Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Royals Today: 9/10/14.

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.


Paul J. said...

But why does Aoki need to be replaced by a pinch-runner in the first place? He has 15 SB this year (4th on the team); it's not like he's Butler/Willingham/Perez, etc. It just seems to me like the marginal increase in speed from Aoki to Dyson isn't really worth it for a run that wouldn't tie the game or give the Royals the lead.

Steve T. said...

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.

This is absolutely not true.

And I think it’s where all of your analysis breaks down. Pretty much the only way anyone steals third is to go as soon as the pitcher lifts his front leg. If the runner waits until that leg is actually going towards the plate, he’s got no shot. Not even Dyson. I challenge anyone to find a video where a runner steals third base after waiting for the pitcher’s lead leg to come forward.

As noted in the excellent Ventura article today, bases are stolen off of pitchers. And in the case of stealing third, it’s stolen off of pitchers that aren’t paying attention. If everyone knows you’re stealing third, you’re not stealing third. It’s just not possible.

Sometimes you can't just use past numbers because even though the situation seems the same, sometimes it's not. So throw out all the numbers that represent what happened in other situations. Dyson’s chances of stealing third there were very close to zero. Insert that into the analysis and it all falls apart. The odds of a successful steal, multiplied by the odds of either Perez or Hosmer getting a hit are much less than the odds of Perez or Hosmer hitting a double or better, or both hitting singles.

Remember the raves that Dave Roberts got for stealing second base when everyone knew he was going? Because it’s REALLY hard when they know you’re going. Third is virtually impossible.

This is all on Tost, he put Dyson in an impossible position.

Mark LaFlamme said...

The Dyson pickoff was annoying as hell, but I'm STILL much angrier about the Perez AB. Just awful; even worse than his bases loaded appearance earlier in the game.

Anonymous said...

^^Agreed about Perez. Saw 12 pitches yesterday and swung at 10 of them. Only 1 ball. Infuriating.

^^Aoki might as well be replaced because if the game progressed into the bottom half of the 9th, Dyson is the better outfielder and would've been subbed in for defense anyway. So you might as well get the faster guy leading the stealing.

Finally, I don't understand why everyone hates Yost. It seems to me that some people simply love to hate managers no matter what the state of the club is.

Kansas City said...

Didn't Perez hit a line drive the prior time up with the bases loaded?

To me, if the second baseman is on second base holding the runner, you have to shelve the stolen base because you are either going to be picked off or you are going to be thrown out.

Unknown said...

Paul J.: - Aoki might as well be replaced with Dyson there because Dyson was going to come into the game as a defensive replacement if we tied the game anyway. If you're going to improve on defense in the bottom half of the inning, you might as well improve on speed (albeit not as vastly) in the top half.

Unknown said...

Agree that Perez's plate discipline is absolutely horrible. You can't keep him in the 3 or 4 slot if he is going to swing at pitches that far out of the strike zone. Never got my hopes up too far even when they were 2-3 games ahead of the Tigers, because I was always worried that the Royals as a team are way too aggressive and when they played smart teams they could easily be shut down, just by never throwing the ball across the plate for good hitting pitches regardless of the count. Don't want them up looking for walks, but working the count for a good pitch is just smart baseball.

Just looked at tonights projected lineup and saw Perez is hitting 6th. I like Cain but at the moment I would put Dyson in instead, Cain is trying to pull everything, while not waiting for middle to inside pitches to rip.

Don't understand why players like Perez, Cain, & Escobar who can go to the opposite field, at times get in severe pull mode and won't go that way,especially with 2 strikes

KHAZAD said...

Paul J - You seem to be of the opinion that Aoki is fast. He is not. He is an aggressive baserunner, and so he has 15 steals, but he is thrown out or picked off 31% of the time in his career, Dyson only 17%. This year, Dyson has stolen 2.2 times as many bases per out as Aoki.

When Aoki tries to take an extra base on a hit or other occurrence, he does so at a below average rate and makes a higher than average number of outs. Dyson takes that extra base base at a rate 50% higher than league average, and makes about half the outs of an average player while doing that.

It is not a marginal difference, it is an entirely different world.

Robert said...

APC, I kindof agree with your point about Dyson being a defensive replacement, anyway...but you lose me in the Yost stuff. If it's so obvious that Dyson is 1) faster and 2) going to be the defensive replacement then surely you don't need to wait until mid-at bat to put him in. Right?

Unknown said...

Don't you just love baseball? Makes us all look like fools. It was mentioned to bench Cain because he is trying to pull everything. All he does is lace a triple to right to score an important insurance run. Nice

John said...

Lots of good comments, the most important noting that stealing second and third are apples and oranges--comparing them is pretty useless. A a pitcher's success or lack thereof in preventing steals of second is basically irrelevant to the issue of stealing third, which almost always is a result of surprise and/or the runner on second being ignored by the pitcher. Even if Dyson plays that situation perfectly, stealing third was going to be very difficult with the Tigers knowing it was coming.

Plate discipline is of course a huge and chronic Royals issue. Salvy is the worst offender (side note--he is a Rany favorite so Rany tends to go easy on him on this point, not by defending him but by mostly just not talking about it), but the team as a whole is terrible on this, and if you bracket Gordon, Aoki, Willingham and (until this year) Butler, the Royals' hitters are just unbelievably undisciplined. This is particularly true of Moose and Hosmer--the poster boys of the Royals draft and develop Process. They are just dreadful--near the bottom of MLB offensive production for their positions--and enormously disappointing precisely because top draft choices and so much time, money and hope has been invested in them. The contrast between now and their earlier development is stark and brutal, and the cause is obvious: Yost's and Moore's catastrophic decision to fire Kevin Seitzer.

Drew Milner said...

Right on John

Jazzbumpa said...

In Monday's and Tuesday's games the Royals shot themselves in the foot. Here in the D, the Dyson pick-off was both hilarious and an unexpected gift from the baseball Gods - well, actually from Ian Kinsler. And the final pitch in that game to get the K on Perez was easily a foot off the plate.

Royals defense was dreadful in both games.

I was surprised to learn that on a fielding percentage basis, they are 11th in the AL. Better than the 13th place Tigers, but from this stat anyway, it looks like their defense is a liability rather than an asset.

Maybe there is sabermertic approach that presents a different picture?

But it looks at this point as if the Royals have good to great pitching, and absolutely nothing else going for them.

The Tigers TV announcing team have nothing but high praise for Yost and Moore, FWIW.

Shields totally shut the Tigers down last night. Congrats to him on a great outing.

But if the Royals want to make it to the finish line, they'd better start scoring some runs and stop muffing ground balls.