Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That's What Speed Deux.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 82.3% (30.2% Division, 52.1% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 78.9% (15.2% Division, 63.7% Wild Card)

“Once Roberts got to Boston, he mostly sat. And sat. The manager kept an eye on him but didn’t call his name very often. It was as if Roberts had changed from a ballplayer into some kind of glass-front box with the words break in case of need for stolen base stenciled on the front. But Epstein’s orthodoxy, reinforced by special adviser, Bill James, the creator of the whole analytical business that had debunked stolen bases in the first place, held that if you built the right kind of team, Roberts’s skill set would be largely extraneous. Except – and this was the key part of it, the flexible part of it that most people didn’t get – except when it was necessary.

And so here Roberts was, glass broken, standing on first base with Bill Mueller at the plate, the only potential run of the year that mattered anymore. It was a desperate moment, but nonetheless a moment that had been planned for. That was the difference between this time around and 1949, 1978, 2003, and all the other disappointments of the last century. God was in the details, and so were playoff victories. And the Red Sox were finally looking after the details.

Rivera threw over to first. Once. Twice. Roberts got back to the bag. Every problem is a lock looking for a key. The Red Sox had spent decades half-asleep, oblivious to the locks, never mind looking for the keys.

Rivera returned his focus to the man at the plate. Roberts took his lead – not an inch shorter than before, maybe half an inch longer now. Rivera got set in the stretch, looked once more at Roberts, then committed to home plate with a barely perceptible transfer of weight to his right foot, his left foot now rising off the mound.

But Roberts was already gone, digging toward second, erasing the past with every step.”

That excerpt, written by Steven Goldman from the Prologue to Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning, is still one of my favorite short analytical pieces ever. It once again seemed relevant last night.

Man, did the Royals need a win like that. A day after we saw Ned Yost at his worst, we saw him at his best.

Maybe one day over the winter, long after the season’s been put to bed and Yost can reflect upon the world championship that he just won, he’ll answer the question of why he is so aggressive to use pinch-runners yet so reluctant to use pinch-hitters. That mystery will not be revealed in the moment. Whatever the reason, we saw the positive impact that a pinch-runner can make a week after we saw the downside in Detroit.

Even if the season ends without a playoff spot, the That’s What Speed Deux game will be remembered fondly for a long time. If the Royals do go to the playoffs, it may become legendary. Not up there with the Dave Roberts Game, easily the most important steal in baseball history, but certainly a part of permanent Royals lore.

It’s not just that we’re at a point in the season, and so many teams are jumbled up in the zone that separates playoff for non-playoff teams, that a single loss turned into a win has, I dunno, at least a 10% chance of being the difference between making the postseason and sitting it out. It’s that another loss last night, with James Shields going up against a pitcher with a 5.05 ERA, a day after the Royals finished a losing home series against the Red Sox on the most second-guessed managerial decision of the year, would have been psychologically devastating. Maybe for the players; certainly for the fans.

And the Royals were two outs away from exactly that. They couldn’t do anything with John Danks, who allowed two hits to Nori Aoki – one an infield single – in six innings. Shields had a quintessential Shields start, not walking anyone and getting his share of K’s, but getting dinged by enough singles to surrender three runs early in the game. In quintessential Shields fashion, he powered through seven innings anyway, giving up back-to-back singles in the sixth and seventh but getting through them unscathed.

And then Kelvin Herrera, who we were told the day before owned the seventh inning, pitched a scoreless eighth, and Wade Davis pitched a scoreless ninth. The Royals threatened in the sixth but were turned away when Alex Gordon hit into a double play with two men aboard; they scored a run on an Omar Infante single in the seventh but were turned away when Alcides Escobar hit into a double play with two men aboard. They scored another run in the eighth when Gordon hit an RBI single, but the inning ended when Billy Butler hit into a double play with two men aboard.

Okay, there were two out when Butler batted, but it was such a perfect double play ball that we’ll count it anyway.

Anyway, the Royals batted in the ninth down a run, against Jake Petricka, a rookie the White Sox had installed as their closer, who was outpitching the closer they had traded away last season, Addison Reed. Infante started the inning by grounding out. The Royals’ odds of winning at that point were 11%.

And then Mike Moustakas batted and laced a ball down the left field line. After trying to hit into the shift all season long with predictable results, Moustakas finally seems to have made an adjustment. I believe the stat I saw was that in his first 350 at-bats of the year, Moustakas had just nine hits to the opposite field. In his last 69 at-bats, counting this one, Moustakas has eight.

Ned Yost cracked open the glass. Jarrod Dyson came out to run for Moustakas. But then Escobar grounded out to short while Dyson held. The Royals’ odds of winning were 14%.

And you know the rest. Dyson took off for third base with two outs, a decision which is usually ridiculous, but in this case made sense, because the batter was Nori Aoki. Aoki is the master of the infield single – he already had two in this game – making him one of the few batters where being on third base with two outs makes you much more likely to score than being on second base with two outs.

The only problem was that Petricka has sort of been the anti-Joe Nathan. Remember how Nathan had allowed 44 steals in 46 attempts over the last nine years before he picked off Dyson? Prior to Dyson’s steal attempt, four batters had attempted to steal off Petricka this year. All four were thrown out stealing. He had also picked off a batter. I’m glad I didn’t know this at the time.

But Petricka’s pitch bounced in front of the plate and tipped off Tyler Flowers’ glove, and Dyson never hesitated, stealing third and scoring the tying run in one fell swoop. The wild pitch was fortuitous for the Royals in more ways than one: while Aoki then followed with a groundball inside the third base bag for a double, had Dyson simply stolen third base, the third baseman would have been playing closer to the bag, and Aoki’s double might have turned into the game’s final out.

And then Yost cracked open the glass again. Terrence Gore came out to run for Aoki. He, too, lit out for third with two outs. Lorenzo Cain hit a bouncer over the mound. Gore never stopped running, and scored standing up, without even a throw.

You might see a runner score from second on a wild pitch, or on an infield single, once or twice a season. I’m fairly confident I have never seen that happen twice in the same inning, let alone to score the tying and winning runs in the ninth inning in the middle of September in a pennant race.

And just as Yost deserved so much criticism for what happened on Sunday, he deserves so much credit for what happened on Monday. Dyson and Gore might be the two fastest players in the American League right now. They are capital-W Weapons, and they had an enormous impact on a game the Royals simply had to win.

Yost deserves credit for using them, and Dayton Moore deserves credit for giving him those weapons to begin with. Specifically Gore, of whom I started hoping, once it became clear in early August that the Royals might be in a pennant race after all, would get called up once rosters expanded. It was hardly a gimme; Gore had to be added to the 40-man roster, and there is the little matter of Gore not having any hitting ability whatsoever. I’m not trying to be cruel, but let’s be honest: he hit .218/.284/.258 in A-ball this year. He makes Dyson look like Tony Gwynn at the plate. But damn if he can’t fly. The Royals promoted him to Triple-A on August 7th to see if he could handle the faster pace of the game there, and when he could, he had his ticket to Kansas City punched.

It seems so obvious, to add a pinch-runner to your team in September on the off-chance that he might help you win a game. A month of service time in the majors will earn him about $80,000. Teams pay $5-6 million a win on the free agent market, and I would argue that for a team in a pennant race in September, where the odds that a single win might tip them into the playoffs, the value of one extra win goes up, to $8 million if not more. Which means that if having Gore on their roster increased the Royals’ odds of winning one game by one percent, it was worth the cost.

And yet teams so often don’t simply call up the fastest guy in their organization. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America pointed out yesterday, two years ago the Cincinnati Reds didn’t bother to add Billy Hamilton to their roster in September, even after Hamilton set the all-time professional record with 155 stolen bases that year in the minors. Maybe the Reds didn’t need him; they went into September leading the division by 9.5 games. But maybe they could have used him in the playoffs; after winning the first two games of the NLDS, they lost Game 3 in extra innings, 2-1, and then lost Games 4 and 5 to get eliminated.

The Royals decided not to take any chances. They didn’t only call up Gore, they also called up Lane Adams, who isn’t nearly as fast but is certainly fast enough to be used as an auxiliary pinch-runner. Which is exactly what he did in the seventh inning, after Raul Ibanez walked to put the tying run on first base. By having two pinch-runners in reserve, Yost was able to use one of them in a non-crucial situation while using his true game-changer for an emergency.

And here’s where David Glass deserves some credit to, because he authorized the Royals’ front office to bring up every minor leaguer they wanted to. Do you know how many players are on the Royals’ active roster right now? 36. They have 20 hitters, including a third catcher on a team where even the second catcher never plays (Francisco Pena), two backup infielders (Johnny Giavotella and Jayson Nix) even with Christian Colon out, and two different players whose only job is to run the bases.

Dyson might not have pinch-ran for Moustakas if the Royals didn't have anyone left on the bench who could play third base, with Colon injured, and Nix having been pulled for Moustakas. But Giavotella was there. Gio hasn't played in a single game since he was called up, but if his mere presence on the bench made it easier for Yost to gamble with Dyson's speed, then his callup has paid for itself.

That’s 11 extra players on the roster, which adds roughly $900,000 to the payroll. It’s not a huge expense, but it is an expense, and it’s the sort of expense that the Glass family has been accused of skimping on in the past. Not this time. And it’s worked out.

Gore has appeared in four games without a plate appearance, which already ranks 15th all time among position players. Adams has three games without a PA, which is tied for 20th. One or the other may eventually get an at-bat in a game or situation that doesn’t matter much, but If this holds, the 2014 Royals would be the first team in history with two position players that appeared in 3+ games without batting even once. Having an exclusive pinch-runner on your roster is rare; having two is historic.

As we saw last night, it’s also really, really smart. Maybe Yost didn’t get the memo until after Daniel Nava’s home run cleared the fence, but the Royals’ front office got it early on: September is different, and when you’re in a pennant race, you leave no stone unturned in your quest for wins. They kicked over a stone last night, two track stars popped out, and the entire complexion of the race changed. Well done, guys. Well done.


Kevin Kalb said...

Thank you for this write-up. You give much appreciated context to the win last night. I am a Twins fan first, a Royals fan second, so if even one of the teams is in the hunt for a playoff spot--happy days are here again.

Jazzbumpa said...

I had no idea how the Royals got those 9th inning runs. Great write up.


James said...

Aoki is in 'the zone' right now. Every time he comes up to bat, I feel a greater need to see him get on base. It's exciting.