Judging the Royals

Hitting with runners in scoring position: The Royals often don’t

Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain (6) walks away from the plate after striking out with the bases loaded to end the fifth inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on July 12, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals' Lorenzo Cain (6) walks away from the plate after striking out with the bases loaded to end the fifth inning during Saturday's baseball game against the Detroit Tigers on July 12, 2014 at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The Kansas City Star

Coming into Saturday’s game the Detroit Tigers were hitting .283 with runners in scoring position and the Royals were hitting .193. Those numbers didn’t get any better after the game: the Royals were 0-5 with runners in scoring position while the Tigers went 3 for 6.

That might be why the Tigers won this one 5-1.

Asked if there was a pattern to the Royals failure to hit with ducks on the pond and manager Ned Yost said there were multiple reasons, but — bottom line — the Royals just weren’t getting the job done.

Examine one of the biggest at-bats of the night and you can see why:

Down by two with the bases loaded and two outs, Lorenzo Cain came to the plate. Rick Porcello clearly wanted to pitch Cain inside and — once he got strike one called — clearly didn’t think he had to throw a strike to get Cain out. Lorenzo swung and missed to make the count 0-2, managed to lay off two pitches in off the plate, but couldn’t resist swinging at a pitch in and out of the strike zone to finish his at-bat.

If you’ll swing at balls, pitcher won’t throw you strikes.

Expanding the zone will make you a bad hitter. And if too many guys expand the zone with runners in scoring position, that will make you a bad-hitting team.

The Royals lose their third in a row to Detroit.

Game notes

First inning: Lorenzo Cain made a nice catch on a Miguel Cabrera fly ball to right field and then immediately banged into the wall. The crowd roared its approval, but do you really want Lorenzo making that catch?

He looked gimpy going after the ball and that was before he hit the wall. If Cain goes down while Alex Gordon is sidelined with a sprained wrist that puts Raul Ibanez back on the field. Ibanez was probably brought in to pinch hit, make spot starts and be a veteran presence on the bench. Playing every day might overexpose a 42-year-old outfielder.

Second inning: Omar Infante led off with a single and that brought Billy Butler to the plate. If you were thinking double play, so were the Detroit Tigers. They had their third baseman right on the line and that tells you they were going to pitch Billy inside and/or off-speed and wait for him to pull the ball to third.

As expected, Tigers starter Rick Porcello pounded Butler with two-seam fastball in. Porcello threw four of them and Billy swung at two them — he missed the first time and fouled the second one off. Then with the count 2-2 Porcello threw a slider and Billy hit the groundball to the left-side that the Tigers were hoping for. Unfortunately for them, the groundball got through, but they got what they wanted. Billy swung at the pitches they wanted him to hit and had the timing been a fraction different, Billy would have been booed for hitting into another double play instead of cheered for hitting a single to left.

Mike Moustakas struck out, Alcides Escobar swung at a 3-1 two-seamer in and the Tigers had the double play they’d been looking for.

Third inning: We’ve just seen how swinging at pitcher’s pitches can result in a rollover grounder and easy outs for the defense. In this inning Ian Kinsler showed more discipline and skill: with Austin Jackson on second base Kinsler hit a cutter slightly away, but instead of pulling the ball, he hit it to the right side for an RBI single. Pull that pitch and it would have been an easy grounder to the left side.

In the bottom of the inning Lorenzo Cain chased a sinker down in the zone. He was 1-0 at that point and could wait for a better pitch, but he didn’t. Once again, swinging at a pitcher’s pitch resulted in an inning-ending double play.

Fourth inning: With one down Torii Hunter was at the plate and Torii has the reputation for cheating on gas. That means he’s gotten a little older and has to start his swing a little sooner to get around on a good fastball.

James Shields and Salvador Perez went with two fastballs out of the zone and Torii didn’t chase. With the count 2-0 Torii geared up for the fastball, got a changeup and swung and missed — the count was then 2-1. Shields threw another changeup and the same thing happened: Hunter was early and swung and missed.

So far, so good.

But then Shields threw another changeup (and if you’re counting that’s three), but missed the strike zone. Then Perez and Shields went to the changeup well once too often. The fourth changeup in a row got whacked. Hunter laid back on one and hit it over Jarrod Dyson’s head for a triple. That fourth changeup and triple cost the Royals when Alex Avila singled. Hunter scored and the Tigers went up by two.

Sixth inning: James Shields almost screwed himself out of a double play by reaching up and swiping at ball headed right to Omar Infante. The other night Steve Physioc said the Royals pitchers lead the league in errors — you’d think they wouldn’t want anything to do with a baseball.

In the bottom of the inning Salvador Perez went first-to-third because Austin Jackson was moving away from third base when he fielded Omar Infante’s single to right center. Hard to get much on a throw if you’re not moving toward the base you’re throwing to. That bit of base running turned into a run when Billy Butler hit a fairly shallow fly ball to Jackson in center. Sal could score without worry because the throw was destined for second base.

Throw the ball home to nail a runner — always a risky operation — and the tying run would move into scoring position. Knowing the Tigers would throw the ball to second, the Royals could send Salvador Perez to home plate.

Ninth inning: J.D. Martinez homered in a 2-0 count, Torii Hunter singled in a 1-0 count and Alex Avila homered in a 3-0 count. Reliever Aaron Crow was constantly behind hitters and when you’re behind hitters you better throw something other than a fastball or throw the fastball and locate it really well.

Crow did neither and gave up three runs.

What makes Wade Davis so good?

Ask bullpen coach Doug Henry that question and the first thing he talks about is Wade’s curveball. There are big looping curves and those pitches are hard to throw for strikes and hard for umpires to call. You might throw a great one and not get the call because the umpire couldn’t tell when it crossed the plate.

Wade’s curve isn’t as big, but it’s tight and hard—that makes it look like a fastball coming out of his hand. Throw a 98-MPH fastball and an 84-MPH knuckle curve that starts out looking like a fastball, then throw those two pitches on the same plane and hitters have a problem — a big problem.

Mix in a low nineties cutter — a pitch halfway between a fastball and slider—and things get even tougher for anyone standing in a batter’s box. Davis can front door the cutter; throw it at right-handed batter’s hip, get him to lift his arms and take the pitch while it slides in for a strike. He can also throw a chase cutter away: start it in the zone to a right-handed hitter and hope he chases the pitch as it leaves the strike zone.

Lefties also see the cutter, but in their case the pitch is used to get in on their hands or Wade can back door the pitch: throw it off the plate away and let the cutter’s movement carry it back into the strike zone after a left-handed hitter gives up on the pitch.

Saturday afternoon I saw Wade in the clubhouse and said it was too bad he got screwed on the All-Star game, but cool that he was good enough to get screwed on the All-Star game. Davis said he was just happy to be part of the conversation.

Right now the conversation is; what makes Wade Davis so good? If Doug Henry is right; it might be that curveball.