Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts published by Craig Brown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.06.57 PM

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

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

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

Onward.

Notes from the postseason files

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you smell that, Kansas City? Playoffs.

The Royals magic number to clinch a spot is five.

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

Rebound

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For those still clinging to the canard that there is momentum in baseball, I offer as Exhibit A this week’s series against the Chicago White Sox.

Game One – A dramatic come from behind victory, featuring not one, but two runners improbably scoring from second with two outs and a ball not leaving the infield.

Game Two – A game so moribund, a game so dreadfully boring that it could be used as a Baseball Hall of Fame exhibit called “The Worst Games of All Time.”

Game Three – Up against a dominant starting pitcher, the Royals not only won, but the bats (sort of) came alive.

The result was a 6-2 win over the White Sox that pulled the Royals to a half game back of the Tigers for first in the Central. Which means this weekend’s series against Detroit moved from “huge” to “insanely massive” on the scale of importance.

Of course this win came against the Sox ace, Chris Sale. Sale is only one of the most dominant starting pitchers in the league. And the Royals tuned him up in ways he hadn’t been hurt this season.

— The five earned runs allowed were a season high.

— As Steve Physioc noted on the radio, Sale had only allowed four runs in a start twice all season. The Royals scored four runs against Sale in the third inning.

— Regular readers know how I love Game Score. Sale’s Game Score of 33 was his lowest of the season. By 11 points.

— Sale had never allowed three hits in a game to a left-handed batter. Nori Aoki had three hits against Sale.

Speaking of Aoki, exactly how hot is this guy? Hotter than the surface of the sun? The Sox got him out twice in three games. He came to the plate 15 times in the three games and reached base in 13 of those plate appearances. He only scored three times, because this is still the Royals offense, but damn if this guy isn’t finally making things happen. It’s been an interesting season with Aoki. We had to wait something like 24 weeks, but that trade is finally paying a dividend.

And if that wasn’t weird enough, the Royals won a game where Raul Ibanez pinch hit for Jayson Nix. Wade Davis gave up another run. Baseball is a strange and mysterious game sometimes.

Worth mentioning also, was the performance of Yordano Ventura. As badly as the Royals needed the bats to come alive, it wouldn’t have mattered if Ventura hadn’t been able to steady the pitching ship. He delivered seven massively strong innings against the White Sox. Coming a year after his major league debut it was one of his best starts of the season in what undoubtedly was his biggest start of his professional career.

Bring on Detroit.

It’s been almost 12 hours. That’s 12 hours to digest what we saw Monday night. That’s 12 hours to make sense of the most improbable Royals victory in this most improbable of Royals seasons.

And I still don’t comprehend what happened.

Maybe this will help:


Source: FanGraphs
Nope.

Really, this is baseball, isn’t it? Sometimes the manager draws names out of a hat and posts it as a lineup and it goes out and scores seven runs. Other times, a team looks lifeless against what should be an overmatched starting pitcher, only to come to life against a bullpen in a most unconventional way.

I’m 100 words into this post and I still don’t know where to begin.

All I seem to understand is Mike Moustakas hit a one-out double and was lifted for Jerrod Dyson. One thing we know about Ned Yost is the manager loves him some pinch running. You get the feeling if he could stock his bench with nine speed guys – one for each inning – he’d do it in a second. So to see Moustakas removed for Dyson made all sorts of sense. That’s the tying run after all, and it seems Yost may finally understand the Royals are fighting for their October lives. After a ground out, the Royals were down to their final out.

With the hero Nori Aoki up, Dyson breaks for third on the first pitch. Well, just watch…

There is so much that is great about that highlight. The immediate switch to the camera behind home plate, so we can see the action. Ryan Lefebvre’s call. And Uncle Hud’s cheerleading punctuated with a primal “Yeah!” as Dyson glides on his belly across the plate. And then letting the crowd take over. It’s all there. That’s a Maxwell Grand Slam kind of highlight for me.

(I run so hot and cold on Uncle Hud as an announcer. I seem to love him during the wins and barely tolerate him during the losses. I’m probably not alone. It’s because he’s a cheerleader. You may not like having an unabashed homer as one of your announcers, but I don’t mind. And Uncle Hud is genuine. Whatever. I loved it on Monday.)

