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Deconstructing The Process

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It’s as if 2014 never ended. We are suspended in time, just before the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2014. In sweeping the Chicago White Sox for their first three wins of the new season, the Royals proved they haven’t lost their touch from last October.

The Royals polished off the Sox in myriad ways. They won the blowout (Monday), the comeback (Wednesday) and the pitching and defense special with the timely hit (Thursday). They say there is more than one way to skin a cat and likewise, there is more than one way to win a ballgame. The Royals provided three days of evidence of that.

On Thursday, it was newcomer Edinson Volquez who provided the quality start. In his Royals debut, Volquez spun eight innings of . He mixed equal parts sinker, change and knuckle-curve to keep the Sox off balance all afternoon. And the spotty command that has plagued him in the past? Didn’t happen on Thursday. Volquez issued a lone walk all day. It came in the seventh just after he hit Adam LaRoche with two outs. Lots of hit batters and LaRoche was the guy Duffy threw behind on Wednesday. Bad blood brewing.

Anyway, on Volquez, all his pitches were working and he was keeping the ball down in the zone. He threw first pitch strikes to 20 of the 29 batters he faced and with his sinker, he collected eight ground ball outs. And on those times he gave up fly balls, Lorenzo Cain had Jackson County covered.

Pitching and defense. Defense and pitching.

My concern about Volquez has been his history of poor command which has plagued him for pretty much his entire career. (Although a certain illustrator for the Kansas City Star will tell you career stats don’t carry as much weight as your last eight to ten days.) Prior to his start, I set his over/under for walks at 4.5. As I mentioned above, he walked one. For a guy who, just two seasons ago was walking over five batters per game, that’s an outright success.

I remain skeptical about the long-term success of Volquez, but after watching Ervin Santana and Jason Vargas come to Kansas City and pitch with a relative amount of success, maybe Dayton Moore and the Royals brain trust have indeed found a magic formula in regards to starting pitching. Hell, he’s done it on defense.

— The Royals have five home runs in three games. It’s inevitable that this will draw comparisons to last year’s power-averse club. So for reference, last year it took the Royals five times longer to hit five home runs. (That’s 15 games for the mathematically challenged.)

It was Salvador Perez who drove the bus to DongTown with a blast to left that plated Kendrys Morales in the sixth that knocked out starter John Danks.

I don’t think you will find a Royals fan (a rational one, anyway) who will claim the Royals are the second coming of the ’27 Yankees, but this qualifies as a notable development. And a good one.

— Paulo Orlando made his major league debut and collected his first hit with a triple in the bottom of the fifth. How can you not root for this guy? Grinding for 10 years in the minors, acquired for the long forgotten Horacio Ramirez in August of 2008, he’s paid his dues. Good for him. I saw on Twitter that Orlando went home to third in under 11 seconds. He will fit right in with this team.

After a little damp, but tolerable and overall enjoyable Opening Day, the Royals may or may not play tonight. It has been a while since we had one of ‘those’ Aprils, but it happens.

Should Kansas City take the field tonight, we will get our first look at the 2015 version of Danny Duffy. He is looking to get 200 innings this year.  I’m not greedy, 190 innings will do just fine. In my mind, Duffy is the key to this year’s rotation.  If he can parlay his performance of last year into a full starter’s workload, this rotation can absorb a sub-par year from one of the remaining three starters that fill out the backend.  If Danny struggles to get through five innings – as happened in 2014 – things could become the bad kind of interesting.  Especially with another high pitch count per inning guy in the rotation right behind Duffy in Edinson Volquez.

Some random notes, likely covered by others already, from Monday’s win:

  •  Kendrys Morales had a full day’s worth of quality at-bats.  He looked nothing like the flailing mess of a hitter that he was the past couple of seasons. I am not even sure that was THE Kendrys Morales.  Whoever it is, I like his approach…at least for one day.
  •  There are European soccer players who think Yordano Ventura overreacted to his thumb cramp. I have no doubt it hurt and was a shock, but I am also not sure it should send you to the ground. Thankfully, it turned out to be only a cramp and not an elbow or a shoulder or a knee or a gunshot.
  •  It turned out to be nothing, given the 10-1 result, but the decision by third base coach Mike Jirschele to hold Alex Rios at third in the bottom of the second seemed overly cautious.  Now, next to the manager changing pitchers, what the third base coach does is easily the most second guessed action in baseball and it was just the second inning of the game.  That said, if the Royals are an ‘aggressive’ team on the bases, then act like it.  In this instance, I was sitting up the right field line and had essentially the entire play in front of me.  The throw from the rightfielder Garcia was obviously coming in too high for the first cutoff man and too low to the second cutoff man and Rios was at least 20 feet around third and at full speed.  It was wet, Juan Abreu – no defensive wizard – was going to have to take a low throw or short hop, pivot and make a good throw to the plate, and Omar Infante was the next hitter.  Send him. Send him every time.
  •  Wade Davis:  still filthy good.

