Games » Minnesota TwinsSep26
A team of professionals
The Kansas City Star
Fans love dramatic come-from-behind wins, but what I saw in this game might have been even more exciting: a team of professional ballplayers methodically dismantling an opponent.
For example: In the first inning, Melky Cabrera went first to third on a ball hit to left field by Billy Butler. This can be difficult because left is kinda close to third. But the Twins left fielder, Brian Dinkleman (insert your own joke here), was moving laterally, which meant a weaker throw. Melky read the situation correctly and went into third without a play. Then, with runners on first and third and one out, Eric Hosmer stepped to the plate and did what a professional hitter does: He delivered a fly ball to the outfield to score Cabrera.
Second example: Billy Butler doubled in Mitch Maier from first. Mitch was running for Melky, who got his 201st hit of the season and came out of the game. Billy was standing on second when Eric Hosmer stepped to the plate and did what a professional hitter does: He hit the ball to the right side and moved Billy from second to third.
Third example: Salvador Perez stepped to the plate and did what a professional hitter does: He hit a fly ball to the outfield to score Billy from third.
Fourth example: Some teams have been pitching Mike Moustakas up, trying to get Moose to pop up or fly out. On the seventh pitch of his at-bat in sixth, Moose did what a professional hitter does: He made an adjustment, kept the barrel of his bat above the ball until contact and tomahawked a home run into the right-field stands. The ball was hit so hard, fans were getting out of the way.
I could go on (and will shortly), but what was exciting to me was watching young players have professional at-bats in big situations. I know it’s not as dramatic as a walk-off homer, but putting together appropriate plate appearances that allow your team to slowly pull away from your opponent over nine innings will win you a lot more ball games than late-inning heroics.
If they keep this up, the Royals will be very exciting in 2012. And we’ll get to watch a team of professionals.
• Before the Royals went on the road, I told first-base coach Doug Sisson that just two years ago I could spot numerous fundamental mistakes made by the Royals in a ball game. Now I see very few. Sis gave the credit to Ned Yost and said Ned started things off right in spring training.
• Royals starter Felipe Paulino had a very good outing, establishing his fastball early. When Matt Treanor was catching for the Royals, he told me that was the Paulino game plan (at least back then and apparently in this game): Get the hitters’ bat speed up with fastballs in the upper 90s, then drop the off-speed stuff on them.
• Felipe walked two Minnesota batters, who both then scored. That was just about the only flaw in a well-pitched game.
• Felipe’s worst inning came in the fifth after he threw 30 pitches in the fourth. When a pitcher gets up to 30 pitches in an inning, watch out. He’s gassed. I don’t know whether the fourth affected the fifth for Felipe, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it did.
• Now, just to prove I could be wrong, Paulino threw 28 pitches in the fifth. So after two long innings, he should have really been gassed in the sixth, right? Instead, he threw what might have been the best inning of his outing: a 1-2-3 bottom of the sixth after his team gave him a lead in the top half of the inning.
• I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: How a pitcher responds after his team gives him the lead is very important. He needs to throw a shutdown inning and take the other team out of it psychologically. Paulino did this, and the Twins never scored again.
• The other half of that is the offense: When the other team scores, they need to respond with runs for the same reason: to convince the other team that the game’s not over. The Royals did this after the Twins scored in fifth. Then the Royals tacked two more nails in the coffin in the eighth and ninth innings.
• The Royals want Jarrod Dyson to concentrate on keeping the ball out of the air (or at least they did the last time I talked to anyone who knew). In the third inning, you saw why: With his wheels Dice turned a soft grounder to the shortstop into a hit. Put the ball on the ground anywhere left of second base, and Jarrod has a chance.
• Mike Moustakas made a fabulous play in foul territory. Moose climbed over a tarp to catch a ball in the stands. The key on those plays is finding the wall as quickly as possible so you know where you are and what you have to do to make the catch.
(As part of the rookie hazing on the Royals’ final road trip of the season, Moose dressed up as half of the “Ambiguously Gay Duo” from “Saturday Night Live.” That was even better than the clown outfit I was hoping for.)
• Billy Butler stole a base.
• OK, one more time because I don’t believe it either: Billy Butler stole a base. Billy has two stolen bases this season, and each came on the back half of a double steal. That probably shows poor judgment on the part of the catcher. The trail runner gets a worse jump because he has to wait and make sure the lead runner really does go. In that situation, the catcher needs to remind himself that he has Billy on first and if the lead runner (Dyson, in this case) goes, ignore him and go after Billy.
More leftovers from earlier in the year
• If you want to know what Oakland outfielder Michael Taylor actually said after Frenchy threw him out at first base from right field, it was, “That was un(bleeping) necessary.” Frenchy grinned and said, “For sure.”
• Alex Gordon is kind of sick of the word “dominate.”
• Mitch Maier wants to return to the Royals next season because he wants to “be here for the winning.”
• Generally, pitchers do not deliver the ball to home plate as quickly when there is a runner on second base instead of first.
• Alex Gordon says he would like to cut down on his strikeouts next season.
• Mitch says if he’s pinch-hitting, he will go after the first hittable fastball. But if he’s starting and has four at-bats, he might take a pitch to get his timing down, depending on the game situation.
• Mitch also says don’t overthink. Just look for a pitch in the middle of the plate.
• Jeff Francoeur says now that he has a two-year deal, he might get fat. (As usual, he was joking.)
