How pitching and defense work together

03/24/2013 8:02 AM

05/20/2014 10:41 AM

There was a moment in Friday’s game against the Angels when James Shields had Erick Aybar on third base with less than two down and Albert Pujols at the plate. Pujols pulled two foul balls down the third base line—one of them almost decapitated Aybar—before Shields got Pujols to ground out to Mike Moustakas at third.

Here’s the important point: Shield was trying to get the ball hit to third base.

With less than two down and a runner on third, if the infield is playing back, a groundball up the middle will score the runner. Unless the offense has the contact play on—a play in which the runner breaks for home when the batter makes contact—a runner at third might freeze if the ball is hit to a corner infielder; they’re standing closer to home plate. Shields got the groundball he wanted, but Aybar broke for home and the game situation dictated Moustakas take the out at first base.

In that case it didn’t work out the way Shields hoped, but be aware that the pitcher and the defense are working together to get the hitter out. If the pitcher is going to pitch the batter away, the defense will play the batter to hit the ball to the opposite field. If the defense isn’t positioned correctly, the pitcher can make the pitch he wants and still see the ball hit through a hole. If the defense is standing in the right spots, but the pitcher misses location, once again the ball can get through.

Saturday morning, infield coach Eddie Rodriguez was huddling with Shields to make sure they were on same page. Later, Eddie said it’s tough to get that done in spring training; pitchers might be working on something and not yet concentrating on getting the ball hit toward the defense. Plus, the pitcher might throw six innings while his third baseman only plays five. It’s hard to get coordinated when you’re playing with minor leaguers.

Each day, Eddie gets a report on how the pitcher plans to work each hitter and then uses that information to position the infielders. Down here in spring training, the defense also has to adjust to the playing surface: Arizona infields are rock hard and fast. Once the season starts, Eddie will have to adjust his positioning; some major league infields—like the ones in Texas and Chicago—are much slower. Infielders have to position themselves differently in different stadiums, and what they did here in spring training will need adjusting once the season starts.

Bottom line: if they pay attention and work at it, the defense should get better as the year goes on—they’ll know each other and the pitchers better and that will allow them to do a better job of positioning. Watch the infield reposition itself as each batter comes to the plate and then, when a ball is right to a second baseman who just moved five steps to his left, a routine play becomes something special.

Turning the double play

Saturday morning they had the second basemen out for early work. Eddie Rodriguez was feeding balls into a pitching machine, the second basemen were coming across the bag receiving the ball and then completing the double play by throwing to Chino Cadahia. The goal of the drill was for the second baseman to keep their feet moving: catch the ball, tag the bag and then step to third base side of second and make the throw to first. Keeping the feet moving also keeps the second baseman in a better position: it allows him to move out of the runner’s path and makes for a better throw. Get stagnant—get to second base and stop moving—and now you’re in line with the runner and less likely to make a good throw from a stationary position. Next time you see a 6-4-3 double play, pay attention to the second baseman’s feet.

Francoeur’s home run

Like I said yesterday, Jeff Franceour hit a monster shot on Friday afternoon against the Angels. The ball cleared the centerfield wall, 420 feet from home plate, and then went over the batter’s eye—a big green wall they put in dead center to give the hitter a good background for seeing the ball. The batter’s eye was maybe five or ten feet behind the centerfield wall and later I was told it was 35 feet tall. I’m no good at geometry, but we’re talking about a looong home run—plus nobody saw how far beyond the batter’s eye the ball landed.

Moments before Francoeur’s shot, Eric Hosmer had cleared the 420 sign with a home run of his own. Hosmer said he was about three high fives into his dugout celebration when Francoeur blast got everyone’s attention and stole Hosmer’s thunder. Everyone deserted Eric and went over to high five Francoeur. I asked Jeff if he’d ever hit one farther and he said no. Once some guys hit a home run, they come to the plate looking to go the other way. They know the pitcher might stay on the outer half of the plate to try to rob the hitter of his power, so the hitter is willing to accept an opposite field single to go along with his home run. So I asked Jeff what he was thinking in his next at-bat. I got big grin and this answer: “Bomb.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll probably say it again: on the baseball field, Jeff Francoeur is a gambler. At times he’ll go for broke on swings, throws and catches. To some degree, Jeff needs to reign in the impulse to gamble and the fact that he’s talking about concentrating on hitting the ball the other way means he recognizes the need to adjust. But if those gambles never paid off, Francoeur wouldn’t keep doing it. And once in a while, those gambles pay off in monster home runs.

Pay attention: when you see Jeff down in the count, you’ll often see him going the other way—at least that’s the plan—but when he gets into a good hitting count, you might see him try to hit the ball out in front. And if he does, you might see something special.

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