The Kansas City Royals: a team on the edge
07/27/2013 10:37 AM
07/27/2013 10:37 AM
By the time the trading deadline arrives, teams have to decide if they’re buyers or sellers. Buyers believe they have a shot at the post-season and will spend money and acquire players to improve their chances. Sellers have decided their post-season prospects aren’t good and start making moves to improve themselves for the future.
So are the Royals a buyer or seller?
They’re a hard team to read. They’re currently two games under .500 and seven games out of first; buyer or seller? They just finished a 20-game stretch against teams with a winning record and went 10-10 against outstanding competition; buyer or seller? The Royals just started another 20-game stretch against teams with losing records (with the exception of Boston) and just won the first game of that stretch, 5-1 against the White Sox; buyer or seller?
Rest assured that whatever they decide to do, Dayton Moore and the Royals will be criticized for doing it. There’s an old joke about an overbearing mother (let’s leave ethnic stereotypes out of it) who buys her son two ties for Christmas. He goes upstairs, puts one of them on, walks back downstairs, she looks at him and says: "So you don’t like the other one?"
If you defend Dayton Moore by saying things have improved since his arrival and the Royals are on the right track, some people will say they don’t want to hear about the future; the Royals need to win now. Fair enough—Dayton’s been here a while. But let him make a "win now" move by trading prospects for pitching and some people (and in many cases, the same people) will say; but what about the future?
Whatever the Royals and Dayton Moore decide to do—buy or sell—someone will be happy to criticize them for doing it. It’s a hard situation to read; are the Royals out of it or do they still have a chance?
Whatever Dayton and the Royals decide, they need to figure it out by 3 PM Wednesday.
• James Shields threw seven innings, gave up no runs and dropped his ERA to 3.09. He also managed to avoid the first-inning problems that have been part of his pitching pattern. In the first inning Shields got the White Sox to go down 1-2-3 on 12 pitches.
• Alcides Escobar went 0-4, but it’s how he did it that’s bothersome. If Esky hits four hard grounders and takes an 0-fer, that’s OK; he’s got to keep the ball out of the air to be successful. But Friday night he hit two fly balls and had a punch-out—that’s not what the Royals are hoping to see out of him.
• In the seventh inning the Royals did a classic job of manufacturing a run: Salvador Perez doubled, Lorenzo Cain hit a ground ball to the right side, moving Sal to third, Mike Moustakas walked and Miguel Tejada hit a sacrifice fly, scoring Perez. That made the score 2-0 and gave the Royals an insurance run.
An insurance run, late in a game, ishuge.
It means the defense doesn’t have to play "no-doubles" and pitchers can be aggressive about throwing strikes—give up a bomb and you still have a one-run lead. Kelvin Herrera proved that almost immediately, giving up a home run to Conor Gillaspie. But that insurance run, manufactured in the seventh, meant the Royals still had a lead going into the ninth.
• The big league managers and players I’ve talked to believe that the ability to manufacture a run is important if a team is going to play deep into the playoffs. Walks and home runs are great ways to score runs, but sooner or later you’ll run into a pitcher that’s dealing and you’ll have to find a way to scratch out a run here and there. And you can’t wait until October to manufacture runs; it has to be part of your game so understand how to do it when you have to.
• Let’s go back to the seventh inning for a minute. A very smart ballplayer told me a very cool thing: you can tell if a hitter was trying to move the runner over from second to third by watching the hitter’s hips. After Lorenzo Cain moved Salvador Perez to third base by hitting a ball to the right side, I went back and watched Cain’s swing again: if a right-handed hitter’s hips fly open, the hitter is trying to pull the ball. If the hips stay closed, the hitter is trying to hit the ball to the right side.
Cain’s hips stayed closed, so it’s no accident he hit the ball that direction. Another clue that he was trying to do the right thing is the pitch he hit—a changeup. Quintana wanted the right-handed Cain to pull the ball and freeze Perez at second base. Cain didn’t fall for it and got the job done by hitting the ball the other way.
• Using the hip-test it seems unlikely Salvador Perez was trying to move the runner over in the ninth. Slow that swing down and Sal’s hips are turned back to the pitcher. So is that a bad approach that happened to work? (Sal pulled the ball, but hit it through the left side for a single.)
Maybe, maybe not.
Sometimes teams want the hitter to move the runner over and sometimes teams want the hitter to drive the runner in (they have signs to let the hitter know which job he should be doing). Sal was in a 3-1 count and maybe the Royals wanted him to do damage if he got a pitch he liked. Either way it worked.
• Eric Hosmer had a tough night at the plate, striking out three times against Jose Quintana. Fans might not want to read too much into it: Hosmer was 2-15 (.133) against Quintana before Friday night, so you might dismiss it as a tough match-up for Hos. When you’re an everyday player you sometimes find yourself in a tough matchup, do the best you can and go get ‘em the next day.
Hosmer got at least one fastball strike in each of his at-bats, but either took it or fouled them off and eventually struck out on a curve. Big league players will tell you the key to hitting isn’t the ability to hit a pitcher’s best stuff, it’s not missing the ball when the pitcher makes a mistake. So even though we tend to concentrate on those curves that Hosmer missed, the key pitches might have been the fastballs he didn’t hit earlier in the at-bats.
A reader’s question
You've been writing for a while now about how the Royals continue to get off-speed pitches in fastball counts with runners on, and have trouble adjusting. Do you know why? Aren't the coaches telling them what they should be doing? Are the players ignoring the advice, or are they simply not good enough to adjust?
This isn’t the first or last time I’ve written about this, but here it is again: most fans would be surprised at how much autonomy big league ballplayers have. This isn’t high school or college ball, these are professional ballplayers and in many cases, they have more job security than the coaches and even the manager.
A lot of coaches work on one-year contracts. Do a good job and they get another one-year deal. Contrast that with a player with a multi-year deal worth millions. If a coach on a one-year contract gets in a dispute with a player, who’s going to win? If a certain coach doesn’t get along with a star player; which one won’t be around next year?
A coach can tell a player what to work on, but in many cases, after that, it’s up to the player. Eventually, there will be consequences. If a hitter has been encouraged to keep the ball out of the air both in BP and games, but he keeps hitting warning-track fly balls and coming back in the dugout saying that ball would have been a home run back in his Triple A park; he may eventually find himself back there. Players are encouraged to do the right thing, but it doesn’t always happen. People forget how young these guys are and young guys sometimes make bad decisions.
If a players says, "But I’ve always done it this way and it’s always worked for me" coaches sometimes step aside and say, OK, let’s see it. Sometimes players have to crash and burn before they’re convinced they need to change. The guys that make it to the major league level are very good and most of them can make the necessary adjustments—convincing them they need to can be another thing entirely.
It’s not just this team or this generation: I’ve been hearing stories of young guys not listening to their coaches for a couple of decades now. Sooner or later the young guys start to listen or they’re just not around that long. They smarten up and then it’s their turn to try to talk sense to some rookie just up from Triple A who thinks he’s got it all figured out. That’s why a veteran presence in a clubhouse is a big deal: if a young guy isn’t listening to the coaches, maybe he’ll listen to a guy with 10 years in the big leagues.
Ask around—and I have—and established big league players and coaches say it takes a few years to learn what being a big leaguer is all about and how hard you have to work to stay. What we sometimes see are young players making mistakes and learning along the way.
(And to be fair, it’s not like the Royalsnever succeed with a runner in scoring position and it’s not like the Royals are the only team that has this problem: Kansas City pitchers pull the same trick—going soft in fastball counts—on opposition hitters all the time. To me it’s more a case of veteran, big-league pitchers having a more sophisticated approach than the pitchers in the minors. Young hitters have to learn that and adjust.)