October 16, 2014
The Unconventional Path: ALCS Game 4
Over the summer, I came across a twitter handle that was essentially tweeting play-by-play of a game and adamant that whether it was a batted-ball out, strikeout, hit -- whatever it was -- every result was due to luck. It was ridiculous and hilarious and some twitter folks had some fun with the guy while I just observed from afar, afraid that any interaction may lead me down some awful twitter rabbit hole.
But here’s the thing, luck does play a huge part in baseball. Over six months of games, skill will likely trump all, but weird things happen in this sport and it isn’t so odd to see one lucky bounce or pitch change a game, thus it’s much more likely that luck will factor into a playoff series due to the smaller sample.
That leads us to the World Series-bound Kansas City Royals, winners of eight-straight games and one of the more surprising playoff runs in recent history. Have the Royals had some luck on their side? Of course they have. In the first inning of Game Four, the Royals first two batters reached base and Lorenzo Cain, who has been insanely hot this postseason, entering the game with a .896 OPS in seven playoff games, decided to bunt them over. The Royals number three hitter, who had never sacrificed before in his career and was tearing the cover off the ball, decided to bunt (this was not on Ned Yost, Cain did this on his own). With two men on and zero outs. In the first inning. That’s, um, less than ideal. But then a batter later, this happened.
Those two runs would be all the Royals needed to sweep away the Orioles and head to their first World Series in 29 years.
Sometimes luck comes in the form of a batter just missing a pitch he would normally crush.
Look at the location of that 96-mph fastball in the above GIF, then take a look at this heat map that shows Steve Pearce's slugging percentage on ‘hard pitches.’
Ahead 2-0 in the count, with a man on, and his team trailing by a run, Pearce just got under a pitch he often mashes. Instead of sending that ball into the gap or over the wall, Pearce harmlessly pops it up for an easy out.
An Adam Jones single later and with runners on the corners, Nelson Cruz came to the plate and lined a ball to second baseman Omar Infante. Infante stood at the back of the dirt and somehow kept his concentration and eye on the ball as it crossed from the shadows into a sliver of bright sun in which he happened to be standing. Watching the ball all the way into his glove, Infante made the out and ended the biggest threat the Orioles made to tie the game up.
So here’s the thing, luck plays a factor in baseball, there’s no denying that, it’s reality. There are 162 games played to determine the most talented teams in the game, then a bunch of short series to determine the champion. It’s not the ideal set-up to find out which team is the best, but that’s okay. We know it’s not always the best or most talented team that comes out on top, it's just the team that got it done when it mattered most. And it’s damn entertaining.
What isn’t okay is assuming, like the above-mentioned tweeter did, that it’s all due to luck. To completely disregard the immense talent that has been on display for the Royals on a regular basis the past two weeks would be criminal. No, the Royals don’t do it the conventional way. There is no elite, Cy Young-caliber starter, and while they’ve shown plenty of power thus far in the postseason, that’s not their game either. They lack the prototypical MVP candidate, although Alex Gordon has garnered some buzz, but that’s a whole separate debate centered on we should measure defensive value.
And defense is something Kansas City certainly does possess. The Royals have flashed leather all over the diamond in this series. Whether it’s Mike Moustakas leaping over barriers, Cain running down seemingly everything that comes in his general vicinity, or Gordon banging into walls and somehow hanging onto the ball, nearly every position on the field for Kansas City was filled by someone who impressed with their glove at some point in these four games.
Even Gordon’s ability to track down pop-ups that fall in front of the run-of-the-mill left fielder, which Gordon most certainly is not, were a pleasure to watch.
And of course, there was this:
Herrera, Davis, and Holland appeared in all four games, and with the Royals average margin of victory just a run and a half in this sweep, every appearance was high-leverage. For much of the regular season, Kansas City had a simple formula: get their starter through six with the lead and rely on their three stud pen arms to finish the opponent off. Yost, who takes plenty of heat (probably too much) for his sometimes odd decisions, particularly with the bunt, slightly altered his pen usage in the playoffs. You could argue that Yost probably should have gone to Herrera earlier in both Game One and Four, but the fact that he realized that he needed to lean on these guys, and at times stretch them for multiple innings, is more than we can say for some managers and their ability to handle a bullpen in the postseason.
The Royals didn’t uncover some long-lost blueprint for postseason success. There are and always will be multiple paths to the World Series, they’ve just reminded many of us that this is one of them. Their rotation has the ability to deliver quality innings and hand over a manageable game to a dominant bullpen. Their offense can scratch across runs in unconventional, sometimes downright odd, ways, often using speed (which should not be read as just stolen bases, which they only had one of in this series) as a primary weapon.
And the defense, oh that defense. There has already been much written about just how special that outfield defense has been, but, truly, enough can’t be said about it. I’m sure Orioles batters will be having nightmares about balls in the gap headed for the wall or shallow pop-ups destined for the grass somehow being snagged before they can fall safely.
Yes, the Royals benefited from a bit of luck, but that's very different from being a fluke. They’ve played eight games and they’ve won them all, four went to extra-innings, two were one-run victories and another was tied going into the ninth and eked out by just two runs. That’s seven hotly contested games out of eight, all with the Royals coming out on top. Any team that does that is going to need a bounce or two to go their way, but you could say that about nearly every team that goes deep in the postseason. Just because the Royals have had some serendipitous moments, doesn’t mean we should downgrade their clear talent.