Royals pitcher Edinson Volquez entered the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday with the score tied 1-1. Volquez had some trouble in the first inning when he was victimized by a tight strike zone and a double play that didn’t get turned, and he was saved from giving up a run in the fourth inning when Alex Gordon made an incredible throw to home plate.
Other than that, Volquez was cruising.
Because he was throwing so well and his pitch count was low, Ned Yost sent Volquez back out for the seventh inning, even though that inning is often tough on starting pitchers.
By the seventh, starting pitchers are often facing the opposing batting order for the third time, so hitters have had a good look at what the pitcher is featuring that day. And by the seventh, pitchers are often approaching their pitch limit; so a tiring pitcher facing hitters who are getting a better idea of what pitches to swing at and what pitches to let go can be a recipe for disaster.
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So why expose the starter that way?
There are at least a couple good reasons to send a starter back out for the seventh; if the starter is dealing and has a low pitch count, why take him off the mound? In that case you’re doing the other team a favor. Volquez had given up one iffy run and there was no indication that he was tiring.
The second reason to send a starter back out is if you don’t have someone better to pitch the seventh inning.
In 2014, Yost had Kelvin Herrera (1.41 ERA), Wade Davis (1.00 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.44 ERA), so pulling the starter after six innings was a no-brainer. This year it’s Joakim Soria (3.13 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (1.40 ERA) and Wade Davis (1.23 ERA), who went on the disabled list Tuesday. So the seventh inning isn’t such a sure thing anymore.
If the starter is pitching well, don’t be surprised if you see him try to get the ball to Herrera and Davis in the eighth and ninth innings and avoid having someone else pitch the seventh.
After the smoke is cleared it’s easy to say what should have been done differently, but if you were watching the game on Monday and Yost had pulled Volquez and sent Soria out to pitch the seventh, would you have been happy?
Three in a row is not a coincidence
Generally speaking there are no hard and fast rules for when you pull a starting pitcher. It’s not an exact science; conditions and situations change nightly.
So managers are stuck with numbers that tell you what’s happened in the past, but not what’s happening right now, rules of thumb and their instincts. (And before anyone ridicules “gut feelings,” they should read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink.” It explains how gut feelings can be an accumulation of experience talking to you through your subconscious.)
Here’s one rule of thumb that you can look for: three in a row is not a coincidence.
If three hitters in a row swing at the first pitch, it’s not a coincidence; it’s an ambush. If three hitters in a row hit line drives, it’s not a coincidence; the pitcher’s lost something. And if three hitters in row reach base, it’s not a coincidence; something’s up.
On Monday, Edinson Volquez had a 1-2-3 fifth and 1-2-3 sixth. He then started the seventh with a walk on five pitches. After that, Volquez gave up a single. Volquez still had good sink going so Ned Yost left him out there hoping for a double play, but when Volquez hit the third batter he faced, Yost went and got him.
Three in a row reached base, it was clear Volquez had lost some control and Volquez was done.
Unfortunately, the three in a row rule of thumb came into play a little too late; Luke Hochevar had a bad outing and the Jays took a lead they’d never give back.