SweetSpot: Ned Yost

Best Halloween costume ever

November, 1, 2014
Nov 1
It's Ned Yost's 1983 Topps card ...

Madison Bumgarner was awesome. James Shields deserved better. The San Francisco Giants tacked on some late insurance runs off the vaunted Kansas City Royals bullpen to win 5-0. We go back to Kansas City, Missouri, with the Giants one win away from a title. Five moments from Game 5:

1. Madison Bumgarner is the man.

You got the feeling it was going to be a long night for the Royals in the second inning. That's when Salvador Perez led off with a single to right field. Then, Mike Moustakas fanned on a 3-2 cutter, Omar Infante struck out on three pitches and Jarrod Dyson struck out on three pitches. The Royals would get two more hits the rest of the night as Bumgarner went the distance for the four-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout, 117-pitch shutout. A thing of beauty.

It was the first complete game in the World Series since Cliff Lee's in 2009, the first complete-game shutout since Josh Beckett's series-clincher at Yankee Stadium in 2003 and just the fourth complete game since 2000 (Randy Johnson in 2001 had the other).

It's been Bumgarner's postseason, one of the best we've ever seen from a starting pitcher. He's 4-1 with a 1.13 ERA. He's allowed seven runs in six starts. Giants fans were chanting "M-V-P" as he walked off the field. He's carried the Giants this far. Now, he just needs his teammates to carry the final step.

2. Brandon Belt's bunt single in the second inning.

The inning started with a misplay by Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, although the play was ruled a hit. Hunter Pence grounded an 0-2 changeup -- there's that putting-the-ball-in-play thing that both the Giants and Royals do so well -- just to the right of Escobar, who tried to make the backhand play but didn't get his glove down. Frankly, it should have been called an error, as Escobar didn't have to move on the play; this is the major leagues.

With the shift on, Belt then laid a beautiful bunt down the third-base line on the first pitch, just beating the throw from third baseman Moustakas. What can you say? Just a great baseball play. You can't fault the Royals for shifting Belt; he'd never bunted for a hit in his career and had one sacrifice bunt. Applaud Belt for the bunt.

Belt then made another heads-up play when Travis Ishikawa flew out to Dyson in deep center. Pence easily tagged from second but Belt alertly tagged from first, testing Dyson's arm, which is below average, and the throw was well offline to second base. Belt is actually a decent baserunner; he took the extra base 32 percent of his opportunities this season, just below the MLB average of 35 percent, so he's not a typical slug-like first baseman. Good play, knowing the park (fly balls go to die) and knowing the fielder.

That set up second and third with one out. How did the Royals play it?

3. Royals play the infield back against Brandon Crawford.

Royals manager Ned Yost had three options here:

1. Play the infield in to cut off the run. Who knows, with Bumgarner on the mound you might need to hold the Giants to a zero on the scoreboard. Still, it's pretty early to play the infield in and you increase the chances of Crawford getting a ground ball single that would drive in two runs.

2. Play the infield back and be willing to concede the run. Against Bumgarner, you can't afford to give up a crooked number.

3. Intentionally walk Crawford to load the bases and pitch to Bumgarner and then possibly Gregor Blanco. But keep in mind Bumgarner was maybe the best-hitting pitcher in the majors, batting .258 with four home runs. He's about as big a threat as Crawford. The difference is Bumgarner had a higher strikeout rate, 37 percent to 23 percent, so you are more likely to get a strikeout.

Yost chose option No. 2. Certainly, Bumgarner's ability as a hitter factored in here, and it's understandable that Yost didn't want to give up a big inning early in the game. Crawford pulled a 3-2 changeup to second base, scoring the game's first run.

4. Giants make it 2-0 in the fourth.

The inning began with a good piece of hitting by Pablo Sandoval, taking an 0-1 curveball and hitting a hard grounder to the right of Moustakas, who was playing well off the line. Shields struck out Pence and Belt, but Ishikawa hit a hard grounder to the right of Escobar, who was shaded up the middle. He didn't get his glove down and the ball scooted into left field for a base hit. This was a little more difficult play than the earlier one, but it's Game 5 of the World Series: It's a play you have to make.

For all the accolades Escobar has been receiving for his defense -- he was a Gold Glove finalist and certainly makes the spectacular play -- his Defense Runs Saved total was minus-4. This game showed his inconsistency on defense. He ranked third among shortstops in Baseball Info Solutions' "Good Fielding Play" category with 73 -- but also led with 44 "Defensive Misplays."

From there, Crawford took a little half-swing on a 2-2 changeup from Shields -- low and outside corner, about as good a location as you would want other than throwing it in the dirt, and flared it out to shallow center field. Dyson might have had a play on Sandoval if he had come up with it cleanly, but he bobbled the bounce, and with his below-average arm and Sandoval's two-out jump, it might have been a long shot to get the Panda anyways.

5. Billy Butler, the double-switch and Jayson Nix.

Now, let's be honest here: Butler isn't exactly Babe Ruth. As bad a year as he had (for him), he did hit .321/.387/.460 against left-handed pitching and has been better than that over his career. There were those who thought Butler should have started at first base in place of Eric Hosmer to get another righty bat in there against Bumgarner.

Yost had a chance to use Butler as the tying run in the seventh inning when Moustakas came up with one out and Hosmer on first. Moustakas can't hit left-handers. Bumgarner has allowed two home runs all year to lefties. This was the spot for Butler. Instead, Moustakas hit and flew out and Infante grounded out.

That led to a bit of a curious double-switch. Yost put Nix at second base, batting ninth, and inserted Kelvin Herrera into Infante's spot. This meant Yost planned on letting Nix bat in the eighth and using Herrera for two innings. Yost could have simply put Herrera in the 9-hole and used some combo of Butler, Norichika Aoki and Josh Willingham to hit for Dyson and Herrera and then use another reliever in the eighth.

The defense of Yost is that if the Royals were to rally -- remember, it was 2-0 at the time -- and he used Herrera for two innings, his bullpen is deeper if the game goes to extra innings, and the Royals are more likely to score two runs off Bumgarner than three.

Of course, on this night, even two runs were unlikely. Belt's bunt, Crawford's RBIs, Juan Perez's put-the-game-away double -- all big -- but it was Bumgarner's night.

KANSAS CITY -- I know what some of you are thinking: "Hey, aren't you the idiot who just called this the worst World Series ever? So what's up with this piece, pal?" Well, yes, the headline was admittedly a little provocative and it certainly stirred up a reaction. Obviously, a lot of the people offering their feedback didn't actually read the column, but one type of comment did bother me a little: Those who suggested I must not love baseball to write such a piece.

That, of course, is the furthest thing from the truth. I easily watch a couple hundred games a season and parts of countless others. I blog more hours a week than I should. I'll take my dog out for a walk and have a game on my phone. I'm pretty sure I've watched every World Series game since 1976 -- maybe I missed one or two in the mid-'90s covering a high school football game -- and I've been lucky enough to cover five World Series in person, and now six.

And for you San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals fans out there: I had Willie Mays and George Brett posters hanging in my room as a kid.

Believe me, I love this game -- the best game we have.

Every World Series is interesting and full of subplots, but this one is particularly ripe with great stories. So here are 10 reasons to love this World Series.

1. The Giants go for their third title in five years. Only five times has a team other than the Yankees won three titles in five years: the Red Sox did it twice early in the 20th century, the last time from 1915 to 1918; the Oakland A's from 1972 to 1974; the St. Louis Cardinals from 1942 to 1946 and the Philadelphia A's from 1910 to 1913. So that's impressive company.

Is it fair to call the Giants a dynasty if they do win it all again? I kind of agree with Giants outfielder Hunter Pence on this. "Being called a dynasty is kind of a perspective thing," he said Monday. "It's an opinion. It can never really be true. What can be true is this team could win it this year. We made it this far, so just focus hard on that. I don't think we're playing now for an opinion on dynasties. We're playing now for the guys and the work and everything that's put into this year that's completely unique and separate from years past."

Indeed, that's kind of what makes the Giants so unique and wonderful. They're different from those other dynasty-like teams in that this 2014 team is much different from the 2010 team. That squad was led by starters Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, neither of whom are in the playoff rotation this year. The only position-player regulars still around from 2010 are Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval. It's a testament to the organization that the team has remained so competitive while replacing various parts in each playoff run.

