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These Royals. Man.

Offensively impotent for eight innings. Then a Alcides Escobar single and an Alex Gordon home run. Everyone goes home happy.

Just wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game like that from the Royals. With the stakes so high. That’s what makes these games Must-See TV. Anything can happen. And in this season, there’s a better than average chance it probably will.

Let’s rewind ourselves.

Let’s start with the oft-discussed lineup.

I added the “getting there…” at the end because I felt (and feel) this is probably the most optimal lineup we will see from Ned Yost. He’s always going to hit a middle infielder second because dammit, that’s where a middle infielder has to hit. Just like the speed guys goes number one. But what I liked about this lineup was the Gordon/Butler/Perez/Willingham middle. Sure, stacking three right-handed batters may not be ideal for the later innings, but these guys need to be in the middle of the lineup. Obviously, you could drop Perez, but with this offense, who do you put in his place? Anyway, this is probably my favorite Yost lineup of the year. The game started and there was not much offense. In fact, our man Danny Duffy was doing some good pitching things.

That would be Denny Matthews on the radio, speaking in the third inning. Of course, the Duff Man didn’t throw a no-hitter, but he was sharp. Throwing fastball, curve and change, he went 6.2 innings, gave up four hits, two walks and struck out four. Duffy’s trouble came in the seventh when he allowed a leadoff double to Brian Dozier and a single to Joe Mauer. I don’t think Duffy was tired at that point – he was still throwing 94 mph – but he didn’t locate as well in those plate appearances as he did earlier in the game, leaving both pitches up in the zone.

Yost pulled Duffy after 95 pitches and two outs in the seventh. It was the right call. Bring in Kelvin Herrera to face the right-handed batter. Let Herrera throw his 100 mph smoke. Then, I liked Yost sticking with Herrera in the eighth before going to Wade Davis in the ninth. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This was the first attendance tweet I saw. It quickly devolved into the Kansas City media calling out Royals fans.

Stop. And really, don’t ever. For starters, you get to go to games for free. As part of your job. How dare you call out fans for not showing up on a late August Tuesday night game against the Twins. Would I have liked to seen more? Sure. But I understand. Tickets are expensive. School is back in session. Fall activities are in full swing. And while the Royals are in the thick of a pennant race, can you blame the fans for being a little hesitant to embrace this team? We haven’t really been in this situation recently. We come by our skepticism naturally, built up over the last 29 years. If we want to take our time to get fully on board, who are you to try to speed up our process. I’m guessing the Labor Day weekend games will be packed. And the remaining home stands will be equally boisterous if the Royals can maintain their position.

I’m sure there are studies out there, but it seems to be the true attendance bump comes the year following the initial success. That’s when you grow your season ticket base and when you become the “it” thing to do. String together three or four successful seasons and you have 40,000-plus on a regular basis. (Well, not in Kansas City. Maybe 35,000 after the renovations. But you know what I mean.) If you want a comparable look, turn to Pittsburg last year. They were drawing in the low 20s on September weekdays while they were in the hunt for the wild card. That is what happens when you get into a pennant chase after 20 years of losing seasons. Fans are slow to come around. But if you give them a reason, they will.

Plus, these games aren’t inexpensive. It blows my mind how much it costs to take a family of four to a baseball game. I’m not even talking about those Cost of Fan Index things the business mags do at the beginning of the year. I’m just talking about spending on four tickets, parking and some random snacks. With 162 games, you have to pick your spots. Do you want to go on a Tuesday night against the Twins? Or are you going to try to hit a weekend with a promotional giveaway? Where’s the best value?

My former bossman at SB Nation asked “When is it a good time to question the attendance?” I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know to question a fan base that has suffered through 29 years of some pretty lousy baseball is bad form.

As the attendance talk was evolving and as I was getting set to post some snarky comment about the Royals offense, something happened.

That’s it. That’s all I could muster. Alex Gordon gets a belt-high fastball and barely gets it over the wall. Walk off. Royals win.

Gordon_Walkoff

 

I mean, that’s just beautiful. I hit rewind at least 30 times. After I post this, I’ll watch it at least 10 more times before I go to bed.

It’s just another moment in a season that has been amazing.

There are a lot of flaws with this team. We saw them on display tonight when the Royals could only muster three hits off Ricky Nolasco. This offense has the nasty ability to hit the “off” switch a little too frequently for my liking. Before the Gordon home run, they had scored just two runs in their last 26 innings. This is a problem that’s not going away. Walk off home runs tend to obscure the issues I suppose. Some of you will be angry with me for even bringing it up at this point.

I’ve written this before, but I have no idea how this next month is going to play out for the Royals. They’re either going to win the division and go to the playoffs for the first time in almost three decades, or they’re going to flame out and miss everything. I’m not ignoring the flaws. I acknowledge them. But flawed teams win in baseball all the time. With 31 games remaining, the Royals are in a great position.

Whatever happens, I’m going to enjoy the hell out of this.

The Royals lost back to back games for the first time since the end of July. That’s an amazing factoid that only underscores how hot this team has been. They’ve been surface of the sun hot.

Games like Monday underscore the fragility of the offense. If Alex Gordon and Billy Butler aren’t contributing – they were two for eight on the night – the bats aren’t going to get it done. That’s probably not factually accurate, but it’s how is seems things are going. By the way, did you catch this nugget from our fearless leader?

“We’re still capable of playing way better than we are — I mean that,” he said. “We’re doing the things necessary to win, and that’s a great sign. But we really don’t have anyone who is really hot offensively right now. That’s why I say we can be better, and I fully believe we will be even better down the stretch.”

