Saturday night the Royals-Indians game was on Fox so we got to hear from some different announcers, and God help me I missed Rex Hudler. You never know what Rex will say next, and that’s part of the fun. Meanwhile, listening to Ryan Lefebvre try to deal with whatever verbal obstacles Rex has put in his way completes the show.
Anyway, broadcaster C.J. Nitkowski (a guy who probably never called the moon a planet or talked about a cane made out of a bull’s sexual organ) talked about umpires’ reluctance to call a ball on a 3-0 pitch or a strike when the count is 0-2.
Nitkowski had 10 years pitching in the big leagues, so he might know what he’s talking about, and a call in the sixth inning showed what Nitkowski meant.
With two outs in the sixth, a runner on second and an 0-2 count on the batter, Royals starter Ian Kennedy threw what looked like strike three to Rajai Davis. Kennedy started to leave the mound, but home plate umpire Sam Holbrook called it a ball.
On the very next pitch Davis singled, the runner scored and the Indians were up 3-0. Three pitches later Tyler Naquin homered and the score was 5-0, and the game was pretty much over after that.
So if the Royals were only going to score one run, did Holbrook’s call matter? Weren’t the Royals going to lose the game anyway?
But being behind 5-0 instead of 2-0 made a difference, and to understand why, we need to go back to Friday, May 27.
The Royals were playing the White Sox that day, and Miguel Gonzalez was Chicago’s starting pitching. When Gonzalez left the game in the seventh inning his team was leading 5-2, but the Chicago bullpen imploded and the Royals won 7-5.
The next day Carlos Rodon started for the Sox, and when he left the game his team was winning 7-1. But Rodon only pitched five innings, and four innings of relief was too much for the White Sox pen; they gave it up in the ninth inning, and the Royals had that huge comeback and won 8-7.
On Sunday Chris Sale started for the Sox and pitched seven innings. When he left the game his team was winning 4-2, but then (you guessed it) the Chicago bullpen coughed up three runs and the Royals won 5-4.
Once the games went to the bullpens the Royals had an advantage; they could score and the Sox pretty much couldn’t, so the Royals came back to win all three games.
Why it’s not working that way in Cleveland
The Royals have the best bullpen in baseball, so their formula for winning is pretty simple: Get a lead and then go to the pen. On Thursday that’s just what they did, but because closer Wade Davis wasn’t available, there was a weak link in the chain; Joakim Soria blew the save and the Indians won.
The next best thing to having a lead when the game goes to the pen is keeping the game close; if the game is close and you play enough innings, the Royals advantage in relief pitching will give them a chance to come back.
But on Friday Danny Salazar threw eight innings and left the game with the score 6-1; too big a lead, not enough innings to make a comeback. On Saturday Josh Tomlin pitched six and a third innings and left the game with the score 5-1 in the seventh; still too much to overcome.
So here’s the deal…the Royals need to either:
Have a lead when the game goes to the pen
Keep the game close so they can make a comeback or…
Get the starter out early enough so they have enough time to overcome a larger lead.
When Sam Holbrook called that 0-2 pitch a ball it wound up giving the Indians a five-run lead, and when Ned Yost went to his pen he called on Scott Alexander. Alexander gave up a single and a homer and that made it 7-1 and the Royals were out of it.
When it comes to collective ERA the Royals have the No.1 bullpen in baseball, but their starting pitchers rank 23rd. The Royals starters need to keep the game close or the best bullpen in baseball doesn’t matter.
Salvador Perez and the play at the plate
Back when I first started trying to educate myself about our national pastime I bought an instructional video that demonstrated different facets of the game. The section on catching featured a very young Ned Yost.
In a porn ’stache and a voice two octaves higher than it is today, Ned showed the correct setup for a play at the plate.
The catcher puts his left foot on the third-base foul line, toes pointing toward third base, heel nearly touching the plate. If the runner makes contact, pointing the toes toward third base means the runner will hit the front of the shin guard and push the leg straight back. That keeps the runner from hitting the side of the leg and damaging the catcher’s knee or ankle. Meanwhile, the catcher’s right foot is pointed toward whichever fielder is throwing the ball home.
In this set up the catcher is not blocking the plate; having the left foot on the foul line gives the runner a place to go – the back half of the plate is open. (If the catcher straddles the foul line, then he’s blocking the entire plate.) The catcher receives the ball, then turns to his left and tags the runner.
Now here’s what happened Saturday night:
Rajai Davis singled and Lonnie Chisenhall made the turn at third, intent on scoring. Paulo Orlando fielded the ball and threw home.
Salvador Perez was set up out in front of the plate by about three feet with his left foot on the first base line and his right foot in foul territory. The throw beat the runner; Perez had the ball in his mitt when Chisenhall was still six to eight feet from home plate and just starting his headfirst slide.
But because Perez was so far out in front of the plate, he had to turn and reach back to make a very long swipe tag and by the time he did that, Chisenhall was safe. With a better set up Chisenhall would have been out and the score would have remained 2-0.
After Buster Posey got crushed on a play at home plate, MLB got it’s underwear in a twist and tried to come up with a rule that would protect its stars from injury. Stars on the field mean fans in the stands and fans in the stands means money in everyone’s pocket.
As Matt Treanor said at the time; if he was the catcher that got hurt would baseball change the rules to protect him?
These days the catcher has to provide a “lane” to the runner, but nobody said it needs to be a six-lane highway; you don’t need to be three feet out in front of home plate.
Nobody ever tries to knock a baseball writer on his rear while he’s typing (although I’m absolutely positive a few ballplayers wouldn’t mind trying) so it’s easy for me to say this: from the comfort of my couch at home, it looked like Salvador Perez was too far out in front of home plate and that made a difference in the game.