Last summer, I saw Joey Votto pop out.
I traveled to Chicago, as I do every summer, to enjoy the city and catch a couple Cubs games at Wrigley Field. The Cincinnati Reds were in town and Jeff Samardzija was pitching for the Cubs. In Votto’s first at-bat against Samardzija, he doubled. In his second at-bat, Votto walked. But in the fourth inning, Samardzija got Votto to pop out to third base. I immediately recognized what had happened. Nobody I was with quite understood why I was so excited. I explained to them how Joey Votto doesn’t pop out to the infield. It ended up being his only infield fly of 2013. He did it one time in 2012. He did it one time in 2011. He didn’t do it at all in 2010.
I’ve been to a ton of baseball games. I’ve never seen a pitcher throw a perfect game, or even a no-hitter. I’ve never seen a batter hit for the cycle. But I have seen Joey Votto pop out. And as lame as it may sound, I contend that pop out is one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen at a baseball game in person, alongside Greg Maddux‘s 3,000th strikeout, Manny Ramirez hitting three homers and Lou Pineilla kicking his hat all over the infield.
After attending Monday’s game in Cleveland between the Indians and the Boston Red Sox, I can add another statistical quirk to the list of coolest things I’ve seen in person at a baseball game: an Immaculate Inning.
Unlike Votto’s pop out, I didn’t even notice it had happened. Justin Masterson had struggled mightily with his command in the first three innings, needing 28 pitches to get out of the first and 21 more to get through the second. After three innings, he had already thrown 62 pitches and just 31 of them had been strikes. Though he hadn’t conceded a run, it was apparent to anyone watching the game that, up until that point, Masterson didn’t have his best stuff.
Before the start of the fourth inning, I turned to my buddy Casey and said, “He could really use about a nine-pitch inning right now.” It looked like he might not even make it through the fifth with how high his pitch count had climbed and I simply implied that he needed a quick inning if he were to work deep into the game. Though I failed to realize it when it happened, lo and behold, Justin Masterson granted my wish:
Facing Jonny Gomes, Masterson leads off the fourth inning with a sinker in the strike zone. This was big for Masterson, because he basically hadn’t done this all game. This was the 31st sinker Masterson had thrown in the game, and just the second one that was actually in the strike zone. See for yourself Masterson’s sinkers through the first three innings, thanks to Baseball Savant:
Masterson throws his sinker more than any other pitch – about half the time – so establishing the ability to command it for a first-pitch strike, or a strike at all, is important.
Masterson comes back with his bread-and-butter pitch: the slider. Masterson’s slider ranks as the sixth-most valuable pitch since the start of 2013 season, and this is pretty much exactly what he wants to do with it.
Again, the intent is a slider low and away and, again, Masterson executes it perfectly for the first strikeout of the inning. This pitch is unhittable to a right-handed batter and the leading reason Justin Masterson is a successful, rich athlete. To a right-handed batter, it looks like a slow meatball right down the middle of the plate until the moment you start to swing and it falls off the table. As long as Masterson puts it right there, he’s going to get good results.
Next up is Grady Sizemore and Masterson, again, starts him off with a sinker in the zone for a called strike. This brings his total of sinkers in the strike zone to 3-out-of-32.
Masterson mixes it up and throws a four-seam fastball up and in to Sizemore, who fouls it off his oft-injured right knee, momentarily stopping the heart of all those within the Red Sox organization. 0-2.
Masterson throws the same pitch to Sizemore that he threw to Gomes for strike three and its just as effective on the lefty as it is the righty. From 2010-2012, Masterson struck out just 13.3% of left-handed batters he faced and allowed a .346 wOBA. In 2013, Masterson upped his K-rate to 19.4% and allowed just a .316 wOBA, largely due to his improved use of his slider against lefties. This is essentially the very pitch that helped turn Masterson from a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher into a front-end starter last season.
Another four-seam fastball spotted perfectly for strike one against Stephen Drew, who was making just his second plate appearance of the season.
On an 0-1 count, he throws a back door slider, the first of its type in the inning, and it catches the outside corner of the plate to put Drew behind 0-2. At this point we’ve more or less seen Masterson execute every pitch in his arsenal: low sinkers and elevated fastballs for strikes to get ahead in the count, sliders both back door and out of the zone to put them away.
Then, for the third consecutive batter, Masterson throws a two-strike slider in the exact same location for a swinging strike three. Yan Gomes makes a nice block to ensure that Masterson’s three strikeouts actually end the inning, and Justin Masterson successfully makes history, despite both him and I not yet knowing it.
“I didn’t know it was nine pitches,” he said. “I knew I punched out the side. [Pitching coach Mickey Callaway] said, ‘I think you should do that every time.’ That sounds great. No, in the moment, I didn’t realize it. I just realized it was strike, strike, see you.”
But Masterson wasn’t done there.
Following his nine-pitch immaculate inning, Masterson got Jackie Bradley, Jr. down in the count 0-1 before he lined out to center field. Next, Brock Holt got down 0-1 and fouled off two pitches before grounding back to the pitcher. Xander Bogaerts struck out on four pitches after fouling one off and Justin Masterson had another 1-2-3 inning, this time with just one strikeout, but still needing only 11 pitches – all strikes.
After 25 pitches, the streak was over. Masterson threw an 0-1 sinker to Ortiz and it just missed the outer edge of the plate. The research is a little foggy, but according to Bastian, Masterson’s 25 consecutive strikes are the most since Scott Diamond‘s 26 on June 24, 2012. That same year, Bartolo Colon threw 38 consecutive strikes.
But Bartolo Colon throws strikes as often as any pitcher in baseball. Masterson doesn’t have great command to begin with and this was a game in which he threw 31 of his first 62 pitches for balls. Then he just rattled off an immaculate inning plus 15 more strikes like it was nothing. Take a look at this plot of his pitches from innings 1-3 and then 4-6 and you clearly see two different Justin Mastersons:
Through the first three innings, Masterson couldn’t throw his main pitch for a strike and it looked like he might not make it out of the fifth. He ended up striking out 10 batters over seven scoreless innings and became the 70th pitcher in MLB history – and first Indian – to throw an immaculate inning.
Go to a baseball game. You might not see a no-hitter or a player hit for the cycle, but you could see Joey Votto pop out! And even if Joey Votto isn’t playing, you’re always just nine pitches away from seeing an immaculate inning.
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