Judging the Royals

KC Royals reliever Wade Davis plays mind games

Royals reliever Wade Davis pitches during Friday's spring training baseball game against the Angels in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals reliever Wade Davis pitches during Friday's spring training baseball game against the Angels in Surprise, Ariz. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Wade Davis pitched the fifth inning Friday afternoon against the Angels. Look on MLB.com and it shows the Royals’ reliever throwing nothing but fastballs and a curve; but ask Davis himself and he’ll say he threw a changeup.

As we walked from one practice field to another Saturday morning, I asked Davis if he threw a changeup on Friday and he said yeah, he did. I then asked if he was going to start using the changeup this season and Davis said he used the changeup last season.

Wade Davis threw a changeup in 2015 — as in one, single changeup all season.

So I asked the next logical question: if you’re going to throw a pitch once in an entire season, how the heck do you decide when to throw it?

According to Davis, he throws the changeup when the hitter doesn’t think he will.

And in order to understand, we need to back up a bit. Davis pretty much abandoned the changeup when he went to the bullpen; relievers usually don’t need four pitches, so he kept his fastball, cutter and curve and dumped the change.

So if hitters think you never throw a changeup, drop one on them and they’re surprised — you can catch them flat-footed.

But if hitters start to think you throw a changeup that changes the equation. I asked Davis if that was why he threw one on Friday afternoon; did he want to get it in the scouting reports and give hitters another pitch to think about?

Davis said it would be “sick” if hitters thought he threw a changeup 40 percent the time and in this case I’m assuming “sick” is a good thing. Since he only throws it once in a blue moon, he can use it to catch hitters by surprise.

But if Davis did throw a changeup 40 percent of the time, he wouldn’t throw it if the hitter expected him to.

Got it?

Throw it when they don’t expect you to; when they expect you to, don’t throw it.

Davis said, “That’s the game.”

I said we needed to quit talking because he was starting to blow my mind, but as Davis walked off, he turned back, smiled and said, “That doesn’t mean it’s gonna work.”

But this is Wade Davis — I wouldn’t bet against it.

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How you feel changes how you pitch

OK, so you’re a pitcher and you own a hitter; you get him out on a regular basis. If what you’re doing is working, do you ever change what you’re doing?

According to Davis, it depends.

(BTW: that’s pretty much the standard answer to all baseball questions. Situations change every night, so there is no easy answer; you have to pay attention and adjust to what’s happening that night.)

But let’s get back to Wade Davis.

If his fastball is crisp, if his legs feel strong, Davis might try to power the fastball past hitters. If that’s the case, they’ll see a lot of heat. But if his fastball is a tick off, he might throw more cutters and curves.

So how Davis pitches depends on how he feels that night.

Which is why it’s hard to sit in the stands and say the pitcher should have done this or that — pitchers don’t have the same stuff every night. An 0-2 slider might be a good pitch unless your slider isn’t working that night; then it’s a horrible pitch.

Luke Hochevar once told me that he was warming up for a relief appearance, threw his first curveball and it hit the back wall of the bullpen. He junked the curve for the night and told the catcher they’d have to work without one. Pitchers have to figure out what they have working on a particular night and relievers don’t have much time to get that done.

If Davis has all three pitches working — fastball, cutter and curve — he knows hitters will have a hard time. But if he doesn’t have one of those pitches working, the hitter’s odds get better.

And then it might be time to break out that change.

Why hitters take hittable pitches

Let’s say that the last time Davis faced a certain hitter he went get-me-over curve for a called strike one, dotted the “i” with a fastball away at the knees for a called strike two, backed the hitter off the plate with an inside fastball to make the count 1-2 and then threw a chase cutter for a swinging strikeout.

Next time Davis sees that hitter he might pitch him the exact same way because the hitter doesn’t think he will.

And Davis might throw a pitch right into that hitter’s hot zone for the same reason.

Here’s how that works: say a hitter likes the ball middle in, but the hitter figures Davis knows he wants it middle in, so the hitter figures Davis is likely to go middle away and looks for the ball out there.

Then Davis goes right at that middle-in hot zone because the hitter doesn’t expect it.

That explains why we sometimes see hitters lock up on what looks like a hittable pitch; it wasn’t the pitch they expected. That’s also why we see hitters cussing a blue streak after they take that hittable pitch; it was the pitch they wanted, but didn’t think they’d get and when they got it, it surprised them.

Last season Wade Davis had a decent claim on being the best pitcher on the planet; spend some time talking to him and you realize he’s got a brain to match that arm.

Wade Davis plays mind games.

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