Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

The Royals made several cuts on Sunday, shipping nine players to the minor leagues. Among those was one of the heroes of last October, Brandon Finnegan.

This is very good news.

You recall the Royals had been weighing keeping Finnegan in the majors as a reliever, or farming him out to be a starter. Would they go for the short-term option and bring him north with the team as a piece of the bullpen? Or would they keep an eye on the long-term and send him to the minors in order to get work as a starter? Finnegan’s struggles this spring made it all but impossible for the Royals to break camp with him on the roster.

Finnegan made four appearances this spring, throwing 6.1 innings and allowing nine hits, four walks and four strikeouts. Among those hits were two home runs. And it’s not like he was getting crushed by major league hitters. Sure, there were some players in the mix that he faced, but according to Baseball Reference, his quality of opposing hitters faced graded out at a 7.7. An eight is considered Triple-A talent.

Between Finnegan’s final collegiate season, his start in the minor leagues after being the Royals first-round draft pick, and his final September and October turn in the Royals bullpen, he logged over 145 innings. Quite the workload for someone of his age and experience. Although it was an amazingly successful year for Finnegan, no matter where he was pitching, he wasn’t able to replicate that high level of output this spring.

Baseball Prospectus had this scouting report on Finnegan from early in the spring:

While the TCU product is coming off an impressive inaugural campaign, there are notable transformations in his frame and pitching approach. Finnegan looks to have put on weight, with some thickness noticeable in the mid-portion of his body. The extra bulk on the frame isn’t necessarily a red flag, but could potentially push him towards a bullpen role sooner rather than later. Finnegan is showing more exertion in his delivery this spring, with a mild arm drag. He still has the big drive and hides the ball out of his hand due to a slight rotational delivery. The fastball was 91-93 mph and lacked the same big plane and explosiveness from last season, which led to a first-pitch homer to Kyle Kubitza on a grooved fastball down the middle. The slider was sharp and displayed hard bite while entering the zone, flashing plus.

I was wondering about Finnegan’s weight (yes, I know) as he looked a little puffier in interviews he conducted in Surprise, although I was wanting to actually see him pitch before I made a comment. Finnegan carries a little weight at 5’11” and 185 pounds and his frame seems like the kind that would gain a few if he wasn’t devoted to winter conditioning. It’s only speculation on my part, but maybe he didn’t take the best care of himself this winter (gasp!) and maybe he wasn’t in the best shape of his life. He wouldn’t be the first prospect to fall into that trap. Everything was spectacular for him last year, so maybe he didn’t think about, or didn’t understand, the required work he needed to put in in order to remain a major leaguer.

So maybe this is a win-win. The Royals win because they get to try to develop one of the better arms in their system as a starter. Finnegan gets an early career wake-up call that hard work is required to play in the bigs. As I wrote earlier, Finnegan’s future is in the Royals rotation. I still believe that despite the above scouting report. Even if he washes out as a starter, at least the Royals will have tried and they can fall back to Plan B. However, the Royals will have at least one spot open in the rotation in 2016. It would be nice to have him compete – and win – a key role on this team going forward.

For now, Finnegan is going to the minors to pitch out of the rotation. He will build stamina and work on refining his change-up. If he can do those two things, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t contribute in Kansas City next season. Barring another late-season call-up for an October run.

If you have been around long enough or, at least, hung around some old guys and not spent that entire time making sure you displayed to the old guys how much more intelligent you are, then you might well have heard tales of a long extinct creature called the nine man pitching staff.  NINE (9).  Hell, I bet they even brought up a four man rotation! Those were the days, my friend.

Even within the last twenty-five years, starting pitchers were racking up 250 innings per year with at least some degree of regularity.  Go back a decade or two more and check the innings pitched.  Worried about James Shields pitching too many innings?  Steve Busby and Dennis Leonard sneer at you.  Let’s not kid ourselves, Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza even sneer.

The five man (or even four at times) bullpens are gone forever.  Now, it seems, carrying just six relievers makes many managers edgy.  Seven is/has become the norm and now, here were are on the first official day of Spring and no one in Surprise has come out and said ‘No, carry eight relievers is crazy.’   Maybe it is not, but it does beg the question as to how much you really – really – use those last couple of relievers.

In 2014, 102 relievers appeared in at least 30 games for American League clubs.  Thirty appearances is a arbitrary number – more than Eric Kratz will appear this year – but at least seems like a reasonable number to use for something equating to a ‘full time reliever’.  By that clumsy approach, 102 pitchers for fifteen teams is almost exactly a seven man bullpen for each squad.  Of course, thirty appearances is basically pitching once per week plus one extra appearance.

If a reliever threw 10 times in a month, would you consider him overworked?  Short of going three innings a stint, I would not.  That level of game involvement would equate to 60 appearances per season.  Fifty-one pitchers made that many relief appearances.  However, innings matter, so let’s ratchet down to 45 appearances and we have 75 ‘full-time’ relievers or five per team. From a purely ‘feels right’ perspective, it seems as though most teams lean on five main relievers with an often carousel of junk, situational, warm-body types filling out the last two spots.  That does not mean you don’t need those sixth and seventh guys, it simply shows you don’t need them as often.

Overall, there were 7,225 relief appearances in the American League last season, totaling 7,338 innings.  That averages out to 482 appearances and 489 relief innings per team.  The Royals used 451 total relief appearances to log 462 innings.

Holland, Davis and Herrera appeared in 65, 71 and 70 games respectively, with Aaron Crow pitching in another 67 (no comment).   After those four, the next most used reliever was Louis Coleman, who pitched 34 innings over 31 games.  He was closely followed by Francisley Bueno’s 30 games and 32 innings.  Let’s take a liberty or two here and combine the mid-season acquisitions of Jason Frasor (23 appearances) and Scott Downs (17 appearances) with Coleman and Bueno.  That would give Kansas City’s ‘fifth’ reliever (Coleman/Frasor) a season total of 54 games and 52 innings.  The Bueno-Downs sixth reliever would have totaled 47 appearances and 47 innings.

