Lifting the Blueprint

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Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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Credit: Getty Images

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

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

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Credit: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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

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

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Credit: Jamie Squire / Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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October Dilemma

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The month of October is always a favorite for baseball fans. October is when baseball gets the main stage, showing the rest of the sports world why it is still ‘America’s Pastime’. There is nothing quite like the MLB playoffs and every year that point is driven home with a month of skill, finesse and drama.

But one pervasive question keeps popping up the last few October’s and it is a question that for our sake I hope Major League Baseball is paying attention to. The question that just doesn’t seem to go away (and the one I get asked the most) is ‘why is it a chore to find the playoffs?’

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The easy answer is that Major League Baseball spread their deal around for the postseason to make them the most money. To be honest, for the most part I don’t fault them. At the end of the day, MLB is a business and the primary goal is to make money. MLB did just that back in 2012, as they worked out a deal that would reach over a number of major networks, including ESPN, TBS and FOX. They also made sure that their own channel, MLB Network, would get a few of the games as well.

This is where a number of the complaints start filtering in. Many people do not have access to MLB Network on their cable/satellite packages and therefore miss out on games every October. Besides the whole money aspect of the playoffs, the other main goal for MLB is to have as many eyes as possible on their product. The more people who can watch your games, the more who will spend money at your games, buy the merchandise and eventually bump up the prices of any television deal moving forward.

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Credit: Associated Press

While many don’t have MLB Network, you can say the same for those that don’t get FS1 and even to a smaller degree, TBS. While I understand the plight of those who might not have one or more of these channels, the truth is that if you are a big enough baseball fan you will find a way to watch these games.

For instance, I needed to cut down my satellite bill last year but dreaded the idea of losing MLB Network. Luckily, I was able to work out a deal with the satellite company that knocked my bill noticeably down while keeping the network on my package. Most cable and satellite companies are losing customers at an alarming rate and are willing to work out a deal with their customers if it means they stick around. If you are in this situation, I highly recommend going that route.

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Credit: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

But what if you are someone who has cut the cord? The truth is that more and more people are moving in this direction and it is actually easy to see a world where cable and satellite companies no longer exist, at least in their current incarnation. MLB has worked on improving their streaming outlets these last few seasons and while it’s noticeably better, there is still some room for improvement.

There are a few streaming possibilities out there, most of them listed right here. A number of these outlets have restrictions, but most also have a free trial for five to seven days. In other words, you could spend a week watching the games on something like YouTube TV or Playstation Vue and decide at that point if you want to pay to watch the rest or pass. It’s not a perfect situation, but it is improving for those that are strictly streaming and should continue to get better as time goes on.

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Unfortunately, MLB.TV really should be the better way to go here but it is lacking. They have it setup to where you can watch the entire playoffs for the cost of $24.99, but there a couple of catches. For one, they want you to already have a participating pay TV account. This would mean that whatever you are already paying, you would have to tack on another $25 to watch the playoffs online. That is a rough pill to swallow if you are a big baseball fan but need to watch the playoffs.

The other issue is blackouts. For those that have contemplated getting MLB.TV in the past, the blackouts have long been a thorn in the side of anyone wanting to sign up. Go ask any Royals fan that lives in Iowa about the blackouts despite living sometimes well over 200 miles away. This is obviously a major issue that baseball needs to fix and it surprises me they haven’t considering how much more money they would make simply by lifting the blackout ban.

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Credit: Harry How/Getty Images

So what can Major League Baseball do to make the playoffs more accessible? One solution might be to do a free preview of the channels that air the playoff games for a one or two-week period. The real issue at hand is the divisional series, since there a few occasions where all four games could air on the same day. Give people the preview for a week and it might just be enough to entice them to up their package for a month.

Another solution might be to air the same game on multiple channels. We saw this just last week, as the National League Wild Card Game had the original broadcast on ESPN and an “alternate broadcast” that gave the viewer Statcast information on ESPN2. This could be done for some of the other games, on stations that would be more accessible. This way, your game has a farther reach for a larger chunk of the fanbase.

There is obviously demand in the playoffs and not just by”Seamheads”. From last Friday, baseball held five of the top six spots in the cable ratings, with the Yankees/Red Sox contest on TBS being the most watched. It is very apparent that baseball still brings in dollars and when there is demand, as a business you should try everything possible to meet that.

