Monday, November 3, 2014

That's What Speed (Almost) Do

This post was written by my good friend Bryan who is a very avid Royals fan. He approached me last week after the World Series concluded and his perspective on the 9th inning of last week's Game 7 is unique. Without further ado...

By: Bryan Chapman (you can follow him on twitter @bscjd31)
"Last Wednesday night the Kansas City Royals lost game seven of the World Series to the San Francisco Giants 3-2.  If you are reading this blog, you already know that Madison Bumgarner took the opportunity that night to vault from merely "dominant postseason pitcher" to perhaps "the best postseason pitcher ever."  Bumgarner pitched five scoreless (and almost flawless) innings Wednesday night after throwing 117 pitches the previous Sunday night, which resulted in a complete game shutout.  For some perspective, Bumgarner pitched over 21 innings in the World Series, and the rest of the Giants' starting rotation combined pitched 17.  Despite throwing 21 innings, Bumgarner's World Series ERA ended up less than 0.50.  Wow.  

But while Bumgarner appeared to be cruising towards his third World Series ring in five years, a funny thing happened with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. Alex Gordon lined what appeared to be a routine single to centerfield off of Bumgarner, but Gregor Blanco of the Giants misplayed the bounce in centerfield, and the ball rolled all the way to the fence.  Gordon ended up on third with a standup triple. Suddenly, the Royals were 90 feet away from a startling and improbable comeback.  Some, like Nate Silver at the Five-Thirty Eight maintain that Gordon should have tried to score, given the small chance the next batter would have also safely reached base off of Bumgarner.  Others, like Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports, think Gordon would have been out by a ten feet or more.  It's a counterfactual and we'll never know.  What we do know is that the next batter, Royals catcher Salvador Perez, insisted on swinging at multiple pitches out of the strike zone, ending his at bat with a pop-out to Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval in foul territory ending not only the game, but the World Series and my beloved Royals' dream season.  Such is life.

If baseball is no longer the national pastime, second guessing Royals manager Ned Yost may have taken its place.  Yost's love of bunting, stolen bases constant lineup maneuvers have frustrated almost all Royals fans at some point, and left Bill Simmons of Grantland, the notorious Red Sox homer to quip last week, "If Ned Yost managed the 2004 Red Sox, I'd be in an insane asylum right now."  Overall, Yost did an okay job in the World Series, save for a couple of tardy pitching changes and a senseless double switch in San Francisco.  

Despite an above average managing job in October, Yost's failure to recognize the opportunity to pinch-run for Alex Gordon in the bottom of the ninth in game seven warrants discussion, as I've seen virtually none in all of the Kansas City postmortems.  In a nutshell, Yost should have pinch-run Terrance Gore (or even Jarrod Dyson) for Gordon in the bottom of the ninth in order to give the Royals the best chance of scoring the tying run.  Both Gore and Dyson have blazing speed; with Gore's being unlike any other active player in the majors.  

Before we get to the tactical reasons for pinch-running for Gordon, just think about it more generally: It's the bottom of the ninth, two outs, game seven of the World Series, down by one with a runner on third.  If you are the team trailing (like the Royals on Wednesday) this is the ultimate "gonzo" situation in baseball.  The situation is so extreme, so unlikely, that even nine year-old boys invoke it whenever they want an excuse to act irresponsibly during backyard baseball games.  Put simply, the runner on third has to find a way to score, and Yost, as the Royals manager, had to pull every lever at his disposal to try to score him.  

So Yost should have pinch-run one of Kansas City's speedsters for Alex Gordon, preferably Terrance Gore.  Why?  To steal home?  Not necessarily, although, a legitimate attempt and close play would immediately be placed on the Mount Rushmore of unforgettable postseason baseball moments.  Add to that Yost's immediate elevation from "dumbest man in baseball" to "riverboat gambler who I'd love to play for," one could see why an attempt to steal home is attractive.  

Setting aside the theatrics of a (likely unsuccessful) attempt to steal home, there are two concrete reasons why Gore or Dyson should have pinch-run for Gordon in the bottom of the ninth on Wednesday.  First and somewhat obviously, in a passed ball situation, Gore, with blazing speed, stands a much better chance of scoring than Gordon, who, while a smart baserunner, has merely "decent" speed.  

Second, and most importantly, Yost should have recognized the opportunity to break-up Bumgarner's rhythm and to get into the head of the eventual World Series MVP.  Remember, it's a once-in-a-lifetime game situation.  If Yost pulls one of his most reliable offensive and defensive players out of the game in order to place one of Kansas City's notorious speedsters 90 feet from home plate in the bottom of the ninth in game seven, Bumgarner and Giants catcher Buster Posey have to wonder what may be coming.  (This is to say nothing of near earthquake of excitement that would have shaken Kauffman Stadium had the desperate crowd witnessed Terrance Gore take his place at third base.) After all, as the Royals have taught us all, "that's what speed do."  

If Bumgarner, as a lefty, is pitching from the stretch, his back is to third base.  With blazing speed leading off of third base in the most stressful situation the game of baseball has to offer, it is not only reasonable to think Bumgarner may be slightly distracted, it's more probable than not.  After all, Bumgarner would have to think about the following: 1)  how, if at all, he would attempt to keep the runner close third; 2) he would have to think about his slide-step and speed to the plate, given the possibility (however remote) that Gore would try to steal home; and 3)  Bumgarner would have to think about not throwing a pitch that could result in a passed ball.  The last concern is important, because it very well may result in a pitch that is slightly more "hittable" than Bumgarner would normally throw.  Even if only a couple of inches off where Posey sets up, that could be the difference between jamming Perez to pop-out and end the game, and Perez getting enough of the ball to punch it over the second baseman's head to score the go-ahead run.  In short, blazing speed at third would have forced Bumgarner to pitch more defensively, even if only a little.  Baseball is a game of inches.  Literally.  With a visibly gassed Gordon at third, Bumgarner was able to simply focus on the the batter, and he did.

Some may argue that removing Alex Gordon, a gold-glove left fielder with a solid approach at the plate from game seven of the World Series is nuts.  But that's the wrong way to think about it.  Gordon played eight and two-thirds innings of game seven.  If the Royals don't score the runner on third, there's no more game seven for Alex Gordon to miss.  After all, it's better to face extra innings in game seven with a chance to win sans Gordon, than to face an off-season of blog posts like this one."

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