You can’t win them all.
As much as you’d like to, that’s just not going to happen. Although sometimes, one team may dominate the other to such a dramatic extent that it may seem like it, odds say it’s unlikely. That was the position the Royals found themselves in on Sunday afternoon against the Rays. They were going not only for a series sweep, they were going for a season sweep. The Rays aren’t an especially good team, but the Royals are, which made this possible in the first place. Those odds, though… They can be difficult to scrape by.
The Royals found themselves in a spot on Sunday where they needed length from their starter, Danny Duffy. Length and Duffy are rarely synonymous, and this again proved problematic as he needed 99 pitches to get through just five innings. As usual, it was the foul balls that added to his pitch count. Of his 99 pitches, 70 of them were strikes. Of those 70, a whopping 22 pitches were fouled.
According to Baseball Savant, batters foul off 19 percent of all of Duffy’s pitches. Among starters, that’s the 17th highest foul ball rate. Ahead of Duffy on the list are successful starters such as Jacob DeGrom, Max Scherzer, and Lance Lynn. Oh, and Johnny Cueto. An abundance of fouls doesn’t act as a limit on success. But for Duffy, the foul balls often preclude him pitching deep into games. It wasn’t control that cut his start short after five innings. He threw only 29 called balls on Sunday. It was the foul balls.
It should also be noted that Duffy was a supreme strike throwing machine in his start. He collected 18 swings and misses while striking out six. This was a departure for him. He’s seen his strikeout rate tumble to a career-low 5.7 SO/9 and has generated a swinging strike in just 7.2 percent of his strikes thrown. His swinging strike rate is well below league average of 9.8 percent.
Another way to frame it, in a game where strikeouts are on the increase, 20.2 percent of all plate appearances end with one. For Duffy, he’s striking out just 14.6 percent of all batters faced. His six whiffs were just one off his season high. And in 21 starts in 2015, it was just the third time he has struck out that many batters.
Again, it was the early accumulation of pitches that cut his start short. It was the fourth time in his last five starts that he failed to complete six innings. Since his eight inning outing against the White Sox on July 19, Duffy has averaged just five and a half innings per start. Sure, the Royals bullpen is a weapon, but to rely on it to that extent is a bit much.
The other story to come from the game on Sunday was the bizarre turn of events in the eighth inning when the Royals were threatening to tie the game. With KC down one, Ben Zobrist starts the inning with a walk. (Brief interlude… Can we talk about how great Zobrist has been for the Royals? Seriously. A 13.3 percent walk rate while hitting .327/.414/.509. I knew he would be an ideal addition to this team for his versatility and his ability to get on base, but he’s exceeding expectations. Just a massive pickup for the Royals.) With one out, Eric Hosmer singles him to third.
Up steps Kendrys Morales.
This is one of those times when the Baseball Gods smile on your team. Down one in the late innings on the road, and your top run producer steps to the plate. Forget RBI, Morales has been a rock in the middle of the Royals lineup. He has brought home 21 percent of all baserunners this year. That’s a phenomenal amount, second in the league only to Josh Donaldson among hitters who have had 300 or more runners on base. And he’s second by decimal points. (I don’t know how close they are. Baseball Reference rounds all of their Runners Scored percentages.)
Morales is even better when he comes to the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs. In that situation, he’s bringing the runner home 68 percent of the time. Again, among hitters who have had that opportunity at least 25 times, Morales ranks fourth in the AL.
Simply put, this is the guy you want up at the plate in this situation.
Morales grounded the ball down the first base line. James Loney fielded the ball and threw home to nail Zobrist at the plate. Then, catcher Rene Rivera needed to take just a couple of steps to lay the glove on Morales who didn’t move out of the batter’s box. Double play. Inning over.
So why didn’t Morales run? He thought the ball was foul. Replays seemed to confirm what Morales saw: Loney fielded the ball in foul territory. It wasn’t about being “lazy” as some pegged it on Twitter. It wasn’t about a lapse in concentration as others may claim. It was a guy who hit a foul ball.
One problem with this situation was the wrong umpire made the call. Loney fielded the ball in front of the first base bag, which means the call belongs to the home plate umpire. He made no distinction either way, which is the norm on a close play on the line. Instead, the first base umpire made the call. Except it’s not his call to make until the ball passes the first base bag.
Again, if you follow me on Twitter, you know my position on replay. I think it’s a garbage system. Defenders tell me it’s about “getting the call right.” If that’s so important, why is it limited? Why doesn’t it cover fair or foul balls. It would seem to me, those are among the most difficult calls for an umpire to make. If we are going to look at a blurry play from an out of position camera on a call at second base, why can’t New York look at where a ball lands or where a fielder makes a play in relation to a white line? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Either way, the call stood. Morales was out. The rally was over. And the Royals chances for a series sweep were over.
An off day Monday, followed by a nine game homestand against AL Central teams. The next time the Royals take the field, it will be September, which means rosters will expand. Which also means we will have the return of Alex Gordon to the Royals lineup. That the Royals have done so well in his absence is a testament to this team. Still, seeing Gordon in the field will be a welcome sight. We are through the dog days and now in the home stretch.
The Royals magic number is 20.