Changing of the Guard: Royals Shake Up Coaching Staff

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Coming on the heels of Sunday’s final game of the season where potential free agents Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Alcides Escobar might have played their final game for the Kansas City Royals, on Monday it was announced that the team had shaken up their coaching staff, saying goodbye to pitching coach Dave Eiland, bench coach Don Wakamatsu, assistant hitting coach Brian Buchanan and possibly parting ways with bullpen coach Doug Henry (Henry could stay at his position, as he can be named by the incoming pitching coach). Buchanan could still be re-assigned in the organization while longtime first base coach Rusty Kuntz will also be leaving the big league team, possibly for a job as a roving instructor within the Royals organization. All these moves are a bit of a shock to the system, as on the surface it would appear the team is dismantling but in reality these are moves that signify a true end to an era in Kansas City baseball.

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Lets start with Eiland, who is widely regarded as one of the best pitching coaches in the league. It was assumed that he would return for one more year in 2018, but after Ned Yost and Dayton Moore discussed the future over the last few weeks, the decision was made to move forward in a new direction. It appears as if Eiland isn’t leaving on bad terms:

“Dave is a great mechanical pitching coach,” Yost said. “He formulates a great plan. He was an integral part of our championship.”

More than anything it appears the Royals are transitioning from a team that views themselves as contenders to one who will be looking to transition a number of their younger players into full-time roles:

The other factor in effect is the future of the coaching staff once Ned Yost leaves. Yost is signed through the 2018 season and while someone like Wakamatsu would appear to be a great candidate to replace him, it appears someone else might have already been picked to take Ned’s place when he leaves:

So if I was to make an educated guess, the Royals already have an heir apparent in place to replace Yost or at least someone they’ve been eyeing for a while. It would make sense that if it was someone within the organization, it would be smart to place them on the coaching staff and learn under Ned’s tutelage before taking over, possibly as early as 2019. With that in mind, there is an option I have felt would be in Kansas City at some point:

Wilson is the current manager for the Royals Double A affiliate, Northwest Arkansas and would be a great choice for future manager. If someone like Wilson (or help us, Jason Kendall) is being groomed to take over the helm, then Wakamatsu would be taking valuable experience away from whomever that may be. In other words, it would make more sense to promote someone from within and let them learn and allow Wakamatsu to go hunting for bigger opportunities (he was a finalist for Tampa Bay’s managerial position after the 2014 season). Like Eiland, I don’t believe Kansas City had any issue with Don:

“I want to personally thank both Don and Dave for the contributions they made to our success here, culminating with the World Series title in 2015,” Moore said.

Overall, it is very obvious the Royals will be taken in a different direction next year:

“We’re making some changes,” manager Ned Yost said Monday during a morning news conference. “We’re transitioning to a new group of players, and (general manager Dayton Moore) and I have been talking a lot about the coaching staff here that is going to move forward with a young group.”

So it will be interesting to see who Kansas City brings in to fill these spots and there are a few possible candidates within the organization, like Wilson, Brian Poldberg and Steve Luebber. But the coaching changes weren’t the only big news coming out of Kansas City today.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

With the news of the mess going on in the Atlanta Braves organization and the resignation of GM John Coppolella, it almost instantly brought up the rumors and rumblings we have all heard before about Royals GM Dayton Moore returning to the organization that Kansas City pried him from. In years past this topic has been broached whenever Atlanta has an opening and every time Moore has held steadfast to his current position in Kansas City and how he is not looking to leave. That didn’t change this time around either:

So it would appear to be a non-issue, right? Well…

It does appear that Moore headed back to Atlanta is at least a possibility at this point and considering all the changes going on within the Kansas City organization it might be good timing on Moore’s part. That being said, I am still leaning toward Moore staying but not counting out the possibility of him moving on to an interesting situation, to say the least. The good news is that if it does happen, more than likely Assistant GM J.J. Piccolo would take over Moore’s job and the transition would be mostly spotless. Piccolo has been with Kansas City since 2006 and just finished his third season in his current position. Piccolo is well thought of within baseball and over the last couple years has been considered for front office jobs in Arizona, Philadelphia and Minnesota. If Moore is enticed by the challenge in Atlanta, the Royals should have a pretty seamless transition to Piccolo and more than likely the direction of the team will stay the course.

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If the last few days have taught us anything, it is that the Royals are changing whether we as fans are prepared for it or not. The last five years have been a roller-coaster ride of emotions but it’s time to get off the ride and allow it time for repairs. The task in front of the Kansas City front office and coaching staff is one that will not be arranged overnight nor will it be an easy fix. Many fear change and trust me when I say we can all understand the frightening unknown. But change can be good and while we all loved the group of players and coaches during this run, it’s time for a new group to win our hearts. Winter is coming folks, and while there might not be any flying zombie dragons, there will be a new set of faces to guard the Royal wall.

 

The Wildest of Wild Cards

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

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

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

MLB: Texas Rangers at Minnesota Twins

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

Kansas City Royals v Boston Red Sox

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

Smiles & Hugs: Melky is Back in KC

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Credit: Chicago Tribune

There is nothing quite like late July in Major League Baseball; pennant races, visits to Cooperstown and the trade deadline. It’s long been believed that the Kansas City Royals would be buying at the trade deadline and last week Royals GM Dayton Moore swung a deal with San Diego for three pitchers to help both the rotation and bullpen. Earlier in the weekend, it was known that Moore was also on the hunt for a bat to beef up the lineup:

This was on Friday and the idea of a reunion with Melky seemed to make the most sense. Luckily, Moore agreed:

So the Royals have now added an additional bat for the lineup. The question has already been asked so let’s immediately address it: Where does Melky fit in?

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians

The answer is ‘everywhere’. The most apparent fit would be left field, as Alex Gordon has struggled most of the season. The numbers seem to preach that as well:

Gordon-.201/.294/.296, 0.4 fWAR

Cabrera-.295/.336/.436, 0.8 fWAR

Since Melky would be a possible fit at DH against lefties, I decided to break down those splits as well:

Gordon- .186/.336/.209, 59 wRC+

Cabrera- .296/.327/.500, 118 wRC+

Moss-.318/.412/.591, 166 wRC+

In years past there have been some heavy splits for Moss against lefties, but so far in 2017 he is handling them very well. It would appear that Gordon would be the odd man out in this scenario, but while I expect to see Gordon’s playing time cut, he will probably still see a good  number of starts as well as being a defensive replacement late in the game. If you look up above at the fWAR numbers, Melky and Alex aren’t too far off and that is mostly because of defense. Alex has been an above average defender in 2017 while Melky continues to be below average. What I would expect to see is Melky floating around, playing left field one day, right field another, and DH every now and then too. Manager Ned Yost will probably mix and match according to who is on the mound that day and who is struggling/needs rest. Melky being a switch hitter helps in this equation, as he can fit in whether there is a righty or a lefty on the mound. While Melky isn’t exactly tearing up the league offensively, he is an improvement over what Kansas City has had most of this year and while not displacing just one player, will be a fairly regular in the Royals lineup, most likely in the two-hole.

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Credit: The Sporting News

While his bat will improve the lineup, maybe the biggest addition with Melky is his presence in the clubhouse. During his previous stint in Kansas City, he was beloved by the likes of Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez and Melky has still been known to give a hug to Hosmer whenever he reaches first base when he has been on the opposing team. In fact, it surprised me a bit that Melky didn’t try to return to the Royals before the 2015 season when he was a free agent. This is what I wrote back in August 2015 about it:

But while watching Melky this past weekend I started thinking about how much he loves these guys and I started pondering how much fun he would have if he was still with Kansas City. The thing is, he could have been a Royal again. This past winter, the Royals were on the hunt for a new right fielder to take the place of Nori Aoki. They had tried Torii Hunter but he returned to Minnesota. They had also talked to Melky about coming in, even offering him a contract fairly similar to what he got from Chicago. Chicago eventually won the Melky sweepstakes, but I found it interesting why he chose the White Sox over the Royals:

 Cabrera “really wanted to win,” Rick Hahn, White Sox GM recalled. “(He said) ‘But with all due respect are you guys really in a position to win and am I really a difference maker for you?’ ”

So Chicago’s winter moves swayed Melky, or at least he felt like they had a better chance to win. The funny thing is, the Royals offered a deal somewhat similar to what Chicago gave him. I believe it was one less year, and possibly a few million less. But here was my thought this weekend: with the Royals in about the same situation as Chicago, at least when pertaining to their chance of winning, why would he not take a little less money to be around a bunch of guys that he really enjoys playing with? Now, Seattle did offer Cabrera an extra year, so maybe the years weren’t as big a deal but with the Royals offering something in the same ballpark, I just find it odd that he wouldn’t try to come back to Kansas City. I’m sure that White Sox locker room is full of quality guys; I don’t doubt that a bit. But the chance to win a championship and do that with a bunch of guys you think fondly of? I tend to think you can’t beat that. But obviously it was not meant to be, and instead the Royals end up with Alex Rios who looks about the same as the Alex Rios that was sapped of power last year in Texas. We can only imagine how much better this Royals team would have been with Melky roaming right field…

So Melky is now going to get that chance to play with his friends and I can only imagine good things come from that. There is no statistic to quantify clubhouse chemistry, but it is well-known that Kansas City has a great group of guys that most have enjoyed playing with whenever they come play for the Royals. I have to believe the addition of Melky has put a bunch of smiles on the faces of the veterans who were with Kansas City back in 2011.

