With a two-out, two-run walk-off single off St. Louis closer Jason Motte, the Cubs’ Joe Mather became Monday night’s unlikeliest hero. But all you had to do was ask him — before the traditional shaving cream pie to the face, of course — and he’d tell you (as he told WGN after the game) the man truly responsible for the Cubs’ ninth-inning rally was Bryan LaHair. The 29-year-old Cubs project worked a 12-pitch walk off Motte with one out, fouling off six consecutive offerings on a 3-2 count. Motte would eventually blow the save on his 31st pitch of the night. Only one other time has Motte thrown over 31 pitches in a single-inning appearance — July 16, 2010 against Los Angeles — and he gave up two runs in that outing as well.
When Motte pitches, he doesn’t mess around. His idea of off-speed is a two-seam fastball; his idea of a breaking pitch is a cutter. Dating back to the beginning of last season, over 96% of his pitches are some sort of fastball — either four-seam, two-seam, or cut. Of his 1,369 pitches over that time from, all of 50 have been classified as either a curveball, slider or changeup.
That means he’s eschewing the typical swing-and-miss pitches and instead telling hitters, “Here it is, hit it,” and that’s what makes his ability to induce whiff after whiff so shocking. Motte’s 12.9% swinging strike rate last season ranked 35th out of 172 qualified relievers, and a quick look down the list of the top 34 shows a ton of fastball-slider pitchers — naturally, as the slider has a 13.6% league-wide whiff rate, whereas every fastball (even the cutter) sits under 9%. But Motte’s ability to mix and match his different fastballs combined with their sheer velocity has allowed him to be among the nastiest relievers in the National League without a true breaking pitch.
LaHair, like many hitters Motte will face this season, did not see a single pitch under 95 MPH in his 12-pitch ordeal. But after swinging through the first two strikes he saw, LaHair was just quick enough to stay in lockstep with Motte as he danced around the zone:
Motte’s four-seamer is among the most fouled-off pitches in baseball. Whereas the league fouls four-seamers off 19.9%, hitters facing Motte’s version foul it off 26.6% of the time. Motte was going to live or die with his four-seamer against LaHair on Monday, as he threw it for 11 of the 12 total pitches and on all seven of the at-bat’s 3-2 counts. When Motte throws consecutive four-seam fastballs, that foul rate goes up even higher, to 28.4%. Combine that with a 21.8% ball rate and LaHair stays alive or earns first base on 50.2% of these pitches.
This isn’t to say the task was easy for LaHair — a look at the strike zone (particularly the wider typical zone for left-handers) shows Motte was doing an excellent job of catching the zone or the outer edges, forcing LaHair to make contact with fireballs just to stay alive. After the first two whiffs, however, LaHair saw enough to time the fastball up and make just enough contact and wait out the eventual fourth ball.
The question for Motte going forward is if his fastball will be enough to keep hitters off guard. The issue Monday night was an inability to put away a left-handed hitter with just fastballs. Last season, Motte induced swinging strikes on 18.9% of fastballs thrown directly after another fastball to right-handers but just 11.9% of those thrown to left-handers. These are the times his lack of a secondary pitch will be most apparent. He does own a slider, but as the final pitch of the game showed, it isn’t yet his best weapon — it was a hanging slider at 85 MPH that Mather hit into center field to win the game.
Motte should be able to work around this issue if he can find the strike zone again in 2012 as he did in 2011. By only surrendering 2.1 walks per nine innings last season, Motte was largely able to neutralize the fact that he gives up more contact than some of the league’s other elite relievers. This year, Motte has walked three batters in 6.2 innings and owns an ERA of 4.05 and a FIP of 3.83 in the season’s very early goings. I still have confidence in Motte’s ability to reel it in as the season goes on — he only walked 34 of the 476 batters he faced in 2010 and 2011 combined. But if the Cardinals’ newly-official closer has one weakness, it’s his lack of a secondary option, particularly against left-handed hitters, and that’s what put Motte and the Cardinals behind the eight ball Monday night.