Friday, April 1, 2016

Top Moments (#5 - #1) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

And finally, at the end of the most ridiculous project I have ever had the temerity to attempt, the five biggest Royals Moments of the last two years. Included in this set of five are…well, see for yourself.

Moment #: 5
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 4, Houston 6, Top of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases loaded
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Kendrys Morales vs. Tony Sipp
Result: E-6, two tying runs score, go-ahead runner to third base
WPA: 31%

Summary: In the pinnacle of the Miracle at Minute Maid, Carlos Correa whiffs on Kendrys Morales’ double play ball, allowing the Royals to tie Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS and move the go-ahead run to third base with no outs.

Link to video: Here.

Be honest: what emotion do you feel when you look at this picture?

Do you feel anguish? Do you feel sympathy and compassion for the traumatic event that this poor soul is going through at the instant this picture was taken? If so, then you are a kind and considerate human being.

If, on the other hand, you feel nothing but unbridled joy, pure schadenfreude for this guy’s pain and suffering, then you are a true Royals fan. I’d like to think that I’m a true Royals fan.

If you can’t enjoy a little schadenfreude at the expense of Tony Sipp, how about this guy?

The Governor of Texas tweeted that at 3:02 PM, during the commercial break between the bottom of the 7th and the top of the 8th. Six batters and fifteen minutes later, the game was tied.

The first five of those six batters singled, and the Royals had cut the lead in two, and the bases were still loaded, and the tying run was at second base, and there were still no outs. But I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, and with Kendrys Morales at the plate, a rally-killing double play seemed like a distinct possibility.

And sure enough, Sipp’s 0-1 pitch was a 77 mph back-door curveball that Morales reached across the plate for, and hit a grounder straight back up the middle. If Sipp fields it, it’s probably a 1-2-3 double play and the Royals are still down 6-4. Instead it tipped off his glove, which slowed it down a little and directed it towards the shortstop side of the bag, in perfect position for Carlos Correa to turn a 6-4-3 double play. The Royals would score a run to make it 6-5, but there would be two outs and the tying run would be at third. But notice how, after the ball tips off Sipp’s glove, it deflects down off the pitcher’s mound. I suspect that this is where the ball picks up its now-infamous spin.

Correa is the closest thing we’ve seen to a young Alex Rodriguez since a young Alex Rodriguez. As a 20-year-old, he was called up in early June and in just 99 games he hit 22 home runs and stole 14 bases, hit .279/.345/.512, played good defense at shortstop and won Rookie of the Year honors. I have little doubt that he will be one of the game’s best players for the next decade, and that he will torture the Royals with his greatness whenever the Royals play Houston for at least the next six years.

And I won’t care, because more than any other opponent, he is responsible for the Royals winning the World Series. The irony is that, until Morales hit this ground ball, Correa had almost single-handedly put the Royals on the precipice of elimination.

In Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS, George Brett had what is widely considered to be the individual game performance in Royals history. He homered in the 1st inning to open the scoring, doubled leading off the 3rd and scored on a pair of fly balls to give the Royals a 2-0 lead. After Toronto scored five runs in the 5th, the Royals trailed 5-3 when Brett batted with a man on board in the 6th and tied the game with a two-run homer. And then Brett led off the bottom of the 8th with a single and scored the winning run on Steve Balboni’s two-out single. Along the way he made one of the best defensive plays of his career to throw Damaso Garcia out at the plate in the 3rd inning.

In Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS, Carlos Correa basically had the George Brett game. Correa was hit by a pitch in the 1st inning but did not score. In the 3rd, with the Astros down 2-0, he homered with two outs. In the 5th, with the Astros still losing 2-1, Correa batted with a man on first and two outs and doubled into the right field corner to tie the game. In the 7th, with the Astros now holding a 3-2 lead, Correa homered with a man aboard. He even singled leading off the 9th inning with the Astros down by three runs. Like Brett, Correa went 4-for-4 with two home runs and a double. Correa’s WPA for the game was 0.497; Brett’s WPA was 0.485.

The only thing Correa was missing was the incredible defensive play. 

He didn’t even need an incredible defensive play, he just had to handle a tricky hop; with Morales running, Correa could have turned the double play if had tossed the ball underhand to first. 

And had he turned the double play, the Royals would have still been down a run; when Mike Moustakas struck out next, the inning would have been over.

“But,” you say, “Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer in the 9th inning anyway!”

“Yes,” I reply, “but if Morales had made two outs on that play, Hosmer never would have batted in the 9th, because Lorenzo Cain’s strikeout with Hosmer in the on-deck circle would have ended the game instead of just being the first out of the 9th inning.” (And this also ignores the fact that if Correa turns the double play, the Astros don’t have to turn to closer Luke Gregerson in the 8th inning, and he pitches the 9th instead of Josh Fields.)

