Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Data, scouting fuel Red Sox win
By Buster Olney
DETROIT -- Think of the postseason as a final exam, and the pitchers in the American League Championship Series as summa cum laude-caliber students: former Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, presumptive Cy Young winner Max Scherzer, Cy Young candidate Clay Buchholz, etc.
Now, on top of that, imagine the students had access to the best tutors in the world as they prepared for the final exam. Then, on top of that, imagine the exam was an open-book test.
This is what we have in the Boston-Detroit series. Some of the best pitchers in the world are using the extraordinary advance scouting provided to them, and are applying it to each hitter pitch by pitch. And when they see a hitter struggling with some problem, they exploit it expertly. The period from the late '80s to the earlier part of the last decade should be known as the steroid era, and what is occurring now should be called baseball's information era.
It's about great pitching, not about bad hitting. You could examine a thousand different examples from this October, but perhaps the best example is Miguel Cabrera's at-bat in the eighth inning of Game 3 Tuesday.
Cabrera is regarded with awe by other players and is generally known as the best hitter on the planet. He can't run and he's a right-handed hitter, and despite those disadvantages, he's won three straight American League batting titles.
But he is also hurting now with some kind of lower-body injury, and as written in the column Tuesday, he has tried to adjust his mechanics to get more comfortable, eschewing his one-handed follow-through and going with a two-handed approach.
He did that early in Game 3, and he flied out in his first at-bat before striking out and popping up. But when he came to bat in the eighth, with runners at first and third and one out, he changed -- because he knew the Red Sox would hammer away at the spot where he is most vulnerable these days.
In the first round of the postseason, the Oakland Athletics drew the road map on how to pitch to Cabrera, pounding the outside part of the plate (and off the outer edge) with fastballs. So with first and third and one out, Boston manager John Farrell wanted the hard-throwing Junichi Tazawa to work to Cabrera.
"We liked the matchup with power against Cabrera," said Farrell. "Cabrera has had good success against Koji [Uehara] in the past, hit a couple of balls out of the ballpark against him. And particularly after the base hit the other way by Torii [Hunter] to put them in the first-and-third situation, we felt power was the best way to go here."
Tazawa fired a fastball away, and Cabrera -- anticipating this -- fired his bat out, looking to take the ball the other way, with his old one-handed follow through. Cabrera missed, and when Tazawa kept throwing fastballs to the same area, Cabrera missed again and again, eventually striking out.
"Whether he climbed the ladder away from him late or just stayed hard with him, it was a pivotal moment," Farrell said. "You're getting the best guy in baseball at the plate, trying to preserve a one-run lead. And that was a swing moment, for sure."
There are no secrets anymore. If a hitter has an October weakness, if a hitter has some physical problem that is limiting him -- as Cabrera does -- the pitchers and catchers will know it.
The inherent dynamic of the sport is that pitchers begin each action and the hitters react to the pitcher's choices, like in chess, in which white always has the first move before black. But in baseball, pitchers are using that advantage unlike any other time in the game's history, armed with plentiful data and information. You can see it in the soaring strikeout rates, you can see it in how offense is in decline, and you can see it -- now more than ever before -- in this postseason.
It's not about the hitters. It's the pitchers, who are thriving in the last best tests of this season.
Tazawa went after Cabrera with power.
John Lackey was outstanding, as Scott Lauber writes. The whole game changed for John Lackey with his first three pitches, when the first three Detroit hitters swung at his first pitch, all fastballs. After the game, Lackey explained that after those first pitches, he and catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia made an adjustment, relying more on off-speed stuff.
From ESPN Stats & Information, how Lackey dominated the Tigers:
A. For only the sixth time all season, Lackey threw more breaking balls (51.5 percent) than fastballs (48.5 percent).
B. He threw 18 of his 20 curveballs (90 percent) for strikes, and despite the Tigers' swinging at 14 of his sliders, not a single one was put in play (six swings and misses, eight foul balls).
C. Lackey held the Tigers hitless in four at-bats with runners in scoring position. He upped his off-speed use even more in that situation, throwing a season-high 71 percent breaking balls.
• A Mike Napoli blastoff won it for the Red Sox.
• When Justin Verlander spoke in the interview room after Game 3, he was even-keeled, not outwardly upset or defensive. He knows he's done all he can, and he didn't second-guess his own thought process on the pitch Napoli hit for a home run. In Napoli's first at-bat, Verlander threw nothing but sliders -- "That's the first time he's done that," Napoli said after the game -- and then, in Napoli's second at-bat, Verlander threw four fastballs and a breaking ball and overpowered the Boston first baseman.
So with a 3-2 count in the seventh inning, Verlander decided to throw Napoli a fastball because he hadn't responded as well to that pitch -- and Verlander simply missed his location, throwing the ball over the middle of the plate and a little higher than he intended, and Napoli hit it out. It was the first run allowed by Verlander since the middle of September.
From ESPN Stats & Info: Napoli's home run came on a 96 mph fastball. In the last two seasons, Napoli homered only once against the more than 200 pitches he saw that were thrown at least 96 mph-- against Evan Reed of the Tigers on Sept. 4, 2013.
• Jim Leyland is pondering his next move. He'll play Jose Iglesias at short today, move Jhonny Peralta to left field, and openly mused Tuesday night about perhaps replacing Austin Jackson, who has three hits -- not to mention 18 strikeouts -- in his 33 postseason at-bats.
For the Tigers, there has been a power outage, writes Drew Sharp. The Tigers' offense has gone cold, writes John Lowe.
• The Red Sox lead the series 2-1 despite hitting just .133 (12-for-90) in the first three games, the lowest team batting average through the first three games in League Championship Series history. That breaks the record set on Monday, when the Cardinals took a 2-games-to-1 lead over the Dodgers despite a .134 batting average through three games.
Since the LCS began in 1969, the lowest batting average in the LCS by a team to make it to the World Series was .183 by the 1974 Athletics.
• On the 25th anniversary of Kirk Gibson's home run, the Dodgers had no miracles, writes Bill Plaschke. The Dodgers can draw on a rival for inspiration, writes Bill Shaikin.
The Cardinals had a blast in Game 4, writes Derrick Goold, and they are one victory away from advancing to the World Series. Carlos Martinez had a huge pickoff. From Rick Hummel's piece:
But as much as Molina calls the shots for the rookies, he didn't call the key play of the game. The Dodgers' Nick Punto doubled with one out in the seventh against Martinez and Molina, as his wont, went to the mound to counsel the 22-year-old Dominican.
"I say to a bunch of young rookies that we have, ‘Just calm down. Let's play catch. Let's have fun and try to forget about what happened and stay focused.'" Molina said.
What came next was a pickoff play instituted by shortstop Pete Kozma and, secondarily, Martinez. With daylight, Kozma darted behind Punto and Martinez threw a bullet for the out.
This was all news to Molina. "I didn't know that was coming," he said. "That was a huge play."
Manager Mike Matheny praised Kozma for quarterbacking the play but also Martinez for his reactions. "It has to be natural instincts and athleticism by Carlos Martinez and I don't know how many guys that can pull that off," Matheny said.
The Cardinals turned back the clock, writes Bernie Miklasz.
Adrian Gonzalez says he wasn't chirping at Adam Wainwright. The decision to start Ricky Nolasco was made early by the Dodgers.
Don Mattingly got the word that he'll be back. That took long enough.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Walt Weiss got a three-year extension, writes Troy Renck.
2. The White Sox and Rays finished off the Jesse Crain trade.
3. The Reds haven't decided anything about their managerial search, writes John Fay.
4. Giving Ervin Santana a long-term deal may not be the best play, writes Sam Mellinger.
5. Cal Ripken says he's not lobbying for any managing job. His response here is classic Cal: He is a counterpuncher, not someone who likes to throw the first punch.
Dings and dents
1. Michael Bourn had surgery.
2. Matt Harvey is going to have surgery in a week.
3. Mike Morse's free agency is completely undercut by this: He needs wrist surgery. His best bet now will be to sign someplace on a one-year deal, hope he can have a good season, and go back into the market next year.
• Frank Wren discussed the Braves' season with David O'Brien.
• Phillies fans have strong feelings that are reflected in a poll here.
• The Diamondbacks know big arms can make a difference, writes Nick Piecoro.
By The Numbers
9: Swings and misses by Miguel Cabrera in Game 3, his most in any game in his career (regular season or postseason), according to Elias.
242: Consecutive batters in this year's NLCS without a home run prior to Matt Holliday's blast in the fourth inning. That was the longest such streak to start a postseason series since the Yankees and Giants went 280 straight batters without a home run to begin the 1921 World Series (Elias).
101: Sliders the Red Sox have seen from Tigers pitching in the ALCS. They don't have a single hit against the pitch (0-25) and have hit only one ball out of the infield.
11: Players in postseason history to hit a home run in a 1-0 game after Mike Napoli did it Tuesday in ALCS Game 3 (Elias).
4: 1-0 games this postseason, matching the record for most 1-0 games in a single postseason (previously done in 1991).
• Aaron Boone is embracing his big moment, 10 years later.
• Pearl Jam and Jason Grilli were a hit in Pittsburgh.
• Cal Ripken's mom fended off a would-be carjacker.
• Boston cop Steve Horgan is humbled by the attention he's getting.
• The A-Rod hearings resumed with no end in sight, writes Ken Davidoff.
And today will be better than yesterday.