Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 9/10/12
Mlb-mets-giants

There was a handful of crucially important series over this past weekend, and among them was Dodgers vs. Giants in San Francisco. The Dodgers came in four and a half games behind the Giants for first place in the NL West, and they were looking to make up ground in a hurry. They emerged five and a half games behind the Giants for first place, and according to Cool Standings, the Dodgers’ playoff odds dropped from about 23 percent to about 22 percent. That isn’t a very powerful sentence, let’s try again. According to Cool Standings, the Dodgers’ odds of winning the division dropped from about 12 percent to about four percent. Yes, that’s much better.

Plenty of things happened in the three-game series between rivals, as tends to be the case when you’re talking about three games. Some of them were a lot more significant than others. At one point, on Sunday, Buster Posey hit a home run off of Joe Blanton. The home run meant little at the time, and it meant next to nothing in hindsight. Posey batted with the Giants up 3-0 in the sixth, and he put the Giants up 4-0. The Giants won 4-0, and Posey’s dinger had a win probability added of about three percent. In many of the game recaps, Posey’s homer was given just a passing mention.

Yet what I want to talk about here is Posey’s homer. It wasn’t the homer itself that was the most impressive homer, although it did fly out to straightaway center field. It was more about the process that led up to the homer. I’ll let Joe Blanton explain before I start to explain.

Here’s a game recap that gave Posey’s home run more than just a passing mention. Leading off the bottom of the sixth, Posey homered on the tenth pitch of his at-bat. The count was 2-and-2, and after the first three pitches, the count was 1-and-2. Posey fought back, and here’s what Blanton had to say about the showdown:

”That’s one of the best at-bats I’ve ever had off of me,” Blanton said. ”I threw him at least five put-away pitches, I thought, and he just kept fouling them off.”

When players throw around words like “best” and “ever”, whatever happened is worthy of closer examination, which is what we’re doing here. We’ll pick things up with Posey behind 1-and-2 after three pitches, the third being an outside slider that Posey fouled off. Know that, in his first at-bat, Posey struck out looking on three pitches, the third being a fastball on the outer edge. In his second at-bat, Posey singled on the fifth pitch, which was a two-strike fastball just off the outer edge. Through two at-bats, Posey had seen only fastballs and sliders.

Okay, it’s 1-and-2. Blanton has thrown a first-pitch curve for a strike, a low changeup for a ball, and a slider for a strike. Already he’s given Posey a different look.

It’s hard to tell from the camera angle, but this is a fastball down and in, tucked just inside the corner of the zone. It looks like the pitch was supposed to be just a little more inside, to tie Posey up, but it wasn’t in a bad spot, and a foul was about the best Posey could’ve hoped for in a defensive situation. Posey couldn’t cheat by sitting on a fastball while behind in the count.

The thing about most curveballs is that they aren’t really swing-and-miss pitches, like you’d think they might be. They disrupt timing and frequently catch hitters looking. From his body language, Blanton probably hoped this was a swing-and-miss curveball. It was perfectly located, low, and just off the plate. Posey wound up ahead of it and barely got a piece. A piece was all that he needed to get to keep himself alive.

This is a pitch that was quickly forgotten, given the way the at-bat wound up. Ahead 1-and-2, Blanton missed with a fastball and gave Posey a heater right down the middle of the zone. This was presumably not one of the put-away pitches to which Blanton was referring. This was a mistake, but because Posey probably still had offspeed pitches in his mind, he couldn’t get the swing he’d like to get on this pitch. He stayed alive, though.

When a hitter gets into a two-strike count, his mission is to protect the plate. The expectation is that he’ll swing at anything close, so that he doesn’t strike out looking. You look stupid when you strike out looking and nobody likes it. This outside fastball was very close and Posey didn’t swing at it. It was a ball, it was definitely a ball, but it was almost a borderline strike, and there have been worse strikes before, probably even called by this very umpire. Posey didn’t swing at it. Had this pitch been called a strike, some fans might’ve been upset at Posey for not protecting. This pitch was called a ball and we wonder instead if Posey has just the most amazing eye in the universe. Results-based analysis allows us to label this a spectacular take. Blanton executed perfectly. Posey did the right thing, probably. Posey definitely did the right thing in hindsight.

Back to work. Blanton throws Posey a fastball tucked into the low-away corner. Maybe a little too over the plate, but not that badly over the plate. Posey knows to protect this time, because the pitch looks like a strike, or it looks like it could be called a strike. Foul ball. Tough pitch to hit; maybe the next one will be better. That’s the idea of the whole at-bat, basically. Tough pitch to hit; maybe the next one will be better.

I still can’t quite figure out how the at-bat didn’t end with a strikeout right here. This is a changeup, low, out of the zone, just over the outer half. It begins away and tails back over the plate, like a backdoor changeup, and also there’s the part where it was low and out of the zone. This is a strikeout pitch. I suppose it could’ve been more low, but it was sufficiently low to generate a swing and miss. Posey gets out in front and gets a piece. Tough pitch to hit; maybe the next one will be better.

Kablammo! “M-V-P” chants. “Beat L-A” chants. Starting to think that Blanton doesn’t only do the little hop when he thinks he’s getting a swing and miss. This is the very definition of a hanging slider. Instead of being thrown to a good spot, this slider is thrown to pretty much the worst possible spot, up and over the middle of the plate. I wouldn’t say it looks like a homer off the bat, but it looks like it might be a homer, and indeed it was a homer. Posey was working toward this, and after fighting off a bunch of pitcher’s pitches, he took advantage of a hitter’s pitch.

To review:

Old-timey baseball wisdom asserts that a hitter gets one pitch to hit in any given at-bat. Of course that isn’t always true, and it would be outrageously bizarre if that were always true, and here you could say that Posey got two good pitches to hit, even after falling into a two-strike count. The second pitch to hit was much much more hittable than the first one and Posey made no mistake. It was Blanton who made the mistake, after having executed so effectively before.

The temptation is to believe that Posey did this on purpose. That he kept fighting pitches off so he could live to see another. I’m guessing Posey wasn’t trying to just foul off all those pitches, but it’s to his credit that he could anyway. For the most part Blanton did what he wanted and he couldn’t make Posey go away until Posey made himself go away after jogging in a circle. Buster Posey kept himself from striking out when he easily could’ve struck out, and eventually, a pitcher will make a bad mistake. No pitcher can hit his spot every single time. Sometimes even the best command pitchers will miss by a foot, or more.

And that’s the story of how Buster Posey hit his 20th home run of the season. Draw all the parallels to the NL West race that you like. The Dodgers got off to a quick start, but they couldn’t put the Giants away, and the Giants ultimately vaulted ahead. I’ve said before that everything is something else in a nutshell, and this Blanton vs. Posey at-bat is most certainly included in everything.

Great at-bat by Posey. He seems to have a lot of those.


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