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 MLB.com 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.

Moment #: 44
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 7, Top of the 10th
Situation: Two outs, bases empty
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Nick Punto vs. Brandon Finnegan
Result: Strikeout swinging, end of inning
WPA: 3%

Summary: Less than four months out of college, Brandon Finnegan saves the Royals’ season by keeping the A’s off the board in extra innings in the Wild Card Game…

Link to video: Here.

Moment #: 43
Date: September 30, 2014
Game: 2014 Wild Card Game, vs. Oakland Athletics
Score: Oakland 7, Kansas City 7, Top of the 11th
Situation: Two outs, man on first
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Brandon Moss vs. Brandon Finnegan
Result: Strikeout looking, end of inning
WPA: 6%

Summary: …and then does it again an inning later.

Link to video: Here.

You don’t have to like Brandon Finnegan if you don’t want to. He said some impolitic – but not necessarily inaccurate – things about the way the Royals handled him on his way out the door, and I know that’s rubbed some people the wrong way. But I’m sorry – it’s going to take a lot more than some poorly-chosen words to make me think of Finnegan with anything but the fondest of memories. He was a 21-year-old kid, pitching in college at TCU just four months earlier, when the Royals drafted him in the first round – at #17 overall, not even in the top half of the round – in early June. When the Royals drafted him, they made some noises about how Finnegan was polished enough that he could contribute in relief by year’s end, but no one took that very seriously at the time, particularly when the Royals swooned again in July and it looked like the question of whether he was ready to pitch in the postseason was moot.

But then the Royals surged again in August, and meanwhile Finnegan had looked brilliant in five short starts in Class-A Wilmington, and when they promoted him to Double-A in early August they pointedly moved him to the bullpen. He gave up 15 hits and nine runs in 12 innings, but also had 13 strikeouts against a pair of walks, and on September 1st the call came for him to come to Kansas City. At that point he had already made team history – only two players had ever made their major league debut with the Royals in the same season they were drafted. One of them was Jeff Granger, the Royals’ first pick in the 1993 draft, who had a September callup guaranteed in his contract – he went straight from the short-season Northwest League to the majors. The other was Bo Jackson.

That would almost have been enough for Finnegan. If he could contribute some quality innings from the left side in September and help the Royals in their battle for a postseason spot, so much the better. But then he came up and pitched so well – six up and six down in his major league debut at Yankee Stadium on September 6th, followed by three more scoreless outings – that you started to hope that maybe he could take on a more prominent role, particularly in a bullpen that had been leaning so heavily on the likes of Aaron Crow. On September 22nd he pitched the 7th inning with the Royals leading 2-0 and threw a scoreless inning. But two days later he relieved Jason Vargas after Vargas hit a batter to start the bottom of the 5th with the Royals leading, 4-3, and Finnegan allowed a double to tie the game and a single and a groundout to score the go-ahead run, and took the loss. His next and final outing came on September 27th, when he started the 5th inning with the Royals losing, 4-1, and had to be bailed out by Jason Frasor with two on and two outs.

Which is to say, while we hoped that Finnegan could have some sort of role in the postseason, it didn’t appear likely to be a significant role. Maybe he’d serve as a left-handed specialist to get a key batter out, but he didn’t appear to be ready for the job of saving the Royals with the season on the line.

Three days later, he saved the Royals with the season on the line. Twice.

The Royals had miraculously tied the Wild Card Game in the 9th, but they had already burned through Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis, and Greg Holland had thrown 23 pitches and loaded the bases in the 9th before escaping (Moment #204), and as we now know he was pitching with a torn ligament in his elbow, so he wasn’t coming back for a second inning. And at this juncture, in the biggest game the Royals had played in 29 years, a double-elimination game that was headed to extra innings, Ned Yost turned not to Jason Frasor, who had become the reliable fourth reliever the Royals had been looking for all year, but to Finnegan.

Yost wasn’t playing matchups here. The A’s had hit lefties a little worse than right-handers for the season (681 vs. 708 OPS), and left-handed hitting Stephen Vogt was due up, but Vogt was playing first base, and Bob Melvin countered with Nate Freiman, who had slugged .507 against LHP. Due up second was Derek Norris, who hit .311/.393/.470 vs. southpaws. Yost didn’t go to Finnegan to get a batter or two; he went to Finnegan to give him an inning or two, and work through the entire A’s lineup.