In their franchise’s history, the Royals have had 57 plate appearances with the bases loaded in the postseason. This is the only time the batter reached base on an error. And fifteen minutes after the Royals’ season appeared over, the game was tied, the go-ahead run was on third base with one out, and their Win Probability stood at 75%. The Miracle at Minute Maid wasn’t complete, but the miracle part of the Miracle at Minute Maid was. And it completed the greatest tweetstorm I’ve ever had the privilege to write:

Now all the Royals had to do was hold serve, and they would live to see another day. And, as it turned out, a lot of days after that.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Back up the middle…OFF CORREA, ON INTO CENTER FIELD! KANSAS CITY HAS TIED IT IN THE EIGHTH!” – Matt Vasgersian.

It’s really hard to do this quote justice with mere capital letters. The shock and wonder in Matt Vasgersian’s voice is something to behold. I should make this my ringtone.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Top Moments (#10 - #6) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These five Moments include a pennant-clinching out with the tying and winning runs in scoring position; one of the most important steals in the history of baseball; a play sure to be remembered as one of the greatest baserunning displays in playoff history, a game-winning 11th-inning home run, and a season-sustaining triple when the Royals were two outs away from elimination. And we still have five Moments to go.

Moment #: 10
Date: October 23, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 6, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 3, Kansas City 4, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, men on second and third
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Josh Donaldson vs. Wade Davis
Result: Groundout to third base, game over
WPA: 20%

Summary: With the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position in Game 6 of the ALCS, Wade Davis retires Josh Donaldson to clinch the Royals’ second straight AL pennant.

Link to video: Here.

After striking out Dioner Navarro (Moment #67), and striking out Ben Revere (Moment #26), all that was left for Wade Davis to do to get out of one of the biggest jams of his career, complete one of the gutsiest relief performances of all time, and secure the pennant, was to retire Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be-named AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who had hit .297/.371/.568 on the season. The MVP of the league vs. the best reliever in baseball, with two outs in the 9th, the tying run on third base, and the go-ahead run on second base, in Game 6 of the ALCS. It’s possible to draw up a more perfect final battle for the American League championship, but it’s not likely you’ll actually see one.

According to the measurement “Leverage Index”, which ranks the importance of a particular plate appearance relative to the first plate appearance of the game, this matchup had an LI of 6.86 – nearly seven times more leverage than usual. Only five plate appearances in a Royals’ playoff game have ranked higher. Three of those were the last three plate appearances in Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, after the Royals got the tying and winning runs on base with one out in the 9th (Jose Cardenal struck out with the bases loaded and two outs against Tug McGraw. Which means that, yes, the biggest plate appearance in a Royals’ postseason game ever was taken by Jose Cardenal.) One of those was Terry Pendleton’s at-bat against Charlie Leibrandt with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the 9th inning, with the Cardinals losing, 2-1, in Game 1 of the 1985 World Series; Pendleton cleared the bases with a double and the Cardinals won, 4-2. (That the Royals came back to win the World Series is the only reason this play isn’t famous in a Grady Little sort of way; closer Dan Quisenberry watched the whole inning unfold from the bullpen as manager Dick Howser stuck with his starting pitcher.) And one of them was Dane Iorg’s at-bat in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.

So this plate appearance “only” ranks sixth all-time. It was, though, the highest leverage plate appearance of the last two years. (If you take the importance of the game into account, it would rank second behind Salvador Perez’s at-bat to end the 2014 World Series.)

Wade Davis did exactly what he wanted to do in this at-bat, according to Sam Mellinger: “He would throw nothing but fastballs, changing eye level, and taking advantage of Donaldson’s aggressiveness.” And after falling behind Donaldson 2-and-1, Davis’ fourth pitch was in a really good spot: a 95 mph fastball that cut a little low and outside, straight at Salvador Perez’s glove, and Donaldson reached for it and pulled it on the ground.

And with all that, Donaldson hit it hard enough that if he had hit it 10 feet to the left or right, it might have gotten through the infield, and the Royals would have gone to the bottom of the 9th down by at least a run.

But it didn’t. He hit it right at Moustakas, more proof that baseball isn’t fair given that a groundball that wasn’t hit right at Donaldson had ended his season the year before. Mike Moustakas, exactly as he had done in the previous ALCS, smothered the ball, fired it to Eric Hosmer at first base, and the Royals had just won their second straight AL pennant. 

