Reds vs. Giants: Tales of Three Pitches

At this writing, we’ve had four incredible playoff baseball games in a row, and the Yankees and Orioles have a chance to make it five. The third of them featured the Giants eliminating the Reds in a decisive Game 5 by a 6-4 final. Good starter Mat Latos started for the Reds and was mediocre, and good starter Matt Cain started for the Giants and was also mediocre. The Giants surged out ahead 6-0 and then hung on the rest of the way as the Reds frittered away too many opportunities. That’s how the Giants completed their series comeback and advanced to the NLCS.

In a game like this one, nearly every single individual pitch is important. Any given pitch could be swung on and missed, and any given pitch can be hit for a dinger. Additionally, every given pitch changes the sequencing of the pitches that follow. For example, in the top of the fifth, Latos started Brandon Crawford out with two borderline fastballs, each of which was called a ball. If either of those goes for a strike, maybe Latos doesn’t groove the third fastball, against which Crawford tripled home the first run. And then who knows how the rest plays out? Limitless possibilities, and all that.

But while just about every pitch in the game was important, I want to discuss three pitches from the game in particular, not counting the pitches above. These are the three pitches that most stuck in my memory, even after the game was long over. We’re looking at Buster Posey‘s grand slam, a crucial double play, and the game’s final strike. Off we go, together!

There was one out in the top of the fifth when Posey faced Latos with the bases loaded and the score 2-0 San Francisco. Latos had been scuffling in the inning, but it was nothing outrageous, and he got Posey into a 2-and-2 count. While some would argue that Latos should’ve been removed by this point, he still had an opportunity to get out of the inning without any further damage. Instead he allowed maximum further damage with one swing.

The camera is at one hell of an angle, here, so we’re not close to seeing things dead-on. But that’s a fastball over the very center of the plate, at Posey’s thigh. According to the Gameday window, the pitch couldn’t really have been much more centered than it was. What Ryan Hanigan wanted was an inside fastball on the edge. Presumably, that’s what Latos wanted, too. That’s not the pitch that was thrown, and Posey got to showboat while Hanigan acted out and Latos refused to turn around. In an instant, all three players knew exactly what had happened. I don’t know if Latos just walked straight to the dugout but he might as well have. He wouldn’t throw another pitch in the game.

Before this pitch, and after this pitch, the TBS broadcast crew was talking about how Latos responded poorly to some borderline calls by the umpire. He didn’t get a call he wanted against Gregor Blanco. He didn’t get calls he wanted against Crawford. They say that veteran pitchers need to be able to shake those things off and not let them get to them mentally. The broadcasters floated the idea that Latos had allowed himself to be knocked out of a groove.

I don’t know if Latos lost focus. Given Latos’ reputation, it wouldn’t be the most unlikely thing in the world, but it’s hard to know what a lack of focus would look like. Latos was going to throw pitches to Posey. How would unfocused pitches look, compared to focused pitches? Did Latos miss his spot with that fastball so badly because he was still pissed off, or did he miss his spot because sometimes pitchers miss spots and Mat Latos isn’t perfect? We’re not ever going to know the answer to that, but it’s a fun little thought experiment. So a pitcher gets rattled by an ump. What does that look like? What is the effect?

We can’t dismiss the possibility that Latos let the questionable calls get into his head. So we can’t dismiss the possibility that Latos allowed a grand slam in part because he couldn’t keep himself stable. Ultimately, no matter what, I guess, it comes back to Mat Latos. He did something wrong at a bad time. Maybe the cause isn’t that important.

We move on now, to the bottom of the sixth. A 6-0 Giants lead has become a 6-3 Giants lead, and in the half-inning, Ryan Ludwick has homered, Jay Bruce has walked, and Scott Rolen has singled. If you believe in baseball momentum, the Reds had all the baseball momentum, with Ryan Hanigan facing Matt Cain in a big spot. The count ran full and then Hanigan took a fastball. Tom Hallion called it strike three, and Bruce was thrown out trying to steal third. That suddenly, a promising rally all but fizzled out.

