Sunday, October 26, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 4.

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.


Joel Thomas said...

Re: Dyson not stealing, I think there's something to the watered down/muddy dirt thing in Royals not feeling comfortable getting jumps.

Unknown said...

Dyson not stealing may have been due to dirt conditions as Joel suggests but I think it is part of a troubling trend in this postseason for the Royals. In Game 3 when Dyson is on first with Herera batting, there was no reason not to attempts multiple steals but he stood still. Fast teams have gone conservative in postseason a lot historically and I wonder if/am afraid that is what the Royals may be doing.

Unknown said...

The best thing to come out of last night's drubbing was the triborg getting full rest. The bottom line is that with the travel day, they'll be able to go in all three games with no hesitation.

At the beginning of October there is no doubt we would have gleefully accepted having to win the last two games at home to win a World Series. Hell, we would have accepted it as late as after Game 1.

Let's be real, Game 5 is way more important to the Giants than the Royals. If we somehow beat Cy Bumgarner, the Royals seize this series by the throat. If we don't, then we go back to KC with Yordano and Guthrie pitching and our triborg fully prepared to do its job. Hopefully the Royals play loose tonight because in my mind they've much less to lose tonight than the Giants.

Unknown said...

I feel much better after readnf this. Shields said in his game interview that he "found something" in his delivery, hinting that he may be back to his old self. If that's true, he's as
Good as bumganer, and then we can use our cyborgs and win 1-0. Hey, let's focus on that.

twm said...

We have seen that this team bounces back well, and the idea of playing in front if KC again could be invigorating, but this was a huge loss. Not just because it was excruciating to watch the game slowly unravel, beginning in the bottom of the third when it became obvious that Vargas would not be able to keep them off the board, and moving through the sixth when they finally broke things open. Not just because we understand that tonight the team will almost certainly need five or six runs against Bumgarner and the bullpen (baring some miraculous recovery of command/stuff/mechanical/whatever has been dogging Shields all post season). But also because the bullpen will likely be tired after being used for multiple innings yesterday and then again tonight (again, baring something spectacular from Shields), and because we will definitely need them in must-win games with Ventura and Guthrie on the mound, neither of whom is a strong candidate to pitch more than five or maybe six innings. It feels, not at all hopeless, but very difficult. Last night was pivotal and the Giants outplayed us in a very painful way. Just brutal to watch. Those guys are a lot like KC: make contact and put pressure on the defense, except top-to-bottom they look like more comfortable and competent hitters. Also, and this is just a complaint, Hunter Pence is maybe my least favorite person right now, but only just a bit more loathed than Sandoval. Ugh. Every time they are at the plate I want to close my eyes and have someone tell me when it is over.

twm said...

Also, Herrera looked gassed in his last appearance, with lower velocity and less command -- I hope the rest helped him recover.

Charles Winters said...

Two situations where Ned had his infield at shallower than regular depth that were pretty curious (and wrong, I think)

1) In the bottom of the first inning with no score and one out and a runner on third. It would up causing no harm as the run would have scored in any event and it was all that was scored.

2) In the bottom of the fifth with the scored 4-2. Panik had hit a leadoff double and advanced to third on a Posey ground out. With Pence up and a two run lead and a runner on third and one out Yost initially played his infield at normal depth, however with two strikes he pulled it halfway and Pence's single that scored Panik went through when it would otherwise not have done so. Either way, Panik scores. However, Pence later scored because he reached base when he otherwise would not have done so. Since Pence scored on the sac fly (spectacular Dyson catch) and Pence would have been the second out the Royals would have escaped the inning without further damage allowing them to retain the lead into the sixth.

This changes the complexion of the game. It changes all subsequent strategies.

It's true you have to hold players accountable, but you also have to put them in the best possible situation to succeed. Ned Yost failed to do that in the fifth. That, alone, did not cost the Royals the game but it mattered greatly.

Unknown said...

Here's the deal. This is from Mellinger:

The Royals will face the terrific Madison Bumgarner in game five tonight, but should also feel good about having their best three starters lined up, their best three relievers now rested, and two of the potential three remaining games at home. It won’t be easy, but when has it ever been?

Alex Gordon also hit the ball very hard three times last night. Maybe he's breaking out.

Bottom line? If we can't win w that setup, then a very good team beat us and we probably don't deserve the title. So there you go.

Ford said...

Shields pitches his best game of post season tonight. Royals treat Madison like they did Lester in wildcard.

Mark LaFlamme said...

I was mad as hell at Yost during the game, but in the clear light of day, it's not so acute. It comes down to a lot of little things over which Yost had no control. Lots of bloops that fell in for them, lots of hard hit balls that didn't fall in for us. Baseball! I think tonight is a big game indeed, but I also think the match up is being over-hyped. Royals have faced long odds every step of the way. I think we win tonight and I think we win the next one, too. Weird, unfamiliar optimism going on all up in here.

Unknown said...

Please make your pal Rob Neyer read your Game 4 post. I think he just wants to be correct about saying Ned Yost is doing a terrible job, in particular with Herrera in game 2-3, but it's getting old using that as a cause for all subsequent events! Sorry, I just had to get that off of mind. Time to watch the games again, I'll try not to get sucked in to twitter arguments. Sometimes I use it as a distraction because the games make me too nervous!!!

jim said...

I totally agree with you. Bottom of the fifth infield configuration generally effects Run Expectation by 8 runs. There was just an amazingly indepth article about this very fact on Fangraphs.

Charles Winters said...

Jim, I didn't even come close to saying it had an eight run effect. I said that kind of thing mattered and it did have a one run effect (and a single run that changed the configuration of the game - ie it took a game that should have been 4-3 entering the sixth and left it 4-4).

I'm glad you can use sarcasm, it's an important skill, but it really helps if you understand what was meant in the first place.

Charles Winters said...

I really thought all of Ned's other decisions could have been defended quite well.

I thought going with Frasor, Duffy and Finnegan made good sense and the sequence was fine. I thought PH with Aoki was good. I was fine with not pinch hitting for Guthrie in the third.

I haven't heard anyone even acknowledge the infield configuration, let alone defend it.

okok said...

If the Royals listened to you they would never have been this close to the Series title. Just appreciate it at this point.

Unknown said...

Should we panic now??? UGH

Anonymous said...

I'm nervous now because it seems our starters can't make it through 4 innings, and the Giants seemingly have our relievers figured out. We can't get them to chase the balls in the dirt, so when it gets to ball 3, they know a fastball is coming and they don't miss it. They don't try to do too much, just try to shoot it back up through the middle, or else the soft spot between the infielders and the outfielders. If we get down more than one run, I'm worried the Royals will feel like 'oh, no. Here we go again." The fans need to bring it for us to have any hope. The Giants' fans played a huge role in the last two games. When the Royals are behind, Hosmer seems to try to hit a 10 run homer with every swing.

jim said...

I totally agree with you. The Royals's infield made every play they needed to make it that game. Thus, had they only played at normal configuration, they would have made all outs that that needed to make!