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Mike Moustakas is not a good hitter.

Sorry to be so blunt. But come on, you’ve seen him play. That’s just a fact.

Over parts of four seasons, Moustakas has accumulated 1,992 plate appearances. His career slash line is .236/.290/.379. No matter how many plate appearances Ned Yost and Dayton Moore need to evaluate talent, I think we’ve seen enough. The results are… incredibly underwhelming.

In the history of baseball, only two third basemen have had more plate appearances and a worse slash line than Moustakas. One, Lee Tanneyhill, played in the deadball era and slashed .220/.269/.273 in over 4,100 plate appearances for the White Sox. The other is John Kennedy, a journeyman third baseman who played for the Senators, Dodgers, Yankees, Pilots/Brewers, and Red Sox. In a 12 year career, he had 2,324 plate appearances and hit .225/.281/.323.

The point isn’t to compare these three players. Crossing eras and using a slash line isn’t really the best way to draw distinction. The point here is to underscore how the Royals have been relentless in their propping up of Moustakas as an acceptable everyday third baseman, continually listing him in the lineup only to watch him underperform at a now near historic level.

How about we simplify the search? How about a list of third basemen who have more than 1,990 plate appearances in their career and have an OPS+ less than 85? And let’s narrow it further to the dawn of the expansion era.

Here’s the list:

Player OPS+ PA G R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
David Bell 85 5380 1403 587 1239 267 18 123 589 428 687 .257 .320 .396 .716
Dave Chalk 85 3330 903 292 733 107 9 15 243 295 327 .252 .325 .310 .636
Charley Smith 85 2619 753 226 584 82 17 69 276 129 550 .241 .281 .374 .656
Dave Roberts 84 2191 709 194 483 77 7 49 208 128 361 .239 .286 .357 .644
Tom Brookens 83 4258 1336 477 950 175 40 71 431 281 605 .246 .296 .367 .663
Mike Moustakas 82 1993 514 182 432 99 3 52 199 128 332 .236 .290 .379 .668
Brandon Inge 82 5617 1532 563 1166 228 38 152 648 443 1306 .233 .301 .384 .685
Pedro Feliz 80 4544 1302 487 1065 209 25 140 598 230 663 .250 .288 .410 .698
Tim Hulett 80 2317 720 245 529 90 13 48 220 145 438 .249 .298 .371 .669
Ken Reitz 79 5079 1344 366 1243 243 12 68 548 184 518 .260 .290 .359 .649
Craig Paquette 77 2766 814 304 620 128 10 99 377 120 620 .239 .274 .411 .685
Aurelio Rodriguez 76 7085 2017 612 1570 287 46 124 648 324 943 .237 .275 .351 .626
Garth Iorg 72 2615 931 251 633 125 16 20 238 114 298 .258 .292 .347 .639
John Kennedy 70 2324 856 237 475 77 17 32 185 142 461 .225 .281 .323 .604
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/25/2015.

Poor John Kennedy.

And wow. Mike Moustakas is the new Pedro Feliz. Think about it. That’s… less than ideal. The above list has some familiar names. There have been a few third basemen who haven’t been adequate at the dish. Brandon Inge, David Bell, Tom Brookens and Feliz all got far too many plate appearances with a less than average bat.

We are getting to the point where the frustration level should be building that the Royals continue to employ Mike Moustakas as a full-time third baseman. Yet, aside from a brief sojourn to Omaha last summer, he has been THE GUY for the Royals. It’s understanding they want (and need) their high draft pick to succeed. As a fan, I want him to succeed, too. But there is simply too much evidence to ignore.

Let’s focus on a couple of things Moustakas did right in 2014. For starters, he increased his walk rate. He had been around 6.2 percent for his career and last summer he walked about seven percent of the time. A modest increase to be sure, but this is Moustakas we’re discussing. There aren’t any giant leaps forward in his game. You take what you can get. So I’m going to place his increase in walk rate on the “positive” side of the ledger. Another rate positive was his decrease in strikeout rate. In 2014, Moustakas whiffed 14.8 percent of the time, slicing more than a percentage point off his rate from the previous summer.

More walks and fewer strikeouts is generally a good thing. Moustakas also increased his contact rate for the second consecutive year. In fact, it’s kind of impressive how he’s shown improvement in this area.

2012 – 77.9%
2013 – 81.2%
2014 – 84.3%

But we’ve all watched Sal Perez. We know that more contact doesn’t exactly equate better contact. In fact, his contact on pitches outside the strike zone went up to a whopping 79.7 percent, well above the league average of 68 percent. I know the Royals preach their hitters putting the bat on the ball, but this strikes me as the batting equivalent of the “pitch to contact” revolution that was incredibly unsuccessful a decade ago. Absolutely, you have to put the bat on the ball. There has to be a method… An approach at the plate. Have a plan. Work the count. Be selective. Gain the advantage before you step up and start taking your hacks. Moustakas is a prime example of a guy needing a plan to be successful. When he got ahead in the count in 2014, he owned pitchers. Check his splits broken out by when he’s ahead in the count, even and behind.

MooseCount

OH MY GOD, I FOUND A STAT WHERE MOUSTAKAS IS LEAGUE AVERAGE.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. Although I consider my discovery to be on par with when Bell invented the telephone or when Rutherford split the atom.

Of course, it’s natural to assume that when a hitter is ahead in the count, he’s going to be more successful. That’s why we say he’s “ahead,” after all. The amazing thing is Moustakas is actually a better than league average hitter when he’s ahead. Mind blown. His sOPS+ (the split relative to the league) when he’s ahead in the count is a healthy 126.

Unfortunately, when he’s behind – or even in the count – he’s a miserable hitter. God awful. Like he’s never swung the bat in his life. He owned a 34 sOPS+ when even in the count and a 33 sOPS+ when he was behind in 2014. So that above average hitter when he’s ahead in the count? He gives it all back and then some the rest of the time.

