Unstoppable Forces And Immovable Objects

Philadelphia, PA, USA; Atlanta Braves pitcher Craig Kimbrel delivers to the plate during the ninth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park. The Braves defeated the Phillies 6-3. Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Juan Pierre never strikes out. Craig Kimbrel never doesn't strike a guy out. Pierre has faced off against Kimbrel one time. What happened?

My good friend Dave Cameron tweeted the other day that Aroldis Chapman had struck out 30 of the last 45 hitters he'd faced. That was before Chapman ruined everything by striking out just one of four batters on Wednesday. But 30 strikeouts out of 45 plate appearances is quite good. Derek Lowe has 40 strikeouts all season, over 525 plate appearances. In the span of 45 plate appearances, Aroldis Chapman generated more strikeouts than Tony Gwynn had in any individual season after 1989. (Tony Gwynn played through 2001.)

So Chapman is kind of the king of strikeouts right now, only with Craig Kimbrel right behind him. And that Chapman factoid gave me an idea. What happens when a guy who strikes everybody out faces a guy who never strikes out? I went to the numbers and searched for matchups. I took the numbers back to 2010, because I was interested in having a larger sample than just 2012. I set a plate-appearance minimum of 500, and an innings-pitched minimum of 100.

Since 2010, the most difficult batter to strike out has been Juan Pierre. He's whiffed in just 5.9 percent of his plate appearances, a slightly lower rate than Jeff Keppinger's and a less slightly lower rate than Placido Polanco's. And since 2010, the pitcher with the highest strikeout rate is Kimbrel. Kimbrel has whiffed 43.3 percent of opposing batters, while Chapman checks in at 41.0 percent and Kenley Jansen shows up at 40.7 percent.

So I'd identified Pierre and Kimbrel. The next question was: has Juan Pierre ever batted against Craig Kimbrel? And the answer is yes, once, on May 2, 2012. Makes sense, given that Kimbrel is a Brave and Pierre has been a Phillie. How did the showdown proceed? I'll proceed, and you'll follow.

This matchup didn't generate much in the way of national attention, because it fell on the same day as Jered Weaver's no-hitter, and because who the hell knew that it was in any way significant? Pierre batted against Kimbrel leading off the top of the ninth, with the Phillies trailing the Braves 13-12. The Braves had just posted a five-spot against the Phillies bullpen in the bottom of the eighth. Kimbrel was on to slam the door against the 9-1-2.

Pierre was coming off the bench, pinch-hitting for the pitcher's spot. He stepped in, Kimbrel looked in for the sign, and then Kimbrel delivered a first-pitch fastball.

Kimbrelpierre1

It missed, badly, clipping the home-plate umpire in the right foot. Actually, it struck the home-plate umpire flush in the right foot. Pierre wound up on the ground in girl push-up position. Don't yell at me, I didn't come up with the name. I guess Pierre wound up on the ground in searching-for-a-lost-contact position. Is that better? Juan Pierre fell to the ground, is my point. Kimbrel looked to bounce back from a bad first-pitch fastball with a better second-pitch fastball:

Kimbrelpierre2

Kimbrel did throw a better second-pitch fastball, but it still wasn't good, missing the zone outside. Oftentimes you'll see umpires grant strikes outside off the plate against left-handed hitters, but this was a little too outside. The count was 2-and-0 in Pierre's favor, and then he could turn the power loose. Kimbrel had to be careful, because ahead in the count, Pierre could slap the next pitch extra hard on the ground. Kimbrel threw a fastball:

Kimbrelpierre3

It was more or less the same fastball. Instead of 97 miles per hour, it was 96 miles per hour. Instead of outside, it was outside and a little high. But the outcome was the same: Craig Kimbrel threw a fastball to Juan Pierre and it missed the strike zone away. That left the count 3-and-0. The Braves announcers started talking about the danger of walking the leadoff hitter, especially when the leadoff hitter has Juan Pierre's speed. The last thing Craig Kimbrel wanted to do was walk the leadoff hitter. In truth the last thing Craig Kimbrel wanted to do was allow a home run to the leadoff hitter, but that wasn't ever going to happen. After three fastballs, Kimbrel threw a fastball:

Kimbrelpierre4

Pitch no. 4 was identical to Pitch no. 3. It was a fastball, at 96 miles per hour, and Gameday has the locations overlapping. With four straight fastballs, Craig Kimbrel walked Juan Pierre, who was the leadoff hitter in the ninth inning of a one-run game. The announcers remarked that 35 percent of leadoff walks had come around to score in 2012, and that 37 percent of leadoff walks had come around to score in 2011. Leadoff walks come around to score every time, unless they don't. Juan Pierre did. He stole second base, he advanced to third on a ground-out, and he scored on an infield single. Craig Kimbrel blew the save, which doesn't happen very often. Shouldn't have walked Juan Pierre. Especially not on four pitches.

So what have we learned? The most high-strikeout pitcher has faced the most low-strikeout hitter one time. The result of that showdown was a four-pitch walk. Technically, the hitter won because he didn't strike out, but Juan Pierre's whole thing is that he seldom swings and misses, and in this plate appearance he didn't swing one time. He didn't come close to swinging. The bat never left his shoulder, except for when he dropped it after the first pitch almost hit him in the leg. What happens when the most high-strikeout pitcher faces the most low-strikeout hitter? Inconclusive. That's what happens. Craig Kimbrel and Juan Pierre chickened out from science, and thus we have learned nothing at all. Way to go, jerks.

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