Watch enough baseball and you’ll start to think of yourself as something of a scout. You’ll think that you’re an attentive observer — that you can pick up on things, individual strengths and weaknesses. In my younger days, I thought I was pretty good about identifying hitters who struggled with low, away sliders. You know the types, and you know the swings. In truth, everybody struggles with low, away sliders. Some struggle more than others, but righties have trouble with low, away sliders from righties, and lefties have trouble with low, away sliders from lefties. Executed properly, it’s almost the perfect pitch. It breaks away late, so it looks like a strike, often in a defensive count. Yet swinging is virtually futile — if you don’t swing through the pitch, you’ll put it in play pretty weakly. A well-thrown low, away slider is a ball, but usually, it’s a strike, or an out. There’s no hitter in baseball who can resist it on a consistent basis. It’s too potent a weapon.
What follows is the story of a Yasiel Puig home run.
Saturday, the Dodgers played the Reds, which meant Yasiel Puig played Mat Latos. In the top of the first, Latos drilled Puig with a first-pitch fastball. You could say that might’ve made Puig angry, but in a way, Puig always plays angry, so it’s hard to say what difference that would make. More reasonably, you could say that might’ve made Puig hurt. It hurts to get hit by fastballs. They are very fast, and hard.
There would be another meeting in the top of the second. With one on and two out, Latos faced Puig, and this time he didn’t hit him with the first pitch, or with any of the pitches. One thing we know about Puig: he’s unreasonably good. Another thing we know about Puig: when he’s gotten himself in trouble, he’s done so by chasing those low, away breaking balls. Latos’ first pitch was a low breaking ball, and Puig swung through it.
After two pitches missed, Puig swung through another low breaking ball. Both of the whiffs were at curves, and the next pitch was a fastball Puig fouled off. The next pitch was a low curve that Puig fouled off. The FOX broadcast started to talk about how Latos had Puig set up. Puig, clearly, was ready to swing. Latos, clearly, had a feel for his breaking stuff, and there was an opportunity here for Latos to end the inning. Devin Mesoraco called for a low, away slider. So far, all Puig had seen were fastballs and curves. Mesoraco set up off the edge, and he squeezed his glove as if to emphasize that this pitch would be the pitch to end the showdown. Think about a two-strike low, away slider and you imagine a strikeout. Watch the at-bat on video and you imagine a strikeout. When Mesoraco set up, you could see the whiff coming. Indeed, there was a slider off the plate. Indeed, there was a swing. There was no whiff.
Mat Latos threw Yasiel Puig a two-strike slider off the plate away. Yasiel Puig pulled a two-run dinger. It’s not that the pitch was hung, or that it badly missed — it missed, but not in a particularly hittable way.
This was the target. This was the obvious target. Latos was to throw a slider that broke off the low, outside corner. Puig would try to pull it, but he’d miss when the pitch broke. Here’s where the pitch wound up:
Absolutely, the slider was elevated a little bit. It wound up around the level of Puig’s thighs. But it was also more outside, not less, and while it might be hard to see the real location given the camera angle above, Gameday can be of a certain assistance:
Not just contact. Not just a hit. Not just a home run. A pulled home run, to left-center, to put the Dodgers in the lead. According to the PITCHf/x coordinates, the pitch would’ve crossed the front plane more than two feet up off the ground, but it was also more than a foot outside from the middle of the plate. It’s 8.5 inches from the center of the plate to the edge. This pitch was outside by another 4.4 inches. In the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about measuring something in inches. But you can probably guess there aren’t many home runs hit on pitches like this. Every little fraction of an inch matters. Hitting baseballs is hard work.
We started getting PITCHf/x data in 2007. We started getting more or less complete PITCHf/x data in 2008. I was curious how many home runs there have been like this one. I started by looking only at sliders thrown by righties to righties. I narrowed down to home runs, and I narrowed those down to home runs on sliders more than a foot outside from the center of home plate. Following is the complete list of such dingers:
- Bengie Molina, 9/8/2008
- Jonny Gomes, 7/27/2009
- Jose Bautista, 9/9/2010
- Alfonso Soriano, 8/13/2013
- Yasiel Puig, 9/7/2013
Soriano’s barely got out to the opposite field, in Yankee Stadium. All home runs count the same, but Puig’s was a little more impressive. This is a rare home run, precisely because a slider like that away off the plate is a well-executed pitch, and that pitch is almost impossible to drive. It has been driven, and Puig just drove it.
Previous to the home run, Puig had seen 61 sliders at least a foot from the center of the plate away. He’d swung at 31 of them. Of those 31 swings, 23 whiffed. He had four fouls, three groundouts, and a single. Clearly, throwing that pitch was a good idea, and Latos didn’t blow it, but even though he didn’t blow it, he knew off the bat that he’d blown it.
Latos immediately identified the hit as a home run. Mesoraco couldn’t believe it either:
Latos threw a slider inches off the plate outside. It turns out that area’s still covered by Yasiel Puig, at least sometimes, and Puig made it all seem so natural that the FOX announcers figured Latos screwed up worse than he did:
And Latos left that thing out over the plate, it was up, breaking balls he had buried before.
The announcer thought Latos left a breaking ball over the plate. Latos threw a breaking ball on the edge of the opposite batter’s box. Puig got himself extended and whether or not this is a sign that he’s evolving, he’s now demonstrated that he’s capable of hitting this pitch for a home run. He’s capable of hitting lots of pitches for home runs. Even when you basically execute, as the pitcher, Puig can still make you feel like a failure.
In some sense, maybe this is a bad thing. Delmon Young has hit some really low pitches for home runs. Delmon Young, then, swings at way too many low pitches, and he gets himself out with his over-aggressiveness. Hitters need to learn that there are good balls to hit and bad balls to hit, and just because you can hit a pitch out once doesn’t mean you should keep going after that pitch instead of laying off. In the long run, the results can be a lot worse. Yasiel Puig, probably, won’t make a habit of going deep against low, away sliders. But right now I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Puig can do what he wants. Maybe he’ll remain particularly vulnerable to that pitch, but maybe he’ll make little improvements, and maybe from time to time he’ll hit one of those pitches into the bleachers. Few can say they’ve done that. Few can say they could do that.
The edge of home plate is 8.5 inches from the center. A baseball is approximately three inches in diameter. Yasiel Puig swung at a slider about a baseball and a half off the edge away. He hit the slider for a pulled home run, and the dinger was 109.2 miles per hour off the bat. That is Yasiel Puig’s hardest-hit home run of the season.
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