Judging the Royals

The top of the second inning: how the Royals put together a rally

Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain dives to safely steal third base during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers Friday, Aug. 22, 2014,in Arlington, Texas.
Kansas City Royals Lorenzo Cain dives to safely steal third base during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers Friday, Aug. 22, 2014,in Arlington, Texas. AP

The Royals came to bat in the bottom of the second, trailing the Rangers by one. Rangers’ starter Colby Lewis had thrown a solid first inning, getting three outs on thirteen pitches, and the Royals needed to find opportunities to get on base and be aggressive swinging the bat. Billy Butler did just that, working to a 1-1 count and getting a fastball out over the plate. Billy turned on it and sent it sailing over the left-center wall to even the score.

The Royals’ recent offensive production has been excellent, and the boost in power lately has been one of the main reasons that Kansas City has been the hottest team in baseball over the past month. But, as the Royals know all too well, power can be fleeting, and this offense is built on stringing together hits, getting guys on base, getting them over, and getting them in. After Billy tied up the game with his solo shot, the Royals lineup did an excellent job of this in the top of the second.

Josh Willingham showed patience, taking a get-me-over curve and a fastball from Lewis to go down 0-2, then getting plunked by a 90-mph fastball to get on first. Mike Moustakas worked to a 1-1 count, then got a changeup from Lewis that stayed up, and pulled it hard into right-center field, moving Willingham to third. Lorenzo Cain got a fastball up in another 1-1 count, lining it to left-center and scoring Willingham. Alcides Escobar has a great at-bat, working to a 3-2 count before taking a fastball the other way for a right-field single, scoring Moustakas and moving Cain to second.

Of course, Nori Aoki’s mistake in laying down a sac bunt with one out helped end the Royals’ rally, but after a troublesome first in which the Rangers got two hits off Yordano Ventura and scored a run, the Royals were able to score three runs with the bottom six of their lineup.

There’s a reason the Royals are third in the league in team batting average at .265, and first in the league with runners-in-scoring position at .274 – they recognize that their offense, without the big-power, big-money sluggers, needs to work together to score runs, by stringing together walks, hits, and situational at-bats. The Royals did a great job of this in the top of the second on Friday night, and that gave them a lead they would never give up.

Ventura stuck with his fastball

Yordano Ventura had another excellent outing on Friday night, giving up just one earned run through six innings pitched, but he got off to a bit of a shaky start in the bottom of the first. After Shin Soo-Choo grounded out to short to open the game, Elvis Andrus hit a hard grounder up the middle for a single, Alex Rios drove him to third with a ground-rule double, and Adrian Beltre drove him in with a fielder’s choice.

Yordano has lately shown the tendency to try and work through his first few innings using mainly his fastball – he only threw ten off-speed pitches in his first three innings, as opposed to 42 fastballs, and on the season he throws his fastball 63.7% of the time (per FanGraphs.com). It’s generally a good thing for pitchers to get through the early innings with their fastball, especially if they can throw nasty upper-90s heat like Yordano can. But the Rangers were jumping on fastballs early in the first, with Choo (after taking the first pitch of the game for strike one, as is normal), Andrus, Rios, and Beltre all swinging at the first fastballs they saw in the zone.

However, for a pitcher like Yordano, who is dependent on his nasty fastball, you can’t let an early rough inning scare you into nibbling around the edges of the plate, overusing your weaker off-speed stuff, and losing your aggression in at-bats. Fortunately for the Royals, for the rest of his six innings, Yordano didn’t, and he was able to turn in another solid victory. In the bottom of the third, Yordano faced four hitters, and every one worked to a 3-2 count. But Yordano stayed aggressive, and threw each one a fastball – and though he just missed inside to walk Elvis Andrus, he forced two lineouts and a strikeout.

This inning was just an example of how effective Yordano’s fastball can be – by being aggressive, attacking the zone for strikeouts and pitching to contact, Yordano was able to get out of three tough situations. He stayed aggressive all night, generally stayed ahead in the count, and gave the Royals another solid six-inning outing on the way to his tenth victory of the year.

