A Note of Reassurance

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Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Hi there, faithful reader. It’s me, Sean. I know, I know; I’m not really around here much anymore. I keep hoping that will change, but it has not. So at the very least, I thought I would pass along an explanation of why that is.

About a year ago, I started writing over at Royals Review and luckily I am still writing there, as I contribute an article a week. In fact, the pieces I write for them end up on this blog, as they have been gracious enough to allow me to post them a week after they debut on their site.

But that one article a week has been about all I can fit in to my schedule. I incurred a shift in my regular work schedule back in February and because of it I’ve picked up an extra 15 hours a week that I wasn’t working before. This has really cut into my free time and made it much harder to write on even a semi-regular basis.

This also means that to a small degree I have neglected this blog. Not out of lack of interest or lack of want; mainly just lack of time. And sleep. I enjoy my sleep, so I try to fit that in.

But work hasn’t been the only culprit, as the shift in my work also shifted my responsibilities. It meant trying to spend time with my family when I could, however often I can. My son has only a couple more years of high school left and then he is out on his own. I got married a couple of years back and have tried to spend more time with my wife, when time allows.

It also means spending less time in front of a screen and more time with my people. My best friend and I attempt to take in a movie at least every few months. I made a trip to Minnesota this past summer, took in a Twins game and enjoyed time with my friends. When you add all this up, it means less time to write about my true love, baseball.

But it doesn’t mean I don’t follow it religiously. I’m still honed in all through the Royals season. Watching the playoffs this year was exciting as always and I was beyond thrilled to see a couple of tiebreaker games played before we even got to the ‘true’ playoffs. I’ve dreamed of chaos for years, and this year I finally got it.

I guess what I am saying is don’t give up on me yet. I am hoping there is another shift in 2019 and it allows me more time to write here or just write in general. Writing and reading have been the two areas that have lessened this past year and I hope to change that soon. I also hope I finish reading ‘Astroball’ before the new year rolls around.

So stay tuned. I won’t promise anything immediately and it could be a few more months. But I would like to write more here, even if it is just small baseball observations. Here in a few weeks should be my votes from the IBWAA year-end awards, which will coincide with the BBWAA award announcements and I have a few more ideas stewing as well.

So keep patient and know I haven’t wandered off. I might be stuck on a back road, but I always find my way back home.

 

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Lifting the Blueprint

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Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The Milwaukee Brewers have been on quite a tear these last few weeks and it’s been hard not to get caught up in all the fun. They can hit, they can run, they like to flash the leather and they can pitch. For us Royals fans, this team looks oddly familiar.

Sure, there are the familiar faces littering the roster. It’s easy to get wrapped up in watching Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and even Erik Kratz (Erik Kratz!!) have postseason success. Throw in Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and even Manny Pina and at times it feels more like a Kansas City reunion than an October playoff run.

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But maybe more than all of that is Milwaukee’s focus on their bullpen. The Brewers have had no qualms in October with pulling their starting pitching early and letting the pen take over the game. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell has figured out how to utilize his relievers and configure them to help achieve the wins needed to parlay that into a trip to the World Series.

Hold on. That sounds really familiar. What other team rode one of the best bullpens in baseball all the way to the World Series? Yes, it would be the Royals. In fact, many within the game believe Kansas City’s use of high power arms in the back-end of the game was a precursor to about every single postseason team that has followed. The latest to steal the Royals formula are the Brewers and so far, so good.

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But that begs an interesting question: If the Royals are the template, has Milwaukee improved on the original? Watching the Brewers roll out Josh Hader and Jeffress and Soria and Corey Knebel has really sparked a question of the two bullpens and just how comparable they really are. So lets figure out which is the better pen…

For this project I had to make a decision on which year would I go off of for the Kansas City. After some studying it appears we are going with the group from 2014, which was slightly better according to fWAR. This would also coincide with the Royals first appearance in the postseason this decade, as it is for Milwaukee.

