Did Pitchers Adapt to Alex Rios?
I’m starting on requests for the pitch database now- first on the list is Alex Rios. One of the things that was overshadowed by the rest of the Blue Jays offensive nightmares this season was that Rios had a significant power drop-off in the second half, with no sign of a staph infection in sight. Although his slugging percentage only dropped 50 points, he hit 17 home runs before the all star break and only 7 afterwards. Was it the dreaded curse of the Home Run Derby, or did pitchers start approaching him differently? Let’s take a look at the pitches he made contact with this year, starting with the first half:
First I’m going to look at the balls he put in play, and then examine those that he watched either for balls or strikes separately. First, here’s what happened when Rios put the ball in play in the first half:
First thing to note is this is a pretty terrible sample size. Pitch f/x was still being installed in parks in the first half, so there is less data that the second half even though they played more games. Still, notice how Alex is waiting for his pitch. He can serve pitches low and away into the opposite field for singles, but lets most pitches low and inside go- which makes sense since he’s hitting .158 there. His power is mostly on anything left high in the strike zone. How did pitchers get him out? By getting him to hit pop ups on pitches at his eyes and grounders on balls away from him.
There’s a lot more data here, but look at how much more it’s spread through the strike zone. Of course this could be because he’s not getting into counts where pitchers have to groove one, but it certainly looks like he’s swinging at and making contact with “pitcher’s pitches”. He’s also flying out on pitches high and especially away in the strike zone, which he didn’t do at all in the first half. And his doubles and HR power is all middle-in, instead of up and over the plate. Maybe Brantley was right when he said he wasn’t moving enough since the Home Run Derby- that looks like someone trying to yank the ball over the fence.
Now let’s look at the pitches he didn’t swing at and what the umpire called them. I’ve split them into over 88 and below 88 mph as a crude division between breaking pitches and fastballs, to get an idea of if they were pitching him soft away and hard inside or anything like that. From the first half:
The first thing this tells me is I probably need to tweak my strike zone (based on John Walsh’s measurements of the actual strike zone) up a few inches, or that pitch f/x was set a little low. As you’ll see, it doesn’t look that bad for the second half, but almost all the pitches on the bottom fringe of the zone as I have it were called as balls. It’s also strange that pretty much nothing came in on the inside wall of the strike zone. I’ve checked the data several times though- there were almost no pitches a foot off the middle of the plate, and he swung at all of them.
In the second half, Rios had more low strikes and strikes on the bottom outside corner (or just plain off the plate) called. Maybe that’s why he had to become less selective. There is also a noticeable concentration of more pitches (both fastballs and offspeed pitches) belt high and away – the pitches that from the first set of graphs you can see Alex is grounding out on. In the second half he was getting more hits than grounders on pitches away, but they’re all singles.
The word must have gotten out to keep everything on the outside half of the plate and low to sap his power. Despite more data, there are fewer pitches being hit or taken at the top or just above the top of the zone. I am reminded of the last home run he hit, which was high and out of the strike zone- if you’re going to go up on Rios, go way up (I guess I should chart swing-and-misses next, but they’re pretty much exactly what you would expect from this data- away, away, away, more as the year goes on).
From looking at both diagrams, it also seems that pitchers were also having some success coming up and inside with soft stuff- a lot of called strikes and a not a lot of contact (except for the occasional home run on a mistake left a little too much of the plate). But the biggest difference in pitchers facing Alex Rios in the second half was they worked the outside half of the plate heavily- and started getting the calls.