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Bleeding Royal Blue

Inside the mind of a Kansas City Royals fan

Race For The Prize

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Over the last couple months, there has been quite a flurry of discussion about Houston’s Jose Altuve and him being the front-runner for the American League MVP award with the magnificent season he is having. Boston’s Mookie Betts has also moved himself into the conversation, posting amazing numbers in his age 23 season. Both players have been producing at an elite level this year and it could be a battle down to the wire for the MVP award. Only issue is that there should be a third member in this discussion, someone who has been here before and has also posted stellar numbers this year. His name shouldn’t be a shock; it’s Mike Trout.

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The numbers for all three are worthy of the American League’s biggest prize. Altuve is hitting .363/.425/.575 with 20 home runs, 83 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 173. Altuve is leading the league in batting average, hits and OPS+. Betts numbers are a bit lower, but comparable: .313/.353/.555 with 28 home runs, 89 RBI’s and an OPS+of 133. Betts leads the league in at bats, runs and total bases. Trout’s numbers? .309/.427/.543 with 23 home runs, 77 RBI’s and OPS+ of 167. Trout is leading the league in walks and on base percentage. Just perusing these numbers it would appear Altuve probably has the best overall statistics, but a case could be made for both Betts and Trout. In fact, Trout’s numbers, while slightly below Altuve’s, match up quite well with Jose’s so far this year. It would only make sense for us to take a deeper look at the numbers to see just how close Trout, Betts and Altuve really compare.

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(Credit: Andy Marlin-USA TODAY)

No conversation is fully complete without a deeper, sabermetric slant to it. Looking at fWAR, Trout has a very slight edge over Altuve, 6.9 to 6.8. Betts is fourth in the American League with 5.9, with Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson sitting in third place at 6.4. Trout has the highest walk % and strike out % of the three, while Betts has the higher ISO(isolated power). Looking at their hard hit rate, Trout is second in the league with 41.2%, Betts at 35.2% and Altuve is sitting at 34.4%. Not a big surprise, considering Altuve is leading the league in singles(119) and those are normally of the softer hit variety. I decided to delve a bit deeper, since I wanted to see just what type of category each of these hitters fit into. Altuve had the highest O-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging outside the strike zone) with 78.3%, 5th best in the league. Trout was at 71.1% and Betts clocked in at 69.2%. When it comes to Z-Contact %(percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with when swinging inside the strike zone), Betts is 2nd in the league with 95.3%, Altuve at 91.4% and Trout at 85.9%. To me, this made total sense; Altuve has long been known as a hitter who likes to swing at pitches outside the strike zone and is infamous for dunking a single to the opposite field by slapping a pitch outside the strike zone away from defenders. Betts has the highest contact rate of the three (86.9%) and is actually fifth in the league when it comes to making contact. His numbers tell me that once he sees a pitch within the strike zone, he is swinging and making contact. He also has the lowest walk % of the three, walking only 6% of the time. It also made sense that Trout would be making the least amount of contact, as he has the highest strike out rate of the three, plus the highest walk rate. That tells me he is the most patient of the three and that can lead to both walks and strike outs. These numbers all tell an interesting story, but there is one more stat that needs special attention.

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A statistic that has been making a lot of noise is WPA, or Win Probability Added. The case has been made the last few weeks for Zach Britton of Baltimore, one of the best relievers in the game, to win the Cy Young Award and much of the case hinges on his league leading WPA of 4.29. To get a better idea of what this means, here is the definition given on Fangraphs:

Win Probability Added (WPA) captures the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others.  

Alright, so how you feel about this stat depends on how much weight you want to put into a single play, from inning to inning. I lean toward it having stock, but there are so many variables to it and is purely a context driven statistic that it wouldn’t ever be my “end all, be all”. That being said, it does determine importance, so it does help in this argument on the importance of each player in their team’s success. No shock to me, Trout is tops in the American League at 5.03. The Angels have struggled throughout 2016 and any success they do have in many ways can be attributed to the “Best Player in the Game”. Altuve is 5th in the league, with a WPA of 2.91, while Betts is 14th with 2.24. Hey, all three are in the top 15 of the league, so it is quite easy to see their value. But Trout thumps the competition in this category, 2.12 higher than the runner-up Altuve.

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(AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

So after this, who is your front-runner for AL MVP? Altuve is going to be the popular vote at this point and the numbers show someone who is worthy. Like everyone else, I love watching him play and as a short guy myself, I can’t help but root for him. That being said, I think there is an argument for Mike Trout, and in fact I might lean a bit more toward him. Just because he is playing on a losing team doesn’t mean he is unworthy of being the league’s MVP. In some ways, one has to wonder just where the Angels would be without Trout. There is over a month before votes have to be turned in, and as I learned a couple years ago, making a pick weeks in advance is a silly mistake. This race could go right down to the wire and very well could be a pier six brawl for the MVP trophy. Much like in 2012 when both Trout and Miguel Cabrera were worthy winners, this year looks to be much the same. There might not be a wrong choice, but more than likely there will be a better choice. Right now, it looks to be Mike Trout.

 

Quality and Quantity

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY)

Quality pitching might be the greatest necessity throughout the game of baseball. You could ask 100 baseball executives, scouts or analysts, and I’m sure almost all of them would point to quality starting pitching as a constant need for every team. Point blank, you can never have enough pitching. The Kansas City Royals can be counted as one of those teams, as evident by the way their starting rotation has performed this year. It has been so vital for Kansas City that I wrote about it here and here…and here. If there ever was a season where the Royals fate would be determined by their rotation, this would be the year. In fact, you could almost say that as their starters go, so go the Royals. When they struggle, the Royals struggle. When they are glorious, the team strives. Kansas City is currently riding a hot streak and while you will hear names like Gordon, Hosmer and Orlando linked to this streak, the biggest reason for their success can be attributed to the improvement of the starting pitching.

Kansas City Royals vs St. Louis Cardinals
(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Lets start by discussing the Royals pitchers and the quality start. For those that don’t know, a quality start is considered any start where the pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 runs or less. It’s shouldn’t be a hard standard to meet, but occasionally it is an issue and has been for Kansas City this year. Obviously leading the way is Danny Duffy and his amazing season. Duffy has reeled off six straight quality starts and has 12 overall in his 18 starts this year. Ian Kennedy has spun four straight quality starts and Yordano Ventura has three straight. Even Dillon Gee got into the act on Thursday night, spinning his best start of the season and only his second quality start of the year. The starters seem to be working deeper into the game as of late, allowing the bullpen to not log as many innings as they have been and giving them a chance to be a bit sharper. This is big, because if the Royals pitching holds the other team’s offense, there is a good chance that the bullpen will also hold them in check. The Kansas City offense has a tendency to erupt late in the game, and the starting pitching as of late has given them the opportunity to do just that.

Ian Kennedy
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

During the month of July, the Royals scuffled and while the offense sputtered, the starting pitching wasn’t much better. For most of the year, the rotation has been near the bottom of most categories in the American League, but that has changed. The Kansas City starters have climbed up from last in innings pitched to 11th, next to last in starters WAR and FIP, and 10th in ERA. The starters have still given up the most home runs in the league and the 3rd highest walk percentage, but you can see some definite progression in the numbers. Teams are only batting .255 against Kansas City’s starters, 4th best in the league and they have the third best LOB(Left on Base) percentage of 74.7%. Their strike out numbers have risen as well, as they have the third best K rate in the league at 20.7%. There are still some flaws with the starters, as expected, but when you see the team has the second best Clutch statistic in the league(Kansas City is at 3.26 this year, with 2.00 considered an excellent number) it makes it appear as if the rotation is moving in the correct direction.

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The interesting part is that the Royals have not relied as heavily on their starters the last few years and it has seen them make back to back World Series appearances. The team was actually last in the American League last year in innings pitched, 4th highest ERA and FIP, 2nd lowest starters WAR and the highest walk rate in the league(7.6%). When digesting the 2016 numbers compared to last year, it appears the only big glaring difference would be the home runs allowed by the starters. Last year they allowed 107 home runs for the entire year, 6th lowest in the league. This year they have allowed 121 homers, 14 more in 232 less innings. The long ball has hurt the team this year and can be attributed as the big difference in the rotation this year. Luckily, they have only allowed 13 home runs over the last two weeks in 85 innings, which gives them a HR/9 ratio of 1.38. That is quite a bit better than the 1.60 ratio they have for the entire season. This team is never going to be quite like the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s but there is notable improvement over the last few weeks and some of the same competitiveness seen by Atlanta back in the day.

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With just forty games remaining in this 2016 season, the Royals are sitting at 62-60, 9 games out of the American League Central lead and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card. This latest hot streak has soared them back into the race and the starting pitching should get a lot of the praise for that. If this team wants to play in the postseason for the third consecutive year, they need the rotation to keep doing what they have been doing these last couple weeks. What was considered a lost cause just a few weeks ago now seems a distinct possibility for the team that has ‘been there, done that’. If the rest of the rotation follows Danny Duffy’s lead, there will be a fun comeback story to dwell on when October rolls around.

The Hosmer Enigma

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The first half of the 2016 season was glorious for Eric Hosmer. Hosmer was the steady force of the Kansas City Royals offense, putting up a line of .299/.355/.476 with 13 home runs, 49 RBI’s and an sOPS+ of 124. He was more than deserving for his start in the MLB All-Star game and it really seemed as if he had finally reached his true potential. Even I, who had wavered on Hosmer throughout the years, was finally believing that we were seeing the true Hos and he was past his yearly “summer swoon”. What is the “summer swoon” you ask? Every year, Hosmer would go through a stretch where he would look lost at the plate, his mechanics would be all out of whack and his numbers would start to take a nosedive. If you only follow the Royals on a national level(and by that I mean only follow the team in October) you have no clue about this, because the national media never discusses this. But it’s a real thing, and it has been rearing it’s head over the last six weeks.

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We all remember Hosmer’s home run in the All-Star game, a shot that seemed like a precursor to the second half of the season. Only problem was that Eric didn’t get the notice. So far in the second half of the season, Hosmer is hitting .203/.261/.333 with 4 home runs, 20 RBI’s and an sOPS+ of 63. Those numbers might even be generous, since he has hit home runs in back to back games this week, which would raise his slugging and production totals. He has struck out 26 times in just 32 games in the second half, 36% of his first half total of 72. He has been doing it to himself, as he has the highest ground ball percentage in baseball:

61% for a guy who is supposed to be a middle of the order bat, someone who should be providing the team with a higher average of extra base hits. In comparison, Mike Trout has a ground ball rate of 39%, Mookie Betts 42%, and Jose Altuve 41.9%. Now I know I used three of the best hitters in the American League, but I wanted to prove a point. Those numbers should be the ones that Hosmer strives for, especially if he wants to be considered a top shelf player. The lowest percentage of ground balls that he has had in his career is 49.7%, and that was all the way back in his rookie season, 2011. Over the last few years this rate has hovered in the lower 50’s until the big increase this season.

Eric Hosmer
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

During this latest swoon, Hosmer’s exit velocity has taken a dip as well:

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As the chart shows, Hosmer’s highest peak was right around the All-Star break and since has struggled to climb back up to his peak levels. This past week has seen a big spike(I’m sure the two homers have helped) and there does seem to be a four-week increase, which is a positive sign. One of the big issues that Hosmer has incurred this year is dealing with the inside pitch. Hosmer has seen an increase of off-speed pitches over the last month or so and justly is swinging at a higher percentage of those pitches:

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The interesting part is that he has still posting the second highest hard hit % of his career, but also the second highest soft hit % as well. To me, this reads as someone who is either going for all or nothing at the plate.

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What is most interesting with Hosmer is how streaky a hitter he has been over the years. Since 2012 he has had a stretch each season where he struggles; that within itself isn’t too shocking, since most players have stretches of inconsistency. Hosmer’s though are periods of just looking lost at the plate. September 2015: .239/.328/.410. June 2014: .195/.240/.292. March/April 2013: .250/.337/.306. Sept/Oct 2012: .179/.264/.295. Even in his rookie season of 2011, he posted a rough June line of .253/.312/.293. Early in his career these stretches could be chalked up to growing pains; for a younger player it is fairly common, as they deal with major league pitching. The concerning part is that this seems to be consistent each season. During those stretches, it appears that his mechanics are out of whack and there is no consistency with his swing. One subject that has been noted by the Royals broadcast as of late has been what Hosmer does with his legs as he gets ready for the pitch to arrive. Part of the time he is using a toe tap:

The toe tap seems to steady him quite a bit and honestly, he has seen the most success this past month with the toe tap. But other times he likes to employ a leg kick:

The leg kick sometimes works, but it also becomes a timing mechanism and doesn’t appear to be as consistent. Who knows what hitting coach Dale Sveum has told him, but it would seem that the toe tap helps with his timing and is more consistent.

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What makes this of greater importance is the fact that Hosmer will be a free agent after the 2017 season and is hoping to garner a huge contract. How huge you ask? Jon Heyman discussed that last month and came away with an interesting answer:

Hosmer’s camp isn’t tipping their hand, but Royals brass, which stepped up with a $70-milllion deal for free agent pitcher Ian Kennedy and $72 million for another core star Alex Gordon, seems to have an idea Hosmer could be seeking $20-million plus per year on a 10-year deal.

It seems hard to fathom that a player with the only accolades on his resume being Gold Glove winner and one All-Star game appearance could get a $200 million dollar contract. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t imagine a world where a player who has only 10.0 bWAR and a slightly above average OPS+ of 107 over six years would get a king’s ransom. But there is also this little nugget-Scott Boras is his agent. So of course, there is a Boras spin on Hosmer:

“The premium associated with 27-year-olds are very different than metrics associated with 32-year-olds, especially when it’s a widely known Gold Glove franchise-type player who also has the ability to perform at extremely high levels in big situations and on big stages. You’d have everything you’d want in a free agent Eric Hosmer.”

I’m not saying Hosmer doesn’t deserve a big contract, but it also feels like there should be a disclaimer note on him before a team decides to purchase him.

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It appears Hosmer might be coming out of his funk this week, as he has been 4 for 17 with 2 home runs and 5 RBI’s, including a go-ahead homer on Wednesday night. The Royals are riding a hot streak of late and look to be gearing up for another run at a playoff spot, as they are 8-2 over their last ten, 6.5 games out of a wild card spot. If that is to occur, they need Eric to perform at the level he has the last couple October’s. Hosmer has had sporadic success over the years and every time he rides a hot streak it makes us wonder if he is finally living up to potential. If not, he is still a very good ballplayer who has earned a starting spot on a big league club. But if he really wants to cash in next offseason, he is going to have to show that consistency that teams cherish. Rather than taking two steps forward then taking two steps back, it’s time for Eric Hosmer to take two steps forward and don’t look back.

Five Is The Magic Number

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The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals have had a very trying 2016, with a litany of injuries, slumps and starting pitching woes. While the rotation has seemed to stabilize as of late, the team still struggles to put up good numbers from their number five starter each week. Chris Young isn’t the answer. Dillon Gee isn’t the answer. Brian Flynn probably isn’t the answer either, or like the other two pitchers mentioned, has racked up better numbers out of the bullpen than out of the rotation. So who would that leave Kansas City to be their fifth starter? There seems to be a lack of depth in some regards for the spot, but if they really want to be creative there might some solutions to this season-long problem.

