Judging the Royals

Are the Kansas City Royals the Bad Boys of Baseball?

The Royals' Alcides Escobar is hit in by a pitch during Saturday's baseball game against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium.
The Royals' Alcides Escobar is hit in by a pitch during Saturday's baseball game against the White Sox at Kauffman Stadium. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

If the Kansas City Royals are the Bad Boys of Baseball, we need a new definition of "Bad Boy."

Here are a few numbers to ponder: only one team in all of baseball has had more of their batters hit by pitches than the Royals. That team is the Pittsburgh Pirates and as of Sunday morning, the Bucs have had 62 of their batters hit by pitches. The Royals are No. 2 with 57 hit batters. The Toronto Blue Jays — who were mad because the Royals pitches were being mean to them — come in at number 15 with 32 of their batters hit by pitches.

Now let’s look at who’s hitting all these batters.

Once again Pittsburgh is at the top of the list; their pitchers have hit 58 batters. Toronto — the team that felt the Royals were throwing at them — has hit 44 opposition batters, which ties them for fifth on the list. And the Royals — the Bad Boys of Baseball — have hit 29 batters which makes them 24th on the list.

So if Royals batters are near the top when it comes to getting hit by pitches and Royals pitchers are near the bottom when it comes to hitting batters on other teams, why are some people calling the Royals bad boys?

Probably because the Royals have cleared the benches on several occasions, but you could see more actually punches thrown by suburban house wives at a Black Friday sale. Most of the time players come out on the field, mill around and try to look like they’re doing something meaningful and those of us in the press box react like we just saw hand-to-hand combat on the beaches of Normandy.

It ain’t a fight if you don’t throw punches.

The Royals aren’t bad boys. At the beginning of the season, it looked like opposition pitchers were targeting Royals hitters and pitchers weren’t doing much about it. Back then I wrote that some batters on other teams needed to get drilled. Royals pitchers needed to start protecting Royals hitters. That’s how things have worked for a century or so of baseball, and I called the Royals pitching staff out because I thought they needed to hit more batters, not fewer.

Does that make me a Bad Boy of Journalism?

I’d like to think so, but I’m pretty sure my crowd is not tough enough to have a bad boy. I just found out — and this is a true story — that we have been complaining about the ice cream situation in the Royals dining room.

After complaints from the media that the Royals needed to provide ice cream to reporters, the team had a soft-serve ice cream machine installed. Apparently we went after that ice cream like it was crack and we were jonesing. The machine was overworked and gave up the ghost after one hour. Now the dining room provides cartons of ice cream, but we’ve complained that it’s too much work to scoop the ice cream into cups.

One more time: we’re already so fat some of us can’t see our shoes without the aid of a mirror — and I’m getting there — and we’re complaining that we’re getting too much exercise as we shove ice cream down our gullets.

The Royals are not the Bad Boys of Baseball, but no wonder we think they’re a step away from forming a motorcycle gang; the media’s idea of a bad boy is anyone who makes us scoop our own ice cream.

Has Greg Holland lost something? If so, Saturday night he found it

This is why I don’t like making predictions or talking about the future: Saturday morning I wrote about Royals closer Greg Holland, pointing out that his velocity was down and he didn’t seem quite as dominant as he had in previous years. Saturday night Holland came out to close a game against the Chicago White Sox with a one-run lead and the top of the order coming up. Holland struck out the side 1-2-3 using a 97-mph fastball.

Holland looked great.

After the game Greg was asked about the increased velocity on his fastball. He said velocity was not something he spent a lot of time thinking about: he can either go or he can’t and he’ll work with whatever he has available that night. So if velocity matters less than fans and reporters think, what does make a difference; is it command?

Articulating why your stuff is so-so one night and lights out the next can be difficult; but Holland said he felt like his mechanics had been just a "tick" off recently, but Saturday night everything was happening on time. When your mechanics come together, Greg said, you can feel it as the ball comes out of your hand.

I asked if that meant he knew whether or not he’d thrown a good pitch immediately — as the ball was released — and Greg said yes. And when a pitcher throws a bad one, he knows that too; before the hitter ever starts his swing the pitcher knows this pitch might get hit a long way.

As for physical issues, Greg said you’re never 100 percent in August. At this point of the season everyone has some physical issue they’re dealing with. The real question — the right question — is whether or not it’s something you can play through it and still perform at your best.

Saturday night, Greg Holland did.

I’ve made up my own rules, but sometimes forget to follow them

I was lucky when we started this blog; nobody was quite sure how I was going to use it, so I got to make up my own rules as I went along. Here are a few of them:

1.) Stick to what has happened, not what might happen. Sports reporting is filled with speculation, most of it flat-out wrong. Understanding what has happened is hard enough — don’t try to predict the future.

2.) Stick to what happens on the field. There are plenty of people who will speculate about trades and contracts; there are very few people who will tell how a delayed steal works.

3.) Try to talk to players and coaches one on one. Most of them go into cliché mode when there’s a crowd around them because they don’t trust every reporter in that crowd. If you get them by themselves, they’re usually more candid.

I screwed up Rule One when I started talking about Greg Holland losing something and what that mean for his future. Saturday night Holland showed everybody that he can still pitch at the highest level when he’s right. And Holland being right made me wrong.

The coolest thing I heard on a hot field

Let’s go back to Rule 3: talk to players and coaches one-on-one. Rule 3 is why I show up early and stand around on smoking-hot baseball fields — it’s a good time to talk to people without a crowd gathering.

One spring training, former Royals coach Doug Sisson and I were talking about some arcane piece of baseball information. It was hot, and we were both dripping with sweat. Suddenly Doug looked up, smiled and said: "If you didn’t love it, this would be torture."

I was reminded of that on Friday when once again I was standing on a hot baseball field, sweating like a horse and talking with Royals coach Rusty Kuntz. Loving the game is an advantage; if you don’t love it, you don’t show up early — you stay in the AC and come down to the field for Ned’s pre-game press conference and once that’s over you scurry back upstairs and get out of the sun. But if you’re willing to stand around talking baseball in the heat, you get to hear some pretty cool stuff.

For instance:

The first base coach is the one responsible for the runner on second; the coach at first base has a better view of the runner’s lead and the shortstop’s positioning. But with a runner on second, the second base umpire will come in and take a position behind the mound on or near the grass.

Now here’s the cool thing: smart shortstops will hide behind the umpire. They’ll take a position that keeps them out of the first-base coach’s line of sight. The coach looks up and does not see exactly where the shortstop’s positioned. If the first base coach doesn’t move laterally — so he can see the shortstop — on a pickoff, the shortstop will get a step or two toward second base before the coach sees what he’s doing. The coach yells "back" to alert the runner that the shortstop is sneaking in behind him, but he’ll yell it too late.

Finding out that smart players hide behind umpires is why I show up early in the day; it lets us know how complex the game can be when played at its highest level. And Friday afternoon it was the coolest thing I heard on a hot baseball field.

And this next bit ain’t bad either.

Why a smart coach picks a good number

Let’s say you’re a new coach on a team and you have to pick a uniform number; if you’re a smart coach you look at what numbers are available and pick a good one. Single digits are always popular, anything in the teens or twenties is good, and double numbers — 11, 22, 33, 44 — are also highly valued.

OK, so now you’ve got a good number and the team trades for a player who likes that number — you are now in business. Coaches are expected to give up numbers to players (players are more important than coaches), but players who take a coach’s number are expected to do something nice for the coach.

By picking a popular number and trading it to players who wanted it, Rusty Kuntz has obtained a snow blower, a lawn mower and a leaf blower. Before he retires Rusty says he needs a roto-tiller and then he’ll have all four seasons covered.

Every time I talk to Rusty Kuntz, I learn something new and Friday afternoon I found out why smart coaches pick good numbers.

They weren’t running on Melky’s arm, they were running on his positioning

Friday night the Royals appeared to be running on Melky Cabrera’s arm. Lorenzo Cain challenged him by going for third on a ball hit down the left field line and Mike Jirschele was sending runners home when the ball was hit to Cabrera.

On Twitter — a wonderful way for fans to get bad information quickly — I said it appeared that the Royals were running on Melky’s arm. Saturday afternoon I asked around and found out that Melky is considered to have a good arm, but on Friday he was positioned over toward the left-center gap and had a long run for the ball every time a Royal hit it down the line. That’s why the Royals were taking an extra 90 feet.

I violated Rule 1 (don’t speculate) and now I’ve got to correct what I said.

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