Art of reading swings no myth to Tigers

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Alex Wilson

Detroit – In Kansas City a couple of weeks ago, Alex Wilson faced nemesis Salvador Perez in the eighth inning with runners at second and third and one out. The Tigers were trailing 4-2 at the time, a game they would rally and win 5-4.

Perez, coming into that at-bat, was 4-for-8 against Wilson in his career. Wilson started him off with a fastball, right down the middle. Much to his relief, Perez took the pitch. But Wilson read that take as a key to Perez’s approach.

“I said, ‘All right, I got lucky, but he’s got to be sitting soft,’” said Wilson, meaning Perez was looking for something off-speed, like maybe Wilson’s change-up or cutter. “So, next pitch, I threw him a cutter off the plate so that he’d have to reach and maybe I will get him to pop up.

“I wanted him to swing at it. It was four to six inches off the plate and he swung at it like he knew it was coming the whole time.”

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Perez fouled it off. But from those two pitches – a take and a foul ball – Wilson knew Perez’s plan in that at-bat and how he would counter it.

“I went back-to-back heaters inside and got him to pop up,” said Wilson, who caught the pop up on the first-base line. “He was sitting soft the whole time and I was never going to go back to it.”

Reading swings is not a myth. It’s a subtle nuance, for sure, but it’s real. Not every pitcher wants to do it or can do it, but it’s a requisite skill for many pitchers, especially those who don’t have overpowering fastballs.

“It’s just part of the game,” Wilson said. “But I think a lot of that is lost these days because guys throw so hard now. You have a lot of throwers these days. Nothing against them. I wish I could throw 100 mph. It gives them the ability to have some leniency.

“I don’t have that. I have to really pitch, play the game and pay attention to what guys are trying to do against me.”

Strengths and weaknesses

It’s the ultimate cat-and-mouse game between a hitter and a pitcher. And, believe this, hitters can play the same game. Pitchers and hitters both come into games well-armed with each other’s tendencies, strengths and weaknesses. The data stream is endless.

But when the actual confrontation comes, the game plan can change – the only relevant data being what the two combatants process off each pitch.

Louis Coleman

“Some people just go off the game plan,” said Tigers reliever Louis Coleman. “But I would say for the most part, you have to be able to adjust pitch to pitch. Not always, but sometimes you can tell within the first couple of pitches what the hitter is trying to do.”

It’s not just swings that are read. Pitchers can glean information from the way a hitter takes a pitch. The Tigers could tell early on Tuesday that Reds’ Joey Votto was looking to attack Matthew Boyd’s breaking ball.

“When you start them off (with a certain pitch), you can see what they’re looking for,” manager Ron Gardenhire said. “We sit in the dugout all night long and say, ‘He’s sitting on breaking balls.’ He’s taking fastballs right down the middle like Votto was, we could see it.

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“That’s just a hitter knowing what a pitcher has, and what he’s going to try to get him out with. Votto took some pitches we thought he would really whack. But that’s the game. The really good hitters recognize that and the really good pitchers recognize the swing plane.”

Votto double-crossed Boyd, though, turning on an inside fastball and ripping a double off the wall.

“I beat him with a heater in his first at-bat,” Boyd said, of his first-inning punch-out of Votto. “The next one I threw in there – it might not have been that good of a pitch – but he ripped it for a double. The same pitch.

“You want to be a pitch ahead of the hitter, but sometimes they get you.”

Matthew Boyd

Sometimes the pitcher can double-cross himself. Tigers first baseman Jim Adduci, who is extremely adept at setting up pitchers, may have done that to Reds pitcher Sal Romano in the fourth inning on Wednesday.

On a 1-1 pitch, Adduci swung through a two-seam fastball that was tailing away from him, but it was a healthy swing.

“I was on that pitch,” Adduci said. “In my head. You have to pretend like you are on it. It’s part of the chess match. You kind of show your emotion there and act like you just missed it. It’s not easy to do.”

It worked, though. Catcher Curt Casali wasn’t fooled. He called for the two-seamer again, but Romano, reading Adduci’s healthy swing, shook him off and threw a slider instead. Adduci, sitting on it, pole-axed it 424 feet into the right-field seats.

“It’s a chess game and you just try to figure stuff out,” Adduci said. “When you are feeling good at home plate, that’s when you start playing the game. The times when you aren’t feeling good at the plate, then you are just up there battling.”

