Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Well, that was… uninspiring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somebody told me there’d be days like these.

A couple other notes…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 12.27.21 PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

It was the never-ending game.

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

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

Baseball can be kind of amazing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Source: FanGraphs

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

The Royals magic number is 31.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among other things….

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

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

What a wild, wonderful, and weird – yes, weird – ballgame.

Back in the day, when the Royals were awful, they somehow always found a way to be interesting. As interesting as a god awful team could be. Thankfully, now they’re winning with regularity, they’ve managed to maintain that interesting characteristic. And then some.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. The 4-3 win over the Angels on Sunday night, capped off a homestand where the Royals went 8-2. They were this close to sweeping all whole enchalada. When you win eight out of ten, it’s seems kind of greedy to focus on the two that got away, so we’ll let that slide. They are also currently 12 games ahead of the Twins in the AL Central. They are six and a half up on the Yankees for best record (and home field advantage) in the AL. They also have the best home record in the league, at 42-20.

They now have 71 wins.

The win on Sunday was more difficult than most. They opened the game, like they always seem to open the games of late – by scoring some runs. Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch he saw and dropped a single to center. Ben Zobrist doubled down into the left field corner and Escobar scored all the way from first. A couple of things from that very second play of the Royals offense: Escobar got a great jump on the hit, and it was about time the Royals decided to challenge the arm of David DeJesus. I could be completely wrong here, but it felt like they had some other opportunities to run on DeJesus this weekend, but they played it safe. His arm is not good.

The Zobrist double was followed by a Lorenzo Cain ground out to second, which move Zobrist to third. He came home on an Eric Hosmer single, which marked the 10th consecutive game where he’s brought home a run.

I hope you were paying attention in the first inning, because if you were watching the game for offense, that was it. The Royals wouldn’t record another hit in regulation.

On the other side, Yordano Ventura pitched an erratic, yet effective game. His fastball was humming along, touching 99 mph. His curve showed some snap and his change was, at times, pure filth. The problem I saw was a tendency to overthrow when he got ahead in the count. We saw this a number of times in the game, but I’ll highlight the most egregious of instances: The at bat of Mike Trout in the sixth.

After a Calhoun triple to leadoff the inning, you’d have to imagine Ventura was looking strikeout to keep the run off the board. Makes sense. He’s striking out over 23 percent of the time this season, so while he’s always dangerous, it’s possible to get around him without damage. Ventura starts him off with a fastball on the outer edge and a curve ball that was a bit of a hanger, but completely froze Trout. Ahead 0-2, Ventura uncorked a pair of pitches where it just looked like he was trying to do too much. Here’s his pitch sequencing.

VenturaTrout

Pitch three was his fastest pitch of the night, and way up and out of the zone. The fourth pitch was spiked in front of the plate, got away from Salvador Perez, and allowed Calhoun to walk home to cut the lead in half. Ventura eventually came back (and may have picked up some luck when Trout checked his swing and fouled off pitch six) and again froze Trout on another curve. So Ventura was successful in his showdown against Trout, but the method wasn’t that great.

That’s not to take away from Ventura, or to suggest he dial things down. He was very good on Sunday. He finished with seven innings, five hits, one walk and seven strikeouts. If anything, his performance shows he’s on the right track.

Now, for this next section, I need to present with a caveat: I really, really (really!) dislike complaining about the umpires. It’s a loser’s lament. However, I think we can all agree home plate umpire Quinn Wolcott had a difficult weekend. By the time his home plate rotation came up, he had already had three calls overturned by New York. In a season where seemingly everything has been “upheld” because of “inconclusive evidence” to have three calls turned over in two games is something. And just as we had feared, his strike zone was a train wreck.

Not only was it wide, it was wildly inconsistent. Eventually, Perez was tossed. You can understand why he was angry.

SalEjection

Ball one (pitch four) was really in the zone. Strike three (pitch five) was both lower and further off the plate than the previous pitch. Was it a makeup call? Maybe. I lean to general incompetence. Sal had an extended conversation and was eventually run. In this instance, I question why Ned Yost was so slow coming out of the dugout. Perez stood there expressing his displeasure for quite some time. It’s a no-no to argue ball and strike calls, so why did it take Yost so long to get out there? In that situation, it’s his job to protect his player. Not being critical here, just wondering why that moment was allowed to continue for so long that Wolcott had no choice but to give Perez the thumb.

