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Bleeding Royal Blue

Inside the mind of a Kansas City Royals fan

Month

September 2016

Celebrating Jose Fernandez

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The entire baseball community has been mourning the sudden death of Miami Marlins All-Star pitcher Jose Fernandez since the news of his passing on Sunday morning. I, like many others, was in a bit of a haze on Sunday, as it was hard to grasp that such a talent with his whole life in front of him was now gone. I’ve tossed around writing about Fernandez the last couple days, but in some ways felt I wouldn’t be able to do him justice nor say anything that hasn’t already been said by many others. Instead, I finally decided on doing something else to honor him; show you his greatness rather than talk about it. Actions speak louder than words, and with that in mind, here are some favorite Jose Fernandez moments to remember him by.

First, there is his first major league home run. Yes, it’s weird I started off with a batting highlight for a great pitcher,  but the joy he showed in this personified him to a ‘T’. Also, baseball’s unwritten rules are still stupid. There was zero reason for anyone to get mad at him for watching his first ever home run.

Speaking of firsts, here is Fernandez’s major league debut. At the beginning, glance at his minor league numbers. Twenty Seven total minor league games?? Crazy. It was known very early on that this kid was going to be special and he was.

Instincts. This is Fernandez at 21. I’m not so sure many veteran pitchers would have that kind of “game awareness”. A great play on defense.

Seriously, this speaks for itself. Folks, baseball is a kid’s game and no one understood that more than Jose Fernandez.

For the unaware, Fernandez was a very good pitcher. This highlight from back in July was not only a career-high in strikeouts, but also his 500th career strike out. When healthy, Fernandez was easily one of the best pitchers in the game and a treat to watch.

Cuba vs. Cuba. Fernandez vs. Puig. That smile. Fernandez just loved playing baseball and you could tell.

I feel like I am underselling it when I say he was a great pitcher. He was a great athlete. This, also from July, was Fernandez pinch-hitting in extra innings with a big pinch hit double. In some ways it made perfect sense that Fernandez was playing in the National League, where he could pitch and hit.

Seriously, Fernandez made Barry Bonds smile. That within itself should show how special Jose was. For me, a longtime Bonds fan, this is great to see. Barry and Jose, enjoying the game and having fun.

That reaction. I almost wish I was a Marlins fan. I celebrated after the Royals won the World Series last year…but not like that. Just fantastic.

This was Fernandez’s final start, a week ago against the Nationals. Fernandez threw 8 scoreless innings, striking out 12. In other words, he was making a push to be named the National League Cy Young award winner.

Vin Scully has a way with words. It only made sense to have him talk about Fernandez and relay a great story in the process.

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There is a big hole that is now missing in Major League Baseball. Fernandez was not just a once in a lifetime player that the game could use as a spokesman for as to why baseball is so great; Jose was a once in a lifetime person. Fernandez joins a list of players taken too soon from us, guys like Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson and Darryl Kile. The only difference is that those players were all veterans who had made their footprint in baseball for years; Fernandez was just getting started. As much as Jose will be missed, there will come a time that a new player will come along with great talent and unbelievable joy. There will be a player who just oozes happiness to be part of this grand game. When that happens, I hope it makes us all think about Fernandez. We will all miss watching him perform on the diamond, but I think I will miss that contagious smile more. Rest in Power, Jose.

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Rooting Problems

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For the first time in 3 years I have no idea of who to root for when the Major League Baseball playoff’s start in a few weeks. As a Kansas City Royals fan, this is the first year since 2013 that our “Boys in Blue” haven’t been a part of the postseason and during that span I appear to have forgotten how to pick a team to cheer for come October. Since I need to figure out the team I am pulling for, I figured I would break down each team that will probably end up in postseason play and see which one I should be cheering for. Yes, this seems like a perfect scientific approach to this issue…said no one ever. I have no idea where this will lead me, folks; I guess we are going to find out together.

