Judging the Royals

Salvador Perez and the play at the plate in the seventh inning

Updated: 2013-07-16T17:45:46Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

In the seventh inning relief pitcher Tim Collins replaced starting pitcher and sleight-of-hand artist, Bruce Chen. The Royals got six innings of no-run, one hit ball from Chen and, at 97 pitches, he was done. With the score 0-0, Collins gave up singles to the two batters he faced; Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher. With the go-ahead run in scoring position, Ned Yost went to right-hander Aaron Crow.

But Crow fell behind catcher and rock legend Carlos Santana 3-1, and when a big league hitter gets a fastball when he expects one; bad things tend to happen to the baseball.

Santana hit a stinking rocket past Crow and Kipnis rounded third, headed for home. Centerfielder Jarrod Dyson fielded the ball and threw to the plate. Catcher Salvador Perez wound up out in front of home plate, caught the ball and then had to dive back toward the plate to make the tag, just missing Kipnis. Several people have already questioned Salvador Perez’ positioning on the play: why wasn’t he back at the plate instead of out in front?

If you watch the replay, it appears Dyson’s throw hit the mound. I don’t know if that knocked the throw off-line or shortened the bounce, but it looked like Perez had to come get the ball. If he stayed back at the plate the throw appeared to be slightly up the line and he would have had to let the ball bounce twice. Let the ball bounce twice and Perez would be fielding a short-hop, just as Kipnis arrived home. Having your head down and side exposed to a runner is a great way to get blown up at the plate. (I’ve got no clue if Sal will say that’s what happened, but that’s what it looked like on TV.)

After that, Mark Reynolds bunted for a single, which surprised everyone. After the game Ned Yost said as far as they knew Reynolds hadn’t bunted all year. Next, Crow fell into another 3-1 count and this time Michael Bourn smoked another fastball in a fastball count for a two-run double.

That’s three runs in the inning and all the runs the Indian’s needed: Cleveland 3, Kansas City 0.

The other inning that mattered

Asked whether David Lough should have scored in fifth inning, Ned Yost said yes. Lough tripled to start things off, and Alcides Escobar hit a one-hop line drive to second baseman, Jason Kipnis. Yost said if Lough had gotten a better read, he could have scored. But Lough didn’t get a better read and with nobody out, Lough stayed at third and never traveled the last 90 feet necessary to put a dent in the scoreboard.

Game notes

• Alex Gordon swung at the first pitch of the game and flew out to left field. Most of the time, Gordon will take a pitch to start a game, but once in a while he’ll tee off right away. He’s told me just trying to keep pitchers honest. (When we were in Yankee Stadium’s third-base dugout, I asked Alex Gordon if there was a downside to going to the All-Star game. He said that he felt like he was playing baseball in New York for the next month: three with the Yankees, the All-Star break and another trip to New York to play the Mets the first weekend in August. )

• The key pitch to an at-bat isn’t always the last one: in his first at-bat Eric Hosmer got into a 2-1 fastball count, swung like he thought he was getting a fastball, but got a changeup instead. Once Hosmer had two strikes, Indians starter Corey Kluber could get Hosmer to chase a pitcher’s pitch—a pitch Hosmer wouldn’t touch before he had two strikes. Hosmer hit an easy groundball to Nick Swisher on the next pitch.

• Jeff Montgomery pointed out that a soft-throwing lefty like Bruce Chen will help the next pitcher in the rotation. Jeremy Guthrie will look like he’s throwing 100 Saturday evening—doesn’t mean he’ll win, but it won’t hurt.

• Salvador Perez hooked an outside pitch in his first at-bat for an easy 6-3 grounder in the second inning, but then took an outside pitch the other way for a single in the fourth. That kind of adjustment means pitchers can’t keep getting a hitter out the same way—they have to keep changing what they’re doing to get a hitter out.

• Chen runs his cutter in on right-handed hitters’ knuckles and that forces them to get the bat head out sooner so they won’t get jammed. Once hitters start doing that, a lot of things are possible. Nick Swisher pulled a cutter foul and then K’d when he was out in front on the next pitch.

• Elliot Johnson walked, went 0 for 2 and finished the night with a .210 average. There was a lot of Johnny Giavotella vs. Chris Getz talk yesterday, but there are some who think the best defensive second baseman of the three is Johnson. After he made that great play to get Ichiro in New York, Elliot told me if he wasn’t getting hits, he better make plays like that.

• In the sixth inning Salvador Perez fouled a ball off his leg and had to take a moment before stepping back in the box. Old-school ballplayers don’t like it when a guy hobbles around too much after that happens; they say either get back in the box or admit you’re soft and leave the game. I’m not sure I agree, but when you see a guy getting tended to by the trainers, some veteran on the bench will be rolling his eyes and thinking they just don’t make ballplayers like they used to.

• Chen dropped down sidearm on Drew Stubbs and got him to pop up in the sixth. Bruce has told me he has no idea what arm angle he’ll use when he starts his windup; he does it by feel and decides as he’s throwing the ball.

• In the ninth inning Alcides Escobar hit a single to the opposite field and in the fifth inning he hit a one-hop shot to second baseman Jason Kipnis. Apparently, that’s what the Royals want to see out of Esky. If he’ll keep the ball low and go the other way, Escobar’s a better fit in the two-hole.

• Down by three with two runners on, George Kottaras pinch hit for Elliot Johnson. I’m under the impression Kottaras is just the opposite of Escobar: it’s OK for him to lift and pull the ball. George is so strong he can hit a home run pretty much at will in BP, so he gets used in situation like this: go up, look for a mistake on the inner half and hit the hell out of the ball if you get one.

Reliever Cody Allen threw him seven pitches and six were curves; with first base open the Indians would rather walk Kottaras than give him something to hit. The only fastball George saw was a fastball away and he was looking for something in.

• Jarrod Dyson was probably struck out two times in the ninth; on the last pitch and on the second-to-last pitch. The fourth pitch of the at-bat—a 96 MPH fastball—appeared to be down, but still within the strike zone. It was still called a ball. Catcher Carlos Santana was set up on the outside part of the plate and the pitch went to the inside part of the plate. The pitch was caught outside Santana’s right shin guard and anytime a pitch is caught outside the framework of a catcher’s body, it doesn’t look like a strike. That’s why catchers will try to subtly move as the pitch is on its way; catch the ball between your knees and you’re more likely to get the call.

Even though umpires will not admit to makeup calls—they still happen. If home plate umpire Gerry Davis felt he missed the call and Cody Allen threw the same pitch to the same spot (and that’s what he did) Allen was more likely to get the call the second time. Hitters should know when they’ve been given a break and not assume they’ll get the call two times in a row. Dyson didn’t—and struck out looking.

After Dyson was called out to end the game, Santana started to go to the mound to congratulate Allen, stopped, turned back to Davis, pointed at him, then lightly punched him in the chest protector. I’m not a mind reader, but if I had to guess Santana was telling the umpire he did the right thing by giving them that call.

• By losing this game the Royals have no chance of finishing .500 at the break.

Be smart: give the batter something to hit

(I had this conversation with Jeff Montgomery before the Royals latest road trip, but after Aaron Crow’s outing in the seventh inning of Friday’s game, this seemed like a good time to post it.)

I was sitting in the dugout, talking with former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery about current closer Greg Holland when Monty said something fascinating: when Jeff was pitching he felt like he had to give each hitter at least one pitch to hit. Here’s what he meant:

Hitters are not going to swing at a pitcher’s pitch until they have to. If Monty tried to keep the ball on the edge of the strike zone during the entire at-bat, he was going to throw a lot of pitches and his odds of walking the batter went way up. Hitters would take those borderline pitches until they had two strikes and if Monty was too fine that night he might never have those two strikes.

Put a ball in the zone right away and the hitter is either forced to swing or he takes that pitch and he’s now 0-1. If the hitter took the hittable pitch, then Jeff could move the ball toward the corners and the hitter would be forced to protect the zone.

Montgomery used Kirk Gibson as an example: Gibson was up there looking for fastball to hammer, so Jeff might start an at-bat with a "get-me-over" slider. A get-me-over slider is one with less break, which makes it easier to control, easier to throw for a strike and easier to hit—but Gibson wasn’t looking for it; he wanted a fastball. So Kirk Gibson would spit on that pitch. Interestingly enough, Jeff said a minor league player might hit the same pitch 400 feet precisely because he had no game plan; the minor leaguer is just up there hacking. But back to Gibson: knowing his MO, Jeff could use it against him—throw that get-me-over pitch and get ahead, 0-1.

Now that Gibson had his hittable pitch, Monty could move to the edges of the zone; maybe a fastball down in the zone. If Gibson took it he’d probably be 0-2, if he swung he couldn’t do much with it—groundout or foul it off. Now Gibby would be 0-2.

Monty could then throw any pitch he wanted. Instead of a get-me-over slider, Monty would throw his best version of that pitch; a "bastard slider." Down 0-2 Gibson couldn’t spit on that slider—it might stay in the zone or turn out to be a fastball—and was likely to swing and miss when the ball dove down out of the zone. Throw the same pitch to start the at-bat and Gibson wouldn’t swing; you had to get him into a position where he had no choice but to try and protect the strike zone.

When a pitcher gets ahead of a hitter he forces the hitter to be more aggressive and that can be used against him. When the hitter gets ahead of the pitcher he can force the pitcher to be more aggressive and that can be used against him.

Montgomery said that if you’re going to give the hitter a hittable pitch, the earlier in the count you do it, the better. Do it before you have to, otherwise the hitter expects the pitch that’s about to be thrown. Throw a fastball 0-0 and you might get away with it; throw the same fastball 2-0 and it gets crushed.

According to Jeff Montgomery, he was a better pitcher when he gave the hitter a pitch to hit.

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