Judging the Royals

Three things matter: location, location, location

Updated: 2013-04-17T22:55:17Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

The game got away in the bottom of the eighth. Jeremy Guthrie continued the string of excellent starts—seven innings, two earned runs—but had thrown 91 pitches and was about to face the Atlanta Braves lineup for the fourth time. Ned Yost gave the ball to Kelvin Herrera—Kelvin hadn’t given up a run in his previous six appearances this season—but even a 98 mph fastball left in a bad location will leave the yard.

Five solo shots and a walk that scored meant the Royals lost to the Braves 6-3.

When you watch Kelvin Herrera—or any other pitcher for that matter—watch pitch location: if the ball is up, but still within the strike zone, bad things are about to happen.

Getzie homers

Of course the big news—besides the score—was Chris Getz’ homer; and it wasn’t a wall scraper. Chris hit it quite a few rows back in right field. I went over this in spring training, but here it is again: Chris has changed his approach. He’s spread out his feet, crouched deeper in his stance, and is emphasizing his top hand. The change in his stance is allowing Chris to get more out of his legs and emphasizing his top hand has him hitting down on the ball, which theoretically shortens his swing and creates rising backspin.

Bottom line: Chris already has four doubles, a triple and a homer and is currently hitting .300. It’s only 13 games so no one should get overly excited, but it’s a nice start.

How good pitching might help Jeff Francoeur’s hitting

Before the Royals started this road trip I asked Jeff Francoeur if there were times last season that he felt he needed to hit a bomb to get the Royals back in the game.

"Absolutely."

If the team is down by five in the seventh and you come to the plate with a couple guys on, you might think: "If I can hit one out, we’re right back in it." Jeff said he knows he shouldn’t think like that, but the thought crosses his mind: do something big and give your team a chance to get back in the game. Some of the big swings we saw last year was Jeff trying to get big results.

With better starting pitching, Jeff’s more likely to feel that he doesn’t have to do something big to give the Royals a chance to win. If Francoeur comes to the plate with a lead or down by one, he’s more likely to move a runner or hit a single the other way—with good pitching all he needs to do is get something started. If the pitching staff keeps the game close, it takes pressure off the offense. The hitters can relax; they don’t need to do as much.

We may have seen that in this game: with the score tied 1-1 in the fourth and a runner in scoring position, Jeff lined a single to the opposite field. Down 6-2 in the ninth—when a home run wouldn’t help—Francoeur lined another single up the middle. If Jeff tries to do less, he might wind up with a whole lot more.

First-pitch swinging

A hitter comes to the plate, swings at the first pitch, makes an out and fans get upset: the hitter didn’t even try to work the count. But there’s a reason guys go up there hacking: in the right situation with the right pitcher on the mound, the first pitch might be the best pitch a hitter will see. Let the pitcher throw strike one while you watch and every pitch that follows might be tougher to hit.

In this game, Juan Francisco and Jason Heyward homered on the first pitch of their at-bats. According to Baseball Reference, going into this game, here’s what some of the Kansas City Royals hit when they swing at the first pitch:

Alex Gordon .348

Alcides Escobar .305

Billy Butler .352

Eric Hosmer .366

Salvador Perez .304

Lorenzo Cain .314

Mike Moustakas .276

Jeff Francoeur .337

Chris Getz .309

These averages don’t mean these guys should go up their hacking every time they go to the plate, they might hit even better in another count. But if a pitcher is trying to get ahead with first-pitch fastballs, hitters might be smart to tee off. Next time you see a guy swing at the first pitch, you might know why.

Hosmer’s swing

The Royals took early batting practice last week and I got a chance to watch new hitting coach Jack Maloof working with Eric Hosmer. Jack gave me some time afterwards and here’s what he had to say:

When a hitter gets a good pitch to hit his swing stays balanced. The pitch is easily reachable, and the hitter doesn’t have to distort his body to put the bat on the ball. Hitters get in trouble when they chase bad pitches; their swing breaks down because they have to lean out over the plate to reach the pitch. That’s what was happening to Hosmer.

If Eric can keep his upper body over his legs and reach an outside pitch with his hands, that’s a good pitch to hit. If Eric has to lean out and reach for the pitch, he’s chasing something out of the zone. But shouldn’t Eric be able to feel his swing break down and stop his swing?

That’s one of those "easy to say, hard to do" things. With the lights on and the stadium rocking, keeping your emotions under control isn’t easy. It takes some guys years to become a smart, focused hitter that won’t chase a pitcher’s pitch. And of course pitchers are doing everything they can to break down a hitter’s swing. They’ll start a "chase pitch" in the strike zone, let the pitch’s movement take it out of the strike zone and hope that the hitter chases it. As former Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane once said to me; the pitcher’s job is to take a hitter’s legs away from him—get the hitter to lean out over the plate or lunge forward in order to reach the pitch.

Watch Hosmer when he comes to the plate: if you see him lean out to reach an outside pitch, he’ll have difficulty hitting the ball hard. If Eric stays over his legs and remains balanced, he should have a good pass at the ball.

One last thing

Jeremy Guthrie got a hit on a jam shot that rolled up the third-base line and died. James Shields was leaning on the dugout rail and could be seen with a "are you kidding me?" look on his face. Then Shields waved his hand behind his head. That’s the sign for the outfield to back up and play "no doubles."

I’m guessing James was being sarcastic.

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