October Moment: When the stretch hurts

Some games go according to form, and some don’t. Thursday night in Los Angeles, Game 5 of the second National League Division Series went almost exactly according to form: a great pitching duel featuring Cy Young candidate Zack Greinke and future Cy Young candidate Jacob deGrom. What didn’t go according to form: the Cy Young candidate got slightly outpitched. At home. Hey. It happens. And the decisive blow of the Mets’ 3-2 victory was struck when Greinke did something that will, in some quarters, be second-guessed forever.

In the sixth inning, Daniel Murphy, who’d already scored the Mets’ game-tying second run after a wonderfully heads-up dash to third base, came up against Greinke with one out and nobody on.

Again: nobody on. Which is worth mentioning twice because Greinke unaccountably pitched to Murphy from the stretch instead of the usual windup.

The eventual result, televisionally:

But Greinke didn’t shift to the stretch until well into Murphy’s at-bat. With the count 3 and 1, he threw a fastball from the stretch that Murphy lined foul. Just before his next pitch, another fastball, TV analyst Ron Darling said, “It’s almost like Greinke’s giving him another look by pitching in the stretch.”

Then came the fateful pitch, a fastball that was supposed to come inside, but leaked into the middle reach of the strike zone. And Murphy, who hasn’t missed many fat pitches lately, didn’t miss this one.

The television discussion afterward:

Darling: I just found it amazing, because he had two hits off Greinke, that on a 3-2 count, Greinke decided to go out of the stretch, just to give him a different look. It didn’t work.

Ripken: I don’t think I’ve ever seen that, really. Going into the stretch, just to give a different look.

Darling: Never seen it.

Well, it must have happened occasionally, right? Maybe tried by a few of the more creative hurlers?

In fact, we do know that both Darling and Ripken had seen it before … because Greinke did it earlier in this game. In the first inning with a runner on third base, Greinke’s first four pitches to Lucas Duda came out of the windup. But with the count 3 and 1, Greinke’s next two pitches were thrown out of the stretch — without any commentary from the broadcast booth — and he struck out Duda swinging.

But yes, it’s certainly unorthodox.

Because there has been, for approximately forever, the widespread and routinely accepted perception that when a pitcher’s working from the stretch instead of the windup, he loses some of his stuff.

Is that true, though?

There are various ways to measure stuff, but one obvious way is the speed of the pitches. And while it’s long been said that the stretch costs a pitcher two or three miles off his fastball, five years ago Mike Fast studied the question with some rigor and concluded that “pitcher’s fastball speed turns out to be almost identical with runners on base as compared to his average fastball speed with the bases empty.”

In fact, that fastball that Murphy turned into a home run was traveling 93.5 miles an hour, right in line with his average fastball in the game, and slightly faster than his average for the season.

But speed is just one component of stuff; there’s also movement, which most people consider at least as important. Did Greinke’s switch cost him some movement on his fastball? Well, if it did, you certainly can’t tell from this graph (via BrooksBaseball.net), which suggests Greinke’s home-run pitch actually had more horizontal movement than most of his other fastballs:

If pitching from the stretch generally hinders movement, then we’ll all have to come up with news ways to explain the success of Mariano Rivera and the other dozens of relief pitchers who have pitched almost exclusively from the stretch.

There must be some reason why starting pitchers almost always use the windup when the bases are empty. Maybe it’s somewhat less fatiguing. Or maybe there’s something else. But there’s no obvious reason for Greinke to pitch less effectively from the stretch than the windup.

There will, without a doubt, be some people who accuse Greinke of overthinking this situation. But beware that sort of analysis, because they’re the same sort of people who would rave about Greinke’s intellect if he’d slipped that fastball past Murphy.

Sometimes you get the bear, and sometimes the bear gets you. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether you’re hunting with your windup or your stretch.