Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts published by Clark Fosler

The Royals finished last night’s game in spectacular fashion.  A two out go ahead home run from Eric Hosmer in the top of the ninth and a spectacular Omar Infante flip to Alcides Escobar’s barehand and then a laser to Hosmer for an out.  If you haven’t seen it, FIND IT!  It is worth any trouble you have doing so.  I have seen that play before, most notably from Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek way, way back when I was young.  Spectacular is about all you can or need to say about it.

Anyway, that was just the frosting on the cake of day that Tuesday turned out to be as the Royals traded for Ben Zobrist earlier in the day.  Don’t like the starting rotation?  Boom!  Dayton Moore gets you Johnny Cueto.  Worried about depth, second base, rightfield and maybe an extra bat?  Whammo!  Dayton Moore presents us with Ben Zobrist.

Now, there has been a little bit of angst about these deals in the land of Royal.  Some of it, I think, stemming from the fact that this fanbase had been beaten down for so many years that we may simply not believe we get to have nice things.  There is also some of the ‘well, I’m no follower’ in finding a reason not to be excited about a trade that is seen as a tremendous positive by the vast majority of the fanbase and, quite honestly, the baseball world.

There is another couple of sentiments that go along the lines of the Royals have a good thing going, why do we want to disrupt it?  In a similar vein, there is the Royals are almost certain to make the playoffs as it is and once there it is all really just a crapshoot, so why not save the prospects and roll with this unit?

Okay, now, I put probably more stock in clubhouse chemistry than a lot of folks who frequent this edge of the blog world, but I also believe that players know who can play and who can’t.  There is no doubt in my mind that every person in the clubhouse, including the starting pitchers, thought the Royals could really use another starting pitcher. I also believe that the team is not unaware that Omar Infante’s on-base percentage would be a bad batting average and his slugging percentage would be a poor on-base percentage.   They know that, until recently, Alex Rios was swinging a wet noodle, that Jarrod Dyson never has and never will hit lefties and that Paulo Orlando, for all his heroics, has some holes in his swing.  You know what else they know?  They know Ben Zobrist can play the game a little bit.

Moving along, as a craps player, I understand a little bit about luck.  As a Royals’ fan, I remember Buddy Biancalana being a World Series hero in 1985 even though he was not really a very good player.  We have seen the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series with a team that was no very good in the regular season.  We saw Detroit get David Price last year and not make it through one playoff series.  Weird things happen in baseball, especially in a short series.  Luck happens.  Bad players get hot.  Good players get cold.  Any team on any given day stuff, you know the drill.

While I don’t buy that the woeful 2005 Royals would have a 40% change of beating this year’s Royals in a seven game series, I know they would have some chance (see the paragraph immediately above).  Let’s say the Royals, who I don’t think anyone can argue have improved their regular season team in the last week to the extent that they are virtual locks for the playoffs, end up facing the Astros in the first round.  I don’t know (or care) what the actual percentages were, but for discussion purposes we will say Kansas City had a 54% chance of winning the series.   If adding Cueto and Zobrist moved that needle to even just 57% I will take that action over the ‘playoffs are all luck’ approach.

Of course, both Cueto and Zobrist came at a cost.  While I will not be surprised if all five pitchers involved in these two deals have major league careers, the Royals might well be haunted by Sean Manaea in future years. That’s actually fine, in my opinion, especially if the Royals have a really big, tall new flag in leftfield next spring.  Manaea was not going to play for Kansas City this season and, frankly, probably was not going to be up at the start of 2016, either.  He might well be great…but that greatness will certainly not be in full effect until 2017 at the earliest.  Same timeline for Cody Reed.   John Lamb might have been a contributor on the 2016 team and we all know the Finnegan drill.   Good pitchers….maybe, but not good MAJOR league pitchers (other than Finnegan being decent out of the bullpen – not exactly a weakness for the Royals) this season or likely next.

You know who is good THIS season?  Johnny Cueto is and so is Ben Zobrist.

Dogged by injuries earlier this year, Zobrist has rebounded to hit .268/.354/.447, which is freakishly right on his career numbers.   He has been worth 1.1 fWAR so far, after being worth 5.6 in 2014, 5.2 in 2013, 5.8 in 2012 and 6.3 in 2011.   With Alex Gordon on the shelf, Zobrist is probably the Royals’ most consistent hitter right now.  I was not the first to come up with this and you do actually worry about changing too much (domes, you know), but I would be tempted to bat Zobrist leadoff.   His strikeout rate has declined in each of the last four seasons (that’s good), while his walk rate remains right at his career rate of 12%.   Dude can hit, boys and girls.

Defensively, Zobrist has played everywhere but catcher in his career.  He was a decent shortstop and even logged 236 innings there last year:  good enough to be there if something happens to Escobar during a game.   The metrics don’t like him at second this year, but it is very small sample size and effected by Zobrist playing hurt early on.  For his career, his defensive numbers (and reputation in the game) at second base are excellent.  If you are worried about a defensive dropoff there between Infante and Zobrist, you are worrying too much.  Zobrist has logged the majority of his time in right, where he was very good as well (metrically speaking) in seven of the last eight years.  He has played more innings in left this year (197) than any previous season and the metrics don’t like him there, but they loved him in left in a similar sample size in 2014.   When healthy, and Zobrist seems to be healthy now, Ben is a good defender just about anywhere and especially in the spots the Royals are going to play him.

And that is kind of the beauty of this trade.  You can play him everywhere and offend no one.  For now, we are likely to see Zobrist spend most of his time in left.  Personally, I would put him at second and roll with Dyson/Orlando, but that’s me.  While left might be Zobrist’s primary spot, the Royals would be silly not to give him a couple of days a week at second and another in right and maybe another day at designated hitter.  Until Alex Gordon returns and returns in full Alex Gordon mode, the Royals can pretty much play Ben Zobrist every day and not have truly benched anyone.

Let’s face it, every team could use Ben Zobrist and your Kansas City Royals got him.   In the span of less than a week, Dayton Moore added two very good veteran baseball players to his team without subtracting a single relevant piece of the club that was already the class of the American League.  There is nothing to fear here other than expending some angst over what MIGHT have been pieces of the 2017 starting rotation.

This is going to fun, kids.

During the 2014 season, Johnny Cueto threw 244 innings for the Reds.  He struck out 242 batters and allowed just 6.2 hits per nine innings.  His earned run average finished at 2.25….pitching half his games in the best hitters’ park outside of Colorado.  Cueto’s ERA+ was 163, his FIP 3.30, his ERA- was 61.   Pick a number, they are all good.  With Johnny Cueto, they are almost always all good.

Don’t care about last year?  Well, in 2015, Cueto has tossed 131 innings, stuck out 120, allowed 6.4 hits per nine innings, fashioned a 2.65 ERA and an ERA+ of 145.  His FIP is 3.12 and Cueto has already provided 2.9 fWAR. I was told that Cueto had a bad May and he did, for him, allowing a 4.45 ERA. In other words, the worst month (by far) that Cueto had was better than what the Royals have gotten this year from Jeremy Guthrie, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy (before his last two starts).

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal.

You can name some major league pitchers who are better than Johnny Cueto, but the list is not very long.

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal and, by the way, Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte are still members of the Royals’ organization.  The Royals did have to give up John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed.

Sure, Finnegan was a great story last season and gave the Royals some decent innings in relief this year, but he was seventh reliever in a stacked bullpen and very little progress had been made in 2015 towards steering Finnegan back to a starter. I have little doubt Brandon Finnegan will have a long major league career, but many doubts that much of it will be spent being an effective starter. It is also doubtful that Finnegan was slated for many (if any) critical innings the final months of the season or in the post-season.

John Lamb is another great story and a guy you would have hated to trade away in say, 2011.  As it is, even a great half season in AAA seemed to do little to advance Lamb’s status with the organization. Joe Blanton and Yohan Pino got starts while Lamb staying in Omaha. Once he profiled as a top of the rotation starter, now he looks to be a back of the rotation guy….and one who has yet to throw a major league pitch.

Quite honestly, the name that might come back to haunt you in this deal might be Reed.  Hat tip to Clint Scoles (@clintscoles) who, after speculation that Sean Manaea’s medicals might be an issue on Saturday night offered that Reed was a pitcher that might be a suitable replacement. Reed, however, was just moved up to AA.  I thought a lot of guys were going to be stars when they were in AA that never went anywhere.

These three guys all have potential, but they all have question marks and none of them will ever by Johnny Cueto.  Of course, the argument goes, the Royals only get Cueto for a short period of time.  There is this ‘I don’t like rentals’ sentiment that runs perilously close to being a ‘get off my lawn’ mindset.  There is also the ‘hate to part with prospects’ mentality, drummed into many of us when all we had as Royals’ fans was the hope of prospects. I’m not buying either mindset.  This was at worst a fair trade and quite possibly a clear win for the Royals.

In the end, this trade really comes down to this:

  • Are the Royals more likely to win a World Series with Johnny Cueto on this team THIS year or more likely to win a title with Finnegan, Lamb and Reed paired with what is left in 2017?

Truthfully, the acquisition of ‘just a rental’ this year does not really effect the team’s ability to be a good team in 2016 given that Reed likely would not yet be ready, Lamb would – at best – be a rookie at the back of the rotation and Finnegan would almost certainly be in a similar role as this year.

While I was at the forefront of the ‘Royals need a bat more than an arm’ movement, I freaking love this trade. Some claim all this gets the Royals is just a handful of Cueto starts, but the math indicates that it gets them FOURTEEN regular season starts and, knock wood, at least two starts a piece in three post-season series. Maybe that is just a handful, but it is a damn valuable handful.

Couple Cueto with the just maybe possible resurgence of Danny Duffy and a hopeful start from Yordano Ventura and all of a sudden, the Kansas City Royals can at least dream about being four deep in starting pitching with the best and deepest bullpen in the game.  Say what you want about teams acquiring aces not parlaying that acquisition into post-season success, but I like the idea that Jeremy Guthrie and Chris Young (as good as he has been, he falters in the second half with regularity and, by the way, do you want a flyball pitcher on the mound in a playoff game in Houston?) never being considered for a post-season start.

I like the idea that Dayton Moore and the Royals are buyers at the trade deadline. I like the idea that an organization and a general manager who have always relied on staying the course this time said that a seven game lead in the division is not enough.  This was a move made to make the Kansas City Royals THE team to beat, not just one of the teams. And it was a bold move made without giving up any of the very best prospects in the system.

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal.

Today is a very good day.

 

I think the Pittsburgh Pirates are a very good baseball team….and your Kansas City Royals just took two of three from them.  The Royals currently enjoy a 7.5 game lead over Minnesota in the American League Central, have the best record in the AL and the second best record in baseball.  My brother-in-law (a Padres fan) asked me the other day what it’s like to root for a team that wins every day.  My goodness times have changed.

As good as things look for Kansas City right now, they need to make a move to get even better.  This season is not about making the playoffs.  It is about winning the World Series and with that goal in mind, the Royals need a little something more.

If you have been reading this site for the last few months or run across a tweet or two from me, you know that I have long been beating the drum to acquire a bat more than a starting pitcher.  Even assuming that Alex Gordon comes back by September 1st and is back into Gordonish form by post-season time, the bottom third of the order is an on-base trainwreck of Salvador Perez, Alex Rios and Omar Infante.  My mindset has been, and mostly still is, that with the Royals’ marvelous bullpen compensating for ‘here and there’ starting pitching, that getting a bat to beef up the bottom of the order was more important.

I still believe that the Royals are in something of pick one mode when it comes to the trade deadline.  They don’t seem to have enough prospect cache to go get both an impact bat AND a premier starter.  Now, as quiet as the trade market has so far been, maybe someone will panic and actually have a true fire sale.   Then maybe the Royals could do something crazy and end up with a Cueto, a Bruce and still have Raul Mondesi in the farm system.  I think that is unlikely, but it could happen.

Anyway, a funny thing happened since I wrote about how truthfully dismal both Alex Rios and Omar Infante were with a bats in their hands.  After hitting .188 in June with two extra base hits, Rios has raked to the tune of .339/.388/.468 in July with five doubles, a home run and four steals.  Sure, monthly splits are an arbitrary endpoint (but they are easy to access), and you can pick and choose whatever start and stop you want, but the bottom line is Rios has spent basically the last 100 plate appearances being a good major league hitter.

No matter how well he hits, Rios is going to be a guy that will generate some frustration.  He will not always display a ton of zest on defense.  He will make mistakes on the basepaths.  He is, after all the same Alex Rios who has been in the league for ten years.  We have to be cautious that baseball history is full of bad players who had good runs for a 100 or so plate appearances.

ZiPS projects Rios to hit .276/.309/.401 for the remainder of the season, which seems reasonable to me.  If Alex wanted to hit .340 the rest of the way, I would be delighted, but I think we all know the odds on that.  Say what you want about projections, but if ZiPS is close to right, would that be enough to stick with Rios and have the Royals focus their trade energy in a different area?

If you believe that Rios will give the Royals enough and, frankly, if you believe that Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson will continue to hold the line until Alex Gordon comes back, then the decision comes down to a starting pitcher (or two) or upgrading over Omar Infante.  The majority of folks probably will say starting pitcher and that may or may not be the right answer.  I remain haunted, however, by the thought of Omar Infante getting 60+ post-season plate appearances.  The thought is not as scary as it was a few weeks back when Rios was somehow a worse hitter than Infante, but it is still not something to be discounted because the national guys say you have to have a true number one to win playoff series.

What would you do, hotshot?  What..would..you..do?

 

Well, last night was the first time the Royals scored seven runs or more in a game and lost.  Given Monday night was Kansas City’s 91st game of the year, that’s not bad.  You would like to think that it would never happen, but it does.  Even to good teams with great bullpens.

The Royals, after an early first inning lead, were in a hole all night courtesy of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. A weird night for Ventura who needed 92 pitches to get through four innings (plus one batter) and gave up 10 hits.  Yet, he also struck out seven and walked only one.  The velocity was back and Ventura was throwing strikes (maybe too many strikes?), but the results were – being kind – mixed.

