Top of the first inning: two runners on and one out, Billy Butler at the plate. Twins starting pitcher P.J. Walters threw Billy a cutter for a ball, a changeup for a strike and a fastball in the dirt. The count stood at 2-1. Had Walters thrown the fastball for a strike the count would have been 1-2. (Assuming Billy didn’t hit it and for the sake of argument, let’s say he didn’t.)
In a 1-2 count a pitcher has two pitches before he has to throw another strike and he can use those two pitches to try to throw a perfect pitch—something on the edge of the plate. But Waltersdidn’t
throw that fastball for a strike and in a 2-1 count a pitcher has to be more aggressive about throwing something in the strike zone. So instead of setting up on the edge of the plate, Twins catcher Ryan Doumit was set up pretty much right down the middle. To make matters worse, Walters threw a changeup and left it up in the zone—looking for something in the middle of the plate, Butler got it and hit the ball over the centerfield wall.
If you want to know how the Royals offense could look so lifeless Thursday night and so powerful 24 hours later, think about the pitchers. Thursday night Samuel Deduno was pitching ahead in the count and forcing Royals hitters to deal with a variety of cutters, curves and changeups thrown in hard-to-hit locations. Friday Night P.J. Walters and Anthony Swarzak were falling behind in the count and having to come into the strike zone with hittable pitches: Lorenzo Cain doubled on a 2-1 fastball, Mike Moustakas homered on a 2-1 changeup and Eric Hosmer hit his second home run on a 2-0 fastball.
Not to take anything away from the Royals hitters—they still had to hit the pitches—but when they say hitting’s contagious, remember; so is bad pitching.
*James Shields finally got his third win and—if I heard correctly—it was the first time the Royals have given him a lead since April 30th. Even though Shields has not been the winning pitcher, the Royals have won the last six games he started. Shields has been doing his job.
*The Royals gave up three runs Thursday night and suffered a depressing loss; the Royals give up three runs Friday night and have a big win. Obviously, nine runs make a difference, but that’s the point: for the most part, the pitching and defense have been steady and the offense determines what kind of night it is.
*In the fourth inning Justin Morneau pulled a ball between Eric Hosmer and first base and Brian Dozier pulled one between Mike Moustakas and third base. When you see that—a hitter pull a ball sharply down the line—a lot of the time you’re seeing an off-speed pitch that missed its spot. Morneau hit a curve and Dozier hit a changeup.
*Speaking of the fourth inning, James Shield needed a little help from his friends to get out of it. Shields gave up two runs and would have given up more without two highlight-reel catches by David Lough. The Royals defense is still in the bottom half of the league in terms of fielding percentage, but fielding percentage doesn’t take outstanding defensive plays that rob hits and runs into account. At the start of the season the Royals defense looked to be one of the best in the American League and lately they’re starting to look it. When a pitcher believes in the guys behind him, he’s more likely to pitch to contact.
*That didn’t happen in the seventh and eighth innings. With a 9-3 lead both Bruce Chen and Tim Collins walked people.
*In the seventh inning Salvador Perez called 14 straight fastballs: four at the end of Pedro Florimon’s at-bat, five to Clete Thomas, four to Joe Mauer and one to Ryan Doumit. The Royals got out of the inning without suffering too much damage—one walk and one hit—but calling the same pitch over and over hurt them not long ago.
In the June 25th game against Atlanta Perez called for three curves in a row against Jason Heyward and the third curve left the yard. That pitch made Tim Collins the loser and the Braves the winner. You can call the same pitch against a guy who is overmatched or keep moving further off the plate—but the 0-2 pitch to Heyward was way too hittable. Calling a bunch of fastballs in a row with Kelvin Herrera on the mound got him sent back to Omaha. A big part of pitching is changing speeds and sometimes that doesn’t appear to be happening.
*Once the Royals finish with the Twins, now 35-41, the road to the All-Star break gets tougher: two series against Cleveland, one against the A’s and a four-game series against the New York Yankees.
If you see a player or coach point to his eyes with two fingers, then swirl a finger in the air, he’s telling someone to "look around."
When things happen on a ball field they happen so fast there’s no time to think things through. One of the keys to having the right reaction under stress is "pre-deciding" what you’re going to do before the ball is ever put in play. Base runners need to look around and know where the defenders are positioned before the next pitch is delivered. Smart base runners think about what they’ll do on a line drive, ground ball or fly ball and then have a better chance of having the right reaction when one of those things happens.
When you’re at the park you can do the same thing: start by checking the outfield positioning. Here’s a common alignment you’ll see every night at the ball park: the pull side outfielder plays straight up, while centerfield and the off-side outfielder shift toward the opposite field. The pull side outfielder is playing where he is in case the pitcher hangs an off-speed pitch (because that’s where the ball will be hit), the other two guys are positioned for a fastball in play. This positioning means there’s a gap between the centerfielder and the pull-side guy. If a base runner knows that, it might mean he doesn’t need to wait to see if a ball in that gap is going to get down—he already knows that nobody is there.
How about depth? If the right fielder is playing extremely deep and the base runner is on first, he shouldn’t hesitate taking the extra base on a groundball single to the right side. Groundballs are the easiest to advance on, line drives might make you wait to see if they’re going to be caught and they tend to get there in a hurry. But if it’s a groundball single the runner on first should know the ball will take a while to get to the right fielder and the right fielder will still have a long throw to make when it does—the runner can probably go first to third.
Of course, everybody has to be on the same page: when I was playing amateur ball I’d learned to check outfield positioning and one day had a line drive hit over my left shoulder while standing at first base. I’d seen the right fielder playing over in the gap, knew he couldn’t get there and took off before the ball left the infield. Unfortunately, the runner on second base hadn’t done his homework, waited to see the ball drop before he took off and we almost arrived at third base at the same time. Royals third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez has a sign he uses for trail runners (he points at his eyes, the lead base runner and then makes a "maybe yes—maybe no" sign with his hands) to alert the trail runner to be careful not to run up the lead runner’s back. (The lead runner’s either slow or not a great base runner.)
Here’s another rule of thumb: if the outfielder fielding the ball is moving away from the base where the play will be made, a runner can probably take an extra base. If the outfielder is moving toward that base, the runner might want to shut it down. That’s why you see Alex Gordon hold so many possible doubles to singles—he takes routes that have him moving toward second base when he fields the ball.
Also pay attention to right and left-handedness: if the ball is on a fielder’s glove side, he’ll make a weaker throw than if it’s on his throwing arm-side. Glove side he has to reset his feet to throw—which kills his momentum—throwing-arm side he can catch the ball backhand and be ready to throw right away.
Here’s an example of how all this comes together: there’s a runner on first and a soft single is hit toward the left-center gap. The left fielder is right-handed and so is the centerfielder. If the ball is fielded by the left fielder, the runner can probably go first-to-third; the left-fielder’s going away from third and catching the ball on his glove side, he’ll have to make a pivot to throw the ball and he’ll be standing still when he throws it. If the centerfielder picks the ball up the runner might want to think about shutting things down; the centerfielder is moving toward third and fielding the ball on his throwing-arm side. All things being equal (and they never are, but I’m simplifying things) the centerfielder will make a much better throw than the left fielder.
OK, that’s one example and I’ve been writing for a page and a half. That’s why all this needs to be thought through before the ball is hit. If you know what’s happening there’s always plenty to see on a baseball field.