Lifting the Blueprint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Credit: Associated Press

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Welcome (again) to ‘The Process’

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As Kansas City Royals fans, we all have a different reaction when we hear anyone mention ‘The Process’. Dayton Moore coined the term years ago to define what the organization was doing as part of their team-building strategy. Before 2014, if you were a Royals fan and you mentioned ‘The Process’, you were probably doing it with your tongue firmly planted into your cheek.

But then the trip to the 2014 World Series happened. Then Kansas City took home the gold and became world champions in 2015. Once Wade Davis struck out Wilmer Flores to wrap up the title that year, any mention of Dayton’s term was meant mostly with sincere intent.

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After the 2017 campaign, it was pretty well known that the Royals were in a position to rebuild and with that came the return of ‘The Process’. The Royals will probably never be a team that goes out and spends lavishly in free agency, so the main framework of any team in Kansas City would have to be done by building up the farm system.

Which is what Moore set out to do this season. The Royals came into the year with one of the worst farm systems in baseball. MinorLeagueBall.com had them ranked last while Baseball America had them ranked 29th. It honestly didn’t matter who was evaluating the organization, as almost everyone ranked the minor league system as one of the worst in the game.

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It was obvious that one of Moore’s goals this summer was to “restock the shelves”, so to speak. It appeared to begin early in June, as Jon Jay was dealt to Arizona for a couple of arms, Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier. Twelve days later, Kelvin Herrera was traded to Washington for a trio of minor league players, third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, outfielder Blake Perkins and right-handed pitcher Yohanse Morel.

You can see where this is going. Funny thing is that Dayton didn’t just shop at one store. While the trades helped, he used other methods to improve the talent coming up through the minor leagues. There was the signing of pitcher Yefri del Rosario back in December, a player who was granted free agency from the Atlanta Braves after incurring international signing violations.

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Add a couple more international signings to the list in Wilmer Candelario and Omar Florentino, both from the Dominican. The Royals even stretched their search all the way  in Japan, as the team signed 16-year-old pitcher Kaito Yuki. The Royals wanted Yuki to get himself acclimated to the United States first, so he should make his professional debut in 2019.

But the biggest splash might have been felt from the draft. In one fell swoop, the Royals drafted a number of college arms in Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Jonathan Bowlan and Kris Bubic. The farm system was in desperate need of some arms with upside and this appeared to have done the trick, as almost all these pitchers (outside of Singer) were thrown into the low minors upon their signing.

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The farm system has always been the main focal point for Moore, but he also started piecing together a younger foundation for the major league club. Hunter Dozier was recalled in May. Adalberto Mondesi got the call in June. Brett Phillips and Jorge Lopez were acquired in the Mike Moustakas trade with Milwaukee. Slowly but surely, Dayton was piecing together a vision of the Royals future.

But the move that really felt like Kansas City was in full “Process” mode was Ryan O’Hearn getting the call to the big leagues. O’Hearn numbers weren’t anything special down in AAA yet they called him up to give him a shot. O’Hearn took the opportunity and ran with it, producing a line of .262/.353/.597 over 44 games and an OPS+ of 155.

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Throw in Brad Keller’s outstanding rookie season and Whit Merrifield’s ascension to being a five-win player and it appears ‘The Process’ is farther along then even Moore might have imagined it would be. This is not to say a playoff run is in the near future; that would just be a ludicrous dream riddled with disappointment. But there is one more factor that could solidify that Kansas City is on the right track.

It was announced on Sunday that manager Ned Yost would be back for at least one more year in 2019. While some will cringe at the thought of Neddy’s return, there is an important factor to remember:

The Royals have had numerous prospects move up through their system over the last 7-8 years and while some were among the biggest prospects in baseball, a number of them were not highly touted at all. Not all of this can be attributed to Yost and his work with younger players, but some of that success should be credited to him. Without him, a Salvador Perez or a Kelvin Herrera (just to name a couple) might not have turned into the All-Star caliber players they have been in their career.

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With Yost at the helm, the next wave of talent to move up to Kansas City should get the advantage of sitting under the learning tree. Yost has shown a penchant these last few years to just let the players go out and play, and that might be just what they need. The truth is that Yost is just as much a part of ‘The Process’ as any of the talent in the Kansas City system.

So while we might still snicker when Dayton starts talking about his game plan, the truth is that it worked once before. While we might question his focus at times, the bigger picture appears to be a mix of patience and trust. Rome wasn’t built in a day and ‘The Process’ initially didn’t pay off for a number of years. The good news is that the ship appears to be righted and back on course. It might be a bumpy ride on the way there, but you have to hope it ends up at the right destination.

Closing Time

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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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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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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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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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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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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.

Five Items To Keep an Eye on for the 2018 Royals

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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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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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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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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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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.

The Expectations for Jorge Soler

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“Boy, you gotta carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time”

~The Beatles, “Carry That Weight”, 1969

History has shown that the Kansas City Royals are no strangers to bad trades. Ed Hearn for David Cone. Mike Wood, Mark Teahen and John Buck for Carlos Beltran. Neifi Perez for Jermaine Dye. Yuck…I feel dirty just writing Neifi Perez’s name. I’m sure you the reader can think of a few more bad trades that the Royals have been party to. To take that a step further, I’m sure a few would even mention the trade last winter of Wade Davis to the Cubs for slugging outfielder Jorge Soler. But don’t count me in that camp…yet. Because while Soler was awful during his short time in the majors in 2017, this trade is not won or lost on one year alone.

