Game 4: Why hitters fail with runners in scoring position

The cookie store is closed...

As you might have already noticed, people say a lot of stupid shit.

Every cloud does not have a silver lining, the third time is not a charm and what goes around definitely does not come around or there would be a whole bunch of CEOs working the graveyard shift in a coal mine.

And one of the dumbest things people say about baseball is that hitting is contagious.

If hitting is contagious you have to buy the idea that it never occurred to a player that he might want to get a hit until a teammate got one: “Hey! That looked fun! I think I’ll do that!”

Hitters do not get hits because they’re in a good mood or having fun or feel group pressure to join the hit parade. Nevertheless, hitters do get hot and cold together, so how do you explain that?

I’m going to go with the one thing they have in common: the pitcher.

It’s why a team can look great against a starter, but lousy against a reliever. It’s why they can rack up runs in the third and fourth inning, but can’t buy a hit in the seventh, eighth and ninth. It’s why a team can look great on Monday and lousy on Tuesday.

Changing pitchers changes everything.

But how do you explain a team suddenly going cold when there isn’t a pitching change?

How pitchers pitch with a runner in scoring position

Until hitters start putting up .501 batting averages, any time the pitcher makes the hitter swing the bat the odds are in the pitcher’s favor. And even in this year of the home run, most hits are still singles and generally speaking, it takes three of them to score a run.

But what about when it only takes one of them?

Look at the Nationals’ Game 4 plate appearances without a runner in scoring position and you’ll see plenty of fastballs for strikes. But once there was a runner in scoring position and a single could hurt them, the Astros pitchers changed their approach.

Third inning:

Yan Gomes led things off with a double.

Patrick Corbin got two fastballs because he’s a pitcher who hit .092 during the regular season, he was trying to advance the runner and high fastballs are a hard pitch to bunt. Corbin got one down, but it was too close to the pitcher and he didn’t advance Gomes.

After that Trea Turner – an actual hitter – saw six pitches and only one was a fastball and that fastball wasn’t thrown for a strike.

With a runner in scoring position pitchers might show hitters fastballs, but will often throw those fastballs outside the zone. If the hitter is so anxious to drive in a run he’ll chase fastballs, pitchers will use that impulse against them.

Turner grounded out; Adam Eaton saw a changeup and slider and popped up.

Sixth inning:

Gerardo Parra led off with a walk and because he wasn’t in scoring position, Turner and Eaton saw fastball strikes. But once Eaton walked and pushed Parra to second base, the Astros brought in Will Harris who does not throw a straight fastball.

Anthony Rendon got a cutter (a pitch somewhere between a slider and fastball), Juan Soto got a curve and Howie Kendrick got five cutters in a row.

Seventh inning:

Hector Rondon replaced Harris and once again Nationals hitters were getting fastball strikes until Asdrubal Cabrera walked and pushed Victor Robles into scoring position.

At that point Brad Peacock replaced Rondon and Trea Turner saw seven pitches, only one of which was a fastball in the strike zone (and may have been a mistake). Turner grounded out when he chased a fastball out of the zone.

Timeout for exceptions

One of the frustrating – or wonderful – things about baseball is there are always exceptions to every situation.

If you’ve begun to figure out the Nationals weren’t getting fastball strikes whenever they had a runner in scoring position, congratulations, you’ve been paying attention.

But by the seventh inning the Astros had an 8-1 lead so A.J. Hinch probably wasn’t thrilled with the walk to Cabrera and wanted Peacock to throw strikes to Turner and the fastball is the easiest pitch to throw for a strike.

If Turner hit a home run, the score would still be 8-4 Astros, so who cares?

The pitcher.

When pitchers have a big lead late in games their team might wants them to throw fastball strikes; let the hitters put the ball in play and sooner or later they’ll hit three of them at someone and we’ll go home with a W.

Pitchers don’t always think that way.

Give up runs and nobody is going to remember you gave them up with a seven-run lead; they’re just going to see that 7.46 ERA and think you suck. So pitchers sometimes say screw that fastball-strike stuff, I’m throwing every pitch I have.

These competing interests are why you might see a fastball for a strike with a runner in scoring position (what the manager wants to the pitcher to do) or see a pitcher nibbling with a seven-run lead (what the pitcher wants the pitcher to do).

This is also why you might see a pitching coach come to the mound to inform the pitcher that the manager plans on putting a foot up his ass after the game unless he starts throwing some strikes.

Thought you might find that interesting – now back to Game 4.

Eighth inning:

Same pattern; the first three batters saw fastball strikes until Rendon reached second base. Then Howie Kendrick got two fastballs out of the zone, swung at one of them and saw nothing but sliders after that and Ryan Zimmerman saw one fastball strike and flew out to end the inning.

It’s all about execution

In the big leagues hittable fastballs are called “cookies” and Kansas City Royals coach Rusty Kuntz explained it like this: once there’s a runner in scoring position, the cookie store is closed and you better be ready to hit something else.

In the last two World Series games the Washington Nationals have gone 1-19 with runners in scoring position; does that mean the pressure is getting to them?  Well, they were 7-21 with runners in scoring position in the first two games and I’m pretty sure there was pressure in those two games as well.

The different results are often explained by execution.

If a pitcher wants to avoid throwing fastballs for strikes with a runner in scoring position, he better be able to control his off-speed stuff or he’ll paint himself in a corner and have to open the cookie store. And if he wants to throw a fastball out of the zone, he better make sure he hits the mitt or that high fastball might end up belt high.

And if the hitter gets a pitch to hit, he better not swing and miss or foul it off because he probably won’t get another one.

So when you watch Game 5 tonight, pay attention to what pitches are thrown with a runner in scoring position and even more importantly, what pitches are thrown for strikes.

And if someone watching with you says hitting is contagious, tell them to go watch somewhere else because stupidity is contagious too.

Enjoy tonight’s game.