Monday, June 27, 2011

Spin Control: About the Prince Fielder at-bat

Prince Fielder and Joe Mauer react to Fielder"s
game-winning double in the seventh inning Friday.
It was a pretty lousy weekend in Milwaukee for the Twins. They got swept; the offense produced six runs in the three games; it became known that Justin Morneau needs surgery for the pinched nerve in his neck; Delmon Young suffered what appears to be, at the very least, a significant ankle sprain (regard this with all the disrespect my lack of medical training merits, but I will be very surprised if a mere sprain is all he did to his ankle).

And there was a bit of clubhouse backbiting over a failed pitch sequence Friday, the one game of the series the Twins had a legitimate chance to win. That episode was heavily second-guessed immediately after the game and reverberated at least into Sunday's game. It merits further examination.

The setup: Bottom of the seventh inning, Twins lead 3-2. Scott Baker has interspersed two outs with two singles, and Prince Fielder comes up with men on first and third. Ron Gardenhire goes to the bullpen for Jose Mijares.

Question: Why not leave Baker in? My answer: He had thrown 107 pitches, he was laboring a bit, the platoon advantage lay with Fielder in that matchup.

Question: Why Mijares, who has not had a particularly good season? My answer: Mijares has been Gardenhire's primary LOOGY since 2009. He has a good track record against lefties. Glen Perkins is a better pitcher in total, but Mijares is more effective against lefties. And Phil Dumatrait has the same command problems as Mijares does, without a history of success. If you're not letting Baker face Fielder with the game on the line, it's got to be Mijares.

The pitch sequence: Mijares, against left-handed hitters, essentially uses two pitches: A four-seam fastball, which is the high-velocity version of the pitch but with less movement, and a slider. (Much was made this spring of adding a two-seam, or sinking, fastball to his arsenal, but that was always in the context of giving him another weapon against right-handed hitters, against whom the slider is less effective.)

He and catcher Joe Mauer go after Fielder with the traditional approach: Use the fastball to get ahead in the count, then the slider to finish him off.

The problem, of course, is that Mijares doesn't get into a breaking ball count. He misses with three straight fastballs.

Question: Now that he's behind in the count, why not just walk Fielder? (Bert Blyleven, at either 2-0 or 3-0, said something about second base being open, and in the wake of the at-bat confirmed that it was a serious observation.) My answer: Walking people is not the Twins mindset. Walking a left-hander, even one as dangerous as Fielder, ought not be in Mijares' mindset at all. To twist a later Gardenhire comment on the situation, if he wanted Fielder walked, he could have used a right-hander. Mijares is in the game to get a left-hander out.

Plus: Walking Fielder means moving the go-ahead run to second base. With Fielder up, it takes an extra-base hit to put Milwaukee ahead; walk him, and Casey McGehee needs only a single to put the Brewers up.

Finally: Walking Fielder intentionally in such a situation (as was done frequently with Barry Bonds) is an implicit act of surrender. It says We have no idea how to get this guy out. Fielder is a very good hitter, but he can be pitched to.

Jose Mijares' OPS vs.
lefties this season: .608.
For his career: .570.
He's still an effective
Left-handed One Out
Back to the sequence: Mauer calls for, and Mijares throws, two more fastballs. Fielder takes both for called strikes, although the second is probably outside. That call, in retrospect, was crucial: One, it meant the already-speedy Nyjer Morgan will be off with the 3-2 pitch; second, it suggests that the umpire is inclined to give Mijares the benefit of an outside pitch.

Mauer calls for a sixth fastball and sets up outside. (Tim McCarver has said it so often that it gets lost in his aural buzz: What you throw on 3-1, you throw on 3-2.) Mijares misses the location and leaves it over the middle of the plate. Fielder slams it down the right-field line for a double and two runs.

The aftermath: Mijares tells reporters that Mauer only called for fastballs. Mauer says he called for a fastball, but not down the middle. Gardenhire implicitly raps Mauer's pitch selection, saying that if he wanted fastballs thrown to Fielder he could have used a right-hander.

Saturday: Gardenhire holds a clubhouse meeting and revisits the issue with the reporters. He wants no more public backbiting from the players, reserves the right to publicly critique pitch selection to himself, and explicitly says that Mijares bears the ultimate responsibility for which pitch he throws.

Sunday: Mauer doesn't start but catches after pinch-hitting for Drew Butera. Mijares pitches. Fielder comes up. The first pitch is a slider. Fielder singles to center for an RBI.

Gee, do you think he knew it was coming?

My take: I tend to favor the Brad Radke Rule of Pitching: Any pitch will work if you throw it well enough. Gardenhire prefers to see his left-handed relievers "spin it" to left-handed hitters, but I think Mauer was justified in sticking with the fastball when Mijares fell behind.

We'll never know what would have happened had Mijares thrown a slider on 3-2; nor will we know what would have happened if his fastball had been properly located. What happened didn't work for the Twins, but that doesn't mean the thinking was faulty.

1 comment:

  1. Great post and analysis. Definitely unusual, especially this early in the season, to hear the players airing those comments to the media. Generally that's un-Twinslike. But, that's what happens when you are losing ballgames the way the Twins have.