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Deconstructing The Process

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You can’t win them all.

As much as you’d like to, that’s just not going to happen. Although sometimes, one team may dominate the other to such a dramatic extent that it may seem like it, odds say it’s unlikely. That was the position the Royals found themselves in on Sunday afternoon against the Rays. They were going not only for a series sweep, they were going for a season sweep. The Rays aren’t an especially good team, but the Royals are, which made this possible in the first place. Those odds, though… They can be difficult to scrape by.

The Royals found themselves in a spot on Sunday where they needed length from their starter, Danny Duffy. Length and Duffy are rarely synonymous, and this again proved problematic as he needed 99 pitches to get through just five innings. As usual, it was the foul balls that added to his pitch count. Of his 99 pitches, 70 of them were strikes. Of those 70, a whopping 22 pitches were fouled.

According to Baseball Savant, batters foul off 19 percent of all of Duffy’s pitches. Among starters, that’s the 17th highest foul ball rate. Ahead of Duffy on the list are successful starters such as Jacob DeGrom, Max Scherzer, and Lance Lynn. Oh, and Johnny Cueto. An abundance of fouls doesn’t act as a limit on success. But for Duffy, the foul balls often preclude him pitching deep into games. It wasn’t control that cut his start short after five innings. He threw only 29 called balls on Sunday. It was the foul balls.

It should also be noted that Duffy was a supreme strike throwing machine in his start. He collected 18 swings and misses while striking out six. This was a departure for him. He’s seen his strikeout rate tumble to a career-low 5.7 SO/9 and has generated a swinging strike in just 7.2 percent of his strikes thrown. His swinging strike rate is well below league average of 9.8 percent.

Another way to frame it, in a game where strikeouts are on the increase, 20.2 percent of all plate appearances end with one. For Duffy, he’s striking out just 14.6 percent of all batters faced. His six whiffs were just one off his season high. And in 21 starts in 2015, it was just the third time he has struck out that many batters.

Again, it was the early accumulation of pitches that cut his start short. It was the fourth time in his last five starts that he failed to complete six innings. Since his eight inning outing against the White Sox on July 19, Duffy has averaged just five and a half innings per start. Sure, the Royals bullpen is a weapon, but to rely on it to that extent is a bit much.

The other story to come from the game on Sunday was the bizarre turn of events in the eighth inning when the Royals were threatening to tie the game. With KC down one, Ben Zobrist starts the inning with a walk. (Brief interlude… Can we talk about how great Zobrist has been for the Royals? Seriously. A 13.3 percent walk rate while hitting .327/.414/.509. I knew he would be an ideal addition to this team for his versatility and his ability to get on base, but he’s exceeding expectations. Just a massive pickup for the Royals.) With one out, Eric Hosmer singles him to third.

Up steps Kendrys Morales.

This is one of those times when the Baseball Gods smile on your team. Down one in the late innings on the road, and your top run producer steps to the plate. Forget RBI, Morales has been a rock in the middle of the Royals lineup. He has brought home 21 percent of all baserunners this year. That’s a phenomenal amount, second in the league only to Josh Donaldson among hitters who have had 300 or more runners on base. And he’s second by decimal points. (I don’t know how close they are. Baseball Reference rounds all of their Runners Scored percentages.)

Morales is even better when he comes to the plate with a runner on third and less than two outs. In that situation, he’s bringing the runner home 68 percent of the time. Again, among hitters who have had that opportunity at least 25 times, Morales ranks fourth in the AL.

Simply put, this is the guy you want up at the plate in this situation.

Morales grounded the ball down the first base line. James Loney fielded the ball and threw home to nail Zobrist at the plate. Then, catcher Rene Rivera needed to take just a couple of steps to lay the glove on Morales who didn’t move out of the batter’s box. Double play. Inning over.

So why didn’t Morales run? He thought the ball was foul. Replays seemed to confirm what Morales saw: Loney fielded the ball in foul territory. It wasn’t about being “lazy” as some pegged it on Twitter. It wasn’t about a lapse in concentration as others may claim. It was a guy who hit a foul ball.

One problem with this situation was the wrong umpire made the call. Loney fielded the ball in front of the first base bag, which means the call belongs to the home plate umpire. He made no distinction either way, which is the norm on a close play on the line. Instead, the first base umpire made the call. Except it’s not his call to make until the ball passes the first base bag.

Again, if you follow me on Twitter, you know my position on replay. I think it’s a garbage system. Defenders tell me it’s about “getting the call right.” If that’s so important, why is it limited? Why doesn’t it cover fair or foul balls. It would seem to me, those are among the most difficult calls for an umpire to make. If we are going to look at a blurry play from an out of position camera on a call at second base, why can’t New York look at where a ball lands or where a fielder makes a play in relation to a white line? It just doesn’t make sense to me.

Either way, the call stood. Morales was out. The rally was over. And the Royals chances for a series sweep were over.

An off day Monday, followed by a nine game homestand against AL Central teams. The next time the Royals take the field, it will be September, which means rosters will expand. Which also means we will have the return of Alex Gordon to the Royals lineup. That the Royals have done so well in his absence is a testament to this team. Still, seeing Gordon in the field will be a welcome sight. We are through the dog days and now in the home stretch.

The Royals magic number is 20.

On Thursday afternoon, it was all about one man, his right arm, and a performance of the most dominant quality.

Yordano Ventura sliced through the Orioles lineup, throwing six innings with 11 strikeouts. Sure, there were some blips on command – he issued four walks – but he minimized the damage by being pretty much unhittable when he was in the zone.

The strikeouts were a career-high, topping his previous best of 10 set in May of 2014. His Game Score of 75 was tied for his best mark of the year, set in May against Cincinnati. It was truly a dominant start.

It wasn’t all easy. Because is wouldn’t be a Ventura 2015 start without a few speed bumps along the way. He wobbled in the first inning. Yes, he struck out the side, but he also walked two batters and needed 27 pitches to negotiate the inning. From that frame, it was clear that it would be difficult for the Orioles to put the bat to the ball and make solid contact against Ventura. It was also clear that Ventura’s command would be an issue.

