SURPRISE, Ariz. -- New manager Mike Matheny’s war on the windup reached this Royals camp early.
“I don’t want to get into a rant, but I don’t see the value of the full windup,” Matheny said. “It’s worthless for most pitchers.
“And actually, I started this conversation in November and told these guys individually and through our coaches that we have to clean it up and shorten it up so we don’t give away free bases.
“People think that as a former catcher saying this, it must be about stolen-base percentage to me. That’s garbage. It’s about bases that turn into potential runs that turn into potential losses.”
Having pitchers abandoning their windup and instead focusing on perfecting their slide steps toward home plate is crucial to controlling the running game. The more those pitchers perfect their slide steps the more confident they will be in throwing strikes as well.
Controlling the running game is about to become even more vital for MLB teams because of rule changes headed toward the big league level.
Teams have been informed that MLB is implementing a rule that will require Minor Leaguers at Class A or lower to step off the rubber before throwing to a base to hold a runner.
“You’re going to see an evolution in the game,” Matheny said. “What are they trying to do? Increase the running game. Pickoff moves aren’t going to mean anything anymore when this rule gets to us.”
Matheny said he expects the rule to reach the Majors by 2022.
“It’s going to be how quick you are to the plate, and that’s it,” he said.
Matheny is preaching to his players to keep their time to home plate at 1.39 seconds or less.
“He was kind of all over the place,” Matheny said. “I had my stopwatch with me, and they all knew that, and he was like 1.0 to the plate. I told him later, ‘Hey, I’m glad we got your attention, but that’s a little too quick.’ Anything 1.39 or less is fine. They don’t have to be so quick they lose control of the strike zone.”
The Royals haven’t been particularly prone to giving up stolen bases in recent years -- for example, they gave up only 57 last season, which was among the league’s lowest. But much of that has had to do with defensive-minded catchers such as Salvador Perez and Meibrys Viloria, both of whom have average pop times under 2.00 seconds. The American League average was 2.01 last year.
Controlling the running game is only part of Matheny’s mantra about avoiding giving up free bases. He has been frustrated at times this spring over his outfielders missing cutoff men.
“I was just bragging the other day how we hadn’t missed a cutoff man in a while,” Matheny said, “and then we missed two on Saturday, both allowed free bases. You can’t give up that 90 feet.”
One area that has impressed Matheny is his catchers’ ability to block balls this spring -- the Royals had only 10 passed balls and 59 wild pitches last season, again among the AL's fewest.
“Our catchers are blocking everything this spring,” Matheny said. “Doing a good job.”
Where the Royals can really make an impact on reducing free bases is through walks. The Royals walked 582 hitters last season -- only three teams in the AL were worse.
“Control the strike zone,” Matheny said sternly.
Much of that, Matheny said, starts with perfecting mechanics with repeatable motions. And there again, he would like to see his pitchers eliminate the full windup and focus on the slide step.
“We have guys with these really big windups,” he said. “So they’re basically trying to learn two different sets of mechanics. But there is one you absolutely have to have, from the stretch, and that can be with the game on the line.
“If you’re going to be really good at one, be good at the one that matters the most, the one you’ll need the most. Now, there are some pitchers who can do both. And if our guys want to add an abbreviated windup later to show a different look, that’s OK.
“But I watched our team last year at times give up an extra 90 feet at crucial times. Oftentimes, it came down to things we can control.”