A Change in the Rules?

Credit: Kansas City Star

About a week ago, word leaked out (and the link is to The Athletic, which is a pay site) that Major League Baseball had sent a proposal to the players’ union back in January, which included a number of rule changes to discuss before the 2019 campaign. The player’s counted with their own proposal on some changes as well. Today, lets examine some of the rules that were proposed and I’ll toss in my two cents on any thoughts I have on the subject.

As part of a Jan. 14 proposal to the players’ union on pace of play, baseball suggested a rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters, sources told The Athletic.

I really have no issue if this rule went into effect. Now, from my understanding is that the “three batter minimum” would not be forced if a pitcher ended an inning or if he would get injured before facing the required three batters (obviously). I like that there was some thought put into this and it wasn’t just a blanket minimum that was enforced.

Now, the reason for it is pretty simple. Over the last few years, as relievers have been used more and more, there have been a plethora of pitching changes that end up hurting the flow of the game. A pitcher will come in, lets say a lefty to face a left-handed batter, and would then be taken out after that at bat was over. Then the manager calls in another reliever and the Ferris wheel of moves begin.

It’s pure strategy and while most of us will agree it is a smart maneuver (as a manager is trying to put together the best match-ups), it also kills the flow of the game. Since pace of play has been such a big issue these last few years, you could see where a rule change like this would have the desired effect that the hierarchy of MLB would prefer.

Personally, I don’t hate the idea. Yes, I hate that the LOOGY would appear to go away (and if you haven’t figured it out, I just like to say LOOGY) but I also believe that strategy would still play into match-ups and this would actually force a manager to think a number of batters ahead, which I’m sure many are already doing.

The interesting part would be taking into account who is on the opposing teams bench and whether or not you believe your foe would pinch hit once you bring a reliever in to face the minimum. By no means is it a perfect solution, but I can see the advantages of enforcing this change in the near future.

Credit: Getty Images

There were a few more changes proposed, including one that shouldn’t surprise anyone:

A universal designated hitter — something the players have sought for more than three decades, according to commissioner Rob Manfred — also was part of the union’s proposal. Under the plan, the National League would adopt the DH for the 2019 season.

Honestly, this is going to happen at some point. Might not be this year, or even next year, but eventually this will happen. The union will never allow the DH to be taken away, as that is one more player making a bigger salary and they are going to move forward, not back. A universal DH would take away the changes involved in interleague games and even during the World Series and All-Star Game as well.

That being said, I’ve always enjoyed that the two leagues have their own set of rules. Do I love watching pitchers hit? Not even a little bit. Do I like the strategy involved with double switches and the moves made when the pitchers spot comes up in the order? Yes I do. My preference is to have the leagues continue to be different, but I understand the thinking behind the move.

At some point, teams are going to want to avoid their pitchers having another opportunity to get hurt. Yes, it doesn’t happen enough to really throw a big fit, but it does happen. Also, pitchers batted .115 last year with an OBP of .144 and a slugging percentage of .149. Taking away the pitcher would add more offense to the game and that is what Rob Manfred is really looking for.

On a side-note, someone on Twitter last week suggested just not having a spot in the order for the DH or a pitcher, leaving a batting order with just eight batters. While I really loved the “out of the box” thinking, there is no way it would happen. Once again, the union would want another player salary in that spot. In other words, the universal DH will be a thing at some point.

There were more changes mentioned as well:

The Associated Press previously reported that baseball also has proposed increasing the minimum time a player spends on the disabled list and amount of time an optioned player spends in the minor leagues from 10 to 15 days.

I have no issue with this. In fact, the disabled list will be referred to moving forward as the injured list. Both of these moves would be good for the game.

In baseball’s view, the limit on reliever usage would become even more necessary with the introduction of a 26-man roster; MLB would want to discourage teams from using the extra roster spot on another bullpen arm.

Another rule change would be making rosters 26 deep instead of 25. I’ve felt for years that move should be made and have honestly wondered how long it was really going to take to enforce it. The one hitch in this idea would be trying to tell teams how to structure their roster. If they want another reliever, let them have it. At the end of the day, you have to let teams decide individually how they want to put together their roster, good or bad.

There is a rule change that has been mentioned that while on the surface I understand, there is an underlying issue that would make it hard for me to support it:

Among the proposals being discussed by Major League Baseball and the players’ union this winter is the formation of a joint committee to study whether to move back the mound to help hitters, at a time when pitchers’ velocity has reached levels never before seen in history.
The committee, if agreed to by both sides, would also look at the potential impact of lowering the mound by as many as six inches.

On the surface, I understand why this move would be made. Baseball has seen a noticeable increase in pitcher’s velocity these last few years and combined with the higher usage of breaking pitches, it has made for less and less balls being put into play. In fact, in 2018 there were more strike outs than hits. While the hitters can take some of the blame for that, a big factor is the elevation in pitcher’s velocity.

My problem with the proposed changes is that it is always the pitcher who is punished, never the hitter. Just go back to 1968, when they lowered the mound to improve offense. The pitchers were so dominate and the offense was so anemic (The White Sox produced 2.86 runs per game. The Dodgers and Mets weren’t much better at 2.90 per game) that they lowered the mound to even the odds.

My big issue if they changed it this time would be the hitters lack of attempt when it comes to adjusting. Most hitters today are swinging for the fences, whether there are zero strikes or two strikes and they are doing it because the system is compensating those who do. The advent of launch angle and exit velocity has proven success for many, as the ball being put in the air helps lead to an increase in power numbers. But it has also lead to more strike outs.

The fact we aren’t seeing hitters adjust their mentality when two strikes are put on them or even trying to punch the ball to the opposite field when a shift has been put on, doesn’t make me want to reward them. It feels like if there is a lowering of the mound or it even being pushed back a bit, baseball is saying that it doesn’t matter what the pitchers do to gain an advantage, we will always reward the hitters.

While I understand the need for more offense and yes, baseball does need that, this just feels like a giant slap to the face of the pitchers. If the hitters were adjusting and still not seeing an increase in offense, that would be one thing. But there is no adjustment and right now there is no incentive for them to do so. Baseball is paying for power and willing to make changes whether they adjust or not. It just doesn’t feel very fair when it comes to the pitchers perspective.

The good news is that MLB and the players’ union are looking at possible improvements to the game to try and make it a more pleasurable experience for everyone. While it appears these changes won’t take place in 2019, the fact there is at the least a discussion should make any baseball fan hopeful for change in the near future. No one ever gets ahead by just staying pat; the name of the game is evolution. If baseball doesn’t evolve, it is going to get left behind.

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The Royals and Yankees Just Don’t Hate Each Other Like They Used To

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This Friday the New York Yankees travel to Kauffman Stadium as they open a three-game series against the Kansas City Royals. There will be many a discussion about the “old days” and how at one time the Royals and Yankees had one of the biggest rivalries in baseball. But in 2018 that is no more and hasn’t been for a very long time.

Back in the late ’70’s/early 80’s the Royals and Yankees hated each other as much as Rob Manfred hates anyone standing still. The two teams battled it out in the American League Championship Series from 1976-1978 and then again in 1980. While the feud was mostly based on competition and the desire to reach the World Series, there was also a real built-in hatred there.

Let’s start with 1976 and the series deciding Game 5. In the Top of the 8th inning, George Brett would come up and put the game into a 6-6 deadlock:

Unfortunately for Kansas City, Chris Chambliss would break the hearts of Royals fans everywhere with this walk-off home run to win the series:

In 1977, the play on the field would get even rougher thanks to one of Hal McRae’s patented slides:

This was from Game 2 of the ALCS and it showed that both teams would do whatever it took to come away victors. That would get ramped up even more during the 1st inning of Game 5:

So at this point it is pretty easy to see that the Royals didn’t like the Yankees and the feeling was mutual from the Yankees. The Yankees would rally for three runs in the Top of the 9th and would seal the deal in the bottom of the inning:

The two teams would meet again in the 1978 ALCS and would split the first two games in Kansas City. For the Yankees to win Game 3, they would have to stop George Brett:

Despite the three home run day for Brett, the Royals would fall short again, losing both Games 3 and 4 as the Yankees would once again punch their ticket to the World Series:

While the Yankees were always the team ending up on top during those three years, the truth was that Kansas City was right there with them in most of those games. The two teams would face off 14 times in the playoffs during that three-year stretch and 6 of the 14 games would be decided by two runs or less. Finally in 1980, the Royals would get their revenge:

While many consider Brett’s homer off Gossage in the ‘Pine Tar Game’ to be the most iconic homer of Brett’s career, he would never hit a bigger shot than the one in Game 3 of the ALCS in 1980. After years of falling just short of New York, sweeping the Yankees in 1980 was the definition of things finally coming back around.

