The Boston Red Sox's best player in the postseason hasn't been David Ortiz or Dustin Pedroia, the two big stars on the team. Nor has it been Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Mike Napoli or Shane Victorino, who have each had moments of heroism.
No, sir. Somewhat quietly, the best player on the Red Sox this October has been Jacoby Ellsbury.
After batting .298/.355/.426 in the regular season, Ellsbury is hitting .400/.467/.525 in the postseason. He even hit well against the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series while seemingly every other Boston regular was struggling, batting .318/.423/.455 in the six games.
Oh, and we should probably mention that Ellsbury has six of Boston's 11 stolen bases in October.
Now it's the St. Louis Cardinals' turn to take on Ellsbury. Given the way he's playing, shutting Ellsbury down will go a long way towards making the Cardinals World Series champions yet again.
As for how they can go about doing that, well, that's what we're here to discuss.
Cardinals Starters Must Know the Safe Havens
One of the challenges of beating Ellsbury at the plate is that he's not one to beat himself.
According to Baseball Info Solutions by way of FanGraphs, Ellsbury swung at only 28.1 percent of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in 2013. That's compared to a league average of 31.0 percent.
Ellsbury also isn't one to miss pitches inside the zone. Only 11 players made contact more frequently on pitches inside the zone, which helps explain why he only struck out 7.4 percent of the time.
Lastly, Ellsbury's OPS against righties was about 200 points higher than his OPS against lefties.
This is all relevant because Ellsbury is about to go up against an all-righty starting staff that features some good hard stuff. If Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn are planning on going right at Ellsbury with said hard stuff, they need to be cautious.
The good news for them is that Ellsbury does have some weak points inside the zone against hard stuff from right-handed pitchers.
Brooks Baseball has the scoop on that. Since I can't re-post their presentation of Ellsbury's BABIP zone profile against righty hard stuff, here's a recreation:
|Jacoby Ellsbury BABIP Zone for RH Hard Pitches|
When Ellsbury has made contact with hard stuff from right-handed pitchers, he's had little trouble getting hits on offerings low, inside and high. But he's had trouble making hard pitches up and in find the holes in the defense, as well as pitches on the outside part of the plate.
That Ellsbury has struggled with high-and-tight hard stuff indicates that he is, indeed, a left-handed hitter. That's normally a weak spot for lefty hitters, so Ellsbury can sleep soundly knowing that he's normal.
As for hard stuff on the outer portion of the plate, part of the reason Ellsbury hasn't had much luck on those pitches is because he's been liable to hit them on the ground. This is especially true of hard ones right on the outside corner, as Brooks Baseball counts that nearly 80 percent of the offerings Ellsbury has made contact with have gone on the ground.
Yes, there is more risk of a hit when a speedy guy hits the ball on the ground. But these Cardinals are all about getting the ball on the ground—second in MLB in ground-ball percentage, per FanGraphs—and Ellsbury's .247 average on ground balls is really just okay for a speedster.
It's like this: Since Ellsbury is not a prime candidate for strikeouts when he comes to the plate, getting him to hit the ball on the ground is the best way for the Cardinals to go about retiring him. The best way for them to do that is by wearing out the outside corner.
There is, however, one pitcher on the Cardinals who features Ellsbury's personal Kryptonite.
Meet Adam Wainwright's Cutter
Ellsbury will face Adam Wainwright in Game 1 of the World Series and Michael Wacha in Game 2. The bad news for them is that Ellsbury is a threat against their best pitches.
Wainwright's is his curveball, which has been known to make knees buckle and grown men swoon. Wacha's best pitch is his changeup, which has magicians hounding after the secret of its disappearing act.
According to Brooks Baseball, though, Ellsbury has hit .444 against righty curveballs and has crushed righty changeups to the tune of a .368 average since the break. This is in addition to his outstanding numbers against righty fastballs, so he has most of the weapons featured by right-handers covered.
Save for a couple, one of which is the cutter.
Here's what Ellsbury did against cutters this season:
|Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Cutters|
|Split||Seen||Swing %||Whiff/Swing %||GB/BIP %||K|
Ellsbury saw a fair amount of cutters from southpaws in 2013, but he was more likely to swing, whiff and put the ball on the ground against righty cutters. It's no wonder he only hit .192 against them with zero extra-base hits.
Are you getting all of this, Mr. Wainwright?
Indeed, this is relevant information for Wainwright because the cutter is one of his primary pitches against left-handed batters. Per Brooks Baseball, he's featured it over 25 percent of the time against lefty hitters this year.
Granted, lefty hitters have hit a solid .290 against Waino's cutter. But that's with only a .145 ISO (Isolated Power) and a GB/BIP (ground balls per balls in play) of nearly 50 percent. As a go-to pitch, it's not bad.
That Waino has a green light to use his cutter as a go-to pitch against Ellsbury could be huge. Since he could start a couple of games in the World Series, he could face Ellsbury six, seven or even eight times.
If Waino uses his cutter to get the better of their matchups, the guy who ignites Boston's offense could be a non-factor in as many as two games. In a series where runs might be at a premium, that would be huge for the Cardinals.
As for who in the bullpen can be trusted against Ellsbury, there's one guy in particular who stands out.
Paging Randy Choate
The cutter isn't the only pitch that gave Ellsbury trouble in 2013. He also had trouble with sliders.
I neglected to mention that above because it's unfortunately not very relevant to the Cardinals. Per FanGraphs, no team threw fewer sliders this season than St. Louis. The only Cardinals starter who throws one is Joe Kelly, and Brooks Baseball says he's thrown only 17 sliders to lefties all season.