In fact, the whole crux of this trade was about team control. The reason the Royals only got Soler for Davis was because Kansas City was giving up one year of Wade for four years of Soler. While it would have been nice to get a haul similar to what the Yankees got for Andrew Miller, the truth is they were able to get that much since Miller had 2+ years still left on his contract. Even the Aroldis Chapman deal was a different beast, as it was a trade made right before the deadline. With the Davis trade going down during the winter, it meant the Royals weren’t going to get the same kind of deal as other elite relievers. With that being said, four years of control for a younger talent is nothing to sneeze at.

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It also means that a little bit of patience should be involved when it comes to Soler. He will be entering his age 26 season and more than anything he will need consistent at bats this year for the Royals to really see a difference. One of the reasons the Royals sent him to AAA a couple of times last year was the lack of at bats he was getting for the big league team. At the time, Kansas City was pushing for a playoff spot and the team just didn’t have the time necessary to help him get out of his slump. More than anything, he just wasn’t comfortable:

“It’s just been a struggle to get going,” Yost said. “He just doesn’t look comfortable in the box. He just hasn’t been able to get on a roll up here. We were hoping after his stint down there where he was hitting .320 and hitting homers that he could get up here and get comfortable. But we just need him to get at-bats.”

Between the spring oblique injury, the sporadic playing time for Kansas City and the demotion to the minors, Soler never got a chance to get situated with his new team. Luckily, 2018 will be a new year and with the Royals looking to rebuild it will give him the perfect chance to just go out and play.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays

While there wasn’t much positive to come from last year, there are a few glimmering signs of hope that Royals fans can clutch onto. One is his walk rate, which has always been a positive and 2017 was no different. Soler put up a 10.9% walk rate in 110 plate appearances, which is above his career rate of 9.3%. In fact, one of his issues last year very well could have been too much patience, as addressed early in the season at beyondtheboxscore.com:

Right now, Soler is displaying the difference between plate approach and pitch recognition. His current approach at the plate is a good one: take a lot of pitches, look for ones to drive, and hit the ball in the air when they come. But there’s no evidence Soler has made progress in pitch recognition. While he’s laying off the pitches he shouldn’t chase early in the count, he’s also laying off the pitches he needs to swing at early in the count. This is leading to a lot deep counts, walks, and strikeouts; it’s not leading to a lot of hits and home runs, which are kind of important.

Sounds like what we saw last year, doesn’t it? The good news is that pitch recognition is something that players normally grow into the longer they are in the league. A number of the advances that both Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas saw these last 3-4 years appeared to be from recognizing pitches and realizing which pitches to pounce on and which ones to try to go the other way with. While it can be frustrating, it can also be worth it in the long run.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It also appeared that Soler was hitting the ball in the air a tad more, as his fly ball rate continued the upward trajectory it has been taking throughout his career. Soler’s bread and butter is the home run and it won’t do him any good if he is hitting the ball on the ground. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more line drives, as they have taken a downward turn these last few years. Soler’s high for his line drive rate was 27.8% back in 2015; the last two years he has posted rates of 17.1% and 18.0%. Those two years have also seen a slight move up in ground balls, but not enough to get worried about. It does appear obvious what he should be working on when he reports to camp next month.

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Credit: AP images

With Terry Bradshaw sliding into the hitting coach role this year, Soler should be near the top of the list of priorities for him this spring. With a focus on pitch recognition and driving the ball, we could see Soler start to put up the numbers we all envisioned from him when he was acquired last winter. It’s unfair to expect him to produce at the level of the man he was traded for. The legend of Wade Davis is of an unstoppable force that compiled two of the best seasons for a reliever not only in Royals history, but in baseball lore. He will also be remembered as the man on the mound for the final out of the 2015 World Series. The expectations for Jorge Soler aren’t to match what Davis did in his Kansas City tenure. No, the expectations are simple. All the Royals need from him is to go out and produce above league average for a couple of seasons and be a force in the middle of the batting order. Asking him to be on par with a legend is being unrealistic of why he was acquired in the first place.

The State of the Royals Bullpen

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Credit: Getty Images

We were spoiled. Wade Davis. Greg Holland. HDH. 

Throughout 2014 and 2015, the Royals bullpen was out of this world. Looking back, it shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that Kansas City was able to dominate the way they did and shut down opposing teams in the postseason. The honest truth is that the Royals pen of that era was a ‘once in a lifetime’ group that we might never see again. Sure, it feels like every team in baseball is trying to copy the Royals’ blueprint (Hello, Rockies!) but who knows if we see that level of domination in both the regular season AND the postseason again. 

But what that group taught us is that success can be fleeting. The last two years, the Royals bullpen has been a shell of those playoff teams when the honesty of the situation is that the Royals had slid back into the norm. Many fans expected dominance all the time, not realizing how irregular the numbers were that those bullpens were putting up.  The truth? The Royals bullpen the last two years has been a very average group, or in other words…normal.