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One fairly obvious choice would be to shuffle rookie reliever Matt Strahm into the rotation. Strahm has been a starter in the minor leagues but the Royals have been using him out of the pen since his recall. Strahm has shown electric stuff out of the bullpen, combining his 91-95 mph fastball with a slider and a change-up. He also occasionally throws a slurve, which is normally in the 77-81 mph range. Strahm’s numbers this year in the majors have been impressive; 1.80 ERA, 19.8 K/9 and a bWAR of 0.2. Obviously, if he was put back into the rotation his fastball would probably go down a notch or two, but it still can be an effective pitch with his deceptive delivery. Strahm will eventually be in the Royals rotation, so he really wouldn’t be a bad choice to get a test run under his belt this year.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Then there is prospect Jake Junis. Junis started the year in AA, where he put up some impressive numbers, a 3.35 ERA with 18.5 K/BB% and a FIP of 3.32 over 119 innings. Junis was recalled to AAA Omaha within the past week and threw 7 innings of 1 run ball, striking out 7 while walking none. Junis was rated as the 10th best prospect for Kansas City this year and in his age 23 season and has seen an increase in his velocity (92-94 mph, topping out at 96 mph) with a consistent curve and a change-up with good sink. The Royals could be concerned about elevating Junis too fast this season, which is understood. But with September around the corner, a couple of starts at the big league level would be a good way to get his feet wet while helping the Royals get solid innings from the fifth starters spot.

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Now we get to the really creative options for the rotation. First, lets start with Mike Minor. Minor is currently on his second rehab stint in the minors for Kansas City, after the first one was shut down for “shoulder fatigue”. While Minor’s ERA has looked better, I’m sure Royals management would be concerned with most of his other numbers during this stint; he has 44 strike outs over 38.1 innings, although the 20 walks in that span would be a bit concerning. There was hope earlier in the season that Minor would be able to contribute at some point and September could be his best shot of helping the Royals out. Minor’s numbers aren’t eye-popping in the minors, but he does have big league experience and could be an upgrade over the options the Royals have thrown out there so far this year.

Kris Medlen
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Don’t like any of those ideas? Well, here are a couple of less likely options that we probably won’t see, but are at least worth mentioning. Kris Medlen has been on the disabled list since May but was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Medlen struggled in his 6 big league games this year, posting an ERA of 7.77, with 6.7 K/9, 7.4 BB/9(yes, his walk total was higher than his strike out total), and an ERA+ of 57. Even if we see Medlen this year, I would imagine it would only be a few starts, as his rehab stint will probably cover almost the entire 30 day period.

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Also out on rehab assignment is Jason Vargas, who had Tommy John surgery last year. Vargas will begin his assignment at AA and will probably see some work at AAA as well. Vargas’ situation is interesting, since there was some concern that if Vargas started for the Royals this year that they would lose the $6 million insurance coverage of his contract, but it appears it would be maxed out by then anyway. Even so, I’m not so sure we see Vargas this year. It would be about 13 months after his surgery if he pitched next month for Kansas City and I’m not really for sure what Vargas or the Royals would really gain by having him throw in the big leagues this year. In my mind, let him do the rehab assignment and then shut him down until Spring Training. That being said, the Royals could think differently and we could see the Rodney Ruxin look-a-like throwing off a big league mound in September.

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So there are some outside of the box options for the back-end of the Royals rotation. At this point in the season, all Kansas City really needs from their number five is 5-6 innings of 3 runs or less and most of us would be appeased with that. With the Royals still of the belief that they can claim a playoff spot, this spot in the rotation becomes even more vital. If the Royals are close to a wild card spot and the number five spot struggles, it could be the difference between playoffs or no playoffs. With the Royals winning the last three series’ and playing like a contending team, now might be the time to take a chance and see what a Strahm, Junis or Minor can do. It could make all the difference in the world.

 

 

RIP Rally Mantis (2016-2016)

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

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In Paulo We Trust

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When the season started, it was expected that Paulo Orlando would be splitting time in right field with Jarrod Dyson, with Dyson probably seeing the bulk of the playing time. In 2015, Orlando proved that he was a worthy backup outfielder, posting a line of .249/.269/.444 in 251 plate appearances with a wRC+ of 89 and 1.0 fWAR. Orlando supplied above average defense with a bat that wasn’t spectacular but could place a timely hit from time to time with a bit of pop. Orlando had toiled in the minors for 9 seasons before 2015 and in some ways it was easy to see why. He had put together a couple of above average offensive seasons in the minors, but nothing that would really grab a scout looking for a gem in the minors. The Royals liked Orlando’s defense and speed, two pillars of Kansas City’s success these last few years. As much as most of us liked Paulo, we also figured with his past track record that he was a solid backup at best, whose flaws would be more glaring the more playing time he would receive. Instead, Paulo followed a sparse April(30 plate appearances in 9 games) with a spectacular May where he hit .429/.456/.603 and hasn’t looked back. So is Paulo for real?

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My first instinct with Orlando’s hot hitting was that as much as it appeared as if he had improved offensively, that at some point he would regress. The highest he has hit average wise at any level was .305, which he did in 2010 for the Royals AA team. Orlando has only two above average offensive seasons throughout his minor league career(2010 and 2014) and one of those seasons was just barely above league average(101 wRC+ in 2014 for Omaha, the Royals AAA team). In June, he still put up solid numbers, but they slipped a bit, down to .292/.323/.371 in 26 more plate appearances. Paulo went from platooning with Dyson to seeing the majority of the time in right field and in all honesty he had earned it. Orlando would follow that with a bigger dip in July, hitting .273/.291/.351 , which were still respectable numbers but it did appear as if he was finally coming down to earth. But early into August he is hitting .500/.519/.692 with a sOPS+ of 227. So what is he doing differently in 2016 to see such a big increase in production?

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It appears the biggest part of his success is coming from watching video. Back in June, Orlando discussed his use of video to scout out the opposing pitchers and would use what he learned when it came time take batting practice that day:

“It can slow down the game and help you a lot. Before every game, before I go practice, I watch. If a pitcher throws a lot of breaking balls, you go to BP and try to work on that.”

It’s also been obvious that playing every day has also helped his approach at the plate:

“When you play more games, you have your timing every day. Some guys throw hard — 95 to 97 mph — some guys throw 90 to 92. So when you play every day, you have more confidence in yourself.”

At the plate Paulo has improved his hitting, but a number of his stats point to him being in some ways the same player he was in 2015. His strike out percentage is about the same as last year (20.1% to 21.1%) while his walk percentage is still almost non-existent(2.0% to 2.3% last year). Orlando has continued to put the ball in play at a high rate(77.9 % this year, 79.1% in 2015) but his placement of where he is hitting the ball is a bit different this year. Last year, Paulo was pulling the ball at a 36% clip, while this year he is hitting the ball to center field 39.7% of the time. In fact, he is even hitting the ball to right field more this year (30.6%) than he is to left (29.7%). It’s obvious that his approach at the plate this year has been more focused on putting the ball in play and going with the pitch than trying to pull the ball and use his power. The power, is the one part of his game that has been sacrificed so far in 2016.
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One of the positives for Orlando last year was the fact that he showed some power from the right side of the plate, something the Royals didn’t have a plethora of in 2015. Last year Orlando slugged at a .432 clip with 27 extra base hits and an ISO of .195. So far in 2016(and as of  August 11 he has played in exactly the same amount of games as last year, with 60 more plate appearances), Paulo is slugging at a .432 rate with 22 extra base hits and an ISO of .105. It’s obvious with his approach this year he has sacrificed some of his power this year for an increase in his on-base percentage(which is up by .082 this year). This also means his hard hit rate is down(26.5%,  down from 31.4% in 2015), but his soft hit rate is down as well(17.6% from 19.9% last year). How you feel about this is determined on whether or not  you believe the Royals would be better off with someone with more power or someone getting on base. To me, as much as Kansas City needs a bit more power in their lineup, even more in need is someone who can get on base consistently. Orlando is doing just that so this could probably be filed under the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it’ category.
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In what has become a very frustrating season for Kansas City, Orlando’s production has been a bright light and while some of us(myself included) have been thinking he will start to regress, time is proving us wrong. Within the last week Orlando has been moved to the leadoff spot for the Royals, a spot that has been lacking this year. Kansas City’s leadoff batters are hitting .243/.277/.314, all either in last or next to last in the American League this year. The Royals also have just 23 extra base hits from leadoff this year, the lowest in the league. I’m not sold that Orlando is the answer at the top(he does have only 12 career walks during his two years in the major leagues), but it was also obvious that mainstay Alcides Escobar wasn’t the answer either. The Royals have no immediate answer at the top of the order, which is why manager Ned Yost is giving it a try:
“(We’re) just giving him a shot,” Yost said in the dugout before Tuesday’s game. “We’ve been thinking about it for a while. Paulo’s been swinging the bat good.”
In two games, he is 2 for 11 at the top, not exactly proving Yost right but it is the smallest of small sample sizes. At this point, it is worth a try to see if he can still get on base at a good clip. No matter whether at the top or farther down the lineup, Paulo Orlando has earned his playing time this year. Like Lorenzo Cain, he didn’t start playing baseball until his teenage years in Brazil, so his development is not quite the same as the normal player. Orlando has proven himself a quick learner and could be seeing more improvement before a regression sets in. Not bad for a guy who didn’t even make his major league debut until the age of 29.

Locking Up Duffman

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On Monday night, Danny Duffy went out and pitched the game of his life against Tampa Bay, an 8 inning, 1 hit(7 innings of no-hit ball), 16 strike out affair that gave Duffy the new team strikeout record for a single game. It gave many a national baseball analyst to finally discuss the great season that Duffy has had this year, a year that has seen a massive amount of growth. While his superb performance made the baseball world take notice, most in Royal Nation have been discussing a bigger issue when it comes to Duffy-should the Royals lock him up long-term, keeping him a Royal for the immediate future?

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Back in April this seemed not quite comical but definitely would give you some funny looks if the idea was thrown out there. Duffy had been relegated to the bullpen to start the year and didn’t become a part of the Royals rotation until almost the middle of May. Since that time he has easily been Kansas City’s best starter; 96 innings, 105 strike outs, 2.98 ERA, 67% strikes thrown and a WPA(Win Probability Added by pitcher) of 1.336. Duffy has been averaging 6 innings a start, but you have to remember that he was on a limited pitch count during those first few starts, as he was transitioning to the rotation. He didn’t actually go 6 innings in a start until his fourth start and has now thrown quality starts in 10 of his 16 starts. One of the knocks on Duffy for years was  that he wasn’t an efficient pitcher; it was a big deal if he was still in the game come the 7th inning. Danny has been working deeper into games and has also put up career high numbers; he has the highest K/9 of his career, lowest BB/9 and lowest FIP of his major league career. A man who once pitched purely on emotion has not only changed his approach, he has also changed the mentality he goes into each and every game:

It’s been pretty gratifying to not be a guy who’s gone five-and-dive, like I did for so long in my career,” Duffy said. “I’m not saying that’s not something that will ever happen again. But I have confidence when I take the ball that I’m going to do everything I can to hand the ball off to the bullpen late in the game.

The change in his mental approach is a big part of his success this year, but that is also a key to why the Royals should extend his contract for the long-term.

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2016 isn’t the first time we have believed that Duffy had things figured out. Back in 2014, it seemed that he was able to unlock his potential, as he had put together what was a career year at that point. It really appeared as if Duffy had turned a corner, although there is a very noticeable difference between his success two years ago and today. What was very apparent back then was that Duffy wasn’t striking people out, as he was averaging 6.81 K’s per 9, the lowest average of his career. Thankfully the Royals superb defense was able to handle Duffy pitching to contact, as hitters were making the most contact against him(84.4%) in his career. That contact rate stayed fairly close in 2015(82.3%) but hitters were also getting a bit luckier off him last year on balls in play(.298 batting average on balls in play against Danny in 2015). Both stats have taken a decline so far this year, as the contact rate against Duffy sits at 72.3%(the lowest of his career) and hitters have a .286 BAbip.  Throw in all the other career highs he is racking up this year and you can see why he is having a turnaround year in 2016.

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So the numbers play the largest part in why the Royals should sign Duffy to a long-term deal, but there are a few more reasons an extension makes sense. For one, Duffy is still only 27 years old, as he won’t turn 28 until December. He hasn’t even reached 30 years old and these late 20’s are when a lot of pitchers learn to really pitch, not just throw. Maybe the biggest reason to lock him up now is the state of the Kansas City Rotation. The starting staff has struggled so far this year and there isn’t much help in the minors. If the Royals want to still be contenders, they are going to need more reliable starting pitching and keeping Duffy is a must. At some point the Royals are going to have to get younger in their rotation and with no arms on the immediate horizon, Duffy could be in that caliber of a Chris Archer or Sonny Gray, younger arms who lead their respective team’s staffs. Unless Kansas City goes out and swings a deal for a young talented starter, they will have to look older with either the lackluster free agent market or a trade. Locking up Duffy might be a cheaper way to go for the Royals rebuilding of the rotation.

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So what kind of deal could the Royals off Duffy? Good question and in some ways it is hard to guess with the way the market is constantly being elevated. Let’s start first with years; I would go with either a 3-4 year deal with at least one option year(come on, you know Dayton can’t sign someone without a mutual option!). If the Royals go 3 years, give Duffy two option years. If you go 4 years, give him a mutual option for the 5th year. So what about money? Once again, I’m just throwing numbers out here, but let’s start with what he is making this year, $4.2 million. As a comparison, Chris Sale of Chicago is the same age as Duffy, although Sale has a better track record. Sale is making $9.2 million this year, which is higher than what Duffy will get, for sure. Let’s say Duffy gets $6 million in 2017, $9.5 in 2018, 12.5 in 2019 and $16.75 in 2020. That would be a 4 year, $44.75 million contract, which I might even be lowballing a bit, considering how the market has seen such a big increase these last few years. Still, the Royals are going to have to keep the contract manageable, and after Ian Kennedy’s contract I wouldn’t be surprised if they are gun-shy to dole out a contract of that magnitude again for a pitcher. Still, that is not a bad contract for a guy who hasn’t really been a top starter before this year.

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Kansas City has a plethora of decisions to make this upcoming offseason, everything from figuring out what they want to do with free agents Edinson Volquez and Kendrys Morales, to rebuilding the starting rotation, there will be some shuffling going on throughout the winter months. While those decisions won’t be easy, procuring Duffy’s services for the immediate future should be a slam dunk. The last thing the Royals want to do is not have Duffy taken care of before he can become a free agent after 2017, especially with all the decisions that have to be made after next year. One of the top priorities for General Manager Dayton Moore this winter should be to make Duffy a Royal for the long-term. It’s going to cost Kansas City some dollars, but I would rather pay now than have him knock off another fantastic season in 2017 and raise his value even more. Signing Danny Duffy should be a must this offseason; it’s time to keep things ‘gnar’ in Kansas City moving forward.

 

Keeping Up With the Royals in the Minors

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Back in April I took an early look at how some of the Kansas City Royals top prospects were doing down in the minors.Since we are a little past the halfway point of the season and getting closer to September, when call-ups are made, I thought we could take a look today at how not only the prospects mentioned in April were doing, but also a few others.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with Jorge Bonifacio, who has continued to be an offensive force in AAA Omaha. In 104 games this year, he has put up a line of . 276/.344/.470 with 15 home runs and 64 RBI’s. You can add a wRC+ of 114 to his numbers, which are almost all higher than his stats for last year. Bonifacio has even seen an uptick in his walk rate, while his strikeout rate is on par with 2015. I really don’t know if Kansas City still sees him as a future starter in the outfield, but if not he could be a nice trade piece if the team is looking for young starting pitching this offseason.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

