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Jonathan Sanchez’s Costly Mistake

The surprising hero of Game 3 was No. 9 hitter Mitch Moreland [1]; there can be no doubt. But his three-run home run in the second inning, the biggest play of the game by most statistics, may have been surprising for reasons that don’t immediately come to mind.

Yes, he is a rookie in the World Series. But we might remember an even younger Andruw Jones [2] launching two home runs in his first two World Series at-bats.

Yes, Moreland, a left-handed hitter, was digging in against the left-handed Jonathan Sanchez [3]. And yes, Moreland had a poor track record against left-handers this year. But his .200/.304/.300 line against lefties came in only 23 plate appearances, and per Tom Tango’s research, it usually takes about 1,000 at-bats for a lefty’s platoon split to become even 50 percent reliable. Moreland was well short of that benchmark, and the sample is so small as to make the line almost meaningless.

Really, the surprise comes because of the type of pitch Moreland punished Saturday night. Moreland’s home run came on a fastball on the ninth pitch of an extended at-bat. Check out the pitch selection that Buster Posey [4] and Sanchez went with:

88 MPH fastball (ball)
76 MPH slider (ball)
89 MPH fastball (foul)
89 MPH fastball (called strike)
79 MPH slider (foul)
79 MPH slider (foul)
80 MPH changeup (foul)
80 MPH changeup (foul)
89 MPH fastball (home run)

The surprise here is that the tandem chose a fastball in a full count when the slider is Sanchez’s out-pitch (he used it 43 percent of the time on 0-2 pitches in 2010). In a game that was the battle of the slider — Colby Lewis [5] was 11th and Sanchez 26th in slider usage percentage among qualified starters — the Giants’ starter went with a pitch that only got him whiffs 6.8 percent of the time during the regular season. His slider had a 17.4 percent whiff percent during the year.

The fateful pitch did come in a full count, and perhaps the thinking was that a slider was closer in speed to the last two pitches Sanchez had thrown in the sequence, and that Moreland might be waiting for a changeup or slider and could be late on a fastball. But Moreland loved fastballs in 2010. FanGraphs keeps a statistic that tracks in-game results by pitch type, and Moreland was easily best against the fastball (2.6 runs better than average against the fastball, minus-1.1 runs versus sliders). Once again, it looks like the slider might have been the best move.

On Saturday night, the slider wasn’t moving like it normally does for Sanchez. After averaging over five inches of horizontal break during the year, the slider only broke about two inches horizontally during Game 3. He also didn’t manage a single swinging strike on any of his 13 sliders. It wasn’t working for him, and perhaps Posey knew it even as early as the second inning.

We can only guess why the slider wasn’t breaking. Maybe Sanchez didn’t quite get loose, or maybe he was nervous. Or maybe he’s tiring. After a career high of 163 1/3 innings in 2009, Sanchez is now up to 213 1/3 this year. Increasing your workload by 125 percent might make for a tired arm — that’s a lot of sliders.

Sanchez lived by the slider all year, and probably should have died with it too. Despite the surprising pitch selection in that fated at-bat, Mitch Moreland and Rangers fans are not complaining.