Month: January 2019

Ode to a Pitcher: Johan Santana, Game 1 2004 ALDS

 

Image result for johan santana
Johan Santana was one of the best pitchers of the mid-to-late 2000s. Getty Images

I knew the first Ode to a Pitcher had to be about Pedro Martinez — it was only a matter of which start. I picked the ’99 All-Star Game.

I also knew the second post had to be about Johan Santana, one of my favorite pitchers in the era when my baseball fandom exploded (2000-09) and a great example of a white-hot peak and little else. Santana was awesome and then poof, he was gone:

Season WAR
2004 8.7
2005 7.2
2006 7.6
2007 5.0
2008 7.1
2009 3.3
2010 4.7
2011 N/A
2012 1.7

Flat-out fantastic. To be honest, he deserved at least a conversation about the Hall of Fame, but alas. For Santana, 2004 was his breakthrough; he led the league in strikeouts and claimed his first Cy Young Award (he’d win his second in 2006). How’d he do this? Well, Santana lacked great size and didn’t throw especially hard (low 90s, although that’s pretty good for a lefty). However, his changeup was devastating, one of the best in his era and arguably one of the best ever. You can’t design one any better; it was about 10 mph slower than the fastball and plummeted off the plate. Plus, because his delivery was so smooth he had little trouble concealing it. Add in a better-than-you-remember slider too and you have a dominant pitcher.

But seriously, the changeup:

johan changeup k example

That is a hapless swing. Santana was lethal.

The 2004 Twins won the AL Central for the third straight year. Santana led the rotation, followed by Brad Radke. Corie Koskie, Lew Ford (!!!) and Torri Hunter led the way at the plate, while a young and extremely-well hyped catcher named Joe Mauer had come up and fared well with the bat in limited action (138 OPS+). Ultimately, Minnesota claimed the division comfortably.

A familiar foe awaited in the postseason. The Twins danced with the New York Yankees in the Division Series a year prior and lost in 4. The 2004 Bombers were as loaded as ever, a 101-win powerhouse with an absurd offense and enough pitching to get by. Remember, this Yankee team was fresh off a World Series appearance and added Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. However, astute fans remember the Bombers lost Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and a couple prized pitching acquisitions, um, failed to pan out. Certainly, the starting rotation wasn’t as stacked as years past.

Therein lies the path to victory for Minnesota. The Twins march into the ALDS as the underdog but with the ability to run arguably the world’s best starter out two times  — that’s a big card to play in a short series. Santana faced the Yankees twice in 2004 and pitched well both times.

The pursuit of another championship in Minneapolis begins in Game 1, with the Twins’ ace stepping onto the fabled Yankee Stadium mound. For the purposes of the post, we will focus on the first inning.

***

This lineup is no picnic:

Name Position Bats OPS+
Derek Jeter SS R 114
Alex Rodriguez 3B R 131
Gary Sheffield RF R 141
Bernie Williams CF S 108
Jorge Posada C S 131
Hideki Matsui LF L 137
Ruben Sierra DH S 94
John Olerud 1B R 114
Miguel Cairo 2B R 100

Frankly, injuries limit the damage. Jason Giambi missed most of the year and was ineffective when he did play. Also, note that Kenny Lofton is on the roster but not starting. Why am I noting that? Because Kenny Lofton was the man, that’s why.

It begins with The Captain. Derek Jeter steps to the plate and attacks a middle-low fastball and puts fairly decent wood on it. But Torri Hunter is there for an easy first out. One pitch, one down.

Alex Rodriguez steps up next. Let’s remember something about A-Rod in 2004; he was awesome. The failed Red Sox-Rangers trade from the prior winter was a massive story and Rodriguez ending up in New York felt like a dynasty-extending move. It also irritated people who were sick of seeing Jeter and the boys play late into each October. I set this up because Rodriguez vs Santana is a hell of a matchup, an elite pitcher battling a top-of-the-line hitter. This is what October is all about.

We don’t get an extended battle, however. Santana opens with a breaking ball that Rodriguez scatters to second and Michael Cuddyer fumbles it. Note the way Santana tumbles off the mound — the announcers gloss right over it, but I bet you the Twins dugout took notice:

a rod reaches on error

Another new Yankee, rightfielder Gary Sheffield, steps up to face Santana. Sheffield was tremendous in 2004, finishing second in the MVP voting and most importantly for this at-bat, tore up lefthanded pitching all season (.314/.423/.550).

Santana opens the at-bat missing high and away with a breaking ball. As Joe Buck and Tim McCarver discuss Sheffield’s love life (seriously), Santana goes high and away again, this time with a fastball at 93 MPH. Two-and-oh is not a comfortable count against someone as aggressive and dangerous as Sheffield, so Santana works him carefully, just missing low-and-away with a nice looking changeup. After shaking off his catcher — which McCarver, a former catcher, is flabbergasted about — Santana misses again with a fastball away, sending Sheffield to first.

A-Rod singled, Sheffield walked and now Santana must deal with the switch-hitting centerfielder Bernie Williams. By 2004 Williams had ceased to be the hitter he once was, but the veteran still had pop against lefties (.265/.384/.464) was no stranger to postseason heroics. Still, one wonders if Santana decided it better to face Williams with a 0-0 count than Sheffield at 2-0. Either way, early in Game 1 things are getting tense. Luckily, Santana is no stranger to punchouts and the Yankee lineup trends easier to deal with from here.

The 2004 AL Cy Young award winner opens the exchange with a 93 MPH fastball right past Williams:

Williams miss fastball.gif

He ain’t getting cheated with that hack. Williams is the third Yankee this half-inning to swing at the first pitch. I’d love to ask Santana how he felt seeing Williams miss here. Knowing the fastball can beat the Yankees centerfielder opens up so many options.

Santana doubles down and powers another fastball past Williams, this one perhaps a smidge higher to run the count 0-2.

As A-Rod dances off second base, Santana misses high with another fastball. Three consecutive fastballs up in the zone aren’t by accident; Santana has set Williams’ eye level. With the count 1-2 and the best strikeout pitcher in the league on the mound, you know what’s coming.

Williams changeup for a ball.gif

The pitch ends up too far outside for Bernie to chase, but the idea is obvious. Fastball-fastball-fastball followed by a low-and-away off-speed pitch. That’s standard sequencing, and Santana’s smooth delivery helps disguise it. He misses off the plate away, but given the count that’s no problem. The idea is strikeout or weak groundout.

The count moves to 2-2. Santana comes back with the fourth fastball of the at-bat, this one catching a bit of the plate. Williams fights it off. Because the command is so precise, despite getting four fastballs Williams has barely even made contact. Santana is pitching carefully, yes, but he isn’t nibbling. Fastballs up in the zone aren’t a sign of timidity.

The count holds at 2-2 and Santana serves up a nasty changeup that barely misses outside.

williams changeup for a ball 2-2

That’s a hell of a take.

Full count. Rodriguez and Sheffield on the bases. Old Yankee Stadium growing loud. One more miss and the Twins find themselves staring down the barrel early in Game 1. Rodriguez and Sheffield inch further into their leads as Santana delivers another high-and-away fastball and Williams again fights it off.

I love what Santana does with the next two pitches. The eighth pitch to Williams is a break in approach, a fastball in on the hands that the centerfielder barely fights off. Instead of going back upstairs, Santana comes inside. Now Williams knows he has to protect each part of the plate, but Santana knows Williams likely won’t chase. What a battle.

With Rodriguez growing bolder off second base, Santana looks him back and receives a cascade of boos. Eight pitches in, Santana has options here. You’d expect him to return to the changeup, but where? Or do you risk elevating the fastball?

Williams K, A Rod CS.gif

Dear Lord.

Williams takes a nasty change for a called strike three and Blanco easily guns down Rodriguez. After a tense at-bat against a tough hitter, Santana ends the threat.

Inning over.

***

If you watch the whole game you’ll figure out quickly that Santana didn’t have his best stuff. He had to pitch carefully and manipulate the fearsome Yankee offense into weak contact. Consider how he pitched to Williams — fastballs up and away, time and again going back to that lethal changeup lower in the zone. The Yankees chose to be aggressive and had no problem going after his fastball — so Santana used that to his advantage. When Williams didn’t chase the two changeups away, Santana moved inside and froze him. Not everyone can pull that off. It takes confidence, great stuff, and the skill to execute in a pressure situation.

“You have to be careful with them, because if you make a mistake, then you have to pay for it,” Santana said. “I was able to throw the right pitch at the right time, because I know that my teammates can make some plays. That’s the way we are.”

He wasn’t kidding — the Twins turned an incredible five double-plays to support their ace. He finished with 7 innings, allowed 9 hits, 1 walk and struck out 5. Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan closed the door, shutting out the Yankees to win the series opener.

Ultimately we know where this story goes. Santana faces the Bombers again in Game 4 with this team down 2-1 in the series. He pitches well but not deep into the game and the Twins bullpen fails to protect a 4-run lead. Minnesota hasn’t won a playoff game since the shutout.

The Yankees move on, build a (seemingly) insurmountable lead in the ALCS only to eventually collapse, clearing a path for a bunch of idiots to move on and win their first World Series in about a thousand (or so) years.

Should the Astros extend Justin Verlander?

Do we appreciate Justin Verlander enough? He’s an incredible pitcher, a fireballing machine with a disgusting curveball. He looks like a pitcher, what with that delivery and his propensity to scowl after yet another punchout. He’s crushed teams I root for in the postseason more than once and I must admit, even as he does it I couldn’t help but be impressed.

Verlander K march away.gif
Found on giphy.

Inject that stare directly into my veins, thank you very much.

The city of Houston loves him too. Acquiring the longtime Tigers hurler late in the 2017 season gave the Astros added punch at the top of their rotation, and the former Cy Young award winner didn’t disappoint. He was the presence they needed, a flamethrowing sheriff on the mound.

Part of what made the acquisition so shrewd was the contract. He wasn’t done with Houston after the postseason, and his first full season with an H on his cap couldn’t have gone better. He was a serious Cy Young candidate in 2018 and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be pretty good in 2019. Despite the age and the miles, he remains elite:

Season IP K% BB xFIP
2016 227.2 28.1% 6.3% 3.78
2017 206 25.8% 8.5% 4.17
2018 214 34.8% 4.4% 3.03

 

But he turns 36 in February and his contract expires after this coming season, meaning the Astros have a decision to make. Do they extend their ace, especially given the real possibility that Dallas Keuchel will follow Charlie Morton out of town?

When asked by Brian McTaggert here’s what Verlander had to say:

It probably makes sense for Houston to shy away from an extension. Why? There’s a lot of valuable data to be acquired in 2019. What happens if his velocity dips? Maybe he makes a trip to the DL with a shoulder issue? I doubt those things happen, but pitchers are fickle beasts. It’s the cost of such a violent trade. Verlander’s right arm has carried a lot of water.

And, let’s be honest, the free agent market is hardly boiling right now. Given that Verlander probably can’t demand a long deal, I suspect teams will show interest, but all bets are off when two generational free agents remain unsigned only a few weeks out from spring training.

Who knows how long he wants to keep playing, but would it be silly for the Astros to give him a three-year deal? That’d carry Verlander through his age 37-39 seasons. With no discernible drop in velocity or spin rate, it’s probably not a bad idea.

Plus, remember something. When we talk about age with pitchers, obviously creeping into the upper-thirties increases the risk of injury and sudden drops in performance. No doubt. But Verlander is one of the greats, and if you must take such a risk, you do it with one of the greats. I’d rather have Verlander for the next four seasons than Dallas Keuchel over the next four, just as an example. That’s more about the former than the latter, although I’ve detailed my concerns about Keuchel.