One at-bat, one pitch, one swing could have put the Blue Jays in the driver’s seat to win the game and possibly the series, and instead it triggered a dogpile at Kauffman Stadium. Even down in the Dominican Republic, they were celebrating at the Royals’ Academy. And Salvador Perez was happy:

The Royals were the best team in the American League during the regular season. Now they were the best team in the American League in the postseason. But they still had one task left before them. Unfinished business, remember.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Here comes the 2-1. Left side…MOUSTAKAS…ROYALS WIN THE PENNANT!” – Joe Buck.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Top Moments (#15 - #11) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes the Royals being on the right side of one of the costliest errors in World Series history, a go-ahead RBI single in the last game of the World Series, a game-tying RBI single with the Royals two outs from elimination, and a pair of tie-breaking extra-inning playoff home runs. And we still have 10 Moments to go.

Moment #: 15
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 2, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, men on first and second
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Jeurys Familia
Result: E-4, tying run scores, go-ahead runner advances to third
WPA: 32%

Summary: Daniel Murphy misses Eric Hosmer’s slow ground ball with the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the 8th inning, turning the entire game – and World Series – around.

Link to video: Here.

It’s easy to forget just how important this Moment was – it was still only the 8th inning, the Royals only trailed by a run, and they had two on with one out. They led the World Series 2 games to 1; this was an important game but not a must-win.

But after winning the first two games at home, the Royals had lost Game 3 in New York handily, and they were five outs away from losing Game 4 in large part because Alex Rios forgot how many outs there were in the bottom of the 3rd inning and momentarily jogged toward the dugout after catching the second out of the inning; by the time he woke up and threw home, Wilmer Flores was safe on a sacrifice fly. And now it was the 8th inning and the Royals trailed by a run, and if they lost this game, then after leading the Series 2 games to 0, it was back to being a best-of-three series. And with the strength of the Mets’ starting pitching, you never knew when their rotation would take over and shut the Royals down for a game or two. This was a big game.

And this was a big moment. After Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain walked (Moments #104 and #103) with one out in the 8th, Terry Collins finally called on his closer, Jeurys Familia. Familia’s first pitch was a nasty 96 mph splitter – you read that right – that Hosmer swung over. His second pitch was 96 mph a little above the knees, but Hosmer still got on top of it, chopping it slowly to Daniel Murphy at second base as the runners moved up.

And Murphy flat-out missed it.

Murphy didn’t have the greatest defensive reputation before the World Series began, but he was generally thought of as someone who could make the routine play; the problem was his lack of range at the position. Maybe that’s giving him too much credit; his career-best fielding percentage is .979, whereas the average fielding percentage for a major league second baseman the last five years is about .984. (Or to reframe those numbers in an easier to digest manner: Murphy has made at least 21 errors per thousand chances (EPK) at second base every year of his career, while the major league average at the position is about 16 EPK.) But still – this was a pretty routine, if slow, ground ball. And he missed it by this much:

Not only was Hosmer safe at first, not only did Zobrist score the tying run from second base, but Lorenzo Cain, the go-ahead run, went first to third with one out. It didn’t matter quite so much after Mike Moustakas batted with two outs and – thanks in part to Murphy’s lackluster range – singled Cain home with the go-ahead run (Moment #37) and then Salvador Perez drove home an insurance run (Moment #118) – but had Cain scored the winning run without benefit of a base hit, the play that got him to third base with one out would loom even larger.

Don’t laugh too hard, Royals fans. At -33%, I believe Hosmer’s 8th-inning error in Game 1 of the World Series ranks third. (Keep in mind the WPA being measured here is the difference between making the play and not making the play – a little different than the WPA I use in the summary.) The difference is, the Royals took advantage of their chance to redeem themselves. The Mets, thanks to Wade Davis and their own bad baserunning (Moment #36), didn’t. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this play was the fulcrum upon which the entire World Series turned.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Chopper on the infield, can’t turn TWO…MURPHY BOOTS IT…into score is the tying run, Zobrist, and this game is 3-3 in the 8th.” – Joe Buck. The way Buck’s voice suddenly adds a dozen decibels at “TWO” reminds me of Vin Scully’s famous “behind the BAG” call on Buckner’s grounder in 1986. Which is perfect.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Top Moments (#20 - #16) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes the Royals’ most iconic defensive play in a generation, a sacrifice fly with one out in the 9th to tie a double-elimination game, one of the greatest what-if plays in major league history, an ALDS-clinching home run in a winner-take-all Game 5, and a go-ahead RBI double in the 9th inning of an ALCS game. And we still have 15 Moments to go.

Moment #: 20
Date: October 14, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 3, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 1, Top of the 6th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Adam Jones vs. Jason Frasor
Result: Popout to third base
WPA: 3%

Summary: Mike Moustakas catches Adam Jones’ foul ball in full extension over the dugout railing, and topples into the dugout suite, where a happy mob of Royals fans save him from serious injury.

Link to video: Here.

What comes to mind when you see this?

Do you think about how this play really didn’t have a huge impact on the game? How it occurred in the 6th inning, and while the game was tied, there was no one on base, and if Moustakas hadn’t made the catch, the count still would have been 0-and-2 on Adam Jones? How it only had a WPA of 3%?

Of course you don’t. That would be stupid. This play was not only technically amazing and aesthetically perfect, it was the essence of the 2014-2015 Royals distilled into a single play. There was the tremendous defense. There was the maximum effort. There was the complete lack of regard for personal safety in the service of making the play. And there were the fans, emotionally feeding and being fed by the players in perfect symbiosis, who were metaphorically there for the Royals all October, now literally there. They were there with the presence of mind to stay the hell out of Moustakas’ way – 11 years to the day after a famous play in the stands at Wrigley Field didn’t turn out so well for the home team, or the fans – and there for Moustakas when he toppled over the dugout rail as he made the catch and fell into the dugout suite, with the fans there to cushion his fall and prevent serious injury.

Normally with the Royals it’s the pitcher tipping his hat to his fielder – in this case, as Moustakas returned to his position on the field, it was the fielder tipping his cap to the fans.

To whatever extent a playoff series can be won or lost on emotion, I think the Orioles might have been officially defeated on this play. They had already been victimized by great defense in Games 1 and 2 (Moments #78 and #79 and #129), and they had already lost two games after being tied headed to the 9th inning. And here was another tie game and another great defensive play, and how are we supposed to beat these guys? The answer was, they weren’t. In the bottom of the inning, Billy Butler would drive home the go-ahead run (Moment #51), and that was all it took.
Twenty-nine years earlier, George Brett had slid into the Royals’ dugout in St. Louis, risking bodily injury in an attempt to catch another foul ball. He was alright, and his attempt remains one of the most iconic moments of that series. But the difference is, Brett didn’t make the catch. Moustakas made the catch. And his catch will probably always be one of the iconic moments of the 2014 Royals.

It inspired a piece of artwork:

And it inspired a bobblehead:

It had a minimal impact on the game, the series, and the season. But no shrine to the 2014-2015 Royals is complete without a picture of it.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Adam Jones into foul territory, MousTAKAS…DID HE MAKE THAT CATCH?!...HE DID!... – Ernie Johnson.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Top Moments (#25 - #21) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These five Moments include the defensive play that triggered this entire project, the most unlikely catch I have ever seen, a pickoff of the tying run in the 9th inning of a playoff game, an inside-the-park home run on the first pitch the Royals saw in a World Series, and a hit that turned a deficit into a lead in a winner-take-all playoff game. And we still have 20 Moments to go.

Moment #: 25
Date: October 3, 2014
Game: ALDS Game 2, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 1, Los Angeles 1, Bottom of the 8th
Situation: No outs, man on second
Count: 2-2 (+2 fouls)
Matchup: Chris Ianetta vs. Wade Davis
Result: Flyout double play, 8-5
WPA: 21%

Summary: Jarrod Dyson, just into Game 2 of the 2014 ALDS for defense, makes a clutch throw to turn a double play and keep the go-ahead run from reaching third base with one out in the 8th inning.

Link to video: Here.

And finally, we get to the play that, as I discussed in the introduction, was the spark that set this whole ridiculous project in motion.

The Royals had already stolen Game 1 of the ALDS from the Angels, and had taken a 1-0 lead in Game 2 into the 6th inning when – stop me if you’ve heard this before – Ned Yost stuck with his starter, and with two outs Yordano Ventura gave up a single to Kole Calhoun, walked Mike Trout, and then allowed a game-tying single to Albert Pujols. (In fairness, Ventura came back out for the 7th and pitched a 1-2-3 inning.)

And that was the score going to the bottom of the 8th, when Yost called on Wade Davis, and C.J. Cron – who had nearly driven in the go-ahead run against Davis the night before only to be denied by a ridiculous Nori Aoki catch (Moment #90) – doubled on his first pitch. Mike Scioscia, knowing how decisive this run could be, called on Collin Cowgill to pinch-run for Cron. Davis then faced off against Chris Iannetta, who fouled off a pair of 2-2 pitches, and then Davis…I know this is hard to believe, but Davis totally hung a curveball. I’m having trouble processing it myself, but it’s true: watch the video.

Ianetta hit the ball hard into the left-center gap, but it hung in the air a little, and Jarrod Dyson – who had just come into the game for defense, moving Lorenzo Cain to right field and Aoki to the bench – was able to run it down pretty easily. But still: he caught the ball in fairly deep left-center field, maybe 30 feet in front of the warning track, and Cowgill had just come into the game precisely for his ability to run. Cowgill tagged. Dyson threw.

And Cowgill was out at third. So much had to go right on this play: Dyson had to plant his feet and get off a strong throw. Alcides Escobar, who saw the ball right in front of him and knew that it was a bit off-line, nonetheless had to make a judgment call to let the ball go through and give Mike Moustakas a chance to make a play. That by itself required a tremendous amount of baseball awareness – watch how Escobar moves his body out of the way at the last moment – and that’s like the fourth-best thing about the play.

And then Moustakas had to reach to his left to glove the ball and then immediately dive back to third base to tag Cowgill just inches before he reached the base. If anything goes even slightly wrong with any part of this play, Cowgill is safe, and the Angels have the go-ahead run on third base with one out. Maybe Davis gets out of the jam anyway (cue highlights from Game 6 of the 2015 ALCS), but maybe not, and Calhoun, batting next, did make contact (he grounded out). But thanks to a very good throw from a player who 1) is known almost exclusively for the talent in his legs, not his arm and 2) had just come into the game five minutes earlier and might not have had his arm completely limber, a heady non-play by the shortstop, and a terrific field-and-dive by the third baseman, the Angels had nobody on and two outs. And we got this image:

Followed momentarily by this one:

How big was this play? It was the highest WPA of any play with the Royals on defense in the 2014 postseason. The Royals – as they had in Game 1 of the ALDS – had survived a near-death experience late in the game and overcome it with some amazing defense. And as in Game 1, they would take advantage of their reprieve by shocking the Angels – and the world – in extra innings.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Top Moments (#30 - #26) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments include a pair of bases-clearing two-out doubles, a bases-clearing one-out double which all but clinched a championship, a controversial home run that may or may not have been aided by a Royals fan, and – objectively speaking – the most pivotal out of the last two years. And we still have 25 Moments to go.

Moment #: 30
Date: October 5, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 3, vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Los Angeles 1, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 1st
Situation: Two outs, bases loaded
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Alex Gordon vs. C.J. Wilson
Result: Double, tying and two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 26%

Summary: Alex Gordon clears the bases with a 1st-inning two-out double, giving the Royals the lead on their way to sweeping the Angels out of the ALDS.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals led the 2014 ALDS 2 games to 0, but things can change quickly in a best-of-five series, and a single Angels victory would turn Game 4 into a near must-win game or face the specter of returning to Anaheim for a winner-take-all Game 5. And unlike the first two games, the Angels scored first in Game 3, when Mike Trout – who the Royals had handled beautifully all series – homered off of James Shields in the top of the 1st. But with one out in the bottom of the 1st, Nori Aoki and Lorenzo Cain singled with one out, and after Hosmer struck out on three pitches against C.J. Wilson, Billy Butler walked on four pitches to load the bases.

So Alex Gordon stepped in with the bases loaded and two outs, and on a 2-2 pitch Wilson threw an 83 mph slider down and away, except he didn’t get it down enough, and Gordon drove the pitch off the base of the wall in left-center field, clearing the bases. Butler chugged around all the way from first base – another smart read by Mike Jirschele – and slid stylishly into home just ahead of throw, pumping his fist as he got to his feet. The Royals had a lead they would not relinquish on their way to winning Game 3 and the series. How big a hit was it? It was the first hit to drive in three runners in a playoff game since Jim Sundberg’s bases-clearing triple in Toronto in Game 7 of the 1985 ALCS.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Top Moments (#35 - #31) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments include a pair of run-scoring doubles with no outs and the Royals down 2-0 in the last game of the World Series, and while the first one proved to be insufficient, the second one made all the difference; the tying and go-ahead hits against David Price in the most pivotal inning of the 2015 ALCS; and one of only two walkoff wins in the last two postseasons. And we still have 30 Moments to go.

Moment #: 35
Date: November 1, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series, Game 5, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 0, New York 2, Top of the 9th
Situation: No outs, man on second
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Matt Harvey
Result: Double, one run scores
WPA: 20%

Summary: After Matt Harvey lobbies his manager to stay in to pitch the 9th inning, Eric Hosmer makes him pay.

Link to video: Here.

I’m very curious to see the reception that Matt Harvey gets at Kauffman Stadium on Opening Night. The natural inclination is to boo, I know, but shouldn’t we be cheering the guy who, through sheer force of stubbornness, coerced his manager into opening the door for the Royals to mount a game-tying rally in the 9th inning?

Harvey had already walked Lorenzo Cain on seven pitches to start the 9th, and still Terry Collins stuck with him. On the first pitch to Eric Hosmer, Cain stole second base. And on the second pitch, Harvey’s 111th and final pitch in the final game of the 111th World Series, he threw a 94 mph fastball that tailed away, and Hosmer did a masterful job of slicing the ball deep to left field, over Michael Conforto’s head and off the wall for an RBI double. And then, finally, Collins called upon Jeurys Familia.

What’s striking about the video is the fear you can hear in the crowd after the double. Sure, the Royals had just scored a run, and the tying run was on second base with no outs – but the Mets still had the lead, and home field advantage. But you can sense the crowd’s reaction already starting to turn: here we go again.

And the best part? The crowd was right. Damn it was fun rooting for these guys.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Top Moments (#40 - #36) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes the season-saving final hit in a player’s 11-year major league career, a pair of tie-breaking singles in key situations, a potential out at the plate kicked away which led to the only two runs the Royals would score in a playoff win, and a Mets player’s brain-lock TOOTBLAN that led to the final out in a World Series game. And we still have 35 Moments to go.

Moment #: 40
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 6, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Josh Willingham vs. Sean Doolittle
Result: Single
WPA: 13%

Summary: With the Royals three outs away from elimination, Josh Willingham pinch-hits against Sean Doolittle and delivers the final base hit of his career.

Link to video: Here.

If Ben Zobrist was the best trade deadline acquisition in Royals history, and Johnny Cueto was the second-best trade acquisition in Royals history, then who was the best trade deadline acquisition prior to 2015? It might have been Jason Frasor in 2014, who stabilized the middle relief corps down the stretch and then allowed one run in 5.1 innings in the playoffs. Or it might have been Josh Willingham, who only hit .233/.349/.384 in 86 plate appearances as a Royal, and had just one hit in the postseason. But oh, what a hit it was.

Willingham led off the bottom of the 9th in the Wild Card Game, the Royals down a run with three outs left in their season, against Sean Doolittle, who had a respectable 2.73 ERA during the regular season, but whose ERA vastly understated his dominance – he had a 1.71 FIP, thanks to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 89 to 7. (Among closers with 15+ saves in a season, Doolittle’s strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks fifth all time, behind two seasons from Dennis Eckersley, one from Mariano Rivera, and Koji Uehara’s insane 2013 season.) Batters had hit .169/.197/.262 off Doolittle during the season. Willingham, meanwhile, hadn’t had a base hit since September 10th.

It didn’t look like a good matchup for anyone to face Doolittle, and it didn’t look any better when Willingham swung through Doolittle’s first pitch, or when he fell behind 1-and-2. But then, just as Ron Darling was claiming on the broadcast that the “Royals got Willingham to do one thing – hit the ball out of the ballpark”, Willingham swung at Doolittle’s fourth pitch, a 94 mph fastball that got a little too much of the outside part of the plate, and blooped it (Team Contact!) down the right field line. The A’s, who certainly respected Willingham’s ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, had their outfield slightly shaded to the pull side, and rightfielder Josh Reddick had no chance to catch Willingham’s blooper. One inning after the Royals stranded the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position with one out, they had another rally going. And they had one more pinch-running weapon in their holster.

Willingham would bat three more times in the playoffs, all three times as a pinch-hitter. He batted for Terrance Gore, who had pinch-run for Billy Butler in the 9th inning, in Game 2 of the ALDS – right after Eric Hosmer had just given the Royals a 3-1 lead in the 11th inning – and popped out. He pinch-hit for Butler as a courtesy at-bat in the 9th inning of Game 1 of the World Series, with the Royals losing 7-1, and struck out. And in Game 2, he pinch-hit for Gore, who had again pinch-run for Butler during the Royals’ five-run 6th inning, and struck out with the Royals leading 7-2 in the 8th. (Willingham did not make an appearance in any of the three World Series games in San Francisco, a fact which still astounds me.)

Willingham would then retire after the season, making this single the final base hit of his career. I’m sure that, in the grand and glorious history of major league baseball, there are other players who have made the final hit of their careers count for more. It’s just that I don’t know who they might be. Willingham was a Royal for barely two months. He had 18 hits in a Royals uniform, and 17 of them are completely unmemorable. And he’ll never be forgotten.

Oh, and why was Willingham in the game at all? He was pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas. Ned Yost abhors pinch-hitters as much as any manager I’ve ever seen, but even he understood that when a left-handed hitter who batted .212 on the season, and who hit .172/.241/.313, is scheduled to face a left-handed closer in the 9th with your season on the line, you need to look for another option. Willingham was on the roster for basically this situation, and Yost used him. Had Moustakas had the year he had in 2015 in 2014 instead, he’s not coming out of the game, and everything turns out differently.

Everything happens for a reason. What makes the 2014-2015 Royals so special is that the reasons are all laid out for us, clear as day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Top Moments (#45 - #41) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes arguably the most underrated hit in either postseason, two remarkable and emotion-fueled innings from a kid less than four months out of college, and two singles in the thick of the Miracle at Minute Maid. And we still have 40 Moments left to go.

