I’ve written this column before.
But never with the stakes this high.
Anyway, I’ll do my best to hit all the low points, but I don’t have the passion I used to, and I’m tired of repeating myself.
- First off: yes, it looks like the umpires did not follow the rulebook correctly in allowing the use of replay to determine whether Salvador Perez tagged at third base or not. This is unfortunate. If it turns out that the showing of the replay on the video screen at Kauffman Stadium influenced their decision, that would be awful. If it turns out the Royals might have gotten away with one if Rusty Kuntz had just kept his trap shut, that would be horrifying.
But I can’t get that worked up about it, because my position on the use of instant replay has always been simple: get the call right. That’s it. Get it right. Major League Baseball is still fumbling its way through the procedural aspects of this, but they’re using replay to correct mistakes in a way that was unimaginable just a decade ago.
The Royals have already won one World Championship thanks to an umpiring mistake. If technology prevented that a second time, I’m okay with it. There were enough mistakes made today by the Royals for me to worry about a one that was debatably made by the umpires.
- Speaking of mistakes: obviously, Salvador Perez screwed up massively, turning a gimme run – giving the Royals the lead and putting another runner in scoring position – into an inning-ending double play.
When I criticize Yost here or on Twitter, I hear from people saying, “hey, why don’t you blame the players?” Well, because me blaming the players isn’t really going to do anything. The players are known quantities, and it’s not like I can hit a fastball better than Alcides Escobar or play first base better than Billy Butler. I can’t add anything to the discussion there. But I can add to the discussion of how to use those players, when to deploy them, what strategies to use – all the things that a manager does, basically. So that’s what I tend to talk about here.
But to state the obvious: yes, what Perez did was inexcusable. It was an incredibly stupid mental error, and it probably cost the Royals a two-game swing in the standings, likely the AL Central title, and possible a playoff spot entirely.
I’m not sure what else to say. Maybe he’s tired – you know, given that he’s started 26 straight games, one at DH and 25 behind the plate. Ned Yost thinks his catchers are indestructible until they’re not – hello, Jason Kendall – and he thinks they can play every day without a degradation of performance, until there is.
I know some people are blaming third base coach Mike Jirschele, but I don’t see it. Jirschele’s job is to tell a runner coming from second to third whether to turn the corner and run like hell, or to hold up – and it’s the runner’s job to seek his input. In this case. Perez saw the play in front of him, and as soon as he saw the ball get away he took off without thinking. I’m not sure what Jirschele could have done – he could have yelled at Perez to get back, but given that Eric Hosmer was advancing from second to third, that would have resulted in two runners on the same base. His best play was to just pretend nothing happened and hope they could get away with one. They didn’t.
- For the second straight year, the biggest at-bat of the season (final results pending) was given to a player who had been released by another team earlier in this season. ON PURPOSE.
You remember the Carlos Pena debacle last year, don’t you? Well, I present to you the Raul Ibanez decision.
It’s not quite as bad as the decision to pinch-hit with Pena – last year, there was one out with runners on second and third, meaning the Royals could tie the game without a hit, meaning contact was at a premium. And last year the Royals already had a decent hitter for the job at the plate in Jarrod Dyson before he was called back.
This year, Ibanez came to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third. Strikeout rate didn’t matter; batting average did. A hit would tie the game, and probably win it. But as with last year, an extra-base hit was no better than a walk, and a walk was of minimal value.
So naturally, in a situation in which batting average is essentially the only skill you’re looking for, Yost called upon Ibanez, who was hitting .168 this season. In a situation that called for a high batting average, Yost called upon the player with the lowest batting average in the major leagues among players with 275 plate appearances. So far this year, 273 players have batted 275 or more times. Ibanez ranked dead last in batting average. So naturally, in a situation in which a single would turn defeat into victory, Yost DELIBERATELY put Raul Ibanez in the game.
Afterwards, Yost’s explanation was that he wanted a “professional at-bat there.” Well, thank goodness. If the Royals had used an amateur player there, they would have violated labor laws and then we’d be in an even bigger mess. Also, because Ibanez had “hit a home run off Nathan” before. Which is true. Except that:
1) As we have already established, a home run in this situation was no better than a single, and
2) That home run was the only hit Ibanez had off Nathan in 11 at-bats.
If only the Royals had someone else on their bench with a history of a high batting average against Nathan, along with being someone commonly referred to as “a professional hitter”. Someone like Billy Butler, who is 6-for-14 in his career off Nathan.
Yeah. Ned Yost, the master of matchups, who puts more stock into a batter’s prior performance vs. a pitcher than anyone should, passed on the guy who had gone 6-for-14 against Nathan for the guy who had gone 1-for-11. He passed on the 28-year-old for the 42-year-old. He passed on the guy who – in the worst season of his career – is hitting .264, for the guy hitting .168.
