When former Kansas City Royal and current Atlanta Braves hitting coach Kevin Seitzer told me he was once hit in the face by a pitch, I asked him what his last thought was before the ball hit him.
"That’s not a slider."
And right there is the hitter’s dilemma.
When like-handed pitchers throw to like-handed hitters (righty-on-righty or lefty-on-lefty) the pitcher’s release point often makes it look like the ball is coming at the hitter’s head. If you want to hit in the big leagues — or anywhere else for that matter — you can’t flinch; you have to hang in there until you can determine the ball’s actual trajectory.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
But here’s the thing: take too long to figure out the ball’s trajectory and your head is still in the way by the time you figure out the pitch isn’t breaking — it isn’t a slider, it really is coming at your head.
Wednesday night Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar took a 96-mph fastball to the head. The initial diagnosis was a bruised cheek, but even if the physical damage is not severe, getting hit in the head can cause psychological damage.
Last season Omar Infante was hitting .348 when he took a Heath Bell fastball to the jaw. Infante’s lifetime average is .276 so it seems unlikely that Omar was going to keep hitting .348. But after taking that pitch to the head Infante hit .247 for the rest of the season — almost 30 points below his lifetime batting average. To be fair — a new policy of mine — maybe getting hit in the melon had nothing to do with Infante’s drop in average, but it sure as hell didn’t help.
When a batter takes a pitch to the head pay attention to what happens next: is there a decline in average? How does he react to inside pitches? Does he hang in there when like-handed pitchers throw sliders and curves?
Now let’s take a look at Mike Moustakas.
During the Chicago White Sox series — before it turned into a road production of West Side Story — Moose took a Chris Sale changeup off the front shoulder and then the pitch deflected into Mike’s jaw. Two pitches before that 86-mph changeup, Sale threw a 96-mph fastball, so in a sense, Mike got lucky; it could have been a lot worse. Still, I wouldn’t want to get hit in the face by a Kraft Stay Puft marshmallow traveling 86-mph, much less a baseball.
So how did Mike react to taking a baseball off the lips?
In his next at bat he singled; a good sign. In fact, after taking one to the face Mike Moustakas has hit over .400. (Damn, maybe Mike ought to get hit in the noggin more often.)
After Sale hit Moustakas with that changeup — and getting hit with an off-speed pitch is a sign that it wasn’t intentional — the Chicago pitcher reacted with dismay. His body language said he didn’t mean to do it. But big league baseball can be brutal; even if a pitcher doesn’t intentionally hit a batter, it doesn’t mean he won’t use that hit-by-pitch the next time the batter faces him.
Ever see a batter foul a ball off his leg or foot? Nine times out of ten (actually I have no idea if that estimate’s right) the next pitch will be in the exact same spot. "Oh, man, that looked like it hurt — now here’s another pitch that you can foul off your shin."
When a guy gets hit in the head pretty much everyone is sorry it happened, but everyone will still try to take advantage of it. Throw a fastball up and in, then go away and see if the hitter still covers that outside corner of the plate. If the up-and-in fastball makes the hitter’s rear end want to leave the premises that batter is in trouble. Everyone in the league will start backing him off the plate, then getting him out with pitches away.
Like I said at the beginning; getting hit in the head can mess with your head.
So keep an eye on what Esky does next.