Royals Authority

Long Live The Process

It had been a good season – 95 wins is nothing to sneeze at – but it was ending in disappointment.  Bitter disappointment.

You can call it however you want. Rationalize that 95 wins is great and we should all be happy just to be in the post-season. It is after all, just a game. So many other things are more important than to stress about the results of a baseball game or four.  We get it, you’re deep and so rational with your emotions.

This Royals team and its 95 regular season wins was going to go out with a whimper in the post-season.  A four game series loss to a Houston team that stumbled to the finish line.  Since sports is really about emotions, we were right to be bitter, angry and maybe for a few hours on a Monday afternoon more concerned about a baseball season ending than world peace or whatever Donald Trump said today.

This Royals team was not built to have a great regular season, it was built to win a championship.  Dayton Moore did not acquire Johnny Cueto to win 95 games, he got him to win playoff games and the entirety of Cueto’s Royal legacy was going to be one solitary post-season start.  Dayton Moore traded for Ben Zobrist to win games in October and here he was, playing second for a team that was getting no further than it would have with Omar Infante in the lineup.  (To be fair Zobrist has been fantastic as a Royal, but you get the point).  Heck, Dayton Moore traded for Jonny Gomes specifically with the idea of him pinch-hitting in a National League park in the World Series! That this team was going out – getting blown out in fact – in the divisional series was a bitter disappointment.

Trailing 3-2 in the top of the seventh, Terrance Gore had been called out trying to steal third after Alex Gordon had struck out with him on second.  The Astros then added three more runs in the bottom of the inning and the season, and if you did not think so, you are a better person than I, the season was over.

Then it wasn’t.

Alex Rios, who had had two of the worst at-bats of the last decade earlier in the game, singled to lead off.  Then Escobar did so, too.  And Zobrist and Cain and Hosmer (who I called a bad name at least twice earlier in the contest).  The Royals were now down just two with nobody out and the bases loaded.  Kendrys Morales, who had two home runs to start the series and not much else since, hit a grounder to Carlos Correa. The Astros’ shortstop is maybe a year away from being in the Mike Trout/Bryce Harper best in baseball discussion, but at this moment, he booted what was a somewhat quirky groundball.  Game tied.  Unbelievably, the game was tied.

One out later, Drew Butera came to the plate.  Ned Yost had no options. It was a worst case scenario: high pressure situation, extremely part-time player and one who, frankly, is a lousy hitter. Butera fell behind 1-2 and then proceeded to have probably the plate appearance of his life. Ten pitches total, four two-strike foul balls and, in the end a walk.  A glorious walk.  Alex Gordon followed with a run scoring ground ball.

The season was not over and it is not over.

On Wednesday night, Johnny Cueto takes the hill and Ben Zobrist will bat second and play second.  The Royals will be at home, needing to win just one game to move onto the next round of the post-season.  Just like it was supposed to be, right?


October baseball has such a strange rhythm. There are times when you have to wait over 48 hours for a series to be settled. And sometimes, you have a sense of the future before dinner.

With a game at high noon in Houston on Monday, this is very much a showdown for the 2015 season for the Royals. The game this afternoon isn’t about advancing, a position the club found themselves in so frequently last October. This is about survival.

The Royals find themselves on the brink of elimination thanks to the usual masterful pitching performance from Dallas Keuchel and their recent alarming lack of ability to string together anything resembling an offensive rally. They put runners on base against the Houston ace in every inning with the exception of the third. Three separate times the placed the leadoff runner on base to open the frame. (Not counting the Lorenzo Cain home run, which wasn’t really putting a runner on base, although maybe we should because the next batter, Kendrys Morales, reached on an error. Fine… Four separate times.)

Credit to the Royals bats for taking an approach to the plate that helped them get on base. They worked three walks from Keuchel, who walked that many only six times in 33 regular season starts. They collected five hits. Sadly, these baserunners were an exercise in isolation.

If I had told you prior to the first pitch of the series, the Royals would hit five home runs through their first three games, you would have been excited. If I had told you all five home runs would come with the bases empty, you still probably would have felt OK. Then, if I had told you those five runs represented more than half their total, you probably wouldn’t have been so enthused. The offense has flipped the switch to full frustration mode. Plenty of base runners. Home runs. And not enough runs.

Obviously, you have to tip your cap to the starting pitching of the Astros. Keuchel wasn’t as sharp as he was in the Wild Card game last week, but that’s a standard only Jake Arrieta should be held to at this point. Keuchel was able to slam the door on any kind of rally the Royals were putting together.

Truly, the Houston ace made one mistake all afternoon and it was a hanging slider to Cain on the 10th pitch of his at bat.

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The result was majestic.

The LoCain Leanback is a thing of beauty.

Edinson Volquez pitched well early, but the walks will kick you in the ass. He walked four in over five innings, but that includes pitching around Colby Rasmus all afternoon. Still, he put Luis Valbuena on in the top of the fifth. Chris Carter followed with a double, his second of three hits on the day. To give you an idea of how things are going right now, consider that Carter, who finished the regular season with a .199 batting average, never had three hits in a single game in 2015. Then, with runners on second and third, the ninth batter in the Houston lineup, Jason Castro, clips a 1-2 pitch up the middle for a base hit.

