Judging the Royals

The Astros play shallow but still get beat by a bloop

Houston Astros right fielder Colby Rasmus robbed the Royals’ Alcides Escobar of a hit in the fourth inning Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Star’s Lee Judge notes that Royals manager Ned Yost waited all night for someone to burn Rasmus, and it just didn’t happen. In fact, Rasmus was the one doing the burning. He was robbing Royals hitters all night.
Houston Astros right fielder Colby Rasmus robbed the Royals’ Alcides Escobar of a hit in the fourth inning Saturday night at Kauffman Stadium. The Star’s Lee Judge notes that Royals manager Ned Yost waited all night for someone to burn Rasmus, and it just didn’t happen. In fact, Rasmus was the one doing the burning. He was robbing Royals hitters all night. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

Saturday night, Houston Astros right fielder Colby Rasmus spent much of the evening playing shallow — and I mean really shallow. Rasmus was so shallow he might have been able to hand the ball to an infielder after making a catch.

After the game, I asked Royals manager Ned Yost whether that was the most shallow positioning he had ever seen, and he said yes. The Astros were gambling that Royals hitters were not going to be able to hit a ball over Colby’s head — and they were on a winning streak.

Yost said he waited all night for someone to burn Rasmus, and it just didn’t happen. In fact, Rasmus was the one doing the burning. He was robbing Royals hitters all night.

For example, in the ninth inning with Paulo Orlando on first base, Jarrod Dyson stroked hit line drive to right field — a ball that would been a hit against just about any other team. Rasmus not only made the catch, he almost turned a double play by catching Orlando off first base.

Like I said, Houston plays a very shallow outfield.

The Astros figure that they are going to get beat more often by bloops falling in front of them than by blasts going over their heads — and it’s pretty good reasoning. So it’s kind of ironic that the Royals beat them Saturday night with a hit that barely left the infield.

In the 10th inning, with Orlando on second base, Astros pitcher Will Harris made too good a pitch. He jammed Alcides Escobar, and Esky hit a weak flare just beyond the infield dirt. As shallow as Rasmus was playing — and he ended up on the infield after failing to make the catch — Colby was still too deep to get there by about one step.

Even though the Astros lost the game, what they are doing with their outfield defense is interesting and may change the way other teams play the game. If the Astros make it work, other teams probably will try it.

So why don’t the Royals do the same thing?

So why don’t the Royals do the same thing? Command.

To play drastic shifts, the defense has to have faith that the pitcher is going to hit his spots. You can’t play your outfield shallow if your pitcher is leaving balls up in the strike zone. You would be chasing balls to the wall all night.

Saturday night, the Royals played their outfield straight up, and if you paid attention, you could see why. All too often, Royals catcher Salvador Perez was having to move his mitt to catch Danny Duffy’s pitches. We see a pitcher throw a strike and think he threw a good pitch, but if it was supposed to be a strike on the inner half of the plate and was thrown on the outer half, a defense designed to take advantage of a pull hitter is standing in the wrong spot.

Next time you’re at a game and see a defense playing straight up, it could be that the pitcher isn’t real sure where the ball is going. He might throw a strike, but a strike in the wrong part of the strike zone is still a mistake.

How Danny Duffy gave up that run

Three hits and one run over six innings, that’s how well Danny Duffy pitched. Any team would take a performance like that on any night. But how Duffy gave up that one run is instructive and helps explain why the Royals don’t play drastic shifts when Danny is on the mound.

With one out, Duffy threw an 0-2 changeup. Jose Altuve served it into center field. With the count 1-2, Duffy threw another changeup. Marwin Gonzalez doubled, and Altuve advanced to third. With the count 1-2, Duffy threw a high fastball to Carlos Correa, who hit a sacrifice fly.

If you were paying attention, you could see that Danny Duffy was getting beat when he had two strikes on hitters. In counts where Danny had a chance to throw hitters a chase pitch — a pitch that starts in the strike zone but ends up elsewhere — he was throwing hittable pitches.

Duffy misses his spot, gives up a run

Let’s go back to that sacrifice fly.

When a hitter has a runner on third and fewer than two outs, he wants a pitch up in the zone. Hit a ball in the air to the outfield, and even if it gets caught, you’ve got yourself an RBI.

With the count 1-2 on Carlos Correa, Duffy and Perez decided to throw a high fastball. The idea was to give Correa what he was looking for — a pitch up in the zone — but throw it too high and too hard for Correa to hit. Had Duffy thrown a 96-mph fastball up around the shoulders, he probably would have struck out Correa.

But Duffy missed his spot.

The fastball wasn’t high enough — it was below the letters — and Correa hit a deep fly ball to center field. That’s why Duffy looked upset after the pitch. He made a mistake, and it cost him a run. Missing your location when you have a hitter in a two-strike is one reason the Royals play straight up behind Duffy.

