The Royals are 14-16

20140505-100414.jpg

It’s May 5, and the Royals just wrapped up their first home series against the probably-going-to-win-the-division Detroit Tigers. The Royals got swept, and I found myself completely silent on social media because I didn’t have anything nice to say in just 140 characters.

When the game of baseball gets you down, it takes a lot more words than a simple tweet to keep you from spiraling into a deep depression. Comments like, “it’s a long season,” or, “we’ll turn it around,” or, “it’s a matter of time before Hosmer hits a home run,” just don’t feel appropriate when your team just got swept by the team they’re likely going to be chasing now for the rest of the season.

This weekend’s series was awful, sure, and I feel we wasted a major opportunity to make a statement early in the season, but I believe more strongly in the importance of taking a step back and evaluating the entire season on a broader scale. We get so caught up in the minutiae of baseball – lack of power, 0-5 against the Tigers, Moose batting .151, etc. – and forget that baseball is a marathon and anything can happen over the next 5 months.

You can call me overly optimistic if you want. That’s fine. But I continue to think this Royals team can win a lot of games and make the playoffs.

I want to look at each part of our team at this point of the season, give it a grade, and then make a final point about this team and be done with this post.

Starting Pitching

The starting pitching has been borderline phenomenal to this point of the season. Each of our pitchers has gotten shelled at one point – maybe save for Yordano Ventura who has just had one average outing – and that’s going to happen at some point during the season. But even with Bruce Chen’s 5 run inning last week, James Shields’s 12 hit/7 ER performance on Friday, Jeremy Guthrie’s abundance of HRs (7), and Vargas’s adventure on the mound yesterday, we have a team ERA of 3.42 – third best in the AL behind Detroit and Oakland. Our starters also have the second lowest BB/9 in the AL – 2.51, second only to the Yankees.

So the pitching is there. Ventura has been as advertised. Vargas has benefitted greatly from the large confines of Kauffman Stadium and has been arguably worth the contract we are paying him. Guthrie has done fine, save for a few mistakes that ended up in the outfield seats. Bruce Chen has even been alright so far – much better than your normal #5 starter, and Danny Duffy filled in nicely on Saturday throwing 4 scoreless innings.

The pitching is there, and will continue to be there. In fact, we haven’t even seen the best stuff from Shields yet. Last week they would’ve gotten a solid A. This weekend has dropped them a bit in my mind. Grade: B+

Relief Pitching

The Royals had the best bullpen in the American League last year. We all know this. And we also all knew they couldn’t reproduce their insane 2013 campaign.

The first two weeks were rocky, but the past three weeks have looked much better. Wade Davis has looked great in his role. Aaron Crow has been alright – he’s been Ned Yost’s jam guy to this point and has inherited a lot of base runners. Coleman coming back from the DL will help. And Greg Holland is still one of the best in the majors at his job.

The bullpen has given up the least amount of HRs/9 in the majors (0.34) and is second only to the Yankees in K/9 thanks to Davis and Greg Holland.

Early April was rough. The past few weeks have been okay.

I believe in this unit. But they’ve been shaky early, and I can’t give them a grade on 2013 or expectations. Grade: B-

Batting

This has been embarrassing to watch at times.

Mike Moustakas opens the season with an embarrassing hitless streak. Billy Butler is in an unprecedented slump. Hosmer hasn’t hit a home run yet. In fact, the entire Royals team has been in a power slump and have only hit 12 homers as a team. Dead last in the MLB. Jose Abreu of the White Sox has hit 11 by himself. The league average is 27 HRs. Colorado has hit 43. In fact, 5 different Colorado players have hit more HRs than the Royals leader, Moustakas, who has 4: Tulowitski (7), Morneau (6), Gonzalez (6), Blackmon (6), Arenado (5).

Sure, it’s the thin air up there in Denver, but the Giants, Blue Jays, Dodgers, Nationals, Brewers, Marlins, Yankees, Mariners, Cubs and Astros all have at least 4 players with 4+ HRs. That’s 11 different teams – two of them the worst in baseball. Embarrassing.

And what makes it more embarrassing: that’s all Moose has done this season. Four lousy homers. He’s still batting .151. He only has 14 total hits in 93 at bats. Dyson had 13 in less than half the ABs.

