Judging the Royals

Ervin Santana does it again

Updated: 2013-04-22T14:27:55Z

The Boston Red Sox take a lot of pitches. By taking a lot of pitches the Red Sox run a starting pitcher’s pitch count up and by running a starting pitcher’s pitch count up, the Red Sox can force the other team to use their middle relievers. The best relievers are usually at the "back end" of the bullpen, so every offense wants to face the other guys—the guys who aren’t set-up men and closers. Get the starting pitcher out after five, beat up on middle relief and keep the set-up man and closer in the bullpen.

After three innings Ervin Santana had thrown 60 pitches; it looked like the Red Sox were going to get what they wanted.

But then Santana—who had thrown an average of 20 pitches per inning—threw a 9-pitch inning, a 10-pitch inning, a 15-pitch inning and finally, in the seventh, another 10-pitch inning. Instead of leaving the game after five innings, he made it through seven. Instead of requiring Ned Yost to find four innings of relief, Ned only needed two. That’s what good starting pitching does: it goes deep in games and doesn’t allow the other team a shot at middle relief.

After the game TV announcer Joel Goldberg said that over his last three outings Ervin Santana has a 1.57 ERA, he’s struck out 18 and walked four. (Thanks for the research, Joel.)Santana’s also been an early-season stopper: when the Royals needed a big game after a disappointing loss, Ervin Santana has provided one. Sunday, he did it again.

Game notes

Ryan Dempster was holding base runners by holding the ball in the set position. Once the runner takes his lead, he has a lot of tension in his legs—hold onto the ball long enough, and the runner’s legs get tight. When the pitcher holds the ball in the set position, the hitter has to help out the runner by calling time. For the most part, Royals hitters weren’t doing this.

You might wonder why the Royals would put on a left-handed shift when David Ortiz came to the plate and then throw the ball on the outer half of the plate. Don’t they want him to pull the ball into the shift? Well, if Ortiz is willing to settle for a single to left field, the Royals are willing to let him have one. But if Ortiz is still going to pull the ball, pitching him away makes it hard for him to do it with any authority.

Ortiz still got three hits—but the Royals kept him in the yard.

I’ve written this so many times already this year, you can just start assuming it: Salvador Perez saved a run by blocking a pitch in the dirt with a runner on third. If the pitcher trusts the catcher to block pitches, the pitcher can throw his nastiest stuff. If he doesn’t trust the catcher, the pitcher has to throw something more hittable whenever there’s a runner on third base.

In the second inning Will Middlebrooks hit a ball between Mike Moustakas and third base. The ball hit the left-field wall that juts out and caromed into short left field. Alcides Escobar did his job and was waiting for the carom. If a shortstop assumes the ball is down in the corner, a fast runner might take an extra base. Esky was there and held Middlebrooks to a single. Good thing because two outs later Jacoby Ellsbury singled.

Lorenzo Cain made a running catch in deep centerfield, just short of the wall. Royals fans are lucky to get to watch four outfielders (Cain, Alex Gordon, Jeff Francoeur and Jarrod Dyson) who show no fear of the wall. Fans can spot an outfielder who is afraid of hitting the wall by watching what they do when they hit the warning track—some guys slow up and avoid contact.

The insurance run

Greg Holland came in to close the game with a 4-2 lead. Ballplayers will tell you being up by more than one run in the ninth inning is a big deal. First, it means the pitcher can go right after the hitters; even if a guy hits one out of the park, the pitcher is still up by one run.

Second, it means the defense does not have to guard the lines or play "no doubles." If the batter is the tying run and hits a ball down the line, it’s a double and he’s in scoring position. The same thing applies to playing "no doubles" in the outfield. If the batter hits the ball over an outfielder’s head, it’ll be extra bases and he’ll be in scoring position. So if the tying or winning run comes to the plate late in a game, the outfield backs up.

But guarding the line and backing up opens other holes in the defense; those moves might prevent extra base hits, but they make singles more likely. With a two-run lead the Royals didn’t have to worry about any of that. Holland could go right after the hitters and the defenders could stand where they liked.

Holland went 1-2-3 and got the save.

Breaking up the double play

Man on first, less than two down, the double play’s in order and the batter hits a grounder. If the grounder is a slow roller, the double play pivot man is at risk. The pivot man is the guy who will catch the ball from another infielder, tag second base and deliver the ball to first. If the grounder that starts the double play takes a while to get to an infielder—either because it’s slow and the infielder needs to runner has time to get to the pivot man and knock the hell out of him. Middle infielders know this; but they also know which base runners have a reputation for hustling down the line with bad intentions and which base runners have a reputation for giving a half-assed effort.

If the pivot man knows the runner is intent on blowing him up, the pivot man is more likely to rush the double play or bail on it altogether. If the pivot man knows the runner coming down the line is not going all out, the pivot man knows he’s safe and can take a little more time getting the ball to first base.

Base runners—even guys who can’t steal a base if they were strapped to a North Korean rocket—always need to fight for their primary lead (the one taken while the pitcher still has the ball) and their secondary lead (the shuffle steps taken toward the next base after the pitcher delivers the ball toward home). Non-base-stealing base runners still have to go first to third, second to home and break up double plays—an extra step might make the difference.

I’m reminded of all this because of a play that happened yesterday in the eighth inning. The Royals were leading the Red Sox 2-1 with Alcides Escobar on third base, Billy Butler on first and Eric Hosmer at the plate. There was one down so if the Red Sox could get Hosmer to hit a groundball and turn two, they’d get out of the inning with no damage. As I pointed out yesterday, Eric needed to get a pitch up in the zone to stay out of the double play, but he swung at two pitches down; putting the second one in play.

The ball wasn’t hit sharply, which meant a fast runner would have a chance to break up the double play. Butler was on first, so that probably wasn’t going to happen. The ball was hit to second baseman Dustin Pedroia and Billy appeared to slow down to avoid Pedroia stepping into the base path, making the tag and then completing the double play by throwing the ball to first base. If that’s what was happening, I think that’s the wrong play: Billy needed to do anything he could to break up the double play—it meant a run for the Royals. If Dustin Pedroia chose to step into the base path with the ball, that’s a perfect excuse to knock him halfway to the Green Monster. Slowing up—when he didn’t appear to be running that fast to begin with—took pressure off the Red Sox and allowed them to turn a 4-6-3 with no problem.

Of course, it’s pretty easy for me to say that someone else should run over Dustin Pedroia—but I think my track record of being willing to do something impulsive that could wind up hurting me speaks for itself (and if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go to the old web site and watch some of the videos). Bottom line: the Royals want to be known as an aggressive base-running team. That’s one of the reasons they’ve asked their players to start sliding feet-first more often. Make the rest of the league aware that they can’t block the base paths without paying a price—come in hard, break up double plays.

If Billy had kept running hard—and to be fair, maybe that’s what I was seeing—if he tried to get to second base to flip the pivot man and Dustin Pedroia stepped into the base path, I would have liked to see Billy put some of that Country Breakfast to good use.

(On the other hand, maybe I’ve spent too much time around Jason Kendall.)

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