Judging the Royals

June 14, 2014

How the Royals took advantage of the White Sox’ pitcher

Fastball, changeup, curveball—everything was up in the zone. The Royals had gotten three singles and a run on three different pitches from Quintana. The fastball to Aoki, the change to Infante and the curve to Hosmer; all stayed up in the zone and the Royals’ lineup took advantage.

Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

This season my son Paul has been filling in for me on certain road games and that’s what happened Friday night. Here’s Paul’s report on the Royals 7-2 win over the Chicago White Sox:

The Royals offense takes advantage of Jose Quintana

Friday night the Royals had their biggest offensive inning of the game right away; scoring five runs on Jose Quintana and the White Sox in the first inning. Nori Aoki led the way, driving a fastball down into the right field corner for a single. Omar Infante moved him to second base by jumping on a changeup for another single, and Eric Hosmer drove Aoki in by hitting a curveball to right field for yet another single.

Fastball, changeup, curveball—everything was up in the zone.

The Royals had gotten three singles and a run on three different pitches from Quintana. The fastball to Aoki, the change to Infante and the curve to Hosmer; all stayed up in the zone and the Royals’ lineup took advantage. After giving up three straight hits and a run to the first three batters, Quintana now had to try and stop Billy Butler and Alex Gordon from turning a one-run deficit into a full-on blowout.

This was the Royals’ chance to seize control of the game: a pitcher, struggling to keep his stuff down in the zone, with two runners on and no outs. To capitalize on this chance the Royals’ offense needed to remain patient, yet aggressive: let Quintana get behind and fall into trouble, wait for the mistake out over the plate, and then jump on it.

Billy Butler came up after Hosmer and drove a 1-1 fastball past the third baseman, scoring Infante. Alex Gordon was next up. Alex took a first-pitch fastball low for ball one, then got a fastball down the middle, at knee level. This is a very hard pitch for a lot of lefties to lay off; it looks like a juicy fastball, and it’s down and in, right in their power zone. The allure of the home run is what makes lefties jump on it, but it can also lead to a rally-killing rollover into a double play, especially with Billy Butler on first base—he’s unlikely to get down to second base in time to flip the pivot man. Alex took it the pitch to go 1-1; it wasn’t the mistake he was waiting for.

Next, Quintana made a nice pitch with the count 1-1; the same fastball at the knees, but farther inside. This is another hard pitch for many hitters to take—it looks like the last one and hitters don’t want to watch two potentially hittable fastballs go for strikes. A more jumpy hitter might see that pitch coming—in the same zone as the 1-0 fastball—and hack. But that’s exactly what Quintana wanted; a swing at a pitcher’s pitch in on the hitter’s hands. But Alex took it and got back ahead in the count at 2-1. Quintana missed with a curve away to go 3-1 and then left a fastball right down the middle.

Alex had been patient, now it was time to be aggressive.

He turned on the 3-1 fastball, scorching a line drive down into the right-field corner. By driving a double to right, Alex was able to do two good things to keep the rally going: he drove Hosmer in for the third run of the inning, and he got Billy Butler from first to third.

This meant that Billy’s lack of speed wouldn’t stop Alex from scoring, as it might if they were standing on first and second. Also—by getting Billy to third base with no outs—Alex helped out his teammate, Lorenzo Cain. After Salvador Perez struck out swinging to give Quintana his first out of the night, Cain still had the opportunity to drive Billy in with a fly ball.

This made his job easier – he only needed to look for a pitch up in the zone and Quintana had been leaving them up all inning. Cain got a first-pitch hanging curve and ripped a double to left. Because Billy scored easily from third, Alex was able to go full-speed from second and score right on Billy’s heels. With a little help from Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain got himself a two-RBI double, the Royals went up five-nothing, and the game looked to be well in hand from there.

Both teams make adjustments

However, this is the big leagues, and things are never that simple. It may be a common cliché, but it’s still true: baseball is a game of adjustments, and over the next eight-and-a-half innings, both teams made adjustments and kept battling.

Though the Royals were up 5-0 after the top of the first, the game was far from over – Jeremy Guthrie still needed to shut down the White Sox offense.

Guthrie came to the mound in the bottom of the first with a five-run lead, and his opponent, Quintana, had thrown over 30 pitches in his first inning. Guthrie’s mission was to stay aggressive and use the advantage his offense had given him – no single batter could get the White Sox back in the game. The biggest threat to the Royals’ lead was piling up runners with walks and hits. Guthrie needed to stay ahead in the count and attack the Sox’ offense, using his defense to get outs in order to hand the big lead over to the Royals’ bullpen.

Falling behind in the count

Guthrie struggled with that job early in the game. He fell behind seven of the first nine batters he faced, giving up a run in both the first and the second innings. Those early at-bats followed a similar pattern; he would either use his off-speed stuff early in the at-bat—falling behind with his slider, curve, and change—or if he went to the fastball, he would throw chase pitches away from the zone.

The White Sox did a good job of being patient and getting ahead of Guthrie in the first two innings, so Guthrie ran into trouble. By falling behind with off-speed stuff, Guthrie forced himself into a hole: Chicago hitters knew they would get at least one hittable fastball in every at-bat, and if Guthrie was behind in the count, they had a decent idea of when they would get it.

The White Sox did a good job in the first inning and two-thirds; getting three singles, three walks, and two runs out of Guthrie. A 5-0 lead in the first inning looked less comfortable at 6-2 in the second; Guthrie had just walked a run in with the bases loaded, and an adjustment needed to be made.

So before Gordon Beckham came to bat with three on and one out, Royals interim pitching coach, Doug Henry, made a visit to the mound.

Doug Henry’s visit

We don’t know what was said on the mound, but after that coaching visit, Guthrie came right at Beckham with three straight fastballs. Not off-speed chase pitches or nibbles on the border; but three hard, attack fastballs in the strike zone.

Guthrie mixed his four-seamer and sinker and got the second out of the inning. He went after the next batter, Connor Gillaspie, with another first-pitch four-seamer, getting ahead 0-1, before getting Gillaspie to pop out to center to end the inning. By going back to his fastball, attacking both hitters, and getting ahead, Guthrie was able to get himself out of a sticky situation that could have let the White Sox right back into the game.

Getting ahead in the count

This was the biggest issue for Jeremy Guthrie on Friday night: like most pitchers, if he can use his fastball to attack hitters, stay aggressive and get ahead in the count, then his breaking stuff becomes more effective—hitters can’t ignore it. When they’re ahead in the count hitters can just spit on the breaking stuff and wait for the inevitable fastball.

In the first two innings—before Henry came to the mound—Guthrie faced 10 batters and walked three of them. Of the seven remaining batters Guthrie was behind in the count to four of them when the ball was put in play. After Henry’s visit, Guthrie faced 18 more batters and was behind in the count only once when the ball was put in play—right up until he walked the last batter he faced, Adam Eaton.

It was good to see Guthrie and the Royals make the proper adjustment and execute a sold game plan. Though the five-run lead in the first inning was huge, this adjustment is really what sealed the game and got the Royals a victory to open their series with the White Sox.

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