So I will try – try – to write something, even if it’s just a paragraph or two, after each Royals game from now until the end of the season. The longer I go without writing, the more I feel I have to cover, and the more daunting a task it is, which makes me postpone writing, which continues the circle. So I’m going to try – try – something different here. Today’s column is long; they won’t all be that way.
Before we get to Saturday’s game, let’s talk about Friday’s game, because that really was the quintessential 2014 Royals game. The Royals’ offense consisted of three singles all day – no extra-base hits, no walks or HBP’s. Their offensive line for the game was .100/.100/.100. And they won.
How? The way they’ve won all season.
- Contact. They actually didn’t have a great game contact-wise; they struck out eight times in 30 plate appearances, below their seasonal average. But one of the balls they put in play, Alcides Escobar’s hot shot at third baseman Chase Headley, skipped past Headley for an error. (Honestly, it seemed to take a tough hop and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been called a hit.)
The more balls you put in play, the more chances you have to reach base on error. Somewhat surprisingly, the Royals have not reached base on error more than average – they have 49 ROE’s this year, tied for 9th in the AL. For a team that strikes out less than everyone else, has a lot of speed, and – this is important – hits a ton of ground balls (which turn into errors much more often than fly balls), I would have expected more. But at least in this case, the ball in play turned into a baserunner even if it didn’t get scored as a hit.
- Speed. Escobar turned Headley’s misplay into a two-base error with his speed and aggressive baserunning, sliding into second base just ahead of the tag.
Escobar has quietly been an outstanding baserunner since joining the Royals. He has 110 steals in 127 attempts (87%) since joining Kansas City, including an 84-for-92 mark the last three years. The Royals, as a team, led the AL in both stolen bases (130) and stolen base percentage (83%), which is impressive. Escobar takes an extra base on hits (scoring from second on a single, from first on a double, etc.) 52% of the time, compared to the AL average of 41%.
Escobar’s speed allowed him to get into scoring position, and it allowed him to score from second base with a single case of…
- Timely hitting. Nori Aoki came up next and looped a ball into centerfield, bringing home Escobar for the game’s only run. It was the only at-bat the Royals had with a runner in scoring position in the entire game. They were 1-for-1.
The Royals got a lot of attention in the Indians series for their terrible hitting with runners in scoring position – they were 3-for-28 with RISP in those three games – but that stands in contradistinction to what they’ve done all year. For the season, the Royals have hit .259 with the bases empty, and .272 with runners in scoring position. They slug .375 with the bases empty, and .405 with runners in scoring position. They have as many homers (44) with a man on base as with the bases empty, even though they have 21% fewer plate appearances with men on base.
Some of that is the sacrifice fly effect – sac flies are outs that are not counted as at-bats for silly reasons, and you can’t get credit for a sacrifice fly if there isn’t a runner in scoring position. But only some of it. The Royals are 11th in the AL in SLG with the bases empty, but 7th in the AL in SLG with runners in scoring position.
This is – there is no other good word for it – just luck. It’s not something the Royals can count on in the long run. But sometimes “the long run” doesn’t show up until after the season ends. Even if their luck turns, they’ve already been the beneficiary of it for 85% of the year.
- Starting pitching. James Shields worked into the ninth inning, allowing just three hits and no walks himself, striking out six and throwing just 97 pitches. When Derek Jeter blooped a single to start the ninth, we learned that Greg Holland was unavailable, as Ned Yost called on Wade Davis from…
- The best front-line bullpen in baseball. Davis, who had never saved a game in his major league career, who was pitching with a man on base in a 1-0 game at Yankee Stadium, was so unnerved by the process that he struck out Brett Gardner and Carlos Beltran to end the game.
Baseball, as an industry, seems to be finally coming to the realization that a relief pitcher who dominates in the eighth inning will probably dominate in the ninth inning; the notion that there are some pitchers who are lights-out in middle relief but fall apart when asked to close is mercifully dying out. (I’m not saying such pitchers don’t exist. I am saying that I have yet to see definitive proof of one, particularly since the pitcher that was supposed to fit that bill to a T, Kyle Farnsworth, was given a chance to close by one of the savviest teams in baseball, the Rays, in 2011 – and responded with the lowest ERA of his career.)
The Royals will have a difficult decision to make at the end of this season. It makes no sense for a team with an eight-figure payroll to spend north of $15 million on two relievers, so either Holland or Davis should be on the trading block. Davis is cost-controlled – he has options for $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million the next three years – so unlike Holland, his salary is locked in no matter how well he pitches. For that reason, and because I’m worried that Holland has peaked, I’d personally prefer to keep Davis. Saturday’s game certainly diminishes any worries that he might not adjust well to pitching 15 minutes later every night.
- And then there’s Saturday’s game, which basically boils down to the future of Danny Duffy. Look, it could have been a lot worse. Given the epidemic of failed Tommy John surgeries this year – just last week Dan Hudson finally returned to a major league mound more than two years later after his first Tommy John surgery failed – my first thought was that something had happened to his elbow, in which case we were looking at him not getting back onto a mound until 2016. This was one of the rare cases where learning that it was his shoulder that was bothering him was actually a bit of a relief.
Even more of a relief was that the Royals are at least keeping open the possibility that Duffy might miss just one start. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but when he left the mound I would have thought the possibility that he’d pitch in any capacity again this season to be remote. We’re all just speculating until the MRI, obviously. But for now, we can ignore the long-term implications and focus on the short-term ones, which are momentous enough on their own.
In terms of the regular season, the impact of his injury is significant but not back-breaking. Counting yesterday, Duffy would have had just five more starts. Given his 2.42 ERA, he’s been worth about 0.15 Wins Above Replacement per start this season, which would come out to a 0.75 win difference between Duffy and a generic replacement-level pitcher (which seems like a good description of Liam Hendricks) over the remainder of the season. And that’s probably an overestimate, as Duffy’s performance this season, while very good, is nowhere near 2.42 ERA good. Fangraphs, which bases its WAR calculations on a pitcher’s peripherals instead of his ERA, estimates his value at around 0.1 WAR per start, which would come out to half a win.
One win could certainly wind up deciding the fate of the AL Central race, or the second wild card team. But it might not. Let’s not overstate the impact the injury will have. Think of it like this: had the Tigers scored two runs in the ninth to beat San Francisco yesterday, that would have had as much impact on the AL Central race as Duffy being unable to pitch the rest of the season.
Obviously, if the Royals make the playoffs, not having Duffy in their rotation is a big blow. On the other hand, the rumors were that the Royals were going to keep Jeremy Guthrie in their playoff rotation – despite him clearly being their #5 guy – and move Yordano Ventura to the pen, because apparently the Royals just don’t have enough right-handed relievers capable of throwing 97 or higher.
If Duffy is out, Ventura takes his spot in the rotation, and the big loss is not having a sixth-inning reliever who hits triple digits. That’s inconvenient, but not devastating. Anyway, if Duffy’s injury isn’t season-ending, we may see a situation where Duffy moves to the bullpen in the playoffs instead, giving the Royals a left-hander who throws 97 (as he did when throwing in relief earlier this year) to go with all the right-handers.
Speaking of left-handed relievers, the one piece of good news from yesterday’s game was the debut of Brandon Finnegan. The fact that Finnegan is in the majors at all is remarkable enough; even more so is that he’s here on merit. You may have heard that Finnegan is just the third player in Royals history to debut in the majors the same year he was drafted. What you may not have heard was that the last player to do so, Jeff Granger, only did so because the Royals agreed to the promotion when he signed his contract, back when such things were permissible (or at least overlooked).
After signing, Granger was assigned to Eugene in the short-season Northwest League. He pitched very well – 56 Ks in 36 innings – but still: he spent the entire minor league season in short-season ball, five levels below the majors. He was grudgingly allowed to pitch in one game in the majors, on September 16th, when the score was 11-0. He pitched one inning and allowed three runs. He would not pitch again that season. He wound up pitching just 32 innings in his major league career; his primary contribution to the Royals was as one of the three guys named Jeff (along with Joe Randa) the Royals would trade to the Pirates after the 1996 season for Jeff King and Jay Bell.
The only other player to reach the Show in his debut year was Bo Jackson. I’m not saying Bo’s promotion was undeserved – he went straight to Double-A and hit .277/.368/.473 – and he never went back to the minors again. But Bo’s promotion was, if I remember correctly, also stipulated in his contract. In both cases, the Royals were not in a pennant race. It may be fair to say that Finnegan has had a quicker impact on the Royals than any other draft pick in their history.
Or at least he might. He pitched in a mop-up situation in his debut, but damned if he didn’t pitch great. He faced six batters and retired them all, striking out two, including Derek Jeter on a 94 mph fastball after whiffing Jacoby Ellsbury on an 84 mph changeup. He made a nice fielding play on a squibber. He didn’t look intimidated in the least. He looked ready to pitch in key situations, and Yost hinted afterwards that he’ll get the opportunity.
I don’t know what Finnegan becomes. When he was drafted my friend Will Carroll cautioned that he was an enormous injury risk, and maybe he is. But the more we learn about pitchers, the more I’m uncertain we really understand anything about what makes pitchers injury-prone. The Royals drafting Finnegan seemed at the time to be almost a reaction to missing on Chris Sale, who also had great stuff (better than Finnegan’s, admittedly, and from a taller frame) but also had teams pass on him because of concerns he wouldn’t hold up as a starter. And like Sale, the Royals have fast-tracked Finnegan to the majors as a reliever, while leaving open the possibility that he’ll move to the rotation in the future. I love the way they’ve handled him, and the way they recognize that being in a pennant race means tossing out the usual rules about player development. He might already be the best left-handed reliever the Royals have. The only way they’re going to find out is to give him more and more opportunities.
One way to do that is to make next Thursday’s game – the one Duffy was supposed to start – into a bullpen game. Instead of relying on Liam Hendricks for five innings, the Royals should plan ahead of time to not let any pitcher go through the opposing lineup more than once. It’s September; you have expanded rosters, and even without Duffy the Royals have 15 active pitchers. Start Hendricks, let him go two innings, then whipsaw the Red Sox by bringing in Finnegan from the left side for two innings, and then play it by ear. If Frasor is rested, he can throw two innings, and now it’s the seventh inning and you can call upon the Bullpen Death Hydra.
There’s plenty of evidence that pitchers perform best when they only have to face opposing batters once, as revealed by the dominance of short relievers in the modern game, and as examined in this article. If Hendricks and Finnegan both know they’re going to go through the lineup once and don’t have to hold back, the Royals are in good shape to win that game, and they have enough pitchers on the roster that they can use them both every fifth day. But this requires that the Royals ignore the stupidity of the win rule, the one that requires a starting pitcher to throw five innings to qualify for the “win”. I put “win” in quotes because, of course, pitchers don’t win games: teams win games. I hope the Royals don’t let the pursuit of the former get in the way of the latter.