Judging the Royals

Lee Judge breaks down the Royals, game by game.

Pitchers: Many problems, one solution

06/15/2014 6:55 PM

A pitcher can have a lot of problems; a bad mound, a brutal defense behind him, a great hitter at the plate or an umpire who needs cataract surgery — but there’s only one solution.

Get back on the mound, focus on the catcher’s mitt and throw a quality pitch.

That bit of wisdom comes from sports psychologist, Harvey Dorfman. When Dorfman would work with a pitcher — and Greg Maddux was one of them — he might ask what color the catcher’s glove was: the pitcher had been staring at it for six innings, but had he really focused?

If a pitcher didn’t know the answer to that question it was likely he was letting his mind wander; he was thinking about his problems, not the solution. And that takes us to the Chicago White Sox starting pitcher, Andre Rienzo.

In the third inning with two outs and Billy Butler on first base, Rienzo threw what he thought was strike three to Alex Gordon — he didn’t get the call. Rienzo let his frustration show and then threw a curve that came nowhere near the strike zone for ball four. After a coaching visit to the mound — which didn’t seem to help — Rienzo fell behind Salvador Perez 2-1 and then threw a cutter which Perez hit for a home run.

No telling for sure what was in Rienzo’s mind — even he might not be able to sort everything out — but after what he thought was a bad call, Rienzo allowed his problems to snowball.

Now look at James Shields in the first inning:

Adam Eaton led things off with a triple and then Shields picked him off third base — until the home plate umpire called a balk. Shields went from getting an easy out to giving up a run. To be fair, Shields also let his frustration show, but then he got back on the mound, made pitches and got out of the first with no more damage on the scoreboard.

The ability to separate pitches, to not allow one bad thing to turn into two or three bad things, is important for a pitcher. Minimizing the damage is the name of the game. Shields — and just about every other pitcher who went to the mound on Sunday — struggled. There were only two 1-2-3 innings all day.

So it’s not just preventing bad things from happening — that’s almost impossible. It’s how you react to bad things that matters. A pitcher can have a lot of problems, but there’s only one solution: get back on the mound, focus on the catcher’s mitt and throw a quality pitch.

That’s what James Shields did, and the Royals beat the White Sox 6-3.

Why you don’t hit the ball up the middle on a hit and run

In the fourth inning Mike Moustakas walked and then — with Alcides Escobar at the plate — took off for second base on what appeared to be a hit and run. (Let’s hope it was a hit and run; Moose ain’t that fast.) Escobar hit the ball up the middle and that’s a mistake.

If a runner on first takes off for second base the one place you know an infielder will be standing is second base; he’ll go there to cover the bag. Escobar’s mistake almost turned into a double play, but fortunately for the Royals, shortstop Alexei Ramirez missed tagging second. Moustakas was originally called out, the call was challenged and Mike was eventually declared safe and scored on a single by Jarrod Dyson.

So where do you hit the ball on a hit and run?

If you believe Jason Kendall — and I do…he scares me — whichever middle infielder is standing closer to second base probably has the responsibility for covering the bag on a hit and run; hit the ball at him because he won’t be there.

The infielders try to hide who’s covering — they hold their gloves up to cover their mouths and signal each other to determine who’s going to the bag — but then the guy who’s covering gives it away by inching closer to second base so he won’t be late getting there.

Should left-handed hitters go to the opposite field against the shift?

Adam Dunn led off the fourth inning with a check-swing single into left field. The Royals had a shift on, so nobody was there to stop the ball from trickling out to Alex Gordon. Dunn stood on first base with a sheepish smile; the opposite field single was a lucky mistake — but Dunn later came around to score.

So should left-handed hitters take advantage of a wide open left-side? Should they hit the ball to the opposite field and take what the defense is giving them?

Ned Yost has said that if a left-handed hitter will do that a couple of times, the Royals would stop using a shift. So take your singles and force the opposition to play you straight up, right?

The other side of the argument says that if a power guy like Adam Dunn wants a single, give it to him; at least he didn’t hit the ball into general admission. Dunn is paid to hit home runs and the shift has taken him out of his game. He’ll do less damage standing on first and clogging up the bases.

Does it all even out?

Mike Moustakas has had some hard-hit outs and the last couple days has gotten lucky with placement; he’s been hitting them where they ain’t. So does it all even out?

Not if you can’t run.

Guys like Lorenzo Cain can mishit a ball and leg out infield singles; those guys have what is referred to as soft averages. They have plenty of jam-shot dribblers mixed into their batting average. Guys like Billy Butler rarely get infield hits on jam shots, they’re not fast enough. Guys like Butler have hard averages: if Billy gets a hit, he probably earned it.

It’s never just one thing

Whenever you hear a stat like what Alex Gordon hits with runners in scoring position, remember: having runners in scoring position is only one of the many factors involved in that situation. Who’s on the mound matters; so does the defense. The score also comes into play: if a pitcher has a big lead he might throw fastballs knowing if enough balls get put in play someone will catch one, if it’s one-run game the pitcher might be throwing every pitch he has because he needs a strikeout.

The media likes simple narratives so we’ll tell you how well the Royals play in June, but what teams they play in June makes a difference.

If they have a winning record with their fathers along on a road trip, maybe it’s not just the dads that matter; what starting pitchers they face on the road trip changes things as well.

Picking one factor and saying this is the reason the Royals won or lost is an incomplete picture at best — it’s never just one thing. (On the other hand, if the players go to bed earlier because their dads are along, maybe that does make a difference. Bring the moms along and they might win a World Series.)

Firing on all cylinders

Every team wants to be hitting on all cylinders; pitching, defense and offense. But ask ballplayers how long that can last and the answer you hear varies from a week and a half to maybe two weeks — hitting on all cylinders is a rarity; it’s more common to have something going wrong.

Right now the Royals appear to be hitting on all cylinders: they’ve won seven in a row and, after Sunday’s win against Chicago, are four games over .500. Enjoy it while it lasts and remember: it’s not the end of the world when it stops.

Everybody scuffles at times. Let’s just hope everything keeps clicking throughout the four-game series against Detroit.

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