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I noticed a blog the other day where the author wondered if Yordano Ventura should start Opening Day for the Royals. I found it interesting. Etiquette says I should post the link to the blog. So I will. (LINK) My conscience says to tell you to click at your own risk.

I’m breaking all sorts of personal blog rules here. But I thought the post deserved a thoughtful response.

A couple years ago I was standing behind a backstop on one of the Royals spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz. A skinny kid was on the mound and he cut loose with a fastball. After one pitch I immediately turned to the person next to me and asked: “Who is that guy?”

It was my first look at Yordano Ventura.

We’ve almost all had that very same reaction. Ventura is a slight, skinny kid from the Dominican Republic. He looks like he’s skipping his high school algebra class to go to a baseball game. Except he’s pitching. And throwing heat. And regularly getting major league hitters out. You wouldn’t believe it just from looking at him, but after just one pitch, you know. Ventura has a special, special arm.

It’s easy heat in that it doesn’t look like he’s giving max effort to attain max velocity. So smooth. So unhittable when he’s on his game.

When you’re sitting in the upper deck you might think a big-league fastball doesn’t look all that fast, but if you ever get to stand close to home plate when a big-league pitcher throws a big-league fastball, you’ll realize they’re throwing a lot harder than you think — and Yordano Ventura throws harder than almost anybody else.

Translation: I’ve been on the dirt. You haven’t. Therefore, I come to you with knowledge. Knowledge that can only be found on the dirt. Mixed with grit and shells of sunflower seeds. You just can’t understand these ballplayers unless you are with them. On the dirt. Because the dirt is where they play.

So here’s the question: if the Royals get to opening day and their starting rotation is Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, and Ventura has the best stuff on the staff, should Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

Good question.

It depends.

That’s not an answer.

——————————————————————————————————————–

What follows from the writer is a reminder that Ventura is young and has made a limited number of big league starts. Personally, that’s part of what makes him so exciting. So much potential. And so much heat. Youth!

Here’s why that matters: During the 2014 AL Wild Card Game…

Oh, god.

Ventura threw Moss two fastballs and both missed the zone. With the count 2-0, Ventura threw a third fastball — a fastball in a fastball count — and Moss didn’t miss it. Ventura’s 98 mph fastball was lined over the center-field wall for a three-run homer and the Athletics had the lead.

How about this? Who called for the third consecutive fastballs to Moss?

Makes you think. Which is sometimes the point.

Let’s dive a little deeper…

Ventura throws a fastball about 44 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He offers that pitch 45 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. Also, when he’s behind, Ventura will throw his two-seamer 29 percent of the time and his change-up 15 percent of the time. Yes, it was a fastball count, but the sinker and the change are certainly options. Interestingly enough, in all counts he throws his sinker 18 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He will throw it 29 percent of the time when he falls behind in the count to lefties. That deviation (18 percent in all counts versus 29 percent when he’s behind) suggests to me that Ventura is extremely confident about his command of that pitch. If he’s confident of his command, it’s a good strategy to throw that pitch. It comes in a tick slower than his four-seamer, and features a nice little downward sink. When it’s put in play, left-handed batters hit a ground ball 49 percent of the time. Given the situation – runners on first and second – why wouldn’t Ventura and Perez gone for a ground ball to get the double play? Why throw three consecutive fastballs to a hitter who has already clubbed a monster home run? Sure, it’s a fastball count, but again given the situation, you can’t give him a 98 mph pipe shot. Because home runs.

The counterpoint to this is his two-seamer isn’t a great pitch to throw to left-handed batters. Lefties hit .356 and slugged .452 against that pitch. They swing and miss at the pitch just five percent of the time.

Is there a correct answer? A certain pitch we can say he definitely should have thrown? No. But that’s baseball. I get what happened, though. With two runners already on base, Ventura felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he went fastball and left that third consecutive heater over the heart of the plate in Moss’s happy zone.

Ventura_Moss

Let’s return to the blog post.

Ventura had faced three batters, given up two hits, allowed two earned runs and finished his one-third of an inning with a postseason ERA of 54.00.

Let’s get crazy. One-third of an inning. Three batters. That is just about the smallest sample size you can have. You are forming an opinion off of three batters. You can be anti-stats, but to pass judgement on someone’s guts or confidence based on three batters faced… That just flies in the face of common sense.

The writer fails to bring up two very important points which may have played a role in the outcome of the cited small sample. First, Ventura entered the game having made a start just two days prior. In that start he threw 74 pitches and labored through four innings. That outing followed his penultimate start of the regular season in Cleveland where he threw a season-high 117 pitches. Given an elevated, late season pitch count and the short rest, do you think there was a chance Ventura was a little fatigued? Could that have had anything to do with his struggles in the Wild Card game?

Second, that was just the second time in 2014 that Ventura pitched in relief. And although he had success in his previous relief outing, I personally dislike bringing in a starting pitcher in the middle of an innings, especially with runners on base. Starters are creatures of habit. They have their routines to get ready. Now if you want to bring a starter in in the fourth inning, their may have to abbreviate or rush their routine, but they at least have the luxury of starting a clean inning. Ventura had no such luxury. This wasn’t about cracking under pressure. This was about a pitcher in an unfamiliar spot in a high-leverage situation.

Pedro Martinez, who has spent some time in the dirt, was highly critical of Yost bringing Ventura in to the game in the middle of an inning.

Ugly goat. Perfect. That’s why Pedro is in the Hall of Fame.

CJ Nitkowski also Tweeted from the dirt with some criticism for the Royals manager.

Writers chimed in immediately. Yost’s decision was called questionable and his skill as a manager was classified as terrible. That was a spot for Kelvin Herrera. That’s not hindsight. It was a key situation in a winner-take-all game and with the Royals amazing bullpen, it was appropriate for Herrera to take the mound. Everyone but Yost knew it and I suspect, based on his managerial moves later in October, he learned something from his error in judgement.

