Last September, I watched the final game of the Royals’ 2011 season: Royals vs. Twins, Bruce Chen against Carl Pavano, a 1-0 victory for the Twins. You can go to the “By Game” section here on the site to see what I had to say about it then. Recently, I watched the game again, this time with my friend, Russ Morman. Russ played at Wichita State, was the Chicago White Sox No. 1 draft pick, made his first major-league appearance with the Sox in 1986 and later played for the Royals and the Florida Marlins. Russ is currently the Triple-A hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants.
I wanted to watch this game with him to see how many things he would notice that I had missed. I took notes while Russ talked about the game. Here are the results:
Pavano is pitching from the third-base side of the pitching rubber. It allows him to hide the ball as long as possible from the hitters and exaggerates the angle of his pitches.
The first batter of the game is Jarrod Dyson. In a 2-1 count, Pavano throws Dyson an 87-mph sinker. Dyson is slightly out on his front foot and flies out to left. This is not Pavano’s best fastball: He subtracted a few miles an hour when Dyson was in a hitter’s count.
We see the same pattern all night from both Pavano and Chen: When the hitter gets into a good hitter’s count or when there’s a runner in scoring position, the two veterans take something off their pitches. They use the hitter’s aggressiveness against the hitter. This results in hitters being slightly out in front of pitches at critical moments.
By getting Dyson out on his front foot, it’s more likely that he will hit the ball in the air. Pavano wants Dyson to hit fly balls because then Dyson’s speed doesn’t matter. Dyson wants to keep the ball on the ground and turn every play into a foot race.
In the top of the first inning, Billy Butler doubles to right field. Replays show he’s probably out but gets the call. The tag is made just before Billy’s foot hits the bag, and the culprit is the pop-up slide. A pop-up slide requires the front leg to be flexible, which means the foot slightly retracts as the runner nears the bag, delaying the moment of contact. On close plays, runners should go straight into the bag and forget popping up.
Eric Hosmer follows Butler and, true to form with a runner in scoring position, Pavano tries to use a hitter’s aggressiveness against him. Pavano starts Hosmer with an 80-mph change-up. Hosmer doesn’t swing at the first pitch but eventually flies out to left.
Chen takes the mound. I tell Russ that Chen credits former Royals pitching coach Bob McClure for teaching him the cutter, and Russ says that pitch might be the difference between the pitcher Chen was and the pitcher he is now. A cut fastball from a left-handed pitcher moves in laterally to a right-handed hitter. This movement allows Chen to come inside with fastballs as slow as 82 miles an hour and still get in on the hitter’s hands. It also gives Chen a fastball that can move in three ways: The cutter moves in on a righty, the two-seamer sinks while moving away and the four-seamer is straight.
MLB.com describes these cutters as “sliders,” so don’t believe everything you see on the internet.
Both pitchers have great tempo (although Chen’s tempo is better out of the windup than out of the stretch). Both pitchers are working fast, getting it and chucking it. Russ points out that it’s the last game of the season and nobody is screwing around. Everybody’s ready to go home.
In the third inning, Dyson bunts to the right side and the Twins’ second baseman, Brian Dinkelman, covers the bag. Dinkelman runs to the back of the bag and puts his foot on the back corner. This is a mistake. If Dinkelman runs to the front of the bag and puts his foot on the front corner, he catches the ball sooner and Dyson is out.
In the bottom of the third inning with one out and Twins catcher Drew Butera on first base, center fielder Ben Revere hits a single to right field. Lorenzo Cain drops to his knees to knock the ball down, but Butera still stops at second. Failure to take advantage of Cain’s poor throwing position probably costs the Twins a run. The next batter, Trevor Plouffe, hits a fly ball to center field that might’ve scored Butera had he made it to third.
Both right fielders, Cain and Michael Cuddyer, have trouble with balls off the wall. At Target Field, a ball that hits the right-field wall padding comes off softly, while a ball that hits the concrete one inch above that padding comes off like a rocket. Weird ballpark features make for tentative players.
In the fifth inning, Mike Moustakas singles and then steals second. Except it wasn’t a steal: It was a hit and run, but Cain missed the pitch. Cain goes on to strike out. Moustakas is then picked off while Mitch Maier is at the plate. With two outs, teams usually forget pickoffs and concentrate on the batter, so the Twins saw something that made them go after Moustakas. On the replay, we see what they saw: Moustakas has a very big lead at second. Baserunners worried about their lack of speed will try to get a good jump off second with two outs, knowing they’ll probably be waved home. Moustakas got too big a lead, the Twins saw it and took advantage.