In the next frame, we saw something we just aren’t used to: A Wade Davis home run. It was a hanging slider that was crushed and untied the game.

It was looking like the Royals bullpen was going to give up a game for the third time in five games. That sort of stuff just doesn’t happen.

Jump to the ninth. The Royals haven’t had a hit since the first inning. Hosmer leads off against Angels closer Huston Street and draws a walk. After Morales hits a tapper back to the mound that advanced Hosmer to second, the Angels intentionally walk Mike Moustakas to pitch to Drew Butera, in the game after the Perez ejection. Butera has picked up a couple of hits, but has looked largely overmatched at the plate in his limited at bats. He fell behind 1-2 before he eventually drew a walk. That was a helluva plate appearance, given the moving strike zone behind the plate. The closest take was the final pitch of the plate appearance. I think Royals Universe was collectively holding their breath on that one.

With the bases loaded, up walked Alex Rios. To that point, Rios had impersonated a statue in right field and had gone 0-3. In other words, just another night. I imagined what would happen on social media if the most likely outcome occurred – which was a double play. In fact, in my highly unscientific methodology, I put the chances of Rios hitting into a double play at 95%. Chances for a sacrifice fly were just 5%. Rios made a joke of my projections and Aoiked a fly ball to right field, deep enough to tie the game.

The late innings featured the Royals defense that had gone almost the entire evening without making a highlight caliber play. First, Cain made a great running catch in right field. That’s notable because he was playing center. Rios, man. Second, Zobrist made a nice little running grab in foul territory after he moved to third.

With the highlight reel plays checked off the box of “Things the Royals do ever game” it was time to bring home a winner. In the bottom of the tenth, Zobrist got their first hit since the first inning. He advanced to second after Hosmer walked on another 3-2 pitch that wasn’t really close but felt that way given who was calling the balls and strikes behind the plate. Finally, Morales stepped up and lined a single to left, bringing home Zobrist and the Royals win.

Another night at The K. Another game with a strong October vibe. We’ve had plenty of these since the opener of the 2015 season. This has been a special summer in Kansas City. With the Royals in control in the AL Central, it looks like the baseball fun will continue a little bit into the fall.

You can be damned if you do. And damned if you don’t.

One night after sticking with his starter for too long, Ned Yost activated the final two-thirds of the HDH Triumvirate in the same manner that has been so successful for the better part of two seasons. The result was the same.

Both losses hurt to different degrees. Your mileage may vary as to which one leaves a larger mark.

Entering the game, Wade Davis had pitched twice since the start of the month. Battling a sore back, the sight of him entering the game was a relief. One of our bullpen cyborgs was back and ready to do his thing. Davis gave up a leadoff single. That’s OK. That’s all part of the Wade Davis Experience. The next batter was Mike Trout.

Please keep in mind, I really dislike complaining about the umpires. There are some who it seems their lone reason to watch is so they can kvetch about the men in blue. You can say I’m not a fan of those fans. The umps are not perfect. Some are truly brutal at their jobs. I have no idea where Gary Cederstrom falls into the umpiring spectrum. I know his name simply because he’s been around forever. In the Deadspin series from a couple of years ago, Cederstrom was noted for being “pro-pitcher.” I wish that had been the case on Thursday.

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 6.52.50 AM

The above is the location of Wade Davis’ pitches to Trout. Ball one was a 96 mph fastball down the chute. How that pitch was missed by the ump, I’ll never know. Pitch two was borderline. An 86 mph curve that broke to the lower edge of the zone. A plate appearance that could have been 0-2 in favor of Davis, or at the very least even at 1-1, was skewed in favor of the Angels MVP. As you can see from his splits after certain counts in 2015, this gave Trout a massive advantage in his at bat.

Split PA AB H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS TB BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
After 2-0 88 52 18 5 0 4 11 35 10 .346 .602 .673 1.275 35 .359 165 160
After 1-1 202 178 52 9 0 14 29 19 59 .292 .371 .579 .950 103 .358 90 183
After 0-2 102 97 22 3 0 6 12 4 44 .227 .265 .443 .708 43 .340 41 208
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 8/14/2015.

