Let’s go over the math one more time: the average major league base stealer takes 3.4 seconds to steal second base, the average major league catcher takes 2.0 seconds to catch the ball and deliver it to second base, so the average major league pitcher needs to deliver the ball to home plate in 1.4 seconds or less to have any chance to throw out most base stealers. Keep that in mind as we go along.
Now let’s talk about the bottom of the eighth inning in Sunday’s game:
Both starting pitchers—the Astros’ Lucas Harrell and the Royals’ Luis Mendoza—were on their game. Both pitchers throw sinkers and both pitchers had hitters pounding the ball into the ground or, if they did manage to hit the ball in the air, hitting routine fly balls for most of the day. When a starting pitcher is dealing, your best shot at winning may be to wait him out and hope to do something against a reliever. When everyone’s right, the Royals usually have an advantage once they go to the pen—Ned Yost said he felt like he was in good shape once Mendoza left the game and he turned out to be right.
Luis Mendoza threw seven innings, gave up four hits, no runs and turned the ball over to Aaron Crow. The top of the eighth was a bit of an adventure—and E3 covered by a line drive double play that ended the inning—but Crow left the mound with the score still tied 0-0.
Lucas Harrell also threw seven innings, only gave up two hits, and turned a scoreless game over to reliever Hector Ambriz. Elliot Johnson started the eighth by lining out to right field and then Chris Getz stepped to the plate. Getz hit a grounder to second baseman Jose Altuve’s left and beat it out. Everyone in the park knew what was going to happen next: Getz was going to try stealing second base. First base coach Rusty Kuntz leaned in and reminded Getz that Ambriz had two deliveries to home plate: a big one (in which his knee would come all the way up) and a quick one (in which his front foot would barely come off the ground). The big one would take 1.6 to 1.7 seconds. The quick one would take 1.3
If Ambriz used the big delivery, Getz would steal the base easily. If Ambriz used the small one, it would take the Astros about 3.3 seconds to throw the ball home and get it back to second base. 3.3 seconds is a tenth of a second too fast for most base stealers.
Fortunately, Chris Getz runs a 3.2.
Getz broke for second, Ambriz used the quick delivery and Chris was safe—by about a tenth of a second. With Getz now in scoring position, Alex Gordon singled and Getz scored. Gordon advanced on the throw home and wound up on third, Eric Hosmer singled and Gordon scored an insurance run. Insurance runs are important, but the run that really mattered, the run that won the game, was scored by Chris Getz.
The Royals won this one by a tenth of a second.
Games within the game
Sometimes the best information I get about a game comes the next day. When a game ends, the media hustles downstairs to the interview room and clubhouse to talk to Ned Yost and the players about what just happened. They all realize they have a responsibility to the press and the public so they stick around and talk, but everyone just wants to get home at that point. They’ll give us what we need, but they don’t want to hang around and have a long conversation at that point in the day.
The next day they might feel differently.
Sunday morning I wanted to ask someone about patterns: does something happening three times in a row constitute a pattern? When in doubt, I find Rusty Kuntz; he comes out early and loves to talk baseball. I’ve told him I ought to pay part of his salary for the information he gives me and he says he ought to pay part of mine for making him think about baseball (neither one of us can afford it, so we let that drop).
Basically, the answer is yes: three of something in a row might constitute a pattern. Here’s an example from the Saturday night game against the Astros: their starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, threw a first-pitch changeup to David Lough to start the game. Bedard also threw a first-pitch changeup to the second hitter, Alcides Escobar. The third hitter, Salvador Perez, came to the plate and lined a first-pitch changeup back through the box and on into centerfield. My guess is Perez was looking for it—otherwise he pulls that pitch.
I asked Rusty about it and he said that the guy in the dugout (meaning George Brett) is getting the players to start thinking that way. What’s the pitcher doing? How’s he starting guys off? What’s he do when he gets ahead? Behind? With two strikes? Smart players are looking for patterns and if you spot one you have an advantage—at least until the opposition figures out you’ve spotted their pattern; at that point they’ll change it up.
In the fifth inning of Saturday night’s game, the Astros changed their approach: they’d been rolling over Ervin Santana’s off-speed stuff and pulling weak grounders. In the fifth inning Carlos Pena—a left-handed dead pull hitter—drove the ball more toward left center. Trevor Crowe—a switch-hitter up there left-handed—hit the ball to short. The Astros were trying to stay inside the ball and drive it the other way and the Royals recognized that. So, in that case, throw more fastballs and try to jam them up and force them to pull the ball.
In the sixth inning, Santana got Matt Dominguez and Marwin Gonzalez to pull the ball, but then the Astros started sitting on first-pitch fastballs. The Royals recognized that, Salvador Perez went to the mound to talk about it and Santana went back to first-pitch sliders and got J.D. Martinez to ground out to end the inning. Rusty said pitcher will continue to do something until you show them it’s not working. They might throw all fastballs until you show them you’ll hit one. They might start all lefties with curves until you either hit the ones up in the zone or lay off the ones breaking down out of the zone. Find a pattern; adjust. Figure out the other team has spotted a pattern; adjust back. This goes on for nine innings and most of us are unaware it’s happening.
And sometimes you don’t realize it’s happening until the next day.
Good time or bad time?
While we were talking about patterns and adjusting, Rusty Kuntz mentioned a play that took place in seventh inning Saturday night. Down 6-1, Carlos Pena tried to advance on a ball in the dirt and was thrown out rather easily by Salvador Perez.
So here’s the question Rusty posed: good time or bad time?
The answer is bad time. Down 6-1 it was a bad time to try to advance unless Pena was absolutely sure of making it. Had the Astros been up 6-1 it would have been a good time; you’ve got some breathing room, try to tack on an extra run if possible. Down 6-1 is a bad time to take risks, especially since Chris Carter hit a home run immediately after Pena was thrown out. If Pena had not been thrown out that would have made the game 6-3 instead of 6-2. Get within three and winning seems possible, especially if you have nine outs to work with. Down by four—later five—with time running out and coming back seems less likely.
So it’s not just what you do on a baseball field, it’s also when you do it. The same play in two different set of circumstances can be a smart play or a mistake. Saturday night, Carlos Pena made a mistake.