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Boston Red Sox

Boston is an interesting start to this experiment. For one, I really appreciate the fact that a big part of this team’s core was built from within, as up and comers like Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts are homegrown talent. It’s hard to dislike second baseman Dustin Pedroia and I can appreciate this team’s offensive approach. But the team’s pitching could be an issue, although the starters have held their own this year for the most part. The bullpen doesn’t seem as strong and we all know how important the pen is during the postseason. But more than anything, I am tired of the David Ortiz narrative that has been spewed this season. I am officially sick of the adulation and instantly shut my ears down once he is being discussed. With the expectation being that the Ortiz talk will only intensify as the team progresses, I can’t condone cheering for this team. I won’t put myself through that kind of mental hell. So Boston probably won’t be my team.

Chance of Cheering: 25%

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Cleveland Indians

The Indians have some big positives going on. For one, the starting pitching has been a force all year for them, although they are now down a Danny Salazar and a Carlos Carrasco, which might not bode well for them(sounds like more Trevor Bauer to me). I have always felt Terry Francona is one of the better managers in the game and knew it was a matter of time till he got this team on the same page. In some ways, this team reminds of those late 90’s Indians teams that were a young bunch of players blossoming at the same time. But…they are in the Royals division and despite the fact I don’t hate them like I hate the White Sox, I just can’t, in good conscious, root for a team in the same division as “my team”. There’s also that whole bad luck thing with Cleveland over the years. So the Indians are a no-go, no matter how many positives there are on this team. I. Just. Can’t.

Chance of Cheering: 15%

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Texas Rangers

The Rangers are the best team in the American League and it is easy to see how they have gotten here. For one, they have an electric offense, built around Adrian Beltre and Ian Desmond and have a great bunch of complimentary players. Hey, they get votes from me just for having Roughned Odor on their roster; anyone who punches Jose Bautista in the face is a friend in my eyes. They have also gotten a good season out of Cole Hamels, but the pitching is a bit worrisome. Starters are in the bottom fifth of the league while their relievers are in the bottom third, with neither posting the greatest of numbers. But I kind of like this team, and they have never won a World Series before, which makes them a bit more intriguing. I’m not completely ready to buy in, but my interest is piqued with Texas.

Chance of Cheering: 55%

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Toronto Blue Jays

No. Just no. Look, I have no issue with Blue Jays fans. I love Canada. But…all I can think of is Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista complaining about pitchers throwing inside, while wearing enough body armor that they could be considered part of King Arthur’s ‘Knights of the Round Table’. Or Bautista throwing Ryan Goins under the bus in last year’s playoffs. Or really anything Bautista says. Look, I’m sure there are reasons to root for this team. I just don’t see any of them and instead might be rooting against them. Sorry, Toronto.

Chance of Cheering: 0%

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Baltimore Orioles
Credit: Tommy Gilligan (USA TODAY)

Baltimore Orioles

Alright, now we have the first team that I feel like I can really get behind. I’m not the biggest fan of teams known for their propensity for slugging the ball, but watching a player of Manny Machado’s caliber can change a man’s mind. Add in the likes of Adam Jones and Mark Trumbo and you have an offense that could rival Boston’s if given the chance. Baltimore’s starting pitching isn’t going to blow anyone away, but their bullpen is a different story. The pen is lead by Zach Britton, who has had a phenomenal season and could get a number of first place votes for the American League Cy Young award. Not many expected the Orioles to be where they are today, and for that I could easily see myself cheering for them.

Chance of Cheering: 75%

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Washington Nationals

Washington is another team I can see myself rooting for. I like their young core of players like Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon and enjoy watching guys like Stephen Strasburg (who hopefully will be healthy soon) and Max Scherzer in their element. This Nationals team seems like a perfect fit to make a deep run in the playoffs this year and should be a serious World Series contender. Will Daniel Murphy put on a playoff tear like he did last year for New York? Will Scherzer dominate like he does in the regular season? Will Jayson Werth cuss in a postgame interview again? The Nationals could be a fun team to follow this October and would be a good choice to cheer on.

Chance of Cheering: 80%

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Diego Padres
(Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are an interesting team, as they are a weird hybrid of talent and dysfunction, and I’m not just talking about Yasiel Puig. Is this the year the Dodgers get over the hump and return to the World Series? Is this the year Clayton Kershaw dominates in the postseason? Hey, it could happen to worse teams. I would love to see Kershaw strap the rest of the team on his back as he leads them to the ‘Fall Classic’. This is a very talented team but definitely one that has their flaws. I could see me rooting for them, but a few other teams would have to fall to the waste-side for that to happen.

