Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Legacy Of The 2015 Royals, Part 3.

I know I may be too hung up on the final game of the World Series, but I need to document it here so I’ll have a way to look back on this when I’m 90 years old and my memory is failing me. One of the things that made the 2015 Royals not just a championship season but a storybook season was the way it ended. Game 5 of the World Series hearkened back to earlier moments in the Royals’ playoff run over and over again. In particular, the events of Game 5 and the events of last year’s Wild Card Game, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the two best games of the past two seasons, are connected in a way that’s almost eerie. One game was played on the last day of September – the earliest playoff game in Royals history – and the other was played on the first day of November, making it the latest game in Royals history.

If they were to ever make a movie about these Royals, imagine a series of flashbacks occurring before each of these plays.

- Lorenzo Cain leading off the top of the ninth: a flashback to him leading off the bottom of the eighth against Toronto in Game 6 with a walk, and him drawing a walk in the top of the eighth against the Mets in Game 4, set to the words of someone (in my mind it’s Mike Moustakas) screaming out, “keep the line moving!”

In 16 playoff games this year, Cain drew 11 walks. Granted, three were intentional, but even eight walks in 16 games was a much higher rate than his seasonal total of 37 (a career-high!) in 140 games. As a team, the Royals were only a tiny bit more patient than in the playoffs as they were during the regular season – they drew 2.38 unintentional walks per game in the postseason, compared to 2.19 UIBB/game during the regular season. But Cain, perhaps getting a great view of Ben Zobrist’s plate appearances from the on-deck circle, fought for three difficult walks – all three came on full counts, one in a seven-pitch at-bat and the other two on eight-pitch at-bats – in three crucial situations.

- Eric Hosmer, batting next: a flashback to his triple off Dan Otero in the Wild Card game last year. Or perhaps, if the footage exists somewhere, a flashback to his performance in the Texas League playoffs in 2010, which I was calling the greatest clutch display by a Royals player since 1985. (Hosmer homered six times in the playoffs. Twice he batted in the eighth or later with the Northwest Arkansas Naturals facing elimination; both times he homered to tie the game. The Naturals would win the championship.) I know it’s not rational, but ever since his 2010 performance I’ve thought of him as someone who would never let the pressure of the moment get to him. Nothing that happened last postseason, when he hit .351/.439/.544, changed my mind. I expected him to have another monster October.

And then he hit .212/.236/.288 in the playoffs this year. He was terrible…except, somehow, he drove in 17 runs in 16 games. Multiply his numbers by 10, and imagine a player over a full season hitting .212 with 20 doubles and 10 homers – and 170 RBIs. That’s how weird Hosmer’s performance was this postseason. He had more RBIs (17) than hits (14). He almost had more RBIs than total bases (19). His RBI total is a testament to his teammates, who were on base over and over again – he had three sacrifice flies during the playoffs, equaling his amount for the entire regular season – and then made Hosmer look good with their brilliance on the basepaths: Cain scored from first base on a Hosmer single twice in the playoffs.

But it’s also a testament to Hosmer’s performance with runners on base. I don’t think it was a skill of Hosmer’s – for his career, he’s hit worse with men in scoring position (.279 BA, .417 SLG) than with the bases empty (.294 and .448). But this postseason, for whatever reason, he concentrated his meager production into those moments when it would pay off the most. Twelve of his 14 hits came with runners on base; 10 of them drove in at least one run.

And in the ninth inning of Game 5, as in the 12th inning of the Wild Card game, with the Royals again down to their final at-bat, with Hosmer again representing the tying run…he again drilled a fastball the other way over the outfielder’s head. It was a double this time instead of a triple, which set up…

- Salvador Perez at the plate, Hosmer leading off third: a flashback to Game 7 of the World Series last year, Alex Gordon batting in the ninth inning, hightailing it to third base when his line drive was misplayed by two outfielders, and…stopping. It was the right call. A good throw would have nailed him. A bad throw probably would have nailed him. But still, a year of regret had passed, regret enabled by the hindsight that comes from knowing what Perez did next. Maybe Brandon Crawford would have panicked and his throw would have sailed over Buster Posey. Maybe it would have bounced and Posey would have had trouble getting a handle on it. Maybe Crawford’s throw would have pulled Posey away from home plate, and there would have been a desperate foot race between him and Gordon, making for one of the most dramatic moments in baseball history.

Probably not. But we’ll never know. All we know is what Perez did, which makes it tempting to second-guess. We’ll probably also never know if the memory of that moment, buried deep inside Hosmer’s subconscious, triggered the synapses in his brain that sent the electrical signal to his legs to run like your life depends upon it the instant David Wright committed to first base.

I’ve seen it written in places that Hosmer got lucky, that even a decent throw by Duda gets him at the plate, even that it was a bad baseball decision. I could not disagree more. The situation was very nearly the same as last year – if he holds, the Royals are down a run with a man on third and two out, meaning the break-even point for trying is no higher than 30%. But the odds of success this time were much higher. I put the odds that Gordon would have been safe last year at no higher than about 15%, while I’d put the odds that Hosmer would be safe the moment he committed to home at around 40%, perhaps even higher.

