A Royal Thank You

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

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

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Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lifting the Blueprint

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The Milwaukee Brewers have been on quite a tear these last few weeks and it’s been hard not to get caught up in all the fun. They can hit, they can run, they like to flash the leather and they can pitch. For us Royals fans, this team looks oddly familiar.

Sure, there are the familiar faces littering the roster. It’s easy to get wrapped up in watching Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas and even Erik Kratz (Erik Kratz!!) have postseason success. Throw in Joakim Soria, Jeremy Jeffress and even Manny Pina and at times it feels more like a Kansas City reunion than an October playoff run.

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But maybe more than all of that is Milwaukee’s focus on their bullpen. The Brewers have had no qualms in October with pulling their starting pitching early and letting the pen take over the game. Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell has figured out how to utilize his relievers and configure them to help achieve the wins needed to parlay that into a trip to the World Series.

Hold on. That sounds really familiar. What other team rode one of the best bullpens in baseball all the way to the World Series? Yes, it would be the Royals. In fact, many within the game believe Kansas City’s use of high power arms in the back-end of the game was a precursor to about every single postseason team that has followed. The latest to steal the Royals formula are the Brewers and so far, so good.

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But that begs an interesting question: If the Royals are the template, has Milwaukee improved on the original? Watching the Brewers roll out Josh Hader and Jeffress and Soria and Corey Knebel has really sparked a question of the two bullpens and just how comparable they really are. So lets figure out which is the better pen…

For this project I had to make a decision on which year would I go off of for the Kansas City. After some studying it appears we are going with the group from 2014, which was slightly better according to fWAR. This would also coincide with the Royals first appearance in the postseason this decade, as it is for Milwaukee.

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Credit: Associated Press

Let’s start with some base numbers to start things off: Milwaukee relievers threw 614 innings this season, compiling an ERA of 3.47, an xFIP of 3.47 while striking out 10.38 batters per 9 innings. Meanwhile, the Royals pen only through 464 innings back in 2014, posting an ERA of 3.30, an xFIP of 3.54, while striking out 8.65 batters per 9. If we are talking WAR, the ‘Brew Crew’ had 7.1 while Kansas City only had 5.1 wins above replacement.

Going by the early numbers, it is already apparent the drastic shift in bullpen usage over the last couple of seasons. Milwaukee relievers threw 150 more innings this season than the Royals did in the 2014 campaign. Even going off of the 2015 Royals pen, the Brewers still tossed 75 more innings than the world championship squad. So in just four short years, there has been a noticeable difference in how pitchers are being used in the regular season, a change that is probably slightly attributed to how the Kansas City relievers were utilized in those two Octobers.

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With that said, the early numbers paint a picture of the Milwaukee pen being slightly better, as they had a slightly better xFIP, slightly higher K’s per 9 and a 2 win bump in WAR. But one can make the argument that the increase in WAR could be due to the massive difference in innings pitched, since WAR is an accumulative stat. The more innings you pitch, the more chances you have to increase your wins above replacement.

The strike outs are also interesting here, since most tend to go more off of K rate rather than per 9. The Brewers strike out rate this year was 27.6% (best in the National League), while the ’14 Royals put up a 23% rate. Considering the increase in strike outs across the league over the last couple seasons and how more batters work on elevating the ball while hitting for more power, it shouldn’t be too surprising to see how these numbers panned out.

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But how do the strike outs compare to the walks allowed? Going off of Walk %, the Brewers had a higher percentage, 9.5% compared to 8.8% by the Royals. When it comes to K-BB%, Milwaukee shines again as they posted a 18.1% while Kansas City had a 14.3%. Once again, part of this could be chalked up to the increase in strike outs. But it does appear on the surface that the Brewers are a pen built on more strike out relievers than the Royals.

That is backed up simply by looking at how many of the relievers on these two teams had a strike out rate over league average. League average in 2018 is 22.3% and Milwaukee had seven relievers with a rate higher than that. In 2014, the league average was 20.4%, and the Royals had only three relievers over that threshold. If we are talking the highest strike out rate, Josh Hader had 46.7% this year while Wade Davis had 39.1%. In fact, Hader and Corey Knebel both had a higher rate of punching out batters than Wade Davis did back in 2014.

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So the numbers appear to skew a bit closer to Milwaukee’s side at this point, but we are not quite done breaking down the numbers. When it comes to WHIP (Walks plus Hits per Innings Pitched), the two teams are almost identical, as Milwaukee has a 1.25 and Kansas City pulled in a 1.24. This means the two teams were almost uniform in how many base runners they were allowing per innings pitched, which would essentially phase out the innings difference.

They were also similar when it came to Batting Average on Balls in Play, as the Royals posted a .293 batting average, while Milwaukee’s was .297. While a part of me wondered if the Brewers relievers were throwing slightly harder (based off the higher use of power arms in bullpens now compared to then and Milwaukee’s higher strike out rate), the truth is that the two teams had an almost identical average fastball velocity. Back in 2014, the Royals relievers averaged 93.5 mph while the Brewers this year averaged 93.9 mph.

