If you watched any of the four-game opening set with the Red Sox on the local television feed, you’ll know that one point Dwayne Staats and Brian Anderson kept harping on was the way the Red Sox pitchers were attacking the new-look Rays lineup.
Dwayne and BA kept pointing out when the Sox pitchers came in on the hands to the Rays hitters, especially with fastballs.
Of course, in the series, the Rays were held to just nine runs in four games, their second-lowest (behind 2011) offensive output in the first four games of a season, per DRB Rays historian, Adam Sanford. (They also allowed just ten runs, which is the stingiest their run suppression has ever been in the first four games. Get used to those 2-1 games.)
Now, we have to ask two questions:
- Were the Red Sox pitchers actually attacking the Rays hitters with an uncommon amount of inside fastballs?
- Do the Rays hitters actually have a collective weakness in this spot?
There are other questions that flow from this observation. Was it a strategic decision, carried out effectively by the Red Sox, in which case we are likely to see a lot more of it? Will the Rays be about to make adjustments?
But before we delve further, let’s fact check the basic premise.
Who’s afraid of the Tampa Bay Rays?
I’m not trying to question them for no reason (although if I was, it would be slight retribution for their weird questioning of the age of Red Sox starter, Hector Velasquez during Sunday’s broadcast), but I just want to make sure it was actually a pattern, and not just slight confirmation bias, before we figure out whether it is a legitimate weakness of the current lineup.
After going through the Rays Pitch Heat Maps on Baseball Savant (if there are teamwide heat maps available I couldn’t find them), I can assuredly tell you that the Red Sox were indeed working the inside part of the plate against the Rays.
Here are just a few of the Pitch Heat Maps from the Rays so far this season:
There were only a few players (Carlos Gomez and Wilson Ramos, namely) who didn’t get the heavy-inside treatment, so props to Dwayne and BA and the Fox Sports Sun crew for noticing the tendency and pointing it out to the viewers.
Having confirmed the initial hypothesis, let’s see how some of those hitters getting the most notable inside treatment have handled those pitches throughout their careers.
Do the Rays have a problem with the inside portion of the plate?
For these purposes, we’re going to use the four players shown above as case studies.
Span certainly appears to have a bit of weakness on pitches up and in, but he’s actually very strong when it comes to pitches low and inside. In fact, in that prime left-handed hitters “golf zone,” he has his highest slugging percentage of any zone, for his career. With Span getting up in years, his hands are only going to get a bit slower, leaving him even more vulnerable to that high-inside heat, however. It seems as though the Sox may have been on to something here.
KK’s best and worst zones are not all that different from Span’s. He loves the low-and-inside pitch, but if that pitch gets to even his belt, he struggles to punish it. Contrast that with the outer edge of the plate, where he can get his hands extended, and he can deliver a lot more pop to the ball. Now, KK has been able to handle those high-and-inside pitches if they catch the strike zone during his career (.488 SLG), which would seem to scare off enough pitchers that I don’t find this as much of an issue for the Rays leadoff man.
Miller didn’t struggle as much as KK in the open series (OPS edge of .833 to .192), but he still collected only two hits for the four-game set (Miller appeared in all four, but started only three). Plus, Miller’s chart above certainly looks a lot more incriminating than Kiermaier’s as his entire right wall (which is inside to Miller, as these are from the catcher’s point of view) is bluer than the Caribbean. All that said, take a look at the pitch on which his lone home run of the season came:
If we’re already extrapolating on a tiny sample size (sorry, guys, it’s just so hard not to this early in the season, you want to read something, right?!), we might as well note that Miller’s 2018 debut home run may scare off pitchers at least a bit in terms of attacking him high-and-inside.
Unlike the rest of our cohort here, Cron is right-handed. Also unlike the rest of our cohort here, Cron has historically done very well on pitches in on the hands. He demolishes those pitches that catch the plate, but he’s not even bad when they are a touch off the plate, slugging .483 in that central-inside zone. The Sox attacked Cron inside as hard as any Ray in that opening series, and he struggled as much as any Rays hitter (.125/.125/.125).
Of these four case studies, this is the one I find most interesting, and will be keeping my eye on the most. It’s certainly important to remember that this is a four-game set (Cron played three of the four), and Cron was tasked with facing Chris Sale and David Price — two studs — with the two games he actually got the start in. Certainly not time to worry, but maybe something to keep in mind moving forward.
In the end, it’s hard to know how much this really matters. It’s not as if pitchers are going to be lacking scouting reports in the modern era, and while maybe it makes their job a touch easier if the pitching coach simply has to say “throw it inside all day,” modern pitchers are always going to find your weakness.
What I do think is somewhat significant is that what pitchers often fear about working the inside part of the plate, is that a slight miss in either direction offers a free base (hit by pitch) or a meatball that can be easily tagged for a home run.
The Rays offense certainly lacks the pop it had last season, however, so opposing pitchers may be less inhibited by the fear of catching too much plate. Given the limited power of the Rays 2018 lineup, opponents may feel free to roam the zone, pitching inside, outside, high, low, really wherever they want, especially when the bases are open.
It will be up to these Rays hitters to prove they can punish pitchers who get too confident in the zone.