Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Two signings to report from Tuesday as the Royals reached deals with Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. The deals mean both players will avoid an arbitration hearing.

Cain – profiled here – will earn $2.725 million in 2015. As the sides exchanged figures last month, Cain asked for $3.6 million. The Royals countered with $2 million. The settled amount is $75,000 below the midpoint. Also included in his contract is an incentive clause of $25,000 if he reached 505 plate appearances. That means, he will have to avoid his annual trip to the disabled list. If he is named to the All-Star team, that’s worth an additional $50,000.

As I mentioned in his profile, Cain will be a massive bargain for the Royals. His glove alone is worth millions. Even if he regresses at the plate, as I believe he will, he will still bring plenty of value. Plenty.

Apparently, the Royals got this deal done at the 11th hour.

Cain was this close to being the first Royal under Dayton Moore to have a hearing. With a difference of just $1.6 million, it’s surprising the deal just got done ahead of the hearing. This also raises an interesting point. Often these hearings are held in secret. We know the general fact that hearings are scheduled over the next couple of weeks. We lack the specifics of who will have a hearing and at what date.

Moustakas will make $2.64 million next season. He had asked for $3.1 million and the Royals answered with an offer of $1.85 million. Midpoint was $2.475. His profile is found here.

This raises another interesting point about the inequity of the arbitration process. Both were eligible for arbitration for the first time. Cain was worth 4.9 fWAR in 2015 and hit .301/.339/.412. For his career, he’s posted a slash line of .279/.326/.392 with a cumulative 10.3 fWAR.

Meanwhile, Moustakas hit .212/.271/.361 en route to a 0.9 fWAR. In his career, he’s hit .236/.290/.379 and has been worth 5.3 fWAR. Most of his value came in 2012 when he finished with a 3.1 fWAR.

Quite the discrepancy of production. It hardly seems fair they are within almost $100,000 of each other. Such is the failing of the arbitration process. Also, these one-year deals won’t preclude the Royals and the players from talking a long-term deal. If there’s interest. Remember a few years ago, Alex Gordon avoided arbitration and a few weeks later the Royals and Gordon reached a deal for a contract extension. Although I couldn’t imagine why they would sign Moustakas to anything beyond this year. And as I mentioned in the Cain profile, I don’t think he’s a good candidate for an extension.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I have always been confused by the love showered upon Moustakas. I wonder if that will start to change now he’s elevated from the ranks of minimum wage earners and is now set to make his first million (actually two-plus million) in a single season. Will there be a perception that he’s overpaid?  Will he start to hear more boos than Moose calls? A little million dollar fallout? Maybe not this year. Maybe next year or the year after when his paycheck figures to increase even more.

With Moustakas and Cain reaching deals, the Royals have four pending hearings: Danny Duffy, Kelvin Herrera, Eric Hosmer and Greg Holland. If I were a betting man, I’d wager the next two down will be Duffy and Herrera. Of course all of that falls by the wayside should Hosmer or Holland have a hearing scheduled in the next day or so. I still think the Royals get everyone under contract without a hearing.

Here is the Royals current payroll estimate. The red numbers are the midpoints between team and player. The players at the bottom are estimated to make close to the major league minimum. Remember from my last payroll post, the names for the players making the minimum may change – I’m not betting Brandon Finnegan will make the Opening Day roster. It also includes Luke Hochevar and Kris Medlin who will likely open the year on the DL.

RoyalsPayroll020315

Not surprising, they are still on target for around a record $112 million payroll.

The Royals unveiled their 2015 slogan during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Forever Royal.

This is going to get a huge “thumbs up” from me. That’s just a great, great slogan created by Walz Tetrick Advertising. Not only is it a natural follow-up to “Be Royal” from last summer (which I also liked) it carries more weight following the Royals October run. Simple, yet permanent. No one who was at The K or who watched the games on TV will ever forget. It’s stamped into your baseball consciousness. Forever, right? Declarative and powerful.

As I was writing this post, I went through the categories we’ve created at this website and found a couple of the old slogans. “It All Happens Here.” Ugh. How generic. And I’m sure since it’s from the Jose Guillen years, it’s intentionally vague. Then there’s “Come To Play.” Whoa. It’s like an invitation to a swingers party. Creepy and potentially deviant. And, of course, “Our Time.” No comment necessary on that one.

“Forever Royals” is not only a great slogan. It’s the best Royals marketing tag for a long, long time.

Let’s talk about some of the marketing materials. The TV spot that aired during the Super Bowl is really good.

Combining images of Kansas City landmarks, along with signature plays from the 2014 postseason, the commercial hits all of the right notes. Yordano Ventura opens the spot by throwing fire on the back of the scoreboard. Sal Perez’s Wild Card winning single is projected on Union Station. Mike Moustakas falling into the dugout suite down the third base line is displayed on Bartle Hall. Eric Hosmer hitting a home run against the Angels in Game One of the ALDS is at the Nelson-Atkins. Lorenzo Cain is doing Lorenzo Cain things against the Kauffman Center. The game footage is composited against still photos of the Kansas City landmarks and looks great. I’m lukewarm on the script because it feels a little cliched to me. But to be honest, the visuals are so great – and it’s so fun to see those moments again – I’m not sure I’m even paying attention to the voice over. But the audio mix is strong, with Ryan Lefebvre’s “Fair ball!” call on Perez’s hit and the final “Let’s go Royals” chant at the end bringing us home.

And let’s make no mistake. Producing a commercial to debut during the Super Bowl – even a regional commercial – takes some serious stones. Get it wrong and there’s no getting around it. But this commercial was done right. It fit in nicely with the other spots of the game. Well done.

Then there’s the billboards. These have become something of a talking point for their creativity the last couple of years. This year did not disappoint.

The Royals are known for speed. To use speed, you kick on the burners. Burners bring fire, flames, whatever. So we have the legs of Jarrod Dyson presumably at the moment he’s taking off for second and he’s leaving a charred billboard in his wake. Pretty damn good. That’s going to catch the eye of drivers on the interstate. And it fits in perfectly with the other billboard work done by Walz Tetrick in support of the Royals the previous two years.

I maintain that marketing a professional sports team is difficult. You can come up with the best creative in the world, but nothing tops wins. Winning makes everything better. Marketing included. Good commercials and strong billboards aren’t going to boost attendance. Wins (and let’s be honest, bubbleheads and Buck Night) are what creates the buzz that puts asses in the seats. But when you have a winning team combined with a strong marketing campaign, the buzz just gets a little louder. Just a little. That’s what the TV spot and the billboard have done. They are building the buzz that starts with being the defending American League champions. And that’s good marketing.

The Royals, after years of afterthought, pushed their way through to the collective consciousness of the casual, and the not so casual fan. The new slogan perfectly encapsulates how we felt. And how we hope we continue to feel.