Trout is a great player. A once in a generation talent who will likely wrap this year with his second consecutive MVP award. To go with his two second place finishes. In four full seasons. The sOPS+ in the above table is how Trout performs in each scenario balanced against the rest of the league. Remember, 100 is average. Anything above 100 is considered above average. So while he hits .227 after he falls behind in the count 0-2, he’s still considered an outstanding hitter when compared to the rest of the league. (By the way, the rest of the league hits just .165 after they fall behind 0-2.) The lesson is, you never, ever want to face Mike Trout.

And you really don’t ever want to face Mike Trout if the home plate umpire is going to shrink the strike zone to the size of a pinhead.

Davis did battle back, but threw too many pitches to Trout. With a 3-2 count, he sat dead red, got a fastball over the heart of the plate (not to removed from “Ball 1”) and crushed it to center, over the head of Lorenzo Cain for a run-scoring double. Two ground outs later and two runs had been scored off Davis for the first time since April 5, 2014.

(Let’s not forget the Eric Hosmer brain cramp on the Johnny Giavotella bunt. It seems when the bullpen is struggling, it surprises the defense so much, the players on the field momentarily lose their minds.)

The four run lead was down to two. With three outs to go, this is Greg Holland territory. The game still should have been safe. It wasn’t.

Holland has been shaky all season. He’s had some rough outings that could be placed in the “Bad Luck” file and he’s had some outings where he’s struggled with command and created his own problems. On Thursday, it was the latter that derailed the Royals.

There is some thinking to do about Holland and why he’s lost effectiveness. That’s the subject for another post. Really. There are some numbers to crunch and some data to analyze to uncover what’s happened this year and even then I’m not sure we can get the whole story as to why Holland is no longer the automatic Saveman he’s been the last couple of years. This was Holland as his absolute worst. He faced six batters, retired none, and gave up four hits and two walks. And four runs.

After 111 consecutive wins when leading after seven innings, the Royals now have back to back losses when leading after seven. Sometimes, the Baseball Gods decide to take something back. The Royals bullpen has been a huge reason they are in the position they currently occupy. It’s vitally important to their success. We had to have known that at some point, it was going to falter. And because they have been rolling for so long, any failure was going to be uncomfortable and brutal. It’s amazing they were able to lock down so many wins for so long.

This isn’t the beginning of the end. While there are questions surrounding Holland, the rest of the bullpen is in fine shape. One night doesn’t define them. Not after the sustained success they’ve had over the last two seasons. Hopefully, they will ride the lead into the later innings again on Friday and Yost will once again activate his Bullpen Cyborgs. I still like their chances.

Even great baseball teams lose games.  I am not sure the 2015 Royals qualify as ‘great’, but they are certainly very good…and they lost last night.  They lost in a game in which Ned Yost quite understandably sent Edinson Volquez out to start the eighth inning, only to see his starter fall victim to an infield hit, a walk, a swinging bunt and not exactly the most ‘ripped’ double of all-time.  Did Yost stay with Volquez too long in the eighth?  Sure, he did, but it was a weird inning that got away from the Royals’ manager and his team. Weird innings and slow decisions happen to good teams once in a while.

 

 

All of that is nothing to get too upset about.  My late night scan of Twitter indicated some people did get upset.  Although more people seemed to be upset about people being upset than there were actual people upset about the loss.   Twitter, maybe the world, was in a weird mood yesterday, with people exceptionally focused on proving how much more rational they were than other people and basically just plain argumentative about everything.  It was the kind of day that breeds an eighth inning like the Royals had last night.

Of the piles of douchery that was populating bandwidth last night, however, an interesting question did arise:  if the Royals has a one game lead in the division and a healthy Wade Davis, does Volquez come out in the eighth or pitch to as many batters once he ran into trouble?  I think most of us agree the answer is no to at least one of those propositions.  Therein lies the greater question.  How and how much should Ned Yost attempt to rest his team over the last two months of the regular season?

There is a delicate line there in that baseball is a game of repetition.  No one expects Alex Gordon to come back in early September and be in top form.  This is a sport, after all, that plays THIRTY exhibition games to get ready for a 162 game regular season.  One can’t sit Wade Davis for ten days and then expect him to be razor sharp his first time out.  There is nothing new to that or a surprise to anyone.

