Should Erik Kratz Be Starting at Catcher for the Royals?

The lineups are out for Game Two of the World Series, and Salvador Perez is still in there, batting seventh. Immovable it seems, despite being 5-for-37 in the playoffs. Despite having batted .229/.236/.360 in the second half of the regular season. Despite having a 60:5 strikeout-to-walk ratio since the start of July. Despite being brutally bad at the two most crucial defensive skills for catchers, framing pitches and blocking balls in the dirt. Despite it all, Perez is in there.

And I guess that’s the only option Ned Yost has, at this point. He’s carefully made backup backstop Erik Kratz as rusty as a relief pitcher’s razor. Perez started 143 games at catcher this season, and played 146 at catcher, altogether. Kratz is actually very good at framing and blocking pitches, and he’s as good a hitter as Perez even at his worst. I don’t want to overstate the case, but I would bet that replacing Perez with Kratz and flipping Kratz with Omar Infante in the batting order could improve the Royals’ chances of winning tonight by two or three percent. That’s me not overstating the case, and still, that’s huge, right?

I imagine a completely intangible, “Salvy-is-our-guy,” personality-oriented rationale informs Yost’s insistence upon keeping Perez in the lineup. I don’t buy into that stuff, but let’s say that I did. Let’s say I thought the pitchers were so much more comfortable throwing to this road-weary oaf who carries the ball out of the strike zone every time they aim for the corner that they would collapse if forced to throw to one who didn’t know their favorite kind of beef jerky but expertly handles balls in the dirt and on the edges of the zone. Even if that’s true, can it possibly be worth two or three percent of a win in a single game?

Again, Kratz has seen the field scarcely at all recently. His last start behind the plate was August 31 (!!!), and he only managed even substitute appearances in three September games. He has yet to play in the Postseason. It’s impractical to start him. But the fact that Yost and Perez have allowed it to become impractical is stupid, galling and possibly the thing that will cost them a game sometime during the World Series.

World Series Game One: Hunter Pence Finishes Off the Royals Almost Before They Begin

The San Francisco Giants pounced James Shields on Tuesday night, and Game One of the World Series was out of reach the moment they did. The Kansas City Royals were never going to score more than three runs against Madison Bumgarner, and once those three runs became five in the fourth inning, there was virtually no hope that even a bullpen implosion could let the Royals back into it.

I know that makes for a boring story, but it’s the truth.

There was considerable hand-wringing over Ned Yost’s decision to go to Danny Duffy in the top of the fourth inning, with Shields in trouble again and no one out. Duffy hadn’t pitched since the ALDS, and was generally considered to be buried in the bullpen for reasons of seasonal fatigue. The choice was sub-optimal; there’s no doubt about that. You want to bring Duffy in with the bases empty, the slate clean. You want him not to rush even one iota to get ready to come in. Yost should have gone with Brandon Finnegan, or even Jason Frasor, gotten through the inning and brought out Duffy to begin the fifth frame. The failure to do so cost the Royals a run.

Still, that mistake cost the Royals almost nothing. They simply weren’t going to win last night. They were facing one of the five best left-handed starting pitchers in baseball, and their two best hitters are left-handed. When James Shields took the mound and was unable to get a feel for his changeup, they were doomed.

There were a half-dozen interesting, impressive or exciting plays in the latter half of the game that, I think, people want to make into more than they were. Maybe people want to say that the deflating bases-loaded walk Duffy issued in that fourth frame was the thing that finally killed the mojo, took the crowd irrevocably out of it, spoiled the festivities. Maybe they want the miserable misplay that was Norichika Aoki’s address of a Joe Panik single in the seventh, turning it into an RBI triple, to be the final nail in the coffin. Maybe they would point to the running catch Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford made to end the seventh inning, ranging far into center field to prevent a bloop single by Omar Infante.

The bottom of the third inning almost has a case. The Royals put runners on second and third with nobody out, and the top of the order due. Bumgarner struck out Alcides Escobar, then Aoki, two guys who whiffed less than once every six trips to the plate in 2014, and ended up escaping the inning unscathed. That was huge, especially once the Giants put themselves beyond the reach of such a tepid rally by knocking around Shields and Duffy in the fourth.

None of those moments really determined anything, though. Here’s the one that did:

Ball, Ball, Strike (looking), Strike (swinging), Ball, Foul, H Pence homered to right (421 feet), P Sandoval scored.

That made it 3-0 Giants. It might as well have been a walk-off. A few loose ends:

  • While the beginning and end of Duffy’s night were each brutal, he looked quite good in the middle two innings of his outing. All told, he got eight swings and misses on 59 total pitches, and he had the confidence in both his stuff and his location to throw six strikes in a seven-pitch at-bat to Michael Morse—ending it with a whiff. Duffy just might be able to deliver some quality innings in another tight spot later in the Series. If that’s all Kansas City gets out of this game, it’s not a bad consolation prize.
  • Josh Willingham pinch-hit for Billy Butler in the bottom of the ninth, with flame-throwing Hunter Strickland on the mound. In my Series preview Tuesday, I noted that Butler has had no luck against good fastballs this season. Hopefully, that’s the reason Yost lifted him, and hopefully, Willingham’s six-pitch strikeout won’t deter Yost from doing the same thing if a more important iteration of the same matchup comes up later in the Series.
  • Bruce Bochy also made an unconventional choice to pinch-hit, but his came in the fourth inning. Juan Perez batted for Travis Ishikawa, and laid down a sacrifice bunt. That makes two managerial moves I liked during the contest. Perez is miles better than Ishikawa defensively, is a more experienced bunter and (if the bunt had gone by the wayside, in a two-strike count or whatever the case may have been) is no worse a hitter against left-handed pitchers than is Ishikawa. The big-picture idea—widen the lead, if only by one more run, and bring in a guy who will help it stand up—is classic Bochy, and in that particular case, it was brilliant.
  • This game may have matched the two worst-nicknamed pitchers in baseball. Bumgarner is one of the game’s treasures, a personal favorite of mine with remarkable talent and an exceptional back story. He was raised in a log house his father built. His hometown is, unofficially, Bumtown, because of all the people named Bumgarner who populate it. That he’s saddled with the truncated first name-truncated surname sobriquet is an abomination, not least because it makes him MadBum. MadBum! Unless we’re all British bumpkins discussing irritable bowel syndrome, there’s no reason any of us should be making regular reference to MadBum. And “Big Game James” Shields actually has a terrible track record in big games. If we do nothing else, let us rebrand these two strong starters before the final curtain falls on 2014.

My World Series Preview: The Teams, How They Were Built, the Players, What They Do (and Don’t Do), and the Matchups

The World Series begins Tuesday night. It’s the first and only series of MLB’s 2014 Postseason that airs on free television, but unlike the Super Bowl or the Olympics, the World Series is not often a source of many new fans for baseball. Studies have shown, and your own experience probably reflects, that baseball is a sport enjoyed mostly in a very provincial way. There are 10 Twins fans for every real, honest, will-watch-no-matter-who-plays baseball fan in the state of Minnesota, and 10 Padres fans to every one of that ilk in San Diego.

The Series used to draw the attention of the nation, taking over TV at a time when there were few alternative entertainment options, capturing the national imagination, creating heroes we remembered for decades and distracting students in schools across the country.

That’s a real picture of the way things were, but also a farce. It’s like telling your grandkids how you walked to school in the snow every day. Sure you did. They hadn’t invented cars yet. Things change, time marches on. Football is the most popular sport in the United States now, and even so, it isn’t half as ubiquitous as baseball was 60 years ago. Nothing is. That said, this year’s Series has the potential to grab people. I hope that it will. There are a lot of people who might normally tune out by this time of year, or who barely maintain an interest at all, who seem to connect to the story of the Kansas City Royals, and I hope this Series will not only keep their attention, but foster it.

To that end, I offer this primer, a rundown of everything you need to know about these two teams (the San Francisco Giants, by the way, are the Royals’ opponents) and the context of the Series, in order to enjoy it as much as you can. Dig in.

How They Got Here/Backstory

Kansas City Royals

Before this season, the Royals hadn’t reached the playoffs at all since 1985. To put that in perspective:

  • The second-longest playoff drought in the league—the longest, now—belongs to the Toronto Blue Jays, who made it in 1993. My parents weren’t yet married when Kansas City last won anything. They got married, waited two years, then had me and my little sister before the Jays’ drought began.
  • Only one organization reached the playoffs fewer than two times during that stretch: the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, who would have made it twice themselves but for the 1994 strike.
  • Four teams came into being after the start of the Royals’ drought. They have combined for 14 playoff appearances and three World Series championships already.
  • The playoffs have expanded twice during the drought. Only four teams reached the Postseason each year the last time Kansas City got in. This year, it was 10.
  • Six of the Royals’ nine positional regulars weren’t born when the Royals last played in the playoffs. The same goes for two of their five most important starting pitchers, and for all three of their dominant relief pitchers.
  • None of the 1985 Royals’ five main starting pitchers were older than 28 that year, meaning they all at least doubled in age while waiting to see the next Royals playoff team.

When last they did make it, though, they won the World Series in seven games, over the St. Louis Cardinals. Therefore, if you’re looking for a moment of ultimate catharsis for the city and its fans, you’ve missed it. That came when they won the Wild Card Game over the Oakland Athletics. The demons have already been exorcised. Strangely, while this is a new team to the scene in a sense, that’s not what makes the Royals most compelling. Let’s back up. After the 1985 championship, how did things go so wrong, for so long? Like everything in life, it’s complicated. There were at least four factors:

  1. In mid-1986, Royals manager Dick Howser developed a brain tumor. He stepped down mid-season, and was dead within a year. While a manager doesn’t win or lose all that many games on his own, the suddenness and tragedy of Howser’s loss (at age 51) did set the Royals back.
  2. Excellent and vital executive personnel left the team. John Schuerholz, the architect and general manager of the 1985 team, left for Atlanta after the 1990 season. Owner Ewing Kauffman, who was deeply invested (financially, personally and emotionally) in the team, developed cancer and died in 1993, after four or five seasons of fruitless efforts on the part of the Royals brass to hurriedly assemble a winner before he was gone. These patchwork operations set the long-term planning of the team back.
  3. Money and market size became a stronger indicator of team success as the 1990s wore on, spelling trouble for the small-time Royals.
  4. Poor management strategies and ignorance of the leaguewide progress in evaluating players left the team scrambling to make up deficits that never needed to develop.

So, when did things begin to change? Coincidentally, it was when the Royals poached a member of the Braves front office, just as the Braves had done to them 15 years earlier. Dayton Moore took over as GM of the Royals on May 31, 2006. A week later, he oversaw his first draft, although to be sure, most of the crucial decisions about players had been made by the time he took over. With their last pick of that draft, in the 50th round, Moore selected an outfielder from a Mississippi junior college named Jarrod Dyson. Moore would then set about an aggressive, if undersold, rebuilding of the franchise.

Year Royals record Notable Players Drafted
2007 69-93 Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Greg Holland
2008 75-87 Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery
2009 65-97 Aaron Crow, Wil Myers

He increased the organization’s level of investment in Latin America, which included signing Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura in 2006 and 2008, respectively. By late 2010, the Royals had what many considered the best farm system in baseball—and one of the best ever—but no Major League success on which to hang their hats.

Arguably, Moore took his first real step toward turning the Royals permanently around in December 2010. By then, the Royals had finished a fourth full season under Moore. They had averaged 69 wins. Although ownership voiced support for Moore both in private and in public, it would have been understandable if Moore had acted in self-interest—self-preservation, really—and moved to win immediately. Instead, Moore made the gutsiest move of his career, trading Zack Greinke—a season removed from winning the Cy Young Award, the Royals’ closest facsimile of a superstar—to the Milwaukee Brewers. Specifically, the trade looked like this:

Brewers Get Royals Get
Zack Greinke – ace-caliber starting pitcher with two years left on his contract. 2009 AL Cy Young. Alcides Escobar – glove-first shortstop, 12th-ranked prospect in baseball prior to 2010, coming off tough rookie season
Jake Odorizzi – starting pitching prospect, ranked 69th in baseball prior to 2011
Yuniesky Betancourt – slugging but impatient, slow and stone-handed shortstop. A warm body to fill a position for Milwaukee. Lorenzo Cain – hit .306 in 158 PA as a rookie in 2010; 24 years old
Jeremy Jeffress – relief pitching prospect, major fastball, ranked 76th-best prospect in baseball prior to 2011

Not only did Moore trade his ace, but he did it without getting some of the prospects whose names had caused more ripples when thrown out earlier in the offseason. He was out on a limb, and the fact that he promised prompt progress toward contention only heightened the stakes.

In 2011, the Royals took a baby step forward. They won 71 games under new manager Ned Yost, but were outscored by only 32 runs—implying that their true talent level was that of a 78-win team. Former first-round picks Hosmer and Moustakas took their places in the Major Leagues. Escobar settled in as the regular shortstop. Alex Gordon, whom Moore had inherited as the crown jewel of the farm system but whose development had gone off the rails midway through 2009, broke out in a wonderful way. Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur, a pair of low-risk free-agent signees whose former teams had declined to offer them contracts over the winter, had outstanding seasons, so much so that the three players held Cain down in Triple-A practically all season, surprising everyone.

The aforementioned Perez, a catcher who began the season having never played above Class A, shot to the Majors and hit .331 in over 150 at-bats, earning a long-term, dirt-cheap contract extension. Holland, that 2007 10th-round pick out of Western Carolina University, established himself as a slightly erratic but nigh unhittable reliever. Everything was coming up Royals, and Moore’s job was in no danger. A homegrown dynasty seemed imminent.

If all that sounds too good to be true, well, it turned out to be. In 2012, the team won one more game, but still lost 90, and they were outscored by 70 runs—more than twice the deficit they’d had in 2011. Moore traded Cabrera to San Francisco in order to make room for Cain. Cabrera won the National League batting title (though he vacated it; we’ll get to that when it’s the Giants’ turn). Jonathan Sanchez, the left-handed starting pitcher for whom Moore traded Cabrera, walked more than he struck out in half a miserable season. Moore dumped him on the Colorado Rockies, in exchange for Jeremy Guthrie, who had posted similarly execrable numbers in the thin air of Coors Field.

Cain, meanwhile, missed the entire first half with a groin strain. He’d suffered the same injury in each of the two previous Aprils, but this was by far more severe. Meanwhile, wanting to hold onto some of the excellent outfield production from 2011, Moore had extended Francoeur for two seasons at an eight-figure salary. Francoeur promptly busted, badly. Danny Duffy, the only one of the club’s vaunted left-handed starter prospects who had been pitching well, underwent Tommy John surgery. Joakim Soria, the team’s stellar closer, a diamond Moore had pulled from the rough of the Rule 5 Draft in December 2006, had the same procedure, his second. Hosmer and Moustakas had dreadful numbers in their sophomore seasons. The foregone conclusion of a return to the playoffs had become a dream endangered.

Maybe Moore now felt pressure from above. Maybe he simply felt confident in his core assemblage of talent, felt sure that they would rebound, and thought he had pinpointed the thing they were missing. I’m not Dayton Moore. But here’s what Moore did:

Royals Get Tampa Bay Rays Get
James Shields – workhorse starter, coming off six straight seasons of at least 200 innings pitched; two years remaining on contract Wil Myers – Reigning Baseball America Minor League Players of the Year, among top five prospects in baseball; slugging right fielder
Jake Odorizzi – still a starting pitching prospect, now ranked 92nd in baseball
Wade Davis – former pitching prospect of note, had struggled modestly in rotation but took off after move to bullpen in 2012 Mike Montgomery – Formerly one of the Royals’ stable of left-handed starters-to-be, a reclamation project at best after a 2012 season in which he simply fell apart.
Elliot Johnson – middle infielder, fringe prospect who, as it turned out, could not hit Patrick Leonard – A 2011 fifth-round pick who showed impressive offensive potential in the rookie-level Appalachian League.

He announced, too, that Kansas City would attempt to salvage the starting version of Davis, making this a go-for-broke deal aimed, with clear intent, at ending the playoff drought immediately. Moore had tossed his career onto the table with this move. Myers was widely considered too much to give up, especially because Shields (despite consistently excellent strikeout and walk rates) had rarely produced true star-level numbers. His ERA tended to rest higher than one would expect, given his pure skills. He was no Zack Greinke, the pundits agreed. Still, 2013 was a big step back in the right direction.

The offense remained flat, but at least Hosmer’s bat bounced back, particularly in the second half. A miserable losing jag in late May and June cost them any hope of the playoffs, but with Shields and cheaply-acquired Ervin Santana leading a much stronger rotation, and with excellent defense from Escobar, Cain, Gordon, Perez and 27-year-old rookie David Lough in right field, the Royals managed to win 86 games, a record in line with their run differential, for once. The campaign offered cause for hope.

On the other hand, Davis was abysmal in the rotation. His stuff simply flattened when he was asked to sustain his performance for longer stretches, and the limitations on his repertoire became painfully apparent. When he played, Francoeur killed the team. Wil Myers won the Rookie of the Year award for Tampa Bay, who won 92 games and reached the Division Series. The lack of progress—or even maintenance of their previous ability—from the offense cost one hitting coach his job, and left the position up in the air. If 2012 put the possibility of failure in the backs of Royals’ fans’ minds, 2013 attached a beacon and a flag to it. Suddenly, the Royals were a year away from losing Shields, not having Myers to save the dreadful offense, having to decline an option on Davis’s contract and missing their window to compete.

If that had been how 2014 ended, surely, Moore would have been gone. The forward motion had generated some revenue, though, and it also seemed to invite some new confidence from ownership. With his bosses’ blessing, Moore signed Omar Infante and Jason Vargas to four-year deals over the winter, in an attempt to shore up the most obvious deficiencies on the roster: second base, and starting pitching depth. He also made a few small (but ultimately important) trades, one that sent Lough to Baltimore, another that (in exchange for a lefty swingman of uncertain value) replaced Lough with Norichika Aoki, a very cheap right fielder with a diverse skill set and a low strikeout rate.

That was it. The tumblers fell into place. Duffy had shown the team enough in his return from Tommy John, late in 2013, to earn one of the open rotation spots. Yordano Ventura won the other. The two young guns fell into line between Shields (who had one of his better seasons for them in 2013, and arguably his best in 2014) and the innings eaters Vargas and Guthrie. Davis moved back to the bullpen, where his presence helped offset the loss of dominant 2013 set-up man Luke Hochevar, who went under the knife during Spring Training.

The resulting team looked almost exactly like the one you’ll see on Tuesday night:

Lineup:

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

Pitching Staff:

SP1 – James Shields
SP2 – Yordano Ventura
SP3 – Danny Duffy
SP4 – Jason Vargas
SP5 – Jeremy Guthrie

RP1 – Greg Holland
RP2 – Wade Davis
RP3 – Kelvin Herrera
RP4 – Tim Collins
RP5 – Aaron Crow

There was no heavy mid-season makeover in store for this team. The only things that have changed among the players listed are that Duffy is now more or less buried, with fatigue having derailed him a bit at the end of the year, and that Moore added Jason Frasor to the bullpen in July. The bench also got a bit of a facelift, with the additions of Josh Willingham and Raul Ibanez, and with Danny Valencia dealt to Toronto for backup catcher Erik Kratz.

These are very small changes. The Royals didn’t have the wherewithal to make big moves if they needed to, and thankfully, then, they never needed to. All nine regulars listed above had at least 500 plate appearances this season. The five starters combined to make all but a handful of their starts. Aside from Hochevar, no important bullpen pieces got hurt, not even a three-week calf strain kind of thing. Part of the story of the 2014 Royals is that they lived a charmed life, health-wise.

Even so, this team was 48-50 just after the All-Star break. Part of the reason (though by no means the whole reason) that Moore didn’t do more at the deadline was that it wasn’t yet clear how valuable any additions could actually be. It became clear over the next month, though, as the team reeled off 24 wins in 30 games. That was without Hosmer in the lineup, too. They simply got hot, as teams who do the things they do can sometimes do, and tore through the league for five weeks. It was on the strength of that stretch that they reached the playoffs at all.

They’re now on a similarly scalding streak, having won six of eight to finish the season, then eight in a row with extra patches on their sleeves. Even a seven-game victory would mean 16 wins in 21 contests, but after all, they’ve done it before. We’ll get into how, and who, in a while. For now, that’s the story of the 2014 Royals. It’s a story, depending upon whom you ask, of either master architecture or house-of-cards architecture, of brilliant long-term planning or dumb luck. The 2014 Royals had a worse run differential than the 2013 team, but won three more games. They snuck into the playoffs, but have certainly played like they belong since they got here.

While it’s a flawed construction and Moore has had to catch himself after several bad moves, it’s hard not to look at this roster as the culmination of Moore’s near-decade of work. This is what he’s been building all along, from Jarrod Dyson in the 50th round in 2006 to Brandon Finnegan in the first round in 2014, from Billy Butler’s contract extension to Salvador Perez’s, from The Greinke Trade to The Shields Trade.

San Francisco Giants

Don’t worry, this story is shorter. Much shorter. Twenty-seven years shorter. The Giants won the World Series in 2012, and they won it in 2010. There’s an oversimplified version of the story, even, that focuses only on a fortuitous string of great first-round picks the Giants made several years ago, grabbing Tim Lincecum, Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner in consecutive drafts. It’s true that those three, plus Pablo Sandoval and Matt Cain, have been at the heart of the team’s success, but there’s more to it than that.

It would be correct, although grossly misleading, to note that the Royals haven’t lost a playoff series since 1984. It would also be correct, and much less misleading (though, still misleading), to note that the Giants haven’t lost one since 2003. The team has only been back to the playoffs twice since then; they’ve just come home with the trophy each time. It’s fluky, but they’ve done it, and another Series title would make them a very peculiar type of dynasty. GM Brian Sabean hasn’t been planning this run for his entire tenure. It would be strange and counterproductive if he had; Sabean has been the Giants’ head baseball man since Monica Lewinsky was unknown to the world. Sabean is more of a quick-hit artist anyway, though. He never takes a year off, let alone embracing a rebuild.

When the Giants draft from a valuable position, they hardly ever miss, and that has huge value:

Season (Overall pick) Player
2006 (10) Tim Lincecum – two-time Cy Young Award winner; key to 2010 WS champion as its ace, 2012 as dominant relief weapon
2007 (10) Madison Bumgarner – two-time All-Star, two shutout outings in two World Series starts, 2014 NLCS MVP, one of five best left-handed starters in baseball
2008 (5) Buster Posey – catcher, superstar. 2010 NL Rookie of the Year, 2012 NL MVP, crucial to both WS winners
2009 (6) Zach Wheeler – had strong rookie season with New York Mets. Live-armed pitcher, was traded for Carlos Beltran, who batted .323/.369/.551 in two months for 2011 Giants.
2010 (24) Gary Brown – An athletic center fielder, future uncertain but had three hits in 7 AB in cup of coffee this September.
2011 (29) Joe Panik – One of the saviors of 2014 season, batted .305 in 73 games as second-base stopgap, had two-run homer in deciding Game 5, NLCS.

In addition to the big-ticket guys, Sabean has had some subtle but critical hits over the past five years. Brandon Crawford was a fourth-round pick in 2008; he was the starting shortstop for the 2012 champions. Brandon Belt was the first baseman, just three years after being a fifth-round pick, and Tommy Joseph, picked in the second round in 2009, was one of the key pieces of the trade that brought over Pence. In addition to Panik, 2011 netted San Francisco Andrew Susac, the strong backup catcher for this year’s team, and Kyle Crick, the team’s top pitching prospect.

Around that core of drafted talent, though, there aren’t tradeable assets, contracts they’re looking to unload or plans to build for the future. It’s not that Sabean is totally myopic; it’s just that he refuses to miss an opportunity to win immediately. Every player he adds to his roster is placed there because Sabean believes they can help the Giants win games that season. The Giants are a fun team to follow each summer, because they’re likely to be in on whichever pieces of trade bait suit their needs, no matter how tough a fit it might seem in terms of trade partners or prospect capital. Sabean added Beltran in 2011 (that one didn’t turn out, as the Giants finished a distant second in the NL West and missed the playoffs; Wheeler is a symbol of the risk associated with Sabean’s style), Hunter Pence in 2012 and Jake Peavy in July. He supports any roster that even resembles a winner, and that’s been the case for several seasons.

You know who the Giants are like? They’re like the Yankees. (Wait, please, don’t run away!) It’s true. They’re like the Yankees, only they’re living in the Yankees’ past and their future at the same time, instead of matching up with them in the present.

Like the Yankees have begun to over the last two seasons, the Giants went through a period of paying the high price of loyalty to a franchise icon. They lost a lot of games from 2005-07 as they strained their resources to field a semi-competent team around Barry Bonds. In 2006, for instance, eight different position players ages 34 or older played at least 98 games. Drop the minimum games played to 64, and three more 34-and-older names join the list.

During that stretch of losing seasons, Sabean offloaded exactly one veteran of even modest trade value—Matt Morris, under the pinch of the deadline in 2007, for Rajai Davis. San Francisco lost Davis on a waiver claim the following April. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera sank the Yankees, not by being bad or taking up too much budgetary space, but by simply hanging around, making the team feel obligated to surround them with increasingly ancient, limited players, until the roster creaked and the playoffs became a fuzzy spot out on the horizon. These seasons in New York have been unproductive frustration, and that’s what 2005-08 was like for the Giants, too. They lost, and that losing didn’t really advance them toward anything, other than by allowing them to do so very well in the first round of the draft for several years.

On the other hand, like the Yankees at the other end of Jeter’s and Rivera’s careers, the Giants somehow can’t lose in October. It should be somewhat self-evident, even if you’re not familiar with the math and the logic, that playoff success is basically random. No one has found a type of team, or even a particular player, who magically thrives under the pressure of the playoffs. Derek Jeter’s Yankees were 97-61 in the playoffs, but that breaks down to:

  • From start of career through 2000 World Series: 46-15
  • From 2001 through end of career: 51-46

That streak of 12 wins in 13 postseason series to open Jeter’s career proved totally unsustainable. It’s just how things broke. It speaks to focus, determination, talent and poise, but it also speaks in large part to chance. We mostly edit out that last part when we start building legends, and then statues.

The Giants came out of their Barry Bonds haze in 2009, winning 88 games. They fielded their youngest set of position players, on average, since 1996, and the upside of a Tim Lincecum-Matt Cain tandem at the top of the starting rotation came clearly into focus. Lincecum won his second straight Cy Young Award.

Then, 2010 happened. That’s about as clearly as I can explain it. As Sabean will often do, Sabean let the winter play itself out. He didn’t make a single truly splashy addition, just little things at the fringes. He re-signed Juan Uribe and Bengie Molina. He added Aubrey Huff, whose career had all but crashed to the ground the previous year, as insurance against the unsteady performance of a young player named Travis Ishikawa. He scooped up a free-agent reliever named Santiago Casilla, from Oakland, just a spare arm.

In late May, the Giants were hanging around. Three games separated the four contending teams in the NL West. Sabean added Pat Burrell, who had absolutely flamed out in a brief sojourn with the Tampa Bay Rays, for the Major League minimum salary. Sabean added another pair of relievers at the trade deadline, Ramon Ramirez and Javier Lopez. Then, in August, he grabbed Cody Ross on waivers to boost the outfield, girding it against the nagging injuries with which several players were dealing. Here’s how all that cobbling together worked out:

  • Aubrey Huff hit 26 home runs, leading the team, and was 42 percent better than average at bat, overall.
  • Juan Uribe hit 24 home runs, second on the club, as the starting shortstop.
  • Santiago Casilla posted a 1.95 ERA in the regular season. Ramon Ramirez had a 0.67 ERA in 27 innings for the Giants. Javier Lopez had a 1.42 ERA in 19 innings. Lopez and Casilla combined for 10.1 innings and two runs allowed, with 11 strikeouts agaist two walks, in the postseason.
  • Pat Burrell cracked 18 home runs with the Giants, becoming the second- or third-most dangerous hitter in the San Francisco lineup.
  • Cody Ross won the NLCS MVP and hit five total homers during the playoffs.

Of course, the sterling performances by the aces (Lincecum and Cain) and the star rookies (Posey and Bumgarner) made as much impact as those players, but that list is illustrative of how things seem to work out for Sabean when he rolls the dice on veterans, whether it be by grabbing them when no one else wants them or by holding onto them for dear life and using them like they’re still good. In 2012, a similar series of strange performances coincided to push the team to a title. Barry Zito had two excellent starts, Joaquin Arias helped push them through the NLDS, Marco Scutaro had 14 hits in the NLCS and Ryan Theriot—after starting at DH!—scored the winning run in the final game of the World Series.

