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Deconstructing The Process

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Heel turns are usually intentional. The good guy decides he’s had enough of being the good guy and decides to do some old fashioned stomping. The Royals, it seems, have been involved in a heel turn that has been brought about by the other teams in the league. After minor dustups in Anaheim and Chicago earlier this year, the anger spilled north of the border this weekend in Toronto.

The Blue Jays own one of the AL’s most potent offenses. They also own some exaggerated splits. Their OPS at home is .835. On the road, their OPS is .719. That’s some kind of extreme Jeckyll and Hyde act. It’s not unique, though. The Yankees, for example own a pretty extreme split that favors home cooking. The difference is the Rodgers Centre is a neutral ball park when it comes to favoring pitchers or hitters. New Yankee Stadium trends to favor hitters. I was on Twitter enough over the weekend to see numerous theories floating in cyberspace about the Jays doing some shenanigans to obtain an edge. I’m not certain that’s the reason for the extreme home and road split. Sometimes things happen in baseball that can’t be easily explained by the players involved or the numbers.

What isn’t in dispute is the Jays roughed up the Royals for three straight days heading into Sunday. They hit three home runs and plated five runs in the opener. They followed that with six more runs in regulation before plating the walkoff run in the 11th on Friday. Six more runs on Saturday, but the Royals finally snagged a win, coming back not once, but twice. Toronto’s lineup is stacked. Loaded. Hardcore. Whatever your adjective, these guys are scary. It seems you never get a break. The power is loaded at the top and the bottom is just pesky enough to cause you headaches for three hours.

After three days and a narrow win, it seems the Royals pitchers embraced a strategy that involved attacking inside. The best hitters on the Jays stand on top of the plate. If the Royals (or other teams) give the Jays the inner half, they’re going to get clobbered on a pretty regular basis. Edinson Volquez isn’t going to let anyone have the inner half.

He came inside to Josh Donaldson with his eighth pitch of the game. It was also the first pitch of the plate appearance. Intentional? I don’t think so. We know the Royals batters have been hit with regularity this summer. In the previous three games, Lorenzo Cain was pegged twice and Moustakas was hit once, but again, I really don’t think any of those was intentional.

Anyway, home plate umpire Jim Wolf disagreed and issued a warning.

I just don’t understand how umpires can be so tone deaf to the ebb and flow of the game. They are on the field as much as the players and they see thousands of pitches each season from the vantage point from behind the plate. On Saturday, Cain was hit when there were already runners on first and second. Besides, it was his third plate appearance of the game. I seriously doubt Mark Buehrle decided to wait until that moment to deliberately plunk Cain. Later in the game, Moustakas was hit in the ninth inning when the Blue Jays were trailing by a run. Again, who would throw at a batter and give a team a free baserunner in that situation? Apparently, home plate ump Wolf thought Volquez was on some sort of vendetta early on Sunday, so he felt the need to issue the warning.

This led to Josh Donaldson showing his complete lack of understanding of the game himself, by throwing tantrums every time a baseball was thrown on the inner half of the plate. Donaldson stands close to the home plate edge of the batter’s box. He has a high front leg kick and brings his foot down on the same plane where he starts. He’s not on top of the plate, but that high kick exposes him to a pitch inside. Ryan Madson struggled in his outing on Sunday. He had runners on first and second when he came inside to Donaldson. He’s not trying to hit the batter in that situation. That’s insane. Yet, Donaldson hopped away, gesturing to let everyone know he was displeased at Madson’s approach.

Donaldson looked like a child. And he certainly looked like he didn’t understand the situation or the strategy of the Royals pitching staff.

Warnings mean that pitchers can’t hit a batter with intent. They don’t mean they can’t pitch to the inner half of the plate. Wolf didn’t eject Madson when he hit the previous batter, Tulowitzki, probably because Tulo was hit on the seventh pitch of the plate appearance and because there was already a runner on base. Good umpiring. (That feels weird to type.) Donaldson spun around like he was auditioning for Dancing With The Stars and ended up getting his manager ejected.

The pitch that drilled Escobar was absolutely intentional. Two outs, three run lead and a third baseman throwing fits. Ned Yost backed his pitcher’s strategy and thought Wolf was on point behind the plate .

“These guys are as good an offensive team as you’re going to face. They’ve got tremendous power. But they all dive into the plate, which makes them susceptible, (on) inside pitches, (to) getting hit. I mean, if you continue to throw them away, away, away, away, away, you’re going to get hammered. You’re going to get killed. So you have to utilize the inside part of the plate to open up the outside part of the plate.

I thought Jim Wolf did a tremendous job understanding the game, understanding what’s intentional. Was it intentional on their part to hit Esky? Absolutely.”

So this is another kerfuffle for the Royals. I really don’t care how they are perceived throughout baseball and I lost score sometime around the end of April. Just add Canada to the list of people who are annoyed at our baseball team.

What I don’t like is when this kind of garbage happens and obscures the things we really should be discussing. Naturally, I’ve spilled too many words on the incidents from Sunday. How about some real baseball talk?

