Much to the relief of those who’ve bemoaned how much October commentary has focused on first- and second-guessing, the Royals’ 10-0 victory in Game 6 featured few managerial moves worth critiquing. Maybe that’s the trade-off: Close games are rich in suspense, but the closer they are, the more easily we can make a case that a manager’s decision might have affected the outcome. Tuesday’s game was over early: When the Royals scored their seventh run in the second inning, San Francisco’s win expectancy plunged to 2.3 percent. Fortunately, that gives us a chance to credit the players who got on base, drove in runs, and retired opposing batters without referring to the times-through-the-order effect or a missed pinch-hit opportunity. The Royals won Game 6 without asterisks or caveats, although they couldn’t have run up the score to the degree that they did without enough batted-ball luck to power a small, scrappy city.
For the second time in this series, Jake Peavy started for San Francisco and took the loss. As I noted in my recap of Game 2, Peavy’s previous start, the players on the Royals roster have historically had a lot of success against him, going 60-for-187 (.321) entering last night’s game. Batter-pitcher matchup stats are rarely reliable, but there is another reason to think that the Royals are well constructed to be a pain for Peavy. Unlike Madison Bumgarner, who’s mowed down all comers this month, Peavy doesn’t spend that much time in the strike zone. Of 155 pitchers who threw at least 1,500 pitches in the regular season, Peavy’s 48.2 percent zone rate — the percentage of pitches inside the typical called strike zone — ranked 108th, while Bumgarner’s 52.5 percent mark ranked 28th.
Intuitively, one would think that the aggressive, high-contact Royals would perform better against pitchers who pound the strike zone: Since they’re going to swing regardless, they should have better results when the pitches they see are in hittable spots.
The stats don’t support that theory, however. Here are the Royals’ regular-season splits against starting pitchers with above-average and below-average zone rates. The right-most column, TAv, stands for True Average, Baseball Prospectus’s all-in-one offensive stat on the batting average scale.
|High Zone Rate|
|Low Zone Rate|
Pitchers who hit the strike zone regularly did better on the whole than those who lacked control, nibbled, or relied on convincing batters to chase. They did particularly well against the Royals, who were significantly worse than league average against high-zone-rate starters. Against low-zone-rate starters, though, the Royals hit better than the average team. Maybe that’s because the Royals ranked second in contact percentage on pitches outside the strike zone, although in some cases weak contact is worse than a whiff. It could also be because some pitchers who routinely miss the strike zone tend to throw particularly fat pitches when they do hit the zone, either because they lack command or because they have to aim for the heart of the zone to ensure they don’t fall further behind in the count.
That’s been the case for Peavy this postseason: Of the 32 pitchers who’ve thrown at least 100 pitches this postseason, Peavy has the ninth-highest percentage of “grooved” pitches (those thrown middle-middle). Bumgarner, Yusmeiro Petit, and Yordano Ventura are three of the eight arms ahead of him, but Peavy lacks the combination of stuff and deception that allows others to get away with mistakes. Perhaps that was why Ned Yost had “never felt more strongly about us winning a ballgame in my life than I did yesterday.”
Peavy, featuring essentially the same pitch mix as in his previous start as well as a similar tendency to stay away from the Royals’ bats, escaped a first-and-third jam in the bottom of the first. But disaster struck in the second, when five of the first six batters reached base, driving two runs in and Peavy out. With the bases loaded and one away, Bruce Bochy made a smart move, bringing in longman Petit, who entered the game with 12 scoreless innings under his belt this October. Bochy prefers to use the former (and future?) starter in clean innings, so this was Petit’s first outing with an inherited runner since August 23. He quickly created more runners, allowing three straight hits and five runs before retiring the final two batters.
Peavy1 and Petit deserve some blame, but the Royals benefited from the good bounces that often determine which teams survive short series, thwarting our best efforts at luck-independent analysis. Throughout the season, data provider Inside Edge rates all batted balls as “well-hit,” “medium-hit,” or “weak contact.” During the regular season, Inside Edge deemed 42 percent of all MLB hits “well-hit,” but on Tuesday, only four of the Royals’ 15 hits were well-hit (27 percent). During the regular season, Inside Edge called 23 percent of hits “weak contact,” but on Tuesday, six of the Royals’ hits were weak (40 percent). Typically, only 14 percent of batted balls deemed “weak contact” become hits, but six of the Royals’ 19 weak batted balls in Game 6 did (32 percent). Granted, the Royals are a speedy team, so they might beat out more weakly hit balls than the typical team; still, this was superstition-inducing, Halloween-week stuff.
Who made the shortest World Series start since David Wells’s injury-shortened outing in Game 5 in 2003, and only the second sub-two-inning World Series start of the last 25 years.
Not only did the Royals benefit from soft hits, they compounded their good fortune by clustering those bloopers and bleeders together. Five of the Royals’ six weak-contact hits came in their eight-hit second inning. I’ve labeled them in red on the field diagram below.
The first weak hit was Alex Gordon’s leadoff, broken-bat single to center.
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Before the Series went to San Francisco in Game 3, which demanded some changes to the Royals’ lineup because of the loss of the DH, Yost had used the same order in 18 straight games. No other team used the same order in more than 17 games — let alone 17 consecutive games — during the regular season. With the DH restored for Game 6, Yost could have gone back to that well-worn lineup, but instead he made a minor change, swapping Mike Moustakas and Omar Infante into the eighth and ninth spots, respectively. Thus, it was Moustakas who followed Salvador Perez’s single with a weak double of his own, an extreme pull hit by the team’s most extreme pull hitter, cutting a string of 15 consecutive runs scored by San Francisco.
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Then there was Alcides Escobar’s single to Brandon Belt, which was changed from base hit to fielder’s choice and then back to base hit.
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Belt looked home, not realizing that the runner on third, Perez, was too slow to be running on contact. By the time he recovered, it was too late to tag Escobar, who slid into first base. The Royals, who used their speed and high ground ball rate to lead the majors in infield hits during the regular season, have now accumulated 20 infield hits in the playoffs, tied with Yost’s 1982 Brewers2 for the most in a single postseason, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Harvey’s Wallbangers, of course, were not known for infield hits.
A soft Lorenzo Cain single and a wacky Eric Hosmer hopper off the Royals’ packed-down infield dirt completed the BABIP barrage. “If [Peavy] had a little luck, he probably gets out of that inning,” Bochy said after the game. “They just hit the ball where we couldn’t get to it.”
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The Royals tacked on after that, scoring once in the third and once in the fifth off Jean Machi, who ate up three innings (his longest outing since April 2013) in order to save the elite pitchers in the Giants’ pen for Game 7. When Infante scored the ninth run in the fifth, he ran around the third-base coach on his way to the plate, a visual metaphor for the circuitous route to run scoring the Royals have followed all season.
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The final run came on a seventh-inning Moustakas homer — yet another long ball off dinger dispenser Hunter Strickland, whose sixth big fly allowed in October broke Chris Narveson’s record for home runs surrendered by a reliever in a single postseason. That’s twice as many homers as Royals relievers Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland have combined to allow in the regular season and postseason combined.
Ventura’s start, meanwhile, went smoothly. The 23-year-old dedicated his outing to the late Cardinals outfielder Oscar Taveras, his friend and countryman, who died Sunday at age 22. Wearing a cap bearing Taveras’s scrawled-on initials and number — a violation of MLB uniform rules that (hopefully) no one will have the heart to protest3 — Ventura was the proverbial effectively wild pitcher, scattering five walks while throwing 58 percent strikes but allowing only three hits over seven innings.
MLB cracked down when a few players tried something similar to honor Kirby Puckett in 2006.
At the time, there was no way to tell how events would unfold, but in retrospect, we can say that the top of the first set the tone for the Royals’ run prevention. Ventura allowed a leadoff home run to Gregor Blanco in Game 2, but he struck out Blanco on a 96 mph four-seam fastball to start Game 6. That one swing-and-miss with his four-seamer equaled Ventura’s total from Game 2. The second out came on yet another fine Cain catch in right-center, and the third on a grounder to shortstop Escobar, who bungled two balls in Game 5 — perhaps, as Yost suggested before Game 6, because of the unfamiliar feel of San Francisco’s watered-down infield — but handled this one well on his home surface. Extended far behind his previous single-season record workload, Ventura’s velocity stayed high, and rather than show San Francisco’s strong fastball hitters more soft stuff, he increased his cutter and four-seamer usage, and also worked more up and away. Firing away with his save-celebration-like delivery, Ventura lasted long enough to put the Royals’ pen in a great position for Game 7.
If you’re wondering why Ventura’s heat doesn’t deliver scoreless outings more often, Statcast, MLBAM’s player-tracking technology, might offer a clue. Consider the speed stats in these screenshots from two recently released, Statcast-enhanced videos.
These pitches are separated by 5.8 mph in actual velocity, but only 1.3 mph in perceived velocity. Danny Duffy, who’s just three inches taller than Ventura, releases the ball 2.5 feet closer to home plate (at least on this particular pitch), which makes his fastball seem swifter than it actually is, while Ventura’s stuff plays down. Ventura’s strikeout rate might match his stuff if he could increase his extension.
Before and after tonight’s first pitch, you’re going to hear and read plenty of stats about Game 7s. Maybe you already have: As ESPN’s Jayson Stark observed on Monday’s season finale of the Jonah Keri podcast, no team has won a World Series Game 7 on the road since 1979, which makes it sound as if the Giants have an extraordinarily tough task ahead of them. Really, though, that stat concerns a subset of a subset of a subset: They play only one World Series a year, after all, and that series doesn’t usually go seven, and only one team has the opportunity to clinch on the road. Beneath that “since 1979” headline, we’re talking about only nine straight Game 7 losses on the road. Streaks that short aren’t predictive: The Royals won eight straight coming into this series, but they’ve won only three of six since then. In reality, there’s little evidence that teams have a greater home-field advantage when the stakes are especially high.
In their second straight elimination game, the Royals will go with Jeremy “Game 7” Guthrie, the worst starter on their roster, whose zero strikeouts in Game 3 are a better indicator of his true talent than the two runs he allowed in five innings. He’ll oppose Tim Hudson, backed up by an all-hands-on-deck San Francisco staff (save for Machi). Because both managers made pitching decisions with Game 7 in mind — Bochy, for instance, removed Petit after 17 pitches (14 of them strikes) — they have the luxury of using short hooks tonight, with the Royals ready to rely heavily on their rested trio and the Giants prepared to deploy Bumgarner in relief, the bogeyman in the bullpen. For the Royals to complete their improbable path to a title, they’ll have to score early or come back to beat the guy having one of the best Octobers ever. “We’re loaded tomorrow, I feel,” Bochy said, “and they are, too.” My advice for both managers: Always be warming. These pens are too stacked for either team not to have the right guy ready for any rally.
We’ve been treated to a fantastic postseason, so it’s fitting that this series would go seven. Kansas City is appropriately pumped: In the closing moments of Game 6, just before the fireworks went off, fans stood, drums pounded, and towels waved. The scene will be similar tonight, with another loud, sellout crowd hoping that the parallels to the 1985 World Series that the Fox broadcast pointed out presage another title.
Both the Royals and the Giants survived win-or-go-home wild-card games to get here. After tonight, both teams will go home, but only one will have won. These aren’t the best teams in baseball. But this is as good as baseball gets.