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.

Moment #: 39
Date: October 28, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 2, vs. New York Mets
Score: New York 1, Kansas City 1, Bottom of the 5th
Situation: Two outs, men on second and third
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Jacob deGrom
Result: Single, two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 22%

Summary: Eric Hosmer breaks a tie in the 5th inning with a two-out, two-run single in Game 2 of the World Series.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals have had four two-out, two-run singles in the last two postseasons. Two of those hits were bases-loaded singles while the Royals were running up the score against Toronto in Game 4 of the ALCS, with nine runs in the last three innings. One of those hits was Omar Infante’s tie-breaking bases-loaded single in Game 4 of the 2014 World Series, which ranks as Moment #142 even though it came in a loss. This is the fourth occasion.

The Royals had already tied Game 2 of the World Series in the 5th inning against Jacob deGrom when Alcides Escobar’s inability to get a bunt down turned into an RBI single (Moment #53). But deGrom got Ben Zobrist to bounce out, moving the runners up to second and third, and then Lorenzo Cain lined out to center field, too shallow for Alex Rios to tag up. So Eric Hosmer batted with two outs and two runners in scoring position. On an 0-1 pitch, he stayed back on a changeup from deGrom and ripped it straight up the middle, bouncing off the mound and then just past the outstretched glove of Wilmer Flores, who was shading Hosmer to pull. Two runs scored, and the Royals had a lead they would hold onto for the duration of the game.

Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas (Moment #186) would single to bring Hosmer around to score, and a suddenly shell-shocked deGrom would not come out for the 6th inning. The narrative – that the Royals had the antidote to the Mets’ murderous row of starting pitches – had solidified, thanks to another clutch hit from Hosmer.

Moment #: 38
Date: October 15, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 4, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 0, Kansas City 0, Bottom of the 1st
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Miguel Gonzalez
Result: Single, two go-ahead runs score
WPA: 12%

Summary: Alcides Escobar kicks the ball away when the Orioles try to throw him out at the plate in the 1st inning, resulting in two runs in a game the Royals would win, 2-1.

Link to video: Here.

The Royals held a commanding 3 games to 0 lead in the 2014 ALCS, and were looking to land a knockout blow early in Game 4. They got one in the 1st inning, when Alcides Escobar led off with an infield single, and then Miguel Gonzalez hit Nori Aoki with a pitch. So Eric Hosmer batted with runners on second and third and one out, in position to drive home a run without benefit of a base hit. But the Orioles pulled their infield in, and Hosmer hit a chopper right at first baseman Steve Pearce.

Escobar was running on contact, so Pearce threw home to Caleb Joseph, who made a swipe tag as Escobar crossed the plate. Ever since the plate-blocking rule passed before the 2014 season, home plate collisions of any consequence whatsoever have been nearly eliminated, which makes this play so unusual: Escobar appeared to kick the ball out of Joseph’s glove, something which isn’t supposed to be allowed anymore.

Except that if you watch the play closely, you’ll see that Joseph – who, thanks to the game’s early afternoon start, had to deal with the ball going from light into shadows as it went from Pearce’s arm to home plate – never secured the ball completely. Here’s a picture from the instant before Escobar makes contact with Joseph – as you can see, the ball was not secured in his glove:

The same shadows which made hitting at that time of day so difficult – and which made an early lead even more meaningful – hampered Joseph’s ability to field the ball cleanly. Instead, Escobar slid into home safely, the ball kicked away and nearly hit Billy Butler in the on-deck circle, and Aoki came around to score as well. The Royals scored two runs in the inning on one hit. They would be the only two runs the Royals would score that day. They would be the only two runs the Royals would need.

Oh, and how did Escobar and Aoki end up on second and third with one out? Because Lorenzo Cain sacrificed the runners over. Why is this meaningful? It is the only sacrifice bunt of Lorenzo Cain’s major league career

You might remember Cain trying to bunt in the 8th inning of Game 1 of the 2015 World Series after Ben Zobrist doubled (Moment #147), and how badly that turned out. But the one and only time Cain has ever successfully laid down a sacrifice bunt in his major league career, it worked to absolute perfection. You literally could not draw up a more picture-perfect sacrifice bunt than the one that moves two runners up a base, and both runners score when neither of them likely would have scored had the batter made a routine out instead, and you win the game, 2-1. If you put that in a movie script you’d get laughed out of the Writers Guild. Oh, and winning the game put your team in the World Series? Please. No one would ever believe such a ridiculous tale.

Moment #: 37
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 3, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, men on first and third
Count: 0-0
Matchup: Mike Moustakas vs. Jeurys Familia
Result: Single, go-ahead run scores
WPA: 18%

Summary: Mike Moustakas singles past a diving Daniel Murphy to bring home the go-ahead run in the top of the 8th inning in Game 4 of the 2015 World Series.

Link to video: Here.

Daniel Murphy was the MVP of the 2015 NLCS, an easy selection after he went 9-for-17 in the series with four home runs, becoming the first player ever to hit home runs in six consecutive playoff games.

Daniel Murphy probably would have been the MVP of the 2015 NLDS if such an award existed. Against the Dodgers, Murphy went 7-for-21 with a double, three home runs, and an incredibly important stolen base in the decisive Game 5, which allowed him to score the tying run in the top of the 4th. (Murphy had already doubled in the Mets’ first run in the top of the 1st, and then in the 6th hit a home run to break the 2-2 tie which would turn out to be the final run of the series.)

Had he won World Series MVP honors, he would have finished maybe the greatest postseason anyone has ever had. He did not. However, speaking as a Royals fan, I am here to propose a scorching-hot take: did Daniel Murphy actually deserve to be named World Series MVP?

Consider the evidence: he hit .150 in the series, with just three singles in 20 at-bats, and no RBIs. (He did walk five times and score two runs.) And his defense greatly abetted many a Royals rally. Exhibit A is this inning, the top of the 8th inning in Game 4. Murphy had already booted a slow ground ball off the bat of Eric Hosmer that tied the game, when on the next pitch, Mike Moustakas hit a medium-speed groundball to the right side that Murphy…just…couldn’t…get to. The ball got through for a single, the Royals had the lead, and they would tack on an insurance run when Salvador Perez followed (Moment #118) with yet another single.

With one out, Moustakas’ grounder would have scored the go-ahead run even if Murphy had been able to snare it and throw him out at first, but of course, there was only one out because Murphy had just flubbed Hosmer’s grounder. And had there been two out, Murphy likely would have been playing a little farther back, giving him a little more time to get to this grounder. Murphy had more to do with the Royals’ game-winning rally in Game 4 of the World Series than anyone else. That wasn’t enough for him to be named the Royals’ Most Valuable Player, but if it’s any consolation, at least one Royals fan acknowledges his contribution with the heartiest of thanks.

Moment #: 36
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 5, New York 3, Bottom of the 9th
Situation: One out, men on first and second
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Lucas Duda vs. Wade Davis
Result: Lineout double play, 5-3, game over
WPA: 18%

Summary: Yoenis Cespedes, representing the tying run, makes a terrible baserunning blunder, allowing the Royals to double him off first base and end Game 4 of the 2015 World Series.

Link to video: Here.

For all that we talk about how the Royals won a world championship by taking advantage of their opponents’ mistakes on defense, we should also mention that the Royals also took advantage of their opponents’ mistakes on the bases. For instance, this play, when Yoenis Cespedes suffered a momentary case of brain-lock at the worst possible time.

The Royals had taken a 5-3 lead in the 8th inning in large part because Terry Collins chose not to turn to his closer, Jeurys Familia, to start the inning, waiting until two batters had walked against Tyler Clippard first. Ned Yost made no such mistake; he brought Wade Davis in to start the 8th inning even though he had Kelvin Herrera as an option. Davis retired the Mets in order on 12 pitches, and then stood at home plate and watched four pitches go by in the top of the 9th. He struck out David Wright to begin the bottom of the 9th, but then Daniel Murphy beat out an infield single, and then Cespedes singled to right field to put the tying runs on base.

Davis is in the midst of arguably the greatest reliever peak in history, but not because he doesn’t let anyone get on base. Over the last two seasons he walked 43 batters in 139.1 innings, a rate that is just a tick better than league average, so even though he’s impossible to hit (just 71 hits allowed) his WHIP of 0.818 is nowhere close to historic. The best WHIP of any reliever (minimum: 50 innings) in 2014 was…Sean Doolittle, at 0.737. Davis ranked tenth in the majors, behind Joaquin Benoit, Dellin Betances, Pat Neshek, Andrew Miller, Joe Smith, Michael Pineda (who wasn’t even a reliever), Aroldis Chapman, and Brad Boxberger. (In 2015, Davis ranked second, behind Kenley Jansen.)
But Davis takes a back seat to no one when it comes to actual runs allowed because he’s at his best when the situation is at its most fraught. With runners in scoring position last year, batters hit .118 (6-for-51) against Davis, all singles. In 2014, they hit .150 (9-for-60) with runners in scoring position, albeit with a double and even a triple. Davis isn’t the best reliever in baseball because he prevents rallies from starting; he just prevents them from finishing.

