It Has Been a Crazy Month for the Royals

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A month into the 2019 baseball season and one word sums up how it has gone so far for the Kansas City Royals: crazy. Crazy in that if you watch this team on a semi-regular basis, they don’t appear to be a team worthy of sharing baseball’s basement with the Marlins. But as we sit here on the doorstep of May, that is exactly where we are at.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been positives so far in the campaign. Hunter Dozier is putting up MVP type numbers, as he is hitting .349/.447/.686 with 7 home runs and 17 RBIs, a total that is already creeping up on what he did in 2018.

Alex Gordon has been the phoenix, rising from years of below average production to hit .301/.395/.544 and an OPS+ of 149. Gordon has always been a streaky hitter, but a focus on patience and hitting the ball to the opposite field has made for a banner April so far in 2019.

In fact, both are posting leader board type numbers, especially when it comes to WAR for position players (the Baseball Reference variety) and Adjusted Batting Wins:

Offensively this Royals team is holding their own so far this year, taking up residence in the middle of the pack in most vital offensive categories, showing some offensive punch that many of us didn’t picture once the season began.

Credit: KC Star

Adalberto Mondesi is pretty much doing exactly what we all expected including leading the league in triples, Whit Merrifield has been a steady bat at the top of the lineup (and giving us Royals fans some excitement early this year with his hitting streak) and Jorge Soler is hitting dongs. Essentially, while the Royals offense isn’t perfect (Hello, Chris Owings), it has been a bit more consistent than I was expecting when the season began.

…and then there is the pitching. As much as we’ve been pleasantly surprised with the Royals hitters, there has been equal disappointment with the pitching. Overall, Kansas City is 13th in fWAR for the entire staff. The starters have been slightly better, as they are 9th in FIP, and…well, almost everything else is in the bottom section of the league.

While the relievers numbers aren’t much better (and early in the season showed a unique ability to blow the lead in almost any situation), there has been a noticeable improvement over the last couple of weeks. Over the last 14 days, Royals relievers have the 5th best fWAR, 3rd best FIP, 5th best ERA, 3rd highest LOB%, 2nd highest ground ball rate, and the 2nd lowest hard hit rate.

Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Maybe the most obvious reason for this turnaround is the ability by the Royals coaching staff in defining roles for the relievers. Early in the season, it was obvious that Royals manager Ned Yost was feeling out who was best suited for what role in this pen. With new guys like Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman and longtime starter Ian Kennedy being moved to a new role, there was a lot of uncertainty with this squad. Now, the team has an idea who can do what and a lot of the early struggles have gone away. This isn’t to say there are no issues, just less than what we were seeing those first couple weeks of the season.

So here are the current standings in the American League Central:

The Royals are way out of the race at this point, 9.5 games back in a division that some consider the weakest in baseball. Maybe the good news is that no one team is running away with the division, so there is a lot of room for upward mobility, especially with five months left in the season.

Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

This is not to say the Royals can still be contenders. We all know what this team is. We all know the rebuild is in full effect. But is this team better than their performance in their first 29 games? I believe so. Luckily, more and more youngsters are going to get a chance to prove their worth in 2019. We’ve already seen Richard Lovelady and Kelvin Gutierrez. Before we know it, Nicky Lopez will be taking the trip from Omaha to Kansas City. While things look bleak now, if you squint just right in your royal blue colored glasses, it’s not hard to see this team occupying fourth or even third place before the season is done.

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It’s Simple: The Royals are 1-0!

If you are a baseball fan, then you know Opening Day is the closest thing we have to a holiday, outside of maybe Game 1 of the World Series. Game number one is where it all begins, the journey to a long six month season that brings us the highs and lows of this beautiful game.

Coming off of a 104 loss season, it felt imperative that the 2019 squad for the Kansas City Royals needed to kick-off the season with a bit of hope. Luckily, they did that. Adalberto Mondesi hit two triples. Whit Merrifield stole a couple of bases. Frank Schwindel made his major league debut and came up with a big hit (that is listed as an error, but I’m finding it hard not to count it as a hit) to knock in a run. Jorge Soler also came up big, providing some insurance runs as well as proving his good health. The Royals offense showed up, took advantage of some Chicago errors and got 2019 started on the right foot.

