Judging the Royals

Getting beat in pitcher’s counts

How it ended

Monday night the Royals entered the top of the 12th inning tied with the Padres 4-4.

They were facing reliever Tim Stauffer. With one down, Salvador Perez got a fastball up and away and drove a double to the right-center gap. After an Alex Gordon strikeout, Mike Moustakas pulled a 1-1 changeup into right for a single, driving in Sal and taking a 5-4 lead.

Down one, the Padres came to the plate in the bottom of the 12th to face Louis Coleman. After pitching the 11th Coleman stayed in the game to face right-handed Chris Denorfia. Coleman got ahead 0-2 on Denorfia before missing twice, then gave up a 2-2 single to right on a hung slider.

Tim Collins then came in to face lefty Alexi Amarista, who sac bunted the tying run into scoring position. Then, Yonder Alonso dropped a double in front of Alex Gordon which Gordon nearly caught with a diving stab. Gordon’s effort forced Denorfia to wait to see if the ball would be caught and he only made it to third base. With runners on second and third and only one down, Collins got ahead of Will Venable 0-2. Perez signaled for a high fastball—he made an upward motion with his throwing hand and set a high target—looking to either force a strikeout or a pop-up out of Venable, either of which would get the second out of the inning without allowing the tying run to score.

Collins didn’t climb the ladder high enough with his fastball; Venable drove it to right field and the Padres had a walk-off win—6-5 over the Royals.

Getting beat in pitcher’s counts

In writing about a recent James Shields start against Baltimore, I mentioned the importance of Royals pitchers staying ahead and not falling into hitter’s counts. Staying ahead in the count enables Kansas City pitchers to use all their pitches and limits an offense‘s opportunities to cause trouble.

Having said that, it’s interesting to note that last night the Padres’ biggest hits all came out of pitcher’s counts.

As mentioned above, Will Venable’s walk-off single came off an 0-2 Tim Collins fastball that was too hittable—0-2, you don’t have to throw a strike. In the sixth inning, down 3-0, Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal came to the plate with runners on second and third. Yordano Ventura threw Grandal a first-pitch fastball for a strike, then two curves, down and in. Grandal stayed alive by fouling the second one off. Next, Ventura missed with a high fastball to go 1-2, threw another curve which Grandal fouled off, a changeup that Grandal fouled off and then threw Grandal one more curve, down and in.

This one didn’t break like the others. It stayed right in the power zone for Grandal, who blasted it to right field for the game-tying three-run homer.

Both hits came out of pitcher’s counts, and both highlighted a lack of execution on the part of the Royals pitchers on Monday night. The process was generally good: both Ventura and Collins got ahead of the hitters and forced them into tough, protect-the-plate counts. But then both left hittable pitches over the plate when they had their batters cornered, and both pitchers were made to pay. It’s always important to focus on improving the process, but to win close games like these, consistent execution and attention to detail is also always needed. Getting into pitcher’s counts is the goal, but you have to execute once you get there.

Falling into patterns

Ventura’s mistake in particular highlighted a consistent problem: after throwing three curves in the at-bat to Grandal, I made a note to myself –“careful”. Throw any major leaguer the same pitch enough times in the same spot, and eventually you might be watching one sail over the outfield wall. Grandal wasn’t able to square up a Ventura fastball all day, but he was clearly able to time the curve.

It’s interesting to note that in the next at-bat, Ventura struck out Jedd Gyorko with a 1-2 fastball up; a pitch that Gyorko couldn’t do handle. When you throw as hard as Ventura, you can get a lot of hitters out just using your fastball; especially when that hitter is backed into a good pitcher’s count and has to swing at anything close. But at times, both Sal and the Royals pitchers seem to get predictable in their pitch-calling: get to two strikes, maybe throw a chase fastball, then go for the punchout with off-speed.

Ventura had been going to his curve all night with two strikes, but after already throwing three in the at-bat to Grandal, and after nearly getting him to strike out on a down and away change, the fastball up and in looked like a good option to force Grandal into a tough corner. Sal and Ventura stayed with the curve, Grandal timed it right, and made the Royals pay for some fairly predictable pitch-calling.

To be fair, it’s important to mention just how good Ventura’s curve was on Monday night. Yordano struck out 10 and six of them came on a curveball. If Ventura had thrown a great curve to Grandal, it probably would have still worked, but Ventura hung it. On the other hand, a pitcher simplifies things for the hitter when the hitter has a good idea about what’s coming next—and if Grandal was paying attention, he was sitting on something soft.

— Paul Judge

(I asked Paul to fill in for me on Monday night and he got stuck with an extra-inning West Coast game. Live and learn I guess. Here are a couple pieces I wrote before Monday night.)

It ain’t the big leagues

While Tim Collins was in Omaha he put up some very good numbers for a reliever: four innings pitched, no runs, 10 punchouts. Tim also had this to say: “They were younger guys, and probably swinging at stuff they wouldn’t swing at here.”A few years back I watched Collins pitch with Paul Splittorff by my side. Collins threw a two-strike breaking pitch that dove out of the zone and the hitter spit on it. Splittorff laughed and said Collins was probably thinking: “They swing at that in Omaha.”

When you look at minor league numbers remember; they’re minor league numbers. It ain’t the big leagues.

Why managers avoid definitive answers

Is there now a strict platoon situation at third base? Will Danny Valencia face all the left-handed pitchers and Mike Moustakas face all the the righties?

When managers get asked these kinds of questions, they often leave themselves some wiggle room. The truth is there’s not much incentive for a manager to give definitive answers and plenty of reasons not to.

What if there’s a left-handed pitcher who actually does well against right-handed hitters? What if Moose is in a hot streak or has good match-up numbers against a lefty? If Ned Yost says that third base is now strictly a platoon situation and he then starts Valencia against a righty or Moose against a lefty, he’ll be criticized for being inconsistent. Better to refuse to be painted in a corner; a manager needs all his options available every night and doesn’t want to take heat for something he said two weeks ago.

When I was first trying to learn the game well enough to manage a team, someone would talk to me about the hit and run and I’d say: “So 2-1 is a good hit and run count?” The answer—invariably—was: “It depends.” That was the answer to almost every other question I asked. There’s no one answer; every game is different, every situation within a game is different.

If you want to know why managers avoid definitive answers; there’s a definitive answer.