Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Games like Sunday are interesting to parse after the fact. A close one. Maybe one that could have gone either way. Bullets dodged late. And a devastating, knockout blow to end it.

Let’s start with the good. Which was basically all about Yordano Ventura’s start. For six-plus innings, he had it going on. Flat nasty. Unlike his last start in St. Louis, where the first four batters reached (and two of them scored), Ventura opened strong. He allowed a first inning hit to Kris Bryant and then basically shut the rest of the Cubs lineup down the rest of the afternoon. The non Chris Coghlan portion of the Cubs lineup, anyway.

Ventura didn’t exactly ease through the innings. There was some hard graft involved. But he kept his pitch count manageable by throwing anywhere between 12 and 19 pitches in each of his seven innings. What was most encouraging to me was his velocity. He tickled 100 a couple of times and gained strength as the game progressed. Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, his velocity chart is very impressive on a cold, blustery afternoon at Wrigley.

Ventura_Velo_53115

That’s two very good starts out of his last three. And honestly, there wasn’t much to complain about in his start in St. Louis other than that shaky first inning. It looks like our Yordano is back to form. Which is very good news for a team with a starting rotation that looks like it’s operates on the precipice of a black hole far too often.

Good news, except this is baseball played on National League rules. And National League rules exist to handcuff their American League counterparts. Ventura had thrown 87 pitches through six innings and was slated to bat third in the top of the seventh. Undoubtedly, Ned Yost would have pulled Ventura for a pinch hitter had either Alex Rios or Christian Colon reached base. Instead, after both made out, Ventura walked to the plate. This isn’t to second guess strategy. Had this game been played in an AL park, Ventura certainly would have returned to the mound for his half of the inning. The near pinch hit opportunity is mentioned to note how close the Royals were to perhaps putting this game away. Had Ventura been removed, the H-D-H Triumvirate would have been activated for their full compliment of work. Of course, there’s no way of knowing how that would have turned out. Although we have a pretty good idea.

In the seventh, Ventura walked Miguel Montero with one out. He was wild pitched to center, where he was promptly removed for a pinch runner. With two outs, up strode Ventura’s kryptonite: Chris Coghlan. Entering the game, Coghlan owned a slash line of .207/.282/.422. He had just one game in 2015 where he collected three hits. It’s not an understatement to write he’s having a disappointing season.

Yet it should be noted, of the nine bats in the Cubs lineup, Coghlan was the only one who consistently hit Ventura the first two times up. Hell, yes, it’s a small sample size. But maybe Coghlan had an extra protein shake at breakfast. Maybe he was inspired by the Blackhawks win the night before. Maybe, just maybe, he was seeing Ventura exceptionally well for whatever reason. All we know going into the plate appearance was Ventura needed one more out to record his seventh shutout inning. Yost rolled the dice. He lost.

Managing in hindsight is simple. And delightful to those of us who write a blog. As fun as it is, I really try to avoid it, but sometimes you just have to scratch your head and wonder what the hell the manager was thinking. Third time through the order. Coghlan hit Ventura hard the first two times. A rested bullpen at the ready. Man, I’m not sure how you don’t go to Kelvin Herrera in that situation.

Tie game.

As Coghlan was for the Cubs, Alex Gordon was the only bat operational in another anemic offensive output from the Royals. Three hits, including the single that plated the Royals only run of the afternoon. Gordon also came up huge in the bottom of the 11th when he threw out Dexter Fowler at the plate for the first out of the inning, saving the game for the Royals.

It was a brief stay of execution.

Ryan Madson breezed through the tenth and it made sense to bring him back for the 11th. Runs were always going to be at a premium, so it made sense to be prudent in the managing of relievers. But the Royals half of the 10th inning seemed to take an extended length of time with a pair of pitching changes. Maybe that was the reason Madson wasn’t sharp when he entered the game in the bottom of the inning. From Brooks Baseball, here is his pitching chart for the 11th:

Madson_Location_053115

He was missing by a ton.

The first out was provided courtesy of Gordon. The second out fell just out of the reach of Alcides Escobar. Ballgame.

Yost could have done a few things differently here or there, but other than batting Omar Infante second, he didn’t do anything egregious that cost the Royals this one. Maybe he could have held Mike Moustakas and used him to pinch hit for Infante, then shifted Colon to second. Maybe he could have kept Hosmer in the the game after he pinch hit with a double switch. Whatever. Sometimes that is the stuff that can cost you games. When you play 11 innings and can only muster four hits, you’re not going to be scoring enough runs to win. The offense needs to get back into the groove.

