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.