Judging the Royals

How the postseason is different

Let’s say your team has an offensive philosophy wins you 96 games that season. That’s a pretty good deal; 96 wins will almost certainly put you in the playoffs. But remember; that 96-win philosophy is also going to give you 66 losses—you’re still losing about 41 percent of the time. On the other hand, who cares about those 66 losses if you make the postseason?

But after you reach the postseason the game changes.

The weaker teams have been eliminated. Now you can’t afford to say who cares if we lose tonight as long as we make the playoffs. Now you might have to win tonight; you can’t afford to think long term—you’ve got to win the game you’re in. And what if the kind of game you’re in doesn’t favor your style of play?

In Game Four of the American League Championship Series, with the Baltimore Orioles down by one run in the ninth, Adam Jones walked to start the inning. Jones stole seven bases during the season and was caught once, but with slugger Nelson Cruz at the plate, Jones wasn’t going anywhere.

Cruz hit a ball back to the mound that should have resulted in a double play, but Royals closer Greg Holland’s throw to second base was off-line. Shortstop Alcides Escobar managed to catch the bad throw and stay on the bag to get one out. Cruz was then on first with a fielder’s choice and Alejandro De Aza pinch ran for him.

During the season De Aza had a total of two stolen bases and was caught three times; once again a Baltimore base runner wasn’t going anywhere. De Aza watched Delmon Young strike out on five pitches; five more pitches later De Aza was still at first when J.J. Hardy hit a groundball to third base to end the game and the series. No wonder: the Baltimore Orioles were first in the American League in home runs, but were not a base-stealing team.

So when they ran into excellent pitching and the home runs weren’t coming, the Orioles didn’t have much of a running game to fall back on. An approach that won them 96 games over the course of the season did not work when they had to win the game they were in.

Team that are versatile—teams that can manufacture a run—have an advantage when the big hits aren’t coming. The Kansas City Royals have had some very big hits in the post-season, but their ability to manufacture a run when necessary is one of the reasons they’ve had so much recent success.

Because the postseason is different.

How the postseason changes relief pitching

Here’s the best metaphor I can think of: someone watches a marathon runner put on a finishing kick and then asks why the runner didn’t run the entire race that fast. The answer is pretty obvious; a marathon runner has to pace himself.

So do pitchers.

Lately Ned Yost has been doing some unusual things with his relievers; he’s been bringing them into games early and asking them to get more than three outs. It’s working, so why didn’t he do this earlier?

Because if Yost had been using the relievers that way all summer he would have burnt out the bullpen. The Royals are now in their finishing kick and Yost can ask the relievers to do more in October than he could ask of them in July.

And postseason days-off also matter.

During the season you rarely use your best relievers when you’re team doesn’t have a lead or if your lead is too big. Use a good reliever in a blowout on Tuesday and he might not be available for a close game on Thursday. But if you know your best relievers are going to get a day off on Thursday, you can use them on Tuesday and Wednesday—even if you don’t have a lead, even if you’re going to ask them to get you some extra outs. You know a day off is coming.

It’s one of the reason you’ll keep seeing the same relievers game after game; the postseason is different.