Can you and should you, pull back the reigns to the point that your regulars are resting one or day days every week?  Where you best relievers are pitching only when they are perfectly healthy and then only every third day?  At one point do you get your team back into post-season mode prior to the actual post-season?  And how many games do they need to essentially ‘flip the switch’?

Since 2005, thirteen teams have won their division by 10 games or more and of those thirteen, only one has made it to the World Series (the Texas Rangers).  That number mostly points to the narrow margin for error in the playoffs, but does at least offer enough to make one leery of doing too much coasting into the post-season.   It will be an interesting test for Ned Yost, who has managed to make young players better and managed the latter half of 2014 like every game was a playoff game, but never been in an admittedly enviable situation like this.

For the record, I don’t mind trying to get through the eighth with Edinson Volquez last night or having Ryan Madson close out a one run game last Sunday.  It makes sense to not pitch Wade Davis with a sore back and to hold out Salvador Perez and his sore wrist even if it means letting Drew Butera bat with two on in the bottom of the ninth.  It is just one game after winning five straight and being a 99% lock to get to the playoffs.

The funny thing about ‘just one game’ is that sometimes those turn into more than one game and the next thing you know you have gone 13-17 and lost a little (or a lot – ask Oakland last year) of the team that surged to the best record in baseball.

Should Ned Yost rest players, get his regulars healthy and try to give the bullpen some light duty?  Without question he should, but he needs to do so with an eye on both keeping his team sharp and maintaining the number one seed in the post-season.  If you want to go play a game six or seven at Toronto, you are a more confident human than I!

If you are asking me, I would try to dance through August and the first week of September liberally resting regulars and relievers alike.  Come the last three weeks of the season, however, I would advocate locking in my playoff lineup and managing those final twenty or so regular season games as if it was the playoffs.  Sure, you don’t pitch HDH three days straight down the stretch or get ‘actual playoff crazy’, but I think you get the drift.

Last night was ‘just one game’ and, for once, that’s fine.  The Royals just need to not fill up August and September with a basket full of ‘just one games’.

 

Just another Royals game.

Just another midsummer’s night at The K.

Lorenzo Cain goes 4-4, hits a monster bomb, and falls a triple short of the cycle. Mike Moustakas leaves the yard and drives in a total of three runs. Alcides Escobar nails a runner at home with another relay of perfection and made another run saving play in the field. Sal Perez nailed a runner wandering too far off first. Eric Hosmer continued rolling with a pure opposite field home run. Luke Hochevar was working a killer cutter and struck out three in 2.2 innings to pick up the save.

And let’s not forget the effort from Yordano Ventura to go six innings while generating eight strikeouts.

Just a total team effort. Not only a team effort, but an outstanding all-around game. Pitching, defense and the long ball. This game had just about everything. Honestly, if you’re just now hopping on the bandwagon, where the hell have you been?

I just… I mean… Holy crap. I’m running out of superlatives to describe this team and this season. This has been a special summer. No matter what happens in October, this has been a season to remember. I’ve been sitting here for the better part of a half hour, just staring at this blank page in my WordPress dashboard and I’m smiling like some kind of idiot. I can’t think of anything insightful to write mainly because this is straight up domination. Every facet of the game, almost every night. When this team is firing on all cylinders, there is nothing that can stop them. Nothing.

How about this relay from Escobar? Is there any shortstop in baseball who consistently makes this play like we’ve seen from Escobar? Doubt it.

When Cain was batting in the sixth with a 3-1 count, FSKC viewers were treated to this exchange:

Uncle Hud: Do you throw a fastball here, Monty?
Monty: I wouldn’t.
Uncle Hud: I wouldn’t either.
Monty: He could lean back on one.

CRACK

Uncle Hud: Ohhhhh…

Cain didn’t get that fastball. He got a slider in the lower part of the zone over the middle of the plate. Cain murdered that baseball. According to Inside Edge, it had a velocity of 110 mph when it left the bat and travelled a total of 450 feet. According to Baseball Savant, three different hitters have had an exit velocity that high on a home run this year. Hosmer has hit two home runs that left the bat at 113 mph and another at 110. Kendrys Morales has one that was measured at 110 mph. And the home run on Tuesday was LoCain’s second at 110 mph. That’s a long-winded way of saying that what we saw off Cain’s bat doesn’t happen very often.

(And thanks so much to MLBAM who doesn’t allow all video clips to be embedded. Way to spread the gospel of your game. How about a frame grab of the pitch location? That will have to do.)