Still, three in five would be pretty awesome.

2. The Royals go for the perfect postseason and first title in 29 years. Only one team in the divisional era -- since 1969 -- hasn't lost in the postseason. The 1976 Big Red Machine of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez and George Foster went 7-0 to cement their legacy as one of baseball's all-time great teams. The Royals might not have a roster full of future Hall of Famers, but they've already surpassed the Reds with an 8-0 start in the playoffs. It's really been a streak of beauty, a combination of speed, defense, starting pitching and dominant bullpen, with some surprising power and, of course, the timeliest of hits.

Can the Royals keep this up? Here's one way to look at it. Let's say the Royals had a 50 percent chance of winning each of those eight games. You can argue about the actual odds, but let's keep this simple: What are the odds of tossing a coin eight times and having it come up heads each time? One in 256, or less than one-half of one percent. How can you not love that?

The Royals are unlikely to go 12-0, but that would be one of the greatest stories ever told if it does happen.

3. Madison Bumgarner's claim on history. Joe Sheehan had a great newsletter on Monday, touching on a similar theme I did in that "Worst World Series" post. Anyway, Joe makes a good point here about the wild-card system making the regular season less important: "It's been two decades of wild cards, two decades of new baseball fans having no real idea that there was once a different system, two decades of new baseball fans used to the idea that the postseason, not the regular season, is where legends are born. Two decades of the message that October is infinitely more important than September."

Bumgarner has had a great postseason so far, going 2-1 with a 1.42 ERA in four starts, including two scoreless outings. He won the wild-card game, he started the clinching Game 5 of the NLCS and now, he'll start Game 1 of the World Series. He's made two previous World Series starts in his career and has allowed just five hits and no runs in 15 innings. If Bumgarner has a couple outings similar to those, well, as Joe wrote, that's how legends are born.

[+] EnlargeRoyals
ESPN Stats & Information The value of the Royals' outfield defense
4. That Kansas City outfield defense. I always like to say that if you go to a minor league game you can see pitchers throwing 95 mph and you can see a few players who can hit the ball a country mile; the biggest difference between the majors and minors is the caliber of defense played in the majors. It reminds of a column written years ago by the great baseball writer Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post. He described watching a baseball game with a British friend of his who had never seen baseball in person before. The British chap wasn't so much impressed with the pitchers or the hitters as he was with the defenders. That's how I feel watching Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and, when he comes in the game, Jarrod Dyson. Those three are something to watch out there and could very well play a huge factor, as they did against the Angels and Orioles.

5. Bruce Bochy and the Hall of Fame. Maybe Bochy is already a Hall of Fame lock with his two World Series titles and long, 20-year tenure in the majors. He's one of 12 managers to manage 20 seasons with an overall winning record and at least two World Series titles, and 10 of the other 11 are in the Hall of Fame -- Ralph Houk being the exception. However, not all managers with two World Series titles are in the Hall of Fame: Besides Houk, there is Cito Gaston, Tom Kelly, Danny Murtaugh and Bill Carrigan, plus Bochy and Terry Francona. So if Bochy is a borderline guy now, you have to think a third title will cement his case.

On the field, the Bochy-Ned Yost matchup should be intriguing, especially when the series shifts to San Francisco and Yost has to get out of his American League comfort zone. Bochy always seemed one step ahead of Mike Matheny in the NLCS, but Yost's bullpen weapons are much more imposing than what Matheny had. Since Yost's bullpen machine sort of operates itself, at least while leading from the seventh inning on, and since the Royals don't really pinch hit for their starters (which will allow Bochy to get the matchups he wants), it could be the most important decisions each manager makes during the series will be when to pull the starting pitchers.

6. Gregor Blanco. I remember talking to Blanco after the Giants won the World Series in 2012, the joy on his face as he told his story of not playing in the majors in 2011 and playing winter ball that year, hoping to catch the eye of the right team. He signed with the Giants and was thrust into the spotlight in the postseason when he became the starting left fielder after Melky Cabrera was suspended. This year, he's the starting center fielder in October, replacing the injured Angel Pagan.

On Monday, he told me how he ended up signing with the Giants that winter. He also had offers from the Reds and Marlins. "My friend told me, 'If you ever become a free agent, sign with a good team because they'll give you more chances.'" If you think about, it makes sense. Bad teams tend to have more roster turnover, always looking for a quick fix, and the guys at the bottom of the roster can get churned through in rapid fashion. Sign with a good team and you might have a more defined role or a management that is smart enough to believe in your abilities. Blanco is a great fourth outfielder who is good enough to start when needed.

"Growing up in Venezuela, my dream wasn't just to play in a World Series but to play center field in a World Series, and now I get to do that," Blanco said. "I just feel blessed to be part of this team and part of the Giants family."

Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens said one of the things that makes Blanco special is "he's always upbeat, even when he's struggling." It's one of the great things about baseball: Gregor Blanco gets just as many plate appearances as Buster Posey or Hunter Pence, and thus the same opportunity to influence the game. We focus on the biggest names, but the overlooked guys often decide the World Series.

7. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. I wrote about the Royals' bullpen trio the other day. When I asked Blanco about those three guys, he smiled. When I asked Meulens about those three guys, he smiled. "You have to sit on the fastball and adjust to the off-speed stuff," Meulens said, while acknowledging it's not exactly so easy to do that. The late-game drama of those three facing the heart of the Giants order should present some of the most exciting, tense matchups of the series.

8. Tim Hudson. The 39-year-old right-hander, in his 16th season in the big leagues, is finally in the World Series after pitching in six previous postseasons with the A's and Braves. He's the active leader in wins with 214. He's been on the wrong end of many playoff heartbreaks in his career. He's a good story to root for.

9. One-run drama. While the series in the first rounds were short -- none went the distance -- they didn't lack for excitement. So far, 14 of the 25 playoff games have been decided by one run; at 56 percent, that total easily trumps the 39 percent mark of 1995 as the highest percentage of one-run games. Eleven of the 25 games have been decided in a team's final at-bat (not necessarily a walk-off, but the winning the run scoring in a team's final at-bat), which ties 1995 and 2004 for most in a single postseason. Considering this should be a tight, low-scoring series, I expect more one-run and late-game drama.

10. Because you never know. Maybe the heroes will be Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey or James Shields and the Royals bullpen. But maybe the heroes will be Travis Ishikawa or Lorenzo Cain or even Kansas City pinch runner Terrance Gore stealing the base of a lifetime. Baseball, more than other sports, is unpredictable. That's what makes every World Series so fun but this one particularly so: The Las Vegas sportsbooks have this one split right down the middle. This is truly the most unpredictable of World Series. I can't wait to see what happens.
No, not for players -- that's a tired old assumption that should be discarded with the leftovers sitting in your fridge since the Brewers were still mathematically alive.

I'm talking managers.

Take Buck Showalter.

[+] EnlargeBuck Showalter
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsBuck Showalter has learned over the years to trust your bullpen in the postseason.
In his first postseason, which was with the Yankees in 1995, he suddenly lost faith in his closer, John Wetteland, after he'd faced four batters in Game 4 of the ALDS against the Mariners. All had reached base, topped off by Edgar Martinez's grand slam. In Game 5, he let a fatigued David Cone walk in the tying run in the eighth inning on his 147th pitch of game. He didn't yet trust a rookie reliever named Mariano Rivera, even though he'd pitched well in the series and kept the game tied in the eighth. So he brought in Game 3 starter Jack McDowell, who couldn't hold the lead the Yankees had taken in the top of the 11th. (Really, this article is just an excuse to link to this video. And just because: Here's the grand slam.)

Then, while managing the Diamondbacks in 1999, Randy Johnson took a 4-4 tie into the ninth inning. Yes, it's Randy Johnson. But he'd faced 32 batters. Showalter let him face four more. Three got on, and then Edgardo Alfonzo hit a grand slam off a reliever named Bobby Chouinard.

