Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Score Board: 9/14/13.

No promises, but as long as the Royals keep winning and keep staying in the playoff chase, I’ll try to keep writing a column every day or two. Let’s jump in.

For the third consecutive series against an AL Central rival, the Royals began with a loss. While Friday night’s loss wasn’t as emphatic and disheartening as the previous Friday, and wasn’t as crushing and preventable as Monday night’s, it was just as damaging to their playoff hopes. They really need to win every series at this point.

If I’m going to rip Ned Yost for his tactical catastrophe on Monday – and...let’s see...I did rip him – then I have to give him credit for fostering an atmosphere in the clubhouse where the Royals keep coming back from tough losses like nothing happened. Friday night seems like a pretty clear loss on paper, but between the outs on the bases and the defensive plays that were almost made, the outcome could have been very different.

Tonight, in the most important game the Royals have played in many years, Ervin Santana was once again everything the Royals could have expected and more. He threw 6.2 scoreless innings on just 83 pitches, walking just one and striking out five. Santana’s command has been an underrated part of his improvement this season; he’s walked four batters in a start just once all year.

The Royals got a run in the first, and then did everything in their power to not score another. After Eric Hosmer’s RBI triple, he was thrown out at the plate on Billy Butler’s grounder. In the third, Emilio Bonifacio walked with two out, then was picked off first base, then was thrown out of the game for protesting the call (which was probably missed). This brought Chris Getz into the game, and naturally in his first plate appearance, he batted with two outs and the bases loaded, and flied out.

Santana nursed a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the seventh, but with one out gave up singles to Victor Martinez and Andy Dirks. At this point I openly wondered on Twitter about whether Yost should pull Santana. On the one hand, he had only thrown 83 pitches. On the other, you have the best bullpen in recent AL history, you have seven outs to go, and you have to win this game. You have to win every game from here on out, or at least every winnable one.

There’s a lot of evidence that a pitcher’s effectiveness doesn’t simply decline with rising pitch totals, but with how many times he has worked through the order – hitters are significantly more effective the third time they’ve seen a pitcher in a game than their second. This was Santana's third time through.

This wasn’t a slam-dunk call, because a right-handed hitter (Omar Infante) was at the plate, and Santana’s slider-heavy repertoire has always made him much tougher on right-handers than left-handers. The decision was in that gray area where you could make enough of an argument either way that it wouldn't be fair to nail Yost to the wall for either decision. Yost left him in the game and Infante hit a slow ground ball that Alcides Escobar made an excellent play on, but both runners moved up.

Alex Avila was due up, a left-handed hitter, in a situation where a single would score the tying and winning runs. At this point in the season, you simply have to make a change there – and Yost, to his credit, did exactly that. Will Smith came in and faced pinch-hitter Nick Castellanos. Castellanos got a moral victory by putting the ball in play – but Smith got the only victory that counts when the ball settled in Jarrod Dyson’s glove.

Getz led off the top of the eighth with a walk, and Hosmer followed with a gorgeous bunt to the left of the mound that Miguel Cabrera had to just put in his pocket. When your #3 hitter can also bunt for a hit when the defense goes to sleep, it just makes him that much more difficult to defend – witness Robinson Cano making the Red Sox pay for their shift with a bunt double yesterday.

With two on and no one out, Butler hit a medium-depth flyball to right field. Getz tagged, Torii Hunter made a perfect throw to third base, and Getz was out. Salvador Perez walked, but Mike Moustakas flied out to end the inning – a flyball that would have brought home a run had Getz not tried to take the extra base.

In the moment, I didn’t mind Getz’s decision too much. The cardinal rule is to never make the first or last out at third base, but this would have been the second out, i.e. with one out, there is a real advantage in advancing from second to third base. If Getz is safe 75% of the time in that situation, it’s worth going. Hunter made a fantastic throw, and you could argue that Getz just got unlucky.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, I quickly got shot down. Hunter was positioned to catch the ball with his momentum bringing him towards the plate, and has a very strong arm – Getz had to know a good throw would nail him. These are valid points. I still think that Getz is probably safe more often than not in that same situation, but it probably wasn’t a 75% chance. Also, Chris Getz has earned our skepticism any time he makes any baserunning decision. Also a valid point.

The Royals had eight hits and four walks, but just one run, and if they wound up losing this game it would have been one of the most painful losses of the season. All they needed to do to prevent that was to get two more scoreless innings from their bullpen, and specifically from their two best relievers, Luke Hochevar and Greg Holland. Consider this: coming into today, Holland’s strikeout-to-hit ratio of 2.58 is the highest single-season ratio in Royals history for anyone with 30+ innings. Hochevar’s ratio of 2.06 is second-best. Granted that we are living in the most strikeout-friendly era baseball has ever seen, these are arguably the two most dominant relief seasons in Royals history.

Hochevar did his part, getting Don Kelly to ground out and striking out Austin Jackson. After he gave up a double to Hunter, Hochevar got Miguel Cabrera to ground out to second base on his first pitch. (For those who disagree with my suggestion that the Royals trade Holland this winter, because Hochevar hasn't proven he can handle the ninth inning - tonight's inning was more pressure-filled than most save situations, and he did just fine.) After the Royals went quietly in the ninth, setting up the most important half-inning in the recent history of the franchise, they called upon Holland, having the most dominant season inning-for-inning in the entire history of the franchise.

Holland proceeded to walk Prince Fielder on five pitches.

At this point, Tigers manager Jim Leyland does what he usually does when his slow, fat, slow first baseman/DH reaches base in the ninth inning, and what Ned Yost NEVER does when his slow, fat, slow first baseman/DH reaches base in the ninth inning: Leyland left Fielder in the game. I tweeted at the time that Yost would have pinch-run for Fielder 100% of the time in that situation. (Actually, I tweeted that he would have “pinch-hit” for Fielder, because it was stressful and my fingers weren’t working properly and paosdkf;lawehads.)

I didn’t comment on the wisdom of Leyland's decision one way or the other. While I think Yost pinch-runs for Butler more than he should – particularly since he rarely pinch-runs for Salvador Perez, who’s only marginally faster – I think in this situation pinch-running made some sense. Pinch-running for the tying run is more important than pinch-running for the winning run, because the downside of pinch-running is that you lose the bat if the game goes extra innings. If Fielder represents the tying run, he’s not going to bat again unless he crosses the plate – and if he crosses the plate, then by definition he will have to score on some sort of ball in play. (A home run would end the game.) If Fielder's running speed does not come into play the rest of the inning, than the Tigers aren't scoring, and Fielder ain't batting again.

Throw in the fact that the Tigers are the home team, and that playing for the tie at home is a useful piece of conventional wisdom, and I think you can argue that the downside of losing Fielder’s bat in the 11th inning is superseded by the importance of getting him home in the 9th. Leyland chose not to. This would prove decisive.

Holland fell behind Victor Martinez 1-0 before coaxing a pop fly to right field that Getz and Lorenzo Cain almost miscommunicated on. He then struck out Andy Dirks on his filthy splider, or whatever that pitch is called. One strike away from victory, though, Holland let Infante pull a ball into the left-field corner for a double.

And so began one of the most spectacular plays in recent Royals history, and one of the greatest exhibits of team defense in a season marked, more than anything, by great team defense.

Even with Fielder running from first base, it was going to be tough to keep him from scoring. There were two outs, so Fielder was running on contact, and Infante hit a lazy, looping line drive that bounced twice before hitting the left-field wall. But Gordon bare-handed it, hit Escobar in short left field, and Escobar threw a one-hopper that Salvador Perez snared, then tagged Fielder just before Fielder touched home plate.

That’s the Cliff’s Notes version. This was a phenomenal defensive play from start to finish, that turned a tie game with the winning run on second base into a win, in a pennant race. And if any one of the three fielders involved in the play doesn’t do a perfect job, it doesn’t happen.

Bill James once wrote – I think it was about the 1986 California Angels – that the teams that run this kind of play, where an outfielder hits a cutoff man who throws to the plate, the best are veteran teams, teams where the players have been playing together for years and know exactly how to operate it. None of these three guys have turned 29 yet, and only one of them was on the roster three years ago – but they ran this play like they had rehearsed it together in a dozen spring trainings.

Gordon will probably win his third Gold Glove in a row this winter, and will probably deserve it. This was his 15th assist of the season, to go with 17 last year and 20 the year before that. That is extraordinary, for a left fielder to nail 15 baserunners in three consecutive seasons. Baseball-reference unfortunately does not allow me to search this data, but Sean Lahman’s baseball database splits outfielders by their respective positions going back to 1954. And since 1954, Alex Gordon is the first left fielder ever to nail 15 baserunners in three consecutive seasons. Only three left fielders have had 15 assists in any three seasons – Bernard Gilkey and Bobby Higginson did it three times each, while Carl Yastrzemski did it six times.

