Judging the Royals

Royals come out swinging against Scott Kazmir, Indians

Updated: 2013-09-12T03:54:34Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

The Royals appeared to ambush Cleveland starting pitcher Scott Kazmir. Hitters ambush pitchers by swinging early in the count when they expect to get a fastball for a strike. Alex Gordon started things by swinging at the first pitch of the game—a 90 MPH fastball—and homered. The second hitter of the game, Emilio Bonifacio, swung at the first pitch he saw—a 92 MPH fastball—fouled it off an eventually tripled. Eric Hosmer also swung at the first pitch he saw—a 94 MPH fastball—and hit an RBI single.

Ballplayers tend to get suspicious when something happens three times in a row. Once: OK. Twice: maybe it’s a coincidence. Three times: maybe something’s going on.

No way to know for sure—I’m not in Cleveland and Scott Kazmir doesn’t know me, so he probably wouldn’t talk about it if I was—but something got Kazmir to change his pattern. Billy Butler did not get a first-pitch fastball: he got a changeup for a called strike. But Billy did swing at the first fastball he saw, fouled it off and eventually struck out. Salvador Perez also did not get a first-pitch fastball; in his case it was a slider. But once again Sal swung at the first fastball he saw and flew out to right.

There are games within the game and everyone is looking for patterns. The Royals came up swinging at the first fastball they saw; Kazmir appeared to recognize that and started throwing off-speed pitches to begin at-bats. Once a pitcher establishes he’ll throw something other than a first-pitch fastball, he might be able to go back to throwing first-pitch fastballs. That’s what he did with Justin Maxwell and Lorenzo Cain, but the Royals were still in swing mode; both Cain and Maxwell swung at the first fastball strike they saw. Maxwell and Cain singled, the Royals picked up their third run of the inning and Jamey Carroll—the only guy who didn’t swing at the first fastball strike he saw—ended the inning by popping up to second base.

An ambush looks great when it works . The pitcher hasn’t had time to catch his breath and he’s getting whacked all around the yard. When it doesn’t work—when the hitters pop up or line out or hit groundballs at somebody—it looks awful. The opposition pitcher is back in the dugout in less than ten pitches and fans are talking about the hitters’ lack of patience.

Fortunately for the Royals, this ambush—if that’s what it was—worked. Kansas City scored three in the first inning and never trailed, beating Cleveland 6-2 and taking another series.

More conjecture

The first time through the order every Royals hitter—with the exception of Jamey Carroll—swung at the first fastball strike they saw. The second time through the order things changed; Alex Gordon took two fastballs for strikes to start his second at-bat.

So what’s up with that?

I don’t know, but I’ll give you a guess: a guy hits a home run and comes up to the plate for his next at-bat thinking he won’t get that same pitch again. The pitcher takes advantage of that by throwing the hitter the one pitch the hitter isn’t looking for—the home-run pitch.

But a pitcher who wants to do this better know his hitter. A dumb hitter isn’t thinking anything and he’ll whack that same pitch just like he did the first one. A smart hitter is looking for something else. A really smart hitter has studied video and read the scouting reports, and if the pitcher likes to do this—repeat a home-run pitch—the really smart hitter will be ready for it.

A single game is being played on a variety of levels: you’ve got smart guys and guys who don’t their own team’s signs and guys somewhere in-between. The really smart guys know who’s who and take advantage of that.

(By the way: when the team’s on the road, I don’t get to talk to any of the coaches and players so I’m stuck theorizing: the Royals may have ambushed Kazmir and Kazmir may have repeated a home-run pitch to Gordon—but don’t take any of that to the bank. But what I can tell you with complete certainty is that this kind of stuff happens. If it didn’t happen in this game, it has happened in another.)

Game notes

• James Shields: eight innings pitched, two earned runs—another quality start. He also went over 200 innings pitched, the seventh year in a row he’s done that. Dayton Moore has said he wanted to get 1,000 innings out of his starting pitchers and Shields has done his part.

• Emilio Bonifacio tripled in the first inning, but it probably should have been a single. According to the guys on radio—I’m hearing the game the same way you are—Indians right fielder Drew Stubbs went into a feet-first slide in an attempt to catch the ball. The baseball rule of thumb is that you try to prevent big innings early and single runs late: a play can be the wrong play in the first inning and the right play in the eighth. The way things worked out Bonifacio would have scored anyway, but Stubbs didn’t know that; he probably should’ve pulled up and played the ball for a single.

