Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Final Four.

On the one hand, we’re playing with house money at this point. If you had told me, or pretty much any fan, or the Royals themselves, that they would reach the ALCS this year, we would have taken that happily with no expectations for what might happen beyond that point. No matter what happens from this point on, the 2014 Royals season has to be considered a rousing success.

On the other hand, the Royals are eight wins away from turning “a rousing success” into the kind of sports story they write books and produce movies about. A week after their season was all but dead in the Wild Card round, a season which would have been historic yet unsatisfying at the same time, the Royals are the darlings of baseball. They are such a Cinderella story that they’re playing the Baltimore Orioles, who have gone longer without going to the World Series (1983) than the Royals (1985) – and pretty much the entire country outside the mid-Atlantic states is rooting for the blue and white.

It’s never going to be this good again, folks. Unless there’s another 29-year drought, there will never again be a season where the Royals can capture the attention of the nation the way they have at this very moment. We may never have a chance to get in on the ground floor of a dream season quite like this one. So they might as well win the whole damn thing.

- You can’t talk about the Royals’ ALDS sweep of the Angels without talking about Eric Hosmer, who apparently has been punking us by playing possum for the last four years before finally choosing to fulfill his destiny over the past week. While Salvador Perez’s walk-off single in the Wild Card game gets all the attention – and it should; it increased the Royals’ Win Expectancy in the game by 39%, the most of any play – Hosmer’s triple with one out in the 12th, when it looked like the Royals’ valiant comeback would fall short, was nearly as important analytically (it increased WE by 30%, the second-most of any play in the game), and arguably more important psychologically. And his walk on a close 3-2 pitch in the eighth inning that chased Jon Lester was, to me, the most underrated play in the entire comeback, bringing the tying run to the plate and giving us 40,000 in the stands the real hope that they could actually pull this off.

After a quiet Game 1 in the ALDS, Hosmer doubled to lead off the second inning in Game 2 and scored the Royals’ only run of regulation. He singled in the sixth but did not score, walked in the ninth but did not score, and finally took matters into his own hands by murdering a baseball in the eleventh inning. He reached base four times in the game for the second time in three playoff games. In the history of the Royals, the only player who had reached base four times in two separate playoff games was George Brett.

And in Game 3, he crushed another baseball, this one left of center field, to make the score 5-1 and essentially turn off the lights on the Angels season. In four playoff games, Hosmer has hit .500/.632/1.143. He has two homers, a triple, a double, and five walks in four games.

This didn’t come completely out of the blue. From July 1st until the end of the regular season, Hosmer had hit .321/.379/.509, a trend that we sort of missed because it was interrupted by a broken hand that he may or may not have tried to play through (causing his numbers to dip) before he missed a month of the season. So maybe he had figured things out months ago and we’re just noticing now. Maybe he really does have a flair for the dramatic. Or maybe this is just a glorious fluke. I don’t know the answer. I do know that having a player who slugged .398 on the season batting cleanup suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

- Let’s be blunt here: Ned Yost outmanaged Mike Scioscia in the series. That isn’t as astonishing as it sounds; Scioscia has long had a history of playing smallball even when his personnel doesn’t always fit the profile, and his disastrous bunt call in Game 1 epitomized that.

But Yost, with the exception of the decision to leave Jason Vargas in during Game 1 that almost turned disastrous, did a pretty good job in this series. In Game 2 he stuck with Yordano Ventura for seven innings. I thought the decision to bring him back out for the seventh was a close call; on the one hand, even with Kelvin Herrera unavailable the Royals had plenty of relief depth for that situation. On the other hand, Ventura had thrown just 84 pitches and – just as crucially – was still working through the lineup for the third time only.

Over time I have become more and more convinced by the evidence that, as much as rising pitch counts will hamper a starting pitcher’s effectiveness, as much if not more of a concern is how many times he has faced a batter. The times-through-the-order penalty is very real; batters hit better against a pitcher the third time they see him in a game, and much better the fourth time. You can make a strong case that no pitcher, save maybe a freak like Clayton Kershaw, should ever face more than 27 batters in a close game. Then again, the 28th batter Kershaw faced on Friday, Matt Carpenter, hit the game-breaking three-run double. This is one reason why Matt Williiams’ decision to pull Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth on Saturday, rather than face Buster Posey for the fourth time, might have been the right move even though Drew Storen blew the save and the Nationals lost the game.

Ventura had only faced 22 batters entering the seventh. He only faced 25 batters after the seventh, and then was pulled. Yost handled him well. The fact that Ventura pitched so well also allows us to cross off “Ventura will be scarred by this decision” from the list of reasons why having Ventura relieve James Shields in the Wild Card game was such a bad idea. (Don’t worry, there are still plenty of others.)

Yost again held Greg Holland back for a lead rather than use him in a tie game on the road, but again, 1) most managers would do the same, and 2) the Royals have enough good relievers that it didn’t matter. Jason Frasor pitched the ninth, Brandon Finnegan pitched the tenth, and when Hosmer went Big Fly, Finnegan got the first victory of his major league career. Impeccable timing, that kid has.