It wasn’t a bad pitch from Volquez. Nor was it a bad sequence. After Castro took two strikes, Volquez went down and away with a change.

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It wasn’t exactly a booty-knock, but it was close enough. Castro connected off the end of his bat and hit a six-bouncer up the middle, just to the right of second base. Two runs.

That inning is just how things seem to be going for Kansas City of late. The Astros got their chance on a walk and a double, and they capitalized. The Royals, who had runners in scoring position in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh innings against Keuchel, could never get that hit.

The Astros added a run in the sixth when George Springer led off the inning with a double that was in and out of Cain’s glove. While the degree of difficulty was high, it’s the type of play we’ve grown accustomed to in Kansas City. In fact, the ball hit off the heel of Cain’s glove. His momentum and angle of the ball, cause it to simply spin forward and out of the pocket. It’s not a mistake or an error. Cain did everything right. His jump was outstanding, his route was close to perfection. He just simply couldn’t keep control of the ball.

Naturally, Springer scores the Astros third run.

Again, that’s the difference. The Astros got a chance and capitalized. The Royals had myriad opportunity, but could never do more than hit a pair of solo home runs.

One other defensive moment to note was Alex Gordon cutting down Carter in the third inning. A perfect throw from the Royals left fielder isn’t something we get to see that much anymore since the entire universe knows what Gordon can do to baserunners. Gordon added an opposite field home run in the ninth. Hopefully, that’s a harbinger of good things to come from the Royals new eighth place hitter.

The positive news from Sunday is the season is still a functional thing. The Royals, despite the frustrations, are alive. Barely. They have one chance to send this series back to Kansas City. They have two chances to avoid elimination.

Ballgame at noon. Take a long lunch. Savor every postseason opportunity.

A wobbly start from Yordano Ventura. A big game from Kendrys Morales. Rain. And the Houston defense.

That’s your Game One of the ALDS in a nutshell.

The residual benefit of the rain delay is that Ventura will be able to start Game Four. Yes, he got off to a wobbly start in Game One, but he’s still the pitcher the Royals need on the mound late in a playoff series. And think about this: In a five game series, in the fourth game Ventura is either pitching to keep Kansas City around for another game, or he’s going for the advance to the LCS.

No, he wasn’t at his best on Thursday. The leadoff hit by Jose Altuve seemed to push him off his game enough that he issued the walk to George Springer. Carlos Correa hit the ball hard enough that Altuve had to stop at third, loading the bases. Sometimes, the key moment in the game comes in the very first inning and credit to Ventura that he was able to minimize the damage to just two runs. Good thing the Royals were playing the infield back (as they should) as Rasmus smoked a grounder to the left of Zobrist at second.

After the game, both managers talked about their “60 minute” rule with starting pitchers in a rain delay. In other words, once the delay stretches to around an hour, that’s when they decide to go to the bullpen. With three runs on the board against Ventura, and a strong and rested bullpen at his disposal. this was the right move by Yost.

On the other hand, AJ Hinch went back with his starter, post delay, and he continued to shut down the Royals. I felt a key was in the third inning, which was McHugh’s first inning after about an hour on the sidelines. He struck out Alex Rios on three pitches and Alcides Escobar swung at the first pitch to ground out. Ben Zobrist at least battled and saw seven pitches before he grounded out. Still, this is where the Royals aggressiveness at the plate can kill them. So often we see situations where the Royals should be able to take advantage of a starting pitcher, yet they swing themselves out of an inning.

The guy who didn’t hurt himself with some monster swings was Kendrys Morales. He absolutely squared up his first home run down the right field line. The second had more arc. Both were beautiful. Sadly, they came with no one on base. The first Morales bomb came leading off the inning, so no complaints there. The second home run came two batters after Lorenzo Cain was robbed by Altuve with a great play at second. How many Altuves does it take to make a great play? One is enough I guess. Great reaction and extension from the Astro second baseman. Had that ball gotten through, Morales would have been up with a runner on. Would McHugh have pitched him differently with a man on first? Probably. So a second home run in that situation was no sure thing. Still, it would have been optimal had Morales been able to bring home another run. A tie game would have felt a little better.

The Royals had two more chances to score. The inning after the Morales blast, they had runners at first and second with one out. Escobar laced a sinking liner, but Jake Marisnick dove and got the out. According to StatCast, the Astros center fielder got his first step off just 0.4 seconds after Escobar made contact, a ridiculous jump. He hit a max speed of 19 mph and his route efficiency (which I absolutely love) was 95.5 percent. In other words, it took a near perfect play to catch that ball.

The next opportunity was in the eighth, when the Royals strung together back to back two out singles. This is a spot for Eric Hosmer. In “high leverage” situations, Hosmer hits .354/.431/.655, best on the team. That’s not just best on the Royals, that’s among the strongest effort in the league. Hinch countered with a lefty, and Hosmer fouled out to third. Threat over. Game over.

Source: FanGraphs

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Chris Young. A guy who couldn’t get a major league job comes out of the bullpen and strikes out six of the first seven batters he faces. Sure, he gives up a home run to Springer, but what a great performance. That situation was why he was on the roster. After seeing Ventura’s heat the first time through the order, they got to face the soft stuff from Young. He had the Astros completely confused. I love it when a plan comes together.

The plan would have looked better had the offense not been so tepid. Yes, there were plenty of hard hit balls, but many were right at the Astro defense. BABIP giveth and BABIP taketh away, I guess. It just wasn’t the Royals night at the plate.

Post game, there was much discussion about how the 2015 Astros have taken on some of the characteristics of the 2014 Royals. That’s a nice narrative, I suppose. The Astros certainly flashed the leather to get you thinking. Plus, a lockdown postseason start combined with effective relief work… Sure, maybe for a game they did. Can they sustain it? All I know is Friday’s game is now firmly in the “must win” category. A loss would mean you’re traveling to Houston to face Dallas Keuchel in an elimination game. Yeah. That’s a suboptimal situation.

So it’s up to Johnny Cueto to get this team back to level. This is exactly why the Royals went out and made the deal for Cueto. They didn’t need him to help win the division, that was pretty much in the bag at the trade deadline. No, this move was made with October in mind. Never mind he didn’t get the ball in Game One. By pushing him to Game Two, the Royals did so knowing he would either need to step up and be the stopper, or he had the opportunity to extend a lead in a short series. So it’s the former and not the latter. Time to see if the trade pays a dividend.


Yordano Ventura ended the regular season exactly as he began it:  as the Royals’ best starting pitcher.

There were a couple of trainwrecks in between, but Ventura enters the post-season having logged six innings or more in 10 of his last 15 starts.  He struck out 11 last Saturday, eliminating the Twins from post-season consideration and threw seven shutout innings the start before against the Cubs.  He enters tonight’s playoff game with several reputations depending on where you are from, but one of those is that he is a big game pitcher.

Most of that comes from Game Six of the World Series last year, when Ventura held the Giants scoreless through seven innings with the Royals facing elimination.  He was solid, if unspectacular in Game Two, throwing five plus innings and allowing two runs.  His first post-season start was a seven inning one run gem on the road in Anaheim.  Yes, there was a so-so start in Baltimore and the ugly relief appearance in the Wild Card Game that was more a case of managerial malpractice than anything else, but still, a rookie pitcher having two great, one okay and one so-so start in his first post-season?  That’s pretty good.

Oh, and the Royals won all four post-season games Yordano Ventura started.

What about other ‘big game’?

Ventura’s major league debut was as a starter and he tossed five and two-thirds innings and allowed just one run.  His first start as a ‘real’ member of the starting rotation came on April 8, 2014 and Ventura tossed six innings of two hit shutout baseball.  Down the stretch of 2014, when the Royals were making their push for the playoffs in 29 years, Ventura went 10 straight starts where he pitched six innings or more and only once allowed more than three runs.

While 2015 was – shall we say a bit rocky? – the closest to a playoff atmosphere was certainly Opening Day and Ventura tossed six innings and allowed just one run before being felled by a thumb cramp. Through all the trials and tribulations of what was Ventura’s season, he did pile up TWELVE starts where he went six or seven inning and allowed two runs or less.

So, the Royals play the first of what is hopefully a number of ‘big games’ tonight and Yordano Ventura, a pitcher with swing and miss stuff, will face down an Astros team that swings and misses a lot.  I like the Royals tonight and expect Ventura to have a good start.  This is who the Royals thought he was, it just took a little longer to get there than we had hoped.

Game Notes:

  • Gomes, Orlando and/or Gore?  The final two roster spots, barring a surprise, comes down to these three guys.  Just a few days ago, I thought Gomes was a lock just for the idea of him coming off the bench to pinch-hit against a lefty.  In an American League series, however, when would that happen?  Yost, who doesn’t like to pinch-hit anyway, is not going to do so for Hosmer, probably won’t for Moustakas, can’t for Escobar and won’t for Gordon.  Maybe, just maybe, if you pinch run Dyson or Gore or Orlando (depending who of the latter two makes the roster) late and that spot comes back up (extra innings), then Gomes would hit.  Is planning for that contingency more important than having a third pinch-runner?  Maybe.  It will seem damn important if Terrance Gore is schedule to hit down one in the bottom of the 12th!
  • Is Danny Duffy the fireman this post-season?  That is how I would use him.  Ryan Madson has been great, so has Kelvin Herrera, but they have also had their bad moments as well.  If Madson gives up two line drives to start the seventh, do you go to Duffy?  Ditto for Herrera in the eighth.
  • Last year, Lorenzo Cain had himself a monster post-season. My prediction for this year is that Eric Hosmer (who was not shabby last year) announces his presence with authority.
  • If you are a rational human and watched Dallas Keuchel carve up the Yankees Tuesday night, you know how absolutely lovely it would be to take both games in Kansas City before facing the Astros’ ace in Game Three down south.  Yes, I know the Royals jumped on Keuchel last time they saw him.  No, I don’t think that will happen again.
  • As Royals’ fans, we got used to playing out the string in August and September of many seasons and this year was no different, except that playing out the string meant waiting for the playoffs to start. Looking back, that was a good feeling. Let’s make a habit of it.


It wasn’t as exciting as last year’s Wild Card game, but it’s purpose was served.

The Royals will face off against the Houston Astros in the ALDS.

I was largely apathetic about the Royals opponent. Match-ups don’t concern me so much in a short series. I’m not going to use the cliche “crapshoot,” but you can generally toss a coin to make a prediction. (Except in the Twins-Yankees series of the early 2000’s. Those never felt like a fair fight.) Before the game on Tuesday, Clark pretty much summed up my feelings when he said he was leaning Yankees, simply because of the starting pitching. So now it’s Houston. Because their starting pitching is better.

The Royals are going to face Collin McHugh on Thursday. McHugh was the Astros second best pitcher on the year, ranking only behind Wild Card winner Dallas Keuchel. He threw a 7.6 SO/9 and a 2.3 BB/9 on his way to a 3.89 ERA and 3.58 FIP. He’s fastball, slider, curve, with a change thrown in occasionally for good measure. His strikeout rate is down and he’s lost about a mph off the velocity of his fastball from 2014, but he’s still been an effective starter. According to Baseball Info Solutions, opposing batters made “hard” contact 24.8 percent of the time they put the ball in play against McHugh. That was the fifth lowest hard contact rate in the AL.

McHugh’s curve is his put-away pitch. He will throw it to batters on both sides of the plate when he’s ahead in the count. When he’s has two strikes on the hitter, he will show curve about 40 percent of the time. Hitters know it’s coming and they still can’t touch it. They hit just .158 with a .263 slugging percentage when they finished their plate appearance with a curve.

Like most starters, McHugh will open with his fastball. If he falls behind, he will show slider. It hasn’t been a particularly effective pitch for him this summer, but it’s probably because he’s throwing it more in a hitter’s count. When the batter is ahead, McHugh goes slider nearly 50 percent of the time. That’s a fairly high percentage for a singular situation. Opponents are hitting .306 against the slider with a .443 slugging percentage. Of his three pitches he shows with frequency, the slider is the one most susceptible to being driven for a hit.

The Royals, as you may expect given their aggressive approach at the plate, do not hit sliders well. This looks to be a struggle.

However, with second half ace Yordano Ventura on the mound, it should be a low scoring affair. This is such a pivotal game for both teams looking to jump out to the early lead. Two quality pitchers, two slightly above average offenses… Can we come up with something even more random than a coin flip to describe this one?

Anyway, my intention when I sat down to write wasn’t to put up a Game One preview. Yet, I kind of just did. Can’t help it. The excitement of October kind of grabs you.

Mellinger has a good column up this morning about why the Royals went with Ventura over Johnny Cueto for the Game One start. I agree with the premise: Cueto was obtained to front the rotation in October, but Ventura’s ascendency combined with Cueto’s struggles, mixed in with the fact Cueto is a short-term Royal made this an easy decision for the team. (I should write Cliff’s Notes.) In a way the Cueto trade has been underwhelming. The Royals dealt with an ace, but he’s relegated to second starter in the postseason. However, his arrival coincides with Ventura’s turnaround. Is this the James Shields effect in motion again? Difficult to say, although I’m willing to listen to arguments. All I know is that every time the Fox Sports KC cameras pan the dugout, those two (along with Edinson Volquez) are together. It’s strange to look at a short-term trade in that light, but if Cueto’s arrival in KC helped provide the spark Ventura needed to get it in gear, that was worth the price in prospects.

If you’re looking to relieve any part of the 2015 season, or if you just blacked out over a long holiday weekend and don’t remember a stretch of the season, Mathew DeFranks has you covered at Can you pick a favorite game? Damn, that’s a tough ask.

Finally, Jeffrey Flanagan at has a look at the likely Royals roster for the first round. The important thing to remember when trying to project the roster is to look to what they did last year. This isn’t a team that likes to reinvent the wheel. They found a winning formula last year, so they’re going to stick with what worked.

That means six outfielder. Flanagan gives his spots to Jarrod Dyson, Terrence Gore, and Paulo Orlando. I’m doubtful Orlando makes the roster, thinking the Royals will go with Jonny Gomes as a lefty masher off the bench. This is where it gets tricky, though. The Royals and Ned Yost simply do not pinch hit. The Royals used 36 pinch hitters this year, the lowest number in baseball and it wasn’t even close. The Red Sox used 64. No, when Yost likes to make a change, he goes for the pinch runner. That’s where Orlando has the edge. He has the speed that Yost can use. Anyway, my brain says Gomes, but my gut says Orlando. We will see. The rosters don’t need to be finalized until the day of the game.

    • After 47 Royals seasons, there have been 47 player-seasons in which a Royals hitter attained a 120 or better OPS+ and qualified for the batting title. Zero players pulled it off in 2013 and 2014, but four KC batsmen broke out this year: Cain (126), Hosmer (122), Morales (128), and Moustakas (120). 1972 and 1989 are the only other seasons with four qualified KC batsmen performing so well. If Alex Gordon had been able to get about 80 more PAs to qualify, there might have been a new team record of five. Click here for a year-by-year breakdown of the 120+ club.


    • Jarrod Dyson played in his sixth season for the Royals, and has had positive wins above average (WAA) every year. The only other Royals to put together six or more consecutive seasons with WAA in the black are in the team Hall of Fame: Kevin Appier, Willie Wilson, Amos Otis, George Brett, Dan Quisenberry, and Jeff Montgomery. In Dyson’s first two seasons, he only played 18 and 26 games, so those hardly count, but the larger point is that Dyson has been quietly, consistently brilliant in a part-time role. It could be that he is under-utilized by Ned Yost, but it is also possible the KC brain-trust is correctly guessing that he is most valuable as a part-timer. He is certainly good enough to be an every-day outfielder for plenty of teams, but has found himself part of deep outfields in KC. Oddly, his incredible speed might be leading to more bench time, assuming Yost likes to have the option to use him as a pinch runner at crucial times. He’s been a hell of a player flying under the radar for quite some time though.


    • says Omar Infante hit seven triples to lead the team this year. Is that possible? I figured his combination of seven triples and a 49 OPS+ had to be pretty rare, and I was correct. It is the fourth lowest OPS+ in a season with at least seven triples ever, and the lowest since 1930. The 49 OPS+ is also the third worst season in Royals history by a batter with at least 400 PAs (after Neifi Perez (44) and Jose Lind (47)).


    • The Royals were 27-for-29 when attempting to steal third base.


    • Lorenzo Cain became the seventh Royals position player to post 7+ rWAR in a season, following George Brett, Willie Wilson, Darrell Porter, Amos Otis, Alex Gordon, and John Mayberry.


    • Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar became the 22nd and 23rd Royals players to amass 1,000+ total bases with KC.


    • Alex became the 11th Royal with 500+ RBI. Alex also joined Frank White as the only two players to strike out at least 1,000 times with KC.


    • Hosmer became the 19th Royal to reach base 1,000 or more times.


    • Greg Holland became the seventh hurler to appear in 300 games.


    • The pitching staff threw 23,629 pitches. 56% of those pitches were fastballs, thrown at an average of 93 MPH, the third fastest in the AL. 12% of the pitches were curve balls, which was the second highest rate of benders thrown in the AL.


    • Dyson, Escobar, and Cain continue to be fantastic base stealers. Not necessarily that they steal a ton of bases, but, more importantly, their rates of successes to attempts is elite. Along with Carlos Beltran and Willie Wilson, they make up the top five success rates in team history (minimum 80 attempts). All hail Rusty Kuntz.


    • Only Jose Altuve put more balls in play than Alcides Escobar. 553 of Escobar’s 662 plate appearances ended with a ball in play. The team put 119 more balls in play than any other squad. They were the only team to not strike out 1,000 times.


    • The team spent more time in first place than any previous Royals season, and were never more than a game out of first. They were the first Royals squad to never drop below .500 at any point in the season. Their longest losing streak was just four games, tying the team record (for a full season) achieved in 1977 and 2003.

A lot of debate has swirled about these parts over how important or not important or just plain irrelevant having home field advantage throughout the playoffs may or may not be. I think there are advantages, particularly if the idea of a Blue Jays-Royals ALCS comes to fruition. Needless to say, it is better to have it than not and advantage number one of being the number one seed starts tonight as we get the pleasure of watching Masahiro Tanaka, the Yankees’ best starter, face off against Houston’s best starter, Dallas Keuchel.

It will be fun game to watch and interesting in that the winner will be the Royals’ foe on Thursday, but the real pleasure comes from knowing that neither Tanaka nor Keuchel will be available to pitch in Game One versus Kansas City.  Or Game Two, either, unless they come back on short rest (all the better).  None of that means the Royals were just handed the first two games of the series, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

That said, who do you want to face on Thursday?

The Yankees bring back the ‘good ole days’ and ton of bad memories stemming from five game post-season series with the Bronx Bombers. It would be a fun match-up.  The Astros are an exciting young team with a fair portion of their makeup being based on advanced statistics.  They have guys in their front office that have eaten more pop tarts than grit.  Robert Ford, former Royals’ post-game host and by all accounts a pretty decent guy, is their play by play guy.  The nation would pay less attention to Royals-Astros than to Royals-Yankees, but it would be an exciting match-up.

Moving away from the touchy feely, Houston took four of six from the Royals this year, starting with a three game sweep in Houston at the end of June. The Royals lost 6-1 in a game started by Joe Blanton in front of a lineup without Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar. They were shut out the following day 4-0 by Keuchel (he’s pretty good, by the way) without Hosmer and with Perez at DH and Drew Butera catching. Kansas City then lost the finale when Kelvin Herrera gave up a run in the bottom of the seventh without allowing a hit.

The Royals lost a fourth straight to Houston in late July at home as Scott Kazmir and company shut them out on four hits.  Jeremy Guthrie got the start of Kansas City, by the way, while Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez were both out of the lineup. Kansas City finally got a win the next day when Danny Duffy and Scott Feldman and friends dueled to a 1-1 tie after nine innings.  Alcides Escobar (batting lead-off in the highly successful voodoo lineup) singled in Paulo Orlando in the tenth for a walk-off win. The next day, Yordano Ventura was marvelous and the Royals pounded out five runs against Keuchel for a 5-1 win.

An interesting oddity from all six of these contests:  the Royals never once used the lineup they will be utilizing in the playoffs.  Now, the Astros can point to the fact that George Springer was injured for the series in KC and that they themselves started three pitchers that won’t start a playoff game this year. While we are talking fun facts, Houston used 124 different lineups this season.  We can count on Carlos Correa at short, Jose Altuve at second, Jason Castro behind the plate, Evan Gattis as the DH and Chris Carter at first with George Springer in the outfield.  Third and other two outfielders? You’ll see some guys.

The Yankees?  The Royals played them six times in the span of two weeks, winning just twice.  They won two of three in Kansas City, starting with a 12-1 drubbing of Michael Pineda with Chris Young on the hill.  That was the game that Mike Moustakas came up a home run shy of the cycle. New York came back for a 5-1 win over Danny Duffy (4 runs in 5 innings) with C.C. Sabathia going seven strong for the Bronx Bombers. The series was won when Edinson Volquez quieted the Yankees while Chris Capuano was no mystery to the Royals. Notable pitchers used by the Royals in this series were Joe Blanton, Jason Frasor and Aaron Brooks.

Two weeks later in New York, the Yankees lit up Jeremy Guthrie for ELEVEN RUNS in an inning and three batters.  ELEVEN.  The following day, Mark Teixeira hit a two run homer off Jason Vargas in the first and Joe Blanton allowed three more runs in relief as the Yanks cruised to a 5-1 victory behind Adam Warren and their own excellent bullpen. In the series finale, Chris Young allowed a home run to Brian McCann (no doubt hit ‘the right way’) in the second and another to Alex Rodriguez in the third, while the Michael Pineda rebounded to quiet the Royals on the way to a 4-2 win.

When it comes down to which team you would prefer the Royals face, I lean towards the Yankees.   With Teixeira out and A-Rod fading considerably down the stretch, their best hitter might be 22 year old Gregory Bird who has played in 46 major league games.  Again factoring in the Teixeira injury and A-Rod fade, this is not a team that gets on-base particularly well nor are they particularly overpowering.  With Tanaka throwing tonight and Pineda having pitched on Sunday, who starts Game One for them?  Twenty-one year old Luis Severino? Like the Royals, you do not want to get into the New York bullpen, but I like Ventura-Cueto over whomever and Pineda to get the series started.

In Houston, you have a dangerous team with good starting pitching. The Royals would likely face some combination of Scott Kazmir, Collin McHugh or Lance McCullers in the first two games with Keuchel coming back for Game Three in Houston.  The Astros are a tremendous team playing at home and the worst road team in the American League.  Their bullpen is good and they have Correa, Springer and Altuve – which is nothing to sneeze at.  Carlos Gomez is on this team, but has not played well and not been healthy.  Is it a stretch to say the two most athletic teams in the league are the Royals and Astros?  That makes for some exciting baseball.

Houston is young.  The Yankees are old. Houston has little tradition. New York has a bit (not sure if you’ve heard that). A Royals-Yankees ALDS would allow plenty of opportunity for me to regale my kids with stories of ‘when I was a boy and George Brett faced Goose Gossage..’  A Royals-Astros ALDS would leave (win or lose) a lot of us thinking ‘how are we going to beat those guys next year?’

My confidence level against the Yankees is higher, simply because I like the matchup against their starting pitching. That is little analysis and all gut.  I’m old, I get to use my gut…..if only to annoy the younger crowd.

Quick hits:

  • The playoff roster?  My seven year old can name the first 23.  Nine regulars, plus Butera, Colon and Dyson.  Four starters, plus Young, Davis, Herrera, Madson, Duffy, Hochevar and Morales.  Now, who gets the last two spots?  My guess, Jonny Gomes gets one, if only to pinch-hit against a left-hander once or twice when it matters.  The last spot?  Feels like maybe Terrance Gore or Paulo Orlando.  Seems weird to have a roster with six outfielders and only one back-up infielder, but who else would it be?
  • The over under on how many times the national media talks about the Royals being the bad boys and headhunters this post-season is set at 81.  And no, it is apparently not relevant that eight American League teams have hit more batters than Royals’ pitchers have.  Included in the teams that have hit more batters are Texas, Toronto and New York.
  • You just know that Alcides Escobar is going to hit .300 or better in the ALDS, right?  Ned Yost is smirking at us.  Weird how that smirk is funny instead of annoying when you just finished a 95-67 season, isn’t it?


What if I told you the Royals would win 95 games? Is that something you’d be interested in?

On Sunday, the Royals wrapped the most memorable summer since 1980. It was a summer where the team kept pace early, then flicked on the afterburners and pulled away from the rest of the division. By the end of July, the division title was obvious. By September, it was reality.

It was glorious.

When the season ended, in the American League only one team had qualified for the playoffs the last two years. Yep. The Royals. After 29 years of unprecedented October drought, Kansas City now has the longest current streak of reaching the playoffs. (Sure, it’s only two, which seems like a modest number. It is. But it’s still fun.)

By scheduling all of the final regular season games on Sunday, major league baseball figured a way to put the bow on the season. How perfect was that? The Royals controlled their own destiny for home field advantage. Win, and it was theirs. The games started at 2 PM, Central. By around 2:45, it was pretty clear the Royals were going to own that best record in the AL, no matter what happened in their game. In Tampa, the Blue Jays went sentimental, starting Mark Buehrle, in an attempt to get him the two innings he needed to reach 200 on the season. That’s a mark Buehrle has reached every year since 2001. That’s a helluva streak in the current game. Sometimes, the baseball gods spit in the face of sentimentality.

Buehrle lasted just two-thirds of an inning. His defense betrayed him, committing errors on the first and fifth batter of the game. Eight runs. None of them earned. And any hope Toronto had for home field, washed into the bay.