Except it really wasn’t. Not too much of an issue, anyway.

There were spots of trouble. In the third, when a walk, a single, and a wild pitch placed two runners in scoring position. Strikeout. In the sixth, a single and a walk put runners on first and second. Groundout.

Two things were working for Ventura. First, his fastball was pure heat. His four-seamer, which has been averaging 96 mph for the season, averaged a whopping 99.6 mph. He cut loose with the pitch 36 times, according to Brooks Baseball, and hit a high speed of 101.5 mph. Incredible.

The second thing that was working for him was his curve. By my count, nine of his 11 strikeouts came on the breaking ball. The pitch had incredible bite. As such, Ventura had batters guessing (and guessing wrong) all afternoon.

From Brooks Baseball, here is Ventura’s velocity chart from his start.

Ventura_Velo-082715

So damn impressive. About a 14-16 mph separation between his fastball and his curve. With a few change-ups thrown in the mix for good measure.

Ventura threw his curve 32 times and generated nine swings and misses. He also got quite a few takes in the strike zone for a called third strike. It was just a great pitch for him all afternoon.

Ventura blamed his rocky first inning on not being properly prepared. The game was scheduled for a 1 PM start, but a rain delay meant it didn’t get underway until closer to 2:30. All starters go through an individual routine to get ready for their start, and delays like that can knock them for a loop. Now, having said that, starters need to be adaptable. Not every appearance is going to come with perfect conditions. Yet let’s give Ventura the benefit of the doubt here and mark it up to yet another learning experience.

Speaking of learning experiences, the narrative here is much of Ventura’s turnaround this month is thanks to the tutelage of one Johnny Cueto. I’m sure there’s something there. At the same time, I’m sure that his impact will be oversold. Since Cueto put on the Royal blue (which coincides with Ventura’s one day demotion to the minors) Ventura has made seven starts and posted a 3.07 ERA with 42 strikeouts in 44 innings.

Is it Cueto? Is it being scared straight? Hell if I know. I’m not sure I really care, either. What I do know is that Ventura has recovered from a rocky first half of the season and is putting up his most dominant stretch as a starter since he reached the big leagues. It seems like every post I write these days references the Royals playoff rotation. With the Royals holding such a large lead for the division (and home field advantage) it’s probably one of the more important questions remaining. I mentioned in my last post, that three weeks ago, I had Danny Duffy as a “soft number three” starter for October. Meaning, he was currently the Royals third best option, but I didn’t think the club was thrilled with that possibility. Now, after Thursday, let’s move Ventura to that number three slot.

While Ventura is answering questions, closer Greg Holland is raising a few. In his first appearance since missing time with a “cranky” arm, Holland struggled through his inning. To my untrained eye, it looked like his slider was creeping up in the zone, allowing the Oriole hitters to barrel that pitch. And “barrel” may not be the proper adjective. They certainly made good contact, but it wasn’t like they were crushing Holland. No, this was a very Dirty South outing these days. A couple of great pitches, sandwiched around a handful of baserunners.

It was pretty clear that Holland wasn’t in top form when he first took the mound. His velocity was down between 90 and 92 mph. That’s not where he should be. However, he got stronger as his inning progressed.

Holland_Velo_082715

It’s one thing to pitch like that with a four run cushion in August when your team is effectively on cruise control. It’s another to pitch like that in the highest of high leverage situations in October. Holland has a few weeks to work through his issues.

It also should be noted that Mike Moustakas continues his August renaissance. He was the offensive star of the day, with three hits in four at bats. In his last 15 games, he’s hitting .357/.446/.750 with 12 extra base hits. It’s too small of a sample size to say he’s fixed, but he’s going to the opposite field again, so this is very much a positive development. Now, if he can sustain it for another month-plus.

The Royals magic number is 23.

And you’re just plain wrong if you don’t know it.

Last night, Cueto was not good.  After a remarkable display of pitching to get out of runners on first and third with no one out in the second, Johnny gave up three two-run homers on his way to a second bad outing in a row.  Two bad starts in a row?  You’re right, he’s a bum.

Let’s ignore, as Twitter strikingly did last night, the four starts before that.  You know, a complete game shutout, a one run over eight innings performance before that, two runs over seven the start before that and three runs over six innings in his first Royal start.  That first start, by the way, coming against the Toronto Blue Jays in Toronto. Not impressed by six innings and three runs?  Do note that the Blue Jays AVERAGE 5.5 runs per game and are 17 games over .500 at home.  Since acquiring Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays have scored less than three runs in a game THREE times with only one of those occurring at home.  Buy yeah, as one tweet went last night:  Cueto’s a bum, bad in 3 of 5 starts.  Weird, looks like six starts to me, with four of them being good, but math is hard.

Now, I fully understand Twitter is built for the instant, knee-jerk reaction and also that anyone talking baseball on Facebook is likely to be firmly over on the very casual side of baseball fandom. I also know the need to be a contrarian and so, like the Cueto trade, when something occurs that most people like, there is the group that wants to be different.  They were out last night, too.  The ‘I was worried about this with Cueto’ or ‘I didn’t see why everyone is so excited about this trade’ group.  Yes, you are all so insightful.

Listen, if you want to debate that three months of Cueto is not enough to trade Finnegan, Lamb and Reed, I will acknowledge that opinion.  I personally don’t think it was, but there is an argument to be made.  You can also express concern that maybe Cueto would not stay healthy for half a season and have some standing.  Johnny did, after all, miss portions of both the 2011 and 2013 seasons.   If your reason is because you don’t think Johnny Cueto is not that good, then you are just not paying attention.

