Judging the Royals

James Shields and his put-away pitch

Updated: 2013-09-28T15:38:36Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

Everybody in baseball is looking for patterns: if you spot one, you can use it to your advantage. Does the pitcher hold his glove one way when delivering the ball home, another way when attempting a pickoff? If so, steal when the pitcher signals that he’s going home. Does the opposing manager like to hit and run in a 2-1 count? If so, pitch out when you reach that count and throw out the base runner.

Sometimes you’re trying to hide a pattern, sometimes you want the opposition to know exactly what you’re doing — you can use that in your favor.

James Shields struck out 10 hitters, Wade Davis struck out two; all 12 strikeouts came on off-speed pitches. Look it up on MLB.com (assuming they got it right) and you see every strikeout came on a changeup or cutter. When hitters know that a pitcher has something nasty they can throw with two strikes — like a James Shields changeup — they might swing earlier in the count. They don’t want to get to two strikes, they know what’s waiting. That’s how a pitcher gets through seven innings on only 98 pitches while striking out 10. Shields picked up his 13th win, lowered his ERA to 3.15 and powered his team to its 85th victory.

Shields made one mistake and gave up a home run to Gordon Beckham in the sixth inning. By that time the Royals had put six runs of their own. They got to Chris Sale early and never looked back. The Royals beat the White Sox, 6-1.

Game notes

• James Shields got his 100th win and Jamey Carroll got his 1,000th hit. The longer I’m around baseball the more impressed I am by anyone who sticks around long enough to reach a milestone. You see so many guys come and go; they get their big-league cup of coffee and—poof—they’re gone. It’s easy to dismiss guys without stellar numbers, but anyone who gets 10 years in the big leagues had a hell of a baseball career.

• Jamey Carroll has been around for 12 years. A while back I was talking with former Royals manager John Wathan about Carroll and wondered about Jamey’s ability to stick in the big leagues. John said: "Have you seen him play?"

Carroll’s 1,000th hit was a perfect example of what John meant: Carroll came out of the box like his hair was on fire. Guys who put up monster numbers can afford to watch their hits or coast down the first-base line on groundouts. Players like Jamey Carroll don’t do that; they survive by trying to do everything right.

Here’s yet another example; Jamey told me it was easy to get lazy on what looks like a routine fly ball to the outfield—but what if the outfielder drops the ball? Stand there and spectate and you’ll be out of position. Even though the odds are miniscule that a big-league outfielder will drop a pop fly, it still happens. That’s why Carroll gets in the right cutoff position just in case something bad happens—he’ll be in the right spot.

• Go back to that spotting-a-pattern thing for a minute: Emilio Bonifacio stole second base in the first inning. Chris Sale had been pitching out of a slide step, but when Emilio took off for second base, Sale used a full leg kick. It was a 1-1 count and also an off-speed pitch. So either the Royals got lucky and stole on just the right pitch, or maybe they have something on Sale that told them to go.

• In the third inning Billy Butler got doubled off first base when Gordon Beckham made a difficult catch of a Salvador Perez pop fly. Billy was too far away from first base to make it back after the Beckham catch. Base runners in Billy’s situation are caught between a rock and a hard place: the ball might fall—get too far off and you get doubled off, take too short a lead and, if the ball falls, they pick it up and force you at the next base.

So what do you do?

Better too short a lead than too long a lead. If Beckham had not made the catch, picked the ball up and forced Butler at second, that’s one out. Billy got too far off and when the ball was caught that meant Chicago would get two outs. It’s the lesser of two evils, but better one out than two.

• Back to Jamey Carroll’s 1,000 hit: he was on second base when Alcides Escobar lined out to short. Carroll was, once again, doing the right thing—he was headed back to second base. The other night Mike Moustakas got doubled off in the same situation because he was headed for third. Doing a small thing right got the Royals a big thing—an extra run. Emilio Bonifacio hit a two-out single and Jamey scored.

• On numerous occasions I’ve written that fans should watch the outfielder, not the fly ball; the outfielder’s actions will tell you everything you need to know—except in the sixth inning of this game. Gordon Beckham had just homered and it looked like Alexei Ramirez was going to make it back-to-back bombs. According to MLB.com, Ramirez hit a 1-1 cutter to left and Alex Gordon raced back to the wall.

That’s when Gordon deked everyone in the stadium.

Outfielders are taught to get to the wall as quickly as possible, locate it with an outstretched hand or glove, position themselves and then make their leap. Gordon has said robbing a home run is his dream play and it looked like he was getting in position to rob this one—except the ball didn’t carry that far.

Alex thought the ball was crushed and just put his head down and ran. Once he got to the wall, he climbed it. Gordon’s actions told everyone—including the guy who sets off the fireworks—that this ball was over the fence. Once Gordon realized it wasn’t, he dropped off the fence and made a rather routine catch on the warning track.

Ned and the manager tree

Back when everyone was saying Mike Moustakas needed to be replaced, Ned Yost caused a stir by saying sure; he’d replace Moose by going to the third-base man tree and picking a new one. Some people got upset, but Ned had a point: it’s easy to fire, bench or demote someone—but you still have to replace them with somebody.

The Royals just won their 85th ballgame and Dayton Moore has said he wants Ned back. Ned has said he wants to come back, so you’d think it’s just a matter of them working out the details.

I was recently asked what I thought about Ned’s return and I said if the Royals had a better alternative available, they should consider it and if they don’t, then it’s Ned. The same thing is true of every player, coach and front-office guy: it’s not enough to get rid of people—that’s the easy part. If you get rid of someone, you need to have a better alternative.

Monday leftovers

Here are couple moments from Monday night’s game that I didn’t get to in the post-game notes:

*Yordano Ventura (who is starting tonight’s game) was throwing 100 miles an hour and you could see Kendrys Morales get ready early. When a hitter gets ready early you can see him take his stride and move his hands back into hitting position earlier than he normally does. You probably want to throw that hitter off-speed stuff—he’s gearing up for a fastball; you might not want to give it to him.

*In the top of the third inning Jarrod Dyson walked and Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch he saw. Esky hit into an inning-ending double play with one of the fastest guys in the league on first base. I’ve got no idea what the game plan was there, but you might wonder if it would have been a good idea to give Dyson a chance to steal second before Escobar swung the bat.

*It looked like the Royals put on a safety squeeze at one point; a play where the batter puts a bunt down and the runner breaks for home if he thinks the bunt is good enough. In the suicide squeeze the runner takes off before the bunt and the hitter has to get the bunt down or at least foul the ball off, otherwise the runner will be out at the plate.

Lots of baseball people will tell you the safety squeeze puts more pressure on the players; the bunt has to be better than in the suicide and runner has to decide if the bunt’s good enough for him to score. If the safety squeeze works a manager can take credit for calling it; if it fails, the manager can blame execution. If the manager calls for a suicide squeeze he’ll get the blame if something goes wrong.

Pitch selection and the average pitcher

(This concept comes directly from college baseball coach Ron Polk’s book, but I found it helpful in understanding pitch selection and the mistakes hitters make.)

Let’s say you’re facing a pitcher who’s considered average. Generally speaking, if this hypothetical pitcher throws five pitches, one will be great, one will be bad and three will be average—after all, that’s why he’s considered an average pitcher.

If this pitcher starts an at-bat and manages to throw a great pitch, the hitter should take it. Odds are, the hitter is now going to see one bad pitch and three average ones if he stays at the plate for five pitches. In other words, it’s a mistake to swing at a pitcher’s pitch early in the count when the pitcher isn’t all that great. Some very good hitters will tell you they didn’t make a living hitting good pitches—they made a living hitting mistakes. Being impatient and not hanging around long enough to see a mistake is a bad approach.

But a hitter’s approach might change if he was facing a very good pitcher—think top of the line guys, closers or starters like Justin Verlander, Yu Darvish or Felix Hernandez—because a very good pitcher might throw three excellent pitches, one bad pitch and one average pitch during a five-pitch at-bat. In that case a hitter is more inclined to tee off on the first hittable pitch he sees; don’t wait around for the pitcher to make another mistake, this guy probably won’t make two mistakes in one at-bat.

So it’s not just the pitch; who threw it also matters. A fastball on the black away might be the best pitch a hitter is likely to see from an ace, but a bad pitch to go after if the guy on the mound is a bottom of the rotation type. .

So when you see a Royals hitter walk to the plate, ask yourself how good the pitcher is. If he’s terrific, the hitter may have no choice but to swing at something marginal early in the count. If it’s a pitcher that’s struggling, the hitter can be more selective. But no matter who is on the mound, pitchers still make mistakes: if you get one—hit it.

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