Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Dayton Moore’s new book More Than A Season, written with Matt Fulks, is a quick and mostly enjoyable look at GMDM’s leadership philosophies and his first nine seasons at the helm of the good ship Royals with a focus on the 2014 season. It is worth the read for die-hard Royals fans to get a slightly better understanding of Moore’s guiding baseball and life beliefs, though there won’t be anything too surprising for those who have been closely tracking his time in KC. Too much of the book reads like cliché motivational poster headlines, but Moore’s recent success lends at least a hint of substance behind the buzzwords. I personally bristle at pat aphorisms such as “stay calm in the eye of the storm,” which is one of Moore’s seven points for “organizational harmony,” but, hey, if it works for him and the team is winning, I’m all for it. Moore also repeatedly brings up his Christianity and quotes the Bible to the point of proselytizing, which I could do with less of, but I’m glad if it works for him—so long as non-Christian Royals employees are welcomed and respected under his watch.

Those issues aside, there are enough nuggets of behind the scenes info to redeem the book. I enjoyed learning more about Moore’s life before coming to the Royals, including his collegiate baseball career and climb up the ranks after going to work for the Braves. His telling of his hiring for the Royals job in 2006 and his discovery that things were much worse in KC than he realized before taking the job was illuminating. But some of Moore’s nuggets needed to be fleshed out. He briefly touches on the expansion of the team’s analytics department, and that (rather obviously), “an in-depth statistical analysis” happens before player acquisitions, and that “(analytics is) an area where I have grown professionally.” Would be interesting stuff, but he offers no details about that growth or instances where analytics have helped the team. The fact that he relies on fielding percentage, batting average, and RBI when mentioning stats in the book doesn’t exactly inspire confidence (though that might just be because those are the numbers familiar to the average reader).

Moore dedicates an entire chapter to Alex Gordon which contains some good specifics about how and why Rusty Kuntz proposed and guided Gordon’s position switch from third base to left field. Moore echoes my sentiments by calling Alex “the heartbeat of the team,” which makes me slightly more optimistic that the Royals will do all they can to keep him in KC. Alex contributed a foreward to the book in which he calls Moore a father figure. (I think it is safe to say both sides would prefer for Alex to remain in KC long term, but I still fear another team swooping in with an enormous offer Alex couldn’t refuse and the Royals wouldn’t match.)

Overall, it’s a flawed but enjoyable book, and recommended for those who can’t get enough Royals. Moore’s corporate jargon, proselytizing, and blind spots would have driven me up the wall before 2014, but it goes down a lot easier these days. As long as the fun continues, you just keep doing you, Dayton.

The last time the Royals went 18-11 to start the season, they also had a debacle on Memorial Day:  losing 13-1 to Detroit in what was pretty much the beginning of the end to both that season and Gil Meche’s career.  What does that have to do with 2015?  Absolutely nothing, other than keeping the 18-11 meme alive.  That 2009 team was already taking on water, this year’s Royals squad just had a bad day.

Speaking of bad days, Jeremy Guthrie had the worst.  He brought absolutely nothing to mound yesterday – I’m pretty sure Craig Brown and Aaron Stilley got doubles off him.  That will happen when on a windy day in the Bronx when you are a pitcher who strikes out no one. Guthrie has the lowest strikeout rate (3.54/9) among qualified starting pitchers in baseball.   Jeremy’s earned run average is 6.70, his FIP is 6.02, which is only better than two guys pitching for the Rockies. To say Guthrie had some measure of ‘correction’ from his previous three starts is an understatement. Maybe it was just bad luck….and Jeremy Guthrie.

The Royals, however, are right on schedule. A little while back, I arbitrarily picked thirteen game stretches and determined if the Royals simply went 7-6 in each stretch (after their 7-0 start), they would end up with 90 wins. Well, they went 7-6 and then they went 7-6 again and are already 7-4 in this current thirteen game period.  Sure, they have been outscored 20-2, the last two games, but all that goes away with a win tonight.  Is 90 wins enough?  Maybe, maybe not, but if all the Royals have to do to get there is go 7-6 all year long, I like their chances of doing a little better.

Danny Duffy is on the disabled list. The Royals are crafty little guys, aren’t they? If Danny was third in the league in ERA, I’m pretty sure he would be pitching through this ‘soreness/stiffness’ issue.  As it is, this give the Royals a nice opportunity to let Duffy hit the reset button on 2015. A couple of rehab – some speculated he could get as many as five if Kansas City were to play out the entire minor league rehab scenario – in Omaha might be just what Danny needs.  I mean, it sure as hell cannot hurt.