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Credit: Associated Press

Let’s start with some base numbers to start things off: Milwaukee relievers threw 614 innings this season, compiling an ERA of 3.47, an xFIP of 3.47 while striking out 10.38 batters per 9 innings. Meanwhile, the Royals pen only through 464 innings back in 2014, posting an ERA of 3.30, an xFIP of 3.54, while striking out 8.65 batters per 9. If we are talking WAR, the ‘Brew Crew’ had 7.1 while Kansas City only had 5.1 wins above replacement.

Going by the early numbers, it is already apparent the drastic shift in bullpen usage over the last couple of seasons. Milwaukee relievers threw 150 more innings this season than the Royals did in the 2014 campaign. Even going off of the 2015 Royals pen, the Brewers still tossed 75 more innings than the world championship squad. So in just four short years, there has been a noticeable difference in how pitchers are being used in the regular season, a change that is probably slightly attributed to how the Kansas City relievers were utilized in those two Octobers.

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Credit: Getty Images

With that said, the early numbers paint a picture of the Milwaukee pen being slightly better, as they had a slightly better xFIP, slightly higher K’s per 9 and a 2 win bump in WAR. But one can make the argument that the increase in WAR could be due to the massive difference in innings pitched, since WAR is an accumulative stat. The more innings you pitch, the more chances you have to increase your wins above replacement.

The strike outs are also interesting here, since most tend to go more off of K rate rather than per 9. The Brewers strike out rate this year was 27.6% (best in the National League), while the ’14 Royals put up a 23% rate. Considering the increase in strike outs across the league over the last couple seasons and how more batters work on elevating the ball while hitting for more power, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see how these numbers panned out.

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Credit: Getty Images

But how do the strike outs compare to the walks allowed? Going off of Walk %, the Brewers had a higher percentage, 9.5% compared to 8.8% by the Royals. When it comes to K-BB%, Milwaukee shines again as they posted a 18.1% while Kansas City had a 14.3%. Once again, part of this could be chalked up to the increase in strike outs. But it does appear on the surface that the Brewers are a pen built on more strike out relievers than the Royals.

That is backed up simply by looking at how many of the relievers on these two teams had a strike out rate over league average. League average in 2018 is 22.3% and Milwaukee had seven relievers with a rate higher than that. In 2014, the league average was 20.4%, and the Royals had only three relievers over that threshold. If we are talking the highest strike out rate, Josh Hader had 46.7% this year while Wade Davis had 39.1%. In fact, Hader and Corey Knebel both had a higher rate of punching out batters than Wade Davis did back in 2014.

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So the numbers appear to skew a bit closer to Milwaukee’s side at this point, but we are not quite done breaking down the numbers. When it comes to WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched), the two teams are almost identical, as Milwaukee has a 1.25 and Kansas City pulled in a 1.24. This means the two teams were almost uniform in how many base runners they were allowing per innings pitched, which would essentially phase out the innings difference.

They were also similar when it came to Batting Average on Balls in Play, as the Royals posted a .293 batting average, while Milwaukee’s was .297. While a part of me wondered if the Brewers relievers were throwing slightly harder (based off the higher use of power arms in bullpens now compared to then and Milwaukee’s higher strike out rate), the truth is that the two teams had an almost identical average fastball velocity. Back in 2014, the Royals relievers averaged 93.5 mph while the Brewers this year averaged 93.9 mph.

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Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

In fact even if you tossed in fastball usage, the Royals relievers actually threw their fastball more on average than Milwaukee. The Royals relievers back in 2014 threw a fastball 63.2% of the time while the Brewers only threw it 61.8% this year.

I wondered if maybe Milwaukee was throwing more breaking balls than Kansas City did, but once again it was pretty close. The Royals used a slider 18.5% of the time and a curveball 7%. On the other side of the coin, Milwaukee used a slider 17.2% this year and a curve 10% of the time. While each team used a different breaking ball more often, the numbers are close enough to where they could probably meet in the middle.

