Judging the Royals

If you want to understand the big moments in a ballgame, think small

Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar
Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar AP

Last Thursday in the final game of a four-game series in Texas, Luke Hochevar came on in relief and faced Carlos Corporan to open the seventh inning. With the count 2-2 Hochevar threw a 94-mph fastball inside and Corporan got the bat head to it, but pulled it just foul.

Sitting at home I thought the next logical pitch would be something off-speed away. Hochevar threw an 88-mph cutter to the outside corner and Corporan swung and missed by a healthy margin. So did I read that right?

Did Hochevar go off-speed away because Corporan was quick to turn on a fastball inside?

Sunday morning I went down to the clubhouse to find out. Hochevar wasn’t around when I walked in, but Wade Davis was. As you might imagine, Wade Davis knows his stuff and I’ve learned a lot from listening to him. I asked if a hitter pulling a fastball foul meant a pitcher should go off-speed away on the next pitch.

Turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that: it depends on the hitter.

According to Wade some guys rip a heater foul and think: “He won’t come in here again.” So that’s when you do; double up on that inside heater and a guy who is looking away will take that inside pitch or swing and get jammed. Jason Kendall once said something similar: if a guy hits a home run he tends to eliminate that pitch — he doesn’t think he’ll see it again. Throw it to him the next time he’s up and he won’t be ready for it.

But you have to know the hitter. Double on a pitch to a guy who isn’t thinking and he’ll hit the heck out of it again. Or pull that trick on a guy who is thinking and you better think twice about pulling it two times in a row — he’ll remember and be ready for it.

While we were discussing reading swings I asked Wade about reading takes: Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki told me the way a hitter takes a pitch tells you what’s in his mind. If you throw him a curve and he lurches out onto his front foot, he wants that pitch; throw it again. If a guy stays back and spits on it, be careful; he’s seeing it well and won’t chase it out of the zone.

Wade confirmed that and said he would not throw Miguel Cabrera a curveball for a strike; Cabrera keeps his head still and sees the pitch out of Wade’s hand. If it’s a ball Miggy takes it, if it’s a strike, Miggy crushes it. Crush an off-speed pitch and the hitter pulls it into the short part of the park — home run territory.

I said I wouldn’t write that and Wade said go ahead; Miggy already knows.

In fact, it’s become a running joke between them: when Wade runs down to the bullpen Miguel will get his attention and make a signal with his hand up around the letters on his uniform. He’s asking: “Fastballs up again today?” He’ll even do it when Wade comes in to pitch to him; Miggy wants Wade to know he knows what Wade plans to do — throw fastballs up above the good part of the hitting zone and try to get Cabrera to pop one up. So what happens when Wade misses with a fastball down?

“He put me in the Rays tank on a down and away fastball.”

So if a guy keeps his head still, he’s going to be better at pitch selection, if a guy lets his head travel, he’ll tend to be worse; throw that guy chase sliders and curveballs.

What Hochevar had to say about that cutter away

Luke came in the clubhouse, so I went over to ask about that cutter away and it turned out I generally had it right, but Luke was still several steps ahead of me.

Pulling that inside fastball foul told Luke that Corporan was “cheating on the heater.” Carlos got the bat head to the ball, not the label. If Corporan had pulled the ball foul, but hit it off the label, Luke might go in there again; barreling the ball up told Hochevar to try something else.

Buts since Corporan was cheating on heat — sitting on the fastball — Luke wanted something that looked like a fastball, but wasn’t. A cutter — a pitch halfway between a slider and fastball — was a great choice. I asked Luke if he called that pitch (a pitcher can get to the pitch he wants by just staring at the catcher until the catcher puts down the right sign), but Luke said no; catcher Drew Butera was on the same page with him.

So they were on the same page about throwing a cutter, but then they had to select a location. Luke said he could have gone “back-foot” cutter — throwing it down and in and then having it drop out of the zone toward a left-handed hitter’s back foot — but if he missed, that might be Corporan’s nitro zone; lefties tend to hit down and in very well.

Butera signaled for a cutter away and Luke threw it. Corporan read fastball out of Luke’s hand, started his swing too early and missed the cutter by a wide margin. It was only one pitch, but a lot of thought and experience went into it.

What thinking small does for you

If you read all the way through this, thank you. If you found it interesting, thanks again. Fans and the media tend to think big — who won, who hit a home run, what was the final score — but to understand how the game is played you have to think small: why did the pitcher throw that pitch, how come the infield was in, why did the other team wait to shift until the hitter had one strike?

If you want to understand the big moments in a ballgame, think small.

Who’s pitching Wednesday?

The Royals have Monday and Thursday off this week and so do the Cincinnati Reds. The teams play a short two-game series on Tuesday and Wednesday and the probable starters for game one are Johnny Cueto and Yordano Ventura.

So who’s starting game two?

If they choose to do so, days off allow teams to reshuffle the deck with their starting rotation. And if a team can wait until the last possible moment to reveal who is starting, they make it harder on the other team; they have to do scouting reports on every possibility. If the other team knows who’s starting, they can concentrate their efforts on one guy and do a better job of preparing.

If a manager is vague about his future plans, there may be a very good reason.

How Wade Davis made an adjustment

On Sunday Wade came out to pitch the eighth inning and had a problem; he was missing the strike zone arm-side and walked two batters. When a pitcher is missing on his arm-side — with the right-handed Davis that would be up and in to a right-handed hitter or up and away from a lefty — it usually means his front side is opening too soon.

After the game I asked Wade if that was the case and he said, yeah, his front-side was flying open horizontally — toward first base — and that made his throwing-arm side late. So from Wade’s point of view—the mound—he was missing the plate to the right. I asked how you fix that and expected to hear something complicated and complex.

Wade said: “Aim left.”

See? I told you he was smart.

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

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