Speaking of Dyson, his .289 AVG has been a bright spot lately. I think it was Rusty Kuntz who said Dyson could bunt every time up and bat .300. He’s been bunting a lot. Clearly not quite enough. Kidding.

Infante and Escobar have carried way too much of this offense through April. We need to get Perez, Butler and Moose going. And we have to find some power because this is getting sad. Grade: D

Fielding

In my mind, the Royals have without question the best defense in the American League.

They handed out 2013 Gold Gloves this weekend. Gordon, Escobar and Hosmer all winning, and Lorenzo Cain and Salvy could have won GGs of their own. Escobar has already been brilliant on about a dozen occasions this year.

I wish Aoki had a slightly better arm in RF, but that’s nitpicking.

The only real complaint here: pitcher fielding. Oh my, Danny Duffy. The errors from Duffy the other night were embarrassing – 3 in one inning, single-handedly giving the game away – and brought the Royals pitchers’ error total to 9 this year, by far the most in the majors (Dodgers are second with 6, Padres 5, and no one else has more than 4 E’s). Gotta get some PFP in immediately. Maybe that’s why Shields/Vargas had such poor outings this weekend; they were preoccupied with their fielding practice. Nah.

Best defense in the league has somehow underperformed a bit over the past month thanks to some pitchers botching easy plays. Grade: B+

Management

I don’t gripe about Ned Yost as much as most of the KC fan base does. It’s hard for me to blame the manager for poor decisions when it’s the players who aren’t executing. It’s not his fault Moose is batting .151. It’s not his fault Duffy can’t throw to first base. It’s not his fault the Royals can’t hit the ball father than 320′. One of the hats every manager wears is Team Scapegoat. My guy tells me he’s not as responsible for the underperformance as the fans say he is.

Jonah Keri had a great article on Grantland about Ned Yost’s decision making – specifically with the bullpen – and if it’s cost the Royals so far. I recommend giving it a read.

I believe the difference between a good and bad manager is about 4 wins per season. There have been a few moments where I have questioned his decisions so far, and most of them have been bullpen usage questions that Keri’s article smoothed over a bit for me. I don’t believe Yost had been a good manager over his career, and it’s really easy to point the finger and blame the man in charge, but I don’t think Ned is as much of a buffoon as my peers do.

My biggest frustration with the managing of this team comes in the player decisions Dayton Moore made at the end of free agency. Specifically one decision.

When Omar Infante got hit in the face with a fastball and missed a couple games, the Royals had no immediate backup available and had to roll with Danny Valencia at 2B until they could bring up Johnny Giavotella to save the depth chart.

Escobar got cleated and tweaked his ankle last week on a play at second, and for a moment it looked like he would have to leave the game. He toughed it out though, and it’s a good thing because the Royals do not have a backup SS on their roster.

Nevermind the fact that Emilio Bonefacio is hitting like .850 for the Cubs right now, that’s not the point. The point is that we desperately need infield depth, and we needed it to begin the season. Why we felt the need to give the last roster spot to another bullpen arm is beyond me. We don’t need Francisly Bueno in our pen. We need a utility player on the bench, and an insurance policy in case either Infante or Esky go down.

I get why we signed Danny Valencia – he hits leftys well and Moose is looking more and more like a bust every day – but there is plenty of room on this team for Bonefacio.

And what on earth will we do in an interleague series?! We don’t have enough bats to survive an early exit from a starter.

And I don’t even want to talk about what George Kottaras did yesterday. Cutting him was baffling to me.

Dayton Moore has done a good job turning this team around, but it took a long time for him to do it. He has convinced the ownership to pump money into scouting and build a terrific farm system. I think he has done it the right way. Honestly, I do. I’ve trusted The Process, and our organization is in a much better place because of it.

But we still aren’t winning the way our fan base wants, and it’s player decisions like this which can shift a really good thing in the wrong direction very quickly.

But Aoki was a great pickup this offseason, and Vargas is turning into a good choice too, albeit an expensive one. If Ventura, Duffy and eventually Kyle Zimmer can even remotely live up to expectation, then I’ll be speaking much more glowingly of the management by the end of the year. Grade: C

So where does that leave us? What does my Royals grade card look like on May 5?