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The truth is that while MLB is in a bit of a ‘Golden Age’ right now, they don’t have quite the same pull as the NFL does. The NFL is able to get their playoff games on the major networks, like FOX, CBS and NBC. MLB’s deal runs out after the 2021 season and will hopefully be in a position of leverage at that time to do the same.

The playoffs are a magical time of year and in many ways illuminates what is great about this game. It’s unfortunate that some of these smaller issues make it harder to take in all the action. While television ratings and advertising dollars are a large part of baseball’s bigger picture, there honestly should be more thought put into making sure the playoffs are an easy, joyful experience for its fans. Instead, for some it is a constant search just to find when and where they can watch a baseball game.

The Drought Is Over

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On Friday night, the 29 year wait ended. On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals clinched a spot in the 2014 playoffs, assuring themselves of at least a Wild Card spot when the postseason starts next week. As most know, the Royals hadn’t reached the playoffs since the won the World Series back in 1985. During that span, anyone associated with the Royals, whether it be players, coaches, broadcasters, front office personnel, vendors and even fans have felt the weight of this playoff drought. It had almost gotten to the point to where that became the team’s defining talking point, not anything that was actually going on out on the field or within the organization. I’ve had a little over 24 hours to think about this and what this means personally to me. Like a lot of people, a hefty weight has been lifted off of everyone’s shoulders.

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I immediately thought of all the people involved within the organization who had been around forever. People like Denny Matthews, who has been with the team since the beginning and has dealt with all the highs and lows. I made sure Friday night that I was listening to Denny’s call, if for no other reason than it is comfortable listening to him. Art Stewart came to mind, the long time Royals scout and even guys like Mike Swanson, VP of broadcasting, who has had a couple tours of duty with Kansas City, going all the way back to the 1970’s. I thought of how happy guys like George Brett, Mike Sweeney and Jeff Montgomery would be, former players who were still around and working within the organization. If anyone understood how it was for us fans, it would be these folks, who have endured just as much heartache as we have.

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I also thought of former Royals no longer with us. Dick Howser came to mind, as he was the last man to take the Royals to the postseason. Howser came down with brain cancer into the 1986 season and passed away in June of 1987. Dan Quisenberry and Paul Splittorff both came to mind as well, longtime Royals who also lost their battles with cancer. Former Royals announcer Fred White passed away in May of 2013 and if ever there was a good trooper for the organization, it was Fred. White was still with the organization when he passed away and no one would have loved seeing the Royals celebrate a playoff berth like Fred White. There are probably others I have forgotten about, all who would have loved this moment.It goes to show how much this team meant to so many different people.

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I then thought of my Grandma Thornton. Craig Brown has a great read about him watching games with his Grandfather and my story is somewhat like that. When I first got interested in baseball around 1984, I would go listen to Royals games at my Grandma’s, as we would listen to Denny and Fred call the play by play on the radio. She would tell me stories about growing up listening to the Yankees as that was the only team in the area that stations would broadcast, since there was no local team yet. Listening on the radio made you picture the action in your head, as Denny and Fred would weave their words to give us an idea of what was happening on the diamond. I fell in love with baseball and shared that with my Grandma for many years. Once the Royals started being on television more we would watch the games and  talk about what was happening. I sometimes wish I could go back to then, when I was more innocent and just watched the game without questioning managerial tactics or analyze statistics like I do today. I think I was one of Grandma’s favorites(easy for me to say!) and part of that reason was we both loved this game. Before she got sick she gave me some of her baseball memoribilia she had purchased over the years, as she wanted me to have them. At the time I felt weird about it, since she wasn’t even sick at that point, but I know now that she wanted me to have these items and was afraid I wouldn’t end up with them if it got into the hands of other family members. I still remember her sternly telling me I was to take them and this wasn’t up for conversation. I took them, even if it was reluctantly, and the baseball signed by all the 1990 Royals still sits on a shelf in my bedroom, along with other signed balls. I’m sure if she was still around she would have loved seeing the Royals in the playoffs, which puts a smile on my face every time I think about it.

