Sometimes inspiration comes from weird places. On the television show “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy talks about the “shower principle.” Or, as Alec Baldwin’s character sums it up, “Moments of inspiration that occur when the brain is distracted from the problem at hand–for example, when you’re showering.”
Most of the time this is how I think about baseball. While I’m taking care of my daughter, driving to work or mowing my lawn, I try to think about the great game of baseball in ways I maybe haven’t before. And in doing so, sometimes I’ll come up with questions I wouldn’t have otherwise pondered.
READ: Part I of this series
….like asking Twins pitchers the open-ended question “What do foul balls mean to you?” Well, with the Twins back in town for a six-game homestand — the penultimate one of the season — there was no better time to deploy this than in a clubhouse full of pitchers with roster expansion and hitters out on the field stretching.
I allowed myself one brief follow-up question with each pitcher, but for the most part, it was simply this: “Hey (insert pitcher name here), what do foul balls mean to you as a pitcher?”
In sportswriting, I believe a big part of it is not being part of the story myself. Well, what better way to stay out of the story than to let the subject take the wheel and drive?
So here are the answers I got from 10 Twins pitchers from a varying degree of experience and success so far in the big leagues. I hope you find it enjoyable like I did collecting the information:
Taylor Rogers, reliever:
“Foul balls? I guess it’s a strike. I guess I’ve never really thought about it before. In the moment of things, I guess depending on who the hitter is, where the foul ball went and how it happened, I guess will just kind of tell you where you want to go with the next pitch. In the moment, just pure feel and just natural instinct, whatever you want to call it.”
Jeremy Hefner, advance video scout:
“I’ve never been asked that before. That’s a good thing. I guess….information? Like A. was he on it, and just missed it or B. was he not on it, and I fooled him but he got just enough of it to survive? It was feedback for me, because if a guy swings and misses, it’s kind of hard to tell much. But you can kind of tell when he fouls it off, was it hard hit, what direction, was he behind or ahead of it? When someone swings and misses, it’s kind of hard to judge what happened.
“It’s definitely a negative. Well, it can get carried away. I guess there’s a line where it becomes negative, because it’s still a strike. That’s still a positive thing. It’s a positive outcome on that particular pitch. But once you start getting to seven or eight pitches in an at-bat, then it becomes negative. And if you have two or three of those in a game, then that’s where it starts to add up and you can’t go deeper into the game. I just remember Jimmy Rollins fouling off a ton of my pitches. That’s the guy that comes to mind right away. I just couldn’t miss his bat.”
Tyler Duffey, reliever:
“Extra pitches. In certain situations, like when you’re starting, it can be the end of your outing. Say it’s in the sixth inning, and a guy has a 10-pitch at-bat, you’re done most of the time because of your pitch count. Let’s say you’re at 80, now all of the sudden you’re at 95 to end an inning. It’s a tough spot; you’re either getting pulled or completely out of the game. It can definitely change your outing, even as a reliever. (Gabriel) Moya, he’s come in lately, and I can remember he’s had probably 10 foul balls in his last two outings, each. It changes everything. It’s taxing. That’s the only way to say it.
“You hear about the stress inning or the stress AB, whatever it may be. I don’t know what the right word would be, but you don’t lose like lose focus after that at-bat. But after each at-bat, you kind of take a deep breath to reset your mind. For that at-bat, whether it last four or five minutes, you’re hard focusing in on that guy. Especially if it’s a 3-2 count; every pitch you’re living or dying on that pitch. By the end of it, you’re just like, ‘Jeez, finally just put in play or whatever.’ It’s tough. I’m sure if you asked some of the starters in here they’d tell you the same thing. Especially late in the game, or even to start a game, you throw a guy 10 pitches right out of the gate. It can make or break your inning or your outing. It’s definitely tough, especially in certain situations where you’re trying to stay focus. It makes it really tough sometimes for sure.”
Stephen Gonsalves, starter:
“It’s a strike. I mean it depends on the foul ball. If it’s a little nubber foul, tough luck, it could have been an out. But if he just misses it, you’re like, ‘Alright, probably shouldn’t throw that pitch.
