If you pay attention and know what to look for, any game — even a 12-3 blowout of the Minnesota Twins — has its interesting moments. Take Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki’s second-inning strikeout. Here’s what happened:
In the top of the second inning, Minnesota pitcher Trevor May threw 11 pitches; one of them was a fastball that Kendrys Morales hit halfway to Canada. (I actually don’t know which direction that ball was traveling, so maybe he hit it halfway to Iowa.) After that homer, the score was tied 1-1 — still anybody’s ballgame.
In the bottom of the second inning, Twins left fielder Oswaldo Arcia swung at the first pitch Danny Duffy threw. Arcia hit a fly ball to Alex Gordon, and after just one pitch Duffy was a third of the way through the inning.
When a hitter swings at the first pitch of an inning and doesn’t get a hit, he puts a lot of pressure on the hitters behind him. Kurt Suzuki was on deck at the time, and he was just about to prove what a smart ballplayer he is. After Arcia made an out on Duffy’s first pitch, you could have bet your bottom dollar that Suzuki would take pitches until he had at least one strike, maybe two.
Suzuki knew he couldn’t swing at the first pitch he saw, make an out and let Danny Duffy get two-thirds of the way through an inning on two pitches. Make two outs on two pitches and you just about guarantee the opposing pitcher a short inning and your pitcher no rest before he’s back on the mound. Send your pitcher out there while he’s still huffing and puffing and bad things tend to happen. An opponent’s rally can actually start in the half-inning before that rally.
So because Arcia went up hacking, Suzuki had to take some pitches — and it appeared that Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez also knew it.
That’s why they piped two 92-mph fastballs in for strikes: They knew a smart hitter like Suzuki wasn’t going to swing. After the count went 0-2, they tried to get Suzuki to chase a slider off the plate, but he wouldn’t. With the count 1-2, they threw another slider and Suzuki fouled it off. Next a 95-mph fastball (Danny pumped up the velocity knowing Suzuki was now in swing mode) and Kurt fouled that off as well. Then a slider for a ball, a curve for a ball and finally — with the count now 3-2 — a 95-mph fastball for a swinging strike three.
Because Kurt Suzuki did the right thing for his team and his pitcher, he forced Danny Duffy to throw him eight pitches and use a total of 12 pitches to get through the inning. This is an example of why you can’t just look at a box score and think you know what happened; there are bad strikeouts, but some strikeouts can actually be good at-bats that accomplish something.
This was one of them.
But it doesn’t work the same way with relievers
Suzuki took pitches for the good of his team; his team still lost, but at least he was trying to do the right thing. Smart hitters think about their starting pitcher and getting him the rest he needs between innings.
It may drive fans crazy, but there can be a method to a hitter’s madness.
When leading off an inning, smart hitters stay near the dugout and make the umpire call them over to the plate; it buys their pitcher just a bit more time to rest. You don’t stand right by the batter’s box and step in the second the opposing pitcher throws his last warm up pitch. Do everything you can — adjust batting gloves, step out for signs — to let your starting pitcher sit and gather himself for the next inning’s effort.
But it doesn’t work the same way for relievers.
Relief pitchers are usually only going to be out there for one inning, so you don’t take hittable pitches to allow them to rest. If your team has or is about to have a reliever on the mound, most of the time, you can go ahead and hack at the first pitch you think you can handle.
Appreciating what the hitter is trying to accomplish and when it’s good baseball to be passive and when it’s good baseball to be aggressive helps us understand the game as it’s played at the big-league level.
When pitchers need to be aggressive
One more thing before we leave this subject: Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez appeared to know Kurt Suzuki was going to take pitches to allow Trevor May to rest; they could be aggressive and throw fastballs down the pipe.
If you see a pitcher throw breaking stuff in this situation and fall behind in the count, that’s probably not very smart. The pitcher had a chance to jump ahead in the count and have a quick inning; he gave it away by throwing off-speed stuff to a hitter that wasn’t swinging.
Like I said, even 12-3 blowouts gave interesting moments.