They don’t have anyone who is “really hot offensively right now.” This quote is Exhibit A (or Royals Fan Evidence Number 1,673,874) as to why Dayton Moore isn’t a good general manager. Check these numbers.

Royals_30

Ummm… There seem to be two hitters who have been kind of hot over the last 30 days. I like to call them “The Baird Boys.” Because, you know… They’re holdovers from the previous regime.

I don’t understand why Dayton says some of the things he does. I used to think it was this bizarre paranoia brought on by constant losing. But hey, he says crazy, nonsensical things even when the team is winning.

The other thing about that Flanagan post that left me scratching my head was his insistence the Royals can play better. This team has been playing wonderful baseball (ignore the last couple of games) and at one point they won 24 out of 30. That’s an amazing stretch of baseball. And the GM thinks they can be better? Damn. It’s almost as if he hasn’t checked the standings or he hasn’t taking particular notice of the last month.

While I dispute that the Royals can be better, the table above does give me pause as the Royals march down the road to the AL Central title. Salvador Perez and Omar Infante have been stinking up the lineup. And Ned Yost stubbornly continues to hit them third and second, respectively. Well, that’s not entirely true as he’s shuffled the lineup a bit the last couple of games, dropping Perez to fifth on Monday. But still, the Royals are giving away far too many plate appearances to hitters who aren’t pulling their weight. Mike Moustakas is Mike Moustakas. He’ll run into one every few weeks and park it over the fence, but the guy is an out machine.

One guy who isn’t represented on the table is newcomer Josh Willingham. In 39 plate appearances since joining the Royals, he’s hit .324/.410/.618. Damn. Now, let’s be a little realistic. There’s no way he keeps that production up over an entire season. But there’s 32 games left. I don’t know… The guy seems like he’s swinging a hot bat. If I were the manager, I’d get him into the lineup at every opportunity. They’re not really using him in a platoon. Who knows why Yost didn’t have him in the lineup the last two games. All we know is the Royals lost both, scoring two runs in the process. Put Willingham in the middle of the order and this team is immediately better offensively. At least I like their chances better than with Raul Ibanez in there.

Besides, who knows how much longer Willingham will be an option. Reports are Eric Hosmer is taking “dry swings” meaning he’s doing what I do in my office to relieve the occasional stress – he’s swinging a bat at air. On Friday, he will hit off a tee. Should everything progress, the Royals may send him on a minor league rehab assignment to get a few games under his belt before he joins the pennant race. Remember, when Hosmer left the Royals were just three games over .500, were four back of Detroit in the Central and 3.5 back of Toronto for the second Wild Card. Since then, the Royals are 17-6, the best record in the AL in that span.

The Royals are expecting Hosmer to return sometime after Labor Day. I would imagine he goes straight back to first base and probably the third spot in the lineup. Yost will grumble something about how Hosmer was really beginning to hit just before his injury as justification. A Hosmer return pushes either Butler or Willingham to the bench. But the way Butler has been raking, you absolutely cannot justify sitting him down more than once a week. And at this point in the season, I have much more faith in Willingham than I do Hosmer.

In my mind, this is how it ends. An inflexible manager reinserts a subpar hitter into a key spot in the lineup and bounces two hot hitters in and out so they lose their groove. The offense sputters down the stretch and the Royals don’t make October. You can see it, can’t you? Sorry to be a bit pessimistic, but the last 29 years haven’t exactly been the stuff of optimism. I hope I’m wrong, though. I hope Yost figures out how to balance his hitters.

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you what I would do if I were in the manager’s shoes. And right now, I haven’t a clue. I suppose I would bring Hosmer along slowly, and drop him in the order. I’d make damn sure Butler played at least 30 of the remaining games. And I’d try to get Willingham in 20 to 25. If that makes Hosmer the odd man out, then so be it. This team proved they can win with him on the sidelines. They’ve been so hot for so long they’re bound to cool down a bit, but I think you run the risk of glaciers forming around the lineup should you remove Butler and/or Willingham. And for god’s sake, leave Ibanez on the bench.

As much as I dread what’s going to happen when Hosmer returns, I’m looking forward to the next couple of weeks. This is still shaping up to be one helluva ride.

It all happened so fast.

Let’s rewind ourselves just a bit. The first five and a half innings were blueprint Royals baseball. They led 2-1. Their runs scored on an Alex Gordon bomb and an Erik Kratz sacrifice fly. Danny Duffy was looking good. He got two quick outs to start the bottom of the sixth. Nolan Arenado swung at the first pitch he saw and hit a routine grounder to Christian Colon at third. Colon throws off target and in the dirt, Billy Butler can’t grab it on the bounce, and Arenado is safe. Willin Rosario singles on the next pitch and Duffy walks Corey Dickerson on four pitches.

Then, the dagger. Matt McBride crushes a 95 mph belt-high fastball and sends it just over the fence in left.

Grand slam. Ballgame.

That was it. Seven pitches. An error, a single, a walk, and a home run. Duffy spun 102 pitches on the evening. Yet seven stinking pitches define the game.

Duffy really pitched a good game. He threw 76 fastballs, 14 change-ups and 12 curves. It’s a pitching mix that’s notable because he’s throwing curves about 23 percent of the time and usually throws more curves than changes. I’m guessing it was a Mile High game plan to move away from the curve. It seemed to work for most of the game. Duffy couldn’t put hitters away in the first and the Rockies featured a couple extended plate appearances, but he settled in and managed his pitch count well.

