Judging the Royals

How Nelson Cruz hit a home run; why Danny Valencia didn’t

In the fourth inning of Royals 2-1 loss to the Orioles, Nelson Cruz hit a two-run home run. But to understand what happened in the fourth inning, let’s go back to the first inning, when Nelson Cruz was standing on deck.

Hitters read scouting reports and watch video, but nothing replaces seeing a pitcher live. You might know what a pitcher throws, but you want to see how he’s throwing it tonight. The best view of a pitcher’s stuff is in the batter’s box; the second best view is from the on-deck circle.

In the first inning, while Nelson Cruz stood on deck, Royals starting pitcher Yordano Ventura threw Chris Davis seven pitches. One was a changeup and the other six were fastballs between 96 and 98 miles an hour. Davis struck out to end the inning and Cruz, the Orioles designated hitter, sat back down to wait for the top of the second inning.

When Cruz led off the second inning he saw five fastballs and all of them were either 96 or 97 miles an hour—he struck out looking.

Cruz got his next chance in the fourth; Chris Davis led off the inning and this time Ventura threw Davis six pitches, all fastballs between 95 and 97 miles an hour. If you’d seen 18 pitches from either the batter’s box or on-deck circle and 17 of them were fastballs, what would you look for?

Nelson Cruz ambushed that 18th fastball.

Nelson didn’t wait around, he swung at the first pitch and timed up a 95 mile an hour heater. Cruz homered to right center and that was significant; the wind was blowing left to right and it helped the ball carry.

And that brings us to Danny Valencia’s fourth inning at-bat. With the bases loaded, Valencia crushed a slider from Orioles starting pitcher Wei-Yin Chen, but Danny hit the ball to left field—right into the wind. The ball pushed left fielder David Lough back to the warning track, but it didn’t make it over the bullpen fence. Lough caught the ball and the Royals had to settle for a sacrifice fly.

Nelson Cruz homered because he saw one too many fastballs and hit the ball to right center; Danny Valencia didn’t because he hit his ball to left.

Orioles 2, Royals 1.

Game notes

*After the game Ned Yost said the wind had been blowing so hard in batting practice that hitters were having a hard time even reaching the warning track. Ned thought that if Danny had hit the same ball in his next at-bat—after the wind died down in sixth—the ball would have left the yard.

*Everyone’s going to focus on the Nelson Cruz home run—including me—but the plate appearance right before Cruz hit his home run provided the margin of victory. The batter was Chris Davis. The Orioles first baseman was 3 for 15 in his previous four games and he’d struck out in the first inning of this game. When Davis came to the plate in the fourth he was hitting .239. Throw strikes and you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting him out. But Yordano Ventura walked him and that turned the Cruz home run into a two-run shot.

*After Cruz barreled up that fastball in the fourth, he got pitched differently in the sixth: a curve, a fastball, then two more curves. Changing speeds worked; Cruz struck out.

*In the first inning with Baltimore runners at first and second, Nori Aoki was playing deep. Nori often plays deep and doesn’t have the strongest arm; watch for teams to send runners and challenge his positioning and arm strength.

*Check outfield positioning as each hitter comes to the plate and what happens next might become more understandable—or remarkable. Lorenzo Cain was over in the left-center gap when Steve Clevenger hit a ball in the right-center gap. Cain had a long run, but still got there to make the catch.

*Same thing with the infield: third baseman Danny Valencia was well off left- field line so when Ventura left a changeup too high in the zone, it was easy to figure out how J.J. Hardy doubled; throw off-speed to a right-handed hitter and he’s going to probably pull the ball to left. In this case Hardy pulled that ball between Valencia and the line.

*Adam Jones likes to play shallow—he goes back well—but it cost him on Valencia’s second inning double. Jones came up a step short.

*If a hitter can’t chase a pitch down in the zone with a runner on third and less than two outs and the double play in order, a pitcher shouldn’t throw a pitch up in the zone in the same situation. The hitter wants to get the ball in the air to the outfield so—at the very least—the runner on third can tag and score. The pitcher wants a groundball because a double play will get him out of the inning.

*In the fourth inning after Valencia hit his sac fly to score Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez was on second, tagged up and moved over to third—but was it worth it?

Perez was already in scoring position with two outs and wound up taking a knee in the neck when David Lough threw the ball to Manny Machado and Sal collided with the Orioles third baseman.

*In the seventh inning Alex Gordon got his 58th outfield assist when J.J. Hardy tried to score from second base on a Nick Markakis single.

Maybe the Royals need hitting pills

When current Texas Rangers bench coach Tim Bogar was playing minor league ball, one of his managers was Clint Hurdle. Their team was scuffling offensively so one day Clint—a master motivator—showed up with some "hitting pills’. According to Clint, the entire team had to take them at the same time or they wouldn’t work. Bogar and all his teammates knew it was BS, but played along—until the first guy got a hit.

Someone said the hitting pills were kicking in and the next guy that got a hit confirmed it. They all knew there was no such thing as hitting pills, but they went from moping about their offensive numbers to eagerly waiting for their trip to the plate—they’d taken hitting pills and wanted to get up there and rake. Bogar said they got out of their offensive slump and won the game.

The point of the story isn’t that Royals need hitting pills, the point is that hitting a baseball is just as much mental as physical and none of us really understand how that works. There’s no such thing as hitting pills, but if Ned Yost wants me to, I’ll ask Clint Hurdle where you get ‘em.

Today’s "Throwback" excerpt; "Looking for an advantage"

Some hitters want to set up outside the batter’s box. Fans can see it: hitter will walk up to the plate and use his foot to wipe out the back line of the box. They do that because they plan on making the toe hole behind that line—and it’s usually your star players who try to get away with that. That’s when a catcher needs to say, "No, no, no—get your ass back in the box."

If the hitter doesn’t move up on his own, you tell the umpire to move the hitter back into the box. But a rookie catcher probably isn’t going to tell a hitter to get his ass back in the box, especially if the hitter is someone like Albert Pujols—hell, a rookie’s just happy to talk to Albert. If you’ve been around a while, you tell Albert to get his ass back in the box.

It’s not like taking steroids, but everyone is looking for an advantage: an edge. How far can I bend this rule and still get away with it? If a catcher lets a hitter get away with that—setting up with his back foot out of the box—the catcher also has to move back or he’s going to take a backswing to the head. Now the catcher is letting the hitter take six inches off the pitcher’s fastball. If the catcher doesn’t speak up, he’s giving the batter an advantage.

How to win Jason Kendall’s catcher’s mask

Here’s the deal: click on the link below and it takes you to a landing page for the new book "Throwback." St. Martin’s Press is encouraging readers to help spread the word about the book and if you do, we send you a signed bookplate—an autographed sticker that goes into your copy of the book. You also get a chance to win an autographed Jason Kendall catcher’s mask.


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