Sergio Romo and the Tim Wakefield Fastball

Earlier in the regular season, I got a message from a pitcher asking about how his slider rate compared to that of a teammate. It seems they had something of a friendly wager. I checked and replied that, while his slider rate was high, and higher than his teammate’s, neither was close to the league lead. Way up top were guys like Luke Gregerson and Sergio Romo, who threw sliders with nearly two-thirds of their pitches. Romo, for example, threw sliders like Clayton Kershaw threw fastballs. Romo’s got a pitch, and he’s especially got that pitch against right-handed batters.

Now let’s take a step back. Between 2007-2011, Tim Wakefield posted a roughly league-average ERA over nearly 800 innings. The overwhelming majority of his pitches were knuckleballs, a very small minority of his pitches were curveballs, and just over ten percent of his pitches were fastballs. His fastball had the average velocity of another guy’s slow curve. It was, in isolation, a very bad major-league fastball. Yet, on a per-pitch basis, between 2007-2011, Tim Wakefield’s fastball was one of the most effective fastballs in the league. You don’t have to do much research to figure it’s because hitters were taken by surprise. The fastball seemed faster than it was, and it was often simply unexpected. Nearly three in four Wakefield fastballs were strikes. There was nearly an equal ratio of called strikes to swings.

Now let’s take a step forward. Sunday night, the Giants completed a four-game World Series sweep of the Tigers. Though it was a sweep, the last three games were competitive, and in Game 4 the Tigers’ hopes were alive through the final pitch. On the one hand, they were behind by a run with two down and no one on base. On the other hand, they were behind by one swing of the bat, and they had Miguel Cabrera in the batter’s box. Tigers fans could dream until Cabrera took a called strike three. Thankfully, for everyone’s sake, it was not a borderline strike.

It was a strike right over the plate, out of the hand of Sergio Romo. It was a strike that caught Cabrera completely off guard. During the regular season, Cabrera struck out looking just 15 times, and from the Tigers’ standpoint it doesn’t feel right to have things end with Cabrera not taking a hack. Here’s how that final strike looked:

The pitch was thrown in a 2-and-2 count. The pitch was a Sergio Romo fastball, instead of a Sergio Romo slider. From the start of the year, according to PITCHf/x, Cabrera had seen 131 fastballs in 2-and-2 counts. Of those, 94 were strikes, and of those strikes, 92 were swung at. It hasn’t been often that Cabrera has been caught looking by a two-strike fastball, but Romo had an inkling. And it was Romo, as it happens, and not Posey. Immediately before the pitch:

Said Posey afterward:

“That guy,” Posey said an hour later, shaking his own head in amazement. “He shook to a fastball there. That shows the type of guts he has and faith in what he’s got. It’s just a great job by him. This is not a knock, but he throws 88 or 89, but he’s got a plus, plus slider.”

Romo’s fastball crossed the plate around the level of Miguel Cabrera’s belt. It was clocked by PITCHf/x at 88.9 miles per hour out of the hand, and at 81.2 miles per hour by the time it arrived. On paper, that doesn’t seem like a pitch one should ever throw to Miguel Cabrera in a one-run game in the World Series, but there’s a reason Romo did what he did, and it’s a good one. Consider, for example, the previous pitch in the at-bat:

That’s a slider just off the outer edge. It was the fifth slider in a row Romo had thrown to Cabrera, out of five pitches. Two batters earlier, against righty Austin Jackson, Romo threw four sliders out of four pitches. For the year, Romo threw righties 85-percent sliders in two-strike counts. For the series, Romo had been all about his slider, to an extreme. Prior to this at-bat, Cabrera had never faced Romo before in his career.

There was every reason for Cabrera to be expecting a slider. There was every reason for Romo to stick with his slider, because he could afford another ball, and because the slider has been his reliable weapon for years. There was every reason for Posey to call for a slider. And this is where we get into game theory. Because there was every reason for one thing, Sergio Romo saw an opportunity to try another thing. We don’t know how often it would’ve worked, given a million repetitions, but we know how it worked the one time. It ended a World Series.

