- The score: Orioles trail Rangers 3-2 in the eighth inning
- The setup: Austin Hays and Adley Rutschman draw back-to-back walks with none out, putting the tying and go-ahead runs on base for team home run leader Anthony Santander
- The moment: Santander grounded into a double play, 5-4-3, the tying run getting to third but Rutschman erased and two outs on the board
- Before: 53.8% Orioles win expectancy
- After: 27.2% Orioles WE
- The shift: -26.6%
- The runner up: Gunnar Henderson 9th inning caught stealing (-22.1%)
One of the more frustrating things that you can experience as a baseball fan is when someone on your favorite team draws a walk, and then the next guy comes up hacking at the first pitch and he grounds into a double play. In this case, the Orioles had Santander batting after TWO walks, and in the process of Rangers reliever Aroldis Chapman issuing the second of the walks to Rutschman, he also tossed out a wild pitch.
As a matter of basic philosophy, a person might have thought, “He’s wild, so I’m making him throw me a strike,” or “He’s gotta throw a strike, so I’m swinging.” There are times where that first one is the answer and other times where it’s the second one. Santander did not swing at the first pitch. In the below image, the red circle with the 1 inside is the location of the first pitch Chapman threw:
With the obvious benefit of hindsight, the first pitch was the pitch. Chapman threw the almost perfect middle-middle fastball to be sure to get himself a first strike.
The Rangers reliever could perhaps feel reasonably secure in zipping this 98.7 meatball (as much as any pitch that rounds to 99 can be a meatball) where he did because Santander’s tendency is not to swing at the first pitch. Per Statcast, Santander swung at the first pitch in only 33.4% of plate appearances this year, about one in three. In the aggregate, the philosophy worked for him. Most players don’t! The MLB average for the season was 29.6%.
Here is another Santander trend that Chapman probably knew in contour if not with complete granularity. He will chase a pitch out of the strike zone roughly one-third of the time (34.6%). That puts him in the 17th percentile of batters; the average is 28.5%. Additionally, when Santander swings out of the zone, he’s MORE likely to make contact than the average hitter does - Santander’s 67.6% this season to the average 56%.
This has paid off for Santander at times. In August, Santander had a two-homer game where one of his homers was recorded as being less than one foot off the ground. This wasn’t some jabroni pitcher he did this against: It was Kevin Gausman. One of Santander’s talents as a batter is to be able to do productive stuff with low pitches.
Be that as it may, Chapman threw him a second pitch, helpfully in the previous image with the blue circle with the number 2 inside. (In Gameday, red means a strike. Blue means in play. A called ball, which did not happen to Santander in this AB, shows green.) That’s a low pitch.
Santander can get the bat to those pitches for line drives... sometimes. It is usually not going to go well for a batter when he makes contact with a pitch that’s not in the strike zone. This time was not one of the good times. Although he was recorded as hitting the ball very hard (104.5mph), which is generally good news, this was with a launch angle of only -18 degrees.
That’s pretty much the worst possible launch angle a batter like Santander can get. A lower negative number than that and you at least get a weird chopper. Closer to zero and the ball hits the ground closer to the fielder and maybe it takes a funny hop. But -18? Statcast recorded the first bounce at six feet from home plate and although that was a hard bouncer, it wasn’t a very hard play for Rangers third baseman Josh Jung to get to it, throw to second baseman Marcus Semien, or for Semien to complete the throw to first for the double play.
The fact that Santander hit it so hard only made it that much easier for the double play to happen. The exit velocity only got the ball to Jung quicker.
When I sat down to write this article, I was a little surprised to see that the Orioles were actually favored to win when Santander stepped up to the plate. That win expectancy determination had nothing to do with who was batting or pitching. That’s just the general league-wide likelihood of a run scoring once you have two on and none out. That situation averages 1.48 runs.
It’s an even more favorable situation when you’re the home team, trailing by one, in the bottom of the eighth inning. Tie the game and now you’ve evened the score and you still have the advantage of batting last, whatever else happens. Take the lead and your closer comes in. The specific situation of it being one of the team’s best hitters was even more of an advantage. The downside is if you blow it then, well, you blew it. And it’s not going to be the heart of the order trying to mount a ninth inning comeback.
In a game that the Orioles lost by one run, this play was not the only play that explains why they lost. Any number of things could have gone differently and they might have won, or at least played a game that they lost for different reasons.
Santander had already done his part on Saturday, with a first inning base hit, a fourth inning walk that led to him scoring a run, and a sixth inning home run that made it a one-run game in the first place. Had other Orioles stepped up more, Santander wouldn’t have needed to be the hero one more time. But they didn’t step up, and the Orioles did need Santander to be the hero again. He was the one to seriously snuff out one of their last hopes instead.