TO JOIN THE EXCLUSIVE CLUB OF OCTOBER ICONS, A PLAYER MUST HAVE CERTAIN TRAITS. THE SCOUTS KNOW WHAT THEY ARE. NOW YOU WILL TOO.
TO JOIN THE EXCLUSIVE CLUB OF OCTOBER ICONS, A PLAYER MUST HAVE CERTAIN TRAITS. THE SCOUTS KNOW WHAT THEY ARE. NOW YOU WILL TOO.
CHARLES DARWIN WOULDN'T HAVE HAD TO bother with mockingbirds and tortoises and fl owers if he'd been born a century later. To prove his theory of natural selection, he could have just watched baseball in October, when players with specifi c traits tend to thrive, and the rest get left behind by history.
How is it that Derek Jeter always seems to be smack dab in the middle of the biggest plays in the biggest games? And how is it that Matt Holliday could be one of the best hitters in the National League for the last two months of the 2009 regular season but then get picked on in the playoffs as if he were the runt of the St. Louis litter? There will always be Bucky Dent moments, the aberrations. But there are some skill sets that can help predict success, or failure, when it matters most.
Ever notice the guys sitting behind home plate every fall, the ones scribbling onto pads, taking notes faster than Darwin did on his trip through the Galapagos Islands? They're scouts preparing for postseason games, and one of the primary questions they ask about every pitcher is whether he can pinpoint a fastball on both sides of the plate. "That's usually what separates the great pitchers from the mediocre pitchers," says a longtime NL scout. "Some pitchers can work fastballs only to one side of the plate. They might succeed in the regular season, but they often get hammered in the postseason. The pitchers who do well in the postseason are the guys who execute fastballs on both sides of the plate. If they don't, hitters will corner them."
When Rockies closer Huston Street blew a two-run lead in the deciding Game 4 of the NLDS against the Phillies, he didn't throw one inside fastball to Jimmy Rollins, Shane Victorino, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard or Jayson Werth. Leery of working in to the heart of the Phillies order, Street allowed the hitters to lean out over the plate and got burned when Howard mashed a two-run double on a fastball that drifted over the middle of the dish.
A pitcher like John Lackey is tougher to "corner." During the regular season, the Angels ace threw 905 of his 1,637 fastballs at the outside corner, resulting in a strike 60.8% of the time. He attacked the inside corner with 462 fastballs and had a strike rate of 58.2%, showing he's adept at pitching to either side of the plate with his heater. That skill portends postseason success. In 2002, four days after his 24th birthday, Lackey won Game 7 of the World Series over the Giants. This October, he shut down the Red Sox in Game 1 of the division series, throwing 7= scoreless innings.
Clayton Kershaw is another prime example of a pitcher who works both sides of the plate with his fastball. The Dodgers' 21-year-old lefthander had almost an identical strike ratio-61.8% outside, 60.2% inside-during the regular season. Says one scout: "Hitters can try to sit on one half of the strike zone against him and look for a fastball inside, but there's a chance that they'll go through an entire at-bat without seeing the pitch they're looking for. That's the value of being able to throw a fastball on both sides of the plate."
Pitchers aren't the only ones who need to work the corners. Most major league hitters can handle fastballs on the outer half, extending their arms to drive the ball. "In the postseason, the question is whether they can hit an inside fastball," says a longtime scout. "If they can't, they're going to get pounded." In the division series against the Dodgers, Cardinals cleanup man Holliday got pounded, and maybe it was inevitable. After struggling early on with Oakland, he was traded to St. Louis in late July and wrecked National League pitching. Some American League scouts wondered why NL hurlers didn't pitch Holliday inside more.
The Dodgers advance scouts must have asked the same question, because from the very fi rst inning of the NLDS, Joe Torre basically challenged Holliday to beat LA. Torre ordered an intentional walk to Albert Pujols, loading the bases and putting the onus on Holliday, who struck out looking on an inside fastball. Dodgers pitchers kept crowding Holliday with hard stuff: Of the 36 pitches he saw in the series, 34 were fastballs-yes, 34-and of those, 20 were thrown inside. Holliday had one extra-base hit in the NLDS, a home run on a curveball away. By contrast, when Cardinals righthander Adam Wainwright tried to come inside on Andre Ethier in Game 2, the lefty hitter pounced on a 93 mph fastball and sent it over the centerfi eld wall. Ethier led LA in 2009 with eight homers on inside heaters. Among players on the four LCS teams, only Mark Teixeira (12), Chase Utley (11) and Bobby Abreu (9) had more.
Carl Crawford had chatted for years with childhood friend Michael Bourn about what it would be like to be in a big spot in a postseason game. But on the eve of the 2008 World Series, the Rays star was stunned by the depth of his anxiety, by how rapidly his heart was racing, and he was relieved that he wasn't the leadoff hitter. Playing in the postseason can have the effect of chugging six cans of Red Bull, and players who can slow down the game, keep their heart rate in check and think clearly under pressure have an enormous competitive advantage. "That's what separates guys like Derek Jeter," says Kevin Millar, a veteran of 28 October games.
With the tying run at second base in the bottom of the eighth in Game 3 of the Yankees-Twins ALDS, Denard Span chopped a grounder up the middle. Nick Punto raced around third base, head down, unaware that Jeter had cut the ball off and that Twins third base coach Scott Ullger had thrown up a stop sign. ("The crowd noise got me," Punto said after the game. "With 55,000 people screaming, I thought maybe the ball had gotten through.") Jeter saw that Punto had gone too far, and stepped into an easy, panic-free, one-bounce throw home, as if he were back in Kalamazoo playing catch with his dad. The trap had been set. Catcher Jorge Posada relayed the ball to third to nail Punto, who joined Timo Perez, Jeremy Giambi and Danny Bautista in the long line of postseason baserunners cut down-directly or indirectly-by Jeter.
Yankees reliever Phil Coke plays catch with Mariano Rivera before every game, and he swears that no matter how far apart they stand, the future Hall of Famer can make the ball veer sideways at the end of its journey. "He's out there throwing 130-foot cutters," Coke says. "I don't know how he does it, but he just gets the ball to move." Rivera's cut fastball might be the greatest out-pitch in baseball history, because it allows the closer to fi nish off hitters by getting a strikeout or a popup or a broken-bat roller in the biggest spots. He entered this October with a career 0.77 postseason ERA.
While no one can match that, Rivera isn't the only pitcher who can put hitters away. Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton had one of the best fi nishing pitches in the game this season. When batters swung at his slider, they missed 47% of the time. Hitters also fl ailed at Yankees ace CC Sabathia's changeup, whiffi ng on 39% of their swings. And Kershaw's explosive heater can be devastating: Hitters missed it on 22% of their swings, the highest ratio among all postseason pitchers. On any given night, he can shut down any lineup-if he has his command. In Game 1 of the NLCS, Kershaw walked fi ve Phillies in 4u innings and took the loss.
Pitchers who lack that put-away pitch often get exposed against the best lineups. Ryan Franklin, one of this year's biggest surprises, converted 38 saves in 43 chances for the Cardinals during the regular season. But some scouts predicted he'd run head-on into a disaster in the playoffs. "He needs to be fi ne with everything because he doesn't have that killer pitch to close out a hitter," said one NL advance man. In the ninth inning of Game 2 of the NLDS, with two outs and the bases loaded, Franklin got ahead of pinch-hitter Mark Loretta 0-1, but when he tried to beat him with a fastball, Loretta fi sted a walk-off single to centerfield.
Phillies rightfi elder Jayson Werth led the majors this year in pitches per plate appearance with 4.51, and in the NLDS against Colorado, his PPA jumped to 4.61. Overall, the patient Phillies lineup drew 19 walks in four games, which led to lots of baserunners and early exits for Rockies starters (who averaged just over fi ve innings). Heading into the NLCS against the Dodgers, Werth boasted a .406 career OBP in the postseason and had scored 17 runs in 24 games, proving that good things come to those who wait.
