Here’s a look at how Houston gameplans for some of the best AL West hitters.
Domingo Santana has been one of the pleasant surprises for the Mariners this year en route to their hot start and the Astros still fell victim to a third inning double. However, early in the game the Astros attacked him with a strong approach that led to a strikeout in the first inning. A four pitch strikeout saw Gerrit Cole sequence outside fastball, down and in change up, fastball up and a whiff on a down and in change up. Here is how Domingo has fared against balls up in the zone early in the season, so it makes sense that the Astros would attack that weakness with high fastballs.
The interesting part to note is that Cole has only thrown his changeup 10 times this season to right handed hitters, but threw three of them to Domingo in one game. Looking deeper into Domingo’s early season results, he has significantly struggled with offspeed, especially changeups. While he has a decent overall line on the pitch, he has whiffed on 35% of offspeed pitches he has swung at. While not super efficient from an effective velocity standpoint, the fastball up and away tunnels well with the down and in changeup as both pitches will break for strikes and Santana was retired on four pitches. Domingo doubled in the third on a similar changeup, however Cole missed his spot as it was supposed to be outside and he ran it back over the inner third and resulted in the hit. The idea here is that Cole is not afraid to go outside of his comfort zone in order to attack a glaring weakness of the batter he faces. Despite Cole’s usual heavy reliance on his breaking balls, Domingo had only whiffed at 21% of those this year compared to the 35% on offspeed. Despite the 25 breaking pitches he has seen with two strikes, Domingo has only struck out once compared to seven hits. On 17 two strike offspeed pitches, he has K’d six times with only two hits. Cole is also comfortable attacking with the high fastballs and low changeups in any count because historically, Domingo has never been able to hit those pitches effectively. Here is a plot of all the barrels Santana has hit against fastballs and changeups:
As long as Cole executes his pitches up and away with the fastball and down with the change up, he has the best odds to keep the Mariners breakout slugger at bay.
Khris Davis has solidified himself as one of the best hitters in the league and the Astros see him often as an division rival. As is the case with all players, there is no sure fire way to get a hitter out, but you can increase your chances of being successful by attacking their weaknesses. As of this writing, Khris ranks 65th in pitches seen ahead in the count and 21st in swings ahead in the count for a total of 48 swings in 82 pitches or 59%. 59% is well above the league average of 49% with hitters ahead in the count, so Davis is far more aggressive than the average player. Davis has posted the lowest walk rate of his career thus far, coupled with his lowest strikeout rate, despite his highest chase rate of pitches out of the zone in the past 4 years. Here is a look at Davis’ year by year progression of chasing pitches outside of the zone:
The conclusion to draw is Davis is being extremely aggressive ahead of the count, even when the pitch is out of the zone. With a lowered K%, the best way to induce an out from Davis is weak contact on a pitch out of the zone, instead of working in the zone and risk powerful contact. Despite his hyper aggressive approach ahead in the count, Davis is conservative with first pitch swinging so Collin McHugh looks to work ahead 0-0, as shown below:
Once McHugh gets ahead, however, we see him start to attack Davis’ weaknesses. In five at bats against Davis this season, McHugh has fallen behind in three of them and got Davis to chase pitches out of the zone after the first pitch in the other two. While McHugh usually tries to work ahead as a pitcher, he is not afraid to fall behind to the swing happy Davis and it has worked thus far as Davis is 1-5 with a single this season. Here is a look at McHugh’s pitches to Davis after the first pitch.
While most hitters are looking in their wheelhouse 2-0 or 3-1, Davis is just looking to hack and McHugh stays primarily out of the strike zone but still has not walked him in five at bats and has only given up a single on a missed spot slider on an 0-2 pitch.
Elvis Andrus swings at 35% of pitches down out of the zone against right handed pitchers while the league average righty only chases 27.5% of similar pitches. The Astros, again, learn to attack this weakness. Andrus has an extremely high K% on those pitches down out of the zone and especially down and away where he has a 50% strikeout rate. It would be expected that Andrus has been struggling if he has so much trouble with pitches down out of the zone but the shortstop has an 180 wRC+ this year, or 80% better than league average. Besides the very low and outside corner, Andrus is actually very effective at hitting the low pitch inside of the strike zone with about a 42% hard hit rate on pitches middle down or down and in. As such we see how the league has been pitching Andrus here:
While there is an effort here to get to that down and away pitch that Andrus struggles with, many of those misses come over the plate into Elvis’ wheelhouse, middle down. What most teams try to attack is a player’s weakness inside of the strike zone because if you hit your spot its an ideal scenario where the player swings and cannot hit it well or takes and it is a strike. However, while most teams are trying to pinpoint the outside corner and often miss over the middle of the plate, the Astros and Brad Peacock decided not to take that risk. Peacock has the 11th lowest walk rate at 3.5% this season, so he is not used to pitching around hitters but often attacks them in the zone. Despite his usual approach, his plan was specifically to attack Andrus and that took a priority in the game planning. Here is a look at the heat map of Peacock against Andrus in their April 1st game:
The Astros went out of the zone far more than most teams against Andrus and it ended with three strikeouts on three pitches out of the zone down. Once again, the Astros took a pitcher out of their usually comfort zone to attack a hitter with a glaring weakness and it was effective.
Mike Trout is the most difficult player to get out in the world, much less the AL West. We have to go back to last season for the last time the Astros played the Angels. This again a reminder that the Astros still have not figured out a way to get Trout out every at bat, but have at least created a method of attempting. On fastballs 93 MPH or higher up in the zone last season, Trout hit for a .187 wOBA which ranked 134th out of 174 players with 10 PA ending in a fastball of that sort. Similarly, Trout hit for a .143 wOBA on fastballs up in the zone with a spin rate above 2200, which was ranked 173rd out of 199 players with at least 10 PA. So while not perfect, there is a chink in the armor when it comes to attacking Trout. Justin Verlander in 2018 threw fastballs up in the zone to Trout 27% of the time, which ranked 3rd among pitchers who threw Trout at least 10 pitches. Overall the Astros threw 15.3% of pitches to Trout as fastballs up in the strike zone, which was the second highest rate in the MLB. Take this pitch chart from the Astros game against the Angels on June 21st of 2018:
Verlander attacks with his high velocity and high spin fastball over and over to attack Trouts weakness. While Trout has shown the proclivity to make adjustments in short periods of time to correct these weaknesses, Verlander will take Trout making adjustments and being uncomfortable in the box whenever possible and that is what he and the Astros are working for here. Obviously not every pitcher in the league has above average velocity paired with above average spin on their fastball, so this approach will not always be effective, but the Astros make it a point to acquire pitchers that have high spin on both fastballs and breaking balls in order to make these matchups even easier to game plan for.
Again, it is impossible to get a hitter out every time despite how strong a team’s game plan is, but the Astros do the best job in the league of acquiring players with plus skill sets and allowing pitchers to pitch to their strengths while also being mindful of a certain batter’s weaknesses.
All data courtesy of Baseball Savant
Feature Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons