I’ve really had my fill of writing about Ned Yost’s tactical decision-making this month. Honest. I have.
But I’ve also really had my fill of watching him make decisions that cost the Royals ballgames and are threatening to bring an end to the most exciting month of Royals baseball in a decade or two.
Let’s set the stage again.
Max Scherzer was dealing for Detroit this afternoon. Maybe he deserves the AL Cy Young Award, maybe he doesn’t, but let’s not let the argument over whether his win-loss record means anything (it doesn’t) obscure the fact that he’s been a phenomenal pitcher all season. In seven innings he struck out 12 Royals, the most strikeouts by any pitcher against the Royals this season, and allowed only a run on a solo homer to Alex Gordon.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Guthrie was…not Max Scherzer. He gave up a pair of two-out singles in the first; in the second, he allowed a leadoff single and then a home run to Alex Avila, followed by two more singles before he retired the final two batters of the inning.
He began the third inning by allowing back-to-back singles to Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez. At this point, the Tigers were 8-for-14. But he retired Andy Dirks, Omar Infante, and Avila in order to get out of the inning.
In the fourth, Ramon Santiago led off with a bunt single, but Guthrie got Austin Jackson to ground into a double play, and Torii Hunter’s bunt attempt failed.
In the fifth, Miguel Cabrera led off with a single, and Fielder doubled to put men on second and third with none out. At this point, the Tigers were 11-for-22 in the game. But Guthrie worked his way out of another jam, getting Martinez and Dirks to ground out to Eric Hosmer with the runners holding, and then Infante to ground out to Escobar.
Through five innings, the Tigers were 11-for-16 with a home run and a double with the bases empty or a runner on first base only – but they were 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.
This has been the key to Guthrie’s success all season – he has worked out of jams all year long by pitching much better with runners in scoring position. His BABIP, coming into today’s game, was .299 – actually higher than his career mark of .281. But look at these splits – before today’s game:
Bases empty: .273/.333/.454
Man on first base only: .302/.343/.431
Runners in scoring position: .244/.290/.359
What Guthrie has done this year is awesome, and it’s helped to post a 4.08 ERA and win 14 games despite pitching on the edge all year. It’s also completely out of line with what Guthrie has done in his career. For his career, Guthrie actually has a higher OPS with runners in scoring position (765) than with the bases empty (760). Those splits are unsustainable. That doesn’t negate the value of what he’s done this year; it does mean that you can’t just assume that Guthrie has some magical ability to pitch with men in scoring position.
Given the way he was pitching, you could make a strong case that he should have been pulled after five innings, if not sooner. Again: it’s September, you’re in a pennant race, AND YOU HAVE ONE OF THE BEST BULLPENS EVER ASSEMBLED at your disposal. Oh, and because it’s September, YOU HAVE ELEVEN RELIEVERS to choose from.
Guthrie took the mound for the sixth, which I found curious, but I suppose defensible. Avila struck out; Santiago grounded out, and after Jackson walked, Hunter popped out.
The Royals were unable to take advantage of a second-and-third, one-out situation in the top of the seventh, and the score remained 2-1. Guthrie came back out to the mound to face Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Victor Martinez. I would argue that this was a mistake, and I still think it’s a mistake even after Cabrera and Fielder grounded out, and after Martinez lined a single to left, Dirks struck out.
The Royals needed a run and they only had six outs left, but they also got Scherzer out of the game after 116 pitches, exposing the Tigers’ biggest weakness: their bullpen. Drew Smyly has been the Tigers’ best reliever this season, but Alcides Escobar led off the eighth with a double. After Gordon failed to advance him by popping out, Escobar stole third base while Bonifacio struck out – Escobar is now 19-for-19 on steal attempts this year. Hosmer grounded out, but not before Escobar raced home when Smyly buried a pitch that Avila could not keep from bouncing away from him. On a gift run from the Tigers, the Royals had tied the game.
