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(News Focus) Third time is charm for hitters, not for pitchers, in baseball postseason

2016/10/24 09:06

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- Two games into the second round playoff series in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), the third time has been the charm for hitters but not so much for starting pitchers.

The NC Dinos and the LG Twins have combined for three home runs, and all three of them came with the hitters facing the starters for the third time in the game.

In Friday's Game 1, LG's cleanup Luis Jimenez gave his club a 1-0 lead with a solo blast off NC starter Eric Hacker in the seventh inning.

In the eighth, No. 8 hitter Chung Sang-ho came to the plate for the third time against Hacker, and he too hit a solo shot for a 2-0 lead.

Those two long balls would have stood as the difference, if the Dinos hadn't rallied with three runs in the bottom of the ninth for the 3-2 walk-off win.

A home run did decide NC's 2-0 victory in Game 2 on Saturday, and it also came in the seventh inning, with No. 6 hitter Park Sok-min facing LG starter David Huff for the third time.

Park turned on an inside fastball for the decisive two-run homer, as the Dinos went up two games to none in the best-of-five series.

Previous statistical research and analysis suggest these events may not be merely coincidental, though they certainly seem like it.

In his 2013 article on BaseballProspectus.com, a website devoted to statistical analysis of baseball, Mitchel Litchman wrote pitchers tend to get hit more often each additional time they face the opposing lineup, not just because of fatigue but because of familiarity. In sum, the more a batter sees a pitcher's repertoire, the more likely he is to get a hit off that pitcher. And this is referred to as the "times through the order penalty," or TTOP, in the analytics community.

Park Sok-min of the NC Dinos watches his two-run home run against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization postseason game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Korea, on Oct. 22, 2016. (Yonhap) Park Sok-min of the NC Dinos watches his two-run home run against the LG Twins in their Korea Baseball Organization postseason game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, South Korea, on Oct. 22, 2016. (Yonhap)

Take Park's game, for instance. Park made Huff work from the beginning and saw everything in the left-hander's arsenal before going deep.

In his first time up, Park battled Huff for seven pitches before flying out. Four of the pitches were four-seam fastballs, two were changeups, and one was a two-seam fastball.

Park saw six more pitches in his next at-bat, as he grounded out to second. Huff offered him two cutters to start off, and then gave him three straight four-seamers before getting him out on a changeup.

In the fateful third trip to the plate, Park went down 0-2 after a cutter and a changeup. Huff threw two more cutters -- Park took the first one for a ball and fouled off the second one.

Park hit another foul, this time off a four-seam fastball. Huff then went back to the same pitch and got burned. Catcher Yoo Kang-nam set up inside, but Huff's pitch went over the fat part of the plate, at belt high -- right in Park's wheelhouse.

Park said he changed his approach during the at-bat, after noticing a certain pattern by Huff.

"I thought at first Huff would keep throwing me changeups to avoid an extra-base hit," Park said. "But he kept coming inside. So I decided to give up on a changeup and tried to sit on anything inside."

   Knowing how effective Huff had been in the game attacking the inner part of the plate, Park said, "I didn't want to be late on an inside fastball. I think the pitch was a mistake, and I knew I'd hit a home run as soon as I connected."

   Numbers over a longer haul paint a clearer picture.

In the KBO this year, hitters batted .285 when facing a pitcher for the first time in a game, with an on-base percentage of .358 and a slugging percentage of .421. The on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) was .779. But in their third time against the same pitcher, the KBO players hit .286/.362/.435 for a .797 OPS.

The difference was even more pronounced in 2015. The KBO hitters put up a .263/.338/.394 line for a .732 OPS in their first meeting against a pitcher but had a .799 OPS the third time by slashing .283/.361/.438.

In Major League Baseball (MLB) last year, hitters slashed .247/.312/.390 the first time against a pitcher, an OPS of .702. Then batting for the third time against the same hurler, the big leaguers batted .270/.330/.440, with a .770 OPS.

In that 2015 season, pitchers on the Tampa Bay Rays faced 893 batters the third time through a lineup, the fewest in the majors.

With first-year manager Kevin Cash in charge, this was in part to protect the club's young pitchers by restricting the number of their innings, and in part to avoid having those unproven arms face a lineup for a third time.

The Rays were tied for first place in the American League East as late as June 30. They eventually ended in fourth among five teams in the division but topped the AL in rotation ERA with 3.63.

They say familiarity breeds contempt. In baseball, it often leads to hits.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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