“I probably wasn’t making my pitches and probably wasn’t getting my outs that I needed to. It’ll run up your pitch count.”
Corey Baker, replay coordinator:
“I guess it depended on where it was hit. But it was an indicator of the guy’s reaction. So if he was out in front, it kind of gave me an idea of what I could do with the next pitch. If he was late, and fouled it off the other way, again it gave me an idea. So I liked using it as a tool of, ‘What’s the next pitch I can throw him?’
“If it’s two strikes, I’m saying I should do a better job putting hitters away. And it would raise my pitch count. I would either want it in play, or end the at-bat. Hopefully the in play would be weak contact, because typically foul balls are weak contact. There are exceptions, where guys turn on a ball. So I guess with two strikes, I want to put guys away so it’s probably more of a negative. Earlier in the count, if they’re mishitting the ball, I think I’m doing my job.”
Alan Busenitz, reliever:
“It depends on where it goes. Either they’re late or early. It could mean a lot of things. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought of it. Honestly, I don’t know.”
Andrew Vasquez, reliever:
“I don’t know. I mean it depends. Early in the count, it’s just a strike. With two strikes, I’m obviously frustrated with foul balls. I want to put them away. But foul balls are usually not good contact, so it’s usually fine.
“I think as a whole, they’re not getting a good thing and it’s just a little adjustment for me to try and get a swing and a miss or get them to put it in play and get an out that way. For the most part, it’s good. They’re not putting a good swing on it. I just would rather have them put it in play and get an out, or miss it completely.”
John Curtiss, reliever:
“Before two strikes it’s a strike, you know? After two strikes, it kind of depends on the swing, if it was a good pitch or not. Before I have two strikes, I love foul balls. Afterward, it’s not necessarily irritating but you just have to get information out of it. Like if the guy is on it, if he’s late or early, and then try to respond with the next pitch selection. Which, I mean, our catchers do a great job, so normally I just throw whatever they call.”
Oliver Drake, reliever:
“You can go lots of ways. The first thing I think of is that it’s a strike.
“I don’t think I’ve ever really looked into seeing if there were a lot of foul balls or whatnot (in my appearances). This is like a super complicated thing. There’s so much more that goes into what pitch you throw other than what just happened. So the previous pitch in an at-bat can play into it. Sometimes it’s just sticking with your strength if that’s your best pitch and you need to go there again. So you’re going to go with it. Maybe it’s a little better, or maybe they’re looking for something else. But I mean I guess would just look at it like foul balls are never necessarily a bad thing. They’re definitely more positive than negative.”
Chris Gimenez, catcher/reliever:
“Foul balls — believe it or not — as a pitcher and a catcher are a pain in the ass. You get an at-bat that’s prolonged by multiple foul balls, and not only does it raise a pitcher’s pitch count, but tiredness comes into effect, less crispness on the pitches. The execution comes into effect where, now that you’ve seen six, seven, eight, nine pitches, literally the only thing the pitcher and catcher are thinking is, ‘Dude, either hit a home run, get out or strike out. We’re done with the fouling off stuff.’ Just because it prolongs the at-bat, it wears down the pitcher, it wears down the defenders. There’s a lot that goes into that.
“Most guys only have three or four pitches; Yu Darvish has like 15, so he could throw whatever he wants and still mix it in. I basically told him to just cut it down and make it short. He’s got three different fastballs; I said, ‘I’ll put a ‘one’ down, you throw whichever one you want and I’ll catch it.’
“I think it honestly goes both ways. As a pitcher, your main job is to get to two strikes and put a guy away. Every pitcher has a putaway pitch. In some instances, if you’ve got guys fouling off pitches like that, the lack of a finishing pitch would be a negative in that regard. From an offensive standpoint, the fact that you’re in there battling and seeing more pitches for the next guy is a positive part of it. It just depends what side of the fence you’re actually on — the offensive side or the defensive side. But it definitely can be a negative, because you’re just not getting the execution of that pitch where you need it and want it.”