The “Quality” Save

According to Wikipedia, a sportswriter in 1985 coined the term “quality start” and defined it as a pitcher’s completing six innings while surrendering three or fewer runs. Whether this is an “official” statistic – whatever that might mean – I have no idea. I have also been unable to learn whether such a quality start loses its quality if the pitcher in question gives up a fourth run after the sixth inning. Many commentators have criticized the standard as too lenient, pointing out that allowing a run every other inning isn’t so great, and a 4.50 ERA is only acceptable for a team’s fifth starter. But decades of computer analysis have shown that the pitchers with the most quality starts are invariably the best pitchers by every other measure, so the concept, meaningless or not, has lingered.
The save, by contrast, has been an official Major League statistic since 1969, although it has been refined in the years since. It can be earned in several ways, but the most common is by finishing a win while pitching the 9th inning with a lead of three runs or less. The creation and glorification of this statistic led to the emergence of a specific position on every roster: the “closer.” Modern analytics-driven managers have recently started to deviate, but for many years – certainly every year that Ron Gardenhire was managing the Twins – every time a team entered the 9th with a three-run lead or less, the manager brought in the closer. Conversely, if the lead exceeded three runs, another pitcher would be used – even if the lead had been three and the closer had been warming up. This mindless worship of the Save obscured the fact that this statistic was arbitrary and relatively meaningless. It also led to hugely inflated salaries for those relievers who had been anointed closers.
To take the obvious example: a reliever enters in the 9th with a 3-0 lead and gives up two runs before recording the final out. He should be rewarded for this? Apparently I am not the first to notice this, as Wikipedia informs that in 2000 Rolaids, which gives reliever awards, came up with the “tough save,” when the reliever enters the game with the tying run on base. Never having heard of this, however, I shall assume this idea went nowhere.
My idea is to introduce, instead, the “quality save,” to correspond to the quality start. My test would be simple: if the reliever faces the potential tying run without being responsible for any of the runners on base and finishes the game while maintaining a lead. (The aforementioned “tough” save specified having the tying run on base; but as baseball has evolved and the home run has become so prevalent, I consider the situation sufficiently perilous if the tying run is at the plate.) This not only eliminates the no-stress three-run, one inning save, it eliminates the save when the reliever starts the 9th with a two-run lead. He can allow a run and still record an official save; he just won’t get a quality save. If a reliever is asked to pitch only one inning and he can’t do it without allowing a run, it’s not a quality effort – period.
As with every iteration of a save rule – and there have been many, both official and unofficial – there is another situation that makes my simple rule not so simple, and it involves a reliever’s entering the 9th with runners already on base. If he has a four-run lead but the bases are loaded, he will be facing the potential tying run – thus making him eligible for my quality save. What if he allows all three runners to score but still preserves the victory? How does that count as “quality”? Still, his assignment is infinitely more challenging than that of the reliever who faces a clean slate. If the latter can give up two hits and a walk and still record a quality save, why shouldn’t the former be able to, as well?
The other problem with quantifying a closer’s saves and listing league leaders for the category is that the playing field is not level (see my earlier post on rbi’s). Obviously, a pitcher can only get a save if his team is winning; therefore, the teams that win the most will inevitably offer their closer many more save opportunities than the Miami Marlins, who are usually behind in the 9th inning. A better statistic than total saves is percentage of saves converted. Commentators do mention this – e.g., Blake Parker has converted 10 of 11 save opportunities for the Twins this year – but there is no listing by percentage. Maybe this could be an addendum; and maybe the same should be done for stolen bases.

The Shift

The trend toward analytics in baseball has led teams to employ infield shifts with a regularity new to the game, and I can’t say I approve. It is not so much the hits I see taken away from my favorite Twins, such as Max Kepler, as the hits I see a shift giving to the opposition. If I were a pitcher and I got Albert Pujols to hit a weak grounder to the spot where the second baseman normally stands, and it rolls into right field for a hit because there is no one there, I’d be frustrated and pissed at my coaches. I didn’t keep scientific count, but I felt the Twins were being hurt far more often than they were being helped by shifting their infielders in the games I watched. More annoying: when a hitter beat the shift by intentionally hitting the other way, the Twins kept the same shift on when that batter next hit, as if to say, it’s not the shift’s fault.
There was talk earlier in the season about a potential future rules change, requiring two infielders to be positioned on either side of second base. My hope is that the players will remove shifts from the game themselves, by hitting away from the shift or even – as Eddie Rosario did once (but why only him and only once?) – by bunting toward third base when no one’s there. The other way to beat the shift, which seems to be the Twins’ main strategy, is to hit over it, into the stands. That, of course, was the strategy long employed by Ted Williams.

Hope Springs Eternal

One game does not a season make, any more than spring training should be used to judge a team’s prospects. That said, the Twins’Opening Day 2-0 win over Cleveland gave me a lot to be hopeful about for the 2019 season. Six things in particular.

1. Jose Berrios pitched like the ace the Twins claim he is. The second half of last year’s season, plus some of his spring training efforts worried me that he would only be good, not great, but going head-to-head with Corey Kluber and tossing almost eight innings of two-hit ball was exciting. If he can become a true ace, it will only raise the level of the other starters around him.

2. Byron Buxton’s ringing double. Buxton led the team in hitting in spring training, but we’ve seen that before, only to have him flame out when the real games began. Not only did he break up Kluber’s no-hitter with the Twins’ hardest hit of the day, he seemed able to lay off the outside breaking balls he has routinely flailed at in the past. The Strib said if Buxton hits .240 he will be a real asset; I’m hoping more for .260.

3. The free agents all contributed. Outside of Buxton’s double, the only Twins hits were by their big-ticket free agent acquisitions, Nelson Cruz, C.J. Cron and Marwin Gonzalez, but they all came in the 7th inning, producing the day’s only runs. (Jonathan Schoop, the fourth free-agent starter, was HBP in the same inning, although nothing came of it.) Two of the hits were of the broken-bat variety, but still… Last year’s disappointing season was at least partially attributable to the failings of that year’s free agents: Logan Morrison, Lance Lynn, Addison Reed and others.

4. Taylor Rogers. The Twins’ bullpen is an unknown, unproven quantity, but Rogers was impeccable the last half of 2018, and he was stellar closing out the Indians: 4-up, 4-down, 3 Ks. Whether he becomes the Twins’ closer – or whether they even anoint a closer – if he can stay solid it will give everyone more confidence.

5. Rocco Baldelli. All he did, I suppose, was pull Berrios for Rogers at exactly the right time, but it gives everyone on the Twins a fresh start to have a new, young manager in place.

6. The core four. Max Kepler, Jorge Polanco, Eddie Rosario and Jason Castro are the four holdovers from last year who form the base to which the free agents have been added. They did next-to-nothing against Kluber, but there is every expectation they will break out in games to come. Rosario and Kepler, especially, just received long-term contracts and are batting lead-off and clean-up in Baldelli’s order. They are at the age where they can no longer be rated on their potential; this is the year they need to produce.

7. Cleveland just did not look particularly intimidating. The Twins won’t compete with the Yankees or Red Sox or Astros, but all they need do is beat out the Indians and they’re in the playoffs, where anything can happen.

Of course, Opening Day gave us no hint of the Twins’ bench strength or the remainder of their pitching staff; so from here on it’s speculation. Tyler Austin and Jake Cave are legitimate long-ball threats; while Ehire Adrianza and Mitch Garber are both reliable. Willans Astudillo is simply exciting. Unfortunately, one or two will be optioned or released if and when Miguel Sano earns back a starting job and Baldelli needs a 12th pitcher. Simply put: if Sano can come back and play to his potential, the Twins should win their division.

I am mildly confident about the starting rotation of Jake Odorizzi, Kyle Gibson and Michael Pineda. I’ve never seen Martin Perez, but reports from spring training were encouraging, and if he falters there are prospects in the minors who could blossom. One fun part of every baseball season is the success of some rookie you never heard of or counted on. If the Twins are lucky, they won’t need one this year.

All-Star Game ’18

Based on the 8-6 final score and the AL win, you’d think I enjoyed this year’s All-Star Game. It was, however, a total bore. Almost all the scoring came on solo home runs, which made me realize that is one of the least interesting plays in baseball – certainly the least interesting run-producing play. There is no anticipation, no drama, no involvement by the other 16 players. How much more exciting it is when there are runners on first and third and one out. Anything can happen, any outcome is possible, every fielder has to be on their toes. Add to that the on-field interviews, which reminded the viewer that this was not a real game, just an exhibition. Then – and this has been an issue for decades – the implicit need to get everyone in the game means that when the game is on the line, it’s being decided not by the big names, but by the guy who’s there because the San Diego Padres have to be represented.

One Play (Astros 2-Yankees 1)

For those who underestimate the relevance of in-game managing and coaching decisions, the final play of last night’s 2-1 Astros’ win over the Yankees offers a lot to talk about. The situation: one out, the marvelous Jose Altuve on first base, game tied 1-1 bottom of the 9th, Aroldis Chapman pitching to Carlos Correa, who had already provided the Astros’ run with a homer, the count 3-2. First decision: do you send Altuve on the pitch? He’s a good basestealer, and Chapman has neither a good pickoff move nor a quick delivery home. On the flip side: Chapman throws 100 mph+, so the ball gets home quickly, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez has a strong arm, and Chapman gets most of his outs by strikeout. I would have taken a gamble and sent him: worst case, a strikeout-throw-out doubleplay, the inning is over and you go to extras. But if the batter strikes out and Altuve stays at first, you’ve got two outs, a runner on first, Chapman throwing 100 and very little chance of getting two more hits before a third out. But Astros manager A.J.Hinch did not send the runner.
As it happens, Correa lines a shot into the gap between center and rightfield and Altuve takes off. Aaron Judge cuts the ball off and quickly throws to second base, where Correa arrives barely before the throw (two decisions we can also dissect). Third-base coach Gary Pettis, meanwhile, is windmilling Altuve home, even though the ball is approaching the infield before Altuve gets to third. Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius fields Judge’s throw, realizes, perhaps with astonishment, that Altuve is still running, and fires home, where his throw arrives well before Altuve. The throw, however, is in the dirt, Sanchez has the same difficulty handling it he does with pitches in the dirt, Altuve slaps home plate with his left hand and the Astros win.
While Altuve and Correa are the acknowledged stars of this victory, what about the decision by Pettis to send Altuve home, on what could be described as a suicide mission? A decent throw by Gregorius – not that hard from second base – or a deft catch by Sanchez and Altuve would not only be out, but every second-guesser would have been blaming the idiot third-base coach. Why sacrifice a men-on-second-and-third-with-one-out situation for the off-chance that the Yankees would screw up? I would have held Altuve at third. But again, if Altuve had been running with the pitch, he would have scored, probably easily. So, the third-base coach’s daring was making up for the manager’s lack!
This, however, isn’t the end of the discussion, as I learned while watching ESPN this morning. Their baseball commentator Eduardo Perez laid the blame for the Astros’ game-winning play on Judge’s throw to second base – a “fundamental error,” according to Perez. Instead of throwing to second to try to get Correa – whose status as a baserunner was irrelevant – the outfielder should have thrown to the cutoff man who was better positioned to stop Altuve, the only runner who mattered. (Why this is so is not altogether clear but I believe goes like this: a throw to the cutoff man would be more directly lined up toward home, and Judge’s portion of the relay would be shorter: he was throwing slightly off balance as he caught Correa’s hit while running away from home plate. I don’t know how to compare the arm of the cutoff man, Starlin Castro, with Gregorius’s, although the latter is well regarded. Further, the cutoff man would not have been impeded by Correa’s stand-up slide as Gregorious was – a point argued vainly by Yankee manager Joe Girardi, seeking a reversal ruling – but that would not have figured into Judge’s decision.)
Not part of any discussion is the fourth decision, that of Correa to try to reach second base. There would seem to be no advantage to the Astros in his doing so: only Altuve’s run mattered. Yes, he could keep his team out of a double-play situation, but he could just as easily steal second on an ensuing pitch, it being unlikely the Yankees would try to stop him. In either case, the Yankees would be able to intentionally walk a batter to set up the double play. There was little to gain, but much to lose. Were Correa to be thrown out, Altuve would be on third with two outs, instead of one out, and a much, much lower probability of then scoring. Knowing, as he should have, that his run meant nothing, Correa should have stayed as far away from the action as he could. Contrary to this baseball logic, however, Correa beat the throw from the outfield and his slide got in the way, quite legally, of Gregorius’s ability to step toward home when he threw. This undoubtedly contributed to the throw’s ending up in the dirt. There is no way, however, that Correa could have foreseen this result when he rounded first. It’s unlikely he knew that Altuve would try to score, nor would he have known that Judge would throw to second or that his slide might impede Gregorius. I am sure that he was just acting on his baseball instinct: he hit a ball into the gap, which allowed him to try for an extra base.
In short, there were four discrete decisions that influenced the one key play that determined last night’s winner. That, even more than the one matter of faulty execution, is what makes baseball such an endlessly fascinating game.

Twins Stretch Run

Readers of earlier posts can imagine how little I ever expected to be writing about the Twins’ “stretch run” at the start of September 2017. Yet here they are, one game behind the faltering Yankees for the top wild-card spot in the American League, two games in the loss column ahead of the closest of six credible pursuers. While it would be fun to see them make the playoffs, that doesn’t really matter. One, because they would have little chance against either the Indians or the Red Sox, should they even get that far. But two, because their success so far augurs so well for 2018 and seasons to come, which was the rosiest timetable anyone realistically had when the year started.
The greatest cause for optimism is the almost-simultaneous turnaround in hitting by Jorge Polanco and Byron Buxton. Both were batting in the .200 neighborhood in May. Buxton was an automatic strikeout at the lineup bottom and Polanco would have been shipped to the minors if he had not been out of options. Now they are batting 3rd and 4th in the lineup, both with unexpected power. And Buxton even seems to have learned how to bunt! Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Brian Dozier have all been streak hitters, carrying the Twins at various points of the summer, all capable of multi-homer games. Joe Mauer, whom we had all but given up on, is now flirting with hitting .300 and has delivered clutch hits, although his home run swing still produces warning-track fly-outs to left more often than not. The part-timers – Eduardo Escobar, Robbie Grossman, Ehire Adrianza, Chris Gimenez – have all performed serviceably; the jury remains out on newer arrivals Kennys Vargas, Mitch Garver, and Zack Granite.
So far unmentioned is Miguel Sano. Perhaps it is a coincidence that the Twins have had so many offensive explosions recently with him on the disabled list. Yes, he still leads the team in home runs and rbi, but he was about to obliterate the Twins strikeout records, including most games with three or more Ks. More often than not, since the All-Star break Sano was a black hole at the middle of the lineup. He was dangerous, but he was also a rally-killer. It is possible, as one blogger suggested, that Sano’s absence has caused the Polancos and Rosarios to step up; no one is looking to Sano to hit the big fly, so everyone else is stepping up. But just as Buxton’s progress has shown that it is possible to develop as a hitter and cut down on strikeouts, we can hope that Sano in future years could in fact become the dominant force he has shown signs of in the past. It is this prospect of a more mature Sano with improvements from Buxton, Rosario, Kepler and Polanco that has Twins fans salivating.
Pitching, of course, is a problem, and the reason we would be nervous about the Twins’ playoff chances this year. Ervin Santana is pitching like an ace and Jose Berrios is showing signs of becoming an ace in the future. Relievers have been doing their job, and this year has shown that you never know where your stoppers will come from. At the moment, the top two in the Twins bullpen are Busenitz and Hildenberger, whom no one had heard of in April – or June. Before that it was Taylor Rogers and Matt Belisle. But a team needs five starters, and the Twins just have, for sure, those two. Kyle Gibson has been tempting for several years, but his only consistency has been his ability to disappoint. Bartolo Colon is now the number three guy, but he is 44 and not getting younger. So, one or two or preferably three new names will have to show up at spring training next year if the Twins are to become the complete team that can take its place among the elite and make another run at a World Series. I’m hoping.

The “Quality Appearance”

Baseball these days can seem overrun with statistics – Batting Average with Runners in Scoring Position and Two Outs, for example – yet records for pitchers all seem to me fundamentally flawed. Which is why I am proposing a new, more meaningful, one, which I will get to in a minute. First, however, a recap of some existing flaws.
For years, Won-Lost has been the gold standard for pitchers. The first problem, though, is that its validity is largely limited to starting pitchers, the only ones who routinely have some control over a game’s outcome. The emphasis, however, must be on “some.” We are all familiar with the “hard-luck loser,” who pitches eight innings, allows one measly run, yet suffers a 1-0 defeat. (Last night the Indians’ Josh Tomlin surrendered a first-pitch, first-inning opposite-field home run to the Twins’ Miguel Sano and suffered that fate.) The flip side is the lucky winner, who gives up five runs in five innings, yet records a win because his teammates have clobbered the opposing pitcher for more. Sometimes this averages out over the course of a season, but sometimes it doesn’t. Then there is the disparity among offenses. A pitcher for a hitting-starved team could give up three runs a game and finish with an 8-12 won-lost record; while his counterpart for a powerhouse could allow the same number of runs and wind up 12-8.
The next most recognized statistic is Earned Run Average, which would show the equivalence of the two pitchers in the above example. This statistic in theory should also work for relief pitchers as well as starters, and it has the advantage of not being dependent on the hitting success of the pitcher’s team. Its weakness, though, is its failure to account for situational pitching, which is crucial in evaluating a relief pitcher’s value. By “situation” I mean both the stage of the game – is the scored 7-2 in the eighth inning, or 3-2 in the ninth? – and the situation within the inning. A reliever who enters the game with two outs and the bases loaded and gives up a triple is a failure, yet his ERA will go down if he gets the next batter out. Conversely, the pitcher who let those three runners reach base while getting two outs will see his ERA soar, even though no one scored while he was pitching. The other problem with judging a reliever by his ERA is that one bad outing can skew it, because relievers pitch so few innings compared to starters. (Last night the Twins brought in Matt Belisle with one out, one on in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game despite an unheard-of ERA north of 11.00, precisely because that figure bore little connection to his perceived reliability.)
I have written elsewhere about the Save, the least useful number of all. 1) It only is relevant for the usually one pitcher per team who gets to pitch the ninth inning. 2) The number depends on his team’s success rate – only the winning team can record a save. 3) The criteria are too loose to be meaningful: a reliever can give up two runs in the only inning he pitches (an ERA rate of 18.00) and still get a save.
Because of the overemphasis on Saves, some baseball writers in 1986 came up with the Hold as a way of recognizing the effectiveness of middle relievers, who don’t get Save opportunities. Although routinely included in game box scores, the Hold is not an officially recognized statistic and there is some confusion as to what qualifies. The first prerequisite is the existence of a Save situation – so right there, it incorporates the weaknesses of that stat. The second requirement is that the reliever hand over pitching duties to the next reliever with his team still in the lead – which means, similar to the Save defect, that a reliever could load the bases while recording only one out and earn a Hold despite doing a lousy job.
So, what would be a more useful measure of a pitcher’s – specifically, a reliever’s – performance? Say ‘hello’ to the QA – the Quality Appearance. A reliever earns a QA by recording three or more outs without giving up a run, including the runners he inherits and the runners he puts on base. Alternatively, if he enters a game with two or more men on base, and he records two outs, ends an inning and no one scores. That, after all, is what really matters – keeping the other team from scoring. This statistic has the advantage of applying whether a team is ahead or behind. After all, when a team is behind 3-2 late in the game, it is crucial to their chances of winning that they not give up another run; and the pitcher who holds that margin is doing just as important a job as the pitcher who is credited with a Hold. Yes, there are some flaws: a pitcher could lose a QA by giving up a run in a second or third inning of work, although the rule could be refined to cover that, if desired. And what happens to runners that a pitcher puts on base before he is relieved will depend on the relievers who follow. Not every good relief effort will be recognized, but many more will, and more fairly than either the Save or the Hold currently does.

The Waste Pitch

Twins pitchers are apparently taught, or instructed, to waste a pitch whenever they get an 0-2 count. The theory, I’m guessing, is to see if the hitter, suddenly wary of striking out looking, will expand the strike zone and wave at an unhittable pitch. The 0-2 pitches that Twins hurlers deliver, however, tend to be so low, wide or high that no one ever swings. At best, the pitcher loses some of his advantage. The worst happened the other night to Tyler Duffey, who came on to relieve with the score tied, the bases loaded and no outs. His first two pitches made the Rangers’ Elvis Andrus look silly. Instead of trying to finish him off, his “waste pitch” bounced in the dirt and the lead run scored. Compounding the problem, the other runners advanced to second and third, so the infield “had to” play in. The next batter, with one out now, hit what would have been a double-play grounder, but it squirted just past the third baseman, playing in. Result of the “waste pitch”: three runs for the Rangers.
Speaking of strategy, I would also question the decision to have the corner infielders play in in that situation. Sano, especially, has quick reflexes and a gun for an arm; from his normal position he could throw out a runner going home a large percentage of the time. What is the counter-percentage, the number of times he doesn’t get to a ball because he is repositioned closer to home?
There is one more baseball orthodoxy I would question: when the Twins are leading in the 9th by two or more runs and an opposing batter gets to first base, they don’t hold him on and cede a free trip to second base. “The run means nothing,” we are told. But the chance to get an out at second base does have meaning. These days there are statistics for everything; so maybe my assumption can be rebutted. I feel, however, that I have seen many more times where an infielder could get an out at second but not at first than occasions where the first baseman made a play only because he was playing off the bag.
5/6/17 PS: Conversely, today a Twins pitcher with two outs and no one on threw an 0-2 slider that caught too much of the plate and ended up in the leftfield stands. Before a third out could be recorded, the Red Sox had eight runs and the game was effectively over. The Twins pitcher, Nick Tepesch, was making his first appearance with the Twins, so perhaps he hadn’t gotten the memo.

