Baseball Thoughts, April 9
I should not get as much pure joy out of intentional walks blowing up as I do. No, really, I shouldn’t: New Year’s resolution (next year). The intentional walk is a viable strategic decision baseball managers have been using for countless years. It is an effective and perfectly legal way way to work around good hitters in key situations, to take advantage of weak-hitting pitchers, to set up the double play, etc.
No, I don’t like it but there are plenty of strategies around sports I don’t like … and I shouldn’t get so caught up in it … and did you know the fearless Bob Gibson intentionally walked Billy Williams TEN times … and I shouldn’t get so caught up in it … and there are fewer intentional walks now than at any point since statisticians started counting … and I shouldn’t get so caught up in it.
But I do. I really, really do. I so thoroughly enjoyed Toronto’s double intentional walk blowing up on them Saturday night … and now I feel bad about it.
Bottom of the 11th inning, game tied 2–2, Toronto rookie Casey Lawrence was making his big league debut. Casey Lawrence is the baseball story that they make movies about. He is 29 years old; he pitched for Albright College in Reading, Pa. He was never drafted, not out of high school, not at any point in college, but he somehow willed himself into the Blue Jays organization. That was 2010. He had been pitching in the minor leagues ever since.
“As aa kid, you wake up, you’re dreaming about playing in the big leagues,” he told reporters.
See, this is a sweet story. Lawrence had this wonderful spring, one of those springs where reporters find themselves writing numerous “Hey who is this guy? He’s turning heads! Jarrett’s looking awful good!” stories. Lawrence didn’t make the club but on Saturday — one day after the Blue Jays bullpen got worn out by Tampa Bay hitters — Lawrence was called up to the big leagues. Finally. I can only imagine the celebration in the Lawrence family.
And then, 11th inning, he got the call to actually pitch in the big leagues … and in a crazy, pressure situation. The first hitter he faced was Mallex Smith. They had a four-pitch battle. The fourth pitch, Lawrence threw a 90-mph fastball down and in and the ball caught too much of the plate. Smith laced it to right for a double. Welcome to the majors, Mr. Hobbs.
Then, Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash did my seventh-least-favorite thing in baseball; he had Tim Beckham sacrifice bunt Smith to third base. No, I get it, Smith’s the winning run, and that gets the runner to third where he can score on any number of things — sac fly, wild pitch, passed ball, seeing-eye ground ball, etc. I understand the strategy. Loathe it. I’ll have to get to that another time because we’re now to the intentional walk part of the story.
Toronto manager John Gibbons had Lawrence throw TWO intentional walks to load the bases. Two. It seems likely that Gibbons knew by intentionally walking the bases loaded he was setting it up so that a walk or hit batter would lose the game. It seems likely that Gibbons knew that after his intentional walk freak out, Casey Lawrence would be facing EVAN LONGORIA with the game on the line.
But intentionally walking the bases loaded did set up a force at the plate so if this was 11-year-old Little League Baseball it might have made some sense there.
What next? Well, Casey Lawrence had the moment he dreamed about. With the bases loaded, with the Tampa Bay crowd (as it was) making a racket, with the game on the line, he struck out Evan Longoria on three pitches. It was beautiful, touching, glorious … a crescendo moment in his life, I know.
Lawrence promptly walked Brad Miller to score the winning run.
I feel bad for celebrating that moment; Casey Lawrence didn’t deserve that. But I can’t help it. It’s not personal at all; if you as a manager double-intentionally walk the bases loaded in a tie game with a rookie pitcher making his Major League debut on the mound you deserve all the bad that follows. If there’s a cosmic Kangaroo Court where managers get fined for doing self destructive and ridiculous things, John Gibbons should be fined a bajillion shmillion dollars.
Our Twitter poll of the day provided predictable results. I asked the question: If these four pitchers were in the prime of their careers, which one would win the Cy Young this year?
Pedro Martinez got 48% of the vote.
Sandy Koufax, 30%
Clayton Kershaw, 13%
Walter Johnson, 9%
I was doing the poll for Kershaw, but there were some interesting thoughts on Twitter about Pedro. Apparently there are some people out there who still don’t realize how good Pedro Martinez was. That’s really weird.
My main point, though, was just to see how much people appreciate the absurd run Kershaw is on right now. His adjusted ERA+ of 158 is the BEST EVER among starters. Now it’s true that Kershaw is still young and he hasn’t come close to his decline phase — that ERA+ will come down some, probably.
BUT even if you put him up only against pitchers his age, his numbers are startling. His ERA, his ERA+, his strikeout-to-walk ratio, his team win percentage, these are better than Tom Seaver and Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux and Whitey Ford and just about every other great pitcher you could name at age 28. We are lucky to be watching one of the greatest pitchers of all time. But do we know it? In baseball, this sort of immediacy sometimes get lost.
Twitter poll of the day:
You can decide what to call this thing.
Statcast™ thought of the day:
Stephen Strasburg has had an odd career, right? He was the first pick in the draft, the most hyped pitching prospect since, perhaps, Bob Feller. His debut game was like a national holiday. This, believe it or not, is his eighth season in the big leagues and … we still don’t know what to make of him.
There are times he is the most electrifying pitcher around. He led the league in strikeouts in 2014.
And there are times he looks positively pedestrian* — I have a friend who is a Nationals fan and he calls me roughly four times a day to say how frustrated he is by Strasburg.
*Still my favorite Dylan album.
Well, this is another defining season for Strasburg; he decided to attack it by ditching his windup and pitching out of the stretch all the time. The idea is to simplify Strasburg’s mechanics, maybe lessen some of the tension on the arm, help him stay healthy, etc. The Nationals official response on the move seemed to be:
“Stras is Stras,” as Manager Dusty Baker says.
On Opening Day, Strasburg pitched well enough if you judge a pitcher by runs. He went seven innings, gave up two runs, didn’t walk anybody. It seemed like a successful debut of the no wind-up thing.
Statcast™ wasn’t impressed. Miami AVERAGED 94.7 mph exit velocity on the 24 balls they hit against Strasburg — that’s the fifth-highest average velocity against Strasburg since this this started two years ago. He gave up a career-high four Statcast™ Barrels, those impossibly hard hit balls that leads to a minimum 1.500 slugging percentage. Strasburg got away with it (and got away with only three strikeouts too). But it’s worth watching.
One of the great traps in baseball pitching is to start “pitching to contact.” You hear managers and general managers and pitching coaches say that all the time — “Chardonnay Pantastico really needs to pitch more to contact.“
I get the point. You want pitchers to challenge hitters. You want pitchers to be unafraid to throw in the strike zone. You want pitchers to stop nibbling and to be aggressive.
Still, “hit more bats” seems generally lousy advice.