Archive for Royals

Josh Willingham: Honoring the Hammer

Someday, an up-and-coming SABR scientist should try to measure the psychic effect that losing has on ballplayers. As everyone knows from watching “The Natural,” losing is a disease — as contagious as polio, syphilis and bubonic plague. Attacking one but infecting all, though some more than others. And no other major leaguer over the past decade, among hitters, lost as frequently as Josh Willingham did.

Willingham, 35, recently announced his retirement after playing nine full seasons and parts of two more. What a relief it must have been for him to finish as a part-timer with the Kansas City Royals, who made it to the seventh game of the World Series. Only once before had Willingham played significant time for winning team (with the Florida Marlins in 2008), and never had he played in the postseason. Cross it off the list, call it a career. And it was a good one, aside from all of the losing.

Overall, his teams went 503-644 in Willingham’s appearances, producing a .439 winning percentage, the worst among anyone who recorded at least 4,000 plate appearances since he broke into the majors in 2004. It usually wasn’t Willingham’s fault that his team lost; he was the best hitter on the Marlins as a rookie, after Miguel Cabrera, and he was better than Hanley Ramirez. He was the fourth-best hitter in ’07, the third-best in ’08 — and in ’09 and ’10 after being traded to the Washington Nationals. He was the best hitter on the Oakland Athletics in 2011, and the Minnesota Twins in 2012.  It’s just that Willingham’s teams lost anyway.

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Time to See if the Royals Will Trade From a Strength

There was precedent for Wade Davis‘ amazing Royals transformation. You could, for example, point to Wade Davis, in 2012. Or you could point to any number of other guys who’ve found comfortable homes in the bullpen after struggling as starters. But a year before Davis turned into an unhittable Royals reliever — that is, the same year that Davis was a very much hittable Royals starter — there was, in the same uniform, Luke Hochevar. Hochevar, for years, was a very mediocre starter. In 2013, he took off in relief, and he projected to be of great help again in 2014, until he blew out his elbow at the start of spring training.

So, Hochevar had Tommy John surgery. And the Royals, famously, didn’t miss him. They rode defense and their bullpen almost all the way to a championship, and then they arrived at more or less the present day. And after paying Hochevar millions of dollars to not pitch in 2014, the Royals are going to pay Hochevar millions of dollars to hopefully pitch in 2015 and beyond. Word’s out that Hochevar has re-signed as a free agent, for two years and $10 million, and now one’s left to wonder what the Royals might do about their roster construction.

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Standout Prospects from the AFL Title Game

The Arizona Fall League championship game (domestic professional baseball’s de facto funeral for the year) featured superlative performances from a number of prospects that may have piqued your curiosity. Here’s a look at how, after nearly two months of evaluating these players, I feel things will play out moving forward.

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How Did Billy Butler Take His Extra Bases?

Remember when Billy Butler stole a base against the Angels in the playoffs? Of course you do. It was beautiful and it was absurd, and it psychologically cemented the notion that there was nothing the Angels could do to slow the Royals down. Even Billy Butler was having his way, however he wanted to. It was like the Royals flying their flag over the Angels’ conquered castle. And it had to be Butler. It felt meaningful because that’s something Butler just doesn’t do. There are reasons he doesn’t run, so when he ran, and when he got away with it, the Royals felt invincible.

Here’s an image sequence that should remind you of how the moment felt:

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Did Bumgarner and Shields Throw Too Many Pitches?

Madison Bumgarner pitched quite a bit this past season. Including the regular and post season, he threw a total of 4,074 pitches, which wasn’t even the season’s top total; James Shields bested him by throwing six more, for a total of 4,080 pitches in 2014, not including spring training. So with all of the pitches thrown this season (and one month less of rest), how should we expect these two to produce next season? Let’s look at some comparable pitchers.

