Judging the Royals

An infield single beats the Royals

Oh sure, the Los Angeles Angels hit 1,572 feet worth of home runs—assuming I wrote the distances of their four home runs down correctly—but don’t miss the eighth inning infield single that provided the fifth run in the 5-4 Angels win.

Like a lot of right-handed pitchers, Ervin Santana falls off to the first-base side of the mound after delivering a pitch. In the eighth inning, he threw a 1-1 slider to Angels’ centerfielder Mike Trout and got a weak bouncing ball hit back up the middle. If Santana finished in a better fielding position, it would have been an easy 1-3 putout. But because Ervin was falling off to the side, he could only wave as the ball went past. By the time it got to Chris Getz, directly in front of second base, the ball had lost steam and Getz had lost any chance of getting Mike Trout—the guy can run a little bit.

This seemingly innocuous play wound up providing the Angels with the extra run they needed after Mark Trumbo homered. If Ervin Santana caught the ball, the game might have wound up tied in the ninth. But since Ervin falls off to the side, the Angels won a nail-biter.

When you’re losing one-run games, little things mean a lot. Right now the Royals have no margin for error. Make one bad pitch, throw a ball away, walk a batter or fall off the mound to the first-base side and you lose another ballgame.

Game notes
First inning:

Mike Trout hit a home run to dead center that cleared every wall but the great one in China—and if it had been hit in right direction, it might have cleared that one.

Second inning:

Talk to the people who should know and they’ll tell you Josh Hamilton has giant holes in swing. When a hitter has enough at-bats, the holes in his swing become clear. Pitchers get a chart that show hot and cold zones for each hitter. The charts show you where you can get a hitter out—but if you miss with a guy like Hamilton,




. Apparently the Royals pitchers didn’t miss the holes because Hamilton went 0-4 with a couple of punch-outs.

Fourth inning:

Leadoff hitter Chris Getz doubled to start the inning, Alcides Escobar moved him over to third with a grounder to the right side and Alex Gordon drove him in with another grounder in the same direction. With good situational hitting the Royals manufactured a run.

Before the game, Ned Yost was asked about having Getz leadoff; wouldn’t it be better to have someone with a higher on-base percentage do the job? Apparently, the leadoff-hitter tree is in the same neighborhood as the third-base tree. Since moving Alex Gordon to the three-hole, the Royals have struggled to find a leadoff hitter and it appears to be Getzie’s turn. Chris has gone back to last year’s upright stance and since then has hit the ball well. In the last two games—and sample sizes don’t get much smaller—Getz has gone two for six with three walks.

Sixth inning:

With one out Alcides Escobar singled and, at the time, represented the tying run. Obviously, it would be kind of cool to steal second and be in scoring position for Alex Gordon and/or Billy Butler. Angels’ pitcher Joe Blanton thought it would be kind of cool if that


happen. So Blanton went into his bag of tricks to stop Escobar from running; Joe held the ball in the set position to try to deaden Esky’s legs and when Blanton finally delivered the ball to home plate, he was doing it in a slide step—way too quick for Esky to run.

But after Alex Gordon popped out and Billy Butler stepped in the box, the Royals took a gamble. Pitchers want to throw strike one, especially to dangerous hitters, so a lot of pitchers throw that first pitch with a full leg kick. If they throw a first-pitch strike, then they go back to the slide step. Escobar ran on the first pitch to Butler and the Royals guessed right: Blanton used a full leg kick and by the time he got the ball to home plate, it was too late for catcher Chris Iannetta to throw out Escobar.

Seventh inning:

Eric Hosmer led off with a single and had enough speed to disrupt an attempted double play when Lorenzo Cain hit into a fielder’s choice. Pay attention to which guys hustle down to take out the double play pivot man and which guys loaf—the guys who hustle are the real ballplayers. Salvador Perez singled, Cain went first-to-third and with one down and the tying run on third base, it was Mike Moustakas’ turn to hit. The Angels brought in left-handed reliever, Sean Burnett, and Yost pinch-hit for Moose with Miguel Tejada.

When he was managing in the minor leagues, I once asked Clint Hurdle if his job was developing players or winning ball games. "It’s developing players—until we lose three in a row." The Royals have had enough loses that developing players might go out the window once in a while. It didn’t help: Tejada hit a ground ball and Salvador Perez did not have enough speed to break up the inning-ending double play.

Eighth inning:

After the game Ned Yost was asked about pitching to Mark Trumbo with the count 3-0, Mike Trout on second (after that infield single and a stolen base), two outs and first base open. In retrospect, Ned said it was a mistake; Trumbo hit a two-run home run and that provided the margin of victory for Angels. Yost said he could run through his thinking for the benefit of the media, but bottom line: it was a bad decision. Josh Hamilton was on deck at the time and the Royals had been finding the holes in his swing all night.

Ninth inning:

If you’re looking for a silver lining (and why wouldn’t you?) the Royals didn’t give up down by three, had very good plate appearnaces, scored two and had the tying and winning runs on base when the game ended. They also forced the Angels closer, Ernesto Frieri, to throw 35 pitches and that may come in handy on Friday. But four home runs (and that infield single) were too much to overcome. They lost this one 5-4.

How a trip to the minors can make things worse (There’s been a lot of talk lately about which players might benefit from a trip to the minor leagues. Not too long ago, I spoke with Chris Getz about what going to the minors can do—and not do—for a player. As always, Chris had an interesting point of view. This article originated with that conversation.)

Let’s say you’ve got a hole in your swing and it’s being exploited by big league pitchers. They’re throwing mid-nineties fastballs on your hands and to keep from getting blown up inside, you’re starting your swing a little earlier. Big league pitchers and catchers tend to notice that kind of thing, so now they’re coming inside


the plate—even if you hit it, the ball’s going foul—and then they go soft away. Because you’re starting early to get to the fastball, you’re too early on the slider.

You’re now in the worst place you can be; in-between.

You can’t hit anything—fastballs or off-speed—unless you happen to guess right. You’re average plummets; the numbers are looking worse and worse until finally, you get sent back to the minors. Every player who has had a taste of big-league life likes it and wants to stay in the big leagues. There’s that whole money thing (if you’re on a split contract you get a lot more for playing in the big leagues and the meal money really adds up), but there’s a whole lot more: When you’re in a big league clubhouse you sit in leather captain’s chairs, not on wooden stools. The post-game spread is catered from an area restaurant, not a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter. When you travel, you do it on chartered jets—not commercial—and you don’t ride a bus unless it’s taking you from your chartered jet to your luxury hotel.

Even if all you care about is baseball, being a big-leaguer means you get a pile of scouting reports and video that makes facing your opponent somewhat easier. In the minors a guy you’ve never seen before walks to the mound, starts warming up and a teammate might say, "I faced this dude in Double A—watch out for his slider."


your scouting report.

So every former big leaguer who has been sent to the minors has a whole bunch of reasons to want to get sent back up as soon as possible—


you’re here to work on your swing. One problem: any time an athlete changes his mechanics he almost always gets worse—at least for a while. The new motion is unfamiliar and until it’s been practiced, until it can be done without thinking, you’re going to struggle while you change. So you’re tempted to leave your swing alone. Remember the original problem?

Pitchers who can throw in the mid-nineties and consistently put a fastball on your hands are getting you to swing sooner and then you can’t hit those big league sliders.

But the minors don’t have too many pitchers who can throw in the mid-nineties and consistently put a fastball on your hands—and they don’t have a big-league slider. So your swing works just fine down here. So do you change and get worse—at least for a while—or keep your old swing, put up the numbers that will get you back to the big leagues and worry about fixing your swing later? According to Chris Getz, it takes an unusual person to choose the more difficult path.

Major league hitters will tell you most relief pitchers that are good are already in the big leagues (teams rarely have seven top-notch relievers). That leaves a Triple A hitter facing a starter with big-league level stuff or experience once a week or so. It’s why guys rake in the minors and still get overwhelmed by major league pitching. So if you can do it, why not go ahead and rake? The only pitchers good enough to exploit your swing are in the majors. Put up your numbers; get sent back up,


figure out how to adjust.

Bottom line: a trip to the minors isn’t magical. For some guys it can be very beneficial—if they have the right attitude. For other guys it might be better to stay in the big leagues and work on their problems against the best pitching available. If a guy has shown he has nothing left to prove at a minor league level, sending him there might actually delay his progress; he won’t get serious about changing until he has to. That may seem crazy, but ask yourself how many of us take the same attitude about our diet or smoking or having one too many on a regular basis.

A trip to the minors might help the right guy with the right attitude, but sending everyone who struggles down to the minors isn’t the answer. It might make some problems worse.

How a trip to the minors can make things better

Friday afternoon I heard that reliever Kelvin Herrera got sent to the minors. Sometimes guys are sent to the minors to "gain confidence" and if that’s the case, it’s just fine that you’re stuff works well in Triple A. Go get some people out, dominate, and start feeling good about yourself again.

If a pitcher starts getting whacked around he can become timid; he avoids contact. He tries to pitch on the corners, misses and then has to come into the heart of the zone just when the hitters expect him to. He gets whacked even harder and it all gets worse. Herrera has given up eight home runs this season and here are the counts in which those home runs were hit: 0-0, 0-1, 0-2, 1-1, 3-2, 3-1, 2-1 and 1-0. It’s an incredibly small sample size (although I’m guessing Kelvin would disagree), but the first five home runs were hit when he was ahead or even in the count and the last three were hit after falling behind in the count. If he was starting to nibble and falling behind, things were going to get worse before they got better.

It sounds like stuff is not Herrera’s problem, it’s location. Going down to the minors, dominating hitters and getting the confidence to be aggressive in the strike zone might do the trick.