Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

How the fourth inning blew up on Royals' Jeremy Guthrie

08/22/2013 6:47 PM

08/22/2013 6:47 PM

Jeremy Guthrie pitched five scoreless innings: the first, the second, the third, the fifth and the sixth—but the fourth inning blew up on him. Ned Yost said Guthrie pitched well otherwise, but threw a series of hittable pitches in the fourth inning.

Alexei Ramirez started the inning by hitting a double. Then slugger Adam Dunn stepped to the plate. Back when Wade Davis talked about pitching to the White Sox, he told me you can’t pitch Adam Dunn away—Dunn hits that ball right back up the middle. Wade was prophetic: Guthrie threw Dunn a changeup on the outer half of the plate and Dunn sent it right back into centerfield; that scored the first run. Then Paul Konerko singled, Avisail Garcia popped up and Conor Gillapsie hit another single. With Dunn leading the way, the Sox were advancing 90 feet at a time—until Dayan Viciedo hit a hanging slider about as thoroughly as you can hit one.

Viciedo was hitting .077 off Guthrie coming into the game, but that didn’t stop him from hitting that particular slider 409 feet. The Sox were up 5-0 and had all the runs they needed to beat the Royals.

Whether it’s the crowd, the team or the fact that the team isn’t scoring runs, the Royals have seemed lifeless the last two nights and everybody who’s out here on a regular basis has noticed. Maybe it‘s just a bad streak and they’ll pick it up again, but they’re playing a team that’s 24 games under .500—the Royals are running out of time and can’t afford to be going through the motions—if that’s what they’re doing—against the White Sox.

Chicago 5, Royals 2.

Andre Rienzo’s advantage

Once again the Royals struggled against a pitcher they haven’t seen before; Andre Rienzo. Hitters will tell you that watching video and reading scouting reports helps, but until you see the guy live, you don’t know what he has for sure. Long at-bats by teammates can also help; but seeing the pitch from the side isn’t as informative as seeing it while standing in the batter’s box.

The Royals hitters were trying to adjust as fast as they could, but it wasn’t fast enough: Rienzo threw six innings, gave up two runs and won his first big league game.

Game notes

*Rienzo, had a total of four starts coming into this game. The Royals had to look for minor league video to get an idea of what he had going for him and first base coach Rusty Kuntz said they were still working on the keys to his pickoff move.

I asked Rusty if the Royals could have a base runner take a one-way lead—that means the runner knows he’s going back to first base—and draw some pickoff throws from Rienzo so everyone could see his move. Rusty said that used to be the way you’d do it, but these days pitchers don’t throw over to first base unless they’re told to. If you’re watching the game on TV and see the catcher make a motion like he’s flipping a coin, that’s the sign for the pitcher to go over to first base.

*In the first inning Alexei Ramirez got a 3-0 green light with a runner on second base. In a situation where he should have been very selective, Ramirez chased a bad pitch; a 94 MPH fastball up in the zone. He hit an easy ground ball to short. That’s a good way to lose the privilege of getting a 3-0 green light. Hitters are supposed to pick a spot in the zone, look for the pitch to be there and swing if it is.

*In the second inning Salvador Perez hit a ball in the gap and came out of the box like he thought he hit it out of the park—he didn’t. Even though Perez probably would have stopped at second base anyway—there was nobody down and Sal’s not a triples kind of guy—you want to see a hitter come out of the box hard. That way he can shut it down if two bases are all he’s going to get, but by going hard the runner is in a position to take advantage of any mistake. Come out of the box loafing and there’s no way to make up lost ground if the ball gets away from somebody.

*Sal’s double drove Dayan Viciedo to the warning track and Viciedo did not appear not appear eager to hit the fence in right center. Some guys get near a wall and suddenly develop alligator arms—they reach for the ball in a very tentative manner. When you see Alex Gordon knock himself senseless running into a fence, you get why he’s got a couple Gold Gloves and a good reputation.

*After the Perez double Mike Moustakas did not move Sal over by hitting the ball to the right side, he struck out instead. Turns out it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, but still you want to see the players doing things right

all the time—you never know when it will

make a difference.

*With Alejandro De Aza at the plate another pitch got away from Salvador Perez and went through the same hole in the same sign behind home plate. That’s two nights in a row a ball has shot through one of those low signs at the backstop. I heard they tried to repair it with electrical tape, but that clearly didn’t work. What ought to be more upsetting to Royals fans is the fact that Salvador Perez tried to glove the pitch—a slider—instead of blocking it. Getting down on your knees in front of a baseball takes more energy than just reaching over with your mitt, bit it’s a hell of a lot more effective.

*In the third inning with Jarrod Dyson on first base, Chris Getz was looking for a pitch to pull through the hole being created by holding Dyson on. Getz got a pitch to pull, hit it hard, but right at Paul Konerko who turned a 3-6-3 double play. When a runner’s on first base, guys who can handle the bat sometimes try to take advantage of the hole on the right side and pitchers tried to avoid throwing a pitch that will allow the hitter to do that.

*Right before the bottom of the fifth inning the White Sox catcher, Josh Phegley, caught the last warm-up pitch and then threw the ball down to second base. Phegley’s throw bounced and second baseman Gordon Beckham caught the short hop and sent the ball around the infield. The ball was returned to pitcher Andre Rienzo and he took a look at it and put it back in his glove.

Smart pitchers will keep a bounced ball if they like the scuff the bounce created. Too big a scuff and the pitcher might not be able to control the ball. I don’t know who called for a new baseball, but if an umpire sees the ball bounce they’ll make the pitcher switch it out. And that’s what happened to Rienzo.

Throws get bounced all the time and it’s up to the umpire to take the ball out of play. Veteran pitchers will keep the bounced throw and it’s scuff, rookies and guys who aren’t as sharp want a nice, clean baseball.

*In the fifth inning Billy Butler came to the plate with a chance to make things interesting in a hurry. There were two runners on and if Billy hit a bomb, it would be a one-run game. Rienzo stayed on the outer part of the plate—away from Billy’s power—and the Royals designated hitter eventually rolled over a curve and hit a groundball to short to end the inning. (More on that below.)

*In the sixth inning Alcides Escobar picked up a semi-routine grounder from Avisail Garcia and eased the ball over to first base with a nonchalant throw. Garcia beat it out. That made the inning much more complicated than necessary and Salvador Perez eventually had to block a pitch in the dirt with a Garcia on third to keep a sixth run from scoring.

*In the bottom of the sixth Alex Gordon’s hustle on a wild pitch turned into a run when David Lough singled Gordon in from second base. (I figured if I was going to talk about a team playing lifeless baseball I should mention it when a guy busts his butt.)

Double-play speed

Tuesday night Eric Hosmer was on first base when Billy Butler hit into a double play. When a double play develops slowly, the middle infielder handling the pivot is in trouble. If the guy on first base is fast and has bad intentions, he’ll try to take out the pivot man with a hard slide.

But if the double play develops quickly, the runner is the one in trouble. The middle infielder will throw the ball at the runner’s head and force the runner to get down early—which explains why Eric Hosmer left skid marks about 15 feet short of second base. Alexei Ramirez got the ball to Gordon Beckham in a hurry and Beckham dropped his arm angle and threw low; that forced Hosmer to get down well before the bag or risk taking a ball in the head.

Next time you see a double play ball, pay attention to how quickly the play develops—it’ll tell you which player has a problem. (And I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth repeating.)

Hitting fewer double play balls

Billy Butler was taking early batting practice Wednesday and the goal was to hit fewer double play balls. When Billy’s swing has too much top hand, the bat head gets out early, comes around the outside of the ball and produces a top-spin grounder. If Billy can dive the knob of the bat forward—using more bottom hand—and let the ball travel deeper, he’ll get more backspin line drives.

There areso many things that can go wrong in a baseball swing it’s kind of amazing when everything goes right—but the guys who come out early and work on it have a better chance. When Billy hits the ball, if he’s driving it into the ground, you know he probably had too much top hand. If he hits a pop fly, that can be too much bottom hand and if Billy hits a line drive, he hit it just right.

(Wednesday night every ball Billy put in play hit was hit on the ground.)

Sunday’s play explained

Last Sunday the Royals were playing the Detroit Tigers and there was a play in the bottom of the sixth inning that left me with some questions. There was one down, Brayan Pena was on second base and Ramon Santiago hit a ball between second and first. Louis Coleman was on the mound and did what pitchers are supposed to do when a ball is hit to their left; he broke to cover first base.

Chris Getz dove for the ball, couldn’t get there and Eric Hosmer moved to his right and also saw he had no play—the ball went into right field for a single and Brayan Pena headed for home. After determining he had no play on the ball, Hosmer moved into the cutoff position for the throw from right field to the plate. Seeing he wasn’t needed to cover first, Coleman slowed down and eventually stopped over by first base. The throw came in from right fielder David Lough, skipped and got past catcher Salvador Perez. Santiago—who had stopped at first—then took off for second base because there was no one backing up the catcher when the ball got away. So who should have been backing up the plate?

Nobody.

On a play like that, even if the pitcher realizes he won’t be needed at first base and decides to back up home plate (and that’s who normally backs up home on plays at the plate) the pitcher will never get there in time. The catcher has to recognize that.

Knowing he had no one behind him, Salvador Perez needed to block the bouncing throw from Lough. Sal tried to glove the ball and make a swipe tag, but there was no chance he was going to get Pena. The decision cost the Royals 90 feet and put another runner into scoring position. It didn’t hurt them in Sunday’s game—Santiago never scored—but it’s the kind of decision that might kill the Royals in another game. That’s what veterans mean when they talk about a young team making poor decisions. (And if there was no chance of getting the runner at the plate Lough needed to get the ball into second base.)

It’s not possible to play the game perfectly, it’s too damn hard—but it

is

possible to learn from your mistakes. It was an odd play that might not come up again for a while, but if it does come up again, you should see the Royals handle it in a different manner.

The Lough-down

In that same game last Sunday right fielder David Lough had a couple balls go over his head and land on the warning track behind him. Wednesday afternoon I asked outfield coach Rusty Kuntz about those plays and here’s what he had to say:

Bruce Chen was on the mound and Bruce likes to run his cutter—a pitch halfway between a fastball and a slider—in on right-handed hitters. When the pitch gets there, righties have a hard time doing much with it and if they hit it to the opposite field, it’ll usually be a jam-shot flare. That being the case, the Royals tend to play their right fielder in. If Chen executes the pitch, they want those jam-shot flares caught in short right field.

The balls that went over Lough’s head were cutters that didn’t get in on the hitters hands. Those pitches were left out over the plate and as a result, the hitters got the bat head to the balls and they were driven over Lough’s head. Considering where he was positioned, Rusty thought Lough had little chance of getting to those balls.

And that’s the Lough-down.

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