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The Royals made adjustments, the Angels did not

Adjusting to the adjustments of the adjustments of the other team adjusting and my head exploded.

After reaching on a bunt single against the shift.
After reaching on a bunt single against the shift.
Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

People-players, fans, writers, managers-say that baseball is a game of adjustments. The book gets out on a player or team, and then teams attack weaknesses. Success is made through adjusting to the adjustments of the opposition, and the wheel keeps spinning. All the time. Data. Video. Advance scouts. Through the season, scouting reports are made and plans devised. But in the playoffs, there is a focus on only one team. Each team will likely have a specific plan of action for each player more detailed than during the regular season, and these plans of attack are magnified due to the win-or-go-home nature of the playoffs and national broadcasts.

One of the more prominent examples of this was Mike Trout. Jeff Sullivan wrote about the initial encounters the Royals had with Mike Trout. This season, teams have discovered that Trout has a weakness up-and-in. The Royals exploited this weakness during the ALDS like whoa.

trout heat map

Up and in is a pretty common location there. I suggest you read Sullivan's article to see how he was attacked within at bats, but it's clear the Royals decided Trout needed to be pitched up and in with some low and away thrown in to keep from becoming 100% predictable. As you know, Trout was essentially neutralized. Overall in the ALDS, he went 1-12 with 3 walks, 2 strikeouts, and a home run. Trout either failed to adjust or simply couldn't overcome the plan of attack. Trout's going to have to figure this out, or else he will see a lot of 95mph baseballs hurled near his face.

From the Royals' offensive perspective, the book was out as well. For ease of comparison, I'm using data from Baseball Savant, which means the zone definitions are Baseball Savant's. The Royals are known to be a team of free swingers lacking plate discipline. During the season, the Royals saw ~59.6% of pitches outside the strike zone. During the 4 games of the playoffs so far, the Royals have seen ~64% of pitches outside the strike zone. Plan of attack--throw outside the zone.

How did the Royals respond? Well, they didn't, really. In the comments in game threads, one of the common themes was that it seemed like the Royals were laying off pitches more. They seemed to have better plate discipline. I'm not sure the data are there to support this, but a deep dive is necessary to understand more. Again, by Baseball Savant data, the Royals swung at 47.5% of pitches during the regular season. This number was 47.1% in the playoffs. In general, the Royals were about as aggressive as they normally are.

During the regular season, of the pitches at which the Royals offered a swing, ~43.1% were outside the strike zone. That number is ~48.5% in the 4 games of the playoffs. Only 29.5% of those playoff swings outside the zone resulted in a ball in play, though. 33% of those outside the zone swings resulted in balls in play during the regular season. Of all pitches outside the strike zone, the Royals swung at 35.6% of them in the playoffs (O-swing%). During the regular season, that number was 34.4%. It appears that the Royals didn't make an adjustment here. When they decided to swing, they still swung at a bunch of pitches outside the strike zone.

Yet, the Royals took 15 walks for an ~8.6% walk rate, assuming I did the math right (BB/(AB+BB+IBB+SH+SF)). It's 9.7% if you include the 2 IBB in the numerator there. That's a 2.3 percentage point increase from their regular season rate (6.3%), which includes IBB, and would have ranked tied for third among all teams in walk rate during the regular season. It's possible that the increased walk rate is explained by 1) the lower percentage of balls in play on swings outside the zone, and 2) seeing slightly more balls in 3 ball counts. It's also possible the increased walk rate is explained by random variation and sequencing. It's also possible that the Baseball Savant zone definitions are the problem.

Another explanation is that the distribution of these swings is not representative of the regular season. Of those 15 walks, Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, and Billy Butler have 12. What I mean by this is that the free swingers have been even more free-swinging than normal (Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, and Omar Infante have each seen increased O-swing rates in the playoffs) whereas the disciplined ones have been more disciplined. The result is the same overall numbers as the regular season but a more extreme distribution. The table below compares the three guys mentioned above, plus one another surprise.

Name Season O-Swing% Playoff O-Swing%
Eric Hosmer 38.0% 28.3%
Alex Gordon 27.9% 26.9%
Billy Butler 34.2% 23.7%
Mike Moustakas 35.9% 25.8%

Eric Hosmer you're my hero.

I think we have to talk about Mike Moustakas. You'll see Moustakas in the table above. He's also swung at fewer pitches outside the zone but has only 1 walk. In addition, he's been shifted on. I'm sure you remember seeing the graphics on TBS showing where each player was, and then them trying to adjust the spotlights as the players moved. Good times.

Anyway, the book was out on Mike Moustakas. He pulls the ball a bunch, so shift on him. Another theme is that Moustakas has been going the opposite way in the playoffs in attempts to beat the shift. Let's look at each at bat resulting in contact, not completely in chronological order.

1--lines out to LF

2--flies out to LF

3--single on line drive to LF

4--homer to RF

5--flies out to CF

6--ground out to SS

7--weak ground out to C

8--bunt single down the 3B line!

9--ground out to SS

10--flies out to LF

11-homer to RF

12--ground out to 3B, which only a perfectly positioned David Freese could field

There were only 2 instances in which he pulled the ball. Both went over the fence. So, Moustakas adjusted by trying to go the other way, and he's benefited from it. I loved that bunt single against the shift.

So there's some information about scouting and adjustments. Trout was scouted, determined to have a weakness up and in, and the Royals exploited it. Trout couldn't adjust back. The Royals were scouted, determined to swing outside the zone a lot, and this weakness was attacked but not completely exploited. The Royals' better hitters adjusted and covered the flailing ineptitude of the other guys. Mike Moustakas' weakness was scouted, attacked, and not exploited because he adjusted.

The Royals are winning the game of adjustments.

Also known as baseball.