Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Twenty-nine years in the making and we’re a few hours from the first pitch of the Wild Card game.

It’s the Royals against the Athletics. The Royals arrive in the postseason on the back of another strong second half of baseball. The A’s staggered to the finish line, coughing up a chance to win the West to settle for a play-in game. After the All-Star Break, the Royals won 41 of 67 games – a .612 winning percentage second only to Baltimore’s .657. Meanwhile Oakland won just 28 of 66, a miserable .424 winning percentage.

A hot team against a team that’s ice cold. But baseball is a funny game. In the second half, the Royals scored 264 runs and allowed 240. The A’s scored 258 and allowed 247. Such a narrow margin between the two teams in the run column, yet the Royals surged to 13 more wins.

And this is one game, winner-take-all. Anything can happen. We can see a 10-0 blowout or a 2-1 nail-biter. With James Shields and Jon Lester on the mound, I know which way I’m leaning, but… Baseball is a funny game.

WC_Offense

Maybe you don’t see it from the graph, but the offenses are a study in contrasts. The Royals .263 batting average is second in the AL. Their OBP is ninth because they don’t take a walk. On the year, Royals batters accepted a free pass 380 times, last in the league. Nearly 100 walks fewer than league average. On the other hand, the A’s walked a league-high 586 times. Over 100 walks above league average. Josh Donaldson (10.9 percent), Derek Norris (12.2 percent), Brandon Moss (11.6 percent), and Coco Crisp (12.3 percent) are the A’s who have a walk rate above 10 percent. That rate isn’t especially meaningful, it’s just one that jumps out because it’s double digits. By comparison, Alex Gordon is the only Royals regular who has a double-digit walk rate. And he’s barely on the right side at 10.1 percent. As you know, the lack of walks on the Royals isn’t skewed by one or two bad apples. It’s an epidemic.

Neither team hits for much cumulative power. The A’s are an odd bunch. They rank 12th in the AL in doubles, first in triples and are in the middle of the pack at 8th in home runs. The Royals play more of a gap to gap style of ball, finishing fourth in doubles, fifth in triples. You know where they finished in the home run race. (Last. In case you’re new here.)

Yes, the Royals are the first team to qualify for the postseason after finishing dead last in walks and home runs in the regular season. Quite a feat. This is truly a team only Dayton Moore could have assembled.

WC_PitchingR

At first glance, the advantage goes to Oakland. Higher strikeout rate, lower walk rate, better ERA and xFIP. Maybe if this was a best-of-five series. But this is a single game. So it’s Jon Lester and the bullpen. Aaron had a great breakdown of Lester on Monday, so I’ll direct you there for a more comprehensive look at the A’s starter. To simplify things, let’s just put it this way: Lester has helped those averages in a very positive way for Oakland.

If this game is close – as I suspect it will be – the starting pitchers will give way to the bullpen in the late innings. We know about the Royals killer triumvirate of Herrera, Davis, and Holland. Oakland doesn’t lack in the bullpen department, either.

WC_Bullpen

Sean Doolittle stepped into the closer role in mid-May. Since taking over he’s posted a 2.27 ERA while limiting opponents to a .139/.181/.219 slash line. Of note here, A’s manager Bob Melvin isn’t shy about using Doolittle for more than an inning. He threw two innings twice since becoming a closer. Because the Royals basically owned the A’s this year, Doolittle made only one appearance, pitching the eighth in a 7-3 whitewash last August 14. He retired Mike Moustakas on a line out to left, surrendered a single to Lorenzo Cain, then got Christian Colon on a fly ball to center before striking out Jerrod Dyson to end the frame.

The A’s setup men are more than capable as well. Luke Gregerson and Fernando Abad form a potent late inning right-left combo. Neither walk batters. If the A’s are in a pinch and need a strikeout, they will likely turn to Ryan Cook who has whiffed 50 batters in 50 innings of work.

It’s true the A’s stumbled in the second half. But it wasn’t because of the pitching. Oakland’s strongest month on the mound was in September. The pitchers closed the season strong. If the Royals don’t go up to the plate with a plan, they may not have much of a chance against Lester and company. Ummm… Yeah. I don’t think any Royal hitter has gone up to the plate with a plan all season. Why start now?

WC_Lineup

This is the lineup Melvin will use against the right-handed Shields, per Roster Resource. That leaves several right-handed bats on the bench such as Jonny Gomes and Geovany Soto. Sam Fuld is a left-handed bat who could be used as a pinch runner late in the game. Craig Gentry is their main speed threat, but he’s out after suffering a concussion a couple weeks ago.

It looks like Shields will see only two right-handed batters. I heard speculation on MLB Radio on Sirius/XM that Melvin may decide to go with Soto at catcher instead of Norris. The thinking is, Soto would better neutralize the Royals running game. He’s thrown out nine of 17 would be base stealers this year, a 53 percent success rate. Norris on the other hand, has gunned down just 17 percent, nabbing just 12 base runners in 72 attempts. Personally, I think with offense at a premium, Melvin will go with Norris at least to start the game. Lester being left-handed may help, but he’s not known for his skill in holding runners. He hasn’t picked off anyone this year – actually his last pickoff came in 2011 – and he’s allowed 16 steals in 21 attempts this year. Soto may enter the game in the later innings to try to keep the Royals from running roughshod. Although good luck stopping Dyson and Terrance Gore.

WC_LINEUP2

If you think Yost runs anything different out to start the game, you haven’t been paying attention. This has been the lineup the last eight games. At this point, it’s gospel.

But goddamn, what a horrible lineup. Escobar doesn’t take a walk and has a .317 OBP, but he’s leading off. Hosmer slugs under .400 and has nine home runs on the season, but he’s cleanup. The best hitter on the team has somehow dropped to sixth. From what I can tell, these machinations are due to finding some sort of right-left-right-left balance. Holy crap. This is a Hall of Fame dumpster fire of a lineup.

Yet Escobar has been hot since moving to leadoff. In 15 games at the top spot, he’s hit .375/.412/.484 with five extra base hits and three walks. Since returning from his hand injury at the end of August, Hosmer has slugged .489 with eight doubles, a triple, and three home runs. And after a scorching hot August where giddy Royals fans were chanting M-V-P when he came to the plate, Gordon has stumbled down the stretch, hitting .190/.333/.286. Yost is playing the hot hand. And it’s been working. Sometimes, it’s good to be the king.

