Judging the Royals

A gutsy win by the Royals

Updated: 2013-08-04T00:31:42Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Here’s the reason hitters continue to look for fastballs in fastball counts: sometimes they get one. Justin Maxwell led off the 12th inning just looking to get on base. The count went to 3-0 and Maxwell took a fastball down the middle to move the count to 3-1, which put him in another fastball count. The next fastball was slightly up in the zone so Maxwell took that one, too. With the count 3-2 Maxwell was still in a fastball count—pitcher David Aardsma didn’t want to walk the leadoff batter in a tie game, so he threw Maxwell another fastball.

Maxwell turned on it and hit it out of the park. The Royals took a 4-3 lead, and with closer Greg Holland in the pen, that was enough.

This was a big win in a number of ways: the Royals lost a disappointing one Friday night and when teams suffer a demoralizing loss, they sometimes start to scuffle—one loss can turn into two or three. Fighting back after allowing the Mets to tie the game in the eighth inning is a very good sign; it indicates mental toughness. Teams can’t win consistently unless they feel confident and they can’t feel confident unless they win consistently. You hope a team goes on a roll and starts to believe it’s supposed to win. Wins like this turn doubters into believers.

The Royals take this one 4-3 in twelve innings.

Game notes

• In 2012 the general feeling was that most of the other pieces were in place, but the Royals lacked pitching. Last year they were 12th in pitching, this year they have the lowest ERA in the league. Several position players the Royals counted on regressed this season, but the move to improve the pitching clearly worked.

• Billy Butler grounded out to third in the first inning and it was probably because Mets starting pitcher Jeremy Hefner changed eye levels on him. Here’s how that works (I got this from Wade Davis): you throw a fastball up in the zone and then the next pitch is a curve. It comes out of the pitcher’s hand on the same level as the fastball and looks like the same pitch, but just as the hitter starts his swing, the ball drops out of the hitting zone. Billy’s hand-eye coordination was good enough to get the ball in play, but not good enough to hit the ball hard.

• Bruce Chen gave up a home run to Daniel Murphy on a 2-0 pitch, but the homer might have been caused by the first pitch of the at-bat. Bruce threw a borderline sinker and did not get the call, so instead of a 1-1 count—which would give Bruce some room to maneuver—the count was 2-0 and he had to come into the strike zone. If Bruce does not get the borderline pitch from umpires, he has to come into the zone and sometimes gets whacked. Even so, Chen had another good outing: six innings pitched, one run, no walks and eight strikeouts.

• Justin Turner banged a ball off the wall in left, but had a slight pause in his finish on the swing—that pause cost him. Alex Gordon played the ball off the wall with his bare hand and that put him in an excellent throwing position. Gordon—who has a very quick release left over from his days as a third baseman—got the ball in to Miguel Tejada at second base. I don’t know if Miggy actually got the tag down in time, but he sold it and the umpire called Turner out trying to stretch a single into a double.

• Hefner hung two curves in the third inning and both resulted in runs. George Kottaras hit his curve over the right field fence and Bruce Chen hit his curve for a single and eventually came around to score. Chen was batting left-handed and the curve was hit down the left field line. That tells you that Hefner did Chen a favor: Bruce was late on the fastball and Hefner speeded Chen’s bat up by throwing something off-speed.

• With the bases loaded in the third inning, Billy Butler had a bad at-bat, chasing off-speed pitches out of the zone. Guys will sometimes get so eager for RBIs that they’ll chase pitches instead of forcing the pitcher to come to them. The key to this kind of at-bat is realizing the pitcher is the one in trouble. He’s got the bases loaded and nobody out—don’t help him.

• In that same third inning Alex Gordon drove in one run with a sacrifice fly and Miguel Tejada drove in another with a single to right. The guys I talk to believe you can live with a Chris Getz-type player at second base if the other guys are hitting—if the other guys aren’t getting the job done, that puts more pressure on second base to provide some offense. Tejada has done that and may be in the process of proving he can play five or six days a week.

