Game Of Inches, Or Less

This is not a Blue Jays blog, this is all just a coincidence. But man it’s fun to cram all these wacky graphics into a post, so on it goes!

Playoff baseball is really just normal baseball concentrated. Baseball concentrate. You add some cold weather, filter out the crappier teams, distill a 162 game season into 20-something odd games, and it’s just pure unadulterated baseball. Everything is amplified in stark contrast to the meaningless grind of the regular season. Because in the regular season there’s always time to make a run still, and baseball is all about staying steady in the ups and downs – the best baseball teams still lose as many games as the best basketball teams win in a season. So you’re used to that mentality of “well, we’ll get ’em tomorrow.”

But there aren’t too many tomorrows left when you hit October. I wasn’t prepared for how different playoff baseball was. Or…specifically playoff baseball that I care about. You start getting really invested into the minutiae of all the bullshit within a single game that you normally don’t give a shit about. Silly things. Whether a cleat was less than an inch off a plate, a single funny throw, a bobbled ball or three, potential eternally celebrated home runs that turn into forgotten warning track outs because a round bat hit a round ball travelling at 98 miles per hour just a fraction of a second too late and a fraction of an inch too low. And all the round balls going 98 miles per hour that were indeed hit squarely with round bats. Often it seems like entire games, and maybe entire series, hinge upon a single play or a single at-bat.

Maybe Game 5 was one of those games, maybe it wasn’t, I don’t know. But here’s the game chart from Fangraphs, showing Win Probability on top and the Leverage Index below.

Source: FanGraphs

The highest leverage play of the game was Estrada getting Zobrist to hit into a double play in the 4th. Considering Estrada is an extreme fly ball pitcher with third lowest GB% of qualified starters in the league (32.2%), that becomes even more impressive.

The second highest leverage at-bat was Jose Bautista coming up against Edinson Volquez in the bottom of the 6th. Up 1-0 with two men on, trying to crack open the game (it would eventually happen with the three run double from Tulowitzki three batters later). And although Tulowitzki’s hit actually added more towards the Win Probability (7.7%) than Bautista’s walk (5.8%), the game was more “on the line” when Bautista came up – it would have represented a much different WPA with based loaded, none out versus men on first and second with one out. And although the Blue Jays were still up 1-0, the game becomes a lot different going into the 7th up 1-0 versus 5-0, especially with the possibility of burning Game 6 starter Price out of the bullpen instead.

So while this ALCS may not have hinged on Game 5, and while Game 5 would not have solely hinged on a single at-bat in the 6th that didn’t even score a run directly, it still represents maybe the most critical at-bat of the game in terms of the huge difference between the possible “good” outcomes versus the possible “bad” outcomes – high leverage versus win probability added.

But we can say for sure that within that crucial at-bat, it all hinged on the last borderline pitch, called a ball just off the outside corner that made it bases loaded with none out versus men on first and second with one out. And it’s a close pitch. Both Fangraphs and BlueJays.com already have great articles about just that at-bat. The Fangraphs article in particular is must-read with nice pictures and everything, and it notes that similar pitches in similar situations are called strikes almost half the time.

PITCHf/x, the system that captures all this pitch information used to come up with those numbers, is basically three 60 Hz cameras that have been installed in each stadium. The data is owned by Major League Baseball Advanced Media which makes it available in XML format, and sites like Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball then take that data and overlay it over a strike zone graphic.

This is from Fangraphs – showing that the pitch catches the bottom of the zone, which is by definition, a strike. (All of these are from the catcher’s perspective.)

This is from Brooks Baseball – note pitch #10 below the zone, a ball.

At this point you can’t even really say definitively if it’s objectively a strike or a ball – even the computer systems aren’t precise enough to capture it. There might be a question of accuracy as well – check out the Brooks Baseball chart for Dioneer Navarro’s at-bat in the 6th, right after the double.

Pitch #1, a called strike where the head of a right handed batter would normally be? And then pitch #2, a ball in the middle of the strike zone? Was this umpire smoking the drugs?

Here’s the actual first pitch – located nicely at the bottom outside corner.
navarro1

MLB Gameday called it a 44 mph “unknown” pitch…but I think Pitchf/x just fucked up because it looked like a fastball to me. You can see this in the Fangraphs chart above too, that lonely red called strike at the absolute top left. And then here’s the second pitch, that was apparently a ball right down the middle.
navarro2

Nope. Actually turns out none of the other six pitches were even close to where Pitchf/x said they were. So yeah, okay that’s pretty weird. Maybe we’re not quite ready for robot umpires just yet.

Which is all just to say in the end…it’s a pretty close call. Something the computers couldn’t even determine conclusively. That is as close as you can get to the textbook definition of a borderline pitch. And if that ends up the pitch that swung the at-bat that swung the game that swung the series…then man, how crazy would that be? Between stuff like this and The Elvis Andrus Show in the 7th inning of Game 5 in the ALDS, it’s hard to push that cursed Toronto sports narrative any further than this. And just being able to put that silly idea down is quite a reward on its own. Because to get this far in the baseball postseason which is ultimately just a crapshoot, you need at a lot of luck. A ton of talent as well, but unlucky teams don’t get this far.

So regardless of what happens tonight in Game 6 and all the possible games that come, it’s been a wondrously fun ride we’ve all been lucky to witness.

“You can argue that I got the benefit of a borderline call,” Bautista said. “The bottom line is I ended up on first and Tulo came through.”

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  1. […] for Fall Classic Royals know Mets won’t be easy to beat Royals know Mets won’t be easy to beat Game Of Inches, Or Less Baseball chattah… 10/16/2015 Game 1 ● RECAP Toronto Blue Jays vs Kansas City Royals ● ALCS […]

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Destined to fight the world's evil, The WAMBAG endures massive battles involving impossible stunts, races on horse-pulled carriages, and the desecration of enchanting medieval castles (all done with dizzying computer graphics). Not only does the eye candy keep on coming, the tongue-in-cheek writing and deep Transylvanian accents perfect the film with a dose of dark humor.

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