Judging the Royals

A lead-off walk to Billy Butler backfires

If you learn anything from being around big league ballplayers, it’s that every rule has an exception. The minute you say you


do this or


do that, someone will say, not so fast — there are times you go against the unwritten rules.

And that includes walks.

The perception that all walks are bad is incorrect; at least at this level. It’s surprising how often major league pitchers use walks to get around certain hitters. They might throw the ball off the plate and if the hitter wants to chase, fine. If the hitter stays disciplined, put him on and go after the next guy.

I couldn’t tell you what was going through Samuel Deduno’s mind, but he walked Billy Butler to lead off the second inning and he did it on four fastballs. Most big league pitchers can throw fastball for strikes most of the time — if they can’t, they aren’t big league pitchers for long. Butler was coming into the game hot — he’s been hitting well since the All-Star break — and Billy has hit Deduno well in the past: .364 coming into Thursday’s game. Billy also doesn’t run well and pitchers can rest assured that with him leading the way, the Royals are likely to play the game 90 feet at a time. Put Butler on and clog the bases. But if you’re going to work around a hitter, you better get the next guy.

Deduno didn’t — he hit Justin Maxwell with a pitch.

Maxwell took exception to that — no telling if some of this was the result of the Salvador Perez-Andrew Albers confrontation from the night before — but in any case; Justin was barking at Deduno as he walked down to first base. Home plate umpire Alan Porter issued warning to both benches and Minnesota manager, Ron Gardenhire, took exception to that. Words were exchanged, and Gardenhire was ejected.

George Kottaras hit a ground ball to first base and the Royals two free base runners moved up; Butler was now on third base, Maxwell was on second. Alcides Escobar hit an infield single and Butler scored. If Deduno was working around Butler, it backfired. Chris Getz then singled and Maxwell scored; the Twins were down by two runs.

Escobar moved up to second base on the Getz single and then stole third base — a good bit of base running, followed by a bad bit of base running. Anytime a runner can get to third base with one down, it’s a good deal — he can score without benefit of a hit. With Esky on third, the Twins brought in their infield. What happened next is unclear, but something went wrong: Jarrod Dyson hit a ground ball to second baseman Brian Dozier. Alcides Escobar headed for home, had a change of heart and direction and then tried to get back to third base. That didn’t work, and Escobar was trapped between third and home for the second out.

If the Royals had the contact play on (the runner on third breaks for home when the batter makes contact), Esky should have kept going and tried to score. If the Royals didn’t have the contact play on, Esky probably shouldn’t have left third base. Either way, it was a mistake and it cost the Royals a run when Alex Gordon singled. Chris Getz scored and the Royals were up by three, but it should have been four.

Kansas City did not score after the second inning, but the pitching held up and the Royals beat the Twins 3-1. Kansas City is now five games over and headed to Toronto. They didn’t do a lot of scoring, but what scoring they did, started with a walk to Billy Butler.

What’s wrong with warnings

Samuel Deduno hit Justin Maxwell and a warning was issued. Ron Gardenhire argued, but it was more unfair to the Royals than it was to the Twins; the Royals hadn’t hit anyone. That’s why ballplayers hate warnings if they come too soon.

The old-school approach to the game says that if you hit one of our guys, we’ll hit one of yours. Then we’re even and it’s over. When Toronto manager John Gibbons was bench coach here in Kansas City, he told me a funny story about guys getting hit by pitches: the old-school style of play demanded eye-for-an-eye justice. You hit


No. 3 hitter, now we’re going to hit yours. Or it might go by position; the visiting team’s first baseman got smoked, the home team’s first baseman would be next.

In any case, guys could figure out that they were going to get drilled the next time they came to the plate, so they’d plead their case: they’d tell someone on the other team that they didn’t think their guy got hit on purpose. According to Gibby, most of the time this didn’t work; so guys would have to walk to the plate knowing they were about to wear one.

But back to the point: a warning issued too soon stops the natural course of things. That can mean a team has to wait until the next day to get even. A warning issued too soon can actually


a bean ball war.

Game notes

• In the first inning Emilio Bonifacio was in a 3-0 count, thought he got ball four, flipped his bat and started for first base. Umpires don’t like that — the hitter has informed the crowd that he believes the pitch was a ball. Fans should pay attention to what happens next: smart pitchers and catchers will take advantage of the situation, knowing the umpire is likely to give them the benefit of the doubt on any borderline pitch.

I’ve even heard of the hitter being quick pitched; throw a strike before the hitter is set in the box. It’s supposed to be illegal, but the umpire may not be in the mood to call it.

• The Royals stole three bases in the second inning and lead all of the major leagues in the stolen base category. A team that steals bases forces the pitcher to throw from a slide step, gets the hitter at the plate more fastballs and makes the defense play out of position — they have to pinch the middle to cover second base. If a base stealer is on first and a ball goes just to the left of second or right of shortstop, you might want to credit the fear of the stolen base.

• In the bottom of the second Josh Willingham lined a changeup to third baseman Emilio Bonifacio. Emilio probably knew the ball was headed his way. Middle infielders can see the catcher’s signs and use a small hissing sound to alert the corner infielders when an off-speed pitch is about to be thrown. They do it right before the pitch is delivered so a base coach doesn’t have time to pass along the information to the hitter. If Emilio was informed that Bruce Chen was about to throw off-speed to Willingham, he could get ready in advance.

• There was some oohing and aahing when Justin Maxwell had his second at-bat. Deduno hit Maxwell the first time he came up and was pitching Justin inside in the third inning. But a couple of those pitches were curves. If a pitcher is coming inside to send a message, he doesn’t do it with a curve — it’ll be a fastball.

• Deduno threw 71 pitches in three innings; it looked like he wasn’t going to make it through five innings and he didn’t. Ryan Pressly replaced Deduno to start the fourth. Pay attention to the pitch count and you’ll have a good idea of when the starter will come out of the game. Starters don’t go much beyond 100 pitches these days.

• Alex Gordon played Ryan Doumit’s ball off the wall in the fourth inning and threw Doumit out at second base. Gordon might be headed for his third Gold Glove.

• Bruce Chen struck out Chris Colabello with an 82 mph cutter in the fifth inning. The cutter — a pitch that bores in on right-handed hitters — is what allows Bruce to throw 82 mph and still go inside on right-handed hitters. On the other hand, if Chen leaves that cutter out over the plate, it can get hit a long way.

• Kelvin Herrera followed Chen and that can be a great combo: Chen slows the bats down, Herrera blows his fastball by them. But Herrera — who needs to throw his changeup to be effective — may not want to throw that changeup right away. Kelvin’s change is as hard as Chen’s fastball. Show them heat first, then change speeds. That’s what Kelvin did; every hitter he faced got a fastball first, then Herrera could use his changeup and curve.

• This was the 31st game of 44 games in 44 days for the Royals. If a Kansas City player makes a mental mistake it’s not good, but it might be understandable — these guys are tired. It’s a long stretch in a long season.

Throwing someone to the wolves

Big league ballplayers aren’t afraid to bury someone. If they know they’re talking off the record, they’ll tell you what they think. Even though you can’t write what they say, that can be very informative: they’ll tell you what to look for and if what you see confirms what you’ve been told, then you can write it from your own perspective.

The reason I bring this up is because I’ve never heard a bad word about Minnesota manager, Ron Gardenhire — ust the opposite. All I hear is what a good guy and manager he is. But people still talk about the chances that he’ll be fired.

When a team underperforms it’s a baseball tradition to throw someone to the wolves; don’t blame me, it’s the hitting coach’s fault. Fans might feel better if someone gets fired, but it’s not uncommon that the firing actually makes things worse — get rid of a good manager to satisfy fan outrage and your team has not improved. All firing a good manager does is buy time for the guys who are still with the team.

From what I hear, if Ron Gardenhire gets fired, the Twins are making a bad move to satisfy unknowledgeable fans.