Friday, October 10, 2014

ALCS Preview.

I’m not going to do a full-length series preview, because variance swamps everything in a best-of-seven series, and because cold hard analysis left the building with the 2014 Royals long ago. But here are, I think, the key things to watch out for in this series.

- The Managers. The obvious matchup, and the matchup that everyone is talking about, to the point where I wonder if people are overrating the impact that the managers will have. Or at least they’re overrating the advantage that the Orioles have with Buck Showalter over Ned Yost.

I think I’ve established my bonafides when it comes to Yost criticism already, so I hope you’ll understand that I’m not trying to be an apologist when I say: the managers may not matter. They might, and if they do I’m more willing to bet that Showalter outfoxes Yost than the opposite. But it’s also possible that Yost, at this point in his career, and at this point in the season, might be able to cover up his tactical weaknesses enough to keep him from costing the Royals a game.

First off, it’s important to note that not every strategic decision that Yost makes is flawed. Sabermetric orthodoxy asserts that the intentional walk is rarely a useful tactic, and Yost called for just 14 intentional walks all season, the fewest of any manager in baseball. Despite Yost’s reputation for bunts, and despite that awful game against the Tigers where Nori Aoki was bunting runners to third base for Josh Willingham to drive them in, the Royals sacrificed just 33 times all year, barely above the AL average of 30 and fewer than the Orioles’ total of 35.

And while two of the four bunts that Yost called for in the Wild Card game didn’t lead to a run, and another one didn’t lead to a run that wouldn’t have scored anyway, the ninth-inning bunt, chased by a stolen base and then a deep fly out, turned a leadoff bloop single from Josh Willingham into the tying run.

It’s possible that Yost will get bunt-happy again, and if so it might cost the Royals. But that isn’t one of my primary fears with his managerial decisions in this series. My first fear is that he will once again deploy his bullpen in a sub-optimal fashion, or at least he will do so relative to Showalter. The Orioles’ version of Wade Davis is Andrew Miller, who wasn’t quite as dominant all season (at least in terms of ERA; his peripherals are similar), but has the advantage of being left-handed. Twice in a three-game ALDS, Showalter brought Miller into the game in the sixth inning, and let him record five outs each time. I’d be surprised if Davis were asked to get five outs in a game in this series, and I’d be stunned if he were asked to pitch in the sixth.

But here, the Royals’ bullpen depth – particularly if, as it appears, Kelvin Herrera is healthy – makes it difficult for Yost to screw this up too bad. No, he won’t use Davis in the sixth inning, and it’s possible a situation will arise in the sixth inning where the game is on the line and you’d like your best reliever in there. But if not Davis, Yost might go to Herrera in the sixth, something he didn’t do all regular season, but has finally opened himself up to in the last few weeks. And if not Herrera, he now has Brandon Finnegan as a legitimate shutdown option. Danny Duffy combines power stuff with the ability to go multiple innings. Jason Frasor and Tim Collins aren’t guys you want in there with the game on the line, but as they showed in the ALDS, they can give you a shutout inning when you don’t have any margin for error. There isn’t a reliever on the roster that presents a truly bad matchup against hitters from either side of the plate – it’s not like Yost could wind up with Francisley Bueno pitching against a right-handed hitter. And with a full rotation required for this series, the possibility of another Ventura Surprise are slim to none, at least until Games 6 and 7.

My primary concern with Yost’s handling of the bullpen is simply when he’ll deploy it: if he sticks with a laboring Shields or Ventura, or even a non-laboring Guthrie or Vargas in the sixth inning, with a fresh bullpen at his disposal, he could be making a crucial mistake. The next time Nori Aoki tries to catch a ball with his eyes half-closed and his face smashing into a wall, it might not work out.

My other concern – and, at least early in the series, my bigger concern – is that Yost will continue to deploy the running game aggressively, which means deploying the running game recklessly when your opponent is the Orioles. Tonight’s starter, Chris Tillman, has allowed two stolen bases in the last two seasons – while nailing 11 runners foolish enough to try to steal. (Here’s a good article looking at why Tillman is so tough to run on.) And while Tillman’s personal catcher, Nick Hundley, isn’t a particularly strong-armed catcher – Tillman clearly doesn’t need one – the likely starting catcher in the other games is rookie Caleb Joseph, who threw out 40% of attempted basestealers, a rate which led the American League.

I’m not saying that the Royals should never run. I’m just saying that stealing bases involves risk, and there’s comes a point where the risk is so high that attempting to steal a base is more likely to hurt the team than help them. This doesn’t mean that Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore can’t be huge late-inning weapons – Tillman is unlikely to be pitching in the ninth, and their relievers can be run on. But it means that Yost has to remember that discretion is the better part of valor. Billy Butler has a stolen base already this postseason; let’s not get greedy now.