The 2014 team seems to be a product of a bit more forethought than its predecessors. Some of the guys Sabean brought in prior to and during 2012—Angel Pagan, Hunter Pence and Marco Scutaro—were counted on as key pieces heading into the season. Over the winter, Sabean did a little more heavy lifting than is his wont, signing Tim Hudson and Michael Morse. While the free-spending Dodgers still had to be the favorites, this team looked like one that could make a run to the World Series, maybe more than either the 2010 or the 2012 teams did on the eve of those seasons. Indeed, they were the best team in baseball at one point:

San Francisco Giants, 2014 Season Split

Time Frame Record Run Differential
Through June 8 43-21 +67
June 9 through end of season 45-53 -16

By August, though, that didn’t look true at all. Matt Cain got hurt. Tim Lincecum continued his slide into obsolescence. Scutaro and Pagan provided practically nothing, due to injuries. Sabean started throwing familiar switches, bringing in Travis Ishikawa on a minor-league deal in April, bringing in Dan Uggla in essentially the exact same situation Pat Burrell had been in, in June. There were no familiar results, though, at least in the short term. Giving up on Uggla quickly allowed the team to turn to Joe Panik, who came through brilliantly. Ishikawa paid his dividends once Morse went down with an oblique injury.

It was Sabean’s big July move that paid off this year, though. He traded two solid pitching prospects (unspectacular, but solid) to the Boston Red Sox for Jake Peavy, even though Peavy had a 4.72 ERA on the season, and even though the Sox had lost Peavy’s last nine starts leading up to the trade. Peavy felt immediately at home, though, reacquainting himself with the National League by dominating it. He would post a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts for the Giants, and the team won his last six starts.

Jake Peavy, Final Six Starts, 2014 (August 30 through end of season)

Innings Hits Runs Earned Runs Walks Strikeouts ERA
39 30 7 5 8 30 1.15

Because of the second Wild Card, the Giants hardly needed the boost. They were five games clear of the closest team to them in the hunt, the Milwaukee Brewers. Still, Peavy’s starts were the rare points of light in a miserable second half for the Giants. This team went 45-53 after June 8 (an arbitrary endpoint, I admit), but still made the playoffs. Once there, it was as if they’d remembered who that dominant team from the early going was. Madison Bumgarner pitched like a playoff ace to get them by the Pittsburgh Pirates. The offense found ways to do just enough against the Washington Nationals, and the bullpen helped them survive. The St. Louis Cardinals put up a fight, but the Giants fielded the ball better, pitched slightly better in relief, had fewer lapses and won the series. How do the Giants do it? There’s really no secret sauce, but they do have the three things that lend a team small advantages in October (or at least, that make a team likely to outperform its regular-season self in the Postseason):

  1. An excellent catcher. Buster Posey never having to take a day off or move to first eases pressure on the rest of the Giants offense.
  2. An excellent bullpen. One can concentrate high-leverage innings in the hands of one’s best firemen thanks to the looser October schedule. The Giants have clear bullpen hierarchies, and can follow them more easily with the loose October schedule.
  3. A shallow starting rotation. Having an iffy fourth or fifth starter matters much more during the long season, when those players are full-time members of the rotation. In October, the Giants are always one rainout from being able to turn Bumgarner, Peavy and Hudson around on a team uninterrupted.

Always hurriedly constructed but never wobbly in the spotlight, the Giants come into this Series as soundly constructed, perhaps, as ever. They just didn’t win many regular-season games. The Narratives You’ll Hear, and Which Ones to Care About I touched on the Royals’ long playoff drought above, and it will be a story throughout the Series. Just try to keep in mind that 11 teams have waited longer for a World Series champion than Kansas City:

  • Baltimore (last won 1983)
  • Chicago Cubs (last won 1908)
  • Cleveland (last won 1948)
  • Detroit (last won 1984)
  • Houston (have never won, founded 1962)
  • Milwaukee (have never won, founded 1969)
  • Pittsburgh (last won 1979)
  • San Diego (have never won, founded 1969)
  • Seattle (have never won, founded 1977)
  • Texas (have never won, founded 1961)
  • Washington (have never won, founded 1969)

You may, of course, root for the Royals, and I might even recommend it. (Might.) But don’t do so because of this drought narrative. It’s facile. It ignores an obvious and necessary distinction. The drought is over. Kansas City’s fans have been washed in the water again. Don’t give them your pity vote. The Giants’ experience will be a narrative. Pundits and commentators will talk both about whether that experience will help the Giants beat the Royals, and about what legacy the Giants teams cloak themselves in if they win. The questions should be held separate, but I present them side-by-side because you’ll hear them concurrently. Does the Giants’ experience make them more likely to beat the Royals? Let me offer the sabermetrically controversial, maybe even heretical answer: Yes, I think it does. Not directly, mind you. In fact, that’s probably even the wrong way to state it. What I think, precisely, is less that the experience the team has gleaned will inform them in some mystical way than that they got that experience because they had an unusually well-tempered set of personalities in the first place. The core players on this team, especially Posey, Bumgarner, Pence and Sandoval, bring a very controlled sense of urgency to every at-bat, every pitch. That shows even during the regular season. I foresee that that makeup will serve them well at some crucial point in the Series. As for their legacy, I may, many words back, have attached the word ‘dynasty’ to this team. (Control-F says yes, I did. Happily, I preceded it with ‘peculiar.’) That’s a tricky characterization, though. These Giants’ three championship teams, if indeed this becomes the third, would have averaged 91 regular-season wins. The 1972-74 Oakland A’s won three straight titles with just three more regular-season wins, but those titles were consecutive. That makes it feel different. The only analogue I can find for these Giants, really, is the 1987 and 1991 Twins—teams sharing common pillars, but with multiple seasons of crash and burn between them, neither club truly dominant. I don’t think we’d call the Twins a dynasty, in retrospect. I’m not even sure another eked-out title would do it. Maybe it would. There’s one thing: the 2010 Giants beat the two-time defending pennant-winning Phillies, then ousted the Texas Rangers in five games. (The Rangers reached the Series again the next year.) Both of the Giants’ last two NLCS wins have come over the St. Louis Cardinals, who have won the two pennants the Giants haven’t won in the meantime. And they swept the Detroit Tigers in the 2012 Series. Maybe that starts to become an additive dynasty, slowly accumulating the things needed to legitimize it all. I think that’s probably right. If the Giants do win this Series, and especially if they do so relatively convincingly (finally getting to celebrate on their home field would carry an iota of weight for me), I think this can safely be called a dynasty. It already has the star power, personality and grit it needs. I think they just need these four more wins. Names, Numbers, Faces This is where I try to give you a crash course on a bunch of baseball players, their backgrounds, their skills, what make them valuable, but mostly, what makes them worth your while. Let’s go back to breaking out the teams. Kansas City Royals

  • Ned Yost, Manager – I wrote at some length about Yost just the other day, so if you have a little time, go read that. The short version is: Yost is a bad tactical manager. He always has been. He responds to game situations well, but his limitations of imagination sometimes get the better of him. He occasionally wastes pinch-runners by using them when their run would little impact the game, or when he has no intention of leveraging their speed by having them run. He frequently sticks with his starting pitchers for too long. He has, in the past, been too reticent to go to his elite relief pitchers early and in big situations.On the other hand, he’s a baseball lifer, and he speaks the language of his charges perfectly. They respond well to him. He gets the best out of them because they trust him. Sometimes a manager is just a manager, not a head coach or a master strategist. That’s Yost.
  • Alcides Escobar, Shortstop: An extremely aggressive hitter, Escobar drew just 23 walks in 620 trips to the plate this season. He’s a strange choice for a leadoff hitter, then, but that’s the role he plays for Yost lately. He does make a ton of contact for a modern player, though, and runs very well. He stole 31 bases in 37 tries this year.The key to getting Escobar out is to elevate fastballs. He gets tons of hits on fastballs and sinkers low in the zone, but he’s very willing to chase hard stuff up at the letters and above, and he can’t handle it at all, especially from the middle of the plate in. Obviously, no pitcher likes to throw to that area too much, lest a fastball up and in end up being just in, but look for Bumgarner, especially, to throw his cutter and heat right over Escobar’s hands a few times.
  • Norichika Aoki, Right Field – Aoki is a lefty batter, but actually hit lefties better than righties this season:
    Split Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
    1. RHP
    .259 .323 .335
    1. LHP
    .363 .428 .435

    Reverse platoon splits are very rarely real; they usually arise as statistical oddities, nothing more. When you watch Aoki hit, though, you can see why he’s better against southpaws. His game is to punch the ball to left field. Left-handers instinctively pitch lefties away, away, away, and Aoki can take advantage of that. Aoki is the opposite of Escobar in many ways, not least that a pitcher should hardly ever throw him a fastball. He’s not a power hitter, but fastballs turn into singles whenever they get near Aoki. Pounding him with secondary stuff, especially good changeups, is the way to attack him. Sergio Romo will be the best matchup Bruce Bochy can look for late in games, if indeed Aoki is around by then.

  • Lorenzo Cain, Center Field: Aoki and Escobar put plenty of pressure on a defense. Batting Cain right after them is almost unfair. The three hitters at the top of the Royals’ order combined for 89 infield hits this season, with Cain’s 31 leading the way. Cain also steals bases often, and efficiently, and if he’s not enough fun on the field, there’s his well-loved origin story to win you over.He’s aggressive, like Escobar. He won’t draw walks. He can barrel the ball up and split the gap, though, and even when he doesn’t, he’s a solid singles hitter. Only seven righty batters who put at least 50 balls in play the other way this season had higher batting averages on those balls than did Cain. He kills fastballs, even hits them for power, but good offspeed stuff gives him trouble. Against righties, Cain chases low and away on soft stuff, and does nothing with it.I’m burying the lede, though. Cain’s chief asset is his defense, and especially, his athleticism in center field. Cain might well be the best defensive outfielder in baseball right now, or at least the best one who hits well enough to play regularly. He evokes Devon White.chart Look at some of those green dots! Cain’s range is outstanding. He steals doubles regularly. In the large center fields boasted by both home parks, Cain’s defense will play a role during this Series.
  • Eric Hosmer, First Base: Hosmer was out with an injury for most of the 30-game hot streak that brought the Royals to the playoffs. He went just 1-for-12 when he did appear during that stretch, one that saw Kansas City go 24-6.He’s spent the playoffs making up for lost time. Two of the three best single-game playoff performances in Royals history, in terms of what they added to the chances of victory in that game, belong to Hosmer. He was the most hyped of those so-hyped Royals prospects, and this month, he’s doing his best to earn that.Hosmer hasn’t shown opposite-field power in 2014, though he nearly took a ball out to left-center field during the Wild Card Game against Oakland. That would have been his first homer to the left of true center all season:He struggles against good breaking stuff, so Bumgarner will handle him easily if his curve is working. If not, things get trickier. Hosmer is good at guessing when a pitcher is going to pound the outside corner, waiting for that pitch to creep up to about the belt, then lacing the ball.
  • Billy Butler, Designated Hitter: Butler is a good, disciplined hitter, not a huge drawer of walks but one willing to take a pitch or to hit it as the pitch itself invites. He remains that, and that’s good, because the power seems all but gone. Unless Butler can cheat on a fastball and get his bat started early, he’s not going to drive the ball with the same authority he has over the last several years.
    Year Isolated Power (ISO) v. Hard Stuff (Fastballs, Sinkers, Cutters)
    2011 .212
    2012 .291
    2013 .168
    2014 .136

    Butler is often lifted for a pinch-runner if he reaches base in the seventh inning or later. It’ll nearly always be Terrance Gore who runs for him, because they can then pinch-hit for Gore without losing the DH. Butler should be a bench-only option during the San Francisco leg of the Series.

  • Alex Gordon, Left Field: Gordon is a patient hitter, unafraid to swing and miss, though not overwhelmingly given to it. He’s a dead-red hitter, hoping to find a fastball and ambush it. He mostly keyholes the center of the zone, but he has fine plate coverage. There are ways to get him out, but he’s the hardest out in the Kansas City batting order. He swung and missed just 25 times on over 260 swings when pitchers came into the zone with two strikes this year. You have to get him to go fishing to whiff him.Gordon is also the best defensive left fielder in baseball, getting great jumps, charging ground balls and would-be gappers aggressively, chasing down everything and using the best arm ever wasted on left field to keep runners right where they are in the process. He’s as much fun to watch as Cain, just in a different way.
  • Salvador Perez, Catcher: In the first half of 2014, Salvador Perez hit really well:
    Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
    .283 .329 .437

    Here’s a graphic showing how often he swung at pitches in given locations during that period: http://www.brooksbaseball.net/plot_h_profile.php?s_type=13&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=month&player=521692&startDate=01/01/2014&endDate=07/13/2014&minmax=ci&var=swing&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1Obviously, this is an aggressive hitter, but just as clearly, it works. This is Perez in his element, his comfort zone. In the second half, he fell way out of that zone. http://www.brooksbaseball.net/plot_h_profile.php?s_type=13&gFilt=&pFilt=FA|SI|FC|CU|SL|CS|KN|CH|FS|SB&time=month&player=521692&startDate=07/14/2014&endDate=12/31/2014&minmax=ci&var=swing&balls=-1&strikes=-1&b_hand=-1 That’s ugly. And the batting line it produced was even uglier:

    Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
    .229 .236 .360

    Perez plays too much. The Royals had him start 150 games this season. He’s a poor pitch-framer, a poor blocker of balls in the dirt and a lost cause at the plate, at least right now. The Royals take great pride in Perez. They see him as a great asset. For the purposes of this Series, I think they’re wrong. I think he’s a liability.

  • Omar Infante, Second Base: For a guy who got $40 million over four years this winter, Infante was brutal. He still avoided striking out about as well as anyone, but he also still didn’t walk much, and the power hiccup he had in 2012 has never really repeated itself. He flashes it when he’s sitting on something and gets it, but don’t expect to see that during this Series.In the field, Infante is competent, a nice piece of a great overall defensive puzzle, not a star but never a problem.
  • Mike Moustakas, Third Base: Moustakas is a rare animal in today’s game. At a time when offense is shrinking due to the pitchers dominating the strike zone, and when strikeout rates are through the roof for many of the league’s best power hitters, Moustakas is one player who is struggling not because of his walk rate (acceptable) or his whiff rate (better than most!), but because he simply makes too much weak contact.The problem is that good fastballs on the inner third of the plate eat Moustakas up. He seems good at getting his pitch, and he doesn’t miss it altogether, but he just can’t seem to avoid getting tied up by that pitch. Maybe a mechanical adjustment can unlock his potential someday. For now, he has some power and some patience, but not enough of either to overcome all the groundouts and lazy fly balls. Like the rest of the Royals, though, he makes sure not to take his struggles at the plate with him into the field. He’s a solidly above-average third baseman.

