Judging the Royals

Royals waste an excellent performance by Edinson Volquez in 2-1 loss to Rangers

Kendrys Morales was tagged out at home by Texas catcher Robinson Chirinos in the second inning, one of the Royals’ missed opportunities to score Sunday.
Kendrys Morales was tagged out at home by Texas catcher Robinson Chirinos in the second inning, one of the Royals’ missed opportunities to score Sunday. jsleezer@kcstar.com

The Royals scored one run in nine innings Sunday against the Texas Rangers. Afterwards, Ned Yost was asked if it was the Rangers’ pitching or the Royals’ hitting that was responsible for the lack of runs. Most of the time Ned will heap praise on the opposing pitcher, but not on Sunday; he said the Royals didn’t execute or capitalize and they had to find a way to score more runs.

No team in the American League has scored fewer runs than the Royals.

That sounds bad and it is, but in 2015 the Royals were sixth in runs scored and in 2014 they were ninth; both seasons ended with trips to the World Series. So the Royals don’t need to be the best at scoring runs, but they can’t be the worst.

The Royals make up for their offense with pitching and defense; keep the score low and you don’t have to tear the cover off the ball. The 2016 Royals are 36-9 when the other team scores three or fewer runs.

That’s what made Sunday such a waste; the Royals pitchers held the Rangers hitters to two runs. When you get the pitching and defense you need to win, you need to win — and the Royals didn’t.

How the game changes with a runner in scoring position

Look at Sunday’s box score and you’ll see the Royals were 0 for 6 with runners in scoring position. When we see that number we know the hitters failed, but it’s worth asking why the hitters failed.

When pitchers get runners in scoring position, they pitch differently.

On Friday night Alex Gordon led off the bottom of the fourth inning with a triple, but then Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish stepped it up and struck out the side.

This season a Yu Darvish fastball averages 94.1 mph, but when he had to reach back for more, Darvish did. With Gordon on third, Darvish threw eight fastballs and six were harder than average — the high was 97 — and that slight change in speed is enough to make a hitter miss. Darvish also threw chase pitches; veteran pitchers will try to get over-eager hitters — especially young guys — to chase bad pitches with a runner in scoring position and the Royals did.

And the same thing happened on Sunday.

In the second inning, Kendrys Morales walked and Alex Gordon doubled; the Royals had two runners in scoring position and nobody out. The Rangers’ A.J. Griffin got Paulo Orlando to chase a fastball up and struck him out, then got Whit Merrifield to swing at a pitch down. That resulted in a ground ball to short and a play at the plate when Morales tried to score — Morales was out. Drew Butera hit a pop fly to end the inning.

The Royals hitters didn’t fail because they weren’t trying; they failed because they wanted to succeed too much.

It’s how the best pitchers pitch

As dumb luck would have it I asked Ned about pitching with runners in scoring position before Sunday’s game and he gave a couple of examples to illustrate his point.

When Yost would catch Hall of Famer Don Sutton, he wanted to call Sutton’s curveball, but most of the time Sutton would shake Ned off. Sutton told Ned to only call the curve when he had two strikes on the hitter or he was in a jam. Save that Sutton curveball for when he needed it most and then Sutton had a pitch the hitter hadn’t seen that day.

Ned also told a story about another Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux.

Maddux pitched out of a bases-loaded-nobody-out jam on the road. When Ned asked Maddux how he did it, Maddux said the louder the crowd cheered, the slower he’d throw. Maddux was taking advantage of the hitter’s adrenaline and desire to come through in a clutch situation.

So what’s this mean to the Royals?

Big-league hitters walk a fine line; they have to be selectively aggressive. They might only get one good pitch to hit (and if they’re too aggressive they won’t get that) so when they get that good pitch they need to hit it.

So if the first pitch is a good pitch, there’s nothing wrong with taking a hack. But if the first pitch is marginal, the Royals need to wait for something better.

In the second inning with Morales on third and Gordon on second, the Royals hitters did just that. Griffin started Orlando, Merrifield and Butera with off-speed pitches thrown out of the zone and all three hitters declined to chase those pitches.

But after going 1-0 all three hitters swung at the next pitch — all off-speed pitches — and the results tell you they probably weren’t great pitches to hit; a fouled off curve and a swing-and-miss on a changeup and a slider. With runners in scoring position Griffin threw 14 pitches and only four were fastballs and at least two of them weren’t in the strike zone.

Now if you’re thinking the Royals are bad at hitting with runners in scoring position, they’re actually better at it than the two teams they’re chasing: Cleveland and Detroit. But on Sunday the Royals weren’t very good and wasted a terrific pitching performance.

And right now the Royals can’t afford that.