Since 2010, Johnny Cueto:

  • ranks 16th among all pitchers in total fWAR
  • ranks 4th in ERA
  • despite missing parts of two seasons with injury, he is still in the top 25 in innings pitched
  • ranks 6th in batting average against
  • led the league in innings pitched and strikeouts in 2014
  • pitched seven innings or more in 24 of his 2014 starts
  • pitched seven innings or more in 16 of his 25 starts this season and six innings plus in six others

Now, Cueto’s FIP and SIERA numbers for 2010 through 2015 rank in the twenties for all starting pitchers.  If you want to make an argument that Cueto is not an ‘ace’, whatever that really means, you have some standing.  He isn’t Clayton Kershaw, but do be aware as you dance the ‘he’s not an ace’ line of the following:

  • Kershaw has started eight post-season games in his career and allowed five runs or more three times and given up five runs in a start twice in 2015
  • Zack Greinke, between winning the Cy Young in Kansas City and going to the Dodgers, posted an ERA of 3.48 or above in three straight seasons.  He also has given up five runs or more in start twice this year
  • Felix Hernandez has allowed five runs or more in four starts in 2015 and did so three time in 2014
  • Dallas Keuchel?  Two starts allowing five runs, three more allowing four.
  • Chris Sale has allowed five runs or more five times this season

After the second inning escape last night, I tweeted ‘Johnny Cueto just gave us a lesson in what it means to be an ace’.  Like I said, Twitter is made for the instant reaction and, if pressed and if you demand some adherence to the nebulous ace, one, two, three, five rating system of starting pitchers, I might lean to saying that Cueto is not really an ace.  He is certainly a ‘number one’ and at the very high end of whatever scale you might use to designate who a ‘number one’ is.  An ace? I don’t know, man, define ace.  However you define it, be careful or you will end up describing no one.  Every ace has his warts.  Every ace and every number one has a bad start or two….and sometimes they come back to back.

Now, if you want to say Cueto is a ‘bum’ and ‘not that good’ and ‘has not been very impressive with the Royals’, then I do have to ask very sincerely, ‘What the hell color is the sky in your freakish, odd little world?’

 

Winning. It’s not getting old.

The Royals rolled to another victory on Tuesday night at The K, taking a 3-2 decision from the Baltimore Orioles.

Kendrys Morales hit a monster bomb. Mike Moustakas collected a couple of hits. Lorenzo Cain made a heads-up base running play. Danny Duffy pitched well. The bullpen did its thing. Victory.

These Royals do seem to make things look easy.

Morales’ home run came in the second inning. Just a textbook plate appearance against a pitcher who didn’t vary his pitches enough.

Screen Shot 2015-08-26 at 6.15.11 AM

Gonzalez was working Morales away and with fastballs. The only offspeed pitch thrown in the at bat was pitch number four, which was way high and outside. Morales fouled off the fastball on the inside corner and the 3-1 pitch that was on the outer half. On a 3-2 count, he got a belt-high fastball and obliterated the baseball. Let Statcast give you the gory details.

Those are the hallmarks of a baseball that is destined to get wet at The K.

I’m sure there will be a longer post after this season wraps, but damn if the Morales signing hasn’t been an absolute masterstroke from Dayton Moore. The Royals said all along they thought his 2014 season was an aberration, not some harbinger of decline. And you know what, they were absolutely correct. His power is still down from his 2009 vintage, but he’s back to where he was post-injury that caused him to miss a season and a half.

Morales is fourth on the team with a 121 wRC+. He’s also fourth with a 118 OPS+. He’s a rock in the middle of this Royals lineup.

I know the Royals will mention Morales’ RBI, but I’m much more interested in his overall percentage of base runners he brings home. Baseball Reference tracks RBI%. Morales ranks third among hitters who have come to the plate with more than 250 runners on base. He has driven home 21 percent, which is good for the third best mark in the AL. He’s just decimal points behind first place.

Just an outstanding comeback year. Kudos to the Royals for seeing that potential.

Speaking of potential, it looks like Moustakas is setting up for one of his patented hot streaks. Too often in the past, these stretches where he catches fire have lasted just a handful of games. We’re talking about like a week. This year, we’ve obviously seen a different Moustakas. His hot streak at the beginning of the season lasted for the better part of two months. He cooled off in June before he went missing in July and the first half of August. However, he’s brought the bat back to life over his last 11 games, hitting .310/.420/.667.

It’s an impressive rebound from a guy who seems to have spent this entire summer in unchartered territory, which is reason to be skeptical. When he was hitting the ball to the opposite field with consistency early in the year, the question was, how long could he keep it going? When he reverted back to some old, nasty habits, the question was, could he find his way out of the slump? And now I guess the question is, can he keep this going through October?

This is an important question because we all know the return of Alex Gordon is imminent. Gordon, if you recall, regularly hit in the sixth spot for most of the season. Which was absolute lineup malpractice. You simply don’t hit your best hitter sixth. Now, with Moustakas occupying the number six spot in the lineup, I would imagine Yost would be even more inclined to keep his third baseman there and find a new home for Gordon when he completes his rehab. This makes it less about moving an unproductive Alcides Escobar out of the leadoff spot, but keeping a productive Moustakas in the sixth place in the order. Yost supports his guys (which is a good thing) so this is a positive move I can see him making.

One guy who isn’t moving anywhere is Cain. Another nifty piece of baserunning from the Royals center fielder in the third inning. With runners on the corners, Hosmer bounced a grounder to the right side of second that was fielded by the shortstop Janish, as the infield was shaded to the right side. Cain stopped in his tracks midway between first and second. Janish’s momentum was taking him toward Cain and first base, so he threw to first. At that point, Cain sprinted to second and the Orioles needed to tag him for the out. Cain slid around the tag, headfirst, and just got his hand around the glove at second. Instead of an inning ending double play, the Royals stole a run. Given they won by a single tally, that play was huge.

On the pitching side, Duffy is in a battle for his playoff life. I’ve done a couple radio interviews in the last couple of weeks and everyone wants to talk postseason rotation, which makes sense. This is a huge question that needs to be sorted in the next six weeks. For the Royals, the first two spots are locked in place. I had been answering that Duffy was my number three, but that he was a “soft” number three. The meaning was, he could be pushed out of that spot by Yordano Ventura. Yet now, with the emergence of Kris Medlen as an option, there is much stronger competition for the third and fourth spots. Medlen is a guy who can get you six innings as we saw on Monday. So basically, every start from here on out from both Duffy and Ventura is a statement about their chances to be an integral part of the rotation in October. That’s outstanding to have that kind of competition when the team has their spot in the postseason tournament all but secure.

