Judging the Royals

Bruce Chen and the putaway pitch

Updated: 2013-08-24T15:05:07Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

A putaway pitch is a pitch thrown to a batter that has two strikes. It’s a pitch that starts in the zone, then moves out of it. It’s often a slider or split-finger pitch, thrown with enough velocity to get the batter moving his bat to protect the zone with two strikes, and then the movement takes over—the pitch moves out of the zone and the batter swings and misses. It’s called a putaway pitch because it puts the batter away.

Friday night against the Washington Nationals, Bruce Chen did not have a putaway pitch—and that hurt him.

In the bottom of the first inning his teammates had given Chen a three-run lead and in the top of the second inning Bruce did what pitchers with multi-run leads are supposed to do: he went on the attack. Jason Werth, Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos all saw first-pitch strikes. A first-pitch strike puts the hitter on the defensive—he’s got maybe one more good pitch to hit before the pitcher gets to two strikes and that putaway pitch. Werth struck out, Desmond and Ramos grounded out.

After the bottom of the second, Chen had a six-run lead—a huge advantage for any pitcher: because of the multi-run lead, the guy at the plate can’t hurt you. Bruce stayed on the attack, throwing first-pitch strikes to Adam LaRoche, Tyler Moore and Anthony Rendon. LaRoche and Moore made outs, Rendon singled. The Chen threw a first-pitch ball to Denard Span and he tripled, scoring Rendon.

After that, the strike zone became more elusive; Chen walked Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper. That brought Jason Werth to the plate and if Werth hit a home run, suddenly the game that was well under control would be a one-run game. Chen escaped the third with a fly ball to right, but his troubles weren’t over.

Cut to the fourth inning: Bruce had given up a single, a fielder’s choice, two more singles and a sacrifice fly. The game was still under control; the Royals were ahead 6-2, there were runners on first and third, there were two outs and the tying run was still on deck. The guy at the plate, Denard Span, could not tie the game no matter how far he hit the ball—but Bruce Chen walked him on 10 pitches.

He had Span 0-2 right away, but could not come up with a putaway pitch. Span took the pitches that were out of the strike zone and fouled off the pitches too close to take. Bruce could not find a pitch so nasty that Span would swing and miss. Span’s walk meant the tying run would come to the plate in the person of Ryan Zimmerman. Chen walked him on ten pitches and it was the exact same story: Bruce got to 0-2 right away and Zimmerman began taking the pitches out of the zone and fouling off the pitches too close to take. No putaway pitch; no strike out. The walk to Zimmerman forced in a run and brought the winning run to the plate—Bryce Harper. Harper doubled and the game was tied. Louis Coleman replaced Chen and the hottest hitter in the Washington lineup, Jason Werth, hit a two-run bomb. The Royals offense fought back, but never regained the lead.

When you look at games you lose, you look for things you could have controlled, but didn’t. That’s why manager and coaches zero in on walks; big league pitchers should be able to throw strikes. The Royals walked seven batters and three of them scored. Two of those walks could have been punch-outs, but Friday night, Bruce Chen had no putaway pitch.

The Royals lose to the Nationals, 11-10.

The Getz error

The baseball people I’ve been around are pretty philosophical about it: if the other team beats you, tip your cap. If a guy hits a game-winning bomb, he beat you—but give people free bases through walks and errors and you’re beating yourself.

In the seventh inning the bases were loaded with Nationals, one run was in and nobody was out. Ned Yost brought the infield in halfway. Infield positioning predetermines where the throw will go when the ball is put in play. If the infield is in, the play is at the plate if at all possible. If the infield is back, the play is at first base. Halfway is splitting the difference. Bringing the infield in cuts down on the balls the infielders can get to, but if a ball is hit right at someone, infield in makes a play at the plate possible. Halfway increases the infield’s range, but makes a play at the plate more difficult.

Anthony Rendon was at the plate and he hit the ball to Chris Getz. The Royals second baseman had to field the ball, move his feet into position and make the throw. Because he was positioned halfway, Getz rushed the throw, never got his arm on top and threw the ball sidearm. The result was a sinker that bounced before it got to—and past—Salvador Perez. Two runs scored, Wilson Ramos and Adam LaRoche.

Chris Getz survives in the big leagues not because he does anything spectacular; he survives by doing a lot of small things well and one of those things is being reliable on defense. There are reasons the error was made, but it was still a play that Chris Getz has to make. If you’re not going to drive in a bunch of runs and make up for any mistakes you make on defense, you better not make mistakes on defense.

The other thing that went wrong on the play has to do with Salvador Perez. With the bases loaded the play at the plate was a force play and Sal could play it like a first baseman—and that’s what he did. While Getz was fielding the ball Sal put his foot on the plate and prepared to make the catch. Even though he saw the throw was bad, Sal still tried to stretch and field the ball on a short-hop. One of the first things they teach you over at first base is this: the ball is more important than the bag. In other words; stay on the bag as long as possible, but if the throw is off-line you have to go get it and knock it down. Minimize the damage—don’t let the ball get past you and give up another 90 feet to the other team.

Sal swiped at the ball, missed, and that allowed a second run to score.