— Ben Zobrist hit his third home run in two days. Nice timing, coming after the Escobar HBP and cutting the Jays lead to one at that point. Zobrist has hit second for the last two games, which is a very good thing for the Royals. Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can expect it to last. Moustakas was given a day off on Saturday, which is why Zobrist was second. Then, when Moustakas pinch hit late in the game and was drilled on the knee, he suffered a contusion and the Royals held him out on Sunday as a precaution. He also gets Monday off, so three days off is probably a good thing for the slumping third baseman.

In his last 129 plate appearances going back to June 23, Moustakas has hit .186/.266/.310. He has a 20 percent line drive rate and is hitting the ball hard 36 percent of the time during this stretch, but his BABIP is an abysmal .177. Maybe it’s a little bad luck. Maybe it’s karma for his hot opposite field start. Whatever the reason, he’s been a drag on this offense for over a month. It couldn’t hurt to drop him in the order with Zobrist on board.

— If the Royals do face the Blue Jays in the postseason, I would vote we put Madson deep in the bullpen. He’s appeared in four games against Toronto, thrown a total of 1.2 innings and surrendered nine hits and seven runs. To go along with his two hit batters.

— The Royals finally get an off day, their first since the All-Star Break. They look like a team in need of a day away from the diamond. They travel to Detroit and have 13 games in the next 13 days, which includes a 10 game homestand. They get six games against the fading Tigers, three versus the surging White Sox and close out the stretch with four games with the Angels, renewing a rivalry that started with the Royals sweeping them in the ALDS last October and then sweeping them in Anaheim with a couple of discussions between the teams back in April.

Were you one of the few who wondered why the Royals felt the need to acquire Johnny Cueto? Tuesday and Wednesday’s starting pitchers pretty much provided the answer.

Chris Young struggled, elevated his pitch count and couldn’t complete five innings on Tuesday. The next day, Jeremy Guthrie provided the gasoline for the Indians pack of matches and was torched for eight runs in 5.1 innings. There isn’t a contending team on the planet that would accept those two in the same rotation for meaningful baseball. And since the Royals are a contending team… You see where I’m going with this.

The question now is, who survives? Cueto mercifully pushes one to the bullpen. One will remain. I feel the need to get the host of the Bachelor on the blog. “Gentlemen, there is only one baseball remaining.” (Take it easy on me. People in my house watch. I learn via osmosis.) Both pitchers currently inhabit an island of suck. In his last 12 starts, Young owns a 5.9 SO/9 against a 3.2 BB/9 and has posted a 4.57 ERA and 5.41 FIP. His ERA- is 116 (meaning his ERA is 16 percentage points worse than league average) and his FIP- is a whopping 140. I discussed Young in-depth back at the end of May and noted his success was a product of smoke and mirrors.

Meanwhile, in Guthrie’s last 12 starts, he owns a 5.7 SO/9 and a 2.6 BB/9. He has an ERA of 6.30 and a FIP of 5.30. Fine. While Young has been “fortunate,” Guthrie has been on the opposite end of the fortune spectrum. Guthrie has a ERA- of 160 and a FIP- of 137. One of my favorite things I’ve seen on Twitter are from Royals fans who like to say things along the lines of, “If you remove the New York start from Guthrie’s stat line, he’s actually pitched better.” Well, no shit. Remove Eric Hosmer’s June from the ledger and he becomes an MVP candidate. You’re not allowed to randomly eliminate the bad and keep the good. That’s now how statistics work. Yes, there can be outliers. But if there are outings where a starter gives up 11 runs in one inning, you must also note the six scoreless innings from a previous start.

You’re allowed to like Guthrie. I like Guthrie. I think he’s a stand-up human and all-around good guy. I also happen to think he’s not worthy of being in the starting rotation of a team with October aspirations. Perhaps your vision of Guthrie is clouded by our introduction. He pitched really well for the Royals when he came over from the Rockies. In 14 starts, he posted a 3.16 ERA, a 3.84 FIP and was good for 1.5 fWAR. Solid numbers. They look even better when you realize the Royals gave up the corpse of Jonathan Sanchez for Guthrie in a classic “change of scenery” trade. Perhaps deluded by a small sample size, Dayton Moore signed him to a three-year deal. At the time, it was misguided. Time has proven this correct. Here’s how Guthrie has done since re-signing as a free agent:

Guthrie_3Years

In the two-plus years since Guthrie signed his deal, he’s provided 1.6 fWAR. That’s just 0.1 fWAR more than he provided in his first 14 starts as a Royal. This is stunning, but if you knew anything about Guthrie’s career, it’s not surprising. Using the fWAR as a barometer, Fangraphs estimates he’s provided $11.3 million worth of real value to the Royals. The Royals are going to pay him a total of $28.2 million for this contract. Don’t forget, I like Guthrie. But the guy is flat out committing larceny.

You could make the argument Guthrie is the last of the kind of pitcher Moore used to sign. The guy he would throw millions at to “eat innings” or provide a “veteran presence” and would be expected to at least be a number two or three starter in the Royals rotation. Young, on the other hand, is the kind of pitcher the Royals are now bringing on board for the back of the rotation. Cheap and on a one year deal. This is the luxury you can have once you develop a starting pitcher or two and wade into the free agent waters or trade market for other frontline type starters.

