Royals Authority

Long Live The Process

It seems like weeks we’ve been discussing what lies ahead in October. Now we are in the final week of the season, the Royals postseason plans are starting to crystalize.

Take the rotation. The Royals game notes now project the starting pitchers for the rest of the regular season.

9/30 – Edinson Volquez
10/1 – Kris Medlen
10/2 – Chris Young
10/3 – Yordano Ventura
10/4 – Johnny Cueto

This pretty much answers the Royals plans for the Divisional Series. Ventura will almost assuredly take the ball in Game One. Cueto gets Game Two with Volquez picking up the third game.

It may be obscured due to his rocky first half, but Ventura has been the Royals best starter the second half of the season. And that includes his disaster start against the Pirates that got him optioned to Omaha for an afternoon. Overall in the second half, Ventura has posted a 3.75 ERA against a 3.44 FIP with a 9.3 SO/9 in 84 innings of work. If there’s a silver lining to his struggles and time missed with injury, it’s that he will finish the year with around 160 innings, or about 20 innings fewer than last summer. He should be fresh for the postseason.

I think Ventura’s about-face has been one of the underreported stories of the season.

Let’s look at how Ventura has attacked left-handed batters. The heat map on the left is from the first half. The right is the second half. Both are courtesy Brooks Baseball.


Now take a peek at how Ventura has approached hitters from the right side.


A couple of things are fairly obvious from the heat maps. For starters, in the first half, Ventura was locating far too many pitches in the meaty part of the plate. The numbers would bear this out. In the first half, the opposition made “soft” contact just over 11 percent of the time, while “hard” contact was made around 32 percent of the time. Not only that, the location meant he wasn’t missing bats with enough frequency. Ventura can bring the heat and has been known to hit triple digits. Impressive, but leave a 100 mph heater middle-middle and a major league hitter can do equally impressive things.

Ventura has shifted his location and has been keeping the ball down in the zone more since the All-Star Break. If you believe the gospel according to Uncle Hud, you would think that a low pitch can’t be hit for a home run and is the pitcher’s best friend. A low pitch can most certainly be launched, but if you’re going to miss, it’s almost always advisable to miss low. And it is true, that ground balls are a frequent outcome of a low pitch with the downward plane. Again, the numbers bear this out. In the first half, batters were hitting grounders around 52 percent of the time versus fly balls at a rate of around 29 percent. Ventura has gotten more grounders in the second half, with a 53 percent ground ball rate and a 25 percent fly ball rate. That may not seem like a massive difference, but the opposition isn’t squaring up the low pitch as much. His slugging percentage against has dropped from .401 to 373 in the second half.

A couple other things to note about Ventura’s first half. If you read the tea leaves (or the numbers) it wasn’t difficult to see that a turnaround was coming. Prior to the All-Star Break, his strand rate was 67 percent. The average starting pitcher will have a strand rate around 75 percent, so you could have rationally expected a correction. The low strand rate was part of the reason he outperformed his ERA of 4.76 with a FIP of 3.96. This isn’t to say, “I saw this happening,” because I didn’t. What the numbers in the first half showed was the potential for a turnaround was there. A turnaround, though, was far from assured. Thankfully, he was able to relieve some of the pressure he put on himself and was able to get on the right path in the season’s second half. The Royals will need him fronting the rotation in October.

It’s safe to assume when the Royals acquired Cueto close to the trade deadline, they figured he would be the first bullet out of the starting pitching chamber. His struggle to adjust to whatever has bumped him back in the pecking order. There’s certainly a part of the fanbase down on Cueto, but he is a pitcher with ace pedigree. All parties had to have been shocked to a degree that he has found so long to find his footing in Royal blue. Yet since Cueto is just a rental and Ventura is a long-term piece of the puzzle, this development where Ventura is ahead of Cueto in the rotation is a good one as far as I’m concerned.

Everything hinges on the pitching. You want to point fingers at the Royals tepid September? How about their 5.4 runs allowed per game? They have scored 130 runs (which ranks fifth among AL teams) and allowed 147. To paraphrase the dean of Faber College, a negative run differential is no way to go through the season. Good thing this is just a month. The offense hasn’t exactly set the baseball world on fire, but run scoring is down across baseball this month.

Besides, it doesn’t make sense to worry about September. This team has had a postseason spot all but secure for the last two months. If September is just a slump or if we’re seeing a team that has removed it’s foot from the accelerator for the time being, it’s not enough to worry. What happens in September has no bearing in October. None. The idea of momentum in baseball is a fallacy. Each game presents a new challenge. Last night’s epic win doesn’t always carry over into the next day.

Today is the one year anniversary of the greatest baseball game I have ever witnessed: The 2014 AL Wild Card. Some may make the argument that game was the spark that ignited the momentum for the Royals postseason run. I tend to think it was outstanding starting pitching, a lockdown bullpen and some timely hits. Seriously, think back to the extra inning games in Anaheim. If the Royals don’t have the best bullpen in the American League, they don’t win both those games. They were able to outlast a very good team. Attrition, not momentum.

Besides, if you’re going to buy into the momentum narrative, what are you going to do about the experience narrative. You know, the one that says it matters having postseason experience. How then do you explain a team that featured nearly every key player making his postseason debut, including the manager, running the table like they did? Momentum trumps experience? How about good starting pitching trumps everything.

The good news – and the point of this rambling post – is to point out that Ventura has emerged as the Royals best option to lead the team into October. He’s made the necessary adjustments, is locating better, and has deservedly moved to the top of the rotation. Recent Royals struggles aside, Ventura looks a strong bet to continue his second half success into the postseason. With a resurgent Ventura and a steady Cueto, the Royals will be in a very strong position to start their quest to defend their American League title.

The Royals lost 1-0 last night in eleven innings and did not use their best relief pitcher. It is a dead horse, long beaten, that managers do not go to their closer in a tie game on the road.  What if, (the horror!) you use Wade Davis in the 11th and then score a run (gasp!) in the top of the twelfth.  You burned your closer in the 11th and now, here you are, holding a lead in the 12th and no closer in your pen.  Whatever will you do?

I don’t know, man.  I know the Royals would have played at least one more inning on a Monday night in Chicago than they actually ended up doing last night.

The above is not really a criticism of Ned Yost.  Every manager in the league in the last twenty years has pretty much adhered to that strategy and I don’t buy a single argument that supports it.  Listen, I am fine with going to Madson in the ninth and even Hochevar in the 10th (although if I was manager, Davis would have pitched the 10th).  I could probably even live with Danny Duffy, who pitched just one inning on Sunday, coming out in the 11th to see how he looks working back to back days.  Heck, maybe even a Franklin Morales sighting might have been interesting. Seems like a bit of a high pressure situation for a kid who was not on the roster in August and has been long on stuff, low on results in September….with home field advantage throughout the playoffs in jeopardy.

Now, home field advantage really comes down to where Games Six and Seven of the American League Championship Series is played. In that respect, as pointed by Royals Review yesterday, an agony over losing home field advantage is being expended on one sliver of the entire post-season scenario.  The Royals will have home field for the divisional series, no matter what.  The difference between the team they play with the number one seed versus who they will play versus the number two seed is at most going to be five games, probably less.  Should they get there, the Royals will have home field in the World Series as well.  It all comes down to the ALCS and, let’s face it, we are talking about the difference between the last two games of a seven game set (if necessary) being in Kaufmann or in Rogers Centre.

