Judging the Royals

A breakdown of the Royals’ bullpen breakdown

Minnesota’s Max Kepler was safe at first base after a bunt during the pivotal seventh inning on Monday.
Minnesota’s Max Kepler was safe at first base after a bunt during the pivotal seventh inning on Monday. Tribune News Services

By now you’ve probably already heard the Royals lost to the Twins when the Kansas City bullpen gave up six runs in the seventh inning.

They say there’s no use crying over spilt milk, but nobody ever said you couldn’t take a closer look at how that milk got spilt.

Starting pitcher Danny Duffy threw six innings while giving up one run, but his pitch count was up to 100 and that’s as far as Ned Yost wanted to take Duffy in his first start of the year.

So Ned did what has worked so often in the past; he went to his bullpen.

Ned — and just about everybody who actually pitches for a living instead of theorizing about it — prefers set roles for relievers. As I’ve written over and over and doubtless will again, set roles make it easier on everybody; everybody knows when to get ready, when they’ll come into the game and how long they’ll pitch.

During spring training, Ned was appropriately vague about who would be given the seventh and eighth innings, but the feeling was it would be Joakim Soria and Matt Strahm.

Strahm gets the ball despite reverse splits

The Twins had a switch-hitter and two lefties coming to the plate in the bottom of the seventh, so Ned sent left-handed pitcher Matt Strahm to the mound which raises some questions.

Having a left-handed pitcher throw to left-handed hitters is one of the oldest strategies in baseball, but in this case Strahm has reverse splits — left-handed hitters do better off him than right-handed hitters — and two of the Twins hitters due up in the seventh had actually done better off left-handed pitchers than right-handed pitchers.

So feel free to question the decision to send Strahm to the mound, but always remember there are things we don’t know. Strahm has been working on a slider to help neutralize lefties, but in this outing the slider didn’t play much of a role.

Strahm gave up a soft single to the first hitter, Jorge Polanco. Max Kepler then laid down what was intended to be a sacrifice bunt, but it took a while for Strahm to get to the ball and when he did get there, Strahm didn’t cut loose on his throw to first base; he made an easy toss to Eric Hosmer and Kepler beat the throw.

After another sacrifice bunt by Eddie Rosario and an intentional walk to Brian Dozier, the bases were loaded and that’s when the home plate umpire got involved.

Home plate umpire Gerry Davis had a very tight zone

If baseball really wants to speed up games, the easiest thing it could do is ask umpires to loosen up their strike zones. It’s considered unprofessional for big-league players to complain too much about an umpire’s strike zone (after all, everyone has to adjust to it), but I’m not a big-league player.

Home plate umpire Gerry Davis had a tight zone all night and according to MLB’s Gameday, two of the pitches to Kepler were strikes that were called balls and if those pitches had been called strikes, Kepler probably wouldn’t have bunted.

After Strahm loaded the bases, he walked Robbie Grossman on four pitches to give the Twins the lead and once again the first two pitches were strikes according to Gameday. The strike zone on TV showed the pitches in different locations, but those pitches were still close enough to be called strikes.

(This is part of why players don’t take those strike zones seriously; if they’re calibrated incorrectly the results will be off, but that won’t stop someone from writing that a catcher is either really good or really bad at framing pitches.)

Whether you buy Gameday’s strike zone or not, Gerry Davis had a very tight zone; Strahm got squeezed and Travis Wood suffered the same fate on a couple pitches that led to yet another bases-loaded walk.

But Davis had been tight all night and whatever the strike zone is, pitchers have to hit it and Strahm and Wood struggled with that.

Intensity level: one more reason to ignore spring-training numbers

On the last day of spring training, Rusty Kuntz and I sat on a bench outside the Royals clubhouse and talked about the two exhibition games the Royals were going to play over the weekend.

I wanted to know why baseball felt it was necessary for the Royals to fly to Texas, play two meaningless games against the Rangers, then fly to Minnesota to open the season, then fly back to Texas to play the Houston Astros. As is often the case, Rusty ignored me and talked about intensity level instead.

Rusty said that spring training was one thing, but the intensity level of playing in a big-league park with a big-league crowd would skyrocket, even if the exhibition games were meaningless.

After the game, Strahm said he was spinning off and not staying on top of the ball, which is what happens when a pitcher is amped up and overthrows.

I’m not there to ask and I’m not sure Strahm would admit if I was, but pitching on Opening Day for the first time in his career in a 1-1 tie might make a young pitcher excitable. If so, Matt Strahm has an excuse — Travis Wood doesn’t. That’s one of the reasons teams like been-there-done-that guys; they should be used to playing big games in the big leagues.

But as everybody — including me — is saying: it’s only one game of 162 and the Royals get another whack at it on Wednesday.

P.S. Danny Duffy was really good

If you’re looking for a bright spot — and why wouldn’t you? — Danny Duffy was outstanding: six innings, three hits, one run and eight punch-outs. After the game, Duffy was lamenting his three walks, but guess what: he also got squeezed on those walks.

OK, that’s it for now.

But I’m still not done writing about Monday’s game.

Check in later and I should have something about the top of the seventh inning and the Royals offense.

Talk to you then.

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