And Finnegan was at his best when the Royals needed him the most. He got Freiman to fly out harmless to centerfield. He got Norris to ground out to second base on the first pitch. And after getting ahead of Nick Punto 1-2, he put him away with a 96 mph fastball on the black, a perfect pitch, then pumped his fist like a madman as he walked off the mound. And he wasn’t done. When the Royals squandered a leadoff single in the bottom of the 10th, Finnegan came back out for the 11th. He struck out Coco Crisp. Sam Fuld tried to bunt his way on, but Finnegan fielded the bunt himself – always a tricky play for a young pitcher – and threw Fuld out at first base. Josh Donaldson, who had hit .275/.380/.627 against LHP during the season, singled with two out, which brought Brandon Moss to the plate. Moss already had two homers and five RBIs on the day, and (Moment #133) it could have been a lot worse.

Finnegan worked a 2-2 count. He threw a 95 mph fastball on the outside edge. Moss took it for strike three. This time Finnegan pounded his fist into his glove on his way off the mound, and couldn’t resist a mini fist pump as well. He had earned it.

The Royals wasted a leadoff single in the bottom of the 11th as well, and Finnegan returned for a third inning of work in the 12th, which seemed to me to be a bad idea at the time – he had already thrown 23 pitches, which was the most he had thrown in his game since his major league debut, when he had thrown 26. He walked Josh Reddick on five pitches, and then was pulled after Jed Lowrie sacrificed Reddick to second base. Frasor came in and immediately threw a wild pitch that allowed Reddick to advance to third base, and then allowed former Royal Alberto Callaspo, pinch-hitting for Freiman, to drive Reddick home with a single. Finnegan’s heroic effort was slated to end with a loss in the biggest Royals game in 29 years. But as you know, that wasn’t how the story ended. This story had a happy ending. Fairy tales always do.

Moment #: 42
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 2, Houston 6, Top of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases loaded
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Lorenzo Cain vs. Will Harris
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 12%

Summary: Lorenzo Cain keeps the line moving during the Miracle at Minute Maid, driving in the first run of the 8th inning with a single and keeping the bases loaded.

Link to video: Here.

Keep. The. Line. Moving. The Royals had begun the top of the 8th inning in Houston with three straight singles, and on a 1-1 pitch, Lorenzo Cain made it four with a sharp groundball – somewhere between a grounder and a line drive – right through what Tony Gwynn called the 5.5 hole. If you listen closely, you can hear the sound of 40,000 fans panicking all at once.

Just for fun: 

The 12 Greatest Half-Innings In Royals History:

12. Top of the 8th, 2015 WS Game 4
11. Top of the 9th, 2015 WS Game 5
10. Bottom of the 2nd, 2014 WS Game 6
9. Top of the 7th, 1980 ALCS Game 3
8. Bottom of the 5th, 1985 WS Game 7
7. Top of the 12th, 2015 WS Game 5
6. Bottom of the 7th, 2015 ALCS Game 2
5. Top of the 6th, 1985 ALCS Game 7
4. Bottom of the 8th, 2014 Wild Card
3. Bottom of the 12th, 2014 Wild Card
2. Bottom of the 9th, 1985 WS Game 6
1. Top of the 8th, 2015 ALDS Game 4

Yes, this inning ranks higher than the 9th inning in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series. Both games were elimination games, but if the Royals didn’t come back in 1985, they would still have been American League champions. If they hadn’t come back against the Astros, they would have been first-round losers and a postseason disappointment after having the best record in the league during the regular season. And the sheer degree of difficulty – coming back from four runs down instead of one – vaults the Miracle at Minute Maid into first place.

Moment #: 41
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 3, Houston 6, Top of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases loaded
Count: 2-2
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Tony Sipp
Result: Single, one run scores
WPA: 15%

Summary: Eric Hosmer keeps the line moving as well, driving in another run during the Miracle at Minute Maid, and putting the tying run in scoring position with no one out.

Link to video: Here.

“When the season began this year, I knew we were a team that had several identities — that represented a lot of things: Comeback kids. A new generation. Playoff veterans. The defending AL Champs. But one identity stood out above the rest: No fluke.

And that, to me, is what has defined this team all season long — and has made it so special, and its objective so unique.

While every other contender right now is playing with the goal of proving that they belong this year — for us the stakes are even higher. For us, we feel like we aren’t just playing for this year … we’re playing for last year as well.

We’re playing to win the pennant. But we’re also playing to prove that last year’s pennant was real. We’re playing to prove that the “heartbreaking ending” to our season was only one of those things: That yeah, it was heartbreaking. But it wasn’t an ending at all.

It was a beginning.

They predicted that we would win 75 games this year. We won 95. And now we’re in a fight for our playoff lives.

In other words: We’re right where we want to be.

We weren’t a fluke.

We’re the Kansas City Royals.

We’re here, now. And we’re going to be sticking around for a while.”

Here’s a storyline that has been almost completely overlooked in the Royals’ magical world championship run last year: the morning before Game 4 of the ALDS, just hours before the Royals faced potential elimination, Eric Hosmer “penned” – I use scare quotes because I’m going to irresponsibly speculate that it wasn’t his fingers typing into Microsoft Word – his first (and so far only) piece for the Players’ Tribune. The timing of his piece was, to be polite, unconventional. Had the Royals lost that afternoon, it would have been hard living down this piece, which ends with the words above. It would have been uncomfortable for Hosmer to explain the juxtaposition between him writing that “we’re going to be sticking around for a while” on a Monday morning and packing his bags for the winter on Monday afternoon.

Instead, in retrospect this piece reads like Joe Namath guaranteeing victory in Super Bowl III, or Douglas MacArthur promising “I shall return” after leaving the Philippines. It’s a speech that has already entered the realm of legend, and never mind that it wasn’t actually a speech. (Unless you listen to Steven St. John’s celebrity reading of the piece.) Hosmer talked the talk that morning online, and then he walked the walk that afternoon in Houston.

After going 1-for-12 in the first three games of the ALDS – that one hit being his ass-out butt-ugly hit in Moment #49 – Hosmer went hitless in his first three at-bats in Game 4. But in the 8th inning, with the Royals’ backs pressed firmly against the wall with no margin for error, Hosmer proved he was right where he wanted to be. Against Tony Sipp, who had finally relieved Will Harris, Hosmer fouled off the first two pitches to fall behind 0-and-2. But he then took two pitches in the dirt, and on a 2-2 pitch, Sipp threw a pretty good fastball on the outside corner at the knees, and despite taking a somewhat awkward swing – his front foot didn’t extend at all, and his left hand came off the bat early – Hosmer hit the ball right on the screws.

If Jose Altuve were 6’5” instead of 5’5”, this might have turned into a line drive double play, and somewhere deep in the heart of Texas, an Astros fan might be writing about this play on his list of The 100 Top Moments of the 2015 Astros. But instead Hosmer’s line drive went over Altuve’s head into right field. Lorenzo Cain, fearing the ball might be caught, initially took a step back towards first base, and only his excellent speed allowed him to slide into second base just ahead of George Springer’s throw, avoiding an incredibly costly and embarrassing force out. The Royals’ win probability, which had been 3% when the inning started, was now all the way up to 45%.

His next time up, Hosmer crushed a two-run homer (Moment #72) to put the game away, and the Royals never looked back. Turns out he was right. The Royals weren’t a fluke. They did stick around for a while. And 2014 wasn’t an ending at all, it was a beginning.


Anonymous said...

Two minor typo corrections, and then one substantial one:

The minor ones - in the article header, it should say there are still 40 to go, not 45, and in the header of moment # 41, it's Tony Sipp rather than Will Harris who Eric Hosmer was hitting against.

Now, the substantial one - in moment # 45, you said that Ben Zobrist didn't make any spectacular plays during the playoffs. I can come up with one that stands out for me - a leaping catch just beyond the infield grass. (I see, upon review, that you included it as moment # 183)

Rany said...

Typos fixed, thanks. I don't know that I'd call that play by Zobrist "spectacular" - it was a very good catch but also benefited from the ball being placed just so. But my point is that I can't think of a single play he *didn't* make that he should have.

BMJ said...

Current Tally as we prepare for KC Kacem's American (League) Top Forty Countdown

Current Tally

By Category

2014 Regular Season (9)
Wild Card Game (15)
ALDS Game 1 Angels (5)
ALDS Gane 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 (4)
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 To Date (88)

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)
ALDS Game 1 Blue Jays (6)
ALDS 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 (4)
World Series Game 3 Mets (5)
World Series Game 4 Mets (7)
World Series Game 5 Mets (7)
2015 Entries So Far: (91)

By Player

Hosmer (18)
Cain (22)
Gordon (12)
Perez (15)
Moustakas (12)
Escobar (20)
Dyson (5)
Zobrist (12)
Morales (3)
Butler (8)
Gore (2)
Colon (1)
Infante (6)
Rios (4)
Aoki (3)
Orlando (1)
Willingham (0)
Butera (1)

W. Davis (5)
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)
F. Morales (0)


Matt S said...

