Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Game of the Year.

My patients can wait. I don’t know how long it will be before I can write about another game like this one.

Now that we’re six weeks into the season, I’ve got a routine down with my kids, whereby I finish storytime with the older two and put them to bed by 9 o’clock, which usually affords me the opportunity to watch the last two or three innings of each game in peace. Last night my work wasn’t done until 9:20, and the game was zipping by at an unusually fast pace (thanks in part to the Royals’ free-swinging ways against Cliff Lee), so by the time I was able to free myself from fatherly duties, it was the middle of the ninth. The score was 5-2, and if anything I was almost grateful that the margin of victory was large enough that some of the ridiculous baserunning (Mark Teahen trying to advance from second to third on a flyball to shallow center field) and fielding (allowing a runner to score from first on a single; allowing a foul popfly to fall between three defenders) plays would not have single-handedly cost the Royals the game.

Instead, I saw the Royals squeeze the life out of Cleveland in seven easy steps.

Step 1: Kerry Wood emerges to pitch the ninth.

I would stop short of saying this decision was a mistake on Eric Wedge’s part. Cliff Lee had thrown eight brilliant innings, and had only thrown 101 pitches. Two of the first three hitters for the Royals in the ninth were left-handers. If we’ve reached the point where a 30-year-old starter can’t pitch the ninth inning because he’s thrown 101 pitches, then the pitch count revolution has gone too far.

But from the Indians’ standpoint, I wouldn’t fault Wedge, because this move struck me as being as much about trying to win future games as about trying to win this one. The Indians’ bullpen has been a nightmare, but Kerry Wood has been somewhat less offensive than his brethren. He had a 5.84 ERA coming into the game, but had blown only one save, and had struck out 18 batters in 12.1 innings. Wood had a terrific season as the Cubs’ closer last year, and the Indians desperately needed him to settle down so they could work on fixing the rest of their pen. If the Indians had been leading by one run, I think that leaving Lee in would have been the right move. But a three-run lead ought to be safe enough that Wedge was within his rights to make a move that would help the Indians down the road as well.

But as a Royals fan, well, I was happy to see the change made.

Step 2: Mike Jacobs goes yard.

Alright, I want to see a show of hands: after Jacobs finished off a brilliant nine-pitch at-bat, including three consecutive full-count foul balls, with a laser to right-center field, how many of you were whining about Jacobs, “of course he hits a solo home run with the Royals down by three runs in the ninth!” Come on, you know you were thinking it. Last week, he hit homers in back-to-back games in Oakland – once with the Royals down 12-1 in the sixth, once with the Royals down 9-1 in the ninth.

That’s just the nature of the beast when you’re dealing with an all-or-nothing hitter: some of their biggest hits come in the smallest situations. Jacobs has also homered with the Royals up 9-0, and with the Royals up 3-0. But he hit a game-tying two-run homer in Arlington in April – the game that Soria came down with AITP – and he hit a huge three-run homer against Chicago with the White Sox winning 5-1 in the fourth, a game the Royals would win in extra innings. Last Friday he homered on behalf of Zack Greinke in a 2-1 game, and the Royals went on to break their six-game losing streak.

Anyway, that’s what Jacobs does: he hits home runs. It wasn’t his fault that the circumstances of the ninth inning were such that the #5 hitter had to start a three-run rally. Sam Mellinger wrote about this already, but what made this rally work was that the Royals have such a deep lineup that they were able to score three runs with their 5-6-7-8-9 hitters. Teahen, who was batting third not long ago, now fits in as a very nice #6 hitter. DeJesus, who granted has been struggling, is massively overqualified to bat 8th. Last night was a nice reminder of why it’s always nice to have nine major league hitters in your lineup.

And while Jacobs homer last night was no more valuable than a walk, it was certainly more meaningful. He made Kerry Wood look mortal. He brought the crowd to its feet. He set the tone for what would come next.

Step 3: Mark Teahen goes yard.

The Royals’ broadcast had barely come out of replay to show Teahen hacking away at Wood’s first pitch. Chalk this up as another event that would never have happened in the past: in the past, when the Royals hit a home run and the next batter swung at the first pitch, he invariably killed the momentum with a one-pitch out. Instead, Teahen goes with the pitch for another opposite-field home run. Is it just me, or is Mark Teahen and Kevin Seitzer a match made in heaven?

Step 4: Miguel Olivo doesn’t go yard – because he doesn’t try to go yard.

A lot of people are saying that Olivo’s walk was the turning point of the inning, and I don’t disagree. But as cool as it was to see, I disagree that the key to the at-bat was Olivo’s decision to take a 3-1 pitch for possibly the first time in his life. Rather, I think the key was the very first pitch.

