Judging the Royals

Why mistake pitches might not be the ones that get hit

Royals pitcher Jason Vargas
Royals pitcher Jason Vargas The Kansas City Star

Here’s the thing about the media: We tend to focus on results. That’s partially because results are easy: a guy hit a home run, a guy struck out — it’s right there in the box score. We spend less time focusing on process: why the guy hit a home run, why the guy struck out. But you’ve got focus on process if you want to understand.

The other day Jason Vargas gave up four solo home runs, and after the game he said one of them was hit on a good pitch. I asked Jason if that meant he was unhappy with the location of the other three pitches and he said he was more bothered by falling behind in the count and having to throw those pitches.

Here’s what Vargas meant:

Suppose a pitcher has a 1-1 count and throws a ball, making the count 2-1. In that count a hitter can sit on a fastball, prepare to take a healthy cut and spit on any pitch that isn’t a fastball. Meanwhile, if the pitcher can’t throw his off-speed stuff for strikes, he might have to throw the fastball that the hitter’s looking for. And to make matters worse, the pitcher might have to throw that fastball out over the plate to make sure it gets called a strike.

Now let’s go back to that 1-1 count and say the pitcher throws a strike. The count’s now 1-2, and the pitcher can throw any pitch he likes and doesn’t have to throw it over the heart of the plate. Meanwhile, the hitter has to protect the plate a bit more if he doesn’t want to run the risk of getting rung up on a borderline call. The hitter can’t afford to spit on any pitch close to the plate, and he should be cutting back on his swing to make sure he gets a piece of the ball.

If the batter in the first scenario hits a home run, people will focus on the home run pitch.

If the batter in the second scenario strikes out, people will focus on the pitch thrown for strike three.

But in both cases the important pitch — the one that decided how the at-bat would go — was the 1-1 pitch. Throw a ball and the hitter’s in charge; throw a strike and the pitcher has the advantage.

That’s what Jason Vargas meant: He was more upset about the pitches before the home run was hit. Those were the pitches that put him in the position of having to throw a hittable fastball to hitters in good hitting counts.

The mistake pitch isn’t always the pitch that gets hit; it might be the pitch right before that.

(BTW: Vargas did give up a home run on an 0-2 pitch and that leads to the next piece.)

What should a pitcher do at 0-2?

I asked reliever Wade Davis, bullpen coach Doug Henry and pitching coach Dave Eiland what they thought a pitcher should do in an 0-2 count and they all said they didn’t like the idea of “wasting” a pitch. In their minds a wasted pitch consisted of a pitch that never looked like a strike and was thrown so far out of the strike zone that it didn’t accomplish anything.

They all said the pitcher should stay aggressive and throw a “quality” pitch. That doesn’t necessarily mean a strike, but a pitch that’s close enough to the zone to make the hitter consider swinging. Doug Henry called it a “presentable” pitch, and balls thrown so wide of the zone they look like pitchouts are not presentable pitches.

But Doug also said you had to know the hitter and his tendencies. Some guys expand the zone with a runner in scoring position, and in that case a slider a foot outside could become one of those presentable pitches.

They all agreed a pitch down the middle was a mistake, but if a pitch off the plate got whacked because a guy leaned out and got the barrel on it, that might not be a mistake — just good or lucky hitting. Once again, a pitcher better know a hitter’s tendencies. If a guy has a habit of doing that — and Hunter Pence comes immediately to mind — the pitcher better get that 0-2 pitch way off the plate.

(See? This is why you can’t come up with a one-size-fits-all philosophy. The game and the people who play it are too complicated. An 0-2 pitch to one hitter might be a very good pitch, but throw the same pitch to another hitter and it’s a mistake.)

They all agreed that pitchers wanted to avoid wasting a pitch, then trying to throw that quality, borderline pitch at 1-2. Miss with that pitch, go 2-2, and a hitter that was on the ropes is working his way back in the count. The pitcher starts thinking about throwing something out over the plate to avoid the 3-2 count and next thing you know a hitter that was down for the count is jogging around the bases.

As Dave Eiland said, once you’ve got a hitter down, step on his neck. You don’t necessarily have to throw a strike, but stay aggressive; go after the hitter and keep making tough pitches.

Next time you see a pitcher get a hitter 0-2, pay attention to what he does next. You’ll learn something about the pitcher and the game of baseball.

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