I don’t put any stock into matchups at all, because study after study shows that there’s minimal if any correlation between what a batter has done against a pitcher in the past and what he’ll do in the future. Maybe in a sample size of 60 at-bats or more – like what Butler has done against Justin Verlander – I’ll pay attention. But in 10 or 15 at-bats? That’s like saying that the quarter in my pocket is weighted because it came up heads three times in a row.
But if you DO believe in such things, then you can’t then make a decision that flies in the face of what you believe in at the most crucial juncture of the entire season. Unless you just flat-out have a vendetta against Butler.
Look, Butler has been terrible of late – I had no qualms with starting Josh Willingham over him today, as bad as Willingham was. But if you’re not going to play Butler because he’s cold, how do you play Ibanez, who hasn’t been ANYTHING, because he has two plate appearances in the last 18 days? Ibanez’ last hit was on August 27th. His last RBI was on August 1st. You know, the homer he hit to beat Oakland, 1-0. That was an awesome and pivotal moment, but it was seven weeks ago, and he’s done nothing since.
So naturally, he gets the most important at-bat of the season. And here’s the thing: Ibanez was in the on-deck circle when Aoki batted with men on first and second and one out. Had Aoki not moved up the runners, maybe Ibanez makes more sense, because in that case an extra-base hit is more important than a single, and a walk moves two runners up 90 feet as well. It still wasn’t the right move, but at least you could see the thought process.
But Yost didn’t adjust to what happened when Aoki batted and two runners moved up a base, which changed the calculus from “a single is nice, but a gapper is nicer” to “just hit a single and let’s all celebrate.” He had made his mind up to pinch-hit with Ibanez, so Ibanez batted, and never mind what happened between Point A and Point B.
- And letting Ibanez bat there might not have been the worst decision Yost made, because making ridiculous decisions that also fly in the face of his own philosophy was a theme of the day.
In the first inning, Escobar led off with a double, and Nori Aoki bunted him to third.
First off, almost all sacrifice bunts – unless a pitcher is batting – are stupid. But none is more stupid than bunting with the runner on second base. You’re already in scoring position. The idea is to get a runner on third base with one out, so you can drive home a run without a base hit. The problem with that – aside from the fact that the percentages have never added up – is that it is now harder to drive in a runner from third base with one out than at any other time in the history of baseball, because strikeout rates have jumped like 25% in the last 15 years.
Now, the Royals have easily the lowest strikeout rate in baseball, so maybe it makes sense for them…except the batter coming up next was Josh Willingham, who has one of the highest strikeout rates on the team. And the pitcher on the mound is Max Scherzer, WHO HAS STRUCK OUT MORE BATTERS THAN ANYONE ELSE IN BASEBALL OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS.
So that’s one reason why the bunt was stupid. But the other was much more fundamental – THE BATTER WAS NORI AOKI. You know, the same guy who had gone 13-for-16 in his last four games, who had just sent the all-time Royals record for most hits in a three-game series. A guy who had made only three outs total in his last four games was now making one ON PURPOSE to move a runner that was already in scoring position into a slightly better scoring position.
Willingham struck out. Gordon struck out. The Royals did not score. They lost by one run.
Afterwards we learned that Aoki bunted on his own his first time up. Sorry, but that’s no excuse. It’s the manager’s job to make sure when his players should NOT be bunting, and man oh man was that a situation in which the batter should not be bunting.
And anyway, Yost did put the bunt on with Aoki his second time up, proving he had learned nothing from how the first inning ended.
This time there were runners on first and second, making the bunt more sensible. But again – Willingham vs. Scherzer was not a situation that was likely to produce a single. You know how I know this? Because in the ninth inning, with runners on second and third, YOST PINCH-HIT FOR WILLINGHAM WITH RAUL IBANEZ.
But in the third inning, Yost was so eager to have Willingham bat with runners on second and third that he deliberately made the hottest hitter in baseball make an out to make it happen. And here’s the thing – the Royals had Dyson on second and Escobar on first, two of the best basestealers in the league. Dyson ranks fifth in the AL in steals, Escobar fifth. Scherzer is tough to run on, but the defense was anticipating the bunt so clearly that the infield was not in prime position to defense the bunt – third baseman Nick Castellanos would have had trouble getting back to third base in time to apply a tag on Dyson.
That would have given the Royals runners with second and third with none out – AND WITH AOKI AT THE PLATE. Aoki, who in addition to being the hottest hitter in baseball, is one of the toughest guys in the game to strike out. You know, the kind of guy you would want at the plate with a man on third and less than two out. Instead of, you know, Willingham.
Aoki sacrificed. Willingham fouled out. Gordon struck out. The Royals, for the second time in three innings, had a runner in scoring position, nobody out, and Nori Aoki at the plate, and didn’t score. They lost by one run. They probably lost the division in the process. And now they have to fight for their lives to win a berth in the Wild Card Game.
You can blame the players for not playing better, and I do. But even with the players playing exactly the way they played, the Royals could have won this game. It’s the manager’s job to get the most out of his players. Today, Ned Yost failed spectacularly at it. It wasn’t the first time.