Judging the Royals

Royals pitcher Danny Duffy puts the team first

Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy. JSLEEZER@KCSTAR.COM

When I started covering baseball professionally (or at least as close as I can come to being a professional), I had some ideas about our National Pastime that soon proved to be incorrect.

I thought all walks by a pitcher were bad (they’re not), avoiding strikeouts was a good trait in a hitter (it can be, but if you’re avoiding striking out by hitting the first thing that comes into your local area code it’s a weakness) and players should run into walls and leap over tarps to make plays (it’s a really good way to get hurt, so players should only do it when it really matters).

And here’s another of my misconceptions: I thought professional ballplayers played team baseball until their team was eliminated from contention. At that point I thought players would do what they could to improve their own numbers.

I’ve since been informed it’s pretty much the exact opposite: this is professional baseball and players get paid for the numbers they put up. It’s why you see some guys fail to even attempt to move a runner over; nobody will pay you for hitting a 4-3 groundball and getting a runner from second to third base — they’ll pay you for driving in that run. So to hell with hitting a weak grounder to the right side; hack away and get yourself an RBI.

At times, professional ballplayers need to be selfish or they won’t be professional ballplayers for long.

But when a team has a chance to do something special — and the 2015 Kansas City Royals qualify — it’s time to forget about your own numbers and put the team first.

I was reminded all of this when the Royals announced Danny Duffy was being taken out of the starting rotation and sent to the bullpen. A lot of pitchers would view this as a demotion, but Danny said all the right things about the Royals decision: he said there was “zero disappointment” about the move and feels like he can help the team by pitching in relief.

“It’s the place I can help the most right now.”

Good for Danny Duffy; even if he felt disappointment — an understandable reaction — he’s not showing it. And he probably can help the Royals out of the pen: it gives Ned Yost another lefty to call on and in his career left-handed hitters have a .217 batting average against Danny.

It’s time for all the players to put the team first and that’s just what Danny Duffy did.

Relieving and starting are different

Anyone who says pitching is pitching and it shouldn’t make any difference when you pitch has probably never pitched.

Danny Duffy is going to the bullpen and that changes how he’ll go about his job. He no longer has the luxury of taking all the time in the world to warmup. He might get a call to get ready and have so little time to throw in the bullpen he’s still warming up when he comes into the game and throws those eight pitches from the mound.

That means he’ll have to anticipate when he might get used and that means getting up, moving around and stretching at the right time. Bullpen coach Doug Henry will help him with that.

And when Danny gets in the game he won’t have the luxury of trying to find the feel for a pitch that isn’t there right away; if his slider isn’t working, he has no time to find it — he’ll have to junk it and work with what he has.

On the upside, working out of the pen means Danny will not have to hold anything back. He’ll probably only pitch one inning — or even one batter — and that means Duffy can step on the gas and give it all he’s got for those 15 or so pitches.

Relievers and starters are both pitching, but pitching in different ways.

Yes, relievers can pitch more than one inning

Some genius got on Twitter last night and wanted Ned Yost to know that relief pitchers can pitch more than one inning — the genius had checked the rulebook.

O ye of little knowledge.

Sure, Ned Yost could ask Wade Davis or Kelvin Herrera or anybody else throwing out of the pen for two or more innings, but there would be consequences.

First, Ned would probably have to give that pitcher a day off the next day. When a reliever is limited to one inning he can generally throw two or three days in a row before needing a day off. Throw a reliever two innings and he probably won’t be available for the next game.

Second, a lot of relievers are good because they’re throwing only one inning. Notice how much harder some of these guys throw when they go to the bullpen? Like I said in the above bit about Duffy pitching out of the pen; relievers can let it all go when they know they’re only throwing one inning. Ask them to throw two and they’ll hold a little something back for the second one.

Third, the reliever would have to endure an up-down: getting up to pitch, sitting down between innings then getting up to pitch again. Like anything else in sports, athletes train for what they’re going to have to do in competition; so asking a pitcher who hasn’t trained for it, to pitch two innings is like asking an Olympic sprinter to run a 100-meter dash, rest for a while, then run another one. The sprinter could do it, but I’m guessing his time in the second dash would be slower.

There are relievers who throw multiple innings; they’re called long relievers and they train for that. But because they throw multiple innings they generally don’t throw as hard as they would if they were only throwing one. That’s why you see long relievers when a team has a big lead or is getting blown out; the long relievers are inning-eaters and aren’t expected to pitch lights out.

As much fun as it is for fans to assume their favorite team is run by a bunch of idiots, generally speaking, it just ain’t true.

Paul’s take on Thursday’s game

I had a prior commitment Thursday night; drinking beer and watching the Chiefs, so I asked my son Paul to cover the Royals game for me. Here’s what he came up with.

The Royals came into Thursday night’s game needing a win: Kansas City had gone 5-10 in the month of September coming into the series finale with the Indians. The Royals had also lost three consecutive series. And with questions about Kansas City’s starting rotation, the Indians’ suddenly hot offense, and the Royals in an offensive slump, nothing was guaranteed against last year’s Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber.

Though Kluber has been up-and-down this year — especially against KC — he’s still a formidable pitcher. To beat him, the Royals needed to get back to their winning formula: get a lead on offense, allow their defense to dominate, and hand the game to their shutdown bullpen.

Though the Royals were able to get the W, Thursday night’s game had some mixed results. On the good side, the Royals’ offense came alive; Omar Infante notched a career-high seven RBIs and Mike Moustakas, Alex Rios, Kendrys Morales and Eric Hosmer all came through with much-needed hits to spur on KC rallies.

Yordano Ventura also turned in a nice start; although his pitch count ran up into the 90s, he was able to deliver five solid innings for KC. Yordano located his fastball well all night, stayed aggressive in the strike zone, and had some nasty movement on his curve. Ventura was able to hand the game to the Royals dominant bullpen with the lead intact.

But at the same time, the Royals showed some of the problems that have plagued them in their recent slump. In the first inning, Alcides Escobar whiffed on a potential double-play ball from Michael Brantley for an error, and Omar Infante made another error to lead off the third; giving opportunities and baserunners to an already-hot Cleveland offense.

In the second, with the Royals leading 3-0, Jason Kipnis came to the plate with two outs and runners on first and second, and hit a shot to Ben Zobrist in left. Zobrist fielded it and came up firing, trying to gun down Jose Ramirez at home, but Ben’s throw tailed off into foul territory.

Sal Perez tried to make an athletic play, diving left to field the throw, then moving back right to tag the runner, but Sal missed the ball. It rolled to the backstop — allowing Giovanny Urshela to score a second run for Cleveland, and advancing Kipnis to second. The ball made it to the backstop because Yordano forgot to back up home plate; a poor defensive effort.

The scorers gave the error to Zobrist, but even though his throw was offline, it wasn’t the real issue; it was Sal’s decision to go for a highlight play (instead of knocking the throw down, conceding a run and holding the Indians to one) and Ventura’s failure to back up home plate.

Though it may feel wrong to nitpick when the Royals finally get a solid win, it’s still important to note that there were sloppy aspects to Thursday night’s game that the Royals have to improve going forward into the postseason.

This team has been one of the best in the MLB all season long, but its biggest strength is defense. When they’re at their best, the Royals simply dominate teams defensively. Balls that would be surefire hits against other defenses are routinely caught, impossible highlight plays are standard, and the margin of error for other teams becomes much smaller. But that defense has been lacking lately, and it was still sloppy in Thursday night’s win.

The Royals can’t take their defense for granted going forward into the playoffs — the offense will slump and surge, starting pitching will be up-and-down, but the defense has to be there every night for this team to be a real contender. The good news: it’s easier to be more consistent with defense than pitching or hitting, because defense simply requires effort, focus, and communication, which every player should be able to bring, night-in and night-out.

Now it’s just a matter of execution.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8.

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