Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

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.

Alcides Escobar is the current Royals leadoff hitter. This is a very bad choice.

On Thursday, Escobar went 3-5 with two runs scored and three driven home. That’s a pretty complete day. But if we’ve learned anything from our blog journey through Royals fandom, it’s damn the small sample sizes. If the timing of the post is curious to you after Escobar’s successful day at the plate, it shouldn’t be.

Here are four reasons Escobar is a bad choice to hit at the top of the order for the Royals.

Escobar is currently seeing 3.39 pitches per plate appearance.

That rate is the second lowest among Royals regulars. If you can’t guess the lowest, turn in your fan card. (It’s Sal.) Out of 187 qualified hitters in the major leagues, Escobar ranks 174th in working the count. He’s among other notable hackers such as Chris Owings, Alexi Ramirez, and Evan Gattis. Sure, Jose Altuve is also down the list – he sees only 3.18 pitches per plate appearance. Like everything in baseball, there is no hard and fast rule saying that “X” attribute definitively leads to “Y” result. Let’s just point out there are more guys like Owings on the lower part of the list than guys like Altuve.

Escobar has always been a swing first, work the count never kind of hitter. While this didn’t prevent Ned Yost from pushing him as a leadoff batter, Escobar’s approach this season should be raising alarm bells. His rate of pitches seen per plate appearance has declined this year, relative to other seasons.

2011 – 3.76
2012 – 3.73
2013 – 3.48
2014 – 3.56
2015 – 3.39

Granted, this isn’t some sort of seismic shift in number of pitches Escobar is seeing, but when you move a guy from the bottom of the order where he hit for most of 2014 to the top and the number of pitches he sees declines, that feels like a fairly strong indicator that his approach has unchanged given his new situation in the lineup.

Naturally, this is an epidemic on the Royals. As a team, they are seeing 3.6 pitches per plate appearance. That’s the worst rate in the American League and only the Phillies at 3.58 P/PA are worse.

Escobar’s approach is increasingly aggressive. Too aggressive for the top spot in the lineup.

About a week ago, Escobar led off the game clubbing the first pitch he saw for a home run. He hasn’t swung at every first pitch since then, but sometimes it feels like it.

For the season, Escobar is swinging at the first pitch 30.4 percent of the time. He’s never topped a 30 percent first swing percentage in his entire career. Remember, leading off isn’t just about the start of the game. It’s about setting the table for the alleged run producers who occupy the middle of the order. Cain, Hosmer, and Gordon can’t drive in Escobar if he’s not on base. So while it would behoove Escobar to work the count as noted above, he’s going up swinging at the first pitch more this year than any time in his career. It’s a curious time for newfound aggression.

Historically, Escobar doesn’t get on base enough to hit at the top of the order.

Escobar owns a career OBP of .301. The league average during his major league tenure is .325. If the goal is to get the best hitters the most plate appearances and minimize those of the worst, the Royals are doing it wrong.

Year Age Tm Lg G PA AB R H BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 158 598 548 69 139 25 73 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 155 648 605 68 177 27 100 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 158 642 607 57 142 19 84 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 162 620 579 74 165 23 83 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 25 116 105 14 32 4 10 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 850 3314 3079 361 814 138 439 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 162 632 587 69 155 26 84 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

But wait, you say. There are a couple of years where he’s at least close to average in on base percentage. He’s had two years where he’s almost hit triple digits in OPS+.

See if you can find a common thread to those years.

Year Age Tm Lg PA Outs RC RC/G BAbip BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
2011 24 KCR AL 598 449 55 3.3 .285 .254 .290 .343 .633 74
2012 25 KCR AL 648 455 80 4.7 .344 .293 .331 .390 .721 96
2013 26 KCR AL 642 490 49 2.7 .264 .234 .259 .300 .559 53
2014 27 KCR AL 620 444 70 4.2 .326 .285 .317 .377 .694 93
2015 28 KCR AL 116 81 15 5.0 .326 .305 .345 .419 .764 110
8 Yrs 3314 2419 334 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
162 Game Avg. 632 461 64 3.7 .301 .264 .301 .351 .652 78
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/15/2015.

