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Game 3 Opposing Pitching Preview: Conquering Colby Lewis

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As of now, the presumptive Texan starter for Monday's ALDS Game 3 is Colby Lewis. As many of you probably know, Lewis was a horrendously bad pitcher from 2002-2007, putting together a 6.71 ERA over 200+ innings mixed between the rotation and bullpen (the highest in baseball for any pitcher with that many innings over that stretch, by a significant margin). Lewis mixed the deadly trifecta of mediocre strikeout rates (6.4 per 9), awful walk rates (5.1 per 9), and atrocious home run tendencies (1.5 per 9).

After being yanked back and forth between AAA, Lewis finally left the United States to play in Japan. There, something magical happened.

In 08 and 09, Lewis was arguably the best pitcher in Japanese baseball. He put together two consecutive sub-3 ERAs, posting monster strikeout rates and displaying a K/BB greater than 8. After this utter domination, Lewis returned to America, where the Rangers took a flier on him. He came back a completely reinvented pitcher. In place of the blazing heater he once had, he now carried a humble fastball that had trouble breaking 90. Despite this, he enjoyed significant success, especially in light of his previous awfulness.

2010 201 8.78 2.91 0.94 3.55 80 3.72 85 3.58
2011 200.1 7.59 2.52 1.57 4.54 106 4.4 102 3.73
Total 401.1 8.19 2.73 1.26 4.05 93 4.06 93 3.65

The reason? A new, sharp breaking, devastating slider. Lewis's slider is among the best in baseball according to pitch type values, accruing a wSL of +19.0 over the last two seasons, good for 4th among AL pitchers. Not only does Lewis have a highly effective slider, but also he throws it incredibly frequently. Since his return, Lewis has thrown it the 5th most of any AL pitcher, a whopping 27% of the time.

Still, in this sense Lewis is a "one trick pony". He has a curveball and a changeup that he uses sparingly, but is primarily a fastball/slider pitcher. He uses his slider in a relatively traditional manner, upping it to more than 35% of his pitches in two strike counts, and dialing down its usage behind in the count, it serving as his strikeout pitch.

This year, Lewis's slider has been far less effective, getting whiffs 16.3% of the time, versus 19.8% last year, a large factor in his diminished performance. Additionally, he's surrendered a probably unsustainably high 11.9% of his fly balls for home runs, suggesting that his FIP and ERA are inflated. Still, his defense/luck independent stats (I chose SIERA because xFIP has a tendency to underrate fly ball pitchers like Lewis) have definitely taken a step back. Despite this, he's an above average pitcher. Beating him won't be particularly easy.

The most likely lineup (I'm not trying to forecast the order, merely list the hitters) against Lewis will be something along the lines of:

LF Jennings

CF Upton

3B Longoria

2B Zobrist

1B Kotchman

RF Joyce

DH Damon

C Jaso

SS Brignac

In order for these hitters to beat Lewis, a few things need to happen.

The Long Ball: It's an old piece of baseball wisdom that good offenses don't depend on home runs, but if the Rays don't get any on Monday then the game could be over really quickly. Lewis doesn't give away too many free passes, Texas has an excellent defense, and he's an extreme fly ball pitcher who gets a more than healthy number of popups. Although the Rays could definitely string together a series of hits and score runs (anything can happen in baseball!) the best bet appears to be runs via the long ball.

Swing Aggressively: Working the count is great when you're against a pitcher who gives up a lot of walks, a pitcher who tires as the game goes on, or a team with a bad bullpen. Unfortunately for the Rays, they're up against a pitcher who doesn't give up a lot of walks (2.52 per 9), has a K/BB that improves after pitch 50, and a Texan bullpen that has become quite stable as of late. Lewis is by far at his worst early on in games (his K/BB is 1.85 the first time through the order, vs. 4+ the second and third times), and in particular seems to have difficulty striking out hitters early on. Given that he likes to stay in the zone, particularly early in the count (he's 8th in first-pitch-for-a-strike % over the last two years), it probably would be a good idea for the Rays to go against conventional wisdom and swing away.

Matt Joyce/Ben Zobrist Need to Step It Up: Really you could say that all of the Rays hitters need to step it up for runs, but the Rays success will probably be dependent on these two more than anyone else because they're both going to be hitting left handed (Lewis has tremendous platoon splits because his slider is nowhere near as effective against left handed hitters), and because they've both traditionally done at least a decent job against sliders.

This matchup should prove to be an interesting one. Lewis is a relatively unusual pitcher because of his lack of a real third pitch, but provided the Rays swing, and swing hard, they should be able to score off of him.