When Lucas Giolito used heat maps to cool off Nelson Cruz

If you haven’t yet listened to the last episode of the Sox Machine Podcast, in which Josh interviews Codify Baseball founder Michael Fisher, I’d recommend doing so now. Besides it being a great discussion, it’ll pay dividends in the future, because with Liam Hendriks, Yasmani Grandal and Lucas Giolito all being on board, it’s not like we’re likely to hear about it all less from here on out.

If you hate spoilers, come back to this post in about 40 minutes…

… because there was a tangent off a discussion between them about Giolito’s next breakthrough, which Fisher said could come off the curveball he’s trying to redevelop. Josh said that if Giolito could manage to tunnel it with his other two main pitches, hitters would have no choice but to adopt Nelson Cruz’s method of hunting fastballs.

The mention of Cruz sparked a tangible example for Fisher:

FISHER: Cruz is actually a great example of how these maps work. He makes it — I don’t want to say “easy,” because there’s nothing he does to really come off that way. But Cruz has kind of a one key swing, and he’s not going to go up there and grab that up-and-away pitch, or bend his knees down and try to golf one out. He’s going to swing a certain way, he’s going to decide if he’s going to swing, the bat’s going to go through a pretty tight area, a foot and a half or whatever it is, and that’s what these maps show. You’re kind of screwed if you miss, as we know, that’s why we’re talking about Nelson Cruz. But there are areas to abuse Nelson Cruz if you can execute. Lucas had a game where he had eight swinging strikes against Nelson Cruz in one game. No one did that against a batter anywhere, and certainly not Nelson Cruz. He had a road map, and he had the skill — the tough part — the skill to execute, and humbled a great hitter that day for sure.

NELSON: I remember that game. Folks in Minneapolis were wondering if Cruz was hurt —

FISHER: No…

NELSON: — because they never see him struggle that bad.

FISHER: If you go back and look at where those eight pitches were, they were perfectly executed. Never say never, but Nelson Cruz is not going to hit those pitches with his swing. He’s not going to change it. He knows how he gets paid. Again, that’s what these maps are good at fishing out.

At Fisher’s suggestion, let’s go back and revisit that game.

* * * * * * * * *

The date was Aug. 31, and ironically, the start was far from Giolito’s finest work. He had big command problems early, and a three-error second inning didn’t help. He fell behind 3-0 due to those two factors in the second, then hung a slider to Miguel Sanó for a massive solo shot to fall behind 4-0 before he finally settled down to get through five innings.

Fortunately, the White Sox were prohibited from losing to a left-handed starter in 2020, and Max Kepler flubbed a fly in the ninth inning to make the winning run possible.

It’s a sign of Giolito’s stability as a force that even a mediocre five innings boasted impressive features underneath it. The box score shows eight strikeouts against one walk, which is nice. The Baseball Savant game feed shows 24 whiffs out of 94 pitches, which is even better. His changeup accounted for half of those swings and misses, as one might expect.

Cruz, as Fisher mentioned, accounted for one-third of those swings and misses. One would assume, based on the portions of unsuccessful swings they represented, that there would be some mixing of those two buckets o’ whiffs.

One would be sorely mistaken.

Here’s the pitch chart for all 13 of Giolito’s offerings to Cruz that night, with the swinging strikes singled out.

That’s the map of a guy who struck out three times and didn’t come close to putting a ball in play. One might see a silver sombrero for such an accomplished hitter and call it a bad night. But when you see the way Cruz’s at-bats unfolded, he looks like a guy who was gloriously overmatched.

Here’s the first at-bat, in which Giolito gets Cruz to swing over two sliders, take two sliders, then swing under a fastball up and away.

Here’s the second battle, where a Giolito paradiddle — fastball, slider, fastball, fastball — results in a backward K after a whiff, whiff and foul back on the first three pitches.

And here’s the third strikeout, which sees Cruz lay off only one of four sliders low and away.

That’s eight swinging strikes on 13 impeccably executed pitches, and none of them were his signature changeup.

