Judging the Royals

What a difference 25% of a day makes.

Updated: 2013-04-29T05:12:09Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

At 1:10 on Sunday the Royals played what may have been there best game of the year, beating the Cleveland Indians 9-0. At 7:10—six hours later—the Royals played what was definitely their worst game of the year, losing to the Indians 10-3. That score can’t even begin to explain everything that went wrong. The Royals had an E5, an E3, an E4, a passed ball, a walk, a hit batter, a mental mistake on the bases and probably should have been stuck with an E6 and an E9 as well.

After the game I rode the elevator with one of the Royals front-office executives and he said, "We might have been due for one of those."

In the post-game press conference Ned Yost was offered the excuse that maybe sitting around between games had affected his team, but he wasn’t buying that. Ned said the Royals just didn’t play well, but they’d forget it and come back tomorrow. That’s part of what makes baseball such a grind: you pretty much do the same thing after a win. Good game or bad game you can’t dwell on what just happened; you make adjustments and get ready for the next game.

The starting pitching has been so good this season that it’s kind of a shock when the starter only throws four innings and gives up six runs, four of them earned. The defense didn’t help the pitching with all those errors, but the pitching didn’t help the defense either: lots of deep counts—170 pitches total—which means the defense was doing an awful lot of standing around. If you needed a reminder why the Royals rebuilt their pitching rotation, this game provided it—this is what it was like all too often in recent years.

Game notes

First inning: Mike Moustakas made an error on what appeared to be a double play groundball. Pay attention and you’ll see how often errors are made on potential double plays. If Mike only needed one out, I’d bet he makes that play—needing two, it looked like he rushed.

Anyone wondering why Will Smith made the start might look at his Triple A numbers: 2-1 with a 2.45 ERA. Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar haven’t been pitching that much—because the starters have done so well—and Will was called up from Omaha to take a start. After the game Will said he fell behind in the count and left pitches up: two things that will get you whacked around in the big leagues.

Sixth inning: George Kottaras had a passed ball, but it looked like a cross-up—it seemed that he expected the ball to move in one direction and it didn’t. That left him with his catcher’s mitt in the wrong position.

Seventh inning: Eric Hosmer dropped a foul pop and the usually reliable Chris Getz made an error that would take a Hemingway short story to describe. I didn’t get to talk to Chris after the game, but he appeared to make a bad decision and when things start going wrong there’s a tendency to try to make great plays to make up for the bad ones. That’s when baseball will bit you in the posterior— hard.

A four-run deficit becomes six-run deficit and your chance to recover through steady play is gone.

Eighth inning: Another case of trying to do too much: with the bases loaded and down by eight, Lorenzo Cain hit a sac fly. Elliot Johnson scored, Billy Butler advanced from second to third and Eric Hosmer tried to advance from first to second. The ball was hit to right field and second base is closer to right than third—Hos got thrown out trying to advance when is team was down by seven runs—not a good decision.

When you make a bad call the object of the game is to learn from it and come back the next day a better player. Hosmer and the Royals get their chance Monday night at 7:10—it’s the final game of the series against the Indians.

Pitching and defense

Last Friday afternoon I was up in the press box when I spotted infield coach Eddie Rodriguez walk out on the field. Rain was coming down, the tarp was on the field and most of the Royals were working out inside. I had a question I wanted to ask Eddie, so I hopped on the elevator, rode six floors down and headed for the dugout. Turns out Eddie was waiting for outfield coach Rusty Kuntz; they needed to play catch and loosen up their arms so they could back inside and throw BP.

Perfect, now I had two guys who could answer my question and here it is: once they positioned a defender, how much leeway did that defender have to move on his own?

These guys love to talk baseball and I’m lucky enough to get paid to listen. They want me—and you—to understand. Once you demonstrate that you really want to learn, they’re happy to teach you. If you come in thinking you know everything already, they won’t waste their time—why would they? You already know everything.

OK, so back to the question: and as usual, the answer is complicated.

Rusty and Eddie meet with the starting pitcher before the game and find out how he plans on pitching each hitter. Manager Ned Yost might have input before and after the game, but during the game a manager’s attention is focused on the pitcher—Eddie and Rusty are handling the infield and outfield positioning. Players and coaches will tell you that past history is important, but what’s happening that night trumps everything. Eddie said that infielders can move on their own, but they need a good reason for doing so. If an infielder goes against the scouting report, Eddie will want to know why: what did they see that convinced them to move?

And what about the pitcher? What if the starting pitcher has one game plan, but after one at-bat he sees that a hitter has made an adjustment and the pitcher now wants to pitch the hitter in an entirely different way? The pitcher always has the option to move the defenders. Rusty said that some of them will be obvious about it, some will be sneaky: some of those trips behind the mound to pick up the rosin bag or rub a ball down are really ways to disguise the pitcher communicating with his infielders. With his back to the hitter, the pitcher might look at the shortstop and subtly shift his eyes and tilt his head the direction he wants the shortstop to move. Each pitcher will have a way he likes to do it and the infielders will know what signal he’ll use.

If the shortstop is also being sneaky, he’ll wait until the hitter is focused on the pitcher and then make his move. Eddie showed me how it was done: the shortstop won’t take two steps directly to his left—that would be too obvious. Instead, the shortstop will back up or come in as they move sideways: they’ll do it on a diagonal. When Eddie took two steps directly to his left it was obvious—when he did it while moving backwards or forwards at the same time, it was much harder to spot.

Rusty pointed out that Eddie’s job of positioning infielders has less margin for error because infielders have less reaction time—a step or two one way or another makes all the difference. Outfield positioning is less critical because they have more time to react. Elevation is crucial: if a ball is in the air long enough, an outfielder will get there.

Fans love the diving stop, but coaches prefer balls hit right at someone. That probably means a defender was positioned correctly and a pitcher put the ball where he was supposed to. In fact, both Rusty and Eddie said a defender who is constantly making diving catches might be doing a poor job of positioning. Either that, or the pitcher is missing his spots—and every once in a while the hitter does something out of the ordinary that blows all their planning out the window.

The pitcher’s role

Friday’s rain was also keeping players inside the clubhouse, so I also got a chance to talk about defensive positioning with Chris Getz. What he had to say was interesting:

People talk about the improved starting pitching bailing out the offense, but the improved starting pitching is also making the defense look better. If a pitcher can hit his spots, you can move the defense accordingly. Let’s say a pitcher intends to throw a down and away pitch to a right-handed hitter in a two-strike count. Let’s also say this right-handed hitter tries to take the ball to the opposite field when he has two strikes.

If the pitcher can hit his spot, Chris can move to his left because that’s where the ball will be hit. In the past, with a pitcher who couldn’t hit his spots on the mound, Chris might not be able to gain a couple steps to his left because the pitcher might not know where the pitch would wind up. The pitcher might leave that down and away pitch in the middle of the plate and that would mean Chris should actually be moving a couple steps to his right.

When it’s done correctly, the pitcher makes a pitch, hits his spot and the batter hits the ball at an infielder. It might seem like a routine play, but a lot of work went in to making that routine play happen.

Friday afternoon the rain kept the Royals off the field, but it meant that they had time to stand around and talk baseball. Into each life some rain must fall, but if you keep your ears open, you might also soak up some knowledge.

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