Judging the Royals

Royals vs. Twins: Six things to look for on opening day

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera. jsleezer@kcstar.com

If I’m ever elected president I pledge to do whatever it takes to make opening day a national holiday.

We shouldn’t have to call in sick or surreptitiously watch a TV in the break room to see our hometown team play the first game of the baseball season. So assuming you figure out a way to end up in front of a TV at 3:10 p.m. to watch the Royals play the Twins, keep an eye on these six things.

No. 1: Can Danny Duffy hit the mitt?

Focus on Salvador Perez’ catcher’s mitt; once Salvy gives Danny Duffy a target, how much does Salvy’s mitt move to receive the pitch?

At times Danny can be wild within the zone. He might throw a strike, but in the big leagues just throwing strikes isn’t enough; a pitcher needs to be able to hit spots within the strike zone.

If Salvy’s target was on the inside corner and the strike was on the outside corner that makes a difference.

If a catcher has to lurch from one side of the plate to the other, it looks bad and umpires might not give that pitch to the pitcher even if the pitch was in the zone. It might be wrong (actually it’s definitely wrong), but that’s the way it’s often done in the big leagues.

And if Danny isn’t hitting the mitt, the defense can’t shift.

It’s likely the defense will play straight up at the beginning of the game and after an inning or two, center fielder Lorenzo Cain will report what he’s seeing to outfield coach Rusty Kuntz.

You can’t play the hitter to the opposite field if the pitcher can’t consistently hit the outside corner; you can’t play the hitter to pull if the pitcher can’t hit the inside corner. So if Danny’s wild in the zone, the defense will probably continue to play straight up the entire time he’s pitching.

And that might make the defense less effective.

No. 2: Does Duffy go deep in the game?

This year the Royals closer is Kelvin Herrera and his career ERA is 2.63. Matt Strahm has only one season in the big leagues, but his ERA is 1.23. So if Duffy throws seven innings and has a lead, Ned Yost can hand the ball to Strahm and Herrera and feel pretty good about his chances.

But the fewer innings Duffy pitches, the more relievers Ned will have to use. And if a manager uses enough relievers, there’s a chance he’ll find one that doesn’t have it that day.

If Duffy can keep his pitch count low and go deep in the game, he allows Ned to avoid middle relief and give the ball to the best relievers at the back end of the Royals bullpen.

No. 3: Do the Royals have a lead when Duffy leaves the game?

When the starting pitcher leaves the game, managers will go their best relievers if they have a lead and the other guys if they’re behind.

(Most of the time you don’t waste quality innings on a game you’re losing, but today might be different because the Royals have an off-day tomorrow; that means Ned can use his best relievers and know they’ll be available again on Wednesday.)

The more innings the starter throws and the more lockdown relievers you have, the easier things get.

But since it’s hard to find more than three lockdown relievers, having the starter throw at least six innings and handing a lead to the three best relievers in the bullpen is how you win games.

In 2016, the Royals went 81-81, but even in a mediocre year if they had a lead after six innings, the Royals won over 80 percent of the time.

No. 4: Will Joakim Soria give the Royals a third dominant reliever?

If it’s dawning on you that it’s a big deal for the starter to go six innings and for the bullpen to have at least three dominant relievers, congratulations; you’ve been paying attention.

When the Royals have been good they’ve had at least three shutdown relievers to pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. The Royals are counting on Herrera and Strahm and if Joakim Soria can give the Royals a third shutdown reliever, things get a whole lot easier.

If Soria can’t get the job done, someone else will have to step up or Ned will have to mix-and-match from the time his starter leaves until he reaches his eighth-inning set-up man.

If Soria scuffles and nobody else steps up, the bridge between the starter and the back end of the bullpen will be longer and weaker and lots of games will be lost in the sixth and seventh innings.

No. 5: Can Matt Strahm get lefties out?

Don’t assume all left-handed relievers are tough on all left-handed hitters. For instance: in 2016 right-handed hitters batted .118 against Matt Strahm, lefties hit .292.

Reverse splits can often be explained by the change-up; left-handed pitchers are often reluctant to throw left-handed hitters a change-up because it will wind up down and in and lefty hitters tend to rake that location.

So a pitcher might be a three-pitch pitcher when facing a righty and two-pitch pitcher with a lefty at the plate.

The Royals are counting on Strahm to be one of their three dominant relievers, so pitching coach Dave Eiland and Strahm worked on a slider this spring. That slider should give Strahm an extra pitch when he faces left-handed hitters.

It’s a work in progress, but if Strahm pitches today, watch for the slider.

No. 6: Can Kelvin Herrera control his emotions?

There are exceptions to every rule, but it can be important for a closer to control his emotions. Think about Greg Holland and Wade Davis; they looked the same whether they had just given up a home run or struck out the side.

Every pitcher is going to fail at some point, so it’s important to be able to get past a failure and get right back to the program. If you blow a save on a Tuesday, you can’t let it get you down; you still have to be a bulldog on Wednesday.

And at times Kelvin Herrera shows his emotions.

Remember Herrera throwing a ball behind Brett Lawrie and then pointing at his own head? Herrera said he was telling Lawrie to “think about it;” Lawrie interpreted the gesture to mean “next time I’ll hit you in the head.”

(Actually, I thought that moment was a turning point for the Royals. At the beginning of 2015 teams had been pushing the Royals around and hitting their batters, but after Yordano Ventura and Herrera responded to those provocations and showed the league Royals pitchers would protect their teammates, those provocations stopped.)

But if Herrera lets his emotions get the better of him — if he gets upset or mad and tries to throw the next fastball even harder or wants to throw the fastball when he should be throwing something off-speed — it could backfire.

Enjoy the game

When people tell me they find baseball boring, I tell them there’s so much going on I don’t know where to look. Like so many other things in life, you get out of it what you put into it. And if you’ll pay attention to the six things listed here, you’ll get more out of Opening Day.

And remember: if you want Opening Day to be a national holiday, vote Judge in 2020.

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