One of the more interesting moments from Thursday’s fourth and final loss to the Rays came in the top of the seventh inning. At this point, the Royals were down 3-1 and got a leadoff single from Melky Cabrera.
(Let me join the crowded chorus of those who continue to be amazed at the career renaissance experienced by the Melk Man. A line of .306/.339/.471 currently represents a career high in batting average and slugging, and it’s his second highest OBP since his rookie year in 2006 when he finished at .360. His current wOBA of .354 is the highest of his career. Well done, Dayton Moore… Cheap and productive.)
After Billy Butler flied out to right for the first out of the inning, the Rays went to the bullpen to play the platoon match-up and brought in the left handed JP Howell to face Eric Hosmer. Howell threw two pitches, Hosmer swung at both and on the second pitch, knocked it into the opposite field for a single, putting runners on first and second with just one out.
(Absolutely the right call to bring the lefty in to face Hosmer, who does the majority of his damage against right-handed pitching. He’s batting .300/.356/.508 against right-handers and just .220/.271/.250 versus the lefties. Obviously, in that situation you don’t want to give up a game-tying home run. It likely wasn’t going to happen with Howell on the mound. All 10 of Hosmer’s homers have come against right-handers.)
The Royals have a little something going now in the late innings, and this brings up Jeff Francoeur. The Rays go back to the bullpen for Joel Peralta. Here’s the pivotal point in the game for the Royals.
The Frenchman works the count to 2-2 and on the fifth pitch of the at bat, Cabrera and Hosmer are off and running. Francoeur swings through strike three and Hosmer is thrown out at second to end the inning. Just like that, what looked like a promising inning is over.
According to data from Pitchf/x, Peralta threw pretty much the exact same pitch five consecutive times to The Frenchman. All five pitches were recorded as 91 mph fastballs, yet, he couldn’t so much as get his bat on the ball. Francoeur has earned his reputation as a free-swinger, but his strikeout totals reflect someone who more or less makes contact. He’s whiffed in just over 17% of his at bats this year and makes contact on 80.8% of his swings. (League average contact rate is 80.9% so he’s right there.) It’s his walk rate that we have an issue with, but we knew in that situation, he was up there swinging.
(He took a walk in the first and his walk rate for 2011 is now a career best 6.4%. File that one under “Miracle, Minor.”)
Of Francoeur’s 85 strikeouts this year, here’s how they breakdown according to Bill James’ Baseball IQ:
Swinging out of the strike zone – 49%
So The Frenchman doesn’t get cheated. When he goes down, he goes down swinging. Now, half the time he’ll chase out of the zone, but I would imagine that’s pretty close to league average. With two strikes, you have to expand the zone.
As you can see from Gameday, Peralta pounded the zone. He wasted the first pitch up and away then threw a pretty good pitch low and away for strike one. He missed the same spot for ball three and then attacked with a fastball up and in for the second strike. He finished him off with a pitch that was down the heart of the plate in the lower third of the zone. Francoeur may have gone up there to swing, but he wasn’t undisciplined.
I guess they were decent pitches, but Peralta was living dangerously. After the first strike, the next two where in areas where The Frenchman makes his living. Here are his hitting zones from Inside Edge. Notice that Francoeur second best hitting quadrant is in the exact spot where he swung and missed against Peralta. And Francoeur doesn’t do too shabby against that inside high strike, either. Given this data, along with the location of pitches he saw in that at bat, it’s kind of surprising he didn’t at least put the ball in play.
Swinging in the strike zone – 31%
Finally, The Frenchman doesn’t swing and miss at a “true” strike all that often. And for Francoeur to swing and miss at that pitch – in that location – for a third strike… Well, let’s just say the result of that plate appearance was surprising. Usually, if he’s swinging and missing at the third strike, it’s when the pitcher busts him up and in. He hardly ever misses the pitch that was in the location of the third strike from Peralta. Again, from Baseball IQ, here is the heat map of the location of third strikes against Francoeur.
If you want to strikeout The Frenchman, you attack him high in the zone or get him to chase low and away. You don’t leave a pitch where Peralta left his. Yet, as we’re reminded, this is baseball and execution actually counts. My gut told me it was a dumb play to put the runners in motion with The Frenchman at the plate late in a game, looking at the data, I’m not sure it was as crazy as it seemed at the time. Peralta left a pitch in a great location for Francoeur, and he just failed to execute like he usually does given the location of the pitch. It happens. So while my gut told me it wasn’t the right move to put the runners in motion, after looking at the data, it doesn’t seem like such a bad call after all.
Sadly, it was the last chance for the Royals to avoid the sweep.