Sunday, April 09, 2006

Plate Discipline


No, not the number of balls needed for a walk, a seemingly foreign concept for the Royals. It's also not the number of bases you need to score a run, nor is it the number of runs you get for a grand slam. In other circumstances any of those may be true, but not for our Royals. Not today.

No, the four I'm referring to is the number of pitches it took Mark Buehrle to get three outs from the Royals in the fourth inning today. Four. F-O-U-R. Quatro. Just plain four.

That would be ridiculous under any circumstances, but what made it even worse for the Royals was the hitters who came to the plate that inning. They were none other than Mark Grudzielanek, Mike Sweeney and Reggie Sanders, the three most experienced hitters in the lineup. Three hitters who have above average career on-base percentages. Three veterans, each of whom is supposed to know a little bit about baseball. They're supposed to know that when the opposing pitcher enters the fourth inning having thrown only 33 total pitches, you're supposed to make him work a little. Even if that means taking the first two pitches for strikes, you're supposed to make the guy put in some effort.

You're particularly supposed to do this if you're losing by two runs, and even more so if your own pitcher has labored by throwing 64 pitches himself through the first four innings. You're not supposed to go up there hacking at the first pitch you see, which is exactly what Grudzielanek did when he grounded out to lead off the inning. And when the leadoff hitter does do something foolish like that, your number three hitter, Sweeney, is supposed to know better than to hack away at the second pitch he sees, but that's exactly what he did as he hit a fly ball for out number two. And your 38-year old cleanup hitter is supposed to know that when the first two hitters have seen just three pitches, and your own pitcher is still trying to catch his breath in the dugout, the last thing you're supposed to do is hack at the first pitch you see. But that's exactly what Reggie Sanders did, tapping out softly to the pitcher for out number three.

Four pitches, three outs, from the most experienced hitters in the lineup, the guys who are supposed to be showing the younger players what it means to be big league hitters. Obviously, they failed miserably, and it showed all day long. The next inning Buehrle needed just ten pitches to retire the side, and that included a hit. In the sixth, he got the first out on one pitch, and the second just four pitches later, when yet another veteran, Tony Graffanino, was thrown out trying to stretch a single into a double. Grudzielanek then capped off this ugly little chain of events by being picked off first base to end the inning.

Buehrle's pitch count through six full innings? Fifty-six. Just about nine per inning, putting him on pace to throw a complete game shutout on just over 80 pitches. As it happens, he was inexplicably pulled after eight innings and 88 pitches. In contrast, Mark Elarton, who settled down and was pitching well, started the seventh inning with his pitch count already at 85, against a White Sox team that hacks away as badly as the Royals on most days. That's a respectable number, just over 14 pitches per inning, and yet it was nearly 30 pitches more than the Royals had made Buehrle throw through the same number of innings. Of the Royals' 33 total plate appearances, just about half, 16, were over after one or two pitches. Half. "I don't think we had a great plan today," said Buddy Bell after the game. "We helped him out a little bit," echoed Tony Graffanino. Gee, d'ya think?

Yes, Mark Buehrle is a good pitcher, but that doesn't excuse the Royals from being labeled with the only word that describes their hitters today.


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