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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.