Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Playing the infield: It’s complicated

03/26/2013 6:07 PM

05/20/2014 10:41 AM

I asked Royals infield coach Eddie Rodriguez about a drill I saw him leading the day that I arrived in Surprise: Christian Colon was stationed at third base and fielding every ball backhanded.

Eddie said they were working on Colon’s angle while moving to a ball hit to his right. Christian needed to make his first step a drop step with his right foot. (A drop step is a step angled back at about 45 degrees.)

Step laterally, and, if you misread the ball’s speed, the ball is past you. Drop step, and you’re more likely to cut the ball off. If you take a good first step and you’re too deep, you can always come forward. If you take the wrong first step and you’re too shallow, the ball is in the outfield and down the line for a possible double.

Talking about an infielder’s first step led Eddie to ask me who has a better view of a ground ball, the guy who has the ball hit right at him or the coach in the dugout? The right answer is the coach in the dugout.

The coach has a side view of the ball, and the guy right in front of the ball can have depth-perception problems. Just like an outfielder who has a ball hit directly at him, judging the speed and angle of an object coming toward you is tough. Get a side view, and things get easier.

That is why an infielder who has a ball hit right at him may step to the right side of the ball’s line of travel and then step back in front of the ball as it arrives. It helps the infielder judge the ball and gets some momentum going toward first base.

The conversation then drifted into infield positioning. Eddie spends hours and hours dissecting video and spray charts to help position the infielders. The pitcher, the pitch, the count and the hitter’s tendencies all matter.

What does Paul Konerko tend to do with a fastball on the outer half of the plate in a 2-1 count? Konerko might do one thing with a fastball on the outer half in a 2-1 count and another thing with the same pitch in a 1-2 count.

How about the pitcher? Will the guy on the mound be able to get that fastball to the outer half of the plate? If the pitcher has been leaving the ball in the middle of the plate every time, he tries to put it on the outer half. The infielder needs to change his positioning. And how fast is the playing surface? How well does the batter run? With a slow runner and fast surface, play deeper. With a fast runner and a slow surface, play in.

Eddie and the infielders need to know all this stuff and more, or the infielders will be standing in the wrong spot.

When the Royals are on defense, Eddie usually stands near the top of the dugout steps closest to home plate. If you see Eddie get an infielder’s attention and then point at the scoreboard, he is reminding the infielder to pay attention to the count. They have gone over what the hitter does in this particular count, and Eddie is reminding the infielder of where he should be positioned.

I asked whether the more-experienced guys are better at positioning and Eddie said of course. They have been around awhile and have a better idea of what the pitcher on the mound tends to do and how the hitter at the plate tends to react.

If a young guy needs help, Eddie is there to provide it. But the young guys need to pay attention. If they let Eddie do all the work, they’re not learning. A young infielder needs to know why he moves two steps to his right with this guy hitting in this count. That’s one of the reasons it’s nice to have a veteran on the infield. He can help the younger guys position themselves and help them understand the principle behind the positioning.

Bottom line: The information Eddie provides is a guideline. Spray charts and stats are a record of the past. If something different is happening tonight — if the pitcher is missing his spots, or the hitter has made some kind of adjustment — the infielders also need to adjust and reposition themselves.

If you’re thinking that all this sounds more complicated than you imagined, join the club. Nothing is as simple as big-league ballplayers make it look.

Questions and answers

As regular readers are aware, this website has had a lot of changes in the off-season. We dropped Ron Polk’s player evaluation system and redesigned the format to match the other blogs and sections on KansasCity.com.

I’m still trying to decide how to deal with readers’ comments, but if someone has a question I can answer, I’ll do my best to respond. Here are a few of the questions that have been asked since I’ve been down here in Surprise, along with my responses.

Question: Jeff Francoeur hit a home run against the Angels that cleared the center-field fence and the batter’s eye, a large green wall behind the center-field fence. Was that his longest home run?

Answer:

Frenchy claimed he got jammed on that pitch, but once he was done screwing around with the media, he said yes, it was the longest home run he ever hit.

The batter’s eye is supposed to be 35 feet tall, and one estimate claimed the ball traveled 470 feet. Eric Hosmer hit a home run moments before Frenchy’s and complained that he was only three high-fives into his celebration when Jeff stole his thunder.

Q: Is there any advantage in sliding into first base?

A:

It depends on the situation. When a runner is coming down the line, he is supposed to be watching the first baseman’s feet, not the ball, although a lot of runners still watch the ball.

If the first baseman’s feet come off the bag, it’s going to be a tag play. The throw is off-line. In that case, there might be an advantage in sliding to the foul side of first base and reaching back to touch the bag. That doesn’t give the first baseman much body to tag.

The general opinion I’ve heard expressed is that it is faster to run through the bag, hitting the front edge with either foot. After all, you don’t see Olympic sprinters sliding across the finish line. You also don’t see them leap at the finish line, so coaches usually teach a runner to run through the bag, then look over his right shoulder for any ball that got past the first baseman.

It’s a long season, and teams that have injuries tend to scuffle. In most cases, those teams would rather see a player be out than get hurt.

Q: How are Frenchy’s legs?

A:

Surprisingly skinny, but you’re probably talking about conditioning. Jeff said he did a lot more work on his legs this off-season than last. Even Jeff admits he lost a step in 2012, but it shouldn’t be because of age. Francoeur has been around so long, it’s easy to forget he’s only 29. If he can get back to his 2011 approach, there should be a lot of baseball left in him.

By the way, Frenchy’s stolen base the other day looked as if it was intended to be the back half of a hit-and-run. The batter swung and missed at a pitch well outside.

Q:

Didn't Alex Gordon booger up his thumb a few years back on a head-first slide? And it seems a couple of players the last few years got concussions from a thrown ball doing that.

A: I don’t know the medical definition of “booger up,” but yes, Alex fractured his thumb on a headfirst slide in 2010. This is from a story on MLB.com: “A photo showed he jammed his right hand into second baseman Joaquin Arias' foot.” It’s the kind of thing I was talking about in my blog post

on headfirst slides.

Chris Getz got a concussion when he took a throw in the back of the head, but I don’t remember if he was going in headfirst. In the majors, guys are allowed to wear batting helmets with one ear flap, but that means that side of a base-runner’s head can be exposed to injuries on throws.

When a right-hander dives back to first base, his right ear is exposed to a pitcher’s pickoff. A lefty like Getz has his left ear exposed on a throw from the catcher to second base.

There are times a base runner is counting on the defender to protect him by catching the ball. If the defender misses the throw, the runner takes a shot to the head.

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