The Arms of Relief

kc1

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.

kc3

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.

kc5

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.

kc6

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.

kc7

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.

kc8

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.

 

Advertisements

Getting Back On Track

kc1

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.

kc3

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.

kc4

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…

kc5

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?

The 2017 Kansas City Royals: In It To Win It

kc1

2016 was anything but a glorious season for the Kansas City Royals. Coming off of their first World Championship since 1985, the Royals spent most of last year trying to catch their footing and keep hopes afloat as long as possible. Injuries piled up, fatigue set in but more than anything, the fire the Royals showed in 2015 was few and far between. It wasn’t a huge surprise; one of the biggest obstacles for teams who reach the top of the mountain is to stay on top. Instead, the Royals fell and while there were positives for this team, there was mostly disappointment. So the question has been asked headed into 2017: how does Kansas City return to past glory? While the predictions and pundits aren’t glowing of the Royals chances, that is even more reason to bet on the ‘Boys in Blue’ to return to the playoffs.

kc2

Let’s start with the story of the winter, which was the unfortunate passing of Yordano Ventura. His untimely death left a giant question mark in a pitching rotation that already had a few questions. The Royals, instead of trying to ‘replace’ Ventura, went out and stocked up. First it was Jason Hammel. Then they went and signed Travis Wood. The rotation went from one with more questions than answers, to one of the deepest groups in recent Kansas City history.

Starting Rotation

  1. Danny Duffy
  2. Ian Kennedy
  3. Jason Hammel
  4. Jason Vargas
  5. Nate Karns

Duffy will front this group and hopefully show that his career-turning 2016 was not a fluke. My money is on Duffy excelling as he grows into the ‘ace’ role. Kennedy, while not your normal number two starter, actually put up solid numbers last year and looks to continue that this year (this spring he has yet to allow a run over 17 innings). Kennedy will have his rough outings and will give up some homers, but he consistently racks up innings and at times looks amazing. Hammel strung together a good 2016 with the Chicago Cubs, with the only real concern being the fatigue that hit him near the end of the season. Hammel is another innings eater who will probably benefit from the Royals defense. Vargas returned in September last year from Tommy John Surgery and looks to pick up where he left off in 2015. Vargas will more than likely be what he was before the surgery, as he is in the last year of his 4 year deal. Karns won the 5th starters spot this spring, striking out 30 over 23 innings thrown. The back-end of the rotation is interesting, since I tend to believe it could very well be different by the time the Royals reach the All-Star break. Wood and Chris Young are both candidates to fill in while they are being stowed away in the bullpen for now. I also wouldn’t be shocked if Kansas City looks for a trade as they get close to the trade deadline and that could shake up the rotation even more. While this might not be the most dominating group in Royals history, it is a solid group that should eat a lot of innings.

kc3

While Fangraphs does NOT think fondly of the Royals bullpen (they have them ranked 28th in MLB), I lean the other way, thinking while it may not be as dominant as years past, they are a solid group that will do more good than bad.

Bullpen 

Kelvin Herrera-Closer

Joakim Soria-Setup

Matt Strahm-Setup

Mike Minor

Travis Wood

Chris Young

Peter Moylan

Herrera takes over the closers role from the departed Wade Davis and should slide nicely into that role. Soria was a walking nightmare last season and Kansas City is hoping he bounces back and at the least, improves on his 2016 numbers. Soria did have an excellent strike out rate last year, but that still doesn’t explain this:

“The roles haven’t been defined,” Yost said. “If we were going to do it tomorrow, we’d probably use [Soria] in the eighth inning, depending on what the matchups are.”

High-leverage situations were a killer for Soria last year and I tend to think he should be kept away from those this year, or at least until he gets his feet underneath him. To me, Strahm will end up in this role eventually and has shown the ability to stop rallies. Those two might not be the only relievers in the setup role:

Minor battled throughout most of 2016 to stay healthy but has looked good so far this spring. Wood is an interesting choice, but he did prove valuable in Chicago’s pen last year. Moylan was a solid bullpen arm last year for Kansas City and while Young struggled, he is still a great choice for the long reliever/spot starter role. The intriguing part of the Royals pen are the ‘What Ifs’ that could contribute later in the year. Josh Staumont is a rising star in the Royals organization and has electric stuff. If healthy (stop me if you’ve heard this before), Kyle Zimmer could also factor into the pen late in the year and don’t count out someone like Eric Skoglund, a lefty who could be a great LOOGY down the stretch. While on the surface this wouldn’t appear to be a deadly pen, it could be a completely different story by July or August.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals

So what about the offense? It appears manager Ned Yost has already figured out his lineup for Opening Day:

I’ve long been less than satisfied with Yost’s lineup structure, but I totally approve of this lineup. It is very interesting to see how the Royals and Yost came to this starting nine:

Royals manager Ned Yost likes to point out that the club’s batting order is an organizational decision, with input drawn from coaches, front office staff and members of the club’s analytics department.

