Why pitchers like to walk the Royals' Billy Butler

There are at least three reasons for a pitcher to walk Billy Butler: 1.) Billy’s a very good hitter who can do some damage if you give him too good a pitch to hit 2.) The Royals generally haven’t had someone hitting behind him that can make you pay for walking Billy 3.) Billy Butler clogs the bases.

And you can’t find a better example of that than the second inning of this 3-1 loss to the Texas Rangers.

After Yu Darvish walked Butler to start the second, Mike Moustakas singled to right field. Despite the fact that the ball was hit softly and between Nelson Cruz and the right-field line, and Cruz had to run forever to field the ball, despite the fact that Cruz throws right-handed so the ball was on his glove side which would require a full spin to make a throw and despite the fact that the right field line to third base is the longest throw on the field, Billy could not go first to third—he stopped at second base.

With runners on first and second base, Lorenzo Cain hit a bouncing ball into left field. Despite the fact that it bounced about a dozen times before it got to left-handed left fielder David Murphy and Murphy is supposed to have a weak arm and despite the fact that left-hander’s throws generally tail off to the arm side (check the replay and you’ll see that Murphy’s throw was off-line and had it not been cut, would have pulled the catcher up the first-base line), Billy could not go second to home—he stopped at third base.

With the bases loaded and nobody out, Jeff Francoeur did his job: he hit a fly ball to the outfield. Butler tagged up and tried to score. Despite the fact that Craig Gentry was moving to his left and caught the ball on his glove side—which means he had to get closed up before throwing the ball—he still threw Billy Butler out at the plate.

Most baseball people will tell you third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez made the right decision to hold Billy up on Cain’s single (there were no outs) and the right decision to send Butler home on Francoeur’s fly ball (once Gentry caught the ball there was one out and the Royals have not been hitting with runners in scoring position). If Butler had been able to go first-to-third or second-to-home on the previous two hits, he would not have been thrown out on Francoeur’s fly ball.

But that’s not the only thing that went wrong during the second inning: Mike Moustakas did not tag and move up to third base on Francoeur’s fly ball. When Gentry caught Francoeur’s fly ball, Mike was still on his way back to second base. If Moustakas had been on the bag, tagged and gone to third, it’s possible the ball would have been cut off and redirected his way—but if that happened, Butler would have scored while they were throwing out Mike. In the bottom of the first inning Ned Yost brought the infield in and when a manager does that so early in the game, he’s saying one run really matters (Ned was right). Veteran base runners will sometimes offer the defense an easy out in exchange for a run, as long as the run means something.

Baseball has a way of punishing bad play and it almost immediately punished Moustakas and the Royals: George Kottaras struck out on a pitch that got away from the catcher and made it to first base. If Mike had moved up on Franceour’s fly ball, he could have scored from third on the wild pitch. If Billy Butler had been able to go first to third the Royals would have scored, if Billy Butler had been able to go second to home the Royals would have scored and if Mike Moustakas had tagged up on Jeff Francoeur’s fly ball the Royals would have scored.

None of that happened and the Royals didn’t score.

Game notes

First inning: According to TV announcer Rex Hudler, he asked Alex Gordon about scuffling at the plate recently and Alex said: "I am?" If Alex didn’t know that, it wouldn’t surprise me. Smart ballplayers pay much less attention to the ups and downs of their season than many baseball fans. They don’t want to get caught up in the roller coaster of emotion: "Geez, I’m 0 for my last 12, I really need a hit here."

A while back I told Chris Getz the Royals were last in the league in fielding percentage and he was shocked—players do not get locked into the ups and downs of their numbers. (On the other hand, I could also shock a player by telling him it was Wednesday—there’s a lot of information they don’t absorb.) In fact, a guy who knows his batting average off the top of his head might be looked upon as being a little too concerned about his numbers.

