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Bleeding Royal Blue

Inside the mind of a Kansas City Royals fan

Month

April 2016

Dayton’s Farm

 

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

From about 2009 on, I have regularly followed the Kansas City Royals minor  league teams to keep track of the development of the prospects throughout the Royals farm system. Initially it was done to get a glimpse into brighter days, as the big league club was struggling and the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez were all being touted as the future of the organization. Luckily, I enjoyed keeping track of the future big league stars in the minors and have continued following the development of the Royals prospects. So while the Royals are now the World Champions of baseball, their farm system is still chugging away with a number of players who will end up contributing to the big league club. Today, let’s look at some of the players who are putting up good numbers down on the farm.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s begin with the Royals AAA team, the Omaha Storm Chasers. The Chasers are about 21 games into the new season and have gotten some solid hitting from their lineup in the first few weeks of the 2016 campaign. Jorge Bonifacio has been the big bopper so far, as he is currently riding a 10-game hitting streak into Saturday’s game. Bonifacio, the brother of former Royal Emilio Bonifacio, has been hitting at a .333/.341/.571 clip with 4 home runs, 17 RBI’s and 48 total bases. Bonifacio has had some competition though, as Cheslor Cuthbert has been tearing it up as well, hitting .325/.393/.584 with 5 home runs, 23 RBI’s and 45 total bases. But it hasn’t just been the hitters stealing the show for the Chasers so far this year, as Brooks Pounders is 2-0 in his first 4 starts, with an ERA of 2.25 and a WHIP of 1.20 to lead the Chasers pitching staff.

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Meanwhile, let’s mosey on over to the Royals AA affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The name on most people’s lips on this team is Raul Mondesi Jr, who is one of the Royals top prospects. While Mondesi has shown some decent power this year for really the first time in his career( 4 home runs so far, 8 total extra base hits), the early staple of the Naturals lineup has been former #1 Draft Pick Hunter Dozier. Dozier is hitting .299/.405/.627 with 5 homers, 14 RBI’s and 42 total bases. On the pitching side, the team has been bolstered by two guys I have talked about before, Alec Mills and Matt Strahm. Both have 4 starts under their belt so far this year, ERA’s under 2.00 and WHIP’s under 1.00 while striking out a combined 41 batters over 45 innings. I still think their future is tied to the bullpen, but so far they have been the horses of the Naturals’ rotation.

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The final stop on this Royals minor league tour is Kansas City’s High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. A player who has been steadily rising on the Royals prospect board is first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn has been a ‘One Man Wrecking Machine’ in Wilmington, putting up a line of .366/.424/.707 with 7 home runs, 18 RBI’s and 58 total bases in just 21 games. On the pitching side, the Blue Rocks have been led by Pedro Fernandez, a fireballing righty who has been almost unhittable so far this year. Fernandez has struck out 23 over 22 innings so far this year, posting a 1.21 ERA and a WHIP just a hair over 1.00(1.03). These two players are the best prospects in Wilmington at the moment and I would have to think will be in AA before the year is up.

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So a quick trip through the Royals farm system shows a number of prospects are putting up stellar numbers in the early going of 2016. It’s still too early to tell just how many of these players will end up helping the Royals, although one would think at least a few will see time in Kansas City before the season is over. What this shows is that while the Royals are one of the older teams in the American League, there is still youth in the minors that could be helping the team in the near future.

One Thing Does Not Lead To Another

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(Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The big story around baseball on Friday was that Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon had been suspended for 80 games because he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Gordon had tested positive during Spring Training and had been appealing the suspension until he decided to drop the appeal on Thursday. There are a number of items of note to take from this suspension, whether it be the fact that Gordon doesn’t fit the stereotype of a PED user(although if you have been paying attention, when a pitcher like Jason Grimsley is in the Mitchell Report you know that stereotype isn’t always true), the question of why someone who just signed a new guaranteed deal would do anything to endanger that, to why some people are questioning the validity of the testing done by MLB when it obviously seems to be working. All those topics are interesting(as are the five Jayson Stark threw out there today) and well worth a discussion, but it’s not the direction I am going today. Instead, I want to focus on the narrative some so-called “journalists” are tossing out there. I was at work this morning and while listening to the radio, caught the NBC Sports Update, a small two minute look at sports news. They mentioned the Gordon suspension and then at the end of it said “…by the way, Gordon’s hitting coach is Barry Bonds.” Obviously, this rubbed me the wrong way, as it had absolutely nothing to do with Gordon’s situation other than to imply something about Bonds. What is even worse is that I have seen three different articles throwing the same insinuation out there. What has happened to journalism?

MLB: MAY 26 Marlins at Pirates
May 26 2015: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

By no means am I sticking up for Barry Bonds here; I think most of us agree Barry probably did something he shouldn’t have, even if part of the problem was that baseball wasn’t testing anyone during that period. No, the whole issue is that this has nothing to do with Bonds, AT ALL. The implications by these “news outlets” is that Barry Bonds, a former suspected PED user, helped point Dee Gordon in the direction to use PED’s. That is just ludicrous and shoddy journalism at best. What has been taught over the years to journalists is to get your facts straight and lay out all the information that you have. That doesn’t mean point to a narrative that will give you more link clicks or put up misleading headlines to grab people’s attention and then have nothing of any actual substance. The fact that Bonds is Gordon’s hitting coach this year is merely a coincidence and means absolutely nothing to whether or not Gordon took something he shouldn’t. So the narrative pushed is that Barry told him “Hey man, you should take PED’s; they will make you a bigger star and pile up your numbers!”, which just seems crazy if you think about it. Even crazier is the fact these news outlets are throwing that narrative out there, completely killing any credibility they once had.

USP MLB: WASHINGTON NATIONALS AT MIAMI MARLINS S BBN USA FL
(Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY)

Even if you read the ESPN article I linked above, they mention Bonds. No facts to back up the possibility of Bonds getting in Gordon’s ear, not other Marlin’s getting suspended, nothing. This is where journalism is in 2016. So if any San Diego Padres player gets caught using PED’s, does that fall at bench coach Mark McGwire’s feet? If any New York Yankee tests positive, should we all point the finger at Alex Rodriguez? Just writing that made me shake my head because it is beyond ignorant to assume such a thing. This is what happens when writers are lazy and don’t have any actual facts but want to drive up the hits on their story. Just because one (suspected) PED user was in the same vicinity as someone who tested positive for these performance-enhancing substances doesn’t mean there is a direct correlation; it means that even with modern day testing and harsher penalties, these players still want to get an edge any way possible, legally or illegally.

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The most ironic part of this poor excuse for journalism is that this is a big story even if Bonds’ name is never mentioned. Mentioning that last year’s batting title winner and National League All-Star tested positive for PED’s and would be suspended for half the season is a big story without dusting off the cobwebs and taking shots at Barry. This story is about Gordon and how even in the modern era of baseball, players still feel the need to endanger their spot in the game for the possibility of “getting one up” on the competition. The story can even be how MLB’s drug testing is working, catching up to seven players already this season. Instead, many writers take the easy way out and decide to use “shock journalism” to create their own narrative. The funny thing is, I wonder what Bonds would say if a player asked him today if it was worth it for him to take an illegal substance to gain an advantage? He very well might say it wasn’t worth it since he has been shunned by the baseball Hall of Fame and in a lot of circles he isn’t viewed as the true “Home Run King” of baseball. Right there is why you don’t mention Bonds name in any Gordon story about his suspension. If you don’t know how Bonds feels about the subject at this point in time, there is no way to assume he has discussed anything other than hitting with Dee Gordon. That is what a real journalist would call a fact; maybe outlets like NBC and ESPN should look into that more often.

Diamonds and Pearls:Royals Random Notes

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We are just a few weeks into the season and the Royals are standing atop of a very tight American League Central, as most assumed they would. It’s hard to get too worked up about much of anything this early(especially since number-wise everything is a small sample size), but there have been a few patterns that have shown a light on the performance of a few Kansas City players. I figured today we would take a glance at these few items while also taking into consideration where the team is at early in the season. What do the people say, onward and upward? Sure, let’s do that.

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Let’s start with last year’s MVP candidate, Lorenzo Cain. Cain was able to become an offensive force for Kansas City in 2015, but so far has struggled offensively in 2016. Some have pointed to his uptick in strikeout totals, like Hunter Samuels did for Baseball Prospectus Kansas City. As of Friday, Cain’s strikeout % is sitting at 28.6%, a major increase from last year’s 16.2%. While the K’s have been alarming, I have been pleasantly impressed with the patience Cain has shown at the dish. Over his career, the highest walk % Lorenzo has ever produced was 7.5% in 2013. Like most of the Royals, Cain just doesn’t walk much. But so far this season, he has upped his walk % to 14.3%, as he has walked 9 times in the first couple weeks of the 2016 season. Cain walked a grand total of 37 times last year, so he is already 1/4 of the way to that total. I have enjoyed seeing him be more patient at the plate and I think that also explains his strikeout numbers this year. If he is being more patient(and he is; Cain has increased his pitches seen per plate appearance this year, 4.27 to last year’s 3.79) than it seems just as logical that he is batting with two strikes on him more often. When that happens, you are bound to strikeout a bit more, as you are battling deeper into the count. It will be interesting to see what direction these numbers go throughout the rest of the year and they will be worth the time to occasionally check up on. I like that Cain is working the count more in his at bats, but you also have to realize when that happens there is a high chance that the strikeouts will increase as well. Hopefully Cain can learn to be patient while also knowing when to be more aggressive, as he has been known to do in the past.

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Speaking of a Royals player whose strikeout totals are up, there is Alex Gordon, although I was wanting to talk about something else where “A1” is concerned:

It has fallen a tad, down to 40% as of the time of me writing this, which is still a very good percentage and shows when he gets a piece of the ball he is getting good wood on it. It seems by the numbers that Gordon has been hitting less fly balls(20%) while staying on pace with his ground ball percentage(40% so far this year, 37.6 last year). If you’ve watched a good portion of Royals games, you are probably shocked by these numbers. It just hasn’t seemed like Alex is stinging the ball so far this year. His hard hit % is down a smidge(26.7%) this year, but his medium hit rate is up(56.7%), so that could explain some of the line drive’s being hit by Gordon so far. The line drives also appear to be helping his BABIP, as it has risen to .379 in the season’s first couple weeks. I tend to think this is a good sign, as Alex is a notorious slow starter and these numbers tend to say that he is seeing the ball well. In fact, I might even go out on a limb and say we could be seeing an Alex Gordon hot streak in the very near future.

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So we all knew Ian Kennedy would be this good through his first three starts in Royal blue, right? Um, sure. Go ahead and count me as one of the early skeptics of the Kennedy signing, but so far into 2016 he has proven everyone wrong. In three starts, Kennedy has thrown 20 innings, giving up only 3 runs and an ERA+ of 284. What is interesting is his strikeouts per 9 is on par with 2015 while his walks per 9 is only slightly below last year. You can probably assume part of Kennedy’s early success can be given to having the Royals defense behind him, as he was stuck with San Diego’s awful ‘D’ last year. But it also appears as if pitching coach Dave Eiland made just a slight adjustment to his game plan on the mound this year that seems to have helped Kennedy:

So Eiland(who was also a coach in the Yankees system as Kennedy was coming up through the minors) has wanted Ian to keep the ball down and stay away from missing the ball up in the strike zone. One of Kennedy’s big bugaboo’s over the years has been a tendency to give up the long ball. It would only make sense that if you continue to miss higher up in the strike zone, that there would be a greater chance of giving up some sort of extra base hit. Missing lower in the zone can cost you as well, but the percentages say it would be more likely to get a ground ball or a pop-up in that situation. I had made the comment back when the Royals signed him that I felt we would get some excellent starts from Kennedy as well as some stinkers and for the most part I stand by that. But if Kansas City gets more outings like he has thrown to this point than the bad ones, I don’t think anyone will complain. So far, so good for Kansas City and Ian Kennedy.

MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

…and then there is Joakim Soria. There has been a lot of concern about Soria since Opening Night, when he struggled in his return appearance to Kansas City. Since then, Soria has had some great outings, some good ones and a couple of rough patches. Craig Brown of BP Kansas City recently took a look at some of Soria’s issues and the consensus was that he was having location issues as well as not missing many bats. The funny thing is that while he appears to be struggling, there are a number of factors that point to a little bit of bad luck. For one, batters are not hitting the ball hard on Soria. His hard rate % is only around 20%, which is the lowest of the Royals top four relievers(Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Luke Hochevar being in that group). In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, Soria has allowed a number of bloop and dink hits so far into the season which would also explain his BABIP of .375, which is ridiculously high for almost any reliever(to give you an idea, Davis’ is currently at .071!). His velocity has also been on par with past seasons, which is a good sign that any trouble that is occurring is easily fixable. In fact, Dave Eiland might have already found a solution:

Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland called Soria into a room early Wednesday afternoon. Eiland had noticed something the night before and confirmed it by watching slow-motion video after the game, but he waited for emotions to settle to meet with Soria.

In baseball speak, Soria has a “lazy front side.” In normal-people speak, his front arm is drifting off to the first base side, which isn’t generating the guidance or power needed for his throwing arm. It is a problem, affecting both movement and location, but coaches would love for this to be the extent of their pitchers’ problems.

So Kansas City is hoping this slight adjustment could solve most of Soria’s woes. It will still beg the question being asked: Should Kelvin Herrera be throwing in the 8th inning instead of Soria? The answer is ‘probably’ but the Royals have an unique situation here where they have such a surplus of arms that the options are plentiful. It sounds like the team will go with the guy who is pitching the best at the time, which could be Herrera, Soria or even Hochevar. The door isn’t closed on Soria pitching in the late innings, but it does appear that it will matter on who has the hot hand at the time. In other words, what inning he comes in for will all be determined on how Joakim is throwing  at the time.
Salvador Perez, Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Royals currently inhabit first place in the American League Central and have the best record in the AL at 11-5, so things are going smashing for the defending World Champions. It’s still early so any issue at this point is purely minute and nothing to get too worked up about. It’s a long season folks and the Royals have only played about 1/10 of their games, so a long path is still ahead. It’s sunny in Kansas City and it appears the road for every other team in the league will have to run through the Royals to get to the big destination, the World Series. I have a feeling Kansas City will welcome the challenge with open arms; just a thought. We lost some royalty this week, but the “Royalty” in Kansas City is still chugging along.

 

Moose’s Power Surge

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When I initially started this piece, my plan was take a look at Mike Moustakas’ home run history, broken down by month each year. But as I took a deeper look at Moose’s 2015 home run numbers, something jumped off the page at me. After hitting either  two or three homers for each of the first four months of the year, he exploded for five home runs in August and seven(7!) in September/October. When you add in the four home runs he has already hit through the first eleven games of this season, I have to ask a question: is Moustakas finally living up to his expected power potential?

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While Moustakas was coming up through the Royals minor league system, the expectation was that he had a good chance of producing some great power numbers. Here is a scouting report back  in 2009 from MLB.com:

Plus bat speed and a good swing translate to outstanding raw power, though he showed more of it in 2008 than last year. He does have the ability to hit the ball out to all fields.

There was also this about his upside potential:

Middle-of-the-order run producer who is a constant home run threat.

Also, this scouting report of Moose back when he was drafted in 2007:

Moustakas can flat-out hit and has potential to hit for average and power.

He’s a left-handed hitter with serious power. He homered three times in this game.

So there was a prevalent thought even back when he was in high school, that Moustakas could be a major power threat in the middle of Kansas City’s batting order. Even his minor league numbers showed a hitter with plus power, including 36 home runs in 2010 as he split time in AA and AAA.

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Some of that power has translated over in the big leagues. Moose connected for 20 homers in 2012 with a slugging percentage of .412 and wrapped up last year with 22 and .470 respectively. In fact, the last two months of 2015 might have been a window into some of the power predicted by scouts before he was even drafted. Not only was there the 12 home runs during that span, but also 17 doubles and a slugging percentage of .562. So there seemed to be a change in philosophy in Moustakas from his approach at the plate early in 2015 and the numbers agree with that. Early in the season, Moose’s Fly Ball % hovered in the 30’s but jumped to the upper 40’s starting in July. His Home Run to Fly Ball % also jumped, from below 10% to 13.5% in August and a whopping 17.9% in September. A big part of his early season success was attributed to a philosophy of hitting the ball to the opposite field, as shown by his Pull % lingering in the mid to upper 30’s. August and September saw those numbers rise into the 40’s, while his opposite field numbers falling down into the 20’s. It definitely appeared on the surface that Moustakas was trying to drive the ball more in the second half of the season, with definite success showing up over the last two months of the season.

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It also appears as if Moose’s pitch recognition has improved as well. Last year it became very apparent that teammate Lorenzo Cain had figured out which balls he could drive and which ones he should just go with, leading to his best season to date. I tend to believe a big part of Moustakas’ success late last year and early this year can be attributed to better pitch recognition as well and realizing which pitches to pull and which ones to just go with. So far this year he has avoided rolling the ball over to second base and instead has taken those pitches the opposite way, while pitches that he can scorch(and let’s be honest, most of those are fastballs placed middle to in on him) he has been driving to the deeper portions of right field. Pitch recognition is sometimes a hard facet of the game to grasp, but when a player picks up on it, that normally means a whole new world has been opened to them.

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So it is early into 2016 (and everything is a small sample size) but it does appear as if Moose’s approach at the dish is very comparable to how he ended 2015. Moose has opened up the new campaign with 4 home runs in just 11 games and his numbers show they aren’t too far off from the end of last year. Obviously his Pull % is higher(57.5) but the Oppo & Cent % are both close to his last few months of ’15, while his Fly Ball % is on par. There are a few numbers that are inflated by it being so early in the season(Moose’s ISO is up over .300 and his Home Run to Fly Ball ratio is a solid 26.7 over last year’s 11.2%) but some of those numbers will even out as more games are played and he racks up more at bats. With the advanced attention being paid to taking the ball deep though, that could also mean that Moose could approach the 30 home run plateau, which is very rare in Royals history. There have been only ten(10!!!) 30+ home runs seasons in Royals history, with the last player to hit that high water mark being Jermaine Dye(with 33) back in 2000. Billy Butler came close with 29 in 2012, but fell just short of adding his name to a list that includes Chili Davis, Gary Gaetti, Dean Palmer and the Steve Balboni, who holds the season mark with 36 back in 1985. So Moustakas will look to achieve something that is very rare in Royals history, but not completely impossible.

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So if Moustakas increases his home run total this year and approaches or passes 30 dingers, is that a plus or a minus for Kansas City? I have to admit I am quite partial to the Moustakas that was flinging the ball all over the field early last year and something about “Oppo-Moose” stirs warm fuzzies in my belly. But I am also aware that Kansas City has longed for a power threat on their team for years now and they might have just produced one. Since this Royals lineup is filled with good, solid bats like Cain, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon, I tend to believe that having Moose provide more pop might help balance the offense out a bit more. If Mike can hit above .270 while still producing around 30 bombs, then it has to be considered a win/win for the Royals. If he is languishing around .250 or below then the extra homers are not worth it. I think there is a good chance we see a big season this year from Moustakas(as long as he can avoid injury; he did miss Friday’s game due to slight hamstring soreness) and while I don’t believe we will see him topple Balboni’s season best mark, I do think he could get close. It will be interesting to follow Moose’s power numbers this year and see how they progress. Will he trail off or continue to bomb away? We will know soon enough…

New Look Eddie?

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In 2015, Edinson Volquez was the rock of the Kansas City Royals rotation. While Yordano Ventura got the attention for his fiery fastball and his antics on the field, Volquez was the true ace of last year’s pitching staff. It should be no shock that whenever manager Ned Yost needed a solid start, especially early in a playoff series, he went to “Sexy Eddie” to get the job done. What was intriguing was the increase in Volquez’s velocity in the playoffs, as October seemed to give him a big shot of adrenaline. In fact, during the postseason Volquez saw a velocity bump, from an average of 93.8 mph during the season to 95.2 mph in the postseason. It didn’t change Eddie’s game much, but the extra tick in his fastball was helpful. After two starts to this 2016 season, Volquez seems like he has changed up his game a bit with a little bit of that velo hanging around. So is Volquez a different pitcher this year? I decided to dive in and take a look.

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Before we begin, I feel I should state how this is based purely off of just two starts for Volquez, so we are definitely dealing with a small sample size. Just remember this as we look at the numbers that they could change with a couple more starts tacked on later this week. Okay, onto the numbers. It has seemed to me through Eddie’s first few starts that he has really been utilizing his off-speed stuff more and it has elevated his strikeouts. Looking at the Pitch F/X data, Volquez has been throwing his fastball pretty close to his normal rate(12.0 to 12.3 last year) while usage of his change-up isn’t too far off(23.4 to 24.7). The differences seem to lie in his sinker and knuckle-curve, one he is throwing more and the other he is throwing less. Volquez has thrown the knuckle-curve less(21.5 to 24.1) so far this year, although it has never been a big weapon in his repertoire. The sinker on the other hand is being used more and it shouldn’t be surprising.

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If Volquez has an “out-pitch”, it would be his sinker. The key to Volquez’s success truly relies on his ability to induce grounders with his sinker and let the Royals defense handle the rest. Last year Volquez used his sinker at a higher percentage than at any other time in his career, a solid 38.9%. So far this year, he has upped it to 43.1% which seems to signify how comfortable he is in not only throwing the pitch but also the trust in Kansas City’s elite defense. Not only is Volquez throwing this at the highest frequency of his career, he is also throwing it at the highest speed. In his two starts this year, Eddie is averaging 94 mph on his sinker, which is slightly higher than the 93.8 mph he was averaging in 2011 with the Reds, a season where he only threw the pitch 17% on average. It will be interesting to follow and see if this trend keeps up or it fades a bit as the season wears on. What will also be interesting to follow will be the upward velocity tick Volquez has seen since October.

