Last Saturday’s Athletics vs. Twins game turned out just about as everyone expected, with Oakland winning the game 9-4 in what was a noncompetitive contest after the 5th inning. Minnesota chose to debut their #8 prospect, starting pitcher Trevor May, in a road game during a lost season against a team with the best run differential in the majors. They did this, one can only suspect, because they are the Minnesota Twins. From experience we may infer the answer to the question “what happens when we give a young man his debut against a pitching meat grinder?”, and so it was that Trevor May struggled, and struggled mightily. May lasted only two innings, gave up four earned runs, walked seven batters, and did not record a single strikeout. This is strange for many reasons, the main ones being that Minnesota is a pitch-to-contact team in its approach, and because no one has walked at least seven batters and not struck anyone out in their debut since Ricky Romero for the Blue Jays in August of 2012.
However, we’re not here to talk exclusively about Trevor May, even though his wild performance on Saturday night partially allowed this article’s existence. We’re here to talk about Eric Sogard, who quietly had a strangely historic night during an otherwise fairly pedestrian Oakland win. Eric Sogard is known, if he is truly known outside of the Oakland fan base, for two things: coming in second during this past off-season’s “Face of MLB” contest, and for his prowess with the glove.
Sogard doesn’t really hit: he’s currently slashing .216/.305/.271, and he hit his first home run of the year last week, a 349-foot missile down the right field line. Eric Sogard is one of those major leaguers who is in the league because he does one thing very well, and because he plays for a team that has the luxury of being able to carry a player whose value is determined almost entirely by defense. Make no mistake, Eric Sogard is a very good defensive second baseman: he has a UZR/150 of 8.5 that puts him 8th among active 2B this year with a minimum of 500 innings played. He is not, however, great with the bat.
That being said, let’s look at Eric Sogard’s batting line from Saturday night against the Twins, when he batted in the 9th position:
0-1, 1 R, 4 BBs, 1 SB
Eric Sogard walked four times while batting in the 9th position in the lineup on Saturday night. Take a moment to let that fact sink in, because it’s crazy. How rare is it for a batter in the 9th position in the lineup to walk four times? Since 1914, it has only happened 14 times including Sogard this past weekend. He’s the first member of the Oakland Athletics to ever do it. Only two other players since 1914 have accomplished this and also stolen a base in the same game: Desi Relaford (2002) & Brady Anderson (1990). On top of all of that, Sogard also made an error – because in a game when weird things are happening to a defensive second baseman, of course he did. He’s now the only player in baseball history to have walked four times in the 9th spot, stolen a base, and made an error in the same game. That’s reaching a little bit, but hey, baseball history!
Just pointing out the rarity of this phenomenon isn’t really interesting enough, though. Let’s go a little deeper. Specifically, let’s ask ourselves this question: “how many pitches did Eric Sogard ‘get to hit’ on Saturday night?” By “get to hit” I mean pitches in the strike zone that have a high likelihood of good contact – i.e., not “pitcher’s pitches” on the corner low and away or nasty breaking pitches located perfectly. Yes, this is subjective, as every hitter is different in their preference of locations to swing at and hit thrown pitches, but we’re more generally going to look at pitches that were over the plate and hittable. We know the answer to this question isn’t going to be a lot of pitches, given the four walks. However, for a light-hitting second baseman batting in the 9th spot, who should expect to be challenged over the plate in almost every at-bat, it’s a fun question to ask. It also allows us to look at some GIFs.
I’ve gone ahead and split up every at-bat that Eric Sogard had on Saturday into different GIFs and overlaid them with circles: green for balls and red for strikes. Sogard saw 22 pitches on Saturday, which tied him for the team lead with Derek Norris. Let’s dig in.
1st AB, 2nd inning – 2 out, none on, P Trevor May:
Sogard saw four pitches, all four of which were balls. Only the first pitch of the at-bat was close to in the strike zone, and Sogard was either taking all the way or correctly identified the pitch as a changeup and laid off.
Pitches to hit tally: 0
2nd AB, 3rd inning, 1 out, 1 on: P Samuel Deduno:
This was the biggest battle of the game for our nerd power-harnessing second baseman, as he saw seven pitches and went to a full count. The 2-0 strike might have been the most hittable pitch Sogard saw all night, even though it was low in the zone and breaking slightly toward the outer half of the plate. The 3-1 pitch, called a strike, probably could’ve been called either way, and Sogard pulled a 3-2 liner foul off of an inside fastball off the plate before taking his second walk.
Pitches to hit tally: 1
3rd AB, 5th inning, 1 out, none on: P Samuel Deduno:
Deduno had just given up a two run homer to Stephen Vogt in the previous at-bat, so he might’ve been a little rattled when facing our young hero. Sogard walked on five pitches, with the 1-0 high fastball strike the best pitch to hit. However, when you’ve already walked twice, why start swinging now?
Pitches to hit tally: 2
4th AB, 6th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Ryan Pressly:
Nothing to swing at. The two low and away pitches were the closest to strikes, but they were also easy takes after two pitches high and outside that weren’t close. Four walks achieved.
Pitches to hit tally: 2
5th AB, 8th inning, 2 out, 1 on: P Anthony Swarzak:
At last Eric Sogard is bested. After a high and outside pitch was taken for a ball, allowing us to dream of the first-ever five walk night out of a hitter in the 9th spot, Sogard swung at a nasty low and away pitch on the corner and meekly chopped out to the pitcher. Not even Sogard’s blazing speed could rescue him this time. Unfortunately, that was not a pitch to hit/swing at.
Alas, poor Sogard, we knew him well.
Final pitches to hit tally: 2
To wrap it all up, here we have a GIF of all of the pitches Sogard saw on Saturday (from the catcher’s perspective). I’m viewing the strike zone that was generated by the system with a healthy bit of skepticism, as it’s not adjusted for the batter or the umpire. Still, it gives us a concrete idea of how many pitches Sogard saw that were worth swinging at:
The answer is two or three at most, which is insane, because the Minnesota Twins have the fifth-lowest BB/9 in the majors, and Eric Sogard is hitting around .215 with one home run.
Baseball is great because Giancarlo Stanton hits majestic 500 foot moon shots, but it’s also great because guys who are 5′ 10″ (on a good day) defensive specialists who platoon at second base draw four walks against a team that is known for pitching to contact. Players like Eric Sogard aren’t barred from the history books, even though they’re often overlooked in favor of the mashers chasing home run titles; they simply make their history in a very different and sometimes more interesting way. Maybe we have to dig for it a little. Or maybe Eric Sogard just needs to not swing for a whole game and let the stars align.
This post is dedicated to my good friend Adam Sax, who is nice enough to help me out with the deep stats (and the last GIF) and is the biggest Sogard fan I know.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.