RUN!!!

On the last night of the Bud Selig era, I completed my metamorphosis into the kind of fan he sought to create. As the ball leaped off Alex Gordon’s bat, bounded to Gregor Blanco and then, miraculously, as if seeing and darting toward the last rays of the summer’s light, skipped all the way to the wall, I started yelling. I was jumping up and down, pointing at the TV because home plate was somewhere in there, implicit, off-screen, shouting, “RUN!” And when Juan Perez didn’t field the ball cleanly, my voice cracked, my ankle turned, and still I shouted at no one, risking waking my young sons (don’t worry; they were two floors away and they never stirred), my voice straining even though this was the first time all night that I’d raised it: “RUN! RUN! GO!”

I should have been full of righteous indignation. At the ugly ends of previous seasons, like the 2012 Series that the Giants won in the rain, on an extra-inning run scored by designated hitter (this can’t be right) Ryan Theriot, I had kept my jaw set, muttered and mumbled to myself, gave credit where it was due but been eager to dish out much-needed criticism, too. Here was a potential game-tying error, just one out from a sublime end to a Series dominated by the man cringing from just in front of the pitcher’s mound, Madison Bumgarner. Here was an 88-win team trying to give away its slim edge over an 89-win team, in the least earned way possible, at the end of a World Series in which all but one game had been a blowout, after a Postseason in which fewer games went down to the wire than did so during the 2012 Division Series round alone. It may not feel like it to any of you, but there was plenty of room for cynicism surrounding this Series.

I do still revile Selig, for many reasons I have expressed so many places that no person interested in my opinion could possibly have missed them by now. He did many foolish things, many greedy things, and a few downright cruel things during his two-decade reign over baseball. As for the format of the game he leaves behind, though, he’s more or less won me over. It feels, more than ever (despite what TV ratings or lazy columnists might tell you), like he’s won over nearly everyone.

Why? Just take a look at these two teams, these beautifully tepid teams who reached what was once an apex reserved for the truly great in baseball. The Royals ceased to be special because of their history two rounds ago. The playoff drought that set them apart from any other team ended in late September. Eleven teams have waited at least as long for a World Series win as the Royals have. Yet, none of the public’s affection for the club diminished as they marched to the Series. That was true even once the runners stopped running and the home-run hitters stopped hitting home runs.

The Royals ceased to play an exciting brand of baseball, really, and yet, they remained engaging, even exciting. They’re young. They get a lot of players involved. There’s some personality there. They play the truest form of team baseball, no power, need to chain together hits to score; need four or five pitchers to win a game; those pitchers don’t strike out all that many opponents so the defense plays a big role.

Meanwhile, Madison Bumgarner broke all the modern rules about deploying pitchers. He made himself a folk hero, nearly a legend, with his performance this Postseason. Game Seven was the culmination and the coronation. He pitched five sterling, nearly spotless innings, marked only at the ends, with hits allowed to the first and second-to-last batters he faced. No runs. That came on two days’ rest, and gave him 21 innings pitched for the Series. He allowed just a single run.

All around Bumgarner were worthwhile stories, the man (Pablo Sandoval) playing for his free-agent payday, and absolutely killing it; the weary superstar (Buster Posey) just trying to get the club through; the grieving role player (Juan Perez) who came up big after the death of a close friend; and the lunatic (Hunter Pence) who somehow captured the soul of them all.

Game 7 ended up less than a perfect back-and-forth tilt. The play with the highest Win Probability Added was the final out (although, how cool is that?). The Giants are not a dynasty, no matter what anyone tells you: They didn’t even reach the playoffs during the two seasons chopping up their three-title, five-year run. The Royals are a sort of imposter, looking like an elite team for so much of the Postseason after playing .500 baseball for the huge majority of the season. Lots of things about this World Series were imperfect, and could have compromised my enjoyment of the whole thing, but none of them dented my enthusiasm in the least. You win, Bud Selig. I adored these two teams, and am thoroughly thankful that their battle lasted as long as it could have lasted.

I’ll analyze this game in a dozen different ways soon. It was fascinating from a strategic, mechanical and competitive perspective, and I want to spend a whole lot of time marinating over whether Gordon should have gone home, whether Ned Yost waited too long to pull Jeremy Guthrie, how Madison Bumgarner did that. There’s plenty to delve into. For today, though, this is it. I just wanted to express my gratitude for a great baseball season; for the rare folk hero who didn’t disappoint; for you, dear readers, who have grown in number of late and who have made writing much more fun and rewarding for me; and for that moment of excitement I couldn’t restrain, couldn’t even mitigate, the moment that will carry me through the winter even though it didn’t ultimately change the outcome.

“RUN!”

All Hands: How I would Manage the Game 7 Pitching Staffs

You may not think Jeremy Guthrie and Tim Hudson amount to appointment television. You may not harbor warm feelings for the chaos that produced a World Series between two sub-90-win teams. You can’t deny, though, that we baseball fans are deeply blessed. Tonight, we get the best of all possible climaxes, after a long and occasionally anticlimactic season: a Game Seven in the World Series.

Last night’s all-Royals blowout notwithstanding, the Series to date has been entertaining and taut, even if the final scores of most games have been ugly. Only Games One and Six truly seemed to get out of hand; the others have remained at least compelling throughout, if not perfectly suspenseful. And even the 10-0 bashing Tuesday night was sort of a blessing in disguise. It leaves us in a position to see both pitching staffs at their freshest, with the whole season on the line and just the one game left to win.

That means a Johnny Wholestaff game for the deep, fire-balling Royals, and it means Madison Bumgarner in relief (!). With both lineups announced and with a pretty good idea of who will be available, and for how long, I thought I would run through how I would manage the likely reliever parades, batter for batter, barring externalities.

This might seem silly. How can you predict what the situation will be when each batter comes up? Is it really possible to peg, in advance, when Pitcher X should replace Y? I would argue that it is, in this case. There’s an objective, and often, an obvious answer to which pitcher has the best chance to get each batter out in any given game. The only reason we usually have to hedge so much is that we need to keep other games—last night’s game, tomorrow’s game, the game three weeks from now—in mind. That’s out the window now. So, with the starters locked in and the cavalry ready, here’s how I would march them out.

First, for the Royals:

Batter First Time Second Time Third Time Fourth Time Fifth Time
Gregor Blanco Jeremy Guthrie Danny Duffy (cont’d.) Brandon Finnegan (cont’d.) Kelvin Herrera (cont’d.) Greg Holland (cont’d.)
Joe Panik
Buster Posey James Shields Wade Davis Greg Holland
Pablo Sandoval
Hunter Pence
Brandon Belt Danny Duffy Brandon Finnegan Jason Vargas
Michael Morse
Travis Ishikawa Kelvin Herrera
Brandon Crawford

And for the Giants:

Batter First Time Second Time Third Time Fourth Time Fifth Time
Alcides Escobar Tim Hudson Tim Hudson (con’td.) Madison Bumgarner (cont’d.) Yusmeiro Petit (cont’d.) Santiago Casilla (cont’d.)
Nori Aoki
Lorenzo Cain
Eric Hosmer Madison Bumgarner Jeremy Affeldt
Billy Butler
Alex Gordon Tim Lincecum
Salvador Perez Yusmeiro Petit Sergio Romo
Mike Moustakas Javier Lopez
Omar Infante Santiago Casilla

A few notes on what I’m saying, and why:

  • First of all, this is a normative set of suggestions. It’s not prediction. I know these managers aren’t quite this creative (or dotty, as the reader may distinguish for themselves), and I know Wade Davis won’t come in before Kelvin Herrera.
  • The Giants leave themselves open to some manipulation by having a run of six batters where five are left-handed. The Royals should pounce, by having their two very strong lefty middle/long relievers shred their way through those stretches the first two times through the order.
  • Neither team has a significant switch-hitter, really. No one I would change these plans for, anyway. Neither manager need worry that his plans will be one-upped by the other guy going to a tremendous bench bat.
  • My boldest call: having James Shields go through the heart of the Giants’ order the second time through. I’m fairly convinced that the game will be decided the second time through that San Francisco lineup. Either that deep Giants batting order will score three or four runs over those nine batters, or they’ll be shut out, and the game will go to the club that wins that jump ball. Guthrie isn’t good enough to get more than a few outs for Ned Yost tonight. The sooner Yost figures that out, the better off the Royals will be.

This is just for fun. You can’t predict baseball. It would be a bore if you could. This game should be something magical. Enjoy, baseball fans, and root for a close game throughout. We only get these last nine (or 10, or 12, or 18) innings, before winter bowls us over.

World Series Game 6: Jake Peavy Faces His Greatest Fear, Aims for Greatest Feat

The Royals own Jake Peavy.

Look, I know that’s a sabermetrically controversial statement, and I don’t suggest that it’s provably or predictively true, in some macro way, but certain Royals have hit Jake Peavy very hard over the past few years. Alcides Escobar has 11 hits in 25 at-bats against Peavy, including a two-home run game against him. Billy Butler has been similarly impossible for Peavy to get out. Alex Gordon has hit .333/.355/.500 in 30 at-bats at-bats against him. Perhaps some of this is impossible to duplicate, but it hasn’t been luck. Using Daren Wilman’s wonderful baseballsavant.com, I went through and watched video of several hits by each player against Peavy. There were no cheapies.

Gordon works the count until Peavy gives in and throws him a fastball or fastball variant, then crushes it. Butler seems able to square up everything Peavy throws. I saw him hit a curveball low and out of the zone, away, just as hard as a cutter about knee-high over the middle of the plate, and those just as hard as a fastball in on the hands. Each pitch resulted in a hard-hit ball to the right side. Butler looks to drive the ball from center field to right against Peavy, and something about the match of Peavy’s arsenal and Butler’s swing just clicks. I think when Billy Butler takes the right approach to the plate, Peavy simply can’t get him out, at least not in any reliable way.

As for Escobar, Peavy just seems not respect the usually light-hitting shortstop. Nine of the aforementioned 11 hits, and all of the extra-base shots, came on pitches up in the zone, easily hittable. Peavy tried to get ahead of him with a cheap first-pitch slider on one of the home runs Escobar hit off of him. It had all kinds of the plate. When Peavy does go to the slider and cutter low and away, he gets Escobar out. He just doesn’t do it well or consistently enough. He doesn’t seem afraid of him. He really should be, by now.

Part of the issue here is that Peavy doesn’t exactly paint the corners even at his best. Seminal work by Jeff Zimmerman and Bill Petti at baseballheatmaps.com has established that pitchers induce much weaker contact and get many more called strikes if they can consistently hit the edges of the strike zone. Going back to 2013, though, Peavy had a pedestrian (league-average, roughly) 18.3 Edge %, and a very high (no other pitcher in his range with regard to Edge % came close to it) 55.0 Heart %. (The latter number is the percentage of his pitches that had a big chunk of the strike zone. These are generally very hittable.) We don’t have these stats for 2014, but Dan Brooks of brooksbaseball.net recently observed on Twitter that Peavy still lives in the middle of the dish.

It may just be that the Royals are unusually good at punishing an opponent’s mistakes, or even pitches thrown with intent in the middle of the strike zone. This was the team with the second-best batting average in the American League and the best contact rate in the Majors, don’t forget. They lack power and patience at the plate, but no roster is better-suited to a pitcher who pounds the zone and can’t keep the ball off the good part of the plate. It almost doesn’t matter. At this point, I can’t do anything but predict that the Royals will rout Peavy, or chase him early enough to prey on weak middle relief work by the Giants, and that there will be a Game 7 Wednesday night. That’s especially true since we know Peavy will be pitching at less than 100 percent.

That said, know this about Peavy: He’s capable of proving me wrong. He’s the only pitcher ever to come back from one injury he suffered, a detachment of his shoulder muscle from the skeletal structure to which it was attached. He’s full of fire and emotion and chewing tobacco, and if I am to force people to look past their biases about statistics and their value, I must admit my own blind spots. Jake Peavy is a Hell of a competitor, and while I can’t imagine how that helps a pitcher with fringy command of relatively tepid stuff sneak balls past the sweet spots of opponents’ bats, Peavy has been doing just that for two or three years. He’s an impressive specimen, a dinosaur in the days of pitchers who burn bright or burn out, and while I want more baseball and all the drama of Game 7, a small part of me will be rooting, Tuesday night, for Peavy to overcome his demons with the Kansas City lineup and put the Giants in a position to win.

Baseball in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

For baseball fans, this is the time of year at which to confront a difficult, searching set of questions. Is an ability to come up biggest in big moments a skill? Can certain players, through heightened focus or unusual muscular training, change their true talent level in the Postseason? Does the Postseason itself reveal who the best or most worthy among the field of contenders really are, or does it simply crown a champion, almost at random? And if (as all the objective evidence suggests) the question to that last question is the latter possibility, what does this game really mean? Is baseball edifying us, or merely crudely entertaining us?

The answers are never pretty. Last season, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series in the wake of the April bombing at the Boston Marathon. The Sox were the best team in baseball all season, really, and they beat the best team in the National League, at least over the long season, and David Ortiz was a hero we could comfortably crown—the soul of the city, the defiant rallying voice in the wake of the bombing, then an unstoppable force in the World Series. It was sublime.

Only, it didn’t last. The Red Sox, who had finished last in 2012, finished last again in 2014. Ortiz looked human again, their pitching fell apart, and several of the team’s most notable beards failed to sustain the magic that made them famous. One could call this a victory for the notion of true champions and playoff heroes, a team borne upon the shoulders of a city in the wake of tragedy, but the storyline doesn’t really work. It all felt more like a few good breaks, with maybe just a touch of serendipity. It was the closest we had come to a feeling of destiny in a long while, but it still wasn’t all that close.

And the 2014 Series doesn’t have us feeling all that close, either. The Royals’ big hurdle to clear was reaching the playoffs in the first place. They aren’t a story because of their story, but because of their style of play and the stakes of their season. The Giants may be placing the capstone on a dynasty, but this isn’t the Big Red Machine. Each individual championship has featured different, ephemeral heroes, and the first two have been followed by seasons in which the team missed the playoffs. On Sunday night, though, the game gave back a bit, allowing us a glimpse of possible heroism, a little bit of transcendence (maybe) in a time of great need.

The night began with Madison Bumgarner on the mound, and Bumgarner is the perfect person to break America’s heart someday. At 25, he’s pitching in his third World Series, a long way from growing up in a log house in a North Carolina town named ‘Bumtown’ because practically everyone there was related, once upon a time, to him. Bumgarner is too young to claim the title of best pitcher in World Series history, but he’s built a case so strong that he may ease into that superlative with age. In his fourth Series start Sunday night, he threw a shutout, one that gave him the lowest ERA by a starter in Series history. He’s pitched six times this Postseason, with bookend shutouts around a series of only slightly shorter, less dominant starts.

Bumgarner seems immortal on the mound, his delivery so repeatable, his stuff excellent without being dangerously nasty, or beyond control. He attacks hitters, piling strike upon strike, unafraid to match his best pitch to their best swing, relying on perhaps the best true command of any pitcher in baseball. That his particular brand of invincibility would linger into October is no surprise, although that doesn’t prove that it’s a sign of superior poise or character.

If Bumgarner had been the only story of the night, though, I’d have written this much differently. He demands praise and deserves thorough appreciation, but he puts me in an analytical kind of mood, not an existential one. Unfortunately, what brought me to this frame of mind was a wholly different story, one that hit much closer to home, and that came out early in the game.

Oscar Taveras and his girlfriend died Sunday night, in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Taveras was 22.

This has been a hard year for my family. In June, we lost my sister-in-law, my wife’s sister, to cystic fibrosis. She was 23. Obviously, the situations themselves bear some fundamental differences. Anna had a deadly, lifelong disease, and had had more than one close call in the past, where she was nearly in need of serious intervention, or where she had to weigh the possibility of a lung transplant. When she got sick, she was hospitalized. She spent six weeks fighting for life, waiting for a transplant that never came, having good days and bad days. The suddenness of Taveras’s passing was completely absent from Anna’s, except in that we who loved her forced ourselves not to embrace the awful reality until it could no longer be avoided.

Yet, that’s right where my mind went, when I heard the news. For me, the experiences also had some commonality. I am, unfortunately, given to a certain distance from people, sometimes even people to whom I’m actually quite close. I struggle to develop deep friendships. I worry about forcing my company on people, about saying the wrong thing or just getting in the way. I do care, though, and so I often find myself, when a relationship is near its end, feeling a strong and sudden attachment to this person or group I know I’ll soon lose. It makes for a few wonderful weeks, where I let a little more of myself out and generally get back nothing but good things. Still, it leaves a hollow feeling, like the full potential of that connection was never fulfilled.

So it was with Anna. She was the last of my wife’s siblings to whom I created a positive connection. Maria and I were married before I felt comfortable talking to her very much. She mistrusted (or just disliked; I don’t claim to speak for her, and either viewpoint is valid) my quietness, and sometimes, my rather desperate joke-making. It took a long time for us to find a common frequency, a wavelength on which we could communicate well. It was a great relief once we did, but I still didn’t feel overwhelmingly close to her.

Just before she was hospitalized for the last time, though, we decided that she and her husband and my wife, our sons and I would move in together. It was a promising arrangement, for two young families without financial flexibility, but more importantly to me, it meant finally feeling at ease with her. We got along better during the last month she lived in fresh air than we ever had, had more conversations in those four weeks than in the previous four months, maybe four years. And then, cruelly, that budding friendship was lost. I was left with that familiar feeling of emptiness, a missed opportunity, even though this time, it wasn’t because I waited too long. It was just because the world got moving too fast.

Oscar Taveras and I were never going to be friends, I imagine, and I’m almost sure we never would have looked for a rental house in the northern suburbs of Minneapolis, but one develops connections to baseball players, too. In particular, as I’m a Cubs fan with my eyes on their very bright future, I was paying close attention to Taveras. If the Cubs were to return to prominence in the NL Central, the path would go through St. Louis, and Taveras was one of the Cards’ most promising long-term assets. He may have been the enemy, but I was steeling myself to admire and enjoy him, with all the intimate enmity a great rivalry can conjure. Losing him leaves a much less significant, substantial hole, but it remains a relationship wrested away before it could be realized. The feeling is sort of the same, only a lot smaller and less paralyzing.