Duffy rose to the challenge on Tuesday. He cruised through the first three-plus innings before he wobbled a bit in the fourth, allowing four consecutive hitters to reach base. All with two outs. He was able to escape with his lead intact. It was a microcosm inning for Duffy where he looked sharp and then couldn’t put hitters away. The good news, he was able to find his footing before things really escalated.

Yost grabbed Duffy in the sixth with two outs, to give his bullpen the chance to save the game. With Greg Holland still out with a “cranky” arm, Luke Hochevar, Kelvin Herrera, and Wade Davis did their collective thing to lock down the win.

In his 900th game as Royals manager, Yost now owns a perfectly symmetrical .500 record.  He has 450 wins against 450 losses. At the start of the 2013 season, that didn’t seem possible.

And he got his record to .500 in typical Royals fashion. Some timely hits. Some heads-up base running. Six innings from the starter. A lockdown bullpen. Just another night in Kansas City.

The Royals magic number is 25.

Kris Medlen’s first start as a Royal did not start out in storybook fashion.  His first pitch was ripped by Manny Machado (who is pretty good, by the way) to the wall in right-center.  Lorenzo Cain, as he is known to do, ran about four miles only to have the ball go into and out of his glove, off the wall and back into his glove.  Seven minutes later the umpires in New York figured out what everyone else knew after the first replay and Medlen got to throw a second pitch.

After inducing a groundout, Medlen gave up a complete bomb to Adam Jones (who is pretty good, by the way).   It was not a particularly bad pitch, a curve ball down,  and was really more of Adam Jones being a good hitter.  Funny thing about Medlen’s curveball, after that it was almost unhittable (to everyone but Jones, who would single his next time up) and the ‘out pitch’ on four of his six strikeouts.

While the reaction to Jones’ home run was predictable, because it is 2015 and we hyper-react to everything or, even better, react to the hyper-reaction by indicating how little we are reacting (get off my lawn, kids), cooler heads prevailed.  Specifically, Kris Medlen had the coolest of heads.

He struck out Chris Davis, who was the only Oriole to get to a three ball count against Medlen all evening, and then struck out Clevenger to end the first and then just got silly good.  It took Kris just 8 pitches to work around an infield single in the second.  Fourteen to get through the third and eleven to escape the fourth allowing just one run thanks to two strikeouts and a Steve Clevenger base running vapor lock.   Seven pitches got Medlen through the fifth and just eleven more to get through the sixth.  After the first inning, Medlen never threw more than three balls in any inning.  Hell, he even managed to get Adam Jones out once.

How consistent was Medlen?  Here’s a very boring release point chart for you:
Release-Medlen

 

While repeating his delivery well, Medlen was also giving hitters a wide variation of speed:

Medlen-Speed

When you combine the variation of speed with the ability to throw all four pitches for strikes, well, you saw the result.

After a seven run explosion in the bottom of the sixth, Ned Yost went to his bullpen to finish off the game even though his starter had only thrown 69 pitches. No harm with being cautious with Medlen, who had not gone more than four innings since being added to the major league roster.  That is the luxury of being thirteen games up in August.

The last time Kris Medlen was a full-time starter (2013) he went six innings or more in 24 of his 31 starts and allowed three runs or less in 22 of those.  This was just one start, but if the Royals have added a pitcher that in any way resembles the 2013 version of Kris Medlen to a playoff rotation that will start with Johnny Cueto.  Well, folks, October just got even more exciting.

Boston has been a dangerous place.

For whatever reason, it’s been difficult for the Royals to grab a win there. I think we all remember last season, when the Royals opened the second half at Fenway and promptly dropped three in a row. They did win two of three back in 2013, sweeping a doubleheader, so maybe I’m exhibiting a recency bias. Maybe because the Red Sox used to be Eastern Division bullies, throwing their money around with abandon, winning pennants and championships while beating up on the poor (literally) Central teams is fresh in my mind. At any rate, the Royals didn’t do much to change my opinion, dropping the first two games of this four game series. It didn’t help that both losses were lackluster.

The Royals knocked that bias on it’s head on Saturday, as Yordano Ventura threw a solid game, holding the Sox bats in check. Ventura now has a 3.55 ERA in his five starts since his one day demotion to Omaha. In those starts he has 31 strikeouts in 38 innings and is holding opponents to a line of .229/.297/.396. Good numbers all around, especially if you consider there are two clunkers included in those six starts.

Ventura didn’t throw a clunker on Saturday. As I wrote on Friday, the Red Sox aren’t a good team, but their offense is an area of strength. The six innings Ventura threw felt like a bit of a grind, but credit where it’s due as he battled around scoring opportunities in the first and fourth, before allowing a single tally in the sixth. There’s been a lot of internet bandwidth taken up with the examination of Ventura’s struggles – particularly with runners on base. Over the last three starts, it certainly seems as though he has addressed those concerns.

This is obviously great news.

The other bit of news to come from Saturday was Salvador Perez’s opposite field home run. When Perez first came up to the majors, his power was actually to all fields. Seven of his first 15 home runs were hit to right or right-center. Here are his home run plots from Hittracker Online from the 2011 and 2012 seasons.

PerezHRPlot

His big power was to left-center, but he was hitting a number of pitches down the left field line. This isn’t unusual for a right-handed hitter. Power is to the pull field. Studies have shown that nearly 75 percent of all home runs are pulled. It’s the opposite field power that is special. It’s a sign of a player who is a complete hitter. And that’s certainly what we thought Perez was – or at least we hoped he could be. Indeed over his first two seasons (spanning 115 games and 463 plate appearances) Perez hit .311/.339/.471.

Since then however, it’s been a story of steady decline. It kind of tells you about his lost promise as a hitter as when the ball cleared the fence, I immediately hit Baseball Reference to figure out the last time he actually hit one out to the opposite field. Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine to April 27, 2013.

That’s correct. Over two and a half years ago.

Look at how he’s transformed his power profile in the last two seasons. The 2014 season is on the left, this year is on the right.


PerezHRPlot2

Quite the change.

At any rate, this isn’t to declare Perez as some kind of new hitter, or that he will now kick on the offensive afterburners and will now revert to the stylings we saw his first two partial seasons in the big leagues. This is really just to point out how rare an event it is, to see Perez hitting with power to the opposite field. I hope you got to witness it on Saturday. Who knows when we will see it again.

Sunday was a different sort of story, with a different offensive star. A grey, dreary day at Fenway saw the Royals fall behind early. Edinson Volquez wobbled a bit in the second, allowing two runs, but settled into a groove in the middle innings which allowed his team to chip away at the deficit to crawl back into the game. Boston’s defense and Mike Moustakas’ double in the fourth gave the Royals a brief lead.

Speaking of opposite field power, it was Moustakas going the opposite way in the sixth, to extend the Royals lead. For all the talk about Moustakas learning to go to left field, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that his home run production hasn’t exactly followed. Moustakas has always been a pure pull power hitter. To expect this change in approach where he goes the other way more frequently  to come with a similar change in his power profile wouldn’t be reasonable. Indeed, the home run on Sunday was only his second home run to left this year. His other came on Opening Day.

This one came on the ninth pitch of the at bat.

Moustakas PA 1

He fouled off a couple of hittable pitches before he found one on the outer half. This was like April Moustakas, going with that pitch and taking it the other way. The difference was, this was hit with authority.

It was a big day for Moustakas. He tallied three hits – all for extra bases – and drove in four. He was undoubtedly the star of the game. Yet I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some questionable decisions that were made in this game that could have cost the Royals the victory.

The first was when Ned Yost send Volquez back out to the mound in the seventh inning. The Royals were short in the bullpen which necessitated sticking with Volquez for what amounted to an inning too long. Luke Hochevar was ill and Ryan Madson was unavailable. So, too, apparently was Greg Holland. Certainly, it can be frustrating watching the game, seeing the starting pitcher wobble in the middle innings, and not have the manager bring in relief. Sometimes, we don’t have all the data. All I can offer is that in a similar situation in October, Volquez wouldn’t have gone back out for the seventh, because everyone in the bullpen would have been available. And that’s the Royals luxury. They are positioning for October.

The Royals were down to their final three outs when Omar Infante stepped to the plate. Infante snapped an 0-31  skid on Saturday and added another hit on Sunday. In the ninth, he lofted a high fly ball to left that was misplayed and took a crazy bounce toward center. Infante, perhaps rested from almost a month of not needing to run the bases, was cruising with abandon. By the time he reached third, third base coach Mike Jirschle was waving him home. He was out by a mile.

That was a serious lapse in judgement. Down two in the ninth with no one out, that is a run you desperately need. Why in the world would you send him? There is absolutely no reason to take that chance.

Fortunately, the Royals were able to kickstart the rally. Back to back singles by Drew Butera and Alcides Escobar put two on. After another out, Lorenzo Cain loaded the bases with a single of his own before Eric Hosmer tied it up. The Royals were jumping all over Boston closer Junichhi Tazawa, swinging early in the count and doing damage.

After Kendrys Morales walks to again load the bases, up steps Moustakas. Just a brilliant plate appearance where he fouled off pitch after pitch. Finally, 10 pitches in, he got what he was looking for: A fastball in the meaty part of the zone. He didn’t miss.

Moustakas PA 2

Moustakas fouled off five consecutive pitches before driving the ball to the gap in right-center for another double. Just an outstanding pair of plate appearances. His bat won this game.

This was where Jirschle’s nightmare of an inning continued. He decided to send Morales home for another run. Since 2012, Morales has been on first base 25 times when a double has been hit. He’s scored exactly twice.

I don’t expect Jirschle to know those kind of numbers, but there’s a reason Morales doesn’t make that trip very often: He’s just not that fast. Built for comfort and not speed, it would have been fine to keep Morales at third. Sure the next batter is Alex Rios, and we all know how he’s performed, although it feels like his bat is warming of late. Still, I know the Royals want to be aggressive on the bases, but that just wasn’t a smart send.

Somehow, the Royals scored four runs in the ninth when they had two runners thrown out at home. Royals Devil Magic is alive and well.

In the end, it’s a win. A great comeback win.


Source: FanGraphs

The Royals magic number is now 28.

Well, that was… uninspiring.

The Royals, as you may have heard, after what felt like the longest two game series in the history of the game, arrived in Boston around 5am on Thursday morning. They weren’t making excuses because they are the best team in the American League, and damnit, excuses are for teams like the Tigers. But they were probably tired. And so it goes.

The result was a lackluster 4-1 loss to the Red Sox.

Boston starter Wade Miley has been a little better since the All-Star Break, with a 3.99 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 39 innings before facing the Royals. He’s an inconsistent starter that has to have his teammates scratching their heads every fifth game. Which Wade Miley will show up today? On Thursday, we know the answer.

On the flip side, you have Danny Duffy. It feels like he, too, is inconsistent. Yet the game logs and results tell a bit of a different story. Since his return from the DL at the end of June prior to the game in Boston, the Duffman had thrown 60 innings with an ERA of 2.85. However, he had just whiffed 28 batters against 19 walks. I’ve written about Duffy’s declining strikeout rate, and when you frame it in terms of his SO/BB ratio, it looks even less appealing if that’s possible.

While I personally find the Red Sox struggles hilarious, they still have a league average offense. Scoring 4.53 runs per game (third best in the league and above the average of 4.28 runs per game) while slugging .410. The slugging percentage is a little less impressive, but still slightly above league average. In other words, the reason the Sox are in the basement of the AL East isn’t because of the bats. These guys can hit. When you have a starter like Duffy who is struggling to throw strikes and isn’t missing many bats (he got a swinging strike on nine of his 98 pitches, which is actually pretty good for him of late) a team like Boston is still going to get their knocks. As we’ve learned, sequencing matters. So when Boston put together two singles, a double and a triple in the bottom of the third, it was good for three runs.

