Monday, September 15, 2014

Royals Today: 9/15/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 68.0% (30.9% Division, 37.2% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 64.9% (16.7% Division, 48.2% Wild Card)

If you’re wondering why I’ve decided to close down this blog at the end of the year, yesterday’s game was as good an explanation as any. I feel like I’m trapped in the Royals’ version of Groundhog Day, condemned to write the same columns over and over, first pointing out that Decision X is a bad idea, and then inevitably writing a post-mortem explanation of why Decision X was a bad idea after reality has proven that it was, in fact, a bad idea.

Letting Gil Meche throw 117 pitches with a dead arm. Trading for Mike Jacobs. Signing Jason Kendall. Signing Yuniesky Betancourt. Sticking with Luke Hochevar in the rotation. Etc. Etc.

I’m not saying I always get it right – James Shields says hi – and I would argue that the Royals under Dayton Moore have improved in this regard considerably over the years. But a single tactical decision may have hurt the Royals more than any of the ones I mentioned above, even those that affected the Royals for years, because it came in a pennant race, and one game may well cost the Royals a playoff spot.


It’s true, Ned Yost trusted Crow with a one-run lead in the ninth inning on September 2nd and it worked out, and again used him to pitch the seventh inning in a 2-0 game at Yankee Stadium and it worked out. Which simply proves that – particularly in today’s run environment – even mediocre pitchers will throw a scoreless inning the majority of the time. A pitcher with a 4.50 ERA (ignoring unearned runs for a moment) allows a run every other inning, so unless he literally never allows a crooked number, he’s going to throw a scoreless inning more than 50% of the time. It would take a pitcher with a 6+ ERA before the odds that he pitches a scoreless inning would drop under 50%.

That’s if a pitcher is starting an inning fresh. When a pitcher comes in with men on second and third and one out, those odds drop considerably, and you need your best arms then. As we saw yesterday.

I’m not going to break down the decision in too much detail, both because I have no time and because Yost’s decision to let Daniel Nava bat against Crow with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Royals clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth inning has been the talk of baseball over the last 24 hours. Andy McCullough does a brilliant job of being about as critical in his game recap as a beat writer can be. Joe Posnanski weighed in. Jonah Keri weighed in. The Effectively Wild podcast from Baseball Prospectus weighed in. I don’t need to pile on.

But I do want to point out that there are essentially two mistakes that Yost made. The first one is perhaps the worse one from the standpoint of how much it hurts the team, but it’s also the more forgivable one, because it’s the mistake that the majority of managers in baseball would make.

That’s the decision to not go to one of his elite pitchers in that situation because “Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning”. We can laugh about this if we want; yesterday was just the 9th time in 64 outings for Crow this year that he pitched in the sixth inning at all, and the third time since the All-Star Break. We can get mad if we want; analysts have been arguing for 30 years – basically since the 1970s model of using your best reliever as a “stopper” gave way to the 1980s model of using your best reliever as a “closer” – that saving your best reliever for a late-inning situation is the height of foolishness when the game is on the line a little earlier.

But the reality is that Yost’s decision to wait one more out for Herrera is not at all out of line with Generally Accepted Managerial Principles (GAMP). Yost is a bit of a lightning rod for criticism, in that when he makes a bad tactical decision, the baseball media pounces on him in a way they don’t when another manager makes the exact same move. Mike Petriello discusses this phenomenon here, and months ago Jonah Keri did the same thing. But Yost is not alone. Almost all managers prefer to give their relievers roles, and to not diverge from those roles even when it would help the team.

And in the long run, I’m no longer 100% convinced that’s a bad idea, simply because we continue to see relievers scale heights of dominance that were unthinkable even 10 or 15 years ago. And the Royals, as I’ve documented several times, are as dominant as anyone in this regard. We must at least consider the possibility that the reason why Herrera and Wade Davis and Greg Holland have been historically effective this year is precisely because they know their roles, and they know they will only have to pitch one inning at a time. I’m not saying that’s a fact; I’m saying that when enough teams manage their bullpens the same way, and when bullpens continue to get better and better, you have to at least wonder if there’s a correlation.

That doesn’t excuse Yost for what happened yesterday, though, because you can’t worry about the long run in mid-September. Shields likes to say that September is the postseason – well then, dammit, manage like this is the postseason.

Before today’s game Yost appeared chastened in this regard, saying that – from now on – he will consider using Herrera and Davis for more than three outs. It’s nice to see him closing the barn doors after the horses have disappeared over the horizon, but he shouldn’t have needed the negative reinforcement that he got yesterday to figure this out. Good managers aren’t reactive; they’re proactive.

But anyway, if that were the only issue with having Crow pitch there, I wouldn’t be as upset as I am. Because the second mistake that Yost made was that, even if you’re not going to Herrera, Davis, or Holland there, going to Crow was an indefensible decision.

Once again:

Jason Frasor, 2014: 2.84 ERA, 3.32 FIP
Aaron Crow, 2014: 4.13 ERA, 5.50 FIP

Jason Frasor, 2013: 2.57 ERA, 3.37 FIP
Aaron Crow, 2013: 3.38 ERA, 4.34 FIP

Please explain to me in what sane world would you pick the second pitcher over the first? Why, because Aaron Crow was a useful reliever two years ago? Two years is a lifetime for a reliever. Crow’s strikeout rate has dropped by almost half since 2012, from 25.0% to 13.7%. His fastball has lost three mph, and continues to trend downwards. It’s not possible that Yost might not have noticed that Crow isn’t the pitcher he used to be.

