Rebuilding a Franchise: A Look Back at 2018

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

With the Kansas City Royals a healthy 24.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, it’s easy to see why a Royals fan would wander off occasionally and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Mine is the crazy world of Out of the Park Baseball, which is a baseball strategy game that I can personally tell you is very addictive.

In fact, I have talked about my addiction to this game on this very blog before. On the 2017 version of OOTP (they release a new edition every year right before Opening Day) I have been rebuilding the Royals, as I traded a number of their stars a few years back before they hit free agency and began building back up sooner than the real life Royals.

Since I personally play every single game in a season and don’t simulate the games, this takes me a bit longer than most people. I also have bought the game every year since 2014, so that means I shuffle back and forth between all the different teams I have started in each version of the game. This is why it’s been over a year since my last update and why it takes so long to finish a season.

Credit: Peter G. Aiken

But I did finally finish the 2018 season and figured it was as good a time as any to update everyone on how the rebuild is going. If you want to go back and read how this got started and the progress I have made, here is my update in 2017 and the original update in 2016. This will give you an idea of why I tore the team down and who I acquired to build them back up.

So as I headed into the 2018 season, I went out and made a number of deals to continue to make the team younger and more profitable in the future. My big acquisition was picking up Alex Bregman from the Astros for Kyle Zimmer (who was coming off a successful 2017), Boo Vazquez and Aaron Altherr. The initial plan was to play Bregman at shortstop and have him be a force at the top of the order. I had also acquired Jedd Gyorko from Pittsburgh and added a few (cheap) arms for my bullpen. The mentality I took into the season was to continue to let the young players play and not focusing on wins and losses as much as development.

Unfortunately, the idea for Bregman went south in a hurry. Eight games into the season, Bregman gets injured and missed the rest of the season. In those eight games, he had hit .406/.500/.688 with 0.6 WAR, a great start that was derailed way too soon. Originally I was going to have Elvis Andrus take his spot but a line of .175/.236/.247 in 26 games and a negative WAR forced me to adjust my initial idea, as everyone from Gyorko to Ramon Torres saw time at short, with Adalberto Mondesi eventually holding down the position the last few months.

That wasn’t the only bump in the road. The young pitchers I had acquired the year before (Aaron Sanchez, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito) all struggled mightily and all spent time down in the minors at one point or another. In fact, the pitching overall was a sore spot for this team, as even “sure things” like Wade Davis and Mike Minor saw their numbers balloon. Out of the 32 pitchers I used this past season, only two put together a 1 WAR season or better (Homer Bailey and Matt Moore). Sanchez and Snell did finish with positive WAR seasons, but Giolito ended up in the bullpen down in AAA and is still a work in progress.

The real major bump to overcome was the loss of Ryan O’Hearn in August. O’Hearn had been my team’s best hitter, hitting a robust .316/.434/.522 with 14 home runs and 69 RBIs over 89 games. His numbers were an improvement on what he compiled the previous season and had shifted from him being a power hitter who occasionally walked to a good all around hitter. His injury on August 1st was a major blow to the middle of the lineup and one that was never fully replaced during the team’s last two months.

There were a few more disappointments throughout the season. Salvador Perez saw a dip in his production, leading to Tony Cruz putting up career highs across the board and an increase in playing time. Cruz played himself into a nice trade piece and was dealt to Atlanta on July 31 for reliever Yimi Garcia.

Cody Bellinger also rode the struggle bus, hitting .256/.377/.378 with 8 home runs and 53 RBIs. The lack of power was interesting and while he still compiled 1.1 WAR over 120 games, being a league average hitter was not what was expected when he was acquired from Los Angeles.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

But while there were issues with a number of the younger players, there were just as many positives. Mike Moustakas slugged 27 home runs and posted a nice 3.7 WAR season. O’Hearn was a beast before his injury in August. Whit Merrifield had a wRC+ of 116 and put up 2.1 WAR. Adalberto Mondesi showed he belonged over the last couple months, and was able to post 0.9 WAR in just 66 games. Mitch Haniger was Rookie of the Month in April but ended up with a league average season offensively.

There was also a number of players that were acquired during the season you ended up being solid acquisitions. Bradley Zimmer led the charge, getting 1.0 WAR in just 24 games in Kansas City while fellow outfielder Christian Yelich also accumulated 1.0 WAR while mainly finding a way to get on base with very little power.