Then, with the game tied, Aoki laces a double down the left field line. It capped a perfect 4-4 night (with a walk thrown in for good measure) with some of the most bizarre swings you’ll see. That sets up another pinch runner in Terrance Gore. I know there was some questioning of this move, as Aoki possesses some speed of his own. I thought Yost made the right call here. This way, you can do some defensive shuffling, allowing Dyson to stay in the game and letting the new third baseman hit in Aoki’s spot. And while Aoki is fast, Gore is pretty much a sure thing on a single. So as bad as Yost was at pushing the buttons on Sunday, he got things right on Monday. Funny game, baseball.

So when Lorenzo Cain chopped an infield single up the middle when Gore was breaking for third, it was over.

Go ahead. Take your time. Try to make sense of what you saw last night. I don’t think you can. But that’s OK. September baseball, baby. September baseball.

Suddenly, the first six innings were forgotten. The putrid at bats. The suspect defense. Washed away in roughly 10 seconds. The time it took Dyson and Gore to go from second to home. The time it took the Royals to go from losers to winners.

There isn’t a nice way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there.

This series was a disaster for the Royals.

Yes, they’re still in contention for the AL Central. Yes, they’re still in pole position for the Wild Card. Yes, there’s still two weeks left in the season, and damnit, the Royals are in a better position they’ve been in at this point in the season for decades.

But to drop three of four to the Red Sox (and six of seven overall), a team that lost one of their key starters to a trade and another of their key position players to injury, and have pretty much mailed in the rest of 2014… That’s not a good look for a club that fancies itself a contender.

I’ve asserted all along, there are so many flawed teams in the playoff hunt this year, Scorching hot Angels aside, no team is playing with distinction down the wire. It’s cliched to say it, but with four teams (Tigers, Mariners, A’s and Royals) fighting for two to three playoff spots, it’s going to come down to the team – or teams – that make the fewest mistakes over the last two weeks of the regular season.

I don’t have much hope for Ned Yost. As we saw firsthand on a brutal Sunday afternoon at The K, he’s not what you would call “mistake-free.”

Let’s make one thing clear. Yost is no different from 27 or 28 or 29 other major league managers. These guys all do things a certain way that became accepted over time. There’s no rhyme or reason why some moves have become baseball gospel. That’s just the way it is. Doesn’t make it wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make it right. Take, for instance, Terry Francona. Beloved in Boston for managing two Red Sox teams to the World Championship, Francona, the other day in Cleveland, bunted in the first inning. Giving away an out in the first inning. Playing for a single run when you have eight more innings to play. Bunting in the first inning is so criminal, there should be a constitutional amendment denying that as a managerial strategy. Yet there’s Francona, bunting away in the first.

Ned Yost did the exact same thing just a few days ago.

It’s also fact that in today’s baseball, relievers really, really like to have defined roles. It goes beyond The Closer. Now you have The Set-Up Guy, The Seventh Inning Guy, The Mop-Up Guy, and apparently, there’s The Sixth Inning Guy as well.

We learned on Sunday the Royals Sixth Inning Guy is Aaron Crow.

I implore you to read McCullough’s recap. It’s baseball writing at it’s best. Just great work. It brilliantly captures the insanity that is currently rattling around Yost’s dome.

Let’s just start here:

“It’s frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead,” he said. “That was frustrating.”

There you go. There’s Ned Yost’s managerial career in a tidy little 20 word quote.

Yost is a “manage by numbers” type of manager. Meaning he is as automatic as the sun rising in the east, Nickleback putting out rubbish music, or members of the KC media questioning fans for not attending games. All season long, Yost has had the luxury of the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Kelvin Herrera in the seventh. Wade Davis in the eighth. And Greg Holland in the ninth. He’s also had the luxury of having a strong rotation where the starters can usually give him six easy innings. I’ve written about it a number of times this year. Yost’s baseball formula is to get a big hit in the early innings, rely on your starter to keep the opposition off the board and then turn to the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Game over. Automatic.

When starter Jason Vargas faltered in the sixth, Yost turned to his recently minted Sixth Inning Guy, Crow.

Initially, according from a postgame Tweet from McCullough, Yost went to Crow because he was looking for a strikeout.

That pretty much says it all. Crow’s first two seasons in the league, he whiffed over 9 batters per nine innings. That’s pretty good. Last year, his SO/9 total dropped to 8.3. Not a crazy drop. This year, Crow owns a 5.0 SO/9.

Ummm…

Not only are Crow’s strikeout numbers way down, his velocity has tumbled. Last year, his fastball averaged a shade over 96 mph. This year, he’s averaging 93 mph on his fastball. Last year his average slider was 85 mph. This year, it’s averaging 83 mph. And his sinker last year routinely clocked in at 95 mph. This year, his average sinker is 92 mph. Basically, his three most common pitches are all off by about three mph.

And by the way, his velocity has dropped even more in September. He’s down another two mph from his seasonal averages. That’s not a warning sign. That’s an obnoxious red flag. Something isn’t right.

The good news is Crow actually got Allen Craig to strikeout swinging. Victory. We are now at the point in the above Ned Yost quote about being one out away from handing the ball to Herrera. At this point, Yost had three decisions he could make.

One, he could stick with Crow. After all, he’s apparently The Sixth Inning Guy.

Two, he could go to Herrera. That would require his Seventh Inning Guy to pitch an inning and a third. That is something that seems to go against the managerial handbook of defining bullpen roles. Nevermind that Herrera last saw the mound on Wednesday. Nevermind in the last week, he had thrown just 41 pitches. Going to Herrera here makes all kinds of sense. He’s the first prong of that three headed bullpen beast. He’s showing solid command, is difficult to hit and not a single hitter has taken him yard this year. Why not go to him early?

Three, he could have gone with a left-hander. With the expanded rosters, Yost has three lefties in his pen: Francisley Bueno, Scott Downs and 2014 first round pick Brandon Finnegan. He current hitter is Daniel Nava, a switch hitter. Here are Nava’s career splits: vs RHP – .290/.384/.425 vs LHP – .210/.287/.301 Nava’s been even worse against left-handers this year than his career splits, hitting just .158/.200/.193 against them this year. The Royals have publicly been cautious with the handling of Finnegan, although there has been much talk of adding him to a 25-man postseason roster, should the Royals qualify. If they’re talking about it, he should be ready for a baptism by fire. And what better fire than the bases loaded, two outs with a favorable platoon matchup? You can’t shield the kid in September and expect him to handle the heat in October. Besides, we’ve seen his work. He looks like he can handle the moment.

Three choices. Two that would seem to give the Royals a favorable advantage. One that doesn’t. Guess which one Yost chooses. If you aren’t sufficiently depressed, go back and read the choices again.

Let’s see what Red Sox manager John Farrell thought about Yost’s decision:

Flashback to July 18, the first game after the All-Star Break when Yost pulled James Shields for Scott Downs with two outs, a runner on second and the Royals holding on to a one-run lead with Jackie Bradley, Jr. approaching the plate. That was when Farrell countered with Jonny Gomes and Gomes blasted a home run that was the difference in the game. You remember that one. The one where Yost “outsmarted himself.”

I guarantee you this is rattling around Yost’s dome in the top of the sixth. Two months ago, he made a boneheaded move and got burned. He wasn’t about to make a move again. He was going to stick with Crow. He was going to stick with his Sixth Inning Guy.

This isn’t hindsight. This isn’t second guessing. This is examining the options before the manager and deciding he made the wrong choice. It was something everyone who follows baseball closely knew was wrong at the moment it happened. Everyone knew Crow was the wrong guy in that situation. Except Ned Yost.

Ballgame.

I said at the top of this post that Yost isn’t all that different from the majority of major league managers. I believe that. I still do. I also believe that smart major league managers will eventually adjust when their teams are in a pennant race or post season series. There comes a moment when a manager is forced out of his comfort zone of the random series in May and is introduced to the tension of September and October. The best managers – the Franconas of baseball – will make adaptations, using their players in the most favorable match-ups gleaned from the previous 140 to 162 games. The other managers, the also-rans of the baseball world, will continue to stubbornly adhere to their tattered baseball gospel. And they will watch the other team celebrate.

The final word of this post goes to McCullough. This is just some great prose that neatly wraps up what we saw on Sunday.

The rules of major-league baseball do not include a provision barring a seventh-inning reliever from pitching in the sixth. But the dogma of baseball managers does preclude such a maneuver. Yost falls in line with the game’s traditions. Relief pitchers receive roles, and managers are wary of deviating from them.

The practice aided the Royals during the second half, as Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland formed a suffocating trio. Yet Yost’s adherence to his doctrine hamstrung his team on Sunday, exposing Crow and granting Nava a chance to further sink Kansas City’s hopes in the American League Central.