Salvador Perez’s base running

In the second inning, Perez hit a fly ball to left field, put his head down and jogged to first base. Meanwhile, Astros left fielder Preston Tucker was busy dropping the ball. Even though the ball rolled away from Tucker, Sal did not advance into scoring position. He had his head down and didn’t see the misplay until it was too late.

With Perez on first base, Alex Rios then hit a grounder to short. Once again, Perez jogged toward second, then peeled out of the way early. He never came close to breaking up the double play.

So that’s bad base running, right?

It depends on who is running the bases. Perez catches a ton of games, so he gets a bit of a break when he goes less-than-full speed. He’s saving his legs. If backup catcher Drew Butera did the same thing, it would be horrible base running. Butera doesn’t catch that often, so he’s expected to run hard every time he’s out there.

But it probably would be a good idea if Salvy kept his head up the next time he hits a fly ball.

Perez ties the game

If I’m going to mention Salvy loafing on the bases, I also should mention that he’s the one who drove in the Royals’ first run. With the bases loaded and one down in the seventh inning, Sal was at the plate.

The Astros pitcher, Scott Feldman, needed a groundball for a double play. Sal needed a fly ball for a sacrifice fly. Sal won the battle. He hit a shallow fly ball to left, but with the speedy Alcides Escobar on third base, it was enough to get the run in and tie the game.

The Astros tip their Perez game plan

In the bottom of the ninth inning, with the potential winning run on third base, the Astros brought reliever Will Harris in to face free-swinging Sal. According to coach Rusty Kuntz, if you wanted to know what Harris planned to do against Sal, all you had to do was watch Harris throw his warmup pitches.

Pitchers get eight warmup pitches, and Harris bounced three breaking balls in the dirt. He was practicing for Sal’s at-bat and doing it right in front of everybody.

Most of the time, when a pitcher throws a pitch in the dirt in warmups, catchers just let them go by. Catchers get beat up enough as it is. But in this case, the Astros’ Hank Conger was practicing blocking those pitches.

So at some point in the at-bat, you might expect Harris to try to get Sal to chase a breaking pitch down. It happened on the fifth pitch. With Eric Hosmer on third base, intentionally bouncing a breaking pitch on purpose takes some guts. If Conger didn’t block it, the game would be over.

With a 2-2 count, Harris bounced a breaking pitch. Conger blocked it, but Salvy didn’t chase. The count went full, and Harris was not going to give in to Sal. Harris put him on first base and started over with Alex Rios — and that worked. Rios hit a groundball to short, and Correa made a terrific play to end the inning.

Perez and pop time

Pop time is how long it takes a catcher to receive a ball and then throw it to second base. The major-league average is 2.0 seconds. Perez can do it in 1.8.

Those two-tenths of a second came in handy in the ninth inning Saturday night.

Royals closer Greg Holland had two strikes on Evan Gattis. He had thrown Gattis two sliders, and the swings Gattis took on those sliders made it likely that Greg would throw a third. Correa was on first base, and he thought the same thing. Correa tried to steal second base — maybe the advantage of running on an 87-mph breaking pitch would be enough.

But it wasn’t. Salvy threw Correa out at second base despite having a bad pitch to do it on. So next time you see Perez jog down to first base, remember that he makes up for that in other ways.

Paulo Orlando and how a delayed steal works

This thing is already too long, and I haven’t talked about Mike Moustakas having a great at-bat in the ninth inning or the home-plate umpire forgetting the count and doing a big “ring ’em up” move on strike two, or Houston reliever Pat Neshek, who looks as if he’s having some sort of spasm on the mound and then throws the ball 92 mph or 66 if he’s in the mood, or the scouting report that says the Royals need to be careful of Jose Altuve getting hits on “butt-out” swings or Jarrod Dyson making another great catch while running into a wall.

As you might have guessed, it was a pretty interesting game.

But before I go, I need to write about Paulo Orlando’s delayed steal — it was a huge play in the game and one you don’t see every day.

The key to the delayed steal is a really aggressive secondary lead. Go back and watch the play, and you see Paulo extending his lead aggressively as the pitch is being thrown to the plate.

The next thing to notice is that the pitch was a breaking ball, and Conger dropping to one knee to catch it, which is not the best throwing position for a catcher.

Third, notice that Conger has to double clutch before throwing the ball to second base. Middle infielders take a quick glance at a runner on first base as a pitch is being delivered. They want to know if the runner is going.

But if all they do is look once, they can get burned. They see a runner who appears to be extending his lead and nothing more, let their attention go elsewhere and by the time they realize the runner is attempting a delayed steal, they are late getting to the bag.

Conger could not throw the ball right away because Altuve wasn’t at the bag.

You don’t see a delayed steal every day, and it’s pretty cool when you do see one, especially when that delayed steal puts a runner in scoring position and that runner comes home to win the game.

A thank you to my Twitter followers

Since starting my Twitter account, I have posted 2,014 tweets. That sounds good, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t had 2,014 thoughts worth sharing since I was born, so thanks to all my followers who hang in there, hoping to find a nugget of gold among the gravel.

I’ll try to post something worth sharing today. Wish me luck.