- Speaking of Greg Holland, if you’re looking for yet another reason why the Royals’ success this season might be preordained, you can’t ignore these facts:

            - In 1985, Bret Saberhagen’s wife had a son to whom they gave a four-letter first name (Drew). The next night, Saberhagen closed out a victory, which happened to be Game 7 of the World Series.

            - In 2014, Greg Holland’s wife had a son to whom they gave a four-letter first name (Nash). The next night, Holland closed out a victory, which was Game 1 of the ALDS.

            - Here’s where it gets spooky: Drew Saberhagen grew up to be a pitcher himself, and attended college at Pepperdine University. Prior to the 2007 season, he transferred to Western Carolina. After the season he was named the starting pitcher on the All-Southern Conference team.

The relief pitcher named to the All-Southern Conference team was his teammate at Western Carolina: Greg Holland. Click here for proof.

I’m just the messenger. I’ll leave it up to you to decide where the message is coming from.

- We need to have a talk about Omar Infante. While he had two hits in the Wild Card game, he went 0-for-11 in the ALDS. He made a throwing error on a routine ground ball that should have ended Game 2. He’s not helping the Royals very much right now.

It’s not entirely his fault; Infante has never been a player who was able to play every day, and Yost’s insistence on pushing a square peg into a round hole hasn’t helped. If Infante was healthy enough to play this season, he played, even if he could have used the rest. He missed two games in April after he was hit in the face with a pitch. He was on the DL with a lower back injury in May and missed 17 games. In June, he started every game but one (and he pinch-hit in that one game). In July, he started every game but two, and those missed ames (July 4th and 6th) were due to some lower back tightness. In August he had a day off on August 14th, and then missed four straight games from August 26-29 with inflammation in his right shoulder – he literally couldn’t throw the ball to second base. He got back in the lineup on August 30th and has started every game at second base since. By my reckoning, Infante has had two games off all season – May 31st and August 14th – that weren’t because of an injury.

From August 9th on, Infante hit .221/.273/.276, and now he is 2-for-16 in the playoffs. He’s not completely useless; he still makes contact most of the time, and with Alex Gordon on third base with one out in Game 1 of the ALDS, he hit a fly ball deep enough to score Gordon with the go-ahead run in the fifth inning.

It just so happens that the guy who could replace him, Christian Colon, also makes excellent contact, and also drove in a runner from third base with one out earlier in the playoffs. And, all things considered, would probably give the Royals a better chance of getting a hit from their second baseman than a hobbled Infante right now.

I’d be stunned if Yost made the change. He stuck with Infante every day in September when there were no off-days; hard to see how he wouldn’t stick with Infante after he will have had seven off days in eleven days before the ALCS gets started. But then, Yost didn’t have a healthy Christian Colon in September either. Hopefully the rest will rejuvenate Infante and he’ll come through for the Royals in a big spot. The Royals have gotten this far with almost nothing from their second baseman; if they start to get something from that position, look out.

- The best part about Jarrod Dyson’s throw to nail Colin Cowgill in Game 2 was that it was Jarrod Dyson. It was the guy who is supposed to be a burner, a slap-happy singles hitter who hits the ball on the ground and runs really fast, who told the world, “That’s what arm speed do.”

This is what has made Dyson’s profile so fascinating to me literally from the time he was called up to the majors. When you think about all the speed-only guys in the majors, they almost all have noodle arms. (Ichiro Suzuki being the game-changing exception, as he is in so many ways.) Think Juan Pierre, or Ben Revere: these are guys you can run on. And I wonder if the Angels ran in that situation in part because they just couldn’t reconcile the Jarrod Dyson they see at the plate and on the bases with a Jarrod Dyson that has a comfortably above-average outfield arm.

But he does. He showed them Friday night. Dyson did with his arm what he didn’t do with his legs in this series: helped save a game for the Royals.

- For all the talk about the Royals turning back the tide of 30 years of sabermetrics by winning with speed and defense, let’s not forget something kinda important here: the Royals won Game 1 on an extra-inning home run. They won Game 2 on an extra-inning home run. They won Game 3, 8-3, and their first six runs came on a bases-clearing double, a two-run homer, and a solo homer.

Speed is nice, and it makes a difference on the edges – Billy Butler’s fabled speed allowed him to score from first base on Gordon’s double. Unfortunately, Butler’s speed was unable to turn his stolen base into a run. Terrance Gore has pinch-run in three playoff games, and has stolen second base each time – yet he hasn’t scored a run in the playoffs.

Speed makes for a hell of a sidekick, and sometimes the sidekick rises up and saves your life, like Jarrod Dyson did in the Wild Card game. But power is still the superhero. Ball Go Far, Team Go Far.

The Royals beat the Angels playing the style of baseball they had all season: good starting pitching (five runs allowed in 19 innings), a great bullpen (one run allowed in 12 innings), and insane outfield defense (the whole nation now knows what we’ve known for years: you do not hit the ball in the direction of Lorenzo Cain if you want to live to tell about it.)