“And each of us became, Forever Royal.”

I don’t think you can dispute that.

Kansas City shook off the winter doldrums to embrace their AL Champion Royals as the annual FanFest descended upon downtown. With pitchers and catchers due to report in two weeks, there was plenty of news.

— Ned Yost developed an interactive baseball app.

What? I would have bet the house I would type “Royals re-sign James Shields” before I ever wrote anything about Yost and an “interactive baseball app.”

I downloaded the app and gave it a spin. My impressions are less than favorable at this point. It’s too easy to accidentally sign yourself out. The point, as far as I can tell, is you pick a defensive position and the game gives you a situation. Your goal is to throw to the proper base. At least, that’s what I think is happening. There aren’t any instructions.

At the end of the drill, you get a screen that gives you a score based on “accuracy,” “average response,” and “correct percentage.” I have no idea what accuracy is all about. You’re tapping a screen in the general area where you are making the throw. Then the correct percentage thing is confounding. I was dinged for a wrong answer because with a runner on second and one out, as a first baseman I was supposed to throw to… second?

Good thing this app is free. I’d hate to think anyone would pay money for this.

— The season hasn’t even started and we already have a new Twitter hashtag: #TGM.

That stands for “Total Gordon Move,” which is what happens when Alex Gordon slams into the wall (or the ground) and slowly gets up. With the ball in his glove.

And that’s why they have FanFest.

— Speaking of Gordon, he’s recovering well from wrist surgery. He missed two weeks of workouts (which is probably the equivalent to a year of workouts for us mortals) and says he’s been lifting weights and pretty much doing his normal winter prep ever since.

Gordon played most of the second half with the injury, which happened while sliding. He had a scorching hot August, but wore down in September, had a good ALDS and ALCS, but stumbled in the World Series. Injuries (and surgeries) to the wrist are worrying. It’s to his right wrist which means it’s his lower hand when he swings the bat. Hopefully, this won’t be something that saps his strength or slows down his snap.

The cast comes off at the start of next week.

– I enjoyed this Tweet:

Sometimes players aren’t the best judge of things. No matter how close they reside to the dirt. I’ll just leave this here:

Sal Perez 1st half – .283/.329/.437 with a .337 wOBA and 117 wRC+
Sal Perez 2nd half – .229/.236/.360 with a .259 wOBA and 61 wRC+

Ned Yost abused the hell out of Perez. Fact. Those numbers don’t lie. Although it should be noted that his 1st half numbers look good due to a June where he hit everything. (.347/.383/.535 with a .403 wOBA and 162 wRC+) His April and May weren’t special, but they weren’t as bad as any month in the second half. His grip-and-rip approach caught up to him, but I would submit his workload crushed his numbers even more in the second half. It will be very interesting to see how Perez bounces back.

Perez wants to play everyday. Yost wants his best players on the field. I get that. But at some point, common sense should prevail.

Yost floated the idea of tying Erik Kratz to a pitcher as a personal catcher. That would force Yost to give Perez a day off at least once a week. Whatever works.

— Brandon Finnegan figures to be one of 10 starting pitchers the Royals will use in spring training. The problem for Finnegan is all five spots in the regular season are already taken. So even if he has some sort of lights out spring – and remember it will be his first spring training – it’s pretty much going to take an injury to one of the starting five to have the Royals take him north in the rotation.

What will likely happen is at some point, the Royals will have to make a decision. Do they send him to the minors to start, or do they keep him in Kansas City in the bullpen. (This is assuming he has a productive spring.) It sounds as if there’s a vocal camp within the organization that Finnegan should return to his normal role as a starter. Whew. It would be a colossal mistake to keep him on the big league team as a reliever. Finnegan is a starter. That’s his future. We hope. As such, he should be given every opportunity to hone his craft in the minors with an eye on a spot in the rotation in 2016. Realize last season was the perfect way for the Royals to handle their first round draft pick. He had accumulated some mileage on his arm, pitching his team to the College World Series. The Royals needed (and could add once the rosters expanded) some bullpen depth. He acquitted himself enough in September, the Royals gave him a spot on their postseason rosters. Everyone’s happy.

Just because it was a success in the short-term, doesn’t mean the Royals should use him as a reliever in the long-term. He can provide much more value to the team in the rotation.

— Eric Hosmer felt third base coach Mike Jirschele made the right call in holding Gordon at third in Game Seven. I’m probably the lone Royals fan who feels this way, but I enjoy that we’re still talking about this. It would have been much worse if the team had lost 11-0. Much worse. For the record, I don’t think there’s any way you could have sent him. Still, that’s a moment I’ll never forget. It stinks that the team came up 90 feet short, but I had a blast.

— Luke Hochevar is throwing pitches off the mound – around 30 at a time – as he continues his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

Whichever admitted it was difficult watching his teammates in October. I can’t even imagine what that would be like. To play next to those guys through five years of mediocrity and bad baseball, only to miss the action when the team finally reaches the pinnacle? Oof. It sounds like Hochevar embraced his October role as cheerleader. Good for him.

He didn’t say he had other offers, but he did say he wanted badly to remain a Royal. Hopefully, he can slot into the bullpen to give Yost yet another weapon he can lean on next season.

Denny Matthews signed a four-year contract extension to continue as the radio voice of the Royals. By the end of this deal, he will have been with the team for 50 seasons. Hell of an accomplishment.

I’m glad he’s going to be around. I enjoy his regular season broadcasts. Postseason? Not so much.

I’m not going to get into the criticisms from October here because we’ve heard them a thousand times. If there was one thing I wish Denny would change about his regular season work it would be having someone he could interact with and talk baseball during the broadcasts. He’s a great storyteller, but with The Steves alongside, he just doesn’t seem interested enough to bother. Maybe at some point in the next four years they will find a competent partner for him.

— Apparently, winning brings out the fans. Last year’s FanFest sold 11,000 tickets. This year? 20,000. No word if Royals officials were surprised.

We have reached the point in the winter where prospect lists and projections are accumulating. As January turns to February, it’s a nice diversion. Baseball is around the corner.

But do these lists and projections mean anything?

This year, PECOTA projects the Royals to win 72 games. Yikes. That’s like Year Two of The Process bad. This projection is causing so much gnashing of the teeth. On the surface, this projection seems incredibly unfair. Last year, PECOTA pegged the Royals at 79 wins and a second place tie with Cleveland. The Royals won 89, outperforming that projection by 10 wins. And they did that minor thing where they won the AL Pennant. I can just feel the indignation among certain corners of Royals Universe building. “PECOTA sucks! They are always wrong about the Royals! I hate them!!!”

