Judging the Royals

How getting hit in the face changed Omar Infante’s game

Omar Infante’s hitting plunged after he was hit in the face by a pitch six games into the 2014 season.
Omar Infante’s hitting plunged after he was hit in the face by a pitch six games into the 2014 season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

In 2013, the year before Omar Infante became a Royal, he hit .318. In 2014 the Royals knew they were on the verge of something big and signed Infante to play second base. He was pricey, but you only get so many shots at the brass ring and the Royals thought Infante was worth it.

Infante’s first season as a Royal got off to a great start; he was hitting .348 six games into the 2014 season — but in that sixth game Infante took a Heath Bell fastball to the jaw. In retrospect, it was a turning point: Infante hit .247 the rest of the way.

In 2015 it got worse; Infante hit .220. And 65 games into the Royals 2016 season Infante has hit .239.

Nobody — least of all me — can say for sure that getting hit in the face is what set Infante on a downward path, but Dayton Moore mentioned it in Wednesday’s news conference and the numbers suggest it had something to do with it. Since getting hit in the face, Infante — still a .271 lifetime hitter — has hit .235, 36 points under his lifetime average.

When a guy gets hit in the face, he might be reluctant to lean out and cover the outside corner and Infante’s average on balls hit to the opposite field has dropped precipitously.

Infante’s defense has also suffered. At times he appeared to be going through the motions; failing to cover second base on several occasions. And if you watched Infante closely, you saw a listless, low-energy approach during batting practice and, at times, during games. Infante’s range and arm had deteriorated, so when Whit Merrifield got hot, the Royals had options at second base and that was it for Infante.

When Moore was asked if Infante was his biggest mistake, he didn’t say no. But Dayton also pointed out how important Infante had been to the team in 2014; a year that went to Game 7 of the World Series, a year that let everyone know the Royals were for real.

In 2014 the Royals thought they needed help at second base and Infante provided that, but a fastball to the face — something nobody could have predicted — seemed to change him for the worse.

So is Whit Merrifield the real deal?

Whit Merrifield has gotten off to a terrific start: he’s hitting .330 and slugging .500 — but it’s early.

When hitters come up from the minors, pitchers aren’t real sure how to attack them, so they probe for weaknesses. One scout told me the first thing a pitcher wants to know is if a rookie can hit a major-league fastball.

I asked if big-league fastballs were that much better than those thrown in the minors and the scout said yes; a big-league fastball will be harder, have more movement and be better located.

Down-and-away is the pitcher’s safety zone — if a hitter hits a fastball thrown there, it will probably be a single at most — so that’s the first test for a rookie; can he handle the fastball away?

If the rookie hits the away fastball, then he’s going to see off-speed stuff. Can he handle sliders, curves and changeups?

And if the rookie shows he can handle those secondary pitches, he’ll then see fastballs in. Can the rookie get the bat head around on a mid-90s fastball inside? For some pitchers that’s the last place they’ll go because if they make a mistake inside, the ball might leave the yard.

So right now the rest of the league is looking for Merrifield’s weaknesses and if they find one, they’ll exploit it.

Stay tuned.

Why Wade Davis didn’t pitch three games in a row

I finally got to talk to Wade Davis about pitching three days in a row and why he didn’t do it on June 2. Wade had pitched the previous two days and then got a day off. On that third day, Joakim Soria was sent out to close a game against the Indians and blew the save.

Fast forward nine days.

On June 11 Davis pitched the first of three games in a row and some fans wanted to know if he could do it on June 11, 12 and 13, why he didn’t do it on June 2. Inquiring minds want to know.

When asked, Davis said it was easy to explain.

Coming into June 2 Davis had pitched two days in a row, but got “hot” six days in a row. Getting hot is warming up to come in a game and even pitches thrown in the bullpen have to be taken into account.

After six days of work, even God took the seventh day off.

When we look at a pitcher’s workload, we rarely take getting hot into account; baseball teams can’t afford to ignore that.

When will Alex Gordon return?

Alex Gordon took batting practice Wednesday and when I asked him how he felt afterwards he said great. When I asked how soon he’d be back, Gordon said next home stand. When I asked Gordon how many games he’d play in the minors before coming back to the big-league club he said a couple. When I asked Gordon if it was OK to write all this he said go ahead.

But then Gordon warned me that things might not go the way he hopes.