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Deconstructing The Process

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We are almost a quarter through the regular season. The Royals have played 40 games and won 26, marking the best start in franchise history.

Here are a few random notes:

— The Royals are second in the American League in On Base Percentage at .338. This is a seismic shift in Kansas City baseball. Granted, this is fueled by an obscenely elevated BABIP of .322. They still refuse to take a walk. At 5.4 percent, their walk rate isn’t just in the bottom of the AL, it’s practically subterranean. In fact, I went all the way back to 1960 in the American League. There wasn’t a single team that finished with a walk rate below six percent. The Royals aren’t just doing things their own damn way, they’re setting fire to conventional wisdom along the way.

— While the Royals are getting on base at a quality clip, their current leader in OBP? None other than Mike Moustakas. His .396 OPB edges Eric Hosmer by a single point. Still, a lead is a lead, no matter how slim.

To me, nothing underscores the insanity of the first quarter of this season than Moustakas leading in any offensive category. OBP? Get out of here.

— If I had an All-Star Game ballot:

C – Stephen Vogt
1B – Eric Hosmer
2B – Jason Kipnis
3B – Mike Moustakas
SS – Jose Iglesias
LF – Alex Gordon
CF – Mike Trout
RF – Josh Reddick
DH – Nelson Cruz

That’s three Royals and it hurt to give the nod to Trout over Lorenzo Cain. Cain has the edge defensively (duh), but Trout’s offensive numbers are otherworldly. His offensive edge over Cain is larger than Cain’s defensive edge. For reserves, you could certainly make a case for Salvador Perez and Cain is definitely on the team. Add Wade Davis for good measure and you have six deserving Royals. Six.

It’s almost as if “Ken Harvey, All-Star” never happened. Almost.

(By the way, I know that technically everyone has an All-Star ballot. Except those ballots don’t exist anymore. The only way you can vote is online.)

— If you’ve read this blog for any number of posts, you know I don’t have much time for RBI. I do, however, enjoy RBI%. Basically, that’s just the percentage of the number of baserunner who come around to score. This year, the Royals are scoring a whopping 18 percent of all baserunners. Most teams are clustered around the 14 percent rate, which is the league average. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest scoring teams plate around 12 percent of their baserunners, or two percentage points off the average. The Royals are outpacing the league by four percentage points. Impressive.

In the last 10 years, a handful of teams have scored 17 percent of their runners. No one has scored 18 percent. It’s still very early, so there’s plenty of time for regression here, but this is an impressive start.

— Lorenzo Cain is a defensive god.

According to The Fielding Bible, he leads the universe with 13 defensive runs saved.

How amazing is that? Among teams, just four have more than 13 defensive runs saved. (Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Giants, and of course, Royals.) Teams!

— This may be the most fun I’ve ever had watching baseball. This team is beating their opponents in myriad ways. They are hitting doubles, they are getting (sometimes) solid starting pitching, the lockdown bullpen… The thing that struck me from their last game against the Reds was how they scored. Of the first five runs the Royals tallied, four of them scored when the Royals batter hit into an out. Here’s how they scored:

Sac Fly
Fielder’s Choice
Sac Fly
Single
Double Play

Just another night at the ballpark.

It was a dominant turn. The likes we haven’t seen since October of last year.

Mostly, it was cause for a sigh of relief.

Yordano Ventura, the hurricane of bizarre pitching performances so far in 2015, turned in by far his best start of the season. His performance was key in the Royals 3-0 win over the Reds, which secured back to back shutouts for the Royals for the first time in 23 years.

His final line:

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, o BB, 6 SO. He threw 88 pitches, 54 of them for strikes.

And… Exhale.

The shenanigans of April overshadowed the fact Ventura was getting off to a semi-decent start. In outings ended by either cramps or ejections, he was strong in three of them. His worse start was the debacle at The K against Oakland. It was after all of the hubbub of the early season that really caused concern. In his three starts following the kerfuffle in Chicago, Ventura threw just over 18 innings, allowing 14 runs while walking nine batters against just 11 strikeouts. Most alarmingly, his velocity in those starts was down.

Neither command, runs or velocity was an issue on Tuesday.

In those three starts, Ventura got a swing and a miss six percent of the time. On Tuesday, he missed bats 10 percent of the time. He didn’t go to a three-ball count until old friend Brayan Pena worked him full with two outs in the bottom of the third. (Pena eventually went down swinging.) If you want to get really micro, Ventura’s worst match-up came leading off the top of the seventh when Todd Frazier took the first three pitches out of the strike zone. Ventura adjusted, taking a little off a “get-me-over” fastball to go 3-1 before he got him to foul out.

Ventura_frazier

After the game, it was revealed that in his previous start, Ventura struggled with tear in the fingernail of his right index finger. That issue flared up again late in the sixth inning. Easy to see why he missed early starting the seventh.

Yet Ventura rallied and got the next two batters. For his final batter of the evening, Brandon Phillips, Ventura was still throwing smoke, topping out at 99 mph on his fastball. According to normalized PitchF/X data collected by Brooks Baseball, Ventura averaged 97.6 mph on his fastball and topped out at 100.5 mph. From the velocity chart, you can see how he got stronger in the middle innings and then was able to maintain his velocity through a crafty mix of his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.

Ventura_051915_Velo

One trend that we’ve seen slowly revealed this season with Ventura is his increasing ground ball rate. We saw that to the extreme on Tuesday as 11 of the 14 outs he recorded on balls in play were hit on the ground. Overall for 2015, Ventura has a 2.3 GB/FB ratio and his 55 percent ground ball rate is by far the highest of his career. Strikeouts and ground balls… That’s a nifty way to make a living. And as we saw, it’s nearly impossible for the opposition to do any kind of damage when that’s the recipe Ventura is cooking.

Since that start against Chicago, Ventura has slowly been regaining his velocity. Tuesday was the pinnacle of his rebound.

Ventura_2015Velo

Ventura said it was the best he has felt all year, and that was incredibly obvious. It was a masterful performance. He will always be measured against his efforts in Game Six, which may not always be fair, but that’s was such a great outing that it can’t be helped. Let’s just say that if you had flashbacks to that October night while watching him work on a cold, rainy May night against another National League opponent, it wouldn’t be strange. It was that kind of performance.

Welcome back, Ventura.

The Royals have scored 190 runs on the season. That’s the second most in the AL, behind only the Toronto Blue Jays who have plated an even 200. Scoring runs is the key to accumulating wins, as anyone will tell you. I mean, that’s fairly obvious and probably not why you stop by this blog. However, it’s not the only thing. Take those same Blue Jays. Yes, they lead the majors in runs scored but they are five games under .500 and five games behind the leaders in the East. They are in last place.

On the flip side, the Royals have allowed only 137 runs. Again, that’s the second best in the AL. This time, they are behind only the Los Angeles Angels, who have allowed 129 runs to score. Just like runs scored, preventing runs aren’t the only key to winning games. The Angels are just a single game above .500 and they trail first place Houston by 5.5 games.

So while runs scored and runs allowed, taken alone, aren’t exactly indicators of success or failure. Combined however, and you’re getting closer. As you may imagine, the Royals, with their second best mark in runs scored and their second best spot in runs allowed, do really well in run differential.

As of Monday, the Royals run differential is at +55. By far the best in the American League.

Here are the top five:

Royals – +55
Astros – +23
Tigers – +20
Rays – +17
Yankees – +15

Here we are, a month-plus into the regular season

The Royals run differential gives them a Pythagorean record of 24-13. Which is one game better than their actual record of 23-14. That’s unbelievable, yet not surprising. If that’s possible. (Pythagorean record is a simple formula based on runs scored and runs allowed to deliver an expected won-loss record. It’s not predictive of anything.)

More indicative of how a team has performed is the 3rd order winning percentage. This is a winning percentage adjusted for statistics and strength of schedule. Because it takes into account more than just raw runs scored and allowed, there’s a little more depth to 3rd order winning percentage. As of Monday, the Royals 3rd order winning percentage is 25-13, a .667 winning percentage. And best in the American League.

We know the strengths of this team. The defense and the bullpen are righteous. This year, the offense has taken a massive step forward. While the BABIP has started to normalize (it’s currently at .322, down from the stratosphere it occupied in late April) the defensive runs saved and the relief corps are keeping the damage we would find in the regression to a minimum.

There are still flaws on this team. (Cough, cough… starting pitching.) It’s difficult to say if those flaws are serious enough to derail this team going forward. However, the strengths are real enough that these Royals don’t look like one-year wonders. There’s some staying power here.

This could be one hell of a summer.

Alcides Escobar is the current Royals leadoff hitter. This is a very bad choice.

On Thursday, Escobar went 3-5 with two runs scored and three driven home. That’s a pretty complete day. But if we’ve learned anything from our blog journey through Royals fandom, it’s damn the small sample sizes. If the timing of the post is curious to you after Escobar’s successful day at the plate, it shouldn’t be.

Here are four reasons Escobar is a bad choice to hit at the top of the order for the Royals.

Escobar is currently seeing 3.39 pitches per plate appearance.

That rate is the second lowest among Royals regulars. If you can’t guess the lowest, turn in your fan card. (It’s Sal.) Out of 187 qualified hitters in the major leagues, Escobar ranks 174th in working the count. He’s among other notable hackers such as Chris Owings, Alexi Ramirez, and Evan Gattis. Sure, Jose Altuve is also down the list – he sees only 3.18 pitches per plate appearance. Like everything in baseball, there is no hard and fast rule saying that “X” attribute definitively leads to “Y” result. Let’s just point out there are more guys like Owings on the lower part of the list than guys like Altuve.

Escobar has always been a swing first, work the count never kind of hitter. While this didn’t prevent Ned Yost from pushing him as a leadoff batter, Escobar’s approach this season should be raising alarm bells. His rate of pitches seen per plate appearance has declined this year, relative to other seasons.

2011 – 3.76
2012 – 3.73
2013 – 3.48
2014 – 3.56
2015 – 3.39

Granted, this isn’t some sort of seismic shift in number of pitches Escobar is seeing, but when you move a guy from the bottom of the order where he hit for most of 2014 to the top and the number of pitches he sees declines, that feels like a fairly strong indicator that his approach has unchanged given his new situation in the lineup.

Naturally, this is an epidemic on the Royals. As a team, they are seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. That’s the worst rate in the American League and only the Phillies at 3.58 P/PA are worse.

Escobar’s approach is increasingly aggressive. Too aggressive for the top spot in the lineup.

About a week ago, Escobar led off the game clubbing the first pitch he saw for a home run. He hasn’t swung at every first pitch since then, but sometimes it feels like it.

For the season, Escobar is swinging at the first pitch 30.4 percent of the time. He’s never topped a 30 percent first swing percentage in his entire career. Remember, leading off isn’t just about the start of the game. It’s about setting the table for the alleged run producers who occupy the middle of the order. Cain, Hosmer, and Gordon can’t drive in Escobar if he’s not on base. So while it would behoove Escobar to work the count as noted above, he’s going up swinging at the first pitch more this year than any time in his career. It’s a curious time for newfound aggression.

