Better Late Than Never: My 2019 Year End Awards

A few weeks ago, the BBWAA announced their year end award winners, mostly with approval amongst the baseball community. That also means that a group that I am a part of, the IBWAA, announced their winners as well. Per usual, I took part in the voting for all of the awards and normally I go through my picks in this space, breaking down my choices and why it went the way it did.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find the time to write about my votes, so instead you will get a condensed version this year. Before we get started, here are my winners from 2018. You will notice a big difference in articles this year, but I wanted to at least get my votes out there and see how close I was to the mass majority. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2019:

American League MVP: Mike Trout

My Top 3: 1-Trout, 2-Bregman, 3-Alvarez

IBWAA Winner: Mike Trout

BBWAA Winner: Mike Trout

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

My Top 3: 1-Yelich, 2-Bellinger, 3-Rendon

IBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

BBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

American League Cy Young Award: Gerrit Cole

My Top 3: 1-Cole, 2-Verlander, 3-Clevinger

IBWAA Winner: Justin Verlander

BBWAA Winner: Justin Verlander

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

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

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

American League Rookie of the Year: Yordan Alvarez

My Top 3: 1-Alvarez, 2-Biggio, 3-Anderson

IBWAA Winner: Yordan Alvarez

BBWAA Winner: Yordan Alvarez

National League Rookie of the Year: Pete Alonso

My Top 3: 1-Alonso, 2-Tatis, Jr., 3-Soroka

IBWAA Winner: Pete Alonso

BBWAA Winner: Pete Alonso

American League Manager of the Year: Aaron Boone

My Top 3: 1-Boone, 2-Baldelli, 3-Cash

IBWAA Winner: Rocco Baldelli

BBWAA Winner: Rocco Baldelli

National League Manager of the Year: Mike Shildt

My Top 3: 1-Shildt, 2-Martinez, 3-Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Mike Shildt

American League Reliever of the Year: Liam Hendriks

My Top 3: 1-Hendriks, 2-Rogers, 3-Chapman

IBWAA Winner: Liam Hendriks

BBWAA Winner: Aroldis Chapman

(Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports)

National League Reliever of the Year: Kirby Yates

My Top 3: 1-Yates, 2-Hader, 3-Lugo

IBWAA Winner: Kirby Yates

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2020 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

Royals Hire Matheny as Their New Manager…and You Shouldn’t Be Happy About That

The inevitable and expected happened on Thursday, as the Kansas City Royals announced that Mike Matheny would be their new manager, taking over the for the retired Ned Yost. This move can be traced all the way back to last November, when the Royals brought him into the organization to be a special advisor to player development.

While this was expected for months, it has also been a very unpopular hire within the Royals fanbase, with many like myself pointing out many of the issues that led to his dismissal in St. Louis. This hire has left many shaking their head and wondering why the Royals braintrust felt giving Matheny a second opportunity at managing was wiser than taking a chance on a younger option like Pedro Grifol or Vance Wilson.

If I am truly being fair here, lets look at some of the positives that pop up on Matheny’s resume. Under his leadership, Matheny guided the Cardinals to the playoffs his first four years at the helm, including a World Series appearance in 2013 and leading baseball in wins in 2015 (when the Royals won the World Series over the Mets). He accumulated a record of 591-474 over his six and a half seasons in St. Louis, which is impressive for someone who had never managed before and was following in the footsteps of the legendary Tony LaRussa.

What eventually led to his dismissal in St. Louis has been well documented and feels like a list of ‘Do-Nots’ for any manager to follow. He showed a preference to veterans, struggled with communication when met with resistance, was not open-minded to advance analytics, showed poor decision-making when it came to tactical decisions, neglected fundamentals and was not open to outside advice. If you really want a window into why so many Royals fans (and analysts within the game) have been against the hire, this is probably a great way to start.

So with all that said, why was Matheny Dayton Moore’s choice? For one, he is an old school leader who follows in line with Moore on how the game should be played. Both are firm believers in a style that focuses on putting the ball in play, bunting runners over into scoring position and a love of the sacrifice fly. In some ways Matheny is an extension of Ned Yost, at least when it comes to the tactical side of a managers job. As a baseball fan, this part isn’t the worst thing in the world, as the ball being put in play more has proven to be a more exciting product to watch and one that was very successful for the 2014-2015 Royals teams.

The issue lies in the problems that arose in St. Louis near the end of his run. The Royals are in a rebuild (whether Moore acknowledges it or not) and with that comes a higher focus on young talent. Matheny showed a tendency to lean toward his veterans while the younger players would ride some pine if met with any struggles. At this point of development, the younger players in Kansas City will need the playing time and a long stint on the bench won’t really do them any good. Yost was great working with the youngsters, even going back to his time in Milwaukee. This was one aspect of Ned’s managerial style that he was praised for and one that Matheny would be smart to adopt.

Maybe this will change for Matheny since he is in a different situation than the one he was anointed in St. Louis. Matheny was thrown into the pressure cooker when he was hired by the Cardinals, as he was replacing a legend in Tony LaRussa and left with a roster that was playoff-ready. There was no rebuild going on during his stint in St. Louis and the expectancy to win was much higher than it is going to be in Kansas City the next two years. We should know pretty early whether or not Matheny has changed in this regard and it will be interesting how he handles a different side of the game, one that can expect more lows than highs.

Another issue that has to be addressed would be his communication skills. Matheny was known as someone who would shut down for long periods of time and sometimes even ignore certain players. This can’t happen in Kansas City and is a big part of my concern with him taking over this job. He will be working with younger players who need feedback on what they are doing correctly and incorrectly and having a manager that isn’t there to teach them is a major problem. During the press conference on Thursday, Matheny talked a lot about “growing” and acknowledging his “blind spots” and for this to work, this can’t be just talk.

So is it just talk? Obviously at this point there is no way to tell but Moore saw enough that he felt the change was real. Matheny did take an analytics course to grow his knowledge and even hired a consultant to help him deal with the media. At the very least, these are signs that Matheny wanted an opportunity to manage again and was willing to take the steps necessary to make it happen. He was very stubborn during his first managerial job when it came to not only the use of analytics but also taking any other comments, opinions or suggestions as a form of growth. Matheny would be wise to soak in everything that is tossed his away and at the very least consider the advice that is sent his way. If he is serious at growing, he needs to be an open-minded manager.

With this said, the biggest reason I don’t feel Matheny is the right hire for Kansas City is because to me he isn’t the best choice. To me, the best choice has been in the Royals dugout for years now and his name is Pedro Grifol. Grifol has been with the big league club since 2013, when he was brought in as a special assignment coach when George Brett was hired as interim hitting coach. Grifol has also served as the quality control coach, catching coach and hitting coach during his tenure in Kansas City. While he was with the Mariners organization, Grifol was a manager, scout, coordinator of instruction and Director of Minor League Operations. You could probably name it, and Grifol has done it.

So why do I feel he is the best choice? Not only does his wealth of knowledge in all aspects of the organization help, but he is also bilingual, has the respect and admiration of the current players and has watched many of the players move up through the organization as well as watching the current crop that is still down in the minors. Grifol has shown an ability to learn and grow and is someone thought highly of not only within the Royals organization, but other organizations as well. Currently he is on the short list of candidates to become the new San Francisco Giants manager and has been considered for managerial jobs in the past in both Detroit and Baltimore. Grifol would have walked into the Royals managerial job with a leg up on everyone else while having all the tools that organizations look for in their field generals.

So with that said, why the choice of Matheny over Grifol? Managerial experience is almost certainly one of reasons, but there is another reason that isn’t talked about as much but one I addressed just last weekend. Dayton Moore is a deeply religious man and so is Mike Matheny. We have seen over the last few years Moore get more and more aggressive with this beliefs being pushed out in public, most publicly with his battle against pornography. As Royals fans, we have known about Moore’s faith for years and for the most part it has never been a big issue. Craig Brown at Royals Review talked extensively about this the other day (which I highly recommend you click that link) and I felt better after reading it because I wasn’t alone in believing that Moore hired Matheny in part because of his religious beliefs.

I know some will disagree with this, but much like Matheny talked about his “blind spots” when it came to managing, I firmly believe Moore’s “blind spot” is his faith. Part of that faith is believing in second chances and in my opinion that is what is going on here. Moore sees Matheny as a good Christian man and wants to reward him for that by giving him another managing job. By no means am I saying Matheny shouldn’t be given a second chance at some point. Far from it. At some point I do believe he should be given that second chance, as long as he has shown that he has learned what failed him during his first managerial job.

But he is just 15 months removed from that firing, which feels too soon. Add in a candidate in Grifol that feels like the superior choice and you start wondering “why Matheny?”. It seems very apparent where the dots are connected here and why Matheny was Dayton’s choice. Personally, I have no issue with anyone and their religion. As comedian Katt Williams would say “You do you, Boo-Boo”. But when it comes to baseball and hiring coaches or signing players, I care nothing about religion. I want the best person for the job, the person who will give the team the best opportunity to win. Unless they are just an absolutely deplorable human, it doesn’t matter to me whether you praise Jesus, Buddha, Allah or any other deity. I want the best person for the job and Matheny is not that person for the Royals.

Moore has made his decision and I will call it now: this move will be the beginning of the end for Dayton. Over the last couple years, he has made some questionable moves and we’ve seen his decision making become more and more questionable. It used to just be free agent signings or trades but now it has started to seep over into whether his personal belief system is on a higher plain than winning. Need more proof? Look no more than his defending of Luke Heimlich. Moore’s want to give people a second chance almost gave the organization a giant stain that would have been hard to recover from. It is obvious what his mission is at this point and on a daily basis I question more and more whether or not that goal is winning. The hiring of Matheny could very well be his eventual downfall, especially with new ownership getting ready to move in.

So it is very obvious that Matheny being hired by Kansas City was not well received at my house. The hope for those of us who dislike the move is that he proves us wrong and he has truly changed his ways. For the longterm health of this organization, I hope that his hiring won’t push back the progress that has been made these last few years. The good news is this: when Ned Yost was brought in, many like myself looked down on the hire and eventually Yost proved us wrong. Now it’s Matheny’s turn. For our sanity, I need to be wrong.

The 2019 Kansas City Royals: A Rebuild By Any Other Name is Still a Rebuild

Credit: Kansas City Star

When 2018 ended, the Kansas City Royals wrapped up one of the worst seasons in team history. The team coasted to a 104 loss season, allowing almost 200 more runs than they scored and compiling the worst bullpen in baseball.

But something happened those last two months. The team compiled a 25-31 record in August and September and while on the surface it IS still a losing record, compared to the team’s 13-31 record in June and July, the latter months made them look like world beater’s.

So the team was actually riding a high those last two months and they were doing it with a simple philosophy: pitching and speed. For the first time all season, they looked more like the aggressive team we saw during their championship runs in 2014 and 2015 than the team’s that appeared to be scraping by the previous two seasons.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Whatever the reason, that philosophy trickled into the offseason and the Royals you are getting ready to see in 2019 appear to be a team ready to run. Management realized this was a team with very little power and the possibility of competing with other teams stocked with that extra ‘pop’ wasn’t going to get them very far. So instead, they have decided to take a page from Forrest Gump and just run.

The Royals already had the American League stolen base leader (Whit Merrifield) from last year and coupled with rising star Adalberto Mondesi (32 steals in 75 games), it appeared the team had an excellent one-two punch that would keep the opposing defense busy.

But then they signed super-speedy outfielder Billy Hamilton. Then they reunited with baseball’s version of Barry Allen, Terrance Gore. The Royals decided to double-down on speed and make sure that the catchers and pitchers around the league are going to have to stay on their toes when facing Kansas City this season.

Credit: Getty Images

But will this plan of attack work? The biggest roadblock to the Royals offense this season isn’t the lack of power or even the uncertainty of a number of younger players. The biggest fly in the ointment could very well be their ability to get on base, or lackthereof.

While Merrifield or even Ryan O’Hearn showed an ability last year to consistently find their way on base, bu t others did not. Hamilton is the biggest concern, as he posted a .299 OBP in 2018 with a rising strikeout rate. While he did see an uptick in his walk rate last year, he struck out more and saw an increase in his flyball rate. For a guy who’s sole purpose it is to get on base and cause havoc, it would appear less strike outs and putting the ball in the air less would be a healthier way to get the most desired results.

In fact, outside of Whit and Alex Gordon, no other Royals hitter had a walk total above 30. This is a team that needs to be on base as much as possible to score runs, since relying on a longball to help them doesn’t appear to be much of an option. The Royals were near the bottom portion in almost every power category last year for all of baseball and there doesn’t appear to be much help on the way. That being said, there could be some interesting developments to follow this year when it comes to the offense.

Credit: Kansas City Star

O’Hearn saw 170 plate appearances in his rookie year and showed that he could hit major league pitching, posting a solid OBP and an OPS+ of 155. But most of his damage was against righties, so the goal in 2019 is to see what he can do against lefties. The good news is that he produced some solid numbers in the minors against lefties in his career, so there is a chance that last year was an outlier.

Hunter Dozier struggled during most of his rookie campaign, but showed some steady progress as the year wore on. He has looked good this spring and his continued development would be huge for the Royals success this year.

Brett Phillips is starting the year in AAA, but he has a chance to be a regular if he can tone down his strike outs this year. Phillips has some major pop in his bat and combined with his above-average defense, could be a foundation piece for Kansas City if he battle some of his flaws this year.

Most eyes are on Mondesi to see what he does this year. He started seeing regular playing time in July of last year and once that happened he appeared to take off. He hit .276/.306/.498 last year with 14 home runs and an OPS+ of 116. Mondesi’s combination of speed and power illicits a lot of comparisons and if he can continue to hit with authority while showing a bit of patience, he could be an elite player in no time at all.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Then start the questions. Will Jorge Soler stay healthy? It felt like Soler had turned a corner last year and one wonders what would have been if he hadn’t fouled a ball off his foot in Oakland. For the Royals to show some improvement this year, they need a healthy Soler to steer the middle of the batting order.

Can Chris Owings rebound? Owings is the new ‘Alcides Escobar’ (ie. super utilityman, not player who will never leave) and it would appear he is going to be a semi-regular moving forward. But Owings hit a paltry .206/.272/.302 but he also posted an extremely low BABIP of .265 which could be a sign of bad luck. Owings has never posted an above-average offensive season, so his value at this point might be tied into how he produces on defense.

How about the catchers? With Salvador Perez gone for the year, the catcher’s spot will be helmed by Cam Gallagher and Martin Maldonado. While you shouldn’t expect much from these two on offense, defensively the Royals might actually see an improvement in 2019. I’m not saying either of these two are superior to Perez as much as I’m saying that what they excel at are the areas that Salvy struggles with. It will be interesting to see how these two mesh with the pitching staff.

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Finally for the offense, Alex Gordon returns to man left field. Gordon hasn’t been the same since his collision with Mike Moustakas back in 2016, but he did show a few signs of offensive glory last year and defensively is an elite defender. This very well could be the end of the road for Gordon, as his contract is up at the end of the season and he has talked about going home and spending more time with his family.

As an Alex Gordon fan, this is going to be a hard season for me and this spring has already left me dreading what is close at hand. Gordon has been the lifeblood of this organization for a long time and it’s going to be strange if this is it. At some point this year, I will discuss a bit more in detail, but for me, Gordon has been the closest thing to George Brett the Royals have had since #5 retired. For those of us that have been around for the last 30+ years, 2019 will be an end of an era.

Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

All this talk about the offense and no mention of the pitching? No worries, as the rotation for Kansas City actually looks like a pretty solid group. Brad Keller looks to front the rotation this arm, as he looks to duplicate a great rookie season. Keller started the year as a Rule 5 pick that the Royals could stow away in the bullpen and by the end of the year he had locked down a starting job and become Kansas City’s most reliable pitcher.

Jake Junis and Jorge Lopez return and both look to improve in 2019. Junis was an innings eater last year but ran into some issues with the longball (32 home runs given up last year) and is hoping to cut that total down to a more livable number.

Lopez was acquired mid-season from Milwaukee and showed signs of being a stud as the season progressed. His most notable achievement last year was the perfect game he took into the 9th inning against the Twins in September. For the Royals to see some success this season, these two need to show some improvement in their game.

The back-end of the rotation looks to be filled by Homer Bailey and Danny Duffy. Bailey is looking to resurrect his career and showed glimpses of a solid starter throughout the spring. The biggest issue for Bailey has always been his consistency and for him to stay employed in Kansas City he is going to have to show some steadiness in his performance.

Duffy is coming back from an injury-riddled 2018 and is hoping to be ready once April rolls around next week. There are a lot of questions of whether Duffy can be an elite starter again or whether he can just stay healthy for a full season, and the Royals are going to give him every opportunity to show he can return to his past stellar glory. There was some talk of moving Duffy to the bullpen, but as of now he is slated for the rotation.

Credit: Kansas City Star

Speaking of, Ian Kennedy appears to be starting the season in the bullpen, a move that the coaches hope can keep him off the injured list. The Royals hope to use him as a guy who can throw a few innings at a time out of the pen while possibly filling in as a starter should an injury arise. There is some belief that Kennedy’s stuff will play better out of the pen, much like former Royals pitcher Luke Hochevar. Kennedy is locked in for another two seasons (counting this one), so Kansas City is going to give him one last chance to show his worth.

When talking about the bullpen, the honest truth is that one has to believe this year’s group can’t be any worse than the pen the Royals assembled in 2018. In fact, when I talked to Max Rieper of Royals Review earlier in the month, that was exactly his sentiments. It’s essentially addition by subtraction and with Maurer, Boyer and Grimm sent off to sea, the pen would appear to be improved from last year.

The Royals have added Brad Boxberger and Jake Diekman to fill the veteran quota of the pen, while also giving them some late inning experience that was sorely lacking for most of last year. Wily Peralta returns to fill a late inning role while Kevin McCarthy and Tim Hill also appear to be returning, and both were solid during their time in Kansas City last year.

That being said, it has sounded like there might not be defined roles in the pen for these relievers, at least early on. Boxberger, Diekman and Peralta will all be called upon to fill not only the late innings, but will be the primary candidates for any high-leverage situation. It will be interesting to see if anyone breaks away from the rest and ends up as the de facto closer in 2019.

Credit: Kansas City Star

But the real story out of the pen this spring has been the emergence of former first round draft pick Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer did not pitch at all in 2018, as Kansas City sent him to Driveline to build up his strength and see if they could help him stay healthy, which has been a longstanding issue with him.

After a solid stint there, Zimmer was signed by Kansas City to a major league contract and thrown onto the 40-man roster. All he did this spring is produce a 0.71 ERA in 12+ innings, striking out 8 and walking 4. His velocity is up a few MPH and appears to finally be ready to make his major league debut. If he continues to excel, he will easily be the best story to come out of Kansas City in what appears to be a year focused on rebuilding.

Yes, the Royals are rebuilding. I’m not declaring anything you don’t already know, but Dayton Moore has refused to use that ‘R’ word over the last 4 or 5 months, always implying that the team is still going to go out there and “compete”. As a veteran Royals fan, let me try my best to interpret “Dayton Speak”, which isn’t always as clear as one might think.

What I believe Moore is trying to relay is that Kansas City isn’t tanking this year, but rather trying to stay a bit competitive while also allowing a number of younger players the time to develop at the big league level. Now what this means they still want fans to come out to the stadium and not feel like this isn’t a team worth paying your hard earned money for. They also have a television contract to think about, and the higher the ratings, the higher the dollars will be once it is signed.

Credit: Nicky Lopez, Twitter

But in layman’s terms, yes, it is a rebuild. While the team has brought in veterans like Lucas Duda, Owings and Bailey to fill roles to start the year, it doesn’t mean those vets are the focus. The focus will be on not only the Lopez’s, Phillips’ and O’Hearn’s, but also guys like Nicky Lopez and Richard Lovelady, who will probably both make their big league debuts this year. It will be about finding out if a minor league vet like Frank Schwindel can take advantage of his opportunity in the big leagues. It will be about seeing who can fill what role and who is worth keeping around once this team starts winning again.

So if I am being fair and unbiased, this is probably a team who is going to win 70-75 games this year, a healthy improvement over last year. At times this team will look like they have turned a corner and other times they will look like a boxer who has fallen back into the ropes. Part of the joy of a rebuild is watching the youngsters learn and grow and a lot of times that includes more struggling than succeeding.

Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

So hopefully you come along for the ride. It’s going to get bumpy from time to time, but 162 games will do that to a person. What I can say with quite a bit of certainty is that no matter what, it’s hard to imagine this version of the Royals being as woeful as they were in 2018. This version will at least give you reasons to stay in your seat. Whether you want to see Mondesi or Merrifield, or Keller or Lovelady, it’s going to be an interesting development. Just call it what it is: it’s a rebuild, Kansas City style.

Third Time’s a Charm?

Credit: USA Today Sports

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

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

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

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

Credit: Associated Press

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

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

Credit: Associated Press

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

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

Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Credit:  Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

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

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

Credit: Dylan Buell / Getty Images

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

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

Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

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

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

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

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

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

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

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

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

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

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

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

Lifting the Blueprint

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Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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.

Image result for Josh hader 2018

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.

Joakim Soria
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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Credit: Getty Images

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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Credit: Getty Images

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.

Image result for Kelvin Herrera 2014

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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Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

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.

Man at Work

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Credit: DIRK SHADD | Tampa Bay Times

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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Credit: BRAD RICHARDSON

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.

 

 

 

Happy Trails, Moose

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The inevitable became reality late Friday night, as Mike Moustakas officially turned in his Kansas City blue, as Moose was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers for outfielder Brett Phillips and pitcher Jorge Lopez. This was a move expected all the way back in Spring Training when Kansas City was able to re-sign Moustakas to a new contract before the beginning of the season. For those that wonder whether the Royals were willing to cover the remainder of his deal, you need not worry:

So Moose is now officially a Brewer and the Royals were able to acquire some young talent to help them. So lets discuss all the parties involved and where this leaves them.

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Credit: AP Photo/Ed Zurga

The trade puts Moustakas instantly into a playoff race, as Milwaukee is 1.5 games out in the NL Central and 1.5 games up for the first Wild Card spot in the National League. Production-wise, Moose is hitting .248/.308/.463 this year with 20 home runs, 105 wRC+ and 1.7 fWAR. Moustakas has also seen a slight uptick in his walk rate and a slight decrease in his strike out rate. The most impressive stat for him this year is his hard hit rate, which has been elevated by a large margin, 43.7% to last year’s 31.9%. Some of that could be attributed to the leg injuries he dealt with the last half of 2017, which appeared to sap some of his power as the season progressed.

Moose leaves behind a legacy in Kansas City of being the ultimate gamer, which even teammates can attest to:

His manager also thought very fondly of him:

Moose is the guy who broke Steve Balboni’s 32-year reign as the Royals single-season home run record of 36, as he hit 38 last year. More than anything, he was a fan favorite who dealt with offensive issues throughout his time in Kansas City but found a way to make himself better, which endeared him to the fanbase. In many ways, it was easier for us fans to sympathize with someone like Moose because he did struggle and worked hard to improve himself.

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Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

On the other side of the trade is Brett Phillips. Phillips was ranked as the tenth-best prospect for the Brewers this year and is a toolsy outfielder. Here is a scouting report from last summer on his offensive ability:

Phillips is an above-average to plus runner and when he does make contact, he hits the ball hard to all fields, so he may be able to carry above-average batting averages on balls in play going forward. Given his strikeout rate, however, his hit tool will probably only be fringe-average at best and it doesn’t appear as though he’ll ever consistently hit for a high batting average. Even if he’s ultimately only a .230-.240 hitter, Maverick should at least be able to post respectable on-base numbers thanks to his patient approach at the dish. He looks to have the power to hit between 15-20 home runs on an annual basis, and should be a threat to steal 15 or more bases.

So the good news is that Phillips is a patient hitter and has a decent amount of power, power that should improve as he continues to develop. The bad news is the strike outs, which have continued to slow down his progress:

According to the scouts at Baseball Prospectus, Phillips can struggle to remain consistent with his mechanics at times and has plenty of swing-and-miss within the strike zone. Phillips has struck out in 30% of his plate appearances dating back to midseason-2015 and owns only a .249 batting average since that time.

Defensively, Phillips is a gem:

Phillips has the tools to be an outstanding defender in the outfield. He is an outstanding athlete and has enough speed to play in center, though he’s ceded most of the playing time there to Lewis Brinson this season. His plus-plus arms features outstanding velocity and carry on his throws and plays best in right field. He is still working on reading trajectories in center field and can have issues going back on balls at times, but that shouldn’t be much of a concern going forward. If it all comes together for him, Phillips should be an above-average centerfielder or excellent right fielder.

So with Phillips the Royals have acquired an outfielder who could be above average at the plate if he can just control his whiffs. Also, he has one of the best laughs in baseball:

Phillips will get the chance to be a regular outfielder for Kansas City and at this point looks to be a good choice for the future of this organization.

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Lopez is another top Milwaukee prospect who is in his age 25 season. The Royals aren’t for sure what role to use Lopez in yet but either way he has the stuff needed for the big leagues:

He can get his fastball up to 95 and has a pretty decent change-up, but his best pitch is his powerhouse curveball. He was unhittable with it in Double-A in ‘15 but the thin air in the higher altitudes of Colorado Springs and some of the other PCL parks in 2016 lessened the effectiveness of this pitch and he was unable to adjust.

Lopez has been pitching out of the bullpen for the most part these last two seasons and with his high-octane fastball could very well end up in that role for Kansas City. For the moment, Lopez has been sent to AAA where he will be fully evaluated but expect to see him on the big league roster by the end of the year.

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Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Overall, it feels like a pretty good haul for Kansas City considering that Moustakas is a two-month rental for Milwaukee. Personally, I felt the Royals would end up with a lot less than what they got in the trade, so the fact they were able to get two former Top 100 prospects for just a couple of months of Moose feels like a solid trade for Dayton Moore.

Moore had an interesting comment after the trade was made pertaining to what he was looking for in return. To say it caught Royals fans eyes would be an understatement:

It’s obvious that Moore is looking to improve the big league club sooner rather than later and there have been some concerns raised about wanting to speed up the current rebuild. I’m not ready to lambaste GMDM yet, but you do have to wonder if his attention should be focused more on the future than the wins and losses column of the current squad.

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Credit: Associated Press

So after thinking Moustakas was gone after the end of the 2017 season, the truth was that us Royals fans got an extra four months of “The Man we call Moose”. The good news is that the team can now move forward and officially make plans for the future. Every fan will have a favorite Moose moment and I am no different. One play will always stick out for me when it comes to Mike Moustakas’ tenure in Kansas City:

While the home runs were sometimes majestic and many helped the Royals win, that catch personified what Moose really is: a grinder, a man who always got his jersey dirty and a player who never gave up.

Moustakas was the guy who knew he needed to work on his defense after his rookie year and would spend the following winter transforming himself into an above-average defender. Moustakas was the guy who knew he needed to learn how to hit the ball to the opposite field to counteract the shift and did just that before the 2015 campaign.

Moustakas was also the guy who improved his power numbers as he got older and embraced his role as being a clubhouse leader. More than anything, Moose was a guy who embodied the attitude of the 2014-2015 Royals: Never die, never give up and never admit defeat. Moose was a perfect fit for those teams and without him Kansas City would have never been able to win a world championship. Thank you, Moose. You will always be ‘Forever Royal’.

Gone But Not Forgotten

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: MLB.com

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

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Credit: Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: Thearon W. Henderson, Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: Denis Poroy/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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