When last we checked in, Brooks Pounders was starting for the Storm Chasers while putting up some good numbers. He would eventually be moved to the pen, where he is continuing to put up good numbers. Over 70 innings, Pounders has an ERA of 2.82, FIP of 3.90 and 10.49 K/9. Pounders has had two stints with the Royals so far this year, with very mixed results. Pounders still has value out of the pen for the Royals, but probably not a permanent spot with the team.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Most Royals fans are interested in how Bubba Starling is doing since his recall to AAA, as he was given a promotion about a month ago. So far in 29 games, Bubba is hitting .218/.269/.327 with 2 home runs, 12 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 56 in 109 plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rate are a bit higher in AAA than he put up in AA in about half the games. This is the definition of a small sample size, but it doesn’t appear as if a higher level of talent has elevated Bubba’s offensive game much. Good thing he is a plus defender.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Third base prospect Hunter Dozier started the year in AA but was soon recalled to Omaha and has probably been their best hitter this year. In 76 games in AAA, Dozier is raking at a .306/.368/.519 clip with 13 home runs, 38 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 133. Combined with his AA numbers, he has hit 21 home runs, drove in 59 and a wRC+ of 164. Dozier has bounced back nicely from his rough 2015 season and has to be viewed as a possible replacement for Kendrys Morales next year as the Royals starting DH. He is definitely knocking on the Royals door and should be allowed entry soon enough.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Alec Mills started the 2016 season in AA and was able to make his major league debut in May. Mills has started 20 games combined this year between AA and AAA, with a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to results. Mills was solid in AA, throwing 67 innings with an ERA of 2.39, FIP of 2.09 and K/9 of 9.04. During his 8 games in Omaha, Mills numbers aren’t quite as impressive, as he has posted an ERA of 5.54, FIP of 5.59 and K/9 of 7.85 over 39 innings. His walk rate has jumped up to 3.23 in AAA and his HR/9 has also seen an uptick, to 1.62. There is quite a bit of room for improvement in Mills at AAA, but is still a solid prospect for Kansas City and I would imagine we will probably see him again sooner rather than later. I’ve always felt he might be better suited for work out of the bullpen, but with the Royals struggles with starting pitching, he could get a shot at the rotation in 2017.

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Matt Strahm has put up solid numbers this year for AA Northwest Arkansas, posting an ERA of 3.43, FIP of 3.68 and K/9 of 9.41 over 102 innings. The most impressive part of his season to me has been the dip in his BB/9, down to 2.02, the lowest of his career. Strahm was recalled by the Royals this past weekend and while he struggled in his major league debut, he threw some major heat in his second outing, ending his time on the hill with a strikeout on a fastball clocked at 97 mph. When the season began it seemed Strahm might be better suited for the pen in the long-term, but I think there is a chance he could be a future mid-rotation starter for Kansas City if allowed to develop. Either way, his electric arm will be in play soon enough for the Royals and should see some success no matter the role.

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Back in April we discussed Ryan O’Hearn, as he was killing the baseball for the Royals High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not long after my post, O’Hearn was summoned to AA and took over first base for Northwest Arkansas. O’Hearn had a small learning curve very early there, but would soon find his stroke. In 83 games, he is hitting .265/.349/.440 with 9 home runs, 36 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 125. Combined on the season, he has hit 16 home runs, 54 RBI’s not bad numbers for a guy in his age 23 season. O’Hearn has seen his walk rate kick up this year while his strike out rate has been steady, a good sign for a future power bat. O’Hearn seems to be developing at a good rate and I still feel like he has a good shot of being Eric Hosmer’s replacement at first base if Hos leaves Kansas City after the 2017 season.

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Pedro Fernandez was also recalled to AA this year but hasn’t seen much time there so far. After 6 games in Wilmington, Fernandez was recalled to Northwest Arkansas and so far has appeared in just 8 games, 5 of them starts. In AA he has an ERA of 4.03, FIP of 4.07 and his K/9 is at 5.90. The move to a higher level of baseball hasn’t been dominant for Pedro, but most of his numbers, like BB/9 and HR/9 are just a slight notch above what he has done the last few years in A ball. I doubt we see him in Kansas City anytime soon, but I would think he will begin the 2017 season in AA and then go from there.

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Samir Duenez has put up some stellar numbers at the Royals High A ball team, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Duenez took over first base from O’Hearn and has hit .313/.380/.524 with 6 home runs, 24 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 149. Duenez has played in only 39 games in Wilmington, since being recalled from Lexington, another A ball affiliate for the Royals. Duenez has seen his walk rate improve in Wilmington but has also seen a slight increase in his strike out percentage. Between both teams this year, he has produced 12 home runs, 79 RBI’s and 41 total extra base hits. Duenez is only 20 years old and very well might improve his power numbers as he ages. Duenez is definitely a player to keep an eye on and see how he progresses in the minors.

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Josh Staumont is an interesting pitcher in the Royals farm system who was just recently recalled to AA from Wilmington. Staumont is a power pitcher, as is evident from his 11.59 K/9 in A ball this year. Problem is, he also has a bit of a control problem, also apparent by his BB/9 ratio of 8.26. Staumont has an electric arm and when he is on he is almost unhittable with his 95 mph+ fastball. But he still has a problem finding the strike zone some times and is still very much a work in progress. He has appeared in 4 games so far this year in AA and has an ERA of 3.31, FIP of 5.29, K/9 of 11.57 and BB/9 of 8.82. He has thrown 89 innings combined so far this year and most can see that Staumont could be a great arm for the Royals at some point down the road. Unfortunately, his control issues will slow down his progress and it is going to have to see an improvement before we can even discuss him contributing for the big league club. The arm is there, but Staumont is nowhere near a finished product.