Historically, Escobar doesn’t get on base enough to hit at the top of the order.

Escobar owns a career OBP of .301. The league average during his major league tenure is .325. If the goal is to get the best hitters the most plate appearances and minimize those of the worst, the Royals are doing it wrong.

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 158 598 548 69 139 25 73 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 155 648 605 68 177 27 100 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 158 642 607 57 142 19 84 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 162 620 579 74 165 23 83 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 25 116 105 14 32 4 10 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 850 3314 3079 361 814 138 439 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 162 632 587 69 155 26 84 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

But wait, you say. There are a couple of years where he’s at least close to average in on base percentage. He’s had two years where he’s almost hit triple digits in OPS+.

See if you can find a common thread to those years.

Year Age Tm Lg PA Outs RC RC/G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 598 449 55 3.3 .285 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 648 455 80 4.7 .344 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 642 490 49 2.7 .264 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 620 444 70 4.2 .326 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 116 81 15 5.0 .326 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 3314 2419 334 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 632 461 64 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

The years where his on base percentage is above .300 come when his BABIP is likewise above .300. BABIP is often misunderstood, but there should be no mistaking that it’s a volatile stat that has no year to year correlation. The BABIP gods giveth and the BABIP gods taketh away.

If you are building a lineup and want to get your best on base guy at the top, do you base your decision on stats inflated by secondary items that aren’t sustainable? Yeah, I thought so.

The Royals are basing Escobar leading off from a small sample size. 

On September 13, 2014, Escobar owned a slash line of .264/.305/.363. He acquired this hitting mostly eighth or ninth in the order. In an effort to generate more offense down the stretch, Yost pushed Nori Aoki to second in the order, dropped Omar Infante out of the second spot and penciled in Escobar at the top. Escobar had two hits in four plate appearances and the Royals beat the Red Sox 7-1. From that moment on, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484 out of the leadoff spot as the Royals clinched a Wild Card berth. Then in the postseason, as the Royals exclusive leadoff hitter, Escobar reverted to form and slashed .292/.305/.415. His offensive performance was overlooked thanks to a few key hits and the Royals spectacular run to Game Seven of the World Series.

It seems that the 15 games in September were enough to cement Escobar’s role on the 2015 Royals. Never mind the career evidence of a .299 on base percentage through 2014. Why look at almost 3,200 plate appearances when you can focus on a random stretch of around 65?

Overall lineup construction isn’t something to sweat over, but it’s a big deal when teams bat a hitter who should bat in the lower third of the order at the top.

Last year, the number one spot in the Royals lineup came to the plate 744 times. The ninth spot came up 593 times. To dive further into the numbers, last year the Royals leadoff hitters combined to post a .339 on base percentage. I’m going to blow your mind. That was much better than the league average of .326. It also ranked second best in the American League. (Quick aside, despite success reaching base, the first spot in the batting order scored only 82 times for the Royals. That was the third worst tally in the AL.)

Meanwhile, the ninth spot in the Royals lineup posted a cumulative OBP of .273. That was well below the league average of .286.

So if you put the league average ninth place hitter in the leadoff spot, he’s going to make about 30 more outs during the season than the league average leadoff man. That’s a sizable difference.

Is Escobar 30 outs worse than any other potential leadoff man in the Royals lineup? Difficult to say, but I’d guess probably not. Escobar has posted an OBP that low only once in his career. If he finished with his career OBP of .301 the Royals would be sacrificing roughly 18 outs with Escobar at the top of the order. In the grand scheme, that’s not even a full nine innings of outs. But with outs the most precious commodity a lineup possesses, why waste them when it can be avoided?

The Royals employ several smart people who have computers and crunch numbers. I bet if we polled all of them, they would acknowledge the fallacy of basing a key decision on such a small sample size. I also bet the answer would be unanimous that Escobar does not belong in the leadoff spot.

Escobar’s current numbers are impressive. He owns a slash line of .305/.345/.419 with an OPS+ of 110. If the season ended today, all of those numbers would be career highs. It’s an impressive start and the Royals have certainly benefitted with his bat at the top of the order. However, the evidence of his approach at the plate suggests his success is going to be short-lived. The Royals have gotten lucky so far. They should be thinking of a “Plan B” as his regression is going to be rather painful and noticeable at the top of the order.

Alex Gordon is our savior. Of this there can be no debate.

It was his best game of the season. His second three hit game (his first was last week – May 8 – at Detroit) but this one came with a pair of doubles and the game winning home run in the tenth. Mix in the usual outfield assist on a great throw to third and this was as complete a game from A1 as you can imagine.

Gordon_051215_HR

Gordon said he was up there looking to be aggressive and… Yep. First pitch fastball on the outer half and Gordon was setting dead-red.

Beautiful.

This was one of those games that had everything. Great defense. Timely hits. Home runs. Shaky starting pitching.

Let’s begin with Edinson Volquez because the end of the game overshadowed his start. Let’s just say he wasn’t sharp. He surrendered six hits and three walks in five-plus innings of work. Of the 23 batters he faced, he threw just 11 first-pitch strikes. Honestly, that was the kind of start I expected the Royals would get from Volquez with regularity. He opened the season strong and was clearly the Royals best starter through his first several starts, but the last couple of times out he’s been less than impressive. Understand, he has a doctor’s note from the last start with the blister and there may very well have been some residual effects from that in this appearance.

In his postgame, Ned Yost said he was happy with how Volquez threw the ball on Tuesday, but I thought he wasn’t sharp. We can agree to disagree.

On the other hand, I thought Luke Hochevar had a good outing location-wise. From Brooks Baseball:

Hochevar_051215_Strikes

He lived on the corners all inning. The Choo single was a liner, but the other three hits he surrendered were because he forgot to worship at the altar of the BABIP gods apparently. It happens. Thankfully, Choo decided to test Gordon at that point and tried to advance to third on a single. A great throw where Gordon was running to his left and needed to set and throw across his body. And we can’t overlook the tag that Mike Moustakas put on Choo. It took tremendous concentration on his part to keep the glove there and make the catch on the bounce.

Holland blew the “save” in the bottom of the ninth. I think it’s time to think about starting to worry. How is that for hedging my bet? Such is the life of the closer. According to preliminary data from Brooks Baseball, Holland’s fastball averaged 93.9 mph in his appearance Tuesday. Last year, he averaged 95.8 mph.

Holland generally builds arm strength as the year progresses, but this year, his velocity is way, way down.

Holland_Velo

It doesn’t take a savant to recognize that Holland’s velocity has been off since last September. He had the tightness in his triceps that month and had the pec strain this year, but still. It seems like something isn’t right. He’s gone through rough patches before and come out of it OK, which is why I’ll give him some time, but these injuries are a concern. It’s something to keep an eye on going forward. It will be especially interesting to see how he recovers from this outing where he threw 26 pitches. And remember, this was the first time he was on the mound after throwing 30 pitches on May 10.

Perhaps overlooked was the defense of Salvador Perez. He threw out Delino DeShields, Jr. in the eighth inning after he reached with a two-out single. In the ninth, he made a nice play on an Elvis Andrus bunt where it looked like there was a little miscommunication between Perez and Holland. Perez followed that up by picking off Adrian Beltre of first base to end the inning. And then there was the final out of the game where he came out from behind the plate like a line drive off Hosmer’s bat. He came up huge for the Royals in the later innings.

Can’t forget the Moustakas home run. He’s scuffled in May, hitting .192/.276/.192 over his last 29 plate appearances entering the game. His spray chart is leaning a little more to the right of late as well. Is the Moustoppo magic running out? Who knows. I do know Moustakas crushed a home run of a left-handed pitcher.

And have to give props to Hosmer as well. From Hit Tracker, here are the true distances of the three home runs the Royals hit on Tuesday:

Eric Hosmer – 429 feet
Mike Moustakas – 441 feet
Alex Gordon – 354 feet

The Royals cranked out eight extra base hits. That was the first time since 2012 they hit that many in a game. Their record when going for extra bases eight or more times? 66-7.

Another notable number to pass along: The Royals have lost consecutive games for only three times in 2015. They have yet to lose three in a row. Given the recent slumber by the bats and what feels like the season long struggles of the starting pitching, that’s remarkable.

The Royals, I think almost without question, have the deepest bullpen in the majors.  They certainly have the best bullpen in the history of the franchise. I cannot tell you the best bullpens in history – or let’s say the best bullpens since starters stopped pitching complete games.  I have to believe the current unit has to rank in the top twenty, maybe/probably higher. Jason Frasor, a good, solid, dependable long-time relief pitcher, is the SIXTH best pitcher in the pen.

That said, they don’t make bullpens deep enough to…

  • Overcome a starting rotation with four of the five members sporting earned run averages over five.  Say what you want about the ERA stat, but it has some validity on starting pitcher performance.  FIP? Four of five over 4.22 and three of five over 4.70.
  • Overcome your number two starter going a combined 4.2 innings in back to back starts, or not make it out of the sixth inning in five of seven starts.
  • Deal with your supposed ace allowing four runs or more in three of six starts or, for that matter, pitching into the seventh inning just twice in those six starts.
  • You simply cannot handle the above if your number five starter pitches like a number five starter.  Jeremy Guthrie has managed to go at least five innings in every start and posted a great bounce back outing his last time out, but he has still basically pitched like a back of the rotation guy.  That’s fine and good, if the top of the rotation isn’t pitching like the back of the rotation as well.

It’s not a revelation that the rotation has been below average thus far in 2015.  A great bullpen and a whole bunch of unexpected offense has masked it.  Eventually, bats go cold or the can’t hit enough to make up for being buried early (as they have been three times in eight days).  Bullpens, even the deepest of the deep, get tired and overused.  Dayton Moore has designed a bullpen equipped to pitch a lot of high leverage innings, but even this one probably cannot handle four innings a night from here until October.

Chris Young has been a revelation, but it is worthy noting his ERA is a full run higher in the second half of the season opposed to the first.  That and the fact that his 165 innings last season was 50 more than he pitched in any year since 2008.  Sure, Jason Vargas might be back and he is a capable back of the rotation guy as well.  BACK…OF…THE…ROTATION.

Unless and until Ventura and Duffy begin pitching as the Royals expected them to going into the year, your Royals rotation is Volquez, Young and three days of ‘boy, I sure hope he manages to make it out of the third inning tonight’.

Admittedly, this is all a rant based on a really bad game last night on the heels of a really awful Danny Duffy start in his previous turn.  It is an overreaction…maybe.  Yordano Ventura spent all of 2014 being the real deal and has had moments even in 2015 (good ones, I mean, not the overdramatic cramping, running your mouth moments). Two young pitchers having two kind of rough patches.  Patience, my friends, patience.

And you thought it was hard being patient when the Royals were losing.

More crazy baseball between the Royals and the Tigers. Nothing much separated the two teams this weekend.

Sunday, the added foe was the rain, as the two teams waited out an hour and a half rain delay before finishing off a rollercoaster ride to what had been a fairly pedestrian game.