I mentioned the other day the Royals had an opportunity to shift around their rotation. With their first off day of the second half coming on Monday, they have the opportunity of skipping their fifth starter and keeping everyone on normal rest. That eliminates a Young or Guthrie start for at least one turn, which is kind of like ignoring that grinding sound your car makes when you put it in drive. The club will need to use their fifth starter at the end of next week. They’re not going to a four-man rotation when they hold a nine game lead in the Central and are twenty-plus games over .500. I can’t imagine they’d go to a four-man rotation under any circumstance. Kris Medlen could be an option. The Royals know his medical situation and what is possible for Medlen, who is returning to action after his second Tommy John surgery. However, I think the Royals know that Medlen would be used out of the bullpen in the playoffs and want to give him every opportunity to get acclimated to the role. He could pick up a spot start or two, but I don’t think the Royals are considering him as a full-time option for the rotation at this moment.

That leaves the Scare Pair. Young or Guthrie. Guthrie or Young. There is no correct answer. Both are going to continue to struggle. ZiPS projects Guthrie to make 11 more starts wit ha 5.65 ERA and a 0.2 WAR. The same projection system pegs Young at a 4.50 ERA and 0.2 WAR in nine starts. At this point, they’re basically the same pitcher. Pick your poison.

The good news is, in the postseason, neither pitcher should ever start. Nor should they ever find themselves in a high-leverage situation. If you can stomach the clunkers and realize that you can’t win ’em all, it will be easier to take the Guthrie or Young start every fifth day for the next couple of months. It’s not ideal, but at this point, it’s the best the Royals can do.

Another night, another win. These are occurring with great frequency, yet they never get old.

With Monday’s 8-4 demolition of a listless Cleveland nine, the Royals have surged to 22 games over .500, built their lead to 8.5 games in the Central, and won their 60th game of the year in just their 98th game, the fastest pace to 60 wins in franchise history.

Oh, and the Royals have some guy named Johnny Cueto joining the team on Tuesday.

Heady days, indeed.

This one ended early, when Eric Hosmer clubbed a three-run monster shot over the tall wall that lines left-center field in Cleveland. The only drama that remained was whether Angry Ed Volquez would get run due to the gross ineptitude of the home plate umpire who insisted on calling strikes balls and balls strikes. It was a frustrating night to be a starting pitcher for the American League’s best team, but Volquez kept his cool and, while his pitch count was elevated thanks to a rotating strike zone, he managed to throw six innings of one-run ball.

Games in July and August have taken on the point where we are just marking time. Certainly, there is much baseball to be played, but this team is positioning itself for October. That’s what Cueto and any subsequent moves are about. I know Clark exalted the Cueto deal, but forgive me if I revisit some points he may have made because I’M JUST SO DAMN EXCITED.

Just like everything that has happened over the last 12 months, this is new territory for the Royals. I can’t remember a time they were buyers at the deadline and I certainly can’t remember they were buyers and they went out and landed the big fish. The rotation now looks like this:

An ace in Cueto
A steady Volquez.
An ascendant Danny Duffy.
And a rebounding Yordano Ventura.

That’s something else. A couple of anchors and some upside thrown in for good measure. (I’m starting to tire of referring to Duffy and Ventura as guys searching for their upside. I have a feeling we may finally shed that distinction when discussing them over the course of the next few months.)

Joe Blanton took the mound in the seventh, gave up a home run and settled down, dispatching the rest of the lineup with relative ease in picking up a three inning save. It’s likely his swan song with the Royals, as they will surely cut loose a pitcher to free up a roster spot for Cueto on Tuesday. If this was Blanton’s final appearance, it was a good one. He gave the Royals 41.2 innings and 40 strikeouts against just seven walks. He did surrender six home runs, but he answered the bell when it rang and pitched better than anyone could have expected. I have to say I don’t understand some of the invective I saw on Twitter about some of his performances or his role on the team. Blanton is the back of the bullpen, but someone has to have that spot. They can’t all be Wade Davis. Blanton sat on the sidelines last year and came back to contribute for the best team in the American League. That’s something.

Personally, I hope he clears waivers and decides to go to Omaha. There could certainly be a spot for him back in September when the rosters expand. Now putting him on a playoff roster? That’s another matter entirely. But I just respect the perseverance it obviously took for him to make it back.

The other matter of Cueto business is who will leave the rotation? Chris Young starts on Tuesday and Jeremy Guthrie takes the bump on Wednesday. Both could be pitching for their rotation spot. If I had to guess, unless Young throws a no-hitter, the spot goes to Guthrie. I can hear the outcry from here, but like the back end of the bullpen don’t forget, we’re discussing a fifth starter here. The Royals are at something like a 95 percent chance to make the postseason. I’m not going to sweat whoever the last guy in the rotation is going to be since he’s going to the bullpen when the stakes elevate anyway. The thinking here is it will be Guthrie because he’s been a good Royal soldier (don’t forget he restructured his contract to free up some money a couple of years ago) and because he was a member of the team last year. Those kind of things count to this organization. Young was signed to be a long man out of the bullpen and to fill a starting role if the need should arise. He’s done both and done both admirably well. Yet his peripherals have long suggested his success was unsustainable.

