Saturday, October 25, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 3.

Well, we might as well start by talking about Ned Yost, because so much of what happened in Game 3 – good and bad – had his fingerprints on it.

And if it's alright with you, let’s start by talking about the one mistake that he made, not because I want to dwell on the bad in a game that the Royals won – making Ned Yost just the second manager ever to win 10 of his first 11 postseason games – but because I want to get it out of the way.

As soon as Jarrod Dyson grounded out to end the top of the fifth inning, meaning that the pitcher’s spot in the lineup would lead off the sixth, I tweeted out that Jeremy Guthrie should pitch the bottom of the fifth only, and then get taken out for a pinch-hitter to lead off the sixth.

Guthrie, to that point, was cruising, but only if you focus simply on the end result of the at-bats against him and not the process that led to the outcome. Guthrie had allowed just two singles, one of them of the infield variety, in four innings. However, he hadn’t struck out a single batter. His defense had made several strong plays in support of him. As if to underscore the point, Guthrie threw a perfect fifth inning – but only after Hunter Pence lined out hard to Omar Infante, and then Brandon Belt did the same thing, this time with Infante perched in short right field as part of the shift. Through five innings, Guthrie had a line of 5 2 0 0 0 0, which is completely unsustainable. His BABIP was .125. He was pitching effectively, but he wasn’t pitching well.

But even if he was, the plan should have been for him to get pulled in the top of the sixth. The Royals had a 1-0 lead, and while it was unlikely that Kelvin Herrera could go two innings just two nights after he had thrown two innings and 32 pitches, he was good for one. So was Wade Davis and Greg Holland. That left just the sixth inning – it's always the sixth inning – and the Royals had several options to pitch. Brandon Crawford was scheduled to lead off the bottom of the sixth, followed by the pitcher’s spot, then Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik – three left-handed bats and a pinch-hitter. Even if Danny Duffy was still unavailable to pitch after throwing 59 pitches in Game 1, Brandon Finnegan hadn’t appeared in the series yet. The formula seemed pretty simple.

And remember: it’s not simply a question of whether Guthrie or Finnegan was the better option for the sixth. It’s whether Guthrie was sufficiently better to justify letting him bat when he led off the top of the inning, a high-leverage spot. Even if Guthrie pitched well, he was going to throw one more inning, tops. The difference between even an elite starter like Clayton Kershaw and a good reliever for one inning is not worth letting a guy with a .121 OBP lead off an inning in a 1-0 game.

Guthrie led off the sixth, and grounded out. The next two hitters singled and doubled, meaning if a pinch-hitter for Guthrie had reached base, he would have scored an extra run. And then Guthrie took the mound to start the sixth, gave up a single to Crawford and an RBI double to pinch-hitter Mike Morse, and was pulled without recording an out. Both runners scored. Making the decision to let Guthrie bat and start the inning even worse was that Yost then replaced him with Herrera, meaning that he was willing to use Herrera with no one out in the sixth inning, but wasn’t willing to do so 15 minutes earlier when Guthrie was due to bat.

 After all this time, the sixth inning remains a minefield, because Yost just isn’t willing to concede that he can pull his starter after just five innings even if his starter is pitching well. (The one time he did do it, in Guthrie's last start - Game 3 of the ALCS - it worked to perfection.) His decision to stick with Guthrie put the Royals’ victory in jeopardy, and only four sterling innings from his bullpen prevented that from happening. It was a mistake. I hope Yost will not repeat it in the series. I am afraid that he will.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about all the things he did right.

Much to my surprise, and in yet another piece of evidence that Yost is a vastly better manager than he was even six weeks ago, his announced lineup before the game 1) had Jarrod Dyson in CF and Lorenzo Cain in RF and 2) had Alex Gordon batting 2nd.

And both moves paid off in a big way. The Royals went with the Golden Outfield alignment, and Cain made two terrific defense plays to end the first and second innings. It’s unlikely Nori Aoki makes both plays, and he might not have made either. Starting Dyson paid immediate dividends in the field.

And Gordon, batting second, did exactly what you want your #2 hitter to do when the leadoff hitter reaches base. In the top of the sixth, after Alcides Escobar singled with one out, Gordon got a fastball up and drove it to the base of the wall in center field, allowing Escobar to score from first base on the double. Gordon then came around to score on Eric Hosmer’s two out single, giving the Royals a 3-0 lead and enough cushion to weather Yost’s mistake of sticking with Guthrie for too long.

And for all the crap I gave Yost for sticking with Guthrie to start the sixth, Bruce Bochy did the same thing, which is why both teams scored two runs in the sixth inning. Guthrie had retired ten straight going into the sixth, and Tim Hudson had retired 11 straight, and neither of those streaks meant a damn thing. Hudson retired Guthrie to start the sixth, but then the lineup turned over for a third time, and wouldn’t you know it, the first two batters to face Hudson for a third time singled and doubled. Hudson was allowed to retire Cain before he was pulled with two outs and a man on second, but the damage was done. Yost made the same mistake, and I excoriated him for it. But like a lot of questionable things that Yost does, he’s far from the only manager who does them. At the very least, Yost managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. That’s all we can ask for.

There were a couple of other curious decisions that Yost made, but they worked out as well as could be expected. He called upon Herrera to bail out Guthrie in the sixth, which Herrera did, although he allowed Morse to score after a couple of groundouts first. He then let Herrera bat after Dyson singled with two outs in the top of the seventh, a really curious decision given that Herrera had never batted in his professional career, either in the majors or the minors. The argument in favor of it is that with a one-run lead, if Herrera just pitched a scoreless bottom of the seventh you could turn the game over to Wade Davis and Greg Holland at that point. But Herrera walked Pence to lead off the top of the seventh. He then struck out Brandon Belt, blowing a 97 mph fastball right by him on a 3-2 count, possibly the most important pitch of the game – if he throws ball four, the Giants have men on first and second and no one out.

And then Yost takes him out in favor of Finnegan. This is weird on several levels: 1) if you trust Finnegan in such a key spot, why didn’t you trust him to start the sixth inning against a bunch of left-handed batters; 2) having just let Herrera face a left-handed hitter – and strike him out – why would you bring in Finnegan to pitch to another left-handed hitter, especially since that hitter (Travis Ishikawa) was likely to be pinch-hit for by Juan Perez, who in addition to batting right-handed was a far superior defender?