Despite hot and cold streaks and despite the fact the Royals won five of seven, this looks like a very even game to me. Hell, it’s one game for everything. At this point in 2014, nothing would surprise me.

I remain cautiously optimistic.

Are you confused about who can and cannot be on the Royals’ 25 man roster for the post-season?  Welcome to the club, kids.  The rules have changed this year and made it quite a bit simpler from past seasons.  Perhaps the best summation I have found is this “if the player was anywhere in your organization prior as of midnight of August 31st, you can assume he is or can be made to be eligible for the post-season”.

Thanks to TheCubReport.com, I think this may be the actual current post season eligibility rules:

A club’s Active List (25-man roster) must be submitted to the MLB Commissioner prior to the start of each post-season series (LDS, LCS, and World Series). 

1. All players on a club’s MLB Reserve List (40-man roster) prior to midnight (Eastern) on August 31st are eligible to be included on a post-season Active List (25-man roster).

2. A player on an MLB club’s Disabled List (7-day, 15-day, or 60-day) or Restricted List (Prohibited Substance Suspension or extended Bereavement Leave only) is eligible to be included on a post-season Active List only after spending the minimum number of days required to be served by a player on that list.

3. Any player on the Disqualified List, Ineligible List, or Restricted List (for reasons other than extended Bereavement Leave or a Prohibited Substance Suspension) as of midnight August 31st is ineligible to be included on his club’s post-season Active List.  

4. A post-season eligible player who is placed on an MLB Disabled List, Bereavement List, Paternity Leave List, or Restricted List (Prohibited Substance Suspension or extended Bereavement Leave only) prior to the start of a post-season series can (with the approval of the MLB Commissioner) be replaced on his club’s LDS, LCS, or World Series Active List by a player who was on a Reserve List or Inactive List of a minor league affiliate from that organization prior to midnight August 31st. The minor league player must be added to his club’s MLB Reserve List (40-man roster) before he can be added to the club’s Active Roster.   

5. A player on a post-season Active List (25-man roster) who is injured or leaves his club on Bereavement Leave or Paternity Leave during a post-season series can (with the approval of the MLB Commissioner) be replaced on his club’s Active List prior to the conclusion of that series by another eligible player, or by a player who was on a Reserve List or Inactive List of a minor league affiliate from that organization prior to midnight August 31st. The minor league player must be added to his club’s MLB Reserve List (40-man roster) before he can be added to the club’s Active Roster. Also, a a pitcher must replace a pitcher and a position player must replace a position player. 

6. If an injured pitcher or position player is replaced during a post-season series, the injured pitcher or position player is ineligible to be reinstated to his club’s Active List (25-man roster) for the balance of that series and the next series (LCS or World Series). 

For added fun, a team can change the make-up of its 25 man roster before EVERY post-season series and, yes, the Wild Card game is considered a ‘series’.  As such, the Royals can designate 25 players to play tomorrow night against Oakland and WHEN they win, change that group of 25 for the series with the Angels.

From a practical standpoint, what does this mean?

Very simply, Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura and Jeremy Guthrie probably will not be on the 25 man roster for Tuesday’s game.  You could make a case for Jason Vargas not being necessary as well, but there is the chance that James Shields is struck by lightning twice (because once will not be enough to strike down James…and I’m only half-joking) and the Royals might need a guy to go multiple innings.  Also, these two teams could play to a 1-1 tie for 14 innings and it would be nice to have Vargas available instead of having to go with, say, Mike Moustakas on the mound for the 15th inning of the most important game in 29 years.

So, who will the Royals go with tomorrow?

Let’s break it down, starting with the pitchers:

  • DEFINITELY:  James Shields, Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland
  • ALMOST CERTAINLY: Jason Vargas, Brandon Finnegan, Jason Frasor
  • LIKELY: Francisely Bueno, Scott Downs and one of the Colemans.
  • MAYBE: Liam Henriks and Aaron Crow probably get discussed and I would not be totally shocked to see Duffy included with the idea of him coming in to get a big out or two in relief.  Guthrie possibly as well, because this organization loves them some veteran presence.

That is ten pitchers in my likely, almost certainly and definitely categories: which seems like a lot for one game.  It seems like a hell of a lot  when you consider that the HDH bullpen trio of destruction did not pitch on Sunday, has Monday off and will have Wednesday off as well if, WHEN, the Royals win, and as such Yost could and should plan on using Herrera and Davis for two inning a piece if the situation warrants.   Still, you don’t want to be in extra innings and start running short of pitchers.  You don’t want to have Scott Downs face any right-hander, including you, me, your mom or your little sister.  While this provides Ned Yost with plenty of opportunities to ‘manage’, which is sometimes not always a great idea, you pretty much have to roll with it now.

Besides, last year the Wild Card teams had 10 and 11 pitchers on their roster, I find it hard to believe the Royals are going to diverge much from ‘the book’.  Ten pitchers it is.

That leaves fifteen spots for the position players (I ran that through a spreadsheet, so I know it’s right):

  • DEFINITELY: Alcides Escobar, Nori Aoki, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Omar Infante, Mike Moustakas, Jarrod Dyson, Eric Kratz
    • That is the usual starting nine, plus Dyson and a backup catcher.
  • ALMOST CERTAINLY: Josh Willingham
    • I am pretty sure half the fanbase thinks that Willingham’s only at-bats of they year were the two strikeouts looking against Detroit. His body is breaking down on him, but I still like Josh coming off the bench with runners on-base.  Just having him on the roster will give Bob Melvin something to think about in the late innings.  The more a manager thinks, the more likely he is to over-think.
  • LIKELY: Terrance Gore, Raul Ibanez, Christian Colon or Jayson Nix
    • I know, I know – Raul Ibanez?!!  No, he is not on MY playoff roster, but I have a hard time believing he won’t be on Dayton Moore’s. He is the left-handed pinch-hitting complement to Josh Willingham.  Now, Raul really can’t hit anymore and Ned Yost is unlikely to actually pinch-hit for anyone, but….
    • I am not sure Gore makes it onto the ALDS 25 man roster, but with some extra spots to play with for one day, not only does he make it, but he is right behind Dyson as to ‘most likely to appear’.
    • The Royals have to carry a spare infielder and, hell, they might even start him over Moustakas against Jon Lester. Christian Colon played yesterday for the first time in three weeks and I still like him in this spot way better than Nix and Moustakas, for that matter.
  • MAYBE: Lane Adams, Carlos Peguero
    • It would make sense to not carry Ibanez and add one of these guys or even keep both Colon or Nix. In theory, Peguero is as likely to run into a pitch as Ibanez and Adams could also pinch-run or play defense in the outfield so Yost could use both Dyson and Gore to run in key situations without regard for defense the next inning.

Suffice to say, there are a lot of options for the Royals to consider as they create this one day 25 man roster.  It will be interesting to see what Moore and Yost come up with and even more interesting to see what they come up with for the Angels series.  That’s right:  THE ANGELS SERIES.  There are no critical spirits here at the Authority today!

Jon Lester. A name that sparks dread in Royals fans thanks to the memories of the nine losses they have endured the 13 times they’ve faced the lefty since 2006. And it’s not just that he’s beaten them so many times, it’s that he has made them look like little leaguers being toyed with in many of those games. His average game score against KC is 63, and he has posted four games with an elite-level 80 game score or better. Worst of all was the no-hitter he twirled against them in 2008 (with a game score of 94) that kicked off a 12 game losing streak. 2014 against Lester did not go well either. Due to a fluke of the schedule and Lester being traded, the Royals faced him three times in a span of just over three weeks in July and August. This was during one the hottest stretches of the Royals season, but they lost all three games to Lester. They went 16-3 against pitchers not named Lester between the first and last time they faced him.

Here are the ugly details of all 13 games:

via Baseball-Reference.com

via Baseball-Reference.com

If you want to reach for a silver lining there, the Royals have won three of the five times they’ve faced Lester in Kauffman Stadium. He has only been slightly more effective pitching at home in his career, with a 3.50/3.66 home/road ERA split. But this won’t be a normal road game. Something tells me the KC fans will be trying to get in his head the same way Pirates fans did to Johnny Cueto in their Wild Card game last year.

Here is how the usual 2014 starting nine have fared vs. Lester in their careers, sorted by most plate appearances:

lester v royals players

Christian Colon is 1-for-1 with an RBI single against Lester

Batter-pitcher stats are some of the most over-used and useless stats out there because, except in extreme situations, they are too small of a sample size to mean anything. In hopes of expanding the sample sizes, I tried to find other lefties the Royals have faced who have a similar pitch mix and velocities to Lester. Unfortunately I can only find one who I consider a close match: Reliever Jerry Blevins. But the nine Royals have only faced him for a combined 19 PAs.

Lester has a wicked pitch mix that features a 92 MPH fastball that he throws about half the time, an 88 MPH cutter thrown a little under a third of the time, and a 75 MPH bender used for around 15% of his pitches. All three are nasty and get great results, so hitters can’t sit and hope for one of his weaker pitches, because they don’t exist. It is tough to find comparable pitchers mostly because he throws his cutter more often than any other lefty. And why not, when he can make it start from well out of the strike zone before dancing over the corner at the last moment:

via Washington Post/PitcherGifs

Still, I selected nine other current lefties I decided were the closest matches. Here is their pitch data for 2012 through a few days ago:

lester comps

via FanGraphs.com

Like I say, most of them are really not that close, so take the following for what it is worth. But I totaled up Royals hitting results against all 10 of the above pitchers in an attempt to see how they’ve performed in their careers in a larger sample against Lesterish pitchers (sorted by OPS):

lester comps v royals hitters

Still not huge samples.  But it’s not encouraging that Billy, with the platoon advantage, has scuffled so much against these lefties, and it looks like a tough match-up for Alex, the team’s biggest offensive threat this year. Overall though, the team OPS is not too shabby.

That’s enough doom and gloom. Anything can happen in one game, and the Royals have an ace of their own to start. To end with some positive juju, here is the only homer the Royals have hit against Lester:

There is a ‘z’ or an ‘x’ (depending on your publication) next to Kansas City in the standings today:  the Royals are in the playoffs.  Forget for a moment the debate over whether a wild card one and done game is the real playoffs and just enjoy the fact that your Kansas City Royals are going to be playing baseball when the majority of the teams will be headed home for the winter.  Not sure if you noticed, but it has been a while since that has happened.

When I was seven years old, my dad bought me a three pack of 1971 Topps baseball cards.  I’m not sure what the deal was, but they came in a plastic package where you could see the top card of each stack:  Joe Keough of the Royals was on top of one of the stacks.  My dad was a farmer, a nose to the grindstone dawn until dusk worker.  Sure, he was a sports fan, but had no interest or knowledge of how baseball cards were distributed.  He thought with a Royal on top, that meant the whole stack would be Royals.

“There’s a new team in Kansas City now,” he said. “That would be a good one for you to follow.”

With that, I was a Royals’ fan.

Now, I’m an old guy (even older than Craig!) and being a Royals’ fan back then meant listening to Denny on 980 AM out of Shenandoah, Iowa (we were on a farm east of Lincoln, Nebraska, so the reception was, shall we say, ‘cracklily’ at best), checking the box scores in the paper and occasionally seeing the Royals on Monday Night Baseball (remember that, fellas?) or on the Saturday afternoon national game.  Every game televised?  Hah! Internet? Not even close. Sports radio? None.  And yeah, I actually did walk uphill to school in snowstorms…

While it was hard to follow the Royals from 200 miles away, it was easy to be a fan of them.

They won 88 games in 1973 and 91 more in 1975 and then went to the playoffs seven of the next ten years. Even after the 1985 World Series, the team still was more of a winner than loser.  Amos Otis and Cookie Rojas gave way to Willie Wilson and Frank White.  Dennis Leonard and Paul Splittorff gave way to Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza.  And a guy named George Brett was pretty good, too.

Then came the strike of 1994 and it suddenly became hard to be a Royals’ fan.  They didn’t win 80 games for eight seasons before managing 83 in 2003 and then Kansas City went nine more seasons before posting another winning record.  The Royals were cheap…and stupid. Scott Elarton made an Opening Day start, Mark Redman was an All-Star and Ken Harvey/Calvin Pickering/Justin Huber were going to lead us to the promised land.