The Royals finally catch a break in the schedule with their off day next Monday. Here’s how I see the rotation going forward:

7/28 – Young
7/29 – Guthrie
7/30 – Duffy
7/31 – Cueto
8/1 – Ventura
8/2 – Volquez
8/3 – Off Day
8/4 – Guthrie

Everyone gets an extra day of rest (finally) and the rotation sets up for the month of August.

And by the time the Royals reach Ventura’s next start, there could be another trade or two. Perhaps a Ben Zobrist? I can’t rule anything out with this team anymore. Hell, anything seems possible these days.

Yesterday, Clark wrote about the Royals position in the upcoming trade deadline. Today, that feels just a little more urgent with the realization Chris Young is turning into a starting pitching pumpkin.

Young completed three innings yesterday before he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the fourth. (Yes, that happened. More on that in a few graphs.) He allowed five hits – two of them home runs – and four runs in those frames. Hey, everyone has a rough start or two. More troubling than his line in securing nine outs was the fact he required 68 pitches to get them.

In the last month, Young has made seven starts for the Royals. Here’s the damage:

36 IP, 5.5 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9, 2.5 HR/9, 5.50 ERA, 6.54 FIP

I know… Arbitrary endpoints and small sample size. Meh. Any way your parse the above numbers, they’re not good. Especially given his recent track record of fading as the season rolls along. I bet after the season if you are able to talk to Ned Yost or Dayton Moore, they will tell you the plan was to use the All-Star Break to reshuffle the rotation so Young would receive the optimal amount of time to recharge his batteries. Except the rainouts and schedule backlog, along with the other starting pitching issues, forced them to lean on Young more than they would have liked. He went on short rest just ahead of the break and then started on the first Friday back. The mileage of the season is starting to wear.

“These things have a way of working themselves out.”

That was Yost earlier this month when reporters asked what he would do with the presumed surplus of starting pitching. Things change quickly in the baseball landscape. Jason Vargas is gone for the rest of this season and all of the next. Yordano Ventura was optioned and then recalled before his car even warmed up for the trip north on I-29. And now Young is running short of fuel. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like a surplus. And we still have to wait and see how these things are going to work out.

The Royals are 20 games over .500 and have a comfortable lead in the Central. According to Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report, the Royals have a 95 percent chance to reach the postseason. Yet nothing is guaranteed.

Young can probably be allowed a couple more starts, but I would wager that by this time next month, the Royals will bump him back to the bullpen. The trade market opened up yesterday with Scott Kazmir going to Houston for a pair of prospects currently playing in High-A ball. The centerpiece of the deal for Oakland is Daniel Mendgen, a catcher with impact bat potential. From BP’s analysis of the trade:

When you add up the elements here there’s the makings of a realistic 55 Major League catcher and the potential for a true Role 6 if it all comes together. That’s a rare bird indeed, and a reflection of Houston’s aggressiveness in making a push this year that they were willing to sacrifice him from their system to do it.

Kazmir is playing out a two year deal he signed with Oakland in December of 2013. He’s earning $11 million this year and that bumps by $500k since he was traded.

He’s presumably on the “second tier” of starting pitchers available on the trade market. Meaning he’s not Johnny Cueto or Cole Hamels, rather a guy who can give you solid innings in the middle of the rotation every fifth day. The price for that appears to be at least one ascendant prospect and another with projectable back end of the rotation stuff. Given the position the Royals are in currently, that’s a move Moore and company should be willing to make.

A couple more notes about Thursday’s makeup game…

There was a bit of a debate that could be had about how Yost handled his pinch hitters. When Yost lifted Young in the top of the fourth inning, it was with runners at first and third and two outs. We are playing by National League rules. (Don’t get me started on this. It’s a separate blog post that will run thousands of words.) The Royals were down by two. It was a scoring opportunity against a savvy starter who had seemingly found his groove in the previous two innings. With Young unlikely to get through the fourth inning on the mound, I thought it was absolutely the correct call to lift him for Kendrys Morales in that situation. I don’t care for your argument that it was too early to burn a pinch hitter or whatever. I like Morales up with a runner on third. When your pitcher is piling up the pinch count, doesn’t go deep into games anyway, and when you have a quality bat on the bench, why wouldn’t you go to that bat in a run scoring situation. If you “save” Morales for later, there’s no guarantee he will have a similar moment to make an impact. After all, a run in the fourth counts just as much as a run in the ninth.

Naturally, this bit the Royals and Yost when Alex Rios and Omar Infante led off the top of the ninth with back to back hits to cut the Cardinal lead in half. Jarrod Dyson walks and that brings up… the pitcher’s spot in the batting order. How to people even tolerate this nonsense? (I know… Another blog post.)

The Royals, as we all know, generally play with a three-man bench. They have Drew Butera as the backup catcher, Dusty Coleman as the utility infielder and either Paulo Orlando or Dyson as the fourth outfielder. It’s ridiculously thin, but Yost eschews the pinch hitter with gusto. Before Thursday, the Royals had used a pinch hitter 17 times all year, the fewest in the AL by far. Second to last is the Twins and they’ve sent up 38 pinch hitters. It’s just not part of Yost’s managerial tool kit. So when the team travels to the NL park, they seem to be handcuffed even more than your typical AL team.

So by going to the pinch hitter in the fourth, Yost needed another in the seventh (Orlando) when the pitcher’s spot rolled around again. That left two choices for the ninth: Coleman or Butera. The Unwritten Rules mandate your backup catcher can only be used as the last man off the bench, so Yost turned to Coleman. He isn’t having a good debut as a major leaguer. Coleman was overmatched by Trevor Rosenthal, couldn’t put the bat on the ball, and left the tying run at third. I heard the complaints about Coleman and I understand that, but the way Yost handles his regulars and his bench largely renders Coleman irrelevant. Until he becomes relevant. Like in the ninth inning of a one run game. National League baseball.

And by the way, those “defensive indifference” calls in the ninth on the Dyson and Escobar steals of second… Total horseshit. How on earth can the lead run in the ninth inning be allowed to move to scoring position and the official scorer call that indifference? Protecting Molina’s caught stealing percentage, I guess. Just another reason to love The Cardinal Way.

Thankfully, we can close the book on the St. Louis series. There may be sentiment that it would be cool to meet again in October, but I disagree. I was rooting against the Cardinals more than usual last October and I will do the same this year. Let’s keep this in the regular season, thank you very much. That’s plenty for me.

I think the Pittsburgh Pirates are a very good baseball team….and your Kansas City Royals just took two of three from them.  The Royals currently enjoy a 7.5 game lead over Minnesota in the American League Central, have the best record in the AL and the second best record in baseball.  My brother-in-law (a Padres fan) asked me the other day what it’s like to root for a team that wins every day.  My goodness times have changed.

As good as things look for Kansas City right now, they need to make a move to get even better.  This season is not about making the playoffs.  It is about winning the World Series and with that goal in mind, the Royals need a little something more.

If you have been reading this site for the last few months or run across a tweet or two from me, you know that I have long been beating the drum to acquire a bat more than a starting pitcher.  Even assuming that Alex Gordon comes back by September 1st and is back into Gordonish form by post-season time, the bottom third of the order is an on-base trainwreck of Salvador Perez, Alex Rios and Omar Infante.  My mindset has been, and mostly still is, that with the Royals’ marvelous bullpen compensating for ‘here and there’ starting pitching, that getting a bat to beef up the bottom of the order was more important.

I still believe that the Royals are in something of pick one mode when it comes to the trade deadline.  They don’t seem to have enough prospect cache to go get both an impact bat AND a premier starter.  Now, as quiet as the trade market has so far been, maybe someone will panic and actually have a true fire sale.   Then maybe the Royals could do something crazy and end up with a Cueto, a Bruce and still have Raul Mondesi in the farm system.  I think that is unlikely, but it could happen.

Anyway, a funny thing happened since I wrote about how truthfully dismal both Alex Rios and Omar Infante were with a bats in their hands.  After hitting .188 in June with two extra base hits, Rios has raked to the tune of .339/.388/.468 in July with five doubles, a home run and four steals.  Sure, monthly splits are an arbitrary endpoint (but they are easy to access), and you can pick and choose whatever start and stop you want, but the bottom line is Rios has spent basically the last 100 plate appearances being a good major league hitter.

No matter how well he hits, Rios is going to be a guy that will generate some frustration.  He will not always display a ton of zest on defense.  He will make mistakes on the basepaths.  He is, after all the same Alex Rios who has been in the league for ten years.  We have to be cautious that baseball history is full of bad players who had good runs for a 100 or so plate appearances.

ZiPS projects Rios to hit .276/.309/.401 for the remainder of the season, which seems reasonable to me.  If Alex wanted to hit .340 the rest of the way, I would be delighted, but I think we all know the odds on that.  Say what you want about projections, but if ZiPS is close to right, would that be enough to stick with Rios and have the Royals focus their trade energy in a different area?

If you believe that Rios will give the Royals enough and, frankly, if you believe that Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson will continue to hold the line until Alex Gordon comes back, then the decision comes down to a starting pitcher (or two) or upgrading over Omar Infante.  The majority of folks probably will say starting pitcher and that may or may not be the right answer.  I remain haunted, however, by the thought of Omar Infante getting 60+ post-season plate appearances.  The thought is not as scary as it was a few weeks back when Rios was somehow a worse hitter than Infante, but it is still not something to be discounted because the national guys say you have to have a true number one to win playoff series.

What would you do, hotshot?  What..would..you..do?

 

Well, last night was the first time the Royals scored seven runs or more in a game and lost.  Given Monday night was Kansas City’s 91st game of the year, that’s not bad.  You would like to think that it would never happen, but it does.  Even to good teams with great bullpens.

The Royals, after an early first inning lead, were in a hole all night courtesy of starting pitcher Yordano Ventura. A weird night for Ventura who needed 92 pitches to get through four innings (plus one batter) and gave up 10 hits.  Yet, he also struck out seven and walked only one.  The velocity was back and Ventura was throwing strikes (maybe too many strikes?), but the results were – being kind – mixed.

