Judging the Royals

Lorenzo Cain: You have to hit a pitcher’s mistakes

Lorenzo Cain connected on a double in the fourth inning of Saturday’s baseball game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
Lorenzo Cain connected on a double in the fourth inning of Saturday’s baseball game against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium. jsleezer@kcstar.com

After Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Indians, Lorenzo Cain slumped in a chair in front of his locker, still wearing his dirt-caked uniform.

He looked like a man who had a hard day at work and was too tired to get up and go home.

A crowd of reporters gathered around him, and Lorenzo quietly answered their questions. After the crowd departed Lorenzo remained slumped in his chair, and I asked him a question.

When the Royals don’t hit, is it them or the pitchers they face?

It’s a little of both

That’s what Lorenzo said, and he then went on to explain.

Generally speaking, big-league hitters do not make a living hitting 95 on the black or off-speed pitches that paint a corner.

Big-league hitters make a living hitting pitchers’ mistakes; fastballs that wander into the heart of the zone and off-speed pitches that hang.

Lorenzo declined to speak for anybody else in the room but said he had popped up or rolled over too many mistake pitches.

Josh Tomlin’s mistakes

When a pitcher has a fastball that tops out in the mid 80s, people who don’t have to hit that pitcher might wonder how he gets away with it.

After talking to Lorenzo, I went back and looked at all 76 pitches Josh Tomlin threw on Saturday and counted how many pitches were in the heart of the zone. Strike zone grids have three boxes across the top, three across the middle and three across the bottom.

So how many pitches did Tomlin throw into that middle-middle box?

Not one of Tomlin’s pitches was completely within that center box, and only six were partially within that box.

And what did the Royals do with those pitches?

Single, foul ball, swinging strike, fly-ball out, foul ball and a foul ball.

Just like Lorenzo said, the Royals did not do enough with the mistake pitches they saw, and when you lose 3-1 that can be the difference in a ballgame.

You’ve got to hit a pitcher’s mistakes, and on Saturday, the Royals didn’t do that often enough to win.

Similar velocity on four pitches

After looking at Tomlin’s mistake pitches it also became obvious that the Royals were swinging at marginal pitches before they had to.

It’s hard to blame a hitter for chasing a pitch when he has two strikes – he has to swing at anything close – but chasing a pitch with one strike or no strikes is an entirely different matter.

Lorenzo said Tomlin was very good at getting you to chase his pitch out of the zone and often used a “baby cutter” to make you do it.

According to FanGraphs, Tomlin’s fastball averages 86.4 mph, that baby cutter is 85.2, his sinker is 87.5 and his change-up comes in at 84.3 mph.

So that’s four pitches with similar velocity, but different movement.

That’s what Lorenzo was talking about: you think you’re getting a fastball down the pipe, but it turns into a cutter and runs away from you. Or it’s really a sinker or change-up and the ball dives on you.

But that’s an explanation, not an excuse.

The Royals still have to figure out a way to hit guys like that, and on Saturday they didn’t do it.

Game notes

▪ Jason Vargas was terrific; six shutout innings. He also works quickly, which is part of why the game was only 2 hours and 37 minutes long.

▪ Vargy got himself in trouble in the top of the seventh when Jason Kipnis hit a bouncing ball down the right-field line. Both Vargy and Eric Hosmer looked like they thought the ball would go foul, so Vargy didn’t run hard to cover first base and was late getting there.

▪ If you see Royals base runners peel off instead of trying to break up a double play, don’t blame them. They’ve been told to do that because if they manage to get down to second base in time to flip the pivot man, these days umpires will probably call the runner on first base out as well.

▪ In the fifth inning Abraham Almonte hit a pop-up behind second base and Whit Merrifield went back to catch it. Outfielders are supposed to run infielders off those plays, but right fielder Jorge Soler was not in the vicinity. Soler plays deep and he doesn’t have much range, so the second baseman is going to have to make that play when Soler is in right.

▪ In the eighth inning Michael Brantley singled when he hit a ground ball up the middle, and pitcher Joakim Soria threw a foot out in front of it. Soria’s attempted kick save deflected the ball away from shortstop Alcides Esobar, so Brantley singled and eventually came around to score.

▪ In the ninth inning closer Kelvin Herrera gave up a home run when he threw a 2-0 fastball to Carlos Santana. If a pitcher wants to get away with throwing a fastball in a fastball count, he has to locate it better than Herrera did. Herrera’s 2-0 fastball was up and out over the plate.

▪ The Indians went back-to-back when Francisco Lindor homered on an 0-1 change-up. When hitters have one strike on them they’re probably in swing mode, so a change-up that started in the zone and then dropped would probably get a swing and miss. This change-up stayed in the heart of the zone.

The Royals can still win the series

Before Friday’s game a Royals front office guy told me this might be a good series for Kansas City; they would play last year’s American League champ and if the Royals could beat them it would be a psychological boost.

Kansas City suffered a tough loss on Saturday but still has a chance to take the series with a win on Sunday.

But they’d better hit Mike Clevinger’s mistakes.