The Royals return home in second place. They ready themselves for three against Cleveland, who have won seven of their last 10. The offense needs to find a pulse, otherwise the dreary end to May will follow them into June.

Joe Posnanski has a recent series of posts about his preferred way to improve the way pitcher wins and losses are tracked. Pos argues the decision should always go to the starters of a game. Start a game and your team wins, you get the win, and vice versa. That simple. I certainly agree that it tells a more complete story than the current rule book version of wins and losses, though Pos’s method of course maintains many of the flaws the current rule holds (mostly that individuals don’t win or lose games).

Piggybacking on that, I wondered how Pos wins and losses would affect Royals starters’ numbers. I looked at the 22 players to have started 100 or more games for KC and compared their actual record to their Pos record. No one’s Pos winning percentage was wildly different than their rule book winning percentage, but it does shed a few pitchers in a different light. Zack Greinke’s official record with the Royals is a not-so-great 60-67, but the team was a dreadful 69-100 in games he started. Tim Belcher has a winning record at 42-37, but the team lost one more than they won when he started (50-51). Bruce Chen similarly flops from a winning to losing record (47-43 vs. 55-58). Bud Black is the one guy who looks dramatically better with his Pos record. Nobody would give a second thought to his official 56-57, but it’s pretty impressive for the team to go 70-58 when you take the mound.

Royals to reach 100 Pos wins:

1. Splitt – 212
2. Leibrandt – 188
3. Leonard – 173
4. Gubicza – 169
5. Appier – 148
6. Saberhagen – 130
7. Gura – 129
8. Gordon – 103

Since I had all this data loaded into a spreadsheet, I thought I may as well throw in another little study. For the 22 pitchers with 100+ starts, I compared the team winning percentage in games they started vs. the team winning percentage when anyone else started during the same years as their Royals career. Clear as mud? Basically it’s measuring how much of a boost or a drag they were to the team compared to their rotation mates.

Danny Jackson was a good pitcher for the Royals, but for some reason the team didn’t find ways to win with him on the mound as much as you’d expect. The 1983-87 Royals won only 43% of his starts while winning 52% of their other games. That’s the only dramatic dip in a negative direction. Rich Gale, Jeff Suppan, Luke Hochevar, and Jorge Rosado also got to 100 starts while their teams actually won at a lower rate with them, but the effect was slight in their cases.

On the flip side, quite a few of the pitchers had a dramatic positive effect on their clubs relative to their contemporary starters. Bruce Chen, Charlie Leibrandt, Bud Black, Steve Busby, Tom Gordon, Dennis Leonard, and Larry Gura all made their teams noticeably better on days they started. Four guys were especially head and shoulders above their mates: Tim Belcher drug otherwise .429 clubs up to .495 in his starts between 1996-98. The team won 58% of Bret Saberhagen’s starts compared to 50% of the other games between 1984-91. Kevin Appier was able to lift some very bad teams (.460 without him) up to a .538 winning percentage. But the biggest difference maker of all was a surprise to me: Al Fitzmorris. The 1970-76 squads grew up rapidly from an expansion team to the brink of the playoffs, and it turns out Fitzmorris deserves quite a bit of credit for the increased winning in those years. Without Fitz, those clubs were a combined .497. But when Fitz started, they turned into an 80-56 (.588) juggernaut.

I’m not in the mood to discuss losing streaks. Guess I just fell out of habit.

Let’s discuss something that is currently moving the national baseball media: The Royals are storming the All-Star Game virtual ballot box. Storming. The first round of results were released on Tuesday and five Royals (five!) are in pole position to get the start for the American League.

AllStar_Update1

In a post last week, I wrote about how you could easily justify giving the starting nod to Hosmer, Moustakas, Gordon, and Cain. The leaders also include Perez and perhaps in a bit of a surprise, Escobar. Hosmer is trailing Miguel Cabrera at first.

Those numbers above are more than a little staggering. Moustakas leads by almost 400k? Cain leads Mike Trout? The other thing that strikes me as a little strange is that the third place in all of the positions besides outfield has fewer than 400k votes. There is already a strong gap between second and third place, which would appear to mean these contests are basically two-man races. Although you have to take any attempt to parse the ballot with a little skepticism. This is the internet, after all.