Chance of Cheering: 50%

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San Francisco Giants

We’ve all made the joke; The Giants have won the World Series the last 3 even years, so of course they will be accepting the trophy again this year, right? Hey, I might be inclined to tell you this team is different and could have some big obstacles in front of them if/when they reach October. But the other part of me knows that this is a team that has ‘been there and done that’ and should never be counted out. They still have Buster Posey. They still have Madison Bumgarner. They still have future HOF manager Bruce Bochy. So yeah, the odds might be stacked against this team, but they seem to like it that way. Sound familiar, Royals fans? Add in the quirkiness of Hunter Pence and Johnny Cueto and I can’t say I won’t root for them. They just don’t feel like my first choice, that is all.

Chance of Cheering: 65%

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New York Mets

Yep, these guys are back. In many a way, they feel a lot like last year’s team; great pitching, weaker hitting. I am not opposed to watching the Mets young fireballers throw shade in the postseason, in fact that seems like it would be fun. I would LOVE to see Bartolo Colon hit a walk-off home run to win Game 7 of the World Series, because “Big Sexy” is capable of anything. There really isn’t much with this team that I dislike, but there really isn’t a ton that compels me either. In other words, the Mets probably aren’t my ‘October Team’. Plus, I still hold it against Mr. Met for almost knocking me over at Kauffman Stadium at the All-Star Game in 2012. But that is another story for another time…

Chance of Cheering: 55%

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St. Louis Cardinals

As a self-respecting Kansas City Royals fan, I can in no way, shape or form, root for the Cardinals. It is against everything I stand for and everything I believe in. Plus, every ounce of my body hates them. Sorry, this ain’t happening!

Chance of Cheering: -1000%

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Chicago Cubs

…and we have our winner! Sure, a few of you would assume I am cheering for the Cubs since they are the odds on favorites to win the World Series. Nope, that’s not it. Hey, could it be wanting the team who hasn’t won the whole thing in over 100 years to finally come out on top? Nope, try again. It’s not even because one of my favorite players (Ben Zobrist) plays on this team, or my fondness for Joe Maddon. All these reasons, while solid, aren’t the real reason that I will be rooting for the Cubs this October. No, the real reason is simpler than all of that. As a kid, I loved baseball. By the age of ten, I was fully engulfed in baseball fever. It became the obsession it still is today. Back in those days, we didn’t always get to watch my favorite team, the Royals, as they only aired them maybe once or twice a week, at best. But what team was on almost every single afternoon, and especially when I came home from school? The Chicago Cubs. The Cubs were shown on WGN on a daily basis and in my thirst for baseball I would sit and watch an insane amount of games…or at least watch them until I decided to go outside and actually play baseball! So because of this, I still have a deep affinity for the Cubbies. They are a part of my youth, and I will always hold them in a higher regard than a lot of teams because of it. Yes, I want the curse to be broken and I want all those Cubs fans to have some of the joy that us Royals fans got to wrap ourselves around these last few seasons. They have earned it. Because of this, I’m rooting for the Cubs to break through and get their third world championship. You can think it’s me jumping on a bandwagon, but it’s me acknowledging that this franchise was a big part of my love of baseball over the years. I’m just looking to give some of that back.

Chance of Cheering: 100%

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So there you go; I guess I should have seen where this was going but it was still a fun little experiment. It will be weird this October to not see the Royals in the playoffs, but it will be a lot less stressful. Here’s to hoping your team is one of the teams I mentioned  and that they have a deep run in the postseason. It’s a month of excitement, great performances and unbelievable results. It is the best reason to love baseball…and it is almost upon us!

 

 

 

The Ballad of Billy Butler

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Less than surprising news came forth on Sunday: The Oakland A’s released DH/1B Billy Butler. This was not a shock, since Butler has struggled in his two years in Oakland and there was no way he was returning to the A’s in 2017. Butler’s numbers in Oakland were pedestrian at best:  .258/.325/.394, OPS+ of 99, -0.8 bWAR with 19 homers and 96 RBI’s in 843 trips to the plate with Oakland. At the time of the signing the belief was that it seemed like a weird pairing, as Butler’s fly ball numbers had been on the decline while his ground ball ratio continued to rise. Much like Kauffman Stadium, this seemed to be a bad fit in Oakland’s large ballpark. But Oakland showed the money, so Butler jumped(which I have no issue with). Now that Butler is free to sign where he wants, the question has been ‘What is next for Billy?’ and there seems to be a variety of ways to answer that question.

