Royals Authority

Deconstructing The Process

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.

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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.

The Royals won on Tuesday, 2-1 over the scuffling Texas Rangers. The Tigers won as well, rallying in the ninth over the Cleveland Indians. As such, the Royals were able to maintain their 0.5 game lead over Detroit in the race of the AL Central.

For all that has gone right for the Royals since the All-Star Break, the storm clouds have been hovering. Some may accuse me of ignoring those clouds. I haven’t because they’ve been impossible to ignore. Nobody want to hear that when the good times are rolling. Yet here’s the truth: This offense isn’t that good. Over their last 13 games, the Royals are 6-7. They are hitting .240/.297/.360 in those games. They are scoring 3.1 runs per game.

They are barely hanging on. The bubble has burst.

I’m not telling you something you don’t already know.

Since the All-Star Break, the Royals have won 28 games against 16 losses. An incredible streak that has them 12 games over .500 in that span.

Some sobering numbers accumulated since the All-Star Break that were obscured by the recent hot streak:

— The Royals are dead last in the majors in walk percentage at 5.8 percent.

— Their wRC+ – which is a measure of weighted runs created, which is a measure of total team production – is 94. The metric is set to where 100 is league average.

— Only three everyday players have a wRC+ over 100. Alex Gordon is at 146. Billy Butler is at 115. And Aoki is at 103.

(A quick aside. As good as Gordon has been, his wRC+ is tied for the 19th best in baseball since the break. He’s

This is where we are at this point of the season. The Royals had their run. They had their hot streak. It was marvelous. It netted 24 wins in 30 games, a remarkable stretch no matter what happens from here on out. But regression was always just around the corner. The Royals now throw their lot behind the pitching staff, hopeful James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas and Jeremy Guthrie can hold things together for a minimum of six innings. Then, hope turns to a bullpen that figures to be worked to the bone down the stretch. At least the big three of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.

We saw the formula at work on Tuesday. The Royals scored one run in the third on a pair of doubles by Alcides Escobar and Nori Aoki. Overall, the Royals clubbed six doubles. Four times one of those doubles started an inning. The Royals scored a total of two runs. Guthrie pitched deep into the game, allowing a single run before turning the ball over to the bullpen. Yost’s “B” bullpen of Bueno, Frasor and Crow shut down the meek Rangers offense to preserve the win. But the offense…

Six doubles. Two runs.

Unreal.

For perspective, before Tuesday, no team had hit more than six doubles in a game and scored fewer than four runs. The Royals scored two. Such is the depths of the Royals offensive ineptitude. Every night is an adventure. Every night has the potential to reach new lows. This is the Royals offense.

This post isn’t about negativity. It’s about honesty. The Royals rode a hot streak to the top of the AL Central. Now they are tasked with hanging on to their lead, no matter how narrow. The pitching is good. The bullpen is taxed and tired, but on most nights, it’s good, too. The defense is good. The base running is generally good as well. Yet the next 24 games are going to be nerve-wracking and that’s thanks to the offense.

This is why every lineup Ned Yost rolls out going forward is absolutely critical. He must find the way to put his best bats at the top and minimize the damage caused by the free swingers and hackers that populate the majority of the offense. That means sitting Eric Hosmer in favor of Billy Butler in the field so they can get Josh Willingham in the game. That means moving Perez down in the order. That means moving Omar Infante out of the second spot in the order for crying out loud. It’s September. October is on the line and everything is magnified. Every move has the potential to impact the Royals post season chances.

With runs at a premium for this team and with time running out on a season, we are about to see if Yost truly did learn from the last time he was in a pennant race. It will be the difference between success and failure in this, the most important month in the franchise since October 1985.

 

With the return of Aaron Crow, Christian Colon and Liam Hendriks from Northwest Arkansas today, plus the introduction of Terrance Gore from there as well, the Royals have a dugout full of players.  More options for the manager who loves to ‘mix and match’.  If that last sentence didn’t make your stomach a little queasy, then you haven’t been watching Ned Yost manage.

That said, here is a quick guide to all the many options now at the fingertips of the Ned.

