Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/8/13
The reality of Jose Lobaton‘s walk-off home run is that we don’t know what it’s going to mean yet. This is going to depend in large part on series context, on how the rest of the series goes, and if the Rays still lose to the Red Sox, Lobaton won’t be remembered forever. He’ll forever be a part of Rays history, but the next couple games will determine whether or not he becomes a legend. Dave Roberts‘ steal wouldn’t be Dave Roberts’ steal if the Red Sox still lost to the Yankees. It would’ve been a neat stolen base within a disappointing series. Maybe it’s not fair to have the significance of moments hang on the significance of other, related moments, but that’s the way things are. And speaking of things that aren’t fair, there’s the pitch that Lobaton hit out. I’d say that wasn’t particularly fair to Koji Uehara. Something we know about pitchers: none of them are perfect. We know this because pitchers are people, and no people are perfect, even within their fields of expertise. Randy Johnson gave up hits. Lots of ‘em. Mariano Rivera gave up home runs. Lots of ‘em, kind of. Generally, when a pitcher gets hit, the response and assumption is that he made some mistakes. Mistake pitches get hit more often and harder than non-mistake pitches. But it has to be noted that not all of Johnson’s pitches that turned into hits were mistakes. Not all of Rivera’s pitches that turned into home runs were mistakes. One of the realities of pitching is that good pitches can get crushed, even if you do everything you want to do. That’s either frustrating or the source of some important perspective, and against Jose Lobaton, Uehara didn’t screw up. Against Jose Lobaton, at least this once, it didn’t matter. I think a lot of people recognized that it was a good pitch at the time. Less apparent was just how good a pitch it really was. The at-bat began with two outs and none on in the bottom of the ninth, and Lobaton was taking his first trip up, having entered as a part of a double-switch. Even Joe Maddon said he wasn’t paying attention when Lobaton was batting — Maddon was planning ahead, because he had to plan ahead, because the Rays probably weren’t going to score a run. Maddon had to prepare for a tenth inning that never arrived. What I don’t think I need to do is lay out for you just how dominant Uehara has been all season, if not all career. You’ve read about it, if you haven’t watched it, and even failing both of those, settle for this: Uehara turned in one of the greatest reliever seasons ever. That’s the point to which all Uehara articles build. He throws more than one pitch, but he’s feared for his splitter, because his splitter’s one of the best and batters can’t help but swing even when it’s headed for the dirt. The first pitch Uehara threw Lobaton was a splitter, tucked in the zone’s low-away corner. Lobaton did what so many hitters have done, and for that he could be forgiven. What that meant was that Uehara was ahead in the count. What that meant was that Uehara could go back to his split if he wanted, and he could try to expand the strike zone with Lobaton on the defensive. Facing lefties, righties almost always try to target that low-away quadrant, because that’s where those hitters tend to do the least damage. Things were set up for Uehara: he could throw a splitter, down and away, not so far down as to be in the dirt, but not so far up as to come in at the thigh. He could throw a splitter that was a little bit lower than the first splitter. That’s exactly what Uehara did: The pitch was in almost the exact same spot, but it was lower by a few inches, and Lobaton had swung right through the first one. Lobaton isn’t exactly the sort of hitter one fears, and Uehara stuck with his bread-and-butter pitch: You can tell from the angle of Lobaton’s back that the pitch was down. His arms are fully extended. What Uehara wasn’t counting on was finding the barrel: Said Lobaton after the game: “I was looking for something soft. He threw it to me in a good spot, and I just hit it pretty good.” You could argue that Uehara was predictable, that Lobaton had a sense of what he was going to get. That much is true, based on Lobaton’s words, but then, hitters usually more or less know what they’re in for when they’re behind in the count against Koji Uehara. When Uehara gets ahead of righties, he throws more than 50% splitters. When Uehara gets ahead of lefties, he throws nearly 60% splitters. Everybody knows what Uehara likes to throw when he’s in control of a count, but that pitch of his disguises itself, and despite the predictability, Uehara generated the results that he generated. Anticipating what’s coming is one part. Executing is the bigger part. Lobaton executed, managing to hit the baseball to a part of Tropicana Field that very seldom sees baseballs: A line from the Red Sox MLB.com game recap: Uehara has gone weeks this season without allowing so much as a baserunner, let alone a home run. So it was a little stunning to see Lobaton attack his misplaced 0-1 splitter and belt it over the wall, setting off walk-off euphoria at home plate for the Rays. The word I disagree with is “misplaced”. I think Uehara did what he wanted, especially given the placement of the catcher’s glove, and Uehara’s history shows that this has been an almost perfect pitch for him since converting full-time to relief. Uehara became a reliever in 2010. Since then, he’s thrown a bunch of pitches to lefties, and he’s thrown 44 splitters in very similar locations as the second one he threw to Lobaton on Monday night. Monday night, Lobaton hit that pitch out of the ballpark for a winner. Previously, that pitch was taken three times for balls. Five times, it was fouled off. Nine times, it was put in play for an out, only one of those being a fly out. A full 27 times, it was cut on and missed. Before Monday, reliever Uehara had thrown that splitter to lefties 44 times. They missed it with 27 of 41 swings, and not once did they hit it and reach safely. Crushing that pitch would be almost impossible, but it wasn’t impossible enough. If you’re curious, here are the home runs that Uehara allowed to lefties as a reliever, before Monday: Tucked in the low-away corner, we have a fastball. Uehara has allowed dingers on his splitter before, but those splitters were hung and caught a lot of the zone. The splitter to Lobaton didn’t hang. It didn’t miss its spot. It wasn’t flat — it actually sank more than the first splitter of the at-bat. It was just a good pitch, that Lobaton hit anyway, because sometimes baseball can be cruel, even to Koji Uehara. In a sense, maybe Uehara was overdue for a little baseball cruelty. The consolation for Uehara and Red Sox fans is that the closer didn’t really do anything wrong. He didn’t have a wild outing like Fernando Rodney‘s, so there shouldn’t be any concern he’s about to melt down. He’s still Koji Uehara, and he’s still got one of baseball’s best weapons. But on the other side of the coin, that weapon just got hit for a game-winner, and it did everything it was supposed to. Lobaton provided a reminder that a baseball game is only under your control to a point — there are two teams, a pitcher for every batter, a batter for every pitcher, and sometimes you can get beat without deserving it. In this case, Uehara did well, and Lobaton did more well. Uehara’s the most talented player, but a playoff series is short. Monday night, Jose Lobaton and the Rays pulled off the nearly impossible, staying alive at least one more day. We’ll see in time how Lobaton’s home run is remembered, but while its meaning is presently up in the air, its improbability is written in ink.
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