Judging the Royals

How statistics can be misleading

In Saturday afternoon’s playoff game—a 6-4 Royals victory—the Orioles third base coach declined to send a runner home from second base when Nelson Cruz hit a single to left field; probably because the guy standing in left field was Alex Gordon.

And that reminded me of how statistics can be misleading.

Alex Gordon has made a habit of throwing out runners who challenge his arm, so a lot of teams have quit running on him. And if they don’t run, Gordon can’t get an assist for throwing a guy out. So the outfielders with the best arms don’t always have the most assists; people don’t run on them.

If a hitter’s doesn’t strikeout very often that can also be misleading. It sounds good on the surface, but a hitter can avoid striking out by chasing borderline pitches early in the count. Hitters don’t like to strikeout so a lot of them expand the zone once they have just one strike on them. If you wonder why the Royals are hard to strike out, but don’t walk very much; there’s part of your answer.

And how about WHIP?

WHIP is a pitching stat that records walks and hits per innings pitched. But big league pitchers often use the walk to their advantage. Greg Holland has said that in some situations—if he’s facing a dangerous hitter—he might try to make two perfect pitches. If both pitches miss and he’s 2-0 to hell with it; he’s walking the guy and going after the on-deck hitter.

Wade Davis once walked Miguel Cabrera with the bases loaded. After the game I asked Wade if the walk was semi-intentional; did he decide he wasn’t going to give Cabrera anything to hit? Wade said yes; giving up one run was better than giving up four. The Royals lead was big enough that Wade could afford to do that; one run wasn’t devastating—four runs would be.

In both cases pitchers walked batters in an effort to win a ballgame and in both cases it worked.

So anytime you see a stat and think it tells you the whole story, you’re probably wrong; statistics can be misleading.

Two bunt situations

In the second inning of Saturday’s playoff game Omar Infante came to the plate with nobody out and Salvador Perez on first base; I wondered if Infante would bunt. Omar has not been tearing the cover off the ball lately and the Royals were already up 2-0—a third run might be a huge psychological blow to the Orioles.

But any time you bunt or steal, you open up first base and that gives the other team options; they can work around a hot hitter and put him on first base without pushing a runner into scoring position.

And you have to consider who will be at the plate after the bunt; in this case it was Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar. Was it worth giving up an out to get those two hitters to the plate with a runner on second base? And if one of them did single, would Perez be fast enough to score?

In this case Ned Yost let Infante hit away and Omar grounded into a double play. That’s another reason you bunt; hit away and most of the time you’re going to be in a worse situation than a runner on second and one out.

In the ninth inning Yost made a different decision.

Infante singled and Terrance Gore came out to pinch run. The Orioles pitcher was Zach Britton; a lefty. It’s harder to steal second base on a left-handed pitcher—they’re facing the runner and their pickoff moves can be hard to read. But stealing third off a lefty is easier; their backs are to the runner and getting a good jump and lead is possible. So one possible game plan was to bunt Gore to second, then have him steal third.

Yost had Mike Moustakas bunt, even though Mike has been hot in the playoffs. But hot means hitting .375; let Moose swing away and you’re still likely to be in a worse situation than one out, runner on second. And then throw in the fact that Mike is probably not going to hit .375 off Britton; lefties hit .170 off the O’s closer.

So Mike bunted successfully and moved Gore to second base. If the plan was for Gore to steal third, we never found out. Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch he saw and doubled down the right field line—right about where the first baseman would have been positioned had Gore still been on first.

Gore scored standing up and the Moustakas bunt paid off.

What Herrera did wrong

In that Saturday game Kelvin Herrera was charged with a "missed catch error" on a ball put in play by Nick Markakis. But Herrera did not miss the catch—he missed first base.

So how did that happen?

Any time a ball is hit to a pitcher’s left, the pitcher needs to cover first base—and he needs to do it in a specific way. According to at least one baseball manual (the one I happen to own): The pitcher runs to the first-base foul line to a point about 20 feet away from first base. The pitcher then makes a left turn and runs parallel to the foul line; that way he doesn’t cross the bag and collide with the runner.

The first baseman tries to get the ball to the pitcher before the pitcher reaches first base. That way the pitcher isn’t trying to catch the ball with his glove and find the base with his foot at the same time. The pitcher makes the catch, then tags the bag.

In Herrera’s case he ran straight to the bag, took a bad angle, made the catch and then discovered he was too far from the bag to tag it with his foot. This play did not wind up costing the Royals a run, but it’s the kind of thing that needs to get cleaned up before the next game.