Saturday, September 13, 2014

Royals Today: 9/13/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 61.1% (39.8% Division, 21.3% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 58.5% (26.4% Division, 32.1% Wild Card)

And keep in mind, these odds don’t account for the fact that the Royals have the executioner’s knife hanging over them a week from Monday, when they resume a game against the Indians with the score 4-2 in the 10th inning. Count that as a loss and an Indians win, and the Royals would be half a game behind the Mariners for the final wild card spot (and just three games ahead of Cleveland). Of course, they would only be 1.5 games behind both Detroit and Oakland. The best thing going for the Royals is that there are three playoff spots for four teams, barring a surge by the Indians or Blue Jays, or a 15-1 closing kick by the Yankees.

But factor in that pending loss, and the Royals’ playoff odds would probably be right around 50-50. Which seems fair, because this team can’t score runs.

In the Royals’ last 14 games, they scored five runs once – last Monday in Detroit, when Lorenzo Cain hit an inside-the-park home run for the fifth run in a 9-5 game. So if two Tiger outfielders hadn’t collided with one another, the Royals would have now gone 14 straight games scoring four runs or less, which would tie the longest such streak in franchise history. As it is, they’re on a 15-game streak with five runs or fewer, which is already tied for 8th-longest in Royals history. Their 22-game streak with six runs or fewer is already tied for 5th-longest.

This is a problem. For all the good things that have happened the last two months, for all the good decisions the Royals have made on the pitching side of things, their almost comical inability to turn their hitting prospects into competent major leaguers is coming home to roost. Eric Hosmer, after hitting his first home run in two months last night, is batting .267/.312/.383. Mike Moustakas is hitting .209/.267/.370. Even Salvador Perez is having his worst season, continuing a troubling trend in which he’s gotten worse at the plate every year of his career. His OPS+ from 2011 to today read: 128, 115, 105, and 93. Since the All-Star Break, Perez is hitting .227/.233/.359. Look at that OBP! Perez, who walked seven times (plus on intentional) in the first eight games of the year, has drawn just 12 unintentional walks since. He’s walked twice since the Break.

When Alex Gordon was hot, the Royals at least had a chance. Now that he’s in a slump – 0 for his last 18, albeit with seven walks – no one in the lineup is doing anything. The most impatient lineup in the majors is getting abused by marginal pitchers with command issues. Prior to last night, Allen Webster had walked 43 batters in 71 innings in his career. Against the Royals, he walked one batter (Gordon, of course) in six innings. Not coincidentally, a guy who had a 7.39 career ERA before last night allowed two runs in six innings.

I don’t know what kind of analysis I can offer you here. The Royals need to hit better. The things the front office could do to help – send Hosmer and/or Moustakas to the minors for an extended period to help them rebuild their swings as well as send a message, or not fire Kevin Seitzer – long ago disappeared from their rear-view mirror. At this point, this is out of the front office’s hands. It’s up to the players themselves.

It’s also up to the manager, and you have to wonder if Ned Yost is cracking under the pressure a bit. Today’s lineup looks like something a random number generator spit out, with Alcides Escobar leading off for just the second time all year, with Nori Aoki at DH for just the fifth time all year. On the other hand, the Royals won the game that Escobar led off, and are 4-0 when Aoki DH’s. At least Omar Infante has mercifully moved down to seventh. And the Royals are going with a Gordon/Dyson/Cain outfield, a must with Guthrie on the mound. It’s a weird lineup. It’s not an optimal lineup. But the order of the hitters isn’t the issue. The identities of the hitters are the issue.

And Billy Butler sits on the bench again. I’m not even saying that the Royals are wrong to bench a guy who’s hitting .266/.319/.374, has no defensive value, and is one of the slowest players in the game. I’m just saying that I can’t wait for the expose to come out on what actually happened to the relationship between Butler and the Royals.

And oh yeah, it appears that three scoreless innings in a row did NOT mean that Aaron Crow was magically fixed. He gave up two walks, a double, and two runs in his last outing, turning a one-run deficit into a three-run deficit. Yeah, he got squeezed on the strike zone, and yeah, Hosmer could have made a play on the double, but that’s what happens when the ball is put in play – and of the six batters Crow faced, none struck out. He’s struck out two of the 16 batters he’s faced since he returned from the minors.

Jason Frasor, oh by the way, pitched last night with the Royals down two runs, and struck out the side. At least Greg Holland is back.

If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some some good news, here’s some. See, officially, the longest streak of six or fewer runs in Royals history is 29 games, accomplished both in 1969 and 1984. But in fact, the longest streak ever was 33 games. On September 15th, 1985, the Royals beat the A’s in the second game of a doubleheader, 7-2. They wouldn’t score seven runs in a game again until…Game 7 of the World Series. A lineup that was historically impotent didn’t keep the Royals from cliniching the AL West, winning the ALCS, or putting them in position to clinch a world championship. All it took was one of the best young rotations of my lifetime.

