Notes of Royalty: The Hunt For (Another) Blue October

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Why, hello there strangers! I know, I know; I’ve been MIA around here the last few weeks. Life got really busy and my writing took the hit. Hopefully you at least gave the podcast a listen (as I covered a lot of ground over the last few weeks) to tide you over. Since it has been awhile since I have written in this space, I figured I would go ahead and cover a number of topics with the Kansas City Royals rather than just one. Let’s not waste time and start with the return of one of the team’s most beloved players…

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Royals catcher Salvador Perez returned from the disabled list earlier this week and the impact was felt almost immediately. While replacements Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher filled in admirably (especially offensively, which none of us probably called), it was obvious the Royals pitching staff missed Perez behind the dish. During his absence, the Royals pitching took a big hit, as notable by most of the numbers for August. The Royals pitching have the 6th highest HR/9 rate, 2nd highest ERA and the starters have thrown the 3rd lowest amount of innings throughout the month of August. We’ve often said that Perez is the one player the Royals could least afford to lose to an injury and that was very apparent during his time away. This also shows you that Perez’s value to this Royals team goes far beyond any numbers we pull up on his Baseball Reference page. The concerning part is the injury that put him on the DL in the first place, a strained intercostal muscle on his right side, has not fully gone away. If you have watched him play since his return, there have been a number of times where Salvy has swung and missed, falling down to a knee with a grimace on his face. It sounds like at this point the Royals are going to let him play this out and worry about letting him completely heal once the offseason hits. Salvy has described the injury as “a little pinch” but one has to wonder just how this strain will affect him while the Royals make a push for October baseball. It would be nice to have a 100% healthy Salvador Perez, but his value might force Kansas City to use a slightly damaged Perez throughout the month of September.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

Staying on the wounded warriors front, third baseman Mike Moustakas has been dealing with a knee injury as of late, one that has forced him to sit out the last two games. While the injury hasn’t slowed Moose down too much (he still has a 136 wRC+ in the month of August) one has to wonder if it might become a lingering issue. As of this writing Moustakas is one home run shy of tying the single season record held by former Royals first baseman (and moustache aficionado) Steve Balboni, which sits at 36. This is a record that has been in place since 1985 and most Royals fans are ready for the record to fall. The good news is that Cheslor Cuthbert is finally healthy and has seen more time at third base as of late, allowing Moose to be the DH and rest his knee. The Royals need as many of their big stars to be healthy down the stretch if they are to claim one of the wild card spots in the American League. It would also be nice to see Moustakas go on another power tear in September and obliterate Balboni’s record. That won’t happen if he is continuing to nurse an injury on his lower half, which is needed to supply power.

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Since we are speaking of injuries, the news came today that ace lefthander Danny Duffy would be placed on the 10 day DL:

In case you are wondering, in layman’s term that means Duffy has a sore elbow. I can only speak for myself, but my first thought was not good. Luckily, my freak out might have been for nothing:

Duffy will be eligible to be activated on September 5th, so if all goes according to plan he could be back in a fairly short period of time. For the moment, Eric Skoglund will be taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation and Onelki Garcia will be taking his spot on the roster. If you remember, Duffy missed the month of June and I know I felt that could be a real turning point for this team. Losing Duffy was either going to cause a spiral down the division or it would cause the rest of the team to step up. Luckily, Kansas City got on a hot streak and put themselves in a better spot when Duffy got back. Hopefully the Royals can step up again and show the mettle we all know they are capable of.

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Finally, if anyone has been a boost to the offense this month, it has been Lorenzo Cain. Cain had been languishing in the .260 range late in July but has taken off over the last couple of weeks. So far in August Cain is hitting .360/.400/.461 with seven extra base hits and 11 runs scored, pushing his batting average to .288. Manager Ned Yost has shifted Cain up to the second spot in the order as of late, which has allowed him to focus more on getting on base rather than knocking in runs. It has also given him a higher focus on hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, which he is doing 77% of the time.  He’s also hitting the ball harder, as his hard hit rate is at 37.3%, compared to 33.8% in July. Cain is easily the most complete player on this Royals team and if he continues to get on base it will force other teams to pitch to one of either Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez or Mike Moustakas.  If the Royals can get one of the other batters hot at the same time, it could get the Kansas City offense a jump-start that is sorely needed.

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This season has been a rollercoaster for the Royals, so why should the final month be any different? At the very least Royals fans, you can’t say this team is boring. One note here before we wrap things up for today: Remember back to 2014. Late August in early September, the Royals were not playing good baseball. There was a series against Detroit that felt like the end of their run. Go ahead and click on the link; read how defeated I sound running through the most painful portions of those games. Then remember that Kansas City would claim a wild card spot. Then they would win one of the greatest games I have ever watched in my life to advance to the ALDS. You know what happened after that…the Royals rolled all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. So right now, with the team only 1.5 games out of a wild card spot, I ask you: Why doubt them now? It looks like the fun is just beginning…

 

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Bleeding Royal Blue Radio Episode 5: Salvy’s Back!

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After a lengthy layoff, Bleeding Royal Blue Radio returns with a jam packed episode! Sean Thornton is joined this week by Scott Hayes as they discuss Salvador Perez’s return, the Kelvin Herrera injury, the wild American League Wild Card race, some playoff discussion, Mike Trout’s push for the AL MVP, MLB’s Little League game and much much more. Listen, share and leave any feedback here.

 

Whitley’s World

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Almost from the moment he made his major league debut in 2016, Whit Merrifield  became a fan favorite. Maybe it was the extra hustle, maybe it was the long journey it took him to get to the big leagues. There was the dazzling defense, the clutch hits and even the boyish grin. Most importantly though was Whit’s production: .283/.323/.392 slash line and 1.6 bWAR. He got off to a fast start with Kansas City before hitting a bump in the road, finishing with an OPS+ of 90. It was believed most of the offseason that Merrifield would take over the second base position for the 2017 season, but in the end Raul Mondesi won the job and Whit was optioned to AAA. He was only in the minors for nine games this year before being recalled and since then he has been nothing short of amazing, producing at a higher level.

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Over 100 games, Merrifield is hitting .293/.330/.473 with an OPS+ of 109 and 3.4 bWAR. He has already toppled his number for Total Bases from last year (186 to 122) and his power numbers have seen the biggest increase. Whit’s home run total of 14 easily beats his total from last year (2) and his 17 combined this year (between the majors and AAA) is an increase over his combined totals last year (10 total between the big leagues and minors). But it’s not just the home runs; Merrifield has seen in increase in his doubles and triples, and his slugging percentage and wOBA have seen an uptick as well. Whit has increased his body mass over the last two offseasons, which has been a big part of the increase in his power numbers. Maybe the most surprising revelation last winter was that he had bumped his meal intake to seven meals a day, increasing his muscle mass. To me, this read as a guy who was 27 years old coming into the 2016 season, knew he was going to have to improve to not only make it to the majors, but to stay as well. Whit has done just that and put himself with some impressive company.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

When comparing Merrifield to other second baseman, he is right there among the top at the position in the American League. Whit is 3rd in WAR and slugging percentage, 6th in wRC+, ISO and doubles, 5th in wOBA, 4th in OPS and first in triples. These numbers have put him right there with the Cano’s, Pedroia’s and Altuve’s of the world, which is very select company in the league. In fact, most of his numbers have either been on par or better than Ian Kinsler, Brian Dozier and Rougned Odor, all mainstays in the second base conversation. Whit has put himself in this discussion with his production, but it does beg a question: Is he better left at second base, or would he better served to go back to being a utility guy?

Minnesota Twins v Kansas City Royals

I ask this question because that has always been the plan for Merrifield, but the Royals need at second has been stronger. For right now, Whit is a good fit where he is at. But for the long run (and the longevity of his career) he might very well be better suited for the utility role. While some Royals fans have thrown out the idea of him being comparable to former Royal Ben Zobrist, I’m not as sure that Merrifield is quite that good. During the peak of his career, Zobrist was putting up solid 5.0 fWAR seasons. While Merrifield isn’t too far off this year with his 3.4 bWAR, offensively Whit isn’t quite the player Zobrist was. Ben had more power than Whit but where the big difference is notable is in walks. During his prime years, Zobrist would regularly post a 11-15% walk rate. In his two years in the majors Whit has posted a 5.7% and a 4.7% walk rate. In fact, the highest walk rate of Whit’s career, both minor and majors, was a 11. 6% in 190 plate appearances back in 2014. While both players can fill in admirably at numerous positions, Zobrist was a more complete offensive player while Merrifield is probably more comparable to a Willie Bloomquist or Sean Rodriguez. There is nothing wrong with that and in fact there might be more value in him moving around position to position in the future. Right now the Royals don’t have a second baseman to take his place, but if and when they do, Merrifield’s role on the team would probably adjust back to that utility role.

