Judging the Royals

The Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays send rookies to the mound

Both the Royals and the Toronto Blue Jays had young pitchers make their big league debut for their respective teams in Saturday’s matchup. The Jays brought in rookie prospect Marcus Stroman for the start, while Kansas City called up Aaron Brooks to fill in for the scratched Yordano Ventura start. From the outset, you knew this had the potential to be a wild one – when teams don’t have film and scouting reports on a pitcher to game plan around, they really don’t know what to expect.

The two debuts couldn’t have been more different. Marcus Stroman came out on the attack, using a very solid 95-mph fastball with movement and a sharp slider that hovers in the mid-80s. Out of Stroman’s hand, his slider looked like his fastball, but had nasty break, down-and-in to lefties; that got Royals’ hitters out in front and striking out during Stroman’s six innings. He used his fastball to get ahead in the count and hit spots, and once he got two strikes, he dropped the hard slider, striking out Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler in the first two innings.

On the Royals’ side, Aaron Brooks debut was pretty much the exact opposite. Brooks just could not locate his fastball – he was missing the glove by several feet at times, and he got behind in six of his eleven at-bats in the first.

Because Brooks’ fastball was missing, he wasn’t able to get ahead in the count and make hitters deal with his changeup and slider – which was unfortunate, because both pitches looked good. His changeup had a hard drop to it that could be devastating in a two-strike count, when hitters need to deal with anything near the zone – but because Brooks couldn’t get ahead with the fastball, he couldn’t threaten hitters with his off-speed stuff.

That meant that Blue Jay hitters were given good opportunities at the plate: they could be patient and wait for Brooks to either fall behind in the count or give them something in the zone when he needed a strike. Toronto is the second-best scoring team in the league for a reason; their hitters know how to capitalize on opportunities like this.

They did.

In the first inning the Blue Jays had five walks, five hits, and seven runs against Brooks in his only inning of the game. From there, the game was pretty much over.

When you have a pitcher making his MLB debut, you know the lack of scouting and data on him means potential surprises. When both teams start an unknown pitcher, it’s all up in the air. You just don’t know how either will respond to the situation, and if one team hones in on a pitcher’s weaknesses before the other team does, they can blow a game like this wide open.

Ironically, when everybody was still waiting to see how this one would go, the first pitch of the game from Stroman was 95-mph and about seven feet high – an early sign that this might be a wild one for the Jays. But Nori Aoki swung at the very next pitch and let Stroman off the hook. After that the tables turned, Stroman found his location and executed while Brooks did not, and the Jays got an excellent debut victory from their young pitcher.

Blue Jays 12, Royals 2.

The Top Half of the Zone

After the Royals made Dale Sveum their new hitting coach, there was much talk about what they needed to do to fix their struggling lineup. Though the Royals have had one of the weakest offenses in the majors this year, there’s no doubt that they have more than enough offensive talent to win games. The major issue all year with the offense has been pitch selection and plate approach. Time and again, Royals hitters this year have gotten behind in the count, swung at pitcher’s pitches, and not executed their job in situational at-bats. This has led to so many of those frustrating LOBs and missed opportunities that have gotten the Royals behind the eight ball all year.

When asked about how to fix this Dale Sveum made a point of emphasizing pitch selection, and specifically finding pitches up in the zone to drive. Sveum said that the Royals were chasing too many pitchers’ pitches down in the zone. By being more selective and rejecting low breaking balls and fastballs off the plate that opposing pitchers want them to chase, Royals hitters can focus on the top half of the zone, look for mistakes out over the plate, and drive them for hits and RBIs.

This is an excellent game plan for Kansas City’s offense, but as always it comes down to consistent execution of the process. While the Royals did this well in the first two games of this Jays series (scoring a combined 14 runs on 23 hits), it was a mixed bag of results on Saturday. In the second inning, Alex Gordon drove a 2-0 fastball over the plate to right for a double, and Brett Hayes drove him in with a single to left. Gordon showed good patience, getting ahead in the count and staying away from Stroman’s slider, and he got one of those hittable pitches in the top half of the zone that Sveum wants his hitters to look for.

But in the previous at-bat, Billy Butler worked to a 2-1 count before getting a low fastball from Stroman. This is the exact pitch Royals hitters need to lay off in favor of stuff up in the zone. It probably would have been ball three, but either way, it’s a pitch that Billy is most likely going to hit for a hard grounder, which often leads to an infield out. After Gordon’s double, Danny Valencia got a 1-1 slider away and swung at it, which got him behind in the count and ultimately led to a strikeout. Both at-bats from Butler and Valencia showed situations where Royals hitters chased pitches down in the zone when they didn’t need to

The rest of the Royals lineup was similarly up-and-down throughout Saturday’s game. Butler drove a nice 2-0 fastball back up the middle for a single in the fourth, and Eric Hosmer had a good but unlucky day: he stayed patient and got good fastballs up in the zone, but either missed his pitch and fouled it off, or hit it hard, but right at a guy.

Both Hosmer and Gordon jumped on Stroman fastballs up in the zone, and both ripped liners to right, but both hit right into the Blue Jays’ defensive shift and were thrown out at first by Brett Lawrie. On the flipside, several guys chased the pitches Stroman wanted them to, pitches down in the zone, and helped get themselves out. In the fifthh, Hayes swung at a 1-1 low fastball and Norichika Aoki chased a first-pitch low change-up. In the sixth inning, Alcides Escobar watched two fastballs down the middle, then had to chase a low curve (which he grounded out to third), and in the seventh Aoki chased a low first-pitch fastball.

All these early swings at pitches in the bottom half of the zone led to Royals hitters getting behind in the count, and ultimately all led to outs.

As Saturday’s game showed, the offense is still a work in progress—it’s the same for every team. Sveum clearly has the right idea in addressing first and foremost the pitch selection and plate approach of the Royals’ lineup; but it will be up to each hitter to make the right decisions in their at-bats and get the best pitches to hit possible.

Although it was a moot point after they gave up seven in the bottom of the first, you still want to see the team’s process improve in every game and find a consistent level of execution. Once the Royals’ offense can find that, they can really start to do some damage.

—by Paul Judge

The right way to move the runner over

Runner on second, nobody out, one run matters. Let’s assume the hitter at the plate is trying to move the runner over to third. In this situation moving the runner requires a groundball to the right side; hit a line drive that direction and the runner on second has to freeze to make sure it drops.

So if a left-handed hitter wants to pull the ball, the smartest thing he can do is stand on top of the plate. If the pitcher comes in off the plate he’ll hit the batter. The outside corner is now the middle of the plate and the hitter will have to pull anything that’s thrown for a strike.

But being on top of the plate, won’t the hitter get jammed? Yeah, there’s a good possibility of that, but the hitter shouldn’t care. A jam-shot dribbler that rolls across the infield will move the runner over—mission accomplished.

So what about the right-handed hitter?

As you might have suspected, the right-handed hitter needs to back off the plate. The pitcher wants the righty to pull the ball to the left side of the field, but the pitcher can’t get in on the righty because anything inside is now a ball. The inside corner is now the middle of the plate and everything else is away; perfect for hitting to the right side. If the hitter has to lean out and slap the ball to the right side, that’s OK; once again a weak grounder will do the job.

So if moving around in the box helps the hitter get the job done, why don’t more hitters do it?

Comfort level.

It’s the same reason most pitchers don’t increase their arm angle by moving from one end of the rubber to the other. It’s the same reason pitchers have to be reminded to vary the time they hold the ball in the set position. (If you see a catcher point at the runner, then swirl a finger around, he’s telling the pitcher to mix it up. Don’t let the runner time your delivery.)

Moving around in the box or on the rubber is something you’ll see a veteran player do. But if young players want to become veteran players, they need to take every advantage they can find; moving in the box is one of them.

—by Lee Judge

Throwback book signing

My son Paul filled in for me so Jason Kendall and I could do a book-signing at the Zona Rosa Barnes & Noble. Once again, a big crowd and a great conversation with Royals fans.

Thanks to everyone who showed up.