On the heels of a five-game winning streak, the Nationals were three outs away from reaching the .500 mark for the first time since July 19 when Rafael Soriano took the hill with a 3-1 lead in the ninth inning this afternoon against the Giants. After allowing a lead-off single to Buster Posey, Soriano got two quick outs, striking out Hunter Pence and getting Pablo Sandoval to fly out. Soriano prolonged the inning by walking Roger Kieschnick, bringing up Hector Sanchez with the tying run on first base.
Sanchez entered the pinch-hit at-bat with no home runs and a .501 OPS in 51 plate appearances so far this year. Soriano threw him nothing but fastballs. After falling behind 0-2, Sanchez admirably took a couple close pitches and worked the count back up to 3-2. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Sanchez took Soriano’s offering deep down the right field line for the go-ahead three-run home run. Prior to the at-bat, the Nationals were 93 percent favorites. After the at-bat, they were 18 percent underdogs, something best illustrated, as FanGraphs as has done.
The Nationals fall back to 59-61, 14.5 games behind the Braves in first place in the NL East. The Giants improve to 53-67, but they are 17 games behind the Dodgers in last place in the NL West.
“Work fast and throw strikes” has long been the top conventional wisdom for those preaching pitching success. The “work fast” part of that has increasingly gone by the wayside, however, as pitchers take more and more time to throw pitches in an effort to max out their effort and, thus, their velocity with each pitch.
Now, as Ben Lindbergh of The Ringer reports, the “throw strikes” part of it is going out of style too:
Pitchers are throwing fewer pitches inside the strike zone than ever previously recorded . . . A decade ago, more than half of all pitches ended up in the strike zone. Today, that rate has fallen below 47 percent.
There are a couple of reasons for this. Most notable among them, Lindbergh says, being pitchers’ increasing reliance on curves, sliders and splitters as primary pitches, with said pitches not being in the zone by design. Lindbergh doesn’t mention it, but I’d guess that an increased emphasis on catchers’ framing plays a role too, with teams increasingly selecting for catchers who can turn balls that are actually out of the zone into strikes. If you have one of those beasts, why bother throwing something directly over the plate?
There is an unintended downside to all of this: a lack of action. As Lindbergh notes — and as you’ve not doubt noticed while watching games — there are more walks and strikeouts, there is more weak contact from guys chasing bad pitches and, as a result, games and at bats are going longer.
As always, such insights are interesting. As is so often the case these days, however, such insights serve as an unpleasant reminder of why the on-field product is so unsatisfying in so many ways in recent years.