The American League Championship Series between the Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox will feature dangerous sluggers on both teams. For each club, shutting down the other side's slugger will be high up there on the list of priorities. Possibly just below the one at the very top that reads: "Win the games."
One of the sluggers, however, will be trickier to shut down than the other.
Lest anyone make the mistake of thinking we're talking about Don Kelly and Quintin Berry, we're talking about the other guys. The Tigers slugger whom the Red Sox have to worry about is Miguel Cabrera. The Red Sox slugger whom the Tigers have to worry about is David Ortiz.
Under ordinary circumstances, it would be more important for the Red Sox to shut Cabrera down, which would indeed be quite complicated for them to do so. But the circumstances these days aren't normal, as Cabrera is battling a host of injuries that have rendered him a lesser threat at the plate.
Cabrera can still hit, mind you, but the Oakland A's were limiting his power in the American League Division Series right up until Sonny Gray tried to sneak a high and tight fastball by him in Game 5 that ended up going over the fence. Up until then, Cabrera's zone profile over at Brooks Baseball shows that the A's had been doing just fine pitching Cabrera away.
The Red Sox should pick up that torch in the ALCS. Cabrera normally has loads of opposite-field power that he can put to use on pitches on the outer half of the plate, but that opposite-field power looks nonexistent with so many nagging injuries limiting the power he can generate with his lower half. If the Red Sox look to exploit this (relative) weakness, they should be able to keep Cabrera contained.
As for Ortiz, well, suffice it to say he's in a different boat. He's not only healthy, but hot.
Big Papi had a higher OPS than any other Red Sox regular by over 100 points in the regular season, and all he did against the Rays was post a 1.479 OPS with two home runs off 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. He looked like the kind of money performer he was in his first 43 postseason games with the Red Sox, in which he posted a 1.064 OPS.
Because Ortiz, to my knowledge, does not have an "Off" switch on him somewhere, shutting him down won't be easy. But the good news is it won't be particularly hard, either, as the Tigers have pitchers who are well suited to the task of making Big Papi into Little Papi.
Fire the Four-Seamers!
This season was par for the course for Big Papi's power production. He posted a .255 isolated power (ISO), which is right along the lines of his career mark of .262. Ortiz's power, however, was better in the first half. Per FanGraphs, Big Papi's ISO regressed from .289 before the break to .212 after the break.
Coinciding with this was a sudden drop in productivity against four-seam fastballs. According to FanGraphs, Ortiz generated 17.2 runs above average against four-seamers in the first half by PITCHf/x's reckoning. In the second half, he managed only 2.8 runs above average against four-seamers.
A closer look over at Brooks Baseball revealed that this had much to do with how Ortiz suddenly ceased demolishing four-seamers thrown by right-handed pitchers in the second half:
Big Papi was a menace against right-handed four-seamers in the first half, hitting them for average and power and rarely swinging through them. But in the second half, he suddenly couldn't do much with them when he put them in play and was swinging through a ton of them to boot.
In related news, Big Papi is about to come up against Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander—all right-handed starters. The other thing they have in common is that they have lethal four-seamers.
Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander are each capable of sitting in the mid-90s with their heat. And according to FanGraphs, both Sanchez and Scherzer finished in the top 10 among AL pitchers in runs above average saved with their four-seamers. Verlander didn't, but that's because he struggled with his fastball for much of the year. As I pointed out after Game 5 of the ALDS, he's clearly not anymore.
These three should have no reservations about attacking Big Papi with their hard stuff in the ALCS. And if they're looking for a good place to attack him, Ortiz has the usual weakness that left-handed power hitters tend to have.
Brooks Baseball can show where Ortiz hit for the most power within the strike zone against right-handed four-seamers in the form of a handy-dandy color-coded image. I would repost it here, but, alas, I can't. So here's that data in table form instead:
No real surprise here: Lefty power hitters don't tend to make their living demolishing hard pitches up in the zone on the inner half of the plate. Big Papi didn't this year, as he liked his four-seamers from right-handers low in the zone and out over the plate—places where he could get his arms extended.
Since Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander each has good fastball command, that's the one area of the strike zone that they can and should look to exploit when Ortiz is at the plate. When it comes to the soft stuff, however, there's one thing that Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander need to be wary of.
Stow Those Two-Strike Changeups
Ortiz isn't a particularly great two-strike hitter. He had a .606 OPS in two-strike counts this year, which isn't bad, but let's just say he was no Miguel Cabrera with two strikes on him. Big Papi deserves this much credit, however: He destroyed one particular pitch that tends to come in handy in two-strike counts: the changeup.