Hey, they can’t win them all. It only feels like it when they get on a serious roll.

A couple of other notes from the game:

— The error in the sixth is on Colon. Entirely. Sure, Butler had the opportunity to grab the throw on the bounce and he didn’t. But that’s a throw that has to be made. Billy has played what I would term “more than acceptable” defense at first. In the past, when I watched him play in the field, the thing that stood out was his footwork. It looked like he had a peg leg. (Insert your own “Hey, that’s why he’s so slow” quote here. Or if you’re creative, something about how he’s a pirate.) Anyway, he could field with slightly below average range and he could catch the ball. He just didn’t look comfortable around the bag. Now though, that’s changed. I’m not going to nominate him for the Eric Hosmer Gold Glove for The Most Amazing Defensive Excellence You’ve Ever Seen At First Base, but I will say that I don’t notice the poor footwork. Which probably means it’s gone.

Billy takes a ton of grief from a segment of the Royals fan base. While his offensive production early in the year certainly deserved criticism, he’s capable of playing an all around game.

Besides, we’ve seen Hosmer fail to come up with a few of those exaggerated scoops of his in the past. It’s not an easy play for a first baseman. Especially on the backhand.

— Salvador Perez was a late scratch which was termed as a “precautionary” measure by the Royals. Ummmm… Who’s worried. Perez, you will recall, left Monday’s game after straining his right knee while running the bases. Ned Yost had him in the lineup on Tuesday. Ho-hum, nothing to see here. Sadly, this is Royals business as usual. I know their training staff gets accolades, but why on earth would you play your catcher, a guy who has already seen action behind the plate in 112 of the Royals 125 games, the day after he left the game with a knee issue? Give him a full day to see how it feels. He could probably use another day off anyway. But the Royals send him back out there and he’s unable to go on Wednesday.

Then late word comes that Perez will have a “precautionary” MRI on his knee tomorrow.

Stay tuned.

— Speaking of Royals doing Royals things, Josh Willingham saw action in right field for the first time since 2009. And he made a couple of catches. He didn’t look comfortable out there, but he made the plays. I understand what Yost was doing by loading his lineup with right-handed hitters against the lefty Jorge de la Rosa and there’s no DH in the National League park.

I’m just relieved it worked out.

— And finally, that set lineup that Yost insists on using is starting to slowly drive me to insanity. Alex Gordon hitting fifth? Omar Infante second? I continue to maintain that if the Royals fail to make the playoffs, we will be able to trace it to the obstinance of Yost as it comes to the lineup. Sure, weird things happen like Infante hitting three doubles in a game, but the fact is he’s been an abysmal offensive performer for most of the season. Move him down. Move your best hitter (and MVP candidate) up in the lineup where he can bat more than three times in a game.

It’s not rocket science, but Yost does everything he can to make it so.

On Monday, Royals backup catcher entered the game as a replacement for starter Salvador Perez in the seventh inning. (Perez exited with right knee soreness. More on that in a moment.)

Kratz saw three pitches.

Kratz hit two home runs.

Let’s just let Gameday illustrate.

Plate appearance number one:

Kratz HR1

Plate appearance number two:

Kratz HR2

Kratz has a little bit of pop – he hit 18 home runs in limited action for the Phillies in 2011 and 2012 – but to enter the game in the seventh inning and launch not one, but two home runs? Ned Yost is playing with house money. That’s not to give Yost credit. Perez left the game with an injury. Just to say Yost – and the Royals – are living right. One of their key players exits and the backup answers the bell. Get on board. Seriously. Get on board now.

The Kratz bombs gave Ned Yost the luxury of holding Greg Holland back for a single out. Before the inevitable Aaron Crow implosion that created a save situation. The final cushion of two runs was provided by Mr. Kratz.

As I said, if you weren’t on the bandwagon before, you best get your butt on board.

The Royals are 14 games above .500 for the first time since August 9, 1994. They have a two game lead on Detroit. They are two and a half games behind Baltimore for the second seed in the playoffs. Man, I don’t know. This is some rare air.

The Kratz Cameo may get in the way of the other storyline – the dominance of Jason Vargas. Seriously, this guy is pitching lights out.  Seven innings, three hits, a walk and three strikeouts. The only blemish was the Oswaldo Arcia home run in the seventh. Vargas mixed his four and two-seam fastballs with a lethal change-up. He threw 35 change-ups and got seven swings and misses. It was an irresistible pitch as the Twins offered at 21 of those. The only hit they collected on the change was the aforementioned home run to Arcia. It was a change inner-half. Arcia waited, kept his hands in, and barreled the ball. Crushed it was more like it. But if Vargas is going to be so nasty with that pitch, we can forgive a moment where a hitter turns on one.

Arcia HR

It’s a tip your cap kind of thing.

The change has always been Vargas’s best pitch. It’s been effective again for him this year. His walk and home run rates are down, and he’s dropped his xFIP to a career-low 4.05. The interesting thing is he’s throwing fewer pitches in the zone. He’s throwing just 40 percent of his pitches in the zone, but hitters are chasing 34 percent of his pitches that are outside the strike zone. That’s keeping them off balance and preventing hitters from barreling the ball. Otherwise, they’re making contact, but he’s content with letting the Royals defense do the heavy lifting. You really can’t argue with that recipe. It feels like he should be able to keep rolling. Maybe not as good as he has been since returning from his appendectomy. But good enough to keep his team in any game he starts.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

As I mentioned before, Perez left the game with a sore right knee. Ned Yost said he tweaked it running the bases in the fifth and termed him “day to day.” Under normal circumstances, I’d mock Yost and any diagnosis he would give. But I’m not stupid. I’m not betting against Ned Yost.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

If you frequent Fangraphs, you may have noticed the WAR leaderboard on Monday morning:

Alex Gordon – 5.7
Mike Trout – 5.6
Giancarlo Stanton – 5.1
Josh Donaldson – 5.1
Robinson Cano – 5.0

The leaderboard only confirms what we in Kansas City have known since Gordon exploded in 2011: Alex Gordon is one of the most complete players in baseball. He hits, he fields, he throws, he runs. He does it all.

