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Long Live The Process

Browsing Posts published by Clark Fosler

Spring Training stats don’t mean much.  Well, they pretty much mean almost nothing:  maybe less than nothing.  But….

Thus far, the new three-headed monster at the back of the pen (Davis-Soria-Herrera) have one earned run in ten innings, while striking out nine and walking one.  Sure, Soria gave up a home run in his first outing that went as unearned, but we are in the afterglow of a Championship, so let’s just be happy.

Throw in the established ‘number four man’, Luke Hochevar and his three innings of scoreless work and add Dillon Gee – now appearing to be a lock for the roster – and his five innings and one run resume and the first five names in Royals’ 2016 bullpen have allowed two earned runs in 18 innings.

And if, like me, you think a 95 mph throwing Wang sounds like a peachy addition, one could reasonably offer that the first SIX relievers in the pen have been touched for just three earned runs in TWENTY-FOUR innings of work.  Good Lord that IS set of numbers that look good together.

But Spring Training numbers don’t mean a thing.  They really don’t.  Angel Berroa would be in the Hall of Fame if they did and Mike Montgomery would be the Royals’ Opening Day starter for the third consecutive year if March stats mattered.  Still, better to have good numbers than bad, right?

All of this is interesting in that IF the Royals’ pen is on par – both in depth and quality – with what it was last year….Well, that goes a ways towards assuaging fears about what Kansas City will get from its starting rotation. It also plays into just how Ned Yost and Dayton Moore construct their 25 man roster for an early season that has the Royals playing two games over the first five days and five off days total in the season’s first 26 days.

That, however, is a discussion for another day.  Another day over at BPKansas City, my friends.

Two innings into Spring Training, the Royals had a regular (or semi-regular anyway) player go down with what could be a fairly major injury.  Grounding out, Jarrod Dyson strained the dreaded oblique.

“At least a couple of weeks,” was the quote from Ned Yost.

“An average of 57 days,” tweeted Shaun Newkirk (@shauncore).

Two to eight weeks, depending on the grade of the strain, was the report from Will Carroll.

It ain’t good, boys and girls.  No two ways around it.

Of course, better it happens two innings into Spring Training than two innings into the regular season.  Under a best case scenario, Dyson misses a couple of weeks and still has a solid two weeks plus to get into form and garner some valuable time in right – assuming the plan was for him to actually play there.  Fun question: does this injury make it more likely that Dyson plays center and Cain right when they are in the lineup at the same time?

Worst case scenario finds the Royals turning the calendar to May and still no Dyson. An eight week injury, plus minor league rehab time adds up in a hurry. Sure, maybe that is still something around 30 or 35 games missed, but a game in April actually is just as important as a game in September.  The only real difference is the importance is just easier to see later in the year.  I would rather the Royals head into the regular season with all their options available.

A Cain-Gordon-Dyson outfield is better defensively than any other combination of three the Royals can put on the field.  For a team that preaches pitching (bullpen especially) and defense, one would much rather have at least the option to put your team’s best defense on the field from day one.

Now, the rosy view of this is that Dyson will be able to come back AND be ready by Opening Night (or very shortly thereafter).  With perhaps the exception of getting him comfortable in rightfield, the Royals pretty much know what they have in Jarrod Dyson. There have been instances over the past three seasons where Dyson has been an everyday player.  He is really not a mystery at this point.

Travis Snider, Jose Martinez, Brett Eibner, Rey Fuentes and, to a lesser extent, Paulo Orlando are all a bit of unknown quantities. For at least the next few weeks, each and everyone of them is going to get more time than Ned Yost had planned to give them less than eighteen hours ago.  While not ideal, that’s not all bad.

Well, most important when it comes to the world of the Kansas City Royals as it pertains to the 2016 season.

Of course, who is the most important player when it comes to 2016 success is an intricate question. One can go a number of different directions and not be wrong and, let’s face it, no ONE player is going to cripple the Royals, nor will just one player ensure success.  However, I thought I would try this exercise just for fun and because it’s the first Tuesday in March and because it is the last day until pretty much October when we won’t have a game of some sort to discuss.

