Gone But Not Forgotten

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Credit: Associated Press

When the 2017 Kansas City Royals wrapped up their season this past October, we all knew it was the end of an era. It was not only the end of the line for a number of players who had been a large part of the Royals return to postseason play for the first time in decades, but it also meant the end of contending baseball in Kansas City, at least for a while.

It’s not always easy to say goodbye. Max Rieper talked the other day about how much we end up caring about these players, not only for their on the field work but who they are as people. It’s why players from the past, like Bret Saberhagen or Bo Jackson, are still cheered when making rare appearances at Kauffman Stadium.

It’s also why we still check up on former Royals to see how they doing after they leave Kansas City. Good or bad, we want to know what they are up to and in most cases hoping they have found success outside of their former home. Except for Neifi Perez. He was the worst.

So with that, let’s take a peek into what some former Royals are doing in their first year away from Kansas City.

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Credit: Associated Press

Lorenzo Cain has been absolutely amazing in his return to Milwaukee, as he is hitting a robust .293/.393/.427 with a wRC+ of 125. Cain is third in the National League in fWAR at 3.6 and has the most defensive runs saved for a center fielder with 14. Maybe the most impressive improvement in Cain’s game this year has been plate discipline, as he is posting a 13.4% walk rate, which would easily topple his career high of 8.4% from last year. Cain’s increase shouldn’t be too surprising, considering the Royals have put a heavy emphasis on putting the ball in play these last few years and less focus on working the count.

Overall, Cain has been worth the money Milwaukee spent on him this past offseason and he looks to be in the running for National League MVP as the Brewers attempt to play October baseball. Milwaukee currently sits in 2nd place in the NL Central, 2.5 games behind the Cubs while holding down the first wild card spot in the league.

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Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Jason Vargas on the other hand has been a disappointment for the New York Mets. Vargas has started in nine games for the Mets, posting an ERA of 8.60 over 37.2 innings with a FIP of 6.60. Vargas’ walk and strike out rates have stayed consistent but teams are hitting a hot .337 off of him with a .367 BABIP. Vargas has also seen his hard hit rate increase, jumping to 37.4% from last year’s 32.7%.

Vargas has spent considerable time on the disabled list this year and recently has been rehabbing in the minors. The news could get even worse for Vargas when he is activated, as the team could ease him back into action by making him a long reliever rather than a return to the rotation. Considering this is his age 35 season, we might be seeing the last leg’s of Vargas’ career.

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Melky Cabrera has had a “roller coaster” type season so far in 2018, as he didn’t sign a contract until late April, when the Indians signed him to a minor league deal. Cleveland would punch his ticket back to the majors a few weeks later, as he was recalled on May 20th.

Melky would be less than impressive during his stint for the Tribe, as he would hit .207/.242/.293 over 66 plate appearances with 11 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 38 and -0.5 fWAR. Cabrera would elect free agency about a month into his stay in Cleveland rather than accept an outright assignment back to the minors.

But the ride wasn’t over yet. A few weeks later, the Indians would re-sign Melky on July 5th, and assigning him to Triple-A Columbus. Cabrera has at least been productive for Columbus this year, hitting .324/.333/.423 with a wRC+ of 111. With Lonnie Chisenhall out of action, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Cabrera back in Cleveland before the summer is over.

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Scott Alexander has also had an up and down year during his inaugural year in Los Angeles. Alexander struggled in the first month of the season, posting a 6.35 ERA while batters were hitting .286/.412/.381 off of him over 11.1 innings. Alexander would even get sent down to the minors for a short spell to right the ship.

Luckily for him, he would turn things around in May. Since May 9, Alexander has a 2.25 ERA and has held hitters to a line of .214/.285/.304 while keeping the ball on the ground. In fact, throughout the month of June he only allowed one fly ball the entire month. One!

Alexander has essentially returned to form and is now a vital part of the Dodgers bullpen. He was even used as an “opener” for Los Angeles, as they attempted to thwart the Rockies use of a bunch of lefties at the top of the order. It doesn’t matter what role he is inserted in, as it appears Dodgers fans are starting to see the pitcher who might have been the most valuable arm for the Royals in 2017.

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Credit: MLB.com

Speaking of valuable, Joakim Soria has been just that for the White Sox this year. Soria has a 2.75 ERA, 149 ERA+ and a 2.20 FIP so far in 2018. He has already almost reached his fWAR total from last year (1.2 to 1.7) in 20 less innings and has seen a major increase in his soft hit rate, bumping up this year to 29.6% from 18.4% in 2017. Soria will probably be dealt before the July trade deadline and should help the White Sox pick up a nice return for him.

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Credit: Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

Mike Minor’s return to starting has been a mixed bag. Minor signed with the Rangers this past winter and has started all 18 of his appearances so far this year. While the expectation was that some of his numbers would see a decline this year due to his change in roles, it hasn’t completely been a bad move.

