Jakob Junis, defensive shift prove to be difference-makers in Royals’ win vs. Tigers



April 3, 2018 - 11:00 PM

Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost during a game against the Colorado Rockies at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., on August 24, 2017. John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS

Major League Baseball: Royals 1, Tigers 0

DETROIT — Royals manager Ned Yost ushered a group of reporters out of his Comerica Park office Monday morning, eager to work on his game plan against the Tigers before the teams’ first matchup of the season.

A lot more defensive shifts, he said, were going to be put into use. About 2,000. More than he’d ever wanted to incorporate in the past.

John Williams, the Royals’ senior director for quantitative analysis, and baseball operations assistant Michael Cifuentes had preached the benefits of shifting the infield alignment to limit base hits for years. The analytics finally won Yost over.

“They feel like if we could shift 2,000 times over the course of the year, then it’s gonna save us a bunch of hits,” Yost said. “Let’s give it a whole-hearted try and see. I don’t want to say ‘experiment’ but let’s get out of our comfort level.”

Relying on the stats can be a gamble, but in Tuesday’s 1-0 win on a rain-dampened field, second baseman Whit Merrifield cashed in on the chances.

He dived to his left and snagged what might have been a line-drive hit up the middle by Tigers catcher James McCann, then doubled up runner Nicholas Castellanos, who was too slow to get back to first base. The double play ended the fourth inning and drove a stake through the last chance the Tigers had to break through against Royals starting pitcher Jakob Junis.

“My first reaction was, ‘Shoot, there goes a hit,’” said Junis, who recorded a scoreless start for the first time in his career as a major-league starter. “But then we got an out and a double play.”

The shift was the difference-maker in Junis’ sterling season debut. The right-hander retired the next nine batters he faced. When Tigers outfielder Mikie Mahtook lined a single into center field in the eighth to break a string of 11 consecutive outs, Yost turned to reliever Justin Grimm.

Grimm retired all three batters he faced, keeping Junis in line to earn the Royals’ first victory of the season.

Junis struck out six and allowed only three hits and a walk. He made use of an effective slider, throwing three in a row to strike out Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera and strand two runners in the third inning. It was the same pitch Junis used to strike out Jeimer Candelario, who had one of the Tigers’ hits against Junis, and Mahtook.

“The first one he took for a strike, so we thought why not throw it again?” Junis said. “I was just trying to throw the last one as hard as I could and I kind of got lucky. Threw it right at him and froze him. If we had thrown it farther outside I don’t think he would have bit.”

And for the first time this season, the Royals pitching staff — including closer Kelvin Herrera, who pitched a perfect ninth and earned the save — didn’t squander an early lead provided by a Jorge Soler sacrifice fly. Even though the Royals (1-3) left four runners on base, Cheslor Cuthbert’s double-turned-run was all they needed to enter the win column for the first time in 2018.

All thanks to analytics.

“The (analogy) I think the analytical people use is that Vegas might lose one night,” Merrifield said, “but over the course of a month, the odds are in Vegas’ favor.”