Tuesday afternoon Luke Hochevar was talking about relief pitchers; unlike starters, relievers have no room for error. A starter can give up a couple runs, but still pitch long enough to even things out; two runs in six innings is a good outing. But unless you’re a long reliever pitching in a blowout, a single run given up by a relief pitcher is probably an important run. Hochevar said a reliever who gives up even one run has had a bad day.
By LEE JUDGE
The Kansas City Star
About six hours later, Kelvin Herrera proved Luke’s point.
Herrera came into pitch the 10th inning of a tied ballgame and made two mistakes. First, he hit leadoff hitter Jake Marisnick with an 0-2 fastball. Wait—let me take that back. Kelvin hit Jake Marisnick’s shirt with an 0-2 fastball. Marisnick jumped back and the fastball must have barely grazed his jersey; you couldn’t see much of a ripple in the shirt’s fabric, even on the replay.
So Marisnick was on first and Herrera went to work on Jeff Mathis. Kelvin struck him out on four pitches, but Marisnick stole second base while that was going on: one down, runner on second base. Then Herrera and Salvador Perez decided to throw three changeups in a row to Christian Yelich. Whenever I see something I don’t understand I assume there’s something I don’t know that would explain it. Giving a guy three similar pitches—89, 88 and 90 miles an hour—is one of those things I don’t understand. If you’ve got 100 in your back pocket, why not show it?
Yelich hit the third changeup into right field and—bang—there’s your ballgame. To be fair, Herrera and Perez threw four fastballs in a row to the next hitter and that worked out fine; Ed Lucas struck out. But I gotta think anytime you change speeds—even if you don’t throw the pitch in the zone—hitting gets a lot harder.
Two mistakes and the Royals lose this one 1-0.
P.S. Here’s what MLB.com had to say about the pitch to Yelich: "Kelvin Herrera didn't stick to the scouting report; Christian Yelich is hitting .600 this season against fastballs in that location." But Herrera didn’t throw a fastball. Take everything with a grain of salt; because Kelvin throws so hard his changeup can be 90 miles an hour and MLB.com assumed that was a fastball.
A pitcher’s duel
The two starting pitchers were—according to Ned Yost—"phenomenal." Seven shutout innings for each of them. After the game I asked Eric Hosmer about Jose Fernandez’ stuff and he said Fernandez featured two sliders—a big one that he’d use to backdoor lefties—and a putaway slider he used when ahead in the count. Fernandez could also gun it up to 98 so that makes the hitters start their bats early and that makes those sliders more effective.
I pointed out that Bruce Chen matched Fernandez with lesser velocity and Hosmer laughed and said the young hitters on the Marlins had no idea what they were getting into. Bruce Chen will throw 88 and still carve you up.
Backdoors and putaways
Just in case a couple of those terms left you wondering: a backdoor breaking pitch to a lefty like Hosmer will start outside—headed for the right-handed batter’s box—and then break into the strike zone at the last second. The idea is to freeze the hitter; make him think the pitch is well outside and then drop it in for a strike.
A putaway pitch is thrown with two strikes: it starts in the zone and then breaks out of the zone. The hitter has to protect and looks silly when he chases something that bounces in the dirt.
• Billy Butler singled in the first inning, but when a guy can’t run he’s still two or three hits away from scoring. It’s nice to get a hit, but it might not mean very much. Alex Gordon came up next and got the count to 3-0. That presented Ned Yost with a decision: green light Alex and hope he could do some major damage or let Alex try to work a walk, move Billy to second and then hope David Lough could drive Billy in.
I’m not sure what Ned decided, but Alex looked like he was swinging 3-0. Jose Fernandez must have thought Gordon had the green light because he threw a breaking pitch. Gordon took the pitch—probably because he was looking for a 3-0 fastball—and then lined out to right field.
• In his first at-bat George Kottaras was seeing nothing but pitches away. Kottaras has home run potential so Fernandez was staying on the outer half of the plate, trying to avoid George’s power zone. On the 2-1 pitch Fernandez missed his spot, left a pitch in the middle of the plate and Kottaras singled.
• I’ve been told Placido Polanco is one of those guys who can purposely foul off close pitches once he has two strikes. I asked the guy who told me that how many major leaguers had that skill and the answer was maybe 10 percent. It ain’t that easy.
• Chris Getz came to the plate and you could see one of the more common outfield alignments: left and center played Getz away and shallow, right field played him straight up. The defense was betting Getz would take a fastball the other way and if Fernandez hung a slider, right field would be waiting for Getz to pull it. In the third inning Getz got a 97 MPH fastball and lined out to centerfield. If they hadn’t been playing him to go that way, Jake Marisnick wouldn’t have got there.
• Billy Butler led off the seventh inning with the score still 0-0. Fernandez threw him five breaking pitches in a row, then walked him on the sixth pitch; a fastball. Clearly, Fernandez was not going to give Billy a hittable fastball in that situation. Better to walk Billy in a tie game than let him beat you with one swing of the bat.
• David Lough hit a fly ball to left and that reminded me of another gem of wisdom from Rusty Kuntz: in the outfield the major determining factor of whether a ball will drop for a hit is height. Put enough air under a ball and someone will get there—unless it leaves the park
• Closer Greg Holland came in to pitch the ninth inning in a tie game. I’ve explained this one before, but if you missed it the first few times, here it is again: you can use your closer in a tie game at home because he’ll probably give you two shots to win—the bottom of the ninth and, if you don’t get it done there, the bottom of the tenth. Whatever your opponent does in the top of the tenth, you get one more at-bat to match or beat them.
• In the bottom of the tenth Alcides Escobar singled, but never moved beyond first base. If you were wondering why Esky didn’t try to steal second, it had to do with Steve Cishek’s left foot. When he delivered a pitch, the Marlin’s reliever wasn’t picking it up very high and that shortens the time it takes to get the ball to home plate. If a pitcher can get the ball to home plate in less than 1.4 seconds, he’ll shut down most base stealers. Ned Yost said Cishek was doing it in 1.2.
In the sixth inning of Monday night’s game the Royals committed two errors in the outfield: one by centerfielder Jarrod Dyson and another by right fielder Justin Maxwell. Tuesday afternoon I found outfield coach Rusty Kuntz and asked what went wrong. What should Dyson and Maxwell done differently?
In Dyson’s case the ball was a rocket hit by Giancarlo Stanton. After the ball was hit I looked up at the replay and thought I saw an exit speed (how fast the ball is coming off the bat) of 112 miles an hour. When I told Rusty that, he whistled and shook his head. With a ball traveling that fast no wonder Dyson was not able to get in front of it in time. Jarrod tried to get behind the ball and square up—facing the ball head on—but couldn’t get there before the ball arrived. Rusty told Dyson he should have trusted his hands and played the ball backhand. Dyson said he was afraid to do that; the ball might get past him.
The fact that the ball did get past him might suggest Jarrod try another technique. To Jarrod’s credit he came back to the dugout, promised to get that run back and made good on the promise in the bottom of the inning; he drove in a run, stole a base and scored a run, so by my math, he was one run ahead.
Justin Maxwells’ error also happened in the sixth.
Greg Dobbs hit a ball down into the right field corner and it got under the pads and started rolling through the right field corner curve like a pinball. Rusty teaches his outfielder to get their foot up against the wall to block the ball when it starts doing that and Justin failed to get his foot all the way up against the wall; he left a small gap and sure enough, that’s where the ball shot through.
The Royals weren’t the only one struggling with Kauffman Stadium’s corners: the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton misplayed an Alcides Escobar hit into a triple before the night was over. I asked Rusty if this was a case of players—unfamiliar with this stadium—struggling with the quirky corners and he said yes. Kauffman Stadium has a couple of the more unique corners in baseball; until you learn to play them, they might give you fits.
Rusty Kuntz and I were talking about the Miami outfield arms and told me something interesting: baseball skills are rated on a scale from 20 to 80 which makes a 50 arm major-league average. Most left fielders are 50s because of the shorter throws to third base—a corner outfielder with a better arm might wind up in right—but Alex Gordon is a 65; another reason Gordon is special. Rusty said with an arm that strong, a quick release and the excellent routes Gordon runs to the ball; Alex regularly turns doubles into singles. I asked how many and Rusty guesstimated at least 20 so far this season.
Tuesday afternoon Elliot Johnson and Chris Getz were watching video of Jose Fernandez and I asked what they looked for. Elliot said they wanted to know if Fernandez tipped his off-speed pitches: would they be able to spot less effort in his delivery when he threw something with less velocity?
I said that I could sometimes see that from the press box and they said you could also see it when watching a pitcher from the side, but it wasn’t so apparent when you were standing in the batter’s box—the front view was less revealing. They also wanted to see how other hitters reacted to his pitches so I asked Chris Getz what bad swings told him.
"Stop watching the video."