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JUDGING THE ROYALS Chen plus pen equals Royals win

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at 11:34 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 24, 2013, at 11:34 a.m.

The Baltimore Orioles lead the American League in home runs. After the game I asked Ned Yost if this was the kind of matchup that favored Bruce Chen and he said: "When he’s on his game." Here’s what we were talking about:

To hit home runs you generally have to get the bat head out early and pull the ball (although there are exceptions). So a guy like Bruce Chen, who knows how to change speeds, can frustrate hitters who are starting their swings early. Most pitchers I’ve talked to would rather face a power hitter with a runner in scoring position than a guy who’s just trying to make contact—the power hitter has more holes in his swing. The contact guy isn’t trying to do as much and is harder to fool.

So when Bruce is on his game—hitting spots, changing speeds, working in and out and up and down, throwing one fastball at 87 and the next one at 83—he can frustrate a power-hitting lineup. Tuesday night, Bruce was on his game: six innings pitched, three hits, one run and no walks.

The Royals missed several chances to break the game open on offense, so it’s good that the bullpen pitched as well as it did. Kelvin Herrera followed Chen and threw his first pitch at 100 miles an hour. In the clubhouse after the game I told catcher George Kottaras that pitched must have looked 120 after seeing Bruce for six innings. George said bringing in Kelvin after Bruce was: "Perfect."

This time out, Herrera was mixing his curve in with his change and fastball—three pitches instead of two. Kottaras said mixing in the curve makes the other two pitches better. If Herrera throws fastballs only, hitters sit dead red and crank up their bat speed. Add the change and hitters can look hard or soft, but not both. Throw in the curve and it doesn’t have to be a great curve to make the other pitches better. If a guy is looking for 100 miles an hour, even an average curve will lock him up.

But when pinch-hitter Henry Urrutia came to the plate Kottaras and Herrera threw nothing but heat; 100, 99, 100. I asked if that was because Urrutia was coming in off the bench and George said yeah, but it was also because Urrutia had taken four balls to the opposite field the night before: George figured he’d make Urrutia get the bat head out in time to catch up with Kelvin’s best pitch. Urrutia couldn’t do it and struck out to end the seventh.

Salvador Perez replaced Kottaras behind the plate in the top of the eighth because Ned Yost wanted to use Aaron Crow and Greg Holland to finish out the game and both are difficult to catch. Salvy’s pitch-blocking abilities came in handy before the night was through. Crow got through the eighth OK and then Holland came on to finish things off in the ninth.

Hollie made things interesting.

With the score 3-1 Greg gave up a single to Nick Markakis and a triple to Adam Jones: nobody out, tying run on third and Chris Davis at the plate. Yost brought the infield in and that meant even a routine grounder could sneak through the drawn-in infield; but you gotta bring them in to cut the run down at the plate. At that point you hope for a ball right at someone or a strikeout. Holland got the strikeout by throwing a slider in the dirt—blocked by Perez—and that made what happened next possible.

With one down J.J. Hardy came to the plate and Holland figured to pitch him tough (trying to make perfect pitches) and if he walked him he walked him. Walking Hardy wouldn’t be that bad because it would set up a double play and allow the Royals to play the middle of their infield back. Fortunately for the Royals, Holland did make perfect pitches: a slider for a called strike and a 99 MPH fastball for a swinging strike. That meant Hardy had to swing at anything close and that produced a groundball to Mike Moustakas for the second out the ninth. With the tying run still on third base, the infield could then move back and Urrutia grounded out softly to Eric Hosmer to end the game.

Low scoring, wild ending and a home team win. Monday night’s game was a clunker, Tuesday night’s game is why you take the trouble to go to the ballpark.

Royals beat the Orioles, 3-2.

Game notes

• Alcides Escobar put four balls in play; all low, three to the right side of second base. I’m under the impression that this is what they want to see out Esky—keep the ball out of the air and take advantage of holes on the right side of the infield.

• That’s what Eric Hosmer did in the first inning: with Alex Gordon on first base, Hosmer shot the ball through the hole created by holding the runner on first. Hitters who learn to punch the ball that direction can grab some cheap hits.

• If you want to be the first person in your section to know when a ball is leaving the yard, watch the outfielder. Manny Machado hit a ball 391 feet and Alex Gordon started after it, then began to jog. When an outfielder slows down and starts jogging he’s either ready to make the catch (in that case his glove will come up) or he’ll be staring into the crowd (in that case the ball is gone).

• I don’t figure on changing any Chris Getz-hater’s minds, but if you’re neutral about him and wonder why other ballplayers think more of his game than some fans, Tuesday night was a good example: he singled, drove in a run, advanced into scoring position on a heads-up base running play, walked, stole two bases, laid down a sacrifice bunt and played clean defense. Some guys are in the big leagues because they do one big thing well, some guys survive by doing a lot of little things that can add up to a big thing.

