Watching the late innings of of the ALCS, I had but one thought: The Orioles have no chance here. With the exception of stolen bases, that series was basically “the Royals way” in a nutshell. Get better starting pitching than you’d expect, scratch out just enough offense, receive some outstanding defense, and turn the game over to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland for the final three innings.
The Royals haven’t discovered some new market inefficiency there, because “have good relievers” isn’t exactly cutting edge. It’s easier said than done, of course, because as difficult as it is to find one reliever like that, the Royals have come up with three of them. It’s why it’s very much selling Davis short when we refer to the deal that brought him to town as “the James Shields trade,” because while Shields has obviously pitched significantly more innings, Davis’ impact has been enormous. It’s the redundancy there that’s really incredible, because if one has an off night — which rarely ever happens — Ned Yost still has two others at his disposal.
Still, it got me thinking about how anyone could come back in the late innings against that group, and when Buster Olney’s column yesterday pointed out that the Royals were an AL-best 65-4 when leading after six innings, it really drove home how rarely such a thing happens. But there’s still that “4” out there, so it’s not like it never happens, and by diving into the Baseball-Reference innings database, we can see that they also blew a game apiece when leading after seven and eight.
So, how did it happen? How, other than waiting for the inevitable imperfections of humanity to show up, do you beat the unbeatable? Let’s break it open. First, a note: There’s actually slightly more occurrences than the six times B-R indicates. Why? Because they have it defined as “leads after X innings,” and that’s not always how baseball works. For example, the Royals could be tied or behind at the end of an inning, take the lead in the top of the inning, and then blow it in the bottom of the inning. That would be a late lead blown, but not counted because a lead was never held at the end of a full inning. Sometimes, also, the bullpen could blow a lead and be saved by the offense later.
I’ve accounted for that as much as possible, but with the understanding that there may be one or two that slipped through the cracks, here’s how you come back from a deficit against the Kansas City bullpen in the late innings. Spoiler alert: Mostly, you don’t.
By feasting on the weaker relievers
As great as those three are, Yost can’t use them every single game, and his other options have been limited. It took him all season to realize that Aaron Crow isn’t what he used to be — have we forgotten the mid-September disaster against the Red Sox where Crow allowed a grand slam to Daniel Nava, because “it wasn’t Herrera’s inning” already? Louis Coleman couldn’t find the plate or avoid homers; Francisley Bueno had his moments but was generally uninspiring. Every reliever other than the big three were replacement-level or worse; an exception there is mid-season acquisition Jason Frasor, who was valuable for the team but pitched only 17.2 innings this season.
For the Royals, this happened to them on the very first day of the season, when Shields put two on with one out in the seventh inning in Detroit, up 3-1. Less than nine innings into the season, Yost was already being second-guessed:
The Royals blew a two-run lead and failed to capitalize a wobbly version of Tigers ace Justin Verlander. Their relievers malfunctioned, and Yost invited questions about his deployment of them.
Castellanos would be safe, and a run would score, then Alex Gonzalez would tie the game with a triple. Of course, this one’s not all on Crow. Davis, working into his second inning in the ninth, put two men on. Yost went out to get Holland, who immediately allowed the game-winning hit. Following the game, Yost uttered the quote that would launch a million angry tweets:
“I’m not going to start [Holland] in the ninth in a tie ballgame,” Yost said. “But the game was on the line right there. I wanted to put my best pitcher in there, at that time, to try to get us to the top of the 10th.”
Beating up on the other guys is easily the best strategy, though not one that applies to the postseason. (For example, Donnie Joseph’s lone appearance for the team this year came on June 16, when he turned an 11-2 ninth-inning laugher into a terrifying 11-8 victory. He was a Marlin by the end of the month.) But even some of the blown leads by the lesser relievers are less about “these guys aren’t very good” than it is about “baseball happens.” For example, on July 25, Bueno entered with a 4-3 lead and runners on second and third, thanks in part to a Mike Moustakas throwing error. He threw all of four pitches and got Jason Kipnis to fly out, but because Yan Gomes scored from third, it was a sacrifice fly. Billy Butler would later homer to give the Royals the win.
But enough about the guys who aren’t on the roster right now. How about the big three?
By getting help from poor defense
This seems like a sustainable strategy! On April 13, the Royals scored three runs in the top of the eighth in Minnesota to turn a 2-0 hole into a 3-2 lead. Crow entered and immediately walked the first two, and remember when Crow was entrusted with important situations? Davis replaced him and struck out the side… eventually. After striking out Joe Mauer, Davis walked Trevor Plouffe, and then induced a weak grounder from Chris Herrmann, and… oh.
Davis has made two throwing errors in four years. You probably shouldn’t count on this to happen too often.
Holland, pitching for the third day in a row, also ran into some trouble on July 24, walking Carlos Santana on a pitch (No. 5 below) that Perez seemed completely indifferent towards, as far as framing goes. (He ranked near the bottom in the 2014 framing ranks.)
Santana advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and a groundout, then scored the tying run on Yan Gomes‘ single. Sometimes, that’s all it takes. The Royals would win in 14, anyway.
This also bit Herrera a bit on May 25, a game that was problematic for a number of reasons. Jason Vargas had left one on and one out with a 3-0 lead in Anaheim, and Herrera got Raul Ibanez to hit a ball that second baseman Pedro Ciriaco really should have come up with, but didn’t. After a fly out, there were two on for Mike Trout, who doubled past third baseman Jimmy Paredes.
Right there, the fact that I’m writing “Ciriaco” and “Paredes” tells you something about this one, and while Moustakas probably doesn’t get the Trout ball cleanly enough to make an out, he might have been able to at least knock it down. Herrera, however, quickly fell apart, hitting Albert Pujols and allowing two singles, with the inning finally ending when Pujols was thrown out at home.
Because ever so rarely, they’re human
Davis allowed two earned run to the White Sox on April 5, turning a 3-1 lead into a tie game thanks to a sequence that went: single, hit by pitch, walk, single, sac fly, strikeout, lineout. That would be three earned runs in his first four games — which overlap with the first four games of the KC season, though there were days off — and he’d allow three in his next 61. Yost alluded to “faulty mechanics,” and maybe that’s true, though nothing shows up in the Brooks charts. If anything, this game was most notable for the broadcast team talking about how much Lorenzo Cain was struggling in center, ostensibly due to a very bright afternoon sky.
The next time Davis allowed a run, it was months later on Sept. 16, though it wasn’t entirely his fault; Herrera had put two on with one out, and Davis worked around Jose Abreu to load the bases. When Conor Gillaspie tripled to plate all three, it was more of a “hey, good on you for getting to a low-and-away 97 mph fastball” than it was that Davis had made a mistake:
It’s not easy to beat this bullpen in the late innings. It’s nearly impossible, especially when you consider that the rare times it’s happened have mostly been either pitchers who aren’t on the playoff roster, or one-off issues like Davis throwing the ball away. Ever so often, they’ll give you a little something to work with, but it’s so, so rare. It hasn’t happened at all this postseason.
So how do you beat this group in the late innings? Make sure you get a lead before that. If not, it might already be too late.