The years where his on base percentage is above .300 come when his BABIP is likewise above .300. BABIP is often misunderstood, but there should be no mistaking that it’s a volatile stat that has no year to year correlation. The BABIP gods giveth and the BABIP gods taketh away.

If you are building a lineup and want to get your best on base guy at the top, do you base your decision on stats inflated by secondary items that aren’t sustainable? Yeah, I thought so.

The Royals are basing Escobar leading off from a small sample size. 

On September 13, 2014, Escobar owned a slash line of .264/.305/.363. He acquired this hitting mostly eighth or ninth in the order. In an effort to generate more offense down the stretch, Yost pushed Nori Aoki to second in the order, dropped Omar Infante out of the second spot and penciled in Escobar at the top. Escobar had two hits in four plate appearances and the Royals beat the Red Sox 7-1. From that moment on, Escobar hit .375/.412/.484 out of the leadoff spot as the Royals clinched a Wild Card berth. Then in the postseason, as the Royals exclusive leadoff hitter, Escobar reverted to form and slashed .292/.305/.415. His offensive performance was overlooked thanks to a few key hits and the Royals spectacular run to Game Seven of the World Series.

It seems that the 15 games in September were enough to cement Escobar’s role on the 2015 Royals. Never mind the career evidence of a .299 on base percentage through 2014. Why look at almost 3,200 plate appearances when you can focus on a random stretch of around 65?

Overall lineup construction isn’t something to sweat over, but it’s a big deal when teams bat a hitter who should bat in the lower third of the order at the top.

Last year, the number one spot in the Royals lineup came to the plate 744 times. The ninth spot came up 593 times. To dive further into the numbers, last year the Royals leadoff hitters combined to post a .339 on base percentage. I’m going to blow your mind. That was much better than the league average of .326. It also ranked second best in the American League. (Quick aside, despite success reaching base, the first spot in the batting order scored only 82 times for the Royals. That was the third worst tally in the AL.)

Meanwhile, the ninth spot in the Royals lineup posted a cumulative OBP of .273. That was well below the league average of .286.

So if you put the league average ninth place hitter in the leadoff spot, he’s going to make about 30 more outs during the season than the league average leadoff man. That’s a sizable difference.

Is Escobar 30 outs worse than any other potential leadoff man in the Royals lineup? Difficult to say, but I’d guess probably not. Escobar has posted an OBP that low only once in his career. If he finished with his career OBP of .301 the Royals would be sacrificing roughly 18 outs with Escobar at the top of the order. In the grand scheme, that’s not even a full nine innings of outs. But with outs the most precious commodity a lineup possesses, why waste them when it can be avoided?

The Royals employ several smart people who have computers and crunch numbers. I bet if we polled all of them, they would acknowledge the fallacy of basing a key decision on such a small sample size. I also bet the answer would be unanimous that Escobar does not belong in the leadoff spot.

Escobar’s current numbers are impressive. He owns a slash line of .305/.345/.419 with an OPS+ of 110. If the season ended today, all of those numbers would be career highs. It’s an impressive start and the Royals have certainly benefitted with his bat at the top of the order. However, the evidence of his approach at the plate suggests his success is going to be short-lived. The Royals have gotten lucky so far. They should be thinking of a “Plan B” as his regression is going to be rather painful and noticeable at the top of the order.

Since starting the season with seven straight wins, the Kansas City Royals have gone 14-13.  Thus far, that has been good enough to get into and stay in first place.  A few weeks back, I noted that the Royals could put themselves into position to win 90 games by simply going 7-6 over each of eleven thirteen game stretches between the seven game win streak to start the season and the evening of Sunday, September 20th.  That would put them at 84-66 with twelve games to play.

