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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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-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.

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.

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 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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IMG_7741 IMG_7737 IMG_7738 IMG_7743 IMG_7762 IMG_7777 IMG_7783 IMG_7793 IMG_7786 IMG_7778 IMG_7802 IMG_7788 IMG_7805 IMG_7807 IMG_7808 IMG_7815 IMG_7809 IMG_7812 IMG_7822 IMG_7825 IMG_7826 IMG_8401 IMG_7829 IMG_7833 IMG_7838 IMG_7843IMG_7846 IMG_7859 IMG_7871 IMG_7913

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.

Book Update

Can you believe it’s nearly baseball season?! I can’t. As much as I bemoan the winter months, I’m shocked at how quickly we’ve pushed through them. Pitchers and catchers are reporting to camp! It’s crazy how fast the offseason has blitzed by. It’s as if the 2014 MLB season lasted a month longer than normal here in KC…

Anyway. I want to update you all on where I am in terms of my book.

The writing is ongoing. I’ve had a couple setbacks, but I also seem to get more and more excited daily as my vision for this book has taken its final shape. Let’s start with the setbacks and end with the exciting bits.

The first bit of bad news is that my publisher went out of business. The House Studio was a part of the Nazarene Publishing House and had to close their doors at the beginning of December. I held out hope that they might re-form under a new group and retain my project, but alas, that’s not the case. So I’m back on the prowl for a publisher. I have a couple leads, and self-publishing is always a last resort option. I figure I’ll let that play out when I’ve completed my first draft and can submit it around to various publications. We’ll see what works out – this could end up being a good thing in the end. I’m hopeful.

The other bit of bad news is probably more neutral news. I’m in my final semester of classes in seminary and I’ve discovered that as my classes have gotten tougher, my workload has increased and my time to write a book on the side has decreased. The book has to take a backseat to my academics. Seminary is hard work. Imagine that. I call this “neutral news” because with every class I attend, book I read and paper I write I’m gaining more and more insight into themes this book will revolve around. So while it’s a slight delay in the writing process – I’m about 6 months behind schedule – it’s leading to better content on the back end, so I feel great about taking my time. I don’t want to throw together some sloppy piece of work. Writing is an extension of self, and I want something I’ll be proud of in the end, so bear with me!

Okay that’s the bad/neutral news.

Here’s the good news.

First, the ballpark tour was an incredible success. I had no rainouts or missed flights or delays in my schedule, which is a borderline miracle in itself. I’ve never experienced a busier, more exhausting or more exciting season of my life than the 2014 baseball season, and I have all of you to thank. I also got to share experiences with old friends and new friends across the nation (and Toronto!), which was an incredible blessing. I think a lot of my emotions surrounding the Royals’ World Series loss was due to the realization that not only was the season over, but it was the end of a long string of wonderful relational moments as well.

In the midst of my travels, I experienced how difficult it is to be a beat reporter in baseball. I was able to post 27 of the 30 blogs as I went along. The only three I couldn’t complete in time were the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles which felt too meaty to do justice in a quick postgame blog. They’ve been placed on the “you’ll have to wait till the book is out to read about those games” list.

Which brings me to my next piece of good news: my outline is finished and a handful of chapters have already been completed. My outline for the book consists of all 30 MLB ballparks and a spiritual insight discovered in each place…and an October Epilogue! When my classes wrap up in May, my writing calendar opens up completely to this project, which is going to be SO refreshing. A draft is due to my seminary by December in order to graduate next May, so I can pretty safely say that’s about when the book will end up coming out as well: Spring Training 2016.

So there you go. An update on where my project stands for those keeping track at home. Believe me, I wish I could get this out of my brain and into your hands sooner. Thanks for your patience and for your continued support!

-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.

My Imaginary (yet Equally Subjective) 2015 Hall of Fame Ballot

bal-baseball-hall-of-fame-logo-20130712

The 2015 Hall of Fame class will be revealed tomorrow. Over the past month or so, the BBWAA members have been filling out their ballots and submitting their picks for this year’s HOF.

The Hall of Fame vote is the definition of subjectivity. A whole bunch of sportswriters cast their votes on who should and should not be enshrined in Cooperstown for eternity. Each one has different opinions. None are wrong. None are right. It’s just one giant opinion.

Even when we try our best to break things down into purely stats, we’re forced into subjectivity when we decide which stats are most important to consider when awarding a ballplayer with immortality. Is a pitcher’s earned run average more important than another’s strikeout rate? Is postseason performance more important than long term success in the league? How do stolen bases compare with home runs or on base percentage? It’s a nightmare, really.

But that’s not even half of the struggle. In the post-steroid era of baseball, even the statistics can’t tell us everything we want to know. How does one compare an admitted PED user with someone with worse statistics who may have used but we aren’t totally sure? Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are arguably the two most dominant ballplayers of their generation whose accomplishments land significantly higher than their peers on the 2015 HOF Ballot. Others – Jeff Bagwell, for example – has never been linked to steroids use, but the population cannot help but speculate due to his size and the era he played.

And then there’s the case of Mark McGwire, who admitted to the use of an over-the-counter supplement, but who (along with Sammy Sosa) managed to resurrect the game of baseball with the home run race of 1998. The two created a buzz surrounding the game in a time that desperately needed them. That race is going to be talked about in baseball history books forever. Anyone who “saved” the game of baseball ought to be considered for the Hall of Fame, right? That sort of thing transcends stats.

See what I mean? Way too subjective.

A quick caveat here: I make fun of other sports a lot – football and basketball in particular – because of how subjective they are. The referee can throw a flag or blow the whistle on literally every play if they want. It’s all their opinion. There’s no arguing with the matter. Even with instant replay being used a half dozen times per football game, NFL officials continue to bicker over the “correct” call on the field. The official will make a call – let’s say, a fumble recovered by the defense – and they’ll go to the monitors to review it. Meanwhile, the FOX/CBS guys will talk to their network referee in the booth and he’ll say that “the officials got the call right on the field, and this should stand as called.” Then they cut back to the field and the lead ref declares that the “ruling on the field is overturned and it’s not a fumble after all.” The game cannot escape subjectivity.

Which is another reason I love baseball so much. It is virtually void of subjectivity. And even the primary aspect that isn’t – the umpire calling balls/strikes – is embraced as the “human element” of the game. Sure, it’s subjective, but that’s part of the game and one of the reasons I love it. (I could go on a rant about how much I hate the new catcher rules for this very reason, but I’m already on a giant rabbit trail as it is…caveat over.)

All that to say, Hall of Fame balloting is super subjective and it feels somewhat foreign to the game of baseball. Football and basketball are games created with inherent subjectivity as part of the game. Baseball is not.

The HOF vote is also a broken system. Two rules in particular are extremely frustrating for voters this year. First: the problem of years of eligibility on the ballot. Second, and the larger issue of the two this year: the problem of limiting the number of votes.

It used to be that players were eligible for 15 years. That number has recently been reduced to 10 years as a way of pushing out players who have been linked to PEDs in recent years. Typically, if a player managed to hang around on the ballot for a handful of years, he’ll slowly receive more and more shares of votes the longer he remains. A player must get at least 75% of the vote to be elected and if they receive less than 5% of the vote, their name is removed from the ballot. Bert Blyleven, for example, only got 17.5% of the votes in his first year on the ballot. By his 14th year, he received 79.7%. By reducing the number of years, the committee has made it less likely that players like Bonds and Clemens will slowly increase their odds in the eyes of the public as their case slowly marinates over the years.

Unfortunately, that means that guys like Jeff Bagwell or Mike Mussina – both Hall of Famers, in my opinion – might get pushed off the ballot before their stock can rise enough to get them in. Obviously this will take longer to play out, and as time goes on we’ll learn more about how this affects the votes of the BBWAA.

The other issue has immediate ramifications. The HOF voters can only select 10 names, and this year, the ballot is jam packed with deserving names. Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez are on the ballot for the first time and both are locks. According to the Baseball Think Factory, John Smoltz (1st ballot) and Craig Biggio (3rd) are looking like locks as well (although, I feel differently about one of those two this year, more on that in a minute).

Then there’s Bonds and Clemens, who in my opinion are Hall of Famers despite their obvious red flags. They’re in a class of their own.

From there, the ballot only gets more convoluted. Voters are forced to pick 4-6 names out of a list of 10-12 deserving candidates. I could easily pick 12 names this year and I would still leave off some very deserving candidates.

