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Entries in Wild Card (5)

Monday
Sep302013

Will Cueto Keep Challenging McCutchen?

The outcome of Tuesday night's win-or-go-home Wild Card clash between the Reds and Pirates may well come down to whether Johnny Cueto can silence NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen's bat. Historically, that has been a tough task: McCutchen has taken Cueto deep three times in 39 at-bats, and his .513 slugging percentage is third-highest among all hitters with at least 30 ABs against Cincinnati's ace (Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano are first and second, respectively). Is it time for Cueto to tweak his approach against McCutchen?

Cueto has typically gone mano-a-mano against 'Cutch, pumping the strike zone with fastballs and challenging the quickest wrists this side of Gary Sheffield to turn on a pitch. Cueto has thrown a fastball about 65 percent of the time versus McCutchen during his career, way above his overall 58 percent average from 2008-13. Cueto is less fastball-centric now than he was earlier in his MLB tenure (he has thrown 53 percent fastballs in 2012-13), but he's still going after McCutchen, firing fastballs slightly more than 65 percent of the time over the past two years.

The majority of those fastballs are over the plate, too -- Cueto has thrown McCutchen an in-zone heater 51 percent of the time during his career, above his overall 47 percent average. Age hasn't changed Cueto much here either, as he's still throwing 'Cutch more in-zone fastballs than he does to other hitters.

To this point, Cueto's fastball has been no match for McCutchen's bat speed. The Pirates' franchise player has belted all three of his homers against Cueto on fastballs, slugging .621 against the pitch. McCutchen is one of the game's elite fastball hitters, slugging .580 this season and .555 during his MLB career. That's why so few pitchers feed him fastballs. He has seen a heater just 42 percent of the time this season, sixth-lowest among qualified hitters.

Lowest percentage of fastballs seen, 2013

Cueto has evolved as a pitcher over the course of his six seasons in the majors, relying more upon his secondary stuff, generating ground balls and keeping the ball in the park. Against McCutchen, though, he reverts back into the 22-year-old who preferred to blow hitters away -- and pay the price when he couldn't. Perhaps it's time to slow 'Cutch down with more breaking and off-speed stuff.

Friday
Sep272013

Pirates vs. Reds: There Will Be Bruises

Barring a Cardinals collapse and a Pirates sweep, the Bucs and Reds will battle this weekend for home-field advantage in Tuesday's Wild Card game. Whether Pittsburgh or Cincy prevails, one thing is virtually guaranteed: a few players will depart Great American Ballpark with brand-new welts.

On average, Pirates batters have been plunked by a pitch every 71 plate appearances this season, leading the majors by a wide margin. The Reds rank second, getting hit every 83 plate appearances. Shin-Soo Choo (25 hit by pitches) and Starling Marte (23) are the undisputed kings of reaching first base the hard way, but Neil Walker and Todd Frazier (14 HBP apiece) also rank in the top 10 in beanings.

Part of the reason that these clubs get hit so frequently, other than the fact that Choo and Marte practically smother the plate, could be strategic. The Pirates struggle badly versus inside pitches, slugging a collective .376 (the MLB average is .411). The Reds are slightly below average (.408). Perhaps some pitchers smell blood and try to pound them inside -- too far inside in some cases.

Fewest PA between hit by pitches for hitters, 2013

The Bucs and Reds aren't just on the receiving end of bushels of hit by pitches -- they're also dishing out plenty of pain to opposing lineups. Pirates pitchers are plunking a hitter an average of every 88 plate appearances, again comfortably (uncomfortably?) leading the majors. The Reds, nailing a batter every 95 plate appearances, rank third. Charlie Morton, Pittsburgh's Saturday starter, has hit the third-most batters in the bigs (15) despite making his season debut on June 13. Mat Latos (10) ranks seventh among pitchers in hit by pitches, though he won't start this weekend. A.J. Burnett (9 HBP) and Homer Bailey (8 HBP) will, however, squaring off on Friday night. Alfredo Simon (8 HBP) also ranks in the top 25 -- and he's a reliever.

Like on the hitting side, something other than malice could be at work here. The Pirates' pitching staff has thrown the highest percentage of inside offerings (about 34 percent) in the majors this season, while the Reds (27 percent) place 12th. Both teams have been highly successful pitching inside: Pittsburgh has the lowest opponent slugging percentage on inner-third pitches (.342), and Cincinnati (.381) ranks seventh.

Fewest PA between hit by pitches for pitchers, 2013


Friday
Sep202013

Can Lefty-Killer Liriano Tame Cincinnati's Lineup?

The Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates, currently holding the National League's two Wild Card spots and still chasing the St. Louis Cardinals for NL Central supremacy, begin a pivotal series tonight at PNC Park. The Bucs' ace and the winter's biggest free agent bargain, Francisco Liriano, will square off against a Cincy lineup led by on-base machines Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto and slugger Jay Bruce.

The Reds' three key lefty bats could be in for a long night against Liriano, who is mowing down fellow southpaws like no other starting pitcher in major league history. He's holding them to a .319 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 2013, lowest ever for a lefty pitcher facing at least 100 lefty batters in a season. The big league average in lefty-versus lefty situations is just .645. Tonight's game could come down to whether Choo, Votto and Bruce can lay off Liriano's slider.

No National League starter this side of Madison Bumgarner throws his slider as often as Liriano (36% overall), and he relies on that high-80s missile even more against lefties (42%). He locates his slider off the outside corner to left-handers, just close enough to the edges that hitters feel compelled to swing once Liriano has bullied them into a pitcher's count.

Pitch location of Liriano's slider vs. lefties, 2013

Lefty hitters can't resist those tantalizingly close sliders, chasing them out of the strike zone 43% of the time. Liriano's chase rate with his slider against lefties is seventh-highest among starters, comfortably topping the 36% average and beating the likes of Clayton Kershaw (41%), Derek Holland (37%) and Chris Sale (35%).

Lefty hitters' swing rate by pitch location vs. Liriano's slider, 2013

Thanks to such an expanded strike zone, Liriano has a .076 opponent slugging percentage when he unleashes a slider to a lefty batter. That's best in the bigs and over 200 points below the MLB lefty-on-lefty average (.285).

So, how do the Reds' left-handers match up against the game's ultimate lefty hit man? Votto and Bruce probably aren't sweating Liriano. Choo, by contrast, must be drenched.

Votto has handled same-handed pitching over the past three seasons, posting a .908 OPS in 573 plate appearances against lefties. In fact, no qualified lefty hitter has a higher OPS against lefty pitching over that time frame. He's nearly platoon-proof in part because his Gandhi-like discipline extends to those tempting lefty sliders. Votto has chased just 28% of the time since the start of the 2011 season. Votto's patient approach has helped him slug a respectable .364 versus lefty sliders.

Bruce hasn't been shut down by lefties, either (.770 OPS in 602 PA). While he's much more of a free swinger than Votto overall -- who isn't? -- Bruce has chased lefty sliders off the plate 29% of the time. He's slugging .327 versus lefty sliders from 2011-13.

And then there's Choo. Maybe he wears that batting helmet with double ear flaps because he's wistfully thinking about taking up switch-hitting: Choo has a .617 OPS versus same-handed pitching in 569 PA from '11 to '13. He also shows good discipline versus lefty sliders (29% chase rate), he just can't hit them (.138 slugging percentage). Might be a good night for Choo to come down with a sudden case of Liriano-itis.