Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

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.

As road trips go, that was rather unpleasant.

In the old days, returning home from 10 days away with a 4-6 record would be greeted with a shrug. Hell, in the old days no one would have noticed the Royals were still playing baseball. Instead, it’s greeted with a bit of concern.

Thursday’s game stung. The Royals jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the second inning in the most unlikely of ways: A bases load walk courtesy of Alex Rios and a two run single from Omar Infante. Baseball continues to amaze.

On the Rios walk, it was the fourth time this year the Royals have drawn a walk with the bases juiced. I guess it’s barely worth noting it was Rios who drew the walk. On a team with a collective walk rate of 5.6 percent, his current walk rate of 3.7 percent isn’t really notable. (That previous sentence will always blow my mind.) But let’s pause for a moment to understand that Rios has, after a brief relapse of relative productivity, turned back into a pumpkin. On this completed road trip, he managed to hit just .129/.206/.161 in 34 plate appearances. Welcome back. Now go away.

Infante’s normal production has returned as well. His road trip finished at .229/.229/.400. Nice slugging percentage for Omar, fueled in part by his first home run of the season.

Their combined ineptitude has opened up a fun little game for Royals fans: Who do you despise less?

The game is actually kind of relevant with the presence of Ben Zobrist because once Alex Gordon returns, you figure Zobrist will get some reps at either second or right field. Zobrist has already moved to the second spot in the lineup, which is a good move by Ned Yost. Especially when you look at Mike Moustakas’ numbers since June 1st and realize he’s really more of the Moustakas we’ve known all these years, not necessarily this opposite field monster we were hoping he’d morphed into. I’m not looking into numbers here, but it certainly feels like he’s going oppo with less frequency. Since June 1, Moose is hitting .242/.309/.356. Those numbers are similar to what he did in his first half season in the big leagues. His production on the year is still a net positive, but if he keeps up the pace of his current slide, he will give it all back by the time September rolls around.

At least Yost isn’t pairing Moustakas with Alcides Escobar at the top of the order these days. But damn if Escobar isn’t a pimple at the number one spot. In the AL this year, leadoff hitters own a .327 on base percentage. As a team, the Royals have posted an OBP of .316 from the top spot. Most of that is on Escobar, who has spent the entire year in that position. I’ve written about this at length, but hitting Escobar leadoff continues to be managerial malpractice. Yeah, yeah, yeah… Save your “batting order doesn’t matter” arguments. When you put an out machine with abysmal plate discipline at the top of your offense, that’s going to leave a mark. Escobar has more plate appearances than anyone on this Royals team. That’s not ideal.

I seriously didn’t mean to write a gloom and doom post. Bah. This offense… Yet there is good news. (So I’ll ignore Yordano Ventura walking the eighth and ninth place hitters after he was gifted that three run lead.)

The Royals are 14-11 since they lost Gordon to his groin strain. (That’s some weird phrasing. Yet accurate.) Bigger than the wins – and the wins are very big – is the fact they’ve added five games to their cushion atop the AL Central. Not only that, that record is the fourth best mark in the entire league during that stretch, outpaced only by the Yankees, Blue Jays and Rangers.

So while a 4-6 road trip where winnable games were lost may seem like the sky is falling, perspective is always important. The AL Central is incredibly weak and the Royals have found ways, despite the struggling offense, to outpace their own division in the smallest samples. They are thoroughly in command with a 9.5 game lead with 55 games left on the schedule. I take nothing for granted until I see that letter next to their name in the standings, (you know, the one that signifies they’ve either won the division or clinched a playoff spot) so I’ll refrain from celebration, but they are still in a great position.

They open a 10 game homestand tonight. Three against the White Sox, three with the Tigers before closing it out with four against the Angels. Some timely hits and by the time they hit the road in a week and a half, their lead could be even larger.

There have probably not been two trades that were so overwhelmingly greeted with joy by Royals’ fans than the acquisition of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, since…well, Joe Foy for Amos Otis?  That said, there was still some angst and a decent amount of grumbling about impending doom in the near future.  One has to give to get, and the Royals gave up Sean Manaea, Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb, Cody Reed and Aaron Brooks.   Five guys who were not going to have major – if any – roles with the team in 2015, but for whom there were modest to sky high expectations in the coming years.

