Happy Trails, Moose

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Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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

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

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Credit: AP Photo/Ed Zurga

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

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

His manager also thought very fondly of him:

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

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Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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

Defensively, Phillips is a gem:

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

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

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

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Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

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

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

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

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Credit: Dylan Buell/Getty Images

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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The 2nd Annual 2017 Kansas City Royals Season Awards

Colorado Rockies v Kansas City Royals

Last year about this time I decided to take a look back at the 2016 campaign and hand out awards for the most deserving  players. At the time it felt like a fun thing to do but moving forward I feel it is a way to really acknowledge the players who have earned the honor and attention for their play. While the Royals season was a letdown in some regards, in others it was successful. So let’s look at the players who contributed to some of Kansas City’s success.

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Credit: Kansas City Star

Most Valuable Royal: Lorenzo Cain

Man, this was not an easy category, not with all the productive offensive seasons put up by Kansas City. By no means is this a slight on Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas or Whit Merrifield; all three were very worthy of this honor and it was hard to weigh one over the other. But at the end of the day, I felt Lorenzo Cain had not only the most productive season for the Royals but also the most consistent. Cain wrapped up the year hitting .300/.363/.400 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI’s, 47 extra base hits, 26 stolen bases an OPS+ of 112 and a bWAR of 5.3. Cain’s value obviously goes beyond just his offense, as his defense led him to this win, posting a 0.9 defensive WAR and 5 defensive runs saved. It was hard to separate Cain and Hosmer, as they both put up very similar numbers outside of some of the power numbers that Hosmer dominated, and they even tied for fWAR at 4.1. At the end of the day Cain’s defense won out but it was also interesting how Cain got to this point. While it is obvious 2015 has been his career year to this point, Cain did post career high’s this year in walk rate and on base percentage while posting the lowest strike out rate of his career (15.5%). While Cain’s power numbers were higher in 2015, his role on this year’s team was slightly different, especially later in the season when manager Ned Yost was batting him 2nd in the order. Cain’s responsibility in the lineup became more of a guy trying to get on base rather than driving in base runners and it shows in his numbers. Since 2015 Cain has morphed into Kansas City’s best overall player, taking the mantle from Alex Gordon. What he showed this year was not only a productive wrap up of his Royals career (more than likely), but he adjusted to the situation he was in and came out a better player. That is why he was the ‘Most Valuable Royal’ in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Eric Hosmer, Whit Merrifield, Mike Moustakas 

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Most Valuable Pitcher and Reliever of the Year: Mike Minor

This was another category that was not an easy pick, for different reasons than the previous. While numerous Kansas City batters put up ‘career years’ during 2017, the pitching staff wasn’t quite as promising. Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas at various times felt like the front runners, but between Duffy’s injuries and Vargas’ awful second half, neither felt like the guy who pieced together enough for this honor. So it came down to the bullpen and after an initial belief on my part that Scott Alexander deserved this honor (and if not for his late burnout he probably would have won it), the winner ended up going to Minor. While most probably expected some success from Minor when Kansas City signed him in 2016, the idea he would garner such prosperity out of the bullpen would be an idea out of left field. Before this season, Minor had made two career relief appearances…total. That is for his entire professional career, both in the minors and majors. So converting Minor to a blockbuster reliever didn’t really appear to be in the cards, but now it seems like genius on the Royals part. Minor appeared in 65 games this season, throwing 77.2 innings, posting a 2.55 ERA, a 2.62 FIP, a 28.7% K rate (the best of his major league career) and 2.1 fWAR. What made his conversion even more intriguing was his acceptance of the closer role over the last couple weeks of the season. Kelvin Herrera struggles pushed him to a setup role for the team and with Scott Alexander taxed physically and Brandon Maurer mentally, the Royals turned to Minor to close out a few games. Mike would do so with quite a bit of success, enough so that if he would return to Kansas City (he is an upcoming free agent) he would be in the running for said role. Overall, the 2017 campaign was a positive one for a guy who kept having his comeback attempts foiled in the minors throughout 2016 and was not a lock to even make the Royals out of spring training this year. From the trainers room to the bullpen, Mike Minor has earned the honor of Royals best pitcher in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Scott Alexander, Jason Vargas

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Best Hitter Award: Eric Hosmer

