Judging the Royals

Alex Gordon gets a save

Updated: 2013-06-18T05:06:58Z


The Kansas City Star

Nobody works harder than Alex Gordon.

He shows up early and lifts weights, takes extra fly balls in batting practice and runs out every bloop hit, just in case one drops in. When he plays defense, Gordon turns doubles into singles on a regular basis—he does it with hustle, good routes and a strong and accurate arm. Next time you’re at the ballpark and the Royals are playing defense, watch Alex when someone on the other team hits a single to right field: the throw will come in to second base and Alex Gordon will be backing the play up—just in case.

Monday night, with the Royals up 2-1 against the Cleveland Indians, Greg Holland came in to close the game. He got the number nine hitter, John McDonald, on a fly ball to center. Then the Indians centerfielder, Michael Bourn hit a 1-0 fastball off the wall in left-center. Lorenzo Cain chased the ball, got too close to the wall and the carom got past him. A ball off the wall is a pretty sure double, a ball off the wall that gets away from an outfielder can be a triple or worse.

But then Alex Gordon showed up.

Gordon was backing up the play—just in case—and his presence kept Bourn from continuing on to third base. The importance of that became apparent two pitches later, when Greg Holland threw a slider in the dirt. The ball got past catcher Salvador Perez and Bourn advance to third base instead of scoring. If Alex Gordon hadn’t back up that play, the game would have been tied.

Good ballplayers back up play after play and most of the time it doesn’t make any difference—the play is made, they weren’t needed. But when a guy does make a difference, it’s good to notice the hard work and good habits that paid off in a win. The Royals beat the Indians, 2-1.

Aaron Crow got the win, Greg Holland and Alex Gordon got a save.

James Shields wasn’t bad either

After the game James Shields said he did not have his best stuff, but he still managed to throw six innings while giving up only one run. Once again Shields pitched well and did not get a win. But the Royals have won the last four games he started; he’s pitching well enough to keep the scores low and give his team a chance.

The Royals are now back to .500 after being nine games under and James Shields is a big part of that.

Game notes

*In 2013 James Shields has a 7.71 ERA in the first inning. Like a lot of good pitchers, you better get Shields early or you may not get him at all. The Indians went 1-2-3 in the first.

*In the second inning, Shields threw Indians first baseman, Mark Reynolds a 2-1 changeup. He then threw Reynolds a 2-2 changeup and followed that up with a 3-2 changeup. When a pitcher does that—throws something other than a fastball in fastball counts—he puts doubt in hitters’ minds. Everyone sees what the pitcher did and they know they can’t count on getting a heater when they expect one and that often makes them cut back on their swings; they won’t try to get the bat head out in front if they don’t know what’s coming. A pitcher might hold a hitter to a single in the third inning because of an off-speed pitch he threw to someone else in the second.

*Shields got out of two bases-loaded jams; one in the third inning and another in the fifth. Keeping the Indians scoreless early allowed the Royals to win late. It’s what good pitching does; even when you’re not ahead good pitching keeps the score low, limits the damage and gives you a chance to some back late in the game.

*Jason Kipnis struck out to end both the third and fifth. Cleveland is near the top of the league in home runs and strikeouts. The two often go hand-in-hand: to hit home runs you have to get the bat head out early and pull the ball, but that also makes you easy to fool.

*Once again Salvador Perez saved a run by blocking a pitch in the dirt with a runner on third. Sal does it so well it can seem routine—until you see another catcher fail to make that play. The Royals scored the winning run when Indian’s catcher, Carlos Santana, let a ball go between his legs.

*In the fifth inning David Lough came to the plate and the TV guys noted Lough had hit .292 with runners in scoring position—which is fine as far as it goes. But any one stat usually ignores a bunch of other factors. For instance: who was pitching? What was the score? What was the inning? If it’s a tie game in the ninth against a closer, you’re getting pitched differently than if it’s a 10-2 blowout in the eighth and you’re facing a guy who’s just mopping up. There’s no one stat that can give you a complete picture.

*In the sixth inning Carlos Santana appeared to look for a first-pitch fastball, got it and homered. Ballplayers are always looking for patterns, like fastballs in fastball counts. But there are other patterns a hitter can look for: Santana got a first-pitch fastball in the second inning and a first-pitch fastball in the fourth. If something is working pitchers tend to stick with it until you prove you need to change your approach. In his next at-bat, Santana faced Bruce Chen and got a first-pitch curveball.

*When Mark Reynolds stole second base in the eighth inning, Salvador Perez sailed his throw high and wide and on into centerfield. Reynolds jumped up, advanced to third and Sal was tagged with an E2. Sometimes a catcher rushes his throw because the pitcher didn’t. Aaron Crow was not particularly quick about getting the ball home and when that happens the guy behind the plate might throw the ball before all the footwork is done—that’s a bad idea.

Former Royals base-running coach, Doug Sisson, once told me that if a catcher had a 2.0 pop time (the amount of time it takes to catch the ball and get it down to second base) the catcher needed to be a 2.0 every time. If he could throw it faster, he would’ve done it before there was an emergency. Trying to go faster than you can causes errors. Better to have the runner safe at second than standing on third after throwing the ball away.

*Up 2-1 the Royals ran a suicide squeeze in the ninth inning. There was one down and the bases were loaded at the time, which simplifies things for the defense: if the pitcher can pick up the bunt and flip the ball back to the plate in time, the catcher does not need to make a tag—it’s a force play.

The Royals really simplified things for the defense when Lorenzo Cain missed the sign. After the game Ned Yost said Cain missed a "verbal." That’s a certain phrase or word the third-base coach, Eddie Rodriguez, would use to make sure Cain knew what to do. In the suicide squeeze, the runner usually breaks for home when the pitcher’s front foot comes down—at that point it’s too late for the pitcher to change his delivery and pitch out. If the bunt gets down on the ground anywhere, the run usually scores.

Alcides Escobar got the bunt down, but Cain never broke for home. Even after the ball hit the ground, Lorenzo delayed taking off—another mental mistake. The bases were loaded: even if Cain missed the verbal he should have been running once the ball hit the ground.

How to hit a batter

The Indians starting pitcher, Carlos Carrasco, has a reputation for being a headhunter. In baseball slang a headhunter is a guy who throws at batter’s heads and nobody likes that, not even the headhunter’s teammates. In the American League, they’re the ones who will face retaliation, not the guy who threw the pitch.

If a pitcher comes up above the shoulders in the vicinity of the batter’s head, he’s risking serious injury to another player. If a pitcher wants to hit someone, there’s a right way to do it: throw a fastball below the shoulders and behind the hitter’s back—he’ll back up into the pitch. He’ll take it somewhere in the back or backside and end up bruised, but uninjured.

The hitter may not like it, but at least it was done in the right way.

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