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Lastly, I thought of Dayton Moore. Over the last few years I have been very vocal about whenever I felt Moore had madea move I felt was less than great. Most of the time it was earned, and when a General Manager is in charge as long as Dayton has been and not produced a playoff team it is only natural to question whether or not he is suited for the job. I still am not the biggest fan of him, but I will give credit where credit is due; Dayton did it. He assembled a team that got the Royals to the playoffs. I don’t agree with how he built the team and there will still be a few doubts about “the trade”(and I’m sure it will get brought up again in the future) but for now none of that matters. All that matters is that Dayton kept his word and got this team to posteason play. For that I will give him a “thank you, Dayton” and hope that this will just be the first of many appearances. Adding Jason Vargas has helped this team in 2014, but credit also must go to all the players drafted, signed and developed during his tenure. Sure, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still question marks, but look at guys like Salvador Perez and Danny Duffy as two guys that have been huge for this team. Look at the profits of the Zack Greinke trade, as Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain are regulars in the lineup(and Jake Odorizzi helped bring in James Shields and Wade Davis). Even the bullpen has Moore’s fingerprints on this team, as both Greg Holland and Kelvin Herrera were developed in the Royals organization. Moore has made some questionable moves over the years and probably will again in the future, but for now he backed up what he promised, and that is what matters in the present.

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I have been critical of this organization in the past, and I will again in the future. It’s not out of spite or to complain, it’s out of love. I love this team, and I love all the joy that being a Royals fan has given me over the years and I always want them to succeed. Sure, there have been huge bumps in the road, but it has made this season even more special. On Friday night I sat there and thought about all the things I love about this team and this game and I am so glad I stuck with them. Sure, the Royals might play the wild card game on Tuesday and lose, and just like that it will be over. Or they will keep playing. And keep playing. Either way, the Royals have done what many of us weren’t for sure they could do, and that is break the drought. For that, I am perfectly fine with being wrong about this team.  I bleed Royal blue and will till the day I die; let’s make this a yearly thing now, boys!

 

A Team Tailored for the Playoffs

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As the Kansas City Royals inch closer and closer to their first postseason berth since  1985, it becomes harder and harder to not play out scenario’s in your head. What if they win a Wild Card spot? What will the starting rotation look like? Who do you leave off the playoff roster? These might all seem like minor details, but for us Royals fans it is foreign territory. Hey, we’ve spent close to 30 years just asking for a game that really matters; these questions seem to matter more to us than they should. With all that said there are a few things that not only make me feel confident that we could not only be witnessing a number of playoff games but that this team could be a great fit for what is headed their way.

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Obviously the preference for most of us is for Kansas City to win the American League Central, as the Royals would avoid the one game playoff that is the wild card. Winning a wild card is still playoffs, but there is always the possibility that the Royals have an off night and that would leave them one and done. Also, unless the Royals finish above or tied with Oakland in the Wild Card race they will be playing that game on the road. The thought of only getting one playoff game and not getting October baseball at ‘The K’ saddens me in ways you don’t even know. Like watching the end of Toy Story 3. I’m not alone on that, right? Anyway, there has been lots of discussion on whether the Royals playing in one game would be satisfying enough, and I can easily see why one game would not be enough. Either way, playoffs are playoffs, whether you play 1 game or 21. Bottom line is that the Royals need to reach the Division Series for any of the following points to even matter.

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There are normally three key things stressed for a team to go deep into the playoffs: pitching, defense and timely hitting. The good thing is the Royals are good for at least two of those, with the third coming and going. Let’s start with the pitching. This has been one of the bigger factors in the Royals success this year and without it we probably aren’t even talking playoffs right now. It will be interesting to see if the Royals will go with a 3 or a 4 man rotation to start out. I would imagine the top three goes James Shields, Danny Duffy, and Jeremy Guthrie. I would like to think Yordano Ventura would be the third rather than Guthrie, but my gut tells me they won’t want to push him real hard, as he has already pitched the most innings in one season of his career(179.0 as we speak). You also have to wonder where Jason Vargas is in this conversation, as he has had a really good season but in his last 7 starts he has a 5.89 ERA/1.66 WHIP and Kansas City has lost 6 of his those starts. Since I can’t see either Guthrie or Vargas being a part of the bullpen(unless they are a long reliever, and sweet baby Jesus, let’s hope we don’t need one of those) they will probably either start or not be on the playoff roster. This will lead to some interesting dilemmas for Royals management, as they will want to get the most out of their rotation without killing Ventura’s arm or using a starter who is regressing(I’m staring at you, Vargas!).

