Here's a Thought: How to Pitch to Each Hitter on the Oakland A's

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Here's a Thought: How to Pitch to Each Hitter on the Oakland A's
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Before I spent the bulk of the last week on my Top 100 MLB Prospects list, I had been doing a number of studies to analyze how certain hitters were being pitched to and how they should be pitched to.

I thought I'd take a look at the A's batters (those who have enough plate appearances for their pitch numbers to mean anything, anyway) and see how they should be pitched, based on Pitch Type Linear Weights data.

After summarizing the approach a pitcher should take, I'll look and see what approach pitchers are actually taking to pitch to each individual batter.

Let's take a look.

Kurt Suzuki struggles with fastballs, as he's .9 runs below average (per 100 pitches, as all of my references are) against them. He also struggles with curves, as he's two runs below average with them. Both of those numbers aren't flukes: Suzuki has always been below-average against fastballs and curves.

The A's catcher is, however, very good at hitting most everything else. He ranks 3.44 runs above average on sliders and 2.26 above average on cutters. While both are career-best marks, Suzuki has been better than one run above average against both for his entire career.

Suzuki stays back well on changeups, coming in at +.83 on them as well.

The proper way to pitch Suzuki is to throw a lot of fastballs to him. If the opposing pitcher throws a curveball, he should work that in regularly as well. Suzuki can be showed an occasional changeup, but sliders and cutters should be mostly avoided, especially in hitter's counts.

What actually happens: Suzuki does see the fourth-most fastballs out of the 13 hitters I'm analyzing. Pitcher's don't seem to see that Suzuki can't hit a curve, as he sees the eighth-most curves.

Pitchers do tend to lay off using their sliders, as Suzuki sees the ninth-most on the team (I'm comparing each hitter to his teammates because if you look at league averages, it gets skewed because different teams see different pitchers. For example, the A's see far fewer sliders and far more curveballs than the average team, probably because they see a lot of curveball pitchers and few slider pitchers). 

Suzuki also sees the ninth-most (or fifth-fewest) changeups on the team.

While pitchers don't realize Suzuki struggles with curves, they do seem to see the general "throw him a lot of fastballs and don't give him an breaking/offspeed pitch he can hit" message.

Landon Powell, Suzuki's backup, is literally the opposite of Suzuki when it comes to what pitches he hits well. Powell hangs in against fastballs (+.02) and crushes cutters (+2.07, in a very small sample), but also hangs back on curveballs (+.67). 

Powell struggles with changeups (-.78) and has a lot of trouble with sliders (-3.5).

It might seem like the easy thing to do is just barrage Powell with sliders, but it's not really that simple, because he's a switch-hitter. Switch-hitters naturally see sliders well, and should see a lot of changeups.

It could be that only pitchers with excellent sliders throw them to Powell, so he sees only the best sliders MLB has to offer. But perhaps he actually does struggle against them, despite his inherent advantage in being a switch-hitter.

Anyway, what we do know is that it makes sense to throw Powell lots of changeups, because he doesn't have an advantage on them as a switch-hitter, and he struggles against them anyway.

So, I'd recommend for pitchers to throw a ton of changeups to Powell, with a pretty even splattering of other pitches.

What actually happens: Powell sees far fewer sliders since anyone else on the team due to his switch-hitting. He also sees the second-most changeups on the team. 

Powell also sees the fewest curves, again, likely due to the switch-hitting, and certainly understandable given his proficiency at hitting curves.

He sees the sixth-most fastballs, which is understandable given how few breaking pitches he's thrown.

While pitchers may overreact to Powell's switch-hitting to the point where they rarely throw him a pitch he struggles with (the slider), they approach him in generally the correct fashion.

Jason Giambi has actually been good at something this year. Believe it or not, A's fans. He's actually done a nice job with breaking pitches, coming in above-average against sliders (+.76) and curves (+1.5).

What he does struggle with is straight pitches, as his slowing bat speed renders him ineffective against fastballs (-.5) and he's having a lot of trouble with changeups (-1.61).

