Judging the Royals

A baseball fan’s guide to situational hitting

Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler walked back to the dugout after striking out in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
Kansas City Royals outfielder Jorge Soler walked back to the dugout after striking out in the fourth inning of Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

When you lose a game 1-0, you can find a whole bunch of plays that might have changed the outcome.

After the Royals’ loss to the Indians on Sunday, Danny Duffy tried to take the blame because he didn’t catch a line drive up the middle. That line drive scored the Indians only run.

But when a starting pitcher gives you 6 2/3 innings and allows only one run, the problem might lie elsewhere.

Today we’re going to focus on the fourth inning and Jorge Soler’s strikeout.

Runner on third, less than two outs

With one down in the fourth inning, Eric Hosmer walked and Salvador Perez doubled. The Royals had a chance to grab the lead and they didn’t need a hit to do so.

But they did need a ball in play.

In this situation — runner on third, less than two outs — the pitcher wants a strikeout or a pop up on the infield.

The hitter needs to get the ball in play and where the infield is positioned defines what kind of ball in play it needs to be.

If the infield is in, the hitter wants to get a fly ball to the outfield for a sacrifice fly and that usually means finding a pitch up in the zone.

If the infield is back, a groundball up the middle will do the trick, but the hitter needs to lay off pitches he might send down the third-base line; hit the ball to the third baseman and the runner can’t score.

So that’s the situation and here’s what happened on Sunday:

Indians pitcher Mike Clevinger threw Soler a first-pitch change-up down in the zone; a pitch hard to get in the air and likely to be pulled to the third baseman.

It wasn’t the right pitch to get the job done, but Soler swung anyway.

The change-up was fouled off and Clevinger then threw a fastball inside to make the count 1-1.

Clevinger then went back to throwing off-speed pitches — pitches likely to be pulled to the third baseman — and Soler went back to hacking.

With two strikes, Soler might have passed up his best pitch to drive the run in — a borderline fastball away — but Clevinger had Soler looking in, so he took that fastball away.

Soler eventually took a curveball for a called strike three.

The Indians got what they wanted — a punchout with a runner on third and less than two outs — and the Royals’ best chance to put a run on the board was wasted.

It was at this point in the game that I decided to write about situational hitting.

Knowing what the hitter is trying to do and what the pitcher is likely to throw to prevent that, makes the game more interesting. Or in some cases — when your team doesn’t execute — more depressing.

Either way, it changes how you watch baseball.

Runner on second base, nobody out

As long as the run matters, the hitter is trying to hit the ball to the right side of the field so the runner can move over to third base. The hitter wants to keep the ball on the ground because the runner will have to freeze on a line drive or fly ball.

The pitcher wants the hitter to put the ball in play on the left side of the field; that will freeze the runner at second.

So left-handed hitters see fastballs away and right handed-hitters see off-speed stuff and fastballs in.

That doesn’t mean the pitcher won’t throw a pitch that doesn’t fit the pattern, but it’s likely those pitches won’t be strikes.

If the hitter is an RBI guy — say a 3-, 4- or 5-hole hitter — the team might not want to use his at-bat to move the runner over; the team might want him to swing away and drive the run in himself.

Runner on first base, being held

This situation means there’s a hole on the right side, so the pitcher will want lefties to hit the ball to the left side of the infield and once again that means fastballs away.

Righties will once again probably see off-speed stuff and fastballs in.

If there are less than two outs, the pitcher wants a groundball to the left side for a double play.

Now is as good a time as any to stop and say there are always exceptions; if the guy at the plate is a left-hander that can fly, a double play might be unlikely so the pitcher might go for the punchout or pop up instead.

Two outs, nobody on base

The hitter’s footspeed can affect this one: if it’s a guy who can run, he can think single and then steal second base to put himself in scoring position.

If it’s a guy with no wheels, he might want to think double.

Back when Billy Butler still wore Royal blue, he would single with two outs and the rest of the team would groan; they knew they probably needed three more two-out singles to score him.

Two outs, runner in scoring position

The guy with no wheels can now think single.

Defensive shifts

The pitcher wants the hitter to hit a groundball into the shift; the hitter needs a pitch that allows him to hit a ball away from the shift or a pitch up in the zone that allows the hitter to go over the shift.

Two strikes

These days you don’t see that many guys make a two-strike adjustment, but back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, hitters in a two-strike count would choke up on the bat. Pitchers like to throw chase pitches in this situation, so choking up might help the hitter check his swing on a put-away slider.

Check the hitter’s hands: if he’s still down on the knob of the bat, don’t be surprised to see off-speed chase pitches.

Hitters might also look to go to the opposite field — waiting longer improves pitch selection — so you might see inside fastballs in an attempt to jam the hitter.

Have I mentioned there are always exceptions?

Certain hitters have things they like to do in certain situation and so do certain pitchers. So if you see something that doesn’t fit the patterns I’ve described, it’s probably because the people involved know something the rest of us don’t.

It’s that, or they need to read this article.

Enjoy the game.