There isn’t a nice way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there.
This series was a disaster for the Royals.
Yes, they’re still in contention for the AL Central. Yes, they’re still in pole position for the Wild Card. Yes, there’s still two weeks left in the season, and damnit, the Royals are in a better position they’ve been in at this point in the season for decades.
But to drop three of four to the Red Sox (and six of seven overall), a team that lost one of their key starters to a trade and another of their key position players to injury, and have pretty much mailed in the rest of 2014… That’s not a good look for a club that fancies itself a contender.
I’ve asserted all along, there are so many flawed teams in the playoff hunt this year, Scorching hot Angels aside, no team is playing with distinction down the wire. It’s cliched to say it, but with four teams (Tigers, Mariners, A’s and Royals) fighting for two to three playoff spots, it’s going to come down to the team – or teams – that make the fewest mistakes over the last two weeks of the regular season.
I don’t have much hope for Ned Yost. As we saw firsthand on a brutal Sunday afternoon at The K, he’s not what you would call “mistake-free.”
Let’s make one thing clear. Yost is no different from 27 or 28 or 29 other major league managers. These guys all do things a certain way that became accepted over time. There’s no rhyme or reason why some moves have become baseball gospel. That’s just the way it is. Doesn’t make it wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make it right. Take, for instance, Terry Francona. Beloved in Boston for managing two Red Sox teams to the World Championship, Francona, the other day in Cleveland, bunted in the first inning. Giving away an out in the first inning. Playing for a single run when you have eight more innings to play. Bunting in the first inning is so criminal, there should be a constitutional amendment denying that as a managerial strategy. Yet there’s Francona, bunting away in the first.
Ned Yost did the exact same thing just a few days ago.
It’s also fact that in today’s baseball, relievers really, really like to have defined roles. It goes beyond The Closer. Now you have The Set-Up Guy, The Seventh Inning Guy, The Mop-Up Guy, and apparently, there’s The Sixth Inning Guy as well.
We learned on Sunday the Royals Sixth Inning Guy is Aaron Crow.
I implore you to read McCullough’s recap. It’s baseball writing at it’s best. Just great work. It brilliantly captures the insanity that is currently rattling around Yost’s dome.
Let’s just start here:
“It’s frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead,” he said. “That was frustrating.”
There you go. There’s Ned Yost’s managerial career in a tidy little 20 word quote.
Yost is a “manage by numbers” type of manager. Meaning he is as automatic as the sun rising in the east, Nickleback putting out rubbish music, or members of the KC media questioning fans for not attending games. All season long, Yost has had the luxury of the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Kelvin Herrera in the seventh. Wade Davis in the eighth. And Greg Holland in the ninth. He’s also had the luxury of having a strong rotation where the starters can usually give him six easy innings. I’ve written about it a number of times this year. Yost’s baseball formula is to get a big hit in the early innings, rely on your starter to keep the opposition off the board and then turn to the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Game over. Automatic.
When starter Jason Vargas faltered in the sixth, Yost turned to his recently minted Sixth Inning Guy, Crow.
Initially, according from a postgame Tweet from McCullough, Yost went to Crow because he was looking for a strikeout.
That pretty much says it all. Crow’s first two seasons in the league, he whiffed over 9 batters per nine innings. That’s pretty good. Last year, his SO/9 total dropped to 8.3. Not a crazy drop. This year, Crow owns a 5.0 SO/9.
Not only are Crow’s strikeout numbers way down, his velocity has tumbled. Last year, his fastball averaged a shade over 96 mph. This year, he’s averaging 93 mph on his fastball. Last year his average slider was 85 mph. This year, it’s averaging 83 mph. And his sinker last year routinely clocked in at 95 mph. This year, his average sinker is 92 mph. Basically, his three most common pitches are all off by about three mph.
And by the way, his velocity has dropped even more in September. He’s down another two mph from his seasonal averages. That’s not a warning sign. That’s an obnoxious red flag. Something isn’t right.