Vargas is back. I wrote this last week, but Kansas City’s fortunes have turned so much that when they send a pitcher to the disabled list for fifteen days, that is actually all there is to it.  I had already written Jason Vargas off as a going under the Tommy John knife and here he is, back in action. Vargas has essentially been the exact same pitcher the past five seasons, which is better than he was in his first five starts for the Royals this year.  I cannot imagine the Royals are going to get major innings out of Jason tonight in New York – they held Joe Blanton out of yesterday’s debacle specifically because they are expecting to piggy back him with Vargas tonight – but it definitely helps the Royals’ rotation to have Vargas at least on his way back.  After all, a rusty Vargas can’t be worse than Danny Duffy was…or Jeremy Guthrie.

Or has it changed? The karma, I mean.  Greg Holland spent time on the disabled list with a minor injury, came back and saved three games, blew a save and then didn’t pitch for 11 days before looking bad yesterday.  Since his return, Holland has allowed five hits in six innings while walking SEVEN and striking out just four.  His average fastball velocity is more than two miles-per-hour slower in 2015 than it was last season. None of that screams ‘healthy’.

Rumor time. Some people hate it, some people love it, some people think there is something inhumane about it, but trade rumor time is coming – maybe it never left. Jim Bowden, beloved by all, has linked Matt Garza and Aaron Harang to the Royals. It is theoretically possible that this might possibly have a chance of being a little accurate.  Or not.  Garza is not as good as baseball has wanted him to be and would be under contract through 2017 (possibly 2018 with a vesting option that I’ll look up when someone other than Bowden links the Royals to him).  Harang is old, but still effective especially in Kaufmann with the Royals’ defense behind him. I kind of wonder how much (i.e. little) it might take to get Harang, who is under contract only through 2015.  I can understand you not being excited at the idea, but what if Danny Duffy cannot throw strikes in Omaha?  What if Jason Vargas really isn’t healthy?  What if we start seeing more of Memorial Day Guthrie and less of the guy who threw 18 effective innings in his three previous starts?  Those are the questions that make me drink.  Well, that and an intense desire to, you know, drink.

 

We are almost a quarter through the regular season. The Royals have played 40 games and won 26, marking the best start in franchise history.

Here are a few random notes:

— The Royals are second in the American League in On Base Percentage at .338. This is a seismic shift in Kansas City baseball. Granted, this is fueled by an obscenely elevated BABIP of .322. They still refuse to take a walk. At 5.4 percent, their walk rate isn’t just in the bottom of the AL, it’s practically subterranean. In fact, I went all the way back to 1960 in the American League. There wasn’t a single team that finished with a walk rate below six percent. The Royals aren’t just doing things their own damn way, they’re setting fire to conventional wisdom along the way.

— While the Royals are getting on base at a quality clip, their current leader in OBP? None other than Mike Moustakas. His .396 OPB edges Eric Hosmer by a single point. Still, a lead is a lead, no matter how slim.

To me, nothing underscores the insanity of the first quarter of this season than Moustakas leading in any offensive category. OBP? Get out of here.

— If I had an All-Star Game ballot:

C – Stephen Vogt
1B – Eric Hosmer
2B – Jason Kipnis
3B – Mike Moustakas
SS – Jose Iglesias
LF – Alex Gordon
CF – Mike Trout
RF – Josh Reddick
DH – Nelson Cruz

That’s three Royals and it hurt to give the nod to Trout over Lorenzo Cain. Cain has the edge defensively (duh), but Trout’s offensive numbers are otherworldly. His offensive edge over Cain is larger than Cain’s defensive edge. For reserves, you could certainly make a case for Salvador Perez and Cain is definitely on the team. Add Wade Davis for good measure and you have six deserving Royals. Six.

It’s almost as if “Ken Harvey, All-Star” never happened. Almost.

(By the way, I know that technically everyone has an All-Star ballot. Except those ballots don’t exist anymore. The only way you can vote is online.)

— If you’ve read this blog for any number of posts, you know I don’t have much time for RBI. I do, however, enjoy RBI%. Basically, that’s just the percentage of the number of baserunner who come around to score. This year, the Royals are scoring a whopping 18 percent of all baserunners. Most teams are clustered around the 14 percent rate, which is the league average. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest scoring teams plate around 12 percent of their baserunners, or two percentage points off the average. The Royals are outpacing the league by four percentage points. Impressive.

In the last 10 years, a handful of teams have scored 17 percent of their runners. No one has scored 18 percent. It’s still very early, so there’s plenty of time for regression here, but this is an impressive start.

— Lorenzo Cain is a defensive god.

According to The Fielding Bible, he leads the universe with 13 defensive runs saved.

How amazing is that? Among teams, just four have more than 13 defensive runs saved. (Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Giants, and of course, Royals.) Teams!

