It wouldn’t be wrong to say that Mike Napoli called Masahiro Tanaka an idiot on the baseball field. It would, of course, be misleading — Napoli didn’t say that to Tanaka’s face, and Napoli wasn’t asserting that Tanaka is some kind of moron. Napoli was simply gleeful, returning to the dugout Saturday night after breaking a tie with a ninth-inning dinger. Down two strikes, Napoli was pleased to see Tanaka throw him an elevated fastball, and Napoli knocked it out of the yard to right-center. Though the ESPN Home Run Tracker says the ball would’ve left just one of 30 stadiums under standard conditions, that one, presumably, is New York, and within a few minutes the Yankees lost. Dingers have been Tanaka’s one human side.
If you listen to Napoli, Tanaka was a fool for throwing a fastball. Obviously, according to results-based analysis, Tanaka was a fool for throwing a fastball, since that pitch ultimately was the difference in the game. There’s no question that Tanaka made a mistake in that he missed his spot and left the pitch up. But let’s think a bit about the sequencing. Did Tanaka make a mistake in going with the heat in a 1-and-2 count? Was Tanaka being an idiot, or did he get burned by a fine idea?
To set the scene real quick: it was 1-1 in the ninth, and the Red Sox had two down with none on. Against Napoli, Tanaka missed inside with a first-pitch fastball. Then he got a whiff at a high slider, and a whiff at a low splitter to take the count to 1-and-2. Lest you think what followed was Brian McCann‘s idea, McCann called for both a splitter and a slider. Tanaka wasn’t feeling them.
McCann’s first two thoughts were breaking balls. Tanaka had something else in mind.
“I just wanted to go hard outside,” Tanaka said. “I wanted to show the batter a fastball there, even if it was not in the strike zone. … The stadium we have is a rather smaller stadium, so that can happen.”
In a two-strike count, batters are going to be swinging. They know they need to protect, and Napoli is a disciplined sort. Tanaka knew that when he made his choice. Now let’s go back. In the top of the second inning, Tanaka got ahead of Napoli 1-and-2. He missed high with a fastball, then he missed barely away with a fastball, then Napoli took a close slider for ball four. In the fourth inning, the count again grew to 1-and-2.
In the sixth inning, Tanaka immediately got ahead of Napoli 0-and-2:
So, two times in a row, Tanaka put Napoli away with two-strike splitters, in the usual spot. In the ninth, Tanaka got a whiff with a one-strike splitter, in the usual spot. That set up another breaking-ball count, one in which Tanaka didn’t throw a breaking ball.
Let’s go back even further. Once before, Tanaka and Napoli have faced off. In a game in April, the two had three matchups. In the first plate appearance, Tanaka whiffed Napoli with a two-strike splitter. In the second plate appearance, Tanaka never got to two strikes. In the third, he threw five two-strike pitches. A splitter was fouled, a fastball was fouled, a slider was fouled, and a slider was taken for a ball. Then Napoli hit a fastball for a double. In the ninth inning on Saturday, there was every reason for Napoli to expect another splitter, down. He said as much after the game.
“Nothing against him,” Napoli said. “I was just surprised he didn’t try to bury another splitter in the dirt. I was just having fun out there.”
From the other recap:
“I was pretty surprised, but I was down to two strikes, I was just trying to see something up,” said Napoli. “My mind was saying, ‘Hang a splitter,’ but I just got something up in the zone that I could handle.”
Tanaka had already put him away twice in a row on the same pitch. It’s Tanaka’s bread-and-butter pitch, and Napoli had seen it earlier in the season. Everyone would’ve been thinking splitter. Napoli was thinking splitter. And, that’s precisely the thing. That’s precisely the argument against throwing a splitter. All this is is textbook game theory. If pitching is about keeping things unpredictable, then, Napoli was predicting a splitter. Napoli admitted to being surprised by a fastball. So then was throwing a fastball really a mistake, or was it Tanaka understanding the nuances of his job?
With the occasional two-strike fastball, Tanaka, in theory, keeps the hitters honest. In theory, by keeping said hitters honest, Tanaka makes his splitter and slider more effective. And, in theory, the fastball is a two-strike weapon if the hitters are looking for something else, something slower and more break-y. You could say Napoli might’ve been a little behind the fastball he knocked out. He still hit it squarely, of course, but according to game theory, by definition it shouldn’t be idiotic to do something that catches a hitter off guard.
But then there’s a counter-argument, and it goes beyond the fact that Napoli hit a home run. Maybe Tanaka’s splitter is just so good it doesn’t matter if it’s predictable, in the way that it doesn’t matter that Kenley Jansen‘s cutter is predictable. Maybe, in truth, Tanaka doesn’t throw enough two-strike splitters. As you can see in the quote above, Napoli was hoping that Tanaka would hang something. Maybe Napoli believes he’s just helpless if Tanaka executes a splitter like he can. In a two-strike count, batters look to swing. Low splitters look like low fastballs, strike fastballs, until they dive, and that’s where the whiffs come from. Maybe, here, game theory takes us off the right path, because Tanaka’s splitter is unusually amazing. Maybe hitters just don’t have to be kept that honest.
Like so many of them, it’s ultimately something of an unanswerable question. Had Tanaka thrown a better fastball, he wouldn’t have given up a home run, probably. If pitchers didn’t make location mistakes, they’d all be great pitchers. All this is is a thought experiment, but, seldom do we hear one baseball player refer to another as an idiot. Sometimes, the idiocy is readily apparent. Sometimes, players throw baseball bats at other players. And sometimes, this game is freaking complicated.
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