I think my favorite fun fact Wednesday night came from Sam Miller on Twitter. The Giants, of course, hit only 31 home runs at home all season long, far and away the fewest in baseball. Only three Giants players hit at least three. Granted, those totals were seven, seven, and five — not three, three, and three — but this provided some context. It was more or less within this context that Pablo Sandoval went deep three consecutive times to start off Game 1 of the World Series. And he did it in late October in a game started by Justin Verlander. Maybe a little more impressive than Albert Pujols homering three times in a playoff game in Texas in a game started by Matt Harrison. Apparently I’ve decided to support Sandoval’s performance by denigrating other, similar performances.
In a game where the story was supposed to be about the mismatch between Verlander and Barry Zito, it was Sandoval who completely stole the show, and it was Sandoval who seemed to get Joe Buck legitimately excited with dinger number three. He hit one out to center, he hit one out to left, and then he hit one out to center again. Sandoval would finish 4-for-4, singling off Jose Valverde, but if anything, considering the rest of the night, Valverde successfully kept Sandoval in check. It might’ve been the highlight of Valverde’s Game 1 appearance.
When a player hits three home runs in a game, you figure maybe that player has been seeing too many hittable pitches. Hittable pitches get turned into home runs! Let’s consider the opinion of one particular amazing big-league starting pitcher who was watching along:
I’m thinkin those are the last pitches panda sees to hit for the rest of the series. #panda
Clayton Kershaw knows a little something about facing Pablo Sandoval, having done it a few dozen times. Sandoval, incidentally, has never taken Kershaw deep. But while I don’t think Kershaw was wearing his Serious Analysis Cap as he typed out this tweet, there’s something worth considering: Sandoval didn’t really see pitches to hit in Game 1. He just hit the pitches he was thrown.
Okay, well, no, that’s not fair, Sandoval did see one pitch to hit. Sandoval was thrown one meatball, by Valverde in the bottom of the seventh. Sandoval lined it for a single, which was his worst achievement of the evening. Pablo Sandoval shouldn’t be thrown that pitch again, and in truth no one should be thrown that pitch again. Especially by Valverde! He is a mess!
But let’s look at the rest of Sandoval’s plate appearances, from first to third. This post is going to be very heavy on images, but I think it kind of has to be. Sandoval vs. Verlander, bottom 1:
Verlander threw Sandoval a perfect first-pitch fastball, then he got him to chase a low change to make the count an extremely pitcher-friendly 0-and-2. On 0-and-2, Verlander unquestionably missed his spot — even though Tim McCarver swore that Verlander did exactly what he wanted to do — but it’s not like Verlander just grooved one. This pitch was well out of the zone.
Verlander wanted to throw a fastball down and away, but instead he threw a fastball up. Here’s the pitch location right around the moment of contact:
Over the plate, yes, but up at the letters. The over-the-plate part was unintentional, accidental, but pitchers will very often throw such chase fastballs in two-strike counts. That’s because those fastballs result in a lot of swings and misses and pop-ups. Now, PITCHf/x recorded this fastball at 94.8 miles per hour out of Verlander’s hand. That’s fast, but that’s also actual velocity, where what’s more important is perceived velocity, or effective velocity. I’m going to drop you this link about perceived velocity, and you should read it, but basically, a high fastball like that one looks even faster than it is. By a few ticks, even, such that Verlander’s fastball might have looked more like 100, or close to it. Sandoval required extremely quick hands to drive that pitch out to center, and it was Sandoval’s second such impressive home run in less than a week.
I couldn’t believe that home run against Mitchell Boggs when I saw it. Verlander’s fastball wasn’t so far inside, but I wouldn’t say it was a hittable fastball. It was an 0-and-2 fastball out of the strike zone that Pablo Sandoval chased and drilled for a homer.
We move on now, to the bottom of the third. Verlander has just laughed off an unexpected mound conference. The sequence:
Verlander fell behind with offspeed stuff, then he came back with the fastball that he wanted to throw. When a pitcher’s behind in the count, the danger is that he’ll have to catch too much of the plate in an effort to climb back. Verlander stayed on the edge, down, but Sandoval still saw it and drove it the other way:
This was a homer that Verlander couldn’t believe. Replays caught him reacting with astonishment. The pitch was what he wanted, the location was what he wanted, and the result was the worst possible result, for the Tigers. You could say that Sandoval might’ve been sitting on the fastball, but once more, this isn’t what one imagines when one imagines a hittable pitch. The location around the moment of contact:
PITCHf/x clocked this fastball at 94.9 miles per hour out of Verlander’s hand. The perceived velocity would’ve been lower than that, according to the article previously linked, but this is more about location than speed. There’s a reason opposite-handed pitchers love to work hitters in the low-away quadrant. It’s because it’s most difficult to punish pitches thrown within that quadrant. Sandoval punished one.
Finally, the bottom of the fifth. Sandoval wouldn’t have been expecting to face Al Alburquerque so soon, but Alburquerque is one hell of a reliever and he doesn’t even have much of a demonstrated platoon split. The sequence:
Sandoval fouled off a good first-pitch fastball on the outer edge of the plate, then he took a ball a little up and a little in. That meant it was slider time, and Alburquerque’s slider is a weapon against both righties and lefties alike. The pitch:
Again, that’s basically what Alburquerque wanted to throw. Maybe he wanted the pitch to be a little bit lower, but it was already low enough that it probably would’ve been called a ball, had it been taken. That’s on the edge of the rule-book strike zone, breaking downward, and historically Alburquerque’s slider has been an extreme groundball pitch. He would’ve been hoping for a grounder or a whiff. Here’s the location around the moment of contact:
We’re talking about a pitch over the plate, but below the level of Sandoval’s knees. It was diving downward when Sandoval reached out and got it. It could’ve been lower. Verlander’s one fastball could’ve been higher. Verlander’s other fastball could’ve been more outside. All these pitches could’ve been less hittable. But none of these pitches were all that hittable. They were pretty good pitches at the times, and Sandoval simply hit them all out of the yard.
Sandoval did see one truly hittable pitch, and he lined it. That was after Kershaw sent out his tweet. Not only did Pablo Sandoval homer three times in consecutive plate appearances, but he did it in the World Series, in AT&T Park, against pretty good pitchers and pretty good pitches. You can say that Sandoval shouldn’t see any more hittable pitches, and that’s probably true. Given his approach, Sandoval should seldom if ever see hittable pitches thrown on purpose. But given his approach, Sandoval can make hittable pitches out of almost anything. The plan when you’re facing Pablo Sandoval is to get him to swing at the pitches you want to throw him. Executing the plan is no guarantee of success. There’s a reason Sandoval’s still in the league with the approach that he has.
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