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The numbers in 2017 speak of just how average they were: 3.9 fWAR, 4.24 ERA, 4.14 FIP, 20.4% strike out rate, 10.0% walk rate. These numbers placed the Royals pen in either the middle of the pack or closer to the bottom of the American League. While the pen did post a 4.20 WPA last year (good enough for 5th best in the AL), they also put up a 1.64 RE24, putting them down to 10th in the league. In other words, while this group had some positives, they had just as many (if not more) negatives to cancel out the good they were doing.

So what does the bullpen have moving forward? To be honest, the pen is in a bit of disarray. Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria have been traded. Kelvin Herrera has been mentioned as a trade possibility and logic will tell you that the Royals should look further into dealing him. He is coming into the last year of his contract and will be making a substantial amount of money for a reliever on a rebuilding team.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Kansas City Royals
Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Herrera is the interesting case, as he is coming off of a very roller coaster season. Herrera saw his strike out rate decline (30.4% to 21.6%), his walk rate shoot up (4.2% to 7.7%), and his home run to fly ball rate took a step up as well (10.0% to 14.5%). Many expected his transition to the closers role to be an easy move, while instead it turned into a nightmare and he had been displaced by the end of the season. 

So did anything go right for Herrera? Not really. His numbers almost across the board went in the opposite direction and the only (somewhat) positive to find was an increase in his velocity. Almost all across the board was an increase: his sinker, slider, change-up,  and curve all saw an uptick…except for his cutter, which took a dive from averaging 96 MPH to 90.4 MPH.

The argument could be made that this could have very well been his downfall, as Herrera was using the cutter at a greater rate last year, from 0.1% to 8.1%. He was also using his fastball at a higher rate (56.4% to 66.9%) and while it is a plus pitch, it has always been his ability to mix in his off-speed stuff and breaking balls that pushed his success. Those off-speed pitches were used less in 2017, and a re-focus on their usage could bring success to Herrera in the upcoming year.

All that being said, it feels like the time to deal him. Herrera could see a pay increase from arbitration and with the Royals looking to rebuild, there is not much need to keep him around. He will be going into his age 28 season and it would make more sense to deal him now and continue rebuilding the pen.

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Credit: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

So how does the rest of the pen shake out? Brandon Maurer and Ryan Buchter (two of the pitchers acquired from San Diego over the summer) will be back for their first full season in Kansas City and one would have to think their numbers would improve upon their short stint in KC so far. Maurer is an interesting option, as his plus fastball can be a difference maker. A number of scouts have suggested that Maurer would be better suited in the set-up role, (rather than as the closer he was in San Diego) and if he can command his control, we could see improvement from him in 2018. 

There are a number of other arms that could be interesting options for the pen this year. Kevin McCarthy had a solid rookie season and Andres Machado could be an interesting arm if he isn’t in the minors as a starter. Brad Keller and Burch Smith were acquired in trades after being picked in the Rule 5 draft and could add some depth to the back-end of the pen. Wily Peralta was signed earlier this offseason and while he has struggled the last couple seasons, he still has an electric fastball and could be a pet project for new pitching coach Cal Eldred. Scott Barlow is another interesting option that was signed by Kansas City this winter and could be a nice fit for the Royals in middle relief :

“Today, Barlow’s heater sits in the low 90s, but his out-pitch is a plus-slider which normally comes in between 78 and 82 MPH. He also throws a curve in the low 70s and changeup in the low 80s to compliment his off-speed arsenal.”

Barlow is also on the 40-man roster, so he should be given a bigger opportunity to secure a main roster spot this spring.

MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Oakland Athletics

A number of minor leaguers could also see action this year, names like Tim Hill, Eric Stout and yes, Kyle Zimmer. Zimmer could be an intriguing option out of the pen if (and stop me if you’ve heard this one) he can stay healthy, while Josh Staumont could also make the case for a job if he can harness some of his control issues. The one name I expect to hear from in 2018 is Richard Lovelady, who compiled a great season in 2017. John Sickels of minorleagueball.com had this to say about Lovelady:

10th round pick in 2016 from Kennesaw State; 1.62 ERA with 77/17 K/BB in 67 innings between High-A and Double-A; fastball up to 96, good slider, usually throws strikes, command and stuff good enough to avoid LOOGY work, might get to close games eventually if command holds; as usual, rating/grading relievers is problematic due to difficulties in valuation but he should be a good one. 

There are options in the minor league system and a number of arms could be given opportunities in the upcoming season. 

For a team that is not going to be a contender, I almost lean toward the Royals going with a bullpen by committee this season. This would allow them to see what they have as the season progresses and I’m a proponent of using your best pitchers in the best situations. The closer role in general feels outdated and it would be nice to see the Royals shuffle their pitchers around according to what is going on with the game. The reality is that Ned Yost appears to prefer having set roles for his relievers and outside of 2015 and the postseason, has used them in their roles. There was some shuffling late last year, but that felt more like a reaction to Herrera’s struggles and the injuries they had been dealt. So while it would be nice to see a more “hands on deck” approach, we shouldn’t count on seeing it in the near future.

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Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The bullpen in its current state feels a bit weak but they still have time to work on that this offseason. There are a number of options on the free agent market this winter, but few that really pop out. Drew Hutchison interests me, as he could be a nice reclamation project and could see an uptick in velocity, as he would be shifting from being a starter to a reliever. Moore could easily sign a few guys like that to minor league deals, bring them into camp and see what they can do. The options are endless right now and it would be smart for the team to think outside the box. The focus was once on building a better bullpen to compensate for a weak rotation. It might be time to take that route once again.