The problem for the Royals was they were unable to force Boston to their bullpen in a timely fashion. Residing in the AL Central as the Royals do, we know all about the crimes of the Detroit relief corps. Well the only bullpen in the league worse that the Tigers is the Red Sox. (Hey! That’s Dave Dombrowski’s music!) When they are only summoned to get five outs, you’re not doing yourself a real favor.

If you truly want to know what kind of night it was, look at that eighth inning. They finally get Miley out of the game, put two runners on, yet fail to score. Oh, and those two runners? They reached via an error and a walk.

Somebody told me there’d be days like these.

A couple other notes…

— It seems as though there is much rejoicing over the Royals beating their PECOTA projection of 72 wins.

The angst over a computer and what they think of a particular team, never fails to amuse me. McCullough, who wrote the chapter on the Royals for the Baseball Prospectus annual, gives a nice breakdown on why the system overlooked the Kansas City nine.

The bottom line is the system has a difficult time projecting the value of defense and a lock-down bullpen, the two absolute keys to the Royals success. This makes sense. Unsaid in the article is the factor of a manager who knows how to use said bullpen. Let’s be honest and give some credit to Ned Yost. While the arsenal found in the Royals bullpen is a gift any manager would love to have at his disposal, is there any guarantee another manager would use it correctly? Maybe the quality of the arms makes any manager look like a genius, but I’d like to think that Yost (and pitching coach Dave Eiland) knows this collection of arms in a way that gives them an ultimate advantage. Sure, H-D-H is automatic, but they’re not available every night. Injuries and fatigue play a roll in a six month regular season. Yost has done a great job managing his pen.

So about that projection: PECOTA still hates your Royals. They are projecting a 20-22 record over the final 42 games. Yes, that feels like a low number of wins, from a team that has won over 60 percent of their games over their first 120 contests. It still hasn’t made the adjustments to the flaws in the system listed above.

I know some of you take umbrage with PECOTA, but it’s a projection. I figure the same people who are trashing it today, would be lauding it if they had projected 95 wins for the Royals. Whatever. It has no bearing on how a particular team performs. Hate on the system all you want. I prefer to figure out the why.

— Alex Gordon is heading to Omaha on Sunday to start his rehab assignment. I don’t need to tell you, but this is outstanding news.

He expects to play for about a week before returning to Kansas City. That seems like a sensible amount of games. Enough for him to get his timing back, and to see how his groin responds to a series of games. If everything goes according to plan, I would imagine he would be back on September 1st against the Tigers. It will be a much welcome return.

Gordon’s impending return gives the Royals about a week to decide how they will adjust their lineup. It’s painfully obvious the Royals would be a more dangerous offensive team if they have Gordon hitting leadoff with Ben Zobrist behind him. That puts their best two hitters at avoiding outs at the top of order. Revolutionary. Defensively, what’s going to happen? I’ve been on record saying I hope Yost removes Omar Infante permanently. His defense is slightly above average at second, but doesn’t come close to making up the ground he gives away with his bat. Baseball Prospectus has a visual breakdown of WARP by position per team. (WARP is their version of WAR.) No team has gotten less value from a position this year as the Royasl have received at second base. And you want to know something? Since Zobrist has been playing second, he’s added 0.3 WARP to the total. Here’s how it looks:

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 12.27.21 PM

By the way, their production from center and left ranks fourth and fifth best respectively in the league.

— Finally, Yost wouldn’t commit to Jeremy Guthrie remaining in the rotation. After Kris Medlen’s strong outing on Thursday, I would imagine he’s the top candidate to replace him.

The Royals were probably hoping to avoid placing Medlen in the rotation in 2015. He’s on board for 2016. However, a combination of his performance, his ability to recover from an outing, and the dreadfulness of Guthrie, means the Royals may accelerate the timetable. That’s not a bad thing as it could potentially give the Royals another rotation option as they focus on October.

— After the loss and the Twins victory last night, the Royals magic number remains at 29.

Before scores of fans, the Royals defeated the Reds last night the ‘Royal Way’:  four runs and five innings of relief pitching.

The official attendance was 18,078 in Cincinnati.  I’m going to go out on a limb and say the actual number of people in the seats last night was closer to half that number.   As Royals fans we can make fun of that and smirk at how of may of those who actually did attend were cheering for Kansas City.  We can do that this year because the Royals are averaging 33,609 people per home game and, already past the two million mark, currently are fourth in the league in attendance.

 

 

 

Those attendance numbers are the ‘good team spike’ for an organization that has seen a steady rise in attendance for the past five years and a far cry from the paltry 16,928 average per game back in the dark days of 2005.  The Royals are very likely going to break the all-time franchise attendance record set in 1989 of 2,477,700.   For a team that ranked no higher than 10th in American League Attendance in any year since the strike, this is heady stuff.

Of course, it brings out the snark as well.  Those ‘die-hard’ fans who count themselves among the core 16,000 that showed up night after night to watch the Royals lose 310 games in three years might sneer at the ‘newbies’, some of whom have the audacity to not know who the number three started in Northwest Arkansas is.  Where were you back then, they ask.  I don’t probably at home watching on television until the game inevitably turned into a pile of garbage.  I don’t know maybe taking a bike ride instead of seeing if Shawn Camp could get the Royals out of the sixth inning while keeping them within four runs.   Maybe a portion are just bandwagon fans who are showing up because the Royals are hip and fun right now.  Most are somewhere beyond bandwagon, but not quite die-hard in fandom.  That’s how the world works.

Outside of Kansas City, we have all seen the comments.  The ‘oh look, there are Royals fans now’ and other classic dumbassery.  As if the Royals are unique in having more fans now that they are winning as opposed to when they were, and let’s be honest, pretty much a joke.  Weird, winning teams draw better than losing teams.  Who would have thought?  If you are cocky enough to think your franchise is immune, you might want to check the record book.