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Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

In fact even if you tossed in fastball usage, the Royals relievers actually threw their fastball more on average than Milwaukee. The Royals relievers back in 2014 threw a fastball 63.2% of the time while the Brewers only threw it 61.8% this year.

I wondered if maybe Milwaukee was throwing more breaking balls than Kansas City did, but once again it was pretty close. The Royals used a slider 18.5% of the time and a curveball 7%. On the other side of the coin, Milwaukee used a slider 17.2% this year and a curve 10% of the time. While each team used a different breaking ball more often, the numbers are close enough to where they could probably meet in the middle.

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If we really want to break things down, you start factoring win probability into the equation. In a very unsurprising development, these two teams were once again are ‘neck and neck’ in WPA; the Royals posted 8.09 win probability in ’14 while the Brewers had 8.06. In a bit of a shock though, the two teams RE24 showed a big gap. Milwaukee posted an impressive 59.96 RE24 this year while the Royals had 31.10. Since run expectancy is another accumulative statistic, I do wonder here if the extra innings compiled by the Brewers relievers played a factor in the almost 29 point difference. If so, you wonder how closer the two teams would be if they had thrown the same number of innings.

There was one final factor I wanted to venture into and that was the defensive aspect of this conversation. It was very well known that the 2014 Royals squad had a great defense and there was no way the pitching didn’t benefit from that defense. With that said, this Milwaukee team has also put up a solid defensive campaign, with Cain and Moustakas obviously being the two comparable links.

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If we are going by defensive runs saved, it is no contest: the Brewers had 112 DRS while the Royals put up only 34. But there is also Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF), which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average. If we are comparing each team’s DEF, the Royals win easily over Milwaukee, 65.5 compared to 29.9. I’m always a bit hesitant when using defensive metrics but the one thing you can take from these numbers is that both bullpens benefited from the glovework done out on the field while they were in the game.

So which pen is better? It appears to be a very close race and I almost feel skeptical in picking a winner. But if I absolutely had to, I would probably say Milwaukee’s is slightly better, with a few more weapons at their disposal. The one thing we can agree on is that we wouldn’t even be having this discussion if not for how Dayton Moore built his teams to weigh so heavily on the shoulders of the relievers. That template has become a staple all around baseball and not just by the Brewers.

It will also be curious to see where Milwaukee ends up. The Royals bullpen got them all the way to Game 7 of the World Series in 2014, and then a world championship the following year. Will the Brewers ride their pen to the World Series or will the high usage of their relievers be their downfall? It is a question we will know the answer to soon enough.

Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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As Kansas City Royals fans, we all have a different reaction when we hear anyone mention ‘The Process’. Dayton Moore coined the term years ago to define what the organization was doing as part of their team-building strategy. Before 2014, if you were a Royals fan and you mentioned ‘The Process’, you were probably doing it with your tongue firmly planted into your cheek.

But then the trip to the 2014 World Series happened. Then Kansas City took home the gold and became world champions in 2015. Once Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to wrap up the title that year, any mention of Dayton’s term was meant mostly with sincere intent.

Wrong Way Royals Baseball
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After the 2017 campaign, it was pretty well known that the Royals were in a position to rebuild and with that came the return of ‘The Process’. The Royals will probably never be a team that goes out and spends lavishly in free agency, so the main framework of any team in Kansas City would have to be done by building up the farm system.

Which is what Moore set out to do this season. The Royals came into the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball. MinorLeagueBall.com had them ranked last while Baseball America had them ranked 29th. It honestly didn’t matter who was evaluating the organization, as almost everyone ranked the minor league system as one of the worst in the game.

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It was obvious that one of Moore’s goals this summer was to “restock the shelves”, so to speak. It appeared to begin early in June, as Jon Jay was dealt to Arizona for a couple of arms, Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Twelve days later, Kelvin Herrera was traded to Washington for a trio of minor league players, third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel.

You can see where this is going. Funny thing is that Dayton didn’t just shop at one store. While the trades helped, he used other methods to improve the talent coming up through the minor leagues. There was the signing of pitcher Yefri del Rosario back in December, a player who was granted free agency from the Atlanta Braves after incurring international signing violations.

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Add a couple more international signings to the list in Wilmer Candelario and Omar Florentino, both from the Dominican. The Royals even stretched their search all the way  in Japan, as the team signed 16-year-old pitcher Kaito Yuki. The Royals wanted Yuki to get himself acclimated to the United States first, so he should make his professional debut in 2019.

But the biggest splash might have been felt from the draft. In one fell swoop, the Royals drafted a number of college arms in Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Bowlan and Kris Bubic. The farm system was in desperate need of some arms with upside and this appeared to have done the trick, as almost all these pitchers (outside of Singer) were thrown into the low minors upon their signing.

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The farm system has always been the main focal point for Moore, but he also started piecing together a younger foundation for the major league club. Hunter Dozier was recalled in May. Adalberto Mondesi got the call in June. Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez were acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade with Milwaukee. Slowly but surely, Dayton was piecing together a vision of the Royals future.

