World Series Weekend: Five Questions for Three (or Two) Royals-Mets Games

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Down 2-0 in the World Series to the Royals’ contact-hitting, run-suppressing juggernaut, the Mets head home for Games 3, 4, and 5 this weekend, trying to become the 14th team to come back out of 79 that have lost the first two games of a postseason best-of-seven. While the Royals have a chance to close out the season at Citi Field, New York will hope that home-field advantage, the real Noah Syndergaard, or the sheer fatigue caused by hitting so many singles will slow Kansas City’s assault enough for the Mets to draw blood.

The following five factors could help dictate which way the wins blow this weekend. Study them now so you’ll be better prepared than Kansas City Santa when the games begin.

Will the Mets Keep Enabling Esky Magic?

alcides-escobar-slideSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In the last 10 days, we’ve heard and read a bunch about the Royals’ advance-scouting acumen, most of it real and some of it (maybe) imagined. The Royals’ victory over the Blue Jays, we learned, was made possible in part by viewers like you, Mike Jirschele’s knowledge of Jose Bautista’s throwing habits, and the Royals scouts’ realization that David Price (1) rarely makes pickoff attempts, (2) points the toes on his right foot down during his delivery, and (3) tips his changeup by taking an extra deep breath before throwing one. Even Kansas City’s offensive performance against Jacob deGrom was driven by pitch-tipping, some suggested, although that seems like a stretch when we could just as easily credit their success to elite contact skills coupled with poor pitching command.

Whatever the depth of their pitch-picking-up powers, it’s undeniable that the Royals have helped themselves out by paying attention to their opponents’ subtle tics. Meanwhile, it seems likely the Mets are hurting themselves by ignoring a blindingly obvious one.

The clichés about baseball’s unpredictability are true: Judging by Game Score, Johnny Cueto just threw the worst start in Royals postseason history and the best start in Royals postseason history in back-to-back outings. But there is one outcome that’s close to a certainty in an uncertain sport: Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar will probably swing at the first pitch he sees in Game 3. Escobar, who’s batting .364 in the postseason and slugging .727 in the Series, swung at 44.7 percent of first-inning first pitches in the regular season, well above the 24.4 percent league average. But when he returned to the leadoff spot in late September after being pushed down the order, Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum urged him to be even more aggressive, and Escobar took the advice to heart, swinging at first-inning first pitches in his final five regular-season games. In the postseason, he’s offered at 11 of 13, including each of the last nine he’s seen. It’s not just that Escobar has been instructed to swing, or that he believes it’s a sensible strategy that’s brought him success. He’s also been peer-pressured by a teamwide belief that when he swings at the first pitch, the Royals will win. Everything is telling him to hack.

Sveum’s advice seems counterintuitive, but it may have been brilliant. Escobar had the highest first-pitch strike percentage of any qualified AL hitter during the regular season, and the third-lowest walk rate. While it would have been nice if Sveum could have turned Esky into a selective hitter who works counts and draws walks, that probably isn’t in his skill set. So instead, Sveum took Esky’s natural aggressiveness and channeled it into a more productive path.

The truth is that pitchers are asking for it on the opening pitch, too. They almost always throw fastballs, and they aim much more often than usual for the center of the zone, according to called-strike probabilities provided by Pitch Info.1

Sample Swing% Called-Strike Probability Fastball%
All Pitches 47.1 46.9 63.6
First Pitch of PA 28.9 53.2 68.9
First Pitch of Game 24.4 59.0 97.2

Pitchers aren’t unlike us: They tend to ease into their outings with an easier offering, the same way we queue up a podcast or check on our fantasy standings when we sign in at work. Hitters also take some time to adjust to their surroundings: They rarely swing at first-inning first pitches, even though they’re inviting. The problem for the pitchers is that Escobar isn’t queuing up podcasts. Esky’s in the conference room, dressed in a dry-cleaned suit on casual Friday, halfway through a PowerPoint presentation that you ignored an Outlook reminder about. He’s crossing the border before the enemy mobilizes.

I know this. You know this. The pitchers who’ve recently faced Escobar knew this. And yet! Of the 18 first-inning first pitches that Esky has seen since he decided to swing at (almost) all of them, only one (an R.A. Dickey knuckler) was something other than a four-seam fastball, and only three were more likely to be called balls than strikes. The interactive graphic below shows the location (from the pitcher’s perspective) of every first-inning first pitch to Escobar since his heart-to-heart with Sveum. Mouse over the circles to see video and some stats about each pitch.

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The blue circles are the first-inning first pitches from Matt Harvey and deGrom, which led to a hard-hit inside-the-park home run and a hard-hit fly out. The two pitches were so centrally located that had Escobar taken them, they would have been 98.9 percent and 98.8 percent likely to be called strikes. Judging by Travis d’Arnaud’s targets, the Mets intended to throw Escobar strikes, which seems somewhere between suboptimal and insane.

Escobar has been asked why pitchers continue to challenge him despite knowing that he’s geared up to swing. “I don’t know why they do that,” he said. “I guess they don’t want to throw a ball on the first pitch and get behind.” In theory, that strategy makes some sense. After 1-0 counts this season, Escobar batted .279/.350/.344. After 0-1 counts, he batted .217/.242/.267. But these days, there is no “after.” There is only 0-0. And even if a pitcher is determined to bring the heat, there’s still an advantage to throwing Escobar fastballs outside the zone.

Fastballs to Alcides Escobar, 2009–15
Location Whiff% BABIP SLGBIP
In Zone 8.3 .296 .418
Out of Zone 15.7 .250 .357

Maybe it’s machismo that keeps making pitchers come to Esky instead of setting their own terms. Maybe it’s the allure of getting an unintimidating hitter out with one pitch. Maybe it’s playoff adrenaline overriding reason. Whatever the explanation, the Mets would be better off if they really explored the studio space. And Syndergaard could be the one to break the strike streak:

Might one of those tricks be the inconceivable — a pitch outside the strike zone? We’ll find out tonight.

Will the Mets Make Kansas City Expand?

Just as the Mets should consider grooving fewer first-inning pitches to Escobar, they might also benefit from pitching around other Royals. Even more so than expected, New York has had trouble getting swings-and-misses, as exemplified by deGrom’s first-ever failure to get a whiff with his fastball. The Mets have adjusted to Kansas City’s skills against fastballs by throwing fewer four-seamers, but it hasn’t helped: The Royals are batting .355 on secondary stuff.

This might be because the Mets aren’t hitting (or aiming for) the right spots. The Royals had the fifth-highest chase rate in baseball this season, and the second-highest in the American League. No other playoff team ranked in baseball’s top 10. The Royals like to swing, and they don’t draw walks. And like Escobar, they suffer as a unit when they swing at pitches that wouldn’t be strikes.

Location Whiff% BABIP SLGBIP
In Zone 11.9 .334 .533
Out of Zone 35.2 .299 .389

The latter figures aren’t bad by out-of-zone standards, but they’re worse than the alternative. Yet the Mets haven’t stayed away from the plate, even when they’ve been ahead in the count. The Royals have made contact on 83 percent of their two-strike swings in the Series, much higher than their 66 percent regular-season rate. Maybe that’s because they haven’t had to chase.

With two strikes, the Mets have thrown 46.3 percent of their pitches in the strike zone. League average during the regular season was 41.9, and even lower (40.2 percent) against Kansas City. Plus, the fastball-heavy Mets averaged 44.2 percent in the regular season, below their World Series rate. Against the aggressive Royals, the Mets should be “wasting” more pitches, not fewer.

Mets manager Terry Collins is aware that something needs to change. “I told Jake not everything has to be a strike,” Collins said after Game 2. “You’ve got to move it around. You’ve got to change speeds, give them something to look at. If you continue to pound the strike zone, they’re going to put it in play, and that’s what they did.”

If the rate of Mets pitches over the plate stems from fatigue — as Harvey’s missing stuff and deGrom’s inconsistency suggest — there isn’t an easy fix. But if it’s more about their mind-set, it’s not too late to take the proper precautions.

Will Mets Pitchers Continue to Enjoy a Larger Strike Zone?

degrom-darnaud-metsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

On the rare occasions when Kansas City hitters have taken pitches instead of slapping them through holes, Mets pitchers have enjoyed a larger strike zone than Royals pitchers in this series:

Pitching Team Called Strike% in Zone Called Strike% Out of Zone
Mets 87.8 8.3
Royals 74.0 6.6

That’s a larger difference in results than we’d expect to see, especially since the Mets were on the road, where teams tend to get fewer calls. But some difference isn’t surprising given the strengths of the teams’ catchers.

I won’t start this next bit by saying, “Not to take anything away from Royals catcher Salvador Perez,” because I am about to take something away (namely, his reputation as a strong receiver). What I will say is that even after I take that thing away, what’s left will still be a very good catcher. Even in a down year at the plate, Perez was an average offensive catcher. Thanks to a quick pop time, he’s no worse than average at throwing runners out, and he’s both a good blocker of balls in the dirt and a good game-caller. He’s also extremely durable and an elite signer of team-friendly contract extensions. At most of those things, he’s as good as or better than d’Arnaud (who’s improved his blocking and throwing this season).

However, unlike d’Arnaud, he’s not a great receiver, framer, or presenter (whichever term you prefer). Among 43 catchers with at least 3,000 framing chances this season, d’Arnaud ranked second behind Yasmani Grandal in extra strikes per framing chance. Perez ranked 28th.

Let’s do a quick visual comparison. Here’s d’Arnaud on back-to-back pitches from Jon Niese to Mike Moustakas in Game 2. The first pitch, a cutter, has a 15.0 percent strike probability. The second, a curve, has a 28.2 percent strike probability. Niese gets both calls.

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Particularly on the first pitch, d’Arnaud’s body and arm remain almost motionless: He reorients his glove to make the location look better but barely bends his elbow. Compare that to Perez in Game 1 on a Kelvin Herrera fastball to David Wright with a 92.8 percent strike probability:

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We can’t blame bad command for the ball call, since Herrera hits the glove. The difference is the noticeable jerk in Perez’s glove arm, which makes it appear as if he’s had to go to more effort to make the pitch look like a strike. Excess motion costs catchers calls.

Here’s Perez in Game 2 on back to-to-back fastballs from Johnny Cueto to Michael Conforto, with strike probabilities of 87.7 percent and 78.9 percent. Both were called balls.

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Cueto comes close to the glove on both pitches, but Perez does him no favors, making no effort to frame the first pitch. He pauses a little longer after the second pitch, but his head drops down as he receives it, which Mike Fast identified as a framing risk factor in his seminal 2011 study.

During the regular season, Perez was a bit better at getting strikes on high pitches (possibly because of his height), while d’Arnaud was better at getting strikes on low pitches.

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In the low-strike-zone era, when pitchers are aiming for the knees and below, it’s better to excel at receiving low pitches than high ones. As a result, d’Arnaud’s receiving skills are better suited to the way umpires call pitches today. Which is all the more reason for Mets pitchers to stay as far from the center as Ted Cruz.

Will We Witness the Firepower of a Fully Armed and Operational Danny Duffy?

Last October, we wondered what Royals lefty Danny Duffy had done to deserve such sporadic usage in October. Duffy recorded the lowest regular-season ERA of any Kansas City starter, and while his peripherals weren’t as stellar, it seemed as if he’d done plenty to deserve a start on a team that was light enough on arms to give the ball to Jeremy Guthrie in Game 7 of the World Series. Instead, he got into only three of Kansas City’s 15 postseason games, pitching a total of 4.2 innings.

There’s often a method to what looks like Ned Yost’s madness. And the day after the World Series, we found out what it was: a stress reaction in Duffy’s rib cage, which limited him to two or three innings at a time. Yost wanted to use him, but Duffy wasn’t up to the task.

This year, Duffy has a clean bill of health (as far as we know), and the Royals groomed him for postseason relief work, using him six times out of the bullpen over their last 10 regular-season games. Even so, Duffy has been brought in almost as infrequently as he was last year, accumulating only 4.1 innings and just one multi-inning outing. His performance isn’t a problem, either: In 12.2 combined regular-season and postseason relief innings, he’s been as dominant as Wade Davis or Kelvin Herrera, striking out 19 of the 48 batters he’s faced while walking only two. And the stuff matches the stats: With less need to conserve his strength, Duffy’s average fastball velocity has spiked into the upper 90s.

The Royals have made it this far despite Duffy’s light usage thanks to their deep roster of right-handers (and the Blue Jays’ lack of lefties). But his time to shine could come this weekend. Four of the Mets’ big bats hit left-handed, and while they’re somewhat spread out in the lineup, there’s no reason to think the new version of Duffy couldn’t tackle a righty or two. Thanks to Cueto’s complete game on Wednesday and the off day on Thursday, K.C.’s bullpen is fairly fresh. But with no off days in New York and iffier arms scheduled to start, expect Duffy to become a bigger part of the bridge to Davis. Which brings us to our last factor for the weekend:

Which Manager Will Beware the Third Time Through?

ned-yost-terry-collinsRon Vesely/MLB Photos/Getty Images

By the end of October, writers are as tired of using our “third time through the order” macros as you are of reading the results. But there is a penalty that affects every pitcher2 as he faces repeat batters multiple times (even with a low pitch count), so pulling the starter at the right moment is one of the most important postseason moves a manager can make. And many managers are still too slow with their hooks. Through the first two games, Royals hitters have made 14 plate appearances in which they were facing a Mets pitcher (in this case, Harvey or deGrom) the third time through the order. In those 14 PA, they’ve produced six singles, a double, and a sacrifice fly, scoring six of the team’s 12 runs in the series.

Tony La Russa’s 2011 Cardinals are still the gold standard for third-time-through-the-order avoidance:

2011 Cardinals
Sample % IP by RP % ≥ 3rd Time
Regular Season 31.7 20.9
Playoffs 42.5 13.2

The Cardinals had four postseason starters — Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia, and Edwin Jackson — who finished the regular season with ERA+ marks between 104 and 109: better than average, but barely, with no lights-out ace among them. La Russa acted accordingly, working his good-but-not-great bullpen hard to compensate for his starting staff’s shortcomings. St. Louis won the World Series, which wasn’t a complete coincidence.

Non-TLR managers make some alterations to their pitcher usage in postseason play:

2015 Sample % of IP by RP % of PA ≥ 3rd Time Facing P
Regular Season (All Teams) 35.0 17.6
Regular Season (Playoff Teams) 34.0 18.1
Postseason 38.9 14.5

Across all 2015 playoff teams, relievers have received roughly 14 percent more innings than they did during the regular season, and the percentage of plate appearances the third or fourth time through has dropped by about 20 percent. But that’s probably not quite aggressive enough, given the drastic difference in the postseason schedule, which allows teams to skip weaker starters but also allows them to use their late-inning arms more liberally. And thus far, the Mets’ and Royals’ adjustments have both been a little less aggressive than the October norm.

Mets Royals
Sample % IP by RP % ≥ 3rd Time Sample % IP by RP % ≥ 3rd Time
Regular 31.4 19.2 Regular 37.1 17.0
Playoffs 35.5 17.0 Playoffs 41.2 14.4

The third-time-through effect will loom large this weekend, in light of the matchups in store. With Edinson Volquez in mourning and potentially fatigued from his trip to the Dominican Republic, and Chris Young3 and Steven Matz perhaps their teams’ least-talented starting pitchers, the potential gain from replacing a diminished starter with a full-strength reliever is even greater. On top of that, the Royals will have to navigate the crucial decision about when to deploy Kendrys Morales. Although Yost very rarely pinch hits, he’ll make an exception for Morales, who’ll be benched without the DH spot but will be on call to bat in place of pitchers, which he did seven times in NL parks this season. The enormous offensive gap between him and any Kansas City starter should make Yost think hard about pressing the advantage if the Royals take an early lead.

Thanks to Rob McQuown for research assistance and Nick Wheatley-Schaller for graphics assistance.

Filed Under: 2015 MLB Playoffs, MLB, Baseball, MLB Playoffs, 2015 World Series, World Series, New York Mets, Kansas City Royals, Ned Yost, Terry Collins, yunel escobar, Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz, Chris Young, Edinson Volquez, Travis d'Arnaud, Salvador Perez, Ben Lindbergh

Ben Lindbergh is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ BenLindbergh