The dollar figure might be trickier. Patrick Corbin’s six-year, $140 million deal has an average annual value of $23.3 million per year. I’d expect Verlander will cruise past that AAV, maybe into the mid-to-upper 20s per year. Would the Astros fork over a 3/75 kind of deal to retain their ace next winter? A lot depends on how 2019 goes, obviously, but if he tears up the American League again, I’d say do it. This goes without saying, but Houston shouldn’t be afraid to spend. The Astros have more championships to win.

Rapid Reaction: 2019 MLB Hall of Fame class revealed

Image result for mariano rivera
The first unanimous selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mariano Rivera. Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The results are in.

Pitchers Mariano Rivera (100%), Roy Halladay (85.4%) and Mike Mussina (76.7%) will be joined by designated hitter Edgar Martinez (85.4%) as the newest inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Rivera is the first player ever to be inducted unanimously, a great testament to his legendary career.

You can find the whole results here. Some quick thoughts:

Mussina was perpetually underrated

Mike Mussina had an absolutely fabulous career, one I’ve found to be fairly undervalued given the titans he pitched alongside (Maddux, Clemens, Johnson, etc). Dude finished 23rd all-time in Wins Above Replacement (82.9) and 20th in strikeouts (2813). He pitched a long, long time in the thick of a pummeling offensive era, all in the bright lights of the AL East. That Mussina wasn’t already in is absurd, especially given other pitchers already in.

Mussina was a blast to watch, too. He relied on a variety of pitches, often from different arm angles. His knuckle-curve is one of the nastiest ever seen. Mussina was also on the mound for one of the most clutch moments I can recall, his appearance in relief of Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. The Red Sox were threatening to blow the game wide open. Then Moose stepped in:

 

Doc sails in on his first appearance

The late Roy Halladay was the best pitcher of his generation. He felt like a throwback to a different era, throwing a lot of innings and kicking butt the entire way. Especially given how starting pitchers operate today, Halladay already feels like a distant memory. It’s a testament to his greatness.

It was a thrill to watch him work. He was an expert at setting batters up and had incredible stuff. A late bloomer who re-worked his mechanics to save his career, Halladay bagged two Cy Young awards and arguably deserved more. He also famously threw a no-hitter in the postseason, wiping the floor with a potent Cincinnati Reds lineup. Halladay was the man like few others, and at his peak, no one ever questioned who the best in the world was. Even when guys like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and others had great seasons, the best was Doc.

Watch this. It’s about five minutes long. Just do it.

 

Edgar finally gets in

Edgar Martinez could flat-out rake. Few hitters were regarded like him — no surprise, given that he sprayed line drives all over ballparks across America. I came across several warm responses from writers who grew fans of the Mariners and most shared a familiar sentiment.

In a big moment, they wanted Edgar up. An OPS-plus of 147 for his career backs up the notion. Well deserved.

The Sandman is in

It’s absurd that no one had ever been inducted unanimously before, but alas, why not start with Mo? Baseball’s unquestioned greatest reliever, Mariano Rivera received 100% of the possible votes. His dominance is almost comical, to the point the stats are almost meaningless. He’s like Jerry Rice compared to other wide receivers. Truly no one else is in the picture.

Hearing hitters describe the experience of facing Rivera is a blast, though. David Ortiz, a future Hall of Famer himself, faced Rivera many times as designed hitter for the Boston Red Sox. Here’s what he told Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe about facing Mo:

“Mariano wasn’t fun to face. He was nasty. You knew what was coming but that didn’t mean you could hit it. You’d be waiting for it and it would disappear. Like I said, nasty.”

Sounds about right.

Since I’m providing videos, check this one out. A great look at the routine excellence of Rivera, called by the sublime Vin Scully:

No one ever did it better. Congrats, Mo.