Well, the Royals have gone 7-6 in the first two thirteen game spans.  Last night’s loss was the first game of a new thirteen game span.  Why thirteen games?  No reason, just happened to be the random point of the season when I thought of it.  You can slice and dice however you wish, but the premise is that the Royals can play just a little better than .500 ball for the rest of the year and likely be in decent to very good shape of making the playoffs.

That seemed like a doable task when I first wrote it, but that was before Danny Duffy managed to accumulate all of four innings of work in two combined starts, before Jason Vargas went on the disabled list and before Yordano Ventura ate 13 innings over two starts that included allowing 9 runs and burying his team early both times. I ranted on Tuesday (and it was just a rant, not analysis, not noteworthy) about the starting rotation and things got worse.

A few weeks back, I took in a game with a couple of friends and we were talking about how deep the Royals’ bullpen was.  My thought was it was a fertile stockpile with which to make a trade and my friends asked a very logical question:  ‘Well, where would you improve?’  At the time, second base was (and remains) squarely in my sights.  Dollars be damned, if the Royals could upgrade second, they should.  They won’t, I don’t think, because Omar Infante is under contract for two seasons after this, but it seemed like the place to look.  Now, three weeks later, with the rotation offering us two good Chris Young starts, one by Jeremy Guthrie and a whole bunch of yuck, it seems obvious the Royals should be seriously considering a rotation upgrade.

The minors offer very little in the way of help.  Joe Blanton has an opt-out tomorrow and, well, is still Joe Blanton.  Christian Binford is in Omaha and does not really have the ‘look’ of anything more than a back of the rotation starter at best in the majors.  John Lamb? That would be a nice surprise, but it is difficult to see him going six and two-thirds effectively in the majors any more regularly than the current rotation.  Kyle Zimmer?  Yeah, prove to me he even exists.  Sean Mannea?  Injured.  Almonte? Not ready, not close.  Brandon Finnegan? He’s on the reliever merry-go-round.  You get the idea.

Without question, it is early.  I am not advocating trading for Johnny Cueto tonight…well, if you want to Mr. Moore, go ahead, but it’s too early to go into full panic buyer’s mode.  That said, the time is coming when the Royals will either have to get better starting pitching or seriously make a move.  The best bullpens in the world don’t do much other than get worn out if their starting pitcher consistently puts them in a 4-0 hole. The best offense in the world (and the Royals are good, but not the best in the world) cannot consistently battle back from an early deficit.  It wears you out, just because it cannot be statistically quantified does not mean it doesn’t happen.

So, let’s get back to the deep bullpen. I don’t believe trading a reliever for a starter, no matter how good the reliever might be, straight up happens in baseball: not if you are looking for a real upgrade in a starter.  The Royals also don’t have THAT prospect to center a trade around.  There is no Wil Myers in the system or Yordano Ventura (rumored to be the asking price for Howie Kendrick at one point) or Zack Greinke (rumored to have been asked for in exchange for David Wright before Zack made his major league debut). I am not even sure there is a Jake Odorizzi to offer.

There are those who love and covet prospects, I’ve lost that attachment to most or at least to the current group in a good, not great, Royals’ system. If Hunter Dozier and Raul Mondesi (currently hurt) greases the wheels of a trade for a starter, I am not sure I lose sleep over it.  That said, to get the conversation even started, Dayton Moore would have to part with one of the vaunted Herrera-Davis-Holland triad of doom.  All three are good and all three are not getting any cheaper.  How much less effective would Madson/Hochevar-Davis-Holland or Madson/Hochevar-Herrera-Davis be than the current group?  Would you trade Greg Holland and Hunter Dozier for two and a half months of Johnny Cueto?  Would you throw in Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner to make it happen?

The Royals will take a spin through the starting rotation three more times before the end of May.  A couple of lights out Ventura starts, twenty innings from Danny Duffy and news that Jason Vargas really isn’t going to need Tommy John surgery and maybe these thoughts go away.  That, obviously, is the best case scenario.

What if the above doesn’t happen and the Royals limp to the end of May with an overtaxed bullpen and little improvement in the rotation?  Then it will be time to pick your target, swallow hard and start thinking about trading players you would rather not.