It seems like an illustration of intelligent on-the-fly pitching. We’re biased, of course, by the way the pitch turned out, but there’s no denying that Cabrera didn’t look prepared to swing at a heater, so he was caught in between. So often, pitchers and announcers will say that if you’re going to get beat, you should get beat on your best pitch. But you can’t always lean on your best pitch, if the hitter knows what your best pitch is. In those circumstances, sometimes your best pitch in the moment isn’t your general best pitch at all. Sergio Romo’s fastball isn’t his best pitch, and that’s precisely what made it his best pitch to Cabrera in that one spot.

At a time like this, people like to see nutshells, they like to see epitomizations. There are probably people out there writing about how Sergio Romo’s strikeout of Miguel Cabrera captures the Giants’ whole 2012 season. That approach seems lazy to me so let’s put it this way: Romo’s strikeout of Cabrera captured the whole World Series because a Giants player did something good and a Tigers player did something bad. I’m not interested in Romo’s final pitch because of its greater symbolic significance. I’m interested in Romo’s final pitch because it’s interesting. Ballsy and interesting.

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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.

44 Responses to “Sergio Romo and the Tim Wakefield Fastball”

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  1. GMH says:

    Another example of what Roger Kahn called the Head Game in that last at bat: On the penultimate pitch, Romo shook off Posey twice but threw a slider. In other words, he probably shook off a slider first and then came back to it – something pitchers will do on occasion to try to trick hitters. That fifth slider was Romo’s worst pitch of the at bat. It was up and Cabrera got a good swing on it. Before the next pitch, Romo shook off twice again. Cabrera is possibly (probably) thinking that Romo shook off twice before and came back with the slider. But this time the third signal Posey put down was for the fastball.

    Romo outhought Cabrera, and that’s how you sneak an 88-mph fastball past a Triple Crown winner.

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  2. Well-Beered Englishman says:

    Outstanding piece.

    Not a fan of symbolic/emblematic importance in sports either, as it seems a cheap substitute for genuine analysis – genuine analysis of exactly this type. It was really a great moment in baseball strategy.

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  3. DrBGiantsfan says:

    There was an article here on Fangraphs, I think about a year ago, but it might have been 2 years ago showing the movement on Romo’s slider and 2 seam fastball. The movement on the slider is legendary, but the movement of the 2 seamer in the opposite direction is one of the best in baseball too. Couple that with the fact that Romo’s slider does not have the characteristic red dot, and you have a pretty deadly combination.

    If you look at where the K pitch to Cabrera started out, it was well outside, so he reasonably figured that it was a slider and would break even farther out of the strike zone. Instead, it broke several inches in all the way to the middle of the plate. So, it wasn’t just the pitch type and location he wasn’t expecting. The movement was a huge part of it too.

    On the previous LH batter, Romo threw almost all two seamers at 86-88 MPH and they all had vicious tails on them which got him a K there too.

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    • B N says:

      Is that what those were? Two seamers? They looked like they were moving like cutters or sliders off the plate. Tons of lateral movement. If that’s his two-seam, he’s got to have significantly above-average sideways break on it.

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      • MGL says:

        “They looked like they were moving like cutters or sliders off the plate.”

        The two-seamer (or four seamer) moves in the opposite direction of a slider or cutter.

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      • paqza says:

        The ones he threw to the lefty were two seamers – they moved the opposite direction compared to the sliders.

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    • GoDogGo says:

      Listening to Mike Krukow explain it during the Giants radio broadcasts, the “no-dot” slider Romo throws is like you say, it looks a lot different than the typical slider, which explains why Cabrera was caught looking on the last pitch. After five straight slider pitches, he thought it was another one but it didn’t break out of the zone. Apparently, if you haven’t gone up against Romo and his particular slider, it is completely foreign and difficult to compensate for when you only get a chance or two in a series. It wasn’t such a factor with the Reds and Cardinals – they’ve at least seen it a time or two – but the poor Tigers never had a chance with Romo closing.

