A Blueprint for the Cardinals to Shut Down Hanley Ramirez in the NLCS
When the St. Louis Cardinals last faced the Los Angeles Dodgers in October, the hitter they had to fear most was a guy named Ramirez.
Same thing this year, except it's a different guy—and he's even scarier than the other one.
It was Manny Ramirez whom the Cardinals had to fear in the 2009 National League Division Series, mainly because of what he had done in the 2008 playoffs. All that needs to be said: a 1.741 OPS in eight games.
It's Hanley Ramirez the Cardinals have to worry about this year. He hit .345 with a 1.040 OPS in the regular season and .500 with a 1.618 OPS in the NLDS against the Atlanta Braves. With Miguel Cabrera ailing in the American League, Ramirez stands out as the single most dangerous hitter left standing in October.
The Cardinals are going to need a game plan to make sure Ramirez doesn't hurt them. And if they notice the same things I've noticed, that game plan might end up consisting of four simple notions.
The safest part of the strike zone is at the top
Being aggressive within the strike zone is a big part of what's made Ramirez's season such a roaring success. Per FanGraphs, Ramirez set new career highs for swings taken within the zone and contact made in the zone.
One thing the Cardinals could do is just avoid the strike zone altogether and effectively decline to challenge Ramirez every time he comes to bat. This admittedly isn't the worst idea in the world, but being willing to put Ramirez aboard via free passes also isn't the smartest one, given that he's going to have Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig and Andre Ethier backing him up.
When challenging Ramirez is appropriate, however, there are a couple of areas within the strike zone where he's less likely to tap into his power (which he has a lot of, for the record).
This is where we consults Brooks Baseball, which does the world a kindness by tracking the various habits hitters have in and around the strike zone. In this case, Ramirez's ISO (Isolated Power) profile can show where he hits for the most power.
That link will take you to a handy-dandy image, one that I unfortunately can't re-post here. But I do have the ability to make tables, and that image of Ramirez's strike zone in table form looks a little something like this:
Ramirez has power pretty much everywhere in the zone, save for on pitches up and in. He didn't hit for power on such offerings in 2013. He was able to hit some pitches up and over the middle of the plate for some power, but not as much as he did elsewhere.
There's more to be said about this area of the zone, mind you.
And just from looking at Ramirez's swing, this doesn't come as a surprise. He looks like he's fixed the timing issues he tended to have with his leg kick in 2011 and 2012, but his swing still has a longish and loopy nature to it. He can cover plenty of the plate with it, but getting around on high and tight pitches would present some difficulties.
When it comes to challenging Ramirez, however, there's a time to do so. It's not "right away."
Beware of first-pitch fastballs
Conventional baseball wisdom says that swinging at the first pitch is bad. You're supposed to work the count, darn it, because why risk letting a pitcher off easy by potentially giving him a one-pitch out?
For the record, I'm fine with this tidbit. But there are guys who are quite good when swinging at the first pitch, and Ramirez was one of them this season.
Per Baseball-Reference.com, only Yasiel Puig had a higher OPS than Ramirez when swinging at the first pitch in 2013. First-pitch hacks notably led to nine of Ramirez's 20 homers, which the math tells me is a rather big percentage of them.
Most of this damage was done against first-pitch fastballs. Let's take a look at some more numbers from Brooks Baseball:
Six of the nine first-pitch homers Ramirez hit came on heaters, and he collected plenty of other hits on first-pitch heaters besides those. In fact, he downright murdered first-pitch fastballs during the regular season.
And wouldn't you know it, Ramirez was up to his usual tricks against the Braves in the NLDS. He collected one double and one triple on first-pitch fastballs.
One thing for Cardinals pitchers to do on the first pitch would be to just waste it in the dirt and see if Ramirez will go after it. But doing so would also mean risking a 1-0 count, and Ramirez was money to the tune of a 1.125 OPS after 1-0 counts in 2013. On the flip side, he managed only a .777 OPS after 0-1.
So Cardinals pitchers could try pitching Ramirez backwards with offspeed stuff on the first pitch. To that end, curveballs are worth a shot. Ramirez didn't have any hits on first-pitch curves this season, and he let close to 40 percent of the ones that were thrown go for strikes.
This isn't too much to ask of Cardinals starters. Joe Kelly, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha each have a hook in their arsenals, and Adam Wainwright obviously has one of the best curveballs in the league.