That’s the natural reaction to that type of projection. It’s a macro view that elicits a macro reaction. Myself, I see that projection and ask, “Why?” Looking into this year’s PECOTA, the system really doesn’t like the Royals rotation. Like actively loathes it. Serial killers and email spammers get more love. Edinson Volquez? A 4.73 ERA and -0.7 WARP. Jeremy Guthrie? Not much better with a 4.66 ERA and the same WARP as Volquez. I don’t even know if I want to pass along the numbers for Yordano Ventura. (OK, a 4.16 ERA and 0.5 WARP.) Fold in the underwhelming numbers for Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas and the Royals starting five projects to have a -0.3 WARP. Damn. Those numbers are pretty grim.

Is that likely? Hell, no. Last year, eight pitchers in the majors finished with a negative WARP value. PECOTA projects the Royals to have three starters post a negative WARP. I don’t have team numbers broken down, but I’d guess that for an entire rotation to collectively have a negative WARP, it would be a historically terrible rotation.

Believe it or not, PECOTA saves some of its distaste for the Royals offense. It projects a .257 TAv and 641 runs scored. Both marks are dead last in the American League. This computer clearly didn’t get the memo that everyone is supposed to be better. But hang on to your pitchforks… Last year the Royals finished with a .254 TAv. So PECOTA does think the Royals offense will be marginally better? Yet they’ll still be awful? The nerve. What I find interesting is that last year the Royals plated 651 runs. I can do the simple math – that’s 10 runs fewer than they are projected to score this year. However, while their projected run total for 2015 is last in the AL, their real run total in 2014 ranked them ninth out of the 15 teams. So clearly, PECOTA thinks the run scoring environment is going to change for a number of teams. After seeing the shrinking offensive trends of the last several seasons… I’m skeptical.

The system thinks Mike Moustakas will be better than Kendrys Morales, but both would be worse than Josh Willingham, had he not retired. It calls for regression from Lorenzo Cain, but thinks Omar Infante will bounce back offensively. Billy Butler will not be missed.

In a nutshell, PECOTA doesn’t really like any Royal player outside of Alex Gordon. Does this make PECOTA a bad projection system? I don’t think so. It makes it like all the other systems. Imperfect.

You know how everything went right for the Royals last October? Flip that around and that’s how PECOTA is looking at 2015 for the Royals. Everything would have to go wrong. But those are the kinds of projections that happen when you have guys with short track records (like Ventura and Duffy), or players who dabble in mediocrity (Hosmer and Vargas), or out-of-nowhere breakouts (Cain), or are just plain bad (Moustakas). Basically, the computer sees a lot about the Royals that raises red flags and causes a great deal of skepticism. Nothing personal, you know.

Steamer (found on Fangraphs) is more bullish on the Royals chances, but still has them at just 81 wins. They like the starting rotation more than PECOTA – I don’t think anyone can like anything less than PECOTA likes the Royals starting rotation –  but Steamer thinks Moustakas is capable of a 2.7 fWAR season. OK.

All in good fun. Until you realize these silly projection systems don’t give a damn the Royals won the AL Pennant last year. What? October doesn’t count? Nooooooo.

It’s a computer. As some bloggers at The Star will point out, they play the games on the field. I’m aware of the differences, thanks. That doesn’t mean I can’t be entertained by the various projection systems.

What does annoy me is those who take the projections as some kind of mantra. Extremism in all forms is unappetizing. I cite Steamer and PECOTA on this site from time to time in order to give a big picture of a player going forward. I use these projections as a talking point. A conversation piece. When Steamer says Lorenzo Cain is going to hit .267/.315/.377 which would be a huge drop in offensive production, I acknowledge that the system thinks that Cain is going to regress and then I move along. I’m not going to say with certainty that Cain will post a 2.7 fWAR (his Steamer projection) because there are 162 games to play. When someone says the Nationals are only two wins better with Max Scherzer based on his Steamer projection, that may be accurate, but that’s no fun. What’s fun is saying, “The Nationals rotation is going to dominate!” According to PECOTA, they are the anti-Royals.

Now that baseball has leveled the playing field and mediocrity is rewarded with a pair of Wild Cards, you just have to hover around .500 for as long as you can before you make your move. So the good news is PECOTA also projects the Tigers to win the division with 82 wins. Sweet. Instead of looking at the whole numbers, maybe this is a notice that the entire AL Central just isn’t a strong division. Steamer agrees, giving the Tigers 85 wins. The really good news is the White Sox and all those fancy moves last month still aren’t enough to push them to the postseason. Take that, South Siders!

I love the projections. They are something fun to parse when the wind is blowing from the north and it’s dark at dinnertime. It’s fun to try to crack the code… Which system is too optimistic? Which one favors rookies the most? Is it possible to identify a sleeper team?

I just try to keep everything in perspective. Opening Day is about two months away. And we’re eight months away from finding out about the accuracy of these projections.

In 2014, Kelvin Herrera finished with a 1.41 ERA, a 7.6 SO/9, 3.3 BB/9 and held opposition batters to a slash line of .214/.295/.266. He faced 285 batters and surrendered just 13 extra base hits. All of them doubles.

I don’t need to tell you he was the primary “H” in the H-D-H bullpen that powered the Royals to the Wild Card and beyond. Herrera was just as good in the postseason, throwing an additional 15 innings (!) with 16 strikeouts and a 1.80 ERA. He had a bit of a blip relieving Yordano Ventura against the A’s, allowing an inherited runner to score and then coughing up three consecutive singles to surrender another run. He settled down the next inning and the rest is October lore. He was magnificent in two of the three Royals wins in the ALDS and in all four games of the ALCS, allowing just four base runners. Herrera stumbled a bit and battled his control in the World Series, but by this point he had thrown over 78 innings, most of them in high-leverage situations.

Herrera is an extreme ground ball pitcher. His four-seam fastball averages 98 mph and generates a ground ball 53 percent of the time. Pure filth. He compliments that with a two-seamer that clocks around 97 mph and results in a ground ball over 61 percent of the time when it’s put in play. That’s when hitters actually make contact. He generates a miss in 20 percent of the swings off his two-seamer, 28 percent of the time against his straight fastball. Seriously unfair.

How about this tasty nugget? Herrera finished 67 plate appearances in 2014 with his two-seam fastball. Exactly one of those were put in play for extra bases. A double. One lousy double. That’s all that opposing hitters could generate off that sinker. For the record, they hit .185 against the two-seamer and the lone double pushed their slugging percentage to .200.

Then what about his change-up?

Herrera’s change has an average velocity of around 87 mph, or 10 mph slower than his fastball. With similar arm action and release point, and a slight arm-side fade, this is the offering that keeps hitters off balance. Herrera generates a miss on over 37 percent of his swings against the change. He will throw his change 24 percent of the time against lefties and it’s his “go-to” pitch against them when he’s ahead in the count.

