If the Baltimore Orioles end up being the most memorable story from the 2012 season, their foil is likely deserving of some recognition as well. Throughout the regular season, the St. Louis Cardinals acted as the yin to the yang of Baltimore. Where the Orioles outperformed their peripherals to put up a winning record, the Cardinals’ run differential suggested that they were a far better team than their win/loss record suggested.
It’s a compliment to the depth and smarts of the organization that after losing the best player in baseball to free agency in the off season and watching their notorious manager retire after a World Series victory, St. Louis was able to construct a roster capable of bringing the franchise to its current three games to one lead over the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series, and a single win away from a berth in the World Series.
While the rebuilt Cardinals line up certainly deserves a healthy dose of credit for the team’s success, the biggest reason that the team finds itself on the brink of a return to the World Series is its containment of the Giants line up, and most notably that line up’s best hitter.
Given the team’s reputation, it’s easy to forget that San Francisco had one of the better offenses in the National League this year. And while that has a lot to do with the contributions of Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan, Brandon Belt, Pablo Sandoval and even Marco Scutaro, the biggest source of offensive production for the Giants was from NL MVP candidate Buster Posey, who contributed more value with his bat this year than all other players on the playoff roster combined.
However, in the NLCS, Posey is getting on base less than 30% of the time, and has collected a paltry two hits in 14 official at-bats. It’s a small sample, but there’s an obvious pattern to the catcher’s struggles at the plate, and it’s found in the way that St. Louis is approaching Posey.
Here, via TexasLeaguers.com, we see the location and pitch types of everything that Posey has taken during the NLCS:
And this is everything that Posey has swung at during the series against the Cardinals:
It’s not surprising to see pitchers throw outside to a batter like Posey, whom we might not classify as strictly a pull hitter, but certainly seems to drive the ball more power to the left side of the field. Even without considering the difficulties of pulling a pitch on the outside of the plate, or if that’s actually the source of his success, here’s Posey’s TAv based on pitch location:
During the regular season, Posey saw harder stuff from opposing pitchers around 60% of the time. Against the Cardinals, he’s seen it almost 77% of the time. Drawing conclusions from a four game sample isn’t likely the best method for analysis, as this number could certainly be inflated by the specific repertoires of the pitchers he’s facing, but it’s not any less interesting that a seemingly discernible approach would occur at the same time as a drastic change in outcomes.
So, to add to the circumstantial evidence, I wonder if the hard stuff being thrown outside to Posey, isn’t about an emphasis on location. Obviously, pitchers exert more control over fastballs than they do with breaking or off speed pitches. So perhaps, St. Louis pitchers are more concerned with locating their pitches on the outside rather than attempting to challenge Posey or induce swinging strikes. They attempt this in the hope that any contact Posey makes will go the opposite way, and be devoid of the power he exhibits when he pulls the ball.
Here’s Posey’s spray chart in the NLCS:
It appears that Posey has only managed to pull one ball to the left side all series long, and it’s one of his two hits. The rest have been hit up the middle or to the right side. Again, we’re dealing with small samples, but the extreme approach of Cardinals pitchers combined with this less than ideal outcome is something that would certainly bear watching more closely over a longer period of time than what a seven game series offers us.
For the sake of comparison, here’s Posey’s spray chart from the regular season:
While we don’t have enough examples to definitively say that the St. Louis approach has eliminated one of Posey’s best weapons, his pull power has certainly been absent this series.
This has been especially unfortunate for the Giants, considering what a good job Angel Pagan and Marco Scutaro have done at getting on base. While it’s often said that lineup protection is a myth, that’s usually in reference to it not making much of a difference over an entire season. I’m not sure that Posey would be receiving different pitches if anyone behind him in the lineup was able to offer anything remotely resembling a threat, especially when the problem that he’s been facing isn’t about an expanded strike zone as much as it is the location within the strike zone.