Judging the Royals

Who’s in charge around here?

The catcher puts down a sign, but the pitcher doesn’t want to throw that pitch. What happens next? Well, it depends. The pitcher can shake off the catcher. He actually shakes his head, which means, “No thanks. Give me another sign.” But if the catcher is convinced that the pitch he signaled is the right pitch, he might put down the same sign again.

Now things get more complicated. If the catcher is a veteran and the pitcher is a rookie, the pitcher might listen to the catcher. If the pitcher is the veteran and the catcher is the rookie, things might go the other way. If each is convinced he’s right, you might see a meeting on the mound so they can hash things out.

But say the catcher is convinced that the right pitch is a slider down and away, but the pitcher feels as though he doesn’t have a feel for that pitch right then. The pitcher might be convinced that if he attempts that down-and-away slider—even if it is the right pitch — he’s going to spin it. An inning later, if he gets the feel back, the pitcher might feel fine about throwing a slider.

And sometimes catchers will keep calling a pitch, convinced that the pitcher can’t give up on it. “Hey, we’re going to need that slider today. You’ve got to keep throwing it.” Ultimately, the pitcher is the one with the ball in his hand. Most people think it is better to throw the wrong pitch with conviction than the right pitch with doubt.

To make things even more complex, if you see the catcher give the sign while shaking his head, he’s asking the pitcher to shake


head — to pretend he doesn’t want to throw the pitch the catcher has called. If it’s a fastball count — 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and depending on the situation 3-2 — and the hitter is expecting to see a fastball, asking the pitcher to shake off the call can put some doubt in the hitter’s mind. “It’s a 2-0 count, but he just shook the catcher, so maybe I’m


getting a fastball.” If the pitcher can put doubt in the hitter’s mind, he might get away with throwing that fastball.

But the pitcher has to do a good acting job. If he shakes, then goes right into the windup — and there was no time to get a new sign — a smart hitter might know the shake wasn’t real. And a fake shake usually means the pitcher is trying to convince the hitter that he’s throwing something other than a fastball.

Another thing you will see is adding and subtracting. The catcher puts down two fingers for a curve. If the jersey is add and the pants are subtract, the pitcher can swipe a part of his uniform to change the call. A swipe of his jersey would add one and that curve (two fingers) becomes a slider (three fingers). If the pitcher swipes his pants to subtract, that curve (two fingers) becomes a fastball (one finger).

Bruce Chen sometimes uses adding and subtracting. When the opposing team sees him swipe, they know exactly what he’s doing. But if they don’t know what the catcher called originally, it doesn’t help.

Whatever pitch is thrown, the catcher and pitcher need to have each other’s backs. If the catcher tells the media that the ball that got hit out of the yard was the right pitch, but the pitcher didn’t execute it well, the pitcher is going to quit listening to his catcher. The guy makes a call and won’t stand by it? If the pitcher tells the media the catcher made that call and he never really wanted to throw that pitch, that’s not going to go over so hot with the catcher.

Pitchers and catchers who work together well are on the same page. Bruce Chen said he might be thinking fastball in, but has doubts. If the catcher calls for a fastball in, the doubts disappear. He and the catcher are on the same page. But if Bruce is thinking fastball in, and the catcher calls for a changeup away — the complete opposite pitch — Bruce starts thinking that the catcher has seen something he’s missed. Of course, that’s if you trust the catcher, and that only comes with time.

Tim Collins says relievers shake off signs less than starters. Relievers throw fewer pitches, so there are fewer disagreements. And relievers are more likely to be going strength on strength. A reliever usually will see a hitter only once and don’t need multiple ways to get the hitter out. The reliever often will go with his best stuff. If he has a mid-90s fastball and a good slider, he will stick with those pitches — and count on that to get the hitter.

Bottom line: If the game is moving quickly and you haven’t seen a lot of shakes or mound visits, the catcher and pitcher are on the same page. If the game is dragging, the pitcher is constantly shaking and the catcher is wearing out the grass by visiting the mound, things aren’t going that well.

Elliot Johnson

Elliot Johnson already plays seven positions, but wouldn’t mind pitching. “Every ballplayer wants to get on the mound.” But until that happens, the hardest position he plays is shortstop. It is the most difficult but one of the most familiar. He has played a lot of middle infield.

When he goes to the outfield, Elliot has to remember to change the way he throws. Outfielders use a long arm motion. They drop their arms all the way down as they throw the ball. Infielders don’t have time to use that long arm motion, so they don’t let their arm drop down that far.

When he’s using that longer throwing motion, Johnson also has to adjust his bottom half. If the footwork is finished too quickly — like an infielder — the arm is late because of the longer motion, the release point gets missed and the ball goes high.

Because he has to make this adjustment in his throwing motion, the coaches try to let Elliot know if he’s going to be used in the outfield or infield that night. It changes the way he warms up his arm.

Keep an eye on the dugout. Somewhere after the fifth inning, Elliot will start moving around, getting ready to play. He will stretch and play catch in the indoor batting cage.

Also keep your eye on the scoreboard. If the game is a blowout, manager Ned Yost is likely to rest a starter, and Elliot will come into the game. If it’s one-run game, Elliot is likely to get used as a pinch-runner, a pinch-hitter or a defensive replacement. If the score falls in that middle range — four or five runs — the manager is more likely to stick with his starters. At that point, the game isn’t far enough out of hand to rest people, and one run doesn’t mean much yet.

But no matter the score, Johnson has to get ready to play every night. You never know when the Royals will need another pitcher.

Game stuff from Wednesday

In the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game against the Dodgers, Jeff Francoeur was clearly trying to go to the opposite field, fouling a couple pitches off down the right-field line before hitting a single to the right side. In the fifth inning, with Salvador Perez on second base, Jeff took a let-it-rip swing to start the at-bat, then went back to trying to hit the ball the other way and dropped a single into right, scoring Perez.

On a triple to right-center field, Alex Gordon showed one of the reasons he is considered a good defender: guess who backed up third on the throw from right? Alex ran a long way to get there, there was no overthrow so most people didn’t notice what he did — but let that ball get away and Gordon’s


there? Then everybody would notice that nobody backed up third and the runner scored.

Mike Moustakas homered, but earlier in the at-bat, the Dodgers pitcher, Matt Guerrier, had him out in front on something off-speed (Mike said it was a splitter or changeup). Guerrier then tried to sneak a fastball past Moustakas, but it didn’t work. The ball cleared the visiting bullpen.

Should Guerrier have stayed with his off-speed stuff? Mike said that was easy to say after the fact, and he’s right. If Guerrier had continued to throw off-speed stuff and Mike then homered, it would have been easy to say that the pitcher needed to change speeds.

With nobody down and Francoeur on second, Elliot Johnson found himself in a 3-1 hitter’s count. Was he still trying to move the runner over? Or in that count, was he trying to drive him in? Elliot said he was trying to drive the ball, but he still hit it to the right side. Johnson figures his role is to be the kind of hitter who gets the runner over, no matter what. Later — on a 3-2 count — he did just that.