The Cardinals and the Phillies exchanged haymakers this week, and on Monday the Cards got the better side of it. By the ninth inning, the game was out of hand -- 6-0 El Birdos. We were far out of the realm of compelling, competitive baseball. Against this odd backdrop, though, one of my favorite at-bats of the year played out. Jordan Hicks needed some work. Bryce Harper was due up. Cue the fireworks.
Now, this wasn’t the first high-profile batter Hicks has faced this year. Two weeks ago, he stepped in to face Christian Yelich with the bases loaded in the ninth inning, up three. That’s about as pressure-packed as an at-bat gets. Still, the Harper duel was riveting. Hicks is one of the most exciting pitchers in baseball. Harper is one of the most exciting hitters in baseball. In seven pitches, they reminded me why this game is so fun to watch.
Right from the start of the at-bat, Hicks had a plan -- low and away with fastballs, and breaking balls in. Harper has historically gotten a lot of power from turning on inside pitches, so you can see the thinking. The first pitch of the at-bat was executed perfectly:
Or, well, executed mostly perfectly, since that pitch was bafflingly not called a strike. Still, there was a blueprint in place. It only took one more pitch to see the second part of the plan:
Sweet Moses, that’s a slider. Harper doesn’t get cheated on his swings, that’s for sure. Earlier this week at FanGraphs, Devan Fink wrote about Harper pressing this year, and while the sample sizes are miniscule for drawing conclusions, the swing at Hicks’ slider looked a little press-y to me. In any case, after two strikes, we were left at 1-1.
At this point in the at-bat, Harper was in quite a pickle. Even though that first pitch outside wasn’t called a strike, he couldn’t be confident it wouldn’t be again if Hicks went back to it. Also, just for fun, it was over 100 mph. Meanwhile, the slider that started out in the same tunnel almost hit his back foot as he swung over it. Oh, also it was 12 mph slower. Lol good luck buddy.
The third pitch was exactly what you’d want from Hicks in this situation -- a trip back to slider town:
Sharper, nastier, same result. What in the world are you supposed to think as Harper here? You can see the self-doubt in the bat extension at the end of the swing -- who was that masked man, anyway?
At this point, I was on the edge of my seat. Here’s Jordan Hicks, a mere year into his major league career, absolutely toying with literally Bryce Harper. Hicks was feeling it, and his 1-2 pitch showed his adrenaline:
Juuuuuuuust a bit low. Okay, fine, it was time to regroup. There are two pitches that Hicks has counted on so far this at-bat, the slider in and the sinker away. It was time for another sinker away:
That’s just marvelous hitting by Harper. That is a tough, tough pitch, and fouling it off to stay alive in the at-bat is pretty impressive. Still, though, with the exception of that one yanked fastball, Hicks was absolutely carving Harper up. The locations had been flawless, the stuff sublime.
Want to see some dummy criticize what he doesn’t understand? Here’s me saying Hicks doesn’t need a changeup. What a dope I was. This 2-2 changeup was an absolute masterwork -- a case study in pitch sequencing. Harper had two things in his mind at this point: watch the pitch, and it’ll either be a fast pitch in the zone away or a slow pitch out of the zone in. Hicks subverts the pattern by dropping in a slow pitch that doesn’t sweep in:
Uh, what now? That’s not a strike? Harper certainly thought it was -- watch him closely, and you can see he’s disappointed in himself for not recognizing the change there. In any case, this at-bat had become a three-way battle: Hicks, Harper, and umpire Laz Diaz.
In a full count, there were only two pitches Hicks would consider throwing. The fastball seemed the safer call in a 6-0 game. Maybe Harper tattoos it, and maybe he doesn’t. Still, a walk is basically a home run here. The slider is risky -- you have to believe Harper will be trying to swing out of his shoes on 3-2, to be fair a reasonable gamble:
My goodness. That pitch is absolutely filthy, and I’m not just talking about Yadi’s knee hitting the dirt. Hicks and Harper faced off, and for seven pitches, the score didn’t matter. It could have been 0-0, it could have been 10-0. The hardest thrower in the game dueled one of the biggest sluggers in the game, and baseball doesn’t get more fun to watch than that.
Nah, jokes. Baseball gets more fun to watch than that, because some baseball is shown with a reasonable camera angle. Those sliders were nasty, but it was hard to tell how nasty. Heck, the first one looked like it was never a strike. Why did Harper even swing at it? Well, feast your eyes on this Hicks slider to Yasmani Grandal:
That’s what the sliders to Harper actually looked like. They started on the outside part of the plate before charging hellbent towards the batter’s back foot. Why could you see it on the Grandal pitch and not the Harper trio? Well, because we had the good fortune of the Grandal pitch happening in Milwaukee, where the team has reasonably placed camera wells.
Look, I’m not the first person to complain about the FSMW camera angle. Craig and BGH, illustrious VEB alums, have already done it. Ben Godar wrote about it this week. It’s not a secret. It just, well, sucks. The announcers, both home and away, couldn’t stop talking about Hicks’ movement. “Wow, look at that break,” was said more than once. Well, guys, I’d like to. I’d really like to look at the break! That’s what I most desire.
I’m not a greedy man. Or, well, sometimes I am, but not when it comes to this. I don’t want something new and unprecedented, something that’s never before been seen. I just want last year’s cameras, and even though the new angle didn’t spoil what has been the at-bat of the season so far for me, it definitely dulled the shine a bit. FSMW, give us what we want please. The mental image of those Hicks sliders from a dead-center camera is so beautiful that it deserves to exist in the physical world.