Tuesday, October 21, 2014

AL 2014 a tale told by Athletics, Royals

One couldn't find two more different clubs in the American League than the Oakland Athletics, who went through much of the year as the team to beat, and the Kansas City Royals, who were unbeatable during the American League playoffs. The Royals will begin the World Series tonight against the San Francisco Giants.

First baseman Eric Hosmer has helped to power the Kansas City Royals to the World Series (Keith Allison/Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license).

Big Leagues in Los Angeles

We wondered if the Angels dodged a bullet on Sept. 30, when the Kansas City Royals took down the Oakland Athletics in the American League widcard playoff game.

Now, we're certain the Angels didn't dodge a bullet. Or, if they did, they just ran into the path of a more deadly bullet. The Royals took the Angels out of the American League Division Series (ALDS) in three games before sweeping the Baltimore Orioles in a four-game American League Championship Series (ALCS). 

Tonight, the Royals begin the World Series against the San Francisco Giants, capping a postseason that has exhilarated baseball fans and confounded numbers crunchers. 

The Giants took a 3-1 lead in games against the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) by scoring 12 of their last 22 runs on plays that didn't involve a base hit. The Giants have taken to calling themselves “cockroaches,” because you can't kill them. They polished off the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS with a 6-3 win, scoring all their runs on homers. 

This might not be the World Series that fans of the Oakland Athletics would have wanted. Their rivals across the San Francisco Bay are in, and they're not. The American League club that plays most counter to Oakland's preference for long-run probabilistic reasoning is in, and they're not. 

It was hard, a couple of weeks ago, to imagine a more joyous scenario for the Athletics and a more ugly scenario for the Angels than this: Jon Lester pitches a gem for the Athletics, enabling them to win the wild card game in Kansas City. Then, the A's enter the ALDS with the Angels and prevail with pitching, specifically with Lester. With that, the Athletics would move on to the American League Championship Series, a puzzling midseason trade by Oakland general manager Billy Beane would have been redeemed, and the Angels would have lost the edge they've gain this year in their rivalry with the Athletics.

The next week of games might have been about an Oakland club banished from division contention, then redeemed for the reason of their banishment, a bulked-up pitching staff for which the A's gave away much of their ability to score. It might have been about Lester, made whole by winning the game he needed to win, now setting out to capsize the Angels, who beat them silly during a four-game sweep in Anaheim last month that decided the division early.

It could have been about those things. The narrative could have shifted back to the misunderstood genius of Oakland general manager Billy Beane and his wise men from elite universities, if only Lester could have redeemed a certain trade and held a 7-3 he took to the eighth inning in Kansas City. But all that's off the table. 

The Royals took it off the table quickly, rallying for a 9-8 win against the Athletics in an 12-inning wild card game. Then, they took the Angels off the table. It began on Game 1 of the ALDS, when the Royals won the game Thursday night that had to go into the win column for the Angels, the game with Jered Weaver pitching in the Big A against Jason Vargas. After that, the Royals were on their way.

When the World Series ends and we have contemplated why it went down the way it did, the enduring memory of this season will be the collapse of the Athletics, who endured such a nightmare for two months at the end. They were 72-44 on Aug. 9, and they needed every bit of that to endure their next seven weeks of losing and still have room to barely make the playoffs. Oakland didn't enter the playoffs looking like it would last long, and when the Royals, trailing, 7-3, kicked up a little dust in the eighth inning, one could feel the wind rushing in. The Royals were hitting, stealing, hitting the runner in, then stealing again. Lester left with a 7-4 lead with one out, and the tying run was at the plate. 

As if to mock the sabrmeticians and their darling Athletics, the Royals stole seven bases, including four in that wild eighth inning during which they cut that deficit to 7-6. In the ninth, the Royals tied it by bunting and stealing, which the stat fetishist disdains. In the 12th, the Royals hit the ball hard, and they won the game that way.

Many keystrokes have been expended trying to explain why the Athletics flop in the postseason, and all of them put together didn't say it as well as the Royals said it in the wild card game. The A's lost this game not because they eschew small ball, but because the Royals embrace it.

The stat fetishist struggles against the bleeding reality of baseball and often winds down his keystrokes by introducing a theoretical entity called "luck." At that point, we're not doing science, obviously, as luck neither explains nor predicts anything. But Beane believes in luck, too, as he said in his infamous Moneyball remark, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f*cking luck." 

