Having a game plan against the game's best bats

Updated: March 17, 2009

Cliff Welch/Icon SMI

Ryan Howard is a dangerous hitter, but he does go through stretches when he gets himself out.

ATTACKING THE GAME'S BEST HITTERS

All the latest scouting reports and video of the hitters that major league pitchers have access to help them in planning their attack. Seeing what a guy has been doing recently has a constant impact on how you would go after someone. Does a guy have a sore wrist? Is his hamstring bothering him? Has he been really aggressive on the breaking ball this week? Does he have a hole in his swing? Is he as hot as can be?

Here's how I'd approach four of the game's best hitters:

ALBERT PUJOLS

There are a lot of challenges in facing Pujols. He has such great power, such great plate coverage and such great discipline. From a pitching standpoint, when you are looking at hitters, you are looking for weaknesses, and it's very had to do that with Pujols. He can hit the high pitch. He can hit the low pitch. He can stay back on the off-speed pitch. And right after you throw him off-speed pitches, he is still quick enough to hit the ball inside. He's also adept enough to get to the inside fastball and keep it fair. He's very good at pulling his hands when you try to jam him, and not only getting the barrel of the bat on the ball but also hitting it fair.

When you are talking about the complete hitter, Pujols is the first name that comes to mind for me. But if I had to try to get him out, I'd be thinking about any way to steal a strike. With my tools -- a sinking fastball about 88-92 mph (think Brandon Webb) and a curveball that was somewhere around 78-81 mph (think Jake Peavy) to go with a changeup and a four-seam fastball -- I'm not going to overpower him. But even some of the hardest throwers in the game today, such as a Roy Oswalt, don't have much success against him generally.

A guy like Livan Hernandez, who throws very slow but has some hard stuff, has good numbers against Pujols because of his ability to change speeds. To get Pujols out regularly, a pitcher needs extremes in his repertoire. You need extreme movement, extreme velocity or extreme change of speeds. So from the very first pitch, I'm going to think about fooling him or throwing a pitch for a strike that he would not be looking for. That probably would be a little short breaking ball or a curveball. It probably wouldn't be a changeup. Maybe it'd be a fastball right down the middle to get a strike. One of your first concerns is not letting him beat you, especially in a lineup like St. Louis has. So my first inclination would be to pitch around him. But the deeper the at-bat goes with him, the more information he has about what your stuff is, judging the speed of your pitches and understanding what pitches of yours intimidate him and which ones don't. I would like to get the at-bat over as fast as possible. He is waiting for you to make a mistake.

RYAN HOWARD

Howard is not as complete a hitter as Pujols -- few guys are -- but he has unbelievable power and unbelievable plate coverage and can hit almost any pitch. But he doesn't have the discipline to make a pitcher work as hard through an at-bat. He can sometimes go for long periods just getting himself out. He can look lost mentally at times. A lot of that relates to his ability to be patient and wait for good strikes. His major problem really is staying back on the off-speed stuff. If I'm facing Howard, I'm going to start slow and finish going up the ladder. If he doesn't make an adjustment, I'm not going to adjust back and think I have to set up my curveball -- I'm going to just keep going with it.

DUSTIN PEDROIA

No matter what you throw him, he's probably going to put the bat on the ball. Well, where do you want him to hit it? You can start positioning your defense to get him out. If I throw him something slow and low, he's probably going to have a tendency to roll over it and send it third base or in the hole at shortstop. If I throw him something high and hard, I think I'd have chance to get him to hit something in the air maybe to right-center. You know the ball probably is going to be put in play, so I'm going to pitch to the defense more than I might to Pujols or Howard.

You hopefully can have an idea of where the ball might go depending on how you pitch to him. Here's an example: Paul O'Neill used to own me. I remember him hitting so many balls in the hole between short and third on my sinker away that one day I decided that I'm going to move Dave Anderson, my shortstop at the time, to that spot on the field and throw him all sinkers away. That day, O'Neill scorched four ground balls, but they were all right to Dave. By the third at-bat, O'Neill was slamming his helmet on the ground. If we hadn't made that adjustment and pitched him that way, he probably would have gone 3-for-4 that day.

