Thursday, November 12, 2015

You Never Know II

These are some of the perplexing questions people have been grappling with for millennia: "How did we get here?", "What's the meaning of life?", and "Does God exist?"

As of a couple weeks ago, we can add a new question to the list: "What the hell happened to the Cubs this year?"

OK all two of you who haven't yet pressed the go back button know exactly what I'm talking about.

We left off the last post at the beginning of the 2015 Major League Baseball National and American League Championship Series. Representing the Nationals were the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs. The American League gave us the Toronto Blue Jays and last year's pennant winners, the Kansas City Royals.

The beauty of those two matchups was that three of the teams had not been in the post-season, let alone a World Series for quite a while. Before last year, neither had the Royals. Last year the Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays all finished behind their respective division winners by double digit margins, and none of them were predicted to do much this year. For most baseball fans I suspect, it was a breath of fresh air not having to watch the Cardinals, Giants or the Red Sox play in November again, unless of course you were a fan of those teams. To those folks, I offer my condolences and apologies.

As I wrote in the last post, the four divisional series were highly entertaining, loaded with plenty of drama and the unexpected. Most of the games were close and all but one of the series went the maximum five games.

Those four divisional series were a tough act to follow and predictably, the subsequent two championship series were a let down.

Another big name pitcher who has had problems in the post-season is David Price of the Blue Jays. He was cruising along in Game Two of the ALCS in Kansas City, retiring 18 in a row after giving up a leadoff single to Alcedes Escobar. Then came the disastrous seventh inning where five singles and a double added up to five runs, all of them charged to Price, and all KC would need for the sweep of the first two games at home. Toronto managed to take two out of three in their building but the Royals finished off the Blue Jays and Daivd Price again in game six in Kansas City. The score was 4-3, the only close game of that series.

Then there were the Mets and Cubs.

No one in Chicago who had been paying attention, believed the hype that the Cubs would trounce the Mets as they had during the regular season. After all, the Mets were a different team with the mid-season acquisition of center fielder Yoannis Cespedis and a new groove the team found, led by its young, flame-throwing pitching staff. On the other hand, the Cubs were a different team as well, one of the hottest in the majors. Their strength, beyond the ridiculous success of Jake Arrieta (see the last post) came from a young group of sluggers led by the 26 year old veteran, Anthony Rizzo.

The series, most folks suspected, would be a classic matchup of strength versus strength.

Save for the excellent pitching of the Mets, I don't think anyone expected the series to turn out the way it did. The Cubs were able to spread out only eight runs over four games. The Mets by contrast were not the least bit intimidated by Cubs aces Jon Lester and Jake Arrieta, who showed signs in his last two games of being merely human. New York teed off on Jason Hammel in game four. The only Cubs starter who managed to get away with a no decision was Kyle Hendricks who was pulled for a pinch hitter in the fourth inning of Game Three with the score of that game tied.

The Mets scored in the first inning of every game, while the Cubs were only able to get the lead-off man on base four times in 36 innings. Least expected was the ace in the hole for the Mets, second baseman Daniel Murphy. Murphy has put up very good offensive numbers in his seven year career but was never considered a home run hitter, until now. In those seven years, he averaged less than nine home runs per season. In the Cubs/Mets series, Murphy hit one home run in each game. If you remember from the last post, he hit a home run in each of the last two games of the NLDS against the Dodgers, making that six consecutive playoff games in which he hit a home run. Even Mr. October, Reggie Jackson never did that. Carlos Beltran of the Astros hit five in 2004, no one else had ever hit more. Adding another home run he hit in the Dodgers series, Murphy hit a total of seven playoff home runs by the end of the NLCS, exactly half the number he hit all season, but more on him later.

To say the Mets had their way with the Cubs would be a gross understatement. Not once did the Cubs have a lead, in fact the Mets held the lead in every full inning of the series except one where the teams were tied. This year's NLCS was a definitive statement, at least in that time and place, that in every aspect of the game the Mets were the superior team.

Baseball is a strange game. Were the Mets that good and/or the Cubs all of a sudden really that bad? What possessed Daniel Murphy of all people to channel his inner Babe Ruth? What made the young players on the Cubs who played fast and easy as if they didn't have a care in the only world during the regular season and in the  playoffs against the two best teams in baseball, Pittsburgh and St. Louis, look like they were carrying the burden of 70 years of the team's futility on their shoulders against the Mets?

After game four a friend texted me asking tongue-in-cheek if that whole thing about Mrs. O'Leary's goat was for real.

I don't know, perhaps. Maybe you could throw in Fred Merkle, a black cat, Hinky Dink Kenna and Bathhouse John,  Steve Bartman, the 1979 Blizzard, Don Young, Leon Durham and the Dave Matthews Band bus for good measure. The only answer I have is to a question Harry Caray posed years ago: "What do a mama bear on the pill and the World Series have in common?" The answer: no Cubs.

Sometimes the best a fan can do is shrug his shoulders, throw up his hands and say well, you never know.


There are people who take baseball so seriously they devised a system designed to take the you never know out of the game. That system raised to the level of a science, was named sabrmetrics by the most well known practitioner of the art of the analytical study of baseball statistics, Bill James. The work of sabretricians who employ scientific method and mathematical analysis to pour over oceans of data, has brought into question much of the conventional wisdom developed over the last century and half regarding what it takes to win a baseball game. As you can imagine, this caused a great deal of friction between baseball people who actually played the game, and the folks with their slide rules, (later computers), and inscrutable formulas.

In applying sabrmetrics to baseball strategy, once you have all the data figured out, the trick is pretty simple, calculate the statistical costs versus the benefits of a strategy in a particular situation, and employ only the moves with the greatest probability of success.

It's hard to argue with success. When a few struggling teams hired sabrmetricians including Bill James to consult on player acquisitions and strategies, and actually won games, pennants and championships, even the most stalwart baseball traditionalists had to take notice. Today you won't find a major league team looking to gain a competitive advantage without some sabrmetric help.

The downside of managing a baseball team like an insurance actuary is that it takes takes a lot of the fun out of the game. For example, you hardly ever see sacrifice bunts anymore (and the possibility of a batter squaring off then pulling back and slamming a single past the drawn in infield), as it has been determined that statistically, giving up an out in order to advance runners is less successful percentage-wise, than just swinging away. Sabrmetricians have devalued speed on the basepaths and determined that the risk of base stealing is usually greater than the benefits. Consequently one of the most exciting aspects of the game, the stolen base, is way down. Likewise, less emphasis has been put on fielding, and more has been put on power over average, consequently we're seeing more sluggers in the field who can't play a lick of defense. They're striking out more too.

The really smart baseball people, Bill James included, realize there are far too many variables in the game of baseball to understand it completely through numbers.  Turns out, there is some value to the element of surprise after all, and it's not always prudent to paint yourself into a corner by employing only a limited number of predictable strategies. Fortunately, you never know is not dead, yet.

Case in point, the Kansas City Royals. The Royals under their manager Ned Yost, don't do anything by the book. They steal and run the bases with abandon, guys in the middle of the lineup bunt, they don't hit many home runs and most of all, they hardly ever strike out. They're a very opportunistic team, as we saw in the World Series against the Mets; if you make a mistake against them, they will make you pay.

The Royals are a team designed to fit the idiosyncrasies of their ballpark, Kaufmann Stadium. That park is known to be extremely stingy for giving up home runs, so the team that calls it home concentrates on contact hitting, as swinging for the fence in Kansas City usually results in a deep fly out. As Kaufmann Stadium's outfield is about the size of Texas, team speed is also built into the roster. That became apparent in the bottom of the first inning of the World Series when KC's leadoff man, Alcides Escobar hit a deep drive to center field. The Met's centerfielder Yoannis Cespedis misjudged the ball and ended up kicking it out of the reach of left fielder Michael Conforto who was backing him up. When the ball was finally relayed back to the infield, the speedy Escobar had already circled the bases for an inside the park home run.

Another aspect of the Royals is they never give up, evidenced by the number of comeback wins they had in the playoffs. Some would attribute this to the character of the team, an idea scoffed at by many in the sabrmetric community, perhaps because character is something that cannot be accurately measured. In the top of the eighth with the score tied and two on and two out, Eric Hosmer misplayed a ground ball allowing the go-ahead run to score, a play that bore a haunting resemblance to the ball that went through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series, also against the Mets.

Unlike Buckner and the '86 Red Sox, Hosmer's teammates picked him up, first in the ninth when Alex Gordon hit a solo home run off the previously untouchable Mets closer Jeurys Familia to send the game into extra innings. Then in the bottom of the 14th, the Royals exploited a David Wright error which resulted in a runner at third who scored when who else but Hosmer drove in the winning run with a sacrifice fly.

After a complete game two hitter thrown by newly acquired KC pitcher Johnny Queto, the teams traveled to New York. Like the Cubs in the same situation, down two games to none but heading home, the Mets were still optimistic about their chances. Unlike the Cubs they did something about it and made a definitive statement that they weren't going down without a fight, winning that game 9-3. In Game Four the Mets were on the verge of tying the series as they took a 3-2 lead into the 8th inning. Tyler Clippard in relief who had been very effective in the series up to that point, walked two straight KC batters. He was yanked for the closer Familia. Eric Hosmer hit a ground ball to Damiel Murphy's left. Murphy hustled to make the play before the runners could advance, but ran past the ball which ended up in right field. That costly error opened the door for three runs which would prove to be enough to put KC over the top with a 3-1 series lead over the Mets.

Still all was not lost for the Mets as Game Five featured arguably their best pitcher Matt Harvey against Edinson Volquez who just returned after attending his father's funeral in the Dominican Republic. No one knew how Volquez would fare after what had to be a tumultuous four days for the young pitcher, beginning when he learned of his father's death after coming off the mound in the seventh inning of Game One. If the Mets could win this game, they'd have to face Johnny Cueto again in Game Six. However Cueto had been erratic since coming to Kansas City, and if they could steal a win against him, they'd face Yordano Ventura whom they beat handily in Game Three.

You never know, stranger things have happened

The possibility that the Mets would at least get out of New York still alive in this series looked very good late in the game as Matt Harvey was brilliant, shutting out the Royals for eight innings, holding them to only four hits. He also struck out nine batters on the team who never strikes out.

When Harvey came off the mound at the end of the eighth, things got really interesting. As he met up with Mets manager Terry Collins in the dugout, viewers watching on TV could clearly read Collins's lips telling Harvey he was done for the night. An emotional Harvey in turn, told his manager "I want the ball."

Terry Collins had a decision to make...

For most big league managers, there would be only one choice, go with the closer. Conventional wisdom dictates that complete games are all but a thing of the past, especially in the post-season. Before Johnny Cueto pitched his complete game masterpiece in Game Two, the last American League pitcher who tossed a complete game in the World Series was Jack Morris in 1991. It hasn't been that long for National League pitchers but you get the idea. In the regular season, most managers yank the starter when he reaches the 100 pitch mark, but during the post season with lots more help available from the bullpen, starters are usually given a much shorter leash. At the end of eight innings in Game Five, Matt Harvey was flirting with 100 pitches. Even more compelling, last season Harvey had Tommy John (elbow) surgery which sidelined him for the entire year. He pitched well in 2015 but many thought he was being over-used and there was speculation that he might not be used at all in the post-season. Given the circumstances, it was a no-brainer that Collins would want to pull Harvey.

On the other hand, Harvey was pitching magnificently and win or lose, this would be his last game of the season. On top of that, Jeurys Familia had blown two saves already in the series (admittedly not entirely his fault). It happens all the time, the starting pitcher pitches eight magnificent innings only to have a reliever come in and blow the game in the ninth. For Collins it was a case of damned if you do, damned if you don't. His decision would ultimately not be judged on its merits, only by the results. If it worked he'd be hailed a genius, if not, he'd be second guessed for eternity.

The tension built in the bottom of the eighth as the Mets' top of the order came up to bat. The nearly 45,000 fans at CITI Field in Flushing, Queens, were on their feet and at least 40,000 of them demanded to see Harvey back on the mound in the top of the ninth. As the moment arrived, the Mets took the field  one by one, but there was one player conspicuously missing from the field, the pitcher. After a long pause no doubt intended for dramatic effect, out of the dugout stormed Matt Harvey. The fans went crazy; they were about to witness, or so they thought, the culmination of one of the classic pitching performances in World Series history.

You could tell by the body language that Matt Harvey was pumped.

Lorenzo Cain led off. The Royal centerfielder was twice the victim of Harvey strikeouts. This time Cain battled at the plate working the count to 3-2. After seven pitches, Harvey lost Cain to the dreaded lead-off walk.

Collins stubbornly stuck with his man. 

Cain stole second on the first pitch to Eric Hosmer.

The next pitch would be Matt Harvey's last pitch of the season, and it was a good one, a low fastball on the outside corner. Unfortunately for Harvey, Hosmer's hit was better than the pitch. The lefty first baseman went with Harvey's offering, slamming it to the opposite field for a double that easily scored Cain. No sooner did Cain cross the plate when Terry Collins was out of the dugout headed for the mound, which was precisely the moment the second guessing that will follow him the rest of his days began.

And yet, the Mets were still up 2-1 with their star closer finally in the game, and still very much in control.

