Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Picking The 25.

So after all the hand-wringing in September, after all the panic, after going 11-17 for the Royals’ first losing month since July of 2014, the Royals finish the season in the same way they began the month: with the best record in the American League, with the #1 seed, and with home-field advantage in every round. They jettisoned their Achilles’ heel, which was apparently located in Greg Holland’s right elbow. They got Alex Gordon back, completing one of the best offenses (relative to the league) that the Royals have ever had. And they finished the season on a five-game winning streak, meaning that over the last two years, the Royals have now won 13 consecutive games played between September 30th and October 20th.

All in all, not a terrible way to end the season. If you believe that momentum carries over into the playoffs, then the Royals’ five-game winning streak means you can put their losing September in the rear-view mirror. If, like me, you don’t, then you can put your faith in the fact that the Royals won more games over the course of the entire season than any other AL team. (And given that the AL once again pummeled the NL head-to-head, the Royals’ 95 wins are probably more meaningful than the Cardinals’ 100.)

But the reality is this: the playoffs are a crapshoot. Last year the 89-win Royals beat the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles before losing to the 88-win Giants. If this year, the 95-win Royals fall to the 87-win Yankees or 86-win Astros, well, we can’t say that we didn’t have it coming. One silver lining from last year is that even if the Royals do fall flat on their face this October, no one can claim that this collection of players underachieved. They accomplished last year what you would expect this year’s team to do; if this year’s team earns the fate that you would have expected from last year’s team, they’re even.

And if this year’s team accomplishes what this year’s team is expected to do…well, Kansas City is lovely in late October. I learned that first-hand last year. (Although early November – Game 7 would be played on November 4th – would be a new experience.)

Enough foreplay. Let’s try to figure out the ideal roster.

Start with the ideal hitter/pitcher breakdown. At this point, it would be stunning if the Royals don’t go with a 14/11 split. It’s impossible to justify a 13/12 split, because you don’t need a fifth starter, so even with 11 pitchers you still have seven relievers; you’re not dropping a bullpen arm, you’re dropping Jeremy Guthrie. And with two off-days in every series, pretty much every reliever can pitch in pretty much every game. (The only two times in the entire month that a reliever would potentially have to pitch for a third straight day would be Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series.)

On that basis, you could make a cogent argument for a 15/10 split, carrying just six relievers. I highly doubt that will happen, because the Royals rarely let any reliever throw more than one inning, and if you carry six relievers you’re either carrying six one-inning guys – meaning you could possibly run out of pitchers by the 12th inning – or you’re carrying a long man like Chris Young, in which case you only have five one-inning relievers. I don’t see that happening, particularly because the Royals have so many bullpen options that even whittling it down to six could be difficult.

So let’s assume 14 hitters and 11 pitchers for now. We’ll begin with the pitching staff. Yordano Ventura almost certainly starts Game 1, and Johnny Cueto probably starts Game 2. As if Cueto’s performance the last six weeks hasn’t been frightening enough, in his final regular season start he worked in the 88-91 mph range with his fastball most of the game. No one in the dugout, the front office, or in the broadcaster’s booth seemed the slightest bit concerned, and he did reach back to 93 as the game progressed, and finished off his outing by hitting 94 for the first time with his 100th and final pitch, so maybe he was just resting his arm a bit before the playoffs. That doesn’t explain the ten baserunners in five innings to a makeshift Twins lineup, but at this point I don’t think we have any choice other than to let Cueto take the mound in Game 2 and pray for the best.

Edinson Volquez presumably will start Game 3, and that leaves an interesting choice in Game 4: go with Kris Medlen, who since joining the rotation allowed 26 runs in 44 innings in 8 starts, or go to Chris Young, who had a stellar 3.06 ERA for the season – he was worth 2.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, making him the most valuable pitcher on the team other than Wade Davis – and after returning to the rotation at the end of the season, allowed four hits and one run in 11.1 innings?

I suspect they will go with Medlen, in large part because Chris Young is an extreme flyball pitcher, and Game 4 will be a road game, meaning it will be at either Minute Maid Park or at New Yankee Stadium, both of which are places where fly balls turn into cheap home runs. (This is also the case for Globe Life Park in Arlington and at the Rogers Center, making Young a poor choice to start any road game before the World Series.) It is true – if quite surprising – that Young actually had a lower ERA (2.52) on the road this season than at home (3.66). But it’s also true that the Royals did a very good job of spotting Young in ballparks that are tough to hit home runs in. In the two bandboxes (U.S. Cellular and Yankee Stadium) that he started at this year, Young allowed four home runs in 11 innings.

So my suspicion is that Medlen starts Game 4, particularly if the game is at Yankee Stadium, both because of the ballpark and because the Yankees are just crawling with left-handed hitters – counting switch-hitters they might start seven or even eight left-handed hitters in the lineup. Young, who relies on a slider, had a big platoon split this year, although his career splits are pretty standard. But Medlen, who has a very good changeup, actually has allowed a slightly lower OPS for his career vs. LHB (665) than vs. RHB (675). While hitters’ platoon splits generally regress to the mean over the long run, that is not true for pitchers – a pitcher’s platoon split is heavily dependent on his repertoire as well as his arm angle. The Astros are likely to start at least four right-handed bats (Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Gattis), making Young a more viable option against them.

And here’s something else to consider: what if the Royals go into Game 4 down two games to one in the series? And what if Cueto got bombed in Game 2? In that case, would you consider bringing Ventura back on three days’ rest to start Game 4, and then using Young at Kauffman Stadium in Game 5? If playing the Astros, I’d say no – you’re going to have to win with Young either way, so just let him start in Houston in Game 4 and let Ventura go on full rest in Game 5. But if the Royals are playing at Yankee Stadium, and the alternative is letting Medlen or Young pitch on the road in an elimination game…I’m just saying it’s something that has to be considered.

Regardless, Medlen and Young are both on the playoff roster, one as a starter, one as a long man. That leaves room for six relievers. Wade Davis pitches the ninth, and Ryan Madson – not Kelvin Herrera – pitches the eighth. (The Royals seem to agree; they had Herrera setting up for Madson on Thursday when they gave Davis the day off.) Herrera not only may have lost the eighth inning role – he might have ceded the seventh inning to Danny Duffy, who was brilliant in the pen: 8.1 innings, 4 hits, two walks, 12 Ks, no runs. Particularly against the Yankees, Duffy’s ability to shut down left-handed hitters could be one of the keys to the series.

Duffy gives the Royals an option they didn’t have with HDH last year – a left-handed relief weapon, which means that Ned Yost is better off positioning him to pitch when a run of left-handed hitters is coming up rather than pigeonholing him into a specific inning. Hopefully we’ll see Duffy anywhere from the sixth to the eighth, depending on the situation, with Herrera and Madson working around him. The Royals deserve to be applauded for not only moving Duffy to the bullpen when they did, but trying him as a one-inning relief weapon as opposed to a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long man. I’m really excited to see what a healthy Duffy does as a playoff reliever.

His new role gives the Royals four elite relievers, which means there’s really no reason for any starter to go more than five innings in a game. I mean, if Ventura is blowing smoke and making curveballs disappear, I suppose you can stick with him into the sixth and seventh, and if the old Johnny Cueto magically appears, I’d consider it with him too. But there’s no reason – NO REASON – why Volquez or Medlen or Young should ever see the sixth inning.

That leaves two more roster spots, which clearly go to Luke Hochevar (3.73 ERA, 4.00 FIP) and Franklin Morales (3.18 ERA, 3.52 FIP). Hochevar and Morales are roughly equivalent to Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan last year. The difference is, thanks to Duffy, this year they’re the 5th and 6th options in the bullpen, whereas last year Frasor and Finnegan were 4th and 5th. Maybe this bullpen isn’t quite as dominant at the back end, but it’s even deeper than last year’s.

(This is another place where Greg Holland’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. If he were healthy enough to pitch, the Royals would have felt obliged to carry him on the roster, which either would have meant bumping off a better pitcher, or more likely, tempted the Royals to carry 12 pitchers and hobble their bench.)

That leaves us with 14 hitters, and the one real choice the Royals have to make. Eight guys are obvious: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Kendrys Morales. Drew Butera makes the roster because otherwise if Perez gets hurt all the pitches will roll to the backstop, and that’s not good. Jarrod Dyson will reprise his role as defensive replacement and pinch-runner extraordinaire if he’s not starting. Christian Colon will almost certainly be the utility infielder; he quietly hit .290/.356/.336 in the majors this year – his career line (granted, in just 168 plate appearances) is .303/.361/.382. The only alternative would be Cheslor Cuthbert, who has never played shortstop and has played second base for a grand total of 28 innings as a professional. So that’s not going to happen.

