Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

Baseball is a funny game. The Royals were getting dressed for their own funeral on Saturday. They won on Sunday, but it was the finale of a 2-4 homestand. They had lost nine out of 11 and had fallen out of first place. Three days later and the Royals are riding a four game winning streak. They are back in first and – catch this fact – they own the best record in the American League.

After a couple of close games to open the series in Minnesota, the offense came to life on Wednesday. Well, most of the offense. It seems Omar Infante is doing his best to keep his game in reverse. Since his six game hitting streak ended on May 22, Infante has five hits in his last 55 at bats. All five hits are singles. Oh, he has one walk. It’s a brutal offensive performance that, except for that six game stretch in mid-May, has been roundly awful.

We’ve seen enough. It’s time for the Royals to permanently remove Infante from the lineup.

To determine just how awful Infante has been in a historical context, I ran a report at the Baseball Reference Play Index. I limited my search to players whose primary position was second base and further narrowed it by searching for those who had an on base percentage less than .226 and a slugging percentage less than .300. Those are Infante’s current numbers through Tuesday. Oh, I also set a minimum number of plate appearances to 175.

Here’s the list.

Rk Name OBP SLG PA Year Age Tm Lg G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OPS
1 Joe Wagner .210 .223 210 1915 26 CIN NL 76 197 17 35 5 2 0 13 8 35 .178 .433
2 Hector Torres .215 .221 199 1972 26 MON NL 83 181 14 28 4 1 2 7 13 26 .155 .436
3 Pete Suder .225 .263 215 1954 38 PHA AL 69 205 8 41 11 1 0 16 7 16 .200 .489
4 Ryan Raburn .226 .254 222 2012 31 DET AL 66 205 14 35 14 0 1 12 13 53 .171 .480
5 Harry Pearce .209 .217 260 1919 29 PHI NL 67 244 24 44 3 3 0 9 8 27 .180 .427
6 Jerry Kindall .196 .276 192 1957 22 CHC NL 72 181 18 29 3 0 6 12 8 48 .160 .472
7 Dutch Jordan .225 .234 284 1904 24 BRO NL 87 252 21 45 10 2 0 19 13 51 .179 .459
8 Omar Infante .226 .300 186 2015 33 KCR AL 50 180 12 39 11 2 0 17 3 27 .217 .526
9 Vic Harris .192 .177 198 1972 22 TEX AL 61 186 8 26 5 1 0 10 12 39 .140 .369
10 Ryan Goins .209 .271 193 2014 26 TOR AL 67 181 14 34 6 3 1 15 5 42 .188 .479
11 Charlie French .223 .190 229 1910 26 TOT AL 54 210 21 36 2 1 0 7 11 30 .171 .414
12 Hughie Critz .198 .242 227 1935 34 NYG NL 65 219 19 41 0 3 2 14 3 10 .187 .440
13 Frank Coggins .215 .222 183 1968 24 WSA AL 62 171 15 30 6 1 0 7 9 33 .175 .438
14 Juan Bell .201 .249 223 1991 23 BAL AL 100 209 26 36 9 2 1 15 8 51 .172 .450
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 6/10/2015.

On thing you can quickly glean from the list is that Infante is the best of this ragged bunch. He should be, since I set the parameters for OBP and slugging at his current numbers. Everyone else would fall below his level of performance. Another thing to note is that as much as the Royals fanbase actively loathed Chris Getz, he’s not on this list. Minor miracles and all that. The other, main thing that should leap off this page of the Interweb is that most of these players had their playing time either limited or cut short due to their overall offensive ineptitude.

We are at the point where the Royals are going to be giving the lion’s share of the playing time to a historically bad player at his position. Now, if this were the Old Royals, we’d just nod our heads collectively and say, “Same old Royals.” Except this isn’t the Old Royals. It’s not even a reasonable facsimile. This is a team with the best record in the American League and it’s a team with designs on another October run. Infante alone can’t derail this effort. He’s simply one of nine guys in the lineup. But he can certainly kill more than his share of rallies or otherwise negatively impact the game from an offensive standpoint.

It’s not as if the Royals don’t have options. Christian Colon has spent this season collecting a major league paycheck and service time. For his efforts, he has been allowed to swing the bat in anger 74 times and posted a slash line of .269/.329/.313. That’s not great, but that’s a helluva lot better than the production the Royals have been getting at the position.

The Royals (who, if they are being honest, are the last defenders of Infante) will cite Infante’s glove as reason enough to keep him around. There is some validity to the argument that his defense is worthy of discussion. To this point, Infante has saved four runs at second according to The Fielding Bible. That’s tied for seventh among fielders at the keystone. His plus/minus rating is at +5, meaning he has fielded five more balls than would be expected of him at the position. Again, that gets him on the leaderboard, ranking seventh among all second basemen. From the limited opportunity we’ve had to see Colon in the field, he doesn’t impress. The question the Royals have to ask themselves: Is the team better off with Colon’s bat in the lineup or Infante’s glove? Does the sum of the team improve if you replace Infante with Colon?

