As I wrote my Blue Jays blog Thursday, I watched (or half-watched) the Royals-Mariners game, a tense pitching duel between Danny Duffy and Hisashi Iwakuma. Duffy dominated a Mariners lineup that struggles against left-handers, while Iwakuma -- in his second start back from his spring training finger injury -- induced 21 swings and misses on pitches out of the strike zone. For all the talk about Masahiro Tanaka's great splitter, don't forget that Iwakuma used that pitch as a big weapon last year, when he finished third in the Cy Young vote.
OK, let's look at two plays involving Royals manager Ned Yost.
In the third inning, Mike Zunino was on third with two outs. Yost had Duffy intentionally walk Robinson Cano, giving up the platoon advantage to instead pitch to Corey Hart, who singled in the game's only run (Zunino's double and Hart's hit were Seattle's only two of the game). In his career, Duffy has been tougher on lefties and Hart has hit lefties better than Cano has, and it did seem a little early to issue an intentional walk, especially when you had the platoon matchup. Still, a lot of managers have taken that approach against the Mariners this year: Don't let Cano beat you.
Joe Posnanski, who hates the intentional walk, broke down the decision here and also tears into Yost:
But what drives me nuts is a manager who today believes one thing, tomorrow believes a second thing, the next day goes back to the first thing, the day after that believes something else entirely. In this, you not only lose the strategic edge (which may or may not be trivial) you also leave your players kind of bemused. If you hit the .300 OBP guy everybody likes at leadoff, they might stand behind you. If you hit the .300 OBP guy at leadoff one day, pull him the next because he doesn’t get on base enough, put him back in the leadoff spot because your gut tells you he’s about to get hot, take him out again because he doesn’t get on base … you leave EVERYBODY ticked off.
Ned Yost is like this. He’s a "gut" manager, meaning he not only makes odd decisions because they feel right in the moment but, heck, tomorrow he might do something entirely different because his gut boomed a different rumble.
Because of this, I have no idea how Yost feels about the intentional walk. Last year, Yost’s Royals allowed the second fewest intentional walks in the American League -- only Boston had fewer. The year before that, however, they led the American League in intentional walks. The year before that, they were near the top, his last year in Milwaukee the Brewers were near the bottom.
The guy’s all over the map, and it’s not only with intentional walks. Sometimes he will use a closer in a tie game on the road, sometimes he won’t. Sometimes he will sacrifice bunt in a certain situation, the next time around he will not. It’s maddening. I’m not saying the Yost should act the same way every single time -- of course he should adjust to the moment. But in the end, what do you stand for as a manager?
How rare was this kind of intentional walk? Last season, there were 38 intentional walks in American League parks in the third inning or earlier (10 of those to David Ortiz). Only three of those intentional walks were issued when the pitcher had the platoon advantage, all three curiously enough to Adrian Beltre:
• Lucas Harrell of the Astros twice walked Beltre on Aug. 19, both times with one out. Once, with a runner on third, once with runners on second and third.
• On Aug. 7, the Angels' Tommy Hanson walked Beltre with one out and runners on second and third.
So Yost's two-out walk to Cano was unprecedented, at least compared to 2013.
What if we ignore that it was early in the game? Overall, there were 96 intentional walks all season across both leagues with a runner on third and two outs, regardless of the inning. Ignoring situations in which the No. 8 hitter was walked to get to the pitcher, I found only eight instances all year when a batter was intentionally walked with a runner on third and two outs despite the platoon advantage:
• April 21: Detroit's Doug Fister walked Albert Pujols in the seventh inning of a tie game to pitch to Josh Hamilton (Fister stayed in the game and Hamilton lined out). That was interesting since that gave the platoon advantage to Hamilton.
• Aug. 23: The Indians' Rich Hill walked Justin Morneau in the seventh inning while trailing by a run. A little weird since Morneau can't really hit lefties. Cody Allen came on to face Josh Willingham, who promptly doubled in two runs.
I think you can see that all those situations make a lot more sense than walking Robinson Cano in the third inning, other than maybe the Pujols-Hamilton decision (although Hamilton was really struggling at the time).
OK, on to the ninth inning Thursday. The Mariners' Fernando Rodney comes on for the save. He's been a little wild this season and entered the game with six walks in 13 innings, although none in his previous six appearances.
He walks light-hitting Alcides Escobar on four pitches, including a 3-0 fastball way off the plate. That brings up leadoff hitter Norichika Aoki, who takes ball one. And then bunts. According to Baseball-Reference.com's win expectancy chart, the bunt actually increased Seattle's chances of winning from 74 percent after the walk to Escobar to 78 percent.
Now, you can argue that Yost was going for the tie, and in a battle of bullpens the edge goes to Kansas City. But you have to get there first.
To me, here's what made the bunt a bad decision: Don't you have to make Rodney throw a strike before you give away an out? Or even two strikes? Because Aoki has good bat control, you could still bunt with two strikes or even hit and run with the speedy Escobar on first. In fact, after the bunt Rodney proceeded to walk Eric Hosmer on five pitches. Rodney worked out of it from there, striking out Billy Butler and getting Salvador Perez to ground out, but what happens if the Mariners aren't given a free out?
I'm left wondering what Yost brings to the Royals as manager. His strategic decisions -- such as hitting Escobar leadoff much of last season -- have been roundly criticized in Kansas City and elsewhere. If part of a job as manager is to help young players reach their potential, would you say the Royals players (especially the position players) have done that? OK, we'll give Yost credit for Alex Gordon, who turned around his career under Yost in 2011. But Hosmer? Perez? Mike Moustakas? I'm not saying Yost is to blame or not to blame, but it's fair to say they haven't achieved at levels once expected. The Royals did have a great pitching staff last year, and he got a lot out of Ervin Santana and the bullpen, so maybe Yost (a former catcher) is better with pitchers.
Overall, however, I agree with Posnanski: Yost leaves me confused.