Twins in ’17

It is far better to enter the baseball season with no, or low, expectations than to have high expectations that are quickly dashed. SI was not alone in predicting that this year’s Twins would have the third-worst record in the AL and even the Minnesota writers were guarded, expressing doubts, especially, about the Twins’ pitching. So how much should we raise our hopes now that the Twins have swept the Royals in convincing fashion in the opening three-game series? Their starting pitching was good, their relief pitching excellent, defense flawless and late-inning clutch hitting impressive.
Granted, three games is a small sample and the season will be long, but there is room for optimism. For starters, much of athletic success depends upon confidence and the belief that you can and will win. When you start the season 0-9, as the Twins did last year, it is hard to get that losing mentality out of your minds. When losing is expected, it happens more often. By winning their first three games, the Twins have to be thinking, We can win, which in itself will breed success.
Now, as to the pitching. While there is no Clayton Kershaw on the staff, there are six pitchers who, to my mind, give the Twins a chance every day. Ervin Santana is a consummate professional who knows exactly what he’s doing. Hector Santiago gives us hits but limits damage and seems to win more than he should. Kyle Gibson can be very good or not, but when he’s good he’s a winner. It may take awhile to shake out the rest of the rotation, but Phil Hughes, Adelberto Mejia, Tyler Duffey and Jose Berrios is a sufficient field to work with.
No one can ever predict how relievers will fare in a given season: there are always surprise stars and proven closers who falter. Confidence and the ability to throw strikes are important, and in the first three games all the relievers except the retread Craig Breslow showed potential.
On offense, the best news is the re-emergence of Miguel Sano as a hitter to be feared. He was wondrous in 2015 then disappointed horribly in 2016 and Strib writers questioned his offseason preparation. This winter, apparently, he buckled down and he has the look of a mainstay cleanup hitter. Eddie Rosario and Max Kepler just have to show some progress from their first seasons to be more than acceptable as corner outfielders. The big surprises so far are new catcher Jason Castro and new shortstop Jorge Polanco. Castro, especially, was signed as a defensive upgrade but to date has been the star of the attack, walking six times and driving in go-ahead runs. Polanco is supposed to be a natural hitter, and if he slumps Eduardo Escobar can pick up any slack.
The two big question marks have, curiously, been batting 3rd and 4th in Paul Molitor’s lineup: Byron Buxton and Joe Mauer. Buxton is clearly not ready for Major League pitching, and one has to wonder (like Clark Griffith did) if he ever will be. He is extraordinary in centerfield, and putting him lower in the order may allow him to relax and find his stride. It’s exciting to see him run and I hope he will get over whatever hump is stopping him; but for now it is excruciating to see him always hitting with an 0-2 count and knowing that a swing and miss will follow. As for Mauer, how long will his reputation and huge salary protect him? He is no longer the hitter who can wait for the pitcher to throw two strikes before he starts to swing. Without power, without speed, and with defenses shifted to cover his inside-out stroke, there is so little margin for error. Will he comfortably slide down to the 6th hole, or 8th?
Anyway, these are the little dramas we will watch as they play out over the summer. It is the soap opera of personalities, not just the game itself, that makes baseball so intriguing. Who knows how the Vikings’ left guard is doing? And some games a receiver may hardly be thrown at. But we know, and can watch, every single baseball player and can judge him in isolation, live and die with every at bat.

Game 4


One beauty of the World Series is that it magnifies baseball, the most analyzable of sports. Every pitch seems to matter, every run is discussable, every move debatable, and last night’s 5-3 Royals win over the Mets was a perfect example.

First, the Mets’ runs: how did Michael Conforto, a rookie who had looked overmatched in every previous game – playing only because Michael Cuddyer looked even worse – suddenly hit two solo home runs and turn, in front of the viewing public, from prospect to future star? Granted, one was off a mediocre get-it-over-first-strike from mild-throwing Chris Young early in the game, but hard-throwing lefty Daniel Duffy should have been on alert when he faced Conforto later in the game – although Duffy hadn’t surrendered a homer to a lefty in about three years and Conforto had never hit one off a lefty.

The Mets’ middle run, which for awhile loomed as the game-winner, was even more baffling. After a rare passed ball by catcher Sal Perez allowed Wilmer Flores to move to third base with one out, Curtis Granderson hit a medium-short fly to right. Alex Rios came loping forward, with perfect position and momentum to gun out Flores at the plate. But he thought there were two outs and the inning would be over; when he heard his teammates’ cries and belatedly threw home it was too late. But was it? The Royals challenged the run, claiming Flores had departed third too early. An agonizing video replay showed Flores’ foot leaving the bag as the ball entered Rios’s glove, but was there a spike still in contact with the bag? Replays were “inconclusive” and the run stood. Of course, it wouldn’t have been fair to disallow a run on such a technicality that had no effect on the play – but then again the Royals had lost a potential first-inning rally when a clear stolen base by Alcides Escobar was turned into a double play on batter’s interference.