Nevermind all that logic above. According to this blog, Ventura pissed himself and nearly threw away the Royals October before it even started.

So what’s all that have to do with being the opening day starter?

Nothing. Duh.
At the beginning of the season, No. 1 starters face No. 1 starters. Each team throws their best guy out there on opening day and for a while — until days off or rainouts throw matchups out of sync — an opening day starter can assume he’ll face the best pitcher the opposition has to offer. 
And that means you can pitch great and still lose.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can pitch great anytime against any other starting pitcher in the league and still lose. I’ve seen it. Truth.
If a pitcher is mentally strong that might not matter; he knows what he can control and how well the other guy pitches isn’t on the list. But if a guy isn’t confident it can get in his head; he feels like he’s pitched very well and is still losing.

How about this… Three days later, Ventura started Game Two of the ALDS and dominated. He threw seven innings, struck out five and walked just one. He left with the score tied at 1. This means two things: One, he didn’t get the pitcher win that surely is important to this blogger. Two, he was pitching in some high leverage situations as the game progressed. In fact, Ventura’s average Leverage Index for that start was 1.31 which was his highest in a start in October.
Oh, let’s not forget Game Six of the World Series. Do or die. Backs against the wall. And Ventura held the Giants in check for seven innings. His command wasn’t sharp (five walks against four strikeouts), but he survived, kept the Giants off the scoreboard and rode the Royals bats to the decisive Seventh Game. That took some cojones.
Should Yordano Ventura be the opening day starter?

I’m pretty sure I’m unqualified to answer that question.

OK.

I’ll go ahead and take a stab. Sure, Ventura should start the opener. Why not? Ventura was the second-best starter on the team last year to James Shields. He was the best starter in October. With Shields gone, Ventura is the best starting pitcher on the team, so I think he should be the Opening Day starter. Will he get the assignment? That’s an entirely separate question. Yost loves him some veterans. I could see him handing the ball to Jason Vargas. Or it could be Edinson Volquez because he’s the new, big free agent signing. Or maybe Shields makes some sort of triumphant return to Kansas City to complete some unfinished business.

Either way, with the rotation seemingly set, who starts the Opener is going to an interesting subplot of the spring. Glad I could help clear up a few things.

I hope you’ve had a moment to read one or two of the player profiles we published this week. It’s something we’ve done in the past to help us get through the winter, usually on Mondays through Thursdays. Since today is Friday, I thought I’d take a little break and look at a former Royal.

If you haven’t noticed, we are now down to a single, Big-Name free agent. The guy who led the Royals rotation the last two years and culminated his tenure in Kansas City as an integral part of a pennant winner, can’t find work.

It’s difficult being James Shields.

We are less than 30 days away from pitchers and catchers reporting and Big Game James is still looking for a team. I’m pretty certain this wasn’t supposed to happen. We knew the market for starting pitching would be slow to develop, but when Jon Lester signed with the Cubs, I figured Shields would be the next to go. It just seemed like smart business to get his money while Max Scherzer (and Scott Boras) took his time. To hell with Scherzer setting the market. Let Lester get paid and then Shields could jump on the same train.

Not happening that way.

For those thinking of a short-term impact, at Fangraphs, Jeff Sullivan ran some numbers and figured out how much Shields would improve each team. Dan Szymborski did the same at ESPN. I urge you to visit both sites (although you’ll need Insider for Dan’s post at ESPN) because the results are interesting.

Sullivan has Shields improving the Royals rotation by about 2.1 fWAR which places the Royals in the lower third of teams who would benefit from signing Shields.  Szymborski says ZiPS has the Royals as currently constructed in the low 80s for wins and figures adding Shields would throw them back into contention for the Wild Card.

Looking at the Royals payroll – which will be around $112 million – it’s difficult to find the wiggle room to add Shields. Especially when you figure the arm he would be pushing out of the rotation in Jeremy Guthrie, is due to earn $9 million next year, making him the highest paid pitcher on the roster. Kind of difficult to shove a guy making that much cabbage into a long-relief role. (Obviously the $9 million Guthrie will earn isn’t enough to land Shields. It’s not a straight-up proposition. But we are talking about a payroll structured so a number five starter is the top earner. That was always going to cause budgetary issues. Remember things like this when GMDM signs his next mediocre player to a three or four year deal.)

Moore was on MLB Network radio on Thursday and the subject of Shields naturally was discussed.

We can parse this several different ways. I would assume that if Shields is open to returning to Kansas City, his agent and the Royals have been in touch at various times throughout his free agent process. But still… I would put the Royals chances at less than 10 percent at this point. Although we can dream, can’t we? A couple of weeks ago, it was mentioned that Shields had received an offer of five years at $110 million, but turned it down. What? Maybe it’s not always about the money.

If you’re going to turn down $110 million for a team you don’t want to play for, you are still feeling confident you can at least come within $10 million of that offer. Right?

If you read the articles at Fangraphs and ESPN, the teams that would benefit the most from adding Shields are teams that aren’t in the best shape to contend. Although the Tigers could get a significant bounce now they’ve lost Scherzer. The consensus is the White Sox, Giants and Marlins would all benefit from a Shields signing in that it would solidify their October aspirations. Those are teams who are close to contention and Shields would seemingly put them right in the pack.

Shields isn’t an ace, but he is good enough that he can make a positive difference for a team looking for postseason baseball. Let’s look at some of the teams Shields has been linked with during the winter:

— He was considered a “fall-back option” in October if the Cubs failed to land their top target Lester.

— In early November, Joel Sherman of the New York Post speculated Shields was a fit for the White Sox, who were lurking under the radar and ready to spend. Instead, they signed Jeff Smardjia.

— Don’t forget the Fish.

