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Bleeding Royal Blue

Inside the mind of a Kansas City Royals fan

From the Bleachers: Walk-Off Thoughts

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It’s never a dull week in Major League Baseball and last week was ready to bring the excitement. With that said, lets start with an exciting finish for the Rockies on Sunday…

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The Walk-Off Cycle

There is nothing quite as exciting in baseball like a walk-off home run, but a walk-off to complete hitting for the cycle does take it up a notch. That is exactly what Nolan Arenado of Colorado did on Sunday, the first Rockie to do that since his teammate Carlos Gonzalez in 2010.

It was a great moment for a Rockies team that currently sits in first place in the National League West and has been one of the bigger surprises so far this year. Even better was how it showcased one of the best players in the game in Arenado. Arenado is having another stellar season, near the top of the league in RBI’s, Slugging Percentage, Win Probability Added and fWAR. Arenado is still only 26 years old and while continuing to get more attention year by year, is still flying under the radar a bit while playing in Colorado. Hopefully this shines a bit of a brighter light on one of the best players in the game. Speaking of flying under the radar…

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Good as Goldy

There might not be a more underrated player in baseball than Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt continues to go out, put up MVP type numbers while not getting the media attention that a Rizzo or Harper normally gets. So far in 2017, Goldy is in the top ten of the NL in RBI’s, Walk rate, Slugging Percentage, wOBA, wRC+ while leading the league in On-Base Percentage and fWAR. Oh, and he sits in 11th place in home runs. Goldschmidt is not only a great hitter, but is above-average defensively and holds his own on the base paths as well. In many ways, he reminds me of former Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, and we all know how his career turned out. Playing in Arizona seems to keep him out of the limelight but I also feel like his personality does as well. He appears to be very low-key with a workman’s attitude when it comes to taking care of business and doing what needs to get done on the field. The glitz and glamour aren’t there for Paul, but mark my words, barring an injury, he will continue to be in the MVP discussion when September rolls around later this year.

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Elite Company

While I have long been in the camp of #TeamTrout when it comes to the Harper/Trout discussion, it’s hard not to notice what Bryce is doing this year that feels very similar to 2015. In fact, at this pace Harper could be joining some elite company:

Back at the end of 2015, I really broke down how big of a season that Harper had just compiled. Here is an excerpt from my year-end awards column:

The one stat that blows my mind more than any is his OPS+, a staggering 195(remember, 100 is average). His season is the 71st best in baseball history, which seems great but not out of this world stupendous. If you take out all the players in the ‘Dead-Ball Era’, Harper’s season is the 50th best of all-time. I decided to go a step further, going off of seasons since 1950. Taking that into effect, Harper had the 24th best season by a batter in the last 65 years!

The interesting part is that Harper currently doesn’t lead in any of the major offensive categories and teammate Ryan Zimmerman is in the lead when it comes to slugging, wOBA and wRC+ in the NL. There is no doubt that Harper is a legitimate star and a key part of Washington’s team…when he is healthy. There was quite a bit of scuttlebutt that he spent most of last year hurt and if that was the case, it is easy to see why his numbers took such a dive in 2016. I’m interested to see where his numbers are in a couple of months, as the season wears on and the Nationals make a run at another playoff appearance.

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The Weight of it All

I am always on the lookout for a new stat to dive into and figure out how it breaks down a players value. To me, there is never enough learning I can do. Recently, I’ve been enamored with wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average. Here is a bit lengthy description of its definition:

wOBA is based on a simple concept: Not all hits are created equal. Batting average assumes that they are. On-base percentage does too, but does one better by including other ways of reaching base such as walking or being hit by a pitch. Slugging percentage weights hits, but not accurately (Is a double worth twice as much as a single? In short, no) and again ignores other ways of reaching base. On-base plus slugging (OPS) does attempt to combine the different aspects of hitting into one metric, but it assumes that one percentage point of SLG is the same as that of OBP. In reality, a handy estimate is that OBP is around twice as valuable than SLG (the exact ratio is x1.8). In short, OPS is asking the right question, but we can arrive at a more accurate number quite easily.

Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.

Now, for some that is going to feel a bit heavy. But here is the cliff notes version: wOBA entails a hitters entire offensive value. The one thing it does not do is take into the park effects, so a hitter that plays his home games in a hitter friendly park would probably see his wOBA a bit more inflated. Keeping that in mind, here are the top five hitters in baseball according to wOBA:

  1. Aaron Judge-.468
  2. Ryan Zimmerman-.433
  3. Paul Goldschmidt-.430
  4. Bryce Harper-.422
  5. Joey Votto-.420

There is no shock here, as a power hitter like Judge will get a higher number due to the amount of extra base hits he accumulates, plus he hits in a hitters park, Yankee Stadium. I do find it interesting that four of the top five hitters in on-base percentage this year are on this list, with Buster Posey the lone player left off, coming in at number seven. It shows getting on base in general is a plus, no matter which way it happens (hit, walk, hit by pitch, etc.). It does value extra base hits more, which makes sense to me. The more extra base hits, the more runs scored and more to the point, the more opportunities to score runs. A single wouldn’t hold the same weight as a home run, as we as fans don’t even view them the same way. It would only make sense to make a home run worth more than every other hit, with a triple and double following a bit behind. If a team is looking for someone who creates runs, a stat like wOBA is a good place to start. It obviously leans more toward the power hitters, but the overall context of getting on base helps just as much in the long run. I will probably still tend to lean more toward a stat like wRC+ for overall value, but wOBA can be a nice side item. So use it, get acquainted with it and hope your team has a number of guys near the top of the leaderboard. Unfortunately, my Royals don’t have anyone until the 51st spot, as Eric Hosmer has a .357 wOBA. Alas, hitting in Kauffman Stadium will do that to a hitter.

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Putting the Fun Back in the Game

Finally, I was elated with the news last week that Major League Baseball is allowing the players to have a ‘Player’s Weekend’ on August 25-27. What will this entail?

 This season from August 25 to August 27, the MLB will allow players to wear nicknames on the back of their jerseys for the one-of-a-kind Players’ Weekend.

Players will be limited to one nickname on their jerseys, and the names cannot be inappropriate or offensive. The personalized patches — which will feature names of inspirations — are to be used as a tribute to an individual or organization instrumental in each player’s development.

To say I like this idea is an understatement. In truth, I LOVE the idea. One of the big issues I have had with the hierarchy of baseball has been the lack of flavor allowed to be shown on the field. To me, this stifles the individuality of the players and has made the game appear not as fun to fans who are just casual bystanders of the game we love. Allowing guys to not only put a nickname on the back of their jerseys but also personalized patches really will let them have a bit more fun and allow the fans to appreciate these players even more. I have long felt like MLB does NOT market their players well and wish they would allow a bit more flair into the game. You see a lot of it during the World Baseball Classic, but there is more ground that can be covered. How about make this every weekend instead of just one weekend out of the year? Maybe let the players celebrate after doing something exciting, rather than expecting retaliation if another guy feels like they are being ‘showed up’? The sooner the game embraces the fun aspects of the sport, the sooner fewer people say this game is ‘boring’. Now, if we can just get rid of those damn unwritten rules…

 

Notes of Royalty: West Coast Swing

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It is very interesting times for the Kansas City Royals, as a team that once looked to be holding down the fort in the basement of the American League Central has now propelled themselves back into the playoff discussion, as they sit at 32-34, 3 games out of the lead in the division. Maybe the realization has finally hit me that the Royals are slow starters and don’t really start heating up until late May/early June. So what has changed? Quite a bit and in some ways it is just the status quo for a team that never says die.

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…And the Line Keeps on Moving

The Royals in June are a force to be reckoned with, going 10-4 after heading into the month at 22-30. The most noticeable difference for this team lies in the offensive numbers, which make the team look like a modern version of “Murderer’s Row”. Let’s analyze by going off wRC+, which is park and league adjusted, and league average is 100: anything above that is the percent higher than that average. Hope everyone is sitting down:

Moustakas 214

Cain            184

Hosmer      162

Perez           161

Gordon        153

Maybe the most encouraging number here is Gordon’s, and I don’t just say that because of my loyalty to “A1”. Nothing is more frustrating than having to admit that one of your favorites might be regressing at a faster pace than expected, but I had started wondering about his slump earlier this season. It appears some work has been done as he prepares to load his swing and it has caused a resurgence of the Alex of old. So far in June, Alex has a line of .275/.396/.600 with 3 home runs, 4 RBI’s, 10 runs, a .325 ISO (isolated power), a .404 wOBA (weighted on-base average, designed to measure a player’s overall offensive contributions per plate appearance) and 0.6 fWAR in just 12 games. If the Royals are wanting to be serious contenders, they need Alex to help carry a portion of the load and perform closer to his numbers in the 2014-15 seasons. A large chunk of the lineup has gotten hot as well and it shows in the team numbers. So far this month, the Royals are hitting .299/.339/.513 with a wRC+ of 122, 2.45 WPA (Win Probability Added), and 3.3 fWAR. I don’t expect Kansas City to keep up the pace they have been on during this jaunt on the West Coast, but if they can find a happy medium where they keep elevating their runs per game (currently up to 3.98, 27th in baseball) and just keep the line moving offensively, it could make for a fun summer.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs

Chasing Balboni

Speaking of the offense, the big talking point for most Royals fans is the home run pace that Mike Moustakas is on. For us Kansas City fans, there is a number that has haunted us for 32 years: 36. That is the Royals single-season home run record, held by former Royals first baseman Steve Balboni. He accomplished this feat back in 1985 and outside of a Gary Gaetti here or a Jermaine Dye there, no one has gotten close to the record. That being said, we are 65 games into the season and Moose sits at 18 home runs hit, halfway to “Bye-Bye”‘s record. At his current pace, Moustakas would reach 45 homers, annihilating the record and making it even harder for anyone in the future to topple. As a fan who remembers Balboni and has discussed at length this record for years, it is time to see it broken. Do I think Moose can beat it? Most definitely. Moose’s pitch selection has improved dramatically this year and his HR/FB rate is at 20.9%, the highest he has seen since 2010 in Double A (the year he hit 36 combined home runs in Double and Triple A). If there was ever going to be a year for the record to fall, this is it. You just have to hope that the Royals stay in the race so Moustakas isn’t dealt to a team like Boston before the trade deadline (yeah, I know. It’s very specific). I’ve spent years mentioning Steve Balboni in random conversations. I think it’s time to change the trivia answer.

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The Search for a Stopgap

With Danny Duffy on the shelf for at least the next month, the Royals have been hoping for a young arm to step up and fill the void for a bit. Eric Skoglund had a memorable first start at Kauffman Stadium, but since then has struggled to get through two innings. On Thursday night, Matt Strahm was plucked from the bullpen to take Skoglund’s place and showed why the Royals have envisioned him being a starter in the near future. Strahm went 5 innings, allowing 3 hits, 1 run (0 earned), with 3 punch outs and 1 walk. Strahm was on a limited pitch count of 65-70, throwing 68 when it was all said and done. It was an admirable performance and one has wonder what that means for the Royals if he is able to keep it up. Where is Strahm’s arm more valuable-the pen or the rotation? With the performance of Mike Minor and the need for quality innings out of their starters, I would almost lean toward Strahm staying in the starting five if he is able to maintain the performance of his first start. That would give Kansas City another starter while letting them focus on picking up a bullpen arm for the stretch drive (if they are still contending in a month). Skoglund still interests me, but for the moment it appears Strahm might be the better way to go.

 

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Picture Courtesy: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

A Starling Performance

Over the last month, an interesting development has sprouted up in Omaha, the Royals Triple A team. Former 1st Round draft pick Bubba Starling, the man from Gardner who many had started writing off, has found his groove. The numbers don’t lie:

Bubba is what the kids call “en fuego” and maybe the most interesting aspect of this turn of events is how he got here:

So the guy who has been “Major League ready” defensively for years might have actually figured out something offensively, opening up a whole other conversation when it comes to the Royals future outfield. I would still like to see him continue this for a while longer before jumping too far ahead but there are numerous encouraging signs:

Reports have also came out that Starling has started spraying the ball the opposite way more often, as teams had gotten into the habit of putting shifts on him. If this is something Starling can maintain, we could be discussing an outfield of Gordon, Bubba and Bonifacio next year, with Soler as a DH/OF. I’m not saying this is locked into stone, but it is an encouraging sign from a player that has struggled with the bat almost his entire professional career. Maybe, just maybe, that draft pick won’t feel as daunting as it has felt the last six years.

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While the Royals are still under .500, they’re within shouting distance of the first place Twins with slightly less than 100 games left to play. I said a few years ago I wouldn’t doubt what this team is capable of doing and even today I’m not going to start doing it now. The Royals have Boston and Toronto awaiting them next week and hopefully they can continue to roll the trifecta (effective offense, solid pitching, great defense). We are entering the dog days of summer and the Royals might have just found that other gear. It’s time for that one final run we’ve been promised.

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio-Episode 1

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I have decided recently to experiment a little bit and see about doing an occasional podcast discussing the Kansas City Royals and any current events in baseball. I don’t know if this will become a regular thing or just something I will do on a whim; it’s something I am just tossing out there. So if you have some spare time give it a listen here, as Dalton Wiley and I discuss the Royals last week, the AL Central, Moose trying to break Steve Balboni’s home run record and more. Hope you enjoy it.

From the Bleachers: Notes Around Baseball

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Here at Bleeding Royal Blue,  I spend a lot of time discussing my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals. But being a baseball fan in general means from time to time a little discussion around both leagues can do some good. So with that said, let’s kickoff the debut column, From the Bleachers!

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A Tight Race

Before the season started, most analysts picked the Cleveland Indians to runaway with the American League Central, with the Tigers, Royals, Twins and White Sox either floundering or fighting for a Wild Card spot. I even figured Kansas City and (maybe) Detroit would give them some competition. Instead, Minnesota still sits atop the Central (yes, I noticed, Pete!) with the White Sox holding up the rear, only six games behind. You read that correctly, only six games separate the top and bottom of the division. Minnesota should get some major props for their performance so far, as they improved their two main weaknesses from last year, the defense and bullpen, while getting All-Star contributions from Ervin Santana and Miguel Sano. The Indians sit 2.5 games back, Detroit 3.5 back and the Royals at 5.5 back. Will Cleveland eventually perform closer to their 2016 model and decide they’ve had enough of these silly games? Will Detroit decide if they are contenders or needing to rebuild? Will the Royals wake from their slumber and make one final run with their core group that led them to a championship? If we are basing this off of what has happened to this point, I don’t know if any of that will happen. If I had to use one word to describe this division to this point, the word ‘mediocre’ would seem fair; ‘eh’ would work as well. Maybe this pattern will continue over the next four months and my friends up in Minnesota will be super happy. No matter the result, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by the Central over the last couple of months.

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The Machine and 600

This past week, Albert Pujols clubbed his 600th career home run, an achievement only nine players have reached in MLB history. The Pujols we have seen the last five seasons pales in comparison to the one who was probably the best player in baseball in his first decade in the league. Despite that, Pujols is still a productive hitter, one who has averaged an OPS+ of 111 during that span. Injuries have taken its toll on him, and it’s easy to forget just how dominate Pujols was in his prime. According to the website Hall of Stats (which I highly recommend when determining a player’s value, especially when the Hall of Fame voting comes around), Pujols has a Hall rating of 211, which ranks him as the 30th best player (statistically) all-time and the 3rd best first baseman. Yes, we are seeing his regression right now, which should be expected in his late 30’s. But there are still some major goals he could reach before he retires, as he still has four years left on his contract after the current season. Pujols is 122 hits away from 3,000 and 140 RBI’s away from 2,000 for his career. Let’s enjoy the last few years of his career, because we are nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career.

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Have a Day, Scooter

On Tuesday, Scooter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds joined some elite company, hitting four home runs in one game, going 5-5 while driving in 10 runs. This, from a guy who before the season had hit 38 home runs in five big league seasons. Scooter doesn’t fit the profile of a guy who would club four in a game, not like the last guy to do it, Josh Hamilton. In fact, Gennett is only the 17th career player to reach this feat, a list that includes Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig. This list also includes the like of Mark Whiten, Bob Horner and the infamous Bobby Lowe, he of 71 career homers. Safe to say Scooter will never have another night like this ever again, so I hope he soaks in all the adulation and enjoys his moment. His name alone will be a fun trivia question to bring up for many years to come.

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Scherzer Meets Kershaw

As the season is unfolding, an interesting occurrence has developed that few probably saw coming: Max Scherzer is making a run at being the best pitcher in baseball. Clayton Kershaw has held that title for close to five years now and while Scherzer has compiled two Cy Young Award’s in that time-span, he still has not performed close enough to even have that conversation. But so far in 2017, Kershaw has put up an ERA+ (which is adjusted to the pitcher’s ballpark) of 185, which leads the league. Scherzer is right on his tail at 181 while leading the league in strike outs, WHIP and hits per 9. On Tuesday, Scherzer was dominate, striking out 14, walking 2 and allowing 1 run (unearned) in his 7 innings of work. In fact, Scherzer has three straight starts of 10+ strike outs, 7+ innings and 1 run or less. It’s going to be interesting to see if Scherzer can keep this up (which I believe he is capable of) and if he can continue to go toe to toe with Kershaw. I love watching Kershaw pitch, but I am always up for some healthy competition between two elite pitchers at the top of their game.

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McCutchen Has a Pulse

Over the last two seasons, there has been a lot of discussion about the decline of Andrew McCutchen. Hitters normally start seeing a regression when they reach their early 30’s, but McCutchen didn’t turn 30 until last October and while injuries have been popping up for him the last couple seasons, it was hard to fathom that his decline would hit this badly, this early. Myself, like many other analysts, felt that McCutchen would bounce back this year and produce at a pace closer to his best years than his lackluster 2016. Instead, Cutch stumbled out the gate this year and as late as May 23 saw his batting average sitting at .200. But over the last 10 games, he has looked like the Cutch of old:

If McCutchen has finally found his groove, that is great timing for him and the Pirates. I am a big fan of not only McCutchen the player but also McCutchen the person. Baseball is stronger with him locked in.

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The Elbow and the Damage Done

Finally, another alarming Tommy John  Surgery stat came out this week worth noting:

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the dreaded Tommy John Surgery and it amazes me that there isn’t more pressure to figure out a more worthwhile solution to this problem. While the new surgery that was done on Seth Maness cut his time out of action down considerably (down to 7 1/2 months), I still feel there should be more research done on a solution, not just a quicker remedy. If you are a believer that a pitcher’s arm has only so many bullets in it, it can’t help that many youngsters are throwing more pitches while their arm is still developing than ever before. If you are of the Nolan Ryan school of thought, you believe pitchers need to throw more, not less. An excerpt from a Ryan interview done in 2014:

 

Ryan said that in September of 1988 with Houston, he began experiencing pain in his elbow and paid a visit to Jobe in Los Angeles, who advised him to shut it down for the last couple of weeks of the season and resume throwing in December.

“There was a partial tear there,” he said. “It still hurt in December, but when I got to spring training, the pain began to dissipate until it was gone. Dr. Jobe said it had scarred over and that helped protect the elbow. I pitched with that tear the rest of my career.”

Ryan had two more 200-inning seasons and led the NL in strikeouts with 301 in ‘89 and 232 in ‘90.

While Tommy John agrees with Ryan, he also feels like I do, that kids today are throwing way too much, especially year round:

“First of all, one of the biggest reasons for all the arm injuries in baseball today is the way young kids are handled by their coaches in grade school and high school, pitching them year-round,” said John by phone from his home in Syracuse. “They’re told if they want to make it, they have to play travel ball — and that results in the over-use of their arms when they’re body is not fully developed. Travel ball has taken over the entire country and parents need to be educated about what this does to these kids’ arms.”

“I absolutely agree with Nolan that more is better,” John said. “Years ago, I’d have gone along with the thinking that there’s only so many bullets in your arm. But we’ve ‘dumbed down’ our thinking today to believing that pitch counts and innings limitations are the way to go to preserve arms. Starting in 1975 with the White Sox, when Johnny Sain was my pitching coach, I would throw six days a week out of seven and it was the best my arm ever felt. For the next 13 years, I never missed a start, except once when I had the flu. Sain believed in throwing between starts and it’s no coincidence that one of his disciples, Leo Mazzone, subscribed to that same philosophy, practicing and throwing every day, as pitching coach for the Braves. The Braves had the best pitching staffs in baseball in the ’90s and all guys like (Greg) Maddux and (Tom) Glavine did was pitch and win and never got hurt.”

So is the answer pitching less in your youth and more once your body has developed? And if that is the answer, how long will it take before travel league or high school coaches actually worry less about winning and more about their kid’s future health? I don’t know if this is completely the solution to the problem, but it doesn’t appear to be a bad place to start.

 

Jason Vargas, Elite Pitcher

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The 2017 campaign has been one filled with disappointment when it comes to the Kansas City Royals, whether it be their sluggish start, the sputtering offense or even injuries to key players like Danny Duffy. But one of the surprises of the season so far would be the resurgence of Jason Vargas. Vargas sat out most of the 2016 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, only throwing 12 innings in his three starts late in the year. Vargas was entering the final year of his contract and many were unsure just what he would be producing before he entered the free agent market. Instead, he has helped anchor the rotation, put up career best numbers and even leads the Royals in bWAR at 2.8. So how has Vargas gone from a steady arm at the back of the rotation to being one of the best pitchers in the league? That is a question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

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First, here are some of the base numbers that Vargas has put up this season: 69.1 innings, 2.08 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 7.01 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9. Most of his numbers to this point are improvements on his career averages, within an obvious smaller sample size. But digging deeper finds that Vargas is posting numbers that are fairly similar to some of his better seasons in the big leagues. In fact, when looking at his performance, there are distinct similarities to his first season in Kansas City back in 2014. Let’s start with his strike out and walk rates, which have both seen an improvement this year. Vargas’ K rate sits at 19.7%, which is the highest in his career; the next closest season to that was his rookie campaign back in 2005, which sat at 18.2%. His walk rate is at 5.8%; his career best was 5.2% back in 2014, his first season as a Royal. Even better is his K-BB%, which sits at 13.9%; before this year, his career best percentage was 9.8% back in 2013 with the Angels. So this shows that Vargas is striking out more batters this year while walking less, which is always an optimal result for a player seeking success. But how is he doing it?

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When looking at the contact hitters are getting off of Vargas, the numbers appear fairly normal. Line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are all very similar to his best years, although his home run to fly ball ratio is way down, sitting at 5.8%, which is only beaten in his career by his rookie year in Florida. This would tell me that maybe hitters are not hitting the ball as hard off of him, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, Vargas’ hard hit percentage is sitting at 30.5%, the second highest of his career, while his soft hit rate is at 18.7%, which is about on par for his career average of 19.1%. Overall, there isn’t a big change in these numbers over his career and especially during his time in Kansas City:

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The chart is just looking at his time with the Royals and as you can see, there isn’t a big change in his release speed…but there is a difference.

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The numbers do show a slight decrease in Vargas’ velocity, which is a tad odd for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery, which normally shows a slight uptick in velocity upon a pitcher’s return. Instead, Vargas is showing a decrease in every  pitch across the board. His fastball was 87.9-87.3 mph during the five years before the surgery, while now it has sat on average around 86.6 mph. His slider has gone down from the 84-83 mph range to 82.3 mph, while curveball is down slightly to 73 mph, moving from 74.9-74.7 mph. Even his change-up has seen a decrease, as it has sat in the 79 mph range this year after being regularly around 81-80 mph. It isn’t a drastic decrease, but it very well could be a sign of Vargas having better control of his pitches and getting more movement on those pitches as well. In fact, the movement is very noticeable when comparing it to years past:

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This chart is looking at Vargas’ horizontal movement on his pitches since 2011. Look at the curveball movement for 2017; if you want to get a better idea of why Vargas is having a bigger increase in success so far this year, the movement on his curveball might be the answer we are looking for.

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Back in May Devan Fink of Beyond the Box Score took a look at Vargas’ season and one of the changes Fink saw was a difference in his arm angle, most notably with his change-up. But the effects haven’t only been seen from his change-up, but also the curveball:

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In fact, his release point has appeared to help his curveball almost as much as his change-up, as pointed out by the graph. Vargas is also throwing his curve more this year than in years past, sitting at 19.4%, compared to his career average of 8% and the 14% he was averaging over the last 4-5 years. Both the change and curve have seen a big decrease in batting average during 2017:

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Vargas didn’t allow a base hit against the curveball last year, but you also have to remember that he only pitched in three games in 2016. Going off his last full year pitched (which was 2014), Vargas had a .333 batting average against his curve while it sits at .227 this year. In comparison, his change-up has seen a drastic drop as well, as hitters had a .202 batting average against in 2014 compared to .135 this year. In other words, it appears the change in arm angle coupled with a slight drop in velocity has made Vargas a more difficult at bat than he was just a few years back.

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So can Vargas keep it up? It appears on the surface that hitters are having a harder time seeing his off-speed and breaking pitches this year and as long as he can maintain the new arm angle it would appear he could keep it up. If that arm angle becomes less consistent though, it wouldn’t be hard to see him give up more solid contact and see his numbers trickle back to his norm. Jason Vargas isn’t going to blow much by hitters but he doesn’t have to if he is able to locate and maintain control. The continued focus on the curve and change-up appears to be a nice double whammy that hitters just have not been able to figure out. Maybe the bigger question isn’t whether Vargas can keep up his pace but whether he will be doing it in Royal blue. His value has never been higher and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Kansas City dealt him sooner rather than later. When it comes to surprises on this 2017 Kansas City Royals team, Vargas is near the very top. It goes to show what a bit of deception and location can do for a pitcher who doesn’t rely on superior velocity.

Duffman Down

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Back in 2015, lady luck was on the Kansas City Royals side. The bounces went the Royals way and in some ways led them all the way to a world championship. So far in 2017, it appears lady luck is “ghosting” Kansas City in a very passive-aggressive manner. The offensive scuffled in April, the relief core, while improving, isn’t a lock anymore and injuries have been a bit more normal. In that vein, the Royals were dealt their biggest blow so far in this short season, as Danny Duffy will miss the next 6-8 weeks with a Grade 1 Oblique Strain suffered in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland:

After getting past the depressing part of this injury (no team wants to lose their top starter for an extended period of time), it is easy to ask the most important question at the moment: where do we go from here?

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First, let’s digest just what the Royals are missing with Duffy out. Duffy has posted a 3.54 ERA over 68 innings (2nd best in Kansas City’s rotation), an FIP of 3.43 and a fWAR of 1.4 (which is already halfway to his 2016 total). Duffy has seen his K rate go down while his walk rate has increased, but that is also factoring in that he was a reliever for the first 5-6 weeks of last year. Also, he had seen his strike outs increase over the last couple of starts. He has also induced less hard contact this year (down to 28.3% from 36.6%) while his WPA is already at 1, almost halfway to last year’s 2.34. To go even further, if you average out his game scores (taking out his three worst starts, including Sunday’s), he has an average game score of 65 over 8 starts. To put it another way, Duffy is the ace of this staff and was showing his 2016 wasn’t a fluke. It’s pretty obvious that moving forward, it will be difficult to replace his production.

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Speaking of, who will get the honor of taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation? There are at least a few options available to the Royals, starting with Jake Junis. Junis is a control pitcher who cleaned up his delivery and improved his arm speed last year and made him self a more deceptive pitcher. Nothing pops out about Junis, as he has an average fastball and curve with a slightly below change and slider, but with the improved control it made all of those pitches a bit sharper. Junis made his first major league start on May 21st (after two relief appearances) and went 4 2/3 innings, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs while striking out 4 and walking 3. The most impressive part of this start against Minnesota was his ability to locate and to move the ball around the plate. To me, Junis should be the Royals first option, but there are a few more for Kansas City to consider if Jake isn’t a good fit. Eric Skoglund will make his major league debut on Tuesday and has an opportunity right now to step up and make an impression. Skoglund is the 4th best prospect in the Royals farm system according to Baseball America and the 6’7″ lefty is similar to Junis: above-average fastball, average curveball, below average slider and change-up but has impeccable control and location. Earlier in the spring I felt like Skoglund could be a nice addition to to the bullpen at some point this year, especially as a lefty specialist. Now he has an opportunity to lock-down a spot in the rotation.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to the bullpen, there really aren’t any relievers that could slide into the starting role and be productive. Chris Young has been given a chance to start this year and failed badly: two starts, only 6 2/3 innings thrown while giving up 9 runs (3 home runs). Travis Wood is a former starter who was thought of as an option to start if an injury happened to someone in the rotation, but with his performance this year I highly doubt the Royals would give him a chance to start at this point. An interesting, out of the box idea would be to slot Matt Strahm as a starter. Strahm was a starter coming up through the Royals minor league system and the team envisions him as a future starter. The one issue with that would be that Kansas City would have to stretch out his arm, which would probably involve a trip to Omaha to spend a few weeks before slotting him in as a starter. Although…if you remember last year, Duffy was moved from the pen to the rotation and the length of his appearances were determined by his pitch count. Conceivably, the Royals could do the same thing with Strahm. I highly doubt this happens, but it is an interesting thought.

