Never a dull moment in Royalsville.
This intro was planned in my head ever since the Royals pulled Sunday’s game out, but obviously in light of recent events it may look conciliatory, or even like I’m sucking up. Rest assured that I was only entertained, not intimidated, by the remarks of our Fearless Leader George Brett*. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed that Brett didn’t call me out by name. I’m guessing he just didn’t know how to pronounce it.
*: The best part of Brett’s monologue – and the reason I find it ultimately benign – is that if you ignore the words and just look at the cadence in his voice and his body language, he really doesn’t seem all that upset. When he says “Eff You and Eff Them”, his voice seems as calm and unemotional as if he were giving his opinion on some new restaurant in town, or the new Star Trek movie. Belligerent words, delivered in a non-belligerent manner – I’m going to speculate wildly here and presume that Brett’s BAC was a positive number.
Brett certainly makes some good points, which is that while Trey Hillman has certainly been guilty of some whopping errors of good judgment, it serves no one to call him out for decisions that reasonable men can disagree on. Whether to bunt with men on first and second in a one-run game in
Like I said, I meant to write about this even before Brett’s comments, because as much as I believe that Hillman has cost the Royals a few games with his decisions this season, I believe equally that his moves on Sunday were bold, effective, and ultimately decisive.
I thought Hillman was premature when he closed the curtain on Hochevar’s second start in the fourth inning, but that decision may have saved the game. Hochevar wasn’t terrible to that point, but he wasn’t all that effective either. He had allowed three runs, but with men on first and second and one out, Hillman decided not to give Cool Hand the chance to double that total. He went to Robinson Tejeda, who frankly is overqualified to be a mop-up guy, but in this case the combination of a quick hook and a competent replacement saved the day. Tejeda got out of the jam in the fourth, pitched a scoreless fifth and sixth, and was in line to get the win when the Royals erupted for three runs in the bottom of the inning.
When the Royals’ fourth error of the day, followed by a single, put men on first and third to start the eighth, Hillman pulled Ron Mahay in favor of Juan Cruz, who allowed the tying run to score but prevented further damage, and wound up going two innings for the win. In the bottom of the eighth, after DeJesus doubled and John Buck tripled to give the Royals a one-run lead, Hillman called for the squeeze with Coco Crisp (twice!) with perfect results.
The classic scenario for a squeeze play involves a speedy runner at third base, but in reality the speed of the baserunner only matters on a safety squeeze. With a suicide squeeze, anyone with better than Molinan speed is likely to be safe – what determines whether the gambit works isn’t the speed of the runner, but the contact ability of the batter. Crisp made contact both times, the second time in fair territory, and got the run in.
He would later steal second and score another insurance run, but really, the game was decided there. Nate Silver wrote a fascinating article a few years back on the value of one-run strategies, comparing the value of a single run to the value of a multiple-run inning. What he found is that while the best time to play for a single run is in the late innings of a tie game (obviously), it makes almost as much sense to play for a single run when you lead by just one run. That second run was crucial, because the difference between a two-run lead and a one-run lead in that situation is bigger than the difference between a three-run lead (or even a five-run lead) and a two-run lead. A squeeze in that situation is the right call, assuming you’ve got the personnel to make it work. The Royals did, and it did.
My biggest weakness as a baseball analyst is that I’m a baseball fan; no matter how much I understand the concept of small sample sizes intellectually, I still can’t help but get caught up in the moment. No team is as good as it looks when it’s winning, and no team is as bad as it looks when it’s losing – but when the Royals are going bad, it feels like they’ll never get things turned around. In the middle innings on Sunday, with the Royals down 3-1 and unable to muster anything off of Koji Uehara, they looked for all the world like they were doomed to suffer their eighth loss in nine games. That they didn’t is another exhibit in the case that the New Royals are not the same as the Old Royals. And it’s a feather in Hillman’s cap. If you don’t believe me, just ask George Brett.
- And if you still don’t believe me, just remember the competition. The Rays had their pitcher bat in an American League game – in the #3 spot! – because Joe Maddon screwed up the lineup card by listing two third baseman and no DH. Maddon gets a pass because he took his team to the World Series last year (and because Andy Sonnanstine hit an RBI double in three at-bats) – but can you imagine the outrage if Hillman had done such a thing?
And I’m surprised just how little attention has been paid to Dave Trembley’s whopper on Saturday. Here’s the scenario: Orioles lead 2-0, bottom of the fourth, men on second and third. Mike Jacobs – batting cleanup against a LHP because Hillman doesn’t…Ow! Don’t tase me, Brett! – has just whiffed for the second out. Trembley elects to intentionally walk Jose Guillen.
To pitch to Alberto Callaspo.
Now, I understand that Guillen is the more accomplished hitter, if by “accomplished” you mean “older”. He is hitting .279/.398/.419 for the season, and does have the platoon advantage. But when you intentionally walk a batter to load the bases, you are creating a situation in which a walk scores a run. In other words, by intentionally walking Guillen in this situation, Trembley is betting that Callaspo’s on-base percentage is lower than Guillen’s batting average.
Which makes this a stupid move in almost all circumstances, because it’s rare for there to be such a gap between two consecutive hitters in a lineup so great that the first hitter’s AVG is higher than the second hitter’s OBP.
But in this circumstance, well, it’s almost a fireable offense. Callaspo is hitting .344. His OBP is .396. He’s second in the league in doubles. He’s hitting .438 against LHP, and last year hit .333 against southpaws. You could almost make the case for intentionally walking Callaspo to pitch to Guillen if the roles were reversed. Instead, Trembley decided to load the bases for the line drive machine, who then floated another double down the left field line to tie the game. Nobody will remember this, because the Orioles held on for the win, but I’d argue that for all his mistakes this season, not one decision Hillman has made this year was as bad as this one. I mean, even
Jay John Gibbons thinks Trembley’s a fool.
- I know I’m not the only one who was taken aback by Hillman’s vote of no-confidence in Hochevar after the game. “He wasn't going to pull out of it himself, in my opinion,” Hillman said. Yeah, I’m thinking that Hochevar is pretty damn close to pitching himself out of the rotation again. The whispers about Hochevar have long been that he’s lacking a bit in the mental toughness department, and whether that’s true or not, this quote certainly lends credence to the notion that the Royals believe it to be true.
His stuff certainly isn’t a problem – he throws 93 with a great sinker, his curveball and slider are both decent pitches. If anything, his problem on Sunday was that his fastball had too much movement, to the point where he couldn’t control it. Sinkerball pitchers frequently take longer to find themselves than true power pitchers. I’m still hopeful the light bulb will go on for Hochevar, but the Royals have sent notice that they’re not going to wait forever. The Royals under Dayton Moore have ended the redshirt program in Kansas City, which is a good thing. As Hillman pointed out, there’s not much point in sending him back to Omaha, but Hochevar might find himself switching places with Ponson if he doesn’t start pitching with confidence out there.
- Am I the only one who’s starting to get scared by the Tigers? It’s not just that they’re leading the division, or that they lead the division in run differential as well (+31, to the Royals +18). It’s that their starting rotation, which looked like a huge weakness at the start of the year, suddenly looks like an undeniable strength. Armando Galarraga has turned into a pumpkin of late, as I hoped he would, but everyone else has been terrific. Justin Verlander got off to a rough start, even though his velocity was back to 2006-07 levels – and sure enough he’s turned things around with a Greinkesque last four starts, and now leads the league with 69 strikeouts.
Edwin Jackson, who two years ago was one of the worst starters in baseball, has taken The Leap, and in 52 innings has walked just 11 batters with a 2.42 ERA. (And he’s just six weeks older than Greinke.) Twenty-year old rookie wunderkind Rick Porcello* is making the decision to jump him straight from A-ball to the majors look brilliant. And while the Tigers haven’t been able to find a reliable #5 starter, Jeremy Bonderman made his first rehab start a few days ago and looked good.
*: Remember, the Royals could have taken Porcello with the #2 overall pick in 2007; he was the consensus second-best player in the draft. They took Mike Moustakas instead, at least in part because he was cheaper. While Moustakas is playing well, it is well within the realm of possibility that the decision not to take Porcello – and watch as he fell in the draft to an in-division rival – may well decide the division this year.
It’s early. The Tigers still have major bullpen issues. Brandon Inge can’t hit .279/.389/.557 all season. Adam Everett is not a .306 hitter. There’s only so many game-saving catches Curtis Granderson can make. But with the Twins and White Sox getting swept over the weekend, and the Indians continuing to be the most disappointing team in baseball this season, it’s not too early to say that
- In case I don’t get to update in the next few days – I have something like 58 patients on my schedule tomorrow – I’m pleased to report that in honor of the Royals’ series against the Cardinals this weekend, our guest on this week’s episode will be Will Leitch, founder of Deadspin.com, author of God Save the Fan, current writer for New York Magazine, and hopeless St. Louis Cardinals fan. So please tune in. It should be fun.