2014 National League Wild Card Game Preview: The GIants and Pirates, as God Intended it

While I’m warming to the idea of the dual Wild Card system (this may be some A’s-Royals afterglow; forgive me), I’m not wild about the concept of reducing an entire baseball season to a single game. It’s a fairly obvious injustice when one team, with a record several games better, must put its whole campaign on the line against another in a single matchup (see, for example, the two previous NL Wild Card tilts), but I object just as strongly to the cases where a single game separates two clubs. That the Royals, who tilted the close calls in their favor once more than did the A’s over the course of the long season, had to risk having that day-to-day doggedness invalidated by a single loss, seems unfair.

Happily, then, for the second time ever, Wednesday night’s Wild Card matchup pits two teams who tied this season. Even absent the new play-in playoff system, we’d be getting this game. I’m especially delighted that the two teams finished, not only with the same record, but with an exactly even plus-51 run differential. And on top of that, they’re in a near dead heat in the race for the best home park in baseball! I digress. I’m sorry.

There’s nothing like this earned feeling of everything coming down to a single game, and the game itself should be a great one. Here’s my preview.

When the Pirates are At Bat

The first thing to know when the Pirates are at bat is that Madison Bumgarner will be the one facing them. Bumgarner is awesome. Even with James Shields and Jon Lester pitching in the AL game last night, Bumgarner is clearly the best starter of this year’s winner-take-all collection.

Though he just turned 25 in August, Bumgarner has already been a big part of two World Series champions. In 2012, you could argue he was the ace of the Giants’ second title winner. This time around, there’s no doubt about it. Bumgarner set career highs in innings pitched, wins and strikeouts this season. He fanned one of every four batters he faced, and walked fewer than one in every 20. (Drink it up while he’s with us, by the way. Guys who pitch as much as he has before they turn 25 aren’t long for the world, at least at a level comparable to this.)

Bumgarner is dominant, but he’ll need his best stuff even so. Believe it or not, there’s an argument that the Pittsburgh Pirates have the best offense in the National League. (The Dodgers probably have an edge, ultimately, but it’s that close.) If you don’t know about the delightful and dangerous Andrew McCutchen, I can’t help you very much. He’s already the reigning NL MVP, and he proposed to his girlfriend on The Ellen Show, for crying out loud. Beyond McCutchen, though, this is a largely anonymous team, and that’s a shame. They’re deep and they’re very, very talented.

There’s Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade who entered this season with 575 replacement-level plate appearances, and who this season, had 550 of them and hit .315. There’s Neil Walker, a Pittsburgh native who rediscovered his power this season and had a career year. There’s Russell Martin, who would have led the NL in OBP if he’d had 40 more plate appearances. There’s Starling Marte, who stepped forward from plenty good to true stardom this season, taking better command of the strike zone along the way. That’s five real studs making up the heart of the lineup. Importantly, though, it’s not a black hole at the bottom of the order. Travis Snider, Jordy Mercer and a platoon of Ike Davis with Gaby Sanchez have given the team league-average offense from the other slots in the order, and Mercer has done so while delivering plus fielding at shortstop. They do everything pretty well. They were fourth in the NL in home runs, second in OBP and tied for first in walk rate. They struck out at a significantly below-average rate, too.

Defensively, the Giants hold their own, but there’s no reason to expect them to hugely help Bumgarner. If that five-to-one strikeout-to-walk ratio isn’t enough of a weapon, Bumgarner’s goose is cooked. The San Francisco bullpen is solid, but unspectacular. There’s scarcely a more disparate pair of pitchers, from a physical perspective, than Bumgarner and long-relief weapon Tim Lincecum, but my gut says that if Lincecum comes on, it will mean that the Pirates have already marked up Bumgarner.

When the Giants are At Bat

Madison Bumgarner he ain’t, but Edinson Volquez posted a 3.04 ERA for the Pirates this season. He’s getting a lot of flak from the sabermetric crowd leading into this start, and it’s true that he’s far outperformed his peripheral indicators. Whereas Bumgarner has struck out five times as many as he’s walked, for instance, Volquez has not even fanned twice as many. He remains, as ever, an electric sort of arm who just can’t keep a firm hold on the strike zone, and who misses fewer bats than you’d like such a pitcher to miss.

On the other hand, though, Volquez is a very good pitcher in one regard: he uses that electric-seeming stuff to induce many ground balls. And happily, that plays right into what might be the Pirates’ greatest team strength. They’re the most grounder-centric pitching staff in the NL, for the second year in a row, and it works so well because their infield defense is just phenomenal. Harrison, Mercer and Walker are all above-average, and through aggressive shifting, the Pirates get even more out of them than they might be expected to get. Volquez isn’t a 3.04 ERA pitcher, but that doesn’t mean his 3.04 ERA is a total mirage. It’s just, mostly, a testament to his teammates. I expect him to be better than many think he will be tonight.

Still, the Pirates can’t win a Madison Bumgarner versus Edinson Volquez matchup. It’s going to have to be Bumgarner v. Wholestaff. The Bucs have a deep and versatile bullpen, with two strong lefties and two strong righties in short-relief roles, and they’ll also have Vance Worley and Jeff Locke available for longer work tonight. Given that, Volquez should face no more than 18 Giants batters. From there, a parade of solid Pittsburgh relievers can take over.