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      • merizobeach says:

        Listening to Mike Krukow makes me want to blow my head off with a shotgun. Even more than that, it makes me want to blow Mike Krukow’s head off with a shotgun. Fortunately since I watch every Giants game on, I can listen to the other teams’ announcers, even if it means insufferable clowns like Mark Grace. Apparently, there are degrees of insufferability.

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      • anon says:

        merizo – just a heads up, posting stuff like that can get you in trouble. even if you’re only “joking”.

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      • Deadhardy says:

        @merizobeach Mike Krukow can come off as a homer and doofus sometimes, but I still think he’s a good counterpoint to Duane Kuiper (who is one of the best play-by-play guys in baseball). Together they’ll get into the Hall easy.

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  4. P says:

    Good for you, Jeff Sullivan!

    All is forgiven, for this is a great piece of writing. Bravo!

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  5. Near says:

    That last pitch was a perfect metaphor for the Giants postseason: unexpected and dominant.

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  6. celtic1888 says:

    2 people in the entire world thought Romo would throw a fastball there. I had a moment were I didn’t think the umpire would call it as I’m sure he got took by surprise as well.

    As a Giants fan, that pitch felt like it took a month to get there and I’m sure the location wasn’t exactly what they were looking for but it was a fitting end to the Giants dominate WS run.

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  7. beckett19 says:

    Is anyone else disgusted with Jim Leyland’s reaction to the strikeout?

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  8. dustygator says:

    Both Austin Jackson and Cabrera struck out on the slider. Jackson when Romo threw it and Cabrera when he didn’t. That’s the hallmark of a real good pitch. Hitters can’t touch it even when they know it’s coming (Jackson saw four straight). And it’s so dominating that it’s always in the back of a hitter’s mind, to the point that it changes their approach.

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  9. Bigmouth says:

    I believe the technical term is “wiffle doo doo.”

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  10. ToddCommish says:

    Romo has video-game movement on his pitches. I swear there’s someone furiously tapping a controller somewhere when he throws the slider.

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  11. Al Pudge says:

    After the way Detroit played in the World Series, the Yankees should be doubly ashamed of themselves for their play in the ALCS.

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    • Deadhardy says:

      The way the Yankees played against the Orioles…i was rooting hard for them to win the ALCS…cause I thought the Giants matched up better against them…turns out it didn’t matter anyway the way the Tigers played (or didn’t play).

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  12. MSpitz says:

    Great article.
    Right before the second-last pitch, I turned to my friend and said “Cabrera’s gonna k looking on a 2-seamer on the outside corner.” So I was a pitch early, but yes, I called it. All the sliders off the outside corner clearly had Cabrera expecting another slider, along with the fact that he probably realized how many sliders Romo throws. Great decision by Romo to switch it up like that.

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  13. MGL says:

    According to Jeff, he throws the fastball 15% of the time in 2 strike counts. It is as simple as that. To say that “No one in the world other than Posey and Romo were expecting it is tautological.

    I expected it – 15% of the time. So should have Miggy and all the other Tiger hitters, if they were briefed appropriately.

    A hitter has two choices in that situation: They can simply gear up for a slider 100% of the time and probably take or miss a fastball strike, or they can expect the slider most of the time, but be able to hit or foul off the fastball. In the latter case, they will not hit the slider as well as in the former case. Either way yields the same overall result, although the distribution is more spread out.

    What I found disturbing was Jackson’s at bat, and even Miggy’s, prior to the fastball. Regardless of which tact you take (expect slider most of the time or all of the time), swinging at that pitch which was strike 3 against Jackson was pathetic.

