Oakland, Detroit, and a Tale of Three Fastballs

When the Tigers fell behind the A’s two games to one in the series, they knew they’d need either Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander to pitch well if they were to advance. As it turned out, they needed them both — Scherzer recorded some critical outs in Game 4, and then Verlander recorded a lot more of them in Game 5, starting in what would’ve been Scherzer’s place. For eight innings on Thursday, Verlander was virtually unhittable, removing any would-be suspense from a potentially suspenseful game. At times on Tuesday, the A’s would’ve figured this would be Scherzer’s start, if necessary. At times on Tuesday, the A’s would’ve figured they’d have Thursday off. It was in Game 4 that the A’s were in position to lock this series up. In Game 5, they never really stood a chance.

The question coming in was whether the Tigers or A’s would emerge from this triumphant. The question in the middle innings became whether the A’s would so much as get a runner on base. Nobody reached until Josh Reddick‘s walk in the bottom of the sixth. Nobody got a hit until Yoenis Cespedes‘ single in the bottom of the seventh. There wasn’t suspense until the game’s final batter, and by then Verlander had been removed. On October 6, 2012, Coco Crisp led off Game 1 of the ALDS with a home run against Verlander. He hasn’t given up another postseason run to the A’s in four starts, whiffing 43. It’s an all-time record, and it’s active, pending the future.

For eight innings, Verlander mowed the A’s down. With one swing of the bat, he was given all the run support he’d need. After Verlander was gone, the A’s couldn’t seize their one final chance. This was a Game 5 decided by three separate fastballs.

Sonny Gray‘s fastball

One of them, in the top of the fourth, to Miguel Cabrera. Gray was given this start over Bartolo Colon because of the way that he dazzled in Game 2. It was a perfectly justifiable decision, both emotionally and statistically, and through three and a third innings, Gray held the Tigers hitless. Torii Hunter singled to bring up Cabrera, but Cabrera hadn’t been Cabrera for more than a month, and Gray had little trouble disposing of him earlier in the series. Cabrera these days can draw nothing from his lower body. The A’s had had success pitching him with fastballs away. Gray’s first pitch to Cabrera was a fastball, away.

Then Stephen Vogt called for a fastball and set up low and inside. It wasn’t necessarily the wrong idea — you need to pitch Cabrera inside often enough to keep him honest. You can’t let him be looking away, because then that shifts the balance of power. Even with Cabrera in his current state, he needs to see inside pitches. He likes inside pitches, but inside pitches located well probably aren’t inside pitches he’s going to punish. Not this month. Vogt set up around Cabrera’s knees, hugging the plate’s inner edge.

Were the pitch executed, maybe Cabrera grounds it foul. Maybe he grounds it fair, to third, for a fairly routine double play. Maybe it misses for a ball, but at least then Cabrera would’ve seen a pitch in, and Gray could return to the outer half. All Gray needed to do was make sure to bust Cabrera down and in. He didn’t do that.

CabreraGray.gif.opt

Instead of pitching at the knees, Gray pitched at the belt. Instead of pitching at the edge, Gray pitched over the plate. He missed in both the wrong directions, and Cabrera didn’t miss at all, muscling the ball just past the fence, almost entirely with his upper body. It wasn’t a healthy Cabrera swing, and the ball was feet from being caught, but it was a healthy Cabrera outcome, and even this Cabrera can still give a ball a ride if it’s in the right location. Everything’s there but his legs, and a fastball over the inner third at the belt is going to allow Cabrera to achieve his maximum bat speed. Gray pitched to the one spot he shouldn’t have, and he turned an injured Cabrera into a hero. This was one of two inside pitches Cabrera saw all game.

The odds, of course, were that even this pitch would not be hit out of the park. Homers are never easy, especially when you’re hurt. But of all the possible pitches, this was probably the most likely to go away. The A’s had Cabrera where they wanted him, but pitching accurately all the time is really hard.