While the Royals overall didn’t compile the best of offensive numbers, a number of players did achieve career years in 2017. While Whit Merrifield and Mike Moustakas can claim great seasons, Eric Hosmer will be bestowed the Best Hitter Award for the Royals in 2017. Now Hosmer has long been a sore spot on this blog; just going back to February I discussed reasons the Royals shouldn’t re-sign  him. One of my main arguments was his lack of consistency, an issue that had dragged him down throughout his career. That all changed in 2017, as Hosmer proved to be the hitter we all imagined him to be when he was coming up through the Royals farm system. Outside of April (which was his worst month of the season and worst for the entire Royals offense), Hosmer’s lowest batting average in any one month was .297. His lowest on base percentage was .367 in June and his lowest slugging percentage per month was .476 in September. To take this a step further, Hosmer’s lowest wRC+ outside of April was 134 in September, a number I would take for an entire season if we are being honest. All Hosmer did in 2017 was tie for his career high in home runs while setting new career highs in walk percentage, isolated power, batting average on balls in play, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, weighted on base average, weighted runs created plus and wins above replacement. If there was ever a time for Hos to have a career year, this year would be his best option as he gets ready to enter free agency. While Hosmer still has a higher ground ball rate than a guy in the middle of the batting order should have (55.6%) he countered that with a much higher line drive rate (up to 22.2% from 16.5% in 2016). Back when Hosmer was first recalled to Kansas City in the 2011 season there was quite a bit of discussion on how if he performed as expected he could be a future MVP contender. While that felt far-fetched even eight months ago, it now appears that Hosmer finally reached his potential. For that, he was easily Kansas City’s best hitter in 2017.

Honorable Mention: Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain

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Rookie(s) of the Year: Jorge Bonifacio and Jake Junis

When forced to make a choice between these two candidates for best Royals rookie, it just felt wrong to slight either of them. So instead, Bonifacio and Junis are my co-winner’s of the best rookie in Kansas City this year. Lets start with Bonifacio, who was recalled late in April to help a struggling offense. It was very evident early on that Bonifacio could be a keeper, as he slugged at a .523 pace in May (his first full month) with a wRC+ of 118. Outside of a very pedestrian August, Boni put up some solid numbers throughout the season and provided some power that has been much-needed in Kansas City over the years. By the end of the year he had posted a line of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 40 RBI’s, a 99 wRC+ (which is essentially league average) and 0.9 fWAR. It should also be mentioned that he saw his playing time cut quite a bit once Melky Cabrera was acquired in late July, so while some of those numbers might feel a tad low, he was also used very sparingly over the last couple months of the season. If anything, Jorge’s 2017 earned him a spot on the team moving into spring training come February. While Boni helped the offense, Jake Junis was a shot in the arm for the rotation. After a bumpy start that saw him follow a pattern of ‘One good  start, one bad start’, Junis’ ERA peaked at 5.66 after his start in Detroit on June 29th. Junis would appear in only one game in July (which was in relief, also against the Tigers) but come August he would firmly entrench himself into the rotation for the rest of the year,  proving he is a major league pitcher. Over the last two months of the season, Junis threw 62.1 innings, posting an ERA of 3.61, only allowing nine walks in that span, while holding batters to a line of .250/.286/.392. Junis’ footprint had left such a mark that if the Royals had made it to the wild card game, there was some discussion of him being a solid candidate to start it. Junis proved he is here to stay and should be almost a lock for the rotation in 2018. What Junis and Bonifacio did this year was show the brass of Kansas City that they  are big leaguers and should be solid contributors moving forward.

Honorable Mention: Kevin McCarthy

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Comeback Player of the Year: Mike Moustakas

One of the best stories told on the field for Kansas City this year was that of Mike Moustakas and his run toward the Royals single season home run record, or as we liked to call it ‘Chasing Balboni’. The truth is, if there was ever a Royal during this period of Kansas City baseball to break the record, it was long thought to be the man we call Moose. Moustakas’ power numbers grew during his time in the minors (go look at his 2010 minor league numbers; you can see where the excitement grew) and it was believed that he would gradually build those up in the big leagues. After a 20 home run 2012 season, the sky was the limit; unfortunately, Moose crashed back down to earth in both 2013 and 2014. After changing up his approach in 2015 (which included going the other way, but also saw his power numbers rise), Moustakas looked to be on track for a big year in 2016. Then came the collision with Alex Gordon and his season ended due to a knee injury in May. The good news was that 2016 had seen his power numbers escalate and it gave most of us hope for the 2017 campaign…and boy did he deliver! Moustakas would end the year hitting .272/.314/.521 with 38 home runs (breaking Steve Balboni’s single season record), 85 RBI’s, a .249 ISO (which was his highest for a full season), a wOBA of .345 and wRC+ of 114. While his numbers overall were slightly better in 2015(I still consider that his career year, plus I prefer Oppo-Moose), he really came into his own power-wise and set himself up for a healthy pay raise this offseason. The one question that still lingers concerns his last two months of the season that saw a decline in his numbers. Moose spent those last two months dealing with leg issues and one has to wonder how many home runs he might have hit if it were not for the knee issue suffered against Seattle or even if Bruce Rondon was an adult instead of a child.  The belief is that if not for those injuries, he would have been well on his way to over 40 home runs and possibly even higher. Overall, it was the comeback season that the Royals both needed and expected from Mike Moustakas.

