Judging the Royals

Why Royals’ Matt Strahm needs to throw a slider

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Matt Strahm.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Matt Strahm. jsleezer@kcstar.com

One of the first things baseball fans learn about the sport we love is that left-handed pitchers excel at getting left-handed hitters out. And, like a lot of what we learn about the game, it’s not completely accurate.

(I don’t know how to break this to you, but the tie does not go to the runner.)

In 2016, left-handed pitcher Matt Strahm had reverse platoon splits: he got right-handed hitters out more easily than left-handed hitters — righties hit .118, lefties hit .292.

If Strahm is going to be given an important role at the back end of the Royals bullpen and someday be in the starting rotation, it would be a good idea to figure out how to get left-handed hitters out more efficiently.

Enter the slider.

Reverse splits and why pitchers have them

When a pitcher has reverse splits, one of the first questions you might ask is whether he has a pitch he throws to hitters on one side of the plate, but doesn’t throw to hitters on the other side.

In Strahm’s case (and a whole lot of other pitchers) it’s the change-up.

Pitchers are often reluctant to throw change-ups to like-handed hitters. If a lefty throws a change-up it’s likely to move down and to the arm side, and down-and-in to left-handed hitters is not a great location. Lefties tend to be low-ball hitters, so a down-and-in pitch, traveling at change-up velocity, is a pitch that can be hit a long way.

But if you throw three pitches and you won’t throw your change-up to a left-handed hitter, you suddenly become a two-pitch pitcher and left-handed hitters are going to have an easier time of it.

So a slider — a pitch that’s easily mistaken for a fastball — can be an equalizer when facing left-handed hitters.

Front door and back-foot sliders

Wade Davis once said if you can fool a hitter for just a split-second and his hips start to turn too soon, the hitter is done. Hips provide power and the hitter just gave all his power away.

So a slider away to a left-handed hitter is a great pitch.

If the hitter reads fastball, starts to fire his hips and then realizes he’s dealing with a slider, all he has left to hit with are his hands and arms. He can throw the bat at the ball, but even if he hits it, the ball isn’t going very far.

But slider away isn’t the only way to throw one.

You can also throw a front-door slider: start the pitch at a left-handed hitter’s front hip, get him to move his backside out of the way and raise his arms to avoid getting hit and when the pitch moves back over the inside corner of the plate there’s nothing the hitter can do about it. He’ll be forced to take a called strike.

And Strahm can throw back-foot slider to right-handed hitters: start the pitch in the zone, but low, and when the hitter starts his swing the slider dives out of the zone toward the hitter’s back foot.

But to throw sliders away or front-door sliders or back-door sliders, Matt Strahm needs to master his feel for the pitch. And once he does that, Strahm can throw sliders anytime and anyplace he likes.

And left-handed hitters will be in trouble.

Home runs are not hit on good pitches

Every so often a pitcher will give up a home run and then claim it was hit on a good pitch.

So I asked Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland if he thought home runs could be given up on good pitches and he suggested I watch some baseball highlights: most of the home runs I’d see would be on pitches right down the middle.

Once in a while someone like Miguel Cabrera might hit a home run on a good pitch, but there aren’t too many players like Miguel Cabrera.

The vast majority of home runs are hit on mistake pitches ... and don’t let any pitcher tell you differently.

In spring training games why do coaches sit on chairs outside the dugout?

Coaches sometimes sit on chairs outside the dugout because there’s not always enough room inside the dugout. If you let your starters play two-thirds of the game and have minor leaguers along to finish things up, that’s a lot of players.

So coaches will sometimes sit outside the dugout.

And some coaches like it because they get a better view. Dave Eiland confirmed that, but then headed for the dugout. Dave said that’s where he’ll be in regular-season games and you should “practice like you’ll play.”

This spring, during a game with the Royals, a coach on the other team took a foul ball to the face and teams around the Cactus League started putting protective screens in front of those chairs.

But you still couldn’t pay me to sit that close to home plate.

I watch games from several stories up, but every once in a while a foul ball still makes it into the press box. To be honest, I don’t want any part of a hard object, moving at high speed and ricocheting around the room.

I don’t know if that makes me smart or chicken and frankly, I don’t see why I can’t be both.

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