Judging the Royals

How Yordano Ventura’s avoiding 3-ball counts helped the Royals win

Ask the people that know and they’ll tell you that if a pitcher wants to go deep in a game, he shouldn’t just avoid walks; he should also avoid 3-ball counts. Thursday night Yordano Ventura faced 31 batters and only four of them reached a three ball count. That’s one of the reasons Ventura was able to go seven innings on 103 pitches.

Stay aggressive, force the action early in the count and a starting pitcher has a better chance of staying in the game and getting the ball to the back end of the bullpen.

For the most part, that’s what Ventura did and the Royals beat the Minnesota Twins, 6-3.

Why a hanging curve can be more dangerous than a poorly located fastball

The very first batter of the game—Danny Santana—hit a Yordano Ventura 83-MPh curveball into the right field bleachers. Leaving an off-speed pitch in a bad location allows the hitter to pull the ball down the line; right into the shortest part of a ballpark. Miss with a fastball and—because of the velocity—the pitcher has a better chance of keeping the ball in the big part of the park; centerfield.

Ventura and Salvador Perez broke out the curve right away. Some people think you save it for later and go as far as you can on a fastball and changeup, then show the breaking stuff in the later innings.

Thursday afternoon Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki told me that early in the game he might call a pitcher’s breaking stuff in non-crucial situations; counts where the pitcher did not have to throw a strike. That way the pitcher gets a feel for the pitch so when he does have to throw it for a strike, he’s ready.

Mike Moustakas gives away a run and then gets it back

Mike Moustakas made a pair of errors in the third inning that resulted in a run scoring, but got it back a couple innings later with an RBI double. A useful way to think about players is "strengths and limitations." They use that terminology in the Red Sox system—players prefer the term "limitations’ to the term "weaknesses"—but any analysis of a player ought to include both pluses and minuses. Nobody gets to the big leagues without some pluses, but no player is perfect.

Moose runs the bases well and gets the Royals a run

After his fifth inning RBI double Moustakas’ base running resulted in the Royals tying the game; Moose was on second base when Alcides Escobar lined out to short.

It’s incredibly easy to take a step in the wrong direction—toward the next base—when someone hits a line drive. But Mike didn’t do that; he headed back toward second base. You might have been taught "freeze on a line drive" but that’s not right either—after a runner takes a secondary lead, he’s too far from the bag. On a line drive the right move is to head back to the base. If the line drive gets though the infield and the runner can only advance 90 feet, so be it. That’s better than getting doubled off.

Moustakas did the right thing, kept the inning alive and scored when Jarrod Dyson hit the ball past second baseman Eduardo Escobar.

Kurt Suzuki and the 0-0 pitch

Thursday afternoon I spent some time talking to Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki and afterwards Royals outfield coach Rusty Kuntz asked me how often Suzuki swings at the first pitch. I didn’t know so I looked up Suzuki’s 2014 numbers.

The answer is not much. A guy who is willing to take a pitch has to be confident about hitting with two strikes and here’s why:

Say the pitcher drops in a get-me-over curve, cutter or slider and gets ahead 0-1. If a hitter is sitting on a fastball he might take a hittable breaking pitch just because he wasn’t looking for it. Then, if the hitter isn’t confident in his ability to hit with two strikes, he’ll start to expand the zone with one strike. The pitcher can then start to nibble at the edges of the zone and the hitter will chase a marginal pitch because the hitter wants to avoid striking out.

Star beat writer Andy McCullough had a story that said heading into Wednesday’s game the Royals ranked last in the majors in walks, but they also had fewer strikeout than any other team. Swinging early in the count explains both numbers. When a hitter has low strikeout totals, take a look at how many pitches he sees.

The hitter might avoid strikeouts by making an out earlier in the count.

Kurt Suzuki came into Thursday’s game hitting .304, .313 with runners in scoring position and leads all American League catchers in batting average and on-base percentage. Kurt also made this year’s All-Star team. Taking the first pitch isn’t a magic formula—there are times swinging at the first pitch makes sense—but hacking at a pitcher’s pitch early in the count is clearly a mistake.

We talked for about 45 minutes and Kurt said a lot of interesting stuff. And one of the interesting things he said had to do with a hitter’s pitch selection: guys who let the pitcher dictate are easier to get out. The pitcher throws in and they hack at that, the pitcher goes away and they’ll swing at that, too. The guys who are tough to get out are the guys who are disciplined; they’re looking for a certain pitch and, unless it’s a two-strike count, won’t swing the bat until they get it.

And if they don’t get it on the first pitch, they don’t swing.

Why Suzuki thinks the 1-1 count is the biggest count in baseball

When the count’s 1-1 it’s about to go 1-2 or 2-1 and the difference between those counts is huge. Let’s look at Suzuki’s numbers to demonstrate: 1-2 Suzuki hits .182 and 2-1 Suzuki hits .414.

In a 1-2 count the pitcher is in charge and can force the hitter to try to cover whatever nasty pitch he can come up with—the hitter’s strike zone expands.

In a 2-1 count the hitter can be very selective and only offer at his pitch—the hitter’s strike zone shrinks.

And if there’s a runner on, things get worse; 2-1 is a good hit and run counts and the catcher and pitcher might have to contend with runners in motion.