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Deconstructing The Process

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All loses are not created equal.

Believe me, as a Royals fan I know a thing or two about that. There’s the mail-it-in loss that we became all too familiar with in the Tony Muser, Buddy Bell and Trey Hillman death march to 100 losses. There’s the tough loss which we saw when the Royals would run their best starter to the mound and would drop a 2-1 decision. Recently, there’s been the Yosted loss where poor bullpen management or the failure to anticipate match-ups squandered an opportunity for victory.

There’s also the gut-punch loss. We’ve seen a few of those already this year. Those are the games ripe for the taking where the Royals fail to capitalize.

Entering the top of the seventh on Sunday with a 3-0 lead while in the midst of a 2-9 stretch, the Royals were set for a loss seldom seen and often fatal: The Ultimate Gut-Punch.

This one had all the ingredients:

First, a really strong start from an unsuspecting candidate. Jeremy Guthrie has been one of the worst starters if not the worst in the early portion of the season. He owns a 3.3 SO/9 and is coughing up 11 hits per nine. His 1.67 HR/9 is a career high and his 35 percent ground ball rate is a career low. His 6.17 ERA is so bloated, you immediately go to his FIP to see if he’s been on the end of some rotten luck. Then you see he has a 5.95 FIP. Yeah… that ERA is real. And frightening.

Guthrie’s starts aren’t so much rollercoasters, as they’re just the part of the ride where you plunge 100 feet straight down in four seconds. Of his last three starts, he’s turned in two that were decent and one that was so horrible, it may have been the worst start by a Royals pitcher in the last 10 years. That’s saying something.

When he opened the afternoon needing 23 pitches to navigate the first, while allowing just a single baserunner, you would be forgiven if you reached for a seat belt. It looked like another rocky outing was on the horizon.

Then something happpened. After Guthrie walked Joey Gallo to open the second, Elvis Andrus swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. From that moment until the the end of the sixth inning, Guthrie allowed just a single, solitary baserunner. It was a Mitch Moreland double with two outs in the fourth. I’m kind of glad we’re not going to be seeing Moreland for the rest of the summer. He’s borderline Brandon Moss status based on how well he’s hit against the Royals this year.

Guthrie threw 82 pitches through six and returned for the seventh. He was pulled after allowing one-out, back to back singles to Moreland (him again) and Gallo. Guthrie handed the ball to the bullpen with a 3-0 lead after he posted a Game Score of 70. It was his finest start of the season at a time the Royals desperately needed to keep the opposition off the board.

Second, it has an offense that showed a pulse. If this were a medical drama, there would still be interns hovering over the body with looks of grave concern. Someone would call out something about a “thready pulse.” But the pulse was there. However faint. Two runs in each of teh first two innings. For the April Royals, not even noticeable. For the late-May, early-June edition? It’s a reason for celebration.

Never mind the first two runs were scored in a 2014 Royals vintage sort of way. Sacrifice flies by Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar staked the Royals to their early lead. Who cares how they scored? For a team in an offensive quagmire like the Royals, you take what you can get. Besides, two run leads aren’t happening too often these days.

To make things even more exciting, they tacked on a third run thanks to a Kendrys Morales double. Three runs? For a team that had averaged 2.1 runs in their last 10 games (and that included an eight-run outburst on the North Side of Chicago) three runs is Haley’s Comet amazing.

Third, this was about a team that has found it difficult to win of late. You know they’ve won two of their last 11. You know the offense has been putrid and the starting pitching inconsistent. You know apart from that little barrage in Chicago when the wind was blowing out on a warm day, this offense hasn’t done a damn thing.

It all teetered on the brink in the seventh inning. Guthrie returned to the mound after throwing 82 pitches through six innings of yeoman work. Herrera is normally the seventh inning guy. Sure, we can second guess, but Guthrie had been working through the Rangers lineup. Not necessarily with ease, because that’s not how Guthrie operates. Yost has to know the type of pitcher Guthrie has become at this stage of his career. If you get five or six good innings, it’s time to cut bait and get it to the bullpen. Don’t wait around on Guthrie.

Then Herrera turned in a performance of Guthrie-esque quality. He was brining the heat as usual, topping out at 101 mph, but the Rangers didn’t give a damn. Andrus fouled off five pitches before he singled to load the bases. Leonys Martin fouled off two before he hit the single to bring in both of the runners belonging to Guthrie. (By the way, I enjoy Game Score, but those two runs knocked Guthrie’s Score down eight points. He finished with a 62. Rough.) Then Robinson Chirinos fouled off three more before he grounded out to shortstop, driving in the game-tying run.

At that moment, I found myself thinking that Yost needed to manage this game like it was October. All wins are important and over the course of a 162 game schedule, it seems foolish to point to one particular win as more important than any other. Yet, this felt like it was the most important game of the year thus far for the reasons stated above. To give this away… Ultimate Gut-Punch.

