Judging the Royals

The Royals seventh inning; good results, inconsistent approach

Coming into the seventh inning the Royals had two hits and no runs, while the Cardinals had one hit and no runs. Alex Gordon got into a good hitter’s count—2-0—and then did some good hitting; Gordon got a fastball up, didn’t miss it and drove it out of the park.

That’s the way it’s supposed to work; a hitter takes marginal pitches early, waits for the pitcher to come into the zone, then does damage on a hittable fastball.

The Royals scored two more runs in the seventh, but the rest of the inning featured some seriously flawed at-bats. Salvador Perez singled and moved to second when the first pitch to Lorenzo Cain was wild. In a 1-0 game with a runner on second and nobody out, the man at the plate needs to hit the ball to the right side of the infield—the hitter has to move the runner over to third base.

With the count 1-0, pitcher Shelby Miller came up and in on Cain and the Royals centerfielder took what was described as an "emergency hack"—but where was the emergency?

Cain was ahead in the count, he needed something he could hit to the opposite field, but he chased a pitch inside off the plate. If Cain took that pitch the count probably would have been 2-0. Cain then swung at another inside pitch, pulled it to third and was safe on an infield single. It was a bad at-bat—Salvador Perez was still at second base—but Cain got away with it.

Then, with Mike Moustakas at the plate, there was another wild pitch. Both Perez and Cain moved up 90 feet and Mike did his job: with a runner on third and less than two outs, a hitter needs to hunt a pitch up in the zone—something he can get in the air and to the outfield. Mike found his pitch and doubled to left-center.

Next, with a runner once again on second base and nobody out, a Royals hitter had another bad at-bat—this time it was Alcides Escobar. Needing a pitch out over the plate that could be hit to the right side, Escobar swung at inside fastballs; hitting a weak fly ball to left field. Escobar failed to move the runner over to third and that cost the Royals a run when pinch-hitter Billy Butler hit a fly ball to right field. Nori Aoki finished the inning by lining out to left and the Royals settled for three runs when—with better situational hitting—they should have had four.

Professional athletes know results are important, but still focus on the process that produces those results. You can’t steer the baseball, so look for a good pitch to hit and hit it hard; that’s the process. Whether or not the ball falls for a hit would be the results.

So when the results are bad, athletes often point to the process: "I made my pitch, but he hit it" or "I got a good pitch to hit, but hit it right at someone." Fair enough: you control process, but not results and I’d be the first one to defend someone who did the right thing, but didn’t succeed. But if process is more important than results—and it is—just because you win a game doesn’t mean you ignore a poor approach.

The Royals beat the Cardinals 6-0, but had some bad at-bats in the process.

The decision to pull Danny Duffy

Let’s go back to that Billy Butler pinch hit:

With the Royals up 3-0 in the seventh inning and a runner on second base with one out, manager Ned Yost decided to pull Danny Duffy and have Billy Butler pinch hit. Duffy had been superb; one hit over six innings and his pitch count was 85.

At that point the bottom of the seventh appeared to be the ball game; get through the seventh with a lead and the ball could be given to Wade Davis for the eighth and Greg Holland in the ninth—not a complete lock, but damn close.

After the game Yost said he was after that fourth run and knew he had a well-rested bullpen. Give Ned credit: Kelvin Herrera came in to pitch the seventh and got the job done, but if Kelvin had coughed it up, pulling Duffy for more offense when some managers would have concentrated on pitching and defense would have given Yost critics ammunition.

Game notes

First inning: Salvador Perez has the strength to stick a 94-MPH fastball at the bottom of the strike zone for a called third strike on Randal Grichuk. When a catcher can stick it that means he doesn’t let the pitch carry his mitt away from the zone; he can catch a mid-nineties fastball and have his glove stick in place.

After that nice piece of work Perez got lazy and let a ball go between his legs for a wild pitch; he didn’t turn his glove over to get it in the right position, he didn’t drop and block.

Third inning: In the National League the 8-hole hitter is key; until the game gets to the later innings, a pitcher is on-deck. If an 8-hole hitter leads off an inning and can get on, the pitcher can be used to bunt him over—that gives the offense at least two at-bats with a runner in scoring position. If the number 8 hitter doesn’t get on, it’s likely there will be two outs by the time the lineup gets back to the top of the order and there’s not much chance for a rally.

In his first at-bat 8-hole hitter Alcides Escobar chased a fastball up around the letters and curveball down around the knees. It showed a rather expansive idea of what constitutes a hittable pitch—it was a bad at-bat to lead off the third.

Fifth inning: Alcides had a much better approach with two outs in the fifth; another key at-bat for eight hole hitters. If 8-hole hitters can find a way to get on base, they bring the pitcher to the plate. That means the next inning won’t start with an almost sure out.

That’s also why you’re unlikely to see an 8-hole hitter try to steal second with two outs if the pitcher is hitting; get thrown out and you’re right back to the pitcher making the first out of the next inning. That brings us to the concept of risk and reward—which we’ll look at in a minute.

Ninth inning: Aaron Crow came in with a 6-0 lead, gave up a single and then got a 6-4-3 double play out of Matt Holliday. The play featured a great scoop by first baseman Eric Hosmer. A great piece of glove work and the Royals were two-thirds of the way home in the ninth. Allen Craig hit a routine 4-3 and the game was over.

Risk and reward

Go back to the fifth inning with Alcides Escobar on first base, two outs and Danny Duffy at the plate.

When managers think about what move they want to make, they consider risk and reward. If you’ve got a runner who can do it, stealing second with two outs is generally a good move: it puts the runner one hit away from scoring—stay on first and the runner is probably two hits away from crossing the plate.

But in this case the risk didn’t match the reward.

The risk was making the third out of the inning on a stolen base attempt and having the pitcher lead off the sixth, the reward was putting a runner in scoring position for a hitter—Danny Duffy—who’s never had a hit in the big leagues.

The risk didn’t match the reward; Escobar stayed put.