On the pitching side, Bailey was able to compile 185 innings and Matt Moore was a solid pick-up earlier in the season. Late in the season, Miguel Almonte and Luke Jackson became fixtures in the rotation and showed why they could be counted on for more innings in 2019.

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So with all that said, my first full year of a rebuild in Kansas City saw them finish 74-88 for 5th place in the AL Central. All things considered, I will take that as a success. The fact I was able to avert 90 losses and do that while dealing with an awful pitching staff gives me hope for my 2019 season.

Obviously the big focus will be on improving the pitching. The pitchers allowed 999 runs in my season and there is no way that should happen again. If my pitching can improve while getting O’Hearn and Bregman back for full seasons, there is no reason they can’t finish above .500 in Year 2 of the rebuild. It might be a bit of a lofty goal, but one that I feel is attainable.

Hopefully I can finish this season faster than the last. When I do, I will try to update right here on Bleeding Royal Blue. Also, if you haven’t checked out OOTP Baseball, do it. Just expect your time to disappear when you start falling down the rabbit hole.

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Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The World Series is in the rear-view mirror and free agency has officially begun. That also means we are engulfed in award season, as the BBWAA has unveiled their winners throughout the last week. Meanwhile, my fellow writers in the IBWAA have also chosen their triumphant few and to the victor go the spoils. For the fifth year, I was able to vote as part of this illustrious group and decide on who was truly worthy. If you want to check out my voting record over the years, you just have a few clicks to adhere to: 201420152016 and 2017. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2018:

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

Every year, I plan to pencil in Mike Trout for this award and most years that is how the vote ends up happening. Even last year, despite missing noticeable time due to an injury (or an upgrade, for those that believe Trout is a cyborg) he was my choice for MVP because of the sheer level of production he was putting up. But this year, Trout’s banner year just wasn’t quite enough to topple the year Mookie Betts had. 

Bett’s numbers speak of a new level for him: .346/.438/.640, 32 home runs, 80 RBI’s, an OPS+ of 186, 10.9 bWAR and 10.4 fWAR. Betts lead the American League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and WAR all while helping lead the charge for the Red Sox to procure another world championship. 

But it wasn’t just the core numbers that won Betts this award. Mookie posted the highest extra base hit % of his career (13.7%), a great AB/HR ratio (16.3%), all while raising his walk rate to 13.2%, the highest of his career.

But what truly sealed the deal for me was his Win Probability Added, which lead the American League. Betts posted a 6.0 WPA according to Baseball-reference and a 5.77 for Fangraphs. The other candidates, most notably Trout and teammate JD Martinez are far enough away that this is a no-contest for me. Betts not only tore up the rest of the league, but was the most vital cog of the Red Sox’s arsenal.  

With Betts posting another great year offensively and defensively (and the third consecutive above six wins a season) it will be interesting to see if the conversation starts of his place on the hierarchy of baseball’s elite. Trout has held the mantle for years, but if Betts keeps up at this pace, we could have to start inserting him into the conversation of ‘Best Player in Baseball’ sooner rather than later.

My Top 3: 1-Betts, 2-Martinez, 3-Trout

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

When the season began for the Milwaukee Brewers, their big offseason acquisition was former Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain. But the other pick-up turned out to be even more notable, as the team went and acquired Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins. While Cain had a great season, Yelich performed out of this world and garnered himself an MVP trophy.

Yelich has always had the talent to make himself an elite producer and in 2018 he elevated his game to a new stratosphere. By the time the season had wrapped up, Yelich led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases and WAR (both bWAR and fWAR) among position players in the league.

What really pushed Yelich over the edge was the second half of the season:

Down the stretch, Yelich was a monster as he hit a robust .370/.508/.804 in the final month of the season, not only cementing this award but also wrapping up a playoff spot for the Brewers.

The biggest change in his game was the elevation of the ball. The funny thing is, Yelich actually saw his fly ball rate go down (23.5%) from last year (25.2%), but he also saw his ground ball rate drop as well (down to 51.8% from last year’s 55.4%). But the increase happened in his line drive rate, which soared to 24.7%, up from 19.4% in 2017. Yelich was making better contact on the ball and it showed in his final numbers.

The cherry on top of the sundae for Yelich is his WPA, which lead in the NL for position players at 6.02. In fact, next on the list is Paul Goldschmidt, who posted a 4.66 WPA. That huge gap (as well as stellar defense) not only helped the Brewers but showed that Christian Yelich is far and away the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award.

My Top 3: 1-Yelich, 2-Cain, 3-Carpenter

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

This was easily the hardest vote for me and one that took me awhile to be comfortable with. Snell and Justin Verlander both put up stellar performances in 2018 but only one man can win, and my vote went to Snell despite a few issues that in years past would probably cost him an opportunity to win this award.

Let’s start with the “dark print”, or where Snell lead the league. Snell was first in ERA (1.89), ERA+ (219) and hits per 9 (5.6). There were two more categories that Snell lead in, which I want to focus on a bit deeper. First is RE24 (Run Expectancy, or for pitchers Runs Saved), where Snell lead with 48.4. To give you an idea of just how impressive that number is, the only pitcher better than Snell this past year was Jacob deGrom, who had an absolutely amazing year for the Mets. Also, Snell’s previous high in this category was 1.6…seriously.

The other stat Snell lead in was wins at 21, and I found this a bit amusing. Over the last few years, there has been a progressive movement to “Kill the Win”, with MLB analyst Brian Kenny leading the charge. The reasoning being that there are so many factors involved in a pitcher getting a “W” that doesn’t even involve the pitcher that it feels like an empty statistic. If we are being honest, I never look at a pitcher’s win total anymore. The only time I am even aware of it is if it is mentioned in a broadcast or in an article. The win to me doesn’t factor into how I vote, so I don’t even give it a second thought.

That being said, the other numbers did enough to help his case. But he did receive some stiff competition from Verlander, who lead in strike outs, WHIP, strike out to walk ratio and pitchers WAR. The most notable difference between the two pitchers was innings pitched. Verlander threw an impressive 214 innings over his 34 starts this season, while Snell threw only 180.2 innings over 31 starts.

For some, that would be a deal-breaker. There is a case that can be made that the extra 33 innings thrown by Verlander should count for a bit more and I can see that argument. There aren’t many pitchers that toss 200+ innings in today’s game and having that kind of stallion to ride can be a difference maker.

But for me, the numbers just leaned too far to Snell’s side to get me to throw my vote to Verlander. It was a tough choice and I honestly believe either pitcher is worthy of the award, but at the end of the day I picked Snell, as did both the BBWAA and the IBWAA.

My Top 3: 1-Snell, 2-Verlander, 3-Kluber

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

I don’t get to do this very often but…I predicted this at the beginning of the year. Yep, I took a big swing and actually connected for a change. Honestly, this felt like a natural progression for deGrom and it felt like at some point he would put everything all together. That year was 2018.

In fact deGrom absolutely dominated this year and pretty much ran away with this award. deGrom lead the NL in ERA, ERA+, FIP, HR/9, WPA, RE24 and WAR. Dominance isn’t always a given when it comes to pitchers but this year was truly the year of deGrom. 

To give you a deeper view of his dominance, let’s break down a few of the numbers. Batters hit .196/.244/.277 against deGrom, only taking him deep ten times this year. In fact, deGrom only gave up 40 total extra base hits this year over 217 innings. To give you a better view of how big a deal that is, the Anderson twins (Chase and Tyler, and yes, I am aware they aren’t actually twins) both gave up 30 home runs this year, or almost deGrom’s entire extra base total.

Want to go deeper? deGrom gave up 215 total bases. That number is actually pretty close to his 2016 number of 213 total bases. Oh, that was in 69 less innings then he accumulated this year. In other words, deGrom was a machine this year that no one could shut down.

There were even some analysts that felt deGrom was worthy of the NL MVP award this year, and it’s not too far of a reach.  deGrom posted an insane 9.6 bWAR and 8.8 fWAR this year, both fairly large numbers for a starting pitcher. Throw in the 5.85 WPA and you have an argument that determines the value of deGrom is possibly on par with any hitter in the league.

I’ve always viewed the MVP as a hitter’s award, unless there is a pitcher that blows away the rest of the competition. By that, I mean there are players who play every day who are having really, really good seasons but not quite great. If that happens and there is a pitcher who has being insanely dominate, I would vote for the pitcher. In this case, Yelich had an amazing season and because he is out on the field every day, 162 games a year, my vote went to him. 

