Judging the Royals

Scoreless in Seattle: The Royals are shut out

Updated: 2013-09-25T21:52:50Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

If you want to know what went wrong in Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to the Seattle Mariners, take a look at the bottom of the third and top of the fourth inning—the Royals had an opportunity to change the game and didn’t take advantage.

Seattle’s leadoff hitter, Brad Miller, swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a groundball to Eric Hosmer. One pitch, one out. Seattle’s number-two hitter, Abraham Almonte—who should have been taking a pitch—bunted the first pitch he saw and Bruce Chen picked the ball up and threw Almonte out at first base. Two pitches, two outs. So what’s the third hitter, Kyle Seager, going to do?

That’s right, he’s taking pitches. Seager’s teammate, starting pitcher James Paxton, probably didn’t have time to towel off his face and get a drink of water before his teammates had made two outs. The Royals had a chance to put Paxton back on the mound with almost no rest in the top of the fourth inning, but that didn’t happen.

Bruce did not throw strikes to a hitter who wasn’t going to swing the bat. Kyle Seager had to know he couldn’t be up there hacking and put his pitcher back on the mound after three pitches. Bruce threw Seager six pitches; Seager never took the bat off his shoulder and was rewarded with a walk. Kendrys Morales singled and Chen had to throw four more pitches to strike out Franklin Gutierrez. Bruce Chen had a chance for a five-pitch inning, but instead threw 14 and that gave James Paxton a chance to rest.

Now look at the next half-inning:

Eric Hosmer took a called strike to start things and two pitches later, struck out. Three pitches, one out. Billy Butler chose to swing at the first pitch he saw. Four pitches, two outs. Seattle Mariner Kyle Seager took pitches to give his guy a chance to rest; what did Salvador Perez do? Swung at the second pitch he saw—the first strike he saw—and, boom, just like that, Paxton was the one with the easy inning. Six pitches, three outs; Bruce Chen was right back on the mound. He had a stressful inning in the fourth and gave up a three-run homer in the fifth.

In a game where the opposing pitcher was dealing, the Royals did not take advantage of an opportunity. They didn’t get Paxton back on the mound with no rest and, in fact, made sure he’d get to throw an extra inning by giving him an easy fourth inning. Paxton threw seven, got the ball to the back end of the Mariners bullpen and made sure the Royals went scoreless in Seattle. Seattle 4, Kansas City 0.

An opportunity to change the game was missed.

The Morales double

A long run, but you don’t quite get there—that might describe the Royals playoff chances or Lorenzo Cain’s attempt to catch Kendrys Morales’ game-changing double. It happened in the fifth inning: Royals starter Bruce Chen got the first two batters—Abraham Almonte and Kyle Seager—and had Morales in a 1-2 count. When pitchers are ahead of hitters and have pitches they can afford to waste, there are a few tricks they can try: throw a breaking pitch in the dirt and see if the hitter will chase it, throw a fastball inside, back the hitter off the plate and then get him out down and away, or you can try climbing the ladder—throw a fastball above the strike zone and see if the hitter will swing.

Bruce Chen tried climbing the ladder.

He threw an 89-MPH fastball at the top of the strike zone, but Bruce didn’t get it high enough. Morales stayed on top of the ball and hit it to centerfield. Lorenzo Cain gave chase, but he didn’t quite get there. TV announcer Rex Hudler thought Cain "alligator-armed" it—slang for not getting the arms fully extended. That sometimes happens when an outfielder approaches the wall and wants to avoid a collision. After watching the replay several times it did appear Cain never got his arm fully stretched out, but he was also a couple strides short of the warning track—he had plenty of room. It also didn’t look like Cain was slowing down; another sign a guy is avoiding a collision. No way of knowing what was in Lorenzo’s head—Cain did say he should have made the catch—but Lorenzo has shown no fear of the wall on other occasions. Whatever the reason, the ball dropped just beyond Lorenzo Cain’s glove and the inning continued.

Next, Franklin Gutierrez walked on four pitches. Coming into Tuesday’s game Gutierrez was 3 for 12 off Bruce, but the number that jumps out at you is half those 12 at-bats were strikeouts. It didn’t make any difference; Bruce walked him and got to Justin Smoak, a guy who had even less success against Chen—2 for 11—but with only two strikeouts.

