Sunday, April 03, 2011

Jays aggressive approach put Twins in an early hole

Over the weekend, the Jays did something they were notorious for doing a season ago: They swung early and often.

Last season, the Blue Jays lineup swung at a reported 34% of first pitches, a rate that was significantly higher rate than the rest of baseball (26% MLB average). Toronto’s quick-strike policy proved to be offensively successful as they hit .313/.323/.557 with 49 home runs (19% of their total) on the first pitch of an at-bat. Because Minnesota’s pitching staff paced baseball with the most first-pitch strikes at 62% the Twins’ style of attack played directly to the strength of Toronto’s offensive methodology. Given these tendencies, it’s not surprising that the Jays averaged a whopping 6.5 runs per game and taking six of nine from the eventual AL Central champions.

One of the more successful pitchers in this area was the Twins’ Opening Day starter Carl Pavano. A year ago, Pavano was second in baseball to Cliff Lee in first-pitch strikes with 68% and tied for third with 90% of one of his first two pitches to a hitter becoming a strike. Due to their propensity to get up to the plate swinging, the Jays owned Pavano in their three match-ups last year, smacking him for 14 extra base hits including five home runs while going 27-for-76 (.355). And of course, many of those hits came on Pavano’s initial offering.

For Pavano and the Jays lineup, the 2011 season started very much like it left off between the two entities last fall. More than half of the Jays at-bats finished within the first two pitches – mostly to their advantage. Toronto went 5-for-10 (.500) with two home runs and a double on Pavano’s first two offerings, accounting for seven of their runs.

The following afternoon, the Twins sent Francisco Liriano to the hill. Liriano, not necessarily known for his marksmanship, actually fared well last year in achieving strike one 62% of the time. Unlike Pavano the night before who lived in the strike zone, Liriano struggled to get his first-pitch over the plate. He threw in the zone 11 times in his 22 match-ups (50%). Ultimately, Liriano leaned too heavily on his fastball to start the count - throwing it 16 times on the first-pitch – and the Jays hit two of those out of the park while knocking a triple another time. Because the Jays waited out Liriano and forced him into throwing his fastball, a reduced velocity fastball at that, they were able to get good pitches to swing at.

Meanwhile on Sunday, Nick Blackburn managed to navigate through the free-swinging lineup without allowing a hit in his first-pitch. Blackburn regularly mixed in his curveball and changeup – throwing it 11 times to start the count - keeping his opponents from honing in on his fastball. This method of pitching backwards proved extremely fruitful for Blackburn. In fact, the Jays were able to put just three of Blackburn’s initial offerings into play – all of which were converted into outs. Because of his ability to keep the Jays hitters at bay through five innings, the Twins were able to conjure up enough offense of their own to gain their first victory of the season.

Pavano thrives against teams who try to remain patient and work the count. His ability to pound the zone to get ahead in the count allows him to mix up his pitches more frequently. Unfortunately, this strategy has shown it does not work against aggressive lineups like the Blue Jays who take aim on early strikes. While possibly slowed from not pitching winter ball this off-season (or potentially even the early signs of an injury considering his decreased velocity), Liriano was cornered into throwing his fastball far too frequently early in the count. Blackburn, on the other hand, cycled through his cache of pitches while keeping the ball down in the zone. When the Twins square off against the Jays again in May, the pitching staff should replicate Blackburn’s game plan.