Judging the Royals

It’s home run derby, and the Royals lose

Updated: 2013-09-29T05:57:43Z

By LEE JUDGE

The Kansas City Star

The final score was White Sox 6, Royals 5, and every run scored by way of the long ball—seven home runs in all; four by the White Sox, three by the Royals. After the game Ned Yost said it was warm and humid; during the game you could see the flags snapping in the wind.

Besides weather conditions, here’s how you give up seven home runs:

First home run: Starting pitcher Yordano Ventura throws way hard—like 100 miles an hour hard. But if you don’t locate fastballs, even really fast fastballs, they still get whacked. Ventura threw Marcus Semien a 96-MPH fastball in a 1-1 count, but it was up in the zone and Semien knocked it out of the park.

Second home run: The very next batter, Jordan Danks, also got a fastball up in the zone—this pitch was 98 miles an hour and Danks hit the 3-2 pitch over the wall in centerfield. Ventura was throwing a ton of fastballs—he’d only thrown two off-speed pitches by the time Semien came to the plate—and when hitters start looking for a pitch and get it, they tend to hit it hard.

Third home run: With a runner on second base and Adam Dunn at the plate, the count moved to 3-1. If you throw a hitter like Dunn a 3-1 fastball, you better duck afterwards—something bad might happen. So Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura went with a 3-1 changeup. But once again, the pitch was up in the zone and another ball landed beyond the centerfield fence. With first open, you might wonder why you throw anything hittable to Dunn and maybe they didn’t mean to. Avisail Garcia was on deck—and he’s no slouch—but Dunn had 33 home runs before Ventura threw him that changeup.

Fourth home run: Mike Moustakas got the Royals on the board when Erik Johnson threw him a 1-0 slider that caught too much of the plate.

Fifth home run: Billy Butler hit a first-pitch fastball from Erik Johnson over the left-field wall.

Sixth home run: Conor Gillaspie hit a first-pitch fastball from Tim Collins over the right-field wall.

Seventh home run: Salvador Perez hit a 2-0 fastball from Matt Lindstrom over the centerfield wall.

So the home runs came when hitters expected to get a fastball and got one, or pitchers left off-speed pitches out over the plate. Throwing too many fastballs—and that might have been the problem with the first two Chicago home runs—allows hitter to time pitches; they just don’t have to worry about anything off-speed. The same thing happens when hitters expect to get a fastball because of the count—like 0-0 and 2-0—because that once again allows hitters to look for a certain pitch and tee off if they get it.

Saturday night it was home run derby in Chicago and the Royals came up one homer short.

Game notes

• In the first inning Eric Hosmer got the count to 2-0—a fastball count—and Chicago starting pitcher, Erik Johnson, threw Hosmer a slider. Throw off-speed in fastball counts and everybody sees that you’ll do it. That can keep hitters from loading up in those fastball counts; they’re not sure what they’ll get.

• In the bottom of the first inning Gordon Beckham fouled a 98-MPH fastball straight back to the screen. When a hitter does that, pay attention to what the pitcher does next. The hitter was right on the fastball, if he was early or late, the ball would be fouled off down one of the lines—so a pitcher will often do one of two things: climb the ladder (throw the next fastball up out of the zone) or change speeds. Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura changed speeds; they threw Beckham the only curve of the inning.

• Paul Konerko has been around a while and probably saw that every hitter in the first inning was getting a first-pitch fastball, teed off on his and missed it; hitting a routine fly ball. Good idea that didn’t work out.

• Back to Yordano Ventura and the first inning: he had two outs after seven pitches and a chance to have a quick inning. Ventura missed that chance by walking Conor Gillaspie. Former Royals closer Jeff Montgomery once told me that pitchers will often lose focus once they get two quick outs; they feel like the inning is pretty much over and get sloppy. Monty called it "2 outs, 2-0"—pitchers fall behind and in the count and dig a hole for themselves.