While a day or two late, here are my predictions for the year:

I have the Royals at 86 wins.  I think Ventura will be great, Duffy will be good and two of the three other starters will be ‘good enough’.  The bullpen will be dominant, the defense very good and either Hosmer or Cain will be outstanding.  That’s enough, in my mind, for 86 wins, but likely not enough to get in the playoffs.

AL CENTRAL:  Detroit, Kansas City, Cleveland, Chicago, Minnesota

AL EAST: Boston, Baltimore, Toronto, New York, Tampa

AL WEST: Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, Texas, Houston

NL CENTRAL: St. Louis, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Milwaukee

NL EAST: Washington, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Philadelphia

NL WEST: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Colorado, Arizona

 

AL Wild Cards: Baltimore and Toronto

NL Wild Cards: Los Angeles and Cincinnati

World Series: Seattle and San Diego (Can you hear the national media bemoan this ‘boring matchup’?)

I have zero faith in any of these.  Although, once again, it should be noted that I was dead on my Royals’ win prediction last year and missed by one game the year before.  Gut and grit over logic and stats, right?

 

 

 

Thumb cramps, pennants, rings and a blowout victory. That about sums up Opening Day, 2015.

The pregame ceremony was pitch perfect. The organization honored nearly everyone associated with the day to day responsibilities of the players which was nice to give them a moment of recognition. We watch these guys play everyday and it’s not often you think about the behind the scenes guys. Another nice touch was bringing players in who were part of September and October and who have been assigned to the minors to open the year.

And of course, old favorite Bruce Chen was back at The K. The Royals last 10-5 guy deserved to walk back onto the field one last time to collect a ring. The one guy I missed at the ceremony: Raul Ibanez. He will get his moment, for sure.

It’s always good to see Royals alumni at the game, but probably my favorite moment of the entire ceremony was when they had a season ticket holder from 1969 raise the American League pennant. Just a brilliant touch to recognize the fans. It’s amazing. After so many years of bumbling around, the Royals are suddenly an organization that gets it. Forgive me if it takes me some time to adjust to this new reality. Either way, it’s really nice.

— Yordano Ventura threw fire – but he didn’t hit triple digits on the radar gun all afternoon – yet he was steady and kept the White Sox off balance all afternoon.

Ventura_040615_Velo

He only whiffed two, but scattered just four hits and a walk. He was around the zone all day, throwing 81 pitches, 56 of them for strikes. The low number of strikeouts isn’t really notable. The Sox swung and missed at 11 of his offerings, so he was missing plenty of bats.

The really scary part was when he hit the ground after delivering a pitch to LaRoche in the top of the seventh. Fortunately, it was diagnosed as a cramp in his thumb. The telltale sign that is could have been a cramp was his delayed reaction to the pain after delivering his pitch. His hand (or thumb) just seized up. A bummer that Ventura left after just 81 pitches. Fortunately, it was just a thumb cramp. I don’t need to tell you, Ventura is absolutely indispensable to this rotation.

According to McCullough, he is ok and will make his next start.

— Not sure what to make of Kendrys Morales and his three walks. This is a guy who has walked 6.8 percent of the time in his career. His plate appearance on Monday were the paragon of patience. He saw 20 pitches in his five PAs.

— This whole Mike Moustakas as a number two hitter seems horribly misguided, but damn if it didn’t work on Monday. Remember how I told you to get Ned Yost to a casino last October. Apparently his hot streak is intact. While I encourage bunting against the shift, I would like to veto the idea of him sacrifice bunting. The moment when he sacrificed in the third inning following an Alcides Escobar double was as predictable as XXXX. I was glad I wasn’t on Twitter because I would have said something negative and then when Escobar scored on the Lorenzo Cain bloop down the right field line, I would have had a ton of, “See, it worked!” responses. I don’t have time for that.

Sac bunt aside, the most impressive moment of Moustakas’s afternoon was his opposite field home run. Entering 2015, exactly two of Moustakas’s 52 home runs have landed to the left side of center field. And those two weren’t exactly opposite field shots. They were just a few feet to the left of center. From Hit Tracker, here are his home run landing points from the last two seasons. 2013 is on the left.

MoosePull

For Moustakas to go that far to left is huge. And something we have never seen. (Bruce Chen called it on the broadcast. I’m not looking to dump Uncle Hud, so maybe a three man booth in the future.)

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know I’m highly skeptical about this latest transformation of the Royals third baseman. We’ve been down this path before. But damn if he doesn’t have me scratching my head. Maybe, just maybe, he has become a different hitter trying to take the ball to all fields. Maybe, just maybe, he’s becoming some kind of better hitter because he’s staying within and going the opposite way instead of trying to yank everything. I don’t know. I need more evidence than one game. But that’s a much more promising start than doing it in Arizona.

— A very bad look from Smardzija to hit Cain on the next pitch after the Moose Oppo Taco. A very bad look.

— The Royals defense looks ready. I mean, is there really anything else to say? Poor Alexi Ramirez hit the ball on the screws a couple of times and had nothing to show for his efforts. And the double play in the fifth was a thing of beauty.

— My player profile on Alex Rios described him as an enigma with an injured thumb. Basically, we don’t know what we are going to get. A 3-4 day with a pair of singles and a home run to go along with a steal is a pretty good start. As those guys who pay attention to day one stats will tell you, Rios has already matched a quarter of his home run production from 2014.

The new guys got the job done.

— Quality starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen, a couple of steals, stellar defense and a sacrifice bunt. Royals baseball is back.

Knowing that Luke Hochevar was on the mound for the Royals in their second game of the Astro series, I prepared two leads:

Luke Hochevar was awful on Tuesday.

Or…

Luke Hochevar was brilliant on Tuesday.

It just seems like there’s no middle ground with this guy.

And by now, you know he was brilliant. Brilliant, as in, best start of the season, brilliant.

His curve was just outstanding. While his fastball was averaging 92 mph his curve was the perfect compliment, coming in at 79 mph with a ferocious break. Hochevar weaved both pitches in and out, throwing 33 fastballs and 32 curves. He got 22 strikes with each pitch. Excellent. Just excellent.

Hochevar is featuring his curve more than ever. It’s accounted for 16 percent of his pitches this year, compared to around eight percent two seasons ago.

In his post game presser, Yosty said that Hochevar was “getting back to being the pitcher we know he can be.” Yosty stressed Hochevar has three “core” pitches: Fastball, change and curve. And with those three working, Hochevar can be nasty.

Then, Yosty dropped this nugget: “He was relying too much on his cutter which was burning him.”

Oh, really?

I know we want to believe and buy into the “New and Improved” Hochevar, but please… The Royals keep throwing crap against the wall and hoping it sticks.

From the “he’s tipping his pitches” claim to the issues with runners on base, the Royals have identified (or made up) myriad reasons for why Hochevar has been awful. Have they addressed how his eyelids get jammed? It’s hysterical how many different ways the Royals have approached the guy.

So about that new, over-reliance on the cutter…

In Hochevar’s start for the Royals in the home opener – you know, the one where he stunk up the joint in the first and exited after giving up seven runs in four innings – he threw 70 pitches. Seven cutters.

In his start on May 1 against the Tigers where he allowed nine runs in four innings – and finished with a Game Score of 1 – he threw 75 pitches. Four cutters.

And in his start in his next turn in the rotation where he was knocked around by the Yankees in 2.1 innings to the tune of nine runs, Hochevar threw 51 pitches. Five cutters.

Look, I was fooled too. I thought it was his slider and his arm slot when throwing said slider. He’s not doing that anymore and seems to have moved away from his slider in his recent starts. He’s done pretty well in a couple of those. Hell, Hochevar has frustrated me so much, I don’t know what to think anymore.

And neither do the Royals.

What just kills me about this organization is that they think they can throw some BS out there and just because Yosty or GMDM says it, it’s true. Cutters? My ass. That has as much to do with Hochevar’s struggles as the financial problems in Greece and Spain.

(Although I would love for Yost to say something like, “Hochevar’s really been troubled by his investments in the Euro zone, particularly the south. Hell yes, it’s affecting his performance.” Don’t think that can’t happen.)

Hochevar has been fixed more times than Joan Rivers’ face.

Yet the Hochevar fix is never permanent. Rivers is frozen in time. Both scare the hell out of me.

I’ve come to accept Hochevar for what he is: A maddening starting pitcher where he’s liable to be brilliant in one start and awful in the next. On Tuesday he was brilliant. His best start of the season. It saved the bullpen and got the Royals the win, pulling them closer to .500. Huge.

And he did it on the back of 17 cutters.

He gets the gold star, but don’t try to sell me that he can do this on a consistent basis. Because he can’t.

On contention

Shortly after the final out was recorded, my Twitter feed exploded with celebratory notes about being 4.5 games out of first.

Hold on…

I understand where we’ve come from with this team. All these years of losing baseball wears you down. When you’re within sniffing distance of first, you tend to get giddy.  Excited. However, there’s a couple of issues we have to deal with before we can discuss contention.

For starters, the Royals current .455 winning percentage is the third worst in the AL. Yes, the Central sucks, but there’s a certain crazy amount of parity going on in the league. That will happen with the unbalanced schedule and the three division setup.  They have to leapfrog three teams. Not an easy task. Besides, entering play on Tuesday, the Royals playoff odds stood at 0.8 percent. There’s still a ton of baseball to be played.

Also, the starting pitching still has a long, long way to go. If you are throwing Sanchez, Mazarro and Mendoza out there you’re fighting an uphill battle. We’ve beaten this dead horse until it became reincarnated and died again, but this is a huge issue. You can’t win without decent starting pitching.

And finally, the offense has been… Not good. They rank ninth with a .318 OBP and ninth with a .394 slugging percentage. They’ve brought home 13 percent of all baserunners, among the worst rates in the league. They’ve also run into 28 outs on the bases, the most in the league. The Royals are scoring 3.9 runs per game, second worst in the league. I know everyone thinks Sal Perez is going to be some sort of offensive savior, but that’s not likely. Nor is it likely Wil Myers can rake in Kansas City the way he’s doing in Omaha. At least initially.

There are some serious holes with this club. Yes, they are 4.5 games out despite these problems. But baseball has a way of leveling the field, so to speak. Teams can’t survive the full 162 games on smoke and mirrors.

