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.

Moment #: 24
Date: October 9, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 2, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 4, Kansas City 5, Top of the 9th
Situation: One out, man on first
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Jose Altuve vs. Wade Davis
Result: Runner picked off first base
WPA: 13%

Summary: Carlos Gomez, representing the tying run in Game 2 of the 2015 ALDS with one out in the 9th, gets picked off first base by Wade Davis.

Link to video: Here.

Carlos Gomez did not have a good ALDS.

In Game 4, he didn’t dive for Ben Zobrist’s line drive in the 8th inning (Moment #63), when a diving catch may have killed the rally before it turned into the Miracle at Minute Maid. In Game 5, Gomez slipped and fell down on Eric Hosmer’s 4th-inning single (Moment #47), allowing Lorenzo Cain to score the Royals’ first run from first base.

And before either of those games, he pinch-ran in Game 2 of the ALDS after Preston Tucker drew a one-out walk on a 3-2 pitch from Wade Davis, with the Astros losing by a run…and was picked off before another pitch was even thrown.

In fairness to Gomez, this was a hell of a play, as much a credit to Hosmer’s pick as it was to Davis’ throw. Gomez didn’t appear to do anything wrong; he didn’t take off for second base or get caught leaning or anything, and not only was he called safe by the umpire, immediately afterwards the announcers were completely dismissive of even the possibility that he was out. (Matt Vasgersian’s call: “Very close over there…perhaps not as close as the fans would lead you to believe.”) But this is where replay shines – Gomez was clearly and unmistakably out on video review, and after a brief conference, the umpires overturned the ruling on the field. Now instead of singles-machine Jose Altuve potentially batting with the tying run in scoring position, he batted with two outs and no one on base, and grounded out to end the game.

How unlikely was it? It was the first time Wade Davis had picked off a runner since 2013 – when he was still a starting pitcher.

How embarrassing was it for Gomez? It was the first time a runner had been picked off in the 9th inning of a one-run playoff game since Herb Washington was nailed by Mike Marshall in Game 2 of the 1974 World Series.

But the more I watch this play, the more unsure I am that Gomez did anything wrong. In particular, watch the replay of this from the camera stationed around the first base dugout. Davis’ throw short-hops Hosmer, with the result that Hosmer pulls his glove back to catch the ball on the hop – and at the exact moment when the ball hits his glove, Hosmer’s glove hits Gomez’s sleeve. Look at this picture:

That indistinct white blob peeking through the pocket of Hosmer’s glove is the ball at the exact instant it hits his glove – and also the exact instant his glove makes contact with Gomez. I have no idea whether the short-hop was planned or just a lucky break, but every time I view this clip, I get more convinced that this is one of the most drop-dead-perfect pickoffs I’ve ever seen. Gomez didn’t take an unsafe lead. He didn’t turn the wrong way. He just got picked off by the perfect throw.

For the second year in a row, the Royals won Game 2 of the ALDS when they nailed a pinch-runner on the bases with perfect defense.

Moment #: 23
Date: October 27, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 1, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 0, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 1st
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Alcides Escobar vs. Matt Harvey
Result: Inside-the-park Home Run, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 10%

Summary: After everyone in the ballpark knew he was swinging at the first pitch, Alcides Escobar swings at the first pitch of the World Series – and Yoenis Cespedes plays it into an inside-the-park home run.

Link to video: Here.

“If you’ve been watching the Royals, be ready, he’s swinging, first pitch.”

Those are the words that came out of Harold Reynolds' mouth the instant before Matt Harvey threw the first pitch that the Royals saw in the 2015 World Series, to Alcides Escobar, leading off the bottom of the 1st inning. Escobar's propensity to swing at that first pitch – and the Royals’ belief that such behavior foretold victory – was known throughout the land. And yet Harvey, knowing all this, chose to throw a 95 mph fastball in the strike zone. Pride goeth before the fall.

Escobar swung and hit a fly ball to left-center field, and if Lorenzo Cain were playing center field for the Mets – or perhaps if Alex Gordon, who Yoenis Cespedes had somehow beaten out for the AL Gold Glove award even though he was traded to the NL in July, had been playing left field for them – this ball almost certainly would have been caught. But Cespedes got a terrible jump on the ball – watch for Tom Verducci’s analysis at the end – and then just before the ball came down he took his eye off for a moment to make sure he didn’t collide with teammate Michael Conforto – and he still should have caught the ball, because he actually overran it. The ball missed his glove but hit his left leg, and then rolled past both outfielders as it hugged the left field wall. Escobar, who had never hit an inside-the-park home run in his career, scored without even a throw.

It was not the first inside-the-park home run in World Series history, but it was the first since 1929, back in an era when inside-the-park home runs were not anomalies. It wasn’t even the first inside-the-park home run to lead off a World Series game – Patsy Dougherty did so leading off the bottom of the 1st in Game 2 of the World Series. In 1903, the first World Series ever, when most outfield fences were simply roped off areas to keep out the mob of fans. That this happened in 2015 is almost unfathomable. That it would happen in a game that the Royals would win in extra innings, making the run as precious as it was rare? Just absurd.

In 1986, on Opening Day, Dwight Evans – the first batter of the season for the Red Sox – led off the top of the 1st inning with a home run. The next day, in the Angels’ first game of the season, Bobby Grich led off the top of the 1st inning with a home run. The Angels and Red Sox would win their divisions and meet in the ALCS, prompting the joke that – as Harry Doyle said in Major League three years later – you really can tell how your season is going to go after just one batter.

Maybe that’s not so, but the 2015 Royals could claim that you can tell how a World Series will go that way.

Moment #: 22
Date: October 14, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 5, vs. Houston Astros
Score: Houston 2, Kansas City 1, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: No outs, men on second and third
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Alex Rios vs. Mike Fiers
Result: Double, tying and go-ahead runs score
WPA: 15%

Summary: Alex Rios drives in the tying and go-ahead runs in the 5th inning of a winner-take-all ALDS Game 5.

Link to video: Here.

This is a surprising piece of information, but in the last two postseasons combined, over 22 Royals wins, ten of which were won in their final at-bat, they have had only two plays that turned a loss into a lead – only two hits that drove in the tying and go-ahead runs – at any point in the game. The first was Alex Gordon’s three-run double against the Angels in the 1st inning of Game 3 (Moment #30). This is the second one, and not only did Alex Rios double to drive in Salvador Perez (who had been hit by a pitch) with the tying run and Gordon (who had doubled in Moment #83) with the go-ahead run – he did so in a winner-take-all Game 5. Even though there were no outs at the time, and even though it was still just the 5th inning, that’s enough to rank in the top 25. Had this happened with, say, one out in the 8th, this would easily rank in the top 10.

One thing that gets lost in the play is just how close Rios’ hit was to being called foul. Mike Fiers hung a curveball on a 1-1 pitch, and Rios pulled it right down the line. The ball bounced maybe ten feet from home plate and just a foot or so fair, but instead of spinning into foul territory before it reached the third base bag – as most balls hit like this do – the ball hardly sliced at all. It bounced over the bag and hit the ground maybe an inch in foul territory – but at that point it was maybe 15 feet past the bag, and because the ball had bounced first, all that mattered was whether it was fair when it crossed the imaginary plane over the base. Angel Hernandez made a quick and correct call, signaling that it was fair; had he ruled it was foul, though, I’m not sure what recourse the Royals would have had on what was a judgment call.

It was such a big moment that afterwards, Rios did this:

It turns out that Rios is, in fact, capable of showing emotion. It just takes a hit that decides the course of a playoff series.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Rios wraps that one INSIDE THE LINE AND DOWN INTO THE LEFT FIELD CORNER! Perez scores, here’s Gordon right behind him, and Kansas City has taken their first lead of the night!” – Matt Vasgersian.

Moment #: 21
Date: October 2, 2014
Game: 2014 ALDS Game 1, @ Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Score: Kansas City 2, Los Angeles 2, Bottom of the 6th
Situation: Two outs, men on first and second
Count: 1-0
Matchup: Howie Kendrick vs. Jason Vargas
Result: Flyout to right field
WPA: 6%

Summary: Nori Aoki makes an impossible catch to end the 6th inning and save two runs in Game 1 of the 2014 ALDS. No, seriously. It was not possible.

Link to video:

It wasn’t the most important play of the last two years. It wasn’t the most joyful moment of the last two years. But nearly 18 months later, this remains the most incomprehensible moment of them all. Unfathomable. Impossible. I don’t know how it happened. I’m still not sure it did happen. And I don’t know why we don’t talk about it more.

It was Game 1 of the ALDS in Anaheim, with the Royals still riding the giddy high of beating the A’s in the Wild Card Game, and given how emotionally and physically spent they were, I had already written off Game 1 and just hoped they’d win Game 2 and come back to Kansas City with a split. But through five innings they were deadlocked with the Angels, 2-2. Going to the bottom of the 6th – stop me if you’ve heard this before – Ned Yost chose to stick with his starter, Jason Vargas, even though his bullpen had all benefited from having the previous day off.

Chris Iannetta, the #9 hitter in the Angels lineup, struck out, but Kole Calhoun singled, bringing up the heart of the Angels’ order for the third time: Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, and Howie Kendrick. Trout flied to right.

Vargas worked around Pujols and walked him on a 3-1 pitch, bringing up Kendrick with two on and two out. Kendrick isn’t a great hitter because he doesn’t walk much and doesn’t hit for a ton of power, but all the Angels needed was a single to take the lead, and Kendrick is a career .293 hitter. And he had the platoon advantage against Vargas; against left-handers that year, Kendrick had hit .327/.379/.455. I was screaming through the only medium I had available to me – Twitter – for Ned Yost to get Vargas out of the game. Yost came out to talk with him.

