Doug Sisson carries a stopwatch. Everywhere. The Royals’ first-base coach is very concerned with how long things take. How long does it take a base-stealer to get from first to second? How long does it take the pitcher to get the ball to home plate? How long does it take the catcher to get the ball to second base?
And the guy who measures everything has noticed something interesting this spring: In general, pitchers are taking less time to get the ball home. Sisson said that as recently as last year, pitchers were either slide-stepping toward home plate (barely lifting the front foot) or using their regular, slower motions to deliver the ball. Their delivery times could vary from 1.2 seconds (very quick) to 1.5 seconds (very slow). Guessing when the pitcher would use the slide step was a big part of the opposing team’s running game.
Sisson said that this year more pitchers aren’t slide-stepping or using their regular slower motions. They are just going through their regular motions more quickly. This simplifies things for the pitchers. They don’t have two deliveries to master.
Now entire pitching staffs are posting delivery times of 1.3 to 1.35 seconds. This would seem to be a result of cleaning up the game. Without performance-enhancing drugs and 70 home-run seasons, the running game becomes more important. If you can’t sit back and wait for a three-run blast, getting on base and getting into scoring position becomes the goal. And if more base-runners are stealing, more pitchers are going to figure out how to stop them.
The game changes. And if Doug Sisson’s stopwatch is accurate, it’s about to change again.
Sometimes it’s not what, but when
Royals pitcher Everett Teaford and I were talking about the ability to measure pitches in new ways: velocity, location, release point, initial speed, final speed, spin direction, break — the list goes on. But Teaford made a great point. It’s not just what you throw that matters, it’s also when you throw it. A batting-practice fastball, set up by other pitches and thrown in the right count, can be a great pitch.
Stuff matters, but knowing when and how to use that stuff is also important. A pitch that looks great on a chart might have disastrous results if it’s thrown at the wrong time to the wrong hitter. A pitch that seems unimpressive when measured and diagramed might result in a game-saving infield pop-up.
Like most “eye-guys,” players say the hitter will tell you if it was a good pitch. Obviously it’s not the only way to measure a pitch, but it might be the most important one.
Whatever the baseball equivalent of a “gym rat” is (a guy who loves to practice), I must be it. Right now I’m finding the early morning drills more interesting than the games. Everywhere you look, someone is working on something. Look on one field, and players are working on hitting the ball the other way. Look a different direction, and a catcher is doing a blocking drill. Next to him, someone is taking grounders.
Ask players what they’re doing, and someone will break it down for you. This is like scanning a college course catalog and deciding what you would like to learn. Don’t get me wrong, games are great, but they frown on reporters walking on the field to ask the pitcher why he just threw that pitch sequence.
Pay attention during a drill, ask the right question and you’ll get an answer.
Some of those answers
The first team activity, stretching, is at 10 a.m. Before that, individuals or small groups of players get in early work. Here are some of the highlights from Wednesday morning:
Bench coach Chino Cadahia was instructing a catcher to take a shorter step with his right foot when throwing to second base. A catcher pops up to throw and takes two steps: right, left. If the first step is too long, the second step will also be too long. Two quick steps, and the ball is on its way.
Jeff Francoeur was setting up a pitching machine to throw him right-handed sliders. Francoeur told me that when he has a slider timed, his swing is right. Most hitters are going to be early more often than late. The cure (for some) is planning on taking the ball the other way, which forces the hitter to wait and stay closed. Then if the pitch is inside — or in Frenchy’s case, a fastball — the hitter just reacts. You can look away and still hit an inside pitch, you cannot look in and hit pitches away.
An infielder got lazy with a throw and coach Eddie Rodriguez jumped him. It’s all about developing good habits and doing things right every time.
Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland was working with pitchers on picking up bunts and throwing to third base. At one point, he said, “Stay low.” I later asked Eiland what that meant, and he explained that if the pitcher starts to stand up while throwing the ball, the throw might go high. The front shoulder rises above the back shoulder, and the angle of release is wrong.
Billy Butler spent part of the morning working on pop flies in foul territory. Billy said that if he stares at a pop fly the entire time, he will “drift” to the ball. The key is checking the ball, putting your head down and covering some distance, finding the wall and then picking up the ball again. Doug Sisson described it this way: “Ball, wall, ball.” Once the fielder orients himself, it’s easier to come back away from the wall to make the catch. Drift while looking at the ball, and the fielder will be very tentative.
Today’s team fundamental was “pickoffs/rundowns.” The Royals used some of their speedy minor-leaguers to act as the runners, and before it was over, manager Ned Yost was offering a reward to any runner that could force three throws. This is a great coaching technique that you can use if you’re coaching an amateur team. Offer a reward (it can be as small as a soft drink) to anyone who successfully completes a task. Once again, it appeals to an athlete’s competitive side and makes practice fun.