Judging the Royals

The Jose Abreu home run against the Royals: how good hitters have good at-bats

Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu (left) was congratulated by Melky Cabrera after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
Chicago White Sox slugger Jose Abreu (left) was congratulated by Melky Cabrera after hitting a two-run home run in the first inning of Thursday’s game against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

One night a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… (wait a minute, I think I’ve drifted into the Star Wars opening, so I’ll try again.)

One night a long time ago, I found myself watching a ballgame in Charlotte, N.C. I was watching that game because a friend of mine, Russ Morman, was playing for the Charlotte Knights.

If the name sounds familiar it’s probably because Russ is a local boy and played in the big leagues with the White Sox, Royals and Marlins.

In the first inning, the Knight’s 3-hole hitter saw a first-pitch curve, swung and fouled it off. He then saw an 0-1 fastball, swung and fouled that off. After going 0-2, the 3-hole hitter eventually struck out.

Russ was up next, saw the same first-pitch curve, but took it for a strike. When the pitcher threw an 0-1 fastball, Russ banged it off the wall for a double.

Both hitters saw a first-pitch curve for strike one, but the 3-hole hitter swung at his and Russ didn’t.

After the game, I asked Russ if that was the difference in the two at-bats and he said yes. Russ then explained why: pitchers want hitters to swing at everything — up, down, in, out, fast and slow.

Trying to hit everything will keep the hitter in-between: a little late on the fastball, a little out in front on the off-speed stuff.

And that brings us — finally — to Thursday’s game against the Chicago White Sox.

Look at Jose Abreu’s at-bat

On Thursday, the White Sox beat the Royals and jumped out to an early lead when Jose Abreu hit a two-run homer in the first inning.

How Abreu he did it is instructive.

Abreu saw a first-pitch 92 mph fastball and took it. Possibly because it was down and in and with a runner on first base, that down and in fastball can turn into a 5-4-3 double play in a heartbeat.

Abreu then took a called strike on a 78 mph curve.

With the count 0-2 Abreu saw a 93 mph fastball up and in; and not having the luxury of taking another strike, swung and fouled it off.

Abreu then saw two curves off the plate — 79 mph and 78 mph — but didn’t chase them.

OK, if you’re sitting in the stands and not thinking about it too much, Royals pitcher Ian Kennedy appeared to be changing speeds on Abreu.

But remember: the only pitch Abreu swung at was a fastball.

Abreu did not screw up his fastball timing by swinging at off-speed pitches.

So when Kennedy came back with a 2-2 fastball, Abreu was right on time and hit it out of the park; and the fact that it was right down the pipe didn’t hurt Abreu’s chances.

Now look at the bottom of the first

Whit Merrifield led off and took a first-pitch 89 mph fastball for a strike. He then swung at a 77 mph curve and missed. He took a 91 mph sinker for a ball, then swung at a 91 mph fastball and fouled it off. With the count 1-2 Whit got an 81 mph slider, but swung and missed.

So in his first at-bat, Whit swung at a 77 mph curve, a 91 mph fastball and an 81 mph slider.

Three different speeds; three different trajectories.

And the same thing happened to Mike Moustakas. Moose saw and swung at: a 91 mph fastball, a 78 mph curve and an 81 mph slider and struck out.

Three different speeds; three different trajectories.

Lorenzo Cain saw a first-pitch 76 mph curve for ball one; then swung at another 76 mph curve and flew out to right field.

If Cain was looking for a curve that’s OK; but if he wanted a fastball, but swung at something else before he had to, that’s a good way to make an out.

Good hitters sit on pitches and won’t come off them

A while back, Alex Gordon was going good and catcher Kurt Suzuki — then with the Twins — talked about the game that was played the previous night and said Gordon sat on a fastball away and wouldn’t come off it. When Gordon finally got his pitch, he didn’t miss.

Kurt said hitters who swing at everything are easy to pitch to; hitters who sit on pitches are difficult.

You can throw the kitchen sink at those selective hitters and they won’t twitch a muscle, but give them the pitch they’re looking for and they’ll do damage.

But it can be more complicated than I make it sound

In his second at-bat during Thursday’s game, Abreu swung at a 1-0 fastball and fouled it off. Then — with the count 2-1 — Abreu swung at a slider and lined out.

Maybe Abreu knew something about what Ian Kennedy tends to throw in that situation, maybe Abreu was sitting location and not pitch, or maybe Abreu just brain-cramped and took a hack at a pitch he wasn’t planning on because the pitch was near the middle of the zone.

This stuff can get complicated.

But after that swing Abreu swung at nothing but fastballs for the rest of the day until the ninth inning when he had to swing at a Kelvin Herrera slider in an 0-2 count.

Look on the Royals side of the ledger and it’s not hard to find guys swinging at everything the pitcher threw.

I guess a hitter might be looking for a fastball on the first pitch, a curve on the second one and a slider on the third one, but it seems unlikely. And if a hitter tries three different game plans in one at-bat, the odds of pulling that off seem long.

It doesn’t mean a hitter can’t sit on an off-speed pitch because he knows that’s what he’s going to get, but you can’t sit on three different pitches or you’ll wind up in-between all of them.

And that’s what I learned watching a ballgame a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.