San Francisco Giants

  • Bruce Bochy, Manager: Bochy is widely considered a future Hall of Famer in the dugout, and perhaps the smartest skipper in the National League. That’s a bit like being the classiest Hawaiian shirt in the Southwest ticketing line, but it’s probably true. He doesn’t allow his charges to feel left out to dry, nor left in the dark about their place on the team. He’s an above-average tactician, although he still lays down too many bunts and he’ll have to adjust his old strategy of letting his starters go deep in playoff games now that Cain and Lincecum are gone from the rotation. If this Series comes down to the skippers, the Giants will win.
  • Gregor Blanco, Center Field: Blanco is an instructive example of what I mentioned earlier, in connection with Aoki. I said that Aoki was an exception to the rule that reverse platoon splits are nearly always mirages. Blanco is one who showed a reverse split this year, but definitely does not have a reverse split skill. Check out the surface-level numbers:
    Split Batting Average On-Base Percentage Slugging Average
    1. RHP
    .243 .328 .369
    1. LHP
    .296 .346 .384

    (Blanco bats left-handed.) Now, though, check out the numbers that really isolate his skills:

    Split Walk Rate Strikeout Rate Isolated Power BABIP
    1. RHP
    10.1% 17.3% .127 .286
    1. LHP
    7.2% 17.4% .088 .363

    BABIP fluctuates wildly. Players have much more control over their walks, strikeouts and power than over whether balls fall for singles or get caught on the run by an outfielder. Anyway, Blanco just illustrates that point nicely. He’s a good hitter, plenty of patience, gets the ball in play, but he utterly lacks power. His .107 overall ISO this season was a career high, though it still fell 30-odd points shy of the league average. Angel Pagan being hurt hurts the Giants offense and their defense. Blanco is a stellar left fielder, on range alone. He’s not awful in center field, but he is stretched there.

  • Joe Panik, Second Base: Joe Panik is just a red-blooded American rookie, hoping to hit your fastball. The only good way to pitch him with anything hard is to get it in over his hands, forcing him to either pop it up or yank it foul. He’s hit over .300 this year because people struggle to do that consistently. A better strategy might be to force-feed him soft stuff low and away, but locating their isn’t always as easily said as it is done, especially for right-handed pitchers. Panik has really impressed me with his whole offensive package, in a small sample. Unsurprisingly, as a college shortstop, Panik easily handles second base with the glove.
  • Buster Posey, Catcher: Posey can hit anything, really, except the things no one can hit, like sliders out of the zone low and away. His swing is so perfect, he can fluidly drive the ball from foul line to foul line. He makes impressive adjustments when he recognizes secondary stuff, sometimes in the middle of launching his swing, and still gets the barrel of the bat to the ball. His one hole really is sliders low and away from righties. He’ll chase those. Wade Davis is going to have to win a major confrontation or two with Posey in order for the Royals to win this Series.Posey could be the Series MVP, though, even if he’s held relatively in check offensively. This Giants pitching staff offers all kinds of challenges past ones haven’t, like increased risk of wild pitches, some trouble holding on runners and some stubborn Southern confidence in diminished raw stuff. Handling that staff will be Posey’s second-biggest job. Hitting will be his third-biggest. The biggest will be containing those running Royals. Bumgarner is very good in this regard; we might not see Kansas City try anything until Game Two. Whenever they do start running, though, Posey has to be able to stop them, or it will spell trouble.
  • Pablo Sandoval, Third Baseman: It could be that, by the end of this Series, Sandoval will have the fourth-longest streak of games reaching base in the Postseason, ever. He really finds another gear in October. He changes his approach, becomes more patient, because he knows pitchers will pitch more to the scouting report in October, and the scouting report on Sandoval says, ‘Don’t throw a strike.’Really, there’s no good prescription for getting out Sandoval. He can swing with force and precision at pitches just about anywhere in his area code. The best thing to do is to throw your best pitch with conviction, read his swing and try to catch him off-balance. Good luck. A big Series could make Sandoval huge bucks in free agency.
  • Hunter Pence, Right Field: Pence is San Francisco’s answer to Gordon, consistent, the heart of the team, and death to misplaced fastballs. He takes a long stride into his swing, comically long with his legs, and the bat flashes to the ball easily once that momentum starts. He’s interesting in terms of splits, too, maintaining a near-zero platoon differential but hitting very differently based on the handedness of his opposing pitcher. He hits for much more power against righties, but better control of the zone against lefties balances things out.
  • Michael Morse, Designated Hitter: Just guessing at where Morse will slot into the batting order, but that matters less than what he does there, anyway. Morse should have some rust to shake in terms of taking full games of at-bats, something he hasn’t done since early September. Still, he’s a dangerous hitter, and the common thread among the Royals’ starters is that their greatest vulnerability is home-run proclivity. The trio in the bullpen never gives up the long ball, so Morse needs to have his impact early in games. (There’s more on Morse, the Giants and AT&T Park here.)
  • Brandon Belt, First Base: Belt had what felt like it would be the Giants’ most memorable home run of the Postseason, until the eighth inning of Game Five of the NLCS, when he went deep to give the Giants a 2-1 lead in the 18th inning of Game Two during the NLDS. It came on the eighth pitch of the at-bat, too. Belt has always had a flare for the dramatic. Interestingly, Belt missed three months after having thumb surgery early in the season, but has shown few ill effects from it. He seems a bit more tentative about swinging to drive the ball the other way, but hard stuff inside—the thing you would think a tender thumb would most balk at—hasn’t fazed Belt since his return. In fact, he’s sort of killed that stuff.
  • Travis Ishikawa, Left Field: As cool as the Ishikawa story is, the presence of Morse in the lineup almost nullifies the need for him. The reason Ishikawa’s career was endangered in the first place was that good fastballs—simple four-seam heat, really anything a pitcher could keep above the belt—beat him consistently. He has holes in his swing inside, and on the outer third of the plate. Unless he can sit on a fastball and get started early, he’s not going to hurt you. He owns a .595 career OPS against lefties, largely because he isn’t able to stay short to the ball on pitches low and away. Obviously, Ishikawa is also a far worse defensive left fielder than, say, Juan Perez would be.
  • Brandon Crawford, Shortstop: When Crawford hit the grand slam that would turn out to be more than the Giants needed in the Wild Card Game, John Kruk mentioned how well, how steadily Crawford’s top hand controlled his bat through the hitting zone. He quoted Barry Bonds: “If I can get my top hand to the ball, I’ll beat you every time.” It’s a clumsy expression, probably not Bonds’s exact words, but it did bring something to my mind: Crawford worked a lot with Bonds during the week the Hall of Fame-caliber slugger spent with the team during Spring Training. He specifically mentioned training his top hand when discussing the sessions with reporters afterward. It’s nothing anyone will confuse with Bonds’s best work, but Crawford did proceed to have the best season of his career, by far. Taking heed of Bonds’s mantras about getting one’s pitch, Crawford pushed his walk rate over 10 percent. He racked up 40 extra-base hits, easily a career high and a strong number for a shortstop at the bottom of an order. He still jumps at the ball sometimes, especially when he feels like he has the hurler figured out and guesses fastball (wrongly), but he’s become an offensive asset, in addition to a smooth glove at short. Bonds deserves some credit for that. Crawford deserves more, for his work ethic, and for being open to Bonds’s instruction. The Royals may spend much more time focusing on the Giants’ other threats, only to have Crawford cause big trouble.

Running Through the Pitchers and Bench Players I’m out of time to keep writing here, and pitchers are unpredictable and fluky anyway. Let’s just do some one-line analysis of the other players who’ll play a role in the Series: Kansas City Royals

  • James Shields will start Game One. His nickname is Big Game James, but he actually sucks in the playoffs. He’s been serviceable this month, though, and he does have the changeup to combat some of the lefties for the Giants who struggle most with soft stuff away. Best Matchup: Joe Panik Worst Matchup: Pablo Sandoval
  • Yordano Ventura is on tap for Game Two. His loose command of the fastball up in the zone is going to get him in trouble, but the raw stuff should keep him competitive. Best Matchup: Gregor Blanco Worst Matchup: Hunter Pence
  • Jeremy Guthrie should get a start sometime in the Series, there being no claustrophobic concerns about all the fly balls he allows. He just needs to keep throwing strikes and trust his defense, because he doesn’t have the stuff to throw the ball past the Giants hitters. Best Matchup: Michael Morse Worst Matchup: Travis Ishikawa
  • Jason Vargas has an unusually important role in this Series, with the bottom half of the Giants order so chock-full of lefty bats who can hurt a right-hander. He just has to dance around Posey, pence and Morse without getting shelled… Best Matchup: Brandon Belt Worst Matchup: Buster Posey
  • Greg Holland has the power breaking ball to get Posey expanding his zone and the fastball to keep all the other Giants from getting good wood on the ball. Best Matchup: Pablo Sandoval Worst Matchup: Hunter Pence
  • Wade Davis stretched comfortably against the trigger-happy Orioles, using their aggressiveness against them. The Giants grind out at-bats better, so it’ll be harder for Yost to milk Davis. Best Matchup: Gregor Blanco Worst Matchup: Brandon Belt
  • Kelvin Herrera hasn’t given up a home run in some 15 months. Stylistically, the Giants are the team to change that, but a few teams could have been, and none have been yet. Best Matchup: Pablo Sandoval Worst Matchup: Brandon Crawford

San Francisco Giants

  • Madison Bumgarner, literally a man of Bumtown, is impossible not to love, just as an archetype. He does all sorts of things well, including hitting, holding runners on and fielding his spot. He’s also a 25-year-old absolute ace. Best Matchup: Alex Gordon Worst Matchup: Norichika Aoki
  • Jake Peavy has really come around since joining the Giants, but the tough lefties in the Kansas City lineup pose a serious problem for him. Best Matchup: Alcides Escobar Worst Matchup: Eric Hosmer
  • Tim Hudson didn’t have great stuff in Game Four of the NLCS, but he’ll have had plenty of time to rest up by the time Game Three comes. I still suspect that the Royals will have some success against him. Soft stuff is soft stuff. Best Matchup: Salvador Perez Worst Matchup: Billy Butler
  • Ryan Vogelsong shouldn’t be getting a start in this Series. Yusmeiro Petit is simply better. Vogelsong will pitch, though, and the Giants will just have to hope the good Vogelsong shows up, as he has previously during October. Best Matchup: Billy Butler Worst Matchup: Alex Gordon
  • Hunter Strickland had better find some way to reintroduce movement on his fastball, or prepare to see more lefties go deep against him. At this point, Bruce Bochy may bury him in the bullpen anyway, and only call on him in lower-leverage situations. Best Matchup: Billy Butler Worst Matchup: Mike Moustakas
  • Javier Lopez should stay busy all Series, coming in by the seventh inning to face one of Gordon or Hosmer. If he faces the guy between them, Bochy has failed. Best Matchup: Alex Gordon Worst Matchup: Billy Butler
  • Jeremy Affeldt can more safely face lefties, but shouldn’t need to do so unless one of the starters blows up. If I’m Bochy, I might consider bringing in both Lopez and Strickland for one batter apiece in some sixth inning, getting Hosmer and Butler, then letting Affeldt cut through the bottom of the order, beginning with Gordon. Best Matchup: Eric Hosmer Worst Matchup: Lorenzo Cain
  • Sergio Romo should be able to carve up these Royals, sliders to righties, changeups to lefties. Being a three-pitch reliever sure has its perks. Best Matchup: Norichika Aoki Worst Matchup: Mike Moustakas
  • Santiago Casilla will just get stuck in the ninth inning, which is why I prefer Romo as the closer over him. Casilla will have a tougher time getting lefties out than Romo will. Best Matchup: Lorenzo Cain Worst Matchup: Eric Hosmer

Kansas City Royals

The Royals’ bench, as you know, is all about speed. Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore will each appear in the majority of games in the Series, even if they don’t have big chances to make big impacts. It’s nice from their perspective, though, to also have a bat or two that can replace them. Josh Willingham provides pop. Christian Colon is a flexible positional replacement.

San Francisco Giants

Their bench is less sexy, but Morse is the only big pinch-hit bullet they should need during the AT&T portion of the Series, and it’s nice to have both a pair of legs for Morse—Juan Perez can take his place and move right into any fielding position Morse might otherwise occupy—and an extra pinch-running possibility, in Matt Duffy. Like Kansas City’s Erik Kratz, Andrew Susac is a stout backup backstop, if needed.

Prediction Time!

Finally, I get here, fewer than six hours before the first pitch of Game One. No one’s going to read this now, pressure’s off, so… I’ll go with the Giants, in five games. I strongly prefer their lineup, especially when they get to add Morse to the middle of it and chop the pitcher’s spot off the bottom. I may be talking myself into Panik and Crawford too well, but the whole team can hit a little, or so it seems. Bumgarner is the best pitcher in the Series, and it isn’t close. The Royals have the better bullpen and defense, but it is close. I’m just rooting for good games, and lots of them. Apparently, I can’t bring myself to predict that, even so.

I’ve Got Soul, But I’m Not a Soldier: The GIants Win the National League Championship Series

Almost every team who qualified for the MLB Postseason this year did so with the help of an out-of-nowhere, breakout star. The Baltimore Orioles had Steve Pearce, whom even they released in April, but who ended up hitting 21 home runs and steadying the heart of the batting order as the team charged to the AL East title. The Los Angeles Dodgers had Justin Turner, a non-tendered former New York Met whom they scooped off the winter scrap heap, and who hit .340 as a utility man and lefty-masher for them. The Pittsburgh Pirates nearly saw Josh Harrison, a throw-in in a 2009 trade and previously a fringe-level bench player, win the batting title as their starting third baseman. Wade Davis brought his ERA from 5.32 to 1.00 for the Kansas City Royals by moving to the bullpen again. J.D. Martinez, released by Houston (themselves the worst team in baseball for three straight seasons) just before the season, became the third slugging stud the Detroit Tigers needed to catalyze their offense.

There really hadn’t been anyone like that for the San Francisco Giants. Yusmeiro Petit emerged as a major weapon for the pitching staff, but the team couldn’t quite decide how to use him, and some of his effectiveness was swallowed by the rash of injuries that befell his fellow hurlers. What the team would have really loved, but what never quite materialized, was a truly useful extra bat, someone who could lengthen the lineup in the absence of first Angel Pagan, then Mike Morse, then both. The closest they came to truly patching the holes, at season’s end, was reclaiming an old standby, Travis Ishikawa.

Ishikawa had passed through the hands of five other organizations since he left the Giants, but after being released by the Pirates in April, he’d re-signed and accepted assignment to Triple-A Fresno. He had always been a first baseman—as he is now 30 and has shown no affinity for other positions when tried, we can safely say that he always will be a first baseman—but he gave the corner outfield spots a try in Fresno, with mixed results in about a dozen games. A Brandon Belt injury opened up some playing time at first base, and Ishikawa acquitted himself fine there, as ever. He also played eight games in the outfield, including three starts, after Belt returned. He wasn’t good out there, but he was good enough not to remove on sight, and he provided above-average offense (in a tiny sample, but never mind that) at a spot where no other Giant could offer it. He has started nine of the team’s 10 playoff games in left field, and he rewarded manager Bruce Bochy well in Game Three of the NLCS alone, with his bases-clearing first-inning double.

*   *   *

Game Five, however, gave no feeling of one likely to be left in the hands of anyone as anonymous as Ishikawa. It matched Adam Wainwright and Madison Bumgarner, and despite Wainwright’s clear elbow problems, that’s as juicy as an October pitching matchup gets. Surely, someone would dominate, and then their bullpen would either hold up or implode spectacularly, and that would be the story of Game Five.

It sort of was. The game was low-scoring into the late innings. Each man pitched well. The story, though, is less about how well they pitched, than it is about how they pitched well at all. That’s especially true of Wainwright.

To understand where Wainwright was coming from, entering this start, you have to understand the mentality and history of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Bob Gibson casts a long shadow in St. Louis. It’s not that anyone of sound mind holds today’s pitchers to the standards of Gibson (or his contemporaries); it’s just that Gibson set a tone. In nine World Series starts, Gibson pitched 81 innings. He completed eight of those nine games. Gibson was all about winning when winning was there to be done, and the Cardinals have never moved away from that fundamental philosophy. One needn’t go back to Gibson, or even John Tudor, to find an example of this. Chris Carpenter, in 2011, picked up the slack for an absent Wainwright and pitched 36 playoff innings, after throwing a complete game on the final day of the season to get them into the playoffs. Carpenter faced more batters that year, including his postseason workload, than anyone since Randy Johnson in 2001. A Cardinals ace in October must not only take the ball, but take it with grim purpose, even if doing so means pain, and even if doing so is a sacrifice of one’s arm for the good of the team.

That might have nothing to do with Wainwright’s repeated insistence that he is healthy, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It might mean nothing to him. I suspect, however, that it influenced him. Wainwright long looked up to Carpenter, and is a devout enough member of the Cardinals organization to know its history, especially Gibson’s history. He’s also blessed and burdened, as most great athletes are, with immense pride, and that might mean refusing to excuse patches of poor performance, and it might mean taking the responsibility of pitching a big game even when one knows he isn’t up to the task, at least not in full.

Thus, Wainwright took the mound Thursday night, without his best stuff or his full health, but with more than most people have on their best night.

He wasn’t better than Bumgarner, though. Madison Bumgarner averaged just over 92 miles per hour on his fastball in 2014, a career-best mark. On Thursday night, he averaged an even 94 MPH, a boost in velocity that widened his margin for error and made it even harder to make firm contact against him. In his first two innings, Bumgarner threw 20 pitches. Eighteen of them were strikes. The Cardinals notched two hits in the first frame, and Bumgarner was saved on a line drive with both men on when it turned into a double play. Clearly, San Francisco’s ace was in attack mode, but the Cardinals are a tough team to attack. They have a number of hitters who specialize in squaring up any pitch in the strike zone. Bumgarner looked great, but had his hands full nonetheless.

Wainwright started just as aggressively. He threw 39 pitches through the first three innings, 21 of them fastballs, and he, too, had more velocity than usual on his heater. Notably, though, his cutter was not there for him. Wainwright had admitted, days before, that throwing the cutter caused elbow discomfort, and specifically, that it was harder to throw that pitch than to throw his curve while dealing with the elbow soreness.

To jump ahead just a bit in our story, here are the breakdowns of Wainwright’s pitch usage for the full season, and on Thursday night, side-by-side:

Adam Wainwright, Usage Comparison

Pitch Type Percentage of Total Pitches, 2014 Season Percentage of Total Pitches, Thurs., Oct. 16, 2014
Four-seam Fastball 17.6% 37.1%
Cutter 29.5% 13.4%
Curveball 27.8% 35.1%
Sinker 22.4% 12.4%
Changeup 1.7% 2.1%

The cutter would not be part of Wainwright’s game plan most of the night, because it was too ineffective. Of the 13 he did throw, eight went for balls. The Giants swung at four. One made contact. It was Joe Panik, in the third inning, and Panik turned on that cutter, yanking it out of the park for two Giants runs.

By then, though, the Cardinals had given Wainwright some breathing room, and they would soon give him more. Bumgarner lost the plate in the third inning, just to one batter, and put Tony Cruz on base. Wainwright bunted Cruz to second, at which point Bumgarner issued his second walk, to Matt Carpenter. This time, though, he didn’t lose command; he actively chose to keep piling breaking balls at Carpenter’s feet. Carpenter fouled off the good pitches and laid off the bad ones, and trotted to first. Bumgarner seemed unfazed.

It was then that Bumgarner made one of his two mistakes all night. With two on and one out, he wanted to get ahead, and clearly, he didn’t fear Jon Jay. Therefore, he threw a first-pitch cutter that had a whole lot of the plate.

Against many hitters, that still might have been an effective pitch. It would have gotten well out on the end of the bat of any hitter looking to pull the ball. Jay, though, had exactly what he wanted: a chance to punch yet another ball sharply to left field. Jay was 14-for-29 in the playoffs, doing most of his damage going the other way with line drives and ground balls. He had not yet cracked an extra-base hit, though, when he got that elevated cutter and drove it to left-center field.

He still wouldn’t have had any, with most any other fielder in left field. The play didn’t require any skill—only the experience of fielding fly balls, to inform one that the ball would carry and slice back toward them. Travis Ishikawa didn’t have that. He took too shallow a route, then compounded the problem by overrunning the ball toward center field. It cleared his head by five feet and bounced to the wall. Cruz scored to give the Cardinals a 1-0 lead.

Then, after Panik’s homer, the Cardinals got to Bumgarner twice in the top of the fourth. Matt Adams led off the inning, and with two strikes on him, Bumgarner tried a curveball, knee-high on the outer half of the plate. It was a really good pitch, actually, other than that it didn’t appear to be executed with any special conviction. If it had been, Bumgarner might have thrown it a bit more outside, forcing Adams to adjust and go the other way. The pitch he actually threw didn’t do that, and Adams absolutely punished the tiny error. He pulled the ball for a home run, tying the game, and given the energy that had surrounded his two previous postseason homers, it felt like a game-changer. The Cardinals dugout went slightly berserk.

Bumgarner got the next two men, but then, he made his second mistake. It was a wandering cutter that failed to get in on Tony Cruz, and Cruz spun on it, sending a line drive into the left-field seats. The Cards suddenly led 3-2, and Bumgarner was pitching in bad luck while Wainwright was finding a rhythm. The series was not over yet, after all.

Something was different when Wainwright took the mound in the fourth frame, though. He was less trusting of all of his hard stuff. He would throw 24 pitches to get his next three outs, and 11 of them were curves. The Giants put Wainwright on the ropes with a walk and a single to lead the inning. Then Brandon Belt tagged a ball, put his barrel directly on it, sent a line drive screaming through the infield. Alas, it was caught, and the Cardinals doubled off Pablo Sandoval, the lead runner. It was close at second base, but just like that, two were out. Wainwright walked another, though, and had to fan Brandon Crawford to escape. Suddenly, the curveball seemed to be the only pitch Wainwright trusted, and it seemed he was about to break down.

The opposite happened.

Wainwright and Bumgarner each found a groove, beginning in the fifth inning, and each would ride it until he left the game. Wainwright was especially dominant. He retired the side in order in the fifth, sixth and seventh, notching five of his seven total strikeouts during those three innings. He threw 34 pitches, 15 more of them curveballs. He seemed to be just missing Giants’ bats, baffling them by pitching off his breaking ball, dodging bullets, but he did it so well that it never felt like he was in trouble. In reality, of course, he was in trouble the whole time. A pitcher whose arsenal diminishes due to discomfort throwing a certain offering always is. Wainwright pitched with guile, intelligence and intensity those last few innings. He also got lucky that the Giants were unable to adjust to his modified approach.

Bumgarner cruised in a more classic way. From the Cruz home run onward, he kept the ball more on the edges of the strike zone, maintaining the aggressiveness afforded by his sharp stuff but better respecting the Cards’ eagerness to attack pitches in the middle of the plate. His velocity never faltered, his pitch selection didn’t shift, he simply pounded the zone with pitches his opponents could not handle. With Jay at bat in the eighth, Bumgarner even made sure to show him something he hadn’t seen in the two earlier at-bats where Jay had hit him, dropping down sidearm in a 2-2 count.

When the dust settled, it was 13 straight outs for Bumgarner, who threw 72 strikes on 98 pitches. He had gotten the Giants through eight innings, one swing away from a tied game, despite the defensive gaffe from Ishikawa and despite the unforgiving treatment of his minor mistakes by Adams and Cruz. Of course, the game had fallen somewhat into stasis at that point. As Mike Morse stood in the on-deck circle awaiting the chance to lead off the bottom of the eighth, three full innings had been played without a man reaching base. The hour grew late, and Pat Neshek was in to set up the Cardinals for a chance to get back to St. Louis.

Morse was a strange fit for the Giants, who signed him as a free agent over the winter. Morse’s defining characteristic, the single thing he does better than almost anyone in baseball, is his opposite-field power. He’s a monster in this regard. A giant of a man, Morse has a long-armed, leveraged swing that generates long fly balls to right-center field, with plenty of backspin. It’s one of the most durable skills a batter can have, this feel for punishing the ball to the opposite field, but AT&T Park makes it all but useless. Tom Verducci said, on the FOX broadcast, that there have been only 16 home runs by right-handed batters to right field since the park opened, 15 seasons ago. That seems impossible, but if it may be true of any park, this would be the one. By my count, Morse did manage two opposite-field bombs at home, which is impressive (mind-blowingly so, if Verducci’s figure is accurate), but his effectiveness took a hit from the choice to come to San Francisco.

Now, he was to bat for the fourth time in the NLCS, having just gotten back onto the roster after an injury cost him September and the first part of October. Everyone in the park knew he would be looking to hit a home run, and thanks to the limitations of the ballpark, everyone knew he would be trying to pull the ball.

It didn’t matter. On a 1-1 count, Morse got a ball right in his wheelhouse, turned on it, and had both arms in the air before he finished his swing—or so it seemed. The game was tied; the stasis was broken, never to be restored.

Santiago Casilla pitched the top of the ninth for San Francisco. He was not quite himself; the Cardinals put runners on with a walk and a single, with one out, bringing Kolten Wong to the plate.

Wong had the walk-off home run that won Game Two for St. Louis, and another homer in Game Four that solidified him as a central figure in the story of the series. He tapped into significantly more power than he had once had, and more than one would ever suspect from his short, slight frame, when he made some changes in his setup early in the season. He opened his stance slightly, deepened his crouch somewhat and brought his hands way down, just below his chest. It all allowed him to address the ball more violently, keeping his bat in the strike zone as long but increasing the speed of the stroke. The adjustments have allowed Wong to impact the ball the way more traditional power hitters do, hitting it hard on all trajectories and to all fields.

He smacked a ground ball to the left side this time, and it looked, for just a moment, like a go-ahead single. Pablo Sandoval dove to his left, but could only deflect the ball off the end of his glove. Strikingly, it lost no speed; it just changed direction. It still seemed destined for the outfield, but Brandon Crawford had never broken stride going to his right, and Sandoval’s deflection was enough to push the ball back to him. Crawford snagged the ball cleanly and got a force out at second base. The air went out of the Cardinal rally right then. A walk later, Jeremy Affeldt came on and retired pinch-hitter Oscar Taveras on a groundout. The bullpen had held fast.

What came next was what the Postseason had been diligently preparing us for all along. To open the bottom of the ninth, Michael Wacha trotted in from the Cardinals bullpen. Wacha, a starter forced into relief by a shoulder injury that plagued him all season, hadn’t pitched to live batters since Sept. 26. He could not have been called upon in a higher-leverage situation, nor with a much tougher task before him: Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence and Brandon Belt were due up.

St. Louis manager Mike Matheny made a miserable decision by calling upon Wacha. He put his player in a position to fail, at a time when failure would follow him all the way through the offseason. He brought him into a situation to which he is not accustomed, on an irregular and troublesome rest schedule. Royals manager Ned Yost did (almost) precisely the same thing earlier this month—twice.

In the Wild Card Game, which the Royals took from the Athletics, Kansas City held a 3-2 lead in the top of the sixth inning. Starter James Shields had already allowed a home run to Brandon Moss, who was due up with two runners on base. Yost relieved Shields—the right choice—by calling upon Yordano Ventura—the wrong one. Ventura was on just one day of rest, a starter on a throw day, and he hadn’t appeared as a reliever but once all season. He now entered with men on base, and no time to find a rhythm. Promptly, he gave up a home run to Moss, nearly costing Kansas City their season. Yost chose Ventura because it was the sixth inning, and his three-headed monster of excellent relief arms (Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) usually don’t come in until the seventh.

Yost repeated his mistake in Game One of the ALDS against the Angels, when he brought in Danny Duffy to pitch the 10th inning. Duffy is a starter who’s been buried in the Kansas City bullpen, seasonal fatigue leaving him ineffective and vulnerable to injury. Yost asked him to pitch on the road, in a spot where any run scored would cost the Royals the ball game, because he refused to use closer Greg Holland in a tied game. Duffy, however, pitched well, striking out one and allowing one hit, and he took the win when the Royals scored in the top of the 11th.

Matheny’s choice more closely resembled the Duffy call, but right away, it had the feel of the Ventura one. Sandoval singled, hard, to right field. Hunter Pence flied out, but then Wacha walked Belt. There were two on and one out, for Travis Ishikawa.

The grass at AT&T Park is arresting to the eye. It’s a deeper green than the grass most places, and this stands out because the park is one of a very few—sometimes there are no others at all—that doesn’t feature mowed patterns in the outfield. It’s unbroken green out there. Ishikawa had struggled in his introduction to that grass, struggled to find a home there. He had nearly given the game away, but now he had a chance to win it. After nearly being swallowed in the untextured abyss of the minor-league veteran scrap heap, Ishikawa had made it back.

