Blake Sabol Reminds Us To Be Romantic About Baseball

On a Tuesday night in San Francisco, 63 degrees with 16 MPH winds was a welcome surprise for the 20,797 paid attendance for April 25th’s matchup between the Cardinals and Giants. Rather than when these two foes faced off in the 2012 and 2014 NLCS, both of them came into this game with sub-.500 records, raising the stakes higher than you’d expect in late April.

One day after Alex Cobb accomplished the increasingly rare complete game shutout, the Giants had practically their entire pitching staff available, and it allowed them to employ an all-out bullpen strategy; eight pitchers appeared in this game, with Tyler Rogers the only one to get through two innings. With a 2-1 lead in the top of the 8th, plans were going swimmingly, but that was until St.Louis woke out of their offensive hibernation, taking control with a three-run rally. All of a sudden, it was the bottom of the 9th, and San Francisco found themselves in deep trouble.

Scoring two or more runs against any reliever trusted in the 9th inning would be a daunting task, yet that is particularly true when facing the Cardinals; if you haven’t heard, their highest-leverage reliever is quite good at his job. After all, dating back to the start of 2022, Ryan Helsley had allowed two runs in just two of his 61 appearances, and never allowed three or more. As such, the odds were certainly not in the Giants’ favor.

On the bright side for San Francisco, they couldn’t ask for much more than having Joc Pederson and Mike Yastrzemski due up first. In a span of six pitches, the duo combined to give Helsley a rude awakening:

Make no mistake about it, Pederson’s single came with a .631 expected batting average; there’s a reason it was ruled a hit rather than an error on second baseman Tommy Edman. Naturally, when two hitters consecutively ambush a pitcher of this caliber, there are plenty of legitimate questions. Was Helsley tipping his pitches or was this just a day where he didn’t have his “A+” arsenal? Certainly, he put those concerns away in a hurry:

Following Yastrzemski’s double, the Giants had a 43.8% chance of winning this game, per Baseball Savant. With Estrada and Crawford retired, however, those odds fell to 14.2%. Yet, for a hero to be created, the odds are supposed to be stacked against them.

In the past, there have cries for the commissioner’s office to allow for a team to have their lineup order reset for the 9th inning. After all, if the top-regarded players can control the final outcome of the game in football and basketball, why shouldn’t that be true for baseball? Yet, there’s such a purity to the randomness that comes with the consistent flow through the order; you never know who will be called to duty when his team needs him most, which adds another layer of unpredictability that is remarkably enjoyable.

Ultimately, a hero’s call to action cannot be forced, but in an unexpected development that puts them in the spotlight. Peter Parker didn’t become Spiderman by choice, yet by how the circumstances played out. Anyways, perhaps we’re getting off the rails here.

Let me introduce you to Blake Sabol. A 25-year-old Rule-5 pick by the Giants, the lefty catcher consistently performed at a high level in the minors, capped off by a 130 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Nevertheless, the Pirates didn’t see the urge to add him to their 40-man roster, and, in San Francisco, his path to remaining on the roster wasn’t a lock; the team signed Roberto Perez this offseason, agreed to a minor-league deal with Gary Sanchez right before the season started, and was going to carry over to this year with former #2 overall pick Joey Bart in the fold as well. Again, the odds were stacked against him.

Alas, due to a variety of circumstances, including injuries, Sabol still found himself on the roster, though with a 76 wRC+ and 43.8% strikeout rate entering this game, he was in a precarious spot. Nevertheless, as the only healthy catcher on the roster (Bart was dealing with an injury from the day before), he didn’t find himself being pinch hit for a more-established player (Wilmer Flores and Mitch Haniger did not start in this game). Instead, it was up to him to “save the day” against one of the league’s most dominant pitchers.

Nevertheless, there’s more to this. Entering this game, Sabol had swung at 26 right-handed breaking balls, and had whiffed at 16 of them. For those running to their calculator, that’s a 61.5% whiff rate, to go along with a 43% called-strike + whiff rate. Helsley, meanwhile, had generated a called strike or whiff on 202 of the 482 breaking balls (42%) he had thrown to that point, dating back to 2022. As you’d expect, when a pitcher’s strength aligns with a hitter’s vulnerability, the pitcher is going to attack it. To his credit, Sabol didn’t budge:

Clearly, down 1-0, Helsley would figure to get back on track with a fastball, right? Why do that when you can place two sliders so perfectly that even prime Barry Bonds could feel helpless against?

Sigh. Since the start of the 2022 season, Helsley had struck out 60.8% of the batters he had faced in two-strike counts. Sabol, meanwhile, was the victim of a strikeout in 85.2% (!) of the plate appearances that reached two strikes. Basic math could tell us that there was a considerable chance that this sequence would conclude in a punchout, and the magic of the rally caps would come up just short. Then again, when was baseball ever predictable? With that in mind, I present to you a moment to be remembered:

Let me reiterate; prior to this plate appearance, Helsley had allowed just two home runs with two strikes since the start of the 2022 season. That’s 1.1 percent! In fact, none of the other 27 hitters that have been in a two-strike count against Helsley have mustered an extra-base hit. Baseball, my friends, is not supposed to go according to plan.

After all, there are plenty of circumstances that needed to be in effect. The winds, for instance, were specifically blowing to center field, per the MLB.Com boxscore. How about the fact that, if not for Sabol being the only healthy catcher, he probably is pinch hit for? Or the fact that making the roster as a rule-five pick for a team with postseason aspirations is a remarkable accomplishment in it of itself. If you simulate this sequence a thousand times, you’re not going to get this result often, if at all. Nevertheless, in baseball, and in life, each moment can only be played out once, and, sometimes, it leads to moments like this.

Plus, since this game, Sabol has continued to perform at a high level (120 wRC+), earning nearly consistent playing time against right-handed pitching. Will this turn out to be the spark that creates the hero? Why worry? Rather, let’s live in the present, and, in this case, this at bat was able to remind us one clear lesson- there is never a time to not be romantic about baseball.

Photo Cred: MLB.Com

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