Sit fastball. Adjust to anything else.
This is a fairly common approach to hitting. It's easy to say, but hard to do. Young players in particular might have trouble making adjustments in a variety of spaces. In terms of macro tendencies, it's a never-ending ping pong alternation of adjust, counter-adjust, counter the counter-adjust, etc. In terms of a micro tendency, adjustments can be made within a single plate appearance or within a game.
On Friday evening, the Royals faced the Astros in an exhibition game* at Minute Maid Park. Edinson Volquez took the mound for the Royals. George Springer, a young second-year player for the Astros, faced Volquez in a short plate appearance in the first inning.
*What exactly are these exhibition games? Spring Training games at a MLB stadium for extra tune-up? Why not stay in Arizona for that?
Volquez, a new acquisition for the Royals, started out Springer with a first pitch sinker for a swinging strike. This is a fairly common occurrence; Volquez in 2014 started off 60% of right-handed hitters with a sinker. Springer himself is a big swing-and-miss guy, striking out in 33% of his plate appearances last year and whiffing 18.2% of the time overall. Volquez painted the inside corner with that pitch and continued to do so with the next two pitches.
With that first pitch strike, Springer fell behind early. The next pitch was basically the same pitch, an inside sinker for a called strike. Very quickly, Springer found himself in an 0-2 hole. In 2014 with two strikes, Volquez remained relatively unpredictable in terms of pitch mix against right-handed hitters:
However, Volquez showed a fairly clear tendency in 2014 in terms of location of a two-strike pitch against right-handed hitters:
Springer could be sure of a pitch low and away, most likely a curveball. It might be a changeup or sinker, but the location of the pitch at least was fairly certain. Then again, in a game like this, Springer is probably not thinking about Volquez's tendencies. Volquez is probably not thinking about Springer's tendencies. Pitch ball. Hit ball. It's Exhibition/Spring Training. The point is that what happened next was rather rare.
Instead of try to locate the pitch low and away, Volquez did something unpredictable. He threw a changeup inside. Right-handed pitchers don't often throw changeups to right-handed hitters, and those pitches when they are thrown are probably not often thrown inside. Volquez had done a solid job of painting the inside corner with his fastball the previous two pitches, so perhaps he was going for deception. In addition, Springer had seen very few changeups from right-handed pitchers in 2-strike counts last year (only 9%). The element of surprise was on Volquez's side.
Springer, however, made the adjustment. The awfully grainy .gif below shows the very slight hesitation in Springer's timing that allowed him to wait just a hair of a second longer before swinging. Compared to his swinging strike earlier in the count, Springer triggered his trunk rotation about 1 frame later after his front foot touched the ground.
In the end, Springer made contact with an inside 0-2 changeup and punched a rather weak line drive into center field. Despite Lorenzo Cain occupying center, there was no chance of a play. Last year, Springer performed very poorly against changeups with 2 strikes, though it was a small sample size. While perhaps sitting on something else, Springer could vary his swing mechanics just enough to get on base.
It's one thing to make an adjustment in an Exhibition/Spring Training game against a pitcher who's had difficulty getting opposing hitters out in the past. It's quite another thing to make an in-game adjustment against Cy Young award winner Corey Kluber.
On Opening Day yesterday, Springer swung at the first pitch he saw from Kluber, a 94-mph fastball over the plate. He flied out. However, the second plate appearance was a little longer. Springer worked a full count before whiffing on a slider (or cutter) on the outside corner. He looked overmatched on that outside breaking pitch.
Springer, again, made the adjustment. Kluber got Springer to a 1-2 count in the next plate appearance. Kluber again went for a breaking pitch on the outside corner, this time an 84-mph curveball (or slider). Similar location, slower pitch. This time, in a real game, Springer was likely prepared for a breaking pitch, since Kluber threw a cutter or slider 63% of the time with two strikes in 2014. Kluber also threw almost exclusively low and away with two strikes against right-handed hitters last year. Again Springer managed that little hesitation (it's a VERY small hesitation -- 1 frame maybe) in his swing mechanics and pulled the pitch to left field. The Astros scored the first run of the game, which proved to be the only run they needed.
A home run isn't always necessary. Sometimes little adjustments just to make decent contact work just fine. These are only two plate appearances — the second smallest of sample sizes. It's also entirely possible that Springer was doing something like this last year and still struck out a bunch. It'll be interesting to see if Springer's in-game adjustment ability cuts his K% this year.
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Kevin Ruprecht is the Co-Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.