Honorable Mention: Mike Minor, Jason Vargas

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

While there was obvious disappointment with how the season ended in Kansas City, there was plenty to honor as well. These awards were well deserved and showed the positive sides of the Royals in 2017. I know some believe ‘World Series or Bust’ but I am at peace with a team that is a contender. To me, there was more positive than negative this year and those are the moments I will remember moving forward. Speaking of, here is a great video that shows almost all the highlights of this season. Enjoy and once again a big congratulations to all the winners I honored in this piece.

The End of An Era: How the 2017 Royals Couldn’t Relive Past Glory

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The script was supposed to play out different from this. Here it was, the final contractual season for most of the core group of players who brought a championship back to Kansas City, and rather than ending with a bang and one final playoff run, it ended with a whimper. While the Royals showed glints of their former greatness throughout the 2017 season, at the end of the day this group couldn’t overcome inconsistent hitting, a human bullpen and a number of injuries that left the team limping into the final month. This was supposed to be the final run, one last hurrah, the final countdown or any other cliché that the sports media likes to toss out there. As the four key free agents to be were taken out of the ballgame on Sunday, it was hard not to wonder what might have been. I was part of the optimistic bunch this spring, feeling that if any team could overcome obstacles it was this one. But two factors hurt my thinking: one, I was counting on this team to stay healthy for the most part and two, that a large chunk of the players would post career seasons. While a number of Royals did post peak seasons, they also saw a few that were plummeting. But the health of key members of the lineup and a few notables on the pitching staff really put a monkey wrench on the team’s hopes and dreams and left us with their first below .500 season since 2012 and nothing left to do but conjure up our memories and say goodbye to one of the greatest era’s in Royals history.

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But let’s start with what went right for the Royals this year. For one, the team saw a plethora of peak offensive seasons from their regulars. Eric Hosmer posted the most consistent season of his career, as he put up career highs in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, weighted runs created plus, wins above replacement, walk rate and tying his career high in home runs. The biggest knock on Hosmer (besides his inconsistency) was his ground ball rate, which was first in the AL in 2016 for qualified batters. His ground ball rate was still really high for a player of his caliber (55.6%) but he countered that with a much improved line drive rate (up to 22.2%) while pulling the ball a decent amount less (down to 31.1%, compared to 36. 1% in 2016). But it wasn’t just Hos who should be applauded for his work with the stick. Mike Moustakas broke the 32 year single season home run record for Kansas City by hitting 38 home runs, breaking the mark of 36 held by Steve Balboni since 1985. Lorenzo Cain tied for the team lead in wins above replacement (with Hosmer) at 4.1 fWAR and was as consistent as they come throughout the entire campaign. Jason Vargas had a stellar first half of the season, posting a 1.15 WHIP, 3.12 K/BB ratio while batters slugged at a .373 rate. Vargas would earn a spot on the All-Star team for his efforts, but saw his numbers balloon in the second half of the season. Mike Minor wrapped up his first full season as a reliever with a 2.55 ERA, 2.62 FIP, and 2.1 fWAR. His season led to a lot of discussion in September about the possibility of him returning to Kansas City next year in the closers role.The most surprising part of the 2017 season though was the production of Whit Merrifield, who not only earned himself the second base job despite starting the year in AAA, but would hit .288/.324/.460 with 19 home runs, 78 RBI’s, 3.1 fWAR and lead the American League in stolen bases with 34. For a guy who was regarded as just a utility player and was even left off the 40 man roster just a few years ago, Whit has worked himself into a starting spot in 2018 and has received support as one of the top second baseman in the American League. But while these players proved their worth, a number of Royals struggled throughout 2017.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA Today

Top of the list for disappointments was Alex Gordon. Gordon had the worst offensive season of his career, posting a line of .208/.293/.315 with only 9 home runs, 45 RBI’s, a career worst wRC+ of 62 and an even fWAR of 0.0. The one positive for Gordon was his September, where he hit . 250/.337/.452 and a wRC+ of 107 for the month, which were all bests for any single month in the season. The Royals had him start focusing on hitting the ball the other way, which has always been a strength for him throughout his career. Gordon might have to shift what type of hitter he is moving forward, as the power numbers might just be a sign of regression and age, but if Gordon can continue to play great defense and reinvent himself as a hitter that focuses on just getting on base ( and Gordon has posted good walk totals over his career) he can still be a valuable part of the team rather than a liability. But Gordon wasn’t the only player who struggled: Brandon Moss hit .207/.279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 84 in his first season in Kansas City. Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason. Kelvin Herrera took over the closers role and struggled with it, tossing a 4.25 ERA, 21.6% K rate (his lowest since 2014), 70.2% left on base percentage (the lowest of his career) and just 0.1 fWAR. Herrera’s role in 2018 is probably up in the air and could be determined in spring training.

