Judging the Royals

Win or lose, the Royals need to control what they can

Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) watched as the Rangers’ Nomar Mazara celebrates his fifth-inning RBI double Friday night in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers beat the Royals 8-3.
Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar (2) watched as the Rangers’ Nomar Mazara celebrates his fifth-inning RBI double Friday night in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers beat the Royals 8-3. The Associated Press

The Royals lost 8-3 to the Texas Rangers on Friday night, and after the game, manager Ned Yost said there wasn’t much that the team could do except keep grinding away.

That’s true if you’re playing well and just having bad luck, but the Royals aren’t playing well. It’s not all bad luck.

There are things the Royals can control … and they’re not controlling them.

A big-league pitcher should be able to throw strikes, and all too often the Royals’ pitchers aren’t doing that. Edinson Volquez started the bottom of the first inning with a leadoff walk, and leadoff walks are the worst kind. The other team has all three outs available to move that walk around the bases, and that’s just what the Rangers did.

After the leadoff walk, the Rangers hit a single and a ground out and that leadoff walk crossed the plate. One lousy single and the Rangers were on the board … and once again the Royals would be playing from behind.

The next batter, Adrian Beltre, singled on a 1-2 pitch, thus highlighting another area in which the Royals could stand to improve: giving up hits in 1-2 or 0-2 counts. This season, the Royals have given up 163 of them.

For comparison’s sake, the Cleveland Indians, the team that the Royals are chasing in the standings, have given up 129. The Royals have given up 16 home runs in 0-2 and 1-2 counts; the Indians have given up 10.

When you have a hitter down in the count, step on his neck. You don’t need to give him anything hittable until you get to a full count. Pitchers will tell you they want to stay on the attack, and that’s an admirable attitude, but if that’s true, the Royals should not be issuing leadoff walks.

Pitch execution and low strikes

If a pitcher gets beat on a ground ball that sneaks through the infield, that pitcher did his job. He got the ball hit on the ground and then got unlucky.

Unless a grounder goes right down one of the base lines, it should be a single and it should take three of them to score a run.

Keep the ball down and you limit the other team’s damage.

But when a ball is hit into the second deck (and that’s where Rougned Odor’s first-inning homer appeared to land) that pitch was probably up. Watching a replay confirms this: Salvador Perez wanted a change-up thrown down and away; Edinson Volquez missed up and out over the plate.

Pitch down, and you can use the entire plate. Pitch up, and you better hit a corner. The Royals’ pitchers lead the league in home runs allowed because all too often they are up in the zone.

First inning was a doozy

The Rangers scored three runs in the first inning, and for the Royals, giving up runs in the first inning is not unusual. The Royals’ pitchers have a collective ERA of 6.26 in the first inning (and in every other inning, that ERA is lower).

Once again, for comparison’s sake, the Indians’ first-inning ERA is 4.86.

But before the villagers get out the torches and pitchforks, we should admit that lots of pitchers — including the Indians’ — struggle in the first inning.

Pitchers have to get used to the game mound and having a batter at the plate, and sometimes it takes a while to get in rhythm. That’s why you want to get to pitchers early. Don’t let them settle in and get comfortable.

So if everybody struggles with the first inning, doesn’t it all come out even in the end?

That depends. The Royals are last in the league in home runs hit, so it’s hard for them to overcome sizable deficits. When the Royals allow four runs or more, they have a losing record. When they allow three runs or fewer, they tend to win.

The Royals’ offense relies on small-ball strategies, which is one of the reasons they excel in low-scoring games. They know how to play that kind of baseball.

It’s also one of the reasons the Royals have done well in the playoffs. Eliminate the weaker teams and pitchers, and sooner or later you’re going to run into a guy who’s throwing lights out. When they’re playing well, the Royals know how to make the most of their hits.

But when the Royals are down by multiple runs, playing small ball doesn’t make sense. In 2014, the Royals led the league in stolen bases. In 2015, they were second; and this year, they rank sixth. Part of that is due to opposing pitchers lowering their delivery times, and part of that is because the Royals have been playing from behind all too often.

Royals manager Ned Yost tries to get team to relax and have fun playing baseball 

So does the offense deserve any blame?

Sure, it takes a village to raise a child and lose a ballgame. There are two sides to the ball, and on the offensive side the Royals are scoring 3.9 runs a game; on the defensive side they’re allowing 4.5.

That’s how you wind up four games under .500.

Eric Hosmer’s sixth-inning home run might be instructive. Hosmer has been using a big leg kick to start his swing, and when you have a lot to do before the ball arrives, timing can be difficult. But in the sixth inning Friday night, Hosmer was in a 2-2 count and had cut down on his swing. The big leg kick was gone.

Hosmer took a small step that wound up with him balanced on his back foot and front toes. He then hit a baseball more than 400 feet.

Not long ago, I asked Hosmer whether he thought the Royals’ hitters were trying to do too much, chasing bad pitches with runners in scoring position or overswinging when they got a good pitch.

Hosmer said, “You’re baseball guy. What do you see?”

OK, since I was asked: I see guys trying to do too much.

The defense has been fairly consistent

On Friday night, the Royals made an error but also had at least three outstanding defensive plays. Only four teams in the league have made fewer errors than the Royals, but errors can be a lousy way to measure defense.

Put me in the outfield, and I would make very few errors because I’m too slow to get anywhere near a batted baseball. I would wait for the ball to quit rolling, pick it up and throw it in. Bingo! No errors.

Night after night, the Royals make plays that other teams can’t, so I don’t think anyone is sweating their defense.

But the Royals’ pitchers need to control the walks and keep the ball down, and the hitters need to quit trying to do too much. Those are things the Royals should be able to control, and they need to start controlling them now.