Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

The Royals and the fastball count

03/30/2014 12:12 AM

03/30/2014 12:13 AM

If you want to know what’s happening on a baseball field, you’ve got to pay attention to the count. The count changes everything.

Here’s a rundown of the basics: 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and sometimes 3-2 are generally considered "fastball counts" although—like everything else in baseball—there are exceptions.

Fastball counts are counts in which the pitcher has to throw a strike and a fastball is his best chance of doing so. Fastballs are relatively straight and that makes them easier to throw for a strike, but it also makes them easier to hit.

Fastball counts are also known as "hitter’s counts" and pitchers want to stay out of them. A pitcher who stays out of fastball counts is pitching

ahead in the count and a pitcher who fails to stay out of fastball counts is pitching behind

in the count. Pitchers who stay out of fastball counts can throw any pitch they like because they don’t necessarily have to throw a strike.

Pretty basic so far, right? Well, here’s where it starts to get tricky.

Big league pitchers don’t always throw fastballs in fastball counts. There were times last season when young Royals hitters would get in a fastball count, gear up for a fastball and some veteran big-league pitcher would throw something off-speed. When that happened Kansas City hitters often found themselves swinging too soon and that meant they’d swing and miss, hit a weak grounder or pop the ball up. Big league pitchers—at least the ones who stick around a while—can throw any pitch in any count. So a veteran pitcher might actually

use

the fact that he’s in a fastball count to his advantage by throwing an off-speed pitch when the hitter is looking for a fastball.

To make it even more complicated the same veteran pitchers

might give hitters a fastball in a fastball count—as long as there’s no runner in scoring position. And here’s why: get a hitter to swing the bat and the odds are he’ll make an out. Even if the hitter gets a hit the odds are pretty good that hit will be a single. So a smart pitcher might play those odds and throw fastballs in fastball counts— until

a runner is in scoring position. That’s when you might see the pitcher get tricky; now a single can mean a run. Now a smart pitcher might go with his change-up or slider; pitches that can look a lot like a fastball when they come out of the pitcher’s hand.

If you ever wondered why teams get a couple runners on and then the rally fizzles, this is part of the explanation; once a runner is in scoring position, some pitchers change the way they pitch.

This season watch for those fastball counts and check the scoreboard for pitch velocity: for most pitchers anything around 90 miles an hour or above is probably a fastball, anything below is probably something off-speed. And while you’re checking velocity, look for pitchers who can "add and subtract". They’ll throw 94, 94, 94—get in a fastball count—and suddenly throw 91. Those missing three miles an hour can throw a hitter’s timing off.

So what should the Royals’ hitters do?

For starters, all hitters need to read the scouting reports and know what the pitcher tends to do in certain counts and certain situations. You can do the same thing: get on MLB.com and check out a pitcher’s last appearance. What did he throw in fastball counts? If he threw fastballs, did he vary their velocity? If he threw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, were there runners in scoring position when he did it?

If a hitter doesn’t know this stuff, veteran pitchers will take advantage of them. Smart pitchers will just keep going off-speed in fastball counts and let hitters get themselves out. But a smart hitter will know a pitcher’s tendencies and might look for something off-speed in a 2-0 count. This season if you see a Royals hitter crush a slider in a 3-1 fastball count, you may have seen a smart piece of hitting—or a guy who got lucky when he was looking for something else.

Either way, it’s worth watching.

The exceptions

In the first paragraph of this piece I defined fastball counts and then said there are exceptions. Here are some of them:

Lots of pitchers like to get ahead in the count with a first-pitch fastball. If a pitcher makes a habit of doing this it’s in the scouting report and hitters might stage an "ambush"—they’ll swing at that first pitch. But if the ambush doesn’t work—if they hit balls hard, but still make outs—the ambush backfires. The pitcher has two outs after two pitches and the third hitter has to take pitches to make the opposition pitcher work and let his own pitcher rest.

That brings us to another fastball situation: say one pitcher has a long inning, but it’s early in the game and he’s not likely to be pulled. His hitters have to stall and take pitches to let him rest. The other pitcher knows that and can throw fastballs down the pipe to get ahead in the count. If you see a hitter take a fastball over the heart of the plate, there might be a good reason; he’s letting his pitcher rest.

But if you see one guy throw 27 pitches to get out of an inning and then the other pitcher comes out and falls behind throwing junk, you probably just saw some pretty bad pitching; the second pitcher should know the hitters are taking and use the opportunity to get ahead in the count.

And here’s another one: if first base is open and the pitcher doesn’t mind walking the guy at the plate, he might refuse to throw a fastball in a fastball count. If the on-deck hitter is a better match-up, throw junk up there and work around the better hitter.

Pay attention to the fastball counts and what pitch is thrown in those counts and you’ll have a better understanding of the game.

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