Honesty compels me to report that Games Three and Four of the American League Championship Series were sort of boring. Sure, Game Three stayed tied until the bottom of the sixth inning, and sure, both finished at 2-1, but these weren’t the taut, nerve-fraying pitcher’s duels your grandfather remembers. The Kansas City Royals just followed their formula for each win, a little speed, a timely hit (or, in the case of Game Four, a fielder’s choice and a ball getting away from the catcher) and a whole bunch of pitching and defense.
In each game, manager Ned Yost got a fair outing from a middling starting pitcher, then turned the game over to his series of excellent short relievers. In Game Three, Jason Frasor got three outs before things were handed over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. In Game Four, it was only Herrera, Davis and Holland, combining for 11 outs. We should note, that’s also how the Royals won Games One and Two. All three of their dominant relievers appeared in all four games in the series, with a combined pitching line of:
Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland, 2014 ALCS
Yost simply decided, it would seem, that the time for messing around with the likes of Tim Collins (or even Brandon Finnegan, who struggled in Game One and made no more appearances) had passed. It would be senseless to lavish praise on a manager for this. Yost had four consecutive close games, coming off four days off and with two days off splitting the halves of the series, and a clear division between his best four relievers (especially the top three) and all other available options. The Royals are a well-labeled machine; Yost just had to avoid pressing the button marked ‘self-destruct.’
That’s the joyous thing about these Royals (and that is something of an official term; when friends or family have wanted to strike up a conversation with me lately, they nearly always invoke “these Royals”), though. They’re simple, but miraculously, not flat. They are dynamic, versatile and exciting. They just don’t have much in the way of nuance. Aside from the push-button bullpen, there are the two automatic pinch-runners who come in when a slow runner reaches base in the middle-to-late innings. Little tactical acumen is required to run this team. Everyone in sight has an obvious use, and each one of them is as good at the one or two things they do well as anyone in baseball.
Take Herrera. In 2014, he posted the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio he’s posted in three years. In fact, for a one-inning reliever, his strikeout and walk ratios were poor. He’s not the best controller of the strike zone, and he’s not an elite ground-ball guy. On July 26 of last season, Herrera was a fringe arm, having allowed nine home runs in half a season in relief. The punchline: Herrera had a 1.41 ERA this season, and hasn’t allowed a home run (save one, in Spring Training) since July 26, 2013. It’s been 102 appearances since Herrera allowed a ball to leave the park.
There’s no science to it, really. Herrera has thrown more fastballs and sinkers—each of which, for him, averages 99 miles per hour—over that span, and fewer changeups and curves. That helps. The essence of it, though, is that throwing nearly 100 MPH and being able to consistently pound the third-base side of home plate (tying up righties, forcing lefties to go the other way if they want to do anything with the ball) makes it very hard for opponents to hit the ball hard. So long as the ball stays in the park, too, the Royals defense is sure to make a pitcher look good.
Herrera had to leave his first appearance of the ALDS against the Angels. In five appearances since then, he’s recorded 20 outs, allowed two hits and one walk, and struck out seven.
Terrance Gore is another example. While he scored just once during the AL playoffs (his was the go-ahead run in the Game Two win), he stole three bases as a pinch-runner. Gore can’t hit, and he can’t throw much, and his mediocre instincts rob him of some of what could be huge value on defense, but he can come in and disrupt a pitcher, take a base at will, do as much to change the game on the bases as any player in baseball. That has very real value.
Now, having extreme skills is one thing; maximizing them is another. Yost is a poor tactician, blessed by a roster which limits his opportunity to mess up. He can, however, be a very effective leader, especially for a young team. He gets far too little credit for this. These Royals have been remarkable, not only for the on-field assets afforded them by their youth (speed, athleticism on defense, the energy to play at full strength after the long season has ended for so many other clubs), but for the absence of liabilities usually associated with that same trait. These Royals haven’t made mistakes. They may lay down bunts at peculiar times, but the bunts always get down. When the opponent bunts, the ball is always fielded cleanly, and the out recorded without a fuss. Despite the very strong arms across the outfield, no one is missing cutoff men. Despite the daring approach they take on the bases, there have been only two gaffes by runners—and one of those was sloppy execution of a play Yost put on, by the two men least suited to running it of any on the team.
This was also true of the 2007 and 2008 Brewers, by the way. Though those seasons are considered a mark against Yost, especially because he was fired with 12 games to play in 2008, in the thick of a playoff race, he had those teams playing with poise beyond their years, in addition to having tons of talent.
Yost is underrated as a baseball person. He refuses to speak the language of sabermetrics. In fact, he’s gruff and dismissive toward them, and he’s deadpan nearly to the point of true coldness with the media in general. His overall personality, though, is more ebullient. This is a man who became close friends with Dale Earnhardt (Senior) and Jeff Foxworthy in the 1990s. Sure, Yost lived and worked in Atlanta at the time, so part of it was that the two celebrities wanted to hang around the Braves, but being in with Earnhardt and Foxworthy is, in Ned Yost’s culture, like being in with Sinatra and Dean Martin. Even self-proclaimed rednecks have cliques, levels of coolness, status symbols. Yost is a master networker, and that’s not limited to schmoozing with the Catfish Pack.
Having given up on winning the argument for pure tactical genius in the dugout, one of the chief demands of the stathead community has been that the front office and the field staff keep wide-open channels of communication. Yost, who was a coach on the Braves staff while Royals GM Dayton Moore was a member of the Atlanta front office, has that solid relationship we’ve always wanted. If Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman, or Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette, are to be lauded for their mutual trust and understanding, then so should be Yost and Moore.
Yes, these Royals are many things. In some ways, they defy convention, defy analysis, defy progress, but they have some strengths that make them unique—and uniquely tough to beat, for many playoff teams. They make contact (they struck out just 16.3 percent of the time, the lowest rate in the league), at a time when no one else does (that 16.3-percent strikeout rate would have been the second-highest in baseball the last time the Royals were a playoff team, in 1985). They run (even though Gore only joined the team in late August, they led MLB with 153 stolen bases). They field the ball exceptionally well, with maybe the best defensive outfield ever. And they shut the game down from the sixth inning onward. Now, even as good as Herrera, Davis and Holland were all season, their performance so far makes them overdue for a hiccup. As long as their dominance holds, though, these Royals have a real chance to win the World Series.Next post: I’ve Got Soul, But I’m Not a Soldier: The GIants Win the National League Championship Series
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