The Royals got their runs in their usual way, pecking here, pouncing there. Mets starter Stephen Matz looked untouchable for four innings – but prior Met starters Harvey and DeGrom had also looked unhittable before they didn’t. The Royals don’t seem discouraged by early difficulties, they just keep hacking and eventually got to Matz and his relief help for two runs in the sixth. The commentators questioned not pinch-hitting for Matz when he batted in the fifth, but that overlooked the fact that he is as good a hitter as almost anyone on the bench at that point.

It was the Royals’ four-run 8th inning that turned the game, and probably wrapped up the Series, that is being discussed today, and here every move has its detractors. After reliever Tylar Clippard got one out he walked two batters, albeit on close 3-2 pitches, leading manager Terry Collins to turn to his closer, Jeurys Familia. Why not bring in Familia after the first walk, asked the TV announcer? Why not bring him in to start the inning, asked the morning-after pundits? Collins was roundly chastised for wanting to save Familia so he could also use him in Game 5 tonight. You’ve got to win Game 4 first!, the critics cry. On the other hand, if Familia had gotten five quick outs, Collins’s use would have been considered wise. And furthermore, given Familia’s lack of success – facing four batters, he only retired one – it might not have mattered at what point he entered the game.

The key topic of discussion, however, was the error by Daniel Murphy on the slow grounder from Eric Hosmer, the first batter Familia faced. Did this lose the game – a la Bill Buckner in 19TK? First, let me note it was not a routine play. Murphy had to charge the ball, with a base runner moving in front of him. Although Hosmer is not among the fastest Royals, the team speed they had shown had to subconsciously put pressure on Murphy to rush the play. Nor is it clear to me that had Murphy fielded the ball cleanly he would have gotten Hosmer out. As the announcer commented at the time, Murphy was probably undecided whether he was going to shovel the ball to first with his glove or transfer it to his throwing hand. Either way, it would be tricky for the less-than-adept Murphy and a close play at first.

Even assuming an out is recorded at first, there are runners at second and third, both of whom would have scored on Moustakas’s ensuing ground ball single to right, let alone the following line drive to right by Perez. The Royals would have taken a 4-3 lead, and while not as comfortable as the 5-3 margin, there’s no reason to believe it would not have been sufficient for Wade Davis, who shut out the Mets over the last two frames.

Still, it is easier to put the onus on Murphy – especially as he is positioned to bear it. He is the single greatest reason the Mets beat the Dodgers and Cubs and reached the World Series. The amazing achievement of homering in six straight postseason games will be dimmed by the memory of his error, but only slightly. What the Murphy error does do, I predict, is make it easier for Mets management to sever ties when the season ends. They were largely predicted to do so before the postseason began, but Murphy’s heroics might have made it seem heartless to not offer him a contract for next year, despite his journeyman past, his mediocre fielding and baserunning (and, dare I say, religious right-wing opinions, out of place in New York). If anything, his defensive deficiencies were more apparent on the Moustakas single that followed the Hosmer error. Murphy dove and just missed the ground ball, and it’s easy to think of a dozen other second basemen that would have gotten to the ball.

My last thought on the game last night is prompted by the final play, a soft line drive from Lucas Duda that Moustakas caught easily and threw to first to double up Yoenis Cespedes. Cespedes’ sleepwalking at first, on top of his month-long slump, has undoubtedly clouded the Mets’ determination to resign him as a free agent, especially if there are any more Confortos in the wings. But the Royals’ luck was not just Cespedes’ gaffe, but that Duda’s ball was hit directly at Moustakas, the only fielder on the left side of the infield. The Royals have consistently applied a shift against Duda, a power-hitting lefty, moving shortstop Escobar to the other side of second. Duda, however, has hit at least five balls to the left side against the Royals, including three base hits – far more damage than he has done to the right. Why have the Royals not adapted? Furthermore, the Royals, unlike many other major league teams, have left their third baseman by himself on the left, instead of their more agile shortstop. Moustakas has stumbled over a ground ball and had trouble fielding a pop up behind him. Can’t they see that if they choose to continue their shift – which I would advise against – it’s Moustakas who should be moved, not Escobar.

That’s it until tonight’s Game 5…and maybe one or two more.