Friday, April 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Game: April 3rd.

(Thoughts on the Game(tm) is an unregistered trademark of Rany on the Royals. Any use of the term "Thoughts on the Game" without my express written consent will upset me greatly. There may even be tears.)

Ahem.

Three and oh. Five runs allowed in 29 innings, against one of the most feared offenses in baseball. Mark Grudzielanek is third in the league in batting average, Alex Gordon is tied for the league lead in homers, Joakim Soria is tied for the league lead in saves.

And Trey Hillman has won the first three games of his managing career. Hillman is the 15th full-time manager in the franchise's history, and even counting the interim guys, only two other Royals managers won their first three games. One of them was Whitey Herzog. The other manager actually won his first four games in a Royals uniform, a mark Hillman will try to match Friday night in Minnesota.

The other manager was Buddy Bell. Let's be excited, my friends, but not too excited.

- I caught about half of Greinke's outing, and he really seemed to be fighting it some. He threw a fair amount of off-speed stuff, which I liked, but the Tigers adjusted well to it, perhaps because had just spent the previous day being embarrassed by the pedestrian velocity of Brian Bannister. He pitched in and out of trouble all day - he worked out of the stretch against 14 of the 29 batters he faced, which is a ton when you consider that he faced a hitter leading off an inning seven times. He had a rare miscue on a sharp comebacker off the bat of Clete Thomas in the fifth, as the ball tipped off his glove and all hands were safe (a pure reaction play, not an error), which turned a potential inning-ending double play into first-and-second, one out. He got away with a couple hanging breaking balls, including one in the third that a younger Gary Sheffield probably would have parked in the seats instead of Teahen's glove. And for all that...he gave up one run in seven innings.

- It easily could have been no runs in six innings. I was surprised to see Greinke take the mound in the seventh; he had only thrown 88 pitches to that point, but given that he was working from the stretch all game, he had more wear on his arm than his pitch count would suggest, and it was the first start of the season, and it was a cold day. He gave up the homer to Inge, then got out of the inning when Grudzielanek climbed the latter to snag Polanco's liner - it was pretty obvious he was gassed. I don't want to make too much of this; the notion that we would question a manager for letting his starter throw 99 pitches would have been laughable even five years ago. But I think it's something to file away for later in the season, to see whether Hillman brought one of the bad ideas back with him from Japan.

- I thought Gordon would be the guy to break Balboni's record, but I didn't think it would be this year. His bomb today was even more impressive than on Monday, an opposite-field shot that cleared the wall to the centerfield side of left-center; I believe the measurement was 410 feet. His out in the 7th may have been most impressive of all; Gordon flicked a pitch to left field that looked like a can of corn off the bat, and Marcus Thames banged his head off the fence (luckily catching the padded portion) while making the catch. Apparently the wind was blowing out, but hey, it's nice to have a player who hits the ball high enough and far enough to take advantage of a tailwind. Just thirty-five more, Alex.

- On any list of the most important statistics to keep an eye on this season, you'd have to include "the number of Mark Teahen homers." If the Royals can get 2006 production from Teahen, they'll have one of the better #6 hitters in all of baseball. In three games, he's got a homer and a triple. The labrum tear that ended his 2006 may well have impacted his power last year, and now he's 18 months out of surgery.

- Hillman sent just one runner in motion today, and it led to a key insurance run. Gathright challenged Ivan Rodriguez, and despite a perfect throw made it just in under the tag. Would he have been safe a year ago? For all his speed, Gathright has had massive trouble with his basestealing technique in a Royals uniform; before today he had 19 steals and 14 caught stealings as a Royal. As a member of the Devil Rays, he stole 38 bags and was caught just 9 times. But this season, he stole 10 or 11 bases in spring training without getting caught once. One pitch after his steal, Guillen ripped a single to left. Gathright would have scored anyway on Butler's single, but you still have to be impressed with the sequence. Bob McClure is everyone's favorite coach, but we need to start sharing some of that love with Rusty Kuntz. Man, that's an awkward sentence.

