Sunday 26 May 2013

5-4, 1 Out, Bottom of the 9th

Baseball is a sport that is filled with the ebb and flow of potential. In each inning, the number of baserunners is balanced against the number of outs, and as the bases fill up, the potential for runs builds. If a strikeout is recorded, or a double play turned, the run potential is turned down a few notches. The informed fan starts thinking about each runner: How fast are they? Could they score from second on a single? From first on a double? We wonder which outfielder has the best arm to make a play at home plate. All of this up and down, possibilities being turned over and around with each pitch, yet nothing has really happened. Often a pitcher in a bases loaded situation calls upon skill and luck and a rally is washed away with no damage done on the scoreboard.

When I watch hockey or soccer, that's what I miss. I can't seem to get excited about the time spent pushing back and forth in the neutral territory between goals, scrambling to get control of the puck or the ball. Then, snap, with no change in strategy, one second later, there's a point on the board. Then the game resets to neutral. I just can't see where things came together for the scoring team, or fell apart for the one that was scored upon. In baseball, there's time for my heart to start pounding.

The real pressure situations in baseball, where the tension is ratcheted up with every pitch, occur in the bottom of the 9th in a close game, and then in the bottom of every tied inning in an extra inning game. Often, each batter comes up with the potential to lengthen the game (by tying it with a home run), or to win it (with runners scoring ahead of him). The best part of these situations is that they always occur at home, so there are no quiet rallies in the bottom of the 9th or later - the crowd is always on the edge of their seat. Victory will be assured right away, falling behind only means a tougher turn at the plate when they try to mount a comeback. When successful, there is a sense of elation, of turning a difficult, against the odds situation, into a victory. The home team is free to walk off the field and back into the clubhouse.

Baseball has a term for these things. They are 'walkoff wins'. Before I continue talking about the thrill of a walkoff, I will note the lone exception. With the bases loaded, and the score tied, there is always a possibility that the pitcher will be unable to find the strike zone. This level of pitching ineptness results in a walk that forces in the winning run. All the runners trot to the next base, and the game is over. There is no play to be made, and mobbing and backslapping the batter who took the walk seems... odd. This is the dreaded Walkoff Walk. A quick overview of the oddly aniclimactic play (and the internet's weird ritual surrounding it), is certainly worth a read. There was a walkoff walk in Tampa Bay earlier this month.

That's the exception, most every other  time it happens, the walkoff is a jubilant moment. There are, of course, degrees of jubilation. The walkoff single with nobody out and the bases loaded? That's just hastening the inevitable. Everybody is happy, but bases loaded and nobody out, there's an expectation of scoring a run, and when one run will win the ball game... well, lets just reflect on the disappointment that you might feel if your team came out of that situation without scoring. Yeah, I'd be a bit frustrated too.

From that point of view, I can assume that the better walkoff, in terms of excitement, is the come from behind sort. Down a run or two, runners on base. In those situations, the announcers love to remind us, the clueless fan, where the winning run is. 'The Rockies bring the winning run to the plate,' they say. or 'The winning run is on second for the Yankees.' I'm pretty good at counting bases and such, myself, but if it make them feel better, let them spell it out.

In the 1993 World series, the winning run was on first base when Joe Carter came to the plate. History remembers this walkoff with more intensity than any other. I can't blame history here. It is an immensely satisfying result. Why? In childhood dreams, we often find ourselves imaging the last at bat of the World Series with our selves at the plate. Carter got to live out the fantasy. Taking a 2 out, 2 strike pitch over the outfield wall. He did three things with one swing of the bat every kid dreams of doing. He brought his team from behind to ahead, he won the game, and he ended the World Series. Carter's walkoff had the biggest impact of any in baseball history.

To be exicting, a walkoff hit doesn't need to happen in the World Series. Often, the more unlikely the hero, the more jubilant the celebration. On May 26th, 2013, the Toronto Blue Jays started the bottom of the 9th down by 3 runs. The Orioles closer, Jim Johnson, was trying to protect a large lead and save the game, which would have been the third win in a row for his team.

Interestingly enough, the Blue Jays had loaded the bases in both the 7th and 8th innings, and had only scratched out one run. The 9th inning went like this: Double, Single, Single (Run Scored), Flyout, Walk, Fielder's choice( 1 runner out, run scores) . That's 2 outs, and 2 runs in. Runners still on first and third. The Jays are down to their last out.

