Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

RHP ∙ 1969—72

Mike Hedlund was an original Royal, acquired during the 1968 expansion draft. He had made just nine brief relief appearances for Cleveland before impressing KC decision makers at 1969 spring training with a good fastball, command, and the ability to change speeds. That earned him a spot on the first Opening Day Royals roster. He wound up as a swing-man that year, making 16 starts and 18 relief appearances and doing an excellent job keeping the opposition off the board in both roles. The 22-year-old ended up throwing only 125 innings, so he and the club agreed he could benefit from some more work in the Venezuelan winter league. Hedlund dominated the league like no pitcher had before. He started the winter with 38 scoreless frames, and ended with a 0.75 ERA in 140 innings of work. He was expected to be an important part of the Royals staff for 1970.

Hedlund picked up valuable experience in Venezuela, but unfortunately he also picked up a nasty virus. The sickness knocked a ton of weight off of him. (He lost a little more weight after manager Charlie Metro required him to shorten his bright orange sideburns. “The ear is the cutting-off place,” Metro ordered.[i]) The effects of the illness lingered and lingered. Hedlund’s strength was sapped, and it showed with diminished zip on his pitches. “I didn’t have my fast ball because I was tired,” Hedlund admitted.” “I tried to be too fine…I got all psyched out.”[ii] After just 15 relief innings over the first month of the season, Hedlund was sent down to Omaha where he stayed for the remainder of the year trying to regain his form. He later called it “a wasted year.”[iii]

After some much needed off-season rest, Hedlund was back to full strength and full velocity for 1971 and slotted back into the big league rotation from the get-go. It was a splendid season for him and the Royals. Hedlund and Dick Drago formed an excellent one-two punch at the top of the rotation as the Royals recorded their first winning season. Hedlund was supremely reliable all year, leading the way to a 20-10 record in games he started. He did not do it with power, striking out just 76. He managed a complete game shutout of the Indians while striking out just one on April 24. He allowed the opposition to put the ball in play throughout his career, and seemed to have a knack to induce soft contact. He was also quick to credit his fielders: “We had a great infield with Freddie Patek and Cookie Rojas up the center…so if I could get it on the ground we had chances of getting the out or getting the double play.”[iv] It all worked beautifully in 1971.

Hedlund then worked an off-season job doing promotion and ticket sales for his hometown Texas Rangers. This led to natural speculation about the chance of him pitching for the Rangers someday, but Hedlund replied, “I’m real happy where I am. It’s a young club that is really getting everything together. I kind of pride myself on being with an expansion club that has come along like this one has and finished in second place. And I want to be there when the Royals win a pennant, because we will, there’s no doubt in my mind about that. There’s a great outlook in the organization.”[v]

Hedlund was correct that the young organization was on a relatively fast track, but unfortunately he and the team hit a stumbling block in 1972. He actually slightly improved both his strikeout and walk rates, but the batting average on balls in play bumped up closer to the norm, and the results were much less pretty. After the team dropped six of his first seven starts, he lost his regular turn in the rotation. He had to settle for just eight more spot starts and 13 relief appearances for the rest of the year. During the ’72-’73 off-season Hedlund was traded to his original team in Cleveland in exchange for utility man Kurt Bevacqua, and he never was able to break back into the big leagues.

[i] Sid Bordman, “Hedlund Looks Royal Minus Sideburns,” The Sporting News, March 14, 1970.

[ii] Bob Williams, “Hedlund Bounces Back After Bouts With Flu, Fatigue,” The Sporting News, August 8, 1970.

[iii] Joe McGuff, “Question-Mark K.C. Pitching Turns Into Exclamation Point,” The Sporting News, June 19, 1971.

[iv] MondayNightSports14, “Mike Hedlund – Former MLB Pitcher,” YouTube.com, August 8, 2013.

[v] Randy Galloway, “K.C. Hurler Makes Pitch For Rangers,” The Sporting News, January 8, 1972.