Here are some notable differences:

1) While Crawford’s throw would have been much longer – somewhere around 200 feet – it was only one throw. The Mets had to make two throws – Wright’s throw was (I’m approximating) about 95 feet across the diamond, and then Duda’s throw home was about 85 feet. Factor in the time it took for Duda to catch the ball, transfer the ball to his throwing arm, wind up and throw home, there’s no question the Wright-to-Duda-to-D’Arnaud relay would take longer than the direct line between Crawford and Posey.

2) Hosmer had a large lead off third base, and because the ball was hit well to Wright’s left, Hosmer didn’t instinctively retreat to the bag as Wright gloved it. He then did a phenomenal job of anticipating the perfect moment to take off for home – as soon as Wright made perfunctory glance back towards him and then looked to first base. By the time Wright let go of the ball, Hosmer was 15-20 feet past third base and accelerating quickly. By contrast, Crawford had the ball in his glove a split second before Gordon touched third base. Even if Gordon had been waved home by Mike Jirschele and never broken stride, he’s probably not more than 5-10 feet past third. True, he was already at full speed and Hosmer wasn’t, but then Hosmer wasn’t worn down from running 270 feet at top speed. The time it would take from the time Wright let go of the ball until Hosmer touched home plate was, I’m pretty certain, less than the time it would take from Crawford letting go of the ball and Gordon touching home.

3) Crawford has a really, really good arm – he somehow unseated Andrelton Simmons as the NL Gold Glove winner this year, which is a little silly, but it speaks to how well his defense is considered. Wright, on the other hand, has a weak arm at this point in his career. Not just that, but he tends to throw sidearm, as he did on this play – and his sidearm motion made it easier for Hosmer to time it and start running for home even before Wright had let go of the ball. Duda’s arm is nothing special for a first baseman, even before talking about his accuracy or lack thereof.

4) This last point, I think, is the one that doesn’t get talked about enough: Crawford was throwing from left-center field, meaning Posey could wait for the throw while being turned almost all the way towards Gordon hurtling from third base. D’Arnaud, by contrast, had to face first base, not only meaning that he couldn’t see where Hosmer was out of the corner of his eye, but that after catching the ball, he would have to turn his body and swipe his glove – again, without knowing where Hosmer was exactly. Four years ago, before the rules changed, D’Arnaud could have set up just behind the plate, using his foot to block Hosmer and allowing him to catch the ball and drop his glove straight down. But now that catchers aren’t allowed to block the plate, it adds a precious split second to the time it takes to get a tag down on a ball coming from the right side of the field.

With all that, a perfect throw from Duda – one that leads D’Arnaud to his left slightly and into the runner’s path – gets Hosmer easily. A decent throw – one that hits D’Arnaud’s glove right at eye level – and safe or out, the play is almost certainly going to review. The odds still favored the Mets at the moment Wright threw the ball. But, as it did last year, the odds would have favored the Mets had Hosmer held anyway. This time, the Royals went for it. And that made all the difference.

- Bottom of the ninth, tie game: Kelvin Herrera returns for a third inning of work. Flashback to the fourth inning of Game 7 of last year’s World Series, when Jeremy Guthrie came out to pitch.

You might remember after Game 7 that my greatest lament was that Ned Yost, knowing that there was no tomorrow, and with the greatest bullpen trio in major league history having two full days of rest, let Jeremy Guthrie start the fourth. He would go to Herrera anyway later in the inning, after the Giants had men on first and third with only one out, and Michael Morse fisted a blooper to right field with two strikes to score the last run of the season. Herrera would go 2.2 innings, Wade Davis two, and Greg Holland one. Afterwards, I wondered why, if Yost was prepared to go to Herrera in the fourth inning anyway, he wasn’t prepared to start the inning with Herrera. If Herrera could get eight outs, he could have gotten nine. I also wondered why, in the final game of the season, on four days of rest – Holland hadn’t pitched since Game 3 – Yost wouldn’t have planned for Holland to throw two innings.

While the Royals have never addressed this directly, we may have gotten an answer to that last question. Given that we now know that Holland had a partial tear in his UCL dating back to August of 2014, it’s possible that the Royals simply weren’t comfortable with him throwing two innings, particularly since as the last pitcher in the chain, if he had tired and gotten into trouble in his second inning, his backup would have been Jason Frasor or someone of that ilk.

But that still left the possibility of getting three innings from Herrera. Last year, Yost only committed to 2.2. This year, even though Herrera was pitching on just one day’s rest, and even though there were potentially two more games to go (albeit after a day of rest), Yost stuck with Herrera for nine outs. It only took Herrera nine batters (a single was erased by a double play) and 33 pitches to do so. It certainly helped that Herrera had just struck out the 1-2-3 batters in the Mets’ lineup in order in the eighth, and that Juan Lagares had replaced an ailing Yoenis Cespedes to lead off the ninth. But still: in the final game of last season, Yost only trusted Herrera to get eight outs, and the Royals lost. This year, he trusted Herrera to get nine outs, and the Royals won.

