Yasiel Puig’s Sudden Problems Making Contact.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The story of last night’s NLDS Game 3 is almost certainly going to be about how the Dodger bullpen, which was known to be awful, was awful. After Pedro Baez in Game 1, and J.P. Howell in Game 2, it was Scott Elbert‘s turn in Game 3. Other than Kenley Jansen, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is literally nothing Don Mattingly can do that isn’t going to blow up in his face. He could be the best manager in the world (well, probably not) or the worst, and we might never know, because the relievers he has at his disposal just keep on failing. (Yes, it was the right call to take out Hyun-jin Ryu, in his first start back from shoulder issues, when he did.)
Somewhat lost in that is the reality that if the Dodgers had merely managed to put up more than a single run against John Lackey and friends, they might not have needed to actually rely so heavily on the leaky pen. There’s a not-small part of that which is on umpire Dale Scott, but you can also only put so much on questionable umpiring. There’s a whole lot more you can put on things like… wow, did Yasiel Puig strike out seven times in a row?
All things considered, Puig’s 2014 was a success. After a stunning 2013 debut, he still had plenty of questions to answer about whether he could dial down some of his mistakes and continue producing, now that pitchers around the league had had a chance to identify his weaknesses. Even with a brutally awful August (62 wRC+), Puig was still worth 5 WAR in his second year. His 147 wRC+ was tied with Miguel Cabrera for the tenth-best mark in baseball, in part because he increased his walk rate by two percent, and decreased his strikeout rate by three percent. He even moved over to handle center field somewhat adequately, when the Dodgers had nowhere else to turn.
Not yet 24 until December, Puig has more than proven himself in the big leagues, and he warmed up for the playoffs by bouncing back from that awful August with a .284/.376/.432 line and three homers, more than he’d had in the previous three months. In the Dodgers’ 10-9 loss in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday, Puig reached base three times, and he scored three times. He also ended the game when Trevor Rosenthal blew him away, but Rosenthal does that to a lot of guys, and any recollection of that game was always going to be about Clayton Kershaw‘s implosion.
In Game 2, Puig struck out all four times he came up. In Game 3, he struck out the first two times he was up. That’s seven consecutive strikeouts, in the playoffs, in a sport where the record — I think, but am not 100% certain — for consecutive strikeouts in the regular season is nine, most recently by Mark Reynolds. According to ESPN, David Justice once whiffed eight times in a row in the playoffs. If this were May, it’d be a fun side note, or even merely a tweet, quickly forgotten. It’s October, so it’s a big story, especially with the Dodgers down 2-1 and needing a short-rest Kershaw to save them tonight.
So: How are the Cardinals making this happen?
Whiff No. 1
I’m not going to show it to you, but in Puig’s previous plate appearance before this, he’d actually been walked by Randy Choate, so this is really a run of eight straight times in which he didn’t put the ball in play. Walks are good, though, and Puig scored on an Adrian Gonzalez homer, so we don’t consider that a problem.
puig_rosenthal_strike-zoneRosenthal had allowed two hits and a run already, so when Puig came up, it was an extremely important at-bat. The St. Louis closer generally throws his fastball around 80% of the time, and always hard. Against Puig, he threw it 100% of the time, and always hard.
There’s not a lot of mystery here, is what I’m saying. Rosenthal threw seven pitches. Every single one was at 99 or 100, and every single one was on the higher part of the zone. Puig watched the first two to even the count at 1-1, swung through the third, and then proceeded to foul off the next three. Remember, this was two outs, down one, and the tying run, Andre Ethier, on third base. In the playoffs, it doesn’t get a lot bigger than this.
Basically, this was Rosenthal saying, I’m going to throw it as hard as I possibly can, see you if can do anything about it. Puig swung through it. Game over.
Not a lot of shame in that, really, especially in a game where Puig had scored three times. Rosenthal has a 31% K rate for his career. It’s what he does.
Whiff No. 2
puig_lynn-2While Rosenthal does nothing but throw high, hard heat, Lance Lynn operates a little differently, throwing six different pitches at times. In the first inning of Game 2, he’d already struck out Dee Gordon, and made sure not to let Puig get comfortable in any way, by consistently varying the pitch selection and location.
Lynn started Puig off with a fastball up, then a curveball in the dirt, both fouled off. Puig looked at a fastball just off the plate, then watched Lynn miss badly high. Remember that one, marked No. 4 on the chart to the right. We’ll get back to that.
With pitch No. 5, Lynn threw a low-and-away slider, and Puig bit on it, feebly:
You can see at the end of that GIF that Puig doesn’t walk away immediately, instead spending some time barking at Yadier Molina, ostensibly for the high pitch that was in the area of Puig’s head, more than it shows on the Gameday chart. Remember that the benches had cleared in Game 1 when Puig was hit by Adam Wainwright, and that Gonzalez got in Molina’s face over it. It’s mentioned here mostly because there’s a narrative that may or may not be true that the high pitch here was meant to get into Puig’s head, and that it did.
True or not, this is a pretty effective sequence by Lynn. 95 high, 82 low, 95 outside, 95 up and in, 89 moving away. Puig’s been known for going after that slider in the past, and the Cards set him up well for it.
Whiff No. 3
puig_lynn-3In the third, Lynn had allowed two hits and a groundout, so Puig came up with a 1-0 lead and a man on second. This time, Lynn worked him differently, starting with a curveball that Puig laid off on, then pounding the zone with fastballs, the first fouled off, the second watched.
The third, the 2-1 pitch marked as No. 4, that’s the problem here. That was the pitch, right down the middle, and while hitting a 96 mph fastball is easier said than done, that was the one that was teed up for Puig to launch it about 500 feet.
Unfortunately, he watched it go by, so when Lynn came back with a fastball with some movement on the outside of the plate, Puig nearly jumped out of his shoes to get it:
Clearly upset with himself, Puig heads back to the dugout. This is going to get worse before it gets better.
Whiff No. 4
puig_lynn-4We’re now in the fifth, and the Dodgers are up 2-0. (Don’t worry, they’ll blow it.) Puig got out in front of a first-pitch sinker, and fouled it off his leg. The second pitch, a fastball inside, also fouled off. Already, Puig is down 0-2. This isn’t a good start.
Lynn, again, tries the slider outside, this time a bit higher, and Puig spits on it. The fourth, a fastball (cutter, maybe) was easily outside.
Now it’s 2-2. It’s that outside slider, again, and Puig can’t lay off of it:
If there’s good news here, it’s that Lynn will be out of the game by the time Puig comes up again in the seventh, when we get…
Whiff No. 5
puig_gonzales-5…reliever Marco Gonzales, the first meeting between the two. Gonzalez doesn’t throw particularly hard, and he’s a lefty, making him considerably unlike Rosenthal and Lynn.
This one’s different in another way, too: Gonzales’ first pitch is the fattest, the one that in retrospect Puig might have wished he’d done something with. It’s a change, at least that’s how it was marked, because it didn’t seem to do much, and it came in at 80 mph. Puig, somehow, was behind it, and fouled it off to the right.
Gonzales wouldn’t give him much else. Pitch No. 2 was a sinker outside, fouled back. The third, a changeup in the dirt. The fourth was another change, and Puig was completely fooled by it.
This is now five strikeouts in a row. His third strikes have all come swinging, on two fastballs, two sliders and a change. So far, there’s not really a pattern in terms of pitch selection, but everything is away. There’s also another game coming.
Whiff No. 6
puig_lackey_6Now, we’re in St. Louis for Game 3 on Monday night, and Lackey has no interest in messing around. The very first pitch is a fastball right down the middle, with Dee Gordon running, and Puig’s swing results in a foul tip. Pitch No. 2 is a slider, and it looked just as outside on the video as it does on Gameday, merely the first of what would be many complaints about Scott.
Up 0-2, Lackey tried to get Puig to chase, unsuccessfully. Up 1-2, he blows a four-seamer past Puig, much more successfully, as the broadcast remarks that Puig is starting his swing “before the ball is even delivered.”
No one notices two strikeouts in a row. Three, even. Four, only if they come in the same game. Now we’re up to six. This is getting painful to watch. There’s still another.
Whiff No. 7
puig_lackey_7Lackey bounces one in the dirt, and that’s where this is going to stay. Lackey does seem to have a plan on Puig, and it’s away, away, away, and low, mostly. Of the 11 pitches in these first two plate appearances, the last 10 were all outside.
This time around, Puig actually gets to 3-1. Things are better! Lackey throws ball four, ending the streak… except that Puig goes fishing for a slider, away. A 3-2 fastball is fouled off.
