The hardest thing to do in sports? Trying to hit Ryne Stanek down 0-2

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Not long ago, the Tampa Bay Rays called Ryne Stanek out of the bullpen to face Giancarlo Stanton with two runners on in a three-run game.

It's quite possible there has never been a physically stronger hitter than Stanton. Of the 10 hardest-hit balls this season across the major leagues, Stanton has hit eight of them. Only two players in history, Mark McGwire and Babe Ruth, have homered more frequently than Stanton has in his career. Even on a pitcher's pitch, even when he looks beat, he can slap a ball over the wall in right field. With Stanton representing the tying run in a close game, this matchup represented, I will argue, the hardest thing to do in sports.

For Stanton, that is.

"The hardest thing to do in sports" is such a hopeless, pointless question, it's amazing we don't argue about it more. Ted Williams famously launched the argument -- "I've always said that hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do in sports" -- but in the very next breath, he also showed how easy it is to plead for almost anything else: "But fishing takes a lot, too," Williams continued. "Learning the habits of the fish, what kind of flies to use, how to rig 'em just right, when to apply tension to the rod, all that. And patience, patience, patience.'' So, hitting a baseball or rigging a fly rod just right.

The truth is that almost everything in sports is easy to do poorly -- my daughter hit her first baseball when she was 3 years old and still lost her balance on sidewalks -- while almost everything in sports is extremely hard to do well. That's the point of watching the literal best in the world attempt something against the literal second-best in the world. This question is so hopeless. So pointless.

There's an answer, though. I can't believe Ted Williams missed it. The answer is facing Ryne Stanek after falling behind 0-2, as Stanton had to do that day in the three-run game.

Forty-one hitters have attempted it this year. Those 41 batters have hit .050/.073/.075. In major league history, about 2,000 pitchers have batted at least 100 times. Only 13 of those 2,000 pitchers had a lower OPS than major league hitters have against Stanek after an 0-2 count this year. Thirty-one of those 41 hitters struck out, a rate of 22.6 strikeouts per nine innings.

It doesn't have to be Stanek. Instead of Stanek, we can maybe say "after falling behind 0-2 against an elite power pitcher in a strikeout era." Wade Davis, after an 0-2 count this year, has allowed a WHIP of .077 -- that's a zero in there. The lowest WHIP in history in regular, non-0-2 baseball, is .570, so hitters behind 0-2 against Davis have been one-seventh as likely to get a hit or walk as if they were facing the single-best pitching season in history.

Against Josh Hader, batters have a .029 on-base percentage after an 0-2 count this year, which is to say that in a world where batters all started 0-2, Hader would throw the equivalent of a perfect game between each baserunner. Aroldis Chapman has struck out 67 percent of all batters, 503 of them, who have fallen behind 0-2 against him in his career. Jose Fernandez struck out 266 batters who fell behind 0-2 in his career; he walked two.

But it was Stanek who was on the mound against Stanton, and Stanek is as good as any pitcher to demonstrate what hitters are up against.

There are, of course, two big forces working against the batter in this situation. With two strikes, the batter has to expand the strike zone to protect; and with no balls, the pitcher can play around on the edges of the strike zone, under no obligation to actually throw a strike. He can throw anything, while the batter must protect against everything.

Stanek has three pitches he can throw here, and what makes it especially difficult for the batter is that Stanek throws all of them with almost equal frequency on 0-2, such that the batter can't even narrow down the probabilities:

  • Stanek's split-finger has the second-highest whiff rate of any pitch in baseball, behind only Chapman's slider. (Further, batters swing at Stanek's unhittable splitter much more frequently than they swing at Chapman's unhittable slider.) When he throws this ahead in the count, it's almost always out of the zone -- but that's OK, because after getting ahead 0-2, Stanek has to be right only once. The batter has to be right every time.