Yost stuck with Vargas. And on a 1-0 pitch, Vargas threw an 89 mph fastball basically down the middle. Kendrick drove it deep to the opposite field. Lorenzo Cain sprinted at full speed, and at the last moment tried to jump and catch the ball against the wall, but he was a couple of feet short and the ball eluded his glove.

And instead it landed in the glove of Nori Aoki, who had sprinted over from right field and was, at that moment, practically spread-eagled against the fence:

That, by itself, was enough to make this an insane catch. Aoki had caught the ball with his glove literally touching (as best as I can tell) the fence, and in so doing had almost certainly saved two runs, which would have basically iced the game for the Angels. The WPA above is the difference in Win Probability before the at-bat and after, but before the at-bat we didn’t know Kendrick was about to hit a sure double. If you calculated what the Angels’ Win Probability would have been had they been leading 4-2 and Kendrick was standing on second base, the WPA of this play would be 35%, which would make it the most valuable postseason play on this list so far. (In fairness, every play on this list would have a higher WPA if I accounted for what would have happened had the hitter/fielder/pitcher/runner failed, as opposed to what the odds were before the play began.)

But it wasn’t simply that Aoki made a terrific catch. It’s that, at the moment he made the catch,

1) His face was smashed against the wall;
2) His eyes were closed.

That is an extraordinary claim to make, and as Carl Sagan said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” Well, here’s your evidence:

Like I said: I don’t know how it happened. I’m still not sure it did happen, because that’s not supposed to happen. But the Royals joyfully ran off the field, the Angels retreated back to their dugout, the game moved on to the 7th inning still tied, and the Royals won in extra innings. They would sweep the series. They would go on to the World Series. They would win the World Series the following year. And on some level, we can trace all of that success to this one moment in time, when the laws of physics and logic were suspended for an instant. When Nori Aoki saved a playoff game by making a blind catch while face-planting into a wall.


Unknown said...

That tweet about Aoki after the catch is probably my favorite tweet of yours. (You know, if I had a countdown of my 218 favorite Rany Jazayerli tweets.) I remember seeing it on my timeline after the catch and saying, "This man's tweeting what we're all thinking!"

This countdown's awesome by the way!

M.B. Tate said...

Absolutely loving this, Rany! Thank you so much for this project. Wow.

In my mind, I always thought that the ball went off of Mr. Lawn's left leg, too, but it looks like he straight-up "booted" it (as Denny would say) with the inside heel of his right foot. It was like an easy finish on a soccer goal.

I agree with you; I don't think that Gomez did anything wrong on the play. But, a season of reading Lee Judge has me thinking... was it in the set-up to the play? He didn't do anything wrong, but he didn't do everything right to avoid the pick-off once he was in a bad position. He dove for the back corner like you're supposed to, but what if he'd reached out with his left hand? Furthermore, I'm willing to bet that Davis noticed that Gomez was lined up in the base path. If he'd been lined up another inch or two back, and had reached with his left hand, I bet that he's safe there.

BMJ said...

Current Tally As We Go From Top "Kendrys Morales" Moments (25) To Top "Frank White" Moments (20)

By Category:

2014 Regular Season (9)
Wild Card Game (16)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (6)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (6)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (7)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (7)
ALCS Game 2 Orioles (8)
ALCS Game 3 Orioles (3)
ALCS Game 4 Orioles (5)
World Series Game 1 Giants (0)
World Series Game 2 Giants (6)
World Series Game 3 Giants (6)
World Series Game 4 Giants (5)
World Series Game 5 Giants (1)
World Series Game 6 Giants (7)
World Series Game 7 Giants (3)
2014 Entries So Far (95)

2015 Regular Season (3)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (8)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (9)
ALDS Game 5 Astros (7)
ALCS Game 1 Blue Jays (6)
ALCS Game 2 Blue Jays (11)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (9)
World Series Game 1 Mets (12)
World Series Game 2 Mets (5)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (9)
World Series Game 5 Mets (9)

By Player
Hosmer (23)
Cain (23)
Gordon (16)
Perez (15)
Moustakas (17)
Escobar (23)
Dyson (6)
Zobrist (12)
Morales (3)
Butler (10)
Gore (2)
Colon (1)
Infante (6)
Rios (5)
Aoki (4)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (1)
Butera (1)

Davis (8)
Holland (8)
Herrera (2)
Ventura (4)
Young (1)
Cueto (2)
Finnegan (4)
Volquez (1)
Guthrie (0)
Shields (0)
Vargas (1)
Hochevar (2)
Madson (1)
Duffy (0)
Medlen (0)
Frasor (0)
Collins (0)
Morales (0)

OTHER (12)

Matt S said...

Seems like a pretty terrible slide by Cowgill also had to happen. He actually seems to go up first, then come down hard well in front of the base.

Bill Olson said...

Check out the expression on Lorenzo's face when Aoki makes the blind catch. While I can't imagine he's actually reacting to the catch in that instant, it's the same look I had on my face at the time. And you. And Rany. And any other interested parties.