As I write this, in the wee hours of the morning before Game 162, we know that the Royals have won the AL Central and will have home field advantage in the ALDS which starts on Thursday. Pretty much everything else is in play. We don’t know if they’ll have the #1 or #2 seed. Even if we did, we don’t know who the AL West champion is; while we know the Yankees will be one of the participants in the Wild Card game, their opponent could be the Rangers, Astros, or Angels, and the game may or may not be at Yankee Stadium.
We don’t even know whether we should be rooting for the Royals to have the #1 seed or not, because while it would be nice to have home field advantage for the ALCS, 1) penciling the Royals in to face the Blue Jays in the ALCS is quite the presumption given that 2) you have to win the ALDS first, and the Royals might be better off facing the Rangers as the #2 seed than the Astros as the #3 seed. Except that 3) the Rangers might yet lose the division anyway and 4) the Angels can’t be counted out just yet, not after the game of the year today, when they scored five runs in the top of the ninth to overcome a 10-6 deficit, with the winning run driven in by – who else? – Johnny Giavotella.
The fear factor of the first round depends on the team the Royals face, yes, but it also depends on the starting pitcher they are likely to face twice in the series. For the Rangers, that would probably be Cole Hamels – even though the Rangers have to turn to Hamels tomorrow to secure the division, meaning he wouldn’t be able to start on full rest until Game 2 of the ALDS. Because there are off days after Game 2 and after Game 4 of the ALDS, he could still start on full rest in Game 5 if need be. (I understand why MLB does it for scheduling reasons, to prevent too many days with four playoff games, but the LDS round is particularly punishing to teams with a lot of pitching depth. With all the off days, depth simply isn’t that important.)
For the Yankees, presumably their Game 1 starter will be Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino would start Game 2, and either one could return in Game 5 if need be. Severino, in particular, is a wild card for me – he’s just 21 years old and has made just 11 major league starts, but his stuff is electric and he has a 2.89 ERA in those 11 starts. The Royals seem to have difficulty with rookie pitchers, maybe because they’re rookies, or maybe because they’ve simply never faced the pitcher before. They’ve never faced Severino.
But the guy who scares me the most is Dallas Keuchel. Partly, that’s because of Keuchel’s greatness – a 2.48 ERA, a league-leading ERA+ (161) and WHIP (1.017) – and partly that’s because of his style as a pitcher. He’s left-handed, and the Royals have hit left-handers worse than right-handers this year. However, that disparity has dropped dramatically since mid-season; through Friday’s game, the Royals had a .736 OPS vs. RHP, and a .729 OPS vs. LHP. Adding Ben Zobrist helped, but a big factor is that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have hit left-handers very well in the second half. Moustakas, in particular, has hit lefties almost as well for the season (.272/.327/.475) as he has hit right-handers (.287/.353/.462). And Alex Gordon actually has a higher OPS vs. southpaws (.829) than right-handers (.793).
But I’m still nervous, because single-season platoon splits aren’t very predictive at all. In the long run, virtually all hitters will hit better against opposite-handed pitchers, and left-handed hitters tend to have larger splits than right-handed hitters (because they face left-handed pitchers much less often than right-handed hitters face right-handed pitchers). It’s possible, at the very least, that Hosmer and especially Moustakas have made adjustments against left-handers so that they’re not completely impotent against them. Keuchel still worries me, though, because in addition to being left-handed, he’s also a finesse guy that uses an opposing hitter’s aggressiveness against him. His fastball averaged 89.6 mph this year, which is amazing, that a guy who throws less than 90 could win the Cy Young Award in this era of high velocity. While I can’t find hard data to corroborate or refute this (if you know where to look, please tell me), my sense is that the Royals handle velocity very well; they don’t handle deception and breaking stuff nearly as well.
Regardless, everyone has had trouble against Keuchel this season. Yes, he has a crazy home/road split this year: 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA on the road. And yes, if he starts twice against the Royals, both starts will come in Kansas City. But again, single-season splits simply don’t come with a large enough sample size to be truly meaningful. Keuchel is a tough pitcher to face no matter what park he’s in.
The Royals may not face him twice, though, because he could start the Wild Card game on three days’ rest, and there’s no point in saving him for an ALDS matchup that may not happen. But the Astros had the chance to pull him early Friday night – they led 7-1 going to the bottom of the fifth, and 10-2 going to the bottom of the sixth – and still let Keuchel throw six innings and 99 pitches. Obviously, I’m biased, but if the Astros play in the Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium (and again, everything’s up in the air!), Keuchel would appear to be the perfect pitcher for that park – a left-handed extreme groundball pitcher is the antidote for that bandbox.
