Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

The baseball world is becoming well acquainted with Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland and rightfully so.  Could those three be one of  the best back of the bullpen combination in history?  That will take more research than time allows today, but certainly in a post-season full of good bullpens (not you, Detroit), I don’t think many would trade those three for anyone else.

That said, last night, the sixth inning belonged to Jason Frasor.  Acquired in mid-July in a not very noteworthy move made at a time when many of us were demanding big moves, Frasor has been around.  Eleven full seasons of ‘being around’.

Frasor debuted in the majors at age twenty-six way back in 2004.  Since then, Jason has made one trip to the minors: a pretty impressive feat for a non-closer type reliever.  He spent most of his eleven year career in Toronto, spread over two stints.  He was traded by the Blue Jays to the White Sox in a deal that involved Edwin Jackson and Mark Teahen, then traded by the White Sox back to the Blue Jays a year later.

The right-hander has not been awarded a save since 2010.  He has never made more than $3.7 million in any one season.  He could sit down at the airport bar next to you and you would have no idea who he was.  Well, you might now, but you would not have a month ago.

Six hundred and forty-seven regular season appearances.

After facing 2,620 major league hitters and having struck out more of them than he allowed base hits to, Jason Frasor finally made his first post-season appearance in the Wild Card game against Oakland (a game in which he was awarded the win).   Eleven years and 619 innings worth of being ‘one of the other guys in the bullpen’ before pitching when it really, really mattered.

Now, cry not for Jason Frasor. That is a heck of a gig to be a reliever and made just one shuttle to the minor leagues in eleven years.  Few of us would turn down an 11 year run that yielded $17 million in total salary.  In the baseball world, however, Jason Frasor is just ‘one of the other guys’ and on the Royals he might well be the FIFTH best reliever in the bullpen.  There is a decent chance that somewhere in the excitement of the past month, you might well have forgotten – however momentarily – that Jason Frasor was a member of your Kansas City Royals.

Last night, however, in just the fourth post-season appearance of the 36 year old’s career, Jason Frasor came on in the sixth inning of a tie-game and mowed down the heart of the Oriole order as he bridged the gap between Jeremy Guthrie and the three-headed cyborg monster cerebus inadequately nick-named trio that dominates the later innings on behalf of the Kansas City Royals.

It was a big appearance when it really, really mattered.  A minor move by Dayton Moore back in July that paid off in October. Nice work, Dayton Moore.   Good for you, Jason Frasor, you earned it.

 

For the third time in the last two weeks, I come home drenched in euphoria, without a voice, relishing another postseason win.

I don’t want it to stop. Ever.

The most amazing run of baseball anyone in Kansas City rolls on Tuesday night as the Royals edge the Orioles by a 2-1 score. That’s three in a row in the ALCS. To go along with three in a row in the ALDS. To go along with the epic Wild Card win. Add them together and you have a 7-0 start to the postseason. Add them together and you have an unreal stretch of baseball.

I know it’s been written before… You simply can’t make this up. There’s no way anyone would believe you if you presented this story. Hell, on September 29, there’s no way I’m buying this. And I was pretty giddy at the time that the Royals were just in the postseason and hosting a Wild Card game. No, you can’t make this up.

The heroes on Tuesday start with Jeremy Guthrie. Guthrie retired the first four batters he faced – ground out to first, pop out to first, strikeout and ground out to first. I keep score at the game and I almost remarked to my kid that these four batters represented just about the best looking scorecard you could ask for from any starter, let alone Guthrie. I caught myself thought. Not because I’m superstitious. Because I don’t want to jinx the guy. Apparently, just the thought is enough to tilt the game on it’s axis as Steve Pearce and JJ Hardy lashed back to back doubles to score a run. After a walk to Ryan Flaherty, Nick Hundley scorched another ball to the right-center gap that Lorenzo Cain was able to track down. It felt as though this was a pivotal inning. Guthrie wobbled, but didn’t collapse. Three balls were laced and only one run scored.

I don’t know if the long layoff – Guthrie last pitched in the clincher against the White Sox on September 26 – affected him in any way. I heard him describe his start as “a grind” and that’s what it felt like watching from the stands. The Orioles were having good plate appearances, Guthrie was throwing a lot of pitches, but aside from the second inning, they weren’t able to hit him at all.