The “Five Tool Player” is romanticized. I mean, there’s only one Willie Mays. Or Mickey Mantle. In the modern game, it’s Mike Trout. But I’ll submit that Gordon is a five-tool player in his own right. He may not lead the league in home runs or stolen bases, but he will give you enough power and speed to go along with his spectacular defense that he’s one of the few five-tool players in baseball today. And Ned Yost continues to hit him fifth. Ok.

In 2011, Gordon had the seventh best fWAR in the AL and somehow netted just three votes for MVP. All were 10th place votes. (Shame on the KC chapter of the BBWAA for that one. Not a good look.) This year, I suspect he will do a little better.

Gordon is simply one of the best, most complete players in the game.

So the other day, I went on the radio in Topeka. I channeled my inner Rex Hudler:

“At this point, it’s about maximizing the peaks and minimizing the valleys.”

Or something like that.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time (or probably followed the Royals at all) you know what I’m talking about. This team, over the last season and a half, has been streaky to the extreme. The offense is the worst in the world for two-plus months, then has a stretch where they are so hot, they move to the middle of the pack in several key offensive hitting statistics. Then, instead of leveling off, they swing wildly back the other direction where they look like they haven’t picked up a bat in their lives.

So damn frustrating.

This is a team who hung 22 runs up on the Tigers Cy Young Award winners in the span of two games in the early part of last week. They followed that up by scoring a grand total of 10 runs over their next five games. You sit back and watch this offense struggle in April and May. You tell yourself, this isn’t a world class offense by any means, yet they have to be better than this. Then, they go on the aforementioned tear. You tell yourself, this isn’t the true talent of this offense, but damn are they on fire. Then, they slide right back into the pits.

Ugh.

So how do you want it on this Monday? Glass half full? There are currently seven teams in the American League with a positive run differential. The Royals are one of those teams. Their +14 run differential is fifth best in the AL, in fact. They are ahead of Baltimore and Detroit. We know offense is down across the board. The league average team has touched home plate 321 times so far. The Royals have scored 311 runs. Given their lengthy offensive struggles, this is surprising news. I don’t know if it means anything, but it’s surprising. In a good way.

For those of you who prefer to see the glass completely empty, despite the recent 10 game winning streak, the Royals offense remains one of the worst in the game. Their 89 wRC+ is ahead of only the Mariners. Their .304 wOBA is also ahead of only the Mariners. (Who just came to Kansas City, stole our bread, peanut butter and jelly, made sandwiches in our own kitchen and then proceeded to eat our lunch, almost choking because they were laughing so hard.) Their OPS+ of 89 is worst in the league.

Their .371 slugging percentage and .313 on base percentage is 13th out of 15 teams.

I try to remain positive. The Royals are 2.5 games back in the suddenly tight Central, while they are half a game back in a five team scrum for the Wild Card. No, I don’t think the Royals are better than any of the teams they trail – except maybe Seattle. However, baseball in the Wild Card era is littered with teams that aren’t what you would term world class who have competed in October. Yet watching this team flail away at the plate tests my patience.

Two points before I wrap this up:

First, Ned Yost needs to juggle his damn lineup. He looked like the cat who got the canary in the early part of this month. Vindication! Just leave him alone, he knows what he’s doing! Except I don’t think he does. To continue to hit Eric Hosmer third at this point in managerial malpractice of the highest order. Keeping Alex Gordon fifth is the same crime. I’ve said this a thousand times: Being a major league manager is about putting your players in the best position to win the ballgame. Yost’s current batting order doesn’t come close to accomplishing this.

Also, what was the deal with the Billy Butler pinch running saga on Friday night? The game is tied in the eighth and Butler leads off with a single. It’s usually so damn automatic that Yost uses a pinch runner. Hell, he will pinch run in that situation when the Royals are leading by five runs. Yet he sat on his hands. I’m OK with that initially. But then Butler moves to second on the Gordon single. It was hit up the middle and hard, so not even Jarrod Dyson could have advanced to third. That moment seemed tailor-made for a pinch runner. Yet Yost sat on his hands. Sal Perez lifted a fly to center. Butler tagged. I’ve never seen someone try to run so hard they actually went backward. Butler is out, but the ball hit his foot and bounced away. Talk about catching a break. Then, Yost finally removes Butler for the pinch runner. And the Royals make the final two outs without bringing home the run.

I’m not blaming Yost for losing that game. I’m just pointing out the bizarre management of the team in a tight game in the later innings. It’s Yost being Yost. Something Brewer fans know all about.

Second point, this is Dayton Moore’s team. It’s Year Nine. This is the offense he’s built through draft, trades and a pair of holdovers in Gordon and Butler. And this offense will probably rank 13th or lower in overall production when the dust settles on the 2014 season. Pitching and defense are key, but fail to construct a competent offense and all you’ll do is get to .500. And until they add a couple more Wild Card spots, that isn’t good enough.

