V is For Versatility

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It’s sometimes rough to find a positive for a team coming off of a 104 loss season. You don’t lose that many games without there being some major issues going on with your team. In that regard, the Kansas City Royals are like every other team in their situation.

That being said, by the end of the year you could see some bright lights and the idea of a better squad in 2019 wasn’t far-fetched. While most will point to Adalberto Mondesi’s upward trajectory or Brad Keller’s amazing rookie campaign as positives for this Kansas City team moving forward, a less likely nod will be sent to the team’s versatility.

The Royals will be headed into this upcoming season with a litany of positional opportunities and players who can shift around to multiple areas on the diamond. The most obvious player to fit this description is Whit Merrifield, who is easily the Royals best player.

Whit put together a 5 Win season in 2018 but the most jaw-dropping aspect of his success is the ability to float around the field on any given day and fill in wherever needed. While he saw the most action at second base last year (starting 107 games), he also put time in at center field (27 starts), right field (7 starts), first base (5 starts) and left field (1 start).

Whit gave manager Ned Yost options throughout the year and not only was he a great team player by allowing Ned to play him wherever he needed him, he was able to continue to produce at a high level, no matter the position. This is why when we discuss Whit’s value this offseason, it’s reasonable to see where it could be considered “invaluable”.

But it’s not just Merrifield who can play about anywhere. Recently acquired Chris Owings was almost as adaptable as Whit this past season for Arizona, as he played in right field (33 starts), center field (10 starts), third base (9 starts), second base (8 starts) and left field (3 starts). That’s not including shortstop, where he didn’t play in 2018 but made 51 starts there in 2017.

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While Owings didn’t put up the offensive numbers of Merrifield last year, he did show an ability to play wherever he was needed, which is vital for almost any team. Owings is penciled in to be a backup in 2019, but if he can rediscover his bat (which is possible, as a .265 BABIP last year could be a sign of bad luck) there could be some solid playing time for him in the future.

But while Merrifield and Owings would fit the mold of “Super Utility Players”, a number of other Royals could get considerable playing time at multiple positions. Hunter Dozier can play both corner infield and outfield spots. Mondesi can play at both middle infield positions and the Royals have teased playing him in the outfield. While Ryan O’Hearn is almost primarily a first baseman, he could play the corner outfield spots in a pinch.

This isn’t even mentioning someone like Nicky Lopez, who we very well could see up in Kansas City by mid-summer. Lopez has played both middle infield spots throughout his minor league career and some in the Royals organization believe he could make a fairly easy transition to third base if needed. If so, that would add another infielder who could see considerable time in multiple slots this next season.

With all this versatility, it’s easy to see why the team designated Rosell Herrera for assignment to make room on the roster for Terrance Gore. While Herrera has shown an ability to be solid defensively both in the infield and outfield, his bat has shown very little punch these past few years (wRC+ of 63 last year) and the belief by Royals management has to be that they believe Owings will provide more offense than Herrera.

While normally Herrera would probably be able to fit on the Kansas City roster with his versatility, right now there is so much flexibility that even keeping him around for depth is unnecessary for the Royals.

That word “depth” is the key factor to the value of having players who can play at multiple positions. No team gets deep into the season without a healthy dose of depth and while the Royals more than likely won’t be a contender in 2019 (although in the American League Central, all bets are off), they will need that depth to get them through all the peaks and valleys of the upcoming campaign.

The Los Angeles Dodgers of 2018 are the perfect example of what flexibility can get you. They had at least 3-4 regular players who saw considerable time at multiple positions and it gave their manager Dave Roberts a great opportunity to shuffle around players and use a few platoons to help strengthen their lineup.

That is what versatility will get you. That is why Whit Merrifield has become a highly touted commodity. And that is why it will be a good thing to give Yost options to shuffle his lineup this upcoming season. It might not bring them a winning season, but it will probably help them stay away from 100 losses in 2019.

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A Bargain For Relief

Editors note: This originally was on Royals Review a week ago, so obviously a few of the names mentioned have signed with teams since then.

On Thursday, one of the bigger reliever names out on the free agent market, David Robertson, agreed to a two-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. With the Robertson signing, it would appear the rest of the relief pitchers available this winter might start following suit and see a bit of movement in what has been a pretty tepid Hot Stove this winter.

That would mean names like Craig Kimbrel and Zach Britton could start falling off the board. Even a former Royal, Kelvin Herrera could find a home and get ready for the upcoming season. These are all great relievers and guys that any team would love at their disposal in the late innings with the game on the line. But these are also all names that won’t be coming to Kansas City.

Because while the Royals are in search of help in their bullpen, the help they are looking for is, well, could we say, [ahem] cheaper. In fact, Jeffrey Flanagan wrote about what GM Dayton Moore is looking for to bolster the pen this offseason:


Typically, some bullpen arms hold out through January in hopes of landing $5 million or $6 million deals. When there are no takers, that’s when the bargains come. Expect Moore to land a veteran arm or two in the $2 million range to bolster a bullpen that clearly was the weakest link on the 2018 team.

So if Dayton will be roaming the bargain bin over the next couple of months, who should he be keeping tabs on? While this is never a perfect science, there are a few lesser known names on the market that could be had to fill out the rest of the Royals bullpen.

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Blake Parker

Parker would appear to be a great candidate for a bounce-back season in 2019. Parker saw a slight increase across the board when it comes to HR per 9, hard hit rate and walk rate, but there were a few hints that a turn around is possible. Parker saw an increase in his BABIP, which at times can be attributed to a bit of luck and he also appeared to strand runners at a higher rate.

Maybe most intriguing is a pitch he started utilizing more near the end of the season. Here is former Angels bullpen coach Scott Radinsky talking about some of those results:


“He started to utilize his breaking ball a little more toward the end of the year, and a lot of that had to do with data. His breaking ball was just as good to righties and lefties, so we told him, ‘Don’t be afraid to use it.’ Blake has been around the league for a bit, so guys knew it was going to be either fastball or split. When he started throwing that breaking ball in there — and not just in early counts, but late counts as well — he froze a lot of batters.”

Parker is a durable veteran that could be a good fit on a team like the Royals, looking for some value at a cheaper price.

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Cory Gearrin

Gearrin is another reliever who saw his numbers go up where they shouldn’t but not enough to scare teams away. While pitching for three teams last year (Giants, Rangers and A’s), Gearrin put together a pretty pedestrian season that at the least saw his walk rate improve.

His velocity appears to be on par with previous years and the possibility of a new, steady home with some stellar defense might be a good fit. For Gearrin, his 2018 might have been just a case of too many environments in a short amount of time.

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Alex Wilson

Wilson is a familiar name for some Royals fans, as he has been toiling in Detroit since 2015. Wilson is a bit different than some of the other names on this list, as he actually improved a lot of his numbers this past season and has proven to be a durable and reliable arm out of the pen. A great description of Wilson was given a few weeks back by David Laurila over at Fangraphs, who writes a weekly ‘Sunday Notes’ column that I try to never miss:


He’s not one of bigger names available, but Alex Wilson will almost assuredly add value to one of the 30 MLB teams next season. The reliable reliever was non-tendered by the Detroit Tigers this past week, despite a track record of dependability and durability. In four seasons with the AL Central club, Wilson averaged 62 appearances annually and had a more-than-respectable 3.20 ERA. Heading into his age-32 campaign, the Hurricane, West Virginia product represents a cost-effective option for teams in want of a no-frills bullpen depth.

If Moore is looking for a reliable, veteran piece for the Royals pen, he could do a lot worse than Wilson.

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Tyler Clippard

Clippard will be entering his age 34 season in 2019 and is a reliever who has pretty much done everything out of the pen throughout his career. Clippard is coming off of a solid campaign where he tossed 68.2 innings for Toronto, posting a 3.67 ERA and 0.5 fWAR.

In fact, it’s a bit surprising Clippard hasn’t seen more action this winter. 2018 saw him raise his strike outs and lower his walks while stranding runners at a higher clip. Clippard tends to allow a bit more fly balls than those on the ground, which could be a benefit if he wanted to come to Kansas City.

I would expect Clippard to have at the least moderate interest from other teams, but taking a flyer on Clippard at the right price could be a good call for Kansas City.

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There were a couple other relievers that the Royals might want to at least keep their eye on over the next couple of months. One is the Royals former closer Greg Holland. Holland was absolutely putrid for St. Louis last year but saved some face late in the year for Washington.

During his short run for the Nationals, Holland posted a 0.84 ERA, 510 ERA+ and 1.3 bWAR in 24 games. More than likely Holland will be too pricey for Kansas City’s blood, but if he is still hanging around once camp opens it could be interesting to see just how low he would sign for.

The other name of interest is Drew Hutchison. Drew hasn’t had a full season in the big leagues since 2015 and is still just 28 years of age. It’s very apparent Hutchison would be a reclamation project for whichever team signs him this winter and more than likely would just be brought in on a minor league deal.

One has to wonder what a healthy Hutchison could do, whether it be as a reliever or even a starter. I’ve always been intrigued by him and he could be a perfect candidate as someone who the Royals could stow in Omaha for part of the summer and see if he regains some of his old spark.

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So those are just a few names that I tend to think could help the Royals and be brought in fairly cheap. More than anything it doesn’t look like we will see a signing in the immediate future:


Royals general manager Dayton Moore has only a few million to spend to keep under his targeted payroll limit of $92 million, so expect Moore to be patient with the relievers market and wait until Spring Training nears before he makes his move.

At some point though, the Royals will need to add some arms for the bullpen. The question at this point appears to be who will still be available once Moore finally decides to strike.

Starling’s Journey Not Done Yet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third Time’s a Charm?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

Sometimes you can see moves happening from a mile away. It was well known for years that Dayton Moore had a fondness for former Atlanta Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur, all the way back to his days in the Atlanta front office. So when the Royals signed Frenchy to a deal in late 2010, it was a shock to literally no one. 

So it shouldn’t have been a surprise last week when the Kansas City Royals hired former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny as special adviser for player development. The rumors of Matheny being brought into the fold go back a few months, as it was first brought up by Derrick Goold in August. Goold had this to say just last week after the hiring:

    


Matheny, 48, will take part in working within the Royals’ organization and the role will also have a scouting aspect to it, he said. Before becoming the Cardinals’ manager for the 2012 season, Matheny worked as a special assignments official for the Cardinals and spent time during spring training and the season working with the organization’s young catchers. Matheny won seven Gold Gloves during his 13-year playing career in the majors.

So in a lot of ways, we’ve been preparing for this move for quite awhile. Would anticipate be a better word? Probably not, since Matheny did not leave St. Louis with high praise. Our own Max Rieper covered many of the issues associated with Matheny’s time as Cardinals manager earlier this week and I touched on some of the problems he created about a month ago when discussing replacements for Ned Yost.    

So this move isn’t the most popular for Royals fans, but it also feels like a knee-jerk reaction to something that hasn’t even happened. The thinking is that while Matheny has only been hired as a “Special Adviser”, the true purpose for the Royals to bring him in is to make him the replacement for Yost, whenever he decides to finally hang it up. Call it a “Manager in Waiting”.

It’s easy to see why people have connected the dots. When Yost was brought in, he was also hired as a “Special Adviser”. He also had major league managerial experience. He was also someone that Moore spoke very highly of, just as he did with Matheny: 


“This is a great opportunity to have Mike become a member of our organization,” said Royals general manager Dayton Moore in a statement. “It’s always been our policy to hire the best baseball people we can and this is a perfect example of that.”

So it is easy to see why almost everyone has instantly assumed that Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. But the truth is that this is all speculation and it even feels like people are jumping to conclusions.

Let’s start with the obvious: Ned Yost is still the manager of this team. That will probably continue to be the case until he doesn’t want the job anymore. From the outside looking in, that appears to be when the 2019 season concludes, but for all we know it could go on past that. The one thing we can probably place money on is that no one will be uprooting Yost from his seat except for Ned. 

There are also a couple of very viable options already on the Royals coaching staff that could replace Yost. Bench coach Dale Sveum, bullpen coach Vance Wilson and catching/quality control coach Pedro Grifol have been mentioned in the past as possible successors to Ned and all three have been in the organization for a number of years. In fact, after the 2017 campaign this statement was made by Yost after the coaching staff shake-up:


“We feel like we’ve got the right people to take over for me,” Yost indicated. “We’re not bringing someone in.”

Now, this comment was made over a year ago and things change. I’ve even made the comment in the past that sometimes people change their mind and decide to go in a different direction, even if they felt differently a month, a week or a day earlier. An organization can change their mind and often do based off of where they feel the direction of the on-field product is headed.  

That being said, it also appears that the Royals have discussed Ned’s replacement for awhile now and have someone in mind for the job. Considering that Dayton has the highest of respect for Yost and the years he has spent in baseball, it is easy to see Moore taking Yost’s recommendation under the highest of consideration. 

Along those same lines, it would make sense for the front office to also take the consideration of some of the veterans on the roster and who they feel would be a great fit as manager. Grifol has been a name bandied about these last couple of years as a candidate and he is someone the players respect and look up to. You don’t have to let the players choose the new manager, but allowing a few of them some input might not be the worst idea when the future of the team is in consideration.

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One other item to consider is the effect that time could have on this situation. Matheny has been in baseball for a number of years and I’m sure still has a number of friends within the game. It is not out of the realm of possibility to see someone hire him as a coach somewhere, if that is something he desires.

Back in the day he was a great defensive catcher and it is easy to picture a team wanting him to come in and work with their young backstops. While he might have had a rough time communicating with some of his players when he was managing, it is possible that if you take the pressure of that job out of the situation, he could flourish with more one on one teaching. 

I could even see a team wanting him as a bench coach. Now before you snicker at that thought, remember how Trey Hillman did in his time as Royals manager and then remember that he eventually became the bench coach for both the Dodgers and the Astros. So yes, weirder things could happen.

The point of all of this is that there are no guarantees that Mike Matheny will be the next Kansas City manager. There is still quite a bit of time before that position is even open and things could drastically change between now and then. 

For all we know, Matheny was simply brought in as a fallback in case their first option becomes unavailable. Maybe he simply is just being brought in as an adviser and that is the only interest the organization has in him. Worrying about “what might happen” is dangerous and takes the focus away from the now and then.

So for now, don’t worry too much about Matheny being in the organization. As much as some of us don’t want him anywhere near the managerial position, for now he isn’t. That is where your focus should be. Don’t want to believe me? Then take the words of a man who has covered the team for quite a long time, Jeffrey Flanagan of MLB.com:  

In Flanny we trust. Now go on and worry about anything else but Mike Matheny. Trust me, it will help your sanity.

A Royal Thank You

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It is the norm this time of year to take a step back, reflect and ponder all that we are thankful for. When it comes to baseball that becomes even more prominent at this time, as the season has wrapped up and the yearly awards have been handed out to their (normally) deserving parties.

So with that said, I figured I would go ahead and toss out what I am thankful for this holiday season:

Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

I am thankful the Royals didn’t have the worst record in baseball. Yes, it was a rough year, but there was also a glint of hope in the final two months.

It’s hard not to be thankful for Whit Merrifield defying the odds. No one pictured Whit being a regular major leaguer, let along becoming the best player on the Royals roster. Whitley has worked himself into a five win player, and I’m impressed by that every day.

I’m thankful for still having a reason to cheer for Danny Duffy. It would have been easy to consider him a lost cause after some of the issues he incurred in 2017. Instead, Duffy is still the guy who wears his heart on his sleeve, giving to help others and working through his flaws. His character is a big reason why a lot of us still root for his success.

How about Brad Keller’s rookie season? One of the brightest spots in this past 2018 campaign was the performance of Keller, who was just expected to be part of the back-end of the bullpen. Instead he turned his success as a reliever into a shot at the starting rotation and then never left. His rise this season has given more hope for 2019.

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I’m thankful Salvador Perez is still smiling. It would be easy for a player like Salvy to not smile as much, considering the Royals first half and all of his friends leaving for greener pastures. Instead, he still has that childlike aura whenever he steps onto the field. Hopefully that smile never fades from his face.

I am thankful that former Royals Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Joakim Soria, Erik Kratz and a host more got to enjoy October baseball this year. The legacy of those 2014-2015 teams live on with the players who helped get Kansas City a world championship.

Credit: 
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Speaking of former Royals, I’m thankful Kansas City was unable to bring Eric Hosmer back to the fold. While he is dearly loved by the fanbase, a contract even close to what San Diego paid him could have very well crippled the Royals future and made it harder to contend. Instead, the payroll should start seeing a slide downward soon, giving Kansas City the flexibility they will need.

Since we are talking about first baseman, I’m thankful for Ryan O’Hearn’s surprising ascent to the majors. No one expected him to get recalled, yet he went out and hit .262/.353/.597 in 44 games and gave himself the frontrunner’s spot at the first base position this spring. As someone watching him rise through the Kansas City system, it was a welcome surprise.

I’m also thankful to see Hunter Dozier healthy and getting an opportunity in 2018. It appeared that Dozier got more comfortable as the season progressed and he even put together a very solid August, hitting .280/.321/.467. Dozier will have some competition at third base this spring, but the opportunities will continue. 

How have I gotten this deep into what I’m thankful for and not mentioned Adalberto Mondesi? The kid was finally given the keys to shortstop and made the most of it his last two months. He hit .280/.316/.533 for August and September with 11 home runs, 21 total extra base hits and 24 stolen bases. The strike outs are still a concern, but 2019 will still be just his age 23 season and his ceiling appears to be even higher. Need a simple reason to visit the ballpark in 2019? That reason is Mondesi.

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

 I’m thankful for Jakob Junis’ slider. That pitch is a beast.

I’m thankful for the performance of Jorge Lopez in Minnesota and giving us a glimpse of what he can do for Kansas City in the future. Actually, let’s give a nod for how Heath Fillmyer pitched as well. For the Royals to take some big steps forward next year, they are going to need some of the young pitching to step up.

Credit: 
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

I will always be thankful for Alex Gordon’s glove. It is still as golden as it was seven years ago and shows there is still some value in the player. Cherish 2019, cause that very well could be the swan song for Alex.

Looking ahead, it’s good to see GM Dayton Moore replenish the farm system this past year. Between multiple deals of veterans being shipped off for young talent, overseas signings and the draft, the lower minors appear to be Kansas City’s hope for the future. Maybe the most important item of interest to watch next year will be the development of players like Brady Singer, Seuly Matias and Nick Pratto. The Royals have some players with high upside that still have room to grow.

I’m thankful that Moore didn’t sign Luke Heimlich. Although as time moves on, it appears I probably should thank ownership for Heimlich not being signed. Let’s hope that whole circus is over with.

Credit: 
Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

I’m thankful for Brett Phillips’ arm. And his personality. And that laugh. Actually, Phillips is just an easy guy to root for. Hopefully his play on the field shines as much as his demeanor.

Here’s to seeing what Jorge Soler can do in 2019. If last year was a tease, than an injury-free Soler could be a lot of fun next summer. But he has to stay healthy, which hasn’t been easy up to this point.

Credit: 
Ed Zurga/Getty Images

I’m thankful Jason Adam got to procure a lifelong dream in 2018. Sometimes dreams do come true.

Staying within the baseball world, I’m thankful we still have personalities in the game like Bartolo Colon. “Big Sexy” is good for the game and the game needs players like him. I mean that in every way possible.

I’m thankful for all the young talent in the game right now. Never before has this much younger talent been such a focal point of baseball. Hopefully that continues well into the future.

Credit: MLB.com

October is still the funnest time of the year and I am thankful we even got a couple of Game 163’s! I’ve been wanting chaos for years and we finally got it this October.

I’m thankful Pitching Ninja is allowed to do his thing on Twitter. It’s a better world with him in it.

and finally, I’m thankful that my passion for the game hasn’t waned over all these years. I often tell people that my first love is baseball and outside of the strike, it has never left my side. I get so much joy from a child’s game and continuing to follow it has forced me to expand my world and my mind. I am better for loving baseball and hopefully baseball is better for letting us play a small part in it.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. Now it’s your turn. What are you thankful for during this time of year?  

Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

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

Owning the Royals

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

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

Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

Credit: Baseball-Reference.com

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

How about the most hits against Kansas City pitching?

Baseball-Reference.com

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

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

Credit: Associated Press

  Let’s move on to home runs:

Baseball-Reference.com

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

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

Credit: Ron Vesely

Time now for the most total bases:

Baseball-Reference.com

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

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

Baseball-Reference.com

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

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


Credit: AP Photo/Genevieve Ross

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

Baseball-Reference.com

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

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


Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images 

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

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

Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

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

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

A Golden Evaluation

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

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

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

Credit: MLB.com

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

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

1B
Credit: SABR.org

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

SS
Credit: SABR.org

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

Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images

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

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

OF
Credit: SABR.org

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

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

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

AL leaders
Credit: SABR.org

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

Meanwhile in the National League:

NL Leaders
Credit: SABR.org

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

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

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

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

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