Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Browsing Posts published by Clark Fosler

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.

 

There is still time for things to change, but right now seven Royals will comprise the nine starting spots for the American League All-Star team. That’s cool…and funny..and probably indicates a flaw in the new voting system instituted this season to pick the teams.

And it doesn’t matter.  It’s the All-Star Game.  The last time the ‘right nine’ were picked by the fans was, oh, never.  If it wasn’t the Royals dominating the voting, I would not care even a little.  Some folks are award people, I’m not one of them. The MVP winner – don’t really care that much.   So you can imagine that All-Star voting is not something that does much to my blood pressure.

Now, that said, it IS the Royals, so I AM interested this year. Let’s take a high view look at which of the boys in Blue might actual warrant an All-Star starting nod.

Salvador Perez is not only going to be the American League starting catcher, he’s likely to be the leading overall accumulator of votes. If you are a big believer in intangibles – and if you are, the catching position is the best spot for which to base your case – then Perez doesn’t even cause a ripple. He is highly respected around the game (you know, the guys close to the dirt) and quite honestly, I’m not sure there is another catcher in the AL for whom I would give up Salvy to have on my team.

According to fWAR – and let’s just relax here, traditionalists, – which you can’t figure on your Texas Instruments calculator, but which does attempt to judge players by offense, baserunning AND defense, Perez is fourth among catchers with 100 plate appearances or more.  Perez’ 0.9 fWAR trails Russell Martin, Stephen Vogt and Brian McCann. Probably Vogt might be the most deserving if your All-Star team is based on ten weeks of a baseball season, but I doubt there will be much uproar over Perez being behind the dish.

We can bluster all we want, but Miguel Cabrera plays first base and he is better than Eric Hosmer.  That said, Eric Hosmer is no slouch.  His fWAR is 1.9 this season compared to Cabrera’s 2.3 – close enough to not get all worried about who the starter might be.  If you are certain only the stats your Dad used matter, Hosmer is third in batting average, third in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging.  He’s a Gold Glove winner, which your Dad thinks is important as well.  Sure, Cabrera is better, but Hosmer is close enough to be defensible in what really is kind of a ‘cool-kid’ competition.

Now, some of you think it is funny that Omar Infante is second in the voting at second base.  Some of you are just hell-bent Royals’ fans. It’s all fine…as long as deep down every one of you acknowledges that Infante doesn’t deserve one single vote.

At shortstop, Alcides Escobar is fourth in fWAR among players with 100 or more plate appearances.  Let’s face it, the early part of 2015 is not flush with great shortstops, so yeah, you can make a case for a guy with a .302 on-base percentage. Jose Iglesias? Brad Miller? Xander Bogaerts? Marcus Semien and his 19 errors?  Is Escobar playing at an All-Star level? Well, if you grade on a curve, he’s in the conversation.

If I had told you Mike Moustakas had a legitimate case to be the starting third baseman in March, how much would you have bet me?  Second in fWAR, behind Josh Donaldson (who’s pretty good, by the way), first in batting average, second in on-base (if you count Brock Holt as a third baseman) and second in slugging. We love his defense, so do the metrics. Again, if your judgment is based on less than half a season, it comes down to Moustakas and Donaldson.  One gets to start, the other gets to play:  it will all work out.

The best player in baseball is not Lorenzo Cain, but instead is Mike Trout.  They will both be starters and, in no world, does Trout not deserve it.  Cain is in a virtual dead heat with six other guys for second in fWAR.  Cain has the cool-factor and the wow factor thanks to a marvelous post-season.  Taking baserunning and especially defense into the equation, there is no other outfielder being horrifically wronged by Cain getting more votes.

Now, I love Alex Gordon.  He has a great track record, but is not having a great 2015 at the plate, but is simply the best defensive left-fielder I have ever seen (and I’m old) and his fWAR is just a touch behind Cain and company. WAR was made for guys like Gordon, who play great defense, get on base and don’t run into outs:  you know guys that know how to play the game.