Which is too bad. You saw the crowd on Friday. Kansas City is hungry for a winning team. (Or maybe they’re just hungry for dollar hot dogs and fireworks.) Either way, this city and this organization deserve better. Maybe the next GM can deliver.

It gets weirder and weirder every day in the Royals Universe.

Nine in a row.

First place in the Central. In mid-June. Over the Detroit juggernaut.

My head is spinning.

Before we go any further, let’s check the latest offensive numbers from this nine game stretch.

DBD_617

They are all hitting. And the home runs. I can’t get over the fact this group, so punchless in the early going, has clubbed 12 out of the park in the last nine games. In the first two months, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas hit six home runs combined. This month, they’ve already combined for seven. As I pointed out the other day, this is what a hot streak looks like.

The homers last night were glorious. Especially the Alex Gordon bomb. More on that in a moment.

According to ESPN, the Royals most productive June as far as winning percentage came way back in 1972 when they won 18 of 27, which is a .667 winning percentage. So far in this June, the team has captured 12 of 15. Ummm, that’s .800. That’s pretty good.

Another thing the Royals accomplished last night which should certainly be noted: They knocked the Tigers from the top of their AL Central perch for the first time since July 3. Yep. The Tigers held first place in the AL Central all season and for half (let’s face it, the really important half) of 2013. While I maintain my previous position that I don’t get giddy over being in first place on June 18, I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to see this:

Standings_618

Damn. I mean, look at the run differential. Only five teams are in the green and the Royals are one of them. After drubbing Detroit the last two nights, they’ve shifted to red. Even more impressive, this once anemic offense is now pretty damn robust. Again, it’s the peaks and valleys I discussed the other day. Everything levels out in the end. Except most teams don’t seem to experience the extreme highs and lows we see in Kansas City. The Royals have scored 301 runs. Or three runs fewer than the Tigers. Wow.

I guess all it took was a reassignment of a hitting coach.

I don’t know if the Royals can win their 10th in a row this afternoon. I do know if the winning streak ends today, it went out with an exclamation point of a seventh inning on Tuesday.

FG_WE_617

The Gordon home run following the Butler walk was a thing of beauty. I mean, most homers are, but this one was especially a bomb. Officially, it went 414 feet. Maybe that’s not so impressive, but it was hit to a part of Comerica where I haven’t seen many home runs land. And I thought it was cool. Doesn’t really matter. It was like a dagger in the heart of the Tigers. When Moustakas hit a hanging change over the fence in right, it felt like the Royals were again in control. To hang three more runs was gravy. It felt good.

Nine games. Winning. Yes.

There are a bunch of games left. In fact, there are 93. Far too many to start selling internal organs so you can afford playoff tickets. But maybe you should prepare for life with a single kidney.

This could be a fun summer.

Do you remember, back in the early days of the season, when the typical Royals fan lament went something like this:

“If only they could get the bats going.”

May I present to you, the last week of Royals baseball.

Damn.

After sweeping the Indians at home and the White Sox on the road, the Royals own a seven game winning streak and are winners of eight of their last 10 and 12 of their last 20. There’s hot, and then there’s Royals Hot.

Baseball is a game of peaks and valleys. They say once you think you have the game figured out, it will humble you just as fast. The Royals, it seems, are the masters of the peaks and valleys. We saw the exact same thing last year when the team bottomed out at the All-Star Break, prompting this writer to call for the dismissal of Dayton Moore. Part of the reason for the call of Moore’s firing at the time was his apparent detachment from reality when he stated his 2013 Royals were capable of a stretch where they could win 15 out of 20. Laughable, I wrote, pointing out that very few Royals teams in the past had actually accomplished such a run of successful baseball. Then what happened? Ummmm… they won 15 out of their next 20. (Baseball is humbling? Damn. Try blogging.) Anyway, it’s about the peaks and valleys. Peaks and valleys.

This year, it’s looking like a carbon copy of 2013. Straight down to the reassignment of a hitting coach. Except now the Royals have found (or are close to) the peak at a much earlier date. At least one month earlier in 2014 they finally figured out where the switch for the afterburners is located and they hit the damn thing.

From Baseball Musing’s Day by Day Database, here’s how the offense has looked this month:

DBD_67

And how the offense looked last week.

DBD_66

Funny game, baseball. At the end of May I insisted that it was bad business to set your lineup based on streaks (both hot and cold) and advocated Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain move to the top third of the order. Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Gordon is his typical awesome self. Mr. Everything for this club. Cain, however, has had a bit of a rough go this month. Break it down to look exclusively at this winning streak and who are the two of the worst offensive performers? Yep. Gordon and Cain.

But take a moment to revisit those numbers from the last week. Eric Hosmer is hitting like Hosmer post-May 2013. Sal Perez is a destroyer of baseballs. Billy Butler is an on base machine. Mike Moustakas is FIXED! And good grief, Alcides Escobar. Look at those numbers. And that’s after an 0-3 day at the plate. Somehow, he drew a walk and saw a grand total of nine pitches in four plate appearances. But those numbers. This offense is now running on best-case scenario. These guys are just killing it. Early and often. It’s been a helluva week.

Here’s the great thing about this peak I just spent 500 words extolling: It’s coming against teams in the AL Central.

When the Royals opened this stretch of baseball, I said it was a pivotal moment of the 2014 season. At that moment, the Royals had won a grand total of six intra-division games. No other team in baseball had fewer than 10 wins against intra-division opponents. In other words, the Royals had become experts at laying down in their own division. That’s no way to win a wild card spot, never mind the division itself. Having dug such a hole in the Central, it was imperative the Royals stop the bleeding and get better. Immediately. And nine games against Central opponents presented the first opportunity. So here we are, five games in and the Royals have won all five.