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Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

If we really want to break things down, you start factoring win probability into the equation. In a very unsurprising development, these two teams were once again are ‘neck and neck’ in WPA; the Royals posted 8.09 win probability in ’14 while the Brewers had 8.06. In a bit of a shock though, the two teams RE24 showed a big gap. Milwaukee posted an impressive 59.96 RE24 this year while the Royals had 31.10. Since run expectancy is another accumulative statistic, I do wonder here if the extra innings compiled by the Brewers relievers played a factor in the almost 29 point difference. If so, you wonder how closer the two teams would be if they had thrown the same number of innings.

There was one final factor I wanted to venture into and that was the defensive aspect of this conversation. It was very well known that the 2014 Royals squad had a great defense and there was no way the pitching didn’t benefit from that defense. With that said, this Milwaukee team has also put up a solid defensive campaign, with Cain and Moustakas obviously being the two comparable links.

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If we are going by defensive runs saved, it is no contest: the Brewers had 112 DRS while the Royals put up only 34. But there is also Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average. If we are comparing each team’s DEF, the Royals win easily over Milwaukee, 65.5 compared to 29.9. I’m always a bit hesitant when using defensive metrics but the one thing you can take from these numbers is that both bullpens benefited from the glovework done out on the field while they were in the game.

So which pen is better? It appears to be a very close race and I almost feel skeptical in picking a winner. But if I absolutely had to, I would probably say Milwaukee’s is slightly better, with a few more weapons at their disposal. The one thing we can agree on is that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if not for how Dayton Moore built his teams to weigh so heavily on the shoulders of the relievers. That template has become a staple all around baseball and not just by the Brewers.

It will also be curious to see where Milwaukee ends up. The Royals bullpen got them all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, and then a world championship the following year. Will the Brewers ride their pen to the World Series or will the high usage of their relievers be their downfall? It is a question we will know the answer to soon enough.

October Dilemma

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The month of October is always a favorite for baseball fans. October is when baseball gets the main stage, showing the rest of the sports world why it is still ‘America’s Pastime’. There is nothing quite like the MLB playoffs and every year that point is driven home with a month of skill, finesse and drama.

But one pervasive question keeps popping up the last few October’s and it is a question that for our sake I hope Major League Baseball is paying attention to. The question that just doesn’t seem to go away (and the one I get asked the most) is ‘why is it a chore to find the playoffs?’

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The easy answer is that Major League Baseball spread their deal around for the postseason to make them the most money. To be honest, for the most part I don’t fault them. At the end of the day, MLB is a business and the primary goal is to make money. MLB did just that back in 2012, as they worked out a deal that would reach over a number of major networks, including ESPN, TBS and FOX. They also made sure that their own channel, MLB Network, would get a few of the games as well.

This is where a number of the complaints start filtering in. Many people do not have access to MLB Network on their cable/satellite packages and therefore miss out on games every October. Besides the whole money aspect of the playoffs, the other main goal for MLB is to have as many eyes as possible on their product. The more people who can watch your games, the more who will spend money at your games, buy the merchandise and eventually bump up the prices of any television deal moving forward.

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Credit: Associated Press

While many don’t have MLB Network, you can say the same for those that don’t get FS1 and even to a smaller degree, TBS. While I understand the plight of those who might not have one or more of these channels, the truth is that if you are a big enough baseball fan you will find a way to watch these games.

For instance, I needed to cut down my satellite bill last year but dreaded the idea of losing MLB Network. Luckily, I was able to work out a deal with the satellite company that knocked my bill noticeably down while keeping the network on my package. Most cable and satellite companies are losing customers at an alarming rate and are willing to work out a deal with their customers if it means they stick around. If you are in this situation, I highly recommend going that route.

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Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

But what if you are someone who has cut the cord? The truth is that more and more people are moving in this direction and it is actually easy to see a world where cable and satellite companies no longer exist, at least in their current incarnation. MLB has worked on improving their streaming outlets these last few seasons and while it’s noticeably better, there is still some room for improvement.