So ask yourself… Is this team developing, or are they built for contention? Answer honestly.

The stakes are enormous. You can’t afford to be wrong in your assessment. Most of us should remember 2003 when the Royals effectively went all in. We convinced ourselves we were close. Allard Baird was convinced. David Glass was convinced. Turns out we weren’t so close. And it set us back in a bad way. We thought they were built for contention.

Myself, I think this team is still developing. They need to get Wil Myers up sometime in July and – this is tremendously important – they need to get some starting pitching. Internal, free agent, trade… Whatever. This has to happen. If Dayton Moore attacks the market this winter (a prospect that makes me tremendously nervous) the timetable could be bumped to 2013. If Moore chooses to wait on his internal options (which appear to be shrinking) the timeline moves to 2014.

I still have the Tigers as the prohibitive favorites in the division. They’ve won seven of their last 10 and are showing signs of life. Someone is going to go on a roll and move ahead of the rest of the teams in this division. That team will have to have power and starting pitching. I don’t think that team will be the Royals. My money is still on the Tigers.

I know my opinion won’t be popular with some of you. Don’t confuse my thoughts of contention with a dislike of this team. I love the way they’ve battled back recently. And I love the way they’ve seemingly erased the brutality of that 12 game losing streak. There’s plenty to like on this team. But there’s still some epic holes.

I’m still with my team. I just think they’re still a year or two away.

I have to be totally honest.  My Sunday started before seven o’clock with a two and one-half hour drive, followed by seven hours of watching girls’ tennis (with bad cell service so no MLB Gameday), followed by a two and one-half hour drive home and immediately continuing on for four more hours into the bowels of Iowa for a business meeting Monday morning.   I know, I hear you:  shut up, we don’t care about your personal life. 

Fair enough.   All I was getting to in a roundabout way was that I missed the entire 15 inning Royals’ win today.   In doing so, I missed what has to be one of the most exciting, excruciating, maddening, thrilling, bizzare and euphoric of the past five years.   Pick an adjective, any adjective, and I bet you can make it apply to this game.

Let’s start with the fact that the Royals, after asking for seven plus innings out of their bullpen on Saturday, needed a good start from Luis Mendoza.   They got exactly that, as Luis went six innings and allowed just two runs (back to back homers to Halladay and Craig when he was ahead in the count – I consider 2-2 to be ‘ahead for the pitcher’).   All that and the bullpen still had to toss nine innings!

Mendoza’s performance comes on the heels of allowing just one run in six innings in his last start, which came after he gave up just two runs in five innings in relief of Felipe Paulino.   Now, I’m not ready to sign Mendoza to a long term contract or even to say that he will still be in the rotation by the end of July, but damn, Luis, well done.

Speaking of the bullpen, they went seven innings after Mendoza without allowing a run, surrendering just three hits and two walks with seven strikeouts.   The key guy, obviously, was Tim Collins, who went three perfect innings to allow Ned Yost to avoid having to call on Roman Colon for a third straight day or a used up Bruce Chen.

The Royals also got two innings of work out of closer Jonathan Broxton:  one more than they wanted.  Broxton, who makes a living dancing the high wire in save opportunities, fell off on Sunday and gave up the tying run in the bottom of the 14th.  Redemption came in the 15th, however, when Broxton struck out two (Cardinals pinch-hitting pitcher Joe Kelly is no Bruce Chen) on his way to a 1-2-3 inning and finally, thankfully, the win for Kansas City.

Of course, Broxton would not have had the save opportunity to blow or the chance at redemption had it not been for Yuniesky Betancourt.  The Yunigma, despised and reviled generally, gets to be the toast of the town for tonight.  A run scoring double in the 14th and a two run homer in the 15th after going 0-5 in his first five at-bats.   Of course, how often does a non-starter get SEVEN at-bats in one game?

Backing up to the 14th inning, Betancourt fouled the first pitch off while attempting to bunt.  Was that a call from the bench or Yuni acting on his own?  As you know, the sacrifice bunt is not a popular item around these parts, but I don’t hate it in this situation.  However, I’m not sure I like it with Yuni up.  The one occasional skill Yuni brings to the plate is some pop (you know like extra inning doubles and homers), so I am glad that either he cut it out or Ned called the bunt off after one attempt. 

But then, Yuni would not have had his chances if it had not been for Billy Butler turning around 99 mph fastball on an 0-2 count with two outs in the top of the ninth to tie the game in the first place.   I not sure everyone has noticed, but Billy Butler kinda knows how to hit a baseball.

This game featured, among other things:

  • FIVE walks by Alex Gordon.
  • Back to back intentional walks with no one on and two outs.  Sounds crazy, but it was the 14th inning, the Royals were out of bench players, Bruce Chen already had gotten his pinch hit knock, so the Cards gave free passes to Moustakas and Escobar to get to Nate Adcock.
  • As alluded to a twice already, we saw the first Royals pitcher to get a pinch hit when Bruce Chen, batting for Tim Collins singled.  I’m amazed that is the first time it has happened.   You would have thought that back before the DH, some Royals pitcher (Jim Rooker for example) would have gotten one in some wild game.

