If you're wondering why my posts are becoming rarer and rarer, tonight's game should explain why.
Trey Hillman may be a great leader of men. He may have a clubhouse presence that would impress Barack Obama. He may be a shrewd judge of talent. He may have any number of traits that will one day render him an excellent baseball manager.
But when it comes to in-game tactical maneuvering, he is a liability. Tonight, he absolutely, positively cost the Royals a win.
The Royals entered the top of the 8th with a 5-1 lead. They were playing the Rangers, not the Yankees. They had the home-field advantage. They set the first two men down in order. They had this game in the bag.
And Hillman pissed it away.
Michael Young walked. Joey Hamilton hit a routine groundball to Mike Aviles at shortstop. Aviles' throw was a little low, but did not hit the ground. Teahen could not hold on to it.
Mistake #1: What is Tony Pena on the roster for, if not to play defense with a four-run lead? Aviles was scheduled to bat in the bottom of the inning, but again, you're up by four runs - you want the defense in. Maybe Pena's throw is more on-line, and the inning is over. Admittedly, this is a small mistake. They will get bigger.
Mistake #2: With two on, two out, tying run on deck, Trey Hillman calls upon Brett Tomko.
How many runs does Brett Tomko have to give up, how many leads does he have to blow, before the Royals realize that he has no business pitching in a tight game? Tomko entered the game with a 6.34 ERA. It was not a fluke. Batters are hitting .298/.331/.506 against him. He has a 6.17 ERA as a starter. He has a 7.94 ERA as a reliever. He had a 5.55 ERA last year. There is no way you can spin the evidence in such a way as to suggest that he should be pitching in a tight situation. You gambled $3 million that Bob McClure could figure him out. It was a decent gamble, but it failed. Choosing to be in a state of denial is only making matters worse.
Milton Bradley doubled on an 0-2 count - classic Tomko - to drive in two. David Murphy singled home Bradley. It's 5-4, tying run at first base. Gerald Laird and Chris Shelton are due up next.
Mistake #3: Hillman calls on...Yasuhiko Yabuta.
Maybe Hillman was enamored with Yabuta's performance the night before, when Yabuta heroically earned the win by...retiring a single batter. I don't want to minimize his effort - he retired Bobby Abreu with two men on in a tie game - but still, he faced one batter. Even in the worst (non-Bonds) matchup the odds are better than 50/50 that a pitcher will retire a single hitter.
Anyway, Hillman suddenly felt that with four outs to go, with the tying run at the plate, the situation didn't call for his closer Joakim Soria, or his set-up man Ramon Ramirez, but instead, Yasuhiko Yabuta, he of the 4.91 ERA.
That's bad enough. What's worse - much, much worse - is that Hillman seems completely oblivous to the whole notion of platoon splits. When Bradley and Murphy (a switch-hitter and left-handed hitter) were due up, he called on Tomko, a right-hander who, like most right-handers, fares somewhat worse against left-handed hitting. With Laird and Shelton - two right-handed hitters due up - Hillman calls on Yabuta.
Here's how Yabuta has fared so far this year:
vs. RHB: .390/.463/.610
vs. LHB: .152/.235/.283
That's not a misprint. Even though Yabuta is right-handed, right-handed hitters have numbers that are literally twice as good as their left-handed counterparts across the board. The size of the discrepancy is a reflection of a small sample size, but the discrepancy itself is very real. Yabuta's best pitch (his only good pitch, really) is his splitter/changeup, and pitchers who rely on a forkball or changeup as their out pitch generally have reverse platoon splits - they do a better job of getting guys out from the other side of the plate.
Laird singled. Shelton singled, and Murphy scored the tying run.
From that point on the outcome was academic - I started writing this post when the game was still in the top of the 9th. I did think it was a nice touch that Ramon Ramirez struck out Josh Hamilton on three pitches with the tying run at third base and one out in the ninth, only to surrender the winning run on a passed ball immediately thereafter.
Hillman was instrumental in that, too. Yabuta had stayed in to face a couple of left-handed hitters after the game was tied, and after walking Brandon Boggs he got Ramon Vazquez to fly out and end the inning. Showing that he had learned nothing from the sequence of events, Hillman (or as we shall see, his proxy Dave Owen, not that it matters) let Yabuta pitch to Ian Kinsler (a right-handed hitter) leading off the ninth. Kinsler doubled. Yabuta stayed in to pitch to another right-hander, Michael Young, who moved Kinsler up with a grounder to second, and only at that point did Ramirez come in.
So Ramon Ramirez, he of the 3.30 ERA, who's clearly the second-best reliever on the active roster, was not deemed necessary with two outs in the eighth, a one run lead, and the tying run on base - but he was deemed necessary once the game was tied, and the go-ahead run was on third base with one out. (By the way, Ramirez came into the game having thrown four wild pitches in just 30 innings. Bringing him with a man on third base was probably the worst possible time to do so. But we're just piling on at this point.)
Oh, and Ramirez's platoon splits? Ramirez's best pitch is probably his slider, and pitchers who rely on their slider tend to have larger-than-normal platoon splits. Sure enough, against Ramirez LHB are hitting .309/.356/.364...but RHB are hitting just .182/.250/.218.
So let's sum this up: with a one-run lead, two outs in the eighth, the tying run on first, and two right-handed hitters scheduled, Trey Hillman had to choose between a reliever with a 4.91 ERA and a reliever with a 3.30 ERA, a reliever against whom RHB were hitting .390 and a reliever against whom RHB were hitting .182...AND HE CHOSE THE FIRST GUY?
Buddy Bell was an awful, awful tactical manager, but I'm willing to bet that I could go through his entire log as Royals manager and not find more than two or three games in which his moves cost the Royals a game as clearly as Hillman's tactics cost them tonight.
The shame of it is, if there's any attention placed on Hillman from this game, it's that he was thrown out arguing a questionable ball/strike call in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitch was probably a ball, and Hillman probably did nothing that warranted being thrown out. But the mere fact that the pitch meant anything all is absolutely, positive, 100% Trey Hillman's fault. If Hillman, or the writers covering the team, attempt to pin even a fraction of the blame for tonight's loss on the home-plate umpire, they're doing the team and its fans a disservice.
The box score says Yabuta took the loss tonight. It won't tell you that Hillman shoved it down his throat. But he did. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.