Now, the Royals are down to Tim Collins (22 appearances), Michael Mariot (17) and Casey Coleman (10).  Combined, that is 49 appearances and 58 innings for the seventh reliever.   So, exactly when does the eighth guy pitch?  Frankly, with Holland, Davis, Herrera, Frasor, Young and, come mid-April, Hochevar, when does the SEVENTH guy pitch?

If the meat of the Royals’ bullpen even approaches the level of effectiveness as last year, the team could carry (a.k.a HIDE) Rule 5 Jandel Gustave as the seventh reliever, not the eighth, and give themselves some flexibility on the bench with an extra position player.  As I wrote earlier in the week (or was it Craig?  we can’t tell each other apart), Ned Yost is not exactly prone to making a lot of in-game maneuvers with his position players, but it would be at least nice to have some options to debate on Twitter.

Eight relievers?  Seemed silly in February, seems even sillier now.

 

 

Assuming, it is a pretty big assumption right now, that Omar Infante is healthy, you know exactly what the Royals’ 2015 starting lineup is going to be and the starting rotation AND the first five guys in the bullpen.

A bad elbow and mending wrist notwithstanding, this is your 2015 Kansas City Royals:

C – Salvador Perez, 1B – Eric Hosmer, 2B – Omar Infante, SS – Alcides Escobar, 3B- Mike Moustakas, LF – Alex Gordon, CF – Lorenzo Cain, RF – Alex Rios, DH – Kendrys Morales

Starting Rotation – Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Edinson Volquez, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie

Bullpen – Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor and Chris Young

Bench Locks – Jarrod Dyson and Eric Kratz

That is twenty-one players locked in to the roster and, honestly, the twenty-one that are going to play and pitch the most.  One could make the argument (again, not factoring in injuries) that whatever the Royals decide to do with the remaining four spots will have little impact on how the season plays out. That may very well be true and it could mean good things or bad things for how this team will perform in 2015. Time will tell, duh, and this isn’t my ‘if this goes right and this goes right and that breaks just right’ column, nor is it time for Craig’s ‘if this happens it will be bad and then that will bad and then I’m going to spend the summer tweeting about soccer’ column.

Back to the roster for now.

As we discussed yesterday, a third bench spot is likely destined to be Christian Colon’s, but it could end up in the hands (or is it the rear?) of Ryan Jackson or Ryan Roberts.  Somebody to spell Infante and maybe Moustakas against a tough lefty now and then.  A guy you can put in if Alcides Escobar gets spiked at second and has to sit out his three innings per year.  Now we are at twenty-two.

With more and more rumblings pointing towards Luke Hochevar not being quite ready for the start of the season and non-roster invitee (and lefty) Franklin Morales pitching well, it would seem the Royals will break camp with two Morales on the roster.  That’s twenty-three.

We also know that few teams, if any, can seem to function without a seven man bullpen and the Royals are absolutely on board with that.  Frankly, I am not sure I have ever heard a manager worry more about overusing his bullpen than Ned Yost does. Hell, I don’t know, maybe he’s right in doing so. Bottom line:  the Royals will carry at least seven relievers and that, to me, indicates that the out of options Louis Coleman will get at least a temporary reprieve and stay with the team to start the season.  I would advise a extended stay hotel as opposed to an apartment, Louis, as it would seem that Luke Hochevar’s return would knock Coleman from the 25 man roster.  Coleman or maybe Ryan Madson or Brian Flynn or Yohan Pino…one of those guys gets this spot and now we are at twenty-four.

Wait, wait, wait, you say?!  What about Rule 5 guy Jandel Gustave.  He of the 100 mile per hour fastball who must stay on the major league roster all season to remain a Royal?  Go back to my previous paragraph about Ned Yost and bullpen usage.  In a season where Kansas City intends to compete for the division title, do you think Ned will want his seventh spot – however, unused it might realistically be – occupied by a guy he doesn’t really want to pitch unless up 10 or down 10?  Couple that mentality with Dayton Moore’s valuation of inventory (i.e. what if Louis Coleman goes somewhere else and pitches 31 good innings?) and I think Gustave goes north ONLY as the reliever number eight.

Now, the Royals are at twenty five guys and only three of them are bench players and one of those is Jarrod Dyson, who you would like to use as a late inning weapon on the basepaths or for defense.  Or would you?

I seriously doubt whether the Royals will remove Alex Rios for defense early on this year.  I mean, messing with domes and such.  Go back up and look at the starting lineup.  Who in that list would you pinch-run for?  Before your answer, keep in mind the premium that Yost puts on defense and that Colon is likely a downgrade defensively from the starters at second, short and third.  Ned is probably not pulling Perez, Moustakas or Infante for a runner unless one of them is on representing the tying or winning run in the bottom of the ninth (maybe you throw Rios in there, but he runs pretty good…and domes, you know).

If Dyson is going to be a seldom used pinch-runner and a possibly never used (at least for a the first month or so) defensive replacement then do the Royals need a four man bench?  Yost is not going to pinch hit and he is not going to platoon.  Really, the bench comes down to giving guys a day off here and there.  A team that is not going to use its bench for in game strategy does not need very many guys sitting on it.

It remains possible that Yost will surprise me.  He might pinch run Dyson often.  He might tell Rios to live with it and play Dyson in the field every eighth and ninth inning of the season.  He might pinch hit for Moustakas and sit Infante often (Ned might not have a choice there).  He might….

More likely, however, is the Royals breaking camp with eight relievers or, at least, going to eight relievers as soon as Luke Hochevar is ready to join the big league team in mid to late April.  At least Eric Kratz will have room to spread out and be comfortable as he watches 140 games this year.

