Judging the Royals

Stopping the losing streak

Updated: 2013-05-10T04:04:29Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Jeremy Guthrie threw six innings and gave up one run—another quality start for the Royals. So far the formula seems pretty simple: if you have good starting pitching, it’s harder to have long losing streaks. Having a good bullpen doesn’t hurt either; Aaron Crow, Kelvin Herrera and Luke Hochevar supplied three more scoreless innings to back up Guthrie’s start. If I counted right (it’s late and I’m tired), so far this season the pitchers have held opponents to less than three runs 14 times in the first 31 games.

That’s how you win ballgames.

Keep the score low and the offense doesn’t have to do as much to bring home a W. Consistently keep the score low and it’s hard to lose a bunch of games in a row. Jeremy Guthrie’s pitching allowed the Royals to record their 12th come-from-behind win, beating the Baltimore Orioles 6-2.

Game notes

First inning: With two strikes on Adam Jones and Manny Machado on first, Salvador Perez signaled for a high fastball from Jeremy Guthrie. (When they want a high fastball some catchers stand partway up—which is a bad idea because it exposes some fairly tender body parts to a foul tip—and other catchers hold their glove high. Sal holds his glove high. Sal is smart.)

Machado took off for second base and the high fastball provided a perfect pitch for throwing out a runner and a perfect example of why Chris Getz is held in higher regard by many baseball players than many baseball fans: Getz straddled second base while receiving the throw.

Here’s why ballplayers like that: infielders who want to avoid contact with a runner will come out in front of the bag, catch the ball and reach back to make the tag and that takes longer. Infielders who don’t mind contact, straddle the bag, catch the ball and drop the tag on the runner. Chris has scuffled at the plate and Yost is looking for offense, so good play around the bag might not keep Getz on the field, but it’s the kind of thing ballplayers notice.

Second inning: On a 3-2 count with two outs, Ryan Flaherty at the plate and runners on first and second, Salvador Perez waved at his infielders and then pointed at first base. Sal was reminding them that the runners would be in motion early so the play would be at first base. (TV announcer Rex Hudler pointed that one out.) Stuff like this is why catchers are often considered managing material—they’re the guys with the whole field in front of them and at times they have to think like a manager.

Third inning: Manny Machado was at the plate, held up his hand and shook it. That’s the sign that means a player wants a new ball. Umpires throw out any pitch that bounces in the dirt because the ball might be scuffed, but if a guy bangs one off a chain link fence and the throw back to the infield bounces twice, they give the ball right back to the pitcher and everybody’s good to go. Bottom line: scuffed balls are used all the time—Nate McClouth had singled right before Machado came to the plate and Manny didn’t want to hit a scuffed baseball ( probably—this whole thing is guesswork on my part) so he asked for a new one.

What kills veteran ballplayers is when the pitcher finds a scuff on a ball and asks for a new one—and you see it all the time. A lot of young guys don’t know what to do with a scuffed ball and want a clean one. Old-timers shake their heads; the kid just got a Christmas gift and gave it back. Scuffing a ball yourself is frowned upon, but if they hand you a scuffed ball, that’s a different deal. If a young guy doesn’t know how to pitch with a scuffed baseball, old guys will tell him to get down to the pen and practice.

Fourth inning: First baseman Eric Hosmer went to his right and stepped in front of second baseman, Chris Getz. Hosmer fielded the ball, but had no play at first. That’s the downside of a first baseman who has range (it never would have happened if Billy Butler were out there), but the real problem was Jeremy Guthrie—he broke off the mound late. Every time a ball is hit to the pitcher’s left he has to sprint to first— every time. Wait to see if you’re needed (and that’s what Guthrie appeared to do), and you’ll be late to the bag.

Sixth inning: Billy Butler hit a grounder to Manny Machado and Manny did everything but read the commissioner’s signature before throwing the ball to first base. Infielders have to know the speed of the man at the plate and if you see an infielder rush on a slow guy or take his time on a burner, you’ve just seen an infielder who isn’t paying attention.

Clearly, Machado was playing attention.

Eric Hosmer singled to left field immediately after Billy was thrown out. It was third time Hos went that way: he lined out, homered and singled to the opposite field in his first three at-bats. Typically, when a guy is smoking balls the other way, pitchers will start to throw inside. Pay attention to how the Yankees pitch Eric this weekend.

In the bottom of the sixth Ryan Flaherty struck out looking, but thought the pitch was high—and so did Salvador Perez. Sal pulled the pitch back down into the zone after receiving the ball; if a catcher likes the location he’ll just hold the ball in place—if the catcher thinks the ball was off the plate he might try pulling it back into the zone.

Ninth inning: With the score 6-2 Yost brought Luke Hochevar in to pitch the ninth. Luke came in the game with an 0.79 ERA and it went down after he got the bottom of the Orioles order 1-2-3. Ned has said he’d like to move Hochevar into higher-leverage situations; the more power arms Ned has at the back end of the pen, the more he can use those arms to shorten the game. Jason Kendall has said the Houston Astros did it better than anybody he ever faced: they had Octavio Dotel, Brad Lidge and Billy Wagner pitching the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, and if you didn’t have a lead after six, beating the Astros was tough.

The Royals—and every other team—would like to duplicate that formula.

The new lineup

The big news before the game was the new lineup: Alcides Escobar was leading off, Lorenzo Cain was batting second, Alex Gordon was in the three-hole, Billy Butler was batting fourth and Eric Hosmer was hitting fifth. Ned said it was a simple matter of getting his hottest hitters more at-bats.

Alcides Escobar went 0 for five (but lined out three times), Lorenzo Cain went 1 for four and the three, four and five hitters combined for five hits—including two home runs—four runs and four RBIs. I’m guessing we’ll see this same lineup at the top of the order tomorrow.

So how much difference does a lineup make?

Can a manager move guys at will or does he have to be careful to put the right guy in the right spot? Ballplayers say hitting in certain spots in the order—most noticeable the three and four-hole—carries a psychological burden. It shouldn’t matter, but for many ballplayers, it does. Ballplayers say the same thing about closing: throwing the ninth with a lead in a close ballgame should be like throwing any other inning—and a few pitchers say it is—but most pitchers say it’s different; some guys can do it, some guys can’t. Take the guy who was lights out in the eighth, ask him to pitch the ninth, and the wheels come off.

Players say it’s the same with batting order; some guys can hit anywhere, some guys have trouble in certain spots. A player might be hitting well in the 7-hole and people wonder why he shouldn’t be moved him up in the order. But the guy might be hitting well because he’s in the 7-hole—move him up and things will fall apart. Former Royals catcher Mike Macfarlane once told me some guys "get a nosebleed." I asked what that meant and Mac said they can’t hit high in the order.

It’s all psychological: if they want to put you up in the order it’s because you’ve been doing something right, but some guys try harder when they’re moved up and things fall apart. I once used the metaphor of walking a foot-wide plank lying on the ground; we could all do it. But put that same plank 100 feet in the air and most of us are going to have problems. Former Royals hitting coach Kevin Seitzer heard that example and said he was going to start using it—Seitz thought it was a very apt comparison. The problem might all be in your mind, but it’s still a problem.

If the players are right and it takes certain guys to hit in the heart of the order, so far, Ned seems to have picked the right guys.

Stay tuned.

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