Last summer was the first time Herrera has thrown more two-seamers than change-ups. I think that can partially explain his decline in strikeout rate. The two-seamer was a challenge pitch: Here’s something you can hit, but go right ahead, because you’re going to keep this on the ground and I’m going to get an out (or two.)

From Brooks Baseball, here is Herrera’s pitch selection through his career.

HerreraSelection

That’s quite a change between his sinker and his change and it tells me he must have confidence in his two-seamer to get results. I realize strikeouts are fascist and ground balls are more democratic, but whatever works.

Herrera gives Yost some flexibility in the bullpen. While Wade Davis and Greg Holland were strict eight and ninth inning pitchers, respectively, Herrera had the ability to throw more than a single inning. While Davis was tasked with getting three outs just four times last summer, and Holland never did, Herrera got more than three outs in an outing 12 times.  That was the most on the team.

Yost also relied on Herrera more than any reliever to get his team out of trouble. Herrera inherited 43 runners in 2014, by far the most on the team. (Second was Aaron Crow, who inherited 28 runners.) Herrera allowed just nine of those runners to score. That’s a rate of 21 percent, well below league average of 28 percent.

Herrera was outstanding last year. He’s been outstanding his entire Royals career. Such is the life of a seventh inning set-up man that he flies relatively under the radar.

If there’s one thing about Herrera’s season that raised a red flag was his drop in strikeout rate. In 2014, he whiffed 7.6 batters per nine, way down from his 2013 strikeout rate of 11.4 SO/9. I looked for a possible cause in the decline, but there isn’t anything that points to his falling strikeout rate as continuing. His swing and miss rate fell by a couple of percentage points and his contact rate was around 75 percent. Eh. Opposition batters swung more frequently in the past, and with the decline in missing bats, I suppose that’s as good a reason as any. Thankfully his 99 mph four-seamer and 98 mph sinker have been rock steady. Last year, his change-up velocity jumped to 90 mph, up three mph from 2013. The decline in strikeouts is something to watch going forward, but I expect it will increase in 2015. PECOTA is projecting a whiff rate of 8.9 SO/9. I’ll buy that.

Herrera is eligible for arbitration for the first time. While his performance was dominant, the system favors closers (because saves) over guys who just get the job done. While there’s no doubt in my mind Herrera can close, he’s not going to make Greg Holland money. Although his presence on the roster could render Holland (or Davis) expendable, should the Royals decide to jettison some payroll or add a bat in exchange for a reliever. Herrera asked for $1.9 million and the Royals offered $1.15 million. With the midpoint at $1.525, I expect the Royals and H1 (get it?) to settle at that number, give or take $25,000.

I noticed a blog the other day where the author wondered if Yordano Ventura should start Opening Day for the Royals. I found it interesting. Etiquette says I should post the link to the blog. So I will. (LINK) My conscience says to tell you to click at your own risk.

I’m breaking all sorts of personal blog rules here. But I thought the post deserved a thoughtful response.

A couple years ago I was standing behind a backstop on one of the Royals spring training fields in Surprise, Ariz. A skinny kid was on the mound and he cut loose with a fastball. After one pitch I immediately turned to the person next to me and asked: “Who is that guy?”

It was my first look at Yordano Ventura.

We’ve almost all had that very same reaction. Ventura is a slight, skinny kid from the Dominican Republic. He looks like he’s skipping his high school algebra class to go to a baseball game. Except he’s pitching. And throwing heat. And regularly getting major league hitters out. You wouldn’t believe it just from looking at him, but after just one pitch, you know. Ventura has a special, special arm.

It’s easy heat in that it doesn’t look like he’s giving max effort to attain max velocity. So smooth. So unhittable when he’s on his game.

When you’re sitting in the upper deck you might think a big-league fastball doesn’t look all that fast, but if you ever get to stand close to home plate when a big-league pitcher throws a big-league fastball, you’ll realize they’re throwing a lot harder than you think — and Yordano Ventura throws harder than almost anybody else.

Translation: I’ve been on the dirt. You haven’t. Therefore, I come to you with knowledge. Knowledge that can only be found on the dirt. Mixed with grit and shells of sunflower seeds. You just can’t understand these ballplayers unless you are with them. On the dirt. Because the dirt is where they play.

So here’s the question: if the Royals get to opening day and their starting rotation is Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie, Edinson Volquez, Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura, and Ventura has the best stuff on the staff, should Ventura be the Royals’ opening day starter?

Good question.

It depends.

That’s not an answer.

——————————————————————————————————————–

What follows from the writer is a reminder that Ventura is young and has made a limited number of big league starts. Personally, that’s part of what makes him so exciting. So much potential. And so much heat. Youth!

Here’s why that matters: During the 2014 AL Wild Card Game…

Oh, god.

Ventura threw Moss two fastballs and both missed the zone. With the count 2-0, Ventura threw a third fastball — a fastball in a fastball count — and Moss didn’t miss it. Ventura’s 98 mph fastball was lined over the center-field wall for a three-run homer and the Athletics had the lead.

How about this? Who called for the third consecutive fastballs to Moss?

Makes you think. Which is sometimes the point.

Let’s dive a little deeper…

Ventura throws a fastball about 44 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He offers that pitch 45 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. Also, when he’s behind, Ventura will throw his two-seamer 29 percent of the time and his change-up 15 percent of the time. Yes, it was a fastball count, but the sinker and the change are certainly options. Interestingly enough, in all counts he throws his sinker 18 percent of the time to left-handed batters. He will throw it 29 percent of the time when he falls behind in the count to lefties. That deviation (18 percent in all counts versus 29 percent when he’s behind) suggests to me that Ventura is extremely confident about his command of that pitch. If he’s confident of his command, it’s a good strategy to throw that pitch. It comes in a tick slower than his four-seamer, and features a nice little downward sink. When it’s put in play, left-handed batters hit a ground ball 49 percent of the time. Given the situation – runners on first and second – why wouldn’t Ventura and Perez gone for a ground ball to get the double play? Why throw three consecutive fastballs to a hitter who has already clubbed a monster home run? Sure, it’s a fastball count, but again given the situation, you can’t give him a 98 mph pipe shot. Because home runs.

The counterpoint to this is his two-seamer isn’t a great pitch to throw to left-handed batters. Lefties hit .356 and slugged .452 against that pitch. They swing and miss at the pitch just five percent of the time.

Is there a correct answer? A certain pitch we can say he definitely should have thrown? No. But that’s baseball. I get what happened, though. With two runners already on base, Ventura felt he couldn’t take any chances, so he went fastball and left that third consecutive heater over the heart of the plate in Moss’s happy zone.

Ventura_Moss

Let’s return to the blog post.

Ventura had faced three batters, given up two hits, allowed two earned runs and finished his one-third of an inning with a postseason ERA of 54.00.