Or maybe it is. Why otherwise would Yost say that he went to Crow in part because he wanted a strikeout in that situation? Crow’s strikeout rate ranks 300th among the 312 pitchers in the majors this year with 50+ innings. I want to say to Yost what old schoolers want to say to us analysts, which is “get your head out of a scouting report and watch a baseball game some time.” I don’t know how someone could have watched the Royals all season long, without even looking at the stat sheet, and not realize that Aaron Crow isn’t missing any bats. Or that he is now tied for the AL lead in home runs (10) given up by a reliever.

Crow, to his credit, did get a strikeout when he needed one; after walking Yoenis Cespedes to load the bases, he struck out Allen Craig for the second out. This does get to the one thing Crow does okay, which is get right-handed hitters out. He has always had a large platoon split; his career numbers are .229/.310/.328 for RHB, .262/.337/.457 for LHB, not at all surprising for someone who relies on his slider as much as Crow does.

The only problem: Daniel Nava is a switch-hitter. And he crushes right-handed pitching. Really, he should just give up switch-hitting and bat exclusively from the left side. His career line against LHP is .208/.285/.299; vs. RHP it’s .291/.384/.428. That’s an astounding difference.

Nava batted left-handed against Crow. In the key situation of a key game, Ned Yost let a switch-hitting batter who is helpless against left-handed pitching face a right-hander who is helpless against left-handed hitting.

Frasor, in addition to his other advantages over Crow, has a comparatively small platoon split: .230/.303/.363 vs. RHP, .244/.338/.370 vs. LHP in his career. Yost could have gone to Frasor for just one batter, since he was planning to turn the game over to Herrera, Davis, and Holland anyway.

He could have gone to Brandon Finnegan, a left-hander who had retired 11 of the 12 batters he had faced in the majors. Finnegan had pitched an inning the night before, but he was only needed to get one out.

It’s not hard to come the conclusion that Yost was spooked by what happened two months ago in Boston, what Yost has admitted was the one decision he regretted this season, bringing in Scott Downs to pitch – with two outs in the sixth inning – to Jackie Bradley Jr., only to be caught off-guard when the Red Sox pinch-hit with Jonny Gomes, who hit a two-run homer in a game the Royals lost, 5-4.

Gomes is no longer in Boston, but Mike Napoli is, and was on the bench, and presumably would have pinch-hit. But Yost may have learned the lesson too well. The problem wasn’t bringing in a left-hander; it was bringing in Scott Downs. The problem wasn’t taking out a right-handed pitcher; it was taking out James Shields. And the problem wasn’t going for the platoon advantage; it was going for the platoon advantage with Jackie Bradley Jr.

Going with Downs over Shields because you’re worried about Jackie Bradley Jr. is absurd. Going with Finnegan over Crow because you’re worried about Daniel Nava isn’t. You’re bringing in a better pitcher, taking out a worse pitcher, and facing a player who is enormously dangerous against right-handed pitching.

Maybe Finnegan isn’t ready for the big time yet. Maybe he wasn’t ready to pitch in back-to-back games yet. But Jason Frasor not only was ready to pitch, he did pitch, when the game was already out of reach in the eighth inning. He pitched a scoreless inning. And when Nava batted, Frasor got him to ground out.

Meanwhile, there are just 14 games left in the season. The AL Central is slipping away, and if the Mariners get hot, the wild card might slip away too. It’s great if Ned Yost learned from his mistake yesterday. But if he learns from any more mistakes this season, it might be 2015 before he gets a chance to apply what he’s learned.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Royals Today: 9/14/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 71.3% (42.9% Division, 28.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 67.9% (27.2% Division, 40.7% Wild Card)

Well, maybe we should stop fretting so much about lineup order.

Ned Yost’s new lineup started off with a bang, with his new leadoff hitter and his new DH, Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki, both scoring in the first inning. Just as a watched pot never boils, a noticed streak never continues, and the Royals’ 22-game streak of scoring six runs or less came to a merciful end. Yost can tell his critics to kiss his ass for another night. It wasn’t as dramatic as the Bloomquist Game, but it was also a lot more meaningful.

Lineups matter, but they matter a lot less than most people realize. And as silly as it might be to have Escobar leading off, it’s a lot less silly than letting the shell of Omar Infante’s body bat second night after night. Really, if you moved Escobar from leadoff to the #9 spot, that might be the ideal order of these nine players. That’s kind of a big change – moving a hitter from first to last – but the point is that the lineup isn’t nearly as crazy as it looks at first glance.

The other issue many people had with the lineup was having Aoki in the DH spot. It’s a fair criticism; you generally would prefer to have a DH in September who has hit more than one home run all year. But how much better are the other options, really?

Look at these three players:

Player 1: .267/.335/.336
Player 2: .265/.310/.380
Player 3: .266/.319/.374

Who would you rather have in your lineup? Players 2 and 3 are almost identical; Player 1 has a slugging average 40 points lower but an OBP 20 points higher. It’s a tough call, honestly.

