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NL Wild Card Preview: Who Can (J.D. Martinez) and Can’t (Paul Goldschmidt) Hit Jon Gray’s Slider Using STATS TVL Data and Video Solution

By: Andy Cooper

J.D. Martinez injected power into Arizona’s lineup almost immediately upon his arrival. Gone were the days of Paul Goldschmidt being the only reliable home run threat, as the Diamondbacks homered an average of every 22.4 at-bats after acquiring Martinez compared to every 27.6 prior.

But according to STATS TVL data, only one of those sluggers seems to have a feel for the breaking pitches of Jon Gray, who will try to stymie the heart of Arizona’s lineup for the Colorado Rockies in Wednesday night’s NL Wild Card showdown.

TVL tracks pitch type (T), velocity (V) and location (L) for each MLB pitcher and records the data into categories such as usage percentage of a specific pitch, the average velocity of each pitch type and the percentage a batter hits the ball on the ground against that pitch. The data is broken down further to show opponents’ batting average, slugging percentage, swing percentage and swing-and-miss percentage each time a specific pitch is thrown. A pitcher’s TVL then can be pitted against a hitter’s success when facing specific pitches to project how the hitter would fare versus a particular pitcher.

Martinez hit 29 of his 45 homers after making his Diamondbacks debut July 19 and led MLB homering an average of every 8.0 at-bats in that time, way up from his 12.5 AB-to-HR ratio with Detroit. His Arizona surge includes going 11 for 23 with three homers and four doubles in six games against the Rockies, who trailed the D-Backs by one-half game prior to the Martinez trade before finishing six games back.

Martinez homered twice off Gray in six at-bats against him. Not much explanation is needed for Martinez hitting one off a Gray four-seam fastball, given that STATS’ TVL data projects Martinez to hit .448 against Gray’s most-used pitch. But how is it that Martinez blasted a slider out of the park when he’s projected to hit just .201 off Gray’s slider?

The first time Martinez and Gray faced each other, Martinez homered on a 2-2 count, one of two sliders Martinez hit out of the park with the count reading as such this season. Three times Martinez crushed 0-1 sliders for homers. Overall, despite hitting .221 against sliders one the season, Martinez homered nine times against that pitch, the second-most he hit off a specific pitch behind the 18 fastballs he hit out.

Martinez’s success against Gray’s slider might be an anomaly considering opponents hit just .164 and had a 35.3 swing-and-miss percentage when facing Gray’s slider. Martinez’s homer was one of only two Gray allowed when throwing that pitch all season.

Still, it seems wise that Gray threw only one other slider to Martinez in their six times facing each other this season – on a 3-0 pitch that Martinez was expected to take and did. Instead, Gray has fed Martinez a heavy dose of curveballs, pitches that were thrown to complete Gray’s two strikeouts of Martinez on the season.

He also struck out Martinez on a curve Sept. 2 – not all that surprising considering Martinez is projected to hit just .191 against that pitch when Gray throws it.

Whether or not Gray decides to try his luck with a slider against Martinez on Wednesday night remains to be seen, but you can be sure Goldschmidt will see that pitch plenty hitting in front of Martinez.

Goldschmidt enters this winner-take-all contest 0 for 9 with five strikeouts against Gray this season and 0 for 11 in his career overall. Gray, who threw 57.2 percent of his pitches as fastballs this season, almost exclusively tossed breaking balls to Goldschmidt. The two faced off three times June 20, and Gray threw three fastballs, nine sliders and a changeup to Goldschmidt, who struck out swinging on a slider low and away in the dirt in all three at-bats.

Goldschmidt saw 17 sliders in his nine at-bats against Gray and struck out four times on that pitch, with the other coming on a changeup – a pitch Gray threw 25 times all season, seven to Goldschmidt.

And while Goldschmidt is projected to hit .461 against Gray’s 4-seam fastball, he’s likely to see very few – if any – from Gray on Wednesday. Take a look at his projected averages against Gray’s other pitches in the graphic below, as well as how Gray is projected to fare against other Diamondbacks hitters.

Maybe it’s just a matter of Goldschmidt trying to do too much the pitch that Gray gives him rather than making quality contact, which is something Rockies’ MVP candidate Charlie Blackmon learned heading into another matchup with D-Backs starter Zack Greinke.

Blackmon won the NL batting title with a .331 average and tied with teammate Nolan Arenado for third with 37 homers, but he went just 3 for 16 (.188) with six strikeouts against Greinke. The strategy for Greinke is to stay to the outer half of the plate against Blackmon and let Blackmon get himself into trouble trying to pull the ball. When he goes toward the inner half on Blackmon, the ball dips into the dirt and the Rockies’ slugger chases.

Two of Blackmon’s three hits off Greinke went to the opposite field when he went with the pitch.

Of the 13 times Greinke retired Blackmon, six times Blackmon attempted to pull it and the out was made on the right side of the field. He grounded out to second four times, lined to right and flew out to center. Blackmon struck out six more times, with five coming on low breaking pitches. Only when Greinke missed his spot with a fastball, as noted in the screenshot of the SVS interface below, did Blackmon have success pulling the ball.

Blackmon projects solid averages against most of Greinke’s pitches – .433 against the four-seam, .410 against the two-seam, .307 versus the curve and .303 against the slider. But Blackmon’s success Wednesday likely will depend on how he approaches the location of those pitches.