A century from now, baseball scholars will discover that there was a point during Game 4 of the 2014 World Series in which the Royals were strongly favored to win. No one will believe them.
Someone – I believe it may have been Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus – wrote earlier this month something to the effect that we’ve reached the point with baseball analysis where players no longer are blamed for failure: it’s either the fault of the manager for putting him in that position or the GM for not acquiring a better player. It’s hyperbole, but seeing the reaction to Game 4, I wonder just how much of an exaggeration it is.
Ned Yost didn’t have his best game. The Royals had a 4-1 lead in the middle of the third inning, and they lost. But at some point you have to hold the players accountable for their performance. It is possible for Yost to make the right move – or at least a defensible move – and have it not work out, either because the player he put in a spot to succeed didn’t, or simply because the ball bounced in favor of the Giants.
Let’s trace the anatomy of ten unanswered runs that turned a comfortable early lead into the Royals’ biggest loss since the Tigers’ pulverized them, 10-1, on September 19th:
- In the bottom of the third, Matt Duffy – pinch-hitting for reliever Jean Machi, because apparently it’s okay to do that sort of thing – led off with a single. Gregor Blanco grounded to Omar Infante, who pivoted to second base before thinking better of it and taking the sure out at first. It was probably the right move – Duffy is fast and might have been safe, but you want to stay out of the big inning there. After Joe Panik flied out, Buster Posey hit an RBI single. After Hunter Pence singled, Jason Vargas struck out Pablo Sandoval. Can’t fault Yost here – pulling Vargas at this point in the game would have been silly.
- After Vargas worked a scoreless fourth inning but allowed two hits – one to Yusmeiro Petit, who counting the postseason was 5-for-105 in his career as a hitter – I thought it was time to pull him. But given that the leadoff hitter in the fifth, Panik, batted left-handed, followed by right-handed-hitting Buster Posey and Pence, I could see the case for letting Vargas face Panik and the going to RHP Jason Frasor to face Posey and Pence.
That’s what Yost did. Panik doubled to lead off the inning, and Frasor came in. He got Posey to ground out, but Panik moved to third, causing the infield to move in just a little – and Pence was able to shoot a grounder up the middle to score the run. That brought up Sandoval – a switch-hitter who hits right-handers better than left-handers – followed by Brandon Belt (LHB), Juan Perez (RHB, but not much of a hitter in the majors so far), and Brandon Crawford (LHB).
Going to a lefty seemed like the right move here. Yost went to Danny Duffy. Duffy allowed a bullet to Sandoval to put runners on the corners with one out, then walked Belt to load the bases. Perez then hit a line drive that Jarrod Dyson made an outstanding catch on, but Pence scored to tie the game. Then Duffy struck out Crawford.
- Duffy was due up second in the top of the fifth inning, and given how erratic he looked, it made perfect sense to pinch-hit for him there. It made even more perfect sense when Dyson led off with a single. Nori Aoki pinch-hit…and hit into a double play.
Before the at-bat, I argued that given Aoki’s bat control and Dyson’s speed, it was a waste to bunt Dyson there, and that Dyson should steal second, allowing Aoki to move him over to third with one out at the very least. Yost did not put on the bunt. But Dyson did not attempt to steal on the first two pitches – perhaps he felt the need to read Petit’s move, as he had never faced him before – and on the second pitch, Aoki put the ball in play. Had Dyson stolen second, Aoki’s grounder to Belt would have moved him to third. But I can’t fault Yost for not putting on the bunt, and I can’t fault Yost because Dyson didn’t light out for second base on the first or second pitch.
- Brandon Finnegan came on to pitch the sixth, facing the pitcher’s spot followed by two lefties. Joaquin Arias pinch-hit and blooped a single into shallow right field. Gregor Blanco then batted, and tried to bunt twice – the first time he drew the bat back but had a strike called on him on a pitch that was high, and the second time he fouled it off. So with two strikes, he was forced to swing away – and blooped a single over Escobar’s head into left field. This allowed Panik to bunt the runners to second and third.
This brought up Buster Posey, who crushes lefties, and Yost called for the intentional walk. Yost is as conservative with intentional walks as any manager in baseball – the Royals only issued 14 of them all season, the fewest of any team. And calling for one here was debatable, because it loaded the bases and meant that a walk would score a run, and it didn’t obtain the platoon edge. On the other hand, it did set up the double play and a force at every base. This came in handy when Hunter Pence hit a hard groundball to Escobar. With the infield playing halfway, and with Pence having already beaten out a potential double play ball in the first, Escobar chose to go home rather than try the 6-4-3 double play. Arias was out, and the game was still tied with Sandoval at the plate.
But Sandoval, for the second time in the game, hit a ringing single off a left-handed pitcher, driving in two runs and essentially icing the game. Belt – a left-handed hitter – followed with another single to make the score 7-4.