This isn’t the first time someone has found parallels between this year’s Royals team and the one that won a world championship. If the Royals reach the playoffs, they have the pitching and the defense to be a formidable opponent even with an offense that is on life support.

But first they have to get there. If their offense doesn’t get in gear soon, the comparisons to the 1985 Royals will end with the regular season.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Royals Today: 9/11/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 78.9% (62.3% Division, 16.6% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 77.9% (47.4% Division, 30.5% Wild Card)

Well, I hope all of you who criticized the Royals for making the James Shields trade are preparing your apologies.

As Dayton and I told you at the time, Big Game James would not only change the entire culture of the clubhouse, but would be the ace that would lead them to the playoffs, the stopper who would take the mound in a must-win game against the Detroit Tigers and shove it for seven innings. And Wade Davis would be the best relief pitcher the game has ever seen. If only you would have listened.

Okay, I’m not writing my long-anticipated apology column yet, because there’s still plenty of time for the Royals to finish six games out, and as much fun as the last six weeks have been, that kind of ending would dramatically change the perception of the deal. And the same people who rip me now for my position on the trade would be ripping me for jinxing the team by writing an apology column prematurely.

But it’s not too soon to give Dayton Moore and the Royals credit for making a trade that played out exactly the way they said it would. I’m not talking about wins and losses and playoff berths – which was certainly a significant part of my objection to it – but that the players they were acquiring have performed the way the Royals thought they would.

Because that was also definitely part of my issue with the trade. Pitchers – all pitchers – are inherently risky. James Shields had thrown 200+ innings in six straight seasons before the trade, and certainly a pitcher who has a long track record of durability is more likely to be durable in the future. But Shields had fired a lot of bullets with his right arm, and there was no guarantee that he still had a lot of bullets left. There was also no guarantee that the Royals wouldn’t get the 2009-10 Shields, who made every start and threw tons of innings – and had a 4.64 ERA over those two seasons combined.

That hasn’t been the case, though. Shields led the AL in innings last year, and he crossed over the 200-inning threshold even before last night’s start. Helped by an amazing defense last season, he posted a 3.15 ERA, and helped by a very good defense (and a bunch of unearned runs) this season, he’s posted a 3.13 ERA.

Last year, Shields was worth 4.1 bWAR, this year he’s been worth 3.2 bWAR so far. They will likely wind up being the third-best and fifth-best seasons in the eight full seasons of his career. While his ERA as a Royal (3.14) is much lower than his ERA as a Ray (3.89), the combination of the lower offensive levels today and the great Royals defense means that he has been almost exactly as effective with the Royals as he had with the Rays – no more, no less.

And you know what? That’s fine. That’s great. The attrition rate with pitchers due to injury or ineffectiveness is so high that if you acquire a #2 starter and he continues to pitch like a #2 starter, you should be thrilled. That’s what Shields has done.

Look at it this way: if the Royals had made the same trade two years ago for Justin Verlander, assuming Verlander had the same two years left on his contract for the same money, we all would have responded MUCH more positively. Verlander had just finished second in the Cy Young vote, the year after he had won the Cy Young and MVP. He was the best pitcher in the AL, if not baseball.

Last season, Verlander declined, although bWAR rates him slightly ahead of Shields in terms of value – the Tigers’ defense was pretty bad, and he still had a 3.46 ERA. But this year he’s barely been above replacement level (0.5 bWAR). A trade that even I would have conceded would have been a worthwhile gamble – two years of the best pitcher in the league was worth Wil Myers – would have backfired badly, as Verlander would have collapsed in the exact season the Royals had planned to make their run.

Or imagine if the trade had been made one year earlier for Roy Halladay? In 2011, Halladay had a 2.35 ERA, his fourth straight season with an ERA under 2.80. He finished second in the Cy Young vote the year after winning the Cy Young; he had finished in the top 5 in voting for six straight years. He might have been the best pitcher in the NL. That would have looked like a very good trade – until Halladay fell off to a 4.49 ERA and only made 25 starts in his first year with the Royals, and then pitched so badly in his second year (6.82 ERA, 13 starts) that he retired. That would have been a disaster.

The Royals instead acquired a pitcher who was perceived as less valuable at the time the trade was made, because they placed a premium on his durability and consistency, and they have been rewarded with…durability and consistency.

And after starting this season disappointingly, allowing 63 runs in 117 innings in his first 18 starts, Shields has been at his best when the Royals have needed him the most. In his last 13 starts he has thrown 91 innings – seven innings a start – with a 2.08 ERA (and just two unearned runs). He’s been the pitcher from the catalog. Last Friday, he pitched a gem at Yankee Stadium with no margin for error, winning 1-0, and last night, he pitched a gem at Comerica Park against the Royals’ chief rival, winning 3-0. It was the first time since the second and third starts of his career that Shields had gone back-to-back starts without allowing a run.

Big Game James is no longer an epithet – it might instead be his epitaph. Maybe the trade won’t be enough to get the Royals into the playoffs, but Shields has been everything the Royals could have asked him to be. Maybe they paid too much to get him, but the Royals were absolutely right to target him.

Whereas Shields was a known quantity, Davis was anything but – which was sort of the appeal. If he could have become a #3 starter, and under contract at below-market rates for five full seasons, he might have wound up more valuable than Shields in the long run – that’s why I thought that, if the Royals won the trade, he would be the key to the deal. But then he went out and put up a 5.67 ERA as a starter last year despite the team’s defense, and had to be shuttled back to the bullpen. At that point the dream of Davis becoming a huge asset died, because I mean how valuable can a pitcher be if he’s only throwing 60 or 70 innings a season?

Oh. That valuable. Davis, in fact, has MORE bWAR (3.7) this season than Shields has. In less than a third as many innings.

Maybe the trade won’t propel the Royals into the playoffs this year, in which case we’ll have to judge its legacy anew. But right now, it’s the reason why the Royals left Detroit in sole possession of first place with less than three weeks left in the season. And the best part is that we are all benefitting – those of you who foolishly hated the trade can reap the rewards just as much as us enlightened souls who saw the wisdom of it from day one.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Royals Today: 9/10/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN): 68.3%
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 61.8% (31.1% Division, 30.7% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Fangraphs): 68.3% (51.2% Division, 17.0% Wild Card)

The narrative all year has been that the Tigers just have so much more talent than the Royals that they’ll eventually pull away, and the Royals have done nothing in the last 48 hours to change that.

I’ll track the playoff odds like this daily going forward. The Royals’ ESPN playoff odds were around 84% on Monday morning, so basically their odds of not making the playoffs have roughly doubled by being unable to win one of two games against the Tigers.

Before the series began, I felt that as long as the Royals won even one of the three games, they would be in good position, leaving Detroit with the divisional lead and still having three home games against the Tigers next weekend. But they are very much in danger of being swept. Tonight is, simply, the biggest game the franchise has played in 29 years. It is, dare I say it, a Big Game.

Big Game James pitched an absolute gem with no margin of error in his last start, blanking the Yankees for 8.1 innings before Wade Davis finished off the first 1-0 victory at Yankee Stadium in the history of the Royals. They’ll need the same from him tonight. His legacy as a Royal, and the legacy of The Trade, will be in large part shaped by what happens tonight.

If the game gets played. Which it might not. The weather reports for southeast Michigan look dismal, and with both teams having an off-day next Thursday the 18th, the option is there for a make-up date.

This would hurt the Royals badly, for two reasons:

1) They would have to fly to Detroit for one game in the middle of a homestand, negating a large part of what makes home field such an advantage. The Tigers would fly back to Detroit for one game on their way from Minnesota to Kansas City. Both teams would be inconvenienced, but the Royals much more so, and right before opening a series at home with Detroit.

2) It would mean that Shields could only start one of these last four games with the Tigers, whereas if the game is played tonight he should also start next Sunday’s finale.

Major League Baseball generally does everything it can to get a game in when it’s the final game between two teams that season. In this case, there is a potential make-up day, but unless they move that game to Kansas City – don’t even dream about it – it would be far less inconvenient to stay up and play this game tonight, even in sub-optimal conditions, than to make it up in a week. This may mean playing through rain delays; it may mean that Shields won’t be able to go seven or eight innings because of the weather. But I’d rather take my chance with Shields for five innings tonight, knowing he’d get another crack at Detroit.

That’s tonight. Last night’s game seems to come down to one thing: all anyone can talk about was the ninth inning, and Ned Yost’s decision to pinch-run with Jarrod Dyson at second base, followed by Dyson getting picked off.

I tweeted immediately afterwards, and argued on 810 WHB with Soren today at noon, that in the moment, I fully agreed with that specific decision. This is far from a universal opinion. I would like to explain my analysis here fully.

After Nori Aoki and Omar Infante beat out consecutive infield singles, both by an eyelash, Alex Gordon came to the plate. Yost pinch-ran for Infante with Terrance Gore, which made sense – that was the tying run, and Gore’s speed meant any ball in the gap would tie the game. But Yost did not pinch-run for Aoki at this point.

After Gordon struck out, Salvador Perez came to the plate, and then Yost called on Dyson to pinch-run for Aoki.

Here’s why those two specific decisions – don’t pinch-run for Aoki with Gordon at the plate, but pinch-run for him with Perez at the plate – both make sense.

The point of pinch-running for Aoki with Dyson isn’t to get better speed at second base – that’s not the tying run – but to allow for the possibility of the double steal which will get the runner on first base into scoring position. Also – and nearly as important, in my mind – is that it takes away the possibility of a double play.

With Gordon at the plate, though, the odds of him doing something which would make a double steal pay off – specifically, hitting either a single or a double-play ball – are fairly small. Gordon hits a lot of extra-base hits (at least relative to the rest of the Royals), walks a lot (same), and hits the ball in the air (career GB% of 39.2%). He leads the team with 107 Ks. All those things – walks, extra-base hits, fly outs, and strike outs – render a double-steal moot. There’s no point in risking an out on the bases for minimal gain, and you might as well hold on to Dyson for a spot where he might make more of a difference – if Perez reached base later in the inning representing the go-ahead run, for instance.

But when Perez came to the plate, the calculus is totally different. He doesn’t walk a lot – just 21 walks all year, and remember, he had eight walks in the Royals’ first eight games. He hits more groundballs than Gordon (career GB% of 43.7%), and more importantly, he’s very slow – he’s hit into 21 double plays this year, ranking third in the AL. (Gordon has hit into 10 GIDP’s.) Perez hits for power too, but is more of a singles hitter than Gordon. While Gordon has a slightly higher batting average this year (.272 to .262), Perez’s career average is .287. And precisely because Gordon draws more walks, his ratio of hits to plate appearances is actually quite a bit lower than Perez’s.

So by pinch-running with Dyson, Yost set up the potential for a double steal, which would 1) eliminate the possibility of a game-ending GIDP and 2) mean that a single – from either Perez or Hosmer, who at this point in his career is basically the definition of a singles hitter – would tie the game.

Oh, and the icing on the cake is that Joe Nathan is one of the easiest pitchers in baseball to run on. He had given up 10 steals (in 51 innings!) in 10 attempts already this year, and since the beginning of the 2006 season, basestealers were 44 for 46 against him. With no pickoffs. Even with the element of surprise eliminated, the Royals had two of the five fastest players in the majors on base against a pitcher with a slow move to home plate.

Put it this way: if this were Stratomatic and we were rolling dice and everything I just wrote were written as a set of probabilities, this is exactly the move I would have made. It’s not very often that I can say that about anything Ned Yost does.

The problem with the move was everything else.

- I don’t know why Yost waited until there was an 0-1 count on Perez. I assume it just took him some time to process everything, but I really don’t know. As much as the Tigers would have known Dyson was going no matter when he came into the game, bringing him in during the middle of an at-bat just made it that much more obvious.

C.J. Nitkowski also brings up the point that by waiting until the last moment to bring in Dyson, Yost didn’t give Dyson much of an opportunity to read Nathan’s move, given that Dyson has rarely been on base with Nathan on the mound before. It’s an angle I hadn’t considered; I don’t think it’s of enormous significance, but it’s not irrelevant either.

- While Yost wound up in the same place that I did, I don’t think he took the same journey. He offered some explanations to the move afterwards, but they weren’t particularly clear, and they certainly didn’t line up at all with what I just described.

- It’s not even clear that Dyson was going as part of a double steal, that there was any communication with Gore – who’s been in the majors about 15 minutes – beforehand. If Dyson had taken off for third without Gore going for second, that would have been asinine, as it would have forced the Royals to send Gore on a separate play – with, again, everyone knowing it was coming – and given the Tigers two chances to get an out on the bases.

- I’m still not entirely sure why Yost used Gore instead of Dyson to pinch-run for Infante in the first place, given that Infante was the tying run. Maybe Yost was forward-thinking enough to realize he wanted his most accomplished base-stealer to be at the front end of the double steal. Or maybe he simply didn’t want to put Dyson in for his second baseman because in his mind, whoever came into the game for Infante would have to be pulled from the game in the bottom of the inning for a new second baseman.

- While Dyson is an exceptional base-stealer, he is also an exceptionally aggressive one, and there should have been some attempt to remind him that 1) the Tigers probably know that you’re running – you know, Ian Kinsler straddling the second base bag might have been a clue – and 2) Joe Nathan is so easy to run on that you don’t need to force the issue: just make sure he’s going to home plate before you take off.

In the end, as he sometimes does, Dyson deluded himself into thinking that speed was a substitute for technique, preparation, and common sense. It wasn’t. He deserves – and has received and, to his credit, acknowledged – a tremendous amount of blame. But I can’t work myself up into blaming Yost for his decision. Maybe he made the right decision for the wrong reasons, but it was the right decision.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t have to be better next time. The Royals’ margin for error is razor thin, and there are only 18 games left.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Royals Today: 9/9/14.

From the annals of “be careful what you wish for”, the Royals did score five runs yesterday…

- Look, we can’t act like we’re surprised when this happens to Jeremy Guthrie. I like Guthrie and have thoroughly enjoyed his run of getting #4 starter results despite mop-up man peripherals, but we have to know it could end at any time. If the season ended today, Guthrie would lead the AL in hits for the second straight year. He didn’t get bombed yesterday, and he was let down by his defense, but he also gave up a striking number of line drives. This is who he is. If he’s your #5 starter, you have a good rotation. If he’s your #4 starter, you probably don’t have a playoff-caliber rotation, which means by definition that he probably shouldn’t be starting for anyone in the playoffs. Thanks to Duffy’s injury, that has become a distinct possibility.

At this point, I would happily accept a guarantee that Guthrie starts Game 4 of the ALDS for the Royals, just as I would happily accept a Bugatti with a dent in it. The bigger issue right now is getting to the ALDS, which means winning the division, which means beating the Tigers. Guthrie has given up 17 runs in 13.1 innings to Detroit this year.

This is a problem, because the way the rotation is set up, Guthrie would start the Friday night opener against Detroit at Kauffman Stadium in ten days. The Royals have an incredibly well-timed off-day right before that series, ensuring that the bullpen is rested if nothing else. This also presents an opportunity to reset the rotation, skipping Guthrie and moving up James Shields and Jason Vargas a day.

The problem with this plan – aside from the obvious problem that it would require Ned Yost to place a higher priority on “winning at any costs” than on “standing by his players no matter what” – is that this would also move Danny Duffy’s spot up a day. Replacing Guthrie with Danny Duffy is worth ruffling a few feathers; replacing him with Liam Hendricks isn’t.

If Duffy’s shoulder is sufficiently healed, this may provide an opportunity to drop him back into the rotation on September 19th, keep Shields and Vargas on schedule, and move Guthrie to the opener in Cleveland on the 22nd. It’s possible the Royals could use Duffy returning from an injury to frame this in a way that doesn’t look like a demotion for Guthrie. I would be very surprised if this happens. But hey, this whole season has been full of surprises.

- Speaking of standing by his players no matter what: Omar Infante is batting 2nd tonight. Our man Jeff Flanagan is openly questioning this decision; Infante is playing hurt, and he’s not playing well, and those two things are connected. The problem is that the alternatives are shaky enough to give Yost all the reason he needs to stick with Omar. Jayson Nix can’t hit, and I don’t see the Royals giving Johnny Giavotella a chance now after he’s failed all his other ones.

Christian Colon can’t get healthy fast enough. Of all the sentences I’ve written this year, that might be the one that would have shocked me the most in March.

- Yost got a little flak yesterday for having Alcides Escobar bunt with runners on first and second and none out in the third inning, even though it worked, as Nori Aoki singled both runners in to tie the game.

I didn’t have a huge problem with that particular bunt. Of all the bunting scenarios, the one with runners on first and second and none out is the one where it’s most justified, because you’re advancing two runners instead of one. It’s still not a worthwhile tradeoff overall; the run expectancy chart says that teams in 2014 score 1.41 runs on average with men on first and second, none out, and 1.27 runs on average with men on second and third, one out.

But those numbers are close enough that it can be justified in the right situation: a below-average hitter at the plate (Escobar qualifies), and a contact hitter up next who is unlikely to strike out with a runner on third and one out (Aoki has one of the lowest strikeout rates in baseball.) I probably wouldn’t have called for it myself, because the Tigers were up two runs already, so even if it worked to perfection (as it did) you still only tie the game. But on my Ned Yost Outrage Scale, this doesn’t register a blip. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Royals Today: 9/8/14.

I don’t have much time and today’s game starts early, but a promise is a promise, so here’s a couple hundred words:

- The Royals won again yesterday using the same formula they won with on Friday: hit singles, put the ball in play, run hard and take advantage of the opposing defense, and then pitch your ass off. They scored their first run on an infield single by Nori Aoki that pitcher Shane Greene threw wildly to first on, allowing Josh Willingham to score. They scored their second run when Alex Gordon reached base on an error by Carlos Beltran, stole second, and then scored on a single by Hosmer – with Hosmer sacrificing himself at second base, which may have been a wise trade-off given that Gordon stumbled around third and might have been out at the plate. They scored their third run when…oh, right, they didn’t.

The Royals beat the Yankees without scoring an earned run for the second time in the series. Dave Holtzman of Fox Sports reported that the Royals hadn’t won two games without scoring an earned run in a SEASON since 1992. That’s the kind of season the Royals are having. Put the ball in play. Run fast. Get lucky.

- The Royals’ pitching staff is covering up the fact that they can’t keep winning with an offense this bad. No, really, they can’t: they’ve scored 15 runs in their last six games, and have somehow won five of them.

