Judging the Royals

Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and called third strikes; do they reflect how well a pitcher is throwing?

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) throws in the first inning during Thursday's baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles on August 27, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura (30) throws in the first inning during Thursday's baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles on August 27, 2015 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

After Yordano Ventura’s last start, I got this email from a reader:

I was at the Thursday game and to me the most impressive thing about Ventura’s performance was that he got 6 of his 11Ks on called third strikes (yes I keep score - it would be sacrilegious to not do so). Since none of the affected hitters looked askance at the ump I assume they were either fooled outright and/or believed the ump’s calls were reasonable even if the pitch was marginally off the plate. In either situation, that’s really good pitching. I don’t recall you ever bringing up called third strikes in your column. What are your thoughts as to how called third strikes reflect how well a pitcher is throwing? 

My response

If all you care about are strikeouts, then called third strikes are a good sign; hitters are getting fooled by nasty pitches. But if the pitcher is racking up strikeouts, he’s probably also racking up his pitch count. So a guy who has good individual numbers might be putting his teammates in a bad spot by leaving the game early and exposing his team’s middle relievers.

Here’s an example: Danny Duffy pitched on Sunday, struck out six, but only threw five innings. The Kansas City bullpen had to cover four innings and gave up the winning run in the process. In my opinion it would be better pitching to have fewer strikeouts and go deeper in a ballgame.

And sometimes it’s the hitter, not the pitcher

If a hitter takes a called third strike — unless it was clearly a blown call by the umpire — it indicates the pitch was too close to take. But these days you don’t see many hitters adopt an aggressive two-strike approach: choking up on the bat, letting the ball travel deep and hacking at anything close. If the pitcher makes a good pitch, the good two-strike hitter hopes to foul it off and get something better on the next delivery.

If you see a hitter with two strikes and he still has his pinky finger hanging off the knob of the bat, he isn’t taking a two-strike approach; he’s still trying to do damage. And a hitter who is still looking for a certain pitch, even though he has two strikes, can get caught flat-footed when a pitcher throws something other than the pitch the hitter was looking for. The pitcher might look good, but it was really a bad approach by the hitter that resulted in a called third strike.

Danny Duffy’s pitch count

Let’s go back to that last start by Danny Duffy: pay attention to pitch counts and you can see trouble coming early. I’ve been told 15 pitches an inning is about average, so when Danny Duffy threw 32 pitches in the first inning of Sunday’s game against the Tampa Bay Rays, you could see the problem; unless Danny found a way to throw a couple of really quick innings, his pitch count would have him out of the game about an inning too early.

Duffy threw 99 pitches but only made it through five innings.

If fifteen pitches is about average and a pitcher manages to stay on that pace, after seven innings, his pitch count would be 105. Do that, hold a lead, then turn the ball over to your set-up man and closer and you’re in great shape.

But throw a 32-pitch inning and now you’re more likely to throw six innings and you need one more inning from your bullpen. Keep racking up high-pitch count innings — the downside of a lot of strikeouts — and you may only throw five innings. That’s when you expose your bullpen; instead of needing to provide two innings of relief, they need to provide four and a couple middle relievers might get exposed in those extra two innings.

Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Kendrys Morales

Over the weekend Eric Hosmer was asked about the good season he’s having and he gave part of the credit to the other guys in the lineup. With Lorenzo Cain in front of him, Hosmer is likely to get more fastballs; the pitcher wants to keep Cain from stealing a base. With Kendrys Morales behind him, Hosmer gets better pitches to hit; they don’t want to work around Eric to get to one of the top RBI guys in the league.

This is one more example of why baseball fans can’t look at a player’s numbers and assume he can duplicate them on another team — the guys you play with matter.

Another reader’s email

Here’s one about Alcides Escobar and his habit of swinging at a game’s first pitch: 

Escobar’s ambush approach of hacking at the 1st pitch of most games doesn’t seem to be working to me. I think it puts undue pressure on the #2 and #3 batters to try to keep the pitcher from escaping the 1st inning with a pitch count under 10. Today’s game for example, Rays leadoff man Guyer forced Duffy into a 10 pitch 1st at bat. I hope someone is noting that. It might be different if Escobar walked occasionally, but his OBP is in the bottom third of the starting lineups. OBP ranks 14th in the league among leadoff men and nearly 30 points below average for leadoff American Leaguers.

My response

I think Royals fans are just going to have to get used to the idea that Alcides Escobar is never going to walk much. Ask him to take pitches and you lose what he does pretty well (ambush first-pitch fastballs) while asking him to do something he doesn’t do well (work walks). You might lose what you have without gaining anything.

Right now Escobar is hitting .260 on the season overall. When Esky’s the first batter of the game he hits .300, when he leads off an inning he hits .275 and when he puts the first pitch of an at bat in play he hits .382. What I’d like to know, and intend to find out, is whether Ben Zobrist feels pressure to take a pitch if Escobar makes an out on the first pitch of a game.

If I get an answer to that, I’ll tell you what it is.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.