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

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

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

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

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

Guthrie_3Years

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

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

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

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

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

The Royals finished last night’s game in spectacular fashion.  A two out go ahead home run from Eric Hosmer in the top of the ninth and a spectacular Omar Infante flip to Alcides Escobar’s barehand and then a laser to Hosmer for an out.  If you haven’t seen it, FIND IT!  It is worth any trouble you have doing so.  I have seen that play before, most notably from Cookie Rojas and Freddie Patek way, way back when I was young.  Spectacular is about all you can or need to say about it.

Anyway, that was just the frosting on the cake of day that Tuesday turned out to be as the Royals traded for Ben Zobrist earlier in the day.  Don’t like the starting rotation?  Boom!  Dayton Moore gets you Johnny Cueto.  Worried about depth, second base, rightfield and maybe an extra bat?  Whammo!  Dayton Moore presents us with Ben Zobrist.

Now, there has been a little bit of angst about these deals in the land of Royal.  Some of it, I think, stemming from the fact that this fanbase had been beaten down for so many years that we may simply not believe we get to have nice things.  There is also some of the ‘well, I’m no follower’ in finding a reason not to be excited about a trade that is seen as a tremendous positive by the vast majority of the fanbase and, quite honestly, the baseball world.

There is another couple of sentiments that go along the lines of the Royals have a good thing going, why do we want to disrupt it?  In a similar vein, there is the Royals are almost certain to make the playoffs as it is and once there it is all really just a crapshoot, so why not save the prospects and roll with this unit?

Okay, now, I put probably more stock in clubhouse chemistry than a lot of folks who frequent this edge of the blog world, but I also believe that players know who can play and who can’t.  There is no doubt in my mind that every person in the clubhouse, including the starting pitchers, thought the Royals could really use another starting pitcher. I also believe that the team is not unaware that Omar Infante’s on-base percentage would be a bad batting average and his slugging percentage would be a poor on-base percentage.   They know that, until recently, Alex Rios was swinging a wet noodle, that Jarrod Dyson never has and never will hit lefties and that Paulo Orlando, for all his heroics, has some holes in his swing.  You know what else they know?  They know Ben Zobrist can play the game a little bit.

Moving along, as a craps player, I understand a little bit about luck.  As a Royals’ fan, I remember Buddy Biancalana being a World Series hero in 1985 even though he was not really a very good player.  We have seen the St. Louis Cardinals win a World Series with a team that was no very good in the regular season.  We saw Detroit get David Price last year and not make it through one playoff series.  Weird things happen in baseball, especially in a short series.  Luck happens.  Bad players get hot.  Good players get cold.  Any team on any given day stuff, you know the drill.

While I don’t buy that the woeful 2005 Royals would have a 40% change of beating this year’s Royals in a seven game series, I know they would have some chance (see the paragraph immediately above).  Let’s say the Royals, who I don’t think anyone can argue have improved their regular season team in the last week to the extent that they are virtual locks for the playoffs, end up facing the Astros in the first round.  I don’t know (or care) what the actual percentages were, but for discussion purposes we will say Kansas City had a 54% chance of winning the series.   If adding Cueto and Zobrist moved that needle to even just 57% I will take that action over the ‘playoffs are all luck’ approach.

Of course, both Cueto and Zobrist came at a cost.  While I will not be surprised if all five pitchers involved in these two deals have major league careers, the Royals might well be haunted by Sean Manaea in future years. That’s actually fine, in my opinion, especially if the Royals have a really big, tall new flag in leftfield next spring.  Manaea was not going to play for Kansas City this season and, frankly, probably was not going to be up at the start of 2016, either.  He might well be great…but that greatness will certainly not be in full effect until 2017 at the earliest.  Same timeline for Cody Reed.   John Lamb might have been a contributor on the 2016 team and we all know the Finnegan drill.   Good pitchers….maybe, but not good MAJOR league pitchers (other than Finnegan being decent out of the bullpen – not exactly a weakness for the Royals) this season or likely next.

