A Change in the Rules?

Credit: Kansas City Star

About a week ago, word leaked out (and the link is to The Athletic, which is a pay site) that Major League Baseball had sent a proposal to the players’ union back in January, which included a number of rule changes to discuss before the 2019 campaign. The player’s counted with their own proposal on some changes as well. Today, lets examine some of the rules that were proposed and I’ll toss in my two cents on any thoughts I have on the subject.

As part of a Jan. 14 proposal to the players’ union on pace of play, baseball suggested a rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, sources told The Athletic.

I really have no issue if this rule went into effect. Now, from my understanding is that the “three batter minimum” would not be forced if a pitcher ended an inning or if he would get injured before facing the required three batters (obviously). I like that there was some thought put into this and it wasn’t just a blanket minimum that was enforced.

Now, the reason for it is pretty simple. Over the last few years, as relievers have been used more and more, there have been a plethora of pitching changes that end up hurting the flow of the game. A pitcher will come in, lets say a lefty to face a left-handed batter, and would then be taken out after that at bat was over. Then the manager calls in another reliever and the Ferris wheel of moves begin.

It’s pure strategy and while most of us will agree it is a smart maneuver (as a manager is trying to put together the best match-ups), it also kills the flow of the game. Since pace of play has been such a big issue these last few years, you could see where a rule change like this would have the desired effect that the hierarchy of MLB would prefer.

Personally, I don’t hate the idea. Yes, I hate that the LOOGY would appear to go away (and if you haven’t figured it out, I just like to say LOOGY) but I also believe that strategy would still play into match-ups and this would actually force a manager to think a number of batters ahead, which I’m sure many are already doing.

The interesting part would be taking into account who is on the opposing teams bench and whether or not you believe your foe would pinch hit once you bring a reliever in to face the minimum. By no means is it a perfect solution, but I can see the advantages of enforcing this change in the near future.

Credit: Getty Images

There were a few more changes proposed, including one that shouldn’t surprise anyone:

A universal designated hitter — something the players have sought for more than three decades, according to commissioner Rob Manfred — also was part of the union’s proposal. Under the plan, the National League would adopt the DH for the 2019 season.

Honestly, this is going to happen at some point. Might not be this year, or even next year, but eventually this will happen. The union will never allow the DH to be taken away, as that is one more player making a bigger salary and they are going to move forward, not back. A universal DH would take away the changes involved in interleague games and even during the World Series and All-Star Game as well.

That being said, I’ve always enjoyed that the two leagues have their own set of rules. Do I love watching pitchers hit? Not even a little bit. Do I like the strategy involved with double switches and the moves made when the pitchers spot comes up in the order? Yes I do. My preference is to have the leagues continue to be different, but I understand the thinking behind the move.

At some point, teams are going to want to avoid their pitchers having another opportunity to get hurt. Yes, it doesn’t happen enough to really throw a big fit, but it does happen. Also, pitchers batted .115 last year with an OBP of .144 and a slugging percentage of .149. Taking away the pitcher would add more offense to the game and that is what Rob Manfred is really looking for.

On a side-note, someone on Twitter last week suggested just not having a spot in the order for the DH or a pitcher, leaving a batting order with just eight batters. While I really loved the “out of the box” thinking, there is no way it would happen. Once again, the union would want another player salary in that spot. In other words, the universal DH will be a thing at some point.

There were more changes mentioned as well:

The Associated Press previously reported that baseball also has proposed increasing the minimum time a player spends on the disabled list and amount of time an optioned player spends in the minor leagues from 10 to 15 days.

I have no issue with this. In fact, the disabled list will be referred to moving forward as the injured list. Both of these moves would be good for the game.

In baseball’s view, the limit on reliever usage would become even more necessary with the introduction of a 26-man roster; MLB would want to discourage teams from using the extra roster spot on another bullpen arm.

Another rule change would be making rosters 26 deep instead of 25. I’ve felt for years that move should be made and have honestly wondered how long it was really going to take to enforce it. The one hitch in this idea would be trying to tell teams how to structure their roster. If they want another reliever, let them have it. At the end of the day, you have to let teams decide individually how they want to put together their roster, good or bad.

There is a rule change that has been mentioned that while on the surface I understand, there is an underlying issue that would make it hard for me to support it:

Among the proposals being discussed by Major League Baseball and the players’ union this winter is the formation of a joint committee to study whether to move back the mound to help hitters, at a time when pitchers’ velocity has reached levels never before seen in history.
The committee, if agreed to by both sides, would also look at the potential impact of lowering the mound by as many as six inches.

On the surface, I understand why this move would be made. Baseball has seen a noticeable increase in pitcher’s velocity these last few years and combined with the higher usage of breaking pitches, it has made for less and less balls being put into play. In fact, in 2018 there were more strike outs than hits. While the hitters can take some of the blame for that, a big factor is the elevation in pitcher’s velocity.

My problem with the proposed changes is that it is always the pitcher who is punished, never the hitter. Just go back to 1968, when they lowered the mound to improve offense. The pitchers were so dominate and the offense was so anemic (The White Sox produced 2.86 runs per game. The Dodgers and Mets weren’t much better at 2.90 per game) that they lowered the mound to even the odds.

My big issue if they changed it this time would be the hitters lack of attempt when it comes to adjusting. Most hitters today are swinging for the fences, whether there are zero strikes or two strikes and they are doing it because the system is compensating those who do. The advent of launch angle and exit velocity has proven success for many, as the ball being put in the air helps lead to an increase in power numbers. But it has also lead to more strike outs.

The fact we aren’t seeing hitters adjust their mentality when two strikes are put on them or even trying to punch the ball to the opposite field when a shift has been put on, doesn’t make me want to reward them. It feels like if there is a lowering of the mound or it even being pushed back a bit, baseball is saying that it doesn’t matter what the pitchers do to gain an advantage, we will always reward the hitters.

While I understand the need for more offense and yes, baseball does need that, this just feels like a giant slap to the face of the pitchers. If the hitters were adjusting and still not seeing an increase in offense, that would be one thing. But there is no adjustment and right now there is no incentive for them to do so. Baseball is paying for power and willing to make changes whether they adjust or not. It just doesn’t feel very fair when it comes to the pitchers perspective.

The good news is that MLB and the players’ union are looking at possible improvements to the game to try and make it a more pleasurable experience for everyone. While it appears these changes won’t take place in 2019, the fact there is at the least a discussion should make any baseball fan hopeful for change in the near future. No one ever gets ahead by just staying pat; the name of the game is evolution. If baseball doesn’t evolve, it is going to get left behind.

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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.

Deciding Who Will be the Next Royals Pitcher to throw a No-Hitter

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Credit: Jim Mone-Associated Press

On Saturday night, Kansas City Royals history was almost made. Jorge Lopez, in just his fifth start in a Royals uniform, went into the 9th inning with a perfect game. Throughout the 50 year history of the Royals, no pitcher has ever thrown a perfect game and there have been only four (4!!) Royals no-hitters during that span.

The last one was all the way back in 1991, as Bret Saberhagen threw a no-no against the Chicago White Sox on August 26 of that year. Saberhagen would hold the “Pale Hose” to two walks and five strike outs over the nine innings. The fact that this was 27 years ago probably eliminates a number of you from seeing this feat but I remember it fondly.

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It was rare at that time for the Royals to have a home game on television so it felt like a real treat to take in the game that August evening. Add in that Saberhagen was one of my favorites AND it would end up being his final season in Kansas City (which would crush me as a young fan just a few months later) and you can see why moments from that game still take up residence inside of my mind.

But that was then and no one has thrown a no-hitter for the Royals since. Not Kevin Appier, not Zack Greinke, not Jose Rosado and definitely not Jonathan Sanchez. There have been a number of one-hitter’s thrown during that span: most notably Kevin Appier’s complete game loss against Texas back in 1993 and Danny Duffy’s sterling performance against Tampa Bay just two years ago, where he threw seven no-hit innings.

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So Lopez’s performance got me thinking: who are the most likely candidates within the Royals organization to throw the team’s next no-hitter? While it is no guarantee it will happen with the current talent, as with Lopez, all it takes is one night where things just fall into place.

Now Lopez is obviously one of the prime candidates, if not the most obvious. When his fastball has the kind of movement we saw on Saturday and when he is able to mix in his curveball as a real weapon,  it can make for a lethal combo. As evidenced by this past weekend, it’s not always about missing bats, as Lopez struck out only four batters. It does take a nice mix of good stuff, solid defense and a little dash of luck.

