Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/14/14

There is no hitting A.J. Griffin this season. The 24-year-old rookie continued his remarkable run through the American League Wednesday night as he stifled the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim to the tune of eight shutout innings. The swiftly rising righty struck out six Angles against six hits and no walks. The dominant outing lowered Griffin’s ERA to 1.94 to go with an splendid 2.98 FIP.

The plan of attack for Griffin was a simple one: get ahead and stay ahead. The Angels seemed only happy to oblige.

Back on May 3rd, Brandon Morrow tossed probably his best start of the season, a three-hit shutout against the Angels with just three hits allowed. Morrow dominated by getting in pitchers’ counts (18 first-pitch strikes, 46 of 102 pitches in 0-1, 0-2 or 1-2 counts), largely thanks to the Angels taking just three swings against his first pitches — and one was a foul bunt.

The Angels used a similar approach against Griffin on Wednesday and generated similar results:

Los Angeles hitters took just six swings at Griffin’s 29 first-pitch offerings. Most strikingly, they let his 90.9 MPH (average) fastball by nine times while swinging just twice, producing two foul balls. The fastball as a whole generated a not-in-play strike (called, swinging or foul) 34 out of 70 times, keeping counts consistently in Griffin’s favor.

Staying ahead keeps Griffin’s entire arsenal in play. A 90-92 MPH fastball loses much of its effectiveness without off-speed pitches — in Griffin’s case, including a 70.4 MPH average curveball — to keep hitters from jumping on the fastball. Observe, Griffin’s pitch selection by count coming into Wednesday’s start:

This graph shows pitch type by count — the number of balls is denoted on the top, strikes on the bottom. Therefore, the second column shows 0-1 pitches, the fourth shows 1-0, etc.

In Wednesday’s start, we see much the same pattern. Griffin will start a hitter out with any pitch; after that, the curveball, cutter and changeup come out to play in 0-1, 0-2, 1-1 and 1-2 counts but are largely stashed when Griffin falls behind:

Four of the Angels’ six hits came on two-ball or three-ball counts; three of them came on fastballs. Griffin only threw 20 fastballs in these counts; he threw 50 fastballs in zero-ball or one-ball counts and allowed just one hit.

Griffin mixes things up enough on his first pitches to keep hitters guessing, and he’s accurate with everything he throws. Entering Wednesday’s start, 62.1% of Griffin’s first pitches went for some kind of strike, including 42.9% called strikes. A fantastic 60% of his non-fastball first pitches remained in the zone as well. Griffin’s breaking stuff has the kind of movement that makes hitters want to take pitches — his curveball has generated whiffs on 35% of swings and his cutter on 27.5% of swings, both a full standard standard deviation better than average.

His control presents opposing hitters with a zugzwang as soon as they enter the batter’s box. Hitters can look to swing on the first pitch to avoid falling behind but be confronted with an unpredictable pitch mix and devastating breaking stuff. Or, they can wait, hoping for a ball, but watch as Griffin peppers called strike after called strike only to be confronted by the same devastating breaking stuff in a two-strike, must-swing situation.

The kind of situation that leads to this:

The thought process behind the Angels’ approach against Griffin on Wednesday was understandable — get into a hitter’s count, where his fastball can be beaten. Unfortunately for the Angels, Griffin’s pristine control has made most at-bats a no-win situation, and Wednesday was no different.

Graphics made with Tableau Public. PITCHf/x data from JoeLefkowitz.com and Brooks Baseball


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