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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.