The Royals want Alcides Escobar to keep the ball out of the air, but I don’t think anyone’s complaining after Wednesday night. Let me explain: Esky has had a drop-off in batting average this season and one of the solutions is to have Esky keep his bat flat and hit more line drives and hard grounders. (There’s more on the effort to modify Escobar’s swing further down in this post.)
With score tied 3-3 in the bottom of the ninth and David Lough on first base, Esky hit a ball in the air, but he hit it a long way. Lough’s job was to advance as far as he could and in cases like this a runner can get all the way around second base. Obviously a base runner in this position wants to score if the ball isn’t caught and retreat to first if the catch is made, but the key to the play is this: the further the play is from first base, the further the runner can advance. If the ball had been caught at the left field wall, there’s no way Lough should get doubled off first—the throw’s just too long. So Lough advanced as far as he could.
And then the ball wasn’t caught.
It bounced off the top of the padding and the race was on: could Lough reach home plate before the Orioles got the ball to catcher Matt Wieters? You probably already know the answer: Royals win this one, 4-3.
Is Eric Hosmer back?
Well if he’s not, he’s currently doing a pretty good imitation of the guy who had everyone so excited his rookie year. Hosmer is now batting .287 and hit over 800 feet worth of home runs in this one. He pulled both to right and did it on fastballs.
• Manny Machado came into Wednesday night’s game hitting .305 with eight home runs and 48 RBIs, but after Nate McLouth led off the game with a double, Machado laid down a sac bunt to move him over to third. You can’t assume Baltimore manager Buck Showalter called for it; sometimes hitters are given the option of moving the runner anyway they can, so the choice might have been Manny’s. But you will see teams play for one run early when they think runs will be scarce. Wei-Yin Chen came into the game with a 2.67 ERA and Ervin Santana weighed in at 3.18.
• When the game was over Santana’s ERA was down to 3.06. He pitched eight innings and gave up one earned run.
• With McLouth on third and Adam Jones at the plate, Santana threw a slider in the dirt and Salvador Perez blocked it. The ball dropped straight down and stopped right in front of Perez. You can tell how skilled a catcher is at blocking pitches by how far away the ball rolls once the catcher blocks it. The guys who are really good have the ball at their feet, the guys who aren’t as good have the ball bounce away from them. If the ball bounces beyond home plate, the runner has a good chance to advance.
• Pitches in the dirt should
be breaking pitches; if a big-league pitcher is spiking fastballs, he might not be a big-league pitcher for long.
• In the second inning Chris Getz made an error on what appeared to be a sure double-play ball. Catcher Matt Wieters was running and, after the game, Chris said he knew he had plenty of time and that led to him being too passive.
Gold Glover Keith Hernandez once said that anytime he wasn’t moving forward on a groundball, he thought he was in trouble—Chris agreed with that all the way. Getz stopped moving his feet and when that happens, "all you have left is your hands." You’re reaching not moving. The Royals got out of the inning with no run scoring, but Getz cost Ervin Santana five extra pitches.
• Eric Hosmer had an error in the fourth inning (Ned Yost thought it should have been scored a hit) when he tried to backhand a short hop from Adam Jones. Later, in the clubhouse, it was described as a "do-or-die" play. When handling short hops, players will try to go to their backhand—that turns the palm down toward the ground and gives the ball a better chance of sticking in the glove. Field the ball palm up and the short hop has better chance of hitting the palm and coming up out of the glove.
• You don’t want to seeany
errors, but if a guy isn’t going to bring a lot to the table offensively, it’s more important for him to play clean defense. If a guy is going to hit .300 or knock 30 balls over the fence or drive in 100 runs, teams will live with some suspect glove work. Chris Getz doesn’t have that leeway: his game is based on doing the small things right and playing clean defense. If you’re not going to make up for a mistake by hitting a three-run bomb later in the game, you can’t afford to make mistakes.
• David Lough has played in 52 games and his batting average stands at .294. David had a very good spring training and back then he told me he didn’t think it was a fluke—he thought he could keep it up. Maybe he was right. He’s had 187 at-bats, enough for pitchers to make adjustments, and he’s still hitting.