How about another positive development in his offensive game? Moustakas increased his average distance of fly balls and home runs in 2014 by about 15 feet. That may not sound like a big deal, but his increase was the 11th best among major league regulars last year. Adding length to the batted ball is a nice explanation for improved performance for that season. That season. Studies have shown most players experience a one year blip and give roughly half their distance back the following season. The sad thing is Moustakas didn’t realize an improvement that’s often related to increasing distance.

Probably one reason his fly ball distance increased was his decrease on number of infield fly balls. His IFFB rate in 2014 was 15.1 percent, down from the previous year’s 16.6 percent. Had he garnered enough plate appearances to qualify, he still would have ranked sixth in the AL in IFFB rate. (First place went to Sal Perez at 17.3 percent. Boy, his profile is going to be fun.) Unrelated, his HR/FB rate was a career-best 9.4 percent. Still too low for someone with his power potential, but it’s a nice place to be, and an improvement upon his previous season.

Moustakas hit five home runs in the postseason, so you know the Royals are going to promote the hell out of that next month when he starts teeing off in the desert. But let’s be real. In October, Moustakas slashed .231/.259/.558. That’s a 127 wRC+, which is nice, but it’s not like Moustakas hasn’t done this before. He hit five home runs in July of 2014. And in May and June of 2012. Moustakas is a streaky hitter. But even his hot streaks aren’t all that impressive.

Moustakas is one of the more heavily shifted hitters in baseball. For good reason. Here is his spray chart on batted balls.

MooseBattedBalls

When you have a cluster like that around the second base area on ground balls, you’re going to get shifted. Now despite what the new commissioner says, I believe the shift is here to stay. And it’s going to continue to confound one-dimensional hitters like Moustakas. He was never going to hit for a high average anyway, so I’m not certain what’s the big deal about the shift. The way you beat it is either to go the other way or stop hitting so many ground balls.

I haven’t even touched on Moustakas’s mechanics at the plate. Let’s just say they’re a hot mess. I’ve seen him roll over his front foot, open up way too soon, stand too far off the plate, stand too close to the plate, fail to get his arms extended… you get the picture. He must be a hitting coach’s nightmare. He’s tinkering so much – yet allegedly refusing to watch video – that he just seems to be a lost cause at this point.

Defensively, Moustakas is fine. He could be better. Although his glove most definitely does not make up for his weak bat.

According to Inside Edge, Moustakas made roughly 95 percent of “routine” plays at third last year. That puts him in the middle of the pack for the hot corner. However, he made only 66 percent of the plays classified as “likely.” That puts him in the lower quarter of regular third basemen. Here’s his heat chart from Fangraphs and Inside Edge.

MooseField

From the charts above, it looks like Moustakas has most of his issues ranging to his left. The data from The Fielding Bible backs this up, which has him at -2 on the +/- scale when ranging toward the shortstop. His strength would be coming in and charging the ball on short fielding plays. Again, he’s solid defensively. Not a Gold Glover.

Moustakas is eligible for arbitration for the first time and is looking for a contract of $3.1 million. The Royals countered with $1.85 million. Fangraphs had Moustakas at 0.9 fWAR last year (ranking 21st out of 25 third basemen with at least 500 plate appearances) which meant his dollar value was around $4.6 million to the Royals. He’s going to get a raise and whatever he earns won’t be absurd in the game’s current economic climate.

Still, the sooner the Royals realize he’s not an everyday third baseman, the better. If he’s not good enough to play everyday, is he a viable platoon candidate? Eh. Here are his career splits:

vs LHP – .211/.267/.328  63 wRC+
vs RHP – .245/.297/.396 89 wRC+

Underwhelming, no matter who is on the mound. At least he’s still relatively affordable, so you could at least partially understand keeping him around as a platoon. That’s what the Royals attempted to do last year with Danny Valencia, but they pretty much bailed on that deal.

Moustakas is here to stay. At least for 2015. He will continue to roll over and pull grounders to second, hit mile-high pop-ups that don’t leave the infield, and will be stunningly average in the field. He will be serenaded by “Mooooose” calls and will continue to be a fan favorite. Hopefully, the 2015 Royals can – like the 2014 Royals – overcome his presence in the lineup.

I love Jarrod Dyson’s story.

Fiftieth round draft pick. The 1,475th player selected in the 2006 draft. He opened his career with the Royals Rookie League club in Arizona and hit .273/.358/.373 as a 21 year old in his first taste of pro ball. A raw talent with speed to burn, Dyson glided through the Royals system. A ball in 2007. Double-A in ’08. Triple-A called in 2009 and 2010. He got the call to the majors when rosters expanded in September of 2010. He got a few starts, played decent defense, stole a couple of bases and was largely overmatched at the plate.

He seemed destined, in a best-case scenario, for a role as a fourth outfielder. In fact, I remember arguing he was surplus to requirements on the Royals. He would be better utilized on a team with true outfield depth where he could act as a late inning defensive replacement or a pinch running assignment sprinkled among a few spot starts here or there. The Royals of 2010 (and 2011 and 2012) were not that team.

But the Royals love their athletes and that, ultimately, is what Dyson is. He’s a supreme athlete.

Four years after his debut, Dyson was a key component to the Royals march to the AL title.

Baseball is kind of like that.

As the 2015 looms on the horizon, Dyson again looks to be cast in the role of the fourth outfielder. Alex Gordon is the mainstay in left. Lorenzo Cain has center. And the Royals didn’t give $11 million to Alex Rios so he could sit on the bench. But at this point in his career, Dyson has evolved from a fringy speedster on a second division squad to a legitimate asset on a team with sights on October.

As a hitter, Dyson lacks the discipline at the plate to be a consistent offensive threat. His career walk rate is 8.8 percent (and has declined in each of the last two seasons.) He should be north of 12 percent if he was to be an effective leadoff man where he could use his speed tool with abandon.

When he puts the ball in play, it’s on the ground roughly two-thirds of the time. That’s an excellent ratio for Dyson. Again, it’s all about leveraging his speed. He lacks even gap to gap power, so if the ball is going in the air, odds are strong it will settle in a defender’s glove. On the ground, his legs give him a chance. Over 11 percent of his hits last summer stayed on the infield. That was just a shade under his career infield hit rate of 12 percent. From Texas Leaguers, here is Dyson’s spray chart from 2014:

Dyson2014Spray

A cluster of bunt hits down the third base line, a few “tweeners” on the right side and some grounders up the middle. His game is about singles, so when he’s in the lineup, he’s practically the conductor of the Royals Singles Train.

Here are the top five outcomes of a Dyson plate appearance in 2014:

Groundout – 25.2%
Single – 20.3%
Strikeout – 18.1%
Flyout – 8.7%
Walk – 7.7%

The above totals add up to 80 percent. Meaning four out of five of Dyson’s plate appearances end in one of five ways. I haven’t crunched the numbers, but that seems like a thin cluster outcomes. I’d wager most players are around 70-75 percent on their top five outcomes. (I did a quick check and Alex Gordon is at 75 percent. So is Lorenzo Cain.) This isn’t an indictment of Dyson’s offensive game. Just an observation. These are the most common outcomes for most players. Baseball is a game of failure, right? It just so happens that Dyson’s cluster of outcomes is a little more narrow than the average batter.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: Dyson’s offense is not good. His slash line of .269/.324/.327 doesn’t profile as a mainstay in any lineup. His wRC+ was 85 in 2014, just a couple of points above his career average. Now we don’t have the same kind of sample size for Dyson as we do a guy like Mike Moustakas, but Dyson has been very consistent offensively over the last three years. He is who he is with the bat. A singles hitter who doesn’t take enough walks to play everyday.

The thing with Dyson is once he gets to first base, if second base is open, he’s going for it. I mean really going for it. Singles and walks can turn into doubles and triples, which can turn into runs. Such is the Royals mantra. This is Jarrod Dyson. And that’s what speed do.

We all know Dyson is a burner. But he truly leverages his speed. Last year, Dyson took advantage of stolen base opportunities more than any runner in baseball. Baseball Reference defines stolen base opportunities as a plate appearance where the runner was on first or second with the next base open. Makes sense, right? Dyson, according to BR, had 116 stolen base opportunities. He ran on 43 of those, a rate of 37 percent. Basically, if he had the chance, he was running a little more than one-third of the time. That’s a massive amount of stolen base attempts given the opportunity. That made him the most likely runner (minimum of 100 opportunities) to attempt to swipe a bag in the AL last summer. By far.

DysonSBA

Wow. Seven percentage points ahead of the runner with the second highest stolen base attempt average. And 14 percentage points ahead of fifth place. That is impressive.

Not only was Dyson running often, he was effective swiping that bag. His success rate on steals last year was 84 percent, swiping 36 bags in 43 attempts. The accepted baseline for stolen base success rate is 75 percent. Below that, you’re hurting your team. Above it and you’re helping. If you’re nearly 10 percentage points above it… That’s exceptional.

There can be no question; the speed is a weapon. And it seemed like Ned Yost figured the most optimal way to deploy this weapon late in the year and throughout the postseason. Dyson appeared in 120 games, made it to the field in 108 of them and started 66 times. That’s about the perfect mix for a player of Dyson’s skill set.

Of those 108 games he made it to the field, he patrolled center in 106 of them. According to the Fielding Bible, Dyson saved 14 runs in center. That’s an amazing number of runs saved for a part-time defender. He ranked fifth among all center fielders in runs saved! Apologies for the exclamation point, but damnit, that deserved one. He was in the field for 678 innings, or less than half of the innings the Royals played defense in 2014 and the guy still was the fifth best defender according to the Runs Saved metric. Let that soak in for a moment.

Dyson does it by making the plays he should make. Here’s data from Inside Edge on Dyson’s range in center field.

DysonRange

Broken down into raw numbers, Dyson made over 99 percent of the “routine” plays and over 93 percent of the “likely” plays. My eye tells me he doesn’t always run the best routes, but his speed makes up for an error in judgement from time to time. The guy is a damn good defender. Also, his arm is above average for a center fielder. I think that took some fans by surprise given his build and makeup as an offensive player. You know, slight, fast guys aren’t supposed to have strong arms. They’re supposed to be more Johnny Damon and less Alex Gordon. Either way, his arm has been an underrated aspect of his defense.

With Lorenzo Cain a better all around player than Dyson, it makes sense to start him ahead of Dyson. I absolutely loved how Yost used Dyson in center in late game situations, moving Cain to right. Loved it. In a single move, he upgraded his defense from really good to freaking amazing. An outfield of Gordon-Dyson-Cain is without a doubt the best defensive outfield in the game.

Dyson is the fourth player I’ve profiled who is eligible for arbitration. He asked for $1.6 million. The Royals countered with $900,000. Major League Trade Rumors estimated he would earn $1.3 million. With a midpoint between asked and offered at $1.25 million, it stands to reason this case won’t go to a hearing the and the sides will be able to settle. Dyson’s defense alone is worth millions, but arbitration hasn’t evolved past the counting stats like home runs. Steals just aren’t as impressive. Neither is his role as a fourth outfielder. Dyson was worth 3.1 fWAR last year, which Fangraphs calculated as worth nearly $17 million dollars. Yeah, that’s not a typo. Nearly all of that value comes from his base running and his glove.

