Judging the Royals

Does Kelvin Herrera have the right stuff for the closer role?

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera wobbled in the ninth inning Thursday and the Royals lost 6-1.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera wobbled in the ninth inning Thursday and the Royals lost 6-1. jsleezer@kcstar.com

There are people who believe pitching is pitching and pitching the ninth inning is no more difficult than pitching the seventh. For the most part, the people who believe this have not spent a great deal of their lives playing baseball.

The people who play the game for a living say of course their job comes with psychological pressure; all jobs involve a certain amount of stress and some parts of playing baseball are more stressful than others.

For instance:

If a pitcher makes a mistake in the bottom of the seventh inning his teammates still have six outs to make up for that mistake. Make the same mistake in the bottom of the ninth and the game’s over.

That’s pressure.

The best ballplayers try to face every situation with the same attitude — a World Series at bat is the same as a spring training at bat — but the ones I’ve met acknowledge that achieving that state of mind is difficult.

And it’s more difficult to maintain that attitude after you fail.

The best closers can lose a game and come back the next day ready to pitch as if nothing had happened. They have the ability to focus on the matter at hand and don’t let one game — or one at-bat —affect the next.

Lesser relievers wonder if they’re about to make another mistake.

Gaining a psychological edge

Ballplayers talk about “presence” and the best closers have it.

The walk-on music, the warm up, the death stare: it’s all designed to create an atmosphere that says “I’m better than you, so get in the box and I’ll prove it.”

The best closers are eager for the confrontation.

The hitters who succumb to those theatrics are said to be “deer in the headlights.” The closer can do just about anything he wants to those hitters and it will work because those hitters have already mentally conceded the at-bat.

But some hitters have their own presence: they have their own walk-up music and everything they do while getting ready to hit is designed to send the message that they’re not worried about the guy on the mound.

It’s a battle of willpower.

Boxers stare each other down before a fight starts and it’s not just machismo. If one boxer can maintain the stare and the other one looks away, the first boxer gains a psychological edge.

You’re afraid of me and we both know it.

The same thing happens in baseball. Hitters and pitchers will try to stare one another down for the same reason. It’s more subtle because they’re not nose-to-nose, so we miss it — but it still happens.

That’s why managers and pitching coaches hate to see a pitcher walking around the mound, taking deep breaths and acting like he never wants to throw another pitch in his life — that pitcher is giving the hitter a mental edge.

Whether it’s baseball, badminton or bartending, some people are mentally tough and some people aren’t and to deny that is to deny reality.

When Greg Holland was trying to pitch with an injured arm in 2015, his fastball velocity was down one night, so someone came to the mound to ask if he was OK. Holland responded by telling the intruder to get his rear end off the mound and back in the dugout. It didn’t make any difference what the radar gun said — Holland had the situation under control.

That’s a closer.

When Wade Davis was flying open and the ball was missing to the right he didn’t need a pitching coach to sooth his feelings or adjust his mechanics. I asked how Wade solved his problem in the middle of the game and Wade said: “I aimed left.”

That’s a closer.

Herrera has the stuff, does he have the attitude?

This all comes up because Kelvin Herrera came into Thursday night’s game in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros with the score tied. He gave up a four-pitch walk, a triple, a sac fly and a single. When the dust settled, Herrera was charged with four earned runs and any chance the Royals had of winning the game was gone. They lost 6-1.

So was Herrera’s failure mechanical or mental?

Whatever your opinion, you can find evidence to support it.

In 2014 Herrera’s ERA was 1.41, in 2015 it was 2.71 and in 2016 it was 2.75; those numbers were put up when Herrera was mainly pitching in the seventh and eighth innings.

Now that Herrera is in the closer role and getting most of his innings in the ninth, his ERA is 5.55.

But beware of small sample size: a reliever can have one bad outing — and Thursday night certainly qualifies — and his numbers will blow up like a reporter eating press box food.

We tend to best remember what we saw last and what we saw last was Herrera failing. But before you decide Herrera doesn’t have the right stuff to close, look at these numbers:

This season in save situations Herrera has an ERA of 3.00. In non-save situations it’s 9.64.

Herrera’s better in high-leverage situations than medium- or low-leverage situations.

When the game is tied opponents have hit .200 off him, when it’s within one run it’s .205, within two runs it’s .280, within three runs it’s .293 and when the margin is four runs or more, opponents have hit .400. Some of those numbers are scary, but so far in 2017, the closer the game the better Herrera has pitched.

There’s no doubt Herrera has devastating stuff and Wednesday night I was sitting behind home plate when he closed that game. The Astros hitters appeared overmatched. Brian McCann — who’s on a hot streak — singled, but Herrera struck out the other three batters he faced.

So back to our question: was the difference in the performance on Wednesday and the performance on Thursday mental or mechanical?

I don’t know for sure and I’m fairly certain you don’t know for sure and I have my doubts whether Kelvin Herrera is entirely sure either.

But psychology always plays a role.

There is a mental side to any endeavor

When Eric Karros was in town to do a game broadcast, we talked about analytics and some of the metrics that have brought greater understanding to broadcasters, bloggers and ballplayers.

But even though Karros liked a lot of the new information, he found it ridiculous that some people still refuse to accept that there’s a psychological aspect to playing baseball, and especially to playing baseball in high-pressure situations.

That’s when I rolled out my favorite mental-pressure metaphor:

Put a 12-inch wide plank on the ground and most of us could walk its length with no difficulty; put the same 12-inch wide plank 100 feet in the air and things change. It might not be logical — after all, it’s the same 12-inch wide plank — but the surrounding factors have changed and that makes the original task harder.

Karros liked that metaphor and I told him to feel free to use it during the broadcast, but if he did, I think he owes me royalties.

Bottom line:

If you still think it’s no more difficult to close a game than to pitch in the seventh inning, a whole lot of big-league ballplayers and at least one blogger would like to see you walk a plank.

Enjoy tonight’s game.