Minor has seen his strike out rate fall and his hard hit rate increase, but his walk rate has actually gone down. In fact if you compare his numbers this year against his time as a starter with Atlanta, he is either on par with what he was doing back then or slightly better.

But at the end of the day, it appears Minor has more value as a reliever, as evidenced by his WPA of -0.42, compared to last year’s 1.97 in Kansas City. Minor wanted to be a reliever and got his wish, but one has to wonder where he would be if he had stayed in the bullpen.

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Credit: Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images

There have been some other former Royals who have had interesting seasons. Trevor Cahill has performed admirably for Oakland this year, as he has an ERA of 3.10 while increasing his strike outs and lowering his walks. Unfortunately, he has only started nine games due to injury, tossing 52.1 innings.

Ryan Buchter also missed some time due to injury but returned to the A’s in late June and since then has lowered his ERA to below 2.00 while lowering his walks and seeing an uptick in K’s.

Sam Gaviglio has become a regular part of the Blue Jays rotation but is still performing slightly below league average. Luke Farrell has become a valuable arm out of the Cubs bullpen and Matt Strahm has become what many of us feared he could be when he was traded to San Diego last summer.

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Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

But the name that most are interested in is Eric Hosmer and what he has done for the Padres this year. This has not been a magical year for the “Man Called Hos”, as he is hitting a lowly .249/.317/.397 with a -0.1 fWAR.

In fact, Hosmer is on pace for the second worst offensive season of his career, behind only his miserable 2012. His walks are down, strike outs are up and his wRC+ is at 95. Hosmer has gotten away from hitting the ball to the opposite field, as he is only hitting the ball to left field 27.3%. The only two seasons he has hit oppo less is 2014 and 2012, his two worst seasons in the big leagues.

But the number that really speaks of Hosmer’s struggles is the same one we have been talking about for years, his groundball rate. He currently is hitting the ball on the ground 61.9%, the highest of his career. For all the talk these last few years that Hosmer would leave Kansas City and start hitting the ball in the air, it appears things have actually tilted the opposite direction.

The funny part is that Hosmer has known for years he should be hitting the ball in the air more, yet his fly ball rate has been declining these last few years. Here is a quote from 2017 where Hosmer admits he should be taking to the air more:

“You look at the averages and all that, it’s definitely better with the ball in the air,” he said. “Most guys, especially power hitters, are trying to hit the ball in the air. Our stadium is playing a little different, it’s bigger out there, but still, somebody in my spot in the lineup, and type of hitter I am, I should definitely be trying to hit the ball in the air.”

So this notion that he would change his style as soon as he left Kansas City and Kauffman Stadium always felt like wishful thinking. A change could still happen, but right now Hosmer looks to be stuck in one of his infamous cold spells that last for weeks on end. The good news for him is that he will still get paid $20 million this year and has lots of time left on his contract to figure things out…or at least the Padres hope he figures it out.

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So after seeing all the talent that Kansas City lost this past winter, it’s easy to see how the Royals are on pace for the worst season in team history. The combination of losing some key pieces while their substitutions are performing either at or below replacement level is a good way to post a .284 winning percentage.

So while there is little joy in Mudville (Kansas City), feel safe in knowing that a number of former Royals are excelling in their new homes. It’s not hard to still cheer for the Cain’s and Soria’s of the world and there is a bit of solace in seeing them performing so well, even if it isn’t in royal blue. There is absolutely nothing wrong with cheering on our old friends from afar. Except for Neifi Perez. He is still the worst.

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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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Credit: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

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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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

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.

The 2nd Annual 2017 Kansas City Royals Season Awards

Colorado Rockies v Kansas City Royals

Last year about this time I decided to take a look back at the 2016 campaign and hand out awards for the most deserving  players. At the time it felt like a fun thing to do but moving forward I feel it is a way to really acknowledge the players who have earned the honor and attention for their play. While the Royals season was a letdown in some regards, in others it was successful. So let’s look at the players who contributed to some of Kansas City’s success.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain

Man, this was not an easy category, not with all the productive offensive seasons put up by Kansas City. By no means is this a slight on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield; all three were very worthy of this honor and it was hard to weigh one over the other. But at the end of the day, I felt Lorenzo Cain had not only the most productive season for the Royals but also the most consistent. Cain wrapped up the year hitting .300/.363/.400 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 47 extra base hits, 26 stolen bases an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 5.3. Cain’s value obviously goes beyond just his offense, as his defense led him to this win, posting a 0.9 defensive WAR and 5 defensive runs saved. It was hard to separate Cain and Hosmer, as they both put up very similar numbers outside of some of the power numbers that Hosmer dominated, and they even tied for fWAR at 4.1. At the end of the day Cain’s defense won out but it was also interesting how Cain got to this point. While it is obvious 2015 has been his career year to this point, Cain did post career high’s this year in walk rate and on base percentage while posting the lowest strike out rate of his career (15.5%). While Cain’s power numbers were higher in 2015, his role on this year’s team was slightly different, especially later in the season when manager Ned Yost was batting him 2nd in the order. Cain’s responsibility in the lineup became more of a guy trying to get on base rather than driving in base runners and it shows in his numbers. Since 2015 Cain has morphed into Kansas City’s best overall player, taking the mantle from Alex Gordon. What he showed this year was not only a productive wrap up of his Royals career (more than likely), but he adjusted to the situation he was in and came out a better player. That is why he was the ‘Most Valuable Royal’ in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas 

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Most Valuable Pitcher and Reliever of the Year: Mike Minor

This was another category that was not an easy pick, for different reasons than the previous. While numerous Kansas City batters put up ‘career years’ during 2017, the pitching staff wasn’t quite as promising. Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas at various times felt like the front runners, but between Duffy’s injuries and Vargas’ awful second half, neither felt like the guy who pieced together enough for this honor. So it came down to the bullpen and after an initial belief on my part that Scott Alexander deserved this honor (and if not for his late burnout he probably would have won it), the winner ended up going to Minor. While most probably expected some success from Minor when Kansas City signed him in 2016, the idea he would garner such prosperity out of the bullpen would be an idea out of left field. Before this season, Minor had made two career relief appearances…total. That is for his entire professional career, both in the minors and majors. So converting Minor to a blockbuster reliever didn’t really appear to be in the cards, but now it seems like genius on the Royals part. Minor appeared in 65 games this season, throwing 77.2 innings, posting a 2.55 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, a 28.7% K rate (the best of his major league career) and 2.1 fWAR. What made his conversion even more intriguing was his acceptance of the closer role over the last couple weeks of the season. Kelvin Herrera struggles pushed him to a setup role for the team and with Scott Alexander taxed physically and Brandon Maurer mentally, the Royals turned to Minor to close out a few games. Mike would do so with quite a bit of success, enough so that if he would return to Kansas City (he is an upcoming free agent) he would be in the running for said role. Overall, the 2017 campaign was a positive one for a guy who kept having his comeback attempts foiled in the minors throughout 2016 and was not a lock to even make the Royals out of spring training this year. From the trainers room to the bullpen, Mike Minor has earned the honor of Royals best pitcher in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Scott Alexander, Jason Vargas

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Best Hitter Award: Eric Hosmer

While the Royals overall didn’t compile the best of offensive numbers, a number of players did achieve career years in 2017. While Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas can claim great seasons, Eric Hosmer will be bestowed the Best Hitter Award for the Royals in 2017. Now Hosmer has long been a sore spot on this blog; just going back to February I discussed reasons the Royals shouldn’t re-sign  him. One of my main arguments was his lack of consistency, an issue that had dragged him down throughout his career. That all changed in 2017, as Hosmer proved to be the hitter we all imagined him to be when he was coming up through the Royals farm system. Outside of April (which was his worst month of the season and worst for the entire Royals offense), Hosmer’s lowest batting average in any one month was .297. His lowest on base percentage was .367 in June and his lowest slugging percentage per month was .476 in September. To take this a step further, Hosmer’s lowest wRC+ outside of April was 134 in September, a number I would take for an entire season if we are being honest. All Hosmer did in 2017 was tie for his career high in home runs while setting new career highs in walk percentage, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement. If there was ever a time for Hos to have a career year, this year would be his best option as he gets ready to enter free agency. While Hosmer still has a higher ground ball rate than a guy in the middle of the batting order should have (55.6%) he countered that with a much higher line drive rate (up to 22.2% from 16.5% in 2016). Back when Hosmer was first recalled to Kansas City in the 2011 season there was quite a bit of discussion on how if he performed as expected he could be a future MVP contender. While that felt far-fetched even eight months ago, it now appears that Hosmer finally reached his potential. For that, he was easily Kansas City’s best hitter in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain

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Rookie(s) of the Year: Jorge Bonifacio and Jake Junis