It will be interesting to see how the Royals use Dyson in 2015. I’ve heard rumblings the Royals think enough of Rios in right, they won’t lift him for a defensive replacement late in games. That’s disappointing for a couple of reasons. One, Rios has been worth negative runs saved in right the last two seasons, indicating a loss of range with his age. And two, because when you have a defensive weapon on your team like Dyson, it’s incredibly wasteful if he spends his time on the bench. He won’t provide near as much value if he’s only called upon as a spot starter and occasional pinch runner. He needs to get on the field as often as possible, without exposing his bat. That’s why he’s the ideal fourth outfielder.

It has taken me a long time to get onboard the Jarrod Dyson bandwagon.  I spent a lot of time grimacing at his subpar reading of fly balls and his once a month adventures fielding routine two hoppers to center.  The former 50th round pick’s approach at the plate would often irk me.  Irk me!  I tell ya!

No longer.  Give me more Dyson and I’m talking about more Dyson particularly when Nori Aoki comes back from the disabled list.

There is no doubt in my mind that Lorenzo Cain is a more gifted defensive centerfielder than Dyson, but I am even more certain that Cain is much better in right than Dyson (were Dyson to ever actually play an inning at that position).  My thought is based on a) The Royals love Lorenzo Cain’s defense and still move him to right when Dyson is in the lineup and b) Cain simply reads the ball better than Dyson and that ability makes him more suited to play ‘out of position’.

To be clear, both are exceptional defenders.   For his career, Cain has been credited with saving 41 runs over 1865 innings in center.  Dyson, in 1769 innings, has saved 31 runs (DRS via Fangraphs).  Their UZR/150 is equally as impressive:  Cain at 20.1 and Dyson at 22.0.   In the alternative, one could just watch those two play and see that they get to just about everything hit in the air these days.

The metrics (and we’re in small sample size territory here) show that Cain is quite possibly even better in right, with a UZR/150 of 33.9 and 12 Defensive Runs Saved in just over 400 innings.  You are going to have a hard time convincing me that an outfield of Gordon-Dyson-Cain is not the best defensive alignment in the game.

Offensively, check the career numbers of Aoki and Dyson versus right-handed pitching:

  • Dyson: .274/.341/.364   wRC+ 95
  • Aoki: .269/.346/.377  wRC+ 101

Right there, given Dyson’s ability in the field, should be all the evidence you need that Jarrod Dyson should be in the lineup against right-handed pitching every day for the rest of 2014.  There’s more, however.   Dyson appears to be getting better with his wRC+ progressing over the last three years from 89 to 104 to 101, while Aoki is regressing over the same period of time (125-98-64).

Let’s head down to the basement and check the two players’ fWAR:

  • Dyson 2012: 102 games, 1.4 fWAR
  • Aoki 2012: 151 games, 2.4 fWAR
  • Dyson 2013: 87 games, 2.4 fWAR
  • Aoki 2013: 155 games, 1.7 fWAR
  • Dyson 2014: 51 games, 2.0 fWAR
  • Aoki 2014: 68 games, 0.9 fWAR

No matter how much you love the idea of inserting Dyson as a pinchrunner onto the basepaths at a critical point in a game (which on this team with this manager, means whenever Billy Butler is on first in the 8th or 9th inning), you have to be willing to say Jarrod would be much more valuable playing all nine innings any time a right-hander appears on the mound.

Barring a hot streak from Justin Maxwell (which two different organizations have been waiting five years for) or a better-than-what-we-have-seen Aoki, I am inclined to think Dyson should play against left-handers as well, based solely on his defensive ability.  That is not ideal, of course, as Jarrod has never and probably never will be an effective hitter against southpaws, but it might be the best option for now.

Some/many of you might already be onboard the Dyson train.  My apologies for being late.

It gets weirder and weirder every day in the Royals Universe.

Nine in a row.

First place in the Central. In mid-June. Over the Detroit juggernaut.

My head is spinning.

Before we go any further, let’s check the latest offensive numbers from this nine game stretch.

DBD_617

They are all hitting. And the home runs. I can’t get over the fact this group, so punchless in the early going, has clubbed 12 out of the park in the last nine games. In the first two months, Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas hit six home runs combined. This month, they’ve already combined for seven. As I pointed out the other day, this is what a hot streak looks like.

The homers last night were glorious. Especially the Alex Gordon bomb. More on that in a moment.

According to ESPN, the Royals most productive June as far as winning percentage came way back in 1972 when they won 18 of 27, which is a .667 winning percentage. So far in this June, the team has captured 12 of 15. Ummm, that’s .800. That’s pretty good.

Another thing the Royals accomplished last night which should certainly be noted: They knocked the Tigers from the top of their AL Central perch for the first time since July 3. Yep. The Tigers held first place in the AL Central all season and for half (let’s face it, the really important half) of 2013. While I maintain my previous position that I don’t get giddy over being in first place on June 18, I have to admit, it’s kind of fun to see this:

Standings_618

Damn. I mean, look at the run differential. Only five teams are in the green and the Royals are one of them. After drubbing Detroit the last two nights, they’ve shifted to red. Even more impressive, this once anemic offense is now pretty damn robust. Again, it’s the peaks and valleys I discussed the other day. Everything levels out in the end. Except most teams don’t seem to experience the extreme highs and lows we see in Kansas City. The Royals have scored 301 runs. Or three runs fewer than the Tigers. Wow.

I guess all it took was a reassignment of a hitting coach.

I don’t know if the Royals can win their 10th in a row this afternoon. I do know if the winning streak ends today, it went out with an exclamation point of a seventh inning on Tuesday.

FG_WE_617

The Gordon home run following the Butler walk was a thing of beauty. I mean, most homers are, but this one was especially a bomb. Officially, it went 414 feet. Maybe that’s not so impressive, but it was hit to a part of Comerica where I haven’t seen many home runs land. And I thought it was cool. Doesn’t really matter. It was like a dagger in the heart of the Tigers. When Moustakas hit a hanging change over the fence in right, it felt like the Royals were again in control. To hang three more runs was gravy. It felt good.

Nine games. Winning. Yes.