If Ventura had been enjoying the type of season we were all hoping for this year, I might just chalk this up to ‘one of those nights’.  Given Yordano’s odd season to date, you wonder if this is not just ‘one of those nights’, but going to be ‘one of those years’.  One untrained thought might be that Ventura, whose fastball velocity was dancing just under 100 mph most of the night, is throwing too hard and, as has a tendency to happen, too straight.  That is untrained eyes and ten minutes of thought (interrupted by a yogurt and coffee) and could be totally off base.  Here is Ventura’s strike zone plot from last night:

Ventura Strike Zone Plot

You have swinging strikes right next to balls in play (no outs) in the middle of the zone.  You also have a good number of swinging strikes out of the zone, which to me indicates that Ventura has some stuff going last night and might well invalidate my observation two sentences before.  I don’t know, boys and girls, just one of those nights?

As the Royals tried to comeback, as this team seemingly always does, we also got a look at Kris Medlen.  If you did not catch the game last night, you awoke to a box score that made you grimace, but Medlen really did pitch better than his line indicates.

Medlen entered with a runner on second and no one out, struck out two batters, then gave up a home run to Kang.  I refer to him only as Kang, because I think it sounds cool.  I’m not sure I realized this before, but if there is a team that is as much fun as the Royals are, it might well be the Pirates.  I digress, however.

A groundout and two more strikeouts by Medlen comprised the next inning and that was followed by a lead-off single that eventually came around to score via a stolen base, fly ball and ground ball.  To be fair, Ned Yost has done a very good job of managing his pitchers this year, but I thought going to Medlen for a fourth inning was probably wrong.  Kris left with two on and just one out and then had his line lit up thanks to a Luke Hochevar allowed triple to the next batter.

All in all, I was encouraged by Medlen’s outing, but you do wonder if it was him tiring in that fourth inning or the Pirates’ hitters having a better idea seeing him the second time around?  That is something worth monitoring the next few outings if, like myself, you have this hope of Medlen being a consistent STARTING pitcher yet this season for Kansas City.

We can probably forgive Luke Hochevar as well, who gave up three hits in just under two innings of work.  Those were the first hits Luke has allowed in nine innings, spanning nine outings and going back to June 23rd.

Like I said, one of those nights.

Sometime today, we will likely have a better idea of the extent of Alex Gordon’s groin injury.  While Royals’ Nation breathed a sigh of relief when learning during last night’s game that Gordon had not suffered a knee injury, nothing about how the All-Star outfielder went down suggests this injury is minor.  It’s a shame.

It is a shame, because seeing any player get hurt for any team is not something to rejoice in.  Sure, Miguel Cabrera’s injury cripples the division rival Tigers, but I like watching Cabrera hit (not so much when playing Kansas City, but you get the point).  When Bryce Harper suffered a similar injury to that of Gordon, there was no joy in his situation.  Injuries to superstars or almost stars get our attention, but injuries to the guy just trying to hang onto the last spot on the roster are just as bad.  Baseball is full of injuries and that is just how sports works, doesn’t mean it is not a shame.

It is a shame for the Kansas City Royals, having their best season since I had hair, to lose arguably their best player. On the best defensive team in baseball, Alex Gordon is the best defender. If you put any stock in awards, Gordon was awarded the Platinum Glove last winter signifying his status as the best defender, period, in the league.  He has, by a large margin, the best on-base percentage on the team (9th best in all of baseball).  This is not a player this team, or any team, simply replaces and moves on.

It is, more than anything, a shame for Alex Gordon.  Here is a guy who was right on the edge of playing his way out of baseball in 2010. A game that had always been easy for him had become incredibly difficult.  He hit .232 in 2009 and just .215 in 2010.  The next George Brett had been sent to the minors and changed positions.  He had slugged under .400 in both those years. Alex Gordon quite frankly rebuilt himself as a ballplayer (with no small amount of help from Kevin Seitzer) in the winter of 2010-11 and emerged as a left-fielder who could hit, get on-base and defend like no other.

A lot of guys remake themselves and work incredibly hard doing so, but that does not diminish what Alex Gordon did and continues to do.  It’s a shame.

All that said, ALEX GORDON IS NOT DEAD!

In fact, his career is not derailed either, just delayed. There are real tragedies in the world and Alex Gordon having an injury that keeps him from playing baseball for a period of time is not a tragedy (it’s a shame – get it?).  At 10:15, we will know just how long the Royals expect to be without their Gold Glove outfielder.  You know, the ALL-STAR.

If, by a stroke of good fortune, Gordon’s time lost is a week or two, then you play Jarrod Dyson and hope that he (or Orlando) can hold their own against left-handed pitching. Any longer than a couple of weeks, and I think the Royals have a real problem.  While I like Dyson against right-handers, he’s shown nothing against lefties and freaking Alex Rios is slogging around over in right.  If you have read my last couple of columns you know I am all-in to get another bat…and that was before Gordon got hurt.

Anyone have Justin Upton’s number?

