After the Royals swept the Angels (a 2014 playoff team) last Sunday, I wrote that they should watch out for the Minnesota Twins (a team many people are picking to finish last in their division). Guess what: The Twins took two out of three games from the Royals. So am I really that smart?
Nope — but other people are.
The only reason I thought to say anything at all about the Royals facing the Twins was because it reminded me of another situation back in 2013.
On Thursday, August 8 that year, the Royals started a four-game series against the Boston Red Sox. The Royals were coming in hot — they’d won 13 of the previous 15 games.
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During the four-game series with the Red Sox, the Royals stayed hot, winning three of four games. The series also drew good crowds: 21,121 on Thursday; 29,485 on Friday; 38,742 on Saturday; and 24,935 people for the series finale on Sunday. Kansas City fans were beginning to figure out they finally had a pretty good team to root for and taking three of four from the Red Sox — the eventual World Series champs — had a lot of people excited, including the Kansas City players.
But after the Red Sox series a former player told me the next series worried him. The next series was against the Miami Marlins, and the Miami Marlins weren’t a very good team. After playing so well against good competition, I wondered why the Marlins series — a series against a team that would go on to lose 100 games that year — was a problem.
It was a letdown series.
After playing an exciting weekend series against a highly regarded team with big crowds in attendance, the Royals were going into a weekday series against a team that wasn’t supposed to be very good, with smaller crowds in attendance. That was a formula for a letdown.
The Marlins came into Kauffman Stadium and took two of three from the Royals. After that series, the Royals went on to lose eight of their next 10 games. To be fair, the teams they faced after the Marlins were better teams, but that Marlins series was a turning point.
Obviously there are a gazillion (that’s an actual number right?) factors that can affect ballgames, but playing a letdown series should be on the list.
What a single at-bat can teach us
Last season I spent some time talking to Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki, and Kurt impressed me as a very smart guy. A single at-bat from Thursday’s game will show you what I’m talking about.
In the second inning Alcides Escobar was in an 0-2 count after fouling off three fastballs from pitcher Tommy Milone. The fourth pitch was a changeup in the dirt.
When Kurt and I were talking, he told me that early in the game he’d look for counts where his pitcher did not have to throw a strike and then have him throw his off-speed stuff out of the zone. That allows his pitchers to get a feel for their off-speed stuff early and that helps later in the game when those pitchers have to be able to throw that off-speed stuff for strikes.
The other thing worth noting was location.
When some hitters are in two-strike counts, they try to wait as long as possible before committing to a swing; they don’t want to get out in front on an off-speed pitch and swing at something out of the zone. Escobar did not bite on that changeup in the dirt, which told Suzuki that Esky was staying back and waiting on the ball. So the next pitch was a fastball in on the hands. Because he was waiting and letting the ball travel, Alcides got jammed and hit a weak pop up to short.
There are games within the game, and if we know what to look for that one at-bat can teach us something.