When I was keeping stats on striking out swinging versus striking out looking, I went to Gordon to ask how he felt about leading the team in striking out looking for two years in a row—did he need to change his two-strike approach? It didn’t take long to realize Alex had no idea he was striking out looking that much and I decided it was not my place to put that information in his head. Gordon was having a great year and I didn’t want to make him start thinking about it—you might screw him up. (By the way: Gordon had two hits on Sunday, maybe he’s done scuffling.)

In the bottom of the first inning, the Rangers scored a run because Alcides Escobar threw a routine ball away and put Elvis Andrus in scoring position. Andrus moved to third on a fly ball and scored on a weak groundball after Ned Yost brought the infield in. Pay attention: whenever a manager brings the infield in early in a game, he’s saying the run on third base matters—this will be a low-scoring game. With Ervin Santana (seven innings, one run, no earned runs) going against Yu Darvish (seven innings, no runs of any kind) pitching against each other, Ned Yost got it right.

Second inning: With the bases loaded and two outs, Chris Getz hit a line drive to centerfield. Craig Gentry caught the ball and it just went as one more out in the scorebook, but there’s a reason former hitting coach Kevin Seitzer used to keep track of hard-hit outs: it gives you some insight into how a guy is hitting the ball. An L8 (line drive to centerfield) is better than a P8 (pop fly to centerfield). If you keep score while watching baseball, find a way to record the quality of the outs made.

Third inning: Yu Darvish threw Eric Hosmner a 1-0 slider and a 2-1 slider—both counts in which a lesser pitcher might throw a fastball. Hosmer "got big" in those counts—swinging like he was going to crush a fastball—and missed both pitches. At this level the good pitchers will throw any pitch in any count.

Fifth inning: With Alex Gordon on first base, the Royals appeared to attempt a hit and run. With a runner on first, middle infielders will use their gloves to cover their mouths and silently mouth "you" (open mouth) or "me" (closed mouth) to confirm which infielder will cover second base if the runner takes off. Darvish was planning on throwing something off-speed—an 88-MPH splitter—so the shortstop, Elvis Andrus, stayed put. With a right-handed hitter at the plate—Alcides Escobar—the off-speed pitch was more likely to be pulled, and it was: Esky grounded out, 6-3.

Eighth inning: According to the TV guys, the Royals have never beaten Texas closer Joe Nathan. Yu Darvish was out of the game, the score was 1-0 Rangers and if Kansas City could somehow score two runs, they could go to the best relievers in their bullpen—probably Aaron Crow in the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth—and keep Joe Nathan in the Texas bullpen.

The Royals scored one.

Gordon doubled, Escobar bunted him over and Hosmer drove him in. With the score 1-1 in the bottom of the eighth, Ned Yost gave the ball to J.C. Gutierrez (maybe Ned would have given the ball to J.C. even if they’d been up a run—when they’re on the road I can’t ask) and J.C. gave up a home run to the number-nine hitter, Jurickson Profar. Elvis Andrus singled, Tim Collins replaced J.C., took too long to get the ball to home plate, Andrus stole second and scored on David Murphy’s single.

Rangers win, 3-1.

(And just to top things off, replays showed Chris Getz was safe at first base even though he was called out for the final out of the game by umpire Dale Scott.)

George Brett’s last at-bat

It was in Texas and they were talking about it throughout the game. Back when it happened I watched it live and recorded it on my VCR—the tape is still in my basement. George had said he wanted his last at-bat to be a groundout: he’d hustle down the line and get thrown out, but play the game the right way until the very end.

And for a second, it looked like that’s the way his career would end.

I can’t remember who was playing shortstop for the Rangers, but when the ball was hit his way he took a very bad "Yuniesky Betancourt" route to the ball and "alligator armed" the play. The shortstop never quite got there or reached all the way down to the ground. The next day everyone in the media talked about how George had come through in the clutch one last time, but I thought what had actually happened was even cooler: George Brett was such a great player his opponents wanted him to go out with a base hit.

Now that’s respect.

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