One of the great flaws in non-statistical evaluation of baseball players is that humans will always seek patterns in random data, always allow certain moments to flood memory logs that should be analyzed on an even keel, giving all events roughly equal weight. For that reason, I’ll never stop leaning on numbers when talking about the game in a normative, explanatory way. Frankly, I love that the stats are there, because I would hate to even try to give away my subjectivity and emotion in the name of knowing baseball better.

So I won’t tell you that Juan Perez came to the plate in the eighth inning a different batter than he always is. He wasn’t. He was the same old Juan Perez, the one who hit .170/.224/.270 this season, in 109 trips to the plate. Finding out about the death of Taveras, a good friend, a former teammate (in the 2012 Dominican Winter League), in the fourth inning didn’t turn Perez into anything but what he is: a light-hitting, nearly powerless (two career home runs) defensive specialist. On Saturday night, Perez had tied the game for the Giants with a shallow sacrifice fly. It came with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning, and I had stridently recommended that Bruce Bochy pinch-hit for Perez.

He hadn’t, and Perez had flared a ball into center field. Jarrod Dyson made a terrific diving catch, but leaving his feet, was unable to prevent Hunter Pence from scoring. I said then, and maintain now, that Dyson was playing too deep against the weak hitter. A few steps in before contact and Dyson catches that ball on the run, standing, holding all runners. Perhaps the game goes differently thereafter.

That’s a story about how rarely Juan Perez hits the ball hard, told to underscore how startling it was when Perez connected Sunday night. The ball flew deep to nearly dead-center field, well beyond Dyson’s reach, off the top of the wall. Two runs scored. Perez ended up at third base. This from the man whom Hensley Meulens, the Giants hitting coach, found crying in the clubhouse earlier in the game. He wasn’t suddenly a superhero; he just hit the ball hard. It wasn’t the meaning that might have fed into the event that mattered, though. It was the meaning that came out.

In the end, it was just baseball, but not really. I wish people wouldn’t trivialize baseball so much. It’s a game, yes, but it’s also a booming industry, a big part of American life. Leisure is not a sin; it’s the true purpose of life. Just as importantly, right now, it was Oscar Taveras’s life’s work, and it’s Juan Perez’s life’s work, and it’s Madison Bumgarner’s life’s work. Either baseball is worth the billions of dollars and thousands of hours America invests in it each year, or it doesn’t, but in either case, it deserves the same dignity as any other major sector of the economy. On nights like Sunday, it deserves its special place in society, not because the players are perfect or overwhelmingly admirable or heroic in the face of tragedy, but because the game is such a perfect conduit for the release of emotion and the consideration of complexity in our lives. There was no better way for a baseball fan to share the experience of loss and grief over Taveras than by taking in that game, not just because of Perez or because it distracted from the pain, but because the game is worthwhile on its own merit, and because it’s familiar in a way that can’t be lost. And also, because it creates a huge community, a massive universe of people to whom one feels a connection, which lends perspective on the equality of all human tragedy.

Every time a young person with such tremendous, untapped potential dies, it’s awful. We experience the tragedy differently only insofar as we are closer to some of those who die than to others. Anything, be it baseball or Words With Friends or religion, anything that brings us into closer contact with other people, far-off people, sharpens our understanding of tragedies we might never know of or feel at all, and also allows us to rejoice in more shared good times, and therefore, has value.

Today is still hard. Most days since mid-June have been, for me. This was just a story about how a great baseball game made it a little less hard.

Game Three in Notes

Game Three of the World Series went to the Kansas City Royals. Here’s how it happened, in a few highlights and bullet points:

  • Before the game, I went to the mattresses for Nori Aoki, whom Ned Yost benched in favor of Jarrod Dyson. I believe I was right, although the game did not remotely hinge on the decision to play Dyson in center field and Lorenzo Cain in right, leaving Aoki out in the cold. The Royals scored just three runs; Dyson grounded into a double play that killed a second-inning rally. That was the highest-leverage plate appearance taken by a Royals batter all night, and the highest for either side until the sixth inning, and the damage to the Royals’ win probability done by that double play grounder was the second-worst done by any batter all game—second only to Buster Posey flying out to lead off the bottom of the ninth inning. On the other hand, Cain made two fine catches in right field, one of which I imagine Aoki would not have made (though Aoki’s defense is, by now, much too widely and harshly panned). I imagine we’ll see Dyson again on Saturday night; it will be as wrong then as it was on Friday night.
  • Jeremy Guthrie got through five-plus innings without breaking, or even bending all that much. He was around the plate all night, benefiting from a very generous bottom of the strike zone:


    and from Giants hitters who let too many elevated strikes go by unmolested. Guthrie batted for himself to lead off the top of the sixth, proving the error of Yost’s ways with regard to Dyson and Aoki: A leadoff at-bat in a 1-0 game is a sneaky high-leverage situation, perfect for using a leadoff-style pinch-hitter like Aoki. That Yost didn’t call upon Aoki then demonstrates that he was never up to the task of using a batter so well as to make bringing him off the bench preferable to starting home.

    Guthrie took his at-bat, though, and pitched to two Giants before being lifted in the sixth inning. That he got just two more batters faced proves the folly of letting him hit for himself, but the fact that Yost is so consistently cutting off his lesser starters before they go the third time through a batting order is a minor miracle. Guthrie ended up facing 18 batters, and all 18 at-bats were resolved with balls in play. That the Royals defense held up to that pressure is impressive and crucial.

  • When Guthrie left, Kelvin Herrera came in to face the top of the order. This is where Yost made his most glaring mistake, and one he may yet deeply regret.

    Herrera should not have been the choice there. Yost was too eager to get to his big bullpen trio, comprising Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. He had a natural, easy bridge to get to Herrera with the bases empty and the slate clean in the seventh. He needed to go to Brandon Finnegan.

    Finnegan, 21, has become a fourth member, a silent partner in that elite cluster of arms. He’s left-handed, so he would have been able to dispense with Gregor Blanco and Joe Panik (each lefty batsmen) more easily.

    He also would have allowed Herrera to enter a less strained environment, and that’s the real point here. After Friday night’s eventual 27-pitch effort, Herrera has thrown 138 pitches over six outings in the last 15 days. During the regular season, he only topped that pitch total in a 15-day span twice, each spread over eight appearances. After one of those stretches, he was all but shut down due to health concerns, facing nine batters over a two-week span, then going on a jag where he pitched only once a week or so for nearly a month.

    Yost called on Herrera in Game Two to get out of a sixth-inning jam, then stuck with him through the seventh frame despite the long bottom of the sixth, which blew the game open and made Herrera unnecessary. On Friday night, he doubled down on his overuse of his third-best reliever, only bringing in Finnegan once Herrera had trudged through the sixth (allowing an inherited runner to score), batted for himself with a runner on base in the seventh and allowed a walk and a strikeout in the bottom of the frame.

    After throwing 32 pitches, then having one day off, then throwing 27 more, is Herrera even available on Saturday night? The easy answer is yes; everyone is available. It’s the World Series. So let me ask a different question: Given Herrera’s heavy use over the last two weeks, intensifying over the last three days; given the fact that he left an outing with forearm tightness during the ALDS; and given his increasing struggles over his last few outings, can Yost—or Royals fans, or anyone—trust Herrera in a big spot tonight? I would argue that the answer to that question is no.

    What, then, of the seventh inning? If the Royals have a narrow lead, or if the game is tied, will Yost have the guts to give Herrera a night off? Will he be creative enough to call upon Wade Davis to get six outs? Will Finnegan be available to pitch on consecutive nights? Will Danny Duffy be available? Will Yordano Ventura be? These aren’t awful options, but there are question marks at the ends of all those sentences. Herrera provided a bit more certainty. That, for me, is now gone. The next few games will be very interesting.

  • Madison Bumgarner, early reports indicated, wanted the ball for Game Four if the Giants trailed the Series. That turned out to be a bad rumor, and Ryan Vogelsong will go, after all. That’s fine; the Giants need to win at least one of the next two, and Vogelsong would start one of them anyway. At this time of year, there’s no sense in pulling a starter who has thrown as much as Bumgarner has this year out of his normal schedule.

    The Giants need to win Game Four with their bats, anyway. Michael Morse, from the sound of things, will be a bench asset again, while Bruce Bochy will start Juan Perez in left field. Jason Vargas is a left-hander, meaning Travis Ishikawa moves to the bench to prepare for some late-inning battle with one of the Royals’ big relief arms. The only question had been whether Perez or Morse would take his place.

    I’m all for great defense, but unless Morse’s lingering oblique strain (which has not prevented him from swinging well (usually the hardest hurdle to clear with that injury) or running the bases) has had some fatal effect on his poor defensive skills, he should be the starter. This is not at all unlike the Aoki-Dyson conundrum.

