Judging the Royals

Albert Pujols and how smart hitters think

The Angels’ Albert Pujols rounded the bases after a home run off Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy during the third inning of Monday’s game.
The Angels’ Albert Pujols rounded the bases after a home run off Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Ian Kennedy during the third inning of Monday’s game. The Associated Press

If you stayed up late Monday night and watched the Royals lose 6-1 to the Angels, you already know it wasn’t the most interesting game ever played; the Angels scored three runs in the first and after that it wasn’t much of a contest.

But let’s see if we can find at least one thing worth talking about — and today I’m going with Albert Pujols.

In Pujols’ first at-bat, with the bases loaded, he took Ian Kennedy’s first-pitch fastball for a called strike. Then Pujols was late on another fastball and fouled it back and off to the right side.

So if I was a betting man (and I’m not) I’d guess Pujols was “sitting soft,” which means he was looking to hit an off-speed pitch. Six pitches into the at-bat, that’s what Pujols did; he hit an 87 mph slider back to the mound.

OK, so why would Pujols be sitting soft?

It’s not uncommon for veteran pitchers to pick a guy in the opposing lineup and say that guy won’t beat me and if the game is on the line, those hitters rarely get hittable fastballs.

In Kennedy’s last start against the Detroit Tigers he faced Miguel Cabrera three times; Cabrera never got a fastball strike in any of those at-bats.

In the start before that, Kennedy pitched against the Houston Astros and faced Colby Rasmus three times and Rasmus was walked on four pitches in his first plate appearance, did not get a fastball the second time he came to the plate and in his third at-bat Rasmus finally saw two fastballs for strikes, but by that time the Royals had a 6-1 lead and a Rasmus bomb wouldn’t hurt them.

So if Pujols was sitting soft and didn’t think Kennedy would challenge him with a fastball strike that would explain why none of those fastballs in that first at-bat were put in play.

Now let’s fast forward to Pujols’ second at-bat:

If Pujols was smart enough to figure out Kennedy was switching up the game plan and would challenge him with fastballs (and Pujols is smart enough) that would explain why in his second at-bat Pujols hit the first fastball strike he saw out of the yard.

In his third at-bat, Pujols got the count to 3-2 and Kennedy once again challenged him with fastballs and Pujols once again hit a bomb.

If Albert Pujols is looking fastball, you’re not going to beat him on the inside part of the plate with a heater in the low 90s.

You better have a game plan

I recently got to spend some time talking with Eric Hosmer about hitting and he said in the big leagues you better have a game plan when you walk to the plate.

Angels pitcher Garrett Richards provided a good example Monday of why Hosmer would say that; when a pitcher has a 98 mph fastball and can then drop a 91 mph slider on you, “see it and hit it” isn’t going to cut it — you won’t be able to cover both those pitches, so you better pick one and gear up for it.

But let’s say you look at a pitcher’s last few games to find patterns and when that pitcher was 1-1 he threw a fastball 12 out of 13 times; if you find yourself in a 1-1 count that night the smart money says gear up for a fastball.

But what if you’re that 13th guy?

You get a slider instead of the heater you were hunting and you can look pretty bad swinging at it. When we see a hitter take a hittable pitch or swing at one that’s nowhere near the strike zone, odds are we just saw a hitter gamble on what was coming next and lose that bet.

Listen to big-leaguers talk about how smart hitters think and you realize it’s not all that simple … unless you make it simple for them.

Mike Trout’s 420-foot home run

One of the things smart fans can watch for is the pitcher shaking off the catcher; it tells you a lot about what’s going on. Younger pitchers might be more likely to go along with the catcher’s sign; more veteran pitchers might be more likely to shake — they’ve got a game plan of their own.

But some veterans don’t like to shake; they’d rather concentrate on pitch execution.

In the seventh inning, Joakim Soria replaced Ian Kennedy and threw a first-pitch fastball to Rafael Ortega; Ortega bunted the ball and made an out.

Then Soria threw five fastballs in a row to Mike Trout and Trout hit the fifth one 420 feet. Counting the fastball Trout saw when he was standing on deck, Salvador Perez and Joakim Soria let Mike Trout have an up-close-and-personal look at six straight fastballs — not a great idea.

If you’re one of the people wondering what’s up with Soria, watch to see if he’s shaking off Perez; some of the problem could be pitch selection.

The Star's Rustin Dodd recaps the Royals' 6-1 loss in Anaheim on Monday night as pitcher Ian Kennedy suffered his first lost this season.