Amen.

It’s too easy to say, “That’s why they acquired James Shields.” But I think it would be accurate.

On Wednesday, after the Royals dropped the first two games of the series to Detroit to fall out of first place, Shields threw a brilliant start. He allowed a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler, picked him off first and then retired the next 18 batters in a row. Shields exited after 7 innings, 98 pitches and no runs.

And he probably saved the season.

That my be some serious hyperbole on my part, but this is September, this is a pennant race and damned if I remember how to react to seeing something like that. I do know it was one of the more clutch pitching performances I’ve seen by a Royals starter.

I wrote about Game Score the other day in reference to Jeremy Guthrie’s stinker in the series opener. On Wednesday, Shields finished with a Game Score of 80. That is tied for his third best start of the year. He has a pair of starts that tallied 83 on the Game Score meter, including his start last Friday in New York. So let that sink in for a moment. In the biggest road trip of the Royals season, Shields made two starts. He threw a total of 15.1 innings. He allowed five hits. He recorded 14 strikeouts. He surrendered one walk. And he didn’t allow a single run.

Big Game? Damn straight.

I sent out a Tweet midway through the game that I’ve spent the last four months reconsidering my original takes on The Trade. How could you not?

Maybe at some point in the offseason, I’ll dive a little deeper into the impact, but on the surface the Royals have realized a massive short-term dividend from this deal. Shields has been inconsistent at times this season and had a stretch of starts from mid-May through all of June where it looked like he was fatigued. Maybe the result of so many innings in past seasons. Yet aside from a single stinker of a starter in that make-up game against the Yankees at the end of August, he’s been brilliant down the second half of the season.

Of course I’m thinking of other aspects of The Trade. The Wade Davis Experience came on to pitch another lock-down ninth. And other intangibles as well. Yeah, I’ll go there. Later, though. It will be fun.

As I mentioned in the lede, it may be simplistic to say that’s why they acquired Shields, but maybe sometimes the best explanations are also the easiest explanations.

Just like that night in New York in his last start, Shields mixed his pitches in a most effective manner. Fastball, cut fastball, curve, sinker and that wonderful change-up. He kept the ball down in the zone and got a ton of swinging strikes at pitches that darted down and out of the zone. Detroit hitters had no chance.

And because of that start, the Royals are back in first.

There have been many “signature” moments in what has been through 142 games, a magical season. Those moments have been positive. The Alex Gordon walk off. The Nori Aoki grand slam. The stolen win in Toronto.

Tuesday provided us with another signature moment. However this one was not positive.

The Royals opened the ninth facing struggling Tigers closer Joe Nathan trailing by two runs. Aoki and Omar Infante, lead off the inning with back to back singles. Then, in quick order:

Alex Gordon strikes out swinging.

Jerrod Dyson gets picked off second.

Salvador Perez strikes out swinging.

Ballgame.

The standings show the Royals and Tigers tied atop the division. Although if you factor the suspended game against Cleveland as a Royal loss (which if you watched any single moment of baseball on Tuesday, you know is a long shot for them to put up any kind of a fight before recording three outs) they are actually a half game behind the Tigers. Isn’t that the most Royals thing ever? Yeah, they’re tied for first with 19 games to go, but even that comes with an asterisk. A “oh, yeah, don’t forget” sort of disclaimer.

Nineteen games is a lot of baseball. The Royals are now showing up in the Wild Card standings again. The A’s free fall means both Wild Card spots are in play. Three teams for two spots. It’s not the division, but it’s an invite to the postseason party.

Still, there’s simply no sugarcoating this one. It stings.

Let’s start with the pinch running. When Infante singled to move Aoki to second, Ned Yost sent Terrance Gore to first. Fine. If Gordon lines one to the gap, we’re going to have a tie game. If Gordon singles, we have a run in (probably) and Gore has a strong chance of going first to third, where he will be with no outs. Three cracks to tie the game. Sure, we’re talking Royals offense, but I still like those odds. Besides, with the Tiger defense… But I digress.

The Gordon strikeout was difficult. The last pitch was a wicked slider that was in the zone all the way until the end when it broke off the inside corner of the plate. It was ball four, but the pitch was so nasty you understand the swing. That’s one of those tip your cap moments to the pitcher.

Up next, Perez. He swings at strike one way off the plate.

