Friday, April 1, 2016

Top Moments (#5 - #1) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

And finally, at the end of the most ridiculous project I have ever had the temerity to attempt, the five biggest Royals Moments of the last two years. Included in this set of five are…well, see for yourself.

Moment #: 5
Date: October 12, 2015
Game: 2015 ALDS Game 4, @ Houston Astros
Score: Kansas City 4, Houston 6, Top of the 8th
Situation: No outs, bases loaded
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Kendrys Morales vs. Tony Sipp
Result: E-6, two tying runs score, go-ahead runner to third base
WPA: 31%

Summary: In the pinnacle of the Miracle at Minute Maid, Carlos Correa whiffs on Kendrys Morales’ double play ball, allowing the Royals to tie Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS and move the go-ahead run to third base with no outs.

Link to video: Here.

Be honest: what emotion do you feel when you look at this picture?

Do you feel anguish? Do you feel sympathy and compassion for the traumatic event that this poor soul is going through at the instant this picture was taken? If so, then you are a kind and considerate human being.

If, on the other hand, you feel nothing but unbridled joy, pure schadenfreude for this guy’s pain and suffering, then you are a true Royals fan. I’d like to think that I’m a true Royals fan.

If you can’t enjoy a little schadenfreude at the expense of Tony Sipp, how about this guy?

The Governor of Texas tweeted that at 3:02 PM, during the commercial break between the bottom of the 7th and the top of the 8th. Six batters and fifteen minutes later, the game was tied.

The first five of those six batters singled, and the Royals had cut the lead in two, and the bases were still loaded, and the tying run was at second base, and there were still no outs. But I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop, and with Kendrys Morales at the plate, a rally-killing double play seemed like a distinct possibility.

And sure enough, Sipp’s 0-1 pitch was a 77 mph back-door curveball that Morales reached across the plate for, and hit a grounder straight back up the middle. If Sipp fields it, it’s probably a 1-2-3 double play and the Royals are still down 6-4. Instead it tipped off his glove, which slowed it down a little and directed it towards the shortstop side of the bag, in perfect position for Carlos Correa to turn a 6-4-3 double play. The Royals would score a run to make it 6-5, but there would be two outs and the tying run would be at third. But notice how, after the ball tips off Sipp’s glove, it deflects down off the pitcher’s mound. I suspect that this is where the ball picks up its now-infamous spin.

Correa is the closest thing we’ve seen to a young Alex Rodriguez since a young Alex Rodriguez. As a 20-year-old, he was called up in early June and in just 99 games he hit 22 home runs and stole 14 bases, hit .279/.345/.512, played good defense at shortstop and won Rookie of the Year honors. I have little doubt that he will be one of the game’s best players for the next decade, and that he will torture the Royals with his greatness whenever the Royals play Houston for at least the next six years.

And I won’t care, because more than any other opponent, he is responsible for the Royals winning the World Series. The irony is that, until Morales hit this ground ball, Correa had almost single-handedly put the Royals on the precipice of elimination.

In Game 3 of the 1985 ALCS, George Brett had what is widely considered to be the individual game performance in Royals history. He homered in the 1st inning to open the scoring, doubled leading off the 3rd and scored on a pair of fly balls to give the Royals a 2-0 lead. After Toronto scored five runs in the 5th, the Royals trailed 5-3 when Brett batted with a man on board in the 6th and tied the game with a two-run homer. And then Brett led off the bottom of the 8th with a single and scored the winning run on Steve Balboni’s two-out single. Along the way he made one of the best defensive plays of his career to throw Damaso Garcia out at the plate in the 3rd inning.

In Game 4 of the 2015 ALDS, Carlos Correa basically had the George Brett game. Correa was hit by a pitch in the 1st inning but did not score. In the 3rd, with the Astros down 2-0, he homered with two outs. In the 5th, with the Astros still losing 2-1, Correa batted with a man on first and two outs and doubled into the right field corner to tie the game. In the 7th, with the Astros now holding a 3-2 lead, Correa homered with a man aboard. He even singled leading off the 9th inning with the Astros down by three runs. Like Brett, Correa went 4-for-4 with two home runs and a double. Correa’s WPA for the game was 0.497; Brett’s WPA was 0.485.

The only thing Correa was missing was the incredible defensive play. 

He didn’t even need an incredible defensive play, he just had to handle a tricky hop; with Morales running, Correa could have turned the double play if had tossed the ball underhand to first. 

And had he turned the double play, the Royals would have still been down a run; when Mike Moustakas struck out next, the inning would have been over.

“But,” you say, “Eric Hosmer hit a two-run homer in the 9th inning anyway!”

“Yes,” I reply, “but if Morales had made two outs on that play, Hosmer never would have batted in the 9th, because Lorenzo Cain’s strikeout with Hosmer in the on-deck circle would have ended the game instead of just being the first out of the 9th inning.” (And this also ignores the fact that if Correa turns the double play, the Astros don’t have to turn to closer Luke Gregerson in the 8th inning, and he pitches the 9th instead of Josh Fields.)

In their franchise’s history, the Royals have had 57 plate appearances with the bases loaded in the postseason. This is the only time the batter reached base on an error. And fifteen minutes after the Royals’ season appeared over, the game was tied, the go-ahead run was on third base with one out, and their Win Probability stood at 75%. The Miracle at Minute Maid wasn’t complete, but the miracle part of the Miracle at Minute Maid was. And it completed the greatest tweetstorm I’ve ever had the privilege to write:

Now all the Royals had to do was hold serve, and they would live to see another day. And, as it turned out, a lot of days after that.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Back up the middle…OFF CORREA, ON INTO CENTER FIELD! KANSAS CITY HAS TIED IT IN THE EIGHTH!” – Matt Vasgersian.

It’s really hard to do this quote justice with mere capital letters. The shock and wonder in Matt Vasgersian’s voice is something to behold. I should make this my ringtone.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Top Moments (#10 - #6) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

These five Moments include a pennant-clinching out with the tying and winning runs in scoring position; one of the most important steals in the history of baseball; a play sure to be remembered as one of the greatest baserunning displays in playoff history, a game-winning 11th-inning home run, and a season-sustaining triple when the Royals were two outs away from elimination. And we still have five Moments to go.

Moment #: 10
Date: October 23, 2015
Game: 2015 ALCS Game 6, vs. Toronto Blue Jays
Score: Toronto 3, Kansas City 4, Top of the 9th
Situation: Two outs, men on second and third
Count: 1-2
Matchup: Josh Donaldson vs. Wade Davis
Result: Groundout to third base, game over
WPA: 20%

Summary: With the tying and go-ahead runs in scoring position in Game 6 of the ALCS, Wade Davis retires Josh Donaldson to clinch the Royals’ second straight AL pennant.

Link to video: Here.

After striking out Dioner Navarro (Moment #67), and striking out Ben Revere (Moment #26), all that was left for Wade Davis to do to get out of one of the biggest jams of his career, complete one of the gutsiest relief performances of all time, and secure the pennant, was to retire Josh Donaldson. The soon-to-be-named AL MVP Josh Donaldson, who had hit .297/.371/.568 on the season. The MVP of the league vs. the best reliever in baseball, with two outs in the 9th, the tying run on third base, and the go-ahead run on second base, in Game 6 of the ALCS. It’s possible to draw up a more perfect final battle for the American League championship, but it’s not likely you’ll actually see one.

According to the measurement “Leverage Index”, which ranks the importance of a particular plate appearance relative to the first plate appearance of the game, this matchup had an LI of 6.86 – nearly seven times more leverage than usual. Only five plate appearances in a Royals’ playoff game have ranked higher. Three of those were the last three plate appearances in Game 5 of the 1980 World Series, after the Royals got the tying and winning runs on base with one out in the 9th (Jose Cardenal struck out with the bases loaded and two outs against Tug McGraw. Which means that, yes, the biggest plate appearance in a Royals’ postseason game ever was taken by Jose Cardenal.) One of those was Terry Pendleton’s at-bat against Charlie Leibrandt with two outs and the bases loaded in the top of the 9th inning, with the Cardinals losing, 2-1, in Game 1 of the 1985 World Series; Pendleton cleared the bases with a double and the Cardinals won, 4-2. (That the Royals came back to win the World Series is the only reason this play isn’t famous in a Grady Little sort of way; closer Dan Quisenberry watched the whole inning unfold from the bullpen as manager Dick Howser stuck with his starting pitcher.) And one of them was Dane Iorg’s at-bat in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series.

So this plate appearance “only” ranks sixth all-time. It was, though, the highest leverage plate appearance of the last two years. (If you take the importance of the game into account, it would rank second behind Salvador Perez’s at-bat to end the 2014 World Series.)