Showalter learned: Trust your bullpen. We saw quick hooks in the Orioles' series against the Tigers. Yes, some of that is a function of not having a Cone or Johnson to overextend, plus a deep bullpen you can rely upon, but I believe Showalter has learned not to let your starter go too deep. He's also showed the willingness to stick with the hot hand. He used Andrew Miller twice against the Tigers to get five outs and once in the sixth inning (earlier than he had used him all season).

Bruce Bochy managed the Padres to four playoff appearances before the Giants hired him. He's learned that you can't manage the playoffs like you do the regular season, whether it's putting Tim Lincecum in the bullpen like he did in 2012 or pulling a starter with a 3-1 lead in the third inning like he did with Barry Zito that same year. I was actually a little surprised he let Ryan Vogelsong start the sixth inning against the Nationals in Game 4 the other night, but he did pull him with two outs and nobody on to bring on Javier Lopez to face Adam LaRoche.

Mike Matheny is now in his third postseason, but for the most part still seems to take a regular-season approach to managing his starters. He lost Game 5 of the World Series last year when the Red Sox scored twice off Adam Wainwright in the seventh to win 3-1 and then had a surprisingly slow hook with Michael Wacha in Game 6 (he allowed six runs). He got five good innings out of Shelby Miller in Game 4 against the Dodgers and then had a bit of a slow hook in the sixth inning. The Cardinals got three outs that inning -- two on a double play and the third when Andre Ethier got caught off third; that inning easily could have exploded in their faces, in part because Miller was left in too long.

Ned Yost? Yost certainly has a plan: Get a lead and then hand the ball in the seventh inning or later to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. The problem with him is if that plan doesn't unfold exactly like that, what does he do? His bullpen is deeper than those three with the emergence of Brandon Finnegan, the solid Jason Frasor and even starter Danny Duffy. He doesn't have to rely on his starters to go six or seven innings every game. It will be interesting in particular to see if he rides James Shields, who has scuffled in his two postseason starts. Yost has the bullpen depth to go to it early, especially if he's willing to extend his best relievers for more than three outs like Showalter did with Miller.

All this gets back to what I wrote Wednesday about when to remove a starter. All four of these teams have good bullpens. All four managers should be using them as much as possible. On paper, we should have two low-scoring series. The key innings may very well be those precarious sixth and seventh innings when the starter is getting tired and it's too early for your closer. How these four managers handle those innings will play play a key role.

Oh, and if you're facing a lose-and-go-home game and it's tied in the seventh inning, I recommend not using your 10th-best pitcher.
The most important decision a manager has to make in any individual postseason game usually involves when to pull his starting pitcher. There can be other important decisions -- whether to bench your best hitter, for example, or whether to bring in your sixth-best reliever in a tie game in the seventh inning -- but baseball games revolve around pitching, and it's the starter who has to carry the biggest workload.

The question, then: When should a manager remove his starter?

Obviously, there are myriad influencing factors in any game: how the starter feels, his pitch count, how many days of rest he's pitching on, the score of the game, how tired or rested the bullpen is, the quality of the relievers, the state of the series and so on.

So we're talking in broad terms here. One of the hot topics among sabermetric writers and analysts this offseason has been the idea that starters generally do worse the third time through a batting order. The batters have seen him twice by then, plus the starter is getting tired. It's certainly no coincidence that both times Clayton Kershaw blew up against the Cardinals came in his third time through the order as he approached and went beyond 100 pitches.

Here are the numbers we're talking about, all starting pitchers in 2014:

First time through the order: .246/.304/.377
Second time through the order: .256/.313/.395
Third time through the order: .268/.327/.421

[+] EnlargeDon Mattingly, Zack Greinke
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNothing spurs debate in the postseason like a manager's call to the bullpen.
The most hardcore sabermetricians will advocate for a quick hook; overall, relievers have lower ERAs than starters, so the theory is that going to your bullpen over a tiring starter is the way to go. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs wrote a piece the other day praising Buck Showalter for his quick hooks in the Orioles' series win over the Tigers. Buster Olney wrote a few days ago that there's no perfect time to remove a starter.

And it's hard to say that there should be a hard and fast rule. If managers always managed like that, we wouldn't have had Jack Morris pitching his 10-inning shutout in the 1991 World Series or Chris Carpenter beating Roy Halladay 1-0 in Game 5 of the 2011 NL Division Series or any number of great postseason performances. You have to allow for a manager to adjust to what's going on in the game.

Anyway, I thought it would be interesting to look back and see how World Series winners have managed their rotations in recent years.

2013 -- John Farrell, Red Sox (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 24.2
Long outings (28+ BF): 3
Short outings (20 or fewer BF): 5

Farrell did extend his starters a few times, but all were in games when the Red Sox had big leads: 6-1, 8-1 and 12-2 were the finals of those three games. The Red Sox won three of the five short outings, including Game 4 of the World Series when he pinch-hit for Clay Buchholz with the score tied 1-1 in the top of the fifth. There were some extenuating circumstances as Buchholz was pitching through a sore shoulder that was limiting his velocity. But Farrell also pulled Jake Peavy after 74 pitches in the sixth inning of Game 4 of the division series. The Red Sox were down 1-0 and Peavy hadn't walked a batter; they ended up winning 3-1. In Game 5 of the ALCS, he pulled Jon Lester after 24 batters in the sixth inning with a 4-1 lead. Lester was at 98 pitches and there were two runners on, but Farrell didn't wait.

2012 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (16 total games)
Average batters faced: 23.7
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 4

Two of the long outings came with big leads. The one exception was Matt Cain in Game 4 of the World Series, when he faced 28 batters. He was at 102 pitches and had retired the side in order in the seventh, but Bochy pulled him with the game tied. The Giants would win in 10 innings.

The Giants won two of the short outings. In Game 3 of the division series (the Giants were down two games to none), Ryan Vogelsong was removed after 20 batters (and five innings). The game was tied 1-1 and Vogelsong led off the sixth; plus he was at 95 pitches, so that was strongly dictated by circumstances. In Game 4, Bochy removed Barry Zito in the third inning, after 20 batters faced. The Giants were ahead 3-2 at the time. Bochy's decision was certainly influenced by Zito's four walks, but he took him with two outs and a runner on first, not the most threatening of moments. In the same game, Dusty Baker left in Mike Leake to give up two more runs in the fifth inning and the next game he left in Mat Latos to give up six runs, including a grand slam to Buster Posey the third time through the order.

2011 -- Tony La Russa, Cardinals (18 total games)
Average batters faced: 22.0
Long outings: 3
Short outings: 6

La Russa had a very quick hook throughout this postseason, with five other outings of 23 or fewer batters. Two of the long outings were from Chris Carpenter, including that memorable duel with Halladay, when he faced 31 batters. In the ninth inning, La Russa left him in to face Chase Utley, Hunter Pence and Ryan Howard. He probably shouldn't have, but it worked out. Sometimes it does.

It's possible La Russa adapted after losing Game 3 of that division series. Jaime Garcia took a 0-0 tie into the seventh inning but gave up a single, intentional walk and a two-out, three-run homer to Ben Francisco (pinch-hitting for Cole Hamels, so he was the 27th batter Garcia had faced). After that, La Russa was determined not to let his starters lose a game late.

2010 -- Bruce Bochy, Giants (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.7
Long outings: 6
Short outings: 2

Bochy rode his starters longer this postseason, as he also had four starts with 27 batters faced. In Game 1 of the division series, he let Tim Lincecum finish off a 1-0, 14-strikeout gem with 119 pitches and 30 BF. In Game 5 of the World Series, leading 3-1, he let Lincecum face the 9-1-2 batters in the eighth inning, but Lincecum retired the side.

Bochy also had two interesting quick hooks, however. In Game 4 of the NLCS against the Phillies, he removed rookie lefty Madison Bumgarner in the fifth inning after 20 BF, a 2-1 lead and two runners on. The move backfired at first, as Santiago Casilla allowed the two inherited runners to score plus one of his own, but the Giants rallied to win 6-5. The critical one came in the clinching Game 6 when he removed Jonathan Sanchez in the third inning of a 2-2 game. Sanchez had walked a batter and hit a batter. Jeremy Affeldt got out of the jam and Bumgarner would pitch two scoreless innings, Lincecum would retire a batter and Brian Wilson got a five-out save.