    And even Miggy took a bad slider right down the middle for strike one, which should have been swung at and crushed, and his second swinging strike was on a pitch which should have been taken for a ball – again, if you know that a slider is coming at least 85% of the time.

    And let’s not even talk about Kelly’s AB. That was one of the all time worst I have seen in a playoff game. Again, if you know that the pitcher is going to throw mostly fastballs (which Romo does against LHB) and that fastball moves down and away, you simply cannot be swinging at those pitches that Kelly swung at.

    Where were the Tigers advanced scouts? Were the Tiger hitters briefed properly about Romo, which they should be, since he is likely to pitch in a high leverage situation?

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    • channelclemente says:

      Nice summation, where were the Tigers?

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    • snoop LION says:

      you did NOT expect a fastball 15% of the time as you were watching. don’t lie and chill out

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      • joser says:

        Actually, since this would seem to be the real MGL, I’m sure he certainly did. He has the track record and qualifications to back that up; what are your qualifications to call him a liar?

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    • dustygator says:

      “What I found disturbing was Jackson’s at bat, and even Miggy’s, prior to the fastball. Regardless of which tact you take (expect slider most of the time or all of the time), swinging at that pitch which was strike 3 against Jackson was pathetic.”

      Yeah, because trying to gauge the spin on a 9″ piece of leather thrown at 80+mph from 60’6″ is that simple. Oh, this guy has one of the best sliders in the league? I’ll just take all the sliders out of the zone and swing at the ones out of it.

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    • Mike says:

      I still can’t believe Leyland used Kelly there. His first ab in a month? Really? Right there?

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    • Solidarity says:

      Knowing that the slider is coming and actually hitting it are completely different animals. Few pitches break as much as Romo’s slider, so it’s not surprising that major leaguers fail to fully account for just how much it runs away from RHB. Especially given that Romo can throw it for an easy strike 1 most of the time (as was the case with Jackson and Cabrera), they get two or maybe three chances at it.

      You think batters didn’t know that Mariano’s cutter was coming? Scouting helps prime execution, but Romo’s an incredibly tough at-bat regardless: righties were .192/.229/.308 against him this year.

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    • joe says:

      its hilarious when someone on here starts critiquing the players in MLB – “you shoulda done this here and that there”, bla bla bla.

      Could you hit one of the best sliders of all time? Don’t think so.

      Just like the NFL, there are a lot of couch potato warriors who might be surprised what its really like to be in that situation and playing against that level of competition.

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    • ElJimador says:

      Here’s the thing about Romo: this post may be focusing on his last pitch (which I agree was ballsy) just as the FOX broadcasters liked to focus on Romo as the fun loving, humble understudy who stepped up when given a chance to close (also true). What probably should be appreciated much more though is this: Romo is REALLY good. How good? Looking at relievers with at least 200 innings over the past 5 seasons, Romo’s 2.41 FIP and 2.21 SIERA are the best in baseball, his 0.88 WHIP and 5.77 K/BB are both 2nd only to Rivera, his .186 BA against and 2.20 ERA are both 3rd best in baseball. Basically you can make a pretty good case that if Rivera is retiring now Romo might just be the best closer in baseball right now (or at least 2nd to Kimbrel, even though Romo has only been closing for about 2 months now and may go right back to his set up role if Wilson comes back healthy next year).

      So basically you can appreciate that ability and tip your cap, or you can conclude that the Tigers failed against Romo mostly because they didn’t scout him well enough (which judging from his numbers would suggest that no other team in baseball has ever scouted Romo either). Take your pick but I think you’re being a little hard on the Tigers and their hitters.

