Saturday, September 6, 2014

Catching Up.

My annual production of blog posts has been on a steady downward slope since I started this site back in 2008, as I’ve fought a losing battle against the combined forces of a growing family and the jadedness that comes from writing the same things about the Royals for – going back to my days on before Baseball Prospectus launched – over two decades now.

I was hoping that my productivity would pick up these last few weeks, but I’ve run into a new and delightfully unexpected problem: I can’t find the time to write because I’m too busy watching the games. There’s no sporting experience like pennant race baseball, because there’s no other sport that sucks away your life day after day after day for weeks, even months on end. If I didn’t have so much emotionally invested in this team, maybe I could write during the games, but I’m not a beat writer. I love Andy McCullough and Bob Dutton, but I understand why they never seem to care too much whether the team they cover wins or loses: if they did, there’s no way they could do their job on deadline. I’m finding it hard to do my job without a deadline. My apologies. I will try to do better going forward. Everyone has to elevate their game in a pennant race, myself included.

[I started writing this column before today’s game, and the only way I’m going to catch up is to simply ignore today’s events – Duffy’s injury, etc – for now.]

- Even more than usual, so much of the narrative of the Royals the last two weeks has revolved around Ned Yost. There were his poorly-timed and poorly-worded comments about the lack of attendance following the most dramatic moment of the season to that point, Alex Gordon’s walk-off home run on August 26th. It’s an old controversy now and I don’t want to wade too deeply into it, but here are some bullet points:

- Talking about fans showing at games is the third rail of the clubhouse. If you’re a player, a manager, a front office person: just don’t do it. I might make an exception for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have an almost comically low ratio of attendance to success, but even in the Rays’ case, the problem isn’t the fans: it’s the ballpark, both its quality and its location. The Rays have many fans, as revealed by their TV ratings; they just don’t have a lot of fans who want to drive an hour to an inconveniently-located indoor mausoleum.

The Royals have a lot of fans too, and the fans are responding to the team’s success, as demonstrated by record TV ratings last year and what will probably wind up another set of record TV ratings this year. It’s true that the Royals drew just 13,847 that night against the Twins. It’s also true that the attendance that night was their first crowd under 20,000 since June 25th, and their first crowd under 19,700 since May 28th.

Attendance wasn’t that low because Royals fans suddenly abandoned their team in the midst of a pennant race – it was that low because, for the first time in three months, it was a school night. Guess what? Fans are less likely to come out to the ballpark if they have to be in bed by 8:30, or if they have kids who have to be in bed by 8:30. The Royals averaged over 35,000 a game for the weekend series against the Indians. The fans are engaged. It’s just that real life beckons. People who work for a major league baseball team would do well to remember that what they do for a living isn’t real life for 99.9% of the population.

- When the fans did pack the stadium over the weekend, the Royals got swept by the Indians, pending an unlikely comeback when Sunday night’s game is resumed in Cleveland on the 22nd. Per Kurtis Seaboldt, if they officially lose that game, the Royals’ record at home since 2004, when drawing 30,000 fans or more, will drop to 25-75.

No, really. 25-75. At home. With a big crowd. That works out to 41-121 over a full season. That would be the losingest season in modern major league history – all in home games. That really is one of the most mind-boggling statistics I’ve ever seen associated with the Royals, and that’s saying something.

So maybe Ned Yost should be careful what he asks for.

- It’s a well-established fact that attendance lags behind winning. Teams almost always draw more fans the year after they win the World Series. Some of this is simply that fans aren’t soothsayers – no one knows when they decide to skip the game in August that their team is destined to win the championship that October. And some of it is that the fans that you bring in to top off the stadium – as opposed to the hard-core fans who fill up half the stadium every night – are, by definition, not as committed to the team. They are bandwagon fans. They need a reason to come out to the game.

And the reality is that “winning” is not the #1 reason for them to come to the game. “Doing something cool” is. The perception of cool is what drives a lot of entertainment choices for a lot of people, and after 28 years of losing, it takes more than the most glorious month-long stretch of baseball in a generation for the Royals to earn back the perception of cool. But if they keep winning, they will.

It’s an important point for baseball teams to understand; if they don’t, they do something petty and stupid like owner Wayne Huizenga did after the Marlins won the world championship in 1997. Upset that the Marlins didn’t draw more fans – mind you, they drew over 2.3 million that year – he burned the team to the ground before they even played their first game in defense of their championship. The 1998 Marlins lost 108 games – easily the most of any defending champion – and that move really salted the earth for baseball in south Florida. Sixteen years and another world championship later, the Marlins are still struggling to recover. They haven’t drawn 2.3 million fans in a year since, and the only season they even approached 2 million was the first year of their new ballpark.

So the point, Ned, is that you should take care of winning and have faith that the fans will come out.

- Having said all that...Ned might have had a teensy point. The last six non weekend-games have drawn 13,847; 17,668; 17,219; 21,536; 19,435; and 15,771. That looks good compared to, say, 2006, when the Royals drew less than 39,000 for all three weekend games against the Mariners in September combined. But it would be nice to see Kauffman Stadium packed for a weeknight game that doesn’t involve Derek Jeter’s final appearance there.

(And being an out-of-towner, I’m obviously part of the problem. I was hoping to fly in for the Tiger series, but unfortunately I can’t get out of some practice commitments. My disappointment is assuaged by the fact that the Royals finish the season here in Chicago. Also, if you’re calling for an appointment to see me in October…let’s just say that, until the playoff schedule is announced, your options are limited.)

The Royals have one homestand left, and I have no doubt that the weekend games against the Red Sox will sell out, and the series against Detroit the following weekend will be perhaps the most raucous Kauffman Stadium crowd since Darryl Motley caught a fly ball. But it would be nice to see the other four games – a Thursday night against Boston, a Monday-Wednesday series against the White Sox – at close to capacity too. Not for Ned. For us.

- Yost committed one of his worst tactical decisions of the season last Saturday, inexplicably going to Scott Downs instead of Jason Frasor in the tenth inning of a tie game. Downs was released by the White Sox just two months ago; since the Royals picked him up he has allowed more walks (5) than strikeouts (3). Just as damning for a purported left-handed specialist, the first batter he faced was Jose Ramirez, a switch-hitter.

Afterwards Yost said that he wanted Downs in the game because Michael Brantley, who bats left-handed, was due up second. That’s certainly different, bringing in a left-handed specialist because the second batter due up hit left-handed. Ramirez tripled, Brantley singled through the drawn-in infield, and by the time Yost acknowledged his mistake and brought in Frasor it was too late. Frasor gave up a soft groundball that turned into an RBI single because Brantley had stolen second and moved to third on Salvador Perez’s error; he then got a strikeout, a caught stealing, and a groundout to end the inning.

I’m hoping this game finally made it clear to Yost that Frasor is his fourth-best reliever. After watching the likes of Francisley Bueno and Aaron Crow pitch so poorly in ostensible mop-up situations that he had to use Greg Holland to close, Frasor is the one reliable guy the Royals have beyond the Herrera-Davis-Holland Death Hydra. He’s never been great but almost always been good, with a 3.62 career ERA, a 3.23 ERA the last six years, and one below-average ERA in his 11-year career. He also has a very small platoon split for his career; RHB have hit .230/.303/.362, and LHB have hit .245/.339/.371. It’s nice to play matchup ball, but the reality is that with a left-handed or right-handed hitter at the plate, Jason Frasor is a better option than Scott Downs. It was a colossal error, and – given that the Royals did score a run in the bottom of the inning – probably cost the Royals the game.

It’s nice to have a left-handed specialist. But it’s not vital; teams have won championships without one before. The Royals have three relievers who are so dominant that you’d be a fool to pull any of them for a pitcher who just happens to throw with his left hand. Frasor isn’t nearly as dominant, but he’s still probably a better option than any left-handed pitcher the Royals have. [Late note: thanks to Brandon Finnegan, this may no longer be true.]

That game stands out, though, because for the most part Yost has done a terrific job running his bullpen for the second straight year. It’s not simply that he chooses the right guys to bring into the game – I’m pretty sure most middle school students in the Kansas City area could figure out that Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland are the team’s three best relievers. It’s that they’re pitching so well in the first place. Yes, that’s Dave Eiland’s job as well, and he deserves credit for it. But in an era where pretty much every team – even the most sabermetrically-inclined – believes in giving relievers set roles that require them to pitch in short spurts, we have to acknowledge that having set roles and pitching in short spurts may help relievers to pitch better. And for the second straight year, the Royals’ relievers are pitching better than pretty much every other team in baseball.

Last year, the Royals’ bullpen had a 2.55 ERA, the lowest of any AL team since the 1990 A’s, and we all thought it was impossible that they would repeat that performance this year. We were right, although it’s worth pointing out that right now the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen has a 2.44 ERA. The game has changed; pitchers are ascendant, and teams have figured out that you’ll get better results from seven relievers throwing a maximum of one inning than from five relievers who might get up to six outs at a time.

The Royals’ bullpen, however, has a 3.43 ERA, 7th in the AL. It’s a good bullpen, but not nearly as good as last year’s. Or is it?

What made last year’s bullpen so remarkable was that the Royals literally didn’t have a single bad reliever in it. I mean almost literally – every single pitcher who relieved in even one game, except Luis Mendoza, had an ERA under 3.90. That’s an incredible luxury for a manager to have, to know that even the guy you call upon when you’re down 8-3 in the fifth inning is capable. But it is a luxury. It’s not a necessity.

This year, the Royals have had plenty of guys who have wet the bed coming out of the bullpen. Aaron Brooks, in addition to giving up seven runs in his one start, gave up six runs in his one relief appearance. Justin Marks allowed three runs in two innings; Donnie Joseph allowed six runs in less than an inning. Take those three guys out, and the Royals’ bullpen ERA drops to 3.12.

While the mop-up men have done a terrible job of mopping up, the business end of the bullpen has been taking care of business. Last year, the Royals had Greg Holland with one of the best relief seasons in team history, and Luke Hochevar was nearly as dominant as his set-up man. But this year, while Holland has taken a slight step back, Wade Davis has replaced Hochevar and is putting up a season for the ages. Forget Royals’ history – Davis’ 0.72 ERA is the third-best in major-league history for any pitcher with 50+ innings. He didn’t give up an extra-base hit until July 31st, ending a streak of 49.2 innings going back to last September, the longest such streak by a reliever in major league history.

And here’s the thing – the two pitchers with lower ERAs than Davis – Dennis Eckersley in 1990 and Fernando Rodney in 2012 – both gave up four unearned runs along with their five earned runs. As I’ve gone on the record many times, the distinction between earned and unearned runs is essentially meaningless in today’s game. Davis hasn’t given up an unearned run all year. His RA is also 0.72. Rob Murphy also had a 0.72 RA as a rookie in 1986, when he threw 50.1 innings. No other pitcher with 50+ innings has ever had an RA of under 1.00.

And the icing on the cake has been Kelvin Herrera, who since June 27th has pitched 26.2 consecutive scoreless innings. Neither Herrera and Davis has allowed a home run all season. Holland’s 1.60 ERA is actually the highest of the three. Teams have had two dominant relievers before, but very few teams have had three, and perhaps no team has had three quite as dominant as the Royals. No team in major league history has had three pitchers who pitched in 40+ games in relief with an ERA of under 1.75. With three weeks to go, the Royals have three guys who have pitched in 59 or more games with an ERA no higher than 1.60. That’s insane.

The HDH trio – someone please come up with a nickname for them, preferably one that’s not groan-inducing – have stepped on the gas in the second half. As a result, the Royals – who were 10-20 in one-run games in late July – have won 11 of 13 one-run games since. And they are 18-8 in two-run games for the season, meaning in games decided by one or two runs they are 39-30 overall. This is why they are 78-61 despite a run differential of only +26 – they have won six more games than you would expect from their runs and runs allowed. It’s not just that their bullpen is so good – it’s that it’s good in all the right places.

Which brings us back to Ned Yost, and at some point we have to acknowledge that for all his tactical issues, he does the rest of his job well enough to make up for them. Last year the Royals roared out of the second half by winning 19 of 24, and their 43-27 record after the All-Star Break was the second-best in baseball. This year, they’ve just completed their hottest month since Jim Frey (!) was their manager. In both cases, the team was considered a fairly significant disappointment up until the moment they got hot.

It does seem to me that if a manager is respected in the clubhouse, if he maintains an even keel through the highs and lows of a season, if he’s able to motivate his troops even when things appear bleak, this would be one of the signs of it: that instead of packing it in when faced with adversity, instead of letting a frustrating first half snowball downhill, the team would rebound when no one expected it. And I think I’m being honest when I say that for the second straight year, no one (outside the organization) expected the Royals to get as hot as they did.

Yost does things that will drive you crazy. I still haven’t forgiven him for pinch-hitting with Carlos Pena, or letting Jeremy Guthrie pitch the eighth, and I’m still terrified that he might do something similar again this September. Well, again again, because he already did it last Saturday when he picked Downs over Frasor.

But you know what? Every manager in baseball, with one or two exceptions, makes tactical decisions that drive analysts crazy. Yost is better than most in some ways; for instance, the Royals have issued just 12 intentional walks this season, the fewest in baseball, and last year they issued just 21, fewer than every team but the Nationals and Red Sox.

And for the second straight year, he got the pecking order in the bullpen straightened out early in the season and reaped the rewards. If we all agree that bullpen management is one of the areas on which a manager has the most impact, then it seems unfair to claim that Yost doesn’t deserve some credit when the Royals’ bullpen has been kicking ass and taking names for years.


Jazzbumpa said...

Love it.

Royals and Tigers have 6 match-ups left. I thought that might decide it all, but at two back and playing erratically, it's hard to have much confidence in the Tigers. Even the starting pitching is crumbling.

Still - it might be interesting. or at least agonizing.


Nathan said...

I thought we'd all agreed on the three horsemen.

Unknown said...

I submit, "Nasty Roys" as the nickname for Herrera, Davis, Holland. It's a bit of a stretch, I understand. But I like it. If #CountryBreakfast can catch on, why can't #NastyRoys?

Rick Johnson said...

The Throttling Three

Rick Johnson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rick Johnson said...

The Guns of Petaluma (Petaluma Heights was the name of the subdivision that was razed to build Kauffman Stadium).

DiggityDawg said...

Ghidorah? A three-headed monster...and "H", "D", & "H" are in there.

Unknown said...

Plaza Lights Out?

Unknown said...

Burnt Ends?