Tim Raines, Lee Smith, Edgar Martinez, Alan Trammell, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Mike Mussina, Curt Schilling, Larry Walker, Don Mattingly, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff and Jeff Kent. McGwire and Sosa too. Regardless of how you slice it, voters are guaranteed to leave off names that arguably deserve the HOF.

So let’s get subjective.

This is who I would vote for if I had a HOF ballot…

  • Randy Johnson
  • Pedro Martinez
  • Roger Clemens
  • Barry Bonds
  • Tim Raines
  • Craig Biggio
  • Mike Piazza
  • Curt Schilling
  • Mike Mussina
  • Jeff Bagwell

I’d also vote for John Smoltz and Lee Smith. And probably Alan Trammell. Maybe even Edgar Martinez and Mark McGwire if I could. And I’d even consider Larry Walker. Oh, Gary Sheffield too.

See what I mean? It’s impossible to limit it to 10 deserving names this year. The limit should be lifted or amended moving forward because this is ridiculous.

Some voters are even intentionally leaving Johnson or Martinez off the ballot so they can give votes to guys like Mattingly (15th and final year on ballot), Walker (5th), Raines (8th), Trammell (14th), Smith (13th), or others who may need a hike up in percentage. Sure, that means Pedro and Randy won’t be unanimous, but at least the other guys who deserve it are getting a slight boost for future years.

Okay. Here’s how I made my decisions…

Johnson and Martinez need no explanation. Bonds and Clemens are the greatest players of their generation and I believe they’re deserving with or without PEDs.

Jonah Keri convinced me that Tim Raines deserves my vote in a sidebar from his book, Up, Up and Away.

Biggio just barely missed by two votes last year and he deserves it again this year. Mike Piazza is probably the best offensive catchers to ever play the game. Jeff Bagwell was a beast and is the best first baseman not named Gehrig or Foxx or Pujols.

Which brings me to 8 votes down, and three deserving pitchers to choose from: Schilling, Mussina and Smoltz.

I’m not totally understanding why Smoltz is such a lock for the HOF in his 1st year on the ballot while Schilling and Mussina – in their 3rd and 2nd years respectively – are not. Every stat I look at points to Schilling getting in before the other two. Yet as of this post, of all votes made public, Smoltz has received as many as the other two combined. I’m stumped.

I guess I can come up with a few reasons why people might be favoring Smoltz. First, are people lumping John Smoltz in with last year’s first ballot elections of Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine? The three were teammates in Atlanta for years in the midst of their 14 consecutive NL East titles, and I wonder if people are saying, “well, if the other two got in, then I guess we have to vote for #3 as well…”

Second, I wonder if Smoltz’s consistent postseason presence is pushing him up higher than the other two. Smoltz went 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA. He pitched in forty-one postseason games. But it’s not like the other two didn’t have a lot of postseason success too: Mussina has 23 appearances and Schilling has 19. All three of them have storied postseason careers, but when the team you play for makes it to the playoffs that many times, you’re going to have a lager body of work.

Finally, and this is the biggest one: John Smoltz won the Cy Young in his best year, 1996. But that seems unfair based on his competition at the height of his career. Smoltz’s only NL competition that year was Kevin Brown. Schilling’s first great year was the next one, 1997.

  • Smoltz 1996: 2.94 ERA, 276 K, Won CY
  • Schilling 1997: 2.97 ERA, 319 K, 4th CY
  • Schilling 2001: 2.95 ERA, 293 K, 2nd CY
  • Schilling 2002: 3.23 ERA, 316 K, 2nd CY
  • Schilling 2004: 3.26 ERA, 203 K 2nd CY

Schilling finished second in the Cy Young voting three different times – 2001, 2001, and 2004 – and 4th once, losing to his teammate Randy Johnson in 01/02 and to Johan Santana in 04 (I originally wrote Clemens here, but he was the Cy winner in the AL, my apologies). Craziest stat I saw on Schilling: he led the league in K/BB rate in 5 of 6 consecutive years from 2001-2006. His strikeout to walk rate of 4.38 is the highest of any pitcher in this century – better than even Pedro Martinez and Mariano Rivera. Insane.

John Smoltz had a better peak of his career in 1996 maybe, but Schilling was obviously better in my opinion and for longer. Smoltz converted to closer during the second half of his career, a la Dennis Eckersly, so maybe that’s the appeal – only guy with 200 wins and 150 saves, if you’re into those sorts of stats. To me, Mussina played a high level longer than Smoltz did too, and was also a better defender winning 5 Gold Gloves. His defense is likely what makes Mussina’s career WAR significantly higher than Smoltz’s as well – 82.7 versus 66.5, and Mussina compiled it in 3 fewer seasons.

All 3 players deserve to be in the HOF, and all will be elected to Cooperstown someday, I think. Ultimately, it was a toss up between those two for me, and I probably would choose Mussina over Smoltz for two not-so-great reasons. 1. I just finished Buster Olney’s book The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty which talks at length about both Schilling and Mussina in the 2001 World Series between the Yankees and Diamondbacks. Probably influenced my decision. 2. I went with who I thought would need a vote more this year and in future years. They both deserve it almost equally, but Mussina needs the push with votes coming in the way they are.

Although, I’m considering changing my mind if “Mussina” gets autocorrected to “musician” one more time. Infuriating.

So there you go. My apologies to the rest of the crew. Better luck next year…except you Donnie Baseball, you’ve had your chance.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading about this completely subjective post about my HOF vote that doesn’t actually exist. Cheers.

-apc.

The Royals sign RHP Kris Medlen for $8.5M over 2 years.

MLB: New York Mets at Atlanta Braves

WHAT. ON. EARTH. IS. HAPPENING.

We thought they were finished, but apparently they’re not! The Royals have added to their week of free agent pick ups – Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios and Edinson Volquez – and have agreed to a contract with Kris Medlen that will pay him $2M in 2015 and $5.5 in 2016 with a mutual $10M option for 2017 or a $1M buyout.

Dayton, you dog, you. Incredible work.

All this time we knew they needed three pieces – RF, DH and SP – and yesterday’s Volquez signing just didn’t seem to be the answer for most of us. He’s fine, and was the best option at that price, but we felt underwhelmed, deflated.

But this changes everything.

After the Royals signed Alex Rios on Monday, I wrote about how they still needed to add a starting pitcher. I offered up Volquez as a safe option that wasn’t a sexy name, but that would at least bring some serviceable innings to the 2015 starting rotation. I also offered the option that they could take a gamble on a pitcher who missed 2014 due to injury – specifically Kris Medlen who had just been non-tendered by the Atlanta Braves. Here’s what I wrote on Tuesday morning…

The other option would be to take a gamble on a pitcher who missed 2014 due to injury. Kris Medlen missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and was non-tendered by the Braves. What do you get from a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery? Who knows. Could he be the guy who threw a 2.47 ERA from 2012-2013 or would he be a shell of himself? And is that worth a $5-6M gamble? Hmmm. Answers please, Dayton Moore.

I never believed for a moment that they would pick up both Volquez and Medlen, but Dayton Moore has gone and stirred things up even more with this move. They’re essentially opposite players in terms of their potential ceiling, so paired together, this feels like a brilliant move. On the one hand, Volquez is coming off his best season as a starter, and we pretty much know his ceiling is his 2014 season. His control is questionable, and he’s not going to be lights out, but he’ll eat up innings. You know what you’re getting with Edinson Volquez and it’s not great. He’s…fine.

But with Kris Medlen, we really have no idea what we’re getting. Medlen was incredible with the Braves from 2009-2013. He has a career 2.95 ERA. He strikes out nearly 8 batters per 9 innings. He walks less than 2 batters per 9 innings. His career WHIP is a notch above 1. Kris Medlen was going to be one of their top starters. He was entering the prime years of his career. Instead, he had to undergo his second Tommy John surgery of his career.

So what are we getting with Kris Medlen?

It’s a lottery ticket basically, but the upside is astronomical. We’re paying $2M in 2015 for a gamble on a guy who could come back from injury and be an absolute stud in our rotation. He probably won’t be ready by Opening Day, and with the depth of the Royals rotation now, we may let him take his time and trot him out there sometime in June.

Even then, he would probably be a back of rotation guy for this year, pushing Guthrie or Volquez back to the bullpen. He’ll have to work his way back to his old role as a top of the rotation guy. This also takes the pressure off the bullpen to have additional long men available rather than having to turn to Hochever/Frasor early and making Herrera/Davis/Holland work more innings than they should be throughout the season. This also almost guarantees that Brandon Finnegan starts the season in the minors.

