Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | April 21, 2010

The Anatomy of Defeat: A Weird Tigers Loss in L.A.

Watching Monday’s Detroit Tigers game — A 2-0 loss to the Los Angeles Angels — I was struck by how strange of a game that it was. It was more than just a mundane pitching duel turned loss, it was an all out strange game. In fact, this is what I wrote to friends immediately following the game:

Just got finished watching one of the strangest baseball games I’ve seen in some time. Tigers lost 2-0 in the game. Ask why did they lose? No answer. One COULD say because they went 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position they lost, but that’s a simplistic answer. They approached every at bat the same. That sometimes the ball didn’t fall fair when runners happened to be in scoring position isn’t their fault. They were unlucky today. Simply unlucky. They brought the right approach to the park today. They attacked Pineiro exactly the way you’re supposed to attack a pitcher like Pineiro. More often than not they managed the outcome that Pineiro was not seeking to achieve with his pitches in terms of where they went or how they went there. But ultimately, baseball is a game of “hit it where they ain’t”, and the Tigers consistently hit it where they were. And they lost. Of their six losses this year, this one was the most strange, but the least angering. Just throw your hands up, say “It happens”, and hope tomorrow is better. Or luckier.

Now, more than a day later and after having seen them lose to the Angels again in a much more angering and less unlucky defeat, I’m still mostly enamored with the weird game from Monday night. What I wrote above was just my impression from watching the game, and was backed by no research. Never one to just trust my gut without backup, I decided to look into the matter and see if my perceptions were true. For the most part, they were.

A little background about this game: It was mildly intriguing from the jump because of the starting pitching matchup, pitting Angels starter Joel Pineiro against the Tigers Dontrelle Willis. I’ve written about both Pineiro (during the off-season) and Willis (during Spring Training) and had scads of pessimism about both players. Thus far, both have done acceptable jobs (great in Pineiro’s case), definitely out-performing my personal expectations. Going into the game I considered it a matchup of players that are just on the edge of having the wheels fall off, and openly speculated if that specific game would be “the game” for either or both pitchers. So what happened? Both guys had their best start of the season. Willis went six innings giving up 4 hits and 2 walks while striking out 2, and Pineiro went seven and a third innings giving up nine hits, no walks, and striking out four. So much for the wheels falling off, at least this time.

However, what made the game strange and what was interesting to me during the game was the approach that the Tigers hitters were taking to Pineiro. Since Pineiro was traded from Boston to St. Louis for Sean Danielson at the 2007 trade deadline, he has slowly transformed himself from a relatively high strikeout pitcher to a control-and-pitch-to-contact pitcher with an 88 MPH fastball/sinker. He completed this transformation last season, posting a career low in strikeouts (4.4 K/9) but also walks (1.1 BB/9) as he mastered the art of attacking the bottom of the strike zone with diving sinkers and inducing ground balls early in the count. No starting pitcher in Major League Baseball was more efficient with his pitches in 2009 than Pineiro, who averaged just 3.41 per plate appearance. Other than Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke (3.44), no other pitcher in the Majors was even within a tenth of Pineiro’s ratio. Pineiro was also tied for fifth in first pitch strikes, and tied for second in contract rate per pitch and tied for seventh in percentage of pitches thrown for strikes (67%). He tied for the league lead in the percentage of at-bats in which the ball was put in play, led the league by an incredibly wide margin in ground ball inducement (Pineiro got slightly more than 3 ground balls for every 2 fly balls last year, no other Major League starter came remotely close to that rate), and led the league in the number of ground ball outs compared to fly ball outs (and was one of only three pitchers to have more than 2 ground ball outs for every fly ball out).

Pineiro’s plan of attack is clear: Throw strikes with the sinker lower in the zone. Get ground balls early in the count. Win games. And that is what he did on Monday, as the pitch chart from the game shows:

Pineiro Pitch Chart 4/19/10

(pitch chart courtesy of brooksbaseball.net)

Pineiro threw 104 pitches in this game, and by my count, only 20 of them — Less than 1 in 5 — Were up in the zone (I defined “up” as above the two and a half foot mark). He only threw a handful of fastballs, and most of them were up in the zone, presumably to change the eye level of the hitters. However, it is clear that Pineiro brought his regular game plan to this game: Attack the bottom of the zone with sinkers.

Watching Monday’s game, the Tigers clearly were prepared for what Pineiro had to offer them. It may seem strange to say this of a team that scored zero runs in a game, but the Tigers approach at the plate was among the best I’ve seen from them not only this year, but in this year and last combined. If Pineiro pitched them outside, they did not try to pull the ball, they hammered the ball away. If he pitched them inside, they pulled the ball — Hard. If he worked the middle of the plate, they took him right back up the middle. In fact, I wasn’t able to get any specific numbers on this, but I can remember three of their nine hits specifically that went directly up the middle, including one that actually hit second base on the way out. Also, Pineiro was nearly hit by two balls coming back up the middle, and late in the game was actually hit by a ball that he then fielded and created a rally-ending out with.

While the Tigers were no more patient against Pineiro than anyone else — He threw 104 pitches to 30 batters (3.47 pitches/PA) — They managed to get thirteen fly balls as opposed to 12 ground balls against a pitcher who generally gets twice as many ground balls as fly balls. This was another indicator that the Tigers came to the park locked in and prepared. Essentially, they weren’t doing what Pineiro wanted them to do with the ball, they were disrupting the game plan. To wit, they hit the ball against Pineiro at a rate of 11.05 hits over 9 innings — Last season Pineiro’s H/9 was 9.2 and this season it is 8.4, INCLUDING Monday’s game. It was just their simple misfortune that when runners were in scoring position, they happened to hit the ball where fielders were standing. Even in the seven times that they came to the plate against Pineiro with runners in scoring position they were disrupting his battle plan: They got 3 ground balls (1 for a hit), 3 fly balls, and one strikeout. Again, a 1:1 ratio of ground balls and fly balls against a pitcher who easily and on a regular basis achieves a 2:1 ratio shows that they were ready for Pineiro, they just couldn’t luck out and put it where a fielder wasn’t standing.

And so went a strange game in which the Tigers did everything right to beat Joel Pineiro, but did not gain a victory or the spoils. And there’s really no reason for their defeat at all, except plain, unadulterated bad luck. It’s so unsatisfying to think that you could luck your way to defeat — It would be much easier to accept that there was some sort of massive failure — However, both watching the game live (well, on television) and analyzing it later here, it seems clear that (at least at the plate) the Tigers did what they needed to do to beat Joel Pineiro and win Monday’s game. They just were out-lucked into defeat. And while I fully acknowledge the role that luck can play in the game sometimes, to see a singular nine-inning game that seemed to be so incredibly dependent on it and to be aware of it even as it was going on, was a most strange experience. For many Detroit’s 2-0 defeat to the Angels on Monday was just another loss, a well pitched but generic April defeat. To me, it will go down as one of the more interesting and weird nights of baseball that I have watched.

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Responses

  1. In particular, the one that hit second base was one of three in a row that went right back up the middle, the third being a hard liner that Pineiro caught to double off Inge, and end a promising second inning. From a distribution standpoint, 9 hits over 22 outs not producing a run is incredible. I fell asleep after the second inning thinking “well, with this approach they will get to him sooner or later.” ugh.

    • Yes, it was very frustrating. After you fell asleep it didn’t really stop….they continued having good at bats and hitting the ball hard. It just turned out to be hard right at Outfielders.

  2. Rather than edit this post — Editing posts can be a pain on wp sometimes, particularly posts with charts or multiple fonts — I’ll just note an error that I made twice in the second-to-last paragraph of this post: Pineiro doesn’t get a 2:1 rate on ground balls, he gets a 2:1 rate on ground ball OUTS. He gets a 3:2 rate on ground balls, which is still incredibly high and doesn’t really diminish the point that I was making, but I wanted to make sure I was being accurate and so I decided to add this addendum in case any astute readers thought that I was trying to use hyperbole to further my point. I wasn’t, it was just an error.


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