Starling’s Journey Not Done Yet

Credit: Rob Tringali/Getty Images

It all seemed poetic at the time. When Bubba Starling was drafted by the Kansas City Royals as the 5th pick overall in the 2011 MLB Draft, it felt like a story that writers dream about covering. Here was Starling, a graduate of Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kansas, just outside of Kansas City. Hometown boy drafted by the team he grew up cheering for, right? It was a narrative we all dream of.

The problem is that sometimes life doesn’t play out the way a novel or a script might. Sometimes reality is a bit of a bitter pill, a splash of cold water on the dreamer’s expectations. The hope was that Starling would roam the spacious outfield at Kauffman Stadium, running down fly balls to the adulation of his family and friends. Reality hasn’t been nearly as glossy.

After seven years of wandering in the Kansas City farm system, Starling was non-tendered a contract at the end of November. The belief at the time was that Starling would re-sign with the Royals, this time to a minor league deal. As expected, Starling returned to the organization earlier this week:

So while reality has been less than ideal, the dream for Starling is still technically alive. But as he gets ready for his age 26 season, we have to wonder if the big leagues is still in the cards for Bubba.

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Most of us are aware of the issues Starling has dealt with, as injuries and offensive struggles have derailed his arrival to Kansas City. Over seven minor league seasons, he has hit a combined .236/.312/.386 over close to 2500 plate appearances. Starling looked to be finally breaking through over the summer of 2017, as he hit .290/.327/.435 from the beginning of May through July 9th. But then an oblique injury sidelined him until August 11; a week later, the oblique knocked him out for the rest of the season.

With Lorenzo Cain gone, center field seemed attainable for Bubba in 2018 if he could get back on track. Unfortunately, the oblique injury lingered, and was then followed by a dislocated left index finger. When it was all said and done, Starling made only 66 plate appearances last year, hitting .296/.415/.611, playing in the rookie league and AAA.   

So now that he is banished from the 40-man roster and on a minor league deal, is there still some upside in Bubba? The truth is that while things might look bleak, the release might have been just what he needed. Expectations have never been lower and I’m sure some will even forget he is still around.

But…if he stays healthy and continues to hit like he did in 2017, we could see Starling in the big leagues. His glove has been major league ready for years and is the true selling point of his talent. Just ask our friends over at Royals Farm Report: 


 The great thing about him too is that, he doesn’t need to hit .300 to be a productive MLB center fielder. Bubba is so good defensively that all he he’d need to do is be an AVERAGE hitter and his defense will actually give him some decent value in the big leagues.

If Bubba can even produce at a level close to his 2015 season in AA (where he produced a wRC+ of 105 in 367 plate appearances) then he would be worthy of a big league spot.

You might be asking yourself “but isn’t the Royals outfield crowded right now?” and the answer to that is ‘yes’. With Alex Gordon in left field, Jorge Bonifacio and Jorge Soler in right, and Billy Hamilton, Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips in center field, that is six possible outfielders at a loaded position (think clowns piling into a small car). Throw in Whit Merrifield, Chris Owings, Ryan O’Hearn and Hunter Dozier as players who have played out there before, and you have very little room for Starling. Which is why the issue would need to be pressed.

The deck is stacked against him. While there are players who have blossomed after their age 26 seasons (Hi, Whit), every day makes it less and less likely to happen. An argument could even be made that maybe he would be better served to go to a different organization, one without the pressure of being a 1st round draft pick and a hometown kid.

So there is a scenario where Bubba makes it to the big leagues. If he stays healthy, hits just a little bit and the Royals need help in the outfield, he could get the call. That’s a lot of blocks to fall into place, but it could happen.

Look, the expectations of being a top five draft pick are always lofty and on average those expectations are rarely met. In some ways, Starling was doomed from the moment Kansas City drafted him all those years ago. The pressure of living up to the hype is something I do not wish onto anyone, let alone a kid from the Royals backyard.   

Credit: Charlie Neibergall/AP Photo

So let the dreamers still dream, because as long as he has a contract there is a chance. We can even hope that the stars align and he reaches a few goals that were tossed his way seven years ago. Maybe if the Royals hadn’t felt like they “missed” on Albert Pujols they wouldn’t have felt inclined to draft Bubba.

Maybe that’s the point. Maybe the Royals drafted out of fear. Or maybe he fit what they look for in a baseball player: athletic, toolsy and fast, with good defense. In many ways, Bubba Starling is the blueprint of what the Royals want their players to be. The bad news is that this story has been a disappointment to this point. But the good news is that there is still time for a few more chapters to be written as well.  

