Monday, September 22, 2014

Royals Today: 9/22/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 89.0% (34.6% Division, 54.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 69.2% (6.6% Division, 62.5% Wild Card)

One day after the Royals’ most painful loss in memory, the ESPN/Fangraphs playoff odds are the highest they’ve been all season, so pretty much the highest they’ve been (if they had been invented) since 1985. Such is the roller coaster ride of September baseball.

Those odds are inflated by a couple of factors. The first is that the computers don’t know that the Royals are about 90% likely to lose their first game today, the completion of their August 31st game. The other is that the computers don’t know that while the Mariners – who Fangraphs give just a 13% chance of making the playoffs – finish their season with three games against the team with the best record in baseball, the Angels will be prioritizing keeping their players healthy and fresh for October over actual wins and losses at that point. The Angels with one hand tied behind their back are still a formidable opponent, but not as formidable as the computers might assume.

(Of course, the numbers also don't know that the Indians chose to use Corey Kluber yesterday, keeping him out of the Royals series, and the White Sox are unlikely to start Chris Sale against the Royals in the season-ending series either. That's pretty big. Given that the Royals are the team standing between Cleveland and the playoffs, and given that starting him yesterday won't give Kluber another start this season, I'm really surprised - and, of course, relieved - that they didn't hold him back a day.)

What’s really interesting about these numbers is just how much BP’s playoff odds have diverged from Fangraphs’. BP has always had lower playoff odds for the Royals, because they take a much more dim view of the Royals’ “true” talent level, pegging the team with an expected winning percentage of just .489. It may sound crazy to peg the Royals as a sub-.500 team, and I wonder if their model properly accounts for the Royals’ defense. But it’s not as crazy as it sounds; the Royals have been lucky both on offense and defense this year, in that they’ve played much better with runners in scoring position than otherwise.

But what’s strange is that as the season gets closer to the end, the quality of the teams should start to matter less and their exact position in the standings should matter more. The Royals lead Seattle by 1.5 games in the standings; one game if you account for tonight’s loss. But with seven games left, one game is pretty huge.

And in fact BP doesn’t give the Mariners the bulk of those odds that have been stripped from the Royals. Those odds go to the Indians instead. Fangraphs gives Cleveland just a 3.3% chance of the playoffs; BP gives them a 15.5% chance, an enormous difference. I really don’t know why the two systems would diverge this much this late in the year. The take home point here is that if the Indians sweep this four-game series – which is really a three-game series plus a gimme – they would move a half-game ahead of the Royals. That’s the danger here.

On the other hand, if the Royals take three of four, they are guaranteed to finish ahead of the Indians. (I would say they eliminate the Indians entirely, but it’s possible Oakland and Seattle both collapse.) Splitting the four would require the Indians to sweep their last three and the Royals to lose their last four just to force a tie. Losing three of four would still give the Royals a 1.5 game edge, but would also open the Mariners up to passing them and setting up a wild weekend.

So basically, this series means everything. Duh.

- A quick note on yesterday’s game, and the value of having five starting pitchers that don’t suck. Jeremy Guthrie is not, with all due respect, a great starting pitcher. But he does not suck, and man is that a nice thing to say right now.

A lot of people complained when the Royals re-signed him to a three-year deal that it was too many years and too much money for a pitcher who, at his best, is league average. But – this was shortly before the Shields trade caused me to lose my mind – I endorsed the signing, because I felt like now that he was freed from the AL East and Coors Field, Guthrie would settle in as a league-average starter who provides lots of innings, and that has value.

And that’s basically what he’s been, with the caveat that – according to his peripherals –  he’s been quite lucky to even be league average. Last year he had a 4.04 ERA, good for a 102 ERA+, which is better than league average when you consider starting pitchers have higher ERAs – but remember, he had the benefit of the game’s best defense. This year, he has a 4.28 ERA, below the 3.94 league average for starting pitchers, but at least within range. He was worth 1.1 bWAR last year, and 0.7 bWAR this year. Based on those numbers, he’s been – slightly – overpaid the last two years.

But you can make a strong case that for the Royals, “replacement level” is lower than it is for the industry as a whole, because we’ve seen what happens when someone other than the Big Five starts a game, and it isn’t pretty. This is why Liam Hendricks had value in a trade; he’s not great, and he may not even be mediocre, but he’s better than anyone else the Royals had.

Guthrie wasn’t great on Sunday, but he was good enough, in a game the Royals absolutely had to win. Rick Porcello is a better pitcher in the long run, but in the short run he’s, what, half a run better per start? That’s close enough for variance and the Royals’ bullpen to overcome, and that’s what happened yesterday, in a game the Royals desperately needed.

