Judging the Royals

Jason Vargas and the 2-1 fastball

Jason Vargas pitched during the Kansas City Royals spring training game against the Chicago White Sox at Surprise Stadium on Wednesday.
Jason Vargas pitched during the Kansas City Royals spring training game against the Chicago White Sox at Surprise Stadium on Wednesday. Kansas City Star

In the fourth inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Chicago White Sox, Carlos Sanchez was at the plate and Royals pitcher Jason Vargas was on the mound; the count was 2-1. Vargas was about to throw a fastball and just before he delivered the pitch, Royals catcher Erik Kratz moved to the outside part of the plate and gave Vargas a low and away target.

If we pay attention, there are moments in a baseball game that reveal the complexity of the sport — this was one of them.

If we’re going to understand baseball, we have to understand fastball counts. Fastball counts are counts in which the pitcher has to throw a strike and a fastball is his best chance of doing so.

It’s a pitcher’s best chance to throw a strike because a fastball is a relatively straight pitch; but because a fastball is a relatively straight pitch it’s also a hitter’s best chance of hitting the ball hard.

So when a pitcher falls behind, when the count is 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and, in some cases 3-2, everybody who’s paying attention is looking for that fastball. Throw a big-league hitter a fastball when he expects one and don’t be surprised if he hits it a long way.

So what’s a pitcher to do?

▪ Throw strikes early in the at-bat and avoid those dangerous fastball counts.

▪ Throw something off-speed in those fastball counts; use the hitter’s aggression against him. He’s looking for 90 miles an hour, drop a change-up on him.

▪ Throw the fastball he expects.

OK, No. 3 seems like the worst possible option, but veteran pitchers know how to use fastball counts to their advantage.

If a hitter is looking for a fastball — and Vargas throws his in the upper 80s — the pitcher can “add and subtract.” That means the pitcher reaches back for something extra and adds a few miles an hour or he does the opposite; he finds a way to take something off the pitch and subtracts a few miles an hour. Three miles an hour one way or another is enough to mess up a hitter’s timing.

The other way a pitcher can take advantage of hitter’s aggressiveness is to do what Vargas did; throw the pitch to the outside part of the plate.

Hitters in fastball counts often look to “turn and burn.” That means they look for the pitch on the inner half of the plate because they want to pull the ball and hit it into the shortest parts of the park; down one of the lines. Throw an outside fastball to a hitter looking to turn and burn and he’ll have to reach for it and that takes away his power. It’s like trying to throw a punch and hit a guy who’s standing too far away from you — you can’t do much damage.

After the game Vargas said if Sanchez had hit that pitch he would have to hit it to the opposite field to hit it solidly. And for a pitcher, a single to right is a much better outcome than a home run to left.

That 2-1 fastball missed; the count went 3-1 and Sanchez eventually lined out to end the inning. But that 2-1 fastball was important because it showed the thought process of Jason Vargas.

The thought process of a veteran pitcher who knows what he’s doing.

If we pay attention we get rewarded; a seemingly meaningless 2-1 fastball thrown in the fourth inning of a nearly meaningless spring training game can be a very meaningful moment.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.