I’m currently on my third cup of coffee and blearily staring at a computer screen. I’m trying to count how many hits Kris Medlen gave up to right-handed hitters Friday night. You’d think that would be simple, but right now the numbers and names are washing over me without leaving much of an impression. This week the Royals have played four games, and in those four games 59 runs have been scored.
That’s 14.75 runs a game.
Do you have any idea how long it takes to score 14 runs and how difficult it is to record three-fourths of a run? Maybe that’s when a guy makes it to third base and no further, and now that I say that, I can’t believe some sabermetrician hasn’t started using that stat.
In any case, take it from me, scoring a whole bunch of runs takes a while and means late nights for the people covering those games — that explains the three cups of coffee and my inability to count higher than three. So if I get something wrong, bear with me. But if I get something wrong I won’t be that far off and there will still be lessons to be learned. Here goes:
Kris Medlen is a right-handed pitcher, and yet right-handed hitters do better against him than left-handed hitters. Friday night was a good example: the lefties and switch-hitters in the Chicago White Sox lineup went three for 11 off him (.272). The right-handed Chicago hitters went nine for 15 (.600).
So what gives?
The changeup and the like-handed hitter
This probably felt like a long walk to a small pond, but we’re actually getting to the point I want to make. A reader wanted to know why right-handed pitchers don’t throw changeups to right-handed hitters and vice versa (lefty to lefty).
Here’s the answer: changeups tend to move down and toward the arm side of the pitcher.
So if I’m a right-handed pitcher and I throw a left-handed hitter a changeup, that pitch is moving away from the hitter. To hit that pitch well, a lefty needs to wait and hit the ball to left field. And unless it goes right down the foul line, that hit will probably be a single. Now assume I throw the same pitch to a right-handed hitter; the changeup is moving in on him — right into his nitro zone (assuming he has one). Now that changeup can be pulled to left field and hit a long way.
So a right-handed pitcher throwing a right-handed hitter a changeup better throw a good one. It has to sink enough to avoid the right-handed hitter’s bat. Make a mistake to a lefty and it’s a single, make one to a righty and the Royals are buying a new window for their Hall of Fame.
Now back to Kris Medlen
I’ve asked Kris if he ever throws his changeup to right-handed hitters and he said he does. If I counted correctly (a big assumption) Kris threw three changeups to righties Friday night. One resulted in a fly out, another was a ball and the third was hit up the middle for a single.
So if I’m a right-handed hitter, I’m not going to worry about seeing a Kris Medlen changeup. He might throw me one, but he won’t do it often enough to worry about. And that means in my mind, Kris becomes a two-pitch pitcher. He’s either going to throw me a fastball or curve and reducing his arsenal to two pitches simplifies my job immensely.
So if you want to know why Medlen does better against left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, here’s a decent theory: against lefties he’s a three-pitch pitcher (and Friday night he threw 16 changeups to them), but against righties he’s mainly a two-pitch pitcher.
But that doesn’t mean Medlen can’t make it work
I say Kris Medlen is a two-pitch pitcher against right-handed hitters with all the confidence of right-handed hitter who’s never faced Kris Medlen. Those two pitches can become four if Medlen does a couple different things with his fastball (he throws a two-seamer and a four-seamer) and a couple different things with his curve (some guys throw a hard one and a softer version).
Even so, left-handed hitters have more to worry about when facing Medlen than a right-hander in the same situation. In his career Kris has given up a .256 average to right-handed hitters and a .237 average against lefties. Next time Kris pitches pay attention to the scoreboard; if you see a pitch in the low eighties, that’s a changeup. Pay attention to what he throws to left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters and you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re watching.
But before you try to explain it to anybody else, get a good night’s sleep.