Saturday, September 20, 2014

Yosted, Part III.

I’ve written this column before.

But never with the stakes this high.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to hit all the low points, but I don’t have the passion I used to, and I’m tired of repeating myself.

- First off: yes, it looks like the umpires did not follow the rulebook correctly in allowing the use of replay to determine whether Salvador Perez tagged at third base or not. This is unfortunate. If it turns out that the showing of the replay on the video screen at Kauffman Stadium influenced their decision, that would be awful. If it turns out the Royals might have gotten away with one if Rusty Kuntz had just kept his trap shut, that would be horrifying.

But I can’t get that worked up about it, because my position on the use of instant replay has always been simple: get the call right. That’s it. Get it right. Major League Baseball is still fumbling its way through the procedural aspects of this, but they’re using replay to correct mistakes in a way that was unimaginable just a decade ago.

The Royals have already won one World Championship thanks to an umpiring mistake. If technology prevented that a second time, I’m okay with it. There were enough mistakes made today by the Royals for me to worry about a one that was debatably made by the umpires.

- Speaking of mistakes: obviously, Salvador Perez screwed up massively, turning a gimme run – giving the Royals the lead and putting another runner in scoring position – into an inning-ending double play.

When I criticize Yost here or on Twitter, I hear from people saying, “hey, why don’t you blame the players?” Well, because me blaming the players isn’t really going to do anything. The players are known quantities, and it’s not like I can hit a fastball better than Alcides Escobar or play first base better than Billy Butler. I can’t add anything to the discussion there. But I can add to the discussion of how to use those players, when to deploy them, what strategies to use – all the things that a manager does, basically. So that’s what I tend to talk about here.

But to state the obvious: yes, what Perez did was inexcusable. It was an incredibly stupid mental error, and it probably cost the Royals a two-game swing in the standings, likely the AL Central title, and possible a playoff spot entirely.

I’m not sure what else to say. Maybe he’s tired – you know, given that he’s started 26 straight games, one at DH and 25 behind the plate. Ned Yost thinks his catchers are indestructible until they’re not – hello, Jason Kendall – and he thinks they can play every day without a degradation of performance, until there is.

I know some people are blaming third base coach Mike Jirschele, but I don’t see it. Jirschele’s job is to tell a runner coming from second to third whether to turn the corner and run like hell, or to hold up – and it’s the runner’s job to seek his input. In this case. Perez saw the play in front of him, and as soon as he saw the ball get away he took off without thinking. I’m not sure what Jirschele could have done – he could have yelled at Perez to get back, but given that Eric Hosmer was advancing from second to third, that would have resulted in two runners on the same base. His best play was to just pretend nothing happened and hope they could get away with one. They didn’t.

- For the second straight year, the biggest at-bat of the season (final results pending) was given to a player who had been released by another team earlier in this season. ON PURPOSE.

You remember the Carlos Pena debacle last year, don’t you? Well, I present to you the Raul Ibanez decision.

It’s not quite as bad as the decision to pinch-hit with Pena – last year, there was one out with runners on second and third, meaning the Royals could tie the game without a hit, meaning contact was at a premium. And last year the Royals already had a decent hitter for the job at the plate in Jarrod Dyson before he was called back.

This year, Ibanez came to the plate with two outs and runners on second and third. Strikeout rate didn’t matter; batting average did. A hit would tie the game, and probably win it. But as with last year, an extra-base hit was no better than a walk, and a walk was of minimal value.

So naturally, in a situation in which batting average is essentially the only skill you’re looking for, Yost called upon Ibanez, who was hitting .168 this season. In a situation that called for a high batting average, Yost called upon the player with the lowest batting average in the major leagues among players with 275 plate appearances. So far this year, 273 players have batted 275 or more times. Ibanez ranked dead last in batting average. So naturally, in a situation in which a single would turn defeat into victory, Yost DELIBERATELY put Raul Ibanez in the game.

Afterwards, Yost’s explanation was that he wanted a “professional at-bat there.” Well, thank goodness. If the Royals had used an amateur player there, they would have violated labor laws and then we’d be in an even bigger mess. Also, because Ibanez had “hit a home run off Nathan” before. Which is true. Except that:

1) As we have already established, a home run in this situation was no better than a single, and
2) That home run was the only hit Ibanez had off Nathan in 11 at-bats.

If only the Royals had someone else on their bench with a history of a high batting average against Nathan, along with being someone commonly referred to as “a professional hitter”. Someone like Billy Butler, who is 6-for-14 in his career off Nathan.

Yeah. Ned Yost, the master of matchups, who puts more stock into a batter’s prior performance vs. a pitcher than anyone should, passed on the guy who had gone 6-for-14 against Nathan for the guy who had gone 1-for-11. He passed on the 28-year-old for the 42-year-old. He passed on the guy who – in the worst season of his career – is hitting .264, for the guy hitting .168.

I don’t put any stock into matchups at all, because study after study shows that there’s minimal if any correlation between what a batter has done against a pitcher in the past and what he’ll do in the future. Maybe in a sample size of 60 at-bats or more – like what Butler has done against Justin Verlander – I’ll pay attention. But in 10 or 15 at-bats? That’s like saying that the quarter in my pocket is weighted because it came up heads three times in a row.

But if you DO believe in such things, then you can’t then make a decision that flies in the face of what you believe in at the most crucial juncture of the entire season. Unless you just flat-out have a vendetta against Butler.

Look, Butler has been terrible of late – I had no qualms with starting Josh Willingham over him today, as bad as Willingham was. But if you’re not going to play Butler because he’s cold, how do you play Ibanez, who hasn’t been ANYTHING, because he has two plate appearances in the last 18 days? Ibanez’ last hit was on August 27th. His last RBI was on August 1st. You know, the homer he hit to beat Oakland, 1-0. That was an awesome and pivotal moment, but it was seven weeks ago, and he’s done nothing since.

