Judging the Royals

If you didn’t like Ned Yost’s decision to leave in Jason Vargas, blame the crowd

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas (51) waits to be relieved in the ninth inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Seattle Mariners on June 21, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jason Vargas (51) waits to be relieved in the ninth inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Seattle Mariners on June 21, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

Jason Vargas pitched eight and two-thirds innings and only gave up one run. Once again, the Royals starting pitcher had been fabulous. Then, with two outs, Seattle Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager doubled and with the score 1-1, Ned Yost decided it was time for a visit.

Ned went to the mound, asked Vargas if he had enough left to get the final out of the inning and when Jason said yes, Ned turned to leave. When the fans realized Vargas was going to stay in the game, they roared their approval; they liked this Ned Yost decision. Two batters later Jason Vargas gave up the lead and the crowd went quiet.

Most of the time fans have the luxury of waiting until they see the result of a decision before they decide to applaud or boo; this time they clearly wanted Vargas to stay and it was a decision that didn’t work out. After the game Ned Yost said it was the kind of managerial move that makes you look like a genius if it works; if it doesn’t, you’re the dumbest guy in the stadium.

Not really—21, 640 other people also thought it was a good idea.

How the winning run scored

Remember: the score was tied 1-1 in the ninth inning, there were two outs and Kyle Seager was standing on second base. The Mariners right fielder, Stefen Romero, hit a soft line drive directly at Royals second baseman Pedro Ciriaco. The ball hit at Ciriaco’s feet, went off his body and the scorekeeper called it a single.

Nobody I talked to agreed with that ruling: even Ned Yost said the play should have been made. According to Ned, Ciriaco needed to step forward and catch the ball on the fly or step back and get a long hop. By standing still Ciriaco played himself into an in-between hop—the worst hop possible.

Because the ball stayed on the infield Seager couldn’t score and there were runners on first and third.

The Royals still had a chance to get out of the inning with a tie, but they had to deal with Dustin Ackley. Jason Vargas threw Ackley six pitches and the last three were 89-MPH fastballs inside. Ackley ripped two of those pitches barely foul and—just when you thought Salvador Perez and Vargas might go away because it appeared Ackley had the inside pitch timed—Vargas went back in with a third inside 89-MPH fastball. Ackley lined it into right field and Seager scored.

After the game Vargas talked about pitching Ackley inside and said he didn’t want to go away from his strength and thought he could jam Ackley. It didn’t work out that way.

That first-inning balk

I watched the game with former umpire Steve Palermo—an experience I can recommend—and he pointed out what Jason Vargas did to get a balk called on him. The Mariners leadoff hitter—James James—was on first base and he can fly.

Vargas never reached a complete stop in the set position; Vargas was doing what he could to disrupt Jones’ timing and got caught.

Moose called it

Saturday morning Mike Moustakas and I were watching video of the Mariners starting pitcher, Chris Young. I asked Mike what I should be looking for once the game started.

Mike said Young was unusual: he throws in the upper eighties and still pitches up in the zone. I asked how the hell Young got away with that and Moose confessed he didn’t know. If it makes Royals fans feel any better, we watched guys from other teams get what looked like very hittable fastballs and still swing and miss. Young is 6’ 10" and maybe that has something to do with it—his height presents the hitters with an odd angle.

Young gets twice as many fly balls as groundballs and Mike was determined to get a pitch down, which is kind of misleading because Friday night the Royals were looking for pitches up. In reality, the Royals hitters were looking for the same pitch against both pitchers. Hisashi Iwakuma pitches at the bottom of the zone so the Royals wanted to make him get the ball up; Young pitches at the top of the zone so the Royals wanted to make him get the ball down. Basically, the Royals wanted the same thing from both pitchers: something in the middle of the strike zone.

Nevertheless, Young made it through four innings before giving up a hit and—as advertised—had twice as many fly ball outs as groundball outs. After the game Eric Hosmer seemed as perplexed as anybody; when Chris Young pitches, somehow, someway you just don’t see the ball very well.

Slow runners allow great plays

Alcides Escobar made a highlight reel play in the fourth inning to nail—surprise, surprise—a catcher. John Buck was the runner and when a runner can’t run, he allows infielders enough time to dive, knock the ball down, pick it up, do a 360 and still get an out.

If a guy who can motor is coming down the line the infielder may not bother to dive; if you have to leave your feet there’s no chance to get a guy like Jarrod Dyson or James Jones.

The exception to this—and there are always exceptions—is when there are already runners on base. Knocking a ball down and keeping it on the infield may save 90 feet. If you see a catcher step out in front of home plate and make a downward motion with both hands, he’s reminding the infielders to knock the ball down if possible.

Salvador Perez and a base-running mistake

In the fifth inning Alex Gordon homered to start things and on the very next pitch Salvador Perez singled—unfortunately Sal thought it was a double and got thrown out trying to prove his point.

If there had been two outs, trying to stretch a single into a double makes some sense: it puts you one hit away from scoring. With nobody out, it’s not the right move. Had Perez stopped at first base he would have put Chris Young in the stretch and continued a rally. By getting thrown out Sal gave Young a break when he needed one.

Salvador Perez can stick it

That sounds bad, but it’s actually good. When a catcher can stick it that means he’s strong enough to catch a pitch and hold it in place. I was reminded of that when I saw John Buck allow a 3-2 slider to carry his glove out of the strike zone. The batter was Alex Gordon and had Buck been able to stick the pitch, he might have gotten the call.

Since Steve Palermo was sitting to my left I asked what umpires like in a catcher and he said guys who give them a "good look". Salvador Perez is a catcher who stays low enough so the umpire can see the ball and doesn’t let a pitch carry his glove out of the strike zone.

When a catcher is butchering pitches it’s harder for umpires to make calls. They’ve got to ignore where the mitt ends up and call the pitch where it crosses the zone. Obviously that’s what umpires want to do all the time, but a catcher who can stick a pitch gives the umpire an easier look than a guy who is all over the place.

The Royals semi-botch a rundown

The Mariners tried a first-and-third double steal in the ninth inning, but Salvador Perez never threw the ball to second base. The runner on third—Stefen Romero—got caught halfway home and the Royals got him in a rundown; 2-5-1-2-3-6.

It might be exciting for the crowd, but that’s way too many people to have involved in a rundown. At most you want two throws and one is preferable.

The more times you throw the ball the more opportunities you have to screw up. And the more people you have standing around the base line, the more opportunities the runner has to crash into someone and claim obstruction or interference or a violation of the Geneva Convention.

The Royals got the out, but did it in the hardest way possible.

When a team gets an out complaining that they did it in the wrong way might seem nit-picky, but when you’re fighting for first place and losing games 2-1 there are no small issues.