 

What of those coming years, however?  While the Cueto and Zobrist trades are an indicator that the Royals are certainly ‘going for it’ for 2015, that does not necessarily mean that Kansas City is ‘going for broke’.  It may be very likely that the Royals best chance for a World Series is 2015, but they won’t drop off the face of the earth before next spring.  I actually saw a tweet bemoaning that the Royals were going to be ‘just like the Marlins’ and another comment (here, there, somewhere – I get confused) that ‘the Royals better win this year because they’ll be back in the dark ages in coming seasons’.  Sometimes, I think people just like to complain….

Anyway, let’s have a look at the future or maybe more appropriately The Window.

Following is a table of the players, by position, that are under team control in one form or another through 2018. Players who have a player option at the end of their contract (Alex Gordon) or those who have a mutual option (Morales, Volquez and a bunch of others) are not shown in the year an option of that type would have an effect.  Team options are noted, buyouts of team options are not.

2015 2016 2017 2018
C Perez (1.75) Perez (2.0) Perez (3.75 team opt) Perez (5.0 team opt)
1B Hosmer (5.65) Hosmer (8.25) Hosmer (Arb)
2B Infante (7.5) Infante (7.75) Infante (8.0) Infante (10.0 team opt)
SS Escobar (3.0) Escobar (5.25 team opt) Escobar (6.5 team opt)
3B Moustakas (2.64) Moustakas (Arb) Moustakas (Arb)
LF Gordon (12.5)
CF Cain (2.73) Cain (Arb) Cain (Arb)
RF Rios (11.0)
DH Morales (6.5) Morales (9.0)
BENCH Zobrist (7.5)
BENCH Dyson (1.23) Dyson (Arb) Dyson (Arb)
BENCH Butera (0.9) Butera (Arb)
BENCH Orlando/Cuthbert/Colon/etc
SP Cueto
SP Ventura (0.95) Ventura (1.2) Ventura (3.45) Ventura (6.45)
SP Volquez (7.5) Volquez (9.5) Volquez (10.0 team opt)
SP Duffy (2.42) Duffy (Arb) Duffy (Arb)
SP Guthrie (9.0) Guthrie (10.0 team opt)
RP Holland (8.25) Holland (Arb)
RP Davis (7.0) Davis (8.0 team opt) Davis (10.0 team opt)
RP Herrera (1.66) Herrera (2.55) Herrera (Arb) Herrera (Arb)
RP Hochevar (4.0) Hochevar (5.5)
RP Medlen (2.0) Medlen (5.5)
RP Morales (1.85)
RP Madson (0.85)
RP Young (0.68)
INJ Vargas (8.5) Vargas (8.5) Vargas (8.0)
INJ Collins (1.48) Collins (Arb) Collins (Arb)

A quick glance shows three big holes on the 2016 roster:  the two corner outfield spots and that which will surely be vacated by Johnny Cueto.  Now, you would hope that Kris Medlen joins the 2016 starting rotation and Yordano Ventura returns to his rookie form to give the Royals four solid starting pitchers.  The fifth spot could be Jeremy Guthrie’s – if one wanted to pay $10 million for what Guthrie gives you.

Here is the first spot where those who cannot stand to lose prospects sound the alarm.  The Royals will need another starter and there is no certainty that Chris Young will return.  Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb were certainly two names that would have come into play.  Sean Manaea, although the start of 2016 might have been a tad optimistic would have gotten mention, too.  All three, obviously, are gone, leaving Kyle Zimmer (stop laughing) and Miguel Almonte as the in-house possibilities.  Sure, five names – especially minor league pitching names – is better than two, but it is not a bad two names, either. Not to mention that it is nice to type Cueto and Zobrist into the 2015 roster.

