Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

The Royals waste an opportunity

05/30/2013 10:37 AM

05/30/2013 10:37 AM

In the fifth inning David Lough tripled with nobody out. Both George Kottaras and Chris Getz tried to do the right thing: with a runner on third and less than two outs, you try to hit the ball in the air and they did—both popped up on the infield. It looked like the Royals were going to waste a scoring opportunity until the pitcher, Luis Mendoza, got his first major league hit: a single to the wall.

That’s right: a single to the wall.

Luis started celebrating early, did not come down the line hard and stopped at first base. Anytime you’re counting on a pitcher’s base-running skills, things are desperate; but when you’re trying to break a seven-game losing streak, things

are

desperate. It’s the National League; pitchers are expected to hit and run the bases. Naturally, Alex Gordon followed with a single. There’s a very good chance Mendoza would not have been sent home if he’d been in scoring position—it might not be worth getting a pitcher hurt at the plate in an effort to score one run—but by not getting into scoring position, Mendoza made sure the Royals never had the chance. It’s little stuff like this that needs to be cleaned up if the Royals are going to get back on track.

The Royals waste an opportunity and lose to the Cardinals, 5-3.

Game notes

First, second and third innings: A lot of pitchers want to go as far as they can on their fastball and save their secondary pitches for later in the game. Early in the game a hitter can have a good at-bat while striking out if

he forced the pitcher to show everything he has. That gives everyone an idea of what the pitcher has that night.

In the first three innings, Cardinals starter Lance Lynn went through the entire Royals lineup and threw a total of two sliders—one to Alcides Escobar and one more to Billy Butler; everything else was a fastball. That allowed Lynn to break out his curve the second time through the order and show Royals hitters a pitch they hadn’t seen yet.

It didn’t make any difference to Alex Gordon; he saw three curves and singled on third one.

Third inning:

George Kottaras took an 0-0 fastball for a ball, a 1-0 fastball for a strike and wound up hitting an infield pop-up. In his second at-bat George took a first-pitch fastball for a strike and wound up hitting another infield pop-up. In his third at-bat Kottaras took a 1-0 fastball for a called strike and wound up striking out. In his fourth at-bat George put a 1-0 fastball in play and wound up with an RBI.

Everybody loves patience at the plate, but if a hitter keeps taking first-pitch fastballs for strikes he’s always going to be hitting down in the count. Swinging at the first pitch—even once in a while—changes the scouting report and prevents the pitcher from throwing a fastball down the middle, confident the hitter won’t swing.

Fifth inning:

As noted at the beginning, David Lough tripled to start things off. When hitters first come up big-league pitchers tend to throw them a lot of fastballs. The hitter may have hit fastballs in the minors to get here, but big-league fastballs are harder, better located and have more movement. Big-league pitchers want to see if the new guy can handle them. So far, Lough is passing the fastball test.

In his four-hit game on Monday, Lough doubled on a cut fastball, singled on a sinking fastball, singled on another sinking fastball, struck out on a curve and singled on a split-fingered fastball. In this game Lough popped up on a fastball, tripled on a fastball, took ball four on a fastball and singled on a sinking fastball. Once a hitter convinces everybody he can handle the fastball, pitchers switch up. Watch for pitchers to start throwing Lough more breaking stuff to see how he handles it.

Sixth inning:

Matt Holliday hit a 3-1 fastball for a homer and two innings later, Carlos Beltran hit a 2-0 fastball out of the park. Regular readers know the danger of giving power hitters fastballs in fastball counts. There are two alternatives: throw something off-speed in those counts or stay the hell out of fastball counts. We tend to focus on the last pith of an at-bat and figure that’s where the pitcher made the mistake, but what if Luis Mendoza had thrown a second strike to Holliday earlier in the at-bat? What if Aaron Crow had thrown a 1-0 strike to move the count to 1-1? Pay attention to how pitchers got into trouble in the first place.

Ninth inning:

Two outs, down by two and Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch, hitting an easy fly ball to centerfield to end the game. Veteran ballplayers will tell you it’s impossible to hit a two-run home run with no one on base. If it’s late in the game and you’re not the tying run, your job is to get on base.

It’s not the first time this is happened, and unless someone makes it an issue, it won’t be the last.

A reader comment

You've watched every game now for two years. Here's my theory on the offense. According to Seitzer's interview on 610 a week or so ago, Yost at the All Star break last year gave him a list of player's names and a number next to name. That number was the number of home runs Yost thought that player was capable of hitting. I suspect that Seitzer at Yost's direction went away from what he was teaching these guys and tried to goose the home run totals. As a result offense struggles with mid-season change in approach. Yost fires Seitzer after season and brings in new coaches from minors thinking these guys can get his hitters to duplicate the power numbers they had in minors; except that big league pitchers don't pitch the way they do in the minor leagues. So new approach fails offense struggles and things are now a mess. Players like Moustakas, Hosmer and Escobar have taken step back in their offensive development. Is there another explanation? Shouldn't someone have seen this coming? Shouldn't someone be held accountable?

