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July 14, 2015

Pitching Backward

Advance Scouting the All-Star Game: National 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 Buster Posey
This man is a star. Look at this picture and tell me he's not a star.

Ok, good. With that out of the way, let's talk about why Posey is a star. He's a good defensive catcher and a serious force at the plate. His 143 wRC+ from 2010, his first full season, through 2015 is easily the best among all catchers in MLB. This season he's bringing that number up by hitting .314/.381/.498.

Teams have been pitching Posey outside, seemingly worried about his ability to drive the ball:

Posey, much like Nelson Cruz on the American League side, obliges by hitting the ball the other way with authority. Granted, he's not hitting the ball out the other way like Cruz, but he is driving the ball to right field with some regularity:

That said, if a pitcher does work Posey up and in, he can showcase his power to the pull side. Most of those blue dots out beyond the left field area represent long home runs Posey has hit on high-and-inside fastballs against righties. For opposing pitchers, the best approach is probably to stick to the book and work Posey on the outer half. The reality is that he doesn't strike out very often at all (less than 9 percent this season) so limit the damage and make Posey hit the ball the other way. He can, and likely will, but there's a pretty good chance one of your fielders might catch it. So there's that.

1B Paul Goldschmidt
Goldschmidt has a pretty glaring weakness: He struggles with pitches off the outer part of the plate. That's completely understandable because those pitches are in fact balls. That said, it's one of the few weaknesses an opposing pitcher can exploit.

Goldschmidt has the highest average exit velocity of the NL starters (93 mph), and there are clearly some zones where he's really crushed the ball. The best bet is to attack him low and away, keeping the ball on the edges and forcing Goldschmidt to drive pitches that aren't in his wheelhouse. At least you'll largely avoid him hitting home runs that way:

2B D.J. LeMahieu
LeMahieu will serve as a breather for the opposing pitcher, especially because the concerns about giving up the long ball, or extra-base hits in general, diminishes quite a bit. LeMahieu has hit .311/.365/.397 this season with just five home runs, two triples, and eleven doubles to his name. He covers the plate well, but generally doesn't drive much of anything that isn't in the strike zone:

There isn't a single sector inside the strike zone where LeMahieu's average exit velocity is less than 90 mph. That said, he doesn't drive the ball in any area outside the confines of the strike zone, perhaps excepting down and in.

That, then, would be the best advice to the pitchers facing LeMahieu. Work the edges of the zone, especially the outer half. Avoid pitching LeMahieu low and inside at all costs, but even if you miss there he's not very likely to send the ball over the fence. Given the rest of this lineup, attacking LeMahieu in the zone with the goal of inducing weak contact would be prudent.

3B Todd Frazier
So far this season Frazier has been one of the most feared power hitters in baseball. He's hit 25 home runs and 26 doubles while batting .284 with a .337 on-base percentage. He is sporting a career-high fly-ball rate this season at nearly 49 percent. He's done this despite teams almost exclusively pitching him on the outer half with the goal of minimizing the damage the Reds' third baseman can do at the plate.

The problem is that Frazier has immense power in all parts of the zone, as you can see by the pitch locations of his 25 home runs this season:

Frazier's biggest weakness would be down in the zone, especially against breaking balls. So far in 2015 he's whiffed on 82 pitches outside the strike zone below the middle. Forty-five of the 65 whiffs against righties (69 percent) have come on breaking balls, while nine of the 17 whiffs against lefties (53 percent) have been courtesy of breaking balls:

That's the book on Frazier. Keep the ball down and work the outer half. He's got big-time power, so mixing up your pitches will be key. Get ahead and work in some breaking balls in the dirt to get him to chase. Frazier still strikes out less than the average MLB player, but he is susceptible to breaking balls that fall out of the zone, something a good pitcher can use to his advantage.

SS Jhonny Peralta
We all know about the even year thing with the Giants and the World Series. The lesser-known biennial tradition is Jhonny Peralta posting a wOBA of .356. In 2011 he hit that number for the Tigers, his first full season with the team. Two years later, his last full season in Detroit, he did it again, this time on the back of more singles and fewer home runs. Peralta's 2015 season, his second in Cardinal red, is shaping up to bust this tradition unlike any other as he currently boasts a .357 wOBA.

Peralta has boosted his offensive output by making more contact, leading to gains in OBP and SLG. It's worth noting that he's actually walking less than he did in 2014, but he's made up for that by raising his batting average by more than 35 points.

That said, Peralta's season hasn't been smooth sailing. His average exit velocity has bounced around quite a bit, and he's actually got the lowest exit velocity of anyone in the NL starting lineup, at 88 mph:

One thing Peralta does do well is use the whole field. This leads to a very balanced profile in terms of plate coverage:

Your best bet in attacking Peralta would be to work down and in followed by high and away. This is generally the opposite of the advice for most other hitters on this list, but Peralta pretty clearly sees some drop-off in terms of driving the ball from those zones:

1B/DH Anthony Rizzo
If you're an opposing pitcher, Rizzo has to be terrifying, right? He cut his strikeout rate by a third this year, now walking nearly as much as he strikes out, leading to a .298/.413/.542 line. That's good for a .360 TAv and makes Rizzo one of the best hitters in the game.