That meant the game on Sunday for the Royals became a coronation. A victory lap. Perfect for the best Royals season in 35 years. I’m loath to ever say a sports team “deserved” something, but damn if this team didn’t deserve some time to bask in their accomplishments while on the field, under the sun. Baseball is meant to be fun. That was in short supply in Kansas City for the last couple of decades. The clinch of September, 2014 and the Wild Card game brought it back. The 2015 Royals sustained it. And Sunday, it was time to reflect on the season, prepare for the next series, and enjoy the moment.

We didn’t hear much from the Royals Panic Squad the last week of the season. The group who was fretting over the September slide and the potential of losing home field advantage. While I hate to paint any fan or group of fans with a broad brush, the fans who were panicking, felt very much to be new fans to the team and baseball in general. The baseball season is a long one. It’s a grind. Teams rarely play at peak level for the entire six months. The Royals clearly took the foot off the gas in September. They knew the division was theirs, and the intensity we saw as early as April evaporated. I understand how some could worry. Hell, I was starting to get a little nervous myself. There is no “switch” to flip. Certainly, the playoffs would bring new energy to the team, but the losing in September (and the ways they were losing) was borderline ridiculous.

Now, the Royals close the 2015 season with a five game winning streak. They have home field advantage. They finished exactly the way you wanted them to finish.

Everyone should not only be happy, they should be thrilled.

It’s custom for the Royals to hand out some hardware at the end of the season, awarding the Player and Pitcher of the Year. I’ve long lobbied that blogs be represented in this voting, but the Royals insist on keeping it closed and available only to the Kansas City chapter of the BBWAA. In some ways, the Royals remain stubbornly rooted in the past.

That won’t prevent me from picking my own award winners. If only we had a budget for a trophy.

The Royals Player of the Year

This is an easy choice. Lorenzo Cain.

Cain led the Royals in batting average (.307), runs (101), and steals (28). His .360 wOBA and 129 wRC+ was second on the team. He was third in OBP among qualified batters at .361 and second in slugging at .477. And he did it all by playing All-World defense in center field.

Royals Pitcher of the Year

Yordano Ventura had a helluva second half of the season and emerged as the true ace of the Royals rotation. Edinson Volquez was steady all year. Yet I’m going to go against my personal convictions and hand this award to a reliever: Wade Davis.

Davis was simply dominant. He became the fifth reliever since 1969 to throw at least 60 innings and finish with a sub 1 ERA. He posted a 10.43 SO/9 and a 2.67 BB/9. His 2.0 fWAR was tied for fifth among all relievers in baseball.

Normally, I’d throw my vote to a starter. However, Ventura’s first half of the season was pretty awful. Volquez did well, but just didn’t excite. Ventura and Volquez both finished with a better fWAR than Davis, but on a team built on defense and a stalwart bullpen, Davis was hands down the best, and most reliable, reliever.

Maybe I’ll give out some other awards later this week. No promises.

So now we take the next three days and exhale. The Royals finished the 2015 season exactly as we had hoped. It’s an opportunity to watch the Wild Card games secure in the knowledge the Royals will open their defense of the American League title on Thursday at The K.

It’s good to be a Royals fan.

Through 159 games, we have a dead heat at the top of the American League. After a 6-4 win on Thursday by the Royals, combined with a loss by the Blue Jays in Baltimore, the two best teams in the league each have 92 wins in their account. If you place the utmost importance on home field advantage, the weekend figures to be a stressful one.

In March, I truly didn’t think the Royals would be in this position. I had them pegged for about 10 fewer wins, which would have put them in the hunt for a second consecutive Wild Card spot. Sometimes, it’s good to be wrong.

Instead, it’s the Twins in that position. Minnesota has 83 wins, which puts them in the thick of the Wild Card. They are a game back of Houston, tied with Los Angeles. It seems strange that with three games left in the season, there are multiple possible opponents for the Royals, who clinched their spot over a week ago. One thing is known: They don’t have the home field advantage tie-breaker. That goes to Toronto, who won four of the seven games played between the two teams this year. So, in order for the Royals to take home field, they will have to win at least one more game this weekend than the Blue Jays.

The Jays are in Tampa, who have been out of the race for some time, and have been statistically eliminated for about a week. This presents an interesting contrast. The Royals are playing a team battling for their October lives. The Jays are playing a team making plans to get out of town for the winter. That’s not to say the Rays will roll over. Far from it. It’s a time-honored tradition in baseball to relish the role of spoiler. Although it’s easy to wonder how amped up a team would be by the potential to knock the number one seed down to two.

The Royals have locked up at least the two seed in the playoffs, meaning they are assured they own home field in the ALDS. Right now, their opponent would be the Rangers. And it looks likely to stay that way. Their magic number in the West is down to one, meaning they would have to lose out to the Angels while the Astros would have to sweep the Diamondbacks. Yay for interleague. That would necessitate a one game playoff to determine the winner of the division.

Let me digress for a moment and go on record again: The current playoff format where the Wild Card is a single game is wonderful. That’s exactly the way it should be. I’ve seen some rumblings about making it a best of three series, but winner take all game is brilliant. By definition, the Wild Card should be stacked against the teams. They should be forced to sweat out a single game, burning their best starting pitcher, then go directly on the road to play the best team in their league. Or maybe they used their best arms to just get to the game and don’t have the luxury of setting their rotation. Whatever. I like how it’s a disadvantage to play in the game. I also like the idea of kicking off the postseason with what amounts to a play-in game. Throw some drama out there right away.

I’m not having the whining about how it’s unfair that Pittsburgh has won 96 games and deserves better. Tough. Win the division. Reap the reward. Besides, as the Royals (and the Giants) illustrated last year, it’s possible to go places after getting that first win.

Fortunately, the Royals have had the luxury of basically being assured of a spot in the postseason since August. Yes, it led to an uninspired September, but the big picture says it’s given the team time to set things up for October. I wrote on Wednesday about how the Royals have used this opportunity to set up their rotation. I also figured that the lineup we’ve seen for most of the last couple of weeks would be the one Ned Yost used come the playoffs. Except Yost did some juggling the last couple of days.

Following a stretch where the Royals scored just 10 runs in five games, Yost tossed Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. Escobar had hit at the top of the order for the entire season, up until September 7, when he was moved down to ninth. At the time, Yost indicated this is how things would be for the remainder of the year. But after winning just eight of 21 games, the manager – as is his prerogative – made a switch.

Yet the idea they were struggling because they lost their “spark plug” is an absolute fallacy. No team in the American League has gotten less production from the top spot in the batting order than the Kansas City Royals.

1 BOS 159 751 688 112 208 44 8 22 95 50 101 .302 .348 .485 .834 334 123 126
2 CLE 158 738 647 99 189 47 7 12 58 72 121 .292 .369 .442 .811 286 125 121
3 HOU 159 733 670 92 207 33 3 17 65 45 117 .309 .363 .443 .806 297 118 120
4 BAL 159 721 652 95 183 30 3 27 75 61 130 .281 .345 .460 .805 300 123 118
5 CHW 159 730 649 98 182 29 9 14 57 61 141 .280 .353 .418 .771 271 124 111
6 TBR 159 732 649 82 168 37 6 15 54 56 142 .259 .335 .404 .738 262 106 102
7 MIN 159 728 660 103 158 39 5 27 71 52 162 .239 .299 .436 .735 288 106 98
8 DET 158 740 685 97 184 31 16 11 53 48 167 .269 .320 .409 .729 280 95 98
9 NYY 159 753 676 111 181 33 4 14 62 60 149 .268 .333 .391 .723 264 96 98
10 SEA 159 726 660 76 163 33 6 18 59 54 149 .247 .307 .397 .703 262 95 91
11 TOR 159 748 683 100 181 35 1 15 76 48 119 .265 .318 .385 .703 263 78 92
12 TEX 159 742 664 95 163 35 10 8 51 60 166 .245 .310 .364 .674 242 84 84
13 OAK 159 743 690 93 173 26 11 6 52 42 123 .251 .298 .346 .645 239 83 76
14 LAA 159 720 665 86 157 25 6 12 58 35 126 .236 .278 .346 .624 230 78 70
15 KCR 159 731 671 92 167 23 4 5 51 37 95 .249 .295 .317 .612 213 69 68
TOT 2383 11036 10009 1431 2664 500 99 223 937 781 2008 .266 .325 .403 .728 4031 100 98
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 10/2/2015.

That the Royals are fifth in the league in scoring at 4.47 runs per game is a testament to the production from their second through sixth hitters. Can you imagine how much better this offense would be if they received even league average production from the leadoff hitter? As you can see from the table above, they are a long way from that.

The above table is ranked by sOPS+. That is a number that represents the OPS+ relative to the split. Basically, it’s looking only at leadoff hitters and determining an OPS+. Rank it any way you like. It’s all pretty damning against Escobar hitting at the top of the order.

Looking at the entire table, you see that most of the playoff teams are below league average when it comes to their leadoff hitters. The Yankees, Jays, and Rangers all have sub-100 sOPS+ numbers. That’s fine. There’s certainly more than one way to win baseball games. And the Royals have certainly done most of their winning with Escobar at the top of the lineup.

This move smells like panic. The Royals, despite being one of the better offensive teams in September, are feeling the need to win games. Ignoring how brutal the pitching has been outside one or two arms last month, they decided to zero in on the lineup. They are running out of time, and figured this was the way to get the team back on track. I guess you can’t argue with the results. Since Escobar has returned to the top of the lineup, they have scored 11 runs in two games and won both. Problem solved.

Of course in those two games, Escobar has seen a total of 33 pitches in 10 plate appearances. He has reached base twice. Small sample size in these games, but that’s exactly who Escobar is at the plate.

When exiled from the top of the order, Escobar didn’t exactly set the league on fire with his bat. In 18 games, he posted a line of .239/.271/.299. Which isn’t that far from his full season numbers to date of .257/.294/.318. He’s just not a good offensive performer. Yet the Royals think he’s the “spark” of the offense. Damn.

I’ve been beating this drum all summer. I put it away, but now it’s back. Same beat. Yes, the Royals can win with Escobar at the top of the order. They did last October and they did for most of this summer. That doesn’t mean he’s the best option. The Royals are going to roll a suboptimal lineup back out for the second postseason in a row. I’m skeptical, but let’s see if it works just as good this time around.

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