If Ventura had been enjoying the type of season we were all hoping for this year, I might just chalk this up to ‘one of those nights’.  Given Yordano’s odd season to date, you wonder if this is not just ‘one of those nights’, but going to be ‘one of those years’.  One untrained thought might be that Ventura, whose fastball velocity was dancing just under 100 mph most of the night, is throwing too hard and, as has a tendency to happen, too straight.  That is untrained eyes and ten minutes of thought (interrupted by a yogurt and coffee) and could be totally off base.  Here is Ventura’s strike zone plot from last night:

Ventura Strike Zone Plot

You have swinging strikes right next to balls in play (no outs) in the middle of the zone.  You also have a good number of swinging strikes out of the zone, which to me indicates that Ventura has some stuff going last night and might well invalidate my observation two sentences before.  I don’t know, boys and girls, just one of those nights?

As the Royals tried to comeback, as this team seemingly always does, we also got a look at Kris Medlen.  If you did not catch the game last night, you awoke to a box score that made you grimace, but Medlen really did pitch better than his line indicates.

Medlen entered with a runner on second and no one out, struck out two batters, then gave up a home run to Kang.  I refer to him only as Kang, because I think it sounds cool.  I’m not sure I realized this before, but if there is a team that is as much fun as the Royals are, it might well be the Pirates.  I digress, however.

A groundout and two more strikeouts by Medlen comprised the next inning and that was followed by a lead-off single that eventually came around to score via a stolen base, fly ball and ground ball.  To be fair, Ned Yost has done a very good job of managing his pitchers this year, but I thought going to Medlen for a fourth inning was probably wrong.  Kris left with two on and just one out and then had his line lit up thanks to a Luke Hochevar allowed triple to the next batter.

All in all, I was encouraged by Medlen’s outing, but you do wonder if it was him tiring in that fourth inning or the Pirates’ hitters having a better idea seeing him the second time around?  That is something worth monitoring the next few outings if, like myself, you have this hope of Medlen being a consistent STARTING pitcher yet this season for Kansas City.

We can probably forgive Luke Hochevar as well, who gave up three hits in just under two innings of work.  Those were the first hits Luke has allowed in nine innings, spanning nine outings and going back to June 23rd.

Like I said, one of those nights.

For fans, baseball is the rhythm of the summer. Games fill the days and provide the soundtrack to the nights. Reliable.

For the players and managers, baseball is a grind. A matter of survival for six months for the bonus of playing into a seventh.

The grind is something to keep in mind over the next couple of weeks, as the Royals strive to complete 18 games in 17 days. The weatherman has not helped their cause as rainouts called for the Royals to play a doubleheader out of the gate to start the second half and to sacrifice what was to be an offday this Thursday. The grind demands that Ned Yost use his roster with an eye on the big picture. A game may be lost in this stretch for the greater good. A struggling starter may be left in the game longer than usual, or a reliever from the back end of the bullpen may be summoned in a key situation. Planning and preparation are great, but sometimes the baseball gods don’t give a damn.

On Sunday in Chicago, just three days into the second half of the season, the Royals bullpen was spent.

BullpenUsage_071915

Every Royals reliever, save Brandon Finnegan, had thrown Friday and Saturday. And just ahead of the game the Royals had shipped Finnegan back to Omaha so they could bring in the fresh arm of Yohan Pino. There was still Joe Blanton, but he figured to be the reliever on the out when Kris Medlen was activated. Before the game, Yost said his list of available relievers was Pino and Blanton. The end.

To say there was a tremendous amount of pressure on Danny Duffy would be an understatement. Before Sunday in Chicago, Duffy had made 69 starts in his major league career. In those outings, he had thrown seven innings nine times. He had thrown a pitch in the eighth inning of a start only once. In that game against the White Sox a year ago June, he threw just two pitches, allowing a single to Adam Eaton, before he was lifted for the relief corps. Duffy doesn’t pitch deep into games because he has a tendency to bloat his pitch counts. It’s an issue that has dogged him his entire career. The knock on Duffy as a starter is he will jump ahead and nibble to get that third strike.

The Duffy we have seen since his return from the disabled list is a different one we’ve ever seen. He’s focused on making his mechanics more repeatable, content on throwing strikes and letting his defense help him collect outs. Duffy’s whiff rate as a (mostly) starter last year was 6.8 SO/9. Over his previous four starts, it was a Guthrie-esque 4.2 SO/9. Opponents are hitting .271/.337/.400 off Duffy in those 23.2 innings, but his 3.0 BB/9 and the fact he’s has allowed only two home runs means he’s keeping runs off the board. Well, that and some fortunate sequencing.

The benefits of his new mound strategy were evident three outs into the game. The first batter, Adam Eaton hit a smash to Mike Moustakas at third. Moustakas got a glove to it, but only enough to ricochet to Escobar at short, who fired to first to get the leadoff man. One out later, Escobar ranges to his left, pivots, and throws out Jose Abreu for the final out of the inning.

(I would love to use video from these plays to enhance my post, but MLBAM doesn’t want to spread the gospel of the game. Why promote the amazing? Thanks for nothing, MLBAM.)

