Quality and Quantity

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY)

Quality pitching might be the greatest necessity throughout the game of baseball. You could ask 100 baseball executives, scouts or analysts, and I’m sure almost all of them would point to quality starting pitching as a constant need for every team. Point blank, you can never have enough pitching. The Kansas City Royals can be counted as one of those teams, as evident by the way their starting rotation has performed this year. It has been so vital for Kansas City that I wrote about it here and here…and here. If there ever was a season where the Royals fate would be determined by their rotation, this would be the year. In fact, you could almost say that as their starters go, so go the Royals. When they struggle, the Royals struggle. When they are glorious, the team strives. Kansas City is currently riding a hot streak and while you will hear names like Gordon, Hosmer and Orlando linked to this streak, the biggest reason for their success can be attributed to the improvement of the starting pitching.

Kansas City Royals vs St. Louis Cardinals
(UPI/Bill Greenblatt)

Lets start by discussing the Royals pitchers and the quality start. For those that don’t know, a quality start is considered any start where the pitcher goes at least 6 innings while allowing 3 runs or less. It’s shouldn’t be a hard standard to meet, but occasionally it is an issue and has been for Kansas City this year. Obviously leading the way is Danny Duffy and his amazing season. Duffy has reeled off six straight quality starts and has 12 overall in his 18 starts this year. Ian Kennedy has spun four straight quality starts and Yordano Ventura has three straight. Even Dillon Gee got into the act on Thursday night, spinning his best start of the season and only his second quality start of the year. The starters seem to be working deeper into the game as of late, allowing the bullpen to not log as many innings as they have been and giving them a chance to be a bit sharper. This is big, because if the Royals pitching holds the other team’s offense, there is a good chance that the bullpen will also hold them in check. The Kansas City offense has a tendency to erupt late in the game, and the starting pitching as of late has given them the opportunity to do just that.

Ian Kennedy
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

During the month of July, the Royals scuffled and while the offense sputtered, the starting pitching wasn’t much better. For most of the year, the rotation has been near the bottom of most categories in the American League, but that has changed. The Kansas City starters have climbed up from last in innings pitched to 11th, next to last in starters WAR and FIP, and 10th in ERA. The starters have still given up the most home runs in the league and the 3rd highest walk percentage, but you can see some definite progression in the numbers. Teams are only batting .255 against Kansas City’s starters, 4th best in the league and they have the third best LOB(Left on Base) percentage of 74.7%. Their strike out numbers have risen as well, as they have the third best K rate in the league at 20.7%. There are still some flaws with the starters, as expected, but when you see the team has the second best Clutch statistic in the league(Kansas City is at 3.26 this year, with 2.00 considered an excellent number) it makes it appear as if the rotation is moving in the correct direction.

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The interesting part is that the Royals have not relied as heavily on their starters the last few years and it has seen them make back to back World Series appearances. The team was actually last in the American League last year in innings pitched, 4th highest ERA and FIP, 2nd lowest starters WAR and the highest walk rate in the league(7.6%). When digesting the 2016 numbers compared to last year, it appears the only big glaring difference would be the home runs allowed by the starters. Last year they allowed 107 home runs for the entire year, 6th lowest in the league. This year they have allowed 121 homers, 14 more in 232 less innings. The long ball has hurt the team this year and can be attributed as the big difference in the rotation this year. Luckily, they have only allowed 13 home runs over the last two weeks in 85 innings, which gives them a HR/9 ratio of 1.38. That is quite a bit better than the 1.60 ratio they have for the entire season. This team is never going to be quite like the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s but there is notable improvement over the last few weeks and some of the same competitiveness seen by Atlanta back in the day.

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With just forty games remaining in this 2016 season, the Royals are sitting at 62-60, 9 games out of the American League Central lead and 5.5 games out of the Wild Card. This latest hot streak has soared them back into the race and the starting pitching should get a lot of the praise for that. If this team wants to play in the postseason for the third consecutive year, they need the rotation to keep doing what they have been doing these last couple weeks. What was considered a lost cause just a few weeks ago now seems a distinct possibility for the team that has ‘been there, done that’. If the rest of the rotation follows Danny Duffy’s lead, there will be a fun comeback story to dwell on when October rolls around.

Five Is The Magic Number

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The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals have had a very trying 2016, with a litany of injuries, slumps and starting pitching woes. While the rotation has seemed to stabilize as of late, the team still struggles to put up good numbers from their number five starter each week. Chris Young isn’t the answer. Dillon Gee isn’t the answer. Brian Flynn probably isn’t the answer either, or like the other two pitchers mentioned, has racked up better numbers out of the bullpen than out of the rotation. So who would that leave Kansas City to be their fifth starter? There seems to be a lack of depth in some regards for the spot, but if they really want to be creative there might some solutions to this season-long problem.

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One fairly obvious choice would be to shuffle rookie reliever Matt Strahm into the rotation. Strahm has been a starter in the minor leagues but the Royals have been using him out of the pen since his recall. Strahm has shown electric stuff out of the bullpen, combining his 91-95 mph fastball with a slider and a change-up. He also occasionally throws a slurve, which is normally in the 77-81 mph range. Strahm’s numbers this year in the majors have been impressive; 1.80 ERA, 19.8 K/9 and a bWAR of 0.2. Obviously, if he was put back into the rotation his fastball would probably go down a notch or two, but it still can be an effective pitch with his deceptive delivery. Strahm will eventually be in the Royals rotation, so he really wouldn’t be a bad choice to get a test run under his belt this year.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Then there is prospect Jake Junis. Junis started the year in AA, where he put up some impressive numbers, a 3.35 ERA with 18.5 K/BB% and a FIP of 3.32 over 119 innings. Junis was recalled to AAA Omaha within the past week and threw 7 innings of 1 run ball, striking out 7 while walking none. Junis was rated as the 10th best prospect for Kansas City this year and in his age 23 season and has seen an increase in his velocity (92-94 mph, topping out at 96 mph) with a consistent curve and a change-up with good sink. The Royals could be concerned about elevating Junis too fast this season, which is understood. But with September around the corner, a couple of starts at the big league level would be a good way to get his feet wet while helping the Royals get solid innings from the fifth starters spot.

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Now we get to the really creative options for the rotation. First, lets start with Mike Minor. Minor is currently on his second rehab stint in the minors for Kansas City, after the first one was shut down for “shoulder fatigue”. While Minor’s ERA has looked better, I’m sure Royals management would be concerned with most of his other numbers during this stint; he has 44 strike outs over 38.1 innings, although the 20 walks in that span would be a bit concerning. There was hope earlier in the season that Minor would be able to contribute at some point and September could be his best shot of helping the Royals out. Minor’s numbers aren’t eye-popping in the minors, but he does have big league experience and could be an upgrade over the options the Royals have thrown out there so far this year.

Kris Medlen
(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Don’t like any of those ideas? Well, here are a couple of less likely options that we probably won’t see, but are at least worth mentioning. Kris Medlen has been on the disabled list since May but was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Medlen struggled in his 6 big league games this year, posting an ERA of 7.77, with 6.7 K/9, 7.4 BB/9(yes, his walk total was higher than his strike out total), and an ERA+ of 57. Even if we see Medlen this year, I would imagine it would only be a few starts, as his rehab stint will probably cover almost the entire 30 day period.

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Also out on rehab assignment is Jason Vargas, who had Tommy John surgery last year. Vargas will begin his assignment at AA and will probably see some work at AAA as well. Vargas’ situation is interesting, since there was some concern that if Vargas started for the Royals this year that they would lose the $6 million insurance coverage of his contract, but it appears it would be maxed out by then anyway. Even so, I’m not so sure we see Vargas this year. It would be about 13 months after his surgery if he pitched next month for Kansas City and I’m not really for sure what Vargas or the Royals would really gain by having him throw in the big leagues this year. In my mind, let him do the rehab assignment and then shut him down until Spring Training. That being said, the Royals could think differently and we could see the Rodney Ruxin look-a-like throwing off a big league mound in September.

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So there are some outside of the box options for the back-end of the Royals rotation. At this point in the season, all Kansas City really needs from their number five is 5-6 innings of 3 runs or less and most of us would be appeased with that. With the Royals still of the belief that they can claim a playoff spot, this spot in the rotation becomes even more vital. If the Royals are close to a wild card spot and the number five spot struggles, it could be the difference between playoffs or no playoffs. With the Royals winning the last three series’ and playing like a contending team, now might be the time to take a chance and see what a Strahm, Junis or Minor can do. It could make all the difference in the world.

 

 

Wanna Be Starting Something

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Back in May, I discussed how the starting pitching had become a major issue for the Kansas City Royals. Luckily, not too long after that the starters stabilized and even with Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the disabled list, the Royals starters improved upon what at the time was a woeful performance. No one was going to confuse their starting staff with the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s or the Baltimore Orioles starters in the 1970’s, but there was some notable improvement, especially once Danny Duffy returned to the rotation. But the glaring weakness of this Royals team is still the starting five and I’m not so sure help is on the way.

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On Friday night, the normally steady Edinson Volquez had one of the worst starts of not only his career, but in baseball history. Volquez only threw one complete inning, allowing 8 hits, 3 walks and 11 earned runs. This earned him the honor of worst game score in Royals history, -18, which toppled the old record of -11, held by Jeremy Guthrie from last year and Zack Greinke in 2005. Chris Young followed that the next night by pitching 2.1 innings, and allowing 7 runs. Luckily, the Royals got some solid bullpen work both days from Dillon Gee, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang(oh, and Drew Butera). This is after Ian Kennedy only worked 4 innings on Tuesday and while Yordano Ventura is serving his 8 game suspension. The Royals starters are struggling and it’s easy when looking at the numbers to see why.

Indians Royals Baseball
 (AP Photo/David Dermer)

The Royals starters are 13th in the American League in innings pitched, the second highest in walks per 9 and 4th highest in home runs per 9. The only thing saving them from being last in the league is the fact they are stranding the most runners on base(a league leading 76.8%) and the Angels and Twins starters have actually performed worst this year. Back in May, both Medlen and Ventura were averaging 7 walks per 9 innings; Medlen is currently out on rehab assignment and Ventura has lowered his rate to 4 walks per 9. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy are 1 and 3 respectively in home runs allowed in the American League, with Jered Weaver of the Angels sandwiched between the two Royals. If the Royals are going to stay in the pennant race come September, this has to improve. But how?

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Unfortunately, there isn’t much help on the horizon. Medlen is close to being back, but if he pitches the way he was earlier in the season I’m not for sure that is an improvement. Mike Minor was once thought of as an option, but he was shut down from his rehab assignment a few weeks ago for shoulder fatigue and hasn’t been heard of since. Same for two top Royals prospects, Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte. Almonte did return to action on June 9th, but the longest start he has had since then was only 4 innings. Alec Mills was recently recalled to AAA Omaha, but I doubt he is ready yet for a rotation spot. So there are really no answers within the organization. What about outside the organization?

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Unfortunately, the Royals don’t have much to deal, especially after last year’s Cueto and Zobrist trades that took a large chunk of their pitching depth.It’s conceivable that the Royals could go out and make a trade, although it wouldn’t be for much. More than likely it would have to be a middle to back end of the rotation type starter and someone that Kansas City could get fairly cheap. Someone like a Rich Hill of Oakland would probably be within their price range and would be a nice fit in the middle of this rotation.

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If the Royals are going to contend they are going to have to improve from within. Young and Kennedy would do good to keep the ball down low, pitch on the corners and avoid the middle of the plate. Yordano needs to keep his cool and use his fastball to set-up his off-speed stuff. All the Kansas City pitchers would be wise to lower their walk total and let the Royals defense do their job. More than anything, they need to limit the amount of base runners that are on the base paths; the current amount is just a recipe for disaster. This all seems like basic stuff that I’m sure they are trying to do anyway, but at this point whatever they are trying to do is not working.

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So the main solution to the Royals problem is a bit more consistency from their starters. In reality, all they really need to do is go 5 to 6 innings, allowing 3 runs or less(which is essentially a quality start) and then hand the game over to the bullpen. All of the Royals starters are capable of doing this and while it is unrealistic to expect this out of them every start, it is realistic to expect it the majority of the time. It appears rather funny to sit here and tell them to ‘just pitch better’ but essentially that is what will have to happen. There is no hero coming, riding in on a white horse. For the most part, the rotation they have now will decide whether or not this Kansas City team is playing again come October. This is the hand they dealt themselves,  and more than likely it is the hand that will decide their fate.

Cough Syrup, Free Passes and Sparkplugs: Random Royals Notes

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I think we can all agree that the Kansas City Royals have hit a rough patch these last few weeks. The Royals have lost 11 out of their last 14 games and have fallen below .500 within the last couple of days. I’m not one to worry this early in the season, but it does appear as if plenty of other Royals fans are doing that for me. With all that being said, the news has not gotten much better this week as the path of ‘getting back on track’ has taken a detour. With that said, here are some random notes on what has been an eventful week for the Royals of Kansas City.

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  • Let’s begin with the most shocking news of the week, the 50 game suspension of Royals top prospect, Raul Mondesi, Jr.:

Now, the good news from this is that rather than receiving the normal 80 game suspension for a first time offender, Mondesi got his reduced due to proving a cough syrup he took had the PED he tested positive for in the ingredients:

The other positive of the reduced sentence is that because he was able to get his suspension reduced, Mondesi will be eligible for postseason play if the Royals want to use him in October:

So all things considered, this could have gone much worse for both the Royals and Mondesi. It appears, going off of the Royals AA affiliate’s, Northwest Arkansas, schedule that Mondesi would most likely be activated sometime in early July. Where the suspension hurts both parties is the development of Mondesi and his eventual ascension to the big leagues. I’ve been of the belief since before the season even started that Mondesi would be the Royals starting second baseman no later than August of this year. Now with this setback, I would say we might not even see him in the majors until September at the earliest, unless the Royals just believe he is ready to go. So there is still a possibility Mondesi will be helping out the big league club before the season is over, but the chances dimmed a bit from this news. There will be people in certain circles that will label him with the scarlet ‘PED’ letters, but I tend to lean toward MLB with this; if they believed his story enough that they reduced his suspension, then that’s where I will stand as well. Hopefully this is just a bump in the road to what will be a highly successful career for this youngster.

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  • An ever-growing area of concern for the Royals the last few weeks is the starting pitching, which has floundered at best during that span. Outside of Ian Kennedy (who has had only one bad start so far this season), the rotation has been inconsistent at best and ‘watching Bartolo Colon squeeze into a pair of speedos’ at worst. Edinson Volquez has had mostly good outings but a few stinkers while Chris Young has given up 13 home runs in just 32 innings(or a home run every 2.4 innings). Maybe the most concerning statistic is the one that Kris Medlen and Yordano Ventura have put up this year. Both starters are averaging over 7 walks per 9, with Medlen at 7.4 and Ventura at 7.3. The Royals starters are averaging 4.52 walks per 9 innings and only 5.2 innings per start. Bottom line, this group just isn’t getting it done and it’s put extra weight on the Royals bullpen. So are there any options? Only a few, to be honest. There is Danny Duffy in the bullpen, and it has always been figured that he would end up starting at some point this year, since Young was never slated to be a starter all year-long. Duffy might have to build up his arm a bit, but he is a good possibility. Dillon Gee is starting for Young on Saturday and has a good shot of staying there unless he completely bombs out. Mike Minor made his first rehab start on Tuesday, but he probably won’t be ready until the beginning of June. Hey, the Royals might have even see if Brian Flynn, a starter throughout his minor league career, can make a few starts to tide them over. So for the most part that leaves Kansas City with less than stellar options. For the most part, the Royals’ starters just need to step up their game and pitch the way they are expected to, as there is no magical solution to the problem on the horizon.

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  • I was posed the question multiple times this past week on whether or not Cheslor Cuthbert can play some second base. My answer was fairly standard: yes, as he had started three games in the minors throughout his career, committing two errors but I’m pretty sure the Royals would prefer a defensive player at second. Royals Review covered the possibility quite a bit recently and as much as I like Cheslor and would like to see him get more at bats, I just don’t see him getting playing time at second base in his future. The other question I was asked was about Royals minor league outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, who is off to a hot start down in AAA Omaha. I like Bonifacio as well, but I get the feeling the Royals aren’t quite sold that he is ready for a big league job. The questions were directed toward me more because the person was thinking that the Royals needed ‘a spark’ to get them going. As much as the offense has struggled scoring runs this year, I’m not sure either Cuthbert or Bonifacio are really the answer. I tend to believe the answer is already on the roster.

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  • Speaking of that answer, this leads me to a positive note about the offense. Over the last week, a few members of Kansas City’s starting lineup have started producing and getting on base quite regularly. Lorenzo Cain, who had struggled mightily to begin the season, has produced a line of .339/.339/.518 over the last couple of weeks with 3 home runs(all in one game against the Yankees on Tuesday), 7 RBI’s and a BABIP of . 421. Alex Gordon, a notoriously slow starter, has put up a line of .300/.400/.433 with 1 home run, 2 RBI’s and a BABIP of .421 since May 1st. Finally, Alcides Escobar has a line of .368/.400/.421 since May 1st with 3 RBI’s and a BABIP of .412. So the bats are starting to wake up and if Kansas City can get some solid starting pitching, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of belief if they went on a big winning streak. As much as the offense still has some questions(when will Kendrys Morales wake up?), it does appear as if a few players have started climbing out of their early season funk.

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So this season hasn’t played out the way most of us figured it would but it isn’t a lost cause either. It’s not the like the ‘World Champs’ have forgotten how to win, they just need to tweak their performance for better results. The good news is that Atlanta is headed to ‘The K’ this weekend and we all know how dreadful they have played so far this season. The bad news is that after that, Kansas City has Boston and then the White Sox to play in back to back series. If the Royals don’t want to fall farther off the beaten path, they are going to have to step it up and get locked in. If not, there might be a bigger discussion coming up about what needs to happen to turn things around. Before anyone asks, no, they don’t need to change the hitting coach. All that really needs to happen is for the Royals to stay focus and remember what made them the hunted and start being the hunter again.

The 2016 Kansas City Royals: Top of the Mountain

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Last year in my Kansas City Royals preview I asked this question after they came one game away from winning the World Series: “So now what?”. We got our answer, which was the Royals returning to the Series and winning the whole damn thing in just five games. The Royals last year had one goal on their mind and they were going to do everything in their power to reach that goal of being world champions. This Royals team didn’t listen to critics, analysts or even numbers when it came to reaching the top of the mountain. Now that the Royals have reached the pinnacle of the sport, the question now becomes ‘Can they repeat?’…and the answer might surprise you.

New York Mets v Kansas City Royals
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

I’m going to break down the Royals into segments, starting here with the starting rotation. In 2015, the rotation put up decent numbers but wasn’t the most reliable group of moundsmen in baseball. As a team, the Royals were 22nd in starters WAR, 24th in IP, 15th in LOB%, 9th in ERA, and 10th in FIP. The rotation was fronted by Edinson Volquez, who duplicated his WAR from 2014 in Pittsburgh and was the most reliable starter manager Ned Yost had. In fact, looking at his numbers, Volquez was very close to replicating his bounce back 2014 season and that is meant in the most positive of ways. Yordano Ventura was initially looked at as the ‘Ace’ last year but efficiency and maturity became an issue. Ventura still put up decent numbers(8.6 K/9, 3.57 FIP and 102 ERA+ over 163 innings) but there is hope that he can put up stellar numbers in this, his third big league season. New acquisition Ian Kennedy was acquired for one reason-eat innings. Kennedy had another poor season last year in San Diego(4.51 FIP, 85 ERA+) but he did strike out 9.3 batters per 9 innings and there is hope that with Kansas City’s defense and above average outfield defense his numbers will improve this year. Chris Young is returning for his second season in Kansas City and was a strong veteran presence in the Royals rotation last year. Young was exactly what the Royals needed, posting a a WHIP of 1.086, and an ERA+ of 135 over 123 innings. Young split time last year between the rotation and bullpen and will look to do the same this year. Rounding out the starting five is Kris Medlen, who returned last year at midseason from Tommy John Surgery. Medlen only threw 58 innings last year, but more is expected from him this year with hope he will return to something resembling his 2012-2013 form. Medlen was acquired more for this year than last, so what he truly can do post surgery is likely to be seen this year. The Royals have some depth this year in case of injury and struggles, with Mike Minor being a possibility after June. They also have Danny Duffy and Dillon Gee stowed away in the bullpen for now(and more than likely they will break the glass for emergency at some point this year), with a few guys in the minors a possibility as well. Kyle Zimmer’s name has been long rumored as contributing this year, and time will tell if he is physically and mentally ready for the big time. A guy like Miguel Almonte is also an outside shot, but there is probably a greater chance he sees time out of the bullpen this year.

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Speaking of the bullpen, the Royals are returning a large part of the core of a pen that has been a force in baseball for a number of years. Last year the Royals were 5th in baseball in relievers WAR, 17th in K/9, 1st in LOB%, 2nd in ERA, and 10th in FIP. Wad Davis returns for his third year in the bullpen for Kansas City, following two of the greatest seasons a relievers has ever tallied. Over the last two seasons, Davis has accumulated 139 innings, striking out 187 batters while posting an ERA of 0.97, an FIP of 172, and an ERA+ of 418(league average is 100). The one thing that will be different is that this will be his first full year as the Royals closer which means there will be a new bridge to Wade in the 8th inning. That bridge looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria, returning to Kansas City after stints in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh. Last year Soria racked up the most appearances of his career while posting his lowest ERA and highest ERA+ since 2010. Kelvin Herrera will also return to help setup and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Luke Hochevar used as well in that position. Gee and Duffy will be the longmen out of the pen, with both occasionally starting while Chien-Ming Wang resurrected his career this spring and will also be used out of the bullpen. The great thing about the Royals is that there are more arms ready to go in the minors, as guys like Scott Alexander, Brian Duensing, Matt Strahm, Alec Mills and Brian Flynn could all see action this year. Even starters like Almonte and Zimmer could be used in relief at some point. This is the deepest part of the Royals team and is so good that it makes the Royals starters only have to go 5-6 innings a start if necessary to hand it over to the biggest strength the Royals have.

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One thing that has to be mentioned here is that the Royals pitching numbers(both starters and relievers) wouldn’t be so good if not for the Royals incredible defense. Last year the Royals had the highest defensive rating in baseball, the 2nd most defensive runs saved,  and the highest UZR. If you want to know the real reason the Royals have excelled these last two years, it’s because of the bullpen and the defense. The Royals currently employ three returning Gold Glove winners from 2015(Alcides Escobar, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez) while also having Alex Gordon patrolling left(a four time Gold Glove winner) and Lorenzo Cain in center, two of the best defensive players at their positions. Throw in above average defenders all around the diamond(Mike Moustakas at third, Omar Infante at second) and a right field platoon of above average outfielders(Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando) and you have a team with above average defense at every position. This team was specifically built this way and has given the Royals an unfair advantage for a number of years. I would expect more of the same from the Royals ‘D’ in 2016.

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That leaves us with the offense, which took a big leap forward in 2015. Kansas City is returning 8 of the 9 starters in their lineup this year so they are hoping for similar output as they saw last year from a number of players who elevated their game. Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Lorenzo Cain all improved on their 2014 offensive seasons which helped the Royals offense be a bit more potent last year. The team ranked 5th in offensive WAR, 5th in stolen bases, 7th in runs scored, 1st in lowest strikeout %, 11th in BABIP, 11th in OBP, and 10th in wRC+. The Royals are infamously known as a team that doesn’t walk or hit many home runs, which shows up in the totals; they had the worst walk % in baseball, 24th in home runs but 11th in sluggening percentage. Kansas City is smart to play to their strengths offensively, which they did to a ‘t’ last year  but there are a few areas they can improve on. Alcides Escobar struggled for a good portion of 2015, but could see a jump in his age 29 season, as he has shown a pattern of improving on offense in even years. Last year, both Omar Infante and Alex Rios ended the year with negative Wins Above Replacement, and the Royals are hoping to improve at both positions this year. Infante is back, and for almost the first time as a Royal, is healthy. Infante won’t walk much and probably won’t produce like he did for Detroit in 2013, but an improvement would help his cause and not make the Royals search for a second baseman come July. Rios is gone, and in his place is the platoon of Dyson and Orlando, who both had positive offensive WAR in 2015. I’m not so sure the Royals will replicate their offensive numbers of a year ago(and I could see a scenario where Moustakas and Morales specifically take a slight slide down)but overall this should be a team who produces enough offensively to help the starting pitching while also putting extra pressure on opposing teams late in the game, which has become their specialty. It’s a cliche saying, but for the Royals it really is all about the little things.

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Kansas City’s coaching staff returns for another season and that includes the skipper, Ned Yost. Over the years I have been less than enamored with Yost and in some ways that hasn’t changed. What has changed is that since late in the 2014 season, Yost has learned to trust his players and just allow them to go out and play ball. In a lot of ways this has lead to the Royals success and I give major props to Ned for staying out of his own way and only making major in-play decisions when necessary. He’s also put more stock in what his coaches pass along to him, which tends to lean toward a team with more on-field success. Yost will never be my favorite, but these ballplayers have embraced him and as long as they have his trust, his voice will be heard. Hard to argue with the direction he has steered this Royals team in the last two years, so I am hoping for more of the same this year.

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So what is on tap for the Royals this year, or at least in my estimation? I lean toward another successful year, one in which the chance of postseason play is a very high possibility. It’s hard in today’s baseball landscape to win back to back World Series’, but I don’t doubt this team, not in the least. This is a team that has had the percentages and odds against them for two seasons now and they keep coming out on top. I figure nothing much changes this year, in that regard. You can bet against the Royals and say the numbers are against them; I won’t be the one betting against Kansas City. No, I think more success is just around the corner, as the Royals plan their next big comeback. Kansas City, Kansas City here they come…again!

   

Strength of the Pen

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When discussing the Kansas City Royals last two years (and more specifically their historic runs in the playoffs), a lot of their success seems to be derived from the stellar bullpens they have employed. In 2014, the team heavily relied on the three-headed monster of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland. Last year started the same, but after Holland struggled(which we found out later was due to an injury), the coaching staff was able to also rely on Ryan Madson and Luke Hochevar late in the game. General Manager Dayton Moore has made a number of successful moves these last few years, but near the top of the list has been his ability to piece together one of the best(if not the best) bullpens in baseball. What is even odder about this isn’t the ability to put together a solid pen; we can trace the origins of bullpens filled with power arms back to the late 1980’s/early 1990 Cincinnati Reds’ teams that featured the ‘Nasty Boys’, Rob Dibble, Randy Myers and Norm Charlton. No, what is odd is the consistency the Royals bullpen has showed for years now.

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Most major league bullpens show success for a year or two, but then start to be less efficient and eventually are re-tooled. The Royals have tinkered with their formula for a few years now and seem to continually find arms that contribute and keep their success going. Last year, the Royals were 4th in bullpen WAR in the American League at 5.0, but more importantly had the highest LOB(Left on Base) % in the league at 80.4,  4.5 % better than the next best bullpen in the league. In 2014, the Royals bullpen was second in league WAR(5.1 to the Yankees’ 5.5) while leading the league in HR/9(0.62). More of the same in 2013(or as I call it B.W., Before Wade), as the Royals had the second best bullpen WAR in the AL(6.2) while leading the league in LOB%(81.4), K/9(9.57),ERA(2.55) and FIP(3.21). Even going back to 2012 shows the Royals had the second best WAR(6.4), second in FIP(3.52), third in LOB%(77.8)and first in HR/9(0.71). What I find most fascinating about this is how while the Royals have been a model of consistency during that span, no other team in the league has been as consistent. One year the Rays are near the top, the next it’s the Orioles, then it’s the Yankees. The point being that it’s not just that the Royals bullpen is good; it’s also the fact that with new pitchers rolling in and out of the pen each year, the numbers stay near the top of the league.

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So over the last four years, the Royals bullpen has been one of the best in the American League, all while shuffling pitchers around utilizing different players into different roles. With all that being said, the bullpen looks to be just as strong headed into the 2016 campaign. Wade Davis is still front and center as the closer and dominating force he has been the last two year, with Herrera and Hochevar helping setup again this year. But there are some new names in this year’s pen, and one of the primary relievers this year looks to be former Royals closer Joakim Soria. Soria was brought back into the fold this past offseason and will be one of the Royals main setup guys going into the season. Danny Duffy looks to be starting the year in the pen, which adds another power arm to this group while also giving them someone who will probably start at some point this season. Dillon Gee looks to be filling the role that Joe Blanton held for the Royals last year, as spot starter and long reliever if needed. Throw in Scott Alexander and Brian Flynn from the left side(with Tim Collins out for the year) and Chien-Ming Wang looking to be an option at some point this year, it looks to be another loaded pen.This is all without mentioning players coming up through the farm system, guys like Miguel Almonte, Alec Mills, and Matt Strahm, who could all see action at some point this season.

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Every year I wonder if this is the year the bullpen comes back down to reality. So is this the year the bullpen finally stumbles? I wouldn’t count on it:

Sure, they are just Spring Training numbers, which are to be taken with a grain of salt, but they are impressive nonetheless. It’s hard to imagine this group of arms being the one to break the ‘Streak of Dominance’. Greg Holland is gone from this group, but he battled an unknown injury most of last year and his ‘replacement’, Soria, looks to be a notch up from 2015 Holland. Looking at the set of arms the Royals have and it’s hard to imagine much of anyone regressing, as most are still in their prime. It’s a testament to the knowledge and hard work that pitching coach Dave Eiland and bullpen coach Doug Henry have put in that have helped the Royals succeed with their bullpen. At some point the Royals pen will be normal again and we will fondly remember this time period. But I wouldn’t count on that happening anytime in the immediate future, especially if this group of high velocity arms have anything to say about it.

Your Invite is in the Mail

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Spring Training is just around the corner, and there are always a few things you can count on. There is always that one player who is in “the best shape of his life”. Yep, you know the player; he’s the guy trying to bounce back from a down season and looking to put up career high numbers. Then there is the player who would conceivably be in “the worse shape of his life”. That player normally looks he spent all offseason on the couch watching Homer Simpson’s genius plan to be able to work from home by gaining as much weight as humanly possible. This role is normally reserved for Pablo Sandoval(sorry, Panda). Then there is the third type of player at Spring Training, the non-roster invitee who tries to slide into camp inconspicuously while hopefully walking away with an Opening Day spot on the 25 man roster. Most don’t, but there are always a few who make their case and wiggle their way up north. Headed into Spring Training there are a few of these players that will be in Kansas City Royals camp, looking to impress the Royals coaching staff and procuring a job. In fact, there are three in particular who will be vying for a spot that seem to have an outside chance of making the club. So who are these mystery men? Let’s start with a former New York Met looking to wear Royal blue come April.

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Dillon Gee will be entering his age 30 season, coming off of an injury riddled 2015 campaign with the Mets. In fact, Gee only appeared in 8 games last year, partially due to a groin injury and partially because the Mets were loaded with a bunch of young power arms(see Syndergaard, Noah or deGrom, Jacob). Plus, Gee didn’t help his own cause by getting bombed in the few starts he was given in 2015. The positive is that Gee is a serviceable arm, one that most major league teams would use as insurance at AAA until he is needed. In other words, there is a good chance Gee will be the 2016 version of Joe Blanton, who turned in a good season for the Royals and Pirates last year, netting him a deal with the Dodgers. Gee won’t overpower you with his fastball(he averaged about 89 mph in 2015)but he knows how to get outs and if paired with the Royals defense he would probably put up some pretty solid numbers. That being said, if Gee gets 8-10 starts for the Royals, someone is either injured or something has gone horribly wrong. I like Dillon Gee as insurance at Omaha, but his chances this spring hinge on the health of the other candidates in the rotation. So unless chicken pox arises in the Royals clubhouse again, it’s a safe bet Gee will be AAA to start the year.

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Peter Moylan’s chances of starting the year at Kauffman Stadium are better than Gee’s, but still a bit of an uphill battle for the 37 year old reliever. Age will be a factor for Moylan, although he has never been a guy who relied on his fastball and with his sidearm delivery his whole success is based more off of movement than velocity. Moylan was actually able to come back from a second Tommy John surgery in 2015, although the Braves initially intended him to be a coach in their low minors. Instead, the Braves stumbled and used Moylan out of the pen in September to positive results. For one, he didn’t walk anyone in the 10+ innings he threw, and was able to induce groundballs at a fairly high rate(69%), which we all know is a positive in Kansas City. He also was able to get some movement back on his sinker, which is a major plus for a guy who won’t blow pitches by batters. The Royals bullpen is loaded right now(as we all know), but there is always a chance Moylan could find his way to Kansas City. Louis Coleman was released on Wednesday, giving Moylan one less reliever to fight with for a spot in the pen. Moylan is also good friends with Royals starter Kris Medlen, as the pair were former teammates in Atlanta back in the day. I would say Moylan’s chances of making the team are slim, but did anyone predict he would have the career he has had so far? In other words, there is always a chance.

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Then there is Travis Snider. Snider was signed to a minor league deal over this past weekend and is the definition of living off of potential. Snider was once a 1st round draft pick of the Blue Jays back in 2006 and ten years later the baseball world is still expecting him to prove he can be as good as once expected. Over his 8 year career, Snider has performed below league average(93 career OPS+, league average is 100) and has not hit the way scouts once expected him to. There are positives with Snider, like the fact that he is going into only his age 28 season and he isn’t too far off from his career best year in the majors(2014). Looking back at that 2014 campaign, Snider played in 140 games for the Pirates with a line of .264/.338/.438, producing an OPS+ of 117 and a WAR of 2.1. Snider fell back this past season, splitting time in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The other positive for Snider is that the Royals are currently looking at a Jarrod Dyson/Paulo Orlando platoon in right field, so there is a lot of room for someone to step up and make Royals management take notice. The argument could even be made that if Snider showed an ability to get on base on a regular basis he would get a decent amount of playing time. The Royals at this point know what they are getting with Dyson and Orlando; Snider is the wild card that has the ability to open some eyes. There is a good chance Snider could make the opening day roster as backup outfielder and work his way to a good chunk of at bats. I don’t know if Snider will ever turn into a .300 hitter or a 20 home run guy, but a reliable bat who can get on base could work just as well when it comes to playing time.I have to say, Snider’s chances are good this spring but like most things, I am basing this off potential.

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There aren’t many spots available on the Royals roster as we head into Spring Training, but just look at last year. Ryan Madson came into camp as a guy who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2011 and ended up not only making the roster, but being a reliable cog in the pen for the entire 2015 season. A few spots are open for the taking, and any of the three names mentioned above could sneak their way onto the team. That’s the great thing about spring; hope springs eternal, even for grizzled veterans. Even if they don’t, the Royals will have depth which is always a coveted part of any winning team. These signings are proof that the Royals roster will be just as deep in 2016 as it was during their run to a world championship.

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