There are a bunch of games left. In fact, there are 93. Far too many to start selling internal organs so you can afford playoff tickets. But maybe you should prepare for life with a single kidney.

This could be a fun summer.

Do you remember, back in the early days of the season, when the typical Royals fan lament went something like this:

“If only they could get the bats going.”

May I present to you, the last week of Royals baseball.

Damn.

After sweeping the Indians at home and the White Sox on the road, the Royals own a seven game winning streak and are winners of eight of their last 10 and 12 of their last 20. There’s hot, and then there’s Royals Hot.

Baseball is a game of peaks and valleys. They say once you think you have the game figured out, it will humble you just as fast. The Royals, it seems, are the masters of the peaks and valleys. We saw the exact same thing last year when the team bottomed out at the All-Star Break, prompting this writer to call for the dismissal of Dayton Moore. Part of the reason for the call of Moore’s firing at the time was his apparent detachment from reality when he stated his 2013 Royals were capable of a stretch where they could win 15 out of 20. Laughable, I wrote, pointing out that very few Royals teams in the past had actually accomplished such a run of successful baseball. Then what happened? Ummmm… they won 15 out of their next 20. (Baseball is humbling? Damn. Try blogging.) Anyway, it’s about the peaks and valleys. Peaks and valleys.

This year, it’s looking like a carbon copy of 2013. Straight down to the reassignment of a hitting coach. Except now the Royals have found (or are close to) the peak at a much earlier date. At least one month earlier in 2014 they finally figured out where the switch for the afterburners is located and they hit the damn thing.

From Baseball Musing’s Day by Day Database, here’s how the offense has looked this month:

DBD_67

And how the offense looked last week.

DBD_66

Funny game, baseball. At the end of May I insisted that it was bad business to set your lineup based on streaks (both hot and cold) and advocated Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain move to the top third of the order. Well, one out of two isn’t bad. Gordon is his typical awesome self. Mr. Everything for this club. Cain, however, has had a bit of a rough go this month. Break it down to look exclusively at this winning streak and who are the two of the worst offensive performers? Yep. Gordon and Cain.

But take a moment to revisit those numbers from the last week. Eric Hosmer is hitting like Hosmer post-May 2013. Sal Perez is a destroyer of baseballs. Billy Butler is an on base machine. Mike Moustakas is FIXED! And good grief, Alcides Escobar. Look at those numbers. And that’s after an 0-3 day at the plate. Somehow, he drew a walk and saw a grand total of nine pitches in four plate appearances. But those numbers. This offense is now running on best-case scenario. These guys are just killing it. Early and often. It’s been a helluva week.

Here’s the great thing about this peak I just spent 500 words extolling: It’s coming against teams in the AL Central.

When the Royals opened this stretch of baseball, I said it was a pivotal moment of the 2014 season. At that moment, the Royals had won a grand total of six intra-division games. No other team in baseball had fewer than 10 wins against intra-division opponents. In other words, the Royals had become experts at laying down in their own division. That’s no way to win a wild card spot, never mind the division itself. Having dug such a hole in the Central, it was imperative the Royals stop the bleeding and get better. Immediately. And nine games against Central opponents presented the first opportunity. So here we are, five games in and the Royals have won all five.

Have I mentioned baseball is a funny game?

Now, attention turns to Detroit and the Tigers. It’s far too early in the season for me to get caught up in the standings. I could care less who is in first place on June 16. It doesn’t matter. Positioning matters. If teams harbor October expectations, they need to hang close. You can’t pull a Tampa Bay and drop 13 games out of the division and 10 games out of the wild card because that’s ground you just can’t make up over the course of three and a half months. We’ve said it over and over – and experienced it last year – but if you fall so far behind and allow multiple teams to move ahead of you and a playoff spot – it’s difficult to climb over those teams to get to the top.

At some point, hot streak will end. (I’m not trying to rain on your Plaza Parade. It’s a streak. If you are unfamiliar with the term, look it up somewhere.) At some point the Royals will probably play a stretch of baseball where they go 10-10. Maybe a little worse. The important thing to remember is positioning. The Royals are in a good position right now. If they stumble a bit, they may remain on the outside of a playoff spot, but if they can maintain their positioning, they can be OK.

And that’s exactly what I think this team can do. They can keep themselves in position. No way was the offense as bad as we saw back in April and May. Sadly, it’s not this good either. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in-between. And that’s OK. Because with the pitching and defense, that gives this team a pretty good chance.

This isn’t a team built on the premise they can dominate. (No sane Royals fan can believe that. Not after what we saw in April and May.) But this is a team that can compete and this team can cause some problems. There’s a ton of mediocrity in the American League this summer. So many teams have opportunity. So few will capitalize.

Here’s hoping the Royals continue to capitalize.

A whole weekend passed without any worthy Nori Aoki gifs. I feel cheated.

At least there’s a 2-1 win against the hated Yankees on Sunday. Six strong from James Shields and three from the shutdown bullpen.  Aaron Crow, Wade Davis and Greg Holland with the honors. I’m sure Ned Yost would have liked to have gotten seven from Shields, but the Yankees worked him for 110 pitches in the six innings. Eight whiffs against two walks. Seven ground outs and just one fly ball out.

Yost likes it when he doesn’t have to think. Automatic situations are good. Eighth inning with a one-run lead? Davis. It works for the bullpen because he has two of the best relievers in the league at his disposal. With the offense it’s a different story. Top of the lineup card? Aoki-Infante-Hosmer. Damn the numbers. Damn the facts.

At this point, it feels like a point of pride for Yost, doesn’t it? Everyone who pays attention to baseball and the Royals know this lineup is the pits. They also know the two best hitters on this team are buried at number five and number seven in the order. How the hell does that make any sense? Yet there’s Nervous Ned, sticking to his guns. The Titantic may be bearing down on that iceberg, but dammit he’s not going to steer around it just because it’s in his way. Come on.