So naturally, he gets the most important at-bat of the season. And here’s the thing: Ibanez was in the on-deck circle when Aoki batted with men on first and second and one out. Had Aoki not moved up the runners, maybe Ibanez makes more sense, because in that case an extra-base hit is more important than a single, and a walk moves two runners up 90 feet as well. It still wasn’t the right move, but at least you could see the thought process.

But Yost didn’t adjust to what happened when Aoki batted and two runners moved up a base, which changed the calculus from “a single is nice, but a gapper is nicer” to “just hit a single and let’s all celebrate.” He had made his mind up to pinch-hit with Ibanez, so Ibanez batted, and never mind what happened between Point A and Point B.

- And letting Ibanez bat there might not have been the worst decision Yost made, because making ridiculous decisions that also fly in the face of his own philosophy was a theme of the day.

In the first inning, Escobar led off with a double, and Nori Aoki bunted him to third.

First off, almost all sacrifice bunts – unless a pitcher is batting – are stupid. But none is more stupid than bunting with the runner on second base. You’re already in scoring position. The idea is to get a runner on third base with one out, so you can drive home a run without a base hit. The problem with that – aside from the fact that the percentages have never added up – is that it is now harder to drive in a runner from third base with one out than at any other time in the history of baseball, because strikeout rates have jumped like 25% in the last 15 years.

Now, the Royals have easily the lowest strikeout rate in baseball, so maybe it makes sense for them…except the batter coming up next was Josh Willingham, who has one of the highest strikeout rates on the team. And the pitcher on the mound is Max Scherzer, WHO HAS STRUCK OUT MORE BATTERS THAN ANYONE ELSE IN BASEBALL OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS.

So that’s one reason why the bunt was stupid. But the other was much more fundamental – THE BATTER WAS NORI AOKI. You know, the same guy who had gone 13-for-16 in his last four games, who had just sent the all-time Royals record for most hits in a three-game series. A guy who had made only three outs total in his last four games was now making one ON PURPOSE to move a runner that was already in scoring position into a slightly better scoring position.

Willingham struck out. Gordon struck out. The Royals did not score. They lost by one run.

Afterwards we learned that Aoki bunted on his own his first time up. Sorry, but that’s no excuse. It’s the manager’s job to make sure when his players should NOT be bunting, and man oh man was that a situation in which the batter should not be bunting.

And anyway, Yost did put the bunt on with Aoki his second time up, proving he had learned nothing from how the first inning ended.

This time there were runners on first and second, making the bunt more sensible. But again – Willingham vs. Scherzer was not a situation that was likely to produce a single. You know how I know this? Because in the ninth inning, with runners on second and third, YOST PINCH-HIT FOR WILLINGHAM WITH RAUL IBANEZ.

But in the third inning, Yost was so eager to have Willingham bat with runners on second and third that he deliberately made the hottest hitter in baseball make an out to make it happen. And here’s the thing – the Royals had Dyson on second and Escobar on first, two of the best basestealers in the league. Dyson ranks fifth in the AL in steals, Escobar fifth. Scherzer is tough to run on, but the defense was anticipating the bunt so clearly that the infield was not in prime position to defense the bunt – third baseman Nick Castellanos would have had trouble getting back to third base in time to apply a tag on Dyson.

That would have given the Royals runners with second and third with none out – AND WITH AOKI AT THE PLATE. Aoki, who in addition to being the hottest hitter in baseball, is one of the toughest guys in the game to strike out. You know, the kind of guy you would want at the plate with a man on third and less than two out. Instead of, you know, Willingham.

Aoki sacrificed. Willingham fouled out. Gordon struck out. The Royals, for the second time in three innings, had a runner in scoring position, nobody out, and Nori Aoki at the plate, and didn’t score. They lost by one run. They probably lost the division in the process. And now they have to fight for their lives to win a berth in the Wild Card Game.

You can blame the players for not playing better, and I do. But even with the players playing exactly the way they played, the Royals could have won this game. It’s the manager’s job to get the most out of his players. Today, Ned Yost failed spectacularly at it. It wasn’t the first time.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Slaughterhouse 10-1.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): Abandon ship!
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): We’re doomed!

Well, that sucked.

The tone was set in the top of the first inning, when Alex Gordon, who plays defense in left field better than anyone on the Royals does anything, misplayed a Miguel Cabrera line drive terribly, having it somehow go around his glove. This occurred with one out and Ian Kinsler foolishing breaking from second base; if Gordon simply catches the ball, it’s an easy double play and Vargas is out of the inning. Instead it was a run in and a man on second, who would also score, as would another in the inning.

Gordon was bad. Jason Vargas was bad. Everyone was bad, except Nori Aoki of course, who had two more hits, but was pulled from the game anyway because Ned Yost decided giving him some rest was more important than letting him challenge George Brett’s major league record of six straight 3-hit games. (Hey, it would be cool.)

Both Terrence Gore and Lane Adams batted, is what I’m saying. Tim Collins threw an inning, is what I’m saying, and the game was so over at that point that the Tigers let him record three outs in five pitches – it might be the quickest inning Collins has ever pitched.

Meanwhile, the Mariners are beating the Astros, and the A’s are beating the Phillies, meaning this will probably be a worst-case scenario kind of game. The only saving grace – if it is one – is that they won’t have long to stew on it; tomorrow’s game starts in less than 14 hours.

The good news is that James Shields starts tomorrow. The bad news – well, aside from the fact that he faces Max Scherzer – is that there really is no margin for error. Shields has been brilliant of late, and he could be forgiven a hiccup. But the Royals can’t recover from one; if they lose tomorrow, the division is probably out of their reach, and a wild card spot becomes even more tenuous.

