Tonight, the Royals and A’s play a single-game elimination to determine the winner of the American League Wild Card, with the winner going on to face the Angels starting on Thursday. Both teams have their best starters on the mound, and Jon Lester versus James Shields is about as good a match-up as you can hope for in a winner-take-all contest. With these two starters, strong defenses, and a pitcher’s park as the venue, we shouldn’t expect a ton of runs to be scored in tonight’s game.
And so the managers for each squad are likely going to feel the pressure to try and steal a run here or there, knowing that in a low run environment, every little advantage could turn out to be the difference between advancement or the end of the team’s season. So, against that background, let’s offer Ned Yost some friendly pieces of advice.
Don’t Ask James Shields To Go Too Deep
Yes, his nickname is “Big Game”, but that’s mostly because his first name happens to rhyme with game, not because he has a stellar track record of performances in the postseason. In fact, Shields has been actually quite mediocre in the postseaosn, running a 104/101 FIP-/xFIP- along with a .327 BABIP that pushes his ERA- to 123. The sample is tiny and the numbers aren’t useful in any real way, but let’s at least understand that the origin of the nickname isn’t based on Shields having any kind of great run of success in October.
Of course, he’s still a very good pitcher, and one of his hallmarks is going deep into games; he ranked 4th in the majors in total batters faced this year, averaging 28 batters faced per start. But tonight is an elimination game, and James Shields shouldn’t face anywhere close to 28 batters. He maybe shouldn’t face more than 18.
The negative effects on a pitcher facing a hitter multiple times throughout the same game have been well documented, and the effect is both real and substantial. Here are the average lines against a pitcher this year the first, second, and third time they face a starter within the same game:
The gap between a pitcher’s average performance the first time they face a hitter and the third time they face a hitter is 22 points of batting average, 23 points of on base percentage, and 48 points of slugging percentage. This is a big difference, and the times through the order penalty means that by the time a pitcher has gone through the line-up twice, he probably should be expected to be less effective than almost any reliever in the bullpen, even a very good pitcher and a pretty mediocre reliever.
And the Royals have a lot of relievers who don’t qualify as mediocre. We think of James Shields as an excellent starter because he’s held batters to a career .313 wOBA against him, and he’s right in line with that at .310 this year. Here are the career wOBAs as allowed out of the bullpen by the Royals primary relievers:
On a per-batter-faced basis, each of these relievers have performed as well or better than Shields; he’s essentially equivalent in offensive production allowed to a guy who is widely considered to be a busted prospect and the team’s fifth best reliever. And that’s Shields’ overall performance, which includes the batters he faces the first time through the order. By the time he’s facing a hitter the third time, his expected wOBA against is closer to .320 or .325; worse than just about any pitcher the Royals might bring out of the bullpen tonight.
The Royals biggest advantage over other teams is their relief corps, and they’ve done a good enough job building depth that they don’t need to ask Shields to pitch through the order more than twice tonight. Given an expected .300 on base percentage against him, that would put him in line to get something like 12 or 13 outs, leaving the remaining 14 or 15 for the bullpen.
That’s three outs apiece for Frasor and Herrera to get the team through the sixth inning, and then Davis and Holland can split the final three innings between them, with Crow and Scott Downs or Francisco Bueno around for situational match-up work if it’s needed. The team had a day off yesterday and will have a day off tomorrow, so there’s no reason to hold back on the bullpen usage. Even with “Big Game James” on the mound, the Royals best chance to win is to get him out of the game after 18 batters faced.
Don’t Give Away Too Many Outs On Purpose
The Royals surprisingly haven’t actually been too bunt happy this year, as their 33 sacrifice bunts rank just seventh in the American League. However, Yost got a little too cute towards the end of the year, including some atrocious displays of giving away outs in a late season match-up against the Tigers. In their 3-2 loss to the tigers on September 20th, we saw Yost do the following against Max Scherzer:
1st inning: leadoff double, bunt runner to third.
3rd inning: leadoff single, single, bunt runner to third.
In both cases, the bunter was Nori Aoki, a mediocre hitter who isn’t necessarily expected to drive guys in from second base. However, in both situations, Scherzer buckled down and dominated the next few hitters, inducing three strikesouts and an infield fly, with the bunts leading to scoreless innings in both cases.
Of course a sample of two bunts doesn’t tell us anything, and the results easily could have gone the other way, but Yost mostly did a good job of not falling into the small-ball trap this year, and he shouldn’t get suckered into it just because he thinks low scoring games against good pitchers are the time to start giving away outs. Bunts don’t have to be universally terrible, especially if they are unexpected bunts or attempts to get on base, but Jon Lester is a good enough pitcher that he doesn’t need free outs. Avoid giving him free outs, Ned. Late in the game, playing for one run might very well be the right call, but don’t have your #2 hitter give himself up in the first inning of a scoreless game. It doesn’t help.
Be Very Aggressive Stealing Bases
Instead of bunting to move guys into scoring position, consider stealing bases instead. Your team led the majors in steals this year, swiping 153 bags at an 81% success rate, also best in the majors. Your team is fast and full of guys who know how to run the bases. That’s a big advantage, especially against the A’s, who allowed 100 stolen bases and only threw out 22% of opposing runners, the fourth worst mark in baseball.
And Jon Lester, even as a left-hander, isn’t great at shutting down the running game. For his career, he’s allowed a 70% success rate on stolen base attempts, and that mark was 75% this year. Especially if Derek Norris (career 78% SB%) ends up behind the plate for tonight, the Royals should be extremely aggressive on the bases. Geovany Soto (career 73% SB%) is a little more of a deterrent to the running game, but even if the A’s go with Soto, the Royals should still force the A’s to try and throw them out.
This is the kind of small ball the Royals are good at and the A’s are bad at defending, and this is the kind of scenario where putting the game in motion could actually be a real benefit.
Get to the bullpen early, don’t bunt before the seventh inning of a close game, and give your runners the green light. If the Royals want to advance to the division series, that’s their best shot of getting there.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.