Judging the Royals

Chris Young and pitch counts

Royals starting pitcher Chris Young delivers during the first inning of Friday afternoon's baseball game against the White Sox in Chicago.
Royals starting pitcher Chris Young delivers during the first inning of Friday afternoon's baseball game against the White Sox in Chicago. AP

The first game of the doubleheader against the Chicago White Sox was hotter than hell in August and the Royals starting pitcher, Chris Young, came out of the game after five innings and 82 pitches. The Royals' formula for winning is to get six innings out of your starter and then give the ball to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. At 82 pitches couldn’t Young have gone one more inning?

Nope—and here’s why.

Let’s go back to a conversation I had with Chris Young not long ago; I complimented him on an article he did with the Star’s Sam Mellinger about pitch velocity and how it’s overrated. And that led us to talk about numbers in general and why some people need to rely on them.

If you can’t just look at a player or a situation and understand what you’re seeing, you need numbers to fill you in.

Some guys can look at a pitch and give you a very accurate idea of how hard it was, the rest of us need radar guns. Some guys can watch a guy field groundballs and see his range, the rest of us need UZR. And some guys can look at a pitcher and see he’s tired, the rest of us need pitch counts.

Pitch counts are only one piece of information

Chris wishes they’d get rid of the radar gun and the pitch count on the scoreboard. It’s there for the fans, but pitchers can let those numbers get in their heads.

When he was in Colorado, manager Clint Hurdle had them take down the radar gun readings because too many of his guys were throwing a fastball, then turning around to see just how hard they threw it. That’s not what pitchers should be thinking about.

Same goes for pitch counts.

A pitcher can feel great until he sees he’s thrown 102 pitches and then thinks he really ought to feel tired. And the same goes for a low pitch count: you look up and see 82 and think you ought to have another inning in you, but it’s a billion degrees in Chicago, your back is bothering you, you’re starting to leave balls up in the zone and it’s time to get off the mound before something bad happens—no matter what your pitch count is.

An overreliance on numbers

Chris and I talked about numbers in general and why some people need to rely on them. If you haven’t played, or know what to look for and spent a lot of time watching others play, you look at numbers--that’s all you know. And if the numbers don’t reveal everything, you’ve missed something.

Here’s an example: Ned Yost was going out to watch Jason Vargas pitch a simulated game and I asked what he would look for. The first thing Ned said was "hop" on his fastball. So what’s the hell that mean?

Ned had a hard time describing it—he said you know it when you see it—but as near as I can figure, it’s late life. Does the fastball come in straight and dying at the end of its flight or does it come in with late movement? Two guys can throw 93-mph fastballs, but they’re not the same fastball. The guy that’s straight as a string will get hammered; the guy with late life will dominate.

I once asked Rusty Kuntz if he could tell who was taking batting practice without looking and he said yeah, he could tell when it was Billy Butler hitting the ball. Rusty told me what to listen for and I could hear it: Billy had a higher pitched, sharper sound when he made contact, others would have a dull sound at impact. A scout can hear that sound off the bat and knows something about the hitter the rest of us will miss.

But back to pitch counts.

Forget the scoreboard for a minute; if you can see that the guy is still throwing hard, still has late life on the ball, still has the ball down in the zone, is working quickly and looks comfortable, forget that his pitch count is 95—let him roll.

But if you can see a guy is huffing and puffing, he’s up in the zone and has to walk around behind the mound before summoning the willpower to throw yet another pitch to home plate, forget that his pitch count is 70—go get him.

The problem with an overreliance on numbers is thinking they tell the whole truth and that the truth they tell is accurate. On Friday afternoon Chris Young threw 82 pitches and that was enough. Ned Yost didn’t push his luck; he went to get Chris Young and turned the game over to his bullpen.

The Royals won 4-2.

Is Alex Rios heating up at the plate?

In game one Alex Rios went 1 for 3 with a home run and that made me curious; is Alex Rios starting to find his form?

Maybe.

In March/April Rios hit .321, in May Alex hit .000 and that’s mainly because after breaking his hand he only played one game in May, in June Alex hit .189 and so far in July, Rios is hitting .302. Over his last 14 days Alex Rios has hit .321. If Alex gets back on track and starts giving the Royals what they thought they were getting when they signed him, the team has one of their problems solved without having to go and getting someone.

Why Rios missed those basket catches

On the other side of the ball Rios dropped two catchable fly balls when he attempted basket catches—the catch Willie Mays made famous. A basket catch is a catch made with the palm up at waist level and that’s not recommended.

Catching the ball at waist level means your head has to snap down to follow the ball into your glove and if your head is moving you’re not seeing the ball clearly. That’s why you want to catch the ball above your shoulders; you can track the ball all the way into your glove without moving your head.

And by the way: it’s no longer recommended to catch the ball with two hands. People of my generation had that drilled into them because the gloves we used sucked; gloves are better now and you can reach further with one hand than two—plus you can make the catch off to the side and track the ball better that way.

P.S. Rios deserves a bit of a break on the second dropped ball; there was some confusion about who was going to catch the ball and a crowd had gathered, but attempting a basketcatch didn’t help.

(I know this stuff came in Friday's game two and I’ll post more on that game later Saturday.)

The Royals vs. Samardzija

If there’s anything those of us in the media like it’s an easy story and they don’t come any easier than the Royals facing Jeff Samardzija for the first time since they brawled with the White Sox. We built this up like the Thrilla in Manila, but Friday afternoon was more of a "Farrago in Chicago"—which actually does not make perfect sense, but has the merit of rhyming. (Translation: a lot of different stuff happened, but none of it included fisticuffs; they decided to "Abide on the South Side." OK, my morning coffee is kicking in and that one was slightly better.)

Anyway, there could be a couple reasons for that.

One: Nobody wants to get suspended or fined—the Royal have had enough of that already—and everyone just wants to concentrate on the ballgame.

Two: The Royals got challenged and responded. Like a schoolyard bully trying to take your lunch money, you have to show you’ll fight back; then maybe you get left alone. The Royals showed they’d fight to protect their teammates and now opposition pitchers don’t feel free to plunk KC batters; there will be repercussions.

Why hitters sometimes get mad at their own pitchers

And that reminds me of a story; the names are changed to protect the guilty. (Actually, I’m not going to use any names, but I liked the sound of that first sentence.) Some hothead pitcher drilled an opposition hitter for some arcane reason and afterwards, he got confronted by his own teammates.

The team was an American League team and the hitters on that team pointed out that the pitcher wasn’t going to go to the plate; they were. And they were the ones that would get drilled in retaliation.

They told the guy it would be a good idea for him to knock that crap off. There are times a pitcher has to drill a batter, but this wasn’t one of them. Don’t go out and settle personal scores and risk getting one of your own guys hurt.

And it works in reverse, too

Like I said; there are times a pitcher needs to throw at somebody and one of those times is when your teammates are getting drilled. Some pitchers don’t want to retaliate because they’re afraid of a hitter charging the mound, they don’t want to get fined or suspended and—the worst reason of all—they don’t want it to negatively affect their numbers.

Those pitchers are not considered good teammates and nobody respects them.

So whatever you thought about Kelvin Herrera throwing at Brett Lawrie and then pointing at his head, he gained a lot of respect from his teammates for sending the message: I’ll protect my guys.

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