EVAN LONGORIA

Longoria looks as if he could develop into another Alex Rodriguez or Pujols. He has the potential to be an intimidating presence at the plate. He's going to bring what they bring: a command of the strike zone and tremendous power. He's still young, so could end up developing a little more like Howard, but right now he's on the same path as Pujols. Because he's young, there are going to be days when you can get him out with lots of breaking balls, like Howard, but other times you might have to be more deceptive and try to steal strikes. The verdict is still out.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: March 16 | March 15 | March 12 | March 11 | March 10

BEST OF THE BLOGS

Each day, ESPN.com's contributors offer a wide array of thoughts and analysis in their blogs. Buster Olney looks at just how valuable lefty Cole Hamels is to the Phillies:

Now it all makes sense, a scout said Monday afternoon, after hearing that Cole Hamels has gone to Philadelphia to have his elbow examined. The scout had seen Hamels this month and was mildly surprised by the left-hander's pedestrian fastball velocity -- 82 mph to 84 mph.

Maybe it was just early in camp, the scout thought at the time. Maybe Hamels' intention was to pace himself through this long spring training.

Or maybe not. Now, it might be that Hamels' problem is not serious and there is an easy explanation for the stiffness he is feeling in his arm. But undoubtedly, the Phillies' officials and coaching staff will sleep a little less until they know for sure, because of Hamels' importance to their rotation, to their pitching staff and to their organization. "The loss of Hamels would change the equation in that division," said another talent evaluator Monday afternoon. "[The Phillies] have more depth in their rotation than they used to have, but still, you're talking about one of the best pitchers in the game."

For the rest of this entry from Buster Olney's blog, click here.


Rob Neyer wonders whether it's realistic to think the Reds could sneak into October:

Tim Dierkes continues his series with a look at the Reds. Money shot:

    The Reds scored 4.35 runs per game in '08, 12th in the NL. How will they fare in the post-Dunn/Griffey era? Keep in mind that it's also the post-Patterson/Bako era, and the Gomes/Chris Dickerson platoon should be effective. CHONE projections and the lineup analysis tool call for 4.42 runs per game which unfortunately still would've ranked 12th last year. This team still falls short offensively, even with strong years from the team's young sluggers.

    Even if I generously put the Reds at 750 runs allowed, they project to win 77 games. It's difficult to see this team cracking .500 as it's presently constructed.

    Bottom line: The Reds' rotation looks strong, but [GM Walt] Jocketty failed to add the needed offense.

For the rest of this entry from Rob Neyer's blog, click here.


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SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight he takes a look at Cliff Lee and just how hard it will be for the lefty this year after posting 22 wins a season ago:

Season after 22+ wins
(AL pitchers since 1990)
W-L ERA
Cliff Lee 2009 Indians ? ?
Roy Halladay 2004 Blue Jays 8-8 4.20
Roy Halladay 2004 Blue Jays 8-8 4.20
Barry Zito 2003 Athletics 14-12 3.30
Pedro Martinez 2000 Red Sox 18-6 1.74
Jack McDowell 1994 White Sox 10-9 3.73
Bob Welch 1991 Athletics 12-13 3.82
Dave Stewart 1991 Athleics 11-11 5.20
Bret Saberhagen 1990 Royals 5-9 3.27

TAMPA BAY RAYS SEASON PREVIEW

TUESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
David WrightDavid Wright drove home the tying and winning runs in the ninth inning as Team USA avoided elimination with a come-from-behind 6-5 victory over Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. The U.S. trailed 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth in the elimination game.
WORST
Trevor Hoffman• First, the Brewers had to worry about Ryan Braun's health after he tweaked his side at the World Baseball Classic. Now, it's Trevor Hoffman's side that is giving the Brewers a pain in the neck. Milwaukee's new closer has a strained side, and there currently is no timetable for his return. "We are going to proceed cautiously, as we have done with all these injuries," Brewers manager Ken Macha said.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

The Rays' pitching staff was a big reason for Tampa Bay's success last season, as it held runners to 4.14 runs per game, second-best in the AL (behind only Toronto). The Rays return most of the same pitching staff, including four starters with 50 wins between them last season. The only major change is the departure of starter Edwin Jackson to Detroit via an offseason trade.

What did the Rays do so well last season that should predict success for the staff this season? They did a good job of generating strikeouts and keeping batters off base. They also keep opposing hitters from hitting for power.


Rays pitching
Rays AL avg. AL rank
K pct. of PA 18.6 17.1 2
OBP .314 .333 2
SLG .400 .416 4

The spring competition for the rotation spot vacated by Jackson is down to David Price, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. If any of those pitchers can step in and duplicate or exceed Jackson's numbers from last season, the Rays can expect to be playing meaningful baseball deep into the season for the second consecutive year.

-- ESPN Stats and Information

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