You know who is good THIS season?  Johnny Cueto is and so is Ben Zobrist.

Dogged by injuries earlier this year, Zobrist has rebounded to hit .268/.354/.447, which is freakishly right on his career numbers.   He has been worth 1.1 fWAR so far, after being worth 5.6 in 2014, 5.2 in 2013, 5.8 in 2012 and 6.3 in 2011.   With Alex Gordon on the shelf, Zobrist is probably the Royals’ most consistent hitter right now.  I was not the first to come up with this and you do actually worry about changing too much (domes, you know), but I would be tempted to bat Zobrist leadoff.   His strikeout rate has declined in each of the last four seasons (that’s good), while his walk rate remains right at his career rate of 12%.   Dude can hit, boys and girls.

Defensively, Zobrist has played everywhere but catcher in his career.  He was a decent shortstop and even logged 236 innings there last year:  good enough to be there if something happens to Escobar during a game.   The metrics don’t like him at second this year, but it is very small sample size and effected by Zobrist playing hurt early on.  For his career, his defensive numbers (and reputation in the game) at second base are excellent.  If you are worried about a defensive dropoff there between Infante and Zobrist, you are worrying too much.  Zobrist has logged the majority of his time in right, where he was very good as well (metrically speaking) in seven of the last eight years.  He has played more innings in left this year (197) than any previous season and the metrics don’t like him there, but they loved him in left in a similar sample size in 2014.   When healthy, and Zobrist seems to be healthy now, Ben is a good defender just about anywhere and especially in the spots the Royals are going to play him.

And that is kind of the beauty of this trade.  You can play him everywhere and offend no one.  For now, we are likely to see Zobrist spend most of his time in left.  Personally, I would put him at second and roll with Dyson/Orlando, but that’s me.  While left might be Zobrist’s primary spot, the Royals would be silly not to give him a couple of days a week at second and another in right and maybe another day at designated hitter.  Until Alex Gordon returns and returns in full Alex Gordon mode, the Royals can pretty much play Ben Zobrist every day and not have truly benched anyone.

Let’s face it, every team could use Ben Zobrist and your Kansas City Royals got him.   In the span of less than a week, Dayton Moore added two very good veteran baseball players to his team without subtracting a single relevant piece of the club that was already the class of the American League.  There is nothing to fear here other than expending some angst over what MIGHT have been pieces of the 2017 starting rotation.

This is going to fun, kids.

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

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

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

Heady days, indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new book, misleadingly titled The Pine Tar Game, thankfully examines a much broader scope than the infamous 1983 Royals vs. Yankees game. I might have suggested the title The Pine Tar Rivalry since the book really takes a broad view of Royals and Yankees history, including the four playoff meetings of the teams between 1976—80, the contrasting personalities of George Steinbrenner and Ewing Kauffman, and the changes in baseball that contributed to the rivalry fizzling out. The pine tar game does indeed get the most attention, but is the direct focus of just six of the book’s 24 chapters. This was a pleasant surprise for me, as I doubted how interesting a book-length treatment on the one game could be.

While I’ve heard many of the stories related in the book, author Filip Bondy brings a richer understanding to this particular thread of Royals history. He also introduces plenty of new information for my Royals-addicted brain to feed on, such as a particularly enjoyable chapter on the details of David Cone’s upbringing in Kansas City as a die-hard Royals fan who can’t believe his luck to get to pitch for them…until they make a massive mistake in trading him. Twice. Another chapter tells of Rush Limbaugh’s time as a Royals employee. Sometimes Bondy’s scope gets a little too wide, such as a passage relating some KC Monarchs history. That’s one of my favorite topics, but I wasn’t sure what the connection was to this particular book.

