Ask a Twin: What do Foul Balls Mean to Pitchers?

Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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.

….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 eight Twins pitchers — depending on the reception, I may add more over the weekend — 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:

Trevor May, reliever: 

“It’s weird. You kind of just write ’em off the moment they’re hit. But in reality, it’s an extra pitch. I don’t know; the ones that stick in my mind are always two-strike foul balls. I get a lot of those. I guess in the context of my career, it’s driven my total pitch count way up. I guess they just count as bullets. It’s also a mishit ball that does nothing really to you, except make you have to throw another pitch. So it’s a positive thing in my mind, getting a foul ball.

“Maybe I use it to read swings a little better. Foul balls tell you different thing about what their timing was. So if you’re not doing a good job of taking in that information and making better decisions based on it, that’s probably the biggest value I’d get out of it. Obviously, a ball that’s crushed just foul, (he got) much more of it than you thought. Maybe don’t throw that pitch again. But if it’s crushed way foul, they’re way out ahead of it, you can get a swing and miss here. Another foul ball, maybe something slower, something that misses the bat a little bit more.

“The same thing with straight back. A lot of people think that’s “just missed,” but you missed it quite a bit, actually. They were probably just way under it. So maybe going a little higher on a heater back might be a swing and miss, and not a slightly nicked fastball. Things like that. Making decisions and trying to read where the ball went, and factor it in a little bit more. That’s what I’m doing better this year than I’ve ever done. But in terms of like volume? Not really. I haven’t thought about it. This is the first time I’ve ever thought about foul balls given up in a game, you just bringing it up.”

Aaron Slegers, starter: 

“They can tell you things. They can tell you how the hitter reacted, depending on where the foul ball goes. It’s kind of information for what kind of approach a hitter is trying to do. It’s pretty good feedback for what the hitter’s approach at the plate is and how he reacted to the pitch you just threw him.

“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever looked back at a start and asked for my foul ball numbers. It’s kind of hard without context, you know. First I’d look at when those foul balls were. Were they early in counts? That tells me the lineup is really aggressive and swinging at everything. Maybe I was throwing them too good of pitches early. And then late, with two strikes, it would mean I have to work on putting guys away. I’m giving them too much of a chance with two strikes to get the bat on the ball.”

Ervin Santana, starter:

“Foul balls? It depends on who is hitting it. If it’s a righty and they hit it to right field, it means he’s late on the fastball. So it depends.

“Sometimes there’s a good battle where they foul the ball off — foul, foul, foul, foul, foul — and then they see every pitch you throw. Sometimes it works in their favor, sometimes it works in my favor. It’s a bit difficult to describe it.

“(If I have a lot of foul balls at the end of a start), I’m going to be out early. That’s not good.”

Kohl Stewart, starter:

“It means that it’s at least a strike, which gets me ahead. It normally tells me if a hitter is behind or if he’s way out in front, which will help me determine the next pitch I’m probably going to throw.

Sep 4, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Kohl Stewart (53) delivers a pitch during the fifth inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

“(The total in a game) doesn’t tell me anything about how the day went, but I think I can maybe look at a certain number of those foul balls and determine if I can make adjustments where I can maybe add a certain amount of movement to a pitch that creates a swing and miss. It’s certainly better than a ball in play, but each foul ball is different, obviously. It’ll tell me a lot more about where a hitter is in the at-bat, especially with timing if it’s an offspeed pitch or if it’s a heater, and how I can set him up for the next pitch to create a swing and miss.”

Zack Littell, swingman: 

“The first thing I think of is that it’s a strike; whether it’s 450 feet down the line foul or tapped out of the box, it’s just a strike, you know? Most of the time, if you get a guy who pulls that long one foul — that’s out if it’s fair — that’s kind of like another easy strike after that. You go further inside, and the hitter is thinking “Oh, I’ve got you; I can hit that pitch again.” If you go further inside, no hitter has a chance. So yeah…it’s a strike.