And sometimes he gets a little lucky, too. With Lucas Duda potentially one swing away from winning the game for the Mets, Davis got ahead with strike one, and then threw a nasty 93 mph cutter that tailed in at the last moment and broke Duda’s bat, inducing a weak line drive to Mike Moustakas, the sort of pitch that would make Mariano Rivera proud. And then…somehow…Cespedes lost his mind. Either he forgot how many outs there were, or he thought the ball would hit the ground, or he forgot that the rules allow for teams to play a third baseman. Whatever his reasons, he took off for second base on contact, and here’s where he was when Moustakas caught the ball:

After that, it was academic. Moustakas threw over to Hosmer, who stepped on the bag – although he always makes me nervous in these situations that he’s going to step off the bag to start celebrating early – and the game was over. The Mets had already given the Royals the lead in the 8th on a mistake; now they gave them the game on one. Afterwards, Mets fans were sad:

And amazingly enough, this wasn’t even the highest-rated baserunning mistake made by the potential tying run in the 9th inning against Wade Davis on our list.


Ben&Court said...

As per usual, you make my day with these. Sometimes, when you post a youtube jump, I just keep watching the game at my desk. Great stuff. Thanks for the memories.

K-Funk said...

I love re-living all the special moments from 2015. But to be honest, I skip over the 2014 moments because it's too painful to be reminded that the season ended in crushing disappointment.

Unknown said...

Not all of Gillingham's other hits were unmemorable. He hit a hanging curveball about 8000 feet in his return to Target Field vs the Twins. He had the kind of power you want in a RH DH. Looking at you Billy...

JRCIII said...

1) I finally just rewatched the Wild Card Game all the way through. I get K-Funk's feeling, but this process - reliving 2014 and 2015 at the same time - made me get the whole Rocky I/Rocky 2 (minus the cheese) vibe of what happened. I might be sold on a storyline of just falling short and then redemption being sweeter than back-to-backs. I might be crazy.

2) I love that Daniel Murphy fell apart right around the same time the Westboro Baptist Church began singing his praises. Murphy for WS LVP! Though Cespedes with his fielding and his unfortunate inability to hit through a crippling injury might be a contender.

3) TOOTBLAN is the best baseball acronym, and a contender for best acronym overall.

4) All the little moments that led us to having 35 more moments to watch. OMG so many things have to fall right!

BMJ said...

Current Tally As We Move From Top "Kelvin Herrera" Moments (40) To Top "Eric Hosmer" Moments (35)

By Category:
2014 Regular Season (9)
Wild Card Game (16)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (5)
ALDS Game 2 Angels (5)
ALDS Game 3 Angels (6)
ALCS Game 1 Orioles (6)
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 (2)
2014 Entries So Far: (90)

2015 Regular Season (3)
ALDS Game 1 Astros (1)
ALDS Game 2 Astros (7)
ALDS Game 3 Astros (2)
ALDS Game 4 Astros (9)
ALDS Game 5 Astros (6)
ALCS Game 1 Blue Jays (6)
ALCS Game 2 Blue Jays (9)
ALCS Game 3 Blue Jays (2)
ALCS Game 4 Blue Jays (5)
ALCS Game 5 Blue Jays (1)
ALCS Game 6 Blue Jays (7)
World Series Game 1 Mets (10)
World Series Game 2 Mets (5)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (9)
World Series Game 5 Mets (7)
2015 Entries So Far: (94)

By Player:
Hosmer (19)
Cain (22)
Gordon (12)
Perez (15)
Moustakas (14)
Escobar (21)
Dyson (5)
Zobrist (12)
Morales (3)
Butler (8)
Gore (2)
Colon (1)
Infante (6)
Rios (4)
Aoki (3)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (1)
Butera (1)

Davis (6)
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)


Anita Parsa said...

I share your concern about Hosmer celebrating too early. I swear that on this play, and one other this post season, he did come off just a bit early.

Chris Esch said...

I actually don't get K-Funk's feelings about 2014 at all (and I think Rany agrees with him too). 2014 is nothing but pure unadulterated joy to me. In some ways even better than 2015 (but not really). The undefeated streak through the AL playoffs, the Wild Card game, taking the WS to Game 7, all these things rank almost as highly in my book as winning the WS. C'mon, we went from 29 years of futility to one of the great playoff runs of all time. It was ALL gravy! And it even ended in spectacular fashion! As Gordon rounded second, I actually thought to myself, "They really are magic!" So, it ultimately ended in a loss, but to me, being disappointed by the way the 2014 playoffs ended is like saying "Yeah, I won the billion dollar Powerball, but I still have to pay the taxes on it."

First Baptist Church, Stephens said...

One moment I thought could be on the list (way further down, but somewhere on it) was Lorenzo Cain's RBI double off Clayton Kershaw in the 2015 All-Star Game. With all the talk that Royals fans were going to cost the team homefield advantage by voting in all their players, it was fun to see Royals players contribute in a big way to an AL victory.