The good news is Crow actually got Allen Craig to strikeout swinging. Victory. We are now at the point in the above Ned Yost quote about being one out away from handing the ball to Herrera. At this point, Yost had three decisions he could make.
One, he could stick with Crow. After all, he’s apparently The Sixth Inning Guy.
Two, he could go to Herrera. That would require his Seventh Inning Guy to pitch an inning and a third. That is something that seems to go against the managerial handbook of defining bullpen roles. Nevermind that Herrera last saw the mound on Wednesday. Nevermind in the last week, he had thrown just 41 pitches. Going to Herrera here makes all kinds of sense. He’s the first prong of that three headed bullpen beast. He’s showing solid command, is difficult to hit and not a single hitter has taken him yard this year. Why not go to him early?
Three, he could have gone with a left-hander. With the expanded rosters, Yost has three lefties in his pen: Francisley Bueno, Scott Downs and 2014 first round pick Brandon Finnegan. He current hitter is Daniel Nava, a switch hitter. Here are Nava’s career splits: vs RHP – .290/.384/.425 vs LHP – .210/.287/.301 Nava’s been even worse against left-handers this year than his career splits, hitting just .158/.200/.193 against them this year. The Royals have publicly been cautious with the handling of Finnegan, although there has been much talk of adding him to a 25-man postseason roster, should the Royals qualify. If they’re talking about it, he should be ready for a baptism by fire. And what better fire than the bases loaded, two outs with a favorable platoon matchup? You can’t shield the kid in September and expect him to handle the heat in October. Besides, we’ve seen his work. He looks like he can handle the moment.
Three choices. Two that would seem to give the Royals a favorable advantage. One that doesn’t. Guess which one Yost chooses. If you aren’t sufficiently depressed, go back and read the choices again.
Let’s see what Red Sox manager John Farrell thought about Yost’s decision:
Flashback to July 18, the first game after the All-Star Break when Yost pulled James Shields for Scott Downs with two outs, a runner on second and the Royals holding on to a one-run lead with Jackie Bradley, Jr. approaching the plate. That was when Farrell countered with Jonny Gomes and Gomes blasted a home run that was the difference in the game. You remember that one. The one where Yost “outsmarted himself.”
I guarantee you this is rattling around Yost’s dome in the top of the sixth. Two months ago, he made a boneheaded move and got burned. He wasn’t about to make a move again. He was going to stick with Crow. He was going to stick with his Sixth Inning Guy.
This isn’t hindsight. This isn’t second guessing. This is examining the options before the manager and deciding he made the wrong choice. It was something everyone who follows baseball closely knew was wrong at the moment it happened. Everyone knew Crow was the wrong guy in that situation. Except Ned Yost.
I said at the top of this post that Yost isn’t all that different from the majority of major league managers. I believe that. I still do. I also believe that smart major league managers will eventually adjust when their teams are in a pennant race or post season series. There comes a moment when a manager is forced out of his comfort zone of the random series in May and is introduced to the tension of September and October. The best managers – the Franconas of baseball – will make adaptations, using their players in the most favorable match-ups gleaned from the previous 140 to 162 games. The other managers, the also-rans of the baseball world, will continue to stubbornly adhere to their tattered baseball gospel. And they will watch the other team celebrate.
The final word of this post goes to McCullough. This is just some great prose that neatly wraps up what we saw on Sunday.
The rules of major-league baseball do not include a provision barring a seventh-inning reliever from pitching in the sixth. But the dogma of baseball managers does preclude such a maneuver. Yost falls in line with the game’s traditions. Relief pitchers receive roles, and managers are wary of deviating from them.
The practice aided the Royals during the second half, as Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland formed a suffocating trio. Yet Yost’s adherence to his doctrine hamstrung his team on Sunday, exposing Crow and granting Nava a chance to further sink Kansas City’s hopes in the American League Central.