Blogging became a thing.  Craig and I, neither of whom actually lived in our mothers’ basement, started our own blogs, but merged not long after.  We searched for hope in the depths of Mark Teahen’s advanced stats.  We debated Kila Ka’aihue versus Mike Jacobs versus an old Jose Guillen.  We watched Trey Hillman destroy Gil Meche (I still wear my powder blue Meche jersey by the way – and yes, internet cool kids, it is okay to a) wear a jersey and b) wear one of a player not on the team). We listened to Dayton Moore talk down to us and Ned Yost be grumpy.

There were debates over whether David DeJesus smiled too much and Billy Butler didn’t smile enough.  Alex Gordon wouldn’t adapt and listen to coaching.  Ryan Shealy and Luke Hochevar listened too much. We were told that Tony Pena Jr. would someday hit and we had to watch Emil Brown run the bases.  Zack Greinke burst on the scene, quit, went to the bullpen, won a Cy Young and then went all jerkstore on us. Hey, we all endured a lot:  even you young whippersnappers.

We can debate the playoff roster Sunday night and maybe, just maybe, argue over whether James Shields should be brought back on short rest for a one game playoff with Detroit to decide the Central Champion on Monday. There will be much to debate, discuss and agonize over very soon.

For now, though, the Kansas City Royals are going to play in the post-season no matter what happens today and tomorrow.  Enjoy the weekend, folks, we have all earned it.

And yes, I still have that Joe Keough baseball card.

 

Finally

3 comments

Twenty-nine years of agony. Twenty-nine years of never really coming close. The 2014 Royals did it. In one night, they exorcised the demons.

They are going to the playoffs.

What do you say? What do you write?

It’s been far too long. As we’ve built toward this moment over the last couple of weeks, several people associated with the team have come to mind. I’d just like to share a few thoughts.

I’m thinking of Dick Howser. Once upon a time, Howser’s teams had lost 11 consecutive postseason games. Eleven losses in a row! Imagine if that happened to a manager in the Twitter era. Ugh. Howser lost three in a row to the Royals as manager of the Yankees in 1980. His Royals got swept in the split season playoffs in ’81. And the juggernaut Tigers in 1984 blasted past the Royals in three straight. And the ’85 Royals lost the first two to the Blue Jays. One of my favorite Royals moments was Game Three of the 1985 ALCS. It’s generally remembered as the George Brett show. Brett went 4-4 with two home runs and missed a third homer by inches and made one of the best defensive plays I’ve ever seen. Bob Costas and Tony Kubek spent the entire broadcast comparing him to Mickey Mantle. As great as Brett was in that game, the moment that stands out is the final out. A popup that fittingly landed in Brett’s glove. A win for the Royals and Howser’s first post season win in 12 attempts. As the team came on the field for the end of game handshakes, Brett, knowing what that meant, handed the ball to Howser. The greatest manager in franchise history.

I’m thinking of Mike Sweeney. Sweeney played 1,282 games for Kansas City, the most of any player in franchise history not to ever appear in the postseason for the Royals. By the end of his time in KC, he was oft-injured (he was referred to on this site as Iron Mike Sweeney more than once) and was the focus of much scorn. Most – really all – of it undeserved. His .861 OPS ranks second all-time in franchise history and his 851 Runs Created ranks sixth. Sweeney played in an era most of us would like to forget. But Sweeney deserves to be remembered.

I’m thinking of Curt Nelson. Curt is the director of the Royals Hall of Fame. The man loves his baseball and he loves his Royals. He’s one of the great ambassadors of this franchise and I don’t feel like he gets the credit he deserves. He’s like our Tommy Lasorda, bleeding Royal blue. The next time you’re out at The K, stop by the Hall of Fame and see if you can get a moment or two with him. That moment will turn into several minutes, but that’s perfect. Curt is so friendly and warm and knowledgeable about the Royals past and present. He was in Chicago on Friday. Smiling, of course.

I’m thinking of Mike Groopman and his analytics staff. They operate in some CIA-style veil of secrecy, but talking to those guys, you know they bust their ass for the team. Their methods may still confound some of the old school baseball guys, but they are trying. Lord knows, I’ve mocked the Royals Brain Trust on this site (and others) over the last decade. Tonight, I tip my cap in their direction. They take a ton of crap inside and outside, but they’ve stayed the course and kept fighting the good fight.

I’m thinking of the fans. Almost thirty years without a postseason. Nearly a generation and a half that have, up until Friday, never experienced the euphoria of a clinch. I’ve said this a thousand times, but how some of these people are baseball fans is beyond me. These are the guys and gals I truly respect. I came of age with the great teams of the ’70s and ’80s and I suppose that’s why I’m still here. If my first exposure to Royals baseball was in 1995, I don’t know if I would have had the intestinal fortitude to stick with this franchise. And the true diehards… You guys deserve a medal.

Finally, I’m thinking of my grandfather. The man who taught me to love and respect the game. He had season tickets in Section 117, Row MM on the aisle. Third base side so he could see into the Royals dugout. Far enough back that we were under the overhang of club level so we would be protected from the elements. You should be getting the picture. He left nothing to chance. When I first started going to the games, he laid down one simple rule: We were there to watch the game. No food, beverages or souvenirs would be purchased during the game unless they were from a vendor working the aisles. Bathroom breaks were to be made between innings. And we were keeping score. My scorebook is still about 98 percent his influence.  It was a damn near perfect system, so I’ve seen little reason to innovate.

He had a 40 game season ticket plan, but we went to so many more games each year. We’d just be hanging out and spur of the moment decide to head to the stadium to watch a game in general admission. It was my baseball education. My indoctrination. He got me a subscription to The Sporting News and a membership to SABR. He taught me how to read a box score and how to look at the standings. Everything that is my foundation of baseball fandom I owe to him.

Aside from the regular season games, my grandfather took me to my first playoff game in 1978 when the Royals beat Ed Figueroa for their only win of that series. He took me to my first World Series game in 1980 when we watched Willie Mays Aikens crush two beautiful home runs. He took me to the ’84 playoffs when the Royals were overmatched by the Tigers. He took me to every home postseason game in 1985 as the Royals rallied twice. And he took me to countless regular season games. He hated Reggie Jackson, Charlie Finley and the Yankees. He loved Amos Otis, Frank White and the Royals.