Alex Gordon is our savior. Of this there can be no debate.

It was his best game of the season. His second three hit game (his first was last week – May 8 – at Detroit) but this one came with a pair of doubles and the game winning home run in the tenth. Mix in the usual outfield assist on a great throw to third and this was as complete a game from A1 as you can imagine.

Gordon_051215_HR

Gordon said he was up there looking to be aggressive and… Yep. First pitch fastball on the outer half and Gordon was setting dead-red.

Beautiful.

This was one of those games that had everything. Great defense. Timely hits. Home runs. Shaky starting pitching.

Let’s begin with Edinson Volquez because the end of the game overshadowed his start. Let’s just say he wasn’t sharp. He surrendered six hits and three walks in five-plus innings of work. Of the 23 batters he faced, he threw just 11 first-pitch strikes. Honestly, that was the kind of start I expected the Royals would get from Volquez with regularity. He opened the season strong and was clearly the Royals best starter through his first several starts, but the last couple of times out he’s been less than impressive. Understand, he has a doctor’s note from the last start with the blister and there may very well have been some residual effects from that in this appearance.

In his postgame, Ned Yost said he was happy with how Volquez threw the ball on Tuesday, but I thought he wasn’t sharp. We can agree to disagree.

On the other hand, I thought Luke Hochevar had a good outing location-wise. From Brooks Baseball:

Hochevar_051215_Strikes

He lived on the corners all inning. The Choo single was a liner, but the other three hits he surrendered were because he forgot to worship at the altar of the BABIP gods apparently. It happens. Thankfully, Choo decided to test Gordon at that point and tried to advance to third on a single. A great throw where Gordon was running to his left and needed to set and throw across his body. And we can’t overlook the tag that Mike Moustakas put on Choo. It took tremendous concentration on his part to keep the glove there and make the catch on the bounce.

Holland blew the “save” in the bottom of the ninth. I think it’s time to think about starting to worry. How is that for hedging my bet? Such is the life of the closer. According to preliminary data from Brooks Baseball, Holland’s fastball averaged 93.9 mph in his appearance Tuesday. Last year, he averaged 95.8 mph.

Holland generally builds arm strength as the year progresses, but this year, his velocity is way, way down.

Holland_Velo

It doesn’t take a savant to recognize that Holland’s velocity has been off since last September. He had the tightness in his triceps that month and had the pec strain this year, but still. It seems like something isn’t right. He’s gone through rough patches before and come out of it OK, which is why I’ll give him some time, but these injuries are a concern. It’s something to keep an eye on going forward. It will be especially interesting to see how he recovers from this outing where he threw 26 pitches. And remember, this was the first time he was on the mound after throwing 30 pitches on May 10.

Perhaps overlooked was the defense of Salvador Perez. He threw out Delino DeShields, Jr. in the eighth inning after he reached with a two-out single. In the ninth, he made a nice play on an Elvis Andrus bunt where it looked like there was a little miscommunication between Perez and Holland. Perez followed that up by picking off Adrian Beltre of first base to end the inning. And then there was the final out of the game where he came out from behind the plate like a line drive off Hosmer’s bat. He came up huge for the Royals in the later innings.

Can’t forget the Moustakas home run. He’s scuffled in May, hitting .192/.276/.192 over his last 29 plate appearances entering the game. His spray chart is leaning a little more to the right of late as well. Is the Moustoppo magic running out? Who knows. I do know Moustakas crushed a home run of a left-handed pitcher.

And have to give props to Hosmer as well. From Hit Tracker, here are the true distances of the three home runs the Royals hit on Tuesday:

Eric Hosmer – 429 feet
Mike Moustakas – 441 feet
Alex Gordon – 354 feet

The Royals cranked out eight extra base hits. That was the first time since 2012 they hit that many in a game. Their record when going for extra bases eight or more times? 66-7.

Another notable number to pass along: The Royals have lost consecutive games for only three times in 2015. They have yet to lose three in a row. Given the recent slumber by the bats and what feels like the season long struggles of the starting pitching, that’s remarkable.