Rebuilding a Franchise: A 2017 Wrap-Up

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Credit: MLB.com

It was hard to venture anywhere this past summer and not see or hear questions about the Royals future. It didn’t matter if you were watching baseball, listening to baseball or reading about baseball; everywhere you went there were discussions about whether Kansas City should trade their future free agents or ride the wave out and see what happens. Obviously we now know how this story plays out, as the team was contending throughout the summer and the Royals held on to their Eric Hosmer’s and Lorenzo Cain’s.

But I didn’t. You see, I’ve been playing ‘Out of the Park Baseball’ for about three years now and it is a daily staple of my life. In my humble opinion, it is baseball simulation at its grandest. Every year I purchase the newest model of the game and almost instantly begin a new Royals season. When my 2017 team started off the year in a bumpy manner, I decided to begin the tearing down of my team. If you want to read about the how, who and why of this rebuild click here.

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Credit: Out of the Park Baseball

When I last wrote about my OOTP Royals, it was near the end of June and my team was in the basement, which I was expecting considering I had just gutted my team. They were sitting at 27-49 and my attendance was already sliding. I knew a change this drastic was not going to instantly take and my feeling was it would be rough all the way around.

Recently the 2017 season wrapped up for my team and it came with some mixed results. They finished with a 64-98 record, which means I went 37-49 since my last update. It wasn’t a great second half, but it was a slight improvement. The pitching ended up being my downfall; a combined 5.07 ERA, 189 home runs allowed and only a 4.9 WAR for my entire pitching staff. One of the big aspects of the “New Look” Royals was to go young which was really felt with the pitching.

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Credit: MLB.com

By the end of the year I had Yordano Ventura, Blake Snell, Aaron Sanchez and Kyle Zimmer in my rotation, all 25 years of age or younger. Ventura ended up racking up over 200 innings and a 2.3 WAR. Snell and Sanchez each reached 122 innings for Kansas City and while at times they struggled with their command (both gave up over 50 free passes), they also showed signs of dominance, as evidenced by each of them striking out over 100 batters. The real surprise for me was Zimmer, who I had no idea what to expect from him. Early on he struggled and had a hard time making it to the 5th inning on a regular basis. But as the season wore on, he righted the ship and while the numbers aren’t great (4.73 ERA, 5.29 FIP, 0.3 WAR) they did improve. Maybe the biggest surprise was that for the most part he stayed healthy, making 28 starts for Kansas City and throwing 159 innings.

While the rotation at least showed signs of life, my bullpen killed me. Only one reliever (Wade Davis) posted a WAR above 1.0 and only three were even league average.If I really want to look in the mirror and see where I failed in 2017, the bullpen was a good place to start. Let’s just say the less I say about the pen, the better. The good news is there is only one direction to move for my relievers and that is up.

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Credit: Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

This leaves me to my offense and it was the one area of my team that saw an obvious improvement in the second half of the season. Randall Grichuk was a savior after being acquired from St. Louis, as he produced a team high 3.6 WAR, 145 wRC+, 20 home runs and a line of .289/.361/.564. Cody Bellinger also turned out to be a stellar pick-up, posting 2.2 WAR, 127 wRC+ and a slash line of .288/.359/.494.

The lineup stalwarts that I kept on the team were Alex Gordon and Mike Moustakas and while both were above replacement level overall (Gordon 1.5 WAR, Moose 1.4), offensively they were just below the league average. Gordon had a wRC+ of 92 while Moose had an 88. Both suffered injuries at separate points in the season and I’m hoping they both make a decent comeback for my 2018 campaign (authors note: I locked Moustakas into a two-year deal in the middle of the season).

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Credit: Kansas City Star

But my two biggest surprises were homegrown, as I recalled Bubba Starling and Ryan O’Hearn to get some big league playing time. Since I was going young and I knew the season would be a losing one, I figured it was the perfect time to get some quality at bats. I knew Bubba would deliver solid defense, but I was a bit surprised about some of the pop in his bat (11 home runs and 23 extra base hits). Starling put up a .217/.319/.376 line in 78 games, with a wRC+ of 93 and 1.0 WAR. It’s obvious his offense still needs some work, but I was actually expecting less.

O’Hearn was my big shocker. I had him splitting time at 1B and DH with Bellinger but through his first 100 at bats he was hitting right around .100 with no home runs. I seriously considered sending him back down to Omaha, but remembered that the whole point of this exercise was to get the younger guys playing time. So I stuck with him and in the end it paid off. O’Hearn led the team with 22 home runs, hit a nice .272/.358/.508 with a wRC+ of 125 and 1.5 WAR in just 83 games. The power definitely played and he went from a consideration for 2018 to a locked in starter.

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Credit: AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth

So what has this rebuild taught me? First, it was very obvious that there is no easy answers for a team dealing with a number of major free agents. I might have been able to put together a .500 season if I had kept everyone, but then I would be facing 2018 without a number of younger talents that ended up being major contributors.

Second, I learned that pitching AND hitting really can determine a hit or miss season. With the improvement I saw on offense, it makes me wonder how the season might have turned out if my bullpen had been even league average. There are two sides to this game and if you skimp on one it won’t matter how good the other side is.

Finally, I learned that patience is a virtue. I normally play every game rather than simulate it (so I can make in-game managerial decisions) and because of that I played some really bad baseball during the season. But after starting my 2018 season, my team is 12-9 in the early going, sitting in first place in the AL Central. I’m not for sure that will hold up all season but it’s already apparent how much improved my team is.

On one final note, if you have never played OOTP Baseball I would highly suggest it. I still feel like I am learning every day that I play it. Also, if you have any questions or even suggestions for me about the game, you can always shoot me a message on twitter @SeanThornton5. Enjoy and I hope this shows that the term “rebuild” isn’t a dirty word.

Baseball Thank You’s

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two

Thanksgiving is a great time to spend time with family and friends, eat lots of carbs and be thankful for everything in your life. Yes, we should be more thankful on a daily basis, but with the pace of life speeding up more and more, we sometimes forget to stop and smell the roses (so to speak). We probably don’t say it enough, but I am thankful every day that baseball appears to be on an upswing and is still such a large part of my life. I’m not for sure what the ratio would be, but the amount of joy that this great game gives me would appear to be greater than what I am able to give back to it. So for today, let me be thankful for all the glory that is this kid’s game that we adore…

Mike Trout

I am thankful for Mike Trout. Literally everything about him. Trout is that every day working man who goes out there and helps his team almost every game. Defense, hitting, hitting for power, running the bases; Trout brings it to every aspect of his game. We are seeing the best player in modern-day baseball and possibly one of the greatest of all-time when it is all said and done. I am thankful we get to see such a great player in my lifetime.

Almost the same can be said for Clayton Kershaw, only on the pitching side of the game. I’ve seen Maddux, Johnson and Pedro in my time, but Kershaw could be the best of the bunch. I am thankful for his precision, dedication and work ethic that makes Kershaw as great as he is.

I am thankful for the current playoff system. I was initially against the second wild card in the playoffs, but it has added a new, exciting element to the postseason and I feel it is for the better. The last four October’s have been spectacular and it has shown a steady uptick for baseball viewing among the general public.

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Credit: Chicago Tribune

I am thankful for the mass group of players that I love watching all throughout the baseball season.

Ben Zobrist’s versatility and patience.

Andrew McCutchen’s five tools.

Giancarlo Stanton’s unbridled power.

Yasiel Puig’s child-like enthusiasm.

Bryce Harper’s hustle and ‘Hair on Fire’ approach on the field.

Wade Davis’ ‘Vein’s of Ice’.

Jose Altuve’s ability to hit the ball “where they ain’t”.

Baseball not only has a great group of guys that encompass the immense talent in the game, but a group that are positive role models for the game and makes rooting for them even easier.

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I’m also thankful for all the retired players whose accomplishments I’m still in awe of today.

Ted Williams’ love and dedication to hitting.

Willie Mays’ grace.

Bob Gibson’s fire.

Yogi Berra’s understated play on the field…oh, and his sayings.

Tony Gwynn’s knowledge of the strike zone.

Greg Maddux’s precise location.

Edgar Martinez’s understated study of hitting.

Tim Raines’ speed and ability to put himself in a position to score.

Jackie Robinson’s patience, maturity and determination to prove his worth.

Hank Aaron’s power, quiet leadership and calm demeanor.

I could go on and on with some of the greats of the game, but more than anything I am thankful they were able to pave the way for the talent that would follow them.

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Credit: NPR

More than anything, I am thankful for my favorite team of the last 30+ years, the team I fell in love with as a child and the team that always reminds me why I love baseball, the Kansas City Royals.

Thank you George Brett, for the hustle and inability to give up that helped me love this game.

Thank you Bo Jackson, for doing the impossible on a baseball diamond.

Thank you Dan Quisenberry, for your unique delivery, late inning shutdowns and your sense of humor.

Thank you Bret Saberhagen, for being one of the best of your generation.

Thank you Mike Sweeney, for your loyalty.

Thank you Alex Gordon, for quiet leadership and ability to become a Gold Glover at a new position. Oh, and that home run in Game 1 of the 2015 World Series.

Thank you Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain. Without you, 2014 and 2015 do not happen.

Thank you Salvador Perez, for your infectious smile and childlike love of the game.

Thank you Denny Matthews and Fred White. You were the voices of my childhood and will always be my favorite baseball announcers. The pictures you drew with your words made listening to a Royals game on the radio an absolute joy.

Thank you Kauffman Stadium, for being so beautiful.

Thank you, 1985.

Thank you, 2015.

Thank you, Kansas City.

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More than anything, thank you baseball. Thank you for loving me back. There will never be another like you. I could go on all day with the things I love about baseball, but more than anything, I love it all. I am thankful that baseball has been a major part of my life since the age of 7. I look forward to the many years ahead we have together. I will always be thankful for you. You’re the best, baseball.

 

 

 

 

Rock the Vote: My 2017 Year End Awards

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It’s been only a few weeks since the World Series ended and baseball came to a close for 2017. I’d like to say I’ve dealt with it in a fair manner, but I’ve been counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report (89 by my count) since the season ended. Luckily, the Hot Stove season will keep us seamheads occupied, as will this week’s award season. All throughout this week, the BBWAA has been unveiling their winners, as has my brethren in the IBWAA. As a member of the IBWAA, we vote just like the members in the BBWAA while not getting quite the fanfare (although if anyone wants to toot our horn, go for it!). I’ve been a member for a number of years, so you can go back and take a gander at my previous voting record: here is 20142015, and 2016. 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 2017…

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Credit-Sports Illustrated

American League MVP: Mike Trout

While most have declared this a two-man race between Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, I feel the true winner is Mr. Michael Nelson Trout. I’m sure at least one person is reading this, shaking their head at me; that’s fine, as I have zero issue with anyone picking Altuve and I at least understand the voters who picked Judge. But to me, Trout was head and shoulders above the rest this year, despite only playing in 114 games. If you want a real in-depth look at how and why I voted for Trout, go back to August when I wrote about Trout being amazing despite the 40 so games he missed in the first half of the season. I really broke down the how and why of this vote with that article, so let’s just recap some of the main points here. Trout led the league in On-base Percentage, Slugging, OPS, OPS+, and wRC+. This is all impressive considering the time he missed, but what really swayed my vote was Trout leading the AL hitters in Win Probability Added (WPA). Considering WPA is a stat that accumulates as the season wears on and factors in the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next. It’s all about the opportunities you get and what you do with them, and Trout did better than anyone else in this category. The interesting aspect of that is those games missed, which should mean he got fewer opportunities, and more than likely he did. What it really tells us is that Trout did the most with those chances, leading the league with a 5.58 WPA. The next closest player? Nelson Cruz at 3.90. Altuve was 4th in the league at 3.74. Think about that for a moment: In 40 fewer games, Trout was a bigger factor in his team’s victories than Altuve, who had a fantastic season…and it isn’t even close! FYI, Judge came in at 17th, with 2.38. We all juggle with what “Most Valuable” means in MVP, and for me it is the guy who is giving his team the best chance to win. Mike Trout did that in his limited time in 2017 and for that he received my vote.

My Top 3: 1-Trout, 2-Jose Altuve, 3-Aaron Judge

IBWAA Winner: Jose Altuve

BBWAA Winner: Jose Altuve

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National League MVP: Joey Votto

Over the years, there appears to be a divide when it comes to a person’s opinion of Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto. If you believe a middle of the order guy should drive in runs and hit for power, you probably are frustrated by Votto’s patience at the dish and focus on just getting on base. If you are of the opinion that it’s all about not getting out and making sure you extend the inning for your team, then you probably love the guy. I am in the latter position and nothing speaks volumes about Votto’s true value than what he did offensively in 2017. If you love the black ink that shows up in the statistic category (which means a player led the league in that category), then Votto should be your man. He led the NL this year in Walks, On-Base Percentage, OPS, OPS+ and wRC+. You can probably also tack on 36 home runs, 100 RBI’s, 323 total bases, a slugging percentage of .578 and 7.5 bWAR. Offensively, Votto was a beast in 2017 and to add the cherry on top of this offensive sundae, he lead the NL hitters in WPA, 4.96 to Giancarlo Stanton’s 4.84. Some will poo-pah that Votto wasn’t on a contending team; I would counter with this being an individual award, so what the other 24 players do should have no factor into the winner of MVP. While Stanton put up monster power numbers and Charlie Blackmon had an amazing season out of the leadoff spot (and easily baseball’s best mullet), the true Most Valuable Player was Joey Votto in my eyes.

My Top 3: 1-Votto, 2-Giancarlo Stanton, 3-Charlie Blackmon

IBWAA Winner: Giancarlo Stanton

BBWAA Winner: Giancarlo Stanton

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American League Cy Young Award: Corey Kluber

The debate the last two months of the season was the two-man race for the AL Cy Young: would it be Corey Kluber or Chris Sale? What once appeared to be Sale’s award to win turned into Kluber’s gain, as he absolutely shoved the last two months of the season. In those last two months, Kluber threw 89 innings and produced an ERA of 1.42 and a WPA of 3.07. Batters only hit .172 against him in that span with a paltry .290 slugging percentage. Those two months were just the nail in the coffin, as Kluber led the league in ERA, Complete Games, Shutouts, ERA+ and WHIP. Sale held his on, as he lead in Innings Pitched and strike outs, but the stats tell the true story. Kluber lead in ERA+, 202 to 157. WHIP was 0.869 to Sale’s 0.970. WPA? 4.9 to Sale’s 3.7. WAR? Kluber 8.0 to Sale’s 6.0. While Sale made three more starts than Kluber, the gap wasn’t so wide that it would diminish Kluber’s accomplishments. At the end of the day, Kluber proved he was worthy of yet another Cy Young Award.

My Top 3: 1-Kluber, 2-Chris Sale, 3-Luis Severino

IBWAA Winner: Corey Kluber

BBWAA Winner: Corey Kluber

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National League Cy Young Award: Max Scherzer

Over the last couple seasons, there hasn’t been much discussion about who the best pitcher in baseball is. Clayton Kershaw was pretty much hands down the best and very few were putting up a fight. But during that span, Max Scherzer followed behind, nipping at Kershaw’s heels. While the debate will continue, the one definite is that Scherzer has just as much of a claim to that title in 2017 as Kershaw and proved himself worthy of this award. Scherzer has the black ink for the year, leading the league in complete games, Strike Outs, WHIP and Hits per 9. Kershaw lead in ERA and ERA+. But while Kluber and Sale’s numbers felt pretty far apart, Scherzer and Kershaw felt neck and neck. Scherzer beat Kershaw in WHIP, 0.902 to 0.949, while Kershaw beat Scherzer in ERA+ by a margin of 180 to 177. So to dig further, Scherzer easily beat him in WAR, 7.3 to 4.6, but WPA was much closer, 4.6 to 4.3. One wonders if Kershaw hadn’t missed those starts in the middle of the season, if this race would have turned out a bit different. Instead, Scherzer proved once again why might be the closest thing to Kershaw’s equal and why these two seem to battle it out for this award every season. But in 2017, Max Scherzer was the better pitcher.

My Top 3: 1-Scherzer, 2-Stephen Strasburg, 3-Zack Greinke

IBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

BBWAA Winner: Max Scherzer

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American League Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge

This award felt like a ‘Gimme’, as Judge was a dominant force for a large chunk of his rookie campaign. It was hard to read an article or watch a video without mention of Judge and his accomplishments this season and for the most part they were very deserved. Judge led the league in Runs, Home Runs, Walks and Strike outs. Judge’s 52 home runs (a new single season record for a rookie, breaking Mark McGwire’s 49 HR’s back in 1987) and 114 RBI’s spoke of a force in the middle of the Yankees batting order, while the walks showed the ability to show patience at the plate. Judge was different from many rookies, as this year was his age 25 season, which would explain a maturity not seen by many a rookie. While his contact rate was a bit low (65.1%, with league average being 80%) and the strike outs were high, Judge is no different than most of the power hitters that fill up major league rosters in 2017. To me, the most telling stat of Judge’s worth is OPS+, which sits at 171, second in the AL behind Trout. Since OPS+ is a statistic that adjusts to league and park effects, it means that despite playing in a very hitter friendly park in Yankee Stadium, Judge still raked like an elite hitter. That to me speaks more of his skills than a home run total, to be honest. While the sky is the limit for Judge, I worry about all the attention that the media bestows on him. I’m not a big fan of all the hype that the baseball media granted to him this year, but I get it. Judge had one of the best rookie seasons in baseball history and New York has been starving for a young power bat for years now. Judge more than deserves the honor of AL Rookie of the year but…what will his sequel look like? It’s not going to be easy for him to match what he did throughout this magical first year.

My Top 3: 1-Judge, 2-Matt Chapman, 3-Andrew Benintendi

IBWAA Winner: Aaron Judge

BBWAA: Aaron Judge

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

National League Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger

If anything has been proven over the years, it is that the Los Angeles Dodgers might just have a ‘Rookie Tree’ near Chavez Ravine where they pluck healthy, fresh new talent from on a consistent basis. That tree continued to produce in 2017, as young first baseman Cody Bellinger came away with the NL Rookie of the Year award, the 18th Dodger to win that award. Bellinger now sits beside such notables like Seager, Valenzuela, Karros, Nomo, Sax, Mondesi, Newcombe, Sutcliffe, Howard, Piazza and the man who now has his name on the award, Jackie Robinson. Bellinger debuted on April 25th this year and from almost day one he punished baseballs. Cody hit 39 home runs (a new National League single season record for a rookie), 26 doubles and posted an OPS+ of 142. Bellinger lead the National League Champions in homers, RBI and slugging percentage while putting together a 4.2 bWAR season in his rookie campaign. Maybe the most impressive stat for him this season was a 4.3 WPA, good enough for 5th in the NL, ahead of MVP hopeful Charlie Blackmon and teammate Justin Turner. Bellinger had been a highly touted prospect for a few years now and he showed this year that there was a reason for the hype. Like Judge, Bellinger will now have to follow-up a splendid first season with the hope for even bigger numbers. Bellinger won’t turn 23 years old until next July but is already showing the patience and maturity of a 10 year veteran. It’s a lot of expectations for such a young player, but so far so good for Cody Bellinger.

My Top 3: 1-Bellinger, 2-Paul DeJong, 3-Austin Barnes

IBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

BBWAA Winner: Cody Bellinger

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

American League Reliever of the Year: Craig Kimbrel

When digesting the numbers for American League relievers in 2017, it became very apparent that there was no dominant force like in year’s past. No Zach Britton, no Andrew Miller, no Wade Davis. But while digging in the depths, it did appear that Craig Kimbrel of the Red Sox had put together a stellar season that had flown under the radar. Kimbrel threw 69 innings, striking out 126 batters while posting an ERA+ of 319, three times above the league average. His strike out rate (49.6%) was the highest it had been since 2012 while his walk rate (5.5%) was the lowest of his career. His WPA was also huge, posting a 4.5 Win Probability while his Run Expectancy (RE24), which calculates the runs he saved, was the highest of his career at 28.0. Kimbrel also had a 1.43 ERA, which is great but fairly normal for a reliever of his caliber, but I was interested to see how the runs he did give up (which were 11 over those 69 innings) were scattered about. In August he gave up the most runs in one month (4), while May was his best effort, giving up none. Over the last two months of the season, Kimbrel pitched 25.1 innings, giving up five runs while striking out 46….and that wasn’t even his best two month stretch! While Andrew Miller and Chad Green both had great seasons this year, Kimbrel showed why he has been an elite closer since 2011. For anyone calling for his demise in 2016, Kimbrel showed this year why his career isn’t dead yet.

My Top 3: 1-Kimbrel, 2-Andrew Miller, 3-Chad Green

IBWAA Winner: Craig Kimbrel

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Credit: USA Today

National League Reliever of the Year: Kenley Jansen

While the American League relievers felt like a closer race, in the National League on closer stood out over all the rest and his name is Kenley Jansen of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Jansen was dominant in 2017: 68.1 innings, 1.32 ERA, 318 ERA+ with 109 strike outs. Jansen even posted a 2.9 bWAR this year, the highest of his career. But a couple other stats just blew me away for Jansen this year. Jansen allowed seven walks all year-long. Yes, 7…that is it. Which leads to another stat that blows my mind, which is his Strike out to Walk ratio: 15.57. Seriously, that number is just ridiculous. Finally, the most impressive statistic for Jansen in 2017 was his league leading WPA, 5.7. Not only did that number lead the NL, it lead all of baseball, even better than Mike Trout’s 5.58 in the AL. If there was ever any doubt that Los Angeles made the right move to re-sign Jansen last offseason, his spectacular 2017 warranted almost every dollar he earned. Those numbers speak as a dominant reason why Kenley Jansen is the NL Reliever of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Jansen, 2-Archie Bradley, 3-Pat Neshek

IBWAA Winner: Kenley Jansen

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American League Manager of the Year: Paul Molitor

While managers like Terry Francona and Joe Girardi guided their respective teams to the postseason this year, one man stood head and shoulders as the true manager of the year in the American League, and his name is Paul Molitor of the Minnesota Twins. The Twins came into the year trying to bounce back from a 100 loss season in 2016 and they more than bounced back. Despite having a pieced together rotation and an occasional spotty bullpen, Molitor was able to lead Minnesota to an 85 win season and a Wild Card spot in the AL. No one expected the Twins to reach .500, yet along wrap up a playoff spot but that is exactly what happened in the ‘Twin Cities’ this year. The team really took off in August, as the offense went on a tear and pushed the team to the upper section of the American League Central. Molitor was able to work around some of the team’s flaws and gave youngsters like Byron Buxton and Jorge Polanco the playing time they needed to be comfortable in the big leagues. Two of the team’s big issues the year before was the defense and the pen, which both improved in 2017 with his use of mixing and matching. Sometimes he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but Molitor was able to lay out some strategies this year that appeared to pay off:

“He’s extremely baseball smart,” Twins catcher Chris Gimenez told reporters. “He’s in the Hall of Fame for a reason. Yeah, he was a great player, but you have to think the game to do what he did on the field. I see it constantly. He’s very much ahead of the game. Sometimes it hasn’t worked out necessarily the way you draw it up, but I think for the most part I’d take him any day of the week.”

I know some don’t feel that the Manager of the Year award should just go to a team that outperforms expectations, but I think that is exactly why someone like Molitor deserves this award. Once the Twins started to excel, teams began to pay more attention to them and it caused Minnesota to revert the course they had been on. The team you saw in April wasn’t the same team there in September and it was for the better. While Francona lead his Indians to an AL Central title, he did so with pretty much the same roster he took to the World Series the year before. Molitor’s roster was revamped and a large chunk of the credit of their turnaround should be given to Molitor. He did what few expected and that is why he is my choice for Manager of the Year.

My Top 3: 1-Molitor, 2-Terry Francona, 3-Joe Girardi

IBWAA Winner: Terry Francona

BBWAA Winner: Paul Molitor

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Credit: Getty Images

National League Manager of the Year: Torey Lovullo

Does anyone remember the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2016? The best way to describe them is by just saying they were a mess. They only won 69 games last year and the team didn’t appear to have a set direction they were going in, other than down. GM Mike Hazen decided to restructure the roster, inserted Lovullo into his first big league managing spot and the team flourished. While all the attention was on the Dodgers, Lovullo kept Arizona just slightly off their pace while holding their ground on the Wild Card spot throughout the year. There was more attention paid to pitching strategy, defense and run prevention while he melded with his players:

Lovullo’s ability to incorporate analytics with his locker-room skills made him an instant success. He built a solid foundation in his first year and seems to have the Diamondbacks on track to compete for division titles and the World Series for the foreseeable future.

The Diamondbacks now look like a consistent contender in the NL West and with their young talent they shouldn’t have to make many major moves in the future. Lovullo changed the atmosphere in the desert and for that he is the best manager this year in the National League.

My Top 3: 1-Lovullo, 2-Bud Black, 3-Craig Counsell

IBWAA Winner: Torey Lovullo

BBWAA Winner: Torey Lovullo

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So there you have it, another season officially wraps up as we reward those that reached the highest of achievements. I did find it amusing that back in April when I made my season predictions  I guessed only one of these correctly (Bellinger as NL ROTY, which felt like a slam dunk). It goes to show how hard it is to really guess what will happen during the duration of a 162 game season. 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 2018 brings us just as many highly contested winners. Here’s to baseball being back sooner rather than later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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