Friday, October 21, 2011

The Cardinals Deserved to Lose?

Writers are human beings. As such, they have emotions just like the rest of us. In the old days, a writer would write a piece and that piece would go to an editor who would either accept the story, kill it and/or make suggestions. A piece of writing that ran away with raw emotions would probably not fly in that scenario. But we live in a different age. Writers are now bloggers (even if they don't want to call themselves that) and their writing is posted instantaneously with little feedback or interference from cooler heads. Thus we have some stories hours after last night's Game Two of the World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. One from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports was full of ire over the fact that Albert Pujols didn't stay after the tough loss for the Cardinals to talk to the press. This observer will leave that one alone except to say that he gets what Passan is saying, just not the timing of saying it. Another headline that caught this observer's eye was bannered with the headline: "St. Louis Deserved to Lose Game 2."

The closing lines from the above linked post over at Seamheads read:
There’s no excuse for that kind of hitting. It’s totally unprofessional. I am stunned at what I saw tonight. Stunned. In my near 30 years of watching baseball, I have never seen a worse inning of batting. Never.
Whoa. That's a power packed series of words. These closing lines followed an account of the Cardinals' bottom of the ninth after the team had lost the lead in the top half of the inning. The Cardinals were down by a run and needed to score to prolong the game. The post points out that Neftali Feliz entered the game as the closer and it immediately appeared that he had trouble throwing strikes. He walked his first batter, Yadier Molina. Molina, not a paragon of patience normally trotted to first. The next batter was Nick Punto. And here is where the Seamheads post takes umbrage. Punto, who has been having a fine series with the bat, was given the sign to sacrifice Molina over to second.

What happened during Punto's at bat is the question. First, you take a guy who is hitting pretty well and therefore seeing the ball pretty well. Instead of having Punto take some pitches to see what Feliz will do, he was asked to bunt. Once a batter gets a sign like that, his mentality gets to be singular in focus. "I've got to get this bunt down." So instead of trying to work a walk, Punto's purpose in life became to bunt Molina over. This is why so many of us hate sacrifice bunting. But the Seamheads post looks at Punto's results rather harshly: "And then the unthinkable. Nick Punto bunted foul, off a pitch that was above the strike zone." After remarking how the Cardinals caught a break by that foul landing harmlessly on the ground, the writer then describes the second bunt attempt: "The next pitch, was another unsuccessful bunt attempt at another ball that sailed in above the strike zone." The writer finishes off Punto this way: "So the (sic) Punto struck out on another pitch that wasn't near the strike zone & didn't appear headed for it."

Does the reality match the rhetoric? Let's take a look at Brooks Baseball's PitchF/X data. Feel free to click on the pic culled from Brooks if you want a larger view.

According to what we are looking at above, the first pitch (and bunt attempt) was not above the strike zone. It was one nasty pitch though. We'll grant that the second pitch (and bunt attempt) was above the strike zone. But remember the miniscule strike zone in baseball. That second pitch was probably about letter high. When you are trying to get a job done a pitch just inches high thrown at near 100 MPH is probably a little difficult to lay off of. The strikeout pitch was a borderline strike, not that way out of the strike zone type of pitch the Seamheads writer indicates. It seems to this observer that we have to give Feliz some credit here. Quality pitches.

The writer then goes on to tear apart Skip Schumaker's at bat that followed. Skip got the count to two and one, taking two balls tremendously out of the strike zone. We'll let the Seamheads writer describe the next few pitches: 
That thought crashed fast with a foul tip, a foul, and swinging strike. If I remember right, only one of those pitches looked like it would’ve been a strike if Schumaker had just been patient.
The writer remembered wrong. The 2-1 pitch was right in the heart of the plate, probably a mistake Feliz got away with as it was fouled. That makes the count 2-2 and at this point, the pitcher is in control and the batter in the defensive. The fifth pitch was also grooved in the heart of the plate and again Schumaker fouled it off. Hey, that happens, especially with a pitcher as nasty as Feliz. With the count still in Feliz's favor, Feliz crossed up Schumaker with a pitch that was low. Again, this is understandable with a pitcher who throws that kind of gas and a batter is in a defensive count. Again, give the pitcher some credit here.

The writer then goes on to say that he doesn't remember much of Rafael Furcal's at bat but that he does describe it this way:
I just went nuts in my head when he stepped to the plate and managed to swing at the first two pitches, against a pitcher who was proving he couldn’t throw consecutive pitches in the strike zone tonight.
Of course Furcal swung at the first two pitches. They were right down the heart of the strike zone. This observer will spare you the chart this time. Just take his word for it. Furcal then took two balls before fliying out to end the game. And by that point, Feliz had thrown consecutive strikes on several occasions. 

Here is this observer's take on what should have happened. First, this observer hates the bunt. But if you are going to employ it, the bottom of the ninth in a one run game is probably not the worst idea. But the writer at Seamheads is correct that Feliz was shaky to start the inning. So the Cardinals should have given the take sign to Punto on the first pitch. It was a borderline pitch that the ump could have called either way. If it was called a strike, then you put the bunt sign down if you must. But if the ump called it a ball, then you give Punto the take sign again. The second pitch would have been a ball and then you go from there with take signs until you know that Feliz can throw strikes. It's hard to fault Punto when a decision was taken out of his hands and he was given a job to do right off the bat (pun not intended). Tip your cap to Feliz for making three quality pitches.

Schumaker had two pitches to hit and then swung at a pitch low and out of the zone for strike three. That's happened to dozens of batters against Feliz. Tip your cap to Feliz. Furcal was in a do or die situation and did the best he could. At least he put the ball in play with some juice behind it. It was a line drive that hung up so the right fielder could catch it.

Was this the worst inning of batting in history (ever)? Hardly. It didn't work out for the Cardinals. That happens, especially against a nasty pitcher like Neftali Feliz. A lot has been made over the genius of Tony LaRussa and this observer agrees that LaRussa is one of the best. But a genius is still limited in how much he can affect the action on the field as the players must perform. The decision to not have Punto take the first and second pitches after the walk to Molina was a "miss" by LaRussa. And Jason Motte finally got dinged after a near perfect post season. Motte wasn't helped by sloppy defense by John Jay and Albert Pujols. The Amazing Arthur Rhodes left a pitch up against Josh Hamilton resulting in the tying run and then Lance Lynn was put into a nearly impossible situation. It happens.

Let's just take this game for what it was. It was an exciting World Series game, a wonderful game that thrilled Ranger fans and killed Cardinal fans. That's the way it goes.

1 comment:

Charles Simone said...

Great post, William.

Feliz did seem a little wild, and a few Cardinal fans on Twitter were clamoring for the hitters to take more pitches.

But, the fact of the matter is, pitchers do intentionally throw out of the strike zone sometimes and fool batters into swinging at pitches they think are hittable, but aren't.

Sometimes even smart baseball fans just don't seem to get that.