When forced to make a choice between these two candidates for best Royals rookie, it just felt wrong to slight either of them. So instead, Bonifacio and Junis are my co-winner’s of the best rookie in Kansas City this year. Lets start with Bonifacio, who was recalled late in April to help a struggling offense. It was very evident early on that Bonifacio could be a keeper, as he slugged at a .523 pace in May (his first full month) with a wRC+ of 118. Outside of a very pedestrian August, Boni put up some solid numbers throughout the season and provided some power that has been much-needed in Kansas City over the years. By the end of the year he had posted a line of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 40 RBI’s, a 99 wRC+ (which is essentially league average) and 0.9 fWAR. It should also be mentioned that he saw his playing time cut quite a bit once Melky Cabrera was acquired in late July, so while some of those numbers might feel a tad low, he was also used very sparingly over the last couple months of the season. If anything, Jorge’s 2017 earned him a spot on the team moving into spring training come February. While Boni helped the offense, Jake Junis was a shot in the arm for the rotation. After a bumpy start that saw him follow a pattern of ‘One good  start, one bad start’, Junis’ ERA peaked at 5.66 after his start in Detroit on June 29th. Junis would appear in only one game in July (which was in relief, also against the Tigers) but come August he would firmly entrench himself into the rotation for the rest of the year,  proving he is a major league pitcher. Over the last two months of the season, Junis threw 62.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.61, only allowing nine walks in that span, while holding batters to a line of .250/.286/.392. Junis’ footprint had left such a mark that if the Royals had made it to the wild card game, there was some discussion of him being a solid candidate to start it. Junis proved he is here to stay and should be almost a lock for the rotation in 2018. What Junis and Bonifacio did this year was show the brass of Kansas City that they  are big leaguers and should be solid contributors moving forward.

Honorable Mention: Kevin McCarthy

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Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas

One of the best stories told on the field for Kansas City this year was that of Mike Moustakas and his run toward the Royals single season home run record, or as we liked to call it ‘Chasing Balboni’. The truth is, if there was ever a Royal during this period of Kansas City baseball to break the record, it was long thought to be the man we call Moose. Moustakas’ power numbers grew during his time in the minors (go look at his 2010 minor league numbers; you can see where the excitement grew) and it was believed that he would gradually build those up in the big leagues. After a 20 home run 2012 season, the sky was the limit; unfortunately, Moose crashed back down to earth in both 2013 and 2014. After changing up his approach in 2015 (which included going the other way, but also saw his power numbers rise), Moustakas looked to be on track for a big year in 2016. Then came the collision with Alex Gordon and his season ended due to a knee injury in May. The good news was that 2016 had seen his power numbers escalate and it gave most of us hope for the 2017 campaign…and boy did he deliver! Moustakas would end the year hitting .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs (breaking Steve Balboni’s single season record), 85 RBI’s, a .249 ISO (which was his highest for a full season), a wOBA of .345 and wRC+ of 114. While his numbers overall were slightly better in 2015(I still consider that his career year, plus I prefer Oppo-Moose), he really came into his own power-wise and set himself up for a healthy pay raise this offseason. The one question that still lingers concerns his last two months of the season that saw a decline in his numbers. Moose spent those last two months dealing with leg issues and one has to wonder how many home runs he might have hit if it were not for the knee issue suffered against Seattle or even if Bruce Rondon was an adult instead of a child.  The belief is that if not for those injuries, he would have been well on his way to over 40 home runs and possibly even higher. Overall, it was the comeback season that the Royals both needed and expected from Mike Moustakas.

Honorable Mention: Mike Minor, Jason Vargas

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

While there was obvious disappointment with how the season ended in Kansas City, there was plenty to honor as well. These awards were well deserved and showed the positive sides of the Royals in 2017. I know some believe ‘World Series or Bust’ but I am at peace with a team that is a contender. To me, there was more positive than negative this year and those are the moments I will remember moving forward. Speaking of, here is a great video that shows almost all the highlights of this season. Enjoy and once again a big congratulations to all the winners I honored in this piece.

The End of An Era: How the 2017 Royals Couldn’t Relive Past Glory

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The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.

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But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings  without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).

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Credit: John Cordes

The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP,  and a 13.8% K rate. 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.

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So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:

“I think there’s some other things that we’d like to execute if possible — see what happens with our free agents. Everybody assumes that we are just going to just get blown away in free agency, and we don’t have a chance. They may be right, but I think everybody felt that way about Alex Gordon at the time. That fell back to us. You just never really know.”

While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…

 

This Dream Is Over

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I still remember where I was for the American League Wild Card game in 2014. I was stuck at work, but also knew that once I got to 8-8:30 or so I would have time to take in the game. When the 4th inning started, the Royals were ahead 3-2 and I went down the hall to knock out some recording (I work at a radio station). When I was done and returned to check up on the game, the Royals were down 7-3 as the A’s had put up a five-spot in the 6th inning. I uttered the words out loud ‘What happened?’ as my hopes and dreams for this game started to drift away. But then…the 8th inning happened, as the Royals stacked up another three runs. Then they tied it in the 9th…and then the 12th inning happened. I was still at work, past midnight, when Christian Colon would come in to score on the Salvador Perez hopper down the third base line and the celebration ensued. My co-worker at the time said it was “the happiest he had ever seen me” as we jumped up and down in excitement. That game was the beginning of this crazy ride that this group of players on the Kansas City Royals would take us on and this weekend it all comes to an end. For many of us, the last four years have been the best of times.

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Most of you know the story, or some semblance of it. Before 2013, the Royals hadn’t had a winning season since 2003 and had only one winning season since the 1995 campaign. The Royals had become the laughingstock of baseball during this time period and for most of that period ownership didn’t appear to be too concerned with putting winning baseball on the field. For those of us around during this time, we often refer to it as ‘The Dark Days’ and try move the topic away from that twenty year stretch. It wasn’t much fun to be a Royals fan and at numerous points I was asked why I still hung around. It was simple: this was my team, the team I had loved since I was a kid. I wasn’t abandoning them and knew they couldn’t be losers forever. There had to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily, we started to see a glint of hope in 2011, as players like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy and Salvador Perez started to make their way to the big leagues. The Royals had acquired Lorenzo Cain and Alcides Escobar a year before in the Greinke trade and Alex Gordon was the homegrown player who finally broke through that year. The building blocks were being pieced together for what would eventually become a championship team.

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There had been such a long stretch without winning baseball in Kansas City that the amount that remembered what that was like was outnumbered by those who didn’t. That wild card game changed not only the direction of the organization but also changed the fanbase and Kansas City as a whole. No longer was this team an organization in dire need of October baseball. Instead, it was a team of players who were becoming household names. The best part of those Royals teams were how easy it was to root for them. Guys like Hosmer, Salvy and Cain almost always had a smile on their face and it had become very apparent that they were having fun out on the field. These were not only a group of players you could get behind, but a group that actually enjoyed each other and pushed each other to succeed. I sometimes wonder if Kansas City embraces this team the way they did if not for how likable they were. It was easy to cheer them on when you saw them having fun out on the field and playing baseball like a bunch of kids. This being a fun group made baseball fun again and the winning pushed everything over the top.

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…and that is what makes this weekend so sad. We have reached the end of the line with this group, as a number of them are approaching free agency this offseason. Hosmer, Cain and Moustakas are the biggest names in this group, but guys like Escobar and Jason Vargas are all on this list. There is always a chance one or two return to Kansas City, but the percentages say it is more likely the majority leave. We’ve all known this for years and each of us in our own way have dealt with it accordingly. That being said, it doesn’t make it any easier and is why as much as there is celebration in the air this weekend, it is with a bittersweet twinge. The bottom line is that we have seen this core group grow together, learn together and win together. The idea of a Mike Moustakas NOT wearing Royal blue or another fanbase chanting ‘MOOOOOOOOSE’ feels wrong. In some ways we have claimed ownership of these players and the idea of them moving along is hard to really wrap one’s head around. But this is baseball and the economics of the game make it to where a small market team has a difficult time keeping all their players once they reach the free agency market. The attachment to these players have been evident for a while; even when a guy like Jeremy Guthrie left after the 2015 season there was a bit of sadness despite his performance during that season. We as fans get used to watching and cheering for these guys on a daily basis season after season; when you attach the amount of memories this group has given us during this run, that attachment grows even more. This is why Sunday is going to be a difficult time for most Royals fans.

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The honest truth is that even if Kansas City is able to retain a couple of these players, 2018 is going to be a difficult season. The farm system is one of the worst in the game and there is not much help on the horizon in the high minors. We’ve all coped with this in different ways and while I consider myself a fairly realistic person, there is still a part of me that wishes the Royals could bring everyone back. As a fan of this team for over 30 years, I am going to miss the joy and exuberance of this era in Royals baseball. That being said, a part of me is excited at the idea of what the next group of Kansas City players will be like that returns the team to postseason glory. This run has been one which has given all of us so many memories, some that have eclipsed the ones I stored in my mind from when I was a kid. For that, I will forever be grateful of what these guys did. Thank you, Hos, Moose and LoCain; may your future be as bright as your past and present have been…and may you hold Kansas City in your hearts the way you have done for us. Sincerely, every Kansas City Royals fan.

Notes of Royalty: The Final Countdown

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers

Here we are, just a shade over a week left in the 2017 baseball season and the Kansas City Royals sit 4.5 games out of the second wild card spot in the American League, tied with the Angels and Rangers. With just eight games left on the docket, it’s going to be hard for the Royals to pull this off, but…it is baseball. So I’m not saying it’s over, but the odds don’t appear to be good. That being said…

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I’ve been the optimistic Royals fan this year, even despite what we have seen the last two months of the season. Saying that, Friday night felt a bit like a microcosm of August and September for Kansas City, as they did everything possible to not win that game. Whether it was blowing a four run lead or the bad baserunning decisions, Friday night felt like the finality of the Royals run these last few years. What has been most frustrating with the Royals the last two years is that glint of a really great team is still there and even shows up for extended periods of time. But the consistency hasn’t been there and whether it’s the offensive struggles or the mediocrity of the starting pitching, this team has shown just as much ineptness as it has shown exceptional play. This period of Royals baseball will be heralded for years to come and there might even be the same sort of love thrown their way that the 1985 team received before them. But one has to wonder what could have been, what if a move here, a tweak over there had been made. Bottom line, this team still had it in them to be a great, contending team. But next Sunday could turn out to be one of the most heart-wrenching moments in Royals history. Next Sunday against Arizona will no doubt be the end of a great era in Kansas City Royals baseball.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners

While it wasn’t quite shocking news, Ned Yost did confirm this past week that he would be returning to the dugout in 2018. Yost’s contract runs through next season but some (like myself) thought he might duck out a year early, since a large chunk of the nucleus of this team will be free agents in the offseason. On the surface it sounds like Yost is excited for the challenge:

“I’m not walking away,” he said. “For me, I love this organization. And to be able to transition some of these young players, it’s going to be easier for me to do it than anybody else. So yeah, I want to be a part of it for a little bit longer.”

This being said, I really can’t imagine Yost will stay much past next year. If that is the case, hopefully the Royals have compiled a list of candidates they would be interested in as his replacement. My guess is that they will want to promote from within and both Dale Sveum and Don Wakamatsu have previous managerial experience in the big leagues. I’ve long felt Vance Wilson, who manages the Royals Double A affiliate in Arkansas, is being groomed to eventually take the managerial mantle in the Kansas City organization, but that is just my gut instinct talking. We’ve all heard the snickering comments about Jason Kendall and while I would like to dismiss them, there is a part of me that thinks there is some serious interest in him managing in Kansas City. So while Yost will lay down some groundwork next year, it will be interesting to see how long he sticks around and just who will be next in line for the job.

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Speaking of next year, there has been a healthy amount of scuttlebutt going around these last few weeks on the possible destinations for the Royals big free agents. With that being said, there has also been a decent amount of discussion of just who the Royals will bring back. This is just an educated guess, but it would appear that Eric Hosmer has priced himself out of KC after his production this season, despite rumblings that he will be the front office’s “main priority”. Lorenzo Cain is looking for a long-term deal and it would appear the Royals are reluctant to sign someone with his injury history to a multi-year deal as he enters his age 32 season. Mike Moustakas is my personal pick to be the Royals priority this winter but he will get heavy interest from the West Coast, which is where he is from. Jason Vargas is coming off an awful second half of the season that has seen him post a 1.59 WHIP and a 5.21 xFIP. It would be playing with fire to offer Vargas a qualifying offer, which if accepted by Jason would put the Royals on the hook for around $18 million next year. My initial thought was the Royals would let Alcides Escobar walk after the year, but after his second half surge (.287/.316/.422) and the uncertainty of Raul Mondesi’s development, there is a part of me that wonders if they might ink him to a 1 or 2 year deal to ease the transition. Personally, as much as I would love a complete overhaul this offseason, I know it is highly unlikely. What I would assume is that Cheslor Cuthbert will take over third base, Bubba Starling could take over center field for Cain, while Raul Mondesi could see time at shorstop or even center field. For the longest time I felt Ryan O’Hearn was going to take over for Hosmer, but his numbers at AAA (.252/.325/.450 with 18 home runs and 48 RBI’s), while not awful weren’t blow away either. He was even sent to AA for a brief period late in the year as Frank Schwindel caught a massive hot streak and had taken over the first base job in Omaha. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Royals go out and sign a veteran first baseman for a year or two to hold down the position until O’Hearn or Samir Duenez is ready. No matter which way you shake it, this team will look different in 2018 and there will be more than a few bumps upon the road before it is all said and done.

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So with seven games left after today, I would employ Royals fans to enjoy watching your boys in blue. Not only will it be the last few games for a number of them, it will also be the last Royals games we get to see until March of next year. I plan on being at the stadium on Sunday and hope that my fellow compadres help send Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas off with nothing but love. Most of us have  been aware for a while that 2018 is going to have its ups and downs and quite honestly, it could be more downs. The good news is that a number of fan favorites like Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy will be back and at the end of the day, nothing beats going to a game at Kauffman Stadium. Relish these next few days, folks. The discussions about this team will be more stressful and sometimes depressing in the next couple of months. Luckily, it’s still baseball…and with baseball, you can always find a glint of hope.

Jason Vargas, Elite Pitcher

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The 2017 campaign has been one filled with disappointment when it comes to the Kansas City Royals, whether it be their sluggish start, the sputtering offense or even injuries to key players like Danny Duffy. But one of the surprises of the season so far would be the resurgence of Jason Vargas. Vargas sat out most of the 2016 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery, only throwing 12 innings in his three starts late in the year. Vargas was entering the final year of his contract and many were unsure just what he would be producing before he entered the free agent market. Instead, he has helped anchor the rotation, put up career best numbers and even leads the Royals in bWAR at 2.8. So how has Vargas gone from a steady arm at the back of the rotation to being one of the best pitchers in the league? That is a question that doesn’t have an easy answer.

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First, here are some of the base numbers that Vargas has put up this season: 69.1 innings, 2.08 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 7.01 K/9 and 2.08 BB/9. Most of his numbers to this point are improvements on his career averages, within an obvious smaller sample size. But digging deeper finds that Vargas is posting numbers that are fairly similar to some of his better seasons in the big leagues. In fact, when looking at his performance, there are distinct similarities to his first season in Kansas City back in 2014. Let’s start with his strike out and walk rates, which have both seen an improvement this year. Vargas’ K rate sits at 19.7%, which is the highest in his career; the next closest season to that was his rookie campaign back in 2005, which sat at 18.2%. His walk rate is at 5.8%; his career best was 5.2% back in 2014, his first season as a Royal. Even better is his K-BB%, which sits at 13.9%; before this year, his career best percentage was 9.8% back in 2013 with the Angels. So this shows that Vargas is striking out more batters this year while walking less, which is always an optimal result for a player seeking success. But how is he doing it?

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When looking at the contact hitters are getting off of Vargas, the numbers appear fairly normal. Line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates are all very similar to his best years, although his home run to fly ball ratio is way down, sitting at 5.8%, which is only beaten in his career by his rookie year in Florida. This would tell me that maybe hitters are not hitting the ball as hard off of him, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. In fact, Vargas’ hard hit percentage is sitting at 30.5%, the second highest of his career, while his soft hit rate is at 18.7%, which is about on par for his career average of 19.1%. Overall, there isn’t a big change in these numbers over his career and especially during his time in Kansas City:

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The chart is just looking at his time with the Royals and as you can see, there isn’t a big change in his release speed…but there is a difference.

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The numbers do show a slight decrease in Vargas’ velocity, which is a tad odd for a pitcher coming off of Tommy John surgery, which normally shows a slight uptick in velocity upon a pitcher’s return. Instead, Vargas is showing a decrease in every  pitch across the board. His fastball was 87.9-87.3 mph during the five years before the surgery, while now it has sat on average around 86.6 mph. His slider has gone down from the 84-83 mph range to 82.3 mph, while curveball is down slightly to 73 mph, moving from 74.9-74.7 mph. Even his change-up has seen a decrease, as it has sat in the 79 mph range this year after being regularly around 81-80 mph. It isn’t a drastic decrease, but it very well could be a sign of Vargas having better control of his pitches and getting more movement on those pitches as well. In fact, the movement is very noticeable when comparing it to years past:

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This chart is looking at Vargas’ horizontal movement on his pitches since 2011. Look at the curveball movement for 2017; if you want to get a better idea of why Vargas is having a bigger increase in success so far this year, the movement on his curveball might be the answer we are looking for.

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Back in May Devan Fink of Beyond the Box Score took a look at Vargas’ season and one of the changes Fink saw was a difference in his arm angle, most notably with his change-up. But the effects haven’t only been seen from his change-up, but also the curveball:

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In fact, his release point has appeared to help his curveball almost as much as his change-up, as pointed out by the graph. Vargas is also throwing his curve more this year than in years past, sitting at 19.4%, compared to his career average of 8% and the 14% he was averaging over the last 4-5 years. Both the change and curve have seen a big decrease in batting average during 2017:

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Vargas didn’t allow a base hit against the curveball last year, but you also have to remember that he only pitched in three games in 2016. Going off his last full year pitched (which was 2014), Vargas had a .333 batting average against his curve while it sits at .227 this year. In comparison, his change-up has seen a drastic drop as well, as hitters had a .202 batting average against in 2014 compared to .135 this year. In other words, it appears the change in arm angle coupled with a slight drop in velocity has made Vargas a more difficult at bat than he was just a few years back.

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So can Vargas keep it up? It appears on the surface that hitters are having a harder time seeing his off-speed and breaking pitches this year and as long as he can maintain the new arm angle it would appear he could keep it up. If that arm angle becomes less consistent though, it wouldn’t be hard to see him give up more solid contact and see his numbers trickle back to his norm. Jason Vargas isn’t going to blow much by hitters but he doesn’t have to if he is able to locate and maintain control. The continued focus on the curve and change-up appears to be a nice double whammy that hitters just have not been able to figure out. Maybe the bigger question isn’t whether Vargas can keep up his pace but whether he will be doing it in Royal blue. His value has never been higher and I wouldn’t be the least bit shocked if Kansas City dealt him sooner rather than later. When it comes to surprises on this 2017 Kansas City Royals team, Vargas is near the very top. It goes to show what a bit of deception and location can do for a pitcher who doesn’t rely on superior velocity.

Rebuilding a Franchise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Back On Track

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Let’s be honest: Minnesota felt like a mirage. The Kansas City Royals played some of the worst baseball they have played in years during their three game series against the Twins and the general consensus was that the Royals weren’t as bad as they played. They would travel on to Houston to take on a very good Astros team…and would proceed to win 2 of the 3 games at Minute Maid Park. The offense woke up, the starting pitching continued to perform well, the defense was stellar and the bullpen would even improve on ‘The Walk Massacre of Minnesota’. Are we sure that set of games in Minneapolis really happened?

Salvador Perez, Jandel Gustave

Since it is still early in the season, another ‘Fun with Numbers’ is still in order:

Salvador Perez-213 wRC+ through 6 games (4 home runs, all in 4 consecutive games)

Lorenzo Cain-25.9% Walk Rate (7 walks in 6 games)

Danny Duffy-200 ERA+ (In 13 innings over 2 starts)

Matt Strahm-40.50 Walks per 9 (6 walks in 1.1 innings pitched)

Okay, I feel like I am picking on Strahm. I swear I am not; unfortunately the guy is struggling in his limited use this season. The bullpen did improve in this series, although Kansas City still leads the AL in walks allowed (36), 8 more than runner-up Baltimore. The starters have held their own, but the bullpen still lies in the bottom of the league in almost every category, including WAR, FIP and BB/9. There is good news, though; Joakim Soria has been solid in his two outings, Peter Moylan has been a rock and Chris Young has been stellar in his 2.1 innings pitched. Maybe it’s just me, but it has felt like manager Ned Yost is still feeling out his relievers and what role would be best suited for them. I still think Strahm will be one of the main setup guys before the year is out and I could see Soria and Minor also filling that role. The one puzzling move is Yost’s usage of Travis Wood, a lefty who showed major splits in 2016 while with the Cubs. Lefties hit .128/.208/.239 against him last year while righties hit .263/.344/.521. It would appear that Yost should mainly use Wood against lefties, and limit the usage against righties. Instead, he has been using him against righties more and they are clocking him at a .400 pace. Like I said, it appears Yost is trying to feel his new relievers out, but a pattern is already showing when it comes to Mr. Wood.

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Before we move on from the pitchers, I got to say a big kudos to Jason Vargas, who was spectacular in his start on Friday. Vargas threw 6 innings while striking out 6 and allowing a run. Vargas only appeared in 3 major league games last year as he was returning from Tommy John surgery and is entering the final year of his contract. If he can pitch closer to his 2014 performance, the Royals could have a sold rotation spot locked up for this year.

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Maybe the best news was the resurgence of the offense, as the team put up 16 runs in the 3 game series. The most ‘Un-Royal’ stat from the year has been the power surge seen through the first six games:

I love early season numbers and it is always fun to see how big numbers can look HUGE if calculated out to a full 162 game schedule:

Royals GM Dayton Moore said before the season that his objective was to go deep more often in 2017 and so far, so good. In fact, the Royals are slugging:

Mike Moustakas- .739 slugging percentage

Salvador Perez- .792 slugging percentage

Cheslor Cuthbert- .714 slugging percentage

While the Royals power numbers are good this year, they still aren’t great. In fact, they are next to last in slugging (.400) and last in wRC+ (88) and ISO (.139). The offense isn’t totally clicking yet, but this series at least brought some optimism. Also, some things will never change:

Eric Hosmer- 61.9% ground ball rate (already 10th in the American League)

Hey, I’ll quit picking on Eric when he learns to elevate the ball. If he starts doing that, I will be glad to start heaping praise and say I am wrong about him. Until then…

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But if anything stood out this series, it was the defense.  I could describe it to you, but it is easier just to show the proof:

Cain’s was the jewel, but this was pretty great as well:

…and it’s not really a Royals defensive highlight reel without an appearance from Alex Gordon:

That assist was the 75th of Gordon’s career, a great nod to a player who has only been playing the outfield full-time since 2011. One of the biggest head-scratchers for me so far this season is why the Royals pitchers aren’t throwing more strikes when they have this defense behind them. Let the defense shoulder the work; they can handle it.

Raul Mondesi, Alcides Escobar

The Royals are now 2-4 in the ol’ W-L column and are just a winning streak away from a respectable record. The main item that should be preached is ‘improvement’ and as long as they do that, there should be more ‘W’s’ to come. The Royals tend to be a team that is guided by their offense; if the offense is producing, they are normally winning. But if they aren’t…well, if they continue to stay cold, it will be a long summer in Kansas City that could be heated up by a fire sale. This next series against Oakland would be a good time for the bats to wake up and put them back on track. Two series’ are in the book and it has felt like two separate ballclubs. So the question has to be asked–which team is the real Kansas City Royals?

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