• At one point Cleveland’s catcher, Yan Gomes, got up and walked away from home plate, thinking Justin Maxwell had just struck out to end an inning—but he hadn’t. Hitters walking toward first because they think they just saw ball four is bad enough, catchers walking away from home plate because they think they just saw strike three is worse: catchers have to work with umpires all day. Showing them up and getting on their bad side is not smart. When that happens the player needs to come back to the plate and make it right with the umpire.

• James Shields made an error when he covered first base and missed a throw from Eric Hosmer . I never saw the play—remember, the game was on radio—but when that happens it’s usually because the pitcher is late covering or the first baseman is late throwing the ball: the pitcher is trying to catch the ball and find first base with his foot at the same time. Concentration gets split and bad things happen.

• In the fifth inning with runners on first and third and nobody down, Cleveland manager Terry Francona brought in Bryan Shaw to pitch to Billy Butler. It seems likely the Indians were looking for a double play ball and got one, a 5-4-3. The score was 3-2 when Billy hit the ball and playing for two at that point indicates Cleveland thought they could make up a two-run deficit. The runner on third, Emilio Bonifacio, scored while the Indians turned the double play. If Cleveland thought stopping the run was crucial, the throw would have come home.

• With runners on first and third with nobody out, you’re going to see the runner on third base break for home on a groundball. If the other team turns a double play while you watch, you now have a runner on third and two outs. If the runner goes home and gets thrown out, you probably have runners on first and second with one out.

• In the seventh inning with Alex Gordon on first base, Emilio Bonifacio hit a groundball into centerfield after Gordon took off for second. The radio guys described it as a perfect hit and run, but it probably wasn’t. On a hit and run the Royals want the guy at the plate to hit the ball toward the shortstop or second baseman. Hit the ball up the middle and the runner will take an infielder in that direction. If the infielder arrives at the right time, it’s a perfect double-play ball.

• The Cleveland pitchers made a couple bad pickoff throws and it cost them at least one run. In the fifth inning Bonifacio advanced to second on a bad throw, went to third on an Eric Hosmer single to left and scored on that Billy Butler double play ball. It’s unlikely Emilio would have been able to go first to third on Hosmer’s single to left field, so the error probably made the run possible. Bad pickoff throws are another benefit of the stolen base; if you don’t run, they don’t worry about you.

• After eight innings Shields had thrown 102 pitches, but hadn’t given up a hit since the first. Ned Yost sent him back out for the ninth with a four-run lead. The first two batters reached and then—with the tying run on deck—it became a save situation. Greg Holland got the call and picked up his 42nd save. It might have been nice to not use Holland, but the Royals have a day off tomorrow so Holland will get his rest and be available for the Detroit series.

A reader’s question

Lee, I'm reading more articles about how the Royals should trade Greg Holland while his value is so high. I think he's the team's MVP. A lot of writers seem to feel that great closers are a dime-a-dozen (ok, maybe I'm exaggerating) and rarely do they have successful back-to-back years.    

My response

If closers are a dime-a-dozen, why would anyone give the Royals much for Greg Holland? Either closers are rare people that have the pitches and personality to take the mound in tight ball games and succeed under incredible pressure, or they’re easily replaceable, interchangeable cogs in a machine. If it’s rare for closers to be successful in back-to-back years, why is Holland’s trade value high?

He’s either very valuable or he isn’t—you can’t have it both ways.

A day off

The Royals have now finished the 44-games-in-44 days stretch and tomorrow they have a day off—but it’s not quite as good as it sounds. Talk to players and they’ll tell you a day off in their world either means travel, a day off in a strange town or day off at home; and the day off at home may be the least restful of all.

If they get a day off at home the player’s family probably has big plans; dad hasn’t been around much and they want to spend time with him. Or it may mean getting to a list of chores that’s been piling up while the player’s been earning his living. It can also mean attending a charity event that’s been wedged into the schedule. The players may get a day off, but it’s rarely restful.

P.S. And it’s worse for the writers: I asked Star beat writer Bob Dutton about getting a day off and he pointed out that he still has to write a Royals story, but he doesn’t have a game to write about. He’d just as soon the team played a game.)

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