Duffy crushed through the first five innings, needing only 57 pitches to retire 15 batters. By that point, we had what could be called a very promising start. The Royals, however, didn’t need promising. They needed length. They needed at least seven innings from Duffy, maybe more depending on the margin late in the game. In the sixth, the wheels threatened to fall off.

With the score 2-0, the Sox opened the inning with back to back singles. Tyler Saladino was out at first on a sacrifice bunt, moving the tying runs into scoring position for Abreu and Melky Cabrera, the Sox third and fourth place hitters. If Chicago was going to rally, this was the moment.

Against left-handed pitching, Abreu is susceptible to fastballs up and away. He also struggles against the curve down and in. In the most important plate appearance of the start, take a gander at how Duffy worked Abreu.

DuffyVsAbreu

Pitches 3, 6, 7, and 8 were curves Abreu fouled off. Pitches 1, 4, and 5 were fastballs. Abreu swung and missed on pitch number 1. After six consecutive foul balls, Duffy reared back and deposited a 95 mph fastball in a spot where Abreu couldn’t get any part of his bat on the ball. Swing and a miss. Amazing.

As epic a moment that was in the game, Duffy wasn’t out of the woods. Up stepped Cabrera, who had already collected a pair of hits against Duffy on the day. Both hits had come on fastballs in the lower part of the zone.

Against left-handers, the book on Cabrera is to throw up and away.

CabreraZone

The first pitch in the plate appearance was a low fastball. Exactly the kind of pitch Cabrera had barreled for a base hit in his previous two at bats. He took it for strike one. After getting ahead, Duffy seemed to lose his release point and delivered two fastballs up and so far out of the zone, there was no way Cabrera was going to chase those. Duffy then came back with a beautiful curve perfectly placed in the upper, outside quadrant of the strike zone that Cabrera took for a strike. He’s hitting .105 on pitches in that area, so he probably figures it’s OK to let that one go. Cabrera fouls off two more pitches and watches another hit the dirt. With the count full, Duffy spins his finest curve of the day, in the perfect spot.

DuffyVsCabrera

Duffy was gassed after the sixth when he threw his 85th pitch.

Duffy_velo_071915

Paulo Orlando doubled Duffy’s cushion with a home run to left of center in the top of the seventh and, despite the diminished velocity, Duffy worked a clean seventh and eighth, getting four ground outs, a strikeout, and a fly out. That’s kind of how the afternoon went for Duffy. Of the 24 outs he recorded, 15 came on the ground. Quite the anomaly for the guy with a 37 percent ground ball rate.

And how many spectacular defensive plays were made up the middle for Duffy? This team never fails to amaze on defense. Escobar started a hellacious double play in the fourth. Omar Infante chipped in with a couple of stellar defensive plays himself. And the Shortstop Jesus himself closed it out with another mind-bending play deep in the hole at short. If the Gold Glove awards were like the Emmys, this would be the game Escobar would submit to the judges. He was spectacular. Amazing. Superb. Pick your damn adjective and it’s not good enough. That’s how great Escobar was in this game.

Duffy, who had never gotten an out in the eighth inning of a game he started, recorded three. He returned for the ninth, but was pulled after he gave up a home run. Joe Blanton, whose Royal clock is ticking down, recorded his first career save. Baseball.

This team is something special.

They were two very different scenarios, but late in Duffy’s start on Sunday, I flashed back to Yordano Ventura’s Game Six start against the Giants last October. Similar, in that a young Royals starter was entrusted to succeed in a high-pressure situation. Similar in that both excelled, giving hope for tomorrow and further into the future. This wasn’t Game Six, but the Royals are leading the Central and have designs on playing deep into the postseason once again. These games are important, too. Especially against bottom-feeding teams like the White Sox.

Monday is Ventura’s turn to show what he has in the chamber for the second half. If Duffy and Ventura step forward for this team, the sky is the limit. The second half is off to a pretty good start.

As the second half of 2015 ramps up today, here is a look at some numbers from the first half in the AL Central. First up is the current standings plus each team’s likelihood of taking the division crown using Fangraphs projections:

W L DIV
Royals 52 34 68%
Twins 49 40 12%
Tigers 44 44 9%
Indians 42 46 8%
White Sox 41 45 3%

Fangraphs projects KC going just 36-40 the rest of the way, yet at 68% to win the division. Incredible. And the Royals have wildly outperformed projections in the first half. I’m not sure how to handle this position of being the favorite to win the division. It’s new territory for me. But I know there’s a lot of baseball still to be played and 1,001 unforeseen things will take place between now and October 4.

Here are the most productive batsmen of the division so far:

15 central wrc at break

The Royals balanced attack is represented by the four at the bottom. But Alex :(

Here is the cream of the crop of twirlers:

15 central pitcher war leaders

 

And hey, look at this. A comparison of the team pitching stats (starters & relievers):

15 central pitching at break

I didn’t realize how poorly the Tigers have been pitching. They haven’t done anything particularly well to this point.