Kris Medlen has ace-calibur stuff. A fastball in the upper 80s, but pinpoint control. His changeup and his curveball are his best pitches. From 2012-2013 only two pitchers (Cole Hamels and, interestingly, Jason Vargas) generated more value out of their changeup than Medlen did, and only 8 players had a more valuable curveball. Basically, Kris Medlen has the stuff to potentially be a top of the rotation type of guy, as long as he can jump back from TJS #2.

So this year we’ll spend $2M on a second-half starter. We can expect around 80 innings from Medlen this year, but could be really special in 2016 if he can work back to his old form.

We have unbelievable depth at starting pitching suddenly. Which is very important, and we were fortunate to not have any injuries to our rotation in 2014. High five to one of baseball’s best training staffs. With the addition of Kris Medlen, the pressure on Ventura and Duffy is lifted, and you have one of the highest upside pitchers waiting for the ball come midseason.

So in 2015, the Royals are on the hook for $6.5M for Morales, $11M for Rios, $10M for Volquez and $2M for Medlen. That’s $29.5M in 2015. Rios is gone in 2016, but the second year for both Morales and Medlen is more money, so it’s $9.5M for Morales, $10M for Volquez and $5.5M for Medlen. That’s $25M in 2016. We are sure to lose either Greg Holland or Wade Davis’s option for that year (if not before this season), which reduces that commitment even further.

All that to say, we’ve had a busy busy week and our pocketbook isn’t on the hook much at all. Suddenly this move makes yesterday’s move feel completely justified. By signing veteran guys to modest money, if any of these four exceeds expectations, we’re going to come out way on the plus side on these deals.

And we didn’t have to give up anything but cash to do it. I absolutely love this deal. Bravo, Dayton Moore. Bravo, David Glass.

I thought this team was done with signings yesterday, but apparently I was wrong. This team is still moving and shaking and who knows what might be in store for tomorrow. What a crazy busy and exciting week in the life of Royals baseball fans. Phew.

…SO IS IT SPRING TRAINING YET, OR WHAT?!

-apc.

The Royals sign RHP Edinson Volquez for $20M over 2 years.

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And there it is.

The final piece of the roster puzzle is righty starter Edinson Volquez, who signed a 2-year, $20M contract with the Royals this afternoon. He joins Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios, who both signed earlier this week, as the trifecta called upon to fill in the gaps left by Billy Butler, James Shields and Nori Aoki.

I have a lot of thoughts as it pertains to this signing, and I want to rifle through them so I can get to the second half of this post which is a look at the complete roster as it stands right this minute.

First a little bit about Edinson Volquez.

Volquez is a veteran starter who has played with 5 different teams since 2008. He’s had two terrific seasons. Most recently, he posted a 3.04 ERA over 192.2 innings with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the best pitching performance of his career. His other terrific year was back in 2008 for the Cincinnati Reds: 3.21 ERA, 196 innings and he was elected to his only All Star Game.

Unfortunately, all the years in between 2008 and 2014 are borderline stinkers. Volquez’s career 4.44 ERA is ripe. He strikes out quite a few – 8.1 K/9 – but he also walks a ton – 4.5 BB/9. In 2012, he led the league with 105 walks. In 2013, led the league with 108 earned runs. In 2008, he led the league in hit batters with 14, and he matched that number again last year. None of these are great categories to lead the league in. He’s kind of a wild thing out there, apparently. Effectively wild, we might say.

His 2009 season was cut short due to Tommy John surgery, and his 2010 season was segmented by a 50 game suspension due to PED use coming off his injury.

I should also mention that Edinson Volquez started the Pirates NL Wild Card game and he got shelled by the Giants: 5 innings, 5 hits, 5 runs. (Before you go throwing stones at the guy, remember James Shields line from the AL Wild Card game: 5 innings, 5 hits, 4 runs.)

But still, I know what you’re thinking…not great. And if you were actually thinking that (which I’m sure you were), you’d be right.

Edinson Volquez isn’t great.

But, just like Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios before him, I think he is good enough to get this team back to the playoffs for the second consecutive season. There’s just a little more pressure on him than those other two to pan out.

Edinson Volquez likely slots in as our 3rd or 4th pitcher in the rotation (depending how high you are on Jason Vargas). If you thought the Royals were actually going to replace James Shields with another #1 starter out of free agency, you’re crazy. The replacement for James Shields is Yordano Ventura. It always has been. He is our best pitcher, and Danny Duffy is not far behind him as our #2. The Royals are looking to them to take another step in 2015.

So my first thought following the Volquez deal is it puts an immense amount of pressure on Duffy and Ventura to carry this team next year. Are they going to be up to the task? We’ll have to wait and see.

What we need out of Edinson Volquez is about 180 innings with an ERA in the 3’s. If he can do that, this signing is absolutely worth the $10M/year we’re paying him. Signing proven veteran guys is never cheap.

Oh, and the other thing you get from signing Volquez? You get to keep your prospects and your draft picks and your future.

The Royals signed three players to semi-expensive deals without having to surrender any other pieces, and none of their contracts extend beyond two years. It’s going to stretch the pocketbook (and you have to applaud David Glass for being willing to extend the payroll into the $110-115M range, by far the highest in team history), but it’s not going to restrict the future of this team even if none of these guys work out.

Which feels unlikely…doesn’t it seem like at least one these three will be a big hit? Alex Rios is the surest thing of the three. He has hit around .280 his entire career, and we can anticipate him doing it again in 2015. Morales and Volquez are slightly bigger risks with Morales’s curious contract situation in 2014 and Volquez coming off his only good season since finishing 4th in the 2008 Rookie of the Year vote.

By the way, for those of you who hated the Morales deal because he had a terrible 2014, you are basically required to like the Volquez deal because he had an awesome 2014. Just saying. You can’t flip-flop your opinion on how much one season matters versus an entire career.

The Royals are paying $48M over the next two years to these three guys. The obvious rebuttal is the same as it was after Rios signed on Monday: why couldn’t they add two cheaper pieces at DH and RF and funnel all those funds into one big name top starter?!

The reason is in the length of the contracts. If we were going to sign a monster name, we’d have to commit to that individual over 5+ years (not to mention the loss of a draft pick). We simply cannot pay a guy $20M/year for that long. Even if we allocated that much dough to swing it, we shouldn’t commit that much money to a single player for that long. If anything were to go wrong – injury or suspension or a major slump – our team tanks because we have too much money invested in one place. This team needs to spread the money over all 25 guys, not just one or two major pieces.

Did anyone really expect us to add Jon Lester? Or Max Scherzer? Or James Shields? Heck, even Melky Cabrera and Yasmany Tomas as right field options seemed far fetched when their names were making the rounds. This team was never going to add a monster piece. It was always going to be three good-not-great players…in fact, I’m a bit surprised we even ended up with those pieces solved. If they hadn’t signed Volquez (supposedly the Twins were after him too) they probably would’ve been stuck with Jake Peavy instead, and that would’ve been way way worse. (Although, Peavy has been on the last two World Series teams – 2013 Red Sox and 2014 Giants – maybe we missed our chance. Psssh, as if he won’t be available at the trade deadline again this year.)

So there it is.

Kendrys Morales. Alex Rios. Edinson Volquez.

We knew the three pieces they needed to add, and Dayton Moore went out and added all three of them without having to sacrifice the future of this club (speaking of, if you don’t know yet, Will Myers was just traded to the Padres in a three team deal and the Rays got squat in return).

A few reminders before we look at the full roster…

  1. We have the best relief pitching in all of baseball and our starters only need to go 6 innings.
  2. We have the best defense in baseball, a giant, pitcher-friendly ballpark, and lots of speed. Those three aspects of the game are sustainable no matter how the offense and pitching performs.
  3. The core of this team – the guys who won us 89 regular season games, won 8 straight postseason games and took us to within 90 feet of a World Series championship – are still here. The success or failure of this team will be because of them. Just like last year.
  4. That said, this is not the same team because they ought to have all matured following the success and excitement of last season. We can expect a slight bump in production from all our young guys.
  5. Final caveat, and this is one I don’t like to think about…our payroll at $110-115M, which feels higher than it should be. Maybe they’re putting the postseason revenue directly back into the roster, but it’s possible that we might still trade Wade Davis or Greg Holland for prospects.

Okay, that’s enough reminders. Let’s look at the roster as it stands right now…

Rotation

  • Yordano Ventura
  • Danny Duffy
  • Jason Vargas
  • Edinson Volquez
  • Jeremy Guthrie

Bullpen

  • Greg Holland
  • Wade Davis
  • Kelvin Herrera
  • Luke Hochevar
  • Jason Frasor
  • Tim Collins
  • Louis Coleman
  • Brandon Finnegan (?)

Lineup

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

Reserves

  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Christian Colon
  • Erik Kratz

That’s a complete 25-man roster right there. It’s probably more likely that Brandon Finnegan starts in AAA and we add some depth to our reserves list somehow. Teams typically don’t have 13 pitchers and 12 hitters. Usually it’s the other way around, but who knows – why not double down on our bullpen arms?

Overall, I’m perfectly comfortable with this offseason.  I’m not completely over the moon, but it’s not like the Royals were going to suddenly have a $150M budget. But again, we may need to check ourselves the next time we try to cast the blame on David “Malt-o-Meal” Glass*. The budget is up by nearly 20%.

* – Tasty O’s and Fruity Dyno-Bites are cheaper for a reason…c’mon.

We had needs, we addressed them. Nothing flashy or extravagant, but with good enough pieces to put us back in a position to contend for the AL Central without sacrificing our future by giving up draft picks and prospects.

Barring anything crazy, that’s your 2015 Kansas City Royals.

-apc.

Photo cred: Getty Images – WPXI.

The Royals sign RF Alex Rios for $11M in 2015.

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Another piece of the 2015 Royals puzzle was added yesterday evening when AL Champs agreed to a 1 year deal with right fielder Alex Rios for $11M. This comes on the heels signing Kendrys Morales to a 2-year, $17M deal just four days ago.

Rios is a career .278/.323/.439 hitter and is coming off a .280/.315/.398 campaign with the Texas Rangers. Rios was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the first round of the 1999 draft, debuted in 2004 before being traded to the Chicago White Sox in 2009. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in 2013 in the wake of Nelson Cruz’s suspension for PEDs. His 2006-2008 years in Toronto were his best, but he still posted 3.4 WAR in 2010 and 4.1 WAR in 2012 while with Chicago. His career average is 2.6.

Rios is a good veteran player. He’s going to be productive and make a team better. He is expensive at $11M and immediately becomes the second highest paid player on this roster following Alex Gordon, but that’s the price of a good everyday right fielder in today’s market. The Royals pursued Yasmany Tomas, Torii Hunter and Melky Cabrera (in that order) but ultimately had to let the market come to them. They didn’t like the price tags the Diamondbacks, Twins and White Sox were willing to place on each of these guys, so they waited until it made sense. Alex Rios was their guy.

Is he worth $11M? Not a chance. But for a flier on a proven guy for 1 year, that’s what the price is these days, I suppose. The only other alternative is to sign a guy like John Mayberry Jr. to a cheaper deal but probably for multiple years, and with this current nucleus of returning players, I’m not sure we want to commit to anyone beyond 2015 or 2016 unless we absolutely know they’re the right fit.

Speaking of fit, I think Rios is going to fit in nicely on this team. He’s fast, which is sort of a prerequisite on this team, especially with our larger outfield. He puts the ball in play, which is also the Royals style. And his defense is serviceable enough, but I would continue to watch for the late inning Dyson defensive replacement move we all got used to seeing with Nori “The Adventure” Aoki out there. Rios isn’t much better with the glove, but he’s guaranteed to be a lot less goofy than Aoki…despite what the photo above may suggest.

I like this move just fine. You needed a right fielder, you got a solid veteren right fielder. The Morales move may have been a lateral one, but the Rios move is an obvious upgrade.

People (mostly the Royals Twitter community) are hating on this Rios signing like he’s Jeff Francour Part Deux ready to plummet this team into oblivion. I think it’s important to remember that Alex Rios – despite being paid $11M – is not what the success of the 2015 Royals depends on. Were the Royals successful last year because of Nori Aoki and Billy Butler? No way. They helped, and didn’t hurt, but the success was in the defense, the pitching, and ability to make productive outs and manufacture runs. That hasn’t changed. Rios (and Morales) will have roles, but the success of this team lies on Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, HDH and our core of affordable talent – Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and especially Salvador Perez and his ridiculously team-friendly contract. In the same way we don’t count on Omar Infante to be our savior, we won’t count on Morales or Rios either. They’re serviceable pieces, and we want major production from them, but they’re not going to make or break the success of this team.

Or, let’s put it this way: if Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy both post a 4.50 ERA next year, this team flat out does not make the playoffs, but if Morales and Rios both bat .250/.300/.350 and hit a combined 3 HRs? This team is still far from toast.

Which is why I wouldn’t have minded if we’d found him for cheaper. If they’re not centerpieces, then why are we paying nearly a combined $20M for them? I would’ve rather seen them sign a guy for significantly less money – not to continue to beat the John Mayberry Jr. horse, but the Mets signed him for a mere $1.45M – and put that savings into a top tier starter for a year or two. Lester and Scherzer need longer contracts. Shields probably too…I wonder if he would’ve come back for, say, $18M for 1 year. Eh, probably not.

At least it’s only for 1 year for Rios, and not multiple years. That’s what I keep falling back on. Regardless what happens, we won’t be on the hook for his contract in 2016 and beyond (unlike Infante, who we are still trying to pawn off on some other sucker).

So we got piece 2 of 3. I’m as pleased as I expected to be. Not a great move, but a good one.

Now all we need is piece 3 of 3.

A lot of starting pitchers have already signed, but there are still a lot of names out there. One of them will become the final piece of the puzzle. Names like Edison Volquez (192.2 IP, 3,04 ERA) or Aaron Harang (204.1 IP, 3.57 ERA) may not sound as sexy as those top tier guys, but their innings and earned run average are more than good enough to fill in. For what it’s worth: Shields threw 227 IP with a 3.21 ERA. Lester: 219.2 IP, 2.46 ERA. Scherzer: 220.1 IP, 3.51 ERA.

If we assume that Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy will take a step forward in their innings and that Jeremy Guthrie and Jason Vargas maintain their production, we don’t need 230 innings. 180 innings would do just fine. Throw in the deepest bullpen in baseball, and you’ve got a recipe for success.

The other option would be to take a gamble on a pitcher who missed 2014 due to injury. Kris Medlen missed last season due to Tommy John surgery and was non-tendered by the Braves. What do you get from a guy coming back from Tommy John surgery? Who knows. Could he be the guy who threw a 2.47 ERA from 2012-2013 or would he be a shell of himself? And is that worth a $5-6M gamble? Hmmm. Answers please, Dayton Moore.

I’m still feeling confident that this team can contend for the AL Central – they already have their core established, and we know it can be a recipe for success. These two latest ingredients ought to only make things better…I guess I’ve moved past the puzzle and moved on to a food analogy. Cool.

For what it’s worth, they’re 20:1 to win the World Series right now. They were 16:1 the moment the World Series ended. Add a starting pitcher, and we ought to be right back where we were…

…just 90 feet away.

-apc.

Photo cred: The Greedy Pinstripes.

“Hi, this is Ken Griffey Jr., Let’s talk about the Kansas City Royals’ offseason moves (or lack thereof).”

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I’ve been playing a lot of Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball for Nintendo 64 lately. It’s a terrific break from paper writing. I started a full season about a week into November and immediately started trading players. I’m the Royals, but they’re hardly recognizable anymore.

First, I traded for Griffey. I had to give up Johnny Damon and Jose Offerman, but the upgrade is completely worth it as Junior is easily the best player in the game. It’s very weird to see Damon in a Mariners uniform but Griffey’s never looked better.

Then I shipped Mike Sweeney and Jeff King over to Chicago for some dude named Frank Thomas.

Then I pulled Hideo Nomo and Trenidad Hubbard from the Dodgers. Nomo is great and a very fun reminder of how much fun he was to emulate when I was a kid. Hubbard’s bat is average, but he is off the charts on speed. Stealing bases/small ball is my jam (Go Royals), so Hubbs fits into my system perfectly. I don’t remember what I gave up for those guys though. Probably a starting pitcher. Or maybe it was Hal Morris.

Finally, I flipped Dean Palmer and Sal Fasano for Omar Visquel who promptly fractured his ankle and is on the 1-2 month DL. Terrific. Desi Relaford is holding is own at SS though. For now.

I also claimed a rookie named David Ortiz in free agency. He and Frank Thomas now swap 1B/DH duties.

So now my roster looks like this:

C – Mike MacFarlane
1B – Frank Thomas
2B – Shane Halter
3B – Dave Hansen
SS – Omar Visquel
LF – Trenidad Hubbard
CF – Ken Griffey, Jr.
RF – Jermaine Dye
DH – David Ortiz

SP – Kevin Appier, Hideo Nomo, Tim Belcher, Jose Rosado

RP – Glendon Rusch, Hipolito Pichardo, Jim Pittsley, Jaime Bluma, Jeff Montgomery

My next goals are to add Tony Gwynn in place of Dye or Paul Molitor to cover part of the weaker infield. I may need to wait for Visquel to get healthy and use him as a bargaining chip and let Desi stay at SS.

I guess you could say it’s a Process.

Not sure why I decided to start this post with my fictional video game roster, but it felt like a good starting point as any to talk about the Royals’ offseason. If only it was this easy in real life…

The RF/DH Situation

The real life Royals haven’t been nearly as active. They had a few key positions of need, and they haven’t made the moves we all expected them to make to address those needs. Specifically starting pitching, and a right fielder who could also serve as a designated hitter.

I made a list of their top needs and fully expected them to have addressed them by now. I thought we were players for Yasmany Tomas, but he went to Arizona. I thought we’d look into signing Nick Markakis or Torii Hunter or Alex Rios or Melky Cabrera to cover our OF/DH need. Hunter retuned to his old Minnesota home. Markakis went to the Braves to fill the void left by Jason Heyward moving to St. Louis. KC is supposedly in the Melky discussion, but I’m not sure we’d want to lose the draft pick we’d have to surrender of we signed him. Rios is still available and apparently the Royals have checked in on him too. Thanks but no thanks. It’s beginning to look like we won’t be pursuing a big name outfielder for 2015. It seems the Royals are content to just sit back and let the market come to them rather than springing for the big names.

At this point I’d look for the Royals to make another move like they made acquiring Nori Aoki last year (who is still unsigned and probably won’t be pursued until after the bigger names go, but the way things are going, I wonder if they’d take another 1 year flier on him?). Again, the worst case scenario here is that Cain plays RF and Dyson starts in CF.

Two names out of Toronto could be ones to watch. Colby Rasmus has never been a spectacular and somehow got paid $7M by the Blue Jays to hit .225/.287/.448 in 2014. We wouldn’t pay him anywhere near that , and would probably platoon him with Dyson and keep swapping Cain back and forth between RF and LF.

The other name from the Jays has Royals connections: John Mayberry Jr. is a beast with all the power but not much MLB success. He would be dirt cheap, and could provide depth in the outfield as well as at 1B behind Eric Hosmer. When I saw JMJ in Toronto back in September, I was shocked at how big the dude is, but he looked borderline lost at the plate. On a day when the Jays scored 14 runs off the fading Mariners, JMJ was the last Jays starter to get a hit – he went 1-4 with a double in the 8th, a walk and one ugly strikeout.

Just a couple names to consider. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s beginning to look like that’s the kind of offseason we’ll be having with KC.

Neither of these options addresses the DH hole in our lineup either. Which is why I’m afraid we’re going to have to take more drastic measures.

The final possibility is that we ship Greg Holland or Wade Davis elsewhere in a trade. Holland is the preferable choice because he’s the most expensive of the two, and honestly, I think Davis is the better of the two. But a move like this is only possible because of how active Dayton Moore has been with the bullpen.

Bullpen moves aplenty

The Royals have been very active in retaining the MLB’s best bullpen. First, they brought back Jason Frasor on a $1.8M deal with a club option for 2016. Then they signed everybody’s favorite #1 overall pick, Luke Hochevar, to a 2 year, $10M deal.

I love bringing back Frasor, but I’m pretty curious to see how Hochevar does coming off Tommy John surgery last year. Luke’s career was very disappointing as a starter, but he turned it around in the pen in 2013. Feels like a lot of money to give a guy who has only had one good year in his career and is coming off a major injury.

Assuming these two work out (and assuming we don’t ship Holland or Davis away) we seem to have fixed the “sixth inning issue” we faced in 2014. In fact, we’ve strengthened our bullpen to the point that we can just work backwards from the 9th inning to the 1st instead of the other way around.

9th – Holland
8th – Davis
7th – Herrera
6th – Hochevar
5th – …we literally only need 4 or 5 innings out of our starters. It’s kind of a joke.

And with how brilliant Brandon Finnegan was in September/October, he might just end up out there as well if our starters seem strong enough without him. He’d be a great 6th option out of the pen of needed.

When the season ended, with the departure of James Shields, the primary need appeared to be starting pithing. Now? I’m not so sure. If our bullpen is strong enough, we may not even need to jump at a top starter at all. Just someone serviceable who can give 5 innings to get the ball to HHDH. (The only reason I’d want us to ship Davis instead of Holland is so we could start referring to it as “Triple H.”)

Ervin Santana

Let’s be honest, it’s only a matter of time before Ervin Santana comes back to KC. He was great here in 2013, and he tried to get more money elsewhere but couldn’t find the market he wanted. He found a home in ATL and had a fine season, but he’s back on the market and seems to be a perfect fit in KC.

We can’t afford a Tier 1 starter, but giving a 4-year deal to a guy of Santana’s ability seems wise. Butler Olney of ESPN has reported that Santana wants 5 years, but that seems like a stretch. The only hiccup in the plan would be if another team (I’ve heard the Giants mentioned) were able to show more commitment with a longer deal.

A rotation of Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy, Jason Vargas, Jeremy Guthrie and Santana? AND Finnegan? Seems more than good enough. And with our bullpen as strong as ever? Good to go.

Plus, he’s as likeable as they come. Just sign the guy.

Another note: Jeremy Guthrie appears to be recruiting Santana himself (top-left).

Atta boy, Jeremy. Go get him. And while you’re at it, can you convince him to bring Justin Upton along with him? Just kidding…but really.

Daniel Descalso

This isn’t going to happen, but I’d love to see it at least pop up as a possibility. The Cardinals decided not to tender utility infielder Daniel Descalso a contract this week. Many of you know that I come from a long line of Cardinals fans, and my dad raised me to root for them too. It’s a point of contention between other Royals fans and I because they hate the Cardinals with all of their being. I get that, and I won’t fight them on it either.

Anyway, as a Cardinals supporter, Descalso has been my favorite player for STL over the past few years. He plays about 50-80 games a year. He’s a backup utility guy who can play all four infield positions, and even pitched an inning in 2014. He’d cost less than $1M to add as a better-than-Christian-Colon bench player, especially if we think Colon needs additional time in AAA.

Probably most importantly: he hit .364/.472/.448 versus left-handed pitching in 2014. Sure, his career numbers aren’t phenomenal and the sample size was a bit smaller, but that’s 33 points higher than Danny Valencia hit this year at close to the same cost. Those LHP numbers are obviously way better than Mike Moustakas too. And with Infante’s age/injury status and the complete lack of depth behind Escobar (who played all 162 games last season), it might be a good idea to add a versatile and MLB-proven utility guy for the bench and occasional start.

Biased? Maybe a little bit. I do own a Descalso jersey t-shirt. But I also think it’s a good fit a la Danny Valencia last year only with more positional flexibility. Just an idea. Take it or leave it, Dayton.

And finally…

Do I think the Kansas City Royals are the team to beat in the AL Central? I do. Get at me.

-apc.

APC’s MLB Ballpark Rankings

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After touring all 30 MLB ballparks this summer, I get asked almost daily which one was my favorite, and it’s always so difficult to say. I loved them all in one way or another. Even the ones at the bottom of the list had bright spots that I appreciated about them. Even Tampa.

Besides, how am I supposed to pick ONE favorite park? That’s like asking me to pick a favorite fruit or Jeff Goldblum* movie.

How does one compare Fenway Park and PNC Park? Or Safeco Field and Dodger Stadium? Or Marlins Park and US Cellular Field? These pairings have very little in common, but yet they each appear right next to one another on my initial rankings. Do I favor Boston’s history over Pittsburgh’s downtown vista? Do I favor Seattle’ retractable roof over LA’s classic 50’s flare? And how does one even attempt to compare Marlins Park to any other ballpark in the game, let alone perhaps the most basic concrete cookie-cutter park in existence?