Starting Pitching: B+
Relief Pitching: B-
Batting: D
Fielding: B+
Management: C

Which means overall, the Royals have underperformed substantially. And yet, they survived April and are hovering around .500.

It’s a long long season, and there is so much time to improve. I’m comfortable with where the Royals are right now. I don’t think they’ll win the Central, because Detroit is absolutely stacked, but I think they’re in a fine position to make the playoffs still.

And in the playoffs, starting pitching and solid defense rules all, and that is the a Royals best game.

We need to improve, yes. But as bad as our offense has been and as awful as the bullpen was early, and as rocky as the last week has been for our starters, I think we are in a good position.

Let’s take it one series at a time. San Diego next. We can’t allow this weekend’s performance to roll over into a crummy month of May.

The losing steak ends at 4 tonight in SD. Ventura and Guthrie are going against two pitchers with an ERA over 5, and Shields matches up against Andrew Cashner. We can win this series and move on to Seattle.

And I’ll be in Seattle on Friday.

Don’t lose heart, Royals fans. It’s May 5, they’ve had a pretty rough start, and yet they’re only 14-16. I still have hope in this team.

-apc.

Top 10 Royals That Got Away

If you’re a Royals fan reading this post, it shouldn’t require much explanation.

Over the years, the Royals have managed to let dozens of guys get away from their organization. Sometimes these players were granted free agency because the small-market Royals simply couldn’t afford them anymore. Other times, the Royals pulled the trigger on miserable trades. Other times, they simply missed on a superstar in their own backyard.

This is purely my opinion, and there are definitely others to add to this list (and some I may have spaced out on), but here are the Top 10 Royals That Got Away:

10. Jose Bautista

Yep. The bomber for the Toronto Blue Jays spent part of the 2004 season with the Royals as a rookie while also spending some time with Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh that year. He played in 13 games and went 5-25 with 12 K’s in his short stretch with KC. Not shocking we ditched him, I guess. Now he plays in Toronto and has averaged 30+ home runs over the past 4 seasons.

9. David Cone

This one hurts because we actually let him get away twice. Cone was drafted in 1981 and debuted with the Royals in 1986. He pitched in 11 games and had a 5.56 ERA that season. Just before the start of the 1987 season, the Royals traded him to the Mets.

Then as a free agent in 1992, Cone came back to Kansas City from 1993-1995. Then we brilliantly shipped him away to Toronto for three players, only one of whom would actually play for the Royals, and that was Chris Stynes who only appeared in 58 pitiful games over two years. Cone would end up as a Yankee after his half-season with the Blue Jays.

Interestingly, Cone’s two best seasons were his two years in a Royals uniform. He won the Cy Young in 1994 and posted a career best 7.2 WAR in 1993. But man it would’ve been nice to have him longer. He left just as the Royals decline began.

8. John Buck

Okay, so this is strictly a homer pick. I’ve been the co-president of the John Buck Fan Club since around 2004 (when the Royals acquired him in a trade for another player on this list). I was heartbroken when they let him walk and he signed with Toronto. What made it worse was that the Roylas decided to go with an 83 year old, washed up mountain troll, Jason Kendall, instead. Kendall started at catcher for one year: 2010. Let’s compare JK and JB’s splits that year…

  • Kendall (KC): .256/.318/.297, 0 HR, 37 RBI
  • Buck (TOR): .281/.341/.489, 20 HR, 66 RBI

Buck also went to the All Star Game in 2010. Although, by some miracle, Kendall somehow managed to steal 12 bases that year. But he also got caught 7 times. The more I look at it, the more he might actually deserve to be on this list for more reasons than just my crush on him.

7. Zack Greinke

Zack always belonged in the National League anyway – he hit .328 for the Dodgers last season – and unlike others on this list, we never would have been able to pay him anywhere near what he deserved. We were fortunate enough to have him as long as he did. He won the Cy Young award in 2009 after dealing with emotional anxiety the years before. Sure, Zack got away, but it was probably the right move for the organization. Still hurts.

6. Raul Ibanez

Ibanez only spent 3 years in KC from 2001-03, and in that time he batted .291/.347/.492. Prior to KC he spent 5 years in Seattle only playing semi-regularly in 1999 (82 games) and 2000 (92 games). He was instrumental in the Royals 2003 out of nowhere winning season under manager Tony Pena. When his contract expired after 2003, we let him sign back with the Mariners.

Ignoring the past few years of decline, Ibanez was incredibly consistent for the 7 years (5 with SEA, 2 with PHI) after leaving KC posting a nearly identical line: .286/.352/.482. Until last year, the Royals haven’t had a winning season since he left.

5 & 4. Jermaine Dye & Johnny Damon

In 2000, Damon and Dye led the Royals in WAR with 6.1 and 4.6, respectively. Then before the 2001 season, the Royals decided to trade Damon to the Athletics for a SS prospect named Angel Berroa. Later that year, the Royals would ship Dye to Oakland through Colorado for another SS named Neifi Perez. Perez would play through the 2002 season posting a -2.2 WAR in his time as a Royal. He left in 2003 to make way for Berroa, who would miraculously beat out Hideki Matsui for AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 and would be instrumental to the Royals weirdo 2003 campaign. He posted a 2.5 WAR that year, and then backed it up with a -1.1 WAR over the next three seasons.

Dye/Damon would both go on to the postseason with the A’s in 2001, and would both win a World Series in consecutive seasons with the Red Sox in 2004 (Damon) and the White Sox in 2005 (Dye). The Royals would finish with the worst record in the majors those years, losing 104 & 106 games. Embarrassing, but somehow it gets worse.

3. Albert Pujols

Wait, what? Pujols never played for the Royals. He was a Cardinal and now he’s an Angel. How did he “get away”?!

Pujols is from Independence, Missouri, and he grew up playing baseball at 3&2 Baseball in Jackson County, right under the nose of the Royals. Yet on the day of the 1999 MLB draft, he wasn’t drafted until the THIRTEENTH ROUND, and it wasn’t by the hometown team. It was by their cross-state rivals instead. The Royals had 12 rounds worth of opportunities to pick up the local talent, and they let him get away.

2. Carlos Beltran

Sigh. Beltran was a 2nd round pick in the 1995 draft, debuted in 1998, and won AL ROY in 1999. Unlike Angel Berroa, he would only get better over time. Carlos was the perfect 5-tool player: hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, arm and defense. He posted double digit assists in 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 – and the only reason he didn’t in 2000 was because he only played in 98 games. He hit .287 with the Royals, and stole 164 bases and blasted 123 home runs.

Beltran was – and still is – the man but in a move that was now too familiar to Royals fans, he was traded to Houston for John Buck, cash, and a pillow to cry into at night.

And then, to make matters worse, Beltran decided to tease us during the offseason. He was a free agent with the Cardinals, and we brought him into KC and wooed him with a “Welcome Back Carlos!” Jumbotron message at The K. Beltran fever took over Royals fandom for a week or so. We were prepared to give him a longer deal to make him happy. We were prepared to jettison Billy Butler to make space for his bat as a DH.

And then Carlos signed with the Yankees.

The Yankees.

Why’d it have to be the Yankees? It hurts so so badly. We miss you Carlos. We thought you loved us as much as we loved you. That’s right. Loved. Past tense. You burned that bridge the moment you put on pinstripes.

1. Jon Schuerholz

The #1 Royal that got away isn’t even a player. It’s a General Manager. Schuerholz came to the Royals in 1981, and led the team to the playoffs 3 times in his first 5 years, culminating in their only World Series Championship in 1985.

The Royals continued to be competitive under his watch, but he left for Atlanta in 1990 and led the Braves to 14 NL pennants over 15 years, only missing on the shortened 1994 strike season. While the Braves were experiencing success after success – 14 division titles, 3 World Series appearances and 1 championship in 1995 – the Royals spiraled slowly into obscurity.

One wonders what life might have been like as a Royals fan if Schuerholz hadn’t left for ATL. Would the Braves success been ours instead? Would we have claimed our second World Series championship in the mid-90s instead?

-apc.

The Royals are 0-1

The Royals are 0-1.

I still believe this team can win 85-90 games again this year, and they still have 85-90 to go.

