Royals still need to improve their pitch selection

Top of the eighth inning, bases loaded, nobody down, the Astros 3, the Royals 2 — the game on the line. Earlier on this road trip, in a similar situation, Elliot Johnson had a bad at-bat. With the bases loaded and nobody down, the hitter wants to get a ball up in the zone, drive it to the outfield and stay out of the double play. In his at-bat, Johnson swung at a change-up down in the zone, popped it up and let the Oakland A’s off the hook.

This time the bases-loaded hitter was Lorenzo Cain; would the Royals' center fielder have a better approach?

Lorenzo took three pitches; a slider and two fastballs, the count moved to 3-0—so far, so good. Astros pitcher Jose Cisnero then threw Cain a fastball for a strike. Lorenzo was obviously taking in that situation, but he passed up an opportunity: smart hitters sometimes take 3-0, then look for the same pitch, in the same place, 3-1. The pitcher’s still in pretty much the same situation even though he threw a strike, so it’s common to see pitchers repeat the 3-0 pitch on a 3-1 count. Hitters will get ready to hit, time the 3-0 pitch and be ready to hack if they get the same thing on the next pitch.

Lorenzo relaxed and made no attempt to gauge the 3-0 pitch.

3-1, a hitter’s strike zone should be miniscule. The process is sometimes called "keyholing" because the hitter’s strike zone is now as big as a keyhole. Look for a fastball in the middle of the plate and if it’s not there, shut it down. Instead, Lorenzo chased a fastball down and away. When hitters chase a borderline pitch they can change the strike zone; umpires might think; "I guess that is a strike—the hitter thought so." Cain then took a remarkably similar pitch for a called strike three. Not a good at-bat in a crucial situation.

Next, Mike Moustakas came to the plate with the same task: hit the ball in the air and get it to the outfield. Mike took a changeup for a strike, then a fastball for a ball and the count then stood at 1-1. Moose then got a changeup away. He was still in a count that didn’t require him to swing the bat; if he was looking fastball, it was a mistake swing at a changeup, and if he was looking for a changeup, he should have driven the ball to the left side. Mike hooked the ball and hit it through the infield, but it still wasn’t the fly ball the situation called for. Still, nobody is going to look a gift-horse or gift-hit in the mouth; a run scored and the game was now tied.

George Kottaras came to the plate and walked on four pitches, the Royals had a 4-3 lead. Credit Kottaras for having his ego under control; when guys don’t get to play that often, they might want to do something spectacular in a bid for more playing time, but George remained patient and did something very spectacular—he gave the Royals a lead.

So if the guy in front of you walks on four pitches, what’s the game plan? If you’re Alcides Escobar, it’s hacking at the first hittable pitch you see—and then hacking at a couple pitches that weren’t hittable. Esky got the ball in play and a run scored, then the Royals picked up a second run when the Astros threw the ball away while attempting to turn a double play.

Before the game Ned Yost talked about the Royals pitch selection and the need to improve in that area. Too many times on this road trip Royals fans have seen hitters take when they should be swinging and swing when they should be taking. The Royals came of the eighth inning with a lead and won the game, but this one could have gone the other way.

Game notes

Mike Moustakas once again failed to run a ground ball out. It’s hard when you’re scuffling, but running balls out is easy.

In the eighth inning, with Alex Gordon on base, Billy Butler singled. Ned Yost sent Jeff Francoeur out to pinch-run and Billy did not appear to be happy about it. I’ve got no way of knowing what was running through Billy’s mind at the time, but he did not seem to greet the move with enthusiasm. If that’s the case, then that’s a mistake on Billy’s part: sending out a faster runner in the late innings when your run represents the winning run, only makes sense, especially in the Astro’s ballpark. Right and left field are short and a faster runner might go first to third or second to home or score on a double when Billy couldn’t.

Elliot Johnson got thrown out on a close play trying to stretch a single into a double, but he did it at the right time—there were two outs. Stay on first and it would probably take two hits to score, get to second and one hit might do the trick.

The Astros’s Jimmy Paredes got picked off second base, which always looks bad, but Paredes had an excuse. The guy at the plate was trying to bunt and missed the ball. Base runners are looking to get a jump on bunts—they’re supposed to wait until they see the ball come down off the bat—but it’s very easy to take a step the wrong way on a missed bunt. Paredes did and Kottaras nailed him.

In the seventh inning pinch-runner Brandon Barnes was picked off first base by Bruce Chen, but then Barnes did what smart base runners do: he ran inside the base line and that put him in line with Alcides Escobar’s glove. Runner will actually run at the glove, hoping to get hit in the back with the throw. Eric Hosmer threw the ball to the outfield side of the baseline to avoid the runner and Esky whiffed—possible because his view was blocked by Barnes.

Pitch selection

A hitter wants to wait for a mistake pitch and let the pitcher’s pitches go by; so how does a hitter do this?

One way is to "zone down." The hitter creates an imaginary hitting zone within the strike zone and starts his swing to that spot. When you see hitters taking those half-cuts while waiting on the pitcher’s delivery, some of them are thinking: "I want the ball right here, right here, right here." Then the hitter starts his swing to that zone. If the ball is there, the hitter completes his swing. If the ball misses that spot, the hitter shuts it down and takes the pitch— even if it’s a strike. Hitting a pitch in a location or at a velocity you’re not anticipating is difficult. When hitters adjust their swings and chase pitches out of their personal zone, you see a lot of weak hacks and poorly hit balls.

Sometimes a guy is a great hitter not because he has better mechanics or superior athleticism; sometimes a guy is a great hitter because he’s better at getting a good pitch to hit. Those guys are usually zoning down and eliminating pitches. Trying to hit fast and slow, up and down and in and away is a great way to hit nothing. Because your swing is so jacked up you can get a mistake pitch and miss it. The guy that eliminates pitches and says, "I want a fastball right there" is less likely to miss it if he gets it.

If you wonder why the Royals have struggled so much offensively, part of the answer is pitch selection. That doesn’t necessarily mean standing there taking pitches. If a hitter gets what he’s looking for on the first pitch—depending on the situation—he might want to be hacking. Until a hitter gets to two strikes, he should hunt his pitch. When the Royals start doing this consistently, things will improve. If they don’t start doing this, it’s going to be a long season.

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