I'd recommend staying with the fastball-changeup combo to Giambi, busting him inside with early heat and finishing him off with the change down and away.

What actually happens: Giambi sees ranks dead-average (seventh of 13) in fastballs seen. He sees the third-most changeups, fourth-fewest curves, and sixth-fewest sliders.

Overall, pitchers take a more balanced approach against Giambi than they really should. They do understand which pitches he hits best and which he hits worst, but don't follow that to quite the extreme that they should.

Nomar Garciaparra really can't catch up to a fastball anymore (-2.14 on heaters). He also has big trouble with changeups (-3.22).

Like Giambi, Garciaparra does hang in well on breaking stuff (+.47 on sliders, +1.51 on curves).

I'd advise the same strategy I did with Giambi. Nomar should see up near 70 percent fastballs and 15 percent changeups.

What actually happens: Nomar sees the second-FEWEST fastballs on the team, but does see the most changeups. He also sees the second-most sliders and fourth-most curveballs.

I'm not sure who's telling pitchers Nomar can crush fastballs and struggles with offspeed pitches, but it seems pretty clear that that's the message pitchers are getting.

Looking at his past data, Nomar was EVEN WORSE on fastballs last season and crushed sliders in both 2007 and 2008, so it's not like 2009 is any sort of anomaly.

The approach to Nomar, with the exception of the high number of changeups, is completely counterproductive.

Mark Ellis hasn't really hit much of anything other than curveballs (+1.98). He's been terrible against fastballs (-1.97), sliders (-4.47), and changeups (-2.58).

Ellis just shouldn't see any curveballs. Other than that, pitchers should just throw their best pitches; Ellis isn't really hitting anything but curves.

What actually happens: Ellis sees fewer curves than anyone but Powell, who has the extenuating circumstance of being a switch-hitter. He also sees the fourth-fewest fastballs, which makes sense because he's even worse at sliders and changeups than fastballs. He sees the third-most sliders (his worst pitch) and fifth-most changeups.

The way Ellis is being approached makes perfect sense.

Adam Kennedy has been the best fastball hitter on the team (+1.12). He's been below-average on everything else (-1.13 on sliders, -2.51 on curves, -1.48 on changeups).

It seems that the harder a pitch is, the better Kennedy hits it, so as a pitcher, the slower your pitch is, the better the result it will get against the third baseman.

What actually happens: Kennedy sees the second-MOST fastballs on the team. He sees the second-fewest sliders, sixth-most curves, and ranks dead-average in changeups seen.

Sort of the anti-Garciaparra, Kennedy is a great fastball hitter who sees a ton of fastballs. If you're wondering why he broke out this season, that's why; pitchers are simply feeding his strength.

What's interesting is that aside from the fastballs, Kennedy is pitched properly: he's thrown more curves than changes, and more changes than sliders. However, pitchers lose far more throwing so many fastballs than they gain by distributing the offspeed pitches correctly.

Bobby Crosby is similar to Kennedy: he hits fastballs very well (+.71), but is completely helpless against offspeed pitches (-1.15 on sliders, -3.06 on curves, -7.01 on changeups).

Like Kennedy, Crosby hits sliders better than curves and changes, so he should see a ton of changeups (you can't do much worse than -7.01 against a pitch; that means that the A's lose a run every 13 changeups Crosby sees!) and curves, a decent amount of sliders, and relatively few fastballs.

What actually happens: Crosby sees the fifth-fewest fastballs on the team. He sees the fourth-most sliders, the seventh-most curves, and sixth-most changeups.

Unlike Kennedy, the pitchers understand that Crosby should be thrown a lot of offspeed stuff, but also unlike Kennedy, they don't allocate the offspeed pitches correctly to Crosby, throwing more sliders and fewer changeups than they should.

Orlando Cabrera has been below average against all four of the primary pitches. For what little it's worth, he is above-average against cutters and splitters.

Cabrera is yet another hitter better at fastballs (-1.19) and sliders (-.38) than changeups (-2.33) and curveballs (-2.03). Therefore, he should see (proportionally) slightly more soft stuff than hard stuff, but he really should be pitched to the way Crosby is pitched to (not the way I said Crosby should be pitched; the way he's actually being pitched).