I forgot about Hos' article. I *hope* that gets built up more and more in the years to come. It's like our own little version of the Babe calling his shot.

BMJ said...

The Greatest Half Innings In Royals History is a tremendous concept (both good and bad). I'm not sure what the criteria was (have to score 2 or more runs?)

Other Candidates for Greatest Half Innings In Royals History (Good & Dramatic)

Wild Card Game Bottom 9
2014 ALDS Game 1 Top 10
2014 ALDS Game 2 Top 11
2014 ALDS Game 3 Bottom 1
2014 ALCS Game 1 Top 10
2014 ALCS Game 2 Top 9
2014 ALCS Game 4 Bottom 1
2014 ALCS Game 4 Top 9
2014 World Series Game 2 Bottom 6

2015 ALDS Game 2 Bottom 6
2015 ALDS Game 5 Bottom 5
2015 ALDS Game 5 Bottom 8
2015 ALCS Game 4 Top 1
2015 ALCS Game 6 Bottom 8
2015 ALCS Game 6 Top 9
2015 World Series Game 1 Bottom 9
2015 World Series Game 1 Bottom 14
2015 World Series Game 2 Bottom 5

From the past...
1976 ALCS Game 5 Top 8
1977 ALCS Game 5 Bottom 1
1980 ALCS Game 2 Top 8
1980 ALCS Game 3 Bottom 9
1980 World Series Game 3 Bottom 10
1980 World Series Game 4 Bottom 1
1985 ALCS Game 3 Bottom 6
1985 World Series Game 5 Top 2
1985 World Series Game 7 Bottom 2
1985 World Series Game 7 Bottom 3

And yes the bad too...
1976 ALCS Game 5 Bottom 9
1977 ALCS Game 5 Top 9
1977 ALCS Game 5 Bottom 9
1978 ALCS Game 3 Bottom 8
1980 World Series Game 1 Bottom 3
1980 World Series Game 2 Bottom 8
1980 World Series Game 5 Top 9
1980 World Series Game 5 Bottom 9
1985 ALCS Game 2 Bottom 10
1985 ALCS Game 4 Top 9
1985 World Series Game 2 Top 9
1985 World Series Game 6 Top 8
2014 Wild Card Top 6
2014 Wild Card Top 12
2014 World Series Game 4 Bottom 5
2014 World Series Game 4 Bottom 6
2014 World Series Game 7 Bottom 3
2014 World Series Game 7 Top 4
2014 World Series Game 7 Bottom 9
2015 ALDS Game 4 Bottom 7
2015 ALCS Game 2 Top 6
2015 ALCS Game 3 Bottom 2
2015 ALCS Game 6 Top 8
2015 World Series Game 1 Top 8
2015 World Series Game 3 Bottom 3

JRCIII said...

I have no idea how the stats case for Zobrist could be made, but he sure makes a sentimental case for "best deadline trade acquisition ever." I remember arguing as much with guys who were already freaked out by Cueto coming over. I liked Cueto, LOVED Zobrist. (And both showed up, often enough)

Michael said...

Worth noting was that #46 was the only hit Tony Sipp allowed in the playoffs, and he pitched in all 6 Astros games. A very unlikely time for slumping Hosmer to emerge from his funk. These Astros should be truly scary in 2016.

First Baptist Church, Stephens said...

I am a TCU alum, so I'm biased, but I will always like Brandon Finnegan. He was so much fun in 2014, and he was right about how the Royals messed with him last year.

The "Miracle at Minute Maid" is weird to me, too. I hated that series, because I was born a Royals fan, but I grew up in Houston from age 4. The Royals are my first baseball love, and since I've lived in Arkansas for more than five years now, I'm somewhat disconnected emotionally from the AL Astros. But I still hated that the Royals had to play them. Half my family rooted for the Royals, half for the Astros. And it was absolutely surreal to watch a classic Houston meltdown from "the other side." I couldn't have been happier in the moment, mind you, but I remembered living and dying with the Bagwell/Berkman Astros, and it was weird to be against them.