Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Legacy Of The 2015 Royals, Part 3.

I know I may be too hung up on the final game of the World Series, but I need to document it here so I’ll have a way to look back on this when I’m 90 years old and my memory is failing me. One of the things that made the 2015 Royals not just a championship season but a storybook season was the way it ended. Game 5 of the World Series hearkened back to earlier moments in the Royals’ playoff run over and over again. In particular, the events of Game 5 and the events of last year’s Wild Card Game, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the two best games of the past two seasons, are connected in a way that’s almost eerie. One game was played on the last day of September – the earliest playoff game in Royals history – and the other was played on the first day of November, making it the latest game in Royals history.

If they were to ever make a movie about these Royals, imagine a series of flashbacks occurring before each of these plays.

- Lorenzo Cain leading off the top of the ninth: a flashback to him leading off the bottom of the eighth against Toronto in Game 6 with a walk, and him drawing a walk in the top of the eighth against the Mets in Game 4, set to the words of someone (in my mind it’s Mike Moustakas) screaming out, “keep the line moving!”

In 16 playoff games this year, Cain drew 11 walks. Granted, three were intentional, but even eight walks in 16 games was a much higher rate than his seasonal total of 37 (a career-high!) in 140 games. As a team, the Royals were only a tiny bit more patient than in the playoffs as they were during the regular season – they drew 2.38 unintentional walks per game in the postseason, compared to 2.19 UIBB/game during the regular season. But Cain, perhaps getting a great view of Ben Zobrist’s plate appearances from the on-deck circle, fought for three difficult walks – all three came on full counts, one in a seven-pitch at-bat and the other two on eight-pitch at-bats – in three crucial situations.

- Eric Hosmer, batting next: a flashback to his triple off Dan Otero in the Wild Card game last year. Or perhaps, if the footage exists somewhere, a flashback to his performance in the Texas League playoffs in 2010, which I was calling the greatest clutch display by a Royals player since 1985. (Hosmer homered six times in the playoffs. Twice he batted in the eighth or later with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals facing elimination; both times he homered to tie the game. The Naturals would win the championship.) I know it’s not rational, but ever since his 2010 performance I’ve thought of him as someone who would never let the pressure of the moment get to him. Nothing that happened last postseason, when he hit .351/.439/.544, changed my mind. I expected him to have another monster October.

And then he hit .212/.236/.288 in the playoffs this year. He was terrible…except, somehow, he drove in 17 runs in 16 games. Multiply his numbers by 10, and imagine a player over a full season hitting .212 with 20 doubles and 10 homers – and 170 RBIs. That’s how weird Hosmer’s performance was this postseason. He had more RBIs (17) than hits (14). He almost had more RBIs than total bases (19). His RBI total is a testament to his teammates, who were on base over and over again – he had three sacrifice flies during the playoffs, equaling his amount for the entire regular season – and then made Hosmer look good with their brilliance on the basepaths: Cain scored from first base on a Hosmer single twice in the playoffs.

But it’s also a testament to Hosmer’s performance with runners on base. I don’t think it was a skill of Hosmer’s – for his career, he’s hit worse with men in scoring position (.279 BA, .417 SLG) than with the bases empty (.294 and .448). But this postseason, for whatever reason, he concentrated his meager production into those moments when it would pay off the most. Twelve of his 14 hits came with runners on base; 10 of them drove in at least one run.

And in the ninth inning of Game 5, as in the 12th inning of the Wild Card game, with the Royals again down to their final at-bat, with Hosmer again representing the tying run…he again drilled a fastball the other way over the outfielder’s head. It was a double this time instead of a triple, which set up…

- Salvador Perez at the plate, Hosmer leading off third: a flashback to Game 7 of the World Series last year, Alex Gordon batting in the ninth inning, hightailing it to third base when his line drive was misplayed by two outfielders, and…stopping. It was the right call. A good throw would have nailed him. A bad throw probably would have nailed him. But still, a year of regret had passed, regret enabled by the hindsight that comes from knowing what Perez did next. Maybe Brandon Crawford would have panicked and his throw would have sailed over Buster Posey. Maybe it would have bounced and Posey would have had trouble getting a handle on it. Maybe Crawford’s throw would have pulled Posey away from home plate, and there would have been a desperate foot race between him and Gordon, making for one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history.

Probably not. But we’ll never know. All we know is what Perez did, which makes it tempting to second-guess. We’ll probably also never know if the memory of that moment, buried deep inside Hosmer’s subconscious, triggered the synapses in his brain that sent the electrical signal to his legs to run like your life depends upon it the instant David Wright committed to first base.

I’ve seen it written in places that Hosmer got lucky, that even a decent throw by Duda gets him at the plate, even that it was a bad baseball decision. I could not disagree more. The situation was very nearly the same as last year – if he holds, the Royals are down a run with a man on third and two out, meaning the break-even point for trying is no higher than 30%. But the odds of success this time were much higher. I put the odds that Gordon would have been safe last year at no higher than about 15%, while I’d put the odds that Hosmer would be safe the moment he committed to home at around 40%, perhaps even higher.

Here are some notable differences:

1) While Crawford’s throw would have been much longer – somewhere around 200 feet – it was only one throw. The Mets had to make two throws – Wright’s throw was (I’m approximating) about 95 feet across the diamond, and then Duda’s throw home was about 85 feet. Factor in the time it took for Duda to catch the ball, transfer the ball to his throwing arm, wind up and throw home, there’s no question the Wright-to-Duda-to-D’Arnaud relay would take longer than the direct line between Crawford and Posey.

2) Hosmer had a large lead off third base, and because the ball was hit well to Wright’s left, Hosmer didn’t instinctively retreat to the bag as Wright gloved it. He then did a phenomenal job of anticipating the perfect moment to take off for home – as soon as Wright made perfunctory glance back towards him and then looked to first base. By the time Wright let go of the ball, Hosmer was 15-20 feet past third base and accelerating quickly. By contrast, Crawford had the ball in his glove a split second before Gordon touched third base. Even if Gordon had been waved home by Mike Jirschele and never broken stride, he’s probably not more than 5-10 feet past third. True, he was already at full speed and Hosmer wasn’t, but then Hosmer wasn’t worn down from running 270 feet at top speed. The time it would take from the time Wright let go of the ball until Hosmer touched home plate was, I’m pretty certain, less than the time it would take from Crawford letting go of the ball and Gordon touching home.

3) Crawford has a really, really good arm – he somehow unseated Andrelton Simmons as the NL Gold Glove winner this year, which is a little silly, but it speaks to how well his defense is considered. Wright, on the other hand, has a weak arm at this point in his career. Not just that, but he tends to throw sidearm, as he did on this play – and his sidearm motion made it easier for Hosmer to time it and start running for home even before Wright had let go of the ball. Duda’s arm is nothing special for a first baseman, even before talking about his accuracy or lack thereof.

4) This last point, I think, is the one that doesn’t get talked about enough: Crawford was throwing from left-center field, meaning Posey could wait for the throw while being turned almost all the way towards Gordon hurtling from third base. D’Arnaud, by contrast, had to face first base, not only meaning that he couldn’t see where Hosmer was out of the corner of his eye, but that after catching the ball, he would have to turn his body and swipe his glove – again, without knowing where Hosmer was exactly. Four years ago, before the rules changed, D’Arnaud could have set up just behind the plate, using his foot to block Hosmer and allowing him to catch the ball and drop his glove straight down. But now that catchers aren’t allowed to block the plate, it adds a precious split second to the time it takes to get a tag down on a ball coming from the right side of the field.

With all that, a perfect throw from Duda – one that leads D’Arnaud to his left slightly and into the runner’s path – gets Hosmer easily. A decent throw – one that hits D’Arnaud’s glove right at eye level – and safe or out, the play is almost certainly going to review. The odds still favored the Mets at the moment Wright threw the ball. But, as it did last year, the odds would have favored the Mets had Hosmer held anyway. This time, the Royals went for it. And that made all the difference.

- Bottom of the ninth, tie game: Kelvin Herrera returns for a third inning of work. Flashback to the fourth inning of Game 7 of last year’s World Series, when Jeremy Guthrie came out to pitch.

You might remember after Game 7 that my greatest lament was that Ned Yost, knowing that there was no tomorrow, and with the greatest bullpen trio in major league history having two full days of rest, let Jeremy Guthrie start the fourth. He would go to Herrera anyway later in the inning, after the Giants had men on first and third with only one out, and Michael Morse fisted a blooper to right field with two strikes to score the last run of the season. Herrera would go 2.2 innings, Wade Davis two, and Greg Holland one. Afterwards, I wondered why, if Yost was prepared to go to Herrera in the fourth inning anyway, he wasn’t prepared to start the inning with Herrera. If Herrera could get eight outs, he could have gotten nine. I also wondered why, in the final game of the season, on four days of rest – Holland hadn’t pitched since Game 3 – Yost wouldn’t have planned for Holland to throw two innings.

While the Royals have never addressed this directly, we may have gotten an answer to that last question. Given that we now know that Holland had a partial tear in his UCL dating back to August of 2014, it’s possible that the Royals simply weren’t comfortable with him throwing two innings, particularly since as the last pitcher in the chain, if he had tired and gotten into trouble in his second inning, his backup would have been Jason Frasor or someone of that ilk.

But that still left the possibility of getting three innings from Herrera. Last year, Yost only committed to 2.2. This year, even though Herrera was pitching on just one day’s rest, and even though there were potentially two more games to go (albeit after a day of rest), Yost stuck with Herrera for nine outs. It only took Herrera nine batters (a single was erased by a double play) and 33 pitches to do so. It certainly helped that Herrera had just struck out the 1-2-3 batters in the Mets’ lineup in order in the eighth, and that Juan Lagares had replaced an ailing Yoenis Cespedes to lead off the ninth. But still: in the final game of last season, Yost only trusted Herrera to get eight outs, and the Royals lost. This year, he trusted Herrera to get nine outs, and the Royals won.

- Luke Hochevar takes the mound to start the bottom of the tenth: a flash back to Brandon Finnegan starting the tenth inning of the Wild Card game. Of course.

Hochevar has to rank towards the very top of the list of players who most appreciates what the Royals accomplished this season. Eight years after he was drafted with the #1 overall pick in 2006, after five of the worst years as a starting pitcher (a 5.45 ERA and a 78 ERA+ in 127 starts from 2008 to 2012), he had finally found success as a set-up man in 2013, with a 1.92 ERA in 70 innings, when his UCL blew out just in time to miss the Royals’ first postseason in 29 years. It was probably the most success he would ever have as a professional, and it occurred in a season in which he was unable to make a contribution.

And then this year, after a slow and erratic start in his return from Tommy John surgery, he threw 10.2 scoreless innings in the playoffs. He got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth inning of ALCS Game 2, setting the stage for the Royals to come back against David Price an inning later. With the tying run at the plate, he got the final out of the fifth inning in relief of Chris Young in Game 4, earning him the win. And now, he would throw two scoreless innings – like Finnegan, he pitched a perfect tenth, then gave up a harmless baserunner with two outs before closing the door in the 11th – in the final game of the World Series. He would end up with the most coveted win of the season: the last one.

- Salvador Perez, leading off the 12th: flashback to his walk-off single in the Wild Card game. This time, he had to start the rally instead of end it, and this time he cracked an opposite-field blooper that just stayed inside the right field foul line instead of pulling a hard ground ball just inside the left field foul line. But he ended this amazing two-year playoff run the way he began it: with a 12th-inning single that changed everything.

Perez, sadly if wisely, would get pulled from the game for a pinch-runner, keeping him from catching the final out in a postseason in which he was behind the dish for all but six innings. As compensation, he would be awarded the World Series MVP award. Seems like a fair trade.

- Perez departs for a pinch-runner as Jarrod Dyson hops out of the dugout: flashback to Dyson pinch-running for Josh Willingham in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game. That night, Dyson was bunted over to second base because closer Sean Doolittle is left-handed and had a clear view of him at first base. In Game 5, with Addison Reed, a right-hander, on the mound, Dyson didn’t waste any time messing around: he stole second base on Reed’s 2-0 pitch to Alex Gordon, and was safe easily. The only thing that was missing was his vroom-vroom move.

Gordon would then hit a groundball to the right side, serving the same purpose as a bunt to put Dyson at third base with one out, the same position he found himself in during the Wild Card game, bringing up…

- Christian Colon, batting with a man on third and one out in the 12th inning: flashback to, well, Christian Colon batting with a man on third and one out in the 12th inning of the Wild Card game.

I don’t know what Colon is going to become. He has a career batting line of .303/.361/.382 in the major leagues, albeit in just 168 plate appearances. He has a career line in Triple-A of .289/.350/.394, and a .268/.339/.360 line in Double-A – he’s gotten incrementally better as he’s moved up the chain. I do think he could become a poor man’s Placido Polanco, a good defensive second baseman who makes enough contact to hit .280 in the majors and be a valuable starter for the next five years. I don’t think he will ever end up with as much success as Chris Sale, the man the Royals almost drafted instead with the #4 pick in 2010, or as much success as Matt Harvey, perhaps the man the Royals should have drafted instead.

But I do know that none of that matters now. I know that because Colon could literally not have a better postseason record than he does. In his first postseason appearance, pinch-hitting for Terrence Gore in the tenth inning of the Wild Card game, he was asked to put down a sacrifice bunt, and he did so successfully. In his next plate appearance, batting in the 12th inning with the tying run at third base and one out, he chopped a single to tie the game, stole second base, and scored the walk-off run on Perez’s single.

He would not bat again in the postseason until this moment, and only because the Royals were playing under NL rules – Colon was pinch-hitting for Hochevar. He had not even appeared in a playoff game in 2015 yet, the last person on the roster to make an appearance – even Raul Mondesi (!) had played before him. Once again, he batted in a situation that called for contact. Once again, he came through, this time with two strikes, this time a no-doubt line drive, this time to give the Royals the lead, this time to put the Royals three outs away from nirvana.

They would get there 15 minutes later, after a one-run lead had become a five-run lead, after Wade Davis was given the easiest and most rewarding job of his life. The ending ensured that this would be one of the most memorable, magical games in Royals history. The drama that began in September, 2014 ended in November, 2015, and all the ups and downs along the way, even the heartbreaking finale to Act I, all made sense in the end. Even the failures served their purpose. All’s well that ends well, and few things in baseball history have ended as well as this season did.

That’s another legacy of the 2015 Royals - they didn’t just win it all, they won it all in a way that gave us something even better than a dogpile at the end: closure.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Legacy Of The 2015 Royals, Part 2.

To get at the heart of how the 2015 Royals won a world championship – I will repeat those seven words at every opportunity I get for as long as I can – I think the simplest, clearest explanation is to look at this line score:

Team 1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10+

Opp  6  10  15   4   7  13   5   6   0   0
KC   8   8   4   4  10   5  11  22  12   6

That is the combined number of runs the Royals and their opponents scored, inning by inning, in their 16 playoff games. There’s a lot to unpack there.

- After scoring an equal number of runs (16-16) in the first two innings, the Royals were massively outscored in the third inning. I chalk that one up mostly to a fluke.

- After scoring slightly more runs than their opponents (14-11) in the fourth and fifth innings, the Royals were significantly outscored in the sixth inning, 13-5. This one, I chalk up to Ned Yost’s one residual managerial weakness: his insistence that his starter try to get through the sixth inning in a playoff game, despite a bullpen that was even deeper than last year’s was. Sometimes it worked (ALCS Game 1, ALDS Game 2). Sometimes it turned out poorly but not disastrously (WS Game 1 and Game 5). Sometimes it was disastrous only the Royals came back anyway (ALCS Game 2). And sometimes it was just disastrous (ALCS Game 5).

But in the aggregate, the Royals gave up 13 runs in 16 sixth innings. It obviously hasn’t hurt them all that much to this point, but just imagine how much better they’ll be in future postseasons if Yost doesn’t insist on turning every sixth inning a game of Russian Roulette. (I’ll get to this in a moment, but the Royals’ opponents also scored 12 runs in the sixth inning of the 2014 postseason, more than in any other inning.)

- For the first six innings overall, the Royals were outscored, 60-50. If games ended after six innings, they would have been 5-9 with two ties. And then – holy hell did they go nuts.

You’ve probably heard that the Royals outscored their opponents from the seventh inning on by the margin of 51-11. You may have also heard that the Royals’ set an all-time postseason record with 51 runs from the seventh inning on. But you may not realize to just what a degree they set that record. Look at this chart:

Most runs scored, seventh inning on, postseason

2015 Royals:  51
2002 Angels:  36
2009 Yankees: 35
1995 Braves:  33
2007 Red Sox: 33

That’s a lead to put Secretariat to shame. The Royals averaged 3.19 runs per game just from the seventh inning on. That’s crazy.

But I actually think a more impressive stat is that, from the ninth inning on, they outscored their opponents 18-0. That’s crazy stupid. Those 18 runs were concentrated into just six games, and in only three games did those runs actually make any kind of difference. Two of those games were losses anyway (ALDS Game 3 and ALCS Game 3), and they scored in ALCS Game 4 to turn a 12-2 lead into a 14-2 lead. But in the other three games, the ninth inning runs they scored were important, and generally crucial.

They scored two runs in the ninth inning of ALDS Game 4 on Eric Hosmer’s only homer of the playoffs, which they didn’t technically need – they led 7-6 with Wade Davis on the mound – but certainly helped ice the game. And then came the World Series, where their ninth inning run tied Game 1, and their 14th inning run ended it; and Game 5, when they scored two in the ninth to tie and five in the 12th to start the parade early.

And those two games went as long as they did because the Royals were simply not going to allow any runs after the eighth inning. Consider that because of the two extra-inning games, the Royals’ pitching staff actually threw 20 innings from the ninth on. Zero runs allowed in 20 innings is nearly as impressive as the 18 runs they scored.

They also scored 22 runs in the eighth inning. In just 16 games. That’s crazy stupid love.

Just for fun, let’s throw in the same chart, but for 2014:

Team  1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9  10+

Opp   8   5   6   6   7  12   6   4   0   2
KC   10  11  11   8   3   9   2   3   3   9

The sixth-inning issues are even more glaring here, but otherwise the shape is a little different. The Royals outscored their opponents 40-25 after four innings, but were outscored 29-17 from the fifth through the eighth innings, although most of those runs came in games that weren’t close. And from the ninth inning on…last year’s team was nearly as dominant as this year’s team was, outscoring their opponents 12-2.

The Royals’ philosophy last year was to get an early lead, and then protect it – or failing that, to get the game tied after six innings and then win it with late runs anyway. Their philosophy this year was to fall behind early, keep it close, and then take the lead late – and then never cough up the lead because your bullpen never gives up runs. Either philosophy works just fine if you have the bullpen to pull it off. The Royals had the bullpen to pull it off. Twice.

Over the last two postseasons, in a span of 31 games, covering 41 innings, the Royals outscored their opponents 30-2 after the eighth inning. They gave up two runs: Alberto Callaspo’s RBI single in the top of the 12th of the Wild Card game that nearly derailed all of this, and a two-out RBI single by Delmon Young off Greg Holland in the 10th inning of Game 1 of last year’s ALCS, after the Royals had scored three runs in the top of the inning. That’s it. Two runs in 41 innings. That is the root cause of everything the Royals have done the last two postseasons:

- They are 6-0 in extra-inning games (four last year, two this year).

- They are 8-1 in one-run games, with the one exception being, yes, Game 7 of the World Series last year.

- They have come back to win after being down by two runs or more eight times in the last two years – seven of those this season, a major league record (no team had ever done it more than five times). Last year, remarkably, they only did it once, in the Wild Card game, but then until they ran into Madison Bumgarner they never had to come back. Meanwhile, they lost only one game in which they had a lead of two runs or more: Game 4 of the World Series last year, when Jason Vargas was given an early 4-1 lead and batted with the bases loaded with two outs in the third, a moment which corresponded to the high mark of the World Series (as measured by the Royals’ odds of winning). But even that game wasn’t lost late – the Giants tied it in the fifth and took the lead in the sixth.

Not only have the Royals not lost a playoff game that they were leading after six innings – only one time in 31 playoff games did they even blow a lead after six innings: Jose Bautista’s game-tying two-run homer off Ryan Madson in Game 6 of the ALCS this year. In addition, in eight of their 31 playoff games, the Royals were tied at some point in the seventh inning or later, and just once did their opponent score to break the tie first: the 12th inning of the Wild Card game last year.

So how did the Royals win? They hit like George Brett from the seventh inning on, which doesn’t seem replicable. They also just refused to give up runs late in the game, which also doesn’t seem replicable…except that they just replicated what the 2014 team did.

When ranking the greatest bullpens of all time, you can certainly make a case for other teams, like the 1988-1990 Oakland A’s, to hang with the 2013-2015 Kansas City Royals. But their postseason success, I think, clearly elevates them above the competition. The 1988 A’s lost Game 1 of the World Series on Kirk Gibson’s home run; the 1990 A’s led both Game 2 and Game 4 of the World Series after seven innings, but lost both games (granted, starter Dave Stewart blew the lead in Game 4, and was still allowed to throw a complete game. It was a different time.) By contrast, the Royals have not lost a game they were leading or tied at any point after six innings over the span of 31 playoff games.

The best regular season bullpen of all time, that elevated its performance to even higher levels in the postseason. That’s one legacy of these Royals: they are the Mariano Rivera of bullpens.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Legacy Of The 2015 Royals, Part 1.

So when I said that I’d fire up the blog again if and when the Royals made the postseason, I neglected to state the obvious corollary: that if the Royals actually won the World Series, I’d spend the entire off-season blogging about their World Championship. Well, a deal’s a deal. They won. Look for me to write about the 2015 Royals on this here blog from now until I’m either out of things to say or Opening Day, whichever comes first.

They won. The Royals are World Champions. I’m still in shock. I’m still in awe. I wasn’t sure I’d ever see this day. I was ten years old in 1985, but living overseas, with only the most tenuous connection to the Royals – while we had friends back home in Wichita mail the games on VHS to me to watch a few months after the fact, I have no memory of the exact moment I found out that the Royals won the World Series that year. I thought it was quite possible that I might go an entire lifetime without experiencing that moment at all.

I experienced that moment at 12:34 AM local time at Citi Field in New York City on November 2nd, in the midst of a scrum of maybe 2,000 Royals fans that had all huddled around the visitor’s dugout on the third base side in anticipation of what had, about 15 minutes earlier, become a preordained moment. After three innings of extreme tension, following eight-and-a-half innings of resignation that the series would move back to Kansas City for Game 6, after Christian Colon had become a hero once again, an extremely tight game had suddenly turned into a laugher when Lorenzo Cain cleared the bases with a double in the top of the 12th, allowing the Royals to entrust a five-run lead with three outs to go to a pitcher in the midst of one of the great reliever peaks in the history of baseball.