I think the answer is yes. I think Colon’s defense may be below average at second base, but Infante has become so inept offensively, replacing him with a corpse could be a net gain. The Royals? I’m not sure they’re at that point yet. And I think it’s easy to figure out why that is.

You want to identify the main reason Infante is still haunting the lineup? How about he’s only in year two of a four-year deal. He’s set to pocket $7.5 million this year, $7.75 million in 2016 and another $8 million in ’17. (And he can also make an extra $500,000 if Royals fans somehow get him voted to the All-Star Game. I say it’s worth it. But I have a twisted sense of humor.) Oh, and then there’s the requisite Royals option for $10 million for 2018 with a $2 million buyout. So we’ve got a player who is firmly in his decline years and the Royals are on the hook for $24.75 million for the remainder of his contract.

There isn’t a perfect offensive stat to encapsulate his offensive decline, but wOBA can come close enough. From Fangraphs, we can see just how Infante has stumbled at the plate in recent seasons.

Infante_wOBA

Yes, there is an uptick in 2013, (it’s actually the best year of his career) but with below league average numbers in all other seasons since 2010, it’s safe to say that the ’13 season was an outlier. And it just so happens that was the year before Infante hit the free agent market and signed with the Royals. Rotten timing. A horrific contract results and the Royals are on the hook for a player who is no longer worthy of a spot on a major league roster.

(It’s weird how these contracts happen. The Royals bought on Infante’s career year and thought they would get a couple more years like that at the plate. A year later, the Royals bet against Kendrys Morales and his declining numbers. One deal worked out. The other deal… Not so much.)

Every team has a weak link. No team is perfect from one through nine. And the Royals collectively are good enough to cover for someone who isn’t pulling their fair share. At this point, given the depths Infante has fallen offensively, it’s time for the club to give him an extended break. Christian Colon may not be the long-term answer, but he’s a better option today than Infante. That’s pretty clear. And benching Infante won’t turn this team into some offensive juggernaut. That’s not the goal. The goal is simple: Try to field the best players at their position. Right now, there’s no way Infante is the best option for the Royals at second base.

The contract limits the Royals options. It’s toxic enough, no one will trade for him unless the Royals eat a sizable portion. It’s large enough the team certainly won’t release him. The only thing the Royals can do is put him on the bench. Hopefully, he would accept his demotion with some grace.  The bench is the only place the Royals can stash him so he stops hurting the team. This needs to happen soon.

The Royals struck first, with a decisiveness that suggested this game was going to be a runaway in their favor.

Natural born leadoff hitter Alcides Escobar lashed an 0-2 pitch down the third base line for a double to open the game. He was followed by a Mike Moustakas special (an opposite field hit, as if you didn’t know) and the Royals were on the board. A Trevor May wild pitch moved Moustakas to second and it looked as if the Royals were in one of those offensively unstoppable modes. The game was barely minutes old and the rout was taking flight.

Ehhhh… Hang on.

Moustakas broke for third on a ground ball back to the pitcher and was dutifully thrown out. Instead of a blowout, the game turned into a series of missed opportunities, wasted chances and outs on the bases. All told, the Royals gave away a full inning of outs on the base paths. In addition to the Moustakas out in the first, Alex Gordon was picked off second base (on a play that looked a borderline balk) and Kendrys Morales was gunned down at home. The good news is, they weren’t the only ones making outs on the bases. The Twins first baserunner of the night, Eduardo Escobar, who owns a lone steal in 2015, was thrown out attempting for stolen base number two. Maybe he was emboldened by what feels a recent spate of successful thefts against Sal Perez. Maybe Royals starter Chris Young, with the deliberate delivery and slo-motion fastball was an appealing victim. Whatever the motivation, Escobar was out and only the throw to the third base side of the bag made it close.

At any rate, after looking like they were going to put this away early, one run was all the Royals would plate through the first seven inning.

That put the focus squarely on the aforementioned Young. And boy, did he come through.

According to the preliminary PitchF/X data, Young threw 60 fastballs and 23 sliders. The fastball averaged 88 mph, while the slider was routinely clocked at 81 mph. The Twins had to know what was coming, they had to know they could set dead-red (or in Young’s case, dead orangish), yet they couldn’t square the ball. The Twins swung and missed at only five pitches all night. They put 17 balls in play. The Royals defense turned 16 of those into outs.

Young carried a no-hitter into the seventh. It was one of the more unlikely, yet extraordinary pitching performances of the year. A Trevor Plouffe triple off the very top of the wall ended the bid.

I don’t know how that ball stayed in the yard. One night after the Twins cashed in a home run that barely found its way over the green padding in left-center, this seemed to be karmic payback. Plouffe’s triple hit off the extreme tip top of the giant wall down the right field line. (Lost in the moment was not one, but two potentially costly miscues by Alex Rios. One, he was way too close to the wall. The ball took a powerful carom back to the infield, but it hit so far up the wall, I don’t know why Rios was that close to said wall to begin with. And two, his throw back to the infield short-hopped Moustakas at third. Only Young, correctly backing up third, saved the shutout.)

After four really good starts to open his Royals career, Young wobbled in his previous two, allowing 10 runs in 11 innings of work. On Tuesday, it was vintage Young, getting 11 fly ball outs.

With Young, the knock has always been his inability to go deep into games. Yost was right in sticking with him to open the seventh. And he was right to pull him as soon as he surrendered his first hit. The velocity chart from Brooks Baseball is a perfect way to illustrate how Young simply doesn’t have the stamina to finish a game.

Young_Velocity_050915

That’s a gradual decline through 83 pitches. Then factor in Twins batters who were seeing him for the third time and it was definitely the correct call to remove him from the game.

And how about that bullpen? Yost played the platoon match-ups on Tuesday with brilliant success. Franklin Morales, with the infield drawn in, gets a ground out, and he’s followed by the normal seventh inning man, Kelvin Herrera who closes the inning out. All that was left was The Wade Davis Experience for the eighth and Saveman for the ninth.

Ballgame.

Second win in a row over the Twins and the Royals have moved back into first place in the AL Central. They also currently own the best record in the American League. The offense hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire in these wins, but a three-game winning streak is still a three-game winning streak. The point being, it’s a long, long season. No team will be defined by a slump in May or early June. Well, as long as the slump doesn’t extend into July and August.

I wanted to close this post with the video of the Sal Perez bomb that doubled the Royals tally in the eighth. It was a monster shot. Sal knew the moment bat made contact with ball. And that sound… Mercy. It carried into the second deck in left, no easy feat in Minnesota. It was a thing of beauty.

Except MLB, in their promotional wisdom, won’t allow that clip to be embedded. Alas. Instead, I’ll embed the Fangraphs win-expectancy graph for the game to show how close the entire contest was on Tuesday.


Source: FanGraphs

The fourth and sixth were the Royals best chances to put the game away (or at least tilt it in their favor), but those outs on the bases could have been costly. And all the credit to Young for mowing through the Twins lineup. When you’re living right, you’re living right.

 

There is still time for things to change, but right now seven Royals will comprise the nine starting spots for the American League All-Star team. That’s cool…and funny..and probably indicates a flaw in the new voting system instituted this season to pick the teams.

And it doesn’t matter.  It’s the All-Star Game.  The last time the ‘right nine’ were picked by the fans was, oh, never.  If it wasn’t the Royals dominating the voting, I would not care even a little.  Some folks are award people, I’m not one of them. The MVP winner – don’t really care that much.   So you can imagine that All-Star voting is not something that does much to my blood pressure.

Now, that said, it IS the Royals, so I AM interested this year. Let’s take a high view look at which of the boys in Blue might actual warrant an All-Star starting nod.

Salvador Perez is not only going to be the American League starting catcher, he’s likely to be the leading overall accumulator of votes. If you are a big believer in intangibles – and if you are, the catching position is the best spot for which to base your case – then Perez doesn’t even cause a ripple. He is highly respected around the game (you know, the guys close to the dirt) and quite honestly, I’m not sure there is another catcher in the AL for whom I would give up Salvy to have on my team.

According to fWAR – and let’s just relax here, traditionalists, – which you can’t figure on your Texas Instruments calculator, but which does attempt to judge players by offense, baserunning AND defense, Perez is fourth among catchers with 100 plate appearances or more.  Perez’ 0.9 fWAR trails Russell Martin, Stephen Vogt and Brian McCann. Probably Vogt might be the most deserving if your All-Star team is based on ten weeks of a baseball season, but I doubt there will be much uproar over Perez being behind the dish.

We can bluster all we want, but Miguel Cabrera plays first base and he is better than Eric Hosmer.  That said, Eric Hosmer is no slouch.  His fWAR is 1.9 this season compared to Cabrera’s 2.3 – close enough to not get all worried about who the starter might be.  If you are certain only the stats your Dad used matter, Hosmer is third in batting average, third in on-base percentage and fifth in slugging.  He’s a Gold Glove winner, which your Dad thinks is important as well.  Sure, Cabrera is better, but Hosmer is close enough to be defensible in what really is kind of a ‘cool-kid’ competition.

Now, some of you think it is funny that Omar Infante is second in the voting at second base.  Some of you are just hell-bent Royals’ fans. It’s all fine…as long as deep down every one of you acknowledges that Infante doesn’t deserve one single vote.

At shortstop, Alcides Escobar is fourth in fWAR among players with 100 or more plate appearances.  Let’s face it, the early part of 2015 is not flush with great shortstops, so yeah, you can make a case for a guy with a .302 on-base percentage. Jose Iglesias? Brad Miller? Xander Bogaerts? Marcus Semien and his 19 errors?  Is Escobar playing at an All-Star level? Well, if you grade on a curve, he’s in the conversation.

