Thursday, October 2, 2014

Coronary At The K.

If you told me today that I will never in my life again witness a game that good in person, I don’t think I’d be upset. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.

If you haven’t read what I wrote about the Royals’ first playoff game in 29 years for Grantland, please do so here. After nearly 6,000 words, I don’t have anything more to say.

HAH! Just kidding. I always have more to say.

- I’m not going to rehash Ned Yost’s decision to use Yordano Ventura in relief too much, because so many people already have. I mean, when the broadcaster during the game and an analyst after the game on TV – both of whom are ex-players, one of whom is going to the Hall of Fame, and have the credibility to speak on such things – rip you to shreds, and you WON THE GAME, I think it’s safe to say it was a bad decision.

It’s like the nation hasn’t just woken up to the idea that the Kansas City Royals are a playoff team; they’ve also woken up to the idea that Ned Yost, whatever his strengths are, is a tactical disaster waiting to happen.

And yet...the Royals won. They won after being down 7-3 with six outs to go. They had to score four runs in two innings just to tie the game…and they had only scored four runs in a game about half the time this year (83 of 162). They hadn’t scored eight runs in a game since August 17th.

And they did. Does Ned Yost deserve some credit for that? I don’t think we can entirely rule that out. It would have been easy for this team to give up at that point, to pack it in, to say to themselves, “well, we got to the playoffs, so this is a successful year no matter what,” and go gently into that good night. Yeah, Yost screwed up, but Jon Lester has owned the Royals throughout his career, and his postseason ERA was barely 2 before the game, and we did the best we could and scored three runs and it just wasn’t enough.

They didn’t. They fought like hell, they tied the game, and when they found themselves down again in the 12th inning, they fought like hell some more, and tied the game again, and won it.

Evaluating a manager based on his impact in the clubhouse is essentially impossible from an analytic perspective, and so it’s tempting for analysts to say that there is no impact. But given that Yost’s impact in the clubhouse is supposed to be his single greatest strength as a manager, perhaps it’s not fair to rip him for what he does poorly without at least acknowledging that he might deserve credit for what he’s supposed to do well, especially when the Royals surged in the second half after a disappointing first half for the second straight year, and then they re-enacted the 2014 season (and the A’s 2014 season) in the span of one glorious game.

Ned Yost is, on the balance, a terrible tactician. But if a manager is Ron Washington from 7 pm to 10 pm but George Washington from 10 pm to 7 pm, on the balance he’s an asset. It’s just that we don’t know all that goes on from 10 pm to 7 pm.

I’m not saying Yost is an asset overall. I am saying I’m not 100% convinced the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. It doesn’t mean we can’t rip him a new one when he screws up, because his mistakes are both obvious and correctable. But it does mean realizing that we have to take the whole package with a manager, both good and bad.

- And the advantage of having a manager who is poor tactically but strong in terms of leadership is that the former can be taught. It’s pretty much impossible for a manager to change their personality for the better, at least on the fly – I’d argue that Buck Showalter has probably done so over the course of his career, and he’s one of the five best managers in the world right now, maybe one of the three best. But a manager can learn from experience to make better in-game decisions.

The problem is that learning from experience generally requires you to lose a game. It took a couple of losses to ram the point home, but Aaron Crow is not on the Royals’ postseason roster, while Jason Frasor was the winning pitcher Tuesday night. And Yost presumably has learned from what happened Tuesday that it’s probably not best to bring in a starting pitcher on his throw day in the middle of an inning with men already on base when you have your entire HDH trio rested and ready to go.

Look, I liked having Ventura on the roster for that game, because if the game went extras or Shields had to depart in the second or third inning, I thought having Ventura throw 100 mph for an inning or two was better than Crow or Bueno or one of the Colemans. And I LOVED the fact that Yost pulled Shields there – my #1 concern going into the game was that he wouldn’t jump on the fact that a Game 7 meant not sticking with any pitcher in a bind. But that particular spot – sixth inning, two men on, nobody out – cried out for a different skill set. The sixth inning was Finnegan’s spot – particularly with lefties Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick batting – and the start of the tenth inning was Ventura’s spot.

I do think that every time Yost pushes a button and singes one of his fingers, he learns to stop pushing that button. The problem is that pushing the button usually costs the Royals a game. Improbably, Tuesday night’s win washes away every mistake Yost has made all year – Crow, Scott Downs vs. Jonny Gomes, the Ibanez at-bat vs. Detroit, everything. It all starts fresh tonight. If the Royals had won 110 games this year, the only difference was that they’d have one extra potential home game in the ALDS and ALCS. (And given how well this team has played on the road, it might not matter anyway.)

