Guest bloggers are stepping in for Buster Olney this week to write the lead item, while Buster still has his news and notes below that. Today's guest blogger is Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis.
Almost exactly two hours before he takes the mound every fifth day, Clayton Kershaw lays out the precise game plan he intends to use for each hitter in the opposing starting lineup.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt and I sit on each side of a training room table as Kersh runs through the batters. Honey and I always come to those meetings armed with information on the tendencies of our opponents: We not only look at what they have done against left-handed pitchers both recently and historically, but how they’ve approached at-bats against our ace specifically.
To fully prepare for his start, Kersh studies the scouting reports we print out prior to each series, and then he goes back and finds the two pitchers most similar to himself, such as Madison Bumgarner and Cole Hamels, and watches their starts versus the given opponent in their entirety. Although Honey and I have done the work and are prepared, Kersh leads the meeting. We try to help by offering up small tidbits on a particular hitter’s strengths and weaknesses, and by filling him in on any personal history that stands out. Kershaw’s tone is always serious. He keeps the conversation brisk. It’s now my job to remember his plan of attack and call pitches accordingly.
In the three years I have been humbled to catch Kersh, I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut and not offer up information that goes against his typical arsenal of pitches. Even though the stats may lead me in a different direction, we are both keenly aware that his strengths are what separate him from the rest. Except for when we forget.
Interleague play usually takes away the most valuable tool of setting any game plan: data on head-to-head matchups. In the recent Freeway Series with the Angels, Kersh and I both fell victim to this trap. Kershaw hadn’t faced the Angels since 2011, and had a limited history with the majority of the Halos. It’s no secret across baseball that Kersh loves to pound right-handed hitters inside. His combination of angle, deception and command make it extremely hard to square up an executed fastball on the inside corner.
The trouble is the Angels have a bunch of great hitters who feast on pitches on the inner half. So in our pregame meeting, we decided to scrap Kersh’s strength and try to work the outer half of the plate toward those hitters' statistical weaknesses. Three innings and three earned runs later, we both realized we compromised our typical game plan in favor of the numbers our computer spewed out regarding hitters' results versus left-handed pitchers who probably do not own two Cy Young Awards or pitch with the will and ferocity Kersh does.
Realizing the error of our ways, we went back to what Kersh does well, and he cruised the rest of the way. After giving up seven hits and striking out just one batter in his first three innings because of our dumb game plan, Kersh allowed no hits and struck out six in his final four frames. Lesson learned.
As a catcher who loves the cerebral side of this great game, I enjoy the patchwork process of preparing a series for each pitcher on his start date. Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus set the example in his two years as a catcher with the Dodgers for exactly what I need to do. To avoid information overload, Brad taught me to run through this checklist:
1. How aggressive is the hitter on the first pitch?
2. Does that change with runners in scoring position?
3. Where exactly does the hitter do his damage?
4. On what types of pitches?
5. In or away?
6. Ahead in the count only?
7. What are the hitter's two-strike chase zones on both fastballs and off-speed pitches?
Whereas we've learned that Kershaw needs to stick with his strengths and do what he does best regardless of the situation, this is a checklist that intrigues Zack Greinke. He’s a brilliant encyclopedia of information, and he’s always looking for more research to gain an advantage. He especially wants to know, and hopefully avoid, the specific areas where each hitter’s power is located. Zack is the most inquisitive student of the game I've ever met, and he breaks down video as well as anyone I've caught.
Zack studies the two-strike chase zone numbers intently. With the arsenal of pitches at his disposal combined with his ability to locate, he relentlessly attacks these zones with two strikes.
All of this information is vital to Honey and I as we try to determine a way to get major league hitters out. I mention Honey again because I must admit that I'm unable to memorize all of these figures as the game and series progress, so I rely on him to give me his notes mid-game. His help is invaluable.
But at the end of the day the question ultimately comes to this, as it did with Kersh versus the Angels: Am I going to rely on a set of numbers, or on my pitcher's strengths? Just because a hitter can do damage against a left-hander's slider in general doesn't mean I'm not calling Kersh's slider. If a hitter has great numbers against split-fingered fastballs, I am still going to work in Dan Haren's split. I've learned there has to be a marriage of stats and strengths. I try to find that balance every time I throw a sign down.
As the game progresses and relief pitchers trot in, the focus always seems to trend toward strengths. Most relievers don’t offer up a big variety of options in their repertoire, but they make it up for it with the velocity and movement of the pitches that they do throw. These last few crucial innings of a game usually turn into a battle of my best against your best. We don’t overthink it. Even if the best fastball hitter in the game is in the box with the game on the line. I’m still going to call for Kenley Jansen to throw his invisible fastball right by him. Those moments are what makes baseball so great.
The caveat in all of this is how fortunate I am to be on the receiving end of this incredible pitching staff. All of my starters have the ability to be creative and adapt from start to start. They can all locate multiple pitches, which affords me the ability to match up their strengths with the stats. Their strengths also change and can be adjusted as a particular game goes on. This speaks to the athleticism and pitch-making ability these starters have.
The relief corps is a collection of seasoned veterans who have each battled through every possible scenario. They each possess put-away weapons for all types of hitters. But when it comes down to it, and the bases are loaded with two out and it’s time to make a pitch, be assured the batting averages, slugging percentage and hard-hit stat rates are all pushed aside, as my teammate on the mound shuts out all the noise and sticks with his strength.
And now we return to Buster's regularly scheduled news and notes