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Pickoff of the season dooms Royals

God knows the Kansas City Royals have found a lot of unique ways to lose ballgames over the past 25 years.

But Tuesday night, in arguably the biggest game the franchise has played since winning the 1985 World Series, the Royals found yet another way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

OK, maybe they weren't going to win. But trailing 4-2 in the top of the ninth to the Detroit Tigers, in a game the Royals needed to win to maintain their lead over Detroit in the AL Central, they had two runners on against a sweaty Joe Nathan, the proverbial case of "on the ropes." Nathan was taking a long time between pitches, the home fans had grown quiet and the Royals had the meat of their order up with no outs.

Norichika Aoki was at second base, pinch runner Terrance Gore had entered at first base. No. 3 hitter Alex Gordon, the team's hottest hitter, stepped in. Nathan fell behind with two fastballs, but fought back to strike out Gordon on a foul-tip 3-2 slider.

Now things got interesting. Royals manager Ned Yost inserted speedster Jarrod Dyson to run for Aoki. Was that move necessary? When Dyson's run isn't the important one? Well, maybe Yost had something up his sleeve. Consider the circumstances:

  • Salvador Perez, the hitter, had grounded into 21 double plays -- or 18 percent of all his potential double-play opportunities. That makes Perez one of the most likely hitters in the majors to ground into a double play. Of hitters with at least 50 double-play opportunities, Casey McGehee had the highest percentage entering Tuesday's action, at 23 percent. Perez ranked in the top 20.

  • On the other hand, Nathan doesn't throw a lot of ground balls, 42 percent of his balls in play, a little below the major league average of 47 percent.

  • However, Nathan is also pretty easy to steal on: As ESPN colleague Mark Simon pointed out, baserunners had been 10-for-10 stealing against Nathan this season and 44-for-46 going back to 2006. I'm pretty sure Yost didn't know this, but Nathan also had one pickoff in his career.

  • Dyson and Gore are burners. Dyson was 33-for-39 in stealing bases on the year and was 20-for-22 in his career attempting to steal third. He'd been picked off three times this year. The rookie Gore had one steal but was 47-for-54 in the minors.

So that's the setup. And ... Nathan picked off Dyson (in a play officially ruled a caught stealing, even though Dyson was caught as he stumbled back to second base) and Perez struck out on a slider six inches off the plate and the game was over.

Royals fan and Grantland contributor Rany Jazayerli tweeted that he thought putting in Dyson made sense:

I guess the question is: Did Yost telegraph his intention so obviously by inserting Dyson after Gordon had hit? Maybe so. But as Rany pointed out, getting two runners into scoring position had enormous value for the Royals, both by avoiding the double play and giving Perez a chance to tie the game with a single. You also have to weigh the odds of the chance of a caught stealing/pickoff versus a double play. The odds of a double play, given Perez's season numbers and Nathan's ground-ball tendencies, were less than one in five. Dyson's caught stealing/pickoff percentage is 22 percent -- a little higher, but you have to figure it's a better percentage against Nathan.

You also have to factor in that Nathan didn't look sharp, so the benefit of risking an out wasn't worth it against a struggling pitcher. Overall, however, if Yost did indeed call for the double steal, the math says it was an acceptable decision.

(From postgame tweets, Yost says he did not have a double steal on for that particular pitch, but that Dyson had a green light to steal. The problem with that description is that it doesn't tell us what Gore was going to do -- it would be up to him to read Dyson, which doesn't necessarily mean he'd attempt to steal second -- and he's the guy you're trying to get into scoring position. If Gore doesn't steal second, Dyson stealing third is pointless. So I don't really buy this explanation from Yost; it doesn't explain what he wanted the more important runner to do.)

The Royals found a way to lose, with a manager at the helm who has made some questionable decisions in the past. Who can forget the Carlos Pena pinch-hitting appearance in a crucial game last Sept. 10, in what I termed the worst-managed inning of the season. Fair or not, Yost is on the hot seat for every little decision these days.

Anyway, in the end it was Dyson who got picked off, not Yost. Heck, Ian Kinsler was basically standing on second base, so it really was terrible baserunning. In the end, Nathan and the Tigers made a play and won the game and now they're tied for first place ... and keep in mind the Royals are losing 4-2 in the 10th inning of that suspended game against Cleveland.

These two teams are at it again on Wednesday. It will be the biggest game the Royals have played since 1985.