Last Saturday Greg Holland came in to pitch the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles. Kansas City had a 1-0 lead so Greg couldn’t afford to make a mistake. He needed three outs before the Orioles scored one run.
The inning started well; Holland struck out Steve Clevenger and was a third of the way home. Greg then walked Nick Markakis. Next, Manny Machado singled, then Holland struck out Adam Jones; two runners on, two outs. Chris Davis stepped to the plate and walked on four pitches; that walk pushed the tying run to third and the winning run into scoring position. But the inning and the Orioles threat ended when Holland struck out Nelson Cruz for the third out.
Holland faced six batters and walked two of them—why?
Take a look at the pattern: if Holland got strike one on a hitter, he went after him. Greg got strike one on Clevenger and struck him out. He fell behind to Markakis and walked him. Strike one on Machado and Holland pitched aggressively, but gave up a single. Strike one on Jones and Greg struck him out. Ball one to Chris Davis and once again, Holland issued a walk. With the bases loaded and the winning and tying run in scoring position, Holland had no more wiggle room and went after Cruz, striking him out to end the game. Afterwards Greg said he had a plan of attack for Davis, but when he didn’t execute it in the first two pitches—when he fell behind—he worked around the Orioles power-hitting first baseman.
At this level of baseball, not all walks are bad; when they have a base open, these pitchers will work around a guy who can hurt them.
Now look at Wednesday night’s game: Jeremy Guthrie walked Adam Dunn twice. The third time he saw him Guthrie gave Dunn something to hit and the White Sox first baseman lined it to centerfield. Dunn hit it so hard, Guthrie said it would have left the park had it been elevated. I asked if he was doing the same thing Holland was doing: pitching around Dunn if he fell behind him. Jeremy said he’d seen what Dunn could do the night before—his home run cost the Royals the game—and Jeremy said he wasn’t going to give in to Dunn. (That’s baseball talk for giving the hitter something to hit and hoping he hits it at someone.) In these two cases—Holland on Saturday and Guthrie on Wednesday—walking a better actually helped the Royals win.
Now let’s look at what can happen when a pitcher doesn’t work around a hitter:
On Tuesday night Aaron Crow faced Dunn with two runners on and the score 4-2. Aaron started Dunn with a first pitch fastball, 93 miles an hour and inside. Dunn crushed it; he hit the ball over the edge of the right-field upper deck and that was the last we saw of it. The ball looked like it was going to leave the stadium and land somewhere around Blue Springs. So you definitely didn’t want to give Dunn that same pitch out over the plate. But with the count 2-2, that’s just what Crow did. Dunn hit the ball over 420 feet for a three-run homer to centerfield.
Had Crow not given in—if he’d worked around Dunn and walked him—that would have loaded the bases. Had everything else stayed the same, when the next batter, Conor Gillaspie, singled, the Sox would have scored two runs at best and the game would have been tied after nine innings.
Pitcher Casey Coleman and I recently had a conversation about Greg Maddux. One of the best pitchers of our time told Casey he started having success against Barry Bonds’ teams when he finally stopped pitching to Barry Bonds. Maddux told Coleman a starting pitcher should pitch to the lineup, not the hitter. A reliever might have to go after whoever he faces; he might be in the game for one batter and he has to try to get that one batter out. But a starter had the luxury of working around certain hitters. Try to make your pitch and if you fall behind to a guy who can hurt you, to hell with it—walk him.
Because walking a batter can help a pitcher succeed.
Here’s today’s "Throwback" excerpt:
Hitting a batter
One thing I can't stand is a guy who gets hit by a pitch and stands there huffing and puffing. If a guy gets hit by a pitch—if he wears one—and then stands at the plate pointing at the pitcher and yelling, he's weak. The hitter just wants to look tough while he waits for his teammates to arrive. Guys who actually are tough? They don't wait around; charging the mound is a split-second decision, and they're just gone.
Here's the way I see it: if you get hit by a pitch and you think it was something personal, go get the pitcher. If it wasn't personal, walk your ass to first base.
Throwback book signing tonight
Jason Kendall and I will be discussing and signing our new book "Throwback" tonight. We’ll be at the Town Center Plaza Barnes & Noble at 7 PM. That’s 4751 117th Street in Leawood, Kansas. We hope to se you there.