The Giants are a strong offense, too, though nothing like Pittsburgh’s. Hunter Pence and Buster Posey fairly approximate Walker and McCutchen. In fact, Pence is sufficiently superior to Walker at the plate that I might even give the Giants’ big bats an edge. Everywhere else, though, San Francisco is fielding either an injured player’s replacement, a recently returned injured player or Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval is fine, and all, but he’s not as good as any of Harrison, Martin or Marte, and he’s the Giants’ third-best hitter right now. A healthier version of this team would be a nightmare for almost anyone. This version (sans Angel Pagan, sans Michael Morse and with an only moderately healthy Brandon Belt) is going to struggle.

Prediction

As the tone of all this might portend, I’m picking Pittsburgh. I think this is an underrated team, and since I’m picking them to win this Wild Card Game without even using one of their top two starters, I’m going to remain optimistic about them heading into the Division Series, should they make it. The Giants’ hopes, as I think I’ve stressed, depend a great deal on Bumgarner pitching well, holding down that good Pirates lineup.

Don’t sleep on this Pittsburgh team. Last year’s won more games and was cuddlier, but this year’s is a World Series contender. They need only to escape this one-game death trap, then have their relief pitching hold up, in order to have a shot.

As for the Giants, they’re in for a strange winter. Sandoval will be a free agent. Whether they look to keep him might well depend on whether they have any leftover sentimental feelings from a nice playoff run when the decision point comes. If they don’t do so, they really need to find a second anchor-type bat for their order, someone to pair with Posey who produces more reliably and stays healthier than guys like Pagan and Morse.

2014 AL Wild Card Game Preview: Stakes are Sky-High for Athletics and Royals

I’m not a fan of the second Wild Card. I dislike the feeling of artificial drama, and for a long season of baseball games to come down to one arbitrary contest feels wrong to me. That said, I must give credit to the system this season, because it has given us one Hell of a matchup Tuesday night in Kansas City. The Oakland Athletics would, under the old MLB playoff format, be heading home right now, bitter tastes on every tongue, a really hideous collapse haunting their dreams until the spring. The Kansas City Royals would be preparing for their first playoff appearance in 29 years with a bit less trepidation, and a bit less adrenaline flowing.

 

This season, because of how the two teams who will play for the last full membership in the AL postseason got to this point, the Wild Card game is going to be a blast. It’s James Shields and Jon Lester, two long-time big-game titans of the mighty AL East, each now pitching for the little guy, with a shared sense of cataclysm hanging between them. You couldn’t ask for more.

 

What’s at Stake

 

For the Athletics: This was to be the coronation for Billy Beane, the year Moneyball (having already gone Hollywood) went viral. Oakland dominated in the first half, clearly the best team in baseball. There was nothing they didn’t do well, and what they did best, they did better than anyone. Two-time defending AL West champions, they seemed destined to cruise to the third title in a way they hadn’t been able to do the first couple times.

 

With their history of postseason missteps, though, the club didn’t feel that they could simply go into October as assembled. They had entered the last two tournaments with flat rotations rounding out well-balanced rosters, and had been beaten by the star-studded, artless Detroit Tigers each time. So Beane went out and added Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel and Jon Lester to the starting staff. The flat rotation was no more. The A’s had to cough up Yoenis Cespedes in order to land Lester, changing their team identity somewhat, but just at that moment, it seemed well worth it.

 

Now, in hindsight, it looks like a huge risk. The A’s could end up paying more for this team, in terms of money and in terms of the talent they gave up to acquire several of the pertinent players, than they have ever paid before, and it might not even result in a full-strength playoff appearance. Lester is gone after this season. So is Hammel, and so (more likely than not) is starting shortstop Jed Lowrie. Josh Donaldson has been a marvelous story for Oakland, a near MVP candidate his first two full seasons, but he’s also going to be 29 (already! He was a 27-year-old rookie!) next season. Coco Crisp has a contract with the team that seems like it will carry him to retirement. They emptied the farm system to add Samardzija and Hammel, especially. Winning this year matters, I’m saying, because winning will get harder for this team over the next few.

 

There’s this, too: Like it or not, the way the A’s backed into this playoff appearance makes the outcome of this game extra important. Win, and at least you made the playoffs. It was a rough second half, and maybe you even get bounced in the ALDS again, but you weathered the storm and got to celebrate on the field a couple of times.

 

Lose, though, and the collapse becomes the story of the season. You only got halfway to the playoffs, really, and ran out of steam so badly that you couldn’t even avail yourself of the system’s safety valve.

 

The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers had a massive lead in August, gave it away, then lost the tiebreaker series for the NL pennant to the New York Giants. It’s one of the most infamous collapses ever, punctuated by perhaps the most famous home runs ever (Bobby Thomson’s, for New York), but if the Dodgers win that series and go on to the World Series, no one would remember the dozen games they gave away in the standings over the final seven weeks of the season.That would just be another in a long line of great Dodgers teams from that era, with a more colorful story to tell than most of the others.

 

More recently, the 2012 Texas Rangers had a miserable September, punctuated by a loss to the A’s on the final day of the regular season that doomed them to the Wild Card game. We wouldn’t look with disdain on that team if they had beaten Baltimore in the Wild Card game itself, or at least, we would remember the collapse more charitably. Because they lost that game, though, the Rangers will be remembered as the choke artists who fell off the high wire, then tore right through the net below. You don’t want to be that team.

 

For the Royals: The Royals need the validation of a victory every bit as much as the A’s. While there’s a certain euphoria surrounding the team right now, history will remember this team as unremarkable if they don’t finish the job by reaching the ALDS. No Royals team has gotten even this far (that is, past game 162) since 1985, but then, it was a lot harder to get this far back then.