No surprise that the Royals defense is carrying an otherwise average pitching staff. Oversimplifying things, you could say the defense has added about five wins to the pitchers fielding independent numbers (the difference between fWAR and RA9W). Or that the defense takes an exactly average FIP (100 FIP-) and turns it into a 10% better than average run-preventing unit (90 ERA-). The 40% quality start rate is worst in the AL, and would normally be a major problem, except that KC has just enough hitting and that embarrassingly good bullpen and defense that can cover for so many lackluster starts.

Finally, the players with the best win probability added in the division:

15 central wpa at the break

Here’s to a great first half, and to the fun to come in the second.

The All-Star break is stupid.

I know the players can use a mini vacation in the middle of summer. Recharge the body and the mind. Save it. I demand baseball. There’s something unAmerican about a summer night without baseball.

In the meantime, here’s a blog post. Both Clark and I can’t really be bothered by the All-Star Game itself. It was a fun diversion, but it’s already time to get back to business. There’s a division to win.

When action resumes Friday, the Royals will be in Chicago for a doubleheader. Rainouts take away a scheduled off day for July 23 when the club travels to St. Louis to finish their interrelate rivalry series. That means the Royals kick off the second half of the season with 18 games in 17 days. That’s a brutal schedule, no matter the opponent. The rotation looks to set up like this through the first turn:

Friday – Edinson Volquez/Chris Young
Saturday – Jeremy Guthrie
Sunday – Danny Duffy
Monday – Yordano Ventura

So with five games in four days and a five man rotation… Do the math. The Royals are either going to turn to Young for a second start on short rest, or the burden will fall to Volquez. Another option would be to call up an arm from Omaha. There’s speculation that we could see the major league debut of John Lamb. Lamb has a 2.68 ERA with a 9.2 SO/9 and 2.9 BB/9 in 15 starts for the Storm Chasers. He’s gone from prospect, to injured prospect, to fringe starter, to intriguing candidate to take a turn in the major league rotation. Lamb hasn’t pitched since July 9 when he threw five innings against the Iowa Cubs and punched out 10. He made the Triple-A All-Star team for the PCL, but didn’t take the mound in his home park.

I think the more likely scenario is the 2015 major league debut of Kris Medlen. Medlen completed his final minor league rehab start on Wednesday in Northwest Arkansas with seven shutout innings. He’s on a rehab assignment, which limits pitchers to 30 days in the minor leagues. His clock started when he made his first start on June 18. His 30 days are up on Saturday. His normal turn in a five man rotation would be on Monday the 20th.

The Royals have 39 players on their 40-man roster, so activating Medlen will be painless, speaking from a personnel angle. More complicated is what the Royals do with their 25-man roster. The two obvious options are sending Brandon Finnegan to the minors or designating Joe Blanton for assignment. Finnegan has been on the I-29 shuttle for most of this season. Blanton doesn’t have minor league options, so the Royals would have to put him on waivers in order to release him.

I think the Royals will DFA Blanton. As a swingman, he’s surplus to requirements. Also, with the Royals having 18 games in 17 days, fresh bullpen arms are going to be paramount. Because Finnegan has options, should the Royals need him for an extended outing, they can farm him out the next day and recall someone like Yohan Pino. Not saying Pino is an upgrade over Finnegan. It’s just with so many games, the Royals are going to be looking for live bullpen arms. It may not happen, but it’s at least an option, should the Royals find themselves with an overtaxed bullpen at any time over the next three weeks.

The bet here is that Medlen will take a turn in the rotation on Tuesday. That keeps Volquez on normal rest on Wednesday. Then, the Royals can shift Young back to the bullpen to act as swingman, replacing Blanton. Guthrie takes his turn on Thursday on normal rest. And so it goes.

I’d say this is amazing, but really, nothing surprises me anymore when it comes to Royals fans and their support for the team, the city, and baseball in general. Kansas City pulled a 31.4 rating and a 50 share. Amazing. A 50 share means that half of the televisions on in Kansas City were tuned in to the game. The second-highest rated market was Cincinnati which had a 22.8 rating and a 37 share. Ratings in KC were up 178% from last year’s All-Star Game. Basically, Kansas City lapped the field in the ratings game.

Almonte was rated the number two Royals prospect by Baseball Prospectus and has posted a 4.03 ERA in 67 innings for Northwest Arkansas. His strikeout rate is low at 7.4 SO/9 and his walk rate is elevated at 3.6 BB/9. Reports are the Royals have had him work more on fastball command, a problem that has popped up during his minor league travels. The moneymaker for Almonte is his change. Here’s a report from spring training from Baseball Prospectus:

Miguel Almonte has two plus pitches and a third that is making strides. His low- to mid-90s fastball comes with tons of life and his change borders on unfair when he throws it correctly. The breaking ball has tightened up since last viewing and has gone from a weird, slurvy pitch to a hard downer breaking ball. With Almonte, it’s all about repetition. When he keeps his tempo in his delivery and holds his three-quarters arm slot, everything comes out with life from the same window as his fastball. The problem is it seemed very easy for Almonte to lose his rhythm over the course of the game. Anytime the game slowed down, Almonte got in trouble for the next several pitches.

I suspect the issues with repetition remain. But with a fastball/change combination, he could slot in to the Royals bullpen when the rosters expand. It will be interesting to see how he assimilates into the Omaha rotation.

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