The problem is, we don’t know how many other buttons there are on Yost’s dashboard that are booby-trapped. It seems like he’s defused all the obvious ones, but you never know.

- Hey, remember how the Royals were 26-76 in games with a crowd of 30,000 or more since 2004? Well, it’s now 27-76.

And there’s no way the Royals win Tuesday night’s game if it were on the road. These amazing, wild, historic postseason games – think about Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, or Game 6 of the 1986 World Series – tend to be won by the home team. Some of that is because a home team win makes them more historic, but I think – someone please run the data – that home teams do win a preponderance of the really close, extra-inning games in October. A crowd that large has an impact. We just saw why. Those 76 losses, like everything else, suddenly explained themselves Tuesday night.

- Dave Roberts’ steal remains the most significant one in postseason history, but I think it’s safe to say – old-times correct me if I’m wrong – that Jarrod Dyson’s steal in the ninth was the most significant one in Royals history. Practically the same situation: down a run in the ninth, the base means everything, everyone in the stadium knows you’re going…and you go. The only difference was that Dyson stole third base with one out instead of second base with none out.

Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs has a spectacular breakdown of how Dyson stole that base, which I encourage you to read.

“'Maury Wills once told me that there will come a point in my career when everyone in the ballpark will know that I have to steal a base, and I will steal that base. When I got out there, I knew that was what Maury Wills was talking about.”

Roberts said that in 2005, and one day soon maybe Dyson will say the same thing.

- The second-most significant steal in Royals history? Probably Christian Colon’s, three innings later, allowing him to score from second base on Salvador Perez’s single. It was a good day for the stolen base. It was a very good day.

- I don’t know how you rate the significance of Alcides Escobar’s steal or Lorenzo Cain’s steal in the 8th, given that the Royals were down four runs and three runs, respectively, at the time. From a cost-benefit standpoint, they were both a terrible risk. If either one had been thrown out, the decision to send them would have been ripped apart almost as much as the decision to bring in Ventura.

But they were safe, and at least in Escobar’s case it wasn’t close. And while I almost never put too much stock in psychological explanations for what happens in baseball, I really do wonder if the Royals got in the A’s head with their running game. The A’s starting catcher got injured, and the new catcher doesn’t have a good throwing reputation, and Escobar got on, and steals in a situation where you shouldn’t steal, and then Cain singles, and steals in a situation where you shouldn’t steal, and Lester walks Hosmer, and suddenly the tying run is at the plate.

I was sitting with Chris Kamler - @TheFakeNed – and he loved both Escobar’s and Cain’s steal. I thought he was nuts, but I now think he was dead on. Yeah, there was a risk, but there was also a reward. The reward was throwing Lester off his game, and it worked. The Royals won. They’re in the ALDS.

There’s also this: before the game I was speaking with 810 WHB’s Nate Bukaty, and he told me – I think I can say this now because he talked about it on air after the game – that the Royals had told him that they had figured out something on Lester. A tell of some sort, maybe, but they seemed like they had unlocked a secret on how to steal on him without risk. They stole seven bases Tuesday night, tying the all-time postseason record, and their only caught stealing came when Yost put on a delayed double steal with Billy Butler and Eric Hosmer, which 1) is as dumb as it sounds and 2) wasn’t his worst decision of the night. But on actual steal attempts, they were 7-for-7. Five of those seven scored a run. And two of them – the tying run in the ninth, and the winning run in the 12th – would not have scored without putting the steal on.

The Royals haven’t embraced sabermetric orthodoxy, or at least the traditional sabermetric orthodoxy of valuing walks and power over other things. But don’t tell me they’re dumb. Knowledge is knowledge. Knowing how to run wild on the A’s on Tuesday is the reason why they’re in Anaheim and Oakland is at home.

- Kamler was on fire in the late innings. Not only did he see the value of stealing while down 3 or 4 runs in the eighth inning, but – a quote I had forgotten until Alex Robinson reminded me – at some point in the eighth inning, he said, “I don’t know what’s about to happen, but I can promise you it’s going to be SPECTACULAR.”

As usual with the man who calls himself @TheFakeNed, he was being understated.

- I don’t have time to actually break down Game 1 of the ALDS, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t start Jason Vargas tonight. The Angels hit LHP much better than RHP, and they kill changeups, and Vargas has been terrible for several weeks. I would go Guthrie tonight, not that anyone’s asking.

I think Ventura in Game 2 could work out well, and if he hadn’t pitched on Tuesday it would be a no-brainer. Just another reason why bringing him in was a bad idea – we now have to worry about both his head and his arm tomorrow night.

- I do love the 25-man roster for the ALDS, and probably wouldn’t change it at all. They made the difficult but necessary decision to drop Raul Ibanez in favor of keeping Gore. They also kept Tim Collins instead of Francisley Bueno, which I was surprised by because Collins was banished to Omaha for two-thirds of the season, but Collins is the better pitcher. Just as long as Yost doesn’t realize he’s not really a LOOGY. If he’s used to get one LHB out in a key spot, it’s probably a mistake. But the Angels have very few LHB anyway, so having the LHP who can pitch to both sides makes sense, since if Collins or Bueno are being used there’s a good chance it’s an extra-inning game anyway.

- After waiting 29 years for the Royals to play a playoff game, I only had to wait 48 hours for another one. And they’re playing again tomorrow. And again on Sunday. Man, I could get used to this.


eddiehawkins said...

Apologies if this posts multiple times, my phone browser is acting up.

Re home field advantage: did you see that Fuld said that the reason for the outfield collision was that he called for the ball but Gomes couldn't hear him because it was so loud? That's pretty good evidence right there.

06cf9c6a-475f-11e4-b205-038cbbb7408e said...

Not specific to Yost, but the idea that managers have measurable value in improving players *does* have a sabermetric basis. Chris Jaffe's book "Evaluating Baseball Managers" deserves to be much better-known than it is.

Jaffe began with the notion "What if, when a player's seasonal performance deviates from expected, we don't ascribe it to luck but to the manager? Would the results make any sense?" Comparing every player season to an database that uses performance-in-surrounding-seasons plus regression to create an "expected" performance, he then submits that hypothesis -- blame-or-credit-the-manager -- to a series of statistical tests, plus common sense, to see if they're noise or not. And it seems very clear: they're not.

The greatest managers of all time, by his results, are obvious choices -- Joe McCarthy, Tony LaRussa, Bill McKechnie, Walter Alston, John McGraw, Al Lopez, Earl Weaver, Billy Martin... -- and the worst are usually guys who got fired quickly, but the worst who lasted included old-man-version Connie Mack, Jimmie Wilson, Don Baylor, Art Fletcher, no one bizarre to suggest. And their impact, plus or minus, is at the level of gaining or losing a first-or-second-ballot Hall of Fame player.

I don't know how Yost rates by Jaffe's data, and the nature of his database is that he *can't* rate Yost's 2013 and 2014 until 2015 and 2016 have been completed. But it's logical to assume his work means something.

06cf9c6a-475f-11e4-b205-038cbbb7408e said...

("Evaluating Baseball Managers" is also a very thoughtful, interesting history and mini-bio of every manager who lasted ten seasons or otherwise made an impact, and Jaffe is quick to point out reasons why not every statistical result is to be trusted. Guy's a writer, not just a math geek.)

Mick Unsell said...

Rany, I love your posts - keep them coming as your schedule allows. I hate some of Ned's managerial decisions, but he still has "the clubhouse" - at least it appears that way to me. These guys play hard and never give up. Well, the Butler/Hosmer/Yost relationship has to be interesting for a therapist, but winning will take care of that. I have to admit that I was concerned that Ned would crack under playoff pressure (Milwaukee - The Sequel). Now I bet he feels like he is playing with house money. That statement is as scary as it is exciting.

Dean Hinnen said...

As a Royals fan living in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, I think you are right on with your comparison of Yost and Ron Washington. Wash was as bad a tactical manager as Yost, but his players loved playing for him and gave him a great deal of credit for their success. At the end of the Wild Card game Monday, I was struck by the length and intensity of the hug between Yost and Salvy. It's clear there is a great bond there. But damn, Yost is one dumb tactical manager.

Mick Unsell said...

Rany, thanks for the link to the Grantland piece. I somehow missed it (maybe because ESPN now hates Bill Simmons for exercising his 1st Amendment rights). That was awesome! Read it while watching the Royals win game 1 tonight. Let's go Royals!

Drew Milner said...

Dean, the wild card game was Tuesday

Mike H. said...

Re: Home teams winning these types of playoff games

The one exception that instantly springs to mind is Game 6 of the '86 NLCS. The box score alone from that game is a roller coaster ride.