But the move that really felt like Kansas City was in full “Process” mode was Ryan O’Hearn getting the call to the big leagues. O’Hearn numbers weren’t anything special down in AAA yet they called him up to give him a shot. O’Hearn took the opportunity and ran with it, producing a line of .262/.353/.597 over 44 games and an OPS+ of 155.

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Throw in Brad Keller’s outstanding rookie season and Whit Merrifield’s ascension to being a five-win player and it appears ‘The Process’ is farther along then even Moore might have imagined it would be. This is not to say a playoff run is in the near future; that would just be a ludicrous dream riddled with disappointment. But there is one more factor that could solidify that Kansas City is on the right track.

It was announced on Sunday that manager Ned Yost would be back for at least one more year in 2019. While some will cringe at the thought of Neddy’s return, there is an important factor to remember:

The Royals have had numerous prospects move up through their system over the last 7-8 years and while some were among the biggest prospects in baseball, a number of them were not highly touted at all. Not all of this can be attributed to Yost and his work with younger players, but some of that success should be credited to him. Without him, a Salvador Perez or a Kelvin Herrera (just to name a couple) might not have turned into the All-Star caliber players they have been in their career.

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With Yost at the helm, the next wave of talent to move up to Kansas City should get the advantage of sitting under the learning tree. Yost has shown a penchant these last few years to just let the players go out and play, and that might be just what they need. The truth is that Yost is just as much a part of ‘The Process’ as any of the talent in the Kansas City system.

So while we might still snicker when Dayton starts talking about his game plan, the truth is that it worked once before. While we might question his focus at times, the bigger picture appears to be a mix of patience and trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day and ‘The Process’ initially didn’t pay off for a number of years. The good news is that the ship appears to be righted and back on course. It might be a bumpy ride on the way there, but you have to hope it ends up at the right destination.

A Winning Formula

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Credit: AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

You’ve probably noticed but in case you haven’t, the Kansas City Royals have been playing good baseball as of late. The team is 16-14 over their last 30 games and 12-8 over the last 20. It has felt like night and day in comparison with how the Royals performed during the first two months of the season. So what has changed to cause all this winning?

The most obvious answer is the influx of young talent in the Royals lineup on a daily basis. Ryan O’Hearn, Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier and Brett Phillips have all become regulars for Kansas City and while a few of those names have been on the roster for months now, they have never looked as comfortable as they have recently. This change has not only been a spark for the lineup, but has really shifted the morale in the clubhouse.

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It also helps that the offense has been one of the best in the league over this past month. The Royals are 1st in slugging and ISO(tied for the lead with Oakland and Toronto), 2nd in wOBA, BABIP and batting average, 3rd in WAR and RBI’s and 4th in wRC+, runs, home runs and OBP. They have the second best hard hit rate over that span and the 5th best win probability added in the AL. The offense is leading the way and producing at a level we really haven’t seen from Kansas City since 2015.

But maybe the most important shift has been the Royals increased emphasis on running the basepaths. The Royals are first in the league in stolen bases and BsR over the last month and fourth in Ultimate Base Running (UBR). Early in the season, Kansas City wasn’t running as often and it made sense why. At that point, the lineup was filled with older and slower players like Mike Moustakas and Lucas Duda, players who aren’t exactly known for their speed. Factor in the colder weather as well, and Kansas City was a very station-to-station team.

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But in the last 30 days, the team has made speed a potent part of their offense. Whit Merrifield, Mondesi and Alex Gordon (yes, ALEX F. GORDON!) have all been taking advantage of their baserunning expertise and Whit is even tied for the league lead in BsR over that span. This has allowed the Royals batters more situations with runners in scoring position and given them more opportunities to drive in those runners. All this equals a greater chance for runs and the Royals have taken advantage of it.

So the offense has been a big part of the Royals recent success, but it isn’t the only element that has improved. Kansas City’s starting pitching has been just as vital for the team’s success as the bats. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starters have the 3rd best ERA, HR per 9 and HR/FB rate, 4th best WAR, WPA, BB per 9 and WHIP and 5th best FIP and xFIP. The Royals starters have thrown the 2nd most innings in that span (152.1 innings, only behind Cleveland) and while they haven’t been a dominating bunch (they’ve posted a 19.3% K rate in the last month, which is only 10th best in the league) they have found a way to get outs.

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The most accurate representation of how they have been getting the job done would appear to be how the ball is being put into play. The Royals starters have allowed the third best ground ball rate and are 14th in fly ball rate, which is next to last. So they are making the opposing batters put the ball on the ground more, allowing the infield to be put to good use. The Royals have a very good defensive infield and it appears the team is working to their strength in that regard.

On the opposite end of that spectrum, they are not allowing as many fly balls which would also explain the lack of homers allowed. Many of the teams in the American League are built to be home run teams, so when that is stifled it would appear to be a big blow into their offensive output. It really appears like the starting pitching is working smarter, not harder.

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Combine all of these efforts and you get a winning month for the Kansas City Royals. It appears that the shift to youth has been the right move for this franchise and hopefully is a springboard for expectations over the next couple of years.