We will get to that in a moment.

At one point, the Royals grounded into 15 consecutive outs. Yikes. I know Shane Greene is a sinker ball pitcher, and as Uncle Hud would like for you to believe, a ball low in the zone can be hit on the ground. Still, 15 consecutive ground outs… Five innings of batters where every single guy put the ball on the ground? I didn’t get a screen grab until the rain delay, but this is a nice representation of how the Royals night went through the first eight innings.

Royals_Tigers_051015

The red dots represent the outs. The blue are the hits. And remember on these, the dots are plotted where the fielder picks up the ball. The cluster of red dots in shallow right is the teeth of the shift, which by my count stole two or three hits from the Royals. The other dots are Escobar pop ups. If you had turned the game on in the third inning and watched through the sixth, you would have been surprised to learn the Royals actually hit back to back doubles at one point in the game.

The crazy thing is, the game was tied going into the ninth thanks to a boneheaded play by Omar Infante. In the third inning with two outs, Anthony Gose dropped down a perfect bunt on the first base side of the infield. Infante charged and really had no chance to get the speedy Gose, but instead tried a circus-type behind the back flip that sailed over Eric Hosmer’s head and allowed Gose to get to second. Really, there was no need for Infante to force that kind of play. It was unwarranted, especially given the early stage of the game where Young was dealing and there were already two outs. Even with a runner on first, I’d like my chances.

Instead, Ian Kinsler rips a belt-high slider that was down the heart of the plate into center and Gose scores easily. Tie game.

Of course, no one could have known that at that moment, both pitchers would have flipped the cruise control switch. Young lasted six innings and 83 pitches. Really, I was surprised he was pulled at that point. He makes it look so effortless and had the bottom half of the Detroit lineup to face in the bottom of the inning. I’m sure you don’t want Young facing a lineup for a fourth time. Especially if that guy is named Miguel Cabrera and he has scorched a pair of liners to third base in plate appearances number two and three. But I’d like my chances against J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos.

Hey, this is Ned Yost’s team and he’s still working that Royals Devil Magic to some degree. Oh, yeah… He also has a damn fine bullpen at his disposal.

The wrong call was to bring Luke Hochevar in in the ninth inning with the rain pouring. Never mind, it was the second night in a row he was going to pitch. It was risky because the umpires could (and did) stop the game at any time in the inning. I know Hochevar threw only three pitches in his outing on Saturday which is probably why Yost though he could go back to back for the first time since the Tommy John surgery. But he did have to warm up on Saturday, so it’s a little more exertion than just three simple pitches. And he had to warm up on Sunday. And when the rain got so heavy they couldn’t continue, Hochevar was spent.

That left Jason Frasor in to face the heart of the Tiger lineup with the game on the line. The Royals bullpen is stacked. But with the suspension to Kelvin Herrera, it’s not as stacked as it should be. Still, having Frasor in to face the heavy lumber in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game… How does that happen?

Which brings me to another tangent: The built-in stupidity of leaving your “closer” in the bullpen in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road. I know 28 or 29 other managers would do the exact same thing Yost did on Friday. That doesn’t make it right. Some people tweeted at me in the aftermath that Yohan Pino had to do a job and that was to get through the ninth. Well, sure. But if you have a job in front of you (i.e. getting outs in a high-leverage situation) and you have two options of who you can turn to to get those outs, wouldn’t you naturally go to the guy who is the better pitcher?

I know The Cartoonist said that it was the correct call to bring in Pino, because if the Royals take the lead in the 10th and you’ve already used Holland, then who’s going to pitch? To me, that kind of thinking is horribly shortsighted. Run your best pitchers out there and see what happens. I just hate it when my team loses and their best available reliever never gets into the game. Besides, at that point Friday, the Tigers had already used their best reliever (old friend Joakim Soria), so who knows what happens if Holland gets three outs in the ninth to force extras. Maybe the Royals explode all over the Detroit bullpen for four runs. With that cushion, even Pino could pitch the tenth to seal the win. That’s the whole thing about baseball. Saving players for situations that may never happen is folly. Use your best. Always.

We finally got to see Greg Holland in the 10th and he brought his own high wire. A single and three walks were sandwiched around a really brilliant double play to save the Royals. It shouldn’t be lost that Hernan Perez – who was in the game only because the Tigers pinch ran for Miguel Cabrera an inning earlier – was the guy up in the bases loaded nobody out situation who hit into said double play. (See? It’s not just Yost who has tactical moments of “WTF?” It afflicts all managers. Again, still doesn’t make it right.)

Finally, Holland whiffs Yoenis Cespedes to end the evening. It was a game where the Royals didn’t really have any business winning, but somehow prevailed. I guess it’s the baseball gods giving favor after Pino literally threw Friday’s game away. The Royals won two of three from Detroit and have taken four of seven overall so far. Buckle up. I imagine it’s going to be like this all summer.

 

It was not too long ago that a former Royal enjoying success with another team hurt. It might have even haunted us. Dayton Moore himself, floundered through some odd roster maneuvers that, at times, seemed to indicate a tremendous fear of letting go of a player who might have success somewhere else. After all, he didn’t want to make ‘another Philip Humber mistake’.

Funny what some success does to your mindset, isn’t it?

By and large, no one seems to agonize that much about this issue anymore.  Certainly, the Royals have moved well past the anthem of just a decade ago that ‘this guy couldn’t play for anyone but the Royals.’  A quick survey of ex-Royals who have appeared in the majors for another team in 2015 totals up to 37 (and I may well have missed some).  Of those 37, the bulk are not Royals because of the team’s choice, not theirs.  What would a team of ex-Royals look like in 2015?

