Several things went wrong for the Royals in their loss to the Dodgers last night. They failed to come through in a handful of scoring opportunities. James Shields only struck out 2 batters, and balked in a run. Pedro Ciriaco got caught a little too far away from the bag on a lineout. But the run that gave the Dodgers the lead in the 8th inning was perhaps the most important.
I should preface this breakdown by saying that Wade Davis is a great relief pitcher, and one bad game does not change that. Every pitcher has a rough night every so often, and this was Davis’ worst game since mid-April. He’ll be just fine.
Before getting to that fateful hit-by-pitch, I want to rewind to a few batters earlier. Adrian Gonzalez led off the inning with a single, and advanced to third after an Andre Ethier single. Justin Turner hit a hard grounder up the middle, but instead of getting through, it came right to Davis, who threw it home – accurately, even – and after another couple of throws in a rundown, the Royals tagged Gonzalez out.
Unfortunately, both of the other runners were able to advance to second and third. Had that ground ball gotten past Davis, the Royals could have ended the inning with an easy double play ball. The old cliche about baseball being a game of inches is sometimes true.
The next batter was Scott Van Slyke, who hits right-handed. Davis throws with his right hand, and pitchers who do that have given Van Slyke a hard time this season. In 47 plate appearances against righties, he has just a .644 OPS. This was a matchup Davis should have dominated. It turned out to be much less dominant. Davis threw 5 fastballs to Van Slyke, and only one of them was called a strike. He may have gotten squeezed on the 1-0 offering, but the point remains that Davis did not get the job done.
With Van Slyke on first, the Dodgers had the bases loaded, and their catcher, A.J. Ellis, at the plate. Ellis has great plate discipline, but he’s not so great at hitting the ball, particularly against right-handed pitchers, as evidenced by his .546 OPS while facing them. Once again, this was a matchup in which Davis had a clear advantage. And Davis got off to a great start, getting ahead of Ellis 0-2 on a pair of hard fastballs, and I do mean hard. Davis topped 100 MPH with his second pitch.
The next pitch, also a fastball with some heat, was up above the zone. Davis then threw a cutter in the heart of the plate, and Ellis fouled it away. He did the same thing with another fastball on the fifth pitch.
With the count still clearly in Davis’ favor, he had options. He could go back to his fastball, and hope to blow it past Ellis, and with the kind of velocity he had last night, that may have worked. He could throw his hammer curve, although he didn’t throw any to Brett Hayes while a runner stood on third base. It’s a great pitch for a strikeout, but it also could have resulted in a passed ball, so it seemed neither half of the battery was comfortable with it. Instead, Davis opted for his cutter, which has a ton of late movement that has produced his highest whiff rate among all of his pitches. The cutter also doesn’t carry as much risk of a passed ball as the curve. It’s a great pitch.
That’s not how the Royals drew it up. Basically, Davis threw a cutter that didn’t cut, and Ellis didn’t have the requisite reflexes (or motivation, perhaps) to get out of the way. (The baseball has been highlighted to make it easier to find, for those interested in that sort of thing.)
What made this hit-by-pitch interesting, to me at least, wasn’t where the ball ended up, but rather, where it started. Here’s a look at Davis’ release points last night.
You may be able to spot the outlier. Davis dropped his arm angle just a touch, and that may have kept him from controlling the ball like he normally does. I might be willing to dismiss this as a one-pitch sample, but it appears to be a fairly consistent theme. Some slight variance in release point can be expected, but when Davis releases the ball from too low of an angle, he tends to miss the strike zone. It just so happens that this ball missed the strike zone, but hit the batter. That’s the opposite of what is supposed to happen.
Quite a few things in that eighth inning led to the Royals’ fifth loss in six games since returning to Kansas City. A ground ball that could have gotten through. A strike that wasn’t. And, of course, a beaning. Batters occasionally get hit by pitches. It’s a thing that happens in baseball. Unfortunately for the Royals, this beaning happened with the bases loaded and the score tied in the eighth inning. After the beaning, the bases were still loaded, but the score was no longer tied.