Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

That’s the diagnosis of recovery of the Grade 2 groin strain for Alex Gordon. Eight weeks.

When Gordon was carted off the field on Wednesday, I thought about George Brett. My memories are hazy, but I seem to recall him landing on the DL almost once a season when he was in his prime. Going to those games and not having Brett in the lineup felt strange. Something was missing. A void. That’s how it’s going to be with Gordon out for the next eight weeks. It will be different to look at the lineup everyday and not see his name there.

Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando are the fourth and fifth outfielders for a reason. They are the guys who can give you (hopefully) a decent game or two in place of your regulars. Play them everyday, and you risk them being exposed. Just the other day, I advocated they form a platoon to replace the corpse of Alex Rios, last seen rotting on the TOOTBLAN. Now, they will be pressed into duty covering left field.

You don’t replace an Alex Gordon. You hope someone can keep his spot warm while he’s out of the lineup, but you’re not going to replace him. Not from within. Not via a trade. It can’t be done.

Here are the leaders in fWAR since the start of the 2011 season:

Mike Trout – 34.6
Andrew McCutchen – 30.8
Miguel Cabrera – 28.7
Alex Gordon – 25.3

I’ve been making this argument for a couple of years, but Gordon is still criminally underrated in some corners of the game. (Never forget last winter when MLB Network embarked on listing the top players in the game at each position, Gordon was ranked as the fifth best left fielder in the game. Fifth!) Actually, he’s probably criminally underrated in some corners of the city. He is a complete player. Offense. Defense. Base running. And yes, the leadership by example.

This post isn’t meant to be maudlin. On Thursday afternoon, the Royals became the first team in the American League to reach 50 wins. They own the best record in the AL over the Astros by 3.5 games. This is shaping up to be a special summer in Kansas City. I have no idea what’s going to happen. The road ahead did get more difficult with the absence of Gordon, but it’s not insurmountable. The Royals hot start and subsequent solid turn through the rest of the schedule has them in a great place. You never want to lose a player of Gordon’s caliber, but if you do, you want to own the kind of record the Royals currently possess. Teams are trying to catch the Royals. They have a little over two and a half months. Good luck.

We’ve seen what will be known as the usual suspects when it comes to the trade market for replacements. Ben Zobrist was on the Royals radar certainly before the injury. You would assume he’s an option. He’s a Swiss Army Knife of a player where he could rotate between the outfield and second base. He was injured early in the year and has taken some time to find his footing. His .250/.338/.422 slash line is underwhelming when put up against his career line, but he possesses a 114 wRC+. His low batting average is fueled by a career low .253 BABIP. Zobrist takes a walk. He’s grabbing a free pass just over 12 percent of the time this year. That’s key, given this Royals team’s walk rate is historically low and Gordon was the only guy in the lineup who shows enough plate discipline to jog to first on a regular basis.

Justin Upton is another name for the Royals to consider. He’s hitting .259/.338/.434 with a 119 wRC+ for the Padres. He strikes out a ton, but will take a walk and has plenty of power potential even though his ISO has dropped to .175 this year.

A couple other names I’ve seen mentioned include Jay Bruce from Cincinnati or Carlos Gomez in Milwaukee.

Personally, I’d favor Zobrist. I don’t think the price will be insanely high for a two month rental in his case, although you always need to beware dealing with Billy Beane. As I mentioned, he could play anywhere on the field, giving Yost some great options down the stretch if Gordon can get back in the lineup at 100 percent. The Royals were in the market for an outfielder before the injury thanks to the ineptitude of Rios. Now they need two corner outfielders. That’s a massive ask for a team to fill via trade with just a couple of weeks before the deadline. The ideal situation would have them making a deal for an outfielder, then shifting whomever they acquire to right field when Gordon returns.

In the meantime, let’s take a moment to bask in the glory of Dyson’s last two days. Starting with some insane hitting and base running:

Some amazing defense:

And some more amazing defense:

 

 

 

The Royals have collectively stepped up in the wake of losing their leader. This team… I’ve never seen a baseball team thrive on emotion as much as the Royals. From last September and October, through their fast start in 2015, they’re an amazing group. It’s cliche, but it’s not difficult to imagine this team somehow getting stronger from this situation. Well, not technically stronger because I just spent 800 words on how you can’t replace Gordon, but you know what I mean. Just look at those videos again. In two games, Dyson has picked this team up with a pair of sterling defensive plays and an inside the park home run. If Yost gets his rotations correct, it’s not outside of the realm of possibility the team can survive this. It’s just I would feel a little more comfortable if they would hit the trade market to try to find a replacement.

This team is entering the break on a high note. They need to have all the weapons they can at their disposal to continue putting distance between themselves and the rest of the league.

Sometime today, we will likely have a better idea of the extent of Alex Gordon’s groin injury.  While Royals’ Nation breathed a sigh of relief when learning during last night’s game that Gordon had not suffered a knee injury, nothing about how the All-Star outfielder went down suggests this injury is minor.  It’s a shame.

It is a shame, because seeing any player get hurt for any team is not something to rejoice in.  Sure, Miguel Cabrera’s injury cripples the division rival Tigers, but I like watching Cabrera hit (not so much when playing Kansas City, but you get the point).  When Bryce Harper suffered a similar injury to that of Gordon, there was no joy in his situation.  Injuries to superstars or almost stars get our attention, but injuries to the guy just trying to hang onto the last spot on the roster are just as bad.  Baseball is full of injuries and that is just how sports works, doesn’t mean it is not a shame.

It is a shame for the Kansas City Royals, having their best season since I had hair, to lose arguably their best player. On the best defensive team in baseball, Alex Gordon is the best defender. If you put any stock in awards, Gordon was awarded the Platinum Glove last winter signifying his status as the best defender, period, in the league.  He has, by a large margin, the best on-base percentage on the team (9th best in all of baseball).  This is not a player this team, or any team, simply replaces and moves on.

It is, more than anything, a shame for Alex Gordon.  Here is a guy who was right on the edge of playing his way out of baseball in 2010. A game that had always been easy for him had become incredibly difficult.  He hit .232 in 2009 and just .215 in 2010.  The next George Brett had been sent to the minors and changed positions.  He had slugged under .400 in both those years. Alex Gordon quite frankly rebuilt himself as a ballplayer (with no small amount of help from Kevin Seitzer) in the winter of 2010-11 and emerged as a left-fielder who could hit, get on-base and defend like no other.

A lot of guys remake themselves and work incredibly hard doing so, but that does not diminish what Alex Gordon did and continues to do.  It’s a shame.

All that said, ALEX GORDON IS NOT DEAD!

In fact, his career is not derailed either, just delayed. There are real tragedies in the world and Alex Gordon having an injury that keeps him from playing baseball for a period of time is not a tragedy (it’s a shame – get it?).  At 10:15, we will know just how long the Royals expect to be without their Gold Glove outfielder.  You know, the ALL-STAR.

If, by a stroke of good fortune, Gordon’s time lost is a week or two, then you play Jarrod Dyson and hope that he (or Orlando) can hold their own against left-handed pitching. Any longer than a couple of weeks, and I think the Royals have a real problem.  While I like Dyson against right-handers, he’s shown nothing against lefties and freaking Alex Rios is slogging around over in right.  If you have read my last couple of columns you know I am all-in to get another bat…and that was before Gordon got hurt.

Anyone have Justin Upton’s number?

With Tuesday’s spectacular doubleheader sweep, the Royals have reached the halfway point of the season. They stand atop the AL Central with 48 wins. They have four All-Star starters and two reserves with the possibility of adding a third. The offense has had it’s ups and downs. The rotation has been overhauled and revamped with a cast of irregulars. The defense and the bullpen have both been rock steady. Hell, they’ve been better. They’ve been spectacular.

The team shot out of the gate with a seven game winning streak to open the year. It was as if October never ended.

As it stands at the middle of the season, the Royals stand an excellent chance of returning. The Royals have their second best mark in franchise history after 81 games. The 1980 team had 48 wins at this point. And you know the ’80 team was kind of special. This has been a stellar summer in KC. Let’s take a quick look back at some of the key contributors from the first half.

Most valuable Royal
Lorenzo Cain

Cain was the breakout star of October, winning the ALCS MVP award for playing complete baseball. He’s the entire package. We watch him everyday, yet I feel he’s properly rated in Kansas City. He’s developed into a solid bat to hit in the upper half of the order. His defense is among the best in baseball. And his base running is superior. Now, if he can only keep those hamstrings from barking.

According to the Fielding Bible, Cain has saved nine runs in center. That’s third best in the AL behind Kevin Kiermeier and Mookie Betts. That’s all well and good, but all I know is Cain covers acreage upon acreage in the outfield.

CainDef

Cain leads the Royals in runs, steals, batting average, slugging percentage, wOBA and wRC+. He’s the complete package for the Royals, a deserving All-Star and the most valuable Royal for the first half of the season.

Least valuable Royal
Alex Rios

Signed as a free agent to a one-year, $11 million deal, Rios has rewarded the Royals with a -0.5 fWAR. He’s been miserable in every aspect of the game. His offense is putrid. He owns a .044 ISO which is almost half of what Omar Infante has. He’s walking 1.4 percent of the time, which is also the worst on the team. That’s nearly subterranean. His defense isn’t horrible, but he seems to get late breaks on liners and hard hit balls, which causes him to play singles into doubles and doubles into triples. His defensive spray chart illustrates his average glove. He reaches only the plays he should make.

RiosDef

On the bases, he doubled his TOOTBLAN total on the year by running into two outs in the first game of the doubleheader on Tuesday. Including a bizarre tag up at second where he made the third out of the inning at third base. It was a tour de force of not giving a shit.

It’s time for the Royals to release Rios.

The message the Royals would send by releasing Rios and eating the remainder of his contract would be overwhelmingly positive. Rios and his performance are reminiscent of the “just happy to be in the major leagues” Royals teams of the mid-2000s. He’s a festering sore on the “return to the World Series” Royals team of 2015. A Paulo Orlando and Jarrod Dyson platoon isn’t an ideal situation either, but at least you can’t question the effort you’d receive from the pair. Besides, together I’d wager the duo would outperform Rios in every aspect of the game.

Best scrap heap pick-up
Ryan Madson

Madson last pitched in the majors in 2011. When he arrived in spring training as a non-roster invite, I figured he was just another guy the Royals brought in for a look, but he would be gone in due time. Haha… glad I was wrong.

All he’s done is become the honorary fourth member of HDH. He’s holding opponents to a .188 batting average with a 4:1 strikeout to walk ratio. He’s featuring more cut fastballs than previously and the results are there. His ground ball rate is a career-high 54 percent.

Most valuable pitcher
Wade Davis

Or as I like to call him, The Wade Davis Experience. I mean, what else can you say about the guy? He’s a relief pitching beast.

On Tuesday, Davis pitched a scoreless inning. Again. That lowered his ERA by 0.01. Seriously. He’s so damn good a clean frame lowers his ERA from 0.25 to 0.24. It’s not like he’s pitching in junk time, either. He’s made 20 high-leverage appearances, most on the team. Of his 37 appearances, 34 have come with the Royals in the lead or with the game tied.

We’re watching a professional athlete at the extreme top of his game. Every Wade Davis Experience is truly special. Enjoy it.

Best game
Royals 11
Cleveland 5
April 28

It’s so tempting to go with the first game of Tuesday’s doubleheader, but I’ll go with this game from the end of April. The Royals took the lead in the top of the sixth, only to fall behind by two runs in the bottom of the frame. The Indians had a win expectancy of 82%. Big hits by Escobar, Moustakas and a bomb by Morales erased the deficit and then some. It was a game that had everything. You’re mileage may vary (and I’ve probably overlooked something obvious) but this one has stuck in my mind. Feel free to leave your favorite game of the year in the comments.

Honorable mention to this most recent run of wins, featuring three walkoffs (including the epic Orlando grand slam.)

It’s been a wild first-half ride. The Royals are playing better than I could have imagined. Here’s to a strong showing in the second half.

Surprisingly, the sun actually came up this morning despite the travesty of four position players from the team with the best record in the American League being voted All-Star starters. (And, yes, in answer to several tweets yesterday, Alex Gordon IS that much better defensively than J.D. Martinez).   Perhaps just as shocking, the moon did not fall from the sky last night even though not one, but two – TWO I TELL YA! – relievers from the best bullpen in the game the past TWO years were chosen to compete in an exhibition game next week.  An exhibition game, by the way, that currently would seem to be of more importance to the team that is the odds on favorite to represent the American League in the World Series.  You know, the team with six All-Stars.

Enough, however, has been said about this.  The fan voting is always a matter of much consternation (exactly how many All-Star starts did Derek Jeter get well after he was no longer the best shortstop in the game?).  Truth is, the players are not any better at it or the sportswriters or the managers.  Why, you ask?  Because differentiating between the second best outfielder and the eighth is really, really hard.  Sure, Mike Trout is the best in the AL and Miguel Cabrera is stupid good, but after that it gets murky. If you want to tell me Adam Jones is the second best outfielder, I might believe you, but I can come up with just as many reasons that it is Lorenzo Cain.  Comparing and contrasting J.D. Martinez, Brett Gardner and Alex Gordon could take up the rest of the month.  Picking any of them (Jose Bautista gets an obvious mention, too) is not a travesty, nor is it stupid, but screaming about it is a good way to get noticed.  Right, Christopher Russo?

Anyway, that is one paragraph too many on the subject out of me.  Let’s focus up, people.

Despite the best record in AL and a comfortable 4.5 game lead over the Twins and despite the Tigers having to spend the next six weeks without Miguel Cabrera and WITH Justin Verlander pitching, the Royals should/need to get better.  The common consensus it they must bolster the rotation. I ran into a fair amount of debate last week when I offered that the real priority was making the offense better.

The starting rotation is awful I was told and they are.  Well, maybe not awful – awful is Scott Elarton, Mark Redmond and Bobby Keppel – but the rotation is below average to be sure.  Royals starting pitching is 13th in the American League in earned run average with a 4.40 mark and 12th in FIP at 4.17.   They are dead last in innings pitched and even if the starters pitched four straight complete games while everyone else waited (Kansas City is way behind the rest of the league in games played right now), the starters would still be last in innings pitched.  That is not optimal.

Despite the rotational struggles, the Royals overall are 3rd (THIRD) in the American League in team earned run average with a 3.52 mark.   That lofty ranking is due to the lights out bullpen that is currently averaging 3 1/3 innings per contest.  That is a lot of innings, but do you feel the bullpen is tired?  Very crudely,  Wade Davis is on a pace to pitch in 72 games, Herrera 70, Madson and Morales 68 games and all of those games basically averaging out to one inning per appearance.  That is a big workload, but not a crazy-big-give out in September workload.  Add to the mix and improving Luke Hochevar and Brandon Finnegan with Greg Holland at the back end and that is a seven deep group of monsters.

On top of the depth and the talent, Royals’ manager Ned Yost has been quite good in handling his pen this year.  He loves to give his guys roles, but Ned has been willing to shuffle when he thinks guys need a rest.  We have seen Wade Davis close not just when Holland was hurt, but when Greg had pitched a couple of days in a row.  We have seen Ryan Madson pitch the seventh to give Herrera a day off and Herrera the eighth.

We are beginning to see the Hochevar that got us excited at the end of 2013 and Finnegan – while we can debate what this is doing to his development – is eating innings when the team needs it.  One can make a case that the worst pitcher in the pen is a 29 year old lefty with 267 major league appearances.  This is exactly the type of bullpen a team needs when its rotation is sub-par and Yost, thus far, appears to be the kind of manager you need to use that pen correctly.

Internally, the Royals will welcome back Yordano Ventura on Thursday.  He has been a hot mess this year, but he was also an outstanding pitcher in 2014 and it is not like his stuff has evaporated. Also due back soon is Jason Vargas and, with a little luck, we will see Kris Medlen sometime this month.  I might even throw John Lamb into the mix as possible in-house options if push comes to shove.  Will they make the Kansas City rotation dominant?  Not even close, but they have a realistic chance to make it better.

Offensively, the Royals are eight in runs scored per game, but that very average mark has an anchor on it.  After averaging 5.4 runs per game in April, the Royals are averaging 3.75 runs per game since (those numbers are from memory, so if it is 5.3 and 3.8 don’t get all bunched up – the point remains the same).  That is NOT ENOUGH RUNS.  They have scored two runs or less 27 times.  Johnny Cueto has allowed two runs or more in 11 of his 15 starts this season.

Using wRC+, Alex Rios is the fourth worst in the league among players with 100 or more plate appearances.  Omar Infante is seventh worst.  Using wOBA, Rios and Infante are fifth and eighth worst.  WAR?  Using fWAR from Fangraphs, Rios is 147th out of 169 players with 100 or more plate appearance, while Infante is 135th.  On-base percentage?  Infante is 5th worst, Rios is 8th.  For godssake, Alex Rios has the fourth most putrid SLUGGING percentage in the league and he plays rightfield!

The Royals’  in-house options to bolster those spots are playing Jarrod Dyson against right-handers (not a bad idea, by the way) or playing Paulo Orlando.  The could opt for Christian Colon, who currently is in Omaha while Dusty Coleman takes up space in Kansas City.  Cheslor Cuthbert is up for a bit, but if he is your offensive savior…..

If you believe, as I do, that the Royals have enough prospect power (and money, by the way) to make one big move, then I really don’t see how you would not first look to make a splash with an addition to the lineup.   I have a lot more faith that Ventura, Vargas and Medlen will make the rotation better than in Alex Rios and Omar Infante becoming passable offensive contributors.

Quite a day in the Royals Universe.

Let’s start with the Walkoff.

Up until Friday, the Royals were one of two teams without a walkoff. (I was going to write walkoff victory, but that’s redundant, isn’t it?) Sunday, they doubled their season total.

It was a crisp, clean game. Old friend Erv Santana was dealing. He was locating his fastball and his slider had teeth. Through 7.2 innings, Drew Butera and Alex Gordon had the only hits off of him. Somehow, both hits plated a run. For the first tally, Butera singled up the middle with two outs to bring home nearly All-Star Omar Infante who walked on four pitches. Karma demanded Infante score. The guy has a 1.5 percent walk rate.

Infante advanced to second on a Jerrod Dyson sacrifice. I know that with the offense operating on fumes, there’s this desire to manufacture runs. I’ll just never understand why you bunt with a guy like Dyson who has exceptional speed. He’s extremely difficult to double up, so why give up that out? If he hits into a fielder’s choice, you’ve basically swapped him with the man on first. I’d rather have Dyson on the bases than any other Royal. Whatever. It worked because the next batter, Butera, dribbled a single up the middle.

The Royals next hit came in the fifth, when Gordon yanked a slider that barely cleared the right field wall. I saw somewhere it was 363 feet. Ummm… If it’s truly 330 down the line, there is absolutely no way that ball travelled that far. Picking nits here, but that was one of the shortest home runs I’ve ever seen. And the beauty is, it doesn’t matter in the least. They all count equal. And in this case, it was a tie game.

Danny Duffy did a nice job for the Royals. He struggled a bit with command where it didn’t seem like his slider was especially sharp. However, he battled and turned in his best start since his return to the rotation. He retired the Twins in order only once, but was able to get the big outs when he needed them. (Thanks mainly to Torii Hunter who grounded in to a pair of double plays.) Back to back doubles in the second and a home run were the only damage the Twins could muster.

A couple of nice positives to glean from this Duffy start: One, his velocity got stronger as he progressed through the game. You know how Duffy has a tendency to get amped up at times, which probably works against him as a starter. We kind of saw that in his first start back from the DL, where he was firing at 97 and 98 mph in the first. He faded quickly. On Sunday, he was around 95 before he really turned it on at the end.

Duffy_Velo_070515

The second positive

It all led up to the ninth. The Twins threatened with a runner on second with two outs against Greg Holland. At this point, it felt like this was the key moment. If Holland could get Nunez, it just felt like the Royals would prevail. If the Twins took the lead, it would be curtains for the Royals. Thankfully, Holland got a groundout to roll the game to the bottom of the ninth.

With Santana out of the game, a tie game and the Twins on the road, Paul Molitor couldn’t bring in his closer. It’s written somewhere in the Book Of The Closer, or something. That’s the dumbest unwritten rule ever. And all managers adhere to it. Why on earth would you save your (presumably) best reliever for a situation that may never arise? Man, that “save” stat is a killer. I digress. Thanks for the closer dogma.

Blane Boyer walks Cain which brings up Hosmer. Molitor goes to his bullpen for a left-hander, Aaron Thompson. Hosmer, as we all know, is in an incredible slump. Entering Sunday, he has just three extra base hits since the start of June. Not one of those was pulled. The guy has been a ground ball machine of late. It’s been brutal.

Thompson throw his first two pitches down and away. Which is where Hosmer has been swinging and missing of late. With the count 1-1, Thompson comes inside with a fastball. Hosmer is looking for it and yanks a shot down the right field line. With Cain on base, he’s flying and thankfully, was sent home by third base coach Mike Jirschle. Ballgame.

The game was played on July 5, but damn if that didn’t feel like a massive game. The Royals have been scuffling at the plate, yet managed to split the four game series with Minnesota, both in walkoff fashion. Technically, the Royals never held the lead in the entire series. They were out hit and outscored. Yet they managed a split. That feels pretty good.

What also feels pretty good is the fact the Big Blue Machine will be well represented in Cincinnati. Sal Perez, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Gordon will all be starters a week from Tuesday in the All-Star Game. It’s the first time in franchise history the Royals have put four starters on the team and it matches the number of starters they’ve had over the last 25 years combined.

It’s a helluva accomplishment and a great acknowledgement that the Royals are still one of the best stories in baseball. I fully expect Mike Moustakas and Wade Davis to join the starting four to give the Royals a total of six players in the game. While the All-Star Game doesn’t hold crazy allure for me, we’re not that far removed from Aaron Crow sitting in the bullpen in the game, so it’s still a moment I can get behind and enjoy. It’s kind of cool if you think about it. Cain and Gordon are getting selected because they are all-around great players. Sal has become the standard-bearer of American League catchers. This could be his position for the next several years. Escobar becomes the first post-Jeter shortstop to get the nod. Kind of cool he’s the go-to vote when a legend drops off the ballot.

It just feels like another step in the rejuvenation of the franchise. It’s not quite on the same level as last September and October, but it’s pretty cool it’s still rolling along.

All hail the Big Blue Machine.

Utilizing an offensive attack that can be described as equal parts anemic and pathetic, the Royals lost to the fading Twins on Thursday.

Kansas City mustered just four hits on the night. Two of them were bunts. From Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. That’s how awful it was. They were somehow able to get two runners on base at once in the fourth and in the eighth. Heady times. Except in the fourth Kendrys Morales hit into a fielders choice and Sal Perez struck out looking. Looking! In the eighth, Lorenzo Cain went down on strikes and Hosmer rolled it over and hit a harmless ground ball to second.

That’s your offensive attack in a nutshell.

On the other hand, the Minnesota offense was doing everything it could to give the game away. They had five extra base hits, but ran into two outs on the bases. Except they had two hits in 12 chances with runners in scoring position. The Royals had no hits in five chances in a similar situation.

There’s a lot of hand-wringing over a four-game losing streak. I guess that’s to be expected when you are the defending AL champions. Although I’m contractually obligated to point out the team is still in first place in the AL Central and they own the second best winning percentage in the league. Houston is at .580. Kansas City is at .579. This four game skid is the second time all year the team has lost four games. They have also had one three game losing streak. If you’re looking for something that will get you off the ledge, maybe that little factoid above is what will accomplish that. This time last year, the team had already run through a couple of four-game losing streaks and had lost five in a row for added measure.

Losing streaks aren’t fun, but they are a fact of baseball. The good teams minimize those plateaus. I still think the Royals are a good team.

Having said that, the blame for this rests solely on the shoulders of the offense.

Small sample size caveat ahead:

RoyalsLosing4

That’s the Royals offensive output the last four games, courtesy the Baseball Musings Day by Day Database. And it’s pretty ugly. The only Royal hitting with distinction is Cain. The only other Royal who gets on base is Alex Gordon. And the hottest guy on the squad (in this smallest of samples) is Jerrod Dyson and he can’t get a regular game in the lineup. Look at Escobar (.083 OBP) and Moustakas (.125 OBP). The top two hitters in this lineup aren’t doing their job and setting the table. Although with the middle of the order stinking it up, I’m not sure that matters so much.

This is the Royals offense. No, I’m not saying they’re this awful. I’m saying that they are prone to disappearing acts. This is what happens when you collectively preach contact and eschew working the count and taking your share of walks. At some point the BABIP Gods will frown and when they do, you get a table like the one above.

The Royals team walk rate of 5.7 percent is low. It’s historically low. And it’s a problem. You can’t score if you can’t get on base. League average this year is 7.5 percent. Here are the bottom five teams as ranked by walk rate:

Colorado – 6.3%
Chicago White Sox – 6.2%
Milwaukee – 6.1%
Philadelphia – 6.0%
Kansas City – 5.7%

Among those teams, only Colorado and Kansas City score more runs that the league average. Colorado is always the offensive exception. Only Kansas City has a winning record.

We remember this is the same position the Royals occupied last year and they made it to the seventh game of the World Series. It’s possible to win and despise the walk. But if you’re going to do that, you’re also going to have stretches where your offense goes walkabout.

My confidence in the Kansas City Royals is such that before last night’s game, I was already formulating a stunning piece of literary genius documenting how Edinson Volquez was the Royals’ stopper.  How he was doing what James Shields did for two years only cheaper or what Gil Meche did for the Royals years ago, only for a better Royals’ team.  The Royals are too good to get swept by the Houston Astros, right?  Especially with Volquez on the mound, right?

Baseball is funny about sure things.

The Royals had won nine of Volquez’ last ten starts with six of those wins coming after Kansas City had lost the game before.  Last night felt like a win was coming, especially after Kendrys Morales lobbed a first inning opposite field home run to give the team an early lead.   Alas, it was not to be.

Volquez simply unraveled in an ugly four run fifth inning.  The Royals rallied to tie, but then Kelvin Herrera and the replay umpire in New York combined to give the Astros the winning run without the benefit of a hit.   It was the icing on this dry cake of a series that felt a lot like the old Royals.  Those guys show up once in a while.  This team is not without weakness, particularly when it is dinged up and, by the way, the Astros aren’t bad.  These things happen.

Now, all that is not to resign yourself to ‘tomorrow is another day’ and just smile and go on (that’s an old Royals thing, too).  This team has now scored two runs or less in 28 games.  There is no scenario where a team consistently wins scoring one or two runs.  Sure, the Royals have held their opponents to two runs or less 35 times, but I am still pretty sure scoring more is better.

I was happy to hear that at least one national pundit (and, yes, it’s hip and cool to bash the national guys, particularly since we’re from the Midwest and are certain everyone is looking down on us and insulting us at every turn) indicating the Royals were far more concerned about improving in rightfield and second base (#VoteOmar pisses me off, by the way) than starting pitching.   Given the price that a real improvement in the rotation might cost and the limited prospects the Royals have to deal, it makes sense to pin your hopes on Ventura, Vargas and Medlen getting healthy and effective and spend your ‘commodities’ on upgrading what is becoming a pretty mundane offense.

Who might be available (Ben Zobrist has been a target of mine for three years) is for another day.  Those targets, quite frankly, may not get your heart pumping either, but that does not mean they won’t be an improvement.  Let’s face it, when the Royals have their front nine all playing, the bottom third of the order is Salvador Perez (.279 OBP), Alex Rios (.248 OBP) and Omar Infante (.236 OBP):  that’s not optimal.

We can obviously give Perez a pass.  He is hitting for power and brings a lot of tangibly intangible baseball thingys to the field.  Rios?  His SLUGGING percentage is lower than Salvador Perez’ on-base percentage.  Infante?  I have come across an undercurrent of ‘Omar Infante is not the problem theory’ lately. He’s your ninth hitter, they say.  He’s clutch, blah, blah, blah.  Stop it.  You are trying to portray yourself as knowledgeable and logical by not criticizing a player who the majority of the fan base are criticizing.  Omar Infante is a BAD baseball player right now.  You want to be a cerebral traditionalist with his hand in the dirt?  Omar Infante has less RBI than Chase Utley this year.  Find me something, besides this ridiculous All-Star voting, that indicates Omar Infante is helping this team win.

Okay, I got a little fired up there.  Three game sweeps do that to me, even when I know it was bad timing against a good team playing in a ballpark tailor made for them and seemingly designed to squash a team constructed like the Royals.  The point remains, be it a juggling of the batting order (just because at this point and ‘just because’ sometimes works really well as a reason to do things) or making a minor move (more Dyson, more Colon? I mean, they might get on base at a .305 clip) or, as I think must be done, a major move, the Royals need to get aggressive.

If you want to give Alex Rios some more time to get healthy (or interested), I can buy into that.  I am not sure that keeps you from giving Jarrod Dyson some more at-bats against right-handed pitching, but I can live with that logic for a couple more weeks.  Infante?  No, no more time and I don’t want to hear about the money.  Are you playing to win the World Series or are you trying to balance the books?  If it is the latter and I don’t really think it is at this point (for once), then screw it and hope.  If the money, at least for 2015 is not an issue, then the Royals would be fools to not seize whatever opportunity there is to upgrade.

Let’s face it, as constructed right now (majors and minors) the Royals’ window likely closes at the end of 2016.  If enough things go right and enough money flows, maybe that gets extended, but the number of ‘ifs’ that keep this team not just contending but being a frontrunner is a long list.  If you can see it, you have to take it.  The Royals can see a championship at the end of 2015.

Go out and take it.

photo by Ed Zurga

With having the best record in the American League comes the feeling that the Royals should win every game.  That is a nice problem to have as opposed to the not so distant past when the mindset was ‘how will the Royals manage to lose this game?’.   When your team is good, fans hold them to a higher standard and when they have a bad night, the criticisms are all the harsher.  I don’t mind the hot reactors, they are good entertainment. Nor do I think just because the Royals are the reigning AL Champions and hold the best record in the American League this season that one cannot criticize them.  It’s all good, react how you want and criticize how you want.  That’s pretty much what being a fan is about.

That said, keep in mind that there will be nights like last night.   Plain and simple, the Royals were about five runs behind before the first pitch was thrown.  With Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar unable to play and Lorenzo Cain relegated to designated hitter due to a sore hamstring, the vaunted Kansas City defense was pretty well gutted.  This on a night when the Royals were playing on the road…in a hitters’ park…with their number seven starter pitching.

Let’s not overlook that last sentence.  Despite two good starts, Joe Blanton was the back up plan to Chris Young, who was the backup plan to anyone in the starting rotation being injured.  Frankly, Yohan Pino got a start before Blanton, so maybe Joe is the Royals’ number eight starter and he was taking the hill against the team with the second best record in the AL.

Oh, and in addition to the injuries referenced above, the Royals’ lead-off hitter, Jarrod Dyson, was also playing at less than 100%.  Did Dyson dog it down the first base line last night?  Maybe, but he also got on base three times.  The Kansas City bench last night consisted of Drew Butera, so maybe we can cut Dyson a bit of slack.

Now, I was going to discuss exactly why the Royals’ bench was Butera and no one else, but would it really have mattered if the team had also had Paulo Orlando (who I saw homer in Omaha yesterday) or Cheslor Cuthbert or Lane Adams or whomever there to keep him company?   The Royals simply got caught in a minor injury plague an an unfortunate time in the rotation.  Over 162 games, these things happen.

Certainly no one should be surprised if Brandon Finnegan, who pitched well in three plus innings last night, gets back on the merry-go-round and is sent down in exchange for a position player.  Cuthbert did not play for Omaha yesterday afternoon, but I don’t know what significance that holds.  With Hosmer out for the series and both centerfielders gimpy, simply having a body not named Butera to put into a game would likely make Ned Yost’s lunch digest a little better.

The Royals, with an eight man pen, have gone out of their way to use that eighth man.  Michael Mariot has pitched and so has Aaron Brooks, but they probably did not really need to.  We saw Jason Frasor, a very serviceable major league reliever, for the first time in eight days last night.  We saw Luke Hochevar for the first time in six days.   Sure, it is nice to have a Finnegan (or worse) to throw into a game you are nearly certain to lose, but the Royals have innings to burn before they even get into having to use HDH or HDHMM.

While the Kansas City starting rotation may be the poster child for why you need eight relievers, I am not sure even they can justify carrying eight bullpen arms all the time.  Given the current roster situation, the Royals have to and almost certainly will make am move to bolster the bench.   That may not change how this Houston series plays out, but it at least could give Ned Yost an option or two if the game stays close.

This road trip couldn’t have started in a more ideal fashion.

Winning two of three in Seattle and sweeping the evil A’s… That’s some tasty baseball right there.

I’d like to flashback to Saturday’s game and the pivotal moment – the double steal. McCullough’s gamer provides an outstanding account.

Rusty Kuntz glanced at his stopwatch and logged the times for usage on Saturday: 1.7 seconds to the plate, 1.8, 1.9, “at least,” Kuntz said, whenever Oakland starter Scott Kazmir pitched with a runner at second base. Manager Ned Yost banked the research from his first-base coach and waited until the sixth inning of a 3-2 Royals victory to deploy it.

This has been written before on this tiny sliver of bandwidth, but it’s extremely easy to second-guess and criticize moves the manager makes (or doesn’t make) when those moves backfire. The problem with being a major league manager is losing decisions are magnified. The nuanced decisions that lead to wins, for some reason, not so much.

On Saturday, Kuntz and Yost came up with a way to literally steal a win from Oakland. Maybe bookmark that gamer so the next time Yost goofs on an intentional walk or a bullpen move and fans start screaming that he’s costing his team games, you can pull up that story and point to at least one game where Yost (and Kuntz) earned the win.

But when to fire it? The team felt it was unwise to do so with Cain at first base after his sixth-inning walk. Kazmir reaches the plate at about 1.1 to 1.2 seconds with a runner at first. He feels comfortable pitching with a slide-step, which reduces opportunities for would-be base-thieves. When a runner reaches second base, the Royals knew, Kazmir slows down his delivery with a leg kick. 

“Instead of taking a gamble to try to get to second base,” Kuntz said, “let’s try to wait him out.” 

It took a single from Hosmer to set the scene. Kazmir raised his right leg and fired. Kuntz clocked him at 1.9 seconds. The opportunity was perfect, and the Royals duo did not hesitate. Oakland catcher Josh Phegley threw to second, where Hosmer arrived before second baseman Eric Sogard could drop a tag.

The moment arrived at the perfect time for the Royals.


Source: FanGraphs

According to Win Expectancy, advancing the runners from first and second to second and third with two outs increased the chances of a Royals win by eight percent. That gain alone makes the double steal attempt worthwhile. Although it’s balanced by the knowledge the Royals had – at that point in time – only ten more outs. And naturally, it only works if you have decent baserunners on the bags at that moment, so it was fortunate the Royals had Cain as the lead runner with Hosmer the trail.

(The only downer here is both runners were hurt on the double steal. Cain tweaked a hamstring that had been bothering him since Tuesday in Seattle. Hosmer sprained a finger on his headfirst slide into second.)

None of this counts if Kendrys Morales doesn’t come through. He lines a single to right, plating both runners and providing the Royals with their margin of victory. While the steal improved the Royals chances of winning by eight percent, Morales’s single boosted their WE by 22 percent. In the span of three pitches, the Royals went from decided underdogs to heavy favorites. You can see from the game graph above, post-single, the Royals were 70 percent favorites. This doesn’t take into account the Royals shutdown bullpen. The HDH triumvarate is usually good for the other 30.

Moving to Sunday, the Royals came up with another stealth inning to complete the sweep. I say it was a “stealth” inning because up until that moment, the offense was dormant. Granted, the Royals did leave the bases loaded in the third, but all those runners came with two down which is a difficult time to ignite a rally.

The sixth opened with a Mike Moustakas double and was followed by a Kendrys Morales single. With runners at the corners, Hosmer hit a harmless fly to center that failed to bring home the run. (I’ll cut Hosmer some slack here, with the injured finger and all. Although I will note that in the last over his last 28 games, he’s slashing .265/.315/.328. In over a month, he’s managed just four extra base hits. Hosmer’s bat has disappeared. Again.) That brought Perez to the plate with the key moment of the game.

Perez chopped a grounder to third base. Moustakas went home on contact. Max Muncy charged, grabbed the ball and fired home. The throw was high, Moustakas was in with a run and no outs were recorded on the play.

Replays showed that had the throw been good, Moustakas would have been out. Even so, at the moment I thought the smart play was to get Perez at first. It wasn’t a particularly easy play because the grounder was topped and wasn’t hit especially hard. With the slow running Perez, he’s still a sure out at first. I figured you give the Royals a run there and get the sure out. With the error on the play at home, Morales moved to third and Perez made it to second. So the A’s walked Alex Gordon to load the bases. Alex Rios hit a sac fly to tie the game and Omar Infante (that’s All-Star Omar Infante to you) broke the deadlock.

Ballgame.

Again, we can probably credit Yost and his coaching staff for stealing that win. With Perez at the plate there was the chance he would put the ball on the ground to the left side of the infield. With the A’s shaky defense this year, it made sense to put the pressure on their infielders to make the play at home, should they make that decision. We know Moustakas isn’t the fleetest of foot, so there’s a risk involved but you send him knowing that if you don’t and the A’s record an out, they could still walk Gordon to pitch to Rios. And these days it seems the only way Rios can contribute is through the “productive out.” It was a risk worth taking, and it worked.


Source: FanGraphs

Like on Saturday, this moved the Win Expectancy needle in the Royals favor, improving their chances by 18 percent. They still weren’t favored at that point since they were still trailing, but Infante took care of that three batters later. By the end of the inning, the Royals were favored to win with a WE close to 67 percent.

The WE hung around that neighborhood until Perez crushed a pitch in the eighth to allow his hermanito, Lorenzo Cain to score without pushing his sore hamstring. The cushion was useful as the A’s grabbed another run in the eighth. Sometimes things have a way of working out in the end.

So the Royals move to Houston to square off against the second best team in the AL. They just swept aside the hottest team in the league. They are 16 games over .500, own a +46 run differential and hold a 5.5 game lead in the AL Central. It’s about an ideal a start to a west coast swing as you could imagine. It feels like things could be difficult over the next couple of weeks. Cain’s hamstring is barking at him. Hosmer’s hurt finger feels like that would hinder any kind of break out of his extended slump. Alcides Escobar split a fingernail. Yordano Ventura’s rehab start on Friday wasn’t especially promising. There are no off days between now and the All-Star Game. It’s a key stretch and if the Royals can hold on and weather the nagging injuries, they can coast into the break in fine shape.

%d bloggers like this: