A weird (and nuance-heavy) observation from Game 5

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The Cardinals probably weren’t going to win Game 5 of the World Series tonight regardless. Not with the way Jon Lester was pitching, er, dominating. And if David Ortiz weren’t 11-for-15 in the Series, Lester probably already would have the Most Valuable Player award locked up. But Lester’s performance notwithstanding, as a guy who loves to break a baseball game down to its barest essence, I’m going to tell you the exact moment when the Cardinals lost this game — and then, I’m going to take you even deeper into the world of minutiae to tell you about a strange phenomenon of which I have taken note that might explain why the American League tends to be so dominant over the National League in the World Series (even though the N.L. won the previous three in a row) and in regular-season interleague play.

First, tonight’s pivot point.

It came in that decisive top of the seventh, when the Red Sox scored twice to break a 1-1 tie. Specifically, it was Stephen Drew‘s plate appearance against the Mickey Mouse guy, what’s his name again … oh yeah, Adam Wainwright.

So as Drew steps to the plate with one out and a runner on first, he is 1-for-14 in the Series, with six strikeouts. His only hit, in fact, was that freak single in his first at-bat of Game 1, when he popped one straight up in the air, and it fell to the ground into the one-foot space between Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina as they both converged on it, then backed off at the same time, each apparently thinking the other would catch it.

This time, Wainwright quickly gets ahead of Drew 1-2. And then, for some odd reason — perhaps it was the fact Drew had taken him to the warning track in his previous at-bat, in the fifth inning — Wainwright decides to nibble. And you know what usually happens when you nibble against a struggling, light-hitting guy after getting ahead of him? You end up walking him, which is exactly what Wainwright did here, throwing three consecutive balls to Drew, the second of which was about a foot outside.

By now, you know the rest — David Ross (remember him, Dodgers fans?) hit a go-ahead double, Jacoby Ellsbury singled in another run later in the inning, and that was all she wrote on a night when the Cardinals offense was pretty much non-existent.

Those three pitches from an obviously tiring Wainwright to Drew were, in my opinion, the three pitches that decided this game. That’s my first point. Now, on to my second, bigger point.

To a large extent, the differences between the two leagues have been blurred over the years, due mostly to interleague play and due somewhat to the frequency with which players change teams and go back and forth from one league to the other. But still, for whatever reason, there seem to be subtle differences in the way players from the two leagues approach the game, ways that go beyond the fact the A.L. uses the designated hitter and the N.L. doesn’t. One way is that A.L. hitters, overall, seem to be much better at working counts, grinding out at-bats and driving the other team’s starting pitcher out of the game early. I watch World Series games with a keener eye than any other games. Part of that is because I am usually writing during Dodgers games, so I miss a lot, especially in the early innings.

But one thing I was sure I was noticing in World Series games, going back over the past couple of decades even, is that N.L. pitchers always seem to struggle to put away A.L. hitters, even after those pitchers get ahead in the count. So tonight, for Game 5, I wanted to put that to the test and see if I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. So I kept a running tally of a very specific type of pitch: PITCHES THROWN WITH TWO STRIKES ON THE BATTER THAT DIDN’T RESULT IN AN OUT. I’m talking about any pitch that either was a ball to extend the at-bat, was fouled off to extend the at-bat or on which the batter reached base.

Well, guess what, my theory held true. Granted it was one game, a small sample size. But tonight, the Cardinals threw 27 of those pitches. The Red Sox threw 13 of them. That’s a glaring difference. In fact, there were three innings, the first, seventh and ninth, in which the Cardinals threw FIVE of those pitches. The Red Sox didn’t throw more than three of them in any inning.

What this suggests to me is two things I have long suspected: one, that A.L. hitters are simply better than N.L. hitters at battling with two strikes; and two, that N.L. pitchers are way too attached to that old-school belief that if you get ahead of a hitter 0-2 with the first two pitches, you have to waste the third pitch to see if the hitter will chase something out of the zone. Personally, I have always found that kind of silly, especially in this era in which starters are rarely allowed to go beyond 100 pitches. It’s a wasted pitch. I mean, the hitter KNOWS IT’S COMING, so why would he swing at something he is about 90-percent certain is going to be out of the zone? OK, so you’re ahead 0-2, you throw the obligatory waste pitch, the hitter doesn’t bite, now it’s 1-2, and then let’s say you happen to miss with the next pitch. Now, after being 0-2, suddenly it’s 2-2.

Let’s break it down further: Of those 27 two-strike pitches the Cardinals threw tonight, 21 of them were thrown by Wainwright. That’s 21 pitches he threw with two strikes that didn’t produce an out. He threw a total of 107 pitches, so 19.6 percent of Wainwright’s pitches tonight were effectively wasted pitches, or at least unproductive ones. And given the fact he obviously didn’t have much left in his final inning, the seventh, all those wasted pitches proved to be a pretty big factor, IMHO.

Anyway, I hope I didn’t bore you with all this nuance and minutiae. But I am absolutely convinced this is one of those things that still set these two leagues apart, and it seems to have been a big difference so far in a World Series that the Cardinals now are going to need a miracle to win.

5 comments

  1. It should be easy enough to find stats on average number of pitches per at-bat for the regular season, and how they differ between the AL and NL.

    I thought the Dodgers have been among the best teams in MLB at pitches per at-bat the past few seasons, but I could be mistaken. Again, it should be easy enough to find the numbers.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were true. Because of the DH, the way you get rid of a pitcher you can’t hit is wear him down. In the NL, pitchers get PH for in close games even if their pitch count is still low.

    • That’s a great point. While the obvious difference between the two leagues is the DH, my suspicion is that the subtler, less obvious differences such as the one I describe here are by-products of the DH, as well. That’s the only way to explain it. The DH changes the game in so many ways. And as much as I hate the DH, I think it’s time for the NL to adopt it. Only way NL will ever catch up with AL.

  3. How many of Wainright’s 21 2 strike pitches were fouled off? As a side note Vinny decries pitchers who give up a hit 0-2. I don’t want to see the DH in the NL.

    • I don’t know how many were fouled off, but at least a few were. Again, speaks to ability of Boston hitters to fight off pitches with two strikes.