Verducci's Notebook: The Fear of Juan Soto, the Postseason of Spin and More

In his playoff notebook, Tom Verducci dives into opponents' fear of Juan Soto, the reliance on breaking pitches this October, the stellar umpiring so far this postseason and more.
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Our modern world is such that we blame quicker and more stridently than we laud. And so NLDS Game 5 became a contest to see who could blame Clayton Kershaw or Dave Roberts the loudest or the cruelest.

Let’s take a deep breath and recognize the wonder and might of Juan Soto. Two weeks from his 21 birthday, the Washington Nationals outfielder won the game more than anybody lost it.

When the New York Giants had Lawrence Taylor, quarterbacks and offensive coordinators had to account for him every play. Where is he? Is he on the line or off? Is he on the blind side? Is he rushing or not? Soto is that force in the Washington lineup. Even when it’s not his turn to bat, Soto is drawing attention and worry from the opposing manager.

The Dodgers tried to be very careful with Soto. In 22 plate appearances in the series they threw him only 17 fastballs in the zone. Walker Buehler tried one, a 92-mph cutter on a 1-2 count in the sixth with Anthony Rendon on second base.

Buehler has one of the fastest spinning, nastiest cutters in the game. It bores in on the knuckles of lefthanded hitters. It is so hard to hit that the entire season lefthanded hitters managed one hit against his two-strike cutter. One hit all year.

And then Soto, in that tiger crouch two-strike pose in which he turns the art of hitting into a kind of martial art, whacks it into rightfield for an RBI single. Whoa.

The Nats are back in the game at 3-1. More importantly, Soto scares the daylights out of Roberts.

The next Soto flashpoint is in the eighth inning. A tiring Buehler has Trea Turner at 2-and-2 but misses with a fastball and then a full-count curve. He is cooked.

Roberts was hoping to get Buehler through the inning. Kershaw was the only pitcher warming. This pocket of hitters–Eaton, Rendon and Soto (there he is again)–requires a lefthanded pitcher or three different pitchers. Roberts had a script to have Kershaw piggyback behind Buehler. If all went really well, Kershaw could even close the game with three innings.

The plan starts well. Kershaw fans Eaton on three pitches to get the game to the eighth. There is no way Roberts should pull Kershaw here, not with a two-run lead and not with Soto lurking. If he did, he would have to use Kenta Maeda on Rendon, Adam Kolarek on Soto, and then hope Joe Kelly and Kenley Jansen can finish the game. It’s not a bad plan, but Roberts believes he has something better: one of the best pitchers in this generation who just looked nails in disposing of Eaton on three pitches.

Kershaw takes the mound in the eighth and immediately I notice something isn’t right. Kershaw is pitching out of the stretch. Why? Why would one of the best starters in this era change his routine? He closed Game 7 of the NLCS last year out of the windup. He has one of the most idiosyncratic, tough-to-time windups, and instead he is pitching as if he’s been a lefty specialist reliever his whole life. Odd. Why change?

He throws a slider to Rendon, a great low-ball hitter, that is so terrible and lacks any discernible movement that the Statcast algorithm thought it was a fastball. Rendon hammers it for a home run.

Now it is Soto’s turn. This is the fourth time Kershaw faced Soto in this series. In every at-bat Kershaw started him with a slider. The Dodgers feared throwing Soto fastballs. Guess what Soto is sitting on.

Kershaw accommodates him with not just a slider, but one that would have arrived on one of those room service carts if it were any more accommodating. It is a hanger with no movement. Soto destroys it to tie the game at three.

There would be one more way Soto would win the game. Roberts sticks with Kelly in the 10th. The second-guessers conveniently forget that Kelly, doing his best Lance McCullers impersonation, had buzzed through the eighth on 10 pitches, all of them curveballs. The Nationals swung and missed at six of them. He was dominant.

But Eaton, after watching his teammates flail on Kelly’s curve, takes a different approach. He takes three of them instead of chasing them, and then Kelly can’t throw a fastball for a strike. Leadoff walk. Uh-oh. Cue the ominous orchestral music.

Now Rendon is up. You can’t bring in Jansen because Eaton will be on second before you can blink. Basestealers are 35-for-35 against Jansen over the past three years.

Kelly finally hangs a curve, and Rendon crushes it for a double.

Here’s where Roberts went wrong, and of course it’s because of Soto. Roberts simply doesn’t want to give Soto a chance to swing the bat. Kelly has now issued a leadoff walk and hung a curveball. The right move would be to bring in Kolarek to face Soto and try for the punchout. Roberts can’t even take a chance with the one matchup the Dodgers wanted before this series begins. He is too afraid of Soto.

And so Roberts intentionally walks Soto. He leaves the season in the hands of Kelly with the bases loaded, no outs, no margin for error and Howie Kendrick at the plate. Roberts will say he was counting on Kelly getting a groundball. It’s not that Roberts wanted the season in the hands of Kelly, but Soto is the one who pushed him into that corner.

Kelly gets a strike on a curve that Kendrick fouls off. Then he makes a curious decision. He decides he’s going to throw a two-seamer down and in while trying for that groundball.

There is one problem: he is throwing a fastball to the best fastball hitter in all the major leagues. Kendrick hit .379 off fastballs this year. Nobody was better. He looks fastball every pitch. Every pitch. Kelly doesn’t get it in far enough. Kendrick blasts it for a grand slam.

If you want to blame Kershaw and Roberts, go right ahead. It’s part of the drama of postseason baseball. But you can’t pass out any blame without realizing why the Nationals won this game. It’s because Soto is a beast, the Lawrence Taylor of baseball.

***

It’s not your imagination: this is the Postseason of Spin.

The use of breaking pitches is way up from what it was in the regular season: from 28.5% to 36%.

Why? It’s simple: in the regular season major league hitters hit 54 points higher against fastballs than they do against breaking pitches (.274-.220). Velocity doesn’t bother hitters. Even against elite velocity (95+ mph) they hit 29 points higher.

So in the pressure of the postseason, and when home runs account for more of the scoring than ever before, we get a game in which nobody wants to “give in” to a hitter with a fastball, pitchers are going to their “kill” pitch in all counts, not just two-strike counts, and pitchers are more likely to spin the ball on full counts and risk walking the batter rather than throw a challenge fastball.

Here is the increase:

Breaking Pitches Use, MLB 2019

PercentageBatting Average

Regular Season

28.5%

.220

Postseason

36.0%

.188

It’s really noticeable on full counts:

Full Count Breaking Pitches

Percentage

Regular Season

23.5%

Postseason

33.0%

And if you want more proof why teams are staying away from fastballs, check this out:

Postseason Home Runs by Pitch Type

Fastballs

35

Breaking Pitches

8

Off-speed

6

Fastballs account for 55% of the pitches but 71% of the home runs.

The Yankees, with James Paxton throwing more curves than ever in his life, and Masahiro Tanaka using his fastball only as a rare “show” pitch, are industry leaders when it comes to throwing fewer fastballs this time of year:

New York Yankees 2019 Pitch Selection

FastballsBreakingOff-speed

Regular Season

57.3%

29.6%

13.0%

Postseason

51.1%

34.4%

14.5%

***

The umpiring in the postseason has been very good overall. The best: home plate umpire James Hoye missed only five pitches out of 291 in ALDS Game 4 at Tropicana Field. Doug Eddings (eight misses) and Gary Cederstrom (eight) also had stellar games. Remember, umpires who work the LDS don’t work the LCS but are typically in the pool for World Series assignments.

***

If you ever get the idea the Yankees might bunt, just sit down, close your eyes and let the feeling pass.

The Yankees have played 135 consecutive games without a sacrifice hit by a position player–and an MLB record 79 straight without one by anybody.

They have 10 sac bunts all year. Four were by a pitcher (Paxton 3, Happ) and two were scored as sacrifices but really were the result of trying to bunt for a hit.

So that means a Yankees position player gave himself up for a bunt four times this year–none since May 12.

Aaron Boone has managed two seasons with the Yankees. Both seasons include a Yankees record for fewest sacrifice hits in a season (10).

The Yankees have 20 sacrifice hits in the past two years. Boone’s dad, Bob Boone, had 23 sacrifice hits by himself in one year–1982 playing for Gene Mauch with the California Angels. Aaron was nine years old at the time.

No American League team has a sacrifice hit this postseason.

***

It’s fascinating to watch pitchers trying to work against the same hitters inside a series. For example, Mike Foltynewicz of Atlanta threw 36 sliders against St. Louis in Game 2. Two-thirds of them were out of the strike zone (24). And the Cardinals chased half of those.

The Cardinals came into Game 5 with a game plan to make Foltynewicz get that slider into the zone. He threw eight sliders out of the zone. The Cardinals swung at only one of them, and that was a hit by Marcell Ozuna.

Then there was Stephen Strasburg, who started Game 5 with a game plan to beat Los Angeles this time without establishing his changeup. Not a good idea. It’s the second-best changeup against lefties in baseball at a .140 batting average. The Dodgers jumped him for a 3-0 lead, after which Strasburg went back to his steak-and-potatoes.