Judging the Royals

Royals' Rusty Kuntz is baseball's best base-running coach

The Royals' Eric Hosmer (left) was congratulated by first base coach Rusty Kuntz after Hosmer hit an RBI-single off Indians starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco Sept. 22 in Cleveland.
The Royals' Eric Hosmer (left) was congratulated by first base coach Rusty Kuntz after Hosmer hit an RBI-single off Indians starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco Sept. 22 in Cleveland. AP

It’s about 5PM on Saturday afternoon and it’s chilly. The Royals have just finished their off-day workout and I’m walking out of Kauffman Stadium—until I look back and see base running coach Rusty Kuntz working with a group of kids.

The best base-running coach in baseball is giving instruction and I’m walking away?

I reverse course, head back to the field and go stand on the dirt at first base and listen to Rusty’s secrets for stealing second base. I’m not the only one who wants in on the lesson; I’m standing next to Don Wakamatsu, Royals bench coach.

Me: "Does Rusty tell you things you don’t know?"

Wakamatsu: "All the time. He’s the reason we stole 153 bases."

Wakamatsu wants to know what Rusty knows and so do I. The Royals have just returned from the West Coast, got in late, play game three against the Angels Sunday night and Rusty Kuntz is taking time to teach a bunch of kids how to be better base runners. Rusty’s love of baseball and teaching the game is evident; he’s really good at this.

He goes over the "keys" for a right-handed pitcher. The keys are the body movements that give away the pitcher’s intentions; they let a base runner know what the pitcher intends to do with the ball—pickoff or go home, slide step or use a slower delivery—before the pitcher does it. Rusty has one of the fathers go to the mound and act as the pitcher and once Rusty teaches us what to look for, the keys are easy to see. Even I can pick them up. The father then changes his stance and pretends to be left handed; once again the keys are right there if you know what to look for.

And Rusty Kuntz knows what to look for.

The lesson ends; Rusty and I walk up to the clubhouse together. He tells of another coach who wanted to know how to break down a pitcher; how to find the keys that let a base runner know the pitcher’s intentions. Rusty set the coach up with video of the pitcher delivering a pitch home and video of the pitcher attempting a pickoff—then Rusty went and ate a sandwich. "I had chips and a soft drink, too."

Kuntz returned to the video room and asked the coach what he had.

The other coach: "Nothing."

The guy couldn’t find a difference in the two deliveries—until Rusty showed it to him: a minute change in what the pitcher did when he was going to try and pickoff a runner. The coach wanted to know how long it took Rusty to spot it.

Rusty: "90 minutes."

The other coach: "But they’ve got 13 guys!"

Rusty: "Why do you think I spend four hours a day watching video?"

We see a Royals base stealer swipe a bag and never think of a coach sitting for hours, watching video to make that stolen base possible. But as Rusty points out; he may have used up 90 minutes of his life finding the key to one pitcher, but he’s got that pitcher for life. His base runners will be able to steal bags off that pitcher forever—unless someone tells the pitcher what he’s doing wrong. Then Rusty’s right back in the video room, finding a new key that will make stealing a base possible.

So if Jarrod Dyson or Terrance Gore steal a base tonight—and it will be tough, C.J. Wilson is quick to the plate—go ahead and applaud the base runner. But you might tip your cap to the coach that made the steal possible; the best base-running coach in baseball—Rusty Kuntz.

Why I talk to certain guys

If you’ve been following this web site for a while, you know I rely on Rusty Kuntz for information. I go find Rusty every day and ask questions—and amazingly enough, Rusty answers them.

A web site about "inside baseball" would not be possible without the insiders who love to talk about the game. Guys like Rusty, Jason Kendall, Eddie Rodriguez, Kevin Seitzer, Doug Sisson, Dave Eiland, Doug Henry, Chris Getz, Matt Treanor, Wade Davis—the list goes on and on. Guys who were willing to explain why they do what they do.

Some players and coaches don’t like to talk to the media—and I get why—and some don’t want to get too involved in breaking down the game; they don’t want to start thinking too much about something they’ve been doing naturally.

I’m grateful to those guys who were willing to talk; they’ve increased my baseball I.Q.—and if you’re getting something out of this website, you should be grateful as well.

The complete article on what to watch between innings

(An edited version of this ran in the paper and got posted yesterday, here’s the complete article.)

Back on September 2nd the Royals were playing the Texas Rangers and had a lead going into the top of the ninth inning. Greg Holland wasn’t available, so Aaron Crow came on to get the save. What happened before the inning started was worth watching.

Pitchers get eight warm-up pitches between innings and Crow was all over the place, throwing several balls to the backstop. He then started the inning by throwing ball one and ball two to Adam Rosales. Instead of taking ball three, Rosales swung at a marginal pitch and popped up to Alcides Esc0bar. That pop up got Crow his first out, he heaved a sigh of relief and went on to get the save. Had Rosales started the ninth inning with a leadoff walk, the game might have had a different ending. Rosales did not pay attention to Crow’s warm up pitches and that cost his team a chance at a win.

There’s always something to watch when you’re at a baseball games and that includes the between-inning warm-up pitches. The pitcher has to let the catcher know what pitch he wants to throw and here are the signs that the pitcher will use:

Fastball: The pitcher will point his glove at the catcher palm down.

Curveball: The pitcher will flip his glove at the catcher palm up. It’ll look like the pitcher is playing with a yo-yo.

Slider: The pitcher will make a diagonal, sweeping motion with his glove.

Sinker: The pitcher will make another diagonal motion, but this time with the ball in his bare hand.

Changeup: The pitcher will point his glove at the catcher, then pull it back toward himself.

If the pitcher didn’t throw anything but his fastball for a strike, you—and the hitters who were paying attention—know he’s less likely to throw an off-speed pitch unless he’s ahead in the count. If the pitcher had trouble throwing his fastball for a strike, you know the hitters might want to take a pitch until the pitcher shows he can get the ball over the plate.

Like I said; there’s always something to watch at a baseball game and now you know what to watch between innings.

And while we’re at it

When the pitcher has two pitches left the home plate umpire will hold up two fingers as a reminder. When the pitcher has one pitch left he’ll use his glove or free hand to make a motion back over his shoulder to remind the catcher to throw the ball down to second base. The catcher will then hold his glove or free hand out to the side to remind the second baseman he’s about to throw the ball to second base. The second baseman will then hold his glove or free hand out to the side to acknowledge the catcher’s sign; he knows the ball is on its way. If the catcher throws the ball to second and nobody’s there to make the catch, it looks bad.

One more thing to watch

There is no rule that says the catcher can’t bounce that throw to second. If the umpire sees the ball bounce, he’ll give the catcher a new one. But if the umpire is shooting the breeze with somebody between innings, a smart catcher might bounce that throw on purpose.

The ball is thrown around the infield and when it gets back to the pitcher, the ball is scuffed. Nobody broke a rule and yet the pitcher is holding a scuffed baseball. If the pitcher knows what to do with a scuffed baseball he now has an advantage, but some pitchers—especially young ones—don’t know how to use a scuff. In that case they’ll hold up the ball and shake it; the sign that they’d like the umpire to give them a brand-new baseball.

At that point the veteran catcher might want to go to the mound and choke the pitcher; he went to all that trouble to give his pitcher a gift and the pitcher wants to give it back. The catcher probably thinks that if the pitcher doesn’t know how to use a scuff, he ought to go to the bullpen and practice.

(See? I told you lots of interesting stuff was happening between innings.)