There are a few streaming possibilities out there, most of them listed right here. A number of these outlets have restrictions, but most also have a free trial for five to seven days. In other words, you could spend a week watching the games on something like YouTube TV or Playstation Vue and decide at that point if you want to pay to watch the rest or pass. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is improving for those that are strictly streaming and should continue to get better as time goes on.

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Unfortunately, MLB.TV really should be the better way to go here but it is lacking. They have it setup to where you can watch the entire playoffs for the cost of $24.99, but there a couple of catches. For one, they want you to already have a participating pay TV account. This would mean that whatever you are already paying, you would have to tack on another $25 to watch the playoffs online. That is a rough pill to swallow if you are a big baseball fan but need to watch the playoffs.

The other issue is blackouts. For those that have contemplated getting MLB.TV in the past, the blackouts have long been a thorn in the side of anyone wanting to sign up. Go ask any Royals fan that lives in Iowa about the blackouts despite living sometimes well over 200 miles away. This is obviously a major issue that baseball needs to fix and it surprises me they haven’t considering how much more money they would make simply by lifting the blackout ban.

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Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

So what can Major League Baseball do to make the playoffs more accessible? One solution might be to do a free preview of the channels that air the playoff games for a one or two-week period. The real issue at hand is the divisional series, since there a few occasions where all four games could air on the same day. Give people the preview for a week and it might just be enough to entice them to up their package for a month.

Another solution might be to air the same game on multiple channels. We saw this just last week, as the National League Wild Card Game had the original broadcast on ESPN and an “alternate broadcast” that gave the viewer Statcast information on ESPN2. This could be done for some of the other games, on stations that would be more accessible. This way, your game has a farther reach for a larger chunk of the fanbase.

There is obviously demand in the playoffs and not just by”Seamheads”. From last Friday, baseball held five of the top six spots in the cable ratings, with the Yankees/Red Sox contest on TBS being the most watched. It is very apparent that baseball still brings in dollars and when there is demand, as a business you should try everything possible to meet that.

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The truth is that while MLB is in a bit of a ‘Golden Age’ right now, they don’t have quite the same pull as the NFL does. The NFL is able to get their playoff games on the major networks, like FOX, CBS and NBC. MLB’s deal runs out after the 2021 season and will hopefully be in a position of leverage at that time to do the same.

The playoffs are a magical time of year and in many ways illuminates what is great about this game. It’s unfortunate that some of these smaller issues make it harder to take in all the action. While television ratings and advertising dollars are a large part of baseball’s bigger picture, there honestly should be more thought put into making sure the playoffs are an easy, joyful experience for its fans. Instead, for some it is a constant search just to find when and where they can watch a baseball game.

Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As Kansas City Royals fans, we all have a different reaction when we hear anyone mention ‘The Process’. Dayton Moore coined the term years ago to define what the organization was doing as part of their team-building strategy. Before 2014, if you were a Royals fan and you mentioned ‘The Process’, you were probably doing it with your tongue firmly planted into your cheek.

But then the trip to the 2014 World Series happened. Then Kansas City took home the gold and became world champions in 2015. Once Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to wrap up the title that year, any mention of Dayton’s term was meant mostly with sincere intent.

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Credit: Associated Press

After the 2017 campaign, it was pretty well known that the Royals were in a position to rebuild and with that came the return of ‘The Process’. The Royals will probably never be a team that goes out and spends lavishly in free agency, so the main framework of any team in Kansas City would have to be done by building up the farm system.

Which is what Moore set out to do this season. The Royals came into the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball. MinorLeagueBall.com had them ranked last while Baseball America had them ranked 29th. It honestly didn’t matter who was evaluating the organization, as almost everyone ranked the minor league system as one of the worst in the game.

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It was obvious that one of Moore’s goals this summer was to “restock the shelves”, so to speak. It appeared to begin early in June, as Jon Jay was dealt to Arizona for a couple of arms, Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Twelve days later, Kelvin Herrera was traded to Washington for a trio of minor league players, third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel.