About midway through our baseball time together, his health began to fail. Just kind of standard stuff that I’m sure was uncomfortable for him, but he always soldiered on, especially when it came to going to ballgames. He had heart issues so he had to watch his sodium intake. That meant no hot dogs. Except it turns out no hot dogs at a ballgame wasn’t something he was ready to sacrifice. So he did the next best thing: He bought them for me to eat. For him, just the smell of the hot dog was enough. From time to time, he’d ask me for a bite, but he knew he shouldn’t. It was the smell. That was baseball to him.

We always would get to the stadium early for batting practice and we walked into the stadium the same way every time. Third base gate, we’d stroll beside the ramps that go to the upper deck and walk through a breezeway that housed a little food court. The area had a burger stand on the left with pizza on the other side. But the burger stand also did a brisk hot dog business and they actually boiled the hot dogs behind the stand, so that was what you smelled when you walked through on your way to the seats. And that’s why my grandfather liked to enter the stadium that way… The smell.

It’s funny, but that taught me so much about life. Enjoy the little things. Take nothing for granted. And figure out a way to have fun.

My grandfather passed away nearly 20 years ago in November of 1994. Just after the strike wiped out the postseason. While I’m thinking of him tonight, I generally think of him often. He had an opinion about everything, so I’ll usually wonder what he would think of something in particular. Sluggerrr? He would have absolutely hated that. Same for the other in-game entertainment. He would have loved Alex Gordon and his dedication. And he’d probably be irritated at Billy Butler for not hitting for more power.

These days when I return to Kauffman Stadium, no matter where I’m sitting, I go through the gates on the third base side and walk through where the food court used to be, searching for that familiar hot dog smell. Every single time I walk into The K, I think of my grandfather. Every single time. I’m a parent now and when I take my kids to games, I try to build their baseball foundation the way my grandfather built mine. When we walk into the stadium, as corny as it sounds, and even though my kids don’t realize it, we all walk in together.

Baseball and the Royals mean so much to me. I suspect if you’re reading this, you feel the same way. And I suspect you have a similar relationship with someone who is responsible for your baseball foundation. Royals fans have built quite a community and it’s been quite a journey. Many more downs the last three decades than ups. Naturally, at this moment, I find myself wondering about my grandfather. What would have he thought about Friday night? Returning to the postseason for the first time after 29 years?

Like all of us, he would have been thrilled.

I’ll be attending the next Royals playoff home game, and it will be the first time I won’t be attending a postseason game with my grandfather. But whether it’s the Wild Card game or the ALDS, I’ll make the familiar walk through the third base gate and into the concourse. My grandfather will be there. We will all be there.

Thanks so much for reading.

Go Royals.

The Cusp

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Here we are. One hundred and fifty-nine games through the season, the Royals are one win away.

One win.

This is the tenth season I’ve been blogging about this team. This is the first time I can remember where I’m at a loss for words. For those of you who stop by (and thank you for that) you come here for the words. I think I’m going to fail you today.

It’s one of those moments where I have so many thoughts running through my mind. So many things I’d like to say. But I’m going to hold back. At least for now. We are Royals fans, after all. We’ve been through entirely too much to start celebrating early. We need to be quiet. Respectful. Lest we wake the ghosts of Yuni, Neifi and Tony Muser.

But after action on Thursday, the Royals Magic Number has been reduced to one. One more win and the Royals are in. Or one more loss from Seattle, and they’re in. I know which I’d prefer. But again… These are still the Royals. I’ll take what I can get.

How are you going to function on Friday? Myself, I’ll be a baseball zombie, staring at my TPS Reports or whatever, failing to comprehend my nine to five existence and counting the hours, minutes and seconds to first pitch. Maybe I’ll call in sick. Although it would be just as crazy to be at home. I’ll just wear a path in the carpet from pacing twelve hours. Why not wear out the carpet at my office? Stick it to The Man. That’s what Ned Yost would do.

This is so weird.

I’ve followed this team since 1976. I know we have readers who have been around since the genesis of this club. We also have plenty of readers who have seen just two winning seasons in their lifetime. Such an odd spectrum. Yet we’re united in the faith, the hope, the belief, that Friday will be the night. Winning doesn’t wash away the stumbles and the sins of the last 29 years. Those are burned deep into our collective psyche. One successful season doesn’t repair that kind of damage. But as Trey Hillman once said, we live in a microwave society. We want everything and we want everything now. The Royals are one win away from giving us everything.

I picked this team to win 84 games. And I thought I was full of shit. I’ll admit I gave into the groupthink and went slightly above .500. Realistically, I thought this was a 78 win team. Maybe 80. The 84 was what Baseball Prospectus would term a 100 percent PECOTA projection, meaning if everything – and I mean everything – went right, 84 wins was the maximum this team could achieve. Sue me. I was wrong.

There’s going to be plenty of time after this ride is over to look back at how the Royals got to this point. The short version is pitching and defense and parity. Along with some timely hits. Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer combine for seven hits and three runs on Thursday. Alex Gordon and Sal Perez each pick up a pair. The bats are feeling a little warm. The pitching remains exceptional. And the defense, after wobbling a week ago, seems to have stabilized. How’s that for timing?

I feel like there’s so much to write about this team. There’s so much to analyze, to dissect, to discuss. But there are still three games to play. And some more after that.

It’s strange that while I’ve followed this team for a lifetime, I only remember one clinching moment. That would be Willie Wilson’s walk off in 1985. If I recall (and my memory may not be entirely accurate here) the game was the only home game of the year on TV. Fan appreciation day on the penultimate day of the season. The Royals fell into a 4-0 hole and dug themselves out to win 5-4 in 10 innings.

Maybe I don’t remember the clinchers because the Royals were in the old AL West and that meant either playing in Oakland, Seattle or Anaheim or waiting for their results to come in.

I have a copy of a book that was written by Steve Cameron for the 25th anniversary of the franchise called Moments, Memories and Miracles. He writes about 1976, gathering in an empty press box and waiting for news from the west coast:

Royals radio broadcaster Fred White somehow got on the phone with the Angels’ play-by-play crew out in Oakland and convinced them to keep the line open. Inning by inning, as the A’s and California remained scoreless, White would relay what was happening back to the gang at Royals Stadium. It seemed surreal – listening third-hand to an apparently endless game being played a half-continent away. All while staring out at a darkened field. 

