Thursday, October 16, 2014

NFL Picks Week Seven: Ned Yost is making my head explode

The MLB Playoffs are a funny thing. Boiling down an extensive 162-game season that presents a large enough sample size to more or less separate the wheat from the chaff to a series of lightning-quick postseason series that are largely dependent on randomness and pitching matchups seems silly on the surface. This is because, well, it is. If the goal is to crown a true champion that is the best team in a sport each year, then a playoff system that twice per year requires two teams to play a single elimination game after a marathon season kind of flouts the purpose. Anyone who has studied statistics knows small sample sizes are prone to random variation and that larger sample sizes are needed to bear out the true nature of things. To that end, several studies have shown the MLB playoffs are largely a crapshoot.

I mean, that doesn't mean it isn't fun. And to be fair, if the Mets were somehow defying the law of averages on a nightly basis, I'd be loving every minute of it.

But the point remains. Ned Yost, or as I call him, Bunty McBunterson, should have managed this team out of the postseason about 19 times by now. Yost is a man whose managerial strategy thrives on old-timey small ball used at all the incorrect times with a little bit of bullpen mismanagement mixed in. This is not an unpopular opinion to have. Far and wide in both Kansas City and Yost's former home city as a manager Milwaukee has it been talked of that his management is, well, terrible. Even in mid-Septemeber his blunderous moves one after the other were ridiculed. A light has been shined on how his old-school mentality is completely inconsistent with statistical evidence. His total bungling of the AL Wild Card game this year is legendary. Not only did his inexplicable decision to bring in starter Yordano Ventura in relief on two days rest raise the public ire of Pedro Martinez, but his persistent dedication to sacrifice bunting has been mind-boggling. In that game, which the Royals somehow won despite their manager, after getting the leadoff man on, sacrificing him to second in the 9th, 10th and 11th innings, which according to the Wins Probability Added statistic had a negative impact on Kansas City's chances of winning. This included a ninth inning in which the Royals trailed and gave Oakland a free out when they had three outs left in their season.

Yesterday, in Kansas City's pennant-clinching win against Baltimore, Yost had Lorenzo Cain sacrifice men at first and second over to second and third in the first inning of a scoreless game with nobody out. Yes, two runs ended up scoring that inning, but they did so due to a Baltimore throwing error. Lorenzo Cain is the No. 3 hitter in the Royals' lineup. Lorenzo Cain, who won the ALCS MVP by the way, has a .378 on-base percentage this postseason and had a 1.255 OPS in the series. Why are you taking the bat out of his hands?

These are the blunderful tactics of Nedward Yost (no, that's not his real full name). They are mind-boggling, irritating to a sabermetrician and as sure a sign of the unpredictability of random events in short sample sizes as anything I can think of. The Royals were not a great hitting team in the regular season and their rotation is good, but hardly overwhelming. A stew of great defense, an amazing bullpen no matter how spectacularly it may be mismanaged, fantastic team speed and an unbelievable amount of timely hitting has saved Yost so far and made him the manager of the most enjoyable story of the 2014 postseason, and that's fine. Even if his dedication to the sacrifice bunt makes it difficult for me to enjoy a team I badly want to root for (and produces some incredibly stupid self-righteous sportswriting), I get that this kind of defy-the-odds randomness is what makes watching the games worth the time.



But here is my point.

At some point the odds just might have to catch up with this team. After all, regression to the mean is going to happen if you stretch the sample size out big enough. To this Yost has been saved by what seems to be equal parts luck and a roster that is playing so well it is managing to nullify his strategic decisions. But it won't forever. After all, the Royals are better than average, but not significantly better than average. Kansas City won 89 games over its 162-game regular season, which is nothing to sniff at, sure, but it certainly has to be more indicative of the team's true ability than its current 8-0 postseason mark.

I would love to see the Kansas City Royals win the 2014 World Series. Truly I would. But right now when I look at this team I am convinced I'm seeing the second coming of the 2007 Colorado Rockies, who went on an odds-defying run that puts Kansas City to shame. I'm not the only one. Those Rockies forced a Wild Card playoff game (back before those things weren't built into the bracket) by winning 13 of their final 14 games, defeated the San Diego Padres in an epic 13-inning playoff, swept the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS and then won their first-ever pennant by sweeping the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS. It was a thrilling, unprecedent run that flew in the face of statistical probability. Their run of 21 wins in 22 games was the first time a National League team had so much as won 20 games in a 21-game span since the 1936 New York Giants. Their 7-0 start to the postseason was the second in history, matching the 1976 Cincinnati Reds.

The Rockies got swept by the Boston Red Sox in the 2007 World Series.

I'm not saying that's going to happen to Ned Yost and the Royals. I'm not even saying I want it to. I don't. I'm just saying this kind of success, even if the manager's decisions were sound, is not sustainable. Much like those Rockies, these Royals on an unexpected run will face a team in the World Series (probably the San Francisco Giants) with far more postseason experience and likely a better roster overall. That doesn't mean Kansas City is doomed to a let down when the Fall Classic begins next week. I'm just saying don't be surprised if it happens, particularly if Ned Yost is yosting the games like he likes to do.

Then again, I've been wrong before and I know statistics well enough to know that future events are not dependent on previous ones. Or maybe I just know nothing. The odds haven't really done anything to stop the Royals so far. Why would they start now?

Last week: 7-8-0
Season: 39-51-0

NEW ENGLAND (-9.5) over NY Jets
BUFFALO (-5.5) over Minnesota
CHICAGO (-3.5) over Miami
New Orleans (+3) over DETROIT
GREEN BAY (-7) over Carolina
INDIANAPOLIS (-3) over Cincinnati
Seattle (-7) over ST. LOUIS
Tennessee (+5.5) over WASHINGTON
Cleveland (-5.5) over JACKSONVILLE
Atlanta (+7) over BALTIMORE
SAN DIEGO (-4) over Kansas City
NY Giants (+6.5) over DALLAS
Arizona (-3.5) over OAKLAND
DENVER (-6.5) over San Francisco
PITTSBURGH (-3.5) over Houston

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