(Note: this is my first meek attempt at using pitch f/x data. Be gentle.)
Last night, the Phillies slugged their way to a victory over the Mets, 10-7. Leading the way was Ryan Howard, who went 3-3 with a single, double, home run and walk. It was interesting to watch how the Mets pitched Howard last night. And by interesting I mean frustrating and incomprehensible.
Over the last three years, Howard has slugged .541, good for 6th best in the league. But if you look at where he does the most damage, Howard slugs .623 when pulling the ball, .820 when hitting the ball to center, and 1.051 when going the other way. Last year, Howard slugged .920 on balls the other way, .721 when hitting to center, and .586 when pulling the ball.
Either way, Howard can do some damage, but given how eye-popping his numbers are going the other way and to center one wonders why a team would pitch Howard middle-away in the strike zone, especially early in the count.
Well, that's just what Mike Pelfrey did last night.
In the first inning, Pelfrey started Howard off with a sinker low and away in the strike zone. Howard promptly crushed the ball to left center for a double and would later be driven in by Raul Ibanez, pushing the Phillies to a 2-0 lead.
Howard led off the 3rd inning against Pelfrey. Down 3-0 already, Pelfrey (or catcher Josh Thole) decided to start Howard off with a curveball, low and middle of the plate. Pelfrey kept the ball in the strike zone and low and behold, Howard hit a home run to dead center field. 4-0 Phillies. The Phillies would go on to score three more runs that inning, chasing Pelfrey early for his second straight start.
It took until the fifth inning for the Mets to approach Howard the right way. Reliever Blaine Boyer started Howard out with an inside slider. He then went away with a fastball, and back inside with a fastball. Boyer than went slider, low and away, and fastball low and away inducing a comebacker (which he couldn't handle).
What I like about Boyer's sequence that I didn't like about Pelfrey's was that Boyer didn't throw Howard low and away pitches to start off his at bat. Boyer started inside and then moved laterally outside to inside. By doing that with the first four pitches Howard had to guess whether Boyer would come back inside with the fifth pitch or stay away. With Pelfrey, Howard was able to extend his arms and drive the ball on the very first pitch(es) he saw.
In general, Pelfrey would not throw inside to the Phillies' left hand batters in his <3 innings last night. Only six of his 50 pitches to lefties could be considered inside. There are two problems with this. First, hitters like Howard live off of balls middle-away. And, second, even lefties who do more damage pulling the ball need to be kept off-balance. Pelfrey was generally pounding the left-hand side of the plate regardless of the hitter. So while he may have had some vertical variation in his pitches, there wasn't much horizontally.
Given that Howard has progressively increased the number of balls he swings at outside of the zone and given his slugging numbers to center and left field, I am still scratching my head why Pelfrey would serve up two first pitches in the strike zone on the outer half and middle of the plate. Whose fault this is, I can't say. Regardless, that approach needs to be scrapped. We'll see how they handle him this afternoon.