The worst pitches ever

So, what’s the worst pitch a pitcher can throw? A home run ball, naturally. What’s worse than that? A home run ball that turns a lead into a deficit. In the late innings. Wait, we can make it even more painful: a home run ball that turns a late-inning lead into
a deficit when the count was 0-2. Oh, that must be frustrating.

Naturally, when the count stands at 0-2, the pitcher is in command. He will usually (but, as we shall see, not always) throw
something out of the strike zone, quite often a breaking pitch, trying to get the batter to chase a bad pitch. Serving up something meaty on 0-2 is generally a big mistake; you simply don’t want to surrender a hit when you’re already oh-so-close to getting the batter out.

Since batters hit significantly worse once the count reaches 0-2, you can think of merely reaching this count (or any count) as having saved some number of runs. In a recent article, I worked out how much it was worth, in terms of runs saved, to reach a count of 0-2. It turns out that the value of 0-2 is about one-tenth of a run or, equivalently, one-third of an out. That is actually less than I would have thought; after all, when a pitcher gets ahead 0-2, he must feel like he’s very close to getting the batter out, not just one-third of the way there.

But it’s that psychological impact that makes it so frustrating to give up a homer when the out seems so close at hand. And it’s so much worse when the game is on the line. I thought it might be interesting to see how often these heart-breaking 0-2 homers occur, so I sifted through the 20-odd years of Retrosheet data (pitch data is generally available since 1988, with a few isolated exceptions going further back) looking for home runs that occurred in the 7th inning or later, on an 0-2 count, and that turned a lead into a deficit for the pitcher’s team.

I turned up some 66 of these costly homers, so let’s have a look at a few of them.

It’s déjà vu all over again

In 1994, Kirk Gibson was in the twilight of a fine career. Gibson is forever etched in our consciousness for his improbable home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series. Now, six years later, Gibson would do something pretty similar, harking back to his glory days.

The once-again Detroit Tiger was called upon to pinch-hit in the bottom of 10th inning, with his Tigers trailing 8-7 and two men
aboard. Tom Henke, the Rangers’ closer at this point in his career, was on the mound. He got two swinging strikes on Gibson, but the third pitch did not miss the bat but rather landed in the left field seats for a three-run walk-off homer. Regrettably, there’s no flag in the Retrosheet database that says whether Gibson gave that classic arm pump as he rounded second base.

Do you remember this: We’re back in the 1980s and George Brett, superstar third baseman of the Kansas City Royals, is set to work some
heroics against the arch-rival New York Yankees. The Royals are down by a run late in the game—in fact, this is the Royals’ last chance to bat. Brett is scheduled to bat fourth in the inning, but after the first two batters fail to reach base, things are looking grim for the Royals (I almost wrote “the Mudville Nine“).

But then the next batter gets a hit, and now Brett represents the go-ahead run. The Yankees bring in their ace reliever to face Brett but it doesn’t work: The Hall-of-Famer strokes the ball into the right field stands, giving the Royals the lead and the game.

Now, if you said this is the game of the famous Pine Tar Incident, you’d be right. Incredibly,
though, it also accurately describes a contest that took place almost exactly five years later. There was no pine tar involved in that second game, of course, but Brett’s home run did come on an 0-2 count, which probably made Dave Righetti want that pitch back as much as Goose Gossage wanted the Pine Tar pitch back five years earlier.

Repeat offenders

Poor Tom Henke. He was one of the premier relief pitchers of his day, but 1994 was not good to him. In fact, just a couple of months after that terrible pitch to Gibson, he found himself in a similar situation. They say that the best closers shake off the blown save quickly, put it out of their mind completely. That’s hard to do, though, when you throw two of the worst pitches in the last 20 years within a two month span. Another walk-off, once again versus the Tigers, but this time Henke’s nemesis was Tony Phillips, who, like Gibson before him, came up after Henke had surrendered a single and a walk.

There were two outs, and with an 0-2 count and a 2-run lead, Henke must have been confident that he’d save this one. Or maybe not; maybe he was thinking about Kirk Gibson and the game back in May. In any case, Phillips hit the third pitch into the right field
stands. Game, as they say, over.

Henke is not the only pitcher to appear on my list of infamous pitches more than once. A number of others have done it (including two active closers): Mike Henneman, Billy Wagner, Ugueth Urbina, Keith Foulke and Brandon Lyon.

Of course, this is a zero-sum game, so for each horrendous pitch, there is an equally fabulous swing. A number of batters have two of these morale-crushing blows on their résumé: Mark McGwire, Travis Lee, Andruw Jones and (you won’t believe this) Benito Santiago. Ken Griffey Jr., on the other hand, did it three times, most recently in 2005 when he sent an 0-2 offering from Ryan Madson over the wall in Philadelphia for a three-run home run.

A loss of concentration?

The Retrosheet data give not only the count but also the sequence of pitches. Sometimes,
that pitch sequence can tell an interesting story. In a game on May 5, 1993, a 30-year-old David Wells, pitching for the Tigers, held a 3-2 lead over the Royals heading into the eighth inning. After retiring the first two batters, Wells gave up a single on a ducksnort to left by Brian McRae.

The next batter was Harvey Pulliam, and I don’t mind admitting that I had never heard of Harvey Pulliam before starting on this article. I’m not sure if Wells had ever heard of him, either—the guy totaled only 202 plate appearances in a six-year major-league career. No, Wells was clearly more focused on Brian McRae, a pretty decent basestealer, on first base, than he was on young Pulliam at the plate.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

After a first-pitch called strike, Wells throws over to first base; McRae dives back in. Wells sets… and throws again to first. Safe. Another throw to first, and McRae is back in safely. Surely now, Wells will come home. That’s what McRae is thinking, at least, as he leans toward second. But no, Wells comes back to first again, and this time he’s got McRae hung out to dry. Unfortunately, the throw to first is wild and gets by the first baseman, and when the dust settles, McRae is standing on third base. Wells is seething. NOW he finally throws the second pitch of the at-bat, and Pulliam swings through it, for 0-2. Somehow, though, the light-hitting Pulliam gets hold of the next pitch and puts it where nobody can catch it. Two runs in, game gone.

Sabermetric studies show that, on average, a speedy baserunner does not help the batter by disrupting the defense. But I think that, in this particular instance, McRae might have gotten under Wells’ skin a bit.

Lay it down—not!

I already mentioned that light-hitting Benito Santiago was on the happy end of two of these all-time terrible pitches. In the first of these episodes, Santiago came up in the bottom of the 8th, with his Padres trailing the Braves 2-1. Garry Templeton led off the inning with (uncharacteristically) a walk and was replaced by pitch-runner Joey Cora. Padres manager Jack McKeon went for the obvious play, a sacrifice.

Braves reliever Dwayne Henry (another guy I’d never heard of until now) was on the mound. Santiago offers at the first pitch, bunting it foul. Strike one. On the next pitch (which I’m assuming was a high fastball, but I have no way of knowing, of course), Henry got the same result: Santiago pushes it foul.

Now, with two strikes on the batter, the sacrifice is probably off, and a stolen base attempt becomes more probable. Indeed, Henry tries two unsuccessful pick-offs, after which he throws the 0-2 pitch toward the plate. Santiago swings hard—Santiago always swung hard—and hits the ball over the left field fence for a two-run homer and a victory for the Pads. So, just like that, Santiago goes from goat for failing to sacrifice, to hero for winning the game.

What about Pitch f/x?

Three of these 66 worst pitches ever occurred last season, the inaugural season of the Pitch f/x system. Unfortunately, only one of these plate appearances was captured by Pitch f/x. But hey, one is a lot better than none, so let’s have a look.

Jonathan Broxton was pitching the bottom of the
for the Dodgers against the arch-rival Giants. The Dodgers were leading 2-1, but the Giants got two aboard, at which point Broxton was called in to face second baseman Ray Durham.

Let’s look at the three pitches:

Pitch 1
| Pitcher   | Batter   | Type | Speed | X    | Y    | Result |
| Broxton_J | Durham_R | CU   |  86.6 | 0.51 | 2.81 | C      | 
CU - changeup
X,Y - pitch location in feet, from catcher's viewpoint
C - called strike

Here’s how to read this table: The first pitch was an 87-mph change-up. Its horizontal location as it crossed the plate (X) was 0.51 feet in (toward the lefty-swinging Durham) from the center of the plate. The vertical location of the pitch as it crossed the plate (Y) was 2.8 feet above the ground, which is roughly belt-high. This pitch was pretty much right down the middle, but apparently Durham was not ready for the change-up, which is 10 mph slower than Broxton’s fasty. In any case, Durham decided not to swing and took a called strike one.

Pitch 2
| Broxton_J | Durham_R | CU   |  87.4 | 1.00 | 1.19 | S      | 
S - swinging strike

Broxton comes back with another 87-mph change-up, and it is one sweet pitch—way down low and inside—and Durham swings over it. The count stands at 0-2, and by now you know what’s coming.

Pitch 3
| Broxton_J | Durham_R | CU   |  87.3 | 0.77 | 2.57 | HR     | 

The big righty went to the well one too many times. A third straight change-up; this one is belt-high on the inner half, and Durham is waiting for it. The veteran second baseman jerks it into the right field stands for a three-run homer, and the Giants take this one. I’m thinking that Broxton won’t be throwing three straight change-ups in key situations any time soon.

My apologies

Now, I’m not vain enough to believe that ex- (or current) major league ballplayers actually read my scribblings. (However, it does occasionally happen that a major leaguer will read about himself online; sometimes the player even submits a comment.) So I don’t expect that Mike Henneman or Tom Henke will read these words. But if they do, I would like to say “I’m sorry” for dredging up these old episodes that you have likely been trying to forget.

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