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It was discussed quite a bit during the playoffs that Volquez saw an increase in his velocity, with most chalking it up to a surge in adrenaline from playing in the postseason. But early on this season, it seems some of that velocity has stuck around:

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As you can tell from the chart, Volquez has seen his velocity spike over 95 mph quite often with a few pitches even coming up on 97.5 mph. Now, this could very easily be a situation once again of a pitcher being pumped up for a big matchup, as he did throw on opening night against the Mets. But with even a small bit of continuity from last year, one does have to wonder if there was a small adjustment in his delivery that pitching coach Dave Eiland found that has increased Volquez’s velocity. This is yet another item to keep an eye on as the season unwinds, especially since the velocity has an instant effect on his other pitches, including the sinker.

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Volquez is only two starts into this 2016 season, so obviously it’s a little early to get too excited about a slight adjustment in a game plan. What the stats are telling us at this point though is that Volquez could very well be in for an even better 2016 and it’s worth keeping an eye on. The Royals don’t need Volquez to go out and win a Cy Young Award to be successful, but any increase in production this year would be a bonus. Volquez has always been known as being a pitcher with great stuff but the inability to completely harness it. If he is able to reign in the inconsistent losses of control, we could be looking at a banner season for the man we call “Sexy Eddie”.

 

Enter Pitch, Exit Velocity

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As a “stat-geek”, I am always on the lookout for a new statistic in baseball that will give me a deeper look at the game that we all love. In 2015, MLB Advanced Media made a hitter’s exit velocity available for the first time on a regular basis and ever since I have been mesmerized. In case you are not in the know, exit velocity is very simple; it’s essentially the speed of the ball after it makes contact with the bat, or a radar gun for the batter. You might be asking yourself just why something like exit velocity can help teams gain an advantage over their opponent…and that would be a valid question. So why is this fancy new statistic such a hit? Well, there are many reasons for it’s success.

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The most obvious reason is the fact that you can measure which batters are hitting the ball the hardest. If you are consistently nailing the ball with a high exit velocity, then the likelihood is that you are stacking up hits at an efficient rate. Looking at the top average exit velocities in 2015 and you obviously will find some of the biggest home run hitters in the game. There is no shock that Giancarlo Stanton led this category last year, averaging 99.1 mph launch speed on balls hit; Stanton might be the most prolific home run hitter in the game right now. But looking at the Top 15 and you see a who’s who of sluggers; Miguel Cabrera, Miguel Sano, David Ortiz, Jose Bautista, Kyle Schwarber and Mike Trout are just a few of the names littered near the top. These are not only big home run hitters, but also some of the most elite hitters in the game, period. The easy answer is that if you have a high exit velocity, then there is a good chance you are going to be near the top of the leaderboard for extra base hits. There are still other factors in play(like actually hitting the ball. See Peguero, Carlos) but exit velocity will show you who is hitting the ball the hardest on your team.

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For instance, let’s look at the Royals exit velocity leaders last year. Top of the list is Kendrys Morales at 92.9 mph on average; Morales just put together a great comeback season last year while winning a Silver Slugger award. He also put up 22 home runs, 41 doubles and drove in over 100 runs, so one would assume his exit velocity numbers were higher than what they were in 2014. Same for Royals minor leaguer Jose Martinez, who had one of the highest exit velocities in the minors last year and put together a career year for Omaha. What is really fun is going and looking at Kansas City’s playoff exit velocities. Granted this is a smaller sample size, but three Royals had an average exit velocity above 94 mph(Lorenzo Cain, Morales and Salvador Perez) with Morales having the highest average launch speed during the postseason. Exit velocity won’t give you instant success, but in a shortened period like the postseason it sure would indicate a higher chance of success, especially if you have multiple players near the top of the rankings.

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But there are a couple more reasons to keep your eye on a hitter’s exit velocity. For one, it could be a window into a possible injury. A hitter would tend to put up a fairly consistent exit velocity, as it is five times more the batter’s doing than the pitcher. If a batter has shown a major dip in his exit velocity and shown that over a regular period of time, then there is a possibility that player could be injured. There is no way to 100% quantify this, but if a player is averaging an exit velocity in the mid 90’s, then averages an exit velocity in the lower 90’s/upper 80’s in a short amount of time, there is a good chance that player is hurt. Exit velocity could actually help teams determine if a player should play through the injury or take up some DL time.

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Another interesting pattern to watch would be a player’s regression. Most know that as a player gets older his abilities will start to regress and a statistic like exit velocity would(and should) show a declining pattern. The difference between an injury and regression is that an injury would show a more sudden decline while regression would be over a longer period of time. Look at it this way; a batter isn’t going to wake up one day and all of a sudden lose a ton of bat speed and show a weaker hand eye coordination.Both of those skills will slowly erode over a long stretch of time, so you would have to look at a number of years of exit velocity to get a true feel for a regression. Since Statcast is still in a somewhat early infancy, this is probably still a few years away from being something an organization would use. I could easily see teams using it to determine keeping or trading a player or even using exit velocity to determine whether or not to sign a free agent. This is the beauty of a stat like exit velocity; we are still learning from it and how to use it to evaluate players and their abilities.

