World Series Game 2: An incredible game of inches (feat. Puig’s glove & bat).

What a game. The Astros beat the Dodgers last night in one of the more entertaining World Series games you’ll ever see.

Dodgers led early. Astros tied it late and took the lead in extras. Dodgers tied it up again. Astros took the lead back. Dodgers brought the tying run to the plate in the 12th, but couldn’t close the gap a second time. Astros won 7-6.

As is the case with most baseball games played at the highest level, the one came down to a handful of plays that tipped the scale the Astros’ way. This one seemed to have a dozen such moments – “game of inches” moments where neither team necessarily did one thing better than the other, the ball simply found a glove or didn’t, and they all would’ve had drastic implications on the turnout of the game.

For example, the ball that landed in front of a diving Chris Taylor. Instead of bouncing over the centerfielder’s head and rolling to the wall for a possible triple or inside-the-park home run, it caught the bill of Taylor’s cap and rebounded directly into the hands of Joc Pederson in left. Game of inches.

Or another example: In the bottom of the 11th, down two runs, both Corey Seager and Justin Turner hit rockets off Houston reliever Chris Devenski. Seager’s found the mitt of Cameron Maybin deep in the outfield, Turner’s was hit directly to Carlos Correa. If either of those balls are hit slightly up, down, left or right on the bat/ball, Charlie Culberson‘s home run is a 2- or 3-run shot instead, and his reaction around the bases is much more appropriate to the situation. Game of inches.

A third example: In the bottom of the 10th with the game tied and two outs, Devenski tried to pick Enrique Hernandez off of second base. The throw was wild and sailed 10 feet to the shortstop side of the base. Cameron Maybin was shifted towards right field and there was a lot of green grass available out in left-center. For a moment, it looked like Hernandez was going to advance to third, and potentially score if Maybin wasn’t able to scamper over to it quick enough. Instead, the ball hit umpire Laz Diaz in the thigh, thudded to the ground. Instead of being the winning run, Hernandez wasn’t able to advance advance at all. Game of inches.

The moment that defined the game for me more than any other is really two moments – the second a response to the first. This “game of inches” moment happened in the top of the 8th, with the Dodgers leading 3-1.

Alex Bregman led off and sliced a fly ball into the right field corner. Off the bat it seemed destined to find grass, but Yasiel Puig made a long long run and looked to have a beat on it and this wouldn’t be his first magical defensive play. He dove headfirst toward the corner, glove hand extended. The ball found leather, but not enough leather. It ricocheted off Puig’s glove, bounced once off the outfield grass and over the short wall in the right field corner for a ground rule double. Game of inches.

Within a matter of seconds, Puig hopped to his feet and did this:

102517_lad_puig_glove_spike_med

A quick aside: Yasiel Puig is wonderful and so good for the game of baseball. He’s having fun, but not at the expense of his team or his own success. There have been times a times when many of us – myself included – wondered whether he would be able to dial it in to where his energy was a positive and not a negative. When he was sent down to AAA in Oklahoma City last season I wondered if Puig’s actions were indeed misguided. I think he’s proven this season that he can be fun and quirky and play with significant passion without it negatively impacting the outcome of the game.

Yet announcers continue to use words like “emotion” and “passion” (which I recognize I also used above) to describe him, but their words are still laced with so much disdain.  No one defends him. No one says they like him or support him or even enjoy him. Instead, they drop judgmental comments about his antics and say loudly that they disapprove without needing to say it at all. So of course when he stands up from missing the fly ball, the internet and the broadcast booth are too focused on the outburst and fail to understand what’s totally happening in that moment.

Puig’s glove spike reminded me of Moises Alou’s outburst in the 2003 NLCS when Steve Bartman leaned over the left field rail at Wrigley Field and interfered with a ball that probably would’ve landed in Alou’s glove. Alou threw a tantrum, spiked his glove and glowered at Bartman from the left field foul line. I remember watching that game thinking he was acting like such a baby. Throwing your glove because and barking at a fan? Cmon, man.

But there’s an obvious difference between the two situations. Alou was crying about someone else, about something out of his control. Alou’s screaming and whining is directed away from himself and toward Bartman. Puig is mad at himself, his own effort. Which is always totally fine in sports.

The glove spike communicates three things to me:

  1. Yasiel Puig desires to perform to the best of his ability.
  2. Yasiel Puig wants to win very badly.
  3. Yasiel Puig understands the situation well.

And what’s the situation? Instead of making the first out of the inning, there’s now a runner in scoring position in a 2-run game with the Astros best bats coming up in Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Second, and of perhaps even more importance, Dave Roberts is forced to turn to Kenley Jansen earlier than desired to get the final 6 outs. If the tying run isn’t at the plate, Jansen likely stays in the bullpen and starts with a fresh 9th.

Altuve advanced Bregman to third on a ground out. Correa slapped one up the middle for a single, scoring Bregman and making it a 1-run ballgame. Jansen then gave up a solo homer to Marwin Gonzalez in the 9th to tie the game, 3-3.

Now, if Puig catches that ball, it’s the first out of the inning, Altuve’s grounder is the second out, and Correa is stranded at first because Yuli Gurriel popped out immediately after and that would’ve ended the inning. Granted, all of those happenings could have changed with 1 out and nobody on and Brandon Morrow still pitching instead of Kenley Jansen.

Baseball-Reference.com gave the Astros a 13% chance of victory before the Bregman double, and a 22% chance after – the miss cost the Dodgers 9%. If Puig catches the ball, that number likely drops from 13% to something like 7%, a difference of 4%. Overall, a 15% swing in winning probability added (WPA).

Here’s the other thing that moment did though: it lit a fire in Yasiel Puig. Yes, he always plays with passion, but a moment like that gets under your skin and effects how you view the game from that point farther. Puig feels responsible for a chunk of the team’s winning probability (again, around 15%), and he wants to do right by himself and his team. A player like Puig wants to fix where he erred, and his opportunity to do it is at the plate.

Which brings us to the second moment – the response to the first.

By the time Puig bats again, he’s leading off the bottom of the 10th and the Astros have taken a 5-3 lead. Houston is sitting pretty at a 91% chance to win the game.

Puig, of course, destroys the baseball and does this:

giphy-2

Do you see what Puig does here?! He is re-writing his own narrative. This is so great, and I hope I can do a solid job explaining what I love about it.

First, he unloads on the baseball, undoing the damage he feels he inflicted by being unable to corral the catch earlier (which few players even get to, let alone nearly catch). That homer dropped the Astros’ WPA from 91% to 80% according to Baseball-Reference. That’s 11%, which is greater than 9%, if you’re keeping score at home like Puig undoubtedly is in hi ahead. If he’d made an out, the Astros WPA jumps to something like 96%, a jump of 5% and an overall net of 16%, which is greater than 15%, the overall WPA adjustment when he didn’t catch the ball. In one swing, he has mathematically salvaged what he feels he shouldn’t have allowed earlier.

But he’s not done – and this is the amazing part: Puig, the guy who is notorious for smooth yet obscene batflips in all sorts of moments, slowly and methodically places the murder weapon on the grass.

Why?

Because he spiked the glove in the field.

Do you see what he’s doing?! It’s brilliant. He made up for the ground rule double by hitting the dinger, but he’s also reconciling his reaction to the play. Setting down the bat undoes his glove spike! His response in the good undoes his response in the bad. If he bat flips, he’s doubling down on passion. But by setting the bat down gently, he is actively adjusting his own narrative away from the out of control player with too much emotion for the game and toward the centered ballplayer who is focused enough to perform calmly in the biggest of moments.

Of course, after reconciling his performance and his character, he’s back even when he came up to the plate as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the 11th. This time he doesn’t have a score to settle so who knows what he’s going to do.

He struck out.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrell. Accessed here.

 

2017 MLB Predictions

Take a deep breath as you gaze upon the glorious striped stirrups of Francisco Lindor and calmly repeat to yourself, “Baseball is back. Baseball is back. Baseball is back.” Repeat it as many times as you need to until college basketball, the NBA and NFL Draft buzz completely dissolve into the peripheries of your brain. 

“Baseball is back.” 

Now exhale and remember: the darkness is behind us. Winter’s time is over. This is our time. Baseball – along with those two-toned beauties – is back.

Phew. Repeat as many times as necessary. It’s going to be okay, you guys.

It feels like an eternity has passed since we had some meaningful baseball to enjoy. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have October baseball in Kansas City last season. Or maybe winter just always feels this long. Winter is just the worst.

We’ve had a fortnight of rain in KCMO, which means spring has sprung, and somewhere some kids are really enjoying sliding practice. We made it, you guys. Opening Day is here! Which means it’s time to post another set of predictions for a new MLB season.

But first, I gotta hold myself accountable for last season’s performance. Let’s talk a bit about my 2016 picks…

<Stands up. Opens window. Jumps out window.>

Not great.

As always, the National League was much easier to predict – I got the Nationals and Cubs winning their divisions, and I’ll give myself a pat on the back for knowing either the Cardinals or Pirates would miss he playoffs…turns out they both did. I had the Giants making it, and they did, but as a Wild Card. Didn’t have the Mets as a Wild Card either.

My biggest gaffe was excluding the Dodgers. I took a gamble on the Diamondbacks and goodness gracious everything that could possibly go wrong did. AJ Pollock was injured before the season starts. Zack Greinke had a horrendous year, and Shelby Miller was comically worse. How did I ever pick them over Los Angeles? Woof. That’s what I get for over thinking these things.

The AL was just atrocious. I was all-in on the Astros, but they never recovered from an 8-18 start, and going 15-4 against their inter-state rival didn’t help. The Rangers ran away with it. I at least had them as a Wild Card team.

I picked the Royals, hoping with all my heart, but injuries derailed their chance at a third straight AL pennant. The Indians were my first team out. They ended 1 run away from winning the World Series.

The AL East is the hardest to pick every year, and this year will be no different. How hard is it? Well, I picked the Yankees and Rays in 2016 and the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles all made the playoffs. Goodnight.

So what’s that…4 of 10 postseason teams?! Yuck. I shouldn’t even be allowed to make predictions after that nonsense. (But hey – I knew Corey Seager would win the AL Rookie of the Year, so that’s a consolation prize or something, yeah? Please. Candy from a baby.)

In retrospect, I either overthought it or picked with my heart. But not this year. This year is all brain (but not too much!), and zero emotion (okay maybe a little?). Trust me – we’ll be dissecting a perfectly predicted postseason bracket here come October.

Believe me. Nobody picks winners like I do. I make the best picks. I’m going to bat 100% on picks this year. Believe me.

(Postseason teams in italics.)

NL East

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

Washington boasts arguably the best rotation in baseball, and Bryce Harper is going to bounce back in a monster way. The Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and return essentially the same roster as last year featuring their strong rotation. The Braves are young (including newly-acquired and forever-young Bartolo Colon). They may surprise us and be decent. The Marlins lost a step with the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez. The Phillies are still bad.

NL Central

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

The reigning World Series champs are going to be tough to beat, and for a long time. We all know this. The Cardinals pulled a Reverse Jason Heyward signing Dexter Fowler away from Chicago. He’ll replace Matt Holliday in the outfield which is an all around improvement. Their starting rotation will improve as well – Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright are both All-Stars and the drop off to Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Mike Leake isn’t drastic. But make no mistake – nobody’s dethroning the Cubs.

NL West

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

This division is a two team race. Both LA and SF are playoff teams, it’s a matter of which avoids the Wild Card game and, in turn, the Cubs in the NLDS (not that meeting the Nationals in the NLDS would be a cakewalk, but you get it). I’m going with the Dodgers. They re-signed Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill. They added Sergio Romo (double whammy since the Giants lost him), and the Darkhorse Move of the Offseason is LA acquiring Logan Forsythe from the Rays.

The Diamondbacks could bounce back behind Greinke, but I’m not counting on anything from them after last season, and the Rockies will score about 80 runs/game but they’ll give up 100. The Padres are young and won’t contend, but keep an eye on them in 2019 and beyond.

AL East

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

The Red Sox were already good before they traded for Chris Sale. The Yankees are getting better – Greg Bird is back from injury and hit more HRs in Spring Training than anybody. They also brought back Aroldis Chapman, and signed Matt Holliday. The Orioles re-signed Mark Trumbo who can’t possibly have another boomstick season like 2016, but I’ve been wrong about the Orioles before – Manny Machado and Adam Jones have the clout to get it done.

I just don’t like the Blue Jays. They probably won’t finish last, but they sure look good there.

AL Central

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

The Indians added Edwin Encarnacion, so they’re immediately better than last year. Their starting pitching is strong despite Trevor Bauer‘s personality. Andrew Miller should maintain his recent dominance (although, he seemed very human in the World Baseball Classic, but that doesn’t count for much). If I could pick any one position player to build a team around, it’d be Francisco Lindor. The Indians are the team to beat here.

The Royals and Tigers are the other two notables here. The Tigers are getting older, so health is going to be their greatest concern. Justin Verlander seems to have figured out how to pitch as an old man, but the margin for error on this team is thin.

The loss of Yordano Ventura hurts in so many ways – even still, the addition of Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns and Travis Wood makes this Royals rotation actually better than it was last year. Danny Duffy has arrived and could win the Cy Young (I heard he’s going at 33-1 right now). The additions of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler beefs up their lineup. This isn’t your 2014 high contact, low strikeout team anymore. They’re going to hit homeruns, and I, for one, am disappointed.

But…Alex Gordon will improve on a bad bad bad 2016 campaign. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcedis Escobar and Mike Moustakas are all in contract years, so you know they’ll “Come to Play.” Raul Mondesi Jr. won the 2B job and will bring speed and excitement to the bottom of the lineup. I think #Ace30 becomes a catalyst for this already-motivated group. They’ll be in it down the stretch, but I think they miss again this year. Hope I’m wrong. If they’re out early, a fire sale starting with Eric Hosmer wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Dang. I told myself I wouldn’t get carried away talking about the Royals, but alas, here I am. Onward.

AL West

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

The Astros are going to be fun. They added Carlos Beltran to DH and Brian McCann to catch. Their rotation is…fine, but they’ll win because of their young offense. But the Rangers seem to have their number and I see no reason to pick against them again this year.

The intriguing team in the mix here is, as always, the Mariners, who, thanks to their never-satisfied, always-ready-to-make-another-move GM, Jerry Dipoto, have kept their core but flipped the rest. There are 18 new faces on their 40-man roster. Typically I’d be skeptical of any team with that much instability, but these are all supplementary guys. Jarrod Dyson finally gets his shot as an everyday center fielder. This team will be knocking at the door come September again this year. I think they make some deadline moves and sneak in as the second Wild Card.

Angels and Athletics are meat. It’s unfortunate the best player in the game plays on one of the least interesting teams in baseball. Mike Trout deserves better.

***

Not risking much this year, but outside of the last AL Wild Card spot, I don’t see a lot of surprises. Every division appears to be clear or a two team race. The NL Wild Card is really only between 4 teams (STL, PIT, and 2nd place in the East and West). So here are my postseason predictions:

National League: Dodgers over Cubs

American League: Red Sox over Indians

World Series: Dodgers over Red Sox

It’s baseball season, you guys. Go hug somebody and spread the good news.

-apc.

Photo Cred: Sports Illustrated, accessed here: http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/06/28/fantasy-baseball-francisco-lindor-cleveland-indians

 

The Royals are 60-60: So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

This is the second year in a row I’ve done absolutely no blogging in June or July. When the Kentucky Derby ends, this site just sits idle until mid-August when the postseason race heats up. Not by choice, necessarily. It’s a time commitment thing. Summer is busy. August, on the other hand, is not.

So let’s talk Royals.

I want to talk about two different things today. First, a quick look at how we got here. Second, stew a bit about what we’re rooting for the rest of the way.

How did we get here…what went wrong?

Nearly everything has gone wrong that could’ve gone wrong. 

Looking at pitching first: Luke Hochevar is done for the season. Offseason addition, Joakim Soria, has been mostly terrible in his Royals return. Kris Medlen is done for the season. Wade Davis is on the DL. Chris Young spent time on the DL and was atrocious in the rotation. Hopeful September call up, Kyle Zimmer, is done for the year (again). Mike Minor has had setbacks on his return. It’s a mess, really.

On the offensive side of the game: Mike Moustakas is out for the season with an ACL injury. Alex Gordon missed some time on the DL too, but even when he was healthy he’s been terrible. Gordon’s batting average was below .200 as late as August 9, yet somehow Eric Hosmer has been even worse since winning All Star Game MVP. Lorenzo Cain spent time on the DL. If you’d told me all those things at the start of the season, I’d tell you we’d only win 70 games.

How did we get here…what went right?

Yet somehow this team is 60-60 with 42 games left. They sit 9.0 games out of the Central behind Cleveland and Detroit and 6.5 games out of the Wild Card behind a half dozen different teams. And therein lies the biggest problem – no matter what the Royals do down the stretch, there are enough teams ahead of them it’s still extremely unlikely they’ll break into the postseason. But we’ll get there in a second.

For as much misfortune as the Royals have had, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of things have actually tipped their way. Things like Paulo Orlando competing for a batting title and Cheslor Cuthbert hitting .290/.327/.443 and turning in a different web gem nearly every night in Moose’s absence. Cuthbert has been so good that we’re literally asking the question, “What do we do with this guy when Moustakas comes back?” (The answer, of course, is that he takes over at DH for Kendrys Morales next season when he doesn’t return.)

Danny Duffy is 10-1 with a 2.73 ERA and is in the AL Cy Young conversation. Yordano Ventura has taken another step. Ian Kennedy – despite leading the majors in home runs – has been more than adequate. Kelvin Herrera has been his normal dominant self and if Matt Strahm has been equally solid since being called up this past month. #VoteOmar has been cut and replaced by #2HitWhit and #RAM. 

If you told me all that stuff back in April, I’d’ve thought we’d been pace to win 95 games.

So when you think about it, of course they’re .500. They’ve balanced the good and the bad, injures with unexpected success stories. All in all, it’s been a very polarized season, but over the course of a long long baseball season, extreme good and extreme bad have a way of averaging out to .500.

On July 31, the Royals were 49-55 and 12 games back in the division. On August 9 they were 6 games under .500. Since then they’ve gone 7-1 and if they haven’t resurrected their season yet, they’re at least resurrected a blog post like this one. Sure, suddenly this team is .500 again, but .500 teams don’t play in the postseason. So the Royals will have to finish very strong to defend the crown in 2016. And some other things probably need to tip their way too.

For the sake of time and energy let’s say the Royals finish something like 27-15. They’ve got 10 games left against the Twins and 7 against the White Sox, so that number is certainly possible. And with the exception of next week’s road trip to Miami and Boston, the remainder of the schedule is either at home, or on the road vs AL Central opponents. That finish would put KC at 87 wins, which is right on the bubble of being a Wild Card team.

The Wild Card

The issue here is not the record – 6.5 games back with 42 to play is absolutely doable. If it was about the record, I’d just end this post now by saying, “The Royals need to win 27 or more games before they lose more than 15” and wrap it up. Cause that would do it, it it was just us vs another team. The issue, as I said at the top of this post, is the number of teams the Royals are chasing.

Here’s the current American League Wild Card standings:

  • BOS 67-52 (+1.0)
  • BAL 66-53
    —-
  • SEA 64-55 (2.0 GB)
  • DET 63-57 (3.5)
  • HOU 61-59 (5.5)
  • NYY 61-59 (5.5)
  • KC 60-60 (6.5)

The Royals need to pass FIVE different teams to land the final Wild Card spot currently held by Baltimore. The Red Sox and Mariners are hot. The Tigers and Astros are not. Baltimore and Yankees are somewhere in between. Additionally, the Red Sox are only 1 game behind the Blue Jays in the AL East, so Toronto is actually in the mix as well.

Boston, Baltimore and Toronto: The first thing that must happen is at least one of these teams needs to have a bit of a free fall. The Orioles are the most obvious option as they’re in 3rd, but I sure do hate Toronto. The Red Sox are rolling, it’s tough to think thy’ll let off the gas.

Which leads to the second thing that needs to happen: The other two teams need to stay hot. I know that sounds counterintuitive at first, but all these teams play each other multiple times over the next 6 weeks. Baltimore/Boston: 7 games left. Baltimore/Toronto: 6 games left. Boston/Toronto: 6 games left. The best way to gain ground on the final Wild Card spot is for the Sox and Jays to hand the O’s a combined 13 losses. That opens things up immediately.

If those teams all split the series, then the Royals likely won’t gain enough ground to overtake any of them. Doesn’t matter which one plummets, but one of them has to. And the best thing that can happen is the other two mow down the rest of the competition around the league.

Detroit: Just swept these guys, and it did wonders for our chances. We can’t waste our time worrying about what Detroit will do. We have 6 games left against them. If we take care of business against them, we can make up the ground ourselves. Assuming the Royals do their part, we control our own destiny against the Tigers to some extent. That said, they’re playing the Red Sox this weekend, and if Boston is going to be one of those teams to pull away, might as well root for the Sox this weekend. We’ll know more on these guys by Monday, but if we’re worried about the Tigers, then we’ve already lost.

Yankees: What a shock to see this team in the mix. Major sellers at the trade deadline, yet due to an influx of youth, they’ve hung around are are in the mix in late August. What do we want from the Yankees? Well, we want them to follow suit based on what the other three AL East teams do. They have 9 games against the Orioles left, 7 against Toronto and 6 against the Red Sox. They need to help beat the team that fades, but lose to the two teams that pull away. But again, if we’re worried about the Yankees, then we’ve already lost.

Astros and Seattle: I’ve been high on Houston from the beginning. While the White Sox were busy fooling everyone into wondering, “Is Chicago for real?” the Astros were so bad out the gate, many thought their season was over. Not me. The season is long, and good teams rise to the top and bad teams eventually drown. And here we are in mid-August and the Astros are in the mix.

The Mariners, on the other hand, are on a surprising surge. They’re finally looking like the team many of us believed would be great back in 2014 and 2015. These two teams play each other 6 times down the stretch. Houston has 4 games vs Baltimore this weekend and Seattle has 3 games vs Toronto in September. Otherwise, it’s AL West matchups galore for them. We need to be huge Angels and Athletics and Rangers fans.

So there’s a lot here, but again, none of it means anything if the Royals don’t finish strong themselves. The best thing you can do to make the postseason is win a lot of games. Right.

The Division

And then there’s Cleveland, currently sitting at 68-50. They’re 18 games over .500 and up 9.0 games on the Royals in the division. The two teams play each other 6 times the rest of the way. 

If you look at it a certain way, it’s actually easier to make the playoffs by winning the division than it is by winning the Wild Card. If we continue to assume the Royals finish at least 27-15 (a big assumption, sure, but understandably necessary), and the Indians finish 19-25, then, eureka!, we’ve done it.

The Indians are essentially a lock for the playoffs. They have been for some time now. But their remaining schedule is anything but soft. In fact, the Indians have the hardest remaining schedule in the AL Central besides the Twins, for whom every game is hard. The next 10 games for Cleveland: 3 vs TOR, 3 @ OAK, 4 vs TEX. Throw in 4 vs HOU, 6 vs KC and 7 vs DET in September/October, and that’s a bit of a gauntlet. Nine games is a lot to make up, but it’s not impossible. Some examples:

  • The 2009 Twins were 7.0 back on September 7. Won the division.
  • The 1969 Mets were 9.5 back on August 13. Won the division.
  • The 1995 Mariners were 12.5 back on August 15. Finished 25-11. Won the division.

It’s not unprecedented. Sure, it’s still unlikely, but who knows? All it takes is one bad week. Maybe next week is it? Go Blue Jays, Athletics and Rangers. We’ll see.

But for now, this weekend vs Minnesota is a must win. Do another sweep, boys.

-apc.

The Royals are 13-12: Offensive Concerns and a Different Leadoff Option

It’s May, and things are…fine.

April started great, with the Royals splitting with the Mets, sweeping the Twins, and wining 3 of 4 at Minute Maid Park in Houston. After dropping 2 of 3 in Oakland, the Royals came home to win 4 of 6 against the Tigers and Orioles. Through 18 games, they sat at 12-6. This is a good start.

But April ended poorly. The Royals won only 1 game the rest of the way after getting swept by the Angels and losing 2 of 3 to the Mariners. The offense sputtered. The defense struggled. The pitching stumbled. The West Coast has not been friendly thus far.

So here we are, on May 2, and the Royals are 13-12. Things are fine. The first 3 weeks were, for the most part, strong. This past week has been, almost entirely, terrible. If that trend continues throughout the season, this team is a playoff team. The baseball season is long, and there are going to be times when the team is thriving and there are going to be times when the team is regressing. That’s baseball.

So that’s what we’re looking for: Trends. What are the current areas of concern that we ought to be worried about turning into trends?

Consider the case of Joakim Soria.

If I had written this post two weeks ago, Soria would’ve highlighted the argument. On Opening Night, Soria made his triumphant return out of the bullpen to take the bump for the Royals. He pitched the 8th inning, inheriting a 4-0 ballgame. He got 2 outs. He gave up 3 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks. He left the game with runners on 1st and 2nd and needed Luke Hochevar to get him out of it.

Between April 3 and April 19, Soria had a 7.71 ERA. He had given up 6 runs on 10 hits and walked 5 in 7 innings over 8 games. Opponents were hitting .333/.417/.567 off him. Not great.

But while the rest of the team has been floundering on the west coast, Joakim Soria has looked more like himself. From April 20 to May 1, his ERA is 2.21, and the only blemish is a home run to some guy named Mike Trout. The temporary concern did not become a trend, and the pumpkin turned back into a carriage. Or something.

So what are the concerns? And which of them are trends?

Save for a few poor outings, the pitching has been strong, and while the defense hasn’t been as tight as we are accustomed to it being, it’s not like the 9 guys who make up one of the best defenses in baseball suddenly got the yips and can’t play. They’ve had a few slow turns on double plays and couple plays by Escobar and Cain that we know they usually make. Those will come around.

No, the concern is on the offensive side of the ball. We know this. And it’s not just a couple guys either, it’s basically everyone not named Eric or Michael. Eric Hosmer has reached base in every game this season but one. He is hitting .337. Mike Moustakas is has 7 home runs. He is slugging .548. He can seemingly go to the opposite field at will.

The rest of the team is hitting .233/.283/.324. Basically, the rest of the team is hitting like 2015 Omar Infante. Infante, interestingly enough, is bringing up those numbers hitting a .256/.289/.346 this season. Take out his .256/.289/.346 from those numbers, and the rest of the team sits at a .230/282/.321.

The Royals have been shut out 3 times in the last 4 days at the hands of Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez. Two lefties and one of the best pitchers in baseball? Sure. But those numbers above aren’t just over the past week. It’s over an entire month of the season. And that’s concerning.

Who are we really talking about here? The biggest culprits are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Kendrys Morales. Let’s throw Alcides Escobar into the mix too, although, when you don’t expect a lot of offensive production from a guy it’s tough to point to him as the problem. But he’s still a problem…just a different kind of problem. We’ll get to that at the end. The major issues are Gordon, Morales and Cain.

The Alex Gordon Concern

Alex Gordon’s issue is strikeouts. He’s already fanned 32 times in 2016 which means he’s on pace for 207. Last season, Chris Davis led all of baseball with 208 Ks. No one else had over 200. Last year Alex Gordon struck out 92 times. He averages 144 per 162 games. This is a problem, but is it a trend? There’s no way this strikeout rate will continue. It’s simply not consistent with Gordon’s career body of work. His .205 batting average is the lowest among our 9 starters.

I don’t know what the explanation is – it’s like he’s not picking the ball up or his timing is off or something. Last night, while facing Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th, Gordon couldn’t catch up to a 91 MPH fastball up in the zone. He got multiple pitches he typically feasts on, but he couldn’t barrel them. Something is off with Gordon, but I’m not totally sure what it is.

I can tell you this though: it’s Alex Friggin Gordon. He’ll work harder than any of us at finding out what his issue is. He has a body of work that over the course of a season is among the most consistent in baseball. There is about as much chance that Alex Gordon strikes out 200 times as there is the Chicago White Sox win the 122 games they’re currently on pace for. It’s early, and numbers do weird things in small sample sizes.

The Kendrys Morales Concern

But Kendrys Morales isn’t much better at .217. Big Ken had a slow start, hitting just .160 over the first 7 games of the season. But then he hit .324 from games 8 to 17. But over the past 8 games he’s hit a paltry .136 – just 3 hits in 22 ABs.

But Morales’s most recent struggles seem to be due to bad luck more than anything else. According to Fangraphs, Morales is making harder contact (38%) in 2016 than he has in any season in his career. He has hit the ball HARD over the past week or so. He blistered a deep ball to RF just foul in Seattle and had at least one line drive land barely foul down the LF line. Two nights ago he hit a line drive directly to the second baseman. Just last night he squared up a ball that the left fielder caught a foot shy of the wall.

Granted, his 19.2% soft contact rate is also his highest since 2008. Makes sense his numbers would be a bit polarized with the start he’s had, but all in all I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about when it comes to Morales’s bat. Slow start, sure, but over the middle chunk of April he was excellent, and he’s had a ton of bad luck over the past few games. Look of him to take off in May.

The Lorenzo Cain Concern

Cain has gotten better and better every season over the past three years. Every year we expect him to regress, and every year he impresses us more than the year before. He’s an All Star, should be a Gold Glover, he finished 3rd in the AL MVP race last year. He’s on the verge of being a star. And at some point over the past few years – maybe it was winning it all, or maybe it was just missing out on the MVP – but at some point I think he bought into the hype himself and started trying to be more than he his.

Cain’s issue this season is that he’s trying to hit for too much power. He’s leaning back and ending up having terrible plate appearances. It looks like he’s guessing at the plate, hoping to connect with one. Rather than maintaining his balance and spraying pitches all over the park, he’s sitting back and hoping to guess right on a fastball.

Since this is a list of concerns, you know it hasn’t gone well. He’s hitting .231/.300/.297. He has 2 home runs, but otherwise doesn’t have any extra base hits. Zero doubles. Zero triples. His K% is up from 16.2% in 2015 to 27.0% in 2016 – not as bad as Gordon’s 32.7%, but it’s bad.

However, over the past 5 games or so, Lorenzo has begun hitting to right field again. In fact, all of his hits in the past week have been to CF or RF. He’s been pretty consistently bad over the season, scattering 2 or 3 hits over each series, but he seems to have identified what the issue is and addressed it.

I’m the most worried about Cain though because he doesn’t have the body of work present to point to and say, “See, that’s who he really is, he’ll turn it around.” No, Cain’s career success has really only been limited to the past two years, so I’m less optimistic that he’ll turn it around like I am with Gordon and Morales. But he’s already showing glimpses of his old self. I’m not ready to call this a trend yet though. I’m hopeful.

The Leadoff Hitter Concern

And finally, you get the one legitimate concern in the lineup. Our leadoff hitter, Alcides Escobar.

This has been well chronicled by many, but still: no team in baseball got less production out of the leadoff spot last year than the Kansas City Royals. Yet they won the World Series…in large part due to the overwhelmingly hot bat of Alcides Escobar. He was the ALCS MVP. He hit a leadoff inside the park homerun in Game 1 of the World Series. He was on fire.

But cmon. He has a career .261 AVG and .291 OBP. If we learned one thing from Moneyball it’s that you want the guys at the top of your lineup to get on base so that your sluggers can hit them in. But I understand, OBP isn’t the Royals gameplan – it’s ambush hitting, it’s putting the ball in play, it’s forcing the defense to make a play, and in that sense, I suppose he fits the Royals formula for success.

But the best argument against Escobar as the leadoff hitter is the one laid out by Craig Brown at Baseball Prospectus: over the course of a full season, do you really want Alcides Escobar to get 150 more at bats than, say, Alex Gordon? (Not on the streak he’s on right now, no, but you get the point.) Because that’s what is happening. A poor hitter is getting 150 more plate appearances than a good one. Doesn’t compute.

That said, I question whether there’s a better option. The only options I’ve heard are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain or Jarrod Dyson. But regardless of how you structure it, those guys all present problems too. Gordon and Dyson both create a lineup that’s too lefty heavy at the top, and Dyson has never proven he can hit over a full season and Gordon basically sucks right now anyway. Cain creates a hole in the 3 spot, which would need to be plugged by…who? Hosmer? Morales? Gordon? Again, lefty heavy.

Here’s my alternative suggestion…

  • Mike Moustakas
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Eric Hosmer
  • Kendrys Morales
  • Alex Gordon
  • Salvador Perez
  • Omar Infante
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Alcides Escobar

Yep. That’s right. Just move Esky to the bottom and move everyone else up.

You can split hairs over who should go where in the 7-8-9 slots, but that’s not the point. The point is that the lineup now has the same turnover as it did before, only those extra 150 plate appearances from Escobar are now being spread out among the rest of your best hitters.

Is Mike Moustakas the prototypical leadoff hitter? Absolutely not. Doesn’t he have too much power to be hitting with no one else on base? Completely agree. But what other option is there? We don’t have a leadoff hitter on this team, so it doesn’t really matter who we go with. The point is that lineup construction generally doesn’t matter outside of which guys you want getting the most swings over a season. Who do I want getting those swings? Moose, Cain, Hosmer, Morales and Gordon.

So, what do we have to be concerned about? Is there an apparent trend we need to be aware of? Honestly, not really. Gordon’s track record suggests he’ll turn it around. Morales has been mostly unlucky. Cain has already shown glimpses of figuring out his stroke, but he’s the biggest worry of those three.

Finally, get Escobar out of the leadoff spot. And since we don’t actually have a legitimate leadoff hitter, why not do the simplest possible adjustment?

I’ll listen off the air, thanks.

-apc.

Photo cred: Fox Sports accessed here.

Defining an Ace III: Who will rise above the Ace Line in 2016?

If you missed Parts 1 & 2 in this series, here they are: Defining an Ace and Introducing Ace Line Calendar.

As we gear up for the 2016 season, there are some “ace” questions on my mind. Specifically three…

  1. Which starting pitchers can we confidently call an “ace” entering the season?
  2. Which starters below the “ace line” are most likely to break into ace status this season?
  3. Are there any starters who are likely to backslide and lose their ace status in 2016?