It is a very narrow scenario, but I do not think it diminishes the importance of having the advantage. Toronto is a wonderful team since the trade deadline (just ask their fans, they are happy to tell you) and an extremely dangerous squad on their home turf. The 2015 season has long turned from getting to the post-season to winning the World Series. Having home field, even if it all really is the difference between three or four games in Toronto, is important.  After last night, the Blue Jays own the number one seed.  I want it back.

Speaking of ones and twos, did Yordano Ventura just make himself the ALDS Game One starter last night?

Ventura pitched a marvelous seven innings last night:  two hits, a walk and six strikeouts.  It marked the eighth time since the All-Star Break that Ventura has pitched six innings or more while giving up three runs or less.  He looked every bit like the guy who put together five tremendous starts (32 IP, 4 runs) between August 11th and September 2nd.  THAT guy looked every bit like the pitcher who gave up just one run in seven innings in the first post-season start of his life last year and the guy who threw seven innings of shutout ball in Game Six of the World Series.  Similar guy to the fella who looked so good on Opening Day this year (before being felled by the thumb cramp from the grassy knoll).

Sure, the Royals went big at the trade deadline to get Johnny Cueto and did so specifically to have him be their ace in the post-season.  Anyone who reads this or follows me on Twitter knows that I am a big Johnny Cueto fan. I still am, despite his troubles that seem to be ironing themselves out.   Right now, I would still probably lean towards Cueto to start on October 8th in Game One of the ALDS, but I could be easily swayed to the idea of Ventura taking the ball that day.  It appears that maybe the Royals are swaying that way as well.

The rotation, as pointed out by others, lines up for Ventura to be your Game One starter.  Cueto will start tonight, Volquez on Wednesday and Medlen on Thursday.  Friday would be Chris Young’s turn with Ventura and Cueto finishing the season over the weekend.  That would line Ventura up to start Game One on regular rest and same for Cueto in Game Two.

The beauty of the two off days in a five game series is that should the ALDS go to a fifth game, the Royals would have the option of going to either Ventura (five days rest) or Cueto (four days rest) for that fifth game.  Assuming they do win that fifth game, whichever did not pitch Game Five would be more than rested for Game One of the ALCS.   Now, whomever starts a possible ALDS Game Five would not be available to make a start (unless the Royals go on short rest) until Game Three of the ALCS, but would – on regular rest – be good to go for a Game Seven.

Let’s assume that both the ALDS and the ALCS go the full series.  Without using either Ventura or Cueto on three days rest, one of them would get four starts, the other three starts.  Who gets which, however, is not dependent on who starts on October 8th.  Perhaps the biggest question is not who starts Game One, but who starts Game Five.  Here’s to hoping the Royals have already wrapped the ALDS up before we ever have to answer that question.

Chris Young didn’t need to pitch on Sunday afternoon. The Royals clinched the division on Thursday. They slept walked their way through games on Friday and Saturday against the Cleveland Indians.

But Chris Young wanted to pitch.

He wanted to pitch for his father, who unbeknownst to everyone outside the Royals clubhouse, had passed away in the late hours of Saturday evening. It was amazing Young was able to take the ball. It was even more amazing he was able to post one of his best starts as a Royal.

Young was signed by the Royals late last winter as an insurance policy against a rotation they knew to be unstable. He had had success last season with the Seattle Mariners, but had run out of gas in the second half. Still, after a year where he finished with a 3.65 ERA in 165 innings spanning 29 starts, he figured to get more than one major league offer. Yet, that was all he received.

Now, with one week left in the regular season, Young’s presence on the staff has proven to be worth every bit of that insurance policy the Royals needed to cash in. He has made 32 appearances and Sunday’s start was his 19th on the season. In 112 innings, he owns a 3.29 ERA to go along with a 6.1 SO/9. He steadied the rotation in the early season when arm trouble felled Jason Vargas. While he outpitched his peripherals (his 4.72 FIP was only second to Jeremy Guthrie among Royals starters) he survived on a fastball/slider combo to grit his way through starts.

He did just that on Sunday, throwing five no-hit innings against the Indians. He allowed a solitary base runner. (Michael Brantley walked in the fourth.) He helped his team get back on track after a pair of hangover losses. Young’s start set the tone for the week ahead. The Royals and Blue Jays are deadlocked for the number one seed in the American League and the home field advantage that goes with it.

Young was not around after the game; he had already departed to be with his family. He did, however, release a statement.

“Last night my dad, Charles Young, passed away at the age of 70. Today, I had the opportunity to honor him playing a game we both love, alongside my baseball family. I felt him next to me with every pitch. I am grateful for the support of my teammates, coaches and the entire Royals organization during this difficult time. Thank you for your thoughts and prayers.”

Words fail me at this moment. I’m sure his dad would be proud.
The game on Sunday turned on an instant replay. Long time readers know my feelings on replay. The system is inadequate and damaged.
It’s not even worth the bandwidth to recount in this space what happened. It was a mess. Thankfully, Mike Moustakas was there to let the third base umpire know he completely blew the play where he ruled Lindor tagged up at third. Why it took two replays to determine this, who the hell knows. At least we know Moustakas isn’t going to put up with this bullshit. He is on our side. The umpire wasn’t paying attention to the play at his base. He wasn’t paying attention. He blew it.  Replay is there to fix that, but it just doesn’t make sense that the system has to be put through such a review we have an almost seven minute delay.
If you’re going to have a replay system, drop these silly challenges and get everything correct.
Meanwhile, this is a big week for Kansas City if you believe home field advantage in the postseason is an enormous – and necessary – thing. Me… I’m not so sure it is. It can be I suppose if your team is built for a particular ballpark. Yet we just don’t seem to see that anymore. I’m thinking the old Royals teams on the artificial turf and the old Whitey Herzog Cardinal teams, specifically. Or maybe the days when the Twins shattered eardrums in their old dome.
Home field could come into play in a decisive game in a series. It certainly helped the Royals in the Wild Card game as Kansas City elevated The K off it’s foundation and the final at bat proved crucial. So that’s a good example. Yet, after that game the Royals owned home field advantage in exactly one series last October and it was the one they lost. At home. In the seventh game. So it didn’t really help as the San Francisco pitcher who shall not be named was able to overcome any advantage home field could provide. One win. One loss. Basically, anytime anyone says they have it all figured out about baseball, they’re either lying or they’re dumb.
Baseball thought so little of home field advantage in the past, they simply rotated who got the extra game in a series up until just a few years ago. Kansas City has some history with this. The 1976 Royals were walked off in New York. The 1977 Royals were three outs away from celebrating in Royals Stadium before the Yankees scored three in the top of the ninth. Such is baseball.
Over the last several years, we have seen a footballization of baseball. Wild cards, replay, and yes, home field advantage. Some of the changes of the game have been necessary to advance the sport in the 21st century. (Wild card has been a huge success and I’m actually for the second wild card team, simply for the fact it brings the one game playoff into the mix.) The downside is, it brings about a certain mentality in watching the game that doesn’t benefit baseball. While I was counting down the magic number for the division, a number of people would reply to me that winning the division didn’t matter… Home field advantage was paramount. I couldn’t understand this. Maybe I’m just too old school of a baseball fan, but the winning the division was a hell of an accomplishment, on par with advancing to the World Series. I don’t care that the Tigers took a huge step to the back of the line. Or that the White Sox were beyond mediocre again. Or that the Indians shot themselves in the foot with another slow start. Or that the Twins just weren’t good enough. None of that matters to me. What matters is that the Royals showed themselves to be the class of the division. They won and they’re in. Yes.
Having said all that, home field advantage can serve to keep our attention during this final week of the season. With the division race all but settled, we have to have something to track, right?