It’s not like Giolito’s changeup was a stranger to righties. While many pitchers avoid throwing offspeed pitches to same-sided hitters, Giolito threw it to righties roughly a quarter of the time.

Cruz, however, only saw three changeups from Giolito out of 36 pitches in 2020. He didn’t hurt any of them — two weak grounders to the left side, one pitch out of the zone — but he also didn’t swing over any of them. That maintained the theme from 2019, when Giolito tried 13 changeups over the course of 53 pitches. Giolito did get one strike swinging, and a well-timed one that sealed a shutout …

… but he also gave up one homer.

In Giolito’s defense, Cruz had already homered on his fastball and curve that night, so there was no harm in going for the trifecta. He also had plenty of company that year, as Cruz clubbed eight homers and drove in 24 runs in only 16 games against White Sox pitching. That history is what made Giolito’s success against Cruz last August so staggering.

When you look at both extremes — eight swinging strikes in one game, three homers in the other — a heat map virtually dances in front of your eyes over the video. As Fisher said, you can see how Cruz’s one very good swing struggles against certain locations that aren’t all that small. You can also see how Cruz’s one very good swing demolishes pitches that gravitate toward the middle of the zone. You can imagine Giolito’s feathery elevated changeup not paying the usual dividends, and why it might be nice to have seen other options vividly illustrated — especially if you have the talent to hit those spots on such a regular basis.

(Photo by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire)

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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asinwreck

Josh’s conversation with Michael Fisher was truly informative, and makes me very curious to see how Yasmani Grandal calls games over (what I hope turns out to be) a full season. Will he order heat maps for the entire staff?

denny

Are Cease, Lopez, Kopech, Crochet, Stiever, et al open to advocating this tool?

HallofFrank

Yeah, this was my thought, too. Something like this is almost useless to Cease, at this point. As I understood it, Codify is only *really* helpful if the pitcher has the command to hit the blue targets. Cease needs a fix before this will be much use.

raylewis67

I love this anecdote—but it does cool me off a little bit on the prospect of signing Cruz!!

Soxfan2

Lucas is a top 10-15 pitcher in baseball. He has both the stuff and command to make Cruz look silly. Fortunately for Cruz, he doesn’t have to face guys like Lucas all too often. I’m still very high on Cruz but knowing the Sox luck on old DH types…

raylewis67

I’m also an optimist by nature so I want him on our team, but if there is a road”map” for 2021 Cruz to look like 2020 EE, it’s this.

HallofFrank

I had the same thought. Cruz has still mashed and executing is still a problem for pitchers. But there seems to be more buzz about Codify and an increase in Codify customers could spell issues for Cruz—though I still absolutely believe in his ability to crank mistakes.

Eagle Bones

ZiPS has been folded into the depth charts on FG. Sox move another win clear of the twins.

https://www.fangraphs.com/depthcharts.aspx?position=ALL&teamid=4

mikeyb

ZIPS projects Giolito to be the best pitcher in baseball. Perhaps I was misguided when I suggested it might be prudent to hold off on his extension until after the 2021 season.

dwjm3

We really need another significant piece going by those metrics. We are good enough to win the division but not good enough to win it all.

HallofFrank

While I’d be happy for an addition, I’ll take 2nd in the AL according to ZIPS projections—and 1st in the Central by more than 2 wins—every year.

texag10

So if I’m reading this correctly (which I’m probably not), Eloy splitting time between LF and DH is just as valuable as Moncada next season?

I mean, I kind of get it. We only have one elite year as a data point so the projections are going to be pessimistic but damn…

Last edited 1 year ago by texag10
Willardmarshall

Wonder how much it would be worth to Cruz not to face Giolito again…

As Cirensica

Underrated

tommytwonines

Get Cruz to swing at sliders low and outside and put him away with a fastball high middle-outside.

LoveLittleLouie

Interesting analysis. However, unless I am missing something the pitch charts are reversed images.

LoveLittleLouie

Thanks, Jim. But no home plate shows up on the charts on my screen.