Chen got Smoak into an 0-2 count and tried the same trick—climbing the ladder—and once again Bruce didn’t get the pitch high enough. It was 90 miles an hour coming in and something a little faster going out; Smoak hit a three-run homer and there’s your ballgame.

Game notes

• If the Royals didn’t score at all, wouldn’t the single run the Mariners put on the board in the first inning have been enough? Did the Justin Smoak home run really change the game? Yeah, it did—down by one run the Royals approach at the plate would be different than being down by four. Every Royals hitter who came to the plate in the top of the sixth inning took at least one called strike. Down by four with time running out, you need base runners and smart pitchers should take advantage of that—they can pour in strikes knowing the hitters are more likely to be taking pitches.

• Seattle rookie pitcher James Paxton is 6’ 4" and throws over the top. That puts his ball on a downhill plane and that means hitters are seeing the top half of the ball and not much else. Hit the top half of the ball and you’ve just hit a grounder, and it’s hard to hit a ball for extra bases if it’s hit on the ground unless it goes right down one of the foul lines. That’s what Lorenzo Cain’s second-inning double did, but other than that, the Royals spent a lot of time either striking out or hitting groundballs.

• Chen tried to climb the ladder twice in the fifth and got burned both times. He’s made that trick work a lot, but in the big leagues everyone is paying attention, everyone is looking for patterns. Do the same thing too often and it’ll be in the scouting report and hitters will be looking for it. I don’t if that was the case Tuesday night, but if I ever get to see a Mariners scouting report I’ll let you know.

• The Royals didn’t have a lot of opportunities, but Paxton looked like he’d be hard to run on. He’s left-handed and looked quick to the plate the few times the Royals had a runner on first base.

• In the first inning Brad Miller was on second base with one down when Kyle Seager hit a fly ball to Lorenzo Cain in center. Miller went back to tag and after the catch was made, took a couple hard steps toward third base and then shut it down. You see this done ten thousand times a summer; the base runner is just making sure the outfielder makes his throw back to the infield under pressure—maybe he’ll throw the ball away.

• Kind of surprising that Chris Dwyer made his major-league debut in a game this important, but he did OK—two scoreless innings, two hits, one walk, two strike outs. Generally speaking, guys making their major league debuts are a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get.

• In the fourth inning there was a pop fly hit down the right-field line and Justin Maxwell collided with the wall in an attempt to make the catch. You don’t want to see a guy get hurt, but you do want to see that kind of effort. There aren’t 81 games left; the Royals are in the final sprint to the finish line. However slim, they still have a shot at the playoffs and guys should be hustling, diving for balls, breaking up double plays—whatever it takes to win.

After the game Ned Yost was asked about his playoff chances—I’m guessing he’s a little tired of answering that question—and said the Royals would go just as hard as they could until someone tells them it’s over.

Putting my son to work

(I’m staying up late, watching these West coast games with my son, Paul. I’ve encouraged him to write for the web site—I ain’t doing this forever—and here’s something he wrote after last night’s game.)

Baseball games are won with runs; whoever scores more of them wins. So you might assume that scoring runs is the point of every at-bat—getting runners on, getting them into scoring position, and getting them in—that’s the game plan. But how you go about scoring those runs and when you try to score them changes constantly.

Against an excellent pitcher, who’s shown he won’t give up many runs and will probably dominate a large percentage of his innings, the offense's approach might change. Scoring runs right now on a pitcher who’s dealing is going to be an uphill battle. When your team is faced with this dilemma, another option presents itself : worry less about scoring runs right now, worry more about getting that pitcher out of the game.

Take pitches, work the count, drive up the starter's pitch total, and try to force him out of the game in the middle innings, before the other team can get to the back end of their bullpen. Even the most locked-in, on-fire version of Justin Verlander probably won’t throw 20 pitches an inning for more than six innings—managers are unlikely to abuse an arm that valuable—it’s a good way to lose a job. So get the starter out early and get the game to middle relief, then score the runs you need.

Middle relievers are generally the weakest part of any pitching staff—they weren’t good enough to be a starter or a set-up man or closer—these are the pitchers every offense wants to face. The quicker you get the starter out of the game, the quicker you get to face a team's most vulnerable pitchers.

On Tuesday night, the Royals did not do a good job of forcing Mariners' starter James Paxton out of the game early.

Alex Gordon led the game off five-pitch single, but Emilio Bonifacio and Eric Hosmer both had three pitch at-bats, and both swung at the first strike they saw. Bonifacio grounded into a double play and Hosmer got a hit, but—as always—it’s process over results. Bonifacio's results were bad, Hosmer's good; but neither really at-bat pushed Paxton's pitch count.

In the second inning, Salvador Perez had another three pitch at-bat, grounding out on the first strike he saw. In the 4th, Hosmer had a three pitch at-bat, Billy Butler grounded out on the first pitch he saw, and Perez again swung at the first strike he saw, grounding out after a two-pitch at-bat. A six-pitch inning in the 4th more or less guaranteed another inning of work from Paxton later, giving him the opportunity to hang around longer and dominate the Royals offense for a larger portion of the game. And Paxton was dealing: he was able to get through seven shutout innings, handing a four-run lead to relievers Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar, who combined to finish off the shutout and seal the 4-0 Mariners' victory.

You probably can’t say that the Royals should have come in to this game with a full-on "take" mindset. Paxton is a rookie who made only his fourth major-league start on Tuesday night and if Paxton had shown early signs of weakness—missing spots, getting behind, or leaving pitches up—the Royals would be right to jump on an opportunity and take advantage of it.

But those three previous starts by Paxton were indicative of the talent that the Royals saw on Tuesday night: wins against Tampa Bay and St. Louis, and a good showing against Detroit that was lost late by Seattle's relievers (Paxton was forced out after only five innings pitched—maybe those Tigers know a few things about offense). Paxton gave up only four earned runs combined in those three starts against elite teams. Add that to the fact that he's relatively unknown to the league, has never faced the Royals and doesn't have much video for the league to study—and then throw in the fact that he came out dealing against the Royals—and it becomes clear that Kansas City had trouble on their hands.

It might be an overused cliché, but it’s still true; baseball is a game of adjustments. With Paxton pitching aggressively and efficiently at the start of Tuesday's game, the Royals needed to make the adjustment and realize that runs would come much easier against Seattle's middle relievers. The six-pitch fourth inning, the early hacks at first pitches or—at best—first strikes, the fact that no Royal saw more than six pitches against Paxton all night; all those factors combined to keep Paxton in the game longer. The longer Paxton stayed, the slimmer the Royals' chance of another comeback win became.

You never go into a game expecting to get dominated by the opposing starter, passing up cookies and mistakes pitches; but Paxton's small, yet significant, track record, and the much more important fact that he was dealing right here, right now, indicated that the Royals needed to make an adjustment on Tuesday night to try and force Paxton out of the game early.

Teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have been known to use this approach against good pitching. You're likely to see a slow-paced, three hour-plus game that features a lot of batters taking first pitches, working the count, fouling off pitches—all to drive up the opposing ace's pitch count. They recognize how good the pitcher is, how unlikely it is that he'll give up enough runs to lose the game, and they react accordingly. It's a slow, grinding, often unglamorous approach to offense—but it works. Boston and New York have been elite teams for a long time.

If those early swings result in 400-foot bombs, it looks great. But most nights, against a good pitcher like Paxton, that will not happen. Most nights, you will be scrapping and struggling to put together runs. Even if the Royals had gotten positive results out of those early swings, it wouldn't change the fact that the process of their plate approach was flawed, and went unadjusted throughout Paxton's seven innings.

The people who understand sports on a deeper level all say the same thing: it's process over results, every time. If you focus only on the results—win or loss, hit or groundout, flyout or home run—you will never learn from your mistakes, and you will never get better. If you improve the process, good results will eventually come. The Royals may have just missed the playoffs because of Tuesday night's game and that game exposed a flaw in their offensive process against dominant pitching. The difference between going home early in 2013 and playing in October 2014 will lie in whether or not they can improve their process going forward.

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