Sunday, September 27, 2015

Final Week Prep.

Just one article in and already I have to issue a correction. Obviously, I’m rusty.

- Many of you pointed out that in my last article, I wrongly stated that in the best-of-five LCS era (1969-84), that home field advantage was awarded to the team with the better record. Apparently, as with the World Series, home field simply alternated between West and East divisions. While the 102-win Yankees had home field advantage on the 97-win Royals in 1980, the year before the 88-win Angels actually had home field advantage on the 102-win Orioles. This would explain the AAHHH format; the “advantage” was quite minimal, as the team without home field advantage would get to play one additional home game in the event of a sweep. My apologies for the error.

- After clinching their first divisional title in 30 years on Thursday, on Friday the Royals trotted out a lineup that would get a stern phone call from the Commissioner had it been fielded in March. Only two regulars (Ben Zobrist and Alex Rios) were in the lineup. Drew Butera was in the lineup – at first base.

The situation – late September, a team playing a bunch of bench players and September call-ups, a team that was probably half hungover, facing a really good power pitcher – had all the elements of a no-hitter. Rios avoided that ignominy by lacing a clean single in the seventh, but it was the only hit the Royals would garner on the day. This ended a streak of 427 consecutive games in which the Royals had at least 3 hits, a streak which started in May of 2013. It was the longest streak in Royals history, and the 25th-longest streak in major league history. (If you count the playoffs last year, the streak was 442 games, which would rank 22nd.)

I realize I’m a geek and care about this stuff waaaay too much, but I thought the streak was a neat representation of what the Royals are so good at – making contact as well as any team in history, making them almost impossible to no-hit. I mean, in that same time frame the Mariners got two hits or less in a game 16 times. The Dodgers got no-hit twice in the span of barely a week earlier this year. I figured the streak would come to an end eventually. I just would have like it to be in a game in which the Royals were actually trying.

Anyway, continuing where we left off last column, here are the other two topics of discussion I wanted to bring up:

3) While the worst thing that can happen to any team right before the playoffs is an injury, the Royals are constructed to weather an injury at almost any position on the field.

This really struck me when the Royals traded for Jonny Gomes, of all people, right before the playoff roster deadline on August 31st. It’s a testament to Dayton Moore and his staff that the way the Royals are built right now, if any individual player happens to get hurt, they can replace him and keep right on humming with minimal disruption.

The lynchpin to this phenomenon is Zobrist, of course, one of the most versatile players of the last 25 years; the only player I can think of in my lifetime who combined his offensive prowess with his ability to play both the outfield and the (non-first-base) infield well is Tony Phillips, who retired in 1999.

Obviously, if Gordon gets hurt, Zobrist is your new left fielder. If Moustakas gets hurt, Zobrist is probably your new third baseman, given that he has started a few times at third base in place of Moustakas against a tough left-hander. If Zobrist gets hurt…well, until two weeks ago Omar Infante probably would have won his job back, but it says something about how much the makeup of this team has changed that when Infante pulled his oblique nine days ago, knocking him out for at least the start of the playoffs, an injury which would have caused a significant portion of the fan base to celebrate back in July – don’t lie to yourself, you know it’s true – was met with a collective shrug.

At this point, I assume Zobrist’s replacement would be Christian Colon, who in his major league career – Small sample size alert! Only 161 plate appearances! – has hit .308/.365/.390. The Royals could do a lot worse. (And for five months, they did.) So if they have to move Zobrist to third base or left field, Colon would take over second base and the offensive hit would be contained.

If Escobar gets hurt, the Royals would lose a substantial amount defensively, but might actually gain on offense. I assume Colon would play shortstop and Zobrist would play second base, because at this point I doubt they’d rather keep Zobrist at his more comfortable position than flip-flop the two.

If Cain gets hurt, they’ll just slip in Dyson. If Rios gets hurt, they have several options, all of whom might actually improve the team: Paulo Orlando in right field, or Dyson in center and Cain in right field, or against a left-handed pitcher, they could gamble with Jonny Gomes out there.

If Morales gets hurt, then against a right-handed starter they could move Dyson to CF, Cain to RF, and Rios to DH. And this is where the acquisition of Gomes got me thinking about this: against a left-handed starter, whereas before they’d probably have played Orlando, Orlando doesn’t have much of a platoon split. Gomes does, and at DH his defensive inadequacies are irrelevant.

If Hosmer gets hurt, then Morales moves to first base and the above paragraph still apples.

The pitching staff is even easier to cover because the Royals have a number of swingmen who can start or relieve, and because they only need four starting pitchers. Right now, the playoff rotation looks like Cueto, Ventura (in some order), Volquez, and Medlen (in some order). But if any of them get hurt, the Royals don’t even have to touch Danny Duffy, who appears poised to be quite the weapon out of the bullpen in the playoffs; they’ll just turn to Chris Young. Frankly, after Medlen’s last start, and after what we saw from Young this afternoon (pitching on the day after his father passed away, no less), you could make a strong case that Young should be in the rotation anyway.