That’s right, the Royals won.

But the most impressive performance on Thursday was by Brad Keller, a guy who was a Rule 5 draft pick just one year ago. Keller threw seven shutout innings, giving up two hits and striking out five. Keller put on an “Ace” like performance and hopefully showed he is going to grow upon his stellar rookie season.

Yes, the Royals are undefeated this season.

So while the bullpen was shaky, the rain pushed back the start time almost two hours and the White Sox aren’t exactly one of the elite teams in the league, it was overall a good first game to put into the record book. I know there will be some downs to go along with the ups, but for now I’m just focused on a good foundation to start the year.

Now lets win 161 more.

The 2019 Kansas City Royals: A Rebuild By Any Other Name is Still a Rebuild

Credit: Kansas City Star

When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.

But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.

So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.

The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.

But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.

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But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.

While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.

In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.

Credit: Kansas City Star

O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.

Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.

Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.

Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.

Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.

How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.

As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.

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All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.

Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.

Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.

The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.

Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.

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Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.

When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.

The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.

That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.

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But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.

After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.

Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.

What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.

Credit: Nicky Lopez, Twitter

But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.

So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.

V is For Versatility

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It’s sometimes rough to find a positive for a team coming off of a 104 loss season. You don’t lose that many games without there being some major issues going on with your team. In that regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every other team in their situation.

That being said, by the end of the year you could see some bright lights and the idea of a better squad in 2019 wasn’t far-fetched. While most will point to Adalberto Mondesi’s upward trajectory or Brad Keller’s amazing rookie campaign as positives for this Kansas City team moving forward, a less likely nod will be sent to the team’s versatility.

The Royals will be headed into this upcoming season with a litany of positional opportunities and players who can shift around to multiple areas on the diamond. The most obvious player to fit this description is Whit Merrifield, who is easily the Royals best player.

Whit put together a 5 Win season in 2018 but the most jaw-dropping aspect of his success is the ability to float around the field on any given day and fill in wherever needed. While he saw the most action at second base last year (starting 107 games), he also put time in at center field (27 starts), right field (7 starts), first base (5 starts) and left field (1 start).

Whit gave manager Ned Yost options throughout the year and not only was he a great team player by allowing Ned to play him wherever he needed him, he was able to continue to produce at a high level, no matter the position. This is why when we discuss Whit’s value this offseason, it’s reasonable to see where it could be considered “invaluable”.

But it’s not just Merrifield who can play about anywhere. Recently acquired Chris Owings was almost as adaptable as Whit this past season for Arizona, as he played in right field (33 starts), center field (10 starts), third base (9 starts), second base (8 starts) and left field (3 starts). That’s not including shortstop, where he didn’t play in 2018 but made 51 starts there in 2017.

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While Owings didn’t put up the offensive numbers of Merrifield last year, he did show an ability to play wherever he was needed, which is vital for almost any team. Owings is penciled in to be a backup in 2019, but if he can rediscover his bat (which is possible, as a .265 BABIP last year could be a sign of bad luck) there could be some solid playing time for him in the future.

But while Merrifield and Owings would fit the mold of “Super Utility Players”, a number of other Royals could get considerable playing time at multiple positions. Hunter Dozier can play both corner infield and outfield spots. Mondesi can play at both middle infield positions and the Royals have teased playing him in the outfield. While Ryan O’Hearn is almost primarily a first baseman, he could play the corner outfield spots in a pinch.

This isn’t even mentioning someone like Nicky Lopez, who we very well could see up in Kansas City by mid-summer. Lopez has played both middle infield spots throughout his minor league career and some in the Royals organization believe he could make a fairly easy transition to third base if needed. If so, that would add another infielder who could see considerable time in multiple slots this next season.

With all this versatility, it’s easy to see why the team designated Rosell Herrera for assignment to make room on the roster for Terrance Gore. While Herrera has shown an ability to be solid defensively both in the infield and outfield, his bat has shown very little punch these past few years (wRC+ of 63 last year) and the belief by Royals management has to be that they believe Owings will provide more offense than Herrera.

