When people tell me they find baseball slow and boring, I tell them that there’s so much going on I don’t know where to look. Should I concentrate on the defensive positioning? As each new hitter comes to the plate, the defense moves. And if you can read those movements, you have a good idea of how the pitcher plans to pitch to that hitter.
Should I watch the base-runners? Are they taking good secondary leads? If I pay attention and a base-runner just goes through the motions, barely extending his lead when the pitcher throws the ball to home plate, and then is thrown out going first to third, I’ll know why.
How about the pitcher? With a runner on base, is he lifting his knee high (which helps him get more on the pitch), or is he slide-stepping?
When the pitcher barely lifts his foot and then delivers a pitch, that’s a slide step. It gets the ball to home plate more quickly, but it also can result in the ball being high in the strike zone. When you focus on the pitcher’s delivery, you notice how many big hits are given up when the pitcher is in the slide step.
I could go on, but you get the point. If you know what to look for, there are things happening all over the field. But if someone asked me the one thing they should focus on when watching a ballgame, I know what I’d say. Pay attention to the count.
Counts of 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and, depending on the situation, 3-2 can be considered “fastball counts.” That means the pitcher has to throw a strike, and his best chance of throwing that strike is with a fastball.
Fastballs are fairly straight and easier to control — but being fairly straight also means they are good pitches to hit. Every hitter wants to work himself into a fastball count (also called a “hitter’s count”), and every pitcher wants to stay out of one.
If a pitcher needs to throw a strike and the fastball is the only pitch he can consistently get over the plate, the hitters will be ready and jump all over them. That’s why it’s important for pitchers to be able to throw something other than a fastball for a strike. Either that, or stay out of those fastball counts.
If a pitcher can throw his off-speed stuff for strikes, the hitter can’t count on getting a fastball. Say the count is 3-1 and the hitter is thinking fastball. If he’s got some pop, the hitter might try to catch the ball out in front of the plate and try to pull it into the short part of the park, down the line.
If the pitcher throws the fastball the hitter expects, the hitter can do some damage. If the pitcher throws what looks like a fastball and then that pitch turns into a slider, the hitter can look foolish. He’s way out in front because he thought he would get something hard.
When a pitcher can throw off-speed stuff for strikes, lots of hitters have to back off. Everybody keeps records, and the hitters will be told this guy won’t necessarily throw you a fastball in a 3-1 count. Then hitters might not try to get the bat head out in front, and the pitcher might throw a changeup.
But if the pitcher wants to throw a fastball, there are a couple tricks he can use to get away with throwing it in a fastball count. One is adding and subtracting speed. Let’s say a guy works at 92 mph. He can then add and subtract. One fastball is 92, the next is 89, a third is 95. Just a few miles per hour one way or the other can destroy a hitter’s timing.
When you see a guy pop up a pitch then slam his bat to the ground, there’s a good chance the pitcher did something to throw his timing off. The hitter got his fastball in a fastball county but missed it.
Another tactic for getting away with a fastball in a fastball count is pretending to shake the catcher off. The catcher calls for a fastball in 2-1 count but gives the sign while shaking his head. He is telling the pitcher to shake his head as well — to pretend he doesn’t want that pitch.
The hitters then thinks, “It’s 2-1. I’m getting a fastball. Uh-oh. He just shook. Maybe this isn’t a fastball.” That bit of doubt can make the hitter miss a fastball by a fraction of an inch, which can be enough to get an out.
But this trick mainly works on young hitters. Guys who have been around a while aren’t so gullible. Veteran hitters have seen this trick before and don’t buy it. Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer once told me he had to warn hitters that when the catcher was shaking his head not to buy into it. The catcher is trying to get into your head.
OK, so fastballs in fastball counts are a big deal. How do you know when the pitcher threw one?
Check the scoreboard. Pretty much all major-league stadiums now show radar-gun readings. Once you identify a pitcher’s top speed, then look for something around 10 mph slower. The pitch with the top speed is the fastball. The slower stuff is off-speed.
Pay attention to the count and what the pitcher is able to throw in those counts and you will have a better idea of why one guy crushed a 2-0 pitch and another guy took a giant hack and missed. If you want to understand what’s happening on a baseball field, there are a lot of things you can focus on, but start by paying attention to the count.Ballpark quirks
The Royals open season Monday in Chicago and then go to Philadelphia. Chicago’s U.S. Cellular Field — the name just trips off the tongue, doesn’t it? — has a symmetrical outfield, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia has a corner that juts out in left-center field.
I asked Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz if ballplayers preferred symmetrical fields. Rusty said “absolutely.” Fans love ballparks with quirks, but ballplayers would rather have a game decided on their athletic skills, not on a ball doing something weird after it hits some outfield oddity.
Rusty said he had lost a game in Boston’s Fenway Park when the ball hit the ladder that comes partway down the Green Monster. The center fielder was coming over to back up the left fielder. The ball hit the ladder and shot sideways, back into center field, and there was no one there to field it.
If a ball hits that angle in Philadelphia’s outfield wall, the direction of the carom will change depending on which side of the angle the ball hits.
Odd configurations also can throw off outfield positioning. In Anaheim, the deepest part of the park is off-center, slightly toward left field. If Lorenzo Cain positions himself by looking at the wall, he will be too far toward left field. If Jeff Francoeur positions himself by looking at Cain, he also will be out of position.
Outfielders need to position themselves by looking at the infield. According to Francoeur, the same thing can happen in Baltimore’s Camden Yards. The outfield configuration can fool you, and you might drift out of position.
Ballpark quirks do give the home team an advantage — after all, they play 81 games there — but according to Rusty, most ballplayers would rather play the game straight up.
Next time you go to a ballpark, take a moment and look around. What features might come into play? How far is the backstop from home plate? What is the backstop made of? How about the dugouts? Is there a railing? If so, are the openings wide or narrow? How about dugout suites or photographer bays? How much foul territory is there? If the ball gets away from the first baseman, what will it hit?
Now check the outfield wall. What surfaces can a ball hit? What direction will the ball bounce? Any oddities like weird corners or angles?
If you look at a ballpark this way, you’re looking it the way ballplayers do. When one of those quirks comes into play, you won’t be surprised, but you might be disappointed.