Back when Vernon Wells and Peter Bourjos first became teammates on the Angels, some Los Angeles reporters were discussing the effect Bourjos would have on Wells.
Bourjos was playing center field, Wells was in left and because Bourjos was fast, he was taking fly balls away from Wells — fly balls Wells used to handle before playing alongside Bourjos.
One of the LA reporters predicted someone would look at the numbers, ignore Bourjos’ influence and say Wells’ range had decreased because he was getting to fewer balls. But it was Bourjos’ speed, not Wells’ lack of it, that was changing the numbers.
And that gets us to today’s subject: the effect teammates have on one another.
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Individual numbers aren’t the product of one individual
Most fans are aware that a dangerous 4-hole hitter will get the 3-hole hitter better pitches to hit.
The 4-hole hitter is making the 3-hole hitter better.
In the National League, hitting in the 8-hole is tough; in the early innings, the pitcher’s on deck. So if there’s a runner in scoring position, the pitcher on the mound doesn’t have to give that 8-hole hitter much to hit: walk the 8-hole hitter and go after the pitcher on deck.
But because the pitcher on deck is unlikely to get the job done, the 8-hole hitter might try to hit a marginal pitch; he’s probably a better hitter on a bad pitch than the on-deck pitcher is on a good one: The 9-hole hitter is making the 8-hole hitter worse.
Middle infielders can see the catcher’s signs, corner infielders can’t. So smart middle infielders signal the corner infielders when the pitcher is about to throw an off-speed pitch; no signal and the pitch is a fastball. The corner infielders then know if the ball is likely to be pulled or hit to the opposite field and that gives them a first-step in the right direction: The middle infielders are making the corner infielders better.
If a catcher has a tough time blocking pitches in the dirt, the pitcher will be reluctant to bounce a slider with a runner on base. The catcher is taking away one of the pitcher’s weapons: The catcher is making the pitcher worse.
And that gets us, at long last, to what happened on Wednesday night.
Gordon’s ninth-inning walk changed Holland’s approach
On Wednesday night the Rockies took a 4-3 lead into the bottom of the ninth. Former Royals closer Greg Holland came in to lock down the win for the Rockies.
But Alex Gordon began the bottom of the ninth by working a seven-pitch walk, and that changed what Holland was doing.
Bouncing a slider in the dirt, one of Holland’s tactics, was risky. If the slider got away from catcher Jonathan Lucroy, Gordon would move up 90 feet and be in scoring position. Having a runner on base meant Holland had to elevate his sliders.
And fear of Gordon stealing a base made Holland cut down on his leg kick. When pitchers want to get the ball to home plate more quickly, they spend less time with their front foot in the air. And if a pitcher gets his front foot down more quickly, the arm might not catch up: that will elevate a pitch’s location.
With nobody on base, Holland’s front foot was lifted above his knee as he drove to the plate. With Gordon on base, Holland’s front foot was lifted to about calf-level.
The change in Holland’s pitching motion changed what was happening at the plate. His pitches were elevated and both Whit Merrifield and Lorenzo Cain got pitches up and lined out. Then Melky Cabrera singled and moved Gordon to second base.
And that set up Holland’s confrontation with Eric Hosmer.
With two down and a lefty at the plate, Holland didn’t think Gordon would try to steal third, so he could go back to his full leg kick. But Holland still needed to be careful about bouncing a slider. If a slider got away from Lucroy, both Gordon and Cabrera would advance and the Royals would be a lousy single away from winning the game.
Meanwhile, Hosmer was looking for a pitch up.
He and Holland were teammates for five years and Hosmer knew a slider that started in the middle of the zone was going to wind up below the zone.
Holland bounced the first slider, but Hosmer didn’t bite. And with runners on base, Holland didn’t bounce any more sliders. Holland’s next slider was a called strike and then, with the count 1-1, Holland tried a “back-door” slider.
A back-door slider is one a right-handed pitcher throws to a left-handed hitter or vice-versa. The pitcher starts the slider off the plate away, the hitter sees it as a ball and then the slider’s movement carries the pitch into the zone for a called strike; the pitch comes in the back door.
But Holland’s backdoor slider caught too much of the zone and was up. The pitch’s velocity — 85 mph — allowed Hosmer to get the bat head out in front and pull the ball down the right-field line for a game-winning homer.
Hosmer got the glory and he should: hitting walk-off home runs isn’t easy.
But Alex Gordon’s walk got Whit Merrifield, Lorenzo Cain, Melky Cabrera and Eric Hosmer better pitches to hit.
And that’s how Alex Gordon helped Eric Hosmer hit that home run.