The A’s marathon when on through a scary ninth inning, then into the 10th, the 11th, the 12th. Our ragged crew in Kansas City began to question whether the whole exercise had been worth the trouble. Most sane people had gone home to bed, figuring they’d find out in the morning if the Royals were champs or still just hopeful champs-to-be.

And then suddenly, almost like a bolt from the autumn sky, we heard stunning news from Oakland. The Angels Rusty Torres, a marginal offensive threat with a .212 career batting average and popcorn power, somehow socked a home run in the top of the 12th. California grabbed a 2-0 lead so – in a heartbeat – the Royals had moved within a half-inning of a division championship – even if most of them were still asleep. Nobody was dozing at the stadium, though, because Torres’ shot had revved things to a fever state.

The game moved to the bottom of the 12th.

Now we wanted the news pitch by pitch, and the crowd around Fred kept pressing into a tighter and tighter knot. “What’s the count?” somebody would holler. “One out or two? I thought the A’s had someone on base?” In short, the place was turning into chaos and poor Fred, our only link to the momentous events in Oakland, was straining to hear the play-by-play calls. He was talking to us, we were shouting at him, the Angels broadcasters were trying to keep Fred up to date. Looking back, I doubt anyone real had a clue what was going on.

I do know, though, exactly where I was standing at how my mouth dropped open when, at 1:31 a.m., Fred nonchalantly cupped his hand over the receiver and announced: “It’s over.” He looked at Charlie Lau and Steve Busby and said, “How’s it feel to be Western Division champions?”

Cameron sums everything up:

So October 1, 1976 – and the wee hours of October 2 – meant everything to the Royals and their fans. This was vindication at last, not only a pennant but a pennant captured at the direct expense of Charley O., his jackass and his team. How could success taste any sweeter? I remember  watching Lau and Herzog with their stupid smiles, hearing all the hubbub throughout the house and thinking no matter how many titles the Royals ultimately might win, whatever glories and glamorous triumphs might follow, this was the first and somehow, it would always be the best.

“The first would always be the best.” Seems fitting now we are two generations removed from that moment. There are plenty of Royals fans who have never experienced anything like what was described above. I’m trying really hard here to not take anything for granted. So let’s enjoy the weekend. And hope the 2014 Royals give us a moment like that.

Okay, I am going to go there.

The Royals are going to make the playoffs.  They are not going to win the AL Central.  They will play Oakland in the Wild-Card Game.

Certainly, after 29 years of nothing, hosting a playoff game – even ‘just’ a Wild-Card game – would be a big deal for the city of Kansas City and the long suffering Royals’ fanbase.   Still, there is some discussion as to whether playing at home is really a benefit for the Royals.  Especially in a one game winner take all scenario.

The Royals have enjoyed better fortunes away from Kauffman Stadium, going 44-33 on the road and just 42-39 at home.  They hit better on the road:

  • HOME: .255/.307/.366, wOBA .299, wRC+ 88
  • ROAD: .269/.319/.384, wOBA .311, wRC+ 98

They pitch better on the road:

  • HOME: ERA of 3.89, Opponent slash of .260/.319/.385, xFIP of 3.84
  • AWAY: ERA of 3.09, Opponent slash of .234/.300/.365, xFIP of 3.97

Maybe it would benefit the Royals to play the Wild Card in Oakland?   There is some logic to this, especially when you factor in that James Shields, who right now stands to be the starter for that contest, has an earned run average of 2.89 on the road this year compared to 3.51 when pitching in Kansas City.   And let’s not forget about how the Royals have managed to lay multiple eggs when playing games at home in front of big crowds.

All that said, let’s remember that Oakland completed its home schedule with a sparking 48-33 record and is currently just 38-39 on the road.  While not exactly an offensive juggernaut, the Athletics are much better at home:

  • HOME: .255/.355/.397, wOBA .326, wRC+ 114
  • AWAY: .233/.304/.366, wOBA .298, wRC+ 89

Basically, ‘away’ Oakland is remarkably similar at the plate to ‘home’ Kansas City.  Pitching? Not as dramatic, but the Athletics are somewhat worse outside of the Oakland Coliseum:

  • HOME: 3.17 ERA, .228/.286/.349, 3.66 xFIP
  • AWAY: 3.34 ERA, .234/.298/.366, 3.58 xFIP

After being traded to the A’s, Jon Lester has been Jon Lester at most all locations, but he has posted a 2.01 ERA in Oakland and a 2.81 ERA on the road.  Opposing batters (post-trade only) get on-base at a 50 point higher clip away from the Coliseum.  Listen, Jon Lester is a beast anywhere they bother to play baseball, but he has at least been a tad more vulnerable this summer when pitching somewhere other than Oakland.

Now, for his career, Lester has thrown 29 innings in Kauffman Stadium and been touched for a 3.10 ERA.  Shields, in 56 career innings at the Oakland Coliseum, has posted a 4.20 ERA.  Take what you want out of that, as those are two small sample sizes spread over a number of seasons.

Just looking at the numbers above, I kind of like the idea of playing the game in Kansas City.  Theoretically, in brings the Oakland offense down to the level of Kansas City’s (although that is a bit of a logic leap considering only four of the A’s road games were played in Kansas City- three won by the Royals), and has less of an effect on either team’s pitching.

Of course, there is still the glaring fact/oddity/Yost-excuse of the Royals losing 11 of 16 games this year in front of Kauffman Stadium crowds of 30,000 or more.

Home or Away?  Let’s not overthink this:  a Wild-Card game in Kansas City sounds just fine to me.

 

 

 

 

Let’s cut right to the chase:

If the Royals make the Wild Card game, does that effectively end the postseason drought?

On the surface, that’s a silly question. Of course that ends the drought. While I don’t qualify myself as a “Baseball Purist” whatever that is, I do continue to dislike the Wild Card. It seems a very football thing to do. While it expands the net for teams to qualify for the postseason, it seems to muddy the waters a bit. Instead of just worrying about Detroit, the Royals spent the last month worrying about Detroit, and Seattle, and New York, and Toronto, and Cleveland… You get the picture. I’m more than willing to acknowledge my opinion as just another in the, “Get off my damn lawn” opinions I continue to hold. I can accept reality. The Wild Card has been around for almost 20 years. It’s not going anywhere.

