Judging the Royals

Alcides Escobar makes a mental mistake, the Royals lose 4-3

Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, right, backs up second baseman Omar Infante, left, as he fields a ground ball hit by Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 8, 2014 in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Kansas City Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, right, backs up second baseman Omar Infante, left, as he fields a ground ball hit by Tampa Bay Rays' Ben Zobrist during the first inning of a baseball game Tuesday, July 8, 2014 in St. Petersburg, Fla. AP

When things happen in baseball, they tend to happen quickly. That being the case, players need to decide what they’re going to do with the ball before it’s ever hit to them. Wait until the ball’s hit to decide what to do and you’re going to make a mistake.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of a 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Alcides Escobar made a mistake.

Just in case Esky needed a reminder that Brandon Guyer is fast, Brandon Guyer started things off with a bunt single. The Royals were looking for a double play ball and Alcides should have been thinking he wouldn’t have much time to turn two; Guyer would get to second base quickly.

Francisley Bueno got just what the Royals needed out of Evan Longoria; a possible double play groundball. Instead of flipping the ball to Omar Infante — who was waiting at the bag — Escobar decided to do it all himself; run to the bag, tag it and then complete the double play by throwing the ball to Eric Hosmer at first.

But Esky was too far from the bag, Guyer beat him to it and Longoria beat the throw to first base. Instead of two outs, the Royals had none. James Loney doubled and the Royals were down 4-1. The next two batters made outs, so if Escobar had gotten even one out, the Royals probably would have gone into the ninth inning down 2-1.

Kansas City scored two in the ninth, but because Alcides Ecobar made a mental mistake; the Royals lost to the Rays — 4-3.

Game notes

First inning: The Royals may lead the league in steals, but if you were waiting for Lorenzo Cain to steal second base, it appeared Rays pitcher Jeremy Hellickson was awfully quick to home plate. Watch the pitcher’s front foot: if it barely come off the ground he’s quick to home, if it comes high off the ground a base stealer has a chance.

Cain stole a base in the third, but did it on an off-speed pitch. When pitchers and catchers are just too quick for base stealers, teams will look for pitch patterns that show when a pitcher is likely to throw something off-speed — that’s when they’ll attempt a steal.

Second inning: Hellickson threw a 2-0 and 2-1 changeup to Mike Moustakas and every hitter saw it. That’s one of the ways to keep hitters from loading up on fastballs in fastball counts: show them you’ll throw something off-speed in those counts and hitters will have to cut down on their swings.

Moose eventually flew out to centerfield and that was a common occurrence; eight Royals made out when they hit fly balls to center. When former Rays player Elliot Johnson played for KC, he said fly balls hit to center field in Tropicana Park didn’t carry. He wasn’t sure why, but since he told me that I’ve seen an awful lot of well-struck fly balls get caught.

Pitching to the big part of the park can be an effective tactic—let them hit the heck out of the ball, just make sure they hit it to center — but you better have a center fielder who can go get it if you’re going to get away with that.

Bottom of the second: When there’s a runner on second base, he can see the catcher’s signs. So the catcher has to use a more complicated set of signs so the runner can’t figure out what pitch is on the way and signal the hitter.

The problem gets worse when the runner is a catcher because he’ll know most of the sign systems. In this inning the runner was Sean Rodriguez and the hitter was catcher Ryan Hanigan. Had the runner been Hanigan and the hitter Rodriguez, the Royals would have had a bigger problem.

Pay attention to the runner at second base and if you see him do something suspicious like hands on knees for one pitch, hand on hips for another, you may have seen a runner signaling the hitter to expect a fastball or something off-speed.

By the way: After spending a lot of time around Jason Kendall, I now frown on the guys you see mugging for the camera or screwing around with their teammates on the bench — they should be up on the rail paying attention to the game.

Third inning: Lorenzo Cain singled, then stole second base. Eric Hosmer was at the plate and needed to hit a ball to the right side of the field to move Cain to third. Smart pitchers know left-handed hitters need to get the bat head out in front to pull the ball, so they throw off-speed, down and out of the zone. Leave it in the zone and the hitter will pull the ball, but throw a chase pitch out of the zone to a lefty trying to pull the ball and you can get a swing and miss — that’s what Hellickson did when he struck out Hosmer.

Later in the inning Salvador Perez struck out, but it took Hellickson 10 pitches to get the job done. Once a hitter has seen eight pitches, he’s had a hell of an at bat no matter what happens next. Hellickson did not make it out of the fifth inning.

Fifth inning: Lorenzo Cain singled — he went four for four with a walk — but you could see how teams have been pitching him: Cain saw 21 pitches in this game and only six were fastballs in the zone. Teams are throwing Lorenzo off-speed down and/or away and if he’ll chase, Lorenzo won’t get any fastballs in the strike zone.

Sixth inning: The sixth and seventh innings are the hardest innings in baseball. The starting pitcher is getting gassed and he hasn’t reached the back end of the bullpen yet. Get the ball to the eighth inning set-up man and ninth inning closer and your odds of winning go way up.

Coming into the sixth Jason Vargas had thrown 86 pitches and was facing the Rays order for the third time. Like a lot of starting pitchers, the more times hitters sees Vargas, the better they do.

First at bat: .230

Second at bat: .260

Third at bat: .273

Fourth at bat: .346

The Rays started the sixth inning with a single, a double and another single and took the lead 2-1.

Seventh inning: With the tying run on third base, reliever Grant Balfour threw Salvador Perez five sliders; none were in the strike zone—Sal swung at four of them. In big situations smart pitchers can use a hitter’s aggressiveness against him. In fact, in most pressure situation the player who can back off a bit will win the confrontation.

In the bottom of the seventh a ball was hit through Eric Hosmer’s glove, resulting in a 3-4-3 out at first. Some gloves have T-webs or H-webs and those are the ones with openings that a ball can sneak through — if the webbing is loose enough and the ball is hit hard enough. It doesn’t happen with solid webs.

Eighth inning: The Rays had a right-handed shift on Omar Infante and Omar hit the ball through the open right side. It might make mathematical sense to shift on Infante — he does pull more grounders to the left side — but it’s still dumb.

Watch him take BP and it’s clear the guy can handle the bat. Open up the right side and Infante’s going to hit a ball through that hole.

How to know when you can bust a hitter in

One of the ways you tell if you can get an inside pitch past a hitter is his hands. Guys who hold their hands away from their bodies tend to want the ball out over the plate, guys who keep their hands close to their bodies have a little easier time covering the inside pitch. It’s not full proof — there are always exceptions — but it’s one of the clues pitchers and catchers can use to decide what to throw next.