If you’ve been a Royals fan for a while, you know they struggle with pitchers they’ve never seen before, and luckily, they’re not the only team with that problem.
Tuesday night Eric Skoglund made his big-league debut and beat the Detroit Tigers.
Hitters will tell you watching video doesn’t cut it; you don’t know for sure until you stand in the box and face a pitcher live.
Skoglund went 6 1/3 innings, allowed two hits, no runs and punched out five batters. Before he was pulled in the seventh inning, Skoglund faced 22 batters and if I counted right, half of them took a called first strike; which is not a bad strategy against a nervous rookie.
But if he had nerves, Skoglund managed to hide them; taking pitches didn’t help the Tigers, Skoglund only walked one batter. And taking pitches meant a lot of Detroit hitters were starting off behind in the count.
When a hitter has never faced a pitcher before, he’ll ask what the pitcher’s “out” pitch is; in other words, once the pitcher gets two strikes on the hitter, what does he throw to get the hitter out?
Once Skoglund got two strikes on a Tigers hitter, he continued to throw all three pitches; fastball, slider and curve. That meant the Tigers weren’t sure what to look for in a two-strike count and that meant Skoglund had an advantage.
But that advantage is unlikely to last
Wade Davis — a very smart pitcher — once talked about facing a rookie and how once the rookie had enough at-bats, the “zone would fill up.”
Pitchers get charts that show hot and cold spots in a hitter’s swing and after enough trips to the plate, those hot and cold spots fill up. Then every pitcher in the league has a better idea of how to pitch that hitter.
The same thing happens to pitchers.
The smartest coaches and hitters in the world will study Skoglund and look for patterns; the more he pitches, the easier the patterns will be to spot and once they find those patterns, the hitters will have a better idea of how to attack the Royals rookie.
They’ll adjust to Skoglund and if he wants to stay in the big leagues, Skoglund will adjust back.
Just look at Justin Verlander
Facing a pitcher for the first time isn’t easy and if that pitcher is Justin Verlander, facing him for the 41st time is no walk in the park either; Tuesday night Verlander threw seven innings and only gave up a single run.
Before and after the game Royals hitters talked about Verlander and the adjustments he’s made over the years.
In his rookie season Verlander’s slider averaged 83 mph and his change-up averaged 82. This year, Verlander’s slider is averaging 90 mph and his change-up is averaging 88. And when Verlander has to throw a fastball it might be 91 and then — when he needs it — Verlander will hit the gas and catch hitters off-guard by throwing it at 96.
After the game, Eric Hosmer talked about how some pitchers will have two game plans: one for righties and one for lefties. Watch how a teammate gets pitched and you have a pretty good idea of what you’ll see.
But Hosmer thought Verlander had been around long enough to have nine game plans for nine hitters and those game plans changed as the night wore on.
In their first at-bats: Mike Moustakas saw sliders in, Hosmer saw change-ups away and Brandon Moss saw curves.
In their second at-bats: Moustakas was still seeing sliders in, Hosmer saw sliders in off the plate, fastballs and a change-up away and Moss saw fastballs.
It was hard for hitters to find a predictable pattern. This is how a pitcher stays in the big leagues for 13 years; he keeps adjusting.
In Hosmer’s third at-bat, Verlander tried yet another approach — he threw high fastballs, got Hosmer to chase one of them and then, with the count 2-1, threw a slider that was either supposed to be in on Hosmer’s hands or nip the outside corner.
Luckily for Hosmer and the Royals, the slider did neither: it wound up in the middle of the plate and Hosmer had an RBI single, the only run scored all night, the only run the Royals would need.
With an ace on the mound, should you be passive or aggressive?
Before the game, a couple Royals talked about how you go after a guy like Justin Verlander.
One theory is to be aggressive early in the at-bat and put the ball in play before he gets to his secondary pitches. Over his career, hitters who put Verlander’s first pitch in play hit .332. But if you put that first pitch in play and don’t get a hit, you keep Verlander’s pitch count low and allow him to pitch deeper in the game.
Damned if you do.
The other theory is you take pitches and try to run Verlander’s pitch count up and get him out of the game early. But if you take the first pitch for a ball, after that hitters have put up a .246 average; if you take the first pitch for a strike, after that hitters have put up a .208 average.
And if Verlander figures out you’re taking pitches — and he will — he’s going to pour in strikes and, being a 120-pitch guy, might make it through seven innings anyway. Let Verlander have his way for seven innings and you now have six outs with which to win a ballgame.
Damned if you don’t.
Enjoy the moment
If you’re a Royals fan, so far this season there have been more downs than ups, but Tuesday night was a definite high.
Fans got to see a rookie’s dream come true and it doesn’t get a lot better than that. Next time he pitches the hitters will make adjustments and Eric Skoglund might have different results, but nobody can take away May 30, 2017, a night to remember.
So enjoy the moment.
OK ... as they said in “Bull Durham”: the moment’s over.
Wednesday night it’s Ian Kennedy vs. Matthew Boyd, game time is 7:15.