From the Bleachers: Walk-Off Thoughts

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It’s never a dull week in Major League Baseball and last week was ready to bring the excitement. With that said, lets start with an exciting finish for the Rockies on Sunday…

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The Walk-Off Cycle

There is nothing quite as exciting in baseball like a walk-off home run, but a walk-off to complete hitting for the cycle does take it up a notch. That is exactly what Nolan Arenado of Colorado did on Sunday, the first Rockie to do that since his teammate Carlos Gonzalez in 2010.

It was a great moment for a Rockies team that currently sits in first place in the National League West and has been one of the bigger surprises so far this year. Even better was how it showcased one of the best players in the game in Arenado. Arenado is having another stellar season, near the top of the league in RBI’s, Slugging Percentage, Win Probability Added and fWAR. Arenado is still only 26 years old and while continuing to get more attention year by year, is still flying under the radar a bit while playing in Colorado. Hopefully this shines a bit of a brighter light on one of the best players in the game. Speaking of flying under the radar…

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Good as Goldy

There might not be a more underrated player in baseball than Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt continues to go out, put up MVP type numbers while not getting the media attention that a Rizzo or Harper normally gets. So far in 2017, Goldy is in the top ten of the NL in RBI’s, Walk rate, Slugging Percentage, wOBA, wRC+ while leading the league in On-Base Percentage and fWAR. Oh, and he sits in 11th place in home runs. Goldschmidt is not only a great hitter, but is above-average defensively and holds his own on the base paths as well. In many ways, he reminds me of former Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, and we all know how his career turned out. Playing in Arizona seems to keep him out of the limelight but I also feel like his personality does as well. He appears to be very low-key with a workman’s attitude when it comes to taking care of business and doing what needs to get done on the field. The glitz and glamour aren’t there for Paul, but mark my words, barring an injury, he will continue to be in the MVP discussion when September rolls around later this year.

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Elite Company

While I have long been in the camp of #TeamTrout when it comes to the Harper/Trout discussion, it’s hard not to notice what Bryce is doing this year that feels very similar to 2015. In fact, at this pace Harper could be joining some elite company:

Back at the end of 2015, I really broke down how big of a season that Harper had just compiled. Here is an excerpt from my year-end awards column:

The one stat that blows my mind more than any is his OPS+, a staggering 195(remember, 100 is average). His season is the 71st best in baseball history, which seems great but not out of this world stupendous. If you take out all the players in the ‘Dead-Ball Era’, Harper’s season is the 50th best of all-time. I decided to go a step further, going off of seasons since 1950. Taking that into effect, Harper had the 24th best season by a batter in the last 65 years!

The interesting part is that Harper currently doesn’t lead in any of the major offensive categories and teammate Ryan Zimmerman is in the lead when it comes to slugging, wOBA and wRC+ in the NL. There is no doubt that Harper is a legitimate star and a key part of Washington’s team…when he is healthy. There was quite a bit of scuttlebutt that he spent most of last year hurt and if that was the case, it is easy to see why his numbers took such a dive in 2016. I’m interested to see where his numbers are in a couple of months, as the season wears on and the Nationals make a run at another playoff appearance.

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The Weight of it All

I am always on the lookout for a new stat to dive into and figure out how it breaks down a players value. To me, there is never enough learning I can do. Recently, I’ve been enamored with wOBA, or Weighted On-Base Average. Here is a bit lengthy description of its definition:

wOBA is based on a simple concept: Not all hits are created equal. Batting average assumes that they are. On-base percentage does too, but does one better by including other ways of reaching base such as walking or being hit by a pitch. Slugging percentage weights hits, but not accurately (Is a double worth twice as much as a single? In short, no) and again ignores other ways of reaching base. On-base plus slugging (OPS) does attempt to combine the different aspects of hitting into one metric, but it assumes that one percentage point of SLG is the same as that of OBP. In reality, a handy estimate is that OBP is around twice as valuable than SLG (the exact ratio is x1.8). In short, OPS is asking the right question, but we can arrive at a more accurate number quite easily.

Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.

Now, for some that is going to feel a bit heavy. But here is the cliff notes version: wOBA entails a hitters entire offensive value. The one thing it does not do is take into the park effects, so a hitter that plays his home games in a hitter friendly park would probably see his wOBA a bit more inflated. Keeping that in mind, here are the top five hitters in baseball according to wOBA:

  1. Aaron Judge-.468
  2. Ryan Zimmerman-.433
  3. Paul Goldschmidt-.430
  4. Bryce Harper-.422
  5. Joey Votto-.420

There is no shock here, as a power hitter like Judge will get a higher number due to the amount of extra base hits he accumulates, plus he hits in a hitters park, Yankee Stadium. I do find it interesting that four of the top five hitters in on-base percentage this year are on this list, with Buster Posey the lone player left off, coming in at number seven. It shows getting on base in general is a plus, no matter which way it happens (hit, walk, hit by pitch, etc.). It does value extra base hits more, which makes sense to me. The more extra base hits, the more runs scored and more to the point, the more opportunities to score runs. A single wouldn’t hold the same weight as a home run, as we as fans don’t even view them the same way. It would only make sense to make a home run worth more than every other hit, with a triple and double following a bit behind. If a team is looking for someone who creates runs, a stat like wOBA is a good place to start. It obviously leans more toward the power hitters, but the overall context of getting on base helps just as much in the long run. I will probably still tend to lean more toward a stat like wRC+ for overall value, but wOBA can be a nice side item. So use it, get acquainted with it and hope your team has a number of guys near the top of the leaderboard. Unfortunately, my Royals don’t have anyone until the 51st spot, as Eric Hosmer has a .357 wOBA. Alas, hitting in Kauffman Stadium will do that to a hitter.

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Putting the Fun Back in the Game

Finally, I was elated with the news last week that Major League Baseball is allowing the players to have a ‘Player’s Weekend’ on August 25-27. What will this entail?

 This season from August 25 to August 27, the MLB will allow players to wear nicknames on the back of their jerseys for the one-of-a-kind Players’ Weekend.

Players will be limited to one nickname on their jerseys, and the names cannot be inappropriate or offensive. The personalized patches — which will feature names of inspirations — are to be used as a tribute to an individual or organization instrumental in each player’s development.

To say I like this idea is an understatement. In truth, I LOVE the idea. One of the big issues I have had with the hierarchy of baseball has been the lack of flavor allowed to be shown on the field. To me, this stifles the individuality of the players and has made the game appear not as fun to fans who are just casual bystanders of the game we love. Allowing guys to not only put a nickname on the back of their jerseys but also personalized patches really will let them have a bit more fun and allow the fans to appreciate these players even more. I have long felt like MLB does NOT market their players well and wish they would allow a bit more flair into the game. You see a lot of it during the World Baseball Classic, but there is more ground that can be covered. How about make this every weekend instead of just one weekend out of the year? Maybe let the players celebrate after doing something exciting, rather than expecting retaliation if another guy feels like they are being ‘showed up’? The sooner the game embraces the fun aspects of the sport, the sooner fewer people say this game is ‘boring’. Now, if we can just get rid of those damn unwritten rules…

 

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Notes of Royalty: West Coast Swing

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It is very interesting times for the Kansas City Royals, as a team that once looked to be holding down the fort in the basement of the American League Central has now propelled themselves back into the playoff discussion, as they sit at 32-34, 3 games out of the lead in the division. Maybe the realization has finally hit me that the Royals are slow starters and don’t really start heating up until late May/early June. So what has changed? Quite a bit and in some ways it is just the status quo for a team that never says die.

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…And the Line Keeps on Moving

The Royals in June are a force to be reckoned with, going 10-4 after heading into the month at 22-30. The most noticeable difference for this team lies in the offensive numbers, which make the team look like a modern version of “Murderer’s Row”. Let’s analyze by going off wRC+, which is park and league adjusted, and league average is 100: anything above that is the percent higher than that average. Hope everyone is sitting down:

Moustakas 214

Cain            184

Hosmer      162

Perez           161

Gordon        153

Maybe the most encouraging number here is Gordon’s, and I don’t just say that because of my loyalty to “A1”. Nothing is more frustrating than having to admit that one of your favorites might be regressing at a faster pace than expected, but I had started wondering about his slump earlier this season. It appears some work has been done as he prepares to load his swing and it has caused a resurgence of the Alex of old. So far in June, Alex has a line of .275/.396/.600 with 3 home runs, 4 RBI’s, 10 runs, a .325 ISO (isolated power), a .404 wOBA (weighted on-base average, designed to measure a player’s overall offensive contributions per plate appearance) and 0.6 fWAR in just 12 games. If the Royals are wanting to be serious contenders, they need Alex to help carry a portion of the load and perform closer to his numbers in the 2014-15 seasons. A large chunk of the lineup has gotten hot as well and it shows in the team numbers. So far this month, the Royals are hitting .299/.339/.513 with a wRC+ of 122, 2.45 WPA (Win Probability Added), and 3.3 fWAR. I don’t expect Kansas City to keep up the pace they have been on during this jaunt on the West Coast, but if they can find a happy medium where they keep elevating their runs per game (currently up to 3.98, 27th in baseball) and just keep the line moving offensively, it could make for a fun summer.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs

Chasing Balboni

Speaking of the offense, the big talking point for most Royals fans is the home run pace that Mike Moustakas is on. For us Kansas City fans, there is a number that has haunted us for 32 years: 36. That is the Royals single-season home run record, held by former Royals first baseman Steve Balboni. He accomplished this feat back in 1985 and outside of a Gary Gaetti here or a Jermaine Dye there, no one has gotten close to the record. That being said, we are 65 games into the season and Moose sits at 18 home runs hit, halfway to “Bye-Bye”‘s record. At his current pace, Moustakas would reach 45 homers, annihilating the record and making it even harder for anyone in the future to topple. As a fan who remembers Balboni and has discussed at length this record for years, it is time to see it broken. Do I think Moose can beat it? Most definitely. Moose’s pitch selection has improved dramatically this year and his HR/FB rate is at 20.9%, the highest he has seen since 2010 in Double A (the year he hit 36 combined home runs in Double and Triple A). If there was ever going to be a year for the record to fall, this is it. You just have to hope that the Royals stay in the race so Moustakas isn’t dealt to a team like Boston before the trade deadline (yeah, I know. It’s very specific). I’ve spent years mentioning Steve Balboni in random conversations. I think it’s time to change the trivia answer.

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The Search for a Stopgap

With Danny Duffy on the shelf for at least the next month, the Royals have been hoping for a young arm to step up and fill the void for a bit. Eric Skoglund had a memorable first start at Kauffman Stadium, but since then has struggled to get through two innings. On Thursday night, Matt Strahm was plucked from the bullpen to take Skoglund’s place and showed why the Royals have envisioned him being a starter in the near future. Strahm went 5 innings, allowing 3 hits, 1 run (0 earned), with 3 punch outs and 1 walk. Strahm was on a limited pitch count of 65-70, throwing 68 when it was all said and done. It was an admirable performance and one has wonder what that means for the Royals if he is able to keep it up. Where is Strahm’s arm more valuable-the pen or the rotation? With the performance of Mike Minor and the need for quality innings out of their starters, I would almost lean toward Strahm staying in the starting five if he is able to maintain the performance of his first start. That would give Kansas City another starter while letting them focus on picking up a bullpen arm for the stretch drive (if they are still contending in a month). Skoglund still interests me, but for the moment it appears Strahm might be the better way to go.

 

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Picture Courtesy: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

A Starling Performance

Over the last month, an interesting development has sprouted up in Omaha, the Royals Triple A team. Former 1st Round draft pick Bubba Starling, the man from Gardner who many had started writing off, has found his groove. The numbers don’t lie:

Bubba is what the kids call “en fuego” and maybe the most interesting aspect of this turn of events is how he got here:

So the guy who has been “Major League ready” defensively for years might have actually figured out something offensively, opening up a whole other conversation when it comes to the Royals future outfield. I would still like to see him continue this for a while longer before jumping too far ahead but there are numerous encouraging signs:

Reports have also came out that Starling has started spraying the ball the opposite way more often, as teams had gotten into the habit of putting shifts on him. If this is something Starling can maintain, we could be discussing an outfield of Gordon, Bubba and Bonifacio next year, with Soler as a DH/OF. I’m not saying this is locked into stone, but it is an encouraging sign from a player that has struggled with the bat almost his entire professional career. Maybe, just maybe, that draft pick won’t feel as daunting as it has felt the last six years.

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While the Royals are still under .500, they’re within shouting distance of the first place Twins with slightly less than 100 games left to play. I said a few years ago I wouldn’t doubt what this team is capable of doing and even today I’m not going to start doing it now. The Royals have Boston and Toronto awaiting them next week and hopefully they can continue to roll the trifecta (effective offense, solid pitching, great defense). We are entering the dog days of summer and the Royals might have just found that other gear. It’s time for that one final run we’ve been promised.

Forever Royal

Kendrys Morales, Jarrod Dyson, Eric Hosmer

When a team wins a championship, it is only natural for fans to grasp onto the players who elevate the team to that level and cheer them on for years to follow. It is also natural for rosters to change and these same players to eventual leave, whether by a trade or free agency. A number of notable members of the 2015 World Champion Kansas City Royals were sent packing in the offseason and are now setting up residence east to west, north to south and even in Canada. With that in mind, lets see how these former Royals are doing away from Kansas City.

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First on the list is former Royals outfielder Jarrod Dyson who has set up residence in Seattle. I’ve been interested to see how Dyson would do elsewhere for a while now, just for the fact that Kansas City always seemed to use him in situations where he could succeed. Seattle has talked about using him as a regular, and knowing how Dyson struggles against lefties, I have wondered how that would play out. So far the numbers haven’t been glowing: .202/.294/.257 with a wRC+ of 59 over 127 plate appearances and a fWAR of 0.3. All of these numbers are heavily down over his career averages but the sign of what really might be ailing Dyson appears to be on where he is hitting the ball. So far this season, Dyson has a 45.5% ground ball rate, where he has averaged 57.2 % over his career. Meanwhile, his fly ball rate is sitting at 38.6%, while his career average sits at 25%. It’s still early, but a player like Dyson (one with little power plus game-changing speed) has to use his positive tools to his advantage. These are all numbers that can be flipped around in a timely manner, but it might just show the difference between an organization that cultivated him and the new one that is still getting acquainted. The Royals always seemed to have a good idea of Dyson’s limitations and used him accordingly. For Jarrod’s sake, I hope he turns things around and can get back on pace to his career numbers.

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Edinson Volquez left Kansas City for Miami in the offseason, signing a 2 year, $22 million deal with the Marlins. In six starts, Volquez has posted an ERA of 4.71 with a FIP of 4.91. What has been noticeable in Eddie’s numbers is the pick up in Strike Out %…and Walk %. Both have seen a healthy increase , with strike outs up from 16% to 24% and walks up from 8.9% to 16.5%. Control has always been an issue with Volquez and those numbers had started rising last year in Kansas City. 2017 has also seen Eddie’s line drive rate, fly ball rate and hard hit rate all see an increase, which can’t be a good sign in the long run. Volquez’s velocity numbers are also on par with 2016, or at least close enough that there shouldn’t be any worries there. One last number I wanted to check was BABIP: the last few years Volquez has had the luxury of having the Royals elite defense behind him. So far in 2017, his BABIP sits at .347, compared to .319 last year and .290 in 2015. The good news for Marlins fans is that all these numbers are just through six starts, so there is lots of room for improvements. But the other side of that coin is that Volquez’s numbers have been skewing this way for a while now, so there isn’t a whole of shock in what we have seen so far in Eddie’s numbers.

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When Kendrys Morales signed with Toronto, I was sure that he would see his power numbers go up. Moving from Kauffman Stadium, where home runs go to die, to the Rogers Centre seemed like a lock he would see his numbers rise. But to this point, it hasn’t happened. So far in 2017, Morales is hitting .244/.294/.433 with 6 home runs and 20 RBI’s. Most of his numbers have seen a dip this year: strike out rate, walk rate, ISO and so on and so on. While he has seen his fly ball rate go down and the ground ball rate go up, there are some positives to his numbers. His line drive rate has seen an increase, as has his HR/FB ratio. But the numbers just don’t tell a good story, as even his hard hit rate has dropped while his soft hit rate has climbed. The one positive for Blue Jays fans is that this feels very similar to Morales’ 2016, where he struggled throughout the first two months of the season…and then June happened. So while it might look questionable right now, just wait Toronto fans. June is just around the corner.

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Maybe the hardest goodbye this offseason was Wade Davis headed to Chicago, despite the fact that it felt like the best time to deal him. Wade so far has been as dominant as we remembered him, as he has yet to allow a run in over 14 innings. Davis is coming off of an injury plagued 2016, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see a jump in his numbers. Strike out rate up, walk rate down. Soft hit rate up, hard hit rate down. Maybe most impressive is his fWAR, which already sits at 0.7; for the entire year last year, he accumulated 1.3 fWAR. There has been a slight decrease in velocity, but that has been going on for a couple of years now and honestly, is expected as he reaches his early 30’s. There is still a part of me that wonders if his forearm issues come back into play this year, but hopefully for Wade and Cubs fans, it is just me thinking the worst right now. So far to date, the Davis/Soler trade swings in the Cubs favor.

MLB: Spring Training-Philadelphia Phillies at Detroit Tigers

Then there is old friend Omar Infante. Infante is currently down in AAA, playing for the Toledo Mud Hens, the Detroit Tigers minor league affiliate. In 105 plate appearances, Infante is hitting .253/.276/.293 with a wRC+ of 55. If Detroit ever calls him up, it would have to be to fill a roster spot and provide a bit of depth as a backup. It appears as if Infante’s time as a starter is probably in the past, but there is always a place in baseball for a guy with his experience. We just all wish he was doing that without costing the Royals money this year…

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While there will always be an emotional connection to guys like Dyson, Morales and Wade Davis, baseball is a business and at some point everyone moves on. This is another hard reminder that by the end of this season, more members of the 2015 World Championship team will be former Royals rather than current. While these players move on to sometimes greener pastures, it sometimes is the best for both parties as well. Remember, while the present isn’t as glamorous as the past, those memories can never be taken away from us. All these guys are and always will be #ForeverRoyal.

 

 

The Life and Times of David DeJesus

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Earlier in the week it was announced that former Kansas City Royal outfielder David DeJesus was calling it a career and was joining the Chicago Cubs CSN studio team for the upcoming season:

While some will remember DeJesus for his time with the Cubs, A’s or Rays (and most will forget his short stints with Washington and the Angels),  most Royals fans will remember his stint in Kansas City, where he began his career. I was always a DDJ fan, as he was a great defensive outfielder who got on base and for a period was an All-Star caliber player. More than anything, DeJesus was a steady performer that you could always count on, and I appreciated that. I thought about going in-depth into his career but instead thought it would be fun to go back and look at some career highlights, including this walk-off home run in 2008:

DeJesus wasn’t known for his power (only 99 career home runs over 13 seasons), but he did supply a bit of pop from time to time. DeJesus took that pitch in the heart of the plate and drove it off to win the game for Kansas City.

This isn’t a highlight but a nice look into a young DDJ who talked about baseball with his family as a kid. If you watched the Royals during the early 2000’s, you are aware of why they would need to put together a video like this to introduce their players to the fanbase, which was very small at that point. I had almost forgotten that David was the replacement in center field for Carlos Beltran, who was traded to Houston during the summer of 2004.

It feels a bit weird to post multiple home run videos from a guy who didn’t hit a bunch of them, but there was something else in this that shows what a solid batter DeJesus was. If you notice his swing, there is a slight uptick, but not much. For the most part that is a very level swing that he was able to get behind and take deep. He didn’t go out of his way to hit the ball out, but he would make you pay for a mistake pitch and knew how take advantage of a pitcher’s carelessness.

My favorite part of his game was defense. DeJesus wasn’t the fastest man, nor did he have the best arm. But he was a smart defensive player and right there you see a piece of that. He followed the ball, played the carom well off the wall and made a perfect throw into second base. DeJesus’ was best playing the corners of the outfield and he showed there how it’s not as much about how strong it is; it’s more about how accurate the throw is.

2010 was a big year for DeJesus, as he really came into his own, hitting .318/.384/.443. It was also his final year in Kansas City and his trade value that summer was never higher. Unfortunately for the Royals,  DeJesus would get hurt a little bit before the trade deadline and wouldn’t actually deal him until the following winter. It really felt at the time like the Royals missed out on a great opportunity to get a good haul for him, but alas would have to deal him to Oakland in November (for Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks. WTF?). Watching this video is a great summation of his talent; hit the ball where it’s pitched, nice easy swing and a dash of good luck. By this time he had become a very good player and was worthy of all the All-Star talk around him.

The other thing was that DeJesus was about as clutch as any player on the Royals at the time. It always felt like he knew when to try and drive the ball and when to just go with the pitch, as he drove that pitch into the alley in right center. DeJesus was a great fit for Kauffman Stadium; a solid gap-hitter with above average speed. Even better, that was against Kerry Wood who was still a very good pitcher at that time.

What a great couple of defensive plays right there? Us Royals fans are used to sparkling defense in left field nowadays, with Alex Gordon roaming out there, but I would put that catch up there with a good chunk of Gordon’s catches. The throw home was a great baseball play; good awareness, knew where the runner was at and made a perfect throw to home plate. You often hear it is always about the little things and right there is a perfect summation of that.

Finally, this wasn’t during his time in Kansas City, but I love the fun aspect of this. Here he is, just enjoying some ice cream during an extra inning game. It always felt like DeJesus loved playing the game and right there is a good sign of that.

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I tend to always look back fondly at DeJesus’ time in Kansas City and how unfortunate it was that it ended too soon. He was a great story, a kid drafted in the 4th round of the 2000 baseball draft and in the majors three years later. There has already been some discussion on whether or not he should be in the Royals Hall of Fame, and I would lean toward yes. He played part of 8 years in Kansas City, hitting .289/.360/.427 and an OPS+ of 108. If you were a Royals fan during that time span (and even back then I watched 3/4 of the games every year), you knew there wasn’t always something to cheer about in Kansas City. But David DeJesus…he was worth every clap he ever received at Kauffman Stadium, and possibly even more.

Royalty’s Notebook: February Royals Thoughts

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Spring Training is so close that we can practically smell the freshly cut grass and see the perfectly drawn baselines. It’s that time of year when the phrase ‘Pitchers and catchers report’ is music to any baseball fans ears. Over the last few weeks, I have had a number of thoughts littering my head and figured rather than writing four separate articles, I would shoot out a few short notes on some Kansas City Royals related activities that have been going on. What better way to start than with the pitcher we call ‘Duffman’…

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There are so many reasons to love Danny Duffy right now. Duffy showed himself to be a true front of the rotation starter last year and was rewarded with a nice new contract, which means he will be around for at least the next five years. There is his return to twitter where he is trying to do some good. Speaking of Duffy the good samaritan, if you weren’t already ‘Team Duffy’, than him meeting and talking to fans at Kauffman Stadium after Yordano Ventura’s death should have swayed you. But the story that made me really proud to know that Duffy is on ‘my team’ is the one where he bought a Yordano bobblehead. This story must be read, so click here. In short, a Royals fan in the Kansas City area sold his Ventura bobblehead on ebay and right before he mailed it off, he saw it was addressed to Duffy. He canceled the payment and sent Duffy a message, telling him he wasn’t going to charge him for the bobble. Duffy told the guy he was trying to buy up as much Yordano merchandise as possible and then mail it to his mom at the end of the season. When I first read that, a legit huge smile broke out on my face. I have long rooted for Duffy to succeed, if anything because the guy has shown again and again that he is an awesome human being. The fact that he was accumulating as much Yo’ memorabilia as possible because it would help her “remember the good times” was just phenomenal. Talk about being proud that he is in Kansas City; I have never seen an athlete who is so open about his feelings AND in such a positive way, to boot (Yes, that was slightly directed at Zack Greinke). We might love our Salvy, our A1 and our Moose, but dammit if I’m not a Duffy fan for life because of what he represents as a player and a person.

Royals Preview Spring Baseball

Speaking of Ventura, there has been a call amongst many Royals fans for the team to retire his number 30 this season. I understand that for most of us there is an emotional attachment to the group of players who guided this team to their first championship in 30 years. I was just as broken up about Ventura’s passing as most other Royals fans and I figure the home opener on April 10th will probably cause a few lumps in throats. That being said, it feels like the push to retire his number is an emotional thought and not a logical one. Over the team’s 47 year history, they have retired three former Royals: George Brett (5), Frank White (20) and Dick Howser (10). That’s it. In my eyes there have been a few worthy numbers that could have been retired by Kansas City over the years, but I do like that they aren’t just retiring numbers left and right. To me, if you are going to go that route, it better be a player who really marked their spot in franchise history. While Ventura had a number of big moments in his short career, he did only have three full seasons under his belt, and was just slightly above league average overall during that time. I have heard a number of great ideas in honoring Ventura this year, like leaving the ball on the mound opening day and letting manager Ned Yost make a “pitching change”, or naming a baseball academy down in the Dominican Republic after him. Those are just two great examples of honoring his passing and I wouldn’t even have a big issue with putting him in the Royals Hall of Fame in the future, even if it would feel like it was being done because he passed away while still with the team. But retiring his number feels like an emotional reaction to his death and I just don’t agree with it. I’m sure the Royals will honor his time in Kansas City this year and they should; but lets not overreact. Honoring Ventura is fine, but retiring his number is unnecessary and to be brutally honest, not really earned.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

With the Royals signing of Jason Hammel this week, Kansas City has marked off almost every need that they were searching for this winter…that is, except for another bullpen arm. The thought has been that the Royals would possibly sign one more reliever and with Spring Training looming in just a few days, there could be a last-minute signing, especially if they bring Luke Hochevar back into the fold. Hochevar is coming off of Thoracic Outlet Surgery but it’s been thought all along that as long as he is healthy, the team would look to bring him back to Kansas City. If not Hochevar, there are a few options still available on the market. Guys like Travis Wood, Jonathan Niese and former Royals Joe Blanton and Jorge De La Rosa are still available. The Royals also checked in on Seth Maness last week, the former Cardinals reliever who bypassed Tommy John Surgery and elected an experimental surgery that would have him back on the field in 7 months. While I tend to think Hoch will be back fairly soon, Kansas City has many choices and with a group of young arms also in the running ( Josh Staumont, Kevin McCarthy and Eric Skoglund among them) there will be some definite competition in the bullpen this spring for the Royals.

Boston Red Sox v Kansas City Royals-Game Two

The Hammel signing also meant that room would have to be made for him on the Royals 40 man roster, and Alec Mills was the unfortunate person to be sent packing. Mills was dealt to the Cubs for outfielder Donnie Deewees. Mills was a solid arm for Kansas City’s system but at best was probably someone who would have success out of the bullpen rather than in the rotation. Deewees is an interesting acquisition, as he is a speedy outfielder type that Dayton Moore continually covets. The scouts evaluation of Deewees seems to be on par with current Royals outfielder Billy Burns:

ESPN’s Keith Law recently rated Dewees 15th among Cubs farmhands, noting that he’s a 70-grade runner that can handle center field from a range standpoint but has a 20-grade arm that limits him to left field. Longenhagen ranked him 19th among Cubs prospects offering a similar take (albeit a 30-grade arm instead of 20), writing that without the power to profile as a left field regular, his best scenario is a Ben Revere type. B-Pro’s Steve Givarz was a bit more optimistic about his glovework but still pegs him as more of a fourth outfielder than a potential starter.

Deewees is still only 23 years old and more than likely will start the year in Kansas City’s High A Ball team in Wilmington. This could be a trade to monitor over the next couple years and see how Deewees has (or has not) developed. When all else fails, Moore will always lean towards speed.

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Finally, Kansas City went out and signed Brayan Pena to a minor league deal this past week. Pena is a former Royal who played for Kansas City from 2009-2012 and spent most of his time as a backup catcher. Pena is a serviceable receiver who has a bit of pop in his bat and is well liked in the clubhouse. The honesty is that this is a depth signing and much like Tony Cruz last year, Pena will most likely be spending his time in Omaha this year unless something goes wrong for Salvador Perez or Drew Butera. It’s good to see Brayan back in blue, but I wouldn’t expect to see much of him once the season starts.

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In just a few days pitchers and catcher will be reporting to Spring Training and we can actually start digesting some news on our ‘Boys in Blue’ and start getting a feel for what the major league roster will look like come April. I can say with all honesty that I feel better about the feel of this roster now than I did even a few weeks ago. For all intent and purposes, the Royals are looking to gain back what they lost last year, which would be the top of the Central Division. Next week, step one begins on a long road to their (hopeful) final destination, October baseball.As always, hope springs eternal.

Royals Add Rotation Arm, Sign Hammel

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Ever since the untimely death of Yordano Ventura, the general feeling was that the Kansas City Royals were going to have to go out and acquire another starting pitcher. Names like Doug Fister and Travis Wood, but the name that was mentioned multiple times was Jason Hammel, the best available arm still on the free agent market. Royals GM Dayton Moore can be a sneaky dealer, and while most were zoned in on the Super Bowl, Moore made his move:

The Royals got their man in Hammel, locking him up for two years, $16 million dollars with a mutual option (of course Dayton gave him a mutual option!!) for a third year. As of this writing the breakdown of the financials have not been released (I would tend to think the annual salary will be higher in 2018 than this year) but even without that knowledge the Royals seemed to have locked down a solid mid-rotation starter at a fairly cheap rate.

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So what kind of production should Kansas City expect from his signing? Hammel pitched for the Cubs in 2016, racking up 166 innings with a 3.83 ERA, 4.48 FIP and an ERA+ of 105. Hammel raised his ground ball rate last year, posting at 42%, his highest percentage since 2012 in Baltimore. He’s not a big strike out guy, but he did put up a 13.2% strike out to walk ratio, and both his strike out and walk rates in 2016 were about league average. He does throw his slider quite a bit, in fact he threw it 35% last year, the 4th highest percentage of sliders for qualified pitchers. Hammel did improve his left on base percentage last year bumping up to 76% while his batting average on balls in play also took a step downward. A very positive sign for Hammel in 2016, especially where it concerns not only Kansas City but pitching at Kauffman Stadium, was how hard the ball was hit off of him. His line drive saw a dip this past year while his ground ball rate saw an increase. Hammel really didn’t see a major shift in hard hit rate or soft hit rate and his exit velocity is interesting:

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While Hammel was up and down when it comes to exit velocity, this is actually fairly accurate throughout his career. His velocity also didn’t see a big change in 2016:

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The chart above has Hammel’s velocity for both 2015 and 2016. What was very noticeable, especially with his changeup and slider, was the consistency in 2016 compared to 2015. It really seemed that Hammel was able to not vary much month to month, which is a positive considering some of the rumors that were floated out there this winter.

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One of the reasons Hammel was still available this late in the winter was because of a feeling that he was hurt late in the 2016 season:

If you looked at the exit velocity chart above, Hammel appeared to not pitch after the middle of September and he wasn’t on any of the Cubs postseason rosters. The Cubs also declined his club option for 2017 after the season, which was fairly reasonable at $12 million. All this led to many teams assuming that he was hurt and probably hurt his chances out on the market this winter. Normally, pitchers who are injured show a decrease in velocity, which is normally an indicator that he is injured. If you look at the velocity charts above, they are pretty steady. That shows me that any injury concerns can probably be put to bed, unless a major decrease shows up when games start in Spring Training.

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Financially, Hammel’s signing appears to be a steal for the Royals. Even if his contract calls for a split of $8 million a year (and once again, I’m expecting us to find out it is lower than that for year one of the deal), that puts Kansas City’s payroll just a bit higher than what Owner David Glass was wanting, but not too far off. Considering Hammel has averaged 161 innings a season over the last 8 years, this is a great deal and once again shows what a fantastic job Dayton Moore has done this winter while working under financial restrictions. In fact, Hammel’s deal looks fantastic in comparison with former Royal Edinson Volquez’s contract he got from Miami:

Steamer projections are expecting Hammel to produce 1.3 WAR this year, while 2.0 for Volquez. But if you go more off of last year, Hammel produced 1.4 WAR while Volquez compiled 1.5. The two pitchers are fairly similar with Hammel about a year older in age. If you asked me which pitcher I would want going into 2017, I would take Hammel. Hammel produced a lower walks per 9 and hits per 9 than Volquez, and over their respective careers, Hammel has shown more consistency. In many ways, Hammel is a perfect replacement for Volquez, even if it feels like he is in Kansas City now because of what happened to Yordano Ventura.

USP MLB: CHICAGO CUBS AT MILWAUKEE BREWERS S BBN USA WI

With pitchers and catchers reporting in about a week, it’s good to see that the Royals are now set and ready to go all across the diamond. Hammel is the final piece of the rotation puzzle and should be a steadying veteran force in the middle of what is looking more and more like a good group of starting pitchers. The Royals should expect consistency more than anything else from Hammel this year and that is a strength that some take more lightly than they should. It’s unfortunate the circumstances that brought Hammel to Kansas City (and I do feel the Royals don’t sign him if Ventura is still with the team) but he is now ready to wear Royal blue and represent Kansas City. It’s another good acquisition from the Royals front office and they should be applauded for their work this winter. One thing I ask of Royals fans this year: don’t bring up the Wild Card game to Hammel. I’m sure he will hear enough about it when he shows up to Arizona this spring. I can already hear Salvy joking with him about his game winning hit…trust me, Hammel will take it much better coming from Perez. I mean, who could hate Salvy?

Royals Lineup Projection

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One of the funnest parts of the offseason in baseball is breaking down the projections that are littered throughout the winter. The three main projection systems are PECOTA, Steamer, and ZiPS and they all attempt to predict and break down how the upcoming season will turn out. Of course, as with any algorithm, there will be predictions that are way off, which is why the games are played. But this is a fun look at how the upcoming season could go and see whether or not the projections predict a player will improve, regress or stand pat. With that said, I thought it might be interesting to break down the Kansas City Royals projected lineup and see what the Steamer projections have in store for Kansas City offensively in 2017.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

Salvador Perez-Catcher

What I found most interesting about Salvy’s projected numbers for this year wasn’t the fact that they expected his numbers to pick up a notch but that they project he will play in less games! I don’t know if that happens, especially if they use the designated hitter as a rotating spot, but I like the idea of Perez getting some much-needed extra rest. Steamer has Salvy hitting .264/.298/.444 with 20 home runs, 67 RBI’s and 2.8 WAR. All but the home runs would be an improvement over 2016 and even that was only off by two. I tend to think all of this is possible, especially if Ned gives him that extra rest. It’s been very apparent over the last couple of seasons that by August, Salvy seems to be tiring and the grind of catching as many innings as he has the last few years catches up to him. I would like to see Perez get some extra at bats at DH and rest his legs, which I think would mean an increase in his offense. For the most part, I believe these projections are doable.

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Eric Hosmer-1st Base

Anyone who has followed this blog knows that I soured on Hosmer this past season and it was to the point where I don’t know if I will ever expect him to perform even remotely consistent in the big leagues. The good news is that Steamer thinks Eric will improve on last year, projecting a line of .278/.345/.455 with 22 home runs and 84 RBI’s and a 1.7 WAR. Outside of the home runs and RBI’s, everything else would be an improvement on a season that was the tale of two different seasons for Hos. To me, the biggest tell on whether or not he improves offensively this year is if he is able to decrease his ground ball rate, which was a ridiculous 58.9% in 2016. If he does that and lowers his strike out rate, I think we could see a better Hos in 2017. There has never been a better time for him to have a career year than the season right before he enters the free agent market, so there should be some motivation to not be the guy who produced a well below average OPS+ (78) in the second half of 2016.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals

Raul Mondesi-2nd Base

My hunch is that Mondesi will be the Kansas City second bagger to start 2017 unless he really struggles this spring. The good news is that there is almost no way he could be worse offensively than he was during his first stint with the Royals last year. Steamer agrees with me on this, as they are projecting him to hit .231/.272/.360 with 8 home runs and 36 RBI’s, a WAR of 0.0 and a wRC+ of 64. Yes, none of those numbers are great, but all would be an improvement on his numbers in 47 major league games in 2016. I tend to look at Mondesi like this: right now, his defense is ready while his bat still needs some major work. But he has slowly improved his offense ever year in the minors, with his power numbers improving by quite a bit in his short spans in both AA and AAA in 2016. The question the Royals have to ask is if A.) His defense is good enough to let him learn at the big league level? or B.) Do they have a better option at second base? The honest answer is that as much as I like Whit Merrifield, I think he is better suited to be a super utility guy in the big leagues and I also believe Mondesi is going to learn more in the majors then spending time in the minors. This could be an interesting development to follow and I’m highly intrigued to see if Mondesi raises some eyebrows this spring in Arizona.

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals

Alcides Escobar-Shortstop

Escobar’s offense in 2016 was nothing to write home about; in fact, it’s probably best left to just not mention it happened. It was evident throughout the season that he had no business hitting leadoff and was not pulling his weight for a guy getting close to 700 plate appearances. Luckily, Steamer is expecting bigger things from Esky this year, with a projected line of .264/.299/.352 with a WAR of 1.0 and wRC+ of 72. Okay, the numbers are only slightly better but even if we just see a slightly better strike out rate or walk rate, I’ll take it. At this point, Escobar is who he is, which is someone who rarely walks, strikes out too often and his faith lies in the BABIP Gods. As much as I have always enjoyed his defense, we are even starting to see a slight regression there, so it might be good that he will be a free agent after the season wraps up.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

Mike Moustakas-3rd Base

Man, the Steamer really loves Mike Moustakas! Moose missed most of the 2016 campaign but in the 27 games he appeared in it was obvious that his power numbers were drastically improved and it appeared he was headed for a break-out season. Instead, a collision with left fielder Alex Gordon did in his knee and he was shelved. Right now though, the Steamer has Moose hitting .267/.329/.468 over 129 games with 23 home runs, 73 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 111 and a WAR of 3.1. Now, a large chunk of that projection is from his 2015 season, but I feel like these estimates are light. Yes, I think Moustakas is going to have a big year and I wouldn’t be surprised if he surpasses the 30 home run barrier if he can stay healthy. Moustakas has shown a tendency to improve throughout his career and in what could be his final year in Kansas City, I tend to believe he wants to show the power we have all expected him to display. While most of these projections have felt close to what I was thinking, this is one that I think will be much higher when it is all said and done.

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Alex Gordon-Left Field

Most players have that one season where they would prefer it would magically disappear and never be spoken of again. For Alex Gordon, 2016 was one of those seasons. Gordon struggled through the year, ending up with a line of .220/.312/.380 in 128 games. In late May, Gordon collided with Mike Moustakas and would proceed to miss the following month. It really just felt like Gordon was off most of the year, and chalk it up to whatever you want (I personally felt he wasn’t 100% most of the year) but it was a year to forget. So what is being predicted for this year? Steamer has Gordon at .248/.335/.404 with 15 home runs, 61 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 98. Call me an optimist, but I feel Gordon will be a bit better than that this year, as he looks to bounce back. Gordon probably won’t see the highs he racked up back in 2011-2012, but if he stays healthy a .260/.350/.430 season is reachable. Yes, Gordon is probably seeing the beginning of his regression, but I just don’t see it being as sharp a fall as he had last year. Expect Alex to improve on  a forgettable 2016 this year and help improve the Royals offense.

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Lorenzo Cain-Center Field

Coming off of a career year in 2015, Cain looked to grow on that last year and guide the Royals back to the playoffs. Unfortunately, life doesn’t always follow a nice, cozy script and Cain would spend a large chunk of 2016 on the disabled list. Cain went from appearing in a career high amount of games in 2015 (140 games) to barely over 100 (103 to be exact) in 2016. This also meant a decline in his MVP caliber numbers from the previous year and a line of .287/.339/.408 and a wRC+ of only 98. Luckily, Steamer is projecting a similar year for Cain in 2017, as they foresee a .283/.338/.417 line and a wRC+ of 100 in 130 games. I must be the middle man here; I think Cain’s numbers could very well be higher, as he will be working for a contract, but it will all be determined on his health. If he can stay on the field, I think he will produce. If he doesn’t expect a season on par to last year. I don’t think we will ever see the numbers from Cain again that we saw two years ago, but something in that vicinity would greatly improve Kansas City’s offense.

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Jorge Soler-Right Field

If you haven’t noticed it yet, there is a trend with the Royals lineup coming into this year. Almost every hitter is coming off of a sub-par 2016 and looking to redeem themselves this year. Count new acquisition Soler in that category, as he struggled for Chicago this past year. Soler hit .238/.333/.436 with 12 home runs, 37 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 106. Soler was slightly above league average, but only appeared in 86 games due to injuries in 2016. The Royals are counting on Soler to be a regular cog in the middle of their order this year…but Steamer doesn’t trust his injury history. Right now, they have predicted he will hit .257/.333/.436, 14 home runs, 48 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 104 in just slightly over 100 games. The Royals training staff has done a good job these last few years keeping the team on the field (with last year being the exception) and I tend to feel like this will be the first full year Soler spends in the big leagues. Number-wise, Soler is what he is: a high strikeout, power hitting slugger. Soler did see an uptick in his walk percentage last year and with a full year on his plate, I think he could put up solid slugging and on base percentage numbers. Soler’s probably never going to hit for a high average, but if the other stats are there, it won’t matter. The Royals need him to slug and that is just what should see him accomplish this year.

MLB: NLDS-Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

Brandon Moss-Designated Hitter

Now, I know Royals GM Dayton Moore said the other day that Moss won’t be the “primary” DH this year, but I have a feeling when it is all said and done Moss will be the recipient of the most AB’s in that spot. Moss had a very productive 2016 and Kansas City is hoping that the same power he showed last year transfers over to Kauffman Stadium this year. A solid 2016 out Moss at .225/.300/.484 with 28 home runs, 66 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 105. Steamer has Moss sitting this year at .237/.319/.453 with only 17 home runs and 44 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 103. Now, if you are asking yourself why those numbers are lower, it is because Steamer has projected that Moss will only appear in 89 games this year, which right now feels like an extremely low number. I tend to project Moss will play in the 120-130 game zone which will see his production go slightly up. I think we could see Moss’ on base numbers increase this year (mostly from more walks) and his power numbers see a slight drop, although with Kauffman in play I could see Moss racking up more doubles than homers. In this regard, I tend to think Steamer is fairly close on the averages and a bit low on the accumulated numbers. Look for Moss to perform fairly similar this year, if not a tad bit better.

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So with the projections out there, it’s easy to see that most of them are based off of past production, which isn’t always a good thing for this Royals team. Luckily, the games are played for a reason and coming off of a poor offensive season in 2014, many of the Royals batters improved on their numbers in 2015. There is no reason to think that can’t happen again, at least with a number of their starters this year coming off of injuries. One final projection I want to throw out there are the ZiPS projections which are done by Dan Szymborski and are one of the more sought after projections during baseball’s offseason. Going off of fWAR, ZiPS projects the Royals this way (projections obviously made before Ventura’s death and Moss’ signing):

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The good news is that ZiPS has improvement from Gordon, Cain and Moose. The bad news is that there is little if any improvement expected from Hosmer, Soler, Escobar and Mondesi. Once again, these are just projections and while some will be fairly close, some of these will end up being way off. I always like to say that projections like this are a good starting point and once the season begins we will get a better feel for how this team will operate in 2017. More than anything, this Royals team needs improvement from their offense in 2017; if they don’t, we might as well kiss October baseball goodbye. No pressure, offense-just be better.

The Future of Josh Staumont

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There is no greater currency in baseball than prospects. Prospects can make or break your team, whether you are a team rebuilding or a team making a playoff push. When discussing prospects, every team is in need of a young power arm, the ones who throw anywhere from the upper 90’s to triple digits on the radar gun. It’s also easy for a young flamethrower to get more chances than his softer throwing brethren, making it easier for them to climb up the prospect ladder. No pitcher follows this pattern in the Kansas City Royals system more than Josh Staumont.

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Staumont was drafted in the second round of the 2015 draft by Kansas City and the early buzz on him was that he had a lively arm but also had issues with his control. That was very evident that first season, as in 18 games, Staumont was walking 7.2 batters per 9 innings, an absolutely ridiculous amount. But during that span, he also was striking out 13.0 batters per 9 inning, which is also ridiculous but in the good way. Before the 2016 season, Baseball America rated Staumont as the Royals #15 prospect and had some very glowing praise for him:

He tickles triple-digits regularly with a low-effort delivery. Staumont sits 96-98 and has touched 102 mph with a four-seamer. It grades out as an easy top-of-the-scale 80 on the scouting card.

They also praised his curveball, which had graded out as plus-plus when he stays on top of it. But coming into 2016, the concern was that his inability to harness his windup, which led to inconsistency throwing strikes, would continue to hold him back. Luckily, a slight adjustment would speed up his arrival time.

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What the Royals wanted him to work on was speeding up his delivery. By the second half of the 2016 season, he figured his delivery out:

He was keeping his arm in the glove too long, which caused him to have trouble finding a proper release point. The Royals preached a delivery with more tempo.

“It was causing a lot of erratic behavior, especially when it came to the fastball,” Staumont said. “It was just figuring out how my body worked.”
The numbers definitely showed a different Staumont: over his final 10 starts, Staumont posted a 3.17 ERA while striking out 71 and walking 33 in 45  1/3 innings while in AA Northwest Arkansas. Overall he still had a high walk total (7.6 walks per 9 overall, 6.6 in AA) but his ERA, WHIP, and FIP had all gone down. By the end of the season, there was already rumblings that Staumont could be seen in Kansas City the following season, probably out of the bullpen and probably late in the year. Since then, that timetable might have changed.
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The Royals sent Staumont to the Arizona Fall League this offseason and he has been nothing short of impressive. In 7 games, Staumont threw 24 innings, striking out 30 batters while walking 16. On the surface those aren’t blow away numbers, but they are on par with his second half in AA which is a sign of consistency. It’s also been good enough for Baseball America to bump him from 15th to 1st on the Royals prospect chart. They weren’t the only ones impressed  by Staumont, as former pro scout Bernie Pleskoff was really taken with him during the AFL:
The young man I saw throwing an easy, effortless 98 miles per hour with a recently-incorporated over-the-head, windmill delivery knows how to pitch. He is realizing success with his new mechanics. Of course, more time is needed to perfect the changes, but he is smart and patient.
What I found very interesting was his take on Staumont’s delivery, the one that was adjusted earlier in the year:
Staumont repeats his delivery very well. He uses the identical over-the-head, old-school windmill windup to gain consistency on his delivery. The ball comes from the same location and at the same pace and arm speed every pitch.
This is very good to see and shows that the slight hitch in his delivery is gone and he has taken to the instructions of the coaching staff. Staumont has been pitching as a starter, but Pleskoff did wonder what his role would be once he reaches the majors:
As I observed Staumont, I wondered exactly what role the Royals have in mind for the hard-throwing right-hander. If he remains a starter, he may be able to get a way with two very solid above-average pitches in his four-seam fastball and his curveball. It will help that he mixes in the cutter. However, it would really help him navigate a big league batting order if he includes a two-seam fastball to his arsenal. That would give him an entirely different pitch to show hitters. It could provide earlier sink and induce ground balls.
Overall, Pleskoff was very impressed with Josh:
I project Staumont to be an impact pitcher for the Royals once he is settled in with his new mechanics and a greater sense of confidence in his ability. Yes, there may be some hiccups along the way, but he has the arm, the poise and the pitches to dominate. He just needs time now to refine the entire package.
At this point, it might be okay to get excited about what the Royals have with Staumont.
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So the verdict on Staumont? He will be heading to Spring Training in February and should at the least compete for a role on the Royals 2017 pitching staff. I tend to lean toward Staumont starting the year in the minors but I fully expect to see him before the year is done. But…in what role? I really believe his future is in the bullpen, but I can easily see why the Royals would want to see what he can do as a starting pitcher. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start in the pen for Kansas City and eventually shift to the rotation, either late in 2017 or even 2018. No matter the role, it appears as if Staumont’s star is on the rise. During Dayton Moore’s tenure, the Royals have had a hard time producing homegrown arms for the rotation that stick. Time will tell, but the thought of Staumont  on the mound at Kauffman Stadium, blowing away hitters, should get Kansas City fans excited. Write Josh’s name down in pencil for now, but it looks like we will be seeing him sooner rather than later.

Royals Retro: Bret Saberhagen

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Back in the spring, I got to thinking about the history of the Kansas City Royals and how it was embedded into the fabric of my fandom as much as anything else. In the past I have done pieces on Hal McRae and have taken a look back at the history of the team, both at shortstop and a ‘Where are They Now’ piece as well. But I really wanted to dive into the past a bit more here on the blog and knew that during the season wouldn’t exactly be an opportune time to do that. Instead, I decided to wait until the off-season to get started with a monthly segment that will be called ‘Royals Retro’. Once a month, I’ll take a look back at the career of a past Royal who deserves to have a light shined on their career. I honestly couldn’t think of a better candidate to start off with than possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history, Bret Saberhagen.

MLB Photos Archive

Saberhagen wasn’t a glorified first round draft pick by the Royals as I assume many would think he was. Instead, Bret was drafted by Kansas City in the 19th round of the 1982 draft, a high school pitcher out of Reseda, California. Saberhagen would sign late in July of that year, but wouldn’t make his professional debut until the 1983 season. In fact, 1983 would be Saberhagen’s only year in the minors, starting 27 games, posting an ERA of 2.55 over 187 innings, averaging 6.3 strike outs per 9, 2.3 walks per 9 and a WHIP of 1.134. Saberhagen took the fast track to the major leagues, as he would make his debut in Kansas City just one year later in 1984, splitting time between the rotation and bullpen for the Royals. He would throw 157 innings over 38 games (18 games started), posting an ERA+ of 115, striking out 4.2 batters per 9, and a FIP of 3.64. As probably expected, Saberhagen put up slightly better numbers in his 20 appearances out of the bullpen, posting an ERA of 2.32 over 54 innings, while averaging 4.1 strike outs per 9. One aspect of his game that was evident even early on in his career was how Sabs was good about trusting his defense and making pitches for the batter to put in play. Spanning his career, Bret’s ball in play percentage was on average anywhere from mid 70% to upper 70%; during his rookie year, it sat at 79%. Saberhagen would also make his first postseason start, throwing 8 innings while only allowing 3 runs, 2 earned. Nothing overtly stands out in his 1984 numbers that showed how he would break out the following year, but it was at least obvious that the Royals had a keeper.

Kansas City Royals

Saberhagen would enter his age 21 season and it wouldn’t take long for him to become the Royals ace. By the end of the season, he would lead the American League in FIP, WHIP, walks per 9 and strike out to walk ratio. He would also rack up an ERA+ of 143, an ERA of 2.87 and would win his first Cy Young award while coming in tenth in the AL MVP voting…basically on two pitches:

“The year Bret won 20, he relied mostly on two pitches: his fastball and his changeup, which he throws extremely well,” said Kansas City pitching coach Gary Blaylock. “Even though he also threw a curveball and a hard slider, he never really had control of either of them. Too often they were just waste pitches.

The icing on the cake was during the Royals playoff run that October. During the World Series in 1985, Saberhagen would make two starts, throwing two complete games, including a complete game shutout in Game 7 to help Kansas City take their first championship. Bret would end up MVP of the World Series, while his wife would give birth to the couple’s first child, Drew William, on the night of Game 6. All in all, it felt like the beginning of a very prosperous career for the young righthander.

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But Saberhagen would fall back in 1986, as a nasty combination of struggles and injuries limited him to 25 starts and 30 appearances overall. Injuries were the biggest issue, as Bret dealt with shoulder, elbow and foot problems and contributed to a 4.15 ERA, a 102 ERA+ and just 2.0 bWAR, a year after racking up an impressive 7.3 bWAR. Many wondered  back in ’86 if success had spoiled Sabs, but Saberhagen was just as unsure as anyone else:

“Everybody’s trying to come up with a solution or theory of what I could have done to change things,” Saberhagen said before the Kansas City Royals met the Angels Tuesday night in Anaheim Stadium. “When you’re not going as well as you should be, everybody shines the light at you and asks why.”

1986 would also be the beginning of weird odd year/even year pattern where it concerned his success. It appeared over time that Bret excelled in odd years, while struggling during even years. This odd phenomenon would continue throughout his Kansas City career.

Kansas City Royals

1987 saw Saberhagen restore his old glory, throwing an impressive 257 innings over his 33 starts, compiling 15 complete games, a WHIP of 1.163, an ERA+ of 136 and 8.0 bWAR. Bret would also earn his first All-Star nomination and a WPA+ of 19.1. A big part of his success that year was the added use of a curveball, a new addition to his pitching repertoire:

“That’s why we decided to take the hard slider away from him in spring training and have him work on perfecting his curveball, which actually fits his mechanics a lot better,” Blaylock continued. “Now he can consistently get hitters out with his curveball, where before it was just there. I won’t say that’s the chief reason for Bret’s fast start this season, but that’s part of it.”

It also appeared that any distractions he had in ’86 were in the rear-view mirror:

Saberhagen reportedly is also a lot more disciplined on days when he is scheduled to work than he was last year, when on at least one occasion he came to the park early, not to work on some of his problems, but to film a car commercial. This year he definitely seems more organized, more able to block out distractions, and more willing to challenge the hitters with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 96 m.p.h.

The one downside to 1987 was a shoulder injury in the second half of the season that affected his performance on the field, as only 4 of those 15 complete games were in the second half. Saberhagen would also allow more hits, runs and home runs in the second half, all in 42 less innings than he had in the first half.

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The pattern would continue in 1988, as Bret struggled, allowing the most hits in the American League and giving up the most runs in his career. Saberhagen would post an ERA+ of 106, a FIP of 3.08 (which actually wasn’t that bad) and a bWAR of 3.8. The good news was that he stayed healthy and that health would remain as he ventured into 1989. ’89 would be his career year when it came to numbers, as he would lead the American League in wins, W-L%, ERA, complete games, innings pitched, ERA+, WHIP, FIP and strike out to walk ratio. His bWAR that year was the highest of his career, 9.7, as he would earn his second Cy Young award, while earning his first Gold Glove and finishing 8th in the AL MVP voting. From July 26th on, Saberhagen would compile four shutouts and only once in a game over that period would a team score more than two runs on him. In many ways, 1989 was the year that Saberhagen went from being a really good pitcher who won the Cy Young award at one point to one of the best pitchers in the game and an elite ace. Most Royals fans will discuss his 1985 campaign when talking about his greatness, but 1989 was easily his best year.

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1990 was the expected off-year for Saberhagen, as he would appear in just 20 games while throwing 135 innings. The one positive for him was his second All-Star game appearance, one in which he would pick up the win for the American League. Bret would pitch in one game during the second half before being shelved, as he would have successful arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in July. At this point, he was 26 and the litany of injury issues were starting to pile up.

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1991 would be Bret’s final year in Kansas City and as patterns go, it was another solid season. Saberhagen would throw 196 innings in 1991, with seven complete games, an ERA+ of 135, a WHIP of 1.070 and a bWAR of 5.1. The crowning moment for him that season was his first career no-hitter, as he blanked the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. All these years later and it is the last no-hitter thrown in Royals history. Bret really didn’t think about getting it until about the 7th inning:

“The funny thing is that once we got to the seventh inning — and I’d been at that point a few times before in my career (with a no-hitter) and I’d never been able to finish it off — I started to think about getting that darn thing,” Saberhagen recalled. “So at that point, I told myself I was going to go at every batter like he was the last batter of the game.

The toughest out might very well have been the final out:

“It was a breaking ball to Frank, and he hit the ball to Terry Shumpert at second base,” Saberhagen recalled almost 23 years later. “Terry got it and fired to first and that was it. Such a cool feeling.”

How ironic, 25 years later, that this would be just a few months before Saberhagen’s time in Kansas City would wrap up. It seems fitting that possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history would throw a no-no in his final year as a Royal.

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On December 11, 1991, the Royals shockingly traded Saberhagen to the New York Mets (with Bill Pecota) for Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller. Bret was entering his age 28 season, and while there were some concerns about injuries, this was a way to fill three holes in the Kansas City offense:

“Any time an organization gives up a player of Bret Saberhagen’s caliber, it’s a hard thing to do. But we had to take a risk and do some things that you don’t always want to do. But we feel we’re a better ball club because of it. We were able to fill three holes. The Mets probably were the only club in baseball talent-rich enough to do something like this.”

What is interesting to see all these years later is the reactions, such as this one from former Mets GM Al Harazin on whether or not New York felt like they overpaid for Saberhagen:

“I think we gave up an awful lot of talent, but we got one of the best pitchers in baseball. I’ll leave it to others to decide if we overpaid.”

It was a shocking move, even for Bret as he wasn’t expected to leave Kansas City:

“When you win a couple of Cy Young’s you start thinking maybe you’re a fixture and one of the main reasons they’ve accomplished what they have in the past.”

The move was equally as shocking for Royals fans. I remember being crushed as a 15 year old Royals fan to learn one of my favorite players was no longer a Royal. At the time I wasn’t as privy to the business side of baseball; all I knew was a player I had gotten attached to was now going to pitch in New York. So how did the trade work out? Not great for the Royals. Saberhagen would accumulate 11.7 bWAR during his time in New York, including a third place finish in the National League Cy Young voting in 1994. Miller would play parts of four seasons with Kansas City, raking in 1.4 total bWAR in that span. McReynolds put together 1.9 bWAR in his two seasons in Kansas City (and never endeared himself to Royals fans), while Jefferies had a 2.2 bWAR in his lone season in Kansas City. Jefferies at one point was considered a future star, but was a slightly above average player whom the Royals would trade the following winter for Felix Jose. Jose was an even bigger bust, posting a -0.2 bWAR during his time in Kansas City. It’s hard to say one move could lead to the downfall of one organization, but the Saberhagen trade didn’t accomplish what Royals management was hoping it would and instead began a downfall that would fall even farther in upcoming seasons.

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The Mets would deal Bret to Colorado during the 1995 season and would finish out the year with the Rockies, including pitching in a Colorado playoff game that fall. He would sit out the 1996 season due to injury, but would return to baseball the following year, joining the Boston Red Sox. Saberhagen would pitch part of four seasons in Boston, and while at times he would show a glint of his past success, at this point of his career he was a nice middle of the rotation starter. He did become the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year in 1998 and would also win the Tony Conigliaro Award. He would miss the 2000 season and while he tried a comeback in 2001, he would only pitch in three games and retire at the end of the season.The latter part of his career was littered with injuries and stunted what at one time was considered a possible Hall of Fame career.

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So two questions have gnawed at me over the years: one, ‘is Bret the greatest Royals pitcher in history?’ and two, ‘how close did he actually get to becoming a Hall of Famer?’. Let’s start with the first question, his place in Royals history. In all-time career bWAR, Saberhagen is just behind Kevin Appier, 47.3 to 40.8. He is fourth in ERA (behind three relievers), sixth in wins, fourth in win-loss%, 1st in WHIP, 2nd in walks per 9, 6th in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts. At this point, it is pretty close between him and Appier, so I’m going to venture to the advanced side of things. Saberhagen is 5th in team adjusted ERA+ (second behind Appier for starters), first in team FIP and third in WPA. With all these numbers at hand, I would say in a very close race that Kevin Appier might just slightly edge out Bret for being the greatest Royals starting pitcher of all time. That also tells you how super underrated Appier really was.

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So how about the Hall of Fame? Going off the great website Hall of Stats, Saberhagen is in, as they gave him a Hall Rating of 122, as they take the top 217 players (the amount of players currently in the Hall of Fame) based just off of their career statistics and nothing else. Their formula?:

The Hall of Stats uses a formula called Hall Rating to rank every player in baseball history. Hall Rating combines the value of a player’s peak and longevity into a single number that represents the quality of that player’s Hall of Fame case. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot to be said for rating all players in history according to the same objective criteria.

Now this factors in both longevity and peak of career, which has become more and more important over the years. Saberhagen’s case is 62% peak and 38% longevity and by their Hall Ratings he is 152nd all-time, 134th among eligible players and 45th among pitchers. Saberhagen will be eligible for the upcoming Today’s Game Era Committee, but the likelihood of him getting voted in is probably pretty slim. What this does tell us though is that his battle with injuries late in his career probably hurt his case and has made many voters ignore his numbers during his peak. The good news is that Saberhagen is already in the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame, which is a great honor in Kansas City and was also voted one of the ‘Franchise Four’ for the Royals back in 2015.

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Kansas City Royals

For a number of years, it felt like the Royals had forgotten about Saberhagen and his place in the team’s history. There were a few public acknowledgements, but that was about it. It always bothered me, considering his place in franchise history. Luckily, over the last few years while the Royals have made their epic playoff runs, Saberhagen has continuously been seen at Kauffman Stadium. After all these years, it is still great to see ‘The Kid’ at the stadium, even for just a moment. I’m sure a kid from California never imagined while he was growing up that he would become such a large part of the fabric of a team in the midwest, but he has. When you talk about great Royals pitchers, names like Splittorff, Leonard, Busby, Appier and Greinke are often mentioned. But for me, the conversation started and ended with Saberhagen…and it always will.

 

 

 

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