Ryan Braun is the polarizing de facto captain of the Milwaukee Brewers. His grand slam Sunday had all the makings of a spine-tingling, jump-out-of-your-seat-and-cheer moment that can only come from baseball this time of year. How did we get there? In this Snap Throw, we take a look — not at Braun, but at the batterymates: Junior Fernandez and Yadier Molina.
Yadier Molina is going to be a Hall of Fame catcher, and is perhaps the preeminent all-around backstop of his generation. His reputation for strategy and pitch calling, always putting his pitchers in the best possible position to succeed, is the stuff of legend.
Junior Fernandez, all of 22 years old, is the Cardinals’ #8 prospect and features a blistering fastball.
In a 4-3 game with two outs in the top of the ninth, and Cardinals closer Carlos Martinez unavailable, Mike Shildt opted for his third pitcher of the inning, the young Fernandez, in his ninth career Major League appearance.
Braun, 0-for-4 on the day, had struggled in September: his batting average slipped almost ten points and sputtered to a 2-for-27, stretching back to September 6. This probably should have been academic: Braun comes up, Fernandez throws gas, gets him to strike out, Cardinals take the series and restore order to the division race.
Instead, we got, according to Statcast, change-up, sinker, sinker, change, slider, change, slider-turned-slam. If we’re being honest, we should remain unconvinced those sliders were actually sliders; there was no slide to those pitches at all. And the hung pitch Braun crushed was closer middle-in than middle-middle.
Molina, for all his accolades and reputation for sterling defense, kept his reliever from his single-best pitch when it mattered most. And, when Braun began keying in on the offspeed stuff–the foul down the left field line was ripped–Molina asked for Fernandez to go to the well one more time. And that was one time too many.
Here’s what MLB Pipeline has to say about the young pitcher: “Fernandez still has one of the best fastballs in the system, one that reaches 99 mph, and he can combine it with a changeup that flashes plus. However, Fernandez’s breaking ball and command both have been slow to develop, and he’s never quite dominated the way someone with his premium stuff should. His slider is fringe-average on its best days, and he can be predictable with how he sequences his fastball-changeup pairing.”
Statcast also shows that Ryan Braun’s heat map sits exactly where Fernandez was placing those pitches: if we accept that Fernandez did throw a slider, he missed his spot badly. If it was a change, Molina called for the change right where Braun swings at those pitches between 61 and 75 percent of the time. The change-up there would make a level of sense, if Braun was off-balance.
The wrinkle is that, based on the prior fouled pitch, Braun was locked in.
Further, for Braun’s career, with which Yadier Molina is most certainly familiar, those pitches have been barreled up 22 to 27 percent of the time according to Brooks Baseball.
None of this makes sense.
Why would Molina call offspeed stuff to a veteran hitter who has struggled but also has a flair for the dramatic, from a very raw extreme fly-ball pitcher, on a weekend when the ball was flying out of Busch Stadium, and dare that veteran to hit a pitch everyone knows isn’t the kid’s best stuff?
Yadier Molina let the Brewers steal this game and the series from the Cardinals, and in so doing, kept the Brewers in this race for the postseason.
Granted, the Cardinals bullpen had imploded before then, yielding walks and loading the bases, and Mike Shildt put a kid in a situation that probably called for a more experienced pitcher. Molina has to make the most of the situation and make Braun beat Fernandez with Fernandez’ #1 pitch.
That didn’t happen, and the rest is history.
Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.