Judging the Royals

How Jason Vargas has won 11 games with an 86 mph fastball

Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas
Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas jsleezer@kcstar.com

When Jason Vargas throws a fastball, its average velocity is 86.5 mph: not enough heat to strike fear in the hearts of men.

Nevertheless, on Saturday afternoon Vargas beat the Toronto Blue Jays and became the first pitcher in the American League to win 11 games.

How does Vargas do it?

Let’s look back at Saturday’s game:

When a pitcher falls behind in the count – 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 or 3-1 – hitters look for a fastball; the pitcher needs to throw a strike, and the fastball is his best chance of doing so.

In those counts hitters have a pretty good idea of what’s coming next, and they tend to come out of their shoes if they get the fastball they expect.

The best pitchers stay out of those counts.

On Saturday afternoon Vargas threw 98 pitches, and only four of them were thrown in those fastball counts.

And if a pitcher can throw something other than a fastball in those counts, it makes things even harder on a hitter; he can’t assume he’s getting a fastball.

Of the four pitches thrown in those fastball counts, two were fastballs and two were change-ups.

So let’s sum up: on Saturday afternoon Vargas faced 27 batters and only two of them got a fastball in a fastball count.

And that’s one of the reasons a guy with an 86 mph fastball has won 11 games before the All-Star break.

Why Mike Jirschele sent runners with two outs

On Friday night Royals third base coach Mike Jirschele sent Alex Gordon home on a two-out double by Whit Merrifield; Gordon scored and the Royals won the game by one run.

On Saturday afternoon Mike Jirschele had Alcides Escobar tag up on a shallow fly ball to left field; the fly ball was the second out of the inning. Escobar scored and the Royals won the game by one run.

Both decisions were questioned; even though they worked out, had Jirschele made the right call?

Ned Yost backed Jirschele and said with two outs, a base coach wants to force the action.

Here’s why:

When a base coach holds a runner at third with two outs, think about the on-deck hitter. Does sending the runner give you a better chance of scoring a run than holding the runner and hoping for a two-out hit from the guy on deck?

Base coaches or managers or players can’t be perfect: They have to make decisions before they know the results. All they can do is look at the options and take the one with the best chance of succeeding.

And with two outs, most base coaches will be very aggressive about sending runners.

Right now, the bottom of the order is hot

Coming into the Toronto series Alcides Escobar was hitting .200 and Alex Gordon was hitting .188; those were the numbers up on the scoreboard.

But big-league teams are less worried about what a hitter has done over the course of a season than what a hitter is doing right now. A guy hitting .300 overall might be cold right now, and right now a guy hitting .230 overall might be on fire.

Over the last 14 days Alcides Escobar has hit .372 and slugged .512; over the last 14 days Alex Gordon has hit .243 and slugged .432.

After Saturday’s win Ned Yost discounted the effects of pregame espressos and said the Royals were winning because right now all the parts of their game were working together; now they’re getting good pitching and timely hitting on the same night.

And right now the bottom of the order is hot.