Boston's slugger was one of the most productive changeup hitters in the American League in 2013, and that had a lot to do with what he did to right-handed changeups in two-strike counts. Here's a look at what Big Papi did to changeups in two-strike counts in 2013, as compared to 2007-2012:
David Ortiz swung through two-strike changeups from right-handers less often, hit them on a line more frequently (LD/BIP is line drives per balls in play), found the holes in the defense more frequently, and picked up a double and a homer on two-strike changeups.
The Tigers could chalk this up to the luck of the draw in a small sample size if they're so inclined. But given that Big Papi is a smart hitter who would make an adjustment such as this, the Tigers are better off playing it on the safe side.
And this is important, for Big Papi might be looking changeup with two strikes when going up against Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander.
Brooks Baseball says that all three of them used used their changeups as preferred weapons against left-handed batters with two strikes, particularly Sanchez and Scherzer. And rightfully so, for the results were favorable:
Because Detroit's top three arms enjoyed such tremendous success with their changeups against lefty hitters in two-strike counts, they might be tempted to bust theirs out against Big Papi when they have the count in their favor.
Or they could use their breaking balls, which were also effective in two-strike counts against lefty hitters:
Scherzer's curveball wasn't overpowering against lefties when he got to two strikes, but it did the job. Sanchez's slider and Verlander's curveball, meanwhile, were just as deadly as their changeups. In case these guys need more incentive to throw their breaking stuff to Ortiz, here's this:
Scherzer and Sanchez should be safe throwing their curveballs, as Ortiz didn't do much against two-strike hooks from righties. Sanchez's slider will be more prone to damage, but Ortiz's capacity to whiff on right-handed sliders makes it worth Sanchez's while to give his slider a try in two-strike counts.
That Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander have key weaknesses to exploit when going up against the Sox slugger qualifies as fantastic news for the Tigers. The ALCS is going to be swayed by how effective Detroit's three best starters are, and could easily go in the Tigers' favor if they are able to get the better of Ortiz.
As for the Tigers bullpen, there's one guy who could be an anti-Papi in the ALCS.
Paging Drew Smyly
We've talked a little bit about pitch values in this piece, noting that David Ortiz was statistically more productive than the average player against fastballs and changeups.
Just as these things can shine light on Ortiz's strengths, however, they can also shine light on his weaknesses. And according to his PITCHf/x values, no pitch gave Big Papi a harder time this season than the slider.
But since we obviously just saw that Ortiz did some damage against right-handed sliders with two strikes this season, you might be thinking that there has to be some sort of platoon thing going on with his production against sliders.
The message here is that...well, it's basically that Ortiz is a left-handed hitter. They don't tend to like any pitches thrown by southpaws, much less those dastardly sliders. A lefty throwing a lefty a slider might as well be throwing water on a fire.
But it wasn't just sliders from left-handed pitchers that gave Ortiz a hard time this season. He also struggled against cutters.
Pretty much the same thing, and the one thing begging to be noted is that David Ortiz picked up exactly zero extra-base hits against lefty sliders and cutters during the regular season.
Based off this information, we can deduce that any lefty who throws both a slider and a cutter stands a very strong chance of shutting Ortiz down in a pinch. And wouldn't ya know, the Tigers just so happen to have a guy like that in their bullpen: Drew Smyly.
Smyly's a lefty who works off a four-seam fastball, but Brooks Baseball says that cutters and sliders accounted for almost 50 percent of his pitches to left-handed batters in 2013. His cutter was the main weapon between the two, but both were effective:
The BABIPs that lefty hitters racked up against these two pitches are higher than one would prefer, and they indicate that neither pitch is particularly unhittable. Hitting them for power, however, was extremely difficult for lefty hitters, and it's absolutely worth noting that these two pitches accounted for 23 of the 34 strikeouts that Smyly picked up against lefties in 2013.
With an effective cutter and an effective slider at his disposal, Drew Smyly is a southpaw who might as well be custom-designed to get Big Papi out in the later innings. And since Sanchez, Scherzer and Verlander are righties with good heat and tough breaking balls, they're also pretty well designed to handle Big Papi.
If these guys do what they're supposed to, David Ortiz will be quieted in the ALCS. And if he's quieted in the series, the Detroit Tigers are more likely to accomplish that one priority at the top of their list for this series: Win the games.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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