Sunday, November 1, 2015

World Series Game Four

It is a well-known cliche that there is no clock in baseball.  However, as Bill James and the stat guys pointed out long ago, you only get 27 outs, and you don't want to waste them.  Back in the 1980's, when guys like Vince Coleman were still regarded as major offensive threats, James and company argued that you couldn't just look at the 110 bases Coleman stole in 1985 -- you also had to count the effects of the 25 times he got caught, because each of those times may have prevented a big inning.  James also applied this lesson to sacrifice bunts -- why give up an out if you don't have to? -- and these days, we have a lot fewer bunts and caught stealings than we used to.

But meanwhile, strikeouts rose as teams began interpreting James's teachings to mean that they should put together a whole team of sluggers who would swing for the fences in every at-bat.  Strikeouts are, of course, the worst way that a team can use its 27 outs, as they provide no chance for errors and no opportunities for runners to advance.  The Blue Jays scored 891 runs this year -- far more than any other team in baseball.  And they did so mostly with lots of home runs.  However, in their last game of the season -- Game Six of the A.L.C.S. in Kansas City -- they really needed only one run to keep their dream alive.  Trailing 4-3, they had runners on 2d and 3d and no one out.  Almost any ball in play would have been sufficient to keep Toronto's season alive.  Instead, the Blue Jays got a strikeout, a strikeout, and a ground out.  So long, thanks for playing.

While the Blue Jays struck out 56 times in the A.L.C.S., the Royals struck out only 35 times -- fewer than six strikeouts per game.  And that's been the story of these playoffs so far.  The Royals -- especially in the late innings -- rarely seem to swing and miss.  They keep fouling and fouling and fouling, and then they eventually make contact.  Sometimes the ball goes right at a fielder.  Sometimes the other side makes a great play.  But over time, balls start to sink in, and the next thing you know Kansas City has come from behind and won another game.

Mets fans are heartbroken over Daniel Murphy's key error in last night's 8th inning -- and there's no doubt that it hurt the Mets badly.  But let's not forget that New York has gotten its own share of breaks in this series.  We've played four games so far -- two were blowouts, with one won by each team.  So the difference in the Series is that Kansas City won the two close games -- Games One and Four.  In each of those games, New York had a late lead.  And both times, the lead was a direct result of a Kansas City miscue.  In Game One, an eighth-inning error by Eric Hosmer put the Mets up 4-3.  Last night, Alex Rios lost track of the number of outs at a key moment, thus allowing Wilmer Flores to score on a sacrifice fly with no serious effort to throw him out.  That run was the reason New York led 3-2 going into the eighth.  So New York has gotten its share of luck.  However, in both of those games, the Mets bullpen was incapable of holding the lead, while the Royals bullpen was lights-out.  For a New York team that lived off of its pitching all year, these are particularly painful ways to lose.  But to someone who watched the Mets all year, they are proof that Kansas City is by far the best team New York has played.

We shouldn't over-simplify the lesson here about Kansas City's putting the ball in play -- the Royals have pop in their bats as well.  Alex Gordon's game-tying homer in the 9th inning of Game One was the most important blow of the series so far.  But after watching San Francisco's patient batters win the title in 2010, 2012, and 2014, and after seeing the Royals go 20-9 in post-season play over the last two years, we hope that some of the more simplistic assumptions associated with "Moneyball" will be abandoned.  The old guys weren't wrong about everything -- putting the ball in play is a good idea, and packing your team with a collection of Mark McGwires is a mistake.

World Series:
Kansas City leads New York 3-1

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