It’s another Big Game. Unfortunately, it will come in front of another Big Crowd, which is a problem only in that since 2004, the Royals are now 25-75 when playing at home in front of a crowd of 30,000 or more. I have no explanation for this. I despise psychological mumbo-jumbo like “they can’t handle the pressure” or “they don’t want it enough” from fans who have literally never talked to the players. I can only analyze the facts, and I don’t have any facts that would explain their consistently terrible play in front of packed houses at Kauffman Stadium. And without an explanation, I’m still tempted to call it a massive, stone-cold fluke.

But it would sure be nice if the Royals put an end to that flukiness tomorrow afternoon, or they may not get a chance to do so in October. They’ve got the right guy on the mound. But then the mound hasn’t generally been the source of the Royals’ problems this year.

Royals Today: 9/19/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 71.2% (30.7% Division, 40.5% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 64.8% (14.4% Division, 50.4% Wild Card)

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 84.9% (46.5% Division, 38.5% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 77.9% (24.2% Division, 53.7% Wild Card)

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 82.2% (45.9% Division, 36.3% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 73.7% (24.9% Division, 48.8% Wild Card)

We’ve entered uncharted territory, friends. As the penultimate weekend of the regular season begins, the Royals are holding onto a playoff spot. Last year at this time, the Royals were 3 games out of the second wild card spot and had just the eighth-best record in the AL…and that was considered a roaring success, the Royals’ best playoff run in a generation, to actually have a mathematical shot at contention with ten games to go.

And because we hadn’t experienced anything better, we responded like it was the real thing – witness the reaction to Justin Maxwell’s walk-off grand slam that Sunday, that brought the Royals to within, uh, 3.5 games with…sheesh…seven games to go? Last year was naugahyde; this year is genuine leather. Tonight, the Royals begin their final home series of the year, against the Detroit Tigers, and saying that this is the biggest series for the team in 29 years isn’t just not an exaggeration, it would actually be ridiculous to assert otherwise. Name one that comes close. You can’t. Because there isn’t one.

The three sets of odds listed above are as of Wednesday morning, yesterday morning, and this morning, and it gives you a sense of just how chaotic a pennant race can be that they’ve moved around this much. Wednesday could literally not have gone better for the Royals; not only did they beat Chris Sale soundly – it was Sale’s worst start of the season – they did so on a day the Tigers, Mariners, and A’s all lost. The Royals’ odds of not making the playoffs dropped by about 40%.

The Royals’ playoff odds dropped a fair amount on Thursday even though the Royals didn’t play, and even though the A’s continue what would arguably be the worst sustained collapse in baseball history, getting swept by the Rangers – THE RANGERS – at home. The Royals’ playoff odds dropped because Seattle won – although it took the Mariners until the ninth inning to score against an Angels team that was playing a spring training contingent the day after they clinched the AL West. The numbers say that the A’s are still favored to make the playoffs – they still have four more games against Texas – and so the Mariners are the team that the Royals need to keep in their rear-view mirror above all.

So little time left, and there’s still so little that we know. The Royals could control the AL Central race if they sweep Detroit. They could be practically eliminated from the division crown if they get swept, and they could find their playoff hopes on life support entirely if the A’s rebound against the Phillies and Seattle takes care of business in Houston. And that’s just what could happen between now and Sunday. With so few games left, variance swamps everything, and predicting or analyzing the matchups is a fool’s errand. Now’s not the time to predict the future. Now’s simply the time to savor it.

Sam Mellinger wrote a nice article about how the 1985 Royals were in very much the same situation that the Royals are in now, and saved their season with a huge series win against the Angels in the final week of the season. Sam focuses on certain moments, like Jim Sundberg’s game-winning home run, and good or bad, there will be moments this weekend that we will all remember for a long time to come. But the Royals didn’t win that series, and win the AL West, because of Jim Sundberg. They won because of George Howard Brett.

On Monday, the opener of that huge Angels series, with the Royals down a game in the standings, Brett homered in the fourth to tie the game, 1-1. After Sundberg’s homer gave them the lead in the seventh, Brett drove in an insurance run in the eighth on a sacrifice fly.

On Tuesday, Brett singled to cap a two-run rally in the eighth with two outs, bringing the tying run to the plate, but the Royals wouldn’t score again and lost, 4-2.

On Wednesday, Brett batted in the first inning with two aboard and went deep, making the score 3-0 Kansas City. They won, 4-0.

On Thursday, Brett walked in the first inning and scored on Frank White’s two-run homer. In the fifth, with the Royals leading 3-0, Brett homered again to make it 4-0. They would win, 4-1, giving the Royals sole possession of first place for the first time in over two weeks.

On Friday, Oakland came to town. In the fourth inning, with the Royals ahead 2-0, Brett singled with the bases loaded to drive in a run. The A’s would cut the lead to 3-2, but in the bottom of the seventh, Brett led off with a home run. The Royals won, 4-2, to clinch a tie for the AL West.

On Saturday, the Royals fell behind, 4-0, in the middle of the sixth inning. With one out, Willie Wilson singled, and Brett homered again, cutting the lead in half. In the seventh, he batted with a man aboard and two outs, and walked, coming around to score the tying run when White and Steve Balboni singled. The Royals would win on a walk-off single from Wilson in the tenth that clinched the division.

In six must-win games, Brett homered five times. The Royals won five times. They beat their biggest division rival three out of four, a two-game swing in the standings. They won the division by a single game.

