Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts published by Craig Brown

Another night, another win. These are occurring with great frequency, yet they never get old.

With Monday’s 8-4 demolition of a listless Cleveland nine, the Royals have surged to 22 games over .500, built their lead to 8.5 games in the Central, and won their 60th game of the year in just their 98th game, the fastest pace to 60 wins in franchise history.

Oh, and the Royals have some guy named Johnny Cueto joining the team on Tuesday.

Heady days, indeed.

This one ended early, when Eric Hosmer clubbed a three-run monster shot over the tall wall that lines left-center field in Cleveland. The only drama that remained was whether Angry Ed Volquez would get run due to the gross ineptitude of the home plate umpire who insisted on calling strikes balls and balls strikes. It was a frustrating night to be a starting pitcher for the American League’s best team, but Volquez kept his cool and, while his pitch count was elevated thanks to a rotating strike zone, he managed to throw six innings of one-run ball.

Games in July and August have taken on the point where we are just marking time. Certainly, there is much baseball to be played, but this team is positioning itself for October. That’s what Cueto and any subsequent moves are about. I know Clark exalted the Cueto deal, but forgive me if I revisit some points he may have made because I’M JUST SO DAMN EXCITED.

Just like everything that has happened over the last 12 months, this is new territory for the Royals. I can’t remember a time they were buyers at the deadline and I certainly can’t remember they were buyers and they went out and landed the big fish. The rotation now looks like this:

An ace in Cueto
A steady Volquez.
An ascendant Danny Duffy.
And a rebounding Yordano Ventura.

That’s something else. A couple of anchors and some upside thrown in for good measure. (I’m starting to tire of referring to Duffy and Ventura as guys searching for their upside. I have a feeling we may finally shed that distinction when discussing them over the course of the next few months.)

Joe Blanton took the mound in the seventh, gave up a home run and settled down, dispatching the rest of the lineup with relative ease in picking up a three inning save. It’s likely his swan song with the Royals, as they will surely cut loose a pitcher to free up a roster spot for Cueto on Tuesday. If this was Blanton’s final appearance, it was a good one. He gave the Royals 41.2 innings and 40 strikeouts against just seven walks. He did surrender six home runs, but he answered the bell when it rang and pitched better than anyone could have expected. I have to say I don’t understand some of the invective I saw on Twitter about some of his performances or his role on the team. Blanton is the back of the bullpen, but someone has to have that spot. They can’t all be Wade Davis. Blanton sat on the sidelines last year and came back to contribute for the best team in the American League. That’s something.

Personally, I hope he clears waivers and decides to go to Omaha. There could certainly be a spot for him back in September when the rosters expand. Now putting him on a playoff roster? That’s another matter entirely. But I just respect the perseverance it obviously took for him to make it back.

The other matter of Cueto business is who will leave the rotation? Chris Young starts on Tuesday and Jeremy Guthrie takes the bump on Wednesday. Both could be pitching for their rotation spot. If I had to guess, unless Young throws a no-hitter, the spot goes to Guthrie. I can hear the outcry from here, but like the back end of the bullpen don’t forget, we’re discussing a fifth starter here. The Royals are at something like a 95 percent chance to make the postseason. I’m not going to sweat whoever the last guy in the rotation is going to be since he’s going to the bullpen when the stakes elevate anyway. The thinking here is it will be Guthrie because he’s been a good Royal soldier (don’t forget he restructured his contract to free up some money a couple of years ago) and because he was a member of the team last year. Those kind of things count to this organization. Young was signed to be a long man out of the bullpen and to fill a starting role if the need should arise. He’s done both and done both admirably well. Yet his peripherals have long suggested his success was unsustainable.

The Royals finally catch a break in the schedule with their off day next Monday. Here’s how I see the rotation going forward:

7/28 – Young
7/29 – Guthrie
7/30 – Duffy
7/31 – Cueto
8/1 – Ventura
8/2 – Volquez
8/3 – Off Day
8/4 – Guthrie

Everyone gets an extra day of rest (finally) and the rotation sets up for the month of August.

And by the time the Royals reach Ventura’s next start, there could be another trade or two. Perhaps a Ben Zobrist? I can’t rule anything out with this team anymore. Hell, anything seems possible these days.

Yesterday, Clark wrote about the Royals position in the upcoming trade deadline. Today, that feels just a little more urgent with the realization Chris Young is turning into a starting pitching pumpkin.

Young completed three innings yesterday before he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fourth. (Yes, that happened. More on that in a few graphs.) He allowed five hits – two of them home runs – and four runs in those frames. Hey, everyone has a rough start or two. More troubling than his line in securing nine outs was the fact he required 68 pitches to get them.

In the last month, Young has made seven starts for the Royals. Here’s the damage:

36 IP, 5.5 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.5 HR/9, 5.50 ERA, 6.54 FIP

I know… Arbitrary endpoints and small sample size. Meh. Any way your parse the above numbers, they’re not good. Especially given his recent track record of fading as the season rolls along. I bet after the season if you are able to talk to Ned Yost or Dayton Moore, they will tell you the plan was to use the All-Star Break to reshuffle the rotation so Young would receive the optimal amount of time to recharge his batteries. Except the rainouts and schedule backlog, along with the other starting pitching issues, forced them to lean on Young more than they would have liked. He went on short rest just ahead of the break and then started on the first Friday back. The mileage of the season is starting to wear.

“These things have a way of working themselves out.”

That was Yost earlier this month when reporters asked what he would do with the presumed surplus of starting pitching. Things change quickly in the baseball landscape. Jason Vargas is gone for the rest of this season and all of the next. Yordano Ventura was optioned and then recalled before his car even warmed up for the trip north on I-29. And now Young is running short of fuel. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like a surplus. And we still have to wait and see how these things are going to work out.

The Royals are 20 games over .500 and have a comfortable lead in the Central. According to Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the Royals have a 95 percent chance to reach the postseason. Yet nothing is guaranteed.

Young can probably be allowed a couple more starts, but I would wager that by this time next month, the Royals will bump him back to the bullpen. The trade market opened up yesterday with Scott Kazmir going to Houston for a pair of prospects currently playing in High-A ball. The centerpiece of the deal for Oakland is Daniel Mendgen, a catcher with impact bat potential. From BP’s analysis of the trade:

When you add up the elements here there’s the makings of a realistic 55 Major League catcher and the potential for a true Role 6 if it all comes together. That’s a rare bird indeed, and a reflection of Houston’s aggressiveness in making a push this year that they were willing to sacrifice him from their system to do it.

Kazmir is playing out a two year deal he signed with Oakland in December of 2013. He’s earning $11 million this year and that bumps by $500k since he was traded.

He’s presumably on the “second tier” of starting pitchers available on the trade market. Meaning he’s not Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels, rather a guy who can give you solid innings in the middle of the rotation every fifth day. The price for that appears to be at least one ascendant prospect and another with projectable back end of the rotation stuff. Given the position the Royals are in currently, that’s a move Moore and company should be willing to make.

A couple more notes about Thursday’s makeup game…

There was a bit of a debate that could be had about how Yost handled his pinch hitters. When Yost lifted Young in the top of the fourth inning, it was with runners at first and third and two outs. We are playing by National League rules. (Don’t get me started on this. It’s a separate blog post that will run thousands of words.) The Royals were down by two. It was a scoring opportunity against a savvy starter who had seemingly found his groove in the previous two innings. With Young unlikely to get through the fourth inning on the mound, I thought it was absolutely the correct call to lift him for Kendrys Morales in that situation. I don’t care for your argument that it was too early to burn a pinch hitter or whatever. I like Morales up with a runner on third. When your pitcher is piling up the pinch count, doesn’t go deep into games anyway, and when you have a quality bat on the bench, why wouldn’t you go to that bat in a run scoring situation. If you “save” Morales for later, there’s no guarantee he will have a similar moment to make an impact. After all, a run in the fourth counts just as much as a run in the ninth.

Naturally, this bit the Royals and Yost when Alex Rios and Omar Infante led off the top of the ninth with back to back hits to cut the Cardinal lead in half. Jarrod Dyson walks and that brings up… the pitcher’s spot in the batting order. How to people even tolerate this nonsense? (I know… Another blog post.)

The Royals, as we all know, generally play with a three-man bench. They have Drew Butera as the backup catcher, Dusty Coleman as the utility infielder and either Paulo Orlando or Dyson as the fourth outfielder. It’s ridiculously thin, but Yost eschews the pinch hitter with gusto. Before Thursday, the Royals had used a pinch hitter 17 times all year, the fewest in the AL by far. Second to last is the Twins and they’ve sent up 38 pinch hitters. It’s just not part of Yost’s managerial tool kit. So when the team travels to the NL park, they seem to be handcuffed even more than your typical AL team.

So by going to the pinch hitter in the fourth, Yost needed another in the seventh (Orlando) when the pitcher’s spot rolled around again. That left two choices for the ninth: Coleman or Butera. The Unwritten Rules mandate your backup catcher can only be used as the last man off the bench, so Yost turned to Coleman. He isn’t having a good debut as a major leaguer. Coleman was overmatched by Trevor Rosenthal, couldn’t put the bat on the ball, and left the tying run at third. I heard the complaints about Coleman and I understand that, but the way Yost handles his regulars and his bench largely renders Coleman irrelevant. Until he becomes relevant. Like in the ninth inning of a one run game. National League baseball.

And by the way, those “defensive indifference” calls in the ninth on the Dyson and Escobar steals of second… Total horseshit. How on earth can the lead run in the ninth inning be allowed to move to scoring position and the official scorer call that indifference? Protecting Molina’s caught stealing percentage, I guess. Just another reason to love The Cardinal Way.

Thankfully, we can close the book on the St. Louis series. There may be sentiment that it would be cool to meet again in October, but I disagree. I was rooting against the Cardinals more than usual last October and I will do the same this year. Let’s keep this in the regular season, thank you very much. That’s plenty for me.

For fans, baseball is the rhythm of the summer. Games fill the days and provide the soundtrack to the nights. Reliable.

For the players and managers, baseball is a grind. A matter of survival for six months for the bonus of playing into a seventh.

The grind is something to keep in mind over the next couple of weeks, as the Royals strive to complete 18 games in 17 days. The weatherman has not helped their cause as rainouts called for the Royals to play a doubleheader out of the gate to start the second half and to sacrifice what was to be an offday this Thursday. The grind demands that Ned Yost use his roster with an eye on the big picture. A game may be lost in this stretch for the greater good. A struggling starter may be left in the game longer than usual, or a reliever from the back end of the bullpen may be summoned in a key situation. Planning and preparation are great, but sometimes the baseball gods don’t give a damn.

On Sunday in Chicago, just three days into the second half of the season, the Royals bullpen was spent.

BullpenUsage_071915

Every Royals reliever, save Brandon Finnegan, had thrown Friday and Saturday. And just ahead of the game the Royals had shipped Finnegan back to Omaha so they could bring in the fresh arm of Yohan Pino. There was still Joe Blanton, but he figured to be the reliever on the out when Kris Medlen was activated. Before the game, Yost said his list of available relievers was Pino and Blanton. The end.

To say there was a tremendous amount of pressure on Danny Duffy would be an understatement. Before Sunday in Chicago, Duffy had made 69 starts in his major league career. In those outings, he had thrown seven innings nine times. He had thrown a pitch in the eighth inning of a start only once. In that game against the White Sox a year ago June, he threw just two pitches, allowing a single to Adam Eaton, before he was lifted for the relief corps. Duffy doesn’t pitch deep into games because he has a tendency to bloat his pitch counts. It’s an issue that has dogged him his entire career. The knock on Duffy as a starter is he will jump ahead and nibble to get that third strike.

The Duffy we have seen since his return from the disabled list is a different one we’ve ever seen. He’s focused on making his mechanics more repeatable, content on throwing strikes and letting his defense help him collect outs. Duffy’s whiff rate as a (mostly) starter last year was 6.8 SO/9. Over his previous four starts, it was a Guthrie-esque 4.2 SO/9. Opponents are hitting .271/.337/.400 off Duffy in those 23.2 innings, but his 3.0 BB/9 and the fact he’s has allowed only two home runs means he’s keeping runs off the board. Well, that and some fortunate sequencing.

The benefits of his new mound strategy were evident three outs into the game. The first batter, Adam Eaton hit a smash to Mike Moustakas at third. Moustakas got a glove to it, but only enough to ricochet to Escobar at short, who fired to first to get the leadoff man. One out later, Escobar ranges to his left, pivots, and throws out Jose Abreu for the final out of the inning.

(I would love to use video from these plays to enhance my post, but MLBAM doesn’t want to spread the gospel of the game. Why promote the amazing? Thanks for nothing, MLBAM.)

Duffy crushed through the first five innings, needing only 57 pitches to retire 15 batters. By that point, we had what could be called a very promising start. The Royals, however, didn’t need promising. They needed length. They needed at least seven innings from Duffy, maybe more depending on the margin late in the game. In the sixth, the wheels threatened to fall off.

With the score 2-0, the Sox opened the inning with back to back singles. Tyler Saladino was out at first on a sacrifice bunt, moving the tying runs into scoring position for Abreu and Melky Cabrera, the Sox third and fourth place hitters. If Chicago was going to rally, this was the moment.

Against left-handed pitching, Abreu is susceptible to fastballs up and away. He also struggles against the curve down and in. In the most important plate appearance of the start, take a gander at how Duffy worked Abreu.

DuffyVsAbreu

Pitches 3, 6, 7, and 8 were curves Abreu fouled off. Pitches 1, 4, and 5 were fastballs. Abreu swung and missed on pitch number 1. After six consecutive foul balls, Duffy reared back and deposited a 95 mph fastball in a spot where Abreu couldn’t get any part of his bat on the ball. Swing and a miss. Amazing.

As epic a moment that was in the game, Duffy wasn’t out of the woods. Up stepped Cabrera, who had already collected a pair of hits against Duffy on the day. Both hits had come on fastballs in the lower part of the zone.

Against left-handers, the book on Cabrera is to throw up and away.

CabreraZone

The first pitch in the plate appearance was a low fastball. Exactly the kind of pitch Cabrera had barreled for a base hit in his previous two at bats. He took it for strike one. After getting ahead, Duffy seemed to lose his release point and delivered two fastballs up and so far out of the zone, there was no way Cabrera was going to chase those. Duffy then came back with a beautiful curve perfectly placed in the upper, outside quadrant of the strike zone that Cabrera took for a strike. He’s hitting .105 on pitches in that area, so he probably figures it’s OK to let that one go. Cabrera fouls off two more pitches and watches another hit the dirt. With the count full, Duffy spins his finest curve of the day, in the perfect spot.

DuffyVsCabrera

Duffy was gassed after the sixth when he threw his 85th pitch.

Duffy_velo_071915

Paulo Orlando doubled Duffy’s cushion with a home run to left of center in the top of the seventh and, despite the diminished velocity, Duffy worked a clean seventh and eighth, getting four ground outs, a strikeout, and a fly out. That’s kind of how the afternoon went for Duffy. Of the 24 outs he recorded, 15 came on the ground. Quite the anomaly for the guy with a 37 percent ground ball rate.

And how many spectacular defensive plays were made up the middle for Duffy? This team never fails to amaze on defense. Escobar started a hellacious double play in the fourth. Omar Infante chipped in with a couple of stellar defensive plays himself. And the Shortstop Jesus himself closed it out with another mind-bending play deep in the hole at short. If the Gold Glove awards were like the Emmys, this would be the game Escobar would submit to the judges. He was spectacular. Amazing. Superb. Pick your damn adjective and it’s not good enough. That’s how great Escobar was in this game.

Duffy, who had never gotten an out in the eighth inning of a game he started, recorded three. He returned for the ninth, but was pulled after he gave up a home run. Joe Blanton, whose Royal clock is ticking down, recorded his first career save. Baseball.

This team is something special.

They were two very different scenarios, but late in Duffy’s start on Sunday, I flashed back to Yordano Ventura’s Game Six start against the Giants last October. Similar, in that a young Royals starter was entrusted to succeed in a high-pressure situation. Similar in that both excelled, giving hope for tomorrow and further into the future. This wasn’t Game Six, but the Royals are leading the Central and have designs on playing deep into the postseason once again. These games are important, too. Especially against bottom-feeding teams like the White Sox.

Monday is Ventura’s turn to show what he has in the chamber for the second half. If Duffy and Ventura step forward for this team, the sky is the limit. The second half is off to a pretty good start.

The All-Star break is stupid.

I know the players can use a mini vacation in the middle of summer. Recharge the body and the mind. Save it. I demand baseball. There’s something unAmerican about a summer night without baseball.

In the meantime, here’s a blog post. Both Clark and I can’t really be bothered by the All-Star Game itself. It was a fun diversion, but it’s already time to get back to business. There’s a division to win.

When action resumes Friday, the Royals will be in Chicago for a doubleheader. Rainouts take away a scheduled off day for July 23 when the club travels to St. Louis to finish their interrelate rivalry series. That means the Royals kick off the second half of the season with 18 games in 17 days. That’s a brutal schedule, no matter the opponent. The rotation looks to set up like this through the first turn:

Friday – Edinson Volquez/Chris Young
Saturday – Jeremy Guthrie
Sunday – Danny Duffy
Monday – Yordano Ventura

So with five games in four days and a five man rotation… Do the math. The Royals are either going to turn to Young for a second start on short rest, or the burden will fall to Volquez. Another option would be to call up an arm from Omaha. There’s speculation that we could see the major league debut of John Lamb. Lamb has a 2.68 ERA with a 9.2 SO/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 15 starts for the Storm Chasers. He’s gone from prospect, to injured prospect, to fringe starter, to intriguing candidate to take a turn in the major league rotation. Lamb hasn’t pitched since July 9 when he threw five innings against the Iowa Cubs and punched out 10. He made the Triple-A All-Star team for the PCL, but didn’t take the mound in his home park.

I think the more likely scenario is the 2015 major league debut of Kris Medlen. Medlen completed his final minor league rehab start on Wednesday in Northwest Arkansas with seven shutout innings. He’s on a rehab assignment, which limits pitchers to 30 days in the minor leagues. His clock started when he made his first start on June 18. His 30 days are up on Saturday. His normal turn in a five man rotation would be on Monday the 20th.

The Royals have 39 players on their 40-man roster, so activating Medlen will be painless, speaking from a personnel angle. More complicated is what the Royals do with their 25-man roster. The two obvious options are sending Brandon Finnegan to the minors or designating Joe Blanton for assignment. Finnegan has been on the I-29 shuttle for most of this season. Blanton doesn’t have minor league options, so the Royals would have to put him on waivers in order to release him.

I think the Royals will DFA Blanton. As a swingman, he’s surplus to requirements. Also, with the Royals having 18 games in 17 days, fresh bullpen arms are going to be paramount. Because Finnegan has options, should the Royals need him for an extended outing, they can farm him out the next day and recall someone like Yohan Pino. Not saying Pino is an upgrade over Finnegan. It’s just with so many games, the Royals are going to be looking for live bullpen arms. It may not happen, but it’s at least an option, should the Royals find themselves with an overtaxed bullpen at any time over the next three weeks.

The bet here is that Medlen will take a turn in the rotation on Tuesday. That keeps Volquez on normal rest on Wednesday. Then, the Royals can shift Young back to the bullpen to act as swingman, replacing Blanton. Guthrie takes his turn on Thursday on normal rest. And so it goes.

I’d say this is amazing, but really, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to Royals fans and their support for the team, the city, and baseball in general. Kansas City pulled a 31.4 rating and a 50 share. Amazing. A 50 share means that half of the televisions on in Kansas City were tuned in to the game. The second-highest rated market was Cincinnati which had a 22.8 rating and a 37 share. Ratings in KC were up 178% from last year’s All-Star Game. Basically, Kansas City lapped the field in the ratings game.

Almonte was rated the number two Royals prospect by Baseball Prospectus and has posted a 4.03 ERA in 67 innings for Northwest Arkansas. His strikeout rate is low at 7.4 SO/9 and his walk rate is elevated at 3.6 BB/9. Reports are the Royals have had him work more on fastball command, a problem that has popped up during his minor league travels. The moneymaker for Almonte is his change. Here’s a report from spring training from Baseball Prospectus:

Miguel Almonte has two plus pitches and a third that is making strides. His low- to mid-90s fastball comes with tons of life and his change borders on unfair when he throws it correctly. The breaking ball has tightened up since last viewing and has gone from a weird, slurvy pitch to a hard downer breaking ball. With Almonte, it’s all about repetition. When he keeps his tempo in his delivery and holds his three-quarters arm slot, everything comes out with life from the same window as his fastball. The problem is it seemed very easy for Almonte to lose his rhythm over the course of the game. Anytime the game slowed down, Almonte got in trouble for the next several pitches.

I suspect the issues with repetition remain. But with a fastball/change combination, he could slot in to the Royals bullpen when the rosters expand. It will be interesting to see how he assimilates into the Omaha rotation.

Sometimes, it’s a good thing to miss a Royals game.

I started my personal All-Star Break a day early and bypassed the closing contest of the first half. After reading a few recaps scattered through the interwebs, I’m not sorry.


Source: FanGraphs

That’s a prescription for high blood pressure.

Whatever. All that counts is the Royals cruise into the All-Star Break winners of eight of their last 11. They split with the Twins, swept the Rays and took two of three from the Jays. That’s a really, really great homestand.

It gives the Royals an American League best 52 wins. It is the fifth time in franchise history the club has topped the half-century mark at the break. It’s their best first half showing since winning 55 games in 1973.

Here’s a first half number I really like: 1,501,411. That’s the Royals attendance from their first 46 home games of the year, an average of 32,639 fans are passing through the turnstiles each game. That’s an increase of 9,973 fans per game over 2014. It underscores what we’ve been saying for years: Give Kansas City a winning baseball team, and they’ll support the hell out of it.

I know we point to last September and October, but for me, the renaissance began at this time in 2012. Of course you remember the Royals hosting the All-Star festivities that year. It was a four day party in Kansas City. FanFest was packed. The Futures Game was sold out and featured Yordano Ventura and Wil Myers. We booed Robinson Cano into taking the collar in the Home Run Derby. We serenaded Billy Butler with cheers.

Something happened that week that changed the course of baseball in Kansas City. Ownership noticed the passion. Here was proof that Kansas City truly loved baseball. It sounds insane, because the passion was always there. It could be difficult to find, but it was certainly there. Yet seeing all those people cheering the prospects in the futures game and giving Cano the business in the derby, flipped a switch. Baseball as a collective was impressed. They wondered aloud about why they took so long to return to KC, because the hospitality and the interest and the passion was off the charts. Kansas City wasn’t blasé about the game because we were in the midst of 29 years without meaningful baseball. For us, the All-Star Game was meaningful baseball.

It’s recent history, so there’s no need to go through a recap of the aftermath, but yes… baseball in Kansas City was reborn that All-Star week in 2012.

It’s as if we’ve come full circle. From the lone representative in 2012 and another 90 loss season, to this week with seven players for the defending American League champs. Quite a ride.

That’s the diagnosis of recovery of the Grade 2 groin strain for Alex Gordon. Eight weeks.

When Gordon was carted off the field on Wednesday, I thought about George Brett. My memories are hazy, but I seem to recall him landing on the DL almost once a season when he was in his prime. Going to those games and not having Brett in the lineup felt strange. Something was missing. A void. That’s how it’s going to be with Gordon out for the next eight weeks. It will be different to look at the lineup everyday and not see his name there.

Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando are the fourth and fifth outfielders for a reason. They are the guys who can give you (hopefully) a decent game or two in place of your regulars. Play them everyday, and you risk them being exposed. Just the other day, I advocated they form a platoon to replace the corpse of Alex Rios, last seen rotting on the TOOTBLAN. Now, they will be pressed into duty covering left field.

You don’t replace an Alex Gordon. You hope someone can keep his spot warm while he’s out of the lineup, but you’re not going to replace him. Not from within. Not via a trade. It can’t be done.

Here are the leaders in fWAR since the start of the 2011 season:

Mike Trout – 34.6
Andrew McCutchen – 30.8
Miguel Cabrera – 28.7
Alex Gordon – 25.3

I’ve been making this argument for a couple of years, but Gordon is still criminally underrated in some corners of the game. (Never forget last winter when MLB Network embarked on listing the top players in the game at each position, Gordon was ranked as the fifth best left fielder in the game. Fifth!) Actually, he’s probably criminally underrated in some corners of the city. He is a complete player. Offense. Defense. Base running. And yes, the leadership by example.

This post isn’t meant to be maudlin. On Thursday afternoon, the Royals became the first team in the American League to reach 50 wins. They own the best record in the AL over the Astros by 3.5 games. This is shaping up to be a special summer in Kansas City. I have no idea what’s going to happen. The road ahead did get more difficult with the absence of Gordon, but it’s not insurmountable. The Royals hot start and subsequent solid turn through the rest of the schedule has them in a great place. You never want to lose a player of Gordon’s caliber, but if you do, you want to own the kind of record the Royals currently possess. Teams are trying to catch the Royals. They have a little over two and a half months. Good luck.

We’ve seen what will be known as the usual suspects when it comes to the trade market for replacements. Ben Zobrist was on the Royals radar certainly before the injury. You would assume he’s an option. He’s a Swiss Army Knife of a player where he could rotate between the outfield and second base. He was injured early in the year and has taken some time to find his footing. His .250/.338/.422 slash line is underwhelming when put up against his career line, but he possesses a 114 wRC+. His low batting average is fueled by a career low .253 BABIP. Zobrist takes a walk. He’s grabbing a free pass just over 12 percent of the time this year. That’s key, given this Royals team’s walk rate is historically low and Gordon was the only guy in the lineup who shows enough plate discipline to jog to first on a regular basis.

Justin Upton is another name for the Royals to consider. He’s hitting .259/.338/.434 with a 119 wRC+ for the Padres. He strikes out a ton, but will take a walk and has plenty of power potential even though his ISO has dropped to .175 this year.

A couple other names I’ve seen mentioned include Jay Bruce from Cincinnati or Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee.

Personally, I’d favor Zobrist. I don’t think the price will be insanely high for a two month rental in his case, although you always need to beware dealing with Billy Beane. As I mentioned, he could play anywhere on the field, giving Yost some great options down the stretch if Gordon can get back in the lineup at 100 percent. The Royals were in the market for an outfielder before the injury thanks to the ineptitude of Rios. Now they need two corner outfielders. That’s a massive ask for a team to fill via trade with just a couple of weeks before the deadline. The ideal situation would have them making a deal for an outfielder, then shifting whomever they acquire to right field when Gordon returns.

In the meantime, let’s take a moment to bask in the glory of Dyson’s last two days. Starting with some insane hitting and base running:

Some amazing defense:

And some more amazing defense:

 

 

 

The Royals have collectively stepped up in the wake of losing their leader. This team… I’ve never seen a baseball team thrive on emotion as much as the Royals. From last September and October, through their fast start in 2015, they’re an amazing group. It’s cliche, but it’s not difficult to imagine this team somehow getting stronger from this situation. Well, not technically stronger because I just spent 800 words on how you can’t replace Gordon, but you know what I mean. Just look at those videos again. In two games, Dyson has picked this team up with a pair of sterling defensive plays and an inside the park home run. If Yost gets his rotations correct, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility the team can survive this. It’s just I would feel a little more comfortable if they would hit the trade market to try to find a replacement.

This team is entering the break on a high note. They need to have all the weapons they can at their disposal to continue putting distance between themselves and the rest of the league.

With Tuesday’s spectacular doubleheader sweep, the Royals have reached the halfway point of the season. They stand atop the AL Central with 48 wins. They have four All-Star starters and two reserves with the possibility of adding a third. The offense has had it’s ups and downs. The rotation has been overhauled and revamped with a cast of irregulars. The defense and the bullpen have both been rock steady. Hell, they’ve been better. They’ve been spectacular.

The team shot out of the gate with a seven game winning streak to open the year. It was as if October never ended.

As it stands at the middle of the season, the Royals stand an excellent chance of returning. The Royals have their second best mark in franchise history after 81 games. The 1980 team had 48 wins at this point. And you know the ’80 team was kind of special. This has been a stellar summer in KC. Let’s take a quick look back at some of the key contributors from the first half.

Most valuable Royal
Lorenzo Cain

Cain was the breakout star of October, winning the ALCS MVP award for playing complete baseball. He’s the entire package. We watch him everyday, yet I feel he’s properly rated in Kansas City. He’s developed into a solid bat to hit in the upper half of the order. His defense is among the best in baseball. And his base running is superior. Now, if he can only keep those hamstrings from barking.

According to the Fielding Bible, Cain has saved nine runs in center. That’s third best in the AL behind Kevin Kiermeier and Mookie Betts. That’s all well and good, but all I know is Cain covers acreage upon acreage in the outfield.

CainDef

Cain leads the Royals in runs, steals, batting average, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+. He’s the complete package for the Royals, a deserving All-Star and the most valuable Royal for the first half of the season.

Least valuable Royal
Alex Rios

Signed as a free agent to a one-year, $11 million deal, Rios has rewarded the Royals with a -0.5 fWAR. He’s been miserable in every aspect of the game. His offense is putrid. He owns a .044 ISO which is almost half of what Omar Infante has. He’s walking 1.4 percent of the time, which is also the worst on the team. That’s nearly subterranean. His defense isn’t horrible, but he seems to get late breaks on liners and hard hit balls, which causes him to play singles into doubles and doubles into triples. His defensive spray chart illustrates his average glove. He reaches only the plays he should make.

RiosDef

On the bases, he doubled his TOOTBLAN total on the year by running into two outs in the first game of the doubleheader on Tuesday. Including a bizarre tag up at second where he made the third out of the inning at third base. It was a tour de force of not giving a shit.

It’s time for the Royals to release Rios.

The message the Royals would send by releasing Rios and eating the remainder of his contract would be overwhelmingly positive. Rios and his performance are reminiscent of the “just happy to be in the major leagues” Royals teams of the mid-2000s. He’s a festering sore on the “return to the World Series” Royals team of 2015. A Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson platoon isn’t an ideal situation either, but at least you can’t question the effort you’d receive from the pair. Besides, together I’d wager the duo would outperform Rios in every aspect of the game.

Best scrap heap pick-up
Ryan Madson

Madson last pitched in the majors in 2011. When he arrived in spring training as a non-roster invite, I figured he was just another guy the Royals brought in for a look, but he would be gone in due time. Haha… glad I was wrong.

All he’s done is become the honorary fourth member of HDH. He’s holding opponents to a .188 batting average with a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s featuring more cut fastballs than previously and the results are there. His ground ball rate is a career-high 54 percent.

Most valuable pitcher
Wade Davis

Or as I like to call him, The Wade Davis Experience. I mean, what else can you say about the guy? He’s a relief pitching beast.

On Tuesday, Davis pitched a scoreless inning. Again. That lowered his ERA by 0.01. Seriously. He’s so damn good a clean frame lowers his ERA from 0.25 to 0.24. It’s not like he’s pitching in junk time, either. He’s made 20 high-leverage appearances, most on the team. Of his 37 appearances, 34 have come with the Royals in the lead or with the game tied.

We’re watching a professional athlete at the extreme top of his game. Every Wade Davis Experience is truly special. Enjoy it.

Best game
Royals 11
Cleveland 5
April 28

It’s so tempting to go with the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but I’ll go with this game from the end of April. The Royals took the lead in the top of the sixth, only to fall behind by two runs in the bottom of the frame. The Indians had a win expectancy of 82%. Big hits by Escobar, Moustakas and a bomb by Morales erased the deficit and then some. It was a game that had everything. You’re mileage may vary (and I’ve probably overlooked something obvious) but this one has stuck in my mind. Feel free to leave your favorite game of the year in the comments.

Honorable mention to this most recent run of wins, featuring three walkoffs (including the epic Orlando grand slam.)

It’s been a wild first-half ride. The Royals are playing better than I could have imagined. Here’s to a strong showing in the second half.

Quite a day in the Royals Universe.

Let’s start with the Walkoff.

Up until Friday, the Royals were one of two teams without a walkoff. (I was going to write walkoff victory, but that’s redundant, isn’t it?) Sunday, they doubled their season total.

It was a crisp, clean game. Old friend Erv Santana was dealing. He was locating his fastball and his slider had teeth. Through 7.2 innings, Drew Butera and Alex Gordon had the only hits off of him. Somehow, both hits plated a run. For the first tally, Butera singled up the middle with two outs to bring home nearly All-Star Omar Infante who walked on four pitches. Karma demanded Infante score. The guy has a 1.5 percent walk rate.

Infante advanced to second on a Jerrod Dyson sacrifice. I know that with the offense operating on fumes, there’s this desire to manufacture runs. I’ll just never understand why you bunt with a guy like Dyson who has exceptional speed. He’s extremely difficult to double up, so why give up that out? If he hits into a fielder’s choice, you’ve basically swapped him with the man on first. I’d rather have Dyson on the bases than any other Royal. Whatever. It worked because the next batter, Butera, dribbled a single up the middle.

The Royals next hit came in the fifth, when Gordon yanked a slider that barely cleared the right field wall. I saw somewhere it was 363 feet. Ummm… If it’s truly 330 down the line, there is absolutely no way that ball travelled that far. Picking nits here, but that was one of the shortest home runs I’ve ever seen. And the beauty is, it doesn’t matter in the least. They all count equal. And in this case, it was a tie game.

Danny Duffy did a nice job for the Royals. He struggled a bit with command where it didn’t seem like his slider was especially sharp. However, he battled and turned in his best start since his return to the rotation. He retired the Twins in order only once, but was able to get the big outs when he needed them. (Thanks mainly to Torii Hunter who grounded in to a pair of double plays.) Back to back doubles in the second and a home run were the only damage the Twins could muster.

A couple of nice positives to glean from this Duffy start: One, his velocity got stronger as he progressed through the game. You know how Duffy has a tendency to get amped up at times, which probably works against him as a starter. We kind of saw that in his first start back from the DL, where he was firing at 97 and 98 mph in the first. He faded quickly. On Sunday, he was around 95 before he really turned it on at the end.

Duffy_Velo_070515

The second positive

It all led up to the ninth. The Twins threatened with a runner on second with two outs against Greg Holland. At this point, it felt like this was the key moment. If Holland could get Nunez, it just felt like the Royals would prevail. If the Twins took the lead, it would be curtains for the Royals. Thankfully, Holland got a groundout to roll the game to the bottom of the ninth.

With Santana out of the game, a tie game and the Twins on the road, Paul Molitor couldn’t bring in his closer. It’s written somewhere in the Book Of The Closer, or something. That’s the dumbest unwritten rule ever. And all managers adhere to it. Why on earth would you save your (presumably) best reliever for a situation that may never arise? Man, that “save” stat is a killer. I digress. Thanks for the closer dogma.

Blane Boyer walks Cain which brings up Hosmer. Molitor goes to his bullpen for a left-hander, Aaron Thompson. Hosmer, as we all know, is in an incredible slump. Entering Sunday, he has just three extra base hits since the start of June. Not one of those was pulled. The guy has been a ground ball machine of late. It’s been brutal.

Thompson throw his first two pitches down and away. Which is where Hosmer has been swinging and missing of late. With the count 1-1, Thompson comes inside with a fastball. Hosmer is looking for it and yanks a shot down the right field line. With Cain on base, he’s flying and thankfully, was sent home by third base coach Mike Jirschle. Ballgame.

The game was played on July 5, but damn if that didn’t feel like a massive game. The Royals have been scuffling at the plate, yet managed to split the four game series with Minnesota, both in walkoff fashion. Technically, the Royals never held the lead in the entire series. They were out hit and outscored. Yet they managed a split. That feels pretty good.

What also feels pretty good is the fact the Big Blue Machine will be well represented in Cincinnati. Sal Perez, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon will all be starters a week from Tuesday in the All-Star Game. It’s the first time in franchise history the Royals have put four starters on the team and it matches the number of starters they’ve had over the last 25 years combined.

It’s a helluva accomplishment and a great acknowledgement that the Royals are still one of the best stories in baseball. I fully expect Mike Moustakas and Wade Davis to join the starting four to give the Royals a total of six players in the game. While the All-Star Game doesn’t hold crazy allure for me, we’re not that far removed from Aaron Crow sitting in the bullpen in the game, so it’s still a moment I can get behind and enjoy. It’s kind of cool if you think about it. Cain and Gordon are getting selected because they are all-around great players. Sal has become the standard-bearer of American League catchers. This could be his position for the next several years. Escobar becomes the first post-Jeter shortstop to get the nod. Kind of cool he’s the go-to vote when a legend drops off the ballot.

It just feels like another step in the rejuvenation of the franchise. It’s not quite on the same level as last September and October, but it’s pretty cool it’s still rolling along.

All hail the Big Blue Machine.

Utilizing an offensive attack that can be described as equal parts anemic and pathetic, the Royals lost to the fading Twins on Thursday.

Kansas City mustered just four hits on the night. Two of them were bunts. From Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. That’s how awful it was. They were somehow able to get two runners on base at once in the fourth and in the eighth. Heady times. Except in the fourth Kendrys Morales hit into a fielders choice and Sal Perez struck out looking. Looking! In the eighth, Lorenzo Cain went down on strikes and Hosmer rolled it over and hit a harmless ground ball to second.

That’s your offensive attack in a nutshell.

On the other hand, the Minnesota offense was doing everything it could to give the game away. They had five extra base hits, but ran into two outs on the bases. Except they had two hits in 12 chances with runners in scoring position. The Royals had no hits in five chances in a similar situation.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over a four-game losing streak. I guess that’s to be expected when you are the defending AL champions. Although I’m contractually obligated to point out the team is still in first place in the AL Central and they own the second best winning percentage in the league. Houston is at .580. Kansas City is at .579. This four game skid is the second time all year the team has lost four games. They have also had one three game losing streak. If you’re looking for something that will get you off the ledge, maybe that little factoid above is what will accomplish that. This time last year, the team had already run through a couple of four-game losing streaks and had lost five in a row for added measure.

Losing streaks aren’t fun, but they are a fact of baseball. The good teams minimize those plateaus. I still think the Royals are a good team.

Having said that, the blame for this rests solely on the shoulders of the offense.

Small sample size caveat ahead:

RoyalsLosing4

That’s the Royals offensive output the last four games, courtesy the Baseball Musings Day by Day Database. And it’s pretty ugly. The only Royal hitting with distinction is Cain. The only other Royal who gets on base is Alex Gordon. And the hottest guy on the squad (in this smallest of samples) is Jerrod Dyson and he can’t get a regular game in the lineup. Look at Escobar (.083 OBP) and Moustakas (.125 OBP). The top two hitters in this lineup aren’t doing their job and setting the table. Although with the middle of the order stinking it up, I’m not sure that matters so much.

This is the Royals offense. No, I’m not saying they’re this awful. I’m saying that they are prone to disappearing acts. This is what happens when you collectively preach contact and eschew working the count and taking your share of walks. At some point the BABIP Gods will frown and when they do, you get a table like the one above.

The Royals team walk rate of 5.7 percent is low. It’s historically low. And it’s a problem. You can’t score if you can’t get on base. League average this year is 7.5 percent. Here are the bottom five teams as ranked by walk rate:

Colorado – 6.3%
Chicago White Sox – 6.2%
Milwaukee – 6.1%
Philadelphia – 6.0%
Kansas City – 5.7%

Among those teams, only Colorado and Kansas City score more runs that the league average. Colorado is always the offensive exception. Only Kansas City has a winning record.

We remember this is the same position the Royals occupied last year and they made it to the seventh game of the World Series. It’s possible to win and despise the walk. But if you’re going to do that, you’re also going to have stretches where your offense goes walkabout.

This road trip couldn’t have started in a more ideal fashion.

Winning two of three in Seattle and sweeping the evil A’s… That’s some tasty baseball right there.

I’d like to flashback to Saturday’s game and the pivotal moment – the double steal. McCullough’s gamer provides an outstanding account.

Rusty Kuntz glanced at his stopwatch and logged the times for usage on Saturday: 1.7 seconds to the plate, 1.8, 1.9, “at least,” Kuntz said, whenever Oakland starter Scott Kazmir pitched with a runner at second base. Manager Ned Yost banked the research from his first-base coach and waited until the sixth inning of a 3-2 Royals victory to deploy it.

This has been written before on this tiny sliver of bandwidth, but it’s extremely easy to second-guess and criticize moves the manager makes (or doesn’t make) when those moves backfire. The problem with being a major league manager is losing decisions are magnified. The nuanced decisions that lead to wins, for some reason, not so much.

On Saturday, Kuntz and Yost came up with a way to literally steal a win from Oakland. Maybe bookmark that gamer so the next time Yost goofs on an intentional walk or a bullpen move and fans start screaming that he’s costing his team games, you can pull up that story and point to at least one game where Yost (and Kuntz) earned the win.

But when to fire it? The team felt it was unwise to do so with Cain at first base after his sixth-inning walk. Kazmir reaches the plate at about 1.1 to 1.2 seconds with a runner at first. He feels comfortable pitching with a slide-step, which reduces opportunities for would-be base-thieves. When a runner reaches second base, the Royals knew, Kazmir slows down his delivery with a leg kick. 

“Instead of taking a gamble to try to get to second base,” Kuntz said, “let’s try to wait him out.” 

It took a single from Hosmer to set the scene. Kazmir raised his right leg and fired. Kuntz clocked him at 1.9 seconds. The opportunity was perfect, and the Royals duo did not hesitate. Oakland catcher Josh Phegley threw to second, where Hosmer arrived before second baseman Eric Sogard could drop a tag.

The moment arrived at the perfect time for the Royals.


Source: FanGraphs

According to Win Expectancy, advancing the runners from first and second to second and third with two outs increased the chances of a Royals win by eight percent. That gain alone makes the double steal attempt worthwhile. Although it’s balanced by the knowledge the Royals had – at that point in time – only ten more outs. And naturally, it only works if you have decent baserunners on the bags at that moment, so it was fortunate the Royals had Cain as the lead runner with Hosmer the trail.

(The only downer here is both runners were hurt on the double steal. Cain tweaked a hamstring that had been bothering him since Tuesday in Seattle. Hosmer sprained a finger on his headfirst slide into second.)

None of this counts if Kendrys Morales doesn’t come through. He lines a single to right, plating both runners and providing the Royals with their margin of victory. While the steal improved the Royals chances of winning by eight percent, Morales’s single boosted their WE by 22 percent. In the span of three pitches, the Royals went from decided underdogs to heavy favorites. You can see from the game graph above, post-single, the Royals were 70 percent favorites. This doesn’t take into account the Royals shutdown bullpen. The HDH triumvarate is usually good for the other 30.

Moving to Sunday, the Royals came up with another stealth inning to complete the sweep. I say it was a “stealth” inning because up until that moment, the offense was dormant. Granted, the Royals did leave the bases loaded in the third, but all those runners came with two down which is a difficult time to ignite a rally.

The sixth opened with a Mike Moustakas double and was followed by a Kendrys Morales single. With runners at the corners, Hosmer hit a harmless fly to center that failed to bring home the run. (I’ll cut Hosmer some slack here, with the injured finger and all. Although I will note that in the last over his last 28 games, he’s slashing .265/.315/.328. In over a month, he’s managed just four extra base hits. Hosmer’s bat has disappeared. Again.) That brought Perez to the plate with the key moment of the game.

Perez chopped a grounder to third base. Moustakas went home on contact. Max Muncy charged, grabbed the ball and fired home. The throw was high, Moustakas was in with a run and no outs were recorded on the play.

Replays showed that had the throw been good, Moustakas would have been out. Even so, at the moment I thought the smart play was to get Perez at first. It wasn’t a particularly easy play because the grounder was topped and wasn’t hit especially hard. With the slow running Perez, he’s still a sure out at first. I figured you give the Royals a run there and get the sure out. With the error on the play at home, Morales moved to third and Perez made it to second. So the A’s walked Alex Gordon to load the bases. Alex Rios hit a sac fly to tie the game and Omar Infante (that’s All-Star Omar Infante to you) broke the deadlock.

Ballgame.

Again, we can probably credit Yost and his coaching staff for stealing that win. With Perez at the plate there was the chance he would put the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield. With the A’s shaky defense this year, it made sense to put the pressure on their infielders to make the play at home, should they make that decision. We know Moustakas isn’t the fleetest of foot, so there’s a risk involved but you send him knowing that if you don’t and the A’s record an out, they could still walk Gordon to pitch to Rios. And these days it seems the only way Rios can contribute is through the “productive out.” It was a risk worth taking, and it worked.


Source: FanGraphs

Like on Saturday, this moved the Win Expectancy needle in the Royals favor, improving their chances by 18 percent. They still weren’t favored at that point since they were still trailing, but Infante took care of that three batters later. By the end of the inning, the Royals were favored to win with a WE close to 67 percent.

The WE hung around that neighborhood until Perez crushed a pitch in the eighth to allow his hermanito, Lorenzo Cain to score without pushing his sore hamstring. The cushion was useful as the A’s grabbed another run in the eighth. Sometimes things have a way of working out in the end.

So the Royals move to Houston to square off against the second best team in the AL. They just swept aside the hottest team in the league. They are 16 games over .500, own a +46 run differential and hold a 5.5 game lead in the AL Central. It’s about an ideal a start to a west coast swing as you could imagine. It feels like things could be difficult over the next couple of weeks. Cain’s hamstring is barking at him. Hosmer’s hurt finger feels like that would hinder any kind of break out of his extended slump. Alcides Escobar split a fingernail. Yordano Ventura’s rehab start on Friday wasn’t especially promising. There are no off days between now and the All-Star Game. It’s a key stretch and if the Royals can hold on and weather the nagging injuries, they can coast into the break in fine shape.

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