Judging the Royals

How an Astros defensive shift helped the Royals win

Alex Gordon scored from first base on a three-run double by Whit Merrifield in the eighth inning of the Royals’ 9-7 victory over the Astros on Tuesday.
Alex Gordon scored from first base on a three-run double by Whit Merrifield in the eighth inning of the Royals’ 9-7 victory over the Astros on Tuesday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Today let’s start with some Baseball 101.

When a defense is playing straight up — evenly spaced — pitchers can throw whatever pitch they like. Fastball or off-speed, the defenders won’t have to run that far to get to a ball in play.

But when a defense is playing a dramatic shift — bunching defenders and leaving gaps elsewhere — pitchers need to pitch so the ball is hit in the general direction of those bunched infielders and away from those wide-open gaps.

And that brings us to the bottom of the eighth inning of Tuesday night’s 9-7 Royals victory over the Houston Astros.

When Whit Merrifield came to the plate the bases were loaded, the Royals were down 7-4 and Astros left fielder Josh Reddick was swung over toward the left-center gap. There was enough acreage between Reddick and the left-field line to build a good-sized ranch house with a detached garage, above-ground swimming pool optional.

The Astros pitcher was Ken Giles and he throws two pitches: fastball and slider. But with a right-handed hitter at the plate, the Astros’ shift made Giles’ slider problematic. When a hitter is geared up for a 100 mph fastball, an 87 mph slider is going to get pulled — right into that gap between the foul line and Reddick.

Giles did not pitch to his defense and kept throwing sliders to Merrifield.

So when Merrifield drove one of those sliders into the left-field corner, Reddick had a long run to retrieve it and that allowed Alex Gordon to circle the bases from first base and tie the score.

Defensive shifts often work, but sometimes they backfire and this defensive shift helped the Royals win the game.

Not the only shift that hurt Astros

As we just saw, shifts can backfire when a pitcher doesn’t pitch to the shift.

If you throw a fastball and slider and a shift takes away that slider, you might get frustrated and throw it anyway. And if you have a hitter set up for a fastball away, but you don’t have anyone there to catch the ball if the hitter puts it in play, that can be frustrating as well.

And sometimes, a shift backfires when a hitter does something unexpected.

On Monday night, Brandon Moss came to the plate and the Astros set up in a defensive shift designed for a left-handed pull hitter.

Mike Fiers then proceeded to pitch Moss hard up-and-away, expecting Moss to pull any pitch in any location. But Moss decided to take a shot at the space between left fielder Nori Aoki and the left-field line.

Moss hit a fly ball in that gap and Nori caught it, but looked shaky while doing so.

Nori Aoki is not going to get fitted for a Gold Glove anytime soon, so when the Astros set up in the same defensive alignment — Nori off the left-field line — Moss decided to shoot for that gap again in his second at bat. Another fly ball, but this time Nori misplayed the heck out of it and it dropped for an RBI double.

Moss did something unexpected — took a curveball to left field — and beat the Astros defensive shift.

The same thing happened with Salvador Perez in the fourth inning of Tuesday night’s game. Perez took a pitch he normally pulls and found a wide-open gap down the right-field line.

In the eighth Perez did it again, hit a slider in — a pitch that normally gets pulled — toward a wide-open right side of the infield.

Later in the eighth, Cheslor Cuthbert did the same thing.

James Hoyt threw Cuthbert a fastball in, Cuthbert did something unexpected and hit a bloop to the right side; but because Jose Altuve was swung over toward second base, the bloop dropped in for an RBI single. A bloop that would have been caught easily if Altuve had been playing straight up.

In the ninth inning Mike Moustakas made the Houston defensive positioning irrelevant when he hit a ball out of the yard; a game-winning, walk-off homer.

It’s hard to fault Houston’s defensive positioning when they’ve won more games than any team in baseball and allowed fewer runs than any team in the American League, but for one night at least, that positioning backfired.

Game 3 of the Astros series

This is a big one: Dallas Keuchel vs. Jason Vargas, 7:15 p.m. Wednesday.

If the Royals manage to take this one they’ll at least split the series with the hottest team in baseball and be playing with house money in Game 4. Pay attention to Houston’s defensive shifts and if a Royals hits a ball at someone, you know the shift worked. If the Royals hit a ball in a gap, you know the shift backfired.

Enjoy the game.