The next man up is Munenori Kawasaki. I've written about Kawasaki before at this site, and may well write about him again. He is a character, and a wonderful person by all accounts, but he is merely a replacement for the injured Jose Reyes. The word 'antics' comes up following his name often, certainly much more often than the word 'heroics'. Jim Johnson surely knew he was facing a slap hitting, backup infielder. Mune's batting average was .217. Most Jays fans were probably hoping he could work a walk. Instead, on Jim Johnson's 37 pitch of the inning, he did this:

That is a walkoff which is only multiplied by the enthusiasm of the player who got the hit. From behind to victorious on one swing, it put a charge into the Rogers Centre crowd.

To add one last note to Kawa-walk-off-a-saki's story, you should probably go watch his unforgettable post game interview.

And you thought I was done.

Nope, because, even though you get a lot of credit for magic with 20 year old World Series moments, and come from behind doubles, that's not the topper of all walkoffs.
The ultimate walkoff is, in my humble opinion, the come-from-behind-inside-the-park-walkoff-home-run. That's a lot of hyphens, I know, but that's how it sounds in my head.

In the only ballpark that this makes any sense in whatsoever, AT&T Park in San Fransisco. Angel Pagan has a man on second, and his team is down by one.... it's the last of the 9th. And there's a deep, deep alley in right centre field.

Or, if you'd prefer the radio call, click here. Never underestimate the decision of Tim Flannery, the third base coach, who would have been second guessed for a week if Pagan had been thrown out.

Now that's baseball. And it is Magic. It is the wonder of childhood, it is the thrill of victory, it is the sense of awe at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

If you have any doubts, take a look at the faces of these men in the pictures below, no these boys in the pictures below, and tell me they don't feel the magic.

Kawasaki pic from @james_in_to
Jumpin' Joe Carter
Exuberant Angel

Sunday 21 April 2013

Testing the Old Adage

You can't steal first base.

That's an old baseball truism. That saying is usually pulled out of the cliche drawer, and plugged into the conversation when a speedy young rookie comes up, swinging at everything. We hear about how fast he is, but when a player is batting under .200, he never gets a chance to show off his wheels? Why- because you can't steal first base. Once you're on first, stealing second is easiest, it's the longest throw for the catcher. Stealing third is all in the timing of the jump. Stealing home is as difficult as it is rare. Speed in baseball is a conditional threat. Unless you reach, you cannot run.

So, that's it: You can't steal first base.*

Yeah, I put that asterisk there. What fun would life be without exceptions to the rule? Even with an old axiom so obviously cut and dried, there's a way to steal first base. Not to any particular advantage, mind you, but it can still be done.

Jean Segura started this play on second, broke for third, and found himself picked off, and in a rundown. Then, he found himself standing face to face with Ryan Braun, who had also taken the opportunity to reach second base.

Then the fielder with the ball did what you should always do in this situation. Tag everybody you can, and let the umpire figure it out.
Hat tip to @gidget on Twitter
The umpire rules that Braun is out, as per the following rule:
(a) Two runners may not occupy a base, but if, while the ball is alive, two runners are touching a base, the following runner shall be out when tagged and the preceding runner is entitled to the base, unless Rule 7.03(b) applies.
(b) If a runner is forced to advance by reason of the batter becoming a runner and two runners are touching a base to which the following runner is forced, the following runner is entitled to the base and the preceding runner shall be out when tagged or when a fielder possesses the ball and touches the base to which such preceding runner is forced.
Since Braun is not being forced to second on the pickoff, he's out by virtue of being the tailing runner. Now the funny thing is, the ball is live the whole time. If Segura is tagged while off the base, he is also out. I'm pretty sure the second glove slap from the infielder happens after he takes a step towards first, but it's a tough call. The umpire is trying to think about rule 7.03 (a), and he might not have been watching real closely for the tag there. I'm not sure I would want a replay here, because it would suck all the fun out of Segura heading back towards his dugout, then being told he should stop at first - because he's still a baserunner.

The story has more to it, of course. Courtesy of this recap from Rob Neyer. Go read it, there's another backwards base stealing tale from 1911 in there. 

The topper to the Jean Segura mix up is that he tried to steal his way back to second in the same inning, but was thrown out. Hope you were scoring at home!

What Mr. Neyer did not include in his recap was the immortal baserunning of Lloyd 'Shaker' Moseby. Captured here via YouTube clip. Shout out to @minor_leaguer and @truebluela for remembering this one.

I understand why Moseby is safe at both ends of this play. What I don't understand is why he goes back to first. The only thing I can conceive, is that he thinks the play is a fly ball, not a throw to second. Boggles the mind. In a good way, because just when you think you've seen it all.... baseball has another trick up it's sleeve.

Sunday 14 April 2013

4-6-5-6-5-3-4 Triple Play

The Baltimore Orioles, 2012 edition, were the Team Of Destiny. They had a late inning mojo that carried them into the postseason. What do I mean when I say mojo? Well, Jayson Stark breaks down all the extra inning accomplishments in a post from last September (Bullet point 2). Adding to the extra innings accomplishments, when leading after 7 innings, they were 74-0. You could bank on the Orioles last year, when the chips were down, they came through. Those records have a lot to do with factors that are really not in the player's control. You can't really be so good you have invincible pitchers for the last 2 innings of every game, if they really existed, they wouldn't give up runs in any other innings either. Some of that run to the playoffs was built on luck.

If luck plays a part in creating favourable circumstances, it can certainly play a part in creating unfavourable ones too.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Double to CF

If you've read anything else I've written here, a couple of things should be obvious. 1) I enjoy watching a lot of baseball. 2) I value anything unexpected, anything that breaks up the rhythm of the game. It reminds me that sport, like life, can be a learning experience. The rules in baseball don't change much, but with fields, players, and field conditions changing all the time, the action on the field is always in a state of flux.
Emilio Bonifacio is new. Well, he's new to my eyes, and that's more than enough in this case. He's been playing second base in Toronto for less than a week, mostly because Brett Lawrie is injured. From the World Baseball Classic, I learned that he's a high energy player. His above average baseball tool: speed.
When he grounded a ball up the middle, he had every intention of making it to second base. Here are 2 GIF's of the play, courtesy of Matt at House of the Bluebird, showing him sprinting out of the box and then getting into second base without even being tagged.

So, on a scale of fast to FAST, Bonifacio appears to register as FAST in this real-life example.

As usual with baseball, there's another game tomorrow, and that game adds a little wrinkle to the story. The game I'm referring to doesn't even feature Emilio Bonifacio. Cleveland left Toronto, and continue their road trip in Tampa Bay. Baseball reference has play by play for every play of every game, and this one line came to my attention.
That's Yunel Escobar, who is probably only Fast on my scale of fastness. So what are the odds of another ground ball to centre field resulting in a double? I don't have a video highlight to help me out. I do, however, have twitter.

So Bourn was challenged again, and this time, he made the play. Only he didn't get credit for making the play. Why would Escobar even try to hustle a double? Hmmm, curious. Escobar, Bonifacio, and Bourn have all faced one another in the NL East in the past. When transplanting players to the AL East, did a little bit of knowledge come with them about Mr. Bourn?
I suppose only time will tell but maybe, this play it isn't about what we thought it was about.
This is not relevant, but I found it on Google. Only photo I am ever using of Micheal Bourn. Ever.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Joining the Club

Yu Darvish stands over the rubber, tired, sweating. It is the bottom of the ninth inning, at Minute Maid Park in Houston. The bases are empty. Marwin Gonzalez is at the plate. A.J. Pierzynski is squatting behind the plate, dropping down fingers as Yu looks for a pitch he wants. He is pitching this game in enemy territory, and his Rangers have scored seven runs. The crowd, resigned to a home team loss, is, strangely, on its feet in anticipation.

Darvish is trying to join a baseball fraternity. He is very, very close to being perfect. One more batter retired, and Yu Darvish will have thrown a Perfect Game.
Briefly, if you are unfamiliar with Perfect Games, they occur when a pitcher retires every batter before they can reach first base. If he does it twenty seven times, he has recorded a full games worth of outs. As long as his team has scored, the game is over, and for one night, the pitcher is perfect. Any pitcher can be perfect for one night, it has been done 23 times before.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Just One Silly Question

This all started with a question about the player pictured on the right. A player who I could not identify if I were to run into him on the street. He is Tim Collins. He plays baseball for the Kansas City Royals.
I became aware of the existence of Tim Collins a couple of years ago, when he was a minor leaguer in the Toronto Blue Jays system. I learned only two things about Tim while he was property of the Blue Jays. 1: He's short. 2: He throws baseballs very hard.
Since he left the Blue Jays system via a trade to the Braves, then a trade to the Royals, I've retained those two facts in my head. And nothing else about him.
The other night, in the World Baseball Classic, Tim Collins made a relief appearance for team U.S.A., just after Dan Brooks (who I follow @brooksbaseball on Twitter) had confirmed a winner in a pitch f/x trivia quiz.
Now, I will digress here to explain what Pitch f/x is, and what it has to do with a trivia quiz. Dan and Harry Pavlidis run, which is a free, online database of information gathered by Major League Baseball's Pitch f/x system. The database contains information on the characteristics of every pitch thrown in MLB since 2008. Pitch speed/spin and movement is tracked by a specialised camera system set up in each ballpark. Dan will, when he's in the mood, dig into the database, and ask questions from the gathered data. An example might be: Which pitcher has the largest difference between his fastball and changeup? Or what pitcher is most willing to throw a curveball in a 3-2 count? Odd facts, but things that make me think about the game on a different level. I enjoy these little side trips away from the action in a dull game, and I like to see other follower's guesses.
So, during 'Tiny' Tim Collins appearance, I put the only two things I knew about Tim Collins together and asked the following question.

So Dan liked the question, and he put it out to his followers.

Which I thought was excellent. Tim Collins, though only 5'7", only managed to get second on the list. It took very little time to find the correct answer.

 Which led to the following response from the person with the correct answer.

At this point, I assume that @rsaggiadi was so quick to guess because he was assuming the Mr. Brooks had posted the question, only after having seen the two players already appear in the game. In fact, Dan only noticed after it was pointed out to him.

So, that is the end of the trivia quiz. Kelvin Hererra is 5'9", and throw 97.4 mph on average. But Dan is still looking at his list of pitchers who bring the heat from their below average height, and there's a funny thing about the list.

And so it came to pass that Craig Kimbrel, pitcher number four in velocity/height entered the game. He gave up two runs, setting up a save situation for the Dominican team. Off of the bullpen mound steps Fernando Rodney. Rodney is 5'11" and throws 96.2 mph. He is the third faster pitcher by height in the majors right now.

Now, is this significant? No. It was sure fun for me though! I picked a question to ask based on the following "There's that short guy who throws hard. I wonder if that's really that different." I was rewarded with an incredibly odd coincidence, as the top four pitchers, from a pool of almost 500 who appeared in the big leagues in 2012, also appeared in the game, like a Bleacher Report slideshow.
It also makes me speculate: Do the guys who have less physical tools, or have been told they are below average, have a bigger reason to say yes to the WBC when it comes calling? Are some of them willing to go, just to prove that they are worth being representatives of their country?

The final topper for all of this came a little bit later, when I got this tweet from Dan Brooks.

 I was, once again, very pleased that one silly question had such a good run.

 Now, to all of you who say that statistics make the game less fun, I must disagree. Without the numbers to tell the tale, I never get to enjoy the magic of discovering any of this weirdness. We don't have to learn anything earth shattering to find that we love the game in a different way, we just have to ask the right questions at the right time, no matter how silly they are.

Friday 8 February 2013

Guest Post: King of Perfection

One of the stories I never quite got around to writing about in 2012 was the perfect game thrown by Felix Hernandez of the Mariners. Today's guest poster has been nice enough to correct that oversight:

Even With Perfection, Felix Hernandez Was Overlooked

     Despite another lost season for the Seattle Mariners, in August of 2012 the team experienced their ace reach true perfection. Felix Hernandez threw the 23rd perfect game in baseball history last year, and the 2nd of 2012 when he faced the Tampa Bay Rays.
     From the very beginning, Hernandez was looking even better than the Cy Young Award winner has in the past. He began the game by inducing a ton of weakly hit ground balls and fly outs. Striking out two the first time through the order was impressive, but it was not until the sixth inning that things got interesting.
     In the top of the sixth, Hernandez began to turn it up a notch, and the crowd took notice. He struck out the 7-8-9 hitters for the Rays to complete the second time through the order. When he came out for the seventh, he got outfielder Sam Fuld to roll over a ball, but then BJ Upton came up for the most controversial part of the perfect game.
      Upton grounded out to Sean Rodriguez at third base, but Rays manager Joel Madden would come out and actually be ejected for arguing the call. After a delay, some wondered if Hernandez would cool down. He responded by striking out five of the last six batters he faced, putting his stamp on baseball history.
     With so many perfect games and no hitters thrown in recent memory, Hernandez never really received the attention he deserved, even in fantasy baseball circles. In fact, that has sort of been his problem his entire career. Even during his Cy Young award season, many looked at his 13-12 record as though it was his fault.
      Ironically, the Mariners only offered him one run of support during that August game. He was one swing away from getting a no-decision in that game for the ages. Even by Hernandez’s standards, he was simply dominant in every way manageable in that game.