CATCHER

  • Salvador Perez
  • Eric Kratz
  • Francisco Pena

Yost has played Perez just about as close to everyday as one can for a catcher and there is no reason it won’t continue in September.  Kratz is a nice back-up, who has some quality at-bats from time to time.  The addition of Pena, who hit 27 home runs in Omaha this year  (but also posted a .280 OBP), allows the Royals to pinch-run for the heavy footed Perez and not worry (and listen, Ned does worry) about being down to no back-up catchers on the bench.  Yost could also use Kratz, if so desired to pinch-hit, but just a heads up:  Kratz actually hits right handed pitching better than left.

INFIELD

  • Eric Hosmer (L)
  • Billy Butler
  • Jayson Nix
  • Omar Infante
  • Johnny Giavotella
  • Christian Colon
  • Alcides Escobar
  • Mike Moustakas (L)

Escobar is going to play short everyday and Infante is going to play second most days and bat second, just because.  What happens at first base and designated hitter is going to be interesting.  If you were asking me – and no one has, shockingly – I would play Hosmer at first and Butler at DH against right-handed pitching and Butler at first and Willingham (bad back willing) at DH versus lefties.  My assumption, jaded as it may be, is that Yost will find a myriad of other options to employ as well, many of which are based on a) keeping Eric Hosmer’s dome all rosy and b) a given batter’s performance in five at-bats against the starting pitcher.

One would like to think that with Nix and Colon on the roster that pinch-hitting for Mike Moustakas would become almost a nightly occurrence, but I am skeptical of that as well.  Also, as mentioned above, Omar Infante is going to play most nights, which I don’t hate as I have given up on Johnny Giavotella and not sold on Christian Colon in the heat of a pennant race.  That said, could we please, please, please NOT bat Omar second?!!!!

 

OUTFIELD

  • Alex Gordon (L)
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Nori Aoki (L)
  • Jarrod Dyson (L)
  • Josh Willingham
  • Raul Ibanez (L)
  • Terrance Gore
  • Lane Adams
  • Carlos Pegeuro (L)

That is a whole bunch of guys, but we already discussed the Ibanez/Willingham situation.  Other than to add that neither should set foot in the outfield grass this month.   It is no secret that Gore was called up exclusively to be a pinch-runner and that is mostly Adams’ role as well.  Pegeuro, who got a start last night, really should not take at-bats away from any of the top four guys on this list.  Pinch-hitting against a right-hander now and then?  Sure, I’ll take a few of those from Pegeuro – he just might ‘Justin Maxwell’ one over the wall, but no more than that.

Gordon, obviously, plays everyday.  The odd and often unpredictable rotation of Dyson, Cain and Aoki is likely to continue and I don’t hate it.   Submitted without further comment:  Aoki’s on-base percentage versus LHP this season is .410, but his OBP versus RHP is just .300.

All these shiny new toys are going to tempt Yost to be extra-creative.  Truthfully, he should settle on a first base/designated hitter rotation and do the same for center and right and limit the creativity to pinch-running for Butler and Perez and pinch-hitting for Moustakas and Infante.   Anything more is likely to do as much harm as it does good.

LF 1985—87

Heading into 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals found themselves with one of those good baseball problems: They had too many outfielders. In addition to Lonnie Smith, Andy Van Slyke, and Tito Landrum, top prospect Vince Coleman was ready for prime time. Smith had been an excellent hitter between 1980—83 before having an off-year in ’84 that he admitted was the result of several personal problems he was facing at the time, including trying to come clean after years of cocaine abuse. 1985 was not starting off great either after Smith bumped and shoved an umpire during a spring training game. Smith became the odd man out when he was dealt to KC in mid-May. (The Royals gave up minor league outfielder John Morris, a well-regarded prospect at the time who never found success in the majors.)

Smith immediately became the everyday left fielder in KC, though manager Dick Howser liked to replace him with Lynn Jones late in games when the Royals had the lead. Though Smith was speedy, his defense was notorious. He was stuck with the nickname “Skates” due to his adventures in the outfield. Smith’s hitting did not recover from the dip that started in 1984, but he managed to be one of the leading run scorers on the team thanks to taking the occasional walk, stealing 40 bases in 47 attempts, and batting in front of George Brett and Hal McRae. Overall though, it was a fairly disappointing regular season. “I haven’t played the way I’m capable of,” he said after his first couple months with the team. “I’ve struggled a great deal.” He was impressed by his teammates though: “I’m really amazed at the talent. It’s a finer team than the one I left, really.”[i]

Smith hit second in the lineup almost all year, but Howser made him the lead-off man for the last few games of the season and left him there for all 14 playoff games too. Whatever disappointments there were in the regular season were more than made up for in that charmed championship run. Smith provided an excellent .361 OBP against tough pitching in those 14 games. Probably his best moment came in game three of the World Series when he knocked a two-RBI double to give the Royals a lead they maintained. Smith was the first player to ever face a team he started the season with in the World Series.

Though a sprained ankle bothered him almost all season, Smith remained the everyday left fielder in 1986, and his hitting improved to better than league average. In a reversal of the ’85 regular season, Smith was individually pretty good, but the team had a disappointing year. Usually hitting first or second in the order, Smith led the team with 80 runs scored. Smith had to donate 10% of his 1986 salary to anti-drug causes, perform community service, and was subject to random drug tests to avoid suspension related to his earlier cocaine use.

Despite the decent year, the Royals declined to exercise their option to bring Smith back at a salary of $950,000 for 1987, even though they had to buy him out for $200,000. GM John Schuerholz still hoped to keep Smith and offered him a contract in the neighborhood of $450,000. “We don’t consider it a viable offer,” said Smith’s agent Jim Bunning.[ii] But Smith found no interest on the free agent market, and came back with his tail between his legs to accept a minor league deal with KC in late May for around $375,000. “There were times I felt bitter that I was sitting out not making money…At times, I felt bitter towards management, but every player goes through that.”[iii] (It came out later that owners were guilty of some collusion in the ’86-’87 off-season.)

After beating up AAA pitching for five weeks, Smith was called back up to Kansas City, where he got into just 48 games and did not do so hot. Kevin Seitzer has shared at least one good memory from a mostly miserable ’87 for Smith: Seitzer had hit 5-for-5 so far in an early August game. With two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning and the Royals with a big lead, Smith, hitting one spot in front of Seitzer, told Seitzer, “I’ve never seen anybody get six hits before. You’re going to get a chance.” Seitzer: “I didn’t think anything about it until that sucker got a base hit to left field. I got goose bumps. I walked to the plate thinking, ‘This dude’s giving me a chance to get another AB.’…It’s like Babe Ruth calling his shot.”[iv] (Seitzer doubled.)

But frustrations for Smith boiled over on the last day of the ’87 season. Not in the starting lineup, Smith headed to the locker room after pregame warm-ups, showered, packed his bags, and put on his street clothes. As Smith told it, “About the second inning, one of the coaches came in and said, ‘John (Wathan) wants you to come and step in for (Gary) Thurman’…I told him no. He said, ‘What do you want me to tell him?’ I said, ‘Well, tell him I got non-playingitis and I’m out of here.’ That was it for Kansas City.”[v]

Smith already carried a grudge against the Royals front office, but that grudge turned to rage once Smith started looking for a new team to sign with for 1988. No team was interested, and Smith believed Schuerholz had blackballed him (which Schuerholz has denied[vi]). Smith’s thinking got so twisted that he purchased a gun for the purpose of possibly murdering Schuerholz. Smith himself does not seem to know how serious he was, but it was much more than just a fantasy: “If I couldn’t get back into baseball,” Smith later said, “I was going to take him with me. I was going to wait for him in the parking lot of the stadium and pop him. If I got caught, I got caught. If not, I’d come on back home. If I did, you know, the thing, at least I took somebody out who was to blame.”[vii] Thankfully, the Braves came to him with a minor league offer a few days after he purchased the gun, and the volatile career of Lonnie Smith moved on.

[i] Mike Fish, “Adjusting to A.L. Difficult for Smith,” The Sporting News, July 8, 1985.

[ii] “Royals,” The Sporting News, December 8, 1986.

[iii] “Royals,” The Sporting News, July 20, 1987.

[iv] Denny Matthews, Hi, Anybody! (Ascend Books, June 15, 2009), 57-58.

[v] Mike Fish, “Bittersweet memories of ’85 for Smith,” http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/otl/news/story?id=5572278, September 16, 2010.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Kent Babb, “Battle Scars,” The State, November 5, 2005, C1.

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