Peeking inside the narrative

We live in an age of instant data. Numbers are at our fingertips in an instant. And we can often build a case for just about any narrative we want to make. Post season statistics, especially offensive ones, have to be taken with two very strong reminders. The first is that the offensive statistics are extremely small sample sizes. Orioles’ fans and writers could be blasting Adam Jones right now because he is batting .091 in this post season. But if you are reminded that Jones’ post season is only thirteen or fourteen plate appearances deep, what conclusions can you actually draw from that?

The second reminder is that batters have to hit against pitchers. That sound simplistic but it is amazing how much that simple fact is overlooked. The Jones in our example has had to face some of the best pitching in baseball. The teams that make the playoffs would not (in most cases) be there if they did not have strong pitching. So Jones would not be alone in struggling against those pitchers. Recently published here at IIATMS was a historical look at the 1962 World Series. In that piece, it was pointed out that Mickey Mantle went 3 for 25 in that series. Can you imagine what Mantle would be hearing if he did that today? The bum!  But he wasn’t alone. The Yankees hit only .199 in that series and won it! They faced excellent pitching.

It can be amusing to watch the reactions of fans in the heat of the moment on Twitter. If the pitcher on the favored team gets out of a jam, then it was a great pitching job. If the favored team does not capitalize on a bases loaded situation, then the favored team choked in the clutch. If the favored team’s closer gets three outs easily in the ninth, he’s a great closer. If the favored team falls victim to the other team’s closer, then the favored team’s batters are scrutinized and often painted as failures. You can’t always have it both ways.

The TBS broadcasts have one nice feature that might overcome other flaws in the broadcast. That network keeps the little PitchF/X box on the screen so you can always see where the pitch is thrown. Now, granted, it is not flawless. But it does help temper the eye test that makes us yell at the umpire and batters so often. While watching the broadcast of the game last night, the one thing that was impressive is that all of the Orioles’ pitchers did a terrific job of staying out of the middle of the plate. Wei-Yin Chen lived on the margins all night. Darren O’Day kept the ball out of the middle of the zone and so did Jim Johnson.

And yet, the narrative says that the Yankee batters choked and Nunez and A-Rod in particular stunk.  The fourth inning was particularly frustrating. The Yankees loaded the bases with one out. With Nunez batting, all he had to do was hit something to the outfield and a run would score. He popped out. Heck, Andruw Jones could have done that, right? But look at the pitch chart for that at bat:

Not only did Nunez have to deal with an inside pitch that was called a strike that put him in a 1-2 hole, but Chen never gave Nunez anything sweet to hit. If that third pitch that was an inch and a half inside was called a ball, Nunez is in a much better hitter’s count at 2-1. Instead, the count is 1-2 and Nunez is on the defensive.  You might also look at the chart and say that Nunez was not patient in that at bat. But the fourth and fifth pitches he swung at were too close to take from an umpire that was calling the margins all night. Tip your cap to the pitcher.

After Nunez popped out, the Yankees still had a chance with Derek Jeter coming up with his 216 hits this season and 3,300 career hits. But again, Chen did not give Jeter anything fat to hit:

And just one more chart. This one is A-Rod’s last at bat of the game. He was getting murdered on Twitter for his lack of hitting. But his last couple of at bats were brutal. Darren O’Day has been brutal on right-handed batters all season. Right-handed batters had an OPS against O’Day of .589 for the season. The guy is tough for a right-handed batter to hit. That is exactly why he was brought in the game to face A-Rod. And O’Day got the job done as designed. Tip your cap. And then Jim Johnson is just plain nasty. Sure, the Yankees got to him on Sunday, but that was the fluke, not the norm. He was back to his nasty self on Monday. Take a look at how he pitched to A-Rod to end the game:

That’s just nasty stuff. There was one semi-decent pitch to hit in that sequence and Rodriguez fouled it off.  Yes, the two pitches he swung at were outside. But they were really nasty sliders with tremendous bite. Again, if Rafael Soriano had pitched to a batter like Adam Jones and had that sequence, Yankee fans and bloggers would be singing Soriano’s praises. Instead, stupid old Alex just can’t get the job done anymore.

Sometimes…just once in a while…a team’s fans and its writers have to give the other guys credit. Sometimes, you just have to top your cap.

All pitching charts courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

18 thoughts on “Peeking inside the narrative

  1. John Mayall

    ARod sucks. Period The End! Too many steroids has turned his body into a junk yard instead of a temple…

    • williamjtasker

      "Haters are gonna hate." – Navin Vaswani

      • John

        I always wondered who said that first. Now off to google.

  2. jay_robertson

    One other thing I got from the Pitch F/X box was Andy's consistency. Had he been, say AJ, there were points in the game when he would have been throwing things at Angel.

    I forget when – but there was one series when Andy was semi-struggling later in the game, when he threw three pitches in a row. Same inside location – all in the middle of the zone, height-wise. The first and third were balls, the second was a strike. Amazing control and mechanics; had the ump been a bit more consistent, things may have ended up differently.

    Chen pitched all over and got away with it; Andy was a model of finese, and sadly, wasn't rewarded.

    (there – that's MY narrative. I see what you mean. :D)

    • dar34

      I thought that there were at least three bad strike calls that probably had an effect on the outcome. The called inside strikes to Nunez and Martin. And an outside strike to Jeter early that was , at least by TBS f/x was way outside.

  3. Well said as usual, William. You and Larry would make a nice tag-team of rational thought.

    The narrative IS about "choking" and while it's not right, as you point out above, I'm having a tough time mustering much good to say about ARod. No, I am far from foisting all of the blame on him. I am not quoting prior seasons' performances (no relevance, sorry). What I get back to is that baseball is very much a meritocracy and since ARod's return from the DL, he has hardly merited batting third. Batting order by reputation is wrong, especially when ARod's recent rep is decidedly negative. He's getting exposed in every at bat, hit or not.

    I'm not here to kill him or pounce like the MSM, calling for his scalp. I just think that the lineup would be better constructed if he's down at #5 or #6, at least for now. I know a change like that will likely make little difference, but Cano should be third, Teix 4th. (cont)

    • (cont)

      The Orioles had a GREAT game plan and executed it beautifully. Kudos to Showalter and his staff for that. And part of that plan was pounding ARod with fastballs that he can't catch up with and breaking pitches low and away he'll flail at. And it worked. Again.

      • jay_robertson

        Time for Long and Alex to work one of those quick "adjustments." :)

    • williamjtasker

      I'm not a big fan of messing with the lineup. Girardi has it set up so any reliever brought in would only have the split advantage on one batter and then Showalter has to either burn another pitcher or give the Yankees a more favorable match up with the next guy. If you did move A-Rod down and Cano to third, then to keep Girardi's strategy, he'd have to move Swisher to second in the order and move Ichiro down. And I see no difference in where one guy bats in a lineup.

      The one funny thing about this post is that it would have worked if A-Rod wasn't mentioned. As soon as he is, all heck breaks loose. [[smile]]

  4. lazlosother

    ARod hit the ball hard twice last night. Texiera seems to be hitting as well. Be interesting to see how the narrative develops if they start dropping in for Alex.

  5. Ericness

    Squandered opportunities aside, Angel Hernandez is hands down the guy on the ball field who had the worst game last night. Even with the TBS version of k-zone I had no idea what was going to be a ball or a strike from pitch to pitch. Atrocious zones and no consistency seem to be the defining feature of an Angel Hernandez game. The only "redeeming" thing about him is that he was equally horrible for both teams. No way MLB should let this guy even buy a ticket to a post season game, let alone officiate one.

    • JEP

      There were a couple of at bats where the pitch FX showed two consecutive pitches in the virtually the exact same location. Each time one was called a ball and one was called a strike. Also there were a number of at bats where pitch FX showed Hernandez incorrectly calling half the pitches in the sequence. I know pitch FX isn't perfect but at least there's some consistency with it.

      • I have to give Angel props for one play, at least. He positioned himself perfectly for the call in the home plate scrum that resulted in Ichiro scoring.

  6. Assimilate

    Where's the criticism of Granderson? At least arod works the count and takes an occasional walk, but Granderson, nope, it's a strike out or a pop up.

    Really frustrating part about this whole thing.

    And no, I don't take salary into consideration.

    • williamjtasker

      Valid point.

    • jay_robertson

      I guess I don't care as much because I'm assuming (hoping, praying) that Granderson is out of here soon. I like his home runs, but I don't watch the Yankees to see Curtis come to the plate.

      At least, not this year.

      • Assimilate

        I just think it's fair that everyone get criticism.

  7. Moskva81

    Seems like there are three possible narratives afloat in Yankee world:

    1) A-rod is a choke artist and greatly contributes to our chances of losing each night he takes the field. He should hit in these situations and he doesn't. And there is plenty of playoff data to prove it.

    2) The Orioles (or Tigers, or any other opponent) have played well, thus it's about being outplayed, not underplaying (this post represents this argument).

    3) No-narrative narrative. Sabermaticians argue it's too small a sample size to make any judgements about A-rod's or other players' performances yet. And as mentioned above, you can't link playoff performances from prior years since the circumstances are different. Therefore, no conclusions about choking can be made now, if ever.

    With regard to narrative one, I'd simply say the desire to blame one player for loses like last night is not an act of rationality – it's an act of frustration. And our highest paid, most unlikable superstar is a great lightening rod for this frustration. As long as we keep losing games like last night this blame game is going to continue. Though I admit its a bit skewed, since their is plenty of blame to go around – I hardly feel bad for the guy (a-rod) – if you want to hit in the heart of order and take that kind of paycheck, it's pretty much part of the job description to get hits in the playoffs and take the heat when you don't (fairly or not). We all pay a lot of money for cable, tickets and yankees gear each year and we invest a lot of time in the team. We all want a winner on the field.

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