The Boston Red Sox need only to win one more game before they are crowned World Series champions. Standing before them is the formidable frame of Michael Wacha, the hard-throwing right-handed starter for the St. Louis Cardinals. Wacha dominated the Sox in Game Two of this series just as he’s dominated all in his path since his recall from the minor leagues in August.
Michael Wacha is a highly unusual power pitcher in that he lacks a big breaking ball. It was this lack of a good curve or slider that contributed to his now-famous tumble to the 19th in the first round of the 2012 draft. And yet here the rookie stands, sporting some of the gaudiest postseason numbers in recent memory.
If the Red Sox want to avoid a coinflip Game Seven, they need to get to Wacha if possible. One best possible path to clinching the series at six involves going away form one of the main pillars of the Red Sox Way – they need to swing aggressively at the first pitch.
Swinging at the first pitch is a strangely divisive topic among baseball fans. Nothing is more annoying than watching a player ground out or pop up after hacking away at the first pitch he sees. On the other hand, swinging at the first pitch tends to register terrific results. Major League hitters posted a .336 average and a .540 slugging percentage on first pitches this season, which is somewhere between Mike Trout and Troy Tulowitzki.
It isn’t so simple as to say “always swing at the first pitch”, as hitters who swung at the first pitch (regardless of outcome) posted slightly worse numbers than those who watched the the first ball they were offered.
Like most pitchers, batters who put Michael Wacha’s first pitch in play did much better than those who let their battle grow longer. Interestingly, those who put his first pitch in play faired better than those who started their plate appearance with a ball.
On the whole, batters must treat the first pitch like any other – if they believe it to be a pitch they can drive, they should jump on the chance to do it. Don’t swing at the first pitch as a rule but swing at any pitch they believe is in their zone.
The Red Sox batters are uniquely positioned in this respect. Renowned for their disipline, the Sox swung at fewer first pitches than any team in baseball, offering at just 20% of 0-0 pitches for the season. But when they did? They were the best in baseball, posting a .398 wOBA according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The Sox must use their to their advantage. Knowing Wacha is basically a two-pitch hurler, one that goes with the heat nearly 75% of the time, the Sox need to look for a first pitch fastball they can drive.
It is easier said than done, but this might be the key to ending Wacha’s night early. Getting into the supple underbelly of the Cardinals bullpen will go a long way to celebrating their third World Series title in 10 years.