That was some unconventional managing and it helped the Giants win the series. But to manage like that, Bochy had to have a plan of attack ready in place in case Sanchez faltered.

2009 -- Joe Girardi, Yankees (15 total games)
Average batters faced: 25.9
Long outings: 4
Short outings: 1

Girardi was pretty much by the book. All four long outings came from CC Sabathia, and the short one was a blow-up A.J. Burnett start in the World Series (two innings, six runs). He did have a quicker hook on Andy Pettitte, but that was in part because Pettitte made some starts on three days' rest.

* * *

Is there anything to learn from this? In the five postseasons from 2009 to 2013, there were 175 postseason games (so 350 total team games). There were 72 "long outings" of 28 or more batters faced -- 21 percent of all games. You'd think the team with the long outing would win most of those games, right? After all, you're usually leaving in a pitcher that long only if he's been pitching well or has a big lead. The long-outing teams were 47-25 (.652), but the starting pitcher lost 17 of those 25 games. Not all of those were bad losses -- Halladay faced 32 batters in losing to Carpenter, for example.

But some were bad decisions. In the 2011 division series, Charlie Manuel left in Cliff Lee to face the Cardinals' 2-3-4 hitters for a fourth time in a 4-4 game. Allen Craig tripled and Albert Pujols singled and the Cardinals won 5-4. (Meanwhile, La Russa yanked Carpenter after 16 BF and the bullpen threw six shutout innings.) In Game 1 of the 2011 division series, the Brewers led the Diamondbacks 2-0. Kirk Gibson let Ian Kennedy face Prince Fielder a fourth time and Fielder hit a two-run homer, cementing the game for Milwaukee.

By the way, in the Oakland-Kansas City wild-card game, holding a 7-3 lead in the eighth, A's manager Bob Melvin let Jon Lester face the first four batters a fourth time. Three of them reached base.

Looking ahead, we know Buck Showalter will have quick hooks and Ned Yost will go to his back-end trio if he's leading in the seventh inning. (The fifth and sixth innings will be Yost's test.) Bochy isn't afraid to pull a starter quickly -- Vogelsong and Peavy faced 21 in their starts against the Nationals, both leaving with leads -- although he'll go longer with Bumgarner.

That leaves Mike Matheny as the key guy in this area. For the most part, he's pretty by the book. In the 34 postseason games he's managed, only twice (Adam Wainwright both times) has a starter gone beyond 27 BF. But one of those was Game 5 of last year's World Series, when the Red Sox scored twice in the seventh to take a 3-1 lead -- with the 26th and 28th batters Wainwright had faced knocking in the runs. He also left in Michael Wacha in Game 6 to give up six runs when a quicker hook in a must-win game was necessary.

Of course, none of this touches on that gray area around 24 batters faced -- that crucial sixth- or seventh-inning time when a starter is tiring and managers are loath to use their setup guys too early. But that's another article.

This is supposed to about the five key things that decided this game. There were about 20 of those. Or 50. Or 100. I lost track somewhere there in the 10th or 11th inning of one of the craziest, wildest, most improbable baseball games I can remember watching.

This was supposed to be a pitcher's duel between Jon Lester and James Shields. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about the Kansas City Royals getting the ball to their dominant bullpen trio with a lead. It wasn't.

It was supposed to be about Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin matching wits with the Royals' Ned Yost, and Melvin winning in a landslide. OK, Yost did make one of the worst tactical decisions in recent playoff history.

The Royals won anyway.

This game ties Game 7 of the 1924 World Series for the longest winner-take-all postseason game ever played. Walter Johnson won that one. Jason Frasor, the seventh Royals pitcher of the game, won this one, after helping to give up the lead in the 12th inning. The Royals were down 7-3 in the eighth inning and won. They were down 8-7 in that 12th inning and won. The heroes were guys such as Brandon Finnegan and Christian Colon. It was small ball over Moneyball, at least for a day. It was baseball, not always beautiful, but still baseball at its most entertaining, at October intensity.

OK. Doug Padilla has the Royals angle. Here are five reasons the A's lost.

1. Bob Melvin stuck too long with Jon Lester. Down 7-3, the Royals rallied in the bottom of the eighth inning. Melvin, determined to apparently ride starter Lester straight to closer Sean Doolittle, left him in for 111 pitches, and maybe one batter too many. A Jed Lowrie error, a stolen base and a single made the score 7-4 and then Lester walked Eric Hosmer with one out (after Lorenzo Cain had stolen second). Melvin finally brought in Luke Gregerson, but Billy Butler's RBI single made it 7-5. Pinch-runner Terrance Gore stole second and a wild pitch made it 7-6 and put Gore on third with one out. Gregerson pitched carefully to Alex Gordon, who walked and then stole second with Salvador Perez up. A base hit puts the Royals up, a sac fly at least ties it up ...

Gregerson fanned Perez on three sliders, the third one a good foot off the plate. Yes, the Royals drew the fewest walks in the majors and Perez drew just 22 in 606 plate appearances. Gregerson exposed his free-swinging ways and it was a terrible at-bat. He threw four sliders to Infante, the fourth swung and miss on a pitch in the dirt. Gregerson, a sneaky offseason pickup from the Padres, does have a nasty slider, as batters hit .212 against this season. But it's not the nastiest in the game -- they also hit four home runs and nine doubles (all four home runs by right-handed batters). What makes it impressive is how often he throws it -- 48 percent of the time. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings, only five threw their slider a higher percentage of the time.

The Royals were 90 feet from tying the game. Assuming the A's would close it, I had written, "Royals fans will have all offseason to think about those seven sliders."

Instead the postscript will read: How do you leave in a starter to give up six runs in a do-or-die game? (Actually, I was surprised that it has happened 14 times out of 182 sudden-death games, the last in 2012, when Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos both allowed six runs in Game 5 of the division series.

The difference is those guys weren't still in there in the eighth inning with a four-run lead. The last comparable game was Nolan Ryan in Game 5 of the NLCS for the Astros, when he took a 5-2 lead into the eighth and coughed up the lead. Melvin let the game slip out of his hands even though the A's bullpen -- despite a couple notable tough losses -- had actually pitched well. Obviously, if Lowrie doesn't make the error the inning probably unfolds differently, but in this day of dominant pens, Melvin waited too long to go it.

2. Geovany Soto leaves with a thumb injury.

Soto was a controversial starter at catcher over Derek Norris, in part because he had never caught Lester. But he's the best defensive catcher on the A's, with the best arm. When he left in the third inning, unable to catch, it allowed the Royals to take advantage on the bases against Norris. They stole seven bases, with five of those thieves eventually scoring.

3. Royals' bunting finally pays off! OK, the sabermetrically inclined folks on Twitter were having a fun time with Yost and his bunts -- the Royals had four sacrifice bunts in the game. But in the ninth inning, the Royals tied the game off Sean Doolittle on a Josh Willingham flare to right, with Jarrod Dyson pinch-running (Willingham had hit for Mike Moustakas); Dyson was bunted to second and then, in maybe the most important play of the game, stole third, the first steal of third Doolittle had given up in his career. Dyson then scored on Norichika Aoki's sac fly.

4. The dropped pitchout. In the bottom of the 12th inning, after Hosmer tripled and Colon scored him on a high hopper of an infield hit to third base, Colon was running against Jason Hammel, who had just entered the game. The A's had called a pitchout, but Norris dropped the ball.

5. Oakland's No. 5 starter gave up the winning hit.

To be fair, Hammel pitched very well in September, with a 2.20 ERA and .198 average allowed. He was one of eight pitchers on the Oakland roster, kind of the designated long man. Sonny Gray had started Sunday and Jeff Samardzija on Saturday, so the choice probably came down to Hammel to Scott Kazmir (although Kansas City put Ventura on its roster, despite his starting on Sunday). This wasn't a bad call by the A's so much as you just hate to lose a game with a guy pitching in an unconventional situation. Hammel actually threw Perez -- who had had awful at-bats all game -- a pretty good 2-2 slider that was off the plate, knowing Perez will chase any pitch within the vicinity of Kauffman Stadium. Perez was just able to pull it inches past a diving Josh Donaldson -- a Gold Glove-caliber third baseman -- for the winning hit.

I'm all for thinking outside the box in the postseason, especially in a one-game situation like a wild-card game. But it's another thing to think so far outside the box and pull off one of the worst managerial decisions in recent history.

The Kansas City Royals led the Oakland Athletics 3-2 in the top of the sixth inning when James Shields, who had cruised through the previous two innings, gave up a broken-bat bloop single to Sam Fuld and then walked Josh Donaldson on a borderline 3-2 fastball. Up stepped Brandon Moss, who had homered in the first inning.

Yost has three of the best relievers in baseball in Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, who usually pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. He pulled Shields and could have stretched those guys out for 12 instead of nine, or even used lefty reliever Brandon Finnegan to pitch to the lefty-swinging Moss (who was unlikely to be pinch-hit for after his earlier home runs)..

Ventura threw a 99-mph fastball up high for ball one. A 98-mph fastball was up and out of the zone. Moss hit the next pitch up and out over the center-field fence for a game-turning three-run home run. The A's went on to score two more runs in the inning -- one run charged to Ventura, the second to Herrera, who finally entered with one out.

The Royals got a prime position, leading in the sixth inning with the game's most dominant bullpen trio available. Instead, they used a pitcher who had thrown 70-something pitches two days prior. They got #Yosted.
The Oakland Athletics and Kansas City Royals have announced their 25-man rosters for Tuesday's wild-card game and since rosters can be changed before the Division Series, it's no surprise that both teams left several starting pitchers off their rosters. For Oakland, Sonny Gray, Jeff Samardzija and Scott Kazmir are all inactive; for the Royals, Jason Vargas is inactive. The surprising inclusion for the Royals is Yordano Ventura, who started Sunday and threw 73 pitches. Obviously, Ned Yost believes he's available for an inning if needed.

A's lineup
CF Coco Crisp
LF Sam Fuld
3B Josh Donaldson
DH Brandon Moss
RF Josh Reddick
SS Jed Lowrie
1B Stephen Vogt
C Geovany Soto
2B Eric Sogard
SP Jon Lester

The big news here is Adam Dunn is on the bench, even though right-hander James Shields is starting for the Royals. Manager Bob Melvin decided to go with Fuld's defense in left, with Moss moving over to the DH spot. Geovany Soto also gets the start at catcher over Derek Norris, a bit of a surprise since Soto has never caught Lester before (of course, they've only been teammates for a few weeks).

This is one of the fun things about baseball: You know many times the A's fielded this lineup during the regular season? Yep. Zero. Dunn had started the final four games of the season at DH and started nearly every game against a right-hander since coming over from the White Sox, but has hit just .212/.316/.318 with Oakland. Considering this is his first time in the postseason after 2,001 career games (and he's retiring after the season), let's hope he gets into the game.

On the bench
Position players -- DH Dunn, C Norris, IF Nick Punto, IF Albert Callaspo, IF Andy Parrino, OF Jonny Gomes, OF Billy Burns, 1B Nate Freiman

Pitchers -- Jason Hammel (R), Drew Pomeranz (L), Fernando Abad (L), Ryan Cook (R), Dan Otero (R), Luke Gregerson (R), Sean Doolittle (L)

The A's went with just eight pitchers compared to nine for the Royals. Hammel and Pomeranz are the two long guys available if Lester gets hammered or injured or the game goes in deep extra innings.

Speedster Burns is the pinch-running option off the bench. If a pinch-hitter is required late in the game, the Royals' big trio of relievers are all right-handed, so expect to see the switch-hitting Callaspo or Punto if a single is needed or Dunn if a home run is needed. Norris, Gomes and Freiman would be a matched up against a left-hander, while Parrino could be used as a defensive replacement.

Royals lineup
SS Alcides Escobar
RF Norichika Aoki
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Billy Butler
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Mike Moustakas
SP James Shields

Yost used this exact same lineup the final eight games of the season, so I guess he didn't want to overthink things too much. Escobar and Aoki didn't settle into the 1-2 spots in the lineup until Sept. 13, when Yost finally realized he should get Infante and his sub-.300 OBP out of the two-hole. Aoki stays in the No. 2 spot even with the left-handed Lester pitching since he had a .428 OBP against lefties this year. Plus, Lester is actually tougher on right-handed batters, so no need to worry too much about platoon splits anyway.

The odd thing is that Gordon spent most of the season hitting third, fourth or fifth and has the highest wOBA on the team -- but is hitting sixth. No, this isn't a lefty-lefty thing. Gordon hits left-handers better than Hosmer. It could be a September thing though, as Gordon hit just .190 the final month.

On the bench
Position players -- C Erik Kratz, IF Christian Colon, IF Jayson Nix, OF Jarrod Dyson, OF Josh Willingham, OF Raul Ibanez, OF Terrance Gore

Pitchers -- Ventura (R), Jeremy Guthrie (R), Danny Duffy (L), Jason Frasor (R), Brandon Finnegan (L), Kelvin Herrera (R), Wade Davis (R), Greg Holland (R)

The perfect scenario for Yost is for Shields to take the lead into the seventh or eighth, where he can give the ball to his power trio of Herrera, Davis and Holland. Guthrie pitched on Friday, so he's more likely to be the long man ahead of Duffy and Ventura.

The two position players to watch are Dyson and Gore, two of the fastest players in the game. The Royals led the majors in stolen bases while hitting the fewest home runs, so don't be surprised to see both of these guys get in at some point. Dyson was 36-for-43 stealing bases and will be used as a defensive replacement for Aoki if the Royals are leading late. Gore is strictly a pinch-runner, having spent most of the season in the minors before going 5-for-5 on the bases in the majors.

Tim Kurkjian has some of the key questions for the game here. To me, the big one is this: How will Yost use his bullpen? If Shields gets into a tight spot in say, the fifth or sixth inning, will he be willing to go to Herrera before the seventh? Will he trust rookie lefty Finnegan -- with just seven major league appearances -- in a crucial spot against one of the A's lefty sluggers if such a situation arises? You have to think Yost has the utmost confidence in Herrera, Davis and Holland but I can also see him riding Shields one inning too long. He has big weapons down there in the pen; he can't go down in this game without maximizing those three relievers.

For Melvin, he's probably a little more dependent on Lester delivering a big performance. The bullpen had a couple tough losses down the stretch but actually pitched pretty well overall in September, with a 3.05 ERA. Still, his late-inning options aren't as dominant as Kansas City's. Melvin will have better matchup opportunities, however, as Yost is unlikely to use his bench for much more than pinch-running. Maybe Willingham would hit late for Infante or Moustakas, but that's about it.

It should be a low-scoring game. I guess I'm leaning on Lester's postseason history here -- 1.97 ERA in 11 career postseason starts -- and excellent work down the stretch and predicting the A's win 3-1.

What's a manager really worth?

September, 16, 2014
Sep 16
People like to talk about baseball managers, about Tony La Russa and Bobby Cox and Joe Torre. The talk focuses almost entirely on who is a good manager and who is a lousy manager. The average fan has a one-dimensional image of a manager. He's good or he's bad. If he's real good, he's a genius. If he's real bad, he's an idiot.

When the discussion turns to why a manager is good or why he is bad, you realize how little solid information is being used. On a talk show, 97 percent of all explanations as to why the local manager is an idiot will begin with the words "Well, one time he ..."
--Bill James, "The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers" (1997)

Not a lot has changed since Bill wrote that 17 years ago. We know how many revolutions per second Colin McHugh gets on his curveball, but the discourse on managers hasn't advanced a whole lot. Yes, this gets us to Ned Yost and I'm including myself in this criticism, picking out an isolated moment the other day -- and important moment, true, but still one decision in a season of countless decisions -- and hammering Yost for it.

Here's a more nuanced piece from Mike Petriello of FanGraphs, looking at Yost's bullpen usage. It's sort of a defense of Yost, at least in the sense that Yost isn't really doing anything unusual:

It’s easy to find complaints about every single manager's bullpen decisions, and maybe that's the point. Yost, it seems, has some obvious issues with bullpen management. He's also very likely not really an outlier here, and he’s perhaps just an easier target because he’s got a history as being a manager fired from a first-place team in September, and because he recently (and inexplicably) called out his own fans.