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In a baseball world where power is still a highly coveted commodity, exit velocity could be the holy grail to determine who to stack into the middle of a batting order. The fun part for those of us that love stats is how the possibilities are endless. With the information that is currently available, it is possible to break down a hitter’s exit velocity into pitches, into whatever the count is at the time of the hit(3-2, 0-1, 2-2, etc.) or even against individual pitchers. Statcast has opened up a whole new door into baseball statistics and we should all welcome them in. Exit velocity is just another way to look at a game that is constantly evolving using the technology available today. I still want my peanuts and cracker jacks, but go ahead and throw in a side of velocity and launch angle.

The 2016 Kansas City Royals: Top of the Mountain

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Last year in my Kansas City Royals preview I asked this question after they came one game away from winning the World Series: “So now what?”. We got our answer, which was the Royals returning to the Series and winning the whole damn thing in just five games. The Royals last year had one goal on their mind and they were going to do everything in their power to reach that goal of being world champions. This Royals team didn’t listen to critics, analysts or even numbers when it came to reaching the top of the mountain. Now that the Royals have reached the pinnacle of the sport, the question now becomes ‘Can they repeat?’…and the answer might surprise you.

New York Mets v Kansas City Royals
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

I’m going to break down the Royals into segments, starting here with the starting rotation. In 2015, the rotation put up decent numbers but wasn’t the most reliable group of moundsmen in baseball. As a team, the Royals were 22nd in starters WAR, 24th in IP, 15th in LOB%, 9th in ERA, and 10th in FIP. The rotation was fronted by Edinson Volquez, who duplicated his WAR from 2014 in Pittsburgh and was the most reliable starter manager Ned Yost had. In fact, looking at his numbers, Volquez was very close to replicating his bounce back 2014 season and that is meant in the most positive of ways. Yordano Ventura was initially looked at as the ‘Ace’ last year but efficiency and maturity became an issue. Ventura still put up decent numbers(8.6 K/9, 3.57 FIP and 102 ERA+ over 163 innings) but there is hope that he can put up stellar numbers in this, his third big league season. New acquisition Ian Kennedy was acquired for one reason-eat innings. Kennedy had another poor season last year in San Diego(4.51 FIP, 85 ERA+) but he did strike out 9.3 batters per 9 innings and there is hope that with Kansas City’s defense and above average outfield defense his numbers will improve this year. Chris Young is returning for his second season in Kansas City and was a strong veteran presence in the Royals rotation last year. Young was exactly what the Royals needed, posting a a WHIP of 1.086, and an ERA+ of 135 over 123 innings. Young split time last year between the rotation and bullpen and will look to do the same this year. Rounding out the starting five is Kris Medlen, who returned last year at midseason from Tommy John Surgery. Medlen only threw 58 innings last year, but more is expected from him this year with hope he will return to something resembling his 2012-2013 form. Medlen was acquired more for this year than last, so what he truly can do post surgery is likely to be seen this year. The Royals have some depth this year in case of injury and struggles, with Mike Minor being a possibility after June. They also have Danny Duffy and Dillon Gee stowed away in the bullpen for now(and more than likely they will break the glass for emergency at some point this year), with a few guys in the minors a possibility as well. Kyle Zimmer’s name has been long rumored as contributing this year, and time will tell if he is physically and mentally ready for the big time. A guy like Miguel Almonte is also an outside shot, but there is probably a greater chance he sees time out of the bullpen this year.

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Speaking of the bullpen, the Royals are returning a large part of the core of a pen that has been a force in baseball for a number of years. Last year the Royals were 5th in baseball in relievers WAR, 17th in K/9, 1st in LOB%, 2nd in ERA, and 10th in FIP. Wad Davis returns for his third year in the bullpen for Kansas City, following two of the greatest seasons a relievers has ever tallied. Over the last two seasons, Davis has accumulated 139 innings, striking out 187 batters while posting an ERA of 0.97, an FIP of 172, and an ERA+ of 418(league average is 100). The one thing that will be different is that this will be his first full year as the Royals closer which means there will be a new bridge to Wade in the 8th inning. That bridge looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria, returning to Kansas City after stints in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Last year Soria racked up the most appearances of his career while posting his lowest ERA and highest ERA+ since 2010. Kelvin Herrera will also return to help setup and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Luke Hochevar used as well in that position. Gee and Duffy will be the longmen out of the pen, with both occasionally starting while Chien-Ming Wang resurrected his career this spring and will also be used out of the bullpen. The great thing about the Royals is that there are more arms ready to go in the minors, as guys like Scott Alexander, Brian Duensing, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills and Brian Flynn could all see action this year. Even starters like Almonte and Zimmer could be used in relief at some point. This is the deepest part of the Royals team and is so good that it makes the Royals starters only have to go 5-6 innings a start if necessary to hand it over to the biggest strength the Royals have.

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One thing that has to be mentioned here is that the Royals pitching numbers(both starters and relievers) wouldn’t be so good if not for the Royals incredible defense. Last year the Royals had the highest defensive rating in baseball, the 2nd most defensive runs saved,  and the highest UZR. If you want to know the real reason the Royals have excelled these last two years, it’s because of the bullpen and the defense. The Royals currently employ three returning Gold Glove winners from 2015(Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez) while also having Alex Gordon patrolling left(a four time Gold Glove winner) and Lorenzo Cain in center, two of the best defensive players at their positions. Throw in above average defenders all around the diamond(Mike Moustakas at third, Omar Infante at second) and a right field platoon of above average outfielders(Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando) and you have a team with above average defense at every position. This team was specifically built this way and has given the Royals an unfair advantage for a number of years. I would expect more of the same from the Royals ‘D’ in 2016.