I’ll confess that I haven’t really understood how the Royals have used Young in the second half of the season. Young stepped into the Royals’ rotation on May 1st and basically held it together for six weeks; over his first eight starts he allowed 12 runs in 47 innings. He then hit a rough patch, with a 5.09 ERA over his next eight starts, and the Royals demoted him to the bullpen when they acquired Johnny Cueto. This made sense; Young had worn down terribly last season, and the Royals wanted to keep his arm fresh for the playoffs. I assumed that they would return him to the rotation in September and if he pitched well he’d be a candidate for the playoff rotation.

But he became basically an afterthought for two months. Prior to today he had thrown just 12.1 innings in nearly two months in the bullpen, allowing five runs. Even after the Royals decided it was time to prepare Duffy for a role in the bullpen for the playoffs, they selected Jeremy Guthrie to replace him. It was only after Guthrie gave up nine runs in 2.1 innings on Tuesday that they decided to give Young another shot. And as he did in his very first start of the year, Young threw five no-hit innings before getting pulled because his arm hadn’t been stretched out enough to continue.

Chris Young is the first pitcher since at least 1914 (which likely means ever) to get pulled from a no-hitter after completing at least five innings twice in the same season. Young gave up no hits in a start (2) more times this year than Guthrie gave up no runs in a start (1).

Anyway, Young will probably get one more start this coming week, and if Medlen struggles again the Royals will have a tough decision to make. Complicating things is that you really don’t want Young starting in a park with short fences, and the Royals’ likely opponents in the AL playoffs (Toronto, New York, Houston, Texas) all play in cozy ballparks. That would necessitate using Young only for a home game, but at least in the ALDS, that would require him to start Games 1, 2, or 5, which obviously won’t happen. If the Royals don’t end up with home field against Toronto in the ALCS, Young might be a good choice to start Game 3 or 4 at Kauffman Stadium.

The point is, the Royals have depth in the rotation. If anyone goes down, they’re covered.

And the bullpen is so deep that we’re already seeing what happens when their #1 reliever for the last four years loses his fastball: everyone just moves up a slot, and their relievers for the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings are still Ryan Madson (2.24 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (2.70 ERA), and Wade Davis (0.97 ERA). For the 6th inning they’ll have to decide between Luke Hochevar, and Franklin Morales, and oh yeah Duffy throws 96-97 from the left side and since moving to the pen has allowed two hits and one walk while whiffing eight batters in 5.2 innings. Somehow, they’ll survive.

That leaves, then, exactly one indispensable player: Salvador Perez. Drew Butera is a fine backup catcher who plays excellent defense, has hair that I would kill for, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Kevin Costner’s dad in Field of Dreams. But his career offensive line, in over 800 plate appearances, is .186/.242/.268. His .206 batting average this year is easily a career best. He’s been worth negative 1.6 bWAR in his career. Salvy has his weaknesses, but he’s light-years better than any other option the Royals have behind the plate. It’s time to package his knees in bubble wrap from now until the start of the playoffs.

The #1 goal for the Royals right now, as it would be for any team wrapping up its division with over a week left to go, is simply to enter the playoffs with their roster at full health. It is to their good fortune that they appear to be that way for now – and the most important player who isn’t healthy might have just made the roster better by acknowledging his injury. If they go into the playoffs with their roster as healthy as it is right now, they’ll be in excellent shape. But it’s reassuring to know that Dayton Moore has built this roster so that if the worst-case scenario happens at the worst possible time, they’re as prepared as any team reasonably can be.

4) Very quietly, Ned Yost has had a TERRIFIC year as a manager, building on the adaptations he made late last year to be a solid tactician, while running the clubhouse damn near perfectly.

In my Grantland article earlier this month, I focused on how the success of the 2015 Royals forced me to rethink Dayton Moore’s legacy. I barely touched on how their success has altered my perception of Ned Yost, because believe it or not Grantland does hold me to a word limit, and the article was bursting at the seams anyway.

But Yost has had an excellent season as a manager, and like Moore, I think the evidence points towards Yost having changed and improved on the job rather than having been an excellent manager all along. I might argue that his success in 2015 has been less surprising than Moore’s. While even this past off-season – the time of year when Moore’s job is most visible – there was a lot of skepticism about the work he had done (Kendrys Morales? Edinson Volquez?), in Yost’s case his improvement as a manager started around September 14, 2014 – a.k.a. the Aaron Crow pitches to Daniel Nava game – and was evident throughout the playoffs. The question with Yost was whether he could maintain the improved focus that he showed last October for an entire season.

And I’d say he’s passed that test. First off: the Royals have continued what is now a three-season run as one of the greatest bullpens in major league history. Even with a terrible September (a 4.36 ERA so far this month; the highest ERA in any other month this year was 2.80), the Royals’ bullpen has a 2.72 ERA overall, the best in the American League. Here are the lowest bullpen ERAs among AL teams in the last 25 years:

2013 Royals: 2.55
2014 Mariners: 2.59
2015 Royals: 2.72
1992 Brewers: 2.78
2005 Indians: 2.80

Of the three lowest bullpen ERAs in the AL in the last quarter-century, two belong to the Royals within the last three years. In the other season, they were the only team in major league history with three pitchers that relieved 50+ times with ERAs under 1.50.

Yes, the Royals have an abundance of talent in their pen. Yes, they have a half-dozen guys who can throw 95. But at some point, doesn’t Ned Yost deserve credit for the fact that year after year, he gets great results from these guys? Look at the 2014 Mariners: they had one of the best bullpens in recent memory. This year, their 4.08 ERA is good for 23rd in the majors. Bullpens go up and down because relievers go up and down.

The Royals’ bullpen isn’t immune. Kelvin Herrera wasn’t great in 2013; Greg Holland was a shell of his former self this year. Wade Davis was a starter in 2013. But in 2013 Luke Hochevar was great. This year, Ryan Madson came back from the dead, and Franklin Morales made a successful transition to the bullpen. Brandon Finnegan went from college to the majors in three months and was a difference maker last year; despite being shuttled back and forth from Omaha to Kansas City this year, he pitched well when he did pitch. Being a successful relief pitcher is as much about confidence and fearlessness as pure stuff, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Royals have had so many successful relievers when they have a manager who is great about instilling confidence in his players – both in themselves and in their manager.

Yost has always been well-regarded for his ability to command a clubhouse, and insomuch as we can judge such things from the outside, it looks like he’s done a fantastic performance in that regard this year. The Royals have plowed through a number of distractions this season, not the least of which being that they brawled with four different teams before May was out and were being labeled The Bad Boys of Baseball. The players had each other’s back then and kept winning. They stuck with Yordano Ventura through his struggles and immaturity, and Ventura responded with the best performances of his career in August. Yost and the front office stuck with Mike Moustakas despite his struggles for the last 2+ years, and he responded with a new and vastly improved hitting approach this season. And so on.

There is one overarching rule that governs Ned Yost’s handling of his players: never, ever, ever criticize your players in public. Always, always, always, defend them to the hilt. It can drive those of us who watch the team crazy, because at times it seems like the Royals are refusing to acknowledge reality. But there is a method to the madness. The Royals’ players would run through a brick wall for Yost. And when he does finally have to acknowledge reality and break the news to a struggling player, he does so with a minimum of drama.

For all the fights the Royals had with other teams early in the year, there’s never been a sign of any fighting within the team. Yes, this is partly because Dayton Moore isn’t dumb enough to trade for Jonathan Papelbon, but still, this appears to be a clubhouse in which everyone gets along. And precisely because Yost will defend his players to the hilt, and because he will stick with a struggling veteran past the point of prudence, when he does have to drop the axe on a struggling veteran, he has done so without fear of a mutiny. Think of the players who have lost their job over the last six weeks: Omar Infante, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy, and most complicated of all, Greg Holland (before he finally consented to an MRI that showed his elbow was fried) – none of them have complained publicly about their demotion. That might not sound like anything special, but players are always the last to know when their time is up. That none of them popped off speaks well to the way Yost handled their situations.

The counter to that is that Yost probably cost the Royals a game or two by sticking with Infante and Holland and Guthrie as long as he did. To which I would say, when you have a double-digit lead in the division by the first week of August, you can sacrifice a game or two for the greater good of the team, getting your roster in the frame of mind it needs to perform its best in October. And as October approaches, Yost has made exactly the tweaks that we’ve been wanting him to make. Infante got benched (before pulling an oblique muscle which might keep him out the rest of the season). Guthrie is a well-paid cheerleader now. Holland not only lost his closer’s job, but was told he wouldn’t be pitching any meaningful innings, which is what finally prompted him to accept the inevitable and get his elbow checked out. And Alcides Escobar was moved to the bottom of the lineup, with the result that the Royals’ six best hitters now bat 1 through 6.

And if sticking with his veterans for a little too long didn’t help Infante or Guthrie or Holland snap out of their funks, it may have paid dividends with Alex Rios, who over the past six weeks has played like the Rios that the Royals thought they were signing up for. That doesn’t mean you just throw out his terrible performance before that – selective endpoints and whatnot – but given that Rios got his hand broken after a hot first week of the season and terrific spring training, it is at least possible that his struggles when he returned were partly the fault of some lingering pain and weakness. In any case, the Royals don’t have a clearly better solution in right field; I like Jarrod Dyson and would prefer to see him start against right-handed pitching, but as the playoffs start, if the biggest disagreement I have with Ned Yost tactically is over whether Dyson or Rios should start in right field, I’d say he’s doing alright for himself.

Yost hasn’t suddenly become a tactical genius; he still doesn’t pinch-hit enough, and sometimes pinch-runs at strange times, like wasting Terrance Gore to run for Kendrys Morales when Morales didn’t represent the tying or winning run in the 9th inning on Wednesday. But he’s no longer a tactical liability. And when it comes to the really important part of his job – the stuff that he does from 10 pm to 7 pm, not the other way around – Yost is exceptional. He’s talked about retiring in the not-too-distant future, but I hope he sticks around for at least another couple of years. Having become a truly excellent manager in the twilight of his career, it would be a shame for him to not put his new-found talents to use for a while.