When it comes to pitching, fans and the media often focus on starters and closers—middle relievers are often ignored. But if you want to understand what happened in this game, you’ll have to focus on the performance of two middle relievers: the Royals Bruce Chen and the Rays Jake McGee.
Let’s start with Bruce.
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To understand what Chen did, you have to first understand what starter Luis Mendoza did. After missing several starts because of bad weather, Mendoza finally got to pitch. As Ned Yost put it afterwards, Mendoza wasn’t exceptionally sharp. Luis gave up six earned runs in four innings and there wasn’t a whole lot of evidence that things were going to get much better. Unlike Monday’s game when Yost had no middle relievers available and had to stick with Wade Davis until the game was out of hand, Ned could turn the ball over to Bruce Chen while the Royals were still within striking distance.
It’s usually a bad thing when the long reliever gets up in the bullpen; it means the starting pitcher has a problem and isn’t going to make it to the relievers at the back end of the pen. This time a long reliever getting up was a good thing: Bruce threw two innings and restored some order to the game—but not without some anxiety. Bruce got through fifth inning just fine, but faced trouble in the sixth.
Yunel Escobar singled to center, Luke Scott walked and Jose Lobaton bunted both runners over. The score was 6-4 Rays at this point and all they needed was the right kind of ball in play to make it 7-4: Escobar could score on a grounder or fly ball to the outfield. So just when the Royals and Bruce Chen needed a strikeout, the Royals and Bruce Chen got one—Kelly Johnson was called out looking. Now the Rays would probably have to get a hit to score a run and a hit would probably score two—the runner on second would not have to wait to see if the ball was caught. That’s when Bruce Chen got his second strikeout: Desmond Jennings struck out swinging and the game moved to the bottom of the sixth, the score was still 6-4.
The Rays had their own middle relief problems: Jeremy Hellickson had thrown 91 pitches in five innings—75 pitches would be about average—and was replaced by Jake McGee. Bruce Chen came in and put out a fire for the Royals; McGee came in and started one.
Salvador Perez singled, Elliot Johnson tried to bunt and popped up, Alex Gordon singled, Alcides Escobar singled, Billy Butler hit a line drive back at the pitcher, but was forced at first while Perez scored. Then Eric Hosmer reached first on what was originally scored an error—but as I understand it the call was later ruled a hit. Lorenzo Cain singled, Mike Moustakas walked and Jake McGee was done.
But the runners he put on base weren’t: the Rays brought in Kyle Farnsworth to face Jeff Francoeur. Frenchy singled, two runs scored and the Royals were never behind again (although it got close). Games aren’t just won or lost in the ninth inning; sometimes they’re won or lost in the sixth—by two middle relievers.
Francoeur’s sixth-inning single
Afterwards Jeff Francoeur said that this was one of the weirdest games he’d ever played in. The day started in T-shirts and by the ninth inning people were pulling on parkas. By the time Frenchy came to bat in the bottom of the sixth, the wind was howling in from left field.
Jeff told his teammates that the lefties should pull and the righties should let the ball get deep. That’s what he was trying to do in the sixth inning: hit the ball in the right center gap and take advantage of the wind blowing that direction. Jeff didn’t quite get it to right center—he singled up the middle—but that single gave the Royals their ninth run and they needed every one of them.
3-0 green light
In Tuesday night’s game Mike Moustakas got a 3-0 green light in the seventh inning. The bases were loaded, there was one down and Ned Yost thought Mike was swinging the bat so well a grand slam was a possibility. Mike hit the ball deep, but not out, and Alcides Escobar tagged up at third and scored.
Wednesday I asked Moose to describe the 3-0 green light thought process.
Here it is: you start by making the hitting zone tiny. In your mind the strike zone is maybe a six-inch square. Then you look for a fastball. If you get a fastball within that miniature strike zone, you let fly.
Look for 3-0 green lights when the hitter has some power and can do damage from home plate or when the hitter is hot and there are runs in scoring position. Tuesday night, Mike qualified on both counts. You should not see a weak 3-0 swing. If there’s anything wrong with the pitch—missing the zone, too much movement, a difficult location—the hitter should shut it down and wait for something better on the 3-1 count.
Since the Rays are in town I might as well throw this one in: the other day Dayton Moore was talking about the trade that brought James Shields and Wade Davis to the team and said that he’d been asked if he couldn’t have traded Mike Moustakas or Eric Hosmer instead. Besides the fact that Dayton believes that Mike and Eric are more polished players at this stage of their careers, they have another advantage over Myers—they’re left-handed hitters.
Moore said if you look at the most dominant pitchers in the division—Jake Peavy, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, Max Scherzer, Justin Masterson and Justin Verlander (you can throw in Ubaldo Jimenez if he keeps pitching like he did the other night)—you see a lot of right-handed pitchers.
Having lefties in the lineup, especially lefties with some pop, is an advantage. If you have to face your divisional opponents 19 times, you need every advantage you can get.
Sample size and sophomore slumps
Monday afternoon Wade Davis was sitting in the dugout talking about pitching and said about twenty interesting things before he was done. And here’s one of them: the scouting reports will tell you what you need to know about hitters, but before a scouting report can help you get a hitter out, the hitter has to build up his sample size. Once a guy goes to the plate often enough, you begin to figure out the holes in his swing, where he hits the ball and what combination of pitches will get him out. After enough trips to the plate, the patterns reveal themselves.
Say a rookie does a great job of taking the ball to the opposite field. Throw him hard inside off the plate—make him start early and pull those balls foul—and
you might be able to pitch him away. You’ve screwed up his timing on the outside pitch. He starts his swing too early and rolls over the ball, producing weak grounders to the pull side of the field.
But that method of attack on a hitter might not be apparent until somebody tries it and makes it work. The next team sees that approach have success and now they do the same thing. Word gets around the league: this is how you get this kid out. Unless the kid makes an adjustment, he’s going to struggle. Insufficient sample size can explain why some rookies come up and look incredible: people haven’t figured out how to get them out—yet.
sample size explains why some players have that "sophomore slump." Everybody in the league now knows how to go after the young hitter and he’s got to make an adjustment to the league’s new approach.
But as Wade showed Monday night, you can know which pitches get a hitter out; executing those pitches isn’t something else entirely.