Of course, you can argue that a manager makes his mark in games like the one on Sunday, when a key decision -- one that may force a manager to go slightly outside his comfort zone or regular pattern -- can decide a game. Bill James, I suppose, would suggest that still just circles us back to the way fans complain about their local idiot manager.

In his book, James wrote, "There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager. The manager must be able to command the respect of his players. This is absolute; everything else is negotiable." Tony La Russa, the new Diamondbacks' chief baseball officer, recently said the same thing, that a front office can't interfere with a manager's in-game decisions or the manager loses the respect of the clubhouse. (Which isn't saying a smart front office can't help to properly prepare a manager prior to a game.)

Of course, it's those in-game decisions we primarily focus on. Ned Yost has managed 11 years in the major leagues. I find it hard to believe he'd have lasted this long if his bosses believed his players didn't respect him. So if that is the most important attribute of a manager, maybe Yost is a success in that area.

That doesn't mean in-game decisions aren't important. But how do you evaluate a manager on such things, without getting into isolated moments? How do you separate him from his environment? Here's an example. Most sabermetricians will tell you that bunting is usually a poor strategy, that outs are too precious to give away. Most sabermetricians will also say that Joe Maddon is one of the best managers in the game. Well, here's an interesting column from August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs in late August pointing out that Madden's Rays have attempted the most sacrifice bunts in the AL this season. (They still lead with 68 attempts entering Tuesday; Terry Francona's Indians have the second-most with 60, the same Francona who rarely bunted in Boston.)

Does that mean Maddon has become a bad strategist? Has he simply adapted to a different environment?


How many wins is a good manager worth compared to a bad one over a season?


Discuss (Total votes: 767)

So how many wins is a manager worth each season? When you factor in everything ... I'm not sure we really know. My guess is it's small, maybe five wins between a manager who pushes all the right buttons and a bad manager who makes all the wrong moves, plays the wrong players, doesn't communicate or uses Aaron Crow to pitch to Daniel Nava (sorry, cheap shot).

There's also this: If a good manager was worth more wins (I think La Russa once said a good manager is worth seven wins), wouldn't they be paid more than utility infielders?

And this: If Ned Yost was a horrible, bumbling idiot, the Royals probably wouldn't be 82-67.

What do you think? How many wins is a good manager worth?
From Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star, a Ned Yost quote after Sunday's game that must make Royals fans want to throw up:
He was close, so achingly close, to turning this game over to his vaunted three-pack of relief pitchers. Yet in the sixth inning of an 8-4 loss to the Red Sox, his team’s fifth defeat in seven games, Yost witnessed a collision between the reality of the situation and the rigidity of his bullpen deployment. During a moment when urgency should have trumped orthodoxy, Yost declined to break from routine. His decision cost his club.

"It's frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead," he said. "That was frustrating."

In the postgame postmortem, the obvious follow-up was asked. Why not just use Herrera in the sixth inning then?

"Because I had confidence in Aaron Crow," Yost said. "That's why. Aaron Crow's inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin's is the seventh."

Note that Yost didn't say that Herrera was tired, or that he's worried about overusing him and Wade Davis, which doesn't really seem to be an issue considering Herrera has thrown a modest 62.1 innings and hasn't allowed a run since June 24 and Davis has thrown 64.1 innings and hasn't allowed a run since June 25. Both Herrera and Davis hadn't pitched since Wednesday and Herrera has thrown 47 pitches in September, Davis 62 pitches in September. So, no, it wasn't a fatigue issue.

It was a managing issue.

Crow had allowed nine home runs on the season; Herrera had allowed 10 runs and Davis five. But ... hey, the sixth inning is Aaron Crow's inning. And now Crow has allowed 10 home runs, after serving up the game-deciding grand slam to Daniel Nava.

Not to keep picking on Yost since I already hammered for this move, but that quote blew me away. It's frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead. When even the beat writers -- who have to try and maintain a good relationship with the manager -- are ripping a move, you know it was a bad one.

This is Yost's 11th season managing in the major leagues. He's never managed a postseason game. I wonder why.

Ten questions for the stretch run

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
Two weeks to go. Two weeks of gut-wrenching, sweat-inducing, pacing-in-front-of-the-TV baseball if you're a Kansas City Royals fan, hoping to see your team make the playoffs for the first time since 1985.

Two weeks of wondering when Robinson Cano is due up again if you're a Seattle Mariners fan, hoping to see your team in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.

Two weeks for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants to trade blows in the quest for the National League West title. Two weeks for the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals to prove the cream always rises. Two weeks for the Oakland A's to avoid a historic collapse.

Two weeks to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because there is still time for something outrageous to happen in this 2014 season. Here are 10 questions on my mind.

1. Are the A's safe now?

[+] EnlargeJon Lester
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJon Lester improved his record to 4-3 with the A's.
I think so. Consider where Oakland stood early in Saturday's game, having lost to the Mariners on Friday and then trailing Felix Hernandez 1-0 in the sixth inning. If Seattle holds on to win that game, they would have passed the A's in the wild-card standings. Instead, Oakland won 3-2 in 10 innings as Sonny Gray matched up with King Felix (even going an inning deeper) and then Fernando Rodney walked four batters in the 10th. On Sunday, Jon Lester survived four walks to pitch six shutout innings and the Mariners went 0-for-13 with runners in scoring position as the A's won 4-0.

Wild-card lead: 1.5 over the Royals (who, keep in mind, are losing that suspended game in the 10th inning to Cleveland) and 2.5 over the Mariners.

Remaining schedule: The Rangers, Phillies and Angels at home and then a four-game finale in Texas. That should get them in.

2. Can the Mariners score enough runs to get in?

Look, Lloyd McClendon doesn't have a lot of great options once he gets past Cano and Kyle Seager, especially with the somewhat hot Dustin Ackley out with a sprained ankle. But why was he hitting Seager sixth Sunday? OK, Jon Lester, lefty-lefty matchup, I see that. Seager is still one of his better hitters against left-handers (not that he's great with a .255/.306/.385 line). Plus, Lester is actually a reverse platoon, so batting Chris Denorfia (.203 with the Mariners) and Corey Hart (.201 on the season) in the second and fifth spots and moving Seager down is one of worst decisions I've seen all season. There is zero logic behind it. None.

Sure enough, it came back to haunt the Mariners. In the seventh, after Lester had departed with a 2-0 lead, Seattle had runners at second and third with no outs. Austin Jackson -- he has been awful with the Mariners, by the way, hitting .239/.275/.289 with no home runs, eight walks and 45 strikeouts -- grounded out and pinch hitter Michael Saunders fanned. With Cano up, A's manager Bob Melvin put Cano on to pitch to Kendrys Morales, who predictably flew out (he has been awful as well, hitting .210 with a .272 OBP with Seattle).

Of course, Morales has been hitting cleanup ahead of Seager anyway, so maybe it didn't matter. But wouldn't it have been nice to have Seager on deck behind Cano? Does Melvin walk Cano if that's the case? Wouldn't it be nice to bat your second-best hitter in a terrible lineup higher in the order?

3. Did the Royals' season take a final wrong turn when Daniel Nava hit that grand slam?


Will the Royals make the playoffs?


Discuss (Total votes: 21,913)

The Royals will definitely get their mental toughness tested after losing three of four to the struggling Boston Red Sox. The Royals led the Red Sox 4-3 on Sunday when manager Ned Yost turned to his bullpen to relieve Jason Vargas in the sixth inning with runners at second and third and one out. Did Yost turn to one of his dominant relievers here? OF COURSE NOT. Those guys pitch the seventh, eighth and ninth innings. YOU HAVE TO STICK TO THE PLAN AT ALL COSTS. Hey, there are only 14 games left. Your franchise hasn't made the playoffs in 30 years. It's a huge, potentially game-deciding situation and you have two relievers who average more than 13 K's per nine and a third who hasn't allowed a home run all season. But don't deviate. Just another game, right? So bring in the guy who has allowed nine home runs and has 31 strikeouts in 56 innings. That's Aaron Crow. He walked Yoenis Cespedes and then Nava hit the salami. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland (who returned Friday) never got in the game. Job well done, Ned Yost.

