Can a series – or a player's legacy -- really turn on the selection of a single pitch?
The Dodgers lost Game 1 of their series against the Mets as a team, failing to score a single run against a dominant Jacob deGrom. But there was much post hoc hand-wringing over Clayton Kershaw's seventh inning, where he walked three of five batters, two on full counts, with one of the outs a bunt by deGrom himself. After the third walk, to the left-handed hitter Curtis Granderson, Don Mattingly pulled Kershaw, bringing in Pedro Baez, who threw six straight fastballs to David Wright and eventually surrendered a two-run single. Mattingly probably goofed twice here -- letting Kershaw face Granderson for a fourth time in the game, then bringing in the one-pitch Baez with the bases loaded rather than going to his best reliever, Kenley Jansen, to keep the deficit at one. None of that fit the narrative that Kershaw -- who punched out 11 of 23 hitters through six innings and allowed just one run in that span -- is somehow not a good pitcher in October. Had Baez retired Wright, or Mattingly brought in Jansen to do the same, we're not having this conversation. Indeed, had Kershaw's 3-2 pitch to Granderson, a fastball that was several inches outside, hit the edge of the zone or induced an out of any sort, we're not having this conversation.
To that point in the at-bat, Kershaw had thrown four fastballs and two curveballs, and I thought that going back to the fastball at that spot gave Granderson too much of a potential advantage to either identify the pitch as a ball/strike or to put the pitch in play. There is no perfect answer to the right pitch in a right situation; if a pitcher always throws a certain pitch type in, say, a two-strike count, hitters will learn that very quickly and will be able to adjust to it. He did throw a fastball there, in what I think would typically be considered a breaking ball count for a left-handed pitcher throwing to a left-handed hitter, and to argue that he had to throw a breaking ball there would overstate the case. There is no quantum theory of pitch selection, where Kershaw could simultaneously throw one-third of a fastball, one-third of a curveball, and one-third of a slider, and the pitch would collapse into one specific type in the moment that Granderson observed the pitch. (This would make color commentary a hell of a lot more difficult, too.) Kershaw had to choose one type, and he chose the fastball.
However, I think he reduced his chances for success in that situation by going to the fastball. Granderson has career-long problems picking up left-handed spin of any sort, so while he's a disciplined hitter in terms of balls and strikes, he's vulnerable when lefties throw him breaking balls. In 2015, he saw 180 curveballs and sliders from lefties, and put only 15 in play, six for hits, while swinging and missing at 26 of them and taking 40 more for called strikes. His rates against left-handed fastballs were better across the board, and this is in line with his history as well. A hitter has a fraction of a fraction of a second to figure out what a pitch's type is and whether it's a ball or a strike; Kershaw's big advantage against left-handed hitters, above and beyond the fact that he himself is left-handed, is that he can throw two-plus breaking balls, further complicating the hitter's challenge to figure out the what and the where in an infinitesimal time.
This wasn't the only mistake Kershaw made in the inning; he got ahead of light-hitting Ruben Tejada 0-2, and none of his next six pitches were in the strike zone, resulting in two fouls and then a full-count walk. But the 3-2 pitch to Granderson was the pivot pitch, the one on which the narrative of this game, and for the moment of Kershaw's performances in the postseason (six quality starts in nine attempts to date), hinges. The Mets would probably have still won the game, and I had already predicted them to win the series before last night's contest, but perhaps today's hot takes and think-pieces would focus more on deGrom throwing one for the ages had that one pitch had some spin.