That leaves three roster spots and four options to fill them. Alex Rios is almost certain to get one of them as the starting right fielder. After a five-week hot stretch sandwiched around a bout of chicken pox – Rios hit .382/.387/.584 over a 24-game stretch – he finished the season in a 2-for-29 slump. Still, the Royals are convinced his overall line of .255/.287/.353 isn’t indicative of his ability. He did hit better from September 1st on (.259/.286/.424), and if you want to draw the line all the way back to the All-Star Break, he hit .267/.302/.400 in the second half. Even those numbers aren’t great, and his defense is below average, so I’m still not sure why they stick with him over Jarrod Dyson, at least against right-handed pitchers. But having started 23 of the Royals’ last 25 games after returning from his varicella-induced absence, it would be rather shocking for Rios to suddenly be benched now.

That leaves one of the following three players off the roster: Paulo Orlando, Terrance Gore, and Jonny Gomes. All three have their appeal. Orlando can do a bit of everything: he can pinch-run for you and give you excellent speed on the bases, if not necessarily an excellent base-stealer; he can come in for defense; and if he has to bat, well, his .249/.269/.444 line was better than Rios’ line overall.

Gomes does one thing: he hits left-handed pitchers. This is a highly useful skill. It is not clear whether this skill is still intact, however – Gomes’ slash line against LHP this year was just .221/.371/.412. And even if it is, it’s not clear how the Royals would deploy it.

Gore does one thing: he runs (and steals) the bases. This is not nearly as useful a skill as the ability to hit left-handed pitchers. If he enters the game as a pinch-runner, he almost has to be replaced by the next half-inning. Not only is he not ready to hit in the major leagues, he’s not particularly ready to field in the major leagues.

However, Gore does his one thing basically as well as any player in the major leagues does any one thing. He is the human incarnation of Ludicrous Speed. He is a completely useless waste of a roster spot unless and until a specific moment materializes that requires a man who has a very particular set of skills. And in that moment, there may not be a man on planet Earth more suited for it than Terrance Gore.

Someone has to be left off the roster, and I don’t know who it will be. I don’t know who it should be. Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d say it should be Alex Rios, because I’m not sure there’s anything that Rios does right now any better than Orlando, and Orlando has a substantial defensive advantage on him. (According to Defensive Runs Saved, Orlando was +8 runs in barely 600 innings in the field. Rios was -6 runs in 105 starts in right field.) Between Orlando, Gomes, and Dyson, the Royals could cobble together a pretty good right fielder and still have some options on the bench.

But if you’re going to start Rios, the choice of who to leave off becomes a lot less clear. Do you really need Orlando, who can do lots of things in a pinch but doesn’t do anything well enough to make you want to reach for him in an emergency? Do you really need Gomes to hit against a left-handed pitcher, given that unlike last year – when Josh Willingham pinch-hitting for Moustakas in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game saved the Royals’ season – it’s unlikely you’ll ever pinch-hit for Moustakas, or Gordon, or Hosmer, the three left-handed hitters in your lineup? Do you really need Gore when, by starting Rios, you’ve already got one of the five fastest runners in baseball on the bench in Dyson?

I think the decision is close enough that the best answer is simply “it depends”. It depends on the opponent: if you play the Astros, with Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir and a left field fence that’s just 318 feet down the line, then you probably roster Gomes and maybe even start him in right field at Minute Maid Park when Keuchel takes the mound for Game 3. If you play the Yankees, whose only left-handed starter (C.C. Sabathia) just checked into rehab, it’s hard to see how Gomes will get into a game. It depends on the ground rules: in the World Series, where you need several pinch-hitters to bat for your pitchers in three of the games, Gomes would need to be rostered.

Like I said: the easy solution would be to take Rios off the roster and take your chances with everyone else. The Royals think they know better. Given their track record over the last two years, then, I fully expect Rios to come through with a crucial hit at some point this month. Given all the good hitters in front of him, he certainly won’t lack for opportunities.

The Royals always reserve the right to surprise us – remember, Jayson Nix was on the World Series last year over Christian Colon, and Nix has as many career hits for the Royals as I do. But looking at this roster, at least until Omar Infante gets healthy, there are really just 26 guys that merit any consideration for the playoff roster. One guy will get left off, and no matter who they choose, it’s hard to screw that decision up significantly. In terms of the personnel available to them, the Royals head to the postseason in as good a shape as they’ve been in all season.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Royals Today: Game 162 Preview.

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.