I’m very happy to see that, after some initial hinting that the Royals might add a pitcher to their roster, or that Jason Vargas might start Game 2 because he’s been better on the road this year (even though he was significantly worse on the road for his entire career before 2014), that Yost made the common sense decisions in the end. The 25-man roster is the same as it was in the ALDS. I’m not saying another pitcher might have come in handy in an emergency, but if – as you and I and the Royals clearly believe – Gore is now indispensible, there simply isn’t any hitter on the roster you can afford to part with. Without Willingham available to come off the bench against the A’s left-handed closer in the ninth, they might not have tied the game. And like the A’s with Sean Doolittle, the Orioles employ a left-handed closer in Zach Britton. Willingham is a must. Good on Yost and the Royals for recognizing that.

And Ventura will start Game 2, which is important because that means he also starts Game 6 – the one Royals starter scheduled to pitch twice in Baltimore. Given that Camden Yards is a good home run park (although not a good offensive park overall – Kauffman Stadium actually increases overall run scoring more than Camden Yards), and given that Ventura’s home run rate is significantly better than that of Guthrie, Vargas, or even Shields, this is the right move to make.

Yost has shown with his personnel decisions for this series that he’s capable of making the right decisions. As long as he can avoid making any crucial wrong decisions in this series, the manager mismatch that everyone is expecting may not come to fruition.

- Power. Because the Orioles can do a better job of shutting down the running game than the A’s or Angels did, and because four of the potential seven games come at Camden Yards, the Royals are going to be hard-pressed to win simply with speed. And because the Orioles are one of the better defensive teams in baseball, the Royals will be hard-pressed to win simply by putting the ball in play, the way they’ve won so many games this year. (An underrated key to victory in the Wild Card game was the number of groundball singles that got by Jed Lowrie, the A’s shortstop, who is a below-average defender.)

So if the Royals are going to win this series, they need to hit the long ball. This seems a much more doable task than it did a week ago. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas both hit two homers in three games against the Angels. Butler (.318/.371/.561) and Alex Gordon (.294/.345/.578) have both historically hit very well at Camden Yards. My pick on 810 WHB for the Royals’ MVP in this series was Hosmer, and if his sudden breakout is for real he’s certainly as good a pick as any. But if you asked me today who it will be, and I might say Gordon. Gordon, not Hosmer, has hit a ball onto Eutaw Street. Gordon is a flyball hitter, and flyballs do well in this park. Anyway, Gordon is a streaky hitter, and while he finished the season on a cold streak (.187/.330/.253 from September 5th until the end of the season), his hot streaks carried the team at times this season.

The Royals may have finished dead last in the majors with 95 homers this season, but between Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, Butler, and Salvador Perez, they have five hitters with the kind of tweener power that might play up very well at Camden Yards. They’re going to need a few of them to break out the whoopin’ stick this series, because you know the Orioles will, Camden Yards or not. (The Orioles hit more home runs just on the road – 104 – than the Royals did anywhere.)

- Bullpens. The Royals have arguably the best late-inning bullpen in baseball, so they should have the advantage in any matchup. But their advantage in this series is decided slim. Miller had a 2.02 ERA, but in 62 innings this year allowed just 33 hits, 15 unintentional walks, and three homers, while striking out 103 batters. Wade Davis led all AL pitchers (min: 40 IP) with a 1.19 FIP, but Miller’s 1.51 FIP was second.

Darren O’Day allowed just 42 hits and 15 unintentional walks in 69 innings, while whiffing 73 batters; the sidearmer was his usual terrifying self against right-handed batters, who hit .164/.250/.247 against him. Zach Britton, in his first season as a reliever, allowed 46 hits and 23 walks in 76 innings; his fastball is widely considered to be one of the heaviest in baseball. Even in the minor leagues his fastball was legendary for its sinking action, which was particularly unusual for a left-hander.

The Royals probably have an advantage when you get to the fourth and fifth relievers in each team’s pen, depending on whether you think Finnegan is really as good as he’s been so far. But this isn’t a mismatch. The thinking against the Angels was that if the Royals could just keep the games close after six innings, they’d have the advantage, and that’s exactly how it played out. If a game is tied after six innings in this series, any advantage the Royals will have is decidedly small.

If the Royals want to win this series, they’d best get out to an early lead in some of these games. Fortunately, the Orioles’ rotation, while deep, isn’t star-studded – there are no Madison Bumgarners or Adam Wainwrights here. The Royals’ best philosophy is to go for power in the first six innings against a rotation that is hittable – all four projected Orioles starters in this series gave up at least 20 homers this year – and save the speed and other cute stuff for the late innings, when a stingy bullpen makes playing for one run a more defensible option.

- Finally, a prediction. Look, it’s hard to get away from the fact that analytically, most of the factors tilt slightly towards the Orioles. They had the better record this year, obviously, but more than that, their strengths tend to neutralize the Royals’ strengths. Showalter and the Orioles place a high priority on shutting down their opponents’ running game, putting a damper on the Royals’ greatest strength. Their above-average defense neutralizes some of the advantage the Royals have from striking out less than every other team. They have home field advantage, and their park fits their team as well as the Royals’ home park fits theirs.

The Royals do have some points in their favor, namely that they’re going into this series at full strength, whereas the Orioles won 96 games in part because of Matt Wieters and Manny Machado and even Chris Davis, all of whom are out for this series. That hurts them particularly on defense, which will be important if Steve Pearce or Ryan Flaherty misplays a groundball at some point. But an analytical approach to breaking down this series would favor the Orioles, and it’s no surprise that most analysts are picking them to win.

But as for me, well, I threw out analysis a while ago when predicting what this team was going to do. I picked the Royals to beat the Angels, who I thought they matched up well with, but I also picked the Royals to beat the A’s and Jon Lester, who I thought they didn’t. The Orioles may have a huge edge in power, but the Royals have a huge edge in #DevilMagic. The Orioles have Showalter; we have Sung Woo. I expect a series as close as the ALDS was not, but in the end I’m riding this unicorn as far as she will take me. Royals in seven.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A Look Back: 1985, Part Two.

Continued from yesterday...

The Royals would soon need him [Brett] even more. In the ALCS, they faced off against the Toronto Blue Jays, who won 99 games en route to their first-ever playoff appearance. The Blue Jays won game 1, 6-1, and in game 2, after the Royals scored the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning, the Jays rallied for two runs off closer Dan Quisenberry in the bottom of the inning to win, 6-5. At that point, the Royals had lost ten playoff games in a row, dating back to the 1980 World Series. Game 3 was a must win.

Brett responded with the greatest single-game performance in Royals history.

In the first inning, Brett homered to give the Royals a 1-0 lead.

In the third inning, Brett made an astounding defensive play. With Damaso Garcia on third base and one out, Lloyd Moseby sliced the ball down the third base line. Brett somehow snared the ball, then found the perfect angle to home plate, throwing around Garcia to nail him trying to score.

In the fourth inning, Brett led off with a double, then scored on two flyouts.

The Blue Jays scored five runs in the top of the fifth inning, and led 5-3 in the bottom of the sixth. After Wilson singled, Brett homered to tie the game.

In the bullpen, backup catcher Jamie Quirk piped up. “We’re in the driver’s seat now,” he said. “George has one more at-bat.” In the bottom of the eighth, Brett led off with a single. With two outs, Steve Balboni singed him home. The Royals won, 6-5.

Four at-bats, four hits, two home runs, one run-saving defensive play, in a must-win playoff game that his team won by a single run. George Brett, ladies and gentlemen. George Brett.

In Game 4, the Royals held a 1-0 lead until the ninth inning, but the Blue Jays scored three in the ninth off of Leibrandt and Dan Quisenberry, giving Toronto a 3-1 series lead. Now, they were all must-win games, and the Royals needed some new heroes.

In Game 5, that hero was Danny Jackson, who stepped up with a complete-game shutout. But the Royals still needed to win Games 6 and 7, both in Toronto. This time, their hero was manager Dick Howser.

The Royals had a problem: Quisenberry, the best closer in the league for the previous five years, was a submarine pitcher who was vulnerable to left-handed hitters. The Blue Jays platooned at several positions, and so they always had left-handed hitters at their disposal. Al Oliver, in particular, tortured Quisenberry – Oliver hit the walk-off single in Game 1 and the go-ahead two-run double in the ninth inning of Game 4.

The Blue Jays’ manager – some nobody named Bobby Cox – aggressively pinch-hit to obtain the platoon advantage whenever it presented itself, but within his aggression lay his weakness, and Howser pounced on it. Howser tabbed Gubicza to start Game 6, a curious decision given that Gubicza had not started in the series, and the Blue Jays had hit right-handed pitching better than left-handers all season. But it got Cox to put all his left-handed hitters in the lineup, and the trap was set.

The Royals took a 5-2 lead into the bottom of the sixth – the go-ahead run came on a home run from Brett, naturally. After Gubicza allowed a single and a walk, Howser called on left-hander Buddy Black – his Game 2 starter – to pitch to Oliver. The gambit worked; Cox pinch-hit for Oliver with right-handed hitter Cliff Johnson. Johnson singled to score a run, but Black got out of the inning without further damage. Left-handed hitters Rance Mulliniks and Ernie Whitt would be subbed out for right-handed hitters Garth Iorg and Cecil Fielder later in the game.

With the Blue Jays’ bench depleted, Quisenberry could pitch to right-handed hitters with impunity. With two outs in the ninth and the winning run at the plate, Quisenberry relieved Black to pitch to Iorg, who struck out to end the game.

Saberhagen started Game 7, and in the first inning he took a comebacker off his hand, which forced him out of the game after just three innings. Howser took advantage, bringing in Leibrandt, who had started Games 1 and 4. For the second straight game, Howser used a left-handed starter as a relief weapon, and lured Cox into pulling his left-handed bats. Once again, the ambush worked: Mulliniks and Oliver were pulled in favor of Iorg and Cliff Johnson in the fifth inning. After five innings, the Jays trailed 2-1, and Cox had already used up his bullets.