The fact is, Gordon is one of the best hitters on this team, no matter what. A few years ago, it seemed inspired when Yost bumped him to the top of the order. Now the pendulum has swung the other direction with a stubborn Yost refusing to see what is clear to everyone.

Because it’s not kosher to criticize and not offer a solution, here would be my lineup going forward:

Gordon
Aoki
Cain
Perez
Hosmer
Butler
Escobar
Infante
Moustakas

Gordon is the only guy on the team who can work a walk and is the best hitter. He should get the most plate appearances. I know I just mocked the idea of Aoki hitting leadoff and I only push him down one spot, but he has to hit somewhere. His .318 OBP rates fourth among regulars. (Have I mentioned this offense is horrible?) Yeah, he’s striking out more than advertised, but his contact rate is second highest on the team which is useful in that position. Cain is the best hitter not named Gordon, so he hits third. Not ideal, but this lineup is a hot mess. Perez is my power bat, so he’s fourth. That’s two left-handed bats followed by two right-handed bats at the top of the order. Time to change things up a bit. But really that’s the only method to this madness in the lower half. It’s really about minimizing Moustakas and Infante.

My other solution involves cloning Gordon eight times.

Being a manager is about positioning your guys to where you give the team the best chance to succeed. So many times a manager gets fired when players don’t produce. You’ll hear things like, “It wasn’t his fault we weren’t hitting (or fielding, or pitching.)” A manager can fill out an optimal lineup card but will pay when if team doesn’t execute. What happens when a manager knowingly ignores mounting evidence that his lineup defies baseball logic?

It’s amazing Yost is still employed.

— Hey, Eric Hosmer hit a home run on Saturday. A real, actual home run. And it was a bomb, traveling 445 feet according to Hit Tracker. This seems like a decent time to break out Hosmer’s home run plots for the 2014 season.

Hosmer_Eric_2014_scatter

Grim. Seriously. His other home run this year came in San Diego and traveled just 362 feet, barely clearing the wall at Petco.

Compare the above chart to last summer. Last year, Hosmer clubbed 17 home runs, but didn’t hit his second on the season until June 13. This year, he hit his second on June 7! He’s almost a full week ahead of the pace last year! Amazing.

Hosmer_Eric_2013_scatter

When he got hot last summer, his power was from the left-center gap to right-center. Pretty impressive, actually.

So is this the start of another summer streak? I don’t know about that. In 2013, when he went on a tear, the power came later. I mentioned his second home run was hit on June 17. Well, if we subscribe to the theory that George Brett’s arrival helped drag Hosmer out of his doldrums, then we see that from May 29 (Brett’s first day on the job) to June 16, Hosmer hit .308/.345/.365. Sixteen hits in that stretch with only three for extra bases – all doubles. The power arrived later. Eight of his 17 home runs came in a stretch from June 17 to July 4.

Last Friday, I went around the infield and looked at how the Royals offensive production at each position compared to league average. Today, it’s time for the outfield (and DH) to get the similar treatment.

Left Field
League Average – .243/.320/.412
Royals – .230/.324/.364, sOPS+ 85

Alex Gordon’s numbers look very much like the ’09-’10 version of Alex Gordon. That’s the version we thought we’d left behind. At least, we had hoped that version had been left behind after the Royals penned him to a contract extension just ahead of the season opener.

If you’re into arbitrary end points, Gordon did have a fine stretch of 19 games where he hit .321/.398/.487 from April 25 to May 16. That was when we collectively exhaled. Great. Except in the 11 games since then, he’s hit .146/.255/.220.

Although Gordon won’t admit it, I wonder if he’s been unsettled by Yosty’s Revolving Lineup Card. Gordon opened the year as the leadoff hitter (where he had most of his success last year), but when he was slow out of the gate, he was dropped to second, then third, then cleanup and even spent a few games in the sixth spot. In the last three games, he’s returned to the leadoff spot and has picked up four hits in 13 plate appearances. There’s still time for him to salvage his season, but it’s been much more of a grind.

Center Field
League Average – .268/.333/.432
Royals – .236/.312/.322, sOPS+ 70

Aside from the DH spot, the most productive position in the American League so far this year has been center field. And it’s where the Royals have struggled to get any production at all. Jerrod Dyson has seen the most appearances in center, with Mitch Maier with the second most. Lorenzo Cain and Jason Bourgeois have also seen time at the position.

Dyson’s production has been solid as far as reaching base. With a .252/.328/.331 line, he’s proven himself adept at working the count and drawing the base on balls. He still doesn’t hit enough to justify the leadoff spot in the lineup, but like I said… He’s pretty close to league average when it comes to OBP. That makes him a decent fourth outfielder to have on your roster. Look out, Mitch.

Still, this feels like a lost season for Cain. He was supposed to get most of the reps in center, but the injury bug bit him hard. Cain is in extended spring training rehabbing from a torn hip flexor. He’s probably a good three to four weeks away from returning. At which time, the Royals will have a decision to make: Will they hand him back his everyday job in center, or will they write off this season and rotate him with Dyson and/or Maier? Maier is buried so far on Yosty’s bench, he could be the odd man out.

Oh… At this point, I’m supposed to ask, “Got Melk?”

Right Field
League Average – .258/.326/.434
Royals – .276/.320/.443, sOPS+ 96

We know from watching the Royals several certainties: Ned Yost will call for myriad sac bunts in situations where they won’t help his team. The Royals will give the opposition at least one free out per game. And Jeff Francoeur will hit fifth.

Like most of the Royals, The Frenchman got off to a slow start, but picked up the pace of late. In May, he’s hit .327/.371/.582. Most impressive have been his seven walks this month. Currently, he’s walking in 6.2 percent of his plate appearances, which is the highest rate of his career. I think it has something to do with the Mayans. Or a Kardashian. And with five home runs this month, he’s knocking one out of the yard about every 36 at bats, which is very close to his career mark of 32 AB/HR. And this for a guy who didn’t hit his first bomb until May 13 and didn’t hit his second until May 21.

