The dominant story of this World Series — a home run explosion that has acquainted most of America with the, uh, definitely not juiced baseball — has camouflaged another feature of this Series: The pitching has been absolutely incredible.
At least, during the other 138 at-bats that have not resulted in a home run, it has been incredible.
Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers batters, who collectively hit .234/.307/.304 on non-homers during the regular season, have hit just .135/.199/.159 on non-homers in this series. Pitchers’ WHIP in this World Series (including the homers) is 0.97, the same as Chris Sale‘s was this season. Both offenses punished the league in the regular season, giving opposing pitchers a 1.43 WHIP and 4.89 ERA. And in this series, the combined ERAs are just 3.92, despite an unprecedented frequency of homers.
Of course, not allowing homers is one of the first things they teach in pitcher kindergarten. So we can’t say the pitching has been great without addressing the “except for …” qualifier. What are these homers coming on? Terrible pitches? Awful execution? Mistakes? Or is this just great hitting magnified by hot weather, historically strong lineups and a probably juiced baseball?
Let’s look at the 11 home run swings through Games 1 and 2 to see how many egregious mistakes we can count. Except when noted, “target” refers to the catcher’s glove location at the start of the pitch, but be aware that catchers’ visible targets don’t always correlate precisely to where the pitcher is actually aiming.
Pitch: Probably a cut fastball
These plots are all from the catcher’s view, so that pitch is low and inside.
How bad of a mistake was it? Not that bad. Keuchel almost always throws his cutter low and in to righties, which is usually the strongest indication of a pitcher’s strengths and intentions. Brian McCann‘s glove was set up low and away, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he and Keuchel actually wanted the pitch in, and the “target” was allowing for the pitcher’s movement. A few inches further in than it ended up would be Keuchel’s real sweet spot — where opponents’ batting averages drop by half when he gets it off the plate inside. But given the circumstances, Keuchel might have reasonably thought he was stealing a strike.
Results aside, it looks like a pretty savvy pitch call: It’s the very first pitch of the World Series, and Keuchel and McCann chose a pitch that (A) Keuchel can throw in the strike zone to get ahead, in case Taylor is taking all the way; (B) isn’t the far, far, far more predictable sinker, just in case Taylor comes out hyped up and ready to sit on a pitch and ambush; and (C) isn’t as dangerous when left up as the sinker, just in case Keuchel is a little overamped and takes a pitch or two to settle down.
You can’t “results aside” everything, though. Taylor hit the pitch about 450 feet. So, if nothing else, we can say it was one capable of being hit 450 feet. The pitch — assuming it was a cutter — didn’t cut. (If it was a four-seam fastball, as some reports had it, it was unusually straight, according to PITCHf/x.) In execution, it was a pitch that should have been more surprising than it apparently was and that wasn’t poorly located, but that didn’t have any real sharpness to it.
So how bad? Not that bad. If you described this pitch to me before it was thrown, I’d be shocked to find out it was hit 450 feet.
Target: Inner half or inside
That’s classified as “Zone 6” by PITCHf/x, which corresponds to the upper-inside ninth of the strike zone. Kershaw has had a lot of success throwing fastballs into Zone 6 in his career; similar pitches to righties have yielded a .368 slugging percentage, lower than six of the other eight squares in the strike zone, with one of his highest whiff/swing rates. Bregman, further, is a low-fastball hitter. But it’s also just barely in Zone 6; that pitch is closer to the center of the strike zone than the edge of it.
Kershaw is perhaps least predictable on 1-1. He throws his fastball, slider and curve with almost equal frequency in that count, so Bregman couldn’t confidently sit on that velocity. That he turned around on that velocity up and in is tremendous hitting. Kershaw, a very demonstrative reactor on the mound, didn’t immediately frown. It doesn’t look like he immediately realized it was a mistake, or a home run. Not a great pitch, but he gets away with worse all the time.
So how bad? Not that bad.
Target: Low and in
Baseball Prospectus’ Matt Trueblood broke this pitch down in excellent detail: The cutter up was not just a mistake, but a mistake that Keuchel had just made twice in the previous five pitches, and in a situation in which he should have been especially careful.
It’s also hard to believe that Turner managed to hit that pitch as high as he did and keep it from going foul. (It was his first up-and-in homer of the year, according to Inside Edge.) Keuchel’s reaction: “Kind of frustrated at myself for not making a little bit better pitch.” That seems right. It was a mistake, a poorly conceived pitch, but also no meatball.
So how bad? Pretty bad, if not inevitable.
Target: Inner half, down
How bad a mistake? That’s a true meatball, a middle-middle slider to a power hitter who had the platoon advantage. Verlander, behind in the count, might have been trying to steal a strike with the pitch, but we’re in an era when more pitchers than ever are throwing more secondary pitches in more hitters’ counts. (Including Verlander!) Pederson obviously wasn’t fooled by the pitch, and the location couldn’t have been worse.
So how bad? Really bad.
Target: Outside corner
In July 2016, Verlander threw a very similar pitch on the same count to Joe Mauer, and Mauer hit a home run to almost the same spot. But that pitch was 93 mph. Here, Verlander’s fastball was 97. Move the pitch one more inch away and it would’ve been an absolutely perfect pitch. An extraordinary swing by Seager, and maybe the most impressive homer of this series.
So how bad? Not bad. Very good.
If there’s one problem with throwing the world’s best pitch — a pitch so good you can throw it almost 100 percent of the time, whether the count is 0-2 or 3-0 — it’s that the batter won’t be fooled when you throw a terrible one.
Batters have only hit .213 when Jansen has thrown a pitch down the middle over the past three years and have slugged only .340. But this was a flat cutter. According to PITCHf/x, Jansen threw only three that were flatter all night, one of which went for a hard single, another was a 102 mph groundout and the third was the pitch immediately preceding this home run. No need to really overthink this one. On 0-2, with a high target out of the strike zone, Jansen wasn’t trying to throw a flat cutter in the middle of the strike zone to a power hitting left-hander.
So how bad? Very bad.
Target: Not obvious; maybe middle-down
Altuve’s power, especially on fastballs, tends to come on the inner half:
Fields caught a lot of the plate, but on 2-0 he didn’t have a lot of good options. A 97 mph pitch away from Altuve’s power zone might have been as good as any other.
So how bad? Not a great pitch, but you’d probably bet “single up the middle” before you’d bet “tiebreaking homer.”
Target: Just generally down
If Correa had swung through it, I’m not sure we would’ve all gasped and said that Fields got away with one. But that’s a pitch Fields wants to keep below the strike zone. His catcher patted the ground about 10 times before Fields delivered the pitch. He mostly succeeds when he does get it down, and he mostly fails when he doesn’t.
So how bad? Pretty bad, but not inevitable.
Target: Right where the dot in the plot below is
How big a mistake was that? Just consider the catcher’s target, which was set up to catch this without moving. Giles’ fastball isn’t really capable of mistakes.
So how bad? Not great, probably not quite bad.
Pitch: Slider, probably
Target: Low and middle-away
The home run came on pitch No. 4, which is hidden behind the identical pitch No. 3 in the plot above. It’s probably the most confounding of all of these home run pitches — an entire article could be written about what just these two pitches were and why they were thrown. They appear to be sliders, not cutters, despite the labeling in the plot. They had slider velocity and closer to slider vertical movement. But until about a month ago, McCarthy never threw sliders. The sliders he threw against San Francisco on Sept. 23 appear to be the first he had thrown since 2009. He throws tons of cutters.
Yet, it was (we think), that brand-new slider he went to — not once, but twice in this huge moment. With a runner on second and nobody out in the tie game, perhaps he was trying to throw a slower pitch, down in the zone, so that it would be harder for Springer to go the other way. That makes some sense! Springer certainly swung like he was intent on going the other way and pushing the runner over to third. Of the 11 home runs, this is the swing that looks least like a home run swing. Rather, Springer just sort of sliced it, and it carried and carried.
This doesn’t look like a great pitch. It’s also baffling, particularly coming immediately after the exact same pitch. I hesitate to judge something that I don’t understand.
So how bad? It’s not great. It might be very, very bad. It’s still surprising Springer hit it out.
Target: Low, away
A meatball. Of course, you’re facing Charlie Culberson with a two-run lead and Puig on deck. You throw meatballs.
So how bad? Understandable pitch in an understandable location, but the definition of hittable.
These 11 home runs were anything but inevitable. Some came on pretty good pitches. A bunch came on the sorts of pitches that make up the vast majority of baseball games — the pretty-okay pitches that miss their target by a bit but that don’t end up in the stands. Only five came in hitter’s counts, and only one came in a lopsided hitter’s count: Altuve’s, on 2-0.
The fact that so many of these pitches ended up being home runs — whether because of the ball or because of the depth and quality of these lineups — is important to understanding a lot of what we’ve seen this postseason, and what we’ll see for the rest of the series. It’s the reason we’re seeing managers do whatever they can to avoid using their middle relievers, the reason the hooks are so incredibly quick for starting pitchers in the middle innings and the reason pitchers and catchers are meeting on every third pitch. It’s also the reason pitchers are throwing their breaking balls even when they’re behind in counts, the reason they’re nibbling and the reason somebody is snapping at the umpire on almost every pitch.
The reason for all of it is that the version of baseball being played right now offers pitchers the smallest margin for error that we’ve ever seen.
These are very good and great pitchers throwing well and absolutely dominating hitters for large chunks of these games. Yet, simultaneously, they’re setting records for home runs allowed. It’s no surprise they think the ball is juiced, and it’s no surprise everybody on the field is acting like it.