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JUDGING THE ROYALS Elliot Johnson predicts the future

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Friday, June 14, 2013, at 5:15 p.m.

You may think Elliot Johnson had a good game: he had three hits—two of them in one inning and one of them was a three-run home run. To go along with those three RBIs, Johnson also scored two runs and came up with a very well-timed single. (It came right after a fan loudly and audibly heckled Elliot for swinging and missing the previous pitch.) And Johnson did it all against the team that traded him away—he helped his new team beat his old team 10-1.

That’s a good game in anybody’s book.

Well in my book Elliot Johnson had a great game and I’ll tell you why: before the Royals left on this road trip I dropped by Elliot’s locker and asked him about Tropicana Field and what I should look for during this four-game series. He said balls do not carry well in centerfield. Smart pitchers (and that includes Jeremy Hellickson) will use that characteristic to their advantage. They pitch to the big part of the park—here it is, try to hit it over the centerfield wall—and then count on their centerfielders to run the fly balls down.

In the first inning Eric Hosmer hit a ball to the left of dead center and it must have traveled close to 400 feet, but it was still an out. (Hosmer later hit a home run, but it was more toward left.) Hellickson got six fly ball outs to centerfield before being pulled. His replacement, ex-Royal Jake Odorizzi, got two more fly ball outs to center and the Royals pitchers—Ervin Santana and J.C. Gutierrez—added six more fly ball outs to centerfield. That’s 14 fly ball outs to centerfield in one game. (I’ve got no idea what’s normal, but 14 sure seems like a lot.)

Elliot Johnson predicted that.

He also said the ball would carry well down the lines and Elliot hit his home run to right field, about halfway up the bottom section of seats.

Elliot Johnson predicted that.

He also said if a bunt was laid down fair in fair territory and on the dirt base path, it would stay fair. But if a bunt was laid down on the turf and then rolled into the base path, it would go foul because there’s a slight drop off from the turf to the dirt. And that’s exactly what happened when Alcides Escobar tried to lay down a bunt in the sixth inning.

Elliot Johnson predicted that.

He also said the artificial turf was slow and the dirt was soft; perfect for infielders—the hops stay low and don’t come up unexpectedly. Fans saw some pretty outstanding infield play from the Royals. I’m not going to say Elliot Johnson predicted that because we see some pretty outstanding infield play from the Royals no matter where they play (although Miguel Tejada did launch one to hell and gone for an E5).

Elliot also said the dirt in front of home plate is soft—they don’t want any high choppers that a fast runner can beat out. And in his first at-bat, Alex Gordon hit the ball down into that soft dirt and hit a weak bouncing ball to Hellickson.

Elliot Johnson predicted that.

Three hits, three RBIs, two runs and at least four correct predictions; that’s why I said he had a great game—and when he gets back to Kansas City I’m going to ask him about lottery numbers.

Tropicana’s ceiling

Elliot Johnson also said the white roof and catwalks at Tropicana Field never bothered him, but I’ve had other people tell me you need to keep your eye on the ball all the time or you might lose it. Normally a fielder can see the ball go up, race to the right spot, look up and find the ball again. In Tampa Bay you might not want to try that.

Rusty Kuntz said there’s a strobe effect as the ball flies past all the stuff on the ceiling and David Lough would have to get used to it—it’s his first time in Tampa Bay. In cases like that Rusty will take an outfielder out early and hit him fly balls so he can see what he has to deal with that night.

In the first inning it looked Miguel Tejada might have been struggling with a pop fly at third base. He caught it, but it looked like an adventure.

The ambush

Ervin Santana had a four-pitch first inning. Matt Joyce swung at the first pitch, Ben Zobrist swung at the second and Kelly Johnson finished the inning by swinging at the first thing he saw.

Why?

I’m only guessing, but hitters will sometimes try to "ambush" a pitcher. If the guy is throwing a lot of first-pitch fastballs—and that’s what Santana threw to Joyce, Zobrist and Johnson—hitters will sometimes try to jump on those fastballs and do damage before the pitcher can get to his secondary stuff. In other words: hit Santana’s fastball before he forces you to hit his slider—it’s nasty.

Fortunately, for the Royals, the ambush didn’t work and helped Ervin go deeper in the game than he might have otherwise. If you’re going to ambush, you better get the pitcher or he may wind up getting you.

The pitching

As of Wednesday morning the Kansas City Royals pitching staff had the lowest ERA in the American League at 3.48. As of Thursday morning the Royals had the best bullpen ERA at 2.81. According to the guys on TV, the Tampa Bay Rays starting pitchers had the best ERA in the big leagues in 2013—this year they’re 20th. In 2013 the Royals starters had the 26th best ERA, this year they’re eighth. There are, of course, other factors besides the trade the two teams made, but it sounds like the trade was just as unpopular with some Tampa Bay fans as it was with some of the Kansas City fans.

Why Billy Butler’s rally sauce is working

Actually, it’s not—being relaxed and having fun is probably what’s working. Let me explain by telling a story that former Red Sox bench coach Tim Bogar once told me: Tim was playing in the minor leagues and his manager was current Pittsburgh Pirate manager, Clint Hurdle. That team wasn’t hitting either, but Hurdle had a solution:

Hitting pills.

One day Clint gave each player a pill and told them they were special hitting pills. They all had to swallow the pills at the same time or they wouldn’t work. So a bunch of ballplayers stood around in a minor league clubhouse and swallowed their medicine.

Of course nobody believed the pills had anything to do with hitting, it was all a big joke—but when the first guy got a hit, everybody started saying the same thing: the hitting pills must be kicking in. It was a laugh, people were making cracks about it—but they were also relaxing. You probably know what happened next: they raked that day. Guys who had been dragging their low batting averages around with them for days suddenly had a spring in their step—they wanted to get to the plate. Hell, they were juiced up on hitting pills. The relaxation and confidence the players got from the magical pills didn’t work forever, but it did work that day.

When I talked to George Brett about what he had the Royals hitters working on, he talked about relaxation. Pitch selection had been a problem and George believed some of that was caused by hitters being tense—they were so stressed out about hitting that they weren’t seeing the ball out of the pitcher’s hand and that meant they weren’t recognizing pitches. That was leading to a lot of bad swings at bad pitches. If the Royals are relaxing and having fun—and it’s real hard to do that when you’re losing—they’re probably going to play better.

And if not, I know where they can get some hitting pills.

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