How Bryce Detonates
Bryce Harper is hitting .418 through 22 games this year, and while we certainly are not going to start talking about Ted Williams and 1941 this early in the season, well, Harper looks so locked in, so balanced, so perfectly in control at the plate that we are starting to dream a little bit about what impossible things he might do this year.
On Thursday in Colorado, he went one for five, which these days qualifies as a slump for Harper. But that one hit, as you can see, was titanic.
Let’s break down how a Bryce Harper 451-foot home run happens.
Step 1: Have the game in Colorado.
Even after all these years — and even with the calming effects of the humidor — Colorado remains a ridiculous hitter’s park. There is only so much you can do about the Colorado altitude, which plays havoc with every part of the game from the carry of the ball to the break of the curve. The Rockies have finished bottom four in ERA every single year this decade. In the last 10 years, there have been 194 games at Colorado where 15 runs have been scored — 50 more than the next closest ballpark (Texas).
Bryce Harper went seven for 14 in a four-game series in Colorado. He’s hitting .377 at Colorado for his career. You want to talk about Ted Williams and 1941 — put Harper in Colorado and maybe it could happen.
Step 2: Bring in your “fill a few innings” reliever.
The game was more or less going along blandly until the seventh inning— Washington led 3–2 — when the world fell apart for Colorado. The Rockies brought in reliever Carlos Estévez to start the inning and, it’s fair to say, he didn’t have it. But, really, the whole team didn’t have it including the manager.
A Mark Reynolds throwing error extended the inning. Two doubles and two singles scored three runs.
And then — though it has nothing at all to do with the Harper homer — we must mention the wonderful intentional walk issued by Colorado manager Bud Black. With runners on second and third and the pitcher spot due next, Black intentionally walked Washington utility infielder Wilmer Difo to load the bases. I have absolutely no idea why anyone would walk Wilmer Difo to get to anyone at anytime, but loading the bases with Carlos Estévez on the mound? I mean, he’s a talented guy but he does not exactly have the nickname of “Carlos Strike Thrower.”
Estévez promptly walked the pitcher Gio Gonzalez on four pitches, scoring another run, at which point Black called for his “fill a few innings” guy, Jordan Lyles.
Step 3: Fail to put Harper away.
Jordan Lyles was once a pretty big prospect, but that was several freak injuries ago. He’s still only 26, which seems incredible since he has seemingly been in the big leagues since Deadball, and it could be that he still can figure things out. But for now the thing that seems to be holding him back (the thing that holds most healthy pitchers back) is that third strike.
It’s the hardest strike to get, of course, because of the foul balls and such. And Lyles just has trouble putting hitters away. His strikeout rate of 6.1 is very low in today’s era of baseball, and it goes hand-in-hand with his extremely high contact rate — in or out of the strike zone. Lyles basically pitches TO contact, and he hopes that with his sink they will hit the ball on the ground (and, preferably, at fielders). It’s a dangerous way to pitch.
Against Harper, he started off with a 94-mph fastball up in the zone that was called for a strike.
He followed it with a slider up in the zone and around the outside corner, a borderline pitch. That was called a ball. That was probably the key pitch of the at-bat. If this is called a strike, Harper is down 0–2 and maybe everything changes. Maybe.
Lyles’ third pitch, another 94 mph fastball, caught WAY too much of the plate. Harper fouled it off, but Lyles definitely got away with one here.
Now Lyles had Harper down in the count, and we get to the crux of the matter — how do you get strike three? You can’t throw it by him. So what do you do? Lyles tried spiking a curveball in the dirt and getting Harper to chase. As you can see here, though, Harper never even considered biting.
So, Lyles tried the slider, up in the zone, a pretty good pitch actually, and Harper spoiled it by fouling the ball off rather awkwardly. The announcers at this exactly second point out that in the series, the Nationals have 11 two-strike hits, and that the Rockies are the worst staff in baseball with two strikes. Telling words.
Step 4: Make a mistake.
This is the final step to giving up a bomb to Bryce Harper: You make colossal blunder. What would constitute a colossal blunder? Well, a 94-mph two seam fastball where №6 is in this box definitely would qualify.
Pitch №6 in the box against Bryce Harper will often lead to this (watch Lyles reaction — he knows):
Predictions gone wrong
I am terrible at predicting future sporting things. Every now and again, I’ll get one right — I did predict that the Kansas City Royals would win the 2015 World Series back in 2011 — but for the most part, I bomb on them.
This year, if there was one prediction I felt good about, it was this: Chris Sale would have a spectacular won-loss record. As I’ve written about here many times, I don’t care about pitcher won-loss records at all, but I still felt that Sale was due for a Ron Guidry-esque 25–3 kind of season.
I based this on two seemingly sound premises:
- Chris Sale is awesome and would likely be even more awesome with that great Red Sox defense behind him.
- The Red Sox would score a bajillion shmillion runs for him.
Well, even though we’re just five games into the season, it seems pretty clear that Chris Sale will NOT have a Ron Guidry-esque 25–3 season. Oh, Sale remains awesome. He has a 1.12 ERA. He has pitched at least seven innings in every game this season and has not given up more than two earned runs in any of them.
And his record is 1–2 because the Red Sox NEVER score runs for him.
Obviously it’s a fluke, and you can’t imagine it will last, but it is weird that Sale has been so absurdly dominant over his career — his 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings is the highest among active starters — and he pitches deep into games, and his won-loss record is kind of blah. Yes, of course, it’s just a quirk in a misleading statistic. But it’s still weird.
I’m actually going to see Greg Maddux soon for a really cool project I’m working on — more later — and I will have to ask him what he thinks about the concept of “Madduxes.”
A Maddux, you probably know (though, weirdly, I’m only just diving into it — weird because Maddux was my favorite pitcher) is a fantastic concept developed by baseball writer Jason Lukehart. It is a nine-inning, complete game shutout where the pitcher throws fewer than 100 pitches.
Maddux’s 13 Madduxes are by far the most on record — six ahead of the improbable Zane Smith (I think that’s his actual name: The Improbable Zane Smith). Then come some names you might expect: Bob Tewksbury, Jamie Moyer, David Wells, Bartolo. James Shields is on here too.
Here’s a surprise, though: Sandy Koufax is listed by Baseball Reference as having thrown five Madduxes in 1963 and 1964, including his 1964 no-no against Philadelphia. I don’t know how reliable those pitch count numbers are (I assume the no hitter is correctly counted) but that definitely cuts against the image of Koufax being a high-pitch, high effort guy.
Anyway, New York’s Masahiro Tanaka Madduxed the Red Sox on Thursday — sending my pal Michael Schur off the cliffs of insanity — and that was our first Maddux of the year. Tanaka gave up three hits, didn’t walk anybody, got out on 97 pitches.
The last Maddux had been by Ricky Nolasco against the Reds last August.
I have to say, the brilliance of Lukehart’s idea is that even though the two pitchers could not be much different, Tanaka on Thursday did indeed inspire memories of Maddux. He struck out just those three but he utterly controlled the Red Sox, suffocated them and left them helpless to do anything but chop harmless ground balls.
There’s a beautiful art to pitching like that.