Wade Davis did exactly what he wanted to do in this at-bat, according to Sam Mellinger: “He would throw nothing but fastballs, changing eye level, and taking advantage of Donaldson’s aggressiveness.” And after falling behind Donaldson 2-and-1, Davis’ fourth pitch was in a really good spot: a 95 mph fastball that cut a little low and outside, straight at Salvador Perez’s glove, and Donaldson reached for it and pulled it on the ground.

And with all that, Donaldson hit it hard enough that if he had hit it 10 feet to the left or right, it might have gotten through the infield, and the Royals would have gone to the bottom of the 9th down by at least a run.

But it didn’t. He hit it right at Moustakas, more proof that baseball isn’t fair given that a groundball that wasn’t hit right at Donaldson had ended his season the year before. Mike Moustakas, exactly as he had done in the previous ALCS, smothered the ball, fired it to Eric Hosmer at first base, and the Royals had just won their second straight AL pennant. 

One at-bat, one pitch, one swing could have put the Blue Jays in the driver’s seat to win the game and possibly the series, and instead it triggered a dogpile at Kauffman Stadium. Even down in the Dominican Republic, they were celebrating at the Royals’ Academy. And Salvador Perez was happy:

The Royals were the best team in the American League during the regular season. Now they were the best team in the American League in the postseason. But they still had one task left before them. Unfinished business, remember.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Here comes the 2-1. Left side…MOUSTAKAS…ROYALS WIN THE PENNANT!” – Joe Buck.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Top Moments (#15 - #11) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes the Royals being on the right side of one of the costliest errors in World Series history, a go-ahead RBI single in the last game of the World Series, a game-tying RBI single with the Royals two outs from elimination, and a pair of tie-breaking extra-inning playoff home runs. And we still have 10 Moments to go.

Moment #: 15
Date: October 31, 2015
Game: 2015 World Series Game 4, @ New York Mets
Score: Kansas City 2, New York 3, Top of the 8th
Situation: One out, men on first and second
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Eric Hosmer vs. Jeurys Familia
Result: E-4, tying run scores, go-ahead runner advances to third
WPA: 32%

Summary: Daniel Murphy misses Eric Hosmer’s slow ground ball with the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the 8th inning, turning the entire game – and World Series – around.

Link to video: Here.

It’s easy to forget just how important this Moment was – it was still only the 8th inning, the Royals only trailed by a run, and they had two on with one out. They led the World Series 2 games to 1; this was an important game but not a must-win.

But after winning the first two games at home, the Royals had lost Game 3 in New York handily, and they were five outs away from losing Game 4 in large part because Alex Rios forgot how many outs there were in the bottom of the 3rd inning and momentarily jogged toward the dugout after catching the second out of the inning; by the time he woke up and threw home, Wilmer Flores was safe on a sacrifice fly. And now it was the 8th inning and the Royals trailed by a run, and if they lost this game, then after leading the Series 2 games to 0, it was back to being a best-of-three series. And with the strength of the Mets’ starting pitching, you never knew when their rotation would take over and shut the Royals down for a game or two. This was a big game.

And this was a big moment. After Ben Zobrist and Lorenzo Cain walked (Moments #104 and #103) with one out in the 8th, Terry Collins finally called on his closer, Jeurys Familia. Familia’s first pitch was a nasty 96 mph splitter – you read that right – that Hosmer swung over. His second pitch was 96 mph a little above the knees, but Hosmer still got on top of it, chopping it slowly to Daniel Murphy at second base as the runners moved up.

And Murphy flat-out missed it.

Murphy didn’t have the greatest defensive reputation before the World Series began, but he was generally thought of as someone who could make the routine play; the problem was his lack of range at the position. Maybe that’s giving him too much credit; his career-best fielding percentage is .979, whereas the average fielding percentage for a major league second baseman the last five years is about .984. (Or to reframe those numbers in an easier to digest manner: Murphy has made at least 21 errors per thousand chances (EPK) at second base every year of his career, while the major league average at the position is about 16 EPK.) But still – this was a pretty routine, if slow, ground ball. And he missed it by this much:

Not only was Hosmer safe at first, not only did Zobrist score the tying run from second base, but Lorenzo Cain, the go-ahead run, went first to third with one out. It didn’t matter quite so much after Mike Moustakas batted with two outs and – thanks in part to Murphy’s lackluster range – singled Cain home with the go-ahead run (Moment #37) and then Salvador Perez drove home an insurance run (Moment #118) – but had Cain scored the winning run without benefit of a base hit, the play that got him to third base with one out would loom even larger.