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Credit: Jason Miller-Getty Images

The Royals also struggled as a group from time to time during the campaign. Remember that whole scoreless streak in August? The Royals went 45 innings  without scoring a run and no doubt probably helped push the team farther and farther away from a playoff spot during that span. The offense as a whole just wasn’t great, finishing 15th in OBP and RBI’s, 14th in wRC+ and K%, 13th in wOBA, runs and ISO, 12th in WAR, 11th in slugging, home runs and BABIP. So while we did see more long balls this year from the Royals, the fact this team isn’t patient and tends to have a ‘swing away’ mentality lead to many a slump and caused them to be a very streaky bunch. The pitching, while better was mostly in the middle of the pack on the American League, but the starters saw a bit more of a decline as the season progressed. Kansas City’s starting pitching finished 12th in xFIP, ERA, LOB% and 11th in WHIP. Injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns hurt the pitching and led them to starting a number of pitchers who either weren’t ready (Eric Skoglund, Luke Farrell) or shouldn’t even have been in that situation (Onelki Garcia).

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Credit: John Cordes

The good news is a couple of rookies showed themselves to be keepers this year and will almost assure them a spot on the roster when the Royals break camp next spring. Jake Junis threw 98.1 innings for Kansas City this year, accumulating a 4.30 ERA, 4.55 FIP, 19% K rate, 1.28 WHIP and 0.9 fWAR. Junis proved to be one of the most reliable starters in the Royals rotation and if the team had made the playoffs he would have been an easy choice for the rotation in October. Junis started throwing his slider more as the season progressed and it proved to be a killer pitch, as he threw it on average about 10 MPH slower than his fastball, leaving batters off-balance whenever he threw it. Jorge Bonifacio also put himself into the conversation in 2018, hitting .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs and 40 RBI’s, a wRC+ of 99 and a fWAR of 0.9. Bonifacio saw his playing time cut once Melky Cabrera was acquired but it felt more like manager Ned Yost had more trust in his veterans and liked having Gordon’s defense in left more than needing Boni’s bat in the lineup. I would expect Jorge to play a lot of right field next year, although the team also has Jorge Soler waiting in the wings and they definitely didn’t acquire him from Chicago to sit on the bench. There was one more rookie who showed some promise this year, and that was Kevin McCarthy. McCarthy threw 45 innings in 2017, putting up a 3.20 ERA, 3.98 FIP,  and a 13.8% K rate. Maybe the most impressive part of his game was that he only allowed a hard hit rate of 26.3% and proved to be a clutch performer, posting a 0.30 WPA and 0.45 CLUTCH. While the team will be bringing back a number of their relievers for the upcoming season, one would have to think McCarthy could see a growing role in the Kansas City pen next year.

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So with expectations so high on this Kansas City Royals team, at the end of the day it just felt like this team was just not on the same level of talent of both the 2014 and 2015 teams. This team just couldn’t overcome injuries to guys like Salvy, Duffy and Moose and didn’t have the depth of talent in the organization that was there in years past. What this season did teach me was to hold on to the memories of those championship teams and not just because there will be a change in 2018. You hold on to those moments because I don’t know if we see another Kansas City team like this one for a very long time. I always held on to the 1985 squad, since that was the first team that made me fall in love with baseball and they were the only Royals team to win the World Series, despite better Royals teams back in the late 1970’s. These players eclipsed the ones before them in that they were able to overcome massive odds and bring winning back to Kansas City. The 2017 roster had talent and potential, but alas they just weren’t quite on par with the teams that preceded them. So what happens next? There are apparently two streams of thought within the front office…one is where the team starts to rebuild and works more on development than contending. The other? Whether you believe it or not, the Royals higher up brass feel that if they can re-sign Eric Hosmer, they might be able to also sign either Cain or Moustakas. This theory would involve a number of chips to fall their way and would also mean a shuffling of a number of high-priced veterans from their roster, but it is possible. I will leave you with this quote from Dayton Moore from just the other day:

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

While I fully expect this team to lose most if not all of their key free agents this winter, I am also aware that the pull of Kansas City and what it means to these guys could be greater than we think. Logic says the curtain has fallen and we have seen this story play itself completely out. But I’ve also learned to ‘Trust the Process’ and trust Moore more than distrust him. It would be a major coup to pull off, but maybe, just maybe…

 

Wounded Royals

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Here we are, the last couple weeks of the 2017 season and with seventeen games left to play, the Kansas City Royals feel like a M.A.S.H. unit. You can take roll call around the diamond and find a number of bumps and bruises that are affecting the Royals and while every team deals with injuries, the Royals are trying to win a playoff spot while also dealing with keeping their players healthy. While there are fingers to be pointed at the offense and the pitching staff, maybe the biggest threat to Kansas City’s run to October is keeping their starting nine on the field.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Minnesota Twins

Maybe the biggest member of the “Wounded Warriors” is Royals starting pitcher Danny Duffy. Duffy went down a few weeks back with a sore elbow and Kansas City is hoping he will be back sometime over the upcoming weekend in Cleveland. Duffy is joined by fellow starter Nate Karns (whose season ended months ago), Brian Flynn and Joakim Soria. Toss in Ian Kennedy’s shoulder issues and Kelvin Herrera’s wrist/forearm problems and you have a pitching staff that feels pieced together. In fact over the last 30 days, the Royals pitching has the third lowest fWAR in the American League, third highest FIP, 2nd highest ERA and the highest Home Runs per 9 innings. If it wasn’t for the free-fall that Detroit is in, the Kansas City pitching staff would probably be the worst in the league over the last month. If you want an answer as to why the Onelki Garcia’s and Sam Gaviglio’s of the world are pitching in these big games for Kansas City, this would be your answer. Unfortunately, it isn’t just the pitching that is hurting.

MLB: Houston Astros at Kansas City Royals

The starting lineup is pretty banged up as well for the Royals and it begins with the on again/off again issues that Salvador Perez has dealt with this year. Salvy missed a few weeks back in August and from what the Kansas City coaching staff has passed along it sounds as if Perez will be dealing with this injury for the rest of the year. Salvy has mentioned he feels a “slight pinch” whenever he swings and misses and while lately he hasn’t been noticeable in his wincing, it is also an injury that wasn’t fully allowed to heal. Joining Perez on the walking wounded is Mike Moustakas, who has been dealing with a right knee injury for a while now. Moose’s leg issues go all the way back to late July, when Bruce Rondon decided that his lack of success should be taken out on someone else rather than looking in the mirror:

Moustakas would end up injuring his knee the following month during a series against Seattle and he has managed to re-aggravate the injury numerous times over the last couple of weeks. While it hasn’t hurt his production as much as you would think a leg injury would (Moose is still slugging well over .400 the last month and a half and producing a wRC+ above league average), it has hurt the amount of time he spends on the field. Mike has only 37 plate appearances this month, which manager Ned Yost has been trying to keep him in the lineup by occasionally playing him at DH. It does appear the knee problem has hurt some of his power numbers, as he only has six home runs since August 1st, still one shy of breaking Steve Balboni’s team record for a single season. Finally, Lorenzo Cain has also been dealing with a strained quad over the last week. Cain has a history of leg injuries and while he has appeared in 139 games this year, it also seems as if the heavy workload has caught up to his body. Whenever anyone asks you if the Royals should re-sign Lorenzo, it is probably wise to mention these leg problems he has had for a number of years now. It feels foolish to throw a large sum of money over multiple years to a player who at 31 years old has a fairly regular injury history.

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So while the Royals sit four games back in the wild card hunt right now, those four games feel immense when you watch this team struggle just to fill out a lineup everyday. I’ve been fairly hopeful that Kansas City would bounce back from these setbacks and get to the postseason, but with 17 games left, it feels farther and farther away from actually happening. When the story of the 2017 Kansas City Royals is finally written, it will be looked at as a team that defied adversity while making one last push for postseason glory. If it’s going to happen at this point, it’s going to take a red-hot finish and massive healing powers. I’m still hopeful…but reality is just a strained hamstring or sore elbow away.

Notes of Royalty: The Hunt For (Another) Blue October

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Why, hello there strangers! I know, I know; I’ve been MIA around here the last few weeks. Life got really busy and my writing took the hit. Hopefully you at least gave the podcast a listen (as I covered a lot of ground over the last few weeks) to tide you over. Since it has been awhile since I have written in this space, I figured I would go ahead and cover a number of topics with the Kansas City Royals rather than just one. Let’s not waste time and start with the return of one of the team’s most beloved players…

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Royals catcher Salvador Perez returned from the disabled list earlier this week and the impact was felt almost immediately. While replacements Drew Butera and Cam Gallagher filled in admirably (especially offensively, which none of us probably called), it was obvious the Royals pitching staff missed Perez behind the dish. During his absence, the Royals pitching took a big hit, as notable by most of the numbers for August. The Royals pitching have the 6th highest HR/9 rate, 2nd highest ERA and the starters have thrown the 3rd lowest amount of innings throughout the month of August. We’ve often said that Perez is the one player the Royals could least afford to lose to an injury and that was very apparent during his time away. This also shows you that Perez’s value to this Royals team goes far beyond any numbers we pull up on his Baseball Reference page. The concerning part is the injury that put him on the DL in the first place, a strained intercostal muscle on his right side, has not fully gone away. If you have watched him play since his return, there have been a number of times where Salvy has swung and missed, falling down to a knee with a grimace on his face. It sounds like at this point the Royals are going to let him play this out and worry about letting him completely heal once the offseason hits. Salvy has described the injury as “a little pinch” but one has to wonder just how this strain will affect him while the Royals make a push for October baseball. It would be nice to have a 100% healthy Salvador Perez, but his value might force Kansas City to use a slightly damaged Perez throughout the month of September.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Kansas City Royals

Staying on the wounded warriors front, third baseman Mike Moustakas has been dealing with a knee injury as of late, one that has forced him to sit out the last two games. While the injury hasn’t slowed Moose down too much (he still has a 136 wRC+ in the month of August) one has to wonder if it might become a lingering issue. As of this writing Moustakas is one home run shy of tying the single season record held by former Royals first baseman (and moustache aficionado) Steve Balboni, which sits at 36. This is a record that has been in place since 1985 and most Royals fans are ready for the record to fall. The good news is that Cheslor Cuthbert is finally healthy and has seen more time at third base as of late, allowing Moose to be the DH and rest his knee. The Royals need as many of their big stars to be healthy down the stretch if they are to claim one of the wild card spots in the American League. It would also be nice to see Moustakas go on another power tear in September and obliterate Balboni’s record. That won’t happen if he is continuing to nurse an injury on his lower half, which is needed to supply power.

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Since we are speaking of injuries, the news came today that ace lefthander Danny Duffy would be placed on the 10 day DL:

In case you are wondering, in layman’s term that means Duffy has a sore elbow. I can only speak for myself, but my first thought was not good. Luckily, my freak out might have been for nothing:

Duffy will be eligible to be activated on September 5th, so if all goes according to plan he could be back in a fairly short period of time. For the moment, Eric Skoglund will be taking Duffy’s spot in the rotation and Onelki Garcia will be taking his spot on the roster. If you remember, Duffy missed the month of June and I know I felt that could be a real turning point for this team. Losing Duffy was either going to cause a spiral down the division or it would cause the rest of the team to step up. Luckily, Kansas City got on a hot streak and put themselves in a better spot when Duffy got back. Hopefully the Royals can step up again and show the mettle we all know they are capable of.

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Finally, if anyone has been a boost to the offense this month, it has been Lorenzo Cain. Cain had been languishing in the .260 range late in July but has taken off over the last couple of weeks. So far in August Cain is hitting .360/.400/.461 with seven extra base hits and 11 runs scored, pushing his batting average to .288. Manager Ned Yost has shifted Cain up to the second spot in the order as of late, which has allowed him to focus more on getting on base rather than knocking in runs. It has also given him a higher focus on hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, which he is doing 77% of the time.  He’s also hitting the ball harder, as his hard hit rate is at 37.3%, compared to 33.8% in July. Cain is easily the most complete player on this Royals team and if he continues to get on base it will force other teams to pitch to one of either Eric Hosmer, Salvador Perez or Mike Moustakas.  If the Royals can get one of the other batters hot at the same time, it could get the Kansas City offense a jump-start that is sorely needed.

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This season has been a rollercoaster for the Royals, so why should the final month be any different? At the very least Royals fans, you can’t say this team is boring. One note here before we wrap things up for today: Remember back to 2014. Late August in early September, the Royals were not playing good baseball. There was a series against Detroit that felt like the end of their run. Go ahead and click on the link; read how defeated I sound running through the most painful portions of those games. Then remember that Kansas City would claim a wild card spot. Then they would win one of the greatest games I have ever watched in my life to advance to the ALDS. You know what happened after that…the Royals rolled all the way to Game 7 of the World Series. So right now, with the team only 1.5 games out of a wild card spot, I ask you: Why doubt them now? It looks like the fun is just beginning…

 

Notes of Royalty: West Coast Swing

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

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…And the Line Keeps on Moving

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

Moustakas 214

Cain            184

Hosmer      162

Perez           161

Gordon        153

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

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs

Chasing Balboni

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

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The Search for a Stopgap

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

 

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Picture Courtesy: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

A Starling Performance

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

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

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

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

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

Bleeding Royal Blue Radio-Episode 1

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I have decided recently to experiment a little bit and see about doing an occasional podcast discussing the Kansas City Royals and any current events in baseball. I don’t know if this will become a regular thing or just something I will do on a whim; it’s something I am just tossing out there. So if you have some spare time give it a listen, as Dalton Wiley and I discuss the Royals last week, the AL Central, Moose trying to break Steve Balboni’s home run record and more. Hope you enjoy it.