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But it’s not just the starters that will guide this team in October. The Royals bullpen has been a major force over the last few years and this year has added an element of dominance to the late innings. With Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland you are seeing a back portion of the pen who will slow down the best of offenses. Three guys with upper 90’s heat, nasty off-speed pitches and the ability to make a Royals game be over if they are leading after 6 innings. Add in the likes of Jason Frasor, Brandon Finnegan(who was drafted by Kansas City this summer) and just for the hell of it Francisley Bueno and Louis Coleman and you have the making of a playoff caliber pen. It will be interesting to see if Aaron Crow makes this squad, as obviously manager Ned Yost still thinks fondly of him, despite his disappointing season where inherited runners abound and velocity decreases. Add in the possibility of Ventura being in the bullpen and you could make the case that Kansas City will make opposing teams want to strike early or pay for it when HDH enter the game.

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Defense is also a major plus for Kansas City and something that will help them in their hunt for gold. This has been about a solid of a unit as the Royals have had in a very long time, although there have been a few hiccups these last few weeks. For the Royals to play deep into October they need the ‘D’ to step up and return to their earlier levels of excellence. It shouldn’t be hard to muster, but this team has also showed the penchant to let pressure affect their play on the field.

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The timely hitting is the only thing that could be a worry. The Royals are hitting at a .270 with runners in scoring position, which is in the top 5 in baseball this season. It does drop to .214 with 2 outs in the inning, which lowers them to the middle of the pack in both leagues. They are also doing well when they get past the 7th inning, hitting at a .252 clip which is good enough for 6th in all of baseball. So this is a team that can hit and hit in the clutch if needed. But if you are a Royals fan you know how streaky they can be as well. One minute this team looks like an offensive juggernaut, the next you wonder if even Kent Murphy or Domingo Ayala(Google them; go ahead) could hit better than Kansas City’s hitters. They also aren’t a team that takes a lot of pitchers, so it is rare when you see them work a count and attempt to wear a pitcher down. Surprisingly they don’t strike out much either, although this means a lot of ground balls that don’t get past the infield. There is also a reliance on bunting when they start to struggle, which can be both good and bad. Letting a speedy player bunt early in the game for a hit? Fine by me, although I would prefer they hit. Sacrifice in the first 6 innings? Awful and something the Royals are notorious for doing. More than anything this team needs to hit in the clutch and attempt to be moderately consistent to reach the next level. I hope this can happen, but if there is anything I worry about it is this very issue that has hampering the team for the last couple seasons. Bottom line, this is a team of hackers who have both good and bad nights.

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Oh, there is one more positive that will be amplified in October; speed. The Royals are almost a team that harkens back to the 80’s, one built on speed, defense and pitching. The Royals like to flaunt this speed whenever possible, especially with both Jarrod Dyson and Terrance Gore on the bench for late inning heroics. This is a team that needs to use that speed to their advantage when they get to the postseason, if for no reason than that it is a plus for the team. This is a team full of speedy guys(Dyson, Gore, Cain, Aoki) and guys who are good base runners(Gordon, Escobar). If the offense is struggling? Use your speed by stealing bases and utilize the hit and run. The Royals aren’t a team that can bunch up a few hits and then expect a big three run bomb, so causing some damage on the basepaths would seem to be a solid game plan. I’m not saying do this all the time, and obviously I think they need to be smart about when they do take advantage of the speed, but there are times that this team strands runners on base, runners that could be in motion. Making opposing pitchers and defenses feel uneasy should be a regular part of Kansas City’s offense this October and one that could gain them a slight advantage.

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Look, there are areas of concern when it comes to this Royals team, like the much maligned offense, a non-threatening bench or Ned Yost’s tactical decisions. All could cost this team in the playoffs. In fact the ideal scenario for the Royals would be for them to get a lead by the 6th inning and then let Yost throw HDH out there for the last 3 innings. The less Yost has to manage, the better. But putting that aside, there are many teams in the American League who have already said they don’t want to play Kansas City in postseason play because of the way they are built. This is a Royals team that is used to playing in low scoring affairs and have shown a penchant to be a team that doesn’t give up late in the contest. So as much as this Royals team isn’t the team you or I would have built and despite logic telling us they shouldn’t have gotten this far with what they have, they are here. Watch out American League playoff teams; the Kansas City Royals are coming no matter how unorthodox or old school their game plan is.             

