Friday, October 24, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 2.

Well, that didn’t suck.

On Tuesday night, in Game 1 of the World Series, the Royals had exactly the game I had feared they would have…in the Wild Card game against Oakland. That day, I was terrified that 15 minutes after their first postseason in 29 years began, it would be effectively over. And it certainly looked awfully precarious early, when James Shields gave up a two-run home run to Brandon Moss in the first inning. But the Royals answered quickly and even took the lead in the third inning before the A’s five-run sixth meant that their first postseason in 29 years effectively lasted about two hours.

Or not. The one thing that kept me calm as Madison Bumgarner mowed down batter after batter late into the game was that the last time the Royals were in that position, they had a miraculous comeback in a game they could not afford to lose. They didn’t need a miraculous comeback Tuesday night. They just needed to win Wednesday night.

And they did, in a game which – while certainly more dramatic and longer in doubt than Game 1 – was nearly as lopsided at the end.

I’m used to writing about individual Royals games in depth. I am not used to writing about Royals games that have already been picked apart by literally dozens of the best sportswriters in the country. There isn’t much I can add here, so I’ll just focus on a few details:

- After giving up a bomb to Gregor Blanco – Gregor Blanco?! – to lead off the game, Yordano Ventura did what James Shields could not: prove it was a fluke. Ventura was effective, if not particularly dominant, into the sixth inning. His velocity was regularly in the upper 90s, perhaps not as fast as it was during the salad days of summer, but better than in his last start – and after leaving that start with a tight shoulder, the return of some velocity was a welcome surprise. He only struck out two batters, which would be concerning except Ventura’s strikeout rate has trailed his pure velocity all season. He struck out 20.3% of batters he faced this year, just a little above league average, even though he was one of the three hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball. He got a two-strike count on nine batters, and just had trouble putting them away.

But he also didn’t walk anyone, limiting the damage. He’s not perfect, but I don’t think there’s a Royals fan alive who wouldn’t take Ventura over Shields right now in a game with everything on the line. In all likelihood they’ll both get another start; if the Royals do get to a Game 6, they’ll either be playing to clinch a championship or to save their season, and either way, I’m glad they’ll have the guy who right now is their best starting pitcher on the mound.

- It is quite possible Billy Butler just made his final appearance at Kauffman Stadium as a member of the Royals. If he did, he couldn’t have gone out with a better memory to leave fans with: a single in the first inning to tie the game, and another one in the sixth to give them the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. According to Baseball-Reference’s win expectancy chart, they were two of the four most important plays in the game.

I’m not really analyzing here. I’m just really happy for Butler, the longest-tenured player on the team (he has more service time than Alex Gordon by ten days), who suddenly seemed to lose his ability to hit when the Royals finally needed him to, and who seems to be the one player that Ned Yost isn’t willing to protect and defend like one of his own children. Butler has taken a lot of crap over the years, from the fans, the media, and the team, some deserved and some not. He’s ungodly slow, he doesn’t hit for enough power, he can’t play defense. But at his best he’s always been a line drive machine. Wednesday night, when the Royals badly needed a line drive, he delivered. Twice. It was kind of special.

- At his best, Nori Aoki plays defense the way he hits – awkwardly but surprisingly effectively. At his worst, he’s just awkward. Last night he was just awkward, and as amazing as the Royals’ defense is when they have an Alex Gordon-Jarrod Dyson-Lorenzo Cain configuration, having Aoki out there puts a significant dent in its value.

This is particularly an issue now because the Royals move to San Francisco, where AT&T Park is nearly as spacious as Kauffman but with the added dimension of having, well, added dimensions: the outfield wall juts out in weird directions, the ball takes different bounces off the wall depending on where it hits, and the wind from the bay occasionally does unnatural things to the flight of a baseball. As I wrote before the series began, how the Royals’ outfielders handle the park in San Francisco is one of the hidden keys to this series.

I hadn’t given much thought to it before this afternoon, but Soren Petro brought it up on my weekly radio hit with him, and he succeeded in convincing me: the Royals need to start Dyson instead of Aoki in Games 3 and 4. (Against Madison Bumgarner in Game 5, Aoki clearly starts, since Dyson can’t hit lefties at all while Aoki has hit them better than right-handed pitchers in his career.)

