10 October 2014

How Orioles Pitching Can Limit Eric Hosmer in the ALCS

The Royals arrived in the postseason for the first time since 1985 by doing many things well.  However, being productive with the bats was not one of them.  Look at almost any statistic from the 2014 season and they are the worst team to make the playoffs in terms of hitting.  While they scored 4.02 runs per game (good for 14th in baseball), they fared worse in wOBA (.306, 18th in MLB) and wRC+ (94, also 18th in MLB), and much worse in hitting for power (.113 ISO, last in MLB) and getting on base (6.3% BB rate, also last in MLB).  However, they put the ball in play more than anyone else (i.e. they don’t strikeout), and when you combine that with their speed, they can be a pretty dynamic offense when things break right for them.

After 4 playoff games (small sample, I know), they’ve gone from scoring roughly 4 runs per game to scoring an average of 6 runs per game.  So how did that happen?  Well, the fact that they’ve basically been able to steal bases whenever they want has helped, but more importantly, it has been the hitting of Eric Hosmer.  Maybe you remember some of his highlights from last week, such as this…

…or this…

…or that he paid for everyone’s drinks after advancing to the ALCS (which was brilliant, by the way).

Since the postseason began, Hosmer has been hitting a very healthy .500/.632/1.143 (AVG/OBP/SLG). You didn’t misread that triple slash line.  Hosmer has a 1.774 OPS.  It’s a stark difference from his 2014 line of .270/.318/.398.  Yes, it’s a small sample, but not only has he hit for power these 4 games, he’s also walked 5 times in 19 PA’s, so it’s probably safe to say that he’s seeing the ball pretty well.  As you can see in the video’s above, he’s specifically done damage to fastballs up and away, tough pitches to hit, and a location he’s had trouble with historically.

During the 2014 season, Hosmer has been susceptible to fastballs on the outside corner.  Overall though, he has generally been able to consistently make contact on fastballs elsewhere in the strikezone.  However, based on what he’s done recently, that outside corner may not be a spot pitchers want to go to right now.  Since throwing fastballs on the outside corner is probably not the preferred plan of action at the moment, does Hosmer have a weakness that the Orioles pitchers can try to exploit?

Of course he does.  All hitters have a weakness.  Take a look at Hosmer’s swing rate on “soft” pitches thrown to him in 2014.

Notice anything?  He’ll expand the strikezone quite a bit on the low end and the outside corner. Further isolating the pitch type to just curveballs and sliders, it becomes even more pronounced, almost to the point that the lower end of the strikezone barely even exists for him.

The fact alone that he swings at soft pitches below the strikezone and off the outside corner is helpful, but it doesn’t tell us everything.  Some players have crazy plate coverage and can make contact with a pitch in almost any location.  So with that in mind, let’s take a look at Hosmer’s contact rate in 2014, on the same type of pitches.

As you can see, Hosmer actually makes decent contact on soft stuff off the plate on the outside corner. However, his contact rate on soft pitches falls off a cliff just under the lower edge of the strike zone.

Eric Hosmer has been the hottest hitter on a Kansas City team that has all of a sudden started scoring runs during the playoffs.  Despite struggling in the first half of the year, a strong July and September (he missed August with a stress fracture in his right hand), where he hit .323/.381/.512 indicates that these 4 playoffs games may not be just a quick stroke of good luck (although he likely won’t continue hitting this well).  Getting Hosmer to chase off-speed pitches below the strike zone appears to be a worthwhile game plan when pitching to him.  Now, having a game plan is one thing, the Orioles will still need to execute it.  One thing is certain though, limiting the damage that Hosmer can do with his bat will go a long way in helping the Orioles advance to their first World Series since 1983.

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