When Boston's Craig Breslow airmailed a throw to third base in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the World Series, he allowed the decisive run to score for St. Louis. The result immediately drew the ire of Red Sox fans across the nation. Bostonians have a right to be disappointed by the play, but they should not be surprised, as costly errors by pitchers have become a consistent theme in the MLB postseason.
Indeed, Breslow could join an unfortunate fraternity of hurlers who have thrown away baseballs, and with them their teams' title hopes. The most famous example is Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees. He threw Damian Miller's bunt into center field in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. The error contributed to the Arizona Diamondback's comeback and stands as one of the few blemishes on Rivera's postseason resume.
But there have been more recent occasions that were equally important. The Cardinals have won two World Series in the past decade, but it might have been more had their pitchers been able to defend their position. Jason Marquis' bobble of a Craig Biggio bunt in Game 4 of the 2005 NLCS allowed the winning run to score in a series the Cardinals would eventually lose to the Houston Astros.
St. Louis took a 3-1 series lead in the 2012 NLCS to the Giants, but squandered a chance to end the series at home in Game 5. The key play? Lance Lynn threw away a potential double-play ball in the fourth inning, leading to four unearned runs in a 5-0 loss. When asked about the play, a dejected Lynn could only offer, "Weird things happen," according to ESPN.com's Michael Knisley. The Giants won the next two games in San Francisco to advance to the Fall Classic.
Even in this year's Series, the Cardinals were victimized in Game 1 when Adam Wainwright miscommunicated with his Gold Glove battery mate Yadier Molina and allowed a routine pop-up to drop between them. But St. Louis has also benefited from fielding ineptitude on the part of opposing pitchers. Their 2006 championship was aided by a World Series record of five errors by the Detroit Tigers pitching staff.
Finally, the 2009 Yankees waltzed into the World Series after a Game 6 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in the ALCS. A close game was made decidedly less so when Scott Kazmir somehow botched a seemingly un-botchable thirty-foot throw en route to a 5-2 loss.
It's hard to be certain why pitchers continue to make such mistakes. In general, they are worse fielders than the average defensive player, logging a .961 fielding percentage in the 2013 regular season compared to .985 for all other players, according to ESPN.com. The gap is actually greater than the numerical discrepancy shows, however, since pitchers have far less difficult plays to execute than the guys playing behind them.
The low degree of difficulty might actually be the reason for the errors, though. Pitchers can get psyched out by the apparent easiness of a simple throw to a base, especially since they are so accustomed to making one throw over and over again—pitches to the plate.
Take Breslow's error as a case study. While many have questioned whether he should have even attempted a throw in the first place, the video replay clearly shows an opportunity for an out. Breslow himself explained, "I looked up and I saw that I definitely had a play there," according to MLB.com.
But the moment he picked up the loose ball behind home plate, an error was imminent. Instead of making a quick throw to third base, he inexplicably took a big crow hop, as if firing to home from the outfield. By the time he actually released the ball, the runner Jon Jay was almost at the base and Breslow had been overthinking the throw for a few seconds. His error was almost predictable.
Baseball fans should keep an eye on pitchers' fielding abilities as the World Series shifts to St. Louis. It's typical for pundits and forecasters to size up a playoff matchup by examining the teams' more obvious assets: the back end of the bullpen, the middle of the lineup, and so on.
But when two teams are as evenly matched as the 2013 Red Sox and Cardinals, it may come down to which team's pitchers can execute routine throws, especially if history serves an any indication.