You could go in a lot of different directions here.  Yordano Ventura came to mind instantly for me.  If he could emerge as a true top of the rotation guy that quite obviously give the Royals something they do not have and really did not have all of last year.  That said, they won 95 games and a World Series with pretty much the same rotation they are rolling out this year. If Ventura is a 175 inning guy with an ERA and FIP around four, does that spell doom?

Going from someone emerging to someone going down, the case could be made that a Wade Davis injury (knock wood) or implosion (although cyborgs typically have a long shelf life) would be jarring to the team.  Still, with Kelvin Herrera and Joakim Soria (what the heck, throw in Hochevar and maybe even Danny Duffy) still in the pen, it would seem the Royals could overcome something happening to the their closer.

How about Salvador Perez?  My guess is if you pinned Dayton Moore or Ned Yost down and made them answer you, they would say an injury to Perez would be the most devastating blow the team could conceivably deal with.  For that matter, how much better would the Royals’ lineup be if Perez could reverse the offensive decline we have seen over the past few seasons?  Certainly he is the most important man this year, right?

Or is it Omar Infante?  Or Jarrod Dyson?

In the case of Infante, one would hope that the organizational tolerance level for an aging second baseman who hits .220 is something less than six weeks before they hand the job to Christian Colon.  With Dyson, can your most important player be a guy who no one expects to play every day?  Jarrod posting good numbers against every right-hander the Royals face would be huge, but no matter what the term ‘soft platoon’ means, Dyson is not going to see much action against lefties.

No, in my mind, the most important Royal this year is Alcides Escobar.

The Royals believe – and listen, who’s to doubt right now? – in the voodoo magic that is Escobar batting leadoff.  Even the non-stat inclined Yost admits it doesn’t seem like a good idea to bat a guy with .298 career on-base percentage lead-off.   Yet the Royals win with Esky batting first.  You don’t have to tell me that those wins probably having very little to do with where the Royals’ shortstop is written in the lineup, but the Royals believe.   They tried to disbelieve in the middle of last season, lost some games and went back to the voodoo.  I shudder to think how bad Escobar would have to hit and for how long before Yost will move him out of lead-off this year.

Since becoming a Royal, this is the on-base percentages Alcides has supplied his team: .290, .331, .259, .317 and .293.  Those are not good numbers, folks.  Along with those, without question, Escobar has played tremendous defense.  He is probably the best overall baserunner on the team, bunts well (if that’s your thing) and he pretty much plays every single day.  Escobar does not have to be a very good hitter to be an asset to his team.

The fly in the ointment very simply is that should the Royals bat him first all season long, Escobar might come to the plate 700 times and quite likely will not walk 30 of those times.  Even a little regression (and let’s not kid ourselves, opposing pitchers are going through Escobar some really nasty out of the zone crap early in the count this season) and you could have your lead-off hitter accounting for 550 outs this season.   And have him doing so, coming the plate (after the first inning, obviously) after Salvador Perez, Omar Infante and the rightfielder have batted.

A lot/most teams get a little skinny down at the bottom of the order, but a flailing (.260 OBP kind of flail) lead-off hitter would routinely have a four batter void in their lineup.  You better hope that Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain are battling for the league MVP if that is the case or the 2016 season could be all kinds of 3-1 losses.

The most important man in the world?  I think it is Alcides Escobar, if only because he is going to be right in your face, batting first….every single day.

Winning back to back championships in any sport is difficult. Stunning revelation there, I know, but given that winning one is hard (ask the Detroit Lions) it stands to reason that coming back the very next year and winning another one would be even more unlikely.  So, here stand our Kansas City Royals, champions of the world and entering the 2016 season with back to back World Series appearances (which is kind of a feat in and of itself).

As most of you know, there has not been a repeat World Series Champion in this century and during that same arbitrary timeframe, only two teams have made it back to the World Series after winning it the year before.  Have a look:

 

WS Champions

Only three defending champs have fallen off a cliff the next year, dropping anywhere from 18 to 26 wins from their championship regular season total.  Conversely, only three champions have increased their regular season total and, not all that surprisingly, two of those three were the teams that did manage to make it back to the Series the year after winning it all.