Game notes

*To give Perez credit, he blocked pitches in the dirt with a runner on third several times on Friday night, so even though things were bad, they could have been worse.

*Alex Gordon led off the bottom of the first with a double and Eric Hosmer came to the plate needing to move Gordon over to third base. Hosmer wanted to pull the ball to the right side of the field and Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez wanted Hosmer to hit the ball to the left side of the field—that would freeze Gordon at second base.

Gonzalez threw a pitch that would likely be hit to the left side of the field—a 94 mile an hour fastball on the outer half of the plate. Gonzalez got Hosmer to hit the ball to the left side of the field, but Hosmer hit the ball over the left field wall. Hosmer also had a single, a double and walked twice; finishing the night at .299.

*Emilio Bonifacio had three more good plate appearances; walking twice and lining out once. (More on his final at-bat below.)

*Before the game the Royals had a team meeting and then came out and scored six runs in the first two innings. I’m not sure there’s a connection: if a manager could make his players hit home runs by yelling at them, he’d yell at them every day.

Most team meetings—at least the good ones—are about controlling what you can control: show up on time, run out groundballs, do your pregame work, swing at good pitches, know the situation—that kind of stuff. Players do not control hitting home runs and—contrary to most sports movies—a team meeting doesn’t change that.

*Jamey Carroll hit a double down the left field line and it was refreshing to see a guy come out of the box on a dead sprint; Carroll didn’t stand and watch to see if the ball was going to leave the yard before he started running.

*The strike zone appeared loose in the first two innings and then seemed to tighten in the third. If players gripe enough and enough of them gripe—not just the guys known as whiners—an umpire might be influenced into changing the zone.

*When the count reaches 3-2 and there’s a runner on first and less than two outs, the manager might put the runner in motion. (The runner will automatically be going if there’s a full count and two down.) The manager is counting on the guy at the plate to put the ball in play; otherwise you might have a strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out double play.

It was the third inning and the runner was Emilio Bonifacio, the hitter was Alcides Escobar. Esky took a fastball for a called strike three and the throw down to second base beat Bonifacio. He would have been out except for some nifty footwork. Bonifacio moved his foot around the tag and got in safely.

*Once again Alex Gordon made a brilliant play in left field that won’t show up in any scorebook. Ian Desmond hit what should have been a double down into the left field corner, but Gordon played the carom perfectly, pounced on the ball and made a quick throw back into second base. Desmond never came close to the double he would have had with almost any other left fielder on the job.

*Not a lot of consolation, but the Royals rallied for three runs in the ninth inning and that forced the Nationals to use Rafael Soriano. Soriano has now been used four days in a row and that may affect his availability over the weekend.

*Bruce Chen’s early departure chewed up the bullpen and the only relievers that didn’t get used were Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and Greg Holland.

The bottom of the ninth

The Royals came into the bottom of the ninth down by four runs. Veteran ballplayers will tell you unless you can tie up a ballgame you should probably take a strike and see if the pitcher will help you out through lack of control. And that’s what reliever Drew Storen did: Gordon took the only strike Storen threw to him and then walked to start the inning.

The next hitter, Eric Hosmer, took three balls and two strikes, fouled off a couple pitches and then doubled. Rafael Soriano replaced Storen on the mound. Two runs were on base, the tying run was still on deck—but that didn’t stop Salvador Perez from swinging at the first strike he saw. Perez drove in a run, but made an out while doing so. The Royals were down to two outs and the tying run was still on deck. Billy Butler also swung at the first pitch, but had better luck; he singled to right and moved Hosmer to third.

Finally, the tying run was at the plate and it was Justin Maxwell. Now a hitter can go from being passive and taking pitches, to being aggressive and looking to do damage—especially if the hitter has power. Maxwell took a ball, fouled off a slider and then chased a high fastball. A hitter that was looking to do load up and do something big when ahead in the count might want to cut back on his swing once he’s down in the count. Maxwell did a good job of that and singled, bringing the winning run to the plate.

Emilio Bonifacio—who had good at-bats all night long—now had a bad one; swinging at the first pitch he saw and getting jammed by a fastball up and in. The ball almost fell in for a hit, but Bryce Harper made a diving catch and the Royals were down to their last out. Alcides Escobar also swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a pop up to left field, ending the game.

There’s nothing wrong with jumping on the first pitch when you’re the tying or winning run in the ninth inning, but you want to make sure it’s a good pitch—something in your zone that you can hit hard. If a guy hits a line drive and makes an out, that’s just tough luck; but ending the game on two soft fly balls on off-balance swings tells you Bonifacio and Escobar did not get pitches they could drive, but swung anyway.

The media’s least favorite kind of game

Some people like slugging contests, but most of the people in the media disagree; they’re long and sloppy and we all get to bed later than planned. Walking 12 batters and scoring 21 runs takes a while. The Royals have been pitching well and playing good defense most of the season and you’d think 10 runs would be enough, but it wasn’t. The pitching and defense just weren’t there on Friday night.

The Royals have squandered much of the cushion they’d built up and are now a just one game over .500. In one short week we’ve gone from talking about their playoff chances to talking about their chances for having a winning season. Ask a player and he’ll tell you there’s a lot of baseball left, but losing six in a row isn’t going to get it done.

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