Cliff Lee, World Series 2010: How San Francisco Giants Took Lee in Game 1

October 28, 2010

Last night’s game was not the total shock many people think. I figured the San Francisco Giants would score a couple runs early against Lee, but was surprised the way they knocked him around.

The Giants pitchers also neutralized Mickey Mantle Jr, I mean, Josh Hamilton.

The Giants game plan with those two players were the key to winning Game 1. 

1) Cliff Lee vs. Giants Hitters

The key in getting to Cliff Lee is to be aggressive in the batters box. I have long discussed that on this site. Hitters cannot continue to take early strikes, get behind in the count and then have to react to any on of four different pitches he throws with two strikes.

Lee starts most hitters off with a fastball. He then mixes in cutters, curves and an occasional change up. He is also more likely to throw his curve ball with two strikes.  

And why not? It is harder to control that either the fastball or cutter and you do not have to throw it over the plate with two strikes, just get in low in the zone and you can be successful.

But the Giants are a very aggressive group of free swingers. They like to hack at lots of pitches early in the count, both in and out of the strike zone.

Against Lee, the Giants were aggressive, but mostly on pitches inside the strike zone, more specifically right over the middle of the plate.

They did not chase the high fastball. One of Lee’s important pitching traits is that he moves the ball around, changing the eye level of the hitters.

He works low and away, then up and in. He will throw the two-seamer or curve low, then throw a normal 91 MPH fastball up, many times out of the zone.  

But unlike the Yankees hitters, the Giants lineup did not chase the pitch up and out of the zone. The right-handed hitters also did not offer at the many pitches Lee threw just off the outside corner. That is why Lee probably threw very few changeups.

This forced Lee to work from behind in the count, and then have to come over the plate with his pedestrian fastball.

And that usually gets hit…and hit hard. While there were many hard hit balls, especially in that fifth inning, there were even more fat pitches which the Giants aggressively attacked yet fouled back.

Andres Torres, Juan Uribe and Cody Ross all missed fat fastballs over the middle. Lee threw too many pitches over the middle of the plate. The Giants hitters were also looking to hit the ball the other way, with right handed hitters hitting the ball to the right side.

That allows the ball to travel deeper and the hitter can see the ball longer. Going to right field hurts Lee’s pitching game plan. He thrives on teams like the Yankees who are looking to pull the ball, but the pesky Giants hurt him. Another reason why Lee likely threw very few changeups.

The Giants aggressive nature works well with pitchers who throw lots of strikes. That is why the Giants have beaten Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels and now Cliff Lee in this postseason.

Watch for the Giants to continue to be aggressive on pitches in the zone, and their key to winning is to stay off the pitches out of the strike zone. Even Uribe took two pitches before hammering his three-run home run.

Credit the Giants hitting coach, Hensley Muelens, for putting together a good game plan for the hitters last night and will likely have another good one for tonight.

Tonight’s starter, C.J. Wilson, has one of the highest walk rates in the American League. The Giants will continue to be selectively aggressive.

2) Josh Hamilton vs. Giants pitchers

Right now Josh Hamilton has a long swing. He doesn’t have very quick hands and mostly swings with his arms. Does it have something to do with his rib injury from a month ago?

Since most teams pitch him away (like the Yankees always did in the ALCS), Hamilton continuously looks (and leans) out over the plate.

But the Giants pitches have worked Hamilton differently. They have thrown lots of off speed pitches away, but they also challenged Hamilton. 

And they challenged him inside where his long swing can not catch up even with a normal major league fastball.

In Hamilton’s first at bat, Tim Lincecum had to pitch to him with men on first and second.

But Lincecum got Hamilton to meekly ground out on pitches away.

Next time up, Lincecum jammed Hamilton on an 89 MPH fastball up and in.

Third time up, Hamilton was worked outside again and weakly grounded out back to Lincecum.

Fourth time up, Casilla blew an up and in fastball right by Hamilton then got him to fly out again on a fastball in.

The Giants pitchers got Hamilton out twice away and twice in, moving the ball around and not just trying to keep the ball away all the time.

Like the Yankees did, Joe Girardi worked scared against Hamilton. Most of the hard hit balls Hamilton had were on pitches out over the plate when the pitchers were constantly working away.

Look for Matt Cain tonight to continue to pound Hamilton inside with fastballs, but also showing him some stuff away for effect.

The Giants neutralized both of Texas‘ main weapons, Lee and Hamilton, and won big in Game 1. If they continue to play smart baseball and do the same things they did in Game 1, they will have an good time in Game 2.

Except for his high walk rate, C.J. Wilson is a similar type pitcher as Lee and can be approached the same way. Wait him out to come over the plate.

And the job of Cain and the able bodied bullpen is to bust Hamilton inside.

He can’t handle that pitch, and the Giants will continue to exploit it.

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David Wright’s Career Is Over Unless He Becomes Fearless at the Plate

April 19, 2010

The event occurred after my college career was over and I was several seasons into one of the various semi-pro leagues I played in during the summer. Make no mistake about the quality of “summer ball,” as these were some of the most competitive seasons we ever played. A regular season was usually a 40-game schedule played over 60 days, then playoffs.

We were taking infield practice during a team workout and while playing second base, I moved to the left to field a ball hit into the 3.5 hole, when the ball hit something (the skin fields were never great), and came up and hit me square in the nose.

You can tell by my picture on my home page here a Bleacher Report , that it was not the only time I was hit in the nose by a baseball.

But this occasion, which produced a stream of blood and an immediately dark black eye, produced a fear for me in fielding ground balls. I would flinch every time I was about to field a ground ball. For at least a month (or maybe more) I shied away from ground balls, especially those which were hit hard.

I was relegated to outfield duty until my fear of the baseball eventually subsided.

If a baseball player is ever fearful of the baseball, then their ability to play the game is severely compromised.

Which bring me to New York Mets third baseman, David Wright.

After watching the very draining three-game series the Mets played at the St. Louis Cardinals, I have come to the conclusion that Wright’s baseball career, as he and Met fans knew it, is over.

Why? The Aug. 15, 2009 fastball from San Francisco Giants RHP Matt Cain which beaned Wright in the head. That 94 MPH 0-2 pitch sailed in on Wright and knocked his helmet off.

When Wright was beaned, he suffered a concussion, was placed on the 15-day disabled list and did not return to the Mets lineup until Sep. 1, 2009. Wright missed 15 games.

This past weekend, I saw all three Met games, including all 20 innings Saturday night. In these three games, Wright ducked away from eight inside pitches, literally turning away from the ball in a frightened state.  

What was amazing is that all eight of these pitches were curveballs! They were pitches which were thrown at Wright, which then broke over the inside or middle part of the plate.

David Wright was afraid of these pitches as they were thrown at him.

Wright also now “steps in the bucket” on most pitches, pulling his front foot towards the third baseman rather than stepping straight at the pitcher. It must be noted that Wright, in his career prior to the beaning, almost always didn’t step directly at the pitcher, but his bailing out now is much more pronounced.

After the inside curveballs, Wright was peppered with breaking pitches away. The standard procedure, likely devised by Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, was to throw Wright inside pitches to get ahead and then get him out away.

But teams cannot pitch the same way every time to a hitter, so the Cardinals mixed up the philosophy a few at bats, just to keep Wright honest. They would work outside, then get him looking outside before coming in with their “out pitch.” 

Also, a couple times this weekend (ninth inning Saturday, fifth in Sunday) Wright took inside curve balls for strike three. Wright literally turned away from the ball before taking the called third strikes. The main situation is that the Cardinals sensed Wright’s fear and set him up all weekend.

Professional sports are copycat businesses, and I expect to see other teams follow suit with this program of pitching to Wright.

If he continues to be afraid of the ball, Wright will never be the same type of productive hitter he used to be prior to Aug. 15th of last season.

There have been many beanings in baseball’s history and some of the most famous include Tony Conigliaro of the Boston Red Sox, Dickie Thon of the Houston Astros, and Paul Blair of the Baltimore Orioles.

Because of various reasons none of these three hitters ever were the same as they were before the beaning. It is tough to get back in the batter’s box to face 90+ mile an hour pitches when you have suffered a head shot.

Blair even tried switch hitting before ending that experiment. I do remember Blair from his days as a New York Yankee, a backup outfielder on the two World Series teams of 1977 and 1978. At that time, Blair had a severe “step in the bucket” hitting style, afraid to stand in against right handed pitchers.

Blair was one of the best defensive center fielders of all time and was primarily a defensive specialist for those Yankee teams.

In addition to Wright, there were seven other players hit in the head with a pitch during the 2009 season, including Marco Scutaro, Paul Konerko, and even pitcher Micah Owings. A check of their statistics after their beaning indicates very little change, although I do notice Scutaro stepping away from the pitcher a little. Several players even hit a little better.

However, Wright returned after the beaning and hit .239 BA/.289 OBP/.367 SLG/.656 OPS after the beaning. This was after putting up a line of .324/.414/.467/.882 OPS prior to the beaning. That is very significant.

And Wright also walked only nine times and struck out 35 times in that final month after the beaning, whereas he never had less than nine free passes and never had more than 27 punch outs during a single month—in any full season of his career!

While that could be a fluky final month in 2009, combined with Wright’s slow start and high strikeout rate already (14 whiffs) this season, there should be cause for concern. While he has continued to walk (17 times so far in 2010), that can attributed more to big money free agent Jason Bay’s even worse start (another great move by Omar !), the batter who normally hits behind Wright.

While the above beaned player’s careers were stunted after their beanings, three Hall of Fame players also suffered severe beanings—Mickey Cochrane, Joe Medwick, and Frank Robinson.

Cochrane was the premiere catcher in his day but never played another game after he was beaned in 1937, but both outfielder’s Medwick and Robinson returned to the diamond. 

Medwick won the National League’s Triple Crown in 1937 as a 25-year-old. He was in his prime when he was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals to the Brooklyn Dodgers early in the 1940 season, and was beaned a week later by former teammate Bob Bowman of the Cardinals.

Before the beaning, Medwick was a superstar, finishing first or second in various batting categories 28 times, including three straight RBI titles* from 1936-1938. After the beaning, he was a shell of his former self, never leading the league in any category and finishing second once.

*I know the sabermetric crowd doesn’t like the RBI stat, but driving in runs is still the most important job a hitter can do. Just ask the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets this season about getting hits with runners in scoring position (RISP). They can’t hit with RISP and, so far, both teams stink this season.

Medwick hit .338 and slugged .552 before the 1940 season and after the 1940 season hit hit only .302 and slugged .439. Severe drop-offs. According to reports from the time, Medwick was plate shy and not the same aggressive hitter.

Similar to Conigliaro , Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was a hitter who stood on top of the plate, and was always getting hit by pitches (198 total). Robinson, who was one of my favorite players (we share the same birthday), led the league seven times in getting hit by a pitch. Robinson was beaned in spring training 1958, his third season in the major leagues, and his career was in jeopardy.

In an interview with Investor’s Business Daily on April 5, 2007, Robinson admitted when he woke up in the hospital he wasn’t the same hitter. “I was in denial. I was fearful at the plate for the first and only time in my career. I had struggled through the first half of the season. I was just leaning back on pitches, rocking back, and I wouldn’t admit it to myself .”

The great Robinson, Rookie of the Year in 1956 and already a superstar was afraid of the ball. Then during the 1958 All-Star break, he decided it was time to have a talk with himself. “I said, ‘If you still want to be a major-league ballplayer, you’re going to have to start going into the pitches again and not have any fear up there at the plate .'”

David Wright has the ability to play the game at a high level, but the beaning he took last August has noticeably affected his play. The numbers since the beaning supports that observation.

Wright can take one of two routes going forward. He can fight through the fear of the pitched ball like Robinson did and improve his game or he can stay in his state of fear and continue his downward spiral, similar to the spiral Joe Medwick had after his beaning.

I fear Wright will follow Medwick’s path, and that is too bad.

If I was running a pre-series meeting before facing the Mets, I would tell my pitchers to be aggressive up and in EARLY to Wright at least once a game to intimidate him. Take advantage of his current weakness.

You never know how long it will last, and with continued aggression, it might last forever.


Mets Need to Emulate The San Francisco Giants by Using Their Youngsters

July 13, 2009

Congratualtions to Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants on throwing the first no-hitter of the 2009 season.

Pulled from the rotation a few weeks agao, Sanchez was pressed into duty when Randy Johnson went on the disabled list. However, reports already have Sanchez heading out of town via a trade.

It led me thinking about how the Giants are currently leading the NL Wild Card race. The are doing it with pitching, pitching and more pitching. They have Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain as a potent 1-2 with Barry Zito, Randy Johnson (now Sanchez) and Ryan Sadowski, who was called up from AAA to replace Sanchez. The best hurlers right now for the Giants are the three younger, homegrown talents.

Similar to the Mets and CitiField, the Giants have a big ball park with a few quirks out in right field. They use their pitching and defense to help them win games.

To coincide with their deep pitching, the Giants young hitters are beginning to shine. Pablo Sandoval is their best young slugger, but other hitters such as first baseman Travis Ishikawa and RF Nate Schierholtz also have begun to hit as well. The hitters aren’t as talented as the young pitchers, but the Giants are on the right track.

Ishikawa and Schierholtz both have been given time to adjust and improve to major league pitching, and each has held their own. And new call up John Bowker (.347 BA, 17 HR’s, 63 RBI’s  in AAA) has already homered for the Giants.

With the taste of the playoffs going on right now for the Giants, they have entrusted their first serious run for October baseball at the hands of many young players. And as the Tampa Bay Rays have shown the last two seasons, major league baseball has turned into a young man’s game.

That is something the Mets need to emulate. They are now 6.5 games behind the Philadelphia Phillies  (another team using their homegrown players), and need to leapfrog both the Atlanta Braves (6.0 games out, more developed players) and the Florida Marlins (4.o games out) to get into second place.

The Mets need to do it the way the other teams are; by getting younger and using better pitching in a bigger ballpark. The Jeff Francoeur trade was a step in the right direction in getting younger. Forget about the other big sluggers, who offer nothing but fly ball outs in spacious CitiField.

Let the young guys have at it, Omar! Bring up Jonathan Niese to replace Livan Hernandez and let Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans more playing time, but Evans was just sent down and replaced by Angel Pagan.

On the various radio shows I appear on as a baseball analyst, I have long documented how Omar Minaya’s moves as GM have always been about winning now, and not for the future.  Omar has systematically let the Mets minor league system fail as there were no top prospects to come up and help now and last season, when the team needed such players.

As a GM you can try and win now and still continue to build the farm system.

Now, if the Mets decide they are going to make a trade to get better players, they will have to further deplete the farm system. That is on Minaya’s head as the Mets did not have anyone to adequately replace Delgado, Beltran, Reyes, Maine and Oliver Perez.

Well…they actually performed better when Perez went down.

But you can’t say that the Mets traded a bunch of prospects for Johan Santana as the reason for their depleted base of ready young players, as only Carlos Gomez from that group would have stepped in for those injured players.

It is time for Minaya to reverse course and go with the youngsters and trade veterans for more young kids, specifically some better pitching. Give the kids time and lets see what they can do for a half season and into next year.

You aren’t catching the Phillies this season or maybe even next year, and that is a tough pill to swallow. Last time Minaya thought he could catch a powerful team ahead of him in the standings, he traded Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore for Bartolo Colon. The Montreal Expos (also 6.0 games back at that time) only ended up 19 games behind the Atlanta Braves that season.

So Minaya needs to improve his current organization for the future…even if Minaya is not here to bask in the glow.