ATLANTA — Weary is the pitching coach who must contend with the depth and power of the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup. Slogging through rush hour traffic, babysitting a colicky infant and enduring dental surgery come to mind, at least if you saw the face of Atlanta Braves pitching coach Chuck Hernandez after four games of trying to stop them. Nineteen pitching changes and 624 pitches were not enough.
“You have to be in the strike zone,” Hernandez said, “because they will not go outside of it. They make you work. They’re like those old school Yankees and Red Sox teams that just wear you out.
“They’re very good at pitch recognition. And those pitches that are just off the edge, they just don’t swing at them. And when you make a mistake, they make you pay.”
Derek Johnson of the Milwaukee Brewers, the Dodgers will see you now.
Los Angeles advanced to its third straight National League Championship Series, all under manager Dave Roberts, by grinding down the last bits of a spunky but undermanned Braves team, 6-2, in Game 4 Monday.
The NL championship will be decided by the teams that finished 1-2 in the league in home runs. This is not a coincidence. This is the way baseball is played now. It’s a very different game than how it was played even four years ago. And right now the Dodgers play it as well as anybody.
“We want guys who are passive out of the strike zone and aggressive in it,” said Dodgers vice president Andrew Friedman, “and when they swing, guys who hit the ball hard. We’ve got a lot of guys in our lineup–and on our bench, too–who do that.”
So deep and powerful are the Dodgers that they had 108 home runs on their bench in Game 3–just 25 fewer than the entire Marlins team. They scored 70% of their runs in the series on home runs (14 of 20). They posted a .210 batting average, which is increasingly becoming a meaningless statistic.
“It’s tough to make a living trying to string hits together today,” Friedman said.
The Braves tried to do that. Here’s all you need to know: they were outhomered, 8-2. End of story.
“They obviously have a lot of firepower,” Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. “They had Yasiel Puig hitting eighth–with 23 home runs!”
Hitting in the postseason today is like facing a closer all night long. The game turns on walks and home runs. If you play for rallies you will die waiting.
The venerable “hitting with runners in scoring position” is overrated in the run prevention environment of today (strikeouts and shifts). The Dodgers and Brewers ranked seventh and 11th in the league in RISP.
You want rallies? You want balls in play and moving runners? You want a game that is virtually extinct. The Braves and Dodgers had 69 turns at bat in the series. Only once in those 69 turns did either team manage three hits in one inning–the Dodgers game-breaking, two-run sixth inning Monday, and that improbable rally needed a bloop single by Puig that was in the air for 4.9 seconds and carried only a 4% hit probability.
Such is the specialization in MLB today that hits have never been this hard to get in the 46 seasons since the DH was added. Before Game 4, Roberts was talking about how matching up pitchers against hitters has changed radically and quickly. Managers no longer match up to simply gain platoon advantages but to match up stuff against swing planes on an almost scientific scale. That’s why teams build bullpens like those 12-box cereal variety packs you remember as a kid. You need specific pitches with specific spins and actions according to a hitter’s profile. Batter-pitcher matchups have become almost useless because there are so many pitching changes that the sample sizes remain too small to have much meaning.
Here’s a story told to me by young Dodgers’ starter Walker Buehler, who was 12 years old when he got his first radar gun and has grown up with pitching metrics and analytics. A study of his pitches revealed that one of Buehler’s strengths is the “perceived rise” of his fastball. Not perceived velocity, but perceived rise.
And what the data revealed is that when he throws his four-seam fastball low in the zone the pitch has more “perceived rise” than when he elevates it in the zone. In layman’s terms, when his fastball is lower in the zone hitters are more likely to misjudge where the ball is going to cross the hitting zone. It holds its plane through the bottom of the zone.
That caused me to check the numbers, and of course he was right. I had watched Buehler throw so many good high fastballs I figured he simply followed convention by having success with his high 90s fastball at the top of the zone. But hitters against Buehler’s four-seamer bat .279 when the pitch is in the upper third of the strike zone, .244 when it’s in the middle third and just .179 when it’s in the bottom third. Science is a wonderful thing.
In the postseason, the antidote to pitching specialization is to build hitting depth. Both the Brewers, with Curtis Granderson, Jonathan Schoop, Domingo Santana, and Dodgers, with David Freese, Brian Dozier, Matt Kemp, et al, have such left/right fortification. Both teams can play match up out of the bullpen and off the bench, and that is what the NLCS is about.
Before Game 4, Friedman sat in on the Dodgers hitters’ meeting in the batting tunnel behind their dugout at SunTrust Park. They were facing Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves’ powerful righthander with a 98 mph and a nasty slider. Batters hit .233 against his fastball and .119 against his slider.
Daunting? Not if you looked at his stuff the way the Dodgers did.
“Get him in the zone,” was the message.
Foltynewicz, like any pitcher, is not so daunting when his stuff is in the zone. His fastball is almost one hundred points easier to hit when it’s in the zone (.253-.159) and his slider is 119 points easier to hit when you make him get it over the plate (.164-.045).
“I was blown away at the level of preparation and the way they took it into the game,” Friedman said.
Foltynewicz threw only 58% strikes. He walked four in four innings. The Braves walked 27 Dodgers in the four games–almost half a mile worth of walks.
This is worth saying again: this outcome was predictable. When you pit the league’s wildest pitching staff (the Braves issued the league’s most walks and threw the second fewest strikes) against the most ruthlessly patient lineup (the Dodgers took the most walks and saw the fewest strikes), it’s not a fair fight.
Now the Dodgers are Johnson’s problem. The Brewers will try to handle them the same way they did Colorado: de-emphasize starting pitching length while putting a premium on matching up stuff against swings. Manager Craig Counsell will get Roberts to start one of his platoon lineups against his starter, then quickly bring in a reliever to test how soon Roberts flips his lineup, which would make it easier for Counsell to manage the endgame. Roberts will counter that approach with hybrid lineups and piecemeal rather than whole scale substitutions.
Milwaukee will be like Atlanta in this respect: pitchers will almost never face the same Dodgers hitter three times. Braves pitchers faced 150 batters, but only twice did a pitcher face a batter a third time in a game.
Counsell has enough pitching depth to drive the Dodgers into discomfort. But the entire key will be if Milwaukee throws enough quality strikes. And that is the Brewers’ biggest challenge. They are not a great strike-throwing team–not as bad as the Braves, but below league average at 12th. (Los Angeles pitchers, by the way, throw the most strikes).
“I was thinking about this a little bit,” Friedman said about how this Dodger team may be better equipped than the last two to win the franchise’s first title since 1988. “I do think this is a deeper team than last year, a more well balanced team.”
To take out the Dodgers you are going to have to get them out with pitches in the zone. And here the Brewers have a shot. In the second half of the season, they were the league’s second best staff at getting hitters out in the zone (.261), behind only the New York Mets. It’s one of the best measurements of pure stuff, which is what you need against the patient and powerful Dodgers.
And if the Brewers can’t do it, we may be looking at a rematch of last year’s World Series. Because the toughest staff to hit in the strike zone in the second half is the one in Houston (.254). Get ready for more games that turn quickly on home runs, not slowly on strings of hits.