Suddenly, Yost goes to his bench and brings Dyson out to pinch run for Aoki at second.

Sorry, I just don’t understand this timing. In the end, it’s not a huge deal, but here’s what I think happened. Yost purposefully waited until after the first pitch to Perez. He sent Dyson out there to mess with Nathan. Disrupt his rhythm. Or something. This is Yost as his most Yostiness. Trying to “outsmart” the opposition. Throw a wobbly closer a little more off his game. It’s just kind of silly. But that’s Yost. Here’s a thought, though. If the possibility existed you would pinch run for Aoki, why wouldn’t you hold Gore back for that duty and put Dyson at first. Allegedly, Gore is the faster of the two. The throw on a double steal usually goes to third. I don’t know. Put your fastest guy as the lead runner. Besides, Dyson has burners of his own.

With Dyson on second and Gore at first, this happened:

Oh. My. God.

How does this even happen? You are inserted to run the damn bases. That means you’re supposed to be smart. Don’t get thrown out on the bases and for god’s sake, don’t get picked off. You are incredibly valuable as a baserunner. No TOOTBLANS. Under any circumstances.

I’ve watched a lot of Royals baseball. I’ve seen some incredibly stupid plays. I’ve seen fundamentals that would make a third grader blush. I have never, ever seen such a bone-headed play with the stakes so high. And I saw Lonnie Smith play for the ’85 Royals. What Dyson did off second base is an unpardonable sin. It was unquestionably the worst moment of 2014. Nothing else comes close.

Watch the video again. I dare you. Watch it and take your temperature. I don’t see how you can watch that clip and not have your blood boil. So stupid. So asinine. I like to think I maintain kind of an even keel where I don’t get too high, nor do I get too low. Again, I’ve seen a lot over the last 30-odd years of watching this team. But this… This made me feel something. This made me experience an emotion I haven’t felt about this team for a long, long time.

Anger.

Pure anger. How on earth could you allow yourself to get picked off? When every out, every run could be the margin in a pennant race, how could you be so goddamn careless? Jon Morosi sent this Tweet after the game:

Lost focus? Are you kidding me? Again. One job. One stinking job. And you failed. You failed because, in your words, you “lost focus.” Unreal. Unacceptable. Unforgivable. I like Dyson and think he’s brought some value to this team. He’s been a key guy for this team. But he blew it on Tuesday. Absolutely blew it

After the Dyson pickoff, Perez was still at the plate. The outcome felt preordained.

From @EddieHigh:

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Just awful. Perez’s plate appearances have devolved to the point where I dread watching them. He’s so lost. And he’s hitting cleanup.

Ballgame.

This time of the year, with the division on the line, all losses will sting. Some sting worse than others. And some will leave a mark long after the initial jolt of pain subsides. This one is going to linger. So awful.

Other things happened in this ballgame. Jason Vargas walked guys and allowed a home run, something he hasn’t done lately. Lorenzo Cain had four plate appearances, saw a total of nine pitches and still managed to strikeout twice. Billy Butler was MIA.

Yes, this is going to leave a mark.

Stumble

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By any metric you want to imagine, the series with the Detroit Tigers is the most important series the Royals have played since 1985. The season won’t resolve itself over these three games, but make no mistake, the stakes are massive.

So this one hurt. Just a little bit.

Jeremy Guthrie couldn’t get out of the third inning. Eric Hosmer made two errors on one play. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about this one.

Guthrie turned in his worst start as a Royal, throwing 2.2 innings, allowing 10 hits and eight runs. (Only six of those runs were earned thanks to Hosmer.) His Game Score for the start was a 10, which is his lowest Game Score ever. Ever. In 245 major league starts, he’s never posted a worse Game Score. Go big or go home I guess. Guthrie has flirted with disaster for most of his tenure with the Royals anyway. And we know the Tigers have some big bats in their lineup. The third featured a pair of infield singles, three singles to the outfield and three doubles. Bam. Six runs. It’s like they ripped a page from the Royals playbook. String together some hits and run like hell. Except they didn’t really have a productive out. Oh, well.

The Hosmer error… Let’s just leave that alone. Although I will take the opportunity to continue to make the case the Royals strongest lineup going forward is Billy Butler at first and Josh Willingham at DH. I know Butler has cooled off since a torrid August. And I know Willingham has been hurt. Just my opinion. Although as long as Ned Yost insists on batting Omar Infante second, all this really doesn’t matter much. Unless Yost is trying to put his weakest lineup possible out there. Which is some mighty fine managerial performance art.