  • CATCHER – Brayan Pena backed up by Brett Hayes. Yeah, think we’ll stick with Salvador Perez, but worthy of note that Pena is hitting .302/.387/.358 in 17 games for the Reds.
  • FIRST BASE – Billy Butler.  We will have to give up a little defense based on who else is available, but Billy is hitting like Billy used to hit.  Clint Robinson currently holds a roster spot in Washington if you need a back-up.
  • SECOND BASE – Johnny Giavotella.  I don’t want to start the ‘did Johnny get a chance in KC or not’ argument again, but he is playing well early for the Angels.  Honestly, this is the only spot where you might say the Royals would be better off with an ex-Royal than what they have, but I imagine the difference between Infante and Giavotella by year’s end probably won’t be enough to get all twisted up about.  If you don’t like Johnny long term here, you can plug in Emilio Bonifaco as well.
  • SHORTSTOP – Mike Aviles or Andres Blanco. Not a lot to choose from here, but these two guys have carved out pretty long careers and have stood in the general vicinity of the shortstop position this season.
  • THIRD BASE – Albert Callaspo or Jimmy Paredes.  Paredes is red-hot for the Orioles.  Callaspo keeps getting work (now in Atlanta).  Again, Bonifaco could play here, too or even Danny Valencia:  who is likely bitching about playing time in Toronto right now.
  • OUTFIELD – You want outfielders?  We can cheat a little here and claim Jose Bautista, but that’s a stretch given he was barely in KC and no one cared when the Royals parted ways (and didn’t care for seasons after that).  Carlos Beltran? Age has not been his friend.  However, I think a team could win games with an outfield of Melky Cabrera, Wil Myers (that might be cheating, too) and Nori Aoki, backed up by Gregor Blanco and Justin Maxwell.  Hell, the San Francisco Giants think they can win with an outfield that is pretty much all ex-Royals as it is.  If injuries ravage your ex-Royals, you can fall back to David DeJesus, still plugging along in Tampa, David Lough, Carols Peguero and, yes, Jeff Francoeur.
  • STARTING ROTATION – This team would be in good shape at the top with James Shields followed by Jake Odorizzi (2.21 ERA in 6 starts for Tampa), but your number three is probably the seemingly always injured Jorge de la Rosa.  The back end gets really dicey with Jesse Chavez and Sean O’Sullivan (or Jeff Francis) closing it out.  Hey, you would at least have to go six deep before your started Kyle Davies (2.1 scoreless innings with the Yankees this year).
  • BULLPEN – You could do worse than have Joakim Soria be your closer.   Joel Peralta is currently injured, but was having a nice season with the Dodgers, where he was teammates with another former Royal, J.P. Howell.   In front of those three, you could turn to Jeremy Affeldt, Will Smith and the svelte Jonathan Broxton.  Your seventh man would be Jeremy Jeffress, who has pitched well early for the Brewers, with former Royal farmhand Sugar Ray Marimon as a fallback option.

The good news is the Royals’ have reached the stage that you can assemble an entire team of former players.  The better news, that team would be nowhere near as good as the current Royals’ squad.  That sounds like a no-brainer, but not very long ago it would not have been.

What a four-game series at The K. The Royals and Tigers split the honors, with Kansas City winning the first two and Detroit coming back to take the last pair. These teams feel evenly matched, so this is something we are going to see in the AL Central all summer.

The series could have turned out a little less in the Royals favor as Kelvin Herrera wobbled in the eighth inning on Friday night. When he entered the game, the Royals held a 4-0 lead and were working on a combined no-hitter thanks to a brilliant performance by Chris Young and the relief pitching of Ryan Madson. With Herrera followed by Wade Davis, this game all but over. Then, things started to unravel…

The no-no was intact after a leadoff walk to Alex Avila, but Nick Castellanos singled to left. Goodbye, no-hitter. Not really a huge deal as the Royals were in position to take their second straight from their division rivals. Then, Jose Iglesias followed with an infield single and the bases were loaded. After an Anthony Gose ground out plated a run, the Royals led 4-1.

Herrera didn’t seem to be himself and walked the next batter, Ian Kinsler, on four pitches. All four were up and out of the zone. With the bases loaded again, the Royals lead didn’t seem so safe.

Miguel Cabrera walked to the plate.

What happened next was, quite simply, the duel of the season.

Pitch One:
Fastball, 99 mph
Foul, Strike One

Herrera throws a variety of pitches, but will feature mostly a fastball, a two-seamer and a change. In his career, Herrera starts right-handed batters off with a fastball 58 percent of the time. With the bases loaded, Herrera must challenge Cabrera, so it makes perfect sense he is going with his bread and butter heater. After allowing four of the first five batters in the inning to reach base, he desperately needed to get ahead in the count. In his career, opposing hitters are hitting .206/.242/.320 when they fall behind in the count 0-1.

The first pitch was a little too good. I mean, it was grooved. Belt-high and right down the middle of the plate. Fortunately, it was 99 mph and all Cabrera could do was foul it off for strike one. A mistake pitch, but once Cabrera failed to square it up, the odds shifted strongly in Herrera’s favor.

Pitch Two:
Fastball, 97 mph
Foul, Strike Two

Herrera doesn’t really offer a cut fastball, but this pitch seemed to have a little more lateral movement than his normal fastball. Delivered higher in the zone than the first pitch Cabrera fouled off, this one rode in on his hands. Quickly. Frankly, it’s surprising he was able to stay in and get the bat head out enough to even foul it off. Against a mortal hitter, it would have caught the handle and split the bat in two. Against Cabrera, he fouled it straight back and off the mask of the home plate umpire.

