How can Rays form a pitching plan vs. LA?

October 21st, 2020

Let’s call this the Dodger Dilemma, and it’s not a good one for opposing pitchers: If you miss the strike zone, even with your best pitches, the Dodgers are really not going to chase. Come back into the zone, and those opportunistic hitters will punish you.

Tyler Glasnow found that out the hard way in Tampa Bay’s 8-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday at Globe Life Field.

The right-hander could only command his fastball, and those patient Dodgers waited him out. He issued six walks, becoming the first pitcher to issue that many in a World Series game since Edwin Jackson walked seven in Game 4 of the 2011 World Series. Glasnow's pitch count ballooned to a career-high 112, the most by a Rays starter since ’18.

The Dodgers made those walks hurt, as they tend to do.

“Obviously, we know they’re a very patient group, and they have a lot of good hitters over there,” Rays catcher Mike Zunino said. “There were some where I thought the timing was OK with how the game was going and how we wanted to attack some guys. But overall, a lot more walks than we’re accustomed to. Against a team like this, it’s really tough to give up that many free bases.”

Max Muncy worked a leadoff walk in the fourth, and Cody Bellinger followed with a two-run homer. Back-to-back free passes to Mookie Betts and Corey Seager to open the fifth primed Los Angeles’ decisive four-run inning -- though America did get some stolen-base tacos out of the deal (not that it’ll be any consolation to Glasnow).

You do have to attack Los Angeles with strikes. The Dodgers have a 23.3 percent chase rate on pitches out of the strike zone, the lowest rate in the National League and second in the Majors behind only the Yankees. The problem, though, is that they also have an 82.5 percent contact rate on pitches in the zone -- third in the NL, and fifth in MLB.

So where exactly do the Rays go from here? Are there any holes in the plate coverage of that lineup juggernaut? Let’s build a game plan -- beginning with Game 2 starter Blake Snell.

Is there anything in the zone that the Dodgers can’t hit?

If you’re going to be forced into the zone by the patience of the Dodgers’ hitters, you need to figure out which pitches give you the best chance for success when thrown for strikes.

Let’s tackle the first problem: There aren’t really any pitches in the strike zone that the Dodgers can’t hit.

They are, unbelievably, better than average at avoiding swinging strikes in the zone against every major pitch type they’ll see in the playoffs: four-seamers, sinkers, cutters, curveballs, changeups and sliders. The closest they come to average is their 23.4 percent whiff rate in the zone against changeups, ranking 16th in baseball but still slightly better than the MLB average of 23.7 percent.

Here’s a somewhat good thing for Snell: If you dive deeper into their matchups specifically against left-handed pitching, there are some incremental suggestions that emerge. Namely, the Dodgers are among the worst teams in the Majors at making contact against curveballs and sliders from lefties in the strike zone -- though these are all relative and don’t reflect massive whiff rates by any means.

So let’s just accept that the Dodgers won’t be swinging through too many of your pitches in the zone. How do you minimize damage?

The Dodgers do crush everything (their average exit velocities against all pitch types in the zone are top seven in baseball), but they do notably fall short in actual production in the zone against changeups (.366 wOBA, 17th in MLB) and sliders (.328 wOBA, 24th in MLB). Snell could also note that against left-handers in particular, the Dodgers do have trouble against both curveballs and sliders in the zone, too.

Will anything out of the zone work?

You’d much rather get beat throwing your best stuff in the zone than beating yourself by letting the Dodgers watch bad pitches and get ahead in counts. Like all teams, Los Angeles hitters have pronounced splits depending on where they are in the count: 1.084 OPS when ahead in the count, .806 when even and .558 when behind.

Here’s the problem: This hasn’t exactly been the Rays’ strong suit -- and particularly so for Snell, who has thrown 58.4 percent of his pitches outside the strike zone this postseason, fifth highest among starters. He’ll have to rein that in or all of this will be moot.

Good luck trying to get Dodgers hitters to chase fastballs out of the zone (they’re among the league’s most patient in that regard) but they do worse than most teams on chasing left-handed curveballs out of the zone, with a 29.4 percent chase rate in the regular season -- again, not a massive number, but still 23rd in the league. They also chase 32.5 percent of changeups from lefties out of the zone -- among the better marks in the Majors, but still a higher number.

What does this mean?

The Rays are facing a tall task against this lineup, that’s for sure.

Whatever Snell and other Rays pitchers do, they’ll want to avoid throwing hittable fastballs, especially since Snell doesn’t have Glasnow’s top-tier velocity. Against heaters, the Dodgers won’t chase out of the zone, make contact in the zone and do damage when they do put bat to ball. As both the points above suggest, mixing curveballs, sliders and changeups -- especially as a lefty -- is a much better bet.

That’s not usually Snell’s approach. He threw his fastball on more than half of his pitches during the regular season and threw the changeup, slider and curve no more than 19.8 percent of the time apiece.

Still, turning away from the fastball won’t necessarily be foreign to him. He’s thrown his heater less than half the time in all five of his 2020 playoff starts, and two of his top seven lowest fastball usage rates have come this postseason. He’s topped out at throwing the curveball on 41.1 percent of pitches in a start in his career.

He’ll need to do better at finding the zone, and maybe trust some of those curveballs and other offspeed pitches in the strike zone instead of burying them like he almost always does. (His curveball missed the zone 80.7 percent of the time in the regular season, most among starters with at least 100 curves.)

The Rays have gotten through the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros, but this Dodgers team presents a combination of the best of those lineups -- the upside, the experience, the patience, the power. But Tampa Bay did find a way to adjust, persevere and triumph against all of those opponents.

This is the culmination of that path -- but what else could they expect in the World Series?

“I think when you look at Houston's ability, they don't strike out very much, and you look at the power of New York,” Zunino said. “It's sort of a combination of both. It's definitely going to be a test, but our guys answered really well against New York and Houston, so we're going to have to come out, stick to our strength, try to work ahead of guys and just trust our arms."