Kendrys Morales?  Well, he has been quite good, but so has Nelson Cruz and, frankly, Alex Rodriguez.  I think most of us would, if we took off our Royals’ jerseys, say Cruz is more deserving and he might yet overtake Morales.  The world won’t end if he does, but the very foundation of baseball will not crumble if Kendrys maintains the lead, either.

Are seven Royals’ the very best at their positions in the American League?  No, they are not.  Are seven Royals among the better players at their respective positions?  Yes, I think they are…for half a season, anyway.

The Royals finished off May with a leisurely three games in six days – what is this?  The NBA?

After winning five games in a row, Kansas City proceeding to lose four in a row and five of their last six games.  While that has caused the Royals to fall out of first place, they did blow through the Memorial Day barrier with one of the best records in baseball.  If you believe in the ‘you don’t know anything until Memorial Day’ mantra, then you now know that your Kansas City Royals are pretty decent.

The Royals remain right on my quirky path to 90 wins, by taking 7 of 13 games three times in succession (they are currently 1-1 in this new thirteen game stretch) and have done so despite erratic starting pitching and an offensive swoon that has seen them score two runs or less in five of their last six games. Of course, if you can win 90 games by simply going 7-6 all year, why not go 8-5 once in a while and win 95 games?  Seems like a smart idea.

The obvious place to jumpstart a ‘plus 90′ campaign would be the starting rotation.  However, the Royals do not seem to be motivated to make a big move on the acquisition front and, to be honest, I doubt any potential trading partners are ready to help them out, either. A rival general manager may know that his team is not a contender by Memorial Day, but seldom is one ready to give up in public before Independence Day.  With every impact starting prospect in the system either hampered by injury or simple ineffectiveness, the Royals are pretty much stuck.  They will have to grit their teeth and hope some combination of Ventura, Volquez, Young, Vargas, Guthrie and Duffy turns into a better rotation than what they were in April and May.

While it seems odd to cast a critical eye at an offense that leads the American League in runs per game, the time may be coming (or already here) for a shuffle.  While Sunday was a very non-traditional lineup for the Royals they did bat Alcides Escobar first (.310 OBP) and Omar Infante second (.241 OBP)….on a team with five guys with on-base percentages north of .350.  Now, Infante batting second was a fluke of the day – although why not put Christian Colon there for a day and see if that .348 OBP holds up? – but Escobar batting lead-off is the rule.

Let’s get one thing straight, I love Alcides Escobar.  He might be my favorite Royal.  That does not make him the Royals’ best player and it probably doesn’t make him my everyday lead-off hitter.  He runs the bases well, he fields tremendously, he can handle the bat (I actually would not mind seeing him bunt for a hit more), but he doesn’t walk.  On a team that loves to swing, Escobar stands out as one of the swingiest (yeah, swingiest – that’s a technical term).  When it comes to batting order construction, I kind of like to have guys who are more likely to get on base get more at-bats than those that don’t.

That discussion, however, often has a ‘well, you can’t have two lefties in a row’ and that mindset derails a lineup that has Gordon and Moustakas at the top or Gordon and Hosmer or Hosmer and Moustakas back to back.  Should we care?   Is there too much concern about running into the dreaded LOOGY?

In the American League, these are your left-handed reliever leaders in games:

  • Glen Perkins MIN
  • Aaron Thompson MIN
  • Justin Wilson NY
  • Marc Rzepczynski CLE
  • Nick Hagadone CLE
  • Fernando Abad OAK
  • Andrew Miller NY
  • Aaron Loup  TOR
  • Blaine Hardy DET
  • Zach Britton BAL
  • Zach Duke CHI
  • Charlie Furbush SEA
  • Dan Jennings CHI
  • Tony Sipp HOU
  • Brian Duensing MIN

Those are the relievers in the American League who have appeared in more games than the Royals’ Franklin Morales.  If, as the Royals are prone to doing, you have great angst over changing the batting order in any way, then it makes sense to construct a set lineup based on facing your divisional foes.

