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October 5, 2014

Playoff Prospectus

Puig and Holliday: A Breakdown of Six Strikeouts

by Sahadev Sharma

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Of the eight division series games, six have been one-run games and a seventh went to extra innings. The playoffs certainly haven’t been lacking in excitement or storylines, and the Cardinals and Dodgers kept the pace on Saturday night.

There was Zack Greinke’s brilliance in seven shutout, two-hit innings. Matt Carpenter continued to be a thorn in the Dodgers' side, coming up with the biggest hit for the Cardinals for the second night in a row, and of course Matt Kemp delivered eighth inning heroics that gave the Dodgers the lead and the eventual win.

But it was actually two players who went hitless in eight at-bats and struck out a combined seven times -- six against the starting pitchers -- that intrigued me the most: Yasiel Puig and Matt Holliday.

Puig had a solid night Friday, reaching base four times, but his first plate appearance, a hit by pitch, may have set the stage for his performance on Saturday. On the fourth pitch of his first at-bat on Saturday, Lance Lynn came high and a little in on Puig on an 0-2 count. Puig glared at Lynn, Yadier Molina had some words for Puig while still in his crouch and Puig glared back at Molina. It was all worth a chuckle, but not much else.

However, it may have served as a set up for the rest of Puig’s plate appearances against Lynn on the night. That at-bat ended like this:

Puig walked away from the battle nodding his head, almost as if he was saying, “Yeah, I won’t forget that, you’ll get your comeuppance!” Well, probably not those exact words, but close enough. Unfortunately for Puig, he didn’t seem to learn from the at-bat. Lynn had faced Puig nine times before Saturday night, and he’d never struck him out or shown any real consistent approach. That wasn’t the case on Saturday.




The three at-bats above all show Puig striking out on hard pitches away, outside of the zone. Ideally, if you’re going to give Puig hard stuff, your best bet is to keep it away. As you can see, Lynn executed that quite nicely and Puig didn’t seem to have a chance. Who knows if the hit by pitch on Friday and the subsequent “brush back” (I hesitate to call it that, but let’s go with it) on Saturday had any effect on his approach, but Lynn seemed to have a game plan that worked in retiring Puig on the night. I still can’t believe Puig let this one go in his second at-bat.

Puig’s at-bats will be interesting to watch the rest of the series. He’s an immensely talented player, but also clearly very emotional. Being emotional certainly isn’t always a detriment, but players are human beings and, at times, they can let things they should let go distract them during a game.

I’m most curious as to if Lynn just flat-out bested him on Saturday night or if he actually succeeded in getting in Puig’s head and taking him off his game. It’s very possible either is the explanation, but if it’s the latter, Puig will have to quickly put any bitter feelings behind him and get back to business on Monday. He’s too valuable a bat in the Dodgers’ lineup to be concerned with such drama.

While Puig’s at-bats could set up more topics down the road in this series, Holliday’s were interesting just because of his previous success against Greinke. In 39 plate appearances entering the game, Holliday had an .872 OPS against Greinke. However, as we’ve all said over and over, we can’t trust such a small sample size to be any sort of predictor of future performance. Holliday could continue to have success against Greinke, or Greinke, a very talented and smart pitcher, could adjust his approach, possibly after studying his past performances against Holiday and figuring out something that works better.




Above, we see that of the 18 pitches Greinke threw to Holliday, seven were sliders. In their previous battles, Greinke had thrown just 13.8% sliders against Holliday, which is a little below his career-rate slider usage of 17.18%. Clearly, Greinke felt the slider would be a better weapon against Holliday – who shows no particular weakness against the breaking ball – and it worked out for him. In the first two at-bats, Greinke set Holliday up with two straight sliders before ending him on a four-seamer. In the final two at-bats, Greinke put Holliday away with the slider. Yes, small sample size is used an excuse to ignore things all too often, but a diligent player who studies tape and works to improve a game plan will always trump the dreaded small sample size.

The third strikeout may have been the biggest as it came during the sixth, an inning manager Don Mattingly said took a lot out of Greinke, one of only two innings in which Greinke faced a batter with a runner on second. Some are questioning Mattingly’s decision to pull Greinke in the seventh and rely on what’s been a suspect bullpen. However, if Greinke and Mattingly had discussed this heading into the seventh and Greinke admitted the sixth had gassed him, going to the bullpen in the eighth is the right decision. A manager has to listen to his pitcher in that instance, and if Greinke is indicating that he doesn’t have much left, going to the bullpen is really the only choice Mattingly has.

In my Game Two preview, I suggested that Holliday’s previous success against Greinke made this a match-up to watch. Indeed, it proved to be, as Greinke masterfully adjusted and neutralized the Cardinals biggest offensive threat. In Game Three, that task goes to Hyun-jin Ryu, and if he can figure out a way to retire Carpenter as well, all the better for Los Angeles.

Sahadev Sharma is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sahadev's other articles. You can contact Sahadev by clicking here

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