If you haven’t used the Ace Line Calendar yet, here’s a refresher on how it works. Find today’s date on the calendar. Click over to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings and compare the values listed there to the ones on the calendar. If the value is higher than the “Obvious Yes” value, then he is obviously an ace. If it’s lower than the “Definite No” value, then he’s definitely not an ace. If it’s in between, then it’s open to some debate.

To further understand it, let’s look at our first question.

Who are the aces entering the 2016 MLB season?

Today is March 30, and the values for that date on the calendar are 486.4 and 474.6. When we embed those values into the current BJO SP Rankings, the rankings look like this…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 596.4
  2. Zack Greinke – 554.6
  3. Max Scherzer – 540.5
  4. Jake Arrieta – 539.4
  5. David Price – 533.0
  6. Madison Bumgarner – 533.0
  7. Chris Sale – 512.1
  8. Corey Kluber – 504.0
  9. Dallas Keuchel – 502.5
  10. Jon Lester – 500.9
  11. Cole Hamels – 499.2
  12. Felix Hernandez – 488.6
    —— Obvious Yes Line – 486.4 ——
  13. Johnny Cueto – 481.6
  14. Jacob deGrom – 476.0
  15. Stephen Strasburg – 475.3
    —— Definite No Line – 474.6 ——
  16. John Lackey – 471.6
  17. Jordan Zimmerman – 465.1
  18. R.A. Dickey – 464.3
  19. Tyson Ross – 463.4
  20. Sonny Gray – 463.0
  21. James Shields – 462.5
  22. Chris Archer – 461.7
  23. Jose Quintana – 461.6
  24. Francisco Liriano – 459.1
  25. Gerrit Cole – 456.1
  26. Lance Lynn – 447.3
  27. Edinson Volquez – 445.0
  28. Julio Teheran – 444.5
  29. Carlos Carrasco – 442.1
  30. Wei-Yin Chen – 442.0

Based on the Ace Lines, your obvious aces entering the 2016 season are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez. There is some hesitation in calling Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg aces, so they’re on the bubble right now, and everyone ranked lower than that is currently on the outside looking in.

Which brings us two question two…

Which current non-aces will reach ace status in 2016?

The obvious answers are Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. All it takes is one good start and they’re back in the club. Who is deeper on the list that we need to be watching for?

The first two names that come to mind are Matt Harvey (437.2) and Adam Wainwright (319.5) . Harvey could be in the mix as early as May or June he already had time to climb the ladder in 2015. Wainwright would have to pitch like Jake Arrieta did last season to come anywhere close to making it, but his name will be on the rise for sure.

Lots of folks are expecting Chris Archer (461.7) to break out in 2016 for the Rays, and I’m no different. I expect him to compete for AL Cy Young. His name will almost certainly be among the other aces by the end of the year. Carlos Carrasco (442.1) is currently behind Corey Kluber in the Indians rotation, but after back to back strong campaigns in 2014 and 2015, he is poised to make it there as well. It’s possible that Justin Verlander (433.0) might get his swagger back after fading significantly in 2014 and most of 2015, and Shelby Miller – the unluckiest pitcher in baseball in 2015 – could turn a corner now with the Diamondbacks, a team that plays solid defense and provides a lot of run support.

Finally, Gerrit Cole (456.1) is entering 2016 with a chip on his shoulder. He thinks he deserves a raise and an extension, and he’s probably right, but the Pirates aren’t budging and they certainly don’t have to. He’s set to make $541,000 in 2016 after going 19-6 with a 2.60 ERA in 2015, and he’s even more motivated this season. His name will almost certainly climb the rankings.

Of course, the names right around the line could rise or fade slightly, but those are the names I’ll be watching closely.

Any other names you’d expect to become obvious aces in 2016?

Which current aces will fall below the Ace Line in 2016?

Barring a season-altering injury, great pitchers don’t generally implode and turn terrible overnight, so predicting names to drop below the ace line in 2016 is tougher to pick, but there are a few names that could dip in 2016.

Madison Bumgarner has had a terrible spring. Granted, there is absolutely no correlation between Spring Training and regular season stats. Sometimes guys are trying out new pitches, or working on pitching inside or outside, locating pitches. Who knows? Winning isn’t important. It’s the practice that matters. But when the phrase “wasn’t very good” comes straight from the horses mouth, well…you have to wonder. He has lingering foot and ribcage injuries that he claims haven’t been nagging him, but you never know. When there’s smoke…

While we’re talking about the Giants, I’ll throw Johnny Cueto into the mix as well. We saw Cueto struggle with a new team, catcher and ballpark when he joined the Royals in the second half of last season. Developing rapport in Spring Training can only help, but I do wonder which Johnny Beisbol the Giants will see out the gate.

The only other name that gives me any pause is Corey Kluber, but I don’t think that’s founded on anything. His 2015 season was just bad luck. His 9-16 record looks awful, but his 2.97 FIP looks really nice. His 1.054 WHIP was down from 2014 and his K/BB rate was just as strong as well. I expect him to stay among the aces.

But really, everyone listed there belongs, and it’s hard to envision anyone who doesn’t belong among that group. Barring injury, I’d be surprised if any of them dropped below the line.

I’ll be monitoring this list throughout the season.

Is it April 3 yet?!

-apc.

Image cred: Getty Images, accessed via The Sporting News.

2016 MLB Predictions

I was going to wait until Alex Rios signed with a team before doing these predictions, but it seems he may not sign until after Opening Day. Which means the balance of power could still shift significantly. This is sarcasm.

Opening Day is just 6 short days away. The calendar is nearing April, which means the NCAA tournament has lost it’s intrigue and Spring Training games somehow feel even more pointless every day. I’m itching to get back to baseball, and what better way than to make some 2016 season predictions?

AL East

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

I can tell you who won’t win this division: the Orioles. What in the world are they doing in Baltimore? Going into the offseason they had a gap at 1B with the free agency of Chris Davis. Not only did they re-sign him to a stupid expensive contract, they tripled down on the position by also adding Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez. Will they hit home runs? Absolutely. But they’ll also have to play Trumbo in right field where he is atrocious defensively, and their pitching is neither impressive nor deep. This team will lose a lot of 10-8 games.

Beyond that, this division appears wide open. Take your pick.

Toronto will score an insane amount of runs, but I refuse to pick a team with two stars (Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista) involved in contract disputes. The Red Sox are projected to be the strongest team with the addition of David Price and a maturing outfield. David Ortiz‘s final season could be memorable. The Yankees added Aroldis Chapman and now have the best 7-8-9 trio in baseball. The Rays have quietly built a deep (albeit unexciting) roster of talent. Kevin Keirmaier is the best defensive outfielder in the game and Chris Archer is soon going to find himself among the best.

I’ll take New York and Tampa with Boston just missing the cut.

AL Central

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

People say this division is the most wide open in baseball, but I just don’t see it. Perhaps what they really mean is “every team in this division is a regression candidate” which is the more accurate statement. You can assume consistency as much as you can assume regression, and the Royals have proven they are for real and they have a formula that works. And the next person who says, “Yeah, but they lost Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist!” can shove it. Neither of those guys were on the team until the end of July in 2015 – KC was 61-38 and up 9 games in the Central before their arrival – and the team they have right now is better than the one they began 2015.

The questions surround their challengers. Can Detroit bounce back or are they as washed up as they appeared in 2015? Will the Twins build on their surprising 2015 season or will their young talent backslide this season? And can the Indians – who have one of the strongest starting pitching arsenals in the league with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – do anything else well enough to succeed, or will their defense bite them again this season?

The White Sox will be bad despite what a handful of national experts will tell you. I’m almost as perplexed by their offseason as I am with Baltimore’s. Why do they need both Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier? How many third basemen does one team need? Doesn’t make sense. This team will underachieve as they always do.

AL West

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

Everyone is picking the Astros in 2016, and for good reason. This Houston team is going to be really really good. The only question mark in their lineup is whether Jon Singleton and rookie A.J. Reed can lock down first base. Otherwise they’re strong up and down their lineup: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez, Luis Valbuena, George Springer, Evan Gattis, Jason Castro. They even have solid outfield depth in Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick.

The other two teams to watch in this division are the Angels and Rangers. The Halos still has Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and they added Andrelton Simmons‘s gold glove defense this offseason. The question is whether their pitching can show up like it did in 2014, or whether they’ll continue to struggle. I don’t understand why they didn’t do more this offseason – they appear to be

The Rangers are the more likely team to beat out the Astros for the division. Prince Fielder appears to be his old self. Their rotation is deep with Cole Hamels, Yu DarvishDerek Holland, Colby Lewis and Martin Perez. Otherwise this is pretty much the same team that won 88 games in 2015 plus Josh Hamilton. It’s going to come down to Texas, Cleveland and Boston for the final wild card spot, and my money is on the veteran Rangers.

In recent years, the American League has been harder to predict because the competition is more level across the league. This year, there are scenarios in which nearly every AL team (besides Oakland, really) could make the postseason.

In the National League, I only count 8 possible postseason teams…

NL East

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

In the East, there are only two options: Washington and New York.

The Mets strength is their rotation of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. They brought back Yoenis Cespedes. They added Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker to play middle infield. Dusty Baker‘s Nationals also feature strong starters in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and they have a guy named Bryce Harper who seems decent. They added Daniel Murphy from New York. Twenty-two year old Trea Turner sounds a lot like Jose Altuve to me, but he was optioned to AAA last week, but it sounds like he’ll eventually get the job at shortstop later this season. If he clicks, watch out for the Nats.

This race will likely come down to two things: who can stay healthiest and who can beat the other three teams in the division the most. When you get to play 1/3 of your games against Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia, you’ve got a chance to win a lot of games. I’ll take Washington to bounce back this year while New York inexplicably can’t put it together to defend their NL pennant.

One additional note about the Marlins: I can’t wait to watch this team improve under new skipper, Don Mattingly, and rookie hitting coach, Barry Bonds. I guarantee you this team will rake in 2016. Bonds is going to be dynamite. There’s not enough pitching talent to take them to the postseason, but they’ll be fun to watch in 2016.

NL Central

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

In the Central, it’s a three team race yet again. This division entered a new phase when the Cubs took down the Cardinals in the NLDS in 2015. They’re young, they’re deep, they’re loose and already have postseason success. It’s easy to understand why the Cubs are the favorites to win it all in 2016. Bringing back Dexter Fowler, signing Ben Zobrist and swiping Jason Heyward and John Lackey from the Cardinals this offseason only helps their case. They’ve got the reigning Cy Young in Jake Arrieta and the best manager in baseball in Joe Maddon. Postseason? Absolutely. World Series? Who knows.

The Cardinals did nothing this offseason. They just sat there and watched while the Cubs spent gobs of cash on the guys mentioned above. They’re all in on their “next guy up” philosophy in 2016. Their team fell apart in 2015 – Adam Wainwright missed the season with an Achilles injury, Matt Holliday only played 73 games, Matt Adams only played 60 games and Yadier Molina missed a month with a thumb injury…and they still won 100 games.

Last year’s roster was stabilized by consistent play from Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta and Jason Heyward. But Heyward is gone and Peralta is already going to be out for a while with a thumb injury. Suddenly names like Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty are everyday players, and yet they’re almost certain to step in and fill in without causing the team to decline at all. They have a machine in St. Louis that churns out successful big leaguers and they’re all in on their system this year. And you know what? It feels foolish to bet against it. I’m betting they sneak into the Wild Card game this season.

And poor poor Pittsburgh. This team has been bitten by the Wild Card Game two consecutive years, and it’s not inconceivable to think that they could be where the Royals are had one of those games gone differently. Last year they had the second best record in baseball behind STL, and they have nothing to show for it. They need Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to be nails this season and shore up their rotation, and they need Jung Ho Kang to return to health and stay hot this year. Josh Harrison becomes the everyday second baseman with the departure of Neil Walker, and John Jaso steps in for Pedro Alvarez at first. This team seems like they’re going to regress a bit, and I’m afraid Pittsburgh misses the playoffs this season. They deserve better.

NL West

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

And this is where it gets brutal. I see three playoff teams in this division too, but only two of them can make it. Which one misses the cut in 2016?

Giants: They added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija (who I think is grossly overrated) to an already strong rotation with Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. They added Denard Span in the outfield who I think is going to have a very strong campaign this year. Buster Posey is healthy, Hunter Pence is healthy, and 2016 is an even year.

Dodgers: They lost Zack Greinke, but they still have the best pitcher on Earth in Clayton Kershaw. They’ve got a new manager in Dave Roberts. Corey Seager is the man at SS this season which should be an improvement. They added Scott Kazmir to replace Greinke, but they’re also putting a lot of their hope in Kenta Maeda at SP. The Dodgers already has a string of injuries concerns (Andre Ethier, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthey, Mike Bolsinger will all start the season on the DL), but they’ve brought in enough talent that this team ought to be able to survive it. If Second Half Joc Pederson shows up along with an unhealthy Yasiel Puig, this team might be in trouble. There are a lot of “if’s” on this team, but they should have plenty of money to solve them, right?

Diamondbacks: They gained Zack Greinke who, along with Shelby Miller, shore up a starting pitching unit that ought to be significantly improved upon from last season. Paul Goldschmidt is a perennial MVP candidate and A.J. Pollock emerged last season as a star in the league. Projections expect this team to hover around or just below .500, but I feel like that’s underestimating this squad. The offense was there last season and ought to be potent again this year, throw in a powerful rotation, and I really like what I see in this team. They went 79-83 in 2015, and got much better this offseason.

But I can’t pick all three to make the playoffs which means I have to pick against one of them, so I’m leaving out the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016. It’s a bold prediction, but these things aren’t any fun if you don’t take some chances.

So here you go, my 2016 MLB predictions…

American League: Yankees, Royals, Astros, Rays, Rangers
National League: Nationals, Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks, Cardinals

ALCS: Astros over Yankees
NLCS: Cubs over Giants

World Series: Cubs over Astros

AL MVP: Carlos Correa
NL MVP: Bryce Harper

AL CY: Chris Archer
NL CY: Zack Greinke

AL ROY: A.J. Reed
NL ROY: Corey Seager

-apc.

Image cred: The Washington Times accessed here.

Cactus League: Weirdo stuff at Camelback

KC was at Camelback Ranch in Glendale Thursday taking on the hated White Sox. Things got weird, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start by talking about Camelback Ranch.

Camelback Ranch

I’ve now been to 4 different Cactus League. Surprise (Royals, Rangers) is pretty basic as far as Spring sites go. I went to Goodyear (Reds, Indians) and Mesa (Cubs) last year, and those are both really pretty, but Camelback Ranch (Dodgers, White Sox) is on another level.

Camelback features yellow seats – similar to the pale yellow seats of Dodger Stadium – and a beautiful red-brown concourse with a tarp overhang for extra shade. The buildings are stone and iron with vegetation built in around the edges. It’s really impressive. 

 

I’m hoping to make it to Salt River Fields (Diamondbacks, Rockies) on Saturday, and I hear their facility is the best out here. But for now, the park in Glendale is top of my list.

Duffy plunks two consecutive batters

Okay, now let’s get to the weird stuff.

Ian Kennedy was the starter. He went 3 innings ad only allowed 2 hits, one of which was a solo home run to Matt Davidson. Danny Duffy relieved him throwing innings 4 to 6. He also allowed 2 hits and also allowed a solo home run to Public Enemy #1, Brett Lawrie, in the 5th.

But the 4th inning was classic Danny Duffy. He started by giving up a single and a stolen base. Got a guy to pop out, but then promptly lost control and hit two consecutive batters – Hector Sanchez and Mike Olt. He was very deliberate in apologizing to Sanchez – not sure if he apologized to Olt or not – and then with the bases loaded and 1 out, just when you think Duffy is going to fall apart entirely, he got a strikeout and a groundout to end the inning with no damage.

The bullpen looked great too – 3 innings of 1 hit ball. Luke Hochevar threw a perfect 7th, Brian Duensing threw a perfect 8th, and Ross Ohlendorf – who has had an absolutely dreadful Spring to this point – stranded a leadoff double in the 9th.

Triple Play

Okay, now let’s get weirder. In the 5th inning Raymond Fuentes singled and Dusty Coleman walked, bringing up Tony Cruz with two on and nobody out.

The Royals tried a double hit and run. Coleman and Fuentes broke with the pitch and Cruz laced a fastball hard into left field. The ball carried and found leather on a line. The left fielder tossed it to the second baseman who tossed it on to the pitcher covering first, and the White Sox had turned a triple play. A 7-4-1 TP for those of you keeping score at home. Inning over.

Butera Inside-the-parker

Yet somehow things got even weirder.

The box score says the Sox committed 3 errors on the day, but those of us who were there know that was extremely generous. It easily could’ve been 5 or 6.

The most egregious “hit” call came in the 7th when the Royals blew the game open. They batted around and put up 7 runs.

Drew Butera was playing first base. In fact, all three KC catchers were in the game – Cruz catching, Salvador Perez DHing. Butera hit a line drive into left center. The left fielder took a bad angle and couldn’t close on it. Then he fell over. The ball rolled to the wall.

The center fielder, backing up the play, reached the ball first. He bent over to pick it up. He couldn’t. At this point, Butera is somewhere between second and third. The defender tried again and the ball evaded him again. Butera came around to score standing up – the Royals second inside the parker in three days.

But no, the outfield did nothing wrong, let’s give him a home run. Sure.

Royals won 9-2. The White Sox looked really terrible. And I sure don’t care much for Brett Lawrie. He couldn’t be a better fit on this Chicago team.

Headed back to Surprise today. Diamondbacks @ Kansas City. Until tomorrow.

-apc.

Cactus League: Gordon and Hosmer murder baseballs, KC wins 7-5.

Greetings from Arizona!

I’m in Phoenix over the next four days checking out Spring Training with my buddies, Dan and Zach. The weather is warm and the libations are on point. Life could be worse.

The Royals played two split squad games on Wednesday. I was in Surprise watching the Royals play the Milwaukee Brewers. Yordano Ventura got the start for the home team against Wily Peralta. The other was in Peoria against Seattle. Sounds like Drew Butera had a day there.

Here were the takeaways for me from yesterday’s game in Surprise.

Hosmer and Gordon hit balls far.

I don’t talk about Eric Hosmer enough. I forget about the guy. Maybe I take him for granted. He gets so much attention from the ladies and media that I don’t feel inclined to add to the noise. He’s fine, but I admit, he’s not my prototypical favorite ballplayer. I like generally appreciate defense, speed, versatility and pitching. He’s got a couple of those, I suppose. I gravitate towards shortstops, pitchers, centerfielders and utilitymen. Corner infielders and corner outfielders generally just aren’t my primary interest. Forgive me.

But Wednesday, the corners stole the show. Hosmer went 2-2 with a walk and HR (like 420′ to straightaway CF), Mike Moustakas went 2-3 with a double, and Gordon went 4-4 with a HR (like 440′ to CF). Multiple baseballs were murdered, obviously.

Hosmer launched his in the 3rd. It landed halfway up the centerfield batters eye. Gordon matched him in the 6th. His landed 3/4 of the way up and one hopped the wall beyond. Crushed. It.

See that green grass and wall beyond centerfield? Hosmer’s ball landed halfway up the grass. Gordon’s bounced to the wall.

Spring Training games are mostly pointless in terms of wins/losses, but what does matter is whether or not guys appear to be in rhythm. They’re called “Training” games for a reason. And the starters, in general, do appear to be in rhythm. Those three combined to go 8-9 vs the Brewers, which is about all you can ask for really.

Salvador Perez and Omar Infante left a lot to be desired, however. Infante batted third today and went 0-3 with 3 popouts. Salvy went 0-3 with a walk and grounded into a bases loaded double play. In that at bat, Salvy got ahead in the count 3-0, but had the green light for some reason (again, probably wouldn’t be swinging 3-0 during the regular season). If that ball had found grass, it could’ve really been a route.

Fortunately we only expect something from one of those two. I’m fully anticipating Christian Colon winning the second base job.

Yordano roughed up early, dirty late.

I’ve been impressed with our starters so far this spring. Kyle Zimmer has looked sharp. Edinson Volquez has felt sexy. Ian Kennedy impressed me. Yordano looked solid in his first start.

But Yordano got roughed up a bit on Wednesday giving up 3 runs on 5 hits in the first inning. It seemed like the Brewers were working on slapping the ball the opposite way off his fastball.

He settled down for the next two innings though throwing a perfect 2nd and 3rd. The last batter he faced was Chris Carter who he threw 4 pitches – 2 dirty breaking balls, a show-me 97 mph fastball, and one more knee buckling curve. Made him look foolish.

It seems like Ventura is figuring out he doesn’t just have to throw smoke to get guys out. He wasn’t spectacular in 2015. It’d be nice to see him revert back to his 2014 self this year. Overall, Wednesday was both poor and yet promising.

The Eephus League Scorecard

Most of you wont care about this one bit, but I’m trying out a new scorecard this week.

In the 1940s, a new pitch developed called the “eephus” pitch. Supposedly invented by Rip Sewell, it was basically a slowball junk pitch. Only one man ever hit one for a home run – that was Ted Williams in the 1946 All-Star Game. I think that stat is real. Maybe not. Apparently the word “eephus” is thought to come from the Hebrew word for “nothing,” as in, “that pitch ain’t nothing.”

The original scorecard is sleek and pocket sized. I bought the cheapest one as a trial run. If it goes well this week, I’ll get the half season one for the regular season. Just wanted to rep a pretty sweet company if you’re into scorekeeping like some of use nerds.

Check out Eephus League here.

Welp. That’s it for now. Headed to Camelback Ranch today to see KC take on the Worst Sox.

-apc.

Defining an Ace, Part II: Introducing the Ace Line Calendar

Introducing the Ace Line Calendar.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly piecing together a pseudo-objective system for gauging whether or not an MLB starting pitcher is an “ace” or not on any given day. Ace. It’s a subjective term with an extremely loose definition. It’s also a fluid term that changes month to month, year to year.

What I’ve come up with is the Ace Line Calendar. Allow me to introduce you.

By the way, if you haven’t read my first post in this series, I recommend checking it out here.

Why create this system?

First, a story.

On July 26, 2015, the Kansas City Royals acquired Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds for a trio of lefty pitching prospects. Media outlets everywhere declared that the Royals had finally added the ace their team desperately needed. And they were right. According to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings on that day, Johnny Cueto ranked as the 7th best pitcher in all of baseball with a score of 547.1.

Two weeks later on August 10, Cueto dazzled in his first home start at Kauffman Stadium. He threw a complete game shutout, allowing only 4 hits, walking zero and striking out 8. When BJO’s rankings were updated the next day his score had jumped to 556, good for the 5th best pitcher in baseball.

From there, you may remember, it got rocky. Cueto got shelled numerous times during the months of August and September causing him to tumble 38 points to 518.5 by the end of the regular season.

The question of who to start in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Royals would have been obvious just two months prior, but many wondered whether or not the term “ace” still applied to Johnny Cueto. Was Cueto still an ace? Or was he merely a “good” pitcher at this point? Suddenly, instead of surrounding himself with names like Max Scherzer and David Price, he was hanging around the likes of John Lackey and R.A. Dickey. Still good pitchers. But not aces these days.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some system – some quick metric – that could answer that annoyingly subjective terminology for you? I think it would. And even if it didn’t close the book on the discussion, it’d make the conversation that much richer.

So that’s my motivation. And the Ace Line Calendar just happens to be where I ended up.

By the way, the Royals threw Yordano Ventura in Game 1.

Using the Ace Line Calendar

Despite how the ensuing paragraphs appear, this isn’t a very complicated system. Bill James has done the hardest work for me in creating a fluid ranking system to utilize. All I’ve done is compiled it, plotted it and created a spreadsheet out of the numbers the data spit my way.

The Ace Line Calendar is a list of all 365 calendar days. It begins on April 1 and runs through March 31. For every day, it gives two numbers – the first number is the Obvious Yes Line, the second is the Definite No Line. The Obvious Yes Line declares that every starting pitcher with a score higher than that corresponding number is obviously an ace. The Definite No Line declares that anyone with a score below that corresponding number is definitely not an ace. For now, anyone in between is debatable.

Go ahead, pick any date in the last 6 baseball seasons. Okay, June 30, 2014. Or, the day some nobody named Jake Arrieta took a no hitter into the 8th inning at Fenway Park. Good choice.

From there, it’s a two step process:

Step 1: Go to the Ace Line Calendar and look up June 30.

Step 2: Compare the outputs with the BJO Starting Pitcher Rankings for 6/30/14. (You can select any date in the past 6 years on the SPR page.)

The output from the Calendar: 506.8/496.2.

The list for 6/30/14…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 584.4
  2. Felix Hernandez – 557.7
  3. Adam Wainwright – 549.9
  4. Max Scherzer – 548.4
  5. Yu Darvish – 546.3
  6. David Price – 528.2
  7. Jon Lester – 526.4
  8. Cliff Lee – 523.3
  9. Chris Sale – 522.1
  10. Zack Greinke – 521.5
  11. Anibal Sanchez – 521.3
  12. Madison Bumgarner – 521.1
  13. Cole Hamels – 520.8
  14. Jered Weaver – 513.6
  15. Johnny Cueto – 513.1
  16. Justin Verlander – 507.8
    —> YES LINE – 506.8
  17. Kyle Lohse – 497.3
  18. James Shields – 497.0
    —> NO LINE – 496.2
  19. Jordan Zimmerman – 492.1
  20. C.J. Wilson – 491.1

The list goes on, but the takeaway is clear: according to my Calendar system, on June 30, 2014, everyone from Kershaw to Verlander (who came in just over the 506.8 Obvious Yes Line) is obviously an ace, Kyle Lohse and James Shields are questionable, but Jordan Zimmerman, C.J. Wilson and the rest of the list are definitely not aces coming in under the 496.2 Definite No Line.

Aaaaaaand, that’s pretty much it. That’s the “Ace Line.” Works for any day, all year long. Give it a try. See what you think and give me some feedback. It might not be perfect yet, but it feels pretty spot on so far. I’m excited to monitor it as the 2016 MLB season progresses.

How It Works

Okay, so this is where things get more dense, but here’s how I determined those values.

In Defining an Ace, Part I, I sifted through the past 6 MLB seasons (as far back as the BJO system goes), and broke the top pitchers into groups of Obvious Aces, Hesitations and Definite Nos based purely on my gut reaction. The number of individuals in these groups varied slightly each year, but there was a definite correlation in where the break happened between the Aces and Nos. The scores as of February 5 (when I did the initial research) were all somewhere in the 485 to 500 range.

Since the values are fluid throughout the season and offseason, my next goal is to discover a formula (y=ax + b) of best fit for the data, where “y” is the pitcher ranking score, “x” is the date in the calendar year,  “a” is the slope of the line and b is the starting point on the y-axis.

For “ace” caliber pitchers, scores generally rise throughout the season and then taper off consistently with the rest of the league during the offseason. Those who pitch in the postseason can continue to add to their scores. Postseason is included in the rankings, but it needs to be adjusted to a different slope due to the fact that the vast majority of starters are no longer pitching in November and their scores, therefore, are slowly decreasing.

To find this formula, I plotted the scores of the top 50 pitchers from each season on the 1st of every month (4/1/11, 5/1/11, 6/1/11, etc.). I ignored pitcher names entirely, and focused purely on rankings which causes each position on the graph to increase at generally the same rate throughout the season.

For example, in 2015, the 2nd best pitcher in baseball (after Clayton Kershaw) changed 4 times throughout the season. Due to his dominant 2014 postseason, Madison Bumgarner began the season ranked #2. By May 1, Felix Hernandez had passed him. By July 1, Max Scherzer – aided by a near-perfect game in which the only baserunner came when Jose Tabata leaned into a pitch in the 9th inning) – took over, but by September 1, Zack Greinke jumped him and finished the season at #2.

But when you ignore player names and focus only on the score of the individual ranked #2, the scores look like this:

  • April 1: 536.7
  • May 1: 551.7
  • June 1: 564.0
  • July 1: 584.6
  • August 1: 582.6
  • September 1: 583.2
  • October 1: 583.2
  • November 1: 592.1

The lower down the list you go, the more movement there is between pitchers day-to-day, but the scores end up creating a pretty consistent slope as the season progressed (which is what I’m looking for). But what slope – what ranking – should be used to determine what constitutes an ace?

Well, actually, it can’t be determined that easily because it varies year to year. The number of aces isn’t always consistent. It’s not just the Top 15 pitchers in baseball or the #1 guy on all 30 teams. That’s naive and lazy (which I tackled in my previous post on this topic). It’s fluid, not limited, so the number of aces one year might be 10 but the next year could be 18.

So I went back and looked at my lists of Yeses, Hesitations and Nos and plotted the corresponding individuals’ end-of-year ranking over the entire previous season. So in 2015, I thought Johnny Cueto (ranked #13 to end the season) was definitely an ace, Jacob deGrom (#14) and Stephen Strasburg (#15) caused me to hesitate and consider their cases, but I could quickly say that John Lackey (#16) was not an ace pitcher in 2015.

So I traced the 2015 Yes Line (Cueto, #13) back throughout the season as well as the 2015 No Line (Lackey, #16). I did this for all six seasons BJO has kept the Starting Pitcher Rankings, 2010-2015. Those individuals, if you don’t want to go back and look at the previous post again, were…

  • 2015: Cueto (Yes, #13), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No, #16)
  • 2014: Strasburg (Yes, #14), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No, #19)
  • 2013: Sale (Yes, #15), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2012: Hernandez (Yes, #13), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2011: Shields (Yes, #16), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No, #21)
  • 2010: Lilly (Yes, #15) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No, #20)

When charted out, this is what those values look like. Again, this is not charted by individual, but by ranking. (If you’re on a mobile device, try turning it 90 degrees to better see the chart.)

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

4/1

490.1

475.6

487.2

473.1

481.4

475.5

489.2

479.6

486.5

470.5

487.3

468.7

5/1

488.5

472.0

488.8

480.2

491.2

483.3

498.0

489.6

496.4

476.9

490.3

482.3

6/1

499.4

487.1

504.6

496.2

493.7

491.2

501.2

493.8

495.6

485.4

501.8

495.6

7/1

504.5

499.2

513.1

492.1

503.3

496.8

509.0

499.6

502.2

492.5

513.7

498.3

8/1

511.8

504.7

509.1

503.9

511.1

503.7

509.0

502.5

502.6

498.9

519.1

508.2

9/1

525.5

510.1

511.2

503.5

530.7

514.4

529.8

514.2

524.7

506.6

528.7

515.4

10/1

525.5

510.1

531.0

516.5

523.2

520.2

526.9

523.3

526.2

519.1

531.4

518.2

11/1

518.6

509.1

522.5

510.5

518.0

512.9

528.3

513.3

524.7

512.1

524.3

511.2

Save for a few exceptions, each pair of columns begins roughly in the same place (481-490 high, 475-486 low), increases as the season progresses, reaches its height at the beginning of October before dipping down again during the postseason. If we continue these numbers into the offseason, each one decreases at a constant rate of a quarter point per day.

The one hiccup here is that the slope from April 1 to October 1 is different than from October 1 to November 1 due to postseason play. So we’ll need to find two different slopes.

When we aggregate and plot the 4/1-10/1 values, it generates the following slopes…

  • Obvious Aces… y = 7.0756x + 478.71
  • Definitely Not Aces… y = 7.2952x + 467.21

At first glance, I’m surprised that Nos have a steeper slope (7.29 vs 7.07) than the Yeses. I expected the higher ranking to have a slightly steeper slope, but the opposite is true. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I suppose the starting point is lower so the ending point is higher. Guys at the top are more established while the guys at the bottom of consideration are often up-and-coming names who and a lot further to climb.

When we do the same for the 10/1-11/1 values, we get…

  • Obvious Aces… y = -4.6333x + 532
  • Definitely Not Aces… -6.3833x + 524.28

The disparity of slopes here (-6.38 vs -4.63) appears much more drastic, and for two reasons. First, the regular season formulas above are considering 6 times the data that the postseason stats are, so the outputs are much less extreme. Second, simply put, true aces shine in the postseason while non-aces don’t.

And now that we have slopes for the entire year, we can simply “plug and chug” (as my high school algebra teachers used to say) for each date. Which yields a complete calendar of dates starting on April 1 and ending on March 31. All that’s left to do is copy/paste the results into a Google spreadsheet and share it here.

Now, none of this is perfect, and there are probably a dozen different reasons why this is off. A couple things I’m already aware of…

  1. Opening Day is not always April 1, the postseason doesn’t always begin October 1. I recognize that the better way to construct this would be around a 162 game schedule and have it begin and end exactly when the season does. Maybe if this beta version amounts to anything I can tweak it to be even more accurate?
  2. This whole thing is pretty arbitrary. Who knows how much things would change if I moved one spot up or down in the SPR data here or there. But one thing I know is the more data you average, the less variance there is over one tiny change in input. Or what if I’d chosen the 15th instead of the 1st of each month? How would the data adjust? I actually don’t think very much.
  3. What about Leap Year?! Well, I both skipped it and didn’t. I actually calculated February to be 28.25 days so I wouldn’t have to make adjustments for a 366th day. So, just read Feb 28. Or wait it out and check in March for all I care. You do you.
  4. There’s some level of error, I’m sure. And if I broke it down and plotted every single day before rather than just every 30 days, a line of best fit would be immediately more accurate. But cmon, let’s be realistic with my time here. The only place that might be necessary is between 10/1 and 11/1. More data would help there.

Besides, ultimately this is just my opinion on what makes a guy an “ace” – your threshold might be much more conservative or liberal than mine. But now that you know how I did it, you can go make your own ALC if you want. But just so everyone knows, this is the original.

-apc.

Photo cred: MLB.com accessed here.

Defining an Ace

What’s an ace?

It is, perhaps, the most subjective baseball term thrown around these days. “He’s the ace of their staff.” Or, “That guy is a true ace.” There are a lot of ways to define it, and none of them actually bring much clarity because it can’t really be done objectively. 

So the goal here might be impossible: to objectively define what makes a pitcher an ace.

The easiest (and laziest) way to define it would to be to say, “There are 30 of them – the best starter on each team.” That’s obviously bogus, and for a lot of reasons.

For some teams, there’s an obvious ace: Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez, for example. For a few teams, there could be multiple ace-calibur guys: the 2015 Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) or Cubs (Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester). For many teams, there’s no clear ace at all: the Royals, for example, have a group of good starters but none of them are truly dominant. As much as we might call him “Ace,” Yordano Ventura is no where close to being an ace…yet.