Beane is wrong about this. The playoffs aren't about luck. They are about baseball, the game of skill and tactics. And, it appears, there are skills and tactics in baseball, which the numbers discourage, but they're also extremely useful tools for winning baseball games. How can the numbers show that certain tactics are disadvantageous for winning baseball games, yet the team most known for following the numbers never wins in the playoffs and was just now eliminated, in fact, because the team it just played would be nowhere without those tactics?

We've never understood, over here, why anyone would assume that a so-called "Moneyball" team would have to succeed in the playoffs, as if their success during the regular season should be some kind of necessary or sufficient condition for winning in the playoffs. We don't see the mystery. There's nothing that says a Moneyball team couldn't or shouldn't succeed in the playoffs, but the playoffs are such an entirely different competitive environment that we shouldn't expect the large database of the regular season to have any predictive force.

When you're putting together your Moneyball team, you're making a number of calculations. All of those calculations account for the long haul, and the 162-game regular season is nothing if not a long haul. That's a lot of discrete events converging on enough agreement to produce reliable conclusions about how to win x number of games. The book, not the old book but the new one, says you will score more runners from first base with no outs than from second base with one out. Over the long haul. So don't bunt. The book says that if you can't succeed on about 75 percent of your stolen base attempts, then you've probably lost more opportunities to score than you've gained. Over the long haul. So, be very careful with the running game.

So, you follow the principles, along with some others, such as, famously, going for hitters with high on-base averages. You finish off the roster figuring that the secondary numbers will add up to about 90 wins, then you send your team out there and it comes back with about 90 wins and a playoff spot. It works. It's a good system. Ingenious, really. It deserves the acclaim that it gets.

But now you're in the playoffs, and the evidence base on which you built your team to win the most possible games out of 162 can't give you the answers you need, because now your goal isn't to win about 90 games out of 162, but to win this one and only game right now. There is no long haul over which the numbers will even out through time. There is only this game, and there is only right now. 

So when the Royals trail, 7-6, in the bottom of the eighth with Jarrod Dyson on second base as the tying run, they're not thinking, "Over the long haul of 162 games, you will lose more scoring opportunities by running than by not running, so we better not try to steal third base." They're thinking that they need to win this game right now, and their best chance to do it is by stealing third base. When the Royals have a runner on first with nobody out, they're not thinking, "Over the long haul, the runner from first with no outs scores more often than the runner on second with one out, so bunting is the last thing on our mind." They're thinking that if they can get the runner to second with one out, they've got a chance to win this game right now. And they drop a bunt.

When you already know you've got another game tomorrow, you'll come out fine by following the long-haul percentages. When you don't have another game tomorrow unless you win this game right now, those long-haul percentages couldn't be less helpful. And a team that can't or doesn't execute those little ball tools to win this game right now is going to be at a disadvantage. 

During the postseason, the Royals have utilized those tactics to huge advantage, and opponents have been unable to defend against them. Over 162 games, perhaps, those tactics won't optimize your scoring. But you're going to need them in the playoffs. You're not playing the Cubs and Astros fattening up your numbers now. The teams you're playing against are likely to keep a lid on it defensively, so you need every tactic to score.

The Athletics, under Beane, have been one of the most frequent playoff entrants in the American League during this century. But we shouldn't be surprised when a team that's built to optimize in the long haul doesn't have the tools to optimize in the short haul. The playoffs aren't just a different season. The games are substantially different games because there are so few of them. 

The Royals are better right now than they really are, and this is not an unlikely occurrence, either. Kansas City's success with small ball is worth noting, but the Royals are winning with a great deal more. Finishing last in the American League this year with 95 home runs, the Royals have hit seven homers in eight postseason games. The home runs don't explain how the Royals have won each round of these playoffs, but the home runs have a lot to say about how they swept through the American League postseason.

Reliable power hitting by Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas isn't normally on the Kansas City menu. But it can be on the menu, it has been on the menu and, in their run against the Angels and Orioles, it happens that their kitchen brought in a shipment of home runs. When the Royals hit home runs, they are an outstanding team that can beat anyone. 

We saw it at the start of June, when the Royals went on a 15-4 tear over a three-week period, hitting 18 homers with a club OPS of .781 in 19 games. So, it's there, but we haven't seen it often. Indeed, we're seeing it again only now, with the Royals crushing four homers in three games against the Angels, then three in four games against the Orioles.

It's not a team we have seen frequently. But when that team shows up at the right time, the playoffs, that team has a chance to live forever.