The End of An Era: How the 2017 Royals Couldn’t Relive Past Glory

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The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.

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But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings  without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).

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Credit: John Cordes

The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP,  and a 13.8% K rate. Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.

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So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:

“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”

While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…

 

The Battle For the AL MVP & How Mike Trout is Trying to Crash the Party

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

When baseball reached the All-Star break, the American League MVP race felt like a two-man battle. Jose Altuve of Houston was once again a top contender while the Yankees Aaron Judge was making baseball writers and analysts go ga-ga as he invoked memories of Ruth and Mantle. The normal leader in MVP conversations, Mike Trout, was sitting on the sideline, finishing up a rehab assignment and hoping to get back on the field after missing close to 40 games. While Trout was the front-runner before his injury, there appeared to be no way he could catch Altuve and Judge in any of the statistics that mattered. But then Trout came back, picking up where he left off, and something happened…Trout slowly climbed up the fWAR leaderboard. Day by day, game by game, Mike Trout was catching up to the two leaders. Just like last year, what appeared to be a two-man race turned into a three-man battle to the end. While it would appear Trout missing those 40 games would deter his case, it’s actually enhancing the argument that he is the 2017 American League MVP.

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Let’s start with the WAR argument, which I referenced above. As of this writing, Altuve sits atop the American League leaderboard, with 6.5 fWAR. Trout follows with 6.2 and Judge sits in third place with 5.7. Just as an aside, this is just speaking for the hitters in the league; Chris Sale leads everyone with 7.5 WAR and Corey Kluber is at 6.0. Both Sale and Kluber can be calculated into your MVP discussion (and trust me, Sale is in that convo), but at least for me, I don’t value pitchers in MVP talk UNLESS they have been so dominant and crucial to their team’s success (and since I know it will be asked, the next closest Red Sox to Sale’s WAR number is Mookie Betts at 3.8). So Altuve and Trout are 1-2 in hitter’s WAR, but that gap was much larger at the All-Star break. At the break, Aaron Judge led the AL with 5.4 fWAR, followed by Altuve at 4.1 and Trout was down in 6th place with 3.4 fWAR. So in this second half of the season, Altuve has accumulated 2.4 WAR, Judge 0.3 and Trout 2.8. Now, the gap between Altuve and Trout wasn’t that big at the break, but Judge’s lead above both was quite a bit more. So while Trout’s push in this second half has been impressive, Altuve’s has been equally impressive in that short amount of time. What has been the most important aspect of this gain is not just how Trout has shortened the gap between the two candidates; the most impressive part of this whole debate is that WAR is a stat that accumulates over time, so the more you play the higher your number should go. Obviously not every player sees that (Alcides Escobar has played every game this year for Kansas City and his fWAR sits at a sickly -0.3 right now) but if you are an elite player, your Wins Above Replacement will rise the more you play. The fact that Trout has almost reached Altuve in over 150 less plate appearances, says a lot about how good Trout’s season has been.

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Credit: The Sporting News

So how is Trout doing with some of the other statistics? Obviously Trout can’t win it on WAR alone, and luckily the numbers prove he won’t. Trout leads the league in weighted Runs Created Plus, weighted On Base Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, walk percentage, Win Probability Added, Walk to Strikeout ratio, On-Base Plus Slugging, 2nd in Isolated Power, and 10th in stolen bases. The most impressive out of all these numbers to me is Trout’s Win Probability Added number. Trout is at 5.74; the next closest batter is Nelson Cruz at 3.67. I mentioned earlier how WAR is a stat that accumulates and so does WPA. For Trout to have an over two point lead in a stat that adds up over time is amazing. No other player in the American League has had a larger effect on his teams outcome than Trout AND IT ISN’T EVEN CLOSE! When I think of the term ‘Most Valuable Player’, I think of someone who is so valuable that you can’t even imagine what that team would look like without that player on the field. Trout missed 40 games (40 games!!) and has had a larger effect on his team than any other player in all of baseball. If that doesn’t speak of value, I can’t imagine what else does.

