Pay Attention to These Matchups for Each Division Series

Julio Rodríguez
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Decision-making in the playoffs is a micro-focused as you can imagine. The level of preparation which goes into these games will never be fully known in the public sphere, but if a team wants even the slightest competitive edge, you better believe the details are as granular as the fine sands of Puerto Rico’s Playa Negrita.

Every opposing hitter has a zone and/or pitch that is a weak spot. You must know who on your pitching staff is best suited to throw to those weaknesses, and what hitters are most adaptable to use pitch sequences that will play to those same weaknesses. The following matchups are a few areas that could sway any given game in either direction. They are certainly not the only of high importance, but the statistical or situational holes make them worth mentioning. I’ll go through series by series and pick one that deserves attention, starting with the Yankees against the Guardians.

Guardians’ offense vs. Yankees’ sinkerballers

The Yankees’ bullpen is loaded with turbo sinkers and groundball pitchers. Lou Trivino, Jonathan Loáisiga, and Clay Holmes, to name a few, all feature a sinker as their primary fastball. Each of them will be used in high-leverage scenarios against any layer of the Guardians’ lineup, which has been the very worst in the American League against the sinker, posting the second-lowest wOBA (.317) and the lowest xwOBA (.319).

There’s plenty to suggest the Yankees’ bullpen will give the Guardians issues. Because of those turbo sinkers, New York’s bullpen led all of baseball in GB% (49.1%) and Run Value (-20.3 runs). The next best in both categories was Baltimore, which trailed in each by a decent margin (1.5 percentage points and 1.9 runs). In today’s game, being better than every team at throwing sinkers provides a significant competitive advantage, as it keeps batted balls out of the air and on the ground.

Seranthony Domínguez vs. the Braves’ offense

It’s tough to predict what a manager’s bullpen preferences are from a two-game series, but in this case, I think it’s safe to say the Phillies will have to rely on Seranthony Domínguez to get big outs if they want to make a deep run this postseason. He came through in a big way against St. Louis, striking out Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt during a jam in the eighth inning of Game 2.

Domínguez wasn’t the same upon his return from a triceps injury in the late summer, and it showed when he faced the Braves on September 16 in his third of five appearances against them in 2022. He gave up five earned runs, three hits, and walked two, giving the lead to Atlanta in his worst performance of the season. A Ronald Acuña Jr. blast, Austin Riley laser double, and line drive up the middle from William Contreras were the main blows. Domínguez faced Atlanta two more times in September after that, and while his two scoreless frames were much smoother, he still gave up hard contact that conveniently found gloves.

Domínguez has filthy stuff, but he needs to challenge the strike zone against this Braves lineup. Walking hitters will only give him more trouble and potentially a repeat of his September 16 meltdown. If Domínguez does falter, Rob Thomson will have to rely on pitchers who are a bit more hittable than Seranthony (and won’t have David Robertson as part of that group, as the veteran reliever was left off the NLDS roster thanks to a strained calf). Philadelphia’s bullpen is not deep and not reliable; the team will need its most talented reliever to command the zone each time out.

Julio Rodríguez vs. the Astros right-handed sliders

Many rookies cannot handle breaking balls when they reach the highest level. Julio Rodríguez is not your average rookie, though. His positive run values against sliders (+4) and curveballs (+3) put him above league average — a big reason why his transition from Triple A to the majors felt so seamless.

But facing sliders against the pitching staff with the best FIP (3.28) and ERA (2.90) in the AL is a different story. Rodríguez had a measly .172 wOBA against sliders from a combination of Justin Verlander, Cristian Javier, Ryne Stanek, and a few others in 2022. When facing the rest of baseball, his wOBA against the pitch was .340. Compared to the rest of the league, the Astros are simply superior when it comes to pitching, and that includes right-on-right sliders. That’s a miserable matchup for a rookie hitter in the playoffs, no matter how talented.

Rodríguez is the catalyst of the Mariners’ offense, and that offense will suffer if the Astros can neutralize him with a steady dose of sliders low and away with other pitches mixed in. The star rookie is great at adjusting on the fly, so am I not completely ruling him out as a non-factor. But he is going to be approached and sequenced better than he has in the whole of his short career. Let’s see what level of plate discipline he will bring to the table.

Josh Bell and Juan Soto vs. Dodgers’ left-handed pitchers

When Josh Bell and Juan Soto go, the Padres go. But they haven’t looked nearly like the best versions of themselves since their arrival in San Diego, or rather, not even the average versions of themselves. Soto’s 75 wRC+ and one home run against lefties while with the Padres proves everyone is mortal. Bell has been better versus southpaws — his 107 wRC+ is fine — but much of that production comes from walks and singles. His ISO in that period of .091 is a steep drop from his .212 mark with the Nationals.

The Dodgers may have the best group of left-handed pitchers in baseball. Clayton Kershaw, Tyler Anderson, and Julio Urías will prove to be touch matchups for Soto and Bell. Alex Vesia and Andrew Heaney are left-handed options out of the bullpen with a pitch mix well suited for shutting lefties down. Peak Soto is near matchup proof, but if the Dodgers execute their plan against him, we may continue to see the Soto who is pedestrian against lefties.

The story is a little different for Bell, since he is a switch-hitter. His swings against lefties are not a same-handed pitcher issue; rather, they are due to a swing limitation. You could see that in an at-bat he took against David Peterson in the Wild Card Series, as he struggled to get his bat head in front of the plate, sending a jam-shot liner to right field for an out. Deep points of contact coincide with high ground ball rates. Bell’s answer lies in getting his barrel out in front of the plate and the ball in the air, but if Los Angeles’ lefties can bust him inside with firm fastballs, his ground ball swing will persist.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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