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FG on Fox: The Royals’ Coming Windfall

It was following a half-decent season in 2013 that Royals general manager Dayton Moore said he felt a little like he’d won the World Series. The remark didn’t go over very well locally or nationally, and Moore conceded later he could’ve chosen better words, but at the core of a poorly-worded sentence was a legitimate message. Moore sensed that people were getting into the Royals again. Even though the team that season had fallen a little short of the playoffs, the roster was at least competitive, and the fans at least had a product to watch. What Moore meant to say was that the franchise was restoring its bonds with the city around it, after too many years of two-way neglect.

The bonds are restored now. They maybe have never been stronger. After a year of no playoffs, Moore felt like he’d won a title, so I can’t imagine how he feels after a year of coming one win away. The fans are in love again. Many of the fans, they were always in love, but they’re once again willing to act on it. And new fans have been gained, as well, fans who previously never gave baseball a second thought. Consider one anecdote, to represent many:

People are wearing blue proudly again. People filled Kauffman Stadium proudly again. People are chanting proudly again. Last year put the Royals back on the map; this year circled the Royals with dark ink and arrows. The fans sense an opening window of contention, and as heartbreaking as it is to lose in a seventh game, this doesn’t have to have been the last chance. The Royals could be back, and they could be powered in no small part by gains from having made so deep a run.

All that success, all that restored loyalty and enthusiasm — that’s money. What’s more, that’s money the Royals weren’t even budgeting for. I’ve never been confused for a financial wizard, or for any kind of wizard, but what the Royals have been gaining is pure profit, and the gains aren’t going to end with the playoff run. As a matter of fact, the Royals will be benefiting from this past month for a good while yet.

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Alex Gordon Barely Had a Chance

Imagine if, for some reason, you completely missed Game 7. Not only did you miss it — you didn’t hear anything about it, from friends or from family or from the Internet. You get home, and this is the first thing you see:

jirschele

What on earth has to be going through your mind? It requires special circumstances for a third-base coach to end up with a postgame interview. And why is this one smiling? He must’ve made one hell of a decision. You know what the rules are, with regard to attention paid to base coaches. They only get it when they’ve done something controversial.

People want there to be a controversy here. The way the World Series ended was final, conclusive. Salvador Perez, 100% absolutely, made the last out on a foul pop-up. There is no what-might-have-been with Perez’s at-bat. So many have turned to the play before, when Alex Gordon was stopped at third after sprinting on a single and an error. It’s a frantic search for closure that resembles a frantic avoidance of such, and without any doubt in my mind, if Gordon had been waved around, it would’ve made for an all-time moment regardless. But while we can’t say for sure that Gordon would’ve been toast, since the play never happened, it sure seems to me the odds were too strongly against him. Mike Jirschele did the smart thing, and Alex Gordon did the smart thing, and Salvador Perez did the following thing. Barring a miracle, sending Gordon would’ve just ended the game a few minutes sooner.

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Managing Game Seven: Bochy Brilliant, Yost Yosts

The story of Game Seven was, without a doubt, the performance of Madison Bumgarner. He was the story of the whole series, essentially, allowing one run in 21 innings pitched; his teammates gave up 26 runs in the other 40 innings, for reference. No single player can win a series for his team, but Bumgarner had about as large of an impact as any one player can have. Nothing else mattered as much as Bumgarner’s dominance.

But other things did matter, even last night. Besides Bumgarner’s historic relief appearance, there were several key decisions made that helped swing the game, and the World Series, in the Giants favor. Let’s go through them in chronological order.

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The Ace That Worked

There’s nothing more overrated in the postseason than an ace starting pitcher. Just ask the Dodgers. Or, if you feel like it, you could ask the Cardinals. Or the Nationals, or the Royals, kind of, or the Athletics. Or the Tigers. An ace starting pitcher is just one guy, one member of a way bigger team, and baseball’s about a lot more than the first guy on the mound. There’s nothing more underrated in the postseason than an ace starting pitcher. Just ask the team that just won the postseason.

The Giants didn’t win the World Series because of Madison Bumgarner, but to the extent that one player can be mostly responsible for a championship, Bumgarner’s way up there on the list. It isn’t just that he dominated; it’s that he dominated while throwing literally a third of all the Giants’ playoff innings. Bumgarner was No. 1 on the innings-pitched leaderboard, and he finished with more than No. 2 and No. 3 combined. He also allowed fewer playoff runs than the Pirates. The worst thing Bumgarner threw all month long was a ball that Wilson Ramos bunted. Over the course of October, Pablo Sandoval hit .366 and Hunter Pence had an .875 OPS, and people aren’t really talking about them, because Bumgarner’s almost the whole story.

He mastered the Royals, of course, in Game 1 of the Series. He was somehow even more effective in Game 5. And in Game 7, Bumgarner got to work in relief, but in a starter’s kind of relief, where Bumgarner wasn’t coming out until he got tired, and he didn’t admit to fatigue until a post-dogpile interview. After all of the conversation and hype, Bumgarner turned in an iconic five-inning appearance, an appearance that will overshadow all others, and it was an unusual appearance for Bumgarner in two ways. One, he came out of the bullpen. And two, he just didn’t let the Royals hit strikes. Bumgarner saved a season extreme for a season extreme.

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Game 7 Is the Whole Dang Point

Oh boy, are we ever going to learn a lot tonight. We’re going to learn, for example, how Bruce Bochy elects to use Madison Bumgarner. We’re going to learn about Bumgarner’s effectiveness out of the bullpen on short rest! We’ll learn about Ned Yost using and stretching out his big three relievers, and we’ll see how far Bochy and Yost are willing to go with Tim Hudson and Jeremy Guthrie. We’re going to learn how many runs the Giants score, and we’re going to learn how many runs the Royals score, and we’re going to learn the winner of the World Series. There aren’t a lot of situations where you know, absolutely, that a finish line will be reached. There’s nothing after this. Whenever Game 7 ends, there will be no more baseball, at least not for a few months, at least not as a part of this postseason.

We’ll learn about the game, and therefore the series. We’re not going to learn much of anything else. We’re not going to learn, conclusively, whether the Royals are better than the Giants, or vice versa. So we’re not going to learn whether one of these teams is the best team in baseball. What we get is hype and a show, with the stakes never higher. We’re going to get the most important baseball game of the whole seven months, and no matter what happens on the field, this is the point of the playoffs.

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There’s A Game 7 Tonight, Because Baseball Is The Best

So! Tonight, there’s going to be a Game 7 of the World Series. Your cheering allegiances aside, that’s a rare and wonderful thing. Appreciate it, because now we’ll have the most possible baseball before the long stretch of no baseball, and this isn’t an occasion that comes around all that often. We had a Game 7 three years ago between Texas and St. Louis, but it had been nine years since it’d happened before that, the longest stretch in big league history. Sometimes, you get classics like Curt Schilling & Randy Johnson against Roger Clemens & Mariano Rivera in 2001; sometimes, you get John Tudor allowing eight runners in 2.1 innings on the way to losing 11-0 in 1985. What’s important is that we’re set up for history, and often the biggest impediment to that is simply the opportunity for it to happen. Not tonight.

Jeremy Guthrie against Tim Hudson doesn’t really sound all that exciting, and maybe it won’t be. It’s difficult to imagine either pitcher going more than five innings, and perhaps it won’t even be close to that. It won’t be the worst-ever matchup of Game 7 starters — 1997’s Jaret Wright against Al Leiter probably still tops that list — but it will be the oldest, thanks to a combined 74 years of age. Or at least it will be for a few innings, since both managers are likely going to dig into their bullpens early, since it doesn’t get more “all hands on deck” than this. On the other hand, maybe that makes it more exciting. This could be baseball unlike baseball.