The up and in location is where Herrera likes to work against right-handed hitters. It makes sense considering he’s throwing 100 mph. Keep it in on the hands where the batter can’t get extension. From Brooks Baseball, these are the zones where Herrera has worked the last two-plus seasons.

HerreraPlot

Pitch two was delivered in the area where Herrera throws most of his pitches to right-handers.

Pitch Three:
Fastball, 100 mph
Ball One

Under normal circumstances, this is where Herrera would spike a change to fish for that third strike. Especially after throwing the first two pitches in the plate appearance up in the zone. With the bases loaded, Herrera doesn’t want to take the chance that a pitch low in the zone bounces and gets by Salvador Perez. Worst case scenario would for a run to come in to score, cutting the lead to one, and putting the tying run at second base. So he went back to his heater. Instead of throwing it down in the zone, he threw it on the outside corner. Cabrera laid off for ball one, but it was an extremely gutsy take on his part. I think it was the only thing he could do.

Pitch3

With two strikes, Herrera throws his change 29 percent of the time. I’d bet Cabrera was thinking he’d get off-speed, saw fastball, and with the pitch hitting triple digits on the radar gun, couldn’t adjust in time to pull the trigger.

Pitch Four
Fastball, 99 mph
Ball Two

This was the only time in the plate appearance where Herrera seemed to overthrow his fastball. The pitch was delivered well up and out of the zone. As close as pitch three was to being a strike, there was no way Cabrera was going to offer at this one. Easy take.

Pitch Five
Fastball, 98 mph
Foul

After throwing the first four pitches belt-high or higher in the zone, Herrera decided to work down. A good location after the four pitches up, but a risky gambit. Cabrera’s heat map is not of a hitter from this universe. From Brooks Baseball, this is Cabrera’s heat map going back to 2012:

CabreraProfile

Herrera’s pitch didn’t catch the center, but it was down in the area where Cabrera hit’s .390. Risky. Basically, anything in the inner and lower quadrant of the strike zone his Cabrera’s happy place. That’s relative, of course. The whole damn zone except for the up and in portion is his happy place. The guy is just a great hitter.

Pitch Six:
89 mph, change-up
Ball Three

The only change of the entire plate appearance came on the sixth pitch. I’m not sold Herrera wanted to bounce the pitch for the reasons I stated above, but I do think he wanted to keep it low and possibly out of the zone to get Cabrera to chase. Maybe this would have been a better pitch if Herrera hadn’t thrown the previous pitch down in the zone that was fouled off. This would have been the pitch to throw after the first four pitches were all fastballs up. As it was, the change barely traveled 60 feet and, like the fourth pitch that was way up and out of the zone, this seemed like an easy take for Cabrera.

Herrera has limited the use of his two-seam fastball this year, instead going heavy on his fastball and change combo. When the count is even (like it was in this situation) against right-handed batters this season, Herrera will throw his change 24 percent of the time, while he will go to his fastball 70 percent of his pitches. In his career with the count even, he’s thrown his change just 14 percent of the time. Traditionally, he saves his change for when he’s ahead in the count to right-handers.

Here is the pitch plot for the first six pitches.

Pitch6

After jumping ahead 0-2, he went for the third strike with straight gas on the outer half. When Cabrera didn’t offer, Herrera went for changing the vertical eye level, sandwiching a strike with two pitches that weren’t close to the zone.

Pitch Seven:
Fastball, 100 mph
Foul

More accurately, according to Brooks Baseball, this pitch traveled at 100.6 mph. One pitch after his only change-up of the battle against Cabrera, Herrera uncorked his fastest pitch. Here is how the entire plate appearance looked from a velocity standpoint:

Herrera_Cabrera_Velo

Not a bad pitch by Herrera given the situation. While Cabrera could tie the game (or give his team the lead) with one swing, the potential for a walk was still a factor. In his career, Herrera had gone to a full count 100 times. He had walked 29 of those batters and whiffed 31. Given the teams involved and the stakes at play, you can understand he didn’t want to give in and lose this battle by surrendering a walk. Still, from Cabrera’s heat map above, the location of the seventh pitch was getting close to his happy zone.

Pitch7

At 100+ mph, the best Cabrera could do was to drop the barrel and get a piece of it for another foul.

Cabrera had faced Herrera 11 times prior to this encounter. He had collected just two hits and walked once. He had never struck out.

Pitch Eight
Fastball, 97 mph
Foul

Pitch Nine
Fastball, 98 mph
Foul

Pitches eight and nine were similar in velocity and location. Both were inside, out of the strike zone and at about the knees. The ninth pitch had a little more horizontal movement than the eighth, and was the pitch that Cabrera barely made contact with, dribbling it foul.

Either pitch would have been the fourth ball, resulting in a walk and a run scored, but I imagine in that situation it’s next to impossible to lay off those pitches. For one thing, they are very close to Cabrera’s happy zone where he can do the most damage. And for another, the pitch looks good for a split second, then rides laterally out of the zone. At the velocity Herrera’s throwing, it’s amazing anyone can actually adjust fast enough to make contact, no matter how feeble.

Here is how the entire plate appearance set up through the first nine pitches:

Pitch9

Which brings us to one of the best pitches I’ve ever seen.

Pitch Ten:
Fastball, 99 mph
Swinging Strike Three

After going low on the previous five pitches, and after going inside on the previous three, Herrera throws a perfect pitch: A belt-high fastball on the outer half.