I’m not here to talk about the wisdom of calling for a double steal. I’m also not here to talk about the wisdom of protecting the plate in a 3-and-2 count. I’m just here to talk about the consequences of that pitch being called a strike. As you can see in the .gif, the pitch was a little outside, and Gameday says the same thing. The PITCHf/x coordinates: 0.9 feet away from the center of the plate, 2.3 feet off the ground.

When Hanigan came up, the Reds’ win expectancy was about 27 percent. When Hanigan struck out, that fell to 16 percent. When Bruce was thrown out, it fell to about 13 percent. Of course, had the pitch been called a ball, there wouldn’t have been a play at third, because Hanigan would’ve walked to load the bases. In that situation, the Reds’ win expectancy would jump to about 38 percent. So based on a borderline pitch, we’re talking about a win-expectancy swing of more than 20 percent. That’s just hugely significant, especially in a playoff Game 5.

Hallion’s zone in the game was inconsistent, alternately big and small. Hanigan, clearly, didn’t think the pitch was a strike. I decided to go into the PITCHf/x data from the regular season and identify similar taken pitches to see how they were called. I looked at fastballs thrown by righties to righties in two-strike counts, located 0.9 feet away from the middle of the plate, between 2.0 and 2.6 feet of height. I found 185 such pitches from the season. Of those, 88 were called strikes, and 97 were called balls. Looking only at pitches with identical coordinates — 0.9 and 2.3 — I found 30 pitches, half of which were strikes and half of which were balls.

So this was the very definition of a borderline pitch. If we had our druthers, there wouldn’t be any gray area — a pitch would either definitely be a strike or it would definitely be a ball. Because we have humans in charge of these things, there’s a spectrum, and the pitch that Hanigan took was just about 50/50. He didn’t get the call, and the Reds’ rally was crippled as a consequence. He just as easily could’ve gotten the call in his favor, and then the Reds would’ve had the bases loaded with nobody out. This is similar to the disputed infield fly from last week. The umpire wasn’t wrong, but the umpire wasn’t unquestionably right, either, and the play made a huge difference. Here, it made a huge difference against the Reds.

Finally, we go to the bottom of the ninth. It’s 6-4 Giants with two outs and runners on first and second. Scott Rolen’s batting in a 1-and-2 count against Sergio Romo. This is how the game and the series ended.

Slider for strike three. Happens with Romo a lot. Romo’s a hell of a reliever, and Rolen was up against the odds. But look at where Posey set his glove, relative to where the pitch actually ended up. Romo made a pretty bad mistake in a pitcher-friendly count — Rolen just swung through it anyway. Posey wanted a low-away slider, like the one Romo had thrown with the previous pitch. Romo threw a belt-high slider over the inner half. That’s a dangerous slider for anyone to throw.

Maybe you don’t think Posey’s target was the actual target. Maybe you think Romo intended to do exactly what he did. But here are Romo’s 1-and-2 pitches to righties over the past two years, from Texas Leaguers:

Almost exclusively sliders, almost exclusively down and away. I think it’s fair to say the sliders that weren’t down and away were probably supposed to be down and away, and sometimes pitchers just mess up. Romo has a game plan and it doesn’t involve hanging two-strike sliders up in the zone.

For another glance at how badly Romo missed:

In case you aren’t picking up what I’m putting down, the yellow dot is the approximate original target. Had Romo executed like he wanted to, there wouldn’t have been a whole lot for Rolen to do. Rolen could take the pitch for a probable ball, or he could swing at a pitch that’s tough to hit hard. As is, the last pitch of the Reds’ season was a pitch that easily could’ve extended the Reds’ season, given a better cut. That pitch could’ve been lined for a single or a double into the corner. Maybe a walk-off home run, I don’t know. The Reds can’t say they didn’t have their opportunities, and they just didn’t cash enough of them in.

So the Giants are moving on, after dropping the first two at home and after looking lifeless offensively in Game 3. This isn’t how anybody would’ve drawn it up, but then the best scripts tend to be the unpredictable ones.




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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.


32 Responses to “Reds vs. Giants: Tales of Three Pitches”

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  1. San Francisco Slim says:

    One thing about Romo’s last pitch. It was much slower than his other sliders. Rolen was way out in front.

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  2. Frank says:

    No, the umpire was most definitely wrong last Friday.

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    • Joe says:

      No, they technically weren’t. Read the rulebook

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      • yeah says:

        Yes, they technically were. Read the rule book. You’ll notice some words like, “immediately” and “routine effort”.

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      • B N says:

        They were not technically incorrect, as it is a judgment call, but they were thematically incorrect. The purpose of the infield fly rule was to prevent fielders to create double plays by intentionally dropping balls.

        Was there ever a point where someone thought that a ball halfway into the outfield was going to create any sort of a double play if it dropped? If not (which I would posit), then the umpire did not understand the PURPOSE of the rule, which is at least as bad as not being able to implement the rule.

        Not that I care about who won that game, particularly, but it’s worthwhile to note.

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  3. HeiseyOnLife says:

    After seeing Hallion ring up Brandon Belt (a lefty no less) with pretty much the exact same pitch in the 2nd along with Baker’s stupidity in starting the runners Hanigan had to protect the outside corner there.

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    • B N says:

      This. Once you have two strikes, you have to foul off those borderline pitches or you put it in the umpire’s hands (who will call you out 50% of the time, as the stats show).

      Interesting theory: The resulting bunches of 8-10 pitch at bats later in the game might have partly been the result of hitters latching on to this lesson of the day.

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      • Bhaakon says:

        “Have too” is a pretty strong word there. Usually working one’s self into a situation where there’s a 50/50 chance of reaching base is a victory.

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      • AK7007 says:

        @ Bhaakon – If you think your season rests on that one pitch, it does become “have to.” 50/50 odds are great, but not when the leverage index is through the roof.

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      • Peter says:

        Bhaakon,

        On the flip side, with the runners going, it’s 50/50 for making two outs. When you’re running out of outs, you can’t allow your win expectancy to drop from 27% to 13% for a 50/50 shot at getting to a 38% win expectancy.

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      • piratesbreak500 says:

        50/50 is probably better odds than what happens if the ball is put into play, even on a line drive.

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  4. jrogers says:

    What’s the verdict? Did the Yankees and O’s produce a fifth incredible game in a row?

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  5. swing 4 the cove says:

    i totally disagree with the notion that romo’s final pitch was some sort of a “hanger” that he got away with. yes he was trying to go down and away. the ball did not go where he wanted it to. at all. but the pitch wasn’t just floating there to get clobbered. besides its great tailing action, the ball is also breaking down. it starts belt high and and then has a sharp downward break of about 3-4 inches. and it tailed all the way to the inside edge of the strikezone. rolen was toast. it wasn’t the pitch romo was trying to throw but ended up being a sublime frisbee slider. it was a mistake pitch with wiffle-ball action.

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  6. B N says:

    On a side note, I thought a couple strike zones of the CIN/SF series were a bit on the weird/inconsistent side. Game 5 was just a little random at the edges, but Game 3 was like… the incredible shrinking strike zone. It started very pitcher friendly, then ended pretty hitter friendly from my viewpoint. Didn’t seem to favor either team, but was just weird.

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  7. andjusticeforall says:

    This really should be called the tale of 2 catchers. Three no-calls on borderline pitches immediately prior to Posey’s slam, and then Hannigan gets rung up on something that hadn’t been called those 3 times earlier. Hannigan is a great catcher. He knows what has been called throughout the game. Not calling it bias- Just calling for a computerized home plate umpire. Sure did make for a great story for Posey, though.

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    • ElJimador says:

      Yeah but Hanigan had also seen Latos get some wide strikes also. In particular there was a called strike 3 earlier in the game w/Cain hitting that was if anything further outside than that, and I remember thinking at the time that Cain is definitely going to take note of it. Apparently he did, and Hanigan should have too.