Have I mentioned baseball is a funny game?

Now, attention turns to Detroit and the Tigers. It’s far too early in the season for me to get caught up in the standings. I could care less who is in first place on June 16. It doesn’t matter. Positioning matters. If teams harbor October expectations, they need to hang close. You can’t pull a Tampa Bay and drop 13 games out of the division and 10 games out of the wild card because that’s ground you just can’t make up over the course of three and a half months. We’ve said it over and over – and experienced it last year – but if you fall so far behind and allow multiple teams to move ahead of you and a playoff spot – it’s difficult to climb over those teams to get to the top.

At some point, hot streak will end. (I’m not trying to rain on your Plaza Parade. It’s a streak. If you are unfamiliar with the term, look it up somewhere.) At some point the Royals will probably play a stretch of baseball where they go 10-10. Maybe a little worse. The important thing to remember is positioning. The Royals are in a good position right now. If they stumble a bit, they may remain on the outside of a playoff spot, but if they can maintain their positioning, they can be OK.

And that’s exactly what I think this team can do. They can keep themselves in position. No way was the offense as bad as we saw back in April and May. Sadly, it’s not this good either. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in-between. And that’s OK. Because with the pitching and defense, that gives this team a pretty good chance.

This isn’t a team built on the premise they can dominate. (No sane Royals fan can believe that. Not after what we saw in April and May.) But this is a team that can compete and this team can cause some problems. There’s a ton of mediocrity in the American League this summer. So many teams have opportunity. So few will capitalize.

Here’s hoping the Royals continue to capitalize.

A whole weekend passed without any worthy Nori Aoki gifs. I feel cheated.

At least there’s a 2-1 win against the hated Yankees on Sunday. Six strong from James Shields and three from the shutdown bullpen.  Aaron Crow, Wade Davis and Greg Holland with the honors. I’m sure Ned Yost would have liked to have gotten seven from Shields, but the Yankees worked him for 110 pitches in the six innings. Eight whiffs against two walks. Seven ground outs and just one fly ball out.

Yost likes it when he doesn’t have to think. Automatic situations are good. Eighth inning with a one-run lead? Davis. It works for the bullpen because he has two of the best relievers in the league at his disposal. With the offense it’s a different story. Top of the lineup card? Aoki-Infante-Hosmer. Damn the numbers. Damn the facts.

At this point, it feels like a point of pride for Yost, doesn’t it? Everyone who pays attention to baseball and the Royals know this lineup is the pits. They also know the two best hitters on this team are buried at number five and number seven in the order. How the hell does that make any sense? Yet there’s Nervous Ned, sticking to his guns. The Titantic may be bearing down on that iceberg, but dammit he’s not going to steer around it just because it’s in his way. Come on.

The fact is, Gordon is one of the best hitters on this team, no matter what. A few years ago, it seemed inspired when Yost bumped him to the top of the order. Now the pendulum has swung the other direction with a stubborn Yost refusing to see what is clear to everyone.

Because it’s not kosher to criticize and not offer a solution, here would be my lineup going forward:

Gordon
Aoki
Cain
Perez
Hosmer
Butler
Escobar
Infante
Moustakas

Gordon is the only guy on the team who can work a walk and is the best hitter. He should get the most plate appearances. I know I just mocked the idea of Aoki hitting leadoff and I only push him down one spot, but he has to hit somewhere. His .318 OBP rates fourth among regulars. (Have I mentioned this offense is horrible?) Yeah, he’s striking out more than advertised, but his contact rate is second highest on the team which is useful in that position. Cain is the best hitter not named Gordon, so he hits third. Not ideal, but this lineup is a hot mess. Perez is my power bat, so he’s fourth. That’s two left-handed bats followed by two right-handed bats at the top of the order. Time to change things up a bit. But really that’s the only method to this madness in the lower half. It’s really about minimizing Moustakas and Infante.

My other solution involves cloning Gordon eight times.

Being a manager is about positioning your guys to where you give the team the best chance to succeed. So many times a manager gets fired when players don’t produce. You’ll hear things like, “It wasn’t his fault we weren’t hitting (or fielding, or pitching.)” A manager can fill out an optimal lineup card but will pay when if team doesn’t execute. What happens when a manager knowingly ignores mounting evidence that his lineup defies baseball logic?

It’s amazing Yost is still employed.

– Hey, Eric Hosmer hit a home run on Saturday. A real, actual home run. And it was a bomb, traveling 445 feet according to Hit Tracker. This seems like a decent time to break out Hosmer’s home run plots for the 2014 season.

Hosmer_Eric_2014_scatter

Grim. Seriously. His other home run this year came in San Diego and traveled just 362 feet, barely clearing the wall at Petco.

Compare the above chart to last summer. Last year, Hosmer clubbed 17 home runs, but didn’t hit his second on the season until June 13. This year, he hit his second on June 7! He’s almost a full week ahead of the pace last year! Amazing.

Hosmer_Eric_2013_scatter

When he got hot last summer, his power was from the left-center gap to right-center. Pretty impressive, actually.