— At the Winter Meetings, Shields was linked to the Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Dodgers and Rangers, with the Giants thought to be the frontrunners.

The Diamondbacks denied their interest. The Red Sox acquired Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Justin Masterson for their rotation. The Marlins got Mat Latos. And the Dodgers paid big bucks for the high risk of Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson. The Rangers rumor just kind of fizzled.

— By the new year, the Giants were out of the Shields market.

— Oh, hey… The Rockies have his agent’s phone number.

Boston checks back early in the new year, but they’re playing the waiting game.

— Don’t forget about Toronto. But the price needs to drop.

Marlins. Again.

— The Padres have been busy on the trade front and have upped their payroll, so the chances they could spend on Shields is “very remote.”

— Maybe the Marlins could do something, but they would have to trade Dan Haren. Who wants to be traded anyway.

— As late as last week, Diamondbacks were still “in the mix.”

— The Tigers popped up on the Shields radar around the same time Scherzer jumped to the Nationals.

— Once the Brewers unloaded Yovani Gallardo, they emerged as a potential candidate.

— There have also been random rumblings the Astros and the Cardinals have interest.

Whew.

By my count, 16 teams (including the Royals) have been linked to Shields in varying degrees of interest. Over half of baseball. And we are still no closer to resolution that we were when you began reading this post.

So what happened? Were teams scared off at a price tag of $100 million. Was it a 33 year old pitcher asking for five years. Was it all the innings he’s pitched in his career? Was it his less than stellar postseason performance? Was it all of the above?

At any rate, I don’t think anyone expected we would be late in January without Shields on a team. That hurts his market as a number of clubs have budgeted for their arbitration players and have pretty much set their payrolls going forward. That’s not to say someone who thought (or said) they were done can’t jump in at this point. As time ticks, the price drops which has the effect of allowing more teams to enter. But supply and demand has its limits. He’s not going to get $100 million. And he’s not going to get five years.

I’ll take a stab and guess Shields ends up with a four-year deal around $80 million. And I’ll go one step further and say it’s the Tigers who land Shields, with the Red Sox lurking around the periphery should they get wind of the negotiations that could take him north of the border. You don’t want to hear that (hell, I don’t want to write that) but it just makes too much sense for Detroit. They have Price for one more year. Shields gives them extended depth with Verlander and Sanchez. Plus, the Tigers have been known to make the stealth free agent signing. They have the means and it appears adding Shields would make them the prohibitive favorites in the Central once again.

Although at this point, it’s anyone’s guess. Which is what makes this kind of fun.

For a year, Royals fans heard a refrain: Just wait until Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are in the starting rotation and contributing. That was when the club would truly turn the corner and contention would finally be reality. The damnedest thing… That actually happened in 2014. Last season Danny Duffy indeed enjoyed his finest season as a major league professional. And the Royals actually played in October.

Mission accomplished.

You have to admit, you were surprised how it all worked out. There’s no way you could have seen this coming.

In spring training in 2014, Duffy insisted he wanted to be in the Royals bullpen. Huh? Aren’t starting pitchers, you know… Supposed to want to start? Apparently, not Duffy. At least not in March, 2014. Duffy lost the competition to be a starter to Ventura and the Royals shipped him to Omaha. Just days later, the Royals obliged Duffy’s wish and he was recalled to throw out of the bullpen. And Duffy was quite good. In his first four relief appearances, he threw 8.1 innings, struck out 11 and walked just two without allowing a run to score.

Then, he hit rock bottom.

In a tie game in Baltimore on April 26, Duffy was summoned in the tenth inning of a 2-2 game. He walked the first batter on four pitches. The next batter bunted on the first pitch (remember in October, how Buck Showalter was a managerial savant of some kind?), Duffy fielded and threw it away. The next batter also bunted. Also to Duffy. And again, Duffy threw the ball away. He exited with the bases loaded and the Royals lost game two batters later on a Markakis single.

Four days later, Duffy relieved Ventura in the sixth inning in a game against Toronto with the Royals leading 2-0. Again, he hit the leadoff batter. Then he walked the next man. Ned Yost pulled him after just six pitches thrown. And one strike.

But with Bruce Chen sidelined, the Royals needed another starter. Relief issues aside for Duffy, he was summoned to the rotation. And for four months, he thrived.

Overall, Duffy appeared in 31 games for the Royals, made 25 starts, threw 149 innings, struck out 113 batters and walked just 53. He finished with a 2.53 ERA, a 4.42 xFIP and an ERA- of 56.

From May 2 to August 31, Duffy threw 133 innings, struck out 97, allowed hitters a .203/.277/.314 line. His ERA was 2.44. He was magnificent.

The underlying positive for Duffy in 2014 was his command. Entering the season, he had a career walk rate of 4.7 BB/9. The falling behind in the count, the failing to put hitters away after hanging two strikes on them, and the walks were a cumulative issue that threatened to hold him back from his potential. Factor in his recovery from Tommy John surgery where the last thing pitchers typically recover is command and you can see how it was a concern.

In 2011, in 250 plate appearances where Duffy got two strikes batters, he them a .263/.324/.452 line with 20 walks and 84 strikeouts. By comparison, in 2014, Duffy had 304 plate appearances where he had at least two strikes on a hitter. In those instances, he approved to a .149/.211/.206 line with 113 strikeouts and 20 walks. His sOPS+ (split relative to the league’s split) went from an obscene 197 (with 100 league average and a lower number better for pitchers) to 65. Basically, he went from having two strikes on a hitter as a liability to where it should be – a point of strength.

He also finally started to jump ahead of hitters. In 2014, he threw a strike with his first pitch 59 percent of the time. Going back to 2011 and 2012 (before the Tommy John) he was around 52 percent. That improvement of seven percent is massive. To give you some perspective of how awful his first pitch strike rate was, consider that even at 59.1 percent, Duffy was still 1.5 percentage points below league average in the AL. Had he thrown enough innings to qualify, his first strike rate would have been the 31st best in the AL out of 40 starters. So let’s not treat his improvement as though he’s running with the big strike-throwing dogs now. But let’s do acknowledge he needed to improve that rate and he figured out a way to accomplish that.

