BaseballDo Guest Contributor Michael A. Morales
In a 3-1 count, David “Big Papi” Ortiz stands in his arrogant, intimidating way awaiting what he knows is coming. If memory serves me, Steve Busby described it as a cutter that got a little too much of the plate. MLB.com called it a 4 seam fastball for some reason. Whatever it was, Ortiz was happy to see it coming, and happier to see it leaving. His blindingly fast bat made short work of it. And because it wasn’t enough to hit the ball so hard it apparently knocked a fan for a loop, Ortiz felt the need to watch Yu’s reaction before tossing his bat toward the third base dugout to start his triumphant trot. It’s not surprising that Ortiz hit that ball hard enough to make it seem to disappear (honestly, my first reaction was that he had swung through it). It’s not even surprising that he hit it off Yu Darvish, who has made a mistake here and there, and especially in the first inning. What was surprising was the sequence of pitches to Mike Napoli that followed Ortiz’s at bat. He got a 4-seamer for a ball, followed by three methodically placed and tightly twirling sliders, only one of which made any contact with Napoli’s bat.
Those four pitches seemed to come from a confident pitcher with a good feel for his filthy slider, not from a guy who just gave up a two-run shot. The slider had a ton of bite, and was breaking well into and out of the zone at Yu’s will. Any viewer who missed the first three batters (namely, me) would have wondered why in the world Yu didn’t throw a single slider to Ortiz rather than trying to get the hitter with the longest hit streak and the strength of two men to chase fastballs out of the zone. That viewer (again, me) might also have wondered why Yu didn’t go to the slider when the fastball plan failed. Even if Ortiz dropped the barrel and golfed one out, Yu would have had good hitting to blame, and not his own 89 MPH batting practice pitch in the heart of the zone.
A glance at MLB.com’s play by play of the previous three batters explains things somewhat, but questions still linger. Ellsbury grounded out on a cutter after watching two 4-seams go by, and Nava fouled off two sliders before becoming the first strikeout victim on a 96 MPH fastball. Pedroia then singled on a slider that Yu was obviously trying as his out pitch in a 2-2 count. Maybe that explains why Yu seems to have given up on his slider by the time Ortiz came to the plate, but Pedroia’s single was a complete fluke. It was an infield roller that was so slow Yu couldn’t cleanly field it and make the throw to first. In other words, the slider did its job, and Yu was just a victim of the BABIP gods. So why no sliders to Ortiz? I have a thought or two, though I imagine some people will think I’m crazy.
If you’ve seen the gif of Brett Wallace striking out on a slider from Yu in his start against the Astros, and you like good pitching as much as I do, you probably also get goosebumps every time you see it. Wallace took a hack at a pitch he thought would end up in the zone, while AJ had to catch the ball behind Wallace’s back leg. Let me reiterate that Wallace swung at a pitch that ended up BEHIND HIM. No one is accusing Brett Wallace of being an all-star hitter that pitchers fear, but he is a MLB hitter with the skill and talent to make a big league team. He has been involved in trades for such players as Matt Holiday and Roy Halladay, and was called up to replace Lance Berkman after Berkman was traded to the Yankees in 2010. Yu Darvish is good at throwing baseballs, and he’s even better at making them spin. So what was he thinking in that Ortiz at bat?
If I had to guess, and that’s exactly what I have to do, I would say that Yu has a penchant for experimentation. I can’t speak to the type of personality he has, and I don’t have much authority on his routine or patterns, but it seems like patterns are exactly what he is trying to avoid. Those who have watched him this season have no doubt seen that his slider has been the go-to pitch, and the pitch that is most effective. A recent article on Yahoo Sports famously quoted a scout as saying that Yu had the best slider he had ever seen. Is it possible that Yu doesn’t want to be known that well? Is he trying to stay out of patterns and use different pitches in different situations so that batters won’t learn that he goes to the slider when looking for the third strike? Does he want to be a guy who can’t be scouted? That Ortiz at bat has me baffled and looking for answers.
That same Yahoo article referenced the observation of another scout, a veteran with two decades of seniority on the previous guy, who claimed that there was not another pitcher in existence with the combination of repertoire and command of Yu Darvish. That unusually large mix of pitches may have an unintended consequence: it may leave Yu with the desire to break out some of his lesser used stuff now and then. For what reason, I have no way of knowing, and all of this is just speculation anyway. But if Yu is experimenting with what he throws in certain counts in the first inning rather than relying on what has worked in the past, that may be the reason that he seems to be vulnerable in the beginning of every game. If he was able to use every pitch he has available effectively at all times, and no batter ever knew what was coming, he would be a phenomenon like no one has ever seen. Oh, wait…
I’m no expert, but I would love to have seen Ortiz react to the slider in that at bat. Maybe he walks, and Mike Napoli strikes out anyway. The score is still 0-0 in that scenario. If Ortiz wins the battle, at least it’s not on a meat pitch that looks like a gimme. I know Yu isn’t the kind of guy who gives up, but that pitch was ugly. But in the end, a win’s a win, and a sweep’s a sweep. I’ll take it. Hopefully, Yu learned something from that first inning.