Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

And the Royals missed an opportunity because of it.

Kelvin Herrera had not been charged with an earned run since June 24th and got tagged with two last night when Wade Davis allowed a three run triple.   Herrera allowed three baserunners and got just two outs in an uneven outing that spanned the last of the sixth inning and the first of the seventh.  Obviously, he was out of his element pitching in an inning that was not his own, right?

Let’s be clear here – and I’M TALKING TO YOU NED! –  that had nothing to do with it.  Herrera may be the ‘seventh inning guy’, but he hadn’t actually pitched in the seventh since September 3rd.  His previous four outings before last night all began in the eighth inning (it’s madness I tell you).  This was actually the sixth time Kelvin has begun an appearance in the sixth inning in 2014 and the very first time he was charged with a run.

I have some faith that most fans realize that pitching in the sixth did not cause ‘dome issues’ for Herrera, but I have very little faith that Ned Yost won’t revert back to the ‘Herrera pitches the seventh’ doctrine citing last night as the primary reason.

Speaking of THE DOCTRINE, we saw Wade Davis come on in the seventh and, as we are all painfully aware, blow apart his scoreless inning streak as well.  Davis had not been tagged with an earned run since June 25th and he had not allowed an inherited runner to score since July 31st.  He had allowed two doubles all season, no triples and no home runs.  Nobody is that good. These things happen.

Now, if you want to get all ‘mental’ about something, keep in mind that last night was the very first time all year that Davis has pitched in the seventh inning and just the eighth time in 65 appearances that he entered with runners on base.  If you are hell-bent on defending Yost and his rigid approach to reliever usage, here is your banner.  Wave it if you must, but I think you’re grasping at straws.

I don’t buy in to the idea that a major league reliever is so fragile that pitching an inning early causes him to be ineffective.  It should also be noted that two of Davis’ seven previous outings in which he entered the game with runners on base occurred earlier this month and he kept those runners from scoring.  It was a tough situation last night to be sure, but the result was more just a case of the inevitability of baseball than an unfamiliarity of the scenario.

It is likely I am preaching to the choir with this column.  The problem is, Ned Yost is not a choir member.

It’s been almost 12 hours. That’s 12 hours to digest what we saw Monday night. That’s 12 hours to make sense of the most improbable Royals victory in this most improbable of Royals seasons.

And I still don’t comprehend what happened.

Maybe this will help:


Source: FanGraphs
Nope.

Really, this is baseball, isn’t it? Sometimes the manager draws names out of a hat and posts it as a lineup and it goes out and scores seven runs. Other times, a team looks lifeless against what should be an overmatched starting pitcher, only to come to life against a bullpen in a most unconventional way.

I’m 100 words into this post and I still don’t know where to begin.

All I seem to understand is Mike Moustakas hit a one-out double and was lifted for Jerrod Dyson. One thing we know about Ned Yost is the manager loves him some pinch running. You get the feeling if he could stock his bench with nine speed guys – one for each inning – he’d do it in a second. So to see Moustakas removed for Dyson made all sorts of sense. That’s the tying run after all, and it seems Yost may finally understand the Royals are fighting for their October lives. After a ground out, the Royals were down to their final out.

With the hero Nori Aoki up, Dyson breaks for third on the first pitch. Well, just watch…

There is so much that is great about that highlight. The immediate switch to the camera behind home plate, so we can see the action. Ryan Lefebvre’s call. And Uncle Hud’s cheerleading punctuated with a primal “Yeah!” as Dyson glides on his belly across the plate. And then letting the crowd take over. It’s all there. That’s a Maxwell Grand Slam kind of highlight for me.

(I run so hot and cold on Uncle Hud as an announcer. I seem to love him during the wins and barely tolerate him during the losses. I’m probably not alone. It’s because he’s a cheerleader. You may not like having an unabashed homer as one of your announcers, but I don’t mind. And Uncle Hud is genuine. Whatever. I loved it on Monday.)

Then, with the game tied, Aoki laces a double down the left field line. It capped a perfect 4-4 night (with a walk thrown in for good measure) with some of the most bizarre swings you’ll see. That sets up another pinch runner in Terrance Gore. I know there was some questioning of this move, as Aoki possesses some speed of his own. I thought Yost made the right call here. This way, you can do some defensive shuffling, allowing Dyson to stay in the game and letting the new third baseman hit in Aoki’s spot. And while Aoki is fast, Gore is pretty much a sure thing on a single. So as bad as Yost was at pushing the buttons on Sunday, he got things right on Monday. Funny game, baseball.

So when Lorenzo Cain chopped an infield single up the middle when Gore was breaking for third, it was over.

Go ahead. Take your time. Try to make sense of what you saw last night. I don’t think you can. But that’s OK. September baseball, baby. September baseball.

Suddenly, the first six innings were forgotten. The putrid at bats. The suspect defense. Washed away in roughly 10 seconds. The time it took Dyson and Gore to go from second to home. The time it took the Royals to go from losers to winners.

There isn’t a nice way to say this, so I’ll just put it out there.

This series was a disaster for the Royals.

Yes, they’re still in contention for the AL Central. Yes, they’re still in pole position for the Wild Card. Yes, there’s still two weeks left in the season, and damnit, the Royals are in a better position they’ve been in at this point in the season for decades.

But to drop three of four to the Red Sox (and six of seven overall), a team that lost one of their key starters to a trade and another of their key position players to injury, and have pretty much mailed in the rest of 2014… That’s not a good look for a club that fancies itself a contender.

I’ve asserted all along, there are so many flawed teams in the playoff hunt this year, Scorching hot Angels aside, no team is playing with distinction down the wire. It’s cliched to say it, but with four teams (Tigers, Mariners, A’s and Royals) fighting for two to three playoff spots, it’s going to come down to the team – or teams – that make the fewest mistakes over the last two weeks of the regular season.

I don’t have much hope for Ned Yost. As we saw firsthand on a brutal Sunday afternoon at The K, he’s not what you would call “mistake-free.”

Let’s make one thing clear. Yost is no different from 27 or 28 or 29 other major league managers. These guys all do things a certain way that became accepted over time. There’s no rhyme or reason why some moves have become baseball gospel. That’s just the way it is. Doesn’t make it wrong. And it certainly doesn’t make it right. Take, for instance, Terry Francona. Beloved in Boston for managing two Red Sox teams to the World Championship, Francona, the other day in Cleveland, bunted in the first inning. Giving away an out in the first inning. Playing for a single run when you have eight more innings to play. Bunting in the first inning is so criminal, there should be a constitutional amendment denying that as a managerial strategy. Yet there’s Francona, bunting away in the first.

Ned Yost did the exact same thing just a few days ago.

It’s also fact that in today’s baseball, relievers really, really like to have defined roles. It goes beyond The Closer. Now you have The Set-Up Guy, The Seventh Inning Guy, The Mop-Up Guy, and apparently, there’s The Sixth Inning Guy as well.

We learned on Sunday the Royals Sixth Inning Guy is Aaron Crow.

I implore you to read McCullough’s recap. It’s baseball writing at it’s best. Just great work. It brilliantly captures the insanity that is currently rattling around Yost’s dome.

Let’s just start here:

“It’s frustrating that we were one out away from getting to Kelvin Herrera with a one-run lead,” he said. “That was frustrating.”

There you go. There’s Ned Yost’s managerial career in a tidy little 20 word quote.

Yost is a “manage by numbers” type of manager. Meaning he is as automatic as the sun rising in the east, Nickleback putting out rubbish music, or members of the KC media questioning fans for not attending games. All season long, Yost has had the luxury of the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Kelvin Herrera in the seventh. Wade Davis in the eighth. And Greg Holland in the ninth. He’s also had the luxury of having a strong rotation where the starters can usually give him six easy innings. I’ve written about it a number of times this year. Yost’s baseball formula is to get a big hit in the early innings, rely on your starter to keep the opposition off the board and then turn to the Three Relievers of the Apocalypse. Game over. Automatic.

When starter Jason Vargas faltered in the sixth, Yost turned to his recently minted Sixth Inning Guy, Crow.

Initially, according from a postgame Tweet from McCullough, Yost went to Crow because he was looking for a strikeout.

That pretty much says it all. Crow’s first two seasons in the league, he whiffed over 9 batters per nine innings. That’s pretty good. Last year, his SO/9 total dropped to 8.3. Not a crazy drop. This year, Crow owns a 5.0 SO/9.

Ummm…

Not only are Crow’s strikeout numbers way down, his velocity has tumbled. Last year, his fastball averaged a shade over 96 mph. This year, he’s averaging 93 mph on his fastball. Last year his average slider was 85 mph. This year, it’s averaging 83 mph. And his sinker last year routinely clocked in at 95 mph. This year, his average sinker is 92 mph. Basically, his three most common pitches are all off by about three mph.

And by the way, his velocity has dropped even more in September. He’s down another two mph from his seasonal averages. That’s not a warning sign. That’s an obnoxious red flag. Something isn’t right.

The good news is Crow actually got Allen Craig to strikeout swinging. Victory. We are now at the point in the above Ned Yost quote about being one out away from handing the ball to Herrera. At this point, Yost had three decisions he could make.

One, he could stick with Crow. After all, he’s apparently The Sixth Inning Guy.

Two, he could go to Herrera. That would require his Seventh Inning Guy to pitch an inning and a third. That is something that seems to go against the managerial handbook of defining bullpen roles. Nevermind that Herrera last saw the mound on Wednesday. Nevermind in the last week, he had thrown just 41 pitches. Going to Herrera here makes all kinds of sense. He’s the first prong of that three headed bullpen beast. He’s showing solid command, is difficult to hit and not a single hitter has taken him yard this year. Why not go to him early?

Three, he could have gone with a left-hander. With the expanded rosters, Yost has three lefties in his pen: Francisley Bueno, Scott Downs and 2014 first round pick Brandon Finnegan. He current hitter is Daniel Nava, a switch hitter. Here are Nava’s career splits: vs RHP – .290/.384/.425 vs LHP – .210/.287/.301 Nava’s been even worse against left-handers this year than his career splits, hitting just .158/.200/.193 against them this year. The Royals have publicly been cautious with the handling of Finnegan, although there has been much talk of adding him to a 25-man postseason roster, should the Royals qualify. If they’re talking about it, he should be ready for a baptism by fire. And what better fire than the bases loaded, two outs with a favorable platoon matchup? You can’t shield the kid in September and expect him to handle the heat in October. Besides, we’ve seen his work. He looks like he can handle the moment.

Three choices. Two that would seem to give the Royals a favorable advantage. One that doesn’t. Guess which one Yost chooses. If you aren’t sufficiently depressed, go back and read the choices again.

Let’s see what Red Sox manager John Farrell thought about Yost’s decision:

Flashback to July 18, the first game after the All-Star Break when Yost pulled James Shields for Scott Downs with two outs, a runner on second and the Royals holding on to a one-run lead with Jackie Bradley, Jr. approaching the plate. That was when Farrell countered with Jonny Gomes and Gomes blasted a home run that was the difference in the game. You remember that one. The one where Yost “outsmarted himself.”

I guarantee you this is rattling around Yost’s dome in the top of the sixth. Two months ago, he made a boneheaded move and got burned. He wasn’t about to make a move again. He was going to stick with Crow. He was going to stick with his Sixth Inning Guy.

This isn’t hindsight. This isn’t second guessing. This is examining the options before the manager and deciding he made the wrong choice. It was something everyone who follows baseball closely knew was wrong at the moment it happened. Everyone knew Crow was the wrong guy in that situation. Except Ned Yost.

Ballgame.

I said at the top of this post that Yost isn’t all that different from the majority of major league managers. I believe that. I still do. I also believe that smart major league managers will eventually adjust when their teams are in a pennant race or post season series. There comes a moment when a manager is forced out of his comfort zone of the random series in May and is introduced to the tension of September and October. The best managers – the Franconas of baseball – will make adaptations, using their players in the most favorable match-ups gleaned from the previous 140 to 162 games. The other managers, the also-rans of the baseball world, will continue to stubbornly adhere to their tattered baseball gospel. And they will watch the other team celebrate.

The final word of this post goes to McCullough. This is just some great prose that neatly wraps up what we saw on Sunday.

The rules of major-league baseball do not include a provision barring a seventh-inning reliever from pitching in the sixth. But the dogma of baseball managers does preclude such a maneuver. Yost falls in line with the game’s traditions. Relief pitchers receive roles, and managers are wary of deviating from them.

The practice aided the Royals during the second half, as Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland formed a suffocating trio. Yet Yost’s adherence to his doctrine hamstrung his team on Sunday, exposing Crow and granting Nava a chance to further sink Kansas City’s hopes in the American League Central.

Amen.

“There’s no focus issues.”

Royals’ manager Ned Yost rebuffed any thoughts that his team was not focused last night after a big win to salvage the Detroit series the night before.

Everyone on the infield except Omar Infante had an error last night, but there are no focus issues.

It could be true:  some nights teams just don’t play well.  Errors sometimes come in bunches.  Even Alex Gordon has crappy plate appearances sometimes.  Hell, Josh Willingham of all people, swung at a first pitch on Thursday night.  It was just a plain old awful game.

Still, Ned, really?  Could you be any clumsier in public?  And, while you’re at it, would you mind maybe having a pitcher warming up in the bullpen behind the unpredictable Aaron Crow when you are down by just a single run in the top of the eighth? I mean, you have a 16 man pitching staff right now.

Ughh.

I guess if you are going to play bad defense and not hit, doing so on the night when Liam Hendriks is pitching is likely good timing.

Some random notes:

  • Eric Hosmer committed his 10th error last night.  Now, errors is a poor indicator a player’s defensive range and what he does when he gets to those balls, but they are a very good indicator of how one handles routine plays.  In the last ten to twenty years, it has gotten pretty hard to get tagged with an error in the major leagues.  My guess is that if you were scoring your local slow-pitch game you would be far harsher towards the 43 year old guy with a tallboy in the dugout trying to play third because the college kid (ringer) you brought in didn’t show up than official scorers are towards a major league third baseman.  That said, Hosmer’s 10th error ties him for second in the majors with the Cardinals’ Matt Adams.  Hosmer gets to balls a lot of first basemen don’t.  He does a nice job of handling errant throws to first.  Still, he has too many mental gaffes and, particularly in the last week, has simply booted two easy grounders. Do better, Eric.
  • Omar Infante is going to bat second for the bulk of your natural born life.  If you ask me who I want hitting second instead of Infante my answer would be ‘everyone except Moustakas.’
  • Billy Butler sat again last night.  Yes, Billy is 1 for his last 20, but he was 4 for 13 with two walks and two hit by pitch before that and hit .288/.347/.450 in the month of August.  You can make a case for playing Hosmer and Willingham in front of him, but when you case starts with the phrase ‘Billy has been awful’, well….
  • Alex Gordon is 0 for his last 15 and 1 for his last 22 (although he does have 7 walks over that time).  Until last night, I generally saw Alex having good plate appearances, but he looked pretty bad last night.  Anyone else feel Ned contemplating moving Gordon in the order?  Of course, Infante has to stay at second, but otherwise…..

Well folks, you wanted a pennant race and this is what one feels like:  agony and jubilation every night.  Stop trying to be cool and calm (it may make you feel superior, but it pretty much just makes people think you’re a bit of a douche).  Get on the roller coaster and enjoy the experience.

It’s too easy to say, “That’s why they acquired James Shields.” But I think it would be accurate.

On Wednesday, after the Royals dropped the first two games of the series to Detroit to fall out of first place, Shields threw a brilliant start. He allowed a leadoff single to Ian Kinsler, picked him off first and then retired the next 18 batters in a row. Shields exited after 7 innings, 98 pitches and no runs.

And he probably saved the season.

That my be some serious hyperbole on my part, but this is September, this is a pennant race and damned if I remember how to react to seeing something like that. I do know it was one of the more clutch pitching performances I’ve seen by a Royals starter.

I wrote about Game Score the other day in reference to Jeremy Guthrie’s stinker in the series opener. On Wednesday, Shields finished with a Game Score of 80. That is tied for his third best start of the year. He has a pair of starts that tallied 83 on the Game Score meter, including his start last Friday in New York. So let that sink in for a moment. In the biggest road trip of the Royals season, Shields made two starts. He threw a total of 15.1 innings. He allowed five hits. He recorded 14 strikeouts. He surrendered one walk. And he didn’t allow a single run.

Big Game? Damn straight.

I sent out a Tweet midway through the game that I’ve spent the last four months reconsidering my original takes on The Trade. How could you not?

Maybe at some point in the offseason, I’ll dive a little deeper into the impact, but on the surface the Royals have realized a massive short-term dividend from this deal. Shields has been inconsistent at times this season and had a stretch of starts from mid-May through all of June where it looked like he was fatigued. Maybe the result of so many innings in past seasons. Yet aside from a single stinker of a starter in that make-up game against the Yankees at the end of August, he’s been brilliant down the second half of the season.

Of course I’m thinking of other aspects of The Trade. The Wade Davis Experience came on to pitch another lock-down ninth. And other intangibles as well. Yeah, I’ll go there. Later, though. It will be fun.

As I mentioned in the lede, it may be simplistic to say that’s why they acquired Shields, but maybe sometimes the best explanations are also the easiest explanations.

Just like that night in New York in his last start, Shields mixed his pitches in a most effective manner. Fastball, cut fastball, curve, sinker and that wonderful change-up. He kept the ball down in the zone and got a ton of swinging strikes at pitches that darted down and out of the zone. Detroit hitters had no chance.

And because of that start, the Royals are back in first.

The Royals dropped into a tie for first last night with a dreadful ninth inning gaffe courtesy of Jarrod Dyson.  Craig detailed it perfectly last night/early this morning and you don’t need me to pile on.

Instead, let’s go back to the fifth inning against Max Scherzer.  The Royals, enjoying a rare night where Omar Infante actually got on base, had runners on first and second with one out.  Alex Gordon strode – yes, he strides now, because he’s earned it – to the plate.

Gordon takes two fastballs, one for a strike and one for a ball and then jumps on a curveball over the plate and misses a three run homer by about two feet.  Gordon thought it was out, so did Scherzer.  It was majestic and, sadly, it was foul.  It was after that, however, that Alex did a very un-Royal like thing:  he walked.

Against a pitcher like Scherzer, after missing a home run like that, taking three pitches and jogging to first is a hell of a plate appearance.  It looked like this:

5th Inning Gordon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Okay, bases loaded, on out and your four and five hitters coming up.  That’s exactly how a real baseball man anticipates his lineup working.  Surely Billy Butler and Josh Willingham, two professional hitters, will drive in some runs, right?  Oh, that’s right, Ned Yost manages the Royals, so it is Salvador Perez (a very good player who has no business batting fourth) and Eric Hosmer who bat.

Perez hits a ball out of the dirt relatively hard, but really?  His plate ‘appearance’ looks like this:

5th Inning Perez

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then up comes Hosmer, who has been in the lineup each and every day since returning from the disabled list.  Every…stinking…day.  He strikes out on a pitch that never once was headed towards the strike zone.  It looked like this:

5th Inning Hosmer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The above details just one inning in just one game, but it is sadly representative of way too many Royals’ innings this year.  All this, and Omar Infante still bats second, because changing that would just be ‘kind of dumb’.

 

There have been many “signature” moments in what has been through 142 games, a magical season. Those moments have been positive. The Alex Gordon walk off. The Nori Aoki grand slam. The stolen win in Toronto.

Tuesday provided us with another signature moment. However this one was not positive.

The Royals opened the ninth facing struggling Tigers closer Joe Nathan trailing by two runs. Aoki and Omar Infante, lead off the inning with back to back singles. Then, in quick order:

Alex Gordon strikes out swinging.

Jerrod Dyson gets picked off second.

Salvador Perez strikes out swinging.

Ballgame.

The standings show the Royals and Tigers tied atop the division. Although if you factor the suspended game against Cleveland as a Royal loss (which if you watched any single moment of baseball on Tuesday, you know is a long shot for them to put up any kind of a fight before recording three outs) they are actually a half game behind the Tigers. Isn’t that the most Royals thing ever? Yeah, they’re tied for first with 19 games to go, but even that comes with an asterisk. A “oh, yeah, don’t forget” sort of disclaimer.

Nineteen games is a lot of baseball. The Royals are now showing up in the Wild Card standings again. The A’s free fall means both Wild Card spots are in play. Three teams for two spots. It’s not the division, but it’s an invite to the postseason party.

Still, there’s simply no sugarcoating this one. It stings.

Let’s start with the pinch running. When Infante singled to move Aoki to second, Ned Yost sent Terrance Gore to first. Fine. If Gordon lines one to the gap, we’re going to have a tie game. If Gordon singles, we have a run in (probably) and Gore has a strong chance of going first to third, where he will be with no outs. Three cracks to tie the game. Sure, we’re talking Royals offense, but I still like those odds. Besides, with the Tiger defense… But I digress.

The Gordon strikeout was difficult. The last pitch was a wicked slider that was in the zone all the way until the end when it broke off the inside corner of the plate. It was ball four, but the pitch was so nasty you understand the swing. That’s one of those tip your cap moments to the pitcher.

Up next, Perez. He swings at strike one way off the plate.

Suddenly, Yost goes to his bench and brings Dyson out to pinch run for Aoki at second.

Sorry, I just don’t understand this timing. In the end, it’s not a huge deal, but here’s what I think happened. Yost purposefully waited until after the first pitch to Perez. He sent Dyson out there to mess with Nathan. Disrupt his rhythm. Or something. This is Yost as his most Yostiness. Trying to “outsmart” the opposition. Throw a wobbly closer a little more off his game. It’s just kind of silly. But that’s Yost. Here’s a thought, though. If the possibility existed you would pinch run for Aoki, why wouldn’t you hold Gore back for that duty and put Dyson at first. Allegedly, Gore is the faster of the two. The throw on a double steal usually goes to third. I don’t know. Put your fastest guy as the lead runner. Besides, Dyson has burners of his own.

With Dyson on second and Gore at first, this happened:

Oh. My. God.

How does this even happen? You are inserted to run the damn bases. That means you’re supposed to be smart. Don’t get thrown out on the bases and for god’s sake, don’t get picked off. You are incredibly valuable as a baserunner. No TOOTBLANS. Under any circumstances.

I’ve watched a lot of Royals baseball. I’ve seen some incredibly stupid plays. I’ve seen fundamentals that would make a third grader blush. I have never, ever seen such a bone-headed play with the stakes so high. And I saw Lonnie Smith play for the ’85 Royals. What Dyson did off second base is an unpardonable sin. It was unquestionably the worst moment of 2014. Nothing else comes close.

Watch the video again. I dare you. Watch it and take your temperature. I don’t see how you can watch that clip and not have your blood boil. So stupid. So asinine. I like to think I maintain kind of an even keel where I don’t get too high, nor do I get too low. Again, I’ve seen a lot over the last 30-odd years of watching this team. But this… This made me feel something. This made me experience an emotion I haven’t felt about this team for a long, long time.

Anger.

Pure anger. How on earth could you allow yourself to get picked off? When every out, every run could be the margin in a pennant race, how could you be so goddamn careless? Jon Morosi sent this Tweet after the game:

Lost focus? Are you kidding me? Again. One job. One stinking job. And you failed. You failed because, in your words, you “lost focus.” Unreal. Unacceptable. Unforgivable. I like Dyson and think he’s brought some value to this team. He’s been a key guy for this team. But he blew it on Tuesday. Absolutely blew it

After the Dyson pickoff, Perez was still at the plate. The outcome felt preordained.

From @EddieHigh:

BxI3d8VIIAA4yGB.jpg-large

 

Just awful. Perez’s plate appearances have devolved to the point where I dread watching them. He’s so lost. And he’s hitting cleanup.

Ballgame.

This time of the year, with the division on the line, all losses will sting. Some sting worse than others. And some will leave a mark long after the initial jolt of pain subsides. This one is going to linger. So awful.

Other things happened in this ballgame. Jason Vargas walked guys and allowed a home run, something he hasn’t done lately. Lorenzo Cain had four plate appearances, saw a total of nine pitches and still managed to strikeout twice. Billy Butler was MIA.

Yes, this is going to leave a mark.

1B ∙ 1997—99

After eight up and down years with Pittsburgh, Jeff King was traded to the Royals prior to the 1997 season. The Royals also got Jay Bell, while Pittsburgh picked up Joe Randa, Jeff Granger, Jeff Wallace, and Jeff Martin. It was the Jeffiest trade in history. King and his Fu Manchu took over first base in ’97 and put together a strong season. Rate-wise, his bat was barely better than average, but he managed to stay healthy enough to play 155 games, and his offensive value added up. He belted 28 homers and drove in a team-leading 112 runs. King piled on more value with smart base running and smooth defense. He managed to be a small bright spot while the team floundered their way to a 94-loss season. June was an especially hot month, when he bashed 10 homers, a 1.209 OPS, and was named AL player of the month.

The Royals and King agreed to a two year contract to keep him in KC for ’98 and ’99. Unfortunately King never did recapture his ’97 form. ’98 was decent, but all aspects of his game dropped off slightly, potentially due to health struggles with his back that started early in the year and never let up. The Sporting News reported that King’s back pain started after he felt a “twinge” picking up one of his kids.[i] He battled through it to still get into 133 games and knock 24 dingers.