By any account, it has been a glorious summer. The Royals dashed out of the gate, winning their first seven games of the season. They have never been more than a game out of first place at any time. They have been in first for 154 days this season. On June 9, the Royals beat the Twins 2-0, behind six-plus innings from starter Chris Young (signed prior to the season as a free agent) and established permanent residency in first place in the American League Central.

On September 24, the Royals beat the Mariners 10-4, behind seven innings from starter Johnny Cueto (acquired on July 26 from the Cincinnati Reds for John Lamb, Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed) to finish the journey.

The Royals are the 2015 American League Central Division champions.

It’s been so long. So, so long. The Royals racked up division titles so often, winning six in a span of 10 seasons, but this dry spell lasted 30 years. Who cares? It’s ancient history now.

Throughout this summer, the focus has been on this team winning the division. At the start of the season, it didn’t seem likely. Spare me the PECOTAs and ZiPS, but to just about any clear-eyed observer, it was obvious this division would be tight. Sometimes, the obvious gets turned upside down. That’s why baseball is so beautiful. You think you know, but you never really do. At least not until the final out is recorded.

Last year, it was all about the Wild Card kickstarting a roll through October. The Wild Card was the greatest game I’ve ever witnessed, but winning the division is something special. It’s going in through the front door. With style. It’s about not sweating a one-game playoff, it’s about sitting at home with a cold one, waiting to see who you’re going to match up with in the first round. The Royals have the luxury of setting their starting rotation, balancing their lineup, finding the proper roster, and arming their bullpen.

They get to do this, because they are champions.

(Yes, the Royals don’t have home field wrapped up just yet. With the win, they are now two games ahead of the Blue Jays with 10 games left. Bear with me.)

The game was a bit of a see-saw affair in the early innings. The Royals jumped first, thanks to Ben Zobrist (acquired on July 28 from the Oakland A’s for Sean Manaea and Aaron Brooks). He doubled to get to second and scored when Mariners catcher Jesus Sucre tried to pick him off but has his throw deflect off Zobrist’s hip and into right field. It was kind of a microcosm play where the Royals simply out-hustled their opponents. Zobrist has been electric since coming to the Royals, hitting .303/.392/.479 in 49 games with Kansas City.

There was a bit of scoreboard watching as the Royals opened the game with a magic number of two. They needed not only to take care of business at home, they needed some help in the form of the Cleveland Indians beating the Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis. The games started at the same time, and the Indians did their part by jumping to a 3-0 lead in the first.

Meanwhile, Cueto gave the run back in the second, but Mike Moustakas (1st round draft pick, 2007) pushed his team back in front with his 21st home run of the season, a career high. If there is anyone who embodies what these champion Royals are all about, it’s Moustakas. After seeing his offensive production decline in each of the previous two seasons to levels that were alarming (and that’s putting it kindly), the Royals third baseman spent this winter rededicating himself to refining his offensive approach. It hasn’t always worked, but the overall results have simply been astonishing. OK, maybe you predicted 90+ wins and a division championship for the Royals, but there was no way you could have seen this monster year from Moustakas. A line of .282/.347/.467 with a 124 wRC+? Are you kidding me?

Moustakas has battled some heavy shit this summer, leaving the team twice to be with his mom, she passed away last month. I can’t imagine the intestinal fortitude it takes for a guy who has never really even been major league average with the bat, to turn it on like he has this year with the issues he’s been dealing with. Notice how when he rounds first on his home runs, he looks skyward… Damn. (Incidentally, I was able to hold it together pretty much all evening. Then I watched the highlight montage from Fox Sports Kansas City at the end of the broadcast. The whole thing was great, but when they played the clip of the Moustakas grand slam in Baltimore and then let the shot roll to show him looking up after he hit first, just made me an emotional wreck. I lost it.)

Cueto gave up three consecutive hits to open the fourth and the Mariners jumped back in front. At the same time, the Royals bats, facing reliever Mayckol Guaipe, just looked feeble. Thankfully, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon decided that everyone in his bullpen would get a participation ribbon or something. Deciding to play match-up baseball in the fifth, he summoned lefty Rob Rasmussen to face Eric Hosmer (1st round draft pick, 2008).

Rasmussen delivered a slider that slid over the heart of the plate and Hosmer blasted it to dead center. Hosmer is having a helluva season. His current wRC+ of 126 would be a career-high.

There’s been so much focus on the struggles of the Royals, as it appears they were limping to the finish line, but this team has been scoring runs in September, averaging nearly 5.5 runs per game. The middle of the order has a lot to do with this. On Thursday, the offense put Cueto on their collective back, kicked on the afterburners and let it fly.

In the sixth, after Alex Gordon (1st round draft pick, 2005) walked, Zobrist followed with a double. Two outs, two runners in scoring position and the exact situation where the Royals had scuffled the previous game and a half. On Wednesday, they left 16 runners on base. On Thursday, they had left six on base through the first three innings. It wasn’t that the offense was sputtering. It was they were, for the moment, highly inefficient.

Up stepped the Royals most consistent player of the 2015 season.

McClendon must have been reading his binder in a mirror because he allowed his lefty specialist, Beimel, to remain in the game to face Lorenzo Cain (acquired on December 19, 2010 from the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt). Cain kills left-handed pitching, hitting .333/.389/.565 against them this season. Cain worked the count to his favor at 3-1, looked at a strike and then spoiled a couple of pitches before, on the eighth pitch of the at bat he lashed a single to left to break the tie. The MVP of the 2014 ALCS looks to be getting ready for his return to the big stage.

(Yes, he wandered too far off first and TOOTBLANed the Royals out of the inning, but considering the circumstances, there’s just no way to be mad about that. That single nearly lifted Kauffman Stadium off it’s foundation.)

More runs in the seventh. After Hosmer and Moustakas reached, Alex Rios (signed as a free agent prior to the 2015 season) singled up the middle to plate one. Alcides Ecobar (acquired on December 19, 2010 from the Milwaukee Brewers for Zack Greinke and Yuniesky Betancourt) hit a slow roller to second that the Mariners were able to convert to just a single out and another run scored.

In Minneapolis, the Indians had opened a 6-0 lead, but the Twins were chipping away. They scored one in the seventh and were in the process of adding two more in the eighth. Although, as Royals fans, perhaps we should thank the Seattle manager McClendon for bringing his Bullpen Carousel to The K. His pitching changes extended the game and allowed the Indians-Twins tilt to move about an inning ahead of the action in Kansas City. If the Royals were to clinch, they would do it with the final out in their game. There would be no waiting for updates.

It was at this point, Ned Yost went to his bullpen. Seven strong innings from Cueto got the Royals to within six outs of the division title. The news earlier in the day that Greg Holland (10th round draft pick, 2007) was to be shut down for the rest of the year and was a candidate for Tommy John surgery, didn’t affect the bullpen so much as it confirmed the fears his injury was indeed serious. Farewell, HDH. It was a glorious run. Yost remains a manager who likes to define most – if not all of the roles – for his bullpen. That means while the first H and D move back to the eighth and ninth respectively, there is a casting call afoot for the seventh inning. Although the game was in the eighth, Kelvin Herrera (signed as an amateur free agent, 2006) pitched the evening before, throwing 22 pitches. He would get the night off. In his stead, Ryan Madson (signed as free agent, 2015), who before this season had last pitched in the majors in 2011. Madson was signed as a surplus guy. Someone the Royals could take a look at in spring training, with perhaps some long odds to make the team. He impressed enough, he earned a spot. It was a long road back for Madson, but here he was, throwing a key inning in a game that could clinch a division championship. He’s been terrific for the Royals, striking out 54 in 59 innings while posting a 2.28 ERA. Just another cog in a deadly bullpen machine.

