Judging the Royals

Down 7-3 in the ninth inning, should hitters take a strike?

Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain reacts after striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Saturday July 5, 2014, in Cleveland.
Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain reacts after striking out with the bases loaded in the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians, Saturday July 5, 2014, in Cleveland. AP

The Royals were down 7-3 going into the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians. In the final at-bat, if a hitter can’t tie the game, it’s not a bad idea to take a strike. Your team needs base runners; you can hit a ball out of the park, but you’ll still be down by three.

Nevertheless, the Royals were hacking.

Danny Valencia chased the first pitch he saw — a pitch up and out of the zone — to get things started. But Valencia wound up hitting a single. The second hitter, Alcides Escobar did not take a strike; he hacked at the first pitch in the zone and fouled it off — but Esky also singled. Jarrod Dyson actually took a strike, but eventually walked. The first two hitters’ approach might have left something to be desired, but the Royals managed to get the tying run to the plate and the tying run was Lorenzo Cain.

Cain swung at the first pitch he saw, but it was a middle-middle fastball and Cain was the tying run. Iin his case, trying to hit the ball out of the park or at least clear the bases with a gap shot was OK. Unfortunately, Cain fouled that fastball back; then went on to see eight pitches. Even more unfortunately the eighth pitch was a fastball out of the zone and Cain chased it.

After Lorenzo struck out, Eric Hosmer got a first-pitch fastball — slightly away — and pulled it into a 4-6-3 game-ending double play. Swinging at the first pitch was alright; Hosmer was the tying run, but pulling the ball led to rolling over and hitting the groundball the Indians needed.

The Royals lost this one to Cleveland 7-3 and go for the series win tomorrow.

A three-run fifth inning decides the ballgame

Jeremy Guthrie threw 84 pitches in the first four innings and entered the fifth down 3-1. 15 pitches later Guthrie still didn’t have an out and the Royals were down 5-1. Guthrie was replaced by reliever Francisley Bueno and after giving up another single, the score was 6-1. Guthrie only managed four innings while giving up 11 hits and six earned runs.

For most of the season the Royals’ pitching has kept them competitive. Saturday night the Royals pitching couldn’t keep the Cleveland Indians down and the Royals hitting couldn’t keep pace. One for 11 with runners in scoring position didn’t get it done.

Hitting to the opposite field: how it helps and how it hurts

In the first inning Lorenzo Cain doubled to right field. Look at Lorenzo’s numbers this season and he hits for more average when he goes to right, but has a higher slugging percentage when he hits the ball to left.

When a batter hits the ball to the opposite field a lot of good things happen: he has to wait longer and is less likely to get fooled by a pitch. His hitting mechanics often improve because he keeps his front shoulder closed and that also helps his head stay calm. In fact, George Brett once told me whenever he was scuffling he’d concentrate on going the other way and that usually fixed the problem. So why don’t hitters go to the opposite field all the time?


Some players can hit a ball out of the park when going the other way, but most hitters have to pull the ball to hit home runs. Pulling the ball gets the hitter into the short part of the park; the corners. But when a hitter pulls the ball there’s less room for error; think of how many long foul balls you see, hit a ton, but on the wrong side of the foul pole. In fact, that’s a trick veteran pitchers will sometimes use: throw the hitter something hittable, but in off the plate, let them pull the ball foul and that gets the pitcher ahead in the count.

Tony Gywnn — one of the best hitters of all time — said you need to decide what you are: a contact hitter or a power hitter. If you’re a contact hitter; wait, hit the ball at the back of the plate and go the other way. If you’re a power hitter; start early, catch the ball out in front and hit it into the short part of the park.

It seems like too many hitters think they can do both and most hitters can’t.

Billy Butler avoids a "rollover" groundball in the second inning

You hear that phrase a lot: a hitter "rolled over" and hit a groundball. Here’s what that means:

A right-hand hitter starts his swing with his left hand palm down and his right hand palm up. The bat head is above the back shoulder and moves in a downward plane to contact. At some point in the swing the wrist’s rollover and the left hand is then palm up and the right hand is palm down and the bat head starts to rise up and finish high on the follow through. If a pitcher can get a hitter to swing too soon and make contact as the wrists begin to rollover, the hitter is likely to hit the top half of the ball.

That’s what pitchers have been doing to Billy Butler when they want a double play groundball:

They pitch him down and in with sinkers or down with off-speed stuff and try to get Billy to rollover and hit the ball to the left side of the field. In the second inning Billy got a fastball down, but didn’t pull it. He singled when he took it to the right side and that helped him avoid the rollover grounder the pitcher wanted.

But two batters later Alcides Escobar rolled over a changeup and hit into a 6-4-3 inning-ending double play.

Bad base running in the fifth

Billy Butler began the inning with another single to right field, but got thrown out trying to go first-to-third when Danny Valencia lined a single to center. There was nobody out and, generally speaking, you don’t want to make the first or third out at third base.

Billy Butler is not fast and his base-running helped the Indians’ starting pitcher — T.J. House — to get through the fifth inning with only eight pitches.

If a hitter complains, set up off the plate

Here’s one to watch for: if a hitter starts complaining about an umpire’s strike zone, pay attention to where the catcher sets up for the next pitch.

Smart hitters will try to be unobtrusive about lobbying the umpire; they’ll start manicuring the dirt in the batter’s box while looking down, but meanwhile you can see their lips moving. They’re probably telling the umpire what they thought of the last call. That’s what smart hitters do.

Dumb ones make sure everyone in the park knows the umpire just blew a call. They’ll yank their heads back, maybe make a hand gesture and stare into the heavens as if asking the Lord for the patience to deal with such an incompetent boob behind the plate.

And smart catchers see this.

Then the smart catcher might set up, just off the plate. He knows the umpire is in no mood to cut the hitter a break after being shown up. I once asked an umpire if he’d pay hitters back for being shown up and he said: "Just give me a pitch I can work with." The umpire was saying he wouldn’t call a ball a strike, but a borderline pitch? That’s a pitch he could work with.

Next time you see a hitter complain about a call, watch where the catcher sets up.