After spending the better part of the past decade lost in the baseball wilderness, the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians have finally found a way out. The two ball clubs sit 2nd and 3rd respectively in the AL Central and they’ve both been playing well of late, posting identical 7-3 records in their past 10 games.
Kansas City has been getting it done on the mound thanks in large part to a rebuilt starting staff that currently ranks 5th in baseball in ERA. New additions like Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields have quickly made Royals fans forget the days when Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar were the best the franchise had to offer. A 17-11 start has only furthered the thought that the Royals might end their playoff drought, closing the door on a nightmare that began all the way back in 1986.
Cleveland is also enjoying a baseball renaissance of sorts, but they are getting the job done in a whole different way. The Indians have used their bats to rebound from last year’s 94-loss disaster, leading the American League with 40 homers already. Their own offseason acquisitions, which included the likes of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, are hitting balls out of the park at such great frequency that fans in the outfield must be alert at all times. New manager Terry Francona has Cleveland playing loose, winning 7 of their last 8.
Over the past season we witnessed a franchise tear down a 15 year streak of incompetence using nothing more than some internal improvement from home-grown players, a brilliant bullpen, and a patchwork starting rotation. The team I’m talking about of course, is none other than the Baltimore Orioles, a franchise who defied expectations and Pythagorean theories en route to 93 wins before bowing out in the ALDS to the New York Yankees.
Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.
One trend I noticed and paid special attention to over the weekend was the use of defensive shifts by the Royals and Yankees. Both teams used a variety of shifts, mostly on left-handed hitters, successfully and frequently. These teams came into the series ranking in the top-5 in baseball in defensive shifts, using the tactic over 50 times apiece, nearly 100 shifts less the Rays. I was able to capture a few of the defensive setups and I want to discuss the variety of factors that go into playing shifts.
Kansas City Royals
The Royals frequently shifted on the Yankee lefties all series long. More than not they used the standard overshift, which looks something like this, which was used on Mark Teixeira:
The Royals played an overshift on Mark Teixeira every time he came to the plate. Teixeira was unfazed by the shift, although he had little success against it, drawing a walk and flying out a couple of times. The Royals’ defense isn’t shifted as severely as some teams shift Teixeira, (Tampa Bay would be one, playing their 2nd baseman about 20 feet deeper) but they place a fielder, in this case 2nd baseman Chris Getz, right in the hole and the shortstop plays up the middle. 3rd baseman Mike Moustakas was typically playing about 25-30 feet off the line against the lefty sluggers, and as you can see the base isn’t even in the picture.
Here’s another look at the shift they used against Nick Swisher, which was also somewhat effective:
The shift worked on Swisher once, taking away a ground ball single into hole on the right side of the infield. Swisher also hit a mammoth solo homerun in the game, so its evident that the shift didn’t bother him too much.
The shift the Royals used on Robinson Cano was even more drastic.
Kansas City played him very deep all around the infield, and pulled all of their fielders about 8-12 steps right. Cano has been a little more pull happy this season and defenses are catching on. The Royals took away a couple hits from Cano over the course of the series with the shift, but on Sunday he was able to get a fat pitch from Luke Hochevar and deposit it into the seats.
Hochevar’s poor performance, allowing 7 runs in less than 3 innings again proves that one of the most important aspects to the shift is a quality pitcher. Without one it just doesn’t work, just like on Sunday in Kansas City.
New York Yankees
The Yankees used the shift as well during this series, although not as much as Kansas City. The Yankees have used defensive shifts much more this season, ranking in the top-5 after finishing around the middle of the league last year. They have even begun to use the shift on right handed hitters like they did against doubles machine Billy Butler on Sunday.
The struggling Eric Hosmer also saw a form of a shift from the Yankees defense. When he came up to the plate the Yankees shaded him to pull the ball left. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter each moved about 5-10 feet left, giving Hosmer the 3rd base line and taking away more up the middle. Cano and Teixeira played fairly standard on the right side, and they Yankees were able to continue Hosmer’s frustrating season. Here’s an example of the shade the Yankees played:
Hosmer appears to be uncomfortable at the plate right now, so it was tough to tell if his struggles were due to a mechanical problem, or if the scouting report has caught up to his talent. The Royals should still continue to play Hosmer every day and let him work through his struggles in order to regain his .300 hitting ability.
Teams across the league seem to be catching on to what Tampa Bay has been doing for years. Its not just the little guys either. The most expensive baseball franchise, the Yankees, are also seeing the value in defensive positioning and is taking advantage of the new information available. It should also be a positive sign in Kansas City that the front office is using the information available and is actively trying to get the Royals back to the playoffs. It was interesting to watch in person how the defenses were moving and adjusting based on scouting reports, and its just another sign of the information age in baseball.
I will be attending the next two Yankees-Royals games at Kauffman Stadium, and could not be more excited to be doing so. While the pitching match-ups are nothing spectacular, Kuroda-Paulino and Hughes-Hochevar, the games should be exciting anyway. Here’s a quick look at what to expect:
Derek Jeter is a man on fire.
Jeter, at age 37, leads the American League in batting average at .404, hits, on-base percentage, and total bases. He also has 5 homers after hitting a bomb to deep left-center last night, 1 short of last year’s total. He hasn’t hit the ball with this much authority since 2009, when he finished 3rd in the MVP vote for hitting .334 with 18 homers and 30 steals. If Jeter sustains this level of production, he will be a threat to finally win a (much-deserved) MVP award.
He has also destroyed Royals pitching during the first 2 games of the series, going 6-10 with a homer 2 RBI and 4 runs scored. Jeter also loves hitting in Kauffman, batting .321/.374/.443 in 62 career games, so look for the Captain to carry his hot streak through the weekend.
Can Eric Hosmer get things turned around quickly?
Hosmer has been mired in a major sophomore slump this year, producing a meek .198/.270/.396 line. The early power numbers have been solid however, as Hosmer has mashed 5 homers while knocking in 15. Hosmer hit a very solid .293 a year ago, and the sooner he brings his average up the better for Kansas City. Hosmer is counted on to be the big bat right after on-base machine Billy Butler, and so far he has been a bit underwhelming. He’s had 3 hits so far in the series, including his first triple of the year, so maybe as the weather warms up, so will Hosmer.
How many homers will be hit on Sunday?
Batters have absolutely been lighting Phil Hughes up in the early going this season. He’s allowing 1 homerun every 3 innings, and he has only made it to the 5th inning in one of his 5 starts. With Andy Pettitte due to return to the majors over the next couple of weeks, this may be one of Hughes’ last chances to stay in the rotation. An ERA above 7 and a WHIP above 1.6 just won’t cut it in the big leagues. The only saving grace for Phil is that Kansas City hasn’t hit too many long balls, ranking 11th in the American League with only 21 homers hit. Luke Hochevar hasn’t been great this season either. His ERA is over 7.00 as well, but he has yet to allow a homer. His issue has been command. Hochevar is either leaving too many hittable pitches over the plate, or walking batters. And with the Yankees once again leading baseball in homeruns hit, with 40 already, so expect that trend to continue as well. Even so, if you’re sitting in the outfield be ready, because Hughes and Hochevar will probably allow at least 1 gopher ball on Sunday.
Can David Robertson successfully take over the closer role?
In a bit of good news for fans everywhere yesterday, The Great Mariano announced that he will be back to pitch again in 2013. But for the rest of 2012, the Yankees will be without Rivera, and are turning to David Robertson to close out ballgames. Robertson threw 1 inning last night, striking out the side, to seal the Yankees 6-2 win. It wasn’t a save situation due to CC Sabathia’s excellent 8 inning start, but it was reassuring to see that Robertson didn’t change his approach in any way. The right-hander has excellent stuff, and gets more extension on his release than any other pitcher in baseball, which allows him to pile up strikeouts. His numbers this year are Mariano-like, maybe better so far. In 12 innings he’s yet to allow a run, piled up 21 strikeouts, while only allowing 7 hits and 3 walks. So far, so good if you’re a Yankee fan.