There is no George Brett on this roster. But there are players capable of heroics, and there are even players capable of sustained heroics. Alex Gordon has done it already this season; he could do it again. If Salvador Perez can reverse his season-long slide and stop swinging at pitches on the other side of State Line Road, he could too. Someone unexpected could alter the narrative of their season, if not their career, with a huge final kick. Billy Butler. Eric Hosmer. Mike Moustakas could pop a couple of well-timed home runs and etch his name into franchise lore for something other than being just a top draft pick and top prospect. Jarrod Dyson might tag up from first base and score. On a pop-up.

The point is, there is no shortage of potential heroes. But potential is a dirty word in a pennant race. Someone needs to step up. And there is no better time than right now, in this series, in front of these fans, against this opponent.

- Not much original to say about the last two games. Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar provided moments of their own, shocking everyone by taking Sale deep. (Escobar homering is always shocking; Cain’s home run was the first one Sale had ever allowed on an 0-2 count.) Yordano Ventura once again relieved my concerns about his arm, his innings total, and his build. He was at his best on Wednesday, with a fastball that averaged 98 mph, about as hard as he’s thrown all season long. Danny Duffy’s injury makes this a moot point, but it’s almost unfathomable that the Royals would take Ventura out of a playoff rotation.

- Tuesday’s game was a huge disappointment, as the Royals let the White Sox off the hook for starting someone named Chris Bassitt (career innings above A-bal before Tuesday night: 48.) Bassitt allowed six hits and four walks in 3.2 innings, but only three runs. The White Sox never should have been in position to come back at all.

They did, though, and did so off Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis in the seventh, ending both relievers’ 30+ scoreless innings streaks in the process. Ned Yost was true to his word, bringing in Herrera with two outs in the sixth, and going to Davis in the seventh when Herrera got into some trouble.

Sometimes you just get beat. Sometimes, you give up a run, even if you’re Wade Davis and you have an ERA under one. Davis would pitch the eighth on Wednesday and give up another run, because he is in fact Wade Davis and not Kal-El, son of Jor-El. There might be a correlation between Herrera and Davis not being at their best and being asked to pitch in a different situation than they normally do. Then again, there might not, and even if there is, the situation mandated that the Royals go to them, because even Herrera or Davis at 90% of their best is better than the Royals’ other options (or 90% of the other relievers in baseball.)

Sometimes the right button is pushed and leads to the wrong outcome. The Royals lost on Tuesday because two players who had come through every time the bell was rung for three months straight both had an off night. Sometimes it’s not the manager’s fault. Yes, even when that manager is Ned Yost. As long as Yost continues to manage these last 10 games – and hopefully more games beyond them – with an appropriate sense of urgency, I’ll take my chances with the outcomes that occur when the Royals have their best players on the field.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

That's What Speed Deux.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 82.3% (30.2% Division, 52.1% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 78.9% (15.2% Division, 63.7% Wild Card)

“Once Roberts got to Boston, he mostly sat. And sat. The manager kept an eye on him but didn’t call his name very often. It was as if Roberts had changed from a ballplayer into some kind of glass-front box with the words break in case of need for stolen base stenciled on the front. But Epstein’s orthodoxy, reinforced by special adviser, Bill James, the creator of the whole analytical business that had debunked stolen bases in the first place, held that if you built the right kind of team, Roberts’s skill set would be largely extraneous. Except – and this was the key part of it, the flexible part of it that most people didn’t get – except when it was necessary.

And so here Roberts was, glass broken, standing on first base with Bill Mueller at the plate, the only potential run of the year that mattered anymore. It was a desperate moment, but nonetheless a moment that had been planned for. That was the difference between this time around and 1949, 1978, 2003, and all the other disappointments of the last century. God was in the details, and so were playoff victories. And the Red Sox were finally looking after the details.

Rivera threw over to first. Once. Twice. Roberts got back to the bag. Every problem is a lock looking for a key. The Red Sox had spent decades half-asleep, oblivious to the locks, never mind looking for the keys.

Rivera returned his focus to the man at the plate. Roberts took his lead – not an inch shorter than before, maybe half an inch longer now. Rivera got set in the stretch, looked once more at Roberts, then committed to home plate with a barely perceptible transfer of weight to his right foot, his left foot now rising off the mound.

But Roberts was already gone, digging toward second, erasing the past with every step.”

That excerpt, written by Steven Goldman from the Prologue to Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning, is still one of my favorite short analytical pieces ever. It once again seemed relevant last night.

Man, did the Royals need a win like that. A day after we saw Ned Yost at his worst, we saw him at his best.

Maybe one day over the winter, long after the season’s been put to bed and Yost can reflect upon the world championship that he just won, he’ll answer the question of why he is so aggressive to use pinch-runners yet so reluctant to use pinch-hitters. That mystery will not be revealed in the moment. Whatever the reason, we saw the positive impact that a pinch-runner can make a week after we saw the downside in Detroit.

Even if the season ends without a playoff spot, the That’s What Speed Deux game will be remembered fondly for a long time. If the Royals do go to the playoffs, it may become legendary. Not up there with the Dave Roberts Game, easily the most important steal in baseball history, but certainly a part of permanent Royals lore.

It’s not just that we’re at a point in the season, and so many teams are jumbled up in the zone that separates playoff for non-playoff teams, that a single loss turned into a win has, I dunno, at least a 10% chance of being the difference between making the postseason and sitting it out. It’s that another loss last night, with James Shields going up against a pitcher with a 5.05 ERA, a day after the Royals finished a losing home series against the Red Sox on the most second-guessed managerial decision of the year, would have been psychologically devastating. Maybe for the players; certainly for the fans.

And the Royals were two outs away from exactly that. They couldn’t do anything with John Danks, who allowed two hits to Nori Aoki – one an infield single – in six innings. Shields had a quintessential Shields start, not walking anyone and getting his share of K’s, but getting dinged by enough singles to surrender three runs early in the game. In quintessential Shields fashion, he powered through seven innings anyway, giving up back-to-back singles in the sixth and seventh but getting through them unscathed.

And then Kelvin Herrera, who we were told the day before owned the seventh inning, pitched a scoreless eighth, and Wade Davis pitched a scoreless ninth. The Royals threatened in the sixth but were turned away when Alex Gordon hit into a double play with two men aboard; they scored a run on an Omar Infante single in the seventh but were turned away when Alcides Escobar hit into a double play with two men aboard. They scored another run in the eighth when Gordon hit an RBI single, but the inning ended when Billy Butler hit into a double play with two men aboard.

Okay, there were two out when Butler batted, but it was such a perfect double play ball that we’ll count it anyway.

Anyway, the Royals batted in the ninth down a run, against Jake Petricka, a rookie the White Sox had installed as their closer, who was outpitching the closer they had traded away last season, Addison Reed. Infante started the inning by grounding out. The Royals’ odds of winning at that point were 11%.

And then Mike Moustakas batted and laced a ball down the left field line. After trying to hit into the shift all season long with predictable results, Moustakas finally seems to have made an adjustment. I believe the stat I saw was that in his first 350 at-bats of the year, Moustakas had just nine hits to the opposite field. In his last 69 at-bats, counting this one, Moustakas has eight.

Ned Yost cracked open the glass. Jarrod Dyson came out to run for Moustakas. But then Escobar grounded out to short while Dyson held. The Royals’ odds of winning were 14%.

And you know the rest. Dyson took off for third base with two outs, a decision which is usually ridiculous, but in this case made sense, because the batter was Nori Aoki. Aoki is the master of the infield single – he already had two in this game – making him one of the few batters where being on third base with two outs makes you much more likely to score than being on second base with two outs.

The only problem was that Petricka has sort of been the anti-Joe Nathan. Remember how Nathan had allowed 44 steals in 46 attempts over the last nine years before he picked off Dyson? Prior to Dyson’s steal attempt, four batters had attempted to steal off Petricka this year. All four were thrown out stealing. He had also picked off a batter. I’m glad I didn’t know this at the time.

But Petricka’s pitch bounced in front of the plate and tipped off Tyler Flowers’ glove, and Dyson never hesitated, stealing third and scoring the tying run in one fell swoop. The wild pitch was fortuitous for the Royals in more ways than one: while Aoki then followed with a groundball inside the third base bag for a double, had Dyson simply stolen third base, the third baseman would have been playing closer to the bag, and Aoki’s double might have turned into the game’s final out.

And then Yost cracked open the glass again. Terrence Gore came out to run for Aoki. He, too, lit out for third with two outs. Lorenzo Cain hit a bouncer over the mound. Gore never stopped running, and scored standing up, without even a throw.

You might see a runner score from second on a wild pitch, or on an infield single, once or twice a season. I’m fairly confident I have never seen that happen twice in the same inning, let alone to score the tying and winning runs in the ninth inning in the middle of September in a pennant race.

And just as Yost deserved so much criticism for what happened on Sunday, he deserves so much credit for what happened on Monday. Dyson and Gore might be the two fastest players in the American League right now. They are capital-W Weapons, and they had an enormous impact on a game the Royals simply had to win.

Yost deserves credit for using them, and Dayton Moore deserves credit for giving him those weapons to begin with. Specifically Gore, of whom I started hoping, once it became clear in early August that the Royals might be in a pennant race after all, would get called up once rosters expanded. It was hardly a gimme; Gore had to be added to the 40-man roster, and there is the little matter of Gore not having any hitting ability whatsoever. I’m not trying to be cruel, but let’s be honest: he hit .218/.284/.258 in A-ball this year. He makes Dyson look like Tony Gwynn at the plate. But damn if he can’t fly. The Royals promoted him to Triple-A on August 7th to see if he could handle the faster pace of the game there, and when he could, he had his ticket to Kansas City punched.

It seems so obvious, to add a pinch-runner to your team in September on the off-chance that he might help you win a game. A month of service time in the majors will earn him about $80,000. Teams pay $5-6 million a win on the free agent market, and I would argue that for a team in a pennant race in September, where the odds that a single win might tip them into the playoffs, the value of one extra win goes up, to $8 million if not more. Which means that if having Gore on their roster increased the Royals’ odds of winning one game by one percent, it was worth the cost.

And yet teams so often don’t simply call up the fastest guy in their organization. As J.J. Cooper of Baseball America pointed out yesterday, two years ago the Cincinnati Reds didn’t bother to add Billy Hamilton to their roster in September, even after Hamilton set the all-time professional record with 155 stolen bases that year in the minors. Maybe the Reds didn’t need him; they went into September leading the division by 9.5 games. But maybe they could have used him in the playoffs; after winning the first two games of the NLDS, they lost Game 3 in extra innings, 2-1, and then lost Games 4 and 5 to get eliminated.

The Royals decided not to take any chances. They didn’t only call up Gore, they also called up Lane Adams, who isn’t nearly as fast but is certainly fast enough to be used as an auxiliary pinch-runner. Which is exactly what he did in the seventh inning, after Raul Ibanez walked to put the tying run on first base. By having two pinch-runners in reserve, Yost was able to use one of them in a non-crucial situation while using his true game-changer for an emergency.

And here’s where David Glass deserves some credit to, because he authorized the Royals’ front office to bring up every minor leaguer they wanted to. Do you know how many players are on the Royals’ active roster right now? 36. They have 20 hitters, including a third catcher on a team where even the second catcher never plays (Francisco Pena), two backup infielders (Johnny Giavotella and Jayson Nix) even with Christian Colon out, and two different players whose only job is to run the bases.

Dyson might not have pinch-ran for Moustakas if the Royals didn't have anyone left on the bench who could play third base, with Colon injured, and Nix having been pulled for Moustakas. But Giavotella was there. Gio hasn't played in a single game since he was called up, but if his mere presence on the bench made it easier for Yost to gamble with Dyson's speed, then his callup has paid for itself.

That’s 11 extra players on the roster, which adds roughly $900,000 to the payroll. It’s not a huge expense, but it is an expense, and it’s the sort of expense that the Glass family has been accused of skimping on in the past. Not this time. And it’s worked out.

Gore has appeared in four games without a plate appearance, which already ranks 15th all time among position players. Adams has three games without a PA, which is tied for 20th. One or the other may eventually get an at-bat in a game or situation that doesn’t matter much, but If this holds, the 2014 Royals would be the first team in history with two position players that appeared in 3+ games without batting even once. Having an exclusive pinch-runner on your roster is rare; having two is historic.

As we saw last night, it’s also really, really smart. Maybe Yost didn’t get the memo until after Daniel Nava’s home run cleared the fence, but the Royals’ front office got it early on: September is different, and when you’re in a pennant race, you leave no stone unturned in your quest for wins. They kicked over a stone last night, two track stars popped out, and the entire complexion of the race changed. Well done, guys. Well done.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Royals Today: 9/15/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 68.0% (30.9% Division, 37.2% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 64.9% (16.7% Division, 48.2% Wild Card)

If you’re wondering why I’ve decided to close down this blog at the end of the year, yesterday’s game was as good an explanation as any. I feel like I’m trapped in the Royals’ version of Groundhog Day, condemned to write the same columns over and over, first pointing out that Decision X is a bad idea, and then inevitably writing a post-mortem explanation of why Decision X was a bad idea after reality has proven that it was, in fact, a bad idea.

Letting Gil Meche throw 117 pitches with a dead arm. Trading for Mike Jacobs. Signing Jason Kendall. Signing Yuniesky Betancourt. Sticking with Luke Hochevar in the rotation. Etc. Etc.

I’m not saying I always get it right – James Shields says hi – and I would argue that the Royals under Dayton Moore have improved in this regard considerably over the years. But a single tactical decision may have hurt the Royals more than any of the ones I mentioned above, even those that affected the Royals for years, because it came in a pennant race, and one game may well cost the Royals a playoff spot.


It’s true, Ned Yost trusted Crow with a one-run lead in the ninth inning on September 2nd and it worked out, and again used him to pitch the seventh inning in a 2-0 game at Yankee Stadium and it worked out. Which simply proves that – particularly in today’s run environment – even mediocre pitchers will throw a scoreless inning the majority of the time. A pitcher with a 4.50 ERA (ignoring unearned runs for a moment) allows a run every other inning, so unless he literally never allows a crooked number, he’s going to throw a scoreless inning more than 50% of the time. It would take a pitcher with a 6+ ERA before the odds that he pitches a scoreless inning would drop under 50%.

That’s if a pitcher is starting an inning fresh. When a pitcher comes in with men on second and third and one out, those odds drop considerably, and you need your best arms then. As we saw yesterday.

I’m not going to break down the decision in too much detail, both because I have no time and because Yost’s decision to let Daniel Nava bat against Crow with the bases loaded, two outs, and the Royals clinging to a one-run lead in the sixth inning has been the talk of baseball over the last 24 hours. Andy McCullough does a brilliant job of being about as critical in his game recap as a beat writer can be. Joe Posnanski weighed in. Jonah Keri weighed in. The Effectively Wild podcast from Baseball Prospectus weighed in. I don’t need to pile on.

But I do want to point out that there are essentially two mistakes that Yost made. The first one is perhaps the worse one from the standpoint of how much it hurts the team, but it’s also the more forgivable one, because it’s the mistake that the majority of managers in baseball would make.

That’s the decision to not go to one of his elite pitchers in that situation because “Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning”. We can laugh about this if we want; yesterday was just the 9th time in 64 outings for Crow this year that he pitched in the sixth inning at all, and the third time since the All-Star Break. We can get mad if we want; analysts have been arguing for 30 years – basically since the 1970s model of using your best reliever as a “stopper” gave way to the 1980s model of using your best reliever as a “closer” – that saving your best reliever for a late-inning situation is the height of foolishness when the game is on the line a little earlier.

But the reality is that Yost’s decision to wait one more out for Herrera is not at all out of line with Generally Accepted Managerial Principles (GAMP). Yost is a bit of a lightning rod for criticism, in that when he makes a bad tactical decision, the baseball media pounces on him in a way they don’t when another manager makes the exact same move. Mike Petriello discusses this phenomenon here, and months ago Jonah Keri did the same thing. But Yost is not alone. Almost all managers prefer to give their relievers roles, and to not diverge from those roles even when it would help the team.

And in the long run, I’m no longer 100% convinced that’s a bad idea, simply because we continue to see relievers scale heights of dominance that were unthinkable even 10 or 15 years ago. And the Royals, as I’ve documented several times, are as dominant as anyone in this regard. We must at least consider the possibility that the reason why Herrera and Wade Davis and Greg Holland have been historically effective this year is precisely because they know their roles, and they know they will only have to pitch one inning at a time. I’m not saying that’s a fact; I’m saying that when enough teams manage their bullpens the same way, and when bullpens continue to get better and better, you have to at least wonder if there’s a correlation.

That doesn’t excuse Yost for what happened yesterday, though, because you can’t worry about the long run in mid-September. Shields likes to say that September is the postseason – well then, dammit, manage like this is the postseason.

Before today’s game Yost appeared chastened in this regard, saying that – from now on – he will consider using Herrera and Davis for more than three outs. It’s nice to see him closing the barn doors after the horses have disappeared over the horizon, but he shouldn’t have needed the negative reinforcement that he got yesterday to figure this out. Good managers aren’t reactive; they’re proactive.

But anyway, if that were the only issue with having Crow pitch there, I wouldn’t be as upset as I am. Because the second mistake that Yost made was that, even if you’re not going to Herrera, Davis, or Holland there, going to Crow was an indefensible decision.

Once again:

Jason Frasor, 2014: 2.84 ERA, 3.32 FIP
Aaron Crow, 2014: 4.13 ERA, 5.50 FIP

Jason Frasor, 2013: 2.57 ERA, 3.37 FIP
Aaron Crow, 2013: 3.38 ERA, 4.34 FIP

Please explain to me in what sane world would you pick the second pitcher over the first? Why, because Aaron Crow was a useful reliever two years ago? Two years is a lifetime for a reliever. Crow’s strikeout rate has dropped by almost half since 2012, from 25.0% to 13.7%. His fastball has lost three mph, and continues to trend downwards. It’s not possible that Yost might not have noticed that Crow isn’t the pitcher he used to be.

Or maybe it is. Why otherwise would Yost say that he went to Crow in part because he wanted a strikeout in that situation? Crow’s strikeout rate ranks 300th among the 312 pitchers in the majors this year with 50+ innings. I want to say to Yost what old schoolers want to say to us analysts, which is “get your head out of a scouting report and watch a baseball game some time.” I don’t know how someone could have watched the Royals all season long, without even looking at the stat sheet, and not realize that Aaron Crow isn’t missing any bats. Or that he is now tied for the AL lead in home runs (10) given up by a reliever.

Crow, to his credit, did get a strikeout when he needed one; after walking Yoenis Cespedes to load the bases, he struck out Allen Craig for the second out. This does get to the one thing Crow does okay, which is get right-handed hitters out. He has always had a large platoon split; his career numbers are .229/.310/.328 for RHB, .262/.337/.457 for LHB, not at all surprising for someone who relies on his slider as much as Crow does.

The only problem: Daniel Nava is a switch-hitter. And he crushes right-handed pitching. Really, he should just give up switch-hitting and bat exclusively from the left side. His career line against LHP is .208/.285/.299; vs. RHP it’s .291/.384/.428. That’s an astounding difference.

Nava batted left-handed against Crow. In the key situation of a key game, Ned Yost let a switch-hitting batter who is helpless against left-handed pitching face a right-hander who is helpless against left-handed hitting.

Frasor, in addition to his other advantages over Crow, has a comparatively small platoon split: .230/.303/.363 vs. RHP, .244/.338/.370 vs. LHP in his career. Yost could have gone to Frasor for just one batter, since he was planning to turn the game over to Herrera, Davis, and Holland anyway.

He could have gone to Brandon Finnegan, a left-hander who had retired 11 of the 12 batters he had faced in the majors. Finnegan had pitched an inning the night before, but he was only needed to get one out.

It’s not hard to come the conclusion that Yost was spooked by what happened two months ago in Boston, what Yost has admitted was the one decision he regretted this season, bringing in Scott Downs to pitch – with two outs in the sixth inning – to Jackie Bradley Jr., only to be caught off-guard when the Red Sox pinch-hit with Jonny Gomes, who hit a two-run homer in a game the Royals lost, 5-4.

Gomes is no longer in Boston, but Mike Napoli is, and was on the bench, and presumably would have pinch-hit. But Yost may have learned the lesson too well. The problem wasn’t bringing in a left-hander; it was bringing in Scott Downs. The problem wasn’t taking out a right-handed pitcher; it was taking out James Shields. And the problem wasn’t going for the platoon advantage; it was going for the platoon advantage with Jackie Bradley Jr.

Going with Downs over Shields because you’re worried about Jackie Bradley Jr. is absurd. Going with Finnegan over Crow because you’re worried about Daniel Nava isn’t. You’re bringing in a better pitcher, taking out a worse pitcher, and facing a player who is enormously dangerous against right-handed pitching.

Maybe Finnegan isn’t ready for the big time yet. Maybe he wasn’t ready to pitch in back-to-back games yet. But Jason Frasor not only was ready to pitch, he did pitch, when the game was already out of reach in the eighth inning. He pitched a scoreless inning. And when Nava batted, Frasor got him to ground out.

Meanwhile, there are just 14 games left in the season. The AL Central is slipping away, and if the Mariners get hot, the wild card might slip away too. It’s great if Ned Yost learned from his mistake yesterday. But if he learns from any more mistakes this season, it might be 2015 before he gets a chance to apply what he’s learned.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Royals Today: 9/14/14.

Playoff Odds (ESPN/Fangraphs): 71.3% (42.9% Division, 28.4% Wild Card)
Playoff Odds (Baseball Prospectus): 67.9% (27.2% Division, 40.7% Wild Card)

Well, maybe we should stop fretting so much about lineup order.

Ned Yost’s new lineup started off with a bang, with his new leadoff hitter and his new DH, Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki, both scoring in the first inning. Just as a watched pot never boils, a noticed streak never continues, and the Royals’ 22-game streak of scoring six runs or less came to a merciful end. Yost can tell his critics to kiss his ass for another night. It wasn’t as dramatic as the Bloomquist Game, but it was also a lot more meaningful.

Lineups matter, but they matter a lot less than most people realize. And as silly as it might be to have Escobar leading off, it’s a lot less silly than letting the shell of Omar Infante’s body bat second night after night. Really, if you moved Escobar from leadoff to the #9 spot, that might be the ideal order of these nine players. That’s kind of a big change – moving a hitter from first to last – but the point is that the lineup isn’t nearly as crazy as it looks at first glance.

The other issue many people had with the lineup was having Aoki in the DH spot. It’s a fair criticism; you generally would prefer to have a DH in September who has hit more than one home run all year. But how much better are the other options, really?

Look at these three players:

Player 1: .267/.335/.336
Player 2: .265/.310/.380
Player 3: .266/.319/.374

Who would you rather have in your lineup? Players 2 and 3 are almost identical; Player 1 has a slugging average 40 points lower but an OBP 20 points higher. It’s a tough call, honestly.

But what if I told you that Player 1 has added positive value as a baserunner, while Players 2 and 3 have both been below-average in that regard? And that Player 1 has hit into only 5 double plays all year, while Player 2 has hit into 11, and Player 3 has hit into 20? Suddenly, Player 1 looks like your best option – not a good option, but your best option.

Player 1, as your probably know, is Aoki. Player 2 is Eric Hosmer. Player 3 is Billy Butler. Based on their performance this year, Aoki has been the most valuable offensive player. Maybe having him DH isn’t as crazy as it looks.

Or look at it this way:

Nori Aoki, 2014: .267/.335/.336, 15-7 SB-CS, 5 GIDP
Royals DHs, 2014: .244/.302/.331, 4-0 SB-CS, 22 GIDP

Yes, that’s just looking at this year; Hosmer and Butler were both superior offensive players last year. (Although Aoki was also better than Hosmer in 2012.) But it’s the middle of September now; all of these guys have enough plate appearances to make you think that what we’ve seen so far this year has more relevance than what they’ve done in the past.

Anyway, going forward the proper answer to the question is Josh Willingham, but he stubbornly refuses to stay healthy. But if Aoki is the DH this afternoon, maybe we should all bite our tongue and see how it plays out. [Late note: he is. The lineup is exactly the same as yesterday's. Of course it is]

- The other advantage to moving Aoki from RF to DH is that it meant the Royals trotted out three Gold Glove-caliber outfielders. Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, despite striking out just two batters in eight innings, Jeremy Guthrie allowed just three hits and one unearned run (thanks to Mike Moustakas; remember, the Royals’ infield defense is basically average.)

I would just as soon go with a Gordon-Cain-Dyson outfield against all RHP for the rest of the season; paradoxically, giving Dyson more playing time gives him more time for his skills – speed, range, and what qualifies as an excellent OBP by Royals standards – to make up for the inevitable mistakes he makes.

But if they’re not going to commit to that outfield all the time, they should at least do so when Guthrie starts. Last night Dyson made 9 putouts in center field, one shy of the team record of 10 – a record he also shares. In Guthrie’s three prior starts, the Royals had an outfield of Gordon-Cain-Aoki, and in those three starts Guthrie allowed 27 hits in 15.2 innings. The last time Dyson was in center field for Guthrie was August 23rd – and Guthrie went eight innings that night, allowing five hits and one run. Mostly a coincidence. But partly having an outfield where fly balls go to die.

They mentioned this on the broadcast last night, but with yesterday’s victory, in Jarrod Dyson’s last 21 starts, the Royals are 19-2. And as an added bonus, having Dyson in the starting lineup means he can’t pinch-run in the ninth and then feel like he has to “do something”.

- Brandon Finnegan finally gave up a baserunner, but only after Lorenzo Cain came oh-so-close to catching Allen Craig’s foul pop-up behind the tarp, and only after Finnegan had struck out David Ortiz and Yoenis Cespedes. He’s faced 12 batters in the majors, struck out five of them, and allowed just an opposite-field single. And here are those batters:

J.R. Murphy; Jacoby Ellsbury; Derek Jeter; Martin Prado; Mark Teixeira; Carlos Beltran; David Ortiz twice; Yoenis Cespedes twice; Allen Craig; Mike Napoli.

Not all those guys are in the prime of their career, but if you’re a fresh-faced 21-year-old who was pitching in college three months ago, every single batter you’ve faced other than Murphy has been a player you’ve been hearing about for years, or in some cases since your earliest memories in baseball. And he’s shoved it. It’s a really small sample size, but it’s hard not to get excited about Finnegan’s future. Not just for what he can do out of the bullpen the rest of this season, but what he might be able to do for the Royals in their rotation in the future.

- The Royals’ playoff odds went up significantly overnight, even though the Tigers came back to beat Cleveland, on a two-run, two-out homer by Alex Avila in the eighth, a half-inning after Torii Hunter made a shoestring catch to save two runs.

The Tigers’ victory hurts the Royals’ chances of winning the AL Central, but the Indians’ loss helps their chances of winning the second wild card. Moreover, the A’s extra-inning victory in Seattle last night (in the most A’s way possible, scoring a run on four walks) is a big boon for the Royals.

The A’s collapse has made it possible that they will wind up being the team left out of the musical chairs game that is the four-teams-for-three-spots race. But after today’s game in Seattle, their remaining schedule is very easy: 9 of their last 13 games are at home, and while they do play three games against the Angels, they have three against the Phillies, and the other seven are against the Rangers, who 1) have the worst record in baseball and 2) have basically packed it in for the season.

The Mariners, on the other hand, start an 11-game road trip against the Angels, the feisty Astros, and the still-hanging-in-the-race Blue Jays. They finish with three home games against Anaheim, and at that point the Angels may well have clinched and be in getting-everyone-healthy-for-the-playoffs mode. But even so, that’s a very formidable closing kick, and the Royals’ greatest ally in their quest to get into the playoffs by any means possible.

You all know what this means, don’t you? A Royals-A’s wild card game. A Scout’s Honor vs. Moneyball. Old School vs. New School. A team that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 29 years vs. a team that has lost six straight double-elimination playoff games. My personal life and my professional life in a three-hour fight to the death.

There will be no divided loyalties here. Sabermetrics, shmabermetrics.