What are you going to remember from the AL wild card game? Be honest, really.
You’re going to remember Ned Yost. Hooooooo boy, are you going to remember Ned Yost. There’s going to be no shortage of post-mortems in Kansas City about Yost, for about 40 different reasons, surprisingly not all about bunting. (Argue about whether it was smart to take out James Shields [yes] for an on-one-day-rest Yordano Ventura [no] all you want, I’m still not over the early botched Eric Hosmer / Billy Butler double steal that was actually called on purpose.) You’re not going to forget Brandon Finnegan, either, or Salvador Perez, or Jarrod Dyson on the base paths.
You’re going to remember Bob Melvin and that eighth inning, too, inexplicably leaving Jon Lester in to rack up 111 pitches, get three men on base, and (along with Luke Gregerson) turn a 7-3 lead into a 7-6 nailbiter. You’re going to remember Jonny Gomes in left field, and what should be by all reason the last game that Derek Norris ever catches in the big leagues. I’ll remember thinking that for every time we laugh and make jokes all while understanding that managers know a million times more than we do, every single thing in this game happened. Yost was often brutal in this one. Melvin wasn’t necessarily better.
There’s so, so much to unpack there, and I’ve barely scraped the surface of what was one of the weirdest, greatest, worst, best, ludicrous baseball games ever. So much happened, in fact, that what no one at all is going to remember is what seemed for much of the evening like the biggest story of the night: Brandon Moss, who had hit two homers in the previous two months, hit two in the same playoff game. Let’s talk about that, a little.
I’m going to drop some honesty here: I started writing this when the A’s were winning in the eighth inning. Not that the game was over, obviously, but what happened after that was totally inexplicable. Sitting here now, writing about Moss, seems like it’s entirely disconnected from what last night was really all about. What’s below this is mostly already written, so we’ll proceed. Maybe that’s the point, though. If Moss doesn’t hit that homer off of Ventura, Yost doesn’t get flamed nearly as much. The A’s don’t get a big lead to blow. This all doesn’t happen without Brandon Moss.
Recall, if you will, just how drastic Moss’ collapse had been up until this point. In the first half, as the A’s were tearing up the entire sport, a big reason was Moss, who had a 148 wRC+, good for 16th-best. In the second half, as the A’s were falling apart and giving away the AL West, a big reason was Moss, who had a 75 wRC+, the 20th-worst in baseball. He hit a grand slam off Anthony Bass on July 25, and then didn’t go deep again until popping one off of Chris Young on Sept. 16.
Why? Well, that’s easy. As soon as Yoenis Cespedes left town, Moss lost his protection and forgot how to hit, or so went the narrative that TBS unceasingly attempted to beat into our skulls last night, nevermind the fact that Moss actually hit behind Cespedes for most of their last six weeks together, or that Moss’ skid had began before the Cespedes/Lester trade was even made, putting up a .287 OBP in July.
Jokes aside, we know that a much more real reason is that Moss has been dealing with a serious hip injury, one that will require surgery, and one that he’s received cortisone shots for. When Eno Sarris had his outstanding interview with Moss last week, Moss gave everyone a pretty great scouting report on himself, saying:
I get close to the plate, because people think I want the ball in, but it’s really so that the pitch away becomes middle, and it’s like a heart of the zone pitch. I hit in way better than I hit away, so I trust myself on the inside pitch and I make the outside pitch middle.
I know that up in the zone is a big hole in my swing because I have an uppercut swing. So up in the zone is going to be a problem.
Up and away is a big hole, and you just have to leave it alone.
Pretty straight-forward, I think. Moss takes care to put himself in better position to handle the ball on the outside part of the plate. He really hates high pitches, and knows he’s unlikely to do anything productive with them. His heat map, sorted by SLG — we are about to talk about homers, after all — indicates exactly that:
That’s a big red “do not enter” zone for pitchers, or at least it should be. I probably don’t have to tell you where the two pitches he took out of the park were. I will anyway. Take a guess:
Now, let’s be clear for a second: though these pitches were in the same spot, they weren’t the same pitch. Against Shields, Moss laid off a fastball in the zone, then went after a low, lousy change that didn’t really do much of anything at all other than leave the park very quickly:
Against Ventura, Moss laid off a 99 mph fastball up. He laid off a 98 mph fastball up, pitches that he knew he could do little with. Though both were balls, Ventura had the right idea. Get it down just a little, to the top of the strike zone, and either get back into the count, or force Moss to swing at something he really didn’t want to.
Ventura got down, anyway. Way down. Right into the sweet spot.
This is ostensibly about Moss, but let’s continue, because the A’s had more runs to score in the sixth inning. Ventura stayed in the game, and got to a 2-2 count on five pitches to Josh Reddick that were either above the zone or high in it. The sixth one was a low fastball. Reddick got what he wanted, and lined a single to right. Jed Lowrie flew out on a middle-in pitch, then Kelvin Herrera got Steven Vogt to pop out on an 101 mph pitch at the top of the zone. You’re seeing a pattern here. With two outs, Norris singled on a low strike. Eric Sogard singled on a low strike. Coco Crisp singled on a pitch right down the middle. Finally, Sam Fuld whiffed to end the inning on a fastball above the PitchF/X zone.
This Oakland offense, remember, was built specifically to crush low pitches, because the A’s had identified that in the world of pitchers attempting to keep the ball down to induce grounders and avoid homers, that’s what would work. (It’s also part of why Sean Doolittle worked out so well for them, too, as I wrote back in June: He’s always up in the zone, trying to give hitters a look they don’t often see.) On high pitches, they are the worst team in the AL, so far as slugging percentage goes. On low pitches, they’re among the best. I’m not cracking a mystery here; this is well-known.
The Royals throw high in the zone more than any American League team, and when you break it down by pitcher, it’s mostly their relievers. Taking Shields out when they did wasn’t really a bad idea at all. Putting in Ventura on one day rest is far more questionable. But the worst move, pitching-wise, was to throw low pitches to a team that crushes low pitches, and especially to a hitter who crushes low pitches. As Moss told Eno, part of his work to reverse his slide was to do better on laying off pitches he knew he couldn’t do much with, the better to swing at pitches he liked.. It’ll be forgotten in the midst of everything else; everything else may not have happened, otherwise. For a short while, the Royals got away from their game plan. It very nearly ended their season.