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There is one final question being bandied about when it comes to the Duffy injury: Is this the final nail in the Royals contending coffin? You won’t hear me shouting ‘this is the end’, but it’s not looking good, folks. Losing Duffy is a big blow and just having his presence on the mound and in the dugout is a confidence builder to this team. Not having him around hurts and there is no actual ‘replacement’ for him. At this point, it is all about how the Royals perform with Duffy gone. If the team can get some production out of guys who haven’t done much at this point in the season (Read: Gordon, Alex or Escobar, Alcides), that will help. If a guy like Skoglund can step in and perform admirably, then that will help. If none of this happens, we will be discussing trade options in a month’s time. It all comes down to performance and the direction this team takes moving forward is performance-based.

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Losing an elite pitcher the caliber of Duffy is something no team wants to ever deal with, but here we are. All the Royals can do is hope the rest of the rotation (and offense) step up and pull some of the weight Duffy has been carrying. This was supposed to be the last year for this group of players who brought gold back to Kansas City. The band was tuning up for one more tour and Danny Duffy was supposed to be a big part of that. As a fan, I hate that a player who I have grown to adore won’t be able to go out on the mound every fifth day and make hitters look silly. The earliest Duffy will return is after the All-Star break; let’s hope we are talking about how the injury to Duffy woke up the Royals as they made a run to the top of the American League Central. Hopefully…hopefully when he returns he can recognize the players he calls teammates. Kansas City, it’s time to step up. It’s time for someone to get ‘Gnar’.

Rebuilding a Franchise

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Hi, my name is Sean and I am addicted to ‘Out of the Park Baseball’. What is that, you might be asking? Here is the tagline they use on their website:

Out of the Park Baseball is the best baseball management game ever created. Can you guide your favorite baseball team to glory? Win the World Series and build a dynasty?

In other words, OOTP Baseball is the “World’s most realistic sports simulation game”. There are a number of different options of how you can you play this game: you can be the manager, the General Manager, you can play a real league, a fictional league, or an international league…and that is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have ever wanted to know how you would do managing and/or running a major league team, this is the game for you. The thing is, once you get into it, it’s hard to stop. Last year I started a Kansas City Royals franchise, beginning with the 2016 season. That wasn’t a banner season for my team, as they struggled with injuries and a bit of regression, finishing the year 76-86. So going into 2017, I had the majority of the same roster with a number of minor tweaks. Much like the real life Royals, I knew after the season I was going to have a hard time re-signing a large chunk of the core group, but was hopeful they could get off to a good start and put myself in a good position after the season. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

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Instead, I got off to a horrible start. My team went 4-14 in April and while the offense was struggling (once again, sound familiar?) the pitching is what was really hurting me. My starters ERA was over 5.00, relievers were close to 5.00. I knew I would be wheeling and dealing, but wasn’t for sure when I would start the fire sale. I had made a few minor trades in May: I dealt Jason Vargas to the A’s and Alcides Escobar to Arizona, picking up Ryan Madson and Mitch Haniger. Nothing ground shaking but slight adjustments. But on May 24th, with my team 12-26 and 12.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, the fire sale begun. Within a matter of days, I had dealt Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen, Jason Frasor and Jarrod Dyson.  In return, I went out and made my team younger (and coincidentally, cheaper). For those players I was able to acquire Cody Bellinger, Aaron Sanchez, Randall Grichuk, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito. In one fell swoop I had improved my rotation while also re-stocking my lineup with enough young talent to keep a low payroll for at least a couple of years. I also recalled a number of young prospects to fill out the team, as Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling and Ryan O’Hearn all became regulars on my team. I figured if I was going young, might as well go all the way. I accepted that my team would be bad for at least the remainder of the 2017 season, but I would reap the benefits in the future. My goal was to let these players play and let them get the experience they needed. So how is that working out?

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My team, as expected, is still bad. My record on June 5th (when the final deal went through) sat at 15-33; since then I am 12-16. It’s still under .500, but there has been a slight uptick. The youngsters are struggling at times, but at other times they are excelling. The starting pitchers will have a good outing followed by a bad one, while the hitters will go through a stretch where you see improvement while struggling just a few games later. I understand it is a process and don’t expect a huge improvement instantly. Speaking of, my pitching numbers have slightly picked up since all the trades were made and between that and the defense, there have been less blowouts and more close games, which have been split when it comes to success rate. Instant gratification won’t be found here, but I feel better about my team’s future and feel I did the proper moves to help my team in the future. That is where the connection to the real life Royals comes in.

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This whole article has been building to this one big question: how does this game I play reflect on what is going on in real life this season for the Kansas City Royals? Very simply, the Royals are playing themselves out of contention this year and pushing themselves in the direction of a seller rather than a buyer at the trade deadline. Do I think Kansas City can go out, deal their valuable parts the way I did and get about the same return? Probably not. Mine is a game on a computer that has different values than a real GM and also is missing out on the human element. I was able to acquire top-notch prospects like Bellinger and Giolito; the Royals could only hope to pick up prospects of that ilk. But what they can do is get what they can and decide if what is being offered for the likes of Hosmer, Cain, etc. is better or less than the draft pick they may (or may not) get the following year. It is a tough line to straddle and I don’t envy the position that Dayton Moore is in. I struggled with my game on whether I wanted to throw up the white flag or move on. Eventually, I gave in and decided to start the rebuild now. In my estimation, that was a better route for my team; what is the better direction for the Royals in real life?