Justin Verlander’s fastball

All of them, because I’m cheating. When Gray made a mistake with his fastball to make the game 2-0, one got the sense this would go a lot like last year’s Game 5 between the two teams. One got the sense those runs would be enough, because Verlander looked terrific, or the A’s batters looked awful, or both. It just had the feel of one of those dominant complete games in which the trailing team would never have a chance, and though lots of games feel like that and subsequently change course, Verlander never wavered, and the A’s never threatened until after he was gone. From the get go, Verlander was in control. When he got his run support in the fourth, it felt like the A’s were too far behind. Whatever critiques there have been of Verlander this season, they all sound like reactionary silliness now.

On Thursday, Verlander tied his career high by generating 24 swinging strikes. He got one of those on his slider. Two of them, he got on his curve. Three of them, he got on his changeup. That leaves another 18, which he got on his fastball. That ties another Verlander high, of fastball whiffs during the PITCHf/x era. As much as people know about Verlander’s secondary pitches, he’s most famous for his heat, and for a while his heat was almost all he needed. Through six innings, three of four pitches were fastballs. Toward the end, he leaned more on his changeup and curveball, but by then the fastball had been established, so the A’s didn’t know what to expect.

Brandon McCarthy remarked on Twitter that, early on in earlier games in Oakland, there can be some issues with hitter visibility. The A’s missed with 11 of 19 swings through three innings, eight of those coming against heat. Verlander said later he felt like he had good life, and the A’s weren’t picking up his fastball, so he wasn’t going to go away from it until they made him. They never really made him, and by the point Verlander started to feel tired, A’s hitters were conditioned to look for the heat and weren’t prepared for the other stuff. This was a version of Verlander whose primary pitch was also a putaway pitch.

The fastball was Verlander’s story, much in the way that the curveball has been Adam Wainwright‘s story. And it’s that same fastball that was used to explain Verlander’s apparent struggles earlier in the year. Through July 30, Verlander’s heater generated 16.5% whiffs. Since July 31, it’s come in over 27%, and just these last three starts, it’s at 40%. For a while, Verlander was known for gaining strength over the course of a game. Now it seems he’s gaining strength over the course of a season, and he might be peaking in October. If he’s not truly Justin Verlander again, he at least feels like he is.

Joaquin Benoit‘s fastball

One of them, in the bottom of the ninth, to Seth Smith. Benoit started the inning, serving as Detroit’s closer with a 3-0 lead, and there was a lot of debate over whether Jim Leyland was right to take Verlander out, considering the success he was having. Benoit has some track record of shakiness, see, while Verlander has a track record of Verlander, and for the first time it felt like the Tigers were a little bit vulnerable. The truth, as it came out later, was that Verlander admitted after the eighth to being out of gas, but it still felt like Benoit gave the A’s one last opening. The first two batters made outs.

Then Jed Lowrie singled and stretched it into a double. Then Yoenis Cespedes got hit by a 2-and-2 pitch he almost swung at. The A’s were down to their last batter, but all of a sudden, that last batter was the tying run, in the person of Smith, batting left-handed. This was the game’s only suspense, and three pitches in, Smith was ahead. Alex Avila called for a fastball on the outer edge at the knees. Benoit threw a fastball inside the outer edge at the belt.

It was a location that Smith has taken deep before:

Smith1.gif.opt

Smith2.gif.opt

As Smith stood in, all observers were nervous. As the pitch was delivered, eyes grew large — the thing to avoid was a long fly ball, and long fly balls are hit off elevated fastballs. In a hitter’s count, with the game on the line, Smith was given an elevated fastball.

Smith3.gif.opt

Maybe, the pitch was just a little far away. Maybe Smith tried too hard to pull it. Maybe he had just too miscalculated a swing path. To the last pitch of their season, the A’s were alive, and Benoit ended with a mistake. But not all mistakes get punished. Some mistakes seal series. Smith did have a chance, and Smith did get a pitch, but pitching is hard, and hitting is harder. As quickly as the pitch widened eyes out of Benoit’s hand, people knew that the series was over, before Torii Hunter had so much as settled in a spot.

Six times since 2000, the A’s have played an ALDS Game 5. Six times since 2000, they’ve lost. The last two times, they’ve lost at the hands of Justin Verlander, and Verlander made sure to never even give them a chance. A year ago, Verlander went the distance. This time he came an inning shy, allowing the A’s one final gasp. But in a game decided by fastballs, the A’s couldn’t make enough of the last one they saw. Mistakes were made with two crucial fastballs. With too many other fastballs, not a thing was mistaken.



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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.


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DD
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DD
2 years 9 months ago

McCarthy also noted on twitter Re: Gray that he was off center in his delivery, which was making him struggle to command the FB and also his sharp curve. It seemed that pretty early on he realized the curve was a bit off and tried to pump in fastballs, and that wasn’t going to end well.

Cybo
Guest
Cybo
2 years 9 months ago

I thought Melvin kind of screwed the pooch there by not starting Colon for game 5. Sure Gray looked great in his last start and Colon not so much. You gotta go with your vet in this spot I feel.

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
2 years 9 months ago

Feel what you want, Gray is a better pitcher than Colon.

http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-case-for-colon-the-case-for-gray/

Cybo
Guest
Cybo
2 years 9 months ago

~70 ML IPs is a little too small of a sample to make that statement don’t you think?

kevinthecomic
Guest
kevinthecomic
2 years 9 months ago

No I do not and here are some quotes from the article that prove my point:

“As much as we liked Sonny Gray the last time out, we know a lot less about him. 64 innings into a career — 261 batters faced — does not seem like a full compendium on the subject. And yet, if you’re speaking statistically, that much sample is enough to say that we can believe the Gray’s strikeout, walk, ground-ball and fly-ball rates.”

“But the strikeout rate thing, and the ground-ball rate thing, that favors Gray by a mile. And those two things are, traditionally, the best way to get batters out”

Zach
Guest
Zach
2 years 9 months ago

They only gave up 3 runs. They didn’t score any. Tough to put that on Melvin’s pitching decisions.

That being said, I think I would have pitched Gray at least the first time through the order, and then taken him out at the first sign of trouble after that. That would have been at some point in the inning where Cabrera homered.

wally
Guest
wally
2 years 9 months ago

Even if Sonny wasn’t looking 100% through the first 3 innings, few people would have pulled him before that AB against “the shell of Cabrera”. He had the righty-righty advantage 1-3 in the order, and the only potent LHB in Fielder was up 4th (Martinez is of course good too, but he’s a switch hitter). Even those who’d advocate no one (save a guy like Verlander) goes through the order more than once in an elimination game, might like Sonny to face the first 12 batters. Then you could bring in Blevens to pitch to Fielder, followed by Otero to go the next 8. Doolittle comes in for Fielder’s next AB and stays through the bottom of the order. That gets you three times through the order and maybe into the 6-7 inning with Cook, Balfour and maybe Anderson as the good arms left to pitch. Which isn’t a ton, so I don’t think A’s could afford to pitch Sonny only once through the order.

The A’s just didn’t have enough good arms available to do anything else than roughly what happened. I don’t think I would have had Sonny pitch to Fielder (against the rightly-lefty disadvantage) in the 5th with 2 on, and he definitely wouldn’t have come out for the 6th inning, but at that point the 2 runs was enough anyway.

gen. mccarthur
Guest
gen. mccarthur
2 years 9 months ago

I really like these articles that give me a sense for how the game went. maybe that’s my fault for being a terrible baseball fan and not watching, but given that I didn’t, these sorts of articles are awesome.