Josh Willingham: a professional hitter

Though Yordano was able to get out of that potentially dangerous third inning by being aggressive with his fastball, he did rack up a 26-pitch inning. This meant that in the top of the fourth, the Royals needed to take pitches, work the count, and try to get Colby Lewis to raise his pitch count, to make sure Yordano could both get enough rest and go as deep in the game as Lewis would.

Again, fortunately for Kansas City, they had the right guy at the plate to lead off the inning; Josh Willingham.

There’s a reason certain players and coaches will rave about a guy being "a real professional" – because those guys recognize their jobs, understand how to do them, and execute them to the best of their abilities, without exception. Willingham was touted as a professional, veteran ballplayer when he came to KC, and his at-bat to lead off the fourth showed why he has earned that reputation.

Willingham took a first-pitch fastball from Lewis belt high for strike one, then took another borderline fastball down-and-in for strike two. In a situation where a lot of guys would hack because they don’t want to have to deal with an 0-2 count, Willingham patiently took the two pitches, because that’s what he needed to do. Lewis then missed with two sliders away – Willingham again showed patience, letting Lewis miss and even the count at 2-2. Lewis missed low with his next fastball, and suddenly Willingham had taken five pitches and worked to a full count.

Lewis came over the plate with a 3-2 fastball, and Willingham tried to jump on it but fouled it back into the crowd. Lewis didn’t want to walk Willingham, the leadoff batter, with the Rangers already down 3-1 and his pitch count at 60, so he threw the same fastball, belt high over the plate. Willingham stayed right on this one, hitting a towering shot to left-center that just cleared the wall for a solo homerun.

In a situation where a lot of players would hack at a borderline pitch to avoid getting into a two-strike count, or jump on one of those early, hittable fastballs, Willingham recognized his job, patiently took pitches, worked to a full count, and ripped a solo homerun. Not only did he do what was best for the team by taking pitches, he was able to turn a two-strike count into another run for his team with his excellent patience and plate approach. Willingham may not have gaudy numbers or be a household star, but there’s a reason that he’s well-respected and appreciated for being a professional, veteran ballplayer, and his at-bat in the top of the fourth showed it.

—Paul Judge

Nori Aoki’s sacrifice bunt

With one down in the second inning and runners on first and second base, Nori Aoki squared around to bunt. If Nori was bunting for a hit it seemed like a bizarre choice; the Royals were in the middle of a rally and a bunt single would only allow each runner to move up 90 feet—the bases would have been loaded.

If it was a sacrifice bunt it was an even more bizarre choice; the Royals already had one out and you generally don’t bunt with one out unless you’re in the National League and the pitcher is at the plate. It appeared Aoki had lost track of the number of outs which is pretty hard to do a big league ballpark—there are scoreboards everywhere.

Even more bizarre is the fact that no one called time and ask Aoki what the heck he was doing; take a look at the scoreboard. It’s the kind of mistake that should not happen to a team fighting for a playoff spot.

Lorenzo Cain’s base running mistake

When Aoki laid down that bunt, there should have been runners on first and third, not second and third.

Here’s why:

With Mike Moustakas on second base and Lorenzo Cain on first, Alcides Ecobar hit a single to centerfield. Moustakas scored and Leonys Martin’s throw short-hopped the catcher, Robinson Chirinos. The ball rolled away from home plate and yet Cain never made it to third.

Intead of making an aggressive turn at second base, Lorenzo shut it down too soon and was not in position to take advantage of a bad throw.

Billy Butler at first base

Wednesday night Billy butler could not handle a bad throw from Christian Colon, Friday night it was a routine pop-up off the bat of Adrian Beltre. Missing the pop up led to a nine-pitch at-bat and an eventual double by Beltre. That forced Yordano Ventura to work harder and face two more hitters than he normally would have.

Be careful with curves to lefties

In the eighth inning Wade Davis had lefty Mike Carp in a 1-2 count when Salvador Perez signaled for a curveball. That’s an "uh-oh" moment: left-handed hitters tend to hit pitches located down and in well and balls to right field carry well in the Texas Rangers ballpark.

But Davis kept the ball down and Carp hit a routine groundball to Omar Infante for an out.