Something To Believe In

Credit: Rob Tringali/Getty Images

It has to be hard for any major league team to let go of a failed prospect. All the years put into developing a player and hoping beyond hope that someday they will be a productive part of your major league roster. But as we all know, the truth is some players never grasp that brass ring and get the opportunity to prove their worth.

In this regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every team in baseball. We’ve all scoured the prospect lists and prayed that “this year” will be the year longstanding prospects emerge from the cocoon. We’ll search through the numbers to find a silver lining that shows why things will be different this time. In other words, we spend a lot of time detached from reality.

You have to wonder sometimes how often the Royals wore the “rose-colored glasses” while evaluating Bubba Starling and Kyle Zimmer. To be honest, I don’t blame them. Both were 1st round draft picks for Kansas City that to date just haven’t panned out the way everyone had hoped. Both have also battled injuries and inconsistency, a double-whammy of dread that can feel like a never-ending punch to the gut. It also leads to a higher level of hope.

Credit: Kansas City Star

The talent is there. Zimmer has electric stuff that can make hitters shake their head as they walk back to the dugout. Starling has always been a top shelf athlete that has the ability to be a five-tool player. There is a reason the Royals drafted them as high as they did and the Royals belief in their ability is why we are still talking about them today.

But the bigger question to ask is whether we should still be talking about them. If we are being honest here, most teams would have said sayonara to both Starling and Zimmer and moved on. Maybe in an alternate universe, the Royals would have as well. But in the here and now, it’s easy to see why the Royals just won’t quit these two.

Zimmer and Starling were to be part of the next wave of talent to be ready when the Eric Hosmer’s and Lorenzo Cain’s moved on to greener pastures ($$$). The plan was always for a consistent flow of talent to come along in Kansas City and replace the old guard. You’ve heard it termed as “The Process”. But between trades, injuries and prospects just not developing like many had hoped, Kansas City is now in a position where they are treading water.

Credit: Kansas City Star

The idea of contention is still a few years away and that leaves opportunity for players who might not have received it in the past. This is why at this stage of the game, it makes sense for the Royals to keep these two in the fold. If Kansas City looked at themselves as playoff hopefuls, there’s a good chance Zimmer and Starling would have been gone for good. But instead, they have been given a second chance.

Zimmer was cut last year and re-signed to a minor league contract. He spent most of last summer at Driveline Baseball, where he built up strength in his arm. There were no guarantees it would work, but the Royals felt like it was worth a shot. Luckily, it appeared to be a success and back in October there were nothing but positives when it came to Zimmer:

“I’ve been throwing three or four times a week off the mound for about three weeks,” Zimmer said. “I’m having no issues at all. It’s really crazy, because in the past, if I threw one time off the mound, I’d be blown up for days. Now, it’s no soreness at all. No pain. None.”


And his present velocity?


“I’ve been at 93-94 [mph] off the mound and still building,” he said. “I have a lot of time until Spring Training. Just to be comfortable again while throwing is pretty exciting. I’m throwing all my pitches, too.”

Zimmer was rewarded with a major league contract last month and could be just what the Royals are looking for in their bullpen. The Royals took a chance on him and we now get to find out if it will pay off.

Credit: Kansas City Star

It’s possible Starling will take advantage of his second opportunity as well, as he was signed to a minor league deal last month. It’s obvious that the Royals believe enough in these players that they haven’t given up hope yet.

It’s been said before that Dayton Moore sometimes gets too close to his players and that is especially true for those that come up through the Royals farm system. While from a business standpoint it might not always be smart to have that attachment to his players, it also means at times he sticks with someone that just needs another chance. It might not be the way you or I would go about handling a baseball organization, but for Dayton, he is pulling for the person, not always the athlete.

As fans, we tend to cheer for the underdog. We want to believe the impossible can still be done. So while some might have given up on Kyle Zimmer and Bubba Starling, the Royals are giving them their chance to be the underdog and defy the odds. I have no clue if it will be a successful decision, but baseball tends to make believers out of the most skeptical of us. Here’s to Zimmer and Starling making us think with our heart rather than our head.

