This is part 1 of 5 of The Yankee U’s 2010 ALCS Preview.
Thanks to a best-case scenario five game series between the Rangers and the Rays, robot pitcher Cliff Lee will not start Game 1 of the ALCS. Even better, all indications appear to be that he won’t start Game 2 either since doing so would require him to start on short rest. Instead, Lee will start Game 3 on Monday in New York and a possible Game 7 on Saturday in Texas. If this series goes less than 7 games, the Yankees will face Lee only once. The mantle really passes to the pitchers behind Lee, especially CJ Wilson and Colby Lewis. They will be the starters in Games 1 and 2 and really represent the Rangers’ best chance of knocking off the Yankees in this year’s American League Championship Series. I’ll take a look at each of them after the jump.
What is going on in this picture? Seriously. Is Wilson trying to teach Lee a knuckleball? Is Lee thinking things like “Yeah, I think I’m fine”? Photo courtesy of daylife.com
Game 1 starter: C.J. Wilson
C.J. Wilson was a reliever last year, a power lefty at the back end of the Rangers bullpen with great strikeout stuff (10.26 K/9) and excellent peripherals (2.89 FIP, 2.25 GB/FB ratio). Since Wilson has a diverse arsenal, he convinced the Rangers to let him try his hand in the rotation and the results were good in 2010. Wilson logged 204 innings for Texas this year. He did see a decrease in his strikeout rate to 7.50 per nine innings, but that’s not exactly uncommon for relievers transitioning to the rotation. He also handed out a lot of walks with a BB/9 of 4.10, but still managed to pitch his way to an ERA of 3.35 and a FIP of 3.56. He got there by limiting the home runs: his HR/FB ratio was 5.3%, which meant that his xFIP sat a lot higher at 4.20. The best way to look at CJ Wilson and what he brings to the table in Game 1 of the ALCS from a scouting perspective is by examining the differences between the way he approaches righties and lefties, and how the two perform against him in turn.
Wilson has always been tough on lefties out of the bullpen, and that trend continued this season. Lefties hit an incredibly poor .144/.224/.176 (that’s an OPS of .400) against him in 2010. In essence, Wilson turned every lefty batter facing him into a starter on the Seattle Mariners. Of course, Wilson is known for being tough on lefties and so they only logged 171 plate appearances against him in 2010. When facing CJ Wilson, it’s important to throw all the righties you have at him.
From a pitch selection perspective, Wilson relies heavily on his two-seam fastball when facing lefties. He used the two-seamer 45% of the time, using a straight four-seamer only a quarter of the time. While the two pitches register nearly identical velocities around 90 mph, the two-seamer breaks in on left-handed hitters, making it difficult to register solid contact. He also featured a cut fastball against lefties, throwing it 10% of the time to lefties. This pitch was the mirror image of the two-seamer movement wise, breaking away from left-handed hitters.
Wilson complemented these different types of fastballs with his slider, which he threw 12% of the time. While the two-seamer cut in on the hands of lefties, the slider breaks away from them. Wilson also likes to throw his cutter to lefties, which breaks like a slider (again, away from lefties). Wilson also possesses a changeup and a curveball, but used these sparingly when facing lefties.
Against left-handed hitters Wilson’s pitch pattern is clear. He likes to pound batters in with the two-seamer and gets them to chase the cutter away while keeping them honest with the four-seamer. His go-to out pitch is his slider, and he uses this pitch to get swings and misses. The pattern works for him, and in 2010 lefties found his slider his toughest pitch, swing and missing 16.7% of the time. They also struggle against the cutter, whiffing 11% of the time. They put the ball in play the best against the two-seamer and the four-seamer, but all in all they had a very tough time against Wilson. In fact, no left-handed batter managed to hit a home run off him in 2010.
Right-handed hitters are a horse of a different color. In 2010 they hit .236/.333/.346 against him, which isn’t exactly stellar but represents an improvement over the way he dominates lefties. While Wilson prefers to use his two-seamer heavily to lefties and uses his cutter less frequently, he greatly increases the use of the cutter when facing righties. He throws his two seamer, four seamer and cutter 45%, 24% and 10% to lefties, respectively; to RHB he throws the same pitches 21%, 18% and 20%, respectively. The reason that he uses the cutter more to righties at the expense of the two-seamer is simple: Wilson’s cutter breaks in on right-handed hitters the way the two-seamer breaks in on left-handed hitters. Wilson likes to run the ball in on lefties and righties alike. The two-seamer and the cutter are just two different ways to get at it.
From an offspeed perspective, Wilson throws the slider to righties 15% of the time, showing that he isn’t partial to lefties or righties with this pitch. He does, however, feature a changeup more heavily to righties, using it 14% (vs. only 3% against LHH). Like the two-seamer, this pitch tails away from RHB. Wilson also throws his curveball more often to righties, but only used it some 9% to RHH in 2010. Righties also find his slider to be his toughest pitch as they swing and miss on it 13% of the time. He also gets good whiff marks on his changeup (8.4%) and curveball (9.1%), showing that Wilson’s best chance for a strikeout is with the offspeed stuff.
Matchup to watch: It’s impossible to read about Wilson’s splits and not think about several key guys. One is Marcus Thames. Marcus Thames was forged in the fires of Brian Cashman’s Mordor specifically to hit left-handed pitchers. More than any batter, I’m excited to see what Thames can do against Wilson. The rosters haven’t even been finalized yet, but I’m confident in saying that he’s the DH in Game 1. Another guy to watch is Curtis Granderson. Granderson is known to have a tough time hitting lefties, and posted an OPS of .647 against them in 2010. He hit the ball very well in September and the ALDS, so Girardi will have a tough decision to make. He could opt to move Gardner to center field and bench Granderson in favor of Austin Kearns. Kearns hit lefties well in 2010 (.761 OPS), so he in theory represents a better choice for Game 1. I’d probably opt to stick with Granderson though. Despite the splits, he’s been hitting the ball well lately and Kearns just struck out again while you were reading this. It’s more of a gut-based decision, but I’m fine with riding Granderson all the way to the end.
Game 2 starter: Colby Lewis
Starting Game 2 will be another Texas surprise, Colby Lewis. After spending time in Japan in the past few seasons, Lewis was truly revelation for the Rangers in 2010. One could easily make the case that he’s put together a better year than any pitcher on the Rangers’ staff other than Cliff Lee. In 2010, Lewis gave the 201 innings of 3.72 ERA (3.55 FIP) ball, and his peripherals are superior to Wilson’s. His strikeout rate is 8.78 batters per nine innings, fifth highest in the American League amongst qualified pitchers. His walk rate is 2.91, leaving him with a K/BB ratio of 3.02, eleventh best in the AL.
There’s nothing particularly funky about his underlying data. His BABIP was .292. This mark was slightly under his career average of .318, but it’s worth noting that Lewis was a completely different (read: worse) pitcher before going to Japan and returning this season. His HR/FB ratio was 8.2%, not particularly low, leaving him with an xFIP of 3.92. There’s no way around it: Colby Lewis was a very good pitcher in 2010, probably in the top 10 of all American League starters. Unlike CJ Wilson, Lewis doesn’t show a huge platoon split. The right-handed pitcher held RHB to a .627 OPS-against. Lefties managed an OPS of .697. This doesn’t mean that Lewis approaches them the same way, though.
On the season, Colby Lewis has worked primarily off his fastball, throwing it 56% of the time. He also features a slider (24%), a curveball (11%) and a changeup (9%). It’s a pretty typical arsenal, really. To right-handed batters, Lewis uses his fastball around 53% of the time and then relies heavily on the slider, throwing it on 35% of the time. To right-handed batters, Lewis is throwing a fastball or a slider on almost 9 out of every 10 pitches. He mixes in the curveball (7.5%) and the changeup (4.3%) from time to time, but righties can expect a heavy diet of fastballs and sliders. Righties have had a very tough time with his slider in 2010, whiffing on it nearly a quarter of the time.
One notable aspect of his approach to RHB is what he does in different counts in the at-bat. At 0-2, he uses his fastball almost 64% of the time and uses the slider only 29% of the time. At 1-2, the fastball usage drops to 50% and the slider increases to 36%. At 2-2, the slider overtakes the fastball in usage: 48.6% slider, 43.2% fastball. At 3-2, though, he relies more heavily on the fastball: 53% fastball, 38% slider. The lesson here is that he uses the fastball when he’s ahead in the count, but goes to the slider when the count is even. This is backwards from what you’d expect: many pitchers use their offspeed stuff out of the zone on favorable counts, and then go back to the fastball when the count is even or full. One final thing to note about his approach is that his fastball registers as a strike 64% of the time, but on 0-2 that numbers drops down to 54%. It’s not a huge difference, but it may indicate that Lewis tries to get righties to chase his fastball out of the zone on 0-2.
With left-handed hitters Lewis takes a more varied approach. He still throws his fastball with frequency (60%), but throws his slider, curveball and changeup at nearly the same rate (14.3, 13.5 and 12.6, respectively). Lewis prefers to start batters out with his fastball. If he gets ahead 0-1 he still relies on his fastball but also introduces the curveball. At 0-2 he throws more offspeed stuff, relying on the fastball only 40%, throwing a slider 37% and a curveball 20%. Note the difference between lefties and righties. When up 0-2 on righties he’s big on the fastball and lighter on the slider. When up 0-2 on lefties he relies way more on the slider and the curveball.
Another obvious pattern with Lewis is his reliance on his heater when down in the count to lefties. At 1-0 he goes to the fastball 66% of the time; at 2-0 this number jumps to 85%. At 3-0, this number jumps to 100% (although this only happened 22 times in 2010). He is similarly reliant on the fastball at 2-1 (64%) and 3-1 (87%) and 3-2 (73%). This is a no brainer for lefties. When Lewis is down in the count, he’s going to be throwing his fastball. When he’s ahead in the count he’ll still use his fastball but will rely more heavily on his breaking pitches.
When you break down how Colby Lewis gets it done, his arsenal, velocity and pitch selection, it’s hard to believe that he was 5th amongst AL starters in K/9 in 2010. After all, his fastball averages only 90 mph. Yet, there’s nothing to indicate that Lewis is a fluke or all smoke and mirrors. If the Yankees are going to beat Lewis and win Game 2 they’ll have to defeat a very good pitcher. One way they can do this is by running up his pitch count and hammering him late in the game. When Lewis’ pitch count is between 76-100, batters are hitting .303/.347/.551 against him with 10 home runs. The best opportunities against Lewis may be late in the game.