- Luke Hochevar takes the mound to start the bottom of the tenth: a flash back to Brandon Finnegan starting the tenth inning of the Wild Card game. Of course.

Hochevar has to rank towards the very top of the list of players who most appreciates what the Royals accomplished this season. Eight years after he was drafted with the #1 overall pick in 2006, after five of the worst years as a starting pitcher (a 5.45 ERA and a 78 ERA+ in 127 starts from 2008 to 2012), he had finally found success as a set-up man in 2013, with a 1.92 ERA in 70 innings, when his UCL blew out just in time to miss the Royals’ first postseason in 29 years. It was probably the most success he would ever have as a professional, and it occurred in a season in which he was unable to make a contribution.

And then this year, after a slow and erratic start in his return from Tommy John surgery, he threw 10.2 scoreless innings in the playoffs. He got out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth inning of ALCS Game 2, setting the stage for the Royals to come back against David Price an inning later. With the tying run at the plate, he got the final out of the fifth inning in relief of Chris Young in Game 4, earning him the win. And now, he would throw two scoreless innings – like Finnegan, he pitched a perfect tenth, then gave up a harmless baserunner with two outs before closing the door in the 11th – in the final game of the World Series. He would end up with the most coveted win of the season: the last one.

- Salvador Perez, leading off the 12th: flashback to his walk-off single in the Wild Card game. This time, he had to start the rally instead of end it, and this time he cracked an opposite-field blooper that just stayed inside the right field foul line instead of pulling a hard ground ball just inside the left field foul line. But he ended this amazing two-year playoff run the way he began it: with a 12th-inning single that changed everything.

Perez, sadly if wisely, would get pulled from the game for a pinch-runner, keeping him from catching the final out in a postseason in which he was behind the dish for all but six innings. As compensation, he would be awarded the World Series MVP award. Seems like a fair trade.

- Perez departs for a pinch-runner as Jarrod Dyson hops out of the dugout: flashback to Dyson pinch-running for Josh Willingham in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game. That night, Dyson was bunted over to second base because closer Sean Doolittle is left-handed and had a clear view of him at first base. In Game 5, with Addison Reed, a right-hander, on the mound, Dyson didn’t waste any time messing around: he stole second base on Reed’s 2-0 pitch to Alex Gordon, and was safe easily. The only thing that was missing was his vroom-vroom move.

Gordon would then hit a groundball to the right side, serving the same purpose as a bunt to put Dyson at third base with one out, the same position he found himself in during the Wild Card game, bringing up…

- Christian Colon, batting with a man on third and one out in the 12th inning: flashback to, well, Christian Colon batting with a man on third and one out in the 12th inning of the Wild Card game.

I don’t know what Colon is going to become. He has a career batting line of .303/.361/.382 in the major leagues, albeit in just 168 plate appearances. He has a career line in Triple-A of .289/.350/.394, and a .268/.339/.360 line in Double-A – he’s gotten incrementally better as he’s moved up the chain. I do think he could become a poor man’s Placido Polanco, a good defensive second baseman who makes enough contact to hit .280 in the majors and be a valuable starter for the next five years. I don’t think he will ever end up with as much success as Chris Sale, the man the Royals almost drafted instead with the #4 pick in 2010, or as much success as Matt Harvey, perhaps the man the Royals should have drafted instead.

But I do know that none of that matters now. I know that because Colon could literally not have a better postseason record than he does. In his first postseason appearance, pinch-hitting for Terrence Gore in the tenth inning of the Wild Card game, he was asked to put down a sacrifice bunt, and he did so successfully. In his next plate appearance, batting in the 12th inning with the tying run at third base and one out, he chopped a single to tie the game, stole second base, and scored the walk-off run on Perez’s single.

He would not bat again in the postseason until this moment, and only because the Royals were playing under NL rules – Colon was pinch-hitting for Hochevar. He had not even appeared in a playoff game in 2015 yet, the last person on the roster to make an appearance – even Raul Mondesi (!) had played before him. Once again, he batted in a situation that called for contact. Once again, he came through, this time with two strikes, this time a no-doubt line drive, this time to give the Royals the lead, this time to put the Royals three outs away from nirvana.

They would get there 15 minutes later, after a one-run lead had become a five-run lead, after Wade Davis was given the easiest and most rewarding job of his life. The ending ensured that this would be one of the most memorable, magical games in Royals history. The drama that began in September, 2014 ended in November, 2015, and all the ups and downs along the way, even the heartbreaking finale to Act I, all made sense in the end. Even the failures served their purpose. All’s well that ends well, and few things in baseball history have ended as well as this season did.

That’s another legacy of the 2015 Royals - they didn’t just win it all, they won it all in a way that gave us something even better than a dogpile at the end: closure.