      BTW, for anyone who questions Baker’s decision to send the runners I think it’s important to remember that Cain got Hanigan to GIDP earlier in the game on a slider. So I think Baker was very conscious there of trying to stay out of the conventional DP (and maybe Hanigan couldn’t pull the trigger because he got fooled and was expecting a slider there too). Not that that made it the right call (obviously in hindsight it wasn’t). But it does make it more understandable at least.

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  8. Soledad says:

    Nice article. I would add to your analysis of the double play with Hanigan at the plate was definitely a pitch he should have swung at. The fact is Hallion’s strike zone was very inconsistent but if anything he tended to call a lot of strikes off the plate away. There is a reason that play is called a hit and run, because you are supposed to swing the bat, and that is under normal conditions, add the inconsistent and wide zone I would say Hallion would have called that pitch a strike far more than 50% of the time.

    The final pitch of the game is one of the strangest phenomenon in baseball, the back up slider. It seems like that pitch is successful far more often than you would expect form a hanging braking ball, but it acts so much different than any other pitch. Of course like any hanging pitch a fair number of them are going to be drilled, but if I had to choose something to hang up there it would definitely be Romo’s no dot slider. Also this is a guy that they have always handled with kid’s gloves. This was the 2nd time in this series that they used him for more than an inning, and it was his 35th pitch of the game. So definitely he was tired and hung a pitch. It is amazing how far he has come this year,

    Go Giants!

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  9. Menthol says:

    I’m surprised you would call Posey’s post-swing actions “showboating.” He watched it for maybe an extra half-second. Pretty unobjectionable if you ask me.

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    • Grover says:

      Likely. Now drowning his sorrows in a half-pint of horrendous “red ale.”

      Hopefully this superb result will put at least a temporary damper on the vicious Cincinnati race-hate that courses through that open wound of a city.

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  10. BookWorm says:

    Awesome analysis of the called third strike to Hanigan! PITCHf/x allows us to do incredible things, like compare that call to similar calls from throughout the season. Thank you for putting that tool to such good use.

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  11. Beau says:

    I love how the story is “Mat Latos fucked up” and no credit is given to Posey. Someone’s a haterrrr!!! :)

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  12. Beau says:

    Absolutely NO credit given to the giants in this post. Pathetic.

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  13. AK7007 says:

    @ Commenters that are complaining about “credit for the giants” – Sullivan was rooting for the giants all through the live blog yesterday. I assume that this article is just trying to avoid bias, but comes off to interneters as insufficient praise, when any giants fan that watched after the Posey HR was shitting their pants in fear at all the opportunities that we gave the reds. Games are about more than one inning, and the G-men were barely there after going ahead yesterday. Our motto may be “Torture!” but it’s hardly good process.

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  14. channelclemente says:

    I’ve looked at that clip a hundred times, and I’d have to say, that wasn’t a wayward slider. IMO, it was that 2 seam FB or 2 seam changeup (where he takes a few MPH off) he throws. Maybe it was a mix up, but that wasn’t a slider. It’s the same pitch Vogelsong picked up in September that stemmed his problem.

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  15. Oil Can Boyd says:

    giants defense won game 5- posey throws out bruce to stop a rally, crawford stabs a liner to save a run and pagan’s dive against navarro saves another.

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  16. Tver001 says:

    With Hanigan at the plate, he swings at that pitch at 1-2, or even 2-2. But it’s awful tempting to take at 3-2, knowing a walk loads the bases with nobody out. At 1-2 and 2-2, the batter’s more in survival mode and more likely to swing at a pitch like this out of the strikezone. The pitch (and call) just happened to line up in time with a 3-2 count.

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  17. Really nice article overall. Just wanted to share my thoughts.

