Key to Game One: Keeping Adam Jones in check

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

The Yankees and Orioles will open their best-of-five ALDS matchup tomorrow night in Camden Yards, which will be the first playoff game in the ballpark since 1997. The two teams split the season series 9-9 with the O’s scoring two more runs overall (92-90). They finished two games apart in the standings and were locked in a tight division race right down to the final game of the season. It should be a blowout on paper, but Baltimore has continued to exceed expectations all summer.

When the series opens Sunday night, left-hander CC Sabathia will be on the mound for the Yankees. It’s unclear who the opposing starter will be at the moment, but we’ll find out soon enough. Sabathia closed the regular season out with three dominant starts, allowing four runs total on 13 hits and four walks in 24 innings while striking out 28. He went exactly eight innings in all three starts. Sabathia made just three starts against Baltimore this season, allowing four runs in six innings twice (once in April, once in May) and five runs in 6.1 innings once (in September). He has dominated the Orioles throughout his career, pitching to a 3.12 ERA (~3.40 FIP) in 25 starts and 176 innings. These aren’t your older brother’s Orioles anymore though.

One of the biggest keys to Game One for Sabathia and the Yankees is stopping Adam Jones, Baltimore’s 32-homer center fielder. Stopping the other team’s best player is like, Captain Obvious stuff, but this is a little deeper than that. Jones is one of just six active players with at least 30 career plate appearances and an OPS over 1.000 against Sabathia, so he’s given him some problems in recent years. One of the remaining five players in Sabathia’s teammate, and only one other is on a postseason team…

Evan Longoria 50 14 3 0 5 9 10 3 .359 .500 .821 1.321 4 1 5
Alfonso Soriano 46 13 2 0 6 10 6 9 .333 .435 .846 1.281 1 1 0
Kevin Youkilis 46 14 3 2 2 5 7 8 .368 .478 .711 1.189 0 1 3
Miguel Cabrera 38 10 2 0 2 12 8 4 .357 .474 .643 1.117 3 0 2
Adam Jones 45 14 2 1 3 10 4 6 .341 .400 .659 1.059 0 0 1
Derek Jeter 31 13 3 0 0 2 2 4 .448 .484 .552 1.036 0 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/6/2012.

Those three homers have come in each of the last three years. Jones took Sabathia deep this past May (solo shot in a 1-0 count), last April (three-run shot in a 2-1 count), and two Junes ago (solo shot in a 0-1 count). Notice the strikeout and walks totals, just six whiffs (13.3%) and four free passes (8.9%). They’re far better than Jones’ career rates (19.3 K% and 4.8 BB%) in the admittedly tiny sample size. Let’s take a look at a strike zone breakdown of where the Baltimore center fielder does his damage and where he struggles against southpaws, courtesy of Joe Lefkowitz’s site

You can click the link for a larger view, but the gist of it is that Jones murders fastballs on the inner half and up in the zone. Catch too much of the plate with an offspeed pitch and he’ll crush that too, though most big league hitters will make pitchers pay for a hanger. TheĀ Baseball Prospectus Matchup Page shows us how Sabathia has pitched Jones in their 45 career matchups, and it’s pretty basic Sabathia stuff. Sliders down-and-in, changeups down-and-away, fastballs to both sides of the plate.

Given Jones’ strengths within the strike zone, Sabathia and the Yankees are better off pounding him away with fastballs before coming down-and-in with the slider (or burying a changeup). His spray chart against lefties over the last two years (via Texas Leaguers) suggests that Jones will reach out and poke outside pitches to right for a base hit, but he doesn’t hit for much power to the opposite field…

That career walk rate I mentioned earlier (4.8%) is an indication that Jones is not the most patient of hitters. Even this year, the best year of his career (to date), his walk rate was just 4.9%. Jones will help pitchers get him out, and in fact he’s swung at 40.4% of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone in each of the last two seasons. That’s the fourth highest rate in the game among qualified hitters, behind noted hackers Vlad Guerrero, Delmon Young, and A.J. Pierzynski. He will get himself out at times, but Jones isn’t an idiot. He’ll sit on the pitch if the Yankees keep throwing fastballs away, so expanding the zone and intentionally throwing some off the plate, especially later in the count, will be important.

Outside of Jones, two of the Orioles most productive hitters in the last month are left-handed — Chris Davis (190 wRC+) and Nate McLouth (125 wRC+). Sabathia should be able to handle both guys thanks to the left-on-left matchup and his vicious slider, but stopping Jones (and switch-hitter Matt Wieters for that matter) won’t be so simple. Sabathia has had some trouble with him throughout his career, and Jones’ tendencies suggest that staying away with the fastball before coming inside with the slider is the way to approach him tomorrow night. Much easier said than done obviously, location will be very important.