Playoff Odds (ESPN): 68.3%
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 61.8% (31.1% Division, 30.7% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Fangraphs): 68.3% (51.2% Division, 17.0% Wild Card)
The narrative all year has been that the Tigers just have so much more talent than the Royals that they’ll eventually pull away, and the Royals have done nothing in the last 48 hours to change that.
I’ll track the playoff odds like this daily going forward. The Royals’ ESPN playoff odds were around 84% on Monday morning, so basically their odds of not making the playoffs have roughly doubled by being unable to win one of two games against the Tigers.
Before the series began, I felt that as long as the Royals won even one of the three games, they would be in good position, leaving Detroit with the divisional lead and still having three home games against the Tigers next weekend. But they are very much in danger of being swept. Tonight is, simply, the biggest game the franchise has played in 29 years. It is, dare I say it, a Big Game.
Big Game James pitched an absolute gem with no margin of error in his last start, blanking the Yankees for 8.1 innings before Wade Davis finished off the first 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium in the history of the Royals. They’ll need the same from him tonight. His legacy as a Royal, and the legacy of The Trade, will be in large part shaped by what happens tonight.
If the game gets played. Which it might not. The weather reports for southeast Michigan look dismal, and with both teams having an off-day next Thursday the 18th, the option is there for a make-up date.
This would hurt the Royals badly, for two reasons:
1) They would have to fly to Detroit for one game in the middle of a homestand, negating a large part of what makes home field such an advantage. The Tigers would fly back to Detroit for one game on their way from Minnesota to Kansas City. Both teams would be inconvenienced, but the Royals much more so, and right before opening a series at home with Detroit.
2) It would mean that Shields could only start one of these last four games with the Tigers, whereas if the game is played tonight he should also start next Sunday’s finale.
Major League Baseball generally does everything it can to get a game in when it’s the final game between two teams that season. In this case, there is a potential make-up day, but unless they move that game to Kansas City – don’t even dream about it – it would be far less inconvenient to stay up and play this game tonight, even in sub-optimal conditions, than to make it up in a week. This may mean playing through rain delays; it may mean that Shields won’t be able to go seven or eight innings because of the weather. But I’d rather take my chance with Shields for five innings tonight, knowing he’d get another crack at Detroit.
That’s tonight. Last night’s game seems to come down to one thing: all anyone can talk about was the ninth inning, and Ned Yost’s decision to pinch-run with Jarrod Dyson at second base, followed by Dyson getting picked off.
I tweeted immediately afterwards, and argued on 810 WHB with Soren today at noon, that in the moment, I fully agreed with that specific decision. This is far from a universal opinion. I would like to explain my analysis here fully.
After Nori Aoki and Omar Infante beat out consecutive infield singles, both by an eyelash, Alex Gordon came to the plate. Yost pinch-ran for Infante with Terrance Gore, which made sense – that was the tying run, and Gore’s speed meant any ball in the gap would tie the game. But Yost did not pinch-run for Aoki at this point.
After Gordon struck out, Salvador Perez came to the plate, and then Yost called on Dyson to pinch-run for Aoki.
Here’s why those two specific decisions – don’t pinch-run for Aoki with Gordon at the plate, but pinch-run for him with Perez at the plate – both make sense.
The point of pinch-running for Aoki with Dyson isn’t to get better speed at second base – that’s not the tying run – but to allow for the possibility of the double steal which will get the runner on first base into scoring position. Also – and nearly as important, in my mind – is that it takes away the possibility of a double play.
With Gordon at the plate, though, the odds of him doing something which would make a double steal pay off – specifically, hitting either a single or a double-play ball – are fairly small. Gordon hits a lot of extra-base hits (at least relative to the rest of the Royals), walks a lot (same), and hits the ball in the air (career GB% of 39.2%). He leads the team with 107 Ks. All those things – walks, extra-base hits, fly outs, and strike outs – render a double-steal moot. There’s no point in risking an out on the bases for minimal gain, and you might as well hold on to Dyson for a spot where he might make more of a difference – if Perez reached base later in the inning representing the go-ahead run, for instance.
But when Perez came to the plate, the calculus is totally different. He doesn’t walk a lot – just 21 walks all year, and remember, he had eight walks in the Royals’ first eight games. He hits more groundballs than Gordon (career GB% of 43.7%), and more importantly, he’s very slow – he’s hit into 21 double plays this year, ranking third in the AL. (Gordon has hit into 10 GIDP’s.) Perez hits for power too, but is more of a singles hitter than Gordon. While Gordon has a slightly higher batting average this year (.272 to .262), Perez’s career average is .287. And precisely because Gordon draws more walks, his ratio of hits to plate appearances is actually quite a bit lower than Perez’s.
So by pinch-running with Dyson, Yost set up the potential for a double steal, which would 1) eliminate the possibility of a game-ending GIDP and 2) mean that a single – from either Perez or Hosmer, who at this point in his career is basically the definition of a singles hitter – would tie the game.
Oh, and the icing on the cake is that Joe Nathan is one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run on. He had given up 10 steals (in 51 innings!) in 10 attempts already this year, and since the beginning of the 2006 season, basestealers were 44 for 46 against him. With no pickoffs. Even with the element of surprise eliminated, the Royals had two of the five fastest players in the majors on base against a pitcher with a slow move to home plate.
Put it this way: if this were Stratomatic and we were rolling dice and everything I just wrote were written as a set of probabilities, this is exactly the move I would have made. It’s not very often that I can say that about anything Ned Yost does.
The problem with the move was everything else.
- I don’t know why Yost waited until there was an 0-1 count on Perez. I assume it just took him some time to process everything, but I really don’t know. As much as the Tigers would have known Dyson was going no matter when he came into the game, bringing him in during the middle of an at-bat just made it that much more obvious.
C.J. Nitkowski also brings up the point that by waiting until the last moment to bring in Dyson, Yost didn’t give Dyson much of an opportunity to read Nathan’s move, given that Dyson has rarely been on base with Nathan on the mound before. It’s an angle I hadn’t considered; I don’t think it’s of enormous significance, but it’s not irrelevant either.
- While Yost wound up in the same place that I did, I don’t think he took the same journey. He offered some explanations to the move afterwards, but they weren’t particularly clear, and they certainly didn’t line up at all with what I just described.
- It’s not even clear that Dyson was going as part of a double steal, that there was any communication with Gore – who’s been in the majors about 15 minutes – beforehand. If Dyson had taken off for third without Gore going for second, that would have been asinine, as it would have forced the Royals to send Gore on a separate play – with, again, everyone knowing it was coming – and given the Tigers two chances to get an out on the bases.
- I’m still not entirely sure why Yost used Gore instead of Dyson to pinch-run for Infante in the first place, given that Infante was the tying run. Maybe Yost was forward-thinking enough to realize he wanted his most accomplished base-stealer to be at the front end of the double steal. Or maybe he simply didn’t want to put Dyson in for his second baseman because in his mind, whoever came into the game for Infante would have to be pulled from the game in the bottom of the inning for a new second baseman.
- While Dyson is an exceptional base-stealer, he is also an exceptionally aggressive one, and there should have been some attempt to remind him that 1) the Tigers probably know that you’re running – you know, Ian Kinsler straddling the second base bag might have been a clue – and 2) Joe Nathan is so easy to run on that you don’t need to force the issue: just make sure he’s going to home plate before you take off.
In the end, as he sometimes does, Dyson deluded himself into thinking that speed was a substitute for technique, preparation, and common sense. It wasn’t. He deserves – and has received and, to his credit, acknowledged – a tremendous amount of blame. But I can’t work myself up into blaming Yost for his decision. Maybe he made the right decision for the wrong reasons, but it was the right decision.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to be better next time. The Royals’ margin for error is razor thin, and there are only 18 games left.