Feeding Ramirez a steady diet of curveballs, however, isn't recommended. He doesn't hit them on the first pitch, but he certainly can hit them.
There is, however, one pitch that Ramirez doesn't hit so well.
He doesn't like cutters
"Positive values" means Ramirez generated more runs than the average hitter against the pitch in question. So he was better than the league-average hitter at hitting fastballs, sliders, curveballs and changeups, four of the major food groups for pitchers.
But I remember that I called it a portrait of a "nearly" complete hitter, and that "nearly" was necessitated by Ramirez's performance against cutters. They didn't like him, and he didn't like them.
It didn't matter which side the cutters were coming from. Per Brooks Baseball, here's how his performance against lefty and righty cutters breaks down:
That .231 ISO against righty cutters exists because Ramirez was able to hit one over the fence. But that was his only hit against a right-handed cutter this season, and he also had only one against lefty cutters.
Sadly, the Cardinals don't have an abundance of cutter-throwers on their pitching staff. But they do have one big one.
Paging Mr. Wainwright...
Wainwright's cutter is one of his go-to pitches, as Brooks Baseball says he used it more often than both his four-seamer or his sinker during the regular season. It was an effective pitch for him against right-handed batters, who hit just .257 with a .099 ISO against it.
As I pointed out on Wednesday night, Wainwright showed off an extreme willingness to exploit Pittsburgh's weakness against curveballs by throwing his hook close to 40 percent of the time in the series. Since we know he was willing to do that, it doesn't take much of a leap to guess that he could stick to his cutter when he comes face-to-face with Ramirez in Game 3 of the series.
He'll certainly be better off going with his cutter than his curveball. Waino's curveball is magnificent, but Ramirez posted a .588 ISO against righty hooks this season, according to Brooks Baseball. His numbers against righty cutters look worse by a lot.
If Waino uses his cutter to neutralize Ramirez in Game 3, he'll have neutralized the best hitter in the Dodgers lineup. That could be the difference between a win and a loss.
And now to the last item on our checklist, where things get a little weird.
He can be bothered by left-handed breaking balls
Like any good right-handed power hitter should, Ramirez demolished left-handed pitching in 2013. Per FanGraphs, Ramirez posted a .373 ISO against southpaws and a .262 ISO against righties.
But in a strange twist of fate, Ramirez also struck out more often against southpaws, posting a 17.2 K%. That's compared to a 14.8 K% against righties.
That's not much of a difference, but it's the kind of difference that makes you go, "Hmmm..."
A closer inspection over at Brooks Baseball reveals the following truth: Lefty breaking balls bothered Ramirez this season.
Ramirez wasn't exactly weak against left-handed breaking balls, especially not when it came to hitting lefty sliders for power. But he did whiff against lefty sliders and lefty curves more regularly than he did against righty sliders and righty curves, which is something.
Better yet, Ramirez was predictable in doing so. His whiff/swing profile against lefty sliders and curves over at Brooks Baseball shows an awful lot of red on breakers down and in.
The message is clear: a lefty who can spot a breaking ball at Ramirez's back foot might live to tell the tale.
This is something that could be important for the Cardinals in the later innings of the series. Mike Matheny might want a lefty on the mound for Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, but Mark Ellis and Ramirez are likely to be separating the two of them. Matheny might find himself thinking that he'll have to burn two relief pitchers to get through the four of them.
Or he could trust his most dominant setup man to get the job done.
That's looking like Kevin Siegrist these days. He had a 0.45 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP in the regular season, and a big reason he was able to do that is because he defies the usual pattern for lefty relievers. Among Cardinals southpaws, Siegrist's OPS against right-handed batters was easily the lowest. Per FanGraphs, Siegrist also struck out both lefties and righties better than 30 percent of the time.
Siegrist's main weapon, according to Brooks Baseball, is a mid-to-high-90s fastball that has some tailing action on it. But while he prefers not to break it out against righty batters, Siegrist does have a sharp curveball in his arsenal. If he finds himself facing Ramirez in a pressure situation, he could get an easy out by burying that curve at Ramirez's back foot.
Seeing a lefty kept in to face one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters on the planet in a pressure situation would be an unusual sight. Seeing it work would be an even more unusual sight. Heck, seeing Ramirez shut down by the Cardinals in any fashion would be an unusual sight.
This, however, is the postseason. In October, unusual things happening is pretty much the norm.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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