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A Series of Particulars: How Matchups, Misses and Mistakes May Crown a Champion

By: Stats Perform

STATS Video Solution and TVL Data Provide Insight into the Pitch Execution that Could Sway the First Fall Classic Meeting of 100-Win Teams in Nearly a Half Century

From the start of spring training to the first wild-card pitches, the MLB season leaves plenty of room for ups, downs, surprises, expectations, and above all, drama. With two 100-win teams in the World Series for the first time since 1970, this year’s matchup already has a distinct storyline.

But leaving it at that, frankly, seems lazy when deep data can make preview, prediction and preparation so much more appealing – particularly with pitching.

From that surface-level standpoint, the introduction of the wild card in 1995 increased the drama of October. Consider this: Since the wild card was put in place, six teams have donned that crown and gone on to win the World Series. A wild-card team appeared in the World Series every year from 2002 to 2007. In contrast, only two 100-win teams have won the World Series in the wild-card era (the 1998 and 2009 New York Yankees). In other words, the underdog story can thrive during October baseball.

But not this year. This World Series is the first pitting two teams with triple-digit victories since the 108-win Baltimore Orioles knocked off the 102-win Cincinnati Reds in five games 47 years ago. The 2017 versions of the Los Angeles Dodgers (104-58) and Houston Astros (101-61) were the hands-down best teams in their respective leagues until that late-season 1-16 stretch made us wonder about the Dodgers and the Cleveland Indians’ 22-game winning streak bumped the Astros from the top spot in the AL.

That doesn’t change the fact that both the Dodgers and Astros have been incredibly balanced all season. Los Angeles was sixth in the NL in runs scored, while Houston topped the AL. Houston finished fifth in the AL in team ERA, while the Dodgers topped the NL in that category. Oh, and the Astros added a former Cy Young winner in September, and the Dodgers added a right-hander that has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings over his career.

It might not be the New York-Los Angeles clash the networks wanted, but it’s a World Series matchup fans dream of: The league-best Dodgers’ pitching staff versus the league-best Astros’ lineup. To be cliché, it’s the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.

However, succumbing to the irresistible force paradox doesn’t cut it at STATS. Using TVL data, we can begin to predict which matchups between pitcher and hitter should be attacked, and which could lead to hits and runs for the offense if the pitcher isn’t careful.

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. With TVL, deliveries can also be categorized as executed pitches, missed pitches, mistake pitches and wild pitches.

The Dodgers and Astros didn’t meet in 2017 interleague play, but the two midsummer splashes each team made – the Dodgers trading for Yu Darvish and the Astros dealing for Justin Verlander – give us numbers to go off because both righties faced their World Series opponent before they were traded.

Verlander will get the start in Game 2 of the World Series and can look back on his Aug. 20 gem against the Dodgers as a member of the Detroit Tigers. Verlander allowed one run and two hits while striking out nine in eight innings, executing more than 60 percent of his pitches. He relied mostly on his four-seam fastball and slider, and he dominated Dodgers hitters with those two offerings. Against lefties Verlander threw 32 fastballs, executing on 59 percent and making a mistake on only 12 percent of those.

Verlander was even more four-seam and slider reliant against righties, making 52 of his 59 deliveries against the likes of Justin Turner, Yasiel Puig, Logan Forsythe and Kike Hernandez with those two pitches. He attacked Turner with a cutter – a pitch he toyed with this season – three times, though Verlander seems to have abandoned his cut fastball since then.

As if he knew he would wind up facing the Dodgers in the World Series, Verlander stated after the game that he tried to make it feel like a playoff atmosphere, though the game was played for a team that wasn’t going to even sniff the playoffs.

“It’s impossible to really create a playoff atmosphere without being in the playoffs, but I tried my best to do that,” Verlander said. “There was that much more focus and intensity in every pitch.”

As he has shown this postseason, Verlander was strong into the late innings against the Dodgers in August, with only four mistake pitches through his first six innings of work. If the Dodgers want to get to Verlander in the Fall Classic, they’ll need to hurt him when he makes a rare mistake – they had only one hit off Verlander’s 12 mistakes back in August.

“Verlander certainly showed today that he’s still an ace,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said after his team mustered two hits off Verlander. “He hasn’t had the career he’s had by accident. He’s a great pitcher.”

The same can probably be said of Darvish. He was as dominant in his last start against the Astros as a member of the Texas Rangers on June 12, executing his offspeed pitches 86 percent of the time and finding success by pounding his two-seamer in to right-handed hitters. Darvish wasn’t exactly precise with his four-seamer – he only executed it seven of the 28 times he threw it – but he only made two mistake pitches with it. Of the 103 pitches Darvish threw on June 12, only seven were mistakes, and the Astros didn’t collect a single hit off those.

That included Jose Altuve going 0 for 3 while being fed a steady diet of two-seamers. Altuve grounded out on a first-pitch two-seamer in the first, saw a pair of two-seamers before popping out on a curve in the fourth and lined out on a cutter following two more two-seamers.

The strategy from both Darvish and Altuve is prevalent when considering their matchups just 10 days earlier. Darvish starts Altuve with fastballs, then tries to use breaking balls to complete the out. Altuve attempts to jump on those fastballs as if he knows they’re coming, with varying results.

On June 2, Altuve went 2 for 2 with a walk against Darvish, who threw four sliders over those three at-bats and couldn’t get Altuve out. Both pitcher and hitter know the other’s strategy and they’re basically daring each other to continue the trend.

“That lineup is very aggressive, swinging from the first pitch,” Darvish said of the Astros after his June 2 start. “Today, it was almost like after two strikes, they were trying to battle, fight it off, fight it off, fight it off. That got my pitch count up in the game and it just cost me.”

Luckily for Verlander and Darvish, they have help in the form of former Cy Young Award winners joining them in their respective rotations.

The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw will make his long-awaited World Series debut and try to solidify his spot among the all-time great pitchers by earning a ring. The Astros will attack Kershaw with a righty-heavy lineup, with the likely first six batters in their lineup hitting from that side.

Kershaw has mostly attacked right-handed hitters with a three-pitch mix this season – four-seamer, slider, and curveball. Using TVL predictions, we can pick out peaks and valleys of Kershaw’s projected success rates when throwing certain pitches to the right-handed hitters in Houston’s lineup – even against those he’s never faced. For example, Alex Bregman may be struggling in the playoffs, but Kershaw might want to be careful throwing him sliders as the Astros’ third baseman is projected to hit .347 off that Kershaw-specific offering.

It’s interesting to note that of the 89 at-bats the current Houston roster has had against Kershaw, they’ve never left the yard. Of the seven doubles he’s given up, four have been to Altuve, who’s 6 for 15 head to head with Kershaw.

Carlos Correa looks to be the toughest out for Kershaw, due to a combination of pitch mix and Correa’s big-time success against lefties this season (.391 AVG/.457 OBP/.609 SLG). Correa has been outstanding against left-handed breaking balls this season, which is why he projects to hit .530 off Kershaw’s slider and .382 off the curveball.

Altuve, however, should not be considered a hole in the lineup with a projected .280 average and .439 slugging percentage. If there are such holes in Houston’s lineup, Kershaw is the one to find it. Those would be the left-handed hitting Brian McCann, who is projected to hit .198, and Marwin Gonzalez, who projects to hit .153 and slug .290.

On the flip side, Dallas Keuchel could face Kershaw multiple times this series. Here, it’s interesting to note that of the 44 at-bats the current Los Angeles roster has had against Keuchel, he too hasn’t given up a homer. With Austin Barnes grabbing hold of the catching duties this postseason and a platoon at second base, the Dodgers can throw a righty-heavy lineup at Houston’s lefty as well. That’s a good thing, considering Los Angeles’ two young left-handed hitters – Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager – are projected to hit .129 AVG/.298 SLG and .172/.250 against Keuchel.

Contrary to the two-seam/curveball mix he throws to lefties, Keuchel opens up his repertoire considerably to get right-handers out. That might not matter against Justin Turner, who projects to hit .401 and slug .658 off him – another pitcher-batter matchup that has yet to play out on the diamond but deserves particular attention here. The two-seam fastball would be the gutsiest pitch to throw Turner, according to STATS, considering he is projected to hit nearly .500 against that pitch with a slugging percentage over .800.

With each pitch of the postseason being amplified, hitters will have to take advantage of those few mistake pitches that each rotation serves up. Hitting even one into the stands could swing this series.