Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 10/26/12
Let’s face it: try as you might, you can’t really help the things that stick with you. What I remember most vividly from visiting the Acropolis so many years ago is an Offspring song I was listening to. What I remember most about attending a Montreal Canadiens home game is the in-arena Youppi! exhibit. And something I can’t shake from Thursday night’s Game 2 of the World Series is a fastball that was taken by Marco Scutaro for strike three in the bottom of the eighth. Plenty of things happened in the game and Scutaro’s at-bat was of little ultimate consequence, but I keep seeing that pitch over and over. Forgive me, but now I’m going to write about it. I think I’ve established that I have something of a fascination for Marco Scutaro, and how difficult it is to get him to swing and miss. At no point on Thursday did Scutaro swing and miss — he hardly ever does — but he did strike out, and that’s also weird, if less so. Weirder still was how he struck out. Dave Cameron expressed surprise, too, in the live chat, so I know I’m not the only one. Let’s review the events. Scutaro was batting against the left-handed Drew Smyly in the eighth with one on and none out. Scutaro took a fastball down and in for a strike, then he got another low-inside fastball that he bunted foul. Behind 0-and-2, Scutaro took a fastball slightly high, then he fouled off a low-inside slider. With the count 1-and-2, Smyly threw Scutaro a fastball at 90 miles per hour in just about the middle of the zone, and Scutaro watched it before returning to the dugout, upset with himself. The PITCHf/x location of the fastball: A looping, soundless video of the fastball: Another looping, soundless video of the fastball: It was not exactly a 1-and-2 fastball in the middle of the zone, but it was essentially a 1-and-2 fastball in the middle of the zone. It didn’t have much in the way of horizontal movement, because Smyly throws his fastball over the top. It obviously had fastball velocity, but it didn’t have overpowering fastball velocity, and it was thrown by an opposite-handed pitcher. In that situation, if you’re Scutaro, you’re thinking about protecting the plate, which means you sort of expand your zone, and here Scutaro didn’t even offer at a pitch near the very center of that zone. You can see that Scutaro was frustrated after the pitch, immediately recognizing his mistake. Maybe it was just a temporary lapse of judgment, but that’s strange to see in the late innings of a close World Series game from a hitter who’s constantly making contact, implying incredible focus. My purpose here isn’t to criticize Scutaro because, whatever, he’s been amazing, and it was one pitch, and hitters are allowed to screw up kind of a lot. My purpose here is to point out that Marco Scutaro struck out, which is rare, and he struck out in a most unusual way. Curious, I had a friend run a PITCHf/x query for me. I wanted to isolate 1-and-2 fastballs thrown by left-handed pitchers to right-handed batters between 88-93 miles per hour. Going back to 2007, I found 472 pitches that wound up in similar locations as Smyly’s 1-and-2 fastball to Scutaro. Here’s the breakdown of how those pitches turned out: Ball: 5 Called strike: 28 Swing, foul: 196 Swing, miss: 42 Swing, in play: 201 Roughly six percent of the time, that pitch was taken for a called strike three. I don’t know what sort of percentage I was expecting. I was surprised to see that five of those pitches were called balls, since they’re pitches just about in the middle of the strike zone, but (A) umpires screw up, and (B) PITCHf/x screws up. On 93 percent of occasions, the hitter attempted a swing. Now let’s look at just Scutaro. Courtesy of Texas Leaguers, here’s Scutaro taking 1-and-2 pitches from lefties between 2008 and Game 1 of the 2012 World Series: You see some called strike threes, sure, but nothing over the middle of the plate, in the middle of the zone. All those pitches, Scutaro swung at. Now here’s Scutaro taking 1-and-2 pitches from lefties in Game 2 of the 2012 World Series: There’s not one of those pitches taken in the previous image. It had been at least a very long time since Scutaro last did what he did in the eighth inning on Thursday. Twice now, in these playoffs, Marco Scutaro has struck out. He has struck out swinging once against Edward Mujica, and he has struck out looking once against Drew Smyly, on a 1-and-2 fastball at 90 miles per hour in just about the middle of the strike zone. The only explanation is “whoops”. That’s it, nothing special. Scutaro just took the wrong moment off and it doesn’t at all reflect on him as a professional baseball player. But let it never be said to you that baseball is a dull game. Baseball is a constantly fascinating game. You just have to know enough about it to know how.
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