 

This team is here because it played a bit over its head (89 wins, against a Pythagorean record of 84-78) and had the Wild Card on which to lean. There’s nothing illegitimate about their achievement, but if this is as far as they get, the celebration of those drought-busting 2014 Royals at Kauffman Stadium next spring is going to feel terribly hollow. This season is, in the team’s eyes, their bold step forward into the sunshine, after 30 years in cold shadow. In order to get the rest of the baseball world to see them that way, though, they need to have the dogpile on the mound in their home whites. They need to play a series against the best team in the American League, show they can hold their own and let the national audience get a look at the likes of Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.

 

This is an exciting team, but it’s not quite the young and dynamic one Royals fans probably envisioned when they daydreamed about breaking the playoff fast a few years ago. The studs who made up maybe the greatest farm system ever have turned into serviceable, unspectacular regulars. They’ll have more shots at division titles, but I don’t see any season in the short- to mid-term in which they’ll be favorites. This is their big chance to make a cultural change, and might be the statement they need to start fishing in deeper waters during free agency. A loss would mean a whole bunch of fans packed into the park going home disappointed, and the glow of having reached the playoffs fading away long before it gets the chance to warm anyone’s heart over the cold winter.

 

How They Got Here

 

Oakland Athletics: I covered some of this above, but here, I want to get into exactly how their season unfolded, how they play, what their strengths and weaknesses are.

 

For the A’s, the watchword has been depth. For much of the season, they had as many as 13 players worthy of full-time duty rotating through their nine lineup spots. I count 16 position players who could (and probably should) be on the roster Tuesday. They break down thusly:

 

Oakland Athletics, Batters by Handedness

RHB SHB LHB
Donaldson Crisp Moss
Norris Lowrie Vogt
Gomes Callaspo Sogard
Freiman Punto Reddick
Soto Burns Dunn
Fuld

Before John Jaso, Craig Gentry and Kyle Blanks got hurt, and before Cespedes was sent to Boston for Lester, and before Lowrie, Donaldson and Moss began battling injuries that have hampered them even as they have continued playing, this team was an offensive juggernaut.

 

Some of that was because players were playing over their heads, and those guys came crashing down to Earth in the second half. Some of it was that guys with long injury histories (Lowrie, Jaso, Crisp) suddenly stayed healthy for a solid stretch; those guys went back to their former, fragile form in the second half.

 

All that said, did the A’s completely fall apart in the second half? Did their offense suddenly imitate that of the San Diego Padres? Not really.

 

2014 Oakland Athletics, By Half

Split BB% K% BABIP ISO
First Half 9.6 17.9 .286 .149
Second Half 9.0 17.3 .268 .119

 

The most glaring difference here is the power drop, which one could fairly ascribe to the choice to trade Cespedes, but which really boils down more to the injuries that have hampered Donaldson and Moss.

 

The team played 12 one-run games in September, and lost 10 of them. They went 8-6 in the other 14 contests, so it’s not as though they dominated but for a handful of bad breaks, but they also didn’t collapse the way, if Tuesday night goes badly, history will say they did.

 

On the pitching side, the story of the season is upheaval. This team lost two prospective members of the starting rotation (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin) to Tommy John surgery before the season even began, and two more fringe candidates (Dan Straily and Tommy Milone) to unexpected ineffectuality in the early going. Straily and Milone proved so unsatisfactory, in fact, the Beane jettisoned each of them in trades during July.

 

The team managed to patch the holes with, among other things, the transition of career reliever Jesse Chavez into the rotation, but they needed a boost at mid-season, and the sense that the offense would bludgeon opponents into submission led Beane to move boldly to shore up that group. Lester, Samardzija and Hammel cost the team a whole lot of talent, and a whole lot of flexibility, but without them, the offensive erosion might have cost them any hope of getting this far.

 

Samardzija made 16 starts for Oakland, chewing up 111.2 innings and posting a 3.14 ERA. He struck out 99 and walked 12. He tossed two complete games. For a team whose bullpen proved an unexpected liability, the ability to rest it on occasion was a huge help. (That relief corps, by the way, has come together again, and may yet be a strength for the team if they survive into October.)

 

Lester far outpitched Samardzija, though. In 11 starts, he had an ERA of 2.35, struck out 71, walked 16 and averaged seven innings per outing. That he will end up with the ball for the game that determines the outcome of the team’s season is delicious and delightful.

 

This team was a monster, a powerhouse that nearly gave away a great season. They finished with 88 wins, but a Pythagorean projection indicating 99. They are the very prototype of a club that was much better than you think, or than the standings show, and if they get past this game, they remain extraordinarily dangerous.

 

Kansas City Royals: The Royals will never be mistaken for the A’s. They got here by playing steadily and beating bad opponents. They scored 78 fewer runs than Oakland, and allowed 52 more. They’re also a monumentally different team, in terms of roster construction, value distribution and how they win games. Whereas Oakland found itself floundering in the second half, unable to score runs despite general offensive stats that portended better, Kansas City turned fairly tepid actual hitting into a serviceable offense:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics

 

Home Runs 15th
Walks 15th
Isolated Power 15th
OPS+ (An adjusted, holistic measure of offense) 15th
Runs 9th

 

That’s no juggernaut, nothing in the vein of the first-half A’s, but it sure keeps a team that emphasizes run prevention afloat. How did they do it?

 

Well, there are a few more league rankings I should have showed you before:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals, AL Ranks in Offensive Statistics

Strikeouts 15th
Batting Average 2nd
Stolen Bases 1st

 

The Royals run, and run very well. They put the ball in play relentlessly, which pressures an opposing defenses, gives their guys chances to use their legs and frustrates many modern pitching staffs, the majority of which are focused on striking opponents out in order to dominate. Pesky, you could call this team, if you were so inclined. They create runs because they have enough decent contact hitters to occasionally string together a few singles, and because they can take the extra base at almost any time, with almost anyone.