Yes, I smiled to see the team used their analytics department to help structure it. There is also a bit of logic thrown in there as well:

“It gives us a nice left-right-left balance,” Yost said.

I have loooooooong been a proponent of Alex Gordon in the leadoff spot, as it only makes sense to put the guy with the best on-base percentage at the top. Gordon is coming off of his worst season since moving to the outfield and is hoping to bounce back this year. He also added some more muscle to his frame this winter and if spring is any indication, it has paid off (.351/.448/.509 with 8 walks and 5 extra base hits). Moustakas in the two-hole is a great choice, as he has some of the team’s most professional plate appearances while also adding extra base power to the top of the lineup. Cain and Hosmer at 3 and 4 respectively makes sense, although I would like to see Hosmer elevate the ball more this year and hit the ball much less on the ground (he lead all of baseball last year with a 58.9% ground ball rate). Salvy and Moss at 5 and 6 gives the team some thump in the heart of the order and hopefully they are able to drive in the guys who get on base ahead of them. Moss especially adds a nice power bat to the middle of the Royals order and I am excited to see him do his thing. Paulo Orlando will start the year in RF and will hold down that spot until Jorge Soler comes back from the disabled list. The lineup could shuffle a bit after Soler’s return, but I could also just see him slide into the same spot as Orlando, since that would keep up that L-R-L-R order that Yost likes. After years of attempting to keep Alcides Escobar in the leadoff spot, Yost finally has sent Esky down to the bottom of the order, where he is better suited. Rounding out the lineup is second baseman Raul Mondesi, a surprise winner of the job this spring. Mondesi struggled offensively during his short stint in Kansas City last year and the team is hoping that his bat will improve while adding much-needed speed and great defense to the roster. The offense is going to be different this year, as the team looks to provide more power and focus less on speed and a clustering of hits. Kansas City finished last again in 2016 in home runs in the American League and the additions of Moss and Soler should add more thump to the lineup and hopefully more extra base hits. This team has seven players capable of hitting 20+ home runs, which will be a big change of pace for the Royals(as will the strike outs that come with it). It’s going to be interesting to see how that plays out as the season gets underway.

kc5

I’ve been touting the team’s depth for a few months now and as much as this will be the immediate lineup, there will be more shuffling this year than in year’s past:

Bench

Cheslor Cuthbert

Drew Butera

Christian Colon or Whit Merrifield

Terrance Gore

Cuthbert will get plenty of playing time shuffling between third base, DH and possibly even 2B. Butera is the perfect backup catcher for this squad, providing above average defense and is coming off the best offensive season of his 7 year career. I would expect Gore to only be with the team during Soler’s time on the disabled list, but when he is on the roster he provides a late inning speed threat on the basepaths. The final roster spot battle has come down to Colon or Merrifield, and it looks like we won’t find out the result until Sunday:

Colon is out of options and would appear to have the inside track, but there have been some rumblings about a trade going down to procure a spot (not only a spot for backup infielder but also to open a 40 man spot for Moylan). I don’t know who of those two would get traded, although Merrifield’s versatility might be a heavier intrigue for some teams. Also remember, Peter O’Brien is stashed away in AAA and his big bat was all the rage this spring. O’Brien has massive power and if someone in the lineup would happen to go down with an injury, O’Brien would be an interesting name to insert into the lineup. He has his flaws, but if the Royals mainly used him against lefties he could be a big bonus to a bench that has never had much pop. Either way, the Royals don’t employ a large bench but then again Yost has never been big on using his bench players on a regular basis.

kc6

You won’t ever hear me talk much about intangibles here, mostly because at the end of the day they are hard to quantify. You can break down numbers and get a good idea of the performance of a player, but stuff like clubhouse chemistry and leadership are like a mystical potion that just floats around in the air. What I am saying is that those intangibles exist but it is hard to really figure out how much they affect the play that goes down on the field. That being said, there is no way to follow this team and NOT recognize the intangibles. Bottom line is this group is very tight-knit and loves being around each other. That is a huge plus and why some players are excited now about coming to Kansas City. There is also some big motivators this year. For one, the core group of this team (Cain, Hosmer, Moustakas and Escobar) are all free agents after the season and more than likely the majority (if not all of them) will be gone. This is their final chance for another deep playoff run together. Also, there is some motivation with the death of Yordano Ventura. The loss of Ventura hit the Royals hard and he was looked at like their little brother. If you don’t think there is motivation there to win one in his honor, then you aren’t looking in the right places. Finally, there is a bit of a chip on the Royals shoulders this year since Cleveland took their spot, or at least what they considered to be their spot. If you remember back in 2015, a big rallying cry for this team was them feeling like they came thisclose to winning the World Series only to come up short. They played the entire 2015 season like they were there to prove everyone wrong and I have gotten that same vibe from them this spring. These are all big factors into the makeup of this team and why they will more than likely be fighting for a playoff spot into the fall.

