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One Tiny, Perfect Memory from 2016

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A trip down memory lane, and what it says about fandom

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what I remember most about baseball seasons in retrospect. Is it because the Cardinals are in a funk? Mayyyyyyyybe. Mostly, though, I think it’s because you have to take something away from a season, and most of the time it’s not going to be a championship. If I looked back on every season as a referendum on whether the Cardinals won the last game of the World Series, I think I would have given up on baseball fandom long ago. I’m not sure how normal I am, but the weirdest things stick with me. I couldn’t tell you the Cardinals’ record from many past years (100 in 2015, 105 in 2004, and that’s about all I’ve got for you). I certainly couldn’t tell you their Pythagorean record, or how they batted as a team. Instead, I remember players. More than that, I remember moments.

Take 2016, for example. A lot of weird stuff happened in 2016. The Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time in a long time. The Simpsons did better forecasting the election than Nate Silver. The Cubs won a World Series. It was a pretty weird time. When I’m trying to remember something about the 2016 baseball season, though, I couldn’t tell you how many games out the Cards finished. I could tell you about Aledmys Diaz though. I couldn’t tell you the FIP of the pitching staff, but I can tell you that Final Boss is a better nickname than Stone Buddha. More than any of that, though, my strongest memory of 2016 is from a game in early June that the Cardinals won comfortably. It was against the Giants, though I had to look that up just now. The Cardinals won 7-4. I’d like to talk about this game, not because it mattered to the final standings, but because I can still see one play from it as clear as day. This one play underlined for me how great baseball is, and why I love to dissect it.

Let’s start with a picture. I clipped the top out so that I wouldn’t give away the game:

That’s a pretty graphic, right? The symmetry plays. It doesn’t look like there are all that many observations, though. Six observations all year? It was already June when this happened, remember? Who is this, some kind of backup or something? Well, here’s another piece of the puzzle:

Okay, so a regular, then. I might think of Aledmys Diaz as a has-been now, but he was an absolute sensation when he came up. Coming into this day, he was hitting .326/.359/.533, good for a 134 wRC+. He’d already hit seven home runs and driven in twenty-six, so whether you like your stats traditional or new-age, he looked like the real deal The mystery hadn’t faded away yet, though. I have a work colleague who gambles on sports pretty religiously, and after this game I asked him what he thought of the whole Aledmys Diaz story. He had absolutely no idea who I was talking about. Only 50 games into his career, he was still a mysterious Cuban newcomer with an equally mysterious scar, a canvas for Cardinals fans to live their latter-day Bo Hart fantasies.

In this particular game, Aledmys was batting second (Matheny batted him eighth a lot to start the season, much to the consternation of internet smartasses everywhere) and had gone hitless in his first two at-bats. That gets us back to where we were before- what is that bright red center up above? Well, young Aledmys was a little bit of a hacker. Still is, really. The man likes to swing. He also had some very traditional traits, though. Diaz started his career out with five straight takes on 3-0. He’s been reasonably patient on 3-0 throughout his career, but before this game, he’d literally never swung at a 3-0 pitch. The chart above is all of his swings on 3-0 up to this date, including this plate appearance. That must be why it was piped. Jeff Samardzija (already on the Giants in 2016, who knew?) wasn’t messing around with trying to hit the corner. He threw it right down the center. What was Diaz going to do? He always takes 3-0! Maybe Samardzija didn’t totally trust the scouting report he presumably had, though, because he still threw it 96, a mile an hour or so faster than his normal velocity.

Well, you already know what happened- he swung. I’ll even do you one better- he got a hit. Let’s see it in graphical form:

Let’s take a step back here. The Cardinals came into this inning down 4-0, and that would have felt like a lot against the Giants, eternal thorns in the Cardinals’ sides. Brandon Moss led off with a home run. There was hope. 4-1. Yadi followed with a flyout to right, and Wong grounded out. The inning wasn’t over, though. With two out and no one on, Matheny pinch hit for a struggling Michael Wacha, and human meme Jeremy Hazelbaker smacked a single to left. Matt Carpenter followed up with a double to right, but Hazelbaker didn’t have the speed to bring things home. That takes us back to where we were. Two on, two out, 3-0 to Diaz. We know he swung. In retrospect, he HAD to swing. When else was he going to get a pitch to hit? Matt Holliday was due up next, and he was mired in a bit of a slump.

I gave away the result, just a little bit, up above. Diaz got a hit. This would be a pretty boring article if it was about a 3-0 count that Aledmys Diaz swung at and roped foul. Here’s what things looked like at the moment he made contact with the ball:

You can be the judge of what that looks like. This would almost be enough of a story by itself. Aledmys Diaz had a tiny little thing that I thought I knew about him, that other teams thought they knew about him. It turned out, though, that the thing we thought we knew wasn’t reality. The iocaine powder was in both vials. The hidden game of baseball, right before our very eyes. I’ll be honest with you, though. That’s not why I remember this play, not totally.

Oh, my. Home runs per ball in play? Home runs per BALL IN PLAY?!? Why does this stat even exist? Who’s hitting so many home runs that it’s a meaningful fraction of their balls in play? Well, Aledmys Diaz apparently. There’s a split second just after Diaz makes contact where Samardzija is starting to turn to look over his shoulder. He can’t understand what just happened. It’ll dawn on him shortly, but for now, it’s just clear that something has gone wrong. Just to be clear on how wrong it went- it went extremely wrong. Here’s the video evidence:

The Giants never scored again. The Cardinals won the game by three runs. I’ll be honest with you- when I think about this play, that part doesn’t come up. To me, it’s a walkoff, or it’s in September, or it’s against the Cubs. The specifics aren’t the important part. The play, to me, is essentially this picture:

I can’t get enough of it. It says so much more than meets the eye. One ball- one pitch. The amount of data we can get about baseball games these days is staggering. In looking up this play, I pulled up videos of every Aledmys Diaz home run from 2016. Almost as an afterthought, they listed the opposing pitcher and pitch, as well as his exit velocity and launch angle. I recently looked at every batted ball Marcell Ozuna hit in 2017- one click, and it’s in a spreadsheet for me to manipulate to my heart’s content. And yet, that’s not baseball. The all-encompassing sweep of data doesn’t take away the heart of the game. I don’t watch baseball for the wRC+, for the xwOBA. I certainly don’t watch it for the BaseRuns standings. I love thinking about baseball because you can always look deeper, because finding a nugget of signal buried under an avalanche of noise is so satisfying. When I get right down to it, though, when I’m summing up an entire season of baseball years later, my memory doesn’t work like that. One pitch. One swing. Sometimes, that’s all the analysis you need.

The Cardinals are maddening. They’re frustrating. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind, to focus on the baserunning mistakes and the endless parade of slumping hitters. Are the Cubs five up? Are the Brewers making a run? How is this team going to go on a winning streak? Why can’t we draft more stars? Why can’t we *sign* more stars? I’m as guilty of it as the next person. For goodness sake, I write two articles a week about the Cardinals. You better believe I like diving into the minutiae. At the end of the year, though, I’m not going to remember any of that stuff. It will be a blur of memories, columns about slumps and hot streaks and rebuilt swings and new pitches. I’m going to remember one tiny thing about this season. I don’t know what it is yet. At the end of the day, though, that thing is going to be what I take with me, what I remember ten years from now.