It’s hard to believe that Jason Vargas has gone this far into his career without a postseason appearance, and it’s equally hard to believe that, this far into his career, into his career, that first appearance would be as a Game 1 starter. Vargas doesn’t have the resume of a Game 1 starter, and he certainly doesn’t have the traditional repertoire of a Game 1 starter, but he just started a Game 1 and darned if it didn’t go about as well as he could have dreamed. Big Game Jason, I call him. Call him that.
Some moments were more illustrative than others, which is sort of the central premise of a recap, so let’s talk about the ones that were especially illustrative.
Jason Vargas Against Mike Trout, fourth inning.
Or the one in the first inning, or the one in the sixth. They were all pretty much the same.
Trout and Vargas had faced each other plenty before this. Some representative at-bats:
A typical Vargas approach, you’d say: Hard/soft, mostly low, with an occasional ambush fastball inside, and a few hold-your-breath pitches that catch the strike zone. Vargas doesn’t work up in the zone with his fastball much, does so less each year, and lives mostly on the arm-side when he does. What you see above are the pitch plots of a pitcher who is a) careful b) crafty and c) perhaps a bit scared of the guy he’s facing. Now, Thursday:
Typically, you’d see this and assume a pitcher like Aroldis Chapman was on the mound: Here’s my fastball, you can’t hit it. And it’s true: Trout couldn’t hit it. He popped out all three times.
You’ll burn through a lifetime of fortunes trying to predict Mike Trout's downfall, and no matter what we saw Thursday, he’s the best player in this series by about as far as he can hit a ball. But the scouting report is out on him—in 2013, 23 percent of the pitches he saw were top-third or up; in the second half of 2014, 32 percent. We saw against Oakland, against Jon Lester, what the Royals will do with a scouting report: They knew Lester didn’t have a pickoff move, and they beat the A’s to death with that knowledge. They pushed that scouting report as far as it could go and dared Lester to change. They might be doing the same thing with Trout. Here’s how Wade Davis pitched Trout earlier this year:
And on Thursday:
Duffy deviated a bit against Trout in the 10th, but it seems clear that the Royals intend to make Mike Trout hit the pitch he spent the summer not hitting. If Jason Vargas, with his 89 mph heat, challenges him up in the zone, then it’s certain Yordano Ventura will, with his 99.
Jason Vargas Against Howie Kendrick, Fourth Inning
Vargas mostly cruised through the Angels’ first trip through the order, but there was one worrisome detail: He didn’t have his good changeup, the centerpiece of his arsenal. Four of the first eight he threw were two feet off the ground or more, and one that he threw to Chris Iannetta was very quickly a hundred or so feet off the ground:
You can see how badly that pitch stands out on his pitch chart,
but all four of the changeups he threw “up”—in the strike zone or higher—came in that first trip through the order. Then Howie Kendrick came up, and Vargas got fixed:
As you can see, the rest of the game he sat below the zone with that change; none of the final 12 were rulebook strikes, yet he got six whiffs and two groundouts among those dozen. It doesn’t justify Ned Yost’s decision to stick with him through the sixth inning, necessarily, but you can appreciate why a manager would have faith in a starter who had found total control of his best pitch.
Vargas vs. the Angels, fifth inning
Of course, at the end of the day it’s still Jason Vargas we're talking about. He struck out two batters. Vargas needs help, and he got it, constantly: The outfield’s highlight reel last more than three minutes,
While Vargas was in the game, the Angels had a BABIP of .059. Shoot, in the whole game it was .077.
In the preview for this series, I wrote that “Yost will a) try to squeeze six innings out of his starters, worried about the soft middle of his bullpen, b) resist going to his big three before the seventh and c) look real good whenever the pitchers pitch well, and bad when they don’t. Like everybody else.” The last part—well, I’m not sure. It depends who you’re hanging out with. There will be columns written Friday noting, just as the national radio broadcast noted, that Yost pushed all the right buttons in this game, that whether he left a pitcher in or summoned a new one, the outs just kept coming. On the other hand, when you’ve lost Pedro
The Royals are picking up Ned Yost all the way. He probably thinks I don't like him but that move of leaving Vargas in there, was a bad one
you’ve probably lost the village.
Of course, Mike Scioscia left Jered Weaver in to pitch the seventh and hardly anybody said a peep. But Scioscia’s real sins were arguably exposed in the eighth, after Chris Iannetta reached with a leadoff walk. First, Iannetta was left to run the bases himself, as the Angels opted not to carry pinch-runner Tony Campana on the postseason roster. The Angels’ entire bench has 43 career steals. Instead, the Angels have a nine-man bullpen; at no point will they play more than two games in a row without an off-day, and without a lefty specialist they won’t burn pitchers playing matchups. It’s almost impossible to imagine using the ninth man in that bullpen. Actually, it is impossible. It’s impossible. It can’t happen. It’s really easy to imagine using a superfast baserunner, though. If your imagination fails you, just look at the Royals.
But, okay, stuck with Iannetta. So here Scioscia opts to bunt. I think it’s fair to say that we’re in a bit of a bunt-bash-backlash moment around here, where the automatic Fire Ned Yost reaction to any sacrifice is a bit extreme. The bunt does things. It’s not typically the call I’d make, but there are times and places for it. Then there’s this time, and this place: Calhoun, a lefty facing a right-handed pitcher; Calhoun, with a 3-1 count; Calhoun, with two sacrifice bunts in 800 career plate appearances and, including his minor-league career, a total of four in the five years since he was drafted. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Roll your eyes at a successful sacrifice bunt if you must, but save your rage for the failed sacrifice bunt, the true needle-mover in the manager’s bag of self-sabotage. This was a pretty predictable failed sacrifice bunt.
In his career against right-handed pitchers in 3-1 or 3-2 counts, Calhoun has hit .275/.591/.510.
Going back to the aforementioned Aoki circus catch: A bit surprising that the Angels didn’t ask for a replay to see whether the ball had hit the wall before Aoki caught it. It didn’t, I don’t think, though TBS didn’t show us the full 18-camera slate of angles that you sometimes get. But it’s the bottom of the sixth. Why not challenge? That would have been the game, had the call been overturned; two runs would have scored, another would have been in scoring position and the inning ongoing, Vargas would have walked away trailing 4-2, etc. Again: They’d probably lose the challenge. But with umpires having the discretion to review calls on their own after the seventh, the value of that flag after the sixth is finished goes down to about nothing.
And Mike Moustakas ended it.
They’ll say the Angels should have carried a lefty, and maybe it’s true, maybe Joe Thatcher makes Moustakas look silly. But Fernando Salas made lefties look dumb all year; only 13 right-handers held lefties to a worse slash line than his .188/.260/.250. Only one lefty, in 126 plate appearances, had homered against him.
The Royals were 27 percent likely to win this game, according to PECOTA. They had the Wild Card tax, they had the ballpark disadvantage, they were going up against the best team in the league, and PECOTA tsktsks everytime it looks at the Royals’ third-order winning percentage. But if we’re talking about unlikely, it’s pretty unlikely that Mike Moustakas isn’t a star right now. Three, four years ago, it looked all but certain. Unexpected stuff happens all the time, unexpected good stuff, unexpected sewage. The Angels are favored again tonight.
Thank you for reading
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