In Minnesota, Perkins is worse facing lefties than he is against right-handers.  Thompson is tough on lefties, but in a relatively small sample (both 2015 and for a career) and there is no reason to ever factor Brian Duensing into your lineup making decisions.  In addition to old friend Blaine Hardy, against whom lefties are hitting .184 this year, the Tigers offer Tom Gorzelanny who is graciously allowing both left and right-handed batters many pitches to hit this season. Of course, they close with the resurgent Joakim Soria, who is tough on all hitters, but moreso against righties.

Chicago? Dan Jennings is being lit up by lefties this season.  Zach Duke is much better against lefthanded hitting (but not dominant) and is the set-up man for David Robertson, who gets everyone out, but lefties at a higher rate than their right-handed counterparts.

Cleveland? Hagadone is a lefty killer with a big platoon split.  Rzepczynski’s splits for his career show him very good against lefties as well, very average (or worse) against righties.  His 2015 splits are less skewed for what that’s worth. The Indians’ closer, Cody Allen, also has a much more success (over his career) against left-handed hitting than against right.

While my perception was that the fear of running into a lefty specialist with the game on the line was overblown, it certainly does not seem like one wants to be done one to Cleveland late and have three lefties in a row coming up.   Of course, maybe relievers are not really the issue at all.

In the American League, thirty-two starting pitchers currently are holding left handed hitters to a batting average of .240 or less (two of those are Royals, by the way).  Only twenty-one starters hold right handed hitters to a the same paltry average.  Ten pitchers (Edinson Volquez among them) appear on both leaderboards, which leaves twenty-one starting pitchers who carry a hefty advantage against left-handed hitters, with ten of those taking up residence in the American League Central.

It is admittedly shotgun research at best, but it shows that the idea of not bunching your lefties has some weight and that causes some issues when it comes to switching up the order.  If you are hellbent on L-R alternation it is almost unavoidable to not have one of your best on-base guys (Gordon, Hosmer or Moustakas) at least hitting fifth, if not sixth.  Also, in the thirst to get more at-bats to your best hitters it is practically impossible to avoid a vortex of on-base ineptitude at the bottom of the order.  One could go weeks without a Perez-Escobar-Infante bottom of the order getting a walk.

That’s over a thousand words with no answer for the batting order and, honestly, the team does lead the league in runs per game AND run differential.  Perhaps the answer really is:  ‘Don’t Touch Anything!  You Might Break It!’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Then things got real interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Royals, I think almost without question, have the deepest bullpen in the majors.  They certainly have the best bullpen in the history of the franchise. I cannot tell you the best bullpens in history – or let’s say the best bullpens since starters stopped pitching complete games.  I have to believe the current unit has to rank in the top twenty, maybe/probably higher. Jason Frasor, a good, solid, dependable long-time relief pitcher, is the SIXTH best pitcher in the pen.

That said, they don’t make bullpens deep enough to…

  • Overcome a starting rotation with four of the five members sporting earned run averages over five.  Say what you want about the ERA stat, but it has some validity on starting pitcher performance.  FIP? Four of five over 4.22 and three of five over 4.70.
  • Overcome your number two starter going a combined 4.2 innings in back to back starts, or not make it out of the sixth inning in five of seven starts.
  • Deal with your supposed ace allowing four runs or more in three of six starts or, for that matter, pitching into the seventh inning just twice in those six starts.
  • You simply cannot handle the above if your number five starter pitches like a number five starter.  Jeremy Guthrie has managed to go at least five innings in every start and posted a great bounce back outing his last time out, but he has still basically pitched like a back of the rotation guy.  That’s fine and good, if the top of the rotation isn’t pitching like the back of the rotation as well.