Update: We have StatCast video! Behold, the beauty of the Cain Bomb.

And here’s the pitch sequencing. Slider lower half, middle. Ouch.

LoCainHR_081115

The guy is having just an outstanding all-around season. The crowd at The K broke out with the “MVP” chant, and while it may be a bit early he certainly is on the shortlist of candidates. Cain currently ranks fifth in fWAR and third in bWAR. A testament to his development as a top-tier player. The projection systems didn’t have faith in Cain at the beginning of the year due to his short track record and age. The projections aren’t always correct. That’s not always a knock on the computer. They only have the data Cain himself provided from his past performances. Sometimes, guys are outliers and are late bloomers. Cain, as we all know came to the game later in life. Maybe his development is behind the curve we’re used to seeing from guys who have been trying out for traveling teams since they were eight.

All I know is Cain’s breakout is real and it’s spectacular.

Now let’s take a moment to discuss Ventura’s outing. The eight strikeouts tied a season high set back on April 23. That was great. He also tied a career high with six walks. That’s not so great.

Ventura has made the 2015 season interesting, and he continued with this start. He threw a strike on his first pitch to 18 out of the 25 batters he faced. That’s an improvement over how he’s opened plate appearances this season. He was content to work up in the zone early in the count, but as the plate appearance evolved, he was commanding his pitches low. Check his pitch location from Brooks Baseball. I’ve included the pitch number in each at bat for reference.

VenturaLocation_081115

Note how the pitches up and out of the zone were frequently the first or second pitch in an at bat. The pitches that were taken for balls low were generally pitches three, four and five. (There are a few sixes and sevens thrown in, but you get the point.) It’s some interesting sequencing and it’s so consistent that I would wager this was the gameplay from the start. Open with strike one or miss up with some high heat and then as the at bat progresses, start working lower in the zone. If you miss, miss low where it would be more difficult for the opposition to put the hurt on the pitch. It’s also a good place to get a swing and a miss and there are a number of them below the strike zone. Indeed, he generated 15 swinging strikes on Tuesday, just one off his season high, again set back in April in that start against the White Sox.

The walks aren’t going to play. Ventura became just the fifth starter this year to throw at least six innings while allowing six walks. Incidentally, every one of those starters’ team won the game. Yet if there was any way to minimize the damage of the walks it was to not follow them with base hits. We know about Ventura’s struggles with runners on base and pitching out of the stretch. He was still wobbly in that situation. Twice, he issued back to back walks. His defense bailed him out in three consecutive innings. In the fourth it was the Dyson to Escobar to Perez relay to gun down a runner at the plate. In the fifth, it was Perez with the pickoff at first. And in the sixth, it was a diving gem from Escobar to end with inning with a putout at second.

It wasn’t a pretty outing from Ventura. Nor was it especially efficient. Yet when the heat was turned up, Ventura kept calm and made the pitches he needed. Strikeouts or defense. Pick your salve. And that was the difference in this outing from other trips to the mound for Ventura. Back to back walks and an error to load the bases like we saw in the second had been an invitation to implosion. On Tuesday, he settled himself and recorded a strikeout and a ground out to escape.

Maybe when we look back at this start, we will say that Ventura was lucky to emerge without surrendering a run. In the Royals special summer, wasn’t it his turn to finally enjoy some good fortune?

Let’s do more of them.

Life is a little bit in the way this morning, so the usual Pulitzer Prize caliber stuff will have to wait.  I’ll just let the whole debacle that was ESPN last night slide by, along with how much Cardinal fans apparently hate Johnny Cueto and anyone who cheers for him.  I’ll not make fun of the angst among some in the fanbase over Star Wars day or Husker Night (oh no! fans from an adjacent state cheering for my team and putting revenue into my local economy!).

Instead, let’s just take a quick stroll back down memory lane and look at the complete game shutouts by Royals over the past few seasons.

Prior to Johnny Cueto’s masterpiece last night, the Royals had not gotten a complete shutout from a starter for almost an year.  Jason Vargas did the trick last August 13th, shutting out Oakland on three hits just four days after James Shields shutout the Giants on four hits (where was THAT in the World Series, James?).