Do you believe in cosmic tumblers and such?  If so, baseball is due for a repeat champion.  Do you believe in the odd roller-coaster that we refer to as the San Francisco Giants?  Well, it is an even numbered year.  Of course, we could use things like projections (gasp!), true talent levels and, I don’t know, a bit of common sense as well.

We know the projections don’t much care for the Royals and the discussion/outrage/analysis associated with that have been beaten into the ground the past week.  Are the Royals better this year than last or did they overachieve in 2015?

To be honest, the Kansas City Royals coasted to a 95 win season in 2015 and hardly came out of nowhere to do so.  They won 89 in 2014 and 86 games the year before that.  This team has morphed around the edges and at the top of its starting rotation, but the Royals of 2013 are not all that different than the Royals of 2015 or, probably, 2016.  If this year’s Royals conform to the norm of past champions they would seem far more likely to win 90 games than just 76.

Back to back championships?  I’ve heard crazier things.

 

 

Inventory

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As pitchers and catchers reported to Surprise, the Royals added another surprise by signing Mike Minor to a two year deal with a third year mutual option (always a mutual option, my friends, always).  Minor is guaranteed $2 million this year, $4 million next year and a $1.25 million buyout after the 2017 season if the Royals and he decide not to mutually agree to pay him $10 million for the 2018 season.

Having not pitched in 2015 and, frankly, not being very good in 2014, Minor is not even expected to be ready to pitch this year until late May or early June. Let’s not kid ourselves, we all know how pitching you way back from injury works:  count yourself lucky if Mike Minor is ready to face major league hitters any time before July 1st.  Count yourself doubly lucky if a Royal clad Minor resembles the very competent major league starter he was in 2012 or the quite good starter that pitched for Atlanta in 2013.   All of that though is really not the point of this signing.

Once the last Royal pitch is thrown in 2016 – hopefully on national TV in a World Series game – Kansas City will have to decide if they want to pick up their side of the $10 million dollar mutual options on Edinson Volquez ($3 million buyout) and Kris Medlen ($1 million buyout).  And we all know how mutual options work, if the Royals want to pick up their side of either one it is because the pitchers in question had outstanding seasons and will likely have no desire to exercise their side of the option.  If the players and keep in mind what even average starting pitching goes for these days, want to pick up their options it is likely the Royals will have zero desire to reciprocate.

Truthfully, those might be the last two options the Royals make a run at after the 2016 season.  Remember, Wade Davis has a team option, Kendrys Morales a mutual as does Luke Hochevar, and let’s not forget the team options held for Escobar and Perez.  To quote Kevin Costner in Bull Durham, ‘we’re dealing with a lot of sh*T here.’

Kansas City will stay have Yordano Ventura, Ian Kennedy and Chris Young under contract for 2017.  Also there (via arbitration) will be Danny Duffy, who will be a factor in the 2017 rotation question no matter his role in this coming season. Back will come Jason Vargas to join the above mentioned Minor and, of course, we’ll all be expecting Kyle Zimmer to make some type of impact ‘around mid-season’ for the fourth straight year.

So, the Royals have essentially positioned themselves to swap Minor and Vargas for Volquez and Medlen, keep the other five and once again go into the spring with seven pitchers fighting for five spots (and that does not factor in Dillon Gee, who is a factor…sort of, anyway).  Inventory.  Remember that word from years’ past?

Remember when ‘inventory’ meant signing Horacio Ramirez, trading for Vin Mazzaro and assuming Bruce Chen and Luis Mendoza were locks for a rotation spot?  Back when Will Smith (who, to his credit, is fashioning himself a decent relief career) and Felipe Paulino were your ‘extra guys’?  Times have changed.