Advertisements

A Change in the Rules?

Credit: Kansas City Star

About a week ago, word leaked out (and the link is to The Athletic, which is a pay site) that Major League Baseball had sent a proposal to the players’ union back in January, which included a number of rule changes to discuss before the 2019 campaign. The player’s counted with their own proposal on some changes as well. Today, lets examine some of the rules that were proposed and I’ll toss in my two cents on any thoughts I have on the subject.

As part of a Jan. 14 proposal to the players’ union on pace of play, baseball suggested a rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, sources told The Athletic.

I really have no issue if this rule went into effect. Now, from my understanding is that the “three batter minimum” would not be forced if a pitcher ended an inning or if he would get injured before facing the required three batters (obviously). I like that there was some thought put into this and it wasn’t just a blanket minimum that was enforced.

Now, the reason for it is pretty simple. Over the last few years, as relievers have been used more and more, there have been a plethora of pitching changes that end up hurting the flow of the game. A pitcher will come in, lets say a lefty to face a left-handed batter, and would then be taken out after that at bat was over. Then the manager calls in another reliever and the Ferris wheel of moves begin.

It’s pure strategy and while most of us will agree it is a smart maneuver (as a manager is trying to put together the best match-ups), it also kills the flow of the game. Since pace of play has been such a big issue these last few years, you could see where a rule change like this would have the desired effect that the hierarchy of MLB would prefer.

Personally, I don’t hate the idea. Yes, I hate that the LOOGY would appear to go away (and if you haven’t figured it out, I just like to say LOOGY) but I also believe that strategy would still play into match-ups and this would actually force a manager to think a number of batters ahead, which I’m sure many are already doing.

The interesting part would be taking into account who is on the opposing teams bench and whether or not you believe your foe would pinch hit once you bring a reliever in to face the minimum. By no means is it a perfect solution, but I can see the advantages of enforcing this change in the near future.

Credit: Getty Images

There were a few more changes proposed, including one that shouldn’t surprise anyone:

A universal designated hitter — something the players have sought for more than three decades, according to commissioner Rob Manfred — also was part of the union’s proposal. Under the plan, the National League would adopt the DH for the 2019 season.

Honestly, this is going to happen at some point. Might not be this year, or even next year, but eventually this will happen. The union will never allow the DH to be taken away, as that is one more player making a bigger salary and they are going to move forward, not back. A universal DH would take away the changes involved in interleague games and even during the World Series and All-Star Game as well.

That being said, I’ve always enjoyed that the two leagues have their own set of rules. Do I love watching pitchers hit? Not even a little bit. Do I like the strategy involved with double switches and the moves made when the pitchers spot comes up in the order? Yes I do. My preference is to have the leagues continue to be different, but I understand the thinking behind the move.

At some point, teams are going to want to avoid their pitchers having another opportunity to get hurt. Yes, it doesn’t happen enough to really throw a big fit, but it does happen. Also, pitchers batted .115 last year with an OBP of .144 and a slugging percentage of .149. Taking away the pitcher would add more offense to the game and that is what Rob Manfred is really looking for.

On a side-note, someone on Twitter last week suggested just not having a spot in the order for the DH or a pitcher, leaving a batting order with just eight batters. While I really loved the “out of the box” thinking, there is no way it would happen. Once again, the union would want another player salary in that spot. In other words, the universal DH will be a thing at some point.

There were more changes mentioned as well:

The Associated Press previously reported that baseball also has proposed increasing the minimum time a player spends on the disabled list and amount of time an optioned player spends in the minor leagues from 10 to 15 days.

I have no issue with this. In fact, the disabled list will be referred to moving forward as the injured list. Both of these moves would be good for the game.