And oh yeah, when Guthrie hit some trouble in the sixth inning, putting two on with one out, Ned Yost went to Kelvin Herrera. (Although Yost let Guthrie face Nick Castellanos with two on and none out first.) When Herrera got out of the inning, he went back to Herrera for a second inning, then to Wade Davis, then to Greg Holland. The world did not spin off its axis. Herrera was not overwhelmed by being asked to pitch one inning earlier, or two outs more, than normal. Yost managed his bullpen exactly the way he should have, everyone did their jobs, and the Royals got the win.

If the Royals are going to escape into the playoffs this week, if they’re going to make an extended run in the playoffs next month, they need Yost to show he’s capable of learning from his mistakes. The way he used his bullpen yesterday is proof that he is, in fact, capable. Now, about those bunts…

Tonight marks the return of Danny Duffy, who the Royals delayed until today because they wanted two left-handers (Duffy and Jason Vargas) to take the mound against Cleveland. This makes all kinds of sense; for the season, the Indians have hit .256/.322/.405 vs. RHP, but just .251/.311/.359 vs. LHP – the drop in power is particularly striking. They have five left-handed hitters who play almost every day in Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Michael Bourn, David Murphy, and Lonnie Chisenhall. I’m not sure Vargas is ideally suited to face them – he doesn’t have much of a platoon split – but Duffy has been as tough on LHB this season as any starter in the game. If he’s healthy, he gives the Royals a very good chance to at least split tonight’s quasi-doubleheader.

But first up, the Royals get a crack at turning an assumed loss into an unexpected win, as they finally complete the Sunday Night Baseball game from August 31st which was interrupted by torrential downpours right after Greg Holland had coughed up two runs in the top of the tenth inning.

While coming back from two runs down with three outs to go is a long shot, the Royals are aided by a couple of things:

1) Just before the game was postponed, the Indians had pulled Cody Allen – who had surrendered the game-tying homer to Alex Gordon in the ninth – for left-hander Kyle Crockett, who is the pitcher of record. So even though Allen might be rested to pitch tonight, he’s out of the game.

2) While the game started in August with strict 25-man rosters, when the game picks up today, Andy McCullough confirmed for me that the Royals can use everyone – all 37 players – on their current roster, at least those who did not come out of the game originally. While the Royals used Herrera, Davis, and Holland, Holland is still technically the pitcher of record for the Royals; if they were to tie up the game in the tenth, Yost would have the option of going to Holland for one more inning if he so chose.

More importantly, though, the Royals have a raft of bench players available to them that weren’t available the night of the 31st. Josh Willingham was active that day but unavailable with a nagging injury; he’s available. Eric Hosmer was on the DL; he’s available. So is Terrance Gore along with Jarrod Dyson if the Royals need a pinch-runner; so is Jayson Nix and Johnny Giavotella as replacements for whoever Gore or Dyson pinch-ran for. So is Francisco Pena as a third catcher, which is relevant because Erik Kratz started for the Royals behind the plate, and Salvador Perez is in the game as the DH.

3) The Royals have had literally three weeks to plan out their line of attack in the bottom of the tenth inning, so Yost can’t claim to have not had the time to prepare.

Here is the lineup due up to start the tenth inning:

L Mike Moustakas
R Erik Kratz
R Alcides Escobar
L Nori Aoki

I assume Crockett will have to face one batter, as the rules state that a pitcher brought into the game must face one batter. I will admit that I don’t know if that rule is abrogated in this unusual circumstance. But assuming he has to face one batter, Yost’s first decision is clear:

- Pinch-hit for Moustakas with Josh Willingham.

Crockett is a left-handed specialist at this point; he’s a rookie who zoomed to the majors less than a year after he was drafted in the fourth round last year, and has pitched in 40 games for the Indians this year, but has thrown just 28 innings. The Indians have found a way for him to face more LHB (68) than RHB (48) this year, and while LHB have hit just .217/.288/.283 against him, RHB have hit .302/.375/.488. His K/BB ratio against LHB is 18 to 2, and he has not allowed a home run to them; his K/BB ratio against RHB is 7 to 4, and he has allowed two homers.

Moustakas, obviously, bats left-handed. He also has a .271 OBP this year, the lowest of any batter on the team with 100 PA, and the Royals need a baserunner before they can start thinking about tying the game with one swing. If the Indians led by a run you could at least try to make an argument that Moustakas’ power gave him a shot – a dumb argument, but it’s an argument. But in this case, Moustakas might well be the last hitter on the team you’d want batting in this situation. (Well, aside from Raul Ibanez. Let’s not go there.)