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The latter – not feeling good at the plate – is the case most of the time for most hitters, and pitcher prey on that.

“One pitch that has changed a lot of this is the cutter,” Gardenhire said. “It’s such a hard pitch to recognize. It’s a late-breaker and a small-breaker. You can be sitting on a fastball and a cutter comes out looking like a fastball, but it has that late snap on it.

“So you see good hitters who normally would be all over that fastball get cut up (jammed).”

Coleman’s money pitch is a sweeping slider that he throws from a three-quarter arm slot. It’s especially devastating to right-handed hitters. The thing is, every right-handed hitter that faces him knows that pitch is coming.

But he can’t let that stop him from using it.

“If I throw a slider off the plate, a pitch that stays straight and then cuts well off the plate and he swings at it, then he was looking for a fastball down and away and he saw something different,” Coleman said. “That tells me I can throw it again and try to get him to keep chasing.

“The good hitters will see it, recognize it the second time and take it. But you still have to try. You get four balls to play with, so who cares?”

Coleman has no problem throwing a pitch he knows the hitter is looking for, which may seem counter-intuitive.

“I can throw him the fastball, if I make a good pitch down and away,” he said. “Even if he’s looking for it. My goal is to throw the pitch they are looking for, but not where they’re looking for it.”

Every swing tells a story

That’s really the art of it, right there – throw them the pitch they are looking for, but not where they’re looking for it.

Tigers versatile left-hander Blaine Hardy, who along with Boyd and Wilson have been groomed by the master swing-reader, former Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez, takes that to extremes.

Blaine Hardy

“Even though there are smart hitters out there who will take certain swings and be able to analyze what a pitcher might be thinking off that swing, you can still go back to that pitch,” Hardy said.

He used the example of a recent at-bat he had against Indians designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion.

“He hit a 500-foot home run off me foul,” Hardy said. “It was a change-up, and I said, ‘I am going to stay with the change-up.’ Because he was so far out in front of it, I think I can throw it again and have it run off the plate.

“Or, I can change his eye level, throw a pitch up in the zone, and then even throw a cutter in if he’s diving out over the plate.”

But, ultimately, he wanted to get him out with a change-up tailing off the plate away from him – throw him what he's looking for, but not where he can barrel it up. 

“There are a multiple number of pitches you can throw off a certain swing a hitter has just taken,” Hardy said. “Even knowing the kind of hitter he is and if he’s a smart hitter. If they pull a home run foul, sometimes throwing the same pitch again is actually the best pitch, because they’re thinking, ‘Oh, I almost had him. No way he throws that again.’

“Every swing tells you what their approach is. When a guy fouls a pitch straight back, that’s when you don’t want to throw the same pitch again. Because he was right on it and just missed it.”

It’s a group process, reading swings. The catcher sees what he sees from behind the plate. The manager and coaches pick up clues from the dugout, but mostly, the pitcher needs to trust his eyes.

“I feel like both pitching coaches this year (Chris Bosio and Rick Anderson) have told me that, to trust my eyes,” Boyd said. “But K-Rod (Francisco Rodriguez), he was the one who really encouraged me to do that. We sat in talked in clubhouse, before games, after games.  

“I feel like that was part of the game I ignored. I was like, ‘I see that (the swings), why am I not acting on it?’… But it’s like Frankie said, there’s no right formula for it. It’s just trusting your eyes and trusting your stuff.”

Twitter @cmccosky


Series: Three-game series at Oakland Alameda Coliseum

First pitch: Friday – 10:05 p.m.; Saturday – 9:05 p.m.; Sunday – 4:05 p.m.

TV/radio: Friday-Sunday – FSD/97.1 FM

Probables: Friday – LHP Brett Anderson (2-3, 5.55) vs. LHP Blaine Hardy (4-3, 3.61); Saturday – RHP Edwin Jackson (2-2, 3.32) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (4-3, 4.44); Sunday – RHP Trevor Cahill (3-2, 3.39) vs. LHP Francisco Liriano (3-5, 4.62).

Anderson, A’s: After spending the month of June in Triple-A, the veteran lefty has gone 2-1 with a 3.98 ERA in four July starts. Opponents are hitting .309 off him though, and he’s allowed three home runs in 20 innings.

Hardy, Tigers: He’s back in the rotation, filling in for Michael Fulmer this time. This will be his 11th start and he’s allowed three runs or less in seven of his 10 starts to date, including a strong five-inning, one-run performance in a win against the Indians on July 28.