However, every team does declare a #1 starter, and if they don’t say so explicitly, we can assume their best starter is the guy who throws on Opening Day. This yields names like Phil Hughes, Kyle Kendrick and Kyle Lohse, all Opening Day starters in 2015. We should all be able to agree these are not aces. There’s a distinct difference between an “ace” and a “number one.”

So where do we begin to create a definition amid this curious landscape?

First, we need a ranking system, which Bill James has so kindly constructed for us. Using his World’s #1 Starting Pitcher Rankings, we can see a list of all the MLB starters ranked from Clayton Kershaw to Matt Boyd.

If you want to know how the rankings work in detail, you can read more about it here. The short version is that every pitcher begins with a value of 300.0 then depending on their Game Score (which is calculated after every start they make) their overall number either goes up or down. So with each good start, a pitcher climbs the rankings as his overall score increases. If he has a poor start, or misses significant playing time, his score will decrease. The rankings are fluid. Think of them like golf or tennis rankings.

As of this post, Clayton Kershaw is currently ranked #1 with a score of 609.9. This is the third consecutive season he has begun the year as the #1 ranked starter in baseball. Prior to him it was Justin Verlander. Prior to him, Roy Halladay. Prior to him, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Halladay, CC Sabathia, Lincecum, Sabathia, Lincecum, etc., etc. etc. Players rise and fall. You get it.

I created a table of the Top 30 names going into each MLB season over the past 5 years as well as 2016. (If you’re on your phone, I recommend turning it sideways.) Here are the rankings…

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

Kershaw Kershaw Kershaw Verlander Halladay Halladay
Greinke Bumgarner Scherzer Kershaw Verlander Hernandez
Scherzer Hernandez Verlander Lee Lee Lee
Arrieta Scherzer Lee Price Kershaw Lincecum
Price Price Darvish Sabathia Hamels Sabathia
Bumgarner Sale Greinke Hamels Weaver Wainwright
Sale Lester Hamels Weaver Sabathia Hamels
Kluber Hamels Shields Cain Lincecum Oswalt
Keuchel Cueto Lester Shields Cain Verlander
Lester Greinke Sanchez Scherzer Hernandez Jimenez
Hamels Wainwright Wainwright Kuroda Lester Lester
Hernandez Zimmerman Price Dickey Carpenter Weaver
Cueto Kluber Hernandez Hernandez Haren Cain
deGrom Strasburg Bumgarner Gonzalez Romero Haren
Strasburg Darvish Sale Gallardo Kennedy Lilly
Lackey Weaver Weaver Greinke Shields Johnson
Zimmerman Dickey Dickey Latos Gallardo Kershaw
Dickey Shields Latos Fister Beckett J. Santana
Ross Samardzija Gonzalez Cueto Garza Greinke
Gray Fister Cain Halladay Price Rodriguez
Shields Lynn Kuroda Kennedy Wilson Arroyo
Archer Kuroda Bailey Sanchez Vazquez Sanchez
Quintana Gonzalez Lohse Lester Lilly Danks
Liriano Verlander Fister Lohse Greinke Price
Cole Tillman Wilson Bumgarner Rodriguez Carpenter
Lynn Sanchez E. Santana Harrison Santana Garza
Volquez Hughes Jimenez Arroyo Jimenez Billingsly
Teheren Quintana Strasburg Dempster Hudson Pettite
Carrasco Cobb Iwakuma Beckett Gonzalez Lackey
Chen Liriano Zimmerman Wilson Kuroda Guthrie

Two immediate thoughts. First: How did the 2011 Phillies fail? Second: What up, Jeremy Guthrie?

As I scanned the 2016 column, I began checking off the names I considered an ace entering that season. Kershaw? Yes. Greinke? Yes. Arrieta? Yes. But at a certain point, it gets hazy. For me, that certain point was Jacob deGrom. He’s the first person on the list who caused me to hesitate. My hesitation continues with Stephen Strasburg, but John Lackey is an definite “no.”

Moving over to 2015, I tried the same experiment. Adam Wainwright? Yes. Jordan Zimmerman? Yes. Corey Kluber? Won the Cy Young, yes. Stephen Strasburg? Yes. Yu Darvish? ….hesitation. I continue to hesitate on Jered Weaver, R.A. Dickey and James Shields, until I get to Jeff Samardzija and can easily say “no.”

Basically, just by using the eye test and our memories, each year can be split into three groupings: The Obvious Aces. Hesitations. Definite Nos.

As we think back to Opening Day 2014 and beyond, it gets harder to remember how we viewed each guy on the list at the time. However, I think our overall perception is better a few years later than it was in the moment. There’s no recency bias. I’m not compelled to call a guy an ace because I’ve seen his most recent body of work.

Here’s a good case: Chris Archer vs Doug Fister. There’s a chance Archer could take another step forward and be a legitimate ace in 2016. Or he could backslide. Okay, now look at Doug Fister: on the bubble from 2013 to 2015, and there was a chance for a few years he could’ve taken that last step, but he didn’t. This past season’s regression showed us he probably peaked in those years and isn’t an ace. Going into 2015, I might have been compelled to consider Fister an ace. Today, it feels silly to have ever considered it. I’m compelled to give Chris Archer the benefit of the doubt today, but a year or two from now, we’ll know the full story and will be able to look back with confidence.

As we go from column to column, here are my last “yes” all hesitations and first “no” for each year:

2016: Cueto (Yes), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No)

2015
: Strasburg (Yes), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No)

2014
: Sale (Yes), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No)

2013
: Hernandez (Yes), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No)

2012
: Shields (Yes), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No)

2011
: Lilly (Yes) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No)

Maybe you disagree with me somewhat on where you stopped saying “yes” and started saying “no”, and that’s understandable. Each of us views these things somewhat differently – I love Zack Greinke, for example so I continued to hesitate on him in 2013 and 2011 when you may have been quick to say no. That’s fair. But generally, this is the area of the chart where, for me, I begin to question the label.

I went back to the rankings and looked at the scores, hoping to find some sort of correlation between the numbers. A trend developed. Again, these are their scores during the offseason between each season. The year above is the upcoming season.***

*** – By the way, I used the date of this research, February 5, as the date for each of these lists, only changing the year. I realize it’s an arbitrary offseason date, and I should probably choose Opening Day each year which varies up to a week each year. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ve used 2/5. Another note: these are offseason numbers, which decline steadily between the final day of the regular season and Opening Day.

2016
Cueto (495.1)
deGrom (489.5)
Strasburg (488.8)
Lackey (485.1)

2015
Strasburg (498.5)
Darvish (492.9)
Weaver (490.6)
Dickey (489.4)
Shields (488.5)
Samarzija (486.5)

2014
Sale (494.0)
Weaver (493.7)
Dickey (492.0)
Latos (488.9)

2013
Hernandez (504.3)
Gonzalez (500.0)
Gallardo (493.7)
Greinke (493.2)
Latos (489.3)

2012
Shields (500.7)
Gallardo (493.6)
Beckett (492.6)
Garza (491.0)
Price (490.4)
Wilson (488.1)

2011
Lilly (500.3)
J. Johnson (499.6)
Kershaw (498.6)
J. Santana (493.3)
Greinke (491.8)
W. Rodriguez (487.2)

Do you see the trend? Even in just glancing through the names, I somehow stumbled on a consistent set of scores. I’m actually shocked there’s some level of consistency here, but somewhere between 485 and 500 is the offseason barrier between ace and non-ace.

Now, this still isn’t totally objective because each of us varies in how strict we want to view the term, but it seems to me that somewhere in this range of scores is the answer to our question.

I have a few remaining questions though, that I’m not sure I’ve figured out still.

  1. Scores decline slowly but consistently during the offseason. Then as the season progresses, the top numbers rise through the season. The gap between the Opening Day low and Game 162 (and postseason, for those eligible) high is around 40-50 points. Is there some sliding scale we can create so that the 485-500 range that works today will be consistent in May, July, and September? Probably easy to do, but that’s for another post.
  2. What do we do with injuries? Are Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright aces? Do they get grandfathered in somehow due to their past dominance, or do we require them to prove they still deserve the label and work back up the rankings?
  3. What do we do about a guy who has a meteoric rise one year, but hasn’t sustained it over time? Can we really call Jake Arrieta an ace, or does it take some time to establish himself?
  4. What do we do we call a guy with a 500+ score who isn’t the #1 starter on his team? He’s technically not a staff ace, but he still has all the other qualifications. Is there a name for that? Deuce? King? Off-Ace? Grasping.

Still working on the details, but it seems there is an objective way to say whether a starter is or is not an ace based on Bill James’s ranking system. I’ll have to do more research to determine what those barriers are over the course of the season. It’s just an algebra problem that needs plotting. Let me get my TI-83+ and follow up later.

Although, it’d be a lot easier if we just asked, “Is he better than Mat Latos?” and called it a day.

-apc.

 Image Cred: LA Times accessed here.

Outfield Options

The Royals have been active this offseason and have spent more money than ever before.

They added Joakim Soria to the bullpen to help make up for the loss of Greg Holland and Ryan Madson. They re-signed Alex Gordon to the largest contract in Royals history: $74M over 4 years. They added Ian Kennedy to the second largest contract in Royals history: $70M over 5 years. They added Dillon Gee and Peter Moylan to minor league contracts hoping one or both might pan out as the next Ryan Madson or even the next Joe Blanton.

And as it stands right now, their team is better entering 2016 than it was entering Spring Training a year ago. Their overall payroll projects to be around $127M for 2016 according to Royals Review, Royals Authority and Pine Tar Press.

The only possible place they could still improve – realistically speaking, of course – is adding an additional outfield option on the cheap.

Yes, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have both said that Jarrod Dyson deserves a legitimate shot at s starting spot in the outfield this season, and I believe them when they say it. And he’s earned it. His defense is among the best in the league. His speed is the best in the league. His role as a fourth outfielder and speed demon off the bench has been extremely valuable in helping KC make it to back to back trips to the Fall Classic.

But his bat versus lefties is poor. It’s his glaring weakness. And in order to seriously give him a shot, the Royals will have to platoon him with Paulo Orlando, who had a decent 2015, but who many believe – myself included – was mostly smoke and mirrors and is not someone we can fully trust to start roughly 1/3 of 162 games.

So the Royals may need an additional outfielder. Specifically someone who is cheap, isn’t a defensive liability, and is right-handed with strong splits versus lefties.

Here are the available outfield free agents as of this post, along with their 2015 stats, via Fangraphs. (If you’re on your phone, try turning the screen sideways to see the full chart.)

Name G PA HR SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG Off Def WAR
Dexter Fowler

156

690

17

20

12.2%

22.3%

0.25

0.346

0.411

8.1

0.6

3.2

David Murphy

132

391

10

0

5.1%

12.5%

0.283

0.318

0.421

-0.1

-9.8

0.3

Marlon Byrd

135

544

23

2

5.3%

26.7%

0.247

0.29

0.453

0.3

-7.8

1

Jeff Francoeur

119

343

13

0

3.8%

22.4%

0.258

0.286

0.433

-6.3

-10.6

-0.7

Austin Jackson

136

527

9

17

5.5%

23.9%

0.267

0.311

0.385

-3.4

8.3

2.3

Chris Denorfia

103

231

3

0

6.5%

24.2%

0.269

0.319

0.373

-4

4

0.8

Grady Sizemore

97

296

6

3

6.8%

20.3%

0.253

0.307

0.381

-3.7

-11.9

-0.6

Will Venable

135

390

6

16

9.5%

24.1%

0.244

0.32

0.35

-1.4

0.4

1.2

Drew Stubbs

78

140

5

5

10%

42.9%

0.195

0.283

0.382

-5.4

0.2

-0.1

Skip Schumaker

131

268

1

2

8.6%

19%

0.242

0.306

0.336

-9.5

-9.3

-1.1

Alex Rios

105

411

4

9

3.6%

16.3%

0.255

0.287

0.353

-11.8

-0.2

0.2

Shane Victorino

71

204

1

7

7.8%

15.7%

0.23

0.308

0.292

-5.6

-0.9

0

Matt Joyce

93

284

5

0

10.6%

23.6%

0.174

0.272

0.291

-14.5

-7.8

-1.4

Not listed here: Nate McLouth, who didn’t play in 2015. But he’s a poor defender and he’s left handed and bad at baseball so we can just ignore him probably.

Okay. Process of elimination.

There are 4 lefties on the list: Matt Joyce, Will Venable, Skip Schumaker and Grady Sizemore. They can all be scrapped for various reasons (in addition to their left-handedness). We can eliminate Joyce and Sizemore immediately due to their atrocious defensive numbers. And as much as I would love Schumaker’s defensive flexibility – he can play infield and outfield – his defense last year was poor, and he’s a career .215 hitter off lefties, so he’s likely out of the running as well. Venable is an average defender, but he’s a career .222 hitter against lefties, so he’s out too.

Dexter Fowler is way too expensive. No time to dream here. Moving on.

Drew Stubbs is a terrible hitter. No.

Austin Jackson is the best defender on the list, and that’s always intriguing when we’re talking about Kansas City. Last year he hit .281/.333/.437 off lefties, which okay, but his strength is his glove and his legs…which sounds like Jarrod Dyson. He’s going to want a bigger contract than we’ll want to give him, but throwing his name into the mix with Cain/Dyson certainly makes one salivate a bit over the platoon possibilities. But he’s probably the most expensive guy on the list not named Fowler.

Tough to be objective about Frenchy. The Jeff Francoeur Reunion Tour would sure be fun. He had an okay year last year in Philadelphia representing the meat of their pitiful lineup. We all know about his arm and his smile, but it’s just not worth it.

That leaves these names…

Marlon Byrd
Chris Denorfia
David Murphy
Alex Rios
Shane Victorino

ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted this yesterday about David Murphy:

David Murphy is an intriguing option for two reasons. First, he’s got a solid bat versus lefties: .304/.360/.435 in 2015. Second, he’s a high contact guy who is tough to strike out and even harder to walk. He would fit in well offensively. But he’s a poor defender, and I agree with Stark that he’s likely out of KC’s price range for what his role would be.

Shane Victorino has never been my favorite ballplayer, but you know what you’re getting at this point. The guy has hit .300 vs lefties in his career and is coming off a season where he hit .333. He’s also a high contact guy. His defense has been solid in the past – especially when he played in the tiny right field in Fenway Park – but last year in Anaheim his defense slipped. Maybe it’s due to age, but I think it’s the size of the outfield there. And Kauffman is even larger. He’s not the best option.

Bringing back Alex Rios isn’t out of the question if the price is right. We all know Rios’s trajectory from last year: Great first week of the season before he was hit by a pitch in the hand, spent time on the DL and took basically the entire year to recover fully. He looked off the rest of the way. His defense is worse than Orlando’s but his bat is still better. We paid him $11M in 2015, and he’d have to take like a $7M pay cut to come back. But he played the hero numerous times in the postseason. And dem legs. Plus he’s a familiar face in the dugout. Last year he struggled overall and only hit .265 against lefties, but in 2014 he hit .325 and slugged .525. If the price is right, I don’t hate it.

Marlon Byrd, along with having one of the coolest names in baseball, is 38 years old, and even though power isn’t really the Royals M.O., he’s still got some pop in his bat for his age. He sucks against righties and his old guy defense is obviously below average. He spent time in Cincinnati and San Francisco last year, hitting .271 against lefties and slugging just shy of .500. If the Royals added him, he would need to compete for Orlando’s role. He’d be a safety net in case of injury, but I see him being a solid bench bat at best. I’d rather stick with what we’ve got and call up Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner in case of emergency instead.

Finally, we come to Chris Denorfia. He’s a career .285/.353/.419 hitter against lefties, and his defense is the second strongest on this list after Jackson. He was the Cubs 5th outfielder last year, and Royals fans may remember him as the guy who took Miguel Almonte deep in the 11th inning of that Wrigley makeup game last September. (See above.) He had a disappointing year in 2015, spending two stints on the DL with a hamstring issue, and struggled against lefties for the second year in a row.

Denorfia versus LHP since 2010…

2010 – .295/.382/.381 with SDP
2011 – .328/.391/.496
2012 – .337/.390/.500
2013 – .284/.355/.479
2014 – .220/.287/.300 with SEA
2015 – .211/.294/.303 with CHC

Not sure what to make of that decline over the past two years. He clearly liked hitting in San Diego. The Cubs only paid him $2.6M, and with his struggles last year I’d imagine he’d be a $1M option. We could even offer him some performance incentives to keep the payroll safe. He’s 35 years old – same age as Victorino, a year older than Murphy and Rios – but he’d be significantly cheaper than all three of them. He’s not a risk at all, but has the potential to compare with them offensively if he can get back some of that Padre lefty line. The Royals have a history of looking past recent struggles and more at a full body of work. If they believe they can resurrect Denorfia’s ability to hit lefties, they could take a flier on a guy with minimal risk.

So who do you want out of that group? Well, it all depends on what you really are looking for.

If you want a cheap guy to supplement a Dyson/Orlando platoon while you wait for prospects to be called up, I’d give Denorfia a look despite his 2014-15 numbers and hope he bounces back. If you want a guy who can step in and be an every day outfielder and push Dyson and Orlando back into their 2015 roles, I’d suggest bringing back Rios over stretching the bank for Victorino or Murphy. If you want to blow the payroll and bring in a guy who’d be a great fit for Kauffman Stadium, I’d suggest Jackson.

And it’s entirely possible Dayton Moore might value the status quo over any of those options, and I’m fine with that too. I’d be more inclined to spend big at the trade deadline than break the bank before the season even starts. If they sign anybody, I’m in for Chris Denorfia. Stay tuned.

-apc.

Image cred: NBC Chicago accessed here.

1945 World Series

The 1945 World Series is considered by some to be one of the worst World Series ever played, mostly due to how World War II had depleted the MLB rosters. I wrote a lot about what the war did to MLB rosters in my 1944 World Series post.

Researching these wartime World Series is tough. Every stat I look at, every performance I read about, needs an asterisk next to it that reminds me: “The best baseball players on the planet weren’t even playing that season, so of course they dominated.”

Imagine facing the 2015 Dodgers if Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both enlisted in the military. Suddenly Buster Posey is hitting .400 off Brett Anderson and Friends and the defending champion Giants are making a postseason run in an odd year for a change.

But the flip side of the conversation is also true: If the Dodgers didn’t have their staff aces, then the Giants probably wouldn’t have Buster Posey or Madison Bumgarner either. So the featured matchup is no longer Kershaw/Posey…instead you’re really excited for Brett Anderson vs Nori Aoki or something. Shoot, if half the league was off to war, suddenly Aoki might be an All Star and a Gold Glove outfielder.

My point here is two-fold. 1. Wartime baseball was mediocre baseball all around the league and 2. Statistics can’t be given any significant value. It’s all a mirage.

So when I tell you the Chicago Cubs led the NL in team ERA (2.98) and batting average (.277) take those stats with a grain of salt. This is exemplified in Phil Cavarretta, who hit .355/.489/.500 and won the NL MVP that season, despite never coming close to those numbers in any other year. He was a career .293 hitter, but his best years were 1944 and 1945 due to the war.

Bullpens have evolved over the years as teams are becoming more and more aware of their value, but the Cubs apparently never had one. They led the league in complete games in 1945 with 86 – over half of their games. Their primary regular season arms were Claude Passeau, Hank Wyse, Paul Derringer and Ray Prim, but they acquired Hank Borowy from the Yankees mid-season and he became their best pitcher down the stretch. Chicago Manager Charlie Grimm leaned heavily on this battery in the Series – especially Borowy and Passeau – and, in the opinion of this blogger, was the primary reason the Cubs failed to win it all that year.

There are two other major reasons the Detroit Tigers managed to come back from a 2-1 series deficit and steal 3 of 4 games at Wrigley Field to win the 1945 World Series. One is a human. The other is not.

Hammerin’ Hank

The human is Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Greenberg, who was the first ballplayer to return to baseball from active duty. He hadn’t played since 1941, yet on July 1, 1945, he hit a home run against Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics in first game back in the bigs. From there, he started poorly: .219/.324/.438 in his first 29 games back. Essentially for the month of July he was 2015 Omar Infante with a slight power boost. But then over the final 49 games of the season he hit .362/.448/.603 and powered the Tigers to the AL pennant finishing a game ahead of the Washington Senators.

b635a90483db032a0d84db9618fd68db

Here’s a fun story: on the final game of the 1945 regular season, the Tigers were playing in Sportsman’s Park against the reigning AL Champs, the St. Louis Browns. The game was 3-2 Browns in the 9th. It was getting late and the umpire was about to call the game due to darkness. The bases were loaded for Greenberg, when the umpire said, “Sorry Hank, I’m gonna have to call the game. I can’t see the ball.”

Hank replied, “Don’t worry, George. I can see it just fine.” He hit the next pitch over the fence and the Tigers won the pennant, avoiding a one game playoff against the Senators.

In the World Series, Greenberg hit over .300, slugged nearly .700 and hit the only two Tiger home runs of the series. So if the Cubs want to point the finger at one person who cost them the 1945 World Series, it’s Hank Greenberg.

But Cubs fans rarely point the finger at a human at all. Instead, they blame a goat.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

The Cubs went into Game 4 – the first game at Wrigley Field – having taken two games in Detroit and leading the series 2-1. All they needed to do was win 2 of the next 4 at home.

Greek immigrant and tavern owner, Billy Sianis, purchased two tickets to Game 4. And accompanying him to the game was his pet goat, Murphy. The goat had fallen off a truck outside his tavern one day and Sianis decided to take in the animal as a sort of mascot. The goat was allowed to enter the ballpark, and was allowed to stay in its seat through part of the game. Some complaining from nearby fans were quelled early, but after a short rain delay, the goat began to stink, and that was when Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field.

Upon leaving, the angry tavern owner supposedly declared a curse on the Cubs, stating that the team would lose the game, the Series, and would never play in a World Series again.

billygoat.jpg

The Cubs lost Game 4, and proceeded to lose Games 5 and 7 as well, dropping the series 4 games to 3, and as of this post, 1945 was the last time the Cubs have ever played in a World Series. Despite a few exceptionally good Cubs teams, the Curse of the Billy Goat has yet to be broken.

Charlie Grimm loves Hank Borowy

But again, when I look at this series on paper, I don’t think Hank Greenberg OR Murphy the Goat were the reasons for the Tigers eventual triumph over the Cubs. If I’m pointing the finger somewhere, I’m pointing it at manager Charlie Grimm’s use of starting pitcher Hank Borowy.

Borowy debuted as a rookie in 1942 and even got some MVP votes. He won 14 games for the Yankees’ 1943 championship team and won Game 3 of that series. In three and a half years in New York he won 56 games to the tune of a 2.74 ERA. And down the stretch with Chicago in 1945, he was even better, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. He was downright dominant – all during the war, mind you…he was exceptionally average in 1946 and beyond.

So sure, ride your ace to the championship. I get it. It’s a solid strategy that we’ve seen play out numerous times. But this was on another level.

Hank Borowy

First of all, Borowy threw a complete game shutout in Game 1 in Detroit scattering 6 hits and 5 walks and a hit batsman. The Cubs led 4-0 after the first, 7-0 after the third, eventually won 9-0. A potential first demerit against Grimm: the game was well in hand after the first few innings, why couldn’t he have rested his best pitcher a bit? And it’s not like he was dominant – he faced 37 batters and allowed 12 baserunners. But you can’t really get on his case about it. It was a different era entirely, and why waste other pitchers? It’s nitpicking, I suppose, and inconsequential to Grimm’s major blunder later in the series.

So since he threw a bazillion pitches in Game 1, he didn’t pitch again until Game 5 in Chicago. He made it into the 6th with minimal damage – the score was tied 1-1 at that point, the only run coming off a sac fly. But then the floodgates opened the third time through the Tigers’ lineup: Doc Cramer singled, Greenberg doubled making it 2-1, Roy Cullenbine singled advancing Greenberg to third and Rudy York singled scoring Greenberg and forcing Borowy out of the game with 2 baserunners on, nobody out, and the score 3-1. Those two baserunners would score, making it 5 earned runs credited to Hank Borowy, who would got the loss.

Game 6 was a marathon. It was 5-1 Cubs entering the 7th inning, but when starter Claude Passeau – who had thrown a 1 hit shutout in Game 3) gave up his second run of the ballgame, Grimm made a move and brought in Game 2 starter Hank Wyse.

Wyse was, in a word, awful. He gave up another run before getting the final out in the 7th. The Cubs scored 2 in the bottom half with Wyse striking out with 2 outs and the bases loaded to end the inning. Wyse came back out for the 8th and gave up 2 more runs before getting an out. Grimm had seen enough and made another move bringing in Game 4 starter, Ray Prim, who gave up 2 more – one inherited form Wyse and the other his own. The Cubs failed to score in the bottom half. The score was 7-7 entering the 9th.

It was an ugly chain of events. Grimm couldn’t have known Wyse and Prim would be so awful. Nor would he have known the pitchers spot would come up with the bases loaded after the Cubs sent 8 men to the plate the next half inning. Up 2 with 10 outs to go, He probably thought he could ride Wyse and Prim to victory and bring back Borowy for Game 7 on short rest. Plus, now with the Cubs one loss away from elimination, Grimm had to pull out all the stops.

When Charlie Grimm looked over at the bullpen, he saw 5 options…

Paul Derringer, Hy Vandenberg and Paul Erickson had thrown the most during the regular season. Derringer was in the rotation before Borowy was acquired from New York, and was moved to the bullpen for the World Series. He had also thrown 2 innings the day before. Vandenberg and Erickson had both made appearances in Games 4 and 5 the previous 2 days and weren’t as fresh, but in an elimination game everyone is available.

Bob Chipman was probably just happy to be there. The 26 year old was one of the few young guys in the Series with the majority being drafted into military service. He’d faced two batters the day before, walking one before recording a groundout. So he was availble. But he was a lefty, and the Tigers had Rudy York, Jimmy Outlaw and Bob Swift coming up – all righties. Not a terrific option either.

Which left the guy who had just given up 5 earned runs in 5+ innings the day before: Hank Borowy.

Incredibly, Borowy was awesome. He allowed two singles to reach in the 9th before Houdini-ing out of the jam with a play at the plate. He then faced the minimum the rest of the way allowing two more singles, but getting Greenberg to hit into a double play in the 10th and Joe Hoover was caught trying to steal in the 12th.

He went 4 scoreless before the Cubs finally managed to win 8-7 in 12 on a Stan Hack walkoff double scoring the speedy pinch runner Bill Schuester from first.

The Cubs had survived, but the Tigers had forced the bullpen dry. With a day off between Games 6 and 7, the Cubs manager had another choice: Who should start Game 7?

Derringer was the best option. The guy was a 6-time All Star once upon a time, and he had finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting three different times and as recent as 1942. He had logged 30 starts and 213.2 innings during the regular season. And he was fresh having not pitched since Game 5. Grossly under-utilized.

Vandenberg, Erickson and Chipman were all options too. They’d combined for 26 starts during the regular season and had each put up an ERA in the low- to mid-3’s. Prim and Wyse had only thrown an inning or so each, so should’ve both been available to start. Even Passeau, who had thrown 6.2 innings two days ago, would’ve been a better option than the man who got the ball.

Because Grimm did the unthinkable.

He gave the ball back to Hank Borowy.

I mean, come on. He’s literally the only guy who should not have been an option. Sure, he’d shocked everyone by throwing 4 shutout innings just two days ago, but he was fortunate to get out of that unscathed, and he’d thrown 5+ innings and taken the loss just the day before that magic act. How in the world Grimm thought the solution to the problem was Hank Borowy is beyond me.

To start the game, Borowy gave up 3 consecutive singles and Grimm pulled him for Derringer. The Tigers scored 5 in the 1st and went on to win the game 9-3 and the Series 4-3.

The Tiger were beatable. The Cubs were the better team outside of Greenberg. Cubs fans can act like they’re cursed by some smelly wet goat, but the truth is this: Charlie Grimm’s inability to manage his pitching staff is what cost the Cubs the 1945 World Series. Overusing Borowy and underusing the rest of the bullpen, specifically Derringer.

Chicago-Cubs-Wrigley-Field-World-Series-1945.jpg

The Last of the Living from 1945

One last bits of info: the last living ballplayer from that Detroit Tigers team is Ed Mierkowicz. The only action he saw in the World Series was playing left field the final three outs of Game 7 as a defensive replacement for Hank Greenberg.

The first batter of the inning singled to Mierkowicz in left, but Detroit starter, Hal Newhouser (who got roughed up in Game 1, but threw all 9 innings of Games 5 and 7) gets the next three outs to end the game and Mierkowicz gets to party on the field, running in from the outfield. I encourage you to go read his story by The Detroit News here.

And the last living Cub from that 1945 team died last Spring. Lennie Merullo was 98. He played shortstop for the 1945 squad. Here’s an article from the NY Times about his life and legacy.

-apc.

Image credits: Program here. Billy Goat here. Wrigley facade here. Greenway card here. Borrow card here.

 

The Royals sign RHP Ian Kennedy for $70M over 5 years.

The Royals have added the last major piece of the 2015-2016 offseason in righty starter Ian Kennedy. The deal is for $70M over 5 years with an opt out after two. Although it’s not as large a contract as Alex Gordon signed a few weeks ago – $72M over 4 years – the Kennedy deal further buries Gil Meche‘s name on the Royals’ largest contracts list. Which should be celebrated.

This deal makes two things very clear: 1. Kansas City is going all in for 2016 and 2017, and 2. David Glass has been bitten by the Championship Bug and is suddenly not afraid to shell out some major dinero to stay competitive. At least over the next couple years.

So who is Ian Kennedy?

A quick glance at his stats suggests he’s an okay pitcher with a high upside when you put him in a spacious ballpark with the leagues best defense behind him. He’s had one truly great season (2011) and a few truly terrible seasons (2013, 2015). His 3.98 career ERA is whatever, but his 1.28 career WHIP and 8.31 career K/9 are both in the upper tier among active pitchers. He’s a flyball pitcher, so he has a tendency to give up home runs (he gave up 31 last year in San Diego), but we all expect that number to drop moving from Petco Park to Kauffman Stadium.

He’s what we have come to know as the classic Dayton Moore signing. There are some red flags – namely the fact that he’s coming off a dreadful season (9-15, 4.28 ERA), and if you take it at face value without digging any deeper, you’re going to hate this deal and wonder why a guy with a career ERA of 4 is deserving of a contract so lengthy and expensive. But mostly every other angle points to this being a really successful contract for KC.

For example, over the past three seasons with the Padres, he’s pitched in front of one of baseball’s worst defenses. According to Fangraphs, only the White Sox had a worse defense in 2015. Plus, the spike in home runs in SD wasn’t exclusive to Kennedy (who gave up 31). James Shields led the league in home runs allowed with 33. Andrew Cashner gave up nearly twice as many HR/9 in 2015 as he did in 2014.

Between 2007 and 2014, Petco Park averaged 120.5 home runs per season. In 2014, there were only 101.

In 2015, there were 166.

Not sure what to make of that – maybe there has been some downtown construction that has caused some sort of jet stream for balls to get caught in. Maybe this is El Nino related – lower Eastern Pacific air pressure has caused the ball to travel farther. Or maybe the pitching was just that bad. I don’t know. But there’s something fishy going on at Petco Park. 

EDIT: I just learned the left field fence was brought in about 3 feet before 2015, which isn’t much, but it’s something. That, plus the additions of Justin Upton and Matt Kemp (who combined for 28 HRs at Petco last year), was probably enough for a moderate increase. But neither of those guys batted against Shields/Kennedy/Cashner, so I’m still a bit stumped…101 to 166 is still significant.

Anyway. Why I think this deal is a good one…

The two primary reasons to really like the Ian Kennedy deal: 1. his 2011 season and 2. his ability to consistently eat up innings.

Let’s look at his 2011 season with the Diamondbacks. That year he went 21-4 with a 2.88 ERA and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting behind Clayton Kershaw, Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee. It’s an anomaly on his career stats, but it’s also the only season he ever pitched in front of a terrific defense. The Diamondbacks, according to Fangraphs, were the best defense in baseball in 2011, and by a fair margin. They were led by the other Chris Young and Gerardo Parra in the outfield, and his lower strikeout rate would suggest that he learned how to pitch to his defense rather than trying to strike everybody out. His increase in strikeouts in San Diego suggests a lack of trust in his fielders…and for good reason. In fact, I’m hoping his K/9 drops in 2016, because it means he’s using his defense instead of trying to do it all himself.

Just this morning at ESPN, Buster Olney ranked the Royals defense as the best in the league (which they have been over the past few seasons) and they can only be expected to get stronger with Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain being joined by Jarrod Dyson as an every day outfielder instead of Nori “The Adventure” Aoki or Alex “Was that max effort?” Rios. If the Royals’ pitching coach, Dave Eiland (whom Kennedy worked with in his early years with the Yankees), can remind Kennedy to pitch to his defense, there’s reason to believe Kennedy can really thrive in 2016.

The other obvious reason to like Kennedy: every season he consistently hovers around 200 innings pitched. Last year he had a small hamstring issue early in the season that brought his IP total down, but the guy averages 205 innings over 162 games. The Royals don’t really have a guy like that (nor have they needed one with their bullpen depth), but if he can come anywhere close to that number this year he’ll be an enormous asset to this rotation.

If he struggles to keep his HR rate down and chooses not to opt out after two years, I’m not thrilled to be paying a guy $14M/year to be an average #3 starter, but all signs point to him bouncing back with the help of the defense and him opting out after two years. And even if he stays, $14M would be the going rate for a guy like Kennedy anyway.

It’s also possible the Royals choose to frontload the contract a bit and give him incentive to leave after two. How his contract is structured over 5 years will communicate a lot about KC’s confidence in IK.

There were a lot of names floating around this offseason (Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen, Scott Kazmir, specifically), but I’m happy with Kennedy’s being the one the Royals grabbed. Eh, maybe I would’ve preferred Kazmir because he had no qualifying offer attached, but I don’t like Gallardo, and I’m not comfortable with the contract Chen ended up with in Miami.

