Judging the Royals

So now the Royals are the bad guys?

Home plate umpire Jim Joyce ejected Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura after he hit Oakland's Brett Lawrie with a pitch in the fourth inning  Saturday.
Home plate umpire Jim Joyce ejected Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura after he hit Oakland's Brett Lawrie with a pitch in the fourth inning Saturday. The Kansas City Star

Let’s go back to Friday night, before the Royals played the Oakland Athletics. Coming into that game Kansas City hitters were getting drilled at a high enough rate that guys like me were criticizing the team for not responding; I didn’t think you could let the rest of the league use your batters for target practice and not retaliate.

Finally—after Brett Lawrie hurt Alcides Escobar with an unnecessary takeout slide—the Royals responded by drilling Lawrie the next day. Even-steven: your guy hurt our guy with a late, spikes-up takeout slide—we hit your guy with a 99-MPH fastball.

One of the guys on the A’s called hitting Lawrie "bush league", but seemed just fine with Lawrie hurting Escobar. Apparently slamming into a guy’s knee to prevent a double play when no chance of a double play exists is just good, hard big league baseball.

Even so, everybody thought it was over until Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain the next day. Lawrie started things on Friday night, Kazmir started things back up on Sunday afternoon. Throwing at a guy’s feet is a tactic; make the hitter uncomfortable and if he body slams himself while getting out of the way, that’s just an added bonus. The Royals had pretty much had it at that point, and after Kazmir threw at Cain the game turned into an average afternoon at the Roman Coliseum.

There are times when teams have to respond or everyone in the league is going to take advantage of them; if the other team can throw inside and hit your guys and you won’t do the same to theirs, the aggressive team has an advantage.

But there also times when you don’t have to do anything and unfortunately the Royals had a couple of those incidents: Yordano Ventura confronting Mike Trout (and if that had gotten physical I would’ve put my money on Trout) and Kelvin Herrera gesturing at his head after throwing behind Brett Lawrie.

Nothing came of the Ventura-Trout spat, but you sure don’t want to lose a player over nothing; that’s why you don’t start unnecessary fights. Respond when you have to, but don’t be the one that starts something.

A couple people have said they didn’t think the Herrera pitch was that close to Lawrie’s head, but MLB has a different opinion. Here’s part of a press release sent out today: 

Herrera has received a five-game suspension and an undisclosed fine for intentionally throwing a pitch in the head area of Brett Lawrie of the A’s in the top of the eighth inning of the Sunday, April 19th game, with warnings in place. 

Ventura has received an undisclosed fine for intentionally throwing a pitch at Lawrie in the top of the fourth inning of the Saturday, April 18th game.

I’ve seen camera angles that make the Herrera pitch look lower than the shoulders and I’ve seen camera angles that make the pitch look higher. If Herrera wants to argue it was unintentional, gesturing at his head didn’t help his cause. But the other guys started it and Major League Baseball did not fine or suspend Lawrie for blowing up Escobar. If MLB fined or suspended Kazmir for throwing at Cain, that hasn’t come to my attention. If MLB found anything wrong with Jeff Samardzija hitting Cain on opening day, I haven’t heard about it.

The Royals may not be totally innocent, but in this case the Royals aren’t the bad guys.

Do defensive shifts limit the pitcher and catcher?

When I was still playing and managing a men’s amateur baseball team, one of my pitchers was ex-Royal Danny Jackson. Danny had also pitched for the Reds, Cubs, Pirates, Phillies, Cardinals and Padres, had a 15-year big league career and had appeared in three World Series. Danny Jackson has forgotten more about baseball than I’ll ever know. If I came to the mound when he was pitching, Danny’s standard greeting was: "What the (expletive deleted) are you doing out here?" He had a point.

When Danny first came to the team I asked him how he wanted his outfield set up and he said: "Put ‘em in the bare spots. They’re there for a reason." If you’ve ever played on amateur ball fields you know what Danny was talking about; there are usually bare spots where the outfielders normally stand.

After I got done laughing, I asked Danny why he wanted his outfield straight up and he had a very logical reason: almost every pitch he threw was based on the previous pitch. If Danny threw a fastball in, the hitter’s reaction would tell him what to throw next. Even when a hitter took a pitch, his reactions gave him away; was he leaning out to cover the outside corner? Did he get started too soon on the off-speed pitch?

What Danny saw told him what pitch to throw next and he didn’t want to have a hitter set up for a fastball inside and not be able to throw that pitch because our defense was in some kind of extreme shift. If the ball was put in play we wouldn’t be there to catch it. Having the defense pretty much straight up would allow Danny to work both sides of the plate and throw hard and soft, depending on the situation.

I was reminded of all this last night in the bottom of the 6th inning of the Twins-Royals game. The score was 1-1 with Mike Moustakas on second base and Eric Hosmer on first. Kendrys Morales was at the plate with a 2-2 count. The switch-hitting Morales was swinging from the left side.

Twins catcher Kurt Suzuki called for a fastball down and away and set up on the outside corner. Kyle Gibson threw a nearly perfect pitch: a fastball at 93-MPH on the corner at the knees.

Because he had two strikes, Morales took an emergency hack and pretty much threw the bat at the ball. Had the Twins been playing straight up, the groundball Morales hit would have probably gone right at the third baseman and that would have meant one out, maybe two.

The pitcher made his pitch, got what he wanted—a groundball—but because the defense was set up in a modified shift with the third baseman well off the line, Morales picked up a double and gave the Royals a lead that they never gave back.

So that brings up a question: do extreme defensive shifts limit what the catcher and pitcher can call? If they’ve got a left-handed hitter set up for a down and away fastball, but they don’t have a third baseman on the line, can they still call that pitch?

I’ve been told dead-pull hitters pull just about anything you throw up there, but more dead-pull hitters (think Mike Moustakas) are learning to take some pitches the other way.

Frankly, right now I have more questions than answers, but once I ask around and have more answers than questions, I’ll get back to you.