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That leaves us with the offense, which took a big leap forward in 2015. Kansas City is returning 8 of the 9 starters in their lineup this year so they are hoping for similar output as they saw last year from a number of players who elevated their game. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Lorenzo Cain all improved on their 2014 offensive seasons which helped the Royals offense be a bit more potent last year. The team ranked 5th in offensive WAR, 5th in stolen bases, 7th in runs scored, 1st in lowest strikeout %, 11th in BABIP, 11th in OBP, and 10th in wRC+. The Royals are infamously known as a team that doesn’t walk or hit many home runs, which shows up in the totals; they had the worst walk % in baseball, 24th in home runs but 11th in sluggening percentage. Kansas City is smart to play to their strengths offensively, which they did to a ‘t’ last year  but there are a few areas they can improve on. Alcides Escobar struggled for a good portion of 2015, but could see a jump in his age 29 season, as he has shown a pattern of improving on offense in even years. Last year, both Omar Infante and Alex Rios ended the year with negative Wins Above Replacement, and the Royals are hoping to improve at both positions this year. Infante is back, and for almost the first time as a Royal, is healthy. Infante won’t walk much and probably won’t produce like he did for Detroit in 2013, but an improvement would help his cause and not make the Royals search for a second baseman come July. Rios is gone, and in his place is the platoon of Dyson and Orlando, who both had positive offensive WAR in 2015. I’m not so sure the Royals will replicate their offensive numbers of a year ago(and I could see a scenario where Moustakas and Morales specifically take a slight slide down)but overall this should be a team who produces enough offensively to help the starting pitching while also putting extra pressure on opposing teams late in the game, which has become their specialty. It’s a cliche saying, but for the Royals it really is all about the little things.

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Kansas City’s coaching staff returns for another season and that includes the skipper, Ned Yost. Over the years I have been less than enamored with Yost and in some ways that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that since late in the 2014 season, Yost has learned to trust his players and just allow them to go out and play ball. In a lot of ways this has lead to the Royals success and I give major props to Ned for staying out of his own way and only making major in-play decisions when necessary. He’s also put more stock in what his coaches pass along to him, which tends to lean toward a team with more on-field success. Yost will never be my favorite, but these ballplayers have embraced him and as long as they have his trust, his voice will be heard. Hard to argue with the direction he has steered this Royals team in the last two years, so I am hoping for more of the same this year.

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So what is on tap for the Royals this year, or at least in my estimation? I lean toward another successful year, one in which the chance of postseason play is a very high possibility. It’s hard in today’s baseball landscape to win back to back World Series’, but I don’t doubt this team, not in the least. This is a team that has had the percentages and odds against them for two seasons now and they keep coming out on top. I figure nothing much changes this year, in that regard. You can bet against the Royals and say the numbers are against them; I won’t be the one betting against Kansas City. No, I think more success is just around the corner, as the Royals plan their next big comeback. Kansas City, Kansas City here they come…again!

   

Guesstimate: My 2016 MLB Predictions

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Here we are: we are in the section of Spring Training where you can see the upcoming regular season on the horizon, but it is still far enough away that you just wish you could fast forward to games that actually count. Luckily, this also means we are close enough to camps heading north that we have a decent idea of how most team’s rosters will look. Every year I take my stab at how I think the season unfold, mostly with comical results. Here is my 2014 and 2015 predictions if you are looking for a good laugh(although I did guess fairly well on the playoff teams in 2014). I do want to reiterate one nugget of information that I’ve been preaching about the last few years: predictions are just guesses. This is just simply a fun little exercise I do before the season starts for me to look back on in October and see how far off I was. It is purely fun and that is how it should be taken. So here we go; my guesstimation of the 2016 season!

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American League East

  1. Toronto Blue Jays
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. Baltimore Orioles

Last year I felt like no one AL East team stood out from the rest and any one of those teams could step up and win the division. There is still a feeling of an openness, but with a little more division in the way of talent. The Blue Jays look to be the team to beat, as they are returning a large portion of their division winning team and have a top-notch offense to carry their team. While Boston returns most of their roster that struggled in 2015, there is a belief that there is no way they are as bad this year…especially now that Hanley Ramirez is not in the outfield and they have David Price anchoring the rotation. The Yankees could make a run again, as they have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. My main issue with them is the aging stars(Beltran, Sabathia, A-Rod, etc.) holding back the rest of the team. Tampa has some great pitching but what will they be able to do offensively? Then there is Baltimore. I want to root for the Orioles to surprise everyone this year, but I’m not for sure it will happen. Sure, Chris Davis is back(which I think is good) but not much has been added to the roster. Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo might add some needed pop, but what will Baltimore lose if/when either plays on defense? Yovanni Gallardo will give the team innings, but how efficient will he be? As you can see, there seems to be more questions than answers with Baltimore, and that scares me.

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American League Central

  1. Kansas City Royals
  2. Minnesota Twins
  3. Cleveland Indians
  4. Detroit Tigers
  5. Chicago White Sox

This is always my hardest division to pick, as I am a lifelong Royals fan. Saying that, the last two years I have not picked the Royals to get to the playoffs and both years they made it to the World Series. So why pick them now? In all honesty, I really believe they have the most talent of any team in the division, thus my pick to sit on top of the AL Central. Behind them I see a cat fight for second between the Twins and Indians. I’ve gone back and forth on who should be where, but alas I went with Minny in second and Cleveland third, as I really like(fear?) the talent accumulated in the ‘Twin Cities’. Detroit and Chicago bring up the back of this division in my mind, as Detroit still feels really old to me(even with the acquisitions of  Upton and Zimmermann) and despite Chicago overhauling their offense, they still don’t feel like a playoff caliber team. The interesting part here is that I could easily see a scenario where this division could be a dog fight, with five teams within 5-8 games of each other. Right now though, until someone knocks off the Royals, they have to be the favorites.