Tapped Potential

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Back in May of 2011, Eric Hosmer made his major league debut for the Kansas City Royals with expectations soaring through the roof. The world was his oyster and the belief was that Hosmer had the potential to be a future middle of the order run producer and possibly even future MVP candidate. Unfortunately, life and baseball don’t normally follow a movie script. Hosmer would struggle mightily in 2012 and would be up and down offensively from 2013 to 2015. Defensively he would accumulate a few Gold Gloves at first base and would be a big part of two Royals World Series teams. He had built up a nice career but maybe not the one everyone was hoping for. Luckily, sometimes it just takes a bit of time for a baseball player to figure things out, which is what has happened for Eric Hosmer in 2016.

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To this point in the new campaign, Hosmer has looked like the offensive force most of us expected upon his arrival. This year he is batting .311/.367/.522 with 8 home runs, 21 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 140 (or a wRC+of 145 if you prefer that). He has already racked up 1.1 bWAR and has become a complete player. The lone knock on Hos had been a lack of power, or more to the point that he seemed to prefer an opposite field approach to driving a ball for power. Now, I am a proponent of hitting the ball to all fields, which Hosmer is still doing(30% of his hits to left, 30 to center and 38.9 to right) but there is also a time for driving the ball, especially with good pitch recognition. Hosmer has so far racked up 17 extra base hits out of his 50 hits, or 34% of the time. His ground ball percentage is up(58 from 52 last year) but his fly ball percentage is up as well(26 to 24). Add in an ISO of .211(up from .162 last year) and you have the making of a guy more fitted to hit in the middle of the order. So what do the numbers tell us?

MLB: World Series-Kansas City Royals at New York Mets
(Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY)

What it tells me is that Hosmer’s main approach (which has always been to hit according to the situation) hasn’t drastically changed, but his ability to lift the ball has improved. Hosmer’s hard hit percentage this year is up, 35 from last year’s 32.9 and his HR/FB percentage is way up, 23 to 15. Obviously there is a smaller sample size at this point in the season compared to 2015 but even a slight dip should keep his numbers above what he did last year. What is most impressive is the increase in Hosmer’s exit velocity this year. Not only has his exit velocity gone up but it has progressively gone up:

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Hosmer has an average exit velocity this year of 93.5 mph, compared to 90.4 mph in 2015. Many of his home runs have not been ‘barely shots’, as he has had some massive bombs this year like last week against Boston. It shows that Hosmer has been taking advantage of pitchers mistakes, something he wasn’t doing earlier in his career. The fact that he is but 26 years old really makes one wonder what he will be able to do when he actually enters the prime of his career.

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There is no way to tell whether or not Hosmer will be able to keep up this pace, especially since over his career he has been an extremely streaky hitter. Just looking at 2015, by month Hosmer had slugging percentage’s of .488, .520, .322, .577, .434, and .410. There is an over.250 percent difference between his best and worst month. For as steady and consistent as he has been this year, Hosmer has a history of going from the top of the mountain to the depths of the basement. The hope this year is that Hosmer has started figuring things out and won’t fall to the inconsistentcy of his earlier years. It’s just two months(yes, small sample size; take a drink) but so far this year he has slugged .506 and .542. Time will tell but his numbers are definitely potruding in the correct direction.

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The Royals count on Eric Hosmer for a number of items-clubhouse leadership, popular hairstyles, steady, Gold Glove award winning defense(even if the defensive metrics don’t always agree) and a run producing bat in the middle of their batting order. Over the years he hasn’t always lived up to that last one but this year he has been the rock in the middle of a questionable Royals offense. Hosmer will be a free agent after the 2017 season and he looks primed to cash in when the time comes. There is no way to tell if that means a longer stay in Kansas City or elsewhere, but he has picked an excellent time to improve on his value. He has taken that power potential and made it a reality, a consistency long-needed in Kansas City. Earlier in the year I thought Steve Balboni might have his single season home run mark(36) threatened by Mike Moustakas; now I’m wondering if maybe ‘Bye Bye’ Balboni should worry about both Moose and Hos. For Royals fans, this is a good problem to have.

Moose’s Power Surge

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When I initially started this piece, my plan was take a look at Mike Moustakas’ home run history, broken down by month each year. But as I took a deeper look at Moose’s 2015 home run numbers, something jumped off the page at me. After hitting either  two or three homers for each of the first four months of the year, he exploded for five home runs in August and seven(7!) in September/October. When you add in the four home runs he has already hit through the first eleven games of this season, I have to ask a question: is Moustakas finally living up to his expected power potential?

