Younger Days

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Credit: Getty Images

This was it. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball, an era of rebuilding that would shape the foundation of the organization for not only the next few years but years beyond. 2018 was going to be the year we all look back on and see the outline of a master plan that would come to fruition around 2021-2022. Instead, we are sitting almost five months deep into the season wondering what the point of this season was.

Dayton Moore has been preparing us for this rebuild for more than a year, knowing full well that the team would be losing a number of free agents after the 2017 season. He knew that financially it wouldn’t make sense to bring back the entire group and that it was time to move forward. That would normally mean allowing younger players to infiltrate the roster. But is that how it has gone down?

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

Early in spring training the Royals went out and filled some holes on the roster with veterans, as they locked up Jon JayLucas Duda and Mike Moustakas. For the most part there was “no harm, no foul”, as Kansas City didn’t spend much on any of the three while giving the team trade bait for later in the summer.

For the most part that is how it has played out, as Jay and Moustakas have both been dealt and Duda is still a possibility to be traded later this month. So while these three have been taking up roster spots, they weren’t blocking a player who was ready to play in the big leagues.

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But there are some major question marks when it comes to a segment of the veterans still on the club and the amount of playing time they have been receiving lately. For example, over the last week or so we have seen Drew Butera make a couple starts at not only catcher but even first base. Yes, first base where he had started a total of two games before this season.

Four starts in one week for Butera feels like a lot. The guy is a solid backup catcher and appears to work well with the pitching staff. Should he be starting at a position he has played at sparingly when you have two youngsters (Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn) who actually play the position fairly regularly? Probably not. I won’t go as far as saying it is hurting their development but starting Butera over them this past week felt like a real head scratcher.

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How about everyone’s favorite punching bag, Alcides Escobar? It’s hard to justify his playing time with a line of .204/.257/.283 and -0.9 fWAR and yet he is in the lineup more often than not. Adalberto Mondesi has shown that offensively he is an improvement over Escobar and defensively has been superior for years now. Yet over the two months since being recalled, he has only started 31 games in the field.

Out of a group of six rookies (which does not include Mondesi, since he passed his rookie status before this season) that have played for the Royals this season, they have compiled 527 plate appearances, or only 108 more than Escobar. Whether it is allowing these players to ease into the big leagues or just not giving them a bigger role, these prospects have not gotten the experience many of us expected them to receive as the season progressed.

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It’s been a slightly different story for the pitching staff, as a number of rookies have been given more prominent roles. Brad Keller has probably been the pitcher of the year for Kansas City so far, posting a 3.57 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. The Royals rookie pitchers (ten in total) have thrown 346 out of the team’s 1033 innings. Keller and fellow Rule 5 Draft Pick Burch Smith have thrown the most out of the bunch, 88.1 and 60.2 respectively.

Six Royals rookies have tossed 30 innings or more this year, including relievers Tim Hill and Jason Adam. It is hard to argue that the team is not giving some of the younger arms in the organization an opportunity to pitch this year when 4/5 of the current rotation are rookies. Then why does it feel like they could go even younger?

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The new “Black Hole of Death” appears to be in the bullpen, where Brandon Maurer, Jason Hammel and Blaine Boyer are taking up space. All three have struggled this year and have hurt the team on the field more than any value the rookies receive from their veteran leadership. It has been suggested that the club should cut bait with these three and give some of the arms in Omaha an opportunity…and at this point it is hard to argue with that reasoning.

Is there any reason not to give Eric Stout or Trevor Oaks a longer look? Are control issues enough of a detriment to see whether Josh Staumont and Sam Selman can have success out of a major league bullpen? What about new acquisition Jorge Lopez? And how are we in the middle of August and there is still no sign of Richard Lovelady? In my eyes, it makes no sense to employ veterans like Maurer and Boyer when they just aren’t getting the job done. Give them a bus pass and lets see what some of the inexperienced arms can do.

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Maybe my expectations were off course, but by this point in the season I presumed that the Royals would be employing one of the younger rosters in the league. Instead, they still feel really…old. By no means do I expect this team to be a cavalcade of 20 year olds, but I did expect the focus to be on the future. Instead, it feels like they are treading water.