So the Royals score more than four runs in a game for the first time since August 28. And they lost.

Now the Royals task for the rest of the series got a little more difficult. On Tuesday, they face Max Scherzer. Wednesday, it’s Rick Porcello. The Royals will counter with Jason Vargas and James Shields, respectively. Hopefully, the two Royals starters can cool off the Detroit bats, but you can’t help but think this was their best chance to take a game and give themselves a little breathing room.

Vargas has been nothing short of brilliant since his appendix was removed around the All-Star Break. In seven starts, he has a 2.66 ERA, a 6:1 strikeout to walk ratio and has allowed just a single home run in 44 innings.

If Monday was the start of the biggest series of the year, Tuesday represents the biggest game of the year. So far.

 

The Royals scored five runs all weekend. Yet they won twice.

Welcome to the Ned Yost September Baseballing Experience.

It keeps happening. I’m dizzy. Confused. Maybe a little dehydrated. But most of all, I’m kind of happy.

Let’s just recap the insanity of the weekend in the Bronx.

Friday

James Shields. And some James Shields. With a dash of James Shields.

The Royals starter went 8.1 strong innings. It was as sharp as he has looked all year. The change-up was a thing of beauty. He threw it 32 times in his 97 pitches. I mean, everything was working for him on that Friday, but that change… Damn. His second most effective pitch was a cut fastball he offered 20 times. The Yankees put only four of those in play, never for a hit.

While Shields was doing his thing, the Royals bats remained in cold storage. Three hits against Michael Pineda. Sure, sometimes you have to tip your cap when the opposing starter goes out and dominates. But these are the Royals at the plate, so let’s just say they tend to help a starting pitcher along from time to time. Pineda certainly had his pitches working on Friday, thought. Location and sequencing were top notch and kept the already off balance Royals bats even more off balance.

The lone Royals run scored in the third when Alcides Escobar hit one under Chase Headley’s glove at third and hustled into second base. Smart, aggressive base running. The next batter, Nori Aoki lined one back up the middle to score Escobar and that was it for the scoring.

Wade Davis appears in the ninth for Greg Holland, who is still battling tricep soreness, and nails down the final two outs. Outstanding starting pitching, taking advantage of an error, one timely hit, and the Wade Davis Experience and the Royals have their win.

Lost in the zaniness of Friday’s game was Escobar’s plate appearance in the third that led to the error. He had an 11 pitch at bat.

From Brooks Baseball, here’s how it looked with PitchF/X:

Escobar_95PA

Escobar takes a fastball for a called strike one. Then, swings at a pitch low and out of the zone for strike two. I’m going to pick on Escobar for a bit, but this is exactly the kind of plate appearance we’ve been seeing with regularity from the Royals batters. Take strike one, then swing at whatever the hell is thrown for strike two. It’s frustrating. Escobar isn’t the worst – or highest profile – culprit. But he does this regularly it seems.

At least in this instance, he’s disciplined enough to lay off pitches three and four, thrown way low by design in hopes that he chases. Then, Pineda attacks the zone. Escobar fouls off fastballs, sliders and change-ups in an effort to stay alive. Obviously, the seventh and the ninth pitches are out of the zone, too. Those are pitches that are close enough that Escobar has to be swinging. Besides, it’s good to foul those pitches off in that situation.

Anyway, 11 pitches into the plate appearance, Escobar gets a low change up, puts it in play and hustles to second. If that doesn’t happen, for all we know the game could still be going.

Saturday

At least if the game was still going, Danny Duffy doesn’t make his start. And if Duffy doesn’t make his start, his shoulder isn’t tight. And if Duffy’s shoulder isn’t tight, he leaves after just one pitch and throws the entire Royals Universe into a collective panic.

I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. One pitch. And done.

I will admit I haven’t been Duffy’s biggest fan. I didn’t think he had what it takes to be a major league starter. Not stuff. That’s always been apparent. I thought he lacked a certain mental fortitude necessary to put hitters away on a consistent basis. I’m really glad I was wrong. His transformation to top-notch starter has been, for me, one of the stories of the season. His development and emergence has been exciting and necessary for the Royals in 2014. That it’s not his elbow that flared up is good news, but on the other hand the shoulder could be even more serious. The Royals sent Duffy back to KC for an MRI and we won’t know those results until later Monday. But I’ll just say that if the Royals don’t have Duffy in the rotation in September, their chances are less than optimal.