Obviously, any Game 7 is fascinating, but this one might just be moreso, if only because of the way the postseason has gone so far. You’ve heard in more than a few places that this is “the best postseason ever,” and while that’s probably a bit hyperbolic because of the effects of recency, you certainly understand the sentiment. To merely name a few of the lasting impressions — the AL wild card game madness, the divergent Octobers of Madison Bumgarner & Clayton Kershaw, an 18-inning NLDS game, Lorenzo Cain and the Royals defense, literally every single thing Ned Yost has done — is to unfairly neglect so many others. For a postseason like that to end with a Game 7, well, it seems like a fitting capper. Read the rest of this entry »


There Is No Special Higher-Stakes Home-Field Advantage

Here’s a post that probably doesn’t need to exist, but then, what post about baseball analysis does need to exist? If everything’s pointless, nothing is pointless, so let’s get to the subject! The Royals are shortly going to host the Giants for Game 6 of the World Series, and Kansas City is hoping to play again tomorrow, probably. If you imagine the whole baseball season as a baseball game, then we’re at the very end with an uncertain conclusion, meaning the leverage is enormous. If the purpose of every event is to help win a championship, well, now a championship hangs directly in the balance.

The Giants are up 3-2, but however much baseball remains will be played in Kauffman Stadium. And if you’ve been poking around today, you’ve probably seen some mentions of how that puts the Royals in a pretty decent position, all things considered. Not only do the Royals get to play at home — they get to play super-important games at home, with a super-frenzied atmosphere, and recent history might be on their side. I could cite any number of examples, but I will just cite this one:

And it’s the Jake they’d love to ride to a Game 6 victory, because a Game 7 would give the Royals a distinct home-field edge. (Giants fans can blame All-Star Game MVP Mike Trout for that possibility.) The home team has won each of the last nine World Series Game 7s. The last road team to win a Game 7 was the 1979 Pirates.

The Giants’ best bet, then, is to wrap this up in six.

What’s implied is that home-field advantage might get more significant as the stakes get higher and higher. Think of it as kind of a clutch home-field advantage factor. So can the Royals at least look forward to an extraordinary lift? No. I mean, no, probably.

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Yusmeiro Petit and Juan Perez: Finding the Better Baseball! Moment

On Sunday, the Giants and the Royals played Game 5 of the World Series, and an unusual thing happened. We’ll get to that. On Saturday, the same teams played Game 4, and in the bottom of the fourth inning, Yusmeiro Petit batted for some reason against Jason Vargas. Petit swung at the first pitch, maybe trying to catch the Royals off guard, as if the Royals even had a plan for effectively pitching to Yusmeiro Petit, who is a reliever. The bat hit the baseball and the baseball found the outfield grass. Remarked Andy McCullough:

“Baseball!” is the exclamation of those who understand that they’ll never understand the game. It’s an acknowledgment and an appreciation of the random by the learned, and classic Baseball! moments serve to underscore that there’s always a chance of anything, and baseball has a lot of repetitions. Weird things don’t usually happen, but there are enough events that the next one might be right around the corner. I mentioned that something strange happened yesterday, too. Madison Bumgarner didn’t need the help, but in the bottom of the eighth, Juan Perez faced Wade Davis and drilled a ball off the very top of the center-field fence for an RBI double. Perez is a player well-known for nothing and best-known for running better outfield routes than Michael Morse and Travis Ishikawa. Responded one David Cameron:

Basically, Cameron was calling it a Baseball! moment. So, which was the better Baseball! moment?

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James Shields, Better But Different

We’ve talked about James Shields a lot this postseason, and most of it hasn’t been all that positive. “Big Game” James had been lousy throughout this magical Kansas City run, and he was particularly bad in Game 1 of the World Series, getting pounded with line drives left and right and leaving after three innings. In Game 5, he went up against Madison Bumgarner again, and again he lost, mainly because Bumgarner was outstanding, to the point that we’re now talking about him in a historic context.

The big picture view there is that Shields has started two World Series games against Bumgarner and lost both, likely ending his Royals career and helping to put his team in a 3-2 hole headed back to Kansas City. That’s a factual statement, but it also misses something that was largely overshadowed by Bumgarner’s dominance and more confounding Ned Yost decisions: Shields was actually pretty good last night. As the indispensable Daren Willman of Baseball Savant noted, Shields’ 21.2% swinging strike rate in Game 5 was the best any starter had this postseason, topping Zack Greinke‘s NLDS start.

It’s fair to note that Lorenzo Cain‘s fantastic catch on a Hunter Pence ball in right field saved Shields at least one run and perhaps two, but there were also some questionable plays by Alcides Escobar and Jarrod Dyson that didn’t go down as errors, so, noted and moving on. Shields can’t control his defense, so let’s focus on what he could control.

Here’s what that meant: Shields pitched differently than we’d seen him pitch as a Royal, and perhaps differently than he ever has. It’s actually a little terrifying to think that a pitcher who has been very good for many years would change his approach in Game 5 of the World Series. Fortunately for him, it worked.

* * * Read the rest of this entry »


Mike Moustakas: One-Game Threat

With the World Series shifting to San Francisco for Game 3, the Royals have made some changes to their lineup. They’re not starting anybody as the designated hitter, because that would be against the rules. Ned Yost has elected to start Jarrod Dyson over Nori Aoki, which seems like the right thing to do. And Mike Moustakas has been bumped up to the fifth spot, with Alex Gordon soaring to second. It’s about as good a lineup as the Royals could have, under the circumstances, although there are two lefties back-to-back.

I’m not going to sit here and give you a prediction. However, there is one thing that might very slightly change the odds. You’ve seen broadcasts talk about x-factors before? Normally, they’re meaningless. Hell, maybe this one’s meaningless. But for this game, for this particular game, Moustakas should be one of the Royals’ best hitters. However small an advantage that presents, Moustakas has a couple of platoon factors working to his benefit.

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FG on Fox: The Royals Should Deploy the Ultimate Outfield

The Royals find themselves in an interesting situation. They’re in the World Series! Wow! And within that, with the series shifting now to San Francisco, the Royals are in an interesting sub-situation. Alex Gordon ought to start in the outfield, obviously. Lorenzo Cain ought to start in the outfield, obviously, as well. But then you’ve got Norichika Aoki and Jarrod Dyson. Aoki has been the starter in right field for a while, but now with the rules changing for three games, it’s time for Ned Yost to also make a change and keep Aoki on the bench at the beginning. Kansas City should go with the ultimate outfield.

This isn’t just a hypothetical suggestion, by the way. The matter is on Yost’s mind. Sometime Friday, he’ll make his call, and while it’s generally safest to bet on continuity, Yost’s been nothing if not unpredictable these last few weeks.

The ultimate outfield looks like this:

LF: Gordon
CF: Dyson
RF: Cain

Cain, defensively, is outstandingly good. So it tells you something that Yost likes to have Dyson in center field, with Cain shifting to right. Actually, it tells you a couple of things: Dyson, also, is outstandingly good, and Cain might well be more comfortable in a corner. Anyhow, the difference between the ultimate outfield and the ordinary outfield is that Dyson subs in for Aoki, and swaps places with Cain. The ultimate outfield is weaker at the plate, but is just stupid good not at the plate.

Dyson bats left-handed. Aoki also bats left-handed. There’s a strong argument to be made that the Royals should use the ultimate outfield against all right-handed pitchers. But that obviously wasn’t going to happen with the Royals playing by American League rules. Now, the National League rules change things up somewhat. They should provide enough incentive to pencil Dyson into the starting lineup.

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Let’s Now Be Critical of a Single Pitch Selection

The only pitch that should literally never be thrown is a pitch aimed at a hitter’s head.

Anything else, totally fine. You don’t read MGL over the years without learning some things about game theory. Game theory explains that, optimally, you need to be unpredictable. You should bunt just often enough so that your opponent doesn’t know if you’re going to bunt. You should pitch out just often enough so that your opponent doesn’t know if you’re going to pitch out. And you should mix your pitches just enough so that your opponent doesn’t know what pitch will be on the way. It’s simple, if oversimplified: don’t tip your hand. It does your side a disservice.

