Judging the Royals

How off-speed pitches beat the Royals

Back in May the Royals went to Oakland and got swept in a three-game series. I noticed that the Oakland pitchers threw a lot of changeups, so when the Royals returned to Kansas City, I asked if that had been part of the problem—I was told that it was.

Many of the young Royals hitters were looking for fastballs in fastball counts and having bad swings when they got a changeup instead. A well-thrown changeup can be especially devastating; it looks like a fastball coming out of the pitcher’s hand and then loses velocity and drops as it approaches home plate. A hitter who buys into the illusion that the pitcher just threw a fastball will look bad as he swings too soon and misses the ball by a healthy margin. Once a pitcher established the fact that he’ll throw a changeup in a fastball count, he can then get away with throwing a fastball in a fastball count; hitters—wary of swinging too soon at the changeup—are then late on the fastball.

So that’s how a good changeup works and Oakland A’s starting pitcher, Tommy Milone, has a good changeup and he was using it to abuse the Royals right-handed hitters.

But in eight and a third innings Milone never threw it to a left-handed hitter. The Royals lefties saw an assortment of fastballs, cutters and curves, but no change-ups. I don’t know if that’s because lefties tend to be low-ball hitters and that’s where a changeup winds up (I’ll ask tomorrow so come back if you want to know the answer) but for whatever reason, Milone never threw one to a lefty. It appeared that, without the changeup as an equalizer, the left-handed hitters were getting better swings at Milone’s fastball. The only two hits through the first eight innings were by Eric Hosmer and David Lough—both left-handed hitters—on fastballs.

At the start of the ninth inning Milone had thrown 87 pitches and had a chance to throw a complete game which would give everyone in the Oakland bullpen the night off. Milone also had a 6-0 lead. When pitchers are in that situation they’ll often pump fastballs in to the zone, not wanting to waste pitches. They figure throw enough fastballs and the other team will hit three of them at someone before six runs cross the plate.

At the start of the ninth Milone threw nine pitches and eight were fastballs—but only one had been hit at someone: Jarrod Dyson’s fly ball to left. Two runs were in, Eric Hosmer was on first base and Billy Butler was at the plate. There was a coaching visit to the mound and after that Milone started throwing changeups again; five in a row to Billy Butler. Billy timed the fifth one, singled and with two runners on, the tying run was on-deck. That’s a save situation, so the A’s brought in their closer, Grant Balfour.

Salvador Perez singled on a fastball, Hosmer scored and now the tying run was at the plate—but the Royals never saw another fastball. Lorenzo Cain saw five sliders and hit into a fielder’s choice on the last one, Mike Moustakas saw two curves, followed by a slider and grounded out to second base to end the game.

Some pitcher once said, "The louder the crowd gets, the softer I throw it." In other words, let the hitter’s own adrenaline defeat him. The Royals have two games left with the Oakland A’s. Pay attention to fastball counts and what the Oakland pitchers throw in those counts: if the A’s throw off-speed when the hitters are looking fastball, the next two games might look similar to this one.

A’s 6, Royals 3.

Game notes

• When pitchers throw off-speed in fastball counts, one of the strategies hitters can adopt is "sitting soft"—look for those off-speed pitches and time one. Continue to take fastball swings when you’re getting changeups and the results will rarely be good.

• It’s small consolation, but the Royals did force the A’s to use their closer. That might come into play later in the series if Balfour’s unavailable because he needs a night off.

• Wade Davis threw seven innings and gave up three runs; a nice bounce-back start after getting knocked around in his last one. Ned Yost said he thought Wade’s stuff looked as good as it had all year.

• Jarrod Dyson made an outstanding play in the second inning: a leaping catch that saw him bang off the chain link that covers the field-level scoreboard. Alcides Escobar robbed another hitter in the eighth.

• David Lough was playing left field, replacing Alex Gordon who crashed into the bullpen gate and is now recovering from banging his head and a bruise that is euphemistically being described as being on his hip. (Let’s just Gordon’s troubles are behind him.)

The A’s challenged Lough’s arm three times and got away with it all three times. Josh Reddick doubled to the left-center gap and beat the throw, then scored on a soft single by Eric Sogard. The ball was not hit that deep and Reddick had to hold up to see if the ball would drop, but they sent him home anyway. Lough’s throw was off-line and Reddick scored easily.

If Gordon had been in left and Reddick had declined to challenge his arm on the leadoff double, the Royals might have gotten out of the inning without a run scoring because Coco Crisp hit what might have been a double play ball, had the double play been in order. If Gordon had been in left field it seems extremely unlikely the A’s would have challenged his arm on Sogard’s single and once again the double play would have been in order when Crisp hit his groundball.