But the Royals didn’t just beat the Angels – they swept them. They swept them because in addition to doing all the things they usually do well, they hit four homers and four doubles in three games. Going forward, that’s what makes this team potentially scary: if Hosmer and Moustakas and Gordon and Butler and Perez can hit balls over the wall at the same time that Escobar and Cain and Dyson and Aoki and Infante can hit singles and scoot around the bases, well, that’s a pretty unbeatable formula.

We’ll get into the Orioles matchup later, but Camden Yards seems like the perfect place for the power binge to continue.


Geno Cole Sr. said...

All kidding aside, the first sign for me personally was when u announced this was your last year doing this blog. Looking forward to a few more weeks. You're writing, analysis and fandom will truly be missed.

Unknown said...

You do realize the map showing the Balt/KC preferences is now at about 50/50? I took it and it was at 51 (KC)/49 (Balt)

Michael S. said...

Jon, you were looking at something completely different. WhatRany was talking about was the question "Who are you rooting for in the ALCS?". Which was about 65% in the Royals favor. The one that was pretty even was phrased " Who do you think will win the ALCS?"

Obviously two very different questions.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Geno -- I will miss your blog terribly as well. The Baseball Show With Rany And Joe podcast last week was also a welcome surprise. I hope another is forthcoming.

I will be at games 1 & 2 in Baltimore. Look for Royal Blue down the right field line.

Joe (aka Flanagan) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joe (aka Flanagan) said...

Rany ... although this postseason is going to be hard to top, I hope you'll reconsider and continue your Royals blogging in future seasons. You provide some of the best baseball material to be found with clarity, honesty and occasional humor. I don't know if a summer of Royals baseball will be the same without Rany on the Royals. Now - Let's Go Roy-als!

Randal (aka @buffwings) said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Randal (aka @buffwings) said...

I was going to save this for later...but the lobbying (and nagging) must start now. You can't retire Rany On The Royals after a year like this!!!

Tim said...

I wonder if Yost prefers Colon on the bench because he's better suited to backup the other IF spots. If Esky or Moose left the game, I'd be more comfortable with Colon subbing in than Infante (or Nix). Infante is pretty much 2B only, isn't he?

Michael S. said...

Yeah, but if one of the others got hurt you can always move Colon there and put Infante at second.

John said...

The other offensive issue, both short and long term, is Salvy. He of course got the game winning hit in the Wild Card game, but that was virtually miraculous: not only making contact with exactly the sort of low and outside the zone pitch we've seen him wiff on hundreds of times this season, but actually pulling it (!) down the line (!!) hard enough to (just barely) get past the diving third baseman (!!!) and score Colon. That hit, to me, was the surest sign yet of divine intervention. However, he still refuses to take a walk under any circumstances, and once he gets a strike on him he proceeds to flail away at almost anything, low-and-outside breaking pitches above all. Hos and Co. may be able to carry the offense for another series or even two, but if he doesn't get this fixed for next year he is going to wind up under the Mendoza line.

John LaPointe Navarre said...


Unknown said...

Of 8 home runs hit in Baltimore last week, only one of them (JD Martinez) would have made it out at the K.

(per ESPN hit tracker)

Unknown said...

Rany, how in the world did you come up with the Saberhagen/Holland connection? Nice research! That is more than coincidence. This has to happen now.

First, it was Room 2323 in KC. Then, your daughter's "Biancalana" coincidence. Now, a 1985 Saberhagen/2014 Holland coincidence. Hell, we even have a Billy Butler stolen base to throw in there as well...

Enjoying this ride! Please blog as you can - it is much appreciated and enjoyed.

Unknown said...

Cards clinch and move on. This appears to be coincidence #5 (counting Billy's SB). What if we have an I-70 Series rematch! I find it ironic that it could happen in the first season that MLB has full replay rules...

brdirck said...

It's also worth pointing out that the only year in which the Royals won the World Series was also the year that Balboni set the franchise record for home runs (36), and George Brett hit the most home runs he ever hit in a single season (30)

John said...

Clearly I need to do a little research on WinExpectancy (WE), but the statement that Salvy's single against Oakland "increased WE by 39%" seems prima facie silly. I mean, it actually won the game--he hit the ball and the game ended. I know the point seems trivial, but surely the purpose of sabermetric analysis is to clarify phenomena, to reveal a truth that was not apparent prior to analysis. This particular example seems rather to obscure it.

Bennybab said...

Consider the avian factor. Beat the Blue Jays in the ALCS in 1985. Here we are, playing the Orioles in 2014.

Unknown said...

John -- in this case, history said that the Royals had a 61% chance of winning before Salvy's hit and obviously a 100% chance of winning afterwards, so he gets credit for increasing those odds by 39%.

(Colon may have also been given some credit for his base running since he scored from second on a single; I can't remember which systems give credit for baserunning on win probability changes.)