Royals pitchers threw 116 pitches Sunday afternoon at Oakland. Catcher Salvador Perez lost focus on one of them and that helped lead to a 3-2 loss.
Nobody wins a game by himself and nobody loses a game by himself. The passed ball by Perez in the fourth inning was just one of the pivotal plays Sunday, but it provides us with a learning opportunity.
Most baseball fans are well aware of the physical grind a 162-game season requires, but talk to big-league players and you’ll hear about the mental grind as well.
On Sunday every Royals player should have been preparing themselves mentally before each pitch was delivered. Every player should know the number of outs, the count, the pitch being delivered, whether the hitter is more likely to pull the ball or hit it to the opposite field and the speed of the runners on base and the man at the plate.
Let’s say you’re Mike Moustakas and the count’s 2-1 on a right-handed hitter. Shortstop Alcides Escobar looks in and sees the sign from Perez and knows it’s going to be an off-speed pitch. As the pitcher goes into his windup — too late for the third-base coach to pass the information along to the hitter — Escobar makes a hissing noise to alert you that something off-speed is on its way to home plate.
Now you know there’s a good chance the ball is coming your way and it might be pulled down the third-base line.
If there’s a runner on first, you better know how fast he is and how fast the man at the plate is. You’ll probably be going to your backhand side and won’t have time to check the runners; you have to know where you’re going for the out before the ball is ever hit because you’ll need to come up throwing.
Those kind of pre-pitch calculations change with every pitch and on Sunday you needed to do these pre-pitch calculations 116 times. Fail to do it once — lose concentration on one pitch out of 116 — and that might cost you a ballgame.
And then what if you miss the postseason by one game?
In the fourth inning of a game the Royals were leading 2-0, Kris Medlen had two outs and a runner on third base. He had a 3-2 count on Chris Coghlan and struck him out with a slider. Perez missed the ball, it went to the backstop and the runner on third — Coco Crisp — scored and Coghlan beat the throw to first base. Later the A’s tied the score 2-2 and they took the lead on a sacrifice fly in the eighth.
That’s why Perez was beating himself up after Sunday’s game; he lost focus on one pitch out of 116 and it turned into a run.
In 2015, Perez caught 142 games in the regular season. If he saw 116 pitches per game that would be 16,472 pitches he had to mentally prepare for. In 2015, Perez had four passed balls, which would be failing to catch one out of 4,118 pitches thrown — and a lot of those pitches would not be thrown in a straight a line.
A catcher has to concentrate if he wants to catch them cleanly and here’s one way a catcher can practice the concentration required.
One day I was watching catcher Drew Butera doing a drill: he was squatted behind home plate, a coach was flipping balls at him from a few feet away and Butera was catching those balls with his bare hand.
But here’s the trick:
Butera already had one ball in his bare hand, held against his palm with his pinkie and ring finger. The trick was to catch a second ball with his thumb, forefinger and middle finger.
He let me try the drill when he was finished and it forced me to really concentrate on catching the second ball. Get sloppy and it would hit the ball already in my hand and bounce off. Butera said it’s a mental drill as much as a physical one; practicing the focus required in the drill would help him do the same thing in a game.
Big-league players make so many things look easy that we sometimes assume they really are easy — but they’re not.
Salvador Perez lost focus for one pitch out of 116 and that helped lead to a Royals loss. That doesn’t excuse Sunday’s passed ball — the catcher’s job is to catch every pitch — you can’t get lazy, lose focus or take things for granted. But when you realize baseball is as much a mental grind as a physical one, a passed ball becomes more understandable.
Now let’s hope this subject doesn’t come up again for another 4,000 pitches.