Game theory is fascinating, and at the same time analytically limiting. When you get to talking about pitch sequences, any pitch, in isolation, is justifiable. Any pitch should/could be thrown more than zero percent of the time. Let’s say there’s a hypothetical that calls for, I don’t know, 60% fastballs in, 39% changeups away, and 1% hanging sliders. That describes no real situation, but anyway. If you see the pitcher throw a fastball, okay, yeah, that should happen sometimes. If he throws a changeup away, same deal. And if he throws a slider down the middle? It seems like a mistake, but every so often it does make sense to do that on purpose, in theory, because otherwise the hitter could just rule the pitch totally out. When a pitch gets totally ruled out, it slightly tips the balance. Part of being unpredictable is the willingness to sometimes do things that don’t seem so good. Surprising mistakes can be surprising successes.

Because of game theory, it’s almost impossible to reasonably criticize any given pitch or pitch sequence. A pitch comes with an n of 1, and stripped from context, you don’t know how many times that pitch would’ve been thrown in the same situation. Taking one pitch and only one pitch, you almost always have to conclude that, maybe it was fine. There’s no such thing as a pitch that absolutely should never be thrown, aside from the one noted at the beginning. This is frustrating, but sometimes sensibility frustrates. So the world can be.

And yet. I think this is against my better judgment, but there’s a pitch I want to criticize. It happened in Wednesday’s Game 2, and it was thrown by Hunter Strickland to Salvador Perez. I can’t declare absolutely that the pitch was a terrible idea, because of all the reasons, but this is about as close as I can get to believing that a pitch shouldn’t have been called. Perez, against Strickland, broke the game open. He did so against a pitch I think he knew damn well was coming.

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James Shields, Line Drive Machine

If you watched Game 1, you know what was happening to James Shields. If you didn’t watch Game 1, you can figure out what was happening to James Shields, since he departed after 3+ and wasn’t exactly walking the world. James Shields got hit, and for that reason and others, the Royals lost, turning them into World Series underdogs. But I think just to drive the point home, it’s helpful to look at Shields’ full game log, plate appearance by plate appearance as recorded by MLB.com:

  1. line drive
  2. fly ball
  3. line drive
  4. line drive
  5. line drive
  6. line drive
  7. strikeout
  8. groundball
  9. line drive
  10. flyball
  11. line drive
  12. line drive
  13. line drive
  14. groundball
  15. walk
  16. line drive

Maybe you don’t know how many line drives are normal. That many line drives is not normal. That’s ten, out of 16 batters faced and 14 balls put in play. One of the non-line drives was a fly basically hit to the track. Here’s another of the non-line drives, from Hunter Pence in the fourth:

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There’s Nothing Salvador Perez Won’t Swing At

In the bottom of the fourth inning of last night’s Game 1, there was a moderately humorous moment when Salvador Perez “struck out” on an 0-2 pitch in the dirt. Buster Posey retrieved the loose ball and tagged Perez for the “out,” all while Perez looked on in amazement, insisting he’d fouled the pitch off.

As it turned out, he had, and after a brief discussion the call was overturned, but you can certainly understand why home plate ump Jerry Meals figured no actual major leaguer would have offered at a pitch that had bounced so far in front of the plate:

perez_foul

Perez would end up striking out anyway, and while this entire post isn’t going to be just about Game 1, I can’t help but show you what are easily some of my favorite Gameday maps of the postseason. At left is Perez’ first plate appearance of the night, a second inning double play that erased a Billy Butler single. At right is the fourth inning appearance we just talked about:

perez_game1_first-two-ab

Madison Bumgarner threw eight pitches to Perez in two plate appearances, and not a single one was really close to being a strike. He still managed to get three outs from it. Bumgarner, obviously, was outstanding. He also got at least a little help from Kansas City’s free-swinging catcher.

