Pitch Selection Dooms Pettitte

The odds of Josh Hamilton beating Andy Pettitte on Monday night seemed minute. A good left-handed pitcher, Pettitte had to know that allowing a run or two early could be enough for Cliff Lee to secure a 2-1 lead in the series for the Texas Rangers.

There was no way Pettitte could afford to give Hamilton, Texas’ best hitter, a pitch he could drive with a runner on first base. Not in the first inning and not with Lee looming. Sure enough, he held true, but only until the fourth pitch of the at-bat. It was then that Pettitte threw Hamilton a cutter that caught far too much of the plate. Hamilton connected with an upper-body heavy swing and watched as the ball snuck over the right-field wall. Just like that, the Rangers led 2-0 only three batters into the game.

According to win probability added (WPA), Hamilton’s home run increased the Rangers’ chances of victory by 15.7 percent — pushing them near 65 percent. It is important to note that win expectancy does not measure the likelihood of the team winning by that margin or score, but rather the odds of the team winning after leading at that point in the game. That percentage also does not account for the quality of opponent or the pitching matchup. Hamilton’s home run likely would be worth more if Lee’s presence on the mound for Texas had been accounted for in the formula.

The entire sequence is a series of questionable decisions by Pettitte. Hamilton’s previous playoff opponent, the Tampa Bay Rays, held him without an extra-base hit in 20 plate appearances by tempering the amount of fastballs he saw and choosing to instead pound him with off-speed and breaking pitches. The strategy proved successful and sparked speculation that Hamilton’s rib injury, which caused him to miss four weeks late in the season, affected his ability to hit those pitches.

Admittedly, questioning the pitch selection is basing the analysis on results. Most pitch-by-pitch analysis is, much like a curveball over the middle for strike three is a successful pitch only if the batter fails to shoot the ball into orbit and a slider below the zone that Vladimir Guerrero cranks for a double is a bad pitch regardless of intent or probable outcome. Such is the life for pitchers, and such is the second-guessing that will follow Pettitte for relying on his fastball against Hamilton, likely rendering the effectiveness of the strategy in Hamilton’s subsequent at-bats irrelevant.

Sure enough, Lee shut down the mighty Yankees lineup and proved that two runs were more than enough. Hamilton helped cement the lead in the ninth with a leadoff double to catapult the Rangers into the catbird seat in the American League Championship Series.

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