    Really, a moment (about one second) to watch his ball fly off is considered “showboating”? Can we grant that perhaps Posey, after a full season of pounding as a catcher on his surgically repaired ankle and probably being very tired, might not want to jump out of the box at full speed if he doesn’t need to? It was pretty obvious to both Hanigan and Latos that it was out, but I’ve seen instances where the hitter assumed it was a homer and ran himself into a single when he could have had extra bases if he had started running instead of jogging to 1B. I would watch to be sure too, just in case I need to hustle into 2B, but why tire yourself out if you don’t have to?

    Regarding your question on Latos’ demeanor, you are right, we’ll never know exactly what it is, but since you got that one pitch sequence video running, maybe you can look at all the sequences in that at-bat, and perhaps the prior at-bat. Was he as obviously off the target in the other pitches? To your point, maybe it was just a bad pitch. Or maybe by examining his last 5-10 pitches, we see that he was pretty off on most of them.

    Still, he is famous among Giants fans for 1) pretending to hand a ball to a Giants fan and then chucking it out of the stadium (luckily, the ball did not injure anyone, but it did destroy the sun roof of one of the Giants announcers; it was a new car to boot) and 2) in the off-season, when signing three balls for charity, writing “I Hate SF” on them as well. So I can certainly buy that perhaps he was upset to be in that situation with Posey – especially if he doesn’t think that it is his ‘fault’ – and that affected his control. He has been clearly an emotional player before and that affected his judgement before, so it would not surprise me if he let the umpire affected him. Heck, I think it would have affected most people, few are as calm and collected to not be bothered by bad umpire calls.

    About the borderline pitch to Hanigan, I think most baseball fans would say he is at fault there. Looking at his stats, he is amazingly good at judging the strikezone, so I will give him that, but as a catcher in particular, he has got to know where the umpire considers to be borderline pitches, or worse, if the umpire is inconsistent with his calls (I don’t recall if this umpire was one, but the Giants announcing team kept on talking about how bad the umpires have been in calling strikes, both badly and inconsistently, which is even worse, as a pitch that is a ball in one instance is a strike in another; this is the worse playoffs I’ve heard). In addition, as good as he is in seeing the strikezone, umpires will defer to certain players, but given that he is not that well known, he’s probably not going to get the benefit of the doubt there. Baseball logic is that in a situation like that, you don’t put your fate in the hands of the umpire, you swing at borderline pitches.

    Furthermore, he should have known that the runners were running, he has to swing at any close pitches, just in case, that is something every ballplayer learns early. So what if you might be swinging at a potential ball four, you can’t really take that chance in the playoffs, you don’t know if you will get that chance again.

    Amazing though, how the game swings so much based on one pitch, thanks, very interesting.

    I think that it would be also interesting to see how that particular umpire on that day was calling pitches in the same region, up to that pitch. Whether just that one pitch or a whole bunch, was he that borderline on calling strikes with pitches in that area? You mention that Hallion was inconsistent: Hanigan should have known that and been prepared to swing at borderline pitches, just in case. If you let the pitch go and put it in the hands of the umpire, you get whatever he decides and, to my mind, what you deserve.

    That is something I don’t think baseball players nor fans really understand, the consequences of certain events and how that cascades to affect other events. Here, a strike led to a strike-out double-play but a ball leads to bases loaded, no outs. Given that it was a coin-flip between disaster and a great situation, he needed to swing and foul it off, and try his chances with his next pitch. Otherwise, you deserve the whatever the umpire decides for you.

    About Romo’s pitch, I see your point that the hitter could have blasted that for multiple RBI’s, but isn’t that how the best pitchers get to be the best? Their offerings are enough to keep the hitter guessing and missing, even if the pitch appears very hittable. Like all the times we hear that a pitch goes right down the middle for a strike. Any good hitter worth their salt should blast that like it was on a batting tee. But the pitcher is good enough to fool hitters enough to get those batting practices pitches in for a strike without disaster happening too often. So I see your point, but I think the greater point is that Romo is so good that he will get away with pitches like that because he has been so good with the slider.

    Still, very interesting how each of these pitches could have turned out much, much worse for the Giants while much better for the Reds.

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