The Royals added two more in the bottom of the inning. A ten run explosion that made the outcome academic. In Minnesota, the Twins cut the lead in half, but could do no more. In the age of smartphones, a ripple went through the crowd at the stadium. The Indians did their part and the Royals magic number was one. The roar became louder when the result was posted on the board. The fans knew. They were there for one reason. They were going to get what they paid for on Thursday.

They needed to wait for three more outs. Three stinking outs were all that was left to finally wash away the last 30 years. Those outs were in the hands of Wade Davis (acquired December 9, 2012 from the Tampa Bay Rays in exchange for Patrick Leonard, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi, and Wil Myers).

Fitting it was Davis, whose arrival in Kansas City, along with James Shields, heralded these new Royals. It signaled that they were no longer content with being the mediocre team. With their young talent coming through the pipeline in Phase One of The Process, it was time to compliment that talent to get the team to the next level. The Royals have had difficulty developing starting pitching. They dipped into their farm system to grab some by other means. Fans howled. The Royals preached patience and stressed they did, in fact, have a plan.

The plan has been a resounding success. Since the start of the 2013 season, no team in the AL has won more games.

Take a moment and read the above paragraph again. Yes, since the start of 2013, the Royals have been the class of the American League. Yes, they advanced to the World Series as a Wild Card, but this kind of longevity is legit. They are officially the team to beat.

How fitting was it for Davis to close out this game? Shields has moved on, but Davis now occupies the most important role in this bullpen. He struggled mightily when he arrived in KC as a starter. He has been nothing but lights out since moving to the bullpen. For a moment, perhaps, Davis acknowledged his beginnings. His first pitch was launched into the seats in right. He then walked the next batter. Surely, not with this lead…

Hey. Snap out of it. It’s the Wade Davis Experience. No worries here.

He dispatched the next two hitters on strikes. With two outs, he coaxed Kyle Seager into hitting a ground ball to first. Hosmer fielded, Davis raced to the bag to receive the throw…



Division champions.

This team has given us a most amazing summer. Nobody knows what October holds. It will likely be a grind to get back to where they want to go. So for now, forgive me if I just want to enjoy the moment and bask in the first division title since 1985.

I’m sure you noticed in this post, I noted how each player was acquired. That was a tip of the cap to the architect of this team, General Manager Dayton Moore. He and his staff have built this team. It hasn’t always been easy, but the payoff has been sweet. Through good drafts, a solid international scouting department, savvy free agent signings, and some massive trades, the Royals front office has returned Kansas City to relevance in the baseball world. The last 12 months have been a most amazing ride.

All hail the AL Central Division Champs.

I hesitated to use the term ‘star’ in the headline as everyone has a different set of rules as to what constitutes being a star.  That’s not really the point of this article…or maybe it is.

Last night, Lorenzo Cain scored two of the Royals’ runs, one that tied the game in the bottom of the ninth.  He also drove in another run, the winning run, in the bottom of the tenth. He had three hits against three different pitchers in his last three at-bats.  It marked the fifteenth time this season that Cain has gotten three hits or more in a game.

For the year, Lorenzo ranks eighth overall among all position players in fWAR (6.2).  The names ahead of him on the list? Bryce Harper, Josh Donaldson, Mike Trout, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Yoenis Cespedes and Manny Machado.  Want to focus just on offense?  Cain is 25th in wRC+ and 28th in wOBA.   Don’t like the ‘new fangled stats’ because you cannot figure them on your TI30?  Cain’s triple slash line is .307/.362/.483 with 32 doubles, 16 home runs and 28 stolen bases….all while playing stellar defense at a premium defensive position (he is 11th in defensive runs saved in the game, 9th in UZR, 14th in UZR/150, 2nd in Outs made Outside of Zone….there I go ago, new fangled).

Maybe you do not want to commit to the idea that Cain is a star, you probably need to come to grips with the fact that Lorenzo Cain is the Kansas City Royals’ best player.

Wins have been a struggle in September and last night, the Royals were coming off a total demolition.  They left runners all over the bases, saw Yordano Ventura give up three runs in the fifth and seemed to be headed towards another frustrating loss. Then, however, the ‘good Royals’ started to show up.  They pushed a run across in the seventh, showed excellent plate discipline in the ninth to tie the game and ended it in the 10th (good things happen when Gordon-Zobrist-Cain bat in a row).  All the while, they got four innings of shutout relief from a bullpen that had looked a little too hittable this month. It was a very Royal win…and one it seemed that the team – and certainly the fanbase – desperately needed.

Momentum is a funny thing.  If you bristle at the discussion of chemistry, then you certainly spit fire at talk of momentum. Baseball, in particular, has enough ebbs and flows attributed to momentum to make it seem irrelevant. Momentum in baseball, they like to say, is the next game’s starting pitcher.  The Royals’ starter tonight is Johnny Cueto.

Cueto is coming off his first good start in six outings (after four good starts after acquisition – don’t let revisionist history get you on that one) which, at least publicly, has mostly been attributed to Salvador Perez simply setting a lower target. There are some who simply cannot take what the team says at face value and maybe they should not, but there is not a lot of sinister back story here.

Absolutely there is more to it than simply having Perez lower his glove a few inches. During his last start, Cueto was continually making motions after many pitches and between innings that clearly were related to him keeping his front shoulder closed.  Listen, I think I know a few things about hitting.  I admit I know jack about pitching, but I can tell when a guy is working on a trigger to get his mechanics in line.  Likely that actual mechanical adjustment working in combination with a lower target yielded some positive results.

If I had to hack my way through Johnny’s fabulous mane and get inside his head, I would imagine he was thinking about his front shoulder between pitches and focusing on a lower target during the pitch.  It’s not unlike having a whole bunch of crap in your head on the tee box in golf, but one solitary swing thought once you put the club in motion.   The ‘lower target’ story line isn’t bull, it just is not the entire story.

Momentum is only as good as the next day’s starting pitcher.  The Royals need Cueto to stoke the momentum some more.  They need Cueto to be a star on Thursday, just like Lorenzo Cain.

These aren’t your older brother’s Royals. Nope. The days of rolling with veterans with experience just because they’ve been in the trenches is long past. Remember, “It wouldn’t be fair to Dougie?”* That’s been replaced with, “Dougie? Screw him.”

*You may recall in the dark days of the 2005 season the Royals recalled prospect Justin Huber early in the season. He was up with the Royals for a couple of weeks, but only made a couple of cursory appearances. Asked about why Huber wasn’t receiving more playing time, manager Buddy Bell remarked that to do so, “Wouldn’t be fair to Dougie.” He was referring to Doug Mientkiewicz, who at the time was OPSing around .650.

Ahead of the final homestand of the season, Ned Yost met with the media and made the announcement that Greg Holland would be shelved for a few days as he was dealing with elbow soreness. This revelation wasn’t exactly shocking. Anyone who has watched the Royals for any length of time this summer has seen the decline of effectiveness of the Royals closer. His velocity has been dropping since August of last year. It bottomed out in a couple of outings where he was opening appearances with an 89 mph fastball.


This isn’t a mystery. Holland has been a guy who has built strength and gotten stronger as the season progressed. He was on that track through the first three months of the regular season last summer, but stalled out in July. In September, he lost a couple mph off his fastball. The Royals were concerned enough they shut him down with what was termed “triceps soreness” early in the month. He returned and, while he never recovered his velocity, was nails for the Royals in the postseason. Over the three series, Holland threw 11 innings, struck out 15 and allowed just one run.

