On Monday night the Kansas City Royals were shut out for the fourth game in a row and their streak of scoreless innings extended to 43 in a row. When something like that happens there’s a tendency to throw up your hands and say, “That’s baseball.”
But even if managers and players don’t want to get into all the gory details after losing a ballgame (they mainly want to shower and go home), looking at the gory details can reveal some patterns.
Here are six reasons the Royals haven’t been scoring runs.
The first pitch
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Like a lot of teams, the Royals like to swing at the first pitch of an at-bat and there’s a pretty good reason for doing so. Pitchers like to get ahead in the count and often throw first-pitch fastballs to make that happen. Hitters want to hit fastballs — all those breaking pitches are hard to square up — so if a hitter thinks he’s getting a first-pitch fastball for a strike, that can be a good pitch to hit.
When the Royals put the first pitch in play they hit .357.
The Royals have done that 572 times this season and, as Ned Yost says, when it works everyone loves it; when it doesn’t, everyone says the Royals should show more patience.
Other teams are paying attention and the Tampa Bay Rays clearly had a plan for throwing that first pitch.
Monday night the Rays threw 31 first pitches and 14 of them were off-speed. If the Rays pitchers threw a first-pitch fastball, they either threw it off the plate for a ball or, if they threw it for a strike, tried to throw it on the outside corner.
When the Royals put a first-pitch fastball in play, they went 2 for 3. Lorenzo Cain doubled twice when he hit first-pitch fastballs to the opposite field. When the Royals took a first-pitch fastball for a called strike, they went 0 for 4 with one walk. This season, if the pitcher gets ahead 0-1, Royals hitters bat .224 after that.
In the big leagues, pitches to hit can be hard to come by and that’s why the Royals have turned their hitters loose on that first pitch: Don’t let a hittable fastball go by because you’re probably going to see a bunch of junk after that.
So the Royals, just like everybody else, need to be selectively aggressive: If that first pitch is a good one, light it up. If it’s not, spit on it.
Opposing pitchers are avoiding fastball counts and pitching backwards
Hitters like to hit in fastball counts like 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 and 3-1 because the odds are good they’re going to get something straight and hittable in those situations. But because the Royals are aggressive and swing early, the Royals have had a hard time getting into those counts. Assuming I counted right:
▪ On Friday, Indians pitchers threw 128 pitches and 13 were thrown in a fastball count.
▪ On Saturday, Indians pitchers threw 147 pitches and 17 were thrown in a fastball count.
▪ On Sunday, Indians pitchers threw 106 pitches and five were thrown in a fastball count.
▪ On Monday, Rays pitchers threw 117 pitches and 11 were thrown in a fastball count.
And when opposing pitchers get into fastball counts, they often pitch backwards; they throw changeups, cutters, sliders and curves in fastball counts. If a Royals hitter gets into a fastball count, assumes he’s getting a fastball and swings out of his shoes, he’s going to look pretty silly when he gets a slider off the plate.
The Royals have been lining out
During this offensive drought, people have talked about how bad the Royals offense has been and there’s no denying the results have not been good.
But during this scoreless streak the Royals have lined out 17 times.
Hitters will tell you they can’t steer the ball, all they can do is get a good pitch to hit, then hit it hard and hope it isn’t hit at someone.
And not all line outs are bad luck; if the defense puts a guy in the right spot and the pitcher executes the right pitch, the ball should be hit at someone.
But if some of those 17 line drives had found grass, the Royals would have scored some runs and we wouldn’t be talking about this streak of scoreless innings.
In the last two games, Royals pitching has put the Royals offense on its heels
After Monday night’s shutout Eric Hosmer was asked about the scoreless streak and he pointed out that the goal isn’t to score a single run, it’s to win games. The scoreless streak gives us something to write about, but if the Royals had scored a single run in each of their last four games they still would have lost 4-1, 4-1, 12-1 and 12-1.
Would that make anyone feel better?
On Monday the Royals were down 7-0 after three innings and on Sunday the Royals were down 12-0 after two innings. When a team gets down by that many runs, that early, it affects the offense.
Some fans have complained that the Royals aren’t being aggressive on the bases, but when you’re down by 12 runs you can’t play for one. The first two shutouts are a different story, but in the last two games being down by a lot early took away one of the Royals best weapons; aggressive base running.
Missing mistake pitches
When the Seattle Mariners were in town their bench coach, Tim Bogar, said something worth remembering: top-of-the-line pitchers make very few mistakes, but lesser pitchers will make seven to 10 a game. What opposing hitters do with those mistake pitches determines the game’s outcome.
Defining a mistake pitch is tricky: a curveball right down the middle can be a good pitch when the count is 0-0 and the hitter is looking for a fastball, but a bad pitch when the hitter is 0-2 and has to swing at anything close. So keep that in mind; the count and situation changes what defines a mistake pitch.
But having said that, on Monday night Rays pitchers threw 11 pitches that were middle-middle — in the middle of the zone horizontally and vertically — and Royals hitters only got one hit on those 11 pitches.
So to sum up:
The Royals can swing at first pitches, but only if they’re good pitches to hit, they might want to look off-speed in some fastball counts, it would help if they weren’t down by 12 runs after two innings and when they hit the ball hard, it would help if they didn’t hit it at someone.
Which is very easy to say when you’re sitting six floors above the dirt and that’s where I’ll be Tuesday night.
Enjoy the game.