— This may be the most fun I’ve ever had watching baseball. This team is beating their opponents in myriad ways. They are hitting doubles, they are getting (sometimes) solid starting pitching, the lockdown bullpen… The thing that struck me from their last game against the Reds was how they scored. Of the first five runs the Royals tallied, four of them scored when the Royals batter hit into an out. Here’s how they scored:

Sac Fly
Fielder’s Choice
Sac Fly
Single
Double Play

Just another night at the ballpark.

It was just one week ago when I wrote that the Royals might well have to consider making a serious move to upgrade the starting rotation. That was written on the heels of Yordano Ventura giving up five runs the day after Edinson Volquez gave up four runs in five innings, which came right after Danny Duffy gave up six in less than four innings.  There were three more turns through the rotation before the end of May, I said, if things don’t improve by then something will have to be done.

Well, so far, so good.  Maybe not a rebound, but certainly a nice bounce.

It started last Thursday night as Jeremy Guthrie allowed two runs over five innings.  That is not a great start, but given what the rotation had been providing, it was a nudge in the right direction. That was followed by 5.2 innings of one run work by Chris Young in a game in which the Royals scored twelve and Aaron Brooks got to pitch. The next night was Danny Duffy night.  Some saw progress out of Duffy by wallowing through five innings.  Well, let me tell you, I have seen Progress and Saturday night was no Progress.

Then things got real interesting.

Edinson Volquez pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits.  Wade Davis and Jason Frasor combined to allow five baserunners in two innings (I think they were bored), but managed to complete the shutout.  After an off-day, we finally got to see THE Yordano Ventura: seven more shutout innings on just four hits and zero walks.  Those two were followed by six MORE shutout innings from Jeremy Guthrie.

The Royals were a two-out double of Ryan Madson away from three consecutive shutouts and, by the way, scored 16 runs while it was happening.  Baseball is an easy game when things are rolling like this.  With their bullpen, things are real easy for the Royals when their starters give them six or seven good innings.  It is easy even if Kansas City was playing with last year’s offense.

Certainly, twenty innings of shutout ball from your rotation is not going to happen very often, but it is a positive trend.  Volquez has been a delight this year, showing more pitch efficiency than his track record suggested we could expect and, frankly, being the Royals best starter. Ventura, at least for one night, was the guy we expected to be at the front of the Royals’ rotation in 2015.  Was he too hyped up to start the season, then two laid-back after all the commotion? Mental stuff, man, you never know.

Guthrie?  We all know who Jeremy Guthrie is.  He will give you all he has and sometimes that won’t be good enough, but sometimes it is and he is prone to hot streaks.  Ignoring the money, there is nothing wrong with Guthrie at the end of your starting rotation.  That is, nothing wrong with it, if Ventura and Volquez pitch well.

In the middle is Chris Young, who has a track record when healthy and especially in the early parts of season, to be quite good.  Now, if you send me your address, I will mail you a dollar bill if Young throws more than 150 innings this year.   When we talk of track records, staying healthy and effective long enough to log major innings does not show up on Young’s.  For now, he has been truly outstanding and the Royals would be wise to ride him as long as he stays hot.

Then there’s is Danny Duffy.  Oh Danny, Danny, Danny, Danny….

With two off days sandwiched around a two game series, I would have skipped Duffy in the rotation this time through and opted to go with Young tomorrow (on 6 days rest), Volquez on Saturday (on 5 days rest) and Ventura on Sunday (on regular rest).  That said, it is early in the season, and I believe the Royals may be worried about a skipped start digging Duffy into a deeper hole and also he may need to pitch more than he need to think.

With Jason Vargas seemingly on the verge of being ready to return (the Royals’ karma has changed so much that now when they put a guy on the 15 day disabled list, it really is just for 15 days – not a year and a half!), this could well by Duffy’s last start for a while.  Another short outing with lots of runs and shotgun control and I could see Duffy in Omaha. I mean, really, we have Stormchaser season tickets, I could SEE him.  I would prefer not to, however.

The Royals, long term, need Danny Duffy to be an effective starting pitcher and probably that is the primary reason he will make his next scheduled start even though there is ample opportunity to juggle the rotation this time through.  Frankly, the way the rotation has pitched since last Thursday, who is going to put money against Duffy going a strong six against the Cardinals this weekend?

 

It was a dominant turn. The likes we haven’t seen since October of last year.

Mostly, it was cause for a sigh of relief.

Yordano Ventura, the hurricane of bizarre pitching performances so far in 2015, turned in by far his best start of the season. His performance was key in the Royals 3-0 win over the Reds, which secured back to back shutouts for the Royals for the first time in 23 years.

His final line:

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, o BB, 6 SO. He threw 88 pitches, 54 of them for strikes.

And… Exhale.

The shenanigans of April overshadowed the fact Ventura was getting off to a semi-decent start. In outings ended by either cramps or ejections, he was strong in three of them. His worse start was the debacle at The K against Oakland. It was after all of the hubbub of the early season that really caused concern. In his three starts following the kerfuffle in Chicago, Ventura threw just over 18 innings, allowing 14 runs while walking nine batters against just 11 strikeouts. Most alarmingly, his velocity in those starts was down.

Neither command, runs or velocity was an issue on Tuesday.

In those three starts, Ventura got a swing and a miss six percent of the time. On Tuesday, he missed bats 10 percent of the time. He didn’t go to a three-ball count until old friend Brayan Pena worked him full with two outs in the bottom of the third. (Pena eventually went down swinging.) If you want to get really micro, Ventura’s worst match-up came leading off the top of the seventh when Todd Frazier took the first three pitches out of the strike zone. Ventura adjusted, taking a little off a “get-me-over” fastball to go 3-1 before he got him to foul out.

Ventura_frazier

After the game, it was revealed that in his previous start, Ventura struggled with tear in the fingernail of his right index finger. That issue flared up again late in the sixth inning. Easy to see why he missed early starting the seventh.

Yet Ventura rallied and got the next two batters. For his final batter of the evening, Brandon Phillips, Ventura was still throwing smoke, topping out at 99 mph on his fastball. According to normalized PitchF/X data collected by Brooks Baseball, Ventura averaged 97.6 mph on his fastball and topped out at 100.5 mph. From the velocity chart, you can see how he got stronger in the middle innings and then was able to maintain his velocity through a crafty mix of his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.

Ventura_051915_Velo

One trend that we’ve seen slowly revealed this season with Ventura is his increasing ground ball rate. We saw that to the extreme on Tuesday as 11 of the 14 outs he recorded on balls in play were hit on the ground. Overall for 2015, Ventura has a 2.3 GB/FB ratio and his 55 percent ground ball rate is by far the highest of his career. Strikeouts and ground balls… That’s a nifty way to make a living. And as we saw, it’s nearly impossible for the opposition to do any kind of damage when that’s the recipe Ventura is cooking.

Since that start against Chicago, Ventura has slowly been regaining his velocity. Tuesday was the pinnacle of his rebound.

Ventura_2015Velo

Ventura said it was the best he has felt all year, and that was incredibly obvious. It was a masterful performance. He will always be measured against his efforts in Game Six, which may not always be fair, but that’s was such a great outing that it can’t be helped. Let’s just say that if you had flashbacks to that October night while watching him work on a cold, rainy May night against another National League opponent, it wouldn’t be strange. It was that kind of performance.

Welcome back, Ventura.

herrera

RHP ∙ 2011—present

Kelvin Herrera signed with the Royals in December, 2006 as a 16 year old kid in the Dominican. Dayton Moore had just started as GM in June of that year, and immediately began ramping up scouting and signing in international markets. He hired Rene Francisco to lead international operations in August, 2006, and Francisco and his scouts have had tremendous success with signings including Herrera, Salvador Perez, and Yordano Ventura. The team tried Herrera as a starter in rookie league and Class A ball between 2007—10 before converting him to a reliever for the 2011 season. Herrera’s wicked fastball, now unleashed with max effort, carried him all the way through Classes A, AA, AAA, and then two September innings in the show that 2011 season.

He made the bullpen out of spring training in 2012, and in his second appearance of that season lit up the gun with a 103. He was excellent for that entire year, establishing his niche and modus operandi that continue to serve the team so well. Herrera protects close leads in the seventh or eighth innings with that incredible fastball complemented by an equally nasty change-up usually thrown around 88 MPH and sometimes touching 90. Since Herrera has never been given the limiting role of closer, manager Ned Yost feels more freedom on when he can call on him, and Herrera leads the bullpen in appearances and innings since the start of 2012.

Herrera suffered a set-back in the early going of 2013 when his command went AWOL and he yielded eight homers during a stretch of 14 innings. Towards the end of June, his ERA had ballooned to 5.20 and he was sent down to Omaha to get his groove back. He returned to KC a few weeks later and has been back to cruising ever since. In his career to date, Herrera has struck out nearly one-fourth of the batters he’s faced, and that fastball has averaged 98 MPH. He’s definitely the hardest throwing Royal since the advent of PITCHf/x, and probably the fastest in team history.

He got even better in 2014. He was locked into the seventh inning role, and combined with eighth inning maestro Wade Davis and closer extraordinaire Greg Holland to form an almost unbeatable late innings machine. Herrera allowed zero home runs to the 285 batters he stared down in the regular season and was an integral player in getting KC back to the playoffs.

Those playoffs started off a little rocky for Herrera in the Wild Card game when he was called in to stop the bleeding that James Shields and Yordano Ventura had started in the sixth inning. Herrera yielded three softly hit singles before getting out of the inning after the A’s mounted a 7-3 advantage. But Yost brought Herrera back to pitch a spotless seventh, a mark of the trust Yost has in Herrera and a sign of pitching coach Dave Eiland’s and Yost’s playoff strategy to sometimes count on both Herrera and Davis for more than one inning per game that served the team well all October. Things took a worrisome turn in game one of the ALDS when Herrera walked the only batter he faced, winced in pain, and exited with tightness in his right forearm and numbness in the index and middle fingers. An MRI revealed no damage and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Herrera came back to pitch a perfect frame in game three. Herrera shined brightest in the ALCS, hurling 5.2 crucial, scoreless innings. He came up big in the World Series as well, with Yost leaning on him hard in game seven, squeezing eight outs of the hardy reliever.

Herrera serves as an instructive lesson on the franchise as a whole over the last nine years. Whereas the Royals had basically ignored the international market before, Dayton Moore immediately made it a focus in 2006 and hit big with Herrera and others. Herrera took time to develop and mature but payed off big in 2014, right along with the rest of Moore’s long-term strategy. In an era where power reliever success is so often fleeting, Herrera is working on his fourth straight season as a remarkably reliable and resilient rocket arm.

The Royals have scored 190 runs on the season. That’s the second most in the AL, behind only the Toronto Blue Jays who have plated an even 200. Scoring runs is the key to accumulating wins, as anyone will tell you. I mean, that’s fairly obvious and probably not why you stop by this blog. However, it’s not the only thing. Take those same Blue Jays. Yes, they lead the majors in runs scored but they are five games under .500 and five games behind the leaders in the East. They are in last place.

On the flip side, the Royals have allowed only 137 runs. Again, that’s the second best in the AL. This time, they are behind only the Los Angeles Angels, who have allowed 129 runs to score. Just like runs scored, preventing runs aren’t the only key to winning games. The Angels are just a single game above .500 and they trail first place Houston by 5.5 games.

So while runs scored and runs allowed, taken alone, aren’t exactly indicators of success or failure. Combined however, and you’re getting closer. As you may imagine, the Royals, with their second best mark in runs scored and their second best spot in runs allowed, do really well in run differential.

As of Monday, the Royals run differential is at +55. By far the best in the American League.

Here are the top five:

Royals – +55
Astros – +23
Tigers – +20
Rays – +17
Yankees – +15

Here we are, a month-plus into the regular season

The Royals run differential gives them a Pythagorean record of 24-13. Which is one game better than their actual record of 23-14. That’s unbelievable, yet not surprising. If that’s possible. (Pythagorean record is a simple formula based on runs scored and runs allowed to deliver an expected won-loss record. It’s not predictive of anything.)

More indicative of how a team has performed is the 3rd order winning percentage. This is a winning percentage adjusted for statistics and strength of schedule. Because it takes into account more than just raw runs scored and allowed, there’s a little more depth to 3rd order winning percentage. As of Monday, the Royals 3rd order winning percentage is 25-13, a .667 winning percentage. And best in the American League.

We know the strengths of this team. The defense and the bullpen are righteous. This year, the offense has taken a massive step forward. While the BABIP has started to normalize (it’s currently at .322, down from the stratosphere it occupied in late April) the defensive runs saved and the relief corps are keeping the damage we would find in the regression to a minimum.

There are still flaws on this team. (Cough, cough… starting pitching.) It’s difficult to say if those flaws are serious enough to derail this team going forward. However, the strengths are real enough that these Royals don’t look like one-year wonders. There’s some staying power here.

This could be one hell of a summer.

Alcides Escobar is the current Royals leadoff hitter. This is a very bad choice.

On Thursday, Escobar went 3-5 with two runs scored and three driven home. That’s a pretty complete day. But if we’ve learned anything from our blog journey through Royals fandom, it’s damn the small sample sizes. If the timing of the post is curious to you after Escobar’s successful day at the plate, it shouldn’t be.

Here are four reasons Escobar is a bad choice to hit at the top of the order for the Royals.

Escobar is currently seeing 3.39 pitches per plate appearance.

That rate is the second lowest among Royals regulars. If you can’t guess the lowest, turn in your fan card. (It’s Sal.) Out of 187 qualified hitters in the major leagues, Escobar ranks 174th in working the count. He’s among other notable hackers such as Chris Owings, Alexi Ramirez, and Evan Gattis. Sure, Jose Altuve is also down the list – he sees only 3.18 pitches per plate appearance. Like everything in baseball, there is no hard and fast rule saying that “X” attribute definitively leads to “Y” result. Let’s just point out there are more guys like Owings on the lower part of the list than guys like Altuve.