Nice road trip.

Designated Hitter
League Average – .259/.333/.450
Royals – .290/.345/.505, sOPS+ 118

The Royals have utilized two designated hitters all year: Billy Butler and… Johnny Giavotella. Ummm, OK.

We all know about Country Breakfast. And long time readers will know about my affection for the man. Dude can rake. And he’s the only thing – the only thing – that you can count on in the Royals lineup. He will show up every year, drill line drives to the gaps and put up a line around .300/.370/.470.

Except this year, he’s hit a few more home runs.

The party line from the Royals is Butler is finally hitting for more loft. Sounds great, except he’s not. His fly ball percentage is 32.2 percent which is the lowest of his career. The lowest. Yet, the ball is flying out of the part and he’s become the number one threat to wipe Steve Balboni from the Royals record book. How? Maybe it’s because he’s stronger. It doesn’t look like he’s changed his approach as the Royals would like you to believe. He’s swinging at pitches at roughly the same rate. It’s just that the fly balls have a little more charge in them this year.

It’s a nice development.

And as I Tweeted a few weeks ago, if you don’t like Billy Butler, I don’t have a lot of time for you. Sorry. I think he’s a great hitter. And the kind of guy you need on your team.

Country Breakfast is awesome.

I’m told this weekend is the unofficial start to summer. It appears it’s also the unofficial point where a third of the baseball season is past. Strange dichotomy, that.

Seems as though now is as good a time as any to check some league wide numbers and see how the Royals are comparing offensively. I’m looking at slash stats and dropping in sOPS+ for the numbers. Just a rough measuring stick of how the Royals are getting production out of their infield positions when looking at the scope of the entire league.

Catcher
League AVG – .239/.310/.389
Royals – .244/.274/.359, s OPS+ 76

Brayan Pena and Humberto Quintero have combined for 15 doubles, tied for the top number in the AL. They’ve also combined for a single home run. Believe it or not, that’s not the worst in the league. Thanks to the Oakland A’s.

It’s also worth noting that Pena and Quintero have drawn just six walks between them. But they’ve only struck out 18 times. I suppose if we were going to make a blanket statement here it would be Royals catchers make contact. It’s not good contact, but it’s contact.

First Base
League AVG – .242/.317/.406
Royals – .203/.279/.360, sOPS+ 72

The Royals slash line would be worse if not for Country Breakfast who has collected 13 plate appearances while spelling the struggling Eric Hosmer. In that limited action, Butler has hit .400/.538/.800, which is enough to add 14 points to the collective batting average and 19 points to the OBP.

Second Base
League AVG – .245/.311/.372
Royals – .272/.318/.380, sOPS+ 102

There you have it… No clue how this is happening, but it is. The first four weeks of the season, Betancourt was taking walks and Getz actually hit a couple of doubles. Since then, the Yunigma has hit the DL and Getz started struggling before he took his turn on the sidelines.

And then Irving Falu comes up and starts hitting like he’s the second coming of Joe Morgan. OK then. I’m going to assume that Falu comes back to Earth (or Omaha) and Betancourt is close to a return and there’s no way he can keep his current slash line at .289/.347/.422. Still, a nice opening to the season from a position thought to be an offensive black hole.

Worth noting I suppose that in 13 plate appearances as a second baseman, Johnny GIavotella has yet to collect a base hit.

Shortstop
League AVG – .256/.313/.369
Royals – .310/.347/.437, sOPS+ 132

When I’m writing about shortstops, I’m writing about Alcides Escobar. He’s played every game but one at short. And his offensive production has been nothing short of phenomenal. His 13 doubles are second best among AL shortstops and is sOPS+ (which represents his OPS+ when compared to all shortstops) is the third best behind only Derek Jeter and Asdrubal Cabrera.

And he’s doing this while playing his usual exceptional defense. Sadly, his UZR isn’t reflecting that. (Am I crazy? I haven’t noticed him getting to fewer balls this year. Or an otherwise general malaise in his glove work. Really strange.) Otherwise, he’s probably be pushing Mike Moustakas for the team lead in fWAR. As it is, he’s second at 1.1 fWAR.

Third Base
League AVG – .254/.311/.406
Royals – .288/.337/.497, sOPS+ 130

Moooooooose.

At this point, he’s you’re Royals All-Star. Hopefully he’ll keep it going through June. The Royals need someone like Moustakas representing the team. Better him than a middle reliever.

He powers the Royals third basemen to a sOPS + that is fourth best among AL hot corners. The teams they trail: Tampa (Evan Longoria), New York (A-Rod), Detroit (Miguel Cabrera). Yeah, that’s pretty solid.

I’ll check back in next week with a look at the outfield and DH. Have a great (long) weekend.

I have to admit, I was nervous the first time I went to New York.   All I had to do was get off a plane, get in a car driven by someone else and go to a meeting with four other people.  I imagine, Will Smith, whose first trip ever to New York included pitching to the Yankees might not have been on top of his game. 

Will Smith is not a prospect, that’s the primary reason he was on the mound instead of someone else last night, but he is also not the next Eduardo Villacis either: even if the results of their major league debuts in Yankee Stadium were freakishly similar.  The Royals will give Smith another shot next week and that may give us a better indication of what Will brings to the table.

Last night was simply not Kansas City’s night.   The Yankees batted around in one inning despite getting just one hit and that was a bunt single.   Think about that for a minute.   The Royals also failed to mount much offense despite being gifted, be it by lackadaisical Yankee defense or the kind heart of the baseball gods, at least five soft hits.   Eric Hosmer, whose three hits combined probably don’t reach the centerfield wall, rightly believes the baseball gods owed him, but in the end it all added up to just three runs.

The 2012 Kansas City Royals were not built to score three runs and win games.   Remember back in the spring?  This squad was going to score runs, a lot of runs, and stay in games despite poor starting pitching until their lockdown bullpen took over the game.  For the most part, the bullpen had done their job.   They may not be ‘lock down’, but they are pretty good most of the time.

The offense, however….

While sporting the fourth best batting average as a team in the American League, the Royals rank just 10th in runs scored per game at just 3.98 per contest.   Kansas City’s team on-base percentage of .315 is nothing to crow about, but it is 8th in the league (that’s despite being dead last by a lot in walks).   It’s not a case of the Royals not getting on base, it’s a matter of getting those baserunners around the diamond.

As a team, the Royals are slugging an even. 400, which is 7th best in the AL, but they rank next to last in home runs with just 33.   That hurts, even if Kansas City is second in doubles.  A home run is the quickest way to put up crooked numbers and the easiest way to avoid something bad happening.   You know, something like running into outs.

According to Fangraphs, Kansas City is the third worst baserunning team in the AL (Indians and Angels rank below them).  That stat does not factor in stolen bases, where the Royals are just 10th in the league in steals (24), but are second worst in being caught stealing (14 times).  The Rays lead the league in caught stealing with 16, bu have 39 successful steals.

The Royals are not running smartly or stealing effectively.    Their eight sacrifice bunts and seven sacrifice flies is middle of the pack stuff in the league, so little advantage is gained there as well.  Not that I’m advocating small ball, mind you.

Kansas City ranks fourth in percentage of balls outside of the strike zone that they swing at (31%), but I will point out that the Tigers and Rangers rank second and third in that category and those two teams score a run or two.   While you might be encouraged that the Royals are second in contact percentage, it is worth noting that the Twins, who can’t score at all, are first in that category.

No wonder Ned Yost changes the lineup every day. 

xxx

 

Two in a row! Winning streak!

In Thursday’s game, one of the crazier things that happened was Jeff Francoeur drove a runner home with a single. Because as poorly as this team has played in the last two weeks, Frenchy has stood out as perhaps the worst offensive performer on this struggling club. Seriously… Gordon hasn’t been good, but he’s still picked up some quality plate appearances every now and again. Hosmer has a dismal BABIP, but leads the team with five home runs. No, the worst hitter in this lineup has been Francoeur and it isn’t even close.

I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.

Let’s dive a little deeper into The Francoeur Abyss…

Francoeur has always had a strike zone that was more about zip codes than focusing on anything crossing over the 18 inch wide slab he’s standing over. Except this season he’s descended into a special kind of free swinging hell. According to Fangraphs, here is the percentage of pitches that would be called balls by a “perfect” umpire that Francoeur is swinging at over the last five seasons:

2008 – 36.3%
2009 – 36.0%
2010 – 43.4%
2011 – 41.2%
2012 – 44.3%

He’s really upped the ante the last three seasons, hasn’t he? And it’s not surprising that in the small sample that is the 2012 season, he’s at his highest rate of his career. Because when a free swinger like Frenchy starts struggling, what usually happens? Right… He expands the zone. When he should be selective – because it’s the only way he can escape – he’s taking a rip at virtually any pitch in any situation.

The average major league hitter is swinging at 45 percent of all pitches he sees this season. Francoeur is swinging at 55 percent. He’s not doing himself – or the Royals – any favors.

The complete lack of discipline is illustrated from the graph of pitches he’s offered at. He is literally swinging at everything. Most major leaguers have a weak spot. Think Eric Hosmer last summer not being able to lay off the high fastball. Francoeur’s weak spot is whatever state he’s playing in that night. Yes, the entire state.

Behold…

Just for fun, here’s the swing chart from another Royal hitter. Notice the tidy cluster of swings on fastballs inside the strike zone. I thought about having a little contest… Name that swing chart or something. But then I thought, it’s too damn obvious. The only guy on this team with that kind of discipline and strike zone management is Billy Butler. Professional Hitter. Destroyer of Country Breakfasts.

Beautiful…

It’s not a fair comparison. One is a really good hitter, the other isn’t. I present them both merely to illustrate the extremes.

So not only is Francoeur swinging at more pitches outside the zone, his contact has been dreadful. I know the Royals broadcasters have been talking about how he’s “due” to hit a home run. Right. The only problem is, in order to hit a home run, you have to get the ball in the air. Currently, Francoeur has a 1.94 GB/FB ratio. Over half the balls he’s put into play have been on the ground. (52.3% of all balls in play have been grounders.) It might actually be preferable that he miss a pitch. Amazingly, that’s not a problem. The problem is the miserable contact that comes with taking miserable swings at miserable pitches.

The results have been incredibly maddening. He’s hit into four double plays in 20 opportunities (as defined by having a runner on first and less than two outs.) He has a grand total of four walks and four extra base hits. And he’s come to the plate with 44 runners on base and has brought home three. Three. That’s an RBI rate of 7 percent. That’s not good.

The Royals have won two games in a row where they have scored a total of 12 runs. Which is fantastic. But the allegiance to Francoeur and his place in the lineup needs to stop. Yosty won’t send him to the bench, but he needs to drop him to eighth or ninth in the order until he modifies his ridiculous approach and begins driving the ball in the air a little more. But asking Francoeur to be more selective at the plate is like asking a Kardashian to shun attention. Probably not going to happen. So at the very least, he needs to drop until he stops hitting so many damn ground balls.

Right now, this season feels like a replay of Francoeur’s 2010, when he hit .237/.293/.369 for the Mets before they had seen enough and shipped him to Texas for Joaquin Arias. If Francoeur is still performing at his current level when Lorenzo Cain comes back, (which is entirely possible, no matter how long Cain is out) the Royals shouldn’t hesitate… They should play Cain in center, Mitch Maier in right and sit Frenchy’s butt on the bench.

Last year’s free agent success turns into this year’s extension nightmare. Well played, Dayton. Well played.

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