So the Royals could wind up with the #1 seed and a terrible matchup against a well-rested Dallas Keuchel in the ALDS, or they could face an Angels team that had to win Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday just to earn the right to play in Kansas City on Thursday. (The Angels’ starter would, I presume, be Hector Santiago, who is sort of a poor man’s Keuchel himself.) For now, just enjoy the show, and enjoy the rare spectacle of other teams fighting down to the wire for the opportunity to play the Royals.
I want to talk about what the playoff roster should look like, but I can’t move forward without addressing the elephant in the room: as if he was trolling me for writing glowing praise about his managerial skills this season, almost as soon as my last article went up, Ned Yost undid five months of evolutionary improvement to the Royals lineup and moved Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. Never mind that Escobar has been one of the worst everyday hitters in baseball this season, and the absolute worst everyday hitter in baseball since the All-Star Break. Never mind that they had not one, but two prototypical leadoff hitters in Gordon and Zobrist. They won with Escobar leading off, and by golly they’re going to lead him off again.
With Escobar batting at the bottom of the lineup, the Royals had gone 6-11. Of course, the offense wasn’t the problem; until the last two games prior to ending the experiment, the Royals had actually scored more runs per game with Escobar batting 9th than when he led off. But apparently the collapse of the pitching staff in September can be blamed on the order in which the batters were arranged, or something. After the Royals scored two runs in two games against the Cubs and White Sox, Escobar was restored to his former place of glory.
And, of course, since Escobar returned to the leadoff spot they’ve won four straight. They’ve scored 19 runs in those four games, a healthy 4.75 per game average but not much higher than their 4.46 runs/game average for the season. They’ve won four straight because, you guessed it, the pitching: they’ve allowed just nine runs. It makes no sense, and Yost doesn’t even try to make the claim that it does. But whether it’s to preserve clubhouse harmony or simply out of superstition, the Royals will attempt to win the World Series by giving a .257/.294/.321 hitter more plate appearances than anyone else.
Obviously, I disagree, because I think this hurts the Royals in multiple ways. Giving Escobar more at-bats hurts, but so does moving Alex Gordon to the bottom of the lineup. It’s not simply that Gordon is a really good hitter and you want your really good hitters to bat more; it’s that he leads the team with a .376 OBP, and by batting him eighth, you are taking the guy in your lineup that’s most likely to reach base, and handing the job of delivering him home to…the two worst hitters in your lineup, Alex Rios and Escobar. If Gordon were more of an all-or-nothing slugger you could justify having him be the cleaner at the end of the chain of good hitters. And perhaps he’ll change his approach to do just that; he certainly has the raw power to do so. But his skill set is optimized to set the table, and the Royals just put their best tablesetter in front of two guys who don’t know how to clear it.
And then there’s the whole issue of taking the heart of your entire franchise, the longest-tenured player on the roster, the guy that everyone else in the clubhouse is told to emulate, an impending free agent that you really don’t want to lose next year…and demoting him to eighth in the lineup. That seems unwise.
But I can’t say with certainty that it is. Stuff goes on behind closed doors that we simply don’t know about. It’s possible that Gordon is completely on board with batting 8th; it’s even possible that he proposed the move himself. I just wrote about how good Yost has been this year (and in fairness, he’s always been good about this) at winning the confidence of his players, and maybe that’s the case again here. (The New York Times ran a very good article on Yost on this very subject the other day; just ignore the non sequiturs in the piece regarding analytics.) I can prove mathematically that the new Royals lineup hurts the team on the field; I can’t prove that it doesn’t help them off the field.
And it’s very easy to overstate the impact that a lineup can have. Let’s say that the difference between the new lineup and the old one is somewhere between 23 and 32 runs over the course of a season, which seems reasonable. That’s an enormous difference, between two and three wins a year. A free agent that was guaranteed to be worth 2-3 wins above replacement would cost you, on a one-year deal, something like $15 million. It stands to reason, then, that this simple lineup decision would cost the Royals $15 million over the course of an entire season.
And yet, in a short series, the cost can be quite minimal. 23 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a seven-game series; 32 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a five-game series. The Royals are sacrificing one run per series for the sake of clubhouse harmony, or confidence, or voodoo. One run can decide a game, and one game can decide a series, but the odds are something like 95% that it won’t. It’s possible that the Royals will get that one run back in ways we can’t detect with this move. But even if they don’t: it’s one run. If the Royals lose a playoff game when Escobar makes the final out with the go-ahead run in scoring position, we’ll howl at the moon. For now, we’ll wait and see. It’s not like we have any choice in the matter.
Next up: figuring out the ideal makeup of the 25-man roster, and everyone’s role in it.