Then there was Mike Moustakas who was doing his best Brooks Robinson impersonation at third. Maybe I should use George Brett in the ALCS Game Three of 1985 as comparison, but the way Moustakas laid out for the smash off the bat of Pearce in the top of the fourth sure looked like the former Oriole third baseman to me. Besides, a defensive comp to Robinson is about the highest compliment you can pay a third baseman. Then, that play in the sixth where he dove into the dugout suite… Probably the best defensive play I’ve seen in person. I was sitting in the upper deck, just to the right of home plate. I saw the ball go up. I saw the ball drift over the crowd and then push back toward the field. I said out loud, “He’s got a chance.” Wow. That play is just another signature moment in a postseason full of signature moments. These guys never fail to surprise.

On the way home from the game, I had the post game radio show on in the car and Steve Physioc said something I thought was really cool. (I know… Bear with me on this.) He said, “As for the Royals defense, Lorenzo Cain is playing like Willie Mays. Mike Moustakas is playing like Brooks Robinson. Eric Hosmer is playing like Keith Hernandez. And Alex Gordon is playing like Alex Gordon.” I know, right? Amazing.

One of the stories of this insane postseason has been how the Royals have swung the thundersticks and morphed into formidable power hitters. Not on Tuesday night, as the Royals collected seven hits, all singles. The offense felt like the Royals offense of the regular season. That is to say, it felt mortal. Lorenzo Cain singled in the first with two outs, but was stranded when Eric Hosmer rolled one over to second to end the inning. In the third, Omar Infante had a really good 10 pitch at bat before lining a single, but was erased on a Moustakas double play.

Finally, the Royals broke through in the fourth. A pair of one-out singles by Cain and Hosmer was followed by a walk to Billy Butler. Again, here comes Gordon with the bases loaded. Is it just me, or does it seem like almost every game has a bases loaded Alex Gordon moment. Uncanny how that situation seems to find him. At least to me it is. Gordon hit a grounder to second that Schoop had to range to his left to get. His only play was to first and Cain scored the tying run.

In the sixth, Nori Aoki led off with a single. As per Ned Yost’s book of managerial moves, he inserted Jarrod Dyson to pinch run for Aoki. It makes all sort of sense given he’s going to enter the game as a defensive replacement in the seventh or eighth inning. There have been times where Yost has actually missed his opportunity to pinch run Dyson for Aoki, but he didn’t on Tuesday. He must have highlighted that portion of his managerial handbook, so he wouldn’t miss it. Dyson advances to third when Hosmer pulls a ball into right. With runners on first and second, this is where Buck Showalter makes his move, inserting Kevin Gausman into the action to face Billy Butler. With a 41 percent ground ball rate, Gausman is a pitcher who keeps the ball on the ground. He also owns an 18.5 percent strikeout rate. Either outcome would suit the Orioles. Nearly half of Billy Butler’s batted balls in play are grounders.

In a moment that happens only in a Royals game in October, where the most likely outcome seems preordained to be a ground ball or a strikeout, Billy Butler lofted a fly ball to left. It was deep enough to easily score Dyson from third.

Royals 2, Orioles 1.

All that was left was for the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse to finish the Orioles. Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland all pitched clean innings to close out the game.

Game Three was reminiscent of those games in September, when things really started clicking for this team. It all follows Ned Yost’s masterplan: Get solid starting pitching, scratch out enough hits to plate one more run than your opponent, add a pinch runner and/or a defensive replacement, and turn the ball over to your bullpen.

Tuesday, that recipe yielded a 3-0 lead in the ALCS.

One win away from the American League pennant and a World Series appearance.

Wow.

Quick postscript: I forgot to mention more examples of how this team is connecting with the fans. In the early innings, a batter (either Moustakas or Hosmer, I can’t remember) ripped a ball foul that almost nailed first base coach Rusty Kuntz. His helmet rolled away and when he went to pick it up, he exchanged high-fives with fans in the first base dugout suite. High-fives of relief because that ball was scorched and it was going right for his dome. Kuntz is approaching cult figure status in KC and it was fun to see him react like that.  Then when Moustakas made that catch in the third base dugout suite in the sixth, after he went back to his position, the fans in that suite were pointing at him and Moustakas pointed back. A small gesture, but an acknowledgement nonetheless. It was, in my mind, the perfect moment between fans and this team. The fans are saying, “We got you, we won’t let you down.” Moustakas is saying, “I got you, too. And I won’t let you down either.” Maybe that’s a bit hokey on my part, but part of what has made this ride so damn enjoyable has been the interactions between players and fans. This city is embracing this team and instead of running from it, the Royals, to a player, are accepting their role in our storybook seasons. It’s a blast.

And one final thing… The Royals brought back Freddie Patek, Dennis Leonard, Jeff Montgomery and Bret Saberhagen, along with Art Stewart and George Toma for the ceremonial first pitch thrown out by none other than George Brett. So cool to see the past represent for the present.

There is no such thing as momentum in baseball. There isn’t. I defy you to prove otherwise. What there is in baseball is narrative. So if the Royals lose on Tuesday, the story will be how the rain derailed their hot bats, pitching, fielding… You get the picture. If they win, they will do so in spite of the conditions. Sorry, but that’s a load of bunk. I know we want to find a reason the Royals are suddenly playing like 120 regular season win beasts. Maybe the best explanation is there is no explanation. Some teams simply get on a roll in October. Those teams usually play deep into the month because, you know, they’re on a roll. The Royals were built for the postseason with solid starting pitching, a lock-down bullpen, and world class defense. It’s all falling into place for this team. I haven’t analyzed much because there will be plenty of time for that when the games are over. Right now, I’m literally enjoying the ride.

One thing I do know is this is pretty much the same team that was assembled last year. Remember how they were supposed to avoid prolonged losing streaks because they had a rotation built with depth? Of course you remember May. Sometimes a plan comes together. Sometimes that plan comes together at the most opportune time imaginable. The Royals will tell you this was their plan. That last year was about learning how to compete, which in turn served them this September which then carried over into the eighth inning on September 30, which has propelled this team to six wins in a row. It’s a nice story. A tidy narrative. It’s just I’m not sure that’s what’s happening right now.

I do know this team is playing with a “we don’t give a damn” attitude. It borders on a feeling of invincibility that won’t seem so absurd when someday we find out all 25 guys were wearing capes under their jerseys. It’s amazing to watch. This is the most fun I’ve had watching baseball since I don’t know when. Seeing a ball leave the bat for the outfield and knowing with absolute certainty Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon or even Nori Aoki will track it down is an amazing feeling. I want to tell you there are no absolutes in baseball. The Royals outfield says otherwise. The offensive flaws are still on full view – poor plate discipline, failing to hit good pitches in hitter’s counts, going to the plate without a discernible plan – but those flaws have been obscured by the home run. Imagine that. Even more amazing has been the timeliness of the power. Late inning pyrotechnics. Our Royals? If you had tried to sell me this script in July, I would have mocked you on Twitter.

When there’s rain, there’s not so much going on, which gives the national guys covering the series the opportunity to fan the flames. It looks like multiple attempts were made to create an inferno courtesy of Jarrod Dyson. I’m sure you remember his comment following the Royals second win in Baltimore when he was asked if he thought the series would return to Camden Yards:

“No sir, I don’t. And I don’t think they (the Orioles) think that either.”

Cheers from The Royals Universe. Jeers from OrioleLand. Personally, I like the comment. If McCullough had asked someone like Alex Gordon, he would have gotten the stock “there’s still a lot of baseball to be played” response, and really, what fun is that? Dyson answers questions the same way he plays the game. While he may frustrate when he’s getting picked off second in September, it’s cool when he’s speaking his mind in October. Mountains. Molehills. Whatever. While I have zero issue with what Dyson said, I can understand the hurt feelings it may have caused in the other clubhouse. Maybe it gives some bulletin board ammo. But if you don’t believe in momentum, you probably don’t believe that the words of a fourth outfielder provide added inspiration. As Nick Hundley said, “You think we need motivation to try to get to the World Series.” Exactly.

Of more importance than Dyson’s words are Ned Yost’s thoughts. Specifically what he’s thinking about his rotation with this rainout. He now has the option of throwing Game One starter James Shields in Game Four on what would be his regular rest. My gut tells me that’s unlikely for a few reasons.

For starters, Shields hasn’t been sharp this postseason. His velocity is as strong as it’s been all year, but his change-up has lost it’s bite. In fact, all of his pitches have been up of late. Way up. From Brooks Baseball, here’s his vertical location broken down by month.

ShieldsVerticalLocation

He’s still getting some swings and misses, but when batters are making contact, specifically against his change and curve, he’s been getting worked. He actually recognized this trend and moved away from the change and curve in his last start in Baltimore, throwing more cutters and sinkers. His pitch count elevated early and Shields barely made it out of the fifth inning with a 5-4 lead. Not the kind of confidence-building start you expect from your Number One starter.

Is he tired? Shields threw 227 innings in the regular season, which is exactly his 162 game average, and has thrown an additional 16 innings this postseason. Is it his mechanics? His release point is fairly consistent from July when he went on the start of a pretty solid second half of the season. Who knows what’s happening. Hopefully, Shields knows. Or maybe Dave Eiland. And they’re not talking.

At any rate, if Shields can get an extra day of rest, that can only be beneficial to him I would imagine.

Another reason to keep Shields as the Game Five starter is Jason Vargas. Vargas threw Game Two in Anaheim in the ALDS and hasn’t been seen since, except in one of those sad shots of the bullpen where he wasn’t allowed a seat on the bullpen bench because he’s not a regular reliever. Folding chairs for starters. Vargas was a pleasant surprise against the Angels and probably needs to get some game action to stay sharp. He struggled down the stretch (6.57 ERA in September and the league slugged .471 against him) but if the Royals survive this round, the would probably call on him for the Series.

Then, there’s the Yordano Ventura question. I know the Royals have given their reassurances everything is OK with their rookie fireballer, but we all know to take those words with skepticism. After all, this is the same team that kept telling us Greg Holland just needed to rest a sore triceps. While his results have been largely pleasing since his return, his velocity has not. Not to say the same thing is happening with Ventura, but we all saw his outing on Saturday. He never seemed comfortable and Yost kept sending him out there before he finally had to remove him. It was potentially the largest case of managerial malpractice since the famous Trey Hillman Massacre performed on poor Gil Meche.

If you push Shields forward to Game Four, who starts Game Five? It would come down to Ventura on regular rest or Danny Duffy. We discussed this earlier. Duffy has thrown a total of nine innings since September 1. There’s no way he is stretched out for the maximum kind of start you need from a pitcher in October. He could give three, four, maybe five innings. And we all know he’s a pitch count bomb set to go off at any start. Although to be fair, he tamed that issue for the most part this year, which is a great story for sure, but would you want to trust him after being used so little over the last month and a half. Either something is up with Duffy, or the Royals are following a plan they never publicized and decided to curtail his innings. Whatever the story, he’s good for only a few more innings scattered over a handful of games. He’s not coming back to the rotation.

There you have it. I think a lack of rotation options means the Royals will use the rainout to their advantage and give Shields an extra day of rest. Obviously, they’ll be hoping to take at least two of three from the Orioles in Kansas City so they can have a week to reset their rotation ahead of the World Series.

Another potential fallout from the rainout is how it will affect the bullpen. Yost has been as automatic as we thought he would be using Kelvin Herrera in the seventh (and sometimes the sixth), with Wade Davis in the eighth (and sometimes the ninth), and Greg Holland to get the final three outs. I fully expect the trio to appear in every postseason game the Royals play unless something insane happens and they secure a six run plus lead in the later innings. With the specter of five consecutive games on the horizon, Yost will have to be careful about how he uses his Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. They’re not going to be able to pitch in every game if the series goes seven. No way. If it goes seven, he’s going to need some mop up innings and we know he doesn’t have the stomach for that sort of thing. This rainout could be a bit of a problem for his bullpen plans. It will call for a little more flexibility. We know flexibility isn’t Yost’s strong suit.

Another O’s starter, another match-up I like for the Royals. Wei-Yin Chen seems to throw anything and everything, mixing a four-seamer, two-seamer/sinker, slider, curve, and change from the left side. I can’t even fathom standing in against a two or three pitch major league pitcher, but when you have to be ready for five pitches?

Here is Chen’s selection, velocity, and runs above average on all those pitches in 2014, via Fangraphs:

four-seam fastball: 46%, 92, +4
two-seam fastball/sinker: 19%, 91, 0
slider: 15%, 82, +5
change: 12%, 83, -7
curve: 7%, 74, -3

So he’s had two plus pitches this season, one average, and a couple more that haven’t worked so well aside from giving the hitters more to think about. The Royals have faced him six times over the last three seasons, and have lit him up pretty well, cranking out 47 hits in 36.2 innings, including 14 extra-base hits, five of them homers. Billy, Alex, Hos, and Infante have all taken Chen deep. The Royals starting nine have a combined 117 plate appearances against him with a combined .878 OPS. Most of that damage came in 2012 and 2013 though–KC dropped both games against Chen this season, and failed to take him yard. Chen is quite susceptible to the long ball though, so it’s no surprise Buck Showalter saved him for a game at Kauffman. But it looks to me like most of the homers KC has hit in these playoffs would have left any yard.

Chen doesn’t have a lot of terribly similar comparable counterparts, but I came up with ten lefties* that are sort of in the same galaxy to see how the Yostmen have fared against them (sorted by OPS):

Wow. That’s a lot of dongs. The lefties sans Moose have not been bothered facing these same-side pitchers. Since everything in these playoffs has been backwards, Chen will probably toss a perfect game tonight, but, on screen, it looks like the Royals have another opportunity to jump on an O’s starter.

Here’s what happened the last time Chen started in KC, on May 15 this year:

*Chen, Clayton Richard, Tony Watson, Sam Freeman, Patrick Corbin, Aaron Loup, J.A. Happ, Caleb Thielbar, Wade Miley

A couple of notes while attempting to dodge a raindrop or two.

— The Royals named Jeremy Guthrie as Game Three starter. As I wrote in a previous post, starting the right-handed Guthrie against the right-handed heavy lineup of the Orioles and at The K, makes all kinds of sense. Of course, if it doesn’t work, you’re more than welcome to hold me accountable. But if Ned Yost is behind an October decision – as we have all learned this month – you don’t question his Process.

— Ned Yost has never lost a game in the postseason.

Genius.

— Over at The Star, Sam Mellinger has a proper take on how this October is affecting the Royals pocket books. And how that money should translate into an investment in 2015:

The money will not change the Royals’ stature as one of baseball’s small-revenue organizations, but it could push them toward the middle third.

Along with profits from a season in which the team drew its most fans since 1991, the Royals should be in a position to play the 2015 season with what would be the sixth franchise-record payroll in the nine years since Moore was hired.

The Royals drew 1,956,482 fans this year, and internally they are expecting 2.1 million or more through the turnstiles next year. Their $92 million payroll this year ranked 19th in baseball. Even with increased attendance, before the playoff money, the Royals figured to be among the bottom four in revenue.

People familiar with baseball’s financial structure say the Royals operate around a break-even point annually. That does not take into account the skyrocketing value of Glass’s franchise.

Payouts from playoff games are just part of the increased revenue the Royals can expect. Playoff success means greater attendance, and more concessions and merchandise sales.

We haven’t discussed it much, but the Royals are back on board the train of fiscal happiness. Yeah, yeah, yeah… Baseball is trying to help the smaller market teams with revenue sharing and competitive balance picks and whatnot. But you can’t beat butts in the seats and winning baseball. What a combination. I’m under no illusion the Royals will ever challenge the larger market teams in the financial race. Yet it’s vitally important for the Royals to get in this cycle that allows them to make – and spend – money. So important.

Payroll doesn’t equate success. Thankfully. But having a bigger bankbook can’t hurt. As long as you spend wisely.

— The weather forecast for Monday… Gross.

I hope baseball does the right thing and, if it looks like the evening is going to be as bad as the forecasters think it is, they’ll postpone the game. From all accounts, once the rain moves out in 24 hours or so, we should have beautiful October weather. Let’s aim for that.

Too often, baseball has attempted to get these games in which makes for a miserable experience for the players and is extremely horrible for the fans. The fans. You know, the ones who pay their money for the privilege of attending. I’m going to the game on Game Three. I’m taking my kid. And I am dreading the idea of going out, sitting in the rain for three hours while MLB decides what to do, and then calling the game around 11 pm.

We’ve never really experienced it in KC, (obviously) but I can’t help but think of Philadelphia in 2008. Those games were delayed forever and then they attempted to play in conditions that weren’t even fit for the NFL. October weather can be a challenge, but as ticket prices skyrocket, MLB needs to be mindful of the fans. Think about them and if the forecast warrants, do the right thing and postpone the game early enough to spare everyone the hassle.

 

The Kansas City Royals have to be wondering what’s so hard about the playoffs?  Six games, six wins.  Nothing to it.

Yesterday was pretty much the Lorenzo Cain show as the centerfielder had four hits and a catch that entailed running basically across the entire outfield to make a tremendous catch.  I am an old guy.  I watched Amos Otis play center and then Willie Wilson and Brian McRae and Johnny Damon and Carlos Beltran and, my god, can Lorenzo Cain play the position!

Proof that the Royals just might be an actual team of destiny can be found in that Mike Moustakas, who spent the bulk of 2014 displaying no ability to hit baseballs whatesoever, has four home runs in six games.  I stole this from Sam Mellinger (and the world of data in general), but Moose has never hit four home runs in six games in the major leagues ever.  In the playoffs?  No problem.

Here stand your Kansas City Royals, two games up and coming home to play three. It’s been a long time since we have been in the playoffs, but I am pretty sure that is Position A.

The Royals have gotten to this position by routinely moving what may be the best defensive centerfielder in the game to rightfield in the final three innings of close games…and we all pretty much like it.  They have gotten there playing a second baseman who has not hit in half a season and, by most accounts, can barely throw a ball at this point.  They have won the first two games of this series even though the Royals’ two best starting pitchers have looked more like Odalis Perez (the version that pitched in Kansas City) than front of the rotation playoff starters.

Destiny? I don’t know if I truly believe in that, but this group has some sort of mojo.  That’s right: MOJO.

Now, a two games to none advantage going home is not a lock.  Your 1985 Royals were down two games to none, by the way.  However, winning two games out of the next five seems, dare we say, not that hard.

Rain is in the forecast for Monday.  A lot of rain..and wind..miserable conditions basically. While you want to keep the ball rolling, I don’t think a rainout slows this teams’ roll. In fact, I would not adverse at all. The big three relievers plus Finnegan have worked the last two days and worked hard. Sure, they would be ready to go with the off-day today, but they would be even more ready with two days off.

A rainout would give Ned Yost the option of bringing Shields and Ventura back for games four and five at home, with the World Series on the line. Maybe, like me, you think James Shields looks like a tired pitcher, but I like him to have a good outing on the heels of three so-so ones.

Frankly, at this point, I am not sure it matters who starts, what the weather is or even if Ned finally benches Infante and plays me or Craig instead.

Party on, Ned.

Not enough time to really dig into today’s opposing pitcher, righty Bud Norris, but here are some quick notes:

Pitch mix, velocities, and runs above average in 2014, via Fangraphs:

four-seam fastball: 61%, 93, -14
slider: 26%, 86, +7
changeup: 9%, 85, +2

Hitters have eaten up his fastball this year, which is good news since he throws it most of the time. Laying off the slider and change might be a good idea this afternoon. (Easy for me to say.)

I came up with a group of 15 righties including Norris who feature a similar arsenal* and saw how the KC nine have fared against them in their careers:

Not a ton of PAs for those top three, but it might be telling that the lefties (sans Alex) have had success against this group. Norris has a huge lefty/righty split in his career: .351 wOBA allowed to lefties vs. .308 to righties.

Norris was sharp in his ALDS start:

*Bud Norris, Alexi Ogando, Anthony Bass, Dan Straily, Drew Storen, Erik Johnson, Ervin Santana, Jason Hammel, Jeff Manship, Jeremy Bonderman, Jeremy Hefner, Julio Teheran, Mat Latos, Michael Pineda, and Ryan Webb

You expected something different? Even though it had been four days since the Royals took the field, this is still Postseason 2014. This is still crazy time.

Royals 8, Orioles 6. Final in 10 innings.

Perhaps we got another signal that this would be a typical Royals October baseball game in the top of the third. With one out, Alcides Escobar took Orioles starter Chris Tillman yard to put the Royals on the board. It opened the floodgates to weird baseball:

— The Royals walked seven times.

— Baltimore rallied from a 5-1 deficit.

— Brandon Finnegan was ineffective.

— Alex Gordon was hit in the neck by a 94 mph fastball.

— Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera both threw two innings.

— The Royals loaded the bases in the ninth with no one out and didn’t score.

— ALEX FREAKING GORDON hit the go ahead home run in the 10th.

— Mike Moustakas hit another home run.

The Royals win and take a 1-0 lead in the best of seven series. I wish I had something interesting to say beyond the “just the facts” recap, but these games are exhausting. I can’t remember a stretch of baseball like this. Ever. Five post seasons games. Five wins. Four in extra innings. And all the home runs.

There’s so much strategy to discuss and churn and second-guess. Did Yost stick with Shields for too long? What was Hosmer thinking swinging at that pitch from Zach Britton? The Royals tried to give away outs in the ninth, but Britton wouldn’t let them. Is Greg Holland ever going to find his velocity?

But I’m kind of tired and definitely giddy. Another classic for the vault. I’ve officially reached a point of postseason euphoria.

Seven wins from the promised land.

Some random stuff that needs to be discussed before the Royals return to the ALCS this evening…

— The Orioles announced right-hander Chris Tillman as Game One starter. Tillman led the O’s in innings and his 3.34 ERA was second on the staff. His 2.4 fWAR was similarly the second-best mark.

Tillman’s .267 BABIP was the 12th lowest mark among AL starters. You may think the BABIP gods were smiling on Tillman, but that mark is in line with his performance over the past three seasons. His GB/FB ratio is close to 1 so everyone gets in the action when he’s on the mound. That’s a good thing for Tillman, as the Baltimore defense has been among the best in baseball again this year.

Tillman works fastball, curve and change. His fastball averages in the low 90s but has late action that creeps up on the hitters. The Royals can go up looking first pitch fastball, but if they fall behind in the count, they’ll have to be on guard for the curve. If Tillman is even or ahead in the count, he’ll throw the curve nearly 25 percent of the time. It’s a pitch that has a sharp 12-6 break and it’s one that generates plenty of ground balls. Tillman approaches hitters from both sides of the plate largely the same, but will mix in a cut fastball to right-handed batters on occasion.

— One of the more intriguing story lines is how Mike Moustakas is approaching his plate appearances. Sure, it’s a small sample size, but here’s his spray chart in four postseason games:

Moose_PS_Spray

Two bombs to right, another deep fly out and a bunch of balls put in play to the left. I’m not going to go so far as to claim he’s “fixed” because after nearly 2,000 major league plate appearances and a slash line of .236/.290/.379, I continue to question his ability to be an everyday contributor. He’s picked the right time to finally focus on working the count, making solid contact and going with the pitch on the outer half of the plate.

— Ned Yost announced his starting lineup. Be shocked:

Alcides Escobar
Nori Aoki
Lorenzo Cain
Eric Hosmer
Billy Butler
Alex Gordon
Sal Perez
Omar Infante
Mike Moustakas

The last time the Royals started with anything different was September 20th.

— There’s been a more than a little talk surrounding Game One starter James Shields and his upcoming foray into free agency. Rumblings on the Unnamed Executive Street have his next contract around five years and upwards of $80 million. That’s a hefty price to pay for a starting pitcher who will be 33 next season. There will be more time to discuss after the postseason, but I would imagine the Royals will make a cursory run at Shields, but he’s still moving to another team. Perhaps he would be so good as to give the Royals an opportunity to match an offer, but with the Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Angels expected to be in the running for his services, I can’t imagine the Royals will pony up the cash.

We’ve seen the business model the Royals will be continuing to use – trading of prospects for pitching help under contract. One of my major gripes on the Shields-Myers trade was that was the sort of deal you make when you’re a player or two away from contention. At the time of the trade, it felt like the Royals were much further away that Shields and Wade Davis. Now the nucleus of this postseason team is still under team control for another couple of seasons, I wouldn’t be surprised if Moore walked the same path this winter and sent some prospects in exchange for a frontline player or two.

Either way, it’s early days for speculation. There’s still baseball to be played.

— Apparently, Omar Infante has been battling shoulder soreness. Oh, really? Didn’t we hear this in March? And in April? And at some point in May? You get the picture. He’s been broken for most of the season and the numbers back that up. The black hole his bat is in the lineup becomes a little less noticeable when Moustakas is hitting behind him.

— One of my favorite subplots of this ALCS will be the defense. According to The Fielding Bible, the Orioles have the best defense in the AL at 49 runs saved. The Royals are second at 40 runs saved. The Orioles value is spread fairly evenly through the field. The Royals value comes from a loaded outfield. Baseball Prospectus’ Defensive Efficiency – the measure of turning balls put into play into outs – has Baltimore third and the Royals sixth.

— My prediction: Royals in six.

Just judging by Chris Tillman’s numbers, I suspect he has something in common with Royals pitchers like Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie: average stuff, slightly below average peripherals, but an elite defense behind him giving him good results. Everything about the righty’s pitch mix and velocities say “normal MLB pitcher” to me (data from 2013-14 combined): a 91 MPH four-seamer used 63% of the time, 76 MPH curve for 17% of his pitches, and an 83 MPH change 14% of the time. There seems to be little special about his fastball—it is actually straighter than most—but he has somehow turned it into a weapon over the last two seasons. He may have just figured out how to spot it. He was getting hitters out with the fastball up and above the zone in game one of the ALDS vs. Detroit:

He lasted five innings and yielded two runs on two solo dongs (both off his fastball) in that game. His average fastball speed jumped all the way to 94, perhaps fueled by adrenaline and a hyped home crowd. Tillman hasn’t pitched for eight days, so I’ll be curious to see his fastball speeds tonight with a fresh arm and another big game atmosphere.

Tillman’s curve has excellent 12-6 bite, and is a good ground-ball inducer, but it and the change have gotten Tillman below average results over the last two years, perhaps being used more to set up the fastball.

I’ve identified a handful of other righties that feature a similar pitch mix and velocities to Tillman. 12 pitchers that Royals hitters have faced roughly match Tillman by throwing an 89-94 MPH fastball 55%-72% of the time, a 77-81 MPH curveball 7%-25% of the time, and a 82-86 MPH change-up 4%-24% of the time over the last two years combined.* Of course not all these pitchers are equals, no doubt featuring differing qualities of movement and command. But I compiled the KC starting nine’s results against those 12 plus Tillman, and I like what I see (sorted by OPS):

Wow. I like seeing Alex and Billy at the top, the worst hitter by OPS slugging .421, and a team-wide OPS of .771. Tillman is probably a little tougher than the overall group, but I’m cautiously optimistic about the match-up. And I do mean cautious—as Royals fans know, the KC offense is capable of falling off the face of the earth and making any pitcher look like Walter Johnson for a night. That side of the offense actually showed up on May 16 this year at Kauffman Stadium against…Chris Tillman. Tillman hurled his first and, so far, only career shutout. Aoki led off the Royals half of the first inning with a double, and that was about it for offense the rest of the night:

So who knows. Anything can happen in one game. But if the Royals bats haven’t gone to sleep during this long downtime between series, I’m hopeful they can jump on Tillman for a few runs early.

Shoutout to the amazing Fangraphs.com, Baseball-Reference.com, and BrooksBaseball.net for aiding this article.

*My 12 Tillman comps are: Shelby Miller, Jarred Cosart, Charlie Morton, Paul Clemens, Randall Delgado, Anthony Varvaro, Samuel Deduno, Ian Kennedy, Michael Wacha, Scott Carroll, Kris Medlen, Edinson Volquez.

%d bloggers like this: