In watching the condensed game of the Red Sox Game 4 win over the Rays on Tuesday, I noticed something interesting about Craig Breslow's 7th inning performance. According to TBS's PitchTrax, in striking out all three batters he faced that inning, Breslow did not throw a single one of his 15 pitches within the strike zone. There were 6 called balls, 2 called strikes, and 7 swinging strikes.
You can see for yourself by going to the condensed game on MLB.com and moving the slider to the 9:55 time mark. I'd show some screen captures here but I'm not clear on whether there would be copyright issues with that.
Of course the analysis that follows assumes we trust the data PitchTrax is showing us. I cannot comment on how reliable that data is. Perhaps some readers of this article can.
All three batters were right-handed. Right-handed batters are supposed to see lefty hurlers better, but apparently in this case they didn't see him very well.
All the pitches missed either low or away (or both).
The two called strikes were just barely outside of the down and away corner of the strike zone. Umpires with wide strike zones will call these strikes, so so long as this umpire was consistent through the night, these weren't necessarily bad calls. Breslow may even have been counting on establishing this as a strike, as each time it occurred it was the first strike in the at bat.
The first two at bats followed a similar pattern. In the first at bat, a ball down and away was followed by the called strike. The wide strike call may have contributed to Longoria's decision to swing at the next pitch, just a hair further outside. Now with two strikes, Breslow went with a low pitch over the inner half of the plate that Longoria couldn't hold his swing on.
Zobrist followed with an at bat just like this but with a couple of extra balls in the mix. Two balls outside (one of these also down) were followed by the wide strike call. He then laid off an outside pitch, but swung at the one that followed, in almost exactly the same place. Now with two strikes, Breslow went with a low pitch over the inner half of the plate that Zobrist couldn't hold his swing on.
A similar pattern to Jennings worked out a little differently. After getting him to swing at two of three outside pitches, Breslow again went to a pitch that was just a little low but over the plate. Jennings laid off of it, but then swung and missed at the final outside pitch.
Imagine if the Rays' batters had just kept their bats on their shoulders. Breslow probably has to come into the zone then, behind in the count. But they didn't. Without having seen the movement on these pitches, it would seem there must be some amount of deception Breslow is able to achieve when throwing outside to right-handed hitters.
The great Greg Maddux once explained that one of the keys to success in pitching is making the balls look like strikes and the strikes look like balls. It would seem Breslow has a good handle on at least the first part of this.
What Breslow did was pretty remarkable. It's an indication of how he's a very different kind of pitcher than his bullpenmate Koji Uehara is, who gets a lot swings and misses in the strikezone due to a dynamic pitching style that conceals the ball well, combined with a great ability to get batters to guess wrong at which of his two pitches he's throwing. But if Breslow can get guys to chase pitches out of the zone, why give them anything that they can get the barrel on until he's forced to?