Saturday, October 10, 2009

Angels make key adjustment at bottom of zone

Josh Beckett didn't pitch all that differently in the late innings than he did in the early innings. He did a spectacular job of keeping the ball down in the strike zone as he retired nine of the first 10 hitters he faced, inducing four ground-ball outs in the process. But he still kept the ball down pretty effectively in the late innings, too, and only occasionally did his pitches start creeping up in the strike zone as he started to fatigue.

The difference was the adjustment the Angels made, and that adjustment won them the game.

(Had Red Sox hitters done anything with Jered Weaver, of course, this would be a moot point. But they didn't, so it isn't.)

Three of the first nine outs Beckett recorded came on pitches right at the knees, pitches the Angels couldn't do anything with. Five of the others came on pitches right on the inside or outside corner. Beckett threw his four-seam fastball and two-seam fastball with great effectiveness, and the Angels couldn't touch him through the first three innings:

This is where the improved patience of the Angels' hitters comes into play.

Patience at the plate isn't just about drawing walks. As we've seen with Jacoby Ellsbury this season, patience at the plate also can mean taking called strikes if there's a good chance a better strike is going to come along.

The Angels didn't necessarily start working the count better or forcing Beckett to throw more pitches. Most of the time, in fact, they saw fewer pitches than they had before: Kendry Morales' eight-pitch at-bat in the seventh inning was the Angels' longest at-bat all night, but it was their first at-bat lasting more than five pitches since the fourth inning.

What they started to do, though, was lay off those pitches right at the knees that had been killing them earlier in the game.

Here's Beckett's pitch chart from the fourth inning until his exit from the game. Circled, as above, are the blue dots that indicate balls put in play -- or, at least, the blue dots in the middle of the strike zone that weren't there in the first three innings.

But there's one little detail to notice: There are four red dots in a line right along the bottom of the strike zone. Those represent called strikes. Beckett did still go after the bottom of the strike zone with his fastball and his changeup, but the Angels laid off. (Click on the chart below for more detail.)

They were patient. They took called strikes. They waited for Beckett to start leaving the ball a little up in the zone, and when he did, they pounced.

The single hit by Macier Izturis came on a curveball down and away, and it was the type of seeing-eye ground ball Beckett (and his infield) couldn't have done anything about. He made his pitch. Izturis did a nice job getting his bat on the ball, and he got a little lucky in that the ball found a hole.

At that point, though, it was still 2-1 and still a manageable game.

But his final pitch was a fastball up and over the plate to Erick Aybar. Beckett threw four straight pitches up in the zone to Aybar, probably trying to overpower him despite the inevitable fatigue that comes with throwing 100 pitches, and Aybar jumped all over the best one he saw.

Jacoby Ellsbury didn't track it down until it was already rolling around on the warning track, and that was the game.

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