Going back to the Indians series, barring a tenth-inning comeback in the makeup game, they’ve scored four runs or fewer in nine straight games. That’s the longest stretch without scoring five runs in a game since late May and early June of last season – a 14-game stretch (tied for the longest in team history) in which the Royals went 3-11. The Royals have had 14 stretches in their history of 10 games or more without scoring five runs, and have a losing record in all 10. It’s hard to sustain winning when you’re scoring two or three runs every night.

It’s been fun watching the Royals win games 2-1 and 2-0 and 1-0 over the past week; when you neither score nor allow a lot of runs, it guarantees a close game and tension until the final out. But really, guys: it’s okay to score some runs. The pitching-and-defense narrative is nice, but the win-the-AL-Central narrative is better.

- With Greg Holland still out, Yost was forced to move his relievers back an inning, using Wade Davis in the ninth and Kelvin Herrera in the eighth, which necessitated a new seventh-inning guy. Yost tried to make that guy Yordano Ventura, but wisely pulled Ventura after a leadoff walk, and turned to…Aaron Crow.

I maintain my position that Jason Frasor is the better option. He has the better ERA this year (2.85 to 3.71) and the vastly better FIP (3.46 to 5.28). Also, Frasor has the much smaller platoon split. For his career, Frasor has allowed LHB to hit .245 and slug .371, not much higher than the .230 and .362 marks he’s allowed right-handers. Crow has held RHB to a .232 average and .333 slugging – but lefties have hit .260 and slugged .445.

The last number of the last paragraph is what mattered yesterday, because Crow came in with the tying run at the plate, with the short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium, and the first three batters due up were Chase Headley (a switch-hitter), Ichiro Suzuki (left-handed), and Jacoby Ellsbury (left-handed). Calling on Crow, a right-hander with a big platoon split and issues with the long ball in that situation was, to put it kindly, a suboptimal decision by Ned Yost.

It worked, because after Crow fell behind Headley 3-1 and was in danger of putting the tying run on base, Headley swung at a borderline outside fastball and bailed Crow out, hitting into a 4-6-3 double play. And in fairness, Crow then froze Ichiro on a nifty pitch on the inside corner for strike three.

Maybe Crow figured something out during his brief trip to Double-A (in which he struck out one batter in three innings and also gave up a home run). But the fact that he got sent to Double-A in the first place makes me question why he’s now being used in key situations over Frasor. It’s worked so far. I don’t know how much longer it will keep working.

- Speaking of Ventura, he pitched six scoreless innings and afterwards Carlos Beltran said it was some of the best stuff he had seen in a while…but Ventura walked four batters and struck out two. Maybe it’s an anomaly; he had whiffed 44 batters in 44 innings in his last seven starts. But he’s a rookie, and it’s September, and we just saw what happened to Danny Duffy, and it makes me nervous. Anyway, it’s not like we’ve got any choice in the matter.

- Speaking of Duffy, we got more good news today as his MRI showed inflammation but no structural damage, leaving open the possibility that he’ll return this year. That’s obviously good news.

But if I could swap Duffy’s availability for the rest of the regular season for a guaranteed win in Detroit this afternoon, I’d probably make that trade. That’s how important a rivalry game is this late in the season.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Royals Today: 9/7/14.

So I will try – try – to write something, even if it’s just a paragraph or two, after each Royals game from now until the end of the season. The longer I go without writing, the more I feel I have to cover, and the more daunting a task it is, which makes me postpone writing, which continues the circle. So I’m going to try – try – something different here. Today’s column is long; they won’t all be that way.

Before we get to Saturday’s game, let’s talk about Friday’s game, because that really was the quintessential 2014 Royals game. The Royals’ offense consisted of three singles all day – no extra-base hits, no walks or HBP’s. Their offensive line for the game was .100/.100/.100. And they won.

How? The way they’ve won all season.

- Contact. They actually didn’t have a great game contact-wise; they struck out eight times in 30 plate appearances, below their seasonal average. But one of the balls they put in play, Alcides Escobar’s hot shot at third baseman Chase Headley, skipped past Headley for an error. (Honestly, it seemed to take a tough hop and I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been called a hit.)

The more balls you put in play, the more chances you have to reach base on error. Somewhat surprisingly, the Royals have not reached base on error more than average – they have 49 ROE’s this year, tied for 9th in the AL. For a team that strikes out less than everyone else, has a lot of speed, and – this is important – hits a ton of ground balls (which turn into errors much more often than fly balls), I would have expected more. But at least in this case, the ball in play turned into a baserunner even if it didn’t get scored as a hit.

- Speed. Escobar turned Headley’s misplay into a two-base error with his speed and aggressive baserunning, sliding into second base just ahead of the tag.

