Royals Authority

Long Live The Process

The first day of June and the fact we’re already a third of the way through the season seems like as good a time as any for a quick review of how the season has gone so far.

Thumbs up…

To Eric Hosmer. His recall energized the fanbase, even if it was only for a few games. With a line of .274/.314/.505 through his first 102 plate appearances, he’s doing just fine, thank you. He spent the first month plus of the season in Omaha, but with five home runs, he’s closing in on Jeff Francoeur and the team lead of nine. He’ll get there. And stay there. For years.

Thumbs down…

To Joakim Soria as the closer. It’s been dissected and deconstructed by every Royals site in the universe – including this one – so there’s no reason to rehash it here. Although I will say I don’t agree with the decision to demote him. I’m of the thought there is something physically wrong. And that’s with the manager saying he doesn’t know if it’s mechanics. (I’m working on process of elimination here of the possible issues. That, and a declining strikeout rate and doubling walk rate.) It’s not going to serve the Royals and Soria any purpose in having him throw a few innings in mop-up duty. He needs some rest and a mental break from the closing grind.

Thumbs up…

To Alex Gordon’s start. The month of April was his best month as a major leaguer. Through his first 27 games, he posted a line of .339/.395/.541. It was fun to watch.

Thumbs down…

To Alex Gordon’s slump. From May 3 to May 21, he went into a tailspin that had many of us mutter to ourselves about the Old Alex Gordon. He hit an anemic .169/.250/.262 which included several horrific plate appearances. It was vintage 2007 Gordon. That was a very bad year.

Thumbs up…

To Alex Gordon’s recovery and power surge. His on base percentage has stabilized for now, but the impressive thing is he’s found a home run stroke. On Tuesday, he blasted his fifth home run in his last nine games. The power was something that was missing from his hot start, so it’s good to see it’s return.

Thumbs down…

To the starting rotation as a whole. Yes, there have been some solid performances, but that’s been the exception, rather than the rule. Their starters ERA is a whopping 5.22, which is the highest in the AL and it’s not even close. They also don’t strike anyone out. Their 184 strikeouts as a staff is, again, the worst in the league. They’re the only rotation with fewer than 200 strikeouts.

Thumbs up…

To Danny Duffy. Yes, he’s struggled at times with command, but we can all see why he’s up in Kansas City well ahead of schedule. He’s struck out 14 batters in 15 innings, making him the Royals starter most likely to get three strikes on a hitter.

Thumbs down…

To Dayton Moore’s recent trades. Sean O’Sullivan’s starts make me want to skin baby seals and Vin Mazzaro’s relief appearance where he was allowed to get sodomized was the stuff of legend. O’Sullivan and his 3.0 SO/9 strikeout rate would be the lowest since Chien-Ming Wang finished with a 3.1 SO/9 back in 2006. I want to wholly buy into The Process (really, I do) but when the GM is actively acquiring pitchers like O’Sullivan and Mazzaro to round out a pitching staff, you have to wonder.

I’m almost certain the Royals will trot out the “they were the only pitchers available” defense. That was the same justification they used when they foisted the awfulness that was Yuniesky Betancourt. Sorry, it doesn’t work. Not every trade needs to be a home run. We only ask they don’t make history for being awful.

Thumbs up…

To the bullpen. For the most part, they have kept this team in games, which is why so many contests have gone extra innings. Their 3.92 bullpen ERA is close to league average and has them in the middle of the pack in the AL. The fact this happened with Soria struggling is nothing short of a miracle.

Thumbs down…

To John Lamb visiting Dr. Lewis Yocum. While the prospect of Tommy John surgery isn’t the end of the world – or a pitching career – it’s a cold reminder that The Process and our stocked minor league is no guarantee of future success.

Thumbs up…

To Jeff Francoeur and his late inning performances. He’s come to the plate 67 times from the seventh inning on and is hitting .346/.448/.577 with eight extra base hits and 10 walks. Several of those plate appearances have come in extremely high leverage situations.

He can still frustrate the hell out of me, expanding the strike zone at the most inopportune times, but he’s been much better than I thought he would be. Since we’re this far in the season, he can still go in the tank, but we’ll have fond memories of at least his first two months.

Thumbs down…

To Kila Ka’aihue’s performance. Come on, dude… As one of your biggest advocates, I took this personally. And now that Hosmer is here, you’ll probably never wear a Royals uniform again.

Thumbs up…

To Alcides Escobar’s defense. The guy is simply electric with the glove. Part of the fun of watching him play the field are the plays he makes on instinct. After being force fed the dreck that was the Yunigma, this is an extremely refreshing change.

Thumbs down…

To Alcides Escobar’s offense. A .258 on base percentage and 3:1 strikeout to walk ratio isn’t helping. I’m not asking for a world class bat, but this is crazy. His glove will only take him so far.

Thumbs up…

To the Royals base running game. They are much improved on the bases, giving away fewer outs as a team. Still, there are moments… But for the most part, they’re doing a good job.

Thumbs down…

To cancer. Nice tribute by the RoyalVision crew at Monday’s game honoring Splitt. He will be missed.

The biggest fear of people who claim to be anti-statistics is the idea that there will be no room for the human element in baseball — no strategic decisions, nothing based on the mental side of the game or the intangibles inherent in human players, or there will be some kind of robot making decisions based on human players.  It seems like an absurd notion, but that day arrived years ago.

One of the silliest accusations of people who say they don’t like statistics is that “the game isn’t played on a spread sheet”. A statement which is as condescending as it is obvious. However, it’s not the advanced-statistics crowd that needs the preaching, it’s the Major League mangers and general managers. It’s they who continually run this simple program on a loop:

IF I = 9

AND 4 > L > 0






It’s almost astonishingly simple, this program. The only pieces of information needed are the inning and the difference in team scores. In a game that can be as complex as baseball, where there are millions of variables it’s amazing that managers continually rely on something so simple. With apologies to Occam and his razor, the simplest solutions aren’t always the best.

This solution has worked pretty well for the Royals for the past few seasons as the pitcher they used as their closer was one of, if not the best relief pitcher in baseball. Rare though, is the pitcher who can stay dominant for season after season. Short bursts of brilliance followed by mediocrity are far more common. At the time, nobody believes it will happen. Typically while in the moment, people tend to project the future based on the present. Few and far between were the analysts and fans predicting the downfall of Eric Gagne when he was mowing down hitters in the 9th inning for the Dodgers. It’s just as impossible to find anyone who predicted a fall to earth by the suddenly human Joakim Soria. But that’s exactly what has transpired.

Speculation as to the reason for Soria’s sudden fall from grace are numerous and rampant. The most significant seems to be his lack of curveball command. His once devastating, knee-buckling curve ball is now a shell of it’s former self, mirroring in some ways the ice-cold Mexican saves leader himself.

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, when Soria would have his opponent behind in an 0-2 count, everyone in the ballpark, including the batter knew that the curve was coming. 12-6 didn’t do justice to just how much movement and how little speed was on the pitch. It froze hitters and left them shaking their heads. It made spectators turn to each other and mutter “wow”. Now, it’s barely thrown and when it is, it’s rarely in the strike zone. The old curve would seemingly drop out of a batters chin and be perfectly placed in the catcher’s mitt, giving the umpire an easy “STRIKE!” call.

But for whatever reason, that pitch isn’t effective now and neither is Joakim Soria. Nobody should be ready to proclaim the end of a still young career or even a still young season. Pitchers go through periods of struggle and many recover. It seems obvious that at the very least he shouldn’t be in the game during important, potentially-game-changing moments.

We  now return to our simple program from above. There’s very little room in it for adjustment, for as long as Joakim Soria is designated the “closer” then he is brought into the game in the save situations. It’s the kind of closed-minded thinking that the stat crowd despises and it’s the managing to some in-human equation that the anti-stats crowd decries.

Managers see only the opportunity to get a (S) in the boxscore next to his most valuable reliever’s name. The general manager sees merely an opportunity to prove to the next free-agent closer that joining his team will get the closer more saves on his resume so he can put more money in the bank. It’s a scenario which is as ironic as it is maddening. Baseball managers create “closers” by giving them a big number in the spreadsheet column labeled “save” so that the closer can earn more money and so that the general manager can go out on the market and pay exponentially more for some other guy who has received the same treatment from another team.

Luckily, baseball in general is still a merit based game so while closers may command an over-inflated price they typically are the best relief pitchers. But there is little doubt that being tagged with the term closer for a general manager is tantamount to a brand-name clothing designer to a teenager. In many  cases that tag denotes a higher quality, but make no mistake that tag is what creates the value.

For teams that not only can afford to pay the higher prices commanded by closers, but actually set the market for them by paying extraordinary prices there isn’t near as much risk. But for small-market teams like the Royals, trying to play the same game as the large-market teams is a game that’s rigged against them.

Teams like the Royals have to make up the difference in revenue with smarts. They aren’t afforded the luxury that the born-wealthy teams like those in New York, Los Angeles and Boston are. They have to work harder and smarter to over-come their inherent deficiencies. Being outside the scrutiny of major market teams though does provide some benefits.

Nobody is forcing them to play the same game the Yankees and Red Sox play. There isn’t anything in any rule book saying that every team must do things in a certain way. The rules in regards to roster construction and player use in fact are extremely open and free. Yet the Royals, like every other team in baseball just do what every other team does. Change comes glacially. The Royals, in an attempt to do things exactly like every other team in baseball, have handed wins over to their opponents.

Just looking at the statistics from this year, the Royals have been putting their worst relief pitcher in the most important situations. They’ve taken leads into the 9th inning on a number of occasions and looked to the bullpen have essentially said “bring out our least effective guy and see what happens”. At this point it’s bordering on insanity, but because this is what baseball teams do the Royals can continue to do it without fear of criticism. Because how can a team be criticized for doing what everyone else does? It’s not those that melt into the crowd who get noticed, but those that stand out.

So the Royals choose to try and hide behind their baseball brethren in terms of relief pitcher usage and those actions have cost them wins.  Of course there is more statistical information than what is at hand this year and Joakim Soria hasn’t just been a good relief pitcher, he’s been one of the best for the past three seasons. So I’m going to assume that when manager Ned Yost makes the call to the pen in the 9th he’s actually thinking “send out one of the best relief pitchers in the past few years who has struggled this season and let’s hope he’s figured it out.”

It’s perfectly acceptable to do that for a time, but eventually it had to end. That end came yesterday as the Royals replaced Joakim Soria with Aaron Crow in the role of closer. But it didn’t have to come to that. Had they just avoided using the term closer they could have put both pitchers in situations where they had a better opportunity to succeed. As one out-performs the other, he gets shifted towards more important situations. If that were the case, there wouldn’t be the need for an embarrassing demotion from the invented role of closer.

What’s the real cost to the Royals of ignoring “roles”? They would be a less attractive spot for the high-profile free-agent closers? Is that something the Royals should really be concerned about? We’ve already established that high-profile closers command too much money in free-agency and the Royals have to be smarter than that. If they were to change the way they use their bullpen, they could possibly be a MORE attractive place to high quality relievers who are not tagged closers — guys who will get a chance to get some saves on their resume if they are pitching well — guys who are failing as starters, but still have the stuff to be decent bullpen guys. In other words, guys that are almost certainly under-valued in the baseball market. The Royals, by doing something different could position themselves into a destination for exactly the kind of players they need to acquire and at likely lower than market rates.

Yet the Royals persist in following the leader in a game that’s stacked against them. They say that if you’re at a poker table and you can’t identify the sucker, then it’s you. My guess is the Royals look around baseball and think “huh, not a sucker to be seen.”

Nick Scott hosts the Broken Bat Single Podcast and writes a blog for the Lawrence Journal World. You can follow him on  Facebook or email him at brokenbatsingle at gmail dot com.

I don’t think I ever truly appreciated Paul Splittorff, the ballplayer.

Kind of funny, actually. Because growing up in Kansas City in the 1970s, I could have been mistaken for mini-Splitt. Left-handed, glasses almost larger than my face, pitching to contact in the Johnson County 3&2… Really it was only natural I have Splitt as a hero and a role model. My mom used to always bring up the comparison. As if it was cool being compared to a major leaguer. It was cool, but Splitt just didn’t excite me. Besides, I liked hitting better, so why couldn’t people associate me with Amos Otis or John Mayberry? Those guys kicked ass. Splitt… He didn’t kick ass as much as he survived.

As I got older and grew to appreciate the history of the team and it’s players, I learned that to be compared to Splitt was a high honor. When you talk about Splittorff being a competitor or a bulldog, that’s not being cliche. It’s being truthful. The guy didn’t have all the talent in the world. Hell, he was often overshadowed on his own team… First by Busby, then by Leonard. But the guy battled and often was successful.

Look at his stats… These days we’re all about the strikeouts. After the 1972 season, his high strikeout rate was 4.4 SO/9. That’s so low, it’s insane. He was in line to win the decisive Game 5 of the 1977 ALCS and did pick up the win in the clinching Game 3 of the 1980 ALCS. That gained him the reputation of being a Yankee killer (even though it wasn’t really true) and we loved him for it. His best season was probably 1978 when he finished with a 3.40 ERA in 262 innings. But he struck out only 76! And walked just 60. But he had 12 complete games. (Seriously, the game 35 years ago is unrecognizable today.) Splittorff was 31 years old and a key figure on three consecutive division champions.

One of the great things about sports is when a player becomes synonomous with a team. We were lucky in Kansas City in the heyday when the Royals were winning… Brett, Leonard, White, McRae and Splitt. Those guys were the core, the foundation. They were the team. We hope this new group of guys will emulate the old timers. We hope…

In many ways, Splitt was the Kansas City Royals. Drafted in the 25th round of the 1968 draft – before the Royals played a game – the guy was the ultimate lifer. Upon retiring from the game in 1984, he soon moved to the broadcast booth where he remained until earlier this month. That’s where the younger generation of fans will remember Splitt – as a no-nonsense broadcaster who didn’t hold his punches. He explained what was happening on the field in a way you could understand and appreciate. No flash… Just the facts. He called a game like he pitched… He got the most out of his abilities.

I appreciated Splitt the announcer because he lived for this team. There is always a debate about whether or not people want their announcers to be “homers.” I never felt Splitt was that way, but you could tell the often crummy play of the last 20 years irritated him. That was perfect. He was just like those of us sitting on our couches, watching the game. We felt great on the rare occasions when something went right for the team… And we were disappointed too often when something went wrong. You could tell, Splitt was right there with us.

It’s difficult when a team loses someone like Splitt. Because, as modest and understated as he may have been, he’s really irreplacable. Someone else just can’t fill those shoes. Not with the mileage acquired being around this franchise and this city. Frank White will always be the favorite son, working on the construction crew at the Stadium and going through the Academy. And George Brett is… George Brett. But Splitt was here longer than either of them.

His final game in a Royals uniform came at the Stadium on June 26, 1984 against the Oakland A’s. Splitt pitched most of the season in relief, but I assume that because it was a doubleheader, he was summoned for what was supposed to be a spot start. He retired the A’s in order in the first and the Royals scored four in the bottom of the frame. Then, Splitt surrendered two in the second and two in the third to tie the game. Then, in the top of the fifth, the A’s scored three runs, the final score crossing the plate on a Davey Lopes triple. It was Splittorff’s last batter.

In that game, Splitt was relieved by a 20 year old Bret Saberhagen. And the baton was passed…

Thanks for everything, Splitt.

Mitch Maier is over two years older than Melky Cabrera.   Alex Gordon and Jeff Francouer are within a month of being the same age:  both are half a year older than Cabrera.   Heck, Jarrod Dyson and Melky Cabrera are within four days of being the exact same age, which makes them both eighteen months older than Lorenzo Cain.    Just for fun, everyone mentioned so far is still older than Billy Butler.

Of course, age isn’t everything.   We think of Cabrera and Francouer as more veteran, not-part-of-the-future type players  because, despite being the same age as Alex Gordon and perilously close to the age of the Royals’ centerfielder of the future (Cain), they ARE veterans.   Cabrera is closing in on 3,000 major league plate appearances while Francouer is well over 3,600.     Alex Gordon will not top the 2,000 mark until late June .  

Technically, both Cabrera and Francouer are embarking on that magical ‘age 27’ season.  You know, the year when it all comes together, but the truth is that we already know who and what Melky and Jeff are:  3,000 major league at-bats do not lie.

That said, both players are having seasons that currently border on being among the best of their careers.   In the case of Francouer, he also brings excellent defense in rightfield and is an undeniable positive influence in the clubhouse.    His situation is a discussion for a later time.    Today, let’s talk Melky.

Cabrera wakes up this morning sporting a .281/.313/.459 slash line, which puts his current OPS (.772) and OPS+ (115) well above those of his previous best season which happened to be his rookie year.   Melky has compiled these solid, for him, numbers a little differently than when he was younger:  relying more on slugging and less on OBP, but the numbers are what they are.

According to Fangraphs, Cabrera currently has a WAR of 1.0, which would likely put him on a pace to surpass his previous highs in both 2006 and 2009 of 1.7.   That is not exactly ‘sign him to a long term deal now’ territory, but it is tolerable for a team slowly fading into the lower reaches of the AL Central.

The bottom line on Melky Cabrera is that he is pretty much the player who compiled a .268/.327/.385 line over 3,000 major league plate appearances.   In 3,656 career innings played in centerfield, he has a UZR/150 of -7.0.   Melky is a decent baserunner who will get you a stolen base now and then (56 of 72 in his career) and a player who actually is in much better shape than he was the past two or three seasons.   Also, unlike many free agent acquisitions of the past, Cabrera (signed to a 1 year/$1.25 million deal) is under team control through 2012 and unlikely to break the bank with any arbitration award this coming off-season.

All that said, Lorenzo Cain is hitting .294/.361/.476 in Omaha, wowed people in Spring Training with some plays he made in center and sports a career minor league line of .291/.365/.419.   In a brief 43 game stint in the majors in 2010, Cain hit .306/.348/.415, stole 7 bases and posted a WAR of 1.3.    I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it, too:   Lorenzo Cain is better than Melky Cabrera.

Here is the surprise, however.   I don’t think the Royals should call up Cain right now.

Simple fact:  Cabrera is tolerably okay right now.    Maybe enough so that a contending team with outfield injuries might find him interesting.   After all, Melky still really is a young ballplayer (in age if not in experience), he is cheap and he comes with an additional year of team control free of charge.     

The Royals, who did a remarkable job of promoting the supposed prowess of Yuniesky Betancourt (with a straight face and everything, mind you), need to play Melky Cabrera every day and rave about his clutch hitting, solid defense and general overall good attitude and great shape.    Somebody might find that intriguing.  

The Royals can play Cabrera everyday for the next two months, rattle around about still being in the race and avoid the appearance of yet another mid-summer fire sale.    They can wait for a quasi-decent offer for Cabrera and, should that offer never come, decide how to deal with the cheap and serviceable Cabrera after July 31st.

While I think Lorenzo Cain is going to be an above average player for the Royals (think David DeJesus with better speed and far better centerfield defense), we can wait a couple of months to see him in Kansas City.   

Four games under .500 and eight and one-half games behind Cleveland, the Royals do not have to rush into any decisions at this point.

It’s time for me to throw my hat into the ring, joining those who are worried about Joakim Soria.

After Tuesday’s debacle, I’m not just worried… I’m frightened.

For starters, Soria is falling behind in the count early. Baseball-Reference only charts the extremes, but even these numbers are staggering. Here is Soria’s percentage of plate appearances that begin with an 0-2 count since his rookie year:

2007 – 25%
2008 – 32%
2009 – 34%
2010 – 35%
2011 – 11%

Whoa. A full third of all plate appearances last year against Soria started with an 0-2 count. This year, he’s not just down… He’s waaaay down.

Now look at the percentage of plate appearances that start out 3-0:

2007 – 3%
2008 – 4%
2009 – 5%
2010 – 5%
2011 – 8%

Not as dramatic as the dip in 0-2 counts, but still… The increase in the number of plate appearances that start 3-0 alone would be enough to set off alarm bells. As I said, those are extreme counts, but it’s a snapshot to the larger picture. Soria is falling behind in the count much more frequently than he did in past seasons. And he’s paying for this.

Then, there are his walk and strikeout totals. For the season, he has a 4.8 BB/9. His career average entering this season was 2.5 BB/9 and he’s never been above 2.7 BB/9 in a single season. Of course, when you see an increase in 3-0 counts, it stands to reason your walk rate will jump.

And when Soria is falling behind, he’s abandoning his secondary pitches for his cut fastball. He’s throwing the cutter 88 percent of the time when he’s behind in the count. That’s not a difficult mystery to solve if you’re a hitter. Just wait until Soria falls behind in the count and then sit cutter. Nine times out of ten, that’s the pitch you will see.

While the walk rate is alarming, the downturn in strikeouts is a Code Blue. He’s owns a paltry 5.8 SO/9. Entering this season, his career strikeout rate was 9.9 SO/9. He’s lost over four strikeouts per game. We are almost a third of the way through the season… This can no longer be attributed to small sample size. (Honestly, all stats involving relievers deal in small sample sizes.) Yes, he’s thrown more strikeouts this month, but his walk totals have increased as well.

Remember the dip in 0-2 counts? Maybe it’s better that that’s happening this year. Hitters own a line of .571/.625/.857 when Soria jumps to an 0-2 head start. Are you kidding? Overall, when Soria has two strikes on a hitter, he’s just not putting them away. The opposition is hitting .345/.457/.517 against Soria when he has two strikes. Unreal.

We also have to go back to his pitch selection. Two years ago, according to Fangraphs (and my own damn eyes) Soria’s best pitch was his curveball. It was a pitch he threw almost 12 percent of the time. Last year, he started moving away from the curve and featured a slider more frequently. As that happened, his curve became less effective. Last summer, his slider was his best pitch. This year, the exact same thing is happening. He’s now throwing his curve just four percent of the time. Again, it’s turned from an asset to a liability.

This post only tells part of the story as I’ve illustrated how Soria is struggling. It’s the why that is so confounding. Is it mechanics? Is it injury? Or is it regression to mean? None of this tells us why on a 1-2 pitch to Adam Jones, Soria tossed a belt high cutter right down the middle of the plate. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Soria leave a pitch in that location.

It’s troubling and disheartening at the same time.

The only way the Royals make a change is if Soria hits the disabled list. Honestly, that probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to give him a break so he can sort things out. Or rest if his issues are injury related. Nervous Ned isn’t going to dump his Proven Closer after a couple of shaky months. Even if the evidence says he should. Yost is too automatic with his bullpen to start shifting roles. Nope… The only way Soria is removed from the ninth inning role is if he goes on the DL.

This is Exhibit A for why any second division team with a quality, Proven Closer, should be actively exploring a trade. Closers (and by extension, relievers) have an extremely difficult time repeating success. For every Mariano Rivera, there’s a Frank Francisco. And a George Sherrill. The point is, consistent closers are rare. If you’re lucky enough to land one, you better be in a position to win. Otherwise, it’s a waste of resources. Dayton Moore is learning another lesson the hard way.

In a matter of weeks, maybe even days, the concern over promoting prospects to the majors and having them become eligible for arbitration as a Super Two will go away.   While the Royals have shown a rather remarkable carefree attitude about early arbitration eligibility  when it came to calling up Eric Hosmer and Danny Duffy, one would imagine that not having to worry about Super Two status will be one less impediment to calling up the next wave of promising young players.

That is not to say, however, that on some magical day in the near future (say June 8th) that we will wake up one morning to hear that Mike Moustakas, Mike Montgomery and Lorenzo Cain have all been promoted to Kansas City.   If we truly lived in a Rotisserie world, one could do just that, but in real life there are personality, experience and clubhouse issues to be considered as well as the fact that there are actual humans occupying spots in front of these guys.

One of those ‘humans’ is Wilson Betemit, who just happens to be hitting .315/.379/.465 to follow up on his career best 2010 campaign.   While Wilson has played everywhere but catcher in his career that does not necessarily imply that he actually ‘can’ play anywhere.  That Betemit has played 19 career major league games at second base gets all of us thinking about Moustakas at third, Wilson at second and ‘Man! That’s a salty batting order!’     Except for the fact that supposed defensive difference at second base between Chris Getz and Mike Aviles is likely unnoticeable when compared to the gap between either of them and Wilson Betemit should he wander out to that side of the diamond.

So, what do you do with Mike Moustakas?   After a very tough April, Mike has hit .303/.386/.566 in May and has hit both left-handed and right-handed pitching along the way.   He has not played particularly outstanding defense, but by all accounts will be passable for now at third.   Keep in mind, the Betemit/Aviles combo in the majors has not exactly been defensive fine art this year.

Certainly, Betemit would seem to be a player that might provide value on the trade market, even if trading him would weaken, at least in the short term, any hopes the Royals have for a winning season in 2011.   If a decent deal came along, it would make sense to move Betemit, promote Moustakas and have him get his rookie shakedown cruise over with so he is ready to contribute from the start in 2012.

Of course, do you play for 2012?   If the answer is yes, then the Royals absolutely need to get Moustakas to the majors sometime in June.   Both he and Hosmer could get the ups and downs of their rookie seasons over with and hopefully ready them to be middle of the order impact bats immediately next season.   

Is that realistic?  Is contending in 2012 a high probability?   It better be, because the Royals will have Hosmer, Moustakas, Duffy, virtually everyone in their bullpen and Mike Montgomery all on schedule to become free agents after the 2017 season.

Montgomery is included in the above paragraph, because the Royals cannot enter 2012 with serious contention hopes without both Duffy and Montgomery seasoned and ready to pitch all of that season at or near the top of the team’s starting rotation.   They cannot expect that to happen without getting both a good 100 innings in the majors this year.     

Given that Sean O’Sullivan has 22 walks versus 16 strikeouts in 45 innings this season, he would hardly seem to be a guy who should be blocking a talent like Montgomery.  Sure, Sean has ‘kept the Royals in games’, but contenders are built around pitchers who WIN games, not keep you close.      With 49 innings under his belt in AAA already this season and only 93 total innings pitched last year, Montgomery (like Duffy) has a limited number of innings to pitch in 2011.   One more turn through the rotation ought to eliminate Super Two considerations and should be more than enough to move forward.

Bottom line, the Royals should either promote both Moustakas and Montgomery by mid-June or wait all the way until late April of nextyear to get them on an entirely different free agency path from that of Hosmer and Duffy.  If you go the service time route, then you are really saying that the Royals truly realistic first year to contend (barring flukes or a crappy division – both possibilities) is not 2012, but 2013.   The argument can be made that 2013 is truly the right choice.

Would it depend on the 2011 team’s record when it comes to making this decision?  I am not sure it does, given that Wilson Betemit is likely to be a greater asset to the ‘win now’ theory in July of 2011 than Mike Moustakas would be.   It is also quite possible that Bruce Chen (assuming he makes it back soon) is a better major league pitcher right now than Mike Montgomery will be.

I really think these decisions need to be made based not on what will happen in 2011, but what the Royals perceive will happen in 2012 and/or 2013.  That is where it gets tricky.   It is relatively easy to make a decision that will impact the nine game road trip that begins on June 10th, but it is harder to discern what impact a decision made now will have on the April 2012 Royals.  

Welcome to Dayton Moore’s world.

Side Note:  I was going to talk about the Melky Cabrera/Lorenzo Cain situation as part of the column today as well, but decided I had reached a quasi-plausible ending point.   Truthfully, I am not exactly sure what the proper call is there, but by Thursday, I hope to have an answer for you.

It is always nice to see your team battle back from a big early deficit as the Royals did yesterday, but let’s face it:  Sunday’s 10 inning loss to the Cardinals was just plain brutal.

Thirteen walks, a hit batter, two errors, two ejections and another base-running blunder – just awful.   Home-plate umpire Angel Campos did the Royals no favors, but he is hardly the first umpire to have a ridiculous strike zone and an apparent ax to grind and teams manage to get through a game without giving their opposition SIXTEEN free base runners.

The truly awful thing about Sunday’s loss, which capped a 2-5 homestand, was that this seems to be more than just one loss.   To begin with, it knocks Kansas City to two games below .500 for the second time this season and does so as the team is about to embark on six game road trip to Baltimore and Texas.   One could envision a Royals team coming off a come from behind series win over St. Louis going on the road and winning three of six, holding firm at the .500 mark and still, however marginally, in the conversation when it comes to contending in the AL Central.

After losing yesterday, it seems far more likely that the Royals, 5-11 on the road thus far in 2011, might well flail their way to something like a 1-5 road trip and entrench themselves in the lower half of the division for the rest of the year.   Certainly this may be an overreaction on my part and perhaps yesterday really is just one game out of 162, but it had the feel of one of those ‘tipping point’ games.

Now, a number of writers and commenters throughout the Internet whom I respect have long held true to the line that the Royals would not contend in 2011 and, even when they were near or at the top of the standings, that the Royals were really not contenders.   Those opinions would seem to be closer to getting validated as the month of May begins to wind down, but those opinions don’t really matter.

All that matters, is that the Royals thought they were contenders.  Yes, they can spin the ‘Eric Hosmer was ready and we would have made the move no matter what the standings said’ line all they want and use the same logic with the Danny Duffy promotion, but the truth is the organization was going for it in 2011.

Without question, Eric Hosmer was ready for a promotion and there is validity in the idea that you can keep a player at one level for too long, but the only reason to promote Hosmer when the Royals did (as opposed to waiting three weeks to avoid Super Two status) was that Dayton Moore believed this team had a chance to compete.    I think it was worth the risk and am not criticizing the move at all.   In fact, in some rough plotting of future Royals’ payrolls, you have to go out a long ways before Hosmer’s salary, no matter how outrageous an award he may receive in arbitration, actually begins to be a hindrance to the organization making additional moves.   The only problem with the plan was that someone forgot to clue Ned Yost into the updated situation.

I do believe it is possible to ‘build’ and ‘compete’ simultaneously, but sometimes you have to sacrifice a little of one to do the other.  Case in point:  Alcides Escobar hitting with two outs in the bottom of the 1oth yesterday with the tying run on base.

While we all know that Yost had been ejected earlier in the game, we also all know that the ejected manager usually goes exactly one step beyond visual range in the dugout tunnel.   Certainly, if Ned had wanted to pinch-hit for Escobar in this situation, he could have made his thoughts known to bench coach John Gibbons.     That he did not, forces us to rely on Yost’s stated position of a week or so ago that ‘Escobar needs to learn how to hit in those situation’.   Well, of course he does, but Escobar doesn’t necessarily need to learn how to hit in every one of those situations. 

I say that, knowing that Escobar has been hitting better lately (5 for his last 17 at-bats), that he was 2 for 4 on the day, and that the pinch-hitting option was Melky Cabrera (5 for 39 in his career as a pinch hitter and, after all, Melky Cabrera), but I like Cabrera better than Escobar in this situation.    For all his faults, there was certainly a much better chance that Melky catches a ball flush and drives it than there was for Escobar to do the same. 

If the Royals were 24-21 entering Sunday afternoon (or 19-26 for that matter), than by all means let the kid hit and try to figure it out, but yesterday was a big game and I don’t know that you can spin it as anything but a big game.   You make the move for Cabrera and hope he ties or maybe even wins it with one swing.  If it is a tie and you have to play the 11th with your defensive whiz shortstop on the bench, then so be it:  at least you are playing the 11th instead of taking a shower.

The entire plan is a bit of mystery to me as Yost, in other situations, has clearly focused on the now.  He moved Hosmer into the three spot in the order, opting to bolster the offense over protecting the rookie, and Yost has squarely put Aaron Crow into the ‘8th inning setup man’ role to the exclusion of any other development in order to win games.   Those are moves made to win now that run counter to things like not pinch-hitting for Escobar and continuing to rotate Wilson Betemit with the Aviles/Getz mess in order to get both of the second baseman at-bats.

Pick a course of action and go with it.   If you are determined to bat Escobar in critical late-inning situations, then it would seem reasonable to try to stretch Aaron Crow out now and then.    Again, it is very possible to devise a plan under which you try to win in 2011 and develop your team for 2012 and beyond, but I am not sure I can envision any plan that has Alcides Escobar batting in the 10th inning yesterday.

Episode #054 – In which I discuss the potential fallout from the Danny Duffy and Eric Hosmer call ups and when we may potentially see Mike Moustakas and Mike Montgomery in Royal blue. I also discuss my failed trip to Northwest Arkansas to see the Naturals and ruminate on what if any value there is in having a blogger in the press box. All of that, plus a review of the series with the St. Louis Cardinals and a preview of the series with the Baltimore Orioles.


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Black Sabbath – The Wizard

Broken Social Scene – Pacific Theme

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What a game… Dead for eight plus innings, the Cardiac Royals plate one in the ninth and one in the tenth. Unreal.

They won, despite the reappearance of the the 2009 vintage of the Royals. Not the team I once called, “Fundamentally worse than a junior varsity high school team.”

But, damn if they aren’t back. At least on the bases.

— In the first, Alex Gordon was caught stealing with Eric Hosmer at the plate.

— In the sixth, Melky Cabrera was picked off first when he broke for second too early against the left-handed throwing Holland.

— In that same inning, Jeff Francoeur was thrown out at second trying to stretch a single into a double.

One word about the caught stealings… The Royals no longer use advance scouts. Instead, they rely on video. I recommend they invest in an internet connection. One quick check of Baseball Reference reveals that Derek Holland has had 84 stolen base opportunities against him this season. Meaning, there have been 84 instances where a runner has been on either first or second and the next base has been open. Of those 84 chances to steal, opposing runners have made the attempt only two times. Two out of 84. In other words, nobody is running against Holland this year. And when they do… they’ve been caught. That’s right. There hasn’t been a successful steal against Holland all year.

If the Royals only had internet connection at the K, they could have avoided two outs on the bases. If only…

So of course, three batters into the game, the Go-Go Royals try to run. Of course.

There’s aggressive base running and there’s stupid base running. To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, there’s a fine line between aggressive and stupid. And guess which side of the line the Royals have been falling over the last week.

Sure, those pickoffs in the ninth on Wednesday’s game were balks. But Aviles should have been aware of what was going on. Then, I just have a real difficult time moving past Coach Treanor getting picked off of second base on a snap throw by the catcher on Tuesday. I can understand it happening at first… But second? Seriously?

While the base running has been fundamentally awful, the defense has been solid with Alcides Escobar taking charge up the middle. That play in the fifth where Betemit knocked down a line drive and Escobar came over from short to pick the ball up and get the force at second was just the kind of heads up play we never used to see. This kid is worth the price of admission to watch him with the glove.

The outs on the bases and lack of scoring overshadowed the best start of the year for Luke Hochevar. The only blemish was a fat second inning pitch to Chris Davis who sent it into the right field bullpen. The thing was, Hochevar seemed to get stronger over the final third of the game. He retired nine in a row before a soft single in the ninth – and then a rocket finally chased him from the game.

