Weird home runs have a very specific appeal. Most homers we see are products of bad pitches left in hittable spots. Flat sliders or errant fastballs, hangers and changeups left up in the zone, the usual. For folks who consume baseball in bulk, it takes something special to quicken our collective pulse.
It is hard to break through the din, however. While each homer is a tiny miracle in its own right, it takes something extra to stand out. This past weekend featured two very interesting and very noteworthy home runs. Two shots that stand out and demand a little extra attention.
On Friday night in Oakland, Sonny Gray made a great start against the Los Angeles Angels, another fine outing in what is becoming a fine year. He’s the best starter on one of the two best teams in baseball, producing nearly 3 WAR in 26 starts this year. His strikeout numbers are down from last season and his walks are up, but he still carries an ERA- of 80 and a FIP- of 92 in 171 innings.
Gray pitched very well Friday, lasting into the ninth inning and holding a powerful offense mostly at bay, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks. He allowed two home runs, the first time he allowed multiple homers in a start.
For a shorter pitcher who came into the big leagues with concerns over the plane of his fastball, that he rarely gives up home runs is noteworthy. It’s a testament to his excellent, world-destroying curveball, the great equalizer in Gray’s arsenal.
And yet both home runs he allowed to the Angels in this important August contest, hit by Mike Trout and Josh Hamilton, came off curveballs. Homers on curveballs are not uncommon, unless said curveball originated from Sonny Gray’s hand. To date this year, Gray’s curve yielded exactly two home runs – the aforementioned shots by Trout and Hamilton.
In 2013, batters managed a grand total of zero home runs against his curve. Trout and Hamilton became the first players take one of the better curveballs in baseball out of the park. Hamilton’s homer deserves attention, of course, but Trout’s shot was truly special, as you might expect.
When Gray gets his curve to that spot (down and in), he simply doesn’t get hit. Of the 88 pitches thrown there, he allowed four hits (three singles and now a home run) and coaxed 16 swinging strikes. It’s a great pitch and a great location for that pitch, particularly against right-handed batters.
It isn’t just a great spot for the baby-faced A’s starter to throw his curve, it’s a great spot for any pitcher to throw their curveball. According to Baseball Savant, only three curveballs thrown below the zone and on the edge of the plate this year left the park, two off right-handed pitchers.
The only one other home run similar to that the one off Trout’s bat was this from Torii Hunter off Miguel Gonzalez in April. In other words, it was a very difficult home run to hit. It was very rare to hit a curveball both thrown down and on the inside third of the plate in such a manner, to say nothing of the quality of the opposition on the mound.
We all know Trout is much more vulnerable to pitches up in the zone, it’s been said and pointed out and measured time and time again. But that vulnerability is only relative to his complete domination of pitches down. Even when he scuffles, during the rare Trout slump where he strikes out more than 30% of the time and he gets pull-happy and looks passive or like he’s guessing or both, he can still do great things to pitches we consider “good” or even “great.”
It was a good pitch thrown to a great batter and the great batter did something, well, great. Both Trout and Hamilton are extraordinarily skilled hitters, and they both put those skills on display Friday. Though the stakes aren’t quite the same as the last time Mike Trout did something especially TROUT-ish but the feat is no less impressive.
Hunter Pence is not Mike Trout. Pence is a very good outfielder who is also perhaps a space alien with unconventional approaches at the plate and in the field. He’s unorthodox, which makes him the perfect candidate to make small-h history.
On Saturday afternoon at Nationals Park, Pence took Jordan Zimmermann deep to the right-field side of center. The count was 0-2 and the pitch was more than 4.5 feet above the ground, the second highest pitch hit for a home run during the PITCHf/x era.
This is not normal. Because his Nationals won the game, Zimmermann was able to approach this incident with a smirk, secure in the knowledge that he did his job and the outcome was so ridiculous that a shrug is the only way to stave off insanity. The league hits .159/.167/.225 with the count 0-2 and struggles, as a rule, against pitches thrown above the zone. A grand total of nine hitters managed home runs on fastballs thrown four feet off the ground when in an 0-2 hole since 2008.
Pence hit one of the weirdest and most unexpected home runs of the year, maybe ever. The stakes suggest it was just another oddity, a quirky by-product of baseball’s thousand monkeys pounding away all season long. Except that Hunter Pence practices hitting these pitches, because he’s Hunter Pence.
As he told Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area “I set the tee really high – as high as it will go. I figure if I’m going to swing at that pitch, I’d better learn how to hit it.” A very strange man rehearsing a very strange act, creating one of the most extreme home runs in recent history and one of the best highlights of the season. A pair of home runs to remember from an otherwise unremarkable weekend of baseball.
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