Judging the Royals

Aaron Crow: 'The best pitch I threw all year'

Updated: 2013-06-13T20:19:18Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

There are games that go by in a blur; they’re sloppy and muddled and you can only see the key moments by looking backwards—at the time, they didn’t make much of an impression. There are other games that are clear as glass; you can see the key moment coming down the road and anticipate its arrival.

The key moment in Monday night’s 3-2 win against the Detroit Tigers came in the seventh inning. Sure, there were other moments that mattered, but the moment, the one that probably decided the game’s outcome, arrived in the seventh.

Starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie came out for the top of the seventh with a one-run lead and a short leash. He was due to face Omar Infante, hitting in the eight-hole, Avisail Garcia, hitting ninth, and lead-off hitter Andy Dirks. If Torii Hunter, hitting in the second spot, came to the plate, Ned Yost was going to pull Guthrie. There are a bunch of reasons Yost would make that move: Guthrie had been through the order three times already, the Tigers were getting their fourth look at him and Hunter had already gotten two hits—and it would have been three except for luck: the ball was hit up the middle, a runner on first was going and took second baseman Chris Getz right to the bag, the ball and a double play.

To open the seventh Guthrie got the first batter on a line drive to Alex Gordon—and it took a highlight reel catch to record the out. Next, Garcia singled so the tying run was on base and Guthrie needed a double-play ball to complete the inning. Instead, he hit Andy Dirks with a pitch—now the tying run was in scoring position and the winning run was on first. Torii Hunter, hitting .303 at the start of the game and a bit better than that after facing Guthrie three times, was due up.

Yost went to the pen and brought in Aaron Crow.

Aaron got Hunter to fly out to right field. There were two outs and now Miguel Cabrera walked to the plate. Cabrera won the Triple Crown last year, he’s already got 69 RBIs this year and earlier in the game he hit a ball 412 feet for his 18th home run. After the game Eric Hosmer called Cabrera either "the best hitter on the planet" or "the best hitter on the face of the Earth" (I really need to start writing stuff down), but in any case, Eric Hosmer and everybody else I know thinks Miguel Cabrera is an awesome hitter. If Crow hung a slider, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Tigers taking a two-run lead in the time it takes a baseball to leave home plate and splash down in a fountain.

This was the key moment in the game.

Get Cabrera and you might not face him again. Get Cabrera and you’d face Prince Fielder in the eighth, but he wouldn’t be able to tie the game up with one swing. Get Cabrera and Tim Collins could come in to face Fielder and Victor Martinez, then Kelvin Herrera could come in and finish the inning. Get Cabrera and you might get the ball to closer Greg Holland. Get Cabrera and you’ve got a good chance to win the game.

Make a mistake and Cabrera gets you.

Crow threw Cabrera five pitches. After a 95-MPH fastball and an 85-MPH slider, Aaron was behind 2-0. That’s a fastball count: throw the best hitter in baseball a fastball when he’s looking for one and you better be ready for something bad to happen.

Crow threw a slider.

Cabrera took it for strike one, probably because he was looking for that fastball. Once a pitcher shows he’s willing to throw something off-speed in a fastball count, he puts a little doubt in hitters’ minds: maybe I’m not getting a fastball right here. Once a hitter starts thinking that, you can throw a fastball in a fastball count and you might even get away with it. Crow threw a 2-1 fastball and Cabrera fouled it off. 2-2 and this was the ball game: let the count go to 3-2 and with two outs, the runners would get a head start—the winning run might score on a double. Go 3-2 and you’re faced with the choice of throwing Cabrera something hittable or walking the tying run into scoring position. 2-2 and Aaron Crow threw another slider.

The best hitter on the face of the earth swung and missed.

After the game I asked Aaron if that 2-2 slider was the best pitch he threw in the game and he said: "It was the best pitch I threw all year." The timing couldn’t have been better. The Royals won their sixth game in a row and took game one of this three game series.

Speed vs. power

Miguel Cabrera can make any ball park look small. In the third inning with Torii Hunter on second base, Jeremy Guthrie hung a curveball and Cabrera hit it over the Sonic sign in left field. Bang—just like that, the Tigers were up by two.

Cabrera hit a pitch that landed over 400 feet away from home plate, the Royals answered by hitting a pitch that landed less than four feet away from the dish. Alcides Escobar got jammed and beat out a slow roller. Alex Gordon popped out and then Eric Hosmer hit a single into right. Salvador Perez lined a ball into right center, Avisail Garcia couldn’t make the catch and Perez wound up with a triple. With two down Lorenzo Cain beat out another infield single and Perez scored what turned out to be the winning run.

