Judging the Royals

How a pitcher working slowly can hurt a team’s defense

The Royals' Kendrys Morales came to check on pitcher Edinson Volquez after Volquez gave up a walk against the Chicago Cubs on March 29 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz.
The Royals' Kendrys Morales came to check on pitcher Edinson Volquez after Volquez gave up a walk against the Chicago Cubs on March 29 at Surprise Stadium in Surprise, Ariz. The Kansas City Star

In a recent story in The Kansas City Star, Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez talked about the need to slow his game down. Apparently, Volquez can start working too quickly and when that happens, he wants his catcher to remind him to back off and calm down.

That might be good for a pitcher, but it can hurt his defense.

Volquez pitched on Sunday and threw OK — five innings pitched, two earned runs — but he also worked slowly. According to the website FanGraphs, Volquez takes on average 24.6 seconds to deliver a pitch. It calls this “pace” (time between pitches).

For comparison’s sake, I looked up Mark Buehrle’s pace — he’s known for working quickly — and it was 16.8 seconds between pitches. So on average (and there are plenty of situations that will change pace) Volquez takes 7.8 more seconds to throw a pitch than Mark Buehrle does.

So why does that matter?

Every time a pitcher throws a pitch, defenders have to get ready. That means getting up on their toes and shuffling forward as each pitch is thrown to home plate. That’s the physical side, but they also have to prepare mentally.

The defenders need to know the situation: score, inning, number of outs, count, what pitch is being thrown, who’s at the plate, how fast he is, who’s on base, how fast he is and anything else that affects what the defender will have to do with the ball if it’s hit to him. These factors change with every pitch, and most of the time the defenders have to do these mental calculations more than 100 times a game.

Loss of concentration doesn’t always result in errors, but it can result in bad jumps and poor decision-making. A guy is thinking about getting his car washed after the game or what the postgame spread is going to be and a suddenly a ball is hit his way. He gets a late break and has no idea what he should do with the ball once he has it in his hand.

Some ballplayers already have the attention span of a hummingbird on crack; missing signs in the big leagues is way more common than most people think it is. So if a guy already has trouble paying attention, he doesn’t need an extra 7.8 seconds to let his mind wander.

And those 7.8 seconds add up.

Say Buehrle and Volquez both throw a 15-pitch inning; Volquez will take 117 seconds longer — almost two minutes — to throw those 15 pitches than Buehrle will.

Now suppose they both throw 100 pitches in a game; Volquez will take 13 minutes longer to throw his 100 pitches.

And if they each have 33 starts in a season, Volquez’s defenders will be on the field seven hours and 9 minutes longer than Buehrle’s defenders.

Watch enough big-league baseball and you’ll see someone try to leave the field after the second out. Or an outfielder catch a fly ball for the third out of the inning and then come up ready to throw the ball to get that incredibly rare fourth out.

Talk to an outfield coach and he might admit to having a sign that tells one of his players to wake up. When Royals coach Rusty Kuntz spots boredom in the outfield he’ll reposition the player just to get him back in the game. When Jason Kendall played the outfield he says he was so bored he asked if he could call the pitches from left field. When Manny Ramirez was accused of stealing signs, manager Terry Francona defended him by saying that Manny didn’t know his own team’s signs; there wasn’t much chance he was stealing anybody else’s.

Clearly, keeping ballplayers focused is a problem, and a pitcher working slowly makes that problem worse. At this point, Volquez is the champ among Royals starting pitchers, but, on average, how long do the other starting pitchers take to deliver a pitch?

Here are the numbers from FanGraphs:

Jeremy Guthrie: 19.7 seconds

Yordano Ventura: 20.1 seconds

Jason Vargas: 20.2 seconds

Danny Duffy: 22.7 seconds

Which is kind of ironic since baseball is worried about the pace of play, but doesn’t enforce rule 8.04. Here’s part of what that rule says:

When the bases are unoccupied, the pitcher shall deliver the ball to the batter within 12 seconds after he receives the ball. Each time the pitcher delays the game by violating this rule, the umpire shall call “Ball.”

It would be good for the game if baseball enforced this rule and it would be good for defenders if pitchers would voluntarily work more quickly. But until one of those two things happens you can be just like some of the players and let your mind wander between pitches.

You’ll have time.

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

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