Chicago White Sox Workout
Credit: Sports Illustrated

Adding Melky to the Royals equation was a smart move, but there is always the other side of  a deal and in this one it involved two young pitchers. A.J. Puckett was the Royals first pick for Kansas City back in the 2016 draft (in the second round) and has been pitching this year in the Royals High A affiliate in Wilmington. Baseball America had Puckett ranked as the number 5 prospect in the Royals farm system before the 2017 season but he has struggled a bit so far in this campaign: 3.90 ERA over 108 innings, allowing 107 hits and a 1.412 WHIP. The original belief was that Puckett would go as far as his breaking ball takes him and at his ceiling would probably be a #3 starter in the big leagues. That being said, consistency has been his enemy this year:

Scoles does a great job analyzing the Royals farm system for Baseball Prospectus Kansas City and is someone who has been keeping an eye on Puckett. Davis is a 23-year-old lefty who hasn’t been listed on any of the Royals top prospect list but has done a good job against lefties this season at Class A Lexington: .216/.289/.352 batting line in 97 plate appearances this year. His overall numbers are a bit pedestrian: 4.82 ERA, with a 1.389 WHIP and a nice 3.78 strike out to walk ratio. Obviously Puckett is the bigger piece of this deal and while it always hurts to give up a solid pitching arm, this feels like a low regret type deal for the Royals in the long haul.

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So the Royals pick up another piece on their latest run to the playoffs and if anything the front office and ownership has shown they will step up when needed:

So in the last week Kansas City has acquired a rotation arm, two bullpen arms and a solid bat for the lineup….and it appears that Kansas City isn’t quite done yet:

The MLB trade deadline is set for 3pm Central on Monday, more than enough time for ‘Dealer Dayton’ to grab another arm. If the last week has been any indication we should expect another surprise within the next 24 hours. It feels good to know that no matter the end outcome, Royals management is giving this team everything it needs to play October baseball. The band is back together and getting ready to spin their greatest hits over the final two months of the season…and maybe the encore come October.

 

 

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio-Episode 2

Jorge Bonifacio

As the Kansas City Royals get ready for a weekend series against the Minnesota Twins, Sean chats with Panda Pete from Twins and Losses about the upcoming series between the two teams, the state of the American League Central, parity in the American League Wild Card race, the upcoming Player’s Weekend and closer’s entrance music. Enjoy and any feedback is much appreciated.

 

The Arms of Relief

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When the season began, there appeared to be some serious questions about the Kansas City Royals bullpen, a pen that once was the most dominant in baseball. In fact, Fangraphs had them ranked as the 28th best bullpen in baseball coming into the 2017 campaign. The first week of the season didn’t dispel any of the concern with the Royals relievers, as they struggled throughout the Minnesota series and were quite susceptible to the walk. But one bad week or one bad month do not make a season and luckily the Royals have righted the ship, to the point that there have been a number of surprising performances from the bullpen helping the team scratch itself back to .500.

MLB: New York Yankees at Kansas City Royals

Let’s start with the numbers. The Royals have the 12th best bullpen in MLB according to fWAR, 8th best in the American League. They have the 8th best FIP, 11th best ERA, 9th best K%, and 10th best K-BB%. The Kansas City pen still has the highest walk percentage in the AL, although one has to wonder how much that first month of the season plays into that number. The Royals do have the 5th best HR/9 in the league and the 11th best WHIP. I am becoming a big proponent of WPA (Win Probability Added) and the Royals relievers have the 6th best in the league. Throw in the 4th best Clutch in the league (which at 1.18 has them in between Excellent and Great on the Clutch scale) and you have a bullpen that has allowed a few more runners than they would like but have performed well in those high leverage situations. The Royals also have the 3rd highest Soft Hit % in the league (21.4%) and the 6th lowest Hard Hit % (29.9%). Finally, since I like to break down the numbers as much as possible, looking at just fWAR here are the Royals pen month by month so far this year:

March/April- 0.1 (13th in the AL)

May- 0.8 (9th)

June- 0.8 (4th)

So what do all these numbers tell us? The Royals bullpen, while not dominating the way they used to, are coming into their own as the season progresses. If anyone is wondering why that is happening, you don’t have to look very far to see who is leading the way.

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Let’s start with the guy who has been the most efficient and (until recently), the most overlooked. Scott Alexander has been almost dominating this year, producing a 1.38 ERA over 26 innings, a 2.91 FIP and a 20.2 K rate. But what really has been astounding is his 76.1% GB rate, which is the highest of his professional career. All those ground balls can be attributed to a ‘lights out’ sinker, which some have compared (at least success-wise) to Zach Britton of Baltimore. Alexander’s production has caused manager Ned Yost to use him more in high leverage situations and don’t be surprised if he continues to be a main cog in this Royals pen.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals

Peter Moylan has been a vital part of the bullpen since Day One this year, as he has been Ned’s ‘Go to Guy’ to get just a few batters out in tight situations. In 23.2 innings over 33 appearances this year, Moylan has a 3.81 FIP, 0.2 fWar and a 22.3 K rate. While his ERA is a bit bloated (6.46), his soft hit rate of 33.8% is the highest of his career and his WPA is sitting at a crisp 0.71. Moylan’s Left on Base % could see some improvement, but for the most part he has done what Yost has needed from him this year, which is to come in and extinguish fires.

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The Royals weren’t for sure what they had with Mike Minor in the pen coming into the season, especially since he had been a starter his entire career. But so far he has been a welcome addition to the Royals bullpen. In his first year of relieving, Minor has posted a 1.93 ERA, a 2.47 FIP, 1.0 fWAR and an 82% left on base percentage. He has put up a solid 17.9% K-BB ratio and has seen his soft hit rate go up (29.2%) and his hard hit rate go down (24%), both career highs. One of the keys to his success this year has been his use of his slider, which he is using at 38.7% clip, easily the highest of his career. At one point it appeared the Royals might deal Minor come the trade deadline, but with the Royals back in the race he is probably more likely to be a key arm for Kansas City down the stretch.

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Maybe the most welcome return to form is Joakim Soria. Much was written about Soria and his struggles last year, a year that for Soria was one to forget. But 2017 has been the complete opposite, as he has improved everything across the board. Pick a stat and it is better than it was last year…other than his walk rate, which has gone up just a smidge. But besides that, Soria has been one of the most consistent contributors in the Kansas City pen. In fact, here is a quote from Fangraphs back in March when they were compiling the piece I mentioned earlier, ranking all the bullpens in baseball:

 His strikeout rate was decent, but his walks went up and he gave up a bunch of homers, getting worse as the season went on. The homers probably should come down a bit, but that still won’t make him the pitcher whom the Royals thought they were getting before last season.

The home runs have gone down…but more than a bit. So far this year, Soria has yet to give up a home run (knock on wood) over 30 innings of work. If you believe he will assume about the same workload as last year, he is almost half way to his innings total of 2016 and has not given up a long ball. Last year, he gave up 10 round trippers. While Soria is still not the guy who was a consistent All-Star in Kansas City (and no one should expect that from him), he has been the perfect set-up man who the Royals envisioned he would be when they signed him back in the Winter of 2015.

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You might have noticed I hadn’t even mentioned closer Kelvin Herrera yet, and there is a reason for that. Herrera has had his struggles this year but number wise, nothing major really stands out. In fact, his hard hit rate going up and the increase in home runs is the only big slight on his mark this year. He is still striking out people at a rate close to normal, and still walking about the same amount as well. The one aspect of his game that is different is the contact rate, which makes sense if you are someone who has watched many of his outings. Herrera has had an issue of getting behind in the count this year, leading him to leave a few pitches out over the middle of the plate. Herrera’s Z-Contact % (pitches hit inside of the strike zone) has seen a slight tick up this year (83.9 from 78.6% in 2016). In fact, Herrera has almost been too precise, leaving pitches inside the zone that normally he would leave just off the outer edges. This past week he has looked better, where his pitches have been either outside or inside and normally down, rather than down the middle. There is no reason for alarm, but more than anything other teams should worry; Herrera can (and my guess is he will)  improve in the second half.

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Before the season started, I would discuss the Royals relievers and mention the same thing: what you see in April/May won’t be what you see by September. So far this year, Chris Young has been ousted, Matt Strahm has moved to the rotation and Kyle Zimmer has been pitching in relief down in AAA. If Zimmer gets the call, it could bolster a group of arms that have been steadily increasing their production month by month. I’ve had to stress to Royals fans these last couple seasons that the bullpens Kansas City had in 2014-15 were not normal. Having a pen that is THAT locked in is not the norm and only really comes along once in a blue moon. You shouldn’t expect the Royals relievers of today to be as dominating as they were with Holland and Davis leading the charge. But what they have now is a healthy substitute that we should be comfortable with during the team’s final three months of the season.

 

Notes of Royalty: West Coast Swing

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

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…And the Line Keeps on Moving

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

Moustakas 214

Cain            184

Hosmer      162

Perez           161

Gordon        153

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

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs

Chasing Balboni

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

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The Search for a Stopgap

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

 

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Picture Courtesy: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

A Starling Performance

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

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

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

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

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

From the Bleachers: Notes Around Baseball

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Here at Bleeding Royal Blue,  I spend a lot of time discussing my favorite team, the Kansas City Royals. But being a baseball fan in general means from time to time a little discussion around both leagues can do some good. So with that said, let’s kickoff the debut column, From the Bleachers!

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A Tight Race

Before the season started, most analysts picked the Cleveland Indians to runaway with the American League Central, with the Tigers, Royals, Twins and White Sox either floundering or fighting for a Wild Card spot. I even figured Kansas City and (maybe) Detroit would give them some competition. Instead, Minnesota still sits atop the Central (yes, I noticed, Pete!) with the White Sox holding up the rear, only six games behind. You read that correctly, only six games separate the top and bottom of the division. Minnesota should get some major props for their performance so far, as they improved their two main weaknesses from last year, the defense and bullpen, while getting All-Star contributions from Ervin Santana and Miguel Sano. The Indians sit 2.5 games back, Detroit 3.5 back and the Royals at 5.5 back. Will Cleveland eventually perform closer to their 2016 model and decide they’ve had enough of these silly games? Will Detroit decide if they are contenders or needing to rebuild? Will the Royals wake from their slumber and make one final run with their core group that led them to a championship? If we are basing this off of what has happened to this point, I don’t know if any of that will happen. If I had to use one word to describe this division to this point, the word ‘mediocre’ would seem fair; ‘eh’ would work as well. Maybe this pattern will continue over the next four months and my friends up in Minnesota will be super happy. No matter the result, it’s hard not to feel underwhelmed by the Central over the last couple of months.

