Judging the Royals

Too many first-pitch fastballs and the Royals lose

Detroit Tigers' J.D. Martinez, right, is congratulated after his solo home run by teammate Nick Castellanos during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals in Detroit, Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Detroit Tigers' J.D. Martinez, right, is congratulated after his solo home run by teammate Nick Castellanos during the fourth inning of a baseball game against the Kansas City Royals in Detroit, Thursday, June 19, 2014. AP

Don’t sweat the J.D. Martinez home run; that pitch was a 94-MPH fastball down around the ankles. That’s not a pitch that gets hit for a home run very often. Martinez is hot; he hit a pitcher’s pitch, so you tip your cap. It was the first run Danny Duffy gave up that ought to bother Royals fans.

Blame that one on pitch calling.

In the first inning four Detroit Tigers came to the plate and every one of them saw a first-pitch fastball. In the second inning three Detroit Tigers came to the plate and every one of them saw a first-pitch fastball. In the third inning three more Detroit Tigers came to the plate and, once again, every hitter saw a first-pitch fastball. Throw enough first-pitch fastballs and someone’s going to notice and take advantage.

In the fourth inning it was Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera.

It was their second trip to the plate, they’d already seen first-pitch fastballs and so had all their teammates. In his second at-bat Jackson jumped on that first-pitch fastball and singled; next Cabrera jumped on his first-pitch pitch fastball and doubled.

Jackson scored and the Tigers were on the board.

Right after Cabrera doubled—two batters too late—Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy started mixing in first-pitch curves, but by then the damage had been done. Everybody is looking for patterns, the first team to recognize one has an advantage.

The Detroit tigers recognized a pattern and beat the Royals 2-1.

If Danny Duffy keeps this up

Despite throwing two too many first-pitch fastballs, Danny Duffy had another outstanding game: seven innings, three hits and two runs. Good enough to win on most nights.

James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie and now Danny Duffy; the Kansas City Royals are running a competitive starting pitcher out to the mound every night. That starting staff is backed up by one of the best bullpens in the American League and an excellent defense.

If the Royals offense cools off—and it can’t stay hot forever—the Royals can stay competitive if they continue to pitch and play defense well.

What explains the lack of offense the last two days?

Drew Smyly and Anibal Sanchez.

Off-speed in fastball counts

We saw it in the first inning: Sanchez threw Billy Butler a 2-0 changeup. Not only did we see it, so did the rest of the Royals hitters. If a pitcher shows he’ll throw off-speed in fastball counts everyone else sees it and everyone else has second thoughts when they get in a fastball count: am I really getting a fastball?

That bit of doubt might be enough to keep a hitter from squaring up a fastball when he gets it.

Get nonchalant and you might get embarrassed

In that fourth inning Miguel Cabrera got caught off second base after a fly ball to right field. Cabrera went back to tag and bluffed going to third after Nori Aoki caught the ball. That’s when Miggy got a little nonchalant.

Aoki’s throw came in and Alcides Escobar was acting as the cutoff man. Esky was closer to Cabrera than Cabrera thought, so when Alcides snatched the ball out of the air and laid a tag on Miguel, he hadn’t made it back to the bag yet.

That reminded me of a Russ Morman story:

After his major league career ended, Russ came out and played with my men’s amateur team. And he played like every game was the seventh game of the World Series. I asked Russ why he was taking men’s amateur baseball so seriously and he said you can’t have an ‘A’ game and a ‘B’ game because sooner or later you’ll get caught playing that ‘B’ game when you should have played your ‘A’.

If you’re being nonchalant and someone else is hustling, you might get embarrassed.

Getting Anibal Sanchez out of the game

(My son Paul watched the game with me and here are some of his thoughts.)

Lorenzo Cain came to the plate to lead off the top of the seventh inning against Anibal Sanchez, and the Royals’ offense needed to make an adjustment. In the first few innings, against a dominant pitcher like Sanchez, the Royals were looking to attack fastballs and jump on early mistakes. They knew that good pitches to hit would be rare from Sanchez, and they didn’t want to waste any opportunities.

It worked for them in the first, with Nori Aoki jumping on an early fastball for a double and an eventual run. As Ned Yost said after the game: "A guy like Sanchez – if you’re gonna get him, you better get him early."

However, as the game progressed, it was clear that Sanchez was settling in and finding a groove. He was consistently getting ahead in the count, mixing in his off-speed and breaking stuff to great effect, and generally limiting the Royals’ opportunities at the plate. After giving up that run in the first, Sanchez burned through three consecutive 1-2-3 innings.

Danny Duffy was also pitching well on the other side, with the exception of the fourth – he ripped through five 1-2-3 innings of his own, and was doing a good job of keeping the Tigers’ offense at bay. When you have both pitchers dealing like this in the middle innings, it presents a new challenge to both offenses: whoever can get the opposing pitcher out of the game first, and force the other team into their weaker middle relief, has a very good chance of winning the game.

You still want your offense to produce, but you need to work the count, raise the opponent’s pitch total, and gain an advantage by getting an ace like Sanchez out of the game.

Sanchez entered the top of the seventh with his pitch count at 94. If the bottom of the Royals’ lineup could take pitches, work the count, and push Sanchez out of the game, the top of the lineup might have the opportunity to do some damage against a weaker middle reliever, rather than the 1-2 punch of Joba Chamberlain in the eight and Joe Nathan in the ninth. Sanchez wanted to get through the seventh cleanly and hand the ball to those two relievers to seal the victory – the Royals needed to get him out of the game.

Cain came to the plate and popped out to Miguel Cabrera on a first-pitch fastball. After a nice four-pitch walk by Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar took a fastball down the middle for strike one, then swung at a slider to fall behind 0-2 before popping out to second. Jerrod Dyson worked to a 2-1 count before lining out to short. Sanchez started the inning at 94 pitches and ended it at 106, getting through four batters in 12 pitches and avoiding the top of the Royals’ lineup.

It was a missed opportunity for the bottom four hitters ; the Royals didn’t need them to go out and win the game in the seventh, the Royals just needed to bring the top of the order back to the plate, hopefully against a middle reliever.

Obviously, this wasn’t just an issue throughout the seventh: when trying to force a dominant pitcher like Sanchez out of the game, it has to be a sustained, team-wide effort throughout the game. After giving up the run in the first, Sanchez got through a perfect three innings on 37 pitches – clearly, he was dealing again, and the Royals needed to make an adjustment.

Unfortunately, that adjustment wasn’t made with enough consistency to get Sanchez out of the game. Cain faced only six pitches through his first three at-bats; Escobar and Dyson only saw nine. Although we had several good at-bats throughout the game, it wasn’t quite enough to get Sanchez out before the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen took over, and it contribute to the Royals just missing the sweep on the Tigers.

—Paul Judge

Do Dayton Moore and Ned Yost get any credit now?

The first-place Kansas City Royals return home Friday night. The Royals took three out of four from the Detroit Tigers and I think every sane Royals fans would have settled for that if it had been offered before game one.

It’s still early and nobody can guarantee the playoffs, but for years Kansas City Royals fans have been dying for a competitive team—now they’ve got one. Friday night’s game is expected to be a sellout and suddenly everyone is talking about the red-hot Royals.

If you’re going to blame them when the Royals play poorly, do Dayton Moore and Ned Yost get any credit now?

Kansas City Public Library appearance tonight

Tonight Jason Kendall and I will be appearing at the downtown Kansas City Public Library. A reception starts at 6 PM, the program starts at 6:30. We’ll be signing copies of our new book "Throwback" afterwards. It’s a great chance to talk Royals baseball with a former player and current coach.

We hope to see you there.