Judging the Royals

Rockies 5, Royals 2: How the game got away in the sixth inning

Teammate Drew Stubbs (13) congratulated the Colorado Rockies’ Matt McBride after McBride hit a grand-slam home run off Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy in the sixth inning Wednesday night in Denver.
Teammate Drew Stubbs (13) congratulated the Colorado Rockies’ Matt McBride after McBride hit a grand-slam home run off Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy in the sixth inning Wednesday night in Denver. The Associated Press

In the top of the sixth inning, the Kansas City batters saw a total of six pitches from the Colorado Rockies’ starter, Jorge De La Rosa. When a team’s offense sees that few pitches in an inning, pay attention to what happens to that team’s starting pitcher when he goes back out to the mound. When Royals starter Danny Duffy went back out to the mound, he gave up a grand slam.

Here’s how that happened:

Duffy got two quick outs. Josh Rutledge hit a fly ball to right, and Drew Stubbs struck out. Then Nolan Arenado hit a ground ball to Christian Colon. Seven pitches into the inning, Duffy looked as though he was about to get the third out — until Colon short-hopped Billy Butler at first base.

Billy could not handle the hop, and Arenado — the tying run — was safe. On the very next pitch, Wilin Rosario singled. The tying run was in scoring position, and the go-ahead run was on first base. Duffy threw two curves to Corey Dickerson, and both missed the zone. Two fastballs later, Dickerson had a four-pitch walk and the go-ahead run was now in scoring position.

If you were the on-deck hitter and saw the pitcher issue a four-pitch walk, what might you be thinking?

If you thought something along the lines of, “The pitcher doesn’t want to walk the tying run in. I’m getting a first-pitch fastball,” go to the head of the class. Matt McBride teed off on that first-pitch fastball — it was supposed to be in, but drifted over the plate — and a grand slam later, the Rockies were up 5-2.

But the inning — and the game — got away when Colon made a bad throw to first base and Butler couldn’t handle it.

Third time through the order

Another thing fans can pay attention to is how many times a hitter has faced a pitcher in a single game. The more trips to the plate, the better idea a hitter has of what the pitcher is doing that night.

When Duffy is pitching, the opposition hits .226 its first time through the order. The second time, it’s .225. The third time, it’s .298. In that sixth inning, the Rockies were seeing Duffy for the third time.

Willingham shows no fear

If you weren’t looking at the TV and heard a resounding boom in the eighth inning, it might have been Josh Willingham banging into the right-field wall right after he caught Nolan Arenado’s deep fly ball.

Outfielders who are afraid of the wall will slow up as soon as they hit the warning track. Outfielders who have no fear keep going.

Willingham kept going.

De La Rosa works very slowly

The Colorado starting pitcher, Jorge De La Rosa worked incredibly slow. After every pitch, he walked off the mound, caught the throw from the catcher, studied the ball, adjusted his cap, looked to the sky and contemplated the meaning of life.

But maybe Jorge De La Rosa knows something.

It is incredibly easy to get gassed when pitching in the Mile High City, so maybe De La Rosa was taking his time to avoid that. He has a good record at Coors Field, and not too many pitchers can say that.

But I still wished he would have picked up the pace.

Gordon’s first-pitch ambush

Alex Gordon once told me he would swing at the first pitch once in a while, just to make sure everyone knew he would do it. Lots of pitchers try to get ahead if they think the hitter is in a spot where he will take the pitch. Gordon was leading off the inning, so if De La Rosa thought Gordon was taking, he guessed wrong.

Alex ambushed a first-pitch 91-mph fastball and put it into the right-field bleachers for his 14th home run of the year.

Kratz does his job

With Josh Willingham on third base and one out, Erik Kratz did his job and hit a fly ball to the outfield. Willingham tagged and scored.

With a runner on third base, the key at-bat is often the guy who comes to the plate with one out. He has the last chance to drive in a run without getting a hit.

Fail to do a good job of situational hitting, and the next guy’s job — getting a two-out hit — is much harder.

Does playing first base help Billy Butler hit?

One of the things those of us in the media do best is take two very probably unrelated events and put them together. Just look at our stories about why the stock market went up or down. Maybe people really were buoyed by the new budget numbers, but because there are billions of people and we didn’t talk to any of them, we have no way of knowing.

We do the same thing when we cover sports.

Maybe Alex Gordon hit a home run because they gave away his bobblehead that day, but it seems unlikely. A pitcher hanging a slider seems to be a more logical explanation. And that brings us to Billy Butler playing first base. Does it explain why he has been hitting better lately?

Billy’s best year so far probably was 2012. That season, he hit .313, had 29 home runs, drove in 107 runs and played the vast majority of his games as a designated hitter. He does have a slightly better batting average when he plays first base, .307 compared with .291 as a D.H., but his best average, .316, is as a left fielder.

And we just ignored every other factor — who was pitching, for instance — that went into creating those numbers. So if it’s not playing first base that made Billy hit better — and I doubt even Billy knows for sure — is there another explanation?

Well, another possible explanation — and I know I don’t know for sure — is that Billy got a wake-up call.

“A wake-up call” is baseball slang for being benched or demoted. A wake-up call is a reminder that being a major-leaguer is not guaranteed and someone is always trying to take your job. Here is a quote from a story about by The Star’s Andy McCullough:

“The Royals dangled him at the July 31 trade deadline, and found few interested clubs, according to people familiar with the situation. Before Hosmer was injured, Butler was losing at-bats at designated hitter to players like Raul Ibanez and Danny Valencia.”

Finding out that your club is willing to trade you and no other club was willing to make that trade would constitute a wake-up call. That might make a player take his job more seriously. I have no idea whether that applies to Butler’s situation, but finding out your career is in trouble might make a player more motivated, and that might explain his offensive resurgence.

Or maybe it’s because he started playing first base.