A Sabermetric Therapy SessionBy: Sabometrics
The mood is electric at Shea Stadium. The winner of this game earns the right to go to the World Series to face the Detroit Tigers. The Mets have to win, right? The Cardinals were a thoroughly mediocre team all season – going 83-79 and only outscoring their opponents by 19 runs. The Mets on the other hand won 97 games and outscored their opponents by over 100 runs. And did you SEE that catch by Endy Chavez to rob Scott Rolen and keep the game tied? Surely fate is on the Mets side! And yet here we are in the bottom of the 9th and the Mets are down 3-1. Is Aaron Heilman really so bad that he can overcome fate?
Maybe. I mean, he did give up a Home Run to Yadier “53 OPS+” Molina. And yet the Mets are fighting back. They’ve got the bases loaded with 2 outs and rookie Adam Wainwright is on the mound. Carlos Beltran is up. Carlos is a great player who just finished the best year of his career. He got on base at a .388 rate and he slugged almost .600 for a whopping 150 OPS+. And he’s facing a rookie. The game is practically tied up already.
Except now the count is 0-2 and the Mets’ season is down to one last strike. Surely the rookie Wainwright will waste a pitch or two before going after Beltran.
Unfortunately we all know how this story ends. Wainwright drops the hook and Carlos Beltran strikes out looking. Game over. Season over. Window of opportunity closed.
This is one of my most painful memories in sports and if you’re a Mets fan then I’m sure it’s one of yours too. Yet, I’ve recently found a bit of inner peace about it – and not just because it was four years ago. The reason I’m writing about this most painful of moment is because the pitch was a brilliant call. I know a lot of Mets fans have blamed Beltran for not swinging. I’ve heard fans say “you can’t strike out looking in that situation!” many times. However, after conducting some research I believe that this was exactly the outcome which the Cardinals expected and that they are either really smart or very lucky.
As I was writing that article the pitch which I’ve so thoroughly buried in my mind was all I could think about. You see, I’ve been looking at ability to discriminate balls from strikes – and bias towards swinging at balls compared to not swinging at strikes.
By getting Beltran in an 0-2 hole the Cardinals obviously had a huge advantage. Many teams would have thrown something in the dirt and tried to get Beltran to go down swinging or take their chances on 1-2. Not the Cardinals. I’m not sure whether they knew that a curveball is the hardest pitch to judge or just picked it because it happens to be Wainwright’s best pitch. I’m not sure whether they know that batters are significantly less likely to swing on 0-2 when compared to other 2 strike counts (as demonstrated by their higher selectivity.) What I am pretty sure of is that it was just about the best pitch they could have chosen to get a strike out looking. It was one great decision – whether informed by statistics, by experience and intuition or just by luck which maximized the chance of quietly taking the bat out of Beltran’s hands and put the Cardinals in the World Series.
Note: The pitch types are FA = Fastball, CH = Change-up, CU = Curveball and SL = Slider
We can see that curveballs are pretty much the hardest pitches to judge by the low batting eye score which batters have on them. We can also see that selectivity on curveballs goes down as the count progresses – therefore batters are less likely to swing at curveballs when the count is 0-2 than when the count is 1-2, 2-2 or full.
So the call was a great one which is part of why it hurts a little less. Even more importantly it shows that by thinking about strategies and by playing smart baseball a team can gain an advantage. Since strategy and tendencies are two of the areas of baseball which I am most interested in, and since I plan to do a lot of research in these areas (and hope to contribute to the game by doing so), it warms my heart a little to see them contribute to a team’s World Series victory. I’m still not over that pitch, that game or that season, but right now it doesn’t hurt quite as much. Which is just about all you can ask for from a sabermetric therapy session.