kc7

So what should we expect from the 2017 Kansas City Royals? While the predictions and projections once again aren’t kind to the Royals,  I see this from a different slant. What the projections miss some of the time is the value of defense and it’s counter-effect on the pitching. In that regard, Kansas City is still a top-notch defensive team. The other factor is that a number of the Royals hitters struggled last year (Gordon, Hosmer, etc.) or missed a good chunk of the season (Moustakas, Cain). In my estimation, as long as those guys stay healthy they will produce better than they did in 2016 and even if there are injuries, I feel the Royals are better prepared to handle them. Add in power bats like Soler and Moss and factor in a deep starting rotation, and I tend to believe they will be battling the Indians for American League Central dominance all season long. Unless things go horribly sideways (and the percentages tend to lean toward that being doubtful), the Royals are prepared for one final long playoff run. They might not claim the division, but there are two wild card spot for the taking and I have to believe this Royals team has a good shot to claim a playoff berth. One of the greatest joys of my life has been watching these Royals teams of the last few years play meaningful baseball for the first time in decades. While that contender door could be closing after 2017, I have to believe there is one more final run in this squad. Batten down the hatches, Royals fans; I have a feeling this 2017 season is going to be one for the ages.

Mondesi Wins Second Base Job; Soler to the DL?

kc1

The biggest question mark for the Kansas City Royals throughout Spring Training has been ‘who would win the second base job?’, with four players competing for the spot. Christian Colon, Cheslor Cuthbert, Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi have all been vying for the job as the second sacker and Monday manager Ned Yost announced who will start the year at the position:

This was a bit of a shock, despite the fact that Mondesi has had a fantastic spring, hitting .375/.388/.625 with 6 extra base hits (3 homers) in 20 games. The shock is in the fact that both Colon and Cuthbert are out of options and most have felt Merrifield would begin the year either as the starter at second or the super utility player. Instead, Colon and Merrifield seem to be fighting over the final bench spot, with the fact that Whit still has options left probably hurting his case. So are the Royals making the best choice by starting Mondesi to start the year?

kc2

It feels like a weird question to ask, but there are some important factors to remember when it comes to Spring Training numbers. For one, especially early on in camp, hitters are facing a variety of minor leaguers, which isn’t always a good barometer of how successful a hitter is. Max Rieper at Royals Review did a great write-up in this regard, charting all the pitchers that Mondesi has gotten hits off of this spring. I had actually wondered the same thing about Mondesi (and Peter O’Brien as well) this spring and now we know. This doesn’t completely discredit his spring (hey, a good spring is a good spring), as hitting has been the main issue with Mondesi throughout his progression in the Royals farm system and it was obvious that whether or not he made the Opening Day roster was going to be largely determined on how he hit this spring. With that being said, while the numbers appear different, the approach feels like more of the same. Mondesi is not a patient hitter and that showed in the numbers as well; only 1 walk this spring and 13 strike outs over 48 at bats. You don’t have to be a math major to realize that isn’t a great ratio and the Royals should at least be mildly concerned that he strikes out as much as he does. While patience is a concern, his athleticism has won Yost over:

Look, I like Mondesi and still feel like it is waaaaaay to early to start giving up on the kid (he is only 21 years old). That being said, he is no Mike Trout. The only way Mondesi could be like Trout is in his dreams, and even there he probably can’t imagine himself as great as Mike Trout. In other words, this is a ridiculous comment…but I think I know what Ned is getting at. It really feels like Yost naming him the winner this early and comments like this are being done to boost up Mondesi’s ego and give him a bit of confidence going into the season. Whether or not he performs as well as Ned imagines is another issue, one that we will find out soon enough. I wouldn’t be shocked to see Raul not play every day at second and shuffle into a few roles, including pinch runner. The Royals lost Jarrod Dyson this offseason and only other player on the Kansas City roster that can rival Mondesi’s speed is Terrance Gore. While Mondesi isn’t going anywhere, I’m not sold that he will remain the every day second baseman all season long.

kc3

Meanwhile, the news on Jorge Soler was not as positive:

It appears there is a good chance that Soler will start the year on the disabled list, mostly as a precaution:

Remember how we mentioned the Royals missing Dyson this year? If Soler does end up disabled, good chance Gore takes his spot on the roster. It’s been an interesting spring for Soler, as he has struggled, hitting .143/.254/.286 with only 3 extra base hits all spring (2 homers). I know there are some down on Soler already, but I feel it important to stress a couple of things here. For one, he has had only one major league season of more than 400 plate appearances and still doesn’t have a full season under his belt. Two, he is moving to a different team and was traded for one of the most dominant relievers over the last 3 years; there is a bit of stress that goes with that and trying to prove ones self. Three, he is also adjusting to a new league on top of all of this. I fully expected him to struggle for the first few months of the season and don’t feel like a knee-jerk reaction really is fair here. Soler has four years to prove his worth and while he will need to do that sooner than year four, I don’t think we will get a good estimation of what he can do until later into the 2018 season. While the injury isn’t great timing, it also might give him an opportunity to slide back into the team early in the season with a little less pressure on him.

kc4

While the makeup of the roster is getting closer to being finalized, it is interesting on how this will shake out. Gore is an interesting add, since he is almost solely on the team as pinch runner which limits his usage. If the final spot goes down to Colon or Merrifield, I have to feel like Whit loses out and possibly only because of option availability. The other factor to remember here is that Yost is not huge on using his bench, so in some ways the structure of said bench isn’t as super important now as it will be come August and September. It also appears as if Peter Moylan is poised to take the final bullpen spot, but that will also mean that the Royals will need to make a corresponding 40 man roster move, as Moylan is currently not on it. I made the comment a few weeks ago that this Royals roster is the deepest it has been in years and it is showing with the roster moves made over the last couple of days.

kc5

Within the next day or two we will know the Opening Day roster, as Yost wants the team to be locked in before they head to Arlington, Texas this weekend for a couple of warm-up games against the Rangers. Earlier in the spring, it was mentioned that the roster always finds a way to work itself out and it is looking like there is a lot of truth in that statement. This team is built for the long haul and is in a good spot to handle a Soler injury or to give a youngster like Mondesi a shot at a starting job. Hope springs eternal and we all hope that the Royals are right about Mondesi and Soler. Luckily, this is a team that can handle a few missteps.

Depth Is King

kc1

(AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

The World Baseball Classic has been a nice distraction through the dog days of Spring Training (I forget every year how long the preseason drags on)but there is an aspect of it that can shake a baseball fan to the core-an injury. I agree with most that an injury, for the most part, is just as likely during a spring game, with the main difference being that at least in a Spring Training game the major league team has control over when and where a player is in the game. With that in mind, most Kansas City Royals fans lost their breath for a short bit a few weeks ago when catcher Salvador Perez was in a collision at home plate with Royals teammate (and his backup catcher) Drew Butera:

After my initial thought of “man, that was one awkward slide”, my next thought was Perez’s health and how he needed help being escorted off the field. My mind scurried back to 2012 and the meniscus tear in Salvy’s knee and how he missed the first few months of the season. Then my mind ventured to who could take his place…and I got really worried. There is Butera, who is a great backup but too much playing time would expose his flaws. Brayan Pena is in Royals camp, but like Butera, is better suited to occasional starts, not full-time duty. Cam Gallagher is in the Royals pipeline and is a great defensive catcher…but can’t hit a lick. This meant my mind then started thinking of trades and what catchers might be available. The Royals just don’t have great depth at the catcher position and when I started thinking if there is any other position on the field that Kansas City would have a hard time filling, I was relieved to realize that this 2017 Royals team was not only very deep from position to position, but it also might be the deepest team they have had over the last four years.

kc2

On Monday, manager Ned Yost announced the winner of the 5th spot in the starting rotation:

Karns was part of a deep pool for Yost to dig from, as he was battling with Chris Young and Travis Wood to wrap up the rotation. Any of the three fit into that spot and cases can be made for all three as to why they would be valuable in the bullpen as well. Since the Royals have made their run for postseason contention back in 2013, I can’t remember a time when they had as many quality options in the rotation as they do this season. This isn’t even mentioning prospects like Josh Staumont or Kyle Zimmer, who both could be valuable to Kansas City at some point this season, whether it be in the rotation or the pen. If the Royals are hit with an injury at some point this season, it does appear as if there will be a pitcher that can easily slide into a spot in the rotation.

kc3

The bullpen is just as deep, with Kelvin Herrera taking over the closers role and Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria leading the way as setup guys. Add in Wood and Young from the rotation battle and lefty Mike Minor, and you have the make-up of a solid bullpen crew. But the depth extends; Staumont and Zimmer are possible additions later in the year, along with Eric Skoglund in the minors. Throw in veterans Peter Moylan and Al Albuquerque (who are in camp on minor league deals) and there are arms galore for Yost to choose from. While the relief core might not be Holland-Davis-Herrera deep, it is still an above-average group that is a good ten-men deep.

