Alex Gordon batted eighth for the Royals in Game 1 of the ALDS, which is insane. There’s no way around that. Alcides Escobar batted first, which we all more or less knew would happen, but which remains insane. Perhaps more criminally, though, Ned Yost put Salvador Perez in front of Gordon in the lineup, batting seventh, which accomplished two things:
1. Breaking up the sequence of six Royals hitters with seasonal True Averages between .289 and .301; and
2. Creating roughly a 78-percent chance that Escobar would bat one time more than Gordon during the game.
If those sound like things the Astros, not the Royals, should have been trying to accomplish, well, yeah. Ned Yost put his team in a worse position from the get-go on Thursday night. Batting order makes very little difference; we know this. In any given game, though, it can find ways to matter, and the chances it will hurt depend on the egregiousness of any errors one makes in putting the lineup together. Yost’s mistake—putting his natural first and eighth hitters in each other’s places—was about as egregious as they get.
The reason Yost did it—the Perez-Gordon misfire, for sure, and maybe the Escobar-Gordon part, too—was that Collin McHugh started for the Astros, and McHugh had a reverse platoon split this year. Does that sound familiar? It seems as though there are more of these guys than ever, these reverse-split right-handed starters. And you know what? There are! Or at least, there are more of them than there have been at any time in the last 10 years. Of 107 right-handers who pitched at least 100 innings this year, 43 had a zero or reverse platoon split (we’re using raw OPS here; forgive the primitive tools). That’s 40.2 percent of the population, which continues a three-year trend of righties having unprecedented relative success against left-handed hitters.
That’s an interesting thing to look at another time. It seems eminently possible that that’s a phantom phenomenon, driven either by a change in the broad-spectrum quality of left-handed hitters league-wide; some strike-zone irregularity that affects different hitters and pitchers differently; or the randomness that governs so much of our existence. But for now, the numbers are there, and teams react to the numbers. Yost had some thin justification, some cover, for building his lineup the way he did, even if it remained a wrong decision.
By the time the Royals even had a chance to mount any attack with their imperfect lineup, though, they were down by two runs. The Astros—without any easy outs, let alone a near-automatic one, at the top of their order—got to Yordano Ventura early. The pivotal plate appearance of the first inning was, one might argue, Carlos Correa’s. Ventura allowed a quick single to Jose Altuve, then got stuck in a nine-pitch confrontation with George Springer that ended with a walk. With the crowd roaring and Ventura seemingly trying to find a comfort zone, Correa took the first four pitches of his at-bat. Two of them were strikes, but by showing the willingness to wait out a deep count and work against Ventura’s high-octane stuff even in a two-strike situation, Correa set up the pitcher well. He fouled off a couple pitches, then hit a rocket of a liner to right for a single. The inning turned. Ventura did fairly well from there, but ‘fairly well’ from a starting point of the bases being loaded with nobody out still means allowing two runs to score.
The rain delay made this game and series more interesting. It was a huge blessing for Yost, who got from it an excuse to remove Ventura (who was fooling no one, but hadn’t been bad enough to proactively pull after two innings) and bring him back on short rest in Game Four. Chris Young came on and either pitched really, really well, or benefited from a sort of reverse R.A. Dickey Effect, or simply took advantage of starting with Correa and working downhill through a Houston lineup that really isn’t so scary in the lower half. He finally got in trouble when he faced Altuve and Springer, and Yost probably should have pulled him then, before Young had to wade through the order a second time. Instead, he asked him not only to finish that inning, but to come back out and handle the sixth. Young did that, and didn’t give up any more runs, but it took a double-play grounder from Jason Castro with two on and one out to get through it. That was the first double play Young had induced since May 22th. Yost could have gone to Danny Duffy or Kris Medlen somewhere in there, especially knowing he would be bringing Ventura back for Game Four. That particular error was small, though, and didn’t bite him.
McHugh ended up losing a full hour between official pitches, though he threw during the delay to stay loose, but he responded quite well to that. He gave up one solo homer before the delay and one after it, both to Morales, and he got out of there after six innings without having to face Mike Moustakas, Perez or Gordon a third time. (Instead, Gordon got Tony Sipp with two outs and no one on in the seventh.) The game rolled into the late innings with Houston holding a two-run lead, and it never felt like the Royals had a good chance to close that gap.
From there, the bullpens did mostly what these bullpens both do. Colby Rasmus jumped a first pitch from Ryan Madson to widen the Houston lead, just the way he jumped a first pitch from Masahiro Tanaka to give the Astros an early lead in the Wild Card Game. From now on, if Rasmus leads off an inning, he’s worth a first-pitch curve at the ankles. Madson giving up a home run has to set off a few alarm bells for Royals fans, because he’s been Yost’s highest-leverage relief horse lately.
The real problem, though, is that Kansas City just lost a game to an Astros starter not named Dallas Keuchel, at home. The series is now set up very differently. The Astros might have just swung the pendulum. Having Ventura set for Game Four is nice, but the Royals need to get their lineup back in order, keeping those Super Six chained together. The Astros are proving that they’re ready to punish mistakes in the way that really counts: by putting them in the seats. The Royals can do that, too, but they’re not going to match Houston there, so they need to be ready to punish Astros hurlers who get into trouble. To do that, they need to have those great hitters in sequence, and accept that empty Perez-Escobar-Rios innings will be offset by the crooked numbers they can put up in other frames.
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