As the resident pitching expert here at DRaysBay (Ian’s words, not mine), I am obviously fascinated by all things pitching. Since I started covering the Rays here, I have made many a post in the realms of things such as player previews, mechanical breakdowns and other analytical deep dives.
Today I want to try something new, and talk about in-game pitch sequencing. This is the stuff that really gets me going—the cat and mouse game, to me, that’s what really makes baseball a game like no other.
In the bottom of the ninth inning of last night’s game between the Rays and Mets, I became particularly invested in a certain 11-pitch duel between Rays relief ace Nick Anderson and Mets veteran and active great Robinson Cano.
Anderson, as we know by now, features an electric fourseam fastball as well as a lights out swing-and-miss breaking ball. Not only are his two pitches great, he also uses them in the way that benefits him the best, keeping his elite rise fastball up in the zone while keeping his 12-6 breaking ball down.
The result gives hitters throughout the league nightmares:
But the pitfall of being a two-pitch pitcher—even when both pitches rate as plus—means a hitter can sit on one of the pitches and always have a 50% chance of guessing right.
To be fair, this is quite an oversimplification—trying to guess what a major league pitcher is about to throw is not exactly like flipping a coin. However, guessing right does make things a whole lot easier, especially if said hitter is looking for the same pitch for the entire at bat.
That is what Cano tried to do against Anderson.
Now, as I take you on this journey with me, I am going to do two things:
- Provide gifs and analysis of each pitch, and
- Give my live thoughts in the DRaysBay Slack channel during the at bat, just to prove I am not playing Monday Morning Quarterback, or operating off of any type of confirmation bias.
Robbie Cano don’t ya know (what’s coming?)
In the at bat, Anderson starts with a breaking ball down in the zone, Cano swings ahead and over top of the pitch, strike one.
Anderson follows up exactly how you would expect after a breaking ball down, with a fastball up.
Quickly down 0-2, Cano goes into defense mode. Anderson throws a good breaking ball that drops below the zone, but Cano spoils it.
Not fazed, Anderson goes back to the breaking ball, albeit a much more hittable one, and Cano spoils it yet again.
At this point, Cano has seen four pitches from Anderson, three of them being breaking balls. Even as good as it is, Cano’s had a pretty good look at it. But it wasn’t until after this next pitch that it became clear to me: Cano was sitting on the breaking ball.
Cano is sitting curve
It’s one thing to swing late on a 97 mph fastball up in the zone, but it’s another to just defensively swat at it to stay alive, and that’s exactly what Cano did. Luckily Anderson and Rays catcher Mike Zunino can see this, right? Surely they’ll come back with a fastball here...
Thankfully, it’s below the zone, and actually a very well executed pitch. Against most hitters, that is probably strike three. But this isn’t most hitters. This is Robsinson Cano who, yes is 37 years old, but also owns a 143 wRC+ in 2020. He can still mash.
Cano, knowing what he is looking for, recognizes the pitch, and spits on it. Ball one.
It seems as if Anderson and Zunino finally recognize what Cano is trying to do, and they respond by pumping two more fastballs up in the zone, to which Cano spoils with more defensive hacks.
every fastball has been a defensive swing
The count is still 1-2, but I would say Cano has the upper hand. They know he is going to foul off a high fastball, and they know he is going to let a low breaking ball go. The perfect pitch to throw here would have been a fastball down in the zone. Let Cano think it’s going to be a breaking ball that falls below the zone, but freeze him for a called third strike.
id go fastball down and away here
But I’m just a dude behind a keyboard.
Instead, they try to go back to the top of the zone, and Anderson makes a mistake in the form of a very hittable fastball. Cano does put a better swing on it, but ultimately fouls it off again, because again, he’s looking for a breaking ball.
he wants a hanging curve
To stick with the fastball, or go back to the breaking ball? Anderson has thrown three fastballs in a row and Cano has been defensive on all three. Even if we know what he’s looking for, you don’t want to risk throwing another mistake fastball...
This is the back and forth type of thinking that makes the pitcher batter interaction the most fascinating part of baseball.
Cano doesn’t take a great swing here, but it appears he is just protecting the plate, as hitters normally do with two strikes. In my mind, he has not strayed from his strategy. He is still looking for the breaking ball. Anderson has two options, go back to the fastball, or throw another breaking ball, but make sure it’s a better one. I am not in Anderson’s head, but if he does throw a breaking ball here, he knows it needs to be the best pitch of the at bat.
Oh boy (part II). This better be good.
Eleven pitches later, Cano got what he wanted, and gave it a ride. But thanks to the architects of Citi Field, it was just short of the result he wanted.
it was so clear he was sitting curveball the entire at bat
lucky the mets cant do anything right including the distance to the center field fence
Did Anderson get away with a few pitches in that at bat? Probably. Does it matter? Not this time.
And that’s baseball baby...