The back problem was much more than just a twinge, and was still dogging him as the 1999 season started. But there was a bigger problem for King: His heart was no longer in the game. At the end of May, he stunned everyone by suddenly retiring, walking away from around three million dollars left on his contract. Joe Posnanski has intimated that King never liked baseball and retired the day after qualifying for his pension.[ii] Maybe, but I’m not sure it was that simple. King was “fighting back tears” when he told reporters, “My head is here, my heart is not. I played the game with integrity, played hard, and played hurt. I’m ready to turn the page, close the chapter and begin a new one. It comes down to integrity. The struggle I’ve had with it, I think it’s affected the way I’ve played.”[iii] His heart was with his wife and kids on their ranch in Montana. So that’s where he went.[iv]

[i] Luciana Chavez, “Kansas City,” The Sporting News, April 27, 1998, 28.

[ii] Joe Posnanski, “Reluctant King,” http://pitchersandpoets.com/2011/05/11/reluctant-king-by-joe-posnanski/, May 11, 2011.

[iii] AP, “Jeff King Calls It Quits,” May 23, 1999.

[iv] Steve Riach, Life Lessons From Baseball (Honor Books, 2004), 65.

Stumble

2 comments

By any metric you want to imagine, the series with the Detroit Tigers is the most important series the Royals have played since 1985. The season won’t resolve itself over these three games, but make no mistake, the stakes are massive.

So this one hurt. Just a little bit.

Jeremy Guthrie couldn’t get out of the third inning. Eric Hosmer made two errors on one play. And that’s pretty much all you need to know about this one.

Guthrie turned in his worst start as a Royal, throwing 2.2 innings, allowing 10 hits and eight runs. (Only six of those runs were earned thanks to Hosmer.) His Game Score for the start was a 10, which is his lowest Game Score ever. Ever. In 245 major league starts, he’s never posted a worse Game Score. Go big or go home I guess. Guthrie has flirted with disaster for most of his tenure with the Royals anyway. And we know the Tigers have some big bats in their lineup. The third featured a pair of infield singles, three singles to the outfield and three doubles. Bam. Six runs. It’s like they ripped a page from the Royals playbook. String together some hits and run like hell. Except they didn’t really have a productive out. Oh, well.

The Hosmer error… Let’s just leave that alone. Although I will take the opportunity to continue to make the case the Royals strongest lineup going forward is Billy Butler at first and Josh Willingham at DH. I know Butler has cooled off since a torrid August. And I know Willingham has been hurt. Just my opinion. Although as long as Ned Yost insists on batting Omar Infante second, all this really doesn’t matter much. Unless Yost is trying to put his weakest lineup possible out there. Which is some mighty fine managerial performance art.

So the Royals score more than four runs in a game for the first time since August 28. And they lost.

Now the Royals task for the rest of the series got a little more difficult. On Tuesday, they face Max Scherzer. Wednesday, it’s Rick Porcello. The Royals will counter with Jason Vargas and James Shields, respectively. Hopefully, the two Royals starters can cool off the Detroit bats, but you can’t help but think this was their best chance to take a game and give themselves a little breathing room.

Vargas has been nothing short of brilliant since his appendix was removed around the All-Star Break. In seven starts, he has a 2.66 ERA, a 6:1 strikeout to walk ratio and has allowed just a single home run in 44 innings.

If Monday was the start of the biggest series of the year, Tuesday represents the biggest game of the year. So far.

 

The Royals scored five runs all weekend. Yet they won twice.

Welcome to the Ned Yost September Baseballing Experience.

It keeps happening. I’m dizzy. Confused. Maybe a little dehydrated. But most of all, I’m kind of happy.

Let’s just recap the insanity of the weekend in the Bronx.

Friday

James Shields. And some James Shields. With a dash of James Shields.

The Royals starter went 8.1 strong innings. It was as sharp as he has looked all year. The change-up was a thing of beauty. He threw it 32 times in his 97 pitches. I mean, everything was working for him on that Friday, but that change… Damn. His second most effective pitch was a cut fastball he offered 20 times. The Yankees put only four of those in play, never for a hit.