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The Machine and 600

This past week, Albert Pujols clubbed his 600th career home run, an achievement only nine players have reached in MLB history. The Pujols we have seen the last five seasons pales in comparison to the one who was probably the best player in baseball in his first decade in the league. Despite that, Pujols is still a productive hitter, one who has averaged an OPS+ of 111 during that span. Injuries have taken its toll on him, and it’s easy to forget just how dominate Pujols was in his prime. According to the website Hall of Stats (which I highly recommend when determining a player’s value, especially when the Hall of Fame voting comes around), Pujols has a Hall rating of 211, which ranks him as the 30th best player (statistically) all-time and the 3rd best first baseman. Yes, we are seeing his regression right now, which should be expected in his late 30’s. But there are still some major goals he could reach before he retires, as he still has four years left on his contract after the current season. Pujols is 122 hits away from 3,000 and 140 RBI’s away from 2,000 for his career. Let’s enjoy the last few years of his career, because we are nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career.

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Have a Day, Scooter

On Tuesday, Scooter Gennett of the Cincinnati Reds joined some elite company, hitting four home runs in one game, going 5-5 while driving in 10 runs. This, from a guy who before the season had hit 38 home runs in five big league seasons. Scooter doesn’t fit the profile of a guy who would club four in a game, not like the last guy to do it, Josh Hamilton. In fact, Gennett is only the 17th career player to reach this feat, a list that includes Hall of Famers like Mike Schmidt, Willie Mays and Lou Gehrig. This list also includes the like of Mark Whiten, Bob Horner and the infamous Bobby Lowe, he of 71 career homers. Safe to say Scooter will never have another night like this ever again, so I hope he soaks in all the adulation and enjoys his moment. His name alone will be a fun trivia question to bring up for many years to come.

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Scherzer Meets Kershaw

As the season is unfolding, an interesting occurrence has developed that few probably saw coming: Max Scherzer is making a run at being the best pitcher in baseball. Clayton Kershaw has held that title for close to five years now and while Scherzer has compiled two Cy Young Award’s in that time-span, he still has not performed close enough to even have that conversation. But so far in 2017, Kershaw has put up an ERA+ (which is adjusted to the pitcher’s ballpark) of 185, which leads the league. Scherzer is right on his tail at 181 while leading the league in strike outs, WHIP and hits per 9. On Tuesday, Scherzer was dominate, striking out 14, walking 2 and allowing 1 run (unearned) in his 7 innings of work. In fact, Scherzer has three straight starts of 10+ strike outs, 7+ innings and 1 run or less. It’s going to be interesting to see if Scherzer can keep this up (which I believe he is capable of) and if he can continue to go toe to toe with Kershaw. I love watching Kershaw pitch, but I am always up for some healthy competition between two elite pitchers at the top of their game.

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McCutchen Has a Pulse

Over the last two seasons, there has been a lot of discussion about the decline of Andrew McCutchen. Hitters normally start seeing a regression when they reach their early 30’s, but McCutchen didn’t turn 30 until last October and while injuries have been popping up for him the last couple seasons, it was hard to fathom that his decline would hit this badly, this early. Myself, like many other analysts, felt that McCutchen would bounce back this year and produce at a pace closer to his best years than his lackluster 2016. Instead, Cutch stumbled out the gate this year and as late as May 23 saw his batting average sitting at .200. But over the last 10 games, he has looked like the Cutch of old:

If McCutchen has finally found his groove, that is great timing for him and the Pirates. I am a big fan of not only McCutchen the player but also McCutchen the person. Baseball is stronger with him locked in.

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The Elbow and the Damage Done

Finally, another alarming Tommy John  Surgery stat came out this week worth noting:

I’ve spoken many times on this blog about the dreaded Tommy John Surgery and it amazes me that there isn’t more pressure to figure out a more worthwhile solution to this problem. While the new surgery that was done on Seth Maness cut his time out of action down considerably (down to 7 1/2 months), I still feel there should be more research done on a solution, not just a quicker remedy. If you are a believer that a pitcher’s arm has only so many bullets in it, it can’t help that many youngsters are throwing more pitches while their arm is still developing than ever before. If you are of the Nolan Ryan school of thought, you believe pitchers need to throw more, not less. An excerpt from a Ryan interview done in 2014:

 

Ryan said that in September of 1988 with Houston, he began experiencing pain in his elbow and paid a visit to Jobe in Los Angeles, who advised him to shut it down for the last couple of weeks of the season and resume throwing in December.

“There was a partial tear there,” he said. “It still hurt in December, but when I got to spring training, the pain began to dissipate until it was gone. Dr. Jobe said it had scarred over and that helped protect the elbow. I pitched with that tear the rest of my career.”