Liam Hendriks stepped in and gave up four runs in four innings. If the Royals were a team that could score on a consistent basis, I wouldn’t be too bothered with Hendriks making a few spot starts. But this is September. And the Royals struggle to score runs. This is the wrong pitcher at the wrong time for the Royals. And not to put the horse before the proverbial cart, a playoff rotation without Danny Duffy puts the Royals at a massive disadvantage.

Sunday

Derek Jeter Day.

But let’s make this about Yordano Ventura. Ventura had just one clean inning, but worked around walks and singles in the other five. Then the Yost bullpen took over. Yet instead of the Three Relievers of the Apocolypse, it was two relievers with a special guest star. With Greg Holland out with a strained tricep Kelvin Herrera moves to the eighth and Wade Davis goes to the ninth. The bullpen gave the Royals three innings and the Yankees were shutout for the second  time in three games.

The Duffy injury deservedly got the attention, but should we be worried about Holland? If not now, when? I understand the Royals have the Wade Davis Experience as a luxury – a reliever so dominant he can close without problem – but how long should we expect Holland to remain on the sideline? The Royals have a luxury few teams possess in three late inning, lockdown relievers. If one is subtracted from the three, it’s not like the bullpen suddenly becomes the Detroit Tiger bullpen, but still.

So right now, we don’t worry about the Holland injury. Get him some rest and have him ready for the stretch run. And in the meantime, hope the bats find their early August magic.

The magic number stands at 19.

The Royals won on Tuesday, 2-1 over the scuffling Texas Rangers. The Tigers won as well, rallying in the ninth over the Cleveland Indians. As such, the Royals were able to maintain their 0.5 game lead over Detroit in the race of the AL Central.

For all that has gone right for the Royals since the All-Star Break, the storm clouds have been hovering. Some may accuse me of ignoring those clouds. I haven’t because they’ve been impossible to ignore. Nobody want to hear that when the good times are rolling. Yet here’s the truth: This offense isn’t that good. Over their last 13 games, the Royals are 6-7. They are hitting .240/.297/.360 in those games. They are scoring 3.1 runs per game.

They are barely hanging on. The bubble has burst.

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.

Since the All-Star Break, the Royals have won 28 games against 16 losses. An incredible streak that has them 12 games over .500 in that span.

Some sobering numbers accumulated since the All-Star Break that were obscured by the recent hot streak:

— The Royals are dead last in the majors in walk percentage at 5.8 percent.

— Their wRC+ – which is a measure of weighted runs created, which is a measure of total team production – is 94. The metric is set to where 100 is league average.

— Only three everyday players have a wRC+ over 100. Alex Gordon is at 146. Billy Butler is at 115. And Aoki is at 103.

(A quick aside. As good as Gordon has been, his wRC+ is tied for the 19th best in baseball since the break. He’s

This is where we are at this point of the season. The Royals had their run. They had their hot streak. It was marvelous. It netted 24 wins in 30 games, a remarkable stretch no matter what happens from here on out. But regression was always just around the corner. The Royals now throw their lot behind the pitching staff, hopeful James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie can hold things together for a minimum of six innings. Then, hope turns to a bullpen that figures to be worked to the bone down the stretch. At least the big three of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

We saw the formula at work on Tuesday. The Royals scored one run in the third on a pair of doubles by Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Overall, the Royals clubbed six doubles. Four times one of those doubles started an inning. The Royals scored a total of two runs. Guthrie pitched deep into the game, allowing a single run before turning the ball over to the bullpen. Yost’s “B” bullpen of Bueno, Frasor and Crow shut down the meek Rangers offense to preserve the win. But the offense…

Six doubles. Two runs.

Unreal.

For perspective, before Tuesday, no team had hit more than six doubles in a game and scored fewer than four runs. The Royals scored two. Such is the depths of the Royals offensive ineptitude. Every night is an adventure. Every night has the potential to reach new lows. This is the Royals offense.

This post isn’t about negativity. It’s about honesty. The Royals rode a hot streak to the top of the AL Central. Now they are tasked with hanging on to their lead, no matter how narrow. The pitching is good. The bullpen is taxed and tired, but on most nights, it’s good, too. The defense is good. The base running is generally good as well. Yet the next 24 games are going to be nerve-wracking and that’s thanks to the offense.

