It is epidemic during every Spring Training start. Fans and assorted baseball watchers eagerly await radar gun readings for every pitch thrown by a key starter. Should the readings fail to match up with expected numbers, panic ensues. We fret a few missing miles per hour here and there, often caring little for any and all context.
It is, in some ways, the worst of modern fandom: the inability to see the forest for the trees feeding kneejerk reactions and far too much spilled ink. Why obsess over an extra MPH here and there?
Because it matters, is why.
When many fans and bloggers aren’t obsessing with gun readings and portending doom for aging pitchers not bringing the same juice as usual, they are elevating AAAA scrubs to God-like status over their Spring Training numbers.
Spring numbers are a two-way street. Proven pitchers post ugly lines but these bad outings can often be explained away. Pitchers integrate new pitches or work on refining a particular pitch by throwing it in counts and situations they wouldn’t dare when their paychecks are on the line. Sometimes pitchers just aren’t ready. They aren’t sharp. They miss spots and struggle with location.
Hitters who make it to the highest levels of the game, even AAAA scrubs and roster fillers, did reach this level by accident. They are incredible athletes and among the best 1000 practitioners of their craft in the world. They punish mistakes.
A “mistake hitter” is often a player who cannot get over the hump in the Big Leagues – he doesn’t miss an errant fastball or hanging slider on his way to The Show but upon arrival at the highest level, those mistakes dry up. Instead of seeing one a week, he gets one cookie a month. Man cannot live on one cookie, especially when he is as big as Wily Mo Pena. He needs more to survive than scraps.
Not only to big league pitchers make fewer mistakes, they also tend to have the sort of stuff built to survive such mistakes. The kind of velocity and movement that makes it hard to put a good swing on even bad pitches.
Consider the below offering from Walking Human Interest Story Dustin McGowan. During a superlative performance against the Angels at the end of the 2011 season, McGowan simply blows a fastball past Vernon Wells. It is a pitch with enough nastiness that, had Wells managed to get a bat to it, he probably couldn’t do much with it anyway (he is Vernon Wells, after all.)
If this GIF lasted a few more frames, we could see the pitch registered 94 mph on the (not entirely accurate) TV radar gun. With ample downward and arm-side movement. Filth. Stuff like that earns you two year plus an option even when your medical records make for a longer read than your scouting report.
But, for a second, look back to the moment before McGowan releases the pitch. Look at Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia, setting up for the pitch. Look at the target he sets.
Arencibia’s glove is highlighted with a yellow spot here – he called for the pitch inside on Wells. A two-seam fastball under the hitter’s hands. If it hits the spot, not much Wells can do with it other than pop it up. Maybe he gives up on it and it “backs up” over the inside corner.
McGowan misses his spot by a foot, causing Arencibia to reach across his body to catch the pitch that ends up on the outside half. McGowan, to his eternal credit, has so much jam on the pitch that Wells can’t touch it. A “good miss”, to borrow a golf term.
Dustin McGowan and other pitchers known for their velocity and movement can get away with this – middling control guys cannot. If you miss with a fastball at 90 or 91 and a little flatter (instead of 94 with movement), it is doomed. Even the Ghost of Vernon Wells can handle a sinker out over the plate. (Well, maybe not.)
It is for this reason that big-armed goons like Matt Bush get chance after chance while “drop, drive, hope, and pray” pitchers like Brad Mills get traded for one of the worst position players in baseball. Even the best pitchers make mistakes; it is the ability to survive them that differentiates between scrub and star.
During Spring Training, these mistakes are more frequent, so lesser hitters can sometimes bunch a few freebies together and force their way, ever so briefly, onto a big league club. Control pitchers must be so fine with every pitch they make as all hitters at all levels lie in wait for just such an opportunity.
Those who light up the gun and make scouts drool with an impressive arsenal of plus pitches have nine baseball lives, to say the least. Every front office sees an opportunity in pitchers like this. A mechanical adjustment here, sport psychology appointment there and suddenly you have a bat-missing fiend on the cheap.
They get chances because they get away with things other pitchers simply cannot. It is the law of jungle, or the Golden Rule or an ancient Chinese proverb. I dunno, guys like this are sure fun to watch. Pitch to contact, my eye.