Big-league hitters like to hit fastballs and most of them look for a hittable fastball on the first pitch. If a pitcher grooves one down the middle in an effort to get ahead in the count, a hitter can take advantage and ambush that first fastball. That’s what Alcides Escobar has been doing; as the first batter of a game, Alcides is hitting .326 and when he puts the first pitch of an at-bat in play, Esky is hitting .400.
So how does a pitcher keep from getting ambushed?
He can throw the fastball the hitter is looking for, but he has to throw it in a location the hitter isn’t looking for. The other thing the pitcher can do is throw a get-me-over breaking pitch. A get-me-over slider or curve is thrown with less movement so it’s easier to control. Remember, the hitter is probably looking for a first-pitch fastball, so when he recognizes a breaking pitch, he’ll likely take it for a strike and once you get strike one in, you’re in business.
Throwing strike one early puts the pitcher in charge
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Wednesday night, Detroit Tigers pitcher Matt Boyd was throwing well located first-pitch fastballs in the first inning. As the game progressed Boyd began mixing in first-pitch sliders, curves and change-ups.
Boyd faced 27 batters and, because he was often throwing pitches the Royals weren’t looking for early in the count, 12 of them took a called first strike. Boyd also got his first strike in early; 26 of the 27 batters he faced saw a strike within the first two pitches. And when a pitcher gets ahead in the count, the aggressive hitter is in trouble.
Strike one puts Kansas City hitters in swing mode
By getting strike one in early, Boyd was putting Kansas City hitters in swing mode: 12 of them took a called strike one, but only one of them — Ben Zobrist — took a called strike two. Lots of hitters are uncomfortable hitting with two strikes, so once they get that first strike on them, they start hacking.
If a pitcher throws strike one early he can then afford to throw some pitches just off the plate and doesn’t have to come back into the zone until the count it 3-1.
Once a hitter’s in swing mode, expand the zone
Getting a strike in early allowed Boyd to expand the zone; he could throw borderline pitches and Royals hitters would chase. Boyd also expanded the zone vertically: he could throw pitches just above the good hitting zone and Royals hitters were chasing them and hitting fly ball outs.
Pitching up in the zone takes guts — miss and the ball might be gone — but pitching in a park where the center field wall is 420 feet away helps and Boyd took advantage of that.
The Royals aggression can backfire
As I’ve pointed out before, Kansas City hitters get praised for not striking out and condemned for not walking, but both of those come from the same aggressive approach. They don’t strike out or walk much because they usually don’t see enough pitches to do either. If they’re getting pitches to hit early in the count, that aggression helps; if they’re getting borderline pitches after strike one, that aggression hurts.
The Tigers’ Matt Boyd was using the formula that works against the Royals: get a strike in early, expand the zone and let them chase marginal pitches. And until some of the Royals get more comfortable hitting with two strikes, that approach will get them out.
An approach that didn’t work against Salvador Perez
On Tuesday night, Salvador Perez went three for four with a home run and three RBIs. Over the last 14 days, Sal has been hitting .171, so what brought him out of that slump?
Justin Velander and some poor pitch calling.
In his first at-bat Sal was down 0-2 and Verlander threw him a hittable fastball; Sal singled. Kansas City fans know Perez will chase a slider like a 6-year-old will chase an ice cream truck, yet Verlander chose to throw a fastball that could be hit — he didn’t expand the zone.
In the second at-bat, Verlander threw Perez a first-pitch fastball that caught too much of the plate and Sal homered.
In the third at-bat, Verlander fell behind Sal 2-0, threw another hittable fastball and once again Perez singled.
Salvador Perez will chase breaking pitches, yet Verlander was throwing him hittable fastballs. I don’t know all that much about Justin Verlander, but if he’s still pitching like he did in his heyday — here’s a fastball that I’m going to blow by you — it wasn’t working on Tuesday night.
Why John Gibbons coming back on the field was a big deal
After writing that I thought Toronto Blue Jays manager John Gibbons did the right thing by coming back on the field when his team cleared the benches (Gibbons had been ejected earlier in the game) a reader left this comment on the website:
“I see how a manager saves a player from getting thrown out of the game by taking over the argument and getting thrown out himself. But I don’t see how Gibbons coming back onto the field and getting suspended later does anything positive for the team. He “came back to support his players when he knew it was going to cost him a suspension,” but in this case that support doesn’t really translate into anything positive. I find it hard to believe that the players would think less of a manager or refuse to play hard for a manager who stays in the clubhouse after getting ejected.”
To understand why this was a big deal, you need to understand baseball culture. If a team goes on the field, everybody on that team is expected to go. If you’re in the bathroom, zip up your pants and join your teammates. If you’re up in the clubhouse, run down to the field and join in. It’s why you see everyone in the bullpen come out in support; they rarely get there in time to do anything, but they’re expected to be on the field.
I once asked a player what would happen to a guy who didn’t join in and he said that guy might as well get back on the bus and return to the minor leagues — no one would want him around after that.
Remember when Brian McCann confronted Carlos Gomez after Gomez hit a home run and then started yelling at some of the Braves as he rounded the bases?
McCann met him up the third base line and would not let Gomez cross home plate. That led to a fight and the benches clearing. McCann’s action didn’t change anything — Gomez’ run still counted — but McCann was sending a message that he would not allow Gomez or anyone else to disrespect his teammates. It was an “I’ve-got-your-back-you have-mine” move that helps builds team unity.
Sure, John Gibbons could have stayed in the clubhouse and used his earlier ejection as an excuse, but it would be seen as a weak move; kind of like the kid who says he’d like to fight you, but he’s got his good clothes on and his mom would be upset.
I don’t think the Toronto Blue Jays would refuse to play hard if Gibbons had not come back on the field, but I do think some of the players would think less of him. The fact that Gibby did come back out, when he knew coming back out would get him suspended, shows he stands with his players — and players appreciate that.