In defense of Ned Yost … kind of

The Kansas City Royals just won the American League Wild Card, and advanced to the postseason for the first time since 1985. Congratulations are in order, and yet, had Billy Butler’s baserunning blunder not indirectly led to Geovany Soto’s thumb injury — and the insertion of throwing-impaired catcher Derek Norris — we would probably be talking about a very different game this morning. That’s what kind of game that was; the Royals may very well have won because their lead-footed designated hitter screwed up an attempted stolen base, allowing their track stars to run wild later on in the game. These are the kinds of events that make prognosticating a baseball game feel like a futile endeavor.

But for about an hour or so, the story of this game felt like it was going to be pretty easy to write. The Royals carried a lead into the sixth inning. The Royals had the best bullpen in baseball this year, led by the dominant trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis, and Greg Holland. And each of those three sat and watched as James Shields put the tying and go-ahead runs on base, and then continued to watch as Yordano Ventura entered the game and promptly gave up a three-run home run to Brandon Moss. Yordano Ventura, a rookie starter who threw 73 pitches two days ago. A right-handed rookie pitcher, working on very short rest, in a situation in which he was not used to being used. This didn’t even require second guessing, as there was plenty of first guessing going on even before Moss crushed the ball over the center-field fence.

I’m not here to say that going to Ventura was definitely the right call, or that it was not a strange decision in light of the other available options. Earlier in the day, I suggested that Yost not rely too heavily on Shields pitching deep into the game, and that he should be willing to ask his trio of elite relievers to get the final 12 outs. Had Yost called me at the start of the sixth inning, I’m pretty sure that I would not have considered Ventura as my first option, especially once Shields put two men on base and their collection of left-handers came around to bat.

But was it really indefensible? Was the move so obviously bad that the ensuing result should have been foreseeable? I’m not so sure. Let’s deal with the primary criticisms.

Yordano Ventura is a rookie, and asking him to pitch in that situation at his age is unfair.

I won’t pretend to understand the pressure that a Major League pitcher feels in an elimination game, or the different ways in which a veteran player responds to that situation versus a kid in his first season in the big leagues. That said, I do know that fellow rookie Brandon Finnegan — who was drafted out of TCU in June, and has been a professional baseball player for four months — was asked to take over in the 10th inning of this very same game, with the score tied 7-7, and he absolutely dominated the A’s in perhaps even a higher leverage situation than what Ventura faced in the sixth inning.

And it’s not like Finnegan is a seasoned reliever. He started at TCU, which is why the Royals used their first-round pick to take him this summer, and then he started in A-ball after signing, before they moved him to the bullpen and bumped him up to Double-A to get him ready to pitch in the big leagues in September. Between Double-A and his one month in the big leagues, Finnegan made 15 relief appearances, and he was dominant in pretty much all of them. And then, when asked to pitch in tonight’s game, Finnegan was dominant again.

We can talk about pressure and mental toughness all we want, but good stuff is good stuff, and Yordano Venutra has some of the best stuff in baseball. There were plenty of reasons to think that his 100 mph heaters would work well against a hitter who admitted to struggling against high fastballs, and Finnegan’s later performance makes it difficult to argue that this game was no place for an inexperienced youngster relying on pure stuff.

Ventura started all year, so he wasn’t used to pitching in relief, especially with men on base.

This is almost true; Ventura started 33 games this year, but he actually did make a relief appearance earlier in the regular season. On July 13, against the Tigers, he replaced Bruce Chen in the sixth inning of a 2-0 game, after Chen gave up a single to J.D. Martinez. In his first big league relief appearance, Ventura faced six batters: infield fly, strikeout (end of inning), strikeout, strikeout, single, fly out. The Royals would take the lead in the bottom of the seventh and win 5-2; Ventura was awarded the win for his performance in relief that day.

Sure, it was the regular season and not an elimination game, but it was a match-up with the division leader, and Yost called on Ventura to do a very similar job. He was excellent in that role that day, and I would imagine that Yost still remembers Ventura coming out of the pen that day and shutting down Detroit’s offense when called upon. And it’s not like starters don’t move to the bullpen in the playoffs every year.

The most famous recent example, of course, is Tim Lincecum, who shifted to relief work for the Giants in 2012, and went from a struggling starter to a lights out reliever almost overnight. But that’s hardly the only example of a starter-turning-reliever in October.

The Rays did it with Matt Moore in 2011, despite the fact that he had been a career starter throughout the minors and had just nine big-league innings before the postseason began; not only did they ask him to throw Game 1 of their first round series — in which he threw seven shutout innings in his postseason debut — but he came back to throw three innings in relief in Game 4. And then the Rays did the same thing with him last year, using him to start Game 1 and pitch out of the bullpen in Game 4 against Boston. The Rangers utilized Derek Holland similarly in 2011, a year in which he established himself as one of their best starting pitchers, but was used out of the bullpen in both the division series and the World Series, even after starting games just a few days before.

For veteran starters, this happens all the time. Max Scherzer pitched two innings in relief for the Tigers last year. Justin Masterson pitched two innings out of the bullpen for the Indians in the Wild Card game last year. Mat Latos threw four innings in relief of an injured Johnny Cueto in 2012, in what was his first playoff appearance and the only relief outing of his career.

The Cardinals have basically turned this process into an annual tradition in St. Louis. Trevor Rosenthal, Carlos Martinez, and Lance Lynn all came through their system as starting pitchers, and all of them were turned into highly effective late-inning setup guys with minimal experience as big leaguers or relievers. Having a young kid come up as starter and then spend October throwing gas is par for the course in Missouri.

The act of pitching in relief was unusual for Ventura, but at the end of the day, it’s still pitching, and he’s done that for more than 200 innings at the big league level. At some point, we have to stop acting like elite Major League players are delicate beings who can’t handle being asked to do anything outside the norm.

All that said, I’m not trying to absolve Ned Yost entirely. If Kelvin Herrera was available to pitch after Ventura got in trouble in the 6th inning, then Herrera was likely a better option to replace Shields to begin with, and Herrera pitching into the seventh inning dispels notion that he couldn’t have continued to pitch beyond just that one inning if the team wanted to use him to get the ball to Wade Davis. Or, with a string of left-handers coming up, Yost could have gone with Finnegan earlier on, getting the platoon advantage in the process, or even turned to Danny Duffy, another lefty who spent the year as a starter but was on the roster to pitch in relief if called upon.

There were better options than Yordano Ventura in that position, and those options suddenly became much more attractive when Ventura coughed up the lead. But let’s not pretend that Yost was really the first manager to experiment with using a young starter out of the bullpen in October, or ignore the numerous examples of times this same gamble has worked well in other situations. It was perhaps a needless risk, given the team’s other options, but it wasn’t such a crazy decision that it deserves to be a significant discussion point even after the Royals managed to come back and win in crazy fashion.

If we really want to talk about egregious managerial decisions when it comes to handling of the pitching staff, I’d suggest that Bob Melvin’s decision to let Jon Lester pitch the eighth inning, giving the Royals a chance to get back into a game where they were nearly dead and buried, was the decision that deserves more scrutiny.