The Royals certainly hoped that a few months of rest and relaxation would do their closer good. His velocity was low in spring training, but once the Royals broke camp and Holland was throwing in real, live closing situations, his velocity didn’t jump forward like it had in previous seasons. After collecting four saves in the Royals first 10 games of the year, Holland was placed on the DL with a pectoral strain. The thought at the time was, when Holland was fully healed, the velocity would return. It didn’t.

On Tuesday, Yost made it sound like Holland’s elbow was a chronic concern.

“Rest isn’t going to help him,” Yost said of Holland. “He’s been functional through it all year long, and it’s gotten a little more sore the last month or so. But he continues to and pitch through it, and he’s been successful for the most part. We just have other options.”

Other options means Wade Davis. And what a luxury to have. Eliminating the final H of HDH pushes Davis to the ninth and Kelvin Herrera to the eighth. That leaves the seventh inning open. The smart money is on Ryan Madson, with Danny Duffy figuring to get a long look over these final regular season games.

Where does this leave Holland? After his flame out on Friday, I wondered on Twitter if he wasn’t the closer, if the Royals would keep him on the postseason roster. Twitter isn’t the place for nuance, so let me explain my thinking as it stood at the time. It was fairly obvious that Holland, while he had experienced some success ahead of his implosion, that he was a candidate to be removed from his role. And if that happened, my question was, where would he pitch? I didn’t see the Royals swapping Davis and Holland. Nor did I see him throwing in the seventh. If we’ve learned anything about Yost and the Royals in the last year, it’s that they place a premium on having lock-down guys coming out of the bullpen in the final three innings. If Holland isn’t the closer, he’s not a lock-down guy anymore. And if he’s not a lock-down guy, he’s not going to get one of the final three innings. So let’s assume Madson gets the seventh. It’s probably safe to assume Duffy can power ahead of Holland on the pecking order as a sixth inning guy or the seventh inning guy. Remember, in October, Ned is looking for lock-down guys. Also, figure Morales gets the LOOGY role. Then you have Chris Young in long relief.

I’m just having difficulty seeing where Holland fits on the October roster.

And that’s if he’s healthy. But we know he isn’t. According to Yost Holland’s elbow has been barking all year and we know rest isn’t going to help. In other words, if it’s hurting today, it’s going to be hurting tomorrow. And since it’s going to hurt tomorrow, it’s going to hurt in October. The Royals could still stash him on the postseason roster, I suppose. They did something similar with Duffy last year, even though they knew he was hurt. Duffy was there for situations where he felt right and could give the Royals an inning or a little more. They could do the same with Holland. Keep him on the roster and throw him when he feels his best. But you know that means he’s pitching in a blowout or in a low leverage middle inning situation.

The postseason rosters don’t need to be set until October 8, so the Royals have over two weeks to figure out what to do with Holland. One thing is clear, though: The Royals are playing to win. That may sound trite, but moves like bumping a hurt and ineffective Holland from the closer role (along with other moves like dropping Escobar to ninth in the order and removing Infante completely) show a larger understanding of the situation. The division is all but wrapped up (even though it’s taking longer than we had anticipated to get there) and most of September has been about setting up for October. Yost is what I would call a “push button manager.” He wants to find roles for his guys and leave them there. That’s what this month is all about – finding the right lineup and the correct mix in the bullpen. You will see over the next week and a half the team take shape for October.

The Royals understand that once they arrive in the postseason, there are no guarantees. They understand there is no room for egos or sentimentality. They may owe Omar Infante $18 million over the next two seasons, but if he hasn’t been producing and there’s a better option, he’s out. Alcides Escobar has seen his on base percentage slide under .300 and he’s down at the bottom of the order. These are the moves serious teams make. They are moves that are about improving their team and winning now. Bumping Holland from the closer role on Tuesday, gives Yost and Dave Eland the right amount of time to formulate a plan for the bullpen for October. This is their blueprint.

It’s a bummer that this has to happen to Holland, but the Royals are only admitting what we’ve speculated all year: The guy isn’t healthy. I’ll assume whatever is wrong with him is something that can’t get worse, or it’s something that will require surgery no matter what and it’s all about tolerance of pain. If this is the case, the Royals handled the situation perfectly. They allowed him to pitch for as long as he could, before a level of uncertainty in his performances could no longer be ignored. And now, by removing him from the closer spot with a handful of games remaining in the regular season, they have allowed themselves enough time to shuffle the right guys into their new roles.

Holland has been on the mound for many of the Royals greatest moments of the last year. He has been the ninth inning rock in the best bullpen in baseball. He has been the best closer in baseball in each of the previous two seasons. He has been responsible for closing down so many wins for the Royals. The thought he is out of his Saveman role is something I hoped wouldn’t happen, but I’ve accepted it had to happen. And now, with an unknown injury and one final year of arbitration eligibility, it’s possible we have seen the last of Greg Holland in a Royals uniform.

Baseball can be a cruel and unsentimental game sometimes. Holland has given us so much, if this is the end, it’s highly unsatisfactory.

The title, for Royals’ fans, can be put in the same category of certainties as ‘the sun coming up tomorrow’ and ‘just checked Twitter, someone is outraged’.

If the playoffs began today, Kansas City would play the winner of a New York-Houston wild card game, while Texas would open up the ALDS at Toronto. Should the Royals win and Toronto win, the ALCS would open up in Kansas City. There is a current of ‘I don’t care about the home field advantage’ line of reasoning lately.  You should care. The Royals are 48-27 at home this year, and just (a respectable just, but just nonetheless) 39-35 on the road.  The Blue Jays are 49-27 in Toronto and just a .500 team away from there.  Give a damn, dammit.

Of course, that point is irrelevant if Kansas City does not get to the ALCS. Ask the Angels how much they enjoyed having home field advantage all the way through the playoffs:  didn’t do much for them when the American League championship was played in Baltimore and Kansas City. The Royals, and perhaps the recent slump will keep them from doing so, cannot afford to assume they will just waltz through the divisional series on their good looks.

Opposing them in the divisional series will either by the Yankees, the Astros, the Rangers with a very outside shot of it being Minnesota or the Angels. With just 13 games left to play and trailing by three and one-half games, I don’t see New York catching Toronto.  Frankly, I hope they do not, as the Blue Jays (even without Tulowitzki) scare the hell out of me.

The Yankees are an interesting team in that the are nine games over .500 at home and six games over .500 on the road.  The win and lose at roughly the same rates against right handed and left handed pitching.  They are 5-5 in their last 10 games, 10-10 in their last twenty and 15-15 in their last thirty.  They are 21 games over .500 against losing teams and five games under against teams with winning records.  They have one regular (counting the injured Mark Teixiera as a regular) under the age of 31.  The have a suspect starting rotation after Tanaka and maybe the very young Severino. They sport a hellish back of the bullpen where Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances have combined to strike out 209 batters in 132 innings. New York has hit 203 home runs:  107 of them at home, where the Yankees’ slugging percentage is 21 points higher than on the road.  Their regular lineup features six left-handed hitters, two switch-hitters and Alex Rodriguez.

The Astros are 51-25 at home and SEVENTEEN games under .500 on the road. Their record over the last 10, 20 and 30 games is essentially the same as that of the Royals.  They have a much better record against right-handed pitching and have slugged 207 home runs:  well over half at home, where they slug 61 points better as a team.  The Astros have Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers and Scott Kazmir and caught lightning in a bottle with Mike Fiers.  They also have a good bullpen and no position player regular over 30 years old. Houston has a predominately right-handed hitting lineup with six regulars with on-base percentages of .301 or less.  They have Carlos Correa.

The Texas Rangers have gone from dead to leaders of the AL West. They have gone from having Wandy Rodriguez in their starting rotation to having Cole Hamels. Prince Fielder has a .380 on-base percentage and Shin-Soo Choo gets on-base at a .372 clip.  Mitch Moreland and Fielder are the only two Rangers with more than twenty home runs.  This is a different kind of Texas Rangers team than we are used to. The Royals actually have a higher team slugging percentage than Texas.

It won’t surprise anyone that the five teams that would currently make the playoffs in the American League are among the six highest scoring teams in the league. Interestingly, the Astros have allowed the fewest runs, the Royals are third, the Blue Jays are fifth, the Yankees are seventh and the Rangers are way down at thirteenth.

Take it all for what you want (and there is admittedly not a lot here).  This is just a brief overview of what might lie ahead. Once the picture clears, we can really dig into who the real adversary will be in round one for the Royals.

Truthfully, outside of the Blue Jays, I feel good about the Royals matching up with any of the rest.  Especially knowing that the first two games of the opening series will be in Kansas City.

The beauty of baseball lies in when you watch a game, you never know what you’re going to see. It’s cliche, but it’s true.

If you happened to turn on Sunday’s Royals game, hoping to see the Royals inch closer to clinching a spot in the postseason, you were treated to one of the best offensive performances in the history of the Royals franchise. Hell, maybe it was straight-up the best. It was damn good. Kendrys Morales single-handedly destroyed the Detroit Tigers and led the Royals to a 10-3 victory. Three home runs. A triple. He also threw a walk into the mix.

A home run down the right field line. A home run to left. A triple to the alley in right-center. And a home run to right. It was a tour de force to all fields. No Detroit pitcher was safe. It was straight up abuse. Five runs scored. Fifteen total bases.

You just don’t see a performance at the dish like that very often. Morales’ 15 total bases was the second time that’s happened this season. Yoenis Cespedes strung together a single and a double to go with a three home run game last month for the Mets. Before that, Lonnie Chisenhall had a similar batting line in June of 2014. Strange to say, but 15 total bases isn’t as rare a feat as it used to be. But that’s just nitpicking. Since the dawn of the “expansion era” of 1961, just 19 players have recorded 15 total bases in a single game. From the Baseball Reference Play Index, here is the full list:

Rk Player Date Tm Opp Rslt PA AB R H 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB SO
1 Shawn Green 2002-05-23 LAD MIL W 16-3 6 6 6 6 1 0 4 19 7 0 0
2 Josh Hamilton 2012-05-08 TEX BAL W 10-3 5 5 4 5 1 0 4 18 8 0 0
3 Carlos Delgado 2003-09-25 TOR TBD W 10-8 4 4 4 4 0 0 4 16 6 0 0
4 Mike Cameron 2002-05-02 SEA CHW W 15-4 6 5 4 4 0 0 4 16 4 0 0
5 Edgardo Alfonzo 1999-08-30 NYM HOU W 17-1 6 6 6 6 1 0 3 16 5 0 0
6 Mark Whiten 1993-09-07 (2) STL CIN W 15-2 5 5 4 4 0 0 4 16 12 0 0
7 Bob Horner 1986-07-06 ATL MON L 8-11 5 5 4 4 0 0 4 16 6 0 0
8 Fred Lynn 1975-06-18 BOS DET W 15-1 6 6 4 5 0 1 3 16 10 0 0
9 Willie Mays 1961-04-30 SFG MLN W 14-4 5 5 4 4 0 0 4 16 8 0 0
10 Kendrys Morales 2015-09-20 KCR DET W 10-3 5 4 5 4 0 1 3 15 3 1 0
11 Yoenis Cespedes 2015-08-21 NYM COL W 14-9 6 6 5 5 1 0 3 15 7 0 0
12 Lonnie Chisenhall 2014-06-09 CLE TEX W 17-7 5 5 3 5 1 0 3 15 9 0 0
13 Ryan Braun 2012-04-30 MIL SDP W 8-3 5 5 3 4 0 1 3 15 6 0 0
14 Albert Pujols 2004-07-20 STL CHC W 11-8 5 5 4 5 1 0 3 15 5 0 0
15 Shea Hillenbrand 2003-07-07 ARI COL W 14-6 5 5 4 5 1 0 3 15 7 0 0
16 Dmitri Young 2003-05-06 DET BAL W 7-6 5 5 2 5 0 2 2 15 5 0 0
17 Dave Winfield 1991-04-13 CAL MIN W 15-9 6 6 4 5 1 0 3 15 6 0 0
18 Davey Lopes 1974-08-20 LAD CHC W 18-8 6 6 3 5 1 0 3 15 4 0 0
19 Willie Stargell 1968-05-22 PIT CHC W 13-6 5 5 4 5 1 0 3 15 7 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/21/2015.

Morales erased George Brett from the Royals record book. (Not entirely. You know what I mean.) Brett set the franchise record with 14 total bases. Through his first four plate appearances, Morales had hit a pair of bombs and a triple to sit at 11 total bases. At that point, I ran a query on the Play Index and found that he had already entered rarified air for the franchise with his current performance. It was the 24th time a Royal had recorded 11 total bases in a game. And the first since Salvador Perez hit the mark last August.

Rk Player Date Tm Opp Rslt PA AB R H 2B 3B HR TB RBI BB IBB SO
1 Kendrys Morales 2015-09-20 KCR DET W 10-3 5 4 5 4 0 1 3 15 3 1 0 0
2 George Brett 1979-05-28 KCR BAL W 5-4 8 7 3 5 1 1 2 14 4 1 1 0
3 Kevin Seitzer 1987-08-02 KCR BOS W 13-5 6 6 4 6 1 0 2 13 7 0 0 0
4 George Brett 1983-04-20 KCR DET W 8-7 5 5 3 4 0 0 3 13 7 0 0 1
5 Tony Solaita 1975-09-07 KCR CAL W 8-7 5 4 3 4 0 0 3 13 4 1 0 0
6 Danny Tartabull 1991-07-06 KCR OAK L 7-9 4 4 3 3 0 0 3 12 4 0 0 0
7 Bo Jackson 1990-07-17 KCR NYY W 10-7 3 3 3 3 0 0 3 12 7 0 0 0
8 George Brett 1979-07-22 KCR TEX W 7-6 5 4 3 3 0 0 3 12 5 1 0 0
9 Al Cowens 1977-09-06 KCR SEA W 10-0 5 5 4 5 1 0 2 12 4 0 0 0
10 John Mayberry 1977-06-01 KCR TOR W 11-3 5 5 3 3 0 0 3 12 5 0 0 0
11 John Mayberry 1975-07-01 KCR TEX L 4-5 4 4 3 3 0 0 3 12 3 0 0 1
12 Ed Kirkpatrick 1969-09-30 KCR CAL W 8-5 4 4 2 4 0 1 2 12 6 0 0 0
13 Salvador Perez 2013-08-28 KCR MIN W 8-1 5 5 2 4 1 0 2 11 4 0 0 0
14 Melky Cabrera 2011-07-03 KCR COL W 16-8 6 5 4 4 1 0 2 11 5 0 0 0
15 Kila Ka’aihue 2010-09-28 KCR MIN W 10-1 4 3 4 3 0 1 2 11 4 1 0 0
16 Billy Butler 2009-04-29 KCR TOR W 11-3 5 5 4 4 1 0 2 11 4 0 0 0
17 Juan Gonzalez 2004-04-16 KCR MIN L 7-9 4 4 2 4 1 0 2 11 3 0 0 0
18 Carlos Beltran 2004-04-14 KCR CHW L 9-10 5 5 3 4 1 0 2 11 4 0 0 0
19 Mike Sweeney 2001-06-06 KCR CHW W 12-6 5 5 2 4 1 0 2 11 5 0 0 0
20 Chili Davis 1997-08-14 KCR NYY L 5-10 4 4 2 4 1 0 2 11 4 0 0 0
21 Gary Gaetti 1995-05-29 KCR TEX W 12-0 5 5 2 4 1 0 2 11 6 0 0 0
22 Frank White 1986-08-19 KCR TEX W 9-8 6 5 2 4 1 0 2 11 7 1 1 1
23 John Mayberry 1973-05-22 KCR MIN L 7-8 5 4 3 4 1 0 2 11 4 1 0 0
24 Ed Kirkpatrick 1969-09-28 KCR CHW W 10-3 5 5 3 4 1 0 2 11 3 0 0 0
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/21/2015.

