On The Shoulders of Eric Hosmer

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

The story of the Kansas City Royals after this past 2017 season was murky, but simple enough: Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain would all be free agents and the Royals would be lucky to re-sign one of them, if any at all. What seemed the most apparent was that Hosmer would have the highest chance of leaving, even before he put together a career year in 2017. The belief was that a number of bigger market teams would be bidding for his services (the Yankees and Red Sox have been mentioned the most) and he would go where the money led him. We kept hearing the Royals would be making Hosmer their main priority, but in a lot of ways that just felt like lip service. I know myself personally, it appeared that the Royals would make him an offer or two, the big market teams would blow away Kansas City’s offer and Royals GM Dayton Moore would essentially concede defeat. The team could then say they made an effort, but financially just couldn’t compete with the New York’s and Boston’s of the world. This has been my frame of mind for well over a year now…and then something threw a monkey wrench into that thinking. That something now has me wondering if it is not only possible to bring Hosmer back, but possibly either Moose or LoCain as well.

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

Let me begin by stating I still feel like it is a long shot to bring back Hosmer but the chances do appear to be improving for the Royals. Start by reading this article by Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star. Mellinger paints a picture of how this could go down and while it feels like a ‘Hail Mary’, it isn’t as crazy as you might think. To sum up what he says, the belief is that if the market shakes out a certain way for Hosmer, he could fall back to the Royals, much in the way Alex Gordon did a few years back, as even Moore references:

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

If you remember, Gordon appeared all but gone by all of baseball, that was until Jason Heyward signed his contract with the Cubs and Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes’ names were still on the board. Gordon fell a tick or two below those two names and his age and the fact that the Cubs were the biggest suitor for him appeared to lower the type of deal he could get on the market. The one aspect of Alex coming back to Kansas City was that he always wanted to stay with the Royals, which is a bit in question with Hosmer:

The Royals know they cannot offer the biggest contract to Hosmer, so they will likely follow the same plan that eventually landed Gordon two years ago: stay in touch, be patient, trust that they’ll have a chance after other offers come in, and then get as close as possible.

Hosmer signing with the Royals would require a series of breaks their way. Many around the game believe Hosmer could get $150 million or more. They would need to be wrong. Many around the game believe Hosmer wants to play in a bigger market. They would need to be wrong about that, too.

Sure, that is a lot of if’s. A lot. But I do genuinely feel like these guys love Kansas City and the organization. If you saw any of the send-off on the final day of the season you could tell that there was some real, heartfelt emotion going on with this group. Hosmer is super close to Moustakas and Salvador Perez and one does have to wonder how much those friendships play into a player’s decision. I know, money trumps the rest most of the time. I even understand that, considering most players don’t have a super long career in the first place, so they should make their money while they can. But if these guys want to make it work while staying in Kansas City, it could happen. But Hosmer appears to be the pivotal piece and his decision will affect the rest when it comes to re-signing.

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

The decision for Hosmer could be affected by which and how many teams are bidding for his services. The belief all along has been that a number of big market teams would be vying for his attention, but Buster Olney of ESPN points out that there might not be as many teams as first thought:

Hosmer theoretically fits the Red Sox or the Yankees, but each of those big-market teams have worked to get under the luxury-tax threshold. New York believes in Greg Bird’s talent and swing, and the potential savings of Bird over Hosmer is likely to keep the Yankees out of the Hosmer bidding. The Red Sox already have over $130 million committed in 2018 payroll before they pick up the options on closer Craig Kimbrel ($13 million) and Chris Sale ($12.5 million) and before they deal with the pricey arbitration cases of Xander BogaertsJackie Bradley Jr. and Mookie Betts.

The Giants also have very little payroll flexibility, to the degree that they informed Madison Bumgarner last winter they weren’t ready to talk about a contract extension yet because of luxury-tax implications. The San Francisco front office would probably love to have Hosmer, who would help in so many ways — the offensive production and RBI potential, the defense, the leadership. But Brandon Belt is about to reach the backloaded portion of his contract: He’ll make $17.2 million for each of the next four seasons, a staggering debt that the Giants might have to live with.