It all added up to improved command and a career-best walk rate of 3.2 BB/9. I know Duffy has a legion of Royals fans who have always believed in him, but I’m not sure any rational analyst saw that kind of improvement in the cards for his walk rate.

Time to stare at the elephant on the blog and that is Duffy’s health. He exited a start in Yankee Stadium at the start of September after throwing just a single pitch. The Royals medical staff diagnosed it as inflammation in his rotator cuff. I’m not a doctor, but the words “rotator cuff” make me cringe. Duffy missed a couple of starts and returned to throw 96 pitches in six innings in a 2-0 shutout of the Indians. In his final regular season start, Duffy lasted just two innings before exiting with what the Royals initially thought was a strained intercostal muscle.

In October, Duffy made just three appearances for the Royals in their 15 games. He pitched the bottom of the 10th inning for Kansas City in Game One of the ALDS against the Angeles, throwing 19 pitches before sending the game to the 11th where the Royals eventually won. Duffy didn’t make another appearance for 18 days, finally making it to the mound for some mop-up duty in the Game One shellacking in the World Series. Another appearance followed in the fifth inning of Game Four and Duffy was done for the year.

For September and October, Duffy made six appearances, threw 250 pitches in 12.1 innings. After the postseason, it was revealed Duffy’s alleged intercostal muscle strain was actually a stress reaction in his ribcage; a hairline crack on the outside of a rib where the discomfort would limit him to two or three innings per outing. Basically, there was no way he could start. And looking back, Yost was clearly nervous about using him.

As exceptional as Duffy’s turn as a starter was for four months of 2014, there are signs regression is lurking around the corner. He allowed a .239 BABIP, his career-best rate and nearly 60 points lower than league average. Part of that can surely be attributed to the Royals defense. However, know that of the other four Royals starters, none had a BABIP lower than .288. If you’re going to credit the Royals defense for Duffy’s BABIP, why didn’t that carry over to the other starters?

His strikeout rate was down. He whiffed 18.7 percent of all batters, off his career pace of close to 20 percent entering the 2014 season. The Royals will tell you his strikeout rate was down because he was harnessing his command by taking something off his pitches and locating the ball with purpose. They will also tell you strikeouts aren’t a huge deal for the Royals because they have a phenomenal defense behind their pitchers. Don’t believe them. It’s usually not a good development when a 25 year old pitcher sees his strikeout rate decline. Although in this instance we have the caveat of the Tommy John surgery and the fact this was his first full season of pitching since his rehabilitation from that surgery. Perhaps the strikeout rate will bounce back in 2015.

Also, there’s the fact he morphed into an extreme fly ball pitcher. Among starters with at least 130 innings, Duffy had the sixth-highest fly ball rate at 46 percent. His HR/FB rate was a low 6.1 percent. If he keeps allowing so many fly balls and his HR/FB rate normalizes, his ERA is going to increase. The defense can’t make a play on a ball over the fence. The fly ball rate, the HR/FB rate, his decline in strikeouts and BABIP all contribute to his 4.42 xFIP, which was almost two full runs higher than his actual 2.53 ERA.

When I hear talk about James Shields and how great of a leader he was to the Royals pitchers, I inevitably think of Duffy. Leadership gets the shaft in the sabermetric community, but it shouldn’t. Baseball is an incredibly difficult game chock full of ups and downs. Some players need a little guidance from time to time. Not only about how to handle the failures, but the successes, too. That’s where Shields supposedly played a part in the maturation of Duffy. Remember, this was a guy who never tasted failure until he turned pro and then at one point became so frustrated that he walked away. He was also the guy who, as I mentioned, asked to be a reliever. It’s OK to say there were some makeup and maturity issues with Duffy. He’s a young guy. That’s why a mentor like Shields is so valuable. If he can get through to someone like Duffy, he can absolutely make a difference. And by all indications, that’s what happened. Good for Duffy for accepting help. Good for Shields to being the guy in the clubhouse. And good for the Royals for enduring the ridicule that comes with trading a prospect for a “leader” and making a positive difference in a young man’s career.

There were positives. There are warning signs for some regression. And James Shields isn’t around to dispense advise. How will it affect Duffy. That’s a good question. Steamer projects Duffy to finish with a 3.95 ERA while seeing an increase in both his strikeout (7.4 SO/9) and his walk rate (3.7 BB/9). They have him making 25 starts and throwing 144 innings, which would be low obviously, but not so low if he misses time due to injury again.

I side with Steamer in thinking his ERA is going to increase, but I’m not so sure it’s going to approach four. A correction is coming, but that’s one rude adjustment. I’ll be happy with an increase in his strikeout rate, if he can induce a few more ground balls and if he can keep his ERA in the 3.50 neighborhood. If you want to be the optimist on the projections, Steamer really only has a few months of Duffy as a starter to work with.

Duffy is eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in his career. He’s asking for $3 million. The Royals countered at $1.75 million. Major League Trade Rumors projected Duffy would play for $2.6 million. If he can build upon last year’s 2.2 fWAR and give the Royals something around 2.5-3.0 fWAR for a full season, he will be quite a bargain and a true number two starter. He’s probably going to be a bargain no matter how much he makes next year.

This is a statistical snapshot of  the Royals rotation prior to James Shields’s disaster start on Tuesday.

Rk Pos Name ERA G GS GF IP H R ER HR BB SO BF ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
1 SP Jeremy Guthrie 3.69 17 17 0 112.1 110 48 46 16 27 68 469 111 4.67 1.220 8.8 1.3 2.2 5.4 2.52
2 SP Jason Vargas* 3.53 17 17 0 112.1 115 45 44 14 25 74 469 116 4.20 1.246 9.2 1.1 2.0 5.9 2.96
3 SP James Shields 3.79 17 17 0 111.2 120 58 47 15 24 87 476 108 4.12 1.290 9.7 1.2 1.9 7.0 3.63
4 SP Yordano Ventura 3.26 15 15 0 88.1 87 33 32 7 25 76 372 125 3.29 1.268 8.9 0.7 2.5 7.7 3.04
5 SP Danny Duffy* 2.60 17 11 1 72.2 49 23 21 5 29 55 294 157 3.80 1.073 6.1 0.6 3.6 6.8 1.90
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/1/2014.

The symmetry of the top three starters is kind of cool. Seventeen starts for each, they are within two-thirds of an inning and they are within seven batters faced.

What causes some concern is the ERA column followed by the FIP column a little further down the line. Entering Tuesday, all three were outperforming their FIP. Guthrie has been outpacing his FIP and xFIP for his entire career. Last year, the difference between his FIP and ERA was 0.75 and that was good for a 1.1 fWAR. This year, the difference is nearly a full run and at the halfway point, his fWAR is 0.5. Vargas is usually a little closer. Shields’s FIP is his highest since 2010. Not coincidentally, that was his worst season as a starter.

This is three-fifths of the rotation. These are the guys making the serious cash. And they look to be walking the tightrope.

Shields has been miserable his last nine starts. In his last nine starts, he has a 5.43 ERA covering 56.1 innings. During that time, he’s struck out 36, walked 14 and surrendered 10 home runs. Opponents are hitting .323/.362/.557. He doesn’t look hurt or mechanically broken. He’s just hittable.

If you revisit the chart above, Guthrie and Vargas are exactly the same pitcher, statistically speaking. And it looks like both will regress. ZIPS has Guthrie throwing 88 more innings this year with a 4.64 ERA. It has Vargas down for 98 innings and a 4.55 ERA. Obviously, these are projections so they have to be taken as such, but those numbers are frightening. At this point, the best thing we can say about Guthrie and Vargas is they have kept their team in games when they make starts. That’s not meant to be some kind of backhanded compliment. It’s fact. These two are going out there knowing their offense isn’t going to give them a ton of runs, and they grind out their appearances. The Royals have won 19 of their 34 starts. That’s a .559 winning percentage. That gets you into first place in the AL East.

The projection on Shields is more positive. ZIPS has him down for 106 innings and a 3.83 ERA.

Any time we gaze into the crystal ball, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. This isn’t meant to be a negative type of post where I’m spreading gloom and doom. Shields could find his change-up magic and Guthrie and Vargas could beat the projections all season, just like they have so far. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Or everyone could go off the rails. Hell, if anyone missed time due to injury, the whole thing could fall to shambles as there’s no major league depth in the organization right now.

The point is, Shields is scuffling and Vargas and Guthrie are way outperforming their peripherals. The Royals really need Shields to get it together if they are going to make any kind of run at October. Because to count on the rest of this rotation to continue to be this great would be risky.

You thought this post would be about the bullpen, didn’t you? I mean we all saw the game on Thursday. Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Damn.

But, no. This is about Yordano Ventura. And his valgus.

Ventura returned to the mound after missing a start with elbow discomfort. (I guess it was “discomfort.” Ned Yost said, “It wasn’t an elbow issue.” Umm… OK?) I don’t know about you, but I was damned nervous. Not that I thought the Royals would send a damaged pitcher back out to start. They obviously thought he was OK. No, my concern was over the idea of a “what if.” What if he lost velocity in the third inning? What if his command was helter-skelter from the start? What if he experienced the same issues that derailed his last start?

Pitchers are scary creatures. Anymore it feels like each pitch could be their last. It’s nauseating. And when you have a stud like Ventura… Yeah. Scary.

According to Brooks Baseball, Ventura uncorked a 101 mph fastball. Cool. Even better, he found a comfort zone and maintained his velocity throughout the contest.

Ventura_Velo65

Yost pulled him after six innings and 91 pitches. The right move after the issues of the last two weeks.

While the velocity was positive, there were still some bumps along the way to the win. His command wasn’t all that great. He also had a helluva time closing out innings. In the first, he got two outs on six pitches. Then needed 18 more pitches to get the third out. In the second, he got the first batters out, then coughed up a single and a triple before getting the third out. And in the fourth, he got the first two outs on three pitches. Then allowed a single, a walk and a single before getting the third out. He did settle down in the fifth and sixth, working what you would term efficient innings. Although Yadier Molina helped out by running on Alex Gordon after another two-out single.

For the game, Ventura stuck out one batter. He got only seven swings and misses. That’s not the Ventura we saw pre elbow discomfort. But the velocity was there. I’m not ready to move past the elbow discomfort, but I do feel better about how he’s doing moving forward.

And finally, from gifsection, your latest gif of Nori Aoki losing his battle against baseballs.

aokihead

Happy Friday. Be careful out there.

On May 17, Danny Duffy threw what was among the best starts of his still-young major league career. Remember that? A 1-0 Royals victory over the Orioles?

I ask because in the haze of Wednesday’s debacle at the hands of the Houston Astros, it may be difficult to summon that outing from the memory bank.  Duffy was, in his own words, “hogwash,” against the former worst offensive team in the AL. (The Royals, in addition to being swept by the Astros, also seized the opportunity to supplant them as the worst offense in the American League. Victory cigars for everyone!)

Anyway, it wasn’t about the miserable performance from Duffy. We’ve seen plenty of those. What we saw on Wednesday was much more alarming. Duffy’s fastball averaged 92.8 mph while his sinker clocked in at 90.1 mph. In the start against the Orioles referenced above, his fastball was 94.9 mph and his sinker averaged 93.8 mph. Simple math: Duffy’s fastball was two mph less than in his best start of 2014 and his sinker was almost four mph less. This is not good.

(I don’t want to look at Duffy’s seasonal velocity average because it will be skewed by his time in the bullpen.)

Maybe we can dismiss the velocity on his sinker since that’s a pitch he doesn’t use that frequently. Perhaps more notable was his usage of his change-up. In his start on May 17, Duffy mixed 10 change-ups among his 97 pitches. Wednesday, he threw his change once in 83 pitches. Maybe that’s another reason the Astros were banging the ball around the yard. They were sitting fastball and adjusting slider. There was no in-between.

Speaking of his slider, he was throwing that like normal. The break was close to his usual movement, accounting for the fact it was averaging about three mph less than his May 17 outing.

Perhaps more alarming was how Duffy was losing velocity through those 83 pitches. From Brooks Baseball, here’s the ugly velocity chart:

Duffy_Velo528

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Compare that to the May 17 game.

Duffy_Velo517

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duffy always loses a little off his fastball the deeper he goes into the pitch count. But Wednesday’s game was something we haven’t seen in some time. Post-game, it was revealed Duffy was battling a “dead arm.” I suppose that’s possible. It’s fairly common. I just wonder how common for a pitcher who has thrown 35 innings in the season’s first two months to have a dead arm. With eight of those innings coming in relief.

I’m still not sold on Duffy being anymore than rotational filler. But with the uncertainty of Yordano Ventura, the Royals rotation is already stretched. (Yeah, there’s uncertainty around Ventura. Do you believe anything the Royals say when it comes to injuries? How many starters leave a start with elbow pain and are back a week and a half later?) Last I saw, the Royals starter for Ventura’s turn on Saturday was “TBA.” Because there aren’t any palatiable options. Lose Duffy at the same time… Let’s put it this way: The offensive struggles won’t be the only thing we’re discussing.

We’ve been over this before. At four games under .500, the season isn’t lost. But with a corpse-like offense that is showing no signs of a pulse, the season is slipping away. Lose two guys from your rotation and this team becomes a runaway freight elevator heading for the basement.

I am a Royals fan.

That’s a rather straightforward declarative statement. Not a surprise, either. This is a Royals blog, after all. On the scale of “shocking development” to “no duh,” it gal

The last 25 years or so (I’ve lost count and really, it’s not all that important) the Royals as a team have presented us with little to be happy about. A nice run of games here or there – That 15-5 run from last year was pretty insane – but largely we are talking about some really dreadful teams. It’s been a struggle finding reasons to watch. Thankfully, there have been some individual performances of quality in the midst of some awful team efforts.

Happy Greinke Day was born in a season where the Royals lost 96 games and had Jose Guillen in the lineup. Horrible team. A great individual season gave us reason to watch at least every fifth day.

The 2011 team had 325 doubles, which was the second highest total in the league. It featured four guys – Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur – who all hit at least 44 two-baggers. They lost 91 games, but the offense could be kind of fun to watch.

Eric Hosmer’s second-half renaissance was equal parts amazing and enjoyable. Even if it wasn’t enough to rescue the Royals from the hole they dug for themselves in May.

Your mileage may vary on the positives above, but the point is, when you’re a fan of a dreadful team, you need to search for those kind of things. You need something to pull you to tune into the game. A favorite player. A good player. A sustained performance of the highest quality. Something. Anything. It’s about finding something fun to watch on an mediocre to poor baseball team.

For me thus far in 2014, it’s been all about Yordano Ventura.

Ventura has been Must-See TV. The fastball, the change and the curve. I can’t wait for every fifth day to roll around so I can watch him start. He isn’t as dominant as early ’09 Greinke, but that electric stuff is so fun to watch. The Royals offense is awful. Their pitching is keeping them around .500. And Ventura is the most entertaining of the bunch.

As I said above, this is just my personal preference. You may like James Shields. Or Greg Holland. Or Wade Davis The Reliever. Any of those (and others) are acceptable. But for me, Ventura has become my favorite Royal.

It was immediately obvious something was wrong with Ventura on Monday. Diminished velocity. Location was all over the place. He just wasn’t right.

This is his confrontation with Dexter Fowler, the third hitter in the game for the Astros. Gameday doesn’t do justice to how badly Ventura missed.

FowlerPA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the saddest image of all, Ventura’s velocity chart from Brooks Baseball:

Ventura_Velo525

 

That decline after around pitch 33. Oh, jeez.

The Royals announced during the game Ventura left with lateral elbow discomfort. He’s going for an MRI on Tuesday. A quick Google says lateral elbow discomfort is basically tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is treated with rest and anti-inflammatory medication. At this point, we can consider this the best case scenario. If the Royals were incorrect in their initial diagnosis (or decided to float a smoke screen) and it’s the medial portion of the elbow… Yeah. We’re all baseball fans. We know what’s happened this year to basically every decent young pitcher. And we’re Royals fans, too. Total doomsday scenario.

I’m reserving my total freak out for when the announcement is made, but let me put it this way: I’m stockpiling like it’s Y2K. You can’t be a Royals fan without a touch of fatalism. What happened to Ventura on Monday is simply another notch on the bedpost of bullshit we have to endure as Royals fans. I’m not going to type the words, but I fear it’s coming. It’s just better to be prepared.

To add insult to injury, the same game Ventura leaves with elbow discomfort, the Astros young phenom George Springer goes 4-4 with five runs scored and a monster jack into the fountains in left. Sometimes, baseball just isn’t fair. Sometimes, it’s three decades of crap.

Nobody said baseball was fair. As Royals fans we’ve become accustomed to abuse. What happened Monday was just cruel. It’s not about Ventura pitching this team to October. He’s good, but he’s not that good. For me, it’s about watching a potentially great pitcher do his thing every fifth day. It’s about looking forward to a game. It’s about electricity. It’s about excitement. It’s about fun.

Hey… Looks like Alex Gordon is warming up.

Coming off a couple of tough defeats, the Royals needed a shot of adrenaline to jump start their club. Jeremy Guthrie was the man on Wednesday, throwing seven innings of three hit, one run ball to keep the Royals in the game before handing it off to the bullpen.

Guthrie is a confounding pitcher. A pitching wizard. Take Wednesday, for example. Guthrie delivered a performance of quality, but it’s a performance he won’t be repeating too frequently. It’s not difficult to see that when digesting some of the numbers.

— Twelve of Guthrie’s outs were recorded on the ground, compared to seven in the air. For the game according to FanGraphs, Guthrie posted a ground ball rate of 57 percent. Compare that to his seasonal rate of around 43 percent. We know Guthrie has a home run problem (and that’s being kind) so it behooves him to keep the ball on the ground. That’s something he doesn’t do, but he was able to on Wednesday.

— Guthrie threw first pitch strikes to 10 of the 26 batters he faced. That’s a rather thin 38 percent first strike rate. For the season, league average is around 60 percent and Guthrie has outpaced his counterparts, posting a 67 percent first strike rate. It reasons that he can’t afford to fall behind in the count. I mean, that’s kind of an obvious statement, but it applies double to a pitcher like Guthrie who doesn’t miss many bats. The league is hitting .301/.333/.603 against Guthrie when he starts the plate appearance with ball one. Ummm… That’s not good. Despite regularly falling behind in the count, he surrendered only two hits after throwing ball one to open the plate appearance.

— White Sox hitters swung and missed only four times. Guthrie threw an even 100 pitches. I love simple math. That’s a four percent swinging strike rate. For the season, he gets a swing and a miss just under six percent of the time. Not a huge difference, but there’s not far to go when you’re already at six percent.

— Guthrie gets most of his swing and misses against his change and slider. Both pitches generate a whiff around 10 percent of the time. On Wednesday, he threw 19 sliders and got one swing and miss. Tip your cap to the White Sox for laying off the slider. They swung only four times, according to Brooks Baseball. He also had a single swing and miss against his change, although he threw 14 of those.

From Brooks Baseball, Guthrie’s velocity chart is a model of consistency.

Guthrie Velo 521

Guthrie threw five curves all night, none after pitch number 48. The massive dip around pitch 79 is his slow curve he will play with on rare occasions. Pitch f/x classified it as an eephus. And it was awesome.

Guthrie Eephus 521

It was a masterful performance. You could say Guthrie drove Uncle Hud’s bus on Wednesday. (Even though that sounds kind of NSFW.) As much as I loved it and as much as the Royals needed it, but the numbers suggest this is a performance we won’t be seeing too frequently. But as I said at the top of the post, Guthrie seems to have a knack of coming up roses in important spots. I tip my blogging cap in his direction. And hope he continues pulling those rabbits out of his magic hat.

Reports are Sal Perez is on his way to Kansas City.

About time.

It’s strange to think this way, but it just feels like the Royals are already Sal’s team. He’s the guy. The one they can’t afford to have out of the lineup.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy with 158 career major league plate appearances. How the hell can he be the big kahuna on a major league team with so little experience?

All I know is what I’ve read and heard discussed from various players and team officials. The guy oozes professionalism and commands respect.

As a writer with a SABR bent, I’m supposed to mock the leadership angle. (Francoeur? Too easy.) But there is no denying that something really cool started last summer when the young guys were brought up to the majors. And it kind of feels like it’s been placed on hold while Perez has been rehabbing. It’s been interesting to me to see the amount of respect he holds within the realm of the clubhouse. Leadership won’t get you wins, but there’s something about it that makes it crazy fun to watch.

Is Sal the Savior? I don’t think so. Defensively, he’s going to be awesome. As long as his knee holds. And I seriously doubt the Royals would be putting him behind the plate if he wasn’t 100 percent ready.

I know many of you are excited by his offensive performance from last season, but there was nothing in his minor league history to indicate he was capable of that. He finished with a line of .331/.361/.473, which was just insane. Yes, he was hitting .340/.365/.380 in Omaha, but I really don’t think we can insert him into the lineup and expect those kind of numbers.

He will be a huge upgrade over the Pena/Quintero tandem, though. And that’s good enough for me.

If Sal is behind home plate tonight, it will feel like Opening Day, Part 2. Welcome home, Sal.

The Bases Are Drunk. A lot.

Jonathan Sanchez has faced 15 batters with the bases loaded – defined as “grand slam opportunities” by Baseball Reference. That’s the second most in the American League this year. The Rangers Yu Darvish has the most in the AL with 16. Interesting. Especially given the fact that Sanchez has thrown 36 innings. Darvish has twirled 89 innings.

Fortunately, in each grand slam opportunity, Sanchez has kept the ball in the yard. Still, 15 opportunities in 36 innings… And you thought Jonathan Broxton pitched on a tightrope.

Sanchez has contributed the lion’s share of the Royals league leading total of pitching with 74 grand slam opportunities. Fortunately, they’ve surrendered just a single slam.

The Twins – with the worst pitching in the league – have faced just 42 grand slam opportunities.

I have no idea what this means…

High Leverage Pen

Not only is the Royals bullpen really good, they’ve been doing it under tremendous pressure. According to Baseball Reference, the bullpen’s average Leverage Index (aLI) is 1.094, which is tops in the league. In fact, only three bullpens have an aLI greater than 1, which is “average” pressure.

Royals – 1.094
Tigers – 1.058
Orioles – 1.054

The Orioles have the best bullpen in the league, according to ERA at 2.38. I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the quality of performance is a huge reason the O’s are leading the uber competitive AL East. The Tigers bullpen ERA is 3.89, which is the second worst rate in the league, better than only the Indians. So I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the poor performance (relative to the league) is a reason the Tigers are scuffling.

The Royals may blow that hypothesis out of the water. Their bullpen ERA of 2.93 is seventh best in the AL, yet they’re nipping at the heels of the Tigers.

It boils down to the offense. The Royals are plating just 3.88 runs per game, while the tigers are scoring 4.4 per contest. That difference of 0.5 runs per game may be enough to offset the Royals bullpen advantage.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites in the Central. But they’ll need their pen to improve. Meanwhile, in a weak division, it’s the pen keeping the Royals in the hunt. If they can get their offense to pick up, they’ll be able to prevent the Tigers from gaining separation.

It’s a simplistic analysis, but sometimes the simple things help you gain the most clarity.

I may be coming around on this whole contention thing.

Dismal.  

That is my complete analysis of the three game sweep at the hands of the Pirates.

Currently, Wil Myers is hitting .341/.388/.714 through right at 100 AAA plate appearances.    He has been playing centerfield in Omaha, but I have yet to get any definitve review of how he has been playing centerfield.   Is he Jeff Francoeur with a touch more range?  David DeJesus minus the instincts?  Melky Cabrera only…well, Melky Cabrera?   Maybe Myers will fall in with the Moustakas syndrome.  You know, we all thought that Moustakas might be passable defensively at third, only to see him be a very good defensive third baseman (at least preliminarily).  Maybe Myers could be the same sort of deal in center.  Maybe.

For fun, I did exhaustively comprehensive research in the last four and one-half minutes, and pulled the leaders in wOBA from Fangraphs and reviewed how many AAA plate appearances each of them had before hitting the major leagues.   The results, as you might imagine from such a small sample size is quite varied:

  • Joey Votto – 580 AAA plate appearances
  • Josh Hamilton – 0
  • Paul Konerko – 868
  • Carlos Gonzalez – 237 (Cargo played half a season with Oakland, then got 223 more AAA PA’s after getting traded to Colorado the next year)
  • David Wright – 134 (only 272 more in AA – all in the same season)
  • Mark Trumbo – 595
  • Ryan Braun – 134 (only 257 in AA as well)
  • Josh Willingham – 279 (Josh was 26 when he made the majors and was still playing A ball at age 24)
  • Carlos Beltran – 0 (just 208 in AA as well)
  • Bryan LaHair – 2,709

LaHair and Willingham are fun cases in that we often just discount those types of players as ‘too old for their level’ and ‘AAAA’ types.  Most times they are, but it is wise to remember that sometimes they are not. 

For our purposes, however, Wright, Beltran and Braun are noteworthy.  Myers already has more AA at-bats than any of them and is closing in on the amount of time Braun and Wright spent in AAA.   Beltran, who skipped AAA entirely, got a cup of coffee at the end of 1998 and then won Rookie of the Year honors in 1999.   He did end up spending some time in AAA in 2000, but that situation might apply more to a discussion on Eric Hosmer than Wil Myers.

Certainly and without question, those three players are elite level talents and highly thought of prospects on their way up.   However, isn’t that what most think Wil Myers might be?  Now, you could deal Ryan Braun out of the equation given that he was a college player prior to being drafted, but both Beltran and Wright were not and both were in the majors before age 21.   The point is not to call up Wil Myers this very second, but only to show a very few examples of some really good prospects who spent very little time in getting to the majors.

Of course, the Royals are not a ‘Wil Myers’ away from contention.  Had they drafted Chris Sale instead of Christian Colon and Tim Lincecum instead of Luke Hochevar (or Clayton Kershaw or even Brandon Morrow), then maybe the Royals would be just one player away.   The question is, just how many players away are they?

Let’s remember that even great teams don’t have great players at every position.  They all have a Jeff Francoeur or a Jarrod Dyson or a Johnny Giavotella in their lineup and a Hochevar in the rotation.   Truthfully, it is a bit unfair to even lump Frenchy in with the others.   He is not a good major leaguer, but he is a legitimate major league player:  decent enough to play right and bat seventh on a contending team.

For better or worse, the Royals are set at six spots in the lineup:  Gordon, Moustakas, Escobar, Hosmer, Butler and Perez.  If that core group does not perform over the next two to three years, then this discussion is irrelevant and Dayton Moore will not longer by your general manager.   That group is, as a unit, is not getting it done right now, but let’s pretend (if nothing else) that they will start doing so soon. 

In addition to that core, the Royals have a very good and very deep bullpen and one and one-half starting pitchers.  Bruce Chen is not a number one on any team, but he can certainly be a number four starter on a contender.   Felipe Paulino is good, when he’s healthy.   There is a pitcher like this on a lot of teams.  Hell, Jonathan Sanchez was that guy for the Giants when they won the World Series.

So, where are we?   Right back to where we all thought the Royals were in March?  Two good starting pitchers away from being decent?  Pretty much.

Truthfully, one really good starter and two ‘better than what they have now’ starting pitchers away from being pretty solid.   Throw in Wil Myers and you are getting there.   If Wil Myers can really handle centerfield, then Kansas City moves to very good.   Big ‘if’, but an intriguing if and one that should be explored once the Royals are willing to roll the dice on the Super Two timing as it relates to Myers’ service time.

Myers would make the Royals better and certainly more interesting, but the truth is it doesn’t matter when Vin Mazzaro and Luis Mendoza are your number three and four starters.   IF Paulino could get and stay healthy and IF Jake Odorizzi continues to appear to be and eventually becomes the ‘real deal’, then you could line up Odorizzi, Paulino and Chen in the rotation for the second half with the hope that Danny Duffy could be back by the middle of 2013 to be your number five starter.   That group has some hope.

Of course, that leaves a big blank spot at the top of the rotation.   Your move, Mr. Moore.

xxx

 

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