It was the pivotal 6th inning – it’s always the sixth inning – and I’ve seen a lot of people argue that this is where Yost screwed up, that Kelvin Herrera or even Wade Davis should have been in the game. I’m not disagreeing completely. But a couple of things to consider:
1) Herrera had thrown 27 pitches the night before, two days after he threw 32 pitches. He was available, but probably not for more than an inning. If he pitched the sixth, then Davis would have had to pitch the seventh and eighth, meaning both Herrera and Davis would be out for Game 5.
2) Yes, Yost could have gone to Davis right there in the sixth inning. Yes, it was probably a mistake. But out of 30 major league managers, I’d be surprised if more than three would have done that. If it was a mistake, it wasn’t an uncommon one.
3) After Arias – a utility infielder leading off – all the damage in the inning was done by Blanco (LHB), Sandoval (SHB who hits RHP much better than LHP), and Belt (LHB). The two big right-handed bats that Finnegan faced, Posey and Pence, were disposed of – Posey by the intentional walk, Pence on a groundout. Unless you think that Davis or Herrera should have started the inning, the inning came down to Finnegan getting beaten by hitters that he had the advantage on. And, frankly, getting beaten by two fluke hits.
If Blanco gets the bunt down, the Giants might not have scored in the inning. He didn’t, he blooped a single instead, and they scored three runs. That’s baseball. That’s not Ned Yost.
The Giants would score four runs in the seventh inning to run up the score off of Finnegan and Collins, but the game was already iced at that point, and you’re not going to burn a member of the Triborg – and potentially keep them out of Game 5 – when you’re already down three runs.
- I’ve seen it argued that Duffy should have started the fifth inning. I could see that, I suppose, but then you let Posey and Pence face a left-handed pitcher. Duffy had a huge platoon split this year, and three of the first four hitters he would have faced would have batted from the right side. And given how he performed in the game once he came in, you’re going to have a tough time convincing me that what the Royals needed was to call on Duffy sooner and use him more. It’s clear he’s not completely healthy – his fastball is 92-93 in relief – and we can’t just assume he’s the same guy who put up a 2.53 ERA this season.
- Yost could have gone for the jugular in the top of the third inning, and pinch-hit for Vargas with the bases loaded and two outs. But aside from the fact that he would have needed seven innings from his pen, Vargas is a pretty good hitter – not as good as his lifetime .262 average, but one of the better-hitting pitchers around – and had flied out to deep center field his first time up. Vargas, unfortunately, lost track of the count, and started walking to first base when the 2-2 pitch was outside. Did that lead to him being called out on a borderline 3-2 pitch? Maybe, maybe not. But was that Yost’s fault?
- The only other mistake you could argue Yost made was not pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas against LHP Jeremy Affeldt with two outs in the seventh and Eric Hosmer on first base. This was the time to use Billy Butler or Josh Willingham – neither of whom has appeared in either game in the NL park, mind you. Moustakas grounded out, and then to add salt in the wound, was double-switched out of the game in the bottom of the inning anyway when Collins came in for Finnegan.
This was probably the least ambiguous mistake Yost made. A walk in that situation brings the tying run to the plate; a home run brings the Royals to within one. The game ended with neither Butler nor Willingham getting off the bench. It was a mistake. But it was not, in all likelihood, a decisive one.
Sometimes, you just get beat. Sometimes, the ball doesn’t fall your way. Sometimes, it’s not the manager’s fault, even when you blow an early lead in a game that would have given you a decisive 3-games-to-1 edge in the World Series. The game sucked, and Ned Yost didn’t help. But I don’t think the Royals win that game if Earl LaRussa Showalter had been managing them.
I sense some panic among Royals Nation at the moment, and understandably so, since Madison Bumgarner is up next. I would just like to remind everyone that the series is still tied, that Games 6 and 7 are in Kansas City, and that Bumgarner won't start either of those games. (Although I suppose he can relieve in Game 7, but let’s cross that bridge later.) It is, in fact, possible that James Shields outduels Bumgarner in Game 5. Stranger things have happened. Herrera, Davis, and Holland will all have had a day’s rest; there’s no reason why Shields has to pitch more than five innings anyway.
And if not…well…there’s nothing quite like the home field advantage of Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. In the last 15 years, the home team is 8-1 in Games 6 and 7; the only loss came in the 2003 World Series, when the Yankees lost at home in Game 6 to Josh Beckett. The Giants don’t have anyone the caliber of Beckett starting in Games 6 or 7. The 2002 Angels and the 2011 Cardinals both came home down 3 games to 2, and both teams followed legendary comebacks in Game 6 with a commanding win in Game 7.
I know it feels like the sky is falling, but it’s not. Sometimes you just get beat. That’s what the Giants did to us tonight. The thing is, even if they beat us again, the series won’t be over. It’s a best-of-three series now. And if they’re going to steal the world championship away from us, they’re going to have to do it in Kansas City. I’ll take my chances. At this point, that’s all we can do.