Judging the Royals

Mike Moustakas changes the game

Updated: 2013-07-21T05:42:04Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

On the eleventh pitch of the fifth inning, Mike Moustakas changed the game. The score was tied 5-5, both starting pitchers had scuffled and the game was about to be handed over to the bullpens. Justin Verlander had two outs when Moose came to the plate and the Detroit starter threw the Royals third baseman two changeups.

Both missed.

Mike was now in a 2-0 fastball count. We’ve talked about the danger of giving big league hitters fastballs in fastball counts and that’s what happened: Verlander threw Moustakas a 92 MPH heater in a 2-0 count and Moose hit it out of the yard.

Give the Royals a late lead and—when their bullpen is clicking—you’ve got problems. After Mike put the Royals out in front, Guthrie got three more outs in the sixth, Tim Collins got two outs in the seventh, Luke Hochevar got the third, Aaron Crow threw a scoreless—but scary—eighth and Greg Holland closed the deal in the ninth. After Moose hit his bomb the Royals pitching staff came up with four scoreless innings and a 6-5 win over the Detroit Tigers.

Mike Moustakas has struggled and no matter how well he hits the rest of the way—and he has been hitting well—it’ll be hard for him to move his numbers significantly. He pulls the ball a lot and pull hitters often have a hard time hitting for average. But if Moose can supply some power and eventually be a 20-home-runs-a-year guy, no matter what his average is, Mike Moustakas can change the game.

Game notes

*Jeremy Guthrie scuffled in the first inning, walking two and giving up two hits. With Prince Fielder at the plate David Lough was playing deeper than normal so Fielder’s sinking line drive in front of Lough was not caught.

*It didn’t change the score, but Billy Butler deserves heads-up base running points for advancing on Salvador Perez’ first inning sacrifice fly to right. Torii Hunter’s throw came in high and missed the cutoff man. When trail runners see that the ball can’t be cut, they can tag and advance. Billy saw the high throw and moved himself into scoring position.

*After the first two innings Guthrie settled in and threw a scoreless third and fourth and should have gotten out of the fifth without giving up a run. Miguel Cabrera struck out, Prince Fielder singled, Victor Martinez hit into a fielder’s choice, Jhonny Peralta singled and then Andy Dirks hit a soft groundball to Eric Hosmer for what should have been the third out of the inning.

Guthrie came over to cover the bag, appeared to slow down assuming Hosmer would make the play himself at just about the same time Hosmer appeared to decide that flipping Guthrie the ball would be the right play. After the game Eric said they miscommunicated, Hos lunged for the bag and came up short and everybody was safe. Alex Avila singled and two runs were in.

*Chris Getz got hurt on the Prince Fielder single, probably because the Royals were playing a left-handed shift. Those shifts put the second baseman out on the outfield grass and that means they have to deal with two infield lips (the line where the dirt and grass meet) and a different playing surface.

After the game Getz said the ball had a hook to it and when he tried to plant his right foot to go back to his left, his foot skidded out from under him and he collapsed back on his left knee. He appeared to be walking around OK after the game and will be examined again tomorrow.

*Opposing outfield coaches don’t tell me about their defensive positioning so I have no idea what went wrong, but in the third inning Salvador Perez doubled down the right-field line on a pitch that couldn’t have been hit anywhere else. Verlander threw a 97 MPH fastball up and away and it would be hard to hit that pitch anywhere but down the right field line. Torii Hunter was far enough off the line that the ball went down into the corner. The pitch and the defensive positioning didn’t seem to be coordinated.

After a good piece of hitting, Salvy came up with a bad piece of base running; getting thrown out at third base to end the inning. It’s OK to do that if you’re drawing the throw away from the plate so an important run can score, but the Tigers had no play at the plate and instead went for Perez chugging into third base.

The eighth inning

If the Royals can get the ball into Greg Holland’s hand with a lead, you gotta like their chances; they’re now 36-2 when leading after eight. So that makes those bridge innings—the ones between the time the starter leaves and the closer comes in—where a lot of games are decided.

Aaron Crow had a one-run lead, two outs, runners at second and third and first base open. Miguel Cabrera was at the plate. If you wondered why the Royals didn’t intentionally walk Cabrera, it’s because Cabrera was 0 for six off Aaron Crow. The plan was to not "give in" to Cabrera. Translated into English, that means Crow would never come into the heart of the plate, but instead try to make perfect pitches on the black—if he walked Cabrera, so be it.

Instead he made a pretty good pitch and Cabrera grounded out to Mike Moustakas.

Reading the defense

Next time you’re at a ballgame and sitting high in the stadium, take advantage of the view—you’re in a perfect position to read the defense. And if you can read the defense, you have a pretty good idea of how the batter will be pitched.

Friday night in the sixth inning of the game against the Detroit Tigers, Ramon Santiago came to the plate with one out and nobody on. Santiago is a switch-hitter so he was batting left-handed against right-handed pitcher Ervin Santana. The Royals had right fielder David Lough playing pretty much straight up and centerfielder Lorenzo Cain and left fielder Alex Gordon swung around toward the right field line.

So what does that alignment tell you?

Because Cain and Gordon were playing toward the opposite field, the big gap was in right center. When you see a big gap in the outfield, you know the defense doesn’t want the ball hit there and when you see outfielders bunched together that tells you where the defense would like to have the ball hit.

With center and left playing oppo, Lough was in the middle of a lot of empty space. Odds are the Royals didn’t want the ball hit that way, so you know they didn’t want Santiago to pull the ball—too many places for it to sit down. And that tells you Santana was unlikely to throw any off-speed pitches for a strike because those are pitches that are easy to pull. And in fact, Santana threw Santiago only one off-speed pitch; a slider thrown out of the zone. The other five pitches Santiago saw were all fastballs. Had Santiago gotten an off-speed pitch up in the zone and pulled it down the right field line or into the right-center gap that would indicate Santana made a mistake and left something soft up in the zone. Santana wasn’t making too many mistakes Friday night and Santiago struck out.

Now let’s look at another at-bat and try to read that defense:

Sometimes you’ll see the outfield playing the hitter to go the other way and the infield playing the hitter to pull. That’s because hitters are more likely to pull the ball when they hit a grounder. That explains what fans saw in the bottom half of the same inning:

Billy Butler singled and Salvador Perez came to the plate. The infield was swung around to the pull side of the field and that left Salvy a big hole between the first baseman—who was holding Billy on—and the second baseman—who was playing Perez to pull. Big gap; what does that tell you?

The defense doesn’t want the ball hit that way.

That would indicate that the right-handed Perez was not going to get a fastball on the outer half, especially a fastball down in the zone, which would be more likely to produce a groundball hit toward the hole. And in fact, Perez did not get a fastball on the outer half.

(As always, there are exceptions: some guys pull everything which is why you might see a left-handed shift, a big gap down the third base line and pitches thrown on the outer half—the pitcher expects the batter to pull anything he throws. Giving the batter a pitch away keeps him from pulling a bullet—reaching out and hooking an outside pitch usually results in a weak ground ball. Now let’s get back to Perez.)

Detroit starting pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, started Perez with a changeup—a pitch he’d be likely to pull into the teeth of the defense. Perez swung and fouled it off. Then Salvy got his best shot at hitting the ball through the wide-open right side; a fastball close to the middle of the plate—but Salvy fouled that pitch off as well After that it was a curve out of the zone, a fastball out of the zone and a sinker in. Perez never got a pitch on the outer half of the plate and flew out to left field. (Sanchez also knows a thing or two about pitching.)

It’s not an exact science and fans should be aware that the pitcher and catcher may have a trick or two up their sleeve which would lead them to do something we might not expect—but—if you pay attention to the defensive alignment you’ll have a better idea of how the batter will be pitched and when the pitcher makes a mistake that allows the batter to take advantage of the defense. And you’ll also have a good explanation when your date asks you why you bought such cheap seats in the upper deck.

You’re reading the defense.

After-effects of the All-Star break

And you’re not the only one reading the defense; hitters can see how they’re being played as well. When the Detroit Tigers looked around Friday night, they would have seen they were being played to hit the ball the other way; even the pull hitters.

Why?

The All-Star break. It had been four days since most of the Tigers had seen a mid-nineties fastball, so outfield coach Rusty Kuntz had the defense set up to take advantage of the hitters being late. Rusty said the opposite field hitters aren’t as affected by the lay-off—by definition they’re late on the ball anyway—but the guys who normally pull the ball against the Royals wouldn’t be as quick. That’s why you saw David Lough make some rather easy catches on balls hit down into the right field corner; normally he wouldn’t be there, Friday night he was. Austin Jackson hit a 93 MPH fastball that way, Miguel Cabrera did the same with a 95 mile an hour heater, Victor Martinez (batting from the left side) hit a 93 mile an hour pitch to Alex Gordon in left and Torii Hunter singled to right on a pitch at 95.

I asked Rusty how long that after-effects of the All-Star break would last and he said he didn’t know—the Tigers bats might be up to speed by Saturday night. But if a layoff hurts, imagine the guys that come off the bench after not playing for a few days: it would be hard to expect a guy to keep his bat speed up when he’s only in there once a week.

I’ll ask around and see what guys like George Kottaras, Elliot Johnson and Miguel Tejada have to say about it.

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