Having made my rant, I will say I do appreciate the new format where two Wild Card teams play a single, winner-take-all game. That’s how it should be for the Wild Card. They shouldn’t get five chances to knock off the best team in their league. They should get one chance to prove their mettle. It ratchets up the drama early in October, which is highly entertaining, provides another round of champaign celebration and generally is a good time for everyone except the losers. I’m more than OK with the single-elimination format of the Wild Card game.

This is where the Royals could find themselves next week.

While the Wild Card game is a postseason contest, if my team loses that game, I’m not sure it will feel like my team experienced the postseason. The record books will reflect they did, but just… I can’t get over the idea that after 162 games, the Royals could potentially need one more game to advance. And they could lose. We joke about flags flying forever, but do you get a flag if you finish with the fifth best record in the league, go on the road for one game, and lose? That seems really kind of silly. Twenty-nine years and all we could get is one damn game? It’s harsh, but those are the facts of the game in 2014.

So, to answer my own question, yes the Wild Card is the postseason. Baseball says it is, so while I may dislike the Wild Card, it’s a real thing. There are 10 teams who aren’t participating. It’s a playoff.

However, it won’t feel like the Royals participated if they crash out after only one game. Still, the 29 year drought will be over. The Royals qualified under the current rules, fair and square. It’s the postseason. It will just feel empty. And disappointing. And I’m sure we will spend six months kvetching about a first inning bunt or a dumb bullpen matchup.

Now, let’s get down to something else: I’m kind of hoping the Royals get that Wild Card and get to play that one game at Kauffman. Oh, sure, winning the division is the ideal here, but I can’t help but think about how insane a one game winner-take-all contest would be at The K. It would be Game Six and Game Seven intensity all over again. How much fun would that be, one game, for everything, in Kansas City? I’m sure there’s not a soul on the internets who agrees with me, and I’m fine with that. Like I said, winning the division is what we all want – as Ned Yost would say, that’s “Plan A.” But the romanticist in my baseball fandom thinks it would be so much fun to play a game at The K where if the Royals win, they advance. It’s a like a bucket full of Game Sevens. Win and survive. If the Royals win the division, they would likely play Baltimore, and there’s no guarantee the Royals would have a game where if they win, they advance.

I know. I’m crazy. I’m probably a bad fan. An idiot. Or something. I just think it would be crazy fun to have that game in Kansas City.

The Royals have five games to settle this. With a magic number of three. I’m thirsty for playoffs and postseason. No matter how they qualify.

The title of the post is important.

With five games left to play, the Royals need a combination of three wins and Seattle losses to reach the promised land. The Royals need to win games, but the pressure at this point is mostly on the shoulders of the pursuers. Not the pursued. That’s a good feeling. And the Royals are most assuredly in a very good place.

This is maybe the most difficult post I’ll ever write. After 29 years, it’s hard not to get out in front of this. To gloat. To exult in our collective good fortune. A magic number of three. Are you kidding me? So close.

But there’s still work to be done. There’s still that magic number of three.

Wednesday, the Royals go back to work in Cleveland. They will send Jason Vargas to the mound. There’s no doubt Vargas has been a solid starter for the Royals this season, but over his last six starts, he’s hit the inevitable patch of regression. In those starts, he has a 5.51 ERA and opponents are hitting .319/.353/.479 against him. Yikes. The stat that stands out for me is the opposition slugging percentage. That’s probably because he’s surrendering a 33 percent line drive rate over that time. Not a lot of home runs – just three – but plenty of doubles.

On Tuesday, the Royals were playing with a confidence and swagger that comes with hitting doubles while backing a young, studly starting pitcher who is on the top of his game. Yordano Ventura tossed the latest of Royals lockdown starts. It’s just exceptional, really. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t absolutely love the Royals pitching. And this isn’t flash in the pan sort of stuff, either. This is something that can roll over into October. So huge.

Ventura threw seven innings last night. As much as I enjoyed that, I’m definitely concerned that Ned Yost sent him back out to the mound for the seventh. Ventura had thrown 96 pitches through six and enjoyed a 7-0 lead after the Royals plated a pair in the top half of their seventh. But there goes Yost, sending Ventura back out to finish with a career-high 117 pitches. Why? Why would you do that to a top young starter at this point in the season with that kind of a lead? I think it speaks volumes of how Yost doesn’t trust anyone outside his triumvirate of Herrera, Davis and Holland. Still, seven runs? I would have kept Ventura in the dugout for the seventh.

I’ll assume Yost is thinking ahead – as he will often try to do, but as we all know, he can potentially outsmart himself – to Sunday. That would be Ventura’s scheduled start. Maybe he’s counting on the postseason picture being sorted by that point and going to someone like Liam Hendriks for a little Sunday Funday kind of start. But as Yost himself said in the post game, the Wild Card is Plan B. The Royals desperately want to win the division. And they should. So what if the Royals are tied or a game behind Detroit on the season’s final day? Now we’re going with a potentially tired Ventura in a game they will frame as a “must-win.” I just don’t understand why Yost didn’t hedge his bets and remove Ventura while the tank was still partially filled. Just something to file away in case Sunday means something. I sure hope it doesn’t.

Offensively, Tuesday was all about the heart of the order. Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Billy Butler, Alex Gordon and Sal Perez each had two hits. Gordon, Perez and Omar Infante each drove in a pair of runners. Hosmer and Gordon scored twice while Butler touched home three times. Total team effort. We’re not going to see that too often the rest of the way. Sorry, but with this offense, I’ll continue to be skeptical. That just means I’ll appreciate games like Tuesday as much as I possibly can. Danny Salazar was dealing the first time through the Royals order. I figured it would be one of our typical Royals games. Then, his cutter didn’t cut so much and the Royals were able to really barrel the ball. Salazar didn’t make it through the fifth. Ballgame.

So here’s where we stand as of Wednesday morning:

— The Royals trail the Tigers by a game. Detroit plays the White Sox today at noon. Take a long lunch. Verlander against Chris Sale. By the time the Royals take the field tonight in Cleveland, they could be playing for a first place tie.

— The Royals are tied for the best Wild Card record with Oakland. The Royals own the tie-breaker of head to head record, so if the standings remain unchanged over these final five games, the Wild Card game would be at Kauffman. That game would be beyond insane.

— The Royals are three games ahead of Seattle, who lost their fourth in a row on Tuesday. For some reason, that’s what I’m fixated on at the moment. Just get in to the playoffs. Just get in. Then I’ll shift my focus to the division. But damnit, just get in.

 

It was almost as if he hadn’t missed any time at all.

Danny Duffy returned to the Royals rotation on Monday and provided yet another lock-down start as the Royals held the Indians 2-0. It was their 14th shutout of the season. The improbable year of 2014 just rolls along.

Make no mistake. This game was huge. Massive. And Duffy answered the bell.

Duffy, who left his last start on September 5th in New York after one pitch with a sore shoulder, and was skipped twice in the rotation, came out with his left arm blazing. He threw a total of 96 pitches in going six innings. Duffy allowed just six hits, walked two and whiffed five in keeping Cleveland off the scoreboard.

It’s the final week of the regular season. All starts are important. Duffy answered the bell. Big time.

In a way, it’s almost as if Duffy’s shoulder soreness was a good thing. He bought himself three starts (counting the one in New York that was just a single pitch) of rest during a crucial start of the season. Could the Royals have used him in those starts? Hell, yes. The Royals lost all three games. But if the end result was simply forcing the Royals to tread playoff water a little longer while getting a rested Duffy back for the final week and the postseason… I’ll gladly take it.

Duffy wasn’t super sharp out of the gate, which given what we know about how amped up he gets, is understandable. He needed 24 pitches to survive the first and another 20 to get through the second. In both those innings, he walked the leadoff hitter. In the first, the Indians followed up the walk with back to back singles. In my mind, this was the key moment of the game. Early. Duffy needed to survive a rocky start. Confidence is too often dismissed among the sabermetric community, but it certainly plays a role. Especially when a player is coming back from injury. Especially when that player is Duffy. With the bases chucked, Duffy got Carlos Santana on a pop up behind second and froze Yan Gomes with a nifty curveball. He then got Mike Aviles to fly out. Crisis averted.

The threat in the second wasn’t as immediate, as Duffy retired the next two hitters after his leadoff walk, but still impressive. Yet after needing 44 pitches to get through two innings, it looked like it could be a short night for Duffy. Except he came out in the third and was a different pitcher.

Overall, Duffy’s velocity was down about a mile per hour. For the year, his fastball is averaging close to 94 mph. On Monday it was clocking in around 93 mph. He also lost quite a bit of steam as the game evolved. Maybe that was pounding three Red Bulls before arriving at the stadium as he told Andy McCullough. The proof is in the graph. Duffy came out on fire, but there was no way he could keep up the pace he set for himself in the first.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.06.57 PM

When he was wild with his fastball, he was up in the zone. Way up at times. To my untrained blogger eye, it looked like he was overthrowing and couldn’t get his release point right. Again, a case of Duffy being Duffy. Too amped up for his own good. Except the difference is this year, he’s been able to check himself and get back under control.

I feel like I’ve mentioned this before, but we really need to think about James Shields and his role in helping Duffy succeed as a starter. Both pitchers have a very similar mentality. I feel as though I write this after every successful Duffy start this season, but he doesn’t have this success if Shields isn’t in the clubhouse as his mentor. We can poo-pooh the role of veteran leadership all we want, but there are times when it’s an actual fact. We get force-fed the Jeff Francoeurs as leaders far too often so perhaps we’re a bit jaded when it comes to that, but Shields is the real deal. A guy who can back it up on the field and commands a ton of respect in the clubhouse. It’s just not a coincidence that Duffy has found the strength to be a starter. Think about it. This was a guy who was practically begging to be sent to the bullpen to open the season. Six months later, he is a key member of a rotation that is potentially headed to October. Huge.

Make no mistake, this win was the biggest of the year for the Royals. So far. Cleveland worried me, especially coming into this series. To get a win under the belt when the other contenders are struggling is massive.

Onward.

Notes from the postseason files

— The Royals finally completed that suspended game. How stupid has that been to have that hanging over our heads? Every time I look at the standings, I’ve been factoring it in as a loss. The Royals made it a little more interesting than I thought they would. Always entertaining to see Ned Yost insert pinch runners like they’re quarters in a Pac Man machine. The irony of the completion of the suspended game was it came down to Omar Infante, who was hitting second in the lineup. Of course, he’s since been removed from the second spot because he’s one of the worst offensive performers in the American League this year not named Jeter. It only took Yost 148 games to figure that out. Yet there he was, hitting with the game on the line and for some reason Yost didn’t pinch hit for him.

Why? Yost entered this inning with three weeks to plan. Why in the world do you pinch run twice and not have someone replace Infante with the tying run on second base. If this was a random game in May, I’d make some snark about Yost just not wanting to win. But damnit, this is the last week of the season and the team is in playoff position. Manage like your hair is on fire. Or like your job is on the line.

— A lot of sound and fury coming out of Atlanta after they fired their General Manager that Dayton Moore could be a candidate for the job.

If that’s truly the case, go ahead. I remain unimpressed with him, despite the Royals position as we inch toward the finish line of 2014. While I acknowledge his plan has certainly come together, I wonder about the future of this team. It’s kind of dumb to be on the cusp of the postseason for the first time in a generation and a half to be thinking about the future, but I’m not certain this team is positioned for a lengthy challenge of any sort. We’ve gone over all the issues and for me, one nice run doesn’t erase the shortcomings of this brain trust.

I know there are skeptics in the KC media that he would go. I think Dayton is smart enough to recognize an opportunity to leverage his position. He’s signed through the 2016 season. He’s about to achieve a massive goal in reaching the postseason. While the Braves job remains open he should use it to strengthen his hand in Kansas City. Does he need more power? Does he need more money? More security beyond 2016? Everything should be on the table. And if he’s lucky enough to get an offer in Atlanta, he will be in the ultimate power position.

Nothing is certain. It’s always about the money.

— Detroit was shutout at home, 2-0 to Chris Bassitt and the Chicago White Sox. Seattle was blown out by Toronto. The Royals, despite losing a game before dinner, are a single game behind the Tigers. They are two up on Seattle for the Wild Card.

Can you smell that, Kansas City? Playoffs.

The Royals magic number to clinch a spot is five.

That’s the first time I’ve ever used the phrase magic number in a blog post about the Royals.

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