Players usually have something they’re working on in spring training. Sometimes it’s just making the team. But if they’re already sure of being on the roster, it’s often something more specific. I asked closer Greg Holland what he had been working on this spring and he said, “Staying healthy.”
So far, so good.
Greg also has been working on throwing strike one — he said he hasn’t been so good at that — and pitching inside. Throwing strike one is a big deal because it puts the pitcher in the driver’s seat. When a pitcher is ahead in the count, he can throw any pitch he likes to any location he likes. And once the count moves to two strikes, the hitter has to expand his strike zone and cover any pitch in the zone and a few out of it. The hitter might not want to take a borderline pitch and count on the umpire’s eye.
If the pitcher throws ball one, he has some work to do if he’s ever going to get ahead in the count. When the pitcher falls behind in the count, he might have to limit his pitches to stuff he can throw for strikes (depending on the situation), and he can’t — or at least he shouldn’t — nibble at the edges of the zone. The hitter can zone down — shrink his zone — and get very selective. If he doesn’t like a pitch, the hitter can “spit on it” (baseball slang for refusing to swing).
Pitching inside is also a big deal. Holland said that when he gets beat it’s because he’s away, away, away. Pitchers like to pitch on the outer half of the plate — away — because it’s hard to hit a pitch on the outer half of the plate out of the park. Stay on the outer half and, unless the guy has unusual opposite-field power, he’s likely to stay in the park.
But continually pitch on the outer half — away, away, away — and hitters start to “dive.” They stride toward the outer half of the plate and now, as far as the hitter is concerned, that pitch on the outside corner is right down the middle. So Greg has to come inside — which might put a hitter on his backside — to demonstrate he’s not going to let hitters dive without paying a price.
Pay attention this summer. If Greg Holland — or any pitcher — is throwing strike one and pitching inside, good things should follow.Bunt defense
The other day, the Royals worked on their bunt defense. All the infielders took their positions. The pitcher pretended to throw a pitch and bench coach Chino Cadahia rolled a ball in front of home plate. The defenders converged on the ball.
The Royals want their catchers to be aggressive. If the catchet can make the play, he should. The pitcher is the last option. The Royals would rather have the ball in the hands of a position player. If you see a pitcher pick up a bunt, you should know the team would rather have someone else make the play.
But no matter who picks the ball up, the catcher makes the call on where the ball should go. The catcher has the field in front of him and has the best shot at making the right decision.
If the catcher picks up the ball, he should know what he wants to do with it. If someone else picks it up, the catcher calls out the base where the play should be made by using a number, for instance, “Two, two, two.” The catcher calls out the base in a loud voice so there’s no confusion. The guy picking the ball up has his head down, so he needs a little help on what he should do once he has the ball in his hands.
And as long as we’re denigrating pitchers’ athletic abilities …Why pitchers can’t hit
Most big-league pitchers were very good hitters at some point in their lives. When they weren’t pitching, a lot of these guys played a position and hit in the middle of the order for their high school or college teams.
But once they get to pro ball, pitchers and position players take different paths. Pitchers quit working on hitting. A position player and pitcher whose hitting skills weren’t that far apart when they became professionals have had vastly different experiences on their way to the big leagues. The position player has stood at the plate and seen thousands and thousands of pitches that the pitcher hasn’t.
And that brings us to bullpen coach Doug Henry.
When I told Doug that Kevin Seitzer said a good at-bat by a pitcher is one in which the pitcher doesn’t get hurt, Doug said, “See? That’s a hitting coach’s lack of respect for a pitcher’s athletic abilities.”
Then Doug told this story. When he was pitching in the minor leagues, Doug convinced his manager to give him an at-bat. Doug had talked about his hitting skills so much that on the last day of the season, his manager sent him to the plate and said, “OK, let’s see it.”
Doug watched two fastballs go by. The umpire then inquired if Doug was ever going to swing the bat, and then Doug finished his trip to the plate by watching yet another fastball down the middle for a called strike three. Doug said the pitcher was throwing 82 mph, but to Doug, after taking a year off hitting, it looked as though the pitcher was throwing 102.
It’s just as true of hitting as it is anything else. Use it or lose it. And pitchers just don’t use it.