I was blessed to be at the park, sitting with Connor Schell, Executive Producer for ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentary series and a big-time Royals fan. As the Royals closed out their Game 4 win the night before, I decided to peek at how much plane tickets from Chicago to New York might cost the following morning – and was surprised to learn I could fly for about $300 round-trip, and be back in Chicago first thing Monday morning, in time to get to my office to see patients. Connor had an extra ticket, and suddenly what seemed like a quixotic adventure (with the death of Grantland) looked completely feasible.

I had long ago blocked off Tuesday and Wednesday from my schedule in the event that the Royals hosted Games 6 and 7, but – perhaps belatedly – I finally got what this Royals team was about before Game 5. This wasn’t a team that was going to let up in Game 5, knowing they’d have two chances to win in front of their home fans. They had already played a Game 6 and a Game 7 at home. What they hadn’t done was win a championship, and on the road to get one, they weren’t going to take their foot off the accelerator until they had reached their destination. So I bought my ticket, and I am so happy that I did. A year after I left Kauffman Stadium with 40,000 other distraught fans, thinking this might be the closest I’d ever get to seeing the Royals win a championship, I got to see them win a championship.

The last three outs were surreal – a Citi Field crowd that had already started filing out headed for the exits en masse after Cain’s double, while the third-base side swelled with Royals fans filing in from everywhere else in the park. In the middle of the 12th, Connor and I noticed this dynamic and made the quick decision to head down from the box level to join the mob. (It’s a testament to the security of a five-run lead and Wade Davis that, against the same team that came back in the 10th inning of Game 6 in 1986, there was no concern whatsoever about precipitating an epic comeback.)

Before Game 7 last year, I asked Chris Kamler (a.k.a. The Fake Ned), who attended Game 7 of the 1985 World Series as a 13-year-old, what it was like. He said, “it was basically a non-stop party for two hours.” This game was a non-stop party for about 10 minutes, but it was a party, a giddy coronation. We ran into and hugged Josh Swade, the director of the #BringBackSungWoo documentary for ESPN. We slapped hands and took selfies with a half-dozen Royals fans – while the inning was still in progress. And then there were two outs, and Davis got two strikes on Wilmer Flores, and 2,000 smartphones were all simultaneously pointed towards home plate.

And before Flores was called out looking, I noticed that, on the other side of the field, down the first-base line, the stands were two-thirds empty, which is a hell of a sight for the final out of the World Series. And it struck me that what I was seeing was the mirror image in so many ways of that night in Chicago last September, when this postseason ride officially began, and my brother and I were with maybe 500 Royals fans packed around the Royals’ dugout on the first-base side, in a road stadium that was two-thirds empty. All of the Royals’ other celebrations had occurred at home – the Wild Card game, the ALCS and ALDS victories last year as well as this year. But this amazing journey ended like it started, late at night in unfamiliar territory, with a hardy band of Royals fans on hand to celebrate that was just the vanguard of the wild party that was waiting back home.

Somehow, I was there for both the beginning and the end. When the Royals clinched in Chicago I said at the time that Royals fans celebrated like we had won the World Series. And now…we had actually won the World Series. I’m still in disbelief that it happened at all, let alone that it happened like this. I am so immensely grateful.

That’s the sentiment that I want to hold onto most of all: gratitude. I never really thought this would happen. When the Royals were losing 100 games four times in five years, when they were making inexplicable and embarrassing moves as a matter of course, I wasn’t dreaming of a world championship, or back-to-back pennants. I just wanted to experience a clinching moment or two, that moment when you qualify for the playoffs. Maybe experience what it’s like to win a playoff game or two. Maybe even winning a playoff series.

But to win five of them in two seasons – six if you count the Wild Card game? (Which you should.) To win 22 playoff games – more in the last 14 months than the Royals had won (18) in their entire 45-year history? Nah. I didn’t expect this. No one should expect this.

Think of it like this: mathematically speaking, in order to win two pennants and one world championship, it should take an average of eight appearances in the LDS round. The Royals needed only two playoff appearances – and in one of those had to go through the Wild Card game! – to bag that much hardware. From 1976 to 1985, when the Royals made the playoffs seven times in ten years, they underachieved pretty significantly in the postseason, as you can tell from their 18-25 record. They should have won 3.25 pennants (the 0.25 is for their wacky 1981 ALDS appearance in that bizarre split-season strike year, when they became the only team ever to make the playoffs with a losing record). They actually won only two. But their success these last two postseasons has made them overachievers in the playoffs: they now have a lifetime 40-34 record in the postseason, and have won four pennants and two World Series against an expectation of 3.625 and 1.8125, respectively.

As Royals fans, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that making the playoffs is harder than succeeding in the playoffs – after all, it took 28 years to reach October, but just one try to win a pennant and two tries to win a championship. Don’t fall into that trap. The odds of making it to the LDS round (26.7%) are higher than the odds that an LDS team will make it to the World Series (25.0%), let alone win it.

The Royals have done it two years in a row. That’s not normal, folks. It’s so abnormal that my immense gratitude is tinged with a sentiment I never could have imagined feeling 14 months ago: guilt. Well, maybe not guilt exactly, but whatever the word you would use to describe how you feel when you’ve been blessed with an immense fortune that you’re not quite certain you earned.

What’s that, you’re saying? How could Royals fans have not earned this success after 28 years of nothing? Put aside for a moment the fact that two pennants and one world championship in the last 30 years is exactly what you would expect, statistically speaking – and that’s starting your count from 1986, immediately after the Royals had won their last world championship. Let me put this into perspective this way:

The Royals began play as an expansion team in 1969. Three other teams started play that season: the Milwaukee Brewers (they were the Seattle Pilots for one year), the San Diego Padres, and the Montreal Expos, now the Washington Nationals.

The Expos/Nationals have never won a pennant. They have never been to the World Series.
The Milwaukee Brewers have won a single pennant, in 1982. They lost the World Series.
The San Diego Padres won pennants in 1984 and 1998. They lost both World Series.

The Royals just accomplished something that their three expansion brethren have never experienced, in a combined 141 years of baseball. Counting a championship as worth twice as much as a pennant (which is probably conservative), the Royals have experienced as much success in the last 14 months as the Nationals, Brewers, and Padres have experienced in their entire history combined.

Let’s expand this to look at every expansion team. The Toronto Blue Jays have won two World Series, but they are the only pennants they have ever won. Their 1977 expansion brethren, the Seattle Mariners, have never been to a World Series.

The Florida Marlins, like the Blue Jays, have won two World Series but no other pennants. Their 1993 compatriots, the Colorado Rockies, have one pennant and no championships. The same is true for the Tampa Bay Rays, who started play in 1998 along with the Arizona Diamondbacks, who won the World Series in their only trip there.

Let’s go back to the 1961-62 expansion teams. The Angels won the World Series in 2002 – it’s the only trip to the World Series in their history. The Texas Rangers (who started play as the second iteration of the Washington Senators) have been to two World Series, but lost them both. The Houston Astros have been to only one World Series, and lost it.

The Royals have two pennants in the last two years – only one other expansion team has won more than two pennants ever. That team, which you would never guess because their fans and the media act like they’re this incredibly woebegotten, cursed franchise even though they once won a world championship after being down to their final strike, down two runs with no one on base, is the team the Royals just defeated to win the World Series: the New York Mets, who have won five pennants (1969, 1973, 1986, 2000, 2015) and two championships, in 1969 and 1986.

Of course, the Royals had won two pennants and a world championship before last year. The Royals have won four pennants and two championships in their history; by that gauge of success, they have once again re-established themselves as one of the most successful expansion franchises ever. But just think: even if they had never been to the World Series in their entire history before 2014: today they would still claim more success than 10 of the 13 other expansion teams.

Let me put this in chart form to make it more clear:

Team                Pennants  Championships

New York Mets                5            2
Kansas City Royals           4            2
Miami Marlins                2            2
Toronto Blue Jays            2            2
Kansas City Royals (2014-15) 2            1
San Diego Padres             2            0
Texas Rangers                2            0
Arizona Diamondbacks         1            1
Los Angeles Angels           1            1
Colorado Rockies             1            0
Houston Astros               1            0
Milwaukee Brewers            1            0
Tampa Bay Rays               1            0
Seattle Mariners             0            0
Washington Nationals         0            0

Expand this further by looking at how some other teams have fared since the Royals entered the major leagues in 1969:

The Chicago Cubs: zero pennants.
The Chicago White Sox: one pennant, one championship.
The Cleveland Indians: two pennants, zero championships.

That’s how rare, and how precious, the 2014-15 Royals are. Fourteen months ago we were the most hapless fans in American sports. Now we are the envy – the rightful envy – of nearly half the teams in the major leagues.

Next time: more on how they pulled it off.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015


If I live another 50 years, I may never see another Royals championship. Even if I do, I will probably never see another championship as gratifying as this one. And you know what? That's okay. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of season. This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of team. Sports are pain. And then, suddenly, they are perfection.

Grantland, as you may have heard, has come to an end. Fortunately, ESPN asked me to write about the Royals' world championship - THE ROYALS' WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP - and you can read the whole thing here.

More to come. Plenty more to come.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Here We Go Again.

Hey, I said I’d write if the Royals made the playoffs; I didn’t say I’d write a lot.

I did write about the ALDS and ALCS, over at Grantland, which you can read here and here. I also wrote about the wonderful 30 for 30 documentary on Sung Woo Lee here. And today I wrote for Grantland about the 15 biggest plays in major league history, and gave it as much of a Royals flavor as I could.

And now they’re back in the World Series. I have so many thoughts and not nearly enough time to write about them all, but I just want to start by trying to put into words my astonishment that, one year after they got about as close as you can to winning it all – and quite possibly closer than they would ever be again in my lifetime – they’re back to take another shot.

Back-to-back American League pennants. That’s just jaw-dropping. The Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, both original AL franchises dating back to 1901, have never won back-to-back pennants. The Royals have gone to the World Series as many times in the last two seasons as the White Sox have in the last 95.

If we go back to 1986, the year the Royals’ run of futility began, they have won two pennants in the last 30 years. In a 15-team league, you would expect a team to win an average of exactly two pennants in 30 years. (The actual number is 2.13, as the AL had 14 teams for most of that time, but close enough.) When it comes to pennants, the Royals have wiped out an entire generation of futility in the last 13 months. If they win the World Series, they will have paid off that debt in full as well.

And that’s if we back things up to 1986, which puts the Royals in the worst possible light. They’ve won four AL pennants in their existence, compared to an average expectation of 3.43 pennants for a team that began play in 1969. If they win the World Series they will once again have an above-average amount of hardware in their existence, and once again will be able to stake a claim as one of the most successful expansion teams of all time.

Or try this: over the last 40 seasons (1976 to 2015), the Royals have won four pennants. Do you know how many American League teams have won more in that time? One: the Yankees. ONE.

AL Pennants, 1976 – 2015

New York: 11
Kansas City: 4
Boston: 4
Oakland: 3
Detroit: 3
Cleveland: 2
Toronto: 2
Baltimore: 2
Texas: 2
Minnesota: 2
Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Chicago: 1
No one: 1

Or consider this: the Royals have won as many playoff games (18) in the last 13 months as they had in their entire 45-year history before 2014 (18). The difference is that they’ve only lost 8 postseason games in the last 13 months, compared to 25 before.

And along the way, they’ve proven themselves almost impossible to kill. They came back from four runs down in the eighth inning of an elimination game in the Wild Card game last year; they did the exact same thing in Game 4 of the ALDS this year. They came back from down 3-0 in the seventh inning against David Price in Game 2 of the ALCS.

They’ve overcome adversity over and over again. Their eighth-inning uprising in Houston in Game 4 came one inning after Terrance Gore, who can not be captured using traditional weaponry, and representing the tying run in a 3-2 game, was called out on replay after stealing third base because he came off the bag for an infinitesimal amount of time, which as we are learning is almost unavoidable for any basestealer who doesn’t either go hands-first or bowl over the fielder at full speed, both of which are unacceptably dangerous as a general basestealing tactic. (Also, the umpires apparently ruled that the back of Luis Valbuena’s wrist, the only part of his arm that was in contact with Gore, constituted a tag.) This was followed by back-to-back home runs from Carlos Correa and Colby Rasmus to give Houston a 6-2 lead…and the Royals came back from that the next inning like it was nothing, tying the game and putting the go-ahead run at third base before an out was even recorded.

They overcame an ill-timed rain delay and Ned Yost’s frustrating reluctance to deploy his best relievers earlier in games to close out the ALCS, because Wade Davis is a cyborg and cyborgs don’t care if their arm has to rest for an hour in the midst of a relief appearance. I’ve seen better baseball teams, and I’ve seen more resilient baseball teams, but I’m not sure I’ve seen a team that was both. They are the team I’ve been waiting to root for my entire adult life.

And I want to say that no matter what happens in the World Series, they’ve won back-to-back American League championships, and that is something we can and should celebrate for a long time to come. But let’s be honest: if they don’t win this series, it will probably hurt a lot more than if they had just succumbed to the Astros two weeks ago yesterday. I said this before the World Series last year: getting that far actually made me more nervous about losing than I was before the ALDS or ALCS, because as much as the 2014 Royals had accomplished already by that point, the difference in the way they would be perceived had they won the World Series versus had they lost dwarfed everything else they had accomplished.

They lost that World Series, as nobly as a team can lose, but still: they lost. They lost Game 7, and with it, their chance at permanent glory. I thought that was the end of it. I thought that it would be a long time before they’d be back in this position. If you had offered me a proposition after Game 7 last year, that the Royals would next play in the World Series 7 years later, I would have taken it. I probably would have taken 10. I know how precious these opportunities can be, and I just didn’t want to live another 29 years without another chance at a championship.

It took 12 months. The Royals made it back to the World Series without even surrendering their title as AL champs. And it means that if they win the World Series this year, it will change the way I perceive last year’s team as well. The 2014 Royals aren’t a self-contained story anymore. They now feel like only the opening chapter of an even greater story, the Preamble to the 2014-2015 Royals, and if this season ends with a championship, the MLB-sanctioned Championship Blu-Ray better not start with Opening Day. Because in my mind, this Championship Season would not have started this April: it would have started when a pop-up settled into Salvador Perez’s glove in Chicago last September, when this crazy ride began.

The 2015 Royals aren’t just playing for themselves; they’re playing for the 2014 Royals too. If they win, they’ll forever alter the way they are perceived, and they’ll forever alter the way last year’s team is perceived too. The 2015 Royals have already proved that, as Eric Hosmer wrote, the 2014 Royals were No Fluke. Now they have a chance to prove that the 2014 Royals were actually champions themselves. They have a chance to turn Unfinished Business into finished business.

First they have to get past the Mets. The Mets weren’t as good as the Royals during the season, but then the Giants won fewer games than the Royals last year. They have ridiculous starting pitching, and Jeurys Familia throws a 94 mph splitter now, and Daniel Murphy had a productive meeting with Mr. Applegate earlier this month. The Mets are, on paper, a better team than the Giants were last year.

But then the Royals are a better team than they were last year too. They have an actual offense now, a lineup that doesn’t quit, that can start or end rallies from any spot in the lineup. They scored 5 runs or more in six straight games from Game 4 of the ALDS through game 4 of the ALCS. The last time the Royals scored 5 runs or more in six straight games: September, 2011.

I’m picking the Royals to win, because I think their fastball-hitting ways counter the Mets’ fastball-throwing ways well, and because the Mets don’t have a dominant lefty reliever in their pen to take advantage of the Royals’ 4-5-6 hitters (something that worked to the Royals against the Astros, as well as against the Blue Jays, whose loss of Brett Cecil was crucial in that series), and because the Royals DO have a dominant lefty reliever in Danny Duffy to throw against the five left-handers in the Mets’ lineup. I had the Royals in five against Houston because they didn’t have to face Dallas Keuchel twice, and I had the Royals in seven against Toronto because they didn’t have to face Cecil. I’m sticking with the Royals to finish this off, this time in six games, because Johnny Cueto having another random dominant outing to finish out the year would just be so in keeping with the theme of this season. (I’m looking forward to Raul Adalberto Mondesi having a big hit off the bench in New York for the same reason.)

But win or lose, I’m going to try to enjoy this series without worrying too much about what the outcome means for the legacy of the 2014-15 Royals. They will always be champions to me. I just hope that at the end, the world sees them the same way.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Picking The 25.

So after all the hand-wringing in September, after all the panic, after going 11-17 for the Royals’ first losing month since July of 2014, the Royals finish the season in the same way they began the month: with the best record in the American League, with the #1 seed, and with home-field advantage in every round. They jettisoned their Achilles’ heel, which was apparently located in Greg Holland’s right elbow. They got Alex Gordon back, completing one of the best offenses (relative to the league) that the Royals have ever had. And they finished the season on a five-game winning streak, meaning that over the last two years, the Royals have now won 13 consecutive games played between September 30th and October 20th.

All in all, not a terrible way to end the season. If you believe that momentum carries over into the playoffs, then the Royals’ five-game winning streak means you can put their losing September in the rear-view mirror. If, like me, you don’t, then you can put your faith in the fact that the Royals won more games over the course of the entire season than any other AL team. (And given that the AL once again pummeled the NL head-to-head, the Royals’ 95 wins are probably more meaningful than the Cardinals’ 100.)

But the reality is this: the playoffs are a crapshoot. Last year the 89-win Royals beat the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles before losing to the 88-win Giants. If this year, the 95-win Royals fall to the 87-win Yankees or 86-win Astros, well, we can’t say that we didn’t have it coming. One silver lining from last year is that even if the Royals do fall flat on their face this October, no one can claim that this collection of players underachieved. They accomplished last year what you would expect this year’s team to do; if this year’s team earns the fate that you would have expected from last year’s team, they’re even.

And if this year’s team accomplishes what this year’s team is expected to do…well, Kansas City is lovely in late October. I learned that first-hand last year. (Although early November – Game 7 would be played on November 4th – would be a new experience.)

Enough foreplay. Let’s try to figure out the ideal roster.

Start with the ideal hitter/pitcher breakdown. At this point, it would be stunning if the Royals don’t go with a 14/11 split. It’s impossible to justify a 13/12 split, because you don’t need a fifth starter, so even with 11 pitchers you still have seven relievers; you’re not dropping a bullpen arm, you’re dropping Jeremy Guthrie. And with two off-days in every series, pretty much every reliever can pitch in pretty much every game. (The only two times in the entire month that a reliever would potentially have to pitch for a third straight day would be Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series.)

On that basis, you could make a cogent argument for a 15/10 split, carrying just six relievers. I highly doubt that will happen, because the Royals rarely let any reliever throw more than one inning, and if you carry six relievers you’re either carrying six one-inning guys – meaning you could possibly run out of pitchers by the 12th inning – or you’re carrying a long man like Chris Young, in which case you only have five one-inning relievers. I don’t see that happening, particularly because the Royals have so many bullpen options that even whittling it down to six could be difficult.

So let’s assume 14 hitters and 11 pitchers for now. We’ll begin with the pitching staff. Yordano Ventura almost certainly starts Game 1, and Johnny Cueto probably starts Game 2. As if Cueto’s performance the last six weeks hasn’t been frightening enough, in his final regular season start he worked in the 88-91 mph range with his fastball most of the game. No one in the dugout, the front office, or in the broadcaster’s booth seemed the slightest bit concerned, and he did reach back to 93 as the game progressed, and finished off his outing by hitting 94 for the first time with his 100th and final pitch, so maybe he was just resting his arm a bit before the playoffs. That doesn’t explain the ten baserunners in five innings to a makeshift Twins lineup, but at this point I don’t think we have any choice other than to let Cueto take the mound in Game 2 and pray for the best.

Edinson Volquez presumably will start Game 3, and that leaves an interesting choice in Game 4: go with Kris Medlen, who since joining the rotation allowed 26 runs in 44 innings in 8 starts, or go to Chris Young, who had a stellar 3.06 ERA for the season – he was worth 2.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, making him the most valuable pitcher on the team other than Wade Davis – and after returning to the rotation at the end of the season, allowed four hits and one run in 11.1 innings?

I suspect they will go with Medlen, in large part because Chris Young is an extreme flyball pitcher, and Game 4 will be a road game, meaning it will be at either Minute Maid Park or at New Yankee Stadium, both of which are places where fly balls turn into cheap home runs. (This is also the case for Globe Life Park in Arlington and at the Rogers Center, making Young a poor choice to start any road game before the World Series.) It is true – if quite surprising – that Young actually had a lower ERA (2.52) on the road this season than at home (3.66). But it’s also true that the Royals did a very good job of spotting Young in ballparks that are tough to hit home runs in. In the two bandboxes (U.S. Cellular and Yankee Stadium) that he started at this year, Young allowed four home runs in 11 innings.

So my suspicion is that Medlen starts Game 4, particularly if the game is at Yankee Stadium, both because of the ballpark and because the Yankees are just crawling with left-handed hitters – counting switch-hitters they might start seven or even eight left-handed hitters in the lineup. Young, who relies on a slider, had a big platoon split this year, although his career splits are pretty standard. But Medlen, who has a very good changeup, actually has allowed a slightly lower OPS for his career vs. LHB (665) than vs. RHB (675). While hitters’ platoon splits generally regress to the mean over the long run, that is not true for pitchers – a pitcher’s platoon split is heavily dependent on his repertoire as well as his arm angle. The Astros are likely to start at least four right-handed bats (Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Gattis), making Young a more viable option against them.

And here’s something else to consider: what if the Royals go into Game 4 down two games to one in the series? And what if Cueto got bombed in Game 2? In that case, would you consider bringing Ventura back on three days’ rest to start Game 4, and then using Young at Kauffman Stadium in Game 5? If playing the Astros, I’d say no – you’re going to have to win with Young either way, so just let him start in Houston in Game 4 and let Ventura go on full rest in Game 5. But if the Royals are playing at Yankee Stadium, and the alternative is letting Medlen or Young pitch on the road in an elimination game…I’m just saying it’s something that has to be considered.

Regardless, Medlen and Young are both on the playoff roster, one as a starter, one as a long man. That leaves room for six relievers. Wade Davis pitches the ninth, and Ryan Madson – not Kelvin Herrera – pitches the eighth. (The Royals seem to agree; they had Herrera setting up for Madson on Thursday when they gave Davis the day off.) Herrera not only may have lost the eighth inning role – he might have ceded the seventh inning to Danny Duffy, who was brilliant in the pen: 8.1 innings, 4 hits, two walks, 12 Ks, no runs. Particularly against the Yankees, Duffy’s ability to shut down left-handed hitters could be one of the keys to the series.

Duffy gives the Royals an option they didn’t have with HDH last year – a left-handed relief weapon, which means that Ned Yost is better off positioning him to pitch when a run of left-handed hitters is coming up rather than pigeonholing him into a specific inning. Hopefully we’ll see Duffy anywhere from the sixth to the eighth, depending on the situation, with Herrera and Madson working around him. The Royals deserve to be applauded for not only moving Duffy to the bullpen when they did, but trying him as a one-inning relief weapon as opposed to a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long man. I’m really excited to see what a healthy Duffy does as a playoff reliever.

His new role gives the Royals four elite relievers, which means there’s really no reason for any starter to go more than five innings in a game. I mean, if Ventura is blowing smoke and making curveballs disappear, I suppose you can stick with him into the sixth and seventh, and if the old Johnny Cueto magically appears, I’d consider it with him too. But there’s no reason – NO REASON – why Volquez or Medlen or Young should ever see the sixth inning.

That leaves two more roster spots, which clearly go to Luke Hochevar (3.73 ERA, 4.00 FIP) and Franklin Morales (3.18 ERA, 3.52 FIP). Hochevar and Morales are roughly equivalent to Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan last year. The difference is, thanks to Duffy, this year they’re the 5th and 6th options in the bullpen, whereas last year Frasor and Finnegan were 4th and 5th. Maybe this bullpen isn’t quite as dominant at the back end, but it’s even deeper than last year’s.

(This is another place where Greg Holland’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. If he were healthy enough to pitch, the Royals would have felt obliged to carry him on the roster, which either would have meant bumping off a better pitcher, or more likely, tempted the Royals to carry 12 pitchers and hobble their bench.)

That leaves us with 14 hitters, and the one real choice the Royals have to make. Eight guys are obvious: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Kendrys Morales. Drew Butera makes the roster because otherwise if Perez gets hurt all the pitches will roll to the backstop, and that’s not good. Jarrod Dyson will reprise his role as defensive replacement and pinch-runner extraordinaire if he’s not starting. Christian Colon will almost certainly be the utility infielder; he quietly hit .290/.356/.336 in the majors this year – his career line (granted, in just 168 plate appearances) is .303/.361/.382. The only alternative would be Cheslor Cuthbert, who has never played shortstop and has played second base for a grand total of 28 innings as a professional. So that’s not going to happen.

That leaves three roster spots and four options to fill them. Alex Rios is almost certain to get one of them as the starting right fielder. After a five-week hot stretch sandwiched around a bout of chicken pox – Rios hit .382/.387/.584 over a 24-game stretch – he finished the season in a 2-for-29 slump. Still, the Royals are convinced his overall line of .255/.287/.353 isn’t indicative of his ability. He did hit better from September 1st on (.259/.286/.424), and if you want to draw the line all the way back to the All-Star Break, he hit .267/.302/.400 in the second half. Even those numbers aren’t great, and his defense is below average, so I’m still not sure why they stick with him over Jarrod Dyson, at least against right-handed pitchers. But having started 23 of the Royals’ last 25 games after returning from his varicella-induced absence, it would be rather shocking for Rios to suddenly be benched now.

That leaves one of the following three players off the roster: Paulo Orlando, Terrance Gore, and Jonny Gomes. All three have their appeal. Orlando can do a bit of everything: he can pinch-run for you and give you excellent speed on the bases, if not necessarily an excellent base-stealer; he can come in for defense; and if he has to bat, well, his .249/.269/.444 line was better than Rios’ line overall.

Gomes does one thing: he hits left-handed pitchers. This is a highly useful skill. It is not clear whether this skill is still intact, however – Gomes’ slash line against LHP this year was just .221/.371/.412. And even if it is, it’s not clear how the Royals would deploy it.

Gore does one thing: he runs (and steals) the bases. This is not nearly as useful a skill as the ability to hit left-handed pitchers. If he enters the game as a pinch-runner, he almost has to be replaced by the next half-inning. Not only is he not ready to hit in the major leagues, he’s not particularly ready to field in the major leagues.

However, Gore does his one thing basically as well as any player in the major leagues does any one thing. He is the human incarnation of Ludicrous Speed. He is a completely useless waste of a roster spot unless and until a specific moment materializes that requires a man who has a very particular set of skills. And in that moment, there may not be a man on planet Earth more suited for it than Terrance Gore.

Someone has to be left off the roster, and I don’t know who it will be. I don’t know who it should be. Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d say it should be Alex Rios, because I’m not sure there’s anything that Rios does right now any better than Orlando, and Orlando has a substantial defensive advantage on him. (According to Defensive Runs Saved, Orlando was +8 runs in barely 600 innings in the field. Rios was -6 runs in 105 starts in right field.) Between Orlando, Gomes, and Dyson, the Royals could cobble together a pretty good right fielder and still have some options on the bench.

But if you’re going to start Rios, the choice of who to leave off becomes a lot less clear. Do you really need Orlando, who can do lots of things in a pinch but doesn’t do anything well enough to make you want to reach for him in an emergency? Do you really need Gomes to hit against a left-handed pitcher, given that unlike last year – when Josh Willingham pinch-hitting for Moustakas in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game saved the Royals’ season – it’s unlikely you’ll ever pinch-hit for Moustakas, or Gordon, or Hosmer, the three left-handed hitters in your lineup? Do you really need Gore when, by starting Rios, you’ve already got one of the five fastest runners in baseball on the bench in Dyson?

I think the decision is close enough that the best answer is simply “it depends”. It depends on the opponent: if you play the Astros, with Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir and a left field fence that’s just 318 feet down the line, then you probably roster Gomes and maybe even start him in right field at Minute Maid Park when Keuchel takes the mound for Game 3. If you play the Yankees, whose only left-handed starter (C.C. Sabathia) just checked into rehab, it’s hard to see how Gomes will get into a game. It depends on the ground rules: in the World Series, where you need several pinch-hitters to bat for your pitchers in three of the games, Gomes would need to be rostered.

Like I said: the easy solution would be to take Rios off the roster and take your chances with everyone else. The Royals think they know better. Given their track record over the last two years, then, I fully expect Rios to come through with a crucial hit at some point this month. Given all the good hitters in front of him, he certainly won’t lack for opportunities.

The Royals always reserve the right to surprise us – remember, Jayson Nix was on the World Series last year over Christian Colon, and Nix has as many career hits for the Royals as I do. But looking at this roster, at least until Omar Infante gets healthy, there are really just 26 guys that merit any consideration for the playoff roster. One guy will get left off, and no matter who they choose, it’s hard to screw that decision up significantly. In terms of the personnel available to them, the Royals head to the postseason in as good a shape as they’ve been in all season.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Royals Today: Game 162 Preview.

As I write this, in the wee hours of the morning before Game 162, we know that the Royals have won the AL Central and will have home field advantage in the ALDS which starts on Thursday. Pretty much everything else is in play. We don’t know if they’ll have the #1 or #2 seed. Even if we did, we don’t know who the AL West champion is; while we know the Yankees will be one of the participants in the Wild Card game, their opponent could be the Rangers, Astros, or Angels, and the game may or may not be at Yankee Stadium.

We don’t even know whether we should be rooting for the Royals to have the #1 seed or not, because while it would be nice to have home field advantage for the ALCS, 1) penciling the Royals in to face the Blue Jays in the ALCS is quite the presumption given that 2) you have to win the ALDS first, and the Royals might be better off facing the Rangers as the #2 seed than the Astros as the #3 seed. Except that 3) the Rangers might yet lose the division anyway and 4) the Angels can’t be counted out just yet, not after the game of the year today, when they scored five runs in the top of the ninth to overcome a 10-6 deficit, with the winning run driven in by – who else? – Johnny Giavotella.

The fear factor of the first round depends on the team the Royals face, yes, but it also depends on the starting pitcher they are likely to face twice in the series. For the Rangers, that would probably be Cole Hamels – even though the Rangers have to turn to Hamels tomorrow to secure the division, meaning he wouldn’t be able to start on full rest until Game 2 of the ALDS. Because there are off days after Game 2 and after Game 4 of the ALDS, he could still start on full rest in Game 5 if need be. (I understand why MLB does it for scheduling reasons, to prevent too many days with four playoff games, but the LDS round is particularly punishing to teams with a lot of pitching depth. With all the off days, depth simply isn’t that important.)

