Welcome to One At Bat. This is a recurring series of articles around here, and I’m pretty excited, because with one more week of posting weekly, and I may even be able to convince myself this is a regular weekly column! If you’re new to One At Bat, I welcome you. What we do here is simple, we take a critical, or somehow significant at bat from the previous week’s games, and we go through it, pitch by pitch. We look at the game within the game, as it were.
This week’s match-up is between the Blue Jays Edwin ‘Eddie’ Encarnacion and the Kansas City Royals ‘Big Game’ James Shields. One of these nicknames seems to carry a lot more weight than the other. We’ll be talking about their meeting in the fourth inning on May 29th, 2014.
The Setup: James Shields is the ace of the Royals staff, a veteran of the Tampa Bay Rays. They traded him at the beginning of last year, to the Royals. He was the primary piece in a trade that effectively announced the Royals intention to contend. Shields is a very good, if not great pitcher. He racks up a decent number of strikeouts (7.7/9 IP), low amount of walks (2,2/9 IP), and takes the ball every 5 days without fail (at least 220 IP in each of the last three seasons). In the distant past, and by that I mean 2009, he was prone to giving up home runs, at a rate of 1.5 per 9 innings. By 2013, that number was just 0.79. There are very few weak points in his game.
That said, the game is tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, and the Blue Jays first two runs came on a first inning homer surrendered to Jose Bautista.
One the other end of this at bat, is Edwin Encarnacion; one of baseball’s premier power hitters. If healthy, he has all the tools to drive 40 balls over the fence in a full season. He started 2014 ice-cold, not hitting a home run until April 22nd. As April turned to May, Encarnacion’s season has turned around, and fans have seen his ‘walk the parrot’ home run trot fourteen times in the last twenty-two games. He’s hunting the pitches he can pull, and sending everything over the outfield fence.
Edwin struck out looking in the first inning, and did not see a pitch anywhere on the inner half of the plate in that at bat. Now it is time for round two. Adam Lind has just singled, there is one out.
The Sequence: The second plate appearance of a game always interests me. The pitcher has established what’s working for him and what isn’t, and the hitter usually has some idea of how the ball looks coming out of the pitcher’s hand, and how he feels in the box on a particular night. Now comes the really interesting part, if you are the pitcher, and you retired the batter handily the first time up, what do you do? Do you attack exactly the same way? That hitter might be ready for the same first pitch, maybe you should mix it up a little. Shields sequence in the first plate appearance vs. Edwin as Sinker-Sinker-Cutter-Sinker. Of course, if you’re pitching differently, you might not be pitching to your own strengths.
With all that in place, Shields winds up and let’s his first pitch fly.
It’s a cut fastball, right below the bottom of the zone, and on the inside edge of the plate. This is a very different beginning to the at-bat, in two ways. First, Shields has started by missing his spot. Perez set a target on the outer half, and the pitch was a long way away from his glove. Second he missed the strike zone as well, and fallen behind in the count. Now Encarnacion doesn’t know where the target was, to him it appears that Shields changed his approach, and was ready to attack the inside corner. The pitcher is at a disadvantage either way, as Encarncion’s wRC+ jumps from 169 to 203 after a 1-0 count.
Pitch number two is a sinker, and it misses well off the plate inside. Encarnacion must now be sure that he’s being pitched inside this at-bat. All the while, Shields is digging himself a hole. Judging by the frustrated way he snaps his glove when Perez returns the ball, he knows he’s in deep.
The third pitch is another cutter, and taken low by Eddie. Through 3-0, his wRC+ is 277. He has a .700 OBP after this count. James is in about as much trouble as he can be. Edwin can do what he wants with the next pitch.
Shields delivers, and the 3-0 pitch is a straight fastball that clips the top outside corner of the zone perfectly. It is called for strike one, and the batter is probably best to lay off something in a very difficult spot. Edwin even takes an exception to it being called a strike, throwing a dirty look at the umpire. Maybe he wanted the free pass to first. On the other hand, he might not be too bothered by it. Through the 3-1 count Edwin’s OBP is .767. His wRC+ is 301, which is three times league average. He’s still in the driver’s seat.
The Payoff: I’ve always been of the opinion that all hitters are mistake hitters. The difference between the good and the great is the way they recognize, and then capitalize on mistakes. Edwin hasn’t seen anything offspeed, or a curveball, all night. I’m pretty confident he has eliminated them from his mind. He also knows that James Shields has a runner on first, and is making every effort to make a pitch that just paints the corner of the zone. He has seen two pitches in, and only one in a spot that he’s needed to worry about.
Shields made the perfect pitch at 3-0, it is a difficult thing to do twice in a row. He winds up and looks at the target that Salvador Perez has set for him on the outside corner.
And misses it by about 18 inches. This is the mistake Encarnacion was waiting for, and the instincts and timing of a hitter in his prime take over. He pounces on something in his happy zone. Edwin wallops the pitch into the second deck, and puts the Blue Jays up 4-2. And thus ends an at-bat dominated by the hitter in every way.
Post Script: Normally, my breakdown would end here, but this was EE’s 15th home run in May, and there’s a little bit more worth mentioning. The pitch he hit out is number five in the diagram below from Brooks Baseball.
Later in the game, facing James Shields in the sixth inning, Edwin would see just 2 more pitches. The second fastball would be sent over the left field fence. In that moment, Edwin Encarnacion tied Mickey Mantle for most home runs hit in May by an American League batter. For a different perspective on this record-setting night, I encourage you to check out this Fangraphs article, by Jeff Sullivan. Now, take a look below, and tell me if you think James Shields was trying to put pitch number two anywhere near where it ended up.
Now, it isn’t easy to hit home runs, but when they pitcher gives you exactly the same thing twice in one night, well, the results can be hypnotic.