But what if I told you that Player 1 has added positive value as a baserunner, while Players 2 and 3 have both been below-average in that regard? And that Player 1 has hit into only 5 double plays all year, while Player 2 has hit into 11, and Player 3 has hit into 20? Suddenly, Player 1 looks like your best option – not a good option, but your best option.

Player 1, as your probably know, is Aoki. Player 2 is Eric Hosmer. Player 3 is Billy Butler. Based on their performance this year, Aoki has been the most valuable offensive player. Maybe having him DH isn’t as crazy as it looks.

Or look at it this way:

Nori Aoki, 2014: .267/.335/.336, 15-7 SB-CS, 5 GIDP
Royals DHs, 2014: .244/.302/.331, 4-0 SB-CS, 22 GIDP

Yes, that’s just looking at this year; Hosmer and Butler were both superior offensive players last year. (Although Aoki was also better than Hosmer in 2012.) But it’s the middle of September now; all of these guys have enough plate appearances to make you think that what we’ve seen so far this year has more relevance than what they’ve done in the past.

Anyway, going forward the proper answer to the question is Josh Willingham, but he stubbornly refuses to stay healthy. But if Aoki is the DH this afternoon, maybe we should all bite our tongue and see how it plays out. [Late note: he is. The lineup is exactly the same as yesterday's. Of course it is]

- The other advantage to moving Aoki from RF to DH is that it meant the Royals trotted out three Gold Glove-caliber outfielders. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, despite striking out just two batters in eight innings, Jeremy Guthrie allowed just three hits and one unearned run (thanks to Mike Moustakas; remember, the Royals’ infield defense is basically average.)

I would just as soon go with a Gordon-Cain-Dyson outfield against all RHP for the rest of the season; paradoxically, giving Dyson more playing time gives him more time for his skills – speed, range, and what qualifies as an excellent OBP by Royals standards – to make up for the inevitable mistakes he makes.

But if they’re not going to commit to that outfield all the time, they should at least do so when Guthrie starts. Last night Dyson made 9 putouts in center field, one shy of the team record of 10 – a record he also shares. In Guthrie’s three prior starts, the Royals had an outfield of Gordon-Cain-Aoki, and in those three starts Guthrie allowed 27 hits in 15.2 innings. The last time Dyson was in center field for Guthrie was August 23rd – and Guthrie went eight innings that night, allowing five hits and one run. Mostly a coincidence. But partly having an outfield where fly balls go to die.

They mentioned this on the broadcast last night, but with yesterday’s victory, in Jarrod Dyson’s last 21 starts, the Royals are 19-2. And as an added bonus, having Dyson in the starting lineup means he can’t pinch-run in the ninth and then feel like he has to “do something”.

- Brandon Finnegan finally gave up a baserunner, but only after Lorenzo Cain came oh-so-close to catching Allen Craig’s foul pop-up behind the tarp, and only after Finnegan had struck out David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s faced 12 batters in the majors, struck out five of them, and allowed just an opposite-field single. And here are those batters:

J.R. Murphy; Jacoby Ellsbury; Derek Jeter; Martin Prado; Mark Teixeira; Carlos Beltran; David Ortiz twice; Yoenis Cespedes twice; Allen Craig; Mike Napoli.

Not all those guys are in the prime of their career, but if you’re a fresh-faced 21-year-old who was pitching in college three months ago, every single batter you’ve faced other than Murphy has been a player you’ve been hearing about for years, or in some cases since your earliest memories in baseball. And he’s shoved it. It’s a really small sample size, but it’s hard not to get excited about Finnegan’s future. Not just for what he can do out of the bullpen the rest of this season, but what he might be able to do for the Royals in their rotation in the future.

- The Royals’ playoff odds went up significantly overnight, even though the Tigers came back to beat Cleveland, on a two-run, two-out homer by Alex Avila in the eighth, a half-inning after Torii Hunter made a shoestring catch to save two runs.

The Tigers’ victory hurts the Royals’ chances of winning the AL Central, but the Indians’ loss helps their chances of winning the second wild card. Moreover, the A’s extra-inning victory in Seattle last night (in the most A’s way possible, scoring a run on four walks) is a big boon for the Royals.

The A’s collapse has made it possible that they will wind up being the team left out of the musical chairs game that is the four-teams-for-three-spots race. But after today’s game in Seattle, their remaining schedule is very easy: 9 of their last 13 games are at home, and while they do play three games against the Angels, they have three against the Phillies, and the other seven are against the Rangers, who 1) have the worst record in baseball and 2) have basically packed it in for the season.

The Mariners, on the other hand, start an 11-game road trip against the Angels, the feisty Astros, and the still-hanging-in-the-race Blue Jays. They finish with three home games against Anaheim, and at that point the Angels may well have clinched and be in getting-everyone-healthy-for-the-playoffs mode. But even so, that’s a very formidable closing kick, and the Royals’ greatest ally in their quest to get into the playoffs by any means possible.

You all know what this means, don’t you? A Royals-A’s wild card game. A Scout’s Honor vs. Moneyball. Old School vs. New School. A team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years vs. a team that has lost six straight double-elimination playoff games. My personal life and my professional life in a three-hour fight to the death.

