Judging the Royals

Lorenzo Cain kills Royals rally against Angels

Lorenzo Cain
Lorenzo Cain The Kansas City Star

On Friday night the Royals had their best offensive inning right away. In the top of the first inning against C.J. Wilson and the Angels, Nori Aoki led off with a single. Then, after Alcides Escobar and Eric Hosmer lined out, Aoki stole second base with Billy Butler at the plate. Next, Wilson fell behind 3-1 to Butler while a passed ball moved Aoki to third. With two outs, first base open and Billy in a good hitter’s count, Wilson walked the Royals DH.

By walking Billy, Wilson gave fans an example of a problem the Royals will face all season: with runners in scoring position and first base open, if they find themselves behind in the count, opposing pitchers can walk the Royals’ best hitters and force the rest of their struggling lineup to beat them.

Fortunately, the next batter was Alex Gordon. The Royals left fielder has been hot lately and came through again here. In a 2-2 count, Gordon pulled a hung breaking pitch into right field, driving in Aoki—the Royals only run on Friday night. Danny Valencia came up next and walked on four straight pitches. Things were looking up: the Royals had gone from having a runner on first with two down, to being up 1-0 with the bases loaded.

When an offense is low on power, it’s important to string together good plate appearances. Generally, one guy won’t get the job done with one swing; two or three hitters will have to work together to put runs on the scoreboard. And Friday night’s first-inning rally was important for two reasons: the Royals scored on a good pitcher early and they were running Wilson’s pitch count up.

After Valencia’s walk, the Royals had already seen 25 pitches from Wilson. The longer Wilson had to stay out there, the greater the chance that he’d make a mistake that could blow the game open early and give Danny Duffy a three or four-run lead to work with.

Then Lorenzo Cain came to the plate.

Wilson was the one in trouble, but Cain helped him out by swinging at the first pitch, a breaking ball down. In this situation, Cain needed to wait for a mistake out over the plate, something he could drive; and this pitch clearly wasn’t it. Down 0-1, Cain then chased a changeup outside—once again, a pitch he couldn’t drive—in a situation where he didn’t need to swing at anything borderline. Both were pitches he should have been spitting on until he had two strikes and taking both would have put Wilson in a real hole. But by getting behind in the count, Cain was forced to swing at anything near the plate.

Ironically, he didn’t. Cain finally got a fastball and took it for a called third strike. Cain was aggressive when he needed to be selective and selective when he needed to be aggressive. With a chance to break open the game, Lorenzo Cain had the worst at-bat of the inning.

At-bats like Cain’s have the potential to end rallies for Kansas City throughout the season. One of the major keys for any offense is every guy knowing his role in the current situation and getting his job done with the right approach.

On Friday night, Lorenzo Cain didn’t do that and the Royals lost, 6-1.

Game notes

*When Danny Duffy is on the mound, pay attention to his curveball. If Danny can throw it for strikes, hitters have three pitches to worry about. If Duffy can’t get a breaking pitch over consistently, hitters can eliminate that pitch and look for either a fastball or changeup. Duffy throws some type of fastball 67% of the time, so it’s not too hard to guess what hitters will look for.

*The bottom of the sixth saw the Angels tack on two runs to make the game 5-1—it also demonstrated the problem: Duffy threw 21 pitches and 16 were fastballs. He threw one changeup for a ball and four curves, two for strikes. Every hit in the inning came on a fastball and the bottom of the sixth ended Duffy’s night and any chance of a Royals win.

*In the top of the fifth Nori Aoki led off the inning with a double. The score was still close—3-1—so Alcides Escobar’s job was to bunt or hit the ball to the right side and move Aoki over to third. C.J. Wilson’s job was to keep the ball in on Escobar and force him to pull it to the left side and freeze Aoki at second base.

In a way, they both succeeded: Wilson kept the ball in on Escobar and Escobar still managed to hit the ball to right, but Alcides hit the ball in the air. A fly ball forces the runner at second to wait to see if it will be caught, while any kind of groundball will get the runner over.

Eric Hosmer came to bat next and tried to jump on a first-pitch fastball, but got under it and flew out to Mike Trout in right-center. Aoki tried to take third but Trout gunned him down, ending the inning with the rare 8-5 double play. Making the third out at third base was a bad decision by Aoki; Billy Butler was coming to the plate and if they worked around Billy, Alex Gordon would get a shot.

*Both the Cain strikeout in the first and the mistakes in the fifth highlight how Friday’s game went ; Wilson was able to get out of jams while Danny Duffy was not, and the Royals weren’t able to capitalize on their offensive opportunities while the Angels did. The Royals never really threatened the Angels again, who were able to tack on three more runs and take a 1-0 series lead.

—Paul Judge

Today’s Throwback excerpt: The "Dig Me" tribe

When the catcher throws the ball to second, the second baseman catches it and throws it to the shortstop, the shortstop throws to third and the third baseman throws the ball back to the pitcher. If you see the third baseman studying the ball before he gives it to the pitcher, he's not really accomplishing anything except looking cool: he’s part of the "Dig Me" tribe. You can spot them by their wristbands and the batting gloves hanging out of their back pocket. These are the players who worry about looking pretty.

But if the pitcher looks closely at the ball, he's checking the surface for scuffs or nicks. Like I said, a scuffed or nicked baseball will have extra movement if the pitcher knows what he’s doing. If the pitcher suddenly has extra break on a pitch, you might see the batter ask the umpire to check the ball. He knows something's not right. Either that or the hitter's also in the "Dig Me" tribe and just wants to look cool on TV. These prima donna players are getting more TV time for themselves: hey, look how cool I am. I can tell the umpire to check the ball.

None of this worry about scuffed baseballs makes sense to me. If a pitch hits the dirt before I catch it, the umpire puts a new ball in play. But if the batter hits a 16-hopper to short, the ball goes right back to the pitcher—that ball is pretty (bleeping) scuffed. Nobody asks to check the ball then. We use over 100 baseballs every night; being consistent about taking balls out of play would force us to use even more. Balls get scuffed all the time and we keep them in play. A ball gets hit off the wall, bounces on the warning track, the throw back to the infield, bounces in the dirt and the ball goes right back to the mound—were good to go.

Throwback is now available

"Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played" is an inside look at our national pastime, co-authored by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge. The book is now available in stores and on-line.