Judging the Royals

One theory about Jeremy Guthrie’s recent success

Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie gave up only two runs in 7.1 innings in a 6-2 win over the Tigers on May 9.
Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie gave up only two runs in 7.1 innings in a 6-2 win over the Tigers on May 9. AP

In his first five starts, Jeremy Guthrie was 1-2 with an ERA of 6.52. In his last three starts, Jeremy Guthrie is 3-0 with an ERA of 1.96. So what changed? Well, to be honest, I don’t really know for sure and there are probably dozens of factors I’m unaware of, but let’s focus on just one: fastball velocity.

Let’s start by admitting there’s a whole lot we don’t know and pitches are constantly misidentified by the people whose job is identifying pitches. Look at FanGraphs under PITCHf/x Pitch Type and you’ll see that Danny Duffy throws six different types of pitches. Tell Danny Duffy that and he says: “Where’d you get that, bro’? More like three and a half.”

Cutters are misidentified as sliders, four-seam fastballs — thrown by a pitcher flying open on his front side — are misidentified as two-seamers, changeups are misidentified as fastballs and fastballs are misidentified as changeups.

With all that in mind lets go back to the last game Jeremy Guthrie lost: May 3 against the Detroit Tigers. Jeremy threw six innings, gave up 11 hits and six earned runs. During that game, I noticed an awful lot of pitches in the upper 80s being identified as changeups. Ask pitching coach Dave Eiland — and I did — how hard a Jeremy Guthrie changeup should be and he’ll say 85-mph or below.

Apparently, Guthrie has a “straight” change. Guys who get downward and lateral movement on their changeups can throw them harder; guys whose changeups drop, but travel in a straight line, have to make sure there’s a real change in speed to make the pitch effective — 8 to 12 mph is ideal. So if Guthrie was topping out at 93-94 mph on his fastball, a changeup at 88 wasn’t providing enough change in speed.

Overthrow the changeup and a pitcher loses separation: the fastball and changeup are too close together in velocity and the changeup becomes a “BP” fastball, although that’s what some pitchers want. They’ll throw that BP fastball in fastball counts; a hitter that was expecting 93 mph in a 2-0 count gets 88, swings too soon and pops it up. But if a pitcher is going to use a BP fastball, he has to use it sparingly.

The danger of throwing too many pitches at the same general velocity was demonstrated in that May 3 game when Jeremy threw Miguel Cabrera three consecutive pitches between 84 and 89 mph: Miggy hit the third one out of the park.

Against the Tigers that day Guthrie threw 85 pitches. If I counted right (and that’s a big if — stare at these numbers long enough and your eyes start to cross) 22 of them were either overthrown changeups or BP fastballs thrown between 86 and 89 mph. Guthrie also threw 28 fastballs over 90 mph.

Now let’s look at Guthrie’s May 20 start against the Cincinnati Reds. Once again Jeremy threw six innings, but this time he gave up five hits, no runs and got the win. On that day Guthrie threw 94 pitches and just eight of them were those overthrown-changeups/BP-fastballs. And this time Jeremy threw 52 fastballs over 90 mph.

So what can we conclude?

First, we can conclude that I should have developed this theory sooner; that way I could have talked to Guthrie before the Royals went on the road. But some pitchers don’t like to talk about this stuff, and I wanted to count pitches before he and I talked. And I didn’t get a chance to count those pitches until Monday morning.

Second, it appears that Guthrie is achieving better pitch-velocity separation by throwing more fastballs above 90 miles an hour and fewer BP fastballs.

When you’re watching the game today, look for pitches in the upper 80s. If they’re cutters, that’s one thing; if they’re BP fastballs or overthrown changeups, that’s another. If Guthrie’s fastball is above 90 mph, he’s letting it go; if Guthrie’s changeup is 85 or below, he’s getting good velocity separation.

And if Guthrie still gets whacked around, my theory may be all wet.

Yankee Stadium and left-handed hitters

On the other hand, Guthrie could keep his fastball velocity up, his changeup velocity down and still lose. Yankee Stadium has that short right-field porch, and the Yankees have lots of left-handed hitters that will try to take advantage of that feature.

Watch carefully when a catcher sets up inside to a left-handed hitter; if the pitcher does not get the pitch all the way in, a lefty will have a good shot at pulling the ball down the line and putting runs on the board. Heck, pitch away to a right-handed hitter and he can do the same thing. Off-speed to lefties will be especially dangerous. Keeping the ball in the middle of the park — easier said than done — is a key to winning in New York.

Why Salvador Perez went to the mound when Luke Hochevar was pitching

In yesterday’s loss to the Cardinals, Luke Hochevar came in to pitch the eighth inning. He gave up four hits and two runs, which sounds pretty bad, unless you watched him do it. Two of the hits were grounders and as long as a pitcher is getting groundballs, managers don’t sweat it too much — the ball is down and a groundball gives the defense a chance. The double to Matt Adams was a different story; the pitch was elevated enough for Adams to drive it into the left-center gap.

But the real backbreaker was a Yadier Molina broken-bat pop fly; that’s the ball Alcides Escobar tried to catch with his bare hand. Esky’s desperation move didn’t work; the ball dropped and two runs scored.

During the Molina at-bat, with the count 1-2, Salvador Perez went out to the mound. I wondered why Sal went to talk to Luke at that point; they had Molina on the ropes — but it turns out there was a very good reason.

With a runner on second base, catchers use multiple signs so the runner can’t tell what pitch is coming. Sign sequences might be something like: first sign, shake, last. That means the first sign in the sequence is the real sign and if the pitcher shakes off the sign the last sign is the next sequence is the real sign.

If you’re confused, that’s OK — so are a lot of pitchers. The sign sequences can get mind-bogglingly complicated: second sign after previous pitch, shake, third can cause a lot of confusion. (If the previous pitch was a curveball, the second sign after the catcher flashes curve — two fingers — is the real sign.)

Whatever sign system Luke and Sal were using, Luke missed a sign and crossed up Sal with a pitch he wasn’t expecting. Perez went to the mound to make they were still on the same page.

(See? Even small events like that one have an interesting story behind them.)

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