This is the win expectancy graph from Fangraphs. When Fielder grounded out for the first out of the seventh inning, the Royals win expectancy stood at 95 percent. Again… Ultimate Gut-Punch.


Source: FanGraphs

Thankfully, there’s a catcher named Salvador Perez. Two outs. Eighth inning. Boom.

You don’t think Sal wasn’t aware of how huge that home run was?

I tweeted a little after the game that the Perez home run was the biggest hit of the year for the Royals. If you’ve made it this far in the post, I suspect you feel the same.

I’m not a big believer in momentum in baseball, so I’m not going to go there and predict this as some sort of launching point for big things. Instead, I’ll just appreciate it for what it was – a magnificent home run at a crucial spot that may have saved this team from a tailspin they could ill-afford. If the Royals scrape and claw their way back to October, this could be one of the games we point to.

Thanks to Sal The Savior.

Reports are Sal Perez is on his way to Kansas City.

About time.

It’s strange to think this way, but it just feels like the Royals are already Sal’s team. He’s the guy. The one they can’t afford to have out of the lineup.

I mean, we’re talking about a guy with 158 career major league plate appearances. How the hell can he be the big kahuna on a major league team with so little experience?

All I know is what I’ve read and heard discussed from various players and team officials. The guy oozes professionalism and commands respect.

As a writer with a SABR bent, I’m supposed to mock the leadership angle. (Francoeur? Too easy.) But there is no denying that something really cool started last summer when the young guys were brought up to the majors. And it kind of feels like it’s been placed on hold while Perez has been rehabbing. It’s been interesting to me to see the amount of respect he holds within the realm of the clubhouse. Leadership won’t get you wins, but there’s something about it that makes it crazy fun to watch.

Is Sal the Savior? I don’t think so. Defensively, he’s going to be awesome. As long as his knee holds. And I seriously doubt the Royals would be putting him behind the plate if he wasn’t 100 percent ready.

I know many of you are excited by his offensive performance from last season, but there was nothing in his minor league history to indicate he was capable of that. He finished with a line of .331/.361/.473, which was just insane. Yes, he was hitting .340/.365/.380 in Omaha, but I really don’t think we can insert him into the lineup and expect those kind of numbers.

He will be a huge upgrade over the Pena/Quintero tandem, though. And that’s good enough for me.

If Sal is behind home plate tonight, it will feel like Opening Day, Part 2. Welcome home, Sal.

The Bases Are Drunk. A lot.

Jonathan Sanchez has faced 15 batters with the bases loaded – defined as “grand slam opportunities” by Baseball Reference. That’s the second most in the American League this year. The Rangers Yu Darvish has the most in the AL with 16. Interesting. Especially given the fact that Sanchez has thrown 36 innings. Darvish has twirled 89 innings.

Fortunately, in each grand slam opportunity, Sanchez has kept the ball in the yard. Still, 15 opportunities in 36 innings… And you thought Jonathan Broxton pitched on a tightrope.

Sanchez has contributed the lion’s share of the Royals league leading total of pitching with 74 grand slam opportunities. Fortunately, they’ve surrendered just a single slam.

The Twins – with the worst pitching in the league – have faced just 42 grand slam opportunities.

I have no idea what this means…

High Leverage Pen

Not only is the Royals bullpen really good, they’ve been doing it under tremendous pressure. According to Baseball Reference, the bullpen’s average Leverage Index (aLI) is 1.094, which is tops in the league. In fact, only three bullpens have an aLI greater than 1, which is “average” pressure.

Royals – 1.094
Tigers – 1.058
Orioles – 1.054

The Orioles have the best bullpen in the league, according to ERA at 2.38. I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the quality of performance is a huge reason the O’s are leading the uber competitive AL East. The Tigers bullpen ERA is 3.89, which is the second worst rate in the league, better than only the Indians. So I’m thinking the high leverage combined with the poor performance (relative to the league) is a reason the Tigers are scuffling.

The Royals may blow that hypothesis out of the water. Their bullpen ERA of 2.93 is seventh best in the AL, yet they’re nipping at the heels of the Tigers.

It boils down to the offense. The Royals are plating just 3.88 runs per game, while the tigers are scoring 4.4 per contest. That difference of 0.5 runs per game may be enough to offset the Royals bullpen advantage.

I still think the Tigers are the favorites in the Central. But they’ll need their pen to improve. Meanwhile, in a weak division, it’s the pen keeping the Royals in the hunt. If they can get their offense to pick up, they’ll be able to prevent the Tigers from gaining separation.

It’s a simplistic analysis, but sometimes the simple things help you gain the most clarity.

I may be coming around on this whole contention thing.

I’ve had a couple days to digest the Sal Perez contract extension. Makes sense to throw my thoughts out there about 48 hours beyond the BIG announcement.

— Sal will bank $3.25 million in his first three years. That’s some good upfront cash. Had he not signed a long-term deal, he would have made close to the major league minimum of $500k in each of those seasons. Let’s put him down for a net of around $1.75 million in those three seasons.