Not only does starting Dyson give you the best possible outfield defense for the first six innings instead of just the last three, it makes Aoki a very useful pinch-hitting option. Because the Royals lose the DH in the NL park, Butler is only going to get one at-bat in all likelihood, meaning the Royals need additional bats on the bench. Josh Willingham is one of them. It’s probably not for no reason that Ned Yost pinch-hit for Butler with Willingham with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1, and that he pinch-ran for Butler with Terrance Gore in the sixth inning, guaranteeing that spot would come up again and that Willingham would pinch-hit for Gore. Yost pretty clearly wanted Willingham, who prior to Game 1 had just two plate appearances in the previous 22 days, to get some reps before the games in the NL park started.

If the Royals start Dyson, then they now have three quality pinch-hitting options in Butler, Willingham, and Aoki. And they all do different things. Butler is the best hitter overall, but in a double play situation, you would go to Willingham if you want to prioritize power (no outs, man on first), and Aoki if you want to prioritize contact and singles (one out, men on first and third).

Aoki has particular value as a pinch-hitter because he has no platoon split to speak of, and in the late innings – when pinch-hitters get called upon – Bruce Bochy will be in his bullpen, and as we saw in the sixth inning last night, he can be extremely aggressive about calling on a reliever to face just one batter if need be. Aoki is essentially immune to these shenanigans – while Javier Lopez is a sidearming left-handed pitcher and has the extreme platoon splits characteristic of them, Aoki is better equipped to handle Lopez than any other left-handed hitter on the roster.

In AL parks, with the DH in play and less need to pinch-hit, having two pinch-runners in reserve is an effective strategy. But in an NL park, pinch-hitters are a necessity. Starting Dyson over Aoki would improve the defense and improve the bench, because it swaps in a pinch-hitter that the Royals definitely need for a pinch-runner who was simply a luxury.

And amazingly enough, Yost is hinting – according to Andy McCullough – that he might actually do just that. For a guy who has literally written out the exact same lineup for over a month, he is once again picking the perfect time to not be dogmatic about his approach and to make subtle but crucial changes to his approach. Yost is not a tactical genius, but he might be something even more rare, and more impressive: a manager who is improving in real time under the glare of the postseason spotlight. Genius, after all, is a gift. Improvement is earned. Yost’s improvement this month is earning him a fresh look from those of us who were skeptical he’d ever learn this side of the game well enough to succeed.

Or, you know, he might start Aoki anyway. I guess we’ll see.

With Butler out of the lineup, starting Dyson also opens up the possibility of a really interesting lineup change that would keep the R-L-R-L dynamic going:

R Escobar SS
L Gordon LF
R Cain RF
L Hosmer 1B
R Perez C
L Moustakas 3B
R Infante 2B
L Dyson CF

You get Gordon’s OBP ahead of your postseason hit machines, and anyway your best hitter should usually bat 2nd. Maybe he’s not their best hitter right now, but for the season as a whole Gordon was their best hitter, and that’s not something you can just ignore.

And yes, keeping the R-L-R-L dynamic going is critical. As we saw Wednesday night, Bochy will use his relievers for one batter if the situation is important enough. You don’t want someone like Lopez getting the platoon advantage for consecutive batters; if he wants to face two left-handed batters, he’s going to have to go around at least one right-handed hitter in the process.

- Was I the only one who saw some similarities between the sixth inning last night and the eighth inning of the wild card game? Both involved a single by Lorenzo Cain, then a full-count walk by Eric Hosmer in what I feel was the crucial at-bat of both innings, and then an RBI single by Billy Butler. The innings devolved from there, but the core of the inning – what made the big innings possible – is the same. Hosmer’s walk in the Wild Card was the most underrated moment in the inning, if not the game. I would say the same thing about his walk last night.

- Herrera, Davis, and Holland combined for 3.2 innings last night. If only the regular season had two off-days every week. The Royals might have won 90 games. (And lost only 40.)

- I don’t really get starting Jeremy Guthrie over Jason Vargas in Game 3. Not because of who starts Game 3 or 4 – they’re both starting in the same ballpark, and it doesn’t matter who goes first. It matters because whoever starts Game 3 starts Game 7. And the decision of who your starting pitcher should be for Game 7 of the World Series is kind of big.

