You can position your defense perfectly and make a good pitch, but if the hitter does something out of the ordinary, he can still beat you.
Friday night Brian McCann did something out of the ordinary.
Let’s go back to mid-March and spring training; I was talking with outfield coach Rusty Kuntz about defensive positioning and how it works hand-in-glove with pitching. The outfielders are positioned according to what the pitcher is going to throw the hitter: say the pitcher is going to feed the hitter a steady diet of off-speed pitches, the defense would play that hitter to pull the ball.
When the Yankees Brian McCann came to the plate in the second inning, the Royals put on a left-handed shift. So even though the box score says 5-3 and Mike Moustakas made the play; Moose was on the right field side of second base at the time he made it — McCann’s a pull hitter and he pulled the ball into the shift.
When McCann came to the plate in the third inning, the bases were loaded so the infield was aligned in a more traditional setup, but the outfield was still playing McCann to pull.
One of the ways a pitcher robs a pull hitter of power is to pitch him away. The hitter can still reach out and hook the ball, but since it’s on the outer half of the plate, the hitter has to lean out to do it and that takes away his base — he’s no longer over his feet. It’s like throwing a punch at someone, but having to reach around a lamp post to do it; you can still make contact, but there’s not much behind it.
Starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie had one out and McCann was in a 1-2 count; he couldn’t afford to take a pitch he didn’t like. Guthrie threw a sinking fastball away from McCann and that’s when McCann did something unusual: instead of pulling the ball, he hit it to the opposite field.
Because the outfield was playing McCann to pull, left fielder Alex Gordon was over toward center. That meant Gordon had a long run to retrieve the ball and that allowed three runs to score while Alex was playing fetch.
After the game Ned Yost said that was the first time McCann had hit a ball down the left field line all year; McCann did something out of the ordinary and burned the Royals defense. McCann’s triple was enough; the Yankees beat the Royals 4-2.
How the Yankees scored their first run
We’ve already talked about lateral positioning in the outfield — Gordon being over toward center helped the Yankees clear the bases on McCann’s triple — now let’s talk about how deep an outfielder plays. Outfield depth depends on a number of factors and one of those factors is the guy on the mound. Let’s take Jeremy Guthrie for example:
Guthrie is a fly ball pitcher so when he’s on the mound, the Royals will have their outfielders play deep.
At the other end of the spectrum is Wade Davis. The Royals set-up man throws a heavy sinker and he’s hard to square up; even harder to drive, so when Wade’s on the mound the Royals outfielders will position themselves closer to the infield.
In the second inning of Friday night’s game it was Guthrie on the mound and he had Brian Roberts at the plate and Mark Teixeira second base. Roberts singled up the middle and, because Lorenzo Cain was playing deep, I figured the third-base coach would wave Teixeira home — and he did. Cain had no shot at home plate, so he threw the ball to third in an attempt to nail Yangervis Solarte, but Cain didn’t get him.
Keep everything the same: the hitter, the runner on second and the single up the middle, but put Wade Davis on the mound and the runner would have a harder time scoring — because Lorenzo Cain would be playing closer to the infield.
In the second inning the Royals benefitted from some Yankee outfield positioning; Salvador Perez pulled a changeup down the left-field line and left fielder Brett Gardner was playing Perez over toward center. He had a long run to the ball and that meant Alex Gordon — who was on second when Perez hit the ball — scored easily.
This all seems pretty simple when you look at it afterwards, but base runners — and coaches — need to know where everyone’s positioned before the pitch is thrown. Turning to see where the outfielder is after a ball is put in play costs a runner two or three steps.
Even though the Yankees outfielders — Brett Gardner, Jacoby Ellsbury and Ichiro Suzuki — all run well, they tend to play deep. Watch for bloop hits just beyond the infield and runners taking the extra base if they think the outfielder is too far away from the infield to throw them out.
With Alex Gordon on second base in the fifth inning, Lorenzo Cain singled and Gordon scored. Then the Yankees played some bad defense and turned Lorenzo’s single into a double. The first baseman went to the pitcher’s mound to act as the cutoff man on a throw home, while the shortstop went into centerfield to serve as the relay man. That meant Brian Roberts, the second baseman, would cover second base.
Roberts looked over at first base, saw Cain taking a wide turn — no defender was there — and for some reason Roberts decided to go cover first base. Heads up base-running by Cain: he saw Roberts heading toward him and Cain ran right past him for a double. I’m guessing the infield coach had a word with Roberts when he got back to the dugout. His brain cramp gave the Royals another runner in scoring position. They didn’t cash it in, but it was still the wrong play by Roberts.
Check the score when the starting pitcher leaves the game
When a starting pitcher is pulled, the manager has to make a decision. If his team is winning, the manager will use his better relievers and if his team is losing the manager will use the guys who aren’t going so good. (There can be exceptions to this: for instance, if the team has an off-day the next day, the manager can use any pitcher that’s available — they’ll get a day off and be good to go the following day.)
But back to the starting pitcher leaving the game; if the manager goes to the weaker part of his bullpen, obviously the chances of winning go down. That’s why it’s so important to take a lead before the starter is through.
Jeremy Guthrie left this game after seven innings and Ned Yost went to middle relievers Francisley Bueno and Wilking Rodriguez. They held the fort for two innings and gave the Royals a chance to win, but Kansas City could never grab a lead.
The good part of losing — if there is a good part — is that Yost never had to use Wade Davis or Greg Holland so both will be available on Saturday. But the Royals need to grab a lead before the eighth inning for that to matter.