The Royals, I think almost without question, have the deepest bullpen in the majors.  They certainly have the best bullpen in the history of the franchise. I cannot tell you the best bullpens in history – or let’s say the best bullpens since starters stopped pitching complete games.  I have to believe the current unit has to rank in the top twenty, maybe/probably higher. Jason Frasor, a good, solid, dependable long-time relief pitcher, is the SIXTH best pitcher in the pen.

That said, they don’t make bullpens deep enough to…

  • Overcome a starting rotation with four of the five members sporting earned run averages over five.  Say what you want about the ERA stat, but it has some validity on starting pitcher performance.  FIP? Four of five over 4.22 and three of five over 4.70.
  • Overcome your number two starter going a combined 4.2 innings in back to back starts, or not make it out of the sixth inning in five of seven starts.
  • Deal with your supposed ace allowing four runs or more in three of six starts or, for that matter, pitching into the seventh inning just twice in those six starts.
  • You simply cannot handle the above if your number five starter pitches like a number five starter.  Jeremy Guthrie has managed to go at least five innings in every start and posted a great bounce back outing his last time out, but he has still basically pitched like a back of the rotation guy.  That’s fine and good, if the top of the rotation isn’t pitching like the back of the rotation as well.

It’s not a revelation that the rotation has been below average thus far in 2015.  A great bullpen and a whole bunch of unexpected offense has masked it.  Eventually, bats go cold or the can’t hit enough to make up for being buried early (as they have been three times in eight days).  Bullpens, even the deepest of the deep, get tired and overused.  Dayton Moore has designed a bullpen equipped to pitch a lot of high leverage innings, but even this one probably cannot handle four innings a night from here until October.

Chris Young has been a revelation, but it is worthy noting his ERA is a full run higher in the second half of the season opposed to the first.  That and the fact that his 165 innings last season was 50 more than he pitched in any year since 2008.  Sure, Jason Vargas might be back and he is a capable back of the rotation guy as well.  BACK…OF…THE…ROTATION.

Unless and until Ventura and Duffy begin pitching as the Royals expected them to going into the year, your Royals rotation is Volquez, Young and three days of ‘boy, I sure hope he manages to make it out of the third inning tonight’.

Admittedly, this is all a rant based on a really bad game last night on the heels of a really awful Danny Duffy start in his previous turn.  It is an overreaction…maybe.  Yordano Ventura spent all of 2014 being the real deal and has had moments even in 2015 (good ones, I mean, not the overdramatic cramping, running your mouth moments). Two young pitchers having two kind of rough patches.  Patience, my friends, patience.

And you thought it was hard being patient when the Royals were losing.

More crazy baseball between the Royals and the Tigers. Nothing much separated the two teams this weekend.

Sunday, the added foe was the rain, as the two teams waited out an hour and a half rain delay before finishing off a rollercoaster ride to what had been a fairly pedestrian game.

We will get to that in a moment.

At one point, the Royals grounded into 15 consecutive outs. Yikes. I know Shane Greene is a sinker ball pitcher, and as Uncle Hud would like for you to believe, a ball low in the zone can be hit on the ground. Still, 15 consecutive ground outs… Five innings of batters where every single guy put the ball on the ground? I didn’t get a screen grab until the rain delay, but this is a nice representation of how the Royals night went through the first eight innings.

Royals_Tigers_051015

The red dots represent the outs. The blue are the hits. And remember on these, the dots are plotted where the fielder picks up the ball. The cluster of red dots in shallow right is the teeth of the shift, which by my count stole two or three hits from the Royals. The other dots are Escobar pop ups. If you had turned the game on in the third inning and watched through the sixth, you would have been surprised to learn the Royals actually hit back to back doubles at one point in the game.