Pitch10

When you go inside on any hitter with the kind of gas Herrera throws, it’s a difficult adjustment to get the barrel out in front to reach the pitch on the outer half of the plate. Herrera’s 10th pitch wasn’t thrown any harder. Nor did it have more lateral movement. It was simply a perfectly located pitch after the previous three were down and in.

The final pitch wasn’t just perfectly located given the previous sequence. It was perfectly located for Cabrera to swing and miss. Cabrera is one of the best hitters of the game. He’s off to an incredible start in 2015. Like all hitters, he has a weakness. His weakness is pitches on the upper and outer half of the zone. Here is a heat map going back to the start of 2012 of where Cabrera swings and misses.

CabreraWhiff

With the bases loaded and a full count, the situation dictated that Herrera had to stay in the zone. While allowing a single run wouldn’t have been the end of the world, he either wanted a ground ball for a double play or a strikeout. From the above heat map, we see the best place to locate a pitch to Cabrera for a swing and a miss is up in the zone and away. Exactly where Herrera placed his final pitch.

Perfection.

In the at bat, Cabrera saw nine fastballs of 97 mph or faster. He had ample opportunity to get his timing down against Herrera. Instead, thanks to the outstanding location of pitch ten, he was another victim.

And, as noted above, it was the first time Herrera had ever struck out Cabrera.

I’d love to embed the video of this plate appearance, but since MLB is rather draconian in their sharing, I’ll have to link to it here. It’s worth watching. Again. And again.

The Royals went on to win 4-1. In the long season ahead of 162 games, there will be similar pivotal moments, but this one, at least in the early weeks of the season, stands alone. Herrera’s gas. Cabrera’s power. Bases loaded. Central Division rivals. Game on the line.

Baseball.

Monthly splits are a dangerous toy, an annoyance to some. That a player is good in May and bad in June is taking liberties with arbitrary start and end dates. I use them sometimes, as they are a quick tool to get a snapshot of an approximate period of time.  In the end, however, turning the calendar from April 30th to May 1st should really mean very little to a player or a team.  Yet, here we are, greeting May once more and hoping, once more, that the Royals don’t go into the tank this month.

Last year, the Royals were 14-12 on May 1st and proceed to go 12-17 that month.  They were 14-10 in April of 2013 and imploded for an 8-20 month of May. Kansas City actually posted a winning May in 2012, albeit on the heels of a 6-15 start to the season.  In 2011, however, the Royals turned a 14-12 start into another one of ‘those’ years by going 10-17 in May (and 9-18 in June).  You can’t blame May for 2010, as the team did not post a winning month the entire season, but for the record they were 12-17 that year in May.  A familiar refrain for 2009:  two games over .500 heading into the month and then just a 12-17 mark for May.  Remember when the Royals went 18-8 in September of 2008?  They were 10-19 in May.  The Royals were not good in Alex Gordon’s rookie year of 2007, going 8-18 in April, but holding form to flounder through an 11-17 May.

Let’s face it, the Kansas City Royals spent many of those season losing lots of games in many a month, but it is a little freakish that in four of the last six seasons they have entered May with a winning record and never been better than five games under .500 for the month of May.  One winning May in the time span of Alex Gordon’s career?  Weird….and certainly more the result of the first and last day of May encompassing a period of time where a team that has been over .500 just twice in that timeframe played true to form than some pattern of inability to function in a month that begins with a big communist holiday.

While extremely encouraged and excited by Kansas City’s 15-7 start, let’s all note that Houston – HOUSTON I TELL YA! – has the same record. To think that the Royals are immune this year to the usual crash and burn May is foolish.  That said, I do not believe the 2015 Kansas City Royals are going to fall victim to the May swoon.  Here’s why:

  • Greg Holland will be back and he’s pretty good. All accounts of Holland’s time of the disabled list seem to lean towards the Royals being cautious with a minor injury. With a deep bullpen, that was smart (would this organization been as saavy even as recently as two years ago?).  Having Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera, et.al. makes it easier to be smart, but still.
  • Luke Hochevar:  let’s dream a little. Many are eager for Hochevar to return, but we’ll need to dream some as Luke has walked seven and struck out six in seven innings for Omaha this year.  Still, it is one more bullet to add to an already loaded weapon.  Should Hochevar return and be effective, it is one more ‘new’ arm to keep the bullpen from being worn down.
  • Danny Duffy.  Last night, we saw how good Duffy can be and, frankly, it was not like he was 100% on his game. Yes, Edinson Volquez had a great April and Yordano Ventura throws all the fire, but Duffy might just end up being the Royals’ best starter this season.  A string of strong outings from Duffy during the month would go a long way towards avoiding any major losing streak.
  • The Rotation. They can’t be this bad all season, right?  RIGHT?  Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie are never going to be great, but they are both better pitchers than what they showed for most of April. The suspensions of Volquez and Ventura had a nice effect of splitting Vargas and Guthrie up in the rotation sequence, which will help the bullpen from having to throw four plus innings two nights in a row if nothing else.
  • All the Offense. The bats were something in April. Heck, even Omar Infante got a little hot towards the end of the month.  They won’t all stay hot (I mean, they can if they want) for another month, but it would be shocking if they all went cold at once and for a long period of time. The new and improved Mike Moustaskas and better than expected Kendrys Morales make me all warm and giggly inside.   Lost in all the glitzy numbers is the fact that this team consistently strings together good at-bats.  I will delve into pitches and swing zones when I have more time, but this group seems to have a much better approach at the plate.  The BABIP fairy loves a good approach at the plate.

May swoon?  Let’s hope not.

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