Johnny Damon also drives hurlers crazy by working deep counts and fouling off quality pitches. And, as with Werth, Damon's at-bats get longer in the postseason. In more than 9,400 regular-season plate appearances, he has averaged 3.90 pitches; in just over 200 PAs in the postseason, it's 4.22. "I don't think it's anything I do," Damon says. "I really think that in the postseason, pitchers are more careful. They're more afraid to make a mistake. If they're ahead in the count, they'll throw the ball out of the strike zone, and if they're behind in the count, they're less likely to challenge you with something over the plate."
The more patient a hitter is, the faster the starter's pitch count climbs, and the sooner the opposing manager must turn to his middle relief, typically the weak underbelly of any pitching staff. Mike Scioscia credits the veteran Abreu, who's in his fi rst season with the Angels, with helping to improve the at-bats of his teammates. Abreu has averaged a whopping 4.29 PPA in his career, and in the fi rst game of the ALDS against the Red Sox, he drew four walks, building pressure on Jon Lester and the other Boston pitchers.
By comparison, Alfonso Soriano is the classic example of a hitter who feasts on mediocre pitching but lacks the discipline to beat the best arms. Scouts, pitchers and catchers all know he fl ails at breaking balls low and away, and they exploit his overaggressiveness when it matters most. In 5,860 regular-season plate appearances, Soriano has averaged a strikeout every 4.9 PAs. In 186 postseason PAs with the Yankees and Cubs, he's whiffed 53 times-or once every 3.5 plate appearances.
But with so many factors at play in the post- season, even the best of the best can fall short. Before this October, one of the scouts-baseball's ultimate Darwinists-noted that even Pujols tends to lose his patience at the plate if the guy batting behind him isn't hitting. "That's when you see him expand his strike zone," the scout said. "He feels the pressure as the anchor of that lineup."
When Holliday struggled in the NLDS, Pujols, as the scout predicted, began to swing at pitches outside the strike zone. The Cardinals-and the Red Sox, Rockies and Twins-were eliminated, the latest example of the natural selection that plays out every fall in the major leagues.
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TEH BEST VS. THE BEST
To predict which players are most likely to succeed in the postseason, we asked the stats gurus at Baseball Prospectus to identify who stepped up against the top pitchers and hitters during the regular season. Because if you can best the best in May, you should be able to do it in October. Right, A-Rod?
KINGS OF SWING
BP took the top 25 MLB starters in each of the past three seasons (based on ERA) and tracked how 2009 LCS hitters performed against them. Here are the top 10, ranked by OPS.
Alex Rodriguez NYY|.273|.363|.521|.884
Ryan Howard PHI|.247|.354|.479|.833
Carlos Ruiz PHI|.280|.369|.458|.827
Andre Ethier LAD|.280|.351|.473|.824
Torii Hunter LAA|.301|.333|.486|.819
Matt Kemp LAD|.281 .351|.467|.818
Casey Blake LAD|.244|.317|.500|.817
Manny Ramirez LAD|.262|.362|.437|.799
Vladimir Guerrero LAA|.244|.295|.496|.791
Jayson Werth PHI|.242|.372|.406|.778
MINIMUM 100 PLATE APPEARANCES
KINGS OF THE HILL
BP looked at how the starters on this year's LCS squads fared against baseball's top 10 run-scoring offenses in each of the past three seasons. Here are the leaders, ranked by ERA.
Scott Kazmir LAA|253.2|268|112|3.55
Chad Billingsley LAD|115.0|104|57|3.83
A.J. Burnett NYY|289.1|295|122|3.86
CC Sabathia NYY|246.2|204|61|3.94
Cliff Lee PHI|185.2|150|42|3.97
Jered Weaver LAA|241.2|217|77|4.28
Joe Blanton PHI|233.0|140|67|4.29
Randy Wolf LAD|117.0|99|48|4.46
John Lackey LAA|221.1|179|66|4.47
Cole Hamels PHI|114.0|101|31|4.50
MINIMUM 15 STARTS
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