kc4

The infield backups, while not a group of all-stars, are still all serviceable and capable of filling in on a semi-regular basis. Kansas City has Cheslor Cuthbert or Hunter Dozier at third base if something happened (again?) to Moustakas, Raul Mondesi can fill the glove of Alcides Escobar in a pinch (although there are questions about his bat, which has been solid this spring) and the group of Mondesi, Christian Colon and Whit Merrifield are all able at second base, a position without a true starter. Initially I thought first base might not be as deep, but it might be even deeper than the other three spots in the infield. If Hosmer went down, Kansas City could plug-in Cuthbert, Dozier, Brandon Moss, or even Peter O’Brien, who has shown some massive power this spring. Even Hosmer’s future replacement (probably), Ryan O’Hearn, has shown marked improvement this spring and might be available late in the season. While not a collection of offensive juggernauts, the infield could survive a few injuries if something happened and in some ways be able to put up fairly comparable numbers.

kc5

The outfield is more of the same, with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Jorge Soler scheduled to be the starters from left to right. If Gordon goes down, Moss, O’Brien, Dozier or Paulo Orlando could fill in. Cain? Orlando’s best defensive position is actually center field and Billy Burns could take over for a few weeks as well. If Soler went down to an injury (or started seeing more time at DH), there are even more options in right field: Moss, O’Brien, Dozier, Orlando and even Jorge Bonifacio could man right if so needed. You can mix and match some of these players, shuffle them all around the outfield but they would spell the same thing-suitable replacements that the Royals have stockpiled within the organization, the most I have seen in years in Kansas City.

kc6

What will be the most interesting aspect of all this depth will be how Ned Yost uses it. It is very well-known that Yost is not a manager who uses his bench a ton and in the past has penciled in the same lineup for weeks on end. Now that he has a surplus of talent all around the diamond, will he use it to maximum effort or get locked in on a set ‘9’ and go with that most of the time? No matter how the lineup shakes out, this amount of depth can only be a positive for the Royals in 2017. If you go back over the years and look at teams who play deep into October and even win championships, the one constant is almost always how deep of a roster they have. If the Royals are serious about playing in the postseason again, their roster is set for an extended run in the playoffs. It has to make management feel a little bit better, knowing there is a replacement for almost every starter on the team in case something happens. Now, if Perez goes down again…

From A Land Down Under

Minnesota Twins vs. Kansas City Royals
(John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS)

On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals bullpen gave up their first run in over 41 innings(41.2 innings to be exact) and unfortunately the man who gave up that run is a veteran who has had a nice season in Kansas City, Peter Moylan (although if you want to pin some of it on catcher Drew Butera, you probably wouldn’t get an argument from me). Moylan, in his age 37 season, has thrown 31 innings for the Royals, striking out 7.76 per 9 innings, posting an ERA of 3.73, a FIP of 3.69 and continuing to induce ground balls at a high rate, 62.2% so far in 2016(61.7% average over his career). Those numbers might not jump out at you, but when you consider what all he has been through in his career, it is a major achievement that he is currently pitching in the big leagues. In fact, Peter Moylan’s story might be one of my favorite baseball stories ever.

kc1

Moylan’s baseball journey began back in 1996, when he was signed as a free agent by the Minnesota Twins. Moylan struggled for a few years in Minnesota’s farm system(Low A Ball) before they released him in 1998. Moylan left baseball, returning to Australia and becoming a pharmaceutical salesman. Yes, you read that correctly. Two back surgeries later, he was back in baseball, coaching in Australia and playing the occasional first base. The team eventually was short on pitching and threw Moylan on the mound. Back in the 90’s, Moylan threw the ball over the top. He decided to try something different:

“We were getting short on pitching and I started messing around with a sidearm delivery out in the outfield one day,” Moylan said. “When I threw sidearm, it didn’t hurt my back. Next thing I know, our pitching coach tells me I’m throwing 94 on the gun.”

Moylan was given the chance to pitch on the Australian team in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. He struck out major leaguers Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, Ramon Hernandez and Magglio Ordonez. A pitcher throwing sidearm in the mid-90’s caught many a team’s attention:

“Next thing I know, teams are all over me. Three made really good offers: the Braves, the Red Sox and the Royals,” Moylan said. “I signed with the Braves so I could go to Disney World.”

Moylan made the fast track to the majors and was on Atlanta’s 25 man roster by April 11 of that year. He shuttled back and forth between the majors and AAA in his rookie campaign, throwing 14 innings, striking out 8. 40 per 9 and a FIP of 3.15 in the big leagues. Moylan was 27 years old.