  • Stanek's high-80s slider has the 34th-best whiff rate in baseball, just ahead of Max Scherzer's. He'll throw this one closer to the zone, or even in the zone -- but on the very edges, making the balls hard to lay off and the strikes hard to hit:

  • Finally, his four-seam fastball is the third-fastest in baseball this year, at an average velocity of 98.7 mph. Fastballs in general are especially hard to hit on 0-2 counts, when the batter has to look for the secondary pitches more common in put-away counts. Across the league, chase rates on fastballs go way up on 0-2 -- from 24 percent to 31 percent -- and even with batters shortening up to protect with two strikes, whiff rates go up from 20 to 24 percent. Stanek will throw his heater exclusively in the top half of the zone, or higher, once he gets ahead, making it a powerful whiffs-and-popups pitch:

Stanek got ahead of Stanton with a pair of sliders, one taken on the outside edge and the next chased well off the plate and down. On 0-2, he threw a fastball, 98 mph. The catcher set the target high, and Stanek threw it higher still -- not close to a strike, but enough for Stanton's hands to flinch. This brings up the third factor in the pitcher's favor on these counts: He can use the 0-2 pitch to set up a 1-2 pitch, and a 1-2 pitch to set up a 2-2 pitch, and a 2-2 pitch to set up a 3-2 pitch. Here, Stanek has changed Stanton's sight line and timing. His next pitch will presumably play against that fastball speed and fastball location -- a splitter down in the dirt or a slider low and away.

Or, he can take advantage of these presumptions and throw another fastball. As he does. Right down the middle; Stanton swings right through it, hilariously late on it. Impossible.

The question of The Hardest Thing To Do In Sports is ultimately definitional. Jumping isn't hard, but jumping 8.95 meters is so hard, only one person in history has ever done it. So is the difficulty of the task jumping? Is it jumping farther than every other person in the history of the world? Or is it jumping far enough to qualify for some competition somewhere? Is it a question of what's hard for the common person to do against pros? (You would literally never stop an NBA center from dunking on you.) Or is it what's hard for the pro to do against another pro? (In which case, stopping an NBA center from dunking is merely a matter of being a fairly fit 7-foot human.) Is it the physical strain of the task? The toll it takes on the athlete's body? The failure rate for elite athletes? In the latter case, is "blocking an extra point" the hardest thing to do in sports? Or "stopping a three-on-one fast break all by your danged self"? Or "jumping 8.96 meters"?

I think the right answer is closest to "failure rate," but not quite. It has to be something where the elite athlete is overwhelmingly likely to fail but where he or she is still expected to succeed -- and where that success or failure is seen as an integral part of the game.

It's almost impossible to block an extra-point kick, but nobody really expects you to (and especially nobody expects any individual member of the special teams defense to). A three-on-one fast break is almost impossible to stop, but there's little expectation that the defender will do anything other than bail, flail or foul. An 8.96-meter long jump is impossible, but a much shorter jump will be enough to fulfill the jumper's objective (of jumping far).

But after Stanek gets ahead of a batter 0-2, there is no change in expectations. No announcer ever says, "Well, it's 0-2, so let's turn our attention to the on-deck hitter." The hitter doesn't get to surrender -- indeed, he's expected to bear down and try harder, to battle, to do what professional hitters do. A good hitter is still supposed to be a good hitter, even though he's basically been turned into the equivalent of a pitcher at the plate. Ryne Stanek is in a position of overwhelming, asymmetrical dominance over the hitter, and that dominance is largely unacknowledged.

Is there another example of this in sports, where a common situation is made immensely more difficult because of the structure of the game? And where the expectations on the player don't change at all? Third-and-long maybe? Seems to me the expectations change appropriately on third-and-long. Playing defense while in foul trouble? Hard, but the failure rate isn't anywhere close to "batters hit .050/.073/.075 and more than 75 percent of them strike out." Maybe a boxer trying to win a fight he's definitely losing -- he's more beat up than his opponent, he's probably more tired than his opponent, and he needs to not just win but knock out his opponent, who can himself play everything safe. Maybe that's the hardest thing to do in sports: scoring a 12th-round knockout in a fight you're otherwise going to lose.

But I'm saying Ryne Stanek, 0-2. It's a dumb thing to feel strongly about, but it's a better answer than fly fishing.