Judging the Royals

King Felix Hernandez: the better the pitcher, the smaller the ball

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez throws against the Kansas City Royals in the third inning Friday in Seattle.
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez throws against the Kansas City Royals in the third inning Friday in Seattle. AP

Not too long ago, I stood by Eric Hosmer’s locker and talked with him about the Royals' style of baseball: They’ll take home runs when they can get them but play small ball when they have to.

And as Hosmer pointed out, when you’re facing an ace, you have to.

The Royals' first baseman asked how often you see a top-of-the-line pitcher give up three or four hits in an inning. And Friday night, Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez provided a good example of what Hosmer was talking about.

Hernandez pitched 7 2/3 innings and gave up five hits, but he scattered them; the only time he gave up two hits in an inning was the fourth.

So the idea that the Royals were going to string together a bunch of hits and “keep the line moving” wasn’t very likely ... and they knew that early on.

When a pitcher with Hernandez’ reputation comes into a game with an ERA of 1.80, hitters know there’s an excellent chance he’s going to have good stuff ... and Hernandez did.

If you’re not going to be able to string together hits, you have to figure out other ways to advance runners.

In the second inning, Hosmer singled and advanced to second on a throwing error.

Kendrys Morales made a productive out when he hit the ball to the right side and moved Hosmer to third. I’m pretty sure Morales wanted that ball to sneak through for a hit – he wasn’t trying to make an out – but Morales knew if he could keep the ball on the ground and hit it between first and second base, something good would happen.

It did. Hosmer advanced to third, but Hernandez was dealing and that’s a far as Hosmer got.

In the fifth inning, Salvador Perez led off with a single and Omar Infante bunted him into scoring position. As of this morning, Infante is 1 for 16 off Hernandez, so bunting was not a bad idea.

But once again, Hernandez bore down and the Royals didn’t score.

Seeing that Hernandez was on and knowing they weren’t going to get a rally going by swinging the bats, the Royals tried moving runners by stealing bases. They were successful three out of four times – but nobody came around to score.

After the Royals moved runners into scoring position, hits were scarce (like 0 for 11 scarce). But that doesn’t mean the Royals took the wrong approach. They needed to scratch out two runs but couldn’t do it and lost to the Mariners, 1-0.

But having every hitter swing for the fences would be even less likely to work against a pitcher like Felix Hernandez.

You don’t play for a big inning against a guy who finished the evening with an ERA of 1.38. You take the bird in the hand because there aren’t two in the bush.

Remember: The better the pitcher, the smaller the ball.

The cookie store is closed

In baseball slang, a “cookie” is a fastball thrown down the middle.

Pitchers will toss the hitter a cookie in certain situations (3-0 counts, if they have a big lead, etc.) and count on their defense to make the plays behind them.

But as baseball guru Rusty Kuntz has told me, with runners in scoring position, the cookie store is closed.

With no runner in scoring position, pitchers tend to throw more fastballs and count on their defense, because fastballs are easier on the arm and pitching to contact is a good way to keep a pitch count low.

But put a runner in scoring position and pitchers tend to break out their off-speed stuff; time to throw the nasty stuff.

If I counted correctly (and there’s a decent chance I didn’t, as the game was late and this morning’s caffeine hasn’t kicked in yet), the Royals saw over 30 pitches with runners in scoring position Friday in Seattle, and only seven of those pitches were fastball strikes.

One was a fastball in the dirt that Perez turned into strike by swinging at it. And some of the other fastball strikes were only thrown once the hitter had seen something off-speed to set up the heat.

I asked Rusty what a hitter does if that’s the pattern a pitcher uses, and he said the hitters need to “sit soft”: look for that off-speed pitch, and more specifically, look for whichever off-speed pitch the pitcher has been throwing for strikes.

When the pitcher has to throw a strike with a runner in scoring position, there’s a good chance that’s the pitch you’ll see. And if the pitcher is throwing more than one off-speed pitch for strikes, it probably ain’t your night.

But quit waiting for that fat fastball, because the cookie store is closed.