How Not to Take a Good At-Bat (Cardinals' Examples A, B, C)

Oct 13, 2011 at 10:10 am
click to enlarge Jon Jay wins our Worst Plate Appearance of the Night award. -
Jon Jay wins our Worst Plate Appearance of the Night award.
The Cardinals won last night, taking a two games to one lead over the Brewers and keeping alive their chances to clinch at World Series berth at home. The bullpen was the real hero, along with an early offensive outburst that plated four runs in the first inning, giving Chris Carpenter and various and sundry relievers juuuust enough of a cushion to work with. 

Looking at it from another angle, though, the game really shouldn't have been nearly as close as it was. Yovani Gallardo was just terrible, giving up eight hits and walking five in just five innings. That's thirteen baserunners, and just four of them managed to cross the plate. It's a good thing the relief corps was as brilliant as it was, because the story of the game could just as easily have been about the missed opportunities the Cardinals had time and time again to extend the lead and put the Brewers away. 

It's easy to forget some of the mistakes made when you win, but taking a look back on the DVR at some of the Cards' plate appearances in key spots, I can't help but think the Cards could have done quite a bit better on offense. 

Exhibit A: Lance Berkman 
Hey, it's easy to see right now Berkman is struggling. Since his first-inning home run off Roy Halladay in game one of the division series, Berkman has gone just 5 for 27, with just one extra base hit and 5 strikeouts. And he did draw a walk in the first inning last night, which was a key part of the rally. 

Even so, Berkman didn't help himself at all in two subsequent plate appearances, grounding out in the third and popping out to short in the fifth. More importantly, though, he only saw three pitches combined between those two at-bats, and neither pitch he swung at was a good pitch to hit. His groundout came on a curveball which might have bounced if he hadn't swung, and the popup came on a first-pitch slider in off the plate. Lance Berkman's patience and discipline are his greatest assets at the plate, but he got himself out both times on bad pitches early in the count. It's tough for hitters to wait for a good pitch to hit when they're struggling, but pressing and trying to force something good to happen doesn't help matters any. I wouldn't mind seeing Berkman get a day off tonight against Randy Wolf, take some extra batting practice, and let Allen Craig have a shot at the lefty. Not sure it will happen, but I would at least consider it. 

Exhibit B: Rafael Furcal 
Furcal actually had a pretty good night, but his at-bat in the second inning was a prime example of a hitter failing to recognise the pitcher's situation. Gallardo had thrown over 30 pitches in the first inning and looked completely lost in terms of his release point. 

Leading off the second inning, Furcal should have been aware how badly Gallardo was fighting his control and forced the pitcher to come into the zone. Instead of being selective, though, and waiting for a pitch to drive, Furcal swung at the second pitch he saw, a slider too far inside, and grounded weakly back to the pitcher. 

In fairness to Furcal, the first pitch Gallardo threw him was a fastball strike, but even so, the smart play would have been to wait and see if he could throw two in a row, something he hadn't yet proven he could come up with through the first frame. Plenty of pitchers fight it a little in the first inning then calm down, but helping out a pitcher who threw two and a half innings' worth of pitches in the first by swinging early in the count before he's proven he can get the ball in the zone is a bad idea. 

Exhibit C: Jon Jay 
I'm sure my lawyer friends will chastise me for not putting my strongest piece of evidence forward first, but dramatics force me to hold out the topper until the last. Jon Jay took a couple of just truly terrible at-bats last night, and I have to call him out on them. 

First was his plate appearance in the second inning, immediately after Rafael Furcal made his quick out I bitched about a moment ago. Again, the situation has a pitcher struggling with his control on the mound, your pitcher sitting in the dugout after a tough inning of his own, and the hitter ahead of you has just made a quick out on two pitches. So what do you do? Do you try to work the count in order to force that pitch count ever higher, as well as giving Carpenter a breather, or do you swing early in the count at a curveball nowhere near being a strike? Well, if you're Jon Jay, you take the second option and never look back. Bad plate appearance. 

Much worse than that, though, was the at-bat Jay took his next time up, with no outs in the fourth inning. The inning began with Chris Carpenter hitting his way on to lead off via a hanging curve Gallardo was lucky to get back at all. He then proceeded to compound the problem by walking Rafael Furcal on four straight pitches. Not only did he make a terrible pitch and give up a hit to his counterpart, he wasn't even particularly close on any of the deliveries to Furcal. It looked like things could be unraveling in a big hurry for Gallardo. 

Two men on, no one out, five straight pitches that didn't go anywhere near where he planned to throw them. Up comes Jon Jay, and does the absolute worst thing he could do in the situation. He swings at a first pitch fastball, clearly out of the strike zone, and grounds into a rally-killing double play. 

I don't always hate first pitch swinging. I'm not normally a fan, but there are times when a pitcher just lays a pitch in that's too fat to let go. Fine, go ahead and take a whack at it. But when you're talking about a pitcher who is clearly on the ropes, just threw four out of the zone to the hitter before you after giving up a solid single to the pitcher, you don't go up and rescue him with a gift double play on the first pitch. That's just completely backward. Make him prove he can throw even one strike before you swing. 

The Jay at-bat is the one that really sticks with me. For a player who supposedly has such a high baseball IQ, it was a plate appearance that clearly lacked any sort of real plan or thought process behind it. Aggressively hacking at the first pitch when the pitcher you're facing hasn't thrown a ball where he meant to in at least five pitches, probably more, just doesn't make any sense. It was a terrible approach to the plate appearance, and Jon Jay has to be smarter in situations like that. 

The Cards knocked the ball around against Gallardo last night, putting tons of baserunners on. In several key situations, though, aggressive hacks taken at bad pitches rescued Gallardo from his own struggles and kept the Cardinals from piling on and putting the game away. Thankfully the bullpen was airtight and the Cards were able to hold on for the win, but with just a few better at-bats in big spots, though, there wouldn't have been nearly so much drama.