What will be the most interesting aspect to follow is whether or not the team is able to take the experience from the last month and transfer that over into the 2019 season. While success in September should sometimes be taken with a grain of salt due to everything from roster call-ups to playoff teams resting their regulars more often, the Royals are doing a number of things right and it has led to success. This won’t mean the team will become a winning ballclub again next season, but it does create some hope and intrigue that wasn’t there just a few months ago.

Man at Work

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It’s hard not to like new Kansas City Royals outfielder Brett Phillips. Whether it’s interacting with family and friends in his return to his hometown or his infectious laugh, it’s pretty easy to cheer for this guy. Or maybe you are like me and just enjoy his humor:

But there are more than enough reasons to be a fan of Mr. Phillips. For one, his defense is above average as we have already seen in his short Royals career:

So at this point, envisioning Phillips staying in Kansas City for the foreseeable future seems like a lock, right? With that said, there is one part of his game that needs some minor tweaking and that is his ability at the plate.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Now this isn’t a shock to anyone who had read the scouting reports on Phillips before or after he was acquired. For awhile now his hitting has been the one thing holding him back. Here is one such report from last summer:

My guess is that his batting average and OBP will be inconsistent, at least at first, but that his power and defense will make him a viable option even when he’s having contact troubles. He’s only 23 and still has a lot of development time. He has a shot at being a multi-category regular and at worst should be a valuable platoon player.

It’s lucky for both Phillips and the Royals that they have the time over the next few years to give him the room to grow. His raw tool set is going to make it a priority to allow him the time and see how far along he comes over the next two years.

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Credit: Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

The good news is that there are already some positives in his short tenure in Kansas City, albeit in a small sample size. For one, his line drive rate is sitting at 29% over the last month, which is a pretty healthy increase over his minor league career. While it would be nice to see him get the ball in the air slightly more with his power potential, line drives are always a sign of good contact and with his speed it can actually become an extra advantage for him.

He also has put up an impressive .355 BABIP during this span, which is telling us two different stories. One aspect of his BABIP is that when he does hit the ball, there is a good chance it is turning into a hit. The other aspect screams that he is striking out way too much, which means he isn’t getting the ball in play as much as one would like.

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Phillips has struck out 25 times in 63 plate appearances as of Tuesday, which gives him at a 39.7% strike out rate. The last couple of seasons have seen his strike outs increase in the minor leagues, which feels like a direct correlation to the increase in his power numbers.

Most of us are aware that if a player is trying to hit for more power there should be an expectation that his strike outs will also see a bump. The goal for Phillips is to work on making more contact while not sacrificing too much power in the process. As we have seen over the years (with Mike Moustakas being the most recent) it could take a while for the power to completely develop and a lot of times is just a step in the maturation process.

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Phillips has posted a pretty good walk rate throughout the minors and while it is a bit lower over the past month (7.9%), it also feels like the small sample size makes this a moot point. The walks will come, more than likely, as he continues to adjust to his new team.

The power should also come, although the numbers tend to hint that he isn’t too far off. Out of his 12 hits in a Royals uniform so far, 5 have been for extra bases. There are some concerns (hard hit rate is at 28.1% over the last month, lower than Rosell Herrera) but it might be wise to remember the adjustment period he is going through right now.

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Phillips has gone from not only a new team, but is dealing with a new league and even to a degree still adjusting to the big leagues. Before the trade to Kansas City, Phillips had only appeared in 122 plate appearances, which is slightly more than a months worth of appearances on average for a big league hitter. There is a lot being thrown his way to deal with and his level of comfort is probably not as high as it normally would be.

The good news is that there are a lot of positives to deal with as well. It will be interesting to see how he performs in September, considering he would have had a full month with his new team and hopefully has built up a decent amount of confidence by then.

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Phillips has a number of tools that should help him along the way and give him the ability to work around any complications. It might not occur all at once the rest of this year or next, but since the Royals have to look at the bigger picture it’s not always about immediate gratification.

Instead, it will be about following his progress. Phillips isn’t going to turn into an All-Star overnight but there is no reason to think he won’t be a productive part of the lineup sooner rather than later. There will be bumps in the road and I’m sure at times we will see him struggle mightily. But the template is there; all it will take is for Phillips and the Royals to put in the work.

 

 

 

Younger Days

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This was it. This was supposed to be the beginning of a new era of Kansas City Royals baseball, an era of rebuilding that would shape the foundation of the organization for not only the next few years but years beyond. 2018 was going to be the year we all look back on and see the outline of a master plan that would come to fruition around 2021-2022. Instead, we are sitting almost five months deep into the season wondering what the point of this season was.

Dayton Moore has been preparing us for this rebuild for more than a year, knowing full well that the team would be losing a number of free agents after the 2017 season. He knew that financially it wouldn’t make sense to bring back the entire group and that it was time to move forward. That would normally mean allowing younger players to infiltrate the roster. But is that how it has gone down?

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Early in spring training the Royals went out and filled some holes on the roster with veterans, as they locked up Jon JayLucas Duda and Mike Moustakas. For the most part there was “no harm, no foul”, as Kansas City didn’t spend much on any of the three while giving the team trade bait for later in the summer.

For the most part that is how it has played out, as Jay and Moustakas have both been dealt and Duda is still a possibility to be traded later this month. So while these three have been taking up roster spots, they weren’t blocking a player who was ready to play in the big leagues.

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Credit: Associated Press

But there are some major question marks when it comes to a segment of the veterans still on the club and the amount of playing time they have been receiving lately. For example, over the last week or so we have seen Drew Butera make a couple starts at not only catcher but even first base. Yes, first base where he had started a total of two games before this season.

Four starts in one week for Butera feels like a lot. The guy is a solid backup catcher and appears to work well with the pitching staff. Should he be starting at a position he has played at sparingly when you have two youngsters (Hunter Dozier and Ryan O’Hearn) who actually play the position fairly regularly? Probably not. I won’t go as far as saying it is hurting their development but starting Butera over them this past week felt like a real head scratcher.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

How about everyone’s favorite punching bag, Alcides Escobar? It’s hard to justify his playing time with a line of .204/.257/.283 and -0.9 fWAR and yet he is in the lineup more often than not. Adalberto Mondesi has shown that offensively he is an improvement over Escobar and defensively has been superior for years now. Yet over the two months since being recalled, he has only started 31 games in the field.

Out of a group of six rookies (which does not include Mondesi, since he passed his rookie status before this season) that have played for the Royals this season, they have compiled 527 plate appearances, or only 108 more than Escobar. Whether it is allowing these players to ease into the big leagues or just not giving them a bigger role, these prospects have not gotten the experience many of us expected them to receive as the season progressed.

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Credit: Associated Press

It’s been a slightly different story for the pitching staff, as a number of rookies have been given more prominent roles. Brad Keller has probably been the pitcher of the year for Kansas City so far, posting a 3.57 ERA, 3.64 FIP and 1.3 fWAR. The Royals rookie pitchers (ten in total) have thrown 346 out of the team’s 1033 innings. Keller and fellow Rule 5 Draft Pick Burch Smith have thrown the most out of the bunch, 88.1 and 60.2 respectively.

Six Royals rookies have tossed 30 innings or more this year, including relievers Tim Hill and Jason Adam. It is hard to argue that the team is not giving some of the younger arms in the organization an opportunity to pitch this year when 4/5 of the current rotation are rookies. Then why does it feel like they could go even younger?

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Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The new “Black Hole of Death” appears to be in the bullpen, where Brandon Maurer, Jason Hammel and Blaine Boyer are taking up space. All three have struggled this year and have hurt the team on the field more than any value the rookies receive from their veteran leadership. It has been suggested that the club should cut bait with these three and give some of the arms in Omaha an opportunity…and at this point it is hard to argue with that reasoning.

Is there any reason not to give Eric Stout or Trevor Oaks a longer look? Are control issues enough of a detriment to see whether Josh Staumont and Sam Selman can have success out of a major league bullpen? What about new acquisition Jorge Lopez? And how are we in the middle of August and there is still no sign of Richard Lovelady? In my eyes, it makes no sense to employ veterans like Maurer and Boyer when they just aren’t getting the job done. Give them a bus pass and lets see what some of the inexperienced arms can do.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Maybe my expectations were off course, but by this point in the season I presumed that the Royals would be employing one of the younger rosters in the league. Instead, they still feel really…old. By no means do I expect this team to be a cavalcade of 20 year olds, but I did expect the focus to be on the future. Instead, it feels like they are treading water.

Not every prospect is going to be ready and there is an appreciation for allowing them to develop at their own pace. But if the Royals are to contend again around 2021 (and that is the expectation in the front office) then they need to speed this process up. Giving at bats to Alcides Escobar or allowing Brandon Maurer another day on the roster isn’t helping anyone. For this to be a real rebuild, the Royals need to quit straddling the fence and move forward with players who could still be in Kansas City three years from now.

A Veteran’s Role

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

For every professional athlete, there comes a time when they must hang up the uniform and cope with the reality of life outside of their chosen profession. For many it comes sooner rather than later, while others hang on to the bitter end.

For Kansas City Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, that time is in the ‘sooner’ category. In fact, he has thought about what he wants to do when his 4-year, $72 million dollar deal is up after the 2019 season:

“Obviously, I’m getting up there in age in terms of not many years of me left playing,” he said. “I think I dealt with this mentally the last time I signed a contract. It depends on how I feel in one year and two months. Who knows? I may want to play longer. Or I may just want to be with my family. It’s the family decision that I think about most. [Retirement] crosses your mind.”

Gordon will be entering his age 35 season next year and by the time he is a free agent again he will be knocking on the door of 36. While his defense is still at an elite level (10 DRS so far in 2018 with an 8.6 UZR) the offense has taken a noticeable dip these last few years. Gordon is hitting . 251/.324/.356 with a wRC+ of 87 during this 2018 campaign.

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In fact, Gordon hasn’t had a wRC+ above the league average since 2015 and average is probably the best you can hope for from him moving forward. If we are being honest, even his defense has waned a bit, as he appears to have lost a step or two these last few years.

So with Alex entering the final year of his contract, it will be interesting to see how he is used moving forward. As long as no one is traded over the winter, the Royals will have a logjam in the outfield (and DH) as Gordon, Jorge Bonifacio, Rosell Herrera, Brett Phillips, Brian Goodwin, and Jorge Soler will be competing for four positions. If you did your math correctly, six doesn’t equal four, which means someone is probably bound to lose some playing time.

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With Gordon being the veteran of the group and his offensive struggles on full display these last three years, it’s very likely he could be the one seeing a reduced role next year. Kansas City needs to see what they have with some of these youngsters and allowing them the opportunity to play means more for the future of this organization. The Royals know what they have with Gordon and the good news is that even with a reduced role he should bring the team value next year.

For one thing, the day-to-day grind won’t wear on him the way it has in the past. Gordon has been on a tear over the last few weeks (.349/.404/.488 over the last 12 games) and he has mentioned that the time off from the All-Star break allowed him to re-charge himself. Gordon is still an above-average player (1.6 bWAR this year) and in theory the extra rest could be very beneficial for him the older he gets.

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Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

This doesn’t mean Gordon would never start or be used solely as a backup. There is a good chance that he would still get a few starts a week as part of an outfield rotation. It’s hard to imagine Gordon being relegated to the bench unless his offense falls back to 2017 levels. In this scenario, Alex would still collect a couple starts a week while allowing the younger players more regular at bats.

There is also a chance Gordon will see more action as a defensive replacement on the days he doesn’t start. With the Royals employing a number of outfielders either at or below league average, exploiting Gordon’s defense will improve the team late in the game while still getting him out on the field.

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But the biggest value Gordon has for next year is in his leadership. With the team skewing younger and younger these next couple of years, Gordon’s leadership will be invaluable to a group needing direction for the next level of their career. Gordon’s is more of a quiet, ‘follow my example’ type of leadership but one that is harder to teach.

Over the last seven years we have never heard of Alex Gordon being anything but a shining example to the younger players in the Royals clubhouse and I’m pretty sure there is a reason for that. Gordon has always appeared to be a selfless teammate and as he reaches the latter part of his career that characteristic might be one of the most essential.

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While we can bicker and debate all day whether or not the Royals should have re-signed him three years ago, there is no disputing whether or not he has produced at the level expected for the size of the deal. Gordon has underachieved and his contract has felt like an albatross around the Royals payroll these last couple of years.

But that doesn’t mean he has no value to the team moving forward. In fact, his most important role might just be waiting for him on deck. It won’t show up in the numbers and it won’t appear on a stat sheet, but what he teaches the up and coming Royals next year could be just as important as what he did for Moose, Hos and Salvy. It won’t get the glory, but the final chapter in his Kansas City career might just be the most significant.

Dayton Moore’s Altered Masterplan

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As the Kansas City Royals muddle through a rough 2018 campaign, it isn’t hard to veer off course and try to entertain yourself in different ways. Some focus on other sports, while others pick up a new hobby. For myself, I try to play a fun game of ‘Rex Bingo’ as I watch the bullpen implode or the offense struggle to muster three hits (and trust me, this game will be explained at a later date).

But Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has found a new, creative way of dealing with the Royals holding the second worst record in baseball. As the Moustakas trade was going down in the late hours of Friday night, Moore decided to throw a Molotov cocktail into a nice, peaceful losing season. Moore was tired of Rome burning:

“We didn’t want to do a prospect-type deal in this case, because of the nature of where we are at the major-league level and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Moore said on a conference call with reporters. “We don’t like losing games and we don’t like where we are right now with the major-league team, so we wanted to try to seek talent that was going to help us sooner than later.”

We’ve all known that Kansas City would be rebuilding this year and for the last few years Moore has done a good job of reminding every one of what expectations should be. But this shift in thinking lit Royals fandom into a fury that started stirring more questions than answers for Moore. In other words, what exactly is Dayton Moore focused on right now, rebuilding or the wins and losses of a bad Royals team?

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Credit: Getty Images

Before we go down this path, do remember that most baseball analysts have applauded the Moustakas trade and what Kansas City received in the deal. Personally, I felt it was a bigger haul than expected for a player who was essentially a two-month rental. So by no means are we questioning the value of the trade.

To go a step further, there really aren’t a ton of complaints about the Kelvin Herrera trade or the Jon Jay deal. Both moves helped replenish the farm system and coupled with the recent draft have deepened the value in the minor leagues. In both regards, it feels like Moore has done right by the future of the organization.

But the one question that is always posed when deals like these are made is whether or not the team was able to get the best value in return. Sometimes it is about filling a need, and other times it is about getting the best players available. Even when it comes to the Moose trade, these deals have felt like proper value considering who was traded, how much time was left on the players contract and whether or not the Royals were willing to eat salary (which is almost always never).

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

But Moore’s quote about wanting to improve the current roster feels like a big 180 degree turn. To be honest, in some ways it is hard to fathom why he would even care about wins or losses when the focus should be on development and planning for the future. If the current Royals team gets even 10 more wins than what they are on pace for, does it matter? In the scope of the bigger picture, are those extra wins helping this team become a contender sooner or appeasing some other master?

Because as much as the focus should be on procuring the future by letting some of the prospects play, it is important to also remember that baseball is a business. At the end of the day, upper management is (and should be) concerned about how much money is coming in and/or how much is going out. If we are being honest here, the Royals losing hurts business. Less wins equal fewer customers rolling through the turnstiles and that is a big part of the business side of this team.

But lets also not forget that the Royals are currently working on a new television deal, as the organization looks to replace one of the worst deals in baseball. It’s probably a safe assumption that the team will make a ridiculous amount of money off any new deal no matter how the performance on the field goes. But a winning team is easier to sell than one that has taken up residence near the bottom of the league.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So if Kansas City is trying to max out this new deal, they would obviously want to put their best foot forward. That would involve improving the ‘on the field product’ from what we have seen in the first half of the season. Now, Moore isn’t involved in these negotiations but he is the guy who would be able to make moves to improve the product on the diamond…and that involves seeking talent that can help them sooner rather than later.

So could this recent change in attitude be a byproduct of the TV deal? Possibly. It could also just be a knee-jerk reaction to all of the losing. The losing has obviously caused a stir in upper management:

“I’m embarrassed the way our major-league team has performed. OK? I didn’t necessarily expect us to be in the playoffs this year, but I didn’t expect us to be on pace to lose 100-plus games,” Moore said. “That’s embarrassing to me personally, it’s embarrassing to our organization. Mr. Glass doesn’t expect that, either, and so we’ve got to do a better job of that. (Former Tigers general manager) Bill Lajoie told me this a long time ago: major-league players aren’t paid to play, they’re paid to win. And so it’s our responsibility to get players on this major-league team that understand that and they have to go out and compete.”

At one point Moore had said he expected the Royals to be on pace to win 25 more games than the pace they are currently on. Most of us guessed before the season that the team would win in the vicinity of 68-76 games this year. The Royals have performed below expectations and obviously that is not sitting well with Moore or Glass.

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The good news is that as of right now, none of the moves made so far this season has led to a younger player not receiving the playing time he would need to develop. Sure, Alcides Escobar is still taking up residence in the lineup almost everyday but we knew that before the year began. As of right now, no one is being blocked.

But you do start to wonder where Moore’s head is. Is the rebuild still on with just slight alterations? Is he more willing to look at a player closer to being big league ready than one that is a few years away, even if the younger talent has a higher ceiling? Or will he start looking at veterans to help the bleeding stop?

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, Dan Szymborski of Fangraphs had some pointed comments toward the Kansas City front office. One of them really hits home right now:

While I’m not at a point where I’m ready to rally together the villagers with pitchforks and torches and ask for Moore’s head, I am asking the same question: Is there a master plan? And if there is, is it going to change again in a few more weeks? If there are more major changes, don’t be surprised when the villagers already have their weapons in tow.

Kansas City Wish Fulfillment

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

If you are taking stock of the first half of the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, most of your return would be a muddled mess. The Royals were in shambles, whether it was the offense, the rotation or the bullpen. Essentially the only reliability sat in their defense, which is leading the American League in UZR while coming in 8th in defensive runs saved.

But this isn’t a piece to prop up the defense or even bash the ineptitude we have seen for the first three and a half months of the season. Instead, this is that nugget of positivity you keep hoping for. This is the dream scenario where the blocks fall into place like on a Tetris grid.

What we’ve compiled is a wish list of sorts. It’s a few items of interest that if swayed the proper direction could benefit the Royals for the rest of this season into next. By no means should you take this as ‘This is how the Royals win the American League Central’, as that is just crazy talk. No, this is a view of ‘what could be’ if Kansas City plays their cards right these next few months.

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Trading Up

With the trade deadline looming in less than a week (July 31 to be exact), the Royals are in a good position to make some moves and add some depth to the organization. Mike Moustakas appears to be the main chip that Dayton Moore has to deal and a number of teams (Boston and Atlanta among them) have shown interest in the power-hitting slugger.

But after Moose there aren’t any certainties. Whit Merrifield would be a great acquisition for a team looking to pick up a versatile fielder with the ability to get on base, but Kansas City is in a position where they don’t have to deal him if they don’t like the offers they are receiving. At this point the likelihood of a Whit trade feels like a 50/50 chance…at best.

Two other names to keep an eye on would be Lucas Duda and Jason Hammel. Duda has been hitting .310/.394/.414 over his last nine games coming into Tuesday with a BABIP of .421. While on the surface Hammel’s shift to the bullpen has been a mixed bag, his velocity has gone up (as expected) and he appears to be assimilating to his new role.

Duda could possibly be dealt in August after clearing waivers to a team looking for a power bat but Hammel feels less likely. The combination of a poor season coupled with a high salary(that Kansas City is probably unwilling to eat) makes the likelihood of a trade probably slim. But if the Royals are given the opportunity, they should take it.

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Playing Younger

With the talk of veterans being dealt, that should open up more opportunities for some of the younger talent in the Kansas City farm system. One of the advantages of a rebuild is players getting a chance to prove themselves on a fairly regular basis. That opportunity appears to be looming.

We’ve already seen extended tryouts for guys like Adalberto Mondesi and Hunter Dozier. The pitching staff has been littered with youth, from Brad Keller and Burch Smith (two Rule 5 draftees) to Tim Hill and now Heath Fillmyer. Maybe I’m being selfish, but I would love to see a larger youth movement implemented these last two months.

At this point, I am game to hand out opportunities like pieces of PEZ. Would you like to see another youngster in the rotation? Let’s see what Trevor Oaks can do on an extended basis. How about the bullpen? We’ve heard about Richard Lovelady for a while, but it’s not too far-fetched to give Kevin Lenik an opportunity as well.

Offensively there aren’t as many options, but names like Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel could be interesting come September (despite their performances so far this season). Even guys we have seen already, like Cam Gallagher and Ramon Torres, could see some playing time as the season wears on.

Obviously not all of these names are going to produce and some will even show that they are not worth keeping around. But if a team is truly rebuilding, you owe it to yourself to hand out these opportunities and let the players run with it. Good or bad, it’s simply a matter of going out and proving their worth…and luckily, the Royals have the time to allow that to happen.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Rotation we were Expecting

Before the season started, a number of us felt like the Royals rotation could be a major plus for the team. In fact, I was one of those proponents:

While on the surface this is an underwhelming group of arms, there is potential here that could be reached if circumstances go the right way.

Most of the high expectations came from thinking the starters could outperform their 2017 numbers. Unfortunately, Ian Kennedy and Jason Hammel have not while Jakob Junis appeared to be on a fast-track to success early in the season and he has since fallen on hard times. There was also that Nate Karns guy, but who even knows if we will see him this season, as he rebounds from thoracic outlet syndrome surgery.

But there is some hope. Danny Duffy has looked superb over his last 11 starts, posting a 2.58 ERA while holding batters to a line of .217/.303/.296. Heath Fillmyer has been nothing short of sensational since being put in the rotation. Then there is Brad Keller, who has possibly been the biggest bright spot for Kansas City in a season full of dim bulbs.

If the Royals can get Junis back to his early season self (and his start over the weekend was encouraging) and audition either Burch Smith or Trevor Oaks for an extended period, this could be a rotation similar to what was originally expected. It won’t challenge the Atlanta Braves rotations of the early 90’s, but it doesn’t have far to go to top how the rotation performed in the first half.

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Credit: Getty Images

Fulfilled Expectations

While the other wishes were part of a grander scale, there are a few more items to keep your eye on in the second half that would drastically improve the ballclub.

Keep an eye on Whit Merrifield (if he isn’t traded) as he is on pace to topple most of his stats from 2017. Whit is currently hitting .299/.370/.420 with a wRC+ of 118 and 3.0 fWAR. While his power numbers have seen a slight decline (slugging percentage and ISO have seen the biggest dip) his overall numbers have been an improvement.

The rest of his numbers appear to have improved ( in fact his WAR is already better  than 2017), as his walk rate has seen an increase and his BABIP has risen to .356. While his strike out rate has gone up, we have also seen an uptick in the hard hit rate. If you are purely a fan of Whit’s power you might be disappointed, but otherwise it will be fun to watch him wrap up what appears to be his new peak this season.

Another interesting player to watch is Salvador Perez. A few weeks ago I took a look at Perez and his struggles. In that piece, I mentioned how it might not take much to turn around his season:

I’ll go a step further and say that if he combined that with his hard hit rate and maybe (just maybe) a dash of better luck on the balls he hits into play, Salvy could go from being the ‘disappearing hitter’ he was in June to helping ignite what little offense the Royals can muster on a consistent basis.

That luck has finally come around, as Salvy is hitting .269/.286/.481 over his last 13 games with 3 home runs and 12 RBI’s. But the improvement shows up in his BABIP, where he is hitting .314 in that span and contributing on almost a daily basis.

To break that down even further, Perez is hitting .273/.286/.576 in the last eight games with  an OPS of .861. While it may be just a small sample size, Salvy has been seeing more pitches per at bat while looking for a pitch to drive. It’s not hard to imagine him turning things around the next couple months and ending up with numbers comparable to year’s past.

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Obviously we would all like to see the Royals turn themselves back into contenders during the second half, but that just isn’t realistic. The good news is that their performance in the first half has set the bar very low for the last half of the season. It gives Kansas City a chance to show they aren’t quite as bad as they’ve played to this point.

There is a number of things you can wish for, but your best bet is to wish for improvement. Moving forward wins and losses shouldn’t matter as much as how the development is coming along for this team. It should be about finding out what they have and what they should keep moving forward. That is what should be at the top of any Royals fan’s wish list.

That and to never see Brandon Maurer in a high-leverage situation ever again.

 

 

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