Former Kansas City Royals coach Doug Sisson once said something very smart. (Actually, Doug said a lot of smart things, I just happen to remember this one.) Anyway, Doug said lots of different types of teams had won the World Series; from the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates to the “Let’s Beat the Snot out of Each Other” Oakland A’s.
But no team wins without good fundamentals.
Whatever your style of play, you still have to play the game right. If you follow the Royals (and if you’re reading this I assume you do) you’re going to hear a lot of explanations for whatever happens at the end of the year. If they pull off this cliff-hanging act you’re going to hear about a team that refused to give up; if they fail to make the playoffs you’re going to hear about a team that couldn’t find the necessary emotional spark.
But forget about emotions, it’s more fundamental than that — just take Friday night’s 7-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox.
Runner on third, less than two out
Over the last 10 games the Royals are 4-6 and those six losses included some memorable bullpen meltdowns. But those six losses also include some runner-on-third-less-than-two-out situations where the Royals could have picked up a meaningful run, but didn’t.
With a runner on third and less than two down, the batter needs to get the right pitch to do the job and the right pitch depends on where the infield is positioned. A fly ball to the outfield is almost always a good idea, but on more than one occasion a Royals batter has chased a pitch down, when he needed a pitch up.
And sometimes the Royals fail to get the ball in play at all.
Friday night the Royals struck out 12 times; five of those strikeouts came with a runner in scoring position.
In 2014 the Houston Astros were the easiest team in the American League to strike out; they whiffed 1,442 times. The Royals were the hardest team in the American League to strike out with 985. That means Royals opponents had to make 457 more plays and that that means more chances for hits, moving up runners or errors.
In 2015 the Astros once again led the way when it came to striking out: they did it 1,392 times. The Royals struck out less than any AL team with 973. That’s 419 more chances for Royals opponents to make mistakes.
But this year the Royals are striking out more often; there are four AL teams with fewer strikeouts and the Royals already have 1,050 with 22 games left to play.
With the exception of Drew Butera and now Jarrod Dyson, you don’t see KC hitters choke up with two strikes; they’re still down on the knob of the bat and that’s probably not going to change. But you also don’t see enough hitters cut down on their swings with two strikes.
Kendrys Morales has been around a while and that’s just what he did Friday night with two runners in scoring position and two strikes; he didn’t try to pull the ball or over-swing. Morales poked an outside fastball into right field and the Royals got their only two runs of the night.
More Kansas City hitters need to emulate that two-strike approach; cut down on your swing, get the ball in play and you never know what might happen.
Chicago’s first batter — Adam Eaton — was in an 0-2 count when Yordano Ventura threw him a hittable fastball; I know it was hittable because Eaton hit it. That 0-2 lead-off double came around to score and it wasn’t the only two-strike hit the White Sox had.
The Royals do not want their pitchers throwing a meaningless 0-2 pitch well outside the strike zone; that doesn’t accomplish anything because the hitter is never tempted to swing. Instead the Royals advocate throwing a “presentable” 0-2 pitch; a pitch that’s not a strike, but tempting enough to get the hitter to pull the trigger.
But according to Baseball Reference, the Royals have given up 23 homers and 33 doubles in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. When a pitcher has a hitter down on the ground he needs to step on his neck and far too often Royals pitchers aren’t doing that.
Down-and-in to lefties
For reasons that are too complicated to go into here left-handed hitters tend to hit down-and-in pitches pretty well. This isn’t exactly top-secret information and yet Royals pitchers keep throwing down-and-in to lefties.
Friday night in the fifth inning Ventura got in trouble with down-and-in pitches to Adam Eaton and Justin Morneau. Eaton started the inning with a double and scored, Morneau drove in another run with an RBI single.
Ventura gave up five runs in seven innings; not one of his better outings. If you want to know why Ventura gets the results he does, you could do worse than watching the way he finishes pitches.
Ventura likes to recoil after throwing a pitch, but if he recoils too soon — if he doesn’t finish the pitch and then recoil — the pitch might not go where he wants it to go. Finishing down is fundamental; pop straight up too soon and your pitches won’t be as effective.
Get the picture?
Friday night Paulo Orlando dove for a ball he should have played for a single, Alcides Escobar didn’t knock down a Drew Butera throw and keep it on the infield, and Raul Mondesi popped up a bunt attempt.
I could go on and I think I have. (I’ve used that joke before and I expect royalties if anyone borrows it.) But my point is this; emotional explanations are all well and good, but there’s usually a more logical explanation.
There’s a right way to play the game and teams that win tend to play that way. No team plays perfect baseball, but until the Royals do a better job of executing the basics, they will not win consistently and winning consistently is the only hope they have left.