That Shields shutout was almost year after Jeremy Guthrie’s four hit shutout of Minnesota on August 5, 2013.  Guthrie also threw a four hit shutout against the White Sox in May of 2013, making him the first Royal starter since Zack Greinke to throw multiple complete game shutouts in the same season.  Greinke spun three of them in his great 2009 campaign.

Now, between Guthrie’s first shutout and Greinke’s last as a Royal, there were three shutouts by pitchers that are so unlikely to throw them that I bet you already know the answer.  Luke Hochevar did it twice…three years apart…and no, the 80 pitch Cincinnati complete game isn’t one of them.  The always-turning-a-corner-never-getting-anywhere Hochevar shutou the Rays on June 15, 2012 scattering seven hits along the way.  He also shutout the White Sox on just three hits on September 18, 2009.  In between, on October 1, 2010, Bruce Chen two hit the Rays to lead the 67-93 Royals past the 94-66 Rays.  Josh Fields played third that day for KC, Kila Ka’aihue batting clean-up and Gregor Blanco lead off.  James Shields was the opposing pitcher and Ben Zobrist played second base for Tampa.

Let’s revisit 2009, the year of Hochevar’s first and Greinke’s three shutouts.  The Royals had a memorable fifth shutout by a starter that year:  Gil Meche.  Meche four hit the Diamondbacks, but took 132 pitches to get it all done, thanks mostly to Stephen Drew’s 10 (?) pitch at-bat in the top of the ninth.  If that did not do it, the 121 pitch medley the next time out, did Meche in.  Thanks, Trey Hillman.

Now, you think a year between complete game shutouts is a long?  The Royals went over two seasons without one before Greinke’s first in April of 2009.  In September of 2006, and it’s okay if you did not see or remember, because it was September of 2006, Mark Redman threw a five hitter against Minnesota.  That was just THREE days after Runelvys Hernandez scattered seven hits in a 2-0 shutout of the Blue Jays.  Oh, those were the days, my friend.

The first Royals’ complete game shutout?  Roger Nelson in 1969.

The most as a Royals?  Dennis Leonard with 21.

A lot of the big names in Royals’ lore threw back to back shutouts, but I bet you did not remember that Ted Power did so in June of 1988.

Did you know that Luis Aquino (3) had more shutouts than Jose Rosado (2)?  Or that Darrell May and Chris Haney each had three as Royals?  How about the fact that Dan Reichert, Jay Witasick and Mac Suzuki each managed to accomplish the feat?  Or that Jim Colborn’s no-hitter was his only shutout in a Kansas City uniform.

Most strikeouts in a shutout?  Kevin Appier with 13 on September 15, 1995.

Most walks allowed in a shutout?  Six, done by Paul Splittorff, Rich Gale and Steve Busby.

Most hits allowed in a shutout?  Ten, done by both Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza.

One pitcher in the history of the Royals had an extra inning shutout.  If you thought Steve Busby, you were thinking along with me, but we’re wrong.  It was Al Fitzmorris who threw ten shutout innings on June 29, 1976 against Minnesota in a 1-0 win.  The attendance that day in Minnesota was 6,201 with Hal McRae (playing leftfield) scoring the only run on a Freddie Patek RBI.

Shutouts are fun.

 

“(Duffy) is a heavy sweater. Not a heavy sweater that you wear, but a heavy sweater that sweats. I just think the heat got to him a little bit.”

– Ned Yost

I mean, that quote just about tells you everything you need to know about the weekend at Kauffman. After a difficult road trip where the Royals staggered to a 4-6 victory, home cooking tastes much better. Three games, three wins. With the AL Central sinkhole getting deeper, the Royals have now opened an 11.5 game lead over the second place Twins. Perhaps more importantly, they have a five game lead for the best recording the AL and home field throughout October.

It was hot on Sunday. Danny Duffy started well enough, retiring the first six White Sox in short order. His command disappeared in the third. To Duffy’s credit, he didn’t prop up against the excuse his manager provided.

Since returning from the disabled list, Duffy’s strikeout rate has cratered.