So is this the start of another summer streak? I don’t know about that. In 2013, when he went on a tear, the power came later. I mentioned his second home run was hit on June 17. Well, if we subscribe to the theory that George Brett’s arrival helped drag Hosmer out of his doldrums, then we see that from May 29 (Brett’s first day on the job) to June 16, Hosmer hit .308/.345/.365. Sixteen hits in that stretch with only three for extra bases – all doubles. The power arrived later. Eight of his 17 home runs came in a stretch from June 17 to July 4.

The Royals – yes, the Kansas City Royals – survived a slugfest in St. Louis and vanquished the Cardinals by a 8-7 score on Tuesday. The game capped a successful road trip that saw the Royals take four of six from the Blue Jays and then the Cardinals. Call it the Running of the 1985 Gauntlet.

Bookending a mini-slump where the Royals scored two runs in the final two games in Toronto were games where Kansas City scored eight and six runs. Add everything together and since May 29, the Royals have scored 30 runs in six games and pocketed the aforementioned four wins.

Dale Sveum, hitting whisperer, indeed.

On Tuesday, James Shields wasn’t exactly Big Game as he walked four and allowed nine hits while striking out a single hitter. He allowed two home runs for good measure. Not to be alarmist following a solid stretch of baseball, but Shields just hasn’t been himself of late. In his last 18.1 innings, he’s allowed 17 runs. That’s courtesy of seven (seven!) home runs.

I suppose at this point, I should point east and laugh. Suck it, St. Louis and all that. Maybe it’s misguided on my part, but beating the Cardinals doesn’t move me any more than beating the Marlins. A win is a win. It’s good when the Royals can shutout a team one night and turn around and score eight and win by a single run the next. I mean, St. Louis is still a wannabe east coast city that I avoid at all costs, but they just don’t matter so much to me. I’m aware their fans are spectacular or whatever. Best fans EVAR!!!!!1! Eh. I tend to ignore the self-absorbed. It’s a character flaw.

I read much hand-wringing of the ESPN treatment on Monday night. “How disrespectful they don’t know this team!” “Why can’t they talk about something other than 1985?” “It’s like they’ve never seen the Royals play!” Uh, hello. This is the Kansas City Royals ESPN is talking about. Is there really any reason for ESPN – or any other national sports outlet – to discuss this team over the last 25 years? Three decades of losing will render your favorite team irrelevant. It happens. But the 1985 is our World Series and when the Royals and Cardinals meet, it’s as good a reason as any to revisit some history. It gives the national guys a news peg. Fortunes have kind of diverged since those late October nights in 1985.

Did you read the Bob Nightengale article in USA Today about the Royals? It contained some wonderful quotes from Dayton Moore As I do from time to time, I’ll do a little translation. Moore is a wonderful quote machine. He speaks like the guy who writes those inspirational posters you find in sterile corporations who haven’t updated their decor from 1993. I can’t resist.

“It’s been a frustrating year,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “But the frustration I feel is no greater than the players, or (manager) Ned (Yost) or the coaching staff. We’re all in it together.

“Yeah, we expected more out of our players, but they expect even more out of themselves. We’re making some very honest evaluations.”

Oh, spare me. Notice he didn’t mention the owner. I wonder if David Glass is frustrated? Out of sight, out of mind. Maybe Glass hasn’t brought up the fact his team and their record payroll is underachieving. Maybe a better quote would be something along the lines of, “I thought everyone would get better. Isn’t that what happens?”

And the “honest evaluation” line is pretty funny. I imagine him saying it the way Neidermeyer put Delta house on “double secret probation.”

“You wonder how we can underachieve offensively the second year in a row,” Yost says, “with the talent we have. The pitchers are giving us chances to win, but we have to score runs.”

No, it’s really not that puzzling. When you do something more than once, it’s a trend. And when it’s a trend, you’re not underachieving. You are what you are. Now there’s interpretation that can be done as to why your team has turned into an offensive pumpkin. (Perhaps the revolving door of hitting coaches has been counterproductive and perhaps you had a good one on your staff but turned him loose.) Why is Billy Butler’s ground ball rate above 50 percent for the second consecutive season and rising? Why has Eric Hosmer returned all his gains he realized from last season and hit just one home run? Why has Mike Moustakas regressed every season since his debut? Why has Salvador Perez suffered the same fate? Read through those names again. That was supposed to form the nucleus of this team. That’s the way the master plan was drawn up when Dayton Moore circled 2014 on his ten-year day planner. The only guy who is worth a damn is Alex Gordon. Moore loses points because Gordon is an Allard Baird refugee. But he gains points for moving him off the hot corner and to left field. And inspired last-ditch move that saved a career and should be worth some goodwill.

How about this for a wonderful tidbit: Since 2011, Alex Gordon has collected 18.1 fWAR. That’s the highest total among regular left fielders in all of baseball. Yeah, that’s right. Awesome. This guy is criminally underrated because he’s surrounded by so much damn offensive dead weight. Do you want to think about this team without Alex Gordon? I answer for you: No. No, you don’t.

Back to the USA Today article. Did you catch this:

Certainly, there’s enough blame to be shared throughout an organization that has run through several failed regimes.

If anyone deserves the most blame, Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog said, it’s owner David Glass.

He was the one who was offered by Commissioner Bud Selig to move the franchise to the National League in 1998. Glass declined. The Milwaukee Brewers accepted. The rest is history.

“That’s one of the most major mistakes in the history of ownership,” said Herzog, who managed the St.Louis Cardinals and the Royals. “It was natural to go to the National League. They would have had a natural rivalry with the Cardinals. The Cubs would be sellouts. People would come from Denver. And they wouldn’t have to worry about their offense.

