This road trip couldn’t have started in a more ideal fashion.
Winning two of three in Seattle and sweeping the evil A’s… That’s some tasty baseball right there.
I’d like to flashback to Saturday’s game and the pivotal moment – the double steal. McCullough’s gamer provides an outstanding account.
Rusty Kuntz glanced at his stopwatch and logged the times for usage on Saturday: 1.7 seconds to the plate, 1.8, 1.9, “at least,” Kuntz said, whenever Oakland starter Scott Kazmir pitched with a runner at second base. Manager Ned Yost banked the research from his first-base coach and waited until the sixth inning of a 3-2 Royals victory to deploy it.
This has been written before on this tiny sliver of bandwidth, but it’s extremely easy to second-guess and criticize moves the manager makes (or doesn’t make) when those moves backfire. The problem with being a major league manager is losing decisions are magnified. The nuanced decisions that lead to wins, for some reason, not so much.
On Saturday, Kuntz and Yost came up with a way to literally steal a win from Oakland. Maybe bookmark that gamer so the next time Yost goofs on an intentional walk or a bullpen move and fans start screaming that he’s costing his team games, you can pull up that story and point to at least one game where Yost (and Kuntz) earned the win.
But when to fire it? The team felt it was unwise to do so with Cain at first base after his sixth-inning walk. Kazmir reaches the plate at about 1.1 to 1.2 seconds with a runner at first. He feels comfortable pitching with a slide-step, which reduces opportunities for would-be base-thieves. When a runner reaches second base, the Royals knew, Kazmir slows down his delivery with a leg kick.
“Instead of taking a gamble to try to get to second base,” Kuntz said, “let’s try to wait him out.”
It took a single from Hosmer to set the scene. Kazmir raised his right leg and fired. Kuntz clocked him at 1.9 seconds. The opportunity was perfect, and the Royals duo did not hesitate. Oakland catcher Josh Phegley threw to second, where Hosmer arrived before second baseman Eric Sogard could drop a tag.
The moment arrived at the perfect time for the Royals.
According to Win Expectancy, advancing the runners from first and second to second and third with two outs increased the chances of a Royals win by eight percent. That gain alone makes the double steal attempt worthwhile. Although it’s balanced by the knowledge the Royals had – at that point in time – only ten more outs. And naturally, it only works if you have decent baserunners on the bags at that moment, so it was fortunate the Royals had Cain as the lead runner with Hosmer the trail.
(The only downer here is both runners were hurt on the double steal. Cain tweaked a hamstring that had been bothering him since Tuesday in Seattle. Hosmer sprained a finger on his headfirst slide into second.)
None of this counts if Kendrys Morales doesn’t come through. He lines a single to right, plating both runners and providing the Royals with their margin of victory. While the steal improved the Royals chances of winning by eight percent, Morales’s single boosted their WE by 22 percent. In the span of three pitches, the Royals went from decided underdogs to heavy favorites. You can see from the game graph above, post-single, the Royals were 70 percent favorites. This doesn’t take into account the Royals shutdown bullpen. The HDH triumvarate is usually good for the other 30.
Moving to Sunday, the Royals came up with another stealth inning to complete the sweep. I say it was a “stealth” inning because up until that moment, the offense was dormant. Granted, the Royals did leave the bases loaded in the third, but all those runners came with two down which is a difficult time to ignite a rally.
The sixth opened with a Mike Moustakas double and was followed by a Kendrys Morales single. With runners at the corners, Hosmer hit a harmless fly to center that failed to bring home the run. (I’ll cut Hosmer some slack here, with the injured finger and all. Although I will note that in the last over his last 28 games, he’s slashing .265/.315/.328. In over a month, he’s managed just four extra base hits. Hosmer’s bat has disappeared. Again.) That brought Perez to the plate with the key moment of the game.
Perez chopped a grounder to third base. Moustakas went home on contact. Max Muncy charged, grabbed the ball and fired home. The throw was high, Moustakas was in with a run and no outs were recorded on the play.
Replays showed that had the throw been good, Moustakas would have been out. Even so, at the moment I thought the smart play was to get Perez at first. It wasn’t a particularly easy play because the grounder was topped and wasn’t hit especially hard. With the slow running Perez, he’s still a sure out at first. I figured you give the Royals a run there and get the sure out. With the error on the play at home, Morales moved to third and Perez made it to second. So the A’s walked Alex Gordon to load the bases. Alex Rios hit a sac fly to tie the game and Omar Infante (that’s All-Star Omar Infante to you) broke the deadlock.
Again, we can probably credit Yost and his coaching staff for stealing that win. With Perez at the plate there was the chance he would put the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield. With the A’s shaky defense this year, it made sense to put the pressure on their infielders to make the play at home, should they make that decision. We know Moustakas isn’t the fleetest of foot, so there’s a risk involved but you send him knowing that if you don’t and the A’s record an out, they could still walk Gordon to pitch to Rios. And these days it seems the only way Rios can contribute is through the “productive out.” It was a risk worth taking, and it worked.
Like on Saturday, this moved the Win Expectancy needle in the Royals favor, improving their chances by 18 percent. They still weren’t favored at that point since they were still trailing, but Infante took care of that three batters later. By the end of the inning, the Royals were favored to win with a WE close to 67 percent.
The WE hung around that neighborhood until Perez crushed a pitch in the eighth to allow his hermanito, Lorenzo Cain to score without pushing his sore hamstring. The cushion was useful as the A’s grabbed another run in the eighth. Sometimes things have a way of working out in the end.
So the Royals move to Houston to square off against the second best team in the AL. They just swept aside the hottest team in the league. They are 16 games over .500, own a +46 run differential and hold a 5.5 game lead in the AL Central. It’s about an ideal a start to a west coast swing as you could imagine. It feels like things could be difficult over the next couple of weeks. Cain’s hamstring is barking at him. Hosmer’s hurt finger feels like that would hinder any kind of break out of his extended slump. Alcides Escobar split a fingernail. Yordano Ventura’s rehab start on Friday wasn’t especially promising. There are no off days between now and the All-Star Game. It’s a key stretch and if the Royals can hold on and weather the nagging injuries, they can coast into the break in fine shape.