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Entries in Michael Wacha (3)

Friday
Nov012013

Ditching Switch-Hitting Pays Off for Victorino

Batting from the right side of the plate, Shane Victorino played a key role in Boston's World Series-clinching Game 6 victory. Victorino stepped to the dish with the bases loaded in the bottom of the third inning and drove in Jacoby Ellsbury, David Ortiz and Jonny Gomes by making a fresh dent in the Green Monster. Victorino's drive off a Michael Wacha fastball was the biggest play of the game according to Baseball-Reference's Win Probability Added stat, boosting Boston's odds of winning from 58 percent to 84 percent.

And to think, the former switch-hitter has a pulled hamstring to thank for his crowning achievement in the majors.

Victorino injured his left hammy during the summer, compromising his ability to drive the ball as a left-handed hitter. Overall, he swatted just three home runs and posted a .702 On-Base-Plus slugging percentage while batting as a lefty in 2013. But truth be told, Victorino ceased being a threat from the left side long before his hamstring woes (he had a .629 OPS as a lefty hitter in 2012). The injury gave Victorino the opportunity to do something fans and analysts had been clamoring for anyway: give up switch-hitting. And for that, Red Sox Nation is grateful.

In 160 postseason and playoff plate appearances as a righty hitter, Victorino popped seven homers and tallied an .827 OPS versus right-handed pitchers. He flirted with returning to switch-hitting during the postseason, taking swings from the left side in the ALDS and ALCS, but he batted exclusively as a righty against St. Louis. In case Victorino needs any more convincing that he should only step to the plate as a righty batter in 2014, consider his performance from each side of the plate against right-handed pitching this season:

  • Victorino ripped 61.8 percent of pitches put in play down the line while batting as a righty against right-handed pitching. As a lefty hitter, he pulled pitches just 36.7 percent of the time.
  • Batting right-handed, Victorino hit a ground ball just 38.6 percent of the time. As a lefty hitter, he chopped pitches into the turf 50 percent of the time.
  • Victorino drove fly balls an average of 241 feet in righty-versus-righty matchups, compared to 232 feet as a left-handed hitter.
  • Crowding the plate as a righty hitter, Victorino turned into a pitch magnet. Victorino was plunked 16 times in righty-versus-righty situations, trailing just Starling Marte (21 righty-versus-righty hit by pitches). Marte, by the way, logged more than three times as many plate appearances (489) as Victorino in such matchups. Victorino might not like getting drilled, but those hit by pitches boosted his on-base percentage to .367 in righty-versus-righty situations (.316 OBP as a lefty).

If Victorino had challenged Wacha and his wicked fastball-changeup combo as a lefty hitter, Boston's big third inning might have instead ended with a meek groundout. As a righty, though, he was ready to tee off on the rookie's 93 MPH heat. Who knew pulling a hammy and surrendering the platoon advantage could be such a good career move?

Saturday
Oct262013

Joe Kelly Should Bring the Heat vs. Big Papi

Michael Wacha's game plan against David Ortiz in Game 2 of the World Series was simple: The St. Louis rookie wasn't going to let Boston's clean-up man beat him on a fastball. That makes sense, considering Ortiz boasts the fifth-highest slugging percentage (.633) in the majors versus heaters and Wacha possesses a deadly changeup. Wacha threw his change nine times out of 16 total pitches (60 percent) versus Ortiz, but Big Papi roped one of those off-speed pitches into the first row of the Green Monster seats. Throw him a fastball? You lose. Throw him a changeup? You still lose.

All of this might make Joe Kelly, the Cardinals' Game 3 starter, sweat. Kelly throws his fastball about two-thirds of the time, and he hasn't yet developed a knockout secondary pitch akin to Wacha's changeup. But he shouldn't necessarily despair. Crazy as it sounds, challenging Big Papi with fastballs might actually be a good strategy for Kelly.

Ortiz does have the best overall slugging percentage against heaters this side of Miguel Cabrera (.682), Paul Goldschmidt (.650), Jayson Werth (.646) and Edwin Encarnacion (.637). However, he does most of that damage against lower-velocity fastballs. Papi is Babe Ruth incarnate versus gas thrown at or below 93 MPH, but he's merely good when pitchers crank it up to 94 MPH or higher. Ortiz also expands his strike zone against fastballs with extra zip:

Ortiz vs. fastballs in 2013, by pitch velocity

Kelly's fastball has the extra zip that typically tames Ortiz's bat, with an average velocity (94.8 MPH) topped only by Nathan Eovaldi (96.1 MPH), Danny Salazar (95.9 MPH), Gerrit Cole (95.6 MPH), Matt Harvey (95.4 MPH), Stephen Strasburg (95.3 MPH) and Chris Archer (94.9 MPH) among starters. And as a starter, Kelly's fastball has been plenty effective: he's limiting batters to a .317 slugging percentage when navigating lineups multiple times. Ortiz, who's already gone deep five times this postseason, can spoil the best of pitches. But Kelly's best bet might be to try and blow Big Papi away.

Friday
Oct252013

Wacha's Right-on-Right Changeup Deadly

Michael Wacha evened the World Series at one game apiece last night, limiting Boston's best-in-the-bigs offense to two runs over six innings while striking out six. Just a year removed from anchoring Texas A&M's rotation, Wacha became the first Cardinals starter to win a playoff game at Fenway Park since Bob Gibson took down the Sox in Game 7 of the 1967 Fall Classic. He also tied Gibson's franchise record for consecutive scoreless innings pitched in the postseason, tossing 19 clean frames between Pedro Alvarez's homer in Game 4 of the NLCS and David Ortiz's sixth-inning shot yesterday.

The key to Wacha's Game 2 win? His willingness to throw his changeup to same-handed hitters. Most right-handed starters shelve their changeups when facing righty batters, pulling the string just 7.2 percent of the time. Most pitchers don't have Wacha's changeup, though.

Wacha has thrown his plus-plus change to righties 17.1 percent of the time overall in 2013, and he used it 31.4 percent of the time versus Boston's righty hitters last night. Red Sox righties went a combined 0-for-6 with four strikeouts against Wacha's changeup. Xander Bogaerts went down swinging twice, while Shane Victorino came up empty once and Dustin Pedroia punched out on a foul tip. The whiffs are nothing new for Wacha, whose miss rate with his changeup against righties (47.4 percent) trails just Stephen Strasburg (51.8), Jarrod Parker (48.5), Homer Bailey (47.8) and Kris Medlen (47.7) among right-handed starting pitchers.

Command is big reason why Wacha's tumbling, mid-80s change is so effective. Check out his changeup location versus right-handed hitters this season:

Wacha's changeup location vs. righty batters in 2013

Wacha buries his changeup at righties' knees, throwing the pitch to the lower third of the strike zone 67.9 percent of the time. That's well above the 59.2 percent average for right-handed starters. He also rarely leaves a changeup belt high: Wacha tosses just 18.3 percent of his off-speed offerings to the middle of the plate against righties, way under the MLB average (26 percent) and lowest among right-handed starters save for Homer Bailey (16.3).

Why does that matter? Righty pitchers dominate when they throw their changeups low to same-handed batters (.248 opponent slugging percentage) and get eviscerated when they throw the pitch belt high (.541 slugging percentage). By locating his off-speed stuff low, Wacha has smothered righty hitters for a .125 opponent slugging percentage against the changeup (third-best in the majors, behind Strasburg and Bailey). No righty batter has taken Wacha deep on a changeup, and Willie Bloomquist is the only one to tally even an extra-base hit (a double during Wacha's second big league start back on June 4). Gibby must be proud of this 22-year-old prodigy.