In baseball’s view, the limit on reliever usage would become even more necessary with the introduction of a 26-man roster; MLB would want to discourage teams from using the extra roster spot on another bullpen arm.

Another rule change would be making rosters 26 deep instead of 25. I’ve felt for years that move should be made and have honestly wondered how long it was really going to take to enforce it. The one hitch in this idea would be trying to tell teams how to structure their roster. If they want another reliever, let them have it. At the end of the day, you have to let teams decide individually how they want to put together their roster, good or bad.

There is a rule change that has been mentioned that while on the surface I understand, there is an underlying issue that would make it hard for me to support it:

Among the proposals being discussed by Major League Baseball and the players’ union this winter is the formation of a joint committee to study whether to move back the mound to help hitters, at a time when pitchers’ velocity has reached levels never before seen in history.
The committee, if agreed to by both sides, would also look at the potential impact of lowering the mound by as many as six inches.

On the surface, I understand why this move would be made. Baseball has seen a noticeable increase in pitcher’s velocity these last few years and combined with the higher usage of breaking pitches, it has made for less and less balls being put into play. In fact, in 2018 there were more strike outs than hits. While the hitters can take some of the blame for that, a big factor is the elevation in pitcher’s velocity.

My problem with the proposed changes is that it is always the pitcher who is punished, never the hitter. Just go back to 1968, when they lowered the mound to improve offense. The pitchers were so dominate and the offense was so anemic (The White Sox produced 2.86 runs per game. The Dodgers and Mets weren’t much better at 2.90 per game) that they lowered the mound to even the odds.

My big issue if they changed it this time would be the hitters lack of attempt when it comes to adjusting. Most hitters today are swinging for the fences, whether there are zero strikes or two strikes and they are doing it because the system is compensating those who do. The advent of launch angle and exit velocity has proven success for many, as the ball being put in the air helps lead to an increase in power numbers. But it has also lead to more strike outs.

The fact we aren’t seeing hitters adjust their mentality when two strikes are put on them or even trying to punch the ball to the opposite field when a shift has been put on, doesn’t make me want to reward them. It feels like if there is a lowering of the mound or it even being pushed back a bit, baseball is saying that it doesn’t matter what the pitchers do to gain an advantage, we will always reward the hitters.

While I understand the need for more offense and yes, baseball does need that, this just feels like a giant slap to the face of the pitchers. If the hitters were adjusting and still not seeing an increase in offense, that would be one thing. But there is no adjustment and right now there is no incentive for them to do so. Baseball is paying for power and willing to make changes whether they adjust or not. It just doesn’t feel very fair when it comes to the pitchers perspective.

The good news is that MLB and the players’ union are looking at possible improvements to the game to try and make it a more pleasurable experience for everyone. While it appears these changes won’t take place in 2019, the fact there is at the least a discussion should make any baseball fan hopeful for change in the near future. No one ever gets ahead by just staying pat; the name of the game is evolution. If baseball doesn’t evolve, it is going to get left behind.

Taking Whit for Granted

Last Monday, it was made official, as the Kansas City Royals and Whit Merrifield came to an agreement on a 4-year deal worth a guaranteed $16.25 million. The deal is one that benefits both the team and the player, and it would appear keeps Whit in Kansas City for the foreseeable future.

But what this deal will also do is really force us to appreciate what Whit Merrifield has done so far in his major league career. While we have praised him and been in awe of his productivity over these last couple of years, the honest truth is we took him for granted. Yes, we haven’t really admired and valued him the way we should have.

This doesn’t mean we haven’t loved watching him perform on the diamond or been impressed with what he has accomplished. As a fanbase, I feel we have done that and we’ve embraced him as one of us, a true Royal. But there is a line where you can enjoy watching and cheering on a player but not really grasp what your eyes are seeing. There is a point where you are not really appreciating what stands before you.