But I keep hearing from other people about how the Royals have no chance against Max Scherzer tonight and are already turning quickly away from hope and positioning themselves strongly toward despair.

Which is frustrating, because this team is the same team as it was before Opening Day. They only lost 1 game. It isn’t the end of the world. And if you thought this team was a potential playoff team this off season, then one Opening Day loss shouldn’t change that.

This Tigers rotation is tough, but if we believe that we’re good enough to make the playoffs, tonight’s game is exactly the type of game we ought to expect the Royals to be competitive in all season long. We nearly beat Verlander on Monday. Why is that the end of the world?

It was just 1 game, against a tough opponent, and we can’t lose hope already.

However.

As Royals fans, we’ve seen this before, and we’ve had our hearts broken before, and we know how this story plays out. We know that 1 loss can turn into 2, can turn into 4 can turn into 6. The Royals cannot let that happen. There are a few things that need to happen over the next week in order to set this season in the right direction and reestablish this fan base as a hopeful one.

1. Moustakas must get a hit today.

We heard all Spring Training how he has finally turned it around. He’s a new player this time, and unlike last year, this Spring Training is going to carry over into the regular season. He’s finally arrived.

But then he went 0-4 on Monday.

Moose absolutely must get a hit today. He cannot start the season 0-8. He just can’t. Moose can’t allow doubt and uncertainty to creep into his head, and an 0-8 start starts him down that path. He needs to get comfortable at the plate early this season, so we don’t spend the whole year grumbling about his lack of production again. For his own sake and for ours, please, Moose, get at least 1 hit today.

2. Vargas must go 6+ innings and give up 2 or less runs.

Can he replace the production that Ervin Santana brought last year? That’s what we all want to know about this Jason Vargas guy that the Royals so eagerly paid $7M this year. He needs to establish himself early in the season as a legit #2 on this pitching staff. He doesn’t even have to win the game. But he must eat up innings and keep Detroit somewhat at bay.

3. The Royals must win their home Opening Series vs. the White Sox.

No matter what happens in Detroit, whether it ends 2-1, 1-2 or 0-3, we absolutely must take the Opening Series against the freaking White Sox. The Royals went 10-9 against Chicago last year while the Indians went 17-2. No wonder they got the Wild Card spot and we didn’t. The Royals should be the White Sox every single time they face them.

The Royals need to learn to take care of business. Losing to Detroit isn’t the end of the world, but if we can’t consistently take series against teams we should beat, then we have no business acting like we’re a playoff contender. If we win the White Sox series, the worst we can be is 2-4. Baseball is about winning series, and we have to do that against patsies like the Sox.

4. Ned Yost needs to continue to trust his bullpen.

The Royals bullpen is great. And while it’s easy to bash on Yost for taking Shields out with runners on 1st and 3rd late in the game, our bullpen has a track record of getting the job done in those situations and I applaud Ned for trusting them in that situation. I don’t agree with the decision – with Shields on the mound, I’d rather see him work out of it than take the ball out of his hand – but I at least understand the decision.

Ned cannot allow Monday’s blown game change how he wants to use his bullpen. Give the ball back to Crow, Davis and Holland. They’re the guys who got us to 86 wins last year, and they need to be the guys to do it again in 2014. Keep giving them the ball. Especially when it’s not a Shields start.

Don’t lose heart Royals fans. It’s a long season, and I was disappointed after the loss on Monday afternoon too. I was sitting at Great American Ballpark watching the score change torturously from 3-1 to 3-3 to 4-3 over the course of an hour. It was the worst and I had to catch myself from spiraling into despair myself.

But we aren’t anywhere close to despair yet. We’re 0-1, and we could even steal this Tigers series and come home 2-1. It’s possible! Don’t lose heart Royals fans. Baseball is a long long season. I still believe this team can win 85-90 games and make the playoffs.

Let’s revisit this next week. Because we’ll know a lot more about this team’s outlook by then.

-apc.

Luke Hochevar is out for 2014, and I’m…Disappointed?

We learned this morning that Luke Hochevar, former #1 overall pick and the guy who was supposed to serve as the set up man for Greg Holland this season, will undergo Tommy John surgery to have his elbow repaired and will be out the entire 2014 season. 

Of all the players Royals fans have criticized and grumbled about in recent years, Hochevar is likely at the top of the list. He was supposed to be the piece our entire pitching staff was constructed around when we drafted him in 2006. And at first, things seemed peachy.

Hochevar made his MLB debut in September of 2007 appearing in 4 games. The first three were relief appearances, and he was awesome: 9.2 total innings, 8 hits, and only 1 run allowed over those three games.

Then his first start came on Mike Sweeney’s last day as a Royal on the final game of the season against the Indians. Hochevar was looking good into the 3rd, but then he made his first mistake of his career: Travis Hafner knocked him for a 2 run double.

Which, unfortunately, is how Hochevar starts go.

He has always had flashes of brilliance where we remember why he may have been worthy of the top draft pick. But overall, he’s always disappointed us. There are moments, but when you zoom out and look at the career, it looks the same way that first start did: 2 runs, 3 innings…6.00 ERA.

Which is a microcosm of Hochevar’s career over the next five years. Between 2008-2012: 38-58, 5.45 ERA. Woof.

And then, to make matters worse, we make the mistake of glancing at the other names out of that same draft class…

3. Evan Longoria
7. Clayton Kershaw
10. Tim Lincecum
11. Max Scherzer

…and it just gets depressing.

In 2011, the Royals decided to just trust that Hochevar was going to live up to his potential as long as he was given the opportunity. So they gave him the nod to be their Opening Day starter. And yet again, he started out great. He’d surrendered only 1 hit through 3 innings.

But in the 4th with no outs…HR, 2B, 2B.
Then in the 6th, after getting two quick outs…HR, E1, 1B.

More of the same.

Then 2012 came and his polarized performances became even more dramatic. First, he got beat out for the Opening Day job by Bruce Chen, which his hilarious in itself, but then Hochevar had shutouts in 4 different games in 2012.

5/12 @ CWW: 7 innings, 3 hits, 0 runs
6/19 @ HOU: 7.2 innings, 5 hits, 0 runs
6/ 25 vs TB: 9 innings, 7 hits, 0 runs*
8/21 @ TB: 8 innings, 1 hit, 0 runs*

* – Interesting side note: the Rays bat just .196 against Hochevar throughout his career. By comparison, the Tigers hit .346 off him and the AL Central is a combined .277. Isn’t it funny how a guy is just comfortable against certain teams?

But his overall ERA in 2012: 5.73.

Get this: in 2012, Luke Hochevar gave up more earned runs than any other pitcher in baseball. 118 runs. Miserable.

If this guy wasn’t a #1 pick, he would’ve been ditched long long ago. Which is why, after the 2012 season, as Hochevar’s contract was expiring and we’d had enough of his lackluster performances, we were all thrilled when the Royals finally got him out of their hair.

Oh wait. Nevermind.

They decided to resign him for $4.5M for 2013 instead.

What!?

Why in the world would the Royals ever pay a guy with a lifetime ERA over FIVE that much money?! It was infuriating. Just let it go, Royals. He’s a bust. We need to move on and get over it already.

But here’s something interesting: Today, as we learned the seriousness of Luke Hochevar’s injury, and when we learned that he would need Tommy John surgery*, and that he’d be out for the whole season…we’re disappointed. Sad. Concerned even.

It’s amazing how much difference a year makes, isn’t it?

* – By the way, I’m pretty sure Hochevar will be the first MLB player to be given Tommy John surgery after the death of its inventor, Frank Jobe, who passed away yesterday at 88 years old. Somebody somewhere will turn that into a trivia question.

In 2013, coming out of the bullpen for the entire season, Hochevar posted a 1.92 ERA, .825 WHIP, 4.82 K/BB ratio, and a grizzly beard that makes us completely forget his old disappointing self.

For the first time since…well, maybe since his debut back in 2007, I actually believed that Luke Hochevar was going to be great. By the end of last season, I wanted him in the game. There was no groaning or rolling the eyes. There was suddenly a trust in his ability. He had proven himself as a stud reliever, and it really is a bummer that he won’t be around in 2014.

The Royals bullpen were the best in the AL last year, and it’s going to be really tough to match that mark again. This injury to Hochevar just made it even more difficult.

-apc.