Saturday, January 23, 2016

Top Moments (#190 - #181) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These plays are not so memorable that you probably remember them all. But they are memorable enough that you probably should.

Moment #: 190
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 2, Houston 6, Bottom of the 7th
Situation: One out, men on second and third
Count: 1-1
Matchup: Luis Valbuena vs. Ryan Madson
Result: Flyout to left field, runners hold
WPA: 1%

Summary: With the season seemingly lost anyway, Ryan Madson stops the bleeding. Not that it really mattered. Right?

Link to video: Here.

This very moment represents the nadir of the Royals’ odds of winning a world championship in 2015. Most everyone remembers that the Royals had the tying run on second base in the top of the 7th with one out, and Terrance Gore stole third base with room to spare, only to be called out on review because his foot may have come off the bag for a split second as he bounced up (possibly because Luis Valbuena pushed him ever so slightly, and in any case on replay it’s not clear that Valbuena’s glove was in contact with Gore’s body for that split second). And most everyone remembers that after the Royals’ rally fizzled, the Astros seemingly put away the game, and the series, in the bottom of the inning, when Carlos Correa homered off Ryan Madson with a man aboard to make it 5-2, and Colby Rasmus followed with his 37th home run of the postseason.

What most do not remember, however, is that after Correa and Rasmus went back-to-back, Madson allowed a single to Evan Gattis, and then a single to Carlos Gomez, on which pinch-runner Jake Marisnick advanced to third base, with Gomez moving up to second on the throw. And yet after allowing the last four batters to go homer-homer-single-single, Ryan Madson stayed in the game. Maybe Ned Yost was having one of his genius moments. Or maybe he was thinking about how to congratulate the Astros after the game, and forgot to pull Madson. Or maybe he just gave up.

We’ll call it genius. Because at that moment, the Royals’ odds of winning the game were about 1.6% – translating to 1 in 60 – which means their odds of winning the World Series were about 1 in 500. The Royals had six outs left and trailed by four, but they were about to trail by five or six. Instead, Madson got Luis Valbuena to hit a shallow fly ball to left field, much too shallow for Marisnick to even think about tagging against Alex Gordon. Madson would then strike out Marwin Gonzalez on three pitches to get out of the inning. The Royals’ odds of winning the game had doubled to 3.2%, or to two snowballs’ chances in hell.

But that’s the thing about these Royals. You give them a snowball’s chance, and they’ll run with it. You give them two snowballs’ chances, and you might as well pack it in right then and there. The Astros left the Royals the tiniest crack in the wall to escape from. The Royals did the rest.

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.