Speaking of Zobrist, he is up there around the other two gaps in the 2016 roster.  It would be fun to have the Royals ink a healthy Alex Gordon to a new contract (or have Gordon do them a favor and pick up his $12.5 million player option) AND get Zobrist to sign a decent value two year deal to come back.  Hey, it’s easy!  Corner outfield spots solved!  Of course, we know that scenario is highly unlikely, but nothing that Dayton Moore did in July had or will have any effect on that situation.

The Royals, with only a little bit of luck (Ventura/Medlen) and maybe one big contract (Gordon) could be close to or as good in 2016 as they have been in 2015.  Sure, it might be nice to have Manaea and Finnegan hanging around spring training next March, but it seems nicer to have Cueto and Zobrist hanging around the regular season this year.

Come 2017, then maybe we’ll lament the loss of those five arms a bit more, but the Royals’ cupboard will hardly be bare.  The future was not mortgaged to get Cueto and Zobrist, not even close.  The window will certainly be open in 2016 and, with some breaks, stay open in 2017 as well.  In theory, anyway.

Elbows and shoulders come apart, knees buckle,  and a time may come when an owner tires of carrying a $120 million payroll.  These are things less easy to predict and all real possibilities, but the foundation for the Kansas City Royals to compete this year, next year and the year after that remains intact.

 

In defeating the Detroit Tigers 5-1 on Tuesday, the Royals continued to take care of business in their division. Looking for a reason the club is setting the pace in the Central? Start with their 27 wins against division foes, against just 16 losses.

Prior to April, any series with Detroit demanded to be circled on the calendar in red ink. These would be the games that would decide the victor. The team that would get to watch the Wild Card Game from the comfort of their own man caves. Now… Not so much. The Tigers have been hit with the curse of age: Underperformance and injury have sapped them of their swagger. These aren’t the Tigers anymore. They have been declawed.

The last time Salvador Perez had an on base percentage above .300 was on May 29. In the 49 games he’s played since then, he’s hit .202/.219/.378. Really, there’s no need to play the arbitrary endpoint game with Perez. He’s hitting just .247/.257/.412 on the year. That is continuing a slide that began in 2012, his second season in the league.

Let’s just say that Perez struggles against pitching. Not any specific pitcher, per se. Pitching. As in, all of it. Except when it comes to Justin Verlander. Against Verlander, Perez has 18 hits in 38 at bats, good for a .474 batting average. On Tuesday, Perez faced Verlander three times. Three times, he collected a hit. He also drove in three runs. It was the Salvy Show. It always is against Verlander. Isn’t baseball the best?

Meanwhile, Danny Duffy continued his resurgence with another solid start. He went seven innings, allowed five hits (and four walks) while surrendering a solitary run. In eight starts since returning from the disabled list, Duffy owns a 2.66 ERA. The ERA is nice and shiny, however I prefer the fact he’s gone deeper into games for an extended stretch for seemingly the first time in his career.

This isn’t so much a new-look Duffy. He was stellar for an extended stretch last summer. However, this is one who inspires confidence. He may not be an “ace” in the truest sense of the word, but there’s no reason to think he can’t be a dependable starter going forward. Not an innings eater. Something better. Slot him in to the number two spot behind Johnny Cueto. Or push him to number three behind Edinson Volquez. Wherever he starts, Duffy can now be counted on for some consistency that has been lacking in his game the first three months of the season. He’s back and the Royals are better for it.

The Tigers season can be summed up by a double play the Royals turned in the seventh. After a triple and walk put runners at corners to start the inning, Anthony Gose hit a ground ball to third. Moustakas went to second to start a potential double play, but the runner on third, Nick Castellanos, for some reason broke for home. Omar Infante fired to Perez and Castellanos was out by about 20 feet. Just an inexplicable TOOTBLAN. Yet, as Royals fans, we could knowingly nod our heads. That was a play made by a team who have checked out on the season. How many times have we seen something similar? It’s over for the Tigers. There will be no playoffs.

The Royals have stretched their lead in the AL Central to 9.5 games. That represents their largest lead since 1980. Given the competition, it’s not difficult to image that lead hitting double digits. The Twins are taking their punishment from the Canadian bullies and have begun the slide we all knew was inevitable. Thanks for playing. The White Sox have attempted to remain relevant, but they’re still the White Sox, still managed by Robin Ventura. The Indians have hugely underachieved. That rotation and those results… Wasteful.

And the Tigers. The Tigers. Injuries and poor contracts have accelerated their decline. At this point, it’s not difficult to imagine them as the AL version of the Phillies. Old, broken and stuck in the Wild Card purgatory of a total rebuild. The tear down began last week at the trade deadline, as Dave Dombrowski shipped David Price to the Blue Jays, Yoenis Cespedes to the Mets, and Joakim Soria to the Pirates. He gathered a decent haul of prospects (which definitely puts them ahead of the Phillies at a similar point of their slide into baseball irrelevance) but for his troubles, was shown the door by Tigers elderly owner Mike Illich. Quite a turn of events.

And quite a turn of events in that Dombrowski is now a general manager free agent, but I’m good with the guy we have making those decisions for the Royals. Had the Dombrowski ouster happened two years ago, the drums in Kansas City would have beat loudly. A GM with a successful track record in rebuilds? Where do we sign up? Instead, this news was greeted in KC with a collective yawn. Or perhaps pity. The Royals were so good this year, we somehow cost poor Dombrowski his job. The body count continues to rise.

Forever Royal, indeed.

After a well timed, from a both a physical and mental aspect, off-day yesterday, the Royals embark on a 13 games in 13 days stretch.  Ten of those contests come at home and only four are against a team with a winning record.

As you likely all know, the Royals open up with three in Detroit tonight against a team that just traded David Price, Joakim Soria and Yoenis Cespedes and is still without Miguel Cabrera.  The Tigers have lost 13 of their last 20 games to fall three games under .500.  This is not the Tigers that we are used to facing, but it does not mean the Royals should glide into Detroit and think they can just show up and win.  This is a chance for Kansas City to run away and hide from not just the AL Central, but the American League.

While the Royals get six with the Tigers, four with the White Sox (a .500 team the last 20 games) and four with the Angels (who have lost 8 of 10), the Twins intersperse two series with Cleveland with Toronto and Texas and then go on the road to play New York and Baltimore.  When the Twins are on the East Coast, your Royals will also go on the road, but to Cincinnati and Boston.  Between taking care of business themselves against Detroit and Chicago and what Minnesota has in front of them, Kansas City could truly end any slim division hopes for the other teams in the Central.

Winning the division, however, is not the target.  Having the best record in the league gives the Royals a little extra post-season edge.

They can put the Angels in a hole just by virtue of winning three of four in Kansas City, but the Angels also have Baltimore and Toronto on the horizon.   Speaking of Toronto, six of their next twelve are against the Yankees and those two teams have 13 games remaining between themselves.  Baltimore plays New York and Toronto six times each the rest of way.  I think all three of those teams are good, likely good enough to beat each other up enough to keep any one of them from piling up a bunch wins.

Then there is Houston (who’d of thought?) who has Texas, the Giants, the Dodgers and the Yankees between now and the end of August.  I like the Royals’ August schedule better than any of the other contenders, even there is just one more off-day between now and August 31st.

Going out a little further, the Royals have seven games with Baltimore and six with Minnesota.  As it stands right now, those 13 games and the four with the Angels referenced above are the ONLY games that Kansas City plays against teams with winning records for the rest of the year.  Quite frankly, if Kansas City does not end up with the best record in the league and home field advantage throughout the playoffs it will be entirely their own fault.  It probably should not even be a contest and it might be worthy goal to keep the team focused on playing good baseball.

None of the above, however, should keep Ned Yost from liberally resting the struggling Salvador Perez or from at least entertaining the idea of playing Ben Zobrist and Jarrod Dyson more in place of Omar Infante.  Just because the Royals are twenty games over .500 and cruising does not mean that a shuffle of the batting order (basically unchanged since Opening Day) might be warranted.  Taking a chance with a two or three run lead late and not going to HDH on consecutive days for a while might be worth it as well.

It will be a delicate dance for the Royals – one they have not been in a position to try since the early eighties – as they try to simultaneously keep the team fresh and sharp.

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