“When I talked to David about it, he said, ‘Everybody wanted to see the Yankees.’ I said, ‘Was there anyone complaining if you went to the NL?’ He said, ‘We got about a hundred letters.’

“I said, ‘Jesus, you’re running Wal-Mart and you let 100 letters change your mind? What a screw-up.’

I remember that time well. I was still a season ticket holder and the Royals polled us about the potential move. Myself? I wasn’t for it. I thought it was foolish to move from the American League. Kansas City had always been an AL city. The World Series title – at that point, not so much a distant memory – was won in the AL. I guess the irony is, the Yankees will visit Kansas City between three and four times a year now thanks to the unbalanced schedule. Instead of the bandwagon Yankee and Red Sox fans for six to eight dates at The K, you would have 20 dates with the Cardinals and Cubs. Equally obnoxious fan bases.

Maybe it was a mistake not to move, but a bad offense is a bad offense. Just spitballing here, but since National League pitching has been superior, wouldn’t that render our tepid attack even more impotent? We’d be wallowing in the muck with the Padres. Carry a negative run differential and it’s difficult to contend.

As much as I enjoy Herzog and as much as I enjoy Herzog ripping on Glass, it’s revisionist history at this point. Besides, if Tampa can hang with the Yankees and Red Sox (although not so much this year) the Royals should be able to find a way to get past the Twins and the Tigers.

Nightengale mentions free agent Kendrys Morales as a potential match. Let’s play a little game of internet telephone. I bet Nightengale picked up this nugget from a certain Tweet.

And I wonder where Heyman heard this? Hmmmm. Morales has a certain agent who has been known to feed info to Heyman in the past… Hmmmmm.

Anyway, does it make sense for the Royals to sign a guy like Morales at this point in the season? After he’s missed two-plus months. Stephen Drew signed a couple weeks ago with the Red Sox and spent 10 days in the minors to get game ready. That would put a potential Morales arrival a little after mid-June. That’s great and he would certainly represent an upgrade, but what do you do with Billy Butler? He’s making $8 million this year, so the Royals aren’t going to keep him around as a right-handed bat off the bench. Besides, you think he would accept any kind of demotion? So you have to trade him, but to whom and for what? His market is limited as a designated hitter. His contract is on the high side for a one dimensional player and you’d be selling at his absolute low point.

No, it looks like the Royals are stuck with Butler. If anything, it should be fun watching them decide what to do with that $12.5 million option for next year.

And by next year, the narrow window of opportunity may be closing.

The move had the inevitably of the Sonny Corleone hit, yet the subtlety of that time Jerry bashed Tom over the head with a sledgehammer. Or an axe.. The Royals finally closed their eyes and did what was long overdue. They sent Mike Moustakas to Omaha.

There is much rejoicing amongst Royals fans. Finally. Finally, they are doing the right thing. Maybe this is the opportunity for Moustakas to rebuild his career the same way Alex Gordon and Billy Butler did theirs.

I’m not so sure about that. Three things stand out in my mind. First, while both Gordon and Butler struggled mightily at times early in their careers, neither player hit the depths where Moustakas currently resides. In 2008 when Butler was farmed out, he was hitting .263/.330/.339. Not so much power – just one home run and 11 doubles in 206 plate appearances – but he wasn’t an automatic out. Gordon, who you could argue had his development hampered by injury, was hitting .194/.342/.323 after returning from a thumb fracture suffered in spring training when he was sent down. Again, not an automatic out.

The difference is Moustakas is a career .236/.290/.379 hitter. That covers over 1,600 plate appearances. And he’s getting worse. Going back to the start of 2013 he’s hitting .216/.273/.355. That’s in 653 plate appearances. Gross.

Second, both Gordon and Butler are mentally strong. Gordon is a workout animal and I don’t think Butler has ever doubted his ability to hit the baseball. Yeah, it’s a bummer getting demoted and you never know how anyone will react. Ahead of his demotion, Gordon looked absolutely lost. Like he wanted to be anywhere but the diamond. The demotion and subsequent position change seemed a true last-ditch effort on the part of the team and the player. It doesn’t feel all that dissimilar to what’s happening now with Moustakas. But one thing we’ve learned over time is Gordon works tirelessly at his craft. Butler just seems irritated whenever he doesn’t barrel the ball. He’s always taken a ton of pride from his hitting. (I know I’m going all “body language” on you here, but it goes to mental state. Which is important in a player who has the tools but is struggling.) Fortunately, Gordon and Butler responded.

Will Moustakas? I’m not sure. We know he doesn’t watch video and while I haven’t heard anything negative about his work ethic, I haven’t heard raves either.

And third, Gordon and Butler possessed a more rounded hit tool than Moustakas. Both players were hitters, if that makes sense. Moustakas came through the organization as a power hitting prospect. The projections were always along the line of he won’t give you a high average and the OBP will be on the lower side of acceptable, but he could challenge the Steve Balboni Record. As I showed above, when Butler and Gordon went down, both were contributing offensively by getting on base. Moustakas isn’t contributing at all offensively.

Now what? I assume the Royals gave Moustakas some sort of idea of how long he will be in Triple-A. Now it’s up to him to pull his head out and perform. My reservation is even if he does well in Omaha, it won’t stick. We’ve been down this road before in spring training and Venezuela. He’ll hit great against lesser competition, but when it comes time to put it together in The Show he hits a rough patch and all the good quickly becomes undone. I hope that’s not the case. Because the Royals need a power bat in the lineup. They need Mike Moustakas to reach his potential.

I’m just afraid we’ve already seen his ceiling.

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