Judging the Royals

The Kansas City Royals get swept by the worst team in the American League

Wednesday afternoon against the Houston Astros, Royals pitchers walked 10 and hit one. The defense also chipped in with a first-inning error. Of those 12 free base runners, four came around to score. When Ned Yost was asked what he saw out of starting pitcher Danny Duffy, the Royals manager said: "Not much."

According to Yost, Duffy didn’t have anything going for him in this game. Duffy fastball velocity was down and his control was sketchy. There was talk of a "dead arm” this time out, but nobody was talking injury.

Houston came to town with the worst record in the American League, but still swept the Royals and didn’t break much of a sweat while doing so. Last season the Royals knocked themselves out of contention with a bad start; so far this season they’ve been treading water. They now go on the road to face Toronto and St. Louis, come home to face St. Louis, the New York Yankees and Cleveland, then go back on the road to face the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers. The next 20 games may define their season.

The Royals lose this one 9-3.

Game notes

*When Danny Duffy pitches, pay close attention when something bad happens; he needs to be able to keep one bad thing to just one bad thing. After the game opened with an error, Duffy gave up a home run. Sounds like Danny had other issues, but he needs to be able to minimize the damage.

*Nori Aoki laid down another two-strike bunt. It didn’t work—the pitcher picked up the ball and threw him out—but if Aoki gets comfortable bunting with two strikes, that’s a great weapon. Third basemen won’t be able to back up to increase their range and that means Nori can slap more hits past them when they play in.

*Some of those Astros walks were issued to the wrong guys; walking George Springer makes sense—he’s been hot—but walking Jonathan Villar (.207) or Robbie Grossman (.140) or Carlos Corporan (.151) would seem to be a bad idea. That’s what those guys were hitting at the start of the game; so make those guys swing the bat.

*In the second inning Nori Aoki made a throw home and airmailed it. When an outfielder throws the ball too high to be cut, the trail runners will move up 90 feet—and that’s just what Dexter Fowler did.

*Once again Royals fans saw hitters—Pedro Ciriaco and Alcides Escobar come to mind—take a hittable pitch to start an at-bat and then chase pitchers’ pitches the rest of the way. But if a hitter is going to swing at the first pitch, he can’t miss it. He doesn’t have to get a hit, but he better hit it hard.

*After Chris Carter hit his second home run, someone in the crowd yelled; "Ned, get someone else!" The Royals play 14 straight games without a day off. A smart manager is going to save his bullpen as much as possible in a blowout, which means we have to watch some pitcher wear it. It’s not fun for anybody—least of all Ned Yost—but it would be bad managing to go get another guy and not have him available for a winnable game a couple days later.

Bad hacks in a hitter’s count

When you see a hitter take a weak, off-balance swing in a good hitter’s count, you’re probably seeing a hitter with a bad approach at the plate. When hitters are 0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 2-1, 3-0 or 3-1 they should be looking for a certain pitch in a certain place and if they get it, they should have a good balanced swing. If they don’t get that pitch, they should lay off.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. If a pitcher throws a great pitch it can look like a fastball down the middle and turn into something else before it reaches home plate.

Pay attention to the 1-1 count

Royals hitting coach Pedro Grifol and I had a long conversation and one of the things he thought worth talking about was the 1-1 count. Some people think it’s the biggest count in baseball and here’s why:

After the next pitch the hitter is going to be either 2-1 or 1-2. (See? This is the kind of inside information you just can’t get anyplace else.) But here’s the deal: if the count moves to 2-1 the hitter is in charge. According to at least one internet source—and that’s all I need, right?—MLB hitters average .338 in that count. If the count goes to 1-2 MLB hitters average .178.

That dramatic shift in batting average makes the 1-1 count well worth watching.

Omar and the infield shift

When the Royals were in Houston, the Astros greeted Omar Infante with an extreme infield shift. They overloaded the left side of the infield and left the right side almost completely open. That shift might have made sense from a mathematical point of view—Infante does hit most of his grounders between second and third base—but Omar Infante can handle a bat. He knows how to hit the ball to the right side when he wants to, and if he looks up and sees a free base hit in that direction, he’s going to want to.

Infante slapped a single through the open hole and since then the Astros have modified their shifts against him.

Extreme infield shifts are still a new variation on the game and people are still figuring out when to use one. Royals fans have seen their team use a shift after a hitter has a strike on him. The Royals believe that a hitter is less likely to bunt for a hit if he’s down in the count.

You might also see the Royals not shift the first time through the lineup, then use shifts after that. The Royals want to see what kind of command their pitcher has before shifting: if you’re set up for a left-handed hitter to pull the ball, but your pitcher has been leaving fastballs on the outer half, you may not want to shift.

And that’s not the only reason you might not want to shift:

I was lucky enough to play some amateur ball with former Royals pitcher, Danny Jackson. I asked him where he wanted his defense positioned and Danny said: "Put ‘em in the bare spots—they’re there for a reason."

If you’ve ever played on amateur fields you know what he means; because the straight up position gets the most traffic, fields develop bare spots. Danny said he didn’t know what pitch he wanted to throw next until he saw how the hitter reacted to the last pitch. If he went up and in and the hitter responded by backing off the plate, Danny then wanted to be able to go down and away—and he couldn’t do that if we didn’t have someone there to catch the ball.

When you’re at a game, pay attention to defensive positioning and you’ll be that much closer to understanding what’s going on.

Throwback book signing

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. Stop by and say hi.