Perez has always been a free swinger, of course. At The Hardball Times just last week, Perez was ranked among the 10 worst hitters in the game at making “correct” swing choices. If he’d had enough plate appearances to qualify in 2012 (a knee injury cost him most of the first half), he’d have been tied with teammate Mike Moustakas for 18th-highest O-Swing%. In 2013, he was tied for Ichiro Suzuki for 20th. That’s just who he is. He’s never had a walk rate of even five percent, and even in the minors, he’d walked more than 18 times in a season just once. He’s not as talented a hitter as Pablo Sandoval, but the profile is similar. It’s who he is.

This year, the O-Swing% jumped to second, but at least it had remained somewhat steady through the first three months of 2014. But then…

perez_o-swing

In the second half of this season, his O-Swing% was 52.6, easily the highest rate in the big leagues. More than half of the pitches that head to the plate that wouldn’t be within the PITCHf/x strike zone, Perez offered at, and that’s a tough way to succeed. And he didn’t — in the second half, Perez hit just .229/.236/.360, good for a 61 wRC+, which was not only one of the worst marks in the bigs, it was basically identical to the last few months of the Derek Jeter retirement tour.

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Alcides Escobar and the Worst At-Bat of the Playoffs

The Giants beat the Royals 7-1 last night, and in any game that lopsided, it’s going to nearly impossible to say that any one play was the cause of the outcome. The Giants just did too many things well, and the Royals too many things poorly, to pin the loss on a single play. But if we were going to isolate one mistake by Kansas City that might have had more of a difference on the outcome than any other, it may very well have been Alcides Escobar‘s trip to the plate in the third inning.

Already down 3-0, the Royals entered the bottom of the third with just a 21% chance of winning, by Win Probability, and likely a bit less than that in real life, given that Madison Bumgarner is better than the average starting pitcher. But thanks to a Brandon Crawford error and a Mike Moustakas double, KC got their first two batters into scoring position, bringing up the top of the batting order with three shots to get on the board. Those two players reaching base moved the Royals win expectancy all the way up to 36.5%, so the change in WPA (.155) from the start of the inning was nearly as large as the change in WPA (-.169) on Hunter Pence‘s first inning home run.

With runners at second and third with nobody out, the Royals run expectancy for that third inning was 1.91 runs. Both runners should have been expecting to score, and even great pitching by Bumgarner would probably result in at least one run. The hallmark of the Royals offense is making contact, and that’s all they really needed to do in that situation. Hit the ball up the middle or to the outfield and you get a run, most likely. Do it twice and you might get two, even without needing another base hit.

Alcides Escobar stepped to the plate. Escobar’s not a great hitter by any stretch of the imagination — he probably shouldn’t be hitting leadoff in the World Series, but the Royals offense is bad, so there aren’t many better alternatives — but he more than held his own against lefties this year, posting a .319/.342/.442 line against them that was good for a 119 wRC+. His career splits aren’t as dramatic (83 wRC+ vs LHPs, 73 vs RHPs), but Escobar isn’t totally helpless against southpaws, and his primary offensive skill is the one the Royals needed the most; make contact.

Of course, Bumgarner would be trying to counter Escobar’s contact skills, because a strikeout (or an infield fly) was the best possible result he could get in that situation. And with a runner on third base, there’s a bit of an incentive to avoid breaking balls in the dirt, lest one get away from Buster Posey and allow the run to score without the Giants even needing to swing. As Jeff noted last week, Bumgarner has lately been leaning very heavily on his fastball, and his pitch location charts note that he strongly favors throwing high fastballs, because high fastballs get a lot of swinging strikes.

Alcides Escobar, though, is very good at making contact at pitches at the top of the strike zone. Here’s his Contact% vs LHP heatmap from 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.03.07 AM

Up-and-in, Escobar almost never swings and misses. Up-and-away, it happens, but still not a lot, unless you get it to the very outer edge of the zone. For reference, here’s Bumgarner’s Contact% vs RHB heatmap for 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-10-22 at 10.05.55 AM

Very high contact rates up-and-in, much lower up-and-away. Bumgarner certainly knows these trends, and the approach was pretty obvious; go up-and-away with high fastballs.