But Finnegan got Perez to line out to Gordon in left, and then struck out Brandon Crawford on a nasty 3-2 fastball down and in. He might have gotten lucky – Crawford swung at ball four – but the pitch had a lot of movement on it as well. The kid who became the first player ever to appear in the College and Real World Series in the same year showed off his huge cojones once again. Wade Davis did Wade Davis things in the eighth, Greg Holland did Greg Holland things in the ninth, and the Royals improved to 5-0 in one-run games during the postseason.

The other questionable decision Yost made was to bat Hosmer and Moustakas back-to-back, making the lineup go R-L-R-L-L-R-R-L, and giving the Giants an opportunity to attack the Royals with lefty and righty specialist for two batters at a time. There’s no good reason to do this – Yost said before the game that he batted them back-to-back because “they’re both swinging the bat well”, which is irrelevant. If he had simply flip-flopped Moustakas and Infante, the lineup would have been essentially perfect – I had advocated Salvador Perez fifth and Infante seventh, but given that Infante appears healthy and had two extra-base hits in Game 2, I wouldn’t have had an issue with Infante fifth instead.

But Yost chose to bat Moustakas right behind Hosmer, and as everyone predicted before the game even started, Bochy attacked the back-to-back lefties with Javier Lopez in the sixth inning. Just one problem for Bochy – it didn’t work. Hosmer had an incredibly impressive at-bat, fouling off five two-strike pitches and working back from an 0-2 count to a 3-2 count, then lining a bullet to center field on the 11th pitch of the at-bat to drive in Gordon from second base with two outs. That run would prove the winning margin.

I don’t know that I’d give Yost any credit for baiting Bochy into bringing in Lopez there – Lopez was probably going to come in to pitch to Hosmer even if there was a right-handed batter on deck, only in that case he would have faced just one batter. And Lopez then struck out Moustakas. I see no evidence that batting them in this order helped at all, and I sincerely hope that Yost changes his mind for Games 4 and 5. But at least in Game 3, thanks to a gorgeous piece of hitting by Hosmer, it didn’t hurt at all.

Yost didn’t manage a perfect game by any stretch. But in the end, his plusses outweighed his minuses, especially when compared to his competition in the other dugout. Yost at least managed Bochy to a draw in Game 3. He outmanaged Bochy in Game 2. And the managers had essentially no bearing in Game 1. Yost isn’t the main reason the Royals are winning. But he’s not holding them back from winning, and I am deeply grateful that he has progressed to this point as a manager at the perfect possible time.

- The defense, just to reiterate, was terrific once again. Cain was exceptional. Perez threw out Pence trying to steal second base in the second inning, which saved a run when Belt following with a single. Pence reached on an infield single, but Escobar almost made an exceptional play to throw him out, barehanding his chopper but pulling Hosmer off the bag with his throw. Even Holland got in the act, snagging Pence’s hot shot up the middle with two outs in the ninth, flipping to Hosmer to end the game.

- Ned Yost didn’t call on a pinch-hitter in the entire game – played under National League rules. That can happen when the starting pitcher throws a complete game, but the Royals used five pitchers in the game. Somehow, their pitchers batted all three times that spot in the lineup came up. Somehow, Yost got away with it. I would kindly ask that he refrain from trying to repeat it.

- The first run of the game was Royals baseball at its best. Escobar ambushed Hudson, jumping on the very first pitch of the game for a double off the left field wall. Gordon then grounded out to the right side, allowing Escobar to move to third, and then Cain – after the 2-1 pitch was called a strike on one of the very worst ball/strike calls I’ve seen all season – the pitch was at least six inches low – rebounded to put a ball in play with two strikes, grounding out to Crawford as Escobar scored.

Once again, with a man on third base and one out, the Royals stayed away from the strikeout, and once again it led to a run. And this time, that run was the margin of victory. Put the ball in play. Run hard. And trust that good things will happen.

- Speaking of good things, the Royals are two wins away from the best thing of all: a world championship. They are guaranteed to be back in Kansas City on Tuesday, either for Game 6 of the World Series, or for a parade. My brain does not have the capacity to comprehend either of those possibilities. But they’re going to happen all the same. Go crazy, folks. Go crazy. I know I am.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 2.

Well, that didn’t suck.

On Tuesday night, in Game 1 of the World Series, the Royals had exactly the game I had feared they would have…in the Wild Card game against Oakland. That day, I was terrified that 15 minutes after their first postseason in 29 years began, it would be effectively over. And it certainly looked awfully precarious early, when James Shields gave up a two-run home run to Brandon Moss in the first inning. But the Royals answered quickly and even took the lead in the third inning before the A’s five-run sixth meant that their first postseason in 29 years effectively lasted about two hours.

Or not. The one thing that kept me calm as Madison Bumgarner mowed down batter after batter late into the game was that the last time the Royals were in that position, they had a miraculous comeback in a game they could not afford to lose. They didn’t need a miraculous comeback Tuesday night. They just needed to win Wednesday night.

And they did, in a game which – while certainly more dramatic and longer in doubt than Game 1 – was nearly as lopsided at the end.

I’m used to writing about individual Royals games in depth. I am not used to writing about Royals games that have already been picked apart by literally dozens of the best sportswriters in the country. There isn’t much I can add here, so I’ll just focus on a few details:

- After giving up a bomb to Gregor Blanco – Gregor Blanco?! – to lead off the game, Yordano Ventura did what James Shields could not: prove it was a fluke. Ventura was effective, if not particularly dominant, into the sixth inning. His velocity was regularly in the upper 90s, perhaps not as fast as it was during the salad days of summer, but better than in his last start – and after leaving that start with a tight shoulder, the return of some velocity was a welcome surprise. He only struck out two batters, which would be concerning except Ventura’s strikeout rate has trailed his pure velocity all season. He struck out 20.3% of batters he faced this year, just a little above league average, even though he was one of the three hardest-throwing starting pitchers in baseball. He got a two-strike count on nine batters, and just had trouble putting them away.

But he also didn’t walk anyone, limiting the damage. He’s not perfect, but I don’t think there’s a Royals fan alive who wouldn’t take Ventura over Shields right now in a game with everything on the line. In all likelihood they’ll both get another start; if the Royals do get to a Game 6, they’ll either be playing to clinch a championship or to save their season, and either way, I’m glad they’ll have the guy who right now is their best starting pitcher on the mound.

- It is quite possible Billy Butler just made his final appearance at Kauffman Stadium as a member of the Royals. If he did, he couldn’t have gone out with a better memory to leave fans with: a single in the first inning to tie the game, and another one in the sixth to give them the lead they wouldn’t relinquish. According to Baseball-Reference’s win expectancy chart, they were two of the four most important plays in the game.

I’m not really analyzing here. I’m just really happy for Butler, the longest-tenured player on the team (he has more service time than Alex Gordon by ten days), who suddenly seemed to lose his ability to hit when the Royals finally needed him to, and who seems to be the one player that Ned Yost isn’t willing to protect and defend like one of his own children. Butler has taken a lot of crap over the years, from the fans, the media, and the team, some deserved and some not. He’s ungodly slow, he doesn’t hit for enough power, he can’t play defense. But at his best he’s always been a line drive machine. Wednesday night, when the Royals badly needed a line drive, he delivered. Twice. It was kind of special.

- At his best, Nori Aoki plays defense the way he hits – awkwardly but surprisingly effectively. At his worst, he’s just awkward. Last night he was just awkward, and as amazing as the Royals’ defense is when they have an Alex Gordon-Jarrod Dyson-Lorenzo Cain configuration, having Aoki out there puts a significant dent in its value.

This is particularly an issue now because the Royals move to San Francisco, where AT&T Park is nearly as spacious as Kauffman but with the added dimension of having, well, added dimensions: the outfield wall juts out in weird directions, the ball takes different bounces off the wall depending on where it hits, and the wind from the bay occasionally does unnatural things to the flight of a baseball. As I wrote before the series began, how the Royals’ outfielders handle the park in San Francisco is one of the hidden keys to this series.

I hadn’t given much thought to it before this afternoon, but Soren Petro brought it up on my weekly radio hit with him, and he succeeded in convincing me: the Royals need to start Dyson instead of Aoki in Games 3 and 4. (Against Madison Bumgarner in Game 5, Aoki clearly starts, since Dyson can’t hit lefties at all while Aoki has hit them better than right-handed pitchers in his career.)

Not only does starting Dyson give you the best possible outfield defense for the first six innings instead of just the last three, it makes Aoki a very useful pinch-hitting option. Because the Royals lose the DH in the NL park, Butler is only going to get one at-bat in all likelihood, meaning the Royals need additional bats on the bench. Josh Willingham is one of them. It’s probably not for no reason that Ned Yost pinch-hit for Butler with Willingham with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 1, and that he pinch-ran for Butler with Terrance Gore in the sixth inning, guaranteeing that spot would come up again and that Willingham would pinch-hit for Gore. Yost pretty clearly wanted Willingham, who prior to Game 1 had just two plate appearances in the previous 22 days, to get some reps before the games in the NL park started.

If the Royals start Dyson, then they now have three quality pinch-hitting options in Butler, Willingham, and Aoki. And they all do different things. Butler is the best hitter overall, but in a double play situation, you would go to Willingham if you want to prioritize power (no outs, man on first), and Aoki if you want to prioritize contact and singles (one out, men on first and third).

Aoki has particular value as a pinch-hitter because he has no platoon split to speak of, and in the late innings – when pinch-hitters get called upon – Bruce Bochy will be in his bullpen, and as we saw in the sixth inning last night, he can be extremely aggressive about calling on a reliever to face just one batter if need be. Aoki is essentially immune to these shenanigans – while Javier Lopez is a sidearming left-handed pitcher and has the extreme platoon splits characteristic of them, Aoki is better equipped to handle Lopez than any other left-handed hitter on the roster.

In AL parks, with the DH in play and less need to pinch-hit, having two pinch-runners in reserve is an effective strategy. But in an NL park, pinch-hitters are a necessity. Starting Dyson over Aoki would improve the defense and improve the bench, because it swaps in a pinch-hitter that the Royals definitely need for a pinch-runner who was simply a luxury.

And amazingly enough, Yost is hinting – according to Andy McCullough – that he might actually do just that. For a guy who has literally written out the exact same lineup for over a month, he is once again picking the perfect time to not be dogmatic about his approach and to make subtle but crucial changes to his approach. Yost is not a tactical genius, but he might be something even more rare, and more impressive: a manager who is improving in real time under the glare of the postseason spotlight. Genius, after all, is a gift. Improvement is earned. Yost’s improvement this month is earning him a fresh look from those of us who were skeptical he’d ever learn this side of the game well enough to succeed.

Or, you know, he might start Aoki anyway. I guess we’ll see.

With Butler out of the lineup, starting Dyson also opens up the possibility of a really interesting lineup change that would keep the R-L-R-L dynamic going:

R Escobar SS
L Gordon LF
R Cain RF
L Hosmer 1B
R Perez C
L Moustakas 3B
R Infante 2B
L Dyson CF

You get Gordon’s OBP ahead of your postseason hit machines, and anyway your best hitter should usually bat 2nd. Maybe he’s not their best hitter right now, but for the season as a whole Gordon was their best hitter, and that’s not something you can just ignore.

And yes, keeping the R-L-R-L dynamic going is critical. As we saw Wednesday night, Bochy will use his relievers for one batter if the situation is important enough. You don’t want someone like Lopez getting the platoon advantage for consecutive batters; if he wants to face two left-handed batters, he’s going to have to go around at least one right-handed hitter in the process.

- Was I the only one who saw some similarities between the sixth inning last night and the eighth inning of the wild card game? Both involved a single by Lorenzo Cain, then a full-count walk by Eric Hosmer in what I feel was the crucial at-bat of both innings, and then an RBI single by Billy Butler. The innings devolved from there, but the core of the inning – what made the big innings possible – is the same. Hosmer’s walk in the Wild Card was the most underrated moment in the inning, if not the game. I would say the same thing about his walk last night.

- Herrera, Davis, and Holland combined for 3.2 innings last night. If only the regular season had two off-days every week. The Royals might have won 90 games. (And lost only 40.)

- I don’t really get starting Jeremy Guthrie over Jason Vargas in Game 3. Not because of who starts Game 3 or 4 – they’re both starting in the same ballpark, and it doesn’t matter who goes first. It matters because whoever starts Game 3 starts Game 7. And the decision of who your starting pitcher should be for Game 7 of the World Series is kind of big.

The Giants start as many as six left-handed hitters in their lineup. That’s not a big reason to start Vargas, who doesn’t have a huge platoon split, but it is a reason not to start Guthrie, a right-hander who lefties hit pretty well. I honestly, truly don’t get the move.

Unless. Unless the reason is that the Royals have already figured out that in Game 7 of the World Series, all the rules get thrown out the window, and your “starting pitcher” is simply your first reliever. Unless they think that by starting Guthrie against the Giants, they might entice the Giants to load up their lineup with left-handed bats. Unless they then plan to pull Guthrie at the first sign of danger – and I mean the first sign, like in the second inning. Unless they tell Guthrie ahead of time that look, you’re not going five innings tonight, and you might not even go three, so just air it out for as long as you can go and we’ll pull you as soon as you falter even a tiny bit. Unless they then plan to go to lefties Danny Duffy and Brandon Finnegan as soon as the second or third inning, either garnering a big platoon edge – with Herrera, Davis, and Holland ready to take over as soon as the fifth inning – or forcing Bochy to pinch-hit with his right-handed bats that early in the game, locking those bats in against the three-headed cyborg (or Triborg, as brilliant Twitter follower Dean Lytton called it) for the rest of the game.

Honestly, I don’t think that’s what the Royals are thinking. I don’t think that they would have set up a trap for the Giants in Game 7 before the series even began. I’m terrified that they named Guthrie their Game 3 starter because they’d honestly rather have him on the mound in Game 7 than Vargas.

But if they are setting a trap…hot damn. I would love that.

- My wife flew down to join me for Game 2 of the World Series, just her second time at Kauffman Stadium, and her first time since shortly after we got married in the summer of 1997. (This is the game we attended. It turned out to be the first game in a 12-game losing streak that got Bob Boone fired and ushered in the Tony Muser Era.) So…yeah, this was a different experience for her. A much better experience.

I sprung for some nice tickets in Section 117, just past third base – as a medical professional, I am quite aware that you can live a full and normal life with just one kidney. We sat (well, stood more than sat, like everyone else…) next to a family that had chartered a flight from Tennessee that day to watch Game 2, and were flying back the next day. I didn’t think much of it other than, “well, they’re loaded.” But in the sixth inning, as the Royals came to bat I started talking with the gentleman next to me, who told me that he had attended all the Royals’ home games in the 1985 World Series, and his family had a connection to the Royals. I was curious.

“Do you remember the guy who was co-owner of the Royals in the 1980s?” he asked me, as the Royals mounted their rally. “Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. Fogelman is a mostly-forgotten part of Royals history, but in 1983, Royals owner Ewing Kauffman, who was concerned about his own mortality and lacking any heirs that wanted to run the team, had been looking for a potential successor, someone younger but wealthy enough to own the club. He found Avron Fogelman, a Memphis real estate tycoon who owned the Double-A Memphis Chicks. He sold Fogelman 49% of the team, with an option to buy a majority stake later.

In 1985, when the Royals won the World Series, both Kauffman and Fogelman were presented as co-owners. My most vivid memory of Fogelman is seeing him during the Royals’ championship celebration after Game 7. But the Memphis real estate market nosedived in the late 1980s, Fogelman needed cash, and his only liquid asset was his stake in the Royals. He sold his stake back to Kauffman – well creditors demanded his stake go up for auction, but there were no serious bidders other than Kauffman – in 1990, and disappeared from Royals history. Three years later, Kauffman passed away, with no owner to take over the reins, and the Royals were set adrift.

“Avron Fogelman, sure,” I replied. “Yeah, he’s my dad,” he told me, as the Royals piled on five runs in the inning, their biggest inning of the playoffs.

The Fogelmans were in the house. They weren’t there for Game 1, when the Royals lost, but they were there for Game 2. He was there for all four home games in 1985, including the most dramatic game in Royals history in Game 6, and the greatest celebration in Royals history in Game 7. Needless to say, as we said our goodbyes after the game, “you have to come back next week.”

-  “You don’t have to treat me like that. Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb. I didn’t hit the bomb. I hit a double.”

I’m hoping to create a wall of pictures of the seminal moments of this postseason, either for my house or my office – or maybe both. (If they lose the World Series, it will likely be muted. If they win…I will probably spend a truly irresponsible amount of money making it happen.) There are many seminal moments to choose from.

But I think I might have to find a spot on my wall to frame this quote from Salvador Perez as well. So much win here. Perez body-slams Hunter Strickland so effortlessly I’m not even sure he meant it.

“Look at Omar. Omar hit the bomb.” I'm innocent, dude. Someone stole your lunch money, but it wasn't me.

“I didn’t hit the bomb. (I hit a double.)” OHHHHHH SNAP

- Perez could have made this incident into something much bigger than it was, and he would have been entirely justified in doing so. I’m not referring to him going after Strickland or anything. I’m referring to the fact that after the game, Perez explained what happened by saying that:

“After Omar hit the bomb, and I get close to home plate, he start to look at me,” Perez said. “So I asked him like, ‘Hey, why you look at me?’ So he was telling me, ‘Get out of here, whatever.’”

Except that even an amateur lip-reader can deduce that what Strickland said was, “get in the dugout, boy,” something about a dozen of you tweeted to me when I asked (since we didn’t know what had instigated the brouhaha) about what had happened.

I hope I don’t have to explain to you the potential implications of a white guy from Georgia calling a dark-skinned immigrant “boy”. This could be a much bigger story. Frankly, maybe it should be, and it’s a little curious that it isn’t. But that’s at least in part because the guy who was the recipient of those thoughtless words either heard something different than what the rest of us read, or chose to take the high road and ignore it.

Perez has had the worst season of his career at the plate, a terrible second half, and a generally awful postseason punctuated by the biggest hit of the season and his big double last night. But I don’t care. He’s still my bae.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Royals Today: World Series, Game 1.

Well, that sucked.

Salvador Perez, amazingly enough, came through again after I dared him to find me, hitting a home run angled directly at us into the left field bullpen; another twenty feet of distance and I might have an incredible souvenir. Unfortunately, that was literally the only positive thing that happened tonight. James Shields was, let’s be blunt, terrible, and he was terrible from the first batter. For the third time in four playoff starts, he surrendered a first-inning home run.

The Royals came back when he allowed a solo homer to Mike Trout, and they came back – barely – when he allowed a two-run homer to Brandon Moss. But they couldn’t come back when he allowed a two-run homer to Hunter Pence after allowing an RBI double to Pablo Sandoval, even after Giants’ third base coach Tim Flannery gifted him an out by foolishly sending Buster Posey home from first base. Shields faced 16 batters in total, and allowed seven hits, including two doubles and a home run. He struck out one batter. He threw just 39 of 70 pitches for strikes. There’s nothing good you can take from his performance.

Shields took the crowd out of the game in the first inning, and Madison Bumgarner refused to let them back in. They had their shot in the third inning, getting men on second and third with none out, but Bumgarner struck out Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Ever since Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game, the Royals have been terrific about making contact with a man on third base and less than two out, which has led to more than one crucial run. When neither Escobar nor Aoki – Aoki being the best contact hitter on the team – could put a ball in play with the Giants playing the infield back, you knew we were in trouble. After Lorenzo Cain worked a tough walk, Eric Hosmer did what you knew he would do and swung out of his shoes at the first pitch – and when Bumgarner changed speeds on him, the result was a soft grounder to second base and the end of the Royals last, best chance to come back.

There’s not much to analyze here. The game lacked drama, which means it lacked any key managerial decisions. You could argue that Ned Yost should have pinch-hit for his lefty bats against sidearming Javier Lopez in the eighth inning, subbing Jayson Nix for Mike Moustakas and Josh Willingham for Nori Aoki. My friend Joe Sheehan certainly did. If the Royals had been down by two runs, or even four runs, I’d feel more adamantly that Yost made a mistake. But the Royals were so far down that, in order to finish off a six-run comeback, those lineup spots would have come up again, and the Royals would be locked into Nix against a right-handed reliever of Bochy’s choosing. Having Willingham in the game wouldn’t be such a disaster, but Aoki has hit LHP better than RHP throughout his career. I see Joe’s point, and he’s probably right, but…I just can’t get too upset about it. This game wasn’t decided by the managers; it was decided by the players. Madison Bumgarner pitched like an ace; James Shields pitched like a guy who was about to cost himself a fair amount of money in free agency.

The silver lining from Shields’ start was that it forced the Royals to use Danny Duffy in a game, and after a rough start – not surprising for a guy who had pitched once in over three weeks and came in with men on base – he was very effective, getting a lot of swinging strikes from Giants hitters in the fifth and sixth. After the sixth inning, he had thrown 50 pitches, and I thought it was time to pull him, because having established that he was effective, and with the Giants having six left-handed bats in their lineup, having two effective left-handed relievers in Duffy and Finnegan would be a huge asset going forward. They needed to pull Duffy there so that he could realistically pitch on two days’ rest in Game 3.

Instead Yost let him start the seventh, although after nine pitches, a walk, and some terrible defense by Aoki that turned a single or double into a triple, he was gone. That’s the one mistake I think Yost should own. The only reason to stretch Duffy there was if you were legitimately thinking that he should start later in the series. And I know a ton of people wanted him to take Shields’ next start after Shields threw up his fourth mediocre to bad start in a row. But…seriously, people, that was never going to happen. You really think that, in his last start in a Royals uniform, Shields was going to have the ball taken away from him? Short of an injury, that just seems impossible. Yost said as much after the game, making it clear that Shields was still his Game 5 starter.

Which is fine, if Shields is on a really tight leash in that game. But if that’s the case, if Duffy isn’t going to start later in this series, then you need him to be available out of the bullpen as soon as possible. Letting him throw extra pitches there, when you had six other relievers who hadn’t pitched in five days and an off-day looming on Thursday, was silly.

The good news is that the Royals lost the Giants’ best pitcher, which could have happened under any circumstances. If the Royals had lost 2-1, it wouldn’t have been as deflating, but it would have been just as damaging to their World Series chances. Tomorrow they face Jake Peavy, who was dominant for the Giants but had a 4.72 ERA with the Red Sox – back when he pitched in the AL – before getting traded at the deadline. In Game 3 they get Tim Hudson, with a 3.57 ERA; in Game 4 they get Ryan Vogelsong, with a 4.00 ERA. If they win tomorrow, they’ll be fine.

But they have to win tomorrow. Let’s not forget – Yordano Ventura left his last start with shoulder tightness, and while he’s had ten days to rest, that’s not something you can just wave away. It’s the World Series. The Royals are down 1-0, and they’re about to start a pitcher who pulled himself from his last start. In Nick Kenney We Trust, but that would make me nervous under the best of circumstances. In a game that would put the Royals in a 2-0 hole if they lose, with three games in San Francisco to come…that makes me borderline terrified.

Let’s not make too much of this. Three weeks after the Royals were six outs from being eliminated, they are 81 outs from being eliminated. As appealing as the dream of going 12-0 was, it was just a dream. There’s nothing wrong with losing a game after winning eight in a row. They just need to win four of their next six, which doesn’t seem like a terribly tall order. But if 24 hours from now they need to win four of their next five…now we’re in trouble.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

World Series Preview.

If this postseason hasn’t convinced you of the folly of trying to predict the outcome of a short series, nothing will. The Royals and Giants, both wild-card entrants who won fewer than 90 games during the season, are a combined 16-2. The Nationals and Angels, who had the best record in their respective leagues, went a combined 1-6. There are national sportswriters – their identities are kept secret to protect the guilty – who have picked the wrong team in all six playoff series so far. Meanwhile, counting the Wild Card game I’m 3-0, thanks to a prediction strategy that boils down to three words: Royals Uber Alles.

So just remember: anything can happen. The Royals could finish off the perfect postseason with a sweep of the Giants, finish the playoffs 12-0 and cement their claim as the greatest postseason team of all time. They could finish off the perfect reprise of the 2007 Rockies and get swept by the Giants. Anything is possible. Everything is in play.

That caveat aside, intellectually, I think you have to favor the Royals, for one simple reason: the American League is better than the National League. (This is where the Rocktober comparison falls apart. Thankfully. The AL went 163-137 against the NL this year, a .543 winning percentage that works out to an 88-74 record. That’s the 11th straight season the AL had a winning record against the NL, and the tenth straight season in which the AL had a winning percentage of at least .520.

So basically, the average AL team would be an 88-74 team in the NL. The Giants finished 88-74. You do the math. (The Royals, mind you, went 15-5 against the NL this season.)

Of course, an intellectual approach is what led so many people to pick the Angels and Orioles. So who the hell knows. But here are what I think are the keys to the series for Kansas City:

1) They have to score runs. This might seem obvious, but after winning Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS with a total of four runs and one extra-base hit, it might be tempting to think that the Royals can win four World Series games by the score of 2-1 or 1-0 or maybe by mixing it up with a 3-2 score. And hey, anything is possible. But let’s keep in mind that in the process of going 8-0 in the playoffs, the Royals have scored 42 runs. (Granted, they’ve played almost nine games given all the extra innings they’ve played.) While they won two games by scoring just two runs, they’ve also won three games by scoring eight or more runs – after they had scored eight or more runs just twice since the end of June.

I don’t really care how they score their runs. They’ve shown this month that they’re capable of scoring runs with the long ball, with speed, and with contact and situational hitting. But by hook or by crook, they need to score four or five runs most nights if they want to win. Even including the playoffs, they are just 20-30 when they score two or three runs, but 24-12 when they score four or five. Offense goes down slightly in October, but just slightly. The Royals have the bullpen and the defense to keep games from getting out of hand, but if they don’t score runs, they may be on the losing end of the 2-1 and 3-2 games instead.

2) They have to beat Madison Bumgarner. At least once. The Royals have been fortunate in that their opponents in both the ALDS and ALCS lacked a true ace; the Angels were missing Garrett Richards, and the Orioles’ rotation was notable for its depth more than its star quality. But Bumgarner is the best starting pitcher they’ve faced since Jon Lester, and they’ll probably face him twice. Yes, they beat Lester, and yes, this postseason has been notable for how little impact ace starters have had, from Clayton Kershaw to Adam Wainwright to the Nationals’ entire rotation. (Not to mention James Shields.) But Bumgarner has been the exception to that rule. He threw a complete-game shutout in the Giants’ Wild Card victory over the Pirates, a game as lacking in drama as the Royals’ game was defined by it. In three starts against the Nationals and Cardinals he threw 23 innings with a 1.99 ERA.

The Royals don’t have to beat him twice, but they have to beat him once. If they do, then they just have to win three of five games against Jake Peavy, Tim Hudson, and Ryan Vogelsong, which seems doable. (This assumes the Giants don’t start Bumgarner on three days’ rest in Games 4 and 7, which seems unlikely, and don’t start Yusmeiro Petit instead of Vogelsong, which is a little less unlikely.) Bumgarner will square off against Shields tonight and probably again in Game 5, and the good news – at least after the fact – is that Shields had been battling kidney stones for the past two weeks, which he has finally passed. No one is blaming his poor performance in his last couple of starts on his kidney stones directly, but you have to hope there’s a correlation, and you have to help that a healthy Shields will be up to the task tonight.

If he’s not, then Game 2 becomes a virtual must-win for the Royals, because if they lose the first two games at home, history says it’s almost impossible for them to come back. I mean, no team had ever won a best-of-seven series after losing the first two games at home until the 1985 Roy…okay, never mind. But still: the last thing the Royals want to do is put themselves in a 2-0 hole. Beat Bumgarner tonight, and they won’t have to worry about that, and they’ll put the Giants on the defensive.

3) The bullpen has to remain close to perfect. It’s easy to assume that a bullpen as good as the Royals is automatic, but it takes just one bad inning to ruin a perfect streak. Given how tight the games are that the Royals have played, and how narrow their margins of victory, it’s not simply one bad inning but one bad pitch. I keep waiting for the HR/FB ratio for Wade Davis and/or Kelvin Herrera to move off of 0.00, and so far it hasn’t happened. Sometimes the season ends before regression arrives, and the Royals are almost there, but the World Series is the time of year when things happen that haven’t happened all season.

It’s not just Davis and Herrera: since the very first batter faced by a Royals reliever in the postseason – Brandon Moss against Yordano Ventura – homered, the bullpen hasn’t allowed a homer in 34.2 innings. It seems unlikely that will continue for much longer. But it doesn’t have to continue much longer. Just seven more games, if that.

4) The outfield defense must conquer AT&T Park. The Royals swept the Giants earlier this year at Kauffman Stadium, which was a very good thing. But it’s almost too bad that the series was in Kansas City instead of San Francisco, because while the Giants’ outfielders are familiar with the K, the Royals’ outfielders aren’t really familiar with AT&T, with its unique dimensions and outfield fences that jut in and out at odd angles.

Nori Aoki, at least, played there a few times when he was with the Brewers, which is good because he plays right field, where AT&T Park seems to have most of its idiosyncrasies. It’s a spacious ballpark, which gives the Royals’ outfielders the space to work their magic. But between the wind and the weird caroms off the walls, you have to worry about potential outs turning into doubles and doubles becoming triples.

The Giants and their opponents combined to hit 32 triples when playing away from AT&T Park, and 58 in San Francisco. Last year, they hit 20 triples away from AT&T Park, and 40 in San Francisco. AT&T Park is the rare ballpark that’s even more favorable for hitting triples than Kauffman Stadium. The Royals have the speed on offense to take advantage of a crazy bounce. If their outfield defense can prevent the Giants from doing the same, they’re going to have an edge there.

5) Ned Yost must continue to manage like October Ned Yost. After putting on a clinic in the ALCS – or at the very least not looking like he was overmatched by Buck Showalter – Yost is matched up against Bruce Bochy, who isn’t quite in Showalter’s class tactically but has two world championships to his name and has won eight consecutive playoff series (nine if you count the Wild Card game). The Giants’ bullpen isn’t quite in the same class as the Royals, but Bochy knows how to work it.

So long as Yost continues to manage with the same sense of urgency that he did in the last round, he should be fine. I see no reason why he would stop – it’s not like the stakes have gotten any lower, and he received a ton of positive reinforcement for his work in that series – both in terms of positive press and in terms of actual victories. The main danger remains that he sticks with Shields or Ventura too long. Given the preponderance of left-handed bats in the Giants’ lineup, there’s also a danger that he gets stuck on the wrong side of too many platoon situations.

But the thing about having three dominant relievers is that Herrera, Davis, and Holland are going to pitch the seventh, eighth, and ninth no matter who is batting. And given how effective they are, that’s absolutely the right thing to do. That frees Yost up to play matchup ball with Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan (and Danny Duffy, should he so choose) in the middle innings. The way this bullpen is set up, it’s hard to imagine a situation where Yost gets caught flat-footed with the wrong reliever on the mound. There just aren’t many wrong relievers on the roster to begin with. As it is, Yost only used nine pitchers in the entire ALCS – neither Duffy nor Tim Collins got into a game. Short of an extra-inning games, it’s quite possible that he won’t need to use more than nine pitchers in this series either – and if he does, well, Duffy was the Royals’ best starter this season, and Collins has no platoon split, making him an acceptable option in a pinch (which is presumably how he’d be used) against both left-handed and right-handed batters.

So I’m pretty confident that Yost won’t screw this up, both because he’s shown an ability to adapt and because he almost can’t screw this up. But confidence is one thing, and seeing it play out in reality is another. I’m already nervous that Yost is giving away a small edge by replacing Christian Colon on the roster with Jayson Nix, for no apparent reason. Andy McCullough points out that Nix is the better defender, which may be true, but it’s only marginally so, and at this moment I think Colon’s offensive edge trumps that.

It wouldn’t matter so much in an earlier round; Colon played all of one inning in the ALCS and didn’t bat at all. But with three games in NL parks, every bench player counts – and because of the need to pinch-hit for your pitchers, it is much more likely that Nix’s roster spot will find itself in a key spot at the plate than in a key spot in the field. Nix may never have to play defense at all – it’s not like Yost is going to bench anyone in his starting lineup, so the only chance for him to play defense is if Yost pinch-runs for Infante or Moustakas late. But he’s almost certain to bat when the Royals are in San Francisco, perhaps in all three games. Yost will probably be reluctant to use Erik Kratz to bat because he doesn’t want to be down to his last catcher, and I’d rather see Jason Vargas (.262/.297/.311 lifetime) bat than Terrance Gore, so Nix would be no worse than the fourth pinch-hit option, after Billy Butler, Josh Willingham, and Jarrod Dyson. And Dyson might be burned up as a pinch-runner/defensive replacement for Nori Aoki, making it quite likely that Nix will be called upon to hit.

This is a problem. Colon is a better hitter, and he fits the Royals’ style of play better – he makes very good contact, and he can bunt. Maybe Nix will come through with a hit when called upon. But consider that, if he does, it will be his first hit ever in a Royals uniform.

6) Salvador Perez has to stop being a cipher offensively. Perez ended a brutal performance in the Wild Card game – 0-for-5, two strikeouts – with the biggest hit of the season. Since then, he’s 3-for-28 with one walk and no extra-base hits. This has to stop.

I’m looking for it to stop tonight. Bumgarner is a left-hander, and while Perez hit worse against southpaws this year, for his career he’s a .307/.349/.503 hitter against LHP. I’m sitting with my brother in the left field bleachers, Section 105, Row B. The last time I sat in the left field bleachers for a Royals game, it was Father’s Day at U.S. Cellular Field, and before the game on Twitter I basically begged a Royals hitter to hit one in my direction. Perez’s homer landed one row and eight seats away. I’m doing my part tonight. It’s time he does his.

Look, do you want analysis, or do you want magic? These are the 2014 Royals, my friends. They defy analysis. But they bring plenty of magic.

Royals in six.

Monday, October 20, 2014


People ask me, “how does it feel that the Royals are in the World Series?” and I don’t know what to tell them.

I don’t know what to tell them because none of this feels entirely real. That moment 23 days ago when the Royals clinched a playoff spot in Chicago – that felt real, because that was the moment that I’ve been dreaming about for decades. The moment when the Royals were relevant. The moment when they played games that mattered. That was really all that I wanted. That was all I felt like I had the right to ask for.

And then 20 days ago they played a game that mattered more than the 4,500 games before it combined, and I was there for it, and it exceeded my every expectation – both as a game and as a victory. I had gotten my wish. The Royals had won a game that mattered, in front of a packed home crowd and a national audience. Everything beyond that point was just an epilogue.

Except the epilogue has been the real story, and everything before it was just the prologue. I apologize for the melodramatic and Shawshank-ian reference, but I almost feel like someone who was unjustly imprisoned for 29 years, dreaming of freedom the whole time, and then the moment came when I was released and overnight I became a cause celebre, a celebrity, and everyone’s asking how it feels to be famous, and all I ever wanted was my freedom. (You’re right. That’s a horrible analogy.) I don’t know how to process any of this. I imagine many of you are feeling the same way. Those of you who live in Kansas City, at least, get the experience of working through this delirious joy with an entire metropolitan area of fans feeling the same way. Out here in the hinterlands, I have to work through these feelings alone.

Well, at least until tomorrow, when I arrive back in Kansas City for Games 1 and 2 OF THE FREAKING WORLD SERIES. Then I can celebrate with all of you. I can hardly wait.

With all the insanity around us, it’s been nearly impossible to find time to write this column. Apparently the World Series is kind of a big deal. Just finding tickets for these games – not just for myself but for my brother, who’s flying down for Game 1, and my wife, who’s flying down for Game 2 – took up more time than it usually takes me to write a column. It’s hard to turn on MLB Network without running into a story on the Royals. It’s hard to go an hour without someone tweeting a new article about the Royals onto my time. It’s crazy. It’s glorious. It’s exhausting.

I have a longer piece on the emotional aspects of watching the Royals in the World Series slated to be published at Grantland tomorrow. For now, all I can do is try to maintain some level of normalcy, and analyze the Royals on the field like I always do.

The Royals finished off the sweep of the Orioles even as their offense reverted to the offense we saw all season: two runs in Game 3 on seven singles and walk, two runs in Game 4 on four singles, a double, and…okay, five walks, plus a key hit-by-pitch and an even more key error. The Royals won both games despite going 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position, and despite not hitting any homers. Any team can go homerless and hitless with runners in scoring position for two games, and it says a lot about how this team is built that they won both games anyway. I’ve seen a lot of teams that were better than the 2014 Royals, but I haven’t seen many better at winning when they had no margin for error. The Royals have beat their playoff opponents eight straight times because they don’t beat themselves.