• In his first at-bat Billy Butler stayed back on a hanging curveball and lined out to right field. When a curveball starts above the zone, that curve is probably hittable—it will end up belt-high. When a curve starts in the zone, layoff—it will probably finish out of the zone.

• In the second inning Erik Johnson got two outs on five pitches and then Mike Moustakas did the right thing: he took a strike. Johnson also did the right thing; he threw one. As we’ve seen recently, some pitchers fail to take advantage of the fact that the hitter is probably taking pitches. Johnson stayed aggressive and wound up with a nine-pitch inning.

• In the third inning Jarrod Dyson walked, stole second and then made a mental mistake. There were two outs when Alex Gordon hit a fly ball, but Dyson still went back to tag second. Not knowing the number of outs is a problem: it makes coaches and managers wonder if you can be counted on to get signs and understand the situation.

• Aaron Crow spiked a 95-MPH fastball and when that happens, it’s hard for catchers to block the pitch—it’s just too fast. When a catcher blocks a pitch, most of the time it will be an off-speed pitch. Salvador Perez didn’t have time to get in front of the ball and Adam Dunn—he was on second—moved up 90 feet.

• In the eighth inning Marcus Semien tried to steal second base and Salvador Perez threw him out from his knees. The other notable thing about the play was Emilio Bonifacio’s positioning: some middle infielders avoid contact by coming out in front of the bag, making the catch and reaching back for the tag. Bonifacio straddled the bag and made the tag from there.

• It’s OK to come out in front of the bag if your catcher tends to throw the ball off-line—Bryan Pena had that tendency—but Sal throws straight so guys should probably be straddling the bag most of the time.

• The TV guys were talking about the chances that Salvador Perez will win a Gold Glove this season. I’ve been told the way you win a Gold Glove is do something to impress each team when you play them.

• The last at-bat of the game—closer Addison Reed versus Emilio Bonifacio—lasted for eight pitches. If you focused on catcher Miguel Gonzalez glove, it was clear Reed was missing his spots. Gonzalez moved in and Reed missed out over the plate. Gonzalez signaled for the ball up and Reed missed low. After the seventh pitch Gonzalez set up in the middle of the plate and it seemed likely he was asking for a breaking pitch—nobody wants a fastball down the middle. The final pitch was a slider, Bonifacio swung and missed and there’s your ballgame.

Signs with a runner on second

(At one point Chicago’s catcher Miguel Gonzalez looked like he got crossed up on a pitch and went to the mound to make sure he and the pitcher were on the same page—weird, because there was no runner on second base. In any case, it reminded me of this piece and I’m running out of days to post some of these leftovers.)

A relief pitcher comes in the game and the catcher goes to the mound to talk to him. There’s no telling exactly what’s being said, but they’re probably going over the signs with a runner on second base. Catchers have to use more complicated signals or the runner can pass along the signs to the hitter.

Runners at second can pass along the signs by doing things like taking off their helmet with their right hand for fastball, left for off-speed. Or maybe it’s a tug on the pants that signals the pitch or maybe it’s which foot the runner uses to lead off second base.

To stop this from happening pitchers and catchers use a series of signs: they might use first sign, shake, first. Translated into English that means the first sign in the sequence is the real sign, if the pitcher shakes the catcher off, it will still be the first sign in the next sequence. Using that system you could switch it up by using second sign, shake, first or first sign, shake, second—anything that doesn’t take too long to communicate.

Pitchers will sometimes use signs like outs plus one (once the catcher flashes the number of outs, the next sign is the one that counts), or they might use previous pitch plus one (if the previous pitch was a curve, once the catcher puts two fingers down the next sign is the one that counts). Whatever system they use, catchers and pitchers need to be on the same page; they throw so hard in the big leagues that a catcher who expects a slider breaking down and away to his right can blow up a thumb if he gets a sinker down and in to his left.

Watch a runner on second base and might be able to spot something he’s doing to pass the signs along to the hitter. And if that runner gets drilled the next time he comes to the plate it might be that the catcher saw the same thing you did.

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