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Third Time’s a Charm?

Credit: USA Today Sports

It’s been discussed many a time but it’s always worth throwing out there every few weeks: don’t expect the Kansas City Royals to be busy this winter. The truth of the matter is that the Royals need to see what their young talent can do and those opportunities should be the focus of 2019. 

But the one area that will need a bit of attention is the bullpen. Kansas City’s was one of the worst in baseball in 2018, if not the bottom of the barrel. The Royals bullpen had the worst fWAR (-2.2), FIP, the least amount of strike outs, the lowest strike out rate, the highest hard hit rate, the second highest ERA, and the third highest BABIP in all of baseball. There is no denying the bullpen needs to be their focus.

That being said, there aren’t many holdovers from this past season. The man who took over the closer role last year after Kelvin Herrera’s departure, Wily Peralta, is back. Also returning is Tim Hill, Brian Flynn and Kevin McCarthy. But after that is a menagerie of pitchers who are either candidates for a rotation spot and/or will get a second look in 2019.

So the Royals need relievers and it probably wouldn’t be a bad thing if they scoured the free agent market for some solid arms. In fact, a few veterans to mix with all the youngsters would actually be a good idea, if for anything to lead by example.With that being said, I’ve been wondering if the Royals should kick the tires on an old friend, Joakim Soria.

Credit: Associated Press

Just hearing that probably sounds crazy, as this would be the third go-around for Soria in Kansas City. But there are a few reasons this is actually a decent idea and one that isn’t awful for the Royals to pursue. Let’s start with the performance in 2018 for “Jack”.

Last year was a banner year for Soria: 3.12 ERA over 60 innings pitched, 1.8 fWAR, highest strike out rate since 2009, lowest walk rate since 2014 and the lowest hard hit rate since 2011. Soria threw more sliders, focused less on his curveball and changeup, and was rewarded with a great season.    

Credit: Associated Press

These changes saw a big difference in the results. While his ground ball rate went down, his fly ball rate went up. But with that hard hit rate dipping, it saw his soft hit rate go up almost 10% points. Soria was able to induce more soft contact which led to more outs and a higher rate of success. 

If we are being honest here, Soria’s second run in Kansas City wasn’t as bad as some would lead you to believe. While 2016 was the rougher of the two seasons, Soria was able to compile an ERA+ above league average both seasons (107 in ’16, 121 in ’17). Part of the problem was the narrative that went along with Soria, which was the belief some had that he was still the same pitcher many remembered in his glory days.

Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

But the truth was that while Soria wasn’t the dominating closer we remember during his first run in Royal blue, he was still an above average reliever who could be relied on to get outs. While that was a struggle in 2016, he has now shown two straight years of reliable production and still has really good value going into his age 35 season.

So should Kansas City look into bringing him back again? There would be some advantages to going down this road again. For one, the familiarity. The Royals know what they are getting with him and have no worries about how he would assimilate himself into the clubhouse. Soria has almost always been described as a good teammate and when he returned in 2016 he fit right in with the current crop of players.

His veteran presence would be a plus and it’s easy to see him being a guy that the younger pitchers would look up to and seek out for advice. Soria is a guy who has experienced the highs and the lows, and brings a prospective that the Royals current crop of relievers just haven’t experienced.

Soria has also filled many roles over the years, whether it was as the closer, a setup guy or more of a situational reliever. The ability to shift his role could be valuable to this Royals team, as it appears 2019 could be a bit different when it comes to roles in the pen. Dayton Moore talked about the roles in the bullpen a few weeks backs and it sounds like it could be a more fluid experience: 


“I think when you’re a team with where we are, we’re still finding out a lot about our players, and I don’t think it makes sense to go ahead and anoint roles for our pitchers or our players at this point. There are some guys [whose roles] are very obvious, and Wily did an excellent job for us last year.


“But as you know, the most important thing is to make sure that we use our pitchers in a very efficient way to get 27 outs. We need to use our pitchers in a creative and efficient way to get 27 outs and win baseball games.

 If the bullpen next year is going to be used more creatively, that could be a situation where a guy like Soria would fit right in. He has always been a guy who is willing to take the ball whenever or wherever the teams needs him.

So what about financially? This would be probably the biggest speed-bump for the Royals but one that could be worked out. Soria made $9 million in 2018 and his option was set for $10 million in 2019 before the Brewers declined it. If we were to guess, Soria would probably hope to make in the $9-12 million range for the upcoming season. This would feel a bit steep for a club like the Royals, mostly because of the role he would be used in and their overall payroll situation.

The Royals are sitting right now in the $80-84 range for payroll in 2019, with the highest they would possibly be willing to go would be in the $110-115 million range. Adding Soria, even at $10 million, would probably limit them on acquiring any other relievers, which is still a very distinct possibility.

Credit:  Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Moore has been creative before and could probably figure out a way around this, maybe offering him a two-year deal with the second year backloaded. 2020 will probably see Alex Gordon’s contract off of the books, so there would be more room for payroll.

The issue would be whether or not you would feel comfortable signing a reliever to such a deal. If it was an elite reliever and one that was quite a bit younger, then yes, a deal like that would make sense. But for a guy entering his age 35 season, that feels like more of a reach. At this point, the most the Royals could offer would be a one-year deal with a mutual option, since Dayton loves those mutual options.  

Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

The other issue is where Soria is at in his career. At best, he probably has 3-5 years left in him and most players in his situation would want to play for a contender. “Jack” has appeared in 10 playoff games over his career and he’s probably not going to receive many more opportunities. In fact, there are already a number of contenders that appear to be coveting his services:

So unless he just misses Kansas City and wants to return, the chances of him returning are probably pretty slim. It makes sense that he would want another chance at October baseball, especially since he has never played in a World Series.

Credit: Dylan Buell / Getty Images

While Soria would be a good fit in Kansas City’s bullpen, the likelihood of that happening appears to be pretty low. Luckily for the Royals, there are a number of relievers out on the market and many could be had within their budget. 

Do I think the Royals should go after his services? I think he would be a good option but he fits the Royals needs more than the Royals fit his. The idea of Soria ending his career in Kansas City feels like a nice touch and maybe something to revisit in a year or two. But for now, I wouldn’t count on there being a reunion. In other words, the third time is probably not a charm.

A Royal Thank You

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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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Nick Tre. Smith/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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?  

Owning the Royals

Last week it was announced that longtime Minnesota Twins stalwart Joe Mauer would be retiring after 15 seasons in the big leagues. When it became official, a small smirk spread across my face but not for the reasons you think. 

No, I don’t hate Joe Mauer; in fact it’s quite the opposite. I have immense respect for Mauer and everything he did in baseball. The smirk wasn’t even about Twins fans, as I have no issues with them either. I even feel their pain when it comes to Joe, since this is probably going to be eerily similar to what happens next year involving Alex Gordon.

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

No, I smirked because when I picture Mauer, I picture him getting another hit off of a Kansas City pitcher. I know it isn’t the truth, but it feels like he got a hit off of the Royals every time he came to the plate against them. So no, he isn’t hitting 1.000 off of Kansas City for his entire career, but it felt like it. 

It felt like it because Mauer owned the Royals. He was that guy who came up to the plate and in my brain I instantly thought ‘he’s going to get a hit right here’; more times than not he did. Lifetime against the Royals, Joe hit .319/.401/.442 with an OPS+ of 104.

Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

But this got me to wondering what other players have owned Royals pitching over the years. I’m sure most of us can rattle off a few player’s names that always appeared to do damage against Kansas City, but will the numbers actually agree with our initial perceptions? 
  

I decided to set a baseline. I went with batters with 180 or more plate appearances against the Royals, since that would show a more consistent level of sustained success. While it might not be everyone’s first choice for determining success, I started with batting average:

Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

Based on our criteria, Dustin Pedroia has the highest batting average against the Royals for batters with 180 plate appearances or more. Out of active players, Mike Trout is 9th, Jacoby Ellsbury is 10th (yes, he is technically still active), Adrian Beltre 19th and Erick Aybar 20th. A few other notables include Michael Brantley, Francisco Lindor and Ian Kinsler.

How about the most hits against Kansas City pitching?

Baseball-Reference.com

While Hall of Famer Rod Carew leads the pack here, it’s interesting to see Victor Martinez right behind, trailing by only 11 hits. It makes more sense when you remember that Martinez played almost his entire career in the American League Central, playing for Cleveland or Detroit for 15 of his 16 seasons. 

Mauer sits in third here, followed by two Paul’s, Molitor and Konerko. When I started down this path, Konerko was one of the names that instantly popped in my head, so no real surprise here.

Credit: Associated Press

  Let’s move on to home runs:

Baseball-Reference.com

Alex Rodriguez is a surprising winner in this category, hitting 50 career bombs against Royals pitching. Not surprising is Jim Thome in second with 49 and the dreaded Paul Konerko in third with 45 homers. For active players, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Santana are tied with 27 long-shots, although one has moved on to the National League and the other has begun the downside of his illustrious career. 

In a bit of a shock, Grady Sizemore hit 25 career home runs off of Kansas City while posting an OPS+ of 131. Maybe it’s just slipping my mind but I don’t remember Sizemore being that much of a thorn in the Royals side.

Credit: Ron Vesely

Time now for the most total bases:

Baseball-Reference.com

‘Royal Killer’ Paul Konerko compiled the most total bases against Kansas City at 418. He is followed by Cal Ripken Jr. with 410 and then A-Rod with 378. With Martinez and Mauer retiring, the highest total on this list for an active player is Cabrera with 322, followed then by notorious villain Ian Kinsler with 263.    

That leads us to the highest tOPS+ all-time against the Royals:

Baseball-Reference.com

And the winner is….Gerald Laird? Okay, I figured at some point we would run across a name that came out of left field and we just got it. He is followed by a couple other odd names in Chris Singleton and Craig Monroe.

Diving deeper down the list, the highest active player is Dustin Pedroia at 147, and a few more notches down you get Erick Aybar at 145 and Carlos Santana at 144. With tOPS+ being an adjusted stat and not a cumulative one, it makes sense it would be the one with players that wouldn’t just pop into your head. But considering we are basing this off of more than 180 plate appearances, it is still impressive at what Laird, Singleton and Monroe did against the Royals over the years.


Credit: AP Photo/Genevieve Ross

Finally, a look at the total offensive contribution with Runs Created:

Baseball-Reference.com

A-Rod had the most Runs Created all-time against Kansas City with 170.9, followed by Jim Thome and Frank Thomas. Mauer is fifth with 145.4 and Konerko right behind him with 144.7. To find an active hitter you have to travel all the way down to 18th on the list, where Miguel Cabrera sits with  118.9.

In fact the next active player that currently resides in the AL Central (and that doesn’t mean current free agents, like Michael Brantley) is Jason Kipnis at 81 with 72.8. It looks like there will have to be a new crop of players to replace the guys like Mauer and Martinez who have been pouncing on Kansas City pitching for years. 


Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images 

So what did this experiment teach us? For one, it shows us that we don’t need numbers to know that Mauer, Konerko, Martinez, etc., were abusing the Royals all these years. The eye test didn’t betray us in this regard.  

It has also showed us what the unbalanced schedule has done to skew the numbers on this list. While it’s understandable why MLB has moved away from the balanced schedule, you do wonder if some of these numbers would be different if each team didn’t play the other teams in their division 19 times each year.  

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The perfect example is the total hits against the Royals. Would Victor Martinez only be 11 hits behind Rod Carew if they had the balanced schedule? Probably not. Could you imagine if Carew, after all those years with the Twins and Angels (who were in the American League West with Kansas City at the time) had played the Royals 19 times a season? It’s all a matter of preference, but the shift in the schedule does make one wonder what might have been.

What it does probably tell us is that the Royals having a lot of bad pitching over the last 20 years probably helped some of these numbers as well. It also tells me I won’t miss watching Joe Mauer spray hits into the outfield against Kansas City. Joe is a true baseball treasure, but he also owned a portion of the Royals, whether David Glass was aware of it or not.

A Golden Evaluation

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Last week I looked at the Gold Glove Awards and surmised that while in years past the award wasn’t always about defense, the voting was improving and worthy defenders were being honored for their use of the leather. One of the biggest hurdles for me to jump around was how reputation played a big part in how some of the picks were chosen.

At the time I figured I was done discussing this topic for at least another year, but then mere days after I wrote the piece I stumbled across some numbers to back up my claim:

Over a span of 25 years, the winners of a Gold Glove were handed out to one of the top two defenders of their position only 38% of the time. Since Rawlings began working with SABR and SDI (SABR Defensive Index) was created to help evaluate, that number has jumped all the way to 88%! So over the last six years, voters have done 50% better than they did from 1988-2012. That is a massive improvement that speaks volumes of how far defensive metrics have come in such a short span of time. In fact, looking back at previous winners and losers really paints a better picture.

Credit: MLB.com

Before we go any farther, a great job has been done by Chris Dial, who is on the Board of Directors for SABR and his creation of RED (Runs Effectively Defended) helped form SDI. My stumbling across Chris’s twitter account pretty much has led us to this point.

So looking back, there were certain positions that voters actually did a fair job at when it came to picking a correct winner, most specifically catcher and third base. But there were some huge gaps in who won and who should have won at a couple of big positions. First base was a position that really showed a leaning toward reputation:

1B
Credit: SABR.org

While guys like Mark Grace, John Olerud and Rafael Palmeiro (yes, Palmeiro had a number of years he was worthy, dismissing 1999) were rewarded for the most part for their defensive excellence, it also shows how the perception of Don Mattingly, J.T. Snow and Eric Hosmer guided them to gold despite not being one of the top two defenders at their position.

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Credit: SABR.org

Shortstop also honored some greats, like Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken while Omar Vizquel apparently won a number of Gold Gloves that he probably shouldn’t have.

Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images

The two most notable miscues on this list are Derek Jeter and Barry Larkin, a current Hall of Famer matched in with a future one. Most have rallied against Jeter’s victories in the past, as it was very obvious his range (or lack thereof) was not of the top shelf variety. The fact these two won eight Gold Gloves while never finishing in the top two of their position speaks volumes of how the voting used to be handled.

There was one more position that I found to have a large gap between the should’s and should not’s, and that was the outfield:

OF
Credit: SABR.org

Just looking at this list about made my jaw drop. While Griffey, Hunter and Walker were always thought of as defensive studs, the fact is they were only in the top two of their positions five times. Even more shocking is that Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa should have won a couple of Gold Gloves rather than the zero they compiled.

This would probably be a good time to point out that none of this is saying that all of these players were bad defensively if they won and didn’t finish in the top two. Mr. Dial actually did a good job of pointing that out:

So you can see where adding something like SDI has drastically changed the defensive landscape and showed who the real elite truly are when it comes to glovework. So with the awards handed out just last week, lets see how the voters did:

AL leaders
Credit: SABR.org

In the American League, outside of pitcher (Dallas Keuchel won despite being 8th in SDI among pitchers) and center field (Jackie Bradley, Jr. won and was 3rd in SDI at the position) the voters got it right. Both Royals that won (Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez) were in the top two at their position, with Salvy only behind Mike Zunino and Alex having the highest SDI among left fielders.

Meanwhile in the National League:

NL Leaders
Credit: SABR.org

Catcher and first base were the two positions voters missed on, as Yadier Molina was 6th in SDI behind the dish and Anthony Rizzo won while finishing 4th. Molina once again points out how reputation wins out over numbers some times and while he is still a good defender at the age of 36, he shouldn’t have even been one of the finalists.

So out of 18 awards, only four of the winners were not in the top two at their respective positions. That means that the voters were 78% correct, which is probably about as good as we should expect when there is a human element involved. It is definitely a big improvement over what we saw for years and Rawlings should be commended for wanting to make this whole process more accurate.

The big thing for me is that the stigma of ‘The winners aren’t being honored for their defense’ is starting to fade away. These awards have been looked at as almost a joke for so long that it’s been hard to do a 180 degree turn and applaud the work done to make the honor mean something.

While defensive metrics are still a work in progress, they are improving every day and painting a different picture than the one we sometimes see with our eyes. So while these awards aren’t quite the Fielding Bible Awards, they are getting a little bit closer every day.

Golden Issue

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Last week the finalists for the 2018 Gold Glove Awards were named and two Kansas City Royals procured their shots at gold, left fielder Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez. Both are worthy recipients and Gordon was even announced on Monday as the 2018 left field winner for the Fielding Bible Awards:

Both Gordon and Perez are previous Gold Glove award winners (Gordon has won five times, Perez four times) and at this point their reputation defensively is solidified within the baseball community.

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While I’m happy both guys are getting recognition for their defensive excellence, it’s hard for me to get pumped up for these awards. I want to be excited, especially since I have long felt defensive prowess is sometimes overlooked within the game compared to what is done with the bat. What I am saying is the stigma of the Gold Glove Awards not always being about defense has made it hard to take the honor seriously.

The joke for years was that it was just as important what you did offensively as what you did with the leather when it came to these awards. The best example of this is Rafael Palmeiro’s win back in 1999. In his prime, Palmeiro was actually a solid defensive player and had won the award previously in 1997 and 1998. But in 1999, Palmeiro won a Gold Glove despite playing only 28 games at first base. Yep, Palmeiro spent most of the season as the Rangers DH but was still able to win an award based on defensive excellence.

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Credit: Getty Images

It was obvious his reputation won out (and a $50,000 bonus for winning the award) but more than anything it was a sign that the voters just didn’t put much thought into who they picked for the awards. It really felt like you could win a Gold Glove if you a.) Put together a bunch of Web Gems on Baseball Tonight or b.) had a proficient offensive season. While Gold Gloves were handed out to good defensive players quite often, there was no guarantee they would win the award.

But over the last few years that has changed. Back in 2013, statistics became a bigger focal point when it came to the Gold Glove Awards:

Rawlings Sporting Goods, which awards the Gold Gloves, collaborated with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) to create an independent committee that devised the SABR Defensive Index (SDI), the new analytic that will account for 30 total “votes” — approximately 25 to 30 percent, depending on the number of ballots received from managers and coaches.

In fact, the increase in advanced defensive metrics has shattered the old process and created a new one that actually rewards the players who deserve them for the most part. Just looking at last year’s list shows a vast difference than in years past:

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The one name that jumps out on this list is an old friend of ours, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer won his 4th Gold Glove last year but as most of us are aware of, the defensive metrics aren’t kind to Hos. Hosmer was 20th in the American league in Defensive Runs Saved among first baseman with 300 innings or more, 14th in UZR and 20th in Fangraphs DEF.

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While Hosmer’s metrics don’t speak highly of his defense, they did for Joe Mauer who probably should have gotten the nod as a finalist last year instead of Hos. Mauer was 3rd in DRS, 1st in UZR, and 3rd in DEF. So even with the focus shifting to a more statistical voting system, the award still found it’s way into the wrong hands.

This is why I never get too high or too low when someone achieves this honor. The sad part is that while the numbers speak of a certain truth, as long as the human element is involved in the voting there will always be inaccuracies and misguided reputations that will lead the way.

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Credit: Getty Images

This is not to say good isn’t being done with this whole process. The fact that we are almost twenty years removed from the Palmeiro blunder and the likelihood of something that off-track happening again is almost nil speaks volumes of where we are at. The voting process for the Gold Glove is the best it’s ever been, which accounts for something. The issue is that it is still flawed.

Why should we care? Because for a number of these players who are defensive wizards, this award is their only chance of adding something shiny to the mantle. For a number of these virtuosos, their work with the glove is far ahead of anything they are doing with the bat and an honor like a Gold Glove is the only way to get the recognition they so rightly deserve.

I want to care more about this award. I want to be able to say the right men are getting their just due. But we aren’t quite there yet. As long as that stigma is still hanging around it’s going to be hard to take a Gold Glove as seriously as it should be taken.

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.

The Diary of a Bemused Royals Fan

Kansas City Royals Fans Gather To Watch Game Seven Of World Series Against San Francisco Giants
Credit: Julie Denesha – Getty Images

On January 29, 2060, former Bleeding Royal Blue writer Sean Thornton passed away at the age of 81. Light snow fell from the sky as the lifelong Royals fan said his goodbyes.

After his passing, family members would dig through his possessions and find a number of unwritten musings about his favorite team and baseball in general.

Maybe the most interesting archive that was uncovered was a diary with daily posts from the 2018 season. In it was stories, thoughts and premonitions of the worst season in club history. It wasn’t just a straight telling of the events of that year. Instead it was a personal account dripped in sarcasm as a fan tries to balance cheering on his team while realizing the grim reality of how bad they are.

Enclosed are some of Sean’s posts from the final five weeks of that season. What follows is a mixture of love, masochism and acceptance to the Royals and the plight they walked throughout the 2018 campaign. Enjoy and know you were warned beforehand.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

August 31, 2018

The Royals kicked off a series with the Baltimore Orioles tonight. Yes, the one team that can stake claim to being worse than Kansas City. I was expecting this to be the definition of bad baseball and I wasn’t let down.

Runners stranded on base. Pitchers lacking control. Lack of awareness on the basepaths. Brandon Maurer coughing up a lead. It was all there and more as the game stretched through 14 innings.

Neither team appeared to want to win and if it wasn’t for a Tim Beckham miscue on an Alex Gordon grounder in the bottom of the 14th the two teams might still be battling on Saturday afternoon. 3-2 was the final score, but it was very apparent none of us won. This was bad baseball. Hopefully you didn’t sit through all 14 innings like I did. Yikes.

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September 4th, 2018

The Royals and Indians went back at it tonight and once again the Royals lost, 6-4.  Kansas City is still on pace for 114 losses this year. But the good news is that there was some positives in the game. Ryan O’Hearn went 2 for 4 with a double and a home run. Adalberto Mondesi stole two bases and made a dazzling play at shortstop. Heath Fillmyer went six strong, giving up five hits and three runs and Richard Lovelady would come in and pitch a scoreless 8th inning.

I’m always a sucker for September, as it’s nice to see the young talent and think ahead of what they can do for a full season. There are some definite bright spots on this team and it should be fun to watch the development as the month progresses.

That being said, Alcides Escobar made his first start in right field tonight. I have no idea what Ned is doing. I’m worried that Escobar could be brought back next year as a backup and to add veteran presence. God help us all.

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September 9th, 2018

Somehow the Royals pulled out a series win against Minnesota today, winning 7-6. The first 3 innings were a dumpster fire as Ian Kennedy showed us he could still give up home runs and put Kansas City into a 4-0 hole.

Luckily, the Royals bats would wake up and the bullpen would hold the Twins at bay. Hunter Dozier went 2 for 3 and hit a big 3-run homer in the 7th inning. Mondesi continues to impress, hitting a triple to start a rally in the 8th. The arms of Lovelady, Kevin McCarthy and Josh Staumont would hold the Twins to just one run over 4 innings.

If you need a reason to get excited for the future of this team, this game had more than a few. It really makes you wonder what would have happened if the “youth movement” had started a little bit earlier this season. These youngsters are injecting life into the rest of the team.

Oh, and Escobar started the game at first base. No position will be left untouched for Esky. March on, Ned.

Whit Merrifield, Alex Gordon

September 10, 2018

Just yesterday I was praising the Royals and the youngsters. Today was proof there is still a large hill to climb for this organization. 11-2, White Sox. Yuck. The pitching looked bad, the bats were cold and even the defense made a few costly errors.

There were a number of moments in the game that aggravated me, but none more than the free-swinging that was going on almost all night. There was very little patience which explains the 12 strike outs from Kansas City batters. If it was tossed up, the Royals swung at it.

Funny-painful moment in the 6th inning: Glenn Sparkman balked, moving a runner from second base to third. Next pitch, Royals catcher Drew Butera allowed a passed ball. 9-1, White Sox as Yolmer Sanchez crossed the plate. At this point I went and watched an episode of “Brockmire”. At least I could laugh at his ineptitude.

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Credit: Associated Press

September 14, 2018

The Royals were shut out by Jose Berrios. Twins 4, Royals 0. Literally nothing happened in this game, unless you count a section of the right field lights going out for about 15 minutes in the 3rd inning. Oh, and some guy danced in the crowd for no real apparent reason other than for attention. Fifteen games left. Then the pain will stop. Right? Right???

I almost forgot…Alcides saw time in left field tonight. Pretty sure Ned is going to have him be a super utility guy next year. Escobar will be a Royal forever. His statue is being commissioned as we speak, I’m sure. There is no love like the Royals love of Alcides Escobar.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

September 19, 2018

The bats came out in droves as the Royals beat the Pirates 8-3. Salvy went deep, Brett Phillips had a two-hit day and Whit Merrifield compiled three hits and two stolen bases.

Speaking of Whit, what we have seen from him these last few years is really amazing. The guy made his major league debut at the age of 27 and just continues to improve. It really feels like the Royals are going to keep him and build this team around him. Don’t be shocked if he gets an extension soon.

As a sidenote, Ned announced before the game that he will be back next year. Let the ‘meh’ times roll.

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Credit: Carlos Osorio / Associated Press

September 21, 2018

Jakob Junis loves the Tigers. Seven shutout innings and the Royals win 3-0. Watch out folks, as Kansas City has won two games in a row. It really feels like uncharted territory this year. It would be nice to see a few more wins with a little over a week left in the season and end it all on a positive note. That’s the wish.

In fact, they need to win five out of the last eight to not hit the 110 loss mark. They’ll still finish with the worst season in club history, but it would be nice to keep the bleeding to a minimum.

That being said, it appears Tony Pena and Buddy Bell have a monkey off their back. A fruit basket will be sent to the Royals clubhouse within the next week. Mark my words.

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John Sleezer/KC Star

September 26, 2018

Another day, another loss. To the Reds, nonetheless. 9-2, Cincinnati. It was like the Reds bats were using a heat-seeking missile and the Royals offense decided on a whim to use a wooden pop gun.

Chalk up loss #107. Four games left to go and they can wash all our brains and we can forget this ever happened. I wish I had taken the blue pill.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

September 30, 2018

It all ends today and nothing like the Royals ending the season with a victory, 5-3 over Cleveland. If you are an optimist, this game left you with some hope. Quality start for Danny Duffy. O’Hearn, Dozier, Mondesi and Phillips all got two hits apiece. Even the bullpen was able to hold a lead.

There was a bit of insanity though, as Ned attempted to play Alcides Escobar at every position in game 162. He plowed through the infield early in the game and even played catcher for one batter in the 6th inning. I won’t lie: it was strange watching Yost continue this charade as the Royals were actually winning.

Late in the game they moved Esky around the outfield and by the 9th inning all he had left was to take the mound and pitch to a batter. Luckily, common sense kicked in and he let Wily Peralta close out the win. So Escobar fell short of playing all nine positions in one game. Don’t worry; Esky will be back next year to try again.

So the Royals finish 53-109 and the second worst record in baseball. This team will go down as the worst in Kansas City history and maybe the most confusing. We knew they were going to be bad, but the possibility of 70 wins seemed doable. Instead, we got some of the most uninspired baseball that any longtime fan can ever remember seeing.

So the ghosts of Emil Brown, Angel Berroa and Runelvys Hernandez can disappear into the ether. The 2005 Royals, while still a bad squad, have been removed from their throne. Long live the ghosts of Alcides Escobar, Brandon Maurer and Jason Hammel. Yes, they have left a mark. Let’s hope to see less losing in 2019. For our sanity, it can’t get worse than this. Right?

A Veteran’s Role

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

For every professional athlete, there comes a time when they must hang up the uniform and cope with the reality of life outside of their chosen profession. For many it comes sooner rather than later, while others hang on to the bitter end.

For Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, that time is in the ‘sooner’ category. In fact, he has thought about what he wants to do when his 4-year, $72 million dollar deal is up after the 2019 season:

“Obviously, I’m getting up there in age in terms of not many years of me left playing,” he said. “I think I dealt with this mentally the last time I signed a contract. It depends on how I feel in one year and two months. Who knows? I may want to play longer. Or I may just want to be with my family. It’s the family decision that I think about most. [Retirement] crosses your mind.”

Gordon will be entering his age 35 season next year and by the time he is a free agent again he will be knocking on the door of 36. While his defense is still at an elite level (10 DRS so far in 2018 with an 8.6 UZR) the offense has taken a noticeable dip these last few years. Gordon is hitting . 251/.324/.356 with a wRC+ of 87 during this 2018 campaign.

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In fact, Gordon hasn’t had a wRC+ above the league average since 2015 and average is probably the best you can hope for from him moving forward. If we are being honest, even his defense has waned a bit, as he appears to have lost a step or two these last few years.

So with Alex entering the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see how he is used moving forward. As long as no one is traded over the winter, the Royals will have a logjam in the outfield (and DH) as Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Rosell Herrera, Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler will be competing for four positions. If you did your math correctly, six doesn’t equal four, which means someone is probably bound to lose some playing time.

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With Gordon being the veteran of the group and his offensive struggles on full display these last three years, it’s very likely he could be the one seeing a reduced role next year. Kansas City needs to see what they have with some of these youngsters and allowing them the opportunity to play means more for the future of this organization. The Royals know what they have with Gordon and the good news is that even with a reduced role he should bring the team value next year.

For one thing, the day-to-day grind won’t wear on him the way it has in the past. Gordon has been on a tear over the last few weeks (.349/.404/.488 over the last 12 games) and he has mentioned that the time off from the All-Star break allowed him to re-charge himself. Gordon is still an above-average player (1.6 bWAR this year) and in theory the extra rest could be very beneficial for him the older he gets.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This doesn’t mean Gordon would never start or be used solely as a backup. There is a good chance that he would still get a few starts a week as part of an outfield rotation. It’s hard to imagine Gordon being relegated to the bench unless his offense falls back to 2017 levels. In this scenario, Alex would still collect a couple starts a week while allowing the younger players more regular at bats.

There is also a chance Gordon will see more action as a defensive replacement on the days he doesn’t start. With the Royals employing a number of outfielders either at or below league average, exploiting Gordon’s defense will improve the team late in the game while still getting him out on the field.

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But the biggest value Gordon has for next year is in his leadership. With the team skewing younger and younger these next couple of years, Gordon’s leadership will be invaluable to a group needing direction for the next level of their career. Gordon’s is more of a quiet, ‘follow my example’ type of leadership but one that is harder to teach.

Over the last seven years we have never heard of Alex Gordon being anything but a shining example to the younger players in the Royals clubhouse and I’m pretty sure there is a reason for that. Gordon has always appeared to be a selfless teammate and as he reaches the latter part of his career that characteristic might be one of the most essential.

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While we can bicker and debate all day whether or not the Royals should have re-signed him three years ago, there is no disputing whether or not he has produced at the level expected for the size of the deal. Gordon has underachieved and his contract has felt like an albatross around the Royals payroll these last couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean he has no value to the team moving forward. In fact, his most important role might just be waiting for him on deck. It won’t show up in the numbers and it won’t appear on a stat sheet, but what he teaches the up and coming Royals next year could be just as important as what he did for Moose, Hos and Salvy. It won’t get the glory, but the final chapter in his Kansas City career might just be the most significant.

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