Judging the Royals

The Kansas City Royals offense; what’s wrong?

Ned Yost’s post-game press conference was winding down when he said his team needed to make some adjustments. So I asked what adjustments they needed to make and did those adjustments include pitch selection?

Ned said yes, the Royals were making too many first-pitch outs. He then went on to say successful big-league hitters wait to get their pitch and if they get their pitch, they don’t miss it. If they don’t get their pitch, they go in to two-strike mode and battle their butts off.

If that’s a good approach to hitting—and it is—how did the Royals do on Tuesday night?

First-pitch outs: They made three; Nori Aoki in the first inning, Salvador Perez in the seventh and Eric Hosmer in the ninth. Swinging at the first pitch is not always a bad idea; but it depends on the situation.

Leading off a game by swinging at the first pitch gives pitchers around the league something to think about—they can’t just groove a fastball and assume Aoki will take it—but old-school baseball says you don’t swing at the first pitch when you’re down by three in the ninth inning. No matter how far you hit it, they won’t let you run around the bases three times. If you can’t tie the game up, take at least one strike—maybe the pitcher will get wild.

Getting their pitch: Hitters want to get into hitters’ counts—2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and sometimes 3-2. These counts give a hitter an advantage because the pitcher needs to throw a strike and the hitter knows it. A hitter will probably get a fastball or some kind of get-me-over off-speed pitch, but the pitch will probably be something hittable.

Tuesday night the Royals sent 32 men to the plate, but only put three balls in play while in hitters’ counts. The rest of the time the Royals were putting balls in play on even counts or on counts where the pitcher was ahead.

They weren’t getting their pitch.

Not missing their pitch: There were several examples to choose from, but let’s look at a 2-1 fastball Salvador Perez got in the fourth inning. Sal got his pitch, but fouled it off to make the count 2-2. At 2-2 the pitcher gets to dictate for at least one pitch; he can try to be perfect and if he makes his pitch, the hitter is in trouble. Sal swung and missed at a 2-2 pitcher’s pitch.

The other day Wade Davis told me he was pitching to the Angels, made a mistake pitch and got away with it. At that point Davis figured the batter was screwed; the hitter had gotten his pitch, missed it and wasn’t going to get another mistake. At-bats don’t always turn on the final pitch—when Sal missed that 2-1 fastball, he was in trouble.

Battling with two strikes: Tuesday night against the Astros the Royals struck out 11 times. To be fair, coming into the game the Royals had the fewest strikeouts in the American League, but if you swing at bad pitches early, you avoid striking out.

As a team the Royals have not been patient enough to get their pitch. They’ve been making too many outs on pitcher’s pitches early in the count. That’s what Ned was talking about; that’s what’s wrong with the Royals offense.

Houston 3, Royals 0.

Do they lack fire?

OK, clearly I’ve been listening to too much sports-talk radio and the lack-of-fire theory was one that I heard. I’m going to say no, they don’t lack fire.

When a team doesn’t hit it looks dead, but lack of aggression may not be their problem—they might be too aggressive; if you’re up there trying to hit everything a pitcher has to offer—fastball, breaking pitch change-up—and you’re trying to hit every part of the strike zone, you might miss that hittable fastball when you get it; you’re trying to do too much.

An interesting admission

In that same post-game interview Ned Yost admitted that times he covers for his team: he’ll say the other team’s pitcher threw great when he really thinks his hitters just took a bad approach. I don’t fault him—covering for his team is part of his job.

But Tuesday night it sounded like he was done covering for them.

What Pedro Grifol had to say

After BP the Royals hitting coach and I sat on the bench and talked about pitch selection and what he was doing to help his team improve.

They do work on it: they’ll take a round of batting practice assuming they’re ahead in the count and trying to drive the ball, they’ll also take a round of batting practice assuming they have two strikes and need to protect the plate.

I asked how often hitters think they’re getting a fastball and they see it turn into something else and Pedro said that happens more than we know. Because the camera is set off to the left-field side of second base, we have a hard time seeing the movement on a pitch. It looks like a hittable fastball, then turns into a splitter or slider.

Grifol also said not all first-pitch swings are bad; it depends on the situation. If a hitter has a runner in scoring position and the pitcher is known for throwing first-pitch fastballs, go ahead and hack. If you take that hittable pitch the count is 0-1. The pitcher then gets two chances to throw something perfect before he falls into a 2-1 count and has to throw another strike. And if the pitcher gets one of those perfect pitches over, the hitter is 1-2 and in trouble.

Pitch selection and making up your mind too soon

In the first inning of Wednesday night’s game against the Twins, Alex Gordon was in a 1-0 count and figured the pitcher, P.J. Walters, would throw him a fastball. Walter’s did and Alex swung—but the fastball was on the outer half of the plate. Even though Alex got the pitch he was anticipating, because it was in an unexpected location, Alex did not hit it hard. He reached out, rolled over the ball and hit a routine 4-3. The next day Alex said it was a mistake to mentally commit to swinging at the next pitch—he got away from his game plan and paid the price for doing so.

That’s as good an example as any of what’s been happening to the Royals hitters and what they’re trying to fix.

Thursday afternoon I sat in the dugout with Ned Yost and talked about pitch selection. As I’ve written before, Royals hitters are getting off-speed pitches in fastball counts and instead of taking a pitch they didn’t anticipate, they’re swinging anyway. That’s producing weak pop-ups, rollover grounders and swings and misses.

I asked Ned what needed to change and he said the hitters needed to slow the game down. When you’re tense and pressing to produce, you don’t see the ball well. Hitters are failing to recognize the pitch as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand—but they’re swinging anyway.

(If you’re wondering what game I’m talking about, it might help if I confess that this was written last season. I threw it in because it seems like the Royals are still struggling with the same problem a year later.)

Today’s Throwback excerpt: The media

Ballplayers see a big difference between the media guys who show up every day and the people who drop by once in a while. The everyday guys—the beat writers—they matter. You take care of those guys. If you have a bad game you stand by your locker and wear it: you answer all their questions. If I had a good game I might talk to the beat writers, but still avoid the columnists. It was easy: all I had to do was say, "I gotta go; I’ll catch you tomorrow at three."

The columnists have such a short attention span, they never come back. The everyday guys are different, you talk to them because they’re just doing their job—good game, bad game, 0 for 4, 4 for 4—they have to show up and ask you questions. As professional athletes, we get that those guys are just doing their job. If a reporter writes about the good stuff as well as the bad, he gets more credit. Maybe you were 0 for 4 but moved the winning run over in a 2-2 game. If a reporter notices that it’s pretty cool.

The columnists, the guys who are here once in a while, stir up some shit and leave? Hey, I’ll catch you tomorrow. Those guys never stay on one subject long enough to show up the next day. The columnists are in the clubhouse maybe once a month. When one of them walks in, there’s a buzz around the clubhouse: we know who they are. They come in once in a while, write some big thing and get fans stirred up. They have no idea what’s going on, but their job is to stir controversy. Columnists aren’t around that much: I can’t speak for other teams and other columnists, but on the teams I played for, the columnists might be there six times all summer.

But they still go out and pose as experts.

Throwback is the book I co-authored with Jason Kendall. We’ll be talking with fans and signing books at the Zona Rosa Barnes & Noble this Saturday at 2 PM.