What actually happens: Cabrera sees the most fastballs on the team. He sees the fourth-fewest sliders, fifth-fewest curves, and second-fewest changeups.

That's not really the right way to pitch Cabrera, but he doesn't have a big split like Kennedy or Garciaparra, so the strategy isn't really counterproductive. That said, he should see far more changeups, although pitchers sensibly avoid throwing Cabrera sliders.

Jack Cust seems to have a reputation as a fastball-only hitter, and while he's a plus against heaters (+.38), he also comes out on top against curveballs (+.35) while being something less than utterly defeated by sliders (-1.11) and changeups (-.97).

It is sensible to work in quite a bit of offspeed stuff to Cust, but he shouldn't have really extreme splits.

What actually happens: Cust sees the third-fewest fastballs on the A's. He sees the fifth-most sliders, second-most curves, and fourth-most changeups.

This strategy makes a lot of sense with the exception of the curveball predominance. Cust has always been far worse with sliders than curves. 

Matt Holliday can't hit a curveball (-4.43), but comes in at average against fastballs (+.08) and dominates sliders (+2.7) and changeups (+3.17).

Holliday is something of Cust's opposite: he should be thrown a lot of fastballs and curves and shouldn't see many sliders or changeups in the strike zone.

What actually happens: Holliday sees the third-most fastballs on the team. He sees the sixth-most sliders, third-fewest curves, and third-fewest changeups.

Pitchers get the "throw the fastball and not the changeup" part, but not the "throw the curve and not the slider" part of the numbers. 

A growing trend that I'm noticing, both in this study and in others I've done, is that breaking balls seem pretty randomly allocated. Pitchers often understand that a hitter is good or bad at hitting breaking balls, but the distinction between "good curve hitter" and "good slider hitter" doesn't seem to appear much.

Pitchers may be assuming that batters have equal ability to hit both types of breaking ball, but the numbers don't back that up at all.

Scott Hairston has been decent with fastballs (+.07), sliders (-.17), and changeups (+.66) since coming to the A's, but has struggled horrifically with curveballs (-5.86).

However, for the season as a whole (with the Padres and A's), he's absolutely crushed changeups (+6.15) and hit fastballs well (+.68) while struggling to hit breaking pitches (-.99 vs. sliders, -.90 vs curves).

Hairston should be thrown a lot of breaking pitches, as pitchers should shy away from the fastball and the changeup.

What actually happens: Hairston sees the fewest fastballs and changeups and most sliders and curves on the A's. 

If I had to pick one Athletics batter who should have an extreme split, it wouldn't be Hairston, but it does make sense that he's pitched to like this.

Rajai Davis excels against sliders (+2.7) and changeups (+2.27) and hangs in decently against fastballs (-.09). His big problem is staying back on curves (-5.63). 

Naturally, Davis should thus see a lot of curves and fastballs, and pitchers should proceed with extreme caution when it comes to sliders and changeups.

What actually happens: Davis sees the fifth-most fastballs and third-most curves on the team, so pitchers do recognize his weaknesses.

He also sees the third-fewest sliders and sixth-fewest changeups.

Davis is pitched to properly.

Ryan Sweeney, like Davis, does a nice job with sliders (+1.35) and changeups (+1.86) while struggling with fastballs (-.84) and curves (-.16). 

He should be pitched to somewhat similarly to Davis. Pitchers should throw Sweeney a very high number of fastballs and a good number of curves as well. They should avoid changeups if possible and only occasionally work in a slider as a chase pitch.

What actually happens: Sweeney sees the eighth-most (or sixth-fewest) amount of fastballs on the team. He ranks seventh in sliders, fifth in curves, and tenth in changeups.

Other than the low number of fastballs, Sweeney is approached properly, and this split isn't as disconnected from the numbers as Garciaparra's or Kennedy's.

 

So there you have it. Those are my suggested (and statistically backed) approaches to facing each of the A's hitters.

Some seem to be followed more than others in reality, but it does seem like the pitchers follow the stats more often than not.

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