Astute readers with the internet access necessary to read this article are probably aware that the Boston Red Sox will be meeting the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2013 World Series. They are also probably aware that it was Shane Victorino who played hero for Boston, delivering a game winning grand slam in the seventh inning. Before Victorino’s home run, it was a bit touch and go for the Sox.
The Tigers threatened a monster of a rally in the top of the sixth. With no outs, two runs already plated and runners on first and third, Jhonny Peralta grounded out into an…interesting…double play. Dustin Pedroia tagged Victor Martinez on his way to second before throwing home. Prince Fielder – caught in a rundown – desperately tried to make it back to third. He fell short.
Still, the Tigers did take a 2-1 lead in the inning. Between Max Scherzer and a strong bullpen, the Tigers must have felt good about their roughly 80 percent chance to win.
The Sox weaseled their way out of a second potential rally in the seventh. Austin Jackson singled with one out but was promptly picked off. Jose Iglesias followed with a hit and Torii Hunter reached base on an error. Unfortunately for the Tigers, the shell of Miguel Cabrera grounded out to end the inning. With the Tigers out of it, we’ll be left to wonder if things would have been different with a healthy Cabrera. And there’s no doubt that plenty of analysts will second guess Jim Leyland’s decision to continue to play Cabrera through injury for most of the season.
Having handled two potential rallies while keeping the game within reach, Boston’s offense got to work in the home half of the seventh. Scherzer was lifted after recording one out and allowing two base runners to reach. Drew Smyly was brought in to face Jacoby Ellsbury, but a costly error by Iglesias allowed the Sox to load the bases. With Victorino coming to the plate, Leyland brought in former Astros closer Jose Veras to limit the damage. Let’s just say that some moves work out better than others. After Victorino’s home run, the Tigers went quietly into the night.
But slightly different circumstances could have led to a very different outcome (that’s always the case in baseball, but bear with me). Prior to Game 5, Victorino made the decision to begin switch hitting again. Ostensibly, he wanted to counter Detroit’s difficult all-right-handed rotation.
Victorino has switch hit for his entire major league career, but gave up batting left-handed in early August due to injuries. Batting lefty against Anibal Sanchez, his first two at bats produced weak results – a strike out and a fielder’s choice. Victorino reverted to batting right-handed for his third at bat. Coincidentally, that resulted in a strikeout against Veras.
Since giving up batting left-handed, Victorino has had one of the most productive stretches of his career. August saw him post a .419 wOBA and seven home runs. Between August 4th and the end of the season, six of his 10 home runs came batting righty against right-handed pitching. He posted a .395 wOBA in 115 plate appearances against same-handed pitchers.
Victorino has always featured better power from the right side. His career numbers bear that out – a .204 ISO batting right-handed versus a .132 ISO batting left-handed. His power batting left-handed has been even worse over the past two seasons, although the sample size involved limits our ability to draw strong conclusions.
Given the numbers discussed thus far, it’s fair to wonder why Victorino bats left-handed at all. After all, he performed well in the regular season and provided postseason heroics without batting lefty. While it’s possible that Victorino may be better as a purely right-handed batter, it appears to be a trade off between power and plate discipline. He struck out over 21 percent of the time against same handed pitching compared with a rate around 12 percent against opposite handed pitching. His walk rate also halved against same handed pitching, falling from a little over five percent to 2.6 percent.
Over a small sample, that poor plate discipline didn’t adversely affect his numbers, but it’s quite possible that major league pitchers would find ways to further exploit Victorino by discovering where he’s weakest. Alternatively, it’s not hard to imagine that Victorino could improve those rates with practice, although it does seem a bit late in his career to work that out.
Had Victorino stuck with his plan from prior to Game 5, he would have come to the plate against Veras batting left-handed with the bases loaded. He probably would not have hit a grand slam. The Sox did have a 56 percent chance to win the game at that point and our hypothetical lefty batting Victorino may have added to those odds. But it probably would not have the 37 percent leap that his home run provided.
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