Let’s Watch Brett Gardner Work a 12-Pitch At-Bat

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In the ninth inning of Game 5 on Wednesday night, Brett Gardner batted against Cody Allen for nine minutes. The Yankees were looking to add to a one-run lead, while the Indians were an out away from getting to give it one more try against the hardest-throwing pitcher in the world. Gardner batted with two runners on, and as his at-bat grew longer and longer, there was an increasing sense of urgency. Gardner batted for nine minutes after Todd Frazier had batted for five minutes, and it all meant that Aroldis Chapman was spending more time not throwing. More time cooling off. As Gardner saw pitch after pitch after pitch, insurance felt more and more critical. Chapman might come back out feeling too cold. You don’t want a pitcher sitting for half of an hour.

The last pitch was the twelfth pitch, and the twelfth pitch was fateful. Gardner lined a single into right, and since the count had been full, the runners were running. Aaron Hicks had no problem scoring from second, and to make matters worse for the Indians, an error allowed Frazier to also slide home. That last run was only salt in the wound; Hicks’ run felt like the killer. Although you can never know for sure, and although it was just last postseason that Chapman suffered a stunning blown save in the same ballpark, anything beyond a one-run margin felt insurmountable. For all intents and purposes, Brett Gardner ended the ALDS.

For Gardner, it was his longest plate appearance since 2014 — but for another 12-pitch at-bat he’d had in the fifth inning. For Allen, it was his longest plate appearance since 2012. It was the kind of at-bat that tempts you to read too much into it — to say things like, “there’s your proof that the Yankees don’t quit,” or “the Indians can never close anything out.” You shouldn’t give in. The at-bat didn’t mean anything larger. It was just an incredible at-bat, in a critical situation. And I’d like to go through it, pitch, by pitch, by pitch.

The story here isn’t of a guy who did everything wrong, nor is it of a guy who did everything right. Any at-bat that goes 12 pitches is a struggle, with pitcher and batter executing just well enough. A long at-bat is a battle of attrition, with the winner being the player who holds out the longest. Gardner stayed alive, and while Allen made some of his pitches, Gardner hung in there until Allen made a mistake. Gardner made no mistake on his own end. That’s at the end of all this. That’s the result of pitch number twelve. We should begin with pitch number one.

1

A good first-pitch curveball can be a hell of a weapon. See, batters don’t like to swing at first-pitch curveballs. I mean, technically, batters don’t like to swing at first-pitch anythings, but curveballs in particular are seen and they’re watched. First-pitch fastballs might get sat on and swung at. Few hitters are ever sitting on a first-pitch curveball. It’s what most blew me away when Paul Goldschmidt hit his first-inning home run in the wild-card game. Why was he sitting on a first-pitch curve from Jon Gray in the first place? It made no sense at all, except for the part where Goldschmidt swatted a dinger. Anyhow, this season, when Allen threw a first-pitch curve to a lefty, he got swings just 16% of the time. Allen would’ve had a good idea that Gardner wouldn’t want to swing. He just needed to make sure his curve was good. His curve was good.

2

It’s like they always say, there are few better combinations than a low curveball with a high fastball. But in order for the high fastball to do anything, it has to at least look appealing. And Brett Gardner has proven himself to be one of the more disciplined hitters around. Gardner knows the strike zone better than most. He’s reluctant to swing if he doesn’t have to. If this were a high fastball over the plate, that would be one thing. But high and outside? Easy take. 1-and-1.

3

It’s hard to tell exactly what happened here. I mean, it’s easy to tell — Allen nailed his spot, and Gardner was frustrated with himself. I just don’t know why there’s frustration. There are two possibilities, I figure. One, maybe Gardner was sitting on a curve. Allen loves to throw that curve, and his previous fastball had been bad. Maybe Gardner was upset he guessed wrong. Alternatively, two, maybe Gardner just locked up. Maybe he just froze, for no good reason, like he had an ill-timed brain fart. Based on Gardner’s body language, he wished he would’ve swung. Alas, the count was back in Allen’s favor.

4

Some two-strike curveballs are good two-strike curveballs. Other two-strike curveballs are this two-strike curveball. 2-and-2.

5

The records will show that Gardner fouled off six pitches with two strikes. It’s true, he did, and you don’t get to pitch number 12 if you don’t hit a bunch of balls on the wrong sides of the lines. But it’s not like Gardner was intentionally building the whole time toward a 12th delivery. In this instance, I think Allen located poorly, and Gardner just didn’t square the ball up. The fastball was just about right down the middle, and Allen probably regretted the pitch the instant the ball left his fingers, but Gardner couldn’t cash in. Pitching is hard. Batting is hard. Mistakes get made all the time, and they frequently go unpunished. For both these guys, the foul meant a do-over.

