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.

Wrong Way Royals Baseball
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.

It’s Time to Trust “The Process”…Again

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Sometimes, when I’m half asleep and veering off into unconsciousness, I remember. I remember a time when we relied on hope. It was a simpler time, when players were “mistake free” and reporters were told to “rewind yourself”. It was a time when the thought of a winning season, never mind a full-blown championship, was enough to put a smile on any Kansas City Royals fan’s face. During this period, a phrase was uttered so many times that it became both a mantra and a sarcastic answer to another blow-out loss. That phrase was “Trust the Process”.

I was reminded of this the other day when reading the latest from a former Kansas City scribe, Joe Posnanski. Joe was around for a number of the lean years and remembers them (I’m sure) somewhat fondly. More than that, he remembers Dayton Moore and his beliefs B.C. (Before Championship):

Moore isn’t naive about it; he dutifully answers those questions. But this idea of baseball being bigger than baseball, this is what he really wants to talk about … and it always has been. He has believed from his first day on the job with the Royals that if he could hire great people, acquire talented players who love the game deeply, create an atmosphere where everyone looks forward to coming to the ballpark and appreciates just how lucky they are, that the team unquestionably would win a championship.

People — again, including me — had their doubts.

But that team absolutely did win a championship exactly as Moore planned.

So here we are again. The rebuild has begun. Once again, Moore wants us to believe in “The Process”. But as fans, did we fully buy in before?

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The answer is yes…and no. At first we bought all in. The Royals had become a laughingstock and at that point any sign of an actual plan that might come to fruition seemed promising. What wasn’t promising was the farm system. To truly understand, here are the top ten prospects going into 2006 according to Baseball America:

1. Alex Gordon
2. Billy Butler, of/3b
3. Justin Huber, 1b
4. Chris Lubanski, of
5. Jeff Bianchi, ss
6. Luis Cota, rhp
7. Chris McConnell, ss
8. Mitch Maier, of
9. Donnie Murphy, 2b
10. Shane Costa, of
It started out promising…and then just flat-lines (although I will admit to being a Mitch Maier fan). The system was ranked 23rd in all of baseball to start the year and it was obvious that Moore had his work cut out for him when he took the GM job in June of that year. So at first, we trusted; Moore had an idea where he wanted to go and how to go about it. But as time wore on, our faith wavered.

By 2012 the Royals were almost six years into “The Process” and by the end of May it felt like we had been dealt some cruel, mean joke. Do you remember the slogan for that year? “Our Time”. For those of you not following the team back then, you probably can imagine how that slogan went down as the Royals limped to a 72-90 season. At this point, “The Process” had become a joke.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

All it took for me was a quick glance at my blog posts in 2012 and I can see where my faith had diminished. In fact, read just about any article I wrote from 2012 to 2013 (which you can check out at bleedingroyalblue.com) and I was no longer aboard the “Process Express”. It took Moore seven full seasons to grasp a winning record and while the Royals were in the pennant race into the last week of 2013, a number of fans weren’t sold yet that Dayton’s mantra was the end-all, be-all answer.

Then 2014 happened. The wild card game, the sweep through the American League playoffs and a seventh game of the World Series. Then the Royals won it all in 2015. At this point, we had forgotten about our lack of faith (I’m sure Dayton found it disturbing) and bowed to GMDM’s greatness. Whether we wanted to admit it or not, “The Process” had worked and reached its final destination.

