Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 71.3% (42.9% Division, 28.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 67.9% (27.2% Division, 40.7% Wild Card)
Well, maybe we should stop fretting so much about lineup order.
Ned Yost’s new lineup started off with a bang, with his new leadoff hitter and his new DH, Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki, both scoring in the first inning. Just as a watched pot never boils, a noticed streak never continues, and the Royals’ 22-game streak of scoring six runs or less came to a merciful end. Yost can tell his critics to kiss his ass for another night. It wasn’t as dramatic as the Bloomquist Game, but it was also a lot more meaningful.
Lineups matter, but they matter a lot less than most people realize. And as silly as it might be to have Escobar leading off, it’s a lot less silly than letting the shell of Omar Infante’s body bat second night after night. Really, if you moved Escobar from leadoff to the #9 spot, that might be the ideal order of these nine players. That’s kind of a big change – moving a hitter from first to last – but the point is that the lineup isn’t nearly as crazy as it looks at first glance.
The other issue many people had with the lineup was having Aoki in the DH spot. It’s a fair criticism; you generally would prefer to have a DH in September who has hit more than one home run all year. But how much better are the other options, really?
Look at these three players:
Player 1: .267/.335/.336
Player 2: .265/.310/.380
Player 3: .266/.319/.374
Who would you rather have in your lineup? Players 2 and 3 are almost identical; Player 1 has a slugging average 40 points lower but an OBP 20 points higher. It’s a tough call, honestly.
But what if I told you that Player 1 has added positive value as a baserunner, while Players 2 and 3 have both been below-average in that regard? And that Player 1 has hit into only 5 double plays all year, while Player 2 has hit into 11, and Player 3 has hit into 20? Suddenly, Player 1 looks like your best option – not a good option, but your best option.
Player 1, as your probably know, is Aoki. Player 2 is Eric Hosmer. Player 3 is Billy Butler. Based on their performance this year, Aoki has been the most valuable offensive player. Maybe having him DH isn’t as crazy as it looks.
Or look at it this way:
Nori Aoki, 2014: .267/.335/.336, 15-7 SB-CS, 5 GIDP
Royals DHs, 2014: .244/.302/.331, 4-0 SB-CS, 22 GIDP
Yes, that’s just looking at this year; Hosmer and Butler were both superior offensive players last year. (Although Aoki was also better than Hosmer in 2012.) But it’s the middle of September now; all of these guys have enough plate appearances to make you think that what we’ve seen so far this year has more relevance than what they’ve done in the past.
Anyway, going forward the proper answer to the question is Josh Willingham, but he stubbornly refuses to stay healthy. But if Aoki is the DH this afternoon, maybe we should all bite our tongue and see how it plays out. [Late note: he is. The lineup is exactly the same as yesterday's. Of course it is]
- The other advantage to moving Aoki from RF to DH is that it meant the Royals trotted out three Gold Glove-caliber outfielders. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, despite striking out just two batters in eight innings, Jeremy Guthrie allowed just three hits and one unearned run (thanks to Mike Moustakas; remember, the Royals’ infield defense is basically average.)
I would just as soon go with a Gordon-Cain-Dyson outfield against all RHP for the rest of the season; paradoxically, giving Dyson more playing time gives him more time for his skills – speed, range, and what qualifies as an excellent OBP by Royals standards – to make up for the inevitable mistakes he makes.
But if they’re not going to commit to that outfield all the time, they should at least do so when Guthrie starts. Last night Dyson made 9 putouts in center field, one shy of the team record of 10 – a record he also shares. In Guthrie’s three prior starts, the Royals had an outfield of Gordon-Cain-Aoki, and in those three starts Guthrie allowed 27 hits in 15.2 innings. The last time Dyson was in center field for Guthrie was August 23rd – and Guthrie went eight innings that night, allowing five hits and one run. Mostly a coincidence. But partly having an outfield where fly balls go to die.
They mentioned this on the broadcast last night, but with yesterday’s victory, in Jarrod Dyson’s last 21 starts, the Royals are 19-2. And as an added bonus, having Dyson in the starting lineup means he can’t pinch-run in the ninth and then feel like he has to “do something”.
- Brandon Finnegan finally gave up a baserunner, but only after Lorenzo Cain came oh-so-close to catching Allen Craig’s foul pop-up behind the tarp, and only after Finnegan had struck out David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s faced 12 batters in the majors, struck out five of them, and allowed just an opposite-field single. And here are those batters:
J.R. Murphy; Jacoby Ellsbury; Derek Jeter; Martin Prado; Mark Teixeira; Carlos Beltran; David Ortiz twice; Yoenis Cespedes twice; Allen Craig; Mike Napoli.
Not all those guys are in the prime of their career, but if you’re a fresh-faced 21-year-old who was pitching in college three months ago, every single batter you’ve faced other than Murphy has been a player you’ve been hearing about for years, or in some cases since your earliest memories in baseball. And he’s shoved it. It’s a really small sample size, but it’s hard not to get excited about Finnegan’s future. Not just for what he can do out of the bullpen the rest of this season, but what he might be able to do for the Royals in their rotation in the future.
- The Royals’ playoff odds went up significantly overnight, even though the Tigers came back to beat Cleveland, on a two-run, two-out homer by Alex Avila in the eighth, a half-inning after Torii Hunter made a shoestring catch to save two runs.
The Tigers’ victory hurts the Royals’ chances of winning the AL Central, but the Indians’ loss helps their chances of winning the second wild card. Moreover, the A’s extra-inning victory in Seattle last night (in the most A’s way possible, scoring a run on four walks) is a big boon for the Royals.
The A’s collapse has made it possible that they will wind up being the team left out of the musical chairs game that is the four-teams-for-three-spots race. But after today’s game in Seattle, their remaining schedule is very easy: 9 of their last 13 games are at home, and while they do play three games against the Angels, they have three against the Phillies, and the other seven are against the Rangers, who 1) have the worst record in baseball and 2) have basically packed it in for the season.
The Mariners, on the other hand, start an 11-game road trip against the Angels, the feisty Astros, and the still-hanging-in-the-race Blue Jays. They finish with three home games against Anaheim, and at that point the Angels may well have clinched and be in getting-everyone-healthy-for-the-playoffs mode. But even so, that’s a very formidable closing kick, and the Royals’ greatest ally in their quest to get into the playoffs by any means possible.
You all know what this means, don’t you? A Royals-A’s wild card game. A Scout’s Honor vs. Moneyball. Old School vs. New School. A team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years vs. a team that has lost six straight double-elimination playoff games. My personal life and my professional life in a three-hour fight to the death.
There will be no divided loyalties here. Sabermetrics, shmabermetrics.