• Mike Moustakas hit a couple balls down the right field line, but the Orioles had right fielder Nick Markakis off the line—that made those balls doubles. When that happens—a ball is hit to the pull side into an unprotected part of the field—it’s usually because the pitcher hung an off-speed pitch. In this case it was a changeup and a slider. Blame the pitch, not the positioning.

• With Eric Hosmer at the plate, late time was granted and pitchers don’t like that because it disrupts their rhythm. If you see an umpire grant late time and then point at the catcher, the umpire is letting the pitcher know his guy called time, not the hitter. You don’t want a pitcher retaliating against a hitter for something he didn’t do.

Who’s hot?

Recently a front office guy pointed out that the numbers are always behind what’s currently happening on a baseball field. That’s because it takes a while for the latest numbers to register and move the needle on the overall numbers. For instance: coming into Monday night’s game Mike Moustakas was hitting .221 overall, but .286 over his last dozen games. If a guy has bad overall numbers but is hot right now, managers and players want to know that.

When preparing to face another team, the pitcher, catcher and anybody else involved will look at the recent past. I’ve heard of some guys looking at the last 10 games, others guys zero in on the past week, but they all want to know the same thing: what’s the hitter been doing lately? Pitchers and catcher will also take a close look at the last three games: what’s the hitter been doing right before he showed up for this series? What did the guy do in the last series? What did the guy do last night?

If he got a 2-0 change with runners in scoring position; how did he react? If he swung and missed, will he be looking for the same pitch tonight? Will he make an adjustment? If the guy’s been getting blown up inside with fastballs, will he open his front foot to try to get to that pitch? Does that mean he can then be thrown soft away?

Pitchers will also look for a similar pitcher and see how that guy handled the same team: what worked? What didn’t? Any last-minute information is also helpful: if a guy has a tender wrist, he may be slow on the fastball. I had a former big-league catcher tell me that if a visiting clubhouse attendant told him a player was hung over and sleeping one off; guess what? That guy might be a fastball hitter, but he’s getting some fastballs that night.

I asked Luke Hochevar how he worked and he had a slightly different version: he looks at a hitter’s overall year and writes a report about the hitter’s strengths and weaknesses. Hoch also wanted to know what breaking pitch the guy handled well and what breaking pitch gave him trouble. Luke then zeroed in on the hitter’s last 50 at-bats: did anything show up there? If this guy was crushing the ball in and the league started pitching him away, has he made that adjustment? Is he now crushing the ball away and pitchers can now go back inside? (When they talk about a game of adjustments, this is what they mean.) Say the Twins were coming to town, then Luke would watch the last five games the Twins had against a similar pitcher; a right-hander who threw similar pitches to Luke’s stuff.

No matter how they go about it, the motive is the same: pitchers and catchers are trying to get an accurate picture of what the hitters are doing right now, tonight. Here are some numbers to think about. What follows is the Royals lineup and the player’s batting averages coming into Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Orioles:

Alex Gordon: .277

Eric Hosmer: .285

Billy Butler: .274

Salvador Perez: .282

Lorenzo Cain: .258

Mike Moustakas: .221

David Lough: .291

Miguel Tejada: .280

Alcides Escobar: .242

Now here’s what they did in the previous series against Detroit:

Alex Gordon: 1-11

Eric Hosmer: 3-11

Billy Butler: 4-11

Salvador Perez: 2-9

Lorenzo Cain: 3-12

Mike Moustakas: 4-10

David Lough: 1-5

Miguel Tejada: 1-3

Alcides Escobar: 1-11

Mike Moustakas had the lowest overall batting average, but based on the Detroit series, he was coming into the Baltimore series hot. (Unless his four hits were a collection broken-bat flares and slow rollers. Pitchers and catchers need to know that too.) Basing your pitching approach on what a guy did over his last three games is basing it on an incredibly small sample size, but you care about an incredibly small sample size; what he’s going to do over the next three games. If a guy had six punch-outs or four line-outs in ten at-bats, that also makes a difference—because you don’t just want to know what the guy is doing over a season, you want to know what a guy is doing when you’re facing him.

So we’ve looked at the overall numbers and the numbers from the last series: how about their career numbers against Monday night’s starting pitcher, Scott Feldman?

Alex Gordon: 6-15/.400

Eric Hosmer: 1-7/.143

Billy Butler: 5-24/.200

Salvador Perez: 1-5/.200

Lorenzo Cain: 4-7/.571

Mike Moustakas: 0-8/.000

David Lough: 0-0/.000

Miguel Tejada: 4-14/.286

Alcides Escobar: 1-10/.100

We could also look at left-handed/right-handed splits, what they’ve hit at home versus the road, what they’ve done against the Orioles in their careers and what they’ve done against the Orioles in 2013. I’m sure there are other numbers (day/night?) we could get into. Bottom line: determining who’s hot isn’t as easy as looking at the scoreboard—there are numbers within numbers. But next time you see a pitcher work around a guy hitting .270 to get to a guy hitting .300, there might be a good reason for doing so.

It all depends on who’s hot—right now.

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