Judging the Royals

A conversation with Royals groundskeeper Trevor Vance

Treat your grass like your kids, says Royals' chief groundskeeper

Kansas City Royals' director of groundskeeping, Trevor Vance, says grass should be treated like your kids. It should be fed when it's needed, not when it's convenient. And it should never go to bed wet.
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Kansas City Royals' director of groundskeeping, Trevor Vance, says grass should be treated like your kids. It should be fed when it's needed, not when it's convenient. And it should never go to bed wet.

On Sunday the Royals lost 10-1 to the Cleveland Indians and somehow the game was even less interesting than the score makes it sound. When people tell me how lucky I am to get paid to watch baseball, they aren’t thinking about games like this.

Since Sunday’s game wasn’t so hot, this morning I thought I’d give us both a break and write about a more pleasant subject.

Last Friday I dropped by Kauffman Stadium and spent some time talking to Royals head groundskeeper, Trevor Vance. We put the conversation on Facebook Live and if you missed it, here it is again:

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Assuming you’re one of those people — and I know there are still some of you out there — who would rather read than watch a video, I’ve gone to the trouble of writing this article; so settle in and read what Trevor had to say.

The dirt is more important than the grass

When fans walk into a ballpark the first thing we notice is the grass, but the dirt is more important.

According to Trevor, 70 percent of the game is played on dirt.

And when you think about the pitching mound, home plate and the base paths, if Trevor’s not completely accurate, he’s probably in the ballpark.

(Relax, there won’t be any surcharge for the jokes and, considering their quality, that seems like the right policy.)

So the Royals buy "engineered" dirt: clay, sand and silt mixed in the right quantities.

If the grounds crew mixes in the right amount of moisture, the dirt will be soft enough to let a player’s spikes sink in, but not so soft that clumps of dirt come up with the spikes when they’re pulled out of the ground.

If that happens, the player leaves divots-like holes in the dirt and that lead to bad hops on groundballs.

And here’s something you probably haven’t thought of (I know I didn’t); there are more bad hops after a big inning because big innings have more base runners.

When it comes to dirt, moisture is the key.

It’s one of the reasons teams usually don’t take batting practice before a Sunday day game; the crew needs to water the dirt so the field doesn’t dry out so quickly. When it’s smoking hot in KC, even a well-watered field will dry out by the sixth or seventh inning of a day game.

If a team does take BP before a day game and the crew doesn’t have a chance to soak the dirt, the field might dry out by the third or fourth inning.

And that matters.

If the field is rock hard, base runners need to start their slides early or they might slide past a base; infielders need to back up because the ball will get on them more quickly.

But if they back up too much, infielders will have a different kind of problem.

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Watch your lips

Where the infield grass stops and the dirt begins is called the "lip" or "transition." If the grass and dirt aren’t the same level, that can cause bad hops. And with some defensive shifts putting an infielder out on the outfield grass, now there are two lips that can cause a problem.

Groundskeepers need to make sure the grass and dirt are level at both the front and back edge of the base paths.

One season, three infields

The Royals haven’t made the change yet, but at the beginning of a season the infield might be bluegrass, which thrives in cool weather, and in the middle of the season the grass might be Bermuda, which handles heat better.

Get back to cool weather and the Royals will go back to a bluegrass infield.

There are fewer rules than you think

Other than 90 feet between the bases and 60 feet, six inches to home, it’s pretty much up to a team to decide how it wants to layout its infield.

If a team bunts a lot, they might want their grass right up to the foul lines; if the ball stays on grass it will have less chance of spinning foul.

And a team can tilt its base paths; make the ball roll fair if your team likes to bunt and if you don’t bunt, make the ball roll foul.

According to Vance, Dayton Moore has asked for a neutral field, so the Royals base paths are flat.

And if a team wants to mess with the visiting team’s pitchers, they can make the bullpen mounds different than the game mound. A pitcher comes in and has a rough start because the bullpen mound was steeper than the regular mound and the pitcher has to readjust his release point.

Trevor says the Royals don’t do that, either.

Speed of the infield differs from park to park

Let’s say the pitching coach wants the grass long so it will slow down ground balls, but the hitting coach wants the grass short, so ground balls get through.

Groundskeepers can give teams whatever they want, so the speed of the infield differs from park to park. And if you let the grass grow a couple days, the speed of the infield might differ from series to series.

Vance says years ago he was once asked to make the infield fast everywhere else, but slow in front of third base. He didn’t do it, but it shows you how complicated this can get.

That’s one of the reasons you can’t take some of the advanced metrics seriously; it’s hard to accurately factor in infield surface speed that can change every few days.

The Royals have a faster than average infield and that’s probably a reflection of their infield defense, which is above average. Theoretically, Royals infielders can get to grounders that other teams can’t.

How to tell if a team is losing by looking at the grass

Once an infield has been used long enough, a losing team will wear a path from home plate to the mound and from the home dugout to the mound because losing teams have more mound visits.

If you’re sitting down low you might not notice it, but by the end of the season the paths are visible from the upper deck.

Defensive positioning

Until MLB got involved and made them stop, infield coaches would sometimes take two differently-colored golf tees and put one in the ground to mark where they wanted their infielders to stand for right-handed hitters, and a differently-colored tee to mark where they wanted infielders to stand for left-handed hitters.

It saved the coaches from constantly re-positioning infielders who forgot where they were supposed to stand and that happens more often than you think.

Outfielders have a different trick.

They’ll walk out to their position, drop a handful of sunflower seeds as marker and position themselves off that.

Rain delays

Bottom line, the more grounds crew members you see, the worse things are about to get. And if you see Vance, the game is about to be delayed. He’s ususally back in his office watching the game and the radar and, if a storm is about to hit, he’ll come out to inform the umpires.

Better too soon than too late: if the crew can get the tarp on the field even two minutes early, it can save 45 minutes of cleanup after the storm has passed.

I’d keep telling you what Vance told me (we haven’t even talked about the snakes in the grass or Alex Gordon’s footprints), but this thing is long enough already — so maybe you better watch the video.

Today’s game

The Royals are back in town and play the Detroit Tigers at 6:15 tonight, so if you come out to the K, you can check out the grounds crew’s work with new appreciation.

Today is Memorial Day, so try to spend at least part of it thinking about the people who gave their lives so the rest of us could be free. If you didn’t serve, it truly is the least you can do, so go ahead and do it.

See you at the ballpark.

Lee Judge: 816-234-4482, @leejudge8 

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