Judging the Royals

Who you play matters

If you were concerned about the Royals recent 1-6 stretch, but woke up this morning feeling better because they beat the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Southern California 11-4, remember this:

Who you play matters.

I once read a study that said sports fans tend to see winning and losing as a result of their team’s performance: if their team won it was because their team played well, if their team lost it was because their team played poorly—it was almost as if the other team’s performance didn’t matter.

But it does.

The Royals went 1-6 against the New York Yankees (24-14 with a .632 winning percentage this morning) and the Baltimore Orioles (23-15 with a .605 winning percentage). Monday night the Royals slapped around a team that is currently 14-24 with a .368 winning percentage. The pitcher they beat, Joe Blanton, woke up this morning with an 0-7 record and a 6.46 ERA. I’m not writing this to belittle Monday night’s win—far from it. That was just the kind of game the Royals need to win to get where they want to go. But the Royals may not have done anything more to improve their performance than playing a worse team. Before this road trip started manager Ned Yost said the Yankees had come into Kansas City and swept a team that was scuffling. Yost also said it was time for the Royals to go out on the road, find some other team having a hard time and beat up on them.

Monday night was a good start.

Game notes

In the first inning Billy Butler drove a ball over Josh Hamilton’s head and the Angels right fielder played it poorly. And that wasn’t the only play Hamilton made that might have you scratching your head: Hamilton either didn’t get to balls you thought he ought to be able to reach or got too close to the wall and allowed the carom to get past him. He’s also currently hitting .212. The Royals aren’t the only team with underperforming players.

Baseball people have a saying: ".300 hitters find a way to hit .300, .250 hitters find a way to hit .250." In other words, don’t get caught up in early season numbers. Here’s another one you can have your grandmother embroider on a pillow: "It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish." The people I’ve talked to aren’t overly concerned with Butler’s start, they think his numbers will be there in the end—and five for five don’t hurt.

In the bottom of the first Alcides Escobar made a great play to get Mike Trout, but don’t miss what Eric Hosmer did on the receiving end. Esky did a great Derek Jeter imitation, but Hosmer completed the play with some great footwork around the bag.

In the fourth inning the Royals had a shift on Albert Pujols that had Chris Getz on the shortstop side of second base. The positioning was perfect, the throw wasn’t. Pujols hit the ball at Chris, but Chris bounced the throw to Eric Hosmer—not a huge deal, Hosmer handled an easy hop and in fact the hop might have been intentional. But if it was, that’s still a bad sign. Ask baseball people and they’ll tell you Chris Getz would be a perfect utility guy, if he could play shortstop. Throws like this one don’t help.

In the top of the ninth inning with two down Jarrod Dyson came to the plate to face Angels reliever Robert Coello. Dyson was already 2 for 5 with a double, a run scored and one driven in—a good night. Nobody has told me this, but if Dyson hits (he’s currently at .270) it would seem Jeff Francoeur is probably going to see more time on the bench. Lorenzo Cain is hitting .328 and Alex Gordon is at .322. But Dyson didn’t do himself any favors with his last at-bat.

If I’m reading the records right, Dyson had never faced Coello before, but that didn’t stop Jarrod from swinging at the first pitch he saw. Dyson popped up to short on a 93-mph fastball. The Royals were up 11-4 so it didn’t change much in Monday night’s game, but throwing away that at-bat means Dyson still hasn’t seen Coello’s secondary pitches. That might matter if Dyson faces Coello Tuesday night, Wednesday night or when the Angels come to Kansas City. An 11-4 game would have been the perfect time to take some pitches, see everything Coello had and set up a future at-bat. If you see Jarrod flail at a breaking pitch against Robert Coello in the near future, remember the opportunity Jarrod passed up Monday night.

"Watch the pennies and the dollars take care of themselves."

Ben Franklin supposedly said that—who knew he was into baseball?

The Royals had a bad week and that’s got some fans in a lather. Bob Dutton, the Star’s baseball beat writer, posted a Q and A Monday morning and fans wanted to know if Ned Yost was going to get fired, why Wade Davis is not in Triple A and how soon Jeff Francoeur and Chris Getz could be shipped off to Devil’s Island.

As I write this the Royals are 19-16. Assuming I counted right—a fairly big assumption—the Royals have won 13 games by less than three runs. Six of their wins were by one run, five by two and two by the margin of three runs. They’ve also lost 12 games by less than three runs. Seven by one run, two by two runs and three by three runs. In other words, they generally aren’t winning by much when they were winning (Monday night excepted) and they’re generally not losing by much when they’re losing—that’s how fine the margin is. Hang a slider, make an error, hit a batter and that one-run win might become a one-run loss. It doesn’t take much to lose in the big leagues and last week the Royals were doing what it takes to lose.

So how do they get back on the positive side of the ledger?

It might be emotionally satisfying to do something big and dramatic, but fixing the problem might require something more mundane. Take Mike Moustakas for example:

Moose now has seven errors and that’s not good for a guy who is considered a Gold Glove candidate. Ask Royals infield coach Eddie Rodriguez what’s going on and he’ll tell you fielders get in slumps just like hitters. Just like a batter, a fielder can get out of rhythm: he might start laying back on balls and playing too soft. He might get charged up and start playing too fast. There’s a right speed to play at and guys have to find it. Try to go faster than that and mechanics break down. Slow down, stop moving your feet and the same thing happens.

But let’s get back to Mike Moustakas.

Saturday night Moose had a ground ball to his left, caught it, did a 360 and then tried to kill a beer vendor with his throw. Afterwards, Ned Yost said Mike did not get closed up correctly. (Picture first base and a line on the ground drawn to where Mike was standing—if Mike had his toes on that line and his shoulders parallel with that line—if he were looking directly over his left shoulder at first base—he’d be "closed up.")

Eddie said Ned was right: Mike was not lined up correctly with first base and that made his throw go wide. When Mike goes to his left to catch a ball, he should not try to shuffle in a clockwise direction to get back to a closed up position; that’s the wrong move. The right move is stepping


the left foot with the right foot—a crossover step—and pivoting on the balls of his feet until he’s lined up with first base. Eddie demonstrated that simple move and it got him into the right position in one step instead of making multiple tiny shuffle steps and still being in the wrong position. I never would have spotted that in a million years, but once Eddie showed me what to look for, I could see it. Sunday afternoon Mike did it incorrectly and threw another ball away. Later in the game he did it right and threw a strike to Eric Hosmer.

When you’re in a fielding slump or hitting slump or you’re pitching poorly, you go back to fundamentals. Moose has gotten off-track with his footwork and he’s paying the price. The way Mike gets back to playing good defense is by going out early and practicing—going over the correct footwork until it’s a habit. That’s how fine the difference is between winning and losing in the big leagues; step the wrong way and you lose, step the right way and you win.

The Royals have been doing just enough wrong to lose. Start taking care of the small stuff—watch the pennies: footwork, pitch selection, keeping the ball down in the zone—and they can get back on track.

It might not be as satisfying as shipping Frenchy to penal colony, but it’s how you win.