So with one big swing Miguel Cabrera put the Tigers up by two and the Royals answered with two infield hits, a clean single and a very unlikely triple. Power’s nice if you can get it, but the Royals don’t have much. But they do have some guys who can run. When they say speed shows up at the park every day, they’re also talking about defense. After the game Ned Yost said the Royals caught 18 fly ball outs and it did seem like they were flying all over the outfield all night. But to catch ‘em, they have to stay in the park.

Pay attention to the next two games and see what prevails; speed or power—it should be interesting.

A minute with George Brett

Since the Royals returned from their last road trip, they’ve been taking extra batting practice pretty much every day. Show up at 3 PM, sit in the dugout, and you can watch George Brett work with the Kansas City hitters. Monday was no exception: George was there, throwing BP, talking to hitters, tinkering, adjusting and suggesting. As he came off the field I asked if he had a minute for a question—George asked if I had an hour for an answer.

He’s right, none of this is simple.

But you’ve got to start somewhere, so I told George I’d read Charley Lau’s hitting manual (Lau was the hitting instructor who rebuilt Brett’s swing) and I wondered if George had any major differences in his approach. I’d read what Lau had to say, was it identical to what George was teaching?

"I can’t remember what’s in the book."

OK: Lau said hitters ought to try to hit the pitcher in the forehead with a line drive every time they stepped to the plate; would George go along with that? George said he’d open that up and say gap-to-gap—387 to 387. (The right-center and left-center gap in Kauffman Stadium are 387 feet from home plate.) Brett wants the Royals hitters to have a chance to pull the ball. If they get ready on time and a pitch is inside, they might say, "I can hit that" and do it; but he doesn’t want them trying to hit home runs. Try to hit home runs and bad things happen: muscles tighten up, the head pulls off the ball and if a hitter doesn’t get the pitch he was looking for, he’ll be out in front and take an ugly-looking hack. Jeff Francoeur walked by at that point and George asked him how many home runs he had this season.

Frenchy got a sheepish grin and said: "Two."

"And how many times were you trying to hit a home run; 80?"

"More like 82."

Additional proof that trying to hit home runs doesn’t work. Just take a good swing and if you get the right pitch in the right spot, the home run will happen. Early in his career when George was trying to get his head around this concept, Charley Lau told him he didn’t want George pull the ball—he wanted every ball in play to be on the left-field side of second base. One day George hit a game-tying home run, but he hit it to right field. He came into the dugout and said, "Charley, I swear to God I wasn’t trying to do that."

Lau said; " Now you’re getting it."

George went back out and hit the next ball to the left-field side of second base—he really was getting it.

That brought us to Eric Hosmer. I’d seen George demonstrating a swing to Eric and it looked he was telling Eric to get through the ball—to not cutoff his swing. Brett believes a hitter has to get to his front side; the hitter swings, his weight shifts forward and winds up on his front side. When a hitter stays in the same place and spins, his weight does not shift effectively. George said Pedro Grifol, the other guy working with the hitters, had watched video and believed Hosmer’s leg kick was getting his foot down late and that was making his hands late as well—you can’t start your hands until your front foot gets down. If that’s true, that explains why Hosmer has struggled to pull the ball; his hands aren’t on time and pitchers are able to get inside on him. All Eric can do is fight the ball off to the opposite field. Eliminating the leg kick should help. As George said, the fewer parts you have in your swing, the fewer things can go wrong.

Brett’s also getting Francoeur to be quieter on his front side; step softly and the head stays still. Frenchy is also trying a top-hand release. The hand doesn’t come off the bat until after contact and the top-hand release allows for greater extension and follow through. These are just two of the hitters George is working with; I saw him huddle with every guy at some point or another during BP. Each guy has something he’s working on.

I’ve been watching BP every day and both Hosmer and Francoeur have been hitting the ball noticeably harder. Eric was easily reaching the right-field bullpen and seats. But it doing it in batting practice is one thing, bringing it to a game is another. Francoeur will take one swing and release the top hand, but then take another and hold on. I asked Jeff how many swings were required to make a new mechanic natural and he said; "Good question."

But be clear about it: George is not rebuilding any body’s swing. He’s not breaking them down completely or demanding that they change (he pointed out that they were good enough hitters to get here), he’s just tinkering; making slight adjustments—some below the neck, some above. And when it comes to something as complicated as hitting, a small adjustment can have big results.

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