4. Are the Atlanta Braves dead?

Probably, after an embarrassing three-game sweep to the terrible Texas Rangers, losing 2-1, 3-2 and then 10-3 on Sunday. They're four behind the Pittsburgh Pirates for the second wild card. Look, nobody should be surprised that Braves are only a game over .500. They weren't going to match last year's run prevention -- they allowed fewer runs than any Braves team that featured Greg Maddux, John Smoltz or Tom Glavine -- especially after the injuries in spring training to the starting rotation. The lineup has done pretty much what you would have expected, with no player really outperforming or underperforming expectations by all that much. The Braves were in the playoff race this long only because it's not a great playoff race.

5. Will Clayton Kershaw win 20?

Yep. After handcuffing the Giants for eight innings in a 4-2 win Sunday, he's 19-3. His next start should come Friday at Wrigley Field and then he should get one more the final week. The amazing thing is he should get to 20 wins in just 27 starts. Only one pitcher since 1901 has won 20 games in so few appearances -- Jesse Tannehill of the 1902 Pirates, who went 20-6 in 26 games.

6. Will the Orioles miss Chris Davis?

You know? Not that much. Yes, he had popped 26 home runs, but he's mostly made a lot of outs this year, with his .196 average and .300 OBP. Since Aug. 1, he had hit .189/.273/.439, so it's not as though he was doing much besides an occasional home run. After Manny Machado went down, Davis had mostly played third base. Now, Baltimore will make Steve Pearce the regular first baseman and use a Kelly Johnson/Jimmy Paredes platoon at third, it appears. That's not great but Johnson is hitting .219/.304/.373 on the season, not much worse than Davis' line, and Paredes has been hot. The defense is probably a step better without Davis as well.

7. Key injury to watch this week?

Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers, who left Friday's start and will have an MRI on his shoulder Monday. It appears rookie Carlos Frias will start in Ryu's place Wednesday in Colorado. Even minus Ryu, the Dodgers should win the NL West now that they've increased their lead to three over the Giants, but it would be a blow if he's unable to go the rest of the season or in the division series.

8. Biggest series to watch this week?

Here are three:

  • Mariners at Angels, Monday-Thursday: Mariners are 42-28 on the road, so maybe the road trip to Anaheim, Houston and Toronto is a good thing.
  • Tigers at Royals, Friday-Sunday: Right now, matchups are Kyle Lobstein-Jeremy Guthrie, Justin Verlander-Vargas, Max Scherzer-James Shields. Yeah, might want to tune into that Sunday game.
  • Brewers at Pirates, Friday-Sunday: Big week for the Brewers with a road trip to St. Louis and Pittsburgh.
9. Biggest series to watch next week?

Three more for the final week:

  • Giants at Dodgers, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): Kershaw should start the series finale.
  • Royals at Indians, Monday-Wednesday (Sept. 22-24): The teams will finish the bottom of the 10th inning of that suspended game that Cleveland leads 4-2 and then play their three-game series. Cleveland's hopes just about ended with the sweep to the Tigers this weekend, so they probably need a sweep against the Royals to have any shot at the wild card. And the Royals will only be staring 30 years of misery in the face.
  • Yankees at Red Sox, Friday-Sunday (Sept. 26-28): Will Derek Jeter have anything to play for?
10. So ... are we supposed to get excited about this wild-card stuff?

Well, that's up to you. Three divisions are all wrapped up and you have to like where the Cardinals and Tigers are sitting right now, even if their leads are only 3.5 and 1.5 games. It's possible that the final week is really going to be about a bunch of mediocre teams fighting for the fifth playoff spot in each league. It's not exactly Dodgers-Giants 1951, is it? I don't even know how excited the fans are. Yes, Mariners fans responded with a sellout crowd Saturday with Felix pitching, but that was down to 28,925 on a beautiful Sunday in Seattle. I guess fans were more interested in sitting home and watching the Seahawks. Royals fans are so pumped up about this division race that they drew 19,191 on Friday, 26,627 on Saturday and 19,065 on Sunday. Hardly playoff-sized crowds for games everyone says are essentially playoff games.

Maybe I shouldn't be so critical. The good news is long-suffering teams such as the Royals and Mariners matter. The Pirates could be heading back to the playoffs for the second straight season, the A's for a third straight year. Meanwhile, the Red Sox are awful. The Phillies are bad. The Cubs aren't relevant. The Yankees probably won't make it again. Bud Selig will go out with this legacy: He has his parity. The small-market teams can compete, year after year.

I guess that's something to get excited about.

SweetSpot TV: All about Ned Yost

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10

So, Eric and I taped this before Tuesday's game for the Royals, which saw Jarrod Dyson picked off second base in the ninth inning when Ned Yost may or may not have ordered a double steal. The Royals lost 4-2 to the Tigers and are now tied for first place. It certainly would have added fuel to Eric's side of the Ned Yost argument. Check out Jerry Crasnick's piece on Yost, the lightning-rod manager of the Royals.

Pickoff of the season dooms Royals

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10

God knows the Kansas City Royals have found a lot of unique ways to lose ballgames over the past 25 years.

But Tuesday night, in arguably the biggest game the franchise has played since winning the 1985 World Series, the Royals found yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

OK, maybe they weren't going to win. But trailing 4-2 in the top of the ninth to the Detroit Tigers, in a game the Royals needed to win to maintain their lead over Detroit in the AL Central, they had two runners on against a sweaty Joe Nathan, the proverbial case of "on the ropes." Nathan was taking a long time between pitches, the home fans had grown quiet and the Royals had the meat of their order up with no outs.

Norichika Aoki was at second base, pinch runner Terrance Gore had entered at first base. No. 3 hitter Alex Gordon, the team's hottest hitter, stepped in. Nathan fell behind with two fastballs, but fought back to strike out Gordon on a foul-tip 3-2 slider.

Now things got interesting. Royals manager Ned Yost inserted speedster Jarrod Dyson to run for Aoki. Was that move necessary? When Dyson's run isn't the important one? Well, maybe Yost had something up his sleeve. Consider the circumstances:
  • Salvador Perez, the hitter, had grounded into 21 double plays -- or 18 percent of all his potential double-play opportunities. That makes Perez one of the most likely hitters in the majors to ground into a double play. Of hitters with at least 50 double-play opportunities, Casey McGehee had the highest percentage entering Tuesday's action, at 23 percent. Perez ranked in the top 20.
  • On the other hand, Nathan doesn't throw a lot of ground balls, 42 percent of his balls in play, a little below the major league average of 47 percent.
  • However, Nathan is also pretty easy to steal on: As ESPN colleague Mark Simon pointed out, baserunners had been 10-for-10 stealing against Nathan this season and 44-for-46 going back to 2006. I'm pretty sure Yost didn't know this, but Nathan also had one pickoff in his career.
  • Dyson and Gore are burners. Dyson was 33-for-39 in stealing bases on the year and was 20-for-22 in his career attempting to steal third. He'd been picked off three times this year. The rookie Gore had one steal but was 47-for-54 in the minors.

So that's the setup. And ... Nathan picked off Dyson (in a play officially ruled a caught stealing, even though Dyson was caught as he stumbled back to second base) and Perez struck out on a slider six inches off the plate and the game was over.

Royals fan and Grantland contributor Rany Jazayerli tweeted that he thought putting in Dyson made sense:

I guess the question is: Did Yost telegraph his intention so obviously by inserting Dyson after Gordon had hit? Maybe so. But as Rany pointed out, getting two runners into scoring position had enormous value for the Royals, both by avoiding the double play and giving Perez a chance to tie the game with a single. You also have to weigh the odds of the chance of a caught stealing/pickoff versus a double play. The odds of a double play, given Perez's season numbers and Nathan's ground-ball tendencies, were less than one in five. Dyson's caught stealing/pickoff percentage is 22 percent -- a little higher, but you have to figure it's a better percentage against Nathan.

You also have to factor in that Nathan didn't look sharp, so the benefit of risking an out wasn't worth it against a struggling pitcher. Overall, however, if Yost did indeed call for the double steal, the math says it was an acceptable decision.

