Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/17/13
Once the second inning rolled around Wednesday, Game 4 of the ALCS felt like a blowout. The Tigers put together a five-run inning, then shortly thereafter they added two more, and though the Red Sox did what they could to chip away, the Tigers at no point felt threatened as they coasted to a series-evening victory. But there is one interesting quirk: while the Tigers wound up winning by four, between their hits and walks and hit batters they racked up 17 offensive bases. Between the Red Sox’s hits and walks they racked up 17 offensive bases, too. In a sense, Wednesday’s was a game about sequencing, with the Tigers putting more bases together. Which isn’t to suggest it was all a matter of luck, because of course it wasn’t. It was the sequencing in the second inning that did the Red Sox in, as six Tigers reached base and five Tigers scored. Jake Peavy walked three of 17 batters in his start, but they all came in the span of four batters, following a single. The first run the Tigers scored was on a bases-loaded walk by Austin Jackson, and Jackson walked on four pitches. All of the rest of the damage followed. What happened between Peavy and Jackson got me wondering about some things. Peavy’s first walk was on four pitches, issued to Jhonny Peralta. Then he walked Alex Avila on eight pitches, loading them up. Following a shallow fly, it was time for Jackson, and here’s the sequence: The first pitch was obviously a ball. The second pitch was obviously a ball. The third pitch was obviously a ball. The fourth pitch was less obviously a ball, but it was still a clear ball just by location. The only reason it might not have been in that instance is because umpires have a demonstrated tendency to expand their zones in 3-and-0 counts, so it’s a tiny bit surprising Peavy didn’t get the benefit of the doubt, but it’s not like his pitch even really grazed the edge. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was unable to sell the fastball, and the Red Sox would never again see a tie score. The walk was followed by a critical mistake by Dustin Pedroia, and that was followed by a couple of hits. Just like that, the game was almost out of reach. This was just the sixth bases-loaded walk of Peavy’s career, which stretches back more than a decade. It was his third of the season, and interestingly enough, the other two came in the span of three batters on May 19. Previously, they were issued on five, nine, six, eight, and seven pitches. This was the first time Peavy put a guy on with the bases loaded on four pitches. It’s understandably rare — there’s no situation in which it’s more important to throw a strike, and pitchers should have a default strike setting. I was wondering about other 3-and-0 pitches with the bases loaded. This regular season, there were 63 four-pitch bases-loaded walks. Lorenzo Cain drew two of them, as did Alberto Callaspo and Jesus Guzman. The Diamondbacks and Tigers, as teams, drew six. The Pirates, Royals, and Padres all issued five, with Aaron Crow issuing three. Chris Leroux issued two in a row. Franklin Morales also issued two in a row. Aaron Crow also issued two in a row. Brayan Villarreal issued one to lose a game in extra innings. Now, what you’re about to see is a location chart of pretty much all 3-and-0 pitches with the bases loaded since 2008, covering the bulk of the PITCHf/x era. The black rectangular strike zone is an approximation, included just for reference. The chart separates balls, called strikes, and swings. You can see some expansion of the zone, but it’s mostly lateral, with little to speak of up or down. The main point here is how many balls have been thrown under these circumstances. We’re looking at a sample of 1,129 pitches, and just 724 were strikes, meaning a hair over 64%. That, in turn, is a hair over the league-average strike rate. Of course, this doesn’t include a representative sample of pitchers; this should be selective for wilder pitchers, with below-average strike rates, and it might also be selective for pitchers who are struggling to find their release points, since they had to fall behind 3-and-0 with the bases loaded in the first place. On the other hand, you’d look for an inflated strike rate with the generous 3-and-0 called zone. There are some variables here, but still, in a situation in which a strike is all but mandatory, there have been fewer than two-thirds strikes. And there have been less than 5% swings, which is what you should expect. Most batters are going to take, because no one wants to screw up with the bases loaded and a 3-and-0 count. It feels safer to just take the next pitch, even if it’s down the pipe. Of 55 attempted swings, six whiffed. Another 23 hit the ball foul. The 26 balls in play resulted in four singles, a double, a triple, and three dingers. Also, two errors, but we’re drifting from the point, whatever the point might be. Additionally, and unsurprisingly, almost all of these pitches have been fastballs. PITCHf/x classified more than 97% of them as heaters, and some of the non-heaters look like they were actually heaters in the data. This past June, Lance Lynn had the balls to throw Carlos Pena a 3-and-0 curveball with the bases loaded. It missed, low, and Pena walked. That’s the only curve I see in the spreadsheet. With so many fastballs, you’d expect an even higher strike rate, but what we see is fairly unremarkable, which makes it remarkable. I’m astounded by the rate at which these pitchers didn’t throw strikes. Of course, you don’t want to just tee one up, not with the bases full. Of course, pitchers in these situations are going to be somewhat wilder, overall and in the moment. But they’ll also understand that the hitters will probably be taking. They’ll understand that another ball is an automatic run, and if a ball ends up in play, the defense can do work. A pitcher never wants to issue a bases-loaded walk, which is precisely what makes it so interesting that there have been so many bases-loaded walks on four pitches. Like the one Peavy issued to Austin Jackson early on Wednesday night. At least Peavy knows he’s got a lot of company. At least he knows pitchers have been there before, and at least he knows he made the right pitches to the next batter, who tried to get Peavy out of the inning. Things unraveled from there, and Peavy won’t be at all happy about his effort. But the four-pitch run-scoring walk? At least that’s a curiosity, instead of just something bad. And it’s a reminder that throwing strikes isn’t so easy. The camera angles you see on TV make it look like home plate is just ten feet away. Pitchers have to throw from a distance into a really tiny box, and while there’s no one better than them at that in the world, it’s by no means automatic. Even in situations when it seems like it ought to be automatic. Strikes are hard. Pitching is hard. Chin up, Peavy. It’s hard.
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