Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 5/23/13
It’s not right to say Fernando Rodney is back to being his old self, because right now he’s sitting on a career-high strikeout rate. But he is back to being unreliable, or at least, he has been unreliable, to this point in the 2013 season. Wednesday, in Toronto, he blew a save against the Blue Jays. He was removed after facing just three batters. The save was blown on Rodney’s sixth pitch, when Jose Bautista took him deep on an inside fastball at 98 miles per hour. Rodney retired Edwin Encarnacion, then he walked Adam Lind. Lind didn’t score, so that walk didn’t really hurt. Lind walked on five pitches, and not on one. Certainly not on the first pitch that he saw. But I want to talk a little bit about that pitch anyway, just because. I want to talk about ball one from Fernando Rodney to Adam Lind, a 97 mile-per-hour fastball that just missed away. I know this sure seems insignificant, but baseball is insignificant, and you and I are insignificant, so let’s come together in our collective insignificance and celebrate all that ultimately doesn’t matter. Celebrate or don’t celebrate; eventually you will be dead. Bautista is a righty, and Encarnacion is a righty, so Lind was Rodney’s first and only lefty of the appearance. Behind the plate was Jose Molina. Behind Jose Molina was C.B. Bucknor, of whom there exist opinions. Behold now a pitch .gif, followed by an approximate pitch-location screenshot: It’s impossible to time the pause for when the baseball is right over the front plane of the strike zone. Consider that this pitch more or less hit the spot, consider it was barely off the plate according to PITCHf/x, and consider that there was a left-handed batter. By the rule book, this was probably a ball. By the way umpires actually call the zone, this was probably a strike. By the way Bucknor saw it, this was definitely a ball. According to Bucknor’s history, he’s called this pitch a strike about 70% of the time, with lefty batters in an 0-and-0 count. Tampa Bay usually gets a more favorable zone than the average. I have only a few thoughts, which follow. (1) Molina, of course, is sort of the face of the new age of pitch-receiving research. You look at Jose Molina and you wouldn’t think he’d be the face of anything, but research revealed Molina to be outstanding at this, and so he’s the guy people look at most often. People have asked Molina directly about how he receives, what his thought processes are, where he first picked it up as a skill. People have identified Molina as a possible cause behind a few batter tantrums, like Brett Lawrie‘s. Molina is thought of as the model, the perfect receiver, from whom other catchers should learn. Molina didn’t get this pitch, even though it wasn’t bad. One could say it was actually quite good. It didn’t even really miss the mark. Molina was given a distinctly un-Molina result. Why? I don’t know, but we can compare Molina to another, just-earlier called strike: Molina didn’t quite “stick” the pitch to Lind, and he immediately raised his head, preparing to throw the ball back. In full motion, Molina seems to be catching and sitting straighter up at the same time, which for him is an unusual amount of motion. Maybe Molina didn’t think it was a strike himself. Maybe Molina just got somewhat sloppy. Maybe everything was normal and Bucknor blinked. Maybe everything was normal and this is just the way the probability dice were rolled. Maybe nothing at all was the matter. But Jose Molina didn’t get a borderline pitch, that usually goes for a strike. This is a healthy reminder that pitch-receiving isn’t automatic, and even the best receivers don’t get everything. Even the worst receivers don’t lose everything. Sometimes the catchers themselves do something unusually well or unusually poorly. Sometimes the umpire just gets a better or a worse look at the baseball. It’s all a matter of probability, and the differences are slight. They just add up over time, because there are so many pitches, and therefore so many repetitions. Jose Molina might be baseball’s best receiver, I’m not sure, but more than one guy is responsible for how a pitch turns out. And people can’t act exactly the same way exactly every time. (2) Usually, I try to keep from reading into a player’s body language. It’s awful tempting, and a lot of people give in. Sometimes there can be meaning in there. But Cliff Lee‘s the guy that keeps me honest. Lee pitched in the 2009 World Series, and there’s a famous image out there of him very calmly fielding a comebacker. People looked at that and concluded that Lee couldn’t be shaken by anything, that he was the ultimate clutch performer. The next spring, Lee was asked about that play in a team meeting, and he admitted that at the time he wanted to “s*** his pants.” Bodies lie. People lie! People aren’t good at reading strangers on television. But, watching Molina, something stood out to me, and I can’t not include it here. I don’t know exactly what happened. Research didn’t turn anything up. But, after catching the fastball, Molina hesitated with his throw back to the mound. It’s not because Rodney wasn’t looking — Rodney was looking, even if his crooked hat bill is deceptive. Lind didn’t do anything. The interpretation here is that Molina was caught off guard by the pitch being called a ball instead of a strike. That he was sufficiently surprised to kind of double-pump. Again, that might not be it at all. Such behavior would probably get on an umpire’s nerves, and Molina’s not that sort. But I don’t have any other explanation. Unless the ball didn’t feel right in Molina’s hand, at first. So. (3) The Lind plate appearance proceeded to a 3-and-0 count. Then Rodney came with another fastball, for a strike. This was that strike: This one, Molina stuck. This one was well out of the zone, and Lind thought he had a walk. Rays color guy Brian Anderson chimed in: Yeah, and this, I mean, this was not anywhere near. I mean, my goodness. Get a clue. It’s remarkable in that this was the Rays broadcast speaking up. It’s remarkable in that I am remarking on it. And it’s remarkable in that Jose Molina’s specialty is getting called strikes off the plate away against left-handed hitters. He does that better than anyone else. Somehow, Anderson isn’t used to that, and he went so far as to express…disgust? in Bucknor’s umpiring. Certainly disappointment. I don’t blame Anderson for anything. This pitch was outside. But of all the broadcasts you’d expect to be surprised by an outside strike, Tampa Bay’s would be at the bottom of the list. This is kind of their “thing.” It’s one of their things, anyway.
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