That last sentence might have seemed pointed at the Cardinal Nation.  You can hate St. Louis all you want, but you cannot deny the organization’s competence.  They have posted a winning record in 17 of the last 20 seasons, made the playoffs 12 of those years and won the World Series twice.  They have been no worse than fourth in National League attendance in all but one of those seasons (weirdly the year they won 105 games they finished sixth).  To their credit, Cardinal fans have shown up in the losing seasons during that time, but if you go back to the last time the Cardinals posted back to back losing seasons (1994 and 1995), they sank to 7th and 8th in attendance.

How about the Angels?  They have been second, third or fourth in AL attendance since 2003, but prior to that they were solidly entrenched at 8th or 9th for years….in a market that is pretty much people as far as you can see.  I am a farmer, so I can say this, but you drive by a lot of corn and cows on the way to Kaufmann Stadium.   Been to Anaheim lately?  Lots and lots and lots of people.  When the Angels were going 70-91, they drew 1.7 million.

Detroit?  They have been consistent winners since getting to the World Series in 2006, but the four years prior to that?  You know when the lost 91, 90, 119 and 106 games.  The Tigers were 10th, 9th, 13th and 12th in AL attendance.  To their credit, they were never last in attendance, but then the Royals were last in that category just one season.  Hell, even the Yankees, who have led the league in attendance every season since 2003 fell as far down as 11th in the early nineties when they had three straight losing seasons.

There is no new information here.  More people are fans of teams that win or, maybe more accurately, more people express their fandom of a winning team than when it is losing.  I live in Nebraska and, like it or not Kansas and Missouri, the Royals are the dominant franchise up here and where before Alex Gordon was drafted, by the way.  Royals gear, always around, is being worn with full fury up here these days.  Some are bandwagonners, most are just paying closer attention.  There is nothing wrong with any of that and nothing unique about it.

Royals fans, welcome aboard or welcome back or thanks for not being ashamed of being a KC fan anymore.  There’s room for everybody, even those of you who don’t realize there are two Morales’.  Fans of other teams?  Get over yourself and get used to it.  There are more of us this year and we are making more noise…. just like you do when your team is really good.

 

 

It was the never-ending game.

The scoring bookended regulation. Eugenio Suarez yanked a home run to left field in the bottom of the first. Ben Zobrist (The Zorilla!) tied the game in the ninth off the previously Teflon arm of Aroldis Chapman. It was his first blown save at home in 56 attempts. See? The Royals aren’t the only team that has had bullpen streaks come to an end.

Speaking of streaks… After going the entire season without a ninth inning come from behind victory, and just days after seeing their 111 game winning streak when leading after eight innings end, the Royals have now won two in a row when trailing after eight.

Baseball can be kind of amazing.

Edinson Volquez started and went a hard six innings. He limited the damage to just the home run, but the entire game was a battle. He needed 112 pitches to get those 18 outs. He faced 24 batters on the night and threw a first pitch strike to only nine. Command has been an issue in the past, no so much this season, but it just wasn’t a tidy ballgame. Volquez walked three and allowed four hits but was really only tested in the sixth inning when he intentionally walked Votto to load the bases. A grounder to Moustakas at third ended the threat and Volquez’s night.

Enter bullpen. Damn, that Royals bullpen was nails. Rollcall! Ryan Madson, Chris Young, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Franklin Morales, Kris Medlen, and Greg Holland. Combined, they allowed just four baserunners scattered over seven innings. With nine strikeouts. And you were worried.

Bullpen aside, it was truly a dreary affair until the 13th. The only other plays of note were a couple of replay decisions that went against the Royals. The first was on Lorenzo Cain at home plate in the ninth. Originally called safe following a rundown, New York overturned the decision on the field. Meh. It was difficult to tell, but Cain didn’t seem too disturbed. Maybe he just loves baseball so much and can see into the future, so he was fine with the extra innings. Either way the call went, it was a strong effort from him to stay in the rundown and to attempt to avoid the tag. I’ll pay money to watch Lorenzo Cain play baseball.

The next replay came in the top of the 11th when Alcides Escobar was thrown out at second trying to leg out a double. It was maybe a good move if Escobar had run at full speed out of the box. The ball was heading for the gap, so I really have no clue why he wasn’t busting it from the beginning. After Hamilton dove for the ball and grabbed it on one hop (a really great defensive play by the way, he was at full extension) Escobar was beat to second by the throw. However, it looked like the he evaded the tag, sliding over the glove. Replay thought otherwise and Yost, displeased, was promptly ejected. I’m clearly not a fan of replay, but the one good thing that has come from it is a decrease in ejections. Nothing looks sillier than a grown man yelling and gesticulating wildly about a call that he perceives has gone against his team. However, in this instance, Yost was justified in his frustration. Two close calls, one was overturned and one was upheld. Both looked like they could go either way.

Replay, in it’s current state, is a sham.

On to the 13th. Jarrod Dyson led off with a single. He was in the lineup only because Omar Infante was a late scratch with back spasms. (Does that make Infante a candidate for Player of the Game? Good question.) That pushed Zobrist, originally slated to play left, to second, while Dyson was tapped to field left. Out of bench players outside of Drew Butera (and Infante, who was suffering back spasms and you know… Isn’t that good when healthy), the Royals elected to allow Medlen to come to plate. Medlen’s twitter bio describes himself as a “Platoon DH” so I suppose he has some confidence carrying the lumber. He laid down a nice bunt on the first base line that was promptly launched into right field by the pitcher Mattheus. Dyson, did his thing, flipped on the afterburners and came around to score.

