Judging the Royals

Scott Kazmir stays ahead in the count

Updated: 2013-07-14T16:28:00Z


The Kansas City Star

For six innings the Royals didn’t do much of anything against Cleveland Indians starter, Scott Kazmir. Coming into Saturday night’s game Kazmir had a 4-4 record with an ERA over 4.00, so how did a guy with mediocre numbers shut down the Royals offense?

He pitched ahead in the count.

Once a pitcher gets two strikes on a hitter, he can throw any pitch he likes to any part of the plate he likes and the hitter has to cover it. The hitter can’t afford to let a borderline, two-strike pitch go by. (Theoretically—the last two games have ended when a Royals hitter looked at a called strike three.)

By my scorebook Kazmir got 15 Royals hitters into some kind of two-strike count. Here are the results of those at-bats: strikeout, walk, strikeout, groundout, pop-up, single, strikeout, strikeout, fly ball, strikeout, strikeout, groundout, walk, walk and strikeout. The final two walks came in the seventh inning when Kazmir had the hitters in a 3-2 count. So once Kazmir got two strikes on a hitter, the Royals went one for 12 with three walks and seven punch-outs. Once the Royals hitters got into a two-strike count, they were forced to swing at a pitcher’s pitch and the results weren’t good.

Scott Kasmir stayed ahead in the count and the Royals fell behind.

Cleveland 5, Kansas City 3.

The most damaging at-bats in the sixth may have been caused by strikeouts

When Wade Davis talked about his mental process on the mound he said he would sometimes mentally concede a run. He’d do that because if he expended too much energy striking out one guy, he might make a bad pitch to the next guy. Striking out the number-five hitter doesn’t do much good if you give up a home run to the number-six hitter. Conceding one run might prevent you from giving up three.

To see what Wade meant, let’s take a look at the bottom of the sixth inning:

Jeremy Guthrie started the sixth by falling behind Lonnie Chisenhall 3-1 and giving up a line drive single. That took five pitches. Nick Swisher was up next. Swisher was batting fourth, has nine home runs and represented a big threat. Guthrie struck him out, but that took six more pitches. Veteran ballplayers have told me there’s a tendency to let down mentally once a pitcher gets a big out. A pitcher will get Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder and then let the next guy beat them. I’ve got no way of knowing if that’s what happened, but after Guthrie struck out Swisher, Michael Brantley doubled on the very next pitch—a changeup left too far up in the zone.

With runners on second and third Guthrie intentionally walked Carlos Santana. That loaded the bases and set up an inning-ending double play. Guthrie then faced Jason Giambi and struck him out, but that took seven more high-stress pitches. Once again, after a strikeout, Guthrie threw a hittable pitch to the next guy. This time Guthrie hung a curve and Lonnie Chisenhall hit a grand slam.

You see it over and over in baseball: the big moment—the play that everyone will talk about—was caused by something that happened right before the big play. In this case, it may have been two strikeouts.

Game notes

*The Royals had a shot to score some runs in the fourth inning when the first two batters got on base, but then Salvador Perez hit into a double play. Perez was in a 2-0 count, got a changeup instead of the fastball he was probably expecting and hit the ball to Chisenhall at third. A 5-4-3 took the steam out of the inning and the Royals got nothing.

I’ve been writing about this since the Royals trip to Oakland in May: when the Royals have runners in scoring position, some of the smarter pitchers are throwing changeups in fastball counts. The tactic seems to still be working in July. To be fair, I don’t know what’s in the scouting reports, but if Kazmir has a history of doing that, Royals hitters should know.

*In the first inning a foul tip may have caught a chunk of Salvador Perez. The home plate umpire visited the mound. When a foul tip catches the umpire or catcher, the guy who didn’t get hit will ask the guy who did get smoked if he needs a minute. That’s when you see those trips to the mound: they’re just giving the guy who got whacked a moment to get over it.

*In the second inning Carlos Santana got a bunt hit against a left-handed shift. When a defense puts on one of those shifts the third baseman is standing where short usually does, so if a power hitter wants to bunt, the third-base side is open. Some people believe that if you get a power hitter to settle for a bunt single, the shift worked.

*The Indians wore 1902 throwback uniforms for this one; fans might like it, but the players I’ve talked to hate them. Part of being a big-league ballplayer is looking good and you can’t look good in those uniforms.

*Guthrie got the first two outs in the bottom of the fourth inning on three pitches. That meant Lonnie Chisenhall had to stand there and take strikes so Scott Kazmir could rest. Jason Giambi kind of screwed Chisenhall over when he swung at the first pitch he saw; that meant Lonnie had to make up for another hitter’s impatience: you have a bad at-bat because someone else had a worse one.

*In the sixth inning Jason Kipnis took a 3-1 fastball the other way for a single. The fastball was up and away and Kipnis didn’t try to pull it, he hit it to the opposite field. That reminded me of a conversation I had in New York with Rusty Kuntz:

We were talking about the process of becoming a complete big-league ballplayer. Everybody who gets to the big leagues is talented in some way or another and some people are content to leave it at that. Apparently, Manny Ramirez had all the defensive range of a cigar-store Indian, but didn’t care—hitting got Manny to the big leagues and that’s what he worked on.

Other guys want to improve their game in all areas and pay attention to the small stuff: backing up bases, being in the right place at the right time, studying scouting reports and understanding the situation they’re in. According to Rusty, Jason Kipnis is one of those guys.

Here’s how you spot one: middle infielders are supposed to see the catcher’s signs and pass them along to the corner infielders. Then, as the pitcher’s hands separate in his windup, the infielders all shift slightly to their pull or opposite field side. If the pitch is off-speed, they shift to the pull side—fastball, shift the other way. If you don’t see an infielder doing this, he’s not paying attention and he’s not as good as he might be otherwise.

It’s this kind of attention to detail that separates the complete players from the guys who are content to be something less.

The trick-(bleep)

Baseball players go to great length to make everything sound dirty. Perfectly innocent things are given a coarse name. (In civilian life, we do the opposite: coarse things are given innocent sounding names.) So back to talking dirty: there’s a phrase I’ve heard a few times and it’s "trick-(bleep)." The second half of that phrase is the four-letter king of all swear words.

So what’s it mean?

Here’s an example: Billy Butler was about to have his fourth at-bat off Corey Kluber Friday night, when Terry Francona brought in a reliever. Butler was 0 for 3 against Kluber, so why bring in someone else? It could be that Kluber had reached the point of the game where he was going to have to "trick-(bleep)" Billy. If Kluber knows how to get Billy out—say a good fastball on the hands or a slider away—but doesn’t have enough left in the tank to get the job done, Kluber has to trick-(beep) him.

Kluber had thrown 112 pitches when he came out of the game. If a 95-MPH slider would get Billy out, but Kluber only had 92 in the tank, it’s trick-(bleep) time. If a snapping slider down and away would do the trick, but Kluber was exhausted and his slider was staying up, once again; go to the trick-(bleep).

Trick-(bleeping) a guy is throwing something unexpected: throwing a fastball in an off-speed count or vice versa, giving a guy the same pitch that he hammered in his last at-bat and catching him flat-footed because he didn’t think you’d throw that again. The trick-(bleep) is throwing a pitch that would normally get smoked, but doing it an unexpected time and hoping you get away with it. The eephus pitch is a trick-(bleep). Some catchers will tell you that when they find themselves trying to trick-(bleep) hitters, it’s time for the pitcher to leave. He just doesn’t have the necessary stuff required to get hitters out.

Like most of the best baseball terms, the trick-(bleep) is a euphemism for something innocent, but it sounds awesome. And it turns out I’ve been trick-(bleeping) my editors for years.

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