But Lopez is just one candidate on this list. Here are a few more choices, in no particular order:

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Danny Duffy

Duffy is not only a possibility because of his past performances but also because of his ace status on this club when he is healthy. While this season has been a disappointing one for Duffy, there were outings this year where we saw the guy who was “shoving” on the mound that night in Tampa back in 2016.

Just go back to June 9th against Oakland, where he went seven deep, giving up three hits while striking out ten. For Duffy it’s not as much about his stuff that day as it is his efficiency. When Duffy is being efficient by throwing strikes and not driving up his pitch count, he is more likely to get into a rhythm and continuing to throw strikes. It’s not hard to see him throwing a game where his pitches have bite and hitters aren’t able to make good contact off of him. If that happens, a scenario could unfold where Duffy is throwing zeroes.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Jakob Junis

Junis might seem like an odd choice here because of the sheer amount of hits he gives up on a regular basis. Yes, those hit things are a bit of a problem if you are trying to throw a “no-hitter”. See, it’s right there in the name. No-hit.

In fact, Junis on average gives up about a hit per inning. So far this year, he is averaging 8.8 hits per 9, while last year he averaged 9.2. Once again, this would have to change for him to throw a no-no.

But there is a reason I picked him as a candidate and it’s a solid reason: his slider. Junis has one of the most vicious sliders in the game and when it is working it probably means Junis is coasting (and not just against the Tigers). Junis’ “out pitch” gives him a special weapon, especially since hitters know it is coming and still have trouble doing anything with it.

On those nights that Junis’ slider is at a peak level, anything is possible. But more than likely if he is going to throw a no-hitter it will be against the Tigers. In fact I’ll call my shot and say if he throws one, it will be against Detroit. That just feels like a safe bet.

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Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Staumont

The first step for Staumont is obviously to just perform consistently enough to reach the big leagues. But if he does, he would instantly have some of the most electric stuff on the team. Staumont has a fastball in his arsenal that can reach triple digits, a good breaking ball and a curveball that has power and depth.

But his control…yep, his control is the whole issue. The lowest walk rate of his career is 15.8% from this past season and over his career he has averaged over seven walks per 9. If he ended up throwing a no-no, he would be one of those pitchers who haven’t given up a hit but have walked like five or six batters. It would even be possible he would give up a run or two because of it.

But all it takes is one night of unhittable stuff to place yourself in the record books. Staumont has the stuff, he just has to learn to control it better to be put in that situation in the first place.

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Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar

It might feel a bit early to toss the two biggest draft picks from this year into the mix, but it also feels like both will be in the majors sooner rather than later. There is a good chance these two will be a focal point of the Royals rotation once they get there and with that comes the opportunity needed to throw a no-hitter.

Both pitchers have great stuff and while Singer is the farther developed of the two, Kowar has shown gradual development throughout his college career and has already shown some of what he is capable of at the minor league level these last couple months.

That being said, if either is going to be the one to reach the achievement last done by Saberhagen, it isn’t going to be anytime soon. Both will be spending time moving up the ladder in the Royals system these next few years and while Singer could be up in the big leagues as early as next year, that is also a best case scenario.

While that feels like a deeper look into the future, the honesty of the situation is that we are talking about an accomplishment that hasn’t been done by any Royals pitcher in  27 years. Yes, the no-hitter drought for Kansas City is reaching the playoff drought level that was snapped in 2014. So while Singer and Kowar are still a ways off, they also could be the best chance the team has of giving up no hits in one game anytime in the near future.

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But before anyone feels like they should feel bad for us Royals fans, know that it could be worse. The San Diego Padres, a franchise that came into existence the same year as the Royals, have never had a no-hitter thrown in their history. The New York Mets, who were founded in 1962 and have such greats as Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden as part of their alumni, didn’t get their first no-no until 2012, when Johan Santana shut down the St. Louis Cardinals.

So while some of you have been Royals fans all your life and have never seen your team throw one, take solace in knowing it has happened. Like all great things in life, sometimes you have to be patient to get something as rare as a no-hitter. The Royals will get there again; it just might take some time.

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.

From the Bleachers: A Further Step into the Season

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Credit: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

Now that we are in the middle of May, there is a definite feeling of where many teams lie or at least where they will be as the season progresses. Since I haven’t been able to truly dive in with my thoughts (outside of anything Kansas City Royals related), I thought this would be a good time to take a look at some of the big stories of the last few weeks. Let’s start with the mess that is the American League Central…

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Grab it like You Want It

So with about six weeks into the season it has become very apparent that the American League Central isn’t the best division in baseball. Or the league. Or much of anywhere. In fact if it wasn’t for the Indians facing my hapless Royals this weekend I wonder if they would be posting a winning record right now:

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Credit: MLB.com

That’s right, the Indians are the only team in the division with at least a .500 record. Actually, on Friday night the entire division was under .500. The Royals had beaten Cleveland that night, leaving them at 18-19 at the top of what has become a poor, beaten-down, pathetic division.

More than likely the Indians and probably even the Twins will finish with a winning record when it is all said and done, but right now this is an ugly picture. When the Royals have played very uninspired baseball to this point and they are only sitting 7.5 games out of the lead, that is not a good sign.

But let’s be honest here for a bit; at some point we are going to get a division winner with a losing record. In fact if it wasn’t for the strike back in 1994 we might have gotten it then:

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Credit: baseball-reference.com

That season ended with the Rangers leading while being ten games below .500. Then the strike happened and baseball didn’t come back until the next season. But it does make you wonder about when it will happen and how soon the pundits will flip out. I can already picture the “talking heads” discussing how such a weak team will grace postseason play and “tarnish” the good name of baseball.

The truth probably lies somewhere in-between, where it’s more of a sign of the dangers of allowing more and more teams into the playoffs. It probably won’t happen this year or even the next few years, but at some point a team with a losing record will be playing in the games that matter the most in October…and just imagine if they get hot and punch their ticket to the World Series. Oh my…

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Credit: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

The Dark Knight is His Own Worst Enemy

Earlier this week Matt Harvey was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds for catcher Devin Mesoraco, ending his time in New York. While many will question his arm and whether he will even return to his former self, to me the bigger question is whether or not his ego and pride will allow him to be successful again.

Don’t get me wrong, he pitched very well on Friday: 4 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs, 0 walks and 2 strike outs against the Dodgers, all of which spells a great debut in Cincy. But at the end of the day his performance wasn’t the lone issue clouding him. No, his issues are paramount and solving these problems need to be his choice, not forced onto him.

In my opinion, the Mets had the right idea; send him down to the minors and break his entire game down to rebuild it. But Harvey’s pride and stubbornness got in the way. Maybe getting out of ‘The Big Apple’ will help, but I tend to think we will see him struggle again, soon.

Matt Harvey loves being ‘Matt Harvey, the dominant stud pitcher’ or ‘Matt Harvey, busy man on the town’ more than he loves being just a guy who gets to play baseball for a living. Until he recognizes himself as the biggest problem, there just won’t be a happy ending for the man formerly known as ‘The Dark Knight’.

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Nick Markakis…Hall of Famer?

About a week ago MLB.com scribe and (in my opinion) one of the best baseball writers of this era Joe Posnanski posed an interesting question about Nick Markakis: can he realistically reach 3,000 hits? Before you start laughing and thinking that is impossible you might want to go look at his career numbers…now pick up your jaw. Markakis currently sits at 2,105 hits here in his age 34 season. In other words, he only needs 895 hits to reach one of the biggest milestones for a hitter in baseball lore.

Outside of players not yet eligible for induction into the baseball Hall of Fame, only two players who have reached 3,000 hits haven’t been inducted into the hallowed halls: Pete Rose and Rafael Palmeiro. Rose is not in because of his lifetime ban and Palmeiro is not because of a positive steroid test. That number–3,000–has always meant an automatic place in Cooperstown and speaks of a player’s longevity and consistency. Markakis checks off both of those marks.

But I’m pretty sure you don’t view him as being an all-time great or even a perennial All-Star. On of his list of achievements is a two-time Gold Glover winner and…leading the American League in WAR in 2008. That is it.

But what has helped Markakis get to this point is a lack of injuries and a regular spot in the lineup. Markakis has only had one season under 145 games played in a season (2012) and his lowest hit total in a season (outside of 2012) is 143 in his rookie year. If things keep moving at his current pace, he could hold on for another six seasons or so and reach 3,000 around his age 40 season.

If that happens, do we then consider him a Hall of Famer? I tend to believe we have to, even if he was never talked about as being one of the top ten players in the game. More than anything, I want this to happen just to hear the discussions about his candidacy. There will be those that will look at 3,000 hits as proof he belongs. Others will argue he was never a “Great” player. Either way, I hope he gets close and I am now rooting for Markakis to reach this milestone.

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Welcome Back, Cutch

Earlier this week Andrew McCutchen returned to Pittsburgh for the first time since his trade to San Francisco and it was as great as you probably pictured it being in your head:

Look, I absolutely loved this for about a million reasons. One, it is always great to see a player return to his former stomping ground and be appreciated for all he did. Two, he was a vital part of that franchise’s return to prominence and was the biggest piece of the puzzle when it came to how that team was built.

But it was also great because I have been a fan of Cutch for years. Go ahead and search his name on this blog; you are bound to find me speak nothing but glowing praise his way. McCutchen, much like Bonds before him, was an all-around player who helped push the Pirates farther because of his greatness. He’s not quite the player he used to be at this point of his career, but at one time he was easily one of the top five players in the game.

I’ve also kind of felt like the Pirates are the National League’s version of the Royals. Both teams were once a regular participant in the playoffs, only to fall on hard times for a couple of decades and then return to glory. I obviously loved the Royals climb back to the postseason and appreciated Pittsburgh’s return as well. So I am glad Cutch got the standing ovation and I’m glad to see him still loved. He is truly a great player and a great human who deserves all the cheers he gets and more.

Finally, for my fellow Royals fans, here is what Eric Hosmer was up to this weekend:

While I wasn’t nor ever will be a big Hosmer fan, I’m glad to see him contributing in San Diego. Plays like this are why the Padres acquired him and hopefully that doesn’t go unnoticed.

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That is just a snippet of what is going on around baseball. I didn’t even get to Shohei Ohtani, Bartolo Colon, Mike Trout or even Mookie Betts. No talk of the increase in home runs and strike outs, foul weather or big-market collapses. I’m sure the next couple of weeks will give me more than enough material to discuss and hopefully I will be able to pass along my thoughts. Until then…

 

 

 

Lost Opportunities

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Kansas City Royals

The other day Matthew LaMar wrote about Hunter Dozier and the unwillingness of the Kansas City Royals to give him an opportunity when a spot has become available on the roster. Matthew wrote up a number of reasons why the team might have passed him over and some of them might carry some weight, especially among those in the Royals front office or even their scouting department.

But Dozier is not the first prospect in the Kansas City farm system to be passed over despite not having anyone of actual value holding them back. In fact, over the years the team has found a way to not see what they have with their younger talent. There for a long time, the Royals were infamous for bypassing younger players for older ones with more big league experience.

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Justin Huber was one of the first names to pop in my mind when I thought of players not given a chance to perform. Huber was a highly touted prospect in the New York Mets system when they traded him to the Royals before the 2004 trade deadline for…Jose Bautista. Huber was initially a catcher, but after the trade he tore cartilage in his left knee and underwent surgery that would end his career behind the dish. The Royals would move him to first base and eventually shift him to the outfield later in his career.

Huber consistently was slugging in the .450-.475 range for most of his minor league years in New York and during his first season in the Kansas City organization hit .326/.417/.560 over 527 plate appearances. He would get a slight audition with the major league club that year, playing in 25 games while hitting just .218/.271/.256  over 85 plate appearances.

He would end up back in Omaha to start 2006 but would end up only getting 11 plate appearances that year. I specifically remember the team recalling him in May of that year for a series against Minnesota and he would only get one at bat, a pinch-hitting appearance on May 3rd.

At the time the Royals had Doug Mientkiewicz at first base and while he was a good hitter with a great glove, he also was in his age 32 season and was a one year solution at first. In layman’s terms, no one of major value was blocking Huber from getting playing time. Alas it was not to be, as Huber would play eight more games for the Royals in 2007 before being traded to San Diego in March of 2008.

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Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Speaking of first baseman, Kila Ka’aihue is another player who the Royals dragged their feet on. Ka’aihue put up a monster year in 2008, hitting .314/.456/.628 with 37 home runs and 100 RBI’s while splitting time in AA and AAA. The Royals gave him 24 plate appearances that September and he looked to at least be an option in 2009.

Instead, Ka’aihue would spend the entire 2009 season in Omaha, hitting .252/.392/.433 with 17 home runs and 57 RBI’s. Meanwhile, the Royals had a 1B/DH combo of Billy Butler and…Mike Jacobs. Jacobs was awful during his only season in Kansas City, hitting .228/.297/.401 with an OPS+ of 84. He would be released by Kansas City in December of that year.

Ka’aihue would get a bit of a chance in May of the following year, as he was recalled to Kansas City but would still see the majority of his playing time in Omaha. He finished the 2010 season on a bit of a hot streak with 8 home runs and 25 RBI’s.

But we knew what would happen next. Eric Hosmer was on the horizon and with Billy Butler firmly entrenched at DH, that left Ka’aihue without a spot. He would end his Kansas City career with only 326 plate appearances in a four-year span, hitting .216/.309/.375.

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Finally, there is the tale of Johnny Giavotella. Giavotella moved quickly through the Kansas City farm system and by the end of 2011 had posted wRC+ seasons of 123, 108, 139 and 118 and was easily the best second base prospect in the organization.

Giavotella was recalled in August of 2011 and two days after would hit his first major league home run off of Max Scherzer. Gio would spend the last two months in Kansas City, hitting .247/.273/.376 with a wRC+ of 72. He would spend 2012 bouncing back and forth between AAA and the majors, compiling 189 plate appearances and a wRC+ of 55.

At the time, “Mistake Free” Chris Getz was the Royals second baseman and while he was decent on defense, he was below average with the bat. The Royals liked Getz’s glove and Giavotella’s defense obviously hurt him in the Royals’ eyes. The fact he hadn’t hit during his short trials probably didn’t help matters either.

By the end of 2014 he was designated for assignment and would end his Royals career getting 465 plate appearances (over four years), hitting .238/.277/.334 and an OPS+ of 67. It always felt like Johnny was never given a prolonged look at the position to truly see what he was capable of and the question was always what would happen if he was just told to go out there and play on a day-to-day basis.

That is the issue with all of these players and what appears could happen to Dozier. None of the names I mentioned above were ever really truly given a chance to get comfortable and play on a consistent basis in Kansas City. The chances they were given were sporadic at best and it was frustrating to watch replacement level veterans filling spots on a number of Royals teams that, to be honest, just weren’t going anywhere.

That is the point of this whole thing. I’m not saying that Ka’aihue, Giavotella or Huber (or even someone like Jose Martinez years later) would have been top shelf offensive stars and would plant themselves in the Royals lineups for years and years. For all we know they would have produced exactly like they did in their short time with the team.

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Credit: MLB.com

But they should have been given the chance to see what they could do, especially since no one was blocking them. We saw Hosmer and Mike Moustakas struggle for years to reach a level of success in the big leagues and the organization allowed them that time to figure it out on a yearly basis.

The players mentioned weren’t afforded that same chance and because of that we are forever left with questions with what could have been. The Royals have an opportunity over the next couple of years to give a number of players the chance to prove their worth and the time to let them fail and pick themselves back up. Sure, not every prospect is going to succeed and a number of them won’t be keepers. But you never know unless you give them the opportunity.

Not allowing someone like Dozier or even someone like Ryan O’Hearn an opportunity after all the time that has been invested in them feels like a loss of resources. At least find out what these guys can and can’t do; if the Royals want to cut bait after that then they are perfectly within their rights. But don’t leave questions left unanswered.

Ready to Start: My 2018 MLB Predictions

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There might be no greater day in the entire calendar year than Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season. The hope, the promise and the search for glory all start today and the standings all say your team is still in it. Every year I like to break down how I believe the season will go…and then go back a few months later and laugh at how far off I was.

In fact if you want to view my guesses last year, just click here. To go a step further, we are keeping me honest this year, as part of these predictions I already did over at Royals Review, as the staff (myself included) broke down the upcoming season. As I stress every year, these are just some fun guesses and by no means should you take this super serious. No one really knows how this will play out, but it’s fun trying to predict. So with that said, here are my 2018 MLB predictions.