So here we are in 2018 and we begin to wrap our heads around putting faith back into Moore’s plan. I won’t lie; the first time I heard him utter those two words again I froze. But when I look at the farm system right now, I feel better than I did in 2006. Here are the top ten current prospects according to Baseball America:

1. Nick Pratto, 1B

2. Khalil Lee, OF

3. Seuly Matias, OF

4. Josh Staumont, RHP

5. Eric Skoglund, LHP

6. M.J. Melendez, C

7. Nicky Lopez, SS/2B

8. Hunter Dozier, 3B/OF

9. Foster Griffin, LHP

10. Scott Blewett, RHP

While there will probably be a few misses on this list, there is also a chance for some major upside with guys like Lee, Pratto, Matias and Melendez. In fact, by 2021 the Royals lineup could be way better than say, the 2009 Royals:

 

PROJECTED 2021 LINEUP

(Listed with 2021 season age)

🔸C Salvador Perez (31)
🔸1B Nick Pratto (22)
🔸2B Nicky Lopez (26)
🔸3B Cheslor Cuthbert (28)
🔸SS Raul A. Mondesi (25)
🔸LF Seuly Matias (22)
🔸CF Khalil Lee (23)
🔸RF Jorge Bonifacio (28)
🔸DH Hunter Dozier (28)
🔸SP Danny Duffy (32)
🔸SP Jake Junis (28)
🔸SP Josh Staumont (27)
🔸SP Eric Skoglund (28)
🔸SP Foster Griffin (25)
🔸CL Kelvin Herrera (31)
That is a lineup and a rotation I could live with in three years. One interesting aspect that Moore has brought up multiple times is how it’s not always the top-tier prospects that pan out:

I can’t help but point out that nobody is thinking the Royals can win anytime soon, but he says that has always been true — and he’s right, most experts thought that the 2014 team would battle for last place, and they won the American League pennant. Most people thought it was a fluke, and the ’15 team won the World Series.

True, but then I point out that those Royals had some big prospects — Eric HosmerMike Moustakas — that this team lacks. He then says, “Nobody had [five-time All-Star] Salvador Perez on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Lorenzo Cain on their Top 100 list. Nobody had Greg Holland or Kelvin Herrera on their Top 100 list.”

Moore is right about this. While it’s easy to point out the Hosmer’s and Moustakas’ that toiled for “The Best Farm System in Baseball”, it was the off the radar guys that pushed the Royals to the next level. All it takes is for a few players to outperform their expectations and push the team back into contention.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

So is it time to “Trust in the Process” again? The better question might be why you should put your trust back in Moore. The truth is a lot of us doubted him and he proved us wrong. While it might be easy to snicker and roll your eyes when he discusses his ‘grand plan’, it did procure us fans some of the greatest moments in Royals history. For that, I will be forever grateful to Dayton Moore.

It doesn’t mean we have to agree with everything he says, and it doesn’t mean we have to like every move he makes; you can still disagree with decisions while being supportive. But it does mean putting a little dab of faith and a nice chunk of hope into the eventual finished product. We might all be crazy for going down this road again…but if it ends with the same payoff, then I am all in.

 

Classic Royals: Royals Clinch First Playoff Spot in 29 Years

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Credit: Jerry Lai, USA TODAY Sports

It feels strange to think this was ONLY three years ago, but back on September 27, 2014 the Kansas City Royals clinched their first playoff spot since 1985. We are all well aware of what happened next: the Royals would beat the A’s in the wildest baseball game I have ever seen and would continue to win all the way to the World Series that year. While the wild card game extracted most of the Kansas City demons, this game and the finality of wrapping up a playoff spot made all the naysayers and doubters clamp up. This was where all the pessimism went to die. Looking back, it’s funny how ingrained into my brain the highlights from 2014 and 2015 are. I can rattle off moments in full detail about those two seasons and games that I remember like they were played yesterday. There is a long road ahead for this franchise and I’m sure they will get back to this spot sooner rather than later. But for now, this is a great starting spot for the ride that was soon to follow. It was a ride that none of us expected but one that we all needed.

This Dream Is Over

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I still remember where I was for the American League Wild Card game in 2014. I was stuck at work, but also knew that once I got to 8-8:30 or so I would have time to take in the game. When the 4th inning started, the Royals were ahead 3-2 and I went down the hall to knock out some recording (I work at a radio station). When I was done and returned to check up on the game, the Royals were down 7-3 as the A’s had put up a five-spot in the 6th inning. I uttered the words out loud ‘What happened?’ as my hopes and dreams for this game started to drift away. But then…the 8th inning happened, as the Royals stacked up another three runs. Then they tied it in the 9th…and then the 12th inning happened. I was still at work, past midnight, when Christian Colon would come in to score on the Salvador Perez hopper down the third base line and the celebration ensued. My co-worker at the time said it was “the happiest he had ever seen me” as we jumped up and down in excitement. That game was the beginning of this crazy ride that this group of players on the Kansas City Royals would take us on and this weekend it all comes to an end. For many of us, the last four years have been the best of times.

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Most of you know the story, or some semblance of it. Before 2013, the Royals hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and had only one winning season since the 1995 campaign. The Royals had become the laughingstock of baseball during this time period and for most of that period ownership didn’t appear to be too concerned with putting winning baseball on the field. For those of us around during this time, we often refer to it as ‘The Dark Days’ and try move the topic away from that twenty year stretch. It wasn’t much fun to be a Royals fan and at numerous points I was asked why I still hung around. It was simple: this was my team, the team I had loved since I was a kid. I wasn’t abandoning them and knew they couldn’t be losers forever. There had to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, we started to see a glint of hope in 2011, as players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez started to make their way to the big leagues. The Royals had acquired Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar a year before in the Greinke trade and Alex Gordon was the homegrown player who finally broke through that year. The building blocks were being pieced together for what would eventually become a championship team.

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There had been such a long stretch without winning baseball in Kansas City that the amount that remembered what that was like was outnumbered by those who didn’t. That wild card game changed not only the direction of the organization but also changed the fanbase and Kansas City as a whole. No longer was this team an organization in dire need of October baseball. Instead, it was a team of players who were becoming household names. The best part of those Royals teams were how easy it was to root for them. Guys like Hosmer, Salvy and Cain almost always had a smile on their face and it had become very apparent that they were having fun out on the field. These were not only a group of players you could get behind, but a group that actually enjoyed each other and pushed each other to succeed. I sometimes wonder if Kansas City embraces this team the way they did if not for how likable they were. It was easy to cheer them on when you saw them having fun out on the field and playing baseball like a bunch of kids. This being a fun group made baseball fun again and the winning pushed everything over the top.

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…and that is what makes this weekend so sad. We have reached the end of the line with this group, as a number of them are approaching free agency this offseason. Hosmer, Cain and Moustakas are the biggest names in this group, but guys like Escobar and Jason Vargas are all on this list. There is always a chance one or two return to Kansas City, but the percentages say it is more likely the majority leave. We’ve all known this for years and each of us in our own way have dealt with it accordingly. That being said, it doesn’t make it any easier and is why as much as there is celebration in the air this weekend, it is with a bittersweet twinge. The bottom line is that we have seen this core group grow together, learn together and win together. The idea of a Mike Moustakas NOT wearing Royal blue or another fanbase chanting ‘MOOOOOOOOSE’ feels wrong. In some ways we have claimed ownership of these players and the idea of them moving along is hard to really wrap one’s head around. But this is baseball and the economics of the game make it to where a small market team has a difficult time keeping all their players once they reach the free agency market. The attachment to these players have been evident for a while; even when a guy like Jeremy Guthrie left after the 2015 season there was a bit of sadness despite his performance during that season. We as fans get used to watching and cheering for these guys on a daily basis season after season; when you attach the amount of memories this group has given us during this run, that attachment grows even more. This is why Sunday is going to be a difficult time for most Royals fans.

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The honest truth is that even if Kansas City is able to retain a couple of these players, 2018 is going to be a difficult season. The farm system is one of the worst in the game and there is not much help on the horizon in the high minors. We’ve all coped with this in different ways and while I consider myself a fairly realistic person, there is still a part of me that wishes the Royals could bring everyone back. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, I am going to miss the joy and exuberance of this era in Royals baseball. That being said, a part of me is excited at the idea of what the next group of Kansas City players will be like that returns the team to postseason glory. This run has been one which has given all of us so many memories, some that have eclipsed the ones I stored in my mind from when I was a kid. For that, I will forever be grateful of what these guys did. Thank you, Hos, Moose and LoCain; may your future be as bright as your past and present have been…and may you hold Kansas City in your hearts the way you have done for us. Sincerely, every Kansas City Royals fan.

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…

 

An Angelic Sweep

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We all knew the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t stay down all season long. It was just a matter of time until the team would rattle off a nice little winning streak to bring them up to .500 ball, and the series against the Los Angeles Angels ended up doing the trick. The funny thing is, it’s not like the Royals offense awoke from their slumber and became the 1927 New York Yankees; in fact, Kansas City only scored 5 runs in this series. But what they did get was some outstanding starting pitching.

Angels Royals Baseball

While most of us expected the starting pitching to be better in 2017, so far it has outperformed even the most optimistic of us Royals fans, and the trio of Danny Duffy, Nate Karns and Ian Kennedy were spectacular this weekend. Duffy threw 7 innings of one run ball on Friday night (Game Score of 71), Karns threw 6 innings and gave up just one run (Game Score of 61) and Kennedy threw the real jewel, 8 innings of shutout baseball (Game Score of 86) on Sunday. The Royals starting pitching lead the American League in ERA (2.31), FIP (3.15), Home Runs per 9 (0.49) and tied for the best WAR (1.6 with Baltimore). Now, none of us expect them to be this stellar for the entirety of the season, but even if they keep things above league average, most of us would consider that a win for this ballclub. But as good as the starting pitching has been, the team won’t be allowed to lean on it all year, as at some point the Royals offense is going to have to produce.

Angels Royals Baseball

If you are a Royals fan, you have seen this song and dance before from the offense. For whatever reason, the Royals offense struggles in the early months of each season, or they at least have for a number of years now. Remember when Kansas City had to replace their hitting coaches two May’s in a row a few years back? This Royals offense is fully capable of being above league average (or at least AT league average) but they are also a streaky bunch. So far in 2017, the Royals are last in on-base percentage and next to last in runs, RBI’s, wRC+ and WAR, with only the woeful Blue Jays worst than them. Probably the most surprising is the slugging percentage, which is also next to last in the American League, despite being 8th in the AL in home runs hit. The Royals are hitting home runs, but very little else. In fact, what a perfect time for ‘Fun with Numbers’:

Mike Moustakas-.683 slugging percentage

Lorenzo Cain-.490 on-base percentage, 21.6% walk rate

Brandon Moss- 3 hits (2 home runs) and 6 walks

Eric Hosmer-62.2% ground ball rate

Moustakas seems to have turned a corner, as a hitter who has figured out what pitches he can drive and which ones to go with. Moose is pulling the ball 46.9% of the time and while the preference is a hitter who can use all parts of the field, so far his pull heavy results are turning up positive. On the other side of the spectrum is Hosmer. It feels like I have beaten that horse to death, so the only thing I will mention is that Craig Brown of Baseball Prospectus Kansas City wrote a great piece on Hos and his struggles, which pretty much sums up how I feel about him, just without all the cursing.

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Once again, the defense was front and center this past weekend. Top of the list is this great grab by Raul Mondesi:

Lorenzo Cain made a great grab on Easter Sunday:

and even Eric Hosmer got into the action:

While the starting pitching has been spectacular, this Royals team is built around their defense and they continue to excel. There has been some speculation on how long the Royals will go with Mondesi at second base, but a big part of why he got the job was because of his defense. As long as he makes big plays to help the pitching, he will get the chance to improve on his hitting.

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While the Angels aren’t world-beaters, they can be a dangerous offensive team and the Royals held them in check. A couple of notes to think about this week as the Giants return to Kansas City for the first time since the 2014 World Series (yes, Bumgarner is scheduled to pitch on Wednesday; boo accordingly). One, Joakim Soria has been lights out, not allowing a run in 6 innings of work so far in 2017; look for his role to increase moving forward. Two, Buster Posey was activated today and will be in the lineup for the Giants. Three, let’s see how the Royals do with runners in scoring position. So far this year, they are hitting .158 with RISP and .065 with RISP and 2 outs. Kansas City needs to improve on that if they want to stay above .500. With the temperatures picking up, it’s time for the Royals bats to start heating up as well. If not, the ground they made up this week was all for naught.

 

 

Yordano Ventura Remembered

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You often hear that “baseball is a kid’s game”, a phrase that bears a ton of truth. For many fans, they fall in love with the game at a young age and never lose that youthful exuberance when at the ballpark. Players are no different, as many play as if they are still ten years old, kicking dirt on a backfield while playing a pick up game with friends. The realities of life sometimes slip away during the span of a baseball game, as all the daily worries seem to slide into a separate filter, only to be untapped at a later date. Last year, baseball lost a grown up kid in Jose Fernandez, an elite pitcher who’s life was taken all too soon. On Sunday, Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, just 25, fell to the same fate, dying from a traffic crash in the Dominican Republic. Ventura was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from his vehicle after losing control of it on the highway. Apparently there was some thick fog when the accident happened. For a guy who only pitched three full seasons in the majors, there are a ton of memories for Royals fans to remember him by.

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Ventura first started showing up on most Royals fan’s radar in late 2012, a season where he fanned 130 batters in 109 minor league innings. His ascension in the Royals farm system continued in 2013, where he struck out 155 hitters in just 134 innings and was a September call-up that year, starting three games while throwing just 15 innings and producing an ERA+ of 120. The report back then was pretty simple; lanky righthander with a power arm that would sometimes allow too many baserunners. He was already getting comparisons with Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, as there were even questions on whether or not his frame could hold up to a full major league season. That would be put to the test in 2014, as Ventura made the team out of Spring Training, throwing 183 innings, posting an ERA+ of 123, a FIP of 3.60 and a strike out to walk ratio of 2.30. Ventura would end up 6th in the Amiercan League Rookie of the Year voting. He was already cementing his spot in the Kansas City rotation and would further that even more in October.

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It’s funny looking back at it now, but Ventura would make his playoff debut in the 2014 Wild Card game against Oakland, in a very controversial outing at the time. Ventura would be brought in from the bullpen after the 6th inning had started, and would face only three batters; one would single,Brandon Moss would hit a home run, and he would get one batter out.

After the homer, the Royals would be down 6-2 at that point and even to this day, it felt like a weird move to make. Why would you bring in a rookie, who had started all but one game all season, in the middle of the inning with a runner on base rather than bring him in during a clean inning? It seemed like a move that could have cost manager Ned Yost his job. Luckily for Yost, the Royals would come back and win the game in extra innings and moving forward we would only see Ventura start in the postseason.

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In fact, it was during that postseason that he would pitch the greatest game of his career. In Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, with the Royals on the edge of elimination, Ventura would pitch in honor of his friend Oscar Tavares (a Cardinals prospect who had five days earlier passed away from a car accident) and throw a gem against the San Francisco Giants, pitching seven shutout innings, striking out 4 while only allowing 3 hits.

It was hard at that point not imagining Ventura being the future of the Royals starting rotation and putting together a string of memorable outings. Over the years, Kansas City had a number of excellent pitchers to hang their hat on: Saberhagen, Busby, Leonard, Cone and Greinke just to name a few. At this point it felt like we would be able to add Ventura to the list. But that wasn’t how things played out.

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Kansas City Royals

While the Royals were better in 2015, Ventura seemed to fall down a peg. Ventura would throw 20 less innings in 2015, while his ERA+ was right around league average (103) and his bWAR fell (3.2 to 1.9), his strike out to walk ratio and FIP would slightly improve. 2016 wasn’t any better, as his ERA+ fell below league average (98), while his FIP and WHIP both rose to career highs.His strike out to walk ratio also fell, as his strike out total fell while his walk total increased. It was obvious to some at this point that Ventura’s real battle was going to be harnessing his emotions while on the mound.

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The first bout of his emotions getting the better of him occurred in 2015, as early in the season Ventura would get upset at a Mike Trout single that breezed by his head. It was chalked up to just being a heat of the moment type thing, at least until the incident against Oakland later in the month. After some bad feelings on Friday night (thanks to an aggressive Brett Lawrie slide), Ventura would give up a home run to Josh Reddick in what to that point had been a rocky outing for the young flamethrower. Ventura would follow by plunking Lawrie with a 100 mph fastball and the benches would empty. I was at the ballpark for that game (which I was super excited about since it was the first Yordano game I was getting to see in person) and was disappointed with Ventura’s obvious decision to get himself taken out of the game. Ventura would get ejected again in his next start, as Adam Eaton of Chicago would get under his skin and start a melee. A reputation would be earned at this point for Ventura, that of being a hot-head, and other teams would try to take advantage of this by trying to get him riled up and off his game. That reputation would hit an apex in June of last year as he would tussle with Manny Machado of the Orioles, hitting him and causing everyone to question Ventura’s mental stability on the mound.

But was this really who Yordano Ventura was? The answer, like most things, was more complicated than that.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

For all the posturing and cockiness, there was a guy with a big heart inside of Ventura. Many of the Royals players, while frustrated with his shenanigans on the mound, considered him their “younger brother”, disappointed with his actions but supporting him all the same, knowing he was still young and finding his way. They saw the kid who would get upset after a tough loss, feeling like he let the team down with his performance on the field and hoping to work better. For every outburst, there were just as many (if not more) days where you could see a smiling Ventura, loving where he was at considering where he came from. While the Royals had become disappointed with his behavior sometimes, they saw the kid who was watching tape, listening to what his coaches were telling him and who was one of the hardest working guys on the team. Ventura was human, like most of us and with that comes the good and the bad.

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As a fan, most of us were equal parts enthralled and impatient with him. For every outing where he struggled to keep his cool, there was one that gave you hope that the ceiling was starting to be reached. For every emotional outburst there was a perfect setup of a batter, luring the batters in with the heat before finishing them off with the nastiest of curveballs. For a team that has struggled producing quality starting pitching, Ventura was that hope that the Royals had finally found their Marichal, their Martinez, their Fernandez. He was the scrawny kid from the Dominican Republic who was signed at 16 years old, throwing in the mid 80’s, hoping he would grow to be something more. He had grown to be something more…but unfortunately we will never find out just how much more.

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No human being should meet their fate at the age of 25, let alone an athlete who hasn’t reached the peak of their career yet. There was so much more life to live, so much more for Ventura to give and I don’t even mean on the mound. What most people will remember from Yordano Ventura won’t be the fastball, or the fights or the swagger. No, most people will remember that smile, a smile that was infectious and was a little kid’s smile in a grown man’s body. Even at 25, Ventura was just a little kid getting to throw a baseball for a living. That will stay with me much longer than individual accomplishments or frustration I had with him as a player. Ventura was that sign of hope that all of us look for in our baseball team’s, that hope that tomorrow will be a brighter day. While today was a dark one for baseball fans, I promise tomorrow will be brighter. As fans, our days were brighter with the hope that Yordano Ventura’s arm and smile brought us.

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!

 

 

 

Quality and Quantity

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY)

Quality pitching might be the greatest necessity throughout the game of baseball. You could ask 100 baseball executives, scouts or analysts, and I’m sure almost all of them would point to quality starting pitching as a constant need for every team. Point blank, you can never have enough pitching. The Kansas City Royals can be counted as one of those teams, as evident by the way their starting rotation has performed this year. It has been so vital for Kansas City that I wrote about it here and here…and here. If there ever was a season where the Royals fate would be determined by their rotation, this would be the year. In fact, you could almost say that as their starters go, so go the Royals. When they struggle, the Royals struggle. When they are glorious, the team strives. Kansas City is currently riding a hot streak and while you will hear names like Gordon, Hosmer and Orlando linked to this streak, the biggest reason for their success can be attributed to the improvement of the starting pitching.

Kansas City Royals vs St. Louis Cardinals
(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Lets start by discussing the Royals pitchers and the quality start. For those that don’t know, a quality start is considered any start where the pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 runs or less. It’s shouldn’t be a hard standard to meet, but occasionally it is an issue and has been for Kansas City this year. Obviously leading the way is Danny Duffy and his amazing season. Duffy has reeled off six straight quality starts and has 12 overall in his 18 starts this year. Ian Kennedy has spun four straight quality starts and Yordano Ventura has three straight. Even Dillon Gee got into the act on Thursday night, spinning his best start of the season and only his second quality start of the year. The starters seem to be working deeper into the game as of late, allowing the bullpen to not log as many innings as they have been and giving them a chance to be a bit sharper. This is big, because if the Royals pitching holds the other team’s offense, there is a good chance that the bullpen will also hold them in check. The Kansas City offense has a tendency to erupt late in the game, and the starting pitching as of late has given them the opportunity to do just that.

Ian Kennedy
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

During the month of July, the Royals scuffled and while the offense sputtered, the starting pitching wasn’t much better. For most of the year, the rotation has been near the bottom of most categories in the American League, but that has changed. The Kansas City starters have climbed up from last in innings pitched to 11th, next to last in starters WAR and FIP, and 10th in ERA. The starters have still given up the most home runs in the league and the 3rd highest walk percentage, but you can see some definite progression in the numbers. Teams are only batting .255 against Kansas City’s starters, 4th best in the league and they have the third best LOB(Left on Base) percentage of 74.7%. Their strike out numbers have risen as well, as they have the third best K rate in the league at 20.7%. There are still some flaws with the starters, as expected, but when you see the team has the second best Clutch statistic in the league(Kansas City is at 3.26 this year, with 2.00 considered an excellent number) it makes it appear as if the rotation is moving in the correct direction.

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The interesting part is that the Royals have not relied as heavily on their starters the last few years and it has seen them make back to back World Series appearances. The team was actually last in the American League last year in innings pitched, 4th highest ERA and FIP, 2nd lowest starters WAR and the highest walk rate in the league(7.6%). When digesting the 2016 numbers compared to last year, it appears the only big glaring difference would be the home runs allowed by the starters. Last year they allowed 107 home runs for the entire year, 6th lowest in the league. This year they have allowed 121 homers, 14 more in 232 less innings. The long ball has hurt the team this year and can be attributed as the big difference in the rotation this year. Luckily, they have only allowed 13 home runs over the last two weeks in 85 innings, which gives them a HR/9 ratio of 1.38. That is quite a bit better than the 1.60 ratio they have for the entire season. This team is never going to be quite like the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s but there is notable improvement over the last few weeks and some of the same competitiveness seen by Atlanta back in the day.

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With just forty games remaining in this 2016 season, the Royals are sitting at 62-60, 9 games out of the American League Central lead and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card. This latest hot streak has soared them back into the race and the starting pitching should get a lot of the praise for that. If this team wants to play in the postseason for the third consecutive year, they need the rotation to keep doing what they have been doing these last couple weeks. What was considered a lost cause just a few weeks ago now seems a distinct possibility for the team that has ‘been there, done that’. If the rest of the rotation follows Danny Duffy’s lead, there will be a fun comeback story to dwell on when October rolls around.

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