Judging the Royals

How the Red Sox got James Shields out of the game

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields walks to the mound with a fresh baseball after giving up a two-run home run to Boston Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts during the sixth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, July 18, 2014.
Kansas City Royals starting pitcher James Shields walks to the mound with a fresh baseball after giving up a two-run home run to Boston Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts during the sixth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Friday, July 18, 2014. AP

When Tim Bogar was a coach for the Boston Red Sox he once told me the Sox didn’t care what the score was as long as they could get the starting pitcher out of the game after five innings. Friday night it took five and two-thirds, but the Sox still got what they wanted: the Red Sox hitters saw a lot of pitches, got the starting pitcher out of the game and then got a shot at middle relief. And that meant Boston avoided the best relievers in the Royals pen—Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

After three innings James Shields had thrown 68 pitches; after five and two-thirds it was 112. The Red Sox hitters take a lot of pitches to get what they want.

Shields was about to face Jackie Bradley, Jr. when Ned Yost replaced him with lefty reliever Scott Downs. Boston manager John Farrell countered with right-handed pinch-hitter Jonny Gomes. After the game Ned said he didn’t think the Red Sox would pinch hit in the sixth inning, but that clearly turned out to be incorrect. With Davis and Holland looming in the eighth and ninth innings, making whatever moves necessary to grab a lead in the sixth or seventh would seem to make sense--and that’s what John Farrell did.

Ned’s move allowed the Red Sox a shot at middle relief and a match-up they liked: Gomes vs. Downs. They made the most of it; Gomes hit a two-run home run and the Sox took a 5-4 lead which they never gave up.

Ned’s decision

OK, let’s run over the options: There were two outs and the tying run was on second base. Yost could have left James Shields in the game and let him face Jackie Bradley, Jr. for a third time. Shields had already gotten him out twice, but if your starter is tiring and it’s the third trip though the order, you might want to give it some thought. Afterwards, Yost said he should have let Shields face Bradley.

Instead, Yost went to a left-handed reliever because he did not believe the Red Sox would pinch hit at that point in the game. But once Gomes was announced, the Royals still had options. Coming into the game Gomes was 3 for 13 off Downs; that’s a .231 average. But with relievers, sample sizes can be so small they don’t mean a lot. Case in point: this morning Gomes is now hitting .286 off Downs. That’s why many managers forget the match-up numbers and just use the righty-lefty splits. And if you use those numbers, Gomes is not a good match-up: he hits .306 off left-handers and he slugs .429.

So if you don’t think the other manager will make a move and then he does, what’s the counter move?

First base was open; walk Gomes because you don’t like the match-up and start fresh with Brock Holt, another lefty. If Farrell chose to pinch-hit for Holt and burn through two bench players in the sixth, Yost would have had the option of replacing Downs; by walking Gomes Downs would have faced his required batter.

Of course, every time you walk someone you buy another plate appearance for someone else down the road. And maybe that match-up will be even worse than the one you avoided. But when I was first trying to get my mind around managing, Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle told me to take care of the problem I had, not the problem I might have.

The Royals did not take advantage of the opportunity to walk Gomes and avoid a bad match-up and paid the price.

Game notes

Beware of the player who says he took the All-Star break off and didn’t touch a bat for four days; hitting is timing and four days off can disrupt that timing. A player who does not step into the batting cage at least once during the break, runs the risk of giving away at-bats in the first few games back.

Bottom of the first: It’s easier to see on TV—while giving the signs catcher Salvador Perez made a flicking motion with his thumb. That’s the sign for a pickoff attempt. When the catcher looks over at the bench he’s not getting pitches called; the bench usually controls the running game. They’ll tell Sal whether they want a pickoff attempt, a pitchout or slide step.

Second inning: With left-handed Brock Holt at the plate, James Shields threw a curve down and in. In Fenway that can be a dangerous pitch to a lefty. Leave it in a hittable spot and the slower speed of the pitch will give a left-handed hitter a shot at the Pesky Pole, just over 300 feet away, in right field.

Third inning: Lorenzo Cain made his second of five outs in this game when he hit a groundball to short. Cain is seeing a lot of off-speed pitches away and off the plate. If he keeps swinging at them, he’ll keep seeing them. Cain hasn’t had a hit in the last five games. Once you show the league a weakness, they’ll pound it until you make an adjustment.

Fourth inning: Billy Butler is seeing an awful lot of fastballs down and in or off-speed stuff just plain down. The idea is to get Billy to pull the ball on the ground and that sets up a double play ball. Billy hit a cutter to third baseman Xander Bogaerts who went to second to get a force. Next Mike Moustakas came to the plate with Salvador Perez on third base and one down, but failed to get the ball in the air. His grounder to first base meant Salvador was thrown out at home—probably on a contact play.

Sixth inning: Billy Butler singled, but did it on another cutter which he once again pulled on the ground. The results were better—a base hit—but Billy was still hitting the pitch they wanted him to hit. The count was 1-2 so Butler didn’t have a lot of choice, but continue to watch for teams to throw Butler pitches that he’ll pull for a groundball.

Eighth inning: With a runner on third and one down, Mike Moustakas was once again in a position to drive in a run if he hit the ball in the air. Mike got a 2-0 curve, didn’t lay off the off-speed pitch in a fastball count and rolled over, hitting a groundball to Dustin Pedroia. That groundball did not score the run. Moustakas had two at-bats in which a fly ball would have scored a run and didn’t get the ball in the air either time.

How Fenway Park changes the game

Every ballpark changes the game and Fenway changes it more than most. Obviously the Green Monster—the 37 foot high wall in left field—has an effect. The foul pole is 310 feet from home plate so it’s logical that right-handed hitters take a shot in that direction, but the wall might do more for a left-handed hitter than a righty. Right handers have to open up their front shoulder and catch the ball out in front of the plate to take a shot at the Monster. That tendency to open up can be exploited by a pitcher: throw a meatball in off the plate, let the hitter pull it foul and then get him out with something off-speed away.

Left-handed hitters, on the other hand, have to wait and stay closed to take a shot at the wall. The presence of the Monster might mess up a right-handers swing and encourage a fundamentally sound swing from a lefty.

The wall also changes the way you run the bases.

It’s so close a runner can’t count on scoring from second base on a two-out hit—he might have to shut it down at third. That means runners might take a chance to get to third base no matter the number of outs; stay at second and you may still be two hits away from scoring.

The other feature you can watch is the low wall that juts toward the outfield down the left field line. A ball that goes past third base in fair territory can veer into foul territory, hit that angle and carom back into shallow left field. That means the shortstop has to run back on a ball that would be a double down the line in most parks; if it hits that angle, the shortstop might be the closest player to the ball.

And the centerfielder has to remember to come over and back up the left fielder; if the ball hits a seam in the wall it can come off hard and get past the left fielder. Get too close to the Monster and you might get burned.