Judging the Royals

Should Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar play in 162 games?

Alcides Escobar
Alcides Escobar jsleezer@kcstar.com

Alcides Escobar has said he’d like to play in all 162 games this season, and that’s an admirable goal. Not every big-league player wants to play every day; a lot of them don’t mind a day off, so a guy that makes you better and wants to be in the lineup every day is a treasure.

Ned Yost has praised Escobar’s physical durability, but playing in 162 games also takes a mental toll.

Between every pitch a big-league shortstop should:

▪ Pick up the sign from the catcher and let the third baseman know if the pitch is going to be a fastball or off-speed.

▪ If his outfielders want to know, put a hand behind his back and signal what pitch is about to be delivered.

▪ If there’s a runner on first base, signal the second baseman so he knows who’s covering second in case there’s a stolen-base attempt.

▪ Know the outs, the count and the speed of the runner at the plate and any runners on base.

▪ Know what he’s going to do with the ball if he gets a hard grounder and what he’s going to do if he gets a slow roller.

▪ Manicure the dirt on front of him so he doesn’t get a bad hop.

▪ Check a runner at first base just as the pitch is delivered to see if the runner is trying to steal second base.

▪ Recheck the runner right after the pitch to see if the runner is trying a delayed steal.

▪ Get up on his toes and shuffle forward as each pitch is delivered. If I knew more about playing shortstop this list would be longer, but you get the idea: A big-league shortstop has to stay on top of all this stuff between every pitch.

On Saturday night Royals pitchers combined to throw 141 pitches. Play 162 games at 141 pitches each, and you have to get ready 22, 842 times. Forget to do something, take a single pitch off, and you can lose a ballgame.

Against the Detroit Tigers, Escobar was standing in the wrong spot when a ball got hit past him. He was supposed to be playing back but was positioned at double-play depth when a double play was no longer in order. That play, along with a few others, cost the Royals a game.

It’s clear Escobar has the physical stamina to play in 162 games, but should he?

Wade Davis and a fastball down the middle

In the ninth inning of Saturday night’s game Wade Davis struck out the side for his 25th save of the season. He threw 18 pitches; nine of them were strikes. If you want to get some of idea of what makes Wade so good, go to MLB.com’s Gameday and take a look at his pitch location.

The strike zone is shown as nine box grid; three boxes across the top, three across the middle and three across the bottom.

Of the 18 pitches Wade threw, only one was in the middle box of the middle row; when Wade missed, he generally missed down below the zone and that’s important. Pitching coach Dave Eiland says when a pitcher misses his spot, he want to miss away from the heart of the zone; not toward the heart of the zone.

So what about the one pitch in the middle; was it a mistake? Maybe, maybe not and that takes some explaining.

Wade says a pitcher can’t always go right at a hitter’s weakness to start an at bat. Most hitters’ weak spots are away from the heart of the zone, and the hitter should know what parts of the zone he hits well and what parts of the zone he should lay off.

So to get hitters to chase marginal pitches Wade will sometimes go right at a hitter’s hot zone. When I asked why, Wade said, “Because they don’t think you will.”

The hitter knows Wade has great control and gets surprised by a pitch in the middle of the zone. Adam Eaton was the guy who got the gift fastball – 96 mph down the pipe – but he wasn’t able to get it in play; he fouled it back.

So get away with the pitch down the middle and the hitter has a strike and he’s now in swing mode; now he’ll start to chase those marginal pitches. Three pitches after getting a fastball down the middle Eaton chased a curve down out of the zone and struck to end the game.

Why swing at the first pitch?

Let’s go back to Friday night and take a look at White Sox pitcher Chris Sale to answer that question.

In 2016 when batters put Sale’s first pitch in play they hit .333; take that first pitch for strike one and after that batters hit .179. Sale has 44 walks in 210 2/3 innings so hoping for a base on balls isn’t a great plan either. Pitchers who throw strikes force hitters to swing the bat and if you’re going to swing the bat, sometimes that first pitch is the best pitch.

On Friday night Royals that put the first pitch in play were four for five. Royals that didn’t put the first pitch in play were four for 29, with one walk and ten strikeouts.

So when a Kansas City hitter swings at the first pitch if might not be a bad idea; as long as the pitcher is as good as Chris Sale.