It would hardly matter, not after Jim Sundberg batted with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, and got a flyball to right field up into the wind, leading to a bases-clearing triple that gave Kansas City a 6-1 lead. In the ninth, Quisenberry came in to quell a modest Blue Jays rally, and got a pair of groundouts to send the Royals to the World Series.

Bobby Cox will go into the Hall of Fame one day [Editor's note: Done!]. Dick Howser, who would tragically die of brain cancer less than two years after his greatest triumph, will not. But for one series, the latter got the better of the former.

If the Royals were underdogs in the ALCS, they were so lightly regarded in the World Series that they might as well have been given a #16 seed. The St. Louis Cardinals won 101 games in 1985. They led the NL in runs scored, and were second in fewest runs allowed. They stole 314 bases, the most by any NL team in the last 100 years. They were unbeatable. It didn’t help that the series would be played without the designated hitter, meaning Hal McRae, the greatest DH in history to that point, was reduced to being a pinch-hitter for the duration of the series. (The rule would be changed after the season to its current rule, which allows the DH to be used in AL parks.)

Even without rookie sensation Vince Coleman, who was swallowed up by a runaway tarp and missed the series – no, seriously – the Cardinals certainly looked unbeatable early on. In Game 1, their ace John Tudor (who had a remarkable 1.93 ERA during the regular season) outpitched Danny Jackson to win, 3-1. In Game 2, Charlie Leibrandt was magnificent, holding a 2-0 lead into the ninth inning. After Willie McGee doubled to lead off the ninth, Leibrandt retired the next two batters and was one out away from the shutout.

And then disaster struck. Leibrandt lost it, and Howser, perhaps still worried about Quisenberry’s vulnerabilities, stood idly by. Jack Clark singled home a run. Tito Landrum doubled to put men on second and third. Cesar Cedeno was intentionally walked. Terry Pendleton then cleared the bases with a double, the Cardinals led 4-2, and Quisenberry finally came in to the sounds of shocked silence.

The series moved to St. Louis with the Cardinals holding a commanding lead. No team had ever won a World Series after losing the first two games at home. It was time for some new heroes to emerge.

Bret Saberhagen was up to the task in Game 3, throwing a complete game and allowing just one run. Frank White – the first second baseman since Jackie Robinson to bat cleanup in the World Series - homered, and the Royals won 6-1. But Tudor threw a shutout in Game 4, and for the second straight series, the Royals needed to win three elimination games in a row.

Just as he did in the ALCS against Toronto, Danny Jackson was asked to save the Royals’ season, and once again Jackson was brilliant. The Royals won Game 5, 6-1, and headed home still breathing.

In Game 6, Leibrandt was brilliant again, taking a perfect game into the sixth inning. But Danny Cox pitched in and out of trouble all evening, and the game was scoreless into the eighth. With two outs and two on in the top of the eighth, Cardinals’ manager Whitey Herzog pinch-hit for Cox with Brian Harper, and Harper delivered with a single to give St. Louis a 1-0 lead. Leibrandt and the Royals were headed for more heartbreak. The score held up going into the bottom of the ninth. The Cardinals had not lost a game they led after eight innings all season long.

This is where we pause for Cardinals fans to light this program on fire.

You may have heard about what happened next. Jorge Orta pinch-hit to lead off the bottom of the ninth against Todd Worrell, the Cardinals’ flame-throwing closer who was so inexperienced that he would win Rookie of the Year honors the following season. Orta bounced a groundball to the right side. First baseman Jack Clark came off the bag, fielded the ball, and threw over to Worrell, who stepped on the bag a split second before Orta.

Don Denkinger, the first-base umpire, extended the safe sign. He has not been welcome in St. Louis since.

We will not pretend that Denkinger’s mistake had no impact on the outcome of the series. We will not be so presumptuous as to assume that the Royals would have won Game 6 even if Orta had correctly been called out. But neither will we concede that Denkinger’s mistake singlehandedly flipped the series to Kansas City.

Don Denkinger did not cause Clark and catcher Darrell Porter to get crossed up when the next batter, Steve Balboni, hit a foul pop-up that dropped between them. Denkinger did not then surrender a single to Balboni. After a failed sacrifice bunt led to the first out, Denkinger did not allow the passed ball that allowed the runners to move up to second and third. He did not intentionally walk Hal McRae to load the bases. And he most certainly did not allow Dane Iorg, who 27 years later should still never have to pay for a meal in Kansas City, to bloop a single to right field, plating the tying and winning runs and triggering bedlam.

Years later, Whitey Herzog would say that the only time in his career that he felt he didn’t have his team ready to play was Game 7 of the 1985 World Series. They took the field like dead men walking, and it showed. Tudor, who was brilliant in Games 1 and 4, had nothing; he was knocked out of the game in the third inning, having allowed five runs. In the dugout, Tudor punched a fan – the electric kind, not the kind having a blast in the stands – and lacerated his hand.

The Royals iced the game with six runs in the fifth inning. Joaquin Andujar, the Cardinals’ right-hander who was mercurial in the best of times, began arguing balls and strikes with the home plate umpire – by the sheerest of coincidence, it was Don Denkinger – and was ejected from the game before he could commit assault-and-battery. When Whitey Herzog came out to protest, he told Denkinger, “We wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t missed the bleeping call last night,” only he didn’t say “bleeping”. Herzog was thrown out as well.

The Royals led, 11-0, and the coronation began even before Bret Saberhagen finished off the shutout, even before the final flyball settled into right fielder Darryl Motley’s glove, even before the Kansas City Royals, in their 17th season and on their seventh playoff try, were crowned world champions.

Six times, the Royals took the field for a playoff game knowing that a loss meant their season was over. Six times, they won. As Brett would say years later, “That was a team that got pushed right up against the wall, and somehow, the wall moved.”

In the history of baseball, no team had ever won six elimination games in the playoffs before. And despite the expansion of the playoffs to a three-round format, no team has done it since.

The point of playing a championship season is to crown a champion, and style points are not awarded. The 1985 Royals were champions, and their unlikely road to the top only makes that championship sweeter. They weren’t the best team in Royals history. They were simply the greatest.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Look Back: 1985, Part One.

When the Royals hosted the All-Star Game in 2012, at the behest of my friends at 810 WHB I wrote a look back at the 1985 season for their All-Star Game program which was distributed throughout the city. With the Royals back in the playoffs for the first time since then, I thought this would be a good time to share that article with you here. This is the first half of that article.

Here’s the thing about the 1985 Royals, the only Kansas City team to win a World Series: they weren’t the best team in Royals history. Not even close.

The 1977 Royals won 102 games, the most in the majors, and seemed to be able to steamroll opponents at will – at one point in September, they won 24 of 25 games. In 1980, George Brett hit .390, Willie Wilson stroked 230 hits and stole 79 bases, and the Royals led the division by 20 games at the end of August before engaging the cruise control.

The 1985 Royals? That team won 91 games, tied for the fifth-highest total in franchise history. They had one elite hitter in their entire lineup, which might explain why they ranked next-to-last in the American League in runs scored. Their rotation was so wet behind the ears that three of their five starters couldn’t legally rent a car.

They weren’t the best team the Royals ever had. They probably weren’t the best team in the majors that season. They just happened to win the final game of the season.

And that’s why we love them so much. Guys like Buddy Biancalana and Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan and Onix Concepcion accomplished something that eluded Amos Otis and John Mayberry and Darrell Porter: win a championship in Kansas City.

For most of that season, it looked like the story of the 1985 Royals was going to be the death of a dynasty. After winning 90 games five times in six years from 1975 to 1980, the franchise had gone stale. They had a losing record in 1981, and after winning 90 games and narrowly missing the playoffs in 1982, the Royals were stung by the scandalous cocaine trials of 1983. Four Royals, including Willie Wilson, spent time in jail, and missed the first six weeks of the 1984 season. The Royals squeaked back into the playoffs that year, winning the AL West with an 84-78 record, but they were swept by the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.

When the Royals sputtered into the All-Star Break in 1985, they were 44-42, and this time a .500 record wasn’t going to keep them in contention – they were 7.5 games out of first place. It had been a great run, the pundits said, but the glory days in Kansas City were over.

Rumors of their demise were premature. The Royals won 11 of their first 13 games to open the second half, closing to within two games of the California Angels. They still couldn’t hit, but they could pitch, thanks to a trio of young starters who were blossoming in their second season in the majors.

Mark Gubicza, the Royals’ second-round pick in the 1981 draft, made their rotation out of spring training in 1984, at the age of 21, and posted a solid 4.05 ERA in 29 starts. He replicated his efforts in 1985, making 28 starts and fashioning a 4.06 ERA, and would go on to make two All-Star teams and finish third in the league in the Cy Young vote later in the decade, before his shoulder gave out in 1990.

Left-hander Danny Jackson, the #1 pick in the now-defunct January draft in 1982, got a cup of coffee in the majors in 1983, and spent half the 1984 season with the Royals, fashioning a 4.26 ERA. Jackson made the 1985 rotation out of spring training, and began the year with 18 shutout innings. He would finish with a 3.42 ERA in 208 innings, and he allowed just seven home runs, the best ratio in the AL. After solid seasons in 1986 and 1987, Jackson was traded to the Reds, and in 1988 he won 23 games and finished second to Orel Hershiser on the Cy Young ballot.

The real prize among the Royals’ young guns was Bret Saberhagen, perhaps the greatest scouting find in the team’s history. Saberhagen’s prowess on the mound was so little-regarded in high school that he was drafted in the 19th round – as a shortstop. But after just a single season in the minor leagues, Saberhagen was deemed ready for his closeup, making the Royals’ roster out of spring training in 1984. He made his major-league debut a week before his 20th birthday; he is still the youngest player ever to wear a Royals uniform. Used as a swingman as a rookie, Saberhagen had an excellent 3.48 ERA, and even earned a start in the ALCS against the Tigers.

Saberhagen arrived in camp in 1985 throwing harder and better than ever, and he got better as the season went on. He was 7-4 with a 3.23 ERA through the end of June, and from that point on Saberhagen won 13 of 15 decisions with a 2.60 ERA. He finished the season with 20 wins, a 2.87 ERA, gave up the fewest baserunners per inning in the league – and won the Cy Young Award. Arm injuries probably cost Saberhagen a Hall of Fame career; he holds the all-time record for days spent on the disabled list. But even so, he won a second Cy Young Award with the Royals four years later, and won 167 games in his career.

But the biggest surprise in the 1984 Royals’ rotation was a retread left-hander named Charlie Leibrandt. Leibrandt had pitched – poorly – for the Cincinnati Reds from 1979 to 1982, but in the summer of 1983 was languishing in the minors when the Royals traded for him, sending Bob Tufts to Cincinnati in exchange. (Tufts would never pitch in the majors after the trade.) Leibrandt began the 1984 season in the minors, but after going 7-1 with a 1.24 ERA in his first nine starts, was promoted to Kansas City, and went 11-7 with a 3.63 ERA the rest of the way. In 1985, Leibrandt – not Saberhagen – led the Royals with a 2.69 ERA, and he would remain effective through the early 1990s, serving as the veteran mentor for the great Atlanta Braves rotations in 1991 and 1992.

Rarely in the annals of baseball history has a team turned over 80% of its rotation, or graduated three pitchers to the major leagues who would each win over 100 games in their careers. The 1984 Royals did both. The 1985 Royals reaped the rewards.

After Kansas City closed the gap on first place, the Royals and Angels engaged in an epic dogfight the rest of the season – from August 12th on, the teams were never separated by more than three games in the standings. From September 19th until October 2nd, the teams were never more than a single game apart.

The Royals entered the final week of the season one game behind California, and hosted the Angels for four games with the division on the line. The Angels had a talented, veteran team, one that would win the division the following year. But the Royals had George Brett.

Brett may not be the greatest player of all time, or even the greatest third baseman of his era, depending on how you feel about Mike Schmidt. But when Brett got hot, he could carry a team on his back like few players in the history of the game. In the final week of the season, George Brett got hot.

On Monday, Brett homered in the 4th to tie the game at 1, then hit a sacrifice fly in the 8th as the Royals won, 3-1.

On Tuesday, Brett had an RBI single and a walk, but it wasn’t enough, as the Angels won, 4-2.

On Wednesday, the Royals knew if they lost, they’d be two games behind with four games left. Brett hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the first to take the pressure off. He added a double and a single for good measure. The Royals won, 4-0.

On Thursday, Brett walked in the 1st and scored on Frank White’s home run. He added a homer of his own in the 5th inning. The Royals won, 4-1.

On Friday, the Oakland A’s came to town. Brett singled in a run in the 4th to give the Royals a 3-0 lead. In the 7th inning, after Oakland had closed to within 3-2, Brett led off the inning with a home run. The Royals won, 4-2. The Angels lost in Texas, and the Royals had a two-game lead with two games left.

On Saturday, the A’s had a 4-0 lead heading to the bottom of the sixth, and the Angels were winning in Texas. Brett hit a two-run homer to cut the lead in half. In the seventh, Brett walked and scored as part of a two-run rally to tie the game. Willie Wilson hit a walk-off single in the tenth inning, and the Royals were AL West Champions.

On Sunday, George Brett rested.

In six games, with the season on the line, the Royals won five times – and Brett homered in each one. He hit .450 in those six games, and drove in 11 runs. He was at his best when the Royals needed him the most.

To be concluded tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Final Four.

On the one hand, we’re playing with house money at this point. If you had told me, or pretty much any fan, or the Royals themselves, that they would reach the ALCS this year, we would have taken that happily with no expectations for what might happen beyond that point. No matter what happens from this point on, the 2014 Royals season has to be considered a rousing success.

On the other hand, the Royals are eight wins away from turning “a rousing success” into the kind of sports story they write books and produce movies about. A week after their season was all but dead in the Wild Card round, a season which would have been historic yet unsatisfying at the same time, the Royals are the darlings of baseball. They are such a Cinderella story that they’re playing the Baltimore Orioles, who have gone longer without going to the World Series (1983) than the Royals (1985) – and pretty much the entire country outside the mid-Atlantic states is rooting for the blue and white.