You don’t need me to tell you this franchise has starved for power almost since it’s inception. The Royals home run record for a season was set 30 years ago for crying out loud. The steroid era seemed to skip right over Kansas City. There’s an entire generation of Royals fans who have never seen a player hit three bombs in a game. It’s been done just eight times now in franchise history. The last time it was done was back in 1991 by Danny Tartabull.

Rk Player Date Tm Opp Rslt PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO
1 Kendrys Morales 2015-09-20 KCR DET W 10-3 5 4 5 4 0 1 3 3 1 0
2 Danny Tartabull 1991-07-06 KCR OAK L 7-9 4 4 3 3 0 0 3 4 0 0
3 Bo Jackson 1990-07-17 KCR NYY W 10-7 3 3 3 3 0 0 3 7 0 0
4 George Brett 1983-04-20 KCR DET W 8-7 5 5 3 4 0 0 3 7 0 1
5 George Brett 1979-07-22 KCR TEX W 7-6 5 4 3 3 0 0 3 5 1 0
6 John Mayberry 1977-06-01 KCR TOR W 11-3 5 5 3 3 0 0 3 5 0 0
7 Tony Solaita 1975-09-07 KCR CAL W 8-7 5 4 3 4 0 0 3 4 1 0
8 John Mayberry 1975-07-01 KCR TEX L 4-5 4 4 3 3 0 0 3 3 0 1
Provided by View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 9/21/2015.

The good people at MLBAM were kind enough to throw together this highlight reel of Morales’ day. It’s truly worth the watch.

This seems like the right time to admit I was wrong about the Morales signing. (At least I’m not alone in this admission.) While I expected him to better his 2014 output, I certainly didn’t expect this kind of production. He has been  Much of the criticism pointed at the Royals last December came after they postured when they let Billy Butler walk that they wanted some “flexibility” at the designated hitter position. Meaning, they were looking more for a cast of characters to fill the role as opposed to a full-time DH. The rest of the criticism came at the awarding of a two-year, backloaded contract to a guy who some in the industry felt didn’t even merit a major league deal coming off his miserable ’14. Yet this signing was a masterstroke by Dayton Moore and company. Morales has served as an anchor in the middle of the Royals strongest offense in over a decade.

The full-time DH remains a rarity in the league, but Morales is more than holding his own. If you click on the DH leaderboard at Fangraphs, you see some names atop the charts like Nelson Cruz (who has played over 700 innings in the outfield), Edwin Encarnacion (over 450 innings at first base), and Jose Abreu (over 900 innings at first). I guess those guys have grabbed enough plate appearances at the DH spot to belong to this cohort, but let’s not call them full-time.

The full-time designated hitters are David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, Billy Butler, Prince Fielder, Evan Gattis, Victor Martinez and our Morales. Those are the guys who have played in the field for less than 200 innings. Look at how Morales compares.

Ortiz – .270/.357/.544, 134 wRC+
Rodriguez – .255/.359/.501, 133 wRC+
Morales – .293/.355/.490, 131 wRC+
Fielder – .307/.380/.466, 125 wRC+
Butler – .252/.323/.387, 98 wRC+
Gattis – .243/.281/.452, 96 wRC+
Martinez – .243/.301/.361, 77 wRC+

Dishing out a contract to a full-time DH, it’s easy to overpay. With WAR and an expanded emphasis on the value of defense, baseball has evolved over the last decade to where the all-around player is the more desirable commodity. But teams still love to pay for the bats. Rodriguez wasn’t signed as a full-time DH, but he’s making in the neighborhood of $21 million this year. Ortiz is pocketing $16 million. Fielder, like Rodriguez wasn’t intended to become a full-time DH, and will earn $24 million this year and for the next five years after. Butler makes $10 million. Martinez is due $18 million this year and for each of the next two seasons. Only Gattis makes under a million, but that’s because he hasn’t been in the league long enough to become arbitration eligible.

The point is, paying for a full-time designated hitter can be costly business. Those contracts I pointed out above take almost all of those bats out of the Royals budget.

Morales will make $6.5 million this year. He’s also eligible for another $750,000 in performance bonuses, which I imagine he will bank. That means the Royals are paying Morales around $10 million less than his peers. That’s good business. That’s exactly the kind of contract the Royals need to be handing out to be competitive. It was a gamble, but one with some protection for the Royals. And sometimes when you roll the dice, you hit your number.

With incentives and a buyout on a mutual option in 2017, Morales’ deal is worth around $18.5 million. This year alone according to Fangraphs, Morales has provided the Royals around $17 million in value. Obviously, after this season, expectations will be high for 2016, but he’s almost done enough to justify his entire payday. That’s how impressive his 2015 season has been.

There are a bunch of great stories about this version of the Royals. Grabbing Morales off the scrap heap and throwing him in the middle of the order is one of the best ones.

The best inspiration can come from the most unlikely of places.

On Thursday, Omar Infante provided the Royals their offensive spark, driving home seven of their eight runs in a upping of the Indians. Six games into this road trip, the team had won just twice. They had scored more than four runs just twice in their previous nine. The Central has been locked up for the longest time, but the Royals have been sputtering and wheezing to the finish line.

They needed a kick in the ass. Some positive propulsion, to snap them out of their September malaise.

The juice came from the bat of Infante. And it was glorious.

You remember Infante? The albatross of the Royals offense. The worst offensive everyday position player in baseball in 2015. They guy who (thankfully) lost his starting job? Yeah, that Infante.

All he did was blast a three-run home run to left in the second, lace a two-run double in the fifth, and knock a two-run single in the seventh. The way Infante has been going all season, that was a month’s worth of production in just one game.

They split the four-game set with Cleveland, and suddenly, even though it’s still a losing road trip at this moment, things don’t seem so awful anymore.

The lift in mood was also helped by a gritty performance from Yordano Ventura. Yeah, I went there. Gritty. It’s not a word you often hear associated with a young, Latin player, but it fit his outing. At different points Ventura battled Indians hitters, his command, the strike zone of the home plate umpire, and even his own defense.

There were still plenty of moments of concern for the right-hander. Twice, he failed to back up bases, and his spectating in the third cost him a run when Perez couldn’t come up with a throw from Ben Zobrist in left that went all the way to the backstop. That cut the Royals lead to 3-2 at the time and it looked like the wheels were in the process of falling off.

