threw a whole bunch of first pitch strikes.)
Throwing first-pitch strikes and staying ahead in the count means a pitcher can use all his pitches; not just the ones he can throw for strikes. Hitters want to get into fastball counts and limit the pitcher to one pitch; a fastball. Hitting is difficult when you’re behind in the count and trying to cover everything a guy throws; hitting gets easier when you’re ahead in the count and can sit on a fastball.
Just look at the one earned run Ventura gave up:
Carlos Corporan got a 2-0 fastball when he was looking for a fastball and hit it over the right field wall. Fortunately for the Royals—and Royals fans—Ventura mostly avoided fastball counts and had hitters swinging athis
pitches, not theirs.
And go back to that first number I mentioned: seven innings pitched.
That meant Ventura went deep in the game, avoided middle relief and handed the ball off to set-up man Wade Davis who then gave the ball to closer Greg Holland. Ideally, that’s how it’s supposed to work. Bring enough relievers into a game and you might find one who doesn’t have it that night. Be aggressive, throw first-pitch strikes, stay out of fastball counts and you can give the ball over to the two best relievers in your bullpen. That’s what Yordano Ventura did and that’s how he got his first win in the big leagues.
Royals 4, Astros 2.
The scoring started when Omar Infante got a fastball in a 2-0 fastball count. As promised pitching inside can be dangerous when the left field fence is only 315 feet away. Infante hit a 92-MPH two seamer into the cheap seats. Watch for more of this—the corners are short in Minute Maid Park. Miss inside and you might pay by giving up a home run in Houston when the same pitch would result in a long out in Kansas City.
In the bottom of the inning Ventura gave up a run when he made an error with runners on first and third. With Chris Carter at the plate Yordano tried to pick the runner at first, Jason Castro. Ventura threw the ball away and the runner on third—Dexter Fowler—scored. In the big leagues the decision to attempt a pick off is usually made in the dugout and passed along to the catcher. That’s why you see Salvador Perez look to the bench between pitches whenever he has a runner on base. The bench controls the running game and decides when the pitcher should try a pickoff, a pitchout or throw the ball out of a slide step.
The catcher makes a flipping motion with his thumb—the sign for a pickoff—and that lets the pitcher know the bench wants him to throw the ball over to first base. I watched the replay and never saw Sal make the sign to go over, but I also never saw Perez give Ventura a sign for a pitch. Maybe I need new glasses.
Nori Aoki saw ball four, but didn’t know it. Apparently Aoki lost track of the count—not good—but so did the home plate umpire. Someone had to alert both of them it was time for Aoki to take his base.
Eric Hosmer’s double off the top of the left field wall would probably be an out if he’d hit it in Kauffman Stadium. The K is 330 at the foul pole, but drops off quickly. A ball hit off the top of a wall 315 feet away would probably be caught on the warning track in Kansas City.
Like a lot of other teams the Astros were using some exaggerated defensive shifts, but it’s worth noting that those shifts limit what a pitcher can throw. If the only guy on the left side of the infield is the shortstop, throwing a fastball away to a left-handed hitter allows the hitter to take a shot at going the other way, through the undefended left side. On the other hand; if that left-handed hitter pullseverything
you can throw anything you want.
Billy Butler hit a sacrifice fly to score Nori Aoki from third base and gave the Royals their third run. Not that remarkable, but if we criticize players when they fail in situational at-bats, we should also give them credit when they succeed.
Sixth inning: Salvador Perez struck out on a called strike and had some words for the home plate umpire afterwards. Catchers have to be careful about complaining too much—they’re going to want the same pitch for their pitcher in the next half inning. Sometimes that’s exactly what they’re saying: make sure that’s still a strike when our
guy throws it.
Eighth and ninth innings:
The bullpen has come in for some criticism so, once again, when they succeed we ought to give them credit. Wade Davis and Greg Holland faced six batters and struck out five of them.
Three in a row isn’t a coincidence
When I first started managing amateur baseball games, I realized I didn’t know nearly enough about pitching. I spent some time talking about it with Clint Hurdle and the Colorado Rockies pitching coach, Bob Apodaca, and they gave me some guidelines to follow when considering a pitching change. Here’s one of them:
Three line drives in a row isn’t a coincidence.
That piece of logic came up again when former Royals pitcher Felipe Paulino told me he once faced three hitters in a row who all jumped on a first-pitch slider. Pitchers will sometimes throw "get-me-over" breaking pitches to start off an at-bat because they figure hitters are looking for first-pitch fastballs; they’ll spit on a first-pitch slider. But three guys hacking at his 0-0 sliders told Paulino that the hitters were looking for it—after that Felipe started mixing it up.
That brings us to Sunday’s game against the Twins:
Minnesota stole three bases off the Royals and each steal attempt came on an off-speed pitch. Off-speed pitches take just a bit longer to get to home plate so, if you can guess right, it increases your odds of stealing successfully.
But three steal attempts on three off-speed pitches might suggest the Twins weren’t guessing. Last season Joe Mauer had one stolen base attempt in 113 games and it was unsuccessful. Joe got his first stolen base of 2014 on an off-speed pitch thrown by Jason Vargas. There was no runner on second base when the Twins stole and in the big leagues pitches aren’t called from the bench, so the only way to steal a sign would be for Salvador Perez to leave his knees too wide as he gives signals. That happens to some catchers and in that case the runner on first can see what pitch is about to be delivered.
Some pitchers and catchers also fall into predictable patterns; if the other team knows you tend to throw a changeup after throwing a fastball for a strike, they can run on that pitch. Or the pitch can be tipped by the way the catcher sets up—you can’t put your throwing hand behind your back for a fastball and leave it out in front for a breaking pitch—teams will spot that. And the pitcher has to make sure his delivery looks the same on every pitch; someone is always watching and he might spot something before you’re even aware you’re doing it. But maybe there’s nothing to worry about—maybe the Twins just got lucky.
But three in a row might not be a coincidence.
"Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played" is an inside look at our national pastime, co-authored by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge. The book will be in stores on May 13th, but can be pre-ordered right now.