While normally Herrera would probably be able to fit on the Kansas City roster with his versatility, right now there is so much flexibility that even keeping him around for depth is unnecessary for the Royals.

That word “depth” is the key factor to the value of having players who can play at multiple positions. No team gets deep into the season without a healthy dose of depth and while the Royals more than likely won’t be a contender in 2019 (although in the American League Central, all bets are off), they will need that depth to get them through all the peaks and valleys of the upcoming campaign.

The Los Angeles Dodgers of 2018 are the perfect example of what flexibility can get you. They had at least 3-4 regular players who saw considerable time at multiple positions and it gave their manager Dave Roberts a great opportunity to shuffle around players and use a few platoons to help strengthen their lineup.

That is what versatility will get you. That is why Whit Merrifield has become a highly touted commodity. And that is why it will be a good thing to give Yost options to shuffle his lineup this upcoming season. It might not bring them a winning season, but it will probably help them stay away from 100 losses in 2019.

A Royal Thank You

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It is the norm this time of year to take a step back, reflect and ponder all that we are thankful for. When it comes to baseball that becomes even more prominent at this time, as the season has wrapped up and the yearly awards have been handed out to their (normally) deserving parties.

So with that said, I figured I would go ahead and toss out what I am thankful for this holiday season:

Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

I am thankful the Royals didn’t have the worst record in baseball. Yes, it was a rough year, but there was also a glint of hope in the final two months.

It’s hard not to be thankful for Whit Merrifield defying the odds. No one pictured Whit being a regular major leaguer, let along becoming the best player on the Royals roster. Whitley has worked himself into a five win player, and I’m impressed by that every day.

I’m thankful for still having a reason to cheer for Danny Duffy. It would have been easy to consider him a lost cause after some of the issues he incurred in 2017. Instead, Duffy is still the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, giving to help others and working through his flaws. His character is a big reason why a lot of us still root for his success.

How about Brad Keller’s rookie season? One of the brightest spots in this past 2018 campaign was the performance of Keller, who was just expected to be part of the back-end of the bullpen. Instead he turned his success as a reliever into a shot at the starting rotation and then never left. His rise this season has given more hope for 2019.

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I’m thankful Salvador Perez is still smiling. It would be easy for a player like Salvy to not smile as much, considering the Royals first half and all of his friends leaving for greener pastures. Instead, he still has that childlike aura whenever he steps onto the field. Hopefully that smile never fades from his face.

I am thankful that former Royals Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Joakim Soria, Erik Kratz and a host more got to enjoy October baseball this year. The legacy of those 2014-2015 teams live on with the players who helped get Kansas City a world championship.

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Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Speaking of former Royals, I’m thankful Kansas City was unable to bring Eric Hosmer back to the fold. While he is dearly loved by the fanbase, a contract even close to what San Diego paid him could have very well crippled the Royals future and made it harder to contend. Instead, the payroll should start seeing a slide downward soon, giving Kansas City the flexibility they will need.

Since we are talking about first baseman, I’m thankful for Ryan O’Hearn’s surprising ascent to the majors. No one expected him to get recalled, yet he went out and hit .262/.353/.597 in 44 games and gave himself the frontrunner’s spot at the first base position this spring. As someone watching him rise through the Kansas City system, it was a welcome surprise.

I’m also thankful to see Hunter Dozier healthy and getting an opportunity in 2018. It appeared that Dozier got more comfortable as the season progressed and he even put together a very solid August, hitting .280/.321/.467. Dozier will have some competition at third base this spring, but the opportunities will continue. 

How have I gotten this deep into what I’m thankful for and not mentioned Adalberto Mondesi? The kid was finally given the keys to shortstop and made the most of it his last two months. He hit .280/.316/.533 for August and September with 11 home runs, 21 total extra base hits and 24 stolen bases. The strike outs are still a concern, but 2019 will still be just his age 23 season and his ceiling appears to be even higher. Need a simple reason to visit the ballpark in 2019? That reason is Mondesi.

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

 I’m thankful for Jakob Junis’ slider. That pitch is a beast.

I’m thankful for the performance of Jorge Lopez in Minnesota and giving us a glimpse of what he can do for Kansas City in the future. Actually, let’s give a nod for how Heath Fillmyer pitched as well. For the Royals to take some big steps forward next year, they are going to need some of the young pitching to step up.

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I will always be thankful for Alex Gordon’s glove. It is still as golden as it was seven years ago and shows there is still some value in the player. Cherish 2019, cause that very well could be the swan song for Alex.

Looking ahead, it’s good to see GM Dayton Moore replenish the farm system this past year. Between multiple deals of veterans being shipped off for young talent, overseas signings and the draft, the lower minors appear to be Kansas City’s hope for the future. Maybe the most important item of interest to watch next year will be the development of players like Brady Singer, Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto. The Royals have some players with high upside that still have room to grow.

I’m thankful that Moore didn’t sign Luke Heimlich. Although as time moves on, it appears I probably should thank ownership for Heimlich not being signed. Let’s hope that whole circus is over with.

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Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

I’m thankful for Brett Phillips’ arm. And his personality. And that laugh. Actually, Phillips is just an easy guy to root for. Hopefully his play on the field shines as much as his demeanor.

Here’s to seeing what Jorge Soler can do in 2019. If last year was a tease, than an injury-free Soler could be a lot of fun next summer. But he has to stay healthy, which hasn’t been easy up to this point.

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Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I’m thankful Jason Adam got to procure a lifelong dream in 2018. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Staying within the baseball world, I’m thankful we still have personalities in the game like Bartolo Colon. “Big Sexy” is good for the game and the game needs players like him. I mean that in every way possible.

I’m thankful for all the young talent in the game right now. Never before has this much younger talent been such a focal point of baseball. Hopefully that continues well into the future.

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October is still the funnest time of the year and I am thankful we even got a couple of Game 163’s! I’ve been wanting chaos for years and we finally got it this October.

I’m thankful Pitching Ninja is allowed to do his thing on Twitter. It’s a better world with him in it.

and finally, I’m thankful that my passion for the game hasn’t waned over all these years. I often tell people that my first love is baseball and outside of the strike, it has never left my side. I get so much joy from a child’s game and continuing to follow it has forced me to expand my world and my mind. I am better for loving baseball and hopefully baseball is better for letting us play a small part in it.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for during this time of year?  

Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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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.

A Different World

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

Now, Kirby Yates on the carry of batted balls:

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

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

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Credit: AP Photo/Chris O’Meara

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

A Winning Formula

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Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

You’ve probably noticed but in case you haven’t, the Kansas City Royals have been playing good baseball as of late. The team is 16-14 over their last 30 games and 12-8 over the last 20. It has felt like night and day in comparison with how the Royals performed during the first two months of the season. So what has changed to cause all this winning?

The most obvious answer is the influx of young talent in the Royals lineup on a daily basis. Ryan O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Brett Phillips have all become regulars for Kansas City and while a few of those names have been on the roster for months now, they have never looked as comfortable as they have recently. This change has not only been a spark for the lineup, but has really shifted the morale in the clubhouse.

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Credit: Associated Press

It also helps that the offense has been one of the best in the league over this past month. The Royals are 1st in slugging and ISO(tied for the lead with Oakland and Toronto), 2nd in wOBA, BABIP and batting average, 3rd in WAR and RBI’s and 4th in wRC+, runs, home runs and OBP. They have the second best hard hit rate over that span and the 5th best win probability added in the AL. The offense is leading the way and producing at a level we really haven’t seen from Kansas City since 2015.

But maybe the most important shift has been the Royals increased emphasis on running the basepaths. The Royals are first in the league in stolen bases and BsR over the last month and fourth in Ultimate Base Running (UBR). Early in the season, Kansas City wasn’t running as often and it made sense why. At that point, the lineup was filled with older and slower players like Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda, players who aren’t exactly known for their speed. Factor in the colder weather as well, and Kansas City was a very station-to-station team.

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Credit: Carlos Osorio, AP

But in the last 30 days, the team has made speed a potent part of their offense. Whit Merrifield, Mondesi and Alex Gordon (yes, ALEX F. GORDON!) have all been taking advantage of their baserunning expertise and Whit is even tied for the league lead in BsR over that span. This has allowed the Royals batters more situations with runners in scoring position and given them more opportunities to drive in those runners. All this equals a greater chance for runs and the Royals have taken advantage of it.

So the offense has been a big part of the Royals recent success, but it isn’t the only element that has improved. Kansas City’s starting pitching has been just as vital for the team’s success as the bats. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starters have the 3rd best ERA, HR per 9 and HR/FB rate, 4th best WAR, WPA, BB per 9 and WHIP and 5th best FIP and xFIP. The Royals starters have thrown the 2nd most innings in that span (152.1 innings, only behind Cleveland) and while they haven’t been a dominating bunch (they’ve posted a 19.3% K rate in the last month, which is only 10th best in the league) they have found a way to get outs.

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Credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The most accurate representation of how they have been getting the job done would appear to be how the ball is being put into play. The Royals starters have allowed the third best ground ball rate and are 14th in fly ball rate, which is next to last. So they are making the opposing batters put the ball on the ground more, allowing the infield to be put to good use. The Royals have a very good defensive infield and it appears the team is working to their strength in that regard.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, they are not allowing as many fly balls which would also explain the lack of homers allowed. Many of the teams in the American League are built to be home run teams, so when that is stifled it would appear to be a big blow into their offensive output. It really appears like the starting pitching is working smarter, not harder.

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Combine all of these efforts and you get a winning month for the Kansas City Royals. It appears that the shift to youth has been the right move for this franchise and hopefully is a springboard for expectations over the next couple of years.

What will be the most interesting aspect to follow is whether or not the team is able to take the experience from the last month and transfer that over into the 2019 season. While success in September should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt due to everything from roster call-ups to playoff teams resting their regulars more often, the Royals are doing a number of things right and it has led to success. This won’t mean the team will become a winning ballclub again next season, but it does create some hope and intrigue that wasn’t there just a few months ago.

Mondesi=Lindor?

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Credit: Charlie Riedel, AP

Hype, man. In the world of baseball, prospects are all the rage. Before one of these highly touted youngsters even step onto a major league field they are pumped up for what they “could be”. The hype is real and always appears to foreshadow their “ceiling” of what might be on the horizon.

But we all know the hype sometimes has nothing to do with the reality. The reality can be a real downer, a window into mediocrity that could be stamped on them forever. The hype can be just as much a detriment as a saving grace for these players hoping to be the future of the game.

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Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Adalberto Mondesi knows all about that. Ever since he was signed in July of 2011 (stop and think about that for a moment . Over seven years ago.) there has been a constant expectation that he was bound to be a future All-Star. The hype was that Mondesi would be a five-tool player who has the sky within his grasp. Mondesi was always expected to be the future of the Kansas City Royals.

But things have at the least taken a side road. Mondesi was called up in late July of 2016 and struggled. He hit .185/.231/.512 over 47 games while posting -0.3 bWAR. While defensively he appeared major league ready, offensively he still needed time to develop.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

That didn’t change last year, as he started the year as the Royals second baseman, hitting .170/.214/.245 over 25 games. He ended up demoted back to AAA Omaha while Whit Merrifield would step in and become the Royals best player.

But something has finally clicked for Mondesi in 2018. Since the middle of August, Mondesi is hitting .313/.340/.542 over 14 games, hitting two home runs while driving in six. One of the most notable differences was in how hard he is hitting the ball this year. His hard hit rate has increased to 42.2% (up from 25.7% last year) and his exit velocity has hit 86.9%, up from 80.6%.

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Maybe the most glaring difference is the big uptick in launch angle, which is at 14.0 degrees, up from 4.2. Mondesi is doing what most other players have picked up on, which is elevating the ball to gain more success. So far, that strategy is working.

The improvements by Mondesi really tell of a young player starting to find his way and opens up the door for a number of interesting questions. Maybe the most interesting was one posed on the Royals broadcast over the weekend. Royals broadcasters Ryan Lefebvre and Rex Hudler were discussing Mondesi and they made the comparison to Cleveland Indians star shortstop Francisco Lindor. Seems crazy, right?

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Credit: Jeff Wheeler Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

Ryan and Rex’s true intention was to compare Mondesi to Lindor athletically, not in the numbers. But their comment really stuck with me and it made me ask a bigger question: is it too far-fetched to think Mondesi could eventually be an elite player the caliber of Lindor?

I figured we would start with a comparison of their minor league numbers. At AA, Lindor hit .280/.363/.390 over 478 plate appearances. Mondesi hit .248/.294/.393 over 469 plate appearances at AA. At AAA, Lindor hit .279/.333/.396 over 442 plate appearances while Mondesi hit .292/.328/.527 over 551 plate appearances.

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Credit: Andy King/Getty Images

If you are calculating their entire minor league careers, Lindor hit .279/.354/.384 over 1880 plate appearances while Mondesi accumulated 2299 plate appearances and hit .258/.303/.410. The takeaway from these numbers is that Lindor was the better overall hitter in the minors, while Mondesi had a slight edge on the power numbers.

There are a couple of notes here that we should remind every one of. First, Mondesi began his professional career at the age of 16, while Lindor was 17 years of age. It’s not a huge gap, but it does help explain the extra time Mondesi has spent in the minors compared to Lindor.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

It should also be pointed out that Lindor debuted with the Indians in 2015, during his age 21 season. Mondesi (not counting the World Series appearance in 2015) would officially debut in 2016, his age 20 season. That one year might not make a huge difference for some, but it did for Mondesi. At that point, he had only appeared in 14 AAA games while Lindor had 97 AAA games under his belt before his debut.

It was long felt that the Royals had done a disservice to Mondesi by calling him up early, but he had been on a hot streak and the Royals were looking for a charge to spark their lineup. Instead Mondesi struggled and it’s taken almost two years to get to a point where he looks comfortable in the big leagues.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

With that in mind, I thought it might be more interesting to compare Lindor’s last stint in AAA and Mondesi’s just this season. Lindor hit .284/.350/.402 in 59 games at AAA before being recalled to the Indians in 2015. Mondesi was hitting .250/.295/.492 in 29 games before being recalled in June of this year. Once again, Lindor is the overall better hitter but the power numbers are comparable.

To me, that is the biggest difference in their games. Lindor’s power numbers really broke out last year, his third year in the big leagues. In fact, his slugging percentage jumped from .435 in 2016 to .505 last season while his ISO (isolated power) jumped almost 100 points, from .134 to .232.

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Mondesi has also seen a big jump this year in his power numbers. His slugging percentage last year was .245 while this year it sits at .451, over 200 points higher. His ISO has also taken a leap, .075 to .179. Mondesi has done his damage in twice as many plate appearances as last year but has seen his numbers increase.

Considering Mondesi is still a year younger than Lindor, it’s possible to see him continue to grow and improve on these numbers and while he might not quite reach the level of Lindor when it comes to power, he might not be as far off as you would expect at first glance.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

There is one more very noticeable difference and that is in their patience at the plate. Lindor has seen his numbers steadily climb throughout his major league career, going from 6.2% walk rate to this year’s 9.7%. Mondesi is not known for his patience, as noted by his 3.6% career walk rate. If Mondesi wants to continue to elevate his game, the first step is to improve his patience at the plate and swing at less pitches outside of the strike zone. Doing this should improve his numbers all the way around.

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It’s not hard to see how someone could compare Mondesi to Lindor: they are both middle infielders, with speed, play stellar defense and both switch hit. Athletically they are very similar. While on the surface it might seem crazy for Mondesi to soar as high as Lindor has these last two years, the numbers show that he appears to be on almost the same trajectory that Lindor took in his career.

When you tack on that Mondesi has improved the longer he has been at each level of his professional career, it doesn’t take much squinting to see him being one of the top shortstops in the league alongside Lindor. While the initial projections spoke of him being a possible future All-Star, the reality spoke of a different story. Luckily for us Royals fans, reality is starting to catch up to all the hype. Hype, man.

 

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