Consider the situation: Jacobs and Teahen have just gone back-to-back to bring the Royals within a run. The Kougar/K2 is rocking. Another homer ties the game – and homers are pretty much all Olivo is good for. In that situation, with that much emotion, ou know he’s going to be trying to tie the game on the first pitch, no matter what or where it is. What’s more, everyone knows that – including the opposing pitcher. This was the baseball equivalent of Groundhog Day, where you knew everything that was going to happen ahead of time: Wood would throw a slider, Olivo would swing and miss by about two feet, and he’d be down 0-1.

And that’s what happened. Wood threw a slider. Olivo started to swing –

– and checked in time.

And that, my friends, was when I started to believe that we would win. Olivo would foul off the next pitch, but then took three straight pitches. Kerry Wood was melting down on the mound, and Olivo was content to let him do so on his own.

And that’s when it hit me: the Indians are the Royals! The Royals are the…whoever was playing the Royals!

I’ve seen this movie before many, many times – but never quite from this seat. In a pre-Soria, pre-Dayton world, it was the Royals who were blowing a three-run lead on the road in the bottom of the ninth. And had this been one of those games, the minute Ricky Bottalico or Roberto Hernandez or Mike MacDougal had surrendered back-to-back homers, then walked the next hitter, you might as well have turned off the TV right there – because even though they still had the lead, there was no way the Royals were going to win the game.

Only this time, you couldn’t pull me away from the TV with wild horses, because there was no way the Royals would lose this time. Was there?

Step 5: Mitch Maier pinch-runs for Olivo.

In the moment, it seemed to me that if you’re going to use Maier for Olivo regardless, why not use him to pinch-hit, given that you gain the platoon advantage – and Olivo is terrible against right-handers – while also gaining the OBP? That seems almost petty now. Olivo is fast for a catcher, but Maier is fast, period. I was just worried that Hillman would gamble with a stolen-base attempt. The way Wood was pitching, there was no reason to risk giving away an out. Hillman wisely decided not to.

Step 6: David DeJesus triples.

When DeJesus came to the plate, Ryan Lefebvre made sure to tell us that the last time these two had faced, DeJesus had hit a two-run homer – unfortunately, in that game the Indians still held a two-run lead at the time. Meanwhile, I was thinking of a different two-run homer.

Either one works. DeJesus took a fastball down and in, then Wood’s second pitch missed the target low-and-away in favor of right-down-Broadway. Maier scores, DeJesus winds up at third, and the Royals don’t need a hit to win the game.

Step 7: The Spork Becomes...The Spark!

I’m trying to hold onto my hatred of Willie Bloomquist, but man, he’s making it difficult. First came the perfectly-executed hit-and-run that set up the winning run against the White Sox in the 11th inning, the kind of play that makes crusty old scouts weep with pride. Then last night, with the Royals needing only a deep fly ball to win the game…Bloomquist hits a deep fly ball to win the game. Bloomquist isn’t a great player, but he may be that rare player with great fundamentals even without great talent. I know this much: David Howard doesn’t hit that ball far enough to score DeJesus. I’m not sure Howard hit an opposite-field fly ball that far in his entire career.

Seven steps to the greatest Royals comeback since Opening Day, 2004, a game which still lives fondly in our memories even though it was followed by 104 losses. That game is known simply as the Mendy Lopez Game, but this comeback had so many heroes and key moments that I’m not sure how it will be remembered. The Miguel Olivo Walked On Five Pitches Game? The George Brett Rallied The Troops Game? Or maybe, just maybe, the Game That Buried Cleveland. Call it payback for Chip Ambres.

I do know that this was yet another GWWNHWITP, our second in a row and our sixth of the season.

Finally, I can’t talk about the ninth inning without talking about the crowd. Pretty much from the moment Jacobs made contact, the crowd was as much a factor in the comeback as anything else. It was loud, boisterous, and into every pitch. I’ve read some comparisons between this game and the Ken Harvey Game, when Harvey’s walk-off homer against the Tigers in 2003 put the Royals at 12-3 and set off pandemonium in the crowd of 38,937. There were only 25,024 in attendance last night, but there’s a big difference between the two. The Harvey Game came on a Friday night. Last night’s game, a Tuesday night game with no Zack Greinke pitching, nonetheless drew over 25 thousand to the ballpark. By comparison, when the 2003 Royals played on a Tuesday night at the end of May, they drew just 14,154. Last year, on Tuesday, May 13th, the announced crowd was 11,703.

No question, some of this is the new(ish) ballpark. Which is as it should be; you spend a quarter billion dollars on a renovation, you expect the people to turn out to see it. But some of this is the new team. And I only expect those crowds to swell as the weather warms up, and school lets out, and the Royals stay in the chase. Who knows? Maybe another large crowd will get to witness – and do their part to help – another ninth-inning comeback later this year.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Royals Today: 5/19/2009.

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 Anaheim: reasonable men can disagree about the right answer. Letting Kyle Farnsworth pitch to Jim Thome on Opening Day: if there’s a reasonable man who agrees with Hillman’s decision, I have yet to meet him.

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 Detroit is the division favorite at this point.

- 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, 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.