We all know how the game is played: hitters take pitches, work the count, run the starting pitcher’s pitch count up, get him out of the game early and then attack the middle relievers.
Well, that used to be how the game is played—not anymore.
The Kansas City Royals have come up with a different game plan: attack the pitcher early in the count, hit a fastball or get-me-over breaking pitch and avoid those two-strike chase pitches. Avoid those unhittable fastballs above the zone, those splitters in the dirt, those sliders that wind up in the other batter’s box.
After Game 4 of the World Series, Eric Hosmer stood by his locker and talked about the Royals hitting philosophy.
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Eric said hitting coach Dale Sveum realized he had a bunch of free-swingers on his hands and tailored the Kansas City hitting philosophy around the hitters he had; not the hitters he might have wished he had. Sveum did not ask the Royals hitters to be something they weren’t.
And as Eric put it; a hitting coach that wants you to swing the bat has got a pretty easy sale.
An example of how this works: Steven Matz
On Saturday night the Royals played Game 4 of the World Series and the New York Mets starting pitcher was Steven Matz. A look at his numbers helps explains why the Royals have taken such an aggressive approach to hitting.
In the 2015 regular season, hitters who hit the first pitch from Matz recorded a .391 batting average. If Matz got a hitter 0-2, the batting average dropped to .067.
This is why we see Alcides Escobar changing the way leadoff hitters behave; he’s not up there taking pitches. Esky figures if you’re going to throw a fastball down the pipe for strike one he isn’t going to watch it go by. He isn’t going to allow the pitcher to get strike one in and then start moving pitches to the edges of the zone.
Impatience becomes a virtue
In the past, fans of the Moneyball approach to the game have criticized the Royals for their impatience at the plate. Those fans believe that on-base-percentage is the key to winning baseball and, generally speaking, the Royals are not a team that takes pitches or works walks.
To a certain degree I agreed with the criticism; I felt that the Royals were reluctant to take pitches because they didn’t want to hit with two strikes and that was because so few of them had a good two-strike approach.
The Royals are proving their critics wrong—and that includes me.
If I counted right (and it’s early on a Sunday morning in Flushing…which sounds like a country and western song title if country and western songwriters hailed from the New Jersey) Saturday night Kansas City hitters were in two-strike counts 27 times. If I counted right again, they got six hits in those two-strike counts.
If I did the math right—once again factor in early morning grogginess—that’s a .222 average.
Small wonder that the Royals want to conduct their business at the plate early in the count.
The game changes in the playoffs
Think of it this way: The 162-game season is a marathon. You run most of the marathon at a steady pace. (OK, you might run most of a marathon at a steady pace; I’d jog about 100 yards and give up.) Then as you approach the finish line, you give it everything you have left—it’s your finishing kick.
Some fans propose pitching schemes that would burn out a pitching staff by mid-August. A big league manager just can’t do that; he’s got a marathon to run. But in the postseason teams go into their finishing kick; pitchers are asked to do more—or less—than they normally do.
Saturday night Ned Yost asked Wade Davis for two innings. He also pulled starting pitcher Chris Young early.
That’s why Eric Hosmer said you’re not trying to knock a pitcher out of game by running his pitch count up, especially in the playoffs.
Pitch counts tend to go out the window; if a starting pitcher is throwing lights out, the manager will let him extend his pitch count—it might be his last start of the year.
And if a manager sees a tactical advantage to pulling the starting pitcher; he doesn’t worry about going to his bullpen early—it might be the last time those relievers get used.
What to watch for in Game 5
Tonight watch the Royals hitters to see if they’re aggressive early in the count. If a Mets pitcher gets strike one in, pay attention to see whether a Kansas City hitter is willing to take a called strike two.
The Royals hitters want to avoid two-strike counts and if this approach works and they win the World Series, don’t be surprised if a lot of other teams start emulating this approach.
Because the Royals have a method to their madness.