— His arbitration years (I’m going to assume his first option year gets picked up) will bring him $7.5 million. On first glance, that seems low. But don’t forget he’s already ahead close to $1.75 million before he enters what would have been his arbitration years. Move that money over, and he’s making $9.25 million for the three seasons that would cover his arbitration eligibility.

In a situation like this, we need some comps to help us frame the deal. A natural comp would be the Cardinals Yadier Molina. Like Sal, Molina entered the league as a 21 year old backstop who played exceptional defense and more than held his own in his first turn in the majors. Molina signed his contract extension just prior to his fourth big league season. That contract was for four years (with a club option for a fifth). The first three years bought out his arbitration eligibility. For those three seasons, Molina was paid… Wait for it… $9.25 million. Remember, this extension came after he played for three seasons at the major league minimum.

So the contracts are basically a wash, value-wise. The difference, of course, is the setting in which both were signed. When Molina inked his extension, he had over 1,400 major league plate appearances and had put up a line of .248/.304/.349 with an OPS+ of 69, but he played exceptional defense behind the plate. A no-hit, great-field catcher. Although the season prior to his extension, he showed signs of life at the plate for the first time since his major league debut.

Perez, on the other hand, gets his extension after just 158 plate appearances in the bigs. Hell, the dude has a grand total of 207 plate appearances above Double-A ball. He’s much less the known commodity that Molina was. Yet, he will make the same amount of money over his first six seasons. Normally, you’d adjust for inflation of salaries, but the difference in experience at the time of the signing offsets that.

The early part of this contract seems fair.

— But then we get to the option years. Amazingly, there isn’t a buyout for those seasons. So if Sal doesn’t develop into the stud we believe he will (unlikely) the Royals can walk away. Just like that. No harm, no foul.

That’s stunning.

Sure, the Royals will argue there are escalators built in based on performance and awards that can push the total of the option years from $14.75 million to $19.75. That’s nice. But there is absolutely no risk to the Royals beyond the $7 million owed to Perez through the 2016 season. It’s like going to a car dealership, having to put no money down, not having to make a payment for five years and if you wreck the car before a payment is due… No problem… We’ll just forget about the deal.

I’m going to try that the next time I have to buy a car. Will they just ask me to leave, or will I be forcibly removed?

Again, in a situation like this it helps to have comps to examine. When I think of teams locking up young talent, Tampa immediately jumps to mind. They signed two of their players with very little major league experience to long term deals: Evan Longoria and Matt Moore. Moore’s contract pays him $11 million through his first five seasons before his option years kick in. Like Perez, he has three options covering his final year of arbitration and his first two seasons of free agency. Unlike Perez, he has a buyout in each of those seasons. He also stands to pocket $26 million if all three options are picked up by the Rays.

Longoria has three options, but they don’t begin until what would have been his first year of free agency. He’s due a cool $30 million should Tampa pick up all three seasons. Interestingly, he has only one buyout. It comes with his first option and would pay him $3 million. Basically, if the Rays want out following the 2013 season, they would have to pay a 10% penalty. Obviously, that’s not going to happen, but there’s at least some protection there for the player.

For Perez not to have that kind of protection seems to be a failure on the part of his agents. There has to be some risk for the club in the option years. That’s kind of the whole point.

— Finally, we need to look at where the Royals were the last few seasons with their catching situation. Remember Jason Kendall? The Royals paid him $6 million for two years where they had miserable production for basically five months. You could make the argument he was worth more on the DL than in the lineup.

Before Kendall, there was John Buck. Before he was non-tendered to make way for the Mighty Kendall, Buck earned $5.1 million in his first two seasons where he was arbitration eligible. He’s now in the second season of a three year, $18 million deal. Nice.

Of course, Buck was partnered with Miguel Olivo who earned $4.75 million over those same two seasons. Bleech.

The Royals committed $15.85 million for four seasons of bad defense and abysmal offense. In Sal Perez, they have a premium defender and a developing offensive player locked up for the next five years at $7 million.

Well done, Dayton Moore. Well done.

Other notes…

— Bruce Chen is on Twitter. I’m pretty sure this was the Twitter moment we’ve been waiting for. His fourth tweet didn’t disappoint:

Tweeting is awesome! Thanks 4 all ur support. Should have been here long ago. I mean I should be good with technology, I am Asian

Welcome, ChenMusic.

— The Royals held an intra-squad game where Vin Mazzaro started against a lineup that featured Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer. Any wonder he gave up two runs?

And Sean O’Sullivan faced nine batters in an inning and allowed five runs to cross the plate, surrendering run-scoring doubles to Billy Butler and Perez.

If either pitcher breaks camp with this team, I would be shocked. And depressed.

— Felipe Paulino looks to be fine after battling a slight strain in his right hamstring. Hope so. I still don’t understand how he can’t be considered a lock for the rotation.

— I talked the Perez deal and other things to look forward to at spring training with Kevin Keitzman on Between The Lines on Sports Radio 810 WHB. Click here to listen to the podcast.

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