It’s never going to be this good again, folks. Unless there’s another 29-year drought, there will never again be a season where the Royals can capture the attention of the nation the way they have at this very moment. We may never have a chance to get in on the ground floor of a dream season quite like this one. So they might as well win the whole damn thing.

- You can’t talk about the Royals’ ALDS sweep of the Angels without talking about Eric Hosmer, who apparently has been punking us by playing possum for the last four years before finally choosing to fulfill his destiny over the past week. While Salvador Perez’s walk-off single in the Wild Card game gets all the attention – and it should; it increased the Royals’ Win Expectancy in the game by 39%, the most of any play – Hosmer’s triple with one out in the 12th, when it looked like the Royals’ valiant comeback would fall short, was nearly as important analytically (it increased WE by 30%, the second-most of any play in the game), and arguably more important psychologically. And his walk on a close 3-2 pitch in the eighth inning that chased Jon Lester was, to me, the most underrated play in the entire comeback, bringing the tying run to the plate and giving us 40,000 in the stands the real hope that they could actually pull this off.

After a quiet Game 1 in the ALDS, Hosmer doubled to lead off the second inning in Game 2 and scored the Royals’ only run of regulation. He singled in the sixth but did not score, walked in the ninth but did not score, and finally took matters into his own hands by murdering a baseball in the eleventh inning. He reached base four times in the game for the second time in three playoff games. In the history of the Royals, the only player who had reached base four times in two separate playoff games was George Brett.

And in Game 3, he crushed another baseball, this one left of center field, to make the score 5-1 and essentially turn off the lights on the Angels season. In four playoff games, Hosmer has hit .500/.632/1.143. He has two homers, a triple, a double, and five walks in four games.

This didn’t come completely out of the blue. From July 1st until the end of the regular season, Hosmer had hit .321/.379/.509, a trend that we sort of missed because it was interrupted by a broken hand that he may or may not have tried to play through (causing his numbers to dip) before he missed a month of the season. So maybe he had figured things out months ago and we’re just noticing now. Maybe he really does have a flair for the dramatic. Or maybe this is just a glorious fluke. I don’t know the answer. I do know that having a player who slugged .398 on the season batting cleanup suddenly doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

- Let’s be blunt here: Ned Yost outmanaged Mike Scioscia in the series. That isn’t as astonishing as it sounds; Scioscia has long had a history of playing smallball even when his personnel doesn’t always fit the profile, and his disastrous bunt call in Game 1 epitomized that.

But Yost, with the exception of the decision to leave Jason Vargas in during Game 1 that almost turned disastrous, did a pretty good job in this series. In Game 2 he stuck with Yordano Ventura for seven innings. I thought the decision to bring him back out for the seventh was a close call; on the one hand, even with Kelvin Herrera unavailable the Royals had plenty of relief depth for that situation. On the other hand, Ventura had thrown just 84 pitches and – just as crucially – was still working through the lineup for the third time only.

Over time I have become more and more convinced by the evidence that, as much as rising pitch counts will hamper a starting pitcher’s effectiveness, as much if not more of a concern is how many times he has faced a batter. The times-through-the-order penalty is very real; batters hit better against a pitcher the third time they see him in a game, and much better the fourth time. You can make a strong case that no pitcher, save maybe a freak like Clayton Kershaw, should ever face more than 27 batters in a close game. Then again, the 28th batter Kershaw faced on Friday, Matt Carpenter, hit the game-breaking three-run double. This is one reason why Matt Williiams’ decision to pull Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth on Saturday, rather than face Buster Posey for the fourth time, might have been the right move even though Drew Storen blew the save and the Nationals lost the game.

Ventura had only faced 22 batters entering the seventh. He only faced 25 batters after the seventh, and then was pulled. Yost handled him well. The fact that Ventura pitched so well also allows us to cross off “Ventura will be scarred by this decision” from the list of reasons why having Ventura relieve James Shields in the Wild Card game was such a bad idea. (Don’t worry, there are still plenty of others.)

Yost again held Greg Holland back for a lead rather than use him in a tie game on the road, but again, 1) most managers would do the same, and 2) the Royals have enough good relievers that it didn’t matter. Jason Frasor pitched the ninth, Brandon Finnegan pitched the tenth, and when Hosmer went Big Fly, Finnegan got the first victory of his major league career. Impeccable timing, that kid has.

- Speaking of Greg Holland, if you’re looking for yet another reason why the Royals’ success this season might be preordained, you can’t ignore these facts:

            - In 1985, Bret Saberhagen’s wife had a son to whom they gave a four-letter first name (Drew). The next night, Saberhagen closed out a victory, which happened to be Game 7 of the World Series.

            - In 2014, Greg Holland’s wife had a son to whom they gave a four-letter first name (Nash). The next night, Holland closed out a victory, which was Game 1 of the ALDS.

            - Here’s where it gets spooky: Drew Saberhagen grew up to be a pitcher himself, and attended college at Pepperdine University. Prior to the 2007 season, he transferred to Western Carolina. After the season he was named the starting pitcher on the All-Southern Conference team.

The relief pitcher named to the All-Southern Conference team was his teammate at Western Carolina: Greg Holland. Click here for proof.

I’m just the messenger. I’ll leave it up to you to decide where the message is coming from.

- We need to have a talk about Omar Infante. While he had two hits in the Wild Card game, he went 0-for-11 in the ALDS. He made a throwing error on a routine ground ball that should have ended Game 2. He’s not helping the Royals very much right now.

It’s not entirely his fault; Infante has never been a player who was able to play every day, and Yost’s insistence on pushing a square peg into a round hole hasn’t helped. If Infante was healthy enough to play this season, he played, even if he could have used the rest. He missed two games in April after he was hit in the face with a pitch. He was on the DL with a lower back injury in May and missed 17 games. In June, he started every game but one (and he pinch-hit in that one game). In July, he started every game but two, and those missed ames (July 4th and 6th) were due to some lower back tightness. In August he had a day off on August 14th, and then missed four straight games from August 26-29 with inflammation in his right shoulder – he literally couldn’t throw the ball to second base. He got back in the lineup on August 30th and has started every game at second base since. By my reckoning, Infante has had two games off all season – May 31st and August 14th – that weren’t because of an injury.

From August 9th on, Infante hit .221/.273/.276, and now he is 2-for-16 in the playoffs. He’s not completely useless; he still makes contact most of the time, and with Alex Gordon on third base with one out in Game 1 of the ALDS, he hit a fly ball deep enough to score Gordon with the go-ahead run in the fifth inning.

It just so happens that the guy who could replace him, Christian Colon, also makes excellent contact, and also drove in a runner from third base with one out earlier in the playoffs. And, all things considered, would probably give the Royals a better chance of getting a hit from their second baseman than a hobbled Infante right now.

I’d be stunned if Yost made the change. He stuck with Infante every day in September when there were no off-days; hard to see how he wouldn’t stick with Infante after he will have had seven off days in eleven days before the ALCS gets started. But then, Yost didn’t have a healthy Christian Colon in September either. Hopefully the rest will rejuvenate Infante and he’ll come through for the Royals in a big spot. The Royals have gotten this far with almost nothing from their second baseman; if they start to get something from that position, look out.

- The best part about Jarrod Dyson’s throw to nail Colin Cowgill in Game 2 was that it was Jarrod Dyson. It was the guy who is supposed to be a burner, a slap-happy singles hitter who hits the ball on the ground and runs really fast, who told the world, “That’s what arm speed do.”

This is what has made Dyson’s profile so fascinating to me literally from the time he was called up to the majors. When you think about all the speed-only guys in the majors, they almost all have noodle arms. (Ichiro Suzuki being the game-changing exception, as he is in so many ways.) Think Juan Pierre, or Ben Revere: these are guys you can run on. And I wonder if the Angels ran in that situation in part because they just couldn’t reconcile the Jarrod Dyson they see at the plate and on the bases with a Jarrod Dyson that has a comfortably above-average outfield arm.

But he does. He showed them Friday night. Dyson did with his arm what he didn’t do with his legs in this series: helped save a game for the Royals.

- For all the talk about the Royals turning back the tide of 30 years of sabermetrics by winning with speed and defense, let’s not forget something kinda important here: the Royals won Game 1 on an extra-inning home run. They won Game 2 on an extra-inning home run. They won Game 3, 8-3, and their first six runs came on a bases-clearing double, a two-run homer, and a solo homer.

Speed is nice, and it makes a difference on the edges – Billy Butler’s fabled speed allowed him to score from first base on Gordon’s double. Unfortunately, Butler’s speed was unable to turn his stolen base into a run. Terrance Gore has pinch-run in three playoff games, and has stolen second base each time – yet he hasn’t scored a run in the playoffs.

Speed makes for a hell of a sidekick, and sometimes the sidekick rises up and saves your life, like Jarrod Dyson did in the Wild Card game. But power is still the superhero. Ball Go Far, Team Go Far.

The Royals beat the Angels playing the style of baseball they had all season: good starting pitching (five runs allowed in 19 innings), a great bullpen (one run allowed in 12 innings), and insane outfield defense (the whole nation now knows what we’ve known for years: you do not hit the ball in the direction of Lorenzo Cain if you want to live to tell about it.)

But the Royals didn’t just beat the Angels – they swept them. They swept them because in addition to doing all the things they usually do well, they hit four homers and four doubles in three games. Going forward, that’s what makes this team potentially scary: if Hosmer and Moustakas and Gordon and Butler and Perez can hit balls over the wall at the same time that Escobar and Cain and Dyson and Aoki and Infante can hit singles and scoot around the bases, well, that’s a pretty unbeatable formula.

We’ll get into the Orioles matchup later, but Camden Yards seems like the perfect place for the power binge to continue.