It’s not a revelation that the rotation has been below average thus far in 2015.  A great bullpen and a whole bunch of unexpected offense has masked it.  Eventually, bats go cold or the can’t hit enough to make up for being buried early (as they have been three times in eight days).  Bullpens, even the deepest of the deep, get tired and overused.  Dayton Moore has designed a bullpen equipped to pitch a lot of high leverage innings, but even this one probably cannot handle four innings a night from here until October.

Chris Young has been a revelation, but it is worthy noting his ERA is a full run higher in the second half of the season opposed to the first.  That and the fact that his 165 innings last season was 50 more than he pitched in any year since 2008.  Sure, Jason Vargas might be back and he is a capable back of the rotation guy as well.  BACK…OF…THE…ROTATION.

Unless and until Ventura and Duffy begin pitching as the Royals expected them to going into the year, your Royals rotation is Volquez, Young and three days of ‘boy, I sure hope he manages to make it out of the third inning tonight’.

Admittedly, this is all a rant based on a really bad game last night on the heels of a really awful Danny Duffy start in his previous turn.  It is an overreaction…maybe.  Yordano Ventura spent all of 2014 being the real deal and has had moments even in 2015 (good ones, I mean, not the overdramatic cramping, running your mouth moments). Two young pitchers having two kind of rough patches.  Patience, my friends, patience.

And you thought it was hard being patient when the Royals were losing.

Alex Gordon struck out four times on Wednesday night. It was one of, if not the worst, games of the season for the Royals and (obviously) for Alex.  These things happen.  You know, baseball and such.

Not only do these things happen, they happen more often than you might think.  Four strikeouts or more in a single game?  It has happened 109 times to a Royals’ batter and actually three times prior to Wednesday to Alex Gordon.

Bob Hamelin, Greg Gagne and Bo Jackson all hold the distinction of striking out FIVE times in one game.  I remember listening on the radio to the game when Jackson managed (?) the feat against the Yankees on April 18, 1987.

Gordon is the first Royal to strikeout four times this season, but Lorenzo Cain did so twice in 2014 and was joined in this unlucky club by Omar Infante and Eric Hosmer.  Cain also struck out four times in a game in 2013, while Hosmer did so in 2012.  Also getting the quad sombrero in 2012 were Billy Butler, Jarrod Dyson and Mike Moustakas twice.  To be fair to Mike, however, one of those four strikeout games came when he managed seven plate appearances, so not really a sombrero if I am reading the unwritten rules of baseball correctly.

Somewhat interestingly, Gordon’s other three occurrences all came in 2011, which was arguably the best offensive season of his career.  In all three of those games, Gordon actually batted five times and got hits in two of those contests.  Old friend, Jeff Francoeur struck out four times twice in 2011, in the span of just two weeks.  Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often.

Going back beyond 2011, you run into a string of Royals who will neither surprise you, nor stir up longing for the past:  Guillen, Pena, Brown, Sanders, Guiel, Gotay, Berroa, Harvey.. you get the picture. Of course, it happens to the best, too.  Mike Sweeney did it, so did Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye.  Michael Tucker managed to do it two times in each stint with the Royals.

Bo Jackson, struck out four times in a game FIFTEEN times, fourteen times more than Joe Zbed ever did.   Pitcher Dick Drago struck out four times in a game four times, both a testament to bad hitting, but good pitching I suppose.   Hal McRae did it (twice), Willie Wilson and Amos Otis did it once.  Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew wore the hat once in his one season with Kansas City.  You know a Hall of Fame member who didn’t strike out four times in a game?  George Brett. Not once, not ever.

There are plenty of obscure names on the list, but I will wager the most obscure would be Scott Northey, whose major league career consisted of 68 plate appearances with the 1969 Royals.  The very first Royal?  Jackie Hernandez on June 6th, 1969.

Baseball is full of bad days and Alex Gordon had one on Wednesday.  How did he do the following game the first three times?

One for two with a home run, two walks and a hit by pitch. Two for four. Two for five with a double.

 

%d bloggers like this: