Going into the seventh inning of Saturday night’s game against the White Sox, the Royals were down 4-3. Then Christian Colon singled and Terrance Gore came out to pinch run; the White Sox pitcher was Chris Beck.
If three straight pickoff attempts are any indication, Gore’s presence on first base seemed to distract Beck.
And when Beck finally threw a pitch to home plate, it was a pitchout. Some base runners will take off right after a pitchout because they don’t believe the pitcher will pitch out twice in a row. That being the case Beck threw another pitchout; Gore wasn’t going and the hitter — Jarrod Dyson — was up 2-0. Then Beck tried another pickoff.
So Beck had made six throws; four to first base and two pitchouts. Not one of those throws had anything to do with the man at the plate; Beck’s focus was on Gore.
Beck threw another ball to Dyson and finally, with the count 3-0, Gore stole second base. (Some pitchers slow down their delivery on 3-0 pitches to make sure they throw a strike.) With Gore on second, Beck eventually walked Dyson and now he had the tying and go-ahead runs on base and both of them were a threat to steal.
Beck tried to avoid giving Whit Merrifield a hittable fastball, so he gave him hittable changeups instead.
With both runners going, Beck left what appeared to be 1-1 changeup in the zone and Merrifield doubled to the left-center gap. The Royals took the lead and went on to win the game 6-5.
In 2014, with 153 steals, the Royals hit .263, slugged .376 and had an OPS of .690. In 2015 opposing pitchers lowered their delivery times and Royals’ stolen base total dropped to 104, but the Royals hit .269, slugged .412 and had an OPS of .734.
So as their stolen base totals dropped, the Royals hit better; everything a pitcher did to stop a Kansas City base runner helped a Kansas City hitter. That aggressive base-running philosophy paid off in 2014 and 2015 and paid off one more time Saturday night.
If you don’t steal bases, you won’t get runners thrown out, but you also won’t get pickoffs, pitchouts and poorly thrown pitches from distracted pitchers.
A base-stealing threat can help a hitter.
What’s that weird thing James Shields and Wade Davis does?
Both guys came out of Tampa Bay so that’s probably got something to do with it; but as they come set both pitchers turn toward first base and take a good, long look at the runner. Davis says he’s got a pretty good idea of where every infield grass cut out is — they’re not uniform — so he’s using that to measure the runner’s lead. As he comes set Davis is checking the runner and deciding whether he needs to attempt a pickoff.
But here’s the mental challenge for a pitcher: if he decides to attempt a pickoff, 100 percent of his mind needs to be focused on first base, if he decides to throw a pitch, 100 percent of his mind needs to be focused on home plate.
If a pitcher throws a pitch while part of his mind is still thinking about the runner, it probably won’t be a very good pitch.
Just ask Chris Beck.
Set roles versus mix-and-match
A coach on another team once told me middle relievers were the biggest whiners in baseball. (Sorry, middle relievers, you know I love you, but I needed to repeat that to explain what I’m about to say next.)
So back to middle relievers and their whining.
Without a set role a middle reliever can always find something to complain about: he wasn’t given enough time to warm up, he was given too much time to warm up, he was left in the game too long, he was pulled too early, etc. and so on.
But if a reliever has a set role — you’ve got the seventh, be ready — it shuts him up and makes everyone’s life a little easier. He knows when to warm up and that he’ll face whichever hitters come to the plate in the seventh inning.
Start playing mix-and-match and things get a little more complicated.
In recent years Ned Yost has had the luxury of set roles. When you have a healthy Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland I’m pretty sure you could pull a semi-inebriated fan out of Rivals and he could manage the Royals from the seventh inning on.
But when you don’t have three lockdown relievers you have to get a little more creative. The lockdown reliever can face anybody; the reliever who doesn’t have that kind of stuff needs to avoid the guys who hit him well.
(OK, so far this is a long walk to a small pond, but I promise you we’re getting somewhere near the point I want to make.)
Saturday night Ned Yost had Kelvin Herrera pitch the seventh inning and gave Joakim Soria the eighth. Both pitchers went 1-2-3 and this morning Ned is being praised for flexibility and avoiding Soria pitching to the heart of the order; Melky Cabrera, Jose Abreu and Justin Morneau.
Instead, Soria faced Todd Frazier, Avisail Garcia and Omar Narvaez in the eighth.
Matchup numbers for relievers are ridiculously small and I’m not in Chicago so I can’t ask, but: Todd Frazier is 2 for 2 off Herrera and one of those two was a game-winning home run. The numbers weren’t a whole lot better for the Frazier-Soria matchup (3 for 6 with a home run), but the numbers were a little better.
So the point may have been to avoid having Herrera pitch to Frazier as much as avoiding having Soria pitch to the heart of the order.
If I get the chance I’ll ask about this when the team comes home. (And if any middle reliever objects to being called a whiner I’ll write their side of the story.)
Joakim Soria, correlation and causation
Soria pitched well Saturday night and pitched well on two days’ rest. The current theory being floated around is that Soria should not pitch on back-to-back days and more rest gives him the best chance of having a good outing.
The problem with focusing solely on Soria’s amount of rest is that it ignores every other factor that has an effect. For instance: who did Soria pitch to, what was the score, did he have an up-down and did he throw the right pitch at the right time?
On July 17, Soria gave up a home run and took the loss against the Detroit Tigers. He did it on one day’s rest, but throwing a down-and-in fastball to Jarrod Saltalamacchia batting from the left side probably didn’t help — wrong pitch to the wrong guy.
Soria’s amount of rest ought to be taken into account, but it’s not the only thing that matters. And that applies to what I wrote about base stealers and hitters as well; it’s a factor, but not the only factor.
Man, this game gets complicated.