While I’ve almost grown tired of seeing the brief clip of George Brett’s famous pine tar game freak out over and over, it was fun to read the more complex tale of that crazy game told in as much detail as anyone probably needs. Don Zimmer’s role as a Yankees coach, Dean Taylor as the Royals “rules nerd” helping draft the team’s protest, the Yankees going through the courts to try to block the three weeks later resumption of the ninth inning, and the umpire’s reactions to Brett the next time they saw him on the field are a few examples of the fresh (to me) details Bondy uncovered. It’s a fun, easy read, recommended to all Royals fans.

During the 2014 season, Johnny Cueto threw 244 innings for the Reds.  He struck out 242 batters and allowed just 6.2 hits per nine innings.  His earned run average finished at 2.25….pitching half his games in the best hitters’ park outside of Colorado.  Cueto’s ERA+ was 163, his FIP 3.30, his ERA- was 61.   Pick a number, they are all good.  With Johnny Cueto, they are almost always all good.

Don’t care about last year?  Well, in 2015, Cueto has tossed 131 innings, stuck out 120, allowed 6.4 hits per nine innings, fashioned a 2.65 ERA and an ERA+ of 145.  His FIP is 3.12 and Cueto has already provided 2.9 fWAR. I was told that Cueto had a bad May and he did, for him, allowing a 4.45 ERA. In other words, the worst month (by far) that Cueto had was better than what the Royals have gotten this year from Jeremy Guthrie, Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy (before his last two starts).

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal.

You can name some major league pitchers who are better than Johnny Cueto, but the list is not very long.

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal and, by the way, Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte are still members of the Royals’ organization.  The Royals did have to give up John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed.

Sure, Finnegan was a great story last season and gave the Royals some decent innings in relief this year, but he was seventh reliever in a stacked bullpen and very little progress had been made in 2015 towards steering Finnegan back to a starter. I have little doubt Brandon Finnegan will have a long major league career, but many doubts that much of it will be spent being an effective starter. It is also doubtful that Finnegan was slated for many (if any) critical innings the final months of the season or in the post-season.

John Lamb is another great story and a guy you would have hated to trade away in say, 2011.  As it is, even a great half season in AAA seemed to do little to advance Lamb’s status with the organization. Joe Blanton and Yohan Pino got starts while Lamb staying in Omaha. Once he profiled as a top of the rotation starter, now he looks to be a back of the rotation guy….and one who has yet to throw a major league pitch.

Quite honestly, the name that might come back to haunt you in this deal might be Reed.  Hat tip to Clint Scoles (@clintscoles) who, after speculation that Sean Manaea’s medicals might be an issue on Saturday night offered that Reed was a pitcher that might be a suitable replacement. Reed, however, was just moved up to AA.  I thought a lot of guys were going to be stars when they were in AA that never went anywhere.

These three guys all have potential, but they all have question marks and none of them will ever by Johnny Cueto.  Of course, the argument goes, the Royals only get Cueto for a short period of time.  There is this ‘I don’t like rentals’ sentiment that runs perilously close to being a ‘get off my lawn’ mindset.  There is also the ‘hate to part with prospects’ mentality, drummed into many of us when all we had as Royals’ fans was the hope of prospects. I’m not buying either mindset.  This was at worst a fair trade and quite possibly a clear win for the Royals.

In the end, this trade really comes down to this:

  • Are the Royals more likely to win a World Series with Johnny Cueto on this team THIS year or more likely to win a title with Finnegan, Lamb and Reed paired with what is left in 2017?

Truthfully, the acquisition of ‘just a rental’ this year does not really effect the team’s ability to be a good team in 2016 given that Reed likely would not yet be ready, Lamb would – at best – be a rookie at the back of the rotation and Finnegan would almost certainly be in a similar role as this year.

While I was at the forefront of the ‘Royals need a bat more than an arm’ movement, I freaking love this trade. Some claim all this gets the Royals is just a handful of Cueto starts, but the math indicates that it gets them FOURTEEN regular season starts and, knock wood, at least two starts a piece in three post-season series. Maybe that is just a handful, but it is a damn valuable handful.