He struck out only four – two of them in the top of the ninth – so I wouldn’t call his performance dominant. But he was doing a great job of locating his pitches and setting up hitters all night. His sinker was doing it’s job – he got 11 ground balls compared to nine in the air – and it was enough to get him through 8.2 innings on a season-high 113 pitches.

It was a savvy performance. Good to see.

Then there was the ninth…

Hosmer led off with a single that was scorched up the middle. Hammered. Dustin Pedroia thinks he used to put on Laser Shows? He has nothing compared to Hos. Then, Francoeur reaches on a single. That was practically a given. In 15 ninth inning plate appearances this year, Frenchy has four hits, five walks and two sac flies. A nice piece of hitting where he went with the pitch and lined it to right.

That sets everything up for Billy Butler… I thought he was on track with a seventh inning single. Sadly, it was not to be as he elevated just a bit too much on a late swing (although he was likely trying to send the ball to right) and hit a soft fly out. Then Feliz ran the count to 3-2 on both Betemit and Aviles. Aviles had a 10 pitch at bat where every Feliz offering was between 97 and 100 mph. Straight gas and Aviles hits a perfectly placed dribbler back up the middle to score Hosmer to tie the game. Tons of credit to Aviles there. His last hit was Saturday in Detroit. He battled, fouling off heater after heater before just putting the ball in play. Sometimes, that’s all you have to do.

Back to back blown saves for Feliz. He won’t get a chance for a third… Not after throwing 32 pitches to get two outs.

And the tenth…

The second best thing about the tenth was the fact we got to see another Escobar highlight pick at short. And Hosmer flashing the leather on the short hop was something to see as well. Just a fine defensive play from those two. I can see that happening several times over the next six or seven seasons.

The best thing about the tenth was the fact the Royals had the top of the order… This was there chance. I just can’t say enough about Hosmer. That kid is just ice. And then Frenchy… I don’t want to, but I love the guy.

The team was frustrated for eight plus innings, but Hochevar kept them in the game and they pushed through in the ninth and tenth. Just a great game. Really – aside from the boneheaded base running – an outstanding game to watch.

No balks tonight. Just a win.

Well, what is one to say or write about last night’s extra inning loss?    More specifically, what is one to write that has not already been written, tweeted or said?

Eleven innings, back to back pick-offs of pinch runners, 13 walks, a run scoring wild pitch, 5 stolen bases allowed, a 9th inning game tying homer by rookie Eric Hosmer, the debut of rookie Danny Duffy and another Joakim Soria bad outing.   Whew!  I cannot decide whether we should spend this column dissecting last night’s loss or try to forget it.

Obviously, in a game in which the manager empties his bench and his bullpen, there are many instances where we could second guess Ned Yost.   My only comments on Yost last night are that I would have stuck with Louis Coleman for a second inning of work and probably Aaron Crow for a second inning as well.  You’ll have to take my word that I was thinking that Crow should work the 9th inning as well before Soria surrendered a run, although going to Soria in the 9th is hardly managerial malpractice.  An extra inning out of both Coleman and Crow keeps Yost from having to go to Jeremy Jeffress in the 11th.

My other complaint is that the Royals need some sort of ‘for godssake don’t make an out on the bases!’ sign.    I know the organization is all about aggressive baserunning, but after Jarrod Dyson is picked off in the 9th, don’t you have to tell Mike Aviles to take a two step lead and hope Wilson Betemit drives the ball into the gap?   Yes, Aviles should damn well know that he can’t get picked off, but there’s nothing wrong with throwing up a ‘STOP’ sign to reinforce the issue.

Anyway, the Royals had their chances and, frankly, the Rangers had more chances.  It was a discouraging loss and one that certainly feels like ‘old times’ for us Kansas City fans.  That’s a few more words about last night than I thought, let’s go inside the numbers for a bit:

  • 30 – The number of pitches Danny Duffy threw AFTER getting two strikes on a hitter.
  • 1 – Total number of passed balls charged to Matt Treanor in 2011:  relevant because it happened last night.
  • 5 – Outings in which Joakim Soria has allowed a run.
  • 5 – Outings at this time in 2010 in which Joakim Soria allowed a run.
  • 5 – Outings after May 19, 2010 in which Joakim Soria allowed a run.
  • 5 – Total combined hits before last night from Mike Aviles and Chris Getz in the last two weeks.
  • .630 – Billy Butler’s OPS in May.
  • .515 – Alex Gordon’s OPS in May.
  • 3.26 – Luke Hochevar’s May earned run average.
  • 7 – May strikeouts by Hochevar.
  • 7 – May walks by Hochevar.
  • 3 – Minimum number of games the Royals need to win through this current homestand to have even a hope of getting back to and staying at or over .500 by the end of May.

I will give kudos to Ned Yost for shaking up the lineup last night – even if it didn’t really pan out.  My original plan for a column was about having to do that very thing and, I have to be honest here, Ned shook it up much more boldly than I would have.    It will be interesting to see if Yost sticks with last night’s batting order or if it was a one time thing.

Okay, question of the day:  When do you call up Mike Moustakas?

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