You can see where this is going. Funny thing is that Dayton didn’t just shop at one store. While the trades helped, he used other methods to improve the talent coming up through the minor leagues. There was the signing of pitcher Yefri del Rosario back in December, a player who was granted free agency from the Atlanta Braves after incurring international signing violations.

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Add a couple more international signings to the list in Wilmer Candelario and Omar Florentino, both from the Dominican. The Royals even stretched their search all the way  in Japan, as the team signed 16-year-old pitcher Kaito Yuki. The Royals wanted Yuki to get himself acclimated to the United States first, so he should make his professional debut in 2019.

But the biggest splash might have been felt from the draft. In one fell swoop, the Royals drafted a number of college arms in Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Bowlan and Kris Bubic. The farm system was in desperate need of some arms with upside and this appeared to have done the trick, as almost all these pitchers (outside of Singer) were thrown into the low minors upon their signing.

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The farm system has always been the main focal point for Moore, but he also started piecing together a younger foundation for the major league club. Hunter Dozier was recalled in May. Adalberto Mondesi got the call in June. Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez were acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade with Milwaukee. Slowly but surely, Dayton was piecing together a vision of the Royals future.

But the move that really felt like Kansas City was in full “Process” mode was Ryan O’Hearn getting the call to the big leagues. O’Hearn numbers weren’t anything special down in AAA yet they called him up to give him a shot. O’Hearn took the opportunity and ran with it, producing a line of .262/.353/.597 over 44 games and an OPS+ of 155.

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Credit: Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Throw in Brad Keller’s outstanding rookie season and Whit Merrifield’s ascension to being a five-win player and it appears ‘The Process’ is farther along then even Moore might have imagined it would be. This is not to say a playoff run is in the near future; that would just be a ludicrous dream riddled with disappointment. But there is one more factor that could solidify that Kansas City is on the right track.

It was announced on Sunday that manager Ned Yost would be back for at least one more year in 2019. While some will cringe at the thought of Neddy’s return, there is an important factor to remember:

The Royals have had numerous prospects move up through their system over the last 7-8 years and while some were among the biggest prospects in baseball, a number of them were not highly touted at all. Not all of this can be attributed to Yost and his work with younger players, but some of that success should be credited to him. Without him, a Salvador Perez or a Kelvin Herrera (just to name a couple) might not have turned into the All-Star caliber players they have been in their career.

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With Yost at the helm, the next wave of talent to move up to Kansas City should get the advantage of sitting under the learning tree. Yost has shown a penchant these last few years to just let the players go out and play, and that might be just what they need. The truth is that Yost is just as much a part of ‘The Process’ as any of the talent in the Kansas City system.

So while we might still snicker when Dayton starts talking about his game plan, the truth is that it worked once before. While we might question his focus at times, the bigger picture appears to be a mix of patience and trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day and ‘The Process’ initially didn’t pay off for a number of years. The good news is that the ship appears to be righted and back on course. It might be a bumpy ride on the way there, but you have to hope it ends up at the right destination.

A Different World

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve probably noticed the immense increase in home runs around Major League Baseball these last couple of seasons. The game has slowly evolved into one where launch angle and exit velocity are king while aspects of the game like putting the ball in play and hitting to the opposite field are not practiced as widely.

This isn’t an article that will rail against the direction of the game. I’m a firm believer that some of these changes are good while others feel more neglected. Major League Baseball has never had as many talented young players roaming the landscape as they do right now, both at the plate and on the mound. That is good for baseball.

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But the home run has soared to new heights these last couple of seasons that we have never seen before. Last year had not only the most home runs in history but also the highest home run rate of all time. In fact, these last couple of seasons have toppled the numbers put up in the so-called “Steroid Era” of the late 1990’s-early 2000’s:

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Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

Three of the top four home run rates IN HISTORY have been achieved the last three seasons. A big factor into these numbers can be purely related to the actual baseballs used in a regular MLB game. Yes, the baseballs have changed.