• National League ball gets a little more complicated: Tejada’s third inning single meant Mike Moustakas would come to the plate and because he was hitting sixth, that meant the Royals would clear the pitcher’s spot in the fourth and that set up the fifth inning. Even so, the Royals went 1-2-3 when Billy Butler hit into a double play.

• Chen was on a roll so the Mets started messing with him: they found excuses to step out of the box and break his rhythm. When a pitcher is dealing it’s smart to do anything you can to break up what’s happening. Call a meeting with the third-base coach, go back to the on-deck circle for more pine tar or readjust your batting gloves. At that point, you want to see irritation from the pitcher. The pitcher who stays calm and waits is not giving you what you want.

• George Kottaras was hitting in the 8-hole and led off the top of the seventh, Bruce Chen was on-deck. That probably wasn’t a deke: if Kottaras got on, Chen might have been asked to bunt him over. Bruce had only thrown 94 pitches and might have come back out for the bottom of the seventh. Kottaras did not get on and David Lough hit for Chen.

• National League ball requires the manager to do a lot of extra work: he has to think about double-switches, defense and getting guys up in the pen just in case they’re needed. That’s why some fans think the NL plays a superior game. In the AL managing is largely confined to handling the bullpen and creating favorable matchups in the later innings.

• Kelvin Herrera did a great job; he threw three innings and mixed in his curve. When Herrera throw three pitches things get difficult for hitters: his fastball is in the 100 miles-an-hour range, his changeup is in the high eighties and his curve is in the low eighties. Covering twenty miles an hour and three trajectories is tough. When Herrera just pumps fastballs, things get easier for the guy at the plate. They’ve got one pitch, one speed and one trajectory to worry about. Three pitches and hitters get overwhelmed.

And that brings us to:

Sitting on a pitch

Friday night Mike Moustakas got a 2-1 changeup, swung and hit a foul pop. I’ve written a lot about guys getting off-speed pitches in fastball counts and how they react when they get one. But it’s also worth hearing what Kevin Seitzer had to say on the subject.

Kevin once asked me this question: a guy looks for a fastball in a 2-0 count, gets a slider instead and swings through it. Is that a good or bad thing? According to Seitzer, it’s a great thing. Here’s Kevin’s reasoning: 2-0 is a count you can do damage in. If you try to cover both a fastball and an off-speed pitch, you won’t be able to hit either one. You’ll be ahead of the slider and behind the fastball, so pick a pitch and sit on it. If you swing like you’re getting a fastball and it turns out to be a slider, live with it. You guessed wrong and you’ve still got two strikes left.

The counter argument goes like this: the way things are going, they ain’t throwing you a fastball, so sit soft. But no matter which way a hitter decides to go, he has to pick a pitch and will look foolish if he guesses wrong. That’s why studying scouting reports is so important; what’s this pitcher tend to do? If the odds are 67% you’re getting off-speed, that’s what you should look for. If this guy likes to throw heat in those situations, look for that. The bottom line is this: once a hitter gets to two strikes, he needs to do whatever he can to get the ball in play—before that, sit on a pitch.

Scorekeeping

Friday night Elliot Johnson hit a ball to the right side, it glanced off the first baseman and the scorekeeper called it an error. Personally, I thought it was hit: it was an in-between-hop rocket, the first baseman got behind it, the ball came up, hit him, and then went off his body. So why was it called an error if it was that tough a play?

In my opinion I think too many scorekeepers never played the game—at least at a high level—and don’t correctly interpret what they’re seeing. (The same could be said of reporters, fans and cartoonists with web sites.) I’ve seen errors given—at least temporarily—on balls that required the shortstop to go back and to his right and then dive, but when the ball got away, the scorekeeper called it an error. Who exactly was the shortstop going to throw out lying on the grass behind third base?

I’ve seen sacrifice bunts scored with one down. Unless it’s a pitcher in the National League, you generally don’t bunt with one out. I’ve seen defensive indifference scored when the tying run moved into scoring position because no one moved. Sometimes the defense gives up a stolen base because they don‘t want to move a middle infielder out of position—they’re not indifferent, they’re just caught between a rock and a hard place. If those of us who score, write and watch the game would play more baseball—even softball gives you a clue—we’d have a better idea of what’s happening on the field.

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