Vote For Change: My 2018 Year End Awards

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Credit: Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The World Series is in the rear-view mirror and free agency has officially begun. That also means we are engulfed in award season, as the BBWAA has unveiled their winners throughout the last week. Meanwhile, my fellow writers in the IBWAA have also chosen their triumphant few and to the victor go the spoils. For the fifth year, I was able to vote as part of this illustrious group and decide on who was truly worthy. If you want to check out my voting record over the years, you just have a few clicks to adhere to: 201420152016 and 2017. As always, it is a true honor to have this opportunity to vote and I always vote with the utmost respect. With that being said, here are my picks to win awards in 2018:

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American League MVP: Mookie Betts

Every year, I plan to pencil in Mike Trout for this award and most years that is how the vote ends up happening. Even last year, despite missing noticeable time due to an injury (or an upgrade, for those that believe Trout is a cyborg) he was my choice for MVP because of the sheer level of production he was putting up. But this year, Trout’s banner year just wasn’t quite enough to topple the year Mookie Betts had. 

Bett’s numbers speak of a new level for him: .346/.438/.640, 32 home runs, 80 RBI’s, an OPS+ of 186, 10.9 bWAR and 10.4 fWAR. Betts lead the American League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage and WAR all while helping lead the charge for the Red Sox to procure another world championship. 

But it wasn’t just the core numbers that won Betts this award. Mookie posted the highest extra base hit % of his career (13.7%), a great AB/HR ratio (16.3%), all while raising his walk rate to 13.2%, the highest of his career.

But what truly sealed the deal for me was his Win Probability Added, which lead the American League. Betts posted a 6.0 WPA according to Baseball-reference and a 5.77 for Fangraphs. The other candidates, most notably Trout and teammate JD Martinez are far enough away that this is a no-contest for me. Betts not only tore up the rest of the league, but was the most vital cog of the Red Sox’s arsenal.  

With Betts posting another great year offensively and defensively (and the third consecutive above six wins a season) it will be interesting to see if the conversation starts of his place on the hierarchy of baseball’s elite. Trout has held the mantle for years, but if Betts keeps up at this pace, we could have to start inserting him into the conversation of ‘Best Player in Baseball’ sooner rather than later.

My Top 3: 1-Betts, 2-Martinez, 3-Trout

IBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

BBWAA Winner: Mookie Betts

National League MVP: Christian Yelich

When the season began for the Milwaukee Brewers, their big offseason acquisition was former Kansas City Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain. But the other pick-up turned out to be even more notable, as the team went and acquired Christian Yelich from the Miami Marlins. While Cain had a great season, Yelich performed out of this world and garnered himself an MVP trophy.

Yelich has always had the talent to make himself an elite producer and in 2018 he elevated his game to a new stratosphere. By the time the season had wrapped up, Yelich led the NL in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases and WAR (both bWAR and fWAR) among position players in the league.

What really pushed Yelich over the edge was the second half of the season:

Down the stretch, Yelich was a monster as he hit a robust .370/.508/.804 in the final month of the season, not only cementing this award but also wrapping up a playoff spot for the Brewers.

The biggest change in his game was the elevation of the ball. The funny thing is, Yelich actually saw his fly ball rate go down (23.5%) from last year (25.2%), but he also saw his ground ball rate drop as well (down to 51.8% from last year’s 55.4%). But the increase happened in his line drive rate, which soared to 24.7%, up from 19.4% in 2017. Yelich was making better contact on the ball and it showed in his final numbers.

The cherry on top of the sundae for Yelich is his WPA, which lead in the NL for position players at 6.02. In fact, next on the list is Paul Goldschmidt, who posted a 4.66 WPA. That huge gap (as well as stellar defense) not only helped the Brewers but showed that Christian Yelich is far and away the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award.

My Top 3: 1-Yelich, 2-Cain, 3-Carpenter

IBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

BBWAA Winner: Christian Yelich

Credit: 
Brian Blanco/Getty Images

 American League Cy Young Award: Blake Snell

This was easily the hardest vote for me and one that took me awhile to be comfortable with. Snell and Justin Verlander both put up stellar performances in 2018 but only one man can win, and my vote went to Snell despite a few issues that in years past would probably cost him an opportunity to win this award.

Let’s start with the “dark print”, or where Snell lead the league. Snell was first in ERA (1.89), ERA+ (219) and hits per 9 (5.6). There were two more categories that Snell lead in, which I want to focus on a bit deeper. First is RE24 (Run Expectancy, or for pitchers Runs Saved), where Snell lead with 48.4. To give you an idea of just how impressive that number is, the only pitcher better than Snell this past year was Jacob deGrom, who had an absolutely amazing year for the Mets. Also, Snell’s previous high in this category was 1.6…seriously.

The other stat Snell lead in was wins at 21, and I found this a bit amusing. Over the last few years, there has been a progressive movement to “Kill the Win”, with MLB analyst Brian Kenny leading the charge. The reasoning being that there are so many factors involved in a pitcher getting a “W” that doesn’t even involve the pitcher that it feels like an empty statistic. If we are being honest, I never look at a pitcher’s win total anymore. The only time I am even aware of it is if it is mentioned in a broadcast or in an article. The win to me doesn’t factor into how I vote, so I don’t even give it a second thought.

That being said, the other numbers did enough to help his case. But he did receive some stiff competition from Verlander, who lead in strike outs, WHIP, strike out to walk ratio and pitchers WAR. The most notable difference between the two pitchers was innings pitched. Verlander threw an impressive 214 innings over his 34 starts this season, while Snell threw only 180.2 innings over 31 starts.

For some, that would be a deal-breaker. There is a case that can be made that the extra 33 innings thrown by Verlander should count for a bit more and I can see that argument. There aren’t many pitchers that toss 200+ innings in today’s game and having that kind of stallion to ride can be a difference maker.

But for me, the numbers just leaned too far to Snell’s side to get me to throw my vote to Verlander. It was a tough choice and I honestly believe either pitcher is worthy of the award, but at the end of the day I picked Snell, as did both the BBWAA and the IBWAA.

My Top 3: 1-Snell, 2-Verlander, 3-Kluber

IBWAA winner: Blake Snell

BBWAA winner: Blake Snell

National League Cy Young Award: Jacob deGrom

I don’t get to do this very often but…I predicted this at the beginning of the year. Yep, I took a big swing and actually connected for a change. Honestly, this felt like a natural progression for deGrom and it felt like at some point he would put everything all together. That year was 2018.

In fact deGrom absolutely dominated this year and pretty much ran away with this award. deGrom lead the NL in ERA, ERA+, FIP, HR/9, WPA, RE24 and WAR. Dominance isn’t always a given when it comes to pitchers but this year was truly the year of deGrom. 

To give you a deeper view of his dominance, let’s break down a few of the numbers. Batters hit .196/.244/.277 against deGrom, only taking him deep ten times this year. In fact, deGrom only gave up 40 total extra base hits this year over 217 innings. To give you a better view of how big a deal that is, the Anderson twins (Chase and Tyler, and yes, I am aware they aren’t actually twins) both gave up 30 home runs this year, or almost deGrom’s entire extra base total.

Want to go deeper? deGrom gave up 215 total bases. That number is actually pretty close to his 2016 number of 213 total bases. Oh, that was in 69 less innings then he accumulated this year. In other words, deGrom was a machine this year that no one could shut down.

There were even some analysts that felt deGrom was worthy of the NL MVP award this year, and it’s not too far of a reach.  deGrom posted an insane 9.6 bWAR and 8.8 fWAR this year, both fairly large numbers for a starting pitcher. Throw in the 5.85 WPA and you have an argument that determines the value of deGrom is possibly on par with any hitter in the league.

I’ve always viewed the MVP as a hitter’s award, unless there is a pitcher that blows away the rest of the competition. By that, I mean there are players who play every day who are having really, really good seasons but not quite great. If that happens and there is a pitcher who has being insanely dominate, I would vote for the pitcher. In this case, Yelich had an amazing season and because he is out on the field every day, 162 games a year, my vote went to him. 

I know that probably feels like I am slighting pitchers, but I am a firm believer in the mental aspect of the game and the wear and tear it has on position players. To say it is a grind would probably be an understatement. So while deGrom was out of this world this year, so was Yelich. 

Luckily for the Cy Young award, there is no argument. deGrom wins this hands down and can put his season up there with such greats as Gooden, Gibson and Kershaw. Jacob deGrom was the best pitcher in the National League this year, period.

My Top 3: 1-deGrom, 2-Scherzer, 3-Freeland

IBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

BBWAA Winner: Jacob deGrom

   

Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

American League Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani

This felt like a slam-dunk for me and I was a bit surprised to hear some backlash from Yankees fans, but the best rookie in the American League this year was Shohei Ohtani. Sure, there were some great performances from Gleyber Torres, Brad Keller and Miguel Andujar, but none of them did what Ohtani did.

Let’s start there: Shohei Ohtani did things this year that hadn’t been done in a century. In. A. Century. Over the last 100+ years of baseball no one has achieved the feats that Ohtani did this year:   


Ohtani is also the first player since Ruth in 1919 to throw 50 innings and hit 15 doubles, or to throw 50 innings and draw 25 walks, or to throw 50 innings and drive in (or score) more than 35 runs, or to throw 50 innings and make 200 plate appearances. He’s also the first player since George Sisler in 1915 to throw 50 innings and steal more than eight bases. You get where I’m going with this. Even Ohtani’s abbreviated rookie run was something no one had seen since before the Black Sox scandal, and it happened in a league that’s vastly more talented and specialized than the one Ruth revolutionized.

You get where we are going with this. Ohtani broke down the norms of what is expected of a major league ballplayer. He was a successful pitcher and hitter in 2018 but that isn’t even all of it. He did all of this while playing in a different league than he was used to. He did all of this while playing in a completely different country than he was used to. If that wasn’t enough, he pretty much made it look easy.

.285/.361/.564 batting line. 22 home runs, 61 RBI’s. OPS+ of 152. 126 ERA+. 1.6 WPA. 29% K rate. All while shuffling in between being a hitter and a pitcher. In a new league. In a new country. If he would have just put up average stats and been an average performer it still would have been impressive. But the fact he made it look easy shows what a true talent he is.

So sure, Andujar, Torres and Keller had great seasons. Any other year it is a different conversation and even possibly a battle for the winner. But this is a no-contest. Ohtani is the Rookie of the Year and no one came close to what he did.

My Top 3: 1-Ohtani, 2-Torres, 3-Keller

IBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

BBWAA Winner: Shohei Ohtani

Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

National League Rookie of the Year: Juan Soto

I mentioned earlier that the AL Cy Young was the toughest one to pick a winner, but a close second was this race. Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna were not only two rookies that shined in 2018, but they were pretty close to equals as well.

The two rookies tied for fWAR (3.7), were separated by four homers, 6 RBI’s, and .001 in batting average. Soto had a slightly higher OBP, while Acuna’s slugging was a bit higher. wRC+? Soto 146, Acuna 143. In other words, either player was worthy of being the best of 2018, but only one could win. 

In matters like this, where two competitors are so close that you would have to break a tie, I normally lean toward value. Looking at WPA, Soto had the sizable lead, 3.46 to Acuna’s 1.96. RE24 is a bit closer, but still a runaway for Soto (30.45 to 26.69). Finally, with the Clutch stat on Fangraphs, Soto wins again, 0.22 to -0.12. When it came down to helping their team and making sure they are put in winning situations, Soto came away with a lengthy lead.

So while you can see why I picked Soto, it’s not like Acuna wasn’t deserving. In fact, these two were so good this year that you almost forget all the other great rookies in the National League. Guys like Harrison Bader and Walker Buehler are rarely talked about despite putting up numbers that are very good for a first year player. With a NL class like this, you wonder who will break out and shrug off the ‘Sophomore Slump’ in 2019. If this year was any kind of barometer,  Soto and Acuna will soon be the cream of the crop of not just the NL, but the entire baseball world.

My Top 3: 1-Soto, 2-Acuna, 3-Buehler

IBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

BBWAA Winner: Ronald Acuna

    

Credit: AP Photo/Steve Nesius

American League Manager of the Year: Kevin Cash

This was another close race and one that could easily be a three-way tie. Bob Melvin of Oakland led his team of vagabonds and youngsters to a playoff spot despite starting the year with the lowest payroll in the game and 34-36 on June 15.  Alex Cora led the Red Sox to 108 wins (and eventually a world championship) in his rookie year as a manager and was able to turn away the playoff bound New York Yankees.

But what Kevin Cash did with the Tampa Bay Rays is some other level managing job. Cash propelled a team that was supposed to hang out in the basement of the American League East and led them to a 90 win season. Despite the team trading off some of their best players before the trade deadline, they went out and turned themselves into contenders. The funniest part of the whole deal is he did this almost from a survival standpoint.

The Rays lost a couple of their top pitching prospects (Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell) before the season to injuries. Anthony Banda joined that list a few months into the season. After trading Chris Archer at the trade deadline, they were left with one actual starting pitcher. The lack of starters led Cash to use “The Opener”, where he would have a reliever start the game, pitch an inning or two and then hand the ball off to someone who could go deeper into the game.

This wasn’t done to be cute or try something new out as much as just a lack of starting pitching…and it worked. ‘The Opener’ became a regular part of their rotation and helped bridge the gap for a number of their younger pitchers.

The team focused on good pitching and defense and that helped get them to third place in the East, ten games behind the second place Yankees. Cash pushed the right buttons and his calm demeanor helped keep his team focused through a number of rough patches.

So while Melvin and Cora deserve a ton of praise, Kevin Cash deserves this award. If anything, Cash earned his managerial stripes in 2018 and has come out with a contract extension. It’s too bad he didn’t get some hardware to go with it. 

My Top 3: 1-Cash, 2-Melvin, 3-Cora

IBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

BBWAA Winner: Bob Melvin

         

Credit: Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Brian Snitker

The story of Brian Snitker is one that easily could be made into a ‘feel good’ movie for Disney. Snitker is a guy who has been the loyal soldier, a guy who has been in the Atlanta organization since 1977, when he was a minor league player. He has managed for almost every one of their minor league teams and even spent a stint as the major league team’s third base coach from 2007 to 2013. Snitker has been there and done that when it comes to the Braves organization.

But in May of 2016, Snitker was promoted to manager for the Braves on an interim basis and he would get the job full-time in October of that year. So the path Brian took to this role was a long and lengthy one, but he didn’t really reach his stride until this past season.

What Snitker did in 2018 is something no one, not even the Atlanta front office, expected. He led the Braves to a 90 win season, a National League East title and their first playoff appearance since 2013. This from a team that wasn’t really supposed to contend until 2019.

But it shouldn’t be too surprising it came early. With a nice mix of veterans (Freddie Freeman, Nick Markakis) and top-shelf prospects (Ozzie Albies, Ronald Acuna), the Braves took advantage of the Washington Nationals’ pratfall and dominated the NL East for most of the season. While the talent will get most of the credit, Snitker deserves some heavy praise for the culture he has fostered in Atlanta. Former Braves outfielder Jeff Francoeur told a great story of Snitker that goes back years before:


One of Jeff Francoeur’s favorite stories occurred after he homered a few times for Double-A Mississippi and then got drilled in the ribs against Montgomery. Snitker instructed a reliever to retaliate. When the pitcher simply buzzed a batter, Snitker blasted the pitcher in the dugout and told him to get out of his sight.
When one of Mississippi’s pitchers retaliated the next inning, the benches cleared and the umpires halted the game.
“After we got back in the clubhouse, [Snitker] grabbed a beer and told us he had never been more proud of the way we came together as a team that day,” Francoeur said. “If you play for him, you know he’s always going to protect you and have your back.”

Probably one of the best ways to describe Snitker is hard but fair. It appears that his mentality is exactly what this Braves team needed. Craig Counsell and Bud Black did some great things for Milwaukee and Colorado, respectively, but Snitker’s accomplishment this year has earned my vote for NL Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Snitker, 2-Black, 3-Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

BBWAA Winner: Brian Snitker

 

Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

American League Reliever of the Year: Blake Treinen

Blake Treinen of Oakland had a year for the ages in 2018. Before this year, Treinen was almost a stereotype for a reliever: Great stuff,  but not consistent enough with his location. Treinen could miss bats, but didn’t miss them as much as he needed them to.

That all changed this past year, as Treinen’s late break on his pitches helped increase his numbers across the board. He bumped up his strike out rate to 31.8% (previous high was 24%) and saw his walk rate take a dip. Hitters also went from hitting .271 against him in 2017 to .157 this year. 

Treinen posted an ERA of 0. 78 and a FIP of 1.82. An interesting look into his numbers show a guy who’s luck appeared to switch around in 2018. In 2017, batters posted a BABIP of .344 against him. Luck was not on his side. But in 2018, his BABIP was .230, .114 points lower. Whatever he changed this year made a huge difference in his results.

What’s interesting is there is a huge difference when it comes to pitch usage this past season. Treinen did use his slider a bit less (21% compared to 25.5% in 2017) but  his cutter was used 11.8%, up from 0.5%. His velocity also saw a slight uptick this year, but nothing that will blow the doors off. More than anything it appears he used his cutter slightly more and the extra movement made it harder to put the ball in play. 

Whatever he did, it appears to have elevated him to the top of the relief game in the American League. His dominance not only helped lift Oakland to a playoff spot, but also my nod for American League Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Treinen, 2-Diaz, 3-Leclerc

IBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

BBWAA Winner: Edwin Diaz

National League Reliever of the Year: Josh Hader

There was no reliever in the NL this last year that dominated quite like Josh Hader. Hader steamrolled through the league in his second season and left a litany of whiffs in his path. My comparison has been ‘Mitch Williams with control’ and in 2018 he proved to be a force to be reckoned with. 

Let’s begin with the numbers:  2.43 ERA, 2.23 FIP, 2.7 fWAR over 81 innings. Hader struck out batters at a 46.7% clip while posting a K-BB% of 36.9%. The best part is that he did this basically using two pitches: a fastball and a slider.

What Hader did was basically tell the hitter “here it is, now hit it” and most of the time the batter failed. Hader did allow nine homers this year, which equates to allowing one every nine innings. Hitters did make contact on Hader at almost a 70% clip when he put the ball in the strike zone. But this one blemish wasn’t enough to take away from his great year.

With Jeremy Jeffress still in the fold, it will be interesting to see if he continues to close or if Hader will get more opportunities in 2019. Hader did save 12 games and blow 5 (if you keep track of that stuff) and that number could see an increase in the next season. What Hader has done is put the rest of baseball on alert that he is one of the best relievers in all of the game, no matter what inning he is throwing in.

My Top 3: 1-Hader, 2-Jeffress, 3-Erlin

IBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

BBWAA Winner: Josh Hader

 

Credit: Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. It is a great honor that I get to vote every year like this and I can only hope I do a respectable part to show the value of an organization like the IBWAA. This is a game we all love and while we might squabble here and there on numbers, it really comes down to what you value. I can only hope 2019 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

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

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Credit: Jim Mone-Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Danny Duffy

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

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

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

Jakob Junis

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Staumont

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

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

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

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Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case for Salvador Perez’s All-Star Nod

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Credit: Getty Images

This past Sunday, Major League Baseball announced the starters and reserves for the upcoming All-Star Game in Washington. In year’s past the fan’s choices for the starters have been a bit questionable while any omissions were fixed when the reserves were announced.

The last few years have seen a big 180 degree turn, as the fans have been almost on point with their selections while the players and coaches have seen some interesting choices made when it comes to roster structure. In that vein, some giant questions were thrown up this past weekend when Salvador Perez was selected to be the Kansas City Royals lone representative next week.

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Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s very obvious that Perez was chosen off of reputation more than anything. Perez is a four-time Gold Glove winner, a recipient of the Silver Slugger Award back in 2016 and will now be an All-Star for the sixth consecutive year. But his numbers are not those of someone deserving of the honor, as he is only hitting .213/.255/.378 this year, with 11 home runs, 34 RBI’s and bWAR of 0.6. These normally aren’t the statistics of someone traveling to appear in the mid-summer classic, especially when someone else on the Royals roster is probably a bit more deserving.

Whit Merrifield has been putting together another banner year for Kansas City, hitting .303/.369/.427 with 2.7 bWAR, an OPS+ of 120 and 6th in the American League in stolen bases. Whit is not only leading the team in WAR, but is third in the league among second basemen and sixth in all of baseball at the position. Even better, Merrifield is doing all this while rotating around the field, as he has played at four different positions this year (including DH).

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So what was apparent to all of us was that Merrifield really deserved the honor rather than Perez. But when it comes to structuring the rosters for each league, it doesn’t always come down to just who has the better numbers as much as how many players are viable options at each position. This was very apparent at second base, where Jose Altuve of Houston will be starting while Gleyber Torres of New York will be his backup.

In fact, second base has been pretty stacked in the American League this year, as not only would Whit have been a worthy recipient of a spot, but so would Jed Lowrie of Oakland or Daniel Robertson of Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, catcher has been a position with less productivity and appears to be a harder group to choose from when it comes to reserves on the All-Star squad.

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Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The other factor when looking at the All-Star situation is making sure that every team is represented on the roster. This can make structuring the roster even harder, as teams that are struggling normally don’t have a lot of players to choose from who are having exceptional years. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be a losing team.

You might be wondering how the players decide some of the reserves for the game. Luckily, we have that covered:

MLB players get to vote as well, electing eight position players in each league, plus the designated hitter in the AL. The top vote-getter at each position earns a spot here. In the case that the player vote winner matched the fan vote, the player with the second-highest vote total from the players gets the spot.

Simple enough. To be honest, all this factors into why Salvy was voted in. He is a player who is well-respected within the game, loved by both fellow players and the fans. In fact, that also plays into why he was voted in by the players.

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When you think of the All-Star Game, you think of some of the biggest names in baseball. It is baseball’s chance to trot out their best and brightest and have them battle against each other for a national audience. While the numbers don’t vouch for Salvy’s greatness, within the game he is considered one of the elite at his position, down year or not. The players recognize his past accomplishments and to them he is a name worthy of being on this stage.

You can argue that the down year would disqualify him for selection, but if we are really talking about the best the sport has to offer, Salvador Perez is a recognizable name that carries weight. It’s probably a good thing to remember that this game is officially an exhibition, nothing more and nothing less. The game doesn’t count (I know someone would say it used to, but it really didn’t) and in fact by the middle of August most people have forgotten what even happened in the game.

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Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

That doesn’t take away the enjoyment and fun of seeing players getting to represent their teams and play against the best of their peers. It just means that sometimes while we as fans take these selections super serious, it’s also okay to acknowledge that it is just a fun getaway in the middle of the season. Think of it as a chance to relish in the greatness of the game.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Whit Merrifield is worthy of a spot on this roster and is easily the Royals best choice, it’s not a bad thing that Salvy was selected. Who knows? Maybe by the time we reach next Monday, Merrifield would have been added to the roster to replace someone who is either hurt or unable to play. In that case, he would be chosen to a spot we always thought he was worthy of. No harm, no foul.

So rather than tear down why Perez is there or why Whit isn’t, let’s enjoy the fact that someone from this Royals team gets to just be a part of the festivities. With the way this season is going, we are better off taking any happy moment we can get.

Closing Time

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Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Last Monday, the Kansas City Royals dealt their closer Kelvin Herrera (and biggest trade chip) to Washington for three prospects. While the trade has come with mixed reviews so far, the one conundrum it left the Royals with was who would be the team’s successor to Herrera as closer?

The question was posed not too long after the trade to Royals manager Ned Yost and he gave the answer most of us would have expected:

“All of them,” Royals manager Ned Yost replied when asked who will get a chance to close out games. “Opportunity exists down there. We’ll have to see who takes advantage of it.”

This isn’t a shock and considering the state of the Royals bullpen (last in the American League in fWAR, the highest ERA & FIP, lowest strike out rate and third highest walk rate all among relievers), it makes sense to keep it an open race. The problem in my eyes is that Ned is holding on to a formula that might not be the best for Kansas City in this situation:

“I’ll look at different guys, but I would prefer one guy to emerge, take advantage of the opportunity,” Yost said. “But it’s wide-open right now.”

Yes, Yost at the end of the day wants one reliever and one only to end up with the job. But to be honest, that feels like an antiquated solution to their problem.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

In Ned’s eyes, there are four main challengers for the role: Brandon Maurer, Wily Peralta, Kevin McCarthy and Justin Grimm. Maurer is the only one out of the group with experience closing out games while the rest have combined for five career saves; for this conversation I’ll avoid the save stat, for the fact that it doesn’t really matter in the bigger picture.

So far in 2018, McCarthy and Peralta have put up good numbers out of the pen, albeit Peralta’s have been in limited action so far. I’ve been a proponent of McCarthy for a while, as just a few weeks ago I wrote about how the Royals should be giving him a bigger role in the bullpen. When McCarthy was asked about moving to the closer’s role, he said he’s “not really thinking about that at all, really. I think anyone in the ‘pen can get it done.”

Peralta has seen a slight uptick in his velocity since moving to the bullpen last year in Milwaukee and has looked good for Kansas City since being recalled to the majors on June 17th. Peralta’s strike out rate has been well above 20% so far this year (24.8% in AAA, 29.4% in the big leagues), which is a significant improvement over the 16.8% he has averaged over his career.

The walk rate is a concern (23.5%), especially considering it was also pretty high during his time in Omaha (13.4%) earlier this year. Hopefully that is just a symptom of a small sample size, but it could also be a trend that began for him in 2017. Either way, it will take more innings before we get a real feel for what the Royals actually have in Peralta.

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Credit: Carlos Osorio/AP

That being said, I tend to think we have a pretty good idea of what they have with both Maurer and Grimm. Grimm has seen his strike out rate fall and his walk rate increase, which is a recipe for disaster. He is also allowing more fly balls and less ground balls, another bad sign for success. The hard hit rate is about on par with last year, which already had a decent increase from the previous seasons.

Nothing for Maurer has worked this year: strike outs are down, walks are up and hitters are hitting the ball hard against him 50% of the time (his previous high was 39.1% back in 2016). If anyone should be immediately eliminated from the discussion for closer, it’s Maurer. You might be thinking ‘But he was a closer before, so shouldn’t he be a front-runner for the role?’, right? Hold that thought:

This was from last year, the day after the trade that sent Maurer and Ryan Buchter to the Royals from San Diego. Every time I see Ned bring Maurer into a high-leverage situation, this is what I think of. It is obvious from not only this scout, but also from what we have seen, that Maurer is better suited for a less pressure-filled situation in the pen. But because he has experience in the role, Yost wants to use him. This is part of why the whole idea of ‘one lone closer’ for this team isn’t really the best idea.

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Credit: John Sleezer

Ned is a big fan of roles. He likes to have his relievers set up to know what they will be doing and when they will be doing it. That is fine when you have a bullpen like Kansas City had back in 2015; unfortunately, those days are long gone.

This is a team who needs to keep an open mind about how they are using their relievers. While none of the names mentioned (outside of Maurer, of course) have experience closing, that doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of doing the job. I’m pretty sure the Royals didn’t view Wade Davis as the absolute dominating beast he would become when they acquired him from Tampa Bay, even despite the success he had as a reliever with the Rays in 2012. But he had success, so the team continued to give him more opportunities.

Opportunities are what this current group need, most notably the younger arms that are inhabiting the pen. Roles can be a mental plus to some guys, but they can also backfire on you. Remember this great quote from 2014?:

“Because I had confidence in Aaron Crow,” Yost said. “That’s why. Aaron Crow’s inning is the sixth inning. Kelvin’s is the seventh.”

Ned was so rigid back then that he insisted on using Aaron Crow as his sixth inning guy, even if the match-up wasn’t optimal for Crow. This insistence on keeping routine was a pivotal turning point in the Royals season and led to Yost using the best match-up in a situation rather than who has what inning. Ned loosened the ‘old manager mentality’ of how to use relievers and this change helped lead the team to an epic run in the playoffs just a few weeks later.

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Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

This Royals squad isn’t going to go on the kind of run they had in 2014, but it would appear to help their situation if they just continued to use the ‘closer-by-committee’ currently in place. Whoever he uses in the 9th inning should be determined by what the better match-up is for that situation.

Let’s say two or three left-handed batters are batting in the final frame? Sounds like a job for Tim Hill, who lefties are hitting .219/.265/.250 against. You need a ground ball? Give the ball to McCarthy, who has a 62.6% ground ball rate. Just need a big strike out? Someone like Peralta or even Jason Adam would fit the bill.

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Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The point is that while it is great if you have that one guy you can count on to fill the closer’s role, not every team has a Wade Davis or a Kelvin Herrera. Sometimes you have to work with what you have and right now the Royals are in that situation.

Maybe a guy out of this group will step up and prove to be fit for the role. It could even be someone we haven’t even seen yet, like Richard Lovelady who is currently down in AAA. Hey, it is definitely possible and wouldn’t be the worst thing to happen for the Royals.

But it could also take a while to find that one guy. So until then, it would be great to see Ned take a page from the playbook he used in late 2014-2015 and use the percentages to his advantage. I’m not counting on this happening, but it feels like the better road to take than that same, beaten, old path that managers have been taking for years.

Should the Royals Use an ‘Opener’?

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Credit: Brian Davidson/Getty Images

Over the weekend history was made as Sergio Romo, a reliever who had never started a game in the Major Leagues over 588 appearances, started back-to-back days for the Tampa Bay Rays as an “Opener“, starting him in very short appearances before giving way to other pitchers–normally youngsters who had been starters down in the minors–for use in extra inning spurts throughout the rest of the game.

The reasoning makes sense:

But the most challenging inning for any staff isn’t the ninth, or the eighth, or the middle innings when a starter approaches his pitch count limit. It’s the first inning, when teams hit better than any other because it’s the only frame in which a lineup’s top hitters are guaranteed to bat. Batters have hit 10 percent better than league average in the first this season, which is the best mark in any inning.

The Rays had a couple of young pitchers scheduled to start over the weekend and knew they probably weren’t going to pitch deep into the game. So with that in mind, they started Romo to face the Angels plethora of right-handed batters at the top of the lineup, as Romo has had success against righties throughout his career (ranking second in opposing OBP with a .232 rate for active pitchers).

So you can see why Tampa was willing to experiment and at the very least give this a shot. But this got me to thinking ‘What if the Royals tried this on occasion?’ and maybe even the more important question ‘Should the Royals try this on occasion?’

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Credit: MLB.com

If we are talking different options, Kansas City has a number of relievers this might work well with. Brad Keller has been phenomenal this year and there has even been discussion of moving him to the rotation. Trying him as an ‘Opener’ first might be a good way to get his feet wet and the Royals could even stretch out his starts this way, starting him with just an inning or two at first before eventually increasing his innings per outing.

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Credit: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Burch Smith is also an intriguing option, especially since he was primarily a starter throughout his minor league career. Smith has a 25% strike out rate to go with batters hitting .269 against him on balls in play. The one concern with Smith is his walk rate, which as of Tuesday sits at 13.5%. The last thing you want early in the game is extra baserunners, as that would soil the whole purpose of this experiment.

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Credit: MLB.com

There is also Tim Hill, who would be a trip for batters to see early in the contest. The idea of hitters trying to figure out Hill funky delivery for an inning or two and then adjusting to someone like Jason Hammel, who relies on his slider quite a bit more would be an interesting situation.

So should the Royals consider using an ‘Opener’, at least occasionally? Considering how the starting pitching has been the last month it wouldn’t be an awful idea. Over the last 30 days, the Royals starting pitchers are last in the American League in ERA and fWAR, while giving up the most hits, runs and home runs. In other words, whatever the starters are doing isn’t working and trying almost anything else at this point isn’t a bad idea.

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In fact, it might actually help some of the pitchers like Hammel or Ian Kennedy. Let’s say a reliever “opens” the game and throws two innings or less. You can then bring in whomever would normally start that day and let them pitch a couple times through the order. Most of us are aware of the numbers that point out how pitchers fare the third time through a batting order and this might make it to where someone like Hammel never has to see a batter a third time.

A number of people are going to hate this idea and disregard it before it even happens. In fact, I can’t imagine Ned Yost would ever be on board with this, as it has taken him years to warm-up to the idea of defensive shifts and he is still questioning it. But I also feel the Royals are in the perfect spot to try something “out of the box” without any major repercussions.

There is no way to tell whether or not it will work either, as apparent by the results for Tampa Bay over the weekend. On Saturday, things went as hoped:

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Yarbrough followed Romo, throwing six innings while giving up only one run. But Sunday didn’t go as smoothly:

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The rest of Tampa’s pitchers couldn’t maintain the pace and they ended up losing the game. That’s the thing with trying something like this; it might work as planned but it could also blow up in your face. The bigger question is whether or not it is worth it in the long run.

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Credit: Getty Images

If we are being honest, I am fully on board with Kansas City trying an “Opener” at some point but I’m not going to hold my breath while waiting.  Kudos to the Rays for attempting it and if we are being honest baseball is better and more interesting when teams are changing up the status quo. The game has been around for over 170 years and it has evolved quite a bit since that first game in Hoboken, New Jersey back in 1846. Now it might be time for the game to evolve a bit more when it comes to pitching strategies.

The Royals Just Don’t Walk the Walk

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Even in the middle of a calamity there appears a glint of hope. For the Kansas City Royals 2018 season, that glint would be the performance of Jorge Soler and more to the point, his ability to draw walks. The problem is, the Royals as a whole just aren’t big fans of a patient eye.

I’m not spilling any major secrets when I say that Kansas City has not been a team to embrace the ability to work a count and take a free base. For years this team has almost looked at patience at the plate with a “well, I guess if we have to” type mentality. The Royals championships teams of the last few years were built on making contact with an emphasis on putting the ball in play.

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Credit: Getty Images

Over the course of the Royals 50 year history, they have had only six instances of players with 100+ walk seasons, with John Mayberry’s 122 walks back in 1973 being the ultimate peak. In fact, the numbers don’t get much better when discussing walks and the Royals. 2013 was the last time the team wasn’t last in the league in walks and 2010 was the last time they were able to breach the top ten in the American League.

In fact the highest walk total for a Royals player in the last decade was Billy Butler’s 79 back in 2013, which garnered an 11.8% walk rate. The highest walk rate in club history was Mayberry’s 19.1%, which he compiled back in the before-mentioned 1973 campaign. This leads us to what Soler is doing and why it is so special.

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Credit: Getty Images

So far Soler has 18 walks in his 24 games, putting him 6th in the American league for his total and 11th in actual walk rate. His rate currently sits at 18.2%, which if he was able to maintain it would give him the second highest walk rate among qualified batters in Royals history, just a smidgen above Darrel Porter’s 17.8% back in 1979.

So what Soler is doing so far is something that Royals’ fans haven’t seen in many moons but is something we should see more often, if I’m being frank. I’ve long been a proponent of the ability to produce a walk and tend to believe there is a direct correlation for teams that take more walks to produce more success.

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Credit: Steve Mitchell

Looking back over the last five years, every year the team that led the league in bases on balls also made an appearance in the playoffs.  2012 was the last year that the team who led all of baseball in walk rate (the Tampa Bay Rays) didn’t make it to the postseason. Before that it was 2006, when the Red Sox led all of baseball but fell short to the Yankees. In most years, the teams that rank near the top of the leader-board in walks are the ones who continue to play into October.

My belief has always been that the value of drawing a walk goes beyond just getting another runner on base. If a batter is taking a number of pitches, that should be driving up the pitcher’s pitch count. The higher that pitch count gets, the earlier a team has to dip into their bullpen. The earlier you get into a team’s bullpen, the more taxed they become. Being a patient hitting team has a very immediate trickle-down effect.

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Credit: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

There is also the whole “extra base-runner” thing which is always a positive. Just go back and look at the first inning of the Royals game on Monday. Whit Merrifield gets a hit, followed by a Soler walk and Mike Moustakas getting hit by a pitch to load the bases. Walks by Salvador Perez and Lucas Duda would follow and by the time the inning was done the Royals had put a three spot on the board.

Now if Kansas City was better at hitting with runners in scoring position that score would have been higher, but that isn’t the point here. The point is that the walks doled out led to extra base-runners which led to more scoring opportunities. More opportunities tend to led to more runs, which is the whole name of the game.

I also believe if the Royals were a bit more patient they might not be such a streaky offensive team. Remember last year’s scoreless streak? That might have been avoided (or at least halted a lot sooner) if the team took more walks. Patience is normally less streaky than hitting and if they had taken more walks the Royals might have been able to muster up a couple of more rallies and been able to squeak out a few more “W’s” during some close games.

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not saying that if this team walked more that their success would turn around or that what Soler is doing should be done by every player. I highly doubt we will ever see Alcides Escobar or Salvador Perez rack up walk totals like Joey Votto. But a heavier emphasis on patience, especially starting at the minor league level, could go a long way.

So maybe some of Soler’s teammates should take a cue from him and force the opposing pitchers to throw them strikes. It’s not a glamorous part of the game or even one that will gain you admiration from some in the fan base. But a few more walks could lead to a few more runs and at this point, the Royals need to cross the plate more often if they want to win more games this season.

Ready to Start: My 2018 MLB Predictions

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

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

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Credit: Jim McIsaac | Getty Images

AL EAST

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

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AL CENTRAL

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

 

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AL WEST

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

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Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

NL EAST

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

Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers

NL CENTRAL

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

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Credit: Associated Press

NL WEST

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

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Credit: David J. Phillip / Associated Press

Awards

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American League MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles

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American League Cy Young: Marcus Stroman, Toronto

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American League Rookie of the Year: Eloy Jimenez, Chicago

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National League MVP: Bryce Harper, Washington

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Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

National League Cy Young: Jacob deGrom, New York

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National League Rookie of the Year: Victor Robles, Washington

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Playoff Teams

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Credit: AP Photo/Charles Krupa

American League

Division Winners: New York, Minnesota, Houston

Wild Cards: Cleveland, Los Angeles

American League Champions: Houston

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Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

National League

Division Winners: Washington, Milwaukee, Los Angeles

Wild Cards: Chicago, Arizona

National League Champions: Washington

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

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

 

 

Five Items To Keep an Eye on for the 2018 Royals

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Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

With Opening Day just a hop, skip and a jump away, it is a great time to look back on the 2017 Kansas City Royals squad and see how this season might develop differently. There was some good, bad and ugly with last year’s Royals and very rarely in baseball do things shake out the way they did the previous season. With that said, here are some items of note to keep an eye on as you get ready to make the Royals a part of your daily schedule.

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Bouncing Back

One of the key elements of the 2017 team was the number of down years that appeared to fill up the roster. Alex Gordon, Ian Kennedy, Jorge Soler, Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera are just a few names that under-performed last year and are looking to “bounce back” this year and perform closer to the norm.

Most would take a league average hitting season from Gordon while Soler needs to just be the run producer the Royals thought they were acquiring when they traded Wade Davis to the Cubs. Kennedy would do well to keep the ball in the park a bit more (I would love to say keep the ball on the ground, but we just know that won’t happen) while also staying healthy.

Hammel’s ratio of baserunners allowed last year far exceeded the innings he was compiling, as he tossed 180 innings, giving up 209 hits and 48 walks. Limiting runners on base would go a long way toward improvement on his 2017 numbers that were less than desirable.

Herrera would do good to re-discover his curveball and use his cutter a bit less this year. It would also help him to throw more first pitch strikes, as that number took a dip this past year (60.6%, down from 64.7% in 2016). It felt like he was always pitching from behind in 2017 and throwing that first pitch strike could alleviate some of the other issues he dealt with last season, like walks and home runs.

Now the likelihood that all of these players produce like they have in the past is probably slim and none. But if the Royals can get a couple to improve or even put together solid seasons, it could go a long way toward helping some of the lackluster play we are sure to see at points this season.

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Credit: Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

Merrifield’s Regression?

I don’t know if anyone would have predicted the season that Whit Merrifield had in 2017, maybe not even Whit himself. Merrifield, like many players around the league, started putting the ball in the air more and was rewarded with a 19 home run, 78 RBI season to go along with a .172 ISO and a .332 wOBA.

Now the bigger question remains…can he repeat it? I have my doubts, especially since teams will focus more on him this season than they did last year. The key might just be whether or not he is able to keep the ball in the air. Last year his fly ball rate held at 40.5% (it sat at 29.8% during his stint in KC back in 2016) and throughout his minor league career he was able to hit fly balls in the upper 30’s/lower 40 % range.

Luckily, Whit has already gotten farther than many expected in the first place so it feels weird to doubt him now. It is going to be interesting to see how he adjusts to any changes he sees this year from opposing pitchers. This will go a long way to figuring out whether or not he is able to repeat a stellar 2017.

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Credit: MLB.com

A Healthy Rotation

The Royals rotation last year felt like a revolving door for a good chunk of the season. Danny Duffy procured two stints on the disabled list, Ian Kennedy spent a portion of the year hurt and Nate Karns didn’t pitch in a game after May 19th. Add in the struggle of keeping a consistent pitcher in the 5th spot in the rotation and you can understand why the team continues to go after guys like Clay Buchholz and Ricky Nolasco to add depth.

While no one is really expecting this team to contend, how they perform will depend a lot on the health of the rotation. If Duffy, Kennedy and Karns are able to stay healthy this year, that would allow guys like Trevor Oaks and Andres Machado to continue to mature down in the minor leagues.

Last year the Royals were forced to use Onelki Garcia, Luke Farrell and even Travis Wood for five starts when all three should have never started a game. A healthy rotation would put less stress on the bullpen while also giving the team a strength that was evident in the early parts of 2017. For the Royals to not be basement dwellers this season, they need their starters to post more time on the mound than in the trainer’s room.

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

The Kids Are Alright

While the Royals front office has moved away from a complete rebuild, the template for this Kansas City team is still one of beginning the process of evaluating what some of their prospects are capable of at the major league level. In that regard, this season could very well shine a light onto who stays in the organization and who might not be a part of the Royals future.

Whether it is a Richard Lovelady or Kyle Zimmer in the bullpen, a Bubba Starling in the outfield, or a Hunter Dozier or Adalberto Mondesi in the infield, by the end of the season there should be a nice influx of younger talent on the roster. The interesting aspect of this whole process (yeah, I just said it) is not always what the numbers will tell us about their performance. Even if they face some adversity, the best thing for them and the future of this organization is allowing them to go out everyday and try to improve.

Dayton Moore has mentioned numerous times that a big part of the Royals championship team weren’t the players who were highly touted prospects, but the ones who flew under the radar and turned out to be big contributors to Kansas City’s playoff runs. The only way to find out what they have is to let them play. While the veterans will steer the ship to begin the year, it could be the youth movement manning the deck by the time September rolls around.

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The Coaching Carousel

Finally, quite possibly the biggest change on this Royals team this year will be the addition of new coaches to help manager Ned Yost throughout the season. Terry Bradshaw, Cal Eldred and Vance Wilson were added to the coaching staff at the end of last season while Mitch Maier will continue his role as the first base coach that he assumed late in the 2017 campaign.

While on the surface the coaches might not be an exciting part of the “New” Royals, it very well could end up being a window into what we should expect from the team past this upcoming year. There is a good chance Ned Yost will retire after 2018 and the changes this coaching staff make this year could give us an idea of what the focus will be on for 2019 and beyond.

During the team’s infamous playoff runs in 2014 and 2015, it was well-known that the Royals were a team who focused on putting the ball in play while forcing the opposing defense to make the plays. The team was also known for their defense and while they didn’t shift as much as some other teams (I’m looking at you, Houston and Tampa Bay), there was a certain pattern to what they were trying to accomplish.

Will Bradshaw change the hitting approach? Does Eldred have some tricks up his sleeve that oppose what former pitching coach Dave Eiland would have done? Will Dale Sveum moving from hitting coach to bench coach effect any tactical decisions?

These are all questions that will be interesting to follow and see if there are noticeable differences from the previous coaching staffs. Baseball is a constantly evolving sport that has modified itself on a consistent basis. There is a high probability that the new Royals coaches could zig where the old regime would have zagged. To me, this will be one of the more intriguing plot lines to follow during this 2018 campaign.

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Credit: Associated Press

While I’m sure I missed a few, these are the most obvious areas to keep an eye on for this upcoming season. Some will be good, some will be bad while others will just stay the same. The one constant will be the questions that will be added as the season progresses. The most important part will be how everything shapes up starting on March 29th. Change will be inevitable.

Royals Sign Duda

 

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

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

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

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

kc2
Credit: The Associated Press

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

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

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

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

Lucas Duda takes a pitch during #WorldSeries Game 1.

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

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

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

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

Lucas Duda
Credit: Fox Sports

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

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

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

 

 

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