Next up was third baseman Mike Moustakas who hit the ball exactly where he needed to, grounding out to first and advancing the runner to third. With one out and the tying run ninety feet away, the dangerous Salvador Perez came to the plate. Familia got Perez to hit the ball exactly where he wanted him to, a ground ball to third. David Wright did exactly what he was supposed to do, cleanly field the ball, look the runner back to third, then fire to first to get the hitter for the second out. The only person who didn't cooperate with the plan was Eric Hosmer, the runner at third.

Now in Conventional Baseball Wisdom 101, one of the first things you learn as a base runner is to never let yourself get thrown out on a base or home plate for the first or the third out of an inning. This applies to the first inning of a game in early April as it does to the ninth inning of a World Series game.

Mets first baseman Lucas Duda was very familiar with that rule, so ingrained was it in his DNA that it probably never crossed his mind that Hosmer might try something. Hosmer on the other hand apparently missed that class. A millisecond after Wright threw to first, he broke for home. A good throw from Duda would have nailed Hosmer at the plate by at least five feet and the Mets would have been packing their bags for Game Six in Kansas City. But Duda, as astonished as everyone else by Hosmer's temerity, made as bad a throw as a major league ball player could make, about three feet to the right of catcher Travis d'Arnaud who had no chance to make the play.

"Hosmer's mad dash home" as it has been called, scored the tying run, and ripped the hearts out of Mets fans everywhere. Familia was able to get out of the inning without further damage, but after Hosmer's daring play, it was all academic. The stage was set for the Royals bullpen to shut the Mets down as they had done to American League teams for the past two years. It took a few innings but eventually the Royals did what they do best at the plate, manufacture a run with a single, a stolen base, a runner advancing on a ground out, and another single. Daniel Murphy's error that followed, almost a carbon copy of the one he made the night before, was only the icing on the cake as it turned out the Royals didn't need the four unearned runs that followed. Closer Wade Davis came in and struck out the side (with a Michael Conforto base hit in between) to put the Mets and their fans out of their misery.

When it was over, there was no clear cut MVP, but they had to give out the award just the same. It went to Salvador Perez, the de facto leader of the Royals. Perez was the indestructible man after taking more foul tips to the body this series than anyone has a right to. It was a good choice to award a team win by giving the MVP to the team leader.

It wasn't always pretty but this year's season proved there's more than one way to win a ballgame. You don't need the highest payroll or play the way you're "supposed to" in order to win the World Series. It was good old fashioned baseball in the best sense of the term, with all or nothing base running, manufactured runs, and unconventional wisdom ruling the day. I secretly rooted for the Royals because I like their approach to the game, no superstars, just a very solid lineup top to bottom, willing to do whatever it takes to win a game. Truth be told, I liked the Mets only slightly less for the same reasons.

Kansas City beat New York in five games, but it wasn't as one sided as that number might indicate. The cruel truth of baseball is that one day you can be on top of the world, and the next day be a bum. Without Daniel Murphy's head's up base running and a series clinching home in the NLDS, the Dodgers would have ended up playing the Cubs for the pennant, not the Mets. Who knows how that would have turned out. Murphy's bat and glove contributed in a big way to the NLCS, so much so he was awarded the MVP of that series. Yet without his crucial error in Game Four of the World Series, the Mets might have lived to play another day, maybe two, or maybe even a win a championship.

Ditto for Duda. Despite all the good things he did all season, in the playoffs and the World Series, he will always be remembered for that bad throw.

Terry Collins's unconventional decision to listen to his starter and leave him in to pitch the ninth inning of Game Five will go down as one of the worst managerial calls in World Series history, and with perfect 20-20 hindsight, it was the wrong call. Of course, Collins could have sent Jeruys Familia in to face Cain and Hosmer with exactly the same results, and Collins would most liely have been chastised for not thinking "outside the box."

Hosmer could have stayed on third as conventional wisdom would have dictated in that situation. His breaking for home will no doubt be remembered for a long time. It's already been compared to one of the most famous plays in World Series history, when Enos Slaughter ran through a stop sign at third and scored on a close play at the plate to win the 1946 World Series for the Cardinals.

Of course, had Duda made a good throw and the Mets come back to win the World Series in Kansas City, Hosmer would be remembered for something completely different.

It's what a friend of mine calls the "razor thin margin between genius and stupidity" that makes baseball so audacious, frustrating, heart-breaking, compelling, and wonderful, all at the same time.

The Mets are a good young team, they'll get another chance as they'll be around for a while. So will the Cubs and the Pirates.

At this writing there are only 97 days until pitchers and catchers report for spring training.

I can't wait.

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