 

It’s Not Over Yet

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Wow! That’s all I can really say after the amazing come from behind victory the Kansas City Royals pulled off on Monday night against the Chicago White Sox. For 7 innings the Royals looked like a team that was feeling the pressure of contending. Hell, the last week this Royals team has looked like a team feeling the pressure, as they have played about as tight as a team collectively could play. So tight in fact that Ferris Bueller could describe it perfectly, just change Cameron to the Royals:

So only 12 games remain in the regular season(13 if you count the game against Cleveland from last month that will be resumed with the Royals behind in the 10th inning) with the Royals holding the second Wild Card in the American League and 1.5 games behind Detroit in the American League Central. So what does this team need to do to help assure they reach postseason?

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1) Loosen Up

I briefly touched on this a moment ago, but this very well might be the most important thing these players can do over the next few weeks. By Sunday Kansas City had committed 20 errors over the previous 14 games. That is an astronomical number for a team that has been one of the best defensive units in the big leagues over the last two seasons. If those numbers weren’t glaring enough, they have looked just as tight on offense. Over the last 14 games this team is hitting a lowly .233 with an OBP of .286, a slugging percentage of .325 and a wRC+ of 71(when league  median is in the upper 90’s). Obviously the walk percentage is down as well, but that is the norm for this Royals team. Almost every facet of their game has played during this time span like they feel all of the pressure on their backs, and that causes teams to make mistakes and struggle in regular situations. Hopefully last night’s walk off win will loosen the team up and they can return to the style of play they incorporated for the greater part of August.

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2) Continue to Provide Marvelous Pitching

The one thing that has been ‘dead on’ the last few weeks is the starting pitching. James Shields(before last night) had 22.1 IP, 10 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 18 SO, 2 BB, 0.40 ERA over his previous three starts. Jeremy Guthrie(who has up and down over the last few months) threw a gem on Saturday night, giving up only 3 hits, 1 run and 1 walk over 8 innings. Yordano Ventura and Jason Vargas have been steady for the most part over the last few weeks and hopefully can continue that. The only real question mark with the starters is Danny Duffy. Duffy came out of his start on September 6th against the Yankees after only one pitch because of shoulder stiffness.  For the Royals to reach the postseason(and succeed there) they need Duffy to be healthy and on top his game. As of right now the plan is for Duffy to pitch later this week and hopefully will return to form in no time. If this happens the Royals will increase their chances of getting a spot in the playoffs and solidify the rest of the rotation.

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3) Smart Lineup Construction

This isn’t always an issue, but when the team is slumping it seems the weaknesses in the lineups that manager Ned Yost puts together are glaring. Take for instance continuing to bat Omar Infante in the second hole. Up until this weekend this was going on despite him hitting just .232 in the second half of the season with an OBP of .258. Most analysts and fans recognized this problem yet Yost insisted on him staying in that spot. Same goes for Salvador Perez, who was holding steady in the middle of the order despite hitting  just .243 over the last month and not taking a walk since July.  If those weren’t bad enough, once Eric Hosmer got off the DL, Billy Butler got about as much playing time as the Royals bat boy, this in spite of him hitting exceptionally well during Hosmer’s absence. The Royals don’t have a lot of pop in their lineup, so a must for them is to have a lineup that plays to their strengths. If that means batting Infante and Perez lower in the order, you do that. If that means picking and choosing when to play Butler(and [gasp] even sit Hosmer), then you do that. The Royals main weakness is their offense, so to put together a lineup that doesn’t play to their strengths, that is already putting this team in the hole. Yost needs to avoid this the next few weeks and go with the hot hand…and not just say that you are going with the hot hand even if you are not. That leads us to the next point…

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4) Keep ‘Nervous Ned’ to a Minimum  

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, since I have covered this ad nauseum over the last three years. But for those new to the party, Ned Yost does not handle adversity well. It has been shown time and time again, and it has reared it’s ugly head the last few weeks. Doesn’t matter if it is batting orders, or handling the relievers or his defined roles on the team; Yost can’t think outside of the box. The best thing for this Royals team is to score runs early, let the starters go at least 6 innings and then Yost can go to Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland in the 7th, 8th and 9th. The least amount of thinking for Yost, the better. Yost was fired around this exact time back in 2008 for Milwaukee for doing the same things he is doing now. If they can keep ‘Nervous Ned’ to a minimum, then the Royals have a chance to play October baseball for the first time in 29 years.