So your 2016 Royals rotation is…

  1. Yordano Ventura
  2. Edinson Volquez
  3. Ian Kennedy
  4. Kris Medlen
  5. Chris Young/Danny Duffy

Put a bow on the offseason and get me to Spring Training. I hate this offseason winter business.

-apc.

Image cred: Ron Chenoy, USA Today Sports. Accessed here.

 

My Imaginary 2016 Hall of Fame Ballot

The 2016 Hall of Fame inductees will be announced tomorrow.

Once again, it’s an overloaded ballot. Once again, there are too many deserving names to choose from. Once again, that means there are players who won’t get the votes they deserve due to the miserable 10-player max rule and the 10-year max rules. It’s dumb, and we all know it. But alas, rules are rules until the BBWAA decide to change them.

Last year, the writers voted four men into the Hall: John Smoltz, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson in their first year of eligibility, and Craig Biggio in his third year on the ballot. All deserving.

There are 32 names on this year’s ballot. They are…

* – denotes 1st year on ballot

The 2016 ballot is highlighted by Ken Griffey Jr., who has a legitimate shot at being the first ever player to receive 100% of the vote. In the past, there have been old fogies on the BBWAA voting who don’t believe any player should ever receive 100% of the vote, but there has been a purge of old writers being replaced with young ones, and for the first time ever it could actually happen.

Tom Seaver holds the record with 98.84%. I’d be shocked if Griffey didn’t break that record. I don’t think he’ll get 100% because he’s such a lock someone will choose to cast a vote for a peripheral player (Alan Trammell, for example) because he’s been on the ballot longer and he needs a vote more. Again, stupid system. Griffey deserves 100% AND Alan Trammell deserves 75%. But neither are likely to happen, and it’s all because of these dumb rules.

If you were born in the 1980s, then Griffey is probably one of your favorite baseball players. I’m no exception. He’s in my Top 5. That sweet sweet swing. That smile. That backwards cap. That 1993 home run derby shot off the warehouse in Baltimore. That mad dash to score the winning run of the 1995 ALDS. The Kid. We just can’t help ourselves. Here is all the data one needs to vote for KGJ…

EndlessGriffeySwing.gif

Too. Beautiful. Just. Can’t. Stop. Watching.

After getting 69.9% of the votes in 2015, Mike Piazza looks like a lock in his 4th year on the ballot. Jeff Bagwell (55.7%) and Tim Raines (55.0%) are looking to close the gap as well, but it’s going to be close. Raines, the greatest victim of the 10-year rule, is likely to get pushed to his final year of eligibility, which really really sucks.

An interesting note on Raines from Mike Petriello I read today on Twitter: “I wish you could quantify things like, ‘Tim Raines is hurt in HOF voting b/c the team he’s associated with is dead.’ Probably not zero.” The Expos not existing anymore is likely devastating to Rock’s case. Plus, his best case is found in stats like on-base percentage and stolen bases, which simply aren’t valued the way home runs or strikeouts are.

If you want to be convinced of Tim Raines’s belonging in the Hall of Fame, just follow Ace of MLB Stats (@TheAceofSpaeder) for a moment…

Just a sampling. Was there a better ballplayer in all of baseball between 1980 and 1990 than Rock Raines? One could make an argument that he was it. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves for so many reasons. I think he gets in, but he may have to wait until his final year on the ballot to do it.

I made my case for Schilling and Mussina in last year’s post, and I feel even stronger about their inclusion in 2016. I still don’t understand why John Smoltz was such a lock in 2015 while these two weren’t. I think Schilling is the best of the three (even if he is a right wing bigot who continues to shove his foot in his mouth on Twitter and on ESPN). I still don’t think they make it in 2016, but they’ll be closer and will get in eventually.

I’ve come around on Edgar Martinez. Despite my hatred of the DH, the guy was a truly great hitter, and actually played around 600 games (4829.1 innings) at corner infield. He was a plus defender at 3rd base and average at 1st. Compare that to David Ortiz, the second greatest DH of all time, who has been a minus defender in only 2157 innings at first base in his career. Plus, if I’m going to vote for Rock Raines for being one of the greatest stolen base weapons, then I need to give Edgar his due for his offense.

Griffey. Piazza. Bagwell. Raines. Schilling. Mussina. Martinez. That’s 7 names already, and I haven’t even mentioned steroids. Or relief pitchers, for that matter.

Bonds and Clemens are two of the greatest baseball players ever. Period. I’ve said this so many times before, but here it is again: both men’s bodies of work in their first 10 years alone was enough for them to be worth of the HOF, which is way before they were linked to any illegal substances. Ignore those stats if you have to. They belong.

So that leaves one spot and….I don’t know, maybe 8 or 9 deserving names? Lee Smith, Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner could all be considered as elite relievers – a position which hasn’t gotten much love outside of crossover guys like Smoltz and Dennis Eckersley. Larry Walker was a beast. So were Jim Edmonds and Fred McGriff. Alan Trammell (in his final year) deserves a look. Mark McGwire (also in this final year) and Sammy Sosa saved baseball in 1998 thanks to some human growth hormone.

If I’m going to cast my final vote for anyone, I guess I’d just pick my favorite name among the remaining contenders. It’s not the most objective way of voting, but these things are about 90% subjective anyway, so what the heck. Plus, since this ballot is imaginary, it doesn’t matter at all, so I’ll use my last vote on the guy who needs it the most before his name disappears: Lee Smith.

Why Smith? Mostly because I love the guy. Because of the memories. Plus, he’s about to drop off the ballot (next year will be his last), and I have a feeling that with the introduction of more relievers, his stock will decline sharply. Voters will go for Hoffman and Wagner over the elder Smith since they’ve since surpassed his record setting numbers. And they’re probably right to do so. Once voters know what to do about relievers, I think they’ll discover that all three guys were deserving all along, but Lee Smith simply wasn’t pitching in the right era.

So my votes this year would look like this…

  • Ken Griffey Jr. 
  • Barry Bonds
  • Roger Clemens
  • Tim Raines
  • Curt Schilling
  • Mike Mussina
  • Mike Piazza
  • Jeff Bagwell
  • Edgar Martinez
  • Lee Smith

I’m really rooting for Junior to get 100% and Raines to slide in, but I have a feeling both will come up just short. We’ll find out tomorrow.

-apc.

Photo cred: Getty Images accessed here: Yahoo Sports.

What needs to happen in order to get Alex Gordon back?

Here’s the rub when it comes to Alex Gordon coming back to KC.

The Royals aren’t going to outbid the wealthiest teams, and they’re not going to shell out a crazy huge contract for pretty much anyone but Gordon. There’s a group of five outfielders generally agreed upon to be the top tier of free agents. They are…

  1. Jason Heyward
  2. Justin Upton
  3. Yoenis Cespedes
  4. Alex Gordon
  5. Dexter Fowler

The top two are definitely the upper echelon. Gordon and Cespedes are interchangeable. Fowler is a close 5th.

Another wrinkle in the mix: the Colorado Rockies are shopping Carlos Gonzalez, who would be in that Gordon/Cespedes range, maybe just below. So we’re really looking at 6 top tier players available. But how many teams are in the market for a top OF guy? In no particular order…

  1. Royals
  2. Giants
  3. Angels
  4. Cardinals
  5. Orioles
  6. Cubs

So there you have it. Six teams. Six players. The question is who goes where? What sequence of events needs to take place for the Royals to get Gordon back?

And it’s not like this is just a matching game. There are other players involved too – notably Chris Davis and Johnny Cueto – who can drastically change the landscape of all this. But we’ll get to that. Let’s start at the top with Jason Heyward.

The Cubs and Cardinals are bidding each other up on Heyward. To me, it’s been a foregone conclusion that Heyward will end up in St. Louis after the Cardinals missed out on David Price. If they were willing to pay out a giant contact to Price, then they have the money available to sign Heyward. And with Matt Holliday only having one year left on his contract, it seems to make a lot of sense for them moving forward.

But the Cubs are being jerks and driving up the price for their division rival. Heyward would look awesome in a Cubbies uniform, and he’s the type of player who deserves a giant contract, and the Cubs are so young its unlikely they’ll regret adding a player like him. Ultimately, I don’t think he’ll go to Chicago though.

If he does go to Chicago, that’s bad news for the Royals. The Cardinals’ backup option is almost undoubtedly Alex Gordon, who has been referred to as the “poor man’s Jason Heyward” – left handed hitter, best defensive corner outfielder, all around good player. Only difference is Alex’s age.

So that’s first thing that needs to happen: St. Louis must get Jason Heyward.

If the Cardinals get Heyward, I’d be surprised if Chicago went the Alex Gordon route. I’d expect them to settle on re-signing Dexter Fowler instead, who is younger and a switch hitter. Cubs manager, Joe Maddon, loves switch hitters and all things flexibility – i.e. why Ben Zobrist is now a Cub. They don’t need a lefty bat as badly as St. Louis does, and Fowler would be returning to a club he already knows.

So that’s the second thing that needs to happen: Chicago needs to settle on Fowler instead of Gordon.

I’d also like to note: if Chicago does in fact go the Gordon route, I’d really like it if Dexter Fowler fell to KC. Just saying. We’ll talk about that later.

The Orioles are an interesting case right now because they’re currently negotiating with first baseman Chris Davis for a mega deal re-signing. Davis has reportedly wanted a Heyward-like contract upwards of 9-10 years and $200MM. That’s not going to happen. Baltimore has reportedly offered $168MM, but has since taken that offer off the table.

If the Orioles add Davis, then they won’t have the money to add a top tier outfielder. Which, in order for the Royals to be able to grab Gordon, they need all the other bidders to have found another option. If the Orioles remove themselves from the outfielder race, then it makes it more likely KC will get Gordon back. Or, if they can’t sign him, the Angels, Giants, Cubs or Cardinals need to. This is all fluid. Somehow the other 5 teams need to find their guys and Gordon needs to be left without a dance partner.

Another wrinkle might be Johnny Cueto’s contract. He’s probably going to end up with something in the $130-140MM range. If he signs with one of these teams, then their payroll will skyrocket and they’re unlikely to add an expensive outfielder. It’s also possible that the Cardinals could add both Davis AND Cueto, taking them out of the Gordon market that way too. That probably doesn’t have to happen, but it might. Again, fluid.

If the Orioles don’t sign Davis, they’re most likely to go after Upton, Gordon or Cespedes. They’ve been most linked to Upton, but it would seem they need a left-handed bat. Let’s just hope they sign Davis and we can be done with it.

So that’s the third thing that needs to happen: Baltimore (or another team in the OF market) needs to sign Chris Davis.

So, assuming Heyward and Fowler and Davis go to St. Louis, Chicago and Baltimore, respectively, that leaves the Angels, Giants and Royals bidding for Gordon, Upton and Cespedes, potentially trading for Gonzalez.

This is the situation KC needs: more players than suiters. If they can wait it out until this moment, they have a legitimate shot at brining Gordon back. It’s a crapshoot from there, but the market would already be significantly lower with a higher supply. Kansas City would at least be able to make a competitive offer and Gordon could consider a hometown discount.

So that’s the final thing: the Angels and Giants need to want Upton or Cespedes or Gonzalez as much or more than they want Gordon.

So here’s the rub:

  1. Heyward to St. Louis.
  2. Fowler to Chicago.
  3. Davis to Baltimore.
  4. Two of Upton/Cespedes/Gonzalez to Anaheim/San Francisco.
  5. Royals bid to Gordon looks good enough to come home.

And throw in the fact that there can be no other #MysteryTeam who emerges out of nowhere and swipes one of these guys.

What are the odds of all this? Like…20% maybe? 15%? Yeah, not good. Fingers crossed.

-apc.

Image accessed here.

The Royals Offseason Hot Stove Status

First question: why is it called Hot Stove? It’s the stupidest name ever.

So here’s the real question: how do the Royals get better this offseason?

Last year at this time, we were all trying to figure out how to make the Royals just 90 feet better. There were a few weak spots on the roster – notably they needed replacements for James Shields, Nori Aoki and Billy Butler, all of which, in retrospect, weren’t even remotely important to the 2014 roster.

Okay, you can argue that each had their merits – especially Shields – but then we watched in awe as their replacements pretty much made a joke out of the need to improve at each position. Edinson Volquez was exactly as good as James Shields, and much better in the postseason. Kendrys Morales was only the top designated hitter in baseball in 2015, and suddenly all of Kansas City realized how disappointing Billy Butler had always been. And Alex Rios wasn’t nearly what we hoped he would be when we gave him $11MM to cover right field, but it’s not like Aoki was God’s gift to baseball either.

The struggle for Dayton Moore and the Royals this year: they really can’t make this team better than it was last year. I mean, they’re the defending World Series Champions (still never gets old saying that), so they kinda peaked. And the players they’re losing this year aren’t as easily replaceable – particularly late season rentals, Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist (who signed with the Chicago Cubs last night for 4 years, $56MM – he’ll be missed and we wish he and his family, including their daughter B. Royal Zobrist, well). And while we’re all still holding out hope that Alex Gordon might set a new record for highest contract ever given out by the Royals ($55M to both Mike Sweeney and Gil Meche), as the Winter Meetings progress in Nashville, that is looking less and less likely.

Of course, there are multiple dominoes that need to fall before we really know Gordon’s value – Jason Heyward will set the market for outfielders and Justin Upton will quickly follow, possibly Yoenis Cespedes too – and until those things happen, we won’t hear anything on Gordon. That said, he’s been linked to the Giants, Cardinals, Cubs and Tigers – in that order of likelihood – all of whom have deeper pockets to pay an aging outfielder significant cash.

So while I’d love to go for broke the next two years before the Royals core four – Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar – become free agents in 2018, it’s becoming clear that unless KC pulls the trigger on Gordon in the next 48 hours or so, their goal isn’t to win as much as possible in the short term, but to sustain relevance over the long term. And when I type it out like that, it makes sense to me too.

Many others – Rany Jazayerli, for example – disagree. Most fans want to win now. Screw 2018 and beyond. They want a dynasty now at the risk of prolonged mediocrity later. What’s the phrase? Two in the hand?

Anyway. The problem is still the fact that no matter what pieces the Royals add, they’re not going to be immediately better than last year’s team was at the end of the season. And that’s fine. I mean, Cueto and Zobrist were trade deadline pieces and Alex Gordon is a once in a lifetime type of ballplayer for this club. We might be able to add Cueto/Zobrist types at the deadline again, but we can’t expect to match our postseason roster as we head into the season. It’s unrealistic.

However, we could match our Spring Training roster. And that should be our goal. From that list we’re losing Gordon, Rios, Madson, Greg Holland, Jeremy Guthrie and Franklin Morales. We’ve already brought back Chris Young to our rotation. And we’ve added our good friend Joakim Soria to the bullpen along with lefty Tim Collins who missed the 2015 season after undergoing elbow surgery during Spring Training. So that leaves obvious holes in the outfield corners, potentially still the bullpen, and starting pitching.

I should also add – the core of this team is intact and will continue to thrive through 2017 with or without Alex Gordon. Just like last year’s narrative was ultimately that the success of the 2015 Royals depended on Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Cain, Hosmer and Moustakas, the same is true now.

So while the restructuring feels different, the fact remains that this team is going to be good again in 2016 and 2017. Which is why I disagree with Rany and the others, and believe we ought to be playing for 2018 and beyond as well as right now.

Anyway. Here’s where we stand.

Bullpen

I’ll start with the bullpen because it’s the Royals greatest strength and, I believe, the most important thing we need to sustain in order to maintain our level of excellence.

They added Soria for 3 years, $25MM. Relievers are volatile and paying three years is risky, but that’s what the top guys are asking for, so the Royals really had no choice there. The question is whether they are overpaying for those three years. It’s easy for me to get all emotional about all the Soria memories – Welcome to the Jungle, the scoreboard engulfing in flames, the conversation about whether “Mexicutioner” was racist or not, etc. – but some have asked if they could’ve kept Madson for what the Athletics are now paying him: 3 years, $22M? The major difference there is age. Madson is 35. Soria is 31. That’s pretty much all I need to know. Objectively, I’m fine with the deal. Subjectively, I’m absolutely crazy about it. Welcome back, Jack.

Bringing back Tim Collins to take over for Franklin Morales is fine too. That gives us a lefty out of the bullpen, but you never know how effective guys will be in their first year back from Tommy John surgery. I’d feel much more comfortable with another lefty out in the bullpen.

Enter Danny Duffy.

I’m pretty tired of sitting around hoping Duffy pans out as a starter. The guy looks brilliant a few starts out of the year, but more often than not is disappointing. We need a guy out of the bullpen and Duffy strikes me as the type of guy who would be totally cool moving out there and could really thrive in that role the same way Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar have. It sounds like the Royals might be thinking similarly here. So that makes our bullpen…

Wade Davis
Kelvin Herrera
Joakim Soria
Luke Hochevar
Danny Duffy – L
Tim Collins – L

That’s a strong strong group.

One last note: it’ll be interesting to see what Greg Holland gets for a contract after he was non-tendered by KC after having surgery late in the season. He’ll be out all of 2016, and probably won’t be 100% until part way through 2017. It’s possible he could get a contract similar to what Kris Medlen got from KC this year coming off injury. I wouldn’t be opposed to the Royals giving him a 4 year back-ended contract, but I doubt we’re the only ones thinking like that.

Rotation

Moving Danny Duffy to the bullpen opens up an additional spot in the rotation. Jason Vargas is out for 2016 recovering from Tommy John. Bringing back Chris Young was a no brainer, and it’s been reported that he turned down an additional year to stay in Kansas City. Losing Jeremy Guthrie isn’t a huge deal – he was grossly overpaid in 2015 at $9MM.

All that to say, we need another arm in our rotation. Our current rotation (if Duffy moves to the pen) looks like this:

Yordano Ventura
Edinson Volquez
Kris Medlen
Chris Young

The name I’ve seen most connected to the Royals is Scott Kazmir who has a history of being a great pitcher in Tampa Bay, Anaheim and Oakland, but his meteoric crash in Houston after the 2015 trade deadline raises lots of eyebrows. He’s exactly the type of low risk, high upside kind of guy the Royals could certainly go for.

Royals also have been linked to CJ Wilson, who could be acquired via trade. He’s owned $20MM this season by the Angels who wouldn’t mind unloading his contract but would probably need to send cash along with him. Wonder if they’d be interested in a swap for Omar Infante‘s gem of a deal? (Just kidding, we’re stuck with the remaining $22MM on his contract, and now that Zobrist is off the market, it’s time to face the music and hope Omar improves in 2016. Poor Christian Colon.)

We’ll see what happens here, but the Royals undoubtedly need to add an arm that can eat innings. Duffy could be that guy, I suppose, but I think it’ll be Kazmir or someone else.

Corner Outfield

The departure of Alex Rios isn’t very sad. The probable departure of Alex Gordon is devastating. It’s not over yet, but every moment that passes without word on Gordon feels like bad news for KC. Fingers crossed.

Regardless of whether they get a deal done with Gordon, Dayton Moore has mentioned that they believe it’s time to give Jarrod Dyson a legitimate shot in the outfield. His defense and athleticism is certainly strong enough, but it’s his bad – specifically his terrible numbers against left-handed pitching – that is the concern. He’s hit .260/.323/.345 over the past four seasons, which isn’t miserable, but that’s in limited action. Can he sustain or even improve that over an entire season? Or is it more likely that the added work will wear him down and cause an even worse dip in his numbers?

If he can raise his OBP from the .320s to the .350s, then that’s a no brainer, and as it is, I don’t think this team gets worse if you replace Alex Rios’s 2015 production with Jarrod Dyson.

And if we don’t sign Gordon – the top name I’ve heard connected to the Royals are Gerardo Parra, but I’d be interested to see if they make a run at Denard Span instead. Neither of them were extended qualifying offers by their former clubs, so the Royals wouldn’t have to surrender their 1st round pick if they picked them up (this goes for Kazmir as well, who was traded and therefore void of having a QO option – no matter who KC signs out of FA, it’s almost guaranteed they won’t have a QO attached to them).

Parra, who was traded mid-season, hit .291/.328/.452 for Milwaukee and Baltimore last year. But he was awesome with Milwaukee and miserable with Baltimore. His defense dropped significantly last year, and that’s certainly not a plus with Kauffman’s massive outfield.

Span is the better option. His offensive numbers are comparable, but he’s done it for longer and he didn’t drop off at the end of last year like Parra. His defense wasn’t much better, but it was. He brought a lot of energy to the Nationals over the past few seasons, and would likely fit in well on an energetic team like KC.

Another option that I haven’t heard anyone talking about: what if the Royals were able to re-sign Alex Rios to a much more team-friendly deal? It might be interesting to see if he can out-perform his 2015 campaign (not difficult to believe) while making less than half his contract. Something like 1-year, and $3-5MM would be well within the Royals capacity and could provide a bridge to up and coming guys like Bubba Starling and Brett Eibner.

One other note: it’s been rumored that the Royals might try third baseman Cheslor Cuthbert in the outfield a bit this Spring Training. He’s athletic and was remarkably good in his short stints while Moustakas was injured or on bereavement in 2015. If the Royals managed to extend Moustakas (whom I believe is the most likely candidate) whom is currently blocking Cuthbert’s road to the majors, then this is a fun option to explore.

Extensions

It’s too bad the Royals couldn’t extend Cain or Moustakas before they broke out last year. Especially Cain. He was a prime extension candidate two years ago, but now that he’s a true superstar who finished third in the MVP voting this year it’s likely too late for that with Cain. He’s also not the youngest guy in the league at 29, and by the time his contract will be up, he’ll be 31 and likely declining. He has always been my favorite Royal, and as much as I’d like to see him stay longer, I’d be surprised if KC could make something happen with him due to his age and superstar status.

Hosmer is as good as gone, in my opinion. He’s a bright lights, big city kind of guy, and I fully expect him to finish up his time in KC and sign a giant contract in Miami, Los Angeles or New York in 2018. It is what it is. Start looking for a prospect who can play incredible defense at first base after 2018, okay?

Escobar is a question mark.I’m not sure other teams will think as highly of him as KC does, but I would be surprised if we committed to him beyond his current contract. It’s possible we could re-sign him, but that seems more likely after his contract is up than right now.

Which leaves Moustakas, who after years of struggling and trips back and forth between KC and Omaha, finally figured it out this year. In 2013-14, he wasn’t panning out enough to want to extend him, but after 2015 he might of out performed what he will likely do in the future. And in sports, you don’t give contracts for what a guy has done, but what you believe he will do. If one of these four was going to get an extension, I think Moose is the most likely candidate.

But it’s doubtful. It’s more likely that the Royals will let their contracts play out and then see if they can re-sign them after 2017. It’s really scary for a small market team to give away 6 or 7 year contracts to anyone at all. We don’t want to get stuck throwing money at a guy who isn’t worth anything anymore.

Okay. That’s all I’ve got.

You know the right thing to do Alex. We’ll build you a statue and everything.

-apc.

Image accessed here.

 

Kansas City Royals: 2015 World Series Champions

It doesn’t feel real.

I’ve both heard this phrase from others and said it myself dozens of times over the past two days since the Kansas City Royals wrapped up the 2015 World Series with another comeback over the New York Mets.  It feels like some form of suspended alternate reality. It’s barely computing.

Sure, I ran out to the garage and found my stash of leftover fireworks, but blowing those up almost felt like I was doing it because it was what I was supposed to do. I honestly have no idea how to react. I’ve been surprisingly calm about the entire thing, but perhaps a better word is “stunned” or “in disbelief.” It feels like a movie script. Or even a dream. Maybe it’s because I watched them celebrate on TV on the road rather than in person at The K that it feels so strange. But even after the parade yesterday, it hasn’t totally sunk in. It feels so odd. Unfamiliar.

And that parade! Holy smokes. Eight-hundred thousand of us all in one place. I’ve never experienced anything like it, and I’m sure I never will again. I kept having to pause and look around me and realize where I even was. The last month has been another whirlwind, and to have it all culminate in the happiest mass of humanity/traffic the city has ever witnessed, again, just didn’t compute.

I expect it takes some time to really sink in. Maybe every major event that transpires between now and Spring Training will further convince me that it actually happened. Maybe for some of you the parade is what sealed the experience. It probably helped a bit for me, but I’m not totally there yet. Maybe it will sink in when Salvador Perez and Eric Hosmer go on Jimmy Fallon tonight. Or when the whole team visits the White House and President Obama makes some wise crack about his embarrassing Chicago White Sox. Maybe it’ll sink in then. Or maybe on Opening Day when we raise the “2015 World Champions” flag in the presence of the team we beat to get it. Maybe that will be the moment I really can grasp what has happened here.

Or maybe it will never fully sink in. Maybe this is what it always feels like when something of this magnitude actually happens, when everything you’ve been working toward actually comes to fruition. Maybe championships just feel this way. I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.

I’m thinking back on all the comebacks and am realizing that I was emotional during ALDS Games 4 and 5, ALCS Game 6, WS Games 1 and 2 and 4. But once the Royals won Game 4 in New York and went up 3 games to 1, something in me clicked over from hopeful to expectant. I no longer hoped we would win the World Series, I knew we would. It was only a matter of when. When Hosmer took home to tie the game, I yelled. And when Christian Colon singled to drive in Escobar to take the lead, I yelled again. And when Lorenzo Cain doubled to make it 7-2, I yelled a third time. But none of those were on the level of pure elation I’d experienced in those other games.

Somehow I’d moved into another state of being where I was no longer hoping for something to happen, but instead was smacked with the reality that what I was hoping for was happening. I didn’t need to hope anymore because my hopes had been realized. As a Kansas Citian, this just isn’t something I really know how to comprehend.

I was a fetus in 1985 the last time the Royals won the World Series, so I have no memory of the ’85 World Series or the parade or George Brett or Willie Wilson or Frank White or any of those guys. I’ve since learned about them, and watched videos and read statistics, but I have no idea what it was like to watch that team play and feel caught up in the entire journey with them. To me, those guys are legends. And these guys who just won it all – this 2015 Kansas City Royals team – they’re just a group of normal dudes who love playing this game together.

But that’s the thing – these aren’t just normal dudes. We’ve all just witnessed greatness. George Brett said at the rally last night that this is the greatest Kansas City Royals team ever. What?! Could that be true?

I think it is true. The names Gordon and Cain and Perez and Moustakas and Hosmer and Escobar will be legendary. Many on that list will become Royals Hall of Famers someday. Some of them may have their numbers retired or even a statue created for them. We witnessed greatness. The stuff of legends.

And someday I hope I can walk through the Royals Hall of Fame with my kids or with my kids’ kids and tell them about Alex Gordon hitting a game tying solo shot with one out in the 9th. Or about Lorenzo Cain scoring from first base on a single. Or about Eric Hosmer sliding head first into home on a routine grounder to third base.

I’ll tell them about The Johnny Cueto Experience and about Alcides Escobar‘s hit streak. I’ll tell them about how Ben Zobrist was a doubles machine and how Salvador Perez’s World Series MVP could’ve gone to any one of a dozen guys on the roster – including a cyborg relief pitcher named Wade Davis who racked up the highest Wins Above Replacement of any pitcher this postseason. I’ll tell them about Killer Kelvin Herrera‘s 3 extra innings of work in the final game of the season, a feat that goes unnoticed due to our bullpen’s expected utter dominance.

I’ll tell them about the emotional adversity this team faced with the deaths of 3 different players’ parents – Mike Moustakas‘s mom, Chris Young‘s dad and Edison Volquez’s dad – and how the team rallied around each. And I’m sure I’ll tell them nothing but glowing tales about Ned Yost, the manager with the highest postseason winning percentage in all of baseball all-time.

Legends only grow over time, and there’s nothing this team can do to take away from what it’s already accomplished. Back to back American League Championships, and now a World Series. And who knows, maybe there’s even more to come? It’s only 2015, for crying out loud, and this team’s window supposedly doesn’t close for another two years. They have some work to do this offseason to make that happen, but I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s another post for another day.

For now, I know this…

Greatest team. Greatest fans. Greatest city. Unbelievable.

-apc.

Header photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images, accessed here

Royals-Mets World Series Primer & Prediction

They did it. The Kansas City Royals, for the second time in as many years, are American League Champs. They’re headed to the World Series. Again. Expectations were high – this team and this fanbase expected to be here. In fact, anything less than a World Series return was likely to be considered a disappointment after how last year ended. And they actually did it.

I’ve watched this approximately 9 million times over the past three days. I can’t get enough Yordano. His accent. His laugh. The way he rolls his head around like a Muppet. The way his mouth opens wide like a Muppet. The way he looks almost exactly like a Muppet. There’s a very strong possibility I’ll be dressing up as Probably Drunk AL Champ Yordano Ventura for Halloween this weekend. And of course, someone has already remixed it.

Yordano has every right to be that amped about the circumstances. Conquering the Toronto Blue Jays has been the Royals’ top priority since around early August. It was so evident that the Jays were the Royals biggest American League threat that the Royals advance scouting department dedicated two scouts solely on figuring out the Blue Jays tendencies and weaknesses. And boy, were they successful. (If you really want to get excited about the minutiae within the Royals ALCS victory, I highly recommend giving this SI piece by Tom Verducci a read if you haven’t already. Seriously. Click over. I’ll wait.)

So many great moments from Game 6 to talk about. Back in Game 2, David Price shut the Royals down for the first 6 innings, but then in the 7th the Royals shredded him for 5 runs. On Friday night, Ben Zobrist picked up right where he left off hitting a solo home run in the first inning. Mike Moustakas added another solo home run in the 2nd thanks to this kid.

Click to watch the video.

With the exception of one pitch to Jose Bautista, Yordano was locked in on Friday night. On that one pitch, Salvador Perez set up low and away – the spot where Royals pitchers had been pitching the Toronto slugger the entire series – but this pitch tailed up and out over the plate. Bautista feasts on mistakes, and he hit the ball a mile. The Royals would get the run back in the 7th when Alex Rios – of course it was Rios – singled in Moustakas from second base. But before he made it to second base, Moose was on first base, and this happened…

Chris Colabello clearly believes he has the ball. Moose is like, “uh, ball’s over here, bro.”

After his RBI single, Rios did something even more incredible: he stole a base off David Price. Alex Rios was the first and only person all season long to successfully steal on Price. What! Again, for more on the awesomeness on this moment, go back up and read that article I linked before if you didn’t the first time. It is without question the best baseball article I’ve read in months.

Anyway. The score was 3-1 going into the 8th, and Wade Davis, the Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball and suspected android, was warm in the bullpen. Ned Yost decided to go with Ryan Madson instead against the top of the order – Ben Revere, Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. I…wasn’t happy. I’ll let my Twitter feed tell the story from here…

Then Madson gave up a monster 2-run HR to Bautista.

And if that wasn’t enough, Madson walked Encarnacion too. Only then did Yost decide to go to The Greatest Relief Pitcher in Baseball, Wade Davis.

And then the rain came, and I went through at least three of the five stages of grief.

But by the time I sat back down in my wet Kauffman Stadium seat, I had somehow managed to not only accept what had happened, but was able to healthily move on reminding myself that the Royals were still going to win this game.

Wouldn’t you know the Royals did rally. Because they always do. Because this team never quits. Their rally consisted of an 8-pitch walk by Lorenzo Cain and a single by Eric Hosmer. That’s it. That’s all it took to take back the lead after the rain delay.

Actually, that’s not all it took. It took a the speed of Lorenzo Cain, the study and send of Mike Jirschele, the instinctual toss back into second base by Jose Bautista and the hard turn and retreat back to first by Eric Hosmer. You want another look into the details of that moment? Check out this article by Joe Posnanski. People are already calling it Cain’s Mad Dash, an homage to Enos Slaughter‘s run of the same name in the 1946 World Series.

Except Cain’s is even more impressive for two reasons: 1. He wasn’t running with the pitch and 2. The hit was a single, not a double. Here’s this from Inside Edge…

And then Wade Davis, over an hour since he’d gotten the 23rd and 24th outs of the game, went back out for he 9th inning and dramatically – with two on and no outs! – got outs 25, 26 and 27 to seal the AL Championship for the Royals. What a freak. Wade Davis has yet to prove to me he is actually human.

Okay, I’ve already given the ALCS too many words here. Moving on.

Time to look forward. To the World Series. To the New York Mets

Offense

A lot has been written about the Mets power starting pitching vs the Royals high contact offensive approac, but, as is usually the case in overworked narratives, I don’t think primary storyline is what will ultimately decide this World Series. I have a feeling this series will come down to whether to not the Royals starters can silence the hot bats of Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson.

One thing to note when you look at the Mets stats: they are not even close to the same team as they were to start the season. During the first half of the season, the team hit .233/.298/.363. That improved to .257/.328/.443 over the second half. Why the change? A complete lineup overhaul. They got David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud (it’s pronounced “dar-no,” impress your friends) back from injuries in August. They added Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline. They called up Michael Conforto from Triple A. It’s not the same team.

If we focus on just the second half of the season, the Mets sit right around the middle of MLB in terms of batting average, but very near the top in on base percentage and slugging. The offense is led by Curtis Granderson (who has quietly had a fantastic postseason hitting .303 and stealing 4 bags), Lucas Duda (who was quiet for a while but is still a scary HR threat) and Yoenis Cespedes (who is, in the opinion of this blogger, one of the top 5 all around ballplayers in baseball right now). But the postseason hero has been Daniel Murphy, who inexplicably went from hitting 14 HRs during the regular season to being a postseason juggernaut. He has hit home runs in 6 consecutive postseason games and 7 in the 2015 postseason overall. Carlos Beltran and Reggie Jackson eat your heart out. The guy is on a tear, and if he cannot be cooled off, then we can go ahead and chalk this series up as a win for the Mets.

This team isn’t the Blue Jays or the Astros, but they’re closer to those guys than they are the Royals in terms of offensive philosophy. As Eno Sarris points out over at Fangraphs, the Mets either walk, strikeout or homer at a rate significantly higher than KC – although everyone does those three things at a significantly higher rate than KC. The Mets are patient. The Royals are still a high contact team. They feast on fastballs, which is why they were thrown the least amount of them by the end of the season. They’re free swingers, but not for much power. They take the ball all over the field, and force the defenders to make plays.

Both teams have threats up and down the lineup. The Mets are more of a slugging team, but have the ability to do the small ball things that the Blue Jays and Astros couldn’t. They’re just a better all around team. I don’t really see anything that says one team is the better overall offensive team here. Different philosophies, but both are strong.