 

 

Ned Yost is hoping to get ten (10) spring training games out of Omar Infante, with the idea being that will be enough to get the ailing second baseman ready for the regular season.  Hey, when you have a 33 year old middle infielder with a career line of .276/.316/.395 with a bad elbow that likely needs surgery, you do what you have to do to get him on the field.

The Royals seem hell-bent on trying to coax Infante through the 2015 season as opposed to getting the troublesome elbow fixed.  It could be all about the money as Infante is in the second year of a four year/thirty million dollar deal, but that seems more like something that might have happened ten years ago, not now.  They might just be hoping that the 2013 version of Omar somehow reappears despite the injures (Infante posted a triple slash of .318/.345/.450 that year and a respectable 2.4 bWAR), but it would be wise for all to note that Infante’s 2011 and 2012 seasons resembled 2014 much more than the good 2013 campaign.

Basically, since being an All-Star (and a fairly legitimate one at that) in 2010, three of Omar Infante’s next four years were sub-par.  He’s battling an injury and not getting any younger.  Yet, the Royals are praying, pushing and hoping he is going to be in Ned Yost’s lineup come April 6th. We joke and commiserate about things the Royals do – yes, even after being a Madison Bumgarner away from a World Championship – but is this situation less about money and what they perceive Infante to be as a player and more about the other options in camp?

Christian Colon, who by most accounts is the leader to make the team as the utility infielder, would be first in line should Infante not be ready to go. A former fourth overall pick in 2010 draft who was pegged to have a somewhat low ceiling but would be quick to the majors did, in fact, make it to the majors….after four years in the minors.  He has hit the crap out of the ball this spring, but made a couple of errors and been caught stealing twice.  Colon hit well in 49 major league plate appearances in 2014 as well.  If only a career could be made on good springs and 20 games in the majors:  Angel Berroa might still be playing.  Last I saw Angel, he was ordering a lemonade…from a vendor…while playing shortstop…in an independent league (American Association) game.

Anyone see a little bit of a Mike Aviles career (both the good and the bad) in Christian Colon?  It is possible they Royals see something along that lines and are fearful they’ll get the 2011 Aviles and not the 2008 if Colon were to take the field for an extended string of games. As much as the organization currently values defense (a good thing, by the way), they may view the gap between an 80% healthy Infante and what Colon brings with the glove too wide to tolerate in the middle of the infield.

After Colon, the Royals have two Ryans.  Jackson, the one with few if any tattoos, and Roberts, the one with a ton of them.

The twenty-six year old Jackson has 25 major league plate appearances on his resume and, like seemingly everyone so far, has knocked the ball all around the park this spring. In the minors, he has displayed a consistent ability to get on-base while playing 508 of his 572 career games at shortstop.  In fact, Jackson has played just 23 games at second in the minors. Truthfully, if you can play shortstop, you can play second – I don’t even think there is a learning curve other than turning the pivot on the double play, which for a professional shortstop, should take about a day.

Unlike Colon and Jackson, Ryan Roberts has been around:  five major league teams and 1,692 plate appearances.  During that time, the thirty-four year old has hit a combined .243/.320/.388.  He played 143 games in both 2011 and 2012, but only mustered 68 major league appearances the last two years.  This Ryan has played just three innings of shortstop in the majors in his career, but – at least in his prime – posted decent defensive metrics at both second and third.  If the Royals decide Infante cannot make a go of it to start the season, they may opt to lean on the veteran Roberts to carry the load at second.

Of course, if you want ‘veteran’, then you were delighted to hear that the Royals singed Rafael Furcal to a minor-league deal.  Now, Furcal has had a really nice career since winning Rookie of the Year in 2000.  The problem is that almost all of the ‘nice’ occurred prior to 2011.  He has been neither healthy nor productive for the past four seasons and is not healthy right now.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this signing.  Take a flyer on a guy to see if he can get healthy (it’s hamstrings this time, I believe) and once there, see if he can be even a shadow of the player he used to be.

The Royals may be thinking that if Infante gives it a go to start the season and eventually breaks down completely, they could then turn to the hopefully by then healthy Furcal to step in.  Not a bad plan C at all.  The problem at second base right now, however, is Plan A and B may not be very good.

If we’ve learned anything about Ned Yost the last several years, it’s that he enjoys automation.

He doesn’t care for the match-ups. He likes defined roles. A sixth-inning left-hander? If he could, he would.

And so it goes for the lineup. Yost rolled through the end of September and the entire postseason with a single lineup. Just in case you don’t remember:

Escobar – SS
Aoki – RF
Cain – CF
Hosmer – 1B
Butler – DH
Gordon – LF
Perez – C
Infante – 2B
Moustakas – 3B

How could you forget? Based on what happened after Yost decided this was his batting order, that lineup should be legendary.

Seasons change, though, and players move on. Gone from the starting nine from last summer are Nori Aoki and Billy Butler. And their leaving the team has created two rather large holes in the lineup. Of course, they have been replaced by Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales. The issue for Yost is, neither one of his new bats profiles as a number two hitter. This means he will have to do some shuffling and will have to figure out a new optimum lineup.

Alcides Escobar is back at the top of the order. Despite September and October, this is less than ideal. The shortstop has 3,198 plate appearances in his career and has posted a .299 on base percentage. Naturally, the Royals will tell you he performed really well at the leadoff spot. And that is the truth. In the final 15 games, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484. Neat, except he walked three times in 68 plate appearances. That’s a 4.4 percent walk rate. That’s actually right in line with his career walk rate of 4.2 percent. It turns out Escobar’s final two weeks of the regular season was powered by a .411 BABIP.

In the postseason, Escobar continued to Escobar. Meaning, he swung the bat and made a bunch of contact. In 70 plate appearances in October, Escobar walked once. He finished with a .310 on base percentage. The Royals won a bunch of games.

With spring training rolling along, the Royals are primed to give the leadoff spot back to Escobar full-time. If you’re OK with this, that means you’re buying two weeks of games and overlooking a career that spans parts of seven seasons. That essentially means you’re on the side of the Royals. If you think this is a less than optimal idea, that means you are dismissing his torrid close to the season as a simple hot streak. It means you hope the Royals decide on Plan B before Plan A condemns the team to a place in the middle of the American League pack.

I think you can guess where I fall.

If you disagree with me, “Who would you hit leadoff?” is the question you’re asking. Totally fair. Why not Alex Gordon back at leadoff? He’s done it before and he’s done well in that role. According to Baseball Reference, his tOPS+ at the top of the order is 111. (That’s the measure of a player’s OPS+ relative to his own career. In other words, he’s performed better hitting leadoff than, say, hitting fourth, where his tOPS+ is 68.)

I don’t know why the Royals are fighting this so much. Gordon doesn’t fit the leadoff profile, but he’s accumulated more plate appearances batting first than any other spot in the order. That’s a credit to Yost for thinking outside the box. But damn, if he doesn’t want to jump right back in that box. Escobar may look like a leadoff hitter, but he makes far too many outs. It’s not always about the walks when you hit leadoff (although a 12 percent walk rate seems to be the cutoff for successful leadoff hitters) it’s about getting on base. And Escobar’s OBP is powered entirely by the base hit, meaning his success as a hitter is tied to his batting average on balls in play. That’s a dangerous cocktail. The Royals, for all their throwback offensive appeal, still lack a leadoff hitter in the vein of that 1980’s burner. The Willie Wilson type who did everything he could to get on base and then run with abandon. Jarrod Dyson is a burner for sure, but he lacks the offensive acumen. Besides, he’s a fourth outfielder. He’s not in this conversation.

The Royals see Escobar as a steady, durable and dependable player. I agree with that assessment. However, that doesn’t translate to a successful leadoff hitter. They see Gordon as a “run producer.” That’s a throwback term for RBI guy. Which is a horrible way to look at hitters in the lineup.

For this team to get the most out of their offense, they need someone more adept at avoiding outs at the top of the order. That means hitting Gordon leadoff.

We’ve had about a week of games and the Royals have yet to lose. At this point, I’m ready to accept this team for what it clearly is – and will be – in 2015: Amazingly awesome. I don’t see how any team will beat them. They’re like the Kentucky of the MLB, just coming at you in waves. They may lose… In 2016.

(This is my opinion as of Monday night. I reserve the right to change it on Tuesday.)

With a 6-0 record, it seems like a decent time to throw some spring notes up on the Interwebs to see what sticks.

Alex Gordon Watch

Gordon is slated to take live batting practice for the first time this spring on Tuesday. This all seems to be on schedule with his timetable he put forth last month at FanFest, give or take a few days. Gordon still feels like he will be ready to play on Opening Day.

Luke Hochevar throws bullpen session

In his latest step in recovery from Tommy John surgery, Hochevar threw another side session in Surprise. The arm action is there, so now the Royals are monitoring how he recovers. In other words, the key day isn’t when he throws, it’s the day after.

As long as he feels fine, the Royals are targeting his next action in a spring training game. Good news for the Royals bullpen if Hochevar can open the year in Kansas City.

Ailing Infante

Omar Infante is expected to take batting practice on Tuesday. It will be his first action since receiving a cortisone shot on his right elbow.

We traveled this path last year with Infante as arm and shoulder issues clearly bothered his throwing. His hitting suffered, too, enough to make it his least productive season as a professional. Poor timing as he was in the first year of a four-year, $30.25 million contract. We will see how Infante progresses this spring, but this doesn’t bode well for the upcoming year.

Bubba Starling in camp

I missed this, but Starling made contact on Sunday against the Angels, twice flying out to center. That was after five strikeouts in his first five plate appearances.

The knock on Starling has always centered around pitch recognition. Specifically, his lack of said pitch recognition. To me, he’s not on the radar anymore so it’s kind of irrelevant that he’s in the major league camp. I suppose it’s nice the Royals have brought him in for the first couple of weeks of spring and it’s good that he can talk to George Brett and Mike Moustakas, but let’s be real – this prospect ship sailed long ago. That’s what happens when you strikeout over a quarter of the time in A and high-A ball.

 

Young is a fastball/slider pitcher who will occasionally mix in a change-up. His average fastball is clocked at 84 or 85 mph. As you are probably saying to yourself at this moment, “I bet he doesn’t miss many bats with that kind of velo,” you would be correct. He got a swing and miss on 7.1 percent of all swings last year. That’s Jeremy Guthrie-esque. (Guthrie has a swing and miss rate of 7.2 percent.) For some league-wide perspective, Young’s swing and miss rate was the 13th lowest among 88 qualified starting pitchers.

Generally, it’s a good idea to miss bats. I say generally, because there are exceptions. One of those exceptions is if you have a quality defense behind you, scooping up all those inevitable balls in play. Another exception would be if you pitch in a pitcher-friendly environment where your fly balls are more apt to stay in the yard. Young had both those things working for him last year in Seattle.

