Kansas City Royals: Managing the Third Time through the Order


October 23, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost (3) addresses the media in a press conference during workouts the day before game three of the 2014 World Series at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s World Series between the Kansas City Royals and San Francisco Giants has become a showcase for  the new tactical dilemma in baseball: managing the third time a starting pitcher faces the batting order.

According to 2014 league-wide batting splits, the critical late inning in the N.L. is the 6th with the 2nd most runs scored after the 1st. In the higher run environment of the A.L. due to the DH, the “critical” inning is the 5th, with the most runs scored.

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It’s not hard to figure out what’s happening. Batter OPS (on base percentage plus slugging. OPS is considered a barometer for total batting value) enjoys a sharp rise with the number of times through the batting order, going from .677 the 1st time through, rising to .708 on the second time, and zooming to .755 the third time a pitcher faces a batter. In the run happy American league, that 3rd time through hits earlier than in the National League, which makes the “critical” inning trend earlier in the A.L.

In short, it’s becoming clear that the 3rd time through the batting order is a critical “bridge” inning where a manager can most affect the game with smart tactical choices.

Now, the playoffs tend to push back the “critical” inning to the 6th, due to better quality rotations that most playoff teams possess to make the post-season. The built-in travel days that allow relievers to rest give playoff managers more options in dealing with the 6th inning crisis, because they will almost always be able to deploy their best relief assets due to the increased value of playoff victories.

What Friday’s game 3 showed is that neither Royals manager Ned Yost, or Giants manager Bruce Bochy, have completely grasped the significance of the 3rd time through the order pitching penalty.

Oct 24, 2014; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Sergio Romo (54) is relieved by manager Bruce Bochy (left) in the 8th inning against the Kansas City Royals during game three of the 2014 World Series at AT&T Park. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Both Bochy and Yost allowed a mid-tier starter to pitch into the 6th inning where they would face the heart of the opposing team’s order. Now, such a decision is understandable, IF the pitcher is dominant. While starters Jeremy Guthrie and Tim Hudson combined to retire 20 consecutive hitters at one point of the game,which was the most in World Series play since 1956, neither pitcher was unhittable.

In fact, both defenses made numerous good plays on hard hit balls. Neither Guthrie or Hudson were getting many swing and misses at their offerings. Guthrie finished 5 innings without striking out a single batter, while Hudson compiled only 2.

The bottom line is that the managers allowed 2 pitchers with a collective 2 strikeouts in 10.2 innings to pitch to the heart of the opponent’s batting order, while suffering the 3rd time penalty.

Yost, in particular, compounded his mistake by failing to pinch hit for Jeremy Guthrie in the top of the 6th. If his pinch hitter had been able to get on base, the Royals would likely have scored 3 times in the 6th rather than twice, How big would an extra insurance run have looked at the end of the game?

Failing to hit for Guthrie made no sense when Yost showed he was willing to bring Herrera into the 6th inning with 1 out, as he did later after Guthrie had allowed 2 men to reach.

However, Friday’s moves DID show that both Yost and Bochy are beginning to get the urgency of the 3rd time through the lineup. Yost has been willing to extend the use of super-reliever Kelvin Herrera into the 6th, while Bochy deployed his best pinch hitter against a starter poised to face the heart of his order for the 3rd time.

Yet, the half-measures employed by both managers could have cost them the game.

We can extract 4 basic principles that will help managers deal with these all important bridge innings as they go to the pen. Remember, this guide is for PLAYOFF baseball, where you are less concerned with bullpen overuse due to the built in off days and the urgency of playoff wins.

1)  The 3rd time through the batting order is the point of decision for your starter:

Due to the heavy 3rd time penalty, you need to seriously consider bringing in a reliever. This decision is even more heavily weighted in favor of pulling the starter when you’re dealing with mid-rotation guys instead of an ace.

In that case, a good relief arm will almost always give you a better chance to “get over the hump” than a starter hitters have already seen twice. You only continue with a mid-tier starter if he has his best stuff—a decision you make not based on pitch counts, radar guns, or results. You make this decision based on pitch movement, command, and his ability to either make hitters miss or induce weak contact.

In most tight games, the decision should be to pull the starter.

2) Bullpen use should be determined by matching your best relievers against the opponent’s heart of the order:

In the typical tight playoff game, you can expect to see the heart of the order two more times by the time you reach the 3rd time penalty. You need to match your best 2 relief arms to get those tough hitters. You can use a “lesser” arm against the bottom of the order in most cases if your 1st reliever does his job.

In the case of the Royals, who have 3 elite relievers, Yost could match up Herrera with the 3rd time through the order, Davis with the 4th time the heart comes up, and still keep Holland to “close” if you’re married to having an elite guy compiling saves. That, however, would mean getting away from using HDH in strictly a 7th, 8th, and 9th roles—unless you want to extend one of them to two innings on a given day.

3) Managers should use their best pinch hitters in the critical 3rd time through the order, especially if the starter is still in the game:

You need to use your best bench bats, and your best pinch runners, in the inning where they can do the most potential damage. Why wait for the opponent to bring in their no. 1 reliever before deploying your best subs? If you’re trailing, use your bench assets to set the table for your best hitters.  That way, they are most likely to succeed. This need is particularly acute in the N.L.

4) The 3rd time through the order is a good time to deploy your defensive substitutions, if you have the lead:

I think this is self-explanatory. If the 3rd time through the batting order is when hitters do the most damage, then PREVENTING those hits is a real good idea if you have the lead. Don’t wait until the 7th or 8th to make your defensive subs. Do it when the opponents are most likely to cut into, or reverse, your lead.

If playoff managers followed these 4 principles, they will make decisions that better reflect the urgency of this key part of the game.