Listen, I loved the Medlen signing and think he may surprise us by a lot this year, but I am less sold on Mike Minor and, as you can tell, I might just faint if Kyle Zimmer actually does stay healthy long enough to throw a major league pitch that matters.  All said, that the Royals’ starting pitching depth might be Duffy at six, Gee at seven, Minor at eight and Zimmer at nine is really quite impressive given this organization’s not too distant past.

Without question, there are legitimate questions with regard to the top of the rotation (nine ‘number four’ starters is just too much of not enough) and you cannot point to one starter in the group that is without concerns, but there is also not one starter in this group (maybe Gee is one) that is without the potential to be a good major league starting pitcher.  If nine back of the rotation guys is bad, then four middle rotation guys and a hot hand at the five spot with this bullpen is certainly good enough.

Dayton Moore has inventory, actual major league inventory mind you, for this year AND for next year. That’s a start and that is exactly what the Mike Minor signing was all about.

Well, we have beat up, analyzed and railed against PECOTA’s 76 win projection for the Royals this season for several days now. A Kevin over at Royals Review provided a really nice compilation of all the projections on a player by player basis, complete with charts mind you, that provides us with a summary of who is projected where.  Bookmark it, sigh – print it if you must, and we can all look back in October as we wait for the World Series to start in Kansas City and see what the systems got right.

As I scrawled on Tuesday, I put some stock in individual player projections, but not much in the overall team wins.  That’s me and it is not an analytical conclusion, just that ever reliable gut feeling that too many variables get lost in translation between individual projections moving into team wins.  So, as we are in ‘gut mode’, that is different from ‘grit mode’ as I am not currently close enough to the dirt to engage that mode of action, let’s take a look at the individual projections.

For this exercise, I am going to revert to the old man stats:  the triple slash. I am a big fan of WAR, even if I cannot figure it out on my Casio hand-held calculator, but let’s not get bogged down in which defensive metric is being used, how they are weighting baserunning, pitch framing and the like. Quite honestly, a lot of us look at WAR when these projections come out, but let’s eliminate the noise and focus on the numbers that you will see quoted (i.e. contested) out there above ground in the light of day.

Lorenzo Cain – .269/.321/.398

Listen a big first step towards winning 76 games is have Lorenzo Cain post that triple-slash.  I don’t think he will, as I (and this is not a unique conclusion) believe that PECOTA and really all projections cannot get past the 2012/2013 seasons.  You know, the ones before Cain announced himself as one of the better all-around players in baseball.  Could he regress off his 307/361/477 mark of 2015?  You bet.  His BABIP was .347 last year and .380 the year before, but for what it’s worth, his BABIP even in the minors has always run high. Still, projections are not tailor-made for players and late to baseball, late to the majors but very skilled athletes such as Cain are kind of outside the curve.  I’m taking the over on Cain….by a lot.

Mike Moustakas – .245/.301/.397

Yes, Kevin, I am following your chart in exact order.  Now, you can shout to the high heavens about that line and tout Mike’s new approach at the plate in 2015.  That is THE valid argument against projections:  a fundamental change in how the player approaches and plays the game. Really all this projection says is that four years of the old Moose still outweighs one good year of the new Moose. Truthfully, if you are looking for a guy who might really regress, Mike Moustakas is your guy.  Of course, he might not.  Like Alex Gordon before him, a big change like last year might just stick as it did with Gordon in 2011.  A few opposite field liners the first week of the season will go a long ways towards alleviating my fears of major Moose regression.

Eric Hosmer – .276/.335/.423

As pointed out by others, it is an even numbered year and Hosmer was ungood for the bulk of 2012 and 2014.   His last two odd numbered years were freakishly similar numerically, so I’m pretty sure the WTF circuit in PECOTA came on when Hosmer’s data passed through. Hosmer’s walk rate took a big jump from 2014 to 2015, which is generally a good sign.  Yes, my gut says Eric Hosmer is the real deal and will not regress to the triple slash projected, but then my gut has been saying that since 2010.  Hey, it’s been right half the time…sort of.

Alex Gordon – .266/.344/.420

PECOTA projects Gordon to basically hit his career triple slash in 2016.  Alex has been better than that in four of the last five seasons, but it is hell getting old.  The Royals can live with Gordon hitting that line, especially if his defense stays the course.  I would be surprised if he hit worse than that and not very surprised if the on-base percentage was higher, maybe even a lot higher.

Kendrys Morales – .263/.322/.425

Let’s not kid ourselves, Big Ken is coming off his best season since 2009 and there is a load of injury riddled crap in between then and now.  The eye test certainly says that last year was legit and it is hard to see his slugging dropping all the way down to .425.  The concern would be that some day that bat will slow down – it happens to everyone at some point.

Jarrod Dyson – .243/.301/.319

If the Royals use Dyson properly – as in NEVER against lefties – I think this slash line is low.  Does PECOTA know Ned and his distaste for straight platoons?

Salvador Perez – .273/.303/.422

Not to get into the intangibles, but much of Perez’ value to this team is in what he does when not hitting. That said, the system that hates the Royals projects Salvador to hit better than he has the past two years.  Give me the above right now, I’ll take it.

Alcides Escobar – .256/.288/.338

What PECOTA is saying is ‘this is who Escobar is’.  His career triple slash is .262/.298/.344.  Last year he hit .257/.293/.320.  He is now four seasons removed from hitting .293/.331/.390.  Are you hung up on odd/even numbered years, Mr. Voodoo Magic?  If so, Escobar is due for a good – well decent – year at the plate.   Hey, you have all seen him play 800 games for the Royals.  You know who he is…and so does PECOTA.

Omar Infante – .256/.284/.357

Yes, I skipped Orlando and will skip Colon.  Whether you choose to remember or not, the above numbers are not far off what Infante did for Kansas City two years ago.  You know, back when we were all being told he was ‘just fine’ and ‘look at all those RBI!’.  What does it say about Omar’s 2015 when the above line is a dramatic improvement?  What does it say about Infante when the above line is quite similar to what he did in 2014 and 2012?  Yes, he was definitely playing hurt last year and he has finally, FINALLY, had surgery to hopefully get healthy.  Still, you have a 34 year old ball-player with basically pretty bad hitting numbers in three of his last four seasons.

Of course, all of the above is ‘old fashioned’ statistical review.  We have not factored in baserunning or even the very basic advanced offensive metrics.  Without question, the defense of the likes of Cain, Escobar, Perez, Gordon…well, everyone on this team adds value to the above. Quite frankly, with this group, it adds a lot of value as this might be one of the very best defensive lineups (all 8 positions considered) to play the game.  Oh yeah, and there is the whole ‘pitching thing’ we haven’t discussed.  (I’m waiting for Kevin’s chart to come out at RR.  Charts are time consuming.  I have coffee to drink and women to look at.)

All that said, the Royals will not win the World Series if everyone above hits to the PECOTA projections.  I am not certain those above numbers necessarily point towards 76 wins (maybe more like 83), either.  Can the Royals carry an Escobar and Infante PECOTA performance?  If Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas can replicate last year, you betcha.

Craig said don’t sweat the projections.  He’s right.   Besides, when we discuss stating pitching, you will have plenty of opportunity to sweat.

 

It’s not just disgruntled east coast football writers that hate the Royals.  Now even the computers hate our boys in blue.

Not really, of course.  Unless you believe PECOTA has become self-aware, that is.

By now, you have likely heard that the PECOTA projections have come out and they project the Royals to finish last in the AL Central, winning just 76 games.  I am fairly, mostly, kind of certain that Craig is going to give you a much better drilled down analysis tomorrow in this regard.  You can get an interesting explanation right now from Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus.  You can get outrage from any number of sources on Twitter as well as snarkiness about the outrage on Twitter and other outlets from even more of us.  We are all annoying today.  Even you over there, don’t kid yourself.

Sarcasm aside, I doubt you will find many that truly believe the 2016 Royals are going to fall from a 95 win regular season and World Series Champions all the way down to just 76 victories.  Although they would not be the first defending champ to under perform.  Those of us old enough to remember or those of a younger generation who will accept knowledge from things ‘that happened before they were born’ will note that the 91 win one 1985 World Champion Royals did, in fact, fall to exactly 76 wins the following season.   Heck, even those who manage PECOTA generally believe the Royals will win more than 76 games.

Many, many in the Royals’ sphere of writing, blogging and commenting are far more in tune with the data side of the equation we know as baseball than I am. In general, however, every projection system is aimed towards projecting the individual player and they are not horrible at it.  Some might take umbrage to this statement, but if a projection system is plus or minus 10% versus what a given player actually produces, that seems decently accurate to me.  Being off by that amount on a team’s overall win total?  Well, that can be a big difference in a hurry.

That last sentence does not even account for what I perceive to be a fair amount of ‘lost in translation’ when we take individual player projections and combine them into a team win total.  I have always felt and, having watched what the Royals have done the past few seasons has certainly jaded my view even further, that team projections undervalue overall team defense, great bullpens and good team baserunning.  Certainly the Kansas City teams have excelled in those three areas (the first two in particular) and maybe that has helped to darken the tint on my rose colored glasses to the point that my opinion is more gut than fact at this point.

However, the purpose of this quick little ditty is not to defend or condemn PECOTA.  There will be far better discussions and analysis that will drill into this year’s projections or determine why the Royals so outperformed similar projections in past years.  The purpose here, early this Tuesday afternoon, is to say calm down.  The Royals are not suddenly 14 games behind the leader of the AL Central.  They are essentially the same team that won 95 games in 2015.   There is not a sinister national plot to disrespect the Kansas City Royals.

All is well.  Spring is near.  Come April 3rd, everybody starts out dead even no matter what the projections say.

 

Back In Time

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The off-season is ripe with prospect talk as usual.  The lists are coming out, the rankings are being disputed…you know the drill.

As I was placing the 2016 Baseball Prospectus on the shelf – temporarily – I ran across a long forgotten book entitled ‘2009 Minor League Baseball Analyst’ by Deric McKamey.  I remember buying it now at an airport bookstore (airport still forgotten – MSP maybe?).  There is a really decent amount of data, projections and comments on a large number of players.  Far superior to what that grumpy, bald guy wrote about prospects in the 2010 and 2011 Royals Authority Annuals.  So, let’s take a quick trip back in time and find some names you might have forgotten and have a little fun with some of the projections.

Leafing through publication, which has the players listed alphabetically, the first Royals you come across are Jeff Bianchi, whose potential was rated to be a reserve infielder, and Jose Bonilla.  Do you remember Bonilla?  At one time, well about 2009 actually, there was logical debate about him being a better prospect than Salvador Perez.  Here, Bonilla was seen as having the potential to be a starting catcher, although his probability of reaching that potential was doubted.  Bonilla, save for one plate appearance, never made it past A ball.

We work our way down the alphabet, past outfielders Joe Dickerson (I remember thinking he had a shot) and Jose Duarte and land on old friend Johnny Giavotella. Remember, back in 2009, Johnny was just coming off his first pro season. McKamey rated him as a 50-50 shot to be an average starting second baseman who might make his major league debut in 2011. Well, after all was said and done, I would say that is exactly what happened.  Fun fact, the entry right above Giavotella is that of Chris Getz.

If you know your alphabet well, you might have guessed that the next Royal we find is Eric Hosmer, who had collected 11 total professional at-bats in his first pro season (2008). With a projected major league debut of 2011 and the potential to be an elite first baseman with “arm strength and the ability to scoop low throws”.  I am not sure I would label Eric Hosmer as ‘elite’, but he did bat in the middle of the order on two World Series teams.

Before I forget, let’s go back and touch on then Brewers’ farmhands Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar.  Cain’s potential was seen as a solid regular in either center or right, who “has improved his power production through experience, better plate discipline and physical maturity.”  With the potential to be a solid regular at short, Escobar was described as “an athletic infielder with plus defense” and added this bit of prophecy “doesn’t hit for power or draw many walks”.

Kila Ka’aihue comes next as the reigning Texas League Player of the Year. Kila was seen as a potential platoon first baseman….oh, Kila, how I had such hopes for you.  McKamey didn’t see a lot of hope in Chris Lubanski and his “moderate bat speed” and was concerned about Mario Lisson’s regressing plate discipline.   Mitch Maier was a “strong/athletic player who plays above average tools” who was a near certainty (80% chance) of being a reserve outfielder in the majors.  Well, that was our Mitch, wasn’t it?

Of course the guy in the middle of the alphabet you care about is Mike Moustakas, projected to be a starting third baseman with a 50-50 shot at being ‘elite’.  It was noted that Moose was certainly better suited to third than shortstop, a move that was starting to be made that year.  Interestingly, there was this notation: “Adjusted well to league after initial struggles by being more disciplined and using the whole field.”  Hmmmm….

Adrian Ortiz (either needs to add walks or power) and Jordan Parraz (bat speed is present but lacks loft to hits) come next and Salvador Perez does not even get an entry.  We run across Jason Taylor, who could not/would not hit breaking pitches (or seemingly stay out of trouble) before running out of position players in this particularly publication.

Keeping in mind that prospect evaluations almost always end with what a player could be in the majors more than what he is likely to be, this particular publication did a pretty decent job of getting close to what these players turned out to be.  Overrated Moustakas a little, underrated Cain a little, pretty much nailed Escobar and Giavotella. As we wait for brand new baseball news to start happening this spring, I’ll likely dive back into what the pitchers were thought to be back then.  Today, however, I didn’t feel like ruining my appetite!

Bandwagon fans.

If you wear Royals’ gear these days, there is a decent chance you will have to justify just how long you have been a fan. Outside of the region, you can almost bank on it.  In the region, the ‘diehard’ fans – half of whom cannot name more than three players on another team – will be certain they are better fans and have been so longer than you.  Such is life when you are a fan of a winner.  And yes, that felt really good to type.

Truthfully, there is not a team in the history of professional sports that does not lose popularity when it loses games and very few that don’t gain popularity when they win.  That is human nature.  The casual fan becomes serious when his team is good and becomes disinterested when it loses.  Listen, I have been a Royals fan since I was a kid in the seventies (long enough ago that Cookie Rojas remains my favorite player) and, living in Nebraska, I made fewer treks to Kansas City in the 100 loss seasons than I did the past few years.  I still came down, just not as often.

Hey, if you are one of the 14,000 or so who have shown up every night of every baseball season since whenever, good for you.  Now, shut up about it.   If the family in front of you whose first Royals’ gear in the hats they bought on their way to their seats wonders ‘if Jarrod Dyson is new’, don’t get all offended.  They weren’t there four years ago and neither were the two couples down the way on a double date and guess what, the guy next to you who DOES know everything there is to know about Dyson was there by himself instead of having the wife and kids along.   Do you like your defending World Champions spending $130 million on payroll this season?  Well, you need those folks around you.

You need the guy in Kentucky who stopped wearing his Yankee’s hat and bought a Royals’ shirt (and likely will be wearing a Cubs jacket two years from now). You need the Royals on ESPN, even if the announcers don’t know as much about the team as you do or…GASP!.. might even be a woman. You want the Blue Jays and Orioles and whomever else to no longer admire you, but hate you. You want 2.7 million fans instead of the 1.9 million the Royals drew in 2014 or the even smaller number they drew way back when (although contrary to the opinion on the coasts, there were live bodies in the stands for every single Royals’ game during that time).  So what if one million of those folks disappear when the Royals lose 91 games at some point in the future?

There is nothing unique about the popularity of the Kansas City Royals.  Toronto drew half a million more in 2015 over 2014.  The Yankees drew 300,000 less and Philadelphia drew just 1.8 million for the season.  It ebbs and flows, folks, and you are kidding yourself if you think it doesn’t happen everywhere.  Hell, I’m in the heart of Husker football and I see Oregon hats.  I might smirk a little, but I’d rather watch Oregon play football over Nebraska right now, too!

So, yeah, Opening Night tickets are expensive on the secondary market.  Traffic will be awful and many in the crowd will get up to get a beer, a snack, a trinket or bobble and, yes, EVEN disturb you during an inning to go to the bathroom.  Get over it, give them a high five when Gordon doubles off the wall in right-center on April 3rd.  Enjoy the noise, enjoy the crowd, enjoy the winning. Enjoy the fact that your franchised agreed to the two largest contracts in its history because it just could.

Not everyone has to be a great and knowledgeable baseball fan and not everyone needs to know that you are.  You know and I know that a full stadium, even one that gets excited at routine fly balls but does not notice an infield hit, is way better than being three empty seats down from the guy who brought his own peanuts and is certain he can distract the opposing pitcher be saying ‘Going!’ on every pitch…and it is quiet enough that it is actually possible.

When he signed with the Royals, we all knew that Kris Medlen was a bit of a calculated gamble.  After 335 innings of outstanding work in 2012 and 2013, Medlen had gone through Tommy John surgery for a second time, sat out all of 2014 and would not be ready at the start of 2015.  Anything the Royals got at the major league level out of Medlen in 2015 would be a bonus.

What the Royals got was 58 innings of decently okay regular season work and one good, if short, start in the post-season.  That did not re-establish Medlen as a major league pitcher on par with what he had been in 2013 or even assure him a spot in the 2016 rotation (although he does have an inside track).

To begin with, Medlen’s 94 total innings (minors, majors and post-season) in 2015 does not give anyone any assurances that he is ready to take the ball every fifth day and pitch effectively for most, if not all of the 2016 season.  More importantly, what we saw out of Medlen in 2015 was not the Kris Medlen of 2012 and 2013.

You want to give the 2016 Kansas City rotation a shot in the arm? Have Medlen pitch like it is 2013.

To be honest, I thought the key might be Medlen’s changeup.  After all, while using that pitch roughly as often as he had in 2012 and 2013, opposing hitters were swinging and missing far less.  In 2012, swung and missed 27% of the time.  That number went up to 30% in 2013.  In 2015, however, batters whiffed on just 16% of Medlen’s changeup.   More swings and misses with the change and more success, right?

Maybe.

Except opposing hitters hit just .180 against the Medlen change in 2015, after hitting .206 in 2013 and a microscopic .102 in 2012. Sure, more whiffs is a good thing, but it is not like opposing hitters were destroying Medlen when he threw a change.

They were, however, destroying him when Medlen threw a curve. In 2015, opposing hitters posted a .286 average and slugged .595 against Medlen curveballs. FIVE HUNDRED AND NINETY-FIVE.  By comparison, in 2013, batters managed just a .160 average and slugged just .280.  The year before that, .184 and .245.

The reason is fairly obvious:  it’s all about the break.

In 2013, a Medlen curveball averaged a horizontal break of 6.69 inches.  In 2015, the break was just 5.76 inches.  The vertical break of his curve in 2013 was a -9.36 inches compared to a 2015 drop of -7.87 inches.  Listen, I still play a little ball and a couple of inches different in the break of a curveball does not make it any more hittable for me, but for Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout or, hell, Jackie Bradley Jr. or Wilson Ramos would certainly notice the difference.

Now, not lost in all of this, Medlen’s velocity was up across the board.  Fastballs up a solid mile per hour from before, curve ball up a two as was the change (up four from 2012).  That is not unusual, I hear, for pitchers to have more velocity post-surgery and, probably, less touch.

So, is the change we need to watch (i.e. hope?) this spring or the curve? More likely, it is both. The secondary pitches take more time, be it post-injury or just getting going each spring and it seems quite possible that Medlen simply did not get the innings to get the ‘feel’ back.

Of course, maybe the ‘feel’ just isn’t going to come back. It has happened to more than one pitcher, even in these modern sports medicine times.

Oh, my friends, but what if Medlen does get it back?  What if the 2016 Kris Medlen is the guy we saw pitch in Atlanta in 2012 and 2013, with this Royals’ defense and bullpen behind him?

What if?

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