Judging the Royals

Santana got the win, Holland got the save, but don’t forget Herrera

Updated: 2013-07-20T06:13:58Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

After the game Ned Yost said that Ervin Santana had everything working and it sure looked like it: seven and a third innings pitched, two hits, six strikeouts, one walk and no runs. Ned said two through six the Detroit Tigers have one of the best lineups in baseball, but Friday night Santana held those hitters to a combined 1 for 14.

Ervin threw 106 pitches and got one out in the eighth inning before walking Jhonny Peralta. The Royals only managed one run themselves, so that walk meant the winning run was at the plate. That’s when Yost came out to pull his starter. In the post-game press conference Ned said he was not going to let Santana lose this ballgame, so he went to his pen.

There’s a good case to be made that wins and losses are a poor way to measure a pitcher’s performance, but even if they shouldn’t, big-league pitchers still care about winning and losing. And many big league managers will not let a starting pitcher face the winning run late in a game. Their logic goes this way: I’m not going to let that guy pitch his tail off and lose. He got us this far, now someone else needs to step and do their job. So whether you agree with it or not, Santana was done and Ned gave the ball to Kelvin Herrera.

Herrera’s just back from the minors and Royals fans might be encouraged by what they saw Friday night. When Kelvin left he was throwing mostly fastballs and I’ve been told they were fairly straight and up in the zone. You can throw 100 miles an hour, but if that’s all you do, big league hitters will hit it.

But Friday night Herrera was mixing in his changeup—and throwing it for strikes. That’s good news for the Royals and bad news for American League hitters. If Herrera throws off-speed for strikes, hitters have to cover pitches from 100 to 88 miles an hour. If Kelvin tosses in a curve once in a while, the hitters’ problems multiply. If Herrera can get back to being dominant, the Royals can shorten the game: if they have two shutdown innings at the backend of the pen, the other team has seven innings to grab a lead or it probably isn’t going to happen. If the Royals starters go deep, the opposition doesn’t have much of crack at middle relief.

After Herrera got two outs in the eighth, the ball went to Greg Holland and Hollie did what Hollie does: he pitched like an All Star in a 1-2-3 ninth.

Royals win, 1-0.

Game notes

• I’ve been writing about this since the series out in Oakland, but fans can still see it happening: with runners in scoring position, smart pitchers will go soft in fastball counts. Pitchers who do that can turn a negative (being behind in the count) to a positive (using a hitter’s aggression against him). If young hitters think a fastball is coming and try to "get big" an off-speed pitch will have them out in front and flailing at the ball. Just look at Alcides Escobar’s sixth-inning, bases loaded at-bat:

Esky started off 2-0, but after that, never saw another fastball. He got a 2-0 cutter, which he fouled off, a 2-1 slider, which he also fouled off, a slider for a ball and finally a slider for a swinging strike three. I’ve asked what hitters should be doing in these situations and the answer I’ve heard is "sit soft." If throwing off-speed in fastball counts is part of a pitcher’s repertoire, hitters need to know that and look for the soft stuff in crucial situations.

• And it’s not just the other guys doing it to the Royals: Kansas City also has a few veteran pitchers on the mound. In the first inning Ervin Santana threw a 2-1 slider to Torii Hunter—Torii was out in front and swung through it—and a 2-0 slider to Miguel Cabrera, which also resulted in a swing and miss. Pitchers who can throw off-speed in fastball counts mess with a hitter’s mind.

• Someone in the press box was saying Lorenzo Cain was playing awfully shallow and before the sentence was finished a ball was hit over Cain’s head. Lorenzo showed he knew what he was doing by getting back and making the catch. By my count he went back and caught fly balls with his back to the wall at least three times—or was it four? Anyway, like Rusty Kuntz said: athletic outfielders play shallow, guys who are afraid to go back on the ball play deep.

• Eric Hosmer made very difficult catch on a foul pop over his shoulder. He ran a long way and made a catch that retired Miguel Cabrera. You don’t want to give an extra swing to that guy: Cabrera’s got 30 home runs and 95 RBIs at the break. That’s a nice season in the first half.

Whenever you see a guy have a monster year, check to see who’s hitting behind him. If Prince Fielder doesn’t have 16 home runs and 69 RBIs, maybe Miguel doesn’t get pitches to hit.

• One more note on Hosmer: there have been plenty of complaints about Royals’ hitters not running groundballs out and many of those complaints have been justified. There’s another area fans can check to see if players are hustling—when it’s a sure single, watch the hitter’s turn at first.

Some guys start breaking it down right away; they’re slowing down before they ever hit first base and make a soft, half-hearted turn. Eric Hosmer, on the other hand, does it right: he makes his turn like he’s heading for second. He comes out of the box like every single’s a double and forces the defense to stop him. Hosmer’s hard turn puts him in a position to take advantage of any mistake by the defense. Outfielders know who busts it down the line and that can force a mistake. The guys who make a soft turn put no pressure on the defense and aren’t in a position to take an extra 90 feet if something happens.

If fans and the media are going to notice mistakes, it’s only fair that they also notice good play. (And now I’ll have to tell Eric to bust ass for the next week so he doesn’t make me look bad.)

Bits and pieces

Sometimes you hear something cool, but there’s just not enough there for an entire article. So here are some bits and pieces of baseball information I’ve picked up hanging around the park:

• When a fly ball is hit, outfielders are supposed to get depth before direction. In other words, get back and then move laterally to the ball. Since people don’t run in 90-degree angles, the result will be a curving route, also called a "banana route." When an outfielder goes sideways first and then tries to get back, that’s when you see a bad route and a ball to the gap.

• Minor leaguers may throw straight and 90, but in the big leagues, everything is moving—even stuff in the upper 90s. If the pitch is 98, but it’s straight and up, it’ll still get whacked. Apparently, that’s what was happening to Kelvin Herrera.

• Right-hand hitters with long swings can make that work in the minors, but have a hard time in the big leagues. A lefty can have a slightly longer swing because he sees so many right-handed pitchers. That means he sees the ball better and has more time to react on a pitch starting away and coming in on him. Righties have more pitches started at them and then moving away. That calls for a quick reaction and short swing.

• I tell people one of the hardest things about covering baseball is the food: there’s too much of it in the press box. It sounds like they have the same problem in the clubhouse; tables of food lying around, tempting you every time you walk by. Rusty Kuntz told me if you only put on 15 pounds during a season, you’re doing OK. Each notch on Rusty’s belt has a month written beside it—March, April, May, etc.—in anticipation of the weight he’ll gain during the season.

• I was talking with utility player Elliot Johnson about why the routine play is the most important play in baseball. Here’s how Elliot described it: you need 27 outs for a nine-inning win and most nights you’ll be lucky to see three great plays. 24 of your outs are routine and those are the ones you have to have. Great plays are nice, but making the routine play consistently is more important. Even so, a guy who is inconsistent, but has a knack for the diving stop, has a better chance of appearing on Sports Center. And if fans aren’t paying attention, they’ll think that guy is a good defender.

• Jeff Montgomery thinks closer Greg Holland is a better pitcher with a one-run lead than a three-run lead. With a three-run lead, some catchers will tend to call a lot of fastballs, thinking just get the ball in play and they’ll hit it at someone. Once the game gets tighter, they start breaking out the secondary pitches—they need this guy out now.

But if the catcher is doing that—calling fastball after fastball—at what point is it the pitcher’s responsibility to shake him off? Monty said some pitchers don’t want to think, they just want to get the sign and execute. But if they don’t like the call, at some point they have to shake the catcher off and take responsibility for throwing a different pitch.

(Friday night Holland had a one-run lead and he and Salvador Perez were mixing in off-speed right away.)

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