For the Yankees, presumably their Game 1 starter will be Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino would start Game 2, and either one could return in Game 5 if need be. Severino, in particular, is a wild card for me – he’s just 21 years old and has made just 11 major league starts, but his stuff is electric and he has a 2.89 ERA in those 11 starts. The Royals seem to have difficulty with rookie pitchers, maybe because they’re rookies, or maybe because they’ve simply never faced the pitcher before. They’ve never faced Severino.

But the guy who scares me the most is Dallas Keuchel. Partly, that’s because of Keuchel’s greatness – a 2.48 ERA, a league-leading ERA+ (161) and WHIP (1.017) – and partly that’s because of his style as a pitcher. He’s left-handed, and the Royals have hit left-handers worse than right-handers this year. However, that disparity has dropped dramatically since mid-season; through Friday’s game, the Royals had a .736 OPS vs. RHP, and a .729 OPS vs. LHP. Adding Ben Zobrist helped, but a big factor is that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have hit left-handers very well in the second half. Moustakas, in particular, has hit lefties almost as well for the season (.272/.327/.475) as he has hit right-handers (.287/.353/.462). And Alex Gordon actually has a higher OPS vs. southpaws (.829) than right-handers (.793).

But I’m still nervous, because single-season platoon splits aren’t very predictive at all. In the long run, virtually all hitters will hit better against opposite-handed pitchers, and left-handed hitters tend to have larger splits than right-handed hitters (because they face left-handed pitchers much less often than right-handed hitters face right-handed pitchers). It’s possible, at the very least, that Hosmer and especially Moustakas have made adjustments against left-handers so that they’re not completely impotent against them. Keuchel still worries me, though, because in addition to being left-handed, he’s also a finesse guy that uses an opposing hitter’s aggressiveness against him. His fastball averaged 89.6 mph this year, which is amazing, that a guy who throws less than 90 could win the Cy Young Award in this era of high velocity. While I can’t find hard data to corroborate or refute this (if you know where to look, please tell me), my sense is that the Royals handle velocity very well; they don’t handle deception and breaking stuff nearly as well.

Regardless, everyone has had trouble against Keuchel this season. Yes, he has a crazy home/road split this year: 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA on the road. And yes, if he starts twice against the Royals, both starts will come in Kansas City. But again, single-season splits simply don’t come with a large enough sample size to be truly meaningful. Keuchel is a tough pitcher to face no matter what park he’s in.

The Royals may not face him twice, though, because he could start the Wild Card game on three days’ rest, and there’s no point in saving him for an ALDS matchup that may not happen. But the Astros had the chance to pull him early Friday night – they led 7-1 going to the bottom of the fifth, and 10-2 going to the bottom of the sixth – and still let Keuchel throw six innings and 99 pitches. Obviously, I’m biased, but if the Astros play in the Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium (and again, everything’s up in the air!), Keuchel would appear to be the perfect pitcher for that park – a left-handed extreme groundball pitcher is the antidote for that bandbox.

So the Royals could wind up with the #1 seed and a terrible matchup against a well-rested Dallas Keuchel in the ALDS, or they could face an Angels team that had to win Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday just to earn the right to play in Kansas City on Thursday. (The Angels’ starter would, I presume, be Hector Santiago, who is sort of a poor man’s Keuchel himself.) For now, just enjoy the show, and enjoy the rare spectacle of other teams fighting down to the wire for the opportunity to play the Royals.

I want to talk about what the playoff roster should look like, but I can’t move forward without addressing the elephant in the room: as if he was trolling me for writing glowing praise about his managerial skills this season, almost as soon as my last article went up, Ned Yost undid five months of evolutionary improvement to the Royals lineup and moved Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. Never mind that Escobar has been one of the worst everyday hitters in baseball this season, and the absolute worst everyday hitter in baseball since the All-Star Break. Never mind that they had not one, but two prototypical leadoff hitters in Gordon and Zobrist. They won with Escobar leading off, and by golly they’re going to lead him off again.

With Escobar batting at the bottom of the lineup, the Royals had gone 6-11. Of course, the offense wasn’t the problem; until the last two games prior to ending the experiment, the Royals had actually scored more runs per game with Escobar batting 9th than when he led off. But apparently the collapse of the pitching staff in September can be blamed on the order in which the batters were arranged, or something. After the Royals scored two runs in two games against the Cubs and White Sox, Escobar was restored to his former place of glory.

And, of course, since Escobar returned to the leadoff spot they’ve won four straight. They’ve scored 19 runs in those four games, a healthy 4.75 per game average but not much higher than their 4.46 runs/game average for the season. They’ve won four straight because, you guessed it, the pitching: they’ve allowed just nine runs. It makes no sense, and Yost doesn’t even try to make the claim that it does. But whether it’s to preserve clubhouse harmony or simply out of superstition, the Royals will attempt to win the World Series by giving a .257/.294/.321 hitter more plate appearances than anyone else.

Obviously, I disagree, because I think this hurts the Royals in multiple ways. Giving Escobar more at-bats hurts, but so does moving Alex Gordon to the bottom of the lineup. It’s not simply that Gordon is a really good hitter and you want your really good hitters to bat more; it’s that he leads the team with a .376 OBP, and by batting him eighth, you are taking the guy in your lineup that’s most likely to reach base, and handing the job of delivering him home to…the two worst hitters in your lineup, Alex Rios and Escobar. If Gordon were more of an all-or-nothing slugger you could justify having him be the cleaner at the end of the chain of good hitters. And perhaps he’ll change his approach to do just that; he certainly has the raw power to do so. But his skill set is optimized to set the table, and the Royals just put their best tablesetter in front of two guys who don’t know how to clear it.

And then there’s the whole issue of taking the heart of your entire franchise, the longest-tenured player on the roster, the guy that everyone else in the clubhouse is told to emulate, an impending free agent that you really don’t want to lose next year…and demoting him to eighth in the lineup. That seems unwise.

But I can’t say with certainty that it is. Stuff goes on behind closed doors that we simply don’t know about. It’s possible that Gordon is completely on board with batting 8th; it’s even possible that he proposed the move himself. I just wrote about how good Yost has been this year (and in fairness, he’s always been good about this) at winning the confidence of his players, and maybe that’s the case again here. (The New York Times ran a very good article on Yost on this very subject the other day; just ignore the non sequiturs in the piece regarding analytics.) I can prove mathematically that the new Royals lineup hurts the team on the field; I can’t prove that it doesn’t help them off the field.

And it’s very easy to overstate the impact that a lineup can have. Let’s say that the difference between the new lineup and the old one is somewhere between 23 and 32 runs over the course of a season, which seems reasonable. That’s an enormous difference, between two and three wins a year. A free agent that was guaranteed to be worth 2-3 wins above replacement would cost you, on a one-year deal, something like $15 million. It stands to reason, then, that this simple lineup decision would cost the Royals $15 million over the course of an entire season.

And yet, in a short series, the cost can be quite minimal. 23 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a seven-game series; 32 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a five-game series. The Royals are sacrificing one run per series for the sake of clubhouse harmony, or confidence, or voodoo. One run can decide a game, and one game can decide a series, but the odds are something like 95% that it won’t. It’s possible that the Royals will get that one run back in ways we can’t detect with this move. But even if they don’t: it’s one run. If the Royals lose a playoff game when Escobar makes the final out with the go-ahead run in scoring position, we’ll howl at the moon. For now, we’ll wait and see. It’s not like we have any choice in the matter.

Next up: figuring out the ideal makeup of the 25-man roster, and everyone’s role in it.