Surprisingly, the sun actually came up this morning despite the travesty of four position players from the team with the best record in the American League being voted All-Star starters. (And, yes, in answer to several tweets yesterday, Alex Gordon IS that much better defensively than J.D. Martinez).   Perhaps just as shocking, the moon did not fall from the sky last night even though not one, but two – TWO I TELL YA! – relievers from the best bullpen in the game the past TWO years were chosen to compete in an exhibition game next week.  An exhibition game, by the way, that currently would seem to be of more importance to the team that is the odds on favorite to represent the American League in the World Series.  You know, the team with six All-Stars.

Enough, however, has been said about this.  The fan voting is always a matter of much consternation (exactly how many All-Star starts did Derek Jeter get well after he was no longer the best shortstop in the game?).  Truth is, the players are not any better at it or the sportswriters or the managers.  Why, you ask?  Because differentiating between the second best outfielder and the eighth is really, really hard.  Sure, Mike Trout is the best in the AL and Miguel Cabrera is stupid good, but after that it gets murky. If you want to tell me Adam Jones is the second best outfielder, I might believe you, but I can come up with just as many reasons that it is Lorenzo Cain.  Comparing and contrasting J.D. Martinez, Brett Gardner and Alex Gordon could take up the rest of the month.  Picking any of them (Jose Bautista gets an obvious mention, too) is not a travesty, nor is it stupid, but screaming about it is a good way to get noticed.  Right, Christopher Russo?

Anyway, that is one paragraph too many on the subject out of me.  Let’s focus up, people.

Despite the best record in AL and a comfortable 4.5 game lead over the Twins and despite the Tigers having to spend the next six weeks without Miguel Cabrera and WITH Justin Verlander pitching, the Royals should/need to get better.  The common consensus it they must bolster the rotation. I ran into a fair amount of debate last week when I offered that the real priority was making the offense better.

The starting rotation is awful I was told and they are.  Well, maybe not awful – awful is Scott Elarton, Mark Redmond and Bobby Keppel – but the rotation is below average to be sure.  Royals starting pitching is 13th in the American League in earned run average with a 4.40 mark and 12th in FIP at 4.17.   They are dead last in innings pitched and even if the starters pitched four straight complete games while everyone else waited (Kansas City is way behind the rest of the league in games played right now), the starters would still be last in innings pitched.  That is not optimal.

Despite the rotational struggles, the Royals overall are 3rd (THIRD) in the American League in team earned run average with a 3.52 mark.   That lofty ranking is due to the lights out bullpen that is currently averaging 3 1/3 innings per contest.  That is a lot of innings, but do you feel the bullpen is tired?  Very crudely,  Wade Davis is on a pace to pitch in 72 games, Herrera 70, Madson and Morales 68 games and all of those games basically averaging out to one inning per appearance.  That is a big workload, but not a crazy-big-give out in September workload.  Add to the mix and improving Luke Hochevar and Brandon Finnegan with Greg Holland at the back end and that is a seven deep group of monsters.

On top of the depth and the talent, Royals’ manager Ned Yost has been quite good in handling his pen this year.  He loves to give his guys roles, but Ned has been willing to shuffle when he thinks guys need a rest.  We have seen Wade Davis close not just when Holland was hurt, but when Greg had pitched a couple of days in a row.  We have seen Ryan Madson pitch the seventh to give Herrera a day off and Herrera the eighth.

We are beginning to see the Hochevar that got us excited at the end of 2013 and Finnegan – while we can debate what this is doing to his development – is eating innings when the team needs it.  One can make a case that the worst pitcher in the pen is a 29 year old lefty with 267 major league appearances.  This is exactly the type of bullpen a team needs when its rotation is sub-par and Yost, thus far, appears to be the kind of manager you need to use that pen correctly.

Internally, the Royals will welcome back Yordano Ventura on Thursday.  He has been a hot mess this year, but he was also an outstanding pitcher in 2014 and it is not like his stuff has evaporated. Also due back soon is Jason Vargas and, with a little luck, we will see Kris Medlen sometime this month.  I might even throw John Lamb into the mix as possible in-house options if push comes to shove.  Will they make the Kansas City rotation dominant?  Not even close, but they have a realistic chance to make it better.

Offensively, the Royals are eight in runs scored per game, but that very average mark has an anchor on it.  After averaging 5.4 runs per game in April, the Royals are averaging 3.75 runs per game since (those numbers are from memory, so if it is 5.3 and 3.8 don’t get all bunched up – the point remains the same).  That is NOT ENOUGH RUNS.  They have scored two runs or less 27 times.  Johnny Cueto has allowed two runs or more in 11 of his 15 starts this season.

Using wRC+, Alex Rios is the fourth worst in the league among players with 100 or more plate appearances.  Omar Infante is seventh worst.  Using wOBA, Rios and Infante are fifth and eighth worst.  WAR?  Using fWAR from Fangraphs, Rios is 147th out of 169 players with 100 or more plate appearance, while Infante is 135th.  On-base percentage?  Infante is 5th worst, Rios is 8th.  For godssake, Alex Rios has the fourth most putrid SLUGGING percentage in the league and he plays rightfield!

The Royals’  in-house options to bolster those spots are playing Jarrod Dyson against right-handers (not a bad idea, by the way) or playing Paulo Orlando.  The could opt for Christian Colon, who currently is in Omaha while Dusty Coleman takes up space in Kansas City.  Cheslor Cuthbert is up for a bit, but if he is your offensive savior…..

If you believe, as I do, that the Royals have enough prospect power (and money, by the way) to make one big move, then I really don’t see how you would not first look to make a splash with an addition to the lineup.   I have a lot more faith that Ventura, Vargas and Medlen will make the rotation better than in Alex Rios and Omar Infante becoming passable offensive contributors.

My confidence in the Kansas City Royals is such that before last night’s game, I was already formulating a stunning piece of literary genius documenting how Edinson Volquez was the Royals’ stopper.  How he was doing what James Shields did for two years only cheaper or what Gil Meche did for the Royals years ago, only for a better Royals’ team.  The Royals are too good to get swept by the Houston Astros, right?  Especially with Volquez on the mound, right?

Baseball is funny about sure things.

The Royals had won nine of Volquez’ last ten starts with six of those wins coming after Kansas City had lost the game before.  Last night felt like a win was coming, especially after Kendrys Morales lobbed a first inning opposite field home run to give the team an early lead.   Alas, it was not to be.

Volquez simply unraveled in an ugly four run fifth inning.  The Royals rallied to tie, but then Kelvin Herrera and the replay umpire in New York combined to give the Astros the winning run without the benefit of a hit.   It was the icing on this dry cake of a series that felt a lot like the old Royals.  Those guys show up once in a while.  This team is not without weakness, particularly when it is dinged up and, by the way, the Astros aren’t bad.  These things happen.

Now, all that is not to resign yourself to ‘tomorrow is another day’ and just smile and go on (that’s an old Royals thing, too).  This team has now scored two runs or less in 28 games.  There is no scenario where a team consistently wins scoring one or two runs.  Sure, the Royals have held their opponents to two runs or less 35 times, but I am still pretty sure scoring more is better.

I was happy to hear that at least one national pundit (and, yes, it’s hip and cool to bash the national guys, particularly since we’re from the Midwest and are certain everyone is looking down on us and insulting us at every turn) indicating the Royals were far more concerned about improving in rightfield and second base (#VoteOmar pisses me off, by the way) than starting pitching.   Given the price that a real improvement in the rotation might cost and the limited prospects the Royals have to deal, it makes sense to pin your hopes on Ventura, Vargas and Medlen getting healthy and effective and spend your ‘commodities’ on upgrading what is becoming a pretty mundane offense.

Who might be available (Ben Zobrist has been a target of mine for three years) is for another day.  Those targets, quite frankly, may not get your heart pumping either, but that does not mean they won’t be an improvement.  Let’s face it, when the Royals have their front nine all playing, the bottom third of the order is Salvador Perez (.279 OBP), Alex Rios (.248 OBP) and Omar Infante (.236 OBP):  that’s not optimal.

We can obviously give Perez a pass.  He is hitting for power and brings a lot of tangibly intangible baseball thingys to the field.  Rios?  His SLUGGING percentage is lower than Salvador Perez’ on-base percentage.  Infante?  I have come across an undercurrent of ‘Omar Infante is not the problem theory’ lately. He’s your ninth hitter, they say.  He’s clutch, blah, blah, blah.  Stop it.  You are trying to portray yourself as knowledgeable and logical by not criticizing a player who the majority of the fan base are criticizing.  Omar Infante is a BAD baseball player right now.  You want to be a cerebral traditionalist with his hand in the dirt?  Omar Infante has less RBI than Chase Utley this year.  Find me something, besides this ridiculous All-Star voting, that indicates Omar Infante is helping this team win.

Okay, I got a little fired up there.  Three game sweeps do that to me, even when I know it was bad timing against a good team playing in a ballpark tailor made for them and seemingly designed to squash a team constructed like the Royals.  The point remains, be it a juggling of the batting order (just because at this point and ‘just because’ sometimes works really well as a reason to do things) or making a minor move (more Dyson, more Colon? I mean, they might get on base at a .305 clip) or, as I think must be done, a major move, the Royals need to get aggressive.

If you want to give Alex Rios some more time to get healthy (or interested), I can buy into that.  I am not sure that keeps you from giving Jarrod Dyson some more at-bats against right-handed pitching, but I can live with that logic for a couple more weeks.  Infante?  No, no more time and I don’t want to hear about the money.  Are you playing to win the World Series or are you trying to balance the books?  If it is the latter and I don’t really think it is at this point (for once), then screw it and hope.  If the money, at least for 2015 is not an issue, then the Royals would be fools to not seize whatever opportunity there is to upgrade.