Moustakas tries a “swim move” to get back to second after the pickoff throw: He sticks his left hand out, hoping the middle infielder will reach for it, then pulls it back and tries to reach around the tag with his right hand. Shortstop Plouffe splits the difference and tags Moustakas in the face.
By the fifth inning, Chen has lost velocity. It’s the end of a long season, and most pitchers find their velocity down in late September. In this game, Pavano tops out at 91 mph and Chen tops out at 89. Russ asks me how often they threw their hardest and the answer is very seldom. Both waited until a few extra miles an hour would do the most good and then threw their best fastball. But even as their velocity dropped, they still had great location and pitched effectively.
In the fifth, Revere strikes out looking with a runner on second base. In my original article, I wondered if Revere had been peeking or was getting signs from the runner. I thought he might have gotten locked up when Salvador Perez made a last-second change in location. Russ doesn’t think so; he believes Revere was guessing and guessed wrong. Russ also thinks striking out looking with a runner in scoring position is a big mistake.
Pavano beats Butler on 90-mph fastball in the seventh inning. It’s the hardest pitch Pavano’s thrown Butler all night. Butler is jammed and rolls an easy grounder to second base. All the soft stuff that Butler has seen up until now set up the 90-mph fastball.
Russ says Chen and Pavano are two guys it’s hard to think with; hitters don’t get what they expect when they expect it. Hosmer’s three at-bats illustrate the point: In Hosmer’s first at-bat, Pavano’s first pitch was an 80-mph change-up. In his second at-bat, Pavano’s first pitch was a 90-mph fastball, and in Hosmer’s third at-bat, Pavano’s first pitch was an 81-mph change. Pavano keeps changing speeds and Hosmer goes hitless.
We also note that, once again, a left-hander cannot put his hat on straight. (Check out Chen this summer.)
In the eighth inning, Moustakas triples with nobody out. The first batter, Cain, grounds out hard to Pavano on a 3-1 count and Moustakas holds at third. The next batter, Maier, takes the first pitch, a sinker. Maier lets it go because he wants something up that he can elevate to the outfield. But this pitch has so much movement it glances off Butera’s mitt. It rolls away, but not far enough for Moustakas to score. Moustakas does not have a great lead at third because the Twins have the infield in, and Moustakas has to be the same distance from the bag as the third baseman. (A runner doesn’t want to get doubled off on a line drive to third.)
Later in the at-bat, Pavano sees something in Maier’s swing that he wants to exploit and calls his catcher to the mound. Pavano has Maier reaching for a splitter on the next pitch, and Maier grounds out softly to the mound. Either the Royals did not have the “contact play” on (the runner breaks for home if he sees the ball come down off the bat) or Moustakas made a good read and was able to get back to third. Alcides Escobar grounds out, and the Royals’ best chance to score is over.
In the bottom of the ninth, Twins left fielder Joe Benson grounds out to Escobar. Escobar appears to wait back on the ball and rely on his arm. Russ tells me infielders with terrific arms can get into bad habits if they rely on that terrific arm too much.
The Twins all seem to have a similar approach at the plate: They tend to spread their feet out. This gives them good balance (hard to get them out on their front foot), but can hurt their power (less weight shift). Russ tells me that to emphasize balance, the Twins sometimes use a drill that requires their hitters to swing the bat while standing on a 2-by-10 plank elevated slightly off the ground.
Blake Wood replaces Chen in the bottom of the ninth inning with the score still 0-0. Despite throwing with much better velocity than Chen, Wood loses the game quickly when he gives up a run on a double, a groundout that moves the runner to third and a game-winning single.
Still with me? OK, I know that was longer than usual, but that’s the point: Despite having seriously studied the game for a couple of decades, I still can’t watch a game and see all of the things that a professional sees. Russ’ analysis of the game was deeper and more revealing. This is depressing in one sense (I’ll never be able to see the game at that level) and exciting in another (there’s still so much to learn). Which is why this site exists: We’ll never know as much about the game as professional ballplayers, but if we’re willing to listen, we can learn.
And maybe next week, I’ll write about the fifty other things that Russ pointed out.