Judging the Royals

Tigers 10, Royals 2: How does a manager handle a blowout?

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Neftali Feliz threw on Monday night.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Neftali Feliz threw on Monday night. jsleezer@kcstar.com

On Monday night, in the top of the first inning, Jason Vargas threw 21 pitches, gave up two walks — one intentional — a single, a double, and a run. In the top of the second inning, Vargas threw another 28 pitches, gave up two walks, a triple, a home run and three more runs.

After just two innings, Vargas had thrown 49 pitches and the Royals were behind 4-0; when it was clear he didn’t have it, why send Vargas out to start the third inning?

Because the reason you want to pull Vargas is the same reason you shouldn’t: you’re behind by a sizable margin.

I’ve written about his before, but for any fans new to the Royals bandwagon, it bears repeating:

In some games big-league managers have to accept that a loss is likely and switch goals; they go from doing everything they can to win a game to doing everything they can to limit the damage.

And part of limiting the damage is getting everything possible out of the starting pitcher; managers don’t want to burn up their bullpen in game they’re unlikely to win.

That’s why Vargas came back out for the third inning.

But after another 21 pitches, Vargas had given up another single, a triple, another home run and two more runs.

At some point, even a manager who is trying to get as much as possible out of his starter has to think about pitch count.

Vargas had already thrown 70 pitches and wasn’t out of the third inning. And the innings he did throw were stressful: 15 pitches an inning is about average and Vargas exceeded that by a healthy margin.

With two outs in the third inning and a runner on third base, Ned Yost finally went to his bullpen.

Which relievers does the manager use?

Managers can’t say it because it sounds bad, but they have relievers they use when they’re ahead and relievers they use when they’re behind.

Right now the Royals have eight relievers.

If they’re ahead when the game goes to the bullpen, you’re likely to see some combination of Scott Alexander, Mike Minor, Peter Moylan, Joakim Soria and Kelvin Herrera.

If the Royals are behind when the game goes to the bullpen, you’re likely to see some combination of Al Alburquerque, Kevin McCarthy and Neftali Feliz.

But that’s not written in stone and Monday night Ned used Alexander to get out of the third inning without further damage.

And no matter which reliever gets run out there, the manager hopes that his bullpen can hold the other team down while his offense makes a comeback, but Monday night that didn’t happen; the relievers gave up four more runs and the offense managed only two.

If you bought tickets for a game and early on the manager has to focus on limiting the damage, it can be frustrating; but in some games, it’s what the manager has to do.

What happened to Jason Vargas?

In 2017, Jason Vargas has started 18 games for the Royals and 12 of them were Quality Starts at least six innings pitched, no more than three earned runs allowed.

In the other six starts, Vargas was OK in three of them; no more than three earned runs, but he didn’t complete six innings.

But in three starts, Vargas did not complete six innings and got lit up for six runs in each of those games.

Jason Vargas does not light up the radar gun, so he needs to locate pitches.

When a pitcher throws 85 mph, he can’t fall behind 2-0, reach back and blow a fastball past a hitter. The guy who throws 85 needs to stay out of fastball counts like 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 or be able to throw an off-speed pitch for a strike in those counts.

On Monday night Vargas was falling behind and didn’t have pinpoint control with his curve and change-up.

Working your way into counts where you have to throw a strike and then having to throw that strike toward the heart of the zone because you can’t hit corners is how you lose ballgames.

Good pitchers still have bad games, but Monday night was worrisome because Vargas has now had two bad games in a row.

On the other hand, those two bad games were separated by 12 days and a trip to the All-Star Game — hardly a normal routine — so that might have had some effect.

After Jason Vargas’ next start, we’ll know more.

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