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Here is the honest truth: this time next year, the Royals will look completely different from where they currently stand. Royals fans need to brace for the fact that there is a good chance the team isn’t able to keep Cain, or Hosmer, or Moustakas or Escobar…and that’s not a bad thing. While rebuilding is scary, it is also a reality in today’s game, unless you are a team with endless money. In my eyes, if this Royals team is still slumbering around by late June, then they are probably better dealing off what they can and start moving in whatever the next direction is for this team. Avoiding the inevitable only makes for more suffering and bigger heartbreak. It might appear on the surface that it is easier to tear down a team on a computer simulated game; in reality, it is not as hard to do in real life, with focus, determination and a clear, precise direction. The first question Moore needs to ask himself (and he probably already has) should be ‘where do we want to be ‘x’ years down the road?’, which should be followed by ‘how do we get to that point?’. Start there and begin to move forward. We are getting closer and closer to just pulling off the band-aid and dealing with the pain.

What Is Wrong With Alex Gordon, Take Two

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2017 was supposed to be a comeback year for Alex Gordon, a year where he could prove all his skeptics wrong and show that last year was an outlier for him. Gordon struggled throughout 2016 and while some attributed it to the hand injury that occurred last May, others felt like his regression had begun. Players in their early to mid 30’s normally see a drop off in their production and it appeared that might just be the case for Alex. But this offseason, Gordon worked out like a fiend, hoping to be the phoenix rising from the ashes. Instead, this year has been one of the most frustrating seasons of his career, as he is hitting .152/.264/.192 through 35 games has yet to hit a home run and only 5 extra base hits (all doubles) to his credit. Last year I looked at some of his issues: little did I know we would have to do the same thing this year. So lets once again ask the question-what is wrong with Alex Gordon?

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One of the big issues last year with Gordon was an increase in his strike outs and him swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone. So far in 2017, Gordon’s K rate has slid back down to normal levels (20.8% compared to last year’s 29.2%) while his O-Swing % (which is the percentage of pitches swung at outside the strike zone) has fallen to 24.8%, down from 27. 4%. The interesting part is that Alex is making more contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone (53 O-Contact %, 88.1 Z-Contact %), which also means his contact rate has increased as well (78.3%, up from 71.9% in 2016). With his strike outs down, this makes sense and is actually back on par with the previous five seasons before 2016. So a big part of his problem last year has been addressed and fixed; if that is the case, what has negatively changed since last year?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Kansas City Royals

Digging a bit deeper, it doesn’t take long to point at a few problem areas for Alex. One, his soft hit rate is up this year, sitting at 20% (16.1% in 2016) while his hard hit rate is down (28.4%, compared to 36.9% last year). If you have watched the Royals at all this year, it won’t shock you in the least. Line drive and fly ball rates are down (19.1 and 27.7%, respectively), while his ground ball rate is up (53.2%, a big increase from last year’s 37.9%). Once again, not shocking if you have watched him at the dish this year. What did surprise me a bit was that his pull rate was down; I was certain that he had been pulling the ball much more this year in year’s past. Instead, it is down to 41.1% while his opposite field rate is also down to 16.8%. This means he has been hitting the ball more up the middle (up 10% to 42.1%), which is normally a good thing. Unfortunately, quite a bit more shifts have been put on Gordon this year and a number of line drives that he has hit up the middle have been hit directly to a fielder, normally the shortstop who has shifted over to behind the second base bag. It is a bit surprising to see that he has hit the ball to the opposite field less, especially since he is a better hitter when hitting it to left-left center field. One would think if he got a few more hits to the opposite field, it might cause him to get out of this funk and compile a few hits to help his cause.

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Next, we take a look at the variety of pitches that he has seen since 2016. Now, it is still early in the season, but far enough into it that we can see a pattern forming. First, here is the percentage of pitches seen:

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Next, the swing percentage of pitches thrown at him during that span:

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From the numbers, it is evident that Alex is swinging at more hard and off-speed pitches and less at breaking balls. What is different this year, has been that while he has been more patient with breaking balls, he also has a greater chance to swing and miss at those pitches (39% whiff/swing with breaking balls). In fact, his whiffs per swing on breaking balls has picked up tremendously since 2015:

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While these numbers explain part of the story, there is another piece to the puzzle. When Gordon faces left-handed pitchers, he is seeing a breaking ball (most specifically sliders) a vast majority of the time. Against lefties, Gordon sees a slider 21% of the time in all counts, 25% when the batter is ahead and 26% with two strikes. Lefties have been throwing more sliders and curves to Alex and they have been a difficult pitch for him to handle.

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There is also the issue of Gordon and fastballs, which has raised some eyebrows the last two seasons. Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star wrote about this issue earlier today:

From 2011 to 2015, Gordon was the sixth-best hitter in the American League against fastballs, compiling 92.4 runs above average, according to data from FanGraphs. To look at the players who were better is to see a list of the best hitters from the era: Miguel Cabrera, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz, Jose Bautista and David Ortiz.

But then came 2016, and Gordon’s numbers against fastballs plummeted. He compiled just 1.1 runs above average against the pitch. This year, he’s been the 24th-worst hitter in the American League against fastballs, compiling -2.3 runs above average. He entered Tuesday batting .190 against four-seam fastballs and .167 against two-seamers, according to MLB Statcast data. For comparison, the league-average batting average against four-seam and two-seam fastballs was .271, according to Baseball Savant.

So the question has to be asked: is Gordon starting to regress and is having difficulty catching up with the fastball?

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The numbers seem to attest that very well could be a possibility and has to be concerning for Kansas City management. If this is the case and we are seeing the decline of Gordon, one has to wonder how he will react to it. Alex has always come across as a very competitive player, someone who will put in the time necessary to improve his game. If he is slowing down and his reactionary time is fading as well, he might have to change his game plan up, looking for more off-speed pitches while only focusing on the fastball when necessary. Good hitters over time have dealt with this same issue and have found a way to cheat a little while not seeing their numbers completely dropping off the board. This very well might be the course of action Alex has to take moving forward. Gordon still has the capability of being a productive player, but the days of 20 home runs a season might very well be in the rear-view mirror. Gordon is still a plus defender and is still vital to the Kansas City clubhouse and with his contract is probably not movable. Luckily, it is still only about six weeks into the season, time enough to turn things around and salvage this season. Over the last few weeks we have seen Eric Hosmer and Brandon Moss among others awaken and start hitting. Is it now Alex’s turn? We all hope so. This is not the way most Royals fans envisioned Gordon’s last few years in Kansas City evolving. Hopefully the ‘Prodigal Son’ can bounce back and prove his worth. I don’t know about you, but I still believe.