You can see why on this play. Not only does Gordon have the arm and quick release of a former third baseman, and not only does he shave a crucial split second by bare-handing the ball, he puts this ball right where Escobar wants it. Whitey Herzog wrote in his memoir that Casey Stengel used to teach outfielders to aim for the cutoff man’s glove side, so that his momentum will allow him to turn his body to make the second throw. If the cutoff man has to backhand the ball, even just slightly, he has to waste valuable time turning his body back in a position to throw to the plate. Gordon’s throw sailed to Escobar’s left, towards the foul line, allowing Escobar to drift ever so slightly towards the line and then continue his motion by pirouetting towards the plate.

Perez’s play was fantastic as well, reaching glove side to snare Escobar’s throw on a short hop and then come back with his glove arm to tag Fielder. Let’s put it this way: Brayan Pena – who was on deck to pinch-hit for the Tigers – probably doesn’t put the tag down in time.

But the play that might get the least attention – but was the most important – was the glue that connected Gordon’s throw and Perez’s tag. Escobar caught Gordon’s throw just inside the left field foul line. He has to get that ball to his catcher, and he has to do it while somehow not hitting Prince Fielder, who is running in almost exactly a straight line between him and Perez.

There was only one place for him to put that ball – he had to throw it outside the foul line, so that it wouldn’t bounce off Fielder’s ample back or broad shoulders, but close enough to the line that Perez could field it and still tag Fielder. There was a window maybe three feet wide that Escobar had to hit – and he did so perfectly.

(Addendum: as Bob Dutton wrote in his game recap, Perez's catch-and-tag was made more difficult by the fact that he couldn't see Escobar's throw. This makes sense - again, a 300-pound man was running almost directly between him and Escobar. Perez saw enough of the throw to anticipate where it was headed, and put his glove in the perfect position to snare it on a short hop.)

All season long, the Royals have been playing defense at a level I’ve never seen them approach before and that no other AL team can touch. Tonight, three of their defenders – all three of whom deserve at least consideration for the Gold Glove – combined on a play of artistic beauty and immense implications.

And they won, 1-0, for the fourth time this season, their most 1-0 victories in a season since 1986. The Royals have won as many 1-0 games this year as they did from 1991 through 2002 combined. One more 1-0 victory would tie the franchise record set in 1972, when pitchers still batted and the league ERA was 3.06.

Even with Tampa Bay and Cleveland winning, their playoff odds ticked up to 11.0%, because the Orioles and Yankees both lost, and the Rangers dropped their fifth in a row, putting them in a tie with Tampa Bay. With three home games against Texas next weekend, the Royals suddenly have two potential avenues to squeeze into the playoffs. Tonight was the most important game the Royals have played in many years. But it's less important than tomorrow's game.

The fun is still probably ending soon. But I’ve been saying that for a while now, and the fun hasn’t ended yet. On the contrary, it feels like it’s just beginning.


JayBeingJay said...

Please stop writing passionate, informed, and pleasing columns about this team. I'm really trying hard to not "anticipate" any kind of post-season wonderment for these young Royals. You're not helping.

Go Royals!

Kansas City said...

Great stuff as usual. Isnt' the internet great. Now, if one can just sqeeze in time for sleep and work, everything will be great. Can't wait to retire.

Kansas City said...

But perhaps a little too much credit to Escobar for where he threw the ball. He could have thrown it on the first base side of home with a clearer path. Fielder was running down the foul side of the base line and Escobar's throw luckily got by him and Perez luckily caught it blind. However, Escobar's gun of an arm did make the play possible.

Unknown said...

I got chills reading this piece! Amazing work as always!

John said...

Great analysis, but I still think that if you gave me the chance to add any season by an individual Royals reliever to my bullpen, I'd want Dan Quisenberry's 1983. He was throwing three or four innings at a time on a lot of his saves. In my book, that's a lot more impressive than what Holland and Hochevar are doing.

BobDD said...

Yes, Hochevar is superb this year, but for the first time (regress to the mean?). I think if Holland were traded, you'd have to go with Herrera as the closer. With Hochevar's painful Royals history, he would cause a 33% increase in hemorrhoids in the greater KC area if he were the 9th inning lad.

Unknown said...

Yost just destroyed our season with the dumbest managerial move, or lack thereof, that I have seen in my 37 years of watching baseball.

Fast Eddie said...

I'll go ahead with what I was going to say, even though I can now see the previous post which echoes my thinking...."Why in the %$#@ is Guthrie still in the game pitching to Avila?"

twm said...

Had a pretty good day at the ballpark today: saw Wil Myers jack one of the longest HRs I have seen from a right handed batter at Target Field, David Price pitched well, a foul ball almost hit my family and the Rays lost.

Drew Milner said...

Just curious, I never played enough ball myself to know the answer to this. Getz tagging at 2nd and being thrown out at third is being blamed on Getz. Why isn't that the responsibility of the 3rd base coach?