Escobar has always been a swing first, work the count never kind of hitter. While this didn’t prevent Ned Yost from pushing him as a leadoff batter, Escobar’s approach this season should be raising alarm bells. His rate of pitches seen per plate appearance has declined this year, relative to other seasons.

2011 – 3.76
2012 – 3.73
2013 – 3.48
2014 – 3.56
2015 – 3.39

Granted, this isn’t some sort of seismic shift in number of pitches Escobar is seeing, but when you move a guy from the bottom of the order where he hit for most of 2014 to the top and the number of pitches he sees declines, that feels like a fairly strong indicator that his approach has unchanged given his new situation in the lineup.

Naturally, this is an epidemic on the Royals. As a team, they are seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. That’s the worst rate in the American League and only the Phillies at 3.58 P/PA are worse.

Escobar’s approach is increasingly aggressive. Too aggressive for the top spot in the lineup.

About a week ago, Escobar led off the game clubbing the first pitch he saw for a home run. He hasn’t swung at every first pitch since then, but sometimes it feels like it.

For the season, Escobar is swinging at the first pitch 30.4 percent of the time. He’s never topped a 30 percent first swing percentage in his entire career. Remember, leading off isn’t just about the start of the game. It’s about setting the table for the alleged run producers who occupy the middle of the order. Cain, Hosmer, and Gordon can’t drive in Escobar if he’s not on base. So while it would behoove Escobar to work the count as noted above, he’s going up swinging at the first pitch more this year than any time in his career. It’s a curious time for newfound aggression.

Historically, Escobar doesn’t get on base enough to hit at the top of the order.

Escobar owns a career OBP of .301. The league average during his major league tenure is .325. If the goal is to get the best hitters the most plate appearances and minimize those of the worst, the Royals are doing it wrong.

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 158 598 548 69 139 25 73 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 155 648 605 68 177 27 100 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 158 642 607 57 142 19 84 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 162 620 579 74 165 23 83 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 25 116 105 14 32 4 10 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 850 3314 3079 361 814 138 439 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 162 632 587 69 155 26 84 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

But wait, you say. There are a couple of years where he’s at least close to average in on base percentage. He’s had two years where he’s almost hit triple digits in OPS+.

See if you can find a common thread to those years.

Year Age Tm Lg PA Outs RC RC/G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 598 449 55 3.3 .285 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 648 455 80 4.7 .344 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 642 490 49 2.7 .264 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 620 444 70 4.2 .326 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 116 81 15 5.0 .326 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 3314 2419 334 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 632 461 64 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

The years where his on base percentage is above .300 come when his BABIP is likewise above .300. BABIP is often misunderstood, but there should be no mistaking that it’s a volatile stat that has no year to year correlation. The BABIP gods giveth and the BABIP gods taketh away.

If you are building a lineup and want to get your best on base guy at the top, do you base your decision on stats inflated by secondary items that aren’t sustainable? Yeah, I thought so.

The Royals are basing Escobar leading off from a small sample size. 

On September 13, 2014, Escobar owned a slash line of .264/.305/.363. He acquired this hitting mostly eighth or ninth in the order. In an effort to generate more offense down the stretch, Yost pushed Nori Aoki to second in the order, dropped Omar Infante out of the second spot and penciled in Escobar at the top. Escobar had two hits in four plate appearances and the Royals beat the Red Sox 7-1. From that moment on, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484 out of the leadoff spot as the Royals clinched a Wild Card berth. Then in the postseason, as the Royals exclusive leadoff hitter, Escobar reverted to form and slashed .292/.305/.415. His offensive performance was overlooked thanks to a few key hits and the Royals spectacular run to Game Seven of the World Series.

It seems that the 15 games in September were enough to cement Escobar’s role on the 2015 Royals. Never mind the career evidence of a .299 on base percentage through 2014. Why look at almost 3,200 plate appearances when you can focus on a random stretch of around 65?

Overall lineup construction isn’t something to sweat over, but it’s a big deal when teams bat a hitter who should bat in the lower third of the order at the top.

Last year, the number one spot in the Royals lineup came to the plate 744 times. The ninth spot came up 593 times. To dive further into the numbers, last year the Royals leadoff hitters combined to post a .339 on base percentage. I’m going to blow your mind. That was much better than the league average of .326. It also ranked second best in the American League. (Quick aside, despite success reaching base, the first spot in the batting order scored only 82 times for the Royals. That was the third worst tally in the AL.)

Meanwhile, the ninth spot in the Royals lineup posted a cumulative OBP of .273. That was well below the league average of .286.

So if you put the league average ninth place hitter in the leadoff spot, he’s going to make about 30 more outs during the season than the league average leadoff man. That’s a sizable difference.