Year Age Tm W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H R ER ERA+ FIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9
2004 25 TEX 3 2 .600 4.71 7 7 36.1 36 21 19 107 5.06 8.9 1.7 2.5 6.7
2005 26 TEX 12 7 .632 4.26 31 31 164.2 162 84 78 108 3.80 8.9 1.0 2.5 7.5
2006 27 SDP 11 5 .688 3.46 31 31 179.1 134 72 69 117 4.60 6.7 1.4 3.5 8.2
2007 ★ 28 SDP 9 8 .529 3.12 30 30 173.0 118 66 60 128 3.43 6.1 0.5 3.7 8.7
2008 29 SDP 7 6 .538 3.96 18 18 102.1 84 46 45 96 4.40 7.4 1.1 4.2 8.2
2009 30 SDP 4 6 .400 5.21 14 14 76.0 70 47 44 73 5.49 8.3 1.4 4.7 5.9
2010 31 SDP 2 0 1.000 0.90 4 4 20.0 10 2 2 416 3.88 4.5 0.5 5.0 6.8
2011 32 NYM 1 0 1.000 1.88 4 4 24.0 12 5 5 199 4.32 4.5 1.1 4.1 8.3
2012 33 NYM 4 9 .308 4.15 20 20 115.0 119 58 53 92 4.50 9.3 1.3 2.8 6.3
2014 35 SEA 12 9 .571 3.65 30 29 165.0 143 70 67 100 5.02 7.8 1.4 3.3 5.9
10 Yrs 65 52 .556 3.77 189 188 1055.2 888 471 442 107 4.38 7.6 1.2 3.4 7.4
162 Game Avg. 12 9 .556 3.77 34 34 190 160 85 80 107 4.38 7.6 1.2 3.4 7.4
SDP (5 yrs) 33 25 .569 3.60 97 97 550.2 416 233 220 110 4.29 6.8 1.0 3.9 8.0
NYM (2 yrs) 5 9 .357 3.76 24 24 139.0 131 63 58 101 4.47 8.5 1.2 3.0 6.6
TEX (2 yrs) 15 9 .625 4.34 38 38 201.0 198 105 97 108 4.03 8.9 1.2 2.5 7.3
SEA (1 yr) 12 9 .571 3.65 30 29 165.0 143 70 67 100 5.02 7.8 1.4 3.3 5.9
NL (7 yrs) 38 34 .528 3.63 121 121 689.2 547 296 278 108 4.33 7.1 1.1 3.7 7.7
AL (3 yrs) 27 18 .600 4.03 68 67 366.0 341 175 164 104 4.48 8.4 1.3 2.8 6.7
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/8/2015.

Looking at his stats, Young seems the picture of a very average starting pitcher. When he is healthy. His injury report is enough to make the most hardened baseball observer cringe. He had shoulder surgery in August 2009, which caused him to miss the rest of the season. He missed most of 2010 with a sprain in the anterior capsule of his shoulder and missed most of 2011 when he had a second shoulder surgery to repair the anterior capsule. He spent 2013 in the Nationals system where his season was cut short by another shoulder surgery designed to remove pressure on a nerve. No pitcher wants to have their shoulder cut open. It’s difficult enough to come back from one. Three? Tip of the cap to Young. The guy is obviously a competitive animal.

Young usually starts batters with his fastball. In fact, it’s his first offer 85 percent of the time to lefties and 70 percent of the time to same-side batters. He stays with the fastball if he falls behind, but will show slider when he’s ahead in the count. He will mix in a change against left-handed batters, but will rarely throw one against hitters from the right side.

Both fastball and slider yield a ton of fly balls. Last summer, Young got a fly ball almost 59 percent of the time the ball was put in play. That was the highest fly ball rate in the majors, and it wasn’t even close. Second place belonged to our old friend Jake Odorizzi who’s fly ball rate was just under 49 percent. That’s right. A ten point gap between Young and the rest of the field. That’s not some anomaly. Young’s fly ball rate has been in the mid-fifties nearly every season since 2006. His career fly ball rate is 55 percent.

It’s easy to see why Young is such a fly ball pitcher. For one, velocity. For two, it’s all about the location. From Brooks Baseball, here is a chart illustrating the location of all pitches Young threw in 2014.

Young_pitches

He works up in the zone and on the left side of the plate. (Meaning he’s inside to right-handed batters.) Despite what Uncle Hud may tell you, pitching up in the zone doesn’t necessarily mean you are a fly ball pitcher. In fact, the red concentration in the upper left corner is an area where Young generates a bunch of ground balls. It would seem left-handed batters reach and roll their wrists for the pitch up and off the plate which results in a few more worm-burners. But for Young, those pitches up inside the strike zone do help his amazingly high fly ball rate.

Let’s be real for a moment. If there is any team in baseball that could be defined as “the perfect fit” for Young, it’s the Royals. The high-acreage outfield, the tremendous outfield defense, the infielders who can snag pop-ups of all shapes and sizes. Kudos to the Royals for looking at the market and, while there may not be an immediate need, they recognized the fit. He’s in the fold and should one of the top five starters fall early in the year, Young is clearly the next in line. That’s just good roster management. And that’s something you haven’t often read from me about this team.

Young signed for a base salary of $675,000. There are enough incentive clauses built into his contract that, should he hit them all, he would net around $6 million. According to The Star, Young can earn $1 million in service time bonuses. That’s $250k for making the Opening Day roster along with another quarter million for each of 30, 60 and 90 days on the roster. He can pocket $1.975 million in bonuses for innings pitched and $2.35 million in bonuses for games pitched. I like this kind of deal. It’s a, “Yeah, we know you are a starter but we don’t have room for another starter, so why don’t you come here for less money, and if you do end up in the rotation we will make it right” kind of contract.

Dayton Moore has informed the world that Young will make the team out of spring training. Knowing the Royals rotation is set at this point, barring injury, Young will debut for his new club out of the bullpen. That brings up some interesting bullpen calculus. We know the locks (Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Jason Frasor, and now Young.) If Luke Hochevar is healthy and ready to go, he’s there too. That’s six arms for what should be seven spots. There’s Rule 5 draftee Jandel Gustave to consider. And also Louis Coleman who is out of options. Of course we can’t forget about Brandon Finnegan. (Although the hope remains the Royals will do the right thing and send him to the minors to continue his development as a starter.)

