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Inside the game: Curtis Granderson balances Ks with power

Curtis Granderson strikes out during the sixth inning

Curtis Granderson strikes out during the sixth inning of Game 1 of the ALCS. (Oct. 13, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

Curtis Granderson walks a thin line.

He must keep slugging homers to mask his propensity for striking out. He can't miss too many chances to drive good pitches, because when he does, his problems aren't hard to spot.

The Yankees endured one of these rough stretches on the way to an American League Championship Series meeting with the Tigers. After finishing 0-for-4 Saturday night, Granderson is hitting just .125 (3-for-24) in six postseason games, with one homer, two walks and a team-high 11 strikeouts.

"It's not like him striking out is something new, something we haven't seen," hitting coach Kevin Long said earlier this week.

For hitters such as Granderson, strikeouts aren't necessarily killers. Long and manager Joe Girardi have accepted Granderson's high strikeout rate as part of the trade-off for his power. Their perspective reflects a change within the game.

Once scorned, strikeouts no longer carry the same stigma. And for teams such as the Yankees -- who emphasize working long at-bats to wear down pitchers -- strikeouts are part of doing business. Deeper counts may lead to more whiffs, but they also increase the chance for walks.

Nevertheless, there is still such as thing as too many strikeouts.

Granderson has been flirting with that line the whole second half. When asked about Granderson's strikeouts, Girardi has often cited his on-base plus slugging percentage, or OPS. He's fine with strikeouts as long as Granderson's OPS remains healthy.

Granderson posted an .853 OPS in the first half but followed it with a .758 in the second. He experienced a big dip in hits (81 in the first half to 57 in the second), and walks (50 in the first, 25 in the second). Though his strikeout and home run numbers remained roughly the same, Granderson's issues with reaching base put the Yankees on the wrong side of the equation.

"In order to hit home runs, what do you have to do? You've got to get good pitches to hit," Long said. "When you expand [the strike zone] and you don't get good pitches over the middle of the plate, you're not going to hit home runs and you're not going to get on base. Really, it's as simple as that."

To remain productive despite the whiffs, Granderson must show excellent pitch selection. Until the final game of the ALDS -- when Granderson drilled his only homer of the series -- Long said his selection was lacking. After games, Long analyzes video of his hitters, keeping track of "chases." Until Game 5, Granderson led the team by chasing 16 pitches out of his zone. Chases lead to strikeouts.

But in Game 5, Granderson offered an encouraging sign, drilling a mistake into the second deck in right. "The main thing was you've got to stay aggressive in the strike zone," Granderson said. "You talk about the simple basics of it. If you swing at strikes, you can get a chance to be successful. If you don't swing at strikes, you're making it tough on yourself."

Right at home

When the Yankees signed Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers last winter, much was made about his transition from the National League to the more demanding American League. But he has made the move successfully by slightly changing his approach.

With the Yankees, 50.4 percent of his pitches have been fastballs, down from 60.8 percent in his final year with the Dodgers. Instead of heaters, he has thrown more sliders (30.4 percent this year compared to 21.1 percent last season) while also mixing in slightly more curveballs (5.6 percent this year to 4.6 percent last season).

That change in approach also coincided with a rise in his groundball rate (up to 52.3 percent from 43.2 percent) last year. It may help explain why Kuroda has enjoyed success at Yankee Stadium, where he went 11-6 with a 2.72 ERA partly because he kept the ball in the ballpark (12 homers).

"I don't know what the secret is to my success in this ballpark," Kuroda said through a translator. "But my style of pitching is to be aggressive . . . and I think that has pretty much determined the outcome of how I pitched here."


Strength vs. Strength?

The Tigers have no shortage of live arms, led by reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. The pitch staff ranks second in the league with an average fastball velocity of 92.8 mph, behind only the Rays.

But against the Yankees, the Tigers might want to think twice about getting too bold with those fastballs.

The website FanGraphs keeps tabs on how teams fare against certain pitches. According to their rankings, Yankees are far and away the best fastball-hitting team in the American League.

According to those same rankings, Curtis Granderson has done most of his offensive damage against fastballs, with Derek Jeter right behind him. On the bottom end of the scale: Alex Rodriguez.

New York Sports