“If the Royals ever get into a playoff race with Ned Yost as their manager, he’s going to cost them games in September with his tactical decisions.” – Joe Sheehan, to me, many, many times over the past few years.
So let’s set the stage, if you don’t mind.
The Royals recovered from the worst loss of the season Friday night to take the last two games against Detroit. As valuable as these wins were, the fact that they came against the first-place team in the division was of no extra benefit. Barring a miracle, the Royals aren’t catching the Tigers. They’re going after the wild card.
Tonight, though, the Royals opened a three-game series in Cleveland, a series which does have an added importance. The Indians are one of four teams the Royals have to overcome in the next three weeks, ranging from 1 to 3.5 games ahead of them in the standings. The Indians have, by far, the easiest schedule of the five: aside from six games against the Royals, they play six against the White Sox, four against the Astros, and four against the Twins. All 14 of their non-Royal games come against the three worst teams in the league.
But: they play the Royals six times. Of the remaining games on their schedule, the games against Cleveland are clearly the most important, and they would be even if the Royals still had games against the Yankees or Orioles or Rays, which they don’t. The Royals have to win five of these six games, or even sweep them. Even going 4-2 would just pull the Royals even in the loss column, and while the Indians have 14 cupcake games, six of the Royals’ other 13 games come against Detroit and Texas.
This series is huge. Tonight’s game was huge.
It didn’t start well at all. Asdrubal Cabrera homered in the second inning; in the third, Jose Ramirez singled for his first major league hit, then scored from first base on Drew Stubbs’ groundout after Eric Hosmer threw wildly trying to nail him at third base. Meanwhile, Jarrod Dyson was thrown out at the plate trying to score from third on Alex Gordon’s grounder to first base.
Yan Gomes homered in the fifth to give Cleveland a 3-0 lead, and after Hosmer singled in a run in the sixth, Carlos Santana led off the bottom of the seventh with a drive that nicked the very edge of the fair pole in right field – it was originally called a foul ball, but reversed on video replay.
But down 4-1 with six outs to go, the Royals fought back. Alcides Escobar doubled to lead off the eighth, and Gordon homered to bring the Royals within a run. Wade Davis gave up an infield single to Ramirez in the bottom of the inning – but then picked him off and finished the inning without further incident.
Down a run to start the ninth inning against the team they absolutely have to beat, against the closer (Chris Perez) everyone loves to hate, on the 9th of September, the Royals got to work. Salvador Perez singled. Mike Moustakas walked. The Royals had men on first-and-second and no one out.
“Is this the most tension you’ve ever felt as a Royals fan? This moment?” – Joe Sheehan, in a text to me, at this moment.
I’m too young to remember anything before 1982, and I was living overseas in 1984 and 1985, so with a nod to 1989, it’s basically between 2003 and this year. Everyone forgets that the Royals were tied for first place on the morning of August 30th in 2003, and just a game out on September 4th, but on September 9th that year they were, as they were today, 3.5 games out. While they would stay exactly 3.5 games out every day from September 11th to September 17th, they never did get any closer than that.
And that entire time, they never played the two teams they would ultimately finish behind, the White Sox and Twins. By the time they played the Sox, on September 19th, both teams were all but finished: the Royals were 4.5 games back, the White Sox 3.5 games back, with 10 games left.
Tonight’s game was against a direct contender with time still on the clock, a game the Royals didn’t play at all that September. The most tension I probably felt that season came in August; the Royals entered their final series in Minnesota on August 22nd a half-game behind the Twins, and one-game behind the Sox. They won the first two games of that series, 3-2 and 4-3, before getting blown out in the finale.
But in both of those wins, the Royals had the lead after five innings and held on to win. In the first game, the Twins didn’t threaten in the ninth until they reached base on a strikeout/wild pitch with two outs, followed by another strikeout to end it. In the second game, Mike Ryan led off the bottom of the ninth with a walk against Mike MacDougal, who struck out Shannon Stewart and then got Luis Rivas to hit into a game-ending double play.
I guess that moment could have qualified as the most stressful moment of the last 28 years. There were still 34 games left in the season after that game. There are 18 games left after tonight. Even acknowledging the steeper odds the Royals face this year compared to in 2003, September is the month for drama, not August.
