Here’s the tweet Royals beat writer Andy McCullough sent out just before Tuesday night’s game:
“The expectation from some Royals staffers is Mike Montgomery is going to be quite geeked up tonight pitching against his former organization”
When a rookie pitcher is “geeked up” bad things can happen, and in the top of the first inning they did.
Montgomery fell behind Alcides Escobar 2-1, threw him a fastball in a fastball count and Alcides ripped it for a single. Then Montgomery fell behind Mike Moustakas 1-0, threw him a fastball and Moose lined it into right for another single. With his fastball getting hit, Montgomery went to his curve, lost control of it and hit Lorenzo Cain. Seven pitches into the game and the geeked up Mike Montgomery had the bases loaded and nobody out.
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But then the Royals let Mike Montgomery him off the hook.
Montgomery has — or at least had — the reputation of a pitcher who let innings get out of control. In the minors, Montgomery threw 842 1/3, gave up 807 hits, 326 walks and had an ERA of 4.24 — the kind of guy who might pitch his way into trouble if you let him.
But the Royals wouldn’t let him.
With the bases loaded Eric Hosmer took one called strike, but after that chased pitches out of the zone and struck out. With one down and a runner on third, Kendrys Morales needed to get a pitch up in the zone, but instead chased a down-and-away fastball — the first pitch he saw — grounding into a double play.
The Royals had a chance to run Mike Montgomery out of the game after the first inning, but let him off the hook by chasing pitcher’s pitches with runners in scoring position.
And it happened again in the second
Alex Gordon led off the next inning with an infield single that was turned into an error by bad scorekeeping. Montgomery then fell behind Salvador Perez 2-0, threw another fastball in a fastball count and Sal shot a ground ball into left for a single — runners on first and second, nobody out.
With a runner in scoring position Kansas City hitters once again started chasing pitchers pitches. Alex Rios struck out, Omar Infante struck out and Alcides Escobar struck out.
And that was pretty much your ballgame.
Mike Montgomery settled in and a guy who could have been knocked out in the first two innings pitched a nine-inning complete-game shutout.
But taking pitches is not the answer
It’s not as simple as saying the Royals should take pitches; the Royals do need to take pitches, but they need to take the right pitches.
There are times when letting fly at the first pitch you see is the right thing to do, for example: runner in scoring position, the run matters and the pitcher has been starting everyone with a first-pitch fastball.
If you simply stand there and take pitches that news will get around pretty quick and pitchers will pour in fastball strikes and then let you try to make a living hitting sliders in the dirt—that ain’t gonna work.
Knowing when to take and when to be aggressive is a big part of the game and there is no one simple answer. But when a rookie pitcher is “geeked up” and in trouble, that’s a good time to take the borderline stuff, give him a chance to fall behind in the count and then make him throw strikes.
When the Royals took the borderline stuff and Montgomery fell behind, they got pitches to hit. When they chased borderline stuff early, they didn’t.
Another view on strikeouts
The Royals get a lot of Internet admiration for being tough to strike out, but as we’ve seen, low strikeout totals can reveal a weakness in your game: the fear of hitting with two strikes.
Once Kansas City hitters get one strike on them, they tend to hack at whatever pitch comes close. That happened again on Tuesday night. So basically that means the Royals tend to go into an aggressive, two-strike approach when they only have one strike.
And Monday night even that didn’t help; Mike Montgomery struck out 10.
A revelation: hitting is hard
It’s pretty easy for me to sit here and write that the Royals need to be better at pitch selection, but they aren’t swinging the bat because they think the pitch is going to wind up in the other batter’s box —they’re swinging the bat because they think the pitch is hittable.
But that’s because too many hitters are in pull mode.
Pull the ball and you have a chance of hitting into the short part of the park; the corners. Hit the ball down a line and you have a chance of hitting a home run. But too many hitters without home run power take a power-hitting approach, and that hurts their average.
If you pull the ball you have to swing sooner than if you take the ball the other way. Swing sooner and you’re more likely to get fooled. Mike Moustakas is having a breakout year because he’s waiting longer, seeing the ball better and being more selective.
The downside of hitting to the opposite field is less power; the up side is more average. The complete hitters take an opposite-field approach most of the time and then, on certain pitches in certain situations, go into pull mode. Moustakas has done this on more than one occasion.
But that’s easier said than done.
I was reminded of just how hard hitting a spherical object is when I got forced into a Wiffle ball game Tuesday evening. I had never played Wiffle ball, but I played baseball, so I figured how hard could it be?
Six innings later I had struck out about eight times; and a kid who’s about 11 years old kid was pitching to me — now that will damage your ego. By the end of the game, I think he was pitching around other kids to get to me. There’s a lesson here: those of us who don’t have to try to hit a moving baseball for a living ought to be a little more tolerant of those who do.
And if anyone knows the trick to hitting a Wiffle ball, shoot me an email.