Much has been made about Ventura’s struggles once he lost his aggressiveness following the April kerfuffles. Worried about his reputation he was developing as a pitcher who sometimes threw at hitters on purpose, he lost a bit of his edge and stopped throwing on the inner part of the plate, which is an area he needs to command if he’s going to be his most successful. On Thursday, that part of his game was taken literally out of play by a home plate umpire who refused to call a strike on a pitch on the inner third to a left-handed batter. From Brooks Baseball, here is the plot of called pitches to lefties.


You could make the argument that the width of the zone was fine, but Ventura needed to adjust. That’s not how the game needs to be played. Not when the zone is that awful. If Ventura goes to the outer half, he’s going to get clobbered. And if he tries to find the inner edge of the zone, there’s little lateral margin for error.

This isn’t to blame Ventura’s struggles solely on the umpire. Ventura clearly let the poor calls effect his game. Credit goes to Perez, pitching coach Dave Eiland and just about everyone else on the infield who rallied around their starter. They made sure he kept his head in the game and his focus on the next batter. It didn’t always work the way it should of (see his aforementioned failure to back up bases a couple of times) but together, they were able to keep him in the game for six innings. Sometimes, even in baseball, it takes a village.

Your other hitting star of the evening was the man ahead of Infante, Alex Rios. In the small sample size of 35 plate appearances covering the nine games since he returned from the chicken pox, Rios has hit .375/.400/.688 with six extra base hits. His latest performance inspired the following tweet from your’s truly:

It’s true. Just like two good weeks at leadoff last September meant we saw “Alcides Escobar, Leadoff Hitter” for the next year, nine good games have secured the starting spot of one Alex Rios for the next month-plus. Hopefully, he can continue to produce. I’m not asking (or looking) for too much. How about just around a major league average right fielder? That would be an improvement over what we’ve seen the previous five months. It seems like every October success has a contribution from an unexpected source. For the Royals last year, maybe that was Mike Moustakas’ power output. (I know… He’s supposed to hit for power. But check his monthly splits. He rarely hit as many as five home runs in a single month.) Maybe this year, Rios stays at least lukewarm through the playoffs. That would be a good thing.

And speaking of playoffs, yes, despite the speed bump that has been September, this team is still qualifying for the postseason. This isn’t in doubt. On Thursday it was Rios, Infante, and Ventura. Friday, it will probably be a different trio to lead this team. That’s why they are so dangerous. And if they can pull out of this September swoon (which I think they can) they can be a dangerous team again in October.

The Royals magic number is six.

Danny Duffy might have pitched his way out of the playoff starting rotation last night.  His effort was matched by his teammates, who floundered through nine innings with only five hits. I don’t feel like talking about that.

I am trying to avoid discussions that contain phrases like ‘put Omar Infante back in the lineup’, ‘should not have moved Escobar out of the the lead off spot’, ‘Johnny Cueto is evil and does not care’….things of that nature.  There is a lot of that going around right now and some of it among people who should have more of a clue.  Listen the folks whose baseball awareness spans a time from September of 2014 through now and is limited to a confines of Kaufmann Stadium, they can spout off as they want:  that’s part of being a casual fan. When your job is to talk sports (or write sports or whatever) then you need to do better than blather about how taking Infante out of the lineup destroyed the chemistry of the team or other such nonsense.

But we’re not talking about that today.

The Royals will be in the post-season and will not be in the Wild-Card.  As such, they have certainly already started constructing their playoff roster for the opening five game American League Divisional Series.  They will start on the 8th, play again on the 9th and 11th of October.  If necessary, Game Four will be on the 12th and a Game Five on the 14th.  The Royals will have three days off between the end of the regular season and the first game of the the ALDS.  With the exception of the starting pitcher for the last game of the season, everyone on the roster will be rested. Most of you know, but some of you don’t, that the team can change its roster for each playoff series, so this first roster only applies to the ALDS.

How will it shake out?  Let’s start with the easy stuff.

CATCHER – Salvador Perez and Drew Butera.   They’ll carry two and it will be these guys.  Butera is mostly injury insurance, but he might also make an appearance if the Royals pinch-run for Perez.  Doing so is not a certainty as a game in which you use a pinch-runner is also one in which Ned Yost is going to want to keep Perez behind the plate.  That said, if Perez gets on base in the ninth inning representing the tying or winning run, we could see a pinch-runner.  More on that later.

INFIELD –  Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Alcides Escobar and Mike Moustakas.  Let’s throw in Kendrys Morales here, too. Locked in as your starters.

BACKUP INFIELD – Omar Infante.  Hey, this is the Royals’ roster, not mine. Infante is a second baseman only at this point and it is not a horrible stretch of the imagination to see him inserted for defense at second with the Royals enjoying a late game lead.  Zobrist is really your utility infielder (and outfielder for that matter), so any injuries or substitutions – like a pinch runner for Moustakas (see the Perez discussion above) – would have Infante coming in to play second and Zobrist moving to any of the other five positions he can play.

OUTFIELD – Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Alex Rios.  As Craig noted yesterday, Rios has almost certainly make the post-season roster with his somewhat hot last few weeks. If the Royals were not planning on playing Rios in right, I would think we would have at least seen more of Johnny Gomes, Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando out there over the past weeks.  Kansas City has started the same lineup eight games in a row at this point, I think you can assume that is the nine you will see on October 8th.

BACKUP OUTFIELD (the lock) – Jarrod Dyson.   Really, he is the only guy that I can comfortably say will be on the playoff roster in this spot.  Yes, there will be others, but who?

BACKUP OUTFIELD (the question marks) – I am proposing an 11 man pitching staff below, which gives us room for two more position players here. I will be shocked if Jonny Gomes is not on the roster.  First off, he has been there before and that counts for something (however minor).  Secondly, he will mash lefties and more specifically, LOOGYs. We all see managers overthink, just like we all overthink our lives as well, and Gomes gives the guy in the other dugout something to think about. Like last year, I think the last spot goes to Terrance Gore.  Sure, Paulo Orlando is in the mix, but I think the Royals will opt for Gomes to pinch hit and Gore to pinch run, while they pray Alex Rios hits something some of the time.

STARTING PITCHERS – Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and Kris Medlen.  The first three are locks, the order of those three is not. I think Medlen has beaten Duffy as the number four man, at least for the ALDS.

BULLPEN (the easy ones) – Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Ryan Madson, Franklin Morales.   They have been there all year and, even with Holland’s vanishing velocity, they will be there in the post-season. With the two games on, one day off, two games on, one day off, one last game schedule, the Royals really could go through the series with just these five.  Unless they go extra innings…or have a starter implode.

BULLPEN (the hard ones) – So, you need more than five relievers even if you don’t want to use them.  I would think the realistic pool of options is limited to Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Young, Luke Hochevar and Danny Duffy.  I think the Royals go with two more relievers and I am not in love with the idea of Duffy out of the pen at this point, so now it comes down to Guthrie, Young and Hochevar.  The last seven hitters to face Hochevar have all gotten on base, so he is not exactly trending in the right direction.  That said, when he is right, Luke is by far the best reliever of the four pitchers we are discussing.  If the playoffs started tomorrow, I think Yost would want Guthrie and Young active, especially with Guthrie having a tolerable four inning relief appearance last night. If you are asking me, I’d take Hochevar and Young.  Pick two and hope you don’t have to turn to either.

That would be my twenty-five for the first series.  And yes, alarmists, the Royals WILL need a post-season roster.

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