First pitch

EscobarSwing (1)

94 mph fastball in the up-and-in corner, but still in the zone. Almost a perfect pitch, really, and Escobar was only able to foul it off. Tip your hat to Bumgarner; he didn’t hit the spot where Posey was setting up, but he missed into a very tough location to hit. If you’re going to miss your spots, miss them like this.

Second pitch

EscobarSwing (2)

88 mph cutter at the very top of the strike zone. This pitch is probably not called a strike, and Escobar probably shouldn’t have swung at it, but it was in that very tempting slice of the zone that hitters have a tough time laying off. This was just another tough location for Escobar, especially since it had some appearance of a hanging breaking ball, but never really dropped enough for him square up.

Third pitch

EscobarSwing (3)

94 mph fastball about as high as a pitch can be thrown and not end up at the backstop. PITCHF/x recorded the height of this pitch at 4.5 feet off the ground, or about a foot higher than the the top of the strike zone. Let’s put this in some context.

This year, Escobar was thrown 51 pitches with a recorded height of at least 4.0 feet, by PITCHF/x via Baseball Savant. Two of those hit him, three of them were pitchouts, and two more were thrown when a pitcher was issuing an intentional walk, so we can throw those seven out as non-swing-chances. That leaves 44 pitches where Escobar had to decide whether to swing or not. 37 of those times, he chose not to, and on all 37 of those takes, the pitch was called a ball.

Seven times, he swung at a pitch of that was at least 4.0 feet off the ground. Here’s how those swings went for him:

April 15th: Whiff (4.17 feet)
April 16th: Foul (4.06 feet)
April 17th: Foul (4.00 feet)
April 26th: Foul (4.56 feet)
May 2nd: Foul (4.12 feet)
July 5th: Whiff (4.15 feet)
July 18th: Foul (4.28 feet)

Seven swings, seven bad outcomes. I don’t know what his deal was in mid-April, but after some reckless swings in the first part of the season, Escobar hadn’t gone after one up here since right after the All-Star break. There was improvement at this particular weakness, at least, even if he didn’t get better overall in the second half.

But he picked a pretty lousy time to pull that old trick out of his hat. Yeah, he managed to make contact and foul it off, but a take there pushes the count to 1-2, and at least begins to move things a little bit in his direction. For his career, Escobar has a .400 OPS after 0-2 counts, but a .503 OPS after 1-2 counts. Not swinging at that pitch doesn’t make it likely he’d get a hit, but it makes it a little tougher for Bumgarner to go out of the zone again, and increases the likelihood that he could at least avoid the strikeout. But he swung, and it remained 0-2. Credit to Bumgarner for testing the limits of Escobar’s aggressiveness, but this was just an awful swing decision by the Royals leadoff hitter.

Fourth pitch

EscobarSwing (4)

93 mph fastball, just slightly lower than the previous pitch.

If he swung at the last one, might as well try again until he proves he won’t swing, right? This one wasn’t quite as high — only 4.3 feet off the ground this time — but was just as definitely not a strike, and just as definitely not a pitch Escobar should have swung at. He hadn’t swung at a pitch this high in three months, and then he did it on back-to-back pitches in an 0-2 count when a strikeout was the absolute worst outcome he could muster.

Here’s the plot of pitches in the entire at-bat.

BumgarnerEscobar

Yuck.

We can’t lay all the blame on Escobar here, because Nori Aoki also struck out, and then after a walk to Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer bounced weakly to second base. Escobar wasn’t the only one who failed that inning, and even if he had driven in two runs, there’s still a strong chance they lose anyway. Plenty of things went wrong for the Royals besides Alcides Escobar’s atrocious third inning strikeout.

But that was one really awful at-bat. This postseason has had plenty of bad process/good result plays, but Escobar’s approach in that match-up was so bad that the possibility of a good outcome was almost non-existent. Bumgarner deserves a ton of credit for pitching out of that inning, but the Royals certainly didn’t have to help him as much as they did.