I bet you can list three or six or nine more things about Sunday’s game that deserve a bullet point:  it was simply that kind of game.  The kind of game that, more often than not, the Royals have ended up losing in the past.  Progress or just dumb luck?  Not sure, but I’ll take five out of six in any form.    Especially with three at Houston coming up.

The Royals are not really a contender, not yet.   They, however, are not exactly not contenders, either.   I bet you didn’t expect to see that when they were losing 12 in a row.

xxx

 

 

Mitch Maier leads off the inning against John Axford and makes like a cricket batsman.

Axford threw a wicked googly. A little too wicked.

Really, no clue what Maier was doing, but whatever… Down a run in the ninth you have to do whatever it takes to reach base. That qualifies.

Mike Moustakas follows with a rocket down the first base line that first baseman Cody Ransom kicks and his only play is at first. Not an error because he got an out, but it had the makings of a 3-6-3 double play. Moose hit it hard enough and Ransom could have stepped forward to make the throw – he’s left handed, so it would have been a quick transfer – and returned to the bag in time to get Moose. Maybe, maybe not.

So the tying run moves to scoring position. Wednesday’s hero, Alcides Escobar can’t do it two nights in a row and strikes out on a nice slider.

That brings up Jarrod Dyson. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Dyson is a nice player if he’s your 25th man on the bench. I can live with him as a pinch runner and a defensive replacement for a Melky-like outfielder. The dude is striking out looking in 54 percent of his strikeouts. Not good. Tells me the guy isn’t seeing the ball worth a damn. Or isn’t confident in his abilities to make contact.

Thankfully, the bat didn’t leave his shoulder. I mean, if I’m a Brewer fan, that would kill me. Axford has to throw strikes in that situation and the game is over. No way Dyson is making contact and the odds are strong he won’t even attempt to swing. And Axford wasn’t even close.

Which is key because the Royals speed merchant is the winning run.

Thankfully the Royals pinch hit Brayan Pena for Quintero. Pena swings at a high strike, then goes with a fastball and lines it into right left. Maier scores easily, but Pena is going to get hung up between first and second. That was going to be a base running blunder to send the game to extras. Except the Brewers second baseman can’t handle the throw… Dyson had stopped at third and breaks for home. Late throw…

Pandemonium.

Awesomeness.

(I had a moment of clarity this morning on my daily run… There were two outs in the inning and Pena’s run didn’t mean a thing. Maybe the correct play there is for the shortstop to put the ball in his back pocket. To not force the play. Sure, they could have gotten the out, and sure the top of the order was due up for the Royals, but the risk was going to be there that they couldn’t make the play. Which is exactly what happened… However, with first base open, the Brewers could have walked Gordon to pitch to Getz. Pena forced the issue… As I’ve always said, there’s a fine line between aggressive and stupid. There wasn’t going to be any grey area on Pena’s going to second. Turned out aggressive worked… For once.)

It’s possible the end overshadowed a fine performance by Luke Hochevar. I’ve dissected and given up on Hochevar, but give credit where credit is due… His performance was outstanding.

And he did it without his slider. According to PITCH f/x, Hochevar threw a total of three sliders on Thursday. Three. It was his curveball that did the heavy lifting.

He threw 23 curves, 17 for strikes. Five of those were put in play and he recorded three ground outs (one was a double play), one fly out and one lonely single. Yes, he coughed up a couple of home runs, but I’m going to cut him some slack. He was pitching so well and keeping runners off the bases that those bombs were solo shots.

In innings one through six, the most pitches he threw in an inning was 13. The model of efficiency.

His final line:

7.1 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO

That 7.1 innings pitched represents the longest outing by a Royals starter this year. Five times had a starter thrown seven innings (Bruce Chen has done it three times. Felipe Paulino and Hochevar each have one outing.) That’s unreal. This rotation…

And now that the bats have gone back into hibernation, starts like Hochevar are necessary to keep this team in the game. Yeah, I’m Captain Obvious, but if Hochevar has one of his patented meltdown innings, this walkoff doesn’t happen.

But it did.

So there.

Sweep.

The Prodigal Greinke returns and on paper it’s a mismatch. One Cy Young Award winner against one PCL pitcher of the year. One who was dealt in a blockbuster in exchange for four players against one who was acquired for cash considerations. One who is one of the best starters in the NL against one who is an emergency starter used only because everyone else is hurt.

Yet it was Luis Mendoza who was the starter of the game.

Baseball is funny sometimes.

Mendoza finished with a Game Score of 68. That’s tied with almost every Felipe Paulino start this season for sixth best this season. (Seriously, Paulino has made three starts with a Game Score of 68. He’s awesome. He’s also hurt.) Here’s the top starts by Game Score:

It was a great start from Mendoza. It’s one off his best Game Score ever. Set back in 2008 when he was pitching for the Rangers and struck out eight in six innings. You won’t be surprised to learn that those eight strikeouts are the most he’s ever had in a start.

What may be surprising to you is that Mendoza’s four strikeouts on Tuesday, was tied for second most in a start in his career. Hey, he’s made just 22 starts, but still… Wow.

(By the way, according to Game Score, Greinke had the better start. It was 69-68. Because Greinke strikes batters out.)

So we basically saw the best that Mendoza had to give. Not bad, really. His two seam fastball was really diving on both sides of the plate. He recorded six ground outs to go along with his four whiffs. Perhaps more key was the fact he got three pop-ups. Maybe the Brewers were thinking a dropping two-seamer was on the way and they got under a four-seamer. Whatever, Mendoza’s pitches were working. And working quite well.

These kind of starts are always welcome.

— Yes, you have to include the obligatory, “Greinke doesn’t get any run support at The K, no matter what uniform he’s wearing.”

— If you’re looking for an alternate player of the game, you’d have to give the nod to Alex Gordon.

I mean, how sweet was it for him to lead off the game for the Royals with a bomb? And then the throw to gun down Braun to keep the 1-0 lead? That’s the guy I remember from last year.

In our daily installment of “Fun With Arbitrary Endpoints,” I note that since Yosty stopped shuffling Gordon around and let him be in the leadoff spot, he’s hitting .306/.424/.429 with six doubles, three home runs and nine walks against nine strikeouts. Too damn bad Yosty freaked on Gordon after his slow start. His overall numbers would be a little better than where we are now. Just a suspicion I have.

— On BUNTS… Yosty attempted two sacrifices on Tuesday. The first one was in the fifth inning following a Moose leadoff double. With The Shortstop Jesus at the plate, he bunted foul. Now, long time readers know, this play drives me insane. You have a runner at second with no outs and you give up an out to get him to third. Moving that runner doesn’t appreciably add to your run expectancy enough to justify giving away the out.

Escobar lined out on the next pitch on a bullet up the middle that Greinke speared. Good work, good effort as they say in Miami.

Naturally, the next batter, Jarrod Dyson flies out to center. That would have scored Moustakas. Although I think there’s no way Greinke puts that pitch in a spot where Dyson can get it in the air. You may disagree, though.

Then in the eighth, Gordon doubles to leadoff and Getz moves him to third. That free out was rendered useless by the Billy Butler single up the middle that would have scored Gordon from second.

I hear all the damn time that Getz “plays the game right” and “does all the little things.” Fine. If he’s so hot, why can’t he take a full swing and put the ball on the right side? It could ultimately end with the same result – an out and an advanced runner – but at least in that case there’s the possibility that something like a base hit could happen. Again, moving the runner to third while surrendering one of your final six outs just isn’t a smart percentage play. And it didn’t work because Gordon would have scored anyway.

Oh, one last thing. From Fangraphs, the Royals Win Expectancy before the Getz bunt? 74 percent. The Royals Win Expectancy following the Getz bunt? 74 percent.

Exactly.

— The Jonathan Broxton Highwire Thrill Ride is kinda starting to piss me off. Single, strikeout, single, strikeout and a fielder’s choice. Never mind the cheap hits. Never mind the first pitch balls. It’s the pace that is just maddening. Pitch the ball, Jonathan.

According to the PITCH f/x data at Fangraphs, Broxton is the third slowest reliever in the game this year.

Must be something about having a first name that starts with a “J.”

Anyway, I’m with Denny Mathews when it comes to the pace of the game. I don’t mind the overall three hour contest. It’s the pitchers that just bring the game to an absolute halt that drive me nuts. Whatever. It’s a pet peeve of mine. I’ll live.

But it makes me dislike Broxton even more.

— Great win. Greinke got me nostalgic and A1 snapped me back to the present, while Broxton made me want to fire up my flux capacitor and look at the future where he’s closing games for another team.

From what I understand, there were some great Greinke quotes following the game. I’m sure we’ll have fun with those tomorrow.

What can we say about Bruce Chen?

The guy is simply a freak of nature.

Yeah, the Twins offense is dreadful (except on Monday when it was pretty good) but whenever a starter puts up a line like this…

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 5 SO

You’re thrilled.

Chen threw 88 pitches and 62 of them were strikes. He was cruising.

And they were largely low stress innings. The Twins put a couple of runners on second, but both reached there with two down – a double by Dozier and a single and a steal by Mastroianni.

I was surprised Yosty didn’t send him back out for the eighth inning. At only 88 pitches and with Chen being a low effort kind of guy (not exactly a flamethrower who runs out of gas) and with those low stress innings, it seemed like an opportune time. Save Greg Holland for another night and let Chen go eight before turning it over to the ninth inning guy.

Shows you what I know when Holland comes on and simply punches out the side.

Nice.

— The Royals gave their free baserunning out away early in this one when Alex Gordon was picked off first in following his first inning walk.

— Chen evened the ledger when he scored a pickoff of his own. Looked extremely close to a balk to me where the lefty isn’t allowed to bring his right leg past the pitching rubber, but it wasn’t called so good enough. Dozier was going on movement, so nice job by Chen to get the ball to first to start the out.

