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July 14, 2015

Pitching Backward

Advance Scouting the All-Star Game: American League

by Jeff Long

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The All-Star Game is today and that means that fans everywhere will get to see some of the best players MLB has to offer square off in Cincinnati. To get you ready for the game, we're going to prepare exactly how the players might be preparing: with advance scouting reports.

The Infield

C Salvador Perez
Perez is an interesting player because he makes contact on pitches in the zone at a much higher rate than MLB average. So far this season he's made contact on more than 92 percent of the pitches he's swung at in the zone, nearly six percentage points higher than the league average. That said, Perez is still chasing pitches out of the zone at a high rate (11 percentage points higher than league average) and he's making contact on those swings less than in the past. Perez is susceptible to chasing pitches just out of the zone, something that can be taken advantage of when ahead in the count.

The majority of Perez's whiffs have come on those pitches below the zone. Against righties, 50 percent of those whiffs in the bottom right zone have been on sliders, showcasing Perez's weakness against breaking balls away. More than half of the whiffs down and in have come on tailing fastballs that ran in on Perez's hands.

Against lefties the scenario is about the same, but with different pitches doing the damage. Predictably, changeups are Perez's weakness down and away against lefties while hard pitches down and in (everything from sliders through four-seam fastballs) have been the most effective at generating whiffs.

1B Albert Pujols
While Pujols is hitting .255/.323/.532 for the season, good for a .307 TAv that would be his best mark since 2011, the underlying numbers suggest that line is might still move upward in the second. Pujols' current .217 BABIP sits 82 points below his career average, but that doesn't mean he's not making hard contact: He ranks 22nd in MLB with an average batted-ball velocity of 92.2 mph, which might suggest that his BABIP is due for an increase soon.

Albert Pujols has, for much of this season, easily outpaced the MLB average in terms of exit velocity. In fact, you have to go back to the end of April for the last week when Pujols' average exit velocity didn't exceed 90 mph.

Your best bet against Pujols is to work up and in and down and away. His average exit velocity in every sector within the strike zone is over 90 mph, so there's really not an easy way to attack him. If you're a pitcher, you might have to hope that Pujols' batted-ball luck doesn't revert during the All-Star Game. If you're feeling bold though, challenge him inside. Just make sure you keep it middle-up, because if you miss down odds are pretty good that Pujols is going to crush it.

That plate coverage is probably the reason that Pujols has struck out at about half the rate of the average MLB player for the better part of a decade and a half.

2B Jose Altuve
For a guy who seemingly prides himself on a high batting average, Jose Altuve sure swings at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone. That doesn't matter though, because he is a contact machine in and out of the zone. Altuve's contact rates of 82 percent on out-of-zone pitches and 94 percent in the zone are both well above the league averages of 65 and 87 percent, respectively.

Generally speaking, Altuve likes the ball up in the zone, and especially on the inner half. This is especially true if he wants a pitch to drive:

The best way to neutralize Altuve is to keep the ball down and away as much as possible. If the pitch is in the zone and Altuve swings, chances are pretty good he's going to make contact. Pitching to contact might not be the worst idea, especially if you can keep the ball down and in his weakest zones.

3B Josh Donaldson
Donaldson has been one of the best hitters in baseball so far in 2015. His .293/.351/.532 line has him among the top five offensive players in the American League heading into the break. The book seems to be out on Donaldson, with most pitchers working the power hitter on the outside part of the plate. Over 65 percent of pitches to Donaldson have been down the middle or further outside. The book is wrong:

Donaldson is happy to oblige opposing pitchers and drive the ball the other way:

Knowing that Donaldson is now used to, and capitalizing on, pitchers on the outer half, how should pitchers attack him? Your best bet is to work the inside corner and outside off the plate. Just make sure you keep it off the plate. He's also a little vulnerable up in the zone, but don't miss your spot because the ball might get deposited in the stands if you do.

SS Alcides Escobar
Escobar is a lot like Altuve, only without the potential for quite as much power. Escobar's home run totals from the 2013 and 2014 seasons don't even match Altuve's from the first half of 2014 alone. That said, Escobar is most susceptible to balls down in the zone, especially on the inner half:

Pitching down is a double-edged sword against someone like Escobar. He swings and misses on a lot of pitches down there, but it's also where the majority of his base hits come from. Escobar's speed allows him to beat out slow groundballs, but that's something that most pitchers can live with. His real difficulty is with breaking balls. Escobar has whiffed on 51 pitches off the plate below the middle of the zone this season, and 35 of them (69 percent) have been either curveballs or sliders. The percentage jumps to 80 if we include changeups in our calculation.

The Outfield

OF Mike Trout
The battle of Mike Trout vs. the high fastball has been well-documented. Quite frankly, not much more needs to be said. The best way to beat Mike Trout is to pitch him up-and-in.

Just don't miss your spot.

OF Lorenzo Cain
This season has been a coming out party for the Royals' talented outfielder as he's quieted doubters who thought his 2014 was an aberration. The best way to attack Cain is to keep the ball low and away, especially with breaking stuff. He really only drives the ball when it's middle-middle or middle-in, so keeping the ball down and out of his reach is important. Take a look at how opponents have pitched Cain (left) vs. the balls he's put into play thus far this season:

If Cain does make contact, there's a pretty straightforward rule to know in terms of his batted-ball distribution: If the ball is on the ground, it's likely to be pulled, especially between shortstop and third base. When he hits the ball in the air, though, Cain has a tendency to hit it the other way:

OF Adam Jones
Jones, like Trout, has a well-documented weakness: He loves to swing at pitches down and away. That remains the best way to get him out, especially when ahead in the count. The only problem is that, like Trout, Jones has adjusted to how opposing pitchers have attacked him. Jones has begun driving balls in the outside part of the zone with real authority:

When facing Jones there's a simple plan for attack. Work up and in and then low and away. He loves to swing—he hacks 27 percent more than the average major-leaguer—so that means pitchers have an opportunity to exploit his aggressiveness. Just be careful because if you miss your spot, Jones, like Trout or most near anyone else on this list, can really make you pay for it.

DH Nelson Cruz
It's been a weird year for Cruz. From March through May he was as hot as you can be hitting well over .300 with 18 home runs. Then in June he seemingly forgot how to hit, with his average dropping below .240 and only one home run over the entire month. Early returns from July are positive, so perhaps Cruz has righted the ship.

He showcases great plate coverage, with the ability to drive the ball the full width of the zone if need be. His strong suit is hitting balls down in the zone, so working the top of the zone seems to be your best bet. His zone profile is actually pretty similar to Mike Trout's, albeit without quite as much coverage at the top of the strike zone:

Once again the rule of thumb is up and in followed by low and away. Just be careful because Cruz has no qualms about hitting the ball out to right-center:

Wrap Up

There you have it. The general advice is to keep the ball low and away, but all of these guys can do some serious damage if the ball catches too much of the zone, which hopefully doesn't surprise you; it's an All-Star Game after all.

Pick your spots and move the ball around the zone. Alternate between elevating the ball and keeping it down to keep them on their toes. Exploit the over-aggressive hitters (Jones, Perez, etc.) by working on the edges of the zone while attacking the more patient hitters like Pujols. Most of all, just hope you get lucky. This lineup is going to be extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

Thanks to Daren Willman of Baseball Savant for his help and all the graphics used in this post. Also thanks to Craig Goldstein for research and writing assistance.

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

Related Content:  Advance Scouting

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