The crazy thing is, the game was tied going into the ninth thanks to a boneheaded play by Omar Infante. In the third inning with two outs, Anthony Gose dropped down a perfect bunt on the first base side of the infield. Infante charged and really had no chance to get the speedy Gose, but instead tried a circus-type behind the back flip that sailed over Eric Hosmer’s head and allowed Gose to get to second. Really, there was no need for Infante to force that kind of play. It was unwarranted, especially given the early stage of the game where Young was dealing and there were already two outs. Even with a runner on first, I’d like my chances.

Instead, Ian Kinsler rips a belt-high slider that was down the heart of the plate into center and Gose scores easily. Tie game.

Of course, no one could have known that at that moment, both pitchers would have flipped the cruise control switch. Young lasted six innings and 83 pitches. Really, I was surprised he was pulled at that point. He makes it look so effortless and had the bottom half of the Detroit lineup to face in the bottom of the inning. I’m sure you don’t want Young facing a lineup for a fourth time. Especially if that guy is named Miguel Cabrera and he has scorched a pair of liners to third base in plate appearances number two and three. But I’d like my chances against J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos.

Hey, this is Ned Yost’s team and he’s still working that Royals Devil Magic to some degree. Oh, yeah… He also has a damn fine bullpen at his disposal.

The wrong call was to bring Luke Hochevar in in the ninth inning with the rain pouring. Never mind, it was the second night in a row he was going to pitch. It was risky because the umpires could (and did) stop the game at any time in the inning. I know Hochevar threw only three pitches in his outing on Saturday which is probably why Yost though he could go back to back for the first time since the Tommy John surgery. But he did have to warm up on Saturday, so it’s a little more exertion than just three simple pitches. And he had to warm up on Sunday. And when the rain got so heavy they couldn’t continue, Hochevar was spent.

That left Jason Frasor in to face the heart of the Tiger lineup with the game on the line. The Royals bullpen is stacked. But with the suspension to Kelvin Herrera, it’s not as stacked as it should be. Still, having Frasor in to face the heavy lumber in the bottom of the ninth in a tie game… How does that happen?

Which brings me to another tangent: The built-in stupidity of leaving your “closer” in the bullpen in the ninth inning of a tie game on the road. I know 28 or 29 other managers would do the exact same thing Yost did on Friday. That doesn’t make it right. Some people tweeted at me in the aftermath that Yohan Pino had to do a job and that was to get through the ninth. Well, sure. But if you have a job in front of you (i.e. getting outs in a high-leverage situation) and you have two options of who you can turn to to get those outs, wouldn’t you naturally go to the guy who is the better pitcher?

I know The Cartoonist said that it was the correct call to bring in Pino, because if the Royals take the lead in the 10th and you’ve already used Holland, then who’s going to pitch? To me, that kind of thinking is horribly shortsighted. Run your best pitchers out there and see what happens. I just hate it when my team loses and their best available reliever never gets into the game. Besides, at that point Friday, the Tigers had already used their best reliever (old friend Joakim Soria), so who knows what happens if Holland gets three outs in the ninth to force extras. Maybe the Royals explode all over the Detroit bullpen for four runs. With that cushion, even Pino could pitch the tenth to seal the win. That’s the whole thing about baseball. Saving players for situations that may never happen is folly. Use your best. Always.

We finally got to see Greg Holland in the 10th and he brought his own high wire. A single and three walks were sandwiched around a really brilliant double play to save the Royals. It shouldn’t be lost that Hernan Perez – who was in the game only because the Tigers pinch ran for Miguel Cabrera an inning earlier – was the guy up in the bases loaded nobody out situation who hit into said double play. (See? It’s not just Yost who has tactical moments of “WTF?” It afflicts all managers. Again, still doesn’t make it right.)

Finally, Holland whiffs Yoenis Cespedes to end the evening. It was a game where the Royals didn’t really have any business winning, but somehow prevailed. I guess it’s the baseball gods giving favor after Pino literally threw Friday’s game away. The Royals won two of three from Detroit and have taken four of seven overall so far. Buckle up. I imagine it’s going to be like this all summer.

