Two bad pitches

This is going to be an "inside baseball" discussion. Apologies in advance.

The Yankees were in town this weekend, playing the Nationals in the verdammt interleague portion of the regular-season schedule. I can't stand interleague play, myself, although it pales as a travesty next to the other two great blights on contemporary regular-season Major League baseball: the wild card playoff system, and the general imbalance to schedules created by having thirty teams divided into six divisions. I dislike all three of these "innovations" because they increase the random factor in the game, and detract from the ability of a grueling regular season to separate the best teams from the rest of the teams. The wild card increases the likelihood that a team that couldn't even win its own division might win the World Series (although this does not appear to be statistically likely, given the data from eleven years of playoffs with a wild card participant; see the analytical details here and here; the point is that before the wild card was created it was impossible to get to the World Series without winning your division); imbalanced schedules mean that it is no longer the case that everyone plays everyone else in their league the same number of times, and the same number of times at home and away, so some teams (randomly) end up with easier schedules than others; and interleague play means both that pitchers and hitters are facing unfamiliar opponents without the ability to adjust and improve over the course of the season and that teams designed for a particular strategic situation (with and without a designated hitter) are being placed in unfamiliar territory.

All of this conspires to make baseball more like football, where any team can win on any given day. And to my mind there's not as much fun in that; why not just bet on random coin flips and save yourself a lot of money and hassle? Regular-season baseball is a machine that is supposed to filter out randomness. It still does this better than any other professional sport that I can think of, blemishes and absurdities aside.

But enough of that rant. I actually wanted to make a very different observation here, which is that although the win-loss record for this weekend shows simply that the Yankees won one game and lost two, the actual story is quite different. And it's a story of contingency -- the kind of controlled happenstance that baseball at its best produces. Things broke against the Yankees this weekend, but they could have just as easily broken the other way.

First, the Saturday game, that I was fortunate enough to see in person. After the first half of the fifth inning, when the Yankees were leading 9-2, it kind of looked like the game was just going to be a slaughter; Chacon was shaky pitching for the Yankees, but at least he wasn't giving up grand slams to Johnny Damon the way that Ramon Ortiz was. But the Nationals chipped away and the Yankee bullpen was ineffective, until the score was 9-8 in the bottom of the eighth inning. Scott Proctor walks Alfonso Soriano, but then gets Vidro to fly out. Action in the Yankees bullpen, and all of a sudden there's Mariano Rivera walking out to the mound, and all of the Yankees fans in the stadium (and there were a lot of them!) start going crazy. Here comes Mo, game over. And statistically, this is the definitely the case; in his career he has 392 saves against only 39 losses -- and even better, a career WHIP of 1.05, 8.04 K/9, and an ERA of 2.33. But he does blow saves sometimes, and this was one of those times -- and it was a narrow thing indeed.

Daryle Ward at the plate. Left-handed batter, never faced Mo. Soriano obviously running; he steals second fair and square. The count gets to (I believe) 2-1, and Soriano takes off for third on the pitch. It's a ball, Posada's throw is wide, and it goes past A-Rod into the outfield; Soriano scores on the error (and because the official scorer works for the Nationals, Soriano got credited with a second stolen base -- but I was there, and I think that if Posada's throw had been better then Soriano would have been out at third, and in my book that's not a stolen base but an E-2). Mo, obviously a bit annoyed, tosses the next pitch high, and walks Ward. That's the bad pitch. After that, Guillen triples and Ward -- Daryle Ward, who lumbers rather than runs around the bases -- scores pretty easily. Zimmerman gets a single, Guillen scores, and then Mo induces a double-play ball and the inning ends.

The 3-1 pitch to Ward is the bad pitch in the inning, especially coming on the heels of Posada's bad throw as it did. If Posada throws Soriano out at third, and then Mo works with the bases empty and gets Ward to do what lefties usually do against Mo -- break their bats hitting weak grounders to the right side of the infield -- then the Yankees are out of the inning with the lead intact. Even if Posada doesn't throw out Soriano, and Guillen still gets his hit to tie the score, there are two outs and the Yankees can play Zimmerman differently, maybe getting a force at second or something, and escape the inning with a tie score. But walking Ward did the damage. Clearly it wouldn't have been as damaging if the Yankee bullpen had done their job and kept the Nationals off the board for the previous three innings, but there you go: a single moment of contingency, and the whole character of the game changed.

Sunday was even more obviously a case of a single bad pitch, although like Saturday, the conditions for that single bad pitch were produced earlier on in the contest. With a tired bullpen, the Yankees needed Wang to pitch for a while, and he did -- but he was shaky in the eighth, and I expected Torre to pull him for the ninth or at last to have someone warming up in case Wang allowed anyone to reach base. Wang did, Torre didn't, and Zimmerman got a sinkerball that didn't sink which rapidly turned into a game-winning walk-off home run. Yankees lose again. But it was close, very close -- another bad pitch, another contingency that just didn't break the Yankees' way.

My point here is not that what happens in baseball is random; clearly it isn't completely random, despite the best efforts of the Powers That Be to introduce more randomness into the game through scheduling mishaps. But individual baseball games are about contingent events concatenating to produce outcomes, and that's what happened the last two days. It proves nothing about "which team is better" or anything of the sort, obnoxious and uneducated Nationals fans jeering on the way out of the stadium to the contrary; it was just two rolls of the dice that went poorly for the Yankees. From my comfortable second-guessing desk chair I can say that Torre shouldn't have left Wang go back out for the ninth yesterday, but I understand his reasoning. And given Mo's track record, I wouldn't rather have had anyone else on the mound in that situation on Saturday, because over the long term Mo shuts the opposition down in precisely those situations. But the long term -- which as a concept only makes sense in a relatively closed system like the regular season of Major League baseball -- doesn't translate into individual instances very comfortably.

But losing still stinks.

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