Tuesday night, the first pitch of the Orioles-Royals game was thrown by Kris Medlen and hit by Manny Machado. Manny hit it over Lorenzo Cain’s head, LoCain caught the ball, lost it, then caught it again as he was going to the ground. After a replay review and an act of Congress, it was determined that the ball had touched the fence on the way down and Machado was awarded second base.
When a hitter swings at the first pitch it’s called an “ambush,” and Royals fans have been seeing Alcides Escobar ambushing pitches all season. Pitchers tend to throw first-pitch fastballs to get ahead in the count, so a hitter can take advantage of that by swinging at that first pitch.
And in Esky’s case, the numbers seem to justify that approach: Escobar is currently hitting .268 overall, but when he leads off a game he hits .314. When he hits the first pitch of an at bat, his average goes up to .389. What’s not to like?
Esky’s numbers look good when he jumps on the first pitch, but he might be making it harder on the hitters that follow. Traditionally, the first batter of a game would often take pitches in order to let the hitters behind him see what the pitcher had to offer that day.
A game’s first hitter could strike out, but if he saw eight pitches while doing so and made the pitcher throw everything in his arsenal, that hitter did a good job. If Alcides hits the first pitch of a game and that first pitch was a fastball, the other hitters haven’t learned much about what they’re going to face when they go to the plate.
One of the weaknesses of looking at an individual’s numbers is you’re looking at individual numbers; the effect that player has on his teammates isn’t always apparent.
Why Rusty Kuntz thinks I’m wrong
There’s an old saying in journalism: “Never verify yourself out of a good story.” Talk to enough people and you might find out you don’t know what you’re talking about. That stuff I wrote about Esky swinging at the first pitch and how it might hurt his teammates sounded pretty good to me until I made the mistake of leaving the press box and talking to baseball’s Mr. Wizard — Rusty Kuntz.
Rusty told me that a game’s first hitter seeing a bunch of pitches for the benefit of his teammates was old-school thinking. Today there’s so much video available and teams play divisional rivals so often, leadoff hitters don’t really need to do that. And if you ask Alcides Escobar to stand there and take pitches, you’re asking him to be something he isn’t and robbing him of something he is: a good ambush hitter.
We then talked about two at-bats Mike Moustakas had over the weekend in Boston; in one of those at bats Moose saw nine pitches, fouled off four of them, and then hit the ninth one for a homer. In the other at bat Mike saw 10 pitches, fouled off six of them, and then hit the 10th pitch for a double.
Rusty asked me what stood out about those at bats and I said you just don’t see that approach much anymore. I got to talk to Mike about those at bats and he said that once he got to two strikes he let the ball travel deep, fouled pitches off that were too close to take and waited for a mistake pitch he could handle.
Not every hitter can do that and — according to Rusty Kuntz — asking Alcides Escobar to try is a mistake.
Why Jason Kendall thinks Rusty Kuntz is wrong
When we worked on the book “Throwback” — currently out in paperback (and there’s my first plug of the day) — Jason Kendall said it didn’t matter how much video you watched, you still weren’t sure what a pitcher had that day until you faced him and a hitter who saw a lot of pitches helped his teammates.
Both Jason and Rusty know more baseball than I ever will, so I can’t say whose right. But if you want to pick a side, be my guest and leave a comment below.
One more thing from that Sunday game
Remember? That was the game in which third-base coach Mike Jirschele sent Omar Infante home in the ninth inning, down by two with nobody out. As you probably recall, that decision didn’t work out so well.
I wrote a piece about that play and then pointed out another decision Mike made that did work, sending Alcides Escobar home on an Eric Hosmer single. On Monday, Mike told me that if the throw home had been a good one, Esky would have been out. But with two down, Mike made the right call and that tied the game. Later that inning, Mike once again sent a runner home — this time it was Kendrys Morales — and he was thrown out at the plate for the third out.
After posting my piece about Jirschele’s decision making, I got this email:
I love reading your articles on the app “true blue”. I live in Michigan now but originally from Missouri, so love seeing my Royals play better.
I normally don’t write, but when I read your article today on the third base coaches “2” decisions it made me wonder why you left out the 3rd. Morales being thrown out at the plate to end the inning also has to be a cardinal sin in baseball as well. (Excuse the cardinal reference)
The question of him asking if he would be fired made a lot more sense if you throw in the second mistake of the inning. Just wondered your thoughts?
Now to answer your question: making the first out of an inning at home plate is considered a mistake, making the third out at home plate is not and here’s why:
If you stop the runner at third base with nobody out, you’re still in good shape; you have all three outs available in order to get that run across the plate.
If you stop the runner at third with two outs you’re asking the on-deck hitter for another two-out hit. In this case the on-deck hitter was Alex Rios. Alex was hitting .246 at that point and .286 against the pitcher, Junichi Tazawa. So if Mike Jirschle thought sending Morales had a better chance of scoring the run than stopping Morales and letting Rios hit, you send Morales — and he did.
Kris Medlen’s post-game performance
One more thing before I go: on Monday Kris Medlen started the game for the Royals, threw six innings and gave up three runs. Afterwards, Ned Yost said there was a lot to like in that performance. There was also a lot to like in Medlen’s post-game performance.
Kris was surrounded by reporters after the game and one of them said Adam Jones had hit a home run on a “good” pitch. Medlen immediately said: “No, it wasn’t.”
The pitch being referred to was a curveball that ended up at the bottom of the strike zone, but hit the inside corner instead of the intended outside corner. Kris said he knew it was not a good curve as it left his hand.
Pitchers will sometimes say they gave up a hit on a “good pitch” and that can save face: the pitcher didn’t do anything wrong — give credit to the hitter. But there’s a quaint theory that anytime a ball is hit 400 feet it wasn’t that good a pitch.
Give Medlen credit for not making that excuse when he had the chance.