My response

I didn’t hear the Kevin Seitzer interview you’re referring to, but at the time, there was little doubt that Ned Yost wanted a hitting philosophy that would produce more home runs. Lately he’s been trying to refine that position, but that was what everyone seemed to think he was saying at the time.To understand what hitting more home runs requires, it’s helpful to understand Kauffman Stadium.

Star columnist Sam Mellinger wrote about an advanced metric that "proves" Kauffman Stadium is a good hitters park, but the metric didn’t seem to define what a good hitters park means. If you’re talking about average and doubles that’s one thing; if you’re talking about home runs, that’s another.

Kauffman is big, so there are more places for a base hit to fall in; but, on the other hand, Kauffman is big, so it’s hard to hit a ball over the fence. The foul poles are 330 feet away, but the wall continues to drop off from there. I once asked Seitzer how far away the bullpen gates are, and he guessed 375 feet. Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were talking about the "good hitters park" article and strongly disagreed with the conclusions. Moose pointed out that you can hit a ball 409 feet, but if you hit it to centerfield, you probably just made an out. Eric Hosmer said that if you hit a ball 385 feet to left, it ought to be a home run, but if you hit it near the gap—which is 387—it ain’t.

So to have a shot at hitting the ball out of the park, most hitters have to get the bat head out in front and pull the ball down the line. "Most hitters" do not include guys like Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Matt Holliday or Carlos Beltran; if they get the right pitch, those guys can hit it out of any park, including Yellowstone. So let’s say most Royals hitters, generally speaking, need to pull the ball to hit home runs. To pull the ball you have to swing sooner and if you swing sooner you’ll get fooled more often. We’ve been talking about pitchers throwing off-speed in fastball counts and if you’re trying to pull the ball when that happens, you’ll probably have a swing-and-a-miss or a weak pop-up or grounder.

Before Tuesday’s game I talked to Jeff Francoeur and he acknowledged he’s been trying to do too much to make up for how things are going. Instead of trying to hit the fastball the other way in a 2-0 count—which gives you a chance to spit on the off-speed pitches—he’s been "getting big." Trying to hit that 2-0 pitch out in front of the plate and get it into the short part of the yard.

Seitzer taught hitting the ball up the middle and if you got a mistake pitch, go ahead and turn on it. If you think you’re about to get a "cookie"—a hittable fastball—go ahead and get the bat head out and try to do some damage. If you swing and miss 2-0, you’re still 2-1 and you can go back to the up the middle approach. Bottom line: the things you do to increase your batting average often decrease your power and the things you do to increase your power often decrease your batting average. Are there guys who do both? Sure, but they generally wind up in Cooperstown.

So back to hitting home runs in Kauffman. If I remember my history correctly, the record for home runs by a Royals player is 36 set by Steve Balboni back when polyester was still cool. The greatest player to ever put on a Royals uniform, George Brett, hit 30 home runs in a season—once. So to get back to the question: should someone have seen this coming? Sure, and I think a lot of people did. I wrote about it when Kevin Seitzer got fired and I’m no genius. The common response at the time from the people whose opinion I respect was that trying to hit home runs in Kauffman as game plan was going to be tough sledding—and so it is.

Should someone be held accountable? I get the sense that most GMs are going to let their manager have the staff he’s comfortable with and since Ned has been here pitching coach Bob McClure, base-running and outfield coach Doug Sisson, bench coach John Gibbons and hitting coach Kevin Seitzer have lost their jobs. As I pointed out when Seitzer was fired, get rid of enough people and there’s nobody else to blame. This staff is pretty much the one Yost wanted and if it doesn’t work out, people are going to start looking at Ned. Having said all that, as always, I have no inside information about what’s going on in the Royals front office, but the next week should be interesting: one more game against St. Louis and three more against the Texas Rangers.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Another reader comment

What is this love thing Yost has for Franceour?? Lough has a career game the night before - from the leadoff position and he is rewarded by sitting the bench so Franceour can make his 4 outs.

Another response

Yes, David Lough had four hits on Monday and was not in the lineup on Tuesday; but Monday the pitcher was Adam Wainwright—a righty—and Tuesday the pitcher was Tyler Lyons—a lefty. Nobody told me this, but the obvious assumption is Ned Yost was trying to get all the right-handed bats he could—with exception of Gordon and Hosmer, who play against everybody—in the lineup.

The only thing I heard about Lyons before the game is that he had good breaking stuff and that’s particularly tough on left-handed hitters. Gordon walked once, but other than that, the only two left-handed bats in the lineup went 0-5. Both Gordon and Hosmer struck out looking on breaking pitches, an indication that they got locked up by a good curve or slider.

Coming in to the game Francoeur was hitting .273 against left-handed pitching. Jeff made two outs—not four—and was replaced by Lough as soon as the Cardinals brought in the right-handed Trevor Rosenthal.

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