Judging the Royals

How to crack the code when facing a pitcher for the first time

Oakland’s Paul Blackburn gave up one run in the first three innings Wednesday, but Lorenzo Cain figured him out in the fourth inning, hitting a two-run homer in what became a 7-6 Royals win.
Oakland’s Paul Blackburn gave up one run in the first three innings Wednesday, but Lorenzo Cain figured him out in the fourth inning, hitting a two-run homer in what became a 7-6 Royals win. TNS

This past Wednesday the Royals faced a rookie pitcher they hadn’t seen before and that probably made knowledgeable Royals fans nervous. As those knowledgeable Royals fans already know, their team can struggle when they face a pitcher for the first time.

Why?

Why can a rookie pitcher do so well against a bunch of veteran players who have been to a couple World Series?

Here’s at least part of the answer.

The rookie in question was Oakland A’s pitcher, Paul Blackburn. Coming into Wednesday’s game Blackburn had thrown 50  2/3 big-league innings and those innings required 779 pitches.

In today’s game everything is recorded and charted, so hitters who want to know what a pitcher tends to throw on the first pitch of an at-bat can find that out. Hitters can also find out what a pitcher does after throwing a first-pitch strike or first-pitch ball, what he does in two-strike counts or what he does with runners in scoring position.

Hitters who rely on that kind of information can struggle with a rookie pitcher because the rookie hasn’t pitched enough big league innings to be predictable.

But having too much information can backfire

That’s why hitters can struggle with rookie pitchers; but if that’s the case, why don’t those hitters, armed with tons of information, light up all the veteran pitchers?

First of all, to become a veteran pitcher in the big leagues you have to be pretty good; some top-of-the-line pitchers could tell the hitter what’s coming next and the hitter still couldn’t hit it.

But in other cases, having too much information can backfire.

We’ve all seen it: a hitter takes a wild swing at a slider in the dirt or watches a fastball down the middle go by. What in the world was the hitter thinking?

There’s a decent chance the hitter was thinking he was going to get a different pitch.

If the numbers say a pitcher throws a fastball 82 percent of the time when he’s in a 2-0 count, a lot of hitters will take that bet: they’ll gear up for a fastball and when they get a slider that looks like a fastball, they’ll take a hack.

The slider drops out of the zone and the hitter looks silly.

And it can work in reverse: say the pitcher tends to throw sliders in 1-2 counts and the hitter tells himself to wait as long as possible before starting his swing. Then the pitcher crosses up the hitter by throwing an inside fastball.

When the hitter takes it for strike three, because he was looking for slider away, once again the hitter looks silly.

So hitters can scuffle when they face a pitcher without a long track record or a pitcher with a long track record who crosses them up by going against his previous pitching patterns.

No matter who is standing on the mound, hitting in the big leagues can be a tough racket.

Paul Blackburn vs. Corey Kluber

The day the Royals faced Paul Blackburn he gave up one run in the first three innings; but while Blackburn was getting Royals hitters out, Royals hitters were learning about Blackburn.

By the fourth inning Blackburn’s pitching patterns were becoming clear: he only threw his change-up to left-handed hitters and had a hard time throwing his change-up or curve for a strike.

That simplified things: if the hitter was right-handed he could eliminate the change-up altogether and both right and left-handed hitters knew if Blackburn had to throw a strike, he’d probably throw either a fastball or a slider. In that fourth inning Blackburn gave up a two-run homer when he threw Lorenzo Cain a predictable 3-1 fastball.

Some of this was knowable before the Royals actually faced Blackburn, but hitters say you can watch all the video you want, but until you step in the box and see those fastballs, sliders, curves and change-ups, you don’t know for sure.

On Friday, the Royals face Corey Kluber and they’ll have a ton of information about the Cleveland Indians pitcher. Kluber’s had 154 starts in the big leagues and thrown 1,027 innings, so everybody will know what everybody else is trying to do. That being the case, the game might turn on Kluber making mistakes and if he doesn’t, the Royals hitters will have a tough time.

But a no-name rookie can also give hitters a tough time and if you didn’t know before, now you know why.

Enjoy Friday night’s game.

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