There is one slider merchant on the Cardinals, however. And luckily for them, he just so happens to be a guy who specializes in throwing them to lefty hitters.
His name is Randy Choate, otherwise known as the LOOGY of Major League Baseball.
It's Choate's job to get left-handed hitters out, and his slider is his preferred means to do that. About 35 percent of the pitches he's thrown to lefty hitters this season have been sliders, according to Brooks Baseball. On those, he's allowed three hits (all singles) and no walks with 16 strikeouts.
Ellsbury's precisely the kind of hitter who could be victimized by Choate's slider. He has a hard time against all sliders, but these numbers from Brooks Baseball can vouch that he's had a very hard time against lefty sliders.
|Jacoby Ellsbury vs. Sliders|
|Split||Seen||Swing %||Whiff/Swing %||GB/BIP %||K|
Ellsbury has laid off swinging at lefty sliders better than he has at righty sliders, but he's been more likely to cut and miss and more likely to put the ball on the ground.
If Ellsbury is coming up in a close game that's into the late innings, Mike Matheny shouldn't hesitate to call Choate's number. Even if it means having to call on somebody else to get David Ortiz out.
It helps that it's not just Choate who's well-suited to the task of getting Ortiz out. The Cardinals have some hard-throwing right-handers who could get Ortiz out, which is relevant because he's become less and less of a threat against right-handed four-seamers. Per Brooks Baseball, Big Papi only has a .206 average and one home run against righty four-seamers since the All-Star break.
And hey, there's always Kevin Siegrist. He's also good at getting left-handed batters out (hint: .388 OPS against him in the regular season).
With other options available for Big Papi, Choate should be Matheny's guy for Ellsbury if he needs a crucial out late in a game. And that will be key, because the last thing the Cardinals need in a game that's close late is Ellsbury on the basepaths.
But there's another question: What do the Cardinals do when Ellsbury's on first?
When He's at First, Don't Let Him Get Comfortable
With the Red Sox set to put their considerable baserunning skills to work against the Cardinals, much of the attention is on how Yadier Molina might affect the outcome of the World Series.
And that's fair. As Mike Axisa of CBS Sports noted, Molina has thrown out 42 percent of would-be base stealers over the last five seasons. No other catcher in MLB is close to him in that regard.
Molina's presence will certainly make Ellsbury, he of the 58 stolen bases between the regular season and the postseason, think twice about stealing. But it can't be all about Molina's presence. Cardinals pitchers will have to do their part to keep Ellsbury glued to first base.
To this end, they can take some cues from a couple Tigers starters.
One is Max Scherzer. While the Tigers struggled as a team to hold runners in 2013, there were eight caught-stealings when Scherzer was on the mound, easily the most for any Tigers pitcher.
This wasn't accidental. Scherzer works hard at holding runners, and he recently explained his methods to MLB.com:
For me, it comes down to the simple fact I've got to change my timing. I like to hold the ball [longer]. I think that disrupts the baserunners. You've got to be quick to the plate and you've got to change all different aspects of it. You can't be repetitive, because they can just time you and figure you out. So that's something that I'm always cognizant of, especially when you play a team like this.
Scherzer didn't get a chance to put his technique to work with Ellsbury in the ALCS, but he did in a game back on June 22 after Ellsbury led off the first inning with a single.
I cued that game up on MLB.TV and timed how long Scherzer took in between coming set and going into his pitching motion with Ellsbury on first. Sure enough, he varied it up in the six pitches he threw to Shane Victorino.
- Pitch 1: 5.92
- Pitch 2: 3.72
- Pitch 3: 3.67
- Pitch 4: 7.32
- Pitch 5: 7.30
- Pitch 6: 3.22
My times are probably off by a bit here and there. But these are close enough for the purpose of demonstrating what Scherzer's talking about. He's effective at holding runners because they never know how long he's going to hold the ball. That makes it very hard to get a good jump.
For another example of how to keep Ellsbury glued to first, we turn to Justin Verlander.
Compared to Scherzer, Verlander is not good at holding runners. There were 21 steals in 25 attempts with him on the mound in 2013.
But Verlander had his act together when Ellsbury reached on a one-out single in the sixth inning of Game 3. It was a clear running situation with the score knotted at 0-0, yet Verlander was able to keep Ellsbury at first base via a couple different methods.
First and foremost, he sped up his delivery to home plate, as John Farrell happened to notice.
"He was 1.14 to 1.18 (seconds) in release times," Farrell told MassLive.com. "And that’s enough to stop a premium base-runner.”
In addition to delivering the ball to home more quickly, Verlander toyed with Ellsbury with his pickoff throws. He threw over several times, and it didn't matter where Ellsbury was. Verlander threw over when Ellsbury had a lead, when he was getting a lead, and even when he had no lead at all. He wouldn't allow Ellsbury to get comfortable, and in the end he never even attempted a steal.
This is simple stuff. So simple that most pitchers around the league probably know the drill by heart.
The thing about the Cardinals, though, is that they have a bunch of young pitchers on their staff. They might not know the drill by heart. It's on Cardinals pitching coach Derek Lilliquist to make sure they do, lest the Cardinals get burned by Ellsbury's speed.
If the Cardinals can keep Ellsbury's speed under wraps, they have a solid chance at winning the series. If they keep his speed under wraps and exploit his weaknesses at the plate, their chances of winning the series will be better than solid.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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