With the second 3-2 pitch, Lackey goes back to the fastball, over the outside half. It would have been a strike had Puig taken it, but he attacks, and…
… swings right through it. Strike three. Strike 21, really.
So what did we learn there? All seven whiffs finished with a swinging strike. 14 times, he fouled a ball off, which probably tells you that a lot of this is about timing. All seven came on pitches away, and while it’s not news that Puig has been vulnerable there, he had made progress in laying off those pitches this year. It’s not as simple as “throw everything on the outside half,” of course, because he had at least a few pitches that with better timing — the first Lackey pitch, the Gonzales change, the 2-1 Lynn fastball — that he absolutely could have hammered. (On the other hand: the two hits he had off Wainwright in Game 1 came on an inside pitch, and one in the dirt.)
It’s worth noting, also, that when Puig came up in the fifth inning, Lackey’s plan was the same: away, away, away. But this time, Puig managed to make solid contact with a fastball and drive it down the right field line for a double, and he’d soon score the only Dodger run on Hanley Ramirez‘ double.
Of course, even that joy was short-lived. In the eighth, against Pat Neshek, it was two sinkers and two sliders, all away, and another strikeout, his eighth in nine plate appearances. There’s “fighting it,” as they say in baseball, and then there’s this. As you can imagine, there’s already calls from the Dodger fanbase to replace Puig with Andre Ethier or Scott Van Slyke tonight. There’s no real indication that Mattingly is going to do that, nor should he, because Puig provides more value on defense and the bases, and because he’s simply the more talented hitter having the better season. Still, the Dodgers don’t have much rope left, and this can’t all be on Kershaw. Puig — and everyone else who didn’t put up runs against the Cardinals — needs to turn things around, and now.
It’s a funny sport we love, you know. In this season, Puig has been one of the best players in baseball. Also in this season, right now, he’s been one of the worst. He’s hardly the only reason that the Dodgers are facing a must-win game, because again he was productive in Game 1, and he scored their only run in Game 3. It’s just not a great time to forget how to connect with the ball.
The Bullpen Narrative.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
The first few days of playoff action have had a little bit of everything. At one point or another, we all likely saw something we had never seen before, and been reminded in some way why we had fallen in love with this game in the first place. Each postseason, a narrative or two seems to emerge – this time around, seemingly every media outlet opines that a team’s bullpen is the primary reason for each playoff team’s success, or lack thereof. This was particularly true during the Orioles-Tigers series, which in truth, did feature one of the most catastrophic pen implosions in recent memory. The narrative tells us that a club must do whatever possible, especially via the trade and free agent markets, to bolster one’s bullpen. In other words, do exactly what the Tigers did to build their still smoldering relief corps.
Building a quality bullpen is important to team success, don’t get me wrong. Reliever performance, however, is one of baseball’s most fickle, unpredictable aspects. Sample sizes are small, and traditional stats like ERA sometimes never recover from a bad outing or two in April. Personnel turnover is much more rapid in the pen compared to the rotation or the starting lineup. The standards used to measure reliever performance are also much different than those for starters.
The major league average K rate has been steadily climbing in recent years, faster for relievers than it has for starters. In 2014, relievers had a 22.2% average K rate, and 8.46 K’s per 9 IP, as compared to 19.4% and 7.36 for starters. Many clubs have several live arms that routinely reach the mid-to-upper 90′s with their fastballs. If you don’t have a big fastball, you need a “hook” to excel out of the pen – either a plus-plus “out” secondary pitch, or an extreme batted-ball tendency, generally either focused upon popups or grounders. If you lack any of these traits, perhaps you can carve out a niche by having a deceptive delivery and being able to routinely retire same-handed batters, particularly if you’re a lefty.
What can we learn about building a bullpen from the eight teams that reached the divisional round? Have these pens gotten too much credit for what has gone on in the playoffs to date? Let’s take a closer look at the composition of those eight pens for some clues.
BAL ACQ IP VS DET ACQ IP
Gausman D-12-1st 3.67 Sanchez TR-12 2.00
A.Miller TR-14 3.33 Soria TR-14 1.00
Britton D-06-3rd 2.33 Nathan FA-14 1.00
O’Day WV-12 1.00 Chamberlain FA-14 0.33
Hunter TR-11 1.00 Coke TR-10 0.33
Brach TR-14 0.67
For each club, each reliever used through Sunday night’s game is listed, along with his series innings pitched total and the manner in which he was originally acquired by his current club.