    Bochy wasted Morse a little in Game Three, using him in the bottom of the sixth as something less than the tying run. There was an argument for doing it, because it was almost certain to be Guthrie’s last batter and if the Giants didn’t close the gap then they might never have even gotten close, but still, Morse was slightly wasted. The next at-bat taken from the ninth spot in the order had a leverage index 30 percent higher than Morse’s at-bat. San Francisco can’t afford to try to wait around for the right opportunity to use Morse; they need to send him out there right away.

Starting Jarrod Dyson a Mistake for Royals; Offense Needs Aoki

Jarrod Dyson will start in center field for the Kansas City Royals in Game Three of the World Series Friday night, his first start since Sept. 20. It’s Ned Yost’s response to the Series’s change of venue, which takes away the DH and creates more situations in which he might want or need to use Nori Aoki as a pinch-hitter. With Jeremy Guthrie on the mound, Yost is counting on the slightly better outfield defense provided by an Alex Gordon-Dyson-Lorenzo Cain alignment (along with the availability of Aoki to pinch-hit) to outweigh the superior offense that a Gordon-Cain-Aoki outfield would have provided.

This is a mistake. Yost is making much too much of the difference between the AL and NL rules, and valuing an imagined pinch-hit situation that only may pop up over two or three at-bats that definitely will. Without Billy Butler (whom the no-DH rules relegate to the bench), the Royals’ offense is not strong enough to support another substitution of hitting for fielding. To wit, Mike Moustakas will now bat fifth for the Royals. Moustakas hit .212/.271/.361 this season.

Nor does the wacky right field at AT&T Park provide the justification you might imagine for the increased emphasis on defense. Center and right-center fields are cavernous, but right field itself is actually quite manageable. Lorenzo Cain has no more experience playing the strange angles out there than Aoki (in fact, he has less), and Aoki is (whatever his other faults) good at handling ricochets, tricky bounces and bizarre flight paths. They suit his defensive style.

There’s no grand reveal coming. I can’t empirically prove that this move damages the Royals’ chances to win. It might well help, after all. For my money, though, Dyson is a poor hitter, one a lineup that struggles to meet the standard of a postseason offense can’t afford to start, especially when their third- or fourth-best hitter is already stuck on the bench. Yost is trading a cow for magic beans here, and if the beans happen to produce a giant beanstalk (that is, if Aoki happens to get a high-leverage at-bat against a pitcher Billy Butler couldn’t handle well, or if Dyson or Cain happen to make some game-saving defensive play), it will be a great break for him—but not a proof of the validity of his decision.

World Series Game Two: Royals Bounce Back, Batter Giants Bullpen

Prior to Game Two of the World Series, Zachary Levine wrote a superb preview for Baseball Prospectus. Its chief premise: this will be a bullpen game. It couldn’t have turned out to be more true, although maybe not in the way Levine foresaw.

Jake Peavy and Yordano Ventura weren’t bad. Ventura threw 5 1/3 innings, leaving with two runners on base and the game tied 2-2 in the sixth inning. He only struck out two Giants batters—and only induced five swings and misses out of 87 pitches, a jarringly low number—but he didn’t walk anyone. He gave up a home run to Gregor Blanco to lead off the game, but after that, he kept the ball in the park and let the Royals defense do the heavy lifting. San Francisco put 20 balls in play while Ventura was on the mound. Seven were hits. He wasn’t getting lucky. He just scattered those hits and managed not to get too deep into trouble.

Jake Peavy also left the game in the sixth inning, two runners on base, game tied 2-2. He’d been, in my estimation, shakier, but he kept the Royals at bay just enough to give the bullpen a chance to lock things down.

Peavy worked much higher in the strike zone:

than he did in this randomly-chosen start in September:

which accords with the findings published by Rob Arthur at Baseball Prospectus earlier this week. He found, in essence, that the overly generous bottom portion of the strike zone that umpires had been calling for some time was cut off in the second half of the season, and that pitchers have been pitching higher during the playoffs because of it.

It does not, however, follow that Peavy was simply adjusting to a change in the landscape. I don’t think his apparent change of approach even was one, honestly. It looks more like Peavy simply didn’t have command of his secondary arsenal, especially his cutter.

For two years now, the cutter has been Peavy’s clear second pitch, after the fastball. While may pitches throw the cutter as a sort of fastball variant, though—nearly the same speed, around the same height, trying to change the hitter’s read and saw him off or run the ball out to the end of the bat—Peavy uses his much more like a slider:

As you can imagine, he throws it much more often to right-handed batters. When it’s located well, it’s a very effective pitch for him. But he couldn’t get it right on Wednesday night, and he gave up on it fairly early. Without that pitch, the Royals were able to take comfortable, aggressive at-bats against him. Peavy got only four swings and misses all night. He gave up an RBI single to Billy Butler in the first inning on a cutter that, while just below the knees, was in the center of the plate. Alcides Escobar teed up a first-pitch fastball, middle of the plate, belt-high, for a second-inning RBI double. He threw a cutter against Eric Hosmer, the last batter he faced, that ended up in the right-handed batter’s box. He would walk Hosmer before being lifted.

I lay all of this out for you, because without it, there’s a strong case to be made that Bruce Bochy messed up by lifting Peavy in that sixth-inning spot, two runners on base, no outs, but with Peavy having thrown only 66 pitches. For a man who dominated for the Giants down the stretch, without all this evidence that he was off his game, that move would be indefensible.

No, Bochy was justified in removing Peavy, and even made a decent decision to call upon Jean Machi in relief. Things just went wrong from there. Machi threw two horrendous fastballs, easy takes for Billy Butler, and then a real meatball, up and down the middle of the plate, and Butler singled cleanly.

From there, things just spiraled. Hunter Strickland is a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, and thus, a perfect profile fit for Salvador Perez and Omar Infante. It’s just that, as it turns out, Strickland has neither movement nor command on his fastball right now, and so the playoff drubbing of him continued. Perez, who I suggested should be benched before the game, took a 1-2 fastball with plenty of the plate and mashed it into the gap. (I still say there’s merit to that argument, by the way. Perez went o-for-3 with a strikeout and saw nine total pitches against pitchers not named Strickland.) Infante saw two fastballs, the second of which was even meatier than the one Perez saw, and deposited it in the bullpen.

The Giants simply couldn’t get the ball past the bats of the Royals, the best contact-hitting team in baseball. None of Machi, Javier Lopez, Strickland or Jeremy Affeldt got so much as a single swing and miss. The Royals only whiffed on seven swings all night. When you put the ball in play, good things can happen. The Royals got pitches to hit and whaled on them. Their aggressiveness didn’t work against them, because the Giants couldn’t effectively work outside the hitting zones.

The Royals bullpen had none of those problems. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland recorded 11 outs, allowed three baserunners, struck out six and got 10 total swings and misses—twice as many as Ventura had gotten, three more than the entire Giants staff got. The Giants lineup is really good, dangerous, balanced, generally invulnerable to any particular skill set. The Royals bullpen made them look like the team that scarcely reached the Postseason due to an offensive outage that lasted a month.

Through two games, the Giants are batting .322/.379/.525 against all Royals pitchers outside of Herrera, Davis and Holland. They’ve struck out only nine times against those pitchers, in 66 plate appearances, or three more than the number of times they whiffed in 14 trips against the three-headed monster Wednesday night.

That’s just what the Series is going to come down to. The Royals can’t get the Giants out, unless they get to that trio. That trio can only pitch, at the absolute most, half a game, and Ned Yost won’t go to them unless the game is very close. It will be up to the Royals offense to keep each game close until the bullpen can take over. We’ll see if they can do that, with the lesser half of the playoff rotations due up for the first two games in San Francisco.

Notes:

  • Bochy brought in Tim Lincecum for the seventh and eighth innings, with the game well out of hand. That’s the final nail in the coffin. Lincecum, it’s now clear, is on the roster as a courtesy, and will not be called upon in anything resembling a high-leverage situation. He wasn’t good enough to protect the fat lead San Francisco had in Game One, but Bochy was willing to call on him to mop up with a fat deficit. Cross Lincecum off any list of potential pitchers of import for the rest of the Series.
  • Where is Yusmeiro Petit? It’s utterly unclear to me that Bochy has a plan for using the pitcher who pitched best for him during the second half, save perhaps Madison Bumgarner. At this point, any thought of saving Petit to play handcuff to Ryan Vogelsong is silly. If that has to be done, it can be done, by Petit, or by Peavy, or by Lincecum, if things really go south. At this time of year, holding so much in reserve only costs you. Petit should have been Bochy’s bridge to Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt and Santiago Casilla. If Bochy had done that, the game might have gone very differently.
  • There was a near-brawl after Infante’s home run, after Strickland began shouting at Perez as the latter crossed home plate. It was a foolish moment, a frustrated pitcher acting like an idiot, a runner too willing to meet him in the middle, and it nearly bubbled over into a completely unnecessary mess. Strickland, between his poor performance and his displays of bad makeup, has earned a spot at the far end of the bullpen bench. One wonders, though, just how many members of the Giants’ roster for the Series they can afford to declare obsolete.
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