kc2

Moylan became a big part of the Braves bullpen in 2007, and over the next two seasons would post some great numbers: 1.79 ERA, 244 ERA+, 4.02 FIP and a WHIP of 1.066 in 95 innings. Unfortunately, Moylan would land on the disabled list in May of 2008, and would have the first of two dreaded Tommy John surgeries. He would return in 2009 and re-assert himself into Atlanta’s pen, and would put up some good numbers over the next four seasons: 2.88 ERA, 140 ERA+, striking out 7.5 per 9 over 150 innings. Moylan continued to induce ground balls (his lowest ground ball % was 56.3 in 2012) but also dealt with a number of injuries. 2011 alone saw him deal with more back issues and near the end of the year he was back on the DL with a torn rotator cuff in his pitching shoulder. He would sign with the Dodgers before the 2013 season, but didn’t look like his old self; he would only appear in 14 games for Los Angeles and posted a career low ground ball rate of 28.1%. Moylan would become a free agent at the end of the season and would try to latch on with Houston, before they released him near the end of Spring Training 2014. It appeared that another Tommy John surgery was in Moylan’s future and he would have the procedure done in March of that year. At age 35, Moylan’s career seemed to be on the ropes.

Astros Royals Baseball
(AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

The Braves would come knocking again in March of 2015, only this time with a bit of a twist. The team wanted to bring Moylan back into the fold, but as a player/coach in their minor league system. This appeared to be a great opportunity for Moylan to be back in the game without any pressure:

“If I signed with a team, I’m obviously going to try to prove myself immediately,” Moylan said. “I risk getting hurt again. I risk having horrible numbers. Then all of a sudden, they could say, ‘He’s not doing anything, let’s get rid of him’ and my career might be over. This way, I can take my time. The Braves are going to be patient and I’m going to be patient, which is not my strong point. When it’s right, it will be right.”

The fact it was the Braves made it even better for him:

“The Braves have always been kind of like that ex-girlfriend that you always think about,” Moylan said. “I’d always check the Braves’ results and hope that they were doing well. But I can do it for real now and not have to hide it.”

Moylan would put up good numbers in the Braves Triple A affiliate, Gwinnett, posting a 3.14 ERA in 28 innings,  but the best part was that his velocity appeared to be back:

“We’re all pulling for him to get another shot,” pitching coach Marty Reed said. “He’s done everything you could ask of him here. The encouraging thing for me is the last month or so I’ve seen his velocity jump up a little bit. At the beginning of the year he was mostly 88, 89 (mph), sitting right in that area, and he’d pop a 90, 91 here and there on a good night. All of a sudden you go ‘Wow,’ you look at a 91. Now he’s sitting 90, 91 and he’s popping a 93 here and there.”

The hard work paid off and Moylan was back in Atlanta by August. Moylan would only throw 10 innings for the Braves last year, but he had his ground ball rate back up to 69% and in that short span was able to accumulate 0.2 fWAR.

kc6

The Royals would sign Moylan to a minor league contract in January of 2016 with an invite to Spring Training. Thanks to former teammate and current Royals Kris Medlen, Moylan was interested in coming to Kansas City:

“A lot of it had to do with reports from Sir Kris Medlen, in regards to the training staff and how they take care of their guys — the strength guys,” the 37-year-old Moylan says. “Another part of it, for me, was I had a history with (Royals general manager) Dayton Moore. He signed me in Atlanta, and when it came time to make my decision, my agent had spoken to everyone from all the interested clubs, and Dayton was the one who was not just saying, ‘We’ll give you a job,’ but ‘We’d really like you to come here.’ It was nice to feel wanted again. I know it’s an uphill battle to make this ‘pen, let’s be honest, but to feel like you’re going to get a chance to come in and prove you can offer something, was huge for me.”

Moylan struggled to find his release point this spring and wasn’t near a big league job yet, so after opting out of his contract, he re-signed with Kansas City and went to Triple A Omaha. Moylan get the call back to the majors on May 12 and really felt like he had found his groove during that first month of the season:

“I found a comfortable release point for those last few outings of spring,” said Moylan. “I knew that I could go into the season and still do the same sort of thing. And I managed to have a bit of success down there. Next thing you know, I’m here.”

 Moylan started out as an option out of the pen if the game was out of reach or if the Royals needed to go to the pen early. After the injuries to Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar in July, Moylan became a bigger part of the bullpen. Since July 31st, Moylan has appeared in 12 games, posting an ERA of 1.35, allowing only one run in 6.2 innings. Moylan has been one of manager Ned Yost’s first calls in pressure situations and has averted many a tight situation over the last month. At 37, Moylan appears to have found a new home in Kansas City.

kc7

Moylan becomes a free agent after the season and will have quite a few options on the market if he decides to leave Kansas City. He might be in his late 30’s, but Moylan is not a pitcher who relies on velocity as much as deception, guile and pitch placement. It’s hard to imagine much of anything stopping him, as he has bounced back from a litany of injuries and keeps coming back. Moylan will never be a star player and won’t get the type of adulation that the top players in the game receive. They can have all the attention in the world; what they won’t have is one of the best damn baseball stories you will ever hear about. Moylan has just that to set his hat on.

