Royals’ Aggressive Approach Could Be a Key to Victory

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Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Royals faced Jake Peavy in Game 2 of the World Series, they didn’t do as much damage as they probably could have. Peavy had a rough 2014, even accounting for his resurgence in San Francisco, and despite the Royals’ light-hitting ways, one should have expected more than 2 runs in the first 5 innings. They did eventually get to him, of course, but obviously they would prefer to score runs earlier in the game.

The benefits of scoring early tend to speak for themselves, but in the Royals’ circumstances, it could be even more important. If they are able to force a Game 7, both teams will be willing to use any and all pitchers to make sure they come away with a victory. But, if the Royals can force the Giants to their pen early in Game 6, it could pay dividends in the following game, too. Madison Bumgarner will likely be available for a few innings in a potential Game 7, so depleting as many of the Giants’ relief corps as possible would be a huge boost to the Royals’ chances.

Typically, one may suggest the best way to get to a bullpen is by taking pitches and driving up the starting pitcher’s pitch count. Certainly that can help, and if a pitcher is throwing pitches out of the zone, an offense shouldn’t do anything to help his cause. However, facing a pitcher like Peavy, the Royals may be better suited to take a more aggressive approach.

I should preface this all by saying that I’m not advocating for the Royals to swing from their heels on every first pitch. They still need to read the pitcher and try to figure out what is coming out of his hand before deciding whether or not to swing. Unapologetic hacking is no way to win. But Peavy’s recent history suggests a team can have success against him by looking for a good pitch to hit in an 0-0 count.

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More often than not, that pitch is going to be a fastball of some kind. This year, Peavy threw hard stuff (fourseam fastball, sinker, cutter) on the first pitch to left-handed batters 71% of the time. He threw hard stuff on the first pitch to righties 86% of the time. 16 of the 22 batters Peavy faced in Game 2 saw a first-pitch fastball, sinker, or cutter, which comes out to about 73%, so the trend seems to be consistent enough.

This makes sense, of course. Peavy doesn’t have his mid-90s fastball anymore, so he doesn’t want to fall behind too many hitters. It’s easiest to control the fastball, so he tries to work aggressively in the zone to get into a more comfortable pitcher’s count. If teams are too timid to swing at first pitches, he can find himself in 0-1 counts more often than not.

While each of those three pitches has a different kind of movement to it, the velocity tends to be similar, with the cutter averaging about 3 MPH less than the other two fastballs. His cutter is a better pitch than his fourseamer and his sinker, but he will allow it to catch too much of the plate on occasion. Regardless, batters can expect to see something hard on that first pitch.

If that first pitch looks like it’s going to be in the zone, the Royals would be wise to swing at it. When batters put the first pitch in play against Peavy this season, they hit .458/.459/.760, with 18 extra-base hits in 103 plate appearances. That average is the highest first-pitch batting average allowed by any pitcher in baseball (minimum 50 AB), and that slugging percentage is the 2nd-highest allowed in baseball.

Aggressive hitters have destroyed Peavy on the first pitch in 2014, and at least part of that is due to his reliance on his fastballs. The Royals have a lot of aggressive hitters, and for the most part, they hold their own against fastballs. This seems like a good matchup for the Royals, even if things didn’t initially go quite as planned in Game 2.

Again, I’m not suggesting the Royals go to the plate without any kind of discipline. They still need to make sure they’re only swinging at strikes, and that it’s in an area they can handle. They don’t want to fall behind in the count, but Peavy doesn’t have the kind of stuff with which he can rack up many strikeouts, and both teams have shown what can happen when you put the ball in play this series, even if the contact isn’t of a great quality. Taking a strike against Peavy isn’t a death sentence, but if it’s a pitch they can drive, the Royals should be looking to drive it.

The offense is going to see plenty of hittable pitches against Peavy tonight. They saw plenty of hittable pitches against him in Game 2, but did not take full advantage of them until the 6th inning. If the Royals are aggressive tonight, they may be able to take an early lead, while also forcing Peavy from the game and making Bruce Bochy rely on his bullpen arms for more innings than he would like. That could lead to fewer weapons available if tomorrow’s game is necessary. In other words, being aggressive tonight could help the Royals win not just Game 6, but Game 7 as well.

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