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 he’d made between the first and second innings, and here’s what he told me:
In the first inning Bruce was throwing a lot of fastballs, and the Cubs were jumping on those pitches. As I’ve already mentioned, in some spring training games, pitchers don’t always throw the real deal at the opposition. They might have something they’re 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 inning—when he wasn’t throwing everything he had—and Bruce gave up two earned runs in four innings. (Both were home runs, one on a cutter that he didn’t get far enough inside and another on a curve.) As Bruce said after the game, pitchers don’t 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 outing—the ability to limit the damage—is important. When you’re going good, the numbers take care of themselves. What you do when you’re not going good—when you’re scuffling—makes a big difference.
Last spring training, Bruce might not have felt as much need to adjust: if you know you’ve 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 helps—they know what Bruce can do and aren’t likely to panic over a bad outing, but Chen has a couple more starts down here, and if he’s 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 hitter’s 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 mentioned—hitting the ball to the opposite field—cures a lot of problems. Hitting the ball the other way keeps the front shoulder closed, forces the hitter to wait on the pitch—which improves pitch recognition—and still doesn’t 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 Hurdle—his hitting coach in Texas—if he had any message for Francoeur.
Hurdle’s 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 pitch—it doesn’t work that way. That’s why the guys who constantly look for a pitch on the inside part of the plate are called dead-pull hitters: they’re 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 he’s unlikely to drive it. He’s 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 he’s got to start by looking away.
In case you were wondering, here’s the explanation of a “rollover” grounder. A rollover grounder occurs when a ball is hit too close to the point where a hitter’s hands roll over. A hitter’s swing starts with the bottom hand palm down and top hand palm up. At some point in the swing, the hitter’s 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 front—too close to the rollover point—or 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 Saturday’s game against the Cubs with a routine groundball to second—which Dyson’s speed turned into a close play. When Dyson’s 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 doesn’t matter. (As I was writing that line, Jarrod tripled to left center, so let me amend my statement—if Dyson hits the ball in the air, his speed doesn’t matteras 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.