There will be no divided loyalties here. Sabermetrics, shmabermetrics.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Royals Today: 9/13/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 61.1% (39.8% Division, 21.3% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 58.5% (26.4% Division, 32.1% Wild Card)

And keep in mind, these odds don’t account for the fact that the Royals have the executioner’s knife hanging over them a week from Monday, when they resume a game against the Indians with the score 4-2 in the 10th inning. Count that as a loss and an Indians win, and the Royals would be half a game behind the Mariners for the final wild card spot (and just three games ahead of Cleveland). Of course, they would only be 1.5 games behind both Detroit and Oakland. The best thing going for the Royals is that there are three playoff spots for four teams, barring a surge by the Indians or Blue Jays, or a 15-1 closing kick by the Yankees.

But factor in that pending loss, and the Royals’ playoff odds would probably be right around 50-50. Which seems fair, because this team can’t score runs.

In the Royals’ last 14 games, they scored five runs once – last Monday in Detroit, when Lorenzo Cain hit an inside-the-park home run for the fifth run in a 9-5 game. So if two Tiger outfielders hadn’t collided with one another, the Royals would have now gone 14 straight games scoring four runs or less, which would tie the longest such streak in franchise history. As it is, they’re on a 15-game streak with five runs or fewer, which is already tied for 8th-longest in Royals history. Their 22-game streak with six runs or fewer is already tied for 5th-longest.

This is a problem. For all the good things that have happened the last two months, for all the good decisions the Royals have made on the pitching side of things, their almost comical inability to turn their hitting prospects into competent major leaguers is coming home to roost. Eric Hosmer, after hitting his first home run in two months last night, is batting .267/.312/.383. Mike Moustakas is hitting .209/.267/.370. Even Salvador Perez is having his worst season, continuing a troubling trend in which he’s gotten worse at the plate every year of his career. His OPS+ from 2011 to today read: 128, 115, 105, and 93. Since the All-Star Break, Perez is hitting .227/.233/.359. Look at that OBP! Perez, who walked seven times (plus on intentional) in the first eight games of the year, has drawn just 12 unintentional walks since. He’s walked twice since the Break.

When Alex Gordon was hot, the Royals at least had a chance. Now that he’s in a slump – 0 for his last 18, albeit with seven walks – no one in the lineup is doing anything. The most impatient lineup in the majors is getting abused by marginal pitchers with command issues. Prior to last night, Allen Webster had walked 43 batters in 71 innings in his career. Against the Royals, he walked one batter (Gordon, of course) in six innings. Not coincidentally, a guy who had a 7.39 career ERA before last night allowed two runs in six innings.

I don’t know what kind of analysis I can offer you here. The Royals need to hit better. The things the front office could do to help – send Hosmer and/or Moustakas to the minors for an extended period to help them rebuild their swings as well as send a message, or not fire Kevin Seitzer – long ago disappeared from their rear-view mirror. At this point, this is out of the front office’s hands. It’s up to the players themselves.

It’s also up to the manager, and you have to wonder if Ned Yost is cracking under the pressure a bit. Today’s lineup looks like something a random number generator spit out, with Alcides Escobar leading off for just the second time all year, with Nori Aoki at DH for just the fifth time all year. On the other hand, the Royals won the game that Escobar led off, and are 4-0 when Aoki DH’s. At least Omar Infante has mercifully moved down to seventh. And the Royals are going with a Gordon/Dyson/Cain outfield, a must with Guthrie on the mound. It’s a weird lineup. It’s not an optimal lineup. But the order of the hitters isn’t the issue. The identities of the hitters are the issue.

And Billy Butler sits on the bench again. I’m not even saying that the Royals are wrong to bench a guy who’s hitting .266/.319/.374, has no defensive value, and is one of the slowest players in the game. I’m just saying that I can’t wait for the expose to come out on what actually happened to the relationship between Butler and the Royals.

And oh yeah, it appears that three scoreless innings in a row did NOT mean that Aaron Crow was magically fixed. He gave up two walks, a double, and two runs in his last outing, turning a one-run deficit into a three-run deficit. Yeah, he got squeezed on the strike zone, and yeah, Hosmer could have made a play on the double, but that’s what happens when the ball is put in play – and of the six batters Crow faced, none struck out. He’s struck out two of the 16 batters he’s faced since he returned from the minors.

Jason Frasor, oh by the way, pitched last night with the Royals down two runs, and struck out the side. At least Greg Holland is back.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some some good news, here’s some. See, officially, the longest streak of six or fewer runs in Royals history is 29 games, accomplished both in 1969 and 1984. But in fact, the longest streak ever was 33 games. On September 15th, 1985, the Royals beat the A’s in the second game of a doubleheader, 7-2. They wouldn’t score seven runs in a game again until…Game 7 of the World Series. A lineup that was historically impotent didn’t keep the Royals from cliniching the AL West, winning the ALCS, or putting them in position to clinch a world championship. All it took was one of the best young rotations of my lifetime.

This isn’t the first time someone has found parallels between this year’s Royals team and the one that won a world championship. If the Royals reach the playoffs, they have the pitching and the defense to be a formidable opponent even with an offense that is on life support.

But first they have to get there. If their offense doesn’t get in gear soon, the comparisons to the 1985 Royals will end with the regular season.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Royals Today: 9/11/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 78.9% (62.3% Division, 16.6% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 77.9% (47.4% Division, 30.5% Wild Card)

Well, I hope all of you who criticized the Royals for making the James Shields trade are preparing your apologies.

As Dayton and I told you at the time, Big Game James would not only change the entire culture of the clubhouse, but would be the ace that would lead them to the playoffs, the stopper who would take the mound in a must-win game against the Detroit Tigers and shove it for seven innings. And Wade Davis would be the best relief pitcher the game has ever seen. If only you would have listened.

Okay, I’m not writing my long-anticipated apology column yet, because there’s still plenty of time for the Royals to finish six games out, and as much fun as the last six weeks have been, that kind of ending would dramatically change the perception of the deal. And the same people who rip me now for my position on the trade would be ripping me for jinxing the team by writing an apology column prematurely.

But it’s not too soon to give Dayton Moore and the Royals credit for making a trade that played out exactly the way they said it would. I’m not talking about wins and losses and playoff berths – which was certainly a significant part of my objection to it – but that the players they were acquiring have performed the way the Royals thought they would.

Because that was also definitely part of my issue with the trade. Pitchers – all pitchers – are inherently risky. James Shields had thrown 200+ innings in six straight seasons before the trade, and certainly a pitcher who has a long track record of durability is more likely to be durable in the future. But Shields had fired a lot of bullets with his right arm, and there was no guarantee that he still had a lot of bullets left. There was also no guarantee that the Royals wouldn’t get the 2009-10 Shields, who made every start and threw tons of innings – and had a 4.64 ERA over those two seasons combined.

That hasn’t been the case, though. Shields led the AL in innings last year, and he crossed over the 200-inning threshold even before last night’s start. Helped by an amazing defense last season, he posted a 3.15 ERA, and helped by a very good defense (and a bunch of unearned runs) this season, he’s posted a 3.13 ERA.

Last year, Shields was worth 4.1 bWAR, this year he’s been worth 3.2 bWAR so far. They will likely wind up being the third-best and fifth-best seasons in the eight full seasons of his career. While his ERA as a Royal (3.14) is much lower than his ERA as a Ray (3.89), the combination of the lower offensive levels today and the great Royals defense means that he has been almost exactly as effective with the Royals as he had with the Rays – no more, no less.

And you know what? That’s fine. That’s great. The attrition rate with pitchers due to injury or ineffectiveness is so high that if you acquire a #2 starter and he continues to pitch like a #2 starter, you should be thrilled. That’s what Shields has done.

Look at it this way: if the Royals had made the same trade two years ago for Justin Verlander, assuming Verlander had the same two years left on his contract for the same money, we all would have responded MUCH more positively. Verlander had just finished second in the Cy Young vote, the year after he had won the Cy Young and MVP. He was the best pitcher in the AL, if not baseball.

Last season, Verlander declined, although bWAR rates him slightly ahead of Shields in terms of value – the Tigers’ defense was pretty bad, and he still had a 3.46 ERA. But this year he’s barely been above replacement level (0.5 bWAR). A trade that even I would have conceded would have been a worthwhile gamble – two years of the best pitcher in the league was worth Wil Myers – would have backfired badly, as Verlander would have collapsed in the exact season the Royals had planned to make their run.

Or imagine if the trade had been made one year earlier for Roy Halladay? In 2011, Halladay had a 2.35 ERA, his fourth straight season with an ERA under 2.80. He finished second in the Cy Young vote the year after winning the Cy Young; he had finished in the top 5 in voting for six straight years. He might have been the best pitcher in the NL. That would have looked like a very good trade – until Halladay fell off to a 4.49 ERA and only made 25 starts in his first year with the Royals, and then pitched so badly in his second year (6.82 ERA, 13 starts) that he retired. That would have been a disaster.

The Royals instead acquired a pitcher who was perceived as less valuable at the time the trade was made, because they placed a premium on his durability and consistency, and they have been rewarded with…durability and consistency.

And after starting this season disappointingly, allowing 63 runs in 117 innings in his first 18 starts, Shields has been at his best when the Royals have needed him the most. In his last 13 starts he has thrown 91 innings – seven innings a start – with a 2.08 ERA (and just two unearned runs). He’s been the pitcher from the catalog. Last Friday, he pitched a gem at Yankee Stadium with no margin for error, winning 1-0, and last night, he pitched a gem at Comerica Park against the Royals’ chief rival, winning 3-0. It was the first time since the second and third starts of his career that Shields had gone back-to-back starts without allowing a run.

Big Game James is no longer an epithet – it might instead be his epitaph. Maybe the trade won’t be enough to get the Royals into the playoffs, but Shields has been everything the Royals could have asked him to be. Maybe they paid too much to get him, but the Royals were absolutely right to target him.

Whereas Shields was a known quantity, Davis was anything but – which was sort of the appeal. If he could have become a #3 starter, and under contract at below-market rates for five full seasons, he might have wound up more valuable than Shields in the long run – that’s why I thought that, if the Royals won the trade, he would be the key to the deal. But then he went out and put up a 5.67 ERA as a starter last year despite the team’s defense, and had to be shuttled back to the bullpen. At that point the dream of Davis becoming a huge asset died, because I mean how valuable can a pitcher be if he’s only throwing 60 or 70 innings a season?

Oh. That valuable. Davis, in fact, has MORE bWAR (3.7) this season than Shields has. In less than a third as many innings.

Maybe the trade won’t propel the Royals into the playoffs this year, in which case we’ll have to judge its legacy anew. But right now, it’s the reason why the Royals left Detroit in sole possession of first place with less than three weeks left in the season. And the best part is that we are all benefitting – those of you who foolishly hated the trade can reap the rewards just as much as us enlightened souls who saw the wisdom of it from day one.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Royals Today: 9/10/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN): 68.3%
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 61.8% (31.1% Division, 30.7% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Fangraphs): 68.3% (51.2% Division, 17.0% Wild Card)

The narrative all year has been that the Tigers just have so much more talent than the Royals that they’ll eventually pull away, and the Royals have done nothing in the last 48 hours to change that.

I’ll track the playoff odds like this daily going forward. The Royals’ ESPN playoff odds were around 84% on Monday morning, so basically their odds of not making the playoffs have roughly doubled by being unable to win one of two games against the Tigers.

Before the series began, I felt that as long as the Royals won even one of the three games, they would be in good position, leaving Detroit with the divisional lead and still having three home games against the Tigers next weekend. But they are very much in danger of being swept. Tonight is, simply, the biggest game the franchise has played in 29 years. It is, dare I say it, a Big Game.

Big Game James pitched an absolute gem with no margin of error in his last start, blanking the Yankees for 8.1 innings before Wade Davis finished off the first 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium in the history of the Royals. They’ll need the same from him tonight. His legacy as a Royal, and the legacy of The Trade, will be in large part shaped by what happens tonight.

If the game gets played. Which it might not. The weather reports for southeast Michigan look dismal, and with both teams having an off-day next Thursday the 18th, the option is there for a make-up date.

This would hurt the Royals badly, for two reasons:

1) They would have to fly to Detroit for one game in the middle of a homestand, negating a large part of what makes home field such an advantage. The Tigers would fly back to Detroit for one game on their way from Minnesota to Kansas City. Both teams would be inconvenienced, but the Royals much more so, and right before opening a series at home with Detroit.

2) It would mean that Shields could only start one of these last four games with the Tigers, whereas if the game is played tonight he should also start next Sunday’s finale.

Major League Baseball generally does everything it can to get a game in when it’s the final game between two teams that season. In this case, there is a potential make-up day, but unless they move that game to Kansas City – don’t even dream about it – it would be far less inconvenient to stay up and play this game tonight, even in sub-optimal conditions, than to make it up in a week. This may mean playing through rain delays; it may mean that Shields won’t be able to go seven or eight innings because of the weather. But I’d rather take my chance with Shields for five innings tonight, knowing he’d get another crack at Detroit.

That’s tonight. Last night’s game seems to come down to one thing: all anyone can talk about was the ninth inning, and Ned Yost’s decision to pinch-run with Jarrod Dyson at second base, followed by Dyson getting picked off.

I tweeted immediately afterwards, and argued on 810 WHB with Soren today at noon, that in the moment, I fully agreed with that specific decision. This is far from a universal opinion. I would like to explain my analysis here fully.

After Nori Aoki and Omar Infante beat out consecutive infield singles, both by an eyelash, Alex Gordon came to the plate. Yost pinch-ran for Infante with Terrance Gore, which made sense – that was the tying run, and Gore’s speed meant any ball in the gap would tie the game. But Yost did not pinch-run for Aoki at this point.

After Gordon struck out, Salvador Perez came to the plate, and then Yost called on Dyson to pinch-run for Aoki.

Here’s why those two specific decisions – don’t pinch-run for Aoki with Gordon at the plate, but pinch-run for him with Perez at the plate – both make sense.

The point of pinch-running for Aoki with Dyson isn’t to get better speed at second base – that’s not the tying run – but to allow for the possibility of the double steal which will get the runner on first base into scoring position. Also – and nearly as important, in my mind – is that it takes away the possibility of a double play.

With Gordon at the plate, though, the odds of him doing something which would make a double steal pay off – specifically, hitting either a single or a double-play ball – are fairly small. Gordon hits a lot of extra-base hits (at least relative to the rest of the Royals), walks a lot (same), and hits the ball in the air (career GB% of 39.2%). He leads the team with 107 Ks. All those things – walks, extra-base hits, fly outs, and strike outs – render a double-steal moot. There’s no point in risking an out on the bases for minimal gain, and you might as well hold on to Dyson for a spot where he might make more of a difference – if Perez reached base later in the inning representing the go-ahead run, for instance.

But when Perez came to the plate, the calculus is totally different. He doesn’t walk a lot – just 21 walks all year, and remember, he had eight walks in the Royals’ first eight games. He hits more groundballs than Gordon (career GB% of 43.7%), and more importantly, he’s very slow – he’s hit into 21 double plays this year, ranking third in the AL. (Gordon has hit into 10 GIDP’s.) Perez hits for power too, but is more of a singles hitter than Gordon. While Gordon has a slightly higher batting average this year (.272 to .262), Perez’s career average is .287. And precisely because Gordon draws more walks, his ratio of hits to plate appearances is actually quite a bit lower than Perez’s.

So by pinch-running with Dyson, Yost set up the potential for a double steal, which would 1) eliminate the possibility of a game-ending GIDP and 2) mean that a single – from either Perez or Hosmer, who at this point in his career is basically the definition of a singles hitter – would tie the game.

Oh, and the icing on the cake is that Joe Nathan is one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run on. He had given up 10 steals (in 51 innings!) in 10 attempts already this year, and since the beginning of the 2006 season, basestealers were 44 for 46 against him. With no pickoffs. Even with the element of surprise eliminated, the Royals had two of the five fastest players in the majors on base against a pitcher with a slow move to home plate.