• There were a couple of times the Royals were in a possible stolen base situation, but it was unlikely they’d make an attempt. Before the game I was told Wei-Yin Chen took 1.1 to 1.2 seconds to deliver the ball to home plate (1.4 is average) and catcher Matt Wieters is a 1.8 to second base (2.0 is average). Plus Chen is left-handed.
• Right now the new infield is playing slow. Alcides Escobar got to a ball up the middle Tuesday night and another in this game that he might not have caught before the switchover in grass. The Royals can adjust the speed of the infield by how closely they mow the grass. If a team with older infielders comes to town, making it play faster would be to their advantage; groundballs that the Royals infielders could get to might scoot past guys with less range.
Elliot in the outfield
Elliot Johnson walked by on his way to the indoor batting cage and I said, "Really? Right field? What brought that on?" Turns out Alex Gordon needed a day off, the Orioles starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen is left-handed and Elliot had a couple hits off him; those three things came together and Elliot found himself in right to start Wednesday night’s game.
It’s not the first time he’s done this. He told me the second game of his big league career had him starting in right. Elliot got used in the outfield earlier this season by the Royals and afterwards he told he wasn’t worried: infield is much harder. I asked if he was out there thinking: "Don’t-hit-it-to-me-don’t-hit-it-to-me-don’t-hit-it-to-me" (at least that’s the wayI played outfield) and Elliot said no. He wants
the ball hit to him so he can show Ned Yost he’s fine out there and this is a legitimate way for him to be used.
Games within the game
When Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team, he went home and practiced. After that, Jordan had a pretty OK career. When Cal Ripken, Jr. got beat in a game of Strat-O-Matic baseball by Orioles team announcer Jon Miller, he went and found Cal Ripken, Sr. to ask where he’d gone wrong. Cal’s dad gave him some advice and after that, Cal won a string of Strat-O-Matic games off Miller.
It should come as no surprise that professional athletes are some of the most competitive people in the world. That’s one of the reasons they became professional athletes: they don’t like to lose and will work hard to keep it from happening—and smart coaches can use that.
Smart coaches often use side bets to motivate athletes. Apparently, George Brett has a bet with Alcides Escobar: for every line drive Esky hits in batting practice, George owes Esky a dollar. Every time Esky hits a fly ball in BP, he owes George a dollar. Last I heard, George was down $11.
When Clint Hurdle was hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies, there was a 25 cent fine if a batter hit a home run and did not hit the next ball to the opposite field. Clint did not want the Rockies hitting homer after homer in BP; he wanted them to be aware that after they hit a bomb, there was a good chance the pitcher would then stay on the outer half of the plate in their next at-bat. Clint’s fine got them to practice that situation.
Hurdle also had a side bet with Neifi Perez: for every out Neifi made in the air, he owed Clint 25 cents. For every out Neifi made on the ground, Clint owedhim
a quarter. When Clint told me about this I expressed surprise: with all the money big league ballplayers make, Neifi cares about a quarter?
Clint said it wasn’t the money, it was the bet: Neifi didn’t like to lose. Five minutes after a game was over Perez would be in Hurdle’s face, demanding his 50 cents. Clint used a player’s competitive nature to modify his behavior. You might wonder—I did—why an athlete needs a side bet to get him to do the right thing. After all, an athlete’s career is riding on his performance. Isn’t getting cut or being sent down to the minors motivation enough?
Well, I know I shouldn’t eat a soft cookie around the fifth inning every day, and yet they seem to magically appear in my hand. Isn’t my long-term health enough motivation? Apparently not. But I’m pretty sure if I had a buddy who bet me a dollar that I wouldn’t eat a cookie and then got in my face about it every time I did, I’d be more motivated. All I can figure is the more serious consequences—being overweight or getting cut from the team—are long-term and seem far off. In my mind I’ve got plenty of time to modify my diet and lose weight, butright now
that oatmeal-raisin disk of deliciousness is talking to me. If I had someone who got in my face and demanded a dollar after the first bite, those consequences are immediate.
Bottom line: it’s clear that these short-term, immediate consequence side bets can be effective at modifying behavior—and I need someone to bet me I won’t eat a cookie.