Saturday, October 4, 2014

Royals-Angels: A Fish Out of Water

Well, I tried. I sat down in front of the TV at noon Eastern yesterday and intended to stay there through all four playoff games. However, I dozed off somewhere after midnight during the Royals-Angels game. I tried.

Three of the four games were one-run affairs, though they didn't feel like tight games, did they? The Tigers and Dodgers were winning their games until they were blown away by big innings late in the game (four-run eighth by the Orioles, eight-run seventh by the Cardinals), and it didn't feel like they had a chance of coming back. The Giants were up 3-0 before the Nationals started scoring, and even when Washington threatened with two on and one out in the eighth, trailing 3-2, it felt to me as if the Giants and reliever Sergio Romo, who's a postseason beast (last six games: 14.2 innings, 11 baserunners, 14 strikeouts, 0.61 ERA), were in control. The game that really was tight was the Royals-Angels game, as it was tied at 1 from the sixth inning until the eleventh, but it wasn't a one-run game, as the Royals scored three in the top of the eleventh to win 4-1.

About the Royals-Angels series: The Angels scored 4.8 runs per game this year, most in the majors. They've scored three runs so far against Kansas City, or less than a third of their average per game. Much has been made of centerfielder and MVP-in-waiting Mike Trout, who is 0-for-8 with a strikeout, two walks, and four runners left on base. I thought, "well, going 0-for-4 two straight games isn't that uncommon," but it turns out it is for Mike Trout: He had only two streaks of two or more games with four or more at bats and no hits this year, just one last year, and just three the year before:
Rk Strk Start End Games AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SO BB SB CS BA OBP SLG OPS Tm
1 2014-09-02 2014-09-03 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 1 2 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 LAA
2 2014-08-12 2014-08-13 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 4 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 LAA
3 2013-04-11 2013-04-12 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 LAA
4 2012-08-24 2012-08-25 2 9 0 0 0 0 0 0 2 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 LAA
5 2012-06-15 2012-06-16 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 0 3 0 0 0 .000 .000 .000 .000 LAA
6 2012-05-22 2012-05-23 2 9 1 0 0 0 0 0 4 1 0 0 .000 .100 .000 .100 LAA
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/4/2014.

So what's going on? Trout is susceptible to pitches high in the strike zone. This isn't exactly a secret. Here's a heat map of his slugging percentage this year:

The way you read this: Each of the 25 squares is Trout's slugging percentage for pitches thrown to that part of the plate. The 9x9 square in the middle is the strike zone. Trout's a righty, so he's standing to the left in this diagram. See that .892 in the middle? That means that he's slugging .892 on pitches right down the middle of the plate. That's a big number, but it's also not surprising--major league hitters kill pitches thrown down the heart of the plate. But see the .774 down there near the bottom left-hand corner? That means that on pitches below the strike zone on the inside third of the plate, Trout still kills the ball. (The American League average slugging percentage this year was .390.) Heat maps use red for hot, blue for cold. See how red Trout's heat map is at the bottom and blue at the top? That indicates that he kills low pitches and has problems with high pitches. 

So given that, do pitchers try to throw pitches up in the strike zone to Trout? Well, not as much as they ought to. Here's a heat map of the pitches he saw during the 2014 season:

Let's break that down. In 2014, pitchers threw Trout 395 pitches above the strike zone and 540 in the upper third of the strike zone. I got those figures by just adding the numbers across each row. That's where they should be pitching him, given the first heat map. He has troubles with those pitchers. However they threw him 709 pitches in the lower third of the strike zone and 806 below the strike zone, where he tends to kill the ball. (Their favorite pitch: Low and away, which means "just avoid him altogether," since he swung at only 16% of pitches down there.)

Why do pitchers throw so many pitches low to Trout, where he smokes them, and so few high, where he has problems? It can't be because they don't know about his pattern. I mean, I'm just some guy with a laptop, and I've got these figures, thanks to Pitchers have them too.

I think the reason is that pitchers don't like throwing high. A lot of their pitches, particularly their breaking pitches, cross the plate low in the zone, in an effort to induce ground balls. Seattle's Felix Hernandez will probably be the American League Cy Young Award winner this year, and he threw 533 pitches in the top two rows of the heat map diagram and 2,312 in the bottom two rows this year. The Indians' Corey Kluber, probably the AL Cy Young runner-up, threw 898 up and 1,791 down. For NL Cy Young and likely MVP Clayton Kershaw, the breakdown is 711 pitches high and 1,369 low. Pitchers throw low in the zone more than they throw high in the zone. Mike Trout destroys pitches low in the zone and struggles with pitches high in the zone, so he's got the right skillset.

Here's where the Royals have pitched him the past two days:

He's seen 43 pitches. Twelve of them---28%--have been above the strike zone. Six, or 14%, have been in the upper part of the zone. That's 42% of all the pitches Trout's seen, all up in the zone. Kansas City has thown him only 15 pitches, or 35%, in the lower part of the strike zone. It's not that the Royals are pitching high to everyone. Shortstop Erick Aybar, for instance--27 pitches, nine up in the zone, twelve down. First baseman Albert Pujols: 33 pitches, ten high, seventeen low.

My point is: It's not that the Royals pitchers are throwing a lot of pitches up in the zone to Angels batters. Rather, they're throwing a lot of pitches up in the zone to the single most dangerous Angels batter, one who is particularly vulnerable to that type of pitch. I'm sure there will be a Trout's-a-choker narrative if he doesn't pick it up in tomorrow's game, but I'd give more of the credit to the Royals for pitching him smarter than he's been pitched before. 

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