Put it this way: if this were Stratomatic and we were rolling dice and everything I just wrote were written as a set of probabilities, this is exactly the move I would have made. It’s not very often that I can say that about anything Ned Yost does.

The problem with the move was everything else.

- I don’t know why Yost waited until there was an 0-1 count on Perez. I assume it just took him some time to process everything, but I really don’t know. As much as the Tigers would have known Dyson was going no matter when he came into the game, bringing him in during the middle of an at-bat just made it that much more obvious.

C.J. Nitkowski also brings up the point that by waiting until the last moment to bring in Dyson, Yost didn’t give Dyson much of an opportunity to read Nathan’s move, given that Dyson has rarely been on base with Nathan on the mound before. It’s an angle I hadn’t considered; I don’t think it’s of enormous significance, but it’s not irrelevant either.

- While Yost wound up in the same place that I did, I don’t think he took the same journey. He offered some explanations to the move afterwards, but they weren’t particularly clear, and they certainly didn’t line up at all with what I just described.

- It’s not even clear that Dyson was going as part of a double steal, that there was any communication with Gore – who’s been in the majors about 15 minutes – beforehand. If Dyson had taken off for third without Gore going for second, that would have been asinine, as it would have forced the Royals to send Gore on a separate play – with, again, everyone knowing it was coming – and given the Tigers two chances to get an out on the bases.

- I’m still not entirely sure why Yost used Gore instead of Dyson to pinch-run for Infante in the first place, given that Infante was the tying run. Maybe Yost was forward-thinking enough to realize he wanted his most accomplished base-stealer to be at the front end of the double steal. Or maybe he simply didn’t want to put Dyson in for his second baseman because in his mind, whoever came into the game for Infante would have to be pulled from the game in the bottom of the inning for a new second baseman.

- While Dyson is an exceptional base-stealer, he is also an exceptionally aggressive one, and there should have been some attempt to remind him that 1) the Tigers probably know that you’re running – you know, Ian Kinsler straddling the second base bag might have been a clue – and 2) Joe Nathan is so easy to run on that you don’t need to force the issue: just make sure he’s going to home plate before you take off.

In the end, as he sometimes does, Dyson deluded himself into thinking that speed was a substitute for technique, preparation, and common sense. It wasn’t. He deserves – and has received and, to his credit, acknowledged – a tremendous amount of blame. But I can’t work myself up into blaming Yost for his decision. Maybe he made the right decision for the wrong reasons, but it was the right decision.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to be better next time. The Royals’ margin for error is razor thin, and there are only 18 games left.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Royals Today: 9/9/14.

From the annals of “be careful what you wish for”, the Royals did score five runs yesterday…

- Look, we can’t act like we’re surprised when this happens to Jeremy Guthrie. I like Guthrie and have thoroughly enjoyed his run of getting #4 starter results despite mop-up man peripherals, but we have to know it could end at any time. If the season ended today, Guthrie would lead the AL in hits for the second straight year. He didn’t get bombed yesterday, and he was let down by his defense, but he also gave up a striking number of line drives. This is who he is. If he’s your #5 starter, you have a good rotation. If he’s your #4 starter, you probably don’t have a playoff-caliber rotation, which means by definition that he probably shouldn’t be starting for anyone in the playoffs. Thanks to Duffy’s injury, that has become a distinct possibility.

At this point, I would happily accept a guarantee that Guthrie starts Game 4 of the ALDS for the Royals, just as I would happily accept a Bugatti with a dent in it. The bigger issue right now is getting to the ALDS, which means winning the division, which means beating the Tigers. Guthrie has given up 17 runs in 13.1 innings to Detroit this year.

This is a problem, because the way the rotation is set up, Guthrie would start the Friday night opener against Detroit at Kauffman Stadium in ten days. The Royals have an incredibly well-timed off-day right before that series, ensuring that the bullpen is rested if nothing else. This also presents an opportunity to reset the rotation, skipping Guthrie and moving up James Shields and Jason Vargas a day.

The problem with this plan – aside from the obvious problem that it would require Ned Yost to place a higher priority on “winning at any costs” than on “standing by his players no matter what” – is that this would also move Danny Duffy’s spot up a day. Replacing Guthrie with Danny Duffy is worth ruffling a few feathers; replacing him with Liam Hendricks isn’t.

If Duffy’s shoulder is sufficiently healed, this may provide an opportunity to drop him back into the rotation on September 19th, keep Shields and Vargas on schedule, and move Guthrie to the opener in Cleveland on the 22nd. It’s possible the Royals could use Duffy returning from an injury to frame this in a way that doesn’t look like a demotion for Guthrie. I would be very surprised if this happens. But hey, this whole season has been full of surprises.

- Speaking of standing by his players no matter what: Omar Infante is batting 2nd tonight. Our man Jeff Flanagan is openly questioning this decision; Infante is playing hurt, and he’s not playing well, and those two things are connected. The problem is that the alternatives are shaky enough to give Yost all the reason he needs to stick with Omar. Jayson Nix can’t hit, and I don’t see the Royals giving Johnny Giavotella a chance now after he’s failed all his other ones.

Christian Colon can’t get healthy fast enough. Of all the sentences I’ve written this year, that might be the one that would have shocked me the most in March.

- Yost got a little flak yesterday for having Alcides Escobar bunt with runners on first and second and none out in the third inning, even though it worked, as Nori Aoki singled both runners in to tie the game.

I didn’t have a huge problem with that particular bunt. Of all the bunting scenarios, the one with runners on first and second and none out is the one where it’s most justified, because you’re advancing two runners instead of one. It’s still not a worthwhile tradeoff overall; the run expectancy chart says that teams in 2014 score 1.41 runs on average with men on first and second, none out, and 1.27 runs on average with men on second and third, one out.

But those numbers are close enough that it can be justified in the right situation: a below-average hitter at the plate (Escobar qualifies), and a contact hitter up next who is unlikely to strike out with a runner on third and one out (Aoki has one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball.) I probably wouldn’t have called for it myself, because the Tigers were up two runs already, so even if it worked to perfection (as it did) you still only tie the game. But on my Ned Yost Outrage Scale, this doesn’t register a blip. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Royals Today: 9/8/14.

I don’t have much time and today’s game starts early, but a promise is a promise, so here’s a couple hundred words:

- The Royals won again yesterday using the same formula they won with on Friday: hit singles, put the ball in play, run hard and take advantage of the opposing defense, and then pitch your ass off. They scored their first run on an infield single by Nori Aoki that pitcher Shane Greene threw wildly to first on, allowing Josh Willingham to score. They scored their second run when Alex Gordon reached base on an error by Carlos Beltran, stole second, and then scored on a single by Hosmer – with Hosmer sacrificing himself at second base, which may have been a wise trade-off given that Gordon stumbled around third and might have been out at the plate. They scored their third run when…oh, right, they didn’t.

The Royals beat the Yankees without scoring an earned run for the second time in the series. Dave Holtzman of Fox Sports reported that the Royals hadn’t won two games without scoring an earned run in a SEASON since 1992. That’s the kind of season the Royals are having. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Get lucky.

- The Royals’ pitching staff is covering up the fact that they can’t keep winning with an offense this bad. No, really, they can’t: they’ve scored 15 runs in their last six games, and have somehow won five of them.

Going back to the Indians series, barring a tenth-inning comeback in the makeup game, they’ve scored four runs or fewer in nine straight games. That’s the longest stretch without scoring five runs in a game since late May and early June of last season – a 14-game stretch (tied for the longest in team history) in which the Royals went 3-11. The Royals have had 14 stretches in their history of 10 games or more without scoring five runs, and have a losing record in all 10. It’s hard to sustain winning when you’re scoring two or three runs every night.

It’s been fun watching the Royals win games 2-1 and 2-0 and 1-0 over the past week; when you neither score nor allow a lot of runs, it guarantees a close game and tension until the final out. But really, guys: it’s okay to score some runs. The pitching-and-defense narrative is nice, but the win-the-AL-Central narrative is better.

- With Greg Holland still out, Yost was forced to move his relievers back an inning, using Wade Davis in the ninth and Kelvin Herrera in the eighth, which necessitated a new seventh-inning guy. Yost tried to make that guy Yordano Ventura, but wisely pulled Ventura after a leadoff walk, and turned to…Aaron Crow.

I maintain my position that Jason Frasor is the better option. He has the better ERA this year (2.85 to 3.71) and the vastly better FIP (3.46 to 5.28). Also, Frasor has the much smaller platoon split. For his career, Frasor has allowed LHB to hit .245 and slug .371, not much higher than the .230 and .362 marks he’s allowed right-handers. Crow has held RHB to a .232 average and .333 slugging – but lefties have hit .260 and slugged .445.

The last number of the last paragraph is what mattered yesterday, because Crow came in with the tying run at the plate, with the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, and the first three batters due up were Chase Headley (a switch-hitter), Ichiro Suzuki (left-handed), and Jacoby Ellsbury (left-handed). Calling on Crow, a right-hander with a big platoon split and issues with the long ball in that situation was, to put it kindly, a suboptimal decision by Ned Yost.

It worked, because after Crow fell behind Headley 3-1 and was in danger of putting the tying run on base, Headley swung at a borderline outside fastball and bailed Crow out, hitting into a 4-6-3 double play. And in fairness, Crow then froze Ichiro on a nifty pitch on the inside corner for strike three.

Maybe Crow figured something out during his brief trip to Double-A (in which he struck out one batter in three innings and also gave up a home run). But the fact that he got sent to Double-A in the first place makes me question why he’s now being used in key situations over Frasor. It’s worked so far. I don’t know how much longer it will keep working.

- Speaking of Ventura, he pitched six scoreless innings and afterwards Carlos Beltran said it was some of the best stuff he had seen in a while…but Ventura walked four batters and struck out two. Maybe it’s an anomaly; he had whiffed 44 batters in 44 innings in his last seven starts. But he’s a rookie, and it’s September, and we just saw what happened to Danny Duffy, and it makes me nervous. Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got any choice in the matter.

- Speaking of Duffy, we got more good news today as his MRI showed inflammation but no structural damage, leaving open the possibility that he’ll return this year. That’s obviously good news.

But if I could swap Duffy’s availability for the rest of the regular season for a guaranteed win in Detroit this afternoon, I’d probably make that trade. That’s how important a rivalry game is this late in the season.