Someone once told me that the definition of a “Chef’s Special” was “the stuff they didn’t sell yesterday.” So here you have it, the baseball version of a chef’s special: Interesting things that didn’t get used in previous columns. Bon appetit (or, as we say in the Midwest, eat up, dude.)
Good hitters get calls. In other words: If you’re a rookie pitching to Albert Pujols, don’t nibble; the calls will go his way. The same is true in reverse; a rookie hitter shouldn’t take a borderline two-strike pitch against Justin Verlander. Odds are, the rookie will get rung up.
I’ve decided to buy a stopwatch and record how long it takes pitchers to deliver to home plate. (I’ve also decided to lose 10 pounds, but that hasn’t happened, either.) Anyway, if you want to impress the people around you at the next Royals game (and who doesn’t?), pull out a stopwatch and time how long it takes a pitcher to deliver to home plate. Start timing when the pitcher makes his first move out of the stretch and stop timing when the ball hits the catcher’s glove. Anything over 1.3 seconds means the catcher has very little chance to throw out a baserunner. And remember that next time you look at a catcher’s percentage of baserunners thrown out; did the pitcher give him a chance?
If you don’t own a stopwatch but still want a vague idea of how quickly a pitcher is delivering to the plate, watch his front foot. The pitcher can’t throw the ball until that foot is planted, so the longer that takes, the slower he is. Take Blake Wood for example: He was slow to the plate because he picked his foot up and rotated his hips back toward second. That gave Wood more velocity but allowed the baserunners to rob him blind.
Pitchers have to choose between being quick to the plate and a windup that results in better location or develops more velocity and movement. Of course, if the baserunner never runs, pitchers don’t face that dilemma. A baserunner who consistently stays put allows a pitcher to throw with more velocity. That baserunner also allows the pitcher to mix in his breaking stuff because the pitcher’s not worried about getting the ball to the plate quickly.
If you do have a stopwatch with you, time the catcher. It’s called “pop to pop”; start timing when the ball “pops” in the catcher’s mitt and stop timing when the ball “pops” in the middle infielder’s glove — 2.0 seconds is average for a major-league catcher, 2.1 is slow and 1.9 is quick. Salvador Perez has recorded a 1.8.
As you can see, one tenth of a second is a big deal. A base stealer might take off because he can beat a combined time (pitcher and catcher) of 3.3 seconds. If the runner slips or the catcher makes a great transfer or the pitcher is unusually quick to the plate, everything changes. It’s a fine line, and nobody knows for sure what’s about to happen — they’re just playing the odds.
One of the most effective techniques for shutting down a base stealer is to have the pitcher hold the ball in the stretch position. Next time you’re looking for something to do at a game, count how long the pitcher holds the ball in the set (one thousand one, one thousand two, etc.). If the pitcher stays in the set position for the same amount of time on every pitch, he’s letting the runner get a good jump. If he varies the set, he’ll disrupt the runner’s timing, but he also splits his concentration and may throw a lower-quality pitch. (Always something, isn’t it?)
Here’s another one: A pitcher who takes a deep breath in the set position is probably about to throw the ball to the plate. Sports psychologists often advise a “cleansing breath” before the pitch to enhance relaxation and focus. A runner who sees that breath can extend his lead.
We’ll see how far I get, but this season I’d like to bring fans the same information that both teams have on hand. Both teams know how fast the pitchers are to the plate, both teams know how fast the baserunners are. I pointed this out to Royals first base coach Doug Sisson; both sides know who is capable of stealing a base — the only people in the dark are the fans. Doug replied, “And if they’d bring a stopwatch, they’d know.”
Speaking of which: Apparently, everybody knows how veteran hitters will be pitched. Take Derek Jeter, for example. Jeter likes to “inside-out” the ball (hit the inner half), so everybody jams him. Opposing pitchers don’t want him to get his arms extended and drive the ball the other way with power, so they come inside, force him to pull his hands in and flip the ball the other way without much pop. Teams are trying to force Jeter to hit the ball weakly to right field and set up their defenses accordingly. If Jeter drives the ball to right, the pitcher probably made a mistake and left a pitch out over the plate. If Jeter hits the ball between the left fielder and the foul line, that’s probably another mistake made with an off-speed pitch that allowed Jeter to pull the ball away from the defense.
Jason Kendall said he knew exactly how everyone intended to pitch him. The outfield would be swung around to the opposite field and pitchers would take the same approach against Kendall that they did against Jeter. Kendall said the only mysteries were how good the pitcher’s stuff would be that night and whether the pitcher would hit his spots.
When a new hitter walks to the plate, watch the outfield shift and you’ll have a very good idea of how the pitcher will go after the batter.
It might not be why the Royals got him, but signing third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff puts pressure on Mike Moustakas. That’s the reality of big-league life; there’s always someone waiting to replace you. Smart players keep that in mind and work hard. Young players sometimes need to be reminded of that. It’s great that you got here, but work hard if you want to stay.
After watching how quickly players come and go in a big-league clubhouse, I’ve developed more respect for anyone who manages to stay in the major leagues for years. Whatever numbers he puts up, a player’s doing something right if he convinces a major-league team to keep him on the roster for a decade.
Speaking of the major leagues: It may be irritating to fans, but it’s considered bad form for a leadoff hitter to be waiting at the plate for an inning to begin. Leadoff hitters want to slow the game down. That gives their pitcher a chance to rest. Hitters are supposed to stay near the on-deck circle until the umpire calls them. Waiting at the plate for the inning to begin is considered a rookie mistake.
If you see a lopsided score in the first game of a series, don’t be surprised. Even though both teams have advanced scouting reports, seeing the opposition live changes things. Teams are constantly making adjustments to what the hitters are doing right now, so the pitching and defensive alignments improve as a series goes along.
Russ Morman and I were talking about my hit-by-pitch experience last season (you can still see the video), and I told Russ that several of the players made a good point: It took guts to get hit by a pitch, but would I hang in there the next night if the pitcher came inside again? The answer is: I’m not so sure. Russ revealed that he’d been hit in the head by Roger Clemens when they were both in AA ball. I told Russ that explained a great deal.
Kevin Seitzer told me about getting hit in the face by a pitch. I asked what his last thought was before getting hit, and he said, “That’s not a slider.” Here’s the bottom line: It’s easy to say a hitter should get hit by a pitch (I have) when you haven’t had the same experience. I’ve been hit by pitches over 50 times, but never suffered anything worse than a bruise. I might feel differently about hanging in there if I’d taken a shot to the head.
The Royals’ new pitching coach, Dave Eiland, was Kevin Costner’s body double in the movie “For Love of the Game.” (Now you don’t need to watch “Entertainment Tonight.”)
OK, that’s it, I think I’ve used all my leftovers. Next week I’m sure I’ll make a hash of something.