Still, how is this for a pretty picture?

RoyalAllStar

While the sanctimony from the national baseball writers (“Harumph! Too many Royals!”) is loud, it feels necessary to point out what we are seeing is a fanbase unleashed from 30 years of Baseball Hell. Mix that suddenly resurgent base with a national profile gained from playing in October, then combine that with one of the best starts in baseball through the first seven weeks, and that’s how we’ve arrived at a loaded Royals All-Star roster. Should the Royals somehow get five starters on the team, they would be the first club since the ’76 Reds to load the roster. Fitting. And hilarious. Maybe we’ve been getting this slogan thing wrong all this time. Forget “Forever Royal.” They’re the Big Blue Machine.

There is the little issue of how the balloting is performed. For the first time since 1970, there are no paper ballots available at the stadiums. All-Star voting is entirely unscientific to start, but it seems to me that removing paper ballots will cause some sort of consequence. Maybe Royals fans have a larger internet presence, or are just more likely to vote the maximum 35 times per email address. Or maybe Royals fans are more likely to have multiple email addresses. Even still, maybe Royals fans are more likely to create multiple email addresses for the specific purpose of voting for the All-Star Game. You guys are monsters.

Really, it’s impossible to take the All-Star Game seriously. The game is a glorified exhibition that carries zero juice. I’ll spare you the “good old days” platitudes because that’s kind of bogus, too. Yet there is something the All-Star Game has lost over time. There isn’t one reason, but interleague, all the games on TV, tie games and the silly “This Time It Counts” campaign are good starting points. I digress. The point is, I just can’t get worked up about a silly exhibition. So if one team is overrepresented, so be it.

Yet since I am a Royals fan, I have a definite sense of pride about the whole thing. It’s not exactly a storming of the Bastille, but it’s a nice way to shake our collective fist at the baseball establishment. You’ve force-fed us Yankee and Red Sox laden All-Star teams for years. Now it’s our turn. I’m not going to lie: It’s pretty damn cool.

To my mind, this whole process started back in 2012. Not only did the entire city represent at the All-Star Game, we made headlines for our support of the entire event. We also made headlines for our lack of support of a certain Robinson Cano. And the cheers for Billy Butler were enormous and amazing. It was a helluva party. The buzz carried over through The Trade and of course it reached a crescendo last September and October. The Royals and their fans have made their presence felt nationally.

This is just the culmination of the last three years. Or is it the continuation? The Royals are drawing an average of 31,815 fans per game. That number is astonishing. Can I interest you in another attendance fact that could blow your mind? The Royals are playing to an average of 83.9 percent capacity at The K. Only the Giants, Red Sox and Cardinals play to fuller stadiums on average. The Royals are ahead of teams from Los Angeles and New York for crying out loud.

Kansas City is a baseball town. It manifests itself in the support of the city at the turnstiles. And it manifests itself at the virtual All Star ballot box. I’m thrilled. It’s been a long winter. Thirty years. And I don’t give a damn about what anyone from anywhere else in the country thinks about the Royals. I hope we can get Hosmer ahead of Cabrera and I would laugh myself sick if we could bump Omar Infante to the top of the second base pool.

Time to wrap this up. I have another email address to create and 35 more votes to stuff in the virtual ballot box.

Dayton Moore’s new book More Than A Season, written with Matt Fulks, is a quick and mostly enjoyable look at GMDM’s leadership philosophies and his first nine seasons at the helm of the good ship Royals with a focus on the 2014 season. It is worth the read for die-hard Royals fans to get a slightly better understanding of Moore’s guiding baseball and life beliefs, though there won’t be anything too surprising for those who have been closely tracking his time in KC. Too much of the book reads like cliché motivational poster headlines, but Moore’s recent success lends at least a hint of substance behind the buzzwords. I personally bristle at pat aphorisms such as “stay calm in the eye of the storm,” which is one of Moore’s seven points for “organizational harmony,” but, hey, if it works for him and the team is winning, I’m all for it. Moore also repeatedly brings up his Christianity and quotes the Bible to the point of proselytizing, which I could do with less of, but I’m glad if it works for him—so long as non-Christian Royals employees are welcomed and respected under his watch.

Those issues aside, there are enough nuggets of behind the scenes info to redeem the book. I enjoyed learning more about Moore’s life before coming to the Royals, including his collegiate baseball career and climb up the ranks after going to work for the Braves. His telling of his hiring for the Royals job in 2006 and his discovery that things were much worse in KC than he realized before taking the job was illuminating. But some of Moore’s nuggets needed to be fleshed out. He briefly touches on the expansion of the team’s analytics department, and that (rather obviously), “an in-depth statistical analysis” happens before player acquisitions, and that “(analytics is) an area where I have grown professionally.” Would be interesting stuff, but he offers no details about that growth or instances where analytics have helped the team. The fact that he relies on fielding percentage, batting average, and RBI when mentioning stats in the book doesn’t exactly inspire confidence (though that might just be because those are the numbers familiar to the average reader).

Moore dedicates an entire chapter to Alex Gordon which contains some good specifics about how and why Rusty Kuntz proposed and guided Gordon’s position switch from third base to left field. Moore echoes my sentiments by calling Alex “the heartbeat of the team,” which makes me slightly more optimistic that the Royals will do all they can to keep him in KC. Alex contributed a foreward to the book in which he calls Moore a father figure. (I think it is safe to say both sides would prefer for Alex to remain in KC long term, but I still fear another team swooping in with an enormous offer Alex couldn’t refuse and the Royals wouldn’t match.)

Overall, it’s a flawed but enjoyable book, and recommended for those who can’t get enough Royals. Moore’s corporate jargon, proselytizing, and blind spots would have driven me up the wall before 2014, but it goes down a lot easier these days. As long as the fun continues, you just keep doing you, Dayton.

The last time the Royals went 18-11 to start the season, they also had a debacle on Memorial Day:  losing 13-1 to Detroit in what was pretty much the beginning of the end to both that season and Gil Meche’s career.  What does that have to do with 2015?  Absolutely nothing, other than keeping the 18-11 meme alive.  That 2009 team was already taking on water, this year’s Royals squad just had a bad day.

Speaking of bad days, Jeremy Guthrie had the worst.  He brought absolutely nothing to mound yesterday – I’m pretty sure Craig Brown and Aaron Stilley got doubles off him.  That will happen when on a windy day in the Bronx when you are a pitcher who strikes out no one. Guthrie has the lowest strikeout rate (3.54/9) among qualified starting pitchers in baseball.   Jeremy’s earned run average is 6.70, his FIP is 6.02, which is only better than two guys pitching for the Rockies. To say Guthrie had some measure of ‘correction’ from his previous three starts is an understatement. Maybe it was just bad luck….and Jeremy Guthrie.

The Royals, however, are right on schedule. A little while back, I arbitrarily picked thirteen game stretches and determined if the Royals simply went 7-6 in each stretch (after their 7-0 start), they would end up with 90 wins. Well, they went 7-6 and then they went 7-6 again and are already 7-4 in this current thirteen game period.  Sure, they have been outscored 20-2, the last two games, but all that goes away with a win tonight.  Is 90 wins enough?  Maybe, maybe not, but if all the Royals have to do to get there is go 7-6 all year long, I like their chances of doing a little better.

Danny Duffy is on the disabled list. The Royals are crafty little guys, aren’t they? If Danny was third in the league in ERA, I’m pretty sure he would be pitching through this ‘soreness/stiffness’ issue.  As it is, this give the Royals a nice opportunity to let Duffy hit the reset button on 2015. A couple of rehab – some speculated he could get as many as five if Kansas City were to play out the entire minor league rehab scenario – in Omaha might be just what Danny needs.  I mean, it sure as hell cannot hurt.

Vargas is back. I wrote this last week, but Kansas City’s fortunes have turned so much that when they send a pitcher to the disabled list for fifteen days, that is actually all there is to it.  I had already written Jason Vargas off as a going under the Tommy John knife and here he is, back in action. Vargas has essentially been the exact same pitcher the past five seasons, which is better than he was in his first five starts for the Royals this year.  I cannot imagine the Royals are going to get major innings out of Jason tonight in New York – they held Joe Blanton out of yesterday’s debacle specifically because they are expecting to piggy back him with Vargas tonight – but it definitely helps the Royals’ rotation to have Vargas at least on his way back.  After all, a rusty Vargas can’t be worse than Danny Duffy was…or Jeremy Guthrie.

Or has it changed? The karma, I mean.  Greg Holland spent time on the disabled list with a minor injury, came back and saved three games, blew a save and then didn’t pitch for 11 days before looking bad yesterday.  Since his return, Holland has allowed five hits in six innings while walking SEVEN and striking out just four.  His average fastball velocity is more than two miles-per-hour slower in 2015 than it was last season. None of that screams ‘healthy’.

Rumor time. Some people hate it, some people love it, some people think there is something inhumane about it, but trade rumor time is coming – maybe it never left. Jim Bowden, beloved by all, has linked Matt Garza and Aaron Harang to the Royals. It is theoretically possible that this might possibly have a chance of being a little accurate.  Or not.  Garza is not as good as baseball has wanted him to be and would be under contract through 2017 (possibly 2018 with a vesting option that I’ll look up when someone other than Bowden links the Royals to him).  Harang is old, but still effective especially in Kaufmann with the Royals’ defense behind him. I kind of wonder how much (i.e. little) it might take to get Harang, who is under contract only through 2015.  I can understand you not being excited at the idea, but what if Danny Duffy cannot throw strikes in Omaha?  What if Jason Vargas really isn’t healthy?  What if we start seeing more of Memorial Day Guthrie and less of the guy who threw 18 effective innings in his three previous starts?  Those are the questions that make me drink.  Well, that and an intense desire to, you know, drink.

 

We are almost a quarter through the regular season. The Royals have played 40 games and won 26, marking the best start in franchise history.

Here are a few random notes:

— The Royals are second in the American League in On Base Percentage at .338. This is a seismic shift in Kansas City baseball. Granted, this is fueled by an obscenely elevated BABIP of .322. They still refuse to take a walk. At 5.4 percent, their walk rate isn’t just in the bottom of the AL, it’s practically subterranean. In fact, I went all the way back to 1960 in the American League. There wasn’t a single team that finished with a walk rate below six percent. The Royals aren’t just doing things their own damn way, they’re setting fire to conventional wisdom along the way.

— While the Royals are getting on base at a quality clip, their current leader in OBP? None other than Mike Moustakas. His .396 OPB edges Eric Hosmer by a single point. Still, a lead is a lead, no matter how slim.

To me, nothing underscores the insanity of the first quarter of this season than Moustakas leading in any offensive category. OBP? Get out of here.

— If I had an All-Star Game ballot:

C – Stephen Vogt
1B – Eric Hosmer
2B – Jason Kipnis
3B – Mike Moustakas
SS – Jose Iglesias
LF – Alex Gordon
CF – Mike Trout
RF – Josh Reddick
DH – Nelson Cruz

That’s three Royals and it hurt to give the nod to Trout over Lorenzo Cain. Cain has the edge defensively (duh), but Trout’s offensive numbers are otherworldly. His offensive edge over Cain is larger than Cain’s defensive edge. For reserves, you could certainly make a case for Salvador Perez and Cain is definitely on the team. Add Wade Davis for good measure and you have six deserving Royals. Six.

It’s almost as if “Ken Harvey, All-Star” never happened. Almost.

(By the way, I know that technically everyone has an All-Star ballot. Except those ballots don’t exist anymore. The only way you can vote is online.)

— If you’ve read this blog for any number of posts, you know I don’t have much time for RBI. I do, however, enjoy RBI%. Basically, that’s just the percentage of the number of baserunner who come around to score. This year, the Royals are scoring a whopping 18 percent of all baserunners. Most teams are clustered around the 14 percent rate, which is the league average. At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest scoring teams plate around 12 percent of their baserunners, or two percentage points off the average. The Royals are outpacing the league by four percentage points. Impressive.

In the last 10 years, a handful of teams have scored 17 percent of their runners. No one has scored 18 percent. It’s still very early, so there’s plenty of time for regression here, but this is an impressive start.

— Lorenzo Cain is a defensive god.

According to The Fielding Bible, he leads the universe with 13 defensive runs saved.

How amazing is that? Among teams, just four have more than 13 defensive runs saved. (Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Giants, and of course, Royals.) Teams!

— This may be the most fun I’ve ever had watching baseball. This team is beating their opponents in myriad ways. They are hitting doubles, they are getting (sometimes) solid starting pitching, the lockdown bullpen… The thing that struck me from their last game against the Reds was how they scored. Of the first five runs the Royals tallied, four of them scored when the Royals batter hit into an out. Here’s how they scored:

Sac Fly
Fielder’s Choice
Sac Fly
Single
Double Play

Just another night at the ballpark.

It was just one week ago when I wrote that the Royals might well have to consider making a serious move to upgrade the starting rotation. That was written on the heels of Yordano Ventura giving up five runs the day after Edinson Volquez gave up four runs in five innings, which came right after Danny Duffy gave up six in less than four innings.  There were three more turns through the rotation before the end of May, I said, if things don’t improve by then something will have to be done.

Well, so far, so good.  Maybe not a rebound, but certainly a nice bounce.

It started last Thursday night as Jeremy Guthrie allowed two runs over five innings.  That is not a great start, but given what the rotation had been providing, it was a nudge in the right direction. That was followed by 5.2 innings of one run work by Chris Young in a game in which the Royals scored twelve and Aaron Brooks got to pitch. The next night was Danny Duffy night.  Some saw progress out of Duffy by wallowing through five innings.  Well, let me tell you, I have seen Progress and Saturday night was no Progress.

Then things got real interesting.

Edinson Volquez pitched seven shutout innings, allowing just three hits.  Wade Davis and Jason Frasor combined to allow five baserunners in two innings (I think they were bored), but managed to complete the shutout.  After an off-day, we finally got to see THE Yordano Ventura: seven more shutout innings on just four hits and zero walks.  Those two were followed by six MORE shutout innings from Jeremy Guthrie.

The Royals were a two-out double of Ryan Madson away from three consecutive shutouts and, by the way, scored 16 runs while it was happening.  Baseball is an easy game when things are rolling like this.  With their bullpen, things are real easy for the Royals when their starters give them six or seven good innings.  It is easy even if Kansas City was playing with last year’s offense.

Certainly, twenty innings of shutout ball from your rotation is not going to happen very often, but it is a positive trend.  Volquez has been a delight this year, showing more pitch efficiency than his track record suggested we could expect and, frankly, being the Royals best starter. Ventura, at least for one night, was the guy we expected to be at the front of the Royals’ rotation in 2015.  Was he too hyped up to start the season, then two laid-back after all the commotion? Mental stuff, man, you never know.

Guthrie?  We all know who Jeremy Guthrie is.  He will give you all he has and sometimes that won’t be good enough, but sometimes it is and he is prone to hot streaks.  Ignoring the money, there is nothing wrong with Guthrie at the end of your starting rotation.  That is, nothing wrong with it, if Ventura and Volquez pitch well.

In the middle is Chris Young, who has a track record when healthy and especially in the early parts of season, to be quite good.  Now, if you send me your address, I will mail you a dollar bill if Young throws more than 150 innings this year.   When we talk of track records, staying healthy and effective long enough to log major innings does not show up on Young’s.  For now, he has been truly outstanding and the Royals would be wise to ride him as long as he stays hot.

Then there’s is Danny Duffy.  Oh Danny, Danny, Danny, Danny….

With two off days sandwiched around a two game series, I would have skipped Duffy in the rotation this time through and opted to go with Young tomorrow (on 6 days rest), Volquez on Saturday (on 5 days rest) and Ventura on Sunday (on regular rest).  That said, it is early in the season, and I believe the Royals may be worried about a skipped start digging Duffy into a deeper hole and also he may need to pitch more than he need to think.

With Jason Vargas seemingly on the verge of being ready to return (the Royals’ karma has changed so much that now when they put a guy on the 15 day disabled list, it really is just for 15 days – not a year and a half!), this could well by Duffy’s last start for a while.  Another short outing with lots of runs and shotgun control and I could see Duffy in Omaha. I mean, really, we have Stormchaser season tickets, I could SEE him.  I would prefer not to, however.

The Royals, long term, need Danny Duffy to be an effective starting pitcher and probably that is the primary reason he will make his next scheduled start even though there is ample opportunity to juggle the rotation this time through.  Frankly, the way the rotation has pitched since last Thursday, who is going to put money against Duffy going a strong six against the Cardinals this weekend?

 

It was a dominant turn. The likes we haven’t seen since October of last year.

Mostly, it was cause for a sigh of relief.

Yordano Ventura, the hurricane of bizarre pitching performances so far in 2015, turned in by far his best start of the season. His performance was key in the Royals 3-0 win over the Reds, which secured back to back shutouts for the Royals for the first time in 23 years.

His final line:

7 IP, 4 H, 0 R, o BB, 6 SO. He threw 88 pitches, 54 of them for strikes.

And… Exhale.

The shenanigans of April overshadowed the fact Ventura was getting off to a semi-decent start. In outings ended by either cramps or ejections, he was strong in three of them. His worse start was the debacle at The K against Oakland. It was after all of the hubbub of the early season that really caused concern. In his three starts following the kerfuffle in Chicago, Ventura threw just over 18 innings, allowing 14 runs while walking nine batters against just 11 strikeouts. Most alarmingly, his velocity in those starts was down.

Neither command, runs or velocity was an issue on Tuesday.

In those three starts, Ventura got a swing and a miss six percent of the time. On Tuesday, he missed bats 10 percent of the time. He didn’t go to a three-ball count until old friend Brayan Pena worked him full with two outs in the bottom of the third. (Pena eventually went down swinging.) If you want to get really micro, Ventura’s worst match-up came leading off the top of the seventh when Todd Frazier took the first three pitches out of the strike zone. Ventura adjusted, taking a little off a “get-me-over” fastball to go 3-1 before he got him to foul out.

Ventura_frazier

After the game, it was revealed that in his previous start, Ventura struggled with tear in the fingernail of his right index finger. That issue flared up again late in the sixth inning. Easy to see why he missed early starting the seventh.

Yet Ventura rallied and got the next two batters. For his final batter of the evening, Brandon Phillips, Ventura was still throwing smoke, topping out at 99 mph on his fastball. According to normalized PitchF/X data collected by Brooks Baseball, Ventura averaged 97.6 mph on his fastball and topped out at 100.5 mph. From the velocity chart, you can see how he got stronger in the middle innings and then was able to maintain his velocity through a crafty mix of his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.

Ventura_051915_Velo

One trend that we’ve seen slowly revealed this season with Ventura is his increasing ground ball rate. We saw that to the extreme on Tuesday as 11 of the 14 outs he recorded on balls in play were hit on the ground. Overall for 2015, Ventura has a 2.3 GB/FB ratio and his 55 percent ground ball rate is by far the highest of his career. Strikeouts and ground balls… That’s a nifty way to make a living. And as we saw, it’s nearly impossible for the opposition to do any kind of damage when that’s the recipe Ventura is cooking.

Since that start against Chicago, Ventura has slowly been regaining his velocity. Tuesday was the pinnacle of his rebound.

Ventura_2015Velo

Ventura said it was the best he has felt all year, and that was incredibly obvious. It was a masterful performance. He will always be measured against his efforts in Game Six, which may not always be fair, but that’s was such a great outing that it can’t be helped. Let’s just say that if you had flashbacks to that October night while watching him work on a cold, rainy May night against another National League opponent, it wouldn’t be strange. It was that kind of performance.

Welcome back, Ventura.

herrera

RHP ∙ 2011—present

Kelvin Herrera signed with the Royals in December, 2006 as a 16 year old kid in the Dominican. Dayton Moore had just started as GM in June of that year, and immediately began ramping up scouting and signing in international markets. He hired Rene Francisco to lead international operations in August, 2006, and Francisco and his scouts have had tremendous success with signings including Herrera, Salvador Perez, and Yordano Ventura. The team tried Herrera as a starter in rookie league and Class A ball between 2007—10 before converting him to a reliever for the 2011 season. Herrera’s wicked fastball, now unleashed with max effort, carried him all the way through Classes A, AA, AAA, and then two September innings in the show that 2011 season.

He made the bullpen out of spring training in 2012, and in his second appearance of that season lit up the gun with a 103. He was excellent for that entire year, establishing his niche and modus operandi that continue to serve the team so well. Herrera protects close leads in the seventh or eighth innings with that incredible fastball complemented by an equally nasty change-up usually thrown around 88 MPH and sometimes touching 90. Since Herrera has never been given the limiting role of closer, manager Ned Yost feels more freedom on when he can call on him, and Herrera leads the bullpen in appearances and innings since the start of 2012.

Herrera suffered a set-back in the early going of 2013 when his command went AWOL and he yielded eight homers during a stretch of 14 innings. Towards the end of June, his ERA had ballooned to 5.20 and he was sent down to Omaha to get his groove back. He returned to KC a few weeks later and has been back to cruising ever since. In his career to date, Herrera has struck out nearly one-fourth of the batters he’s faced, and that fastball has averaged 98 MPH. He’s definitely the hardest throwing Royal since the advent of PITCHf/x, and probably the fastest in team history.

He got even better in 2014. He was locked into the seventh inning role, and combined with eighth inning maestro Wade Davis and closer extraordinaire Greg Holland to form an almost unbeatable late innings machine. Herrera allowed zero home runs to the 285 batters he stared down in the regular season and was an integral player in getting KC back to the playoffs.

Those playoffs started off a little rocky for Herrera in the Wild Card game when he was called in to stop the bleeding that James Shields and Yordano Ventura had started in the sixth inning. Herrera yielded three softly hit singles before getting out of the inning after the A’s mounted a 7-3 advantage. But Yost brought Herrera back to pitch a spotless seventh, a mark of the trust Yost has in Herrera and a sign of pitching coach Dave Eiland’s and Yost’s playoff strategy to sometimes count on both Herrera and Davis for more than one inning per game that served the team well all October. Things took a worrisome turn in game one of the ALDS when Herrera walked the only batter he faced, winced in pain, and exited with tightness in his right forearm and numbness in the index and middle fingers. An MRI revealed no damage and everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Herrera came back to pitch a perfect frame in game three. Herrera shined brightest in the ALCS, hurling 5.2 crucial, scoreless innings. He came up big in the World Series as well, with Yost leaning on him hard in game seven, squeezing eight outs of the hardy reliever.

Herrera serves as an instructive lesson on the franchise as a whole over the last nine years. Whereas the Royals had basically ignored the international market before, Dayton Moore immediately made it a focus in 2006 and hit big with Herrera and others. Herrera took time to develop and mature but payed off big in 2014, right along with the rest of Moore’s long-term strategy. In an era where power reliever success is so often fleeting, Herrera is working on his fourth straight season as a remarkably reliable and resilient rocket arm.

The Royals have scored 190 runs on the season. That’s the second most in the AL, behind only the Toronto Blue Jays who have plated an even 200. Scoring runs is the key to accumulating wins, as anyone will tell you. I mean, that’s fairly obvious and probably not why you stop by this blog. However, it’s not the only thing. Take those same Blue Jays. Yes, they lead the majors in runs scored but they are five games under .500 and five games behind the leaders in the East. They are in last place.

On the flip side, the Royals have allowed only 137 runs. Again, that’s the second best in the AL. This time, they are behind only the Los Angeles Angels, who have allowed 129 runs to score. Just like runs scored, preventing runs aren’t the only key to winning games. The Angels are just a single game above .500 and they trail first place Houston by 5.5 games.

So while runs scored and runs allowed, taken alone, aren’t exactly indicators of success or failure. Combined however, and you’re getting closer. As you may imagine, the Royals, with their second best mark in runs scored and their second best spot in runs allowed, do really well in run differential.

As of Monday, the Royals run differential is at +55. By far the best in the American League.

Here are the top five:

Royals – +55
Astros – +23
Tigers – +20
Rays – +17
Yankees – +15

Here we are, a month-plus into the regular season

The Royals run differential gives them a Pythagorean record of 24-13. Which is one game better than their actual record of 23-14. That’s unbelievable, yet not surprising. If that’s possible. (Pythagorean record is a simple formula based on runs scored and runs allowed to deliver an expected won-loss record. It’s not predictive of anything.)

More indicative of how a team has performed is the 3rd order winning percentage. This is a winning percentage adjusted for statistics and strength of schedule. Because it takes into account more than just raw runs scored and allowed, there’s a little more depth to 3rd order winning percentage. As of Monday, the Royals 3rd order winning percentage is 25-13, a .667 winning percentage. And best in the American League.

We know the strengths of this team. The defense and the bullpen are righteous. This year, the offense has taken a massive step forward. While the BABIP has started to normalize (it’s currently at .322, down from the stratosphere it occupied in late April) the defensive runs saved and the relief corps are keeping the damage we would find in the regression to a minimum.

There are still flaws on this team. (Cough, cough… starting pitching.) It’s difficult to say if those flaws are serious enough to derail this team going forward. However, the strengths are real enough that these Royals don’t look like one-year wonders. There’s some staying power here.

This could be one hell of a summer.

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