Ball one.

Wacha couldn’t locate his fastball, let alone find the touch and feel of the changeup that made him the NLCS MVP last year. He just had to survive, but doing so almost surely would mean getting lucky, another ball hit hard at someone and a runner slightly late getting back to the bag, the way Bumgarner and Wainwright had escaped their tightest jams of the night. Randy Choate was up in the Cardinals bullpen, so any m-ishit, any chopper or pop-up or freeze from Ishikawa would allow Matheny to get Choate in to face Crawford. Wacha didn’t have it.

Ball two.

Ishikawa could lock in on the pitch he wanted, now. Keyhole Wacha. Make him throw one middle-middle. That deep green beckoned. Almost anything would win the game, any hit to the outfield. Joaquin Arias, plenty fast, had pinch-run for Sandoval, and paced off second. Maybe the things most charming about that outfield, that untextured abyss, is the stark way things stand out against it.

Crack!

Ishikawa knew it was enough right off the bat. That the ball carried into the crowd atop the wall in right field mattered not at all. It was going to at least get off the brick, so Arias would have scored easily. Several Giants met Ishikawa between second and third base, ready to tackle him, mob him, carry him away. The pennant was won. Ishikawa wouldn’t be stopped, though. This was the culmination, the reward for his perseverance, the greatest moment of his career, and his cleat marks had to find home plate. He had to finish the run.

*   *   *

In 2012, the first MLB Postseason I chronicled on Arm Side Run, it was as if baseball would not let us go. All four Division Series went the full five games that year. The ALCS turned into a Tigers romp over the Yankees, but the NLCS went the full seven games, too. The games kept coming, some of them captivating, others utterly unwatchable, as though they were being orchestrated by someone who knew we were all captive to the action, but couldn’t decide whether they loved or hated us for it. The most undimmed memory I have of that month is of the final outs in Game Seven of the NLCS, which was awful. Rain poured down, the field quickly becoming unplayable, but they played on it anyway, as Sergio Romo (the Giants’ closer, back then) tried to salt away a 9-0 lead.

It was 9-0! Yet, anyone who felt obligated to take in all of the baseball that fall had to sit and watch infielders wading from their starting positions to another small pond in order to catch pop-ups, the Cardinals shrinking into their sweatshirts until the sweatshirts were all there was, the whole thing. Nor was this an isolated incident. Five of the seven games in that series were decided by five or more runs. If the series had a theme, it was early, one-sided scoring. The whole thing was horrendously anticlimactic, especially after the Division Series round, which featured nine games in which the teams were tied or separated by a single run after seven innings, and eight decided in one side’s final at-bat. Somewhere along the way, a bubble popped, and the promise of a classic October fell flat, but the games kept parading by.

Not this year. No series in the 2014 Postseason has even reached a winner-take-all game. The American League saw sweeps in each Division Series and in the Championship Series, too. Yet, it feels not only like we’re all still lunging after baseball, trying to hang onto it as it rides wildly through the wilderness, but like the tension of this month is unbreakable.

That’s what I was thinking as I watched Game Five of the NLCS on Thursday night. That and:

“I’ve got soul, but I’m not a soldier.”

Here we have a line that nimbly amalgamates the two most sincere and serious themes popular music tackles, when popular music tackles themes at all: the question of the soul, or morality, or eternity; and the injustice of war. But the line itself means nothing. It’s a vapid little pun. You just chant it, and grow with it, until you’re singing it at the top of your lungs and it feels like it means all those things it almost means, but doesn’t.

The theme of the 2014 Postseason, if there is one, is in that vein: the ridiculous pretending to be sublime, or the sublime masquerading as the ridiculous in the guise of the sublime. It’s hard to recall an October where I felt less like bad bounces, bad calls, bizarre managerial choices or stone-cold fluke performances determined the outcomes. The baseball over the last fortnight has been as well-executed and crisp as any I can remember. Many Octobers consist of one team getting sloppy just a bit later than the other, and winning because of it, or of a sudden burst of dominance from a player we all know, deep down, just plain sucks. That hasn’t happened this year. Things have almost—almost, mind you—gone according to script.

Yet, the Royals and Giants will meet in a World Series no one foresaw, with fewer combined wins (177) than any two Series combatants have combined for since 1973. This will be the first World Series ever to feature two teams who won fewer than 90 games during the season. (A couple quick caveats: 1981, of course, was weird. It doesn’t count. Also, the 2006 and 1997 World Series featured teams whose combined win totals were 178, just one win better than Kansas City and San Francisco.) Maybe I’m being insufficiently critical of things like Randy Choate throwing Game Three of the NLCS away, or the pitching staff mismanagement that led to the Dodgers’ elimination, or the inability of the Orioles offense to bludgeon Jeremy Guthrie or Jason Vargas during the ALCS. I think not, though. Fate has simply burped up a strange matchup of two clubs without much demonstrated excellence on which to fall back, each of them needing to win this, in some way, to ensure their legitimacy in the game’s collective memory. That should make for wonderful baseball.

These Royals, American League Champions

Honesty compels me to report that Games Three and Four of the American League Championship Series were sort of boring. Sure, Game Three stayed tied until the bottom of the sixth inning, and sure, both finished at 2-1, but these weren’t the taut, nerve-fraying pitcher’s duels your grandfather remembers. The Kansas City Royals just followed their formula for each win, a little speed, a timely hit (or, in the case of Game Four, a fielder’s choice and a ball getting away from the catcher) and a whole bunch of pitching and defense.

In each game, manager Ned Yost got a fair outing from a middling starting pitcher, then turned the game over to his series of excellent short relievers. In Game Three, Jason Frasor got three outs before things were handed over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. In Game Four, it was only Herrera, Davis and Holland, combining for 11 outs. We should note, that’s also how the Royals won Games One and Two. All three of their dominant relievers appeared in all four games in the series, with a combined pitching line of:

Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, 2014 ALCS

Innings Hits Runs Earned Runs Walks Strikeouts
14.2 7 1 1 3 15

Yost simply decided, it would seem, that the time for messing around with the likes of Tim Collins (or even Brandon Finnegan, who struggled in Game One and made no more appearances) had passed. It would be senseless to lavish praise on a manager for this. Yost had four consecutive close games, coming off four days off and with two days off splitting the halves of the series, and a clear division between his best four relievers (especially the top three) and all other available options. The Royals are a well-labeled machine; Yost just had to avoid pressing the button marked ‘self-destruct.’

That’s the joyous thing about these Royals (and that is something of an official term; when friends or family have wanted to strike up a conversation with me lately, they nearly always invoke “these Royals”), though. They’re simple, but miraculously, not flat. They are dynamic, versatile and exciting. They just don’t have much in the way of nuance. Aside from the push-button bullpen, there are the two automatic pinch-runners who come in when a slow runner reaches base in the middle-to-late innings. Little tactical acumen is required to run this team. Everyone in sight has an obvious use, and each one of them is as good at the one or two things they do well as anyone in baseball.

Take Herrera. In 2014, he posted the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio he’s posted in three years. In fact, for a one-inning reliever, his strikeout and walk ratios were poor. He’s not the best controller of the strike zone, and he’s not an elite ground-ball guy. On July 26 of last season, Herrera was a fringe arm, having allowed nine home runs in half a season in relief. The punchline: Herrera had a 1.41 ERA this season, and hasn’t allowed a home run (save one, in Spring Training) since July 26, 2013. It’s been 102 appearances since Herrera allowed a ball to leave the park.

There’s no science to it, really. Herrera has thrown more fastballs and sinkers—each of which, for him, averages 99 miles per hour—over that span, and fewer changeups and curves. That helps. The essence of it, though, is that throwing nearly 100 MPH and being able to consistently pound the third-base side of home plate (tying up righties, forcing lefties to go the other way if they want to do anything with the ball) makes it very hard for opponents to hit the ball hard. So long as the ball stays in the park, too, the Royals defense is sure to make a pitcher look good.

Herrera had to leave his first appearance of the ALDS against the Angels. In five appearances since then, he’s recorded 20 outs, allowed two hits and one walk, and struck out seven.

Terrance Gore is another example. While he scored just once during the AL playoffs (his was the go-ahead run in the Game Two win), he stole three bases as a pinch-runner. Gore can’t hit, and he can’t throw much, and his mediocre instincts rob him of some of what could be huge value on defense, but he can come in and disrupt a pitcher, take a base at will, do as much to change the game on the bases as any player in baseball. That has very real value.

Now, having extreme skills is one thing; maximizing them is another. Yost is a poor tactician, blessed by a roster which limits his opportunity to mess up. He can, however, be a very effective leader, especially for a young team. He gets far too little credit for this. These Royals have been remarkable, not only for the on-field assets afforded them by their youth (speed, athleticism on defense, the energy to play at full strength after the long season has ended for so many other clubs), but for the absence of liabilities usually associated with that same trait. These Royals haven’t made mistakes. They may lay down bunts at peculiar times, but the bunts always get down. When the opponent bunts, the ball is always fielded cleanly, and the out recorded without a fuss. Despite the very strong arms across the outfield, no one is missing cutoff men. Despite the daring approach they take on the bases, there have been only two gaffes by runners—and one of those was sloppy execution of a play Yost put on, by the two men least suited to running it of any on the team.

This was also true of the 2007 and 2008 Brewers, by the way. Though those seasons are considered a mark against Yost, especially because he was fired with 12 games to play in 2008, in the thick of a playoff race, he had those teams playing with poise beyond their years, in addition to having tons of talent.

Yost is underrated as a baseball person. He refuses to speak the language of sabermetrics. In fact, he’s gruff and dismissive toward them, and he’s deadpan nearly to the point of true coldness with the media in general. His overall personality, though, is more ebullient. This is a man who became close friends with Dale Earnhardt (Senior) and Jeff Foxworthy in the 1990s. Sure, Yost lived and worked in Atlanta at the time, so part of it was that the two celebrities wanted to hang around the Braves, but being in with Earnhardt and Foxworthy is, in Ned Yost’s culture, like being in with Sinatra and Dean Martin. Even self-proclaimed rednecks have cliques, levels of coolness, status symbols. Yost is a master networker, and that’s not limited to schmoozing with the Catfish Pack.

Having given up on winning the argument for pure tactical genius in the dugout, one of the chief demands of the stathead community has been that the front office and the field staff keep wide-open channels of communication. Yost, who was a coach on the Braves staff while Royals GM Dayton Moore was a member of the Atlanta front office, has that solid relationship we’ve always wanted. If Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, or Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, are to be lauded for their mutual trust and understanding, then so should be Yost and Moore.

Yes, these Royals are many things. In some ways, they defy convention, defy analysis, defy progress, but they have some strengths that make them unique—and uniquely tough to beat, for many playoff teams. They make contact (they struck out just 16.3 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the league), at a time when no one else does (that 16.3-percent strikeout rate would have been the second-highest in baseball the last time the Royals were a playoff team, in 1985). They run (even though Gore only joined the team in late August, they led MLB with 153 stolen bases). They field the ball exceptionally well, with maybe the best defensive outfield ever. And they shut the game down from the sixth inning onward. Now, even as good as Herrera, Davis and Holland were all season, their performance so far makes them overdue for a hiccup. As long as their dominance holds, though, these Royals have a real chance to win the World Series.

Two Game Threes: Giants Win Classic Over Cardinals, Royals Outplay Orioles

Pitchers Make Mistakes

The first 15 pitches St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher John Lackey threw to San Francisco Giants batters on Tuesday were four-seam fastballs. It was the darnedest thing. Lackey isn’t a guy who throws tons and tons of fastballs. Here’s his pitch breakdown for this season:

John Lackey Pitch Usage, 2014

Pitch Percentage of All Pitches
Four-Seam Fastball 50.94%
Slider 19.44%
Curveball 14.84%
Sinker 9.75%
Changeup 4.78%

(h/t brooksbaseball.net)

Of course, some pitchers feel the need to establish their fastball early, but there’s no evidence that Lackey does this regularly. Consider this representative sample, the first inning of a start against Milwaukee in early September. Lackey may mix in the fastball more heavily early on, trying to withhold his breaking stuff for later on, but this choice was anomalous.

It’s especially jarring given the horrendous results.

The Giants teed off on Lackey. Leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco went quietly enough, but Joe Panik crushed a ball to the gap in right-center field, run down by Jon Jay in center field only thanks to winds that seemed to knock down everything and that pushed the ball back toward Jay. Lackey had two outs and nobody on for the meat of the San Francisco batting order, but he’d already gotten away with one.

Buster Posey did not allow that to continue. Lackey left a 1-1 fastball fat, and Posey lined it for a single. Lackey got ahead of Pablo Sandoval 0-2, and ahead of Hunter Pence 0-2, but they each got hits on very hard-hit balls, and it was 1-0 Giants. All on fastballs.

Now, Lackey has a very good fastball. It’s underrated, really. He goes to it more often than most pitchers do with two strikes, because he gets a good number of swings and misses on it, and foul balls are frequent when they do make contact. Still, that he never went to his slider at all, on two very good fastball hitters, in 0-2 counts, is baffling.

Finally, Lackey began to mix it up. He fell behind 3-0 on Brandon Belt, though, and decided to intentionally walk him from there. Thus, Travis Ishikawa came to bat, with two outs and the bases loaded. Lackey’s first pitch to him was his first sinker of the day, but it was a few inches above the knees, a bit too high for that pitch. Here are the results of Lackey’s sinkers against left-handed batters over the last two years, by pitch location. The figure shown in each box is the opponents’ slugging average:

The pitch to Ishikawa ended up in what appears as the lower right-hand quadrant of the strike zone, low and in. You can see how, if Lackey gets the ball down just a bit more, he’s in good shape. He didn’t. Ishikawa crushed the ball. Lackey was extremely fortunate that the ball stayed in the park, caroming off the strangely-angled wall in right-center field, instead of flying out of there. That made it 4-0 Giants.

Lackey got Brandon Crawford to end the inning, but the damage was done, and the Cardinals had their work cut out for them.

In Games One and Two, Brandon Crawford had hit seventh, and Ishikawa had batted eighth. In fact, that had been true in all seven previous postseason games for the Giants. Crawford had done nothing good since hitting the grand slam that sent the team on its way to winning the Wild Card Game, though, so manager Bruce Bochy flipped the two batters in the order. Few hunches in managerial history have paid off so hugely, so quickly.

From that point on, though, the game slowly came back to the Cardinals. In the fourth inning, Jay made his second crucial contribution to the Cardinal cause. He worked a 2-2 count, then took a Tim Hudson sinker off the outside corner the other way, lining a single to left field. It was beautiful hitting. Jay stayed short to the ball, didn’t spin off and kept strong balance. When he does that, he’s an exceptional hitter.

Hudson’s first pitch to Matt Holliday, batting next, was one of his worst offerings of the day, a sinker elevated to just about the belt level. The Cardinals are a dangerous offense, in large part, because they never miss a mistake, and Holliday stayed true to that, singling sharply. Hudson rallied, though, inducing a Matt Adams lineout on a sinker shin-high, then fanning Jhonny Peralta with a great curveball low and away.

Maybe the tingle of that well-snapped curve was still in the back of Hudson’s mind. Maybe he knew that Kolten Wong had hit just .143 against curveballs in the Major Leagues, and had just one extra-base hit (and no homers). In either case, after painting the outside corner with a sinker for strike one, Hudson tried to get strike two by throwing Wong a curve on the outer half. He left it up, though, and Wong killed it. It should have joined Ishikawa’s blast in the right-field seats, but like Ishikawa’s blast, it ended up swallowed by the angles in right-center field. Unlike Ishikawa, Wong motored around to third base, netting a triple from his visit to Triples Alley. Both runs scored easily.

The sixth inning began not so differently from the fourth. There was Jon Jay again, taking a perfectly good pitch and ruining it, lining another single into left field on a splitter well below the strike zone. This time, Hudson did better against Holliday, inducing a weak ground ball from him for one out. He got another with another tepid grounder from Adams. Jay scooted to third base as the two went down, but Hudson was doing alright. He just needed to get past Peralta to finish the inning, and he did his part.

Hudson’s location wasn’t perfect. He was aiming for the knees at the outside corner (really, aren’t we all?), but his second sinker crept back toward the heart of the plate, and was up, though not way up. It was still below the belt on the outer half, and when Peralta tried to yank it, he rolled it over and grounded the ball toward third base. It was hit sharply enough, but it should have been an out. Pablo Sandoval moved to his left, but as he slid to attempt the play, he simply missed it. The ball bounded by his glove and into left field, and the score was 4-3. It was a clean single, as scoring goes, but Sandoval should have gotten it, and the inning should have been over. Hudson stopped the bleeding, at least, by getting Wong this time.

Hudson’s velocity was sliding quickly, from 90-91 to 89 miles per hour on his sinker, by the end of the sixth inning. His first pitch of the seventh was a flat 87. He got A.J. Pierzynski out with his next one, at 89, but then Randal Grichuk stepped to the plate. Hudson’s first pitch to Grichuk was a cutter. From where catcher Posey set up to receive it, it appears that Hudson was aiming to get the ball low and away, where the majority of his previous cutters Tuesday had been thrown:

He missed, badly. See the red square the highest up, the one that would be middle-in and thigh-high on a right-handed batter (like Grichuk)? That’s Hudson’s last pitch of the day. Grichuk launched it off the foul pole in left field, and the game John Lackey had seemingly overheated for the Cardinals was suddenly winnable again. The score was tied.

That Grichuk was in the lineup to do that to Hudson is Matheny’s feeble answer to Bochy’s great gut-feel lineup switcharoo. Grichuk has seen the majority of the action in right field during the Cardinals’ playoff run. He’s a better defender than Oscar Taveras, the left-hitting option and rookie non-sensation, and a better hitter than Peter Bourjos, an exceptional glove man. There were no shortage of people clamoring for one of those two to get the nod in Game Three, with a right-hander on the mound and in the spacious, quirky AT&T right field. (Presumably, Jay would have played right had Bourjos started.) Maybe they had legitimate points, but Matheny felt Grichuk was the best overall choice, and I can’t argue with him. The fact that Taveras and Bourjos each do one thing better than Grichuk (in theory; Taveras has scuffled somewhat in his first go-around at the plate, but he has the best pure hitting ability of the three) make them well-suited to opportunistic substitution, but Grichuk is the best starting option right now.

From then on, pitching took over. Hudson left the game immediately. (As an aside, I hate the managerial notion of sending a starting pitcher out to begin an inning if any single hit or walk will lead one to remove them. This happens all the time. It betrays an utter lack of strategic thinking in terms of when a pitcher is relieved. If you have sufficient reason to mistrust a pitcher that one baserunner, or even one home run, will exhaust your faith in them, they shouldn’t take the mound at all. Anyway.) A Matt Carpenter single came to nothing, and that would be the last baserunner for either side during regulation play. The Cardinals bullpen took over for Lackey in the bottom of the seventh, and shut down San Francisco for three innings. All in all, the two relief corps retired 18 straight batters.

Jon Jay (him again!) broke the streak with a single in the top of the 10th, but the Cardinals mounted no rally around it this time. In the bottom of the 10th, Randy Choate came on to dispense with the Giants’ three consecutive left-handed batters—Crawford, Juan Perez (double-switched into the pitcher’s spot) and Gregor Blanco. Choate is as good a lefty specialist as the game has had the past five years, but October has been unkind to him. That would only continue. He walked Crawford, then (when Perez failed to get down a bunt in two tries) gave up a single. With runners on first and second and no outs, Blanco laid down a sacrifice bunt—a foolish move, giving away an out for no reason, especially when the trailing runner had no value—that Choate turned into the game-winning strike. Charging, Choate scooped the ball and threw down to first base, using almost the same side-armed delivery he employs on the mound. It was a poor throw, wide to the inside of the bag, fair territory, but it would have been possible to field in other circumstances. Unfortunately, with the fast Blanco running, Choate had to throw hard and fast, and Wong (coming over to cover first, dutifully) was too busy racing to the bag to set himself to grab a throw that ended up behind him. Even so, a larger man makes the catch, or at least knocks it down. Wong is listed at five-foot-nine, and there’s almost no way he’s that tall. It was a bad play, but also a bad confluence of circumstances, that gave the Giants a 2-1 NLCS edge.

This series has been delightful so far. I didn’t anticipate liking it so much. Madison Bumgarner’s dominance made Game One compelling, if not dramatic, and the two 5-4 contests since have been unbelievably taut and thrilling. The circus of the 10th inning aside, the games have been crisply played, too, not fraught with mistakes and bad bounces like these clubs’ 2012 NLCS was.

One last thing to note: In the first inning, Pablo Sandoval called time as Lackey began his motion, and it was granted. Lackey looked livid. He stared off into the second deck for a while, his jaw set but not firm, seemingly quaking with anger. In Sandoval’s next at-bat, Lackey hit him, albeit with a back-foot slider. In a later Lackey at-bat, Hudson hit him with a 2-2 pitch.

Did either bean-ball appear intentional? No. I suspect nothing will come of this. It bears watching, though, as the Cardinals are prone to:

  1. enforcing unwritten baseball rules with senseless rigidity and fervor; and
  2. using conflict with the opponent to create a spark when they’re otherwise flat.

The Giants also used the latter tactic after Matt Holliday ran over Marco Scutaro on a would-be double play in the 2012 NLCS, coming back from 3-1 in the series after that. If either side needs to fire itself up, they’ve collected just enough kindling to start a fire.

Other Matters Over Minds

Ned Yost is very close, so close one could taste it, if one were so creepy as to have that visceral a connection to the MLB Postseason, to ousting Buck Showalter in a best-of-seven series. Coming into the series, the Kansas City Royals and the Baltimore Orioles were adjudged to have roughly equal talent, although very disparate styles of play, and the biggest difference many people took time to emphasize was the difference between the men at the helms.

Showalter is beloved not only by statheads (even he isn’t beloved by statheads, you understand, but we like him better than we like most managers), but by nearly every person who consumes and analyzes baseball. He earns waves of praise for his preparation, his strategic mind and his honest, proactive, strengths-based treatment of his players.

Ned Yost is the reason the Royals lost several games this season, or so we like to think. He’s bunt-happy, unfortunately rigid (a rare problem for a man his age, if baseball’s most preferred postseason sponsor is to be believed) when it comes to bullpen management and lineup construction, and too slow to change his mind.

It has not mattered in the least.

Showalter out-managed Yost in Games One and Two in Baltimore, but the Royals players outplayed the Orioles. Yost out-managed Showalter in Game Three (although by a narrow margin, and really only by being even more push-button than usual), and the Royals players outplayed the Orioles again.

A great manager might earn his team as many as seven or eight wins more than a terrible one, over the course of a 163-game regular season. In the postseason, the skipper’s level of impact sometimes rises. It still determines the outcome of fewer than 15 percent of all games, and even though each of the three games in the ALCS to date has been close, none of them fall within that 15 percent.

That’s great, by the way. That’s wonderful, really. I have long enjoyed debates over the right tactics and the creative opportunities to shave a run here and there, things too many managers miss. I do like that part of baseball fandom, analysis, gameplay. However, it’s not the highest form of baseball. The best games are the ones without an egregious managerial gaffe, the ones that are defined by the success of failure of the players and nothing else.

Baseball is a game of small margins. That’s why we wring our hands and tug at our hair over bad managerial decisions. The best teams win 65 percent of their games. The worst win 35 percent. That’s at the extremes. Most baseball games are toss-ups. At their end, many games aren’t a conclusive result at all; they’re just more information about each side, punctuated by a win awarded to the team who played slightly better that particular day, or on whom the fates smiled for a few hours.

Since the margins are so small, though, and since the results are often arbitrary or unsatisfying, we drill deep into it all, we embrace minutiae. I’m all for that. I prefer, though, to enmesh myself in the actual plays, in the execution of each team’s plan, in what makes a certain player good and why. The Royals won Tuesday night because good defense helped Jeremy Guthrie overcome some hard-hit balls; because they have four excellent relievers (hey, Ned, great job rediscovering Jason Frasor!) who cruised through the latter half of the game; and because they put the ball in play very often and have very good speed, which creates many opportunities to push across a run or two. The Orioles lost because their hitters couldn’t figure out those Royals relievers.

That sounds sort of boring, when it’s just me telling you in simple terms. That’s one reason so much goes into analyzing in-game moves. A lot of people want to make a living writing about baseball, and one of the ways we try to create enough value to do so is to talk your ear off about these tiny margins. Again, I’m not remotely saying that that’s wrong. It’s fun. It’s also true that, tiny margins or not, right is right and it should help to put the percentages on your side whenever possible. But the best way to enjoy baseball is to watch it, so let my writing guide you not to more of my writing, but to your TV when the next game comes on. In the meantime, check out Sam Miller doing a much better job than I of coping with the meaninglessness of the managers, by looking at Yost’s moves in Game Three.

Heroes: The Giants, the Cardinals and the First Two Games of the 2014 NLCS

In American sport, the playoffs are always a time for heroes. I should amend that. The playoffs are the time for heroes. A tremendous player can be cast as somehow deficient if he never meets his usual standard of performance during the postseason. A player with no business getting anywhere near the Hall of Fame can come within a breath of enshrinement if they become the focal point of a truly memorable playoff contest.

In European soccer, the most popular sports leagues on Earth, there are no playoffs. The champion of each league is simply the one who wins the most during the season. There is a wholly separate set of knockout tournaments to satiate the appetite of fans for an unpredictable, do-or-die dynamic, but those are considered separately. In the United States, it seems, fans are uninterested in differentiating teams and players who prove their superiority over a long season from those who win under the artificial (or arbitrary, at least) pressure of a very short sequence of contests. The former do not capture the national imagination unless they also, somehow, become the latter.

It’s important to note, though, that playoff hero status is not available on an equal or open-ended basis to all players in all games. Many playoff games are forgettable, and even if one’s team wins thanks in large part to them performing well, the margin of victory or the identity of the clubs or one of a dozen other possible factors will wash that heroic showing from the collective memory.

Worse, perhaps, is this: Even games that are well-remembered—even some of the most famous games of all time—tend to be remembered for one or two huge moments. There are no end of possible twists and turns in a great game, but attention is lavished onto just a single hero, sometimes two. The best example of this is Game Six of the 1975 World Series, maybe the most famous and greatest baseball game of all time. It included a three-run, pinch-hit, game-tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning, for a team (the Boston Red Sox) fending off elimination, by a player (Bernie Carbo) the opposing team had cast aside a year earlier; a dazzling catch, maybe the second- or third-greatest catch in World Series history, certainly top-five, by an underrated star (Dwight Evans), to preserve an 11th-inning tie for the Red Sox; and a walk-off home run by the team’s third-best player (Carlton Fisk). If you’re like 90 percent of baseball fans, only Fisk’s name rings a bell, and if I showed you video of each moment, you would recognize only Fisk’s moment immediately. Fisk is a deserving Hall of Famer. He was inducted on his second ballot. Evans is an equally deserving Hall of Famer. He fell off the ballot due to a lack of support the year before Fisk was inducted.

That’s the elusiveness and the power of playoff heroism. This stuff matters. Statistics matter, and a thorough and analytic approach to baseball, especially, is rewarding and fun, but story lines are what make the playoffs go. And there’s nothing wrong with that. So let’s look at Games One and Two of the stirring (so far, at least) National League Championship Series between the San Francisco Giants and the St. Louis Cardinals through the prism of a quest for heroes.

Game One: Country Hardball

I don’t want to create artificial suspense about Game One. It was hardly one-sided, with a final score of 3-0 and the Giants offense seeming to spin its wheels in a way those three runs might not convey. Even so, the hero of the game came from precisely the source one should most expect the hero of every game to be, if forced to bet: it was a starting pitcher.

Madison Bumgarner is a throwback, in a sense. Roger Angell surely recognizes Bumgarner; David Halberstam would, too, if he were alive. Born in a tiny town in North Carolina, Bumgarner is a hyper-competitive but fun-loving hick, a wacky lefty with an edge, the very picture of most every old-time ace hurler. This is what great playoff pitchers used to look like, what they used to sound like, where they used to come from.

America has moved miles past the point at which we should expect those pitchers to come from those places, anymore. More people live in cities and suburbs; fewer live in small communities. Year-round baseball systems have become assembly lines for Major Leaguers, giving players nearer large population centers in Florida and California and Texas the advantage. The international market is wide-open. Hell, don’t forget, most of the years dominated by those Southern farm boys were years in which minorities were barred from competing.

Still, here’s Bumgarner, not only dominating the postseason but doing it for a third time by age 25, the clear ace of a team in search of its third World Series title in five years. He reached the Major Leagues not long after his 20th birthday, and if you include the postseason, his previous start (against the Washington Nationals in the NLDS) pushed him over 1,000 innings in MLB. One thing about playoff heroes is that, while the games themselves are crucibles for it, hero status usually is conferred upon those with some regular-season pedigree or previous narrative that makes their heroism especially interesting. Bumgarner has been a champion and a key part of playoff glory, and that makes him a very good candidate to wear the hero’s crown when he pitches well in October.

He blends four pitches masterfully, with one of the least varied release points of anyone in baseball. As for the efficacy and intensity of that repertoire, there’s a funny story here. Most pitchers throw as hard when they first crack into professional baseball as they ever will. Some guys have some filling out to do, some need to clean up their mechanics, and those things can muddy the water, but in general, gains in velocity don’t happen, and losses are permanent. More pitching prospects than you can possibly imagine flame out not because they get hurt or fail to develop a second pitch of lack poise, but because their stuff softens instead of progressing, or even holding firm.

You can understand the alarm that went up, then, when a younger version of Madison Bumgarner suddenly saw his stuff go soft during his second year as a pro. It wasn’t enough to turn people off entirely, but there was a good deal of hand-wringing when Bumgarner went through a long stretch of struggling to get within five miles per hour of his previous levels. He made a brief MLB debut toward the end of the season, pitching in a few games, and his average fastball velocity in those games was 89.2 MPH.

On Saturday night, Bumgarner averaged 93.6 MPH with his four-seam fastballs. He touched 95. In the intervening years, Bumgarner has done nothing but ramp up his velocity, and his stuff has gotten more useful across the board as a result. He’s only getting better, and part of that, somehow, is that he’s only throwing harder every year.

His very good heat, his devastating breaking ball and his peculiar mechanics allowed Bumgarner to throw seven and two-thirds innings of shutout baseball at the Cardinals on Saturday. He was in control all night. St. Louis has great hitters who attempt to frustrate their opponents with foul balls in two-strike counts and tough takes in high-leverage spots, but they were at a loss. Only in the seventh inning did two Cardinals even reach base in the same inning, and Bumgarner deftly pitched around that.

It wasn’t the sort of start of which legends are made, but Madison Bumgarner was the clear hero of Game One. The Giants cruised to the win. Game Two would be much more interesting.

Game Two: Seesaw

Matt Carpenter’s face, with a dark beard creeping up prominent cheekbones, evokes the word “gaunt.” There was a time, though, when he was downright fat, or fat enough to threaten his future as a baseball player, anyway. He went off the rails as a player during his time at TCU, and wasn’t even drafted at the end of his junior year there (when most serious prospects are drafted, and leave school). He cleaned up his act, hit quite well as a senior and restored the faith of scouts that he could capably field third base in pro ball, but he still went in the 13th round of the 2009 draft. He signed with the Cardinals almost right away, and has scarcely stopped hitting since.

Carpenter has had to earn everything. He was too old for virtually every level at which he played, until he reached the Major Leagues. He lost his rookie eligibility in 2012, at age 26. He’s moved from his native third base over to second, and back. He had terrific gap power in 2013, his breakout star turn, and although that power was harder to come by in 2014, he remained a very productive player.

Then he reached the 2014 postseason, and he became a slugger. He homered off Clayton Kershaw in Game One of the NLDS. He homered twice more en route to St. Louis’s knocking the Dodgers out of October. Then, on Sunday night, he homered again, this time off Jake Peavy, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 third-inning lead. Carpenter is going to be the MVP of the Cardinals’ postseason, and the biggest reason for them advancing however far they advance. But Matt Carpenter was not destined to be the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Jake Peavy was on a Hall of Fame track at one point in his career. He won the 2007 NL Cy Young Award, and that year, he also won the pitching Triple Crown—he led the NL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. It was his second ERA title and his second strikeout title. From ages 23-27, Peavy had a sub-3.00 ERA in four out of five seasons. He was pitching in one of the league’s best pitchers’ parks, but the league itself was very friendly to offense.

That was a long time ago. This Jake Peavy is not that one. His lowest ERA since that heyday was a 3.37 mark in 2012, and that against a league in which many fewer runs were scored. Peavy remains a sturdy workhorse, racking up innings, but he’d flashed no dominance in 2013 or the first half of 2014. The Giants traded for him out of desperation, with attrition claiming two stalwarts from their regular starting rotation.

Thereupon, Peavy rediscovered his old self. His strikeout rate spiked again. He kept the ball in the park. He posted a 2.17 ERA in 12 starts with San Francisco, proving the ace inside him was not fully dead.

After Carpenter’s blow Sunday night, Peavy might have fallen apart, but he didn’t. He pitched into and out of a jam in the bottom of the fourth, allowing a second run to St. Louis, but he did fine damage control and kept San Francisco in the game. He’s a crucial cog for the Giants, and he gave the team the best innings he could. But Jake Peavy is not the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Lance Lynn outpitched Peavy Sunday night, mostly with the same simple approach he used all season. He throws two different fastballs, and his idea of mixing things up is mostly just moving those offerings around the plate. Big and strong, Lynn gets his heat easily, which allows him to manipulate it without losing command. He throws a two-seamer and a four-seamer, and each can eat up a hitter so long as Lynn sets it up correctly and locates it well. For two straight seasons, he’s labored as a wildly underrated starter, overshadowed by Adam Wainwright, out-hyped by Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller, but quietly better than either of the latter two.

Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is a stat that takes a pitcher’s strikeout, walk and home-run rates, puts them into a formula and spits out a number, scaled to ERA, that estimates the pitcher’s true skill level. It eliminates, or mitigates, the distorting effects of luck and defensive support on a pitcher’s ledger. Lynn, whose ERA dropped from 3.97 to 2.74 this year, basically duplicated his 2013 season in FIP (3.35 versus 3.28). He went 15-10 in each season. This year was not his breakout. Last year was.

At any rate, Lynn did impressive work, allowing two runs in five and two-thirds innings. He got stronger as the game went on, fanning three straight Giants batters near the end of the outing, and with better outfield defense, he might have shut San Francisco out over six full frames or more. But Lynn was not the hero.

*   *   *

It was Hunter Pence’s bizarre thrice-hit, broken-bat infield double that turned the 2012 NLCS in the Giants’ favor. It was his strangely gripping pre-game pump-up speech ritual that galvanized the club that year, if one believes in such things. It was Pence who played all 162 games this season, the second straight season in which he’s done so, and who put up yet another productive batting line, never breaking out, never breaking down. Pence’s performance is as steady and valuable as his appearance and mechanics are awkward and off-putting.

Pence was the one who chased Lynn from the game. In the top of the sixth, with Pablo Sandoval on base thanks to a bloop double, Pence worked a 3-2 count against Lynn. He fouled off the first 3-2 offering. All six pitches in the at-bat to that point had been fastballs. Lynn was making a clear attempt to elevate, get Pence chasing a ball outside a comfortable hitting zone.

Lynn wasn’t even mixing the two-seam heater in. He had pounded Pence with the four-seamer, around the top of the zone, trying to force the long-armed Pence to stay short to the ball in order to catch up. Pence had been smoked on one of the early ones. Lynn wasn’t about to speed up Pence’s bat by going to the curveball.

Pence knew that as well as Lynn did, though, or so it seemed. He got a pitch a bit too down, a bit too much over the plate, and he cracked a clean single to right-center field. Sandoval scored the tying run. It was a huge hit. Lynn was lifted. The Giants had wiped the slate clean, and would get to turn the thing over to their excellent bullpen. Alas, Pence was not to be the hero of Game Two, in the end.

*   *   *

If there’s one tool on a scout’s checklist that a player has to have, if he wants to stay in consistent demand, it’s power. That’s what sets apart more Major Leaguers from their Minor League counterparts than any other tool, but more importantly, it’s perceived as a separating tool. Certainly, players without power to speak of struggle to fit any of the pre-formed molds evaluators use to try to place someone.

Unfortunately for Gregor Blanco, he’s never had any real power. That helps explain why he was 24 before he broke into the Major Leagues, in 2008. To illustrate the point, I give you this: Blanco came to bat 519 times in his rookie season, but only 19 of those ended in extra-base hits, and only one of those hits was a home run.

Blanco’s lack of pop became such a knock that, despite a healthy .366 on-base percentage that 2008 season, he didn’t see much time with the Braves the following year, nor with them or the Royals in 2010. In 2011, Blanco was a 27-year-old, and he never played in the Majors. Many players in that situation—most players in that situation—never see the big leagues again.

Blanco did, though. He got a break with the Giants in 2012, and has been with them ever since. He still draws walks, steals bases and plays a solid defensive outfield, but he also hits a homer every now and then, and the total package is a nice little ballplayer. A healthy team would not start him every day, as the Giants must in the absence of Angel Pagan, but Blanco is a solid contributor to the team. He was, however, having a brutal October when he came to bat in the seventh inning, the game tied. He was batting an ugly .100.

Then, as will happen during the playoffs, things turned around in a heartbeat. Blanco singled past a drawn-in infield, and the Giants had their first lead of the game, with just nine outs left to get.

Blanco, though, was not the hero of Game Two.

*   *   *

Exactly where he stood depended upon whom you asked, but Oscar Taveras entered the season as one of the three most-heralded prospects in baseball. A lefty hitter whose swing has been lauded for its beauty, its violence and its control, Taveras has been on the doorstep of St. Louis stardom for going on three years. He will, eventually, be an All-Star caliber starting right fielder. It’s just that he’s not there yet.

It was a long season for Taveras. His production flattened out in Triple-A, where the story was that he was bored and frustrated not to be in the Majors. When he was on the MLB roster, he struggled to find playing time in an outfield rotation that often included Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuk and/or Allen Craig. Then, once GM John Mozeliak dealt Craig, Taveras had a prolonged adjustment period, finishing his rookie year with an ugly .239/.278/.312 batting line. Starting him became untenable, especially because Grichuk is a superior fielder.

It was Taveras upon whom manager Mike Matheny called to pinch-hit in the bottom of the seventh, pitcher’s spot due, tie game, mostly because there weren’t a lot of other choices. Taveras rewarded his manager’s indifference with a long home run. The game was tied again. Taveras had struck perhaps the biggest blow, in terms of the team’s energy level, but he had only tied the game. Guys who get the tying hits aren’t heroes. Taveras is no exception.

*   *   *

Matt Adams had to overcome rather the opposite of the problem Gregor Blanco faced. As a fat first baseman, he was never considered much of a prospect. Guys like Adams have to be exceptional hitters, because they provide no value in other facets. Remember how Matt Carpenter went to the Cardinals in the 13th round of the 2009 draft? Adams came to them in the 23rd round, of the same draft. Adams was another who would have to fight his way up. He did it, a year later than Carpenter but as a younger man. He became the Cards’ starting first baseman this season, pushing Craig out of his way (with no small amount of help from Craig, who didn’t hit).

Adams is interesting. He’s clearly an above-average hitter, but he may not be above average given his position. He needs to develop more plate discipline. Right now, his approach at the plate consists of swinging viciously at the first pitch he feels can drive. Still, he’s not a one-dimensional slugger. He will hit for average, thanks to a solid contact rate and plenty of line drives. He just doesn’t draw walks, and because he’s not selective enough to do it, he doesn’t hit for tons of power. He certainly doesn’t lack strength; he just isn’t often in a position to wait for a certain pitch and open his hips on it.

Clayton Kershaw would not want to hear about Adams’s lack of power production, though. Kershaw gave up Adams’s three-run, game-winning home run in Game Four of the NLDS, effectively ending the Dodgers’ season. Pounding the strike zone, especially with fastballs, is the worst way to attack Adams, even if one has excellent stuff and is used to succeeding with that approach. Kershaw learned that the hard way.

So did Hunter Strickland. Strickland threw his too-straight fastball into Adams’s wheelhouse, and Adams gave the Cardinals a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning. His bat flip was over-the-top, but given the frenzy of the crowd, almost any enthusiasm is forgivable, especially from a 26-year-old. Adams was the hero of Game Four of the NLDS, and he made his bid to be the hero of this game, too. But he wasn’t.

*   *   *

Matt Duffy has some future in the Major Leagues. At 23, he played in 34 games with the parent club this season, having proved that Double-A Richmond was no challenge. He’s come a long way in a short time, from being an 18th-round pick in the 2012 MLB Draft.

There isn’t tremendous star potential here, but having hit so well in a first exposure to Double-A augurs well, and Duffy is a middle infielder with decent speed.

On Sunday night, only that last part of that last sentence really mattered. After an Andrew Susac pinch-hit single, Duffy ran for Susac as the Giants rallied in the ninth. He was on second, with a full count and two outs, when Trevor Rosenthal bounced a 99-mile-per-hour fastball in front of home plate, and Tony Cruz let the ball get away and out of his sight. Duffy had been running with the pitch, and he read the play in front of him perfectly. He didn’t slide at third base. He didn’t even slow down. He tore home, sliding in well ahead of Cruz’s throw to Rosenthal. The game was tied. The rookie with the fresh legs had made a veteran’s read in a crucial moment. New game.

But Duffy wasn’t the hero.

*   *   *

Last year, in the World Series, Koji Uehara caught Kolten Wong floating (literally, mid-hop, unable to break back because he wasn’t on the ground) off first base in the bottom of the ninth inning, picking him off to end a game. In the World Series. It was a tough way to end a tough rookie season for Wong, who plays with a certain unrestrained energy but whose instincts are good enough to keep him out of embarrassing spots like that most of the time. Wong had hit poorly in limited exposure during the regular season, and in an even more limited role in the playoffs, he wasn’t impressing anyone.

This Spring Training, Matheny had some issues with Wong’s attitude. It wasn’t that Wong wasn’t hustling, working hard or focusing on improving. He just seemed to have a lot of swagger, maybe too much for a kid who made a poor first impression in the Show, and Matheny wondered if that would interfere with his development—or worse, disrupt the clubhouse. Wong opened the season with the Cardinals, but would spend a chunk of the season in Memphis, after it became obvious to management that Matheny wasn’t ready to trust his young second baseman.

Wong did quietly improve, though. By season’s end, he had established himself as the starting second baseman. He wasn’t controlling the strike zone, but he cracked 12 home runs and stole 20 bases (efficiently), so the tools were starting to show up. Wong punctuated that emergence with a game-winning home run in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the NLDS. He’s quite small, so the mind goes immediately to speed and defense, but Wong has quick, strong wrists, and he gets power from bat speed, not just leverage.

Sergio Romo may have known all of that, and simply executed poorly, or he may have been ambushed, but in either case, Kolten Wong took him deep into the right-field corner seats to win Game Two of the NLCS, a walk-off homer that made sure: Wong was the hero, and now has a more indelible postseason image attached to his name than diving back to first base in vain.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 586 other followers