Could the Royals go with an eight-man bullpen? That would be insanity, but the Royals don’t always do the conventional when it comes to roster management. I bet they will. At least at the start of the season, to keep Coleman on the roster so they have less of a risk of losing him on waivers should they send him down after that first week.

Either way, Young will open the season in Kansas City on a team-friendly deal that will pay him appropriately should he find himself in the rotation. It’s a shrewd move that brings this team some depth in the rotation.

It took all of 15 minutes to remember the game was being played in the thin desert air. Back to back to back. Six batters, six runs. Welcome to the Cactus League.

Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios all teed off in the first to give the Royals the cushion for their first victory of the spring.

Cue the “Royals have discovered power!” dispatches.

Far be it for me to tell you how to react, especially when the Royals hit three consecutive home runs, but this isn’t our first rodeo. We know about Surprise and how it makes certain hitters look each spring. And we know about the harsh realities of bringing that offensive mojo to Kansas City, Detroit and Chicago.

Still, I can’t deny that it wasn’t fun to listen to as the barrage was unfolding. Even if it doesn’t count.

— The lineup for the first action of the exhibition season was situated like this:

Alcides Escobar – SS
Jarrod Dyson – LF
Lorenzo Cain – CF
Eric Hosmer – 1B
Kendrys Morales – DH
Alex Rios – RF
Mike Moustakas – 3B
Erik Kratz – C
Christian Colon – 2B

We know Escobar is going to get first crack at leading off when the regular season dawns. He drew a walk in the first to set off the six run rally, which clearly signifies his change in approach to be a better leadoff man. (That’s sarcasm, if you didn’t know. Maybe he changed his approach. Maybe he didn’t. What we do know is he walked in 3.7 percent of his plate appearances last year. A good leadoff man will walk around 12 percent of the time. One PA in Surprise tells us nothing.)

Yost hit Dyson second, but admitted he’s thinking of his options in that spot. In his mind at this moment he’s thinking of Cain, Rios or Alex Gordon. Personally, I’d nominate Gordon. If anything, the acquisition of Rios should push Gordon higher in the lineup, and that’s a good thing. Really, I’d like Gordon to return to the leadoff spot, but it’s difficult to be picky. Just anywhere higher than fifth. Please.

— Tim Collins, scheduled for an inning of work, exited with elbow discomfort after facing four batters in the fifth inning. The Royals are attempting to arrange an early Thursday morning MRI to learn more.

The left-hander is a key component to the middle of the Royals bullpen and represents something of a domino. Should Collins be out for any length of time, the Royals will be tempted to use Brandon Finnegan in the major league bullpen. That’s less than ideal. The team knows Finnegan’s value lies in the rotation and the hope has been for him to be shipped to the minors to open the season as a starter.

If Collins is out, the Royals will be searching for a left-handed replacement. Finnegan would definitely be the front-runner on the basis of his September and October performance, but Franklin Morales, Brian Flynn – acquired from Florida in the Aaron Crow trade – and Joe Patterson could be in the mix. Of the three, only Flynn is currently on the 40-man roster. Patterson and Morales would have to have exceptional springs to break north as both are in camp on minor league deals. Let’s face it… If Collins is truly hurt, the spot is Finnegan’s to lose.

When a pitcher leaves the game with what is termed an “elbow issue,” it’s certain to raise alarm bells. We should know more about the injury Thursday. Fingers crossed.

— From the Star, here’s Ned bringing some perspective to the offensive barrage unleashed by his almost A-Team.

— The Royals square off in another match against the Rangers on Thursday afternoon. Flynn gets his first opportunity to impress as he will start. He will be followed by Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte.

There will be baseball today in Surprise, Arizona. It won’t mean anything with regard to the upcoming season, but it is baseball nonetheless.

Two of the Royals’ pitchers who are tentatively scheduled to pitch this afternoon are twenty-two year old Jandel Gustave and thirty-one year old Yohan Pino. If either wants to head north in April with the big league club, they have some work to do.

Gustave was a Rule 5 pick of the Red Sox who was then traded to the Royals for cash (American, by the way). Despite the trade, he comes with all the trappings of a Rule 5 pick and will have to stay on the big league roster all season or be offered back to his original team, the Astros. Here is Gustave by the numbers:

  • 100 – the velocity of his fastball
  • 67 – walks issued in his two seasons in the Dominican Summer League….in 45 innings.
  • 13 – hit batters last season in 79 A-ball innings
  • 14 – wild pitches last season

So, you get the picture, right?

Gustave throws really, really hard. He has limited control of anything that is not a fastball and, let’s face it, minimal control of the fastball.  Jandel has good strikeout numbers in his five minor league seasons (2 in the Dominican, 2 in Rookie ball and last year in Low-A) – right at a strikeout per inning.  Good, not eye popping.  He does have eye-popping or maybe eye-bleeding control numbers. After walking 8.7 batter per 9 innings in 2012, Gustave cut his walk rate drastically by last season (just 3.3 BB/9), but keep in mind that rate does not count the 13 batters he hit.  To steal the line from a movie and countless others:  “I have no idea where the ball is going…really.”

What the Royals are going to be looking for this spring is if Gustave can get the ball over the plate enough to log some innings when the team is up 10 or down 10.  If he can get the ball over the plate a semi-reasonable amount of the time, one would think the team could stash him as the seventh reliever in a deep bullpen.  The slot likely will only needs to get through 30 low leverage innings, but you have to be able to get through them. If Gustave can’t throw strikes or stop hitting batters, he cannot even occupy that role.  Of course if the Royals go with eight relievers……well, that’s a column for another day.

If young and raw describes Gustave, then old and weathered is Yohan Pino.

Pino finally made the majors for the first time last season, starting 11 games for the Twins.  Featuring a high 80’s fastball. backed by a slider, changeup and an occasional curve, Pino posted an earned run average of 5.07.  His FIP of 3.94 indicates Pino may have been better than that.