The Giants start as many as six left-handed hitters in their lineup. That’s not a big reason to start Vargas, who doesn’t have a huge platoon split, but it is a reason not to start Guthrie, a right-hander who lefties hit pretty well. I honestly, truly don’t get the move.

Unless. Unless the reason is that the Royals have already figured out that in Game 7 of the World Series, all the rules get thrown out the window, and your “starting pitcher” is simply your first reliever. Unless they think that by starting Guthrie against the Giants, they might entice the Giants to load up their lineup with left-handed bats. Unless they then plan to pull Guthrie at the first sign of danger – and I mean the first sign, like in the second inning. Unless they tell Guthrie ahead of time that look, you’re not going five innings tonight, and you might not even go three, so just air it out for as long as you can go and we’ll pull you as soon as you falter even a tiny bit. Unless they then plan to go to lefties Danny Duffy and Brandon Finnegan as soon as the second or third inning, either garnering a big platoon edge – with Herrera, Davis, and Holland ready to take over as soon as the fifth inning – or forcing Bochy to pinch-hit with his right-handed bats that early in the game, locking those bats in against the three-headed cyborg (or Triborg, as brilliant Twitter follower Dean Lytton called it) for the rest of the game.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s what the Royals are thinking. I don’t think that they would have set up a trap for the Giants in Game 7 before the series even began. I’m terrified that they named Guthrie their Game 3 starter because they’d honestly rather have him on the mound in Game 7 than Vargas.

But if they are setting a trap…hot damn. I would love that.

- My wife flew down to join me for Game 2 of the World Series, just her second time at Kauffman Stadium, and her first time since shortly after we got married in the summer of 1997. (This is the game we attended. It turned out to be the first game in a 12-game losing streak that got Bob Boone fired and ushered in the Tony Muser Era.) So…yeah, this was a different experience for her. A much better experience.

I sprung for some nice tickets in Section 117, just past third base – as a medical professional, I am quite aware that you can live a full and normal life with just one kidney. We sat (well, stood more than sat, like everyone else…) next to a family that had chartered a flight from Tennessee that day to watch Game 2, and were flying back the next day. I didn’t think much of it other than, “well, they’re loaded.” But in the sixth inning, as the Royals came to bat I started talking with the gentleman next to me, who told me that he had attended all the Royals’ home games in the 1985 World Series, and his family had a connection to the Royals. I was curious.

“Do you remember the guy who was co-owner of the Royals in the 1980s?” he asked me, as the Royals mounted their rally. “Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. Fogelman is a mostly-forgotten part of Royals history, but in 1983, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, who was concerned about his own mortality and lacking any heirs that wanted to run the team, had been looking for a potential successor, someone younger but wealthy enough to own the club. He found Avron Fogelman, a Memphis real estate tycoon who owned the Double-A Memphis Chicks. He sold Fogelman 49% of the team, with an option to buy a majority stake later.

In 1985, when the Royals won the World Series, both Kauffman and Fogelman were presented as co-owners. My most vivid memory of Fogelman is seeing him during the Royals’ championship celebration after Game 7. But the Memphis real estate market nosedived in the late 1980s, Fogelman needed cash, and his only liquid asset was his stake in the Royals. He sold his stake back to Kauffman – well creditors demanded his stake go up for auction, but there were no serious bidders other than Kauffman – in 1990, and disappeared from Royals history. Three years later, Kauffman passed away, with no owner to take over the reins, and the Royals were set adrift.

“Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. “Yeah, he’s my dad,” he told me, as the Royals piled on five runs in the inning, their biggest inning of the playoffs.

The Fogelmans were in the house. They weren’t there for Game 1, when the Royals lost, but they were there for Game 2. He was there for all four home games in 1985, including the most dramatic game in Royals history in Game 6, and the greatest celebration in Royals history in Game 7. Needless to say, as we said our goodbyes after the game, “you have to come back next week.”

-  “You don’t have to treat me like that. Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb. I didn’t hit the bomb. I hit a double.”

I’m hoping to create a wall of pictures of the seminal moments of this postseason, either for my house or my office – or maybe both. (If they lose the World Series, it will likely be muted. If they win…I will probably spend a truly irresponsible amount of money making it happen.) There are many seminal moments to choose from.

