In the fifth inning of Friday night’s game against the Cleveland Indians, Jason Vargas had to make a 3-0 pitch to Francisco Lindor.
The Indians were already up 2-0, Giovanny Urshela was on first base and Vargas did not want to walk another run into scoring position; Vargas would have to throw a strike.
When managers give a 3-0 green light to a hitter, they tend to give it to hitters with power; a 3-0 opposite-field single isn’t the goal.
The hitter is expected to take a healthy 3-0 cut and do damage.
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So hitters zone down; they look for a certain pitch (usually a fastball), in a certain location (usually middle-in). If they get any other pitch in any other location, they spit on it.
So Lindor, a hitter with 22 home runs, was probably looking for a fastball on the inner half of the plate.
And that’s what he got.
After the game Vargas said he was trying to throw that 3-0 fastball at the top of the zone. Vargas said he thought Lindor might be swinging 3-0 and if he could get Lindor to chase a high fastball, Lindor might pop up it up.
But Vargas didn’t get the 3-0 fastball high enough and left it middle-in. Lindor took a healthy cut and deposited the ball about 12 rows back in left-center field.
The results suggest Lindor got the pitch he was looking for.
If you know what to look for, you can see a home run coming
Some home runs come out of the blue; the pitcher has the hitter in an 0-2 count, tries to bounce an off-speed pitch and hangs it. A hitter that was on the verge of striking out hits a home run instead.
Other home runs are more predictable.
Go back to the second game of the series against the Rockies and take a look at Nolan Arenado’s first-inning home run.
Ian Kennedy fell behind 2-0 to Arenado and 2-0 is a fastball count.
There were two outs in the inning and a lot of hitters, especially guys with power, will try to load up and go for extra-bases with two outs. They know a single will probably require two more two-out singles to score a run; a double will only require one more single to score a run.
So Kennedy had a power hitter in a 2-0 fastball count, the power hitter was probably looking for a middle-in fastball so he could do two-out damage and Kennedy threw Arenado a middle-in fastball.
As soon as Salvador Perez set up on the inside half, knowledgeable Royals fans could be excused for wincing; they could see something bad was likely to happen.
And it works the same way in extra innings
According to the guys who have played the game awhile, in extra innings, pitchers and catchers should not try to beat hitters on the inner half of the plate. Here’s why:
In extra innings, hitters are trying to end the game with one swing of the bat.
Hitters are looking for pitches to pull, so it’s hard to beat them with an inside pitch. The pitcher can go in off the plate and knock the hitter back, but when the pitcher throws a strike it should be on the outer half of the plate.
This is one of the reasons extra-inning games can last for a long time; hitters are trying to pull the ball and pitchers are throwing to the outer half.
Extra-inning games will sometimes end when a pitcher outsmarts himself; he’ll think he can’t just keep pounding the outer half and decide to sneak an inside fastball past the hitter.
But throwing big-league hitters middle-in fastballs when those big-league hitters are looking for middle-in fastballs is risky.
So if you weren’t already doing it, from now on when the count is 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 or 3-1 and you see the catcher put down one finger and then set up on the inside part of the plate, brace yourself.
The hitter is about to get the pitch he’s looking for and when that happens, big league hitters tend to do damage.
Just like Francisco Lindor.