The first sign of a different baseball was after the 2015 All-Star game, as numbers increased across the board at record levels. Last season saw even bigger numbers and tests were done with the baseballs used before and after the 2015 “Midsummer Classic”. Studies were done and it was determined that “reduced drag on the baseballs was responsible for the rising home run rate but had not found any changes in properties of the balls that could account for the reduced drag.”

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While Major League Baseball started using different baseballs, there was also a difference between the balls used in the big leagues and those used in the minor leagues. In fact, last week they announced that next season in Triple A they will use the same baseballs used by MLB. This pretty much proves what many have said these last few years, in that the balls being used are much, much different:

This change could end up being very big for how teams evaluate their talent, as some noticeable differences have occurred due to the differences in baseballs used at the two levels.

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Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

We all are well aware that when Ryan O’Hearn was recalled by the Royals he wasn’t exactly tearing up AAA. In fact, he was posting a very pedestrian .232/.322/.391 slash line  for Omaha when the Royals came beckoning, numbers that definitely don’t just jump out at you. But the Kansas City front office saw his exit velocity was stellar and figured there was a bit of bad luck involved in the results.

We all know how that has turned out: O’Hearn is slugging .612 in the big leagues with an ISO (Isolated Power) of .349. The power numbers are the most notably different for O’Hearn, but it isn’t just him who has seen an increase in those numbers. Hunter Dozier was slugging .339 for Omaha with an ISO of .085; in Kansas City he is slugging .391 with an ISO of .163.

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Credit: Associated Press

Even Adalberto Mondesi has seen an increase, albeit a much smaller one. His slugging has gone up to .498 from .492 while his ISO has actually seen a decrease, .211 compared to .242. There are obviously numerous factors in play here, the most obvious being the small sample size of their time in the minor leagues. That being said, there is a difference and it might very well be why teams have gone outside of the standard numbers to evaluate whether or not a player is ready for the big leagues.

So what does the difference in the balls do that causes the gap in the numbers? I’ll let a couple of pitchers who have used both balls explain. First, Ben Heller on the differences in pitch movement:

“My fastball actually rides a little bit more. For whatever reason, it has more life to it in the big leagues than it does down in the minors. I feel like my slider moves less. The minor-league balls, with the bigger seams, give my slider a little more downward break. I can start it at the batter’s hip, or almost at his shoulder, and it will break down for a strike. With the big-league balls, if I leave my slider up at all… it seems like it just spins. I need to drive it down, and really finish it, to get that good break.”

Now, Kirby Yates on the carry of batted balls:

“I think the ball goes further — it flies better — in the big leagues. I’ve hung stuff in Triple-A where guys have put on a good swing and it was an out, whereas in the big leagues it was probably a home run. That could be the hitters, too — I’m not 100% sure — but it does seem like it flies more. Regardless of the reason, the balls here are definitely different.”

Pitchers who have been in both leagues have noticed the change and it would even explain some of the struggles younger pitchers have had these last couple seasons once they get the call to the big leagues. These changes appear to be helping the hitters while causing a few growing pains for the pitchers.

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Credit: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

So where does baseball go from here? Having the same ball being used at the top two levels should definitely help, as it should make the adjustment period a bit shorter for any player getting recalled. But hopefully some of the lessons learned from this will carry over.

While breaking down a player’s slash line or home run total is fine, it has at least taught us that it doesn’t always measure whether or not a player will find success. Someone like O’Hearn is an example to why a deeper look is sometimes necessary.

Hopefully the higher-ups remember that. It is the perfect case of why there should always be a glance taken to exit velocity, launch angle and hard hit rate to measure whether or not a player is doing things right but is just not seeing the results.

There are numerous factors that come into play, and anyone evaluating talent should cover all their bases when it comes to determining a player’s future. Something as simple as a physical difference in a baseball could speak volumes that aren’t spoken in batting averages, and slugging percentages.

 

 

 

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