I know that probably feels like I am slighting pitchers, but I am a firm believer in the mental aspect of the game and the wear and tear it has on position players. To say it is a grind would probably be an understatement. So while deGrom was out of this world this year, so was Yelich. 

Luckily for the Cy Young award, there is no argument. deGrom wins this hands down and can put his season up there with such greats as Gooden, Gibson and Kershaw. Jacob deGrom was the best pitcher in the National League this year, period.

My Top 3: 1-deGrom, 2-Scherzer, 3-Freeland

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

This felt like a slam-dunk for me and I was a bit surprised to hear some backlash from Yankees fans, but the best rookie in the American League this year was Shohei Ohtani. Sure, there were some great performances from Gleyber Torres, Brad Keller and Miguel Andujar, but none of them did what Ohtani did.

Let’s start there: Shohei Ohtani did things this year that hadn’t been done in a century. In. A. Century. Over the last 100+ years of baseball no one has achieved the feats that Ohtani did this year:   


Ohtani is also the first player since Ruth in 1919 to throw 50 innings and hit 15 doubles, or to throw 50 innings and draw 25 walks, or to throw 50 innings and drive in (or score) more than 35 runs, or to throw 50 innings and make 200 plate appearances. He’s also the first player since George Sisler in 1915 to throw 50 innings and steal more than eight bases. You get where I’m going with this. Even Ohtani’s abbreviated rookie run was something no one had seen since before the Black Sox scandal, and it happened in a league that’s vastly more talented and specialized than the one Ruth revolutionized.

You get where we are going with this. Ohtani broke down the norms of what is expected of a major league ballplayer. He was a successful pitcher and hitter in 2018 but that isn’t even all of it. He did all of this while playing in a different league than he was used to. He did all of this while playing in a completely different country than he was used to. If that wasn’t enough, he pretty much made it look easy.

.285/.361/.564 batting line. 22 home runs, 61 RBI’s. OPS+ of 152. 126 ERA+. 1.6 WPA. 29% K rate. All while shuffling in between being a hitter and a pitcher. In a new league. In a new country. If he would have just put up average stats and been an average performer it still would have been impressive. But the fact he made it look easy shows what a true talent he is.

So sure, Andujar, Torres and Keller had great seasons. Any other year it is a different conversation and even possibly a battle for the winner. But this is a no-contest. Ohtani is the Rookie of the Year and no one came close to what he did.

My Top 3: 1-Ohtani, 2-Torres, 3-Keller

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

I mentioned earlier that the AL Cy Young was the toughest one to pick a winner, but a close second was this race. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna were not only two rookies that shined in 2018, but they were pretty close to equals as well.

The two rookies tied for fWAR (3.7), were separated by four homers, 6 RBI’s, and .001 in batting average. Soto had a slightly higher OBP, while Acuna’s slugging was a bit higher. wRC+? Soto 146, Acuna 143. In other words, either player was worthy of being the best of 2018, but only one could win. 

In matters like this, where two competitors are so close that you would have to break a tie, I normally lean toward value. Looking at WPA, Soto had the sizable lead, 3.46 to Acuna’s 1.96. RE24 is a bit closer, but still a runaway for Soto (30.45 to 26.69). Finally, with the Clutch stat on Fangraphs, Soto wins again, 0.22 to -0.12. When it came down to helping their team and making sure they are put in winning situations, Soto came away with a lengthy lead.

So while you can see why I picked Soto, it’s not like Acuna wasn’t deserving. In fact, these two were so good this year that you almost forget all the other great rookies in the National League. Guys like Harrison Bader and Walker Buehler are rarely talked about despite putting up numbers that are very good for a first year player. With a NL class like this, you wonder who will break out and shrug off the ‘Sophomore Slump’ in 2019. If this year was any kind of barometer,  Soto and Acuna will soon be the cream of the crop of not just the NL, but the entire baseball world.

My Top 3: 1-Soto, 2-Acuna, 3-Buehler

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

This was another close race and one that could easily be a three-way tie. Bob Melvin of Oakland led his team of vagabonds and youngsters to a playoff spot despite starting the year with the lowest payroll in the game and 34-36 on June 15.  Alex Cora led the Red Sox to 108 wins (and eventually a world championship) in his rookie year as a manager and was able to turn away the playoff bound New York Yankees.

But what Kevin Cash did with the Tampa Bay Rays is some other level managing job. Cash propelled a team that was supposed to hang out in the basement of the American League East and led them to a 90 win season. Despite the team trading off some of their best players before the trade deadline, they went out and turned themselves into contenders. The funniest part of the whole deal is he did this almost from a survival standpoint.

The Rays lost a couple of their top pitching prospects (Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell) before the season to injuries. Anthony Banda joined that list a few months into the season. After trading Chris Archer at the trade deadline, they were left with one actual starting pitcher. The lack of starters led Cash to use “The Opener”, where he would have a reliever start the game, pitch an inning or two and then hand the ball off to someone who could go deeper into the game.

This wasn’t done to be cute or try something new out as much as just a lack of starting pitching…and it worked. ‘The Opener’ became a regular part of their rotation and helped bridge the gap for a number of their younger pitchers.

The team focused on good pitching and defense and that helped get them to third place in the East, ten games behind the second place Yankees. Cash pushed the right buttons and his calm demeanor helped keep his team focused through a number of rough patches.

So while Melvin and Cora deserve a ton of praise, Kevin Cash deserves this award. If anything, Cash earned his managerial stripes in 2018 and has come out with a contract extension. It’s too bad he didn’t get some hardware to go with it. 

My Top 3: 1-Cash, 2-Melvin, 3-Cora

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

The story of Brian Snitker is one that easily could be made into a ‘feel good’ movie for Disney. Snitker is a guy who has been the loyal soldier, a guy who has been in the Atlanta organization since 1977, when he was a minor league player. He has managed for almost every one of their minor league teams and even spent a stint as the major league team’s third base coach from 2007 to 2013. Snitker has been there and done that when it comes to the Braves organization.

But in May of 2016, Snitker was promoted to manager for the Braves on an interim basis and he would get the job full-time in October of that year. So the path Brian took to this role was a long and lengthy one, but he didn’t really reach his stride until this past season.

What Snitker did in 2018 is something no one, not even the Atlanta front office, expected. He led the Braves to a 90 win season, a National League East title and their first playoff appearance since 2013. This from a team that wasn’t really supposed to contend until 2019.

But it shouldn’t be too surprising it came early. With a nice mix of veterans (Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis) and top-shelf prospects (Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna), the Braves took advantage of the Washington Nationals’ pratfall and dominated the NL East for most of the season. While the talent will get most of the credit, Snitker deserves some heavy praise for the culture he has fostered in Atlanta. Former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur told a great story of Snitker that goes back years before:


One of Jeff Francoeur’s favorite stories occurred after he homered a few times for Double-A Mississippi and then got drilled in the ribs against Montgomery. Snitker instructed a reliever to retaliate. When the pitcher simply buzzed a batter, Snitker blasted the pitcher in the dugout and told him to get out of his sight.
When one of Mississippi’s pitchers retaliated the next inning, the benches cleared and the umpires halted the game.
“After we got back in the clubhouse, [Snitker] grabbed a beer and told us he had never been more proud of the way we came together as a team that day,” Francoeur said. “If you play for him, you know he’s always going to protect you and have your back.”

Probably one of the best ways to describe Snitker is hard but fair. It appears that his mentality is exactly what this Braves team needed. Craig Counsell and Bud Black did some great things for Milwaukee and Colorado, respectively, but Snitker’s accomplishment this year has earned my vote for NL Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Snitker, 2-Black, 3-Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

Blake Treinen of Oakland had a year for the ages in 2018. Before this year, Treinen was almost a stereotype for a reliever: Great stuff,  but not consistent enough with his location. Treinen could miss bats, but didn’t miss them as much as he needed them to.

That all changed this past year, as Treinen’s late break on his pitches helped increase his numbers across the board. He bumped up his strike out rate to 31.8% (previous high was 24%) and saw his walk rate take a dip. Hitters also went from hitting .271 against him in 2017 to .157 this year. 

Treinen posted an ERA of 0. 78 and a FIP of 1.82. An interesting look into his numbers show a guy who’s luck appeared to switch around in 2018. In 2017, batters posted a BABIP of .344 against him. Luck was not on his side. But in 2018, his BABIP was .230, .114 points lower. Whatever he changed this year made a huge difference in his results.

What’s interesting is there is a huge difference when it comes to pitch usage this past season. Treinen did use his slider a bit less (21% compared to 25.5% in 2017) but  his cutter was used 11.8%, up from 0.5%. His velocity also saw a slight uptick this year, but nothing that will blow the doors off. More than anything it appears he used his cutter slightly more and the extra movement made it harder to put the ball in play. 

Whatever he did, it appears to have elevated him to the top of the relief game in the American League. His dominance not only helped lift Oakland to a playoff spot, but also my nod for American League Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Treinen, 2-Diaz, 3-Leclerc

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

There was no reliever in the NL this last year that dominated quite like Josh Hader. Hader steamrolled through the league in his second season and left a litany of whiffs in his path. My comparison has been ‘Mitch Williams with control’ and in 2018 he proved to be a force to be reckoned with. 

Let’s begin with the numbers:  2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 2.7 fWAR over 81 innings. Hader struck out batters at a 46.7% clip while posting a K-BB% of 36.9%. The best part is that he did this basically using two pitches: a fastball and a slider.

What Hader did was basically tell the hitter “here it is, now hit it” and most of the time the batter failed. Hader did allow nine homers this year, which equates to allowing one every nine innings. Hitters did make contact on Hader at almost a 70% clip when he put the ball in the strike zone. But this one blemish wasn’t enough to take away from his great year.

With Jeremy Jeffress still in the fold, it will be interesting to see if he continues to close or if Hader will get more opportunities in 2019. Hader did save 12 games and blow 5 (if you keep track of that stuff) and that number could see an increase in the next season. What Hader has done is put the rest of baseball on alert that he is one of the best relievers in all of the game, no matter what inning he is throwing in.

My Top 3: 1-Hader, 2-Jeffress, 3-Erlin

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2019 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

Rebuilding a Franchise: A 2017 Wrap-Up

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Credit: MLB.com

It was hard to venture anywhere this past summer and not see or hear questions about the Royals future. It didn’t matter if you were watching baseball, listening to baseball or reading about baseball; everywhere you went there were discussions about whether Kansas City should trade their future free agents or ride the wave out and see what happens. Obviously we now know how this story plays out, as the team was contending throughout the summer and the Royals held on to their Eric Hosmer’s and Lorenzo Cain’s.

But I didn’t. You see, I’ve been playing ‘Out of the Park Baseball’ for about three years now and it is a daily staple of my life. In my humble opinion, it is baseball simulation at its grandest. Every year I purchase the newest model of the game and almost instantly begin a new Royals season. When my 2017 team started off the year in a bumpy manner, I decided to begin the tearing down of my team. If you want to read about the how, who and why of this rebuild click here.

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Credit: Out of the Park Baseball

When I last wrote about my OOTP Royals, it was near the end of June and my team was in the basement, which I was expecting considering I had just gutted my team. They were sitting at 27-49 and my attendance was already sliding. I knew a change this drastic was not going to instantly take and my feeling was it would be rough all the way around.

Recently the 2017 season wrapped up for my team and it came with some mixed results. They finished with a 64-98 record, which means I went 37-49 since my last update. It wasn’t a great second half, but it was a slight improvement. The pitching ended up being my downfall; a combined 5.07 ERA, 189 home runs allowed and only a 4.9 WAR for my entire pitching staff. One of the big aspects of the “New Look” Royals was to go young which was really felt with the pitching.

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Credit: MLB.com

By the end of the year I had Yordano Ventura, Blake Snell, Aaron Sanchez and Kyle Zimmer in my rotation, all 25 years of age or younger. Ventura ended up racking up over 200 innings and a 2.3 WAR. Snell and Sanchez each reached 122 innings for Kansas City and while at times they struggled with their command (both gave up over 50 free passes), they also showed signs of dominance, as evidenced by each of them striking out over 100 batters. The real surprise for me was Zimmer, who I had no idea what to expect from him. Early on he struggled and had a hard time making it to the 5th inning on a regular basis. But as the season wore on, he righted the ship and while the numbers aren’t great (4.73 ERA, 5.29 FIP, 0.3 WAR) they did improve. Maybe the biggest surprise was that for the most part he stayed healthy, making 28 starts for Kansas City and throwing 159 innings.

While the rotation at least showed signs of life, my bullpen killed me. Only one reliever (Wade Davis) posted a WAR above 1.0 and only three were even league average.If I really want to look in the mirror and see where I failed in 2017, the bullpen was a good place to start. Let’s just say the less I say about the pen, the better. The good news is there is only one direction to move for my relievers and that is up.

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Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

This leaves me to my offense and it was the one area of my team that saw an obvious improvement in the second half of the season. Randall Grichuk was a savior after being acquired from St. Louis, as he produced a team high 3.6 WAR, 145 wRC+, 20 home runs and a line of .289/.361/.564. Cody Bellinger also turned out to be a stellar pick-up, posting 2.2 WAR, 127 wRC+ and a slash line of .288/.359/.494.

The lineup stalwarts that I kept on the team were Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas and while both were above replacement level overall (Gordon 1.5 WAR, Moose 1.4), offensively they were just below the league average. Gordon had a wRC+ of 92 while Moose had an 88. Both suffered injuries at separate points in the season and I’m hoping they both make a decent comeback for my 2018 campaign (authors note: I locked Moustakas into a two-year deal in the middle of the season).

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Credit: Kansas City Star

But my two biggest surprises were homegrown, as I recalled Bubba Starling and Ryan O’Hearn to get some big league playing time. Since I was going young and I knew the season would be a losing one, I figured it was the perfect time to get some quality at bats. I knew Bubba would deliver solid defense, but I was a bit surprised about some of the pop in his bat (11 home runs and 23 extra base hits). Starling put up a .217/.319/.376 line in 78 games, with a wRC+ of 93 and 1.0 WAR. It’s obvious his offense still needs some work, but I was actually expecting less.

O’Hearn was my big shocker. I had him splitting time at 1B and DH with Bellinger but through his first 100 at bats he was hitting right around .100 with no home runs. I seriously considered sending him back down to Omaha, but remembered that the whole point of this exercise was to get the younger guys playing time. So I stuck with him and in the end it paid off. O’Hearn led the team with 22 home runs, hit a nice .272/.358/.508 with a wRC+ of 125 and 1.5 WAR in just 83 games. The power definitely played and he went from a consideration for 2018 to a locked in starter.

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Credit: AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth

So what has this rebuild taught me? First, it was very obvious that there is no easy answers for a team dealing with a number of major free agents. I might have been able to put together a .500 season if I had kept everyone, but then I would be facing 2018 without a number of younger talents that ended up being major contributors.

Second, I learned that pitching AND hitting really can determine a hit or miss season. With the improvement I saw on offense, it makes me wonder how the season might have turned out if my bullpen had been even league average. There are two sides to this game and if you skimp on one it won’t matter how good the other side is.

Finally, I learned that patience is a virtue. I normally play every game rather than simulate it (so I can make in-game managerial decisions) and because of that I played some really bad baseball during the season. But after starting my 2018 season, my team is 12-9 in the early going, sitting in first place in the AL Central. I’m not for sure that will hold up all season but it’s already apparent how much improved my team is.

On one final note, if you have never played OOTP Baseball I would highly suggest it. I still feel like I am learning every day that I play it. Also, if you have any questions or even suggestions for me about the game, you can always shoot me a message on twitter @SeanThornton5. Enjoy and I hope this shows that the term “rebuild” isn’t a dirty word.

Rebuilding a Franchise

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Hi, my name is Sean and I am addicted to ‘Out of the Park Baseball’. What is that, you might be asking? Here is the tagline they use on their website:

Out of the Park Baseball is the best baseball management game ever created. Can you guide your favorite baseball team to glory? Win the World Series and build a dynasty?

In other words, OOTP Baseball is the “World’s most realistic sports simulation game”. There are a number of different options of how you can you play this game: you can be the manager, the General Manager, you can play a real league, a fictional league, or an international league…and that is just the tip of the iceberg. If you have ever wanted to know how you would do managing and/or running a major league team, this is the game for you. The thing is, once you get into it, it’s hard to stop. Last year I started a Kansas City Royals franchise, beginning with the 2016 season. That wasn’t a banner season for my team, as they struggled with injuries and a bit of regression, finishing the year 76-86. So going into 2017, I had the majority of the same roster with a number of minor tweaks. Much like the real life Royals, I knew after the season I was going to have a hard time re-signing a large chunk of the core group, but was hopeful they could get off to a good start and put myself in a good position after the season. Unfortunately, that did not happen.

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Instead, I got off to a horrible start. My team went 4-14 in April and while the offense was struggling (once again, sound familiar?) the pitching is what was really hurting me. My starters ERA was over 5.00, relievers were close to 5.00. I knew I would be wheeling and dealing, but wasn’t for sure when I would start the fire sale. I had made a few minor trades in May: I dealt Jason Vargas to the A’s and Alcides Escobar to Arizona, picking up Ryan Madson and Mitch Haniger. Nothing ground shaking but slight adjustments. But on May 24th, with my team 12-26 and 12.5 games out of first place in the American League Central, the fire sale begun. Within a matter of days, I had dealt Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales, Kris Medlen, Jason Frasor and Jarrod Dyson.  In return, I went out and made my team younger (and coincidentally, cheaper). For those players I was able to acquire Cody Bellinger, Aaron Sanchez, Randall Grichuk, Blake Snell and Lucas Giolito. In one fell swoop I had improved my rotation while also re-stocking my lineup with enough young talent to keep a low payroll for at least a couple of years. I also recalled a number of young prospects to fill out the team, as Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling and Ryan O’Hearn all became regulars on my team. I figured if I was going young, might as well go all the way. I accepted that my team would be bad for at least the remainder of the 2017 season, but I would reap the benefits in the future. My goal was to let these players play and let them get the experience they needed. So how is that working out?

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My team, as expected, is still bad. My record on June 5th (when the final deal went through) sat at 15-33; since then I am 12-16. It’s still under .500, but there has been a slight uptick. The youngsters are struggling at times, but at other times they are excelling. The starting pitchers will have a good outing followed by a bad one, while the hitters will go through a stretch where you see improvement while struggling just a few games later. I understand it is a process and don’t expect a huge improvement instantly. Speaking of, my pitching numbers have slightly picked up since all the trades were made and between that and the defense, there have been less blowouts and more close games, which have been split when it comes to success rate. Instant gratification won’t be found here, but I feel better about my team’s future and feel I did the proper moves to help my team in the future. That is where the connection to the real life Royals comes in.

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This whole article has been building to this one big question: how does this game I play reflect on what is going on in real life this season for the Kansas City Royals? Very simply, the Royals are playing themselves out of contention this year and pushing themselves in the direction of a seller rather than a buyer at the trade deadline. Do I think Kansas City can go out, deal their valuable parts the way I did and get about the same return? Probably not. Mine is a game on a computer that has different values than a real GM and also is missing out on the human element. I was able to acquire top-notch prospects like Bellinger and Giolito; the Royals could only hope to pick up prospects of that ilk. But what they can do is get what they can and decide if what is being offered for the likes of Hosmer, Cain, etc. is better or less than the draft pick they may (or may not) get the following year. It is a tough line to straddle and I don’t envy the position that Dayton Moore is in. I struggled with my game on whether I wanted to throw up the white flag or move on. Eventually, I gave in and decided to start the rebuild now. In my estimation, that was a better route for my team; what is the better direction for the Royals in real life?

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Here is the honest truth: this time next year, the Royals will look completely different from where they currently stand. Royals fans need to brace for the fact that there is a good chance the team isn’t able to keep Cain, or Hosmer, or Moustakas or Escobar…and that’s not a bad thing. While rebuilding is scary, it is also a reality in today’s game, unless you are a team with endless money. In my eyes, if this Royals team is still slumbering around by late June, then they are probably better dealing off what they can and start moving in whatever the next direction is for this team. Avoiding the inevitable only makes for more suffering and bigger heartbreak. It might appear on the surface that it is easier to tear down a team on a computer simulated game; in reality, it is not as hard to do in real life, with focus, determination and a clear, precise direction. The first question Moore needs to ask himself (and he probably already has) should be ‘where do we want to be ‘x’ years down the road?’, which should be followed by ‘how do we get to that point?’. Start there and begin to move forward. We are getting closer and closer to just pulling off the band-aid and dealing with the pain.

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