There are several reasons why things are looking up for the Kansas City Royals, and chief among them is this: Their pitchers are throwing strikes.
Dovetailing into the fact that the Royals' 3.02 staff ERA was best in the AL and ranked second in the majors entering Thursday night's game in Anaheim was the fact that Kansas City pitchers also had the second-fewest walks in the AL.
Two years ago, while going 62-100, the Royals walked 637 batters to rank 14th in the AL.
"That started last year," third-year pitching coach Bob McClure says of his staff's honing in on the strike zone. "The free-pass thing was out of control my first year. We had guys who didn't belong -- nothing against them, they were just brought up before they should have been -- and they didn't command their pitches.
"The front office recognized it, and we made some changes."
Dayton Moore had taken over as general manager in May, 2006, and recognizing how raw that '06 staff was was one reason he offered Gil Meche $55 million two winters ago. Not only were some of the Royals' kids not ready for prime time, but Meche fit the veteran prototype for which the Royals were searching: Meche, with Seattle in 2006, had nearly a 2:1 strikeouts-to-walks ratio.
With McClure harping on the importance of throwing strikes throughout the spring of '07 -- and with Meche and Brian Bannister (acquired from the Mets) in the rotation -- the Royals wound up trimming their walk total by 117 from the year before. Their 520 walks -- down from that unsightly 637 in '06 -- ranked seventh in the AL.
"That huge jump started from day one in spring training before the '07 season," McClure says. "I really haven't had to mention that since then. That's something we talked about then: Pitching to contact and to your ability. If you have decent fastball command and the ability to pitch off speed, and if you have the ability to throw strikes when you're behind in the count, you can get people out."
McClure and the staff stressed that in '07, and it's really taken off in '08. Zack Greinke's 0.75 ERA leads the majors, and Bannister's 0.86 is second in the AL. One veteran AL scout I talked with the other night said Greinke's complete-game shutout over the Yankees earlier this month is the best game he's seen pitched in this young season. "He's not throwing his fastball as hard now, but it's just exploding across the plate," the scout said.
Veterans Meche and Brett Tomko have meshed well and done just what Moore hoped they would do: Provide veteran perspective and knowledge.
"It's been enjoyable to watch," McClure says. "The interaction between the pitchers themselves, whether on the bench or in the locker room, has been very good. That's something you try to create and build.
"There's a lot of down time in this game, and I'll see these guys talking about different grips and hitters. The interaction has been very good."
Other than the Meche signing -- which was roundly criticized until the right-hander made 34 starts and produced a 3.64 ERA last year -- most of Moore's moves have been under-the-radar types. One of the most important was keeping McClure as pitching coach even after manager Buddy Bell stepped down and while the Royals were searching for their next manager.
"Mac's a really, really good teacher," says that new manager, Trey Hillman. "It's a no-brainer. Dayton Moore hired Bob McClure before he hired his new manager. I told Dayton quite frankly (when I interviewed), if the new manager has a a problem with everything you've told me about Bob McClure, maybe you hired the wrong manager."
Hillman's managerial career isn't even a month old but, judging from the early returns, with Moore, Hillman, McClure and some of the players in this Kansas City clubhouse right now, the Royals finally appear to have hired a lot of the right guys.
Likes: Love the way Royals right-hander Brian Bannister approaches each start. You can read about that over in Short Hops. ... Nice to see clubs that have been down-and-out recently, like Kansas City and Florida, off to good starts. ... Pat Hughes and Ron Santo are really pleasant listening on Chicago Cubs radio broadcasts. Caught a few innings of Thursday's Cubs-Cincinnati game on XM radio while driving to that night's Angels-Royals game. ... The Colbert Report with Stephen Colbert on location in Pennsylvania this week in advance of next week's Democratic primary. Colbert is at the top of his game right now. ... The upcoming disc from Mudcrutch, Tom Petty's old band that's reunited, sounds promising.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"It seems like yesterday
"But it was long ago
"Janey was lovely, she was the queen of my nights
"There in the darkness with the radio playlng low
"And the secrets that we shared
"The mountains that we moved
"Caught like a wildfire out of control
"Till there was nothing left to burn and nothing left to prove"
-- Bob Seger, Against the Wind