The Houston Astros finally learned who they'll be playing in the American League Championship Series on Tuesday night, when the New York Yankees defeated the Cleveland Guardians. The Astros had been waiting on an opponent since Saturday, when they completed a three-game sweep of the Seattle Mariners.
Having a few days between the end of the Division Series and the beginning of the Championship Series should prove to be a luxury. Unlike their opponents, the Astros will have had a chance to rest their bodies and structure their gameplans for whichever foe they'll meet. On an individual level, some players might even have had the opportunity to review film and data and to make necessary adjustments.
That off period could prove to be particularly handy for second baseman Jose Altuve, who struggled to make an impact against the Mariners. Indeed, Altuve went 0 for 16 with six strikeouts and a walk. It was the first time in his postseason career (and mind you, he and the Astros have been omnipresent in October the past half-decade) that he failed to record a hit in a series at least three games long.
Just how did the Mariners hold Altuve in check, and is it something the Yankees could attempt to replicate? While accepting that weird things happen in small sample sizes, CBS Sports has identified one potential key to the Mariners' success versus Altuve after reviewing his ALDS performances: the up-and-in sinker.
The heat map above shows that the Mariners spammed Altuve with high-and-tight offerings. He saw 57 total pitches over the course of three games, and 29 of them were delivered to that quadrant. Of those 29 pitches, 14 were sinkers; another nine were four-seam fastballs; and then three apiece were sliders and curveballs.
Clearly the Mariners wanted to test Altuve's ability to get his barrel around to hard stuff in and around his hands -- and he didn't pass.
Here's the breakdown of what Altuve did against those 23 total fastballs:
Other in-play outs
Two things stand out about this data: Altuve had trouble laying off the up-and-in fastball, and he had trouble making quality contact. To take it a step further, Altuve had an average exit velocity of 77.3 mph on those pitches, and an average launch angle of 41.9 degrees. His regular season norms were 84.9 mph and 16 degrees. The Mariners, then, succeeded in getting him to weakly hit the ball into the air.
It didn't matter which Mariners pitcher was on the mound, either; seven different members of Seattle's staff threw him at least one pitch that was up-and-in, suggesting it was a group philosophy rather than the approach of one or two pitchers.
So, why did the Mariners approach Altuve like this, what makes the sinker the key, and should the Yankees follow suit?
From a bird's eye view, the decision to pitch Altuve high and inside doesn't make sense. He posted an OPS on balls in play over 1.000 in three strike-zone quadrants: all but down and away. Going off that data alone, the smarter approach would be to attack him down and away, right? Here's a breakdown of his production in each quadrant:
Down and in
Up and away
Up and in
Down and away
Analyzing a hitter's strengths and weaknesses is more complex than that kind of analysis suggests, however. In Altuve's case, looking into his up-and-in success reveals that he did most of his hitting against breaking balls that backed up. He was at his worst, relative to his production on other pitch types, when he was faced with a sinker. Interestingly, Altuve was much better against four-seamers, suggesting that there's something about a sinker's movement thrown up that throws him.
|Pitch type||OPS||EV (mph)||LA (degrees)|
For more evidence of that dynamic, consider Altuve's ball-tracking metrics. He posted his best average exit velocity, 87.1 mph, against four-seamers that were up and in. When faced with a sinker in that area, though, his average exit velocity shrunk to 74.7 mph. For context, Altuve ranked in the 59th percentile league-wide in average exit velocity on four-seamers in that zone, versus in the 10th percentile on sinkers there. Altuve still managed an above-average OPS on sinkers thrown up and in, but his quality-of-contact was poor enough that it merits trying him there anyway.
Some combination of the Mariners' scouting and analytical departments undoubtedly noticed the difference and hatched their plan to overload Altuve with sinkers up and in, thereby turning a strength into a weakness. As an added bonus, they could still attack him down and away when desired, and they might even achieve better results than they would have normally if he was preoccupied with the up-and-in heat.
Again, the strategy worked. Altuve was a complete non-entity for the three games. Maybe it wouldn't be as successful over the course of a longer series; the warp and woof of baseball is that both pitchers and batters are in constant states of adjustment. Whoever adjusts best tends to survive longest and shine brightest. Altuve has a lengthy track record of being a top-notch hitter, so it stands to reason that he's more than capable of self-scouting a weakness and working to improve it in short order.
As such, the Yankees will have to decide for themselves if their pitchers should approach Altuve with the same plan the Mariners did. On paper, it would make sense: after all, the Mariners stymied him, so why not follow suit? In reality, though, it's not always that simple. Altuve himself is likely to adjust, and not every pitcher would be comfortable with (or capable of) approaching him this way.
We'll see what the Yankees decide to do. How, exactly, they approach Altuve will be an interesting subplot to monitor when the ALCS begins on Wednesday.