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There is no idea what the future is going to hold for Whit Merrifield, but it is safe to say that he is probably in the majors for good. The scrappy infielder who moved himself up the Royals farm system has entrenched himself into the Royals starting lineup and endeared himself to Royals fans everywhere. It will be interesting to see what he does this offseason to improve on his game and one can only hope he ups his meal total to nine a day (I’m joking…I think). Whit is proof that hard work and dedication do pay off. We all hope he is able to maintain his current pace and continue to excel when given another challenge. While you won’t see him batting in the middle of the order, he might just be the glue that keeps this entire team flowing. I tend to believe at some point Merrifield will come back to earth…but I’m also not going to count him out either. Perseverance be Whit’s name!

A Royal Month: July By the Numbers

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As they say, July was a very, very good month for the Kansas City Royals. The Royals went 16-10, pulling themselves within a few games of the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central and taking over the second wild card spot in the AL. They pulled off a nine game winning streak near the end of the month before falling to Boston on July 29th. The month was very good for Kansas City but do the numbers speak to that as well? Let’s take a look at how you break down the month of July for Kansas City.

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Let’s begin with the pitching, which has been the strong point for Kansas City throughout most of the season. Overall, here is how the Royals ranked in the league:

Innings Pitched-4th

K/9-13th

BB/9-13th (which means they had the 3rd best walk rate in the AL)

HR/9-14th (2nd lowest in the league)

LOB%-8th

HR/FB-15th (Best in the AL)

ERA-6th lowest

FIP-4th lowest

fWAR-5th

So those are the overall pitching numbers in July. Let’s break them farther down, starting with the starting pitching:

IP-8th

K/9-11th

BB/9-15th (Best in the AL)

HR/9-8th

LOB%-10th

HR/FB-14th (2nd best in the AL)

ERA-10th

FIP-6th

fWAR-6th

So just based off these numbers, the Royals rotation was about in the middle of starters numbers in July to slightly better. How about the relievers?

IP-3rd

K/9-14th

BB/9-9th

HR/9-14th (2nd best in the AL)

LOB%-3rd

HR/FB-14th (2nd best in the AL)

ERA-1st

FIP-3rd

fWAR-3rd

Just like in years past, the bullpen carries a good bulk of the Royals pitching. The one change is obvious in the strike outs per 9 rate, which was one of the lowest in the league for July. The Kansas City bullpen used to be built on power arms. Now, the relievers are allowing the stellar Royals defense to do the work. It becomes even more evident by the fact that the Royals bullpen has the second highest ground ball rate in the AL for the month at 53.6%. So the pitching held up their end; how about the offense?

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On the surface it appeared the Royals offense was above average this past month, but we all know the numbers won’t lie:

HR-3rd

Runs-2nd

RBI’s-3rd

BB%-15th

K%-10th

ISO-3rd

BABIP-5th

Batting Average-3rd

OBP-5th

Slugging-2nd

wOBA-3rd

wRC+-4th

fWAR-3rd

For a team that can really struggle offensively, the Royals bats were the biggest part of their successful month. The fact that the team ranks in the Top 5 of the league in most offensive categories was a boost to their winning record in the last 31 days. We all know this team can be streaky, so a cold spell could be just around the corner, but if they continue to put up numbers like this, the Royals should be able to stay in contention over the last couple months of the season.

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Speaking of the offense, who really led the way for the Royals in July? My money would have been on Eric Hosmer, but alas it was ‘Two Hit’ Whit Merrifield who led the team in fWAR throughout the month. Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were vital contributors to the team’s success and helped lead a major offensive charge throughout July:

Home Runs-Mike Moustakas, 9

Runs-Eric Hosmer, 22

RBI’s-Hosmer & Moustakas, 21

ISO-Moustakas, .309

BABIP-Hosmer, .423

Batting Average-Hosmer, .379

OBP-Hosmer, .434

Slugging-Moustakas, .596

wOBA-Hosmer, .430

wRC+-Hosmer, 172

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So what will be on the plate for August? There is no way to really guess that, although the recent injury to Salvador Perez could mean a dip in some of those offensive stats. What I can say is that if they produce anything close to what they did in July this Royals team might be able to elevate themselves further along in the American League Central. With less than sixty games left, it is ‘do or die’ time for any team looking to capture a postseason berth and Kansas City will have to weather some bumps in the road. Luckily, a large chunk of these players have been through the grind before…but will that be enough to get them to October?

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