Is Escobar 30 outs worse than any other potential leadoff man in the Royals lineup? Difficult to say, but I’d guess probably not. Escobar has posted an OBP that low only once in his career. If he finished with his career OBP of .301 the Royals would be sacrificing roughly 18 outs with Escobar at the top of the order. In the grand scheme, that’s not even a full nine innings of outs. But with outs the most precious commodity a lineup possesses, why waste them when it can be avoided?

The Royals employ several smart people who have computers and crunch numbers. I bet if we polled all of them, they would acknowledge the fallacy of basing a key decision on such a small sample size. I also bet the answer would be unanimous that Escobar does not belong in the leadoff spot.

Escobar’s current numbers are impressive. He owns a slash line of .305/.345/.419 with an OPS+ of 110. If the season ended today, all of those numbers would be career highs. It’s an impressive start and the Royals have certainly benefitted with his bat at the top of the order. However, the evidence of his approach at the plate suggests his success is going to be short-lived. The Royals have gotten lucky so far. They should be thinking of a “Plan B” as his regression is going to be rather painful and noticeable at the top of the order.

Since starting the season with seven straight wins, the Kansas City Royals have gone 14-13.  Thus far, that has been good enough to get into and stay in first place.  A few weeks back, I noted that the Royals could put themselves into position to win 90 games by simply going 7-6 over each of eleven thirteen game stretches between the seven game win streak to start the season and the evening of Sunday, September 20th.  That would put them at 84-66 with twelve games to play.

Well, the Royals have gone 7-6 in the first two thirteen game spans.  Last night’s loss was the first game of a new thirteen game span.  Why thirteen games?  No reason, just happened to be the random point of the season when I thought of it.  You can slice and dice however you wish, but the premise is that the Royals can play just a little better than .500 ball for the rest of the year and likely be in decent to very good shape of making the playoffs.

That seemed like a doable task when I first wrote it, but that was before Danny Duffy managed to accumulate all of four innings of work in two combined starts, before Jason Vargas went on the disabled list and before Yordano Ventura ate 13 innings over two starts that included allowing 9 runs and burying his team early both times. I ranted on Tuesday (and it was just a rant, not analysis, not noteworthy) about the starting rotation and things got worse.

A few weeks back, I took in a game with a couple of friends and we were talking about how deep the Royals’ bullpen was.  My thought was it was a fertile stockpile with which to make a trade and my friends asked a very logical question:  ‘Well, where would you improve?’  At the time, second base was (and remains) squarely in my sights.  Dollars be damned, if the Royals could upgrade second, they should.  They won’t, I don’t think, because Omar Infante is under contract for two seasons after this, but it seemed like the place to look.  Now, three weeks later, with the rotation offering us two good Chris Young starts, one by Jeremy Guthrie and a whole bunch of yuck, it seems obvious the Royals should be seriously considering a rotation upgrade.

The minors offer very little in the way of help.  Joe Blanton has an opt-out tomorrow and, well, is still Joe Blanton.  Christian Binford is in Omaha and does not really have the ‘look’ of anything more than a back of the rotation starter at best in the majors.  John Lamb? That would be a nice surprise, but it is difficult to see him going six and two-thirds effectively in the majors any more regularly than the current rotation.  Kyle Zimmer?  Yeah, prove to me he even exists.  Sean Mannea?  Injured.  Almonte? Not ready, not close.  Brandon Finnegan? He’s on the reliever merry-go-round.  You get the idea.

Without question, it is early.  I am not advocating trading for Johnny Cueto tonight…well, if you want to Mr. Moore, go ahead, but it’s too early to go into full panic buyer’s mode.  That said, the time is coming when the Royals will either have to get better starting pitching or seriously make a move.  The best bullpens in the world don’t do much other than get worn out if their starting pitcher consistently puts them in a 4-0 hole. The best offense in the world (and the Royals are good, but not the best in the world) cannot consistently battle back from an early deficit.  It wears you out, just because it cannot be statistically quantified does not mean it doesn’t happen.

So, let’s get back to the deep bullpen. I don’t believe trading a reliever for a starter, no matter how good the reliever might be, straight up happens in baseball: not if you are looking for a real upgrade in a starter.  The Royals also don’t have THAT prospect to center a trade around.  There is no Wil Myers in the system or Yordano Ventura (rumored to be the asking price for Howie Kendrick at one point) or Zack Greinke (rumored to have been asked for in exchange for David Wright before Zack made his major league debut). I am not even sure there is a Jake Odorizzi to offer.

There are those who love and covet prospects, I’ve lost that attachment to most or at least to the current group in a good, not great, Royals’ system. If Hunter Dozier and Raul Mondesi (currently hurt) greases the wheels of a trade for a starter, I am not sure I lose sleep over it.  That said, to get the conversation even started, Dayton Moore would have to part with one of the vaunted Herrera-Davis-Holland triad of doom.  All three are good and all three are not getting any cheaper.  How much less effective would Madson/Hochevar-Davis-Holland or Madson/Hochevar-Herrera-Davis be than the current group?  Would you trade Greg Holland and Hunter Dozier for two and a half months of Johnny Cueto?  Would you throw in Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner to make it happen?