We all know how impressive it has been that Whit, at the age of 27, made his major league debut, an age that normally doesn’t guarantee success. Since that debut, Whit has posted a 3 WAR season, a 5 WAR season and has accumulated 11 bWAR over his career. Great numbers for a guy who no one saw as more than a bench player, let along a top prospect.

In fact, Merrifield has been compared to former Royal Ben Zobrist when it comes to his versatility and it’s not just his ability to play all over the diamond that feeds the comparison. Zobrist made his major league debut at the age of 25, but didn’t really stick in the big leagues until his age 28 season. That year saw him pile up 8.6 bWAR and an OPS+ of 149. While Whit hasn’t quite up the power numbers that Zobrist did in his prime, there is enough statistical comparisons to see that the two have very similar trajectories.

Both were late bloomers and that pushed us to believe that Whit was an anomaly. After the 2017 campaign, many of us (myself included) felt that the smartest play for the Royals was to trade Merrifield. The belief was that his value was never going to get higher and there was no guarantee that he would be able to duplicate what he did during that season.

Credit: John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

So what did he do? He just came out and hit .304/.367/.438 while leading the league in hits and stolen bases. He racked up 5.5 bWAR and proved himself to be one of the top second basemen in the game, despite the fact that the Royals were still moving him around the field like a chess piece. Whit defied the odds and continued to improve his production.

Even after what he did in 2018, many felt the smart move to was to trade him this winter. As someone who used to be in that camp, it’s easy to see the logic. Here is a player who is entering his age 30 season, coming off of a 5 win season, playing for a team that doesn’t appear to be contending for postseason play for at least a couple more years. Using the rebuilding playbook, it would make sense to see what you could get for Merrifield and make a deal for younger players who could help the team in their contending window.

Makes sense, right? To me, this is where we have been taking him for granted. We’ve been so focused on Whit’s fall from grace and how he will be nearing his mid-30’s by the time the Royals are contending that we haven’t focused on how he can help this club get there in the first place.

Credit: Getty Images

While a young team can strive based on talent alone, there is always a piece of the puzzle that could and should be filled by the veterans that lead them there. Go ask the 2014 Royals about Raul Ibanez and what he meant. Go ask the 2015 team about Jonny Gomes. Keeping Merrifield around to be an influence on the players moving up through their system can only be looked at as a positive for Kansas City.

Just look at his story. The guy was left off the Royals 40-man roster a few years back, available for any team to take in the Rule 5 Draft. Luckily, he wasn’t taken, worked himself back to reach the big leagues, was left off the Opening Day roster in 2017, returned to Kansas City and has turned himself into an All-Star caliber player. If you are a young player who has struggled or is struggling, Whit is motivation that anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

That hard work, the work ethic, will find a way to rub off on the players we will see over these next couple of years. It’s easy to see Merrifield taking a more prominent leadership role moving forward and possibly even replacing Alex Gordon as a shining example of the hard work put into honing your craft.

Even if Whit drops off a bit these next few years (and that is possible as he gets closer to reaching his regression years), it doesn’t appear as if he is just going to drop off the board entirely. Even a 2-3 WAR season is more than adequate for a guy looking to build up a team that is rebuilding. Whit’s value at this point goes beyond the numbers on the field as he looks to be a cornerstone for the Royals moving forward.

So we now know that Whit is not going anywhere and we can really start focusing on all that makes him great. We can focus on the speed, the skill, the unselfishness and even the leadership. Rather than focus on what the Royals can get for him, we can turn our attention to how he can make the team better.

Dayton Moore is a big believer in loyalty and when he has that devotion he pays it back in spades. Whit has been loyal to the organization and on Monday he was shown that loyalty back. While we sometimes scoff at the manner in which Moore handles matters on the field, there is something to be said for focusing on players with high character.

But that character has to be met with productivity to truly work. Hopefully Whit will reward the organization’s loyalty with the same output we have seen these last two seasons. It’s time to start paying attention to what Merrifield really means to this team. It’s hard to bet against the guy who has defied all the odds up to this point.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