If I had told you Mike Moustakas had a legitimate case to be the starting third baseman in March, how much would you have bet me?  Second in fWAR, behind Josh Donaldson (who’s pretty good, by the way), first in batting average, second in on-base (if you count Brock Holt as a third baseman) and second in slugging. We love his defense, so do the metrics. Again, if your judgment is based on less than half a season, it comes down to Moustakas and Donaldson.  One gets to start, the other gets to play:  it will all work out.

The best player in baseball is not Lorenzo Cain, but instead is Mike Trout.  They will both be starters and, in no world, does Trout not deserve it.  Cain is in a virtual dead heat with six other guys for second in fWAR.  Cain has the cool-factor and the wow factor thanks to a marvelous post-season.  Taking baserunning and especially defense into the equation, there is no other outfielder being horrifically wronged by Cain getting more votes.

Now, I love Alex Gordon.  He has a great track record, but is not having a great 2015 at the plate, but is simply the best defensive left-fielder I have ever seen (and I’m old) and his fWAR is just a touch behind Cain and company. WAR was made for guys like Gordon, who play great defense, get on base and don’t run into outs:  you know guys that know how to play the game.

Kendrys Morales?  Well, he has been quite good, but so has Nelson Cruz and, frankly, Alex Rodriguez.  I think most of us would, if we took off our Royals’ jerseys, say Cruz is more deserving and he might yet overtake Morales.  The world won’t end if he does, but the very foundation of baseball will not crumble if Kendrys maintains the lead, either.

Are seven Royals’ the very best at their positions in the American League?  No, they are not.  Are seven Royals among the better players at their respective positions?  Yes, I think they are…for half a season, anyway.

All loses are not created equal.

Believe me, as a Royals fan I know a thing or two about that. There’s the mail-it-in loss that we became all too familiar with in the Tony Muser, Buddy Bell and Trey Hillman death march to 100 losses. There’s the tough loss which we saw when the Royals would run their best starter to the mound and would drop a 2-1 decision. Recently, there’s been the Yosted loss where poor bullpen management or the failure to anticipate match-ups squandered an opportunity for victory.

There’s also the gut-punch loss. We’ve seen a few of those already this year. Those are the games ripe for the taking where the Royals fail to capitalize.

Entering the top of the seventh on Sunday with a 3-0 lead while in the midst of a 2-9 stretch, the Royals were set for a loss seldom seen and often fatal: The Ultimate Gut-Punch.

This one had all the ingredients:

First, a really strong start from an unsuspecting candidate. Jeremy Guthrie has been one of the worst starters if not the worst in the early portion of the season. He owns a 3.3 SO/9 and is coughing up 11 hits per nine. His 1.67 HR/9 is a career high and his 35 percent ground ball rate is a career low. His 6.17 ERA is so bloated, you immediately go to his FIP to see if he’s been on the end of some rotten luck. Then you see he has a 5.95 FIP. Yeah… that ERA is real. And frightening.

Guthrie’s starts aren’t so much rollercoasters, as they’re just the part of the ride where you plunge 100 feet straight down in four seconds. Of his last three starts, he’s turned in two that were decent and one that was so horrible, it may have been the worst start by a Royals pitcher in the last 10 years. That’s saying something.

When he opened the afternoon needing 23 pitches to navigate the first, while allowing just a single baserunner, you would be forgiven if you reached for a seat belt. It looked like another rocky outing was on the horizon.

Then something happpened. After Guthrie walked Joey Gallo to open the second, Elvis Andrus swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. From that moment until the the end of the sixth inning, Guthrie allowed just a single, solitary baserunner. It was a Mitch Moreland double with two outs in the fourth. I’m kind of glad we’re not going to be seeing Moreland for the rest of the summer. He’s borderline Brandon Moss status based on how well he’s hit against the Royals this year.

Guthrie threw 82 pitches through six and returned for the seventh. He was pulled after allowing one-out, back to back singles to Moreland (him again) and Gallo. Guthrie handed the ball to the bullpen with a 3-0 lead after he posted a Game Score of 70. It was his finest start of the season at a time the Royals desperately needed to keep the opposition off the board.

Second, it has an offense that showed a pulse. If this were a medical drama, there would still be interns hovering over the body with looks of grave concern. Someone would call out something about a “thready pulse.” But the pulse was there. However faint. Two runs in each of teh first two innings. For the April Royals, not even noticeable. For the late-May, early-June edition? It’s a reason for celebration.

Never mind the first two runs were scored in a 2014 Royals vintage sort of way. Sacrifice flies by Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar staked the Royals to their early lead. Who cares how they scored? For a team in an offensive quagmire like the Royals, you take what you can get. Besides, two run leads aren’t happening too often these days.

To make things even more exciting, they tacked on a third run thanks to a Kendrys Morales double. Three runs? For a team that had averaged 2.1 runs in their last 10 games (and that included an eight-run outburst on the North Side of Chicago) three runs is Haley’s Comet amazing.

Third, this was about a team that has found it difficult to win of late. You know they’ve won two of their last 11. You know the offense has been putrid and the starting pitching inconsistent. You know apart from that little barrage in Chicago when the wind was blowing out on a warm day, this offense hasn’t done a damn thing.

It all teetered on the brink in the seventh inning. Guthrie returned to the mound after throwing 82 pitches through six innings of yeoman work. Herrera is normally the seventh inning guy. Sure, we can second guess, but Guthrie had been working through the Rangers lineup. Not necessarily with ease, because that’s not how Guthrie operates. Yost has to know the type of pitcher Guthrie has become at this stage of his career. If you get five or six good innings, it’s time to cut bait and get it to the bullpen. Don’t wait around on Guthrie.

Then Herrera turned in a performance of Guthrie-esque quality. He was brining the heat as usual, topping out at 101 mph, but the Rangers didn’t give a damn. Andrus fouled off five pitches before he singled to load the bases. Leonys Martin fouled off two before he hit the single to bring in both of the runners belonging to Guthrie. (By the way, I enjoy Game Score, but those two runs knocked Guthrie’s Score down eight points. He finished with a 62. Rough.) Then Robinson Chirinos fouled off three more before he grounded out to shortstop, driving in the game-tying run.

At that moment, I found myself thinking that Yost needed to manage this game like it was October. All wins are important and over the course of a 162 game schedule, it seems foolish to point to one particular win as more important than any other. Yet, this felt like it was the most important game of the year thus far for the reasons stated above. To give this away… Ultimate Gut-Punch.

This is the win expectancy graph from Fangraphs. When Fielder grounded out for the first out of the seventh inning, the Royals win expectancy stood at 95 percent. Again… Ultimate Gut-Punch.


Source: FanGraphs

Thankfully, there’s a catcher named Salvador Perez. Two outs. Eighth inning. Boom.

You don’t think Sal wasn’t aware of how huge that home run was?

I tweeted a little after the game that the Perez home run was the biggest hit of the year for the Royals. If you’ve made it this far in the post, I suspect you feel the same.

I’m not a big believer in momentum in baseball, so I’m not going to go there and predict this as some sort of launching point for big things. Instead, I’ll just appreciate it for what it was – a magnificent home run at a crucial spot that may have saved this team from a tailspin they could ill-afford. If the Royals scrape and claw their way back to October, this could be one of the games we point to.

Thanks to Sal The Savior.

This Royals teams has imperfections. It always has. It’s just these days, those imperfections are bubbling to the surface.

Take Chris Young as an example. Young entered Thursday’s game with a 1.55 ERA in just over 40 innings of work. He had pitched masterfully in the majority of his starts for the Royals. Yet his FIP was 3.41. Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) to the uninitiated is an ERA-type number that strips out defense, luck and sequencing to give a more complete picture of how a pitcher performed. A gap between ERA and FIP isn’t always notable. Some starters – Young included – routinely outperform their ERA. However, the almost two run gap between Young’s ERA and FIP is wider than normal. That leads you to believe a correction was on the horizon.

Why did the gap exist? For one, the Royals otherworldly defense is going to help immensely. Especially for a fly ball pitcher like Young, who has Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain patrolling two-thirds-plus of Kauffman Stadium. On the season prior to his last start, Young has allowed batters to put the ball in the air 62.9 percent of the time the ball is in play. That’s high, even for Young, who’s career fly ball rate is 55.1 percent. For some perspective of how extreme Young’s fly ball rate has been, here are the top five pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched ranked by fly ball rate:

Young_FB_060415

Young is lapping the field. I mean, this is amazing.

What happens when you have so many fly balls hit to the Royals outfield? Yep, the batting average on balls in play can get insanely small. In Young’s case, before the game on Thursday, his BABIP was .184. Again, it’s important to keep in mind that because Young is an extreme fly ball pitcher, he is going to have a BABIP that would be considered below average. In fact, his career BABIP is .249, which if I had to guess, would be among the lowest of active pitchers with a similar amount of mileage on their arms. It’s certainly the lowest among pitchers with at least 40 innings thrown this season. Here are the bottom five ranked by BABIP:

Young_BABIP_060415

Also, it’s worth looking at Young’s strand rate. Frequent readers of the blog know that I favor strand rate when examining whether or not a pitcher can continue a successful sequence of starts. League average for starters  is around a 75 percent strand rate. It’s higher for relievers. Young’s strand rate entering Thursday’s game was an eye-catching 87.7 percent. Here are the top five pitchers ranked by strand rate:

Young_Strand_060415

No doubt some of those numbers are helped due to his time spent in the bullpen for the first month of the season, but he had thrown only 12 of those 40-plus innings in relief. That skews things, but not as much as you would think.

Young was a pitcher who was posting a higher than normal fly ball rate which resulted in an extremely depressed BABIP and an elevated strand rate. From the tables above, you can see exactly how out of whack those numbers are with the rest of the league. Either one of two things are going to happen going forward. One, more of those fly balls are going to leave the yard. Or two, his fly ball rate will normalize (for him) and his line drive rate will increase, which will lead to more hard-hit balls, which will lead to more base hits.

It should also be noted that Young entered Thursday’s game with an xFIP of 4.91. xFIP is the same as FIP, but it replaces a pitches home run total with the number of home runs they would be expected to allow, given their fly ball rate. Again, Young is always going to outperform his xFIP just due to his ballpark and his elevated fly ball rate. But a three run difference is too extreme. Young had allowed just three home runs in his 40.1 innings of work. He gave up a home run to Brandon Moss (who else?) which will cut the difference just a little.

What we saw on Thursday was a pitcher in the grips of regression. As long as Young stays in the rotation, there will be other starts like this. It’s who he is as a pitcher.

This isn’t to say the Royals should dump Young, or should shift him back to the bullpen. This is to say that with the Royals defense and their home ballpark, it is indeed the perfect scenario for Young. There isn’t a better team in the majors for him to ply his craft. But for every start like the one against the Tigers, there’s going to be one like we saw against the Indians. His great start to the season was never sustainable. As the innings pile up, he will continue to give back the luck he experienced over the season’s first two months. Baseball is funny that way. The Royals will continue to hope that Young can survive on the back of the Royals outfield defense and home ballpark. And they also will wait for their offense to awaken from this slumber.

And they will hope that Danny Duffy or Kris Medlen can push Young back to the bullpen.

For the second straight game, the Royals drop a heartbreaker by a 2-1 scoreline. For so little action, there’s plenty to discuss.

Let’s start with the offense.

Another brutal performance all around. After Sal Perez singled with one out in the fourth, the Royals didn’t put another runner on base. That’s 17 consecutive outs to end the game. Perhaps the most frustrating string of outs came in the eighth and ninth when Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Alex Gordon were four straight strikeout victims.

The Royals have now scored 2 or fewer runs in six of their last seven games. This is not how you win baseball games. Not with this starting staff.

Now this is the part that may make some of you angry. This is what we mean when we talk about regression.

The Royals bolted out of the gate to start the season. The offense was firing on all cylinders. Wins were coming easy and triple digit win totals were seemingly on the horizon.

The simplest way to illustrate this is to break it down by month.

Split PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
April/March 866 782 119 239 47 6 18 112 20 7 52 131 .306 .362 .450 .812 .346 118 130
May 943 871 105 220 48 8 19 99 8 6 49 147 .253 .297 .392 .688 .282 84 93
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 6/2/2015.

The column to key on is the BABIP. A .346 BABIP is simply unsustainable. It’s a sign of a team on a roll. If you’re into the markets, think of the Royals April as the housing market in 2007. Good times. The correction was coming, but the question was always going to be, exactly how painful would it be? It turns out that, really, the correction the Royals saw in May wasn’t all that bad. They finished the month with 14 wins, which was over .500. The starting pitchers turned in a brilliant week, just when the offense started to hibernate. Sometimes, the signs are a little difficult to find, because other events obscure the facts.

There wasn’t anything to hide in the just completed road trip. And now it seems, we’re in full-blown panic mode.

Can we be OK with it? Hell, no. It’s not fun when our team loses. And especially when they lose with such anemic offense. Except to me, this was inevitable. At some point, the Royals were going to slump. And at some point, they were going to lose five of six. It’s happening now.

The silver lining (if you’re the type looking for a glass that is half-full) is that the Tigers posted similarly inflated offensive numbers in the season’s opening month. And sure enough, the Tigers are stumbling, losers of eight of their last 10. (Let’s not even worry about the Twins. They are welterweights trying to spar with a couple of middleweights. It’s not going to end pretty for them.) If you’re going to slump, have the good fortune to time it to a similar slump of your closest rival. While the devil magic may be running cold, there are signs that it’s at least still somewhat operational.

Now let’s discuss the broken system of replay.

If you have read this blog for any length of time, or if you follow me on Twitter, you know exactly what I think of replay:

It’s a steaming pile of horseshit.

My issues with replay are myriad. For starters, each stadium is built with it’s own quirks, so the camera angles vary from yard to yard. For a system designed to be perfect (or as perfect as it can possibly be) this is a huge disadvantage. The camera bay at Kauffman, may lend itself to a better view of second base than at Target Field. But maybe the high angle at Comerica is more advantageous than the high angle at Wrigley. Whatever. If you are creating and using a system to “get things right” you damn well better have uniform coverage. For the play at first on Tuesday, it seems that there were just two or three angles, and all of them were from behind the base. There was absolutely no variety. The coverage just isn’t consistent or good enough.

If you have four minutes of your life to flush down the toilet:

Second, the speed of the cameras isn’t conducive to judging close plays. Even when it’s freeze framed. You’ve seen Fox’s “Phantom Cam.” That’s an amazing product. It’s also damned expensive. But if you don’t want a ball entering a glove to be a white smeary blur, or if you want to be able to discern if that spike is actually making contact with the base, you need a camera capable of shooting higher frame rates. It’s prohibitively expensive to place these cameras throughout the ballpark, but maybe replay should be shelved until the price comes down or even better technology is in place. Anyway, baseball is awash in cash. They can afford to outfit ballparks with these cameras.

Third, and this is just my theory, I have no smoking gun on this, I believe there has been a conscientious decision to be absolutely, 100 percent certain that the evidence is iron-clad before they will overturn a call on the field. That’s what happened on Tuesday in the eighth inning. It certainly looked like the ball was in Hosmer’s glove before Ramirez’s spike hit the bag, but that wasn’t enough. It needed to be crystal clear. There needed to be an “ah-ha!” moment. It feels to me we’ve seen many more replay challenges upheld due to evidence that could be termed inconclusive. And again, that evidence is inconclusive because we have cameras positioned at less than ideal angles with less than ideal frame rates. If you need clearly conclusive evidence to overturn a call, yet have just a single angle to make that call, how is that serving the game?

Because of this, the umpires and the phantom umps in New York somehow screwed up the replay call and said Ramirez was safe.

Replay is a system that strives for perfection, yet it’s handcuffed by it’s own imperfections.

While the allegedly blown replay call in the eighth was bad enough, Omar Infante booting a grounder hit right at him off the bat of the following hitter was a worse sin.

It’s time for Infante to ride the pine.

He’s not the worst offensive performer in baseball through the season’s first two months, but he’s certainly in the discussion. On Tuesday he came up to bat twice in the first four innings with runners on first and second. He struck out both times.

The first plate appearance:

Omar_PA1_060215

I mean, what the hell? How can we describe the second plate appearance? An improvement? Good grief.

Omar_PA2_060215

As horrible as those were, the play in the field in the eighth was the death knell for Tuesday’s game. After the blown replay call, Jason Kipnis followed with a ball hit right at Infante. A taylor-made double play. Only somehow Infante booted the ball and had to rush his throw to second. Because of his inability to cleanly field the ball, Escobar wasn’t able to even try to complete the turn. Kipnis, of course, came around to score the game-winning run.

Don’t go looking for an error on Infante. Your old school stats don’t work here. Because the Royals got one out, there can be no error charged on the play. You can’t assume a double play. Even one as inevitable as the one Infante booted.

Infante has been negatively affecting the lineup for most of the season by just being there. Tuesday was one of those instances where we can point to his overall effort and say: Not good enough. Not even close.

Unfortunately, the Royals still owe him $18 million over the next two seasons (including a buyout on a club option), so it’s not like they can just move him to the scrap heap even if his production merits. While the Royals are battling regression, they need to figure out ways to improve their current situation. That means giving Christian Colon the majority of the time at second base going forward. Colon may not be the long-term answer at the position, but based on Infante’s production, Colon would have to be roundly awful not to be at least a slight improvement. Dayton Moore gave out a bad contract to a declining player, who’s decline seemed to accelerate the moment the pen hit the paper. The money is gone, but that doesn’t mean steps can’t be taken to rectify the situation.

Free Colon.

This post is running long and we haven’t even discussed Jeremy Guthrie’s high-wire act or Sal Perez’s concussion-like symptoms. And after such a depressing night, I wanted to end on a high note and have video of the best moment of the game which was Alex Gordon’s first inning catch of a fly ball off the bat of Kipnis. Except MLB Advanced Media won’t let me embed that clip.

What a bunch of crap.

The Royals finished off May with a leisurely three games in six days – what is this?  The NBA?

After winning five games in a row, Kansas City proceeding to lose four in a row and five of their last six games.  While that has caused the Royals to fall out of first place, they did blow through the Memorial Day barrier with one of the best records in baseball.  If you believe in the ‘you don’t know anything until Memorial Day’ mantra, then you now know that your Kansas City Royals are pretty decent.

The Royals remain right on my quirky path to 90 wins, by taking 7 of 13 games three times in succession (they are currently 1-1 in this new thirteen game stretch) and have done so despite erratic starting pitching and an offensive swoon that has seen them score two runs or less in five of their last six games. Of course, if you can win 90 games by simply going 7-6 all year, why not go 8-5 once in a while and win 95 games?  Seems like a smart idea.

The obvious place to jumpstart a ‘plus 90′ campaign would be the starting rotation.  However, the Royals do not seem to be motivated to make a big move on the acquisition front and, to be honest, I doubt any potential trading partners are ready to help them out, either. A rival general manager may know that his team is not a contender by Memorial Day, but seldom is one ready to give up in public before Independence Day.  With every impact starting prospect in the system either hampered by injury or simple ineffectiveness, the Royals are pretty much stuck.  They will have to grit their teeth and hope some combination of Ventura, Volquez, Young, Vargas, Guthrie and Duffy turns into a better rotation than what they were in April and May.

While it seems odd to cast a critical eye at an offense that leads the American League in runs per game, the time may be coming (or already here) for a shuffle.  While Sunday was a very non-traditional lineup for the Royals they did bat Alcides Escobar first (.310 OBP) and Omar Infante second (.241 OBP)….on a team with five guys with on-base percentages north of .350.  Now, Infante batting second was a fluke of the day – although why not put Christian Colon there for a day and see if that .348 OBP holds up? – but Escobar batting lead-off is the rule.

Let’s get one thing straight, I love Alcides Escobar.  He might be my favorite Royal.  That does not make him the Royals’ best player and it probably doesn’t make him my everyday lead-off hitter.  He runs the bases well, he fields tremendously, he can handle the bat (I actually would not mind seeing him bunt for a hit more), but he doesn’t walk.  On a team that loves to swing, Escobar stands out as one of the swingiest (yeah, swingiest – that’s a technical term).  When it comes to batting order construction, I kind of like to have guys who are more likely to get on base get more at-bats than those that don’t.

That discussion, however, often has a ‘well, you can’t have two lefties in a row’ and that mindset derails a lineup that has Gordon and Moustakas at the top or Gordon and Hosmer or Hosmer and Moustakas back to back.  Should we care?   Is there too much concern about running into the dreaded LOOGY?

In the American League, these are your left-handed reliever leaders in games:

  • Glen Perkins MIN
  • Aaron Thompson MIN
  • Justin Wilson NY
  • Marc Rzepczynski CLE
  • Nick Hagadone CLE
  • Fernando Abad OAK
  • Andrew Miller NY
  • Aaron Loup  TOR
  • Blaine Hardy DET
  • Zach Britton BAL
  • Zach Duke CHI
  • Charlie Furbush SEA
  • Dan Jennings CHI
  • Tony Sipp HOU
  • Brian Duensing MIN

Those are the relievers in the American League who have appeared in more games than the Royals’ Franklin Morales.  If, as the Royals are prone to doing, you have great angst over changing the batting order in any way, then it makes sense to construct a set lineup based on facing your divisional foes.

In Minnesota, Perkins is worse facing lefties than he is against right-handers.  Thompson is tough on lefties, but in a relatively small sample (both 2015 and for a career) and there is no reason to ever factor Brian Duensing into your lineup making decisions.  In addition to old friend Blaine Hardy, against whom lefties are hitting .184 this year, the Tigers offer Tom Gorzelanny who is graciously allowing both left and right-handed batters many pitches to hit this season. Of course, they close with the resurgent Joakim Soria, who is tough on all hitters, but moreso against righties.

Chicago? Dan Jennings is being lit up by lefties this season.  Zach Duke is much better against lefthanded hitting (but not dominant) and is the set-up man for David Robertson, who gets everyone out, but lefties at a higher rate than their right-handed counterparts.

Cleveland? Hagadone is a lefty killer with a big platoon split.  Rzepczynski’s splits for his career show him very good against lefties as well, very average (or worse) against righties.  His 2015 splits are less skewed for what that’s worth. The Indians’ closer, Cody Allen, also has a much more success (over his career) against left-handed hitting than against right.

While my perception was that the fear of running into a lefty specialist with the game on the line was overblown, it certainly does not seem like one wants to be done one to Cleveland late and have three lefties in a row coming up.   Of course, maybe relievers are not really the issue at all.

In the American League, thirty-two starting pitchers currently are holding left handed hitters to a batting average of .240 or less (two of those are Royals, by the way).  Only twenty-one starters hold right handed hitters to a the same paltry average.  Ten pitchers (Edinson Volquez among them) appear on both leaderboards, which leaves twenty-one starting pitchers who carry a hefty advantage against left-handed hitters, with ten of those taking up residence in the American League Central.

It is admittedly shotgun research at best, but it shows that the idea of not bunching your lefties has some weight and that causes some issues when it comes to switching up the order.  If you are hellbent on L-R alternation it is almost unavoidable to not have one of your best on-base guys (Gordon, Hosmer or Moustakas) at least hitting fifth, if not sixth.  Also, in the thirst to get more at-bats to your best hitters it is practically impossible to avoid a vortex of on-base ineptitude at the bottom of the order.  One could go weeks without a Perez-Escobar-Infante bottom of the order getting a walk.

That’s over a thousand words with no answer for the batting order and, honestly, the team does lead the league in runs per game AND run differential.  Perhaps the answer really is:  ‘Don’t Touch Anything!  You Might Break It!’

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.

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