This one got away in the second inning and explaining why takes some doing. Jason Kubel and Josmil Pinto singled to start things off. Kurt Suzuki then laid down a sacrifice bunt and Royals starting pitcher James Shields came off the mound to field the ball. Shields appeared to have a play at third, but dropped the ball. The bases were loaded with nobody out.
Shields then walked in a run.
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Aaron Hicks took his free pass while Jason Kubel scored. Bases still loaded; nobody out. Pedro Florimon struck out and then Brian Dozier hit what looked like a possible double play ball to Mike Moustakas. It looked like Moose got in a rush (I wonder how many errors are made on possible double play balls—it’s a play where everyone starts to hurry) and the ball got through Mike and wound up in left field. When the dust settled two runs were in and Hicks was on third, Dozier was on second, there was one out and Joe Mauer was at the plate.
First base was open; why not walk Joe Mauer?
Let’s run through the pros and cons: whenever first base is open (and sometimes when it’s not) you have the option of working around the guy at the plate. The question you have to ask yourself is if you’re jumping out of the frying pan only to land in the fire. The frying pan is the guy at the plate; the fire is the guy on deck—in this case, Trevor Plouffe.
Coming into this game Joe Mauer had hit .324 off James Shields, Trevor Plouffe had hit .250. So slam dunk—walk Mauer, right? Well, it gets complicated: Shields has an odd split—righties actually hit him better than lefties, so pitch to Mauer. But that’s a career number;
season lefties have hit Shield much better than righties, so walk Mauer, pitch to Plouffe. But coming into this game Plouffe’s the hot hitter; .375 to Mauer’s .244. That number suggest you want to pitch to Mauer.
Bottom line: you can find numbers to justify anything you choose to do—but after falling behind Joe Mauer 2-1, walking him and starting over with Trevor Plouffe and a fresh count seemed like a good idea. One good sinker down and in to the right-handed Plouffe and you might have an inning-ending double play on your hands. The Royals chose to pitch to Mauer, the count moved to 3-2 and Joe hit a three-run homer on a changeup that caught too much of the plate. The Twins never looked back.
Minnesota 7, Kansas City 1.
Duffy in relief
Danny Duffy came out of the pen and threw two and a third innings of scoreless baseball. Heck he threw two and a third innings of hitless, runnerless baseball. Ned Yost has said he’s not overly concerned about having a lefty down in the pen, but most managers wouldn’t mind having one.
Duffy threw 45 pitches and twelve of them were off-speed; nine curves and three changeups. The bad news is that only one of those curves was close enough to the strike zone to get someone to swing the bat—that curve was fouled off. The other eleven off-speed pitches were balls and if hitters know you can’t throw your off-speed stuff for strikes, they’ll spit on it and sit on a fastball. Give Danny credit; he didn’t walk anybody, but if he doesn’t throw his off-speed stuff in the strike zone someone’s going to time up one of those fastballs.
What to look for when Jason Vargas is on the mound
When hitters see pitchers multiple times in a single game the odds often swing in the hitters’ favor. The more times you see a pitcher, the better idea you have of what he and his pitches are doing—take Sunday’s probable starter, Jason Vargas.
When hitters have their first plate appearance of a game against Vargas they have a combined career batting average of .241. If they see Vargas a second time in a game that average goes up to .267. Third time? .284. The hitters are gaining knowledge as the game progresses and that’s one of the reasons fans should focus on the third trip through the order; it’s often a turning point in a game.
So what’s the explanation for hitter’s batting average if they see Vargas a fourth time? It drops to .223.
Think about it: if a pitcher is facing a lineup four times, he’s probably dealing. Vargas probably only sees the order a fourth time on the nights he has his best stuff. That would seem to be confirmed by the number of first, second and third time plate appearances; Vargas has over a thousand of each—but he’s only faced 147 batters a fourth time.
The get-me-over breaking pitch
In the fifth inning of Monday night’s game against the Rays, Jason Vargas threw James Loney what looked like a very hittable curveball on the very first pitch of the at-bat.
Why did Loney take it?
Probably because it was the very first pitch of the at-bat.
Most hitters are looking fastball early in the count. It’s straighter than the other pitches and easier to hit. So a hitter looking fastball on an 0-0 pitch doesn’t want to get himself out on a pitch he isn’t looking for. That means a pitcher can throw a "get-me-over" curve or slider (a curve or slider without as much break and therefore more controllable) to get ahead in the count. Later in the count, if the pitcher gets ahead he might throw a "chase" curve or slider—a breaking pitch with a bigger, sharper break that finishes out of the strike zone.
So if you ever wonder why a hitter takes what appears to be a hanging curveball, the answer’s pretty simple: he wasn’t looking for it. Look for Jason Vargas to throw a few "get-me-over" curves on Sunday.
"Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played" is an inside look at our national pastime, co-authored by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge. The book will be in stores on May 13th, but can be pre-ordered right now.