Let’s face it, as constructed right now (majors and minors) the Royals’ window likely closes at the end of 2016.  If enough things go right and enough money flows, maybe that gets extended, but the number of ‘ifs’ that keep this team not just contending but being a frontrunner is a long list.  If you can see it, you have to take it.  The Royals can see a championship at the end of 2015.

Go out and take it.

With having the best record in the American League comes the feeling that the Royals should win every game.  That is a nice problem to have as opposed to the not so distant past when the mindset was ‘how will the Royals manage to lose this game?’.   When your team is good, fans hold them to a higher standard and when they have a bad night, the criticisms are all the harsher.  I don’t mind the hot reactors, they are good entertainment. Nor do I think just because the Royals are the reigning AL Champions and hold the best record in the American League this season that one cannot criticize them.  It’s all good, react how you want and criticize how you want.  That’s pretty much what being a fan is about.

That said, keep in mind that there will be nights like last night.   Plain and simple, the Royals were about five runs behind before the first pitch was thrown.  With Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar unable to play and Lorenzo Cain relegated to designated hitter due to a sore hamstring, the vaunted Kansas City defense was pretty well gutted.  This on a night when the Royals were playing on the road…in a hitters’ park…with their number seven starter pitching.

Let’s not overlook that last sentence.  Despite two good starts, Joe Blanton was the back up plan to Chris Young, who was the backup plan to anyone in the starting rotation being injured.  Frankly, Yohan Pino got a start before Blanton, so maybe Joe is the Royals’ number eight starter and he was taking the hill against the team with the second best record in the AL.

Oh, and in addition to the injuries referenced above, the Royals’ lead-off hitter, Jarrod Dyson, was also playing at less than 100%.  Did Dyson dog it down the first base line last night?  Maybe, but he also got on base three times.  The Kansas City bench last night consisted of Drew Butera, so maybe we can cut Dyson a bit of slack.

Now, I was going to discuss exactly why the Royals’ bench was Butera and no one else, but would it really have mattered if the team had also had Paulo Orlando (who I saw homer in Omaha yesterday) or Cheslor Cuthbert or Lane Adams or whomever there to keep him company?   The Royals simply got caught in a minor injury plague an an unfortunate time in the rotation.  Over 162 games, these things happen.

Certainly no one should be surprised if Brandon Finnegan, who pitched well in three plus innings last night, gets back on the merry-go-round and is sent down in exchange for a position player.  Cuthbert did not play for Omaha yesterday afternoon, but I don’t know what significance that holds.  With Hosmer out for the series and both centerfielders gimpy, simply having a body not named Butera to put into a game would likely make Ned Yost’s lunch digest a little better.

The Royals, with an eight man pen, have gone out of their way to use that eighth man.  Michael Mariot has pitched and so has Aaron Brooks, but they probably did not really need to.  We saw Jason Frasor, a very serviceable major league reliever, for the first time in eight days last night.  We saw Luke Hochevar for the first time in six days.   Sure, it is nice to have a Finnegan (or worse) to throw into a game you are nearly certain to lose, but the Royals have innings to burn before they even get into having to use HDH or HDHMM.

While the Kansas City starting rotation may be the poster child for why you need eight relievers, I am not sure even they can justify carrying eight bullpen arms all the time.  Given the current roster situation, the Royals have to and almost certainly will make am move to bolster the bench.   That may not change how this Houston series plays out, but it at least could give Ned Yost an option or two if the game stays close.

Alex Gordon’s on-base percentage is .383, best on the Royals. He hits sixth in the batting order.

Alcides Escobar’s wildly fluctuating on-base percentage currently sits at .322.  He hits lead-off.

Last season, the number one spot in the batting order came to the plate 85 times more than the number six spot in the order.

Are you thinking what I’m thinking?  Frankly, most of us are thinking the same thing.  Some, however, are more bothered by it than others.

To be honest, when I first actually looked at the situation, 85 plate appearances seemed like a LOT.  It is, roughly, twenty games worth of at-bats and, with the possible exception of the new Mike Moustakas, there is no one else on the roster I would rather see get that many extra chances than Alex Gordon.  That said, what does 85 extra plate appearances really mean?

Using this season’s on-base percentages, Gordon would get on-base 33 times in those 85 plate appearances.  Escobar would be expected to reach 27 times.  The Royals are currently plating about 37% of the runners they put on-base.  In theory, Gordon would score two, maybe three, more runs during those 85 extra plate appearances than Escobar.  TWO RUNS.

Now, there are plenty out there who really love to dig deep into the statistical analysis.  I don’t have the patience.  I would expect that getting on base at the top of the order, with Moustakas et.al. coming up behind you probably leads to scoring a greater percentage of the time than the lower part of the order.  That said, we only have six additional baserunners to play with here, so do we add a run and say Gordon would score three more runs than Escobar?  I would, if only because I think Gordon should be batting at the top of the order.

We can also make the case that Escobar, a career .301 on-base guy, will not keep up his ‘lofty’ .322 OBP.  We could make a similar case for Gordon, who is clipping along 35 points above his career on-base percentage.  You can slide the scale however you wish and add a baserunner for every 10% difference between the two players.  Is the difference four runs, even five?  Is that a difference maker?

You can make an argument that in baseball, especially in the Royals’ world of get a lead early and hand it to the bullpen, that you should not turn down even just a handful of runs.  Is even five runs enough to make a change to a team currently in first place?  While we like to be snide about the mental aspect of the game and the supposed fragility of players’ minds, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking something that is not statistically quantifiable does not exist.   Baseball give a player a lot of time to sit around and think and worry and get all worked up over, say, batting lead-off all year and suddenly coming to the park and seeing your name down at seventh.   It might be silly, but I think you are kidding yourself if it is not a factor a manager would need to consider.

Another consideration is that you can make a very viable case that those 85 extra plate appearances would all be packed into the last two innings of a baseball game.  An extra plate appearance in the ninth inning of a 7-1 game doesn’t mean much, but they carry a lot of weight in a 2-2 game with Wade Davis and Greg Holland in the bullpen.

All in, what is the difference between batting Alex Gordon first instead of sixth?  Is it one win?   The standard theory is that 10 extra runs equates to an extra win, so we are stretching the stats considerably to even get to one win (not to mention we are closing in on the halfway point of the season already).

In the end, it makes sense for Alex Gordon to be leading off for the Kansas City Royals.  I’m just not sure it makes sense to make the change or has the impact that is seems like such a move should.

Because of course he does.

Had I told you back in March that the Royals would head to Seattle, fresh off a blow out loss at home to Boston and would be sending Joe Blanton to the mound to face Felix Hernandez, I am pretty sure your thoughts would have been ‘what a freaking mess 2015 is going to be.’  Let’s face it, after throwing 230 innings in 2007, Blanton has worked diligently towards pitching himself right out of baseball.  At age 33 in 2013, Blanton fashioned a 6.04 earned run average and while we scoff at pitcher won-loss records, went 2-14.  Listen, it is hard to go 2 and 14.

Enter 2015, when Blanton was just another of Dayton Moore’s add-ons: a low cost insurance policy in the unlikely event that the Royals would need three extra starters at the same time.  I saw him pitch in Omaha early in the year and he looked like Joe Blanton.  With nine major league seasons under his belt, Blanton simply outsmarted younger opponents, but my uneducated eye offered no real hope that Joe has much to offer a team hell-bent on getting back to the World Series.

Now, 26 innings later with an ERA of 1.73 and an 8/1 strikeout to walk ratio, I simply shake my head and smile.  Of course Blanton goes six innings and allows one run while the Royals touch up King Felix for four runs, that’s just how it goes for the Kansas City Royals and Dayton Moore.

Chris Young has more starts now than Danny Duffy or Jason Vargas and has been better (even with the weekend blowout) than we could have realistically expected either to have been.  Blanton has given the Royals 26 more good innings than I thought he would.  Ryan Madson is second in innings pitched for the relief corp and has virtually identical numbers to Kelvin Herrera.  While Edinson Volquez does not fit into the bargain bin class as the aforementioned three, he leads the staff in innings pitched and appears to be next in the line of starters Dayton Moore evaluated (guessed?) correctly on, following in the footsteps of Vargas, Santana and, yes, even Gil Meche.

All that, and Kris Medlen just threw four effective innings in a rehab start in the minors.  Who is this Dayton Moore guy?

It is still okay to question Moore and it is even okay to question Ned Yost and some of his strategic moves.  That is baseball and it is not ‘freaking out’, it is just discussion.  That said, an off-season largely panned by most of us has turned out to be at least a half-season success for Moore.   2015 has thus far not been a case of getting the right twenty-five and sailing through the first three months.  The rotation has been shaky at best, with the staff’s supposed ace just a hot mess.  The closer has been hurt and so has the right-fielder.  Second base?  Don’t get me started.  Yet the Royals roll on.

Paulo Orlando hits five triples.  Young, Blanton and Madson do what they’ve done.  Wade Davis, well, he really is better than Greg Holland, so of course he excelled as a fill-in closer.  Of course.

Craig touched on it the other day, but way-way back when, I noted that if the Royals simply went 7-6 over each 13 game set (after the 7-0 start) they would get to 90 wins.  I came up with that only because the Royals actually went 7-6 in games 8 through 20.  After that, they went 7-6 again and then they went exactly 7-6 a third time.   The most recently completed 13 game set saw the Royals go 6-7.  They, however, are 6-2 in the current 13 game stretch whose ending coincides with the end of the Oakland series this weekend.

 

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