• Trainer Kyle Turner is the Royals’ glove doctor, and every team has one. Kyle repairs and tightens the webbing on gloves. He said that shortstop Alcides Escobar has his glove tightened every 10 days. When Jason Kendall was catching, he had his mitt tightened every four or five days. And Jeff Francoeur likes his loose. (I’m not going to touch that line with a 10-foot pole.)
• I asked Doug Sisson whether the opposition knows how fast the Royals’ runners are and how quickly their own pitchers deliver the ball to home plate. Doesn’t everybody but the fans know who is likely to steal? Doug said yes, and there’s no reason we can’t post the pitcher’s delivery times at the start of every series next season.
• Doug also said that with the elimination of performance-enhancing drugs from baseball, fans may see more “small ball” played.
• When a pitcher gets ahead 0-2, coming inside may be a smart move, depending on the hitter. If he’s a guy who tends to look away and just try to get the ball in play once he’s got two strikes, it’s a good time to jam him. If he’s a hitter who continues to look for a pitch to pull, coming inside can be a mistake.
• Unless you come way in. If a catcher puts his hand under his chin, that can be a signal to the pitcher to come up and in, knock the guy off the plate and clear the outside lane for the next pitch.
Defending the bunt
OK, if this sounds boring, skip it, but a couple of readers asked about defending the bunt when the offense is trying to move a runner from second to third. If the Royals were at home, I would ask third-base coach Eddie Rodriguez if the Royals do anything special. But the Royals are winding up the season in Minnesota, so you’re going to have to live with what I found in a couple of instruction manuals.
Without describing what all nine players are doing on this play, there are basically two ways to defend this. The first is the “standard defense,” and the third baseman is 10-15 feet in front of the bag, facing the pitcher so he can see both the bunter and the runner on second as the ball is delivered. The third basemanthen checks to see whether the runner on second is stealing (he would have to retreat to the bag for the throw). If the runner isn’t going, the third baseman turns his attention to home plate. If the bunt is down, the third baseman then has to decide whether the pitcher or first baseman can field the ball. If so, he retreats to third to cover the base. If not, he has to pick up the ball and throw to first, where the second baseman is covering. If that happens, the pitcher continues on to third to cover the base.
The second way to defend this bunt is for the third baseman to charge and have the shortstop cover third. The runner is supposed to wait to see the “down angle” on the bunted ball, so the shortstop should beat him to the bag. Within these two plays there are a lot of variations. The shortstop can show an open glove and continue to second for a pickoff, or the shortstop can break for third and the second baseman can go to second for a pickoff when the runner extends his lead.
I could write a short novel on this stuff and still not adequately describe all the possible variations in these plays. But if this stuff interests you, I highly recommend Ron Polk’s “Baseball Playbook,” which diagrams all these moves and explains them much better than I ever could. It’s available online.
I got an email from a reader who is into sabermetrics and is skeptical about the effects of defensive pressure. He doubted that major-leaguers would be overly nervous about someone laying down a bunt. He’s right. I doubt the players are nervous, but that’s not what baseball coaches mean when they talk about applying defensive pressure.
What they mean by pressure is forcing the other team to defend a play that requires nine people to move in a synchronized manner (and, yes, outfielders have to move on bunts, too). What the offense is hoping for is a breakdown, when someone fails to go to an assigned spot at the assigned time. The offense “pressures” the defense to make plays.
Think of the simple stolen base. The first baseman has to stay on the bag and not get tangled up with the runner on pickoff throws. When the ball is delivered home, he then has to come off the bag and is now in the same position as a third baseman playing in. The pitcher has to slide step and mix in pickoff throws. The catcher has to receive the ball in a position to throw, and that might cost the pitcher a strike call. The middle infielders have to pinch the bag so one of them can cover. And that opens lanes through the infield.
And this is all happening even if the runner isn’t going.
If the runner takes off, the pitcher has to deliver a catchable ball to home plate, the catcher has to shift his feet on the fly and make an accurate throw, one of the middle infielders has to catch the ball on the run and apply a tag. If any of that breaks down, the runner will be safe.
And that’s defensive pressure.
Steve Jobs would be so pleased
Guess what piece of equipment catcher Salvador Perez needed when he got to the big leagues? An iPad. The Royals then loaded it with all the video Sal would need to analyze opposing hitters. The team also supplied him with “comparables,” which is video of pitchers on other teams that offers comparisons to Royals’ pitchers. If an opponent’s soft-throwing lefty got hitters out a certain way, maybe Bruce Chen could take the same approach.
And that brings me to …
Some fans show up an hour before a ballgame and assume the players got there only slightly earlier. When you get to come into the park early, it’s interesting to see how much work goes on before they ever open the gates.
For a 7:10 game, batting practice starts at 4:50, but players show up much earlier. Batting practice starts at 4:50, meaning the players have dressed, stretched and thrown before BP. And many days include “early” work.
On the first day of a series, there are meetings for hitters and pitchers. The coaches go over the game plan and talk about any changes since the two teams last saw each other, who’s hot and who’s not, how a batter’s approach may have altered, anything that might help the Royals in the series.
The first day of a series at home (on the road the Royals don’t control the field time and have to take what they can get), the Royals do early hitting for anyone who has something extra they want to work on, outfield throwing and base running.
Day two in a series includes work on bunting and base stealing. Doug Sisson calls the base stealers “burners,” and not everyone is included in that session. I asked whether anyone ever got insulted about not being invited to the “burner” session. Sis laughed and confirmed that uninvited players occasionally show up.
When you get to spend time inside the clockwork of a major-league team, it’s amazing how much work goes into preparation for the games. What most fans see is just the tip of the iceberg, which is a lousy metaphor for a summer sport, but it’s 11:40, and I can’t think of another one.