Ryan had two more 200-inning seasons and led the NL in strikeouts with 301 in ‘89 and 232 in ‘90.

While Tommy John agrees with Ryan, he also feels like I do, that kids today are throwing way too much, especially year round:

“First of all, one of the biggest reasons for all the arm injuries in baseball today is the way young kids are handled by their coaches in grade school and high school, pitching them year-round,” said John by phone from his home in Syracuse. “They’re told if they want to make it, they have to play travel ball — and that results in the over-use of their arms when they’re body is not fully developed. Travel ball has taken over the entire country and parents need to be educated about what this does to these kids’ arms.”

“I absolutely agree with Nolan that more is better,” John said. “Years ago, I’d have gone along with the thinking that there’s only so many bullets in your arm. But we’ve ‘dumbed down’ our thinking today to believing that pitch counts and innings limitations are the way to go to preserve arms. Starting in 1975 with the White Sox, when Johnny Sain was my pitching coach, I would throw six days a week out of seven and it was the best my arm ever felt. For the next 13 years, I never missed a start, except once when I had the flu. Sain believed in throwing between starts and it’s no coincidence that one of his disciples, Leo Mazzone, subscribed to that same philosophy, practicing and throwing every day, as pitching coach for the Braves. The Braves had the best pitching staffs in baseball in the ’90s and all guys like (Greg) Maddux and (Tom) Glavine did was pitch and win and never got hurt.”

So is the answer pitching less in your youth and more once your body has developed? And if that is the answer, how long will it take before travel league or high school coaches actually worry less about winning and more about their kid’s future health? I don’t know if this is completely the solution to the problem, but it doesn’t appear to be a bad place to start.

 

Duffman Down

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Back in 2015, lady luck was on the Kansas City Royals side. The bounces went the Royals way and in some ways led them all the way to a world championship. So far in 2017, it appears lady luck is “ghosting” Kansas City in a very passive-aggressive manner. The offensive scuffled in April, the relief core, while improving, isn’t a lock anymore and injuries have been a bit more normal. In that vein, the Royals were dealt their biggest blow so far in this short season, as Danny Duffy will miss the next 6-8 weeks with a Grade 1 Oblique Strain suffered in Sunday’s loss to Cleveland:

After getting past the depressing part of this injury (no team wants to lose their top starter for an extended period of time), it is easy to ask the most important question at the moment: where do we go from here?

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First, let’s digest just what the Royals are missing with Duffy out. Duffy has posted a 3.54 ERA over 68 innings (2nd best in Kansas City’s rotation), an FIP of 3.43 and a fWAR of 1.4 (which is already halfway to his 2016 total). Duffy has seen his K rate go down while his walk rate has increased, but that is also factoring in that he was a reliever for the first 5-6 weeks of last year. Also, he had seen his strike outs increase over the last couple of starts. He has also induced less hard contact this year (down to 28.3% from 36.6%) while his WPA is already at 1, almost halfway to last year’s 2.34. To go even further, if you average out his game scores (taking out his three worst starts, including Sunday’s), he has an average game score of 65 over 8 starts. To put it another way, Duffy is the ace of this staff and was showing his 2016 wasn’t a fluke. It’s pretty obvious that moving forward, it will be difficult to replace his production.

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Speaking of, who will get the honor of taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation? There are at least a few options available to the Royals, starting with Jake Junis. Junis is a control pitcher who cleaned up his delivery and improved his arm speed last year and made him self a more deceptive pitcher. Nothing pops out about Junis, as he has an average fastball and curve with a slightly below change and slider, but with the improved control it made all of those pitches a bit sharper. Junis made his first major league start on May 21st (after two relief appearances) and went 4 2/3 innings, giving up 5 hits and 2 runs while striking out 4 and walking 3. The most impressive part of this start against Minnesota was his ability to locate and to move the ball around the plate. To me, Junis should be the Royals first option, but there are a few more for Kansas City to consider if Jake isn’t a good fit. Eric Skoglund will make his major league debut on Tuesday and has an opportunity right now to step up and make an impression. Skoglund is the 4th best prospect in the Royals farm system according to Baseball America and the 6’7″ lefty is similar to Junis: above-average fastball, average curveball, below average slider and change-up but has impeccable control and location. Earlier in the spring I felt like Skoglund could be a nice addition to to the bullpen at some point this year, especially as a lefty specialist. Now he has an opportunity to lock-down a spot in the rotation.

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Unfortunately, when it comes to the bullpen, there really aren’t any relievers that could slide into the starting role and be productive. Chris Young has been given a chance to start this year and failed badly: two starts, only 6 2/3 innings thrown while giving up 9 runs (3 home runs). Travis Wood is a former starter who was thought of as an option to start if an injury happened to someone in the rotation, but with his performance this year I highly doubt the Royals would give him a chance to start at this point. An interesting, out of the box idea would be to slot Matt Strahm as a starter. Strahm was a starter coming up through the Royals minor league system and the team envisions him as a future starter. The one issue with that would be that Kansas City would have to stretch out his arm, which would probably involve a trip to Omaha to spend a few weeks before slotting him in as a starter. Although…if you remember last year, Duffy was moved from the pen to the rotation and the length of his appearances were determined by his pitch count. Conceivably, the Royals could do the same thing with Strahm. I highly doubt this happens, but it is an interesting thought.

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There is one final question being bandied about when it comes to the Duffy injury: Is this the final nail in the Royals contending coffin? You won’t hear me shouting ‘this is the end’, but it’s not looking good, folks. Losing Duffy is a big blow and just having his presence on the mound and in the dugout is a confidence builder to this team. Not having him around hurts and there is no actual ‘replacement’ for him. At this point, it is all about how the Royals perform with Duffy gone. If the team can get some production out of guys who haven’t done much at this point in the season (Read: Gordon, Alex or Escobar, Alcides), that will help. If a guy like Skoglund can step in and perform admirably, then that will help. If none of this happens, we will be discussing trade options in a month’s time. It all comes down to performance and the direction this team takes moving forward is performance-based.

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Losing an elite pitcher the caliber of Duffy is something no team wants to ever deal with, but here we are. All the Royals can do is hope the rest of the rotation (and offense) step up and pull some of the weight Duffy has been carrying. This was supposed to be the last year for this group of players who brought gold back to Kansas City. The band was tuning up for one more tour and Danny Duffy was supposed to be a big part of that. As a fan, I hate that a player who I have grown to adore won’t be able to go out on the mound every fifth day and make hitters look silly. The earliest Duffy will return is after the All-Star break; let’s hope we are talking about how the injury to Duffy woke up the Royals as they made a run to the top of the American League Central. Hopefully…hopefully when he returns he can recognize the players he calls teammates. Kansas City, it’s time to step up. It’s time for someone to get ‘Gnar’.

Getting Back On Track

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Let’s be honest: Minnesota felt like a mirage. The Kansas City Royals played some of the worst baseball they have played in years during their three game series against the Twins and the general consensus was that the Royals weren’t as bad as they played. They would travel on to Houston to take on a very good Astros team…and would proceed to win 2 of the 3 games at Minute Maid Park. The offense woke up, the starting pitching continued to perform well, the defense was stellar and the bullpen would even improve on ‘The Walk Massacre of Minnesota’. Are we sure that set of games in Minneapolis really happened?

Salvador Perez, Jandel Gustave

Since it is still early in the season, another ‘Fun with Numbers’ is still in order:

Salvador Perez-213 wRC+ through 6 games (4 home runs, all in 4 consecutive games)

Lorenzo Cain-25.9% Walk Rate (7 walks in 6 games)

Danny Duffy-200 ERA+ (In 13 innings over 2 starts)

Matt Strahm-40.50 Walks per 9 (6 walks in 1.1 innings pitched)

Okay, I feel like I am picking on Strahm. I swear I am not; unfortunately the guy is struggling in his limited use this season. The bullpen did improve in this series, although Kansas City still leads the AL in walks allowed (36), 8 more than runner-up Baltimore. The starters have held their own, but the bullpen still lies in the bottom of the league in almost every category, including WAR, FIP and BB/9. There is good news, though; Joakim Soria has been solid in his two outings, Peter Moylan has been a rock and Chris Young has been stellar in his 2.1 innings pitched. Maybe it’s just me, but it has felt like manager Ned Yost is still feeling out his relievers and what role would be best suited for them. I still think Strahm will be one of the main setup guys before the year is out and I could see Soria and Minor also filling that role. The one puzzling move is Yost’s usage of Travis Wood, a lefty who showed major splits in 2016 while with the Cubs. Lefties hit .128/.208/.239 against him last year while righties hit .263/.344/.521. It would appear that Yost should mainly use Wood against lefties, and limit the usage against righties. Instead, he has been using him against righties more and they are clocking him at a .400 pace. Like I said, it appears Yost is trying to feel his new relievers out, but a pattern is already showing when it comes to Mr. Wood.

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Before we move on from the pitchers, I got to say a big kudos to Jason Vargas, who was spectacular in his start on Friday. Vargas threw 6 innings while striking out 6 and allowing a run. Vargas only appeared in 3 major league games last year as he was returning from Tommy John surgery and is entering the final year of his contract. If he can pitch closer to his 2014 performance, the Royals could have a sold rotation spot locked up for this year.

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Maybe the best news was the resurgence of the offense, as the team put up 16 runs in the 3 game series. The most ‘Un-Royal’ stat from the year has been the power surge seen through the first six games:

I love early season numbers and it is always fun to see how big numbers can look HUGE if calculated out to a full 162 game schedule:

Royals GM Dayton Moore said before the season that his objective was to go deep more often in 2017 and so far, so good. In fact, the Royals are slugging:

Mike Moustakas- .739 slugging percentage

Salvador Perez- .792 slugging percentage

Cheslor Cuthbert- .714 slugging percentage

While the Royals power numbers are good this year, they still aren’t great. In fact, they are next to last in slugging (.400) and last in wRC+ (88) and ISO (.139). The offense isn’t totally clicking yet, but this series at least brought some optimism. Also, some things will never change:

Eric Hosmer- 61.9% ground ball rate (already 10th in the American League)

Hey, I’ll quit picking on Eric when he learns to elevate the ball. If he starts doing that, I will be glad to start heaping praise and say I am wrong about him. Until then…

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But if anything stood out this series, it was the defense.  I could describe it to you, but it is easier just to show the proof:

Cain’s was the jewel, but this was pretty great as well:

…and it’s not really a Royals defensive highlight reel without an appearance from Alex Gordon:

That assist was the 75th of Gordon’s career, a great nod to a player who has only been playing the outfield full-time since 2011. One of the biggest head-scratchers for me so far this season is why the Royals pitchers aren’t throwing more strikes when they have this defense behind them. Let the defense shoulder the work; they can handle it.

Raul Mondesi, Alcides Escobar

The Royals are now 2-4 in the ol’ W-L column and are just a winning streak away from a respectable record. The main item that should be preached is ‘improvement’ and as long as they do that, there should be more ‘W’s’ to come. The Royals tend to be a team that is guided by their offense; if the offense is producing, they are normally winning. But if they aren’t…well, if they continue to stay cold, it will be a long summer in Kansas City that could be heated up by a fire sale. This next series against Oakland would be a good time for the bats to wake up and put them back on track. Two series’ are in the book and it has felt like two separate ballclubs. So the question has to be asked–which team is the real Kansas City Royals?

Walking to Houston

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That stat looms over the Kansas City Royals as the biggest factor to their 0-3 start to the 2017 campaign. Twenty three is the number of walks they have given up already this season, leading the American League by 5 over Houston’s 18. That’s 8.63 BB/9, which surprisingly isn’t higher than the team’s K/9 rate, which is 9. 38. So the Royals pitchers are walking and striking out batters so far this year, but the numbers are even scarier when you break it down to the team’s starters and relievers. The Royals pen have a BB/9 rate of 12.38; in context the next closest bullpen in the AL is Houston, at 5.06. The pen has the league’s highest FIP, ERA and tied for the worst WAR. Luckily (once again), they have the second highest K/9 rate at 11.25. So the bullpen has been a trouble spot, as Fangraphs predicted. But…I still believe the pen isn’t as bad as believed and unfortunately for me, only time will really prove me right or wrong. What can be proven is that with only 3 games in the books, everything at this point is a small sample size. In fact, these aren’t the only numbers that really stick out this early in the season.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins

Here are a few more small sample sizes that skew anyone trying to plan out for the entire 162 game schedule:

Mike Moustakas-.769 slugging percentage (2 home runs so far)

Lorenzo Cain-38.5% walk rate (5 walks in 3 games)

Matt Strahm-13.50 HR/9 (1 HR given up over 0.2 innings pitched)

So what is the point of this little exercise? To show that statistics early in the season mean close to nothing. Remember last year about this time when Trevor Story of Colorado went on a home run rampage and was on pace to hit 162 home runs? He ended up with only 27. If you really believed he was going to hit a home run a game, 27 looks like quite the paltry number. The point is that while the numbers can show why the Royals bullpen has been a steaming pile of monkey dung, those numbers won’t hold up over an entire season. Then again, some things never change:

Eric Hosmer-60% Groundball rate (58.9% in 2016, leading all qualified batters)

Stay gold, Ponyboy. We can always count on Hosmer to hit the ball on the ground…

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Now, the bullpen isn’t the only story to take away from the first series up in Minnesota; the offense has done its part to make sure people are talking about them as well. The Royals so far are hitting .174/.255/.283 and those numbers are improved since the offense actually contributed in game 3 of the series, as opposed to the first two games. Last in RBI’s and WAR, next to last in batting average, wRC+ and on-base percentage, and 13th in slugging percentage. The offense we saw in Arizona this spring apparently decided to stay there and hopefully will be catching an adjoining flight to Houston this weekend. This offense has been known to be streaky over the last couple seasons and are continuing that tradition into 2017. While I don’t expect the offense to be in high gear all season, they need to improve. Kansas City’s pitching is just not good enough to maintain an offense that goes silent for super long period’s of time.

Alcides Escobar, Cheslor Cuthbert

So three games in and we have seen a very lackluster effort from the Royals. In some ways, that first series was a horror show for Kansas City:

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No, not that kind of horror movie; more like this kind of horror show:

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The good news is that it can’t get any worse that what we have seen so far this week. With that being said, a bit of kudos go out to the Twins. While the Royals looked awful, Minnesota did about everything right. The two biggest issues they had in 2016 were defense and the bullpen, and both appeared improved in the first series of the year. For Kansas City, they need to improve sooner rather than later, because if they are out of the pennant race when June rolls around, the fire sale could very well begin. The Royals are better than they have showed early on and I have to believe we will see that soon enough. If not, I have put a lot of faith in a group of guys who have done nothing but proven people wrong over the last 3 years. It’s time to prove more people wrong.

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