The Royals will take a spin through the starting rotation three more times before the end of May.  A couple of lights out Ventura starts, twenty innings from Danny Duffy and news that Jason Vargas really isn’t going to need Tommy John surgery and maybe these thoughts go away.  That, obviously, is the best case scenario.

What if the above doesn’t happen and the Royals limp to the end of May with an overtaxed bullpen and little improvement in the rotation?  Then it will be time to pick your target, swallow hard and start thinking about trading players you would rather not.

Alex Gordon is our savior. Of this there can be no debate.

It was his best game of the season. His second three hit game (his first was last week – May 8 – at Detroit) but this one came with a pair of doubles and the game winning home run in the tenth. Mix in the usual outfield assist on a great throw to third and this was as complete a game from A1 as you can imagine.

Gordon_051215_HR

Gordon said he was up there looking to be aggressive and… Yep. First pitch fastball on the outer half and Gordon was setting dead-red.

Beautiful.

This was one of those games that had everything. Great defense. Timely hits. Home runs. Shaky starting pitching.

Let’s begin with Edinson Volquez because the end of the game overshadowed his start. Let’s just say he wasn’t sharp. He surrendered six hits and three walks in five-plus innings of work. Of the 23 batters he faced, he threw just 11 first-pitch strikes. Honestly, that was the kind of start I expected the Royals would get from Volquez with regularity. He opened the season strong and was clearly the Royals best starter through his first several starts, but the last couple of times out he’s been less than impressive. Understand, he has a doctor’s note from the last start with the blister and there may very well have been some residual effects from that in this appearance.

In his postgame, Ned Yost said he was happy with how Volquez threw the ball on Tuesday, but I thought he wasn’t sharp. We can agree to disagree.

On the other hand, I thought Luke Hochevar had a good outing location-wise. From Brooks Baseball:

Hochevar_051215_Strikes

He lived on the corners all inning. The Choo single was a liner, but the other three hits he surrendered were because he forgot to worship at the altar of the BABIP gods apparently. It happens. Thankfully, Choo decided to test Gordon at that point and tried to advance to third on a single. A great throw where Gordon was running to his left and needed to set and throw across his body. And we can’t overlook the tag that Mike Moustakas put on Choo. It took tremendous concentration on his part to keep the glove there and make the catch on the bounce.

Holland blew the “save” in the bottom of the ninth. I think it’s time to think about starting to worry. How is that for hedging my bet? Such is the life of the closer. According to preliminary data from Brooks Baseball, Holland’s fastball averaged 93.9 mph in his appearance Tuesday. Last year, he averaged 95.8 mph.

Holland generally builds arm strength as the year progresses, but this year, his velocity is way, way down.

Holland_Velo

It doesn’t take a savant to recognize that Holland’s velocity has been off since last September. He had the tightness in his triceps that month and had the pec strain this year, but still. It seems like something isn’t right. He’s gone through rough patches before and come out of it OK, which is why I’ll give him some time, but these injuries are a concern. It’s something to keep an eye on going forward. It will be especially interesting to see how he recovers from this outing where he threw 26 pitches. And remember, this was the first time he was on the mound after throwing 30 pitches on May 10.

Perhaps overlooked was the defense of Salvador Perez. He threw out Delino DeShields, Jr. in the eighth inning after he reached with a two-out single. In the ninth, he made a nice play on an Elvis Andrus bunt where it looked like there was a little miscommunication between Perez and Holland. Perez followed that up by picking off Adrian Beltre of first base to end the inning. And then there was the final out of the game where he came out from behind the plate like a line drive off Hosmer’s bat. He came up huge for the Royals in the later innings.

Can’t forget the Moustakas home run. He’s scuffled in May, hitting .192/.276/.192 over his last 29 plate appearances entering the game. His spray chart is leaning a little more to the right of late as well. Is the Moustoppo magic running out? Who knows. I do know Moustakas crushed a home run of a left-handed pitcher.

And have to give props to Hosmer as well. From Hit Tracker, here are the true distances of the three home runs the Royals hit on Tuesday:

Eric Hosmer – 429 feet
Mike Moustakas – 441 feet
Alex Gordon – 354 feet

The Royals cranked out eight extra base hits. That was the first time since 2012 they hit that many in a game. Their record when going for extra bases eight or more times? 66-7.

Another notable number to pass along: The Royals have lost consecutive games for only three times in 2015. They have yet to lose three in a row. Given the recent slumber by the bats and what feels like the season long struggles of the starting pitching, that’s remarkable.

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