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September 20, 2013

Pebble Hunting

Attacking Andrew McCutchen

by Sam Miller


Every hitter has a hole. Barry Bonds, during spring training, had given an interview with ESPN in which he as much as said, "if you make your pitch, you can get me out." The issue wasn't whether a hitter had a weakness, but where it was. Every pitcher in the big leagues knew that Giambi's hole was waist-high, on the inside corner of the plate. It was about the size of a pint of milk, two baseballs in height and one baseball in width. Which raised an obvious question: why don't the pitchers just aim for the milk pint? Moneyball, Chapter 7, "Giambi's Hole."

There seem to actually be two points in that paragraph, and they contradict each other. "Every pitcher in the big leagues" was saying that Giambi had a weakness, and that if you could throw him kryptonite it would get him out. But Bonds seemed to be saying something else: "If you make your pitch, you can get me out." Your pitch.

Andrew McCutchen might be the best hitter in the National League right now. Among qualifiers, he leads the league in True Average and OPS+, and his numbers are almost identical to the numbers he put up last year, so we're talking about 1,300 plate appearances at this level. There is a scouting report that teams will go over before every series with Pittsburgh, and it will say something about McCutchen. Maybe it says something generic like "hard in, soft away," or maybe it says "he has a hole, waist-high, on the inside corner of the plate, about the size of a pint of milk."

But a catcher will tell you that, when he's deciding what pitch to call for, the batter's strengths and weaknesses aren't the first question on the decision tree. First is the pitcher's strength. If his curveball is garbage, then you don't call for it just because that's what got McCutchen out twice when an advanced scout saw him two weeks earlier. Then you think about the situation. Then you think about whether the pitcher is commanding a particular pitch well, or commanding to a particular location. The key, more than thinking about the batter's pint of milk, is calling a pitch that the pitcher is going to be able to throw well.

I wanted to see what this looks like with McCutchen. So I picked three pitchers who have different stuff. Not the furthest extremes—no Dickey/Chapman pairing—but a power pitcher, a finesse pitcher, and a guy in the middle. The three all faced McCutchen multiple times this year. They all had plate appearances that, in ball-strike sequence, resembled each other: a first-pitch strike, then two balls, then a strike to even the count. That means that five times they were in the exact same situation against McCutchen. Presumably they had very similar scouting reports on McCutchen, too. So would their approaches to McCutchen resemble each other? That's our question today.

First Pitch

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<< Previous Article
Overthinking It: This ... (09/20)
<< Previous Column
Pebble Hunting: Why Ko... (09/18)
Next Column >>
Pebble Hunting: Pedro ... (09/23)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Daily Roundup: Around ... (09/21)

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