Escobar has quietly been an outstanding baserunner since joining the Royals. He has 110 steals in 127 attempts (87%) since joining Kansas City, including an 84-for-92 mark the last three years. The Royals, as a team, led the AL in both stolen bases (130) and stolen base percentage (83%), which is impressive. Escobar takes an extra base on hits (scoring from second on a single, from first on a double, etc.) 52% of the time, compared to the AL average of 41%.

Escobar’s speed allowed him to get into scoring position, and it allowed him to score from second base with a single case of…

- Timely hitting. Nori Aoki came up next and looped a ball into centerfield, bringing home Escobar for the game’s only run. It was the only at-bat the Royals had with a runner in scoring position in the entire game. They were 1-for-1.

The Royals got a lot of attention in the Indians series for their terrible hitting with runners in scoring position – they were 3-for-28 with RISP in those three games – but that stands in contradistinction to what they’ve done all year. For the season, the Royals have hit .259 with the bases empty, and .272 with runners in scoring position. They slug .375 with the bases empty, and .405 with runners in scoring position. They have as many homers (44) with a man on base as with the bases empty, even though they have 21% fewer plate appearances with men on base.

Some of that is the sacrifice fly effect – sac flies are outs that are not counted as at-bats for silly reasons, and you can’t get credit for a sacrifice fly if there isn’t a runner in scoring position. But only some of it. The Royals are 11th in the AL in SLG with the bases empty, but 7th in the AL in SLG with runners in scoring position.

This is – there is no other good word for it – just luck. It’s not something the Royals can count on in the long run. But sometimes “the long run” doesn’t show up until after the season ends. Even if their luck turns, they’ve already been the beneficiary of it for 85% of the year.

- Starting pitching. James Shields worked into the ninth inning, allowing just three hits and no walks himself, striking out six and throwing just 97 pitches. When Derek Jeter blooped a single to start the ninth, we learned that Greg Holland was unavailable, as Ned Yost called on Wade Davis from…

- The best front-line bullpen in baseball. Davis, who had never saved a game in his major league career, who was pitching with a man on base in a 1-0 game at Yankee Stadium, was so unnerved by the process that he struck out Brett Gardner and Carlos Beltran to end the game.

Baseball, as an industry, seems to be finally coming to the realization that a relief pitcher who dominates in the eighth inning will probably dominate in the ninth inning; the notion that there are some pitchers who are lights-out in middle relief but fall apart when asked to close is mercifully dying out. (I’m not saying such pitchers don’t exist. I am saying that I have yet to see definitive proof of one, particularly since the pitcher that was supposed to fit that bill to a T, Kyle Farnsworth, was given a chance to close by one of the savviest teams in baseball, the Rays, in 2011 – and responded with the lowest ERA of his career.)

The Royals will have a difficult decision to make at the end of this season. It makes no sense for a team with an eight-figure payroll to spend north of $15 million on two relievers, so either Holland or Davis should be on the trading block. Davis is cost-controlled – he has options for $7 million, $8 million, and $10 million the next three years – so unlike Holland, his salary is locked in no matter how well he pitches. For that reason, and because I’m worried that Holland has peaked, I’d personally prefer to keep Davis. Saturday’s game certainly diminishes any worries that he might not adjust well to pitching 15 minutes later every night.

- And then there’s Saturday’s game, which basically boils down to the future of Danny Duffy. Look, it could have been a lot worse. Given the epidemic of failed Tommy John surgeries this year – just last week Dan Hudson finally returned to a major league mound more than two years later after his first Tommy John surgery failed – my first thought was that something had happened to his elbow, in which case we were looking at him not getting back onto a mound until 2016. This was one of the rare cases where learning that it was his shoulder that was bothering him was actually a bit of a relief.

Even more of a relief was that the Royals are at least keeping open the possibility that Duffy might miss just one start. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but when he left the mound I would have thought the possibility that he’d pitch in any capacity again this season to be remote. We’re all just speculating until the MRI, obviously. But for now, we can ignore the long-term implications and focus on the short-term ones, which are momentous enough on their own.

In terms of the regular season, the impact of his injury is significant but not back-breaking. Counting yesterday, Duffy would have had just five more starts. Given his 2.42 ERA, he’s been worth about 0.15 Wins Above Replacement per start this season, which would come out to a 0.75 win difference between Duffy and a generic replacement-level pitcher (which seems like a good description of Liam Hendricks) over the remainder of the season. And that’s probably an overestimate, as Duffy’s performance this season, while very good, is nowhere near 2.42 ERA good. Fangraphs, which bases its WAR calculations on a pitcher’s peripherals instead of his ERA, estimates his value at around 0.1 WAR per start, which would come out to half a win.

One win could certainly wind up deciding the fate of the AL Central race, or the second wild card team. But it might not. Let’s not overstate the impact the injury will have. Think of it like this: had the Tigers scored two runs in the ninth to beat San Francisco yesterday, that would have had as much impact on the AL Central race as Duffy being unable to pitch the rest of the season.

Obviously, if the Royals make the playoffs, not having Duffy in their rotation is a big blow. On the other hand, the rumors were that the Royals were going to keep Jeremy Guthrie in their playoff rotation – despite him clearly being their #5 guy – and move Yordano Ventura to the pen, because apparently the Royals just don’t have enough right-handed relievers capable of throwing 97 or higher.

If Duffy is out, Ventura takes his spot in the rotation, and the big loss is not having a sixth-inning reliever who hits triple digits. That’s inconvenient, but not devastating. Anyway, if Duffy’s injury isn’t season-ending, we may see a situation where Duffy moves to the bullpen in the playoffs instead, giving the Royals a left-hander who throws 97 (as he did when throwing in relief earlier this year) to go with all the right-handers.

Speaking of left-handed relievers, the one piece of good news from yesterday’s game was the debut of Brandon Finnegan. The fact that Finnegan is in the majors at all is remarkable enough; even more so is that he’s here on merit. You may have heard that Finnegan is just the third player in Royals history to debut in the majors the same year he was drafted. What you may not have heard was that the last player to do so, Jeff Granger, only did so because the Royals agreed to the promotion when he signed his contract, back when such things were permissible (or at least overlooked).

After signing, Granger was assigned to Eugene in the short-season Northwest League. He pitched very well – 56 Ks in 36 innings – but still: he spent the entire minor league season in short-season ball, five levels below the majors. He was grudgingly allowed to pitch in one game in the majors, on September 16th, when the score was 11-0. He pitched one inning and allowed three runs. He would not pitch again that season. He wound up pitching just 32 innings in his major league career; his primary contribution to the Royals was as one of the three guys named Jeff (along with Joe Randa) the Royals would trade to the Pirates after the 1996 season for Jeff King and Jay Bell.

The only other player to reach the Show in his debut year was Bo Jackson. I’m not saying Bo’s promotion was undeserved – he went straight to Double-A and hit .277/.368/.473 – and he never went back to the minors again. But Bo’s promotion was, if I remember correctly, also stipulated in his contract. In both cases, the Royals were not in a pennant race. It may be fair to say that Finnegan has had a quicker impact on the Royals than any other draft pick in their history.

Or at least he might. He pitched in a mop-up situation in his debut, but damned if he didn’t pitch great. He faced six batters and retired them all, striking out two, including Derek Jeter on a 94 mph fastball after whiffing Jacoby Ellsbury on an 84 mph changeup. He made a nice fielding play on a squibber. He didn’t look intimidated in the least. He looked ready to pitch in key situations, and Yost hinted afterwards that he’ll get the opportunity.

I don’t know what Finnegan becomes. When he was drafted my friend Will Carroll cautioned that he was an enormous injury risk, and maybe he is. But the more we learn about pitchers, the more I’m uncertain we really understand anything about what makes pitchers injury-prone. The Royals drafting Finnegan seemed at the time to be almost a reaction to missing on Chris Sale, who also had great stuff (better than Finnegan’s, admittedly, and from a taller frame) but also had teams pass on him because of concerns he wouldn’t hold up as a starter. And like Sale, the Royals have fast-tracked Finnegan to the majors as a reliever, while leaving open the possibility that he’ll move to the rotation in the future. I love the way they’ve handled him, and the way they recognize that being in a pennant race means tossing out the usual rules about player development. He might already be the best left-handed reliever the Royals have. The only way they’re going to find out is to give him more and more opportunities.

One way to do that is to make next Thursday’s game – the one Duffy was supposed to start – into a bullpen game. Instead of relying on Liam Hendricks for five innings, the Royals should plan ahead of time to not let any pitcher go through the opposing lineup more than once. It’s September; you have expanded rosters, and even without Duffy the Royals have 15 active pitchers. Start Hendricks, let him go two innings, then whipsaw the Red Sox by bringing in Finnegan from the left side for two innings, and then play it by ear. If Frasor is rested, he can throw two innings, and now it’s the seventh inning and you can call upon the Bullpen Death Hydra.

There’s plenty of evidence that pitchers perform best when they only have to face opposing batters once, as revealed by the dominance of short relievers in the modern game, and as examined in this article. If Hendricks and Finnegan both know they’re going to go through the lineup once and don’t have to hold back, the Royals are in good shape to win that game, and they have enough pitchers on the roster that they can use them both every fifth day. But this requires that the Royals ignore the stupidity of the win rule, the one that requires a starting pitcher to throw five innings to qualify for the “win”. I put “win” in quotes because, of course, pitchers don’t win games: teams win games. I hope the Royals don’t let the pursuit of the former get in the way of the latter.