This series is the likely germination point of the bullpen narrative, and for pretty good reason. The Tigers’ pen poured fuel on the eight-run 8th inning rally that put away – but did not lose – Game 1, and let a three-run lead get away in the 8th inning of Game 2. While the Tigers’ pen posted a lovely 17.34 ERA – not to mention the inherited runners they allowed to score – in 4 2/3 innings, the Orioles’ pen posted a 2.25 ERA in 12 frames. The innings pitched totals, when you think about it, are just as instructive as the runs allowed – Brad Ausmus was loath to go to his pen, while Buck Showalter was all too willing to do so.
Interestingly, arguably the most effective member of either team’s pen during this series was a regular season starter – Anibal Sanchez for the Tigers, and Kevin Gausman for the Orioles. Both led their respective clubs in relief innings, Sanchez was the Tigers’ only Game 1 or 2 reliever who gave them a chance – might Game 2 have turned out differently if he remained in the game? – and Gausman’s Game 2 long-relief performance made possible their late-inning heroics. I did qualify myself by stating “arguably” the most effective, as Andrew Miller was pretty untouchable in both of his appearances.
The Tigers built this bullpen the way the narrative suggests one should do – via the high-end free agent (Joe Nathan) and trade (Joakim Soria) markets. In addition, the Tigers have been much more prone to spending early-round draft picks on college relievers than most clubs – Cody Satterwhite, Ryan Perry and Cory Knebel (sent to Texas as the second piece in the Soria deal) are just a few examples. The major league track record of such pitchers are quite poor – as we shall see, however, high-end college starters who move to the pen by the time they reach the major leagues are a different story.
The composition of the Oriole pen is quite different. There is the homegrown draftee – Zack Britton – who spent most of 2013 in the minor leagues and was way down on their depth chart as recently as this spring training. There is the waiver claim – Darren O’Day – upon whom the Orioles wisely pounced at about the only moment during the last few seasons when he would possibly become freely available. There’s the buy-low bounceback trade acquisition – Tommy Hunter – who blossomed alongside Chris Davis in Baltimore when both were acquired from the Rangers for Koji Uehara at the deadline in 2011. Then there’s Miller. The O’s are on the other side of the deadline deal this time, and in a year or two, we might be reading about how the Red Sox stole a stud starter in Eduardo Rodriguez in exchange for Miller. If the O’s win, and Miller is in the middle of it, their fans rightly won’t care. Flags fly forever.
KC ACQ IP VS LAA ACQ IP
Davis TR-13 3.33 Street TR-14 3.00
Holland D-07-10th 3.00 Rasmus TR-13 2.67
Finnegan D-14-1st 1.67 Smith FA-14 2.00
Frasor TR-14 1.33 Jepsen DR-02-2nd 2.00
Herrera INTL-06 1.00 Grilli TR-14 2.00
Duffy D-07-3rd 1.00 Salas TR-14 1.33
Collins TR-10 0.67 Santiago TR-14 1.33
Pestano TR-14 1.00
Morin DR-12-13th 1.00
Talk about different bullpen-building strategies. The Royals have largely done it from within – four of their ALDS relievers were homegrown, three via the draft (Greg Holland, Brandon Finnegan and Danny Duffy), one an international signing (Kelvin Herrera). Finnegan was drafted just this June, but was not a reliever in college. He was one of the premier college starters, used to going around the order three or four times. Only going around once as a pro, his stuff is playing way up. His future still could be in the rotation, but the Royals have received massive early ROI out of the pen.
Wade Davis has been the Royals’ key pen trade acquisition, in the oft-panned Wil Myers deal. Davis had been somewhat disappointing as a starter at the major league level, but like Finnegan, his stuff is playing way up out of the pen. He was primarily a starter for the Royals as recently as 2013, when he struck out five more batters than he did this season – in 63 more innings.
Taking a closer look at the Angels, the club with the AL’s best record this season, reveals some startling flaws. One of them is the fact that their bullpen logged the most innings (540) in the AL this season. That’s pretty stunning when you think about it. So is the fact that five of the relievers they used in the ALDS were 2014 trade acquisitions. They sold the farm – though it admittedly wasn’t much of a farm – for 29 1/3 innings of Huston Street, and here we are. (The club does hold an affordable option on Street for 2015, so all is not completely lost.) Like the Tigers, the Angels’ pen is expensive, with Street, Joe Smith and Jason Grilli alone costing them $16.6M in 2014. The young, homegrown pieces present in say, the Royals pen, are not in the pipeline here. Their very best candidate, R.J. Alvarez, was part of the package dealt for Street.
SF ACQ IP VS WAS ACQ IP
Petit MINFA-12 6.00 Stammen DR-05-12th 4.00
Strickland WV-13 2.00 Blevins TR-14 2.00
Romo DR-05-28th 2.00 Thornton WV-14 2.00
Casilla MINFA-10 2.00 Clippard TR-08 2.00
Lopez TR-10 1.33 Roark TR-10 2.00
Affeldt FA-09 1.33 Soriano FA-13 1.00
Machi MINFA-11 0.33 Storen DR-09-1st 0.33
Barrett DR-10-9th 0.00
Ah, the Giants, those kings of October. Look how they’ve built their pen – through the relatively boring minor league free agency process. When I was in the Mariner front office, this process was part of my area of responsibility. We twice signed Yusmeiro Petit as a minor league free agent. He was late to camp once (with visa issues), and let’s just say, he didn’t pass the eye test. Unfortunately, he was quickly assigned to minor league camp both years. Thing is, he gets people out. The Giants obviously are focused on the right things, as the eye test isn’t kind to Santiago Casilla or Jean Machi, either. A 28th round pick – Sergio Romo – has anchored their pen for years, and now a waiver claim – Hunter Strickland – is his likely heir apparent. This low-risk method of building a bullpen has allowed the Giants to direct their assets toward their rotation and lineup, where year-to-year performance is much more predictable.
The Nats have a little bit of everything in their pen. Their acquisition of Tyler Clippard from the Yankees in exchange for Jonathan Albaladejo in 2008 belongs in the Bullpen Building Hall of Fame. On the other hand, they paid top dollar in the free agent market for Rafael Soriano, and spent a first round pick on college reliever Drew Storen. Even the waiver claim designation for their acquisition of Matt Thornton is a little misleading – this was a trade waiver situation in which the Yankees were happy to clear his 2015 $3.5M annual salary.
STL ACQ IP VS LAD ACQ IP
Gonzales DR-13-1st 2.00 League TR-12 1.33
Neshek MINFA-14 1.67 Jansen INTL-04 1.00
Martinez INTL-10 1.33 Baez INTL-07 0.67
Rosenthal DR-09-21st 1.00 Elbert DR-04-1st 0.67
Maness DR-11-11th 0.67 Howell FA-13 0.67
Freeman DR-08-32nd 0.00
Choate FA-13 0.00
The Cards are another club with their own, uniquely efficient method of bullpen-building. They use the draft, particularly the later rounds, to great effect. Five, count ‘em five, of their Game 1 and 2 NLDS relievers earn approximately the major league minimum salary. Four (Marco Gonzales, Trevor Rosenthal, Seth Maness and Sam Freeman) were draft picks, while Carlos Martinez was an international amateur signing. Only Gonzales was selected before the 10th round – like Michael Wacha before him, Gonzales is a first round, high-end onetime and future starter who reached the majors within a year of signing his first professional contract. They complemented their homegrown group with the minor league free agent signing of the year in Pat Neshek.
The Dodgers’ method of pen-building is much less efficient. They trade for “proven” non-elite closers (Brandon League), and pay middle relievers for what they’ve done rather than what they’re going to do (J.P. Howell). And these are the “success” stories – others like Brian Wilson and Chris Perez made real dollars this year to not pitch in the post-season, and they spent a 2012 2nd-round draft pick on college reliever Paco Rodriguez, who raced to the big leagues, only to spend much of this season at Triple-A Albuquerque. They do have the best closer of the eight Divisional Series clubs in Kenley Jansen, who was signed as an international amateur in 2004 – as a catcher. Utilizing the occasional conversion guy – Joe Nathan was drafted by the Giants as a shortstop – is yet another way of efficiently cobbling together a bullpen.
So what have we learned? Well, bullpens are important, but let’s not get carried away here. The Orioles’ bullpen advantage certainly helped them defeat the Tigers, but their clear advantages in defense, athleticism and position player depth were also huge. The Tigers apparently do not have a center fielder. The Royals’ pen was great, but their defense was greater, and their starting pitching depth superior. C.J. Wilson says hi – and bye. The Nats pen basically matched the Giants pitch for pitch in the first two games, and the vast majority of the Cards’ damage in Game 1 was done against Clayton Kershaw, which can’t be held against the Dodger pen.
