Judging the Royals

Lee Judge: An inside-baseball look at the Royals first win of 2017

Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Astros on Friday in Houston.
Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas delivers a pitch during the first inning against the Astros on Friday in Houston. AP

When a team is in a losing stretch, ballplayers say what usually gets them out of it is a good performance from a starting pitcher. That’s what happened Friday night: Jason Vargas threw six innings, gave up six hits but only one run.

And Vargas only walked one batter.

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It was George Springer, the first batter he faced and after ball four an audible F-bomb could be heard on TV and I’m pretty sure it was Vargas. (Jason, if I’m wrong, tell me and I’ll apologize publicly. If it was you let’s just pretend it never happened.)

F-bomb or not, it wasn’t the way Vargas wanted to start the game, but after that he did what some other Royals pitchers haven’t been able to do: make adjustments and give the team a good performance.

A long top of the seventh; one reason Vargas came out of the game

In the top of the seventh inning five Royals hitters saw 23 pitches. They also had to wait through a coaching visit and an Astros pitching change and all that took a while.

Meanwhile, Vargas had thrown 89 pitches after six innings and had a long wait in the dugout before he went out for the bottom of the seventh inning.

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In that situation – fairly high pitch count, long wait – managers will keep a sharp eye on their pitcher. When Vargas started the seventh with two hits on four pitches, Ned Yost made the switch.

We don’t often think about it, but a good offensive inning can mess up the defensive inning that follows; unless the manager changes pitchers, the starting pitcher had a long time to sit and get cold. Pitchers appreciate run support, but there are times they’re thinking they need to get back on the mound as soon as possible.

Peter Moylan issues a good walk

After the Royals pitchers held the Minneapolis Walk-A-Thon fans might not want to hear about a “good” walk, but there is such a thing and we saw one Friday night.

After Vargas gave up an RBI double to Carlos Beltran the score was 2-1, nobody was out and first base was open.

Peter Moylan came out of the bullpen to face right-handed Evan Gattis and struck him out.

With first base open Ned let Moylan face a lefty, Josh Reddick. Moylan’s splits against lefties aren’t good, but he had an open base to work with so he could stay away from Reddick and walk him if he needed to. But with the help of a bad call by the umpire (it works both ways) Moylan punched out Reddick and still had first base open.

So when Moylan faced switch-hitting pinch hitter Marwin Gonzalez he could once again pitch a guy hitting from the left side of the plate carefully and walk him if he needed to.

Moylan fell behind in the count, but didn’t give in; he put Gonzalez on first base and with two outs, turned the ball over to Travis Wood. Moylan didn’t let his personal numbers stand in the way of doing the right thing; avoiding a bad match up so his team could find a better one.

This is why you can’t look at statistics out of context; a lot of walks are bad, but some walks are good strategy and a column of numbers doesn’t let you know which is which.

Wood got lucky; he had Gordon in left

That better matchup almost backfired; Travis Wood threw one pitch, a cutter right down the middle. Nori Aoki smoked the ball to left field and without Alex Gordon out there, it might have tied the game.

But the Royals Gold Glover went back on the ball and made the catch look easy.

In the next half inning Gordon would hit a similar ball to Aoki in left, but Nori would run a bad route to the ball and allow a two-run double that put the game away.

No telling if Aoki could have caught the ball if he’d run a better route, but the one he ran gave him no chance.

That run-scoring passed ball looked like a cross-up

With the bases loaded Houston pitcher Jandel Gustave threw a pitch and catcher Evan Gattis didn’t catch it. When a catcher totally whiffs on a catchable pitch it’s almost always because there was a cross-up in the signs.

With a runner on second base the pitcher and catcher have to use a more complicated sign system and if one of them forgets what system their using, the catcher will get a pitch he isn’t expecting. Big league pitchers throw so hard catchers have to know what’s coming so they can anticipate a pitch’s path.

Salvador Perez scored on the pitch, but ever the showman, after sliding across home plate, Salvy came up limping slightly – the limp was gone by the next half inning.

Why Mondesi got thrown out trying to score … probably

Back to the top of the seventh: Mike Moustakas at the plate, Alex Gordon on first, Raul Mondesi on third, nobody out.

With runners on first and third teams often use the contact play; the runner on third breaks for home if the batter makes contact.

If the runner breaks for home and the other team turns a double play – and Moose is a good candidate – at least you got a run out of it. If the defense cuts the runner down at the plate, they only get one out, not two.

But it’s hard to anticipate every possible sequence of events – and you don’t want to cloud a ballplayer’s mind by trying – so when Moose put a check-swing dribbler in play Mondesi could have held at third and the Astros wouldn’t have been able to turn two on a ball hit so softly.

If the ball had been hit harder Mondesi probably would have scored while the Astros were turning a double play; if the ball had been hit more softly Mondesi would have beaten the throw home.

But Moose hit it just right and third baseman Alex Bregman’s off-line throw still got there soon enough for Evan Gattis to turn and make a tag.

One last note: Gattis had to reach to the infield side of home plate to catch the ball, so Mondesi should have slid further to the foul side of home plate to make the tag longer.

That’s the kind of little stuff Mondesi needs to pick up to be a complete player.

If you found this interesting, thank Clint Hurdle

The idea for Judging the Royals originated when Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle let me hang around his minor league teams. Hurdle was in the Mets system at the time and after games we’d go out to dinner, have a few beers and talk baseball.

I found what the players and coaches had to say fascinating; they’d notice stuff that went right by me and the stuff they talked about explained much of what I’d seen in earlier games.

Beat reporters have to squeeze a lot of information into one story so the details of cross-ups and contact plays rarely find room. So that’s what I try to bring you; the details of the game that you might have missed the first time around.

So if you ever think I missed a big play – like Lorenzo Cain’s catch – it’s probably because I feel it already got adequate coverage.

OK, that’s it for today and we’ll see you back here tomorrow.

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