better than getting clobbered by mostly minor leaguers.
But it does bring up an interesting point about spring training numbers: they should be taken with a grain of salt about the size of a Brunswick bowling ball.
Lots of factors affect spring training numbers and big leaguers facing minor leaguers is only one of them. Even when it’s not a split-squad game, minor leaguers generally take over in the last few innings of a spring training game. That means the numbers put up early in a game mean more than the numbers put up in the later innings. Now throw in dry air—routine fly balls can leave the yard—and rock hard infields. A chopper can hit right in front of home plate, bounce all the way over the third baseman’s head and then land in left field for a single.
And sometimes pitchers aren’t throwing all their pitches. If a pitcher is facing a division opponent—a team he’ll see over and over again—the pitcher might not want to give them a preview of what’s to come. The pitcher might throw all fastballs and get whacked around while doing it. One year Bruce Chen was doing that and getting slapped around the Cactus League. Once opening day got a little closer, Bruce started mixing in all his pitches again and began putting zeroes on the scoreboard.
It’s easy to overreact to spring training numbers because everyone is jacked up about the season starting and there’s not a lot else to talk about. Just remember it’s a small sample size produced under unusual conditions. Spring training numbers aren’t totally meaningless, but you might not want to get too worked up about them.
But the later innings still have meaning for someone
Get to the eighth and ninth innings of most spring training games and you’ll see a lot of names you don’t recognize—the minor leaguers have taken over the game. You’ll see fans start to pack up and leave, but those innings still have meaning for someone: the players involved.
It’s a chance for minor league guy to show the big league staff what he can do. If a minor leaguer can make an impression, maybe it’ll stick in the manager’s mind. In Saturday’s game Royals minor leaguer Brian Fletcher made a good impression when he homered in the eighth inning. But you can also make a bad impression: minor leaguer Brett Eibner ended the game when he ran through third base coach Dale Sveum’s stop sign and was thrown out easily at home plate.
Reading the defense
When Billy Butler came to the plate the Cubs had the second baseman just barely to the right field side of second base—that left a Grand Canyon sized hole on the right side of the infield. When you see a big gap like that you know the defense doesn’t want the ball hit in that direction. So what pitch would Billy Butler hit to the right side?
A fastball away.
So when a Cubs pitcher threw Billy a fastball, it was inside. The hittable stuff out over the plate was off-speed; pitches that Billy would pull toward the over-loaded defense on the left side of the infield. Butler’s third-inning single came on an 85-MPH splitter that Billy sliced to right. It was a pitch that a lot of hitters would pull for a groundball out, but Billy had enough bat control to stay inside that pitch and take it the other way.
Remember: when you see a big gap in the defense the defense wants the ball hit elsewhere. Veteran ballplayers can look at a defense and have a pretty good idea of what pitches they’ll see. Spend enough time reading defenses and you might be able to do the same.
Danny Duffy’s pitch count
In Friday’s game Danny Duffy took 65 pitches to throw two innings. No matter how well a pitcher throws—and Duffy scuffled—if he can’t control his pitch count he’ll put too much pressure on the bullpen. A guy can be lights out for five and a third innings, but he’s still killing the pen.
Say a pitcher averages 15 pitches an inning; it’ll take him 105 pitches to get through seven innings. Seven innings gets the ball to the "back end" of the bullpen; the two best relievers on the team—the eighth-inning set up man and the closer.
But if a pitcher averages 20 pitches an inning; he’ll be out of the game after five innings and that exposes the middle relievers. Hitterswant
to face middle relievers. Tim Bogar, former bench coach for the Boston Red Sox, once told me that if the Sox could take pitches, have long at-bats and get the starter out of the game after five innings, they felt like they’d done their job—even if they were behind. They’d get a shot at middle relief. Then if the Red Sox could grab a lead before the eighth inning, the two best relievers on the other team probably wouldn’t ever get in the game.
Saturday morning Duffy said he knows he’s got be more efficient with his pitch count; it’s not just getting hitters out—it’s getting hitters out with a minimum number of pitches and going deep in the game.
The importance of keeping the double play in order
There was another moment worth mentioning in the first inning of Duffy’s start: with one down and a runner on first base, Oakland A’s hitter Derek Norris hit a ball toward the left-center gap. Left fielder Alex Gordon hustled over and held Norris to single. That meant the runner on first—Billy Burns—could only go first to third and it also kept the double play in order.
Duffy couldn’t take advantage of the situation—he hit John Jaso with a pitch and then walked in a run—but pay attention when an outfielder does his job and keeps the double play in order. Alex Gordon takes pride in this; keep the DP in order and the pitcher can get out of jam with one pitch. Fans will enjoy the double play, but often forget the outfielder who made it possible.
Salvador Perez and the out pitch
In that same Friday game Aaron Crow had a 1-2 count with runners on and then buried a pitch in the dirt. Pitchers will often do this on purpose when they need a strikeout. It’s called an "out pitch" or a "bastard pitch"—(hey, it’s not my fault if ballplayers cuss a lot). A pitch in the dirt is unhittable, but with two strikes hitters are going to be aggressive—a pitcher can get a swing and miss. But you can’t throw that pitch in the dirt if you don’t trust your catcher to block it. Salvador Perez blocked Crow’s pitch and kept it from going to the backstop.
Once again, when you see the out pitch remember it was the catcher who made it possible. If a catcher sucks at blocking, the pitcher has to keep the ball out of the dirt. The pitcher can look bad when that pitch he threw up in the zone gets whacked, but sometimes it’s the catcher’s fault; the pitchercouldn’t
throw the pitch he wanted to throw—the catcher might not block it.
Another wild Saturday night in Surprise
We’re staying in a condo about 100 yards from a Royals practice field. Each morning we get over to the baseball complex by the time the clubhouse opens at 7:30. I watch early work—today was cutoffs and relays—then watch that afternoon’s ballgame. By the time you finish a game story and find something to eat, the evening’s close to shot. So I’m sitting here finishing this post and wondering if there’s anything new on Netflix.
Tomorrow we get up at 6AM, go the complex and then head out for Peoria to see the Royals play the San Diego Padres. Check in tomorrow evening and I should have something new for you to read.
Talk to you then.