What happened in the sixth inning Monday night probably mattered. It probably mattered in ways we can’t conceive of, in ways we’d never be able to figure out. Everything, every last thing in a baseball game, is connected, and if you remove one screw, the whole bridge might collapse. No, that doesn’t work. The whole bridge might rearrange itself? No, that doesn’t work, either. Change one thing and you change more and bigger things. There we go. The sixth inning of Game 5 was probably critical somehow.
But people sure aren’t thinking about it today. The sixth inning featured the minimum number of batters, the minimum number of baserunners, and the minimum number of runs. After Adam Wainwright worked a 1-2-3 inning, Jon Lester did the same, and then the seventh inning happened, in which the Red Sox stormed out in front. The sixth didn’t feature any pivotal events, as we understand them. But it did feature maybe the most interesting at-bat of the game. In the top of the sixth, Wainwright threw six pitches to David Ortiz.
If you were watching, you understand, because the extended at-bat felt a little like theater. There was nobody on and there was one out, but it felt like a moment with substance and meaning. It felt like it meant more than it did, and Wainwright got an ovation after Ortiz was retired. The thing is, any pitcher should probably get an ovation at this point if he’s able to get Ortiz out. In the first inning on Monday, Ortiz doubled on the first pitch. In the fourth inning, he singled on the second pitch. I don’t need to tell you about his numbers in the World Series; I’ll just remind you that those numbers don’t include what could’ve been a Game 1 grand slam. Ortiz has been the story, so pitching to Ortiz must be a story as well.
Just for the record, let’s not exaggerate anything — Ortiz hasn’t been crushing everything he’s seen. Featured below are two fastballs right over the middle that Ortiz popped up foul just Monday night. He fouled them against Wainwright in that very sixth inning. The pitches:
The narrative would have you believe Ortiz isn’t missing anything right now. He missed both of those hittable pitches. He’s just been missing less often than usual, of late. It’s a minor point, and there’s no questioning that Ortiz has been ultra-productive, but it’s possible to be both ultra-productive and flawed. Ortiz is still a hitter, and hitters still tend to make outs more often than not.
Anyhow, what made the Wainwright vs. Ortiz at-bat so interesting wasn’t the result. Rather, it was the process that might or might not have led to the result. See, Wainwright didn’t treat Ortiz like any other hitter. Wainwright reached into his bag of tricks, in an attempt to disrupt Ortiz’s sightlines and timing. We can start by pointing to Wainwright’s placement on the rubber. Here’s how Wainwright pitched to Ortiz in Game 1 in Boston:
That held true for all pitches. Wainwright occupied the first-base side of the rubber, as he usually does. That’s his preferred spot. Here’s Wainwright pitching to Ortiz for the first time on Monday:
First-base side, like normal. Ortiz pulled an inside cutter down the line. Here’s Wainwright pitching to Ortiz for the second time on Monday:
First-base side, like normal. Ortiz pulled an inside fastball for a liner. Here’s Wainwright pitching to Ortiz for the third and final time on Monday:
And there’s the shift, to the rubber’s third-base side. All six pitches Wainwright threw to Ortiz in that at-bat were thrown from that position on the mound. They were his only such pitches of the game. The next-closest horizontal release point was more than ten inches toward first, and of course all the rest of the release points were more toward first than that. It was Wainwright’s deliberate intention to give Ortiz a different look, to mix things up a little bit, and while it doesn’t seem like a subtle change on the rubber should change much about one’s pitching performance, changing sides changes how easy it is to work to either side of the zone. Baseball, after all, is a game of inches!
For Wainwright, this is unusual, but not unprecedented. This season he’s thrown from that side of the rubber before, to guys like Alex Gordon, Bryce Harper, and Lucas Duda. It’s been very rare, but you wouldn’t figure Wainwright would try something brand-new in a tie game in the World Series. He’s confident enough in his delivery to make this adjustment on the fly.
And Wainwright didn’t only change his position on the mound. He also changed his very delivery, even mid-at-bat, which Tim McCarver picked up on, among several others. With the count 1-and-1, Wainwright prepared to come with a curveball:
There’s a pause there at the start, which you notice. A hitch in Wainwright’s mechanics. Here’s Wainwright throwing the next pitch, also a curveball:
There’s another, similar pause. Now the pitch after that, which was a fastball:
No pause. This is what Wainwright usually looks like. Usually, he doesn’t have any delays in his fluid throwing motion. In the first pitch above, it took nearly six seconds for Wainwright to deliver the ball to home. In the second pitch, it took about four seconds. In the third pitch, it took a little over two seconds. Wainwright consciously changed his timing, in an attempt to mess with Ortiz’s timing, because they say a lot of hitting is about timing and Ortiz has been doing a little too much hitting this past week.
Again, this is unusual but not unprecedented. Here’s a very useful Derrik Goold article from June:
“I’m doing it in different ways now,” Wainwright said. “I may pause, go a little slower, get a little quick. I may go with my hands above my head, or not. I’ll move left to right (on the rubber). I think there is more to pitching that just throwing the ball.”
Changing the pace of the delivery is nothing new. Shelby Miller does it often during his starts. Opposing pitchers will try to quick-pitch several Cardinals hitters who have timing movements like a leg kick or hand pump. What Wainwright has added is unusual. He breaks from habits other starters cling to. For example, he’ll move from the third base to the first base side of the rubber for different hitters.
Wainwright has become familiar with changing his timing. He still doesn’t do it regularly, and this was the first time he’d done it with Ortiz in the series. So he both messed with his timing and with his position, pulling out a couple tricks to try to cool Ortiz off.
As one final interesting clue that Wainwright wasn’t treating Ortiz like anybody else, here he is getting signs from Yadier Molina during the sixth-inning at-bat:
With the count 2-and-2, Wainwright initially nodded to the sign for an outside curveball. Then he changed his mind and shook to an outside fastball. He’d just thrown three curveballs in a row, and while it’s possible this was by design — that Wainwright and Molina were actually on the same page, just trying to throw Ortiz for a loop — it looked a little weird. Usually, pitchers don’t shake off Yadier Molina. When they do shake him off, they usually don’t nod first before shaking their heads. From the looks of things, Wainwright was giving this plate appearance a lot of his attention, as he wasn’t throwing as automatically as he was the rest of the night.
And on the sixth pitch, Wainwright threw an outside curveball that Ortiz lined into center for an out. Wainwright’s delivery was normal, and Ortiz hit the ball hard off the end of his bat. I don’t know how that result was influenced by the previous tactics. Maybe it wasn’t. I have no idea, but I know this particular at-bat was unusual, within the context of the game itself.
As a related line of thinking: right now, people say Ortiz is locked in. Skeptics say it’s just a statistical hot streak. The actual players themselves see Ortiz as being on fire, and what that does is change the way he’s approached. Right here, Adam Wainwright pitched David Ortiz differently, probably at least in part because Ortiz has been on such a run. So hot streaks might in some way change the gameplay. They might, in fact, get themselves ended, if they force pitchers and catchers to make the necessary adjustments such that performance returns to normal. Maybe guys on hot streaks get a little extra attention, and that extra attention knocks their numbers down until everything’s normal again. I don’t know, but no matter what you think about streaks and slumps, I don’t think you can ignore that they can change the course of a game, by having an effect on pitch sequences and pitching tactics.
It’s fascinating, what David Ortiz has been able to do. It’s fascinating, watching the Cardinals try to respond. Monday night’s sixth inning featured what a lot of people would refer to as a game within the game. Every game really features plenty of games. Little individual battles to decide the overall war. Baseball can be as simple as you want it to be. It can also be more complicated than you could ever imagine.
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