Judging the Royals

Seven secrets veteran ballplayers teach rookies

Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (center, facing camera) says he learned a lot from veteran outfielder Raul Ibañez in 2014.
Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (center, facing camera) says he learned a lot from veteran outfielder Raul Ibañez in 2014. skeyser@kcstar.com

Back on Sept. 9 against the Minnesota Twins, the Royals’ Eric Hosmer came up with a big hit with teammate Terrance Gore on second base. Gore scored the go-ahead run and the Royals won that game.

The pitcher who gave up Hosmer’s hit was Buddy Boshers. Later, Hosmer would say Boshers likes to throw his curveball, but figured he wouldn’t bounce one with Gore on second base.

So Hosmer looked for a high curveball, got one and hit a line drive into center field.

The next morning I asked Hosmer if he would have had the same thought process as a rookie: would he have thought about Gore’s speed and how it would change Bosher’s approach?

Hosmer laughed and said no, he didn’t think that way as a rookie. That kind of thinking is done by the more veteran players, they have to teach the younger players what to pay attention to and how to think.

And that brought us to the subject of Raul Ibañez.

In the middle of 2014, Ibañez came over to the Royals from the Angels and appeared in 33 games for Kansas City. Ibañez only hit .188 while he was with the Royals, but they didn’t get him for his bat; they got him for his mind. Ibañez was a been-there-done-that veteran and the Royals wanted him talking to their younger players.

Hosmer said Ibañez taught him as much about baseball as anybody he’s ever played with; if you saw Ibañez talking to a young player on the bench, Ibañez was busy making that player smarter.

I’ve mentioned some of this before, but if you missed it or forgot it, here are some of the things veteran players teach rookies.

After a rain delay, take an extra base

During a rain delay they cover the infield with a tarp, but the outfield grass is exposed. So after a rain delay, if someone hits a ball into the outfield and it bounces a couple times, think about taking an extra base. The outfielder will be throwing a wet ball and chances are the throw won’t be strong.

If the hitter shows up the umpire, set up off the plate

Umpires do not like it when a hitter turns and looks at them after a called strike; it lets everybody in the stadium know the hitter disagrees with the call. The same thing applies if a hitter assumes a pitch was ball four, flips his bat and starts toward first base. If the umpire called the pitch a strike, the hitter has to come back to the plate and once again the hitter let the crowd know he thinks the umpire was wrong.

Over the years I spent a lot of time talking with former big-league umpire Steve Palermo and asked him if he was more likely to call a borderline pitch a strike after being shown up by a player. Steve smiled and said: “Just give me a pitch I can work with.”

He wasn’t going to call an obvious ball a strike, but if the pitch was in that gray area, it probably wouldn’t go the hitter’s way.

So if an umpire gets shown up by a hitter, a smart catcher will set up just off the plate: the strike zone might get big.

Shake for show

Everybody knows 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 and 3-1 are fastball counts, so if a catcher still wants his pitcher to throw a fastball in one of those counts he might give the fastball sign while shaking his head. That means the catcher wants the pitcher to shake his head and pretend to shake off the pitch.

So the hitter thinks he’s getting a 2-0 fastball, sees the pitcher shake his head and might assume the pitcher wants to throw something off-speed instead. That bit of doubt might allow the pitcher to sneak a fastball past the hitter.

Veteran hitters know which catchers like to pull this trick — Salvador Perez is on the list — and the veterans might let the rookies know they shouldn’t buy “shake for show.”

Reposition yourself while housekeeping

A second baseman looks in for the catcher’s signs and sees the hitter is about to get a slider. The second baseman wants to move a few steps to the pull side of the field, but can’t make it obvious: that would alert the hitter that something off-speed is on its way.

So the second baseman uses his feet to smooth out the dirt in front of him and by the time he’s done manicuring the dirt, he’s two steps to his left. If a hitter just glances at the infield, he might miss the second baseman’s repositioning.

Use a fake break to reveal positioning

If a runner on first base starts to go and then stops, one of the middle infielders will have to cover second base. That reveals which infielder has responsibility for covering second base and that’s useful information, especially on a hit-and-run.

After a fake break, the catcher needs to give more signs

With more than one runner on base, catchers will step out in front of home plate and give a series of signs — he’s letting everybody on the infield know what he plans on doing with the baseball if one or both of the runners take off.

So if a runner on first base uses a fake break to reveal who’s covering second, the catcher needs to step out in front of home plate and give more signs. Even if the catcher doesn’t change the coverage, re-giving the signs puts doubt in the opposing players’ minds.

Or you can just look at who’s standing closer to second base.

Veteran ballplayers sometimes laugh at all the subterfuge teams go through to hide who’s covering second base, because nine times out of 10 the guy who has coverage stands closer to second base than the guy who doesn’t have to worry about covering the bag.

Are the outfielders right or left-handed?

Let’s say you’re a runner on first base, the batter hits a single into the left-center gap and the left fielder fields it. Can you go first-to-third?

The answer to that question might depend on the answer to this question: without looking or thinking about it, do you know if the left fielder is right- or left-handed?

If the left fielder is left-handed he’ll catch the ball backhand, plant and throw. If the left fielder is right-handed, he’ll catch the ball on his glove side, spin 180 degrees and then plant and throw.

The right-hander will take longer to get the ball to third base and the difference in the two throws might be enough to take an extra 90 feet.

This is nowhere near a complete list

If some of this was obvious to you already, congratulations, you’ve been paying attention. But if some of this was new to you, congratulations, you just got smarter.

The cool thing about baseball is you can study the game all your life and someone will still say something that had never occurred to you. It’s why teams want a veteran presence in their clubhouse; those veterans will make the rookies better.

Just ask Eric Hosmer.