 

For a Kansas City baseball history nerd like me, this video is scrumtrulescent. Thanks to Brian Holland for bringing it to my attention. According to the description, “The film was shot by Volland, Kansas shopkeeper and photographer, Otto Kratzer.” Otto had an eye for documenting the entire stadium-going experience, from driving to the game, panoramic views of the park, to heading out afterwards. It is probably the closest we’ll get to going back in time to catch a game at Municipal Stadium after it was torn down in 1976. The stadium was bare-boned and probably not romanticized much by most while they were watching a game there. But Otto knew it was worth documenting. Thanks Otto.

The game was on July 23, 1955 (not July 25 as the description says) during the first season the A’s played in KC. Otto was treated to a doozy of a game. The Yankees waltzed to a 5-0 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning, but the A’s exploded for seven runs in that frame thanks to a New York error, two walks, and five hits. Enos Slaughter and Jim Finigan both doubled for the A’s. Reliever Alex Kelner was called on for the ninth, but promptly gave up a homer to first batter (and future A’s star) Bob Cerv. That was it for Kelner, but new pitcher Tom Gorman gave up a tying homer to his very first batter, Elston Howard (former star for both the Kansas City Monarchs and Blues). Gorman stayed in the game, and managed to get out of the ninth with the game still tied. It remained a deadlock until the bottom of the 11th when singles by Harry Simpson and Hector Lopez sent the home crowd home happy.

Alex Gordon struck out four times on Wednesday night. It was one of, if not the worst, games of the season for the Royals and (obviously) for Alex.  These things happen.  You know, baseball and such.

Not only do these things happen, they happen more often than you might think.  Four strikeouts or more in a single game?  It has happened 109 times to a Royals’ batter and actually three times prior to Wednesday to Alex Gordon.

Bob Hamelin, Greg Gagne and Bo Jackson all hold the distinction of striking out FIVE times in one game.  I remember listening on the radio to the game when Jackson managed (?) the feat against the Yankees on April 18, 1987.

Gordon is the first Royal to strikeout four times this season, but Lorenzo Cain did so twice in 2014 and was joined in this unlucky club by Omar Infante and Eric Hosmer.  Cain also struck out four times in a game in 2013, while Hosmer did so in 2012.  Also getting the quad sombrero in 2012 were Billy Butler, Jarrod Dyson and Mike Moustakas twice.  To be fair to Mike, however, one of those four strikeout games came when he managed seven plate appearances, so not really a sombrero if I am reading the unwritten rules of baseball correctly.

Somewhat interestingly, Gordon’s other three occurrences all came in 2011, which was arguably the best offensive season of his career.  In all three of those games, Gordon actually batted five times and got hits in two of those contests.  Old friend, Jeff Francoeur struck out four times twice in 2011, in the span of just two weeks.  Frankly, I’m surprised it didn’t happen more often.

Going back beyond 2011, you run into a string of Royals who will neither surprise you, nor stir up longing for the past:  Guillen, Pena, Brown, Sanders, Guiel, Gotay, Berroa, Harvey.. you get the picture. Of course, it happens to the best, too.  Mike Sweeney did it, so did Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye.  Michael Tucker managed to do it two times in each stint with the Royals.

Bo Jackson, struck out four times in a game FIFTEEN times, fourteen times more than Joe Zbed ever did.   Pitcher Dick Drago struck out four times in a game four times, both a testament to bad hitting, but good pitching I suppose.   Hal McRae did it (twice), Willie Wilson and Amos Otis did it once.  Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew wore the hat once in his one season with Kansas City.  You know a Hall of Fame member who didn’t strike out four times in a game?  George Brett. Not once, not ever.

There are plenty of obscure names on the list, but I will wager the most obscure would be Scott Northey, whose major league career consisted of 68 plate appearances with the 1969 Royals.  The very first Royal?  Jackie Hernandez on June 6th, 1969.

Baseball is full of bad days and Alex Gordon had one on Wednesday.  How did he do the following game the first three times?

One for two with a home run, two walks and a hit by pitch. Two for four. Two for five with a double.

 

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