“(On a day with a lot of fouls allowed), I’m thinking that obviously it’s one of those days where maybe your stuff isn’t as sharp. You’re executing pitches fine, but your stuff just isn’t quite right there. You don’t have that little bit of extra stuff. Those days especially, if I recognize pretty early that they’re fouling a lot of balls off — going deep in a lot of counts not because we’re throwing balls, but because they’re fouling them off — it’s usually like “Hey, I’m going to throw this ball down the middle. I don’t care if you hit it, just get out of the box. Whether it’s a strikeout or a double, just get out of the box.”

Kyle Gibson, starter:

“Foul balls really just rack up my pitch count, really. I feel like the games where I have the most foul balls, I’m probably not making it six innings deep. Sometimes it can be a good sign, depending upon how they are; obviously, if they’re fouling it down into the dirt, behind or between their legs for me, I’ll take those. When they’re in the air and they’re almost home runs, those are a little bit scarier. But there are sometimes where a guy fouls off three or four pitches and you’d almost rather just throw a straight one here and have him put it in play. Sometimes they can be a little bit annoying.

Sep 3, 2018; Houston, TX, USA; Minnesota Twins starting pitcher Kyle Gibson (44) delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

“I try not to look at just one thing (as far as foul balls in a start). I try to look at where they were, if they were executed pitches…for me, with the ball going down, if they’re fouling it into the dirt a lot that’s a good thing. That means I probably have a bit of extra movement that day, or maybe I’ve used the four-seamer a little bit more effectively than other games. I don’t think they’re always a bad thing. I think you can learn a lot from how a guy fouls a ball off and what kind of swings he’s taking.”

Chase De Jong, swingman: 

“There’s a different way to read each one of them, depending on the pitch you throw and the location it was. It can tell you a lot. If I try to go heater in, and a guy just misses it and fouls it pretty much just straight back. Like it was in the sweet spot, but it was just underneath it, the guy was pretty timed up for it. Same thing if we go changeup down and away, or something down and away and it’s kind of a weaker foul ball that’s pretty much almost perpendicular to him, then you pretty much beat him or fooled him, depending on if it was a heater or offspeed. So you can definitely read into it.

“I know some guys that might go right-on-right changeup first pitch, and you know the guy’s aggressive, you get it way in and know it’s going to fade into him. They’re going to hit one of those “feel good” foul balls, but you’re going to get him opened up like this. It opens up options after that. It’s not an exact science, and everybody interprets them differently, otherwise, you wouldn’t be doing an article on them. But there’s definitely some merit to reading how hard, how soft, did he almost square it up, things like that.

“If I make a start and see I have a lot of foul balls, it means I was around the zone. I do give up a lot of foul balls. You’ll see that. Maybe they don’t completely get it, but I’ve definitely been plagued with longer at-bats sometimes. It means I’m around the zone. They’re not really fouling off really bad pitches, unless it’s a really, really good breaking ball that they just get a piece of. For me, it’s mostly just flare left, flare right, but it means I’m around the zone. It means I have them in swing mode if I give up a lot of them.”

Trevor Hildenberger, reliever:

“A lot of different things, depending on the swing, the pitch, the count and the situation. It’s either a good or a bad thing. Sometimes you’re trying to put people away, and they foul it off and it’s a loss — a waste. You feel like “Man I made a really good pitch, I executed it and the guy fouled it off.” That’s kind of frustrating. Or it’s a good thing, like a laser beam down the line and it’s two inches foul, and you’re like “Thank you!” Early in the count if they chase out of the zone and foul it off, strike one instead of ball one. It can mean a bunch of different things.

“I think if you’re getting swings in an appearance and they get a lot of foul balls, if they’re swinging and not squaring things up, that’s pretty good. If they foul off enough pitches to get deep in an at-bat, and then get a pitch they can handle, that’s a good at-bat for them. I don’t really see it as a negative. If it runs your pitch count up, at least you’re throwing strikes. Walks run your pitch count up too.”

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