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There is not much time left in the season so each game is going to feel like a pressure cooker until the Royals clinch a spot. Most of us Royals fans have never felt this kind of stress and it has made us all a bit on edge. If the Royals can do those 4 things listed above, they will defy the odds and make their first playoff appearance since 1985. If they aren’t able to keep those items in check, it could make for a very long winter. This is a team that has the talent to succeed, but there is always the human factor around the corner and it doesn’t follow any certain pattern. That human factor can also elevate a team and play above their talent. Right now the human factor has us all on pins and needles.

Alex Gordon, MVP Candidate

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With the Kansas City Royals poised to garner their first playoff spot in 29 years, it seems only appropriate that one man would lead the charge and carry this team on his back. It happened in 1985, as George Brett had one of his best offensive seasons, leading the charge to the franchise’s first World Series title. So it seems only right that Alex Gordon would carry this team on his back. Over the last month it has appeared that Gordon has almost singlehandedly thrust this team into the top position in the American League Central. But he has also slid his way into the American League MVP conversation.

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Now, I should go ahead and preface this with the fact that if I was a betting man I would bet that Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels will end up with the MVP trophy and I have no issue with that; Trout has had a fabulous season and is probably the best player in baseball right now(outside of maybe Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers). But Alex Gordon should be getting some votes and there are a number of reasons why there should be heavy consideration for his candidacy. Let’s start with the defining of “Most Valuable”. This can be taken a number of different ways and no one opinion of its meaning is more right than another. It is very subjective and means different things to different people. I tend to think it’s the most valuable player to his team, where if you took him out of that team’s lineup they would not be in the position they are currently in. This would also imply that the winner should be on a team that is going to the playoffs. For the most part I agree with that, but there are exceptions; the Marlins aren’t even sniffing October baseball but I do believe Giancarlo Stanton should be at the least considered for NL MVP this year. With that said, it is pretty obvious this Royals team wouldn’t be even thinking about the playoffs this year were it not for Alex Gordon. When the Royals offense has gone stagnant these past few weeks, Gordon has been the one consistent bat in the lineup that has produced. Gordon has not only produced, he has produced in high-leverage situations. This year, Gordon has a slash line of .330/.441/.580 in those situations. If you are a believer in clutch(and even if you aren’t, there is something to be said for timely hits) then Alex Gordon has been as clutch for this team as any player has this year in the big leagues. Just take last Tuesday night against the Twins for instance:

Before that game winning shot, the Royals had produced only 4 hits and one walk. The Royals have a very topsy turvy offense, one that can be electric when it wants to but also has many flaws. They are notorious for not taking many pitches(hence not many free passes) and sometimes seem like they swing at every pitch thrown their way. This leads to a very inconsistent offense but Alex Gordon has been the one consistent batter this team has seen for the majority of the last few months.

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Speaking of offense, Gordon’s numbers aren’t going to just jump out at you if that is what you are taking into account for MVP. He currently sits at .279/.355/.459. His OPS is at .814(which is pretty good but not great) and an OPS+ of 124(league average is 100). Since I know some enjoy the classic numbers, he has 19 home runs this with only 65 driven in, which neither are numbers that will make you swoon. The numbers show a very good offensive player who despite his team’s lack of offense is still able to put up solid numbers. He is leading the team in most categories this year and has really been big for the Royals in the last month. If you are someone who likes a player who performs down the stretch, Gordon sits at .298/.373/.615 over the last month with over half of his home runs hit in that span. It’s obvious that Alex has elevated his game when the team needs him to,but this hasn’t painted the whole picture.

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It’s hard having a conversation about Alex Gordon and his true value to this Kansas City team without mentioning his defense. It is safe to say that Gordon is probably the best left fielder in the American League and maybe in all of baseball, especially on the defensive side. He is a three time Gold Glove winner(the last 3 years) and it is safe to say he will win his 4th this year for defensive excellence. Alex Gordon is about as smooth in the field as humanly possible and this from a guy who started his pro career at third base. Going off of his numbers, he is having the best dWAR year of his career, sitting at 2.1. Since 2011 he has a combined dWAR of 6.5 and has 82 defensive runs saved in that time, 22 just this year. Gordon is on another level defensively and has gotten to the point where runners don’t dare run on his arm, as he has thrown out 61 runners over the last four years, but only 7 this year. It tooks almost four years, but runners have finally figured out not to run on Alex. All these numbers are great, but I feel unless you watch him play everyday(and I am normally either watching or listening to the broadcast most nights) you don’t really truly understand just how great he is defensively. We are getting to see a defensive master in Kansas City, one that might rival Frank White and his 8 Gold Gloves at second base, including 6 in a row. Gordon’s defense adds to his value to this Royals ballclub and makes it to where he is near the top of the WAR leaderboard of the American League.

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Ah yes, the WAR argument. There is a division when it comes to the true value of the WAR stat, which is understandable with the uncertainty of accuracy when it comes to defensive metrics. But there is also no other stat that truly encompasses the true value of a player the way WAR does(factoring in offense, defense and baserunning into its equation). It’s pretty simple to see that it is a stat that truly likes complete players. In the American League, Josh Donaldson of Oakland leads with a bWAR of 6.9, 0.3 ahead of Mike Trout. He is followed by Felix Hernandez in third, Adrian Beltre in fourth and…Alex Gordon in 5th with a 5.9 bWAR. Even to be mentioned in the same company of the other 4 players shows just how valuable Alex Gordon is to this Royals team. Gordon also sits 2nd in fWAR at 6.2 behind only Mike Trout. You don’t have to believe that WAR is the end all be all to factor in the true value of a player, but you do need to recognize that it helps someone understand the greater value of that player to his team. Gordon is on a level with true superstars and shows that his “value” is great enough to be considered “Most Valuable”.

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Numbers don’t tell the whole story when it comes to Alex Gordon but they do show that his value stretches across the entire board not only for the Royals but for the entire American League. Without Gordon, the Royals aren’t preparing to play in the postseason for the first time since Ronald Reagan was in office. I know where my vote is going to land. Voters, I’m not saying that you have to vote Alex Gordon for American League MVP. What I am saying is that it would be a mistake if he doesn’t end up in the top five, because I think it is safe to say that he is one of the five best players in the league this year. There is nothing wrong with voting for Mike Trout, as he has had another stellar season for the Angels. But Alex Gordon is closer than you think and deserves your consideration. It’s a good thing for you to stop and pause to think about it; Alex Gordon has earned that extra thought.

 

Soak It In

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This won’t be a lengthy article. There won’t be a bunch of numbers. No discussing a player’s decline or ascension. This is purely a call out to all of my fellow Kansas City Royals fans. It’s time. It’s time you get on board with this team. We have spent the better part of the last twenty years just wanting a team that could contend, just wanting a sniff of the playoffs. We bitched and moaned, we cried and yelled. We have been through every imaginable emotion known to man and it was all because we lived and breathed with this team. All we have wanted is have a winning team that realistically could play in October. Well, we are here. Sure, a lot of us still don’t have faith in Dayton Moore and Ned Yost. We don’t get warm fuzzy feelings about owner David Glass. Go ahead and throw logic out the window. Logic obviously isn’t steering this train. No, this group of players on this Royals team are finding ways to win and win consistently. Every morning I wake up and look at baseballprospectus.com/odds to see the chances of Kansas City getting to the playoffs. 80.7%. That is where they stand right now. The magic number is at 29.  I beg of you Royals fans, don’t miss this. Quit analyzing all the time and just enjoy what is in front of us. We have a month of regular season baseball left. Let’s just enjoy the ride and worry about the consequences later. If you haven’t gotten those warm and tingly feelings as of late, then get there. It is truly a beautiful feeling. So Royals fans, jump on board. There is more than enough room. We are closer and closer to October baseball every day and I’m enjoying the hell out of it. Go ahead, enjoy it with me.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Kansas City Royals

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