Most hitting philosophies have two parts: 1.) Before two strikes, get your pitch. 2.) With two strikes, get the ball in play. Failure to do either one when it mattered cost the Royals the ball game. The Royals put together three very good at-bats to start the second inning: Salvador Perez singled, Mike Moustakas saw nine pitches and walked, then Jeff Francoeur did the same. The Royals had the bases loaded, nobody out and Oakland A’s starting pitcher, Tommy Milone, on the ropes. Someone was up in the pen, Milone’s pitch count was already alarmingly high—the Royals appeared to be one hit away from chasing the A’s starting pitching and getting a shot at their middle relievers, the weakest part of any bullpen.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
Then Elliot Johnson chased a changeup.
With nobody down and the bases loaded, hitters often look for a pitch up in the zone. Hit the ball on the ground and there might be a play at the plate or, even if you do score a run, you might hit into a double play. The hitter’s goal is to get the ball to the outfield in the air, deep enough to score the runner on third. So if Elliot was going to get his pitch, it should probably have been a fastball and it should probably have been slightly up in the zone. Johnson chased a change-up (easy to do because they’re designed to look like a fastball), but he also chased it down in the zone. He did not get his pitch.
Former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer once told me accomplished big league hitters learn to swing and miss on purpose. When they realize they’re chasing a bad pitch, instead of adjusting to put it in play, they’ll intentionally miss: better 0 and 1 than 0 for 1. Elliot did not swing and miss, and instead popped the ball up to first base—a huge out. Milone had gone from being on the ropes to being a double play away from getting out of the inning, and he did it one pitch.
Next, Lorenzo Cain had an eight-pitch at bat, but took a called strike three. Lorenzo failed to do the second thing good hitting requires: he did not get the ball in play with two strikes.
Finally, Alcides Escobar made the third out of the inning by swinging at an 87-MPH fastball up and out of the zone—a little bit of both: he did not get his pitch or get it in play with two strikes. Milone was shot at and missed and would go on to pitch six innings and hand the ball to the back end of the A’s bullpen.
First inning: Alex Gordon had an 11-pitch at-bat and forced Tommy Milone to use a four-seam fastball, a two-seam fastball, a curve and a changeup before Gordon doubled. When a hitter has a long at-bat and forces a pitcher to use all his pitches early in a game, it helps his teammates. They know what the pitcher has from the scouting report and previous encounters, but they all want to see what the pitcher has that night. Gordon’s AB did that.
In the bottom of the first Coco Crisp just missed a home run down the right field line. When a hitter turns on pitch like that, it means he opened up quickly. Pitchers will sometimes throw the next pitch away, hoping to surprise a hitter still thinking about the home run and looking for another pitch to pull. Santana didn’t get the next pitch that far away, but it was still enough to catch Coco flat-footed and lock him up for a called strike three.
Second inning: In the bottom of the second Ervin Santana had a couple of strike outs on sliders. I’ve been told Ervin’s slider is tough because it stays on the same plane as his fastball for a long time. Apparently, some sliders are easier to spot; you can see the break on the pitch almost immediately. Santana’s slider appears to be a fastball until the last moment; then it breaks. Pitchers will tell you location and movement are more important than pure velocity, and late movement is best of all.
One of his strikeout victims was John Jaso. Jaso’s swing has a lot of moving parts and hitters who have a lot to do to get ready to hit have to start early—that makes them vulnerable to changes of speed. Guys who have a simple swing are harder to fool because they don’t have to start it so early. Look for the Royals to keep switching speeds on Jaso in an effort to screw up his timing.
Third inning: Alex Gordon was on first base and Milone’s move had Gordo going the wrong way when he delivered a pitch to home plate. That’s why Gordon didn’t get anywhere near breaking up the double play when Billy Butler hit into a 6-4-3. Even when a pickoff move doesn’t produce an out, it can shorten a lead and that can produce an out on a double play or when a runner tries to take an extra base. When there’s a close play on a pickoff, pay attention to what happens to the runner afterwards; if the guy is thrown out trying to go first to third, the pickoff actually worked.
Fourth inning: Salvador Perez doubled and Mike Moustakas moved him to third base with a deep fly ball; once again the Royals had good at-bats to set up an inning. Unfortunately, once again they did not have good at-bats once it was set up: Jeff Francoeur struck out and so did Elliot Johnson. Elliot saw a curveball and two changeups and swung at all three. It seems unlikely that he was looking for those pitches early in the count which means he wasn’t getting his pitch, and both he and Frenchy failed to get the ball in play with two strikes.
Fifth inning: Milone threw Alcides Escobar a 2-1 changeup and that helps explain what went wrong during this game. When a pitcher is able to throw an off-speed pitch in a fastball count, hitters need to adjust; they can’t try to catch the pitch out in front the way they would with a guy who has to throw a fastball when the hitters expect one. Trying to do some damage in fastball counts probably explains some of the pitch selection we saw during the game. Start the bat early to catch the heater, get a changeup instead and you’re going to look foolish.
By the way, Escobar popped up on the 2-1 change.
Sixth inning: Billy Butler was on first base when Mike Moustakas flew out to centerfield on a 3-2 change-up. Two things about that: it appeared Milone didn’t mind if he walked Moose and pushed Billy into scoring position. Billy on second base is less of a threat to score than Jarrod Dyson on second base (actually, right now they’re probably about equal), but a healthy Dyson might get Moustakas a better pitch to hit in that situation.
Second thing: it seemed like I’ve been writing a lot of F8s in my scorebook so I checked—the Royals have flown out to centerfield 11 times in the first two games, four times to left and three times to right. Some pitchers will use the big part of the park to get outs. Let the hitters hit the ball, but make sure they hit it to center—don’t let them pull it down one of the lines and get the ball into the short part of the park.
Seventh inning: The goal of every offense is to get the starter out of the game early and get a shot at middle relief; the weakest part of the opposing team’s bullpen. The goal of every defense is to have the starter go deep and get the ball to the back of the pen; the strongest relievers a team has. By not knocking Tommy Milone out early, when they had the chance, the Royals missed the chance to beat up on middle relief and allowed the A’s to use their best relievers in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
In the seventh inning they faced Ryan Cook who came in with a 1.93 ERA and left with an ERA of 1.83.
Eighth inning: The Royals faced Sean Doolittle, 1.00 ERA when he came into the game, 0.95 when he left.
Ninth inning: The Royals allowed the A’s to get the ball to closer Grant Balfour who started the inning with seven saves in seven opportunities and a 1.65 ERA, and finished the inning eight for eight in save opportunities and a 1.56 ERA. Failing to cash in on early opportunities against pitchers who are struggling and then hoping for late-inning heroics against pitchers who are dealing is not a good game plan.
122 pitches and I feel fine
Friday night James Shields threw 122 pitches and said he could have thrown another inning if he had to—he felt fine. A lot of managers will tell you that’s why you can’t let a pitcher decide when to come out of a game: first, they’re competitive people. If they had a bone sticking out their elbow and Godzilla came to the plate swinging a Louisville Slugger, the average pitcher would say: "I feel fine, I’ll get this dude."
Second: sure they feel fine now. When they’re loose and heated up, they could pitch another inning—but they’d pay for it the next day, the next start and maybe even farther down the road. (Remember Gil Meche?) Unfortunately pitchers do not have a pitch counter embedded in their shoulder s or elbows that the manager could check: "OK, you’ve got 12 more pitches left before you hurt yourself, you can have one more batter." So protecting a pitcher’s health is a guessing game and most managers figure it’s a bit like playing Russian Roulette—it’s always better to stop when you’re ahead. Better to pull the pitcher an inning too soon than an inning too late, a batter too soon than a batter too late and a pitch too soon than a pitch too late.
And managers usually talk to the catcher, he’s got a better idea of what a pitcher has left than anybody and that includes the pitcher—because he feels fine.