And in the ALCS, finally, their manager was as mistake-free as the team was. I said before the series that if Ned Yost continued to make the incremental improvements he had made since mid-September, the manager mismatch between him and Buck Showalter might not materialize. But even I wasn’t optimistic enough to predict what happened, which is that Yost not only held his own, but by the end of the series he might have been pushing buttons with greater accuracy than Showalter did. I already talked about how Yost probably left James Shields and Yordano Ventura in too long in Games 1 and 2, although once he went to the bullpen he handled his relievers with the urgency that the situation demanded.

But in Games 3 and 4, perhaps because Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas don’t carry the gravitas of Shields or the blazing fastball of Ventura, Yost went to the whip at the perfect times. He pulled Jeremy Guthrie after five innings and 94 pitches in Game 3, even though Guthrie had retired the last four hitters and nine of the last ten. With the heart of the Orioles lineup coming up for the third time – Adam Jones, Nelson Cruz, and Steve Pearce – Yost turned to Jason Frasor, who took the opportunity to prove once again that he is better than Aaron Crow.

Maybe you can quibble that Yost should have gone straight to Kelvin Herrera for two innings, the same thing he did in Game 1, but because of the rainout prior to Game 3, the Royals were looking at potentially playing five days in a row, so I think it was completely reasonable to try to limit Herrera to one inning. You could quibble that Herrera should have pitched the sixth and Frasor should have faced inferior hitters in the seventh, but that level of manipulation is almost never seen among managers, and frankly I’m not sure the advantage is large enough to risk taking a reliever out of his usual role. And Yost said afterwards that if Frasor had gotten into a jam, Herrera would have come into the game in the sixth inning.

He didn’t have to, though, because Frasor pitched a perfect sixth. Herrera pitched a perfect seventh, Davis a perfect eighth, and Holland a perfect ninth, making it the first time in postseason history that four pitchers each threw at least one inning without allowing any baserunners. And in the other dugout, Buck Showalter let Wei-Yin Chen face three batters in the sixth inning. Aoki singled to lead off the inning, and Eric Hosmer’s single with one out moved pinch-runner Jarrod Dyson to third base. Showalter probably wanted to let Chen face Aoki and Hosmer because they’re both left-handed hitters, but Aoki is the rare left-handed bat who has hit left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching in his career.

Showalter then pulled Chen in favor of Kevin Gausman, but as the Royals have done all postseason (at least since Salvador Perez struck out against Luke Gregerson in the Wild Card game), they put the ball in play with a runner on third and one out. Billy Butler was able to elevate a ball to the outfield, Dyson scored the go-ahead run, and the Royals won.

In Game 4, Yost stuck with Vargas to start the sixth inning, in part because left-handed hitting Nick Markakis was due to bat second. Vargas walked Jonathan Schoop to start the inning – no easy feat – but struck out Markakis, and was pulled immediately. Guthrie faced 20 batters in his start, Vargas 19 – meaning that the two starters combined to face just three batters total for a third time in the game. Herrera came in and got five outs, then Davis did his thing, Holland did his thing, and the Royals were headed to the World Series.

The Royals scored their two runs in Game 4 in the first inning, after Lorenzo Cain became the first #3 hitter to sacrifice bunt in the first inning of a playoff game since Steve Garvey in 1984. As much as I have hated certain bunts this season – you may remember this – I didn’t hate this bunt. It came with men on first and second and none out, which is the situation in which the bunt provides the most benefit. Cain didn’t have the platoon advantage, and with the shadows between the plate and the mound, hitting at that particular moment was a difficult task. And most importantly, the on-deck hitter was in a good position to avoid striking out. Hosmer was on deck, and he struck out just 93 times during the season. The pitcher on the mound, Miguel Gonzalez, was not a strikeout pitcher. Hosmer would have the platoon advantage. The odds that he would strike out with a runner on third base and one out were quite low. He didn’t strike out, Alcides Escobar kicked the throw from Steve Pearce out of the catcher’s glove, and the Royals scored two runs.

Now compare that to Nori Aoki’s bunt in the first inning on September 20th against the Tigers. Aoki bunted with a runner on second only, negating the advantage of moving two runners up a base instead of one. Aoki, like Cain in Game 4, was the hottest hitter in the lineup – the hottest in baseball at the time, honestly – but unlike Cain he also had the platoon advantage. He bunted Escobar to third base for one out, allowing the Royals to score without benefit of a base hit – but the next batter, Josh Willingham, doesn’t make great contact. Willingham had more strikeouts (102) than Hosmer (93) this year despite playing in just 92 games. He hit .215, where Hosmer hit .270. He didn’t have the platoon advantage. And he was facing Max Scherzer, one of the best strikeout pitchers in the game.

Two sacrifice bunts, two wildly different risk-benefit ratios, and two wildly different outcomes. Willingham struck out. Hosmer made contact, and the result was a play which really defined how the Royals have found success on offense all year. Put the ball in play. Run like hell. Get a little lucky. (And I should point out that just like Aoki, Cain was bunting on his own. And just as I ripped Yost for giving Aoki the authority to put such a silly bunt down, I'm going to credit him for letting Cain drop a bunt in a sensible situation.)

One well-managed series doesn’t make Ned Yost a great manager. But you know what? Dick Howser wasn’t considered a great manager when the 1985 postseason dawned. He might not have been a great manager even after the 1985 postseason. But he outfoxed Bobby Cox at the perfect time in the ALCS, and in the World Series (after nearly destroying everything by sticking with Charlie Leibrandt too long in Game 2) he was calm and resolute as the Royals made their amazing comeback in Game 6. Howser tragically never got the chance to prove his mettle again, one way or the other. We’ll never know if he was truly a great manager. What we do know was that, in October 1985, he was the right manager. That’s why he’s in the Royals’ Hall of Fame. If the Royals win four of their next seven games, Ned Yost will always be remembered as the right manager as well. And not only will he be inducted into the Royals’ Hall of Fame – he’ll deserve it.

I told you none of this feels real.