And the fun part – almost no one has faced each other, so who knows how this will go? Although it seems the Mets are rolling the dice and starting Kelly Johnson as DH in Game 1 since he’s 4-14 lifetime vs Volquez…all 4 of which came prior to 2010. Seems relevant in 2015. 

Edge: Push

Defense

Guess what?! The Royals still have the best defense in baseball.

Like the Blue Jays, overall this Mets lineup is pretty average defensively, but they are blessed with a phenomenal centerfielder. Juan Lagares is a Gold Glover, but he hasn’t started every game this postseason due to his lack of offense. With Kauffman Stadium’s large outfield, I’d be shocked if he didn’t get the start over Michael Cuddyer, who has played some lefty irks this postseason, and who may have some pop in his bat but is not on the same level as Lagares defensively.

Unlike the Blue Jays, their shortstop is a weakness. When the Mets lost Ruben Tejada to a fractured leg on Chase Utley‘s takeout slide in the NLDS, Wilmer Flores stepped in as his replacement. Flores can hold his own offensively compared to Tejada, but the drop defensively – especially against a high contact team like KC – is significant. He just doesn’t have range. Neither do David Wright or Daniel Murphy, for that matter. I’ll be looking for a lot “seeing-eye” grounders to get through the middle and left side of the infield.

Edge: Royals

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Matt Harvey vs Edinson Volquez

Remember back in September when everyone was freaking out about Matt Harvey’s innings count? The dude was basically supposed to only throw 180 innings this season coming off his Tommy John surgery. Going into Game 1, he’s thrown 202 inning between the regular season and postseason combined. So if his arm flys off, it’s not some Halloween stunt. 

Not that he has shown any sign of slowing down: Harvey went 13-8 with a 2.71 ERA during the regular season. His postseason ERA is 2.84, so he’s kept pace. He’s given up 4 earned runs on 11 hits in 12.2 innings this postseason against the Dodgers and Cubbies. Not exactly unhittable, honestly. He throws 54.4% fastballs around 96-97 mph, and mixes in a slider, curve, change and sinker as well.

It should be noted that Volquez’s fastball is up about 4 mph this postseason. That may not sound like much, but when the difference is from 92 to 96 mph, well, it is. It also means that while the media is touting the Mets “power starting pitching,” the Royals can actually match their speed in each game. Amazingly, Volquez’s postseason gameplan has not been to rely on his changeup at all, but to double down on his fastball.

People like to throw around the fact that Edinson Volquez’s career postseason ERA is 6.56. Just shush them. It’s all in the past. This postseason he has been much better, and even better than his line suggests, honestly. If Ned had just pulled him after 5 innings in his last start he’d be sitting on 2.16 ERA. Instead, Yost left him in too long and his ERA this postseason is 4.32. I guess poor managing shouldn’t let him off the hook, but the fact remains that Ed has been much better than his postseason stats suggest.

Of the three Mets righties, Harvey throws the most straight four-seam fastballs, and it’s his most valuable pitch. But the Royals hit fastballs. And righties. So unless Harvey can really brandish his secondary pitches, he could be in for a long night.

One wrinkle here though – and this goes for all four Mets starters – the Royals biggest advantage is in the bullpen. KC will have to decide whether to be aggressive on fastballs, or work the count a bit and get Harvey’s pitch count up to get to the pen. I think Harvey, with his high innings count, is the most likely to be yanked early in these first three games.

I have a good feeling about this first one. Volquez has been solid, and Ned never makes the same mistake twice. If both these starters go 5 innings, the Royals bullpen will hold down the fort.

Game 2: Jacob deGrom vs Johnny Cueto

Was it literally just last week when I wrote “How much more confident are we seeing Johnny Cueto’s name in the rotation now after his performance on Wednesday?” Yuck. What a stinker he threw in Toronto last week. Kris Medlen came in and pitched lights out in relief, but the damage was done. Cueto seemed to give an excuse for each of the 8 runs he allowed over just 2 innings – the mound is higher, there’s a man stealing signs in centerfield, the umpire was squeezing him, etc., etc. Can it, Johnny. If you’re not lights out early, you won’t last in the World Series. Again, Ned doesn’t make the same mistake twice. Cueto will have an extremely short leash this Wednesday. Danny Duffy ought to plan on getting warm in a hurry.

And he better be solid because you can bet that Jacob deGrom will be. It’s hard to look at this staff and say that one guy is the “ace” because honestly they have three, but this guy is it. With an ERA even better than Harvey’s at 2.54, deGrom is the real deal. His hair is disgusting, but his game is not.

Again, fastball/sinker guy – 45.7% FB, 15.5% sinker – with a slider, change and curve mixed in. His changeup is his second best pitch in terms of value, but he throws all his pitches well. It’s weird, these guys (deGrom, Harvey, Syndergaard) all start to blend together after you stare at their numbers for a while. It’s bonkers. Their skills are so eerily similar. It’s like they were drafted the same year (they were) and groomed in the same system.

This entire game depends on Cueto, but even if he’s locked in, there’s no guaranteeing he can out pitch deGrom, who is now 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA. If there’s one guy who can dismantle the Royals like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named again, it’s deGrom. And his hair is equally gross…have I mentioned that yet?

Game 3: Yordano Ventura vs Noah Syndergaard

Let’s throw fire. Lots of it.

This game is almost certainly going to set some sort of record for most 97+ mph pitches in one game. Syndergaard throws his fastball around 98 mph. He touches 100 mph regularly. He also has a very good low-80s curveball about 20% of the time to keep hitters off balance.

Dude sounds exactly like Yordano Ventura. Except he looks like Thor.

Ventura relies less on his fastball now than he did last year – his curveball is not only his best pitch, but one of the most valuable pitches in all of baseball. Syndergaard is a rookie, and his fastball is his greatest strength, so it’ll be interesting to see if his numbers shift in his second year like Yordano’s have. But who cares about 2016?! This is 2015, and Yordano has proven he can handle the biggest stage for two years straight now.

My best guess – the Mets pitchers will work hard to establish their secondary pitches and keep the Royals from zoning in on their heat. Syndergaard is the most likely to struggle with this transition. I have a feeling the Royals not only slap around his fastball, but also take a couple hanging breakers to #DongTown at Citi Field.

Game 4: Chris Young vs Steven Matz

Buncha weirdo stuff here after those first three matchups.

Steven Matz, another rookie, is the lone lefty in the Mets rotation. He’s your prototypical three-pitch guy – fastball 68%, curveball 19%, changeup 11%. He changes speeds very well dropping from 94 mph on his fastball to 77 on his curve. Since he’s a late call up, there’s not much on him in terms of numbers, but in the postseason he’s done a fine job albeit in short starts. In fact, it’s very likely we see multiple innings of Bartolo Colon in this game as well. One can only hope the stars align and we get to watch Chris Young get a plate appearance against Colon. That would be fun.

Oddly, I have no qualms about Chris Young anymore. I don’t feel like our season hinges on his performance, and he always seems to impress me. He just goes out and does his job as a very tall right handed pitcher.

I should also add: expect to see Danny Duffy in this series if any of our starters gets into trouble. With the Roayls throwing 4 right handed starters, you can bet the Mets will counter with a lefty-heavy lineup. Which means if any of our starters gets into trouble, countering with a lefty of our own makes a lot of sense.

I like our chances in Games 1, 3 and 4, but Game 2 certainly feels like a loss on paper. But pretty much across the board, the Mets starters appear slightly better. It’s like they’ve got a RHP machine that just keeps churning out power arms. But who knows. You can’t predict baseball, man, but the Mets clearly have the better rotation, and it doesn’t really matter if your’e better elsewhere, pitching wins championships.

Edge: Mets

Bullpen

Here’s something new: Kelvin Herrera is suddenly throwing a slider.

During the regular season, Herrera threw breaking balls around 5% of the time. In the postseason, that number has risen to 25%. I mean, who does that?! Who just starts throwing a new pitch in the most stressful and intense games of the year? During the regular season, he relied almost entirely on blowing guys away with his 100 mph fastballs. And when that didn’t work, when they’d fouled off enough pitches, he’d get them lunging goofily at his changeup. But now he’s throwing a breaking ball a quarter of the time.

Wade Davis is just so good. Like, Mariano Rivera good. He gets the ball and there is no doubt in my mind the game is over. Ryan Madson has now blown two games this postseason – Game 4 vs Houston and Game 6 vs Toronto – but the Royals have won them both. Danny Duffy has been great out of the bullpen when he hasn’t been expected to pitch to righty power bats.

At this point, all of the Mets’ trusted bullpen arms are attached to one man: Jeurys Familia. The perfect formula for the Mets is to get their strong starters to go deep into the game – preferably 7 or 8 innings – and then bring in Familia for the final 3-6 outs. His season ERA was 1.84. As far as closers go, he’s very very good. The other two arms we’ll certainly see this series are those of Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed acquired this year from Oakland and Houston, respectively. They’ve struggled this postseason, Clippard especially.

Edge: Royals

Baserunning

The Royals steal more bases because they’re the faster overall team. Whether or not one team steals more bases than the other might not be what matters here. The reality is that both of these teams are smart, and they make you pay on the base paths with their intelligent baserunning. If an outfielder doesn’t hustle, they’ll go first to third (or home). If there’s a double play possibility, they’ll hit and run. If there’s a chance to advance a base, both of these teams are going to take advantage. The Mets have 8 stolen bases this postseason (half by Granderson). But it’s their mind – not their speed – that’s gotten them here.

But cmon. This is getting tiresome. The Royals are the better baserunners. They’re equally smart as the Mets, but they also have the threat of Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson off the bench at any moment. If the Royals need a bag, they can – and will – take it. With the quality of New York’s starting pitching, it’s likely these games will be lower scoring and we’ll see what speed do in the World Series.

Note: It’s possible that Cheslor Cuthbert or Raul Mondesi end up on the team instead of Terrance Gore. I’d be disappointed if that happened, but you can’t argue the need for infield versatility over an outfielder who can’t hit in an NL ballpark.

Edge: Royals

Prediction

Ugh. This is a good Mets team. They play smart and they don’t beat themselves. Their starting pitching is better than our starters pretty much top to bottom, but the Royals are probably a little better in every other aspect of the game. I think the Royals ability to make contact against deGrom/Harvey/Syndergaard will be enough to score a few runs each game. The question is whether or not our starters can keep the Mets’ bats at bay.

It’s funny, when you make these predictions, really what you’re doing is picking the team you think is going to win, and the number of games shows your confidence level. In the ALDS, I took the Royals in 5. In the ALCS, I took the Royals in 7. I would say I was more confident in both of those series than I am in the World Series.

The Royals better win Game 1, because I don’t feel confident at all about Game 2. I’m most confident about Games 3 and 4, Which means we’d have to win 2 of 3 down the stretch to take the crown.

I think we can do it.

Royals in 7.

-apc.

Image: MLB on Twitter: @MLB, accessed here.

Royals-Blue Jays ALCS Primer & Prediction

Phew. I’m worn out.

There was some extra drama in both Division Series this year, but the two best teams in the American League managed to meet in the Championship Series anyway. The Blue Jays and the Royals have been on a bit of a collision course for this series since around the trade deadline. And now we’re here. And it’s awesome.

And how about that ALDS!? Holy smokes. I had thrown in the towel on Monday afternoon. It was 6-2 and I thought the series was over. All I wanted was to see Wade Davis throw a bit before the team packed it in for the winter. Then Alex Rios singled. Then Escobar singled. That’s when I stood up. Then Ben Zobrist singled. Then Lorenzo Cain singled. Then Eric Hosmer singled. That’s when I began pacing around my living room. Then Carlos Correa misplayed a Kendrys Morales chopper and tied the game. Then Drew Butera and his hair had a gorgeous 10-pitch plate appearance and walked. Then Alex Gordon grounded out, scoring a run. It was 7-6. I was going to get to see Wade Davis after all, but not in the scenario I expected.

Then in the 9th, Hosmer – who had 1 measly hit through the first 3 games – unleashed his built up frustration on a 2-run bomb. I think that’s the moment that put me on the floor because somehow I discovered I was watching Davis record the final three outs laying flat on my back in front of the TV.

Then Wednesday. O, Wednesday. Johnny Cueto was dynamite. He threw 1 pitch from the stretch all night – the 2-run home run to Luis Valbuena – but even that was a pretty nice pitch. And that situation wouldn’t have even happened if not for a poor throw by Mike Moustakas that could’ve very easily been called an error. Even still, the Royals finally played a full game of high contact/low strikeout baseball and won 7-2. The first strikeout didn’t occur until the 4th inning by Ben Zobrist. The “bad boys” hit the ball hard all night long and it was only a matter of time before those hits found green. Alex Rios, team scapegoat, hit the go-ahead double scoring Perez and Gordon. And a Morales somehow golfed a ball into the left-centerfield fountains for a 3-run homer in the 8th.

My ears were ringing well into Thursday afternoon. My throat is still a little sore from yelling. For the second consecutive year, I managed to bruise my right forearm due to a poorly executed high five. I’ve never ever heard Kauffman louder. Not even at the Wild Card Game. Somebody call the Guinness record dudes, pronto.

That’s how we got here. It was exhausting. But I’m thirsty for more. Bring on the Blue Jays.

The Toronto Blue Jays and the Kansas City Royals don’t like each other much. We know this. Game 1 starter Edison Volquez hit Josh Donaldson with a pitch the last time these teams met. Ryan Madson later hit Troy Tulowitski. The Jays retaliated and Aaron Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar. It got ugly.

The Royals, somehow, came out of the scrum as the “bad boys” of baseball. Which is hilarious considering Toronto pitchers have hit more batters and Royals batters have been hit more often. And it wasn’t the Royals and Astros benches that cleared in the ALDS – it was Toronto and Texas. Maybe the nation will discover each teams true colors after the ALCS.

Going into the playoffs, the Jays were the one team I really didn’t want to have to face. But alas, there’s no going back from here. It’s on. Let’s take a look at the ALCS.

Offense

The Blue Jays led all of baseball with 891 runs in the regular season. That’s 127 more than the second highest team. Ridiculous. They hit 232 home runs. Buncha freaks. Their 2-3-4 hitters averaged 40 HRs this season. Read that again. Josh Donaldson hit 41. Jose Bautista hit 40. Edwin Encarnacion hit 39. All the power comes from the right side too – the only lefties in their postseason lineup are Ben Revere and Ryan Goins, who are the only guys who don’t hit for power, although Justin Smoak and Dionner Navarro bat switch and will get their cuts off the bench.

We know the Royals style of play – make contact and rely on the guy behind you to get you in. I was not happy with the Royals approach in the first three and a half games of the ALDS. They were swinging too hard and trying to out-homer the Astros. They were striking out at a rate of 8 K per game in the first 4 games of the series. That’s unacceptable. We will not win games if we aren’t making productive outs.

But when the Royals backs were against the wall, down 4 runs in Game 4, they were forced to abandon their power swings and go one base at a time. And it WORKED. Game 5 looked like a different team. We battled at the plate and made solid contact throughout the game. This team lives and dies by BABIP, but the sample size is large enough over an entire game that if we can play our game we’ll be okay.

But the Blue Jays offense is absurd. Even in a larger ballpark like Kauffman, they hold the clear edge.

Edge: Blue Jays

Defense

The Royals have the best defense in baseball. We know this. Their outfield, catcher, shortstop and first baseman give them an edge up on every team in baseball.

However, the Blue Jays are really really good too. The numbers say Kevin Pillar is as good a centerfielder as Lorenzo Cain and Russell Martin is as good a catcher as Salvador Perez. Josh Donaldson is a Gold Glove third baseman and Troy Tulowitzki is terrific at shortstop as well. And even though the numbers don’t suggest it, I know the kind of arm Jose Bautista possesses in right field.

You don’t make the playoffs without a decent defense, and Toronto – specifically Kevin Pillar – might make things a little tougher than, say, Carlos Gomez did. But the Royals are better or at least comparable at every position.

Edge: Royals

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Marco Estrada vs Edinson Volquez

We’ve got a changeup matchup!

Marco Estrada has one of the best changeups in baseball. In fact, there were only 4 pitchers in all of baseball with a more valuable change according to Fangraphs: Zack Greinke, Francisco Rodriguez, Cole Hamels and Danny Salazaar. His fastball sits around 90 mph, occasionally hitting 93. He has pretty consistent splits between righties and lefties and he is just about as good on the road as he is at home. In his only career start at Kauffman back in July, he gave up 2 runs on 9 hits, losing against a filthy Danny Duffy.

Edison Volquez is a three pitch guy – fastball 50% of the time, curveball and changeup both 25% of the time. His fastball is not his best pitch, but his curve and change are both really really good. Volquez comes in just a few spots behind Estrada in terms of changeup value this year. As long as Volquez can avoid grooving fastballs, he’s not a bad matchup against the Blue Jays. I’d look for him to work hitters in with the fastball to keep them from getting their arms extended, but quickly go to the curve and the changeup after the fastball has been established.

This game is a tossup. Very comparable guys who have both been consistent for their teams all season long. I think whichever pitcher is able to more effectively throw their offspeed stuff ought to win.

Game 2: David Price vs Yordano Ventura

So far, Yordano Ventura hasn’t been quite as impressive as I expected him to be this postseason. He gave up 3 runs in 2 innings before being pulled during the Game 1 rain delay, and game up 3 runs again in Game 4 on short rest. He looked much better on Monday than he did in Game 1 – there was a bit of extra fire in the elimination game, I thought.

We know what he does. He throws fire, but his curveball is actually his best pitch. Hitters set up looking to catch up to the gas and he puts them away with the breaking ball.

David Price sure has had a strange postseason so far. He pitched Game 1 of the ALDS against the Rangers and threw 5 innings of 5 hit 5 run ball. He took the loss. And instead of turning back to Price on short rest in Game 4 like the Royals did with Yordano, when the Jays were down 2-1 they opted to send R.A. Dickey to the mound instead. He came in for 3 innings of relief and gave up 3 runs on 6 hits. Doesn’t make any sense. Jays manager, John Gibbons went with rookie Marcus Stroman in Game 5 meaning their staff ace threw 8 innings of 8 run ball. Weird. Either Gibbons has no faith in their deadline acquisition, or they just liked the matchups better in Games 4 and 5. I just don’t get it.

Both teams know what they’re facing between these two guys. Both teams have to be happy to send out these guys if they find themselves down 0-1 at this point. Again, it’s a toss up game. Odds say the series is 1-1 headed to Toronto.

Game 3: Johnny Cueto vs Marcus Stroman

How much more confident are we seeing Johnny Cueto’s name in the rotation now after his performance on Wednesday? He came out throwing harder than he has in weeks. Again, he was dynamite, and if that’s the Cueto we get the rest of the way, look out. Cueto pitching in Game 3 means he’ll be in line to throw Game 7 if this series goes the distance.

But who is Marcus Stroman? He’s got 5 pitches – fastball, cutter, curve, slider, changeup. He gets ground balls on about two-thirds of balls put in play. He coaxes guys into pulling the ball on the ground – over 50% of hitters pull the ball against Stroman – so expect the Blue Jays to shift quite a bit when he pitches. It’s rare that he gives up home runs.

Assuming Cueto can be anywhere close to what he was in Game 5, this game should be low scoring which obviously favors the Royals. I like KC to go up 2-1 after three games. From there, who knows what will happen? Could the Royals throw Volquez and Ventura on short rest? If we have a series lead, I’d like to see Kris Medlen, a groundball guy himself throw his first game in Toronto. I don’t like Chris Young, a flyball pitcher, starting at Rogers Centre.

After watching of Cueto on Wednesday, I have to give the pitching edge to KC.

Edge: Royals

Bullpen

The Royals still have the best bullpen, and I have even more confidence in it after watching Wade Davis get 6 outs in Game 4. Sure, Ryan Madson struggled in Game 4, but that’s been so rare this season that it actually feels good to have that out of the way and behind us.

The Blue Jays bullpen is pretty good. Rookie Roberto Ozuna is going to be a name in baseball for a while. He’s notched 20 saves as the back of the rotation guy. The Jays lost lefty Brett Cecil during the ALDS to a calf strain, so they’re shorter than they were initially. Here’s a fun note: former Royal and Australia native Liam Hendriks has been one of their top guys out there with a 2.92 ERA. If he wasn’t good enough for the Royals bullpen, yet he’s good enough for Toronto, I think we’re done here.

Edge: Royals

Baserunning

For a group of bruisers, the Blue Jays actually have a legit running game. Revere and Pillar are their speed guys. Revere steals 30-40 times each year and Pillar stole 25 in 2015. Look for them to swipe a bag in a close game if those two are aboard.

But neither of them are as fast as Jarrod Dyson or Terrance Gore, and they don’t have the luxury of deploying them at will like the Royals do off the bench late in the game.

Edge: Royals

Prediction

I like the pitching matchups on paper. If the Royals can win 1 of 2 at home to start the series, we’ll be in good shape, I think. I’ve got a ton of confidence in Johnny and Yordano, and if they throw 4 of our 7 games, I think we take this series. David Price is shaky right now. Estrada and Stroman are beatable. If our starters can get us through 5 innings of quality baseball, this offense is strong enough to match what the Blue Jays can put up. Again, the Royals model is sustainable and can be reproduced game after game. 

This series is going to be a battle – I’d be shocked if the benches don’t clear at least once – and the Royals do not want to get behind in this series because Toronto has the power to squash them the way Houston couldn’t quite do.

Royals in 7.

-apc.

Royals-Astros ALDS Primer & Prediction

The Royals are in the ALDS and they didn’t even have to survive a dramatic and emotional Wild Card game. I feel like we cheated somehow, but, no, we actually just won 95 games.

I actually wrote this on Tuesday night as the Wild Card game was wrapping up, but, as it turns out, when you’re not connected to WiFi, WordPress doesn’t auto-save your content like usual, and when you click “Publish,” it moves to a page that says “Safari isn’t connected to the internet,” and you lose everything. Woof. An hour of my life I’ll never get back.

So let’s try it again. I’ve written it once before, so it should be better the second time around, right? That’s how that works. Fur sure.

Dallas “I think I’m better on short rest” Keuchel shut down the New York Yankees 3-0 on Tuesday night on just 3 days rest. The Yankees looked pitiful – so pitiful, in fact, that I was confident enough to start writing this post around the bottom of the 7th inning. The Yankees would’ve been the easier matchup for Kansas City, but no dice. Here we are, and it’s the Astros.

So how do the Royals matchup against Houston? Let’s take a gander.

Offense

The Astros and Royals couldn’t be more different in philosophy, yet they scored nearly the same number of runs on the season. Astros scored 729 and the Royals scored 724 – good for 6th and 7th in the MLB.

Houston relies heavily on the long ball. They finished 2nd in all of baseball with 230 HRs behind only Toronto (232). Nearly every guy in their lineup can go yard – Evan Gattis, Carlos Correa, Luis Valbuena, Colby Rasmus and Chris Carter all hit 20+ HRs. They take their hacks, and they connect a lot, but they miss way more often. The Astros stuck out more than any team in the American League, and more than any team in baseball when you eliminate pitcher statistics. 

Their contact rate is 75.9% – the worst in the American League. Expect Royals pitchers to rack up the K’s in this series.

The Royals, on the other hand, are obsessed with making contact. Best in baseball at 81.9%. (It’s amazing what a difference 6% is over the course of 162 games.) They finished not last (!) in the AL in home runs this year. It’s a miracle. They hit 3 more than the Chicago White Sox, who are the absolute worst.

It’s interesting that two opposite philosophies yielded the same overall results. The edge really boils down to the ballpark. In Houston, home runs are much easier to come by with the Crawford boxes in left field. Kauffman Stadium is a pitcher’s park with a huge outfield and homers aren’t nearly as common. With home field advantage, the Royals get the slight edge. Barely.

Edge: Royals, slightly.

Defense

Another year at the top for KC.

The Royals finished another year with the most defensive runs saved (DRS) in baseball: 56.9. They’ve got gold glovers are nearly every position. Even their adventurous right fielder, Alex Rios, is an advantage over the rest of the AL teams in the playoffs with -0.2 runs saved above average. That’s how bad AL right fielders are, and thats why the MLB made a major mistake giving away Gold Gloves to LF-CF-RF instead of just 3 outfielders. 

Anyway. The Astros shift on the infield more than any other team in baseball, yet still finished the season below the middle of the pack in DRS at -7.6. Their outfield defense, however, is solid, and that’s what matters most at The K. Carlos Gomez, George Springer and Colby Rasmus can cover some ground. They play a strange shallow outfield alignment that just begs to be burned, hopefully that doesn’t take the Royals out of their offensive game plan. Overall they’re better than the numbers suggest. They’re average, but they’ve “got it where it counts,” so they say.

But they’re not the Royals defense. C’mon. This defense is historically good. Moving on.

Edge: Royals.

Starting Pitching

Game 1: Collin McHugh vs Yordano Ventura

Collin McHugh’s best pitch is the slider which he throws 38% of the time. His put away pitch is the curveball, but I’ll be surprised if he has many opportunities to throw it. He throws first pitch fastballs almost half the time, and I expect the Royals high contact offense to jump on them early and often. The more KC puts the ball in play, the more KC has the advantage.

Yordano Ventura seems to have redeveloped into the “ace” that he is. Ever since he got “sent down” to Omaha but then brought right “back” after Jason Vargas needed Tommy John surgery. And ever since Johnny Cueto has shown up, it seems Yordano has learned a little bit about deception and his K rate is suddenly through the roof. In his last 11 starts, Ace has struck out 81 batters. In his previous 17 starts, he had only whiffed 75. He’s notched 11 K’s in three different starts recently – a feat he had never done in his career to this point.

So let’s do the math – McHugh throws first pitch fastballs to a high contact team, and Ventura is striking out the masses against a high strikeout team. This matchup favors KC significantly.

Game 2: Scott Kazmir vs Johnny Cueto

Scott Kazmir was the first domino to fall at the trade deadline coming to Houston from the Athletics. The Royals faced him on July 24 – the day after he was traded – at Kauffman Stadium and Kazmir absolutely shut KC down: 7 innings. 3 hits. 0 runs.

But in August and September, it’s been a very different story for Kazmir. In his last 11 starts, he’s 1-6 with a 5.22 ERA. He went from being a solid compliment to Dallas Keuchel to barely being considered as a postseason starter.

This should sound familiar to Royals fans because it’s almost exactly the same narrative we’ve experienced with Johnny Cueto, Kazmir’s Game 2 opponent. Cueto looked awesome in his first few starts, but had a string of 5 straight starts where he looked absolutely dreadful. Finally, after significant confusion as to what was happening, it was revealed that Cueto wasn’t comfortable with how Salvador Perez was setting up. That’s since been resolved, and Cueto has spun 4 straight quality starts with a 3.24 ERA. His last start vs Minnesota was a 5 inning, 1 run tune up.

It would seem that Cueto has the edge here, and I hope he does, because Game 3 isn’t as promising.

Game 3: Edinson Volquez vs Dallas Keuchel

Let’s not over think this one – Dallas Keuchel is the best pitcher in the American League. He will be the 2015 AL Cy Young winner. He also has the best beard.

Or maybe we should over think this, just for fun. 

In his career, Edison Volquez is 6-0 with a 2.70 ERA. He’s 3-0 at Minute Maid Park. Current Royals are a career .300/.380/.393 off Keuchel. In 2015, Lorenzo Cain is 5-7 with 2 doubles and a home run. And it’s the Postseason…anything can happen.

But let’s be honest, it would be stupid to pick against Keuchel here.

Game 4: Kris Medlen/Chris Young vs Lance McCullers

Lance McCullers is a rookie for the Astros. He’s got a reverse split so he’s stronger against lefties. He is terrific at home (1.86 ERA) and absolutely awful on the road (5.03 ERA). As much as one would like to think the Astros have confidence in Kazmir, the reality might be that they have more confidence in McCullers in Game 4 than they do in Kazmir anywhere.

But wouldn’t you know, Kris Medlen is terrific on the road, but awful at home. Of Medlen’s 26 earned runs this year for the Royals, 24 of them have been at Kauffman Stadium. I don’t really know how that works, but it’s the truth.

This game is a total toss up, to be honest. Heck, Chris Young could even start, and he’s been even better than Yordano over his past two spot starts leading up to the playoffs. My best guess: Medlen gets the start with a VERY short leash. Gets the hook if anything happens and Young takes over from there.

Assuming Yordano Ventura is waiting to throw Game 5, That gives KC the overall advantage, I think. If we had to face Keuchel twice, I might consider it a push, but the nod goes to KC here too.

Edge: Royals, based only on matchups.

Bullpen

See: defense.

Again, both teams are really good at this phase of the game, but the Royals, again, are simply the best in baseball. Wade Davis. Kelvin Herrera. Ryan Madson. Even with the loss of Greg Holland to a torn UCL, this bullpen is the best there is. In fact, with the addition of Danny Duffy, it’s very possible this bullpen is better without Greg Holland. Now you have a shut down lefty in the pen instead of a guy who has done nothing but terrify Royals fans for months.

But the Astros bullpen is no slouch. The Astros watched what the Royals were able to do in the postseason last year, and immediately went out and signed Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek out the gate during the offseason to shore up their bullpen. Will Harris and Tony Sipp have emerged as strong pieces as well. Their bullpen is really good, but it’s not as good as KC.

Edge: Royals.

Baserunning

That’s what speed do.

The Astros are quick on the bases. They led the American League in stolen bases in 2015 with 121. Jose Altuve leads the way with 38 bags. Jake Marisnick stole 24. George Springer added 16 and Carlos Correa, 14. This team likes to run, which I find interesting because they’re a home run hitting team. But I suppose that also means they know how to hit sac flies.

However, Games 1 and 5 will be an issue for their running game, as Yordano Ventura is so quick to the plate, its essentially mathematically impossible for opposing team to steal on him. It takes a breaking pitch, a double clutch and a poor throw by Salvador Perez to make the play close. So if they’re going to steal, they’ll need to run on somebody else.

The Royals had 104 steals this year – a dip from previous years in the running game likely do to a slight increase in power. They simply haven’t needed to use their legs as much this year. But they have speed whenever they want it off the bench. Jarrod Dyson has gotten “ZOOM” etched into his hair again this year. He ready. But he’s not even the fastest guy on his own team. Terrance Gore is the fastest man in baseball (if he doesn’t get left off the postseason roster in favor of Jonny Gomes, that is). Oh, and Paulo Orlando used to be a sprinter for Brazil soooooo…

The Royals haven’t needed the running game in 2015, but it’s still there at their disposal when they need it. And they will, because the playoffs are drastically different.

Edge: Royals.

Prediction

It’s a trend, fur sure, but it’s also a reality – the Astros are a very good team, but the Royals are slightly better in every facet of the game. They’re faster. Their bullpen is deeper and stronger. their ballpark matches up better for the offense. Their rotation is probably weaker, but the matchups still give the Royals an edge.

On paper, I’d expect the Royals to win comfortably in Game 1 – confidence high. Game 2 is somewhat of a mystery, but barring Kazmir turning into Houdini, things seem to point to the Royals there too – confidence moderate. Gotta expect a loss to Keuchel in Game 3 – confidence low – but a bounce back win in Game 4 after five different Royals pitchers combine for a n0-hit bid deep into the ballgame – confidence high.

Make no mistake – this Astros team is talented. The 2015 Astros hope to be the 2014 Royals. They play with heart and have a lot of fun doing it. And in baseball, anyone can win on any night. It’s a game of inches, and all it doesn’t take much to make all these hot takes meaningless. Even the best teams only win about 60% of the time in this league. I don’t want to get too confident here, so let’s assume the worst about Game 2 and say…

Royals in 5.

-apc.

Photo courtesy of Hex FX Ariels. Follow on Twitter at @FXHex.

2015 MLB Predictions Revisited

These sort of prognostications sure are fun, but they’re generally a mindless way to write about baseball in a format everyone seems to care about. Myself included. When the various media “experts” come out with their predictions, I’m genuinely interested in their takes. I get excited when people pick my team. I get immediately annoyed and write them off as morons when they choose to pick against my heart’s desire. I hope none of you write me off as a moron.

But let’s take a stab at it anyway, shall we?

Before I get to my postseason predictions, let’s take a look at my 2015 preseason predictions and see how awful I did. We’ll start with the American League because it was far far worse.

AL East

My Prediction: Boston Red Sox

Actual:
Toronto Blue Jays & New York Yankees (Wild Card)

I overthought this one. My gut told me Toronto around February, but I fought it figuring they’d find a way to underachieve like they have in years past. I underestimated Josh Donaldson, and who would’ve known they’d be so aggressive at the trade deadline adding David Price, Troy Tulowitzki and Ben Revere. Totally changed everything.

I even admitted in my preseason post that I know better than to “buy into teams that spend tons of money to restock their team,” yet I somehow picked Boston. Another example of this method failing to pay off. I’ll never do it again.

AL Central

My Prediction: Kansas City Royals & Cleveland Indians (Wild Card)
Actual: Kansas City Royals

The Indians were just dreadful out the gate and it took a long time for things to begin to come together for them. They made it close, but had dug themselves too deep of a hole.

Meanwhile, the Royals did exactly what I expected them to do – plus about 10 more wins. I was confident in this bunch and they didn’t disappoint. Here’s what I had to say back in April:

People keep saying the Royals got worse in the offseason but I just don’t see it. Morales and Rios are both upgrades. Shields is gone, but Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura both have the potential to match his production. Plus they have three of the most sustainable strengths to their advantage: bullpen, defense and speed.

I mean, how did people not see this coming? It was obvious. Throw in the brilliant additions of free agents Chris Young and Ryan Madson, and this team was hard to beat…is hard to beat.

AL West

My Prediction: Seattle Mariners & Oakland Athletics (Wild Card)
Actual: Texas Rangers & Houston Astros (Wild Card)

The worst. The Mariners were the sexy pick for a lot of people preseason and I guess I got sucked into the hype myself. And the Athletics jacked with my psyche again – Billy Beane basically cleared house and added as many prospects or trade deadline commodities as he could in order to tank for the future. (He also signed Billy Butler, which seems very unrelated.) That’s what the plan looked like in April, but I assumed there was something more. That’s what it was.