Willingham bats right-handed, and will take a walk, and despite his recent horrible game on Saturday his .349 OBP on the season is just one point behind Aoki’s as the highest on the team. (His .361 OBP since joining the Royals would rank first.) The only reason not to pinch-hit with him is if you want to hold him back to go for the fences if and when a batter reaches base. But I’m not sure who you would go with instead; the only other RHB on the bench are Pena, Giavotella, Nix, Lane Adams, and Terrance Gore. So to me, this seems like an absolute no-brainer.

If Yost lets Moustakas bat against Crockett to start the ninth, with three weeks to prepare, and with a bench full of guys to play third base if the Royals extended the game, it would be as inexcusable as anything he’s done all year. Which is saying something.

Kratz bats second, which is another reason to really hope that the leadoff hitter reaches base. If he does, then Kratz’s power makes him a reasonable choice against Crockett. If Kratz bats with one out and no one on, his lifetime .274 OBP makes it tough to stick with him – except, again, the Royals’ best right-handed alternative off the bench is probably Giavotella. I might actually make that switch, but it’s not an appealing decision either way. This would be the rare time where giving up the platoon advantage while pinch-hitting makes sense, as I suppose you could go to Dyson and hope he can beat out a ground ball to the left side, or go to Eric Hosmer and hope that Hosmer’s innate hitting ability comes through. And having Francisco Pena on the roster means that the Royals can replace Kratz behind the plate after the inning without giving up the DH. (If Pena were to bat later, you'd probably want to pinch-hit for him then, move Perez to DH, and then have your pitcher bat in Pena's spot, but by the time the pitcher's spot would come up you'd be in at least the 15th inning.)

If Crockett is pulled after one batter for a right-handed pitcher, then the Royals’ options become much more palatable. Hosmer or Dyson for hits; Ibanez or Carlos Peguero if the leadoff batter reaches and you want to swing for the fences…but in that case you would just go to Hosmer anyway. It’s hard to imagine that Terry Francona would pull Crockett and open up the Royals’ left-handed hitters off the bench unless the leadoff hitter reaches and Kratz’s power worries him. Which, again, gets back to this fundamental point: the Royals must do everything in their power to maximize the odds their leadoff man reaches. Which means that Mike Moustakas must not be allowed to bat.

(Late edit: it has been pointed out to me that, per rule 4.12(c) of the official MLB Rulebook, Crockett does NOT have to pitch to a batter when the game resumes, although if he doesn’t, he is considered to have pitched in the game and can not come back in. This changes things a little, but only a little. There are two possibilities here:

1) Crockett starts the tenth, but after a pinch-hitter is called for, he is pulled for a right-handed pitcher. This would not surprise me at all.

If that’s the case, you STILL have to go to Willingham, because Willingham vs. a right-handed pitcher would still give you a better chance of getting on base than Moustakas vs. a left-handed pitcher. Basically, if Crockett takes the mound, Moustakas has to come out, and whatever Francona does is up to him.

2) A right-hander starts the tenth instead. In that case the answer isn’t quite as obvious, but I would still pull Moustakas. Again – YOU NEED A BASERUNNER. Moustakas has his skills, but getting on base ranks near the bottom of them. Dyson would give you a much better on-base chance as well as speed on the bases, which Yost loves even if it’s not the tying run, and he still has Gore for that eventuality. Sticking with Moustakas wouldn’t be an error on the same level as if he faces Crockett, but it would still be the wrong move.)

SECOND LATE EDIT: Joel Goldberg informs me that IF Crockett takes the mound to start the inning, THEN he must face one batter, so the Royals would get a free shot with Willingham without having to worry that Francona would pull the ol' rope-a-dope. So again: if Crockett takes the mound, Willingham must bat. If someone else takes the mound, someone other than Moustakas should still probably bat.

THIRD LATE EDIT, BECAUSE THERE HAVEN'T BEEN ENOUGH OF THOSE: Now I'm hearing again that Crockett does NOT have to stay in. Either way, Willingham against any pitcher is better than Moustakas vs. Crockett. So pinch-hit Willingham and work out the details later.

After that comes Escobar and Aoki, a one-two pairing which sounds about 100 times more interesting than it did back when this game started. Infante would bat fifth, and if he bats then the tying runs are at least on base, which means That’s What Speed One or That’s What Speed Deux are on the basepaths. If Crockett is still on the mound, I’d let Infante bat; if a right-hander is in the game at that point, then this would be the perfect place to use Hosmer if you haven’t already.

The point is, the Royals have had three weeks to think about these scenarios, and it’s not like this is rocket science. There’s no excuse for screwing this up. The odds are slim either way, but stealing one victory from the jaws of defeat this week might be the same as stealing one playoff appearance from the jaws of another disappointing season.


Ralph said...

I would give you a 90% chance you will see Moose up there. Ned just doesn't think that way.