Jim
Guest
Jim
2 years 9 months ago

I’ll admit I was rooting for the A’s but didn’t it seem like Vlander was getting a bigger k zone than Grey? I watched Vlander implode on the mound all season against weak competition. He gets easily rattled. Why didn’t the A’s do more to slow him down and get in his head a little? That said, the A’s just didn’t execute.

bada bing
Guest
bada bing
2 years 9 months ago

Not sure if serious.

wally
Guest
wally
2 years 9 months ago

From feel, the strike zone was big to the outside, but it was called both ways. Verlander is just better at getting those pitches where he wants them and A’s pitchers didn’t get them there.

For example, check these out for Verlanders pitches:

There are about 3 of them that are a good 5-6 inches off the plate being called for strikes.

Here’s Sonny’s plot:

As you can tell, there just aren’t many pitches just off the plate outside. And you can clearly tell which one was Cabrera’s home, that light blue dot right down the middle.

Here’s Otero and he got one called maybe 2-3 inches off the plate outside:

http://www.brooksbaseball.net/pfxVB/pfx.php?month=10&day=10&year=2013&game=gid_2013_10_10_detmlb_oakmlb_1%2F&pitchSel=519096&prevGame=gid_2013_10_10_detmlb_oakmlb_1%2F&prevDate=1010&league=mlb

So, the strike zone certainly helped Verlander, but its pretty hard to say it wasn’t being call inconsistently by the ump. Verlander rightfully was pitching to put himself in position to get those calls made. Last nights game might have been different if those pitches were being called balls. We’d probably have seen more 1-0 counts and less 0-1 counts, maybe fewer strikeouts from Verlander. But its still hard to imagine how the strike zone would have prevented the Tigers from scoring at least 2 runs or helped the A’s score 3 or more….

And this is coming from a very sad A’s fan that now has to wait until March 31st to see the A’s play another game (of course, maybe a tripe AZ for spring training will be in order, but you get it).

chrishobson
Member
chrishobson
2 years 9 months ago

Thanks for posting this wally.

gc
Guest
gc
2 years 9 months ago

I don’t have TV and was “watching” the mlb.com. There were a few A’s pitches tracked definitely above the knees called for balls. Later in the game there was a Verlander pitch, I think a slider, that was also called a ball that was recorded entirely in the lower strike zone.

Vince
Guest
Vince
2 years 9 months ago

If, by “implode on the mound all season” you mean “be the 7th best pitcher in MLB” then I’m right with you.

PackBob
Guest
PackBob
2 years 9 months ago

This could have been titled a Tale of Two Swings. Give a player everything he may want in a pitch, like in the HR Derby, and the best dinger hitters in the world sometimes hit one out, sometimes don’t. Reload and next time maybe Miguel is caught at the track while Smith gets a tiny bit more of the ball and wins the game.

Benoit was lucky, Gray not so much.

Cybo
Guest
Cybo
2 years 9 months ago

Or more likely, Miggy is awesome, Smith not so much. Pitchers routinely make mistakes. This is a well known fact. Its the hitters that punish said mistakes that make the difference. A cookie for Miggy is going to get punished more often then one for Seth Smith.

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente
2 years 9 months ago

Anyone suppose Beane is sitting in his office this AM reminding everyone that winning in October is luck, and during the regular season is skill and insight.

wally
Guest
wally
2 years 9 months ago

I doubt Billy Beane is sitting in his office, yes.

Bret
Guest
Bret
2 years 9 months ago

What I suppose is that you don’t have a firm grasp of how statistics work. 162 games is a large sample. 5 isn’t. In 5 games, the Astros could beat the Red Sox. I know there are people out there that are trying very hard to make it a “thing” that Beane can build division winners but not championships, but if you look at it with any sort of scrutiny, it just doesn’t make any sense. Yeah, continually losing game 5’s is rough. It sucks for A’s fans and it kills Billy Beane.

But come on. Jeremy Giambi not sliding – is that on Beane? Byrnes not touching home plate – is that on Beane? Reddick swinging at ball 4 with the bases loaded against Scherzer? Etc?