Let’s get crazy. One-third of an inning. Three batters. That is just about the smallest sample size you can have. You are forming an opinion off of three batters. You can be anti-stats, but to pass judgement on someone’s guts or confidence based on three batters faced… That just flies in the face of common sense.

The writer fails to bring up two very important points which may have played a role in the outcome of the cited small sample. First, Ventura entered the game having made a start just two days prior. In that start he threw 74 pitches and labored through four innings. That outing followed his penultimate start of the regular season in Cleveland where he threw a season-high 117 pitches. Given an elevated, late season pitch count and the short rest, do you think there was a chance Ventura was a little fatigued? Could that have had anything to do with his struggles in the Wild Card game?

Second, that was just the second time in 2014 that Ventura pitched in relief. And although he had success in his previous relief outing, I personally dislike bringing in a starting pitcher in the middle of an innings, especially with runners on base. Starters are creatures of habit. They have their routines to get ready. Now if you want to bring a starter in in the fourth inning, their may have to abbreviate or rush their routine, but they at least have the luxury of starting a clean inning. Ventura had no such luxury. This wasn’t about cracking under pressure. This was about a pitcher in an unfamiliar spot in a high-leverage situation.

Pedro Martinez, who has spent some time in the dirt, was highly critical of Yost bringing Ventura in to the game in the middle of an inning.

Ugly goat. Perfect. That’s why Pedro is in the Hall of Fame.

CJ Nitkowski also Tweeted from the dirt with some criticism for the Royals manager.

Writers chimed in immediately. Yost’s decision was called questionable and his skill as a manager was classified as terrible. That was a spot for Kelvin Herrera. That’s not hindsight. It was a key situation in a winner-take-all game and with the Royals amazing bullpen, it was appropriate for Herrera to take the mound. Everyone but Yost knew it and I suspect, based on his managerial moves later in October, he learned something from his error in judgement.

Nevermind all that logic above. According to this blog, Ventura pissed himself and nearly threw away the Royals October before it even started.

So what’s all that have to do with being the opening day starter?

Nothing. Duh.
At the beginning of the season, No. 1 starters face No. 1 starters. Each team throws their best guy out there on opening day and for a while — until days off or rainouts throw matchups out of sync — an opening day starter can assume he’ll face the best pitcher the opposition has to offer. 
And that means you can pitch great and still lose.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret. You can pitch great anytime against any other starting pitcher in the league and still lose. I’ve seen it. Truth.
If a pitcher is mentally strong that might not matter; he knows what he can control and how well the other guy pitches isn’t on the list. But if a guy isn’t confident it can get in his head; he feels like he’s pitched very well and is still losing.

How about this… Three days later, Ventura started Game Two of the ALDS and dominated. He threw seven innings, struck out five and walked just one. He left with the score tied at 1. This means two things: One, he didn’t get the pitcher win that surely is important to this blogger. Two, he was pitching in some high leverage situations as the game progressed. In fact, Ventura’s average Leverage Index for that start was 1.31 which was his highest in a start in October.
Oh, let’s not forget Game Six of the World Series. Do or die. Backs against the wall. And Ventura held the Giants in check for seven innings. His command wasn’t sharp (five walks against four strikeouts), but he survived, kept the Giants off the scoreboard and rode the Royals bats to the decisive Seventh Game. That took some cojones.
Should Yordano Ventura be the opening day starter?

I’m pretty sure I’m unqualified to answer that question.

OK.

I’ll go ahead and take a stab. Sure, Ventura should start the opener. Why not? Ventura was the second-best starter on the team last year to James Shields. He was the best starter in October. With Shields gone, Ventura is the best starting pitcher on the team, so I think he should be the Opening Day starter. Will he get the assignment? That’s an entirely separate question. Yost loves him some veterans. I could see him handing the ball to Jason Vargas. Or it could be Edinson Volquez because he’s the new, big free agent signing. Or maybe Shields makes some sort of triumphant return to Kansas City to complete some unfinished business.

Either way, with the rotation seemingly set, who starts the Opener is going to an interesting subplot of the spring. Glad I could help clear up a few things.

If you followed the Royals throughout 2014 and at this point Lorenzo Cain isn’t your favorite player, I don’t know what you’re thinking.

(I’ll listen to Alex Gordon arguments, but this is Cain’s profile. So deal with a hyperbole-packed lead.)

While Cain wasn’t able to avoid the disabled list (again), he put his early season groin strain behind him and recovered to have the best season of his career. He finished with a .301/339/.412 slash line, a .330 wOBA and a 111 wRC+. He followed up his regular season with an October to remember as he hit .333/.388/.417 in all postseason series while playing his usual stellar defense. Oh, he was also named the MVP of the American League Championship Series.

It only feels right that any profile of Cain start with his defense. Sadly, Cain he so much time between center field and right, he was ineligible for the Gold Glove due to the innings played requirement. I understand why the innings requirement is in place (thank you past voters of Rafael Palmiero) but to apply that to an outfielder is disappointing. But the neat thing was Cain won a defensive award anyway when he was named The Fielding Bible award winner for a new “multi-position” category. Kind of a cool idea to award a guy who excels across the field so to speak. Let’s look at how Cain did according to The Fielding Bible’s Run Saved metric. First in center field:

RS_CF

Now in right:

RS_RF

The takeaways from the tables above is that while Cain played two positions, he was a top five defender in both places. Sure, there are other players with fewer innings that hang with Cain, but no one is on both lists. Then, think about Alex Gordon in left. He was worth 27 Runs Saved, which set a record for left fielders. Gordon in left, Dyson and his 14 Runs Saved in just under 700 innings in center, and Cain who would be worth over 30 Runs Saved if he was a full-time right fielder… Damn. That is a defensive outfield for the ages.

Another thing to consider about Cain in right is if you extrapolate his innings to bring his playing time along Jason Hayward, Cain would have 34 Runs Saved. So as impressive as Hayward is topping this leaderboard by about 18 Runs Saved, he would likely be second best if Cain played exclusively in right.

If you’ve read this blog, you know I don’t normally engage in hypotheticals (“If he played a full season… blah, blah, blah.”), but with Cain, I just can’t help myself. It’s fun to imagine the guy as a full time right fielder. Or center fielder for that matter. Whatever. Wherever. I just want Lorenzo Cain on the field as much as possible. Old time Royals fans will remember watching Frank White make amazing plays at second base, turn an unmatched double play, and just generally appear super human with the glove… That’s Lorenzo Cain today. He’s Frank White level on defense.

How about some more defensive illustrations? How about his range in center field.


Source: FanGraphs

Yeah… He covers a lot of ground.

Contrast that with his missed plays.