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While Moustakas was coming up through the Royals minor league system, the expectation was that he had a good chance of producing some great power numbers. Here is a scouting report back  in 2009 from MLB.com:

Plus bat speed and a good swing translate to outstanding raw power, though he showed more of it in 2008 than last year. He does have the ability to hit the ball out to all fields.

There was also this about his upside potential:

Middle-of-the-order run producer who is a constant home run threat.

Also, this scouting report of Moose back when he was drafted in 2007:

Moustakas can flat-out hit and has potential to hit for average and power.

He’s a left-handed hitter with serious power. He homered three times in this game.

So there was a prevalent thought even back when he was in high school, that Moustakas could be a major power threat in the middle of Kansas City’s batting order. Even his minor league numbers showed a hitter with plus power, including 36 home runs in 2010 as he split time in AA and AAA.

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Some of that power has translated over in the big leagues. Moose connected for 20 homers in 2012 with a slugging percentage of .412 and wrapped up last year with 22 and .470 respectively. In fact, the last two months of 2015 might have been a window into some of the power predicted by scouts before he was even drafted. Not only was there the 12 home runs during that span, but also 17 doubles and a slugging percentage of .562. So there seemed to be a change in philosophy in Moustakas from his approach at the plate early in 2015 and the numbers agree with that. Early in the season, Moose’s Fly Ball % hovered in the 30’s but jumped to the upper 40’s starting in July. His Home Run to Fly Ball % also jumped, from below 10% to 13.5% in August and a whopping 17.9% in September. A big part of his early season success was attributed to a philosophy of hitting the ball to the opposite field, as shown by his Pull % lingering in the mid to upper 30’s. August and September saw those numbers rise into the 40’s, while his opposite field numbers falling down into the 20’s. It definitely appeared on the surface that Moustakas was trying to drive the ball more in the second half of the season, with definite success showing up over the last two months of the season.

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It also appears as if Moose’s pitch recognition has improved as well. Last year it became very apparent that teammate Lorenzo Cain had figured out which balls he could drive and which ones he should just go with, leading to his best season to date. I tend to believe a big part of Moustakas’ success late last year and early this year can be attributed to better pitch recognition as well and realizing which pitches to pull and which ones to just go with. So far this year he has avoided rolling the ball over to second base and instead has taken those pitches the opposite way, while pitches that he can scorch(and let’s be honest, most of those are fastballs placed middle to in on him) he has been driving to the deeper portions of right field. Pitch recognition is sometimes a hard facet of the game to grasp, but when a player picks up on it, that normally means a whole new world has been opened to them.

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So it is early into 2016 (and everything is a small sample size) but it does appear as if Moose’s approach at the dish is very comparable to how he ended 2015. Moose has opened up the new campaign with 4 home runs in just 11 games and his numbers show they aren’t too far off from the end of last year. Obviously his Pull % is higher(57.5) but the Oppo & Cent % are both close to his last few months of ’15, while his Fly Ball % is on par. There are a few numbers that are inflated by it being so early in the season(Moose’s ISO is up over .300 and his Home Run to Fly Ball ratio is a solid 26.7 over last year’s 11.2%) but some of those numbers will even out as more games are played and he racks up more at bats. With the advanced attention being paid to taking the ball deep though, that could also mean that Moose could approach the 30 home run plateau, which is very rare in Royals history. There have been only ten(10!!!) 30+ home runs seasons in Royals history, with the last player to hit that high water mark being Jermaine Dye(with 33) back in 2000. Billy Butler came close with 29 in 2012, but fell just short of adding his name to a list that includes Chili Davis, Gary Gaetti, Dean Palmer and the Steve Balboni, who holds the season mark with 36 back in 1985. So Moustakas will look to achieve something that is very rare in Royals history, but not completely impossible.

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So if Moustakas increases his home run total this year and approaches or passes 30 dingers, is that a plus or a minus for Kansas City? I have to admit I am quite partial to the Moustakas that was flinging the ball all over the field early last year and something about “Oppo-Moose” stirs warm fuzzies in my belly. But I am also aware that Kansas City has longed for a power threat on their team for years now and they might have just produced one. Since this Royals lineup is filled with good, solid bats like Cain, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon, I tend to believe that having Moose provide more pop might help balance the offense out a bit more. If Mike can hit above .270 while still producing around 30 bombs, then it has to be considered a win/win for the Royals. If he is languishing around .250 or below then the extra homers are not worth it. I think there is a good chance we see a big season this year from Moustakas(as long as he can avoid injury; he did miss Friday’s game due to slight hamstring soreness) and while I don’t believe we will see him topple Balboni’s season best mark, I do think he could get close. It will be interesting to follow Moose’s power numbers this year and see how they progress. Will he trail off or continue to bomb away? We will know soon enough…

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