Judging the Royals

Getting to the ballpark early produces all kinds of interesting insights

Royals players run the bases during a spring training workout last year in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals players run the bases during a spring training workout last year in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

During the season, most days I show up at the ballpark around 2:30 p.m. The Royals often schedule “early work” in the afternoon, and it’s a good opportunity to learn something about baseball and hear a player or coach talk about the game.

Sometimes I hear something interesting but it’s not long enough for a complete article. Those notes get tucked away until I get enough of them, and then they make a column.

Here are some of the things I’ve heard at “early work”:

▪ Smart hitters want to know the percentage pitch in certain counts; if a pitch is thrown less than 25 percent of the time, spit on it. Look for a pitch you’re more likely to get.

▪ Some hitting coaches have signs to remind the hitters of the percentage pitch in certain counts; watch the dugouts and you might see them signaling.

▪ If a guy throws a pitch 1.7 percent of the time, why look for it? If he’s a starter, he’s throwing it about once a game.

▪ With a runner in scoring position, what does the pitcher like to throw on the first pitch? Find out and look for it.

▪ Some hitters will look for one pitch all game and they won’t come off it. A guy can look bad for three at-bats and then crush a pitch when he finally gets what he’s been looking for.

▪ Starters often throw more fastballs than relievers do; they’ve got to get some quick outs and conserve energy. Relievers can expend everything in one inning; they can throw their nastiest stuff and go for a strikeout when a starter might be satisfied to force contact.

▪ Spray charts are useful, but players have to trust their eyes and what they’re seeing; a pitcher might have better or worse velocity on a given night and a hitter might be slow or quick with the bat. Pay attention to foul balls; they’ll give you a clue.

▪ Time of year can have an effect: a guy has one swing in April and another swing once he’s worn down in August. Same thing with scheduling: is it a day game after night game? Was it a travel day, and if it was, which direction did the team travel? If a team from the East Coast is playing a late game on the West Coast, that might change things.

▪ When the matchup numbers aren’t significant, you can go righty vs. lefty or strengths and weaknesses: ‘This pitcher has a terrific fastball, so we pinch hit our best available fastball hitter,’ or, ‘This guy’s best pitch is a slider away, so we send up a hitter who goes to the opposite field well.’

▪ If a position player is scuffling, looks at Triple-A and doesn’t see a replacement for him down there, he feels secure. Some guys in Triple-A are there to motivate a player in the big leagues.

▪ When you’re at home, you can use the media to put an idea in the other team’s head. Say you want them to worry about your team stealing bases or putting on squeeze plays; start talking about that and see if you can get someone in the media to pick up on it. The road team has time on its hands; they’re sitting around the hotel and are more likely to read something in the paper.

▪ Sometimes a guy bunts or steals a base without a sign because it was called in the dugout before the inning ever started: “If that pitcher gets in a 1-1 count, steal. He throws a slider 80 percent of the time in a 1-1 count, and we’ll take those odds.”

▪ If a play is put on before the inning started, you don’t want the third-base coach doing too much in the way of signs — he might panic the other team into pitching out. You want them to see your third-base coach doing nothing. That way, the other team might assume that because there was no sign, there’s no play on.

▪ There are just too many variables that change nightly to say this is the only way to handle a certain situation — you have to react to what you see and adjust to what’s happening that night.

OK, that’s it for now; come mid-March, I’ll head down to Arizona, attend more early work on the back fields of Surprise and scribble more notes.

And early work can lead to early columns.

Follow Lee on Twitter at @leejudge8.