Monday, January 18, 2016

Top Moments (#200 - #191) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

Some of these plays are memorable but didn’t have an enormous impact on the Royals’ two World Series trips; some of these plays had a sizable impact but aren’t particularly memorable. But they’re all worth documenting for posterity. If you’re a little underwhelmed by some of them, remember: we still have 190 to go.

Moment #: 200
Date: April 6, 2015
Game: 2015 Regular Season Game 1, vs. Chicago White Sox
Score: Chicago 0, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: One out, bases empty
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Mike Moustakas vs. Jeff Samardzija
Result: Home Run, one run scores
WPA: 5%

Summary: On Opening Day, Mike Moustakas hits the first opposite-field home run of his career, setting the tone for both him and the Royals in 2015.

Link to video: Here.

Don’t expect a lot of moments from the 2015 regular season on this list; it’s hard to create a lot of drama when you lead your division by 14.5 games on the morning of August 20th, and have a 99% or better chance to win the division at every point during the last six weeks of the season. Which is why the most symbolic moment of the regular season didn’t come at the end of it, but at the very beginning, on Opening Day in fact, when Mike Moustakas – seemingly inexplicably batting 2nd in the lineup for the first time in his career – homered to the opposite field for the first time in his career. (Bonus points for doing it off of Jeff Samardzija.)

I went into last season nearly as pessimistic about the Royals’ chances of defending their AL pennant as most pundits were, but by the time they had started 7-0, I had fully bought in. I took some grief from friends and colleagues for letting myself be swayed by such a small sample size, but it wasn’t the fact that the Royals were winning that swayed me: it was how they were winning. Specifically, it was this: Mike Moustakas, who had hit .212/.271/.361 in 2014 and was sent to the minors for a time and batted 9th throughout the postseason, had completely revamped his approach at the plate in spring training, showing such an improved opposite-field approach that Ned Yost had named his #2 hitter (risking the typical public mockery that he gets for being Ned Yost), and this home run provided the ultimate validation and positive for reinforcement for Moustakas from Day One. I didn’t need a large sample size to know that Moustakas was hitting the ball to left field, and that teams would have to choose between giving up tons of hits to the opposite field or abandon the shift and open up his pull side. I didn’t know on Opening Day that Moustakas was going to hit .284/.348/.470 in 2015, or that his bWAR would jump from 0.4 in 2014 to 4.4 in 2015, meaning that his improvement alone would be worth four wins to the Royals. But I wouldn’t have been surprised either. It was clear from that one swing that Moustakas had a new approach at the plate. And it was clear from the results of that one swing that he was going to stick with it.

Moment #: 199
Date: October 2, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 1, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 0, Los Angeles 0, Bottom of the 2nd
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Erick Aybar vs. Jason Vargas
Result: Lineout to centerfield
WPA: 1%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain makes a great catch that doesn’t even rank among his five best in the postseason. It wasn’t even his best in this game.

Link to video: Here.
Nothing fancy here; just a routine great catch by a player from whom great catches are routine. In Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS, Lorenzo Cain charged in and made an excellent catch on Erick Aybar’s liner. Cain got such a good jump that he almost made this catch look easy. With two outs and no one on, the catch didn’t have an enormous outcome on the game, but given that the game went into extra innings, even a small outcome could have tipped the scales. This is the first of at least seven catches by Lorenzo Cain on this list.

Moment #: 198
Date: October 5, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 3, vs. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Los Angeles 2, Kansas City 5, Bottom of the 4th
Situation: One out, bases empty
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Mike Moustakas vs. Mike Morin
Result: Home Run, one run scores
WPA: 5%

Summary: Mike Moustakas launches another dagger into the heart of the Angels.

Link to video: Here.
The Royals’ first postseason home game in 29 years was an emotionally exhausting epic. Their next postseason home game was a house party. The stakes were already much lower for Game 3 of the ALDS, after the Royals had won the first two games of the series in Anaheim, and after they took a 5-1 lead in the third inning, fans were ready to party. Albert Pujols had homered to cut the lead to three in the top of the 4th, but Mike Moustakas came right back with his second home run of the series in the bottom of the inning. There’s a shot of the Angels’ dugout in this clip where they look entirely defeated. Lorenzo Cain would drive in another run in the inning with a sacrifice fly, and the party was on. 

Of the Royals’ 22 postseason wins the last two years, this game was probably had the best party atmosphere, because of the big lead early, the fact that it was an elimination game for the other team, and the fact that it wasn’t an elimination game for the Royals – it was all upside with little risk. The party continued after the game, you might recall, at McFadden’s.

Moment #: 197
Date: October 3, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 2, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 1, Los Angeles 0, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: No outs, men on first and second
Count: 1-2
Matchup: David Freese vs. Yordano Ventura
Result: Double play, 4-6-3
WPA: 16%

Summary: After nearly getting David Freese to make one out, Yordano Ventura gets him to make two.

Link to video: Here.
This isn’t a particularly memorable moment, but in terms of game impact it ranks surprisingly high. With the Royals protecting a one-run lead in the 5th inning, with two runners on and no one out, David Freese had hit a high chopper that Mike Moustakas fielded with his foot on third base – only to have the umpires (correctly, I think) rule that the ball had crossed into foul territory by the time it settled into his glove. Given a second life, Freese hit a routine three-hopper to Omar Infante, who started a double play to quell the rally. Josh Hamilton would then line out to right field to end the inning.

The double play increased the Royals’ odds of winning the game by 16%, from 46% to 62%. Surprisingly – it was certainly surprising to me – only five other plays in the last two postseasons had a more positive impact on the Royals’ win probability while they were in the field. (Don’t worry, all five of them are on the list too.) When you consider how many one-run and extra-inning games the Royals have played, that seems kind of shocking, that a double play turned in the fifth inning (with no runner even on third base) would rank so high on the WPA list. But I think I know why: it’s because not only was the Royals bullpen insanely effective at preventing late-inning runs, they rarely even allowed a late-inning rally that would fizzle out, which would then greatly benefit to their WPA. Over the past two postseasons, the Royals’ bullpen was so good that it rarely allowed drama, let alone runs.

Moment #: 196
Date: October 24, 2014
Game: 2014 World Series Game 3, @ San Francisco Giants
Score: Kansas City 0, San Francisco 0, Top of the 1st
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Tim Hudson
Result: Double
WPA: 6%

Summary: Alcides Escobar ambushes the first pitch of the game in the World Series and comes around to score the game’s first run. No, not that game.

Link to video: Here.

Before Alcides Escobar began the 2015 World Series with an inside-the-park home run on the first pitch the Royals saw, he began Game 3 of the 2014 World Series with a double off the left-field wall at AT&T Park on the first pitch of the game – and in this case, it really was the first pitch of the game, as the Royals were the road team. The next three batters would make outs, but they were all groundouts (Team Contact!), so Escobar came around to score anyway. The Royals would win the game by one run. I’d say Escobar’s aggression out of the leadoff spot might well have been the difference in a World Series game. Another World Series game.

Moment #: 195
Date: October 16, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 1, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 0, Kansas City 1, Bottom of the 3rd
Situation: Two outs, man on third
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Marco Estrada
Result: Single to right field, one run scores
WPA: 9%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain comes through with a two-out single to drive in the omnipresent Alcides Escobar and give the Royals a 2-0 lead.

Link to video: Here.
Alcides Escobar started his ALCS MVP bid straight out of the chute, doubling to lead off the bottom of the 1st in Game 1, but the Royals failed to score in the inning. In the 3rd, though, Escobar doubled again, this time with Alex Gordon on base to drive in the game’s first run. After Ben Zobrist grounded out, Lorenzo Cain made sure that Escobar wouldn’t die on the vine this time, punching a single to right field to double the Royals’ lead. Edinson Volquez and a procession of relievers would make sure the lead held up.

Moment #: 194
Date: October 30, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 3, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 1, New York 2, Top of the 2nd
Situation: No outs, men on first and second
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alex Rios vs. Noah Syndergaard
Result: Single to left field, tying run scores, go-ahead runner thrown out at third base
WPA: 3%

Summary: Alex Rios drives home the tying run, but Alex Gordon commits the cardinal sin of making the first out of the inning at third base.

Link to video: Here.
Re-visiting the whole “Noah Syndergaard disrupted the Royals’ mojo by buzzing Alcides Escobar to start the game!” narrative – not only did the Royals score a run in the 1st inning, they also scored two in the 2nd inning – and it could have been more. Salvador Perez and Alex Gordon started the inning with singles, and Alex Rios drilled Syndergaard’s first pitch to left field, scoring Perez and moving Gordon to third base, while Rios moved up to second on the throw. Except that the Mets called for a review, and Gordon was (fairly) called out. The Royals would still score another run in the inning on Yordano Ventura’s bunt and Travis d’Arnaud’s passed ball (discussed earlier), but the Royals lost at least one run on Gordon’s out, making this hit a Pyrrhic victory. Oh well. Winning the World Series in five games is more dramatic than a sweep anyway.

Moment #: 193
Date: October 9, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 2, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 3, Kansas City 0, Top of the 2nd
Situation: One out, men on first and second
Count: 2-2 (+5 fouls)
Matchup: Carlos Correa vs. Johnny Cueto
Result: Double play, 5-4-3
WPA: 5%

Summary: Johnny Cueto gets Carlos Correa to hit into a double play to stem the bleeding and keep the Royals in the game early.

Link to video: Here.
Before the Royals pulled Game 4 of the ALDS out of their derrieres with a miraculous comeback, they pulled Game 2 of the ALDS out of their nether regions as well. (The Astros terrified me all season, and even after vanquishing them, they still terrify me.) And while the Royals comeback in the 6th inning of Game 2 gets all the attention for the lucky bounces that went their way, they needed some luck just to keep the game within reach way back in the 2nd inning.

Like this play. After winning Game 1 pretty easily, the Astros had scored a run in the top of 1st inning in Game 2 (and might have scored a second run, but Colby Rasmus held at third on Evan Gattis’ two-out single to left field – as we just talked about in Moment # 202, Alex Gordon’s arm saves the Royals runs even when he doesn’t use it). They then loaded the bases with none out in the 2nd inning against Johnny Cueto, and with one out George Springer had blooped a single to left field to drive in two runs. It was already 3-0 when Carlos Correa came to the plate, and Correa hit a bullet right at Mike Moustakas. If that ball is hit 10 feet to Moose’s left, the Royals probably get swept out of the ALDS. That’s how razor-sharp the difference can be between the perfect postseason (winning the World Series) and the perfectly awful postseason (losing every game you play).

But it was hit right to Moustakas, who went around-the-horn for the 5-4-3 inning-ending double play. Making this play even more crucial was that the Astros’ very next batter, Colby Rasmus, led off the top of the 4th with a home run. Without the double play, the Astros would have scored at least two more runs. Cueto settled down after the home run, retiring 12 of the last 14 batters he faced, but his recovery would have been too little, too late. Instead, he left the game with the score tied, and the Royals would win by one run.

All season the Astros were the team that scared me the most, and I feel completely justified in my fear by the way they played the Royals in the ALDS. Change any of a dozen plays in the series, and the Royals don’t get out of the first round, let alone win a championship. This is one of those plays.

Moment #: 192
Date: July 9, 2014
Game: 2014 Regular Season Game 90, @ Tampa Bay Rays
Score: Kansas City 2, Tampa Bay 4, Top of the 9th
Situation: One out, men on first and third
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Salvador Perez vs. Kirby Yates
Result: Home Run, three runs score including tying and go-ahead runs
WPA: 67%

Summary: Salvador Perez hits a short fly ball to the perfect spot for the most game-changing play of the last two years.

Link to video: Here.

With home runs, like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. With the Royals down by two in the ninth inning, Salvador Perez hit a fly ball maybe 330 feet, short enough to be an out anywhere in Kauffman Stadium, and short enough to be an out almost anywhere at Tropicana Field. But he hit it right down the left field line, where the fence curves in to 315 feet at the pole, and just far enough where left fielder Brandon Guyer couldn’t reach into the stands to catch the can of corn.

It was a cheap home run, but it was a home run, and it increased the odds that the Royals would win the game from 17% to 84%. That 67% swing is the biggest of any play in the last two years (although essentially tied with another hit higher up on this list). The Royals would hold on for the win – of course they would, they went nearly a year and a half without losing a game that they led at any point after seven innings – to improve to 47-43. The game didn’t have any kind of momentum for the Royals; they would lose 7 of their next 8 sandwiched around the All-Star Break to fall to 48-50, the nadir of the franchise before everything turned around. But a win’s a win, and the Royals badly needed this win, both at the time and at the end of the season.

Moment #: 191
Date: October 16, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 1, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 0, Kansas City 3, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Ben Zobrist vs. Marco Estrada
Result: Flyout to right field
WPA: 0%

Summary: Jose Bautista embraces his inner heel, because there’s no chance that will ever come back to haunt him. No sirree.

Link to video: Here.
Two outs, nobody on base, Ben Zobrist lofts a routine fly ball to right field for the third out of the inning with the Royals leading 3-0 in the 5th inning of Game 1 of the ALCS. So why is this on the list? Because of what Jose Bautista does after he catches the ball: he makes as if to throw the ball into the stands – because, you know, that’s the nice thing to do – only to hold on to the ball. Not cool, Jose. Just remember: what comes around goes around. You never know when Ben Zobrist might hit another routine fly ball to right field, only this time the fans strike back. Sure, it might never happen. Or it might happen the very next day.


Ulrich said...

Thank you so much for putting this together! I'm having a great time reliving these moments (and discovering some of them for the first time).

Unknown said...

I really appreciate this, Rany. Have loved reading you (and you and Rob) for more than a decade. Glad you are putting all this together.

FromTheHawksEye said...

As far as the Jose Bautista thing. I've long wondered if he went to toss it into the stands out of force of habit, and then remembered some playoff rule about not tossing the ball into the stands. I can't remember ever seeing anyone else toss a ball into the stands at any point of the playoffs, either. You'd also actually have to be a world class moron/jerk to think that joke was 'funny', at least without immediately tossing it in after all, and I can't think of any sentimental reason he'd want to keep the ball.

James said...

I never thought about the point Hawkeye brought up and always just assumed Bautista is a dick (also I don't know about any such non-tossing in the playoffs rule). But even as a Royals fan, and as much as I don't like Bautista, I think that Hawkeye's suggestion is more plausible than thinking that Bautista would actually be that childish. Because watching that game, and that moment when it was replayed, it just seemed such a dick move to make that I can't imagine Bautista, or anyone else for that matter, being such a prick.

But who knows. I wish they interviewed him about that just to hear his side of the story.

Unknown said...

I don't know, guys. I have gone back and rewatched it a few times now. There is no hesitation of "Oh yeah, I'd better not do this." It looks like a nonchalant dick-move.

Ethan Herbertson said...

No, there's no rule about not throwing the ball to the fans in the playoffs. Look at Moose after he played the foul ball referenced in moment #197.