2011 – 7.4 SO/9

2014 – 6.8 SO/9

2015 pre-DL – 7.0 SO/9

2015 post-DL – 4.3 SO/9

In Duffy’s first eight starts of the year, opponents swung 45.5 percent of the time. He generated a whiff 13.5 percent of the time. In his eight starts since his return (not including Sunday), opposing hitters were swinging 46.6 percent of the time and missing the exact same 13.5 percent. The velocity is still there, yet the results couldn’t be more different. His ERA from his first eight starts was a Guthriesque 5.87 with a 4.54 FIP. There may have been some poor luck, but it wasn’t that poor. He simply wasn’t a good pitcher in the first two months of the season. Fast-forward and since his return from the DL, he has posted a 2.66 ERA, but a 4.88 FIP.

Duffy’s continued elevated FIP is reflected in a strikeout rate that has featured a precipitous decline. I get pitching to contact, and obviously the Royals have a defense that is unparalleled in baseball. Yet the best defense for a pitcher will always be a strikeout. Duffy has the stuff. We’ve seen it for stretches throughout his Royals career. We also know he’s struggled with his economy of pitches. It looks like Duffy has made the conscious decision to pitch to contact, but the numbers don’t back this narrative. In the eight starts prior to the DL, Duffy threw 53.4 percent of his pitches for strikes and batters made contact 86.5 percent of the time they swung the bat. In the eight post-DL starts, Duffy has thrown 52.1 percent of his pitches for strikes and contact has been made on 84.5 percent of the swings.

So Duffy is generating less contact but overall is throwing fewer strikes. That could explain any kind of variation in his strikeout rate, but not the extreme drop we’ve seen.

While Yost projected an aura of calm in his post game presser, referring a number of times to the luxury the Royals currently hold in the ability to give certain guys days off without worrying over the result of removing a key bat from the lineup or an important arm from the bullpen, he acted with appropriate haste in removing Duffy from the game. After wheezing through the third, Duffy only got three hitters in the fourth before he was allowed to cool down in the showers.

It was a proactive move from the manager, who realized that if he were to give Duffy any more rope, he’d hang himself within two or three more batters and the Royals would be facing a deficit after rushing out to a three run lead. Enter Kris Medlen. Last seen around these parts throwing just three pitches in an outing August 6 against the Tigers. There were no limitations on Medlen on Sunday as he got a strikeout and a fly out to get out of the first and third jam left behind by Duffy. Medlen mixed his fastball that topped out at 95 mph along with his curve and change to work 3.2 innings of no-hit baseball. He walked just one batter, but erased him with a pickoff in the fifth. It was exactly the kind of outing the Royals hoped he was capable of, after they rescued him from the Tommy John rehab pile last winter.

The 5-4 victory finished a series where the Royals posted wins of 3-2 and 7-6. Three one-run triumphs. When a foundation is poured with relief pitching and defense those kinds of wins happen with happy regularity. Indeed, that was their 18th win by a single run against just 10 losses. I’m glad teams like the White Sox are around in 2015. They remind me of those 2009ish era Royals teams. Poor fundamentals, crappy defense and just all around bizarre baserunning plays to TOOTBLAN the night away. Let someone else suffer the agony. We’ve had enough to last a couple of generations.

But hey, this is a “no nostalgia” zone. Live in the now. Because the present is pretty damn great. In case you forget that Yost continues to play with house money, consider the lineup he ran out behind Duffy to open the game. Off days to Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, plus the optioning of Cheslor Cuthbert and the recall of Paulo Orlando meant the Royals had a surplus of outfielders. Yost chose to position newcomer Ben Zobrist at third. We all know how Yost loves his Swiss Army Knife players, but this was a bit of a stretch. Yes, Zobrist has played all over the field, but he’s logged the fewest innings at third of all the positions he’s played in his career. Prior to Sunday, he has made two starts at third and fielded the position for a grand total of 20 innings.

Naturally, Zobrist didn’t handle a chance in the field all afternoon.

And with a one run lead in the eighth, Yost decided to bring Moustakas off the bench for defensive purposes. Naturally, with a runner at third and one out, Moustakas made a diving stab at a ground ball to hold the tying run at third and made the out at first.

Couple that substitution with his management of the bullpen and we can put this one in the Yost win column. The lesson: Never bet against Ned Yost. At least not in 2015.

So you know what? If Yost says Danny Duffy sweats a lot, I’ll just sit in my corner of the internet, nod my head, and keep socking away money for another October ticket buying extravaganza.

Before then, Johnny Cueto makes his home Royals debut against the Selling Tigers of Detroit on Monday. I suspect The K will greet our new ace with open arms. Forever Royal.

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