 

Their run prevention is the real story, though. Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Norichika Aoki (or, once the team grabs a late lead, Gordon, Jarrod Dyson and Cain) comprise the best defensive outfield in baseball, and maybe the best in a few years. Their range is terrific, everyone has an arm, they charges balls hard, cut them off in the gaps aggressively and generally stunt an opponent’s running game. No one stopped runners from scoring from second on singles or from first on doubles as well as Alex Gordon, whose arm has become so legendary that no one challenges it anymore. They catch darn near everything, which has been a huge help for the fly-ball guys in their rotation—Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, and yes, James Shields, to name a few. Kansas City hurlers finished with the AL’s median FIP, at 3.69, but their ERA ranked fourth-best on the circuit thanks to help from the defense.

 

It’s also true, and should be noted here so we can build upon it later, that the Royals’ pitching talent is concentrated almost entirely in seven arms:

 

2014 Kansas City Royals Pitchers, bWAR

 

Wade Davis* 3.8
Danny Duffy 3.6
James Shields 3.4
Yordano Ventura 3.3
Kelvin Herrera* 2.8
Greg Holland* 2.6
Jason Vargas 2.5
ALL OTHERS -1.2

 

Why are the Royals dangerous in October? Three of those seven arms they rode to this point are one-inning relievers (designated with asterisks above). The other four are their prospective playoff rotation. The Royals could ask these seven to pitch 95 percent of all their innings during the postseason, and focusing strictly on Tuesday night, they should need no more than Shields and three relief aces.

 

Matching Them Up, and a Prediction

 

That’s all the pertinent information about how these teams managed to reach this stage, and about what’s on the line. Now, let’s attempt the impossible (and extremely inadvisable), and try to forecast a single baseball game.

 

When the A’s are at bat: There’s a lot to digest here. Obviously, the A’s have that modularity in the lineup, the ability to stack the lineup with lefties and switch-hitters against Shields. The problem is that Shields has a backward platoon split, or has shown one the past two years, meaning that right-handed batters do as well or better than lefties against him. I think Oakland will line up much the same way they did on the last two days of the regular season:

  1. Coco Crisp – CF (S)
  2. Adam Dunn – DH (L)
  3. Josh Donaldson – 3B (R)
  4. Brandon Moss – LF (L)
  5. Josh Reddick – RF (L)
  6. Jed Lowrie – SS (S)
  7. Stephen Vogt – 1B (L)
  8. Geovany Soto – C (R)
  9. Eric Sogard – 2B (L)

 

That’s what I project, but don’t be surprised if A’s manager Bob Melvin goes with something slightly different. Herrera, Davis and Holland—the Royals’ horses out of the bullpen—are right-handers who destroy opposing right-handed batters. If Melvin has a righty he feels good about, like World Series hero and noted good-luck charm Jonny Gomes, the smart time to get him into the contest will be at its start. Gomes is also a better defensive left fielder than Moss.

 

Shields is, as I mentioned, a fly-ball pitcher, and that’s interesting because the A’s are the fly-ball offense. That might seem to play into Oakland’s hands, but in fact, fly-ball guys usually do better against fly-ball hitters, and ground-ball hurlers do best against ground-ball hitters. Of course, it also helps Kansas City’s cause that they have that terrific outfield defense to run down those fly balls.

 

The most interesting thing to watch here will be the ability of any Oakland baserunners to advance on subsequent hits and outs. The A’s are the second-worst running team in baseball this season, according to Baseball Prospectus’s Baserunning Runs (BRR). By the system’s estimation, that cost the A’s about 12 runs over the course of the season. It’s a small effect; you would expect as much.

 

However, as I noted earlier, the Royals are the best in the business at clamping down on these kinds of things anyway. The combination of those facts has me wondering if, at some crucial moment on Tuesday night, the A’s will miss a scoring opportunity due to their inability to run on the Royals. If they do, I feel sure that will be the killing blow. This version of Oakland just can’t afford to miss chances the way the first-half version might have.

 

We shouldn’t pretend that there’s no chance of Oakland putting up runs against Shields, though. Shields has great command and misses bats at crucial points, but one thing he has never done reliably is avoid hard contact. He surrendered 23 home runs this season, even calling roomy Kauffman Stadium home, and with Donaldson, Moss and company having had a day to draw breath and heal up a little, it may well be that someone will get ahold of one off of the Kansas City ace sooner or later. Even if they don’t, they also had the highest line-drive rate in the league this season, and a couple well-tomed rallies could be enough.

 

When the Royals are at bat: Lester is a left-handed starter, but that matters relatively little in constructing the lineup. I can daydream about Ned Yost sliding in Christian Colon at third base and sitting lefty-hitting Mike Moustakas all I want; it’s not going to actually happen. My best guess:

 

  1. Alcides Escobar – SS (R)
  2. Norichika Aoki – RF (L)
  3. Lorenzo Cain – CF (R)
  4. Eric Hosmer – 1B (L)
  5. Billy Butler – DH (R)
  6. Alex Gordon – LF (L)
  7. Salvador Perez – C (R)
  8. Omar Infante – 2B (R)
  9. Mike Moustakas – 3B (L)

 

Yost told local media he envisioned carrying nine pitchers for this game, so let me guess at the seven guys who will populate the bench for Kansas City, too:

 

  • Erik Kratz
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Josh Willingham
  • Terrance Gore
  • Jayson Nix
  • Raul Ibanez
  • Lane Adams

 

It matters, who the Royals carry into this game, because a good number of them may be called upon. Yost never pinch-hits, it seems, but he pinch-runs liberally, so having Gore, Dyson and Adams all available is lovely. (All three are absolute burners, great options to have if a key base is needed.)