— The Royals seemingly had an opportunity to tack on an insurance run in the eighth when Gordon laced a one out double. Although he was the giver of the Royals Free Out on the bases in the first with his pickoff/caught stealing (that’s how it’s scored) I can’t hang a baserunning blunder on A1 in this situation. The ball was sharply hit, Gordon was going on contact when he saw it wasn’t hit to the left side of the infield, took two steps and was caught in a proverbial no man’s land. Maybe the proper play was to freeze until you saw the ball get by the pitcher, but I’m betting Gordon was thinking about getting a good jump so he could score on a single up the middle. With one out and Butler up, maybe he should have played it safe, thinking Butler could at least get him home with a fly ball. Dunno.

— The Jonathan Broxton highwire act came on in the ninth. Really, the only true scoring opportunity for the Twins all night came in the ninth inning. Antacid time. A double and a walk with one out and he gets a pair of fly balls to end the game. The Dyson grab was a little unnerving. He hasn’t exactly inspired confidence out there when asked to run far to make a grab.

Whew.

— The Royals now have three wins on the homestand. More importantly, they are still on track to win six of their nine games against the A’s, Twins and Pirates.

— Speaking of Pirates, with the glory of interleague the Royals will be forced to play Eric Hosmer in right, slide Jeff Francoeur to center in order to keep Butler’s bat in the lineup at first.

Seriously, with an interleague game scheduled every day of the season next year with the Astros moving to the AL, it’s time to put the DH in the National League. It’s laughable that the Royals construct their team the way they do and then are told they can’t use it in that fashion.

Fix it, Bud.

With a 6-3 win over Cleveland yesterday, the Kansas City Royals completed a quite successful 5-4 road trip.   That is five out of nine against the then leaders of both the AL East and Central divisions, plus the New York Yankees.   That’s five out of nine after starting out the trip by losing three of the first four games and going through a five game stretch where the Royals scored only 15 total runs.

Frankly, if prior to the start of the trip, I told you the following would happen, what would you have pegged the nine game record to be?

  • The Royals would commit 12 errors
  • Starting pitchers would go five innings or less in five of the games.
  • Opposing baserunners would steal 14 bases in 15 attempts

I don’t know, 2-7 probably?

Instead the Royals, whose 16-11 road record trails only that of the division leading Orioles, White Sox and Rangers, came home a happy 5-4.  Oh yeah, five wins on this road trip is equal to the number of home wins the Royals have compiled ALL year.  This team is anything but boring.

This road trip really underscores that you don’t need to play perfect to play decent baseball.  The Royals are not going to go on any fifteen game winning streaks playing like they did the past week and a half, but when they make the plays at the right time, they can slowly climb back to .500….despite themselves.

Yesterday, the Royals got only five marginally effective innings out of Bruce Chen.  They were picked off twice, while Cleveland ran wild on the bases.  Kansas City bailed a befuddled and disgruntled Jennmar Gomez out of trouble when Johnny Giavotella was picked off first base with Billy Butler at the plate.   Later in the game, after rookie Scott Barnes loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter, Jeff Francoeur bailed him out of trouble by popping out on the FIRST pitch he saw.   And, let’s not even get into what Jonathan Broxton did in the ninth.

The day before the Royals committed three errors behind rookie Will Smith (who also walked the first two batters of the game) and the team still cruised to an 8-2 win.   On Sunday in Baltimore, Luke Hochevar did not make it out of the fifth, but the Royals still won 4-2 and the day before that, Felipe Paulino walked five in five innings and the Royals won that game, too.   A team doesn’t have to be perfect to play winning baseball.  In the Royals case, on the road at least, they don’t have to even come close to perfect.  

Over the last thirty games – basically a fifth of a baseball season – the Kansas City Royals are 16-14.   They have done so with a starting rotation so jumbled that the occupants of  both the fourth and fifth starter slots are almost always in a state of flux.  Although the lineup and, more particularly, the batting order has recently settled down, but for most of those thirty games it has been a roulette wheel every night.   Let’s put it another way, the best two starting pitching performances of the road trip were turned in by two guys who did not make the rotation out of spring training and the biggest hit in yesterday’s game came from a player who was sent out to the minors with two weeks left in spring camp.

This is not the Royals team most of thought we would have in 2012.  No one, no matter how correctly skeptical of the rotation, envisioned this team being 5-17 at home.   Of course, this Royals team is not ‘5-17 bad’.   The very basic whims of the baseball gods means the Royals are due for some good luck at home, it not actually destined to, you know, play better baseball on their own field.

The White Sox, by virtue of an 8 game winning streak, have surged to the lead in the Central with a 29-22 record.  However, they don’t really strike one as a team that is going to play .560 baseball all year.  I could be wrong – it’s been known to happen – but the longer the Tigers flounder about the more it seems like the Central Division is in play for whichever mediocre team wants to back into it.

The Royals have begun to see signs of life, or at least signs of better luck, from Eric Hosmer.   Alex Gordon has started to get on base again and Mike Moustakas is emerging as a middle of the order impact bat.    Is Salvador Perez as savior?  Not sure, but I like him in the Royals lineup way more than Brayan Pena or Humberto Quintero and that is going to happen before the end of June.  

