Looking back at the Royals' season

09/30/2013 11:24 AM

09/30/2013 11:24 AM

The Kansas City Royals beat the Chicago White Sox 4-1 and finished the 2013 season 86 and 76—ten games over .500. Last season they were 72 and 90; a 14-win improvement. If you’re looking for progress, there it is.

TV guy Ryan Lefebvre said that there’s an unwritten rule that you go up swinging the bat on the last day of the season. Bags are packed, the plane is waiting and if you’re not playing for a shot at postseason, get the game over as quickly as possible. Ryan’s been around longer than I have and it seemed like he got it right: Bruce Chen got through six innings on 64 pitches. The score was 4-1 when Bruce went out to pitch the seventh inning.

He got two quick outs, but then lost command of the zone: Chen walked Dayan Viciedo and Gordon Beckham on eight pitches and that got Ned Yost out of the dugout. The tying run was at the plate and Ned wasn’t going to fool around—he called on Kelvin Herrera for the last out of the seventh.

Bruce did his job: he got the ball to the back end of the pen with a lead. Herrera got the third out in the seventh and Luke Hochevar pitched a scoreless eighth. Greg Holland came in to get the save in the ninth, and even though Greg made it interesting—bases loaded, one out—Holly struck out the next two hitters for his 47th save.

Royals win this one, 4-1.

Game notes

• Bruce got his ninth win, pitched six and two-thirds innings and gave up one earned run. If you want to know how Chen keeps pulling off this magic act, his second inning strike out of Jordan Danks is instructive: Chen started Danks with an 82-MPH cutter which was fouled off. Danks then saw a 74-MPH curve for ball one. Next, Bruce threw an 85-MPH for a called strike and, finally, Chen blew an 88-MPH fastball past Danks for a swinging strike three. Without the first three pitches—which may have slowed Danks bat down—the final pitch might get crushed. It’s not just speed that gets hitters out, it’s

separation

in speed.

• Salvador Perez started at first base and it might be more than a last-game-of-the-year stunt. Perez has good hands and occasionally playing first base could take some pressure off his knees (big catchers often struggle with bad knees) and prolong Salvador’s career. It also gives the team some options; if you show up early and watch batting practice, you sometimes see guys playing out of position. It’s not always just players goofing around; sometimes they’ve been asked to go play a different spot just so people can see how they do.

• First base is where you send the fattest guy on your church softball team, but in baseball, first base has a ton of responsibility. You generally handle the ball more than anyone but the pitcher and catcher. You’re in charge of dealing with your teammates bad throws. You’ve got to hold runners and handle pickoffs. You’ve got some odd double play angles, especially if you’re right handed. You’re the cutoff man on throws from two-thirds of the outfield. You have to hit the pitcher on the run when you’re fielding the ball and he’s covering first base.

And you have to catch pop ups.

I’d say Perez dropped a pop up off Marcus Semien’s bat, but Sal never got that close. His teammates were laughing so hard they covered their mouths. (When a ballplayer covers his mouth, it’s usually because he doesn’t want the cameras to catch him laughing or cussing.) After the game Perez jokingly blamed infield coach Eddie Rodriguez; they worked on groundballs, but not pop ups.

Having dropped a few pop ups of my own, I can tell you big-league infielders make catching high pop-ups look way easier than it really is. Infield pop ups tend to drift back toward the pitching mound as they come down so you better move with them while they do. To be fair, other infielders were also struggling with last-second adjustments on pop flies and the wind was making the flags snap in the breeze.

• The TV guys speculated that Perez had trouble seeing the ball and, after he missed the ball, Sal did pull off his sunglasses and wore them above the bill of his cap. I believe that’s a fine: MLB does not want the logos on ball caps covered up by sunglasses, which is why you see ballplayers put their sunglasses on the back of their heads.

• Alexei Ramirez homered on an 85-MPH fastball on the inside part of the plate and it illustrated why some pitchers don’t like coming in on hitters: bad things can happen. If the pitcher doesn’t get the ball all the way in—if he leaves it out over the plate—the batter can pull the ball into the short part of the park for a home run. Come too far in and you can hit a guy. There’s just not as much room for error when you pitch inside as there is when you pitch away; but you still have to pitch inside to keep hitters from diving out over the plate and whacking that pitch on the outer half.

• With nobody out and runners at first and third in the eighth inning, Johnny Giavotella broke for home on a groundball back to the mound. Giavotella was out at the plate, but it was still the right play; Billy Butler hit the ball and if Johnny stayed on third, the pitcher would turn, throw the ball to second and record an easy double play. Better one out than two.

• By the eighth inning shadows came into play and made it tough on hitters. Watch for this in playoff baseball; there will be a bunch of weird start times and at this time of year, shadows will fall between the mound and home plate. Teams might play for one run early, trying to grab a lead before the shadows make scoring runs tough.

• The TV guys were talking about the wild card, Tampa Bay and Texas, and it reminds you what’s cool about baseball: so often you get down to last day of an incredibly long season and teams are still playing for something. It’s what drives a player to run out every fly ball, hustle on every groundball, hit the cutoff man, make sure you don’t miss a sign—do everything right as often as possible: you don’t want to miss the playoffs because you failed to do something routine in April.

Bringing in Holland

Back when I first started managing a baseball team in a men’s senior league, I gave my buddy Clint Hurdle a call. Clint, current manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was my baseball guru and when I didn’t know what to do, I’d talk to him—and I really didn’t know what to do. I told Clint I didn’t know what I was doing: I was afraid to send a runner, what if he got thrown out? I was afraid to change the pitcher, what if the next guy sucked?

Clint listened to me whine for a while and then said: "Stop, stop, stop—you’re wearing me out." He then told me my thinking was all wrong; I wanted to be perfect—I wanted every move to work. But that’s not the job; managing is weighing the options and picking the one with the best chance of success. If one option would work 70 percent of the time and another worked 60; you go with the 70 percent option, even though you know 30 percent of the time it won’t work—that’s still better than going with an option that has a 40 percent failure rate. You can’t be perfect; you just take your best shot and live with the results.

And that brings us to May 6, 2013.

On that date the Royals had a 1-0 lead going into the top of the ninth inning. James Shields was on the mound; he’d struck out nine, gave up two hits and thrown 102 pitches—Shields had dominated the game. Despite all that, Ned Yost went to his closer, Greg Holland and Holly gave it up: the White Sox tied it up off Holland and won it in extra innings when Jordan Danks hit a home run off Kelvin Herrera. Sports-talk radio went ballistic; how could Ned Yost be so dumb as to pull Shields and give the ball to Greg Holland? Back then I said I would have stuck with Shields, but giving the ball to your closer in a one-run game wasn’t exactly a war crime. I also acknowledged that I might not know everything that went into Ned’s decision.

Back to the present:

I’ve heard people say that if the Royals missed the playoffs by a handful of games, weren’t there a handful of bad decisions by Ned Yost that might have made a difference? Would better managing put the Royals in the playoffs?

Sure—if all you look at are the failures. But how many Ned Yost decisions worked out?

Greg Holland finished the season with 47 saves in 50 opportunities. If Ned Yost deserves to be criticized for giving the ball to his closer when it didn’t work out, does he deserve credit for the 47 times it did? If critics say giving your closer the ball in the ninth inning is a no-brainer, why criticize Yost for doing it on May 6? Going with an option that worked out 47 times and failed three doesn’t seem crazy.

It’s not that Yost never made decisions that seemed questionable—sticking too long with Guthrie or pinch-hitting Carlos Pena immediately come to mind—but if a manager should be criticized for the decisions that backfire, doesn’t he get credit for the decisions that work?

A reader’s comment

(This comment showed up on this website early in the season when things seemed bleak. I’ve held onto it for months now and the time seems right for a response.)

Lee, have you ever seen a team be this inept for more than two decades? What are the baseball experts saying privately about this topic? Even a blind squirrel finds a nut on occasion – but this organization does not appear to even stumble into luck.

My response

Star beat writer Bob Dutton has a saying: "Your opinions are only as good as your information, and your information is only as good as your access." In other words, is there any reason to think you know what you’re talking about?

When it comes to the game between the white lines, my access is pretty good: when the team is at home, I get to talk to the players and coaches every day. I’m in my fourth year of doing this and the guys who have been around awhile usually understand what I’m trying to do and are fairly open and honest (I think) about what goes on during a game. Some of what they tell me I can write, some of what they tell me has to be kept private (if a guy stole a base because someone stole a sign, I’m not writing that), but that’s why I concentrate on the game between the lines: if I can talk to the players and coaches involved, I’ve got a better chance of being right. There are still a thousand things I don’t know, but if I’ve got any worthwhile information, it probably pertains to the game on the field.

My access to front-office information is nearly non-existent. Once in a while I have a private conversation with Dayton Moore, so it’s better than a lot of the people who never show up at the park and still pose as experts; but I’ve got just enough information to know just how much I don’t know. Over the years I’ve had friends with the Mets, Astros, Rockies, Indians, Blue Jays, Pirates and Angels (to name more than a few) and I’d hear some tidbit of information:

This team didn’t sign that player because he’s about to go through a nasty divorce and they figured he was going to be a mess for a while. That team went after another player because they checked up on him during the winter, he’d lost weight and there was a coach in the organization who thought he knew how to fix him. Some other team was willing to let a prospect go because he had an attitude problem.

I’d get just enough information to make me realize I did not have enough information to have a worthwhile opinion about which players should be signed, released, promoted or sent down. In other words, I’ll tell you what I hear from people in other organizations about the Royals, but my access is not great, so don’t take it too seriously:

Most people I talk to think the Royals are on the right track.

It’s easy to lump everybody together and I hear people do it all the time:

same old Royals.

But that ignores the fact that we’ve been through a bunch of different regimes, a bunch of different players and a bunch of different game plans. I’ve heard stories about how awful the organization was in the past, but I don’t hear those stories any more. The minor league system is now considered one of the best in baseball. Over the winter, the team addressed it’s most glaring problem: starting pitching. In 2010, when I started covering the Royals, they had the worst defense in the American League. Coming into 2013, they had possible Gold Glove candidates all over the field.

This reader’s comment—made in early in the season when the team was scuffling—shows why you don’t jump to conclusions: it’s a long season and things can change. But success begets expectations and there will be fans who won’t be satisfied with a winning record in 2014. Come close in 2013 and anything less than a playoff spot in 2014 might be seen as a failure. I’m not sure I agree with that; I have to watch 162 games either way and I’m pretty happy watching a team that wins more than it loses and plays interesting, entertaining baseball — the Royals accomplished that in 2013.

The end

It’s over: 162 games and I’m worn out — and all I did was sit on my rear and watch. I plan on getting a decent night’s sleep for the next two weeks and if we decide to do something extra, we’ll make sure we let people know by posting something on the Star’s web site. As always, I owe a thank you to the players, coaches and front office people who took the time to talk to me. I also want to thank the Star’s editor, Mike Fannin, beat writer Bob Dutton and my editor, Nicole Poell.

And, finally, I want to say thanks to you — the readers — who show up each day and make doing this job worthwhile.

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