 

 

Forever Royal

Kendrys Morales, Jarrod Dyson, Eric Hosmer

When a team wins a championship, it is only natural for fans to grasp onto the players who elevate the team to that level and cheer them on for years to follow. It is also natural for rosters to change and these same players to eventual leave, whether by a trade or free agency. A number of notable members of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals were sent packing in the offseason and are now setting up residence east to west, north to south and even in Canada. With that in mind, lets see how these former Royals are doing away from Kansas City.

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First on the list is former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson who has set up residence in Seattle. I’ve been interested to see how Dyson would do elsewhere for a while now, just for the fact that Kansas City always seemed to use him in situations where he could succeed. Seattle has talked about using him as a regular, and knowing how Dyson struggles against lefties, I have wondered how that would play out. So far the numbers haven’t been glowing: .202/.294/.257 with a wRC+ of 59 over 127 plate appearances and a fWAR of 0.3. All of these numbers are heavily down over his career averages but the sign of what really might be ailing Dyson appears to be on where he is hitting the ball. So far this season, Dyson has a 45.5% ground ball rate, where he has averaged 57.2 % over his career. Meanwhile, his fly ball rate is sitting at 38.6%, while his career average sits at 25%. It’s still early, but a player like Dyson (one with little power plus game-changing speed) has to use his positive tools to his advantage. These are all numbers that can be flipped around in a timely manner, but it might just show the difference between an organization that cultivated him and the new one that is still getting acquainted. The Royals always seemed to have a good idea of Dyson’s limitations and used him accordingly. For Jarrod’s sake, I hope he turns things around and can get back on pace to his career numbers.

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Edinson Volquez left Kansas City for Miami in the offseason, signing a 2 year, $22 million deal with the Marlins. In six starts, Volquez has posted an ERA of 4.71 with a FIP of 4.91. What has been noticeable in Eddie’s numbers is the pick up in Strike Out %…and Walk %. Both have seen a healthy increase , with strike outs up from 16% to 24% and walks up from 8.9% to 16.5%. Control has always been an issue with Volquez and those numbers had started rising last year in Kansas City. 2017 has also seen Eddie’s line drive rate, fly ball rate and hard hit rate all see an increase, which can’t be a good sign in the long run. Volquez’s velocity numbers are also on par with 2016, or at least close enough that there shouldn’t be any worries there. One last number I wanted to check was BABIP: the last few years Volquez has had the luxury of having the Royals elite defense behind him. So far in 2017, his BABIP sits at .347, compared to .319 last year and .290 in 2015. The good news for Marlins fans is that all these numbers are just through six starts, so there is lots of room for improvements. But the other side of that coin is that Volquez’s numbers have been skewing this way for a while now, so there isn’t a whole of shock in what we have seen so far in Eddie’s numbers.

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When Kendrys Morales signed with Toronto, I was sure that he would see his power numbers go up. Moving from Kauffman Stadium, where home runs go to die, to the Rogers Centre seemed like a lock he would see his numbers rise. But to this point, it hasn’t happened. So far in 2017, Morales is hitting .244/.294/.433 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI’s. Most of his numbers have seen a dip this year: strike out rate, walk rate, ISO and so on and so on. While he has seen his fly ball rate go down and the ground ball rate go up, there are some positives to his numbers. His line drive rate has seen an increase, as has his HR/FB ratio. But the numbers just don’t tell a good story, as even his hard hit rate has dropped while his soft hit rate has climbed. The one positive for Blue Jays fans is that this feels very similar to Morales’ 2016, where he struggled throughout the first two months of the season…and then June happened. So while it might look questionable right now, just wait Toronto fans. June is just around the corner.

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Maybe the hardest goodbye this offseason was Wade Davis headed to Chicago, despite the fact that it felt like the best time to deal him. Wade so far has been as dominant as we remembered him, as he has yet to allow a run in over 14 innings. Davis is coming off of an injury plagued 2016, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a jump in his numbers. Strike out rate up, walk rate down. Soft hit rate up, hard hit rate down. Maybe most impressive is his fWAR, which already sits at 0.7; for the entire year last year, he accumulated 1.3 fWAR. There has been a slight decrease in velocity, but that has been going on for a couple of years now and honestly, is expected as he reaches his early 30’s. There is still a part of me that wonders if his forearm issues come back into play this year, but hopefully for Wade and Cubs fans, it is just me thinking the worst right now. So far to date, the Davis/Soler trade swings in the Cubs favor.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Detroit Tigers

Then there is old friend Omar Infante. Infante is currently down in AAA, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Detroit Tigers minor league affiliate. In 105 plate appearances, Infante is hitting .253/.276/.293 with a wRC+ of 55. If Detroit ever calls him up, it would have to be to fill a roster spot and provide a bit of depth as a backup. It appears as if Infante’s time as a starter is probably in the past, but there is always a place in baseball for a guy with his experience. We just all wish he was doing that without costing the Royals money this year…

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While there will always be an emotional connection to guys like Dyson, Morales and Wade Davis, baseball is a business and at some point everyone moves on. This is another hard reminder that by the end of this season, more members of the 2015 World Championship team will be former Royals rather than current. While these players move on to sometimes greener pastures, it sometimes is the best for both parties as well. Remember, while the present isn’t as glamorous as the past, those memories can never be taken away from us. All these guys are and always will be #ForeverRoyal.

 

 

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