The two teams would continue to battle for American League dominance over the next few seasons but wouldn’t ever meet back up in the playoffs. In fact maybe the most remembered moment of their feud was the aforementioned ‘Pine Tar Game’:

After years of feuding, Billy Martin was still looking for a way to stick it to Brett and the Royals. As most of us are aware, this would eventually backfire on Martin, as the American League President Lee MacPhail would uphold the Royals protest and the home run would stand. The Royals would end up winning the game when they restarted the game almost a month later.

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Credit: Associated Press

After that? Well, the feud pretty much dissipated. The Yankees would have a long playoff drought and not return to the playoffs until  1995. While it would have been great for the Royals and Yankees to continue this rivalry, the truth is that the two teams were hardly ever relevant at the same time. With the main players in the feud gone and retired, the hatred and animosity trickled away as well.

Now in 2018, it’s just business as usual when these two teams meet up. Many of the players not only know each other but are friends with the other side and there is a different aura when the two clash. If anything the only real vitriol that remains is from us, the fans.

In fact if I am being honest, it is mostly from us older fans. As a kid I was trained to hate the Yankees. It wasn’t because they were a big-market team or because they would sign our players when they hit the free agent market. No, we hated them because they were the team the Royals had to jump over to get to the World Series. We hated the Yankees because of all the times they broke our hearts.

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Credit: Associated Press

While there is still a vile taste left in the mouth when mentioning the Yankees, for younger fans it is more of a ‘Big Market vs. Small Market’ hatred than anything else. Over the last 20 or so years, there are very few moments of the Yankees personally doing something to the Royals to really make us despise them.

I guess you could be mad at former Yankee Robinson Cano for not picking Billy Butler in the Home Run Derby in 2012 or be mad at Derek Jeter for being Derek Jeter. But actual, legit beef for doing something dastardly to our boys in blue? It just isn’t there.

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To be honest, it saddens me that this feud has tapered off. There is nothing quite like a healthy competition between two teams that want to win and will do anything to do it. Call it David vs. Goliath, or to modernize it a bit maybe Thanos vs. the Avengers.

There is nothing quite like a good underdog story and for years the Royals played that tune ‘to a T’. Sometime in the future it will happen again and these two teams will rekindle their venom for each other. But for now, it’s just two teams trying to win a nice game of baseball. It’s compelling, but it just doesn’t have the same bite to it.

The 1st Annual 2016 Kansas City Royals Postseason Awards

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Once we get past October and wrap up the World Series, it will be full-blown award season for Major League Baseball, as they will reward the players voted on once the regular season wraps up. But here at ‘Bleeding Royal Blue’, I can hand out awards whenever I feel like it. Don’t be surprised if I give out an award on some random day in June next year, folks. It could happen. But for now, I wanted to fully wrap up the Kansas City Royals 2016 season by handing out acknowledgements to the deserving players on the Royals roster this year. Also, I did a mid-season awards back in July and now felt tied to this gimmick…soooo, there’s that as well. So no more procrastination, here are your award winners for your 2016 Kansas City Royals.

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MVP and Best Pitcher Award: Danny Duffy

Yes, I fully believe Duffy deserves both of these honors, as he was the main cog for any success the Royals had this year. I’ve spent a lot of time discussing Danny (look here and over here) and all of it was deserved. After years where we saw only glimpses and flashes of true potential in him, 2016 saw Duffy finally put all the pieces together to be a successful starting pitcher. To put it bluntly, Duffy quit thinking and just went out there and pitched.This change in attitude led to some fantastic numbers: 9.4 SO/9, 2.1 BB/9, 188 strike outs, 125 ERA+ and 4.2 bWAR. He held left-handed batters to a line of .183/.219/.229 with an sOPS+ of 22. Many enjoyed pointing to his 7-0 record at home (ah, wins; that is so cute!) but Duffy was a beast on the road in 2016: 76 innings, 11.1 SO/9, 4.95 SO/W ratio, with the opposition hitting only .226/.287/.417 away from Kauffman Stadium. The numbers keep going for Danny, but the most important key to his game was shutting down the opposition when it mattered the most; in other words, the high leverage situations. Duffy posted a 1.37 ERA when the Royals scored 0-2 runs in his starts, with an 11.0 SO/W ratio. Hitters only hit .217/.250/.330 in those high leverage situations and he posted an 8.00 SO/W ratio in those scenarios. In other words, Duffy was big when the Royals needed it the most, coming through in the clutch. That is what an ace does and that is why Danny Duffy wins these two big honors this year for Kansas City.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY)

Best Hitter Award: Kendrys Morales

To be perfectly honest with you, in many ways I wanted to pick no one for this achievement. In my eyes, the offense had no ‘go to guy’ this year and almost the entire lineup struggled at one point or another. But if I was picking one, Morales would be the hitter who posted the best numbers. He would get off to a rough first few months (.193/.262/.330 with 12 total extra base hits in April and May) but would come alive in June. June saw Morales hit .402/.453/.655 with 5 home runs and 18 RBI’s, propping the Royals up on his back. Like every other Royal in July, Morales struggled, but he would post solid numbers in both August and September. By the time it was all said and done, Morales hit .263/.327/.468 with 30 homers, 93 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 108. Good numbers considering where he was early in the season, but still a notch below his 2015 numbers. Morales would also post a 0.9 bWAR and a 10.6 WPA+ (which is the sum of positive events for this batter), both below his 2015 stats. Overall, it was a solid season for Morales and one that would make him the Royals best hitter, the only real candidate for this award.

Honorable Mention: Paulo Orlando

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Rookie of the Year: Cheslor Cuthbert

There have been some real questions asked these last few years about Cuthbert and just how much of a prospect he should be. With Mike Moustakas blocking him at third base, it seemed unlikely we would ever really find out. Unfortunately, Moose would go down with a torn ACL; exit Moose, enter Cheslor. Cuthbert stepped in at the hot corner and after some early struggles, he would get comfortable and show everyone what he could actually do. Cuthbert would end up with 510 plate appearances this season, hitting .274/.318/.413 with 12 home runs, 46 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 93. For most of the season, Cuthbert’s numbers were at or above league average, with a slump in the final month dragging some of his numbers down. Cheslor would post a -0.2 bWAR this year, but most of that was due to a slightly below average defense that had him at -0.9 dWAR, with an oWAR of 1.1. The big knock on Cheslor defensively is his range and speed, which are below average and yes, below Moustakas. That being said, he would fill in admirably and at the very least showed Kansas City management that he was worth another look next year when Moose comes back. So what should we expect next year? The bad part is that Cuthbert is out of options and probably wouldn’t go through waivers unclaimed at this point. Kansas City has sent him to the instructional league to learn second base, as the Royals want to see if he can increase his versatility and give the team more options and positions to play him at next year. There is also the chance that he could see time at DH, as Morales is a free agent and who knows if they will sign a permanent replacement this offseason. No matter the situation, Cuthbert elevated his positioning in the organization in 2016 and deserves a big league job at this point in his career.

Honorable Mention: Matt Strahm, Whit Merrifield

MLB: OCT 22 World Series - Giants at Royals - Game 2
[Photo via Newscom]
Reliever of the Year: Kelvin Herrera

The Royals saw their bullpen come back down to earth in 2016, but the man who stayed the course for Kansas City was Kelvin Herrera. All Herrera did this year was rack up a career low FIP of 2.47, a career low BB/9 of 1.47, career low WHIP of 0.958, with a SO/9 of 10.8,  ERA+ of 160 with 2.0 WAR. Herrera started the year as the set-up man, but when closer Wade Davis would end up on the disabled list, Herrera would step in as the closer. He would earn his second consecutive All-Star nod and continued his dominance, thanks to a new look slider he developed late in 2015. The slider gave him even more dominance than he had before, which is shown by his walk rate and WHIP. To give you a better idea: Herrera threw 72 innings this year and allowed only 12 walks.This increased his SO/W ratio to 7.17, the best of his career. Here is the truly scary part: Herrera will be entering his age 27 season. In other words, he is just now in his prime. Be scared, Major League hitters.

Honorable Mention: Wade Davis, Matt Strahm

MLB: Kansas City Royals-Workouts
(Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY)

Comeback Player of the Year: Ian Kennedy

Royals fans weren’t exactly enthused when Kansas City signed Kennedy to a 5-year deal. Kennedy had been a below average pitcher the last five years and one had to wonder if the combination of Kauffman Stadium and pitching coach Dave Eiland could change that. Well, it did and because of that Kennedy is the Comeback Player of  the Year. Here are the numbers that got him here: 184 strike outs over 195 innings, 1.221 WHIP, 119 ERA+, 1.6 WPA and 4.1 WAR (his highest since 2011). There were flaws in his game; Kennedy allowed 33 home runs, third most in the American League and he saw both his walk rate and FIP go up. Kennedy’s season wasn’t perfect, but in my eyes he was exactly what I expected; a guy who sometimes looks great, and sometimes looks bad. Kennedy was lucky enough in 2016 to lessen the bad starts while performing at least league average in a large chunk of the others. He did compile 15 quality starts, which was 45% of his starts this year and had an average Game Score of 54.6, a few ticks up on his 2015 campaign. In all honesty, I can live with these numbers from Kennedy if he continues this throughout the span of his contract while staying healthy.

Honorable Mention: Paulo Orlando

Now, onto our consolation awards:

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Best Hair: Drew Butera

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Best Hair, Classic: Rusty Kuntz

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Best Forehead: Edinson Volquez

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In Memoriam: Joakim Soria…wait, I’m being told he is STILL on the team. Nevermind.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Kansas City Royals
 (Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY)

Here’s to more awards next year, hopefully with a brighter spin on everything. Also, if any player wants to buy my vote, I will allow that. Except for Eric Hosmer. He has to earn it…and improve on his 58.9% ground ball rate. Make it happen guys and there will be gold stars for everyone! Thanks again, Kansas City, for another great baseball season. Pencil me in again for next year.

 

 

Minnesota Love

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It’s a tough time to be a Minnesota Twins fan. After an unexpected second place finish in the American League Central in 2015(and competing for a playoff spot into the last week of the season), the belief was that the Twins would take another step forward in 2016. Minnesota was expected to grow from last year’s success, especially with the addition of some top-level prospects being around all year(Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton) and the addition of Korean slugger Byung Ho Park, so it appeared that second year manager Paul Molitor had a contender on his hands. I definitely had bought in, as I expected the Twins to garnish a playoff spot this year, with my belief being that they had a great mix of veterans, youngsters and a great leader in Molitor. Instead this year has felt like a horror show, as they are 14.5 games out of first in the Central, 13 games below .500. But this isn’t a brow beating on this year’s Twins team as much as it’s a look back at my fondness for a team that was a big part of my childhood.

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Now, I am a devoted Kansas City Royals fan and have been since I was 7 years old; that will never change. But in 1987 I couldn’t help but root for a fun Minnesota Twins team that would go on and win the World Series that year. What really started my ‘Minnesota Love’ was Kirby Puckett. Puckett was everything great about baseball; a cherubic center fielder who could hit, run and play defense and had elevated himself to be one of the great players in the game. I loved watching Puckett run around the outfield, then step to the plate and rack up hit after hit. He fit in perfectly in the 1980’s, an era of contact hitters like Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Don Mattingly. Puckett also seemed to have a child-like grin on his face at all times, leaving the impression that he was having as much fun playing the game as we did watching him. Puckett was a perennial All-Star, a guy who averaged 192 hits a season throughout his 12 year career, multiple time Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner and was voted in the top ten of the American League MVP ballots 7 of his 12 major league seasons. I know some have questioned whether or not he should have been a Hall of Famer, but in my eyes there was never a question. Puckett was one of the best throughout his career and one can only imagine what his final numbers would have been had glaucoma not taken his sight. There were some less than flattering moments for Puckett post-career but Puckett the ballplayer was a joy to watch play.

New York Yankees v Minnesota Twins
(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Once you looked at the rest of the roster, there was a nice group of players who were easy to root for. Kent Hrbek was the lovable, goofy first baseman with power. Dan Gladden, current Twins radio broadcaster, played like his hair was on fire and was the spark plug at the top of the lineup. Frank Viola was the left-handed ace who had elevated himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball. Bert Blyleven was nearing the end of his career but still fun to watch. I also can’t forget Juan Berenguer, a guy who did not fit the normal physique of a major league ballplayer but was a pivotal part of the Minnesota bullpen. Even the 1991 World Series team was easy to root for, with Puckett, Hrbek, Gladden and pitchers like Scott Erickson and Kevin Tapani holding down the rotation and Rick Aguilera closing out of the pen. The Twins had players who were fun to watch and it always appeared as if Tom Kelly led teams played more as a team and weren’t as focused on individual numbers. As the Royals have shown these last few years, if you play as a team there is a good chance that winning is part of the formula.

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Speaking of Kansas City, there is a deep connection between those late 1980’s/early 1990’s Twins team and the Royals. Many of the Twins who helped Minnesota win those two World Series’ would eventually spend time in Kansas City. Gary Gaetti, the Twins third baseman for both championship teams, would eventually move onto the Royals and would even hit 35 home runs for Kansas City in 1995. Greg Gagne was a pivotal part of those Minnesota teams and he would go on to play three seasons in Kansas City at shortstop; his offense wasn’t anything to write home about, but his defense got him 4.8 dWAR during that period. Chuck Knoblauch would play his last major league season for the Royals, producing a -0.7 bWAR in just 80 games. Chili Davis would end up in Kansas City in 1997, hitting 30 home runs and posting 2.4 bWAR. As if that wasn’t enough, Berenguer pitched for the Royals earlier in his career, while backup catcher Sal Butera’s son, Drew, would later play for the Twins and is the current backup receiver in Kansas City. So in a roundabout way, I got to see a few of the bigger pieces of those championship Twins team’s contribute in a Royals uniform.

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But it wasn’t just the players or the style of baseball they played that made me intrigued by the Twins. As a kid, I was enamored with the Metrodome, warts and all. Here was this domed stadium that had character and didn’t have the feel of cookie cutter stadiums like Three Rivers or Veterans Stadium. Minnesota had the “baggie” out in right field(which is now a handbag), and a roof that looked spectacular but was easy for fielders to lose a pop fly in. The crowd always seemed raucous and during the playoffs the fans would wave their “Homer Hanky” to get the team going. There seemed to be a whole atmosphere to that stadium that I wanted to be a part of  and that lured me into wanting this team to succeed. Sure, I had heard stories about the stadium being broken down, cold, drab and being nothing but a big slab of concrete, but that didn’t seem to matter to me much. It just seemed like a fun place to watch a baseball game from. I still get goosebumps when I think back to Game 163 of the 2009 season, when the Twins and Tigers battled it out in the dome for the Central Division title. Here was a stadium that being replaced the next season but it was going to get one more thrilling, iconic moment before it was gone. The Metrodome might not have had the beauty of Kauffman Stadium(yes, biased), the legend of a Wrigley Field or the visual classicism of a Camden Yards, but it had its own nuances that would grow on you. I never got to attend a game at the Metrodome, which saddens me, but I was able to be at Target Field a few years back. While I liked Target Field and think it is a solid replacement for the Metrodome, I have a feeling it won’t match up when it comes to the character of that old dome.

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You would think that with the Twins being in the same division as my Royals I would loathe them and wish for them to just go away, but I don’t. I have very fond memories of the Twins and most years wish them the best. Well, I always hope they don’t do as good as Kansas City, but otherwise I want them to have success. It blows my mind sometimes when I think back and remember there was a period where baseball considered contracting the Twins. This is an organization with rich history and the idea of a baseball team not being up in Minnesota is unfathomable. When I go back and think about baseball highlights in my life that I will play over and over in my head, there are a number of Twins highlights that will live on forever. Puckett’s catch, Larkin’s single, Morris’s pitching and Casilla’s single; all are memories etched in my head forever. For that, I thank Minnesota. Thank you for making my childhood brighter and my adulthood memorable. I still kinda love ya.

 

Diamonds and Pearls:Royals Random Notes

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We are just a few weeks into the season and the Royals are standing atop of a very tight American League Central, as most assumed they would. It’s hard to get too worked up about much of anything this early(especially since number-wise everything is a small sample size), but there have been a few patterns that have shown a light on the performance of a few Kansas City players. I figured today we would take a glance at these few items while also taking into consideration where the team is at early in the season. What do the people say, onward and upward? Sure, let’s do that.

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Let’s start with last year’s MVP candidate, Lorenzo Cain. Cain was able to become an offensive force for Kansas City in 2015, but so far has struggled offensively in 2016. Some have pointed to his uptick in strikeout totals, like Hunter Samuels did for Baseball Prospectus Kansas City. As of Friday, Cain’s strikeout % is sitting at 28.6%, a major increase from last year’s 16.2%. While the K’s have been alarming, I have been pleasantly impressed with the patience Cain has shown at the dish. Over his career, the highest walk % Lorenzo has ever produced was 7.5% in 2013. Like most of the Royals, Cain just doesn’t walk much. But so far this season, he has upped his walk % to 14.3%, as he has walked 9 times in the first couple weeks of the 2016 season. Cain walked a grand total of 37 times last year, so he is already 1/4 of the way to that total. I have enjoyed seeing him be more patient at the plate and I think that also explains his strikeout numbers this year. If he is being more patient(and he is; Cain has increased his pitches seen per plate appearance this year, 4.27 to last year’s 3.79) than it seems just as logical that he is batting with two strikes on him more often. When that happens, you are bound to strikeout a bit more, as you are battling deeper into the count. It will be interesting to see what direction these numbers go throughout the rest of the year and they will be worth the time to occasionally check up on. I like that Cain is working the count more in his at bats, but you also have to realize when that happens there is a high chance that the strikeouts will increase as well. Hopefully Cain can learn to be patient while also knowing when to be more aggressive, as he has been known to do in the past.

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Speaking of a Royals player whose strikeout totals are up, there is Alex Gordon, although I was wanting to talk about something else where “A1” is concerned:

It has fallen a tad, down to 40% as of the time of me writing this, which is still a very good percentage and shows when he gets a piece of the ball he is getting good wood on it. It seems by the numbers that Gordon has been hitting less fly balls(20%) while staying on pace with his ground ball percentage(40% so far this year, 37.6 last year). If you’ve watched a good portion of Royals games, you are probably shocked by these numbers. It just hasn’t seemed like Alex is stinging the ball so far this year. His hard hit % is down a smidge(26.7%) this year, but his medium hit rate is up(56.7%), so that could explain some of the line drive’s being hit by Gordon so far. The line drives also appear to be helping his BABIP, as it has risen to .379 in the season’s first couple weeks. I tend to think this is a good sign, as Alex is a notorious slow starter and these numbers tend to say that he is seeing the ball well. In fact, I might even go out on a limb and say we could be seeing an Alex Gordon hot streak in the very near future.

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So we all knew Ian Kennedy would be this good through his first three starts in Royal blue, right? Um, sure. Go ahead and count me as one of the early skeptics of the Kennedy signing, but so far into 2016 he has proven everyone wrong. In three starts, Kennedy has thrown 20 innings, giving up only 3 runs and an ERA+ of 284. What is interesting is his strikeouts per 9 is on par with 2015 while his walks per 9 is only slightly below last year. You can probably assume part of Kennedy’s early success can be given to having the Royals defense behind him, as he was stuck with San Diego’s awful ‘D’ last year. But it also appears as if pitching coach Dave Eiland made just a slight adjustment to his game plan on the mound this year that seems to have helped Kennedy:

So Eiland(who was also a coach in the Yankees system as Kennedy was coming up through the minors) has wanted Ian to keep the ball down and stay away from missing the ball up in the strike zone. One of Kennedy’s big bugaboo’s over the years has been a tendency to give up the long ball. It would only make sense that if you continue to miss higher up in the strike zone, that there would be a greater chance of giving up some sort of extra base hit. Missing lower in the zone can cost you as well, but the percentages say it would be more likely to get a ground ball or a pop-up in that situation. I had made the comment back when the Royals signed him that I felt we would get some excellent starts from Kennedy as well as some stinkers and for the most part I stand by that. But if Kansas City gets more outings like he has thrown to this point than the bad ones, I don’t think anyone will complain. So far, so good for Kansas City and Ian Kennedy.

MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals
(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

…and then there is Joakim Soria. There has been a lot of concern about Soria since Opening Night, when he struggled in his return appearance to Kansas City. Since then, Soria has had some great outings, some good ones and a couple of rough patches. Craig Brown of BP Kansas City recently took a look at some of Soria’s issues and the consensus was that he was having location issues as well as not missing many bats. The funny thing is that while he appears to be struggling, there are a number of factors that point to a little bit of bad luck. For one, batters are not hitting the ball hard on Soria. His hard rate % is only around 20%, which is the lowest of the Royals top four relievers(Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Luke Hochevar being in that group). In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, Soria has allowed a number of bloop and dink hits so far into the season which would also explain his BABIP of .375, which is ridiculously high for almost any reliever(to give you an idea, Davis’ is currently at .071!). His velocity has also been on par with past seasons, which is a good sign that any trouble that is occurring is easily fixable. In fact, Dave Eiland might have already found a solution:

Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland called Soria into a room early Wednesday afternoon. Eiland had noticed something the night before and confirmed it by watching slow-motion video after the game, but he waited for emotions to settle to meet with Soria.

In baseball speak, Soria has a “lazy front side.” In normal-people speak, his front arm is drifting off to the first base side, which isn’t generating the guidance or power needed for his throwing arm. It is a problem, affecting both movement and location, but coaches would love for this to be the extent of their pitchers’ problems.

So Kansas City is hoping this slight adjustment could solve most of Soria’s woes. It will still beg the question being asked: Should Kelvin Herrera be throwing in the 8th inning instead of Soria? The answer is ‘probably’ but the Royals have an unique situation here where they have such a surplus of arms that the options are plentiful. It sounds like the team will go with the guy who is pitching the best at the time, which could be Herrera, Soria or even Hochevar. The door isn’t closed on Soria pitching in the late innings, but it does appear that it will matter on who has the hot hand at the time. In other words, what inning he comes in for will all be determined on how Joakim is throwing  at the time.

Salvador Perez, Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer
(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Royals currently inhabit first place in the American League Central and have the best record in the AL at 11-5, so things are going smashing for the defending World Champions. It’s still early so any issue at this point is purely minute and nothing to get too worked up about. It’s a long season folks and the Royals have only played about 1/10 of their games, so a long path is still ahead. It’s sunny in Kansas City and it appears the road for every other team in the league will have to run through the Royals to get to the big destination, the World Series. I have a feeling Kansas City will welcome the challenge with open arms; just a thought. We lost some royalty this week, but the “Royalty” in Kansas City is still chugging along.

 

Guesstimate: My 2016 MLB Predictions

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Here we are: we are in the section of Spring Training where you can see the upcoming regular season on the horizon, but it is still far enough away that you just wish you could fast forward to games that actually count. Luckily, this also means we are close enough to camps heading north that we have a decent idea of how most team’s rosters will look. Every year I take my stab at how I think the season unfold, mostly with comical results. Here is my 2014 and 2015 predictions if you are looking for a good laugh(although I did guess fairly well on the playoff teams in 2014). I do want to reiterate one nugget of information that I’ve been preaching about the last few years: predictions are just guesses. This is just simply a fun little exercise I do before the season starts for me to look back on in October and see how far off I was. It is purely fun and that is how it should be taken. So here we go; my guesstimation of the 2016 season!

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American League East

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

Last year I felt like no one AL East team stood out from the rest and any one of those teams could step up and win the division. There is still a feeling of an openness, but with a little more division in the way of talent. The Blue Jays look to be the team to beat, as they are returning a large portion of their division winning team and have a top-notch offense to carry their team. While Boston returns most of their roster that struggled in 2015, there is a belief that there is no way they are as bad this year…especially now that Hanley Ramirez is not in the outfield and they have David Price anchoring the rotation. The Yankees could make a run again, as they have one of the deepest bullpens in baseball. My main issue with them is the aging stars(Beltran, Sabathia, A-Rod, etc.) holding back the rest of the team. Tampa has some great pitching but what will they be able to do offensively? Then there is Baltimore. I want to root for the Orioles to surprise everyone this year, but I’m not for sure it will happen. Sure, Chris Davis is back(which I think is good) but not much has been added to the roster. Pedro Alvarez and Mark Trumbo might add some needed pop, but what will Baltimore lose if/when either plays on defense? Yovanni Gallardo will give the team innings, but how efficient will he be? As you can see, there seems to be more questions than answers with Baltimore, and that scares me.

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American League Central

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

This is always my hardest division to pick, as I am a lifelong Royals fan. Saying that, the last two years I have not picked the Royals to get to the playoffs and both years they made it to the World Series. So why pick them now? In all honesty, I really believe they have the most talent of any team in the division, thus my pick to sit on top of the AL Central. Behind them I see a cat fight for second between the Twins and Indians. I’ve gone back and forth on who should be where, but alas I went with Minny in second and Cleveland third, as I really like(fear?) the talent accumulated in the ‘Twin Cities’. Detroit and Chicago bring up the back of this division in my mind, as Detroit still feels really old to me(even with the acquisitions of  Upton and Zimmermann) and despite Chicago overhauling their offense, they still don’t feel like a playoff caliber team. The interesting part here is that I could easily see a scenario where this division could be a dog fight, with five teams within 5-8 games of each other. Right now though, until someone knocks off the Royals, they have to be the favorites.

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American League West

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

The West should be a fun division this year, if for no other reason than to see if it is competitive or if the Astros and Rangers dominate the division. Houston has to be the favorite this year, as they not only will try to build off their playoff run in ’15, but also will have Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers(once he returns from injury) from day one of the season. I really like what the Rangers management has done with this team and tend to believe they will be a serious contender this year, especially if Yu Darvish is able to return to his old form. Jerry DiPoto has done an admirable job trying to fix the Mariners roster, but it feels like an uphill battle for the team this year, with success more likely in the future. What can you say about the Angels and A’s? I would probably have the Angels in last if not for Mike Trout and his ability to carry this team on his back. But Angel’s management is a mess  and only slightly worse than their farm system. The A’s seem to just be biding time until their next wave of prospects can start infiltrating the major league roster. Oakland might not be as bad as they were last year, but I can’t see them being serious contenders in 2016.

MLB: New York Mets at Cincinnati Reds
(Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY)

National League East

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

Last year was supposed to be the Nationals’ year, as many(myself included) figured they would end up in the World Series. Instead, a late season collapse left them on the outside looking in and costing Matt Williams his job. Now Washington has retooled their roster while adding known players’ manager Dusty Baker to the fold. While Baker is about as old school as they come, players love him and I tend to think he will make a big difference in that locker room this year while losing some of the team’s tension. The Mets will be right on their tail and look to repeat as National League Champions this year. The Mets pitching will take them far, but the offense will be the real deciding factor in New York. Miami has added a new manager(Don Mattingly) and a new hitting coach(Barry Bonds) to shake up a young and talented Miami team. One has to be curious as to how lethal the Marlins could be if they can get a full season out of Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton. Atlanta stocked up on prospects this winter and are left with Freddie Freeman and a cast of other players for the Braves this year. They might not make much noise this season, but the Braves are looking good in the next couple of years. The Phillies? Well, they won’t be very good but a few steps were taken to improve on a dreadful 2015. So there is that.

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National League Central

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

2015 saw the NL Central send three teams to the playoffs. I have to believe that won’t happen two years in a row, which might leave the Cardinals missing the playoffs this year. The Cubs are the early on favorites not only to win the Central, but also to win the World Series. One has to think Chicago will grow on their stellar 2015 and are looking to win their first world championships since 1908. The Pirates will look to be hot on the Cubs heels and it’s hard to argue with the success this team has had the last couple of seasons. My guess is that Pittsburgh will join Chicago in the playoffs comes October. That would leave the Cardinals on the outside looking in, as they lost more than they gained this past offseason and are betting on a number of veterans like Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina to bounce back this year and stay healthy for the Cardinals to be real contenders. That being said, I find it hard to count St. Louis out. The Brewers won’t be horrible but they won’t be great and the Reds from the outside look to have a few good pieces but are multiple players away from being contenders.

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National League West

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

The West could be a lot of fun this summer and I could envision a scenario where the top three teams in the league could be shuffled in any order. My pick is for the Giants to come out on top, as they bolstered their starting pitching with the acquisitions of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija and adding Denard Span to help the defense. Throw in their main nucleus of Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Brandon Belt and Madison Bumgarner, and give them a future Hall of Fame manager(Bruce Bochy), and you have the makings of a division title. Oh, and the Giants win in even years; there is that too. The Dodgers look to be in the discussion as they have Kenta Maeda replace Zack Greinke in the rotation while their best pick up this winter being manager Dave Roberts. The Dodgers will be in the running but chemistry is a big part of their story yet again this year. Arizona went out this offseason and made some good transactions(Greinke) and some head-scratchers(Jean Segura??). How far the Diamondbacks go this year will be determined by how the younger talents like AJ Pollock and Patrick Corbin perform. At this point San Diego and Colorado are afterthoughts. Neither seem to have much direction nor a captain to steer them away from rocky weather. It could be a long season for fans of both.

Awards 

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles
(Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY)

American League

MVP: Manny Machado

Cy Young: Chris Archer

Rookie of the Year: Byron Buxton

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National League

MVP: Giancarlo Stanton

Cy Young: Jacob deGrom

Rookie of the Year: Corey Seager

Playoff Teams

Luke Gregerson
(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

American League

Toronto, Kansas City, Houston, Texas, Minnesota

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National League

Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, New York

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So there are my guesses on the upcoming 2016 campaign. I look forward to revisiting this come October and laughing about how far off I was. One of the great things about baseball is every spring we make our predictions on how we think things will evolve, yet we rarely guess correctly. I love the fact that they play six months of games to determine who plays in the final month and what happens in April doesn’t always dictate what occurs in October. The season is a grind and much like a good book it will have a ton of twists and turns to question just where your team ends up. There is a reason they play the games; what would be the fun of the season being decided by guesses? The drama of baseball is what keeps bringing us back and keeps us on our toes. I love this damn game and can’t wait to see how this season unfolds. I can promise you this; you won’t see it coming. Play ball!

Dirty South Is No Longer Dirty

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Go back to October of last year. The Royals are one out away from wrapping up the ALCS and making their first trip to the World Series since 1985. The Royals have their closer on the hill to finish Baltimore, a job that Greg Holland has done countless times over the previous three seasons. I can’t get the image out of my head, as Mike Moustakas throws the ball over to first baseman Eric Hosmer and the celebration has begun for Kansas City, including Holland and catcher Salvador Perez embracing in-between the mound and home plate. It was simple back then; Holland comes in and closes the door on another Royals win. Despite the fact that it has been less than a year since that happened, it seems miles away from where Holland is at right now. In fact, the question is being asked: Can the Royals afford to keep Holland as their closer as the playoffs loom?

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It all started during Spring Training. Scouts talked about how the Royals bullpen arms looked a bit haggard after playing deep into October and more specifically that Greg Holland looked tired. There was some concern back then, but it appeared to be nothing to concern ourselves about once the season started. Early on Holland seemed fine, although his velocity was down a hair. Instead of consistently hitting 96 mph, Holland was only cranking it up to 93 mph with the occasional 94-96 sprinkled in. Then on April 18th, he was placed on the disabled list for a ‘right pectoral strain’. Holland would sit out until May 6, which saw his activation and return to the team.

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Despite the fact that Holland was back and swore he was healthy, something didn’t feel right. The numbers showed it as well. Throughout May, Holland was only striking out 7 per 9 while averaging over 8 walks per 9 innings. He was still stranding runners at a proficient rate(over 80% of the time) but it did appear that location was an issue, as was a dip in velocity. In May, this wasn’t a major issue. Holland had missed most of the first month of the season so it was understood it might take a bit to get his legs underneath him. That’s fine, as the Royals were winning and Wade Davis and the rest of the bullpen could pull some of the extra weight.

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June, July and August saw his strikeouts go back up to a normal rate and walks would go down to about 4 per 9 innings. Holland has always been a bit of a tightrope walker, so in some ways these months it was par for the course. The only difference was the velocity. What was once a consistent 96 mph for Holland had now become a 93 and sometimes closer to 91. His other pitches seemed to be on par velocity-wise, although his curveball has seen a dip as well. What has always been great about Holland was the fastball was a way to set up the slider, which is normally his “go to” pitch. Problem is that with his fastball velocity now diminishing, it makes the disparity between the two pitches a little bit less. It also appeared during these months that Holland wasn’t comfortable on the mound, as his wind-up and arm slot didn’t seem consistent. My worries from earlier in the year started coming back in August, as it had been awhile since Holland had looked right and I still wasn’t convinced he wasn’t hurt.

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Let’s go back to August 13th. The Royals are playing the Angels and are holding the lead as Holland comes in to lock down the game. Twenty nine pitches later and the lead is gone, as Holland had given up 4 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks. It was the first game Holland had pitched in four days and the next day Royals manager Ned Yost talked about how Holland was a pitcher who needed more regular work and the team would try to use him more regularly. A couple of interesting points came out of this. First, here is a comment from pitching coach Dave Eiland about the concerns with Holland:

“Everything hasn’t really fallen into place the way he’s wanted to,” Eiland said. “But he’s fine. I have absolutely zero concerns about him. I mean, there’s things I address with him all the time, just like the other 12 guys I have, that we’ve got to stay on top of. There were some things I saw last night, but I’m not going to publicly say what they are.”

But it wasn’t just the issues that we will not speak of. No, there was also this from Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star about what rival scouts had seen in Holland during this period:

A survey of rival evaluators revealed a diagnosis that is both simple but troubling. With his fastball velocity reduced, Holland can no longer overpower batters at the plate. He has also struggled to throw strikes with his breaking ball, a reality that is common knowledge among his opponents. So he has become more prone to walks, while hitters can square up his fastball.

It makes sense, as his fastball makes his off-speed pitches more important. But when he isn’t able to get them over for strikes, then Holland has to either fall back on the fastball or keep trying his breaking ball. It is a lose-lose situation.
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The consistent work, which is what the Royals had claimed was the biggest issue with Holland this year, was not held up like we were told. Holland would pitch about every 2-3 days during August, but near the end of the month Holland had what Yost referred to as a “cranky arm” and had four days between appearances, August 22 to August 27. On the 27th, Holland came into the game in the 9th inning, with the Royals up 5-1. Holland gave up 2 runs in his inning of work and it was what many have said; velocity was down on the fastball and he couldn’t locate the breaking ball. Luckily he was able to get out of the jam and preserve the win for the Royals. The ‘consistent work’ theory does have legs to it as Holland would come in the next night against Tampa Bay and throw up a bunch of goose eggs. In fact, if you look throughout August, if Holland pitched back to back days, or within a day of his last outing he seemed sharper and his pitches had more break. He even had a few outings during this month where the fastball was back up around 95-96 mph. It didn’t stay, but it was there for awhile. When there were longer stretches between outings, Holland not only had lower velocity on the fastball, but his breaking ball couldn’t find the strike zone.

Aug 14, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Royals catcher Drew Butera (9) talks to relief pitcher Greg Holland (56) in the ninth inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City won the game 4-1. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports
(John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports)

So far in September, Holland has been a ghost. His first game this month wasn’t until September 8th, nine days between appearances. He didn’t give up a hit or a walk, but the velocity was back down again. He would look a little bit better the next night against the Twins, as he would toss another inning in a loss. The Royals have decided within the last month to only bring Holland in whenever the game is close or he has  a save situation, which seems like a recipe for disaster. If consistent work helps him be sharper and gives his pitches more bite, you get him in every few days. Doing this saves you from an outing like Tuesday night in Cleveland. Holland came in to preserve a 2-0 lead against the Indians, Holland’s first appearance in five days. Early on it was obvious he did not have his stellar stuff. In fact, Holland didn’t even have that 91-93 mph fastball he has been using most of this year:

It was as bad as you would think. Luckily, Holland got out of the jam:

Late last week, Mike Petriello of MLB.com looked at Holland’s velocity AND spin rate. Take a look for yourself:

Okay, you might be asking “what does spin rate cover and how does that affect a pitcher’s pitches”? Good question! Here’s Petriello from a piece on Holland:

We know that high spin for a fastball correlates with swinging strikes, so that spin rate decline is just as alarming as the velo drop. As you’d expect, the decline we’re seeing has led to fewer missed bats. Through Aug. 14, which is the last peak on those graphs, Holland’s strikeout percentage was 27.3. Since then, it’s down to 20.0 percent.

It also has been noticed that Holland isn’t using that fastball as much as before, instead trying to rely on his slider:

Through Aug. 14: 48.5 percent fastballs, 44.9 percent sliders
Since Aug. 15: 38.2 percent fastballs, 57.3 percent sliders

The problem is, his slider has now seen a velocity drop as well, down to 83.18 mph in September(it was in the 85 mph range for most of this year). So even if the 87 mph fastball isn’t the norm going forward, it does appear that Holland is dealing with more than just a “cranky arm”. My theory that he has been hurt most of this year just took a giant leap forward this week.

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So where do the Royals go from here? It’s obvious that Holland isn’t as reliable as in years past, but I’m not 100% sure you take him out of the closer’s role. I know that sounds crazy, so hear me out. Wade Davis is the Royals best reliever. I think we can all agree on that. If you are like me, you believe that being “the closer” is just a name for the guy who wraps up the game. I am of the belief that you want your best reliever to pitch in the highest leverage situation, whether that be in the 7th, 8th or 9th inning. With that said, in those situations I want Davis on the mound, not Holland. If that means the 9th inning, so be it. Unfortunately, most managers don’t think that way and we can count Yost among that group. But the coaching staff is aware of Holland’s troubles and it seems they are at least monitoring the situation going forward:

“If it gets to be an issue, we’ll evaluate it,” Yost said. “It hasn’t become an issue yet. People want to get nervous because he’s throwing 90 or 91 mph. That’s fine. But right now, it really hasn’t become an issue. If it does, we’ll evaluate it.”

That seems like the team is willing to play with fire, at least until postseason. Come October we could have a different story:

“We’re not going to jeopardize anything once the playoffs starts,” Yost said. “We’re going to make sure (Holland is) 100-percent ready to nail it down. And when you talk to him, he’s like ‘I got this.’”

No pitcher will tell you different(well, maybe Matt Harvey) but it does appear as if the Royals are trying to be loyal to Holland while also acknowledging a move might have to be made. Relievers on average have a short shelf life and closers seem to only stay in that role for a couple years at a time, on average. I am still of the belief that Greg Holland is hurt and while the Royals have tried coaxing him and his arm all throughout this season to get him to the playoffs, at this rate Holland might just be another arm down in the pen come October. Some of us Royals fans have referred to Holland over the years as “Dirty South” due to the filthiness of his pitches and the way they drop out of the strike zone. As of right now, there is nothing filthy or dirty about Holland’s pitching repertoire and that doesn’t seem to be changing. If that is case, I’m not for sure I want to see Holland pitching in October and I hate the thought of that.

 

 

The Hunt For Blue October: Royals Sweep Reds

Cincinnati Reds' Jason Bourgeois (30) dives safely back to first base as Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer (35) applies the tag on a pick-off attempt during the third inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Gary Landers)
(AP Photo/Gary Landers)

The Kansas City Royals traveled to Cincinnati this week for a short two game series that could be a short but sweet set. Instead, you got some ugly baseball, a 13 inning affair on Tuesday, a rain delay and on Wednesday the umpire made it to where the game could have been referred to as “Honey, I Shrunk the Strike Zone”. The Royals came away with a two game sweep but these two games felt like the two longest games played the entire season, even though they weren’t. Time to meander into this series and look at the good, the bad and the ugly.

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Series MVP: Ben Zobrist

If you are a Royals fan and aren’t gushing about Ben Zobrist, what are you waiting for? Zobrist dominated this series, going 6 for 11 with 2 doubles, a home run and 3 RBI’s. The fun part was that it wasn’t just how often Zobrist got on base, but when he would get his big hit. First was his big home run against Aroldis Chapman in the 9th on Tuesday to tie the game:

Once again, this was off of Aroldis Chapman!

Zobrist’s day was not done yet as he would extend the Royals lead with a single in the 13th inning:

Yes, even Ben Zobrist can get an infield hit. Ben would follow that up with a four hit game on Wednesday to help pace the Royals to another ‘W’ and the series sweep:

Since coming over to the Royals from Oakland, Zobrist is hitting .379/.468/.636 with 5 doubles, 4 home runs, 13 RBI’s and 12 walks. I was a big fan of Zobrist’s ability to get on base and his versatility on the diamond before he became a Royal. Now that he is in Kansas City, that admiration has grown:

Zobrist seems to have a lock on the second spot in the lineup and with Alex Gordon about a week and a half away from returning to the main roster we could start seeing Zobrist getting some more playing time at second base. There has been a lot of talk about how big acquiring Johnny Cueto has been for the Royals, but getting Zobrist has added another dimension to this team’s lineup and opened up the possibilities for this team come October.

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Pitching Performance of the Series: Edinson Volquez    

It almost is getting redundant mentioning ‘Edinson Volquez throws another quality start’. You almost wonder where the Royals would be if Dayton Moore hadn’t taken a flyer on Volquez this offseason and brought him into the fold. On Tuesday, Volquez started against his former team, throwing 6 innings, giving up 4 hits and 1 run while walking 3 and striking out 7. Volquez got himself into a few jams but was able to wiggle his way out of them, including a little help from Mike Moustakas to wrap up the 6th inning:

It’s a pretty good estimate to say Volquez will be the #2 starter going into the playoffs this year(unless Yordano Ventura starts rattling off some gems) and he has definitely earned it. You always have to worry a tad about bases on balls with Volquez, but when he just throws and allows the Royals stellar defense to do the rest, he is as good as gold.

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Nothin’ Worse Than Some Ugly Baseball

If you tuned in to Wednesday night’s game, you probably realized pretty early on that it was going to be a long night. Not just because of the close to two hour rain delay, but because both teams were working with a tiny strike zone. All you have to do is point to Chris Conroy’s minuscule strike zone to see why we saw such an ugly brand of baseball that night. Sprinkle in a couple of mediocre pitchers(Keyvius Sampson for Cincy, Jeremy Guthrie for Kansas City) and you have a recipe for a game that I felt would never end:

By the end of the 3rd inning Sampson was close to 80 pitches while Guthrie had surrendered multiple home runs. Now to be fair, Conroy was consistent with his strike zone, as it was tight for both pitchers, as noted by manager Ned Yost:

“Just struggling with his command, wrestling with his command all night long,” Royals manager Ned Yost said of Guthrie. “The zone seemed really tight, but they were calling pretty much balls for both guys.”

Yes, lots of balls. There were 9 total walks in this game, a game that last 3 hours and 38 minutes but felt like 13 hours and 38 minutes. It didn’t help any I was stuck listening to Steve Physioc call the play by play for the duration of this game; that’s enough to drive any person crazy! This got me to thinking. You hear people who don’t like baseball mention that it takes too long and that the game can be very boring. Most of us scoff when we hear that; we love baseball and love that it works at its own pace. We also love the little things that someone who only occasionally watches doesn’t notice or realize why this move is made for this reason. We love the intricacies. But even I hated what was going on Wednesday night. I mentally was done with this game in the 5th inning, and folks, that just doesn’t happen very often. This was ugly baseball that no one should have to appreciate. I don’t normally rag on the umpires(for the most part I think they do a good job) but umpires with tiny strike zones befuddle me. It makes no sense. Major League Baseball wants to pick up the pace of the game, which is fine. But maybe they should look at umps like Conroy, who make a game drag on by making a pitcher work with a strike zone the size of a moist towelette.  Bigger is better, at least when it comes to the strike zone.

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It was only two games, but there was more to digest. Let’s divvy up some news and notes from the ‘Queen City’:

  • If you are making plans for October and want to know when the Royals will be playing in the World Series(hey, we are allowed to be a bit brazen) here ya go:

If there is a Game 7, it would be on November 4th. I don’t know about you, but baseball should be done before November 1st. MLB needs to fix this for next year. I’m afraid we are getting closer and closer to a World Series game being played close to Thanksgiving.

  • In the 9th inning on Tuesday it looked like the Royals had taken the lead thanks to some nifty moves by Lorenzo Cain:

Alas, after review Cain was called out and the game would continue. I only wish I had half of Cain’s move. I would have killed it at pickle:

  • I’m not much for individual wins; much like saves I think it is an overstated stat. That being said, both Kris Medlen and Luke Hochevar got their first wins in the big leagues since 2013 in this series:

Both pitchers sat out 2014 with Tommy John Surgery and both made their returns this year. The ‘W’ is more about them being able to persevere and make it back successfully than an indication of their greatness. Kudos to both, as they have been pluses for this Royals team this year.

  • Finally, word got out this week that left fielder Alex Gordon would be going on rehab assignment starting Sunday. Gordon will be there for about a week before hopefully returning to the Royals lineup. You’re on notice, Omar Infante.

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Tweets of Royalty 

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The Royals now venture to Boston for four games with the magic number of 29. The Twins are long in the rear-view mirror so the Royals are playing more at this point to secure home field advantage through the playoffs. As we get closer to October, there are some questions that Royals manager Ned Yost will have to answer. How long of a leash does Alex Rios and Omar Infante get? Where all will Ben Zobrist play once Alex Gordon returns? How long does Jeremy Guthrie keep his spot in the rotation? Will Kris Medlen get a start before the season is done? And what will those Duke boys do now to get out of this sticky situation? Okay, maybe not that last one. The rest are legit and could be answered sooner rather than later. The Royals have nothing but American League East opponents this next week and a half, which the Royals have had issues with these teams so far this year. A good showing is strong support in case they have to face any of them come playoff time. Right now is all about keeping the course while also keeping an eye on October. It is a great spot to be in with just over a month left in this 2015 season.

The Battle Over Proper Baseball Etiquette: Royals Lose Series to Striving Blue Jays

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Leading up to this past weekend, the Royals had been building some positive momentum. They were still on top of the American League Central. They still had the best record in the American League. Then there was the two giant acquisitions they made earlier in the week to acquire Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist, which you would think puts Kansas City right in line for favorites to be in the World Series. Then the Blue Jays went out and got Troy Tulowitzki. And Ben Revere. And Mark Lowe. And oh yeah, that David Price guy. A lot of the Royals thunder went to Toronto by the end of the week and many felt like this was a series that could be a window into a bigger playoff picture. This was a loaded four game series that was not weak for the heart, so let’s dive in.

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Series MVP: Ben Zobrist

Well, that didn’t take long. In Zobrist’s first games as a Royal he showed why fans like me have been praising his value for so long. Zobrist was 5 for 15 in this series, with 3 home runs, 6 RBI’s, a walk, a double and his slugging percentage went up over 40 points to .480. Zobrist hit two of those home runs on Saturday, one from each side of the plate:

To me that wasn’t even the part of his game that got me super excited. No, what I really loved seeing in this series was Zobrist work a count. I don’t know how many 2-2 or 3-2 counts I saw, but it is nice to see considering how most of the rest of the Royals are free swingers. Zobrist started out the series batting down in the sixth spot in the order, which seemed like a misuse of his on-base talents. Luckily, by the last two games Mike Moustakas was on the bench so Zobrist got a shot at the second hole. He seemed to really enjoy being near the top of the order, as was evidenced by his 4-7 in those two games with all 3 of his home runs and 4 of those 6 RBI’s:

If Zobrist continues to perform like this the Royals won’t miss Alex Gordon as much as expected, with the team feeling most of his loss on defense. I’m already excited to see Zobrist float around defensively; left field one game, right field another, then some time spent spelling Omar Infante at second. It is still early, but if the Royals are unable to re-sign Gordon this offseason, they should definitely take a long look at keeping Zobrist. I have a feeling his bat in this lineup would be a major plus while his glove would be paramount.

TORONTO, CANADA - AUGUST 2: Edinson Volquez #36 of the Kansas City Royals delivers a pitch in the first inning during MLB game action against the Toronto Blue Jays on August 2, 2015 at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Pitching Performance of the Series: Edinson Volquez

Edinson Volquez has been the rock of the Royals starting rotation in 2015. While Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura have been inconsistent, Volquez has picked up the slack. When Jeremy Guthrie has had trouble keeping the ball in the ballpark, Volquez has slowed the other team’s offensive attack. That success continued on Sunday, as Volquez would compile his 10th quality start of the year, throwing 6 innings, giving up 4 hits and 2 runs while walking 3(and hitting a batter; more on that in just a bit) and striking out 4. Volquez did a good job of moving the ball around, in and out and then up and down. He kept the batters off-balance by constantly changing the view and was very adamant about pitching inside. In fact, that leads us to the biggest news story from this series…

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Sunday Afternoon is Alright For Fighting

Here we go again. First there was Oakland. Then there was Chicago. Now Toronto? First, let’s look at what happened. In the first inning Edinson Volquez got a pitch a bit too inside and plunked Toronto third baseman Josh Donaldson:

Now, Donaldson has been red hot as of late and had been killing Kansas City during this series. I don’t fault Volquez for pitching him inside and as far as I could tell that wasn’t intentional, although after listening to Volquez postgame there is a chance it was done on purpose(sidenote: there was also a feeling amongst the Royals that Toronto was stealing signs during this series):

At that point the home plate umpire Jim Wolf issued warnings to both teams. Fine by me, nip it in the bud as fast as possible. Then in the 3rd, Volquez came back up and in with an off-speed pitch to Donaldson. No intent there, it was just a pitch that got away. If you know your baseball, you are aware that no pitcher is trying to hit a batter with an off-speed pitch; that is just illogical and defeats the purpose of what you are trying to accomplish. I can understand why Donaldson would be frustrated, but no way he was being thrown at, although that didn’t stop him from throwing a little swag into his walk to first:

Onto the bottom of the 7th inning and Ryan Madson is now in the game for Kansas City. Madson, on the 7th pitch of a 2 strike at bat, would hit Tulowitzki, which many felt thought should have been an automatic ejection. Once again, there was no intent there, as there was no way, that deep into the at bat and with a runner on second, that Madson is intentionally hitting Tulo. It was just a pitch that got away. Donaldson was up next, and on a 2-2 count he would come up and in on Donaldson. Once again, I get why Donaldson would be frustrated, but no way Madson is trying to hit him with two runners on base and the Royals still in a position that they can win the game. Donaldson at this point is irate, flat out screaming at Jim Wolf:

Look, at this point in the game I 100% agree with how Wolf had called the game. Wolf did a great job of figuring out what was intentional and what was just pitches that got away. Wolf even understood why Donaldson was so livid and let him yell at him; I can’t imagine many umpires letting a batter show him up like that, even considering the situation. This brings us to the top of the 8th and with 2 batters out and none out, Aaron Sanchez uncorked a pitch that would get him ejected from the game:

I believe that pitch was intentional on Sanchez’s part. I even understand that Toronto felt like they needed to retaliate. But Wolf was going purely off of intent at this point, and Sanchez’s pitch was intentional and that was why he was ejected. This leads me to a whole other topic that bothered me watching this game; the hitters(more specifically, Donaldson) getting angry about a pitcher throwing inside. I get any balls thrown at or near one’s head; no hitter likes that and I don’t blame them. But Donaldson seemed to have a major issue with the Royals pitching him inside and I am sorry but no hitter owns that plate:

Not only that, but the Blue Jays hitters are notorious for leaning out over the plate. No pitcher wants a guy getting that comfortable at the dish and no hitter should be diving out over the plate and not expect to get plunked:

All I kept thinking watching this was a)If these guys did that to Bob Gibson or Don Drysdale they would probably be in a hospital somewhere and b)this whole thing made Josh Donaldson look like a child. Back in April I felt like the Royals were being babies during that A’s series that got out of control. On Sunday it felt like the Blue Jays were being oversensitive to a normal part of the game. All hitters take note: the plate is not yours and yours alone. A pitcher is allowed to pitch inside, especially if you crowd the plate with all of your body armor. You dive over it, you get nailed. I personally felt like Jim Wolf did a great job in this game and understood what was going on. That being said, there was a part of me that wished someone would have gotten thrown out on the Kansas City side just so this whole mess hadn’t escalated. Even impartial baseball fans like Grant Brisbee felt like Wolf called a good game but might have been better off just throwing Volquez out. I know there was a lot of discussion that this could be an interesting matchup in the playoffs, but I would rather not revisit this. There was more nonsense that went on after this on Twitter, but I’m not even going to discuss that. Here are some more tidbits from Sunday’s melee:

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But wait, there is more! Time for the news and notes from this four game series:

  • I’ve been chronicling Mike Moustakas’ hit total as of late, since he toppled his 2014 total with a few months of baseball remaining. What I haven’t mentioned is his struggles over the last month. In July, Moose hit .188/.271/..306 in 23 games. The power has been there, as he has clobbered 3  home runs while driving in 8, but Moustakas has gotten away from what worked earlier in the season, which was hitting the ball to the opposite field. During July, Moose has pulled the ball 36% of the time, hit to center 37%, and only hit the ball to left 26% of the time. It seems simple to me, but if Moustakas can start taking advantage of the whole field again, I think we could see him start to climb out of his current slump. Moustakas ended up sitting out both Saturday and Sunday; Saturday he pinch hit and was hit by a pitch, which caused him to sit out the next day.
  • If(if) the Royals have to face off with Toronto in the playoffs, it might be best to keep Ryan Madson off that roster. In 4 games this season against Toronto, Madson has thrown 1.2 innings, giving up 9 hits, 7 runs(5 earned) while hitting a batter and striking out 3. Yes, that gives him a glorious 27.00 ERA this year against the Blue Jays. Whatever it is, it appears Toronto has his number.
  • Once again, Mark Buerhle stifled the Royals offense on Saturday. In fact since 2013, Buerhle has held the Royals to 9 runs in 5 games. Buerhle isn’t going to blow anyone away but he hardly walks anyone(4 walks during those 3 years against Kansas City) and knows how to pitch. It goes to show you, kids, it’s all about location, location, location.
  • Hold on to your seat; Wade Davis gave up a home run!!!

Now, Davis also had some back stiffness this weekend. I am going to go ahead and blame it on that:

Hey, credit to Jose Bautista to turn on that high 97 mph heater. But still, it was because of Wade’s back. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

  • For not being a base stealer(like, ever), Kendrys Morales sure knows how to slide:

He also knows how to properly celebrate:

Okay then.

  • Yordano Ventura was breezing along on Saturday before giving up a couple of blasts to Bautista and Donaldson in the 4th inning.  Overall, he allowed five runs on six hits and two walks over seven innings. Ventura seemed to hit a wall in that inning and was forced to fight his way out of it. He seemed to be throwing his off-speed pitches a bit more in this game, but he was still leaving his fastball out over the middle of the plate. Ventura is still young and I’m sure will find his way but right now he is learning it’s not as simple as having a fastball that reaches triple digits. It might not be this season, but he will get there. This is the second straight start I saw improvement and I think it was good that manager Ned Yost kept him in to figure it out. It’s the only way he will learn.
  • Johnny Cueto had a decent outing in his first game as a Royal. Cueto went 6 innings, allowing 7 hits and 3 runs while walking 2 and striking out 7. It doesn’t matter how many times I see him pitch, all I see is Luis Tiant. He even did a butt-wiggle in mid-windup to try and throw the Blue Jays hitters off.
  • Eric Hosmer’s 14 game hitting streak was snapped on Sunday. Hosmer has been red hot most of July, hitting .375/.417/.554 since July 1st. Hopefully we will see more of the same throughout August.
  • Finally, Aaron Brooks, a former Royals dealt in the Zobrist deal, had a great first outing in Oakland:

Congrats, Aaron. Hope this means an extended stay in the majors is in his future.

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Tweets of Royalty

Jul 31, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Home Plate umpire Angel Hernandez (55) calls Kansas City Royals designated hitter Kendrys Morales (25) safe at home plate during the first inning in a game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports ORG XMIT: USATSI-216426 ORIG FILE ID:  20150731_ajw_bt2_047.jpg
Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY

So the Royals are still leading the American League Central after losing 3 of 4 to Toronto, now ahead of Minnesota by 8.5 games. The team will have a much deserved day off on Monday(their first since the All-Star Break) before opening a three game series in Detroit against the Tigers. It will be nice for Kansas City to not have to face David Price or pitch to Yoenis Cespedes during these three games. Hopefully they can win this series before heading home to take on Chicago for three at ‘The K’. Normally, August is when teams that are going to fade start doing just that; at this point I don’t expect to see Kansas City slip too much in the standings. Hopefully there is regular rest during one of the hottest months of the year for their starters and players like Moustakas and Sal Perez can get out of their slumps. It’s a new month but the Royals should have the same game plan; win the whole thing.

 

 

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