Judging the Royals

The Houston Astros defensive positioning comes back to haunt them

Lee Judge

The Kansas City Star

If you look at spray charts you can see where most balls are hit and put a defender there, but in some situations that might not be the smartest thing you can do. It might make sense mathematically, but in baseball there can always be other factors.

The Astros tend to play their off-side outfielder shallow. (Off-side would be the right fielder for a right-handed hitter; left field for a lefty.) The reasoning is that most guys do not have enough opposite field power to hit the ball over the off-side outfielder’s head. So when Alcides Escobar hit the ball deep to right in the seventh inning, Houston right fielder George Springer could not get there in time to prevent a triple.

Old-school baseball positioning might have had the Astros’ outfield playing deep; a defense referred to as no doubles. You play no doubles late in games when the man at the plate represents an important run. By playing no doubles you force the other team to beat you with three singles; not one extra-base hit and a routine groundball or sacrifice fly.

Had the Astros been playing the more traditional no doubles, Escobar’s triple would have been caught.

Esky’s triple brought the infield in

With Escobar on third in a tie ballgame, the Astros had to bring the infield in. That means the infielders stand at the edge of the infield grass and if the ball is hit to one of them, they try to cut down the runner headed to home plate.

But once again the Astros tinkered with traditional positioning; Ben Zobrist was hitting from the left side and the Astros had their shortstop positioned over toward second base. Throw off-speed pitches to the batter and he’s more likely to hit a ball into the shift that’s overloaded to the pull side of the field.

But Zobrist stayed back on a curve and hit a routine grounder toward short if a shortstop had been there. The ball bounced through the infield and the Royals had a run and the lead they’d never give back.

The same thing happened with Kendrys Morales in the sixth

The Royals had a two-run rally in the sixth inning and in the middle of that rally was a Kendrys Morales single. Kendrys was hitting from the right side and once again the Astros had their infield shifted to the pull side of the field. Kendrys saw the hole on the right side and guided a groundball through it.

The moral here is this: spend some time watching batting practice. The numbers may say a guy hits more balls to pull side of the field, but you need to know if the guy can hit a ball to the other side of the field when he wants to. If he can, the numbers go out the window.

Setting up a shift on a dead-pull hitter who has no choice about where he hits the ball might make sense, but setting up a shift on veteran hitters who can handle the bat might backfire—and on Friday afternoon it backfired on the Astros.

Despite earlier reports, Johnny Cueto pitched OK

Let’s start this with me taking back some of what I said about Johnny Cueto in Saturday morning’s print edition of the Kansas City Star. The short version of what I said?

On Friday the Royals needed Johnny Cueto to deliver and he didn’t.

Here’s the deal: when I was given this website there was no instructional manual, so I made up my own rules for using it. One of those rules was refusing to write during games. When you’re writing, you’re not looking at the field and if you don’t look at the field you can’t ask intelligent questions after the game is over—and if you’re writing during the game, the game ain’t over.

That’s why you sometimes see reporters pushing a line of questioning when they talk to athletes after games conclude; their story is already written and they need what they wrote to stand up.

I once saw a writer who had already written that intense heat affected the game’s outcome desperately try to find a player who would say that on the record. Unfortunately for him, the players just kept saying baseball is played in summer and they were pretty used to it being hot when they played.

Anyway, back to my main subject of interest—me.

I’ve been asked to provide some "live" analysis of the playoff games and at times I have to turn those pieces in before the game is over. Friday was a day game so I had a looser deadline, but if you’re going to spend any time in the clubhouse you need to write before you go in there.

So after Johnny Cueto gave up four runs in three innings, I wrote a piece saying he did not deliver what the Royals needed and turned it in. Then—and I’m pretty sure he did it deliberately—Johnny threw three shutout innings and kept the Royals in the game.

If it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on a minor point, you’re missing the real point: credibility.

Ballplayers appreciate reporters who will admit they got something wrong and correct it. If you don’t have credibility with the players, they don’t trust you and if they don’t trust you all you get are the clichés they spew out after games.

A Royals player recently told me he’d talk to me openly because he trusted me, but if I ever did anything to betray that trust he was going to punch me in the mouth. (And I sure hope writing that isn’t considered a betrayal of trust; I hate going to the dentist.)

So new bottom line: Johnny Cueto did not pitch great, but he did pitch OK—and I get to keep all my teeth.

The story behind that ninth-inning pickoff

A huge turning point in the game was Wade Davis picking off pinch runner Carlos Gomez in the ninth inning. Gomez was the tying run and Wade was about to face the top of the Astros order.

Good for Wade, but he got a lot help from first baseman Eric Hosmer on the pickoff play.

Normally a first baseman has his foot right next to the base, catches a pickoff throw and then drops the tag straight down; trying to tag the runner’s hand. That’s not how Hosmer does it; when holding a runner Eric has been positioning himself off the bag—a step toward the pitcher—and then sweeping the tag back to the runner’s body.

It helps that Hosmer is built along the same lines as a California Condor, but his positioning shortens the pitcher’s throw and has the tag happening sooner than if he were on the bag. In this case Wade short-hopped the throw, but Homser handled the short hop and got the tag down on Gomez.

Hosmer told me James Shields and Wade Davis brought that pickoff trick along with them when they came over from Tampa Bay. This is why you talk baseball: you never know when you’re going to learn a new thing that will help you win a game—and in this case, a very important playoff game.

How Jeff Francoeur helped the Royals win—sort of

In the sixth inning Eric Hosmer had an RBI single on a pitch that might have been closer to the third-base dugout than home plate. Astros reliever Oliver Perez threw two sliders in a row to Hosmer and with the count 0-2, Perez threw a third slider. Hosmer threw his rear end at the Royals dugout and his bat at the ball. The result was a soft flare over the shortstop’s head and a run for the Royals. After the game Eric was asked about the swing, laughed and said: "I guess Frenchy had a big impact on me."

So if you hated Jeff Francoeur when he played here, you might want to thank him now.