Judging the Royals

Why Justin Verlander can be vulnerable in the first inning

Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander throwing during the first inning of Tuesday’s game.
Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander throwing during the first inning of Tuesday’s game. The Associated Press

Justin Verlander’s career ERA is 3.51. But in the first inning — and he’s thrown 367 of them — Verlander’s ERA is 4.07. Pitchers often need an inning to find themselves; adjust to the game mound, find release points and figure out what pitches are working that night.

When Verlander makes it to the second inning, he gets much tougher; his ERA drops to 2.51.

Tuesday night the Royals played the Detroit Tigers and scored three runs on five hits in the first inning. Verlander was struggling to find the release point on his slider and curve, so the first six batters got to hit fastballs and mediocre breaking pitches.

Unfortunately for the Royals, Verlander found his curve when Brandon Moss came to the plate and threw three good ones.

Moss struck out and after Alcides Escobar lined a ball up the middle — deflected by Verlander and fielded by Ian Kinsler — that was pretty much it.

Verlander found his slider and curve and over his next six innings the Royals scored no runs on four hits.

And Matt Strahm struggles late

In 2016, Matt Strahm threw his fastball over 78 percent of the time. Once in a while he’d mix in a curve, slider or change, but the fastball was his bread and butter. And if a hitter is only going to get one look at you, that can work.

But starters have to face hitters more than once and that’s where Strahm gets in trouble. A starter needs to be able to throw his secondary pitches for strikes and get hitters out in different ways.

In his first 25 pitches this season, batters hit .182 off Strahm, in the next 25 pitches batters hit .250 and in the next 25 pitches batters hit .389.

In the third inning of Monday night’s game, the Tigers started their second trip through the order and scored three runs off Strahm. In the fourth inning, the Tigers were about to start their third trip through the order, so Ned Yost pulled him.

Sprinters and marathoners both run, but they require two different skill sets. Relievers and starters both pitch, but go about their business in different ways.

Matt Strahm is still learning what it takes to be a successful starter in the big leagues.

What makes Miguel Cabrera special

Miguel Cabrera is currently hitting .261 and over the last 14 days it’s been even worse — the Tigers first baseman has hit .196.

But Cabrera is still a special hitter and in his second trip to the plate, he showed why.

There are pitching patterns as old as the hills and hard in, soft away is one of them. Speed up the hitter’s bat by throwing fastballs in, then get the hitter out in front by throwing something off-speed away. (I’m pretty sure David was trying to go hard in on Goliath, but the rock got away from him.)

Anyway …

That’s what Strahm did to Cabrera in his first at-bat; he threw a couple fastballs in, then got Cabrera to swing at a slider away. Cabrera missed the slider and Strahm had a strikeout.

In Cabrera’s second at-bat, Strahm went slider in, then change-up away — and Cabrera hit the change-up out of the yard.

What makes that special is Cabrera stayed back on an 83 mph change-up and hit it to right field. If Cabrera had pulled the ball just a bit more, it wouldn’t have cleared the fence; it would have been a double in right center.

Pitchers throw soft away because they’re hoping to get a swing and miss, or at least a weak ball in play; a guy who can stay back and drive a change-up to the opposite field is special.

More stuff that matters

▪ The pitch that struck out Cabrera in the first inning and the pitch that Cabrera hit for a home in the third inning were not the same pitch. The first was a slider, the second was a change-up, but both were up in the zone — neither pitch was a good one.

▪ Lorenzo Cain scored on a Salvador Perez bloop single in the first inning, but it appeared Cain was more lucky than good. From his angle it would be hard to know that the ball was going to drop just inches beyond Ian Kinsler’s glove and Cain was still looking back to see what was happening as he approached third base. But if you’re that far off second base, you might as well keep going; Cain did and the Royals got their third run of the inning.

▪ When Whit Merrifield scored from second base, he made contact with the Tigers third baseman who just happened to be standing in the base path; sometimes that’s accidental, but sometimes it not. If the runner takes the time to go around an infielder he might be out at the plate. Merrifield did the right thing: he didn’t change course. Whit made contact and if he’d been thrown out at the plate the Royals could have claimed obstruction.

▪ In the fifth inning, Cain dropped a fly ball when he got overly casual about catching it. Rex Hudler pointed it out; if a fielder catches the ball below his shoulders, his head will have to move too fast to track it all the way into his glove.

▪ In the same inning, Nick Castellanos was called out on strikes and stood there a moment before walking away. Looking back or arguing with the umpire is frowned on, but a slight delay before leaving the plate sends the umpire a subtle message; you missed that pitch. According to MLB.com’s Gameday strike zone, Castellanos was wrong.

Game 2 Wednesday

It’s Ian Kennedy (1-6, 4.95 ERA) vs. Daniel Norris (4-5, 4.66 ERA). Last time out Norris gave up five runs in six innings and the Tigers have the worst bullpen in the league.

When you match Verlander against Strahm and lose, it’s not overly surprising, but Kennedy vs. Norris should be winnable.

Lee Judge: 816-234-4482, @leejudge8