It does appear clear, however, that unless you have a chance to get one of the game’s premier closers at the very apex of his career, you should not sink big money or assets into the free agent and trade markets when assembling your bullpen. Acquire accomplished starting pitchers or potential conversion candidates in the late rounds of the draft or the international amateur market, and do it each and every year to create organizational depth. Scour the minor league free agent lists and waiver wire for sleeper candidates. Convert “failed” starters into relievers, narrow their repertoires, and let them pin their ears back and fire away. Major and minor league pitching coaches are key – sometimes the slightest tweak can turn an underachiever into the latest John Holdzkom-esque success story. The Mariners had the best relief ERA in baseball this year, with many of the members of its pen pitching at the upper end of their projections – pitching coach Rick Waits likely had a great deal to do with this.
Focus your dollars and assets on areas where proven performance is easier to identify, but harder to find. Intelligent, efficient implementation of a sound bullpen-building strategy can allow even the largest of large market clubs the additional flexibility to go out and add that piece that can put you over the top. For a smaller market club, such an approach is a necessity to just get your foot in the door.
Doug Fister’s Mid-Game Adjustment.Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Three walks don’t seem like a big deal. Even if Doug Fister only gave up three walks once all year, you could look at the box score for Game Three of the National League Division Series and think, sure he had a Fisterian game. Nine ground balls to six fly balls, not many walks, a few strikeouts, and you look up and the Nationals have won behind him.
Except it didn’t really play out like that. Fister walked two of those three batters in the first inning. He went to eight pitches to get Joe Panik out. He went to five-plus pitches six more times before he got six outs. This was a man who averaged 3.7 pitches per batter faced during the regular season, averaging 4.8 pitches per batter in the first two innings. A man who once told us that he wants bad contact “in the first three pitches.”
After the game, Fister admitted that there was something going on early.
His manager wouldn’t speak for him, as Matt Williams said after the game that he didn’t think his pitcher was missing — “if he was missing, it was just by a little bit.” But a little bit can make a big difference, even if his pitcher still managed to get strikes on 65% of his pitches, it was clear he wasn’t completely himself early on.
The pitcher himself immediately cleared up the problem. “I had to make some definite adjustments after the first couple innings, I was a little, guess you could say, strong, as far as trying to overthrow it,” Fister said after the game. He added that he had some trouble “Getting away from my plan a little bit and getting the ball up in the zone.”
It’s funny that a postseason veteran like Fister might have trouble like this, and also that it might be the result of overthrowing the ball. He averaged 91.6 mph for his fastballs over the game, and he spent the season average 87.9 mph for his fastballs. Opposing starter Madison Bumgarner cleared 95 three times in his first twenty pitches after throwing 95+ twice all season. It happens to everyone when the lights are brighter, it seems.
In any case, Fister gives us a time frame, saying that he corrected the problem after the first couple innings. He threw 43 pitches in the first two innings. Look at his velocity after the 43rd pitch, courtesy Brooks Baseball:
Oh, right. He averaged 89.5 on fastballs in that first group. He averaged 88.8 on fastballs after the second inning was done. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it was closer to his comfort zone. Closer to the 88 he averaged during the season.
The slower speed also allowed Fister to throw lower in the zone. His average fastball crossed the play 2.77 feet above the ground in the first two innings. In the next three innings, it averaged 2.63 feet. Again, seems like a small difference, but in inches, you’re talking almost two inches. Maybe that’s why his manager thought he was fine. But the pitcher knew.
Some parts of his game plan did not change. When I asked Fister if he only threw six curveball because of this mechanical issue, he denied that was the reason. “Early on I didn’t throw too many,” he agreed. But that was just the idea. You have to “try to go through the lineup, and try to minimize” your pitches, Fister said. “I want to hide my cards, I don’t want to show them everything early.”
That part of the plan worked fine. Fister managed eight swinging strikes on 99 pitches, or a little better than his 6.1% swinging strike rate on the year. He got three swinging strikes early — two on fastballs, one on his cutter. And then, late in the game, his curve and change gave him four more swinging strikes, one to get Buster Posey swinging in the sixth.
But all of that wouldn’t have mattered if Fister hadn’t settled his nerves, taken a little bit off the fastball, and found that spot in the zone that he liked — just about two inches lower than where he was sitting early on in the Nationals’ Game Three victory.