Moment #: 45
Date: October 27, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 1, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 4, Kansas City 4, Bottom of the 14th
Situation: No outs, man on first
Count: 2-1
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Bartolo Colon
Result: Single, runner advances to third
WPA: 23%

Summary: Ben Zobrist singles to put the winning run on third base with no outs in the bottom of the 14th inning.

Link to video: Here.

Baseball has something called the “Esurance MLB Awards”, which I’m sure is totally a prestigious award and not something they invented just to get money from a corporate sponsor. One of these awards is for “Best Major Leaguer, Postseason”, which you and I would call the Postseason MVP. In 2015, it was awarded to Wade Davis, and I’m not about to tell you that was a mistake – Davis threw 10.2 scoreless innings in the playoffs, the Royals won all eight games he appeared in, and he recorded four saves along with a win in Game 6 of the ALCS in one of the gutsiest relief outings you’ll ever see. His WPA was 0.949, so he was worth about a full win above an average (not replacement) pitcher in just eight games – such is the impact of pitching high-leverage innings.

The two other finalists were Daniel Murphy, which is understandable, and Alcides Escobar, who was the ALCS MVP and hit .329/.347/.514 in the postseason. Escobar’s WPA in the 2015 playoffs was only 0.078, though – he was barely average when you consider the context of his at-bats, which is to say he did some of his best work in games that weren’t particularly close. (In Games 3 and 4 of the ALCS, for instance, he was 6-for-8 with a triple.) But I would submit that the player who had the best case for challenging Wade Davis for the award was Ben Zobrist. Zobrist hit .303/.365/.515 in the playoffs, with a WPA of 0.392 – not nearly in Davis’ class, because everyday hitters, unlike relievers, can’t be saved for the highest-leverage moments. But he always seemed to come through with exactly what the Royals needed, whether it was a sacrifice fly to drive home an insurance run (Moment #115) or a walk to start an 8th-inning rally (Moment #104) or a home run to open the scoring (Moment #119 and Moment #85) or a go-ahead single in the 7th inning (Moment #55).

Or his biggest Moment of all, and in classic Zobrist fashion, one that is so overlooked that doesn’t even have a highlight for it: with Alcides Escobar on first base after David Wright’s error to start the bottom of the 14th, Zobrist took advantage of Lucas Duda holding Escobar on first base to create a huge hole on the right side of the infield, and punched a single through the vacated space, allowing Escobar to go first-to-third and put the winning run 90 feet away with no one out. The WPA of this play (+23%) was not only the largest of the game, it was the fourth-largest by any Royals hitter in the 2015 postseason, and two of the three bigger plays were actually errors by the opponent. Eric Hosmer gets all the glory for his sacrifice fly two batters later, but Zobrist was more responsible than anyone else for the game-winning rally.

Was Zobrist the MVP of the postseason? I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t write off his case. WPA doesn’t take position into account, and getting that kind of offensive production from second base is even more valuable. It also doesn’t factor in defense, and while Zobrist didn’t make any spectacular plays during the playoffs, he also didn’t make any errors, which isn’t an insignificant fact over the course of 16 games.

(Here’s an underrated fact: while everyone knows the Royals’ defense in the playoffs has been spectacular, that’s more predicated on their making so many outstanding plays as opposed to making all the routine ones. But guess how many errors the Royals have made in the last two postseasons? Five. Five errors in 31 games, which would extrapolate to 26 errors over a full season. That would be less than half the current all-time record for fewest errors in a season, 54 by the 2013 Orioles.)

As an aside: Hosmer hit .212/.236/.288 in the 2015 postseason…and his WPA was 0.812 anyway, because his hits were so timely. That doesn’t account for his costly error in Game 1 of the World Series – and gives him credit for Daniel Murphy’s error in Game 4 – but it also doesn’t account for his mad dash to score the tying run in Game 5.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Top Moments (#50 - #46) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

There’s so much awesomeness in the Top 50 that going forward, I’ll be posting articles five Moments at a time instead of ten so that you can savor them all the more. In this batch alone we have the most dominant inning in Royals postseason history, two improbable RBI singles from Eric Hosmer, a leadoff single in extra innings in the final game of the year, and the moment the Royals won their first pennant in 29 years. And we still have 45 Moments to go.

Moment #: 50
Date: October 10, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 1, @ Baltimore Orioles
Score: Kansas City 5, Baltimore 5, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Nelson Cruz vs. Wade Davis
Result: Strikeout swinging
WPA: 3%

Summary: With Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS tied in the bottom of the 9th, after the Royals had blown a golden opportunity to take the lead, Wade Davis throws the most dominant inning in Royals playoff history.

Link to video: Here.

We start the Top 50 with a Moment that you almost certainly have forgotten about. That’s because I cheated a little; this isn’t a single moment as it was a single inning. A dominant, hellacious, series-changing inning.

To set the stage: Game 1 of the 2014 ALCS was tied at 5 entering the ninth inning. The Orioles turned to their closer, Zach Britton, who proceeded to do the unthinkable: he walked the bases loaded. First he walked Alcides Escobar on a 3-2 count, which is difficult enough on its own. But Britton then faced Jarrod Dyson, who can’t hit lefties worth a damn, and had entered the game as a pinch-runner for Nori Aoki in the 7th (and then was thrown out trying to steal second base) – on four pitches. Britton then walked Lorenzo Cain – on four pitches. The bases were loaded, there were no outs, the heart of the Royals’ order was due up, and the pitcher on the mound suddenly couldn’t throw strikes. You might even say that the Royals had…momentum.

And then Zach Britton, on a 3-2 pitch to Eric Hosmer, got Hosmer to ground out to the first baseman – who, with the infield in, threw home and got the force out to keep the game tied. That brought up Billy Butler, and Buck Showalter called on Darren O'Day - like Britton a groundballer, but who also had the benefit of being right-handed - to face off against one of the game’s biggest GIDP threats. Sure enough, on the 7th pitch of the at-bat, Butler rolled over to the shortstop, who started an easy 6-4-3 double play. Butler’s double play had a WPA of -35%, making it by the far the most damaging plate appearance by a Royals hitter in postseason history. (No other play is even at -20% WPA.) After having the bases loaded with no outs, the Royals didn’t score, and the Orioles would bat in the bottom of the 9th with their 2-3-4 hitters due up, needing single run to end the game. You would definitely say that the Orioles had…momentum.

It was Earl Weaver who said “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher”, because Earl Weaver was a very smart man. I have proposed a 21st-century corollary to this rule that applies to momentum within games: Momentum is the next inning’s reliever. And in the history of baseball, there has never been a better reliever to call upon in the next inning than 2014-2015 vintage Wade Davis.

Davis had already pitched the 8th inning, but having dispatched the Orioles on just seven pitches, and with the game tied and poised to continue indefinitely, it made sense to try to milk another inning out of him. And oh, what an inning it was. Pitching through a steady rain, Davis struck out Alejandro de Aza on four pitches. He then struck out Adam Jones on three pitches. And finally, as you see here, he struck out Nelson Cruz on four pitches.

I unfortunately do not know a way to check this for sure, but I’m fairly certain that there has never been another instance in the playoffs of a Royals pitcher striking out the side on 11 pitches or less. So I think it’s safe to say that this was the most dominant inning in Royals playoff history. 

(Update: the above paragraph is dead wrong, as brilliant reader Taylor Witt pointed out in the comments, and I am an idiot for forgetting. In Game 5 of the 1985 World Series, Danny Jackson - on his way to a complete game win, the second time that October that he threw a complete game victory in a Game 5 with the Royals down 3 games to 1 - struck out the side in the 7th inning on nine pitches. That's right: Danny Jackson threw an Immaculate Inning in the World Series. He is the only pitcher to ever thrown an Immaculate Inning in the postseason.

And the reason I'm an idiot for forgetting is that Bill James wrote about this in his "A History Of Being A Kansas City Baseball Fan" essay in the 1986 Bill James Abstract, which I've only read about a dozen times. Here I quote: "Jackson was never challenged again. In the seventh inning, Brett slid into the dugout in a spectacular, but unsuccessful, attempt to catch a pop up; that failing it became strike one, and Jackson struck out the side on nine pitches. (I wonder if that's ever happened before in a World Series game? I'd be very surprised if it has.) The Royals added a run in the eighth and one in the ninth, and had their second easy victory of the series."

Brett's slide into the dugout, incidentally, is one of the most famous highlights of the entire 1985 Royals championship, even though he didn't make the catch - he hurtled himself at full speed into the dugout and could have been seriously injured, but came out without a scratch. You can watch that inning here, starting at the 1:55:15 mark.)

And it could hardly have come at a better time. After squandering their opportunity against Britton, the Royals would take full advantage of their opportunities against Darren O’Day and Brian Matusz in the top of the 10th, scoring three runs. Davis was credited with the win.

The next night, Davis was credited with the win in Game 2 when he pitched a scoreless 8th inning and the Royals scored two tie-breaking runs in the top of the 9th. After the game, Jarrod Dyson made his comments to the media that he didn’t think the series was coming back to Baltimore, and posited that the Orioles didn’t think the series was coming back either. That led to this now-famous entry at the online forum Orioles Dugout:

And that, my friends, is how Wade Davis came to be known as The Cyborg.