On Friday night, in the seventh inning of a 3-3 game, Royals reliever Mike Minor threw Rangers pinch-hitter Mike Napoli an 0-1 fastball.
The pitch was well within the strike zone, but home plate umpire Scott Barry called it a ball.
If the catcher sets up on a corner, but has to reach back across the plate to receive the pitch – and that’s what happened with Napoli – some umpires will not call that pitch a strike, even though the pitch is in the zone.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Because it looks bad.
Reaching outside the shin guards to receive a pitch makes the pitch look like a ball; receiving a pitch between the shin guards makes the pitch look like a strike.
Umpires can avoid complaints from the crowd or dugouts by using the catcher’s shin guards to determine balls and strikes; but in these days of advanced technology it’s a bad approach. Anyone who cares enough can go to MLB’s Gameday and see that Minor’s 0-1 pitch to Napoli was a strike.
The count should have been 0-2 and Minor should have had the opportunity to throw three chase pitches to Napoli before having to throw another pitch in the zone.
By missing the 0-1 pitch, Barry changed the game and everything that happened afterwards; Napoli went on to hit a two-run homer.
We don’t know that Minor would have punched out Napoli had the count done 0-2, but it would have been nice if Minor got the chance.
He earned it.
How catchers use their shin guards to get strikes
If a catcher knows any pitch between his shin guards is likely to be called a strike, he can use that to his advantage.
The catcher can set up off the plate and if the pitcher hits the mitt, it might be called a strike. Or the catcher can sway his shin guards as the pitch is on its way; a pitch that was going to look just outside is now caught between the shin guards and looks more like a strike.
Next time you watch a game on TV, focus on the catcher’s shin guards; you’ll see how good catchers use their shin guards to get calls.
Jason Hammel, the deflected ball up the middle and defensive shifts
Royals starter Jason Hammel caused some of his own problems when he reached out and deflected a ball that was on its way to second baseman Whit Merrifield.
Had Hammel let the ball go, Merrifield would have caught it and thrown out Elvis Andrus, the guy who hit it. Andrus later scored on Adrian Beltre’s home run, so reaching for the ball cost Hammel and the Royals a run.
Shouldn’t Hammel know where his defenders are positioned?
When former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery was asked that question, he made an interesting point: in his day the middle infielders stayed put. They might shift a step or two either way, but the shortstop never stood behind second base.
So if a ball was hit up the middle, Monty knew he might as well try for it; if the ball got past the mound it was going to be a hit.
When infielders are shifting so dramatically – sometimes between pitches – it’s harder for a pitcher to know where they are.
So why not just turn around and look?
A pitcher can do that, but having to look at his infield before every pitch slows things down and distracts the pitcher from the matter at hand: the hitter at the plate.
Here’s why that matters.
Whit Merrifield distracted Martin Perez and that helped Jorge Bonifacio
In the fifth inning Whit Merrifield doubled and having a guy with 14 steals on second base distracted Rangers pitcher, Martin Perez.
After faking a couple pickoff throws, Perez tried a real one. Three pitches later the count was 1-2 on the guy at the plate, Jorge Bonifacio, and Perez tried another pickoff.
Gambling that Perez would not try two pickoffs in a row, Merrifield tried to steal third base, but Bonifacio fouled off the pitch.
Now Perez gambled that Merrifield wouldn’t try to steal third on consecutive pitches – a sprint can temporarily gas a runner – so that allowed Perez to throw a chase curve in the dirt; a good pitch to run on if you happen to be running and Merrifield wasn’t.
Now Perez tried another pickoff.
No matter how distracting a runner is, when a pitcher throws a pitch 100 percent of his attention needs to shift to home plate. If a pitcher throws a pitch while 30 percent of his mind is on the runner, bad things tend to happen.
Perez threw a changeup that stayed in the zone, Bonifacio singled and Merrifield scored.
When a runner distracts a pitcher, the odds of throwing a bad pitch go up.
The Rangers tossed a scuffed baseball
Before the bottom of the ninth inning began, Rangers catcher Robinson Chirinos bounced the throw down to second base; bouncing the throw scuffs the baseball.
Home plate umpire Scott Barry was turned away from second base, so if the Rangers kept the ball in play, nobody would be the wiser and pitcher Alex Claudio would be working with a scuffed ball.
But Rangers third baseman Adrian Beltre threw the scuffed ball into the stands and Claudio got a new one.
Nice sportsmanship by Beltre; no word on how Claudio felt about giving up a scuffed ball.
Drew Robinson and the high fastball
Coming into Friday’s game Rangers left fielder, Drew Robinson, had played four games in the big leagues. Rookies can sometimes have an advantage because nobody knows what they hit well or what they hit poorly.
But in Robinson’s first at bat he chased three high fastballs and missed all of them; he showed the Royals a hole in his swing.
In Robinson’s second at bat, Jason Hammel threw him two more high fastballs; Robinson chased one, but took the other. Despite showing he was willing to swing at a pitch he couldn’t hit, Robinson never saw another high fastball.
The Rangers have two more games here, so if Robinson comes back to the plate, pay attention to how the Royals pitch him.
They might want to try some high fastballs.