Judging the Royals

Jason Vargas: strike one vs. ball one

Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas throws against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in Minneapolis. Vargas picked up his eighth win as the Royals won 4-0.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Jason Vargas throws against the Minnesota Twins in the seventh inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, July 2, 2014, in Minneapolis. Vargas picked up his eighth win as the Royals won 4-0. The Associated Press

Vargas threw seven innings, gave up four hits and no runs. The Twins weren’t able to do much with Vargas all day, but if Vargas threw strike one to a hitter, things got even worse.

Jason threw strike one to twelve hitters and only one of them got a hit—that’s an .083 average. Vargas threw ball one to 14 hitters; three got hits and two walked — that’s a .250 batting average and a .357 on-base percentage. It’s pretty easy to see the importance of throwing strike one.

Get ahead and a pitcher can dictate the at-bat. He can start working the edges of the zone and a hitter—especially a hitter who isn’t confident about hitting with two strikes — will start to chase marginal pitches.

Vargas, Wade Davis and Greg Holland were outstanding and the Royal beat the Twins 4-0 and took the series.

How to open up the outside corner

One of the many reasons a pitcher needs to pitch inside is to open up the outside corner. If hitters have no fear that you’ll come in on them, they can lean out and make the outside corner the middle of the plate.

When we think of pitching inside we usually think of going up and in — sometimes called "buzzing the tower"—but you can also pitch down and in. Throw at a hitter’s feet and make him move them. A guy who has no problem taking a fastball in the back will still try to avoid taking a fastball in the ankle. Once you make the hitter move his feet he’s uncomfortable and now you can attack that outside corner.

Which was just what Jason Vargas did in the first inning: he made Eduardo Nunez skip out of the way of a fastball down and in, then threw a changeup away for strike three.

Walt Hriniak’s hitting advice

My buddy Russ Morman — currently managing in the San Francisco Giants’ system — once had Walt Hriniak for a hitting instructor. Hriniak once told Russ that is he did everything else wrong, but saw the ball, he’d have a chance. On the other hand, if Russ did everything else right, but didn’t see the ball, he’d have no chance.

I was reminded of that when Eric Hosmer took a 3-0 hack in the second inning and missed. Hosmer does not get cheated when he swings, but slow the video down and you see Eric’s head turn toward first base as he brings the bat through the zone.

When a hitter gets a pitch to hit, but misses, over-swinging is often the culprit. Over-swinging makes the head move. Same thing happens with guys who can lay down bunts in practice, but have trouble in games; in practice they square early, but in games they often wait and square around late. That means their heads are moving and that means they’re unlikely to see the ball well.

That Ibanez home run

42-year-old Raul Ibanez hit a home run in the eighth inning and he did it on an 85-mph slider. Probably not the smartest pitch you can throw a guy who’s getting solicitation letters from the AARP. Guys tend to lose bat-speed as they get older, so throwing a pitch that speeds up a hitter’s bat might be a mistake.

In this case, it clearly was.

You can show an older hitter a slider, but you probably want to keep it out of the zone.

Who’s hot right now?

Billy Butler is currently hitting .268 and Eric Hosmer is hitting .256 — whom would you rather face? Trick question. That’s the wrong comparison.

A hitter’s overall season average isn’t as important as what he’s hitting right now. Billy went 1 for 14 in the Minnesota series, struck out three time and hit into three double plays. Eric Hosmer was 1 for 4 in the first game — but hit a couple balls hard — then blew up in the second game of the series going 4 for 4. In the third game of the series Hosmer walked three times and that’s probably not a coincidence. The Twins appeared to be avoiding Hosmer and going after Butler.

Right now Hosmer is hot and Butler is not.

If you want to understand pitching strategy, look up what a hitter has done over the last few games coming into a series. The scoreboard may say he’s hitting .300, but if he’s cold right now, expect pitcher to go after him. The same thing works in reverse: a guy may have a weak overall average, but come into as series riding a hot streak.

How a day off affects the bullpen

The Royals have a day off on Thursday and that meant Ned Yost could use Greg Holland even though it wasn’t a save situation. Greg hadn’t worked in a while and tomorrow’s off-day meant he could throw in this game and still be available throughout the Cleveland series.

How to know what off-speed pitch is coming

Fastball counts are called fastball counts because the pitcher is in a spot where he needs to throw a strike and a fastball is his best chance of doing so. But the better pitchers — the guys who stick around awhile — can throw something off-speed in those counts. They’ll use the fact that the hitter is ahead in the count against the hitter. Get the guy at the plate thinking he’s got a plus 90 MPH fastball coming, and he’ll be out in front on anything slower.

So if a hitter knows a pitcher has a tendency to do this, what off-speed pitch should the hitter look for?

Answer: whichever off-speed pitch he’s been throwing for strikes.

That’s why hitters need to watch the between-inning warm up pitches. The pitcher will show you what he’s throwing: if he flips his glove at the catcher palm up, that’s a curve, a sideways motion with the glove is a slider and pointing the glove at the catcher and then pulling it back is a changeup. When the pitcher is warming up, the catcher still needs to know what’s coming so he can anticipate the pitch’s movement. Big league hitters can tell what a pitch is just by looking at it, so the pitcher isn’t giving anything away.

So if the only off-speed pitch that’s getting thrown for strikes in warm-ups is a slider, that’s the pitch you look for when you think the pitcher is going to go off-speed in a fastball count. But what if the pitcher is throwing all his off-speed stuff for strikes?

If you’re a hitter, you’re in for a long day.