That’s how guys like Alex Gordon save runs in ways that never show up on a scorecard.

• After the Coco Crisp groundout to second base, Johnny Giavotella started to leave the field, not realizing it was only the second out of the inning. As Frank White once said, when you’re on a major-league field there are plenty of opportunities to find out how many outs there are—there are scoreboards all over the place.

• Davis walked the leadoff batter—John Jaso—in the fifth inning and it came back to haunt him almost immediately, Josh Reddick tripled to drive in the run. Then Coco Crisp hit a fly ball to left and once again the A’s challenged Lough’s arm successfully; Reddick tagged up and scored.

• Lorenzo Cain made an error in the top of the ninth that gave the A’s a couple extra runs: with a runner tagging on third, it appeared that Lorenzo got in a hurry to catch Josh Reddick’s fly ball and throw the ball home. Lorenzo missed the ball, the runner on third scored and two other runners—including Reddick—moved into scoring position. Coco Crisp singled and—bang—the A’s had a couple unearned runs. You’ve got to finish doing one thing before you start doing another, but you see it all the time: errors made because a player was already thinking about the

next

thing he had to do—tag a base, tag a runner or make a throw home.

• After scoring 10 runs in Thursday’s game, Ned Yost said the Royals offense was over the hump. There’s a saying in baseball: momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher. You can be on an incredible hot streak and scoring runs in bunches, but if you run into a pitcher that’s dealing, your hot offense won’t look so hot.

A conversation with Luke Hochevar Thursday afternoon the Royals beat the Cleveland Indians 10-7. Luke Hochevar pitched the top of the eighth inning, with the score tied, 7-7. Hochevar faced three batters—Drew Stubbs, Michael Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera—and got all three out. Friday afternoon we sat down in the Royals clubhouse to talk about his outing and his role as a reliever:

Since Kelvin Herrera was sent down, the Royals are trying to find a way get the ball from the starting pitcher to their closer, Greg Holland. Part of that plan is finding an eighth-inning set-up man. If a team has two dominate relievers and gets six or seven innings from their starter, they limit their bullpen’s exposure. After Thursday’s game Ned Yost said that Luke Hochevar would get the opportunity to be that eighth-inning set-up guy.

I asked Luke how he felt about that and he said the main thing about being the set-up man is the way it changes his preparation. The set-up man generally pitches the eighth inning when his team has a lead. Knowing his role helps a reliever prepare: he knows when to stretch, when to throw and what hitters he’ll probably face. Before this, Luke had been used as early as the fourth inning, as late as the ninth and had pitched in tie games, blowouts and everything in-between. The set-up man’s role is not written in stone—Hochevar might pitch in other situations—but he generally has a better idea of how he’ll be used.

A relief pitcher’s warm-up goes faster; starting pitchers can use a long, drawn-out process to be ready to pitch at 7:10, but relievers get less warning. Luke said that warming up as a reliever might mean throwing pitch after pitch as quickly as possible—there’s not as much time to get a feel for what’s working. In fact, what’s working might not be completely evident until he gets out on the game mound; at that point he’s got eight pitches left and he still might be trying to get a feel for a particular pitch at that point. The game plan can change during those final warm-up throws.

If something feels good, he might use it more. If he doesn’t have a good feel for a pitch that day, Luke might use it less. That’s what happened Thursday: he could throw his curve for strikes, but not

quality

strikes—he could put it in the zone, but couldn’t control what part of the zone it would hit. That worked out OK, he’d faced the Indians two days before Thursday’s appearance, and in that game he had good feel for his curve and threw it quite a bit. Without his best curve, Luke would throw more cutters and that would give Cleveland’s hitters a different look.

As a reliever Hochevar has limited his number of pitches: fastball, cutter (a pitch that’s about halfway between a fastball and a slider) and a curve. He also has a change-up and if the hitters he’s about to face tend to struggle with that pitch, he might throw it in the mix that night.

If you read the piece about Wade Davis, you know there are times a starting pitcher might mentally concede a run. If it’s early in the game and his team has six innings to get that run back, it might be better to get a ball in play that allows the run to score, than to expend a great deal of energy trying to strike someone out, then giving up a three-run bomb an inning later because you’re tired.

Hochevar said a reliever can’t think that way, especially a set-up man. They have to give everything they have to prevent a run from scoring; they’re only out there for one inning, it’s getting late, there’s not much time for his team to make up any run that crosses the plate and one run is probably pretty important or you wouldn’t be in the game. Luke said if he had to throw 50 pitches in a single inning to prevent giving up a run, that’s what he’d do.

I asked if the starting pitchers were running a marathon and relievers were running a sprint and Luke said, "Absolutely."

He’s not setting hitters up for later at-bats, he’s not thinking three pitches ahead—he’s throwing the best stuff he has

right now.

Luke said he throws a pitch and gauges the hitter’s reaction; that tells him what pitch to throw next. Let’s say you go to the outer part of the plate—a pitch away—and the guy dives to that outside part of plate and fouls the ball off. That hitter just told pitcher he can be busted inside;

unless

the hitter is thinking along the same lines—"I dove away, he’ll now come in." That kind of cat-and-mouse game goes on all day.

The situation can also change the pitch: with runners on base, Luke might throw a lot of curves. I asked why and he said with runners on base, hitters are looking for RBIs—they want to get the bat head out in front of the plate and hit a ball in the gap or over the fence. But, then again, some hitters will sit soft,

expecting

the pitcher to throw off-speed—more of that cat-and-mouse game.

Hochevar said pitch execution is more important than pitch selection; throwing the right pitch poorly won’t do you much good. The right pitch might be a curve, but hang it and you won’t like the result. Execute most any pitch well and you’ll be in better shape.

The first batter Luke faced on Thursday was Drew Stubbs. Two days earlier Luke had faced Stubbs and thrown him a fastball, a curve and a fastball and struck him out. The time before that, he faced Stubbs and threw him three straight cutters. Pitchers have to remember this stuff and change it up: fall into patterns and a smart hitter will recognize that, look for a pitch and take advantage. A starting pitcher might see a hitter three or four times in a game and have a different approach each time. A reliever does the same thing, but he might do it by facing a guy once a game on three straight days.

To start Thursday’s at-bat, Luke threw Stubbs a fastball down and away—not much a hitter can do with that—followed by a cutter (no curve this time) and had him 0-2. Two days before Luke had come back with a fastball for strike three, but this time he threw another cutter—but off the plate. Luke was hoping Stubbs would expect a fastball, try to get the bat head out in front and be early on the cutter. Stubbs didn’t bite, so then Luke went upstairs with a 97 mile an hour fastball and got Stubbs to hit a fly ball to right.

Next was Michael Bourn, a left-handed hitter. Hochevar threw him a fastball to get ahead in the count, a cutter for a ball and then a cutter for a strike. The second cutter was a "backdoor cutter." That means the pitch started in the right-handed batter’s box and then moved toward the plate, hitting the outside edge at the last moment. Hitters tend to give up on ball that appears to be a foot outside and then get caught flat-footed when the ball moves back over the plate.

Bourn saw another fastball out of the zone and then Luke tried another backdoor cutter—but he wanted this one down. With two strikes Bourn would have to protect the plate and would be likely to swing over the pitch—except the cutter

wasn’t

down—it stayed up. Bourn lined it to left field where it was caught by David Lough.

Two down, one to go.

Asdrubal Cabrera—a switch-hitter—stepped in the box and got a first-pitch cutter. Late in a one-run game, hitters are looking for a pitch to yank. They want to get into the short part of the park and do damage, so they’ll spit on a pitch away or a pitch that’s off-speed; they’re looking for a fastball to pull. So throw a fastball away or something off-speed and they’re likely to take that pitch.

Cabrera took the cutter, but it missed the zone—and so did the next two fastballs. Behind 3-0, Luke didn’t think Cabrera was going to swing, so he threw a fastball that was in the zone. Back in the count 3-1 and now thinking Cabrera

would

swing, Luke threw another cutter. He was right, Cabrera was swinging and hoping for a fastball—the cutter had Cabrera out in front.

Everything Luke had thrown Cabrera had been away, away, away. Five pitches on the outer half of the plate and Hochevar thought now was the time to come inside—and he did. The pitch was a 96-MPH fastball and locked up Cabrera for a called strike three. Just as Luke finished telling me about the pitches he threw Cabrera, he asked me the time. "4:20, you gotta go, dude. Time for pitcher’s stretch." A quick fist bump and he was gone.

Most of these guys love to talk about the game. I’ve said it before: they want us to know why they do what they do. Most of the time, dealing with the press is done as quickly as possible. When a guy sits down and gives a big chunk of his time in order for you to understand what he’s doing is unusual and appreciated—my thanks to Luke Hochevar.
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