You read that correctly. The Royals scored the go-ahead run in the 13th inning when their pitcher laid down a sacrifice bunt… That scored a runner from first base. To paraphrase Denny Matthews, “When it’s your year…”

A wild pitch, a single by Escobar, and a Zobrist chopper that went for a single brought home Medlen for the insurance. This is a blog with a sabermetric bent, so you’re not going to read about pitcher wins in this space. But I do acknowledge they are important for the pitchers… They matter to them. So it does feel like it’s worth noting that Medlen picked up his first win since 2013. You can’t help but feel happy for the guy to persevere like he has. Just add his name to the list of the Feel-Good Royals of 2015. This team…

After Medlen crossed the plate, all that was left was for Holland to do his thing in the bottom of the 13th. He showcased a nasty curve against Votto on 0-1 before he lost him on a walk. The command abandoned him ever so briefly in that inning. His breaking balls were up in the zone and he caught a little too much of the plate before he spiked a slider for a swing and a miss for the final out.

Didn’t you feel confident when Zobrist went yard against Chapman in the ninth? Playing extra innings plays right into the Royals strength. It’s all about the bullpen, baby.


Source: FanGraphs

Win probability always throws the advantage to the home team in extras. Understandable. For the home team, one swing of the bat can end the game. However, win probability doesn’t take into account the wonder that is the Royals bullpen.

The Royals magic number is 31.

The Royals signed Joba Chamberlain and Wandy Rodriguez to minor league deals the other day and I had to chuckle at some of the reactions.  Why? Some asked.  Keep them in Omaha, please, others said.  Hey, I understand some of the wonder/concern/angst.  I’ll make fun of it because I am only a marginally nice person at best, but I do understand.

Not too very long ago, Chamberlain would not be headed to the minors to try to revive his career but instead would be pitching tonight in Cincinnati…in the seventh inning…of a tie game.  One does not have to reach back too far into history to a point when instead of trading for Johnny Cueto to win the World Series, the Royals were signing Wandy Rodriguez to start eight games down the stretch just to get through the season.

Now, Rodriguez gets a month to show if he has anything left as he assumes the role of a warm body in the Omaha starting rotation which was thinned out thanks to the trades of Aaron Brooks, Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb. While I think the end of a good career is well within sight for the 36 year old Rodriguez, there is no harm in giving him a look in AAA. Curiously, Wandy’s strikeout rate is up this year, but sadly most of the bad stats are up, too. If you see him in September, which I highly doubt, it will be because of a catastrophic string of injuries (knock wood!) or simply a spot start to get the rotation aligned for the playoffs.  His role is really just to eat up some innings for a AAA team short on starters and maybe do well enough to earn a 2016 Spring Training invite.

As much as it appears that Wandy Rodriguez is well into the twilight of his career, I feel as though Joba Chamberlain is pretty much past the bed time of his own. After a passable year for Detroit in 2014, Chamberlain was ineffective in 2015.  He was victim to a big (and likely to regress in a good way) home run rate (21.7% of flyballs became home runs), but it is hard to look away from the fact that batters hit line drives off him almost 30% of the time.   His is a career that basically has gone down hill via injuries and just plain non-performance since 2008 and shows no real sign of getting better.  Yet, the guy was basically sitting 50 miles up the road from where the Stormchasers play, so what is the harm in taking a look?

There is no harm in either signing because, quite frankly, if either Rodriguez or Chamberlain pitches a meaningful inning in a meaningful major league game for the Royals, the team has far, far bigger problems. I think it is unlikely that we see either in a Royals’ uniform this September and quite possible that the month they spend in the system will be their only time with organization.  Maybe we’ll see them in Spring Training – again, no harm in having a bunch of arms in camp in March.

It is easy to overestimate the amount of angst contained in a Tweet or a comment on the internet, but if you had any – even one brief sliver of it – over these two minor league signings, you need to note that the calendar says 2015, not 2009.  It is not like it used to be.   Oh, and by the way, after years of very logical questioning of Dayton Moore, who are we to criticize the signings made by a GM who picked up Chris Young, Ryan Madson and, yes, even Joe Blanton for virtually nothing this year?

Among other things….

  • When would you let Omar Infante play second base again?  My answer would be next April, but I fear Ned Yost will re-insert Infante as soon as tonight or tomorrow.  Some have defended Infante playing every day by siting his defense.  Sure, Omar ranks as high as sixth in the majors among second basemen defensively (depending on your preferred defensive metric).  You have all watched him and Infante is a good defender, but he is not a great defender.  He is no Frank White or Cookie Rojas.  Frankly, he is no Mark Grudzielanek.  And, by the way, you CANNOT play good enough defense at second base in the 21st century to justify the batting line that Omar Infante carries.  You want to play Zobrist over Rios and keep Infante?  I’ll listen.  It is a pick your poison choice, but lose no sleep over Omar sitting.  Also, Ben Zobrist can play some defense at second as well.
  • Fun story of the day.   My seven year old discovered that our next door neighbors are Cardinal fans – he was appalled.  They have a ten year old who was lecturing Max on how the Cardinals had a better record than the Royals, to which Max responded, “Well, we have Johnny Cueto now.”  and walked away.   Johnny Cueto: fun to say, fun to have on your team.
  • A fair portion of you have a distaste for Nebraska.  I have said in the past that you cannot find four states that are more similar than Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa or, best I can tell, four states from which people are so certain they are different.  As an aside, you know the difference between a die-hard Kansas basketball fan and a die-hard Nebraska football fan?  Me neither, there isn’t one and you are fooling yourself if you think there is one.   At any rate, the Stormchasers will certainly enjoy a nice little attendance bump should Alex Gordon do a rehab stint in Omaha AND Joba Chamberlain is in the bullpen.  Even I (keep in mind I live in Lincoln) will think that might be a few too many Husker fans.
  • Speaking of Gordon and again, knock wood, he would seem to be right on track for an early September return.  It seems like perfect timing:  three to four weeks for Alex to get back in the groove in the majors and the same amount of time for Ned Yost to settle into his post-season lineup.  As I wrote last week, I don’t have major issues with Yost resting players liberally and maneuvering the lineup around through the end of this month and the first part of September.  Come the weekend of September 19th, however, I believe Yost needs to know and play ‘his playoff nine’ and part of that is putting Ben Zobrist at either second base or in rightfield full-time.

It’s August 18th and we are already talking playoffs.  It truly is not like it used to be.

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