How Kansas City Royals can cool off Toronto Blue Jays’ big bats … maybe
The mission for the Royals is actually complicated. They need to be able to score, of course, which means they’ll need to score against pitchers like David Price and Marcus Stroman. They’ll need to contain every member of the Blue Jays lineup, because it’s not like you can ever afford to take a hitter off in the playoffs. But let’s be real — as far as the focus is concerned, many eyes are going to be on how Royals pitchers deal with Toronto’s offensive core. While it won’t be everything about the series, the Jays have grown accustomed to watching the same sluggers blast through all their opponents. The Royals are going to want to stop that.
Toronto had the best offense in baseball, in largest part because they had three of the best hitters in baseball. According to the FanGraphs leaderboards, among qualified hitters, Josh Donaldson ranked seventh-best in the majors. Edwin Encarnacion ranked eighth, and Jose Bautista ranked ninth. Bautista was tied with someone named Chris Davis, just ahead of one Andrew McCutchen. It’s an embarrassment of riches, and just to maximize the terror, the Blue Jays bat the three back-to-back-to-back. It’s on the Royals to figure out how to get them out. And I can offer a little bit of advice, although it’s less helpful than it might appear.
Flash back to Toronto’s Game 5. (Who could get sick of flashing back to Game 5?) Just prior to all the insanity, Encarnacion tied the game in the bottom of the sixth. This is the pitch that he hit out of the park:
OK, great, move ahead. Advance to the plate appearance that resulted in the bat flip that divided a people. The bat flip that set all prisoners free, the bat flip that pushed children over in the playgrounds. This is the pitch that Bautista hit out of the park:
Encarnacion blasted a pitch on the inner edge. Bautista blasted a pitch even more on the inner edge. These are representative swings and results. The Jays’ three best hitters thrive on pitches in. Relatively speaking, they’re most vulnerable down and away. Many right-handed hitters are most vulnerable down and away, so this isn’t any sort of exceptional thing, but if you’re looking for some kind of weakness, there you go. As the Royals go through the 2-3-4 section of the Toronto order, they’re going to want their pitches at the knees, and they’re going to want them by the outer third.
I’m going to show you some images that I know might be overwhelming. There’s a lot going on, I recognize that. But really, these images are simple to understand. I’m going to show you heat maps for the three big hitters, covering the last three seasons. The maps reflect productivity by pitch location, and the more red an area, the more productive the hitter has been there. Blue is the opposite. We’ll start with Josh Donaldson:
It’s red all around the strike zone, because those pitches are balls, and balls are good for hitters. Within the strike zone, you see a hotter area down and in, and you see cool zones away. Now, Edwin Encarnacion:
It’s maybe a little less dramatic than Donaldson, but again, hotter inside, cooler away, especially down. Finally, Jose Bautista:
Bautista’s hot spot is a bit higher than Donaldson’s is. But he does have a cool zone, over the outer half. It’s not too surprising for a guy who’s just about a dead-pull hitter. Bautista’s whole game is getting the bat head out in front, as he did against Rangers pitcher Sam Dyson, and that allows him to smash the ball to left. But it also means his plate coverage isn’t perfect.
The advice is so simple, it’s almost not worth giving — stay away, and when you can, stay down. That’s how a lot of sluggers get pitched. But here it might be even more important than usual. This season, against pitches inside from the middle of the plate, Bautista ranked first among righties in slugging percentage. Donaldson ranked third. Encarnacion ranked seventh. Now, what if we were to measure the difference between slugging percentages against inside pitches and outside pitches? Bautista had the highest difference in baseball among righties. Donaldson ranks fifth. Encarnacion ranks 18th, out of 156. These are big gaps, worth paying attention to. Encarnacion has a little more coverage than Bautista does, but he still has his relative strengths and weaknesses.
A few points. First, a season ago, we noticed a hole in Mike Trout’s game. It became glaringly obvious that Trout couldn’t do much damage against hard pitches up, and it was hard to believe he had such a vulnerability. Tens of thousands of words were written about it, and every opponent knew about it, and while we all waited for Trout to be exposed, he continued to play like the best player in the sport. See, Trout did have a vulnerability, but the area was small, so it demanded a lot of the other pitchers. Sure, they knew where to put the ball, but they had to be perfect. They knew they could get Trout out, in just the right spot. This year, pitchers knew they could get Bryce Harper out in just the right spot, inside. Those spots are hard to hit, and great hitters punish the mistakes.
The Cole Hamels pitch that Encarnacion hit out? It was inside, but the catcher set up away. The Dyson pitch that Bautista hit out? It was inside, but the catcher set up away. Location is always important, but against the best, it’s extra important.
Then, there’s just one other thing. The Jays’ best hitters are better inside than away, but that doesn’t mean they’re awful out of their comfort zones. I mentioned that, against inside pitches, all three hitters finished with top-10 slugging percentages. But, against outside pitches, all their slugging percentages still ranked in the upper third. Each was worse, but here we’re talking about relative weaknesses, instead of actual weaknesses. Bautista hit a home run against Texas on a pitch up and away. Donaldson hit a home run against Texas on a pitch down and away. They’re pretty good hitters almost everywhere. They just happen to have their favorite spots.
As the 2-3-4 hitters come up, the Royals need to focus down, and they need to focus away. The hitters are sufficiently disciplined that, if the pitches miss off the plate, they probably won’t be chased. So it’s important to catch that outer third. And, also, the Royals can’t just pitch there exclusively, because the Jays will catch on to that. There have to be some inside pitches, to keep the hitters honest, but on those pitches the Royals need to be most careful. They need to get in enough on the hands that the Jays can’t make fair contact. With the right sequences and locations, the Royals can work through this part of the order. That would be true against anyone, but here, they know what they have to do to execute. Now they have to execute. It’s no longer about just throwing the ball in the strike zone. They’ll need to command micro-zones. The good news is Johnny Cueto can usually do that. The worse news is he just pitched.
One particularly interesting potential matchup: this season, against right-handed hitters, Kelvin Herrera ranked second in baseball in rate of pitches inside. Only Glen Perkins finished higher, and Herrera, of course, is a major component of the Royals’ late-inning bullpen. The Royals are still going to trust Herrera, and few can match his velocity, but his style might play right into the Blue Jays’ strengths, if he faces that part of the order. So that’s something to watch for. The opposite of Herrera is Luke Hochevar, who mostly stays away from righties. Hochevar might be better equipped to handle the 2-3-4, but that might also be an overstatement. I do know that I’m thankful I don’t have to make these decisions.
At least a dozen times, and probably many more, the Royals are going to have to deal with Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion in order. Assignments don’t get much more daunting, but if the Royals want this to go as well as possible, they need to keep most of their pitches away, around the outer edge. They can mix in a few pitches tighter than that, to back the hitters off. The Royals, probably, know what they have to throw. All that’s left for them is actually doing it.