(From postgame tweets, Yost says he did not have a double steal on for that particular pitch, but that Dyson had a green light to steal. The problem with that description is that it doesn't tell us what Gore was going to do -- it would be up to him to read Dyson, which doesn't necessarily mean he'd attempt to steal second -- and he's the guy you're trying to get into scoring position. If Gore doesn't steal second, Dyson stealing third is pointless. So I don't really buy this explanation from Yost; it doesn't explain what he wanted the more important runner to do.)

The Royals found a way to lose, with a manager at the helm who has made some questionable decisions in the past. Who can forget the Carlos Pena pinch-hitting appearance in a crucial game last Sept. 10, in what I termed the worst-managed inning of the season. Fair or not, Yost is on the hot seat for every little decision these days.

Anyway, in the end it was Dyson who got picked off, not Yost. Heck, Ian Kinsler was basically standing on second base, so it really was terrible baserunning. In the end, Nathan and the Tigers made a play and won the game and now they're tied for first place ... and keep in mind the Royals are losing 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game against Cleveland.

These two teams are at it again on Wednesday. It will be the biggest game the Royals have played since 1985.
As I wrote my Blue Jays blog Thursday, I watched (or half-watched) the Royals-Mariners game, a tense pitching duel between Danny Duffy and Hisashi Iwakuma. Duffy dominated a Mariners lineup that struggles against left-handers, while Iwakuma -- in his second start back from his spring training finger injury -- induced 21 swings and misses on pitches out of the strike zone. For all the talk about Masahiro Tanaka's great splitter, don't forget that Iwakuma used that pitch as a big weapon last year, when he finished third in the Cy Young vote.

OK, let's look at two plays involving Royals manager Ned Yost.

In the third inning, Mike Zunino was on third with two outs. Yost had Duffy intentionally walk Robinson Cano, giving up the platoon advantage to instead pitch to Corey Hart, who singled in the game's only run (Zunino's double and Hart's hit were Seattle's only two of the game). In his career, Duffy has been tougher on lefties and Hart has hit lefties better than Cano has, and it did seem a little early to issue an intentional walk, especially when you had the platoon matchup. Still, a lot of managers have taken that approach against the Mariners this year: Don't let Cano beat you.

Joe Posnanski, who hates the intentional walk, broke down the decision here and also tears into Yost:
But what drives me nuts is a manager who today believes one thing, tomorrow believes a second thing, the next day goes back to the first thing, the day after that believes something else entirely. In this, you not only lose the strategic edge (which may or may not be trivial) you also leave your players kind of bemused. If you hit the .300 OBP guy everybody likes at leadoff, they might stand behind you. If you hit the .300 OBP guy at leadoff one day, pull him the next because he doesn’t get on base enough, put him back in the leadoff spot because your gut tells you he’s about to get hot, take him out again because he doesn’t get on base … you leave EVERYBODY ticked off.

Ned Yost is like this. He’s a "gut" manager, meaning he not only makes odd decisions because they feel right in the moment but, heck, tomorrow he might do something entirely different because his gut boomed a different rumble.

Because of this, I have no idea how Yost feels about the intentional walk. Last year, Yost’s Royals allowed the second fewest intentional walks in the American League -- only Boston had fewer. The year before that, however, they led the American League in intentional walks. The year before that, they were near the top, his last year in Milwaukee the Brewers were near the bottom.

The guy’s all over the map, and it’s not only with intentional walks. Sometimes he will use a closer in a tie game on the road, sometimes he won’t. Sometimes he will sacrifice bunt in a certain situation, the next time around he will not. It’s maddening. I’m not saying the Yost should act the same way every single time -- of course he should adjust to the moment. But in the end, what do you stand for as a manager?

How rare was this kind of intentional walk? Last season, there were 38 intentional walks in American League parks in the third inning or earlier (10 of those to David Ortiz). Only three of those intentional walks were issued when the pitcher had the platoon advantage, all three curiously enough to Adrian Beltre:

Lucas Harrell of the Astros twice walked Beltre on Aug. 19, both times with one out. Once, with a runner on third, once with runners on second and third.

• On Aug. 7, the Angels' Tommy Hanson walked Beltre with one out and runners on second and third.

So Yost's two-out walk to Cano was unprecedented, at least compared to 2013.

What if we ignore that it was early in the game? Overall, there were 96 intentional walks all season across both leagues with a runner on third and two outs, regardless of the inning. Ignoring situations in which the No. 8 hitter was walked to get to the pitcher, I found only eight instances all year when a batter was intentionally walked with a runner on third and two outs despite the platoon advantage:

• April 21: Detroit's Doug Fister walked Albert Pujols in the seventh inning of a tie game to pitch to Josh Hamilton (Fister stayed in the game and Hamilton lined out). That was interesting since that gave the platoon advantage to Hamilton.

• June 7: Atlanta's Jordan Walden walked Yasiel Puig in the eighth inning of a tie game to pitch to Mark Ellis.

• July 9: Baltimore's Kevin Gausman walked Beltre (again!), down by two in the seventh. But Brian Matusz came on to pitch to A.J. Pierzynski.

• July 24: The Cubs' Kevin Gregg walked Paul Goldschmidt in the 10th inning of a tie game to pitch to Cliff Pennington.

• July 31: The Rangers' Tanner Scheppers walked Mike Trout in the eighth inning of a tie game to pitch to Mark Trumbo.

• Aug. 23: The Indians' Rich Hill walked Justin Morneau in the seventh inning while trailing by a run. A little weird since Morneau can't really hit lefties. Cody Allen came on to face Josh Willingham, who promptly doubled in two runs.

• Aug. 30: Jose Fernandez walked Dan Uggla in the fourth inning down by a run to pitch to B.J. Upton.

• Sept. 13: The Rockies' Adam Ottavino walked Goldschmidt in the sixth inning of a tie game, but Josh Outman came on to face Eric Chavez.

I think you can see that all those situations make a lot more sense than walking Robinson Cano in the third inning, other than maybe the Pujols-Hamilton decision (although Hamilton was really struggling at the time).

OK, on to the ninth inning Thursday. The Mariners' Fernando Rodney comes on for the save. He's been a little wild this season and entered the game with six walks in 13 innings, although none in his previous six appearances.

He walks light-hitting Alcides Escobar on four pitches, including a 3-0 fastball way off the plate. That brings up leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, who takes ball one. And then bunts. According to Baseball-Reference.com's win expectancy chart, the bunt actually increased Seattle's chances of winning from 74 percent after the walk to Escobar to 78 percent.

Now, you can argue that Yost was going for the tie, and in a battle of bullpens the edge goes to Kansas City. But you have to get there first.

To me, here's what made the bunt a bad decision: Don't you have to make Rodney throw a strike before you give away an out? Or even two strikes? Because Aoki has good bat control, you could still bunt with two strikes or even hit and run with the speedy Escobar on first. In fact, after the bunt Rodney proceeded to walk Eric Hosmer on five pitches. Rodney worked out of it from there, striking out Billy Butler and getting Salvador Perez to ground out, but what happens if the Mariners aren't given a free out?

I'm left wondering what Yost brings to the Royals as manager. His strategic decisions -- such as hitting Escobar leadoff much of last season -- have been roundly criticized in Kansas City and elsewhere. If part of a job as manager is to help young players reach their potential, would you say the Royals players (especially the position players) have done that? OK, we'll give Yost credit for Alex Gordon, who turned around his career under Yost in 2011. But Hosmer? Perez? Mike Moustakas? I'm not saying Yost is to blame or not to blame, but it's fair to say they haven't achieved at levels once expected. The Royals did have a great pitching staff last year, and he got a lot out of Ervin Santana and the bullpen, so maybe Yost (a former catcher) is better with pitchers.

Overall, however, I agree with Posnanski: Yost leaves me confused.

SweetSpot TV: Rapid fire!

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14

We're back with the always popular rapid fire edition of SweetSpot TV, where Eric and myself take a quick trip through the majors. Today's topics include the Brewers, Freddie Freeman, the A's one-two punch, Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, the first manager to be fired, Red Sox injuries and Jose Abreu.