I just don’t get the Billy Beane backlash. He builds the best teams he can, then sends ’em into the playoffs and says good luck. They’ve had poor luck, and they’ve made mistakes. Far worse teams have won the world series than the past 2 years of A’s teams. Were the 2006 Cardinals built to win the championship? Did the GM sit down and say ok look, we’re going to win the division by winning 83 games, which is extremely mediocre and unbelievably fortunate, but then have just the right mix of things to win it all?

So what do you suggest – that Beane build a team that is just barely good enough to win the division (like this year’s Tigers), but has two pitching studs and two gigantic free-agent signed position players (making around $70 million between the four of them this year alone) so he can win a short series?

What’s your better idea for Billy? I’m curious.

wally
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

Interesting note: $70M happens to be about the entire A’s payroll, a little more even.

Also, don’t forget Tejada stopping between 3rd and home to argue an interference call on a play in which he would have been easily safe at home anyway…..

Todd Criner
Guest
Todd Criner
2 years 8 months ago

Well said, Bret.

I love that people continue to discredit Beane when he has proven time and again that he’s one of the best GMs in baseball history. Show me someone who has won more games with the type of constraints he’s had (not just money or a stadium that turns away star FA hitters, but a lack of high draft picks as well).

The playoffs are a crapshoot — the ’06 Cardinals are a prime example. Or one of the several wild card teams that have won the whole thing. Tom Verducci from Sports Illustrated covered the numbers pretty well in his recent article.

Also, Giambi was safe. Posada whiffed on the initial swipe :)

Colin
Guest
Colin
2 years 9 months ago

Why would this matter anyway? It is clear from the season that the Tigers were the better baseball team, it would have been an upset, albeit a mild one as all upsets in the playoffs are if the A’s won the series.

Wait
Guest
Wait
2 years 9 months ago

Correct me if I am wrong, but didn’t Oakland get more wins than Detroit? You state this as matter of fact but it is not a provable theory.

Colin
Guest
Colin
2 years 9 months ago

Wins on fangraphs? You being serious or just messing around?

Detroit had a run differential with about 30 extra runs in it and didn’t get to play the Astros a whole bunch of times. Their team WAR was also far higher than the A’s. They were the better team, end of story.

SIr Bedevere
Guest
SIr Bedevere
2 years 9 months ago

On mlb after the game Reynolds et al were going on about the A’s record number of strikeouts in the series and how this proved that they weren’t built to win in October. Never mentioned was the minor technical detail that the Tigers’ staff had set an all-time record for strikeouts. I weep.

Juan
Guest
Juan
2 years 9 months ago

There’s nothing wrong with the A’s pitching. So what if Gray
gives up 2-3 runs. There are starters who would kill for a
2.00 or a 3.00 ERA. The point is, there was NO run support
from the A’s offense. The A’s have a great offense, but it
was stopped by the Tigers’ great pitching. Verlander
previously has been creamed in big games, but he was up for
this one. To sum it up, the Tigers capitalized on mistakes
by the the A’s pitching, and were able to score enough runs in
support of their great pitching. It is seldom that a young team
(the A’s) beat a veteran team (the Tigers) with veteran super
stars (i.e. Kaline in 1968 Series, Clemente in 1971 Series,
Stargell in 1979 Series, and now Cabrera, Verlander, and Co.).
But, we have not seen the last of the A’s! It was a great series.

payroll
Guest
payroll
2 years 9 months ago

“It wasn’t necessarily the wrong idea — you need to pitch Cabrera inside often enough to keep him honest. You can’t let him be looking away, because then that shifts the balance of power. Even with Cabrera in his current state, he needs to see inside pitches.”

I don’t believe any of that is necessarily true.

wally
Guest
wally
2 years 9 months ago

Yeah, you probably don’t need to worry too much about “keeping him honest” in an elimination game. Just pitch to his weakness and hope for the best. You only have 3-4 ABs to get through.

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