Saturday, Bruce Chen gave up five home runs against the Cubs, three of them in the first inning. In the second inning, Bruce held the Cubs to two singles and looked much more in command of the situation. After the game I asked Bruce what adjustment hed made between the first and second innings, and heres what he told me:
In the first inning Bruce was throwing a lot of fastballs, and the Cubs were jumping on those pitches. As Ive already mentioned, in some spring training games, pitchers dont always throw the real deal at the opposition. They might have something theyre working on, like establishing their fastball on both sides of the plate. But the Cubs came out swinging and Bruce was getting whacked.
In-between innings, Bruce decided to change his approach and start mixing it up. Once he started changing speeds, Chen held the Cubs to two singles and no runs in the second inning. Eliminate the first inningwhen he wasnt throwing everything he hadand Bruce gave up two earned runs in four innings. (Both were home runs, one on a cutter that he didnt get far enough inside and another on a curve.) As Bruce said after the game, pitchers dont get to eliminate bad innings; but he felt like he made an adjustment and pitched OK after that. The ability to make an adjustment in the middle of a bad outingthe ability to limit the damageis important. When youre going good, the numbers take care of themselves. What you do when youre not going goodwhen youre scufflingmakes a big difference.
Last spring training, Bruce might not have felt as much need to adjust: if you know youve got a spot in the rotation, you might say to heck with results and keep working on locating your fastball. This year Bruce is fighting for a spot and has to worry about throwing up some zeros. Having a track record with the Royals helpsthey know what Bruce can do and arent likely to panic over a bad outing, but Chen has a couple more starts down here, and if hes going to nail down a spot in the rotation, the time to worry about results might be here.
I asked Jeff what he was working on this spring, and he talked about two things: being quiet at the plate and hitting the ball to the opposite field.
Catcher Jason Kendall once told me that if he looked up and saw the veins in a hitters arms, that guy was in swing mode: he was tense, jacked up and very likely to chase a pitch out of the zone. Jeff is trying to quiet down his swing, keep his head still and not jump at pitches.
The other thing Jeff mentionedhitting the ball to the opposite fieldcures a lot of problems. Hitting the ball the other way keeps the front shoulder closed, forces the hitter to wait on the pitchwhich improves pitch recognitionand still doesnt prevent a hitter from handling the inside corner. Look away, adjust in is a very old hitting philosophy. In fact, when Jeff joined the Royals, I asked Clint Hurdlehis hitting coach in Texasif he had any message for Francoeur.
Hurdles answer? RCF is the key.
Clint wanted me to remind Jeff that he should be focusing on right centerfield and everything else would take care of itself. A hitter who is looking to drive the ball to the right center gap can still pull his hands in and get to an inside pitch. But a hitter who is looking in cannot adjust to an outside pitchit doesnt work that way. Thats why the guys who constantly look for a pitch on the inside part of the plate are called dead-pull hitters: theyre probably going to hook everything to the pull side of the field. A hitter who is looking in might make contact with an outside pitch, but hes unlikely to drive it. Hes more likely to hit a weak rollover grounder.
Francoeur is trying to get back to the approach that worked for him in 2011. He may still pull the ball, but hes got to start by looking away.
In case you were wondering, heres the explanation of a rollover grounder. A rollover grounder occurs when a ball is hit too close to the point where a hitters hands roll over. A hitters swing starts with the bottom hand palm down and top hand palm up. At some point in the swing, the hitters hands roll over and the swing finishes bottom hand palm up and top hand palm down.
So when a pitcher says he got a hitter to roll over, he probably took something off and got the hitter out in fronttoo close to the rollover pointor he got a hitter who was looking on the inner half to chase something on the outer part of the plate. That will also make a hitter roll over and produce a weak grounder.
Jarrod Dyson started off Saturdays game against the Cubs with a routine groundball to secondwhich Dysons speed turned into a close play. When Dysons at the plate, pay attention to balls in play; everybody wants to hit line drives, but what happens when the hitter has to settle for something less? What happens when the hitter does not hit the ball on the nose?
If Dyson hits the ball in the air, his speed doesnt matter. (As I was writing that line, Jarrod tripled to left center, so let me amend my statementif Dyson hits the ball in the air, his speed doesnt matter as much. A good reminder not to speak in absolutes.) If Dyson can keep the ball on the ground, then he can make almost any play close.