Getting ahead in count crucial vs. Jays' lineup

After Tribe's success vs. Boston, Callaway wants pitchers to keep aggressive approach

October 13th, 2016

CLEVELAND -- The Indians held an advance scouting meeting on Wednesday to go over the tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of the Blue Jays' lineup. Asked for his reaction to the behind-the-scenes breakdown of Toronto's offense, Tribe manager Terry Francona tilted his head and raised his eyebrows.

"It doesn't make you run down the hall to face their hitters," Francona said. "I mean, shoot, they're really good."

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The Indians know they are up for a challenge in this American League Championship Series, which begins with Game 1 on Friday at Progressive Field (8 p.m. ET on TBS in the U.S.; Sportsnet and RDS in Canada). In the AL Division Series, though, Cleveland's depleted pitching staff already passed a major test, quieting the best offense in baseball en route to a three-game sweep of the Red Sox.

During the series against Boston, Cleveland's pitchers effectively executed an aggressive plan. Specifically, the Tribe's three starters -- , and -- pounded the strike zone early and capitalized on the fact that Red Sox are known for their patience. Kluber and Tomlin, in particular, painted the edges of the zone with precision to put Boston's hitters behind early and often.

"Guys executed an unbelievable game plan," Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway said. "To a tee, everybody did a really good job. Boston was really patient, not a lot of first-pitch swinging, so our starters went out there and tried to use that to their advantage to get ahead and execute pitches."

It could be difficult to use an identical approach against Toronto. The Blue Jays are also patient, but their powerful lineup -- anchored by sluggers , , and -- can go on the attack with brute force, too. Toronto also has the benefit of studying the past three games by Cleveland.

"We'll go to the video room," Bautista said, "and dissect all of their pitchers and see who likes to attack the zone, or with what, and in what situations. We're also not afraid of swinging at the first pitch and being aggressive when we need to be. I think we're one of the teams around the league that adjusts well from opponent to opponent and from pitcher to pitcher on how they try to get us out.

"Hopefully, we are successful in our execution of whatever game plan that we develop."

Comparing Toronto to Boston

Both the Red Sox's lineup and the Blue Jays' lineup featured patience this season; it is how they went about grinding out at-bats that was different.

While the Blue Jays had a slightly better rate of pitches per plate appearance than the Red Sox (4.04 to 3.94), Boston was more passive on the first pitch. The Red Sox swung at the first pitch in 20.9 percent of plate appearances this year, compared to 26.4 percent for the Blue Jays. That said, Boston had slightly better production (.368 average and .632 slugging percentage) on the first pitch than Toronto (.361/.598).

"We feel that we have enough experienced hitters and enough guys who are quality hitters," Donaldson said. "Sometimes, you might get out, but the type of at-bat that you have can affect the next at-bat that the next guy is going to have as well. We want each and every at-bat to be as difficult on them as possible, to where hopefully it kind of keeps grinding at them and grinding at them, and then we're able to have a big inning."

Donaldson, Encarnacion, Bautista and Tulowitzki head into the ALCS with a combined .364 average (24-for-66) with six home runs and 20 RBIs through four postseason games for Toronto. Boston, meanwhile, had its high-powered offense silenced by Cleveland. , , and hit a combined .186 in the ALDS.

The Blue Jays essentially live by the home run, and they draw a lot of walks along the way. One of the results of that style was a lower contact rate, a higher swinging-strike rate and a higher strikeout-looking rate than the Red Sox this year. That means that while Toronto showed more early-count aggressiveness, pitchers also had a better chance of putting hitters away.

Getting ahead and staying ahead is critical against the Jays.

"For teams that swing a little bit more first pitch, we don't shy away from throwing first-pitch strikes," Callaway said. "You hope to locate them and get a quick out. [The Blue Jays] see a lot of pitches. They're a high-strikeout, high-walk team. There's some swing-and-miss in there, so you make sure that you throw quality pitches, and the swings and misses will happen. You keep on continuing to attack."

How will Cleveland approach Toronto?

Callaway said the best example of how to attack the Blue Jays' lineup was on July 1, when Bauer closed out a 19-inning victory over Toronto with five scoreless innings of relief. The right-hander fired 17 first-pitch fastballs to the 19 batters he faced, and he remained aggressive as the game wore on.

"He was just relentless in attacking them," Callaway said. "He put the pressure on them, got ahead of them and kept on putting the pressure on. He didn't allow them, with all those pitches they see, to get back in the count or even the count back up, so they can start taking those big swings. So controlling the count is going to be huge."

The Indians do not want Toronto to fall into fastball-hunting mode, though.

This season, the Blue Jays hit .350 with a .591 slugging percentage on first-pitch fastballs (four-seamers, two-seamers and cutters), with both marks being a touch above league average. Toronto was also above average against first-pitch offspeed pitches (.374 average and .605 slugging percentage), which includes curveballs, sliders and changeups.

Compared to the Red Sox, the Blue Jays were better this year at attacking first-pitch heaters than offspeed offerings. No matter the count, Boston excelled at hitting all types of pitching, whereas Toronto's weakness could be found in the soft stuff. Overall, the Blue Jays hit .224 with a .376 slugging percentage against offspeed pitches, ranking 11th in the AL and right around league average in both categories.

Against Boston, Cleveland's three starters threw 63 percent first-pitch strikes and generated a first-pitch swing 20.6 percent of the time. The Red Sox were especially patient against Bauer and Tomlin, swinging at only 10.5 percent of their first pitches. It makes sense that Boston would be more aggressive early against Kluber, whose curveball is one of the best wipeout pitches in baseball.

If Toronto appears to be ambushing early in the count -- based on how Cleveland was able to handle Boston -- the Indians may go with more offspeed pitches in fastball counts in an attempt to take advantage. The execution of fastballs will be paramount, though.


"They're very good hitters," Callaway said. "You make a mistake, and they're going to make you pay. So I think we need to do what we did against Boston. Go out there and get ahead, execute pitches and keep the mistakes to a minimum, and make sure that we don't have two- to three-run innings.

"We did a good job with Boston of making sure that it was just one-run innings. That's usually a pretty good recipe for winning."