While the Royals don’t really know what they have in Lorenzo Cain and likely won’t find out for at least another month, I still believe he is an upgrade in centerfield.  Could Wil Myers find a place by mid-summer?  How about Jake Odorizzi?  What if Will Smith pitches another strong outing this weekend? 

At the end of that awful 12 game losing streak, most of us had this season as being effectively over.   Times have changed.   The Royals don’t need to be perfect to win baseball games.   The season is far from over.

xxx

 

 

Games like the one the Royals played on Tuesday are fantastic. It’s a recipe for a great evening.

— They spotted Vin Mazzaro four runs before he ever took the mound. Wait… The Royals had a “big inning?” An inning where they scored more than one run and didn’t bunt? This is the Royals?

Adding to the confusion was leadoff man Jerrod Dyson clubbing the ball over the head of the right fielder for a leadoff double. What’s up with that? Joey Gathright never hit one off the wall.

Given the opportunity to play everyday, Dyson has exceeded expectations. That’s likely an understatement. On Tuesday, he reached base three times and saw a team high 24 pitches in five plate appearances. That is exactly the kind of stuff you want to see from your leadoff hitter. Oh, and all three times he reached… He scored.

Dyson is now hitting .304/.383/.362 in 81 plate appearances. He’s scored 17 runs in 18 games. And get this… Dyson is scoring 55% of the time he reaches base. No player in baseball with more than 80 plate appearances has scored as frequently as Dyson.

I know we’re still at least a month away from Lorenzo Cain returning from his hip flexor injury, but man… If Dyson can somehow keep this going, there’s no way Cain gets back into the lineup.

— I suppose lost in the “Eric Hosmer batting second” hubbub is that if Jerrod Dyson reaches base in the first inning, we can pretty much forget about Hosmer bunting him over. Although he did execute the swinging bunt in the first on the tapper back to Lewis. I guess what happened is an example of how speed affects the game, as Lewis looked Dyson back to second, then turned to first and lofted a flat footed throw over the head of Moreland.

— Hosmer then executed a boneheaded baserunning play when he broke for third on a ground ball in front of him. You don’t go for third in that situation… You just don’t.

More Royals running into outs.

— After a Jeff Francoeur double and Mike Moustakas was hit by a pitch to load the bases, Brayan Pena saw a meatball from Lewis and laced it into right for a two-run single. Does Pena love hitting in Arlington, or what?

— Finally, a nice job by Chris Getz to line the Lewis curve into center for the Royals final out of the inning. A slow, looping curve that didn’t exactly hang, but it was still in the “happy zone” when Getz drove it to center to bring home the Royals final run of the inning.

It also helps that the Royals were able to keep the pressure on, adding single runs in each of the next two innings. Again it was that leadoff man, Dyson, setting the table with a more Dysonesque base hit than in the first. The error on the pickoff allows him to advance to second, although I was surprised he didn’t go for third. Probably the right call since there weren’t any outs in the inning.

Then a nice piece of hitting from Butler to line the low and away pitch to right to bring Dyson home. That was the sort of inning that wasn’t happening during the first month of the season.

In the third, it was the MooseBomb. All the dude is doing is hitting .310/.371/.540. Nice. It’s weird, but when Hosmer started crushing minor league pitching, he kind of shoved Moustakas to second tier prospect status. But if Moose wasn’t number one on those prospect lists, he was 1A. He’s a damn good ballplayer. Now if we could only get that other guy going…

— Speaking of Hosmer, he did pick up a pair of hits, one of which was an opposite field double. Opposite field hits are always a good sign, but he’s teased us before. Anyway, it was his first multi-hit game since May 3 – the first game of the homestand against the Yankees. And only his sixth multi-hit game of the year. When I say “multi-hit,” I mean two hit games… Because he’s yet to collect more than two hits in a game this season.

— Mazzaro was successful because he threw strikes. According to PITCH f/x, 14 of his 16 four seam fastballs were strikes as were 21 of his 34 two seamers. He doesn’t miss many bats – he only generated four swings and misses of his total 50 fastballs – which against the Rangers feels dangerous. Especially if you’re living in the zone as much as Mazzaro was on Tuesday. But for one night at least, it worked. It also helped that the Rangers seemed a little overzealous, chasing a number of pitches out of the zone.

Whatever… It worked. It also helps that Mazzaro limited any potential damage by walking just a single batter. His final line:

5 IP, 7 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 2 SO

If you had offered that line to me ahead of the game, I would have gladly accepted. Baseball is a funny game.

— And then the bullpen… What an effort. Timmay Collins set the tone by striking out five of the six batters he faced. That curve… Just devastating. He’s just been amazing this year. Collins was followed by Aaron Crow, Jose Mijares and a rejuvenated Greg Holland. Here’s the combined bullpen line of the evening:

4 IP, 1 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 7 SO

That’s how Dayton drew it up, right? Cobble together five half-decent innings from your mediocre starting pitcher and then have the bullpen lock things down for the next four? And hope like hell your lineup strings together enough runs to give your team a fighting chance?

It’s a wonderful thing when a plan comes together.

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