Last Wednesday was the 2012 Royals Awards Luncheon, so I drove out to the Overland Park Convention Center to say hello to a few team members and front office people. Here are some of the conversations:
Ned Yost: As Ned answered Star columnist Sam Mellinger’s questions, he also answered mine: How does managing change when the team shifts from developing players to winning?
Yost took a lot of heat for sticking with Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas through their offensive struggles. Ned thought it was the right thing to do. The Royals weren’t going to the playoffs, and Moose facing a tough left-hander now might prepare him for a more important at-bat later.
Ned said we’d probably see him pinch hit or pinch run more often in 2012. The Royals are shifting from developing young players for the future, to trying to win right now. I asked how that changed what he wanted from his bench. He said that’s why it was so important to sign Yuniesky Betancourt; it gives him some options.
I guess a manager can’t pinch hit for his shortstop if he doesn’t have another one on the bench. Russ Morman, Triple-A hitting coach for the San Francisco Giants, Blue Springs resident and someone who is willing to take my calls, said the same thing: To be a true utility infielder, you have to be able to handle short. Otherwise, the manager is limited in his decision-making, and your starting shortstop gets worn out.
I told Ned I hoped to talk more strategy with him this summer. If you ask a manager in a press conference why he went to a particular reliever or decided to pinch hit, he might interpret that as criticism, especially if the move didn’t work out. In my case (and I hope yours), I actually want to know. I assume Ned knows more than I do and I’d like to know what he knows. There’s always a reason a manager makes a move, and much of the time it’s based on information the general public doesn’t have.
Ned said he’d be willing to try that, but understanding why he did something and making me understand why he did something are two different things. If Ned thinks I really want to know, not score points off him by playing Monday-Morning Quarterback, he’ll be more patient and willing to run through the factors that went in to his decisions.
If this works out, we all benefit.
Alex Gordon: I’ve said this before (when has that ever stopped me?), but I think Alex Gordon has been misunderstood by much of the public, including me. When someone is really good, but quiet, we tend to project our feelings onto them: He must be arrogant or aloof. Once I got to know Alex, nothing was further from the truth. Watch the video where he tries to teach me to climb the wall and you’ll see what I mean. (Go to the home page and click on the “All Video” section.)
I asked how his winter workouts were going, and we started talking about Kevin Seitzer. Gordon is working with him again this winter, so I asked if they were working on something new or just trying to maintain his swing from last year. Turns out it’s mostly maintaining. Kevin asks his hitters to do something difficult: Drive the knob of the bat forward without moving the front shoulder.
Try it, you’ll see. It does not come naturally.
I told Alex I’d been working on it and every time I thought I had it, I’d show Kevin. He’d just shake his head and say, “Nope, that’s not it.” Gordon laughed and said he can’t tell when he’s doing it right either, but Seitzer tells him he is now. That was the big change in his 2011 approach. (Well, that and having an approach. Before 2011, Gordon said he was just up there hacking — it had always worked before. Now he has a definite approach to hitting: Trying to get the right pitch for his swing.)
Picture this: You’re looking down at a baseball field from directly above. When the pitcher throws the ball to home plate, imagine its line of travel. Now imagine the hitter swinging his bat and the bat head’s line of travel.
Before last season, Gordon’s bat would often go outside the ball’s line of travel (the side closer to left field) and come back to the ball. That’s what hitters mean when they say they “came around the baseball.” Now Gordon’s bat head often stays inside the ball’s line of travel. That’s what hitters mean when they say they “stayed inside the baseball.” (And if I described this incorrectly, I’m sure Kevin will let me know.)
What this means in practical terms is Alex can now stay “inside” a pitch on the inner half and hit a line drive up the middle. In the old days, he’d come “around” the baseball and hit a 4-3 grounder. (And if I described this incorrectly I’m sure Kevin will let me know.)
Mainly, Gordon is now laying off that inside pitch. In the old days he’d get something inside, “turn and burn” and try to crush the ball to right field. Now he’s waiting for something out over the plate that he can drive up the middle or to left and taking a more relaxed swing. Alex talked about muscling up and how tight a hitter gets when he tries to do that. Seitzer has advised him to swing at about 50 percent (I think he’d tell me to try for a bit more; I don’t have Gordon’s muscles…hell, I don’t have anybody’s muscles.) Game-time adrenaline will turn Gordon’s 50 percent into something much more.
All of which proves that Seitzer is the greatest hitting coach in the history of baseball. (I wonder if Kevin will think that description is OK.) Anyway, Gordon is now hitting several times a week with Kevin and invited me to watch a workout. More on that soon.
George Brett: “So you’re an expert on baseball now?”
“The bar isn’t set very high to be considered an expert in the media.”
George and I have known each other since the early 80s, and he never passes up the opportunity to ridicule my supposed expertise. That’s OK, I’m just repeating the stuff he told me.
Johnny Giavotella: Johnny had hip surgery in October and said he’s fully recovered. He’s been working on his defense, specifically his hands. If a player holds his hands too close to his body when the ball arrives, they have no give. There’s no place for them to go because they’re already back. You can see the same thing in the NFL when a receiver lets the ball get in on him and it bounces off his shoulder pads. Gio wants to get his hand farther out so he can cushion the ball as he funnels it toward his body.
He also said staying loose is a problem. Johnny’s muscular and can get too tight to play fluidly. (Wouldn’t know, never had the problem.) Game-time adrenaline doesn’t help. I told him what Chris Getz told me about the move to short: Everything was fine during infield practice, but during the game, everything speeds up and it’s hard to stay relaxed and fluid. Johnny agreed.
The only cure is game-time repetitions, and those are hard to come by. As far as Gio knows, the competition for second base is wide open and will be decided during spring training.
Eric Hosmer: It’s easy to forget how big Hos is: I did. I walked up to shake hands and was looking up the entire time. (Or maybe I’m shrinking, not sure which.) Eric was getting an award at lunch and another one in the afternoon. I asked, “How are you going to keep from becoming a –-? (Let’s say I said jerk.) You’re getting too much adulation.”
Hosmer laughed and pointed at Mitch Maier and said, “I’ll just keep hanging out with him.”
Dean Taylor: Dean is the assistant GM and has always made time to stop and chat before games. He said it was great to see how excited fans were about the 2012 Royals, but now the pressure was on to actually go out and win.
Couldn’t have said it better myself.