Olney also mentions that there are a number of bigger market teams who already have younger, cheaper options at first base, like the Dodgers, Phillies and Mets. He would go on to mention the Angels could be interested, but it would matter on whether or not Upton returns to the team and the Cardinals would probably have to unload Matt Carpenter before they could consider signing Hosmer. That leaves…well, that leaves only a few teams in the hunt for the young first baseman, as Olney again points out:

As the saying goes: All it takes is one serious bidder. But it does not appear as if Hosmer will have a high volume of teams in pursuit, and the Royals might turn out to be his most ardent suitors.

If this comes to fruition, it is very plausible Hosmer could fall to the Royals. To add to the discussion, the Yankees Greg Bird had a very positive postseason this month (.244/.426/.512 with 3 home runs, 6 RBI’s and 5 total extra base hits) and it would appear the Yankees are already out of the running, especially considering the luxury-tax threshold. So if this happens, what would the Royals be able to offer money-wise?

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

It’s hard to predict just what the Royals would be offering Hosmer, but I’m going to go ahead and take a guess. Let’s start with his salary for 2017, which sat at $12.25 million. Hosmer will obviously see a bump from there, but how high? I’m assuming here the Royals will want to sign him to a long-term deal, but not the ten-year deal that was floated around this past spring. So let’s go with a 6 year deal with a couple of option years tacked on (Dayton does love his mutual options!). This might be a tad less, but I can’t picture the team being locked into anything over six years guaranteed (but I could be wrong about that). Hosmer’s comparable player would most likely be Freddie Freeman of the Braves (or as I normally call him, “Better Hosmer”); Freeman signed a 8 year, $135 million dollar deal back in 2014. That averages out to $16.875 million a year. I tend to believe Hosmer would get something in that same ballpark, but I’m not quite sold that he would get the $20 million a year that was tossed around for a while. So lets keep him at an average of $18 million a year, which in six years would be a $108 million dollar deal. He could get slightly more than that, but if I know Moore, he would probably make the early years slightly lesser and the last few years would be heavily back-loaded. Like I said, he could get slightly more than this from the Royals, but not much more. So if Kansas City is able to pull this off, the talk is that then the Royals would go after either Moustakas or Cain, which sounds crazy, right?

Royals officials are making it clear that Hosmer is their top offseason priority. If they are able to re-sign him, they will try to shed some payroll and make an aggressive offer to Mike Moustakas or Lorenzo Cain. If Hosmer signs somewhere else, the Royals will move to a contingency plan.

Let’s play devil’s advocate: if Hosmer re-signs and they then go out and sign Moustakas for instance, how would the Royals be able to afford both stars?

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

There is a very simple solution to how the Royals could afford both players: shed payroll. That also means Kansas City would have to eat some money, which they have been reluctant to do:

That could mean moving players like Ian Kennedy, Joakim Soria, Jason Hammel and Brandon Moss. All of those contracts are backloaded, so the Royals would need to eat some money. They haven’t done much of that in the past, but would have to see the opportunity to keep homegrown stars long-term as reason to break protocol.

So you are probably now shaking your head at me, saying ‘but then how do you replace THOSE players?’. Good question. Obviously, the Royals would get something in return for all them, but the quality of players they would get in return would be questionable, as well as if they would be major league ready. The Royals could also go out and deal Cheslor Cuthbert, Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn (or two of the three), since Hosmer and Moustakas would be taking over the positions they currently play. That could be a way for the team to pick up some younger, affordable arms to add to the organization. Obviously the team would also have to scrounge on the free agent market for a few more players, but Moore has shown a tendency to be creative the last few years if called upon. Kansas City seriously needs to upgrade their pitching next year, and if the team did bring back Hos and Moose, it would appear a bit harder to accomplish that goal. Harder, but still possible. Once again, this is a long shot, but it is interesting to think of all the different scenarios the team could go in if they were able to bring back two members of this core group.

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

While I still contend this is the least likely scenario to happen, I am all in to bring back Hosmer and Moustakas. Now that might appear to be a bit strange coming from the guy who earlier this wrote that the Royals shouldn’t re-sign Hosmer, but if it means Moustakas stays (which has been my main preference all along) and it forces the front office to be creative, then I am on board. The one thing to remember in situations like this is that many players who sign a long-term deal with a team don’t remain with said team for the duration of the contract. So the prospect of the Royals locking in Hosmer for more than five years might appear to be daunting on the surface, in the big picture it would be likely he is dealt before the contract is up. Maybe I’m holding on to all those ‘fuzzy feelings’ I felt at that last game of the season, or maybe I’m just not ready to move on from these players. But I’m not opposed to this plan by the front office and if they aren’t going to tank the big league club, this is a better scenario than piecing players together for years on end. It wouldn’t be the first time this organization flew by the seat of their pants:

 

If this sounds wishy-washy, like an organization that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be, it’s actually similar in philosophy to how they made the parade.

When he came to Kansas City, Moore didn’t intend to build a team without home-run power — first thing he wanted to do as GM was move the fences in.

He didn’t intend to build the best bullpen in modern baseball history — strongest belief he had when he arrived was the importance of starting pitching.

But the Royals’ best teams hit very few home runs, and had a line of shutdown relievers, because the front office identified cost-effective workarounds to the traditional ways of winning.

They’ll have to continue to think on their feet, but for now, they wait. Everything depends on Hosmer.

I couldn’t have said it better myself, Sam. Remember this during the winter whenever Hosmer’s name is brought up. He is the key to what we will see on the field next year in Kansas City.

 

Notes of Royalty: The Final Countdown

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Detroit Tigers

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

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

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners

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

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

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

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

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

The Battle For the AL MVP & How Mike Trout is Trying to Crash the Party

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

When baseball reached the All-Star break, the American League MVP race felt like a two-man battle. Jose Altuve of Houston was once again a top contender while the Yankees Aaron Judge was making baseball writers and analysts go ga-ga as he invoked memories of Ruth and Mantle. The normal leader in MVP conversations, Mike Trout, was sitting on the sideline, finishing up a rehab assignment and hoping to get back on the field after missing close to 40 games. While Trout was the front-runner before his injury, there appeared to be no way he could catch Altuve and Judge in any of the statistics that mattered. But then Trout came back, picking up where he left off, and something happened…Trout slowly climbed up the fWAR leaderboard. Day by day, game by game, Mike Trout was catching up to the two leaders. Just like last year, what appeared to be a two-man race turned into a three-man battle to the end. While it would appear Trout missing those 40 games would deter his case, it’s actually enhancing the argument that he is the 2017 American League MVP.

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Let’s start with the WAR argument, which I referenced above. As of this writing, Altuve sits atop the American League leaderboard, with 6.5 fWAR. Trout follows with 6.2 and Judge sits in third place with 5.7. Just as an aside, this is just speaking for the hitters in the league; Chris Sale leads everyone with 7.5 WAR and Corey Kluber is at 6.0. Both Sale and Kluber can be calculated into your MVP discussion (and trust me, Sale is in that convo), but at least for me, I don’t value pitchers in MVP talk UNLESS they have been so dominant and crucial to their team’s success (and since I know it will be asked, the next closest Red Sox to Sale’s WAR number is Mookie Betts at 3.8). So Altuve and Trout are 1-2 in hitter’s WAR, but that gap was much larger at the All-Star break. At the break, Aaron Judge led the AL with 5.4 fWAR, followed by Altuve at 4.1 and Trout was down in 6th place with 3.4 fWAR. So in this second half of the season, Altuve has accumulated 2.4 WAR, Judge 0.3 and Trout 2.8. Now, the gap between Altuve and Trout wasn’t that big at the break, but Judge’s lead above both was quite a bit more. So while Trout’s push in this second half has been impressive, Altuve’s has been equally impressive in that short amount of time. What has been the most important aspect of this gain is not just how Trout has shortened the gap between the two candidates; the most impressive part of this whole debate is that WAR is a stat that accumulates over time, so the more you play the higher your number should go. Obviously not every player sees that (Alcides Escobar has played every game this year for Kansas City and his fWAR sits at a sickly -0.3 right now) but if you are an elite player, your Wins Above Replacement will rise the more you play. The fact that Trout has almost reached Altuve in over 150 less plate appearances, says a lot about how good Trout’s season has been.

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Credit: The Sporting News

So how is Trout doing with some of the other statistics? Obviously Trout can’t win it on WAR alone, and luckily the numbers prove he won’t. Trout leads the league in weighted Runs Created Plus, weighted On Base Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, walk percentage, Win Probability Added, Walk to Strikeout ratio, On-Base Plus Slugging, 2nd in Isolated Power, and 10th in stolen bases. The most impressive out of all these numbers to me is Trout’s Win Probability Added number. Trout is at 5.74; the next closest batter is Nelson Cruz at 3.67. I mentioned earlier how WAR is a stat that accumulates and so does WPA. For Trout to have an over two point lead in a stat that adds up over time is amazing. No other player in the American League has had a larger effect on his teams outcome than Trout AND IT ISN’T EVEN CLOSE! When I think of the term ‘Most Valuable Player’, I think of someone who is so valuable that you can’t even imagine what that team would look like without that player on the field. Trout missed 40 games (40 games!!) and has had a larger effect on his team than any other player in all of baseball. If that doesn’t speak of value, I can’t imagine what else does.

Brett George 2400.81 NBL

Now, there is one slight issue, which is that Trout is not quite a qualified batter, as he is sitting at 325 at bats for the season and 412 plate appearances. Trout would need to reach 502 plate appearances to be a qualified batter and with 24 games left Trout would have to average 3.75 plate appearances per game, which is doable. So while Trout has a good chance of reaching the bar he needs to get to, there would still be a few writers who might not vote for him because of time missed. Luckily, there are a few precedents that show it can and has been done before. First, go back to 1962 when Mickey Mantle missed 25 games in May and June of that year. Mantle would justbarely squeak in enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title and win MVP. Mantle also lead in many of the same categories that Trout leads in right now and would garnish a Gold Glove award. George Brett in 1980 missed 25 games with an ankle injury and racked up 515 plate appearances. George flirted with .400 for most of the year and would also lead the league in most of the same categories as Trout. Finally, Barry Bonds missed 32 games in 2003, racked up 550 plate appearances, 10.2 WAR and would win his 6th MVP award. In all three of these cases, a player missed a significant amount of time to injury yet had such potent offensive seasons that the voters could not dismiss their contributions to their team. To me, that reads just like Trout this year and shows that if the numbers are there, it should be an easy vote come the end of the season.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Mike Trout hasn’t passed Jose Altuve just yet, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn’t happen before the end of the season. You almost feel sorry for guys like Altuve, Judge, Manny Machado and others; they are playing at the same time as one of the greatest players of not only this time period, but easily one of the best of the last 30-40 years. Mike Trout appears to be on a completely different level and this year the numbers say he is doing it in a slightly shorter amount of time. While a vote for Altuve wouldn’t be a bad vote, it would be ignoring not only what Trout is achieving but also what he is doing to help lead an Angels team to contention. It might feel redundant to say Trout should be MVP each year, but it would also be foolish to vote against him just for the sake of change. Last year in August, I said Trout should be in the conversation for MVP and I was scoffed at. I was told Altuve had it in the bag. Trout ended up winning the award. This year I make a different proclamation: Mike Trout should be MVP again. This time, it might be wise to just admit the arguments against him aren’t as strong as the arguments for. All hail Mike Trout.

The Wildest of Wild Cards

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On September first, most teams have a decent idea of whether or not they are contenders or pretenders. In the American League, eight teams are currently vying for the two wild card spots and while the New York Yankees are holding down the first of those two spots, they are only ahead by one game over the surging Minnesota Twins. Throw in the Angels, Orioles, Mariners, Rays, Rangers and Royals, and you have a race that could be the funnest one to watch as the season prepares for its final run.

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Above is the current standings before the games on Saturday, with just a slight variance, as the Orioles are now 2.5 games back, Tampa Bay & Texas are now 4 games back and the Royals 4.5 games back. The most interesting aspect of this race is how none of the teams listed are really pulling away from the others. Look at the ‘L10’ category, which is how each team has done in their last ten games. Outside of Minnesota, Baltimore and Tampa Bay, no team has performed better than .500 in those games. So while a team like the Twins or Orioles are performing at a higher level as of late, there is still a good chance that those teams will incur a bit of a losing streak before the season is over. I’ve been saying for well over a month now that none of these teams feel much better than the others and none of them scare me as a Royals fan in this last month. While they are all talented teams, they are all teams with equal amounts of flaws. What happens over the next month will be a determination of which team can lessen their flaws and hone in on their positives.

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So how good are the Kansas City Royals chances? With 28 games to go, they are still in the hunt but they need to catch a hot streak…fast. While many will point to the scoreless streak that was intact earlier in the week, the pitching has really been a detriment over the last month. The Royals have five pitchers currently on the disabled list, including Danny Duffy and Joakim Soria. The rotation has been so battered as of late that last night the team started Onelki Garcia, a journeyman lefthander who had produced a 5.04 ERA, 4.44 FIP and a 9.5% walk rate…in twenty games in AAA this year. If the Royals can’t figure out a better option than Garcia, then they won’t be grabbing one of the final wild card spots this year. This is a streaky Royals team, which is why I’ve never gotten too down on them this year and I still feel they are capable of making a big run in this final month. Do they have the ability to pull off a 21-7 run? Yes. Is it likely, considering how the last month has gone? Probably not. While we’re not seeing one team pull away with a wild card spot, the Royals have not shown they really want it either. If they are going to dig down and make this a race they are involved in, they need to step up now. The pressure is on and if anything, this team has shown they can deal with pressure.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins

So while I want the Royals to make one last run and reach October baseball, there is one more thing I am heavily pushing for this year: chaos. Yes, I am a big proponent of there being a giant cluster at the end of the season and having multiple teams tied for multiple slots in this race. I want it to where the American League has to hold numerous tie-breaker games just to sort out who goes on to the wild card game. The fun aspect of the two team wild card format is that chaos is already involved, as two teams battle it out in ONE GAME just to determine who moves on in the playoffs. But what if there were four teams tied for that second wild card spot? Or two teams tied for the first wild card spot and two more teams tied for the second spot? The possibilities are endless and while the likelihood is small, I have to imagine something like this will happen one of these years. Why not this year? Let’s make October even more fun than it already is. Let’s get really wild. Join #TeamChaos.

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox

For the fans of these eight teams, the next month will be one of anticipation, sorrow, glee and a plethora of other feelings. The Royals have a shot, albeit a very small shot. As of this morning, Fangraphs has their odds at 6.9% of gaining a wild card spot, while the Twins have a 47.7% chance. When baseball went to this format for the playoffs, there were many (myself included) who decried it and figured it would not be a positive for the sport. Instead, it has given teams hope and opened up a whole new window to the possibilities in the game. If you’re a Royals fan, you remember 2014 and how winning that wild card game gave them a whole new lease on not only that season but the seasons to follow. Maybe this is why I want utter chaos at the end of the season and want multiple tie-breaker games before we even get to the wild card game. Maybe I just want more baseball. Or maybe I realize this could be a springboard for some other playoff hopeful and could turn around a franchise the way it did for Kansas City. Whatever the case, keep an eye on the standings. I promise, the next month will not be boring.

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio Episode 5: Salvy’s Back!

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After a lengthy layoff, Bleeding Royal Blue Radio returns with a jam packed episode! Sean Thornton is joined this week by Scott Hayes as they discuss Salvador Perez’s return, the Kelvin Herrera injury, the wild American League Wild Card race, some playoff discussion, Mike Trout’s push for the AL MVP, MLB’s Little League game and much much more. Listen, share and leave any feedback here.

 

Jason Vargas, Elite Pitcher

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

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

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

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

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

Brooksbaseball-Chart (2)

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

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

Brooksbaseball-Chart (3)

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

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

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

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

Kansas City’s Offensive Offense

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It’s highly doubtful that anyone would have predicted that the Kansas City Royals offense would be as pitiful as it has been 18 games into the 2017 campaign. In fact, the stench wafting from the Kansas City offense has become so heavy that it has raised a whole slew of questions moving forward: Who needs to sit? Who should get sent down? Who should be called up? When will Jorge Soler be ready? When will the first player be traded? It feels like they go through these offensive droughts on a yearly basis because…well, because they do. We all remember July 2016. We remember the new batting coaches the team employed in back to back May’s, including hiring George Brett  to help out. This team has been notorious for its offensive struggles, but the timing this year is worse, as it will be the final year of its main core of the lineup; in fact, if things don’t change, guys like Moose, Hos and LoCain could be dealt before we even get to the trading deadline. So just how bad is it?

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Let’s start with a few numbers to break down how comatose the bats are. The big stat that has been thrown out there is the team’s batting average with runners in scoring position: .153, last in all of baseball. It doesn’t get much better with two outs and runners in scoring position: .102, which earns them last in the American League. Last in runs, last in RBI’s, last in slugging percentage, next to last in on-base percentage,  last in wRC+, and next to last in WAR…and this is for all of baseball, not just the American League. The struggle is real and floats all the way down the lineup; here is the regular lineup (or at least what has been the most used lineup) and their individual wRC+, with league average being 100:

Gordon-35

Moustakas-152

Cain-150

Hosmer-41

Perez-118

Moss-56

Orlando- -13

Mondesi- -8

Escobar-30

Three starting players are above league average and the rest are way below that line. In fact, two players sit in the negative column and both of them (Orlando and Mondesi) were sent to AAA last week. Sure, Cain and Moose are hitting good and getting on-base, but does it matter when no one can drive them in? It doesn’t help that the team has hit into 18 double plays, which amazingly is only the 6th most in the AL. But that 18 hurts more when you factor in how little this team is getting on base in the first place, which means they seem to be killing any rally that gets started. So with the numbers glaring us all in the face, one has to ask the question–what is causing this slump?

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There is no bigger factor than looking at what pitches the Royals are swinging at. So far this year, the batters are swinging at 34.3% of pitches outside the strike zone, leading the AL. Fascinating enough, the team is also swinging at 70.2% of pitches within the strike zone (tops in the AL), which means this team is swinging at almost everything being tossed up there. The sad part is that they are only making contact 75% of the time, which earns them 2nd worst in the American League behind only Tampa Bay. The Royals are swinging and missing at pitches 12.5% of the time, the 2nd highest in the AL as well. This shouldn’t be too surprising to long time fans, since this has long been a  ‘put the ball in play’ team who rarely takes a walk. The problem is a lot of the times they just aren’t putting the ball in play and that is killing their offense in the process. In an interesting side-note, the team actually isn’t last in walks so far in 2017, as they have walked 47 times, which sits them in 13th place in the AL. I bring this up for one very big reason: teams that walk more often can power through slumps easier if they are patient and get on base with a free pass rather than get a hit. Because the Royals aren’t a team that walks, their slumps appear worse since they aren’t utilizing their patience the way they probably should. Remember folks, a walk is as good as a hit, and in many cases it also means you are driving the pitcher’s pitch count up. In my mind, that is a win-win situation.

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The other factor that is hurting the offense is how they are hitting the ball. The Royals have the highest soft hit rate in the AL so far this year (23.8%) while racking up the third lowest hard hit rate (26.6%). Kansas City just isn’t hitting the ball hard and it is showing in the offensive output. The team has put a stronger emphasis on hitting for power this year, but it appears to have backfired, or at least it appears that way in the numbers. The Royals have the 4th highest pull percentage in the league (42%) yet their line drive rate sits at only 20.3%, which is 8th best. The team’s HR/FB ratio sits at 10.7% (10th in the AL) while their fly ball rate sits at only 35.1%. This team hits the ball on the ground way too regularly, as their ground ball to fly ball ratio is the 5th worst in the league (1.27, only .41 behind the Angels, who have the worst). The most alarming stat among these numbers is the infield fly ball rate, which is the second worst in the junior circuit (13.4%). The whole name of the game right now in baseball is elevating the ball, yet there is such a thing as bad elevation. The Royals appear to be doing that and there is no Royals batter who is averaging above 90 mph in exit velocity so far in 2017. It’s very obvious what Kansas City would benefit from; more hits off the barrel of the bat and less swinging on a downward plane. It is easy to say, but not as simple to do.

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So can the offense pull out of this? Of course they can. As we sit here on Monday, the Royals have only played 11% of their games, so there is more than enough time for the offense to turn things around. In fact, in year’s past we have seen Kansas City do just that. The issue is that if things are going to turn around, it needs to happen sooner than later. The worst case scenario is for the bats to stay cold and the team decides they aren’t in a hunt for a playoff spot. If that happens, there is a good chance a few of the impending free agents could be available on the trade market. This is worst case, but very real as well. Do I believe this Royals team is this bad at the plate? No. Are there issues that need to be addressed? Obviously. If the team could swing a little less, be a bit more patient and drive the ball more, good things will eventually happen. The only question becomes ‘how long will that take’? Hopefully we have an answer soon, as in this week. The last thing we want to see is Kansas City continuing to struggle offensively into May.

 

An Angelic Sweep

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We all knew the Kansas City Royals wouldn’t stay down all season long. It was just a matter of time until the team would rattle off a nice little winning streak to bring them up to .500 ball, and the series against the Los Angeles Angels ended up doing the trick. The funny thing is, it’s not like the Royals offense awoke from their slumber and became the 1927 New York Yankees; in fact, Kansas City only scored 5 runs in this series. But what they did get was some outstanding starting pitching.

Angels Royals Baseball

While most of us expected the starting pitching to be better in 2017, so far it has outperformed even the most optimistic of us Royals fans, and the trio of Danny Duffy, Nate Karns and Ian Kennedy were spectacular this weekend. Duffy threw 7 innings of one run ball on Friday night (Game Score of 71), Karns threw 6 innings and gave up just one run (Game Score of 61) and Kennedy threw the real jewel, 8 innings of shutout baseball (Game Score of 86) on Sunday. The Royals starting pitching lead the American League in ERA (2.31), FIP (3.15), Home Runs per 9 (0.49) and tied for the best WAR (1.6 with Baltimore). Now, none of us expect them to be this stellar for the entirety of the season, but even if they keep things above league average, most of us would consider that a win for this ballclub. But as good as the starting pitching has been, the team won’t be allowed to lean on it all year, as at some point the Royals offense is going to have to produce.

Angels Royals Baseball

If you are a Royals fan, you have seen this song and dance before from the offense. For whatever reason, the Royals offense struggles in the early months of each season, or they at least have for a number of years now. Remember when Kansas City had to replace their hitting coaches two May’s in a row a few years back? This Royals offense is fully capable of being above league average (or at least AT league average) but they are also a streaky bunch. So far in 2017, the Royals are last in on-base percentage and next to last in runs, RBI’s, wRC+ and WAR, with only the woeful Blue Jays worst than them. Probably the most surprising is the slugging percentage, which is also next to last in the American League, despite being 8th in the AL in home runs hit. The Royals are hitting home runs, but very little else. In fact, what a perfect time for ‘Fun with Numbers’:

Mike Moustakas-.683 slugging percentage

Lorenzo Cain-.490 on-base percentage, 21.6% walk rate

Brandon Moss- 3 hits (2 home runs) and 6 walks

Eric Hosmer-62.2% ground ball rate

Moustakas seems to have turned a corner, as a hitter who has figured out what pitches he can drive and which ones to go with. Moose is pulling the ball 46.9% of the time and while the preference is a hitter who can use all parts of the field, so far his pull heavy results are turning up positive. On the other side of the spectrum is Hosmer. It feels like I have beaten that horse to death, so the only thing I will mention is that Craig Brown of Baseball Prospectus Kansas City wrote a great piece on Hos and his struggles, which pretty much sums up how I feel about him, just without all the cursing.

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Once again, the defense was front and center this past weekend. Top of the list is this great grab by Raul Mondesi:

Lorenzo Cain made a great grab on Easter Sunday:

and even Eric Hosmer got into the action:

While the starting pitching has been spectacular, this Royals team is built around their defense and they continue to excel. There has been some speculation on how long the Royals will go with Mondesi at second base, but a big part of why he got the job was because of his defense. As long as he makes big plays to help the pitching, he will get the chance to improve on his hitting.

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While the Angels aren’t world-beaters, they can be a dangerous offensive team and the Royals held them in check. A couple of notes to think about this week as the Giants return to Kansas City for the first time since the 2014 World Series (yes, Bumgarner is scheduled to pitch on Wednesday; boo accordingly). One, Joakim Soria has been lights out, not allowing a run in 6 innings of work so far in 2017; look for his role to increase moving forward. Two, Buster Posey was activated today and will be in the lineup for the Giants. Three, let’s see how the Royals do with runners in scoring position. So far this year, they are hitting .158 with RISP and .065 with RISP and 2 outs. Kansas City needs to improve on that if they want to stay above .500. With the temperatures picking up, it’s time for the Royals bats to start heating up as well. If not, the ground they made up this week was all for naught.

 

 

My 2017 MLB Predictions

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Ah, yes…Opening Day is upon us as we embark on a new Major League Baseball season. For the majority of teams, this is a time of hope and optimism. For a few, there is more of a glance to the future than the present. As baseball fans, every year we throw out our predictions, hoping by mid-season they aren’t a big colossal mass of hilarity. I don’t take my predictions super-serious, but I’m always hopeful that I am at least within the vicinity of reality. So without further ado, my predictions for the upcoming season.

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American League East

  1. Boston Red Sox
  2. Toronto Blue Jays
  3. Tampa Bay Rays
  4. New York Yankees
  5. Baltimore Orioles

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American League Central

  1. Cleveland Indians
  2. Kansas City Royals
  3. Detroit Tigers
  4. Minnesota Twins
  5. Chicago White Sox

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American League West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Seattle Mariners
  4. Los Angeles Angels
  5. Oakland A’s

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National League East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Philadelphia Phillies
  5. Atlanta Braves

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals

National League Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Cincinnati Reds
  5. Milwaukee Brewers

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Milwaukee Brewers

National League West

  1. Los Angeles Dodgers
  2. San Francisco Giants
  3. Colorado Rockies
  4. Arizona Diamondbacks
  5. San Diego Padres

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Awards

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American League MVP: Carlos Correa, Houston

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American League Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto

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American League Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi, Boston

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National League MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona

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National League Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles

Angels Dodgers Spring Baseball

National League Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger, Los Angeles

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Playoff Teams 

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American League

Division Winners: Boston, Cleveland, Houston

Wild Cards: Toronto, Kansas City

American League Champions: Toronto

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National League

Division Winners: Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles

Wild Cards: New York, San Francisco

National League Champions: Washington

USP MLB: ALDS-TEXAS RANGERS AT TORONTO BLUE JAYS S BBA CAN ON

Am I super confident about my picks? Nope. Baseball is a funny thing, largely because of the length of the season. There are so many twists and turns that there is no way to truly predict how it will all shake down. What I can say with confidence is that another fun, memorable season is getting ready to start and I can’t wait. The best part about baseball is the storyline that it revolves around. I can’t wait to see how this whole thing unfolds. Last October, we had a great Cleveland/Chicago World Series; what do the baseball God’s have in store for us this year? Truly, only time will tell.

 

The Life and Times of David DeJesus

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

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