A day after the Royals turned a remarkable defensive play that kept them from potentially losing a game they had no business losing, they had a chance to win a game they had no business winning. Even though the Tigers were the home team, my first thought after the Royals tied the game was that this was now a battle between their bullpen and ours, and I liked our chances.
At no point did I think there was ANY chance that Guthrie would take the mound again. Not after 7 innings. Not after 102 pitches. Not with a collection of bullpen arms that is the envy of baseball lurking behind an outfield fence.
Jeremy Guthrie took the mound. He struck out Omar Infante looking on five pitches. Alex Avila batted. On a 1-1 pitch, Guthrie hung a slider right over the middle of the plate, and Avila did what you’re supposed to do when a tiring starter who was skating on thin ice all game long parks a pitch in your happy zone.
That was the game. Five more batters would come to the plate, two for the Tigers and three for the Royals, and all would make out. Jeremy Guthrie got his complete game. He also took the loss.
Let’s back up here. Guthrie started the 8th inning despite having thrown 102 pitches. Back on May 6th, Ned Yost got second-guessed by half of Kansas City because he pulled James Shields in a 1-0 game after eight innings. That day, Shields had thrown…102 pitches.
And here’s the thing: I never joined the second-guessing, because pulling Shields was the right move. It was the right move EVEN THOUGH Shields had allowed just two hits and two walks in eight innings, and had struck out nine. It was the right move because a fresh Greg Holland was likely to be more effective than Shields facing batters for the fourth time. People got upset because Holland gave up the tying run – but it was the last run Holland would give up until June 16th, and the last lead he would blow until September 5th. (People also got upset in hindsight because it turned out to be the first game in a 4-19 stretch that will probably keep the Royals out of the playoffs.)
But again: pulling Shields was the right move. So how on Earth can Yost pull Shields after 102 dominant pitches in early May, but leave an inferior pitcher having a vastly inferior game on the mound in a September pennant race with three extra relievers at his disposal?
Do you know how many times Yost has let his starting pitcher go back out to start an inning, having already thrown at least 7 innings and at least 102 pitches? Twice, and it was Shields both times. On April 13th, Shields pitched the ninth against the Blue Jays losing 3-1, having thrown 103 pitches. He worked around a one-out walk to throw a scoreless inning.
The other time was on May 17th in Oakland. Shields had thrown 102 pitches, and had allowed the game-tying home run in the 7th inning, when he took the mound to start the 8th. The first batter he faced, Adam Rosales, hit a home run. The Royals lost, 2-1.
So in September, in a pennant race, with ELEVEN relievers on hand, in a tie game, in the 8th inning, with his #4 starter (at best) having thrown 102 pitches, and having allowed 12 hits already, Yost sent him back to the mound. Even though he had only asked his starting pitcher to work that hard twice all season, and one of those two decisions proved disastrous.
It’s true, Greg Holland (1.33 ERA) pitched yesterday, although that was his first game since Wednesday. And Luke Hochevar (1.67 ERA) also pitched yesterday, although that was his first game since Tuesday. But here are the other options that Yost could have turned to:
There was Wade Davis (no runs in four relief innings), who hasn’t pitched since Monday, and has pitched four innings all month.
There was Kelvin Herrera (3.70 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since Tuesday.
There was Aaron Crow (3.55 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since a week ago Friday, and just twice all month.
There was Tim Collins (3.60 ERA), who hasn’t pitched since a week ago Thursday – ten days ago.
There was Louis Coleman (0.35 ERA – one run in 26 innings), who pitched an inning on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in a week.
There was Will Smith (1.75 ERA as a reliever), who faced one batter yesterday, but before that hadn’t pitched in a week.
There was Francisley Bueno (no runs in six innings), who threw 19 pitches on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in eight days.
There was Donnie Joseph (no runs in six innings), who threw 11 pitches on Friday, and before that hadn’t pitched in eight days.
The Royals have eleven relievers on the roster. Every one of them was available to pitch. Nine of the eleven hadn’t pitched the day before. Thanks to the off-day on Thursday, not one of the Royals 11 relievers had appeared in more than one game in the last three days. They were all available.
AND IT’S THE ONE OF THE BEST BULLPENS EVER ASSEMBLED. Ten of the 11 relievers have a better ERA than Guthrie. (The exception is Luis Mendoza, who’s appeared in one game in the last three weeks.) Seven of the 11 have ERAs under 2.00 in relief. The bullpen ERA for the team as a whole is 2.55, which remains the lowest by an AL team since 1990.
Yost chose to stick with Guthrie. He stuck with Guthrie even though the Tigers were batting 12-for-32 (.375) in the game. He stuck with Guthrie even though, for his career, batters were hitting .305/.387/.426 when they were facing Guthrie for the fourth time in a game.
After Infante struck out, Yost stuck with Guthrie against Alex Avila, even though Avila’s left-handed, and while right-handed hitters were batting .221/.278/.337 against Guthrie this year, left-handed hitters were batting .332/.381/.522.
Yost stuck with Guthrie against Avila even though Avila had already homered against him earlier in the game. (You think single-season platoon splits and pitcher vs. hitter matchups don’t matter much? I agree with you! But those are the stats Yost believes in, and even those stats told him to get Guthrie the hell out of the game.)
With two weeks to go in the season, with the Royals with genuine playoff aspirations on September 15th for the first time in the memories of many of you reading this, in a tie game in the bottom of the eighth inning, with a phenomenal and rested bullpen at his disposal, Ned Yost chose to stick with a league-average starting pitcher who didn’t have his best stuff and who was laboring his fourth time through the lineup.
And the Royals lost the game. Guthrie did get his complete game, even though he allowed 13 hits. It was just the fifth 13-hit complete game of the decade. The last time a pitcher threw a complete game while allowing more than 13 hits? Tim Wakefield, in 1996. There's a good reason for that: pitchers aren't allowed to throw a complete game when they don't have good stuff.
Unlike Monday’s debacle, afterwards even Yost sensed he might have made a boo-boo. “I thought he could get us through the bottom of the order, but I pushed him too far…Hindsight is 20-20, and there will be a lot of that. I just thought (Guthrie) had enough to get us to the ninth.”
Hindsight is 20-20, but sometimes foresight is too. If you’re reading this, you probably had 20-20 vision into the future from the moment Guthrie walked out to the mound in the eighth.
“The way he had pitched,” Yost said, “I just felt real strongly that he could get us to the ninth, turn it over to the pen in a tie game and give him a chance to win the game.”
Give HIM a chance to win the game. Not the Royals. Jeremy Guthrie. Because pitcher wins – which are nothing more than an accounting trick – matter more than team wins.
Reading that quote, I suddenly feel like Brian Kenny isn’t being forceful enough in his crusade to #KillTheWin. Kill the win? Ned Yost risked losing a game in order to give his starting pitcher a chance to get the “win” on his ledger instead of another pitcher on his own team. Waterboard the win. Napalm the win. Nuke the win.
I wish we could buy Yost some glasses, but I don’t know how you can just wave away what’s happened this week. It’s not just that Yost made tactical blunders that may have cost the Royals two games – it’s that he made radically different errors in each game. On Monday, he pushed too many buttons (pinch-hit for Cain, then bunted with the pinch-hitter, then pinch-hit for Dyson with Pena) in a panicked attempt to do something to score the tying and winning runs. Today, he stood pat and stuck with his starting pitcher when he literally had 10 better options in the bullpen waiting for a phone call.
If Yost kept making the same mistake over and over again, maybe you could drill him to stop making that mistake. But when he overmanages one night and undermanages the next, what do you do?
I don’t know what the Royals will do. But I’ll tell you what the Brewers did in a September pennant race, five years ago today: they fired Ned Yost.
The Brewers made the playoffs. The Royals probably won’t. Unfortunately, they probably won’t whether or not they retain Yost’s services for the rest of this season.
I just hope that they remember today’s game, and Monday’s game, when they decide whether to retain his services for next season.