Hello! Welcome to the inaugural One At-Bat of the 2016 season. I like to imagine that this is a regular feature where I religiously hunt down the best confrontation between a Blue Jay and an opponent, and present it a pitch by pitch format. Sometimes looking for those head-to-head matchups makes me giddy. Other times it just makes me sad. This week, the Blue Jays had a bit of a rough stretch of starting strong before throwing the whole game in the dumpster by the late innings. Unfortunately, I have to admit that’s all I could really think about when selecting One At-Bat for the week.
The plate appearance in question comes from the bottom of the eighth inning in the game on April 6th against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Blue Jays are leading 3-2, and Gavin Floyd has just been replaced by Arnold Leon. There are runners on first and third, and Steven Souza is at the plate.
Sometimes a game is about the right guy at the right time, and other times, it’s about the wrong guy at the wrong time. I don’t think this was either one of those. That’s because even though he started very hot against Toronto, I don’t think this is about Steven Souza being ‘the right guy.’ It is a bullpen worn out from three close and late games, and still needing five outs. John Gibbons is pushing whatever buttons he still had to try and get a guy, any guy, who can get him to the end of the game. He pushed the Gavin Floyd button to start the seventh, and he has received 4 outs and two hits for his trouble. Both hits were singles, and neither of the frozen rope variety, but Gibbons is going with his gut. Perhaps feeling that the Rays have Floyd figured out, he presses the big bullpen phone key marked ‘Arnold Leon.’
Leon has but 26.2 innings under his belt in the major leagues. He is still rookie eligible, and the innings he logged with Oakland were somewhat below league average. The Blue Jays saw something they liked (and Bo Schultz and his cannon arm are injured), so he’s in the game with the go ahead run at the plate. Stephen Souza, on the other hand, is only 460-ish plate appearances into his big league career at this point, playing in his sophomore season for the Rays. His time in the minors was characterized by a good batting eye and extra-base power. Then in his first year in the majors Souza showed that he could still take a walk – his 10.8 percent is above league average – but his strikeout tendencies jumped off the chart; 33.8 percent of his PAs ended in a K. We can attempt to discern what John Gibbons had in mind by removing the veteran Floyd for the rookie Leon, but we’ll never really know. A strikeout or double play grounded probably crossed his mind.
So, the most important pitch in baseball, we are often told by our local announcing crew in Toronto, is strike one. Russell Martin sets a target low and away, trusting that Leon can hit the corner, or induce a swing and miss with the first pitch. Souza might be a little amped up. He delivers a 91mph fastball.
And misses by two feet horizontally and maybe another foot vertically, making Souza jump back from the pitch. Ball one.
Pitch two, with the target set in the same area, is a cutter. The pitch is delivered, this time, at 86mph, but starts low and away and continues to cut its way out of the zone.
The third pitch is another cutter, and is even slower as Leon tries to find his delivery. At 84.5 mph, it doesn’t have much happening at all. It misses low, and now the count is 3-0.
From the 0-0 point in an average at bat, we know Steven Souza has a career 33.5 percent strikeout rate. With each ball delivered, Leon puts himself into a position less likely to achieve a strikeout. First 28.7 percent, then 22.2 then 21 percent. Souza’s OBP when a plate appearance passes through 3-0 is .722. Leon is in a deep hole, but there isn’t anywhere to hide.
Pitch four is another cutter. Looking at his Baseball Reference Splits Souza has faced a 3-0 count 16 times in his MLB career. Of those 16, he has ended six of those plate appearances on the next pitch. Six were walks, and one was an out. Pretty much any pitch here is a safe bet. Leon nuscles up and throws an 87 mph cutter and finally gets one in the zone. Strike one! Look at that, he did eventually throw the most important pitch in baseball. All those other pitches he threw first didn’t really make it that effective, sadly. The ball is centre cut and just above the belt, but as we’ve already established, Souza would rather look for the walk than swing 3-0.
The final pitch of the plate appearance. According to Brooks Baseball, Arnold Leon, in his limited time in the Major Leagues, has thrown Four Seam Fastballs, Sinkers, Sliders, Curveballs, Changeups, and Cutters. Given all of those options, and having thrown three cutters in a row, none of them with any particular success, he throws…another cutter. At a mind numbing 84mph. Having had his choice of several different cutters, at varying speeds and locations, Souza has managed to find one that meets all of his criteria. His first swing of the at-bat is a huge one, with arms confidently and fully extended.
Boom. Bottom third, middle third, and the Rays outfielder has his fourth hit of the day, and absolute bomb that puts the Rays out front permanently.
What’s the lesson here? Well, there are a few things to think about. One is that falling behind in the count is a bad idea, and this at-bat could be in a textbook about why that’s the case. Another is that you can change a free swinging hacker into a patient and effective offensive weapon if you execute poorly enough. Something else to consider is that tripling up on a pitch like Brett Cecil’s power curve can be devastating to a hitter, but the Leon cutter is not that kind of dynamite offering, so you should really avoid it. The last thing isn’t about pitches at all. Its about pitchers, and that pushing bullpen buttons for the sake of doing ‘something’ is generally a bad idea. Managers rarely win games, but they do lose a few, and John Gibbons lost this one, in just one at-bat.
Lead Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports