Why players own one-on-one matchups

5/18/2010 - MLB

Baseball loves the story of the matchup. The day in, day out, one-on-one battles give a different twist to what we think of as a team sport. It is pitcher CC Sabathia versus hitter Evan Longoria, or catcher Ivan Rodriguez versus speed demon Michael Bourn, or manager Tony La Russa versus manager Dusty Baker. With all of these events, it makes sense that along the way, someone is prevailing at a much higher rate than what a coin toss would dictate. This makes us feel there are other powers at work -- it could be the lucky socks, it could be the lighting, it could be that Sabathia likes Tampa's fishing spots.

Some matchups are more like full smackdown. Joe Mauer dominates Joel Pineiro. Ichiro wears out Vicente Padilla. Alex Rodriguez apparently can't hit John Lackey with a tennis racket. Why?

As my career went on, I came to understand what seemed to be at work in these matchups. Baseball already has situational obsessions. If my team is heading to San Diego for a three-game series, the bench coach isn't doing his job if he doesn't know how well I hit against the Padres' left-handed pitchers. Even if I am in a 1-for-22 slump, if I am a .400 hitter at Petco Park and Mat Latos can't get me out, those things should play a role in making out the lineup that day.

After playing long enough, I began to have a sense of whom I would fare well against. It wasn't from a lack of confidence or overconfidence; it just became part of my understanding of my own hitting style and swing. Sinkerball pitchers drove me up the wall. One of two things happened when I faced a pitcher like Derek Lowe or Brandon Webb: I swung and missed, or I fouled a pitch off my shin. But in time, I devised a plan. I knew I could not hit the sinker effectively, so I heeded the advice of my hitting coach in Philadelphia, Hal McRae: "Just eliminate that pitch." Translation: You can't hit it, so don't worry about it unless you have absolutely no choice but to swing at it. As a result, my approach against Lowe and Webb was to sit on the slider.

If Lowe thought he was on easy street when he was facing me, Andy Benes saw me as the dark alley. It seemed that whenever I walked into the batter's box against Benes, I got a hit (.452 career batting average). Everything he threw hit the barrel of my bat. It is no secret that Troy Glaus, who had the only two hits the Braves could muster off Jamie Moyer in nine innings on May 7, has hit the Phillies' lefty well during his career (.350). Although a pitcher might have dominated on a given day, it might not tell you how you will hit him the next time.

Domination isn't always in the hands of the guy on the mound or the guy with the bat; it can be environmental. The Braves had a ridiculously good pitching staff year in and year out during their long run of NL East titles, but I fared well enough against them on my home turf, be it Philly or Chicago. Turner Field, however, was another story. Even if I came into the series on a 15-for-28 tear, I usually would leave Atlanta with one or at most two hits in a three-game series. I often didn't pick up the ball from the pitcher until it was on top of me. (I would like to blame those dark patches on the field caused by the lighting at Turner Field.)

When you look at the big picture, as I can now do with a career in the books, the patterns jump out more clearly. It wasn't really about Benes; it was about any power pitcher who had a four-seamer that he'd elevate in the zone. So I also felt comfortable and hit well against Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown and Woody Williams. (It's too late for them to try to brush me back.) On the flip side, Tom Glavine, Kirk Rueter, Sterling Hitchcock, Webb and Lowe lowered my batting average time and time again. Even when I was riding high on confidence, I felt off balance against those guys (and the numbers back it up).

Matchups can tell you a lot about your standing with your team. When you are struggling, it could be a ray of sunshine when you see that you are about to hit against a pitcher you own. When I was faltering early in the 2002 season, I knew that I had a chance to bounce back when we were about to face pitchers I hit well. But I was sitting on the bench even on those good-matchup days. When you're not in the lineup to face a pitcher against whom you have a career .450 average, it's a sign that this is not the year the organization is going to wait for you to play through your slump.

Soon enough, the quantifiable falls by the wayside, and it becomes either this intangible gorilla on your back or the invisible friend by your side. You begin to develop expectations for what is going to happen even though you might not have changed your pregame routine or postgame diet. When Randy Johnson was traded to the Houston Astros in 1998 at midseason, he was dominating, no doubt. I had hit him pretty well to that point in my career, but facing the Big Unit in the Astrodome was like traveling to another planet. The Dome had this terrible batter's eye, the background against which hitters see pitches, that was extremely narrow. With Johnson's wingspan, he was releasing pitches that came out of the white T-shirts in the crowd. At least that was how it worked for me. Against him and other lefties in The Dome, I started to change the base of my batting stance to get a new perspective.

Team by team, pitcher to hitter, hitter to pitcher, pitcher to mound, hitter to lights or batter's box clay to spikes, everything in baseball is a mini-matchup. Over time, we see a story. We see that Denard Span can hit lefties, we see that Pineiro will have to spike Mauer's pregame water bottle to get him out and we find out that Chris Carpenter just loves pitching at PNC Park. The next time these matchups occur, we believe that we can predict the future and control the results because we know something secret in advance. But what we don't know is whether the rain will change the chemistry of the mound Felix Hernandez likes, or whether Colby Rasmus' bat order didn't arrive in time for the series and he is using Adam Wainwright's bats, or whether the Phillies decided to repaint the batter's eye and all of a sudden Pedro Feliz loves hitting at Citizens Bank Park.

It is fun to dig deeper to be prepared, to find that edge, to control the uncontrollable. But no matter how we slice it, in the end, you still have to show up, play the game and wait to find out how it all will turn out.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.