Couple Cueto with the just maybe possible resurgence of Danny Duffy and a hopeful start from Yordano Ventura and all of a sudden, the Kansas City Royals can at least dream about being four deep in starting pitching with the best and deepest bullpen in the game.  Say what you want about teams acquiring aces not parlaying that acquisition into post-season success, but I like the idea that Jeremy Guthrie and Chris Young (as good as he has been, he falters in the second half with regularity and, by the way, do you want a flyball pitcher on the mound in a playoff game in Houston?) never being considered for a post-season start.

I like the idea that Dayton Moore and the Royals are buyers at the trade deadline. I like the idea that an organization and a general manager who have always relied on staying the course this time said that a seven game lead in the division is not enough.  This was a move made to make the Kansas City Royals THE team to beat, not just one of the teams. And it was a bold move made without giving up any of the very best prospects in the system.

Johnny Cueto is a Kansas City Royal.

Today is a very good day.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A couple more notes about Thursday’s makeup game…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

RHP ∙ 1992—98

 

Hipolito Pichardo has a great name for a pitcher. Pitch-hard-o! He also represents the best Latin American signing the Royals organization made before Dayton Moore came to town. For the first 36 years of the franchise, the Royals took a look at the high-risk/high-reward practice of signing young Latin American talent and said, “Nah, we’re good.” Occasionally they would offer tiny contracts to guys that other teams weren’t pursuing heavily, a strategy that worked out about as well you’d expect. After Pichardo, Robinson Tejeda (#100 on this list as of this writing) and Carlos Febles (#145) were the most productive Latin signings for KC. (With Salvador Perez, Kelvin Herrera, and Yordano Ventura, Moore already has the three best Latin American free agents in team history.)

Pichardo hails from the Dominican Republic. John Schuerholz’s front office signed him in 1987, and Pichardo worked his way through the system between 1988 to the beginning of 1992. That he never pitched even 100 innings in a single minor league season suggests the possibility of health troubles, but I can’t confirm that hunch. Two weeks into the 1992 season, he got the call to the big leagues. He got his feet wet with some relief appearances before making his first start on May 20 at Comiskey Park. He kept a strong White Sox lineup off the board for all five innings he worked, and remained a reasonably effective piece of the rotation for the rest of the season. The Royals “like(d) the movement on his sinker and his poise.”[i] That low-90s, groundball-inducing sinker was his best pitch, complemented with a slider and a change. Pitching coach Guy Hansen explained that Pichardo earned the nickname “Double D,” which stood for debajo dinero, or “down” and “money” in English, because, “If he keeps the ball down, he’ll make lots of money.”[ii] He was almost perfect on July 21, 1992 when he allowed just one base-runner to the Red Sox in a shutout.

He slotted right back into the rotation in ’93, and, for the most part, continued his run as a solid number three starter. It was the best year of his career, but stamina problems cropped up as Pichardo had difficulty pitching deep into games and also missed time with shoulder fatigue. Those issues pushed Pichardo to pitch exclusively out of the ‘pen for the next four seasons. That 1994—97 stretch was spent mostly setting up for closer Jeff Montgomery and was a mess of occasional strong pitching, occasional terrible pitching, and occasional elbow and shoulder problems. That inglorious run inspired manager Tony Muser to make the curious decision to turn Pichardo back into a starter for 1998. His performances were generally decent, but, not surprisingly, he usually couldn’t go deep into starts, and then on August 20 he strained elbow ligaments that kept him off the mound for the rest of the season and all of 1999, and ended his time with the Royals.

[i] Dick Kaegel, “Kansas City Royals,” The Sporting News, June 1, 1992.

[ii] Ibid.

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

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

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

Ventura Strike Zone Plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, one of those nights.

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