Not every prospect is going to be ready and there is an appreciation for allowing them to develop at their own pace. But if the Royals are to contend again around 2021 (and that is the expectation in the front office) then they need to speed this process up. Giving at bats to Alcides Escobar or allowing Brandon Maurer another day on the roster isn’t helping anyone. For this to be a real rebuild, the Royals need to quit straddling the fence and move forward with players who could still be in Kansas City three years from now.

Kansas City Wish Fulfillment

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If you are taking stock of the first half of the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, most of your return would be a muddled mess. The Royals were in shambles, whether it was the offense, the rotation or the bullpen. Essentially the only reliability sat in their defense, which is leading the American League in UZR while coming in 8th in defensive runs saved.

But this isn’t a piece to prop up the defense or even bash the ineptitude we have seen for the first three and a half months of the season. Instead, this is that nugget of positivity you keep hoping for. This is the dream scenario where the blocks fall into place like on a Tetris grid.

What we’ve compiled is a wish list of sorts. It’s a few items of interest that if swayed the proper direction could benefit the Royals for the rest of this season into next. By no means should you take this as ‘This is how the Royals win the American League Central’, as that is just crazy talk. No, this is a view of ‘what could be’ if Kansas City plays their cards right these next few months.

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Trading Up

With the trade deadline looming in less than a week (July 31 to be exact), the Royals are in a good position to make some moves and add some depth to the organization. Mike Moustakas appears to be the main chip that Dayton Moore has to deal and a number of teams (Boston and Atlanta among them) have shown interest in the power-hitting slugger.

But after Moose there aren’t any certainties. Whit Merrifield would be a great acquisition for a team looking to pick up a versatile fielder with the ability to get on base, but Kansas City is in a position where they don’t have to deal him if they don’t like the offers they are receiving. At this point the likelihood of a Whit trade feels like a 50/50 chance…at best.

Two other names to keep an eye on would be Lucas Duda and Jason Hammel. Duda has been hitting .310/.394/.414 over his last nine games coming into Tuesday with a BABIP of .421. While on the surface Hammel’s shift to the bullpen has been a mixed bag, his velocity has gone up (as expected) and he appears to be assimilating to his new role.

Duda could possibly be dealt in August after clearing waivers to a team looking for a power bat but Hammel feels less likely. The combination of a poor season coupled with a high salary(that Kansas City is probably unwilling to eat) makes the likelihood of a trade probably slim. But if the Royals are given the opportunity, they should take it.

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Playing Younger

With the talk of veterans being dealt, that should open up more opportunities for some of the younger talent in the Kansas City farm system. One of the advantages of a rebuild is players getting a chance to prove themselves on a fairly regular basis. That opportunity appears to be looming.

We’ve already seen extended tryouts for guys like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. The pitching staff has been littered with youth, from Brad Keller and Burch Smith (two Rule 5 draftees) to Tim Hill and now Heath Fillmyer. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I would love to see a larger youth movement implemented these last two months.

At this point, I am game to hand out opportunities like pieces of PEZ. Would you like to see another youngster in the rotation? Let’s see what Trevor Oaks can do on an extended basis. How about the bullpen? We’ve heard about Richard Lovelady for a while, but it’s not too far-fetched to give Kevin Lenik an opportunity as well.

Offensively there aren’t as many options, but names like Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel could be interesting come September (despite their performances so far this season). Even guys we have seen already, like Cam Gallagher and Ramon Torres, could see some playing time as the season wears on.

Obviously not all of these names are going to produce and some will even show that they are not worth keeping around. But if a team is truly rebuilding, you owe it to yourself to hand out these opportunities and let the players run with it. Good or bad, it’s simply a matter of going out and proving their worth…and luckily, the Royals have the time to allow that to happen.

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The Rotation we were Expecting

Before the season started, a number of us felt like the Royals rotation could be a major plus for the team. In fact, I was one of those proponents:

While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way.

Most of the high expectations came from thinking the starters could outperform their 2017 numbers. Unfortunately, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have not while Jakob Junis appeared to be on a fast-track to success early in the season and he has since fallen on hard times. There was also that Nate Karns guy, but who even knows if we will see him this season, as he rebounds from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

But there is some hope. Danny Duffy has looked superb over his last 11 starts, posting a 2.58 ERA while holding batters to a line of .217/.303/.296. Heath Fillmyer has been nothing short of sensational since being put in the rotation. Then there is Brad Keller, who has possibly been the biggest bright spot for Kansas City in a season full of dim bulbs.

If the Royals can get Junis back to his early season self (and his start over the weekend was encouraging) and audition either Burch Smith or Trevor Oaks for an extended period, this could be a rotation similar to what was originally expected. It won’t challenge the Atlanta Braves rotations of the early 90’s, but it doesn’t have far to go to top how the rotation performed in the first half.

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Fulfilled Expectations

While the other wishes were part of a grander scale, there are a few more items to keep your eye on in the second half that would drastically improve the ballclub.

Keep an eye on Whit Merrifield (if he isn’t traded) as he is on pace to topple most of his stats from 2017. Whit is currently hitting .299/.370/.420 with a wRC+ of 118 and 3.0 fWAR. While his power numbers have seen a slight decline (slugging percentage and ISO have seen the biggest dip) his overall numbers have been an improvement.

The rest of his numbers appear to have improved ( in fact his WAR is already better  than 2017), as his walk rate has seen an increase and his BABIP has risen to .356. While his strike out rate has gone up, we have also seen an uptick in the hard hit rate. If you are purely a fan of Whit’s power you might be disappointed, but otherwise it will be fun to watch him wrap up what appears to be his new peak this season.

Another interesting player to watch is Salvador Perez. A few weeks ago I took a look at Perez and his struggles. In that piece, I mentioned how it might not take much to turn around his season:

I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.

That luck has finally come around, as Salvy is hitting .269/.286/.481 over his last 13 games with 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s. But the improvement shows up in his BABIP, where he is hitting .314 in that span and contributing on almost a daily basis.

To break that down even further, Perez is hitting .273/.286/.576 in the last eight games with  an OPS of .861. While it may be just a small sample size, Salvy has been seeing more pitches per at bat while looking for a pitch to drive. It’s not hard to imagine him turning things around the next couple months and ending up with numbers comparable to year’s past.

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Obviously we would all like to see the Royals turn themselves back into contenders during the second half, but that just isn’t realistic. The good news is that their performance in the first half has set the bar very low for the last half of the season. It gives Kansas City a chance to show they aren’t quite as bad as they’ve played to this point.

There is a number of things you can wish for, but your best bet is to wish for improvement. Moving forward wins and losses shouldn’t matter as much as how the development is coming along for this team. It should be about finding out what they have and what they should keep moving forward. That is what should be at the top of any Royals fan’s wish list.

That and to never see Brandon Maurer in a high-leverage situation ever again.

 

 

In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, the Royals are Bad Again

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It’s always a bitter pill to swallow when your favorite team isn’t good. Everyone handles it differently. Some people make excuses for why they are bad. Some accept it and move on. Others just flat out get angry but keep coming back for more.

This 2018 version of the Kansas City Royals is bad. Real bad. As in the numbers speak of a team reaching a new level of ineptitude. The Royals offense is last in the American League in wRC+, wOBA, slugging percentage, ISO, RBI’s, runs, home runs, OPS and RE24. The Royals hit a woeful .193/.253/.303 in the month of June and even those numbers feel a bit heavy if you have actually watched this team play on a regular basis.

The pitching numbers aren’t a whole lot better. The Kansas City pitchers are last in the league in fWAR, FIP, RE24 and ERA while having the lowest strike outs per nine innings and the highest home runs per nine. So it isn’t just the Royals bats that are pitiful; the entire package is one of the worst in baseball and a big part of why they have the second lowest winning percentage in baseball right now at .294 (my apologies to the fans of Baltimore. You understand what we are dealing with right now).

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Credit: Orlin Wagner, AP

…and yet I’m still watching most of the games. Call it loyalty or call it being a glutton for punishment; both are probably acceptable. Either way, I still find myself wanting to watch them most days and hardly ever does the little voice in my head question it with a ‘but are you sure?’ or a ‘does that seem like a good idea?’. At this point you might be asking why I would put myself through that…and I wouldn’t blame you for asking.

Sure, part of it is that the Royals are my team, and have been since I was seven years old and will still be if I reach the ripe age of 87. I truly bleed royal blue. But the other reason is that while things appear to be as bad as the worst Kansas City teams we’ve seen over the last 20 years, I also realize that it is possibly the beginning of some really important careers for the youngest of Royals.

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Hunter Dozier has been getting consistent playing time and is starting to look more comfortable, both at the plate and in the field. Adalberto Mondesi gets to play with less pressure and is hitting the ball a lot harder than he did during his previous stints in the big leagues. While Rosell Herrera might not be a part of the Royals future, he is being given the chance to see if he could be a part of it, at least.

On the pitching side, Brad Keller is making the case of being the best Rule 5 draft pick in Royals history (hello, Joakim Soria!) and has been possibly the brightest spot for this team so far in 2018. Jason Adam, Heath Fillmyer, Tim Hill, Kevin McCarthy and Burch Smith are all getting extended looks out of the bullpen, where in years past they might get just a cup of coffee in the big leagues or a small chance while someone was on the disabled list.

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There is more on the way, especially on the Omaha roster. Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont, Frank Schwindel, Ryan O’Hearn, Nicky Lopez, Cam Gallagher, Donnie Dewees, and possibly even Bubba Starling are all names that could become a regular part of your Royals experience over the next year or two. Some of these guys will turn out to be regulars and others won’t reach the potential that some have expected of them. But the opportunity is why this team is still one to watch.

The Royals are in an interesting situation where they really have nothing to lose by giving these players a chance to prove their worth. I mean, it’s not like the team could be even worse, right? Right???!!! Maybe it’s a small dash of optimism, but one has to wonder if a few of these prospects could help churn out more runs for this team than what we have seen over the last month.

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It really hasn’t felt like a rebuild this year, not with all the veterans on the roster. But here before too long (maybe even by August), this is going to feel like a different team. I’m not going to sit here and try and tell you it’s going to be great the entire time, because you are going to see some bad baseball over the next couple of years. But the hope is also there to see some of these players blossom and become Royals legends.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken

So yes, this team is bad. It’s even safe to say that come September they are still going to be as awful as they are at this moment. If you are someone who has already tuned them out this year, I can sympathize. There are times that some of us die-hard’s have to take a break from this team, no matter how much we love them.

But there are also still reasons to tune in and head to the ballpark. While they will lose more than they win right now, they are also starting to build the foundation. One of the greatest experiences of my life has been watching “my” Royals go from being the joke of baseball to winning the World Series in 2015. For those of us that stuck it out through the bad, we were rewarded.

The reason it tasted so sweet was because we were around for the rough times. Trust me when I say that Kansas City will get back to the postseason and it probably won’t take another 30 years. Until then, watch this team grow and enjoy getting to watch the younger players develop into staples of the organization. It won’t always be pretty, but there will be moments for you to grasp on for years.

 

 

Did Yordano Ventura’s Tragic Death Slow Down the Royals Rebuild?

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

(Writers Note: The intention of this article is to see the effect that Yordano Ventura’s death had on the Kansas City Royals organization and the building of the roster. In no way, shape or form, is it trying to trivialize his passing. Hopefully you, the reader, see that he was a vital part of the Royals future and a beloved player within the Kansas City fanbase. This is purely a ‘What If’ article.)  

January 22, 2017 is a date that will always be a painful reminder of how fragile life can be, as that was the day that former Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura passed away. Ventura’s death was only four months after the passing of Miami Marlins pitcher Jose Fernandez and the similarities between the two pitchers was remarkable.

But maybe the biggest similarity was the effect both deaths had on their respective organizations. Both left a giant hole in not only their rotations but also the locker rooms. The loss of each not only forced their organizations to take a second look at their future, but also to reassess what path they were already on for 2017.

We’ve seen what it did for the Marlins. Miami finished 77-85 last year and they spent the winter dismantling their roster, as key players like Giancarlo Stanton and Christin Yelich were sent to greener pastures. The Marlins threw up the white flag and decided to begin what feels like the umpteenth million rebuild during their 25 year history.

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Credit: Associated Press

But despite being told that Kansas City is in a “rebuild”, it sure doesn’t feel like it at times. The Royals have a very veteran heavy roster and while that could (should) very well change by August, as of now it feels like they are straddling a fence. Because of that I have to wonder: did Yordano Ventura’s passing slow down the Kansas City rebuild?

Before we head down this path I feel the need to clarify a couple of things. First, I won’t dabble in any possible deals the team could have made or should have made. Instead we will look at the pitching moves made since his passing and determine whether or not they would have still taken place.

Second, there is no way to determine how the Royals would have done with Ventura still on the team so that won’t be discussed as well. The honesty of this is that there is no surefire way to know how things would have developed with Yo'(unless you know something about time travel I don’t. If that’s the case, quit holding out on us!) so this is just an estimated guess based off of how the front office has acted over the last couple of years.

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Credit: AP Photo/Orlin Wagner

Let’s start with the three moves made not that long after Ventura’s death last year. Brandon Moss was signed on February 1st, Jason Hammel on February 5th, and Travis Wood on February 13. It’s hard to tell if Moss’ signing was directly connected to Ventura, especially since the team had been looking for another bat throughout the winter. More than likely the Moss signing would have still happened, even without Ventura’s loss.

Hammel and Wood totally felt like a reaction to losing Yordano. The Royals rotation at that point looked set with Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Ventura, newly acquired Nate Karns and Jason Vargas. The team even had Chris Young, Matt Strahm and Jake Junis as backup options for the rotation, so there wasn’t any real need for Hammel or Wood at that time.

One could make the argument that the Royals might have had interest in Wood as a reliever, which is very possible considering that had been his role for the majority of the previous two seasons. But if not, then Kansas City would have never signed them and we could take their contracts off the books, not only for 2017 but 2018 as well.

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Credit: Associated Press

Let’s move to the winter and the Royals deal with the White Sox and Dodgers. In that trade, Scott Alexander would go to Los Angeles while Soria would eventually end up in Chicago. One has to wonder if Kansas City would have been compelled to deal either reliever if the team had never signed Hammel or Wood.

The crux of this trade was moving Soria’s contract, which might not have been as important without those signings. If that is the case, then the trade might have never happened and Alexander and Soria would have stayed in Kansas City.

We could easily see a scenario where Soria would have still been shopped, but even if that is the case I doubt they would have felt moving him was important enough to lose the club control that Alexander would have (which runs through the 2022 season). This would mean the Royals would have kept two big cogs in their bullpen and we might have not seen the likes of Tim Hill, Brad Keller and Burch Smith when the season began (which would have meant some tough decisions, considering Keller and Smith were Rule 5 draft picks).

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Then at the end of January, the Royals traded Moss and Ryan Buchter to Oakland for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. This is a trade that feels like it would have happened no matter what. Moss had an awful season in 2017 (.207/.279/.428, -1.0 bWAR) and trading him would probably allow the Royals to move a portion of his salary commitment.

The interesting part of this becomes whether or not Buchter would have actually been a Royal. We all remember the ill-fated trade with San Diego but that trade happened for two reasons. One, the Royals needed pitching. Two, the Royals were still in the hunt for a playoff spot, 1.5 games out in the AL Central while holding down the second Wild Card.

I could see the Royals needing pitching, even with Yordano still in the picture. It’s very possible the deal could have gone down, but that is also trying to determine where Kansas City would have been in the standings. This is probably a good place to mention that Ventura finished 2016 with an ERA+ of 97 and a bWAR of 1.6. While some felt he was going to turn the corner in 2017, there was no guarantee that would happen.

So with that in mind, we’ll go with the San Diego trade still going down. Almost every team can use more pitching and it’s easy to see the Royals in a situation where they would need more arms. In other words, this is a deal that just reeks of fate.

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So with all these moves out-of-the-way, we can start assessing whether or not the rebuild was slowed down by the passing of Ventura. With what we saw in 2017, it was very apparent the Royals were going to stick with the core group (Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, etc.) and give them every opportunity to clinch a playoff spot. So any idea that they would be dealt was probably slim and none from the very beginning.

It’s probably also safe to say that if Kansas City had somehow found their way to the playoffs last year with Ventura, that would be one more reason to not completely tear the whole thing down and start over. The Royals would have still had a nice nucleus together (Perez, Whit, Duffy, Ventura, etc.) and with the way the free agent market collapsed this winter it’s possible Dayton might have been even more aggressive than he was.

It also appears Moore has never been down with a real “rebuild”. Back in March Dayton had this to say about how competitive the team would be this season:

“I believe that we can put a strong, competitive team on the field each and every night and also develop in the minor leagues,” he said. “I believe we can build our farm system back to the level it was in 2010 and 2011, and maybe even do it better and still win games at the major-league level.

“You can’t just turn it on and turn it off. If you want a winning culture, you’ve got to do everything in your power each day to win.”

It just doesn’t feel like the front office has ever been behind a full rebuild with this club. In fact, it has sounded like they would be content with piecing together the roster as needed, letting the younger talent filter in when they were ready and letting them get comfortable at their own pace.

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So with all that in mind, my guess is that Yordano Ventura’s untimely passing didn’t slow down a Kansas City rebuild. As much as moves made after his passing felt like a knee-jerk reaction to his death, the team had already committed to being “all in” for 2017 and even taking on less payroll wouldn’t have deterred that frame of mind.

Unless…the Royals decided to deal Yordano. While in some circles that might sound crazy, it might not be as far-fetched as you think. In fact, in the winter before the 2017 campaign, the Houston Astros were rumored to have shown interest in Ventura:

Royals starters Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura are two of the pitchers on the Astros’ list of rotation targets, MLB.com’s Brian McTaggart reports.  The two K.C. arms join several other previously-known names (i.e. Jose QuintanaChris ArcherJake Odorizzi and other Tampa Bay’s starters) as potential trade fits for a Houston team looking to upgrade its starting pitching.

Now, showing interest isn’t the same thing as on the trading block. But if you are any team, you should probably be willing to listen to any offers on any player, just in case a team is willing to go way overboard just to acquire a player. While Ventura could have been under club control until 2021(with the help of club options), that might have been a selling point for Kansas City:

Their willingness to least listen to other clubs’ offers could be due to doubts about his personality, or it could just be due diligence, as Ventura’s years of control could net K.C. a nice return in a trade.

If a team was willing to offer a nice package of talent for Yordano, Moore would have to at least listen. One would think if a deal actually went down and the Royals were able to acquire young talent, it’s possible the rebuild could have sped up a bit.

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Credit: Royals.com

In fact, that might have been one of the few scenarios where guys like Hosmer and Cain would be dealt before the trade deadline. While it feels like a long shot, it could have very well happened considering in the last year the Astros have picked up both Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole to improve their starting rotation.

While I highly doubt Kansas City would have dealt Ventura, it does show how one or two moves can sway a team in different directions. Ventura very well could have gone from a building block for the team to an asset to fill multiple holes on the roster.

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So while his death probably didn’t slow down the Royals rebuild, it definitely changed the fabric of the team and the organization. Ventura is that hole that hasn’t been filled and it could be generations before they have another pitcher with his potential.

While it would be nice to say losing one player was the cause for the lack of youth on this Royals roster, the answer is far deeper than that. Trades, injuries, bad judgment and bad luck all play a part in why the Royals aren’t rebuilding more than they are right now.

Maybe in a different dimension or a different universe (Earth 2 or even Earth 81) this is all different and the Royals are still a potent contender in the American League. But in this reality, they are a team trying to build themselves back up without many pieces. While Yordano’s death was tragic, it is not the cause of their current situation. It’s just not that simple.

Kevin McCarthy is Proving He Should Have Been on the Opening Day Roster

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When Opening Day rosters are announced there are always a few surprises that end up heading north with the team. Sometimes though, it isn’t who made the team as much as who is left off. That was the case with Kevin McCarthy, who did not make the Kansas City Royals roster out of Spring Training and instead began the year in the minors.

It was a bit of a surprise, as McCarthy had put together a pretty nice rookie year for the Royals in 2017. McCarthy threw 45 innings last year over 33 games in the big leagues, posting a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP and 0.2 fWAR. But what really impressed me was his ability to produce in tight situations:

Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.

In proper context, the WPA was 9th best on the Royals last year while Clutch was 5th best. Sure, not ‘blow off the doors’ amazing but steady and a good starting point for a pitcher during his rookie campaign.

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Credit: Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire

These were all reasons that it appeared a foregone conclusion McCarthy would be with the Royals to start the year, but the numbers game probably got the best of him. McCarthy had options left and the team wanted to keep Rule 5 picks Burch Smith and Brad Keller on the roster. Thus, McCarthy started the year at Omaha, appearing in 3 games before being recalled by Kansas City on April 13th. Since then, it is safe to say he has been one the Royals top relievers.

McCarthy has appeared in 22 games headed into play on Tuesday, tossing 25.2 innings posting a 3.16 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 3.31 xFIP and 0.2 fWAR (which ties him with his total from last year). McCarthy is keeping pace on his strike out rate this year, but has lowered his walk rate a bit (5.9%) and a 1.01 WHIP, which is down from 1.13 in 2017.

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But where it gets even more interesting for him is looking at some of the advanced numbers. Win probability is where McCarthy continues to impress. He currently sits second on the team in Win Probability Added at 0.40, and third in RE24, at 4.22. Both of these are accumulating statistics and should continue to rise as the season progresses, barring a major setback. It also shows how McCarthy easily should be one of the most trusted arms out of the bullpen right now.

In fact, McCarthy’s success appears to be coming on a slight shift in his pitch selection. Here’s a look over his pitch usage since the beginning of 2017 to today:

Brooksbaseball-ChartMcCarthy has gone from a pitcher that relies on his sinker and slider most often to one who is using his slide-piece less and less and using the change-up more. This shift appeared to happen around September of last year and he’s continued it into this season.

By doing that, he is inducing groundballs at a higher rate thanks to the change:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (1)

For McCarthy, the higher rate of groundballs has led to a lower batting average against, pretty much all across the board:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

McCarthy has almost entirely ditched his four-seam fastball and is relying heavily on the sinker, tossing in the change-up, curve and slider to compliment it:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (3)

It’s not quite the extreme that we saw from Scott Alexander last year, but it does show that if you have a pitch that is working and getting outs, using it more often would seem to translate to more outs.

Image result for Kevin McCarthy Royals 2018

It also appears that the coaching staff is trusting him more and more as the season progresses. During May, the Royals used McCarthy 12 times, compiling a 2.25 ERA with batters hitting .179/.193/.304 against him. The bullpen struggled throughout the first month of the season, with a number of veterans like Blaine Boyer and Justin Grimm contributing to the bleeding rather than stopping it.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

With Brad Keller shifting to the rotation, it would appear to be as good a time as any for Kansas City to give McCarthy a shot at being a setup guy for closer Kelvin Herrera. With Herrera being a heavily coveted arm this summer, it is as good a time as any to see what McCarthy can do late in the game.

The Royals bullpen is continuing its evolution and it appears McCarthy will continue to evolve as well. More than likely there will be a few more shifts before it is all said and done and McCarthy is as good a choice as any to be a major part of it. So far he is passing all the Royals tests with flying colors; there is almost no reason to stop the development now. Moving forward should be the mantra.

Should the Royals Use an ‘Opener’?

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Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Over the weekend history was made as Sergio Romo, a reliever who had never started a game in the Major Leagues over 588 appearances, started back-to-back days for the Tampa Bay Rays as an “Opener“, starting him in very short appearances before giving way to other pitchers–normally youngsters who had been starters down in the minors–for use in extra inning spurts throughout the rest of the game.

The reasoning makes sense:

But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.

The Rays had a couple of young pitchers scheduled to start over the weekend and knew they probably weren’t going to pitch deep into the game. So with that in mind, they started Romo to face the Angels plethora of right-handed batters at the top of the lineup, as Romo has had success against righties throughout his career (ranking second in opposing OBP with a .232 rate for active pitchers).

So you can see why Tampa was willing to experiment and at the very least give this a shot. But this got me to thinking ‘What if the Royals tried this on occasion?’ and maybe even the more important question ‘Should the Royals try this on occasion?’

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Credit: MLB.com

If we are talking different options, Kansas City has a number of relievers this might work well with. Brad Keller has been phenomenal this year and there has even been discussion of moving him to the rotation. Trying him as an ‘Opener’ first might be a good way to get his feet wet and the Royals could even stretch out his starts this way, starting him with just an inning or two at first before eventually increasing his innings per outing.

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Credit: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Burch Smith is also an intriguing option, especially since he was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career. Smith has a 25% strike out rate to go with batters hitting .269 against him on balls in play. The one concern with Smith is his walk rate, which as of Tuesday sits at 13.5%. The last thing you want early in the game is extra baserunners, as that would soil the whole purpose of this experiment.

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Credit: MLB.com

There is also Tim Hill, who would be a trip for batters to see early in the contest. The idea of hitters trying to figure out Hill funky delivery for an inning or two and then adjusting to someone like Jason Hammel, who relies on his slider quite a bit more would be an interesting situation.

So should the Royals consider using an ‘Opener’, at least occasionally? Considering how the starting pitching has been the last month it wouldn’t be an awful idea. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starting pitchers are last in the American League in ERA and fWAR, while giving up the most hits, runs and home runs. In other words, whatever the starters are doing isn’t working and trying almost anything else at this point isn’t a bad idea.

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In fact, it might actually help some of the pitchers like Hammel or Ian Kennedy. Let’s say a reliever “opens” the game and throws two innings or less. You can then bring in whomever would normally start that day and let them pitch a couple times through the order. Most of us are aware of the numbers that point out how pitchers fare the third time through a batting order and this might make it to where someone like Hammel never has to see a batter a third time.

A number of people are going to hate this idea and disregard it before it even happens. In fact, I can’t imagine Ned Yost would ever be on board with this, as it has taken him years to warm-up to the idea of defensive shifts and he is still questioning it. But I also feel the Royals are in the perfect spot to try something “out of the box” without any major repercussions.

There is no way to tell whether or not it will work either, as apparent by the results for Tampa Bay over the weekend. On Saturday, things went as hoped:

Rays Sat

Yarbrough followed Romo, throwing six innings while giving up only one run. But Sunday didn’t go as smoothly:

Rays Sun

The rest of Tampa’s pitchers couldn’t maintain the pace and they ended up losing the game. That’s the thing with trying something like this; it might work as planned but it could also blow up in your face. The bigger question is whether or not it is worth it in the long run.

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Credit: Getty Images

If we are being honest, I am fully on board with Kansas City trying an “Opener” at some point but I’m not going to hold my breath while waiting.  Kudos to the Rays for attempting it and if we are being honest baseball is better and more interesting when teams are changing up the status quo. The game has been around for over 170 years and it has evolved quite a bit since that first game in Hoboken, New Jersey back in 1846. Now it might be time for the game to evolve a bit more when it comes to pitching strategies.

The State of the Royals Bullpen

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Credit: Getty Images

We were spoiled. Wade Davis. Greg Holland. HDH. 

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again. 

But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up.  The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.

So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season. 

So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up,  and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.

The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.

All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018. 

There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :

“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”

Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics

A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:

10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one. 

There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season. 

For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.

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