Monday October 27th, 2014

Facing elimination, Royals need Yordano Ventura to deliver in Game 6

The World Series heads back to Kansas City with the Royals trailing 3-games-to-2 and knowing that their next loss will be their last. Their chances of a comeback are helped by the fact that they will be playing their remaining games at home. Historically, the home team has produced a .594 winning percentage in Game 6 of best-of-seven postseason series — the highest of any individual game — and a .569 mark in Game 7, slightly above the overall home field advantage of such series (.552). Even if those winning percentages are directly applicable to the Royals, however, that still leaves them just a 31 percent chance of prevailing (.569 x .552).

What follows here are some thoughts on the three key factors Kansas City will need to extend the Series.

1. Get length from Yordano Ventura.

The Royals have gotten just one start of longer than six innings in their 13 postseason games. That came back in Game 2 of the Division Series against the Angels, and fortuitously enough, it was Ventura who delivered it. He needed just 95 pitches to work seven innings against the Angels, allowing only five hits and one run, striking out five.

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Thanks to a more aggressive approach in going to his bullpen earlier in games, manager Ned Yost had been able for most of the month to work around shorter stints from his rotation because his bullpen was so dominant. As Cliff Corcoran detailed after Game 2, Kansas City's relievers had, to that point, produced one of the best postseason performances in modern history. Through their first 44 2/3 innings, the unit allowed just nine runs (all earned), giving them a Runs Average -- a measure of total runs allowed per nine innings -- of 1.81. That ranked the Royals' bullpen ranked seventh among teams with at least 30 innings in a single postseason since 1969. Had Cliff re-ranked them after Game 3, in which K.C.'s relievers tossed four shutout innings, they would have climbed to sixth.

Since then, however, the bullpen has been rocked for 10 runs (nine earned) in six innings while letting a pair of close games get out of hand. In Game 4, Jason Frasor, Danny Duffy, Brandon Finnegan and Tim Collins combined to yield eight runs in an 11-4 loss in which none of the team's Big Three relievers -- Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland -- got to the mound. Holland didn't pitch in Game 5 either, but Herrera and Davis gave up three runs in the eighth inning that turned a 2-0 deficit into a 5-0 hole.

With the travel day providing rest, both Herrera and Davis should be available for Game 6. Yost probably can't afford to ask for an extended outing from Herrera, though, who has now walked five while striking out two in his three World Series appearances, needing 83 pitches to work through 18 hitters. Ideally, the Royals will get seven innings from an efficient Ventura and skip straight to Davis and then Holland, but that's asking a lot as well. The 23-year-old Ventura has now thrown 201 1/3 innings between the regular season and the postseason, up from 150 last year, the kind of jump most teams take pains to avoid having such a young arm make.

Add to that the diminishing returns when a pitcher faces a batter for the third time in a game — Ventura bucked the trend within the sample of this year's data, but batters are 6-for-18 with a walk under such circumstances in the postseason, scoring runs in two of his three starts — and you can see that it's a delicate tightrope that Yost and Kansas City must walk. Quite simply, they need the rookie to turn in a start worthy of this list.

2. Stick with the rejiggered batting order.

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Over an 18-game span covering the Royals' last eight regular-season games (dating back to Sept. 21) and their first 10 postseason games (through Game 2 of the World Series), Yost used not only the same lineup but also the same exact batting order: Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Omar Infante and Mike Moustakas. It worked, obviously, but the move to AT&T Park and the loss of the designated hitter forced Yost to deviate.

With the NL rules stripping Yost of the designated hitter, he left Butler, who had gone 3-for-6 in the first two games with a hit off Madison Bumgarner in Game 1 and two big RBI singles in Game 2, on the bench. Yost changed his outfield, too, putting the defensively superior Dyson in center while moving Cain to right and Aoki to the bench. Additionally, Gordon jumped to second in the lineup from sixth, and Moustakas went from ninth to fifth (sixth in Game 5), with Dyson batting eighth.

The moves were certainly understandable in the grand scheme. Dyson's defensive superiority over Aoki made sense given the complexity of AT&T's outfield, and Gordon, as the team's best overall hitter in 2014 via his 117 OPS+, deserved a chance at more plate appearances. Gordon responded by hitting a double in both Games 3 and 4, the first of which broke an 0-for-17 slump dating back to his 10th-inning homer in Game 1 of the ALCS.

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After Gordon went 0-for-4 against Bumgarner on Sunday, however, he's just 2-for-28 with 10 strikeouts since that home run, and he's batting .170/.291/.340 overall in the postseason. As the series returns to Kauffman Stadium, one can understand the temptation Yost must feel to move him back down to sixth, while returning Aoki to the lineup and Dyson to the bench; it all makes sense on a psychological level (if not a logical or sabermetric one) in a "let's go back to doing things the way we did before" way.

It's worth keeping in mind, however, that Gordon's dismal postseason line owes plenty to a 1-for-21 showing against lefties; he's hitting a healthy .269/.424/.538 in 33 PA against righties, and in Jake Peavy for Game 6 and (presumably) Tim Hudson for Game 7, it's righties he's likely to face for the majority of his remaining plate appearances. Even if he does become the focal point of a lefty reliever (or two) in the later innings, Gordon's track record shows that he's hit a comparatively respectable .253/.325/.418 against southpaws for his career, and an even better .256/.340/.446 this year. It's thus worth keeping him in the No. 2 spot and giving him a shot at an extra PA instead of having it go to Aoki.

3. Go long.

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The Royals aren't a home run hitting team, ranking last in the majors with 95 homers during the regular season. Even so, they homered four times in the three-game Division Series, four more times in the four-game ALCS and once apiece in the first two games of the World Series. Some of those hits were huge — four came in extra innings, five came with the game tied and only one came when the scoring margin was wider than three runs in either direction. Kansas City didn't homer in any of the three games at AT&T, and of course it lost two of those.

While some point to the Royals reaching the World Series as testament to the fact that you don't need the long ball to get this far, the reality is that even they need it to win. During the regular season, they went 48-20 (.706) when hitting at least one home run, compared to 41-53 (.436) when they didn't. For the season, major league teams won at a .602 clip when homering at least once, and .369 when failing to do so. The Royals were more successful than the average team on both counts, but by a wider margin when they did homer than when they didn't. Incidentally, they're 6-1 in the postseason when homering, and 4-2 when not.

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Those regular season odds are applicable to the postseason as well. During the Wild Card Era (1995 onward), teams that hit a home run have posted a .602 winning percentage, while those that don't have won at just a .329 clip. In other words, it would greatly improve the Royals' chances for somebody to hit one out. Easier said than done, of course, particularly when doing so means pouncing on a mistake made by the opposing pitcher. The good news for Kansas City is that Peavy is the most homer-prone of San Francisco's four postseason starters, allowing 1.0 per nine this year, though that came via a drastic split between his time with the Red Sox (1.5 per nine) and that with the Giants (0.3 per nine).

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