Guessing game can turn into mind game at plate
Battle between hitter and pitcher an endless cycle of trying to figure out one another
A batter swings and misses at a pair of fastballs on the inside corner.
Everyone in the ballpark knows what's coming next: a breaking ball on the outside part of the plate.
So the batter gears up for the change-of-pace pitch. Only, the pitcher anticipates the hitter's anticipation and thus prepares to toss a third consecutive heater. What if the batter takes the mind games to an even higher level and predicts the pitcher's foresight of his thinking?
As Ben Stiller's character, White Goodman, quipped in the movie "Dodgeball," "Oh, I don't think I'm a lot dumber than you thought that I think that I thought that I was once."
The encounter between pitcher and hitter isn't decided until the batter either reaches base or is put out. But the battle could be over before it even begins.
"It's a little bit of a chess game when you're out there," said Orioles reliever Kevin Gregg. "You have to know what they're thinking. But the bottom line is, you have to know what you want to do and what your ability will let you do."
So who has the last say in the meeting of the minds between a pitcher and hitter? Ultimately, the guy holding the bat has to connect with whatever pitch the hurler heaves. Does that give the advantage to the men atop the mound?
"The pitcher is throwing the ball and decides what to do with it," said Indians rookie right-hander Zach McAllister. "Obviously, a lot of pitchers are going to stick to their strengths. You have some times when you might try to trick them and hope they don't do anything with it. It might come down to, 'All right, you haven't seen this pitch yet. I think I might trick you, so I'm going to throw it.' But I feel like for the most part, pitchers stick to their strengths and try to get hitters out that way."
McAllister's backstop agrees. Tribe catcher Lou Marson said he'll put down the fingers that call for a pitcher's best pitch, regardless of what he thinks the hitter is expecting.
"At the end of the day," Marson said, "if they're going to get beat, you don't want them to get beat with their third or fourth pitch. You want them to throw what they want to throw and go with their strength."
Orioles designated hitter Jim Thome has tried just about every approach during his 22-year big league career. He hasn't hit 611 home runs by sitting on a certain pitch in every at-bat. He says his plan varies each time he steps to the dish.
"Do you have runners on base? Are you leading off? Are you hitting with two outs and nobody on?" Thome said. "The plan is different each at-bat. You have to understand that and also know what that guy throws."
Sometimes, though, the sequence follows an obvious pattern. In the eighth inning of Monday's contest between Baltimore and Cleveland, Tribe setup man Vinnie Pestano threw a string of fastballs to get to a two-strike count against Thome with the potential tying run at third base. Pestano kept it simple and changed speeds, inducing a swinging third strike on an 83-mph slider below the knees.
"After throwing that many fastballs to a hitter like that," Pestano said, "you don't want to give them too many opportunities to see that in a row. So, I had to go back to the slider."
Pestano said he tried to read Thome's body language to see if the 41-year-old was having any trouble catching up to his heater. In the end, he opted to trust his stuff and forget about what pitch the former Indian might be expecting.
"You want to know what they're thinking, but you can't use that as your sole focus on what to pitch," Gregg said. "You have to really rely on yourself and what you can do."
Should pitchers, then, always ignore the temptation of determining what type of pitch a batter might be looking for? Gregg cautioned that playing that game can do more harm than good.
"If you get that way," Gregg said, "you're going to run yourself in a circle and have nowhere to go."
Each batter carries a different approach to the plate. The risk of sitting -- or guessing -- on a certain pitch can pay dividends. Of course, it goes both ways.
"There are some people in baseball that may live off of it," said Indians outfielder Shelley Duncan, "and there are some people that will not do it whatsoever because they hit better when they just see the ball and hit the ball. A lot of times, instead of sitting on a pitch, it's anticipating a pitch but being ready to hit anything else."
One thing is certain: If a hitter fully commits to one particular pitch, he'd better be guessing correctly. Otherwise, a giant whiff is probably on the way.
"Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the windshield," Duncan said. "I have no clue which is which, but if you go up there and are going to sit on a pitch, you better be 100-percent committed to that or you're in trouble."