6

The second pitch was a high-outside fastball, and Gardner wasn’t tempted. The sixth pitch was a high-outside fastball, and Gardner was tempted. The difference, of course, is that the sixth pitch came in a two-strike count, and that forced Gardner to be extra defensive. Still, he did catch himself. The strike zone was unusually big all game long, and that was probably somewhere in the back of Gardner’s mind, but at the last second, Gardner decided this pitch didn’t warrant a desperation hack. 3-and-2. We’re halfway done, but the fun’s only just beginning.

7

The thing about foul balls is I’m unconvinced hitters can intentionally hit them. No one has found really compelling evidence that some hitters are really good at fighting off two-strike pitches. But when there are two strikes, and when a pitch is good, or close enough to being good, a foul ball is a positive outcome for the hitter, because it earns him another chance. I’m not sure Allen meant to go upstairs here, but that’s where the pitch went, north of the zone. Yet the ball was very much over the plate, so Gardner chose to protect. Had he let the pitch go by, he probably would’ve walked; it was up there around the letters. But, again, this game saw more than its share of very generous called strikes. Hitters don’t want to have to take that chance. The final pitch of the game would see Austin Jackson called out on a pitch well above his belt.

8

You get the sense from the swing that Gardner was in fight-it-off mode. Again, I don’t know how many foul balls are truly intentional, but Gardner knew he had to swing at this pitch, yet he didn’t seem to want to do anything with it. It was a strike, around the outer edge, but that’s not where Gardner likes to hit. Maybe he could’ve flipped the ball to left field, I don’t know, but, again, a foul ball is another chance. Another chance to see if the pitcher makes a mistake.

9

Allen loves his curveball. It’s a good curveball. He throws it more than half of the time when he’s got two strikes. But he’d just thrown four two-strike fastballs in a row, and Gardner was looking for a fifth. For that reason, perhaps, Allen survived a location miss, with Gardner swinging off-balance. As soon as Gardner realized how the ball was spinning, he just wanted to get a piece. Get another pitch. Get another chance.

Side note: During the playoffs, there’s so much talk about pressure. There’s all this worrying about how players will perform when the stakes are so high. Wouldn’t you know it, but the only people I see who ever seem to be nervous are fans. Players? The players are having a great time.

Brett Gardner was having a great time. Huge at-bat. Whole series, whole season on the line. Hostile road environment. Big smile! Baseball’s a game. The participants are said to be “playing.”

10

That’s just such a difficult pitch. It is a probable ball, but it’s a close ball, and to say it one more time, this game proved no time to be taking close balls. Although the pitch was up and in, which was a different look for the at-bat, the Indians have weaponized that pitch before, the high-and-tight righty fastball to a lefty that runs back in just over the edge. Trevor Bauer has been trying to perfect that pitch for years. Pitchers love that pitch because, when it’s thrown properly, hitters have almost no chance. Gardner did all he could to just spoil this and see something else. The pitch was impossible.

11

One more time, up above the belt. More away than pitch number seven, but less away than pitches two and six. Again, there’s nothing for Gardner to do with this pitch, but it’s still too close to take. And so Gardner just flicked the bat at the ball. He waited to the last instant to just try to stay alive. Another foul. More anecdotal evidence that maybe there *is* a foul-ball skill. It might even be fleeting, but for at least one extended at-bat, Brett Gardner was possessed. He stayed alive just as long as he needed to, fighting off the pitches that had no greater upside.

12

Do you know where a hitter’s hot zone is? Somewhat counter-intuitively, it’s not where the hitter has the highest batting average or wRC+. It’s where the hitter is pitched the least often, over the plate. Opponents read the hitters, see, and they respond to what they perceive, trying to stay away from the areas where the hitter wants to see pitches end up. With that in mind, here’s a heat map of where righties pitched Brett Gardner this season.

Gardner was attacked over the outer half, and very infrequently did righties feel comfortable going inside. The same pattern holds true for many lefties, but Gardner was pitched inside even less often than usual. It’s because lefties, and Gardner, like hitting inside pitches, provided they’re over the plate, and provided they’re neither too low nor too high. With Gardner facing Allen, the 12th pitch was the mistake. At least, it was the only mistake of its kind. None of the previous 11 pitches were hittable strikes over the inner half. Gardner fought and fought and fought again until, finally, he saw something he liked. There was no guarantee such a pitch would ever come, but the chances increase as an at-bat grows ever longer. Gardner worked to stay alive, hoping that Allen would slip up. It took nine minutes, but Gardner wasn’t in a rush.

It’s common to see someone save a significant baseball. A baseball that was pitched or hit for some kind of record or other great achievement. Gardner didn’t work an at-bat that ended up with one special baseball. What was most special about the at-bat is reflected by the fact that it required eight different baseballs from start to finish. Dispersed somehow around the world will be the eight baseballs involved in Brett Gardner’s ninth-inning killshot. One of them will bear the mark of solid hard contact. The marks on the others will tell no worse a story.


12 October 2017 | 12:15 pm

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