Judging the Royals

How Kelvin Herrera can make the Royals bullpen even better

Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera (40) thanks shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) for helping him get out of the sixth inning during Friday's baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on June 27, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera (40) thanks shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) for helping him get out of the sixth inning during Friday's baseball game against the Los Angeles Angels on June 27, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

Relievers Wade Davis and Greg Holland have been so good in the eighth and ninth innings that on most nights opposing teams better have a lead after seven innings. After that, they don’t have much chance of scoring.

If Kelvin Herrera can pitch like he did on Friday night, teams will need to have a lead after six innings—they won’t have much chance of scoring in the seventh, either.

Herrera pitched one and two-thirds innings and lit up the radar gun. Fastballs that top out at 101 MPH get everyone’s attention, but the pitch that will take Herrera and this bullpen to another level might be the last one he threw to Josh Hamilton: an 82-MPH curve.

Hamilton watched it go by for strike three and that’s understandable.

If you have to gear up to hit 101, a curve in the low eighties will lock you up. If Herrera can throw that pitch for strikes he can use it to get ahead in the count: hitters will probably take it, most of them are sitting on gas. And Herrera can also use it to finish hitters off, like he did with Hamilton.

Herrera throws his fastball 66.7% of the time, his changeup 26.0% of the time and his curveball 7.2% of the time. If Kelvin starts throwing that curve more often and throws it for strikes, watch out, this bullpen becomes even better.

Mike Trout’s monster home run

In the first inning Mike Trout got a 3-1 fastball and hit it over four walls in centerfield. It went almost as far as the balls he hits in those Subway ads. The ball traveled 445 feet and landed in the fountains just to the left of the centerfield scoreboard. Then, in his next at-bat, Trout almost beat out an infield single. That’s a rare combination of power and speed.

The third inning changed the game

Alcides Escobar hit a ball over Josh Hamilton’s head, but it was still catchable. Hamilton went back, looked over one shoulder, then the other, but pulled up when he hit the warning track. The ball hit off the left field scoreboard, but could have been caught with a better route and a willingness to challenge the wall. Escobar stopped at second with a double.

Jarrod Dyson followed with a bunt single, the ball was thrown away and Escobar scored while Dyson moved up to second. Then Lorenzo Cain singled and Dyson crossed home plate. Next, Eric Hosmer singled to left and that’s when Josh Hamilton tried to deke Cain.

With runners on base and less than two outs, outfielders will throw their glove up and pretend they’re about to make a catch even if they can’t get to the ball. The glove decoy is designed to freeze any runner on base and keep them from advancing more than 90 feet. In this case, Cain only made it to second.

After Butler walked, Cain wound up on third and scored on an Alex Gordon pop fly to short. The ball was hit down the left field line and third baseman David Freese, left fielder Hamilton and shortstop Erick Aybar converged on it. When Aybar caught the ball he was headed away from the infield and that meant a weak throw home. If Hamilton had caught the ball he would have been moving toward the infield and tagging and scoring would have been much harder.

If you watched the game you know the big blow of the inning was Omar Infante’s grand slam, hit on a high changeup. Hitters can handle off-speed pitches high in the zone, but put a fastball in the same location and it’s a different story. Omar proved that in his next at bat when he struck out on a high fastball.

Shutdown innings

When a pitcher’s offense provides him with a lead he wants to go out and throw a shutdown inning. Don’t let the other team come right back and score. Jason Vargas was able to do that in the top of the fourth, but couldn’t do the same in the top of the fifth; he faced six hitters and all six got hits.

That opened the bullpen gates and started a remarkable run of Royals relief pitching: Michael Mariot, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland threw a combined five innings of shutout ball—no hits, one walk and nine strikeouts.

The tack-on run

Lorenzo Cain led off the fourth with a triple and Billy Butler drove him home. When a team has a big inning pay attention to shutdown innings and tack-on runs. If a team scores big it can’t afford to put it on cruise control; the other team can fight their way back into the game.

A tack-on run keeps building the lead and can come in handy later in the game.

How the Angels’ Kole Calhoun helped out the Royals

Going into the top of the ninth inning the Royals had a two-run lead and closer Greg Holland on the mound. That tack-on run scored by the Royals in the fourth inning meant that a hitter could not tie the score with one swing. The Angels would need at least one runner on base to get the tying run to the plate.

And getting a runner on base would also get Mike Trout another at bat.

Greg Holland struck out the number-eight hitter, David Freese. Greg did the same to the number-nine hitter, Hank Conger. Then Holland missed the strike zone three times in a row with Kole Calhoun at the plate—one more ball and Calhoun would be on first and the tying run would be at the plate and that tying run would be Trout.

On the 3-0 pitch Calhoun took and the count went 3-1. That’s when Calhoun helped out the Royals: he swung at the 3-1 pitch and fouled it off. That fifth pitch was in pretty much the same place as the third pitch and that one was called a ball. Swinging at that 3-1 pitch moved the count to 3-2 and meant Calhoun had to try and protect the strike zone against anything Holland threw his way. The 3-2 pitch was a slider down and Calhoun swung and missed—game over.

If you can’t tie a game in the ninth inning, your job is to get on base and help get the tying run to the plate. Calhoun didn’t do that job and that helped the Royals.