So to answer Joe’s question: yes. Tonight, after Salvador Perez and Mike Moustakas reached base to put the tying and winning runs on base in the ninth inning against a team the Royals absolutely have to beat in order to make the playoffs, was probably the tensest moment of my entire life as a Royals fan.
(I’m 38 years old, by the way. I have lived and died with this team on a day-by-day basis for at least 24 years. And tonight was…yeah. I know.)
Okay, so now that the stage is set, let’s look at what happened.
Ned Yost, recognizing the stakes, decided to use every weapon at his disposal in the ninth inning. Chris Getz ran for Perez even before Moustakas walked; when Moustakas walked, he was pulled for Pedro Ciriaco.
I had no problem with this; if anything, in the moment it reminded me a little of the most famous ninth inning in Royals history, when Dick Howser used FOUR pinch-hitters and TWO pinch-runners, and one of those pinch-hitters drove in one of those pinch-runners to tie the game ahead of Jim Sundberg’s winning run. (See, kids, there was a time when baseball teams chose not to carry eight relievers, and instead had something they called a “bench”, where you could actually keep position players that could enter a game and provide value with their bat, their glove, or their legs.)
Ned Yost still wants his eight relievers, but fortunately it’s September, which means you can carry a bunch of extra players - I believe the Royals have 34 on their active roster right now. I’ve got no problem with Getz and Ciriaco pinch-running.
And then Yost calls on David Lough to pinch-hit for Lorenzo Cain.
Okay, an interesting decision, but it’s defensible, I suppose. Lough gives you the platoon advantage against Perez, and you still have several other bats to pinch-hit for Escobar with, and…wait, what? He pinch-hits for Cain with Lough, and then orders Lough to bunt?
Honestly, I don’t have a huge issue with bunting in the abstract in this situation. Giving up an out to move a runner from first to second is almost always a bad move (unless it’s the pitcher batting) – but giving up an out to move a runner from to second and a runner from second to third is, in the right circumstances, break even or even better. Prior to the bunt, with men on first and second and none out in the ninth, down a run, the Royals’ chances of winning the game were around 43%. A successful bunt that moved the runners to second and third with one out would actually increase the Royals’ chances of winning the game to about 44%. (Here’s a game from earlier this year against the Mets where the Royals bunted in the exact same situation – you can see their win probabilities listed in the play-by-play section.)
Basically, the bunt in that situation is a break-even play, depending on who’s at the plate, the pitcher, etc. I would argue that facing a less-than-elite closer in Perez, with a batter that has the platoon advantage and is tough to double-up (Lough has only grounded into three double plays all year), with good speed on the bases, that you’re probably better off swinging away in that situation. And I certainly don’t think it’s worth wasting one of your better pinch-hitters just to order him to put a bunt down.
But okay, it’s not the worst managerial decision I’ve ever seen. No, that came next.
So with one out and the tying run 90 feet away, the winning run 180 feet away, Jarrod Dyson was due to bat. Dyson’s not the first guy I’d want up in that situation, but he’s far from the last. He’s a lifetime .267/.334/.370 hitter against right-handed pitchers. He’s not a great contact hitter, but he’s not a swing-and-miss guy either – in 647 career plate appearances, essentially one full season of play, he’s struck out 123 times. And obviously, his speed can create all kinds of problems on any ball hit on the ground.
Only Dyson doesn’t come to the plate. In his stead, Yost sends up…Carlos Pena.
Now, there are probably situations in which I’d rather have Pena at the plate than Dyson. Two outs, tying run’s at the plate, you need a homer to tie…yeah, I could see the case for Pena in that situation.
This was not that situation.
The Royals had just bunted – they had just given up an out – in order to put two runners in scoring position. You know what “scoring position” means, right? It means IN POSITION TO SCORE ON A SINGLE. We don’t say a runner on first base is in scoring position, even though he could score on a double, and obviously the batter is in scoring position if he hits a home run. The point of moving runners into scoring position is so that THEY CAN SCORE ON A SINGLE.
Jarrod Dyson hits singles. Lots of them, actually. He’s a career .252 hitter, and 74% of his hits are singles. He has singled in 17% of his career plate appearances.
Carlos Pena does not hit a lot of singles. Walks and homers, yes. Singles, no. As Matthew Pouliot pointed out in his takedown of Ned Yost this evening, Pena hits singles in 10.3% of his career plate appearances – fewer than every other active player with 1000 plate appearances other than Adam Dunn. (And by the way, it’s not a good sign when a national baseball writer writes a column within minutes of the final out to point out what a terrible manager you are.)
Pena has had a long and occasionally brilliant career despite not hitting singles, because he hits home runs (27 or more six times) and draws walks (87 or more six times). But here’s the things – when you hit a home run or you draw a walk, IT MAKES NO DIFFERENCES WHETHER THE RUNNERS ARE ON FIRST AND SECOND, OR SECOND AND THIRD. A homer drives them all in; a walk loads the bases either way.
If Yost was planning to pinch-hit for Dyson with Pena, HE SHOULD NEVER HAVE BUNTED THE RUNNERS OVER. And if he wanted to bunt the runners over, HE SHOULD NEVER HAVE PINCH-HIT WITH CARLOS PENA. These two individual decisions, questionable but not catastrophic on their own, are like nitro and glycerin put together.
Yost gave up an out to give his team a chance to take the lead with a single – and then sent a batter to the plate with an unusual, nearly historic, inability to hit singles.
The other advantage of the bunt was that it moved the tying run to third base, allowing you to potentially tie the game without the benefit of a base hit. You’re not supposed to play for the tie on the road, but with the Royals’ bullpen, what the hell.
In which case, the last thing you want is a strikeout. Dyson has struck out in 19% of his career plate appearances. Pena has struck out in 27% of his career plate appearances.
So to reiterate: with the tying run on third base (don’t strike out!), and the go-ahead run on second base (hit a single!), Yost swapped out his scheduled hitter for a pinch-hitter who 1) strikes out 40% more often and 2) hits singles 40% less often.
AND THAT’S NOT THE WORST PART. No, the worst part is that CARLOS PENA IS DONE. He’s finished. He can’t hit anymore. For God’s sake, he was released BY THE HOUSTON ASTROS on July 31st, once they realized that no team was willing to trade for him. At the time he was released, he was hitting .209/.324/.350. Last year, playing every day for the Rays, he hit .197/.330/.354 in a feverish attempt to prove that occasionally the Rays don’t know what they’re doing. He did hit .225/.357/.462 for the Cubs in 2011, but hit .196/.325/.407 the year before that.
Since the start of the 2010 season, Pena is hitting .207/.335/.398. Since the start of the 2012 season, he is hitting .201/.327/.352. I’m not saying his secondary skills don’t give him a tiny bit of value. But I am saying that as terrible a choice as he would be to bat in this situation if he were at his peak, he’s an even more terrible choice today. For God’s sake, Pena hasn’t hit .230 in a season since 2008.
The Royals had plenty of better options than Pena in the franchise’s most leveraged plate appearance in 28 years. They could have let Dyson bat. They could have had Getz running on contact, making it more likely he’d score on a ground ball. That risked getting Getz thrown out at the plate – like Dyson had been earlier – but that would have put men on first-and-third, and with Dyson on first, they could have stolen second base, knowing there’s a good chance that the Indians wouldn’t have thrown through (even though Dyson had been thrown out trying to steal earlier) because it would have given Ciriaco a chance to steal home with two outs.
They could have put on a safety squeeze play, knowing again that the worst-case scenario was that they could have stolen second base with Dyson and have men on second-and-third again.
Or, if Yost really didn’t trust Dyson in that situation, he could have used a different hitter. Like, I don’t know, DAVID LOUGH. Lough has a higher career batting average than Dyson – admittedly a small sample size – and also has a lower strikeout rate. Lough’s big weakness is that he doesn’t walk, but again, with men on second and third walks don’t matter. Power doesn’t matter. Singles matter, and Lough hits singles on 18.7% of his career plate appearances.
Instead, Yost used Lough to put a bunt down because he didn’t trust Cain in that situation, or anyone else on the bench, including Johnny Giavotella or Jamey Carroll. If you don’t trust Jamey Carroll to put a bunt down, just cut him already. Or perhaps Ciriaco could put down a bunt, in which case you pinch-run for Moustakas with Carroll or Giavotella or Justin Maxwell instead.
This would require Ned Yost to think more than one move ahead, though.
Anyway, this is the Royals, where no bad deed goes unpunished. Pena saw six pitches and didn’t swing at any of them, including a 3-2 slider that sent him back to the dugout along with the Royals’ postseason hopes, more or less.
The Royals still had one out left, and Yost sent George Kottaras to the plate to bat for Escobar. If those are my two choices, against a right-handed pitcher, I of course want Kottaras at the plate – but again, in this specific situation (second and third, two out), Kottaras’ skill set is utterly misapplied. The Greek-Canadian God Of Walks has singled in 9.2% of his career plate appearances – an even lower rate than Pena’s. He’s hit eight singles all season long. He takes, and he rakes.
He took ball four this time, after fouling off four two-strike pitches, a magnificent at-bat that, because of the way he was used, didn’t do a whole lot to increase the Royals’ chances of winning the game. Because what it did do – load the bases – could have been accomplished WITHOUT BUNTING. If Yost had pinch-hit for Cain with Kottaras, a walk there would have loaded the bases with none out. If the bases were loaded with none out, Lough could have pinch-hit and driven in two with a single, or hell, Pena could have pinch-hit and had a chance to drive in the tying run with a walk.
Instead, with two runners on base and no one out, in the biggest inning his franchise had played in a generation, Yost seemed to go out of his way to put his players in a position to fail. He used the most players least suited for the situation that he deliberately gave up an out to create. With all that, the Royals still had Alex Gordon at the plate with the bases loaded and two outs. Gordon flied out. If there was only one out, the runner probably scores from third. And who knows, there might have been only one out if Yost hadn't given one away for no purpose. But he did.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this: Ned Yost made the most consequentially bad managerial decision I have ever seen from a Royals manager. Maybe the stakes weren’t quite as high, but this was Lin Elliott-caliber choking. This was Grady Little-caliber managerial malfeasance.
And I have to think the Royals’ front office understands this. As much as I rag on them, I have no doubt that they are very bright guys who understand baseball very well – and they must understand that Ned Yost just cost their team a ballgame in a pennant race with tactical decisions that can not possibly be defended. And they must understand that there is a small but real chance - I would say around 2% - that the outcome of this game will decide the outcome of the wild card race, with the Indians winning the wild card and the Royals finishing one or two games behind them.
Hell, I think Ned Yost himself understands he screwed up, although he may never admit it, much as Grady Little still refuses to acknowledge that maybe he should have pulled Pedro Martinez after seven innings. Like an NFL coach screwing up the clock management in a two-minute drill, in the heat of the moment, without enough time to coolly think through the implications of all his decisions, Yost made a decision that he can’t justify in the morning. (Fortunately, the Chiefs’ don’t have a coach who would ever screw up the clock.)
A few columns ago I wrote that Ned Yost’s influence on the decision to fire Kevin Seitzer was itself a fireable offense. I tried to sugarcoat that a little just yesterday, writing that as long as the two could co-exist, I’d be willing to accept Yost’s continued employment as manager.
Well, I can’t anymore. I think Ned Yost has done a decent job of what he was hired to do: develop these young players, get them acclimated to the major leagues, nurture them through the inevitable bumps along the way. It hasn’t always been pretty; Escobar looks like Angel Berroa Jr. at the plate, and the jury is still out on whether Mike Moustakas will ever reach his potential. But then Salvador Perez was never supposed to be this good.
If this is Yost’s final season as the Royals manager, I will remember him more fondly than most of his predecessors. Trey Hillman was overmatched. Buddy Bell was luckless and hapless. Tony Pena abandoned his team in the middle of the night. Tony Muser just wasn’t very good. Bob Boone wasn’t very good even though he apparently invented the game of baseball. Yost will have accomplished something during his time as the Royals’ manager, something I’m not sure I can say about any other manager since Hal McRae.
But at this point, his continued employment is a detriment to the organization. Tonight, with his team in a pennant race, in the most crucial inning his franchise has played since the year Back to the Future was released, Ned Yost cost his team the game with his indefensible decisions. It wasn’t the first time. And I fear it won’t be the last.