Judging the Royals

Hey, baseball fans: if you want to know what’s happening, take your eye off the ball

Melky Cabrera received a fist pump from first-base coach Rusty Kuntz during a game this summer.
Melky Cabrera received a fist pump from first-base coach Rusty Kuntz during a game this summer. jsleezer@kcstar.com

On Aug. 8, Royals outfielder Melky Cabrera stole a base against the St. Louis Cardinals. That stolen base was memorable because the last time Melky stole a base was almost a year earlier. When Cabrera was still playing for the White Sox, he swiped a bag against the Oakland A’s on Aug. 21, 2016.

After 142 games of not even attempting a steal, why was Cabrera running on Aug. 8? To understand the answer to that question, we have to talk about fake breaks and the importance of taking your eye off the ball.

We’ve all seen a runner on first base make a break for second base and then stop. We might assume the runner wanted to steal the bag, got a bad jump and then shut it down; and in many cases, we’d be right. But sometimes the runner starts and stops — a fake break — to force the defense to react.

When a runner on first base starts to go and then stops, take your eye off the ball and look at second base; if the catcher plans to throw the ball to second, one of the middle infielders will have to cover the bag. And if that happens, now the offense knows which middle infielder has coverage. That’s useful to know on a hit and run; the batter now knows which side of the infield will be open.

Then, after you check out what’s happening at second base, look at home plate.

Immediately after a fake break, the catcher should step out in front of the plate and give a new set of signs even if he doesn’t change who’s covering second base. A new set of signs once again puts coverage of second base in doubt; maybe the defense changed something. Giving a new set of signs takes away the advantage the offense gained with the fake break, but if the catcher doesn’t give new signs the offense knows what the defense plans to do if the runner takes off.

What happens when nobody covers?

Back on Aug. 8, Eric Hosmer was on third base and Jorge Bonifacio was at the plate when Cabrera made that fake break from first base. Because there were two outs and the Cardinals wanted to avoid a double steal that might score Hosmer from third, neither middle infielder moved to cover second base. That told first-base coach Rusty Kuntz that the Cardinals were going to hold the ball and give Cabrera second base; if Melky wanted to steal it, second base was there for the taking.

In the press box I saw that nobody covered second base and assumed Cabrera would go right away, but he didn’t run until the count was 2-2.

After the game I asked Rusty why it took so long for Cabrera to steal second base and Rusty started laughing. Since Cabrera hadn’t stolen a base in 142 games he was nervous about running and it took Rusty several pitches to convince Melky to run. When he finally took off for second base, the Cardinals held the ball and Melky stole it standing up.

If you’re not watching the ball, where should you look?

Fans tend to follow the ball because that’s where the action is, but there are always things happening away from the ball and you can learn a lot by taking a look around. Rusty says once he became a coach, he had to learn to keep his eye off the ball.

If a runner tries to steal second base, Rusty needs to watch the center fielder to see if he’s charging in to back up an overthrow. If someone hits a single to left field, Rusty needs to look into right field to see if his right fielder is coming in to back up the throw to second base.

And when someone hits a foul ball, Rusty needs to check his outfielder’s feet. If an outfielder never moves his feet and just turns his head to watch the ball, Rusty knows that outfielder is starting to lose focus. When that happens, Rusty moves the outfielder just to wake him up and get his head back in the game.

Some people might find baseball slow, but if you know where to look, there are things happening all over the field:

▪ When it’s a possible bunt situation and the pitcher tries to pick the runner off first base, look at the plate; did the hitter give away his intentions?

▪ When the pitcher starts his windup, look at the catcher; where does he set the target and does the pitcher hit his mitt?

▪ When a fly ball is hit to the outfield wall, look at the outfielder; does he slow down when he hits the warning track and play the carom, or does he keep going and risk hitting the wall?

▪ When an infielder receives a throw on a tag play, does he straddle the bag and risk getting tangled up with the runner or does he play it safe, come out in front of the bag, catch the ball and then try to reach back and tag the runner?

This is how the guys who play the game watch the game and you can do the same thing. This summer when you’re watching a ballgame, take your eye off the ball once in a while.

There’s plenty to see.

Stop by on Friday

This Friday, Dec. 15, the Star and I will part company, but “Judging the Royals” will continue. Stop by that day and I’ll post a column and a link to the new “Judging the Royals” website.