Don’t laugh too hard, Royals fans. At -33%, I believe Hosmer’s 8th-inning error in Game 1 of the World Series ranks third. (Keep in mind the WPA being measured here is the difference between making the play and not making the play – a little different than the WPA I use in the summary.) The difference is, the Royals took advantage of their chance to redeem themselves. The Mets, thanks to Wade Davis and their own bad baserunning (Moment #36), didn’t. It’s not an exaggeration to say that this play was the fulcrum upon which the entire World Series turned.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Chopper on the infield, can’t turn TWO…MURPHY BOOTS IT…into score is the tying run, Zobrist, and this game is 3-3 in the 8th.” – Joe Buck. The way Buck’s voice suddenly adds a dozen decibels at “TWO” reminds me of Vin Scully’s famous “behind the BAG” call on Buckner’s grounder in 1986. Which is perfect.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Top Moments (#20 - #16) of the 2014-2015 Kansas City Royals.

This set of five Moments includes the Royals’ most iconic defensive play in a generation, a sacrifice fly with one out in the 9th to tie a double-elimination game, one of the greatest what-if plays in major league history, an ALDS-clinching home run in a winner-take-all Game 5, and a go-ahead RBI double in the 9th inning of an ALCS game. And we still have 15 Moments to go.

Moment #: 20
Date: October 14, 2014
Game: 2014 ALCS Game 3, vs. Baltimore Orioles
Score: Baltimore 1, Kansas City 1, Top of the 6th
Situation: No outs, bases empty
Count: 0-1
Matchup: Adam Jones vs. Jason Frasor
Result: Popout to third base
WPA: 3%

Summary: Mike Moustakas catches Adam Jones’ foul ball in full extension over the dugout railing, and topples into the dugout suite, where a happy mob of Royals fans save him from serious injury.

Link to video: Here.

What comes to mind when you see this?

Do you think about how this play really didn’t have a huge impact on the game? How it occurred in the 6th inning, and while the game was tied, there was no one on base, and if Moustakas hadn’t made the catch, the count still would have been 0-and-2 on Adam Jones? How it only had a WPA of 3%?

Of course you don’t. That would be stupid. This play was not only technically amazing and aesthetically perfect, it was the essence of the 2014-2015 Royals distilled into a single play. There was the tremendous defense. There was the maximum effort. There was the complete lack of regard for personal safety in the service of making the play. And there were the fans, emotionally feeding and being fed by the players in perfect symbiosis, who were metaphorically there for the Royals all October, now literally there. They were there with the presence of mind to stay the hell out of Moustakas’ way – 11 years to the day after a famous play in the stands at Wrigley Field didn’t turn out so well for the home team, or the fans – and there for Moustakas when he toppled over the dugout rail as he made the catch and fell into the dugout suite, with the fans there to cushion his fall and prevent serious injury.

Normally with the Royals it’s the pitcher tipping his hat to his fielder – in this case, as Moustakas returned to his position on the field, it was the fielder tipping his cap to the fans.

To whatever extent a playoff series can be won or lost on emotion, I think the Orioles might have been officially defeated on this play. They had already been victimized by great defense in Games 1 and 2 (Moments #78 and #79 and #129), and they had already lost two games after being tied headed to the 9th inning. And here was another tie game and another great defensive play, and how are we supposed to beat these guys? The answer was, they weren’t. In the bottom of the inning, Billy Butler would drive home the go-ahead run (Moment #51), and that was all it took.
Twenty-nine years earlier, George Brett had slid into the Royals’ dugout in St. Louis, risking bodily injury in an attempt to catch another foul ball. He was alright, and his attempt remains one of the most iconic moments of that series. But the difference is, Brett didn’t make the catch. Moustakas made the catch. And his catch will probably always be one of the iconic moments of the 2014 Royals.

It inspired a piece of artwork:

And it inspired a bobblehead:

It had a minimal impact on the game, the series, and the season. But no shrine to the 2014-2015 Royals is complete without a picture of it.

Memorable Broadcaster Quote: “Adam Jones into foul territory, MousTAKAS…DID HE MAKE THAT CATCH?!...HE DID!... – Ernie Johnson.

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.