- Soria has pitched in all three games, and while I strongly support the idea of using your best pitchers as often as is reasonable, in two of those games he protected a four-run lead and a three-run lead, and now he's almost certainly unavailable Friday night. With John Bale going the Royals are unlikely to get much use out of their lefty specialists, which means that Yasuhiko Yabuta will almost certainly be needed. That's fine, but I'd prefer it if a guy making his major league debut wasn't forced to do so in a tight game. Don't be surprised if Leo Nunez gets called upon if there's a save situation. It seems there is no cure for the thinking that a manager must use his closer to protect a ninth-inning lead, no matter how large. The best medicine is simply to have such a good bullpen that there's little dropoff when you send your #2 or #3 reliever out there in a tight spot.

- I didn't see Ramon Ramirez pitch, and he did give up a single (what was Sheffield thinking?) and a double. But the other two hitters he faced struck out. Remember, Ramirez and Nunez are supposed to be the last two guys in the bullpen. Remind me again: why did we spend $8 million on Ron Mahay? I know, I know - not every team is going to be as righty-heavy as the Tigers are. Credit to Hillman for doing the obvious: 29 innings against the Tigers, and every one of them was thrown by a right-handed pitcher. Everyone knows the Tigers' Achilles heel is their bullpen, but the heavy lean in their lineup is going to be a big problem for them against teams that can pump out power arms from the right side. The way the Royals are playing, this sort of tactical maneuvering by Hillman could well decide the pennant race between these two teams.

Is that being too excited? Well then, call me a hypocrite. Just remember to call the Royals a first-place team.

15 comments:

Minda said...

"Bob McClure is everyone's favorite coach, but we need to start sharing some of that love with Rusty Kuntz. Man, that's an awkward sentence."
...had me laughing so hard I have still not entirely regained a regular breathing pattern or the ability to see straight.

I agree that Greinke looked...tested. His line is just fine, I suppose, but to watch him today it looked a lot like he was struggling with, rather than controlling, Detroit's lineup. Which is totally understandable, I suppose, since they are the best lineup ever.

Rob said...

Love reading your blog. I'm a Red Sox fan in Kansas, moved here from the Boston area not quite a year ago. So most of my friends out here are Royals fans, and your blog is entertaining and keeps me informed. So thanks and congrats on a great start to the year!!

hazeleyes180 said...

Love your blog. I'm a transplant from St. Louis, but I'm slowly turning blue. It's probably due to being swept up by the excitement that fans like you display for its beloved team. Here's hoping for a surprise season from the Royals!

Nathan said...

At the end of spring training, I had the Royals pegged for 86-76 this year. Now, I have to bump that to 88-74, so no, I don't think the idea of a pennant race is too far-fetched. A lot of people assume that it's impossible to improve so much from year to year, but let's bear in mind that a) this was a 74 win team last year by pythagorian record, not a 69-win team, and b) not one run scored or allowed last year carries over to this year. It's all about the roster, and our roster isn't bad. A lot hinges on Teahen's power production, as well as the two question marks at the end of the rotation. It'll be interesting to see how Bale and Tomko perform over the next few weeks. If they're league average or better, this season is going to be exciting.

Carl Willingham said...

One negative thought on the series, I believe Butler was having Shawon Dunston flashback's (is he old enough to have them)? I know Billy is a talent but he swung at the first pitch almost every AB this series and got himself out on several bad balls. Again, aggresive is okay but at least hit good hitter pitches early in the count. Aside from that the series was a dream. Oh yeah, I also have not heard any thoughts on Hillman letting Pena hit late in close games. I hope he is willing to pinch hit from time to time and let Callaspo play and inning at short. I fear that the lucky bloop single for the go ahead run has stamped Pena as a "clutch" guy in Hillmans mind. I hope I'm wrong but managers, even good ones, sometimes worry too much about players feelings and not enough about winning. Go Royals.

Andy said...

I saw a picture of Gordon on that Royals calendar thing yesterday, and my goodness does he have absolutely massive forearms. You can normally tell alot about how much power a hitter can generate by the size of their forearms, and it's no surprise looking at his that he hits the ball so far...

Gary said...

First off, Go Royals! However, I still see a disturbing lack of plate discipline. Gordon watching called third strikes and Pena even THINKING of swinging (after Bonderman gave up a dinger, a sharp grounder, a four-pitch walk and a first pitch ball) is baffling to me.

I feel strongly both ways on the pitching. Three excellent starts, and I was glad Hillman sent Grienke back out, but while I disagree with the whole concept of a "closer", spending Soria with a 3 or 4 run lead was an odd decision.

I'm a Hillman fan so far. but I hope thse kids quickly learn that there's more to hitting than "hit the ball hard".

