Judging the Royals

How Collin McHugh handcuffed the Royals

Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Collin McHugh. The Associated Press

The Kansas City Royals are known as a good fastball hitting team, so if you’re pitching against them, what do you throw?

If you said off-speed pitches, go to the head of the class.

On, Monday night, the Houston Astros started right-handed pitcher Collin McHugh. McHugh threw seven innings, gave up eight hits and no runs. He also threw 102 pitches and if I counted right, 27 of them were fastballs, 75 of them were off-speed.

That’s about 73 percent off-speed pitches.

Big-league hitters will tell you that they get pitched differently with a runner in scoring position and Monday night was no exception.

McHugh had Royals runners in scoring position in three different innings: the fourth, fifth and seventh. With a runner or runners in scoring position McHugh threw a total of 14 pitches, only two were fastballs and only one of those fastballs was thrown for a strike.

So if you were a Royals hitter and you had a runner in scoring position, about 86 percent of the time you saw something off-speed. If you were hunting for a fastball to hit, you were unlikely to get one and even less likely to get one thrown in the strike zone.

Houston’s starter also avoided another trap the Royals like to set; ambushing first-pitch fastballs. McHugh faced 30 batters; only eight saw a first-pitch fastball, only four saw a first-pitch fastball for a strike. Two of those particular first-pitch fastballs were called strikes, two were fouled off.

How about fastball counts?

If I counted correctly, McHugh fell behind and found himself in fastball counts eight times. Five times he threw a cutter in a fastball count; three times he threw the expected fastball. Two of those fastballs were out of the zone. McHugh threw one fastball for a strike in a fastball count and Kendrys Morales was all over it, but he hit a line drive at someone.

Let’s sum up:

Collin McHugh kept the Royals hitters off-balance with a steady diet of cutters, curves and change-ups. He didn’t throw many first-pitch fastballs and when he did he only threw them for strikes four times. He stayed out of fastball counts. With a runner in scoring position, McHugh got even stingier with his fastball.

So if it’s this simple, why doesn’t every pitcher pitch this way?

I’ll take a guess at the answer: control, arm problems and ego.

First of all, a pitcher has to be able to throw his secondary pitches for strikes if he wants to avoid feeding fastball hitters fastballs — and a lot of pitchers are iffy when they try to throw a curve or slider for a strike.

Second: Breaking balls require you to put spin on the ball and that torques the elbow. Throw nothing but sliders and you might be facing Tommy John surgery sooner than normal.

Third: Lots of pitchers hear a hitter hits fastballs and think, “Yeah, but he hasn’t seen my fastball.” Some pitchers are power pitchers and can get away with throwing a heater when the hitter expects one.

But don’t be surprised if a lot of opposition pitchers emulate what Collin McHugh did Monday night — because he handcuffed the Royals.

But the fastball is still a great pitch

Don’t misunderstand; pitchers still need to throw fastballs and a well-located heater is a great pitch. If a pitcher wants to throw a fastball in a fastball count, he can get away with that by putting it in a good location.

And, depending on the situation, sometimes pitchers just want the ball put in play.

Houston reliever Tony Sipp replaced McHugh in the eighth inning. By that point the Astros had a seven-run lead and just needed six outs for the win. Sipp came out firing fastballs — seven in his first nine pitches — and quickly surrendered a single and a home run.

The Royals were finally getting the fastball strikes they’d been looking for, but it was too little, too late. After Kendrys Morales hit a fastball for a two-run bomb, Sipp started mixing it up. In his next 13 pitches Sipp threw a total of four fastballs.

What to watch for tonight

If Houston pitcher Mike Fiers sticks to his past pattern, he’ll throw more fastballs than Collin McHugh, but pay attention to what Fiers does on the first pitch and in fastball counts like 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1.

If he throws fastballs in those counts, where are they located? And if he throws off-speed pitches in those counts, does he throw them for strikes?

The answers to those questions might determine the outcome of the game.

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