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Let’s start with question of his regression. The numbers on Butler speak of a player who has been on the decline since his age 28 season in Kansas City back in 2014, where most of his power numbers took a dip; extra base hits, ISO, slugging percentage and wRC+ all were down from his career year in 2012 and even his 2013 season. I mentioned the rise in ground balls which started back in 2013, and it is still very high for a guy like Butler, who has no speed and is better suited to spray the ball to the outfield or hit the ball in the air. In reality, his ground ball ratio this year is actually the lowest of his career(42.3%) but that is also with the least amount of plate appearances as well. There has also been in increase this year in his line drives (29.1%) and his hard hit percentage is back up to previous levels (up to 33.3% compared to 30.4% last year). I want to think that this increase is a sign of Butler coming back to his glory year levels, but I also realize we are dealing with a smaller sample size and he has had irregular playing time so far in 2016.

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Butler also has to repair his clubhouse reputation, which took a big blow after his scuffle with teammate Danny Valencia last month. The most interesting aspect of the fight was while Valencia has always been known as a malcontent…

…Butler wasn’t always loved in Kansas City. Maybe the hardest criticism came from former Royals captain and Royals Hall of Famer Mike Sweeney:

It got worse:

“Billy is a great-hearted guy. He’s like a 31-year-old kid that can hit, that wakes up and says I’m going to go out and get two hits today. Sadly, whether we win or lose, it wasn’t at the top of the list for Billy, as far as my experiences with him. But he’s a great-hearted guy, he’s just not a team guy. I felt the same with Danny.”

The general consensus from former teammates and reporters has been that Billy cared more about his numbers than how the team did and could be very annoying in the clubhouse. I’ve never heard anyone say he was a bad guy, but it does sound like his act was harder to take when he was struggling. This does coincide with his behavior at times in Kansas City. For one, he was never a big fan of being a full-time DH and he still complained about it his last season there in 2014. He also was still taking issue with his lack of playing time, which he commented on earlier this season:

“I’ve never been in this position before. I’ve played every day of my life from when I was 7 years old, so this is something new. I don’t even know how to exactly prepare for what I’m supposed to do because I’ve never had to do it, so I just try to treat it like I’ve treated everything else, like I’m a starter. I know I can do it in this game. There’s not a lack of confidence in my abilities.”

Butler never really seemed to grasp why he had become a part-time player and that seemed to affect his performance on the field. The bottom line is that Butler has been in a free-fall for a few years now, which has dictated his playing time. For him to continue in the big leagues, that attitude has to change.

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So what does Butler’s future look like? By no means does this release mean the end of his career, especially since Butler will be in his age 31 season in 2017. There is still value in Billy and his bat, but a few things have to change. For one, he needs to just be happy to have a major league job. You want a player who is confident and believes he can be a starter, but Butler is at a point in his career where he has to earn a job moving forward. Butler needs to go into Spring Training with the mentality that he will take whatever he can get, even if he feels like he deserves to start. He also needs to grasp that being a positive force in the clubhouse will get him farther and prolong his career. No team wants a bench player who is also a bad seed; that is a good way to find yourself on the unemployment line. In a few words, Butler needs to reinvent himself and I honestly believe the best place for him to be next year is in the National League. In the NL, he will see more pinch-hitting opportunities while getting the occasional start at first base. He would also possibly start at DH in interleague games and can put forth a mindset of approaching the game from a different angle. It’s hard to tell whether or not he would do this, but there is still value in Billy Butler; he just needs to work on being better, both as a hitter and a teammate. He is at a crossroads of his career where his decision this offseason might be the biggest of his life. He needs to decide how important playing professional baseball is to him. I’m still rooting for him to succeed, but he is going to have to be better or his career could be close to wrapping up.