Source: FanGraphs

The Inside Edge data breaks down the plays Cain made in center this way:

Routine Plays: 99.5% (Rank 14/24)
Likely Plays: 87.5% (11/24)
Even Plays: 83.3% (7/24)

The ranks can be a little misleading because some guys are up on the leaderboard having just a handful of chances even though they played a larger number of innings at the position. Such is the failing of defensive metrics. The point isn’t to gaze in wonder at his ranking. The point is to see that Cain does, in fact, cover a lot of ground. He not only makes the plays he’s supposed to make, often times he gets the difficult out. That’s why he’s a special defensive outfielder.

Offensively, 2014 was the best season of Cain’s career. He has a fine batted ball profile for the type of player he’s become, hitting grounders 51 percent of the time, while clubbing line drives at a rate of 22 percent. He has a little power potential and the ability to leverage his best offensive asset (speed) to steal a few hits or leg some singles into doubles.

Cain sprays his line drives to all fields. His doubles (and limited home run) power comes from the pull side.

CainSprayChart

There is some cause for concern going forward regarding his offensive game. Cain’s BABIP was a robust .380. His profile as a line drive hitter/speed guy means he’s always going to have a BABIP greater than the league average. A .380 BABIP is insane even for him. After his 2014 season, his career BABIP stands at .345, which has to be a little misleading considering that in the two previous seasons he posted BABIPs of .319 and .309. I know this is a lot of discussion of batting average on balls in play and often times, it’s a crutch to explain a deviation from the norm, but in Cain’s case because of his profile, it’s relevant.

Another trend that should set off an alarm bell or two is his proclivity to swing at nearly everything. Last summer, Cain swung at 50 percent of the pitches he saw. (OK, he didn’t swing at everything. How about half of everything?) Cain isn’t Sal Perez (56 percent swing rate) or Pablo Sandoval (60 percent swing rate) but again, given his profile as a speed guy with line drive potential, it would behoove him to be a bit more selective. He certainly took the Royals offensive mantra of making contact to heart. Cain’s walk rate dipped to a career-low of 4.8 percent. Keep that in mind the next time someone who doesn’t read this blog suggests Cain would be an ideal candidate to bat leadoff.

According to data collected by Brooks Baseball, Cain has a poor eye on identifying fastballs in the zone. In 2014, he swung at 66 percent of fastballs in the strike zone and 34 percent of fastballs outside the zone, which is a below league average ratio. The good news, his fastball discipline has actually improved over the last couple of seasons. While he shows below average discipline on the fastball, he can still rip the heck out of the heater. Last year, he hit .352 and slugged .520 on four-seamers. On two-seam fastballs, he hit .379 and slugged .448. It probably won’t surprise you he saw fewer fastballs last summer than at any time in his career.

CainPitchDiet

I suspect the black line will continue to decline while Cain will start seeing more breaking stuff to keep him off balance. Last year he hit just .243 with a .341 slugging percentage against breaking balls.

Now, let’s talk about an unpleasant subject: Injuries. From Baseball Prospectus here is Cain’s injury history going back to his minor league days. A trip to the DL is denoted by an asterisk.

4/9/09 – Hamstring strain. Missed 11 games.
4/24/09 – Knee strain. Missed 88 games.
4/26/10 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.
4/7/11 – Groin strain. Missed 7 games.
4/11/12 – Groin strain. Missed 88 games.*
4/27/12 – Severe hip flexor strain. (Occurred during rehab for above injury.)
9/14/12 – Hamstring strain. Missed 19 games.
7/28/13 – Groin strain. Missed 3 games.
8/9/13 – Oblique strain. Missed 26 games.*
4/17/14 – Groin strain. Missed 17 games.*

Quite the injury past. A couple things stand out. First, let’s just get the guy through April, is that too much to ask? Second, all of these aside from the oblique injury in 2013 are leg issues. And third, he has yet to play a full major league season without spending time on the disabled list. In what should have been three full seasons with the Royals, Cain has missed 153 games due to injury. In other words, in three seasons, Cain has been healthy enough to play two.

Cain is eligible for arbitration for the first time and has asked for a $3.6 million contract. In the current market, his defense alone is probably worth $15 million. That’s not crazy. The Royals countered with $2 million, which is their prerogative. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Cain would make $2.3 million. The guess here is they will settle just above the halfway point. Figure Cain will earn $2.65 million next summer.

He is an exceptional defender at a premium position. The bat showed life last year. He also was relatively healthy for the first time in his career. Is Cain a candidate for a contract extension? I’m skeptical. He turns 29 next April and the Royals control his rights for the next three seasons. That means he won’t hit the free agent market until his age 32 season. While his offense was improved in 2014, he doesn’t have a track record of success with the bat at this level that would warrant a meaningful extension. Plus, I’m doubtful he can repeat his offensive output next year. Or in the next three.

Having said that, I could see the Royals, in an attempt to control costs over the next three years, try to sign Cain to a long-term deal to lock in his arbitration years. Of course, if they were going to do that, they would have to tack on at least a year of free agency at what could be a premium (for them) cost. It sounds good, but as much as I love watching Cain play, I think the Royals should at least see how this season goes before they commit big money long term. Sure, if he’s successful the cost will go up and may move the Royals out of their comfort zone. But that injury history scares the hell out of me. Yes, the frequency is a concern, but his legs have too often been what’s failed him. For a guy who relies on his speed in the outfield, that’s a massive concern.

Cain is an exciting, yet offensively flawed, player. His 2014 season was a delight to watch. I’m skeptical that he can keep his offensive performance at the level he found last year, but his defense and speed will keep me coming back for more.

Mike Moustakas is not a good hitter.

Sorry to be so blunt. But come on, you’ve seen him play. That’s just a fact.

Over parts of four seasons, Moustakas has accumulated 1,992 plate appearances. His career slash line is .236/.290/.379. No matter how many plate appearances Ned Yost and Dayton Moore need to evaluate talent, I think we’ve seen enough. The results are… incredibly underwhelming.

In the history of baseball, only two third basemen have had more plate appearances and a worse slash line than Moustakas. One, Lee Tanneyhill, played in the deadball era and slashed .220/.269/.273 in over 4,100 plate appearances for the White Sox. The other is John Kennedy, a journeyman third baseman who played for the Senators, Dodgers, Yankees, Pilots/Brewers, and Red Sox. In a 12 year career, he had 2,324 plate appearances and hit .225/.281/.323.

The point isn’t to compare these three players. Crossing eras and using a slash line isn’t really the best way to draw distinction. The point here is to underscore how the Royals have been relentless in their propping up of Moustakas as an acceptable everyday third baseman, continually listing him in the lineup only to watch him underperform at a now near historic level.

How about we simplify the search? How about a list of third basemen who have more than 1,990 plate appearances in their career and have an OPS+ less than 85? And let’s narrow it further to the dawn of the expansion era.

Here’s the list:

Player OPS+ PA G R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
David Bell 85 5380 1403 587 1239 267 18 123 589 428 687 .257 .320 .396 .716
Dave Chalk 85 3330 903 292 733 107 9 15 243 295 327 .252 .325 .310 .636
Charley Smith 85 2619 753 226 584 82 17 69 276 129 550 .241 .281 .374 .656
Dave Roberts 84 2191 709 194 483 77 7 49 208 128 361 .239 .286 .357 .644
Tom Brookens 83 4258 1336 477 950 175 40 71 431 281 605 .246 .296 .367 .663
Mike Moustakas 82 1993 514 182 432 99 3 52 199 128 332 .236 .290 .379 .668
Brandon Inge 82 5617 1532 563 1166 228 38 152 648 443 1306 .233 .301 .384 .685
Pedro Feliz 80 4544 1302 487 1065 209 25 140 598 230 663 .250 .288 .410 .698
Tim Hulett 80 2317 720 245 529 90 13 48 220 145 438 .249 .298 .371 .669
Ken Reitz 79 5079 1344 366 1243 243 12 68 548 184 518 .260 .290 .359 .649
Craig Paquette 77 2766 814 304 620 128 10 99 377 120 620 .239 .274 .411 .685
Aurelio Rodriguez 76 7085 2017 612 1570 287 46 124 648 324 943 .237 .275 .351 .626
Garth Iorg 72 2615 931 251 633 125 16 20 238 114 298 .258 .292 .347 .639
John Kennedy 70 2324 856 237 475 77 17 32 185 142 461 .225 .281 .323 .604
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 1/25/2015.

Poor John Kennedy.

And wow. Mike Moustakas is the new Pedro Feliz. Think about it. That’s… less than ideal. The above list has some familiar names. There have been a few third basemen who haven’t been adequate at the dish. Brandon Inge, David Bell, Tom Brookens and Feliz all got far too many plate appearances with a less than average bat.

We are getting to the point where the frustration level should be building that the Royals continue to employ Mike Moustakas as a full-time third baseman. Yet, aside from a brief sojourn to Omaha last summer, he has been THE GUY for the Royals. It’s understanding they want (and need) their high draft pick to succeed. As a fan, I want him to succeed, too. But there is simply too much evidence to ignore.

Let’s focus on a couple of things Moustakas did right in 2014. For starters, he increased his walk rate. He had been around 6.2 percent for his career and last summer he walked about seven percent of the time. A modest increase to be sure, but this is Moustakas we’re discussing. There aren’t any giant leaps forward in his game. You take what you can get. So I’m going to place his increase in walk rate on the “positive” side of the ledger. Another rate positive was his decrease in strikeout rate. In 2014, Moustakas whiffed 14.8 percent of the time, slicing more than a percentage point off his rate from the previous summer.

More walks and fewer strikeouts is generally a good thing. Moustakas also increased his contact rate for the second consecutive year. In fact, it’s kind of impressive how he’s shown improvement in this area.

2012 – 77.9%
2013 – 81.2%
2014 – 84.3%

But we’ve all watched Sal Perez. We know that more contact doesn’t exactly equate better contact. In fact, his contact on pitches outside the strike zone went up to a whopping 79.7 percent, well above the league average of 68 percent. I know the Royals preach their hitters putting the bat on the ball, but this strikes me as the batting equivalent of the “pitch to contact” revolution that was incredibly unsuccessful a decade ago. Absolutely, you have to put the bat on the ball. There has to be a method… An approach at the plate. Have a plan. Work the count. Be selective. Gain the advantage before you step up and start taking your hacks. Moustakas is a prime example of a guy needing a plan to be successful. When he got ahead in the count in 2014, he owned pitchers. Check his splits broken out by when he’s ahead in the count, even and behind.

MooseCount

OH MY GOD, I FOUND A STAT WHERE MOUSTAKAS IS LEAGUE AVERAGE.

Sorry. Didn’t mean to yell. Although I consider my discovery to be on par with when Bell invented the telephone or when Rutherford split the atom.

Of course, it’s natural to assume that when a hitter is ahead in the count, he’s going to be more successful. That’s why we say he’s “ahead,” after all. The amazing thing is Moustakas is actually a better than league average hitter when he’s ahead. Mind blown. His sOPS+ (the split relative to the league) when he’s ahead in the count is a healthy 126.

Unfortunately, when he’s behind – or even in the count – he’s a miserable hitter. God awful. Like he’s never swung the bat in his life. He owned a 34 sOPS+ when even in the count and a 33 sOPS+ when he was behind in 2014. So that above average hitter when he’s ahead in the count? He gives it all back and then some the rest of the time.

How about another positive development in his offensive game? Moustakas increased his average distance of fly balls and home runs in 2014 by about 15 feet. That may not sound like a big deal, but his increase was the 11th best among major league regulars last year. Adding length to the batted ball is a nice explanation for improved performance for that season. That season. Studies have shown most players experience a one year blip and give roughly half their distance back the following season. The sad thing is Moustakas didn’t realize an improvement that’s often related to increasing distance.

Probably one reason his fly ball distance increased was his decrease on number of infield fly balls. His IFFB rate in 2014 was 15.1 percent, down from the previous year’s 16.6 percent. Had he garnered enough plate appearances to qualify, he still would have ranked sixth in the AL in IFFB rate. (First place went to Sal Perez at 17.3 percent. Boy, his profile is going to be fun.) Unrelated, his HR/FB rate was a career-best 9.4 percent. Still too low for someone with his power potential, but it’s a nice place to be, and an improvement upon his previous season.

Moustakas hit five home runs in the postseason, so you know the Royals are going to promote the hell out of that next month when he starts teeing off in the desert. But let’s be real. In October, Moustakas slashed .231/.259/.558. That’s a 127 wRC+, which is nice, but it’s not like Moustakas hasn’t done this before. He hit five home runs in July of 2014. And in May and June of 2012. Moustakas is a streaky hitter. But even his hot streaks aren’t all that impressive.

Moustakas is one of the more heavily shifted hitters in baseball. For good reason. Here is his spray chart on batted balls.

MooseBattedBalls

When you have a cluster like that around the second base area on ground balls, you’re going to get shifted. Now despite what the new commissioner says, I believe the shift is here to stay. And it’s going to continue to confound one-dimensional hitters like Moustakas. He was never going to hit for a high average anyway, so I’m not certain what’s the big deal about the shift. The way you beat it is either to go the other way or stop hitting so many ground balls.

I haven’t even touched on Moustakas’s mechanics at the plate. Let’s just say they’re a hot mess. I’ve seen him roll over his front foot, open up way too soon, stand too far off the plate, stand too close to the plate, fail to get his arms extended… you get the picture. He must be a hitting coach’s nightmare. He’s tinkering so much – yet allegedly refusing to watch video – that he just seems to be a lost cause at this point.

Defensively, Moustakas is fine. He could be better. Although his glove most definitely does not make up for his weak bat.

According to Inside Edge, Moustakas made roughly 95 percent of “routine” plays at third last year. That puts him in the middle of the pack for the hot corner. However, he made only 66 percent of the plays classified as “likely.” That puts him in the lower quarter of regular third basemen. Here’s his heat chart from Fangraphs and Inside Edge.

MooseField

From the charts above, it looks like Moustakas has most of his issues ranging to his left. The data from The Fielding Bible backs this up, which has him at -2 on the +/- scale when ranging toward the shortstop. His strength would be coming in and charging the ball on short fielding plays. Again, he’s solid defensively. Not a Gold Glover.

Moustakas is eligible for arbitration for the first time and is looking for a contract of $3.1 million. The Royals countered with $1.85 million. Fangraphs had Moustakas at 0.9 fWAR last year (ranking 21st out of 25 third basemen with at least 500 plate appearances) which meant his dollar value was around $4.6 million to the Royals. He’s going to get a raise and whatever he earns won’t be absurd in the game’s current economic climate.

Still, the sooner the Royals realize he’s not an everyday third baseman, the better. If he’s not good enough to play everyday, is he a viable platoon candidate? Eh. Here are his career splits:

vs LHP – .211/.267/.328  63 wRC+
vs RHP – .245/.297/.396 89 wRC+

Underwhelming, no matter who is on the mound. At least he’s still relatively affordable, so you could at least partially understand keeping him around as a platoon. That’s what the Royals attempted to do last year with Danny Valencia, but they pretty much bailed on that deal.

Moustakas is here to stay. At least for 2015. He will continue to roll over and pull grounders to second, hit mile-high pop-ups that don’t leave the infield, and will be stunningly average in the field. He will be serenaded by “Mooooose” calls and will continue to be a fan favorite. Hopefully, the 2015 Royals can – like the 2014 Royals – overcome his presence in the lineup.

Ernie Banks grew up in Dallas where he played on his high school softball team. They didn’t have a baseball team. But Bill Blair, Banks’s neighbor and Negro leagues veteran, saw Ernie crushing those big softballs and recruited 17 year-old Banks to play semi-pro hardball. There he was noticed by the legendary Cool Papa Bell, then managing the Kansas City Monarchs B team and keeping an eye out for young talent to recommend. Banks saw Blair and Bell “compare notes” many times about his potential, and after two seasons with the Colts, the Monarchs sent two men, secretary Dizzy Dismukes and second baseman and Dallas native Bonnie Serrell, to the Banks household in hopes of signing Ernie. That’s how Ernie remembered it anyway. Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil remembered driving down to Dallas himself to sign Banks on nothing more than Cool Papa’s recommendation. However it happened, it probably didn’t take too much convincing after Ernie’s parents heard the starting salary: $300 a month. Banks later wrote, “This was big, big money to two people who had worked all their lives and never even come close to earning $300 a month.” Banks still had a year of high school to complete, but the day after graduation he boarded a bus KC-bound.

The 19 year-old stepped off the bus and into a banquet honoring that 1950 squad. Each player was asked to say a few words, and Banks uttered his thanks and that he hoped to make the team. The next day he found himself at Blues (later Municipal) Stadium playing shortstop against the Indianapolis Clowns. 10,000 fans packed the park, and Ernie had “the kind of jitters that are hard to describe.” He’d never even seen a park that big. His keystone partner Curtis Roberts shouted, “relax!” but Ernie found it impossible, though he did “eat up” the Clowns shadow ball routine before the game. His nerves throwing off his timing, Banks remembered that he flew out to right field each time up that first game. He also remembered Buck telling him, “Young man, you made a fine start. You hit the ball well three different times. Just speed up your swing a little bit and the ball will start falling in. Stay loose, forget the tension and you’ll be all right.” Ernie admired Buck tremendously, recalling, “(Buck) always had the right answers to cure everything from homesickness to hitting slumps.” From KC, he headed out on the team bus to cover huge swaths of the south, east, and midwest. “I learned a lot of geography on those trips and I learned a lot more about major league baseball by reading the newspapers in the larger cities,” he later recalled. He often sat with Elston Howard on the bus, whose “theories about baseball where the most interesting I had heard.”

Ernie was not a break-out star that first season. Buck remembered that he didn’t demonstrate much power in 1950. What game summaries were written didn’t give him much attention. The Negro Leagues Book by Larry Lester and Dick Clark show him playing 53 games and hitting .255 with only one homer. But some keen-eyed observer noticed something and at the end of the year he was invited to play on a month-long exhibition tour pitting Jackie Robinson’s Major League All-Stars vs. the Indianapolis Clowns. Banks, switching back and forth between the teams, suddenly found himself playing alongside Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Larry Doby. During the tour, Jackie thrilled Ernie by complimenting his hitting and coached him to turn the double play better by getting rid of the ball quicker and throwing to the second baseman at the perfect height so there would be no wasted motion on the throw to first.

Uncle Sam came calling and required Ernie’s services for two years. Ernie received a couple of letters from MLB teams inviting him to tryout upon his release, but when that time came in early 1953, Ernie’s “thoughts centered around just one thing: returning to the Monarchs and Buck.”

I wasn’t home in Dallas more than a day or two when I put in a call to Buck O’Neil. I finally reached him in Atlanta, and before I had an opportunity to ask if I still had a job with the Monarchs, he said, “We’re training here in Atlanta. I have a new uniform out and hanging in a locker. When can I expect you to report?”

Good old Buck hadn’t forgotten me! I reached the Monarchs camp two days later.

22 year-old Ernie returned in 1953 almost magically transformed into a fully formed, Hall of Fame level ballplayer. Those famously skinny, fast wrists were whipping the ball tenaciously, and the scouts were on him in no time. Buck just had to point out all the scouts in the stands to motivate his players. Former Monarchs great John Donaldson tried to convince the White Sox to sign Banks but was overruled. But over on the north side, the Cubs were interested and started trailing the Monarchs. Multiple Cubs scouts raved about Banks. “Good chance he is major leaguer right now” read one report. The Monarchs were in Chicago in early September one night, and Ernie was watching TV at the hotel when Buck told him and pitcher Bill Dickey to meet him in the lobby early the next morning. The trio headed to Wrigley Field and GM Wid Matthews’s office where Dickey signed a minor league deal and Banks signed with a shaky hand to the big leagues. Banks spent one more week with the Monarchs, during which time, “that old-time fellowship among the Monarchs really blossomed. Every man came up and shook our hands and offered congratulations…It wasn’t easy leaving those fellows. They were good friends.” And when the week was up, “I don’t mind saying I made a moist-eyed trip to the airport.”

sources and quotes:
Mr. Cub by Ernie Banks
I Was Right On Time by Buck O’Neil

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