The Kansas City Royals lead the American League in stolen bases with 102. The Detroit Tigers are so concerned about the Royals thieving ways that they’ve put a strip of sand in front of first base; maybe if they can’t get any traction, the Royals will stop running.
Detroit also knows that the Royals are well aware of catcher Brayan Pena’s throwing issues: Brayan tends to get his hand on the side of the ball instead of the top and that means the ball has movement to the right field side of second base. So put those two factors together and Detroit’s pitchers feel a lot of pressure to stop the running game. Pitchers have different tactics for doing that and two of them backfired on the Detroit Tigers; the slide step and the pickoff.
Here’s what happened:
Second game of Friday’s double header, third inning, Jamey Carroll on first base and Eric Hosmer at the plate with a 1-1 count. Detroit starting pitcher Jose Alvarez was worried that Carroll might run, so he attempted two pickoff throws. When he finally delivered the ball to home plate Alvarez used a slide step instead of lifting his front foot as high as he normally would. Barely lifting the front foot gets the ball to the catcher more quickly, but it can also make the ball stay up in the zone—the pitchers foot gets down faster than normal and the arm has a hard time catching up.
Alvarez’ arm may not have caught up to his front foot, but Eric Hosmer had no problem catching up to the off-speed pitch Alvarez delivered. The pitch was up in the zone and then up in the right field stands; Hosmer crushed a two-run home run.
The Royals third run came when reliever Jeremy Bonderman—concerned that Chris Getz would try to stea—attempted a pick-off throw. Bonderman threw the ball away and Getz was able to go first to third before the Tigers got the ball back to the infield. Jamey Carroll then hit a sacrifice fly to left field, allowing Getz to tag and score. The Royals scored three runs and all three were connected to the Tigers’ attempts to stop the stolen base.
Kansas City 3, Detroit 0.
• Detroit is at the bottom of the league in stolen bases, so they’re not as concerned with what doctoring the base path does to their own runners.
• On Friday, Kansas City pitching held Detroit hitting to one run in 18 innings. All season long people have been concerned about the Royals offense and they should be, but if you can pitch and play defense like that, you keep the scores low and always have a chance.
• The Royals had never faced Jose Alvarez before and hitters will tell you video and scouting reports help, but until you see a guy live, you’re not really sure what he’s got. That’s why Billy Butler’s first inning at-bat was a big deal.
At that point Alvarez had thrown three fastballs, getting Jamey Carroll to fly out and giving up a single to Eric Hosmer. Billy saw 10 pitches and forced Alvarez to empty out the closet; by the time Butler grounded out to short, Alvarez had thrown his fastball, changeup, slider and curve. Everybody got to see what he had. At-bats like Billy’s help the hitters that follow.
• When the starting pitcher leaves the game the score makes a huge difference. If his team is behind, a manager is unlikely to use his best relievers unless they just need work. Most managers will save those relievers for a game in which they have a lead.
Because Detroit was losing when his starters left Friday’s games, Jim Leyland went to some relievers with inflated ERAs; Phil Coke and Al Alburquerque. Knowing he had four games to play this weekend Leyland would want to preserve relievers. The same thing may not be true today and tomorrow; unless they get some help Leyland may use some of his better relievers no matter what the score is just because he needs innings.
• Greg Holland picked up two saves in one day and if he gets used again on Saturday night, may not be available on Sunday.
• Torii Hunter has been around the block once or twice and made two heads-up, veteran plays during Friday’s double header: he did not attempt to grab a ball that got "caught" under the pads in right field during game one and held Emilio Bonifacio to a double by doing so. In the second game Hunter did not attempt to pick up Jeremy Bonderman’s errant pickoff throw that went down the right field line—a fan touched it (maybe). There wasn’t much chance Chris Getz was going to score, but Hunter’s play made sure he didn’t.
In both cases Hunter held up his hands signaling the umpires that the ball was not in play. You hate it when a guy is smart enough to do thatto you, but love it when he’s on your team and is smart enough to do that for
• Getz tagged and scored on Jamey Carroll’s sac fly to left in the seventh. Getz was helped by the fact that left fielder Andy Dirks is left-handed. Throws from lefties move to their arm side and Dirk’s throw pulled catcher Brayan Pena away from the plate, into fair territory.
• Another play worth mentioning is a throw that wasn’t made: with a runner on third base and one down, Prince Fielder hit a fly ball to left-center. Alex Gordon stepped in front of Emilio Bonifacio and made the catch and the runner on third didn’t tag. Even though the centerfielder can take any ball he calls for, there are times it’s smart to let a corner outfielder make the catch—especially if it’s Alex Gordon and other teams fear his throwing arm.
• According to what I heard on TV, coming into Friday’s game James Shields had given up 22 first-inning runs in 25 starts this season. And he would have given up another first-inning run on Friday except for Salvador Perez: Sal threw out Austin Jackson—trying to steal second base—just before Miguel Cabrera doubled. Shields did go on to pitch a terrific game: seven shutout innings. Although you hate to see a pitcher walk the leadoff hitter right after he’s been given a lead. After Hosmer’s two-run bomb, Shields came out and walked Jackson in the bottom of the third.
• Never been there myself, but according to the TV guys, Detroit’s Comerica Park faces south not north. That changes which field is the sun field—it’s usually right—and that might come into play before the series is over.
• The Royals won both ends of a double header, but when you’re in contention the big games just keep coming at you—nice, isn’t it? What happens Saturday night and Sunday afternoon matters and it hasn’t been like that around Kansas City in a good long while.
Enjoy the ride.
Control versus command
Last Monday night Luke Hochevar pitched a scoreless inning; Tuesday afternoon I asked him what was working for him the night before. Luke said it was the best fastball command he’d had in the last five games.
Here’s what that means:
Control is the ability to throw strikes; command is the ability to hit spots within the strike zone. Luke pitches to quadrants: up and in, up and away, down and in and down and away. The ability to hit those spot and stay out of the middle of the strike zone is crucial. I asked if command was the most important characteristic a pitch could have (the others are velocity and movement) and Hoch said yes, without a doubt. No matter how hard you throw, put a pitch in the middle of the zone and it’s got a fair chance of getting whacked. Just look at Bruce Chen; he can throw 84 miles an hour and still carve up a hitter. Bruce has command.
"You’ve got to make hitters uncomfortable." Luke said most people interpret that as coming up and in, backing a guy off the plate. But you better know the guy; some hitters are intimidated and that opens the outside corner. Other guys just get mad: you "wake them up."
Hochevar said there’s more than one way to make a hitter uncomfortable and two fastballs at the knees away will also do the trick; the hitters know they can’t do much with those pitches and now have to cover anything else you choose to throw up there.
But you better have command; in the big leagues, control is not enough.