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American League West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland A’s

The West should be a fun division this year, if for no other reason than to see if it is competitive or if the Astros and Rangers dominate the division. Houston has to be the favorite this year, as they not only will try to build off their playoff run in ’15, but also will have Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers(once he returns from injury) from day one of the season. I really like what the Rangers management has done with this team and tend to believe they will be a serious contender this year, especially if Yu Darvish is able to return to his old form. Jerry DiPoto has done an admirable job trying to fix the Mariners roster, but it feels like an uphill battle for the team this year, with success more likely in the future. What can you say about the Angels and A’s? I would probably have the Angels in last if not for Mike Trout and his ability to carry this team on his back. But Angel’s management is a mess  and only slightly worse than their farm system. The A’s seem to just be biding time until their next wave of prospects can start infiltrating the major league roster. Oakland might not be as bad as they were last year, but I can’t see them being serious contenders in 2016.

MLB: New York Mets at Cincinnati Reds
(Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY)

National League East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

Last year was supposed to be the Nationals’ year, as many(myself included) figured they would end up in the World Series. Instead, a late season collapse left them on the outside looking in and costing Matt Williams his job. Now Washington has retooled their roster while adding known players’ manager Dusty Baker to the fold. While Baker is about as old school as they come, players love him and I tend to think he will make a big difference in that locker room this year while losing some of the team’s tension. The Mets will be right on their tail and look to repeat as National League Champions this year. The Mets pitching will take them far, but the offense will be the real deciding factor in New York. Miami has added a new manager(Don Mattingly) and a new hitting coach(Barry Bonds) to shake up a young and talented Miami team. One has to be curious as to how lethal the Marlins could be if they can get a full season out of Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. Atlanta stocked up on prospects this winter and are left with Freddie Freeman and a cast of other players for the Braves this year. They might not make much noise this season, but the Braves are looking good in the next couple of years. The Phillies? Well, they won’t be very good but a few steps were taken to improve on a dreadful 2015. So there is that.

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National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. Pittsburgh Pirates
  3. St. Louis Cardinals
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Cincinnati Reds

2015 saw the NL Central send three teams to the playoffs. I have to believe that won’t happen two years in a row, which might leave the Cardinals missing the playoffs this year. The Cubs are the early on favorites not only to win the Central, but also to win the World Series. One has to think Chicago will grow on their stellar 2015 and are looking to win their first world championships since 1908. The Pirates will look to be hot on the Cubs heels and it’s hard to argue with the success this team has had the last couple of seasons. My guess is that Pittsburgh will join Chicago in the playoffs comes October. That would leave the Cardinals on the outside looking in, as they lost more than they gained this past offseason and are betting on a number of veterans like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina to bounce back this year and stay healthy for the Cardinals to be real contenders. That being said, I find it hard to count St. Louis out. The Brewers won’t be horrible but they won’t be great and the Reds from the outside look to have a few good pieces but are multiple players away from being contenders.

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National League West

  1. San Francisco Giants
  2. Los Angeles Dodgers
  3. Arizona Diamondbacks
  4. San Diego Padres
  5. Colorado Rockies

The West could be a lot of fun this summer and I could envision a scenario where the top three teams in the league could be shuffled in any order. My pick is for the Giants to come out on top, as they bolstered their starting pitching with the acquisitions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and adding Denard Span to help the defense. Throw in their main nucleus of Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner, and give them a future Hall of Fame manager(Bruce Bochy), and you have the makings of a division title. Oh, and the Giants win in even years; there is that too. The Dodgers look to be in the discussion as they have Kenta Maeda replace Zack Greinke in the rotation while their best pick up this winter being manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers will be in the running but chemistry is a big part of their story yet again this year. Arizona went out this offseason and made some good transactions(Greinke) and some head-scratchers(Jean Segura??). How far the Diamondbacks go this year will be determined by how the younger talents like AJ Pollock and Patrick Corbin perform. At this point San Diego and Colorado are afterthoughts. Neither seem to have much direction nor a captain to steer them away from rocky weather. It could be a long season for fans of both.

Awards 

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY)

American League

MVP: Manny Machado

Cy Young: Chris Archer

Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton

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National League

MVP: Giancarlo Stanton

Cy Young: Jacob deGrom

Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager

Playoff Teams

Luke Gregerson
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

American League

Toronto, Kansas City, Houston, Texas, Minnesota

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National League

Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York

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So there are my guesses on the upcoming 2016 campaign. I look forward to revisiting this come October and laughing about how far off I was. One of the great things about baseball is every spring we make our predictions on how we think things will evolve, yet we rarely guess correctly. I love the fact that they play six months of games to determine who plays in the final month and what happens in April doesn’t always dictate what occurs in October. The season is a grind and much like a good book it will have a ton of twists and turns to question just where your team ends up. There is a reason they play the games; what would be the fun of the season being decided by guesses? The drama of baseball is what keeps bringing us back and keeps us on our toes. I love this damn game and can’t wait to see how this season unfolds. I can promise you this; you won’t see it coming. Play ball!

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