Every once in a while, I’ll come across a piece about baseball written by a novelist or poet that will go on and on about the timeless, unchanging nature of our national pastime. Those pieces are usually sentimental (you gotta work in something about fathers playing catch with sons), lyrical and dead wrong.
The game has always been changing, it continues to change today and your hometown Kansas City Royals are in the forefront of that change.
Back when Doug Sisson was the Royals’ first-base coach, he told me that if they got performance-enhancing drugs out of the game, the stolen base would make a return. If standing around waiting for someone to hit a home run were no longer a good strategy, teams would have to go back to playing the game 90 feet at a time.
Sisson was right.
The 2014 Royals drove their opponents crazy by swiping bases; but if you build a better mouse trap, the mice will hold a union meeting and figure out how to steal the cheese without getting squished.
So the mice started slide-stepping.
The slide step is a pitching delivery in which the pitcher (we’re done with the mouse metaphor) barely lifts his front foot off the ground and then slides toward home plate. Without a big leg kick, the pitcher gets the ball to the catcher’s mitt more quickly.
The average big-league base runner with the average big-league lead at first base can swipe second base in about 3.4 seconds. The average big-league catcher can receive a pitch and throw it to second base in 2.0 seconds flat. So if the runner goes and the pitcher gets the ball to home plate in 1.4 seconds, there will be a bang-bang play at second base.
I once did the math on how fast a big-league base runner could cover the ground between first and second base, and it turns out that, on average, each tenth of a second is worth a little more than 2 feet.
So if the pitcher gets the ball to home plate in 1.3 seconds and everything else remains the same, the runner will be out by a couple feet; get the ball home in 1.5 seconds, and the runner will be safe by the same margin.
No wonder Buck Showalter wanted his pitchers to get the ball to home plate in 1.2 seconds when his Baltimore Orioles faced the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 American League Championship Series.
But that strategy backfired.
The problem with the slide step
If a pitcher’s front foot gets down quicker, his throwing arm might be late. If his arm is not in the right position when he releases the ball — if his arm is tardy — the ball will stay high in the strike zone.
The Royals won Game 1 against the Orioles when Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas hit home runs in the 10th inning. Both pitches were up in the zone, both pitches were thrown out of a slide step. That’s an example of how the Royals’ base running changes a game even when the base runners don’t steal a base.
In 2015, teams were doing whatever it took to stop the Royals from stealing bases, but that meant more slide steps and more hittable fastballs for the guys at the plate.
When a pitcher is quick to the plate and the Royals don’t think they can steal bases that night, they tell the hitters not to wait around; if they get a hittable fastball, take a hack — do not wait for a runner to swipe second base because it isn’t going to happen.
So here’s the sequence: The Royals steal bases, the pitchers start slide stepping, the Royals stop stealing bases but now get better pitches to hit — and the game changes right in front of our eyes.
Royals’ pitching staff is constructed back-to-front
“We’ll go as far as our starting pitchers take us” has been said so often it’s a baseball cliché. But the Kansas City Royals are standing that cliché on its head.
The Royals are once again American League champs, going to their second World Series and in this postseason, their starting pitching has been mediocre.
In this postseasn, not one of their starters is averaging six innings a start. The only starting pitcher with an ERA under 4.00 is Chris Young. So if starting pitching is supposed to define how good a team is and how well it will do, how are the Royals pulling this particular rabbit out of their hat?
Going to the pen early has traditionally been a sign of trouble; it means your starter is getting whacked around or running out of gas. But if the Royals have a lead and go to their pen early, they’re in good shape. Greg Holland is out with an injury and Ryan Madson has been getting lit up in the postseason, but the Royals still have a killer bullpen.
Have the starting pitcher grab a lead, or at least keep the game close, and then hand the ball to the best bullpen going. Instead of asking the starter to give them seven innings and face the opposing lineup at least three times, the Royals can go to the pen early and run out a string of very tough relievers.
David Price and his pitch count
Let’s recap the 2015 regular season: The Royals were dead last in the American League when it comes to walks, second-to-last in the home run category, and their starting pitching is nothing to write home about. What else don’t they do well?
They don’t work the count.
Working the count, making the starting pitcher throw lots of pitches and getting him out of the game as early as possible, is pretty much standard operating procedure — but the Royals don’t do that.
The Royals hack early in the count — taking a called strike two is often a rarity — and that makes them the toughest team in baseball to strike out; the Royals try to put the first hittable pitch they see in play. They’re not up at the plate long enough to strike out or walk, and that helps them avoid hitting in two-strike counts.
Game 6 of the ALCS against the Toronto Blue Jays and David Price was instructive.
Get into a two-strike count and you’ll face a pitcher’s nastiest stuff; he’ll be throwing “put-away” sliders, curves, cutters and changeups, and you’ll have to protect the plate and chase those borderline pitches — you’re not going to succeed very often in those situations.
In Game 6, Price had 15 Royals in two-strike counts and gave up one walk and two hits in those counts. That’s a less-than-robust .143 batting average. Price also struck out eight Royals, so if a Kansas City hitter got to two strikes, he had about a 13 percent chance of getting a hit and about a 53 percent chance of striking out.
So the Royals were not going to wait around; they’d go after the first good pitch they saw. The Royals wanted to get Price early in the count, before he got to those two-strike chase pitches.
They didn’t exactly kill him with that strategy — Price only gave up five hits total — but as far as the Royals were concerned, the strategy worked. Price was under 90 pitches after six innings but gave up three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings, and that was enough to put Kansas City in a position to win the game.
The Royals made a virtue of impatience at the plate.
The game continues to evolve, and the people who criticized Dayton Moore and the Kansas City Royals for being behind the times are now left in the dust.
The Royals are changing the way baseball is played.