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There are a number of other names within the Royals farm system you should keep your ear to the ground on. Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Marten Gasparini, Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot and Ramon Torres are all names that you could be hearing over the next 2-3 years. I would love to throw Kyle Zimmer into this conversation, but honestly, his health has been a constant concern. Zimmer was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and we won’t really know more until Spring Training rolls around next year. The Royals have some pieces for the future that will be helping the big league club and they will need it once the 2018 season rolls around. We are all aware that the farm system was gutted last summer in the Cueto and Zobrist trades, trades that helped the Royals win a world championship. The cupboard isn’t empty, but the team does need to stockpile more talent over the next couple seasons. Baseball has been moving more toward youth the last few seasons and more and more teams are willing to take chances on younger(cheaper) talent. These players could very well be part of the Royals future, some sooner than later.

Royals Offense, Where Art Thou?

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A lot of words have been spilled this year on the Kansas City Royals starting pitching and the atrocious numbers they have put up. While all this is very true, what has not been mentioned as much is how lethargic the offense has been, especially over this past month. The Royals went 7-19 in July, a month where they went from potential playoff contenders to also-rans and a big part of the awful July was the struggles of the Kansas City offense. So where did it all go wrong?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Houston Astros
(Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY)

Let’s begin with the season totals. The Royals are currently last in the American League in home runs, runs, RBI’s, walk %, walk to strikeout % and ISO. They are also next to last in hard hit rate, second from the top in soft hit rate while floating near the bottom of the league in On Base Percentage, slugging percentage oWAR and wRC+. What is really scary is that this is a team built to make contact and put pressure on the other team’s defense by putting the ball in play, yet their contact % is only 7th in the league at 78.7%. For a team whose entire offense is built around making contact, it is scary not to see them at the top of the league.

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(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The July numbers don’t really get any better. Throughout this past month, the Royals are last in home runs, runs, RBI’s, ISO, BAbip, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, wOBA, wRC+ and oWAR. Offensively, the Royals were the worst team in the league in July and a huge part of why they won only seven games all month. The obvious numbers that really stick out are the power numbers, as this team is not hitting the ball hard and had the highest ground ball % in the league this last month. Look, the Royals are never going to be compared to the old ” Murderer’s Row” Yankees’ teams, but if they want to be a contender they can’t be hitting the ball on the ground as much as they are.

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Some of these numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. The Royals over the last few years have been near the bottom of the league in home runs and walks, so neither of those numbers should be too surprising. This would also affect their numbers for on base percentage and slugging percentage, but even those are down quite a bit from 2015. Last year, the Royals were either 7th or 8th in OBP, slugging percentage and wRC+, which are very respectable numbers for a team who doesn’t hit a lot of home runs or take walks. Part of this can be attributed to Kansas City being third in the league in doubles and fourth in triples. So far in 2016, the Royals are 9th in doubles and 11th in triples. Those extra base hits were vital to a contact team like Kansas City and can be pointed to as a big part of their success last year. If you want to take a shot at what is different from last year to this year offensively, those extra base hits would be a good place to start.

World Series Royals Mets Baseball
(AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

So what can the Royals offense do to improve on these numbers? I know, it’s not like the team can magically snap their fingers and they are fixed, but there are a few techniques that are bound to improve the numbers, even if it is a gradual improvement. One thing that instantly comes to mind is waiting for your pitch. In 2015 the Royals really seemed to improve on this, looking for a pitch to drive rather than just something in the zone. That frame of mind needs to come back. There also could be an improvement in their ground ball ratio, which is partially a by-product of a high soft hit rate as well. I am of the belief that if the team can raise their hard hit rate and can get a sprinkle of luck(as they were last in BAbip throughout the month of July)  then we will see an increase in offensive production. Eric Hosmer seems to be turning things around over the last 4 games, slugging .533 in that span. Add in the return of Lorenzo Cain and the continued production of  Cheslor  Cuthbert at the top of the lineup and this is a team that can catch a hot streak in no time. I would mention that the team could be a bit more patient at the plate(and I do think that would help them in the long run), I am not crazy; I know this is just not a team that is going to rack up a number of walks. Best case scenario sees this team loosen up a bit(as they have looked pretty tight as of late), square up the ball a bit more and just focus on making good contact. It has felt like this team is trying to do too much at the plate when the honest truth is that keeping it simple could very well garner better results.

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Baseball is a great sport because the littlest thing that drags you down one month can completely vanish in a second. With July now in the rear-view mirror, August is a chance for Kansas City to awaken their bats and show the rest of the American League that they are better offensively than they have shown so far in 2016. The honest truth is that the Royals teams of the last 3-4 years have always been a bit of a streaky bunch and have had equal parts high and low lights. This team is capable of being better but they are running out of time to prove it. So far in August they have racked up back to back 9 hit games. A little bit more run production and this team could squeak their way back into the wild card race in the American League. It’s a long-shot, but if there was a team to do it…

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