But I think I might have to find a spot on my wall to frame this quote from Salvador Perez as well. So much win here. Perez body-slams Hunter Strickland so effortlessly I’m not even sure he meant it.

“Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb.” I'm innocent, dude. Someone stole your lunch money, but it wasn't me.

“I didn’t hit the bomb. (I hit a double.)” OHHHHHH SNAP

- Perez could have made this incident into something much bigger than it was, and he would have been entirely justified in doing so. I’m not referring to him going after Strickland or anything. I’m referring to the fact that after the game, Perez explained what happened by saying that:

“After Omar hit the bomb, and I get close to home plate, he start to look at me,” Perez said. “So I asked him like, ‘Hey, why you look at me?’ So he was telling me, ‘Get out of here, whatever.’”

Except that even an amateur lip-reader can deduce that what Strickland said was, “get in the dugout, boy,” something about a dozen of you tweeted to me when I asked (since we didn’t know what had instigated the brouhaha) about what had happened.

I hope I don’t have to explain to you the potential implications of a white guy from Georgia calling a dark-skinned immigrant “boy”. This could be a much bigger story. Frankly, maybe it should be, and it’s a little curious that it isn’t. But that’s at least in part because the guy who was the recipient of those thoughtless words either heard something different than what the rest of us read, or chose to take the high road and ignore it.

Perez has had the worst season of his career at the plate, a terrible second half, and a generally awful postseason punctuated by the biggest hit of the season and his big double last night. But I don’t care. He’s still my bae.


G said...

Rannnnnyyyyy! You makin me smile!

Unknown said...

I was surprised that the "boy" comment wasn't made into a bigger deal too. Looking at the Deadspin article about it, I don't think it's a coincidence that in the picture at the top of the article, Dyson and Cain (2 of the 3 African Americans on the active roster, and both from the south), appear to look the most P.O'd/vocal. Personality-wise, I suspect Dyson would be out there no matter what the scenario, but Cain? Probably over-analyzing but it's awfully coincidental.

Matt S said...

Dammit I invented Triborg!

And no it's impossible two people could have invented it separately. IMPOSSIBLE

Unknown said...

The Duffy Finnegan Trap would be awesome, let JGuts go through 12 matter the outcome, drop duffy in for 9 batters, frasor for an inning, then if you have to come back with finn in the 6th do it.....if you are through 7 activate the cyborgs.

GregTamblyn said...

Love the potential lineup with Dyson 9th, Gordo 2nd.

Love the Game 7 "trap" idea.

But Ned's not that clever.

Jazzbumpa said...

Beautiful write up Rany. I love the trap idea. But I don't think there's any chance Yost is that smart.

I definitely read "Boy" on Strickland's lips. Sad moment.

But what does "He's still my bae." mean?

I'll have to miss tonight's game. I'll be playing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor when the first pitch is thrown.

Hope all goes well.


Michael said...

It lookslike Ned copied your lineup! That's the exact lineup he is trotting out there tonight. Love that lineup!

Unknown said...

It's not a copied lineup:
R Escobar
L Gordon
R Cain
L Hosmer
R Perez
L Moustakas
R Infante
L Dyson
R Guthrie

Compared to:
R Escobar
L Gordon
R Cain
L Hosmer
L Moustakas
R Infante
R Perez
L Dyson
R Guthrie

jim said...

omg it was unconscionable that gutherie started game 3 and that the batting order was such and such!!!!! small sample sizes don't mean anything, unless there is a move i don't agree with, in which case holyfuckingshitimmawritethousandsofwords!!

Unknown said...

I hope & believe Finnegan ends up being a good starter in the future, but no matter, his contributions in the post season have already made him a great draft choice. 2 more victories & Royals are Champions! Unbelievable!

Unknown said...

Well, this series is either ending in SF (in our favor) or coming back home. That is all that we could ask for. LOVED Holly's post-game debut on MLB Network - what a humble guy. Go Royals!

James said...

Why let Guthrie go 12 batters? Let him go through the lineup once (so presumably 2-3 innings max unless he falters). Then start bringing in the bullpen with Duffy and Finnegan for 1-2 innings each with Frasor sandwiched in between for 1 inning followed by HDH.
Game Set Match.