A MAJOR LEAGUE hitter today strikes out 48.8% more often than a hitter did 30 years ago. The financial incentive for power, be it on the mound or at the plate, has pushed baseball toward a game with the inertia of arm-wrestling, a test of stubbornness and might in which, for long stretches, not much happens.
Pitchers give their ulnar collateral ligaments to keep the baseball out of play while big-swinging hitters oblige them on the off chance they might actually make contact well enough to hit a home run, which pays like the Vegas slots: eventually, if not often. Strikeouts per game have risen 10 consecutive years, the last eight of which have set a new record. Meanwhile, the rate of stolen bases has dropped to its lowest level in 28 years.
If baseball is reaching a crossroads—an increasingly static game in an increasingly dynamic entertainment world—Eric Hosmer of the Royals found himself frozen in its intersection Sunday night. Hosmer stood about 15 feet off third base on a flaccid one-hopper to Mets third baseman David Wright, who fielded the baseball about 25 feet from Hosmer. The 111th World Series, with the fifth game being played in the 11 o'clock hour on 11/1, had reached a binary point in the top of the ninth inning, with the Mets clinging to a 2--1 lead and facing elimination.
Run, and Hosmer risked being thrown out to end the contest, sending the Series to a sixth game. Hold, and Hosmer would put the game in the hands of the next batter, Alex Gordon, against Mets closer Jeurys Familia. If you watched the Royals play at all this postseason, as if their uniforms were made of flannel and their will of steel, you knew the choice was an obvious one.
November 9, 2015
"Being up three games to one," Hosmer said, "you feel like you're playing with house money. The first instinct with us is always to be aggressive."
What happened next helped not only to hasten the end of the World Series and bring Kansas City a world championship 30 years after its only previous one, but also to position the Royals as a historically important team. What's beyond doubt is that Kansas City is the most prolific rally team in postseason history. Game 5, which eventually ended after 12 innings in a 7--2 score that masked the night's tension, marked the seventh time this postseason that Kansas City came from multiple runs down to win. The 1996 Yankees had been the only team to pull off even five such rescue operations.
Less certain, though perhaps more important, is how the Royals might change the game with how they played this season. They reinvented baseball as a contact sport. They doggedly sprayed singles and doubles around the field (they hit one ball out of the park in the Series, and happily went their last 171 plate appearances without a home run) while unnerving the fumble-fingered Mets by stealing and taking extra bases at any opportunity—even when down to their last out in Game 5.
Watching the Royals win the World Series with a deep ensemble cast of contact hitters raised an obvious question: Why doesn't everybody play like this?
"It's not that easy," says hitting coach Dale Sveum. "First of all, this is the result of [GM] Dayton Moore putting in all the hard work to build a team for a big ballpark that is athletic, plays defense, has speed and puts the ball in play. It's part of every player he drafts and acquires. And second of all, it takes the players all buying in. You know how hard that is in today's game? For guys not to care about their own RBIs or home runs or runs scored and just emphasize 'keep the line moving'? It's a special group. It's a special culture. It's not like any old team can go to spring training next year and just go, 'Let's do that.'"
DREW BUTERA, a backup catcher acquired in a trade from the Angels in May, had been a Kansas City Royal for two days when, on May 9, he found himself in a standard pregame scouting and game-planning session with pitcher Jeremy Guthrie and catching coach Pedro Grifol. They reviewed hitters on that day's opponent, the Tigers. Grifol brought up the name Mark Ripperger. Ripperger? Butera knew Ripperger didn't play for the Tigers. Ripperger was an umpire, assigned to work the plate that day.
Butera, who had played with the Twins, Dodgers and Angels, suppressed his surprise as Grifol broke down Ripperger's tendencies as surely as he did the Detroit hitters.
"I had never heard anything like it," Butera says. "I had never thought about it. But as I listened, I thought, This makes perfect sense. What kind of zone does he have? What are his tendencies? A scouting report on the umpire? I realized right away they do things differently here."
THE METS represented both the National League and the modern game in the World Series. They hit home runs to cover for a lack of speed, and their young power pitchers kept the ball out of play. New York boasted three of the toughest starting pitchers to manage contact against in all of baseball: Jacob deGrom (sixth), Matt Harvey (10th), and Noah Syndergaard (13th), as well as a budding Clayton Kershaw in rookie Steven Matz.
But Kansas City sent a message of resistance from the very first pitch: a heater by Harvey that most decidedly was contacted by Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar, the feng shui leadoff hitter for skipper Ned (Yoda) Yost. (Just go with the flow and harmony of his placement atop the batting order, because otherwise Escobar's .293 on-base percentage, the worst by a Royal leadoff hitter since Vince Coleman in 1994, makes no analytical sense.) Escobar hit a deep drive that fell for an eventual inside-the-park homer when daydreaming centerfielder Yoenis Cespedes didn't see it at first and demurring leftfielder Michael Conforto, thinking he heard Cespedes call for it, didn't see it at last.
Harvey and his partner in power, Game 2 starter DeGrom, threw 83 fastballs while getting just two swings and misses on them as Kansas City took the first two games at home, 5--4 and 7--1.
Asked why he threw a career-low 38% fastballs in Game 1, Harvey said, "A combination of feeling [lousy] and knowing how well they hit the fastball."
Admitted DeGrom, who for the first time in his career could not extract a single swing and miss from his fastball, "I don't know why I really went away from it. It might have gotten in my head this was a good fastball-hitting team."
HOSMER STARED at Wright as the Mets' third baseman cradled the ball and prepared his feet and arm to throw across the diamond to first baseman Lucas Duda for the second out of the ninth inning. Hosmer quickly ran through the calculus in his head.
He remembered two items from the exhaustive preseries scouting report on the Mets. Wright, who missed most of the year with spinal stenosis, compensated for his back condition by adopting an odd throwing technique: he would drop his hand to about waist height and fling the ball with a looping, left to right arc. This maneuver, while easier on his back than the usual overhand motion, took more time.
Hosmer also knew from the reports that Duda does not throw especially well. First base coach Rusty Kuntz, a baseball counterintelligence officer of the highest order, said from that position Hosmer would run on only "a handful" of first basemen. Duda—"bless his heart," Kuntz said—was one of the handful.
"I asked Eric, 'Would you do that against you?'" Kuntz said. "He goes, 'Hell no.'"
THE CONVENTIONAL modern game did win out one night, anyway. Behind Syndergaard, who threw an angry sentinel of a first pitch past Escobar, the Mets won Game 3, 9--3. But the Royals restored their new world order in the eighth inning of Game 4, when they won 5--3 with a three-run, low-impact eighth-inning rally: walk, walk, error by Daniel Murphy, single, single.
Cain provided the key at bat of the game when he drew one of the two ill-fated walks issued by Mets reliever Tyler Clippard. It was only the fourth time all year Cain managed a walk after falling behind 0 and 2.
"What we do really begins in spring training," Sveum said. "I emphasize winning the full counts. You do that and you most likely will win the game. I give them a lot of information on what a pitcher likes to throw on full counts.
"The other thing we emphasize is keeping the head still. If you look at all the great hitters who made contact, their head is still. Wade Boggs, Gary Sheffield ... Sheffield had all that movement in his swing but not in his head. He was a slugger who made contact."
HOSMER REACHED third base by way of Cincinnati. In the summer of 2007, while in high school in Miami, Hosmer, then 17, was recruited to play on a travel team. It would fly him and other players to various cities for tournaments, then fly them back. On occasion some players used the Cincinnati-area home of an assistant coach as a base in between tournaments. The coach would give the players chores around the house to earn their keep.
One day three of the boys staying at the house were doing yard work in front of the house. One was cutting the grass, one was edging the lawn and a third was trimming the bushes. A neighbor dropped by and asked if he could take a picture.
"Why?" the coach wondered.
"Because you've got about $400 million of yard work being done."
The roommates were Hosmer, Harvey and future Red Sox infield prospect Deven Marrero. The team went 54--6 and won the Connie Mack World Series. Hosmer was the series MVP. Harvey won the clincher.
Eight years later, in the ninth inning of Game 5 with the Mets leading 2--0, Harvey and Hosmer stared at one another from 60 feet, six inches away. The confrontation was made possible only by the sentimentality of Mets manager Terry Collins, 66, who had flunked out of jobs with the Astros and Angels because of an almost complete lack of sentiment. Collins had decided to replace Harvey with Familia after the eighth inning, but when pitching coach Dan Warthen delivered the news to Harvey in the dugout, the pitcher stomped over to Collins and successfully lobbied to stay in the game.
"When we saw Harvey come out for the ninth, we were happy," Sveum insists. "He had been so much better in this game than in Game 1. His fastball was electric. But we saw in the eighth inning his pitches were getting up. His slider was flattening out. It had lost its tilt. We had some pitches to hit and just missed them. When he came back out, that's when we could see a way to a win."
Cain, leading off the ninth, worked the count full and—what else?—won the at bat by taking a slider for ball four. (The Royals posted the best full-count average in the league during the regular season.) Now it was Hosmer's turn.
"I knew he didn't want to get beat by something other than his fastball," Hosmer said of Harvey.
After Cain stole second, Harvey threw a 94-mph fastball. Hosmer ripped it for an RBI double off his former housemate and teammate.
IN BETWEEN the championship seasons of 1985 and 2015, the Kansas City Royals lost more games than any franchise in baseball. Finding bottom was like plumbing the Mariana Trench. It could have been the time in 1993 when a piqued Hal McRae, one of 13 managers in those 29 seasons, heaved a telephone off his office desk; or the three straight seasons with at least 100 losses (2004--06); or the year the Royals finished last in the league in attendance ('08).
In 2006, Kansas City hired Moore to be its general manager. Moore took a look at the dimensions of the club's home park (large) and of his market size (third smallest in baseball) and decided he needed athletic players who could run, play defense and put the ball in play.
"Power," he said, "is the most expensive commodity in baseball."
It took five years, but by 2011 Moore's Triple A team in Omaha was stocked with Hosmer, Cain, outfielder Jarrod Dyson, catcher Salvador Perez, third baseman Mike Moustakas, outfielder Paulo Orlando and pitchers Danny Duffy, Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera—essentially one third of a world championship team four years later.
As strikeouts in the game grew, the Royals kept improving on the premise of making contact. They refused the modern notions of driving up pitch counts and taking pitches to get walks. They hacked at the first good pitch they saw. Kansas City saw the fewest pitches per plate appearance and took the fewest walks in the AL. They drew fewer walks than any full-season World Series champion except the 1933 New York Giants.
"They take their shots at the big fly early," Harvey says. "But as they get deeper into the count and deeper into the game, they shorten up and put the ball in play. The amazing thing about them is that they are aggressive in the strike zone, but it's hard to get them to chase outside of the zone."
ONLY AFTER Hosmer smacked his double did Collins remove Harvey.
"Sometimes you let your heart dictate your mind," Collins said. "Again, we had said going in if Matt gave us seven [innings], Jeurys was going to pitch two. I've got one of the best closers in the game. I got him in the game, but it was a little late. And that's inexcusable, for me."
Moustakas moved Hosmer to third with a grounder. Batting next, Perez hit the weak squibber to Wright. Hosmer thought about how a compromised Wright threw the baseball, especially noticing how Wright was shuffling away from him. He thought about the suspect defense of Duda. He thought about the three-games-to-one lead.
"As soon as I saw his head turn to first," Hosmer said of Wright, "I took a chance. Actually, when I first took a first step, I didn't think it was a great situation for me."
As Duda took the throw from Wright and readied himself to throw home, it was obvious that Hosmer was going to be out and the Mets would win 2--1.
"I would have been shocked if Hoz didn't try that," Kuntz says. "If he gets thrown out, guess what? We play Game 6. Duda, bless his heart, was wide left."
Duda threw the ball away, past the lunge of Travis d'Arnaud. Hosmer dove home headfirst to tie the game. All postseason opponents had cracked under the Royals' relentlessness: an error by Houston shortstop Carlos Correa when the Royals trailed by three runs, six outs from ALDS elimination; the imaginary voices that prompted both Toronto second baseman Ryan Goins in the ALCS and later Conforto to back away from pop fly outs; the 14th-inning error by Wright in Game 1. Now it was Duda chucking a hand grenade of a throw to the backstop.
SUCH A stickler for details is Kuntz that he spent 40 minutes on the flight from Kansas City to New York studying video of just two pitches, hoping to find a "tell" in the evidence. When Perez opened the 12th inning with a bloop single off Addison Reed, Jarrod Dyson pinch-ran and immediately consulted with the master code cracker, Kuntz.
"Just relax. He's going to go 1.1, 1.2," Kuntz said, referring to a quick time between when a pitcher starts his delivery and when he gets rid of the ball. "He's going to go quick the first couple of pitches. Then he's going to give a little hip shake, and that's when you go."
Reed did use a quick slide step on each of the first two pitches, but the haste caused him to elevate both pitches out of the strike zone. The count was 2 and 0. On the next, Reed gave "a little hip shake," designed to generate more power than the slide step. Dyson took off. He stole second base easily.
Gordon sent him to third with another straight-from-the-textbook grounder to the right side. Then backup infielder Christian Colon, who had not batted the entire postseason and had not driven home a run in 41 days, whacked a tiebreaking single—on a two-strike pitch, naturally.
The rest of the inning unfolded the way so many other innings did this postseason for Kansas City: a torrent of runs, this time five in all, with Royals hitters littering the yard with hits.
"Just put the ball in play," Kuntz said, "and see what happens."
The most prolific rally team in postseason history outscored opponents 51--11 after the sixth inning. While Royals hitters played pepper with pitches, the ferocious, deep bullpen went 8--0, capped by six shutout innings in Game 5. Closer Wade Davis took care of the final three outs. It was Butera, on a called strike three, who caught the last baseball.
"I've still got it," he said after the game, "and I've got a place at home for it. If they ask for it, I'll give it to them, but for now I'm keeping it."
Baseball changed so much since Kansas City last won the World Series that the Royals used more pitchers just in Game 1 this year (seven) than they did in the entire 1985 World Series (six). The question now is where it goes from here. Are the Royals the way forward with their aggressive brand of offensive baseball, or did Moore spend years crafting a recipe that can't be copied?
Butera considered the question, and thought about that scouting report on an umpire and how the first time he took batting practice as a Royal, he noticed it was different than in other places—how batters were spraying the ball around the field, especially up the middle, rather than turning the exercise into a useless long-drive competition.
"I'm telling you, it's like nothing I've seen anywhere else," he said. "And the reason why you might not see it like this anywhere else is you have to get all the guys to buy in to play like this. They have to buy into the system."
That would seem to be the best explanation about how the World Series was won and where we go from here. The system didn't win it. The Royals did.
"WOULD YOU DO THAT AGAINST YOU?" ASKED KUNTZ. "HELL NO," SAID HOSMER.