Kansas City said...

Crockett does not have to stay in. If Francona is smart, he will bring in a right hander and keep Moose at the plate. I don't think even Yost is dumb enough to let Moose bat if Francona stays with Crockett.

But Francona is not a great strategist, so maybe he does stay with Crockett. Then, Yost PH’s Willingham. Then Francona brings in righty and Yost probably switches to Dyson. Then Yost PH’s Hosmer for Kratz (probably true in an scenario) and Francona probably brings in a lefty. I think Yost is played out at that point. Hosmer hits home run and then score is tied 4 to 4. Aoki follows with walk off home run to win it. Royals then lose next 7 games and fall out of playoffs, but we’ll always have the memory of the Aoki walk off (just like the Maxwell walk off last year) and 85 wins will feel almost like winning the World Series, which Dayton Moore will do next year in Atlanta.

Brian said...

This speculation is interesting, but let's speculate on something more realistic. After does no pinch-hitting whatsoever, and the the suspended game concludes quickly with a loss, what will Ned's comment on the subject be in the post game press conference? I'll offer, "Listen, there wasn't much we could do there. We just wanted to get through the half-inning so we could move on to the real game."

Robert said...

I can't wait to see Rany's Twitter feed when Moustakas bats.

twm said...

Pretty intense bottom of the tenth. And a pretty intense bottom of the second for Duffy. This team makes things interesting, and memorable.

Unknown said...

and after all of that, Moose bats and singles, pinch-runner scores but they lose anyway, only the Royals...
Still looking good for the postseason though!

Ford said...

Question of the day. Do we want Dayton to take the Atlanta job?

Unknown said...

One more item of interest. Seattle does not match up well with Toronto at all. Toronto has a good enough offense to beat Seattle's pitching and just good enough pitching to stop Seattle's offense. I look for a split of the four games, which would significantly hurt Seattle's post season aspirations.

Unknown said...

Just how in the hell is Danny Duffy 9-11, but with an ERA of 2.32 ??? His K:BB ratio is only 2:1, so maybe that is part of the issue. I think his Houdini act in the 1st inning tonight set the tone for the game. "You will not score because I am freaking Danny Duffy!" Clutch performance...Go Royals!

Unknown said...

Just did more research and found out that Duffy has allowed TEN unearned runs this year (48 R, 38 ER). That is a rather high % of unearned runs. However, if you add in those 10 "unearned" runs (of which Duffy's 5 [!] errors likely contributed to them), his ERA is still 2.93. Maybe he needs more PFP next spring training, but that is damn impressive...

John said...

He's got a losing record because the Royals just aren't a very good hitting team, and they hit particularly poorly when he pitches. Just bad luck.

I would think that win today, coupled with the Detroit loss, pushed their probability up a lot. They really need to be thinking about catching the Tigers, not settling for the wild card.

Unknown said...

John, I agree with you on both points. I hate the one game sudden death WC game. Would rather see a Lester vs. Scherzer matchup in the WC game. Isn't this fun???

John said...

That was what I was thinking. I don't think the Royals would want to come this far and have their entire season depend on having to beat Jon Lester, maybe the best postseason pitcher of our generation, in a one-game showdown at Oakland Coliseum. Let the Tigers worry about Mr. Lester.

Michael S. said...

I only ask for one, just one, home playoff game. If that's Shields vs. Lester in a WC playoff, I'm OK with that! I just want to be able to say I've been to a postseason game at the K.

twm said...

Wild card playoff might not be in KC. We need a series to guarantee a game in KC. And I need to start a kick starter campaign to buy myself a ticket.

Unknown said...

Rany, great win by the Royals tonight, but I am sure you are also occupied by thoughts of Syria. I hope your extended family members are OK. From what I am seeing on CNN (prob the most "neutral" news network), it looks like most of North and East Syria were in dire straits - even before the recent airstrikes. I credit you with giving me a great history lesson on the area, and I feel for you. Your former homeland is in upheaval, and your Royals are in a playoff chase. I certainly understand if that causes you to prioritize things. I pray for the innocent people of Syria.

Michael said...

Rany, hope your family is safe and sound. I know it can be tough when people you love are in harms way.

But I do have a Royals related question for you. With Myers being injured and stinking it up when he has been healthy, and Shields and Davis being key contributors to the Royals first postseason team in nearly 30 years, are you prepared to admit The Trade worked out for the Royals?

Honestly, I think The Trade will end up workibg out well for both the Rays and Royals. I still think Myers will be a good player, and Odorizzi a decent starting pitcher. But the Royals got their number 1 pitcher, and while Davis didnt work out in the rotation, he's given us plenty of value out of the 'pen.

Just curious about your thoughts.