This is why every lineup Ned Yost rolls out going forward is absolutely critical. He must find the way to put his best bats at the top and minimize the damage caused by the free swingers and hackers that populate the majority of the offense. That means sitting Eric Hosmer in favor of Billy Butler in the field so they can get Josh Willingham in the game. That means moving Perez down in the order. That means moving Omar Infante out of the second spot in the order for crying out loud. It’s September. October is on the line and everything is magnified. Every move has the potential to impact the Royals post season chances.

With runs at a premium for this team and with time running out on a season, we are about to see if Yost truly did learn from the last time he was in a pennant race. It will be the difference between success and failure in this, the most important month in the franchise since October 1985.

 

Another night, another way to win. One day after Alex Gordon clobbered an epic walk off home run, the Royals bats slumbered for seven innings before the great awakening in the eighth.

Twins starter Phil Hughes had the Royals hacking. I mean, he’s a good pitcher, having a good year after signing with the Twins. But, damn if the Royals didn’t help him out. Here are the number of pitches he threw by inning prior to the big eighth:

1st inning – 11 pitches

2nd inning – 11 pitches

3rd inning – 9 pitches

4th inning – 16 pitches

5th inning – 7 pitches

6th inning – 8 pitches

7th inning – 8 pitches

Then, in the eighth, the Royals came alive. Six singles (including a beautiful bunt from Jarrod Dyson), one walk (from Alex Gordon) and a triple (from Salvador Perez!) and the Royals chase Hughes and hang a six spot on the board. Just another night at The K. Just another night in the Baseball Capital of the AL Central.

Should we worry about a flawed process? Should we care the Royals offense goes long stretches where the bats go completely hacktastic? It’s a question I struggle with. Then I just end up shaking my head and signing up for another night.

Sometimes, things just go right. Sometimes, you get the breaks. Two years ago, the Baltimore Orioles made the playoffs for the first time in nearly 15 years when they started winning one-run games at an amazing clip. They were 29-9 in one-run games. And they were 16-2 in extra inning games. Just crazy what they were able to do in close games. Unsustainable, sure, but I don’t think their fans were in a hurry to return their wild card spot.

The Royals scored 4.1 runs per game before the All-Star Break when they were two games over .500. They are scoring 4.2 per game after the All-Star Break and their record is 26-12. I don’t know what to tell you other than strange things are happening.

Back to my original question about the flawed process. Which is kind of foolish because I don’t know the answer. If the Royals make the postseason, then Dayton Moore’s Process will be validated. Sure it took eight-plus years but in this case playoffs equals validation. But here’s a secret: Dayton Moore was never going to change his style anyway. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but he’s kind of stubborn dude. It’s not like he was ever going to wake up and decide he was employing the wrong hitters or that his player development system is flawed. Never going to happen. So in that case, any on field success really changes nothing. Moore is who he is.

Second, there’s a portion of the fan base that wants Moore gone. The fear is this team has somehow overcome it’s shortcomings that Moore fails to see and he’s going to get rewarded with a contract extension and the Royals will slowly slide back into irrelevance. This is akin to worrying about the fourth year of Omar Infante’s contract. Man, I don’t even know what’s going to happen in one week, so I don’t know that I can get all worked up about a hypothetical contract extension. Yeah, it will probably happen. And yeah, I’m not sure Moore can figure out how to recapture success that on the surface boggles the mind. I’d like to see what would happen if the Royals could find a true visionary GM. But I also know David Glass is loyal to his people and if things keep going the way they are, a contract extension is all but inevitable.

If the Royals somehow pull this off, don’t we have to give Moore some credit? Even though I still don’t like him as a General Manager, I’ll absolutely tip my cap to him if the Royals are playing in October. Not to acknowledge his role in this or to say the Royals won despite Moore seems a little vindictive. You can’t dispute things are going his way, too. Look at the close to the deadline deal of Danny Valencia for Erik Kratz and Liam Hendriks. All Kratz does is come off the bench and hit two bombs to give the Royals a win. Then Hendriks throws seven incredible innings in his Royals debut, allowing just four base runners and one run in an emergency start in place of Yordano Ventura.

One seemingly minor trade. Two wins. The Royals lead the division by 2.5 games.

No matter how many questions you may ask, sometimes there’s just no explanation.

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