In the minors, Pino has been in AA or AAA since 2007 and amassed 1,105 total innings splitting time between the bullpen and the rotation. Yohan has posted a career minor league strikeout rate of 8.1/9:  a number that has held reasonably well at the AAA level.  Coupled with a decent walk rate and average home run rate and you have a guy who is a pitcher, not a thrower. Now, is he a good enough pitcher?

In Pino, the Royals have a guy who has been a swingman basically his entire professional life. He even closed some for Louisville in 2013, so there is no role that is foreign to him. Let’s face it, at thirty-one any role that involves travelling on a charter jet would be welcome.  On the surface and maybe in real life, Pino seems like a nice guy to have as your number six or seven reliever, capable of eating up garbage innings on a bad (or really good) night and ready to make that spot start.  Temper that thought, however, with knowing that he has put up some of his best number being an old guy in AAA.

It never hurts to have a Pino in your inventory, but it usually doesn’t hurt to not have one, either.   The Royals are his sixth organization (seven if you count the Twins twice), so a lot of eyes have had a look at Yohan and decided they could live without him.  I think he likely has a real shot at the last bullpen spot, especially if the Royals decide keeping Gustave would be just too painful.  If not there, he is likely candidate number one to get the call from Omaha if one of the starters goes down.

We won’t get much of a hint today about what the future holds for either of these guys, but we will have baseball and these two will pitch.  The over/under on balls to the screen by Gustave is two, by the way.

How did we get here? How did we arrive at the moment where Kendrys Morales became the Royals designated hitter?

It seems the process was two-fold.

First, the Royals were desperate to part with Billy Butler. We’ve written about this at length. There was just no way the Royals were going to bring Butler back. The Royals declined his option, made a token play at re-signing him and then let him go when Oakland ponied up serious cash leading Moore to admit he misread the market. Second, the Royals figured they would go with the method du jour of rotating the DH spot among players who needed a rest and a couple of bench bats to keep them fresh. They didn’t need a full-time designated hitter.

And within a month and a half, their course of direction changed and Morales was at a introductory press conference at The K. Strange days, indeed.

I gave my reaction to the Morales signing when it happened. It hasn’t changed. Instead of rehashing how the Royals could have better spent their money, let’s instead dive into the player the Royals purchased for two years and all those millions.

Morales hit the free agent market following the 2013 season after turning down a qualifying offer from the Mariners. Teams, leery of surrendering a draft pick as part of the cost of signing Morales, kept their distance. Morales didn’t sign a deal until after the 2014 draft in June. Turning down the qualifying offer cost Morales two-plus months of last season. When he finally got in uniform he was… not good.

Let’s just start with the big picture of Morales’s career stats.

Year Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2006 23 LAA 57 215 197 21 46 10 1 5 22 17 28 .234 .293 .371 .664 71
2007 24 LAA 43 126 119 12 35 10 0 4 15 6 21 .294 .333 .479 .812 111
2008 25 LAA 27 66 61 7 13 2 0 3 8 4 7 .213 .273 .393 .666 73
2009 26 LAA 152 622 566 86 173 43 2 34 108 46 117 .306 .355 .569 .924 139
2010 27 LAA 51 211 193 29 56 5 0 11 39 12 31 .290 .346 .487 .833 129
2012 29 LAA 134 522 484 61 132 26 1 22 73 31 116 .273 .320 .467 .787 119
2013 30 SEA 156 657 602 64 167 34 0 23 80 49 114 .277 .336 .449 .785 123
2014 31 TOT 98 401 367 28 80 20 0 8 42 27 68 .218 .274 .338 .612 75
2014 31 MIN 39 162 154 12 36 11 0 1 18 6 27 .234 .259 .325 .584 64
2014 31 SEA 59 239 213 16 44 9 0 7 24 21 41 .207 .285 .347 .632 83
8 Yrs 718 2820 2589 308 702 150 4 110 387 192 502 .271 .324 .460 .784 114
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2015.

The conventional wisdom is missing spring training in 2014 hurt Morales. I certainly understand that point. And I’m sure it played a role in his struggles. However, to broach this argument is to make it sound like he improved over time. Slow start and he picked up a little steam as he got more plate appearances during the season. Except that’s not how it went down.

June – .215/.250/.316 with a 52 wRC+
July – .216/.243/.289 with a 46 wRC+
Aug – .255/.321/.388 with a 103 wRC+
Sept – .183/.276/.355 with a 81 wRC+

That’s one month out of four where he was roughly a league average hitter. That’s three months out of four where he was breathtakingly subpar. The Mariners finished one game back of the A’s for the final Wild Card spot. It’s not a stretch to imagine Morales and his -0.9 fWAR cost Seattle a shot at the postseason. He was that much of a liability in the lineup.

Let’s take a step back and look again at Morales’s career numbers. There’s a breakout 2009. There’s the truncated 2010 season when he broke his leg jumping on home plate celebrating a walk-0ff, 10th inning grand slam. There’s the missing 2011 thanks to said injury. Then, there’s a nice little comeback. He never reached his pre-injury offensive heights, but when you miss a season and a half and return to average an OPS+ of 121 and post a wRC+ of 119 in back to back seasons, that’s a comeback.

In examining the market for Nelson Cruz, Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus came up with the term “bomb-ass designated hitter.” The thinking goes that teams don’t really need a designated hitter. They can survive the way the Royals thought they would navigate the American League in 2015 by rotating a cast of characters in the role. It’s less expensive and, with the correct roster, it can be effective. Now, if you’re going to spend money on a full-time DH, that DH had better be amazing. He’d better be bomb-ass. And according to Miller, bomb-ass for a DH is one who owns around a 128 OPS+.

It turns out there are very few bomb-ass designated hitters. Victor Martinez? If he’s healthy, he’s totally bomb-ass. David Ortiz? Don’t be silly. Bomb-ass. Old friend Billy Butler? Not bomb-ass, but closer than you may think.

Here is a list of players who, from 2010 to 2014, have collected at least 1,000 plate appearances and had at least half of those plate appearances coming as a designated hitter. In the interest of discovering who is bomb-ass, the list is sorted by OPS+.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 151 2796 34-38 660 2403 378 701 167 4 149 465 367 462 .292 .384 .551 .935
2 Victor Martinez 133 2442 31-35 582 2199 295 697 141 1 78 368 210 207 .317 .374 .488 .863
3 Billy Butler 122 3301 24-28 791 2937 342 872 180 1 87 428 309 482 .297 .365 .448 .812
4 Travis Hafner 118 1392 33-36 360 1202 141 304 59 3 50 178 151 298 .253 .350 .432 .782
5 Luke Scott 116 1388 32-35 382 1223 156 306 75 4 59 189 134 295 .250 .327 .463 .790
6 Kendrys Morales 112 1791 27-31 439 1646 182 435 85 1 64 234 119 329 .264 .319 .434 .753
7 Vladimir Guerrero 109 1233 35-36 297 1155 143 341 57 2 42 178 52 116 .295 .332 .457 .789
8 Johnny Damon 102 1484 36-38 359 1328 185 344 71 14 28 143 137 209 .259 .331 .397 .728
9 Hideki Matsui 102 1246 36-38 320 1094 120 276 53 1 35 163 131 204 .252 .330 .399 .728
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Wow. Some old-timers on that list. Let’s run it again, but this time narrow the span to three seasons and 500 plate appearances.

Rk Player OPS+ PA Age G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1 David Ortiz 156 1585 36-38 369 1360 208 399 91 2 88 267 207 234 .293 .385 .557 .942
2 Victor Martinez 139 1309 34-35 310 1166 155 370 69 0 46 186 124 104 .317 .381 .495 .876
3 Billy Butler 117 1950 26-28 474 1745 191 509 91 1 53 255 174 309 .292 .358 .436 .794
4 Adam Dunn 110 1767 32-34 431 1493 196 319 52 0 97 246 252 570 .214 .329 .443 .773
5 Kendrys Morales 110 1580 29-31 388 1453 153 379 80 1 53 195 107 298 .261 .315 .427 .742
6 Luke Scott 103 635 34-35 187 567 62 133 35 3 23 95 51 143 .235 .304 .429 .733
7 Travis Hafner 102 562 35-36 148 481 54 103 14 3 24 71 64 126 .214 .322 .405 .727
8 Delmon Young 97 1224 26-28 337 1150 111 313 54 2 36 142 50 241 .272 .308 .417 .725
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 3/2/2015.

Morales hasn’t been a bomb-ass DH since he broke his leg. He’s been adequate, but he hasn’t been worth the big bucks. Not even close.

Fine. The 2014 season hurt his numbers, you say. Badly. Such an outlier, you may suggest, it would be unfair to include it in your assessment of Morales as a bomb-ass DH. Sadly, as much as you may want to explain it away, you can’t. It happened. It was real. And it was ugly. So, so ugly. This is not some sort of Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. It cannot be erased.

Then what exactly happened to Morales in 2014 that made it so awful? In a nutshell, he stopped driving the ball.

Compare his spray chart from 2013 to his chart from last season. Notice how much deeper his fly balls travelled in ’13 compared to ’14.

MoralesSpray

Morales is a switch-hitter and his power comes primarily from the right side. There are clusters of blue representing fly balls in left and center that are present in 2014, but they aren’t as deep on the plot as 2013. That has to account for something. As RJ Anderson discovered at Baseball Prospectus, Morales posted career low BABIP on both line drives and fly balls last year.

Morales floundered from both sides last year.

As LHB – .206/.271/.313 with a .239 BABIP and 64 wRC+

As RHB – .239/.281/.381 with a .252 BABIP and 86 wRC+

The power spike as a right-handed batter comes clubbing four home runs in 134 at bats compared to four home runs in 233 at bats as a lefty. Again, that’s where his power lives – from the right side.

Can Morales bounce back? Certainly. No matter how you slice it, 2014 vibes rock bottom. I would bet Morales sees improvement. The projection systems tend to agree.

Steamer – .262/.319/.419 with a 107 wRC+ and 0.5 fWAR

ZiPS – .261/.315/.417 with a 105 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR

PECOTA – .266/.320/.426 with a .276 TAv and 1.2 WARP

Those are some numbers that represent a nice bounce back. If only he were a middle infielder. Alas, he doesn’t own a glove and those numbers are still far from bomb-ass. If the Royals were so hell-bent on throwing money away, they should have just exercised Butler’s option and been saddled with an overpriced DH for one year instead of two. Oh, well. The horse has left the barn and all that.

Industry estimates of Morales’s contract varied from one year at $5 million to 2 years and $20 million. The Royals brought him on board for two years at $17 million. He will earn $6.5 million this season and $9 million in 2016. There is a mutual option for $11 million in ’17 that the Royals can buyout for $1.5 million. No matter how you slice this contract, it’s on the high side of the spectrum and represents a severe overpay for a one-dimensional player whose one dimension is fading. And now, just months after floating the idea they would use the designated hitter position to rotate among their offense, the Royals have a full-time DH on their roster. A DH who is in the decline phase of his career and hasn’t been bomb-ass since 2010 just before he suffered a horrific injury.

The signing didn’t make sense when it happened and it doesn’t make sense today. In fact, there isn’t a way to spin this in a positive for a team in the position of the Royals. The Royals (and their small market brethren) need to make smart fiscal decisions. That means shopping on the free agent market for a DH is folly. Especially one who clearly isn’t bomb-ass like Morales.

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