Seattle — When James McCann was catching and calling pitches for the Tigers, one of his bedrock beliefs was, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
If he thought hitters were sitting on breaking balls, for example, he’d call for fastballs until he was sure the hitters had adjusted.
That philosophy, like all pitch-calling philosophies, didn’t always work.
Bobby Wilson was calling pitches for rookie lefty Tyler Alexander on Saturday, and it was clear the Mariners were expecting off-speed pitches in two-strike counts. The evidence was the four Mariners hitters who were called out on strikes on fastballs in the first three innings.
“I did throw soft early (in counts) and the attempt was to throw hard late,” said Alexander, whose slider, because of the way he throws it, is read as a curveball by Statcast. “That also had to do with the fact that the one thing I did have going for me was good command later in counts. I was going soft early and I could locate my fastball late.”
But then the fourth inning came. Alexander got two strikes on the first two hitters in the inning, Omar Narvaez and Tim Beckham. He threw Narvaez a 2-2 slider — single. Then he threw Beckham a 1-2 slider — single.
After striking out Daniel Vogelbach — looking at a third-strike fastball, go figure — Austin Nola ambushed a first-pitch heater and laced a two-run triple. Alexander ended up getting tagged for four runs in the fourth and fifth innings.
Afterward, Wilson was asked about the apparent change in pitch pattern in the fourth.
“The thing is, it’s always going to be about pitch execution,” he said. “If he executes those pitches, maybe it’s a different outcome.”
Alexander agreed with that.
"If I make a better pitch with the slider, if I put it in the dirt, then I can go back to the fastball," he said. "A lot of times you are trying to set up that third-strike take. I just made bad pitches and they hit them."
Wilson, though, didn’t second-guess his decision to go soft there.
“This is the major leagues, you can’t stay the same way with all the hitters,” he said. “They go up to the plate and they say, ‘OK, he punched me out with a fastball last time.’ Big-league hitters are going to adjust and be ready for it the next time.
“You’ve got to keep mixing it up. You can’t stay one way. Early on (in the season) we were getting hurt staying one way and not adapting to the game. You can say we should’ve stayed fastball, but what if he hits that fastball out of the park instead of just a single?”
There is so much data that goes into these decisions now, and it goes beyond just the game-planning that goes on with the aid of the analytics department before the game. But Wilson’s point about adapting to what you see during a game is the key.
“Right now it seems like the fourth inning has killed me lately,” he said. “I don’t know what it is — getting through the lineup a couple more times, they’ve seen him. I don’t know. But I thought he threw it great. Just left a few pitches up in the zone in the fourth.”
It was Alexander’s third big-league start and he posted nine strikeouts in 4.1 innings in the 8-1 loss. But he fell behind too often, pitched in hitter-favorable counts too often and elevated his pitch-count early.
“I commanded the ball late in counts, which was nice,” he said. “But I fell behind a few guys and put myself in a tough position and ended up throwing a lot of pitches. I made pitches when I had to in the first three innings, but that’s hard to sustain the whole game.”
The more innings he pitches at this level, the more he will gain a feel for what the hitters are trying to do against him the second and third time through the order. At that point, the burden of sensing when they’ve adjusted won’t be squarely on the catcher.
“Hitters’ approaches are different here than they are at the other levels, obviously,” Alexander said. “The more I throw, the better I’m going to get at reading swings and working on how my stuff plays in different counts and just getting more comfortable.”