Generally speaking, there are two things you need to know about Rizzo's game. The first is that he doesn't chase very often. He swings at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than the average major leaguer, and makes contact on those swings at a much higher rate than his contemporaries. Pitchers generally don't challenge him in the zone very often—only 41 percent of the pitches Rizzo sees are in the strike zone, compared to the MLB average of 48 percent—but when they do he makes much more contact than would be expected on average. It's hard to make Rizzo swing and miss, but there's one foolproof location that can get it done:

Now, in order to generate these whiffs you'll want to get ahead in the count. Rizzo knows the strike zone incredibly well, so you'll really have to challenge him in order to get ahead. Your best bet is to beat him up inside. Sure, he can still easily get base hits on pitches there, but at least by keeping him from extending his arms you can limit the amount of damage he can do:

Oh, and when you're pitching him down trying to generate whiffs, make sure you really get the ball down. Because if it catches the bottom of the zone, he can make a good pitch a souvenir with the best of them.

The Outfield

OF Bryce Harper
Harper is having a good season. He's having a season that has been, so far, more than twice as good as the average player's offensively. His season line of .339/.464/.704 is good for the third-best batting average, best OBP, and best slugging percentage in baseball.

The interesting thing is that Harper hasn't done this while boasting best-in-the-game batted-ball velocity. In fact his 90.6 mph average exit velocity ranks just 37th. That's certainly nothing to scoff at, but it's interesting that Harper's been the best hitter in the game without posting Stanton-like exit velocities. How does that break down by zone?

Harper's heatmap is interesting. There seems to be some serious deviations between his hot zones and the cold ones. On the outer half, Harper crushes the ball with exit velocities as high as 103 mph on average. Other portions of the zone, especially down and away and high and inside, have been a bit more troublesome.

Harper really struggles with balls out of the zone, with the exception of high and outside pitches, which presents an opportunity for attacking him. Most pitchers seem to be afraid of going inside on Harper, though:

Maybe it's the fear of giving up a tape measure shot, but Harper's hot zones don't seem to match up with how opponents are pitching him. It's possible that if you attack Harper inside, then he'll adjust, but as it stands right now, the book on Harper might be due for some revision.

OF Joc Pederson
Pederson's penchant for long home runs is well documented at this point, but given that 13 of his 20 dingers have been to his pull side, it might surprise some to see that based on exit velocity, his weakness is on the inner half.

The heat map below bears out why Pederson is so dangerous to pitch to. He's consistently able to take pitches on the outer half and either send them to straightaway center or toward the right-center gap, and he is also able to get to balls in off the plate. Getting in his kitchen is optimal, but if you miss, he's happy to spit on a ball—Pederson walks about 16 percent of the time—or do serious damage when it's over the plate.

Pederson has turned into something of a three-true-outcomes player at this point, as his batting average sits at .230 as we enter the break. While his BABIP is a bit underwhelming at .282, a 40 percent fly-ball rate will take its toll. You can probably attack Pederson and take advantage of his low contact rates, but that approach can certainly be fraught with peril and 450-foot home runs.

OF Andrew McCutchen
McCutchen struggled coming out of the gate. His first 100 plate appearances weren't anything to write home about, but he quickly righted the ship and has been cruising since. The same story holds true for his batted-ball velocities, which have been increasing steadily all year before stabilizing somewhat recently:

McCutchen has a lot of the same struggles as other hitters on this list. He whiffs most often on breaking balls down and out of the zone. He occasionally struggles against good breaking balls from right-handed pitchers and changeups from lefties.

What you should be wary of, however, is that McCutchen is a great low-ball hitter. Perhaps that's why he has thrived in recent years as the strike zone has dropped ever lower. To wit:

In attacking him, your best bet would seem to be to work up in the zone where possible, finishing him off with breaking balls or changeups down in the dirt. Once again, command is key because if you miss your spot in the bottom of the strike zone, McCutchen has the skills to make you pay.

Wrap Up

The general advice is to keep the ball low and away, much as it is with the American League All-Stars, but that's not a hard-and-fast rule. The NL lineup is less driven by power and more prone to getting on base, which presents a different kind of problem for the AL's pitchers.

The best advice is generally good pitching advice: Pick your spots and move the ball around the zone. Alternate between elevating and keeping the ball down to keep hitters on their toes. You'll need to work in the zone because all of these hitters are happy to take a walk. Just be careful to avoid the hot zones here, which are a bit more isolated than those of the American League hitters. Try to induce weak contact and hope you don't give up a couple of hits or walks with Harper or Pederson walking up to the plate.

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

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