 

With Lester starting, I wonder how aggressive Yost may be. Say Billy Butler gets on as the tying run in the bottom of the fifth. Knowing that he could call upon Willingham to combat Lester the next time through, would Yost lift Butler that early? I hope so. That’s the point of having this sort of flexibility. No chance to score should be passed up on Tuesday night, assuming no overwhelming tradeoff.

 

Unlike the Royals, the A’s have a deep and balanced bullpen. They won’t be able to match Herrera, Davis and Holland, but they have guys from each side, guys with differing repertoires, a lot of ways to mix and match. If Lester gets 18 or 19 outs, there are six guys the A’s would feel comfortable bringing in to divvy up the remaining fistful. It will be interesting to see in whom Melvin places his trust; he tends to partition his bullpen, and some of his lower-leverage arms could be left off this roster entirely if he knows he wouldn’t ask them for a big out, anyway.

 

The game is more likely than not, though, to be decided by which starter gets the better of the matchup. The Royals will have a lot of trouble with Lester, who pounds the strike zone from the left side and can therefore neutralize two key Royals threats: Hosmer and Gordon. As a lefty, Lester also exercises good control over the running game, which would be one of Kansas City’s preferred weapons against him. If the Royals do break out against him, it’s going to have to be because they kept putting the ball in play and sequenced some hits well.

 

The Verdict: I envision a low-scoring game. The weather forecast has me frustrated; I want to see the deep blue of a cool fall evening, getting colder, as Shields throws the first pitch. I want the stark sharpness of dying summer, but it sounds like a warm and cloudy night is ahead. Still, this game should be great, taut and thrilling throughout.

 

If you know anything about the evolution of MLB’s competitive structure, you’d probably guess that the A’s and Royals are meeting in the postseason for the first time. They shared the AL West from the advent of divisional play until the shift to the three-division, Wild Card format in 1995, and of course, the Royals haven’t been to the postseason since then.

 

Yet, the two teams actually have met, and under strangely similar circumstances. In 1981, a protracted strike cut the season in half, and each half had a champion. The A’s won the West in the first half, and had the best overall record in the division that year, too. The Royals won the second-half title, though, and so the two played in one of the very first Division Series, even though Kansas City had finished the regular season a composite 50-53.

 

Oakland swept the series 3-0, without regard for the presumed momentum of the second-half champion Royals.

 

This time around, things are sort of the same, and sort of very different. The A’s almost had a split season themselves, terrific in the first half, poor in the second. The Royals are the steady hand in this matchup, even though they’re probably the inferior overall team. Given their home-field advantage, though, and given the promising matchup of their defense with Oakland’s hitters, I’ll take the Royals to advance to their second-ever ALDS. If that happens, watch past the final pitch. You’ll see a generation of catharsis spilling out of a city, all at once. It’s going to be beautiful.

Shutting Up About the Pace of Game Problem, and Fixing It, Too

If you’ve had a conversation about baseball during the last year, you have probably heard some variation on a too-common theme: “God, and the games are SOOOO LOOOONNNNGGGG. What are we gonna DO?”

First of all, I want to reject the premise. Baseball games are longer than they used to be. So are action movies, football games and fireworks displays. The chief complaint of most pace-of-game pedants is that the 10-percent elongation of games is costing baseball scores of young fans, but young people keep right on going to action movies, football games and fireworks displays. To whatever extent it’s true that baseball is losing the youth of the nation, it has nothing to do with the length of the games.

Secondly, I direct you to the last (and most important) of the tenets laid out in this article. It’s not a piece overflowing with fresh insight, but it does include the true statement: Just about everyone gets what they really want in life, because what you do reveals what you really want. Baseball’s stewards and high-up executives, by that measure, are proving that they want the outcry over the pace of the game, but not to actually solve the problem of the pace of the game. Because fixing the issue of ever-longer games is an easy proposition. Here are the steps:

  1. Intentional walks should not involve any pitches thrown. Just point the guy to first base. The savings here would be minimal, inconsequential even, but the optics of that pointless non-action are part of why people think the game is boring. Because it is. Intentional walks are boring.
  2. Each team gets three timeouts per game. Pitching coach visiting the mound for any reason other than injury? Timeout. Mid-inning pitching change? Timeout. Any on-field managerial argument of any kind: timeout. Three of those per game, one more when extra innings begin, and that’s it. No more using four pitchers to get three outs.
  3. A streamlined replay system. No challenges, no managers dawdling on the field, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the ump while staring into the dugout to decide whether to use one. Just a fifth umpire, in a booth upstairs, changing the calls that need changing. That ump should also be on a 60-second clock.
  4. Skip the commercial break after the first inning, and in the middle of the fifth. Have the announcers talk a little, do something fun, even run a promo, but keep the cameras on, and get the action fired back up a bit more quickly.

It’s that easy. It doesn’t require a bunch of hemming and hawing, or a blue-ribbon commission, and IT SURE AS HELL DOES NOT REQUIRE A PITCH CLOCK, IDIOT. It just requires a few common-sense clutter-clearers, things that constrain the machinations of teams and the technical delays that account for the length of games right now.

