgil knew that both baseball and the internet were things?

He would probably sing about three arms from the first game of the Nationals-Cardinals divisional series, is what.

Adam Wainwright’s Arm
Adam Wainwright‘s arm was excellent on Sunday. How excellent? Here’s one answer: until walking Kurt Suzuki with two outs in the sixth — which would prove, actually, to be his 26th and final batter of the game — Wainwright had posted the lowest single-game FIP- of any start ever of his career (around 17, I think it was). As it is, Wainwright’s 10-strikeout performance againt the Nationals still qualifies as one of the best starts of his entire career.

Regard, a table of Wainwright’s 10-best starts by FIP- (of 153 career total, including postseason):

Date Team Opp IP TBF SO BB HR FIP-
8/21/2012 STL HOU 9.0 33 12 1 0 21
6/06/2012 STL @HOU 5.2 27 8 1 0 22
7/25/2007 STL CHC 5.0 25 7 1 0 23
7/18/2012 STL @MIL 7.0 28 9 0 0 26
9/20/2009 STL CHC 7.0 28 10 2 0 26
7/22/2010 STL PHI 6.0 23 6 0 0 28
7/23/2009 STL @WSN 6.0 26 7 1 0 30
Yesterday STL WSN 5.2 26 10 3 0 31
8/08/2009 STL @PIT 6.2 27 6 0 0 31
4/10/2008 STL @SFG 7.0 28 6 0 0 33

What one learns from this table is two things: first, that the author is prepared to make a table, if table-making is what’s necessary, and, second, that, so far as defense-independent pitching is concerned, this was Wainwright’s eight-best start ever. That it happened in the playoffs is ideal. That it didn’t, ultimately, lead to a win for the Cardinals is unfortunate for the Cardinals. That Wainwright would be available for a hypothetical Game Five is encouraging for the Cardinals — especially, in light of what the Nationals’ hypothetical starter for a Game Five, Gio Gonzalez, did in his start.

Gio Gonzalez’s Arm
Gio Gonzalez allowed two runs in five innings on Sunday, but he was likely fortunate to allow just that many, as he also walked seven batters and allowed just one hit on 10 batted-balls (where one might expect at least one or two more). Here was his line, in toto: 5.0 IP, 5 K, 7 BB, 4 GB on 10 batted-balls (40.0% GB), 5.29 FIP, 6.76 xFIP.

A brief inspection of the box score from Sunday reveals that Gonzalez threw only 59 of his 110 pitches (53.7%) for strikes. A slightly less brief, but still reasonably-length inspection of his game log from 2012 reveals not only that (a) Gonzalez recorded a lower strike percentage than that just once this season (51.1% during a late-April start against the Dodgers in Los Angeles), but also that (b) at no point during the season did Gonzalez throw as many as 51 balls in a start (i.e. the number he threw on Sunday).

Gio Gonzalez wasn’t particularly great in Game One for the Nats, and yet the Nats won Game One: that’s good for the Nats. That Gio Gonzalez posted his second-to-worst start in terms of strike-throwing of the season in Game One is worrisome, insofar as Gonzalez is the Nationals’ starter for a hypothetical and decisive Game Five (in which he’d be opposed by Adam Wainwright).

Ryan Zimmerman’s Arm
Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was placed on the disabled list at the end of April with shoulder inflammation, at which point he received two cortisone shots. When he returned, he played poorly. He received a third cortisone injection at the end of June, at which point he proceeded to be close to the best player. On September 19th, Zimmerman received a fourth cortisone shot.

How is this relevant? Well, here’s Zimmerman making a throw from third to first base at the end of 2011 season:

And here’s Zimmerman making a throw from third to first in the third inning Sunday:

I don’t possess the exact vocabulary to discuss throwing mechanics with any precision, but — like the reader, probably — have watched enough baseball to know that (a) these are two distinct motions and (b) the second one is looks less like the one used by most major leaguers.

With a view to isolating the throw itself, I’ve made slow-motion GIFs of the two throws above — each precisely 166 frames and starting/finishing at approximately the same point.

Here’s the throw from 2011, again:

And from the third inning on Sunday:

Looking over this pair of GIFs, one finds that while, in the first one, Zimmerman brings his right arm back and creates a 90 degree angle, his forearm facing directly skyward, that he doesn’t do that in the second case. I couldn’t say what the precise angle is (110 or 120 degrees?), but it’s decidedly obtuse. There are maybe other observations the reader has. Any of them are invited.

While the throw from Sunday captured above ended uneventfully enough, that was not the case with an equally routine play at the beginning of the top of the eighth which saw Zimmerman field a David Freese grounder cleanly enough but then short hop the throw to Adam LaRoche at first for an error. That play itself was worth -9.8% by Win Probability Added — and, while it proved ultimately inconsequential so far the final score was concerned (Tyler Clippard recorded three consecutive outs afterwards), Zimmerman’s defensive abilities are of some concern for the Nats as they proceed.

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Todd Boss
3 years 9 months ago

As a Nats fan and someone who has been watching Zimmerman all year, I can safely say that the weird elbow hitch he had in his throwing motion on Sunday was something new, even for Zimmerman this season.

I believe after the 2010 season Zimmerman completely re-made his “non pressured” throwing motion in the off-season after a spate of errant throws plagued him. It might be telling to put together this exact GIF but from a play from (say) 2008 or so, before he started messing with his throwing motion at all. You can also see that Zimmerman’s “pressured” throwing mechanics are also completely different from his “non-pressured” throwing mechanics; he’s clearly got a Steve Sax issue going on and he’s addressing it mechanically instead of intellectually.

Its tough to watch as a Nats fan; more than one of us completely expected the throwing error in the 8th inning because we are now holding our breath every time Zimmerman makes a defensive play that allows him enough time to think about his throw. Its also one of the reasons I think we see Zimmerman, despite his amazing range at 3rd, being moved off the position sometime in the next couple of seasons.

3 years 9 months ago

I’m not sure it’s a Steve Sax thing. It looked like he used the same motion in his pressured throws (look at the double play ball). Given the shoulder problems he’s been having, and the fact that this throw changes which muscles in the shoulder are activated, I’m worried that it’s physical, which is worse for the Nats because of the implication for his hitting.

3 years 9 months ago

Having also watched the Nats all season, I can say for a fact that Todd Boss is right. Zimmerman only throws with the hitch when he has plenty of time to make the throw. It’s like Shawon Dunston’s double-clutch motion when he had accuracy issues with the Cubs in the 80s – Zimmerman is trying to take a second to locate his throw, is what it looks like, but he just as often still either sails the throw or short-hops LaRoche. It’s disturbing. Whether the shoulder bothers him, I don’t know, but he’s been throwing like that all year. But again, only when he has a lot of time to make the play. He has a totally different motion when he’s on the run or trying to hurry it.

3 years 9 months ago

Seems like both the mental and the physical things could be correct. He very well could be hurting–he’s had a bunch of shots in his arm, so why would we assume that he’s not? However, it’s not hard to also think that on a tough play where instincts, muscle memory, and talent take over that he would still make a fine throw in spite of the pain. Having the most trouble with the routine easy plays actually seems to make the most sense here. If there is time to make the routine play, there is probably also time to be aware that it’s going to hurt when a normal throw is released, and that might lead to altered mechanics and the appearance of having the yips while throwing.