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ALDS Game 1 key matchup: Rick Porcello vs Carlos Santana

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For each playoff game this October, we will be focusing in on one key match-up. For Game 1, that is Sox starter Rick Porcello against Indians DH Carlos Santana.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Reviving a tradition that served this site well during the Red Sox World Series run in 2013, for each playoff game I will be zeroing in on one interesting match-up that could be pivotal. Since matchups in baseball are far more indirect than the literal version of one player guarding another in football, basketball and hockey, I'm taking the term in the broadest possible sense, looking beyond just pitcher-against-hitter match-ups and expanding the concept to anything and everything that seems interesting or relevant.

That said, there is one Game 1 hitter-vs-pitcher matchup that really deserves our attention tonight. Red Sox starter Rick Porcello has finally had the breakout season that the Tigers envisioned when he was first called up and that the Red Sox were banking on when they dealt for him and immediately locked him into a long-term deal. He led the game with 22 wins, ranked 15th by ERA and 8th by FIP and was the 5th most valuable pitcher in the game by fWAR, giving him a legitimate case for the Cy Young Award. With solid strikeout numbers and pinpoint control, he gives the Red Sox an excellent chance to take an early lead in the series, especially since he will not have 2014 Cy Young Award-winner Corey Kluber pitching against him.

While Porcello has been excellent all year and particularly strong in the last few weeks, he is well-known to many of the veteran Indian hitters and there one in particular who has had his number at times. DH/1B Carlos Santana has a .931 OPS against Porcello in 46 career plate appearances. Hitter vs. pitcher numbers like this are the extreme of small-sample, and, in this case, all but nine of those plate appearances came before 2014, when Porcello took a step forward performance-wise and inspired the Red Sox to deal for him in the first place. In fact, Santana has just one single and two walks against Porcello in those nine plate appearances since.

Their history against each other is interesting, especially since it tracks well with Porcello's progression as a pitcher, but it isn't what makes this matchup noteworthy. If Porcello is really a different pitcher now, a couple tweaks to his game are probably responsible for his improvement. His control is first and foremost among those factors, but he has also used his pitches in different ways than in the past. He favors his two-seamer (or sinker) now, just as he always has. But his four-seamer has been getting more and more use this year and with good reason.  Looking at data at Brooks Baseball, we can see that, more than ever before, Porcello has been climbing the ladder with his four-seamer. This fastball, when thrown up or above the zone, is one of his better swing-and-miss pitches and, when hitters have connected with it, they have had trouble squaring it up.

The Indians best hitter against righties is the switch-hitting Santana, who managed a 144 wRC+ against righties, hitting 30 of his 34 home runs against them. The Indians DH raked on high heat earlier in his career, but in 2016--a bounceback year for him--it was not as much of a strength for him, with his biggest power coming against pitches lower in the zone. One of the pitches he has had the most success against is the sinker and Porcello typically uses his sinker low-and-away to lefties, just where Santana likes them. That makes challenging Santana with high heat a viable strategy, just as it was for Madison Bumgarner against Yoenis Cespedes in the NL Wild Card Game. But unlike Cespedes, Santana is not an easy guy to get chasing after bad pitches - he has walked 15.5% of the time in his career and he very rarely expands the zone up.

These two players' strengths and tendencies make this a perfect game-of-chess style matchup. On one side, a pitcher with fantastic command, on the other a hitter with an elite batting eye. The pitcher likes to fool guys with high heat and keep them in check (and in the park) with low sinkers, but his opponent isn't fooled up in the zone and can crush the low ball.  The winner of this match-up will have gone a long way to neutralizing one of their opponent's biggest strengths and that might be enough to turn the tide of Game 1.