While Shields was doing his thing, the Royals bats remained in cold storage. Three hits against Michael Pineda. Sure, sometimes you have to tip your cap when the opposing starter goes out and dominates. But these are the Royals at the plate, so let’s just say they tend to help a starting pitcher along from time to time. Pineda certainly had his pitches working on Friday, thought. Location and sequencing were top notch and kept the already off balance Royals bats even more off balance.

The lone Royals run scored in the third when Alcides Escobar hit one under Chase Headley’s glove at third and hustled into second base. Smart, aggressive base running. The next batter, Nori Aoki lined one back up the middle to score Escobar and that was it for the scoring.

Wade Davis appears in the ninth for Greg Holland, who is still battling tricep soreness, and nails down the final two outs. Outstanding starting pitching, taking advantage of an error, one timely hit, and the Wade Davis Experience and the Royals have their win.

Lost in the zaniness of Friday’s game was Escobar’s plate appearance in the third that led to the error. He had an 11 pitch at bat.

From Brooks Baseball, here’s how it looked with PitchF/X:

Escobar_95PA

Escobar takes a fastball for a called strike one. Then, swings at a pitch low and out of the zone for strike two. I’m going to pick on Escobar for a bit, but this is exactly the kind of plate appearance we’ve been seeing with regularity from the Royals batters. Take strike one, then swing at whatever the hell is thrown for strike two. It’s frustrating. Escobar isn’t the worst – or highest profile – culprit. But he does this regularly it seems.

At least in this instance, he’s disciplined enough to lay off pitches three and four, thrown way low by design in hopes that he chases. Then, Pineda attacks the zone. Escobar fouls off fastballs, sliders and change-ups in an effort to stay alive. Obviously, the seventh and the ninth pitches are out of the zone, too. Those are pitches that are close enough that Escobar has to be swinging. Besides, it’s good to foul those pitches off in that situation.

Anyway, 11 pitches into the plate appearance, Escobar gets a low change up, puts it in play and hustles to second. If that doesn’t happen, for all we know the game could still be going.

Saturday

At least if the game was still going, Danny Duffy doesn’t make his start. And if Duffy doesn’t make his start, his shoulder isn’t tight. And if Duffy’s shoulder isn’t tight, he leaves after just one pitch and throws the entire Royals Universe into a collective panic.

I’ve never really seen anything quite like it. One pitch. And done.

I will admit I haven’t been Duffy’s biggest fan. I didn’t think he had what it takes to be a major league starter. Not stuff. That’s always been apparent. I thought he lacked a certain mental fortitude necessary to put hitters away on a consistent basis. I’m really glad I was wrong. His transformation to top-notch starter has been, for me, one of the stories of the season. His development and emergence has been exciting and necessary for the Royals in 2014. That it’s not his elbow that flared up is good news, but on the other hand the shoulder could be even more serious. The Royals sent Duffy back to KC for an MRI and we won’t know those results until later Monday. But I’ll just say that if the Royals don’t have Duffy in the rotation in September, their chances are less than optimal.

Liam Hendriks stepped in and gave up four runs in four innings. If the Royals were a team that could score on a consistent basis, I wouldn’t be too bothered with Hendriks making a few spot starts. But this is September. And the Royals struggle to score runs. This is the wrong pitcher at the wrong time for the Royals. And not to put the horse before the proverbial cart, a playoff rotation without Danny Duffy puts the Royals at a massive disadvantage.

Sunday

Derek Jeter Day.

But let’s make this about Yordano Ventura. Ventura had just one clean inning, but worked around walks and singles in the other five. Then the Yost bullpen took over. Yet instead of the Three Relievers of the Apocolypse, it was two relievers with a special guest star. With Greg Holland out with a strained tricep Kelvin Herrera moves to the eighth and Wade Davis goes to the ninth. The bullpen gave the Royals three innings and the Yankees were shutout for the second  time in three games.

The Duffy injury deservedly got the attention, but should we be worried about Holland? If not now, when? I understand the Royals have the Wade Davis Experience as a luxury – a reliever so dominant he can close without problem – but how long should we expect Holland to remain on the sideline? The Royals have a luxury few teams possess in three late inning, lockdown relievers. If one is subtracted from the three, it’s not like the bullpen suddenly becomes the Detroit Tiger bullpen, but still.

So right now, we don’t worry about the Holland injury. Get him some rest and have him ready for the stretch run. And in the meantime, hope the bats find their early August magic.

The magic number stands at 19.

%d bloggers like this: