Game 5: Why hitters chase bad pitches and take good ones

Inside the mind of big league hitters…

The first time I went to Jason Kendall’s house I saw the bat he used to get his 2,000th hit. After I said 2,000 hits were a lot – more of my great baseball analysis – Jason said:

“1,800 of them were on pitches down the middle…all that other shit is hard to hit.”

Jason didn’t care what type of pitch it was as long as it was in the middle of the plate; he’d hit the off-speed stuff to the pull side of the field and the fastballs the other way.

I found Jason’s approach interesting.

When he was behind the plate he wanted to get in the hitter’s head and keep him guessing; what pitch was likely to be thrown next?

When he was at the plate Jason wouldn’t play that game; he didn’t care what pitch was likely to be thrown next, he just wanted to hit something in the middle of the plate.   

Before I hung around big league ballplayers I thought good hitters hit everything; now I realize it’s bad hitters that try to hit everything. Good hitters are selective and find a way to eliminate pitches so when the get the pitch they’re looking for their timing will be right and they won’t miss.

Jason’s pitch selection process was to groove his swing to the middle of the plate, spit on any pitch that wasn’t in that swing path and swing at any pitch that was. Easier said than done, but that’s what he was trying to do.

Now let’s apply Jason’s theory of hitting to what we saw in Game 5 of the World Series.

The Astros

If I counted correctly – and neither of us should take that for granted – the Astros chased pitches out of the zone 15 times. Six of those swings on bad pitches were foul balls, seven were swings and misses and two were groundouts. (There also three were called strikes on pitches that were actually balls, but we’re going to ignore those for the moment.)

So how’d the Astros do on pitches down the middle?

The Astros got 20 middle-middle pitches as defined by the grid used on MLB’s Gameday website and at this point there are a couple points worth making:

Gameday’s strike zone grid has three boxes across the top, three across the middle, three across the bottom and I included any pitch that was even partially within that middle box of nine. But it’s worth noting that nobody in baseball considers these grids 100 percent accurate, 100 percent of the time. This stuff has to be calibrated right, although you think they’d make a pretty good effort during the World Series.

Of the 20 middle-middle pitches the Astros saw, three were called strikes, three were fouled off, two were ground outs, three were fly ball outs, four were lineouts and five were hits, including two home runs.

So when the Astros swung at a pitch out of the zone they hit .000 and when they swung at pitches down the middle and put the ball in play, they hit .357.

It would appear Jason had a point.

The Nationals

Washington hitters chased pitches out of the zone 19 times. Six of those swings resulted in foul balls, 11 were swings and misses, one was a groundout and one was a fly ball out. (They also got three called strikes on pitches that were balls.)

The Nationals got 17 middle-middle pitches. Seven were called strikes, four were fouled off, one was a swing and miss, two were lineouts, one was a fly ball out, one was a single and one was a home run.

When the Nationals swung at pitches out of the zone they also hit .000, when they swung at pitches down the middle and put the ball in play they hit .400.

So far I think I’ve conclusively demonstrated something you probably already knew: pitches outside the zone are harder to hit than pitches down the middle. But if everybody already knows that, why do hitters continue to chase bad pitches and take good ones?

A short essay on pitch selection

If you see a batter chase a pitch that winds up a foot outside and wonder why, you probably just saw a pitch with good movement; the pitch didn’t start a foot outside, it looked like a hittable pitch when the batter started his swing.

The same thing can happen when the pitch doesn’t have the expected movement. The hitter gets a fastball at the letters and instead of dropping into the zone, the fastball’s a four-seamer that stays up and the hitter swings under it.

Two-strike counts require hitters to be more aggressive to protect the zone and pitchers know that. They can throw their nastiest slider – a pitch the hitter would take if the count was 0-0 – and know the hitter will chase to protect the zone.

Hitters can also chase bad pitches when they’re ahead in the count and “sell out.”

Say the hitter is in a 2-0 count, thinks he’s probably going to get a fastball and wants to hit it a long way. He can’t let the possibility of an off-speed pitch change his timing because then he’ll be late on that fastball, so he eliminates off-speed pitches, “sells out” and swings with fastball timing. If he doesn’t get the fastball he gambled on, he’s going to look bad when he misses a changeup by a foot-and-a-half.

Jason was willing to settle for an opposite single if he got a fastball, so he could delay his swing until he saw what the pitch was.

But these days everybody is trying to hit home runs, so fewer hitters are reacting to what they see while more hitters are selling out on pitches; that’s one of the reasons we’re seeing so many strikeouts. Hitters are swinging before they know what they’re dealing with and that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen some awful looking hacks in the Series.

And let’s not forget the umpire.

He can also encourage swinging at pitches out of the zone and we saw that in Game 5 when home plate umpire Lance Barksdale missed a number of pitches.  

If an umpire calls a ball a strike you might see the batter ask him, “Where did you have that?” The hitter is giving a good umpire the opportunity to admit he might have missed one; bad umpires will insist it was a strike and that means the hitter has to swing at it again if the pitcher is smart enough to throw it again.

OK, that’s swings at bad pitches; how about when a batter takes a good one?

Could be a number of things; it was a breaking pitch and the batter was looking for a fastball, the count dictated the batter take a pitch – 3-0 comes to mind – or maybe his team was down 7-1 in the ninth inning, there were two outs and it was the first pitch of the at bat.

That’s what happened to Howie Kendrick on Sunday night.

He could’ve hit his ninth-inning, first-pitch fastball down the middle off the Washington Monument and his team would have still been down by five runs.

A brand-new metric: RAS factor

A longtime big league pitcher once told me he could throw a first pitch, get-me-over-curve right down the middle and a smart hitter would take it while a dumb one would hit it 400 feet.

So what’s the deal on that?

Smart hitters have a game plan and most of them don’t want to hit first-pitch breaking balls – they’re waiting for a hittable fastball – so smart pitchers can lob a breaking pitch into the heart of the zone without fear.

Dumb hitters have no game plan and they ain’t waiting on anything.

They’ll hit that first pitch, get-me-over curve out of the park and if you throw it to them again, they’ll hit another home run. On the other hand, if you get the dumb hitter out on a certain pitch you can throw it again and he won’t make an adjustment; he’ll just keep swinging.

Coaches will tell you that sometimes you want your dumbest player at the plate in the biggest situation because that knucklehead won’t out-think himself while your smartest player might.

This has led me to conclude that there needs to be a brand new metric: Right Amount of Stupid factor.

Not sure how you’d measure that, but if you go to the players’ parking lot and see a guy’s driving a Rolls with leopard-skin seats, that might be a good start. You don’t want your players so dumb they just keep making the same mistake or so smart they outthink themselves.

Swear to God I once had a pitcher tell me he threw a fastball down the middle because he figured it was the last thing the hitter would be looking for. When I asked what happened he said: “He hit a home run…I don’t know how.”

Clearly, to play the game well, you need the Right Amount of Stupid.

And when a smart player dumbs down his approach to keep things simple – and Jason Kendall had 2,195 hits – he can look like a genius.

And I’d say that even if I wasn’t scared to death of him.

Enjoy tonight’s game.