For the record, I love baseball, and I want most of the games I watch to be as long as possible. One (sad) reason you hear so much about this is that writers, who must attend these games and then do a preposterous amount of (necessarily) bad writing about it afterward, hate the way the games drag. I understand their predicament, because as I say, most news outlets ask writers to churn out a ton of content in the immediate aftermath of a game. That not only means that the writers leave the park after many members of the maintenance crew, but ensures that most baseball beat writing is useless garbage.

Again, not the writers’ fault. It’s a bit gauche of them to grouse as much as they do about it, because tons of people (me, for one!) would love to try their hand, but the writers are cornered. Blame the outlets who demand that they write three to six items a day, many of whom are also behind the ever-stretching commercial breaks that are part of the problem.

At any rate, I don’t want shorter baseball games. I want longer ones. So long as everyone agrees that this is a problem, though, the four steps prescribed above should solve it. So let’s either solve it, or decide not to solve it, so I can start talking more about baseball and less about how long it takes.

Tigers, Mariners Make Interesting Matchup, Even in Uninteresting Games

The Detroit Tigers are fighting for their playoff lives, hoping an impressive in-season transaction will be enough to wash out the ill effects of an off-season move they never should have made. The Seattle Mariners are chasing a Wild Card berth, thanks in part to one big off-season move on which they did not pull the trigger. The two teams played three games over the weekend, with Seattle winning two, and the most interesting story line wasn’t that the Mariners’ center fielder came to them as part of the Tigers’ big make-up move. It was that the Tigers only won one game–and it was the one their new addition started.

There are some fools who will try to bake their preconceptions about a given franchise, or a given executive, into their analysis of a transaction. That’s a great way to get way off track. Your opinion of any particular executive’s acumen should be an accumulation of opinions about the deals they transact; a new transaction should be a data point moving your opinion one way or the other. That can’t happen if you’re letting the previous data draw your conclusion toward the cluster.

I mention this because of Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers’ GM and one of the most widely respected GMs in baseball. Dombrowski rarely makes a misstep, rarely gives away a prospect he ends up missing and often lands improbably talented players, whether by being the guy who gets the ‘yes’ in a free-agent hunt or by trading from a stash of spare parts afforded him by a deep well of organizational resources.

That’s why it was so surprising when, over the winter, he made a colossally dumb series of mistakes that endangered the Tigers’ defense of three consecutive AL Central titles. He traded Doug Fister, an underrated, modestly expensive and very talented starting pitcher, for a utility infielder whose Tigers tenure would prove shorter than a diet-pill free trial; a lefty reliever; and a pitching prospect whose loftiest reasonable dream may be to one day become Doug Fister. With the salary that bonehead move saved, Dombrowski signed veteran reliever (veteran, perhaps, being an understatement) Joe Nathan at an eight-figure salary.

Fister did have injury issues at the start of the season, which had Dombrowski’s disciples genuflecting in solemn admiration, but since his return, he’s been sensational, walking 13 in 111-plus innings of 2.34-ERA ball. Meanwhile, Detroit has seen nagging injuries continue to nag Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander become more albatross than ace and Robbie Ray (the aforementioned prospect acquired for Fister) pitch miserably. It was Ray, in fact, on whom the Mariners put a thorough whupping en route to an easy win on Sunday. Joe Nathan has been so bad that the Tigers traded for Joakim Soria and signed Jim Johnson off the scrap pile, desperately trying to finally build a reliable bullpen.

To make up for the loss of Fister, of course, Dombrowski acquired David Price at the end of July. Price was the one who won Saturday’s game, the tightest of the three rather tedious contests between the teams. This is why Dombrowski is great: He remained aggressive even in the face of failure, and made a bold addition that might just keep the Tigers around into October, after all. He did it, too, without giving up a whole lot. Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly and Willy Adames got the job done, which permitted the Tigers to take a step forward in their pursuit of a playoff spot without mortgaging the future. The sum of Dombrowski’s decisions in this particular decision tree is:

  • GAINED: Ian Krol, Robbie Ray, David Price, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria
  • LOST: Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Drew Smyly, Jake Thompson, Corey Knebel

That’s a poor deal for the Tigers, if we just treat it as one deal, especially in the long term. It might just be a slight positive in 2014, though, and if it is, then Dombrowski has done his job for now, and has definitely papered over his off-season gaffe.

Again, we need to carefully articulate the situation: Dombrowski did screw up, in a pretty big way. This chain reaction was not part of a good, coherent plan. However, he’s done very well in making up for the mistake. Only one team can win each division each season. The Tigers have been that team in their division for the last three. There’s no shame in their not being that team this year, if that be the case. One thing about the Price move, though, is that it essentially doubles down on the present, and leaves Dombrowski hanging even further out in the wind if things go badly.

Dombrowski hopes Price will turn around his season, but for now, let us ask Price to pivot only this conversation, to the Mariners.

Rumors swirled during the winter, especially after Seattle spent the net worth of Bleacher Report on Robinson Cano. All the whispers had the Mariners ready to deal Taijuan Walker, one of baseball’s best pitching prospects, to Tampa Bay as the centerpiece of a Price trade. The only hangup was that Tampa apparently preferred a deal built around a position player, and were continuing to look for one. Seattle went into Spring Training not only without Price, but seemingly without half a rotation. Sure, they had Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of that unit, but the rest of the names were ugly. They spent camp frantically mixing and matching names, dredging up long-abandoned reclamation projects like Randy Wolf and Scott Baker. Nothing was working. On the eve of Opening Day, they grabbed Chris Young, presumably because at six-foot-ten, Young made the easiest target for the metal claw that could lift him out of the mass of cheap castoffs all around and deposit him into the prize bin.

Young won his 12th game on Sunday, shutting out the Tigers over six innings. He allowed four hits and a walk, and struck out four. He’s surpassed his innings total (even counting the minor leagues) for every season since 2007. At first, he was having success, but it looked like smoke and mirrors. Since July 1, though, Young has made nine starts, pitched 55.1 innings, struck out 45 opposing batters and walked just 12, en route to a 2.93 ERA. He’s just throwing junk, a mid-80s fastball that he can locate at the top of the zone and a curveball he’s comfortable and proficient throwing above the belt, too. Still, here he is, and his terrific work thus far is a big reason for the Mariners’ success.

The point is, sometimes it’s the move you don’t make, and sometimes it’s the second move you make. Baseball Prospectus gives the Tigers a 68.6-percent chance to make the playoffs, and pegs the Mariners at 46.2 percent. ESPN essentially flips that, with Seattle at 72.3 percent and Detroit at 43.1 percent. Both teams wanted David Price. One was, ultimately, willing to move Heaven and Earth to get him. The other looks in better position to reach the postseason, at least for now. Either way, the choices the two teams made on their way to this point make them interesting case studies in both team building and priorities.

What’s Up With Chris Davis?

In 2013, at age 27, Chris Davis created 142.8 runs for the Baltimore Orioles, according to Baseball-Reference. That was a shockingly good number. In fact, it’s the 14th-highest number posted by any age-27 player since 1969. (We should note, it’s not an adjusted figure.)

In 2014, Davis has battled injuries, and has seen his strikeout rate creep from just on the right side of 30 percent to somewhere just on the wrong side. He’s still walking just as often, though, and it’s not like Davis’s power has evaporated overnight (though it’s badly dampened).

Here’s Davis’s problem in two pictures:

chart chart (1)

 

(h/t FanGraphs)

See how much more often Davis is pulling the ball this season? That’s the problem. it’s a recipe for disaster. It means fewer fly balls, and less hard contact, because rolling over the ball doesn’t lead to good exit velocity. What set 2013 Chris Davis apart was the all-fields power, and the willingness to tap into it. With defenses shifting against him and so much strength to do great things going the other way, Davis never ought to have changed a thing. He has, though, and he’s paying the price. Check out his BABIP by hit direction:

Chris Davis, 2014 BABIP by Hit Direction

 

Direction BABIP
Opposite Field .351
Center Field .286
Right Field .207

 Overall, his BABIP is down this season, from .336 to .260. That small table explains that.

Davis had better straighten things out, because he’s in danger of becoming the biggest age-28 flop of the modern era. As I noted, Davis had the 14th-best age-27 season (by one measure, anyway) since 1969. His adjusted OPS+ indicated he was 69 percent better than a league-average hitter. This season, though, Davis has a 97 OPS+, suggesting he’s worse than the league average. Of the 19 guys who join Davis as the most productive 27-year-olds since 1969, only one other–Jacoby Ellsbury–was a below-average hitter at age 28. In fact, only Ellsbury and Chuck Knoblauch (110 OPS+ at age 28) were less than 28 percent above the league average. 

I don’t want to project onto Davis. I’ve seen him hit several times this season, and while it looks to me like he’s overswinging and focusing too much on repeating his 53 home runs from last year, instead of his good overall numbers, I am not a scout. For whatever reason, though, Davis has gotten pull-happy in the worst possible way, and unless he turns it around, he’ll finish writing the worst sequel to an elite prime-age season we’ve seen in over 40 years.

Jose Fernandez is Hurt, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tommy John

Jose Fernandez is hurt, and Baseball Twitter is in tears. Jose Fernandez is hurt, and the Miami Marlins’ hope of contending this season is gone. Jose Fernandez is hurt, and everyone is sad.

Except me.

Honestly, I’ve felt this way for a while, but if I thought Matt Harvey would be the peak of the phenomenon, Fernandez proved me wrong. I’m just way, way out of step with the echo chamber about this. I’m not sad. I’m not depressed by the loss of Jose Fernandez, and I wouldn’t be depressed by the loss of Clayton Kershaw. I’m not sad that Johan Santana fell off his Hall of Fame horse, or that Carlos Zambrano managed to stay healthy, but went bad.

If every pitcher got hurt or went bad within five years or so of their peak, I would be sad. If young pitchers constantly got hurt before they got the chance to make real money playing baseball, I would be sad. As it is, though, I’m coming to a very comfortable place with pitcher injuries. They are unfortunate. They are also inevitable, necessary and interesting. Without them, believe it or not, baseball would be worse.

It seems to me that the efficient violence, the sheer, shredding velocity of modern pitchers make injuries completely inevitable. Not every pitcher will get hurt, at least not catastrophically, but many of them will. Baseball has embraced the intensity of shorter outings, lightening workloads and training their hurlers to empty the tank in 110 pitches or less. That’s made every pitcher who takes the mound better, but it’s also made them more vulnerable.

That’s not the way I would probably do it. I would counsel more throwing between starts and relief appearances, more long-toss, more flat-ground, more pitching in games, even, but all at lower intensity. I would push pitchers to pace themselves, and never to maximize their effort. My pitchers would get hit much harder but hurt less often.

I’m not judging, though. One of the big-picture truths of the industry is that, because the season is so long and the potential for a single player to determine an entire season is so limited, risking attrition here and there in the name of improved performance is totally worth it. Teams have their risk spread around so well that they can afford to pursue this model without feeling the pain of each pitcher who goes down. As a result, their pitchers pitch as well as humanly possible. The injuries that happen are, in part, the cost of doing business.

To me, the fragility of baseball excellence is part of its beauty. It’s a shame when guys get hurt, but if no one got hurt, the game would be less interesting. The stories of Steve Avery, Gary Nolan, Mark Prior, even Chad Fox and Steve Blass, all are painful, but they’re fascinating, too. They lend color to the game. They create opportunities for heroism, for admirable perseverance in the face of adversity.

There aren’t that many things that make baseball important, that you can carry into real life when the game ends. Pitcher injuries, and the grace and determination with which the victims face them, allow us to see humanity in a game that the world increasingly treats like an exercise in robotics.

Kris Medlen choked up repeatedly during the first interview he did after he found out he would need a second Tommy John surgery. I welled up, too. I wouldn’t want to follow baseball in a world where that moment of shared agony was impossible, though. Baseball should be difficult, and for as long as the league chooses firepower over risk-management, pitchers should get hurt. I’m not sure why so much energy is spent bemoaning a perfectly natural part of the game.

One-Hop Rockets: Nick Markakis’s Approach, Dee Gordon’s Speed, Starlin Castro’s Lower Half

As is my wont, I’m giving Friday over to some rapid-fire observations and notes, from all over the place:

  • Every batter’s optimal plate approach is different. Some guys should swing much more often, especially in certain counts, than others. That’s not news, but it’s surprising how often players get a public rap on the knuckles for their approach, when the reality is that most guys probably know their bodies, their swings and their eyes better than even the most learned observers.Nick Markakis sure seemed to need an adjustment over the past few years, though. He was a fine player, usable, but beginning to fall from the ranks of the truly useful corner outfielders. A failure to develop power was partially to blame, but Markakis also wasn’t walking or hitting for average to the fullest of his abilities. In 2014, though, he’s changing that, simply by swinging more.Markakis makes a lot of contact. That’s been his strongest tool even during his darkest days. This season, he’s tapping into that skill better, by taking a nuanced step in the direction of being more aggressive.

    From 2011-13, Markakis struck out in 10.7 percent of his plate appearances, walked 8.4 percent of the time, swung at 42.1 percent of all pitches (including 18.9 percent of the first pitches within at-bats) and made contact on 88 percent of his swings. That was fine, but by 2013, it was no longer working for him: He batted .271/.329/.356, the command of the strike zone not nearly making up for the fading power.

    So Markakis doubled down on his greatest strength. In 2014, he’s swung more often (43.4 percent), but less (16.9 percent) on first pitches. By letting pitchers get themselves in trouble early in counts but staying out of two-strike situations, he’s brought his strikeout rate even lower (9.9 percent) and ratcheted his walk rate up to 9.2 percent.

    The power is still gone, although he’s been hitting in more and more advantageous hitter’s counts, and that almost universally boosts power in the long run. Even without it, though, Markakis is hitting a neat .301/.361/.398, keeping himself very useful as a table-setter in the power-happy Orioles lineup.

  • Speaking of lead-off hitters, let’s get more traditional. This is a tale of twospeedsters. Both had their offensive chops questioned. Both were given full-time jobs to open the season, with playoff hopefuls, without real safety nets. One is doing an admirable triple-speed high-wire walk. The other has plumb fallen off the wire.I’m speaking, of course, of Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. Gordon, the success story, came into 2014 with pushing 700 brutal plate appearances in MLB under his belt. He earned the Dodgers’ second-base job mostly by default.Gordon has swung less (45.7 percent; 50.4 previously) and made contact more (87.7 percent, up from 85.3), leading to a perfectly acceptable 22 strikeouts in 141 plate appearances. He’s only walked six times, which is alarming, but he’s stolen 21 bases in 24 tries, so when he gets on base, he’s making the most of it. His real skill set will come better into view once he stops hitting .400 on balls in play, but with his speed (18 of his 45 hits have not left the infield, including one double), his BABIP might not come down all that much. On pace for 94.5 stolen bases, he’s as exciting as any player in baseball, just now.

    Billy Hamilton has had no such luck. Maybe fast, light-hitting guys like this just need longer adjustment periods, but Hamilton’s early returns are ugly. He’s losing his grip on the everyday job, batting .242 with a .277 on-base percentage so far. A week or so into the season, I asked the hosts of Effectively Wild how long Hamilton could stay in the lineup with a .280 OBP. Their estimate, and mine, was much higher than 104 plate appearances. None of us, though, was counting on Hamilton having been caught five time in 16 attempted steals. Hamilton is in danger of becoming a full-time pinch-runner, and with 19 strikeouts against four walks in those 104 PA, he’s not making a strong case for having simply been unlucky.

  • Starlin Castro belted a home run last night, his fifth of the season. Castro is among baseball’s most frustrating hitters, and I’ll have to give him a longer treatment on a different occasion. For now, I just want to point out one positive thing: Castro is starting to get his lower half under control.I don’t know if any non-pitcher I’ve ever seen has had a stride pattern and general lower-half mechanic as disjointed and inconsistent as Castro’s. At various times within even this season, he has been guilty of letting his front hip leak out far too soon; lunging with his body across the plate and his legs in no position to create leverage; and simply overstriding. He’s a mess more often than he isn’t, from the waist down.On the homer last night, though, and on several pitches I’ve seen this season, it was clear that Castro is starting to fix that problem. He’s gotten slightly more upright in his setup this year, is striding less, gets his foot down while his hips are still back and stays in a straight line. Those swings are still too rare, but they’re damn promising. He needs to keep working on the syncing of his whole body, but the small strides he’s made are already allowing him to tap his physical gifts better.

 

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