What on earth happened in this division!? The five teams finished in nearly reverse order than what I (and most everybody else) predicted. Texas? Houston? What?

NL East

My Prediction: Washington Nationals & Miami Marlins (Wild Card)
Actual: New York Mets

I was so close to picking the Mets as a wild card team, but never would’ve guessed they’d own this division the way they did. I thought the Nationals were going to win 100 games! I suppose Washington ended up being such a toxic clubhouse that it allowed New York to walk over the rest of the weakest division in baseball. The Mets went 45-28 against the rest of the NL East. Miami ended up being a clunker before and after Giancarlo Stanton got injured, but still won 71 games. Philly and Atlanta were as bad as advertised.

NL Central

My Prediction: St. Louis Cardinals & Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card)
Actual: St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates (Wild Card) & Chicago Cubs (Wild Card)

The three strongest teams in the National League are out of the same division. The Cardinals, by some miracle, managed to overcome injuries to seemingly their entire team – Adam Wainwright, Matt Adams, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Jon Jay, Carols Martinez, Jaime Garcia started the season on the DL – and not only win the division, but win 100 games. Actuslly, that “miracle” is called their “farm system” which continues to be the most coveted in all of baseball. I don’t know how they do it. Like rabbits.

I thought the Cubs would finish close, but would have to wait until next year. Nope. The team has been really good, and Jake Arrieta has emerged as one of the top 3 pitchers in the game alongside Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw. The Pirates are one of the most complete teams in baseball, and were nipping at the Cardinals heels the entire second half.

NL West

My Prediction: Los Angeles Dodgers
Actual: Los Angeles Dodgers

Yep. You’re going to win a lot of games when you throw the two best pitchers in baseball 40% of the time. It’s just not fair.

So overall, I got 4 of the 10 teams correct: Royals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates. Pretty poor showing this year. The AL East continues to give me fits.

Okay, on to the playoffs. Let’s start predicting things and giving reasons for it.

Wild Card

Astros over Yankees

The Yankees are fading. The Astros have been playing good baseball over the past few weeks. Yankee Stadium isn’t a remotely scary place to play. Houston relies on the home run ball, and Yankee Stadium is the perfect ballpark for that type of team to excel. With a righty going in Masahiro Tanaka, I expect lefties Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus to both deposit homers in the right field short porch.

Cubs over Pirates

Jake Arrieta is a beast. The Pirates will not beat him. The only way Pittsburgh win this game is if they’re tied 0-0 and the Bucs manage to win against the Chicago bullpen in extras. Gerritt Cole is a fine pitcher, but he’s not in the same league as Arrieta.

That said, if Pittsburgh can make it past that menacing Wild Card game, look out. This team is loaded and might be the most formidable NL opponent. But…Jake.

ALDS

Royals over Astros in 5

I’d be a lot more afraid of Houston if the Royals were playing this series on the road (the same goes for if KC faces the Yankees). The Royals are simply the better team in all facets of the game. With Keuchel pitching on Tuesday, the next he would be available is Game 3 on Sunday (which, at home, he is essentially unbeatable). I think this series goes the full 5 games, but the Royals take it in the end.

Rangers over Blue Jays in 4

David Price is good, but so is Cole Hamels. At first glance, it would seem that whoever wins that Game 1 matchup is going to win this series. However, consider this: in two games against Rangers starter Yovani Gallardo this season, the Blue Jays have notched 6 hits and scored exactly 0 runs. Obviously the playoffs are a different animal, but maybe? One of those games was at home, the other at Rogers Centre. If the Jays can’t figure out how to hit Gallardo, they’re in trouble. The Rangers can match the Blue Jays power too, which is how you have to beat them up north. Toronto led the MLB in scoring, but Texas finished 3rd. Plus I just really like Delino DeShields Jr., and I really don’t want the Royals to face the Jays.

NLDS

Cardinals over Cubs in 5

These two division rivals have never faced each other in the postseason. I almost wish it didn’t have to happen because the mystique is probably more fascinating than the reality will be. The Cubs have Arrieta and Jon Lester going in 3 of the 5 games in this series, so picking the Cardinals means they’ll have to take down Lester at least once. But Dan Haren, Kyle Hendricks and Jason Hammel? Really? I’ll take Jaime Garcia or Lance Lynn against any of those guys.

It’s weird to say this because the team won 100 games, but this Cardinals team feels like the 2006 or 2011 teams that both won the World Series. Those two teams were Wild Card teams, yes, but the injuries the team has sustained makes them seem like they’re underdogs in a way. Plus, getting Wainwright back and in the bullpen brings back so many memories of 2006.

Mets over Dodgers in 5

The Mets rotation is, somehow, better than the Dodgers. LA has the better 1-2 punch with Kershaw and Greinke, but Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey are near the top as well. But from there on, the Mets are much better with Noah Syndergaard and Bartolo Colon over Brett Anderson and Alex Wood. Wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Clayton Kershaw get beat in the playoffs again this year. Usually it comes at the hands of the Cardinals. This year it’ll be Yoenis Cespedes and the Mets.

ALCS

Rangers over Royals in 6

At this point, who even knows if the matchup is going to happen. At least in the LDS I’m talking about 3, maybe 4, teams that will actually be playing. Whether it’s the Blue Jays or the Rangers here, I don’t like the Royals chances. Both teams have the ability to score too many runs, and whether it’s Hamels or Price, I’m afraid the Royals quest to “Take the Crown” ends in the Championship series.

NLCS

Mets over Cardinals in 6

Because I’m picking Mets/Cardinals it’s almost guaranteed to be Dodgers/Cubs. If it happens, I think the Mets rotation is just better than the Cardinals. If the Cubs face the Mets here, I’ll take the Cubs since they went 7-0 against New York this season.

World Series

Mets over Rangers in 6

Because I just don’t believe the Rangers can get that elusive 27th out.

Psh, who knows? It’s as good a prediction as anyone else is gonna have. Most of us could predict a couple of 6 year olds in a rock-paper-scissors matchup better than we could predict the Postseason. But hey, it’s fun. And if the Mets win it all, I’ll be the one saying I told you so.

And at a certain point, you just start picking the things you don’t want to happen because then you’re happier if you’re wrong. C’mon, KC.

-apc.

The Royals finish 95-67: The Postseason is (finally) here, and the American League goes through Kansas City.

Last Friday I was on a Southwest Airlines flight to Midway with my wife who knows full well that no matter how many times I fly, I will never get tired of looking out the window and down on creation. Knowing this, she takes the middle seat and gives me the window. Every time. Clearly I married up, or, in the very least, married someone significantly less selfish than I am.

Lots of Royals fans are on the flight. Loaded. Both the flight and the fans. I’m sure many of you experienced something similar on Friday night whether you were in a plane or not. It was an exciting weekend celebrating our first division championship in 30 years. <party emoji sequence>

Kansas City was playing a make up game at Wrigley Field versus the Cubs that Monday followed by three games at US Cellular against the White Sox. A woman sits down next to us on the aisle. She’s with a group of Royals fans around us. They all have an abundance of Southwest free drink loyalty coupons.

As we land, we learn the Royals have been blanked by Carlos Carrasco and the Indians, 6-0, while the Blue Jays have beaten the Rays in Toronto, 5-3, behind another home run barrage by the sluggernauts north of the border. The news circulates through the fuselage. The woman in the aisle seat swears loudly and bemoans the fact that we were just giving away home field advantage. She looks toward my wife and I for some backup, “I mean, the Blue Jays are gaining on us and Ned [Yost] just doesn’t care, right?! What do you think?”

Sidebar: Do you guys remember that scene in Groundhog Day when Mrs. Lancaster, the owner of the bed and breakfast, is making awkward small talk with Pittsburgh weatherman, Phil Conners (played by Bill Murray), when she comments, “There’s talk of a blizzard.” In response, Phil kicks into meteorologist mode and waxes eloquently about how “all this moisture coming up out of the south…at high altitude it will chrystalize and give us what we call ‘snow.'” (This is going somewhere, trust me.) Phil drones on about the highs and lows for the day and finally pauses to ask, “Did you want to talk about the weather, or were you just making chit chat?”

“Just…chit chat,” she replies as awkward as ever.

This is the question I want to ask this woman when she asks me what I think. Does she actually want to engage in baseball banter, or is she purely looking for validation as a disgruntled and perhaps tipsy Royals fan? If the former, I’m inclined to discuss how, when up a dozen games, destined to clinch and waiting for the rest of the league to shake out, it’s normal to rest starters, work out the kinks and coast to October healthy and fresh. Because once you’re in, it’s a brand new game – the previous 162 games done matter, and besides, it’s partly just a big crapshoot. If it truly is the latter, then I’m inclined to nod, throw up my hands a bit incredulously and agree with her for the sake of argument, time, and potential frustration’s sakes, that Ned is clueless, the team is toast, and will probably not only lose home field advantage, but will likely somehow end up playing in the Wild Card game despite winning their division. It’s that bad, ma’am.

Since I’m unsure of her level of chat interest, I chooses middle-of-the-road option where I disagree but over-simplify the reasoning with throwaway comments like, “they’ll be fine,” and “we just gotta get to October.” It seems to work. She responds, “Really?! I’m nervous. I hope you’re right.”

I’ve been accused of being too optimistic – ignoring obvious gaffes in the game plan and choosing to blindly hope things turn around when everything suggests things are slowly imploding. Ignore Cueto. Ignore Gordon. Ignore Holland’s inconsistency. Ignore the red hot Blue Jays. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. It’ll be fine.

But c’mon. Games hadn’t mattered since late-August. The division had been wrapped up for so long, I was posting “who do we want in the postseason?” stuff in early September. The team had moved on. The goals were simple: get healthy and get ready. 

And they did that, for the most part. Lorenzo Cain‘s legs are sore and Salvador Perez‘s thumb and finger have taken a beating, but otherwise we are in good shape. And those were both due to freak happenstances – a foul off Lorenzo’s back knee and a couple errant throws catching Sal’s digits behind the plate.

I don’t think I was being flippant and blindly hoping. This team is, without a doubt in my mind, the best team in the American League. They have been since they started the season 7-0. Did they look bored and phone in some games in September? Absolutely. Like the night I landed in Chicago to learn that the Royals’ AAA lineup (plus Ben Zobrist) had been nearly no-hit by Carrasco. 

If anything, I believed that when the Royals were forced to play meaningful baseball games again they would rise to the occasion. Games became meaningful when they went to Minneapolis without home field advantage, and, as expected, we rose. And so did the Rays, thankfully.

Anyway. We’re here now. We did it. 

And wouldn’t you know it, but over the last week of the season, the team looked just like it did during the first week of the season. Running on all cylinders. Winning their last 5 games and  6 of their last 8. In those 8 games, their starters have given up 8 earned runs. Over 47.1 innings. That’s a 1.52 ERA. 

Is that right? That can’t be right. I’ve double checked it, but I still don’t believe it.

Yordano “Ace” Ventura is back and will start Game 1 of the ALDS on Thursday. Johnny Cueto is back – or “fixed” might be a better word – and will start Game 2. Eddy is steady and will start Game 3. Chris Young has been brilliant and Kris Medlen has been too (but only on the road, oddly enough), so the two of them ought to have Game 4 covered. Throw in Danny Duffy, who looks better than ever in the bullpen, and this team is primed for the postseason. 

The bullpen doesn’t have questions anymore either. Wade Davis is the closer now that Greg Holland has had season ending Tommy John surgery. What I watched Kelvin HerreraRyan MadsonLuke Hochevar do at Wrigley Field in the 8th-9th-10th showed me all I need to know there. We have a bullpen that shortens games and a ballpark that lowers scores. And a defense that doesn’t bend or break.

So here we go, a second consecutive trip to the postseason. Last year as the underdog, but this year as one of the favorites. But know this about the postseason: anything can happen. 

The thing is though – and we learned this last year – defense, pitching and the ability to manufacture runs wins championships. Offense is a roller coaster that can ebb and flow by game. The Royals are 7th in all of baseball in runs scored, but TOR, NYY, TEX, and HOU all score more. But the Royals allow fewer runs than everybody but Houston. In the playoffs, scoring runs isn’t always sustainable, but preventing runs is. Hitting can go cold. Defense, speed and pitching really doesn’t.

I’ll look more closely at matchups and predict the postseason – like I so unsuccessfully did in 2014 – in the coming days. For now, I’ll say this: I’m pumped that we’re back playing meaningful baseball. I’m glad the team has a few days to rest Lorenzo’s legs and Sal’s hand, and I’m glad we won’t have to face Dallas Kuechel more than once in the ALDS (if we even see the Astros). And I’m glad the American League goes through Kansas City.

Here’s to another mostly unproductive, sleep deprived and emotionally overwhelming October. 

See you at the K on Thursday. 

-apc.

Photo: AP Photo accessed at NBCSports.com here.

The Royals are 88-63: Get your champagne ready…

The magic number is two. It could happen tonight.

Wouldn’t it be perfect if Johnny Cueto went out tonight and pitched lights out, clinching the Royals’ first ever AL Central division championship? Of course, we also need Minnesota to lose to Cleveland, but I was looking at the Indians’ lines against Twins’ starter Kyle Gibson, and check out these beauties…

Screenshot 2015-09-24 13.01.35

This is from ESPN’s stats page. Mike Aviles 4-6. Yan Gomes 5-9 with 2 HR. Michael Brantley (who, unfortunately, is injured) 4-11. Jason Kipnis is 2-6. Santana only has 1 hit but it was a 2-run HR. As a team they bat .344/.438/.557. No member of the Tribe who has faced Kyle Gibson is hitless against him. So, what I’m saying here is that I like our chances of clinching tonight.

The Johnny-Salvy Pairing

Throw in the fact that the Royals seem to have finally discovered the source of Cueto’s struggles and one could foresee the Royals popping corks in their home dugout about 8 hours from now.

This Johnny Cueto/Salvador Perez dynamic is really interesting to me. Andy McCullough wrote a fascinating piece following Cueto’s last start against Cleveland on how Salvy’s setup behind the plate wasn’t comfortable for his new ace. You can read that article here.

It makes sense. The 3-time All-Star catcher and soul of the team has his way of doing things. The new guy staff ace rental has his way. No one wants to butt heads. They both want to give the other the benefit of the doubt. But it wasn’t working. Finally, Cueto spoke up. We’ll see how things shake out over the next few starts.

Some folks – primarily on Twitter, so let’s not take it all too seriously – have suggested that Cueto pitch to the smaller, lower to the ground Drew Butera down the stretch. That, in the opinion of this fan blogger, would be pretty idiotic. Why would we ever want to get Cueto used to a catcher whose only purpose on the postseason roster will to be a backup catcher in case of injury? We don’t want Butera even touching a bat in a postseason game. No no no. You spend the next two weeks getting Cueto and Salvy on the same page so our best team takes the field in October. Come on, people.

Holland out. Wade in. Finally.

Ned Yost announced yesterday prior to the Royals 4-3 walks win over the Mariners that Greg Holland is out as the Royals closer and Wade Davis is in. Kelvin Herrera slides back an inning and takes over Wade’s 8th inning duties. Ryan Madson slides into the 7th to take over for Herrera. The 6th inning will be a mix/match situation, but I’m hoping Danny Duffy wants the job.

You have to wonder what took the Royals so long to make this move. It’s been very clear for more than a year that the best man in the Royals bullpen was Wade Davis. In fact, Davis has been so historically good that he may have the greatest two-year stretch by any reliever in the history of baseball. Why isn’t your best man pitching your most important inning? It could even be argued that Greg Holland wasn’t even the second best closer on the team. Herrera has been dominant as well. Yet there he was. He’s supposedly been dealing with elbow issues sin the All-Star break. His velocity is down. His control is miserable. He occasionally shows glimpses of his former self, but when a guy can’t command a fastball, he has no business being a closer.

With Holland being a free agent at year’s end, we’ve certainly seen the last of Greg Holland as a closer.

UPDATE: About two hours after this post the Royals announced that Holland has a significant UCL tear and will be shut down for the season. Supposedly he’s had the year since LAST AUGUST and has been pitching through pain. Crazy.

This Royals team isn’t messing around.

The last thing I’ll say here is that the Royals aren’t messing around this year. In the past, the Royals would’ve stuck with guys like Alcides Escobar leading off or Greg Holland closing or Danny Duffy getting more work in the rotation for the future. Not this year. This is 2015 and this – despite what the 2012 slogan maintained – is our time.

The Royals best 6 OBP guys are hitting 1 through 6 in the lineup. The Royals best bullpen arm is closing. Their second best is pitching the 8th. The Royals see that Kris Medlen is pitching much better than Danny Duffy and make the move early to prepare for the postseason. Even if that means Jeremy Guthrie has to get shelled a start or two, that’s okay, because Duffy needs to get used to the bullpen. The Royals aren’t afraid to bench their overpaid second baseman, Omar Infante (who is now going to be out a couple weeks with an oblique injury), or threaten to bench their underperforming and now bearded right fielder, Alex Rios, who has shockingly been our best hitter over the past month.

This team finally gets it. Actually, I probably shouldn’t say “finally” – I think Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have always gotten it, but they’re not playing for next year anymore. They’re finally playing for right now, and they’re making all the right moves to prepare us for the ALDS and hopefully beyond.

-apc.

Johnny Cueto’s BABIP

Let’s talk about Johnny Cueto.

The Royals gave up three left-handed pitching prospects for a couple months worth of Johnny Beisbol. In his first few starts, Cueto didn’t disappoint. In his first start at Kauffman Stadium, he threw a complete game shutout – a feat that hadn’t been done by a Royals starter all year. Since then, it’s been mostly downhill.
Going into Sunday, in his last 4 starts his ERA is a burgeoning 9.45. The Red Sox, Orioles, Tigers and White Sox have each shelled Cueto. It’s an anomaly in his career, and it’s easy to brush off and preach “sample size,” but at a certain point it still gets a bit unnerving.

Here’s something pretty interesting I’m taking a look at: 

For those unfamiliar with BABIP, it stands for Batting Average on Balls In Play and measures the average of non-homerun balls put in play that end up as hits. So if a guy goes 3-5 with a homer, strikeout, and a ground out, his BABIP is .667: the homer and strikeout don’t come into play, so of balls put in play, he went 2 for 3. Makes sense, yeah?

This metric depends on three variables: talent, defense and luck

Batters have more control over their talent on BABIP than pitchers do. Hitters can attempt to “hit it where they ain’t” – they can place their hits somewhat. Pitchers have a limited ability to really control where the ball goes off the bat. They can pitch down in the zone to induce ground balls, and they can throw on the outer half to coax the hitter to take it the opposite way, but they ultimately can’t determine the hitter’s bat speed to know what direction that ball will go. It’s much more determinant on the other two metrics: defense and luck.

So when measuring pitchers, BABIP can give a great understanding of how a pitcher is being aided or hurt by good/bad defense or good/bad luck. Better hitters have higher BABIP. Better pitchers have lower BABIP. League average is around .300 for both. Cueto’s career BABIP against is .274.

Uncharacteristically, Cueto’s last four games have all had a BABIP over .375. Here’s the list of games in the last three years of Cueto’s career where he posted a .375 BABIP or above.

  • 7/31/15 – KC @ TOR: .412
  • 8/20/14 – CIN @ STL: .412
  • 7/20/14 – CIN @ NYY: .417
  • 6/11/14 – CIN vs LAD: .375
  • 6/21/13 – CIN @ ARI: .500
  • 9/15/12 – CIN @ MIA: .444
  • 9/9/12 – CIN vs HOU: .615

It’s happened 5 times since Cueto joined Royals. To find the previous 5 times you’ve got to scroll his game log all the way back to September 2012 (I chose to omit 6/26/13 since he left with an injury after only 1.0 innings). So, in the number of times he’s posted a .375+ BABIP in the past three years…

  • September 2012 – July 2015: 5 times
  • August 2015 – September 2015: 5 times

To recap: five times over 34 months. And five times over 2 months.

In 221 career starts it’s only happened 40 times, but 1/8 of those have occurred in the past month. What is going on here? What would cause such an insane change in numbers in such a short amount of time?

At first glance, it makes no sense at all. One would assume when an All-Star caliber pitcher joins the team with the best defense in baseball, his BABIP would improve, not get worse. Right? Then what’s going on here?

The easiest solution here is to chalk it up to crummy luck. It’s also the laziest solution, so I’m wary to say that’s the problem. Cueto would have to be insanely unlucky to offset the benefit of the Royals defense. Besides, doesn’t it seem a bit too coincidental that the moment he changes teams, leagues and ballparks this spike occurs?

Perhaps the Royals defense hasn’t been as strong as usual. Alex Gordon has been out, and Ben Zobrist has been stepping in for he and Omar Infante lately. Zobrist is good, but he’s not as solid defensively as Omar and Alex. Throw in Jonny Gomes and Paulo Orlando, and the defense isn’t quite what it usually is. In Cueto’s last start, Christian Colon played 2B and Kendrys Morales played 1B. Three runs scored on grounders through the infield.

But as a whole, Cueto hasn’t given up groundball hits. It’s mostly been the result of medium to hard hit liners to the outfield. Nothing much the outfield can do about those. Besides, Jonny Gomes hasn’t even played while Cueto has been pitching. To me, it has very little, if anything, to do with the defense.

Jeff Sullivan over at Fangraphs came up with a three-part solution last week: Cueto’s faced tougher competition over the past few starts in the AL, he no longer gets to face pitchers since leaving the NL, and he’s simply made a few mistake pitches in the zone.

But Fangraphs doesn’t mention BABIP, and I think it creates a better framework in this instance. Fangraphs splits up his batting average against (BAA) over his entire career and found that this spike is right in line with others he’s had in the past. But this BABIP spike is unprecedented. He has never ever had a BABIP spike like this. It can’t just be chalked up to another peak on a chart. This is different.

Which brings me to the real question: Is it a major problem? Or is it just a freaky anomaly? With our defense, we have to assume this is just bad luck, right? It feels lazy, but it’s the only thing I can figure that would cause such a spike.

But what about talent? The one thing I’ll add in that regard is this: Johnny’s slider has been an issue lately. It’s never been his best pitch – he throws a fastball or cutter about 71% of the time and a slider only 8% – but since he came to KC, his slider has been consistently negative in value. The reason: he’s throwing it just a tick too fast, leaving it out over the plate. It’s the pitch that has consistently burned him. 

All this to say, I think there are tweaks that Cueto can make to become more effective, but overall, this streak of poor starts is strangely unlucky. Seems like a cop out, but his BABIP is so skewed it has to be the truth, honestly. Heck, maybe this is a good thing. Law of Averages would suggest that he’s due to have some good luck around the corner. 

Clean up that slider Johnny, and keep relying on your defense and you’ll be fine.

And fans – keep calm and Cueto on. 

-apc.

Photo cred: mlive.com accessed here. (Highly recommend clicking over if only to laugh at the headline.)

The Royals are 83-56: You can’t blame Greg Gibson for this one.

The Royals just wrapped up a nine game homestand which saw them go 3-6 against the Detroit Tigers (2-1) Chicago White Sox (0-3) and the Minnesota Twins (1-2). After winning their previous 8 home series, the Royals have now dropped two in a row. Yikes.

The Royals dropped the final game of the homestand last night, 3-2 in 12 innings to the second place Twins. The game included a 5 inning no-hitter from Kris Medlen who finally gave up 2 runs in the 6th sparked by a Kurt Suzuki leadoff home run. Then Ben Zobrist happened. His solo home run in the 6th and triple in the 8th led the charge to tie the game at 2. I was compelled to buy his t-shirt jersey from the team store after the game.

The game also included the Royals speed show with Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson swiping second and third in the 9th and 10th innings, respectively. The game also included a video review when Dyson tried to take home on a chopper back to the pitcher. Blaine Boyer threw the ball to his catcher up the third base line and Dyson had no choice but to collide with Suzuki. Dyson was called out, and I think it was the right call. As I understand the plate blocking rule, the catcher is required to leave the runner a lane, unless the ball takes him into the running lane. That clearly is what happened.

Anyway. It wasn’t Zobrist or Speed Duo who had the last word. Instead, it was Miguel Sano who hit the go ahead bomb. Although, he should’ve already been out.

We all pretty much agree the pitch was a strike. PitchFX agrees. The MLB app agrees. Ned Yost agrees. I’m sure home plate umpire Greg Gibson has seen the replay by now and also agrees. But the pitch went against KC, and, unfortunately, two pitches later Franklin Morales grooved one and Sano deposited it in the LCF stands. It’s the kind of thing Miguel Sano does these days.

Here’s the MLB strike zone on their app. Red is strike/foul. Green is ball. Blue is the ball Sano crushed.

Look, get mad all you want at the home plate umpire. You have every right to be. He blew a call. Pitch 5 was a strike and it was called a ball. You can point the finger at Greg Gibson about the bad call, but you can’t blame him for giving up the home run or for causing us to lose the game. The umpire wasn’t the one who left Pitch 7 right over the middle of the plate for Sano to clobber. That was Franklin Morales’s doing.

Gibson is also not the one who went 0-8 with runners in scoring position. That was a team effort.

ZERO. FOR. EIGHT.

The Royals had so many chances to score: Cain was on third base with one out in the 4th. Gordon was on second base with no outs in the 6th. Gore was on second base with one out and on third base with two outs in the 9th. Dyson was on third base with one out in the 10th. None of them scored. Unacceptable. A sac fly to the outfield was all we needed – multiple times! – but we couldn’t do it.

So again, go ahead and thumb your nose at the umpire all you want for not calling Sano out on strikes, but the Royals lost that game multiple times themselves before Greg Gibson ever had the opportunity.

it’s too bad the Royals squandered a great outing by Medlen. They hit the ball decently hard multiple times and couldn’t catch a break, and when they needed big hits from Kendrys Morales or Salvador Perez or Eric Hosmer, they couldn’t come through.

It was a rough homestand, there’s no denying that. The team looks flat. Pitching has been less than stellar (led by Johnny Cueto), and the offense has been stagnant. Thankfully, these games don’t mean much…yet. If they keep this up, they might mean something really soon. Toronto is now within 4 games of the Royals for home field advantage, and like I said in my last post, I do NOT want to have to travel to Toronto.

This is still a playoff team, there’s no question about that either. Their magic number is 13 with 23 to play. They’ll make it to the postseason, but will they still look like the best team in the American League when they get there?

Besides, let’s not fool ourselves into believing that once we make the postseason anything really matters. With the exception of the Wild Card game, the Royals won both series as the road team, and lost the World Series as the home team. Once October gets here, anything can happen. The goal is to get there, and get there healthy.

That’s all I got – short post for now. I’m working on a Johnny Cueto post that I hope to be done with before his start on Saturday. Until then.

-apc.

The Royals are 77-49: Too early to start thinking postseason things?

Look, I’m sorry, okay?

The summer got a bit crazy and my weekly blogging got away from me. There are at least a dozen of you who are, at minimum, wondering why I haven’t been blogging, and at maximum, genuinely concerned for my well being. Somewhere in there you might actually have missed my takes on baseball, youth ministry and pop culture.

Let’s get back to it.

When I last posted about the Royals, they were 9-3 and were dealing with being the Bad Boys of Baseball for the third series in a row. They’ve been nothing less than spectacular since then. They’re now 77-49 and have an absolute stranglehold on the AL Central. They are a handful of games up on the second best teams in the American League. With 36 games remaining…

Their magic number is 25.
Their magic number for home field advantage is 31.

Basically, the Royals are all but guaranteed to end up back in the postseason. That’s not being cocky or overconfident. It’s just the truth. It’s not too early, so let’s take a glance toward October.

Who do we want to face in the playoffs?

While the winners of the AL Central seems abundantly clear, the rest of the American League is mostly uncertain. As of right now there appears to be 7 teams fighting for 4 playoff spots. Baltimore, Toronto, New York, Minnesota, Houston, Los Angeles and Texas are all lingering. A couple of those teams scare me. Most of them don’t. It’s very obvious who the best team in the AL is in 2015.

To me, Houston and Toronto are the scariest of the remaining clubs – especially if we don’t have home field advantage. The Royals are the most complete team in baseball, but the one way they can be beaten is with the long ball. Going to the launching pads that are Rogers Centre (Toronto) and Minute Maid Park (Houston) hurts our chances significantly. Throw Yankee Stadium in there too.

In fact, looking back at 2014, Angel Stadium was the best possible place for us to begin our postseason run. It projects as a pitchers park and played to the Royals’ strengths. The Angels were overmatched in all areas last year, and recent history suggests nothing has changed: we’ve gone 11-1 against L.A. in our last 12 games. I’d love to face the Halos again in the 2015 ALDS.

It doesn’t seem likely that we’ll play the Angels anywhere but the ALDS. If they make the playoffs, they’ll probably end up in the Wild Card game finishing behind the Astros in the West. Chances are they’ll have to go through Toronto or New York first.

I was going to rank those 7 teams in order of who we want to play most/least, but David Lesky over at Pine Tar Press already did a great job of that this morning. He includes the Rays in the list of possible playoff teams, but he agrees that Los Angeles would be a great first round opponent.

I want to avoid Toronto and Houston at all costs, so here’s what I want to have happen: Angels over Blue Jays in the Wild Card. Yankees over Houston in the ALDS. Royals face LAA and NYY en route to the Series.

But who knows how things will shake out? When I think about how much things can change in September, I always remember the 2011 Cardinals: 10.5 games out of 1st place on August 25. Took over the NL Central on the last day of the season and ended up winning the World Series over the Rangers. Anything is possible.

Game 4 starter: Duffy or Medlen?

With the addition of Johnny Cueto, the return of Kris Medlen from injury and the resurgence of Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy, this team is suddenly stacked with starters. No more of that Chris Young or Joe Blanton business. Throw in Edinson Volquez, who has been our most consistently wonderful starter this year, and you’ve got a pretty formidable rotation come postseason play.

But you don’t need 5 starters in the postseason – you only need 4. Which means one of these guys is going to end up in the bullpen.

But who?

Well, it’s clearly not going to be Cueto or Volquez. That would just be absurd. That leaves one of Medlen/Duffy/Ventura is headed to the pen. And after Game 6 of the World Series, there’s no way we send Ventura out there.

So that leaves Duffy or Medlen.

The initially obvious choice seems to be Medlen because he was just added to the rotation this past week (shipping Jeremy Guthrie to the bullpen), but he looked so solid in his first start on Monday (69 pitches – 6 IP 5 H 3 R 6 K), absolutely filthy at times, in fact, and made only a couple mistakes. The most impressive stat is his pitch count. He already is showing signs of his 2012 self. If he continues to improve over his remaining starts, to me, he’s our 4th starter.

Duffy provides something the rest of them don’t: he’s left-handed. We currently only have Franklin Morales out there, and he’s been fantastic, but it would be nice to have another lefty option out of the bullpen. If we play Toronto, Duffy is guaranteed to be in the bullpen as their entire line up bats right handed. Los Angeles is also righty-heavy. But the Yankees have a pretty left-handed lineup (Brian McCann, Didi Gregorious, Jacoby Ellsbury, Bretty Gardner, Stephen Drew) and so do the Rangers (Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Mitch Moreland, Rougned Odor, Shin-Soo Choo).

Conclusion: if the Royals face New York or Texas, I’d move Medlen to the pen and start Duffy in Game 4. Otherwise, I think Duffy ends up in the bullpen for the second straight year. But again, we’ll see how both of these guys look over the final month or so.

The Postseason Lineup

The trade for Ben Zobrist has me giddy. He has been one of my favorite ballplayers for a long time playing in Tampa and Oakland.

Zobrist is the ultimate utility man. He can play positions all over the field and he can play them all well. He’s the anti-Billy Butler. Outfield and second base have been his primary positions, but you don’t lose anything in terms of defense no matter where you put him.

Well, that’s not true. You probably would on this team with how good our defenders are. The exception is Alex Rios in RF. Rios is bad at defense. His hitting seems to be coming around finally. But Zobrist is better at both offense and defense.

At second base, Infante is slightly better, and the Royals seem to think he’s got good chemistry with Alcides Escobar up the middle. But how many times have we seen him fail to turn a double play? His shoulder is still pretty lame, and he doesn’t appear to have any zip on his 6-4-3 turns. We’ve lost multiple games this season purely because Omar’s arm isn’t strong enough to finish a double play. But the Royals are probably right, Omar’s defense is still better.

But on the offensive side, Infante is miserable. He’s currently hitting .219/.234/.311. He’s picked it up over the past week hitting triples in back to back games which is obviously not sustainable. But he’s nothing compared to Ben Zobrist: .286/.374/.468.

So when Gordon returns to LF in a week or so, does Zobrist move to RF or 2B?

To me, the answer seems pretty obvious: Infante should sit.

However, there are a few probable postseason pitchers who Infante has hit well over his career: Scott Kazmir (.407/.467/.778, 30 PAs), R.A. Dickey (.472/.474/.694, 38 PAs) and C.J. Wilson (.389/.389/.500, 18 PAs) haven’t fared so well versus Infante. Another option the Royals have – which is probably what they’ll end up doing – is to move Zobrist back and forth between RF and 2B based on pitcher matchups. That sounds a bit against Ned Yost‘s typical managing style – he’s much more prone to put guys in specified roles and keep them there – but I think that’s what will eventually happen.

Meanwhile, Jarrod Dyson is better defensively than both Zobrist and Rios combined. In a close game, Zobrist needs to remain at second and Dyson needs to be in for Rios in RF.

For some reason, when Zobrist first came over from Oakland, Yost would regularly bring in Dyson to pinch run for him in the 7th inning. This is not a smart move. In a close game, Zobrist’s bat is crucial in the lineup. Rios’s, on the other hand, is not. If the Royals are leading in a close game, Dyson should come in for Rios and Zobrist should move to 2B.

Here’s what I think our lineup will be…

Escobar SS
Zobrist 2B
Cain CF
Hosmer 1B
Morales DH
Gordon LF
Moustakas 3B
Perez C
Rios RF

You can make an argument that Gordon should lead off, and I’d listen. Boy, would I listen. But c’mon, that’s not happening at this point. Esky is your leadoff hitter, for better or for worse.

And I see the back to back lefties too, and Ned loves stacking his lineups L-R-L-R.

Shoot. Now that I look at it, with Rios at the bottom, you could even start Dyson, pinch hit Rios at some point and move Infante in to 2B and Zobrist to RF late. Gah! It’s wonderful. So many options.

Which points to why Zobrist is so valuable: he creates options with his versatility. He’s even a switch hitter! But the ability to move him around and bring whoever you want off the bench to pinch hit makes him way more valuable than any of his stats claim.

***

That’s plenty for now. Good to be back in the swing of things. Again, sorry about the extended silence, you guys. It won’t happen again.

-apc.

Photo cred: foxsports.com.

The DH

And here we go again.

Last week, Bartolo Colon got his first RBI hit since 2005. We all laughed and had a jolly time with it, celebrating how fun it can be when a blind squirrel finds a nut. For a moment, it seemed like there were worse things in the world than pitchers swinging a bat.

This week, Adam Wainwright, the Cardinals staff ace, was batting and hit a weak infield pop up. He stumbled out of the batters box limping. The moment I saw it, I knew it was an achilles injury. Wainwright, typically a decent hitter, is going to miss the rest of the season. Which is absolutely devastating for the Cardinals, their fans, and baseball itself.

Also over the weekend, Max Scherzer injured his thumb during an at bat. The former Tiger and now Washington staff ace is expected to miss a start or two. And with those two injuries, lines are being drawn in the dirt again.

First of all, both of these injuries were flukey to say the least. Waino took a swing and on his first step out of the box, his back ankle just gave out on him. He could’ve done the same thing jumping off the mound to field a grounder or covering first base on a ball to first, or walking out of the dugout for crying out loud. And I’m sorry, but Scherzer’s is pitiful. Dude can’t swing a bat without straining his thumb? That’s weak.

It was Scherzer who really ignited the DH argument though, having this to say:

“If you look at it from the macro side, who’d people rather see hit — Big Papi or me? Who would people rather see, a real hitter hitting home runs or a pitcher swinging a wet newspaper? Both leagues need to be on the same set of rules.”

Apparently Scherzer wasn’t aware that by taking more money from the Nationals he would have to pretend to bat a couple times each start. Nevertheless, he has ignited again the argument all baseball fans have had a million times at this point: DH or no DH? 

And where do you lie? Power-thirsty AL fans want the DH to be universal because everyone wants to see more home runs and higher scoring games, right? Strategy-loving NL traditionalists want pitchers to keep hitting .089 and balk at the fact that a player would get paid to only play half the game because everyone wants to see a pitchers dual, right?

You probably already know where I stand, but if you don’t, I’ll remind you: I align myself with the NL fans, and for a few different reasons.

Yes, I’m a Royals fan, and I enjoy trips to #DongTown just as much as the next guy, but I grew up a Cardinals fan and was taught that baseball is primarily a mental game. It’s strategy and fundamentals over the course of a marathon season. Call me a traditionalist if you want, I don’t care, but baseball is a game of 9 players, and the beauty of it is that all 9 players play both sides. At its core, the DH goes against the game.

Interestingly, since the DH was introduced, pitchers have slowly hit worse and worse. Over the past 40 years, pitcher batting average has dropped consistently – from .150 in 1975 to .089 so far in 2015.

This shouldn’t be shocking. Sports are different now. When pitchers know they won’t have to hit, they can specialize in in pitching and ignore the other part of the game. Everybody has to specialize these days.

In middle school and high school, the pitcher is typically one of the most athletic guys on the field. They play both sides and they play both well. But these days, when players graduate high school and get drafted into professional baseball, they quit practicing half of their game and focus on improving their pitching.

Well, no wonder their production at the plate has plummeted over the years – they quit swinging the bat the day they get signed! Today, young pitchers can bank even more on the fact they might not have to bat ever! The less they care to work on their swing, the worse they’ll look at the plate.

However, some pitchers, Madison Bumgarner for example, take great pride in their hitting and work hard at it. Bumgarner has two career grand slams and I still can’t stand the guy for what he did in October, so forget what he thinks anyway.

Still, is there anything more rewarding as a pitcher than “helping your own cause,” as they say? When you can put up runs and produce on the mound, that’s a special night. Like many of us, I think of Zack Greinke when I think about pitchers hitting. I bet he would’ve loved to take some hacks during those 2007-09 seasons with Kansas City. If a pitcher can hit better than the opposing pitcher, it’s a huge advantage for a team.

It also holds pitchers like Jeff Samardzija accountable because they themselves might get plunked. Think twice next time, says Kelvin Herrera.

That said, I agree – pitchers are generally terrible hitters. In the pros, they have never been and will never be great. They were better before, no doubt, but still mostly bad. And now they are worse than ever. Yet it only happens two or three times each game, and if they’re strategic with it, pitchers can make productive outs to advance the baserunner by bunting or just putting the ball in play. So don’t hear me wrong -I’m not trying to argue that pitchers are good hitters here (though they were better, once upon a time). 

Okay but enough about pitchers. Let’s go at it from another angle. Specifically, the DH angle.

You want to talk about the embarrassment that is pitchers hitting? Fine. Then let’s also talk about the embarrassment of designated-hitters fielding and throwing. Just like I wrote in my bit on Billy Butler last week, designated hitters are, at maximum, two-dimensional. They can hit for power and average. They’re professional hitters. They are not ballplayers.

I think much more highly of an all around ballplayer than a two-dimensional slugger. They’re more fun to watch and make the game beautiful.

I also think the DH does an injustice to these fundamentally sound defensively versatile guys like Josh Harrison or Daniel Descalso or Don Kelly or Ben Zobrist – guys who can go out and play multiple positions, and field them all well hit for decent average too. These guys don’t have the WAR value that pure DHs do, but how would they? Designated hitters are only expected to do the one thing they’re good at! They aren’t demerited for their lack of defensive ability or arm. Today’s culture values offense and devalues defense, and it’s an injustice to guys who can provide flexibility to a lineup.

They also don’t get paid for their skills the way DHs do, which is a shame.

Granted, these are just four random players who can play multiple positions, but they all have different stories based on their abilities and league. Descalso and Kelly both come off the bench in opposite leagues (well, until Kelly went to Miami this offseason). Descalso ends up playing nearly every day in the NL – 1380 plate appearances worth 1.1 WAR in 5 years with the Cardinals (with Colorado now). He’s very comparable to Don Kelly, but Kelly has only seen 1157 in his 6 years with the Tigers, worth slightly less: 0.8 WAR.

Harrison and Zobrist are both starters in the NL and AL, respectively, who play multiple positions. Zobrist has been in the league much longer, and Harrison is just entering the prime of his career, but both provide so much flexibility for their teams. Zobrist, with the Rays/Athletics, has played every position but pitcher and catcher. Harrison, with the Pirates, has played every position but catcher, centerfield and first base – he even pitched 1/3 of an inning in 2013.

All that to say, both of these guys provide serious flexibility for their teams, and are extremely valuable especially in a National League lineup. When Zobrist was a free agent this offseason, I heard fans of every team across baseball wish they would add a Ben Zobrist – his versatility would make any team immediately better. Meanwhile, Billy Butler had about 4 teams who needed a guy of his…caliber. 

And the luxury for Clint Hurdle, the Pirates manager, to be able to pinch hit for any position player is so helpful because it allows Harrison to shift over. I mean, the primary reason Harrison has never played centerfield is obvious: you never hit for Andrew McCutchen.

But in the American League, there’s no need for flexibility. You just go out there and play the game in the same spot in the lineup in the same position every inning. It lacks creativity and limits ballplayers’ versatility. And to me, that’s way less fun.

The DH is the definition of inflexibility.

I’ve been playing a lot of Strat-o-matic with the 2014 Tampa Bay Rays lately, and Zobrist is such a weapon. His defensive versatility allows for so many options. He can play 2B, SS, LF, RF and CF, and he plays them all well. You can bring in stronger hitters off the bench at any position and Zobrist can easily shift fill in admirably wherever needed. That added value doesn’t show up in his own WAR, but is consistently putting his team in a better position. How much team WAR has been added over the years by Zobrist’s ability to move around, I wonder? Of course, Zobrist is an AL player who has been used by Billy Beane in creative ways, but my point is that flexibility is an underrated value in baseball these days.

Which is what I think is so great about baseball: it’s a team sport and each ballplayer may bring various strengths and weaknesses to a club, but ultimately each of them plays both ways.

So that’s a lot about the flexibility – or lack thereof – that the DH provides.

Finally and ultimately, I dislike the DH because it eliminates a lot of strategy in the game. I love the double switch when the pitcher gets pinch-hit for in the 7th. I love watching pitchers lay down a sacrifice bunt. I love how pitchers batting allows more bench players to see game time and play a role.

A few years ago, I was at an extra-inning Cardinals game where they pinch-ran with Joe Kelly, the fastest player still on their bench. Reminder: Joe Kelly is a pitcher. He scored from second on a Rafael Furcal single and the Cardinals walked off because of his speed.

You don’t see that in DHville. Instead, you’ll see a position player come in to pinch run for the bumblingly slow DH after his last at bat because his only contribution is over with. AL managers rarely get creative because the lineup never has to change and the manager never needs to adjust.

In the NL, the manager actually makes in-game decisions. In the AL, he just sets the lineup and makes the occasional pitching change.

I understand it’s not “fun” to watch pitchers hit, but again, it only happens two or three times per game and even those plate appearances can be productive at bats. The ability for pitchers to utilize a bat has plummeted over the past 30 years since the addition of the DH. But home runs aren’t the only thing fun about baseball.

Utilizing the bullpen becomes more challenging too to avoid the pitcher spot in the lineup. If you know your pitcher is leading off the next inning, you might think twice about taking out the current pitcher so you can pinch hit for him. This may even lead to poorer matchups in the short term simply in an attempt to conserve arms. Is it possible* that the NL sees a slight spike in HRs against the bullpen because the offense is getting better matchups? Hmm.

* – Somebody find me those stats. I’m too lazy to look it up right now. 

It is fun, at least for some of us, to watch teams make decisions with their bench and bullpen. Suddenly, having an intelligent manager makes all the difference. Baseball is a game os strategy, and the DH has eliminated so much of that portion of the game I love.

Anyway. The long and short of this discussion, I think, is that being able to have the argument between DH and P hitting is about the only thing that separates the AL and NL anymore. It used to be that you never saw anything of the other league except the All Star Game and the World Series. And then you’d root for your League because it wasn’t just about your team, but your League having the upper hand over the other one.

But everything has changed now. The AL/NL competition doesn’t exist anymore. The All-Star game means nothing (or should mean nothing, but does, in fact, determine home field advantage in the WS). Interleague play has the Royals traveling to Wrigley Field next month, and to St. Louis every year. There’s no mystery between the leagues and there’s certainly no more loyalty.

At this point, the designated hitter is the only point of contention. So my last reason for supporting no-DH in the National League is purely that – to maintain something different between the two so we have something that sets them apart. The AL will never get rid of the DH – there are too many multi-million dollar contracts being paid to guys who would suddenly be out of a job – and despite what people are saying, I don’t think the NL will adopt the DH anytime soon either.

They haven’t voted on it again since 1980, and those voting bodies don’t even exist anymore. It’s not going to change, and I’m very happy about that.

In the end, it’s a difference of opinion based on what baseball fans enjoy watching. Which is why I hope the status quo remains – fun for all.

Now that I’ve said my piece, all you power-thirsty AL fans can fire away. You won’t offend me if you think my perspective is archaic or under-evolved. I think the DH has caused the game to devolve in the wrong direction, personally. The game adjusts and changes for the better every season on its own. Look at defensive shifts just in the last few years – makes the game better. No need to make a drastic sweeping change to the fundamental structure of the game in order to continue to make baseball better. It was already a great game.

But, whatever. Go ahead and throw your stones.

-apc.

Photo cred: Getty Images, accessed here.

The Royals are 9-3: the Oakland fiasco, and a tale from my days as a pitcher.

It only happened once.

I was 18 years old. It was the summer following my senior year and one of my teammates had been hit hard in the back by the opposing pitcher. As my friend trotted down to first, this jerk of a pitcher decided to give my friend a head nod and blow him a kiss. What a punk. I don’t remember all the details about the game, but I remember losing and our whole team fuming. We went to Buffalo Wild Wings after pretty much every game, and that night we talked about what had transpired.

I was our team’s starting pitcher. My teammates, without much consent from me, elected that I plunk the kid the next time I faced him. I needed to respond on behalf of our mate. I agreed to the terms, but inside I was pretty apprehensive. Besides, I was way more worked up about avenging our loss with a win than I was about that kissyface pitcher.

Somehow, by the time we played them again, not only did my whole team know it was coming, but so did the other team and a decent number of our “fans.” There was a murmur in the crowd as the kid came to bat the first time. I still wasn’t certain whether I was going to go through with it.

He was leading off the inning. My catcher, Jim, dropped one finger and slapped his left thigh – fastball, inside. I turned the ball around in my glove as my index and ring finger found the seams. I nodded to Jim, wound up and delivered the pitch.

I hit him in the neck.

That was the only time I ever hit someone on purpose.

*********

The Royals and the Athletics don’t like each other much right now. A series that was supposed to feature the celebratory homecoming of Billy Butler turned out to be as heated as a mid-April series can possibly be. The benches cleared in all three games, and according to most national media outlets, a new rivalry was born.

It all started with a reckless slide from Brett Lawrie on Friday night injuring Alcides Escobar. The slide looked questionable to say the least.

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First of all, Lawrie would’ve been safe if he’d just gone straight to the bag, but he clearly goes far to the inside with his spikes up high. A major no-no. Lawrie’s left foot catches Escobar in the ankle and his right knee knocks into Escobar’s knee. Lawrie claims he was not intending to hurt Escober. I probably believe him. But he did. And it happened because he made a reckless and stupid decision. The Royals went on to win, 6-4.

On Saturday, the Royals teammates wanted to stand up for their fallen teammate by retaliating. Not only that, I think the Royals wanted to retaliate on a whole string of HBP injustice that had come their way. Throwing at Lawrie wouldn’t be a message simply to him, it would be a message to the entire league. We won’t just roll over for you. We’re here to fight back.

Surprisingly, Yordano Ventura chose not to throw at Lawrie the first time he faced him. Instead, he got him to ground out. It may have just been due to the game situation that he decided to not give him the pass to first base, but I was still happy about this turn of events. Despite the pressure to respond, Ventura might end up taking the high road, refusing to engage in such extracurricular shenanigans. Good for him.

Except then Yordano had somewhat of a meltdown. He gave up 5 runs in the 4th capped by a 3-run homer off the bat of Josh Reddic.k. Up next: Brett Lawrie. And with the game suddenly somewhat out of reach, it felt like it was going to happen. Sure enough, with his frustration mounting, Ventura threw a 99 mph fastball at Lawrie, plunking him hard on the elbow. Ventura was immediately ejected, and that was the only excitement the night had for us at The K. The Royals went quietly as the Athletics went on to win the game, 5-0.

*********

I remember my dugout going bananas. The opposing coach came out to argue with the umpire that I be thrown out of the game. Kissyface rolled around on the ground for a moment, but wanting to look strong, he pulled himself up, rubbed his neck and started walking to first base. He tried to convince one of his coaches that he was fine as he walked. I’m sure he probably was, it’s not like my fastball was anything to behold.

Jim trotted out to me on the mound and handed me the baseball. He took off his catchers mask and told me something encouraging, but I don’t remember what. He patted my fanny and jogged back behind the plate. I turned around and stood on the mound staring away from the action and out toward the scoreboard trying to act unaware of the commotion behind me. I refused to engage more of the drama – not because I was above it, but because I knew I was guilty.

I was ashamed. The mound can be a pretty lonely place.

*********

The Royals thought everything was square. Lawrie had taken out Escobar with an ugly slide. Ventura had responded by doinking him good. All done. Put a bow on it.

Apparently, Oakland thought differently.

Because Sunday, in the opening frame, Scott Kazmir hit Lorenzo Cain in the leg.

Both benches were warned – which seems to note that the umpires thought everything was square too…if they hadn’t, Kazmir would’ve been tossed a la Yordano. Royals pitching coach, Dave Eiland hollered out at Kazmir from the dugout which got Eiland ejected. Ned Yost then went out to ask what had happened, and he got ejected. Play continued without the two Royals coaches, but Scott Kazmir was not ejected.

Danny Duffy, the Royals starter, didn’t seem rattled by the whole ordeal. He made short work of the Athletics in the 2nd inning, and it seemed that the Royals would just let the A’s have the last word and get back to winning baseball games. Who cares who retaliated last and whether or not teams are square? You win the game, and it doesn’t matter. Winning is the final blow, the last word, the ultimate silencer.

Which is why it was surprising Kazmir chose to hit Cain in the first place. Sure, the Royals retaliated to Lawrie’s initial gaffe, and if that didn’t make things square, surely Oakland coming away with the victory on Saturday was enough for both teams to move on and get back to baseball, right? Winning should’ve silenced it, even if the A’s felt Yordano’s retaliation was uncalled for.

Apparently that wasn’t the case, and Kazmir opened up a whole new can of worms.

In the 8th inning, with the Royals trailing 2-1, Kelvin Herrera decided the team needed to retaliate a second time. With Lawrie batting again, Herrera threw his first pitch way inside but it didn’t hit Lawrie. The second pitch didn’t either, but it didn’t matter. A 100 mph fastball, launched about 12 feet wide of the mark flew behind Lawrie’s back. Herrera was ejected. Headed into the dugout, Herrera pointed at Lawrie’s head. The HBP wasn’t successfully delivered, but the message certainly was. Benches cleared. Bullpens emptied. Acting manager and Royals bench coach, Don Wakamatsu, was ejected (twice?), and Alcides Escobar was ejected. Franklin Morales came in to finish the inning, getting Lawrie to pop up.

But from where I was sitting, the Royals looked really bad. Really really bad. They looked immature and whiney. Childish even. America’s Darling October Underdogs were suddenly looking like a bunch of cry babies shouting, “but he started it!” Being a good team will get you a lot of haters. It’s a natural thing. It makes sense. You beat a bunch of teams and suddenly you have a target on you. How a team responds to that hatred speaks volumes. I didn’t like that Herrera threw behind Lawrie. Not at all. It looked like a last ditch effort since the game was slipping away.

I was proud of Danny Duffy and the rest of the team for burying their emotions and getting back to playing the game. Don’t worry about Kazmir’s hit early, just play the game and get the last word by winning. But as the game went later, and the Royals were still down, I guess Herrera felt they needed to get their knocks in somehow. For the first time in as long as I can remember, I struggled to 100% back this team’s actions today. It was conflicting.

*********

I remember the whole ordeal being pretty embarrassing and confusing.

I never really wanted to hit the kid, but I felt like if I didn’t then I’d be letting my team down. I didn’t feel like we needed to retaliate beyond letting the scoreboard do the talking, but I’d done the deed anyway. I had always been taught that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and to “turn the other cheek” and all that business. I felt like I had betrayed my moral philosophy, and now everyone was mad at me pointing fingers. Worse: I was pointing the finger at myself.

I didn’t get tossed. The umpire walked out to the mound and told me to get things under control or else I might be next time. Which was a relief, sure, but now I had a runner on first base with nobody out. Fantastic. Not only did it make things worse relationally, it put our team in a worse position to win the game, and everyone and Herm Edwards knows that winning the game is the point. Putting him on base felt completely nonsensical to me, but my teammates seemed to think I had performed admirably.

And now he was over on first base clapping his hands and begging me to throw over. I was in a worse position because I’d chosen to retaliate. Why would I do that to myself?! Instead of just trying to get him out, I had allowed the situation to escalate. I had a chance to respond by striking the kid out. Instead, he was threatening to steal second base.

My teammates seemed pleased – I had stood up for my teammate and held true to the code of baseball which embraces such a response – but then why did I feel so crummy about it? It was conflicting to say the least.

*********

The ending of Sunday’s game was huge for the 2015 Royals. 

Following Herrera’s ejection, there were two different outcomes. Either the Royals don’t score and the Athletics take the series in front of an angry home crowd and we all come off looking like a bunch of punks. Or, we wind up winning the game, take the series, and the Athletics can revisit their frustration when we see them next in June.

Those two messages are drastically different. You don’t want to be known as a bunch of hotheads. You want to be known as a bunch of winners.

Thankfully, the Royals managed to respond in bottom of the 8th. Paulo Orlando walked. Moose moved him up with a ground out. Lorenzo Cain doubled, scoring Orlando. Cain stole third. Hosmer walked. Then Kendrys Morales hit a monster double to straight away center, scoring both Cain and Hosmer. The Royals went on to win 4-2.

Hitting players with pitches, to me, is rarely necessary. I understand that baseball has an unwritten code of retaliation. Pitchers are going to stand up for their hitters after they get plunked. It’s as old as baseball itself. But that doesn’t mean it’s always the right move. And I’m not sure the Royals didn’t come off as immature hotheads this weekend.

However, this has become a problem across the American League. Two of the Royals starting 9 are now injured due to questionable play on the part of their opponents. Along with Escobar, Alex Rios got hit in the hand (1 of the 14 Royals hit batsmen this young season) and is now on the 15-day DL. At a certain point, the Royals must send a message to the rest of the league stating that they refuse to allow teams to do things like that without repercussions. I think Ventura sent that message. After Sunday’s game, Brett Lawrie told CSN’s Joe Stiglich, “I can’t even get in the box and do my job without thinking, ‘he could miss with one up and in.'” This is a good thing. Other teams need to be aware that playing dirty against the Royals won’t be tolerated. We can’t let opponents pick off our players one by one. We must stay healthy if we’re going to succeed again this year.

That said, winning cures all sorrows, and if a team wants to get chippy with the Royals, fine. Because as long as Kansas City can hoist the “W” on the Hall of Fame, a different message is sent: it’s not that we don’t like you, we’re just better than you.

My take on this weekend’s happenings is this: even though I don’t like how Yordano Ventura went about it, I do think it’s important for us to declare to the league that if you mess with us, there may be a Yordano fastball headed at you soon. I think the HBP epidemic had hurt us enough that we needed to make that point clear. But…it could’ve and should’ve ended at that. I get that Kazmir started it back up again, but Herrera’s decision to throw at Lawrie was not remotely necessary. It was immature. The game was close and winning was still a possibility. The Royals would’ve looked much better having ended the conversation by just winning.

That last paragraph probably makes it seem like I’m flip flopping here, but I do think standing up for your players is important too. I just think 9 times out of 10 you can stand up by winning. Who cares what Oakland has to say, as long as they didn’t win?

They’re a good baseball team. They’re having fun, and other teams don’t like it. Well, the rest of the American League is going to have to get used to the Royals fun loving ways because it’s how they play the game. It might seem a bit off putting to some, but it’s genuine joy, and none of it has been mean spirited in the past. These guys are a family – it’s not about rubbing it in, it’s about celebrating their successes.

That late rally may have saved way more than we even know. Instead of ending frustrated, complaining about the opposing team, we ended with Lorenzo smiling and looking forward to the next series against the Minnesota Twins.

I think ultimately, the Royals had an opportunity to respond by winning. Don’t get caught up in the drama of retaliation. Retaliate by beating them. I felt like both times Oakland initiated – first with Lawrie’s slide, then with Kazmir’s pitch – we had an opportunity to respond by letting the game dictate the narrative. Then we got down 5-0 and Yordano snapped. Then we were down 2-1 and Herrera snapped.

But ultimately, we won the series, and got the last word. Unfortunately I think a lot of drama and heaped on hatred could’ve been avoided had we just stuck to playing to win. I get that the A’s were the initiators, but winning is the ultimate silencer.

We’re good. We know it. Let it speak for itself.

*********

Looking back, I’m not proud of what I did as an 18 year old. I gave in to the pressure from my teammates and intentionally threw a baseball at another person. That’s not cool, and I regret doing it to this day. I came off looking like a punk kid trying to pick a fight.

We went on to win the game. In fact, the kid tried to steal second base on the next pitch and Jim threw him out by a wide margin. And after that happened, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. Let the game send the messages for you – especially if you’re the better team. On the drive to Buffalo Wild Wings that night I remember thinking that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d hit the kid or not after what ended up happening. We would’ve sent the same message anyway.

We had the last word – not because I hit the kid – because we won.

-apc.

Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images, accessed here

The Return of Billy Butler

I’ve never been a huge fan of Billy Butler.

At least not Billy the Ballplayer. Many of you know this. If nothing else, my posts and tweets between 2007 and 2014 support this. I do not support the DH in general (another conversation for another time), but I’ve never felt that Billy Butler was even a good DH, let alone a good ballplayer.

My favorite ballplayers are those who are good at all aspects of the game. Five Tool players, if you will. The five tools are defense, speed, arm, hitting for power, and hitting for average. The more tools a guy has, the more inclined I am to be a fan. Lorenzo Cain, for example, has emerged as someone who has at least 3 tools. Jarrod Dyson has 3 tools. Alex Gordon has 4 tools. Alcides Escobar has 3. Moose has 3. Kendrys Morales has 2 tools. Salvador Perez has 4 tools. Eric Hosmer has 4 tools.

Billy Butler has 1 tool.

He can hit for average. That’s all he could ever do as a Royal. He doesn’t throw. He never really played defense. He is one of the slowest runners in the game. And despite what you may have seen before, Billy was never a consistent power threat at the plate. He had one year with 29 HRs and another with 21 HRs, but overall, he couldn’t get the ball out of the yard. Sure, he hit a ball out of Minute Maid Park the other night, but the theme of Billy’s career was that he hit singles and doubles. Sometimes hits that should’ve been doubles would turn into singles because of his lack of speed.

Since Butler debuted for the Royals in 2007, not a single qualifying designated hitter ranks lower in SLG according to Fangraphs (.449). He just doesn’t have the power output that a DH ought to. He is, however, second in AVG behind only Victor Martinez (.309) and third in OBP behind David Ortiz (.384) and Martinez (.373).

So he has a tool: he hits for average. He does that well.

At this point, the game of baseball seems to have moved on from the designated hitter. There are really only a couple true DHs in the league anymore, and only Ortiz and Martinez are All Star caliber. To me, the reality is that professional ballplayers need to be able to do more than just hit. Which is why you will always hear me refer to designated hitters as “professional hitters” and not “ballplayers.” They don’t play ball. All they do is swing a bat and watch their teammates play the rest of the game without them. Hitting – when based off the 5 tools – makes up just 40% of the tools needed to be a complete ballplayer.

Thus, without the power game, Billy is 20% ballplayer and 50% hitter. I just can’t get excited about that as a baseball fan.

Caveat: There was that one point when Hosmer was hurt last year when Billy got some extended time at first, and his overall number spiked greatly. Something happened in Billy that made him a better ballplayer when he wasn’t confined to only one dimension of the game. Which might be why the Oakland Athletics decided to take a gamble on him at first base this year. I wonder what could happen…but I digress.

Where was I? Oh yes – I was never a Billy Butler fan.

I was one of the many Royals fans who absolutely loved pointing out every time Billy Butler grounded into a double play. Billy has the most GIDPs of anyone not named Albert Pujols.

I was one of the many Royals fans begging with Dayton Moore to trade Billy Butler at the trade deadline last year and pull something positive out of him in the end in return.

I was one of the many Royals fans who would make sarcastic comments regarding Billy Butler’s speed on each of the dozens of times he would run first to third on a single. “He’s just SO FAST,” I’d say.

But then he did this…

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And then this…

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And none of that DH garbage mattered anymore. In a wild turn of events, I suddenly loved Billy Butler.

But as the past 6 months have gone on, I’ve realized it’s not Billy Butler the Professional Hitter who I finally fell for. It’s not his skills as a single tool player that finally won me over. It was Billy Butler the person who I was suddenly crazy about.

It was Billy Butler the Symbol of the Resurrected Royals who stole that base.

I mean, just look at that chubby smile! How can’t you love a moment like that one!? He doesn’t really even do it right.

His production on the field didn’t even matter anymore. It was about what he represented as a member of the Kansas City Royals for 10 years that mattered to us after that moment.

Billy Butler (along with Alex Gordon) were the two Royals players who you could look at and think, “this team has come a long way.” They were the two who had been around the longest and had experienced so much disappointment and heartache. And it’s not like they were stars while the rest of the team stunk, they were just as much a part of the sadness as they were apart of the joy during the playoff run. Gordon was a miserable third baseman and thought to be a bust. This fan base has had such a love/hate relationship with Billy over the years too. He was in and out of the doghouse over and over again. It was just last September that the was benched for a week and pouted to Ned Yost the whole time.

After October, and specifically after that stolen base in the ALDS, none of that pouting in the doghouse business mattered to me anymore. Even if Billy had a terrible 2014 season (which he mostly did), it didn’t matter. His legacy in KC isn’t connected to his production anymore. His legacy is now the face at the top of this post – his is the embodiment of the Resurrected Royals.

Or maybe that’s a bad way to say it…I think we’d all rather Alex Gordon be the body. Billy Butler can be the soul.

But it’s even more than that – it’s how Billy talks about my city. He calls Kansas City home. He loves the fans. He loves the BBQ. He loves the city. He has voiced over and over again that he hopes to be back in KC someday. He misses it and didn’t want to leave. He doesn’t even seem to want to cover up that fact for his teammates or for Oakland fans 0 I mean, it probably has to irk them a little bit, right? This team just knocked them out of the playoffs last year. He’s almost too open about it, in my opinion. But it’s clear that he loved KC.

Billy Butler, unlike most professional athletes, somehow managed to become one of us.

He’s a Kansas Citian.

And the way he talks about my city makes me so proud.

So why will I be cheering for Billy Butler this weekend when he returns with the Oakland Athletics and gets his 2014 AL Champs ring, celebrating his 29th birthday in the ballpark he knows best? Not for what he did for this team to help them win, but for what he now represents for this ball club and my city. One tool or ten tools, it doesn’t matter. He has a place in the heart of the city now.

We’ll all cheer for Country Breakfast tonight and all weekend. We might even tear up and cry a bit. But make no mistake, I won’t be celebrating what he did on the field. It’s what Billy Butler represents that I’m celebrating: a team reborn and a love affair between a city and one of its own.

Best of luck, Billy.

-apc.

Banner image via Sporting News. GIFs posted here and from KC Star here.

The Royals are 7-0: AL HBP Conspiracy, Rios’s injury, and the problem of that other good team in our division.

Well, here we are a week later and the Royals have lost the same number of games they had last time I posted about them: zero.

This is obviously not sustainable. They will lose eventually, and when they do, this team will shrug, brush off its shoulders, and come to play again the next day. Because that’s what I’ve come to know of this team now. They play to win every single game, and they expect to win every single game. And so far in 2015, they’ve done exactly that. The bullpen and defense have been what we expect them to be. The starting pitching has been terrific. Those are not shocking. What is shocking is this team’s offensive output.

With the exception of Gordon, Infante and perhaps Hosmer, this entire offense is on fire right now. Four different Royals have a hit in every game: Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, Kendrys Morales and Salvador Perez. Mike Moustakas has an OBP of .500. So do Cain and Morales. Morales is slugging .724, but doesn’t even have the highest SLG on the team. That belongs to Salvador Perez (.759) who also leads this team with 3 of the teams 10 home runs.

But can this team top the Tigers?

The only offense that compares to the Royals through 7 games is the Detroit Tigers, who sit at 6-1 and one game back of the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central. Which, regardless of whether this offensive output is sustainable (it’s not) or whether this team is playoff bound (they are) what remains to be seen from this team is this:

Can this team beat the Detroit Tigers?

Recent history suggests they cannot. They went 6-13 against the Tigers in 2014 and finished 2nd in the division by a measly 1 game. One game! All they needed was to win 8 of 19 and they would’ve won the division outright. Instead, they were forced to play in the Wild Card game. Why? Because they couldn’t beat the Detroit Tigers.

The Royals have all the confidence in the world, and I believe that confidence will continue through the first 22 games. But game 23 matches us up against the Tigers, and for some reason this team always seems to whither when they face Detroit.

The first week of the 2015 season is over, and sports sites are releasing their first updated power rankings. Doesn’t matter where you look, KC and Detroit are going to be at or near the top. Which speaks this reality: as hot as the Roys are, the Central, whether the Royals like it or not, still goes through Detroit. So, sure this team is on fire, but the Tigers have won this division 4 consecutive years, and if the Royals can’t take them down, then it’s back to the Wild Card game again in 2015.

The Royals were a miraculous finish away from being one and done in the playoffs in 2014. Had that Wild Card game ended in favor of the A’s – if Salvy’s grounder had been one inch to the right and into Josh Donaldson‘s glove – then the postseason run wouldn’t exist, and last season would feel like a failure, and the current swagger this team has wouldn’t exist either. We’re fortunate to be where we are.

My point: even if this team is outrageously good and we win 95 games…if the Tigers win 96, then it’s not what we want. Then all we get is a coin flip matchup against some 85-win team that has all the momentum having just clinched the final AL playoff spot. If we want to avoid another potential 1 and done, we have to be able to take down the Tigers.

We’ll revisit this in a couple weeks when Detroit comes to Kauffman. But for now, let’s all live under the assumption that the Royals are the best team in baseball, shall we? That’s way more fun.

The American League HBP Conspiracy

Speaking of fun: let’s talk conspiracy theories.

I’m a conspiracy theorist at heart. Real life is fun and all, but life is way more exciting if you try hard to buy into conspiracies. Why just accept that the United States landed on the moon when you can toss around the idea that it was all faked in a NASA studio? Why just accept that the Denver Airport is simply an airport and not…something else? Why just accept that Area 51 is just a military base and not a space alien research center? Why just accept the fact that Jeff Goldblum, Will Smith, Randy Quaid and Bill Pullman didn’t save planet earth?

And why just accept that it’s a mere coincidence that American League pitchers have hit TWELVE Royals batters in 7 games?

Moose and Alex have been hit 4 times apiece. Lorenzo twice. Hosmer and Rios both once. Rios’s HBP just landed him on the 15-day disabled list with a fracture in his hand. Is something up here? Are AL pitchers targeting our players? Because let’s be honest, injuries and fatigue are all that can slow this team down.

There are counter arguments, sure. The first damning evidence would emerge by looking at the count was when guys got plunked.

  • 0-0: Lorenzo v Samardzija, Lorenzo v Quintana, Moose v Santiago, Gordon v Alvarez, Moose v Salas, Gordon v Ramos, Rios v Graham
  • 0-1: Gordon v Samarzija, Gordon v Duensing
  • 1-0: Hosmer v Alvarez
  • 1-2: Moose v Quintana
  • 3-0: Moose v Wilson

Well look at that. 7 of the 12 HBPs came on the first pitch.

Except this isn’t as egregious as it initially looks because the probability a guy gets hit decreases with every pitch. Not because guys are less likely to get hit, but because they’re less likely to see that pitch count. You figure guys hit the first pitch like 10% of the time, which means something like 35% of at bats make it to 1-0 and 55% make it to 0-1 based on normal strike to ball ratio which is roughly 2:1. Then there’s a chance a guy hits the second pitch of the at bat, and the odds decrease even more.

So, naturally, more guys get hit on a 0-0 count purely because everyone sees that pitch count. Odds decrease exponentially as the at bat continues. (But the odds of getting hit by a pitch maintain the same odds regardless of pitch count.) Ten of the twelve HBPs were on the first or second pitch of the at bat, which is a distribution that makes perfect sense.

The other two outliers were obviously accidental too: Moose getting hit with a 1-2 count against Jose Quintana is obviously not intentional. Why would anyone hit a guy when he’s already got two strikes on him? And Moose getting hit with the 3-0 pitch by CJ Wilson barely grazed him. It was even questionable as to whether it was a walk or a hit by pitch when it happened.

Moustakas and Gordon getting hit most isn’t shocking either. They’re both left handed hitters with power so pitchers are trying to keep them from getting their arms extended by pitching them inside. You can throw Hosmer’s HBP in this group too. Same situation trying to saw him off. Throwing inside means more batters hit. It’s science.

Lorenzo getting plunked by Jeff Samardzija on Opening Day was definitely intentional. First pitch fastball following a Moose home run. And it seems possible that Gordon or Moose getting hit by Samardzija is also likely, but otherwise most of these don’t seem malicious.

Apparently I’m not the only one making something out of this. The KC Star wrote about it today too.

I should mention that the Texas Rangers also have been hit 12 times this season, but it’s not like they’re a threat or anything. The only waves they’re making this year came on this embarrassingly seismic moment. So maybe we are (I am) looking into this more than we ought to.

Yes. That is exactly the case. Let’s move on.

Rios Injured. Gore called up.

Never good to lose a starter, and it’s definitely not ideal to lose a guy you’re paying $11M this year. But as far as overall damage done, there are far worse players the Royals could be without.

Dyson will play center. Cain will move to right. And the Ultimate Outfield will start together for the first time in 2015. (By the way, googling “Ultimate Outfield” brings up Royals links at the top. Just wonderful stuff.)

To replace Dyson’s pinch running threat, the Royals have added Terrance Gore to the 25-man roster. And with Paulo Orlando available as a sixth outfielder, they can run for a guy like Morales without having to send Gore’s under-developed bat to the plate.

After Gordon, Infante and Hosmer, Rios is the only other guy who you could say isn’t “on fire” right now. He’s hit very well, but not nearly at the level of Salvy/Kendrys/Esky/Moose. Dyson is a drop off offensively, but his defense and speed doesn’t make the drop off as bad as one might expect. At least that’s my opinion. Still, hopefully Rios isn’t out long and the discomfort doesn’t linger the way his injured thumb did throughout 2014 with Texas.

Tony Kornheiser’s quote on PTI

I will leave you with this.

“Why can’t Kansas City be the best team in the American League for two or three or four years? Why can’t they?”

Thank you, Sir Tony. Thank you.

-apc.

The Royals are 1-0: lots to get excited about from Opening Day.

Aside from the clouds, a few moments of spitting rain and a 10 minute panic attack after Yordano Ventura grabbed his right wrist, Opening Day went swimmingly.

The Royals won 10-1 and Ventura was the dominant pitcher we need him to be. The bats were hot as Jeff Samardzija was introduced to the Royals high contact bats. Every Royals hitter reached base but Omar Infante, and even he hit the ball hard on Monday and deserved a better line than he ended up with. Mike Moustakas and Alex Rios homered. Morales drew three walks. Ryan Madson threw his first inning of professional baseball in 4 years in the 9th. It was a fun game.

But it’s just one game, and we can’t thump our chest too much. Just like last year’s Opening Day loss to the Tigers, we can’t jump to conclusions about this team based on one game. It’s a 162 game season, and this one game – despite it being a stellar performance – only counts for 1, and the Royals magic number is 162. So, there’s still a lot of work to do.

That said, we can pull a few nuggets of speculation out and celebrate the signs of what may (or may not) be to come. Let’s get to it.

Moose’s first career opposite field home run.

Yes, you’re reading that correctly. Monday’s home run off Samardzija was Moose’s first ever to the opposite field. Here’s his HR chart via ESPN Stats & Information. i Three things stand out here.

The first thing that stands out is that one lone red dot in right field that is way further than all the others. That one came off of Lance Lynn on June 24, 2012. Recorded at 464 feet.

The second thing that stands out is the home run the farthest left, which is the one Moose hit on Monday. It’s obviously a rare scenario for Moose to hit anything to the left side, so to see him hit for power the opposite way is something to celebrate. I think if Moose can get it into his head that he can have success without pulling the ball, we could be in for a decent season from Mike Moustakas. Which would also be rare.

But then the third thing that stands out is that the home run wasn’t to left field at all. “Opposite field” is technically based on splitting the field right down the middle. As you can see, Moose’s homer barely qualifies. If you asked what part of the field that HR went to, you’d say it went to center field, not left. So technically, it was opposite field, but it wasn’t THAT opposite field. So let’s keep our emotions in check here because it wasn’t like he sliced one into the bullpen in right. So lets not get carried away and start talking like Moose now hits with power to all fields.

But still. It’s something.

The newcomers do not disappoint.

Did any Royals hitter walk three times in a game last year? I could probably look it up, but it’s easier to speculate that it never happened in 2014. Somebody prove me wrong.

We’re one game into the 2015 season and it’s already happened. Kendrys Morales walked three times on Monday. One of them was intentional. Last year the Royals finished dead last in all of baseball with 380 walks. Their team OBP still managed to end up middle of the pack aided by their high batting averages, but if we can work the count and get on base more, this team is going to be extremely dangerous on offense. With three yesterday, Morales is currently on pace for 486 walks. Obviously he’s not going to do that, but it’s fun to say. He also doubled. I still like this signing.

Alex Rios was even more impressive. He went 3-4 with a home run and a stolen base. In the 7th inning with the Royals already up 6-1, Rios got the pitch he was looking for on a 3-1 count and deposited it in the right field camera booth. Along with walks, the Royals also lacked power last year finishing dead last in MLB with only 95 big flies. People weren’t happy with the Royals gave Rios is $11M deal for the 2014 season, but if this is a testament of what’s to come, then we’re in for a treat this year.

And Ryan Madson, the last player to make the Royals 25-man roster, pitched the 9th inning. He gave up a hit and a walk, but induced a double play and ended the final frame with no damage. Madson hasn’t pitched since 2011 with the Phillies but has already managed to comeback and make a MLB roster after being out of the game so long. He has upside as a veteran in the bullpen, and it’s good to get him some work in a stress-free situation like Monday was.

Yordano good.

Ventura looked like an ace on Monday, yes? His stuff was working, he looked comfortable. He only gave up 1 run – an absolute monster home run to suspected robot, Jose Abreu – and he was only at 78 pitches when he left the game with a thumb cramp.

When I saw Yordano slumped on the grass holding is arm and writhing in pain, I panicked. I thought that was it and that the season was already over after just 6 innings of baseball. Kauffman Stadium was silent and suddenly the cheering subsided. Herrera came on to pitch the rest of the 7th.

It looked serious in the moment, but quickly it was speculated and confirmed on twitter that it was just a thumb cramp.

But it highlights this truth: if the Royals are going to succeed in 2015, their two young starters, Ventura and Danny Duffy, are going to have to stay healthy and carry this team. Both have a history of scaring us. Duffy had Tommy John surgery two offseasons ago and was the Royals best starter last year coming back from surgery, and Yordano had multiple moments in 2014 where he left the game early or missed a start with fears about his arm/elbow. We need these guys to throw a combined 380-400 innings.

I cried again.

This is becoming a theme, I suppose, but the AL championship ring ceremony and postseason video montage got the water works flowing again. I couldn’t help it. I’ll probably always cry when I think about that 2014 run. The Wild Card game. All three ALDS games. The ALCS clincher. Game 6 of the World Series. They all brought tears of joy to my eyes.

I’m not even embarrassed about it anymore.

There weren’t any clips from Game 7 in the montage. I expected it to end with some “unfinished business” tag at the end, but it didn’t. It just buried the sadness and highlighted the celebrations. Fair enough.

Bruce Chen was back and got a ring. He may have received the loudest cheers. Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki were not in attendance because they were playing baseball elsewhere. Louis Coleman, recently placed on waivers, got a ring too and it was awkward. Aaron Brooks got a ring for his single miserable performance. Ned Yost told the team physician not to lose his ring doing rectal exams.

***

I’m supposedly heading back out to the K tonight. We’ll see if the game happens or not with the rain we’re supposed to get. Danny Duffy gets the ball either tonight or for the first part of a double header tomorrow.

Good to have the Roys back in town and off to a good start. I’m still convinced that this team is better than last year’s team. I expect the playoffs…then who knows.

-apc.

2015 MLB Predictions

Congratulations, baseball fans. You did it. You successfully navigated the miserable winter months. Spring has arrived. And, save for a flurry of offseason moves and meaningless spring training games, you’ve been deprived of the game you love. But the wait is over.

Thankfully, for those of us in Kansas City, the offseason went by much faster this year due to it being one month shorter than it has been the previous 29 years. Still, it’s good to have baseball back.

Before I make my predictions for the 2015 season, let me quickly point out how wildly successful my 2014 predictions were. I, along with everyone else who predicted these things, whiffed on the AL East. I missed on the Pirates too, and made the mistake of picking against the A’s. But 7/10 ain’t bad.

So here we go. Let’s look into the future together. Postseason picks in italics. I’ve added ALCS/NLCS/WS/MVP/Cy Young winners this year too.

AL East

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

Another year of uncertainty in the AL East. The Red Sox reloaded adding Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. The Yankees did nothing and appear fragile. The Blue Jays added Josh Donaldson but are young and lack a rotation. The Orioles were predicted to stink it up last year but ran away with the division and are likely under projected in 2015. The Rays are a dark horse as always.

Typically I refuse to buy into teams that spend tons of money to restock their teams. I think it takes a year to gel as a unit and establish an identity. However, the Red Sox rotation is already strong and on paper this is the best team in the division. Look for Mookie Betts to break out this year too.

AL Central

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

Another wide open division, and one where I am obviously biased. The Indians return basically the same team but their defense is terrible. The Tigers added Yoenis Cespedes but lost Max Scherzer, and now Verlander is injured. The Royals are defending AL Champs and have lots of swagger, lost Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki but added Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios, Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen. The White Sox had perhaps the best offseason of any AL team. The Twins will not contend.

But I’m picking my hometown boys. People keep saying the Royals got worse in the offseason but I just don’t see it. Morales and Rios are both upgrades. Shields is gone, but Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura both have the potential to match his production. Plus they have three of the most sustainable strengths to their advantage: bullpen, defense and speed. I believe in this team, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Indians and Royals swap spots. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers absolutely tank and finish 4th.

AL West

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

I’m not going to make the mistake of picking against Oakland two years in a row. The A’s blew up their entire team and look like they’re probably going to win the Cactus League this year too, whatever that’s good for (absolutely nothing). The Angels and Mariners are both really good though and it’s hard to pick one of the three to miss. The Mariners just missed the playoffs last year. If they can stay healthy, I think they’ll run away with this division in 2015. The Angels will likely regress slightly and should still contend, but I think they’ll end up on the outside looking in. Houston will continue to improve – they appear to be trying out the Royals model of success in bolstering up their bullpen. The Rangers are going to be bad.

NL East

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

While the American League has all sorts of intrigue, the National League is a joke. Washington is going to run away with this division. They were already the best, and then they added Max Scherzer. The Marlins and Mets are both no slouch, but the Nats could win 100 games this year. The Marlins added Dee Gordon, Michael Morse and Mat Latos. They extended Giancarlos Stanton and get Jose Fernandez back from injury. The Mets get their ace back too in Matt Harvey. Plus both teams get 18 games against the Phillies and the Braves which ought to inflate their records a bit. They’ll be in the mix come September.

NL Central

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

As has become the norm, this division race will be good, but the Cardinals will eventually pull away and the Pirates will separate themselves form the rest. The Cubs obviously got much better with the acquisition of Jon Lester, and if they can get their prospect trio – Kris Bryant, Jorge Solar and Javier Baez – into the majors sooner than later, they could manage to make a push in the second half. But I do think 2016 is their year to return to the playoffs.

NL West

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

The Dodgers are only going to be better from last year. They added Jimmy Rollins and dropped Matt Kemp. Clayton Kershaw is the best pitcher and best player in baseball, in my opinion. You can talk about Trout all you want, but Kershaw has the power to completely dominate a game. The Padres added Justin Upton, Kemp, and former Royal and Ray, Wil Myers. Their biggest addition is James Shields. Their bullpen is dominant too. They could do some damage, but I see them finishing as the first team out. The Giants got much worse this offseason with the loss of Panda, and with the injury to Pence. Plus, Madison Bumgarner is super overrated. The Rockies and D-Backs are…not great.

So my postseason looks like this:

AL: Red Sox, Royals, Mariners, Indians, Athletics
NL: Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers, Pirates, Marlins

ALCS: Mariners over Athletics
NLDS: Dodgers over Nationals

WS: Dodgers over Mariners

AL MVP: Mike Trout
NL MVP: Yasiel Puig

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez
NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw

Here’s to a great 2015 MLB season! As always, I’ll be rooting for a 1985 rematch. (Which nearly happened last year. So close.)

-apc.

1944 World Series

Let me begin with this: the St. Louis Browns Historical Society has an absolutely beautiful website. Take a look: thestlbrowns.com. Bravo.

The Browns were perrenial losers. The bottom of the American League. They fired Branch Rickey who turned the Cardinals into a winner and later signed Jackie Robinson to a deal with Brooklyn. The 1944 Browns also had a one-armed left fielder, Pete Grey.

Here’s what the STLBHS has to say about the 1944 St. Louis Browns…

When the U.S. entered World War II, President Roosevelt gave the “green light” to keep playing. New manager Luke Sewell got surgical with his 1942 roster, and rebuilt the team. The Browns lost a few men to the war effort, but other teams said goodbye to key players. By 1944, every Browns infielder was classified 4-F, or excused from military service, many for physical limitations. The Browns cashed in on their odds, opening the season with a bang — nine straight wins.

Cut to October 1, 1944, the last regular-season game. The pennant was at stake. No player on the Browns roster had ever made it to a World Series. The Browns led the visiting Yankees 5-2 into the ninth. Down to the final out, Oscar Grimes shot a high fly ball into foul territory. Browns first baseman George McQuinn nabbed it. Pandemonium ensued. The Browns were going to the World Series to face the Cardinals.

Thus began the Streetcar Series, called such because St. Louis had so many trolleys at the time. Both teams would have the home field advantage — the Cards for the first two and last two games; the Browns for the three in the middle. With a 3-1 Game 6 loss, the Browns said goodbye to their “Cinderella season” and World Series hopes. After World War II, the rest of the league’s talent was replenished. The Browns’ best years were put behind them as they returned to last place.

I guess you can call it a “Cinderella season,” but let’s be real: with the war at it’s height, it’s not like the Browns were the prettiest girl at the ball…they were more like the only girl at the ball.

The Browns and the Cardinals played in the third World Series to be ever hosted in the same ballpark for all games: Sportsman’s Park. The other two took place at the Polo Grounds in New York City. It also is one of two all-Missouri World Series, the other being 1985 when Kansas City won it all against the Cardinals.

Embarrassingly, the Junior World Series in Baltimore outdrew the real World Series that same year – a large reason why the Browns would end up moving to Baltimore a decade later. 1944 was clearly a low point for baseball. The war was taking it’s toll.

The Cardinals were in their 3rd straight World Series, the previous two splitting against the Yankees. Stan Musial struggled in both of those series, but in 1944 he was his normal self hitting .304/.360/.522 and hitting his only career postseason HR in Game 4.



The Games

The Cardinals had a huge chance in the 3rd inning of Game 1. They loaded the bases with 1 out and couldn’t score. The next half inning George McQuinn’s hit a 2 run homer off veteran Mort Cooper and the Browns had the first runs of the Series. Denny Galehouse worked around 11 baserunners (7 H, 4 BB) allowing just one run in a complete game affair. Browns took a early series lead.

Game 2 was an epic 11-inning walkoff win for the Cardinals. The game was tied 2-2 after nine. George McQuinn hit a leadoff double to start the 11th for the Browns, but they couldn’t score him. 

Ray Sanders led off the bottom half with a single. Whitey Kurowski bunted him to second. Marty Marion was intentionally walked. Ken O’Dea won it with a pinch hit single to right field scoring Sanders from second. Cardinals win in walkoff fashion to tie the Series at 1.

Game 3 featured another huge game for George McQuinn, who went completely bananas in the postseason turning his regular season .250/.357/.376 into a .438/.609/.750 – aided heavily by his 7 walks over the 6 game series. The obvious MVP if the Browns had managed to pull it out in the end (if they handed out MVP awards in 1944, that is). He went 3-3 with a double and a walk in Game 3, setting the table for the Browns 6-2 win.

Game 3 also featured another complete game by a Browns pitcher, this time Jack Kramer who struck out 10.  This is the last World Series game the St. Louis Browns would ever win.

Game 4 was over early. Stan Musial hit a 2-run home run three batters into the game. The Browns only chance to counter came in the 2nd when catcher Red Heyworth grounded into a 5-4-3 double play to end the rally. The Cardinals added 2 more in the next inning and it was 4-0. The Cardinals went on to win 6-2. This time it was Harry Brecheen of the Cardinals throwing the complete game. Series tied, 2-2.

Game 5 was a pitchers duel and a rematch of Game 1 starters: Mort Cooper and Denny Galehouse. This time both men would go the distance, and Galehouse actually allowed two fewer baserunners. Unfortunately for the Browns, two of those hitters – Sanders and Danny Litwhiler – circled the bases. The Cardinals won 2-0 behind Mort Cooper’s final World Series appearance. This was his 3rd career World Series win, 2nd career World Series complete game and 1st career World Series shut out.

And Game 6 sealed it for the Redbirds. The Cards posted a 3-run 4th inning and that was plenty. The Browns only trip to the World Series ended in a 3-1 loss that wasn’t even that close – the Cardinals had 10 hits and 4 walks and had plenty of chances to add to their total, but it wouldn’t matter in the end.



The Cardinals won their 5th championship and 2nd in 3 years. We’ll see them again in 1946 to complete the 3 straight even-yeared championship circuit (just like the Giants completed in 2014). But next year features two different faces. 

As for the Browns, well, to quote Eminem, “you only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow, cause opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.”

So true, Marshall. So true.

-apc.

Photo cred: 1944 Brochure accessed here, 1944 ticket stubs accessed here. Game 1 at Sportsman’s Park photo accessed here.

Cactus League: Happy Yordano Day

So he gave up 4 runs in 1 inning in his first spring outing…so what? There are still few things in baseball as exciting as Yordano Days.

I’m not totally certain where the term “Yordano Day” originated. I picked it up sometime early in the season last year. Maybe I invented it. I’m not sure. All I know is that every day Yordano Ventura pitches feels like a freaking holiday for me.

Someone decided to launch a Twitter account this year, apparently: @yordanoday.

Okay fine. It’s all me.

Yordano didn’t have it yesterday. Well, maybe he did, but it’s Spring Training, so it doesn’t really matter. It’s not like Ventura is going to lose his starting spot based on a poor Cactus League. At most, he’ll lose out on pitching Opening Day on April 6. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter one bit.

Established ballplayers come out in Spring Training working on specific things. Mike Moustakas is working on his bunting and taking the ball to the opposite field. Alcides Escobar may be working on his plate discipline as the leadoff hitter going into 2015. Bubba Starling (not established as anything but a potential bust) may want to start working on not striking out 5 consecutive times.

Pitchers do the same thing. They might need to work on or develop a new pitch. Or perhaps there’s a specific mechanical adjustment that needs to take place. Or maybe they’re trying to establish comfort pitching inside. The point is that pitchers aren’t always bringing their best stuff in Spring Training. Their bread and butter may be on the back burner.

This is why we shouldn’t geek out when Mike Moustakas wins the Cactus League batting title. It’s also why we shouldn’t freak out when Yordano Ventura allows three of the first four batters he faces on base. Not great, but let’s remember where we are.

Ventura did admit that he needs to get more movement on his fastballs. His pitches were too straight, he said, but he felt good. Ned Yost said he may have been overthrowing a bit, but overall was impressed and thought he looked fine.

I got to watch Yordano warm up. What a freak. He begins by tossing with Salvador Perez in the outfield. Every throw he takes three steps back. Soon, he’s rifling the ball from the center field to the right field corner – something like 250 feet away. Hits Salvy in the glove every time. Pop. Pop. Pop. Then Salvy throws the ball back so high its like Ventura is practicing flyballs. Then he slowly moves back in and the two walk to the bullpen to throw from the mound.

Just listen to it. Sheesh.

Every time Ventura reaches back to throw, my heart skips a beat. It’s so powerful. It sounds like a bottle rocket. Ssssssifffffff-POP! But the other reason is because I get scared. His arm is insane, and every time he throws I’m afraid he’s going to catch the return throw from Salvy and motion to the trainers to come check out his elbow. It feels inevitable. I hate that it feels so inevitable.

Ventura looks bigger than I remember him. His shoulders looked broader. His body looked thicker. He clearly worked hard in the offseason – or perhaps his adult body is still developing – but it eases the fear somewhat. Means the torque on his ligaments is assuaged by the size of his muscles. It’s good news – although it may just be my eyes playing tricks on me observing him so up close.

A few other notes from the Royals’ 11-9 win against the Indians on Friday…

Alex Rios looks great. He had three hits yesterday and hit his second homer of the short spring season. Making a case for himself as Cactus League MVP after just three games.

The Royals only won the game because the Indians defense is awful. They botched multiple plays that led to an eight run 5th inning capped off with a Brett Eibner three run HR. Thanks, Tribe.

Speaking of awful defense, Orlando Calixte had a rough game at short. He airmailed a throw to first. His range is poor. Just reenforces how valuable Alcides Escobar is to this team defensively. He played all 162 games at SS last year. Christian Colon is the backup option and with Omar Infante continuing to be a question mark at 2B, it puts our middle infield depth in the spotlight.

Kelvin Herrera pitched one inning. He was lights out. Good. Herrera is the first of the HDH trio to pitch this spring. I think we know who Davis and Holland are at this point. They’re proven. Herrera had a good year, but part of me wonders if he pitched over his head last year. Herrera had a good year, and I hope he continues what he established himself to be last year.

***

I’m back in KC now. Spring Training was fun, but the rest of it will need to be watched from afar. Great start – with the exception of Tim Collins being injured, there’s a lot to be excited about in 2015.

Also, I got sunburnt.

-apc.

Cactus League: Billy Butler, Pete LaCock and Lee Smith.

Day 2 from Spring Training. 

Let’s get to it.



Cubs Welcome Country Breakfast

We spent yesterday the Cubs facilities checking in on Billy Butler and the visiting Oakland Athletics. As we all know, the Royals let Billy walk after declining to pick up his 2015 option. Negotiations were extensive, but ultimately Billy took a 3 year, $30M deal to play for the A’s.

I have a rocky past with Billy. I generally cannot stand the designated hitter, and Billy has historically been a frustrating player at that “position.” He hits singles and doubles. He does not hit for power. He does not play defense (although, Oakland plans to give him a lot of time there). I’ve never seen him throw a baseball. He was one of the least valuable baserunners in baseball last year.

So he’s one-dimensional. A one-tool player. He hits for average, and that’s it.

Late in the season, Ned Yost benched Butler. Butler whined. He was obnoxious, and I couldn’t wait for the Royals to let him walk. If the Royals postseason run hadn’t happened, Billy would’ve left town without eliciting any emotion whatsoever.

BUT…then he stole that base.

And the Royals did go on that postseason run, and suddenly Billy Butler became the face of the resurrected franchise. The guy who had been there through the darkest times and came out on the other side a winner.

So strangely, over the course of about 6 weeks, my emotions surrounding Billy Butler were transformed. Which is how I somehow found myself wanting to check in on his yesterday in Mesa, AZ. I’m going to miss Billy – I think Kendrys Morales is a better player and putting aside emotions, it’s the right move for the franchise – but Billy was Billy, and he can’t be replaced.

Except yesterday’s game did nothing but help me forget him quickly.

First, he completely ignored me and Dan as he walked into the visitors dugout. We were 3 feet away. I was wearing my #16 Billy Butler powder blue jersey. I told him we miss him in KC. And he gave us the cold shoulder.

Then he went 0-3 at the plate. Snoozer. Not doing much to keep me interested. The A’s come to Kauffman Stadium on April 17-19. I’ll be there on April 18 – which is Billy’s birthday.

Thankfully, there were other happenings that more that made up for Billy’s disappointing day.



Pete LaCock’s 1980 AL Champions ring

There were a group of former Cubs players signing autographs during the game. Fergie Jenkins and Lee Smith were the big names. But I made eye contact with Pete LaCock and he was noticeably excited that I was decked out in Royals gear.

We talked for about 10 minutes. I asked him about his time in KC, how the 1980 World Series loss compared to the 2014. He answered by taking off his 1980 AL Champs ring and handing it to me. Didn’t even ask. Just gave it to me and told me to try it on. Pretty cool.

Look how faded the front is – it looks like the photo is out of focus it’s so worn. Pretty cool experience as long as I ignored Pete’s complaining about the Royals disrespecting him by only giving him upper deck tickets to the World Series. The nerve.

Meeting Lee Smith

The highlight of the day was meeting Lee Smith. 

He was sitting next to Pete LaCock and I spent most of the time with Pete trying to figure out what I was going to say to Smith when the conversation shifted.

I decided to share the story that I wrote about a few months ago – my experience as a 7 year old watching him pitch for the Cardinals in 1993. We laughed about how long he used to take walking to the mound. He said Tony La Russa’s word for his walk was an “amble.”

“I don’t even know what that word means!” said Smith.

I shook his hand twice and both times was shocked at how massive his hands are. I was tempted to ask him to hold a ball for me, but that felt weird. 

Instead, he brought up how short the Cardinals infield felt while he was on the mound. Ozzie Smith (5’11”), Terry Pendleton (5’9″) and Jose Oquendo (5’10”) all had “short man syndrome” according to Lee, who stand at 6’5″. Add an additional 11 inches from the height of the mound, those infielders would come in for a conference and he felt like he could “scoop em all up and put em in his pocket.” 

Great guy. Huge smile. Very friendly. An honor to meet him. My only regrets: not getting a photo with him and not being prepared with his card to sign. Drat.

***

Today is Yordano Day and my final day in Arizona. Headed to Goodyear to watch the Good Guys take on the Tribe this afternoon. Big win yesterday – Cheslor Cuthbert with a 2-run walkoff in the bottom of the 9th to take down the Rangers for the second straight day. 

Miguel Almonte looked great according to Vahe Gregorian of the Star. Escobar and Morales both had two hits apiece. Bubba Starling went 0-3 with three strikeouts. Woof

-apc.

Cactus League: Royals go back to back to back, win opener 13-2.

Baseball back and it feel so right. I’ve been missing these boys something fierce.

To celebrate, I decided to make a quick trip down to Surprise. I woke up at 3:30am, caught a 5:50am flight out of KC and was in PHX by 7:45am. My friend Dan – who you may remember from my time in Houston, Arizona and San Diego last April – lives in downtown Phoenix, so he and I are hitting a few games over the next few days. The current plan: catch today’s game in Surprise against the Rangers and Yordano Ventura’s start on Friday in Goodyear against the Indians. In between, I think we’ll go give Billy Butler a visit in his new A’s uniform against the Cubs on Thursday. Supposedly they have a pretty sweet new ballpark out here.

The Royals dominated their Cactus League opener 13-2. It was over early: it was 6-0 after 6 Royals batters. The pitching staff did their job, and the offense more than pulled their weight. 



 A few highlights…

Hosmer/Morales/Rios go back to back to back.

Like I said, this one was over early. Here’s how the first inning went down for good guys…

Escobar: BB
Dyson: 1B down the third baseline
Cain: 1B bloop to center, RBI
Hosmer: 3-run HR, at least 450′ to straight away centerfield
Morales: solo HR
Rios: solo HR

…Alex Rios and Kendrys Morales did a decent job making a first impression today. Both are coming off a down year in 2014 and lots of Royals fans are wondering if they’re worth the large contracts we’re giving them. Personally, I’m looking for both of them to bounce back. Will the power hitting continue in the regular season (or the rest of the Cactus League, for that matter)? Who knows. But it was good to see today.

Other first impressions: Morales looks more fit than Billy Butler, whom he’s replacing at DH. And Rios has very very long legs.

Tim Collins leaves game with elbow injury.

Collins is scheduled to have an MRI tomorrow, but initial reports make it sound like it isn’t super serious, but it’s something to keep an eye on for sure. Even if he’s injured, it’s not like losing Tim to an injury is going to make or break our bullpen. He’s fighting for one of the last spots in the pen as it is along with Franklin Morales as a lefty.

Perhaps the largest impact of a Tim Collins injury would be that if Franklin Morales doesn’t impress, the Royals may be forced to roll with Brandon Finnegan in the pen to start the season. They’d much rather let Finny begin the season in the minors, continuing to develop him as a starter, but if they can’t land a lefty reliever with Collins or Morales, Finnegan is likely their man.

Jandel Gustave throws fire and looked rull nice.

Replacing Tim Collins in today’s game: Jandel Gustave. The Royals acquired Gustave in the Rule 5 draft this offseason from the Houston Astros. The stipulation with the Rule 5 draft is that the player must remain on the 25-man roster for the season in order to retain the rights to that players contract. Gustave is young and throws a billion MPH, but his BB/9 ratio is a robust 6.7 during his time in the minors dating back to 2010. So basically, he has no idea where it’s going when he lets go. Which is scary because he throws 100+ MPH.

He came in from the bullpen today and fired three warmup fastballs…102…102…104. Sheesh. Talk about terrifying for an opposing hitter.

Cheslor Cuthbert: gems on gems on gems.

Cuthbert’s opportunity in the majors mostly depends on whether or not Mike Moustakas can turn the corner this year and put up some decent numbers in non-Cactus League play. He made a good case for an opportunity with three legit plays this afternoon. One diving to his right; one on a hard hit grounder and one leaning far over into the stands just past the Royals dugout. Looked stellar in the opener.

***

Those were my initial takeaways from today. Royals looked fresh and powerful. Definitely the better team. Tomorrow is the Billy Butler Memory Tour. Breaking out the Butler Roys jersey and A’s cap. Can’t wait.

-apc.

Game 20: Oriole Park at Camden Yards

Ah yes. The final piece of the Ballpark Tour 2014 post series.

I was able to post about 27 of the 30 ballparks I visited in 2014. Three of them were just too much to write about in the moment: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. I don’t have time right now to post a lengthy post game report as I did the others, but dragging/dropping my photos takes next to no time at all.

So here you go. My photo post from my trip to Baltimore.

Commencing photos now.

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My favorite ballpark. Amazing tour. Major rain delay. “Here we go, O’s” can sound remarkably like “Here we go, Royals” if you say it fast enough. We got free shirts.

-apc.

Game 18: Fenway Park

As I mentioned in my book update a few days ago, I didn’t have the time to do a postgame blog on three ballparks during my tour last summer: Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

But I have plenty of time to do a photo post since all it entails is drag/dropping a bunch of photos into WordPress. So here’s a look at my trip to Fenway Park.

Commencing photos now.

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Incredible tour. Just about saw a no hitter against the Red Sox. Incredible space. More to come in the book so stay tuned.

-apc.

Game 17: Yankee Stadium

I posted in my book update that three ballparks along my tour were too meaty to do justice in a postgame blog. And while I didn’t have time to write about them then, it takes no time at all to upload a photo post from each of them. This is the first of those three. The other two are Fenway Park and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Commencing photos now.

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Still feels weird to look at myself wearing a Yankees cap. Stay tuned for more on my Yankee Stadium experience when the book comes out next year.

-apc.

Baseball Card I Spy

B795ZdQCAAADwkiIt’s Friday. Let’s play a game.

When I was a little kid – maybe 2 or 3 years old – my parents got me a stack of my first baseball cards. The cards probably weren’t anything spectacular and I probably bent them and put stickers on them and such. I couldn’t read yet, but they tell me that I was able to tell them whose picture was on each card. I’d memorized the names or something. Or I recognized them from seeing them play on TV. Or my dad had told me stories about his favorites and I’d remembered them.

My parents would lay them all out on the floor and say, “I Spy…Jack Clark!” and I’d quickly point out which one I thought Jack Clark was for them. Good parenting, really. I was obviously raised well.

Anyway. Yesterday, I had some fun playing the same game with the picture above tweeted out by the Baseball Hall of Fame – @BaseballHall. The wallpaper behind Craig Biggio, John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez is at the MLB Network’s studios in New Jersey.

Those cards from my childhood would’ve been from around 1986-1990, which are the majority of the cards on the wallpaper here.

It’s tough to make many of them out, but my eyes immediately found the 1987 Topps Mike Laga card just above Biggio’s Tom Brady Face.

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The pink jersey really gave him away.

Next, I noticed the 1986 Topps Hal McRae down low between Smoltz and Pedro.

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I posted both of them to twitter and tagged View from the Skybox@VFTSB – a local card collector I follow asking if he could pick any out from the picture. He claimed he couldn’t, but his retweet pulled a couple replies from others…

Good eye! Here are the two cards mentioned…

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Anybody else spy any recognizable cards in that pic? Give it a look and see what you can come up with.

In related news, I’m now toying with the idea of creating my own wallpaper somewhere in my home. Or maybe it’s for sale as a legit wallpaper somewhere. I’ll have to look into it.

Happy Friday everyone. Enjoy the weekend.

-apc.