Brett George 2400.81 NBL

Now, there is one slight issue, which is that Trout is not quite a qualified batter, as he is sitting at 325 at bats for the season and 412 plate appearances. Trout would need to reach 502 plate appearances to be a qualified batter and with 24 games left Trout would have to average 3.75 plate appearances per game, which is doable. So while Trout has a good chance of reaching the bar he needs to get to, there would still be a few writers who might not vote for him because of time missed. Luckily, there are a few precedents that show it can and has been done before. First, go back to 1962 when Mickey Mantle missed 25 games in May and June of that year. Mantle would justbarely squeak in enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title and win MVP. Mantle also lead in many of the same categories that Trout leads in right now and would garnish a Gold Glove award. George Brett in 1980 missed 25 games with an ankle injury and racked up 515 plate appearances. George flirted with .400 for most of the year and would also lead the league in most of the same categories as Trout. Finally, Barry Bonds missed 32 games in 2003, racked up 550 plate appearances, 10.2 WAR and would win his 6th MVP award. In all three of these cases, a player missed a significant amount of time to injury yet had such potent offensive seasons that the voters could not dismiss their contributions to their team. To me, that reads just like Trout this year and shows that if the numbers are there, it should be an easy vote come the end of the season.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Mike Trout hasn’t passed Jose Altuve just yet, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn’t happen before the end of the season. You almost feel sorry for guys like Altuve, Judge, Manny Machado and others; they are playing at the same time as one of the greatest players of not only this time period, but easily one of the best of the last 30-40 years. Mike Trout appears to be on a completely different level and this year the numbers say he is doing it in a slightly shorter amount of time. While a vote for Altuve wouldn’t be a bad vote, it would be ignoring not only what Trout is achieving but also what he is doing to help lead an Angels team to contention. It might feel redundant to say Trout should be MVP each year, but it would also be foolish to vote against him just for the sake of change. Last year in August, I said Trout should be in the conversation for MVP and I was scoffed at. I was told Altuve had it in the bag. Trout ended up winning the award. This year I make a different proclamation: Mike Trout should be MVP again. This time, it might be wise to just admit the arguments against him aren’t as strong as the arguments for. All hail Mike Trout.

Hype, Man

Aaron Judge
Credit: Sports Illustrated

As a “seamhead”, it is in our disposition to love everything that is great about this game we adore, baseball. Whether it be the history of the game, the classic stadiums, the evolution of strategy or the uprising of analytics, I love it all. But with that said, I have a confession to make. This won’t go over well and for some it will be heresy. I would apologize beforehand, but I feel justified in what I am about to confess. It isn’t the popular opinion but here we go: I am not enamored with Aaron Judge. Yeah, I know, he hits the ball high and far and is a statue of a man. I am aware that his numbers say he is a force to be reckoned with and he deserves the praise. The problem is the praise is just too much. Waaaaaay too much. The media are obsessed with a guy who has put up half a season of All-Star numbers and they are ready to anoint him the second coming of every great power hitter. But it is too much, too soon and the baseball analysts and talking heads need to stop.

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Look, the numbers ARE impressive. It’s hard to see a wRC+ of 184 and not be overwhelmed, since it is a stat that is league and park adjusted. That number gives him more validity than any home run number or slugging stat out there. Playing in Yankee Stadium makes those numbers a bit skewed, as it is a park that leans more toward the hitter. Some of the numbers make me think he is going to come down to earth soon; a high BABIP normally means you are getting a bit lucky on balls put in play, so that .398 will probably slope down a bit soon. But it is obvious the power is real and he has become a better hitter, as shown by the 16.6% walk rate or the 24.9% O-Swing percentage, which is pitches he has swung at outside the zone. The improvement shows in his numbers and he should be a player that is talked about. But there is talk, and then there is focusing on one player like they are head and shoulders above every other player. The latter has been going on quite regularly lately, especially on ESPN.

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Last week I tuned into Baseball Tonight the afternoon before the All-Star Game, hoping to get some analysis on the game and a few interviews with players. I knew Judge would be talked about, as he should since he had won the Home Run Derby the night before. Over the next 45 minutes, I witnessed ESPN talk about nothing but Judge…seriously. They had an interview with him. Showed highlights of the derby. Talked to other players about Judge. After 45 minutes, I stopped my recording and deleted it. I couldn’t even make it through the entire hour. There was no talk about the pitching matchup that night, no discussion about the lineups, no conversation about Zack Cozart’s donkey. It was all Judge and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. As much as Baseball Tonight has been my go to since the 1990’s, it has deteriorated over the years and after the bloodshed in Bristol earlier this summer, I should have seen this coming. There is a reason I hardly ever watch ESPN anymore and my default channel on my TV is MLB Network. At least the network tries to cover a wide spectrum of topics around the sport and only slightly hints at their “East Coast Bias”; ESPN has completely embraced their bias.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

If there was ever a major reason for the over exuberant coverage of Judge, the answer is right there-he plays for the Yankees. New York has long wanted a young slugger to be placed on the pedestal, to follow in the footsteps of Ruth and Mantle. Even more, New York has wanted that one player they can zoom in on ever since Derek Jeter retired. If you remember, the coverage of Jeter that final season was nauseating and I didn’t even hate the guy. But by the end of that season, I didn’t want to hear Jeter’s name for a very, very long time. While New York is the biggest market in the sport, there are 28 other teams with players just as worthy of your attention as the one’s in the ‘Big Apple’. I could list a whole slew of young players to discuss; everyone from Machado to Correa, Bellinger to Betts, Arenado to Goldschmidt. I even heard analysts saying Judge should be the face of the game, which just seems preposterous when Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw are still playing (never mind the fact that you shouldn’t have just “one” face of the game). He is a great young player and worthy of headlines; just not all the headlines.

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One comparison that has not been mentioned for Judge that actually is very comparable is Mark McGwire, or more specifically, their rookie seasons. Let’s size up Judge and McGwire’s rookie campaigns:

Judge- .311/.432/.649, 184 wRC+, 5.2 fWAR

McGwire- .289/.370/.618, 157 wRC+, 5.1 fWAR

So I didn’t go the HR/RBI route since Judge is has only 391 plate appearances with two plus months left of action and McGwire ended up with 641 when it was all said and done. Factoring that extra 250+ PA, average and slugging feel like they are fairly close, while Judge already has McGwire beat with WAR; Judge is a better defender in RF than McGwire was at first base. While the numbers skew toward Judge right now, one has to wonder if the extra couple months will bring Judge back down closer to where McGwire ended up. In all honesty, Judge to me feels like this generation’s McGwire if he can stay healthy. He will hit a bunch of home runs, he’ll get his walks (especially if pitchers start pitching around him) and he’ll produce runs. It’s not a bad thing and McGwire was one of the elite sluggers in the game for a lengthy period of time. It goes to show you that as much as many protest and say they love a well-rounded player, many still dig the long ball.

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At the end of the day, it would be wise for the baseball media on the east coast to remember there are fans all over the country that would prefer a well-rounded analysis of the game, not just what is happening in ‘The Bronx’. Judge is a good player who has the potential to be a mainstay in the spotlight for years to come and making comparisons to baseball legends will only put undue pressure on the kid. Take it down a notch, New York, and let him just go out and play. Even Jesus Christ doesn’t get as much press as a star Yankee gets. The home runs are great, but let’s wait to see how the league adjusts to him and how he handles that. That is the true telltale sign of how good a baseball player really is. Besides, Mike Trout is back from the disabled list; maybe you should remember how consistently great he is before trying to dethrone him with Judge.

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio-Episode 3

Home Run Derby Baseball

With the All-Star Game and Home Run Derby in the rear-view mirror, Scott Hayes joins Sean to talk about the game and the derby, looking at the Royals first half and what to look forward to in the second half, the Cubs and what they need to do in the second half of the season and discussion on who should be the ‘Face of the Game’. Lots of fun baseball talk that you can listen to. The podcast is a new thing here on Bleeding Royal Blue, so I would love any feedback on what you think. Any and all comments are appreciated and thanks for listening!

 

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