On throwing a change up when a fastball’s your best pitch

Sports are interesting, and one of the interesting aspects about them, among many, is that the very unlikely can sometimes happen.

The Louisville Cardinals baseball team went 50-12 this year through the regular season and first round (“regional”) of the NCAA baseball playoff. Moreover, they were an astounding 36-1 at home, the only loss coming by three runs at the hands of last year’s national champion, Virginia. Over the last several years they have been one of the best teams in the country, making it to the College World Series twice, though not yet winning it. They were considered by the tournament selection committee to be the #2 team in the country, behind Florida, but many of the better computer polls had Louisville as #1.

The college baseball playoff is one of the most interesting tournaments out there, from a structural perspective. Because it’s baseball, it’s not a one-loss tournament, at any of the four levels thereof, at least since 2003. Those four levels are: (1) the sixteen regionals of four teams each, (2) the eight “super regionals” determined by the regional champs, and (3) two rounds at the College World Series in Omaha, comprised of the eight super regional champs. A team can in fact lose as many as four games total over the course of the playoff, and yet still win the national championship. It’s not easy to do though, because a loss in the first game, at either the regional level, or in round one of the CWS, requires a team to win four games to advance, instead of three. In the 13 years of this format, only Fresno State has pulled that feat off, in 2008.

In winning their regional and being one of the top eight seeds, Louisville hosted the winner of the Nashville regional, which was won in an upset over favorite Vanderbilt, by UC Santa Barbara of the Big West Conference. That conference is not as good top to bottom as is the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) that Louisville plays in, but neither is it any slouch, containing perennial power CSU Fullerton, and also Long Beach State, who gave third ranked Miami fits in its regional. More generally, the caliber of the baseball played on the west coast, including the PAC-12 and the Big West, is very high, though often slighted by writers and pollsters in favor of teams from the southeast (ACC and Southeast (SEC) conferences in particular). Based on the results of the regional and super regional playoff rounds, the slighting this year was serious: only two of the eight teams in the CWS are from the ACC/SEC, even though teams from the two conferences had home field advantage in fully 83 percent (20/24) of all the first and second round series. Five schools west of the Mississippi River are in, including the top three from the Big 12 conference.

In the super regional, the first team to win twice goes on to the CWS in Omaha. To make a long and interesting story short, UCSB won the first game 4-2 and thus needed just one more win to knock out Louisville and advance to the CWS for the first time in their history. Down 3-0, in the bottom of the ninth inning, they were facing one of the best closers in all of college baseball, just taken as the 27th overall pick in the MLB amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox. Coming in with 100+ mph fastballs, he got the first batter out without problem. However, the second batter singled, and then he began to lose his control and he did exactly what you shouldn’t do: walked the next two batters to load the bases. The UCSB coach decided to go to his bench to bring in a left-handed hitting pinch-hitter, a freshman with only 26 at-bats on the season, albeit with one home run among his nine hits on the year.

And the rest, as they say, is history:

(All the games from this weekend are available for replay here)

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4 thoughts on “On throwing a change up when a fastball’s your best pitch

  1. Changing up indeed. I’ve been preoccupied of late with matters that must take precedence… but was catching up on your statistical treatment(s) on observational data. Quite nicely done btw – but I was in need of a little change up and this fills the bill nicely.

    I’ve always enjoyed watching the game within the game of baseball. Trying to imagine what a manager is scheming, or what a player is going through at a particular moment. Something as simple as laying down a sacrifice bunt (less simple when everyone is looking for it) is mired in the actual execution.

    Have missed almost all the CWS this year. It sucks. While I was in school in Lincoln NE the proximity to Omaha was great for CWS watching. Happy times.

    • Well, you’re still in luck because Omaha starts this weekend and of course goes through the next one, so still plenty of great ball to watch. I’m envious of you–I always wanted to go because the CWS is my favorite sporting event of all, but Omaha was always just too far away.

      The game within the game–yes that’s so much of what baseball is about. On that issue, the fact that the coach decided to go with a freshman PH with 26 ABs on the season, in a situation as crucial as that, tells you that he knew the kid was actually a good bet in that situation. And indeed when Burdi (the reliever) threw him a high 90s heater a couple pitches before, the kid was right on it timing-wise, but fouled it back. I’d bet that’s why he threw him a change up right there, otherwise he’d go with straight gas.

      If you get the time, or just need a good snooze, the fourth part of the clustering series is the most important one–I just put it up.

    • I was thinking the coach put the freshman in because it was quite unlikely the Louisville coaches had any scouting knowledge of how to pitch him. Also quite possible the coach knew his freshman to be a capable fast ball hitter. Either way, the coach and the freshman deserve some credit. Imagine the ball doesn’t make it out of the park, batter gets a base clearing double to bring home 3 and tie. Following batter(s) fail to bring him home, and game goes into extra innings. Suspense like that keeps folks coming back to the parks. Probably sells more beer as well.

      Have had a peak at the fourth installment. Do need to take a closer look. In agronomy we were trained in experimental design where normal distributions and ANOVA were, well… normal. Correlation analyses were dumped on the poor sots who hadn’t an opportunity to conduct a controlled experiment with treatments and replication. But there are lots of geneticists and breeders running around now looking at GWAS and other association studies where the stats you’re describing are front and center. False positives – for when you absolutely and positively must be wrong.

    • One of the most interesting things about the situation, IMO, is the conflict between basing decisions on season-long data/observations/tendencies, versus what is happening right at the moment. The Louisville coach was between a rock and a hard place: his ace reliever, who never ever blows games, has suddenly lost control and loaded the bases. He had his game #3 starter in the pen warming up, but didn’t make the move. He went with the long term odds, against the evidence provided by real time situation. And it cost him.

      GWAS–yes, certainly plenty of potential there for false positives if you’re asleep at the wheel. I’m assuming they’re awake for the most part, or else getting there quickly after being burned a few times. Similar issues exist in population genetics

      However, the biggest point I’m trying to get across there, is that structure can be evaluated just within a single variable alone. It’s not a perspective people are used to, even among those who take data-mining approaches seriously. But I’m convinced it’s potentially very powerful.

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