 

 

Less Than Steady Eddie

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In 2015, there was no steadier part of the Kansas City Royals rotation than Edinson Volquez. If there was a big game situation, Volquez was the man to turn to. You knew that if Volquez was on the mound, he was going to keep the Royals in the game and give them the best opportunity to win. But baseball can be a funny game and the joys of success one year can turn into the dread of failure in another. Volquez has struggled most of this year, posting a 5.02 ERA over 166 innings, with a 2.10 SO/W ratio, 4.39 FIP, 1.470 WHIP and an ERA+ of 88(20 points below last year’s 118). Volquez’s walk and strike out ratio are on par with last year’s totals, so what has changed for “Sexy Eddie” this year?

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My first instinct is to say most of it is based off of pitch location. Let’s first take a look at Volquez’s horizontal pitch location:

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Looking at both 2015 and 2016, it appears as if his hard stuff is fairly comparable, but there are some bigger differences between his breaking stuff and the off-speed pitches. The biggest change is in his offspeed stuff, which is leaning a bit more away this year, which might be a sign that he is leaving his offspeed pitches a bit more over the middle of the plate. Now a look at the vertical pitch location:

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This tells a bit different story and leans toward location being a big factor. While his breaking pitches appear to be at least moderately comparable to last year, Eddie does show he has kept the ball up a bit more this year, which can be a problem. It also seems he has been keeping his off-speed stuff down, which is a major positive. Volquez has made a consistent effort to keep his hard stuff down in the strike zone, as it has been on a decline since the beginning of the season, with a slight uptick this past month. There is one more locator factor that I wanted to take a look at:

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No pitcher wants to groove a pitch, or at least groove one and have the batter take advantage of it. This chart really shows that Volquez has been grooving more pitches this year, especially his hard stuff. Between that and the increase in grooved breaking balls, you can see why Volquez’s hits per 9 and home runs per 9 have both increased this year.

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This also lines up with how hard batters are hitting the ball off of Volquez:

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The graph shows that Volquez has been above league average quite often when it comes to exit velocity, but it also shows a lot of inconsistency this year. Week by week, Volquez seems to see his numbers drop or rise, with very little consistency showing up in his exit velocity numbers. This is a lot different from his 2015 exit velocity numbers:

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There are some big jumps here as well, but for the first four months last year, Volquez was pretty consistent when it came to the exit velocity off of his pitches. I don’t believe this is a change in velocity, as he has been not only really consistent in that regard this year, but very comparable to 2015 as well:

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So if it is not velocity, then it goes back to location and use of pitches:

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Volquez has been using his four-seam fastball much more this year than last, while also using his change-up less and less. This puzzles me quite a bit, since the changeup is Volquez’s out-pitch and has been a lethal pitch in his arsenal for years now. Batters have been hitting the ball harder off of Volquez in 2016 and just by seeing this chart it would appear that hitters are sitting on his hard stuff and laying off his off-speed pitches.

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With those numbers glaring at us, I tend to believe that batters are swinging earlier and more often against Volquez this year. Volquez has a higher contact rate against him this year (80.3% to 77.5%) while also racking up a higher percentage of pitches swung at as well (46.7% to 45.8%). The interesting part is that he has also thrown the same amount of strikes this year (64.0%) as last year while throwing less pitches per plate appearance (3.79 compared to 3.87 in 2015). This backs up my theory that hitters are swinging earlier in the count against Volquez, which seems to be what is happening. Batters are also putting the ball in play more against Eddie this year, 30.7% to 29.2% last year. This would seem to be backed up by the increase in his BAbip, which is risen from .293 to .317 this year. Hitters are not letting Volquez go deep in the count this year and are taking advantage of his early strikes, which are turning into more hits against him.

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The Royals have surged back into the playoff race this past month and in that span, Volquez has been the weakest link in the Kansas City rotation. If the Royals make the playoffs, one would really have to contemplate whether or not Volquez should be in the rotation, especially with his performance as of late (6.38 ERA over his last 8 starts). I would tend to think that if he started mixing in his change-up a bit more, he might start seeing better results and not have as many batters sitting on his fastball. Volquez has been a big part of this Royals team these last two seasons and if the team is serious about making it back to the playoffs, they need him to be on the top of his game. Right now, he is struggling just to be an average major league starter.

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