Rod Barajas stepped to the plate in the fourth inning last night, with the bases loaded and one out. The Pirates trailed 2-1 and Tommy Hanson was struggling with his control. He had walked the two previous batters, the most recent on only four pitches. Barajas stepped in, hacked at the first pitch and grounded into an inning-ending and rally-killing double play.
Barajas took quite a bit of heat on Twitter for swinging at the first pitch when Hanson was clearly having control issues. I understand and mostly agree with that school of thought. When a pitcher is struggling, a hitter never wants to let him off easy. But let’s take a closer look at the situation.
First of all, keep in mind that Hanson received a coaching visit to the mound right before the Barajas at-bat. With the bases loaded and the young right-hander fresh off two walks, I think we can safely assume what was discussed during that meeting. Hanson needed to find the strike zone. It is a pretty good bet that he would want to go right after Barajas and try to get ahead of him.
Now let’s look at the actual pitch. Here is the pitch location, courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Remember that this is from the point of view of the catcher.
This pitch was virtually right down the middle. It was a bit on the outer half, but it was certainly a good location for squaring up a baseball. The pitch was a slider, registering at 82.2 MPH on PITCHf/x. It had a horizontal break of 1.46 inches and a vertical break of -0.18 inches. The chart below shows the vertical and horizontal break of Hanson’s 2011 pitches. The red dots represent his sliders. As you can see, Hanson’s pitch to Barajas had similar vertical break as his typical slider. His sliders generally have a vertical break between about -5 and 5 inches, so -0.18 inches is right smack in the middle. But most of his sliders show horizontal break between about 1 and 9 inches. So this slider, which registered at 1.46 inches of horizontal movement, was about as straight a slider as Hanson will throw.
I cannot fault Barajas for swinging at this pitch. He was probably expecting Hanson to try to throw a first pitch strike, due to the previous two walks and the resulting coaching visit to the mound. More importantly, he saw a poorly thrown slider that was right in his wheelhouse. Barajas probably could have played it safe, taken the pitch for a strike and hoped for Hanson to make a second mistake later in the at-bat. Instead, with the bases loaded in the middle of a close game, he chose to attack a mistake pitch and try to break the game open. Unfortunately, he did not execute well and hit into a double play to end the inning.
Barajas did not get the job done in this situation, but his decision to swing was not as obviously wrong as it seemed in the initial moments following the fourth inning’s conclusion.