Dan Holden said...

I didn't see Greinke pitch, but watching it on Gameday I was concerned about the lack of strikeouts. His velocity seemed good, but I'm not sure he was locating his pitches the way he wanted too.

Gordon's strikeouts were just a case of taking plate discipline too far (to the next leve?). He just needs to protect the plate when he is down in the count. Foul off a few instead of take a few.

Alex said...

Rany - I think the one of the more impressive things about your blog is how you’ve managed to turn someone from St. Louis and someone from Boston into Royals fans. I know, the guy from Boston never said he was turning into a Royals fan, but clearly he is (I don’t blame him). Bravo Rany, bravo.

Also, I sent a link to your blog to my friend from work who is a Cincinnati Reds fan and now he’s a Brian Bannister fan (Yesterday I saw him reading all of the articles that you had linked about Bannister), so that counts for something, right?

C said...

Rany-
If you ever stop writing this blog, I'm going to find someone to hurt you. :)

Keep it up...I beg you.

Anonymous said...

On Mark Teahen's power: there are two examples of hitters with labrum injuries that I can think of off the top of my head that we can look to for a frame of reference. The first is Shawn Green, who would represent the bad news. After being a potent power hitter for years, his power steadily declined after a labrum tear; he never again slugged over .477. He was 30 years old at the time of his tear, which was considered a serious tear.

Troy Glaus, the good news, is probably a better comparison (notwithstanding that he's a completely different kind of player than Teahen). He was 27 when his labrum "frayed," like Teahen's, and he bounced right back to old power hitting self for at least two seasons after, smacking 37 and 38 homers and slugging well above .500 both seasons.

Teahen, obviously, isn't a pure power hitter like these guys, but since the topic is power, I thought I'd bring them up. Glaus didn't experience a lag season, as we're hoping Teahen did, but that could simply be because Glaus is bigger and beefier. For a thinner guy, strength might take a little longer to recover.

Ryan said...

I don't think taking called strikes is "a lack of plate discipline." Constantly chasing bad pitches out of the strike zone is bad discipline. Gordon worked all spring on not going after balls. He's a young player and might not get some calls that he will later on. It's better that he lay off them now and adjust to trying to fight off some borderline strikes then trying to learn to take a pitch.

I think if you're trying to set a tone for the team at the beginning of the season, i.e. winning, bringing Soria out to close those first three games isn't a bad move. As Hillman gets to know his bullpen better, and the team gets more confident, I can see him being more selective with Soria. There's nothing wrong with wanting to slam the door shut on the Tigers in the first series in Detroit.

Also, if Greinke can struggle and still hold the Tigers to one run, then I can't wait for the days when he doesn't struggle. Pitchers aren't always going to have their best stuff. It's a good sign that Greinke worked from the stretch a lot and limited the damage.

Matt said...

I am a Royals fan who has been displaced to the west coast (Portland, OR) for many years. It's incredibly nice to finally have a reason to be excited and optimistic.

A couple thoughts: 1. Gordon's home run yesterday was very impressive, and I think bodes quite well. I, also, am encouraged rather than upset by his being willing to take close pitches with 2 strikes. That's discipline settling out. We know he has a great batting eye - soon the umpires will too.

2. I agree that Greinke struggled some. But wow - that he could struggle like that against such a great lineup and come out on top says something.

3. I have been generally impressed with Hillman, but WTF was he thinking putting Soria in yesterday? Not only did he use his best reliever to protect a 3 run lead for an inning, it was against the 7-8-9 hitters. I understand - he's a new manager and that decision is "safe." I sure hope that he gets the confidence to use his generally good judgment ("OBP is a no brainer") with his bullpen too.

kew said...

Yeah, everybody seems concerned that Greinke didn't just blow away the Tiger lineup. To me he looked like he wasn't really in the groove and wasn't locating his pitches the way he wanted. But he battled. In other words, he was pitching, not just throwing. And he gave his team a chance to win. Bannister's performance a day earlier set the bar pretty high, but they're not all going to be like that. Sometimes you work with what you have that day. I thought Greinke's performance showed maturity, and that's a good thing.

Dave Hogg said...

Gordon's homer was one of those shots where, if you'd never heard of the guy or seen him before, you'd immediately know he's got big power. There aren't a lot of homers hit over the old "Comerica National Park" fence in left-center, especially not the opposite way.