Judging the Royals

My first day at spring training

Kansas City Royals catcher Erik Kratz.
Kansas City Royals catcher Erik Kratz. The Kansas City Star

The first person I ran into when I walked in the Royals clubhouse this spring was Danny Duffy. He’s sporting a look he calls “John the Baptist” and I call “Grizzly Adams.” (I’m at that age where I have vivid memories of bad TV shows from the seventies and no idea where I left my car keys.) Anyway, I asked Danny if he was going to keep the hair and beard for opening day and then encouraged him to go full ZZ Top.

I don’t know if the league will let Danny pitch with a flowing beard while wearing Ray Bans, but I’d pay good money to see it.

The next person I ran into was Mike Moustakas. Moose was sitting on a clubhouse couch eating a burrito and watching a spring-training game on TV. We exchanged stories about what we did over the winter and I told him I’d had a health scare with my mother.

She’s going to turn 90 this summer and one of my brothers called to say she wasn’t doing so hot — they thought she was having heart problems — and maybe I should come visit. I booked a flight to California for what I thought might be the last time I saw my mother. When I got there she was just fine and practically doing jumping jacks on the lawn. Turns out she had asthma, they gave her an inhaler and she felt fine, but I was upset. “I fly all the way out here and you’re healthy as a horse? Next time could you at least pretend to be sick?” She might be 89, but I still think she’s going to outlive me.

I walked out the clubhouse door and headed for the practice fields and ran into Rusty Kuntz and his apprentice, Mitch Maier.

A couple of things about Mitch: don’t let any reporter tell you that they don’t have favorites or care whether the team they’re covering wins or loses. It’s easier and a lot more fun to cover a winner — the players are in a good mood and fans want to read about the team — and some players are just more likeable than others.

Mitch Maier is likeable.

I hadn’t seen Mitch in a couple years and the first thing he said to me was he’d just watched the video of me getting hit by a pitch again. Mitch says he’s seen it a hundred times and it’s funny every time. Mitch also said when he saw the bruise it left — it was black and purple and went from my spine to my stomach — he still thought it was funny, but, “I was pretty sure you were bleeding internally.” That’s baseball humor for you.

I asked Rusty what was up with him and he said he wouldn’t be leaving the big-league club until he trained Mitch to replace him. “Well, if you’re going to teach Mitch everything you know, you’re going to be here another decade.”

Rusty Kuntz knows a lot of baseball; he positions the outfielders, breaks down video to help the base stealers and coaches first base during games. I asked Mitch to tell me the first thing Rusty taught him and Mitch said they had to set up a bunting station and use a pitching machine: “Rusty taught me how to turn on the generator.”

OK, maybe Rusty is going to be here another decade and a half.

The game that night

We’re all familiar with the batter’s box and anyone who has paid attention will see the first hitter of the game walk up and wipe out the back line of that batter’s box. Lots of hitters like to stand as deep as possible in the box and some hitters try to get away with standing a little deeper than that. Standing with your back foot almost out of the batter’s box takes a few inches off a pitcher’s fastball; so that explains that.

But there’s also a catcher’s box and the first thing Royals catcher Erik Kratz did when he took the field that night was to wipe out the chalk lines defining where he was supposed to position himself. Catchers also push the limits by setting up outside the defined box because it helps their pitchers get strikes.

If a catcher has to reach outside the framework of his body to catch a pitch, it doesn’t look much like a strike. If the catcher can keep the pitch between his knees the pitch looks better. Setting up outside the catcher’s box can make pitches off the plate look like strikes. After Kratz wiped out the chalk lines, catchers on both teams were setting up outside the catcher’s box on certain pitches.

The Royals were playing the White Sox that night and the Sox had a pitcher named Carlos Rodon on the mound. Rodon struck out nine Royals in four innings.

In the second inning, Rodon threw Alex Rios a 2-1 fastball — the only fastball for a strike Rios got in the at-bat — and Rios fouled it off. In the big leagues you might get one hittable fastball per at-bat and if you miss it, you’re in trouble. After Rios missed his pitch he saw a change-up and cutter and struck out.

The further you get from dirt, the easier the game becomes

One more story and then I’m outta here:

Spring-training parks hold fewer people than big-league parks and that means it’s easier for fans to get close to the action. Get close to the dirt when big-leaguers are playing and you see how fast the game really is. A 94-MPH fastball gets from the pitchers hand to the catcher’s mitt in a blink of an eye; it’s amazing anyone can hit one, much less discern the difference between that fastball and a slider.

A couple seasons back Alex Gordon ended a game when he took a called strike three from Detroit’s Justin Verlander. The pitch that locked Gordon up was at the knees away and as I recall hit 100 mph on the radar gun. At the time I was sitting next to KCTV5’s Brad Fanning, and Brad said he couldn’t believe Gordon took that pitch.

I invited Brad to meet me at Mac-N-Seitz batting cages that week and when he showed up I put him in the fast cage. The first pitch zipped by Brad and he turned around and asked me how fast the pitch was.

“About 82.”

Brad thought a minute and then said, “Maybe I should apologize to Gordo,” and he did. Give credit to Brad for realizing how hard it is to hit big-league pitching and maybe we call all learn something from him. It’s easy to sit in the stands and criticize, easier still to do it from the press box, but the guys who actually stand on the dirt play a hard game.

OK, that’s it for now; the Royals are playing the Mariners tonight and I’ve got to do some shopping. Before his next appearance, I need to find Danny Duffy some Ray Bans.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.