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Credit: Jim McIsaac | Getty Images

AL EAST

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

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AL CENTRAL

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

 

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AL WEST

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

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Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

NL EAST

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

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers

NL CENTRAL

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

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Credit: Associated Press

NL WEST

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

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Credit: David J. Phillip / Associated Press

Awards

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American League MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles

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Credit: Getty Images

American League Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto

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American League Rookie of the Year: Eloy Jimenez, Chicago

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Credit: Getty Images

National League MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington

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Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

National League Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, New York

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National League Rookie of the Year: Victor Robles, Washington

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Playoff Teams

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Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

American League

Division Winners: New York, Minnesota, Houston

Wild Cards: Cleveland, Los Angeles

American League Champions: Houston

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

National League

Division Winners: Washington, Milwaukee, Los Angeles

Wild Cards: Chicago, Arizona

National League Champions: Washington

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

 

 

Royals Sign Duda

 

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

Just when you thought the Kansas City Royals winter was over…

On Wednesday they signed Lucas Duda to a one-year, $3.5 million dollar deal with Kansas City. Incentives could push this deal a bit higher, based on plate appearances:

With the signing, Duda will take over the first base position to begin the year and will add a much-needed left-handed bat to the middle of the Royals batting order. Even better, Duda has been surprisingly productive the last few years in both New York and Tampa Bay.

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Credit: The Associated Press

Duda is coming off of a 30-home run season as he split time with the Rays and Mets. Duda hit 30 bombs, drove in 64 runs, posted a slash line of .217/.322/.496 with an OPS+ of 116. Not enough for your liking? Over his career he has put up an OPS+ of 120 (league average is 100), a .457 slugging percentage and has three seasons where he has produced over 200 total bases. Duda is a power hitting first baseman who is entering his age 32 season and should be able to still produce in the friendly confines of Kauffman Stadium.

I’m sure there will be some who question whether or not he can produce at the level of his predecessor, Eric Hosmer. Well….

Duda won’t be as agile as Hosmer on the base paths or even on defense. Speaking of his defense…

In case you didn’t know, Duda was the one who threw the ball into the stands. The Royals are obviously taking a step down defensively with Duda, but considering what he will do with the bat and what they will be paying him, it is still a good deal.

Lucas Duda takes a pitch during #WorldSeries Game 1.

The one issue that has been brought up with his signing is how he will affect the younger players who have been vying for the first base spot in camp, most notably Hunter Dozier (who appeared to be the front-runner this spring). If you are in the camp of the Royals doing a larger rebuild, Duda would be the wrench in that process as he would be taking at bats away from players like Dozier, Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel. But General Manager Dayton Moore doesn’t see things that way:

It’s obvious to see that the best case scenario is for Duda to play well, boosting his value and making him more tantalizing for teams before the summer trade deadline. The Royals could then ship him off for a piece that could hopefully help the team in the future and someone like Dozier or O’Hearn could then take over the first base position. In fact, it appears that is what Moore is already thinking:

This seems to hint toward Dozier starting the year in the minors and working his way back up to the big league club. In my mind, this isn’t a bad idea and I even pointed out why I believe that the day of the signing:

While I probably view Dozier differently then some (and I will delve into that at a later date), throwing him into the lineup to start the year and replacing an icon while still learning the position feels like a lot of weight to throw on one man’s shoulders. The Duda signing gives the team time to get Dozier better adjusted to these scenario’s while adding a veteran left-handed bat to a lineup that is going to need all the help it can get.

Lucas Duda
Credit: Fox Sports

Taking this all into account, bringing Duda into the fold feels like a win-win situation for the Royals. The Royals get a veteran bat, adding a lefthander for a very righthanded heavy lineup while allowing time for Dozier to adjust to his fairly new position. Throw in that it is only costing Kansas City $3.5 million AND they might be able to deal him later in the summer and you have the makings of a quality Dayton Moore signing. It even looks like any beef Duda had with Rusty Kuntz has gone away:

It’s not ground breaking, but it was a move that pegs in the positive side of the ledger. For those worried about how Moore will operate as the team moves to rebuild, this will hopefully temper some of the paranoia.

Oh…and considering he is a world series hero in many a Royals fan’s eyes, I would expect a ‘Standing O’ come Opening Day. I have a feeling Duda will fit in just fine…

 

 

On The Shoulders of Eric Hosmer

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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

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

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Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

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

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

Moose and Hos
Credit: Kansas City Royals

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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