I hadn’t been to Kauffman Stadium in a month — long vacation in California — so the other day when I finally reappeared, a member of the Royals’ coaching staff wanted to talk to me.
Back in July I wrote that Royals pitcher Glenn Sparkman got overly concerned with a Washington Nationals baserunner (Matt Adams), attempted three pickoffs in a row, and when he finally delivered a pitch to Kurt Suzuki at the plate, it was a bad one and Suzuki homered.
The member of the coaching staff wanted to set me straight:
Sparkman didn’t throw three pickoffs because he was concerned about Adams stealing a base; he threw three pickoffs to disrupt Suzuki’s timing. Suzuki had seen nine pitches, fouling off five of them with two strikes, and the Royals wanted to do something to break his rhythm.
Fair enough and good information to have: pickoffs aren’t always about the runner — they can be used against the hitter as well.
On the other hand, the point I was making back in July is that three pickoffs in a row can also disrupt the pitcher’s rhythm, and in Sparkman’s case it appeared to: his 10th pitch to Suzuki was a fastball down the pipe.
Two ways to look at it, but it illustrates a point worth making: There’s always a reason teams and players do what they do.
Good idea, poor execution
In a decade of covering the Royals I have never asked someone why they did what they did and not heard a semi-logical reason. It might not have worked, but that didn’t necessarily mean it was a bad idea; it was often a good idea, poorly executed.
I once saw a Royals’ baserunner get picked off first base. It looked bad, but when I asked him what happened the runner confessed he wasn’t locked in on the pitcher because he was busy stealing signs off the catcher.
The catcher’s knees were too wide and just as the runner looked in to steal the sign, the pitcher picked him off.
At the time the player preferred I not write about it because he didn’t want to get a fastball in the neck the next night and he also hoped to steal more signs.
Another time, the Royals got a baserunner picked off and were buried by critics who pointed out that the pitcher on the mound was extremely hard to run on: why did the Royals take a chance?
Turned out a coach had picked up a “key” on the pitcher — a visual cue that gave away the pitcher’s intentions. The Royals thought they could now steal on him; the runner got overly excited about the prospect and broke too soon.
Once again, not something the Royals wanted to make public; they hoped to steal a base off that pitcher somewhere down the road.
One night the Royals sent out a pinch runner in the later innings and the guy never ran; so why send out a base stealer and not attempt a stolen base?
In this case the Royals didn’t think they could steal a base, but wanted the pitcher to think they would try.
One more thing for the pitcher to think about, and it worked: The distraction of holding the runner affected the quality of pitches he delivered to the plate.
Changing the scouting report
One spring training the Royals tried a base-running play that didn’t work and looked awful, but when I asked about it, a coach told me not to worry; it wasn’t something the Royals would try during the season.
They ran the play so other teams’ scouts would see it and put it in their scouting reports; just one more thing for the opposition to worry about.
Something similar can happen during the regular season.
If a game’s a blowout, a hitter who rarely swings at a first pitch might start hacking early. That will go into the scouts’ reports for the next series and complicate the opposing team’s thinking.
If the player makes an easy out on the first pitch, fans might grumble about a lousy at-bat, but the fans are thinking about tonight’s game and the player is thinking about tomorrow’s.
Assume there are things you don’t know
It might be satisfying to sit in the stands working on your third beer and asking how your team, its manager or players can be so stupid. But even when something doesn’t work, your team, manager and players have reasons for doing what they do.
It might not be what you would do, but they have an idea and after that everything depends on how well that idea is executed.
Those of us who don’t wear uniforms to work have the luxury of sitting back, waiting until the dust clears and then deciding whether or not it was a good or bad idea based on the results.
If Glenn Sparkman made a better pitch to Kurt Suzuki, disrupting Suzuki’s timing with three pickoffs in a row would have looked like a great idea ... But Sparkman didn’t make a good pitch, so three pickoffs in a row looks like a bad one.
But whatever the results — good or bad — remember: there’s always a reason they do what they do.