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  14. Ryan says:

    Someone up above mentioned it, but it is worth talking about more pointedly.
    It isn’t just the movement of the slider that makes it such a weapon, but that it doesn’t have the traditional ‘dot’ of the slider making it hell to identify. It is almost always hilarious to watch right handed hitters face Romo when they haven’t seen him before because of the difficulty in distinguishing the fastball from the slider by the time the swing has to start–often inducing a WTF look from the batter. The typical plan the initiated opposing batters usually employ is to look slider and dive, letting the one at the edge of the strike zone go because it won’t end up somewhere the bat can reach. This leave batters open to another of Romo tricks (other than the just demonstrated fastball): Romo has exceptional control with the slider, and can ‘back it up’, flattening the pitch out, and usually going inside with it. Though much flatter, it isn’t a hanger/cement mixer, having interesting movement of its own, especially when paired with his normal slider.

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  15. joe says:

    Who called most of the pitches for the Giants – was it Posey or perhaps Bochy or some other coach? i saw Posey looking into the dugout from time to time. Seems like someone deserves a lot of credit for pitch calling because the same thing happened in 2010 – a lot of confused hitters for the opposition.

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    • Bhaakon says:

      Hard to say, I don’t think that Bochy calls many pitches form the bench at all, but he definitely calls throw overs and pitch outs, and directs the catcher to stall while a reliever gets warmed up, so there are plenty of reasons for a catcher to look to the dugout whether or not the manager is relaying pitches. A lot of defensive positioning is also called form the bench, and some defenders won’t take their final position until very late so as not to tip pitch location, so it can be useful for the catcher to be in the loop on that.

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    • Chris W. says:

      Joe, Posey calls the game. He looks in to Bochy to get signs for setting the defense or throwing to first, but as a former catcher, Bochy lets Posey call the game.

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  16. danny says:

    This is probably the best single piece of writing on this World Series. Once again Jeff, thank you.

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  17. Dave says:

    This is very similar to Trevor Hoffman. His fastball was not very fast (high 80s in his prime), and straight as an arrow. But his changeup was SO good, and so indistinguishable from his fastball, it worked. You would see guys go up there, he would throw them 3 straight changeups and they would miss by a foot all three times.

    Of course, the other side of this is that with a good fastball, Hoffman would have been unhittable. I suppose Romo is similar. Imagine if Mariano Rivera had a second quality pitch!

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  18. Qksilver says:

    I’m not gonna claim I predicted this pitch, but I do believe it was predictable. I’ve seen probably 80-90% of Giants games this year and Romo’s 2nd best K pitch is this exact 2-seam fastball when the batter is expecting a slider. It’s so effective because location-wise and plane-wise it starts out exactly the same as the slider, but then the movement brings it back over the plate. It’s definitely something that should be mentioned in any advanced scouting report.

    But I do really object to any description that calls this an “over-the-middle” pitch, and I’ve seen several – that’s an injustice which minimizes the quality of the pitch generated by the movement. It’s not that Romo threw a fat pitch and it only worked because of the element of surprise, it’s that surprise + the extreme movement together that made it work.

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  19. eric says:

    Pitching is alot like poker. You can’t just play every hand the same way, otherwise you become easy to predict. I remember hearing stories of Smoltz playing poker before games.

    In a way, the fastball there was like a changeup normally is, something the hitter is not expecting and disrupted his timing and zone perception. Romo’s sliders were all falling away. The fastball started on the edge, and broke back into the zone. If it had been a slider, it was surely a ball from where it started.

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  20. Seals Stadium Mickey says:

    Posey or Sanchez or Whiteside 24/7 only look over to see if there is a pick off throw to first or a pitchout sign in a running sitch. If they dont get either sign OR a 3-5 second HOLD sign by the P so that the hitter calls time – then – Posey and the others call their own game.

    Btw, the blow Krukows head off post should have been deleted and banned. Uncalled for.

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  21. Taro says:

    Man, you guys are all over this. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one fascinated by the setup, execution, and result of this final pitch. Rooting hard for the Giants after watching almost every out this season (thank you Tivo), I will be able to see this pitch in my mind’s eye forever. Just as you have it in this piece. Indeed, it was a metaphor for the whole series.

    Great piece of analysis, Jeff. I’m still looking to see what Romo had to say about the pitch.

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