Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 96.2% (46.0% Division, 50.2% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 87.6% (18.1% Division, 69.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 99.6% (47.9% Division, 51.7% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 98.6% (17.4% Division, 81.2% Wild Card)
There’s a world of pain and suffering in the gap between 99.6% and 100%, and anyone who thinks this race is over needs to brush up on their recent history. Three years ago, the Atlanta Braves were in exactly the same situation the Royals are in right now – up three games on the St. Louis Cardinals with five to go.
The Braves were 89-68 and the Cardinals were 86-71, and that was the last year under the One Wild Card format, so the prize was even higher – a spot in the LDS round. But the Braves then lost their last five games. The Cardinals won a couple of one-run games, 3-2 and 2-1, then lost 5-4 in ten innings to stay one back with two to play. But the Cardinals closed by winning 13-6, and then 8-0, and not only had they beaten the Braves for the Wild Card spot, they did so without even needing a tiebreaker game. The Cardinals, who had less than a 1% chance to even reach the postseason with five days left, went on to win the World Series. The Cardinals are the original wizards of #DevilMagic, which makes sense, because they are evil.
So don’t assume anything, folks. At the same time, know this: if the Royals don’t make the playoffs at this point, it would be one of the biggest last-week collapses in baseball history. At least the Braves had the excuse that they were losing to the Nationals (who finished 80-81) and then got swept by the Phillies, who led the majors with 102 wins. Meanwhile, the Cardinals took two games from the Cubs (71-91) and then two of three from the Astros (56-106).
The Royals don’t have that excuse. They face the Indians today, and then finish with four games against the 72-85 White Sox – without having to face Chris Sale, who conveniently starts against Detroit today. The Mariners still have two games against Toronto (80-77) and then finish with the Angels, who have the best record in baseball, although the Angels may have clinched the #1 seed and have nothing left to play for at that point.
So really, at this point there are no excuses if the Royals don’t end the longest playoff drought in North American sports sometime between now and Sunday. Everything is set up perfectly for them to clinch at some point during their series with the White Sox. I am sorry that they won’t have a chance to clinch at home. I am not sorry that they have a chance to clinch about 25 minutes from my home. (If you’re going to the games this weekend, check my Twitter feed and let’s all meet up.)
And with Sale going today, the AL Central race could be tied by tomorrow, setting up a furious four-game finish and very possibly a tiebreaker game in Detroit Monday night. It’s baseball with everything on the line. I’ve waited for this for so long.
- The Royals are in this position because, after missing three weeks with a sore shoulder that seemed almost certain to end his season, Danny Duffy returned Monday night with six scoreless innings, working out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam in the first inning; and because Yordano Ventura threw seven scoreless innings last night, his 11th consecutive start of six innings or more allowing no more than three earned runs, the longest streak by a rookie in Royals history.
Danny Duffy now has a 2.32 ERA. With Felix Hernandez getting crushed last night, there is one qualifying pitcher in the AL with a better ERA than Duffy – Chris Sale, who for obvious reasons I hope will still have a better ERA than Duffy at the end of today. But Duffy, if he had ten more innings to qualify for the ERA title, could very well have ended up with the second-best ERA in the AL.
There are some enormous caveats there, of course. More than 20% of Duffy’s runs allowed are unearned, which is unusual; with a normal ratio of unearned runs his ERA would be around 2.70 or 2.80. And he’s benefitted from some tremendous BABIP luck this year; his BABIP this year is .238, and his career mark coming into the season was .324. But still: a 2.32 ERA. From a guy who could have wound up spending most of the year in Omaha with command issues and none of us would have blinked. Duffy’s development is the single biggest reason why the Royals are where they are today, and Ventura’s development is probably second.
And to think, six months ago the inability to develop a starting pitcher from within was the biggest black mark on Dayton Moore’s administration. At this point, given the struggles of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, and the resources expended in the draft (four top-five picks used on hitters, just one on pitchers not counting Luke Hochevar), I would argue that at this point, the administration has done a better job of developing pitchers than hitters.
There will be time to talk about how to set up the playoff rotation soon enough; Soren Petro and I broached that subject on 810 WHB today. First off, the Royals need to guarantee themselves more than one playoff game. If the Royals don’t win the division, James Shields is set up to pitch the Wild Card game on regular rest next Tuesday, probably against Jon Lester. The last two words of the last sentence are just one reason why the Royals still need to do everything they can to win the division.
In the event of a tiebreaker game – against the Tigers for the division in Detroit Monday night – it would be Jason Vargas’ turn to pitch. You could bring back Shields on short rest, but that’s an extreme solution to a non-extreme situation. In the event the Royals play in Detroit Monday night, they would only have to win one of their next two games – against Detroit Monday or against Oakland Tuesday – to advance to the next round. The Monday night game is analogous to a Game 6, not a Game 7. In a Game 7, there is no tomorrow, and all hands are on deck. But Monday night there is a tomorrow, and tomorrow might well be an elimination game, so best to hold Shields back to pitch that game on full rest if he’s needed. And if he’s not needed, then he’s fully rested to start Game 1 (and even more important, Game 5) of the ALDS.
Jason Vargas against Detroit with the division on the line wouldn’t be my first choice, but let’s be honest: aside from Jeremy Guthrie, the Royals’ starters are almost indistinguishable in terms of quality. Here are their FIPs: 3.55 (Shields), 3.58 (Ventura), 3.64 (Duffy), and 3.72 (Vargas). What distinguishes the Royals’ rotation this year isn’t one or two aces, but the depth of having four above-average starters and one guy who is blessedly average.
And as it turns out, you need only four starters in the playoffs. We’ll address that issue later, but moving Guthrie to the bullpen is the obvious move to make from an analytic standpoint. However, there are non-analytic issues that have to be addressed as well.
- I can’t end without at least raising the question of why on earth Ned Yost let Ventura throw 117 pitches last night, allowing him to load the bases in the seventh inning of a 7-0 game before striking out the final batter.
Pitch counts have come a long way in a short time, and this doesn’t qualify as abuse under any pre-2005 definition of the term. I brought up the cautionary tale of Mark Prior on the radio today, who was slagged down the stretch in 2003 and then ran out of gas in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the NLCS with his team five outs away from their first World Series in 58 years. (And then, of course, tore his rotator cuff and ended one of the most promising pitching careers of his generation at age 25.)
I realize that comparison is a bit of a stretch; Prior, after all, had pitch counts of 131, 129, 124, 131, 133, and 133 just from September 1st on. Prior had four 130-pitch outings in six weeks in 2003; every pitcher in baseball this year has combined for two 130-pitch outings. This isn’t remotely the same. But still: what was the point? What was to be gained from having Ventura set his career high for pitches in a game that you were leading 7-0?
Ventura is scheduled to start the last game of the season. Hopefully the Royals will still have a shot at the division title going into that day, and his start will be meaningful. But if it isn’t, and Liam Hendricks gets the start today while Ventura – and the entire starting lineup – gets some much-needed rest, well, there might be a silver lining.