 

 

Wanna Be Starting Something

MLB: ALCS-Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

Back in May, I discussed how the starting pitching had become a major issue for the Kansas City Royals. Luckily, not too long after that the starters stabilized and even with Chris Young and Kris Medlen on the disabled list, the Royals starters improved upon what at the time was a woeful performance. No one was going to confuse their starting staff with the Atlanta Braves rotations of the 1990’s or the Baltimore Orioles starters in the 1970’s, but there was some notable improvement, especially once Danny Duffy returned to the rotation. But the glaring weakness of this Royals team is still the starting five and I’m not so sure help is on the way.

kc2

On Friday night, the normally steady Edinson Volquez had one of the worst starts of not only his career, but in baseball history. Volquez only threw one complete inning, allowing 8 hits, 3 walks and 11 earned runs. This earned him the honor of worst game score in Royals history, -18, which toppled the old record of -11, held by Jeremy Guthrie from last year and Zack Greinke in 2005. Chris Young followed that the next night by pitching 2.1 innings, and allowing 7 runs. Luckily, the Royals got some solid bullpen work both days from Dillon Gee, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan and Chien-Ming Wang(oh, and Drew Butera). This is after Ian Kennedy only worked 4 innings on Tuesday and while Yordano Ventura is serving his 8 game suspension. The Royals starters are struggling and it’s easy when looking at the numbers to see why.

Indians Royals Baseball
 (AP Photo/David Dermer)

The Royals starters are 13th in the American League in innings pitched, the second highest in walks per 9 and 4th highest in home runs per 9. The only thing saving them from being last in the league is the fact they are stranding the most runners on base(a league leading 76.8%) and the Angels and Twins starters have actually performed worst this year. Back in May, both Medlen and Ventura were averaging 7 walks per 9 innings; Medlen is currently out on rehab assignment and Ventura has lowered his rate to 4 walks per 9. Chris Young and Ian Kennedy are 1 and 3 respectively in home runs allowed in the American League, with Jered Weaver of the Angels sandwiched between the two Royals. If the Royals are going to stay in the pennant race come September, this has to improve. But how?

kc4

Unfortunately, there isn’t much help on the horizon. Medlen is close to being back, but if he pitches the way he was earlier in the season I’m not for sure that is an improvement. Mike Minor was once thought of as an option, but he was shut down from his rehab assignment a few weeks ago for shoulder fatigue and hasn’t been heard of since. Same for two top Royals prospects, Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte. Almonte did return to action on June 9th, but the longest start he has had since then was only 4 innings. Alec Mills was recently recalled to AAA Omaha, but I doubt he is ready yet for a rotation spot. So there are really no answers within the organization. What about outside the organization?

kc5

Unfortunately, the Royals don’t have much to deal, especially after last year’s Cueto and Zobrist trades that took a large chunk of their pitching depth.It’s conceivable that the Royals could go out and make a trade, although it wouldn’t be for much. More than likely it would have to be a middle to back end of the rotation type starter and someone that Kansas City could get fairly cheap. Someone like a Rich Hill of Oakland would probably be within their price range and would be a nice fit in the middle of this rotation.

kc6

If the Royals are going to contend they are going to have to improve from within. Young and Kennedy would do good to keep the ball down low, pitch on the corners and avoid the middle of the plate. Yordano needs to keep his cool and use his fastball to set-up his off-speed stuff. All the Kansas City pitchers would be wise to lower their walk total and let the Royals defense do their job. More than anything, they need to limit the amount of base runners that are on the base paths; the current amount is just a recipe for disaster. This all seems like basic stuff that I’m sure they are trying to do anyway, but at this point whatever they are trying to do is not working.

kc7

So the main solution to the Royals problem is a bit more consistency from their starters. In reality, all they really need to do is go 5 to 6 innings, allowing 3 runs or less(which is essentially a quality start) and then hand the game over to the bullpen. All of the Royals starters are capable of doing this and while it is unrealistic to expect this out of them every start, it is realistic to expect it the majority of the time. It appears rather funny to sit here and tell them to ‘just pitch better’ but essentially that is what will have to happen. There is no hero coming, riding in on a white horse. For the most part, the rotation they have now will decide whether or not this Kansas City team is playing again come October. This is the hand they dealt themselves,  and more than likely it is the hand that will decide their fate.

Your Invite is in the Mail

kc1

Spring Training is just around the corner, and there are always a few things you can count on. There is always that one player who is in “the best shape of his life”. Yep, you know the player; he’s the guy trying to bounce back from a down season and looking to put up career high numbers. Then there is the player who would conceivably be in “the worse shape of his life”. That player normally looks he spent all offseason on the couch watching Homer Simpson’s genius plan to be able to work from home by gaining as much weight as humanly possible. This role is normally reserved for Pablo Sandoval(sorry, Panda). Then there is the third type of player at Spring Training, the non-roster invitee who tries to slide into camp inconspicuously while hopefully walking away with an Opening Day spot on the 25 man roster. Most don’t, but there are always a few who make their case and wiggle their way up north. Headed into Spring Training there are a few of these players that will be in Kansas City Royals camp, looking to impress the Royals coaching staff and procuring a job. In fact, there are three in particular who will be vying for a spot that seem to have an outside chance of making the club. So who are these mystery men? Let’s start with a former New York Met looking to wear Royal blue come April.

kc2

Dillon Gee will be entering his age 30 season, coming off of an injury riddled 2015 campaign with the Mets. In fact, Gee only appeared in 8 games last year, partially due to a groin injury and partially because the Mets were loaded with a bunch of young power arms(see Syndergaard, Noah or deGrom, Jacob). Plus, Gee didn’t help his own cause by getting bombed in the few starts he was given in 2015. The positive is that Gee is a serviceable arm, one that most major league teams would use as insurance at AAA until he is needed. In other words, there is a good chance Gee will be the 2016 version of Joe Blanton, who turned in a good season for the Royals and Pirates last year, netting him a deal with the Dodgers. Gee won’t overpower you with his fastball(he averaged about 89 mph in 2015)but he knows how to get outs and if paired with the Royals defense he would probably put up some pretty solid numbers. That being said, if Gee gets 8-10 starts for the Royals, someone is either injured or something has gone horribly wrong. I like Dillon Gee as insurance at Omaha, but his chances this spring hinge on the health of the other candidates in the rotation. So unless chicken pox arises in the Royals clubhouse again, it’s a safe bet Gee will be AAA to start the year.

kc3

Peter Moylan’s chances of starting the year at Kauffman Stadium are better than Gee’s, but still a bit of an uphill battle for the 37 year old reliever. Age will be a factor for Moylan, although he has never been a guy who relied on his fastball and with his sidearm delivery his whole success is based more off of movement than velocity. Moylan was actually able to come back from a second Tommy John surgery in 2015, although the Braves initially intended him to be a coach in their low minors. Instead, the Braves stumbled and used Moylan out of the pen in September to positive results. For one, he didn’t walk anyone in the 10+ innings he threw, and was able to induce groundballs at a fairly high rate(69%), which we all know is a positive in Kansas City. He also was able to get some movement back on his sinker, which is a major plus for a guy who won’t blow pitches by batters. The Royals bullpen is loaded right now(as we all know), but there is always a chance Moylan could find his way to Kansas City. Louis Coleman was released on Wednesday, giving Moylan one less reliever to fight with for a spot in the pen. Moylan is also good friends with Royals starter Kris Medlen, as the pair were former teammates in Atlanta back in the day. I would say Moylan’s chances of making the team are slim, but did anyone predict he would have the career he has had so far? In other words, there is always a chance.

kc4

Then there is Travis Snider. Snider was signed to a minor league deal over this past weekend and is the definition of living off of potential. Snider was once a 1st round draft pick of the Blue Jays back in 2006 and ten years later the baseball world is still expecting him to prove he can be as good as once expected. Over his 8 year career, Snider has performed below league average(93 career OPS+, league average is 100) and has not hit the way scouts once expected him to. There are positives with Snider, like the fact that he is going into only his age 28 season and he isn’t too far off from his career best year in the majors(2014). Looking back at that 2014 campaign, Snider played in 140 games for the Pirates with a line of .264/.338/.438, producing an OPS+ of 117 and a WAR of 2.1. Snider fell back this past season, splitting time in Baltimore and Pittsburgh. The other positive for Snider is that the Royals are currently looking at a Jarrod Dyson/Paulo Orlando platoon in right field, so there is a lot of room for someone to step up and make Royals management take notice. The argument could even be made that if Snider showed an ability to get on base on a regular basis he would get a decent amount of playing time. The Royals at this point know what they are getting with Dyson and Orlando; Snider is the wild card that has the ability to open some eyes. There is a good chance Snider could make the opening day roster as backup outfielder and work his way to a good chunk of at bats. I don’t know if Snider will ever turn into a .300 hitter or a 20 home run guy, but a reliable bat who can get on base could work just as well when it comes to playing time.I have to say, Snider’s chances are good this spring but like most things, I am basing this off potential.

kc5

There aren’t many spots available on the Royals roster as we head into Spring Training, but just look at last year. Ryan Madson came into camp as a guy who hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2011 and ended up not only making the roster, but being a reliable cog in the pen for the entire 2015 season. A few spots are open for the taking, and any of the three names mentioned above could sneak their way onto the team. That’s the great thing about spring; hope springs eternal, even for grizzled veterans. Even if they don’t, the Royals will have depth which is always a coveted part of any winning team. These signings are proof that the Royals roster will be just as deep in 2016 as it was during their run to a world championship.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