Some gorgeous ballparks have terrible teams (San Diego or Colorado, for example) or lousy fans (New York or Los Angeles) while some really ugly ballparks field a championship contending team and have great fans (Oakland, for example).

It’s not an easy ranking to do, and the “right” answer isn’t immediately clear.

What was clear was that I was going to need to put together some sort of algorithm in order to effectively rank these ballparks. I needed to land on some systematic approach to ranking various categories from 1-30 and assign point values for each. I was also going to need to give certain categories more weight than others.

This is still all completely subjective, but it gives me a little bit more to lean on besides a purely arbitrary ranking. Here are the initial 5 categories that I’ve utilized to rank. I should add that this is NOT my “official” list – just a first attempt mock up. Here we go…

  • Ballpark Design (BD): 65% – This category should obviously hold the most weight, so I’ve given it nearly 2/3 of the score. This category includes architecture, views, features, and history. If you push me hard enough, I may pull out the history and re-rank with that as a separate category. We’ll see.
  • Surrounding Area (SA): 15% – If I learned one thing about ballparks this summer it’s this: the best ballparks are usually downtown, and they’re usually surrounded by some spectacular spots to hang out and grab some local food and a beer before or after the game. If it’s nothing but parking lot – the experience isn’t nearly as great. This category also includes transportation to and from the ballpark.
  • Gameplay (GP): 10% – I also acknowledge that my rankings are going to be based primarily on how much fun the single game I attended was. Rather than try to ignore this and eliminate the bias, I’m choosing to include it in my rankings. It’s not a significant percentage, but it’s enough to bump Oakland as high as #26.
  • Fan Rank (FR): 8% – Every city has diehard fans, but not all of them enhance the experience at the ballpark. This is probably the category that will get me the most flack.
  • Beer Rank (BR): 2% – The Washington Post did a survey on which ballparks had the best micro-brewery beer selection and ranked them 1-30. I haven’t tweaked these numbers at all, they’re directly from the article linked above. I’m not sure if 2% was enough to influence any one ballpark over another, but it’s a crucial part of the stadium experience.

I need to probably add a history, city, and food category, but this will suffice for now. Let me know what other ideas you have. For now, here’s what I ended up with for my initial results. First place received 30 points in each category. Last place received 1 point. I’ve broken it down into 7 tiers…

Tier 7: I Don’t Care If I Ever Get Back

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30. Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay Rays – 2.55 (BD 1, SA 8, FR 2, GP 4, BR 7)

The only thing I liked about Tampa was the old man I kept score with during the last two innings who kept dropping f-bombs. He’s the only reason they didn’t finish dead last in Fan Rank.

29. Globe Life Park at Arlington, Texas Rangers – 3.91 (BD 3, SA 6, GP 1, FR 9, BR 12)

Freezing cold game. Rangers got pounded. No views. Like playing ball in an ugly castle courtyard.

28. Marlins Park, Miami Marlins – 5.97 (BD 6, SA 7, GP 3, FR 7, BR 8)

Modern design, unlike any others, but it just didn’t feel like baseball. The game was so boring that I left my seat to go find a TV with the K-State/Auburn game on it.

Tier 6: The Bronx Bummers

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27. US Cellular Field, Chicago White Sox – 7.25 (BD 4, SA 13, GP 14, FR 11, BR 21)

The last ballpark built in the concrete cookie-cutter era of park design. Very basic and unexciting. Good beer selection though and you can’t beat the L train dropping you off right by the park.

26. O.Co Coliseum, Oakland Athletics – 7.33 (BD 2, SA, 3, GP 30, FR 29, BR 13)

One of the ugliest ballparks in the game, and the only one that can really give The Trop a run for its money. This was the best game on the tour though – walk off double and on field fireworks after the game. Impressive tailgating and dedicated fans too.

25. Angels Stadium, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – 8.28 (BD 11, SA 1, GP 2, FR 6, BR 15)

Right around the corner from Disneyland, this ballpark felt like an amusement park. Took 2 hours to drive there in LA traffic. The parking lots surrounding it aren’t lit well at all. All that, and they got torched by the Athletics.

24. Yankee Stadium, New York Yankees – 9.27 (BD 7, SA 20, GP 13, FR 5, BR 1)

Impressive? Sure. The monuments and history are certainly something. Otherwise, Yankees Stadium wasn’t all I had expected it to be. It’s too big for baseball. Big fan of the neverending popcorn bucket. Worst beer selection in baseball.

Tier 5: The Forgettables

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23. Chase Field, Arizona Diamondbacks – 10.21 (BD 9, SA 18, GP 5, FR 14, BR 2)

Cavernous interior space. Swimming pool beyond centerfield. Downtown Phoenix is pretty cool, and the fans seem pretty committed for such a young franchise. This might rank higher if the roof was open.

22. Nationals Park, Washington Natinoals – 10.75 (BD 8, SA 15, GP 19, FR 13, BR 18)

Humid. Woof. Fans were making up new chants – even if those chants were basically the J-E-T-S chant with 50% different letters. Stephen Strasburg pitched a gem while I was there. Is there a time of year when D.C. isn’t ultra sweaty?

21. Progressive Field, Cleveland Indians – 10.91 (BD 5, SA 26, GP 16, FR 20, BR 28)

Awkward interior dimensions, distinct 90s ballpark vibe, and not in a good way. Passionate fans. Downtown Cleveland is super cool.

20. Rogers Centre, Toronto Blue Jays – 11.36 (BD 10, SA 16, GP 17, FR 8, BR 6)

Toronto is basically Canadian Chicago, and that’s a good thing. Another “wish the roof had been open” ballpark. This game was in the middle of the pennant race against Seattle, so it was extra rewarding to watch the Jays pile on the runs.

19. Comerica Park, Detroit Tigers – 13.08 (BD 13, SA 9, GP 15, FR 16, BR 25)

Conflicting game watching the Tigers win and move one step closer to clinching the AL Central over the Royals. Downtown Detriot is not great, but Comerica itself was a very nice space. Curmudgeony upper deck vendors too.

18. Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia Phillies – 13.46 (BD 14, SA 4, GP 24, FR 12, BR 20)

Awesome game. Fourteen inning Chase Utley walkoff. Beautiful ballpark. Delicious hot dog. Ivy covered batters eye was my favorite part.

Tier 4: Middle of the Packers

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17. Turner Field, Atlanta Braves – 14.80 (BD 15, SA 11, GP 18, FR 19, BR 4)

How do you not love Hammerin’ Hank Aaron? Turner Field is on the way out, not sure why they need to do away with it. Also, they have a Waffle House out in left field. Overall, Atlanta was extra average.

16. Citi Field, New York Mets – 14.82 (BD 16, SA 12, GP 11, FR 15, BR 16)

AKA Not Ebbets Field. It’s a great ballpark, can’t beat taking the subway to the game. Felt generic. More stuff about the Brooklyn Dodgers than the Mets though.

15. Minute Maid Park, Houston Astros – 15.35 (BD 19, SA 10, GP 6, FR 10, BR 5)

Gorgeous ballpark. Roof was open. I stood with two of my best friends beyond the outfield wall and celebrated the Royals winning on the road. Yordano and Lorenzo both wore #42 on Jackie Robinson Day.

14. Great American Ballpark, Cincinnati Reds – 15.79 (BD 12, SA 21, GP 21, FR 27, BR 29)

Opening Day festivities skyrocket this ballpark very high on the list. Great fans lined the streets for the parade. Cardinals spoiled the game 1-0 for the Redlegs.

Tier 3: The Butter Fans

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13. Coors Field, Colorado Rockies – 16.13 (BD 17, SA 22, GP 12, FR 3, BR 17)

Sat 600 feet from home plate with my youth group. Gorgeous views of the mountains. Unfortunately, the fans don’t care much about baseball, they just like being outside on a beautiful night in the city. Fair enough.

12. Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles Dodgers – 17.36 (BD 24, SA 2, GP 9, FR 1, BR 24)

Fans arrive late and leave early to beat traffic. Can’t blame them, LA traffic is rough. Otherwise this ballpark is easily in the top 10, borderline top 5. Also, Vin Scully is the best.

11. Safeco Field, Seattle Mariners – 18.12 (BD 21, SA 19, GP 7 FR 4, BR 30)

See: Houston and Colorado. (Except Seattle is perhaps the most gorgeous city on the planet.) And, like these other two, she’s a beautiful ballpark…butter fans…

Tier 2: Great Venues and Great Fans

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10. Target Field, Minnesota Twins – 19.74 (BD 18, SA 24, GP 20, FR 25, BR 22)

That limestone is terrific. Minnie and Paul shaking hands out in centerfield symbolizes a city united over baseball. Twins fans are baseball fans and a quality bunch. Downtown Minneapolis is legit too.

9. Busch Stadium, St. Louis Cardinals – 20.31 (BD 20, SA 17, GP 27, FR 23, BR 11)

Best Fans in Baseball? Eh, but 8th place ain’t bad. Love this ballpark, brick everywhere, arch out beyond centerfield. Opening Day at Busch was rainy, but still a victory.

8. Miller Park, Milwaukee Brewers – 20.90 (BD 22, SA 14, GP 22, FR 24, BR 19)

The ballpark is a retractable roof but all throwback Fenway Green in color. Best old school logo in baseball. Quality fans. Delicious Bloody Mary’s.

7. Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City Royals – 21.24 (BD 25, SA 5, GP 26, FR 18, BR 10)

This might look like a homer pick, but it’s not. Very underrated ballpark. If it was downtown it’d be right at the top. Was there from Opening Day to Game 7. Home sweet home.

6. PETCO Park, San Diego Padres – 21.77 (BD 23, SA 28, GP 8, FR 17, BR 23)

The green space beyond centerfield is the most unique space around the league. Repurposed Western Metal Supply Co. Building is beautiful. Too bad the game was awful.

Tier 1: Heaven on Earth

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5. PNC Park, Pittsburgh Pirates – 26.03 (BD 26, SA 27, GP 23, FR 28, BR 27)

Incredible view of downtown. Right on the water. Clemente. Mazeroski, Stargell. Wagner. Yellow bridges. Yellow everything. Completely packed. Last home game of the year.

4. Fenway Park, Boston Red Sox – 26.26 (BD 27, SA 29, GP 25, FR 21, BR 9)

Hard to believe that three ballparks beat out Fenway. The oldest ballpark still standing. The Green Monster is gorgeous and Yawkey Way is probably the greatest baseball stroll in America.

3. Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs – 26.84 (BD 30, SA 30, GP 10, FR 22, BR 4)

Wrigleyville, man – 100 year anniversary season of “The Friendly Confines.” #1 ballpark, #1 surroundings. Only thing the North Side lacks is a winning team, and it’s been a long long time. Maybe Joe Maddon is the difference…

2. AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants – 27.21 (BD 28, SA 25, GP 29, FR 26, BR 14)

The Bay Area treated me well. Oakland and San Francisco were the two best games I saw. Won a $50 Levi’s gift card when rookie Tyler Colvin launched a homer into McCovey Cove. If you go to AT&T Park, I highly recommend the Arcade seats.

And the winner is…

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1. Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Baltimore Orioles – 28.02 (BD 29, SA 23, GP 28, FR 30, BR 26)

Congratulations, Orioles fans. You’ve made it big. The ballpark that changed the architecture game. Since 1992 retro parks have been the name of design game. B&O Railroad building is the perfect homerun target that no one has ever hit outside of Ken Griffey Jr. in the All Star Game. Down to the open air press box, every single cranny is modelled after ballparks from the past.

There you go. Feel free to tell me where I got it right but more likely where I got it wrong. Again, this is just my first stab at these rankings, you never know how things might change between now and my book release.

-apc.

* – Okay, obviously Independence Day is the right answer. Jurassic Park is a distant second. Maybe Tom Hanks would’ve been a better option here.

Sigh. The 2014 MLB season is over. The Royals lose the World Series…SO MANY EMOTIONS.

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It hurts, you guys. It really really hurts.

After years and years of darkness, 8 years of The Process, spring training, 162 grueling regular season games, and an 11-4 postseason record, losing by a measly 90 feet is just so so painful.

When we won the Wild Card game a month ago, I remember fans exclaiming that they never had a doubt that we would win (I still don’t believe them), but last night I may have felt something similar…I never really thought we were going to lose. I thought we had it. From the first pitch to the final out, I thought we had it.

Alex Gordon’s hit that Gregor Blanco misplayed felt like confirmation of that belief. It was just a matter of time. The game was never going to end 3-2, I just knew it.

Then when Salvador Perez came up, it was like the Wild Card game all over again. Sal played the hero in that game, and he would play the hero again in Game 7. But he didn’t. Instead, he popped out to Pablo Sandoval in front of the visitors dugout. Panda secured the ball, fell backward on to the grass and the rest of the Giants players mobbed him.

The Giants – not the Royals – are the 2014 World Series champions.

Kauffman Stadium went silent. It felt like a scene out of Gravity, like we were all Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating in outer space while the San Francisco Giants celebrated around us in the void.

I just stood there, stunned. The thought crossed my mind that if maybe I stood there long enough, something might happen where we’d get another chance – as if the umpire would realize that, oops, there were only two outs, or maybe the final catch would need to go to instant replay, or that suddenly we’d all discover that it was only the 8th inning and we had another opportunity next inning.

Nope.

It was real.

That was it.

Season over.

Heart.

Broken.

90 feet.

So close.

The tears started to come. I fought them. I got a text from my dad around then that said, “Sorry buddy. Hurts.” More tears. More fighting. It dawned on me that win or lose, about two months of pent up emotion needed to be released. It was either going to be in immense joy, or in the form of some very ugly crying.

Then something truly amazing started happening – we all started chanting “Let’s go, Royals!” while the Giants celebrated. We were proud of our team. We were hurt – crushed, really – but we were proud to be standing where we were, feeling as bad as we did.

I’ve never experienced heartbreak as a fan quite like this before. I don’t like it, but it’s better than the alternative. Wouldn’t we all rather feel this – whatever THIS feeling is – than continue to feel nothing like we have for so many years?

In fact, I’m thankful for this feeling. It hurts so badly, but I am still so thankful.

I am thankful for how this season has touched my life, the lives of my friends and family, and my city. The 2014 Royals united a city and uncovered a love for baseball that had been long forgotten and many never knew existed. Kids want to be baseball players for Halloween this year. I had two different students tell me this week they’re considering going out for baseball this year – a game they’ve never played before because they “could never get into it.”

Casual Royals fans understand the intricacies of the game now. This success has created a new generation of fans in KC. It’s a new culture, really, and it’s a culture I’ve always longed for. Today, I can confidently say that I live in a baseball town. KC is back on the baseball map, and I cannot tell you how happy that makes me.

Thank you, Royals, for all the stories, feelings and memories you have created for this city in 2014. Not only that, but how you have invited us into those stories as well.

I have always been proud to be a Kansas Citian. I love this city. It’s been my home my entire life, and wherever I go visit, I always land back here with a smile on my face. Kansas City is home, and I’m thankful that this postseason coverage has made my home look as awesome as it truly is to the rest of the world.

This team has created pathways of conversation all over KC, and these postseason games have allowed me to reconnect with some of the people I love most in this world. I’ve been reminded of who I love and why I love them and I’ve met new friends along the way. I’ve hugged and high fives more people in this month than in any other month in my life.

I’ll write more about this team’s future and perhaps a “year in review” piece later, but for now, I just want you to know that in 2014, for the first time in my life as a sports fan, I had my heart truly broken. Sure, I’ve had moments of let down and frustration in the past, but this was something bigger and deeper and intimate between a team and it’s fans.

It hurts to come this close and not win it all. We came up against a historic postseason performance at the wrong time. Bumgarner was too good to overcome. But that just means have unfinished business to tend to in 2015, and I’m confident we’ll be back in the mix for many years to come. Because baseball is back in Kansas City. It’s going to be a long winter without you, boys.

It turns out Bart Giamatti was right: baseball really does break your heart.

And I, for one, wouldn’t want it any other way.

…okay that’s a lie, I’d rather have been World Series champs, but you get it.

-apc.

World Series Game 7: Take the Crown

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Game 7.

Tonight, a World Series Champion will be crowned. Tomorrow, there will be no baseball. Today, millions of fans in Kansas and Missouri will be wrought with anxiety and accomplish nearly nothing at the office.

Let’s pause for just a moment and remember this: one month ago yesterday we were scoreboard watching as the Royals finished up the regular season with a 6-4 victory in Chicago, their 89th of the season. We needed the Tigers to lose in order to force a tie breaker scenario. They didn’t lose. We would have to face Oakland in the dreaded Wild Card matchup.

Kauffman Stadium started selling gear with “October” printed all over it and I couldn’t help but worry that the Wild Card game was happening on September 30, and a loss would mean we never played in October at all. From the beginning, I always thought that game would be the end.

Then, to quote the Fresh Prince, our lives got flip-turned upside down.

Suddenly this team became a team of destiny. Shoulders relaxed. Mike Moustakas became a destroyer of baseballs. Players laughed. Billy Butler stole a base. Confidence soared. Jarrod Dyson ran his mouth and was absolutely right. A team became the darlings of the nation. Lorenzo Cain became a household name and a friggin American hero.

This entire month has been surreal. Technically, October has 2 more days, but tonight, in Kansas City, October will effectively come to an end.

Did you guys hear Ned Yost’s comments before yesterday’s game? “Even though our backs are against the wall, what is so weird about it is it doesn’t feel like our backs are against the wall…because I think we’re going to win.” Feigning confidence for his team? Maybe. But I don’t think so. It feels right, doesn’t it? Oddly correct. Ever since that Wild Card comeback, this team has just known they were going to be here tonight.

In some strange pseudo-Jedi kind of way, I’ve always known it too. I’ve said multiple times that this team cannot be jinxed. They are destined to win it all. The players know it, Ned knows it, I know it, and you know it too.

We all know they’re going to win it all.

Last night’s game was a joke. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Yordano Ventura/Jake Peavy matchup was the most lopsided matchup possible. After a 10-0 result, I look like a bonafide genius. And if that wasn’t enough, I took to Twitter right before the first pitch last night…

…pretty embarrassing about the strikeouts and thinking the offense would only throw up 4 runs. Here was the result.

It was so obvious to me. Maybe it was to you too. Yordano is our best pitcher. He has been pretty much all season. There were a couple weeks when I thought Danny Duffy would give him a run for his money – and nothing against his performance, because he has been brilliant at times – but our 2014 ace was not James Shields. It was Yordano the whole time.

Now, tonight.

Let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter who we throw and in what order at this point. Our entire bullpen is ready to go. Jeremy Guthrie gets the start, and any combination of Duffy-Herrera-Vargas-Davis-Finnegan- Holland-Shields will be fine.

The Giants will counter with Lopez-Affeldt-Bumgarner-Romo-Petit-Lincecum with Tim Hudson getting the start. If this is a bullpen battle, I like the Royals’ chances – although the Giants’ pen is no slouch.

This same matchup ended in a 3-2 Royals victory in San Francisco in Game 3. Alex Gordon had the key hit: a double off of Hudson scoring Alcides Escobar. It’d be nice to get something like that out of Alex again. He’s looked pretty awful lately, especially against Bumgarner.

Someone will need to come through like that again tonight. Will it be Alex? Alcides? Hosmer? Moose? Lorenzo? Omar? Billy? Nori? That’s the thing about this team – you never know who is going to come through, but it’s always someone.

My prediction: it’ll be Alex again. And I’m standing by my prediction before the World Series began: Yordano Ventura will be the MVP.

One more game. Finish this thing, boys. It’s been an incredible month – probably the best of my life – and you’ve completely changed this city. Thank you for what you’ve done for us this year.

It ends tonight. Let’s take the crown.

-apc.

The Royals are coming home for Game 6, down 3-2: “Never tell me the odds.”

Nasty. Nasty. Nasty.

That’s the word that keeps popping up in my text messages and twitter feed in reference to Madison Bumgarner. So nasty. He has beaten us twice now, and “beaten” is putting it mildly. If the Giants can close this series out over the next two games, there is zero question that Bumgarner will be the MVP.

As much as we can – and have and will – grill Ned Yost’s questionable management in Game 5, we can’t really cast blame at anyone in a Royals uniform. I went on a rant last night about it because I was frustrated, but my frustration should be directed at Madison Bumgarner, not Ned Yost. Gotta give credit where credit is due.

But I’m still frustrated.

The experience of baseball fandom is like riding a giant pendulum back and forth between hope and despair. Just last week, Kansas City was buzzing unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A week ago this same coffee shop was decked out in blue. Then we took a 2-1 series lead and we were about as hopeful as could be.

Today, it’s silent. Today, I’m one of only two people here wearing royals gear. No one is smiling at each other. We’re all just trying to go about our business without having to talk about last night’s poor performance. Eye contact is minimal, talking is non-existent. We’re all avoiding the painful royal blue elephant in the room*.

* – I want to add a line about Madison Bumgarner kicking the elephant in the crotch or something, but that metaphor breaks down and isn’t as clear as I’d like it to be. Oh well. Whatever. That’s what today feels like.

The pendulum has swung us hard toward despair. For a fan, hope brings optimism, but with despair comes realism. Last week I talked a lot about how alive and optimistic this city felt because I was ultra-hopeful. Today, no one around here wants to feel anything. At this point, we just want to talk about our chances. What are the odds?  Is there still a chance?

Of course there’s a chance. There’s always a chance in baseball until the final out is recorded.

Mathematically, things look grim. Assuming baseball games are a coin flip, the Royals only have a 25% chance of coming up twice in a row. Fangraphs has the Giants at 73.7% to win the World Series – slightly better than 50-50, but still not great.

In an effort to try to grasp for some hope, other writers might reference the 1985 team being down 3-1 and coming back to win it all or the 2002 Giants being up 3-2 and losing two straight. They’ll tell you that teams down 3-2 coming home are 22-8 in Game 6…73.3%. They’ll tell you that since 1923 the road team has gone into Game 6 up 3-2 thirty different times. Of those 30 times, here’s the breakdown of how it played out…

  • Road Team in 6: 8 times.
  • Road Team in 7: 9 times.
  • Home Team in 7: 13 times

…13/30 times the home team has won two straight. That’s a 43.3% chance of winning, historically, and 43.3% is much much higher than 25%.

That’s all fun to talk about, I suppose, but these teams aren’t those teams. These teams are these teams. I don’t like looking at past stats as hopeful indicators of present situations. We don’t care about what teams have done in the past. We care about these teams over the nexts two games. Can we win two straight? Of course we can. In fact, these two upcoming games have already happened and the Royals won both of them. They’re rematches of Games 2 & 3.

If we can win the next two games, it will mark the third time we’ve won two straight vs the Giants this year. We won 3 straight when we faced them back in August. We won 2 straight last week in Games 2 & 3. We just have to do it one more time. Besides, if we’ve learned anything about this Royals team this postseason it’s this: with their backs against the wall, they have what it takes to fight out of it.

All that to say, I’m here to tell you that despite the numbers aginast us, the Royals are very much still in this series. Hope is not unrealistic. Sure, I’m feeling most of the way toward realism right now, but when we look ahead to Games 6 and 7 as individual matchups, we have to like what we see.

Game 6: Yordano Ventura vs. Jake Peavy

A rematch of Game 2 which the Royals won 7-2. Ventura scattered 8 hits over 5.1 innings allowing just two runs. He wasn’t flawless – especially in the first inning – but he was plenty good enough. Herrera pitched 1.2 while Davis and Holland threw 1 inning apiece. All scoreless.

Jake Peavy, miraculously managed to slip through 5 innings with only two runs allowed. He even retired 10 straight at one point, which may have led to the decision to let him face the heart of the Royals lineup a third time through. The Royals lit Peavy and the bullpen up for 5 runs in the 6th inning and never looked back.

I don’t see Peavy getting that opportunity again in Game 6. I think Bruce Bochy will have him on a short leash with Lincecum ready. Ned Yost needs to have Danny Duffy ready to do the same. This is a must win game, and Yost obviously needs to pull out all the stops.

That said, Yordano + Duffy >>>>>> Peavy + Timmy The Freak.

Yeah, James Shields pitched well yesterday, and he’s technically our “ace” – or at least his salary suggests he is – but I believe strongly that our actual ace(s) are the two guys lined up to appear tomorrow.

Yordano Days are the best days for a reason, you guys. Let’s just throw fire, okay?

It’s also important to mention that instead of Jarrod Dyson and the pitcher in the lineup, we will have Nori Aoki and Billy Butler. The offensive advantage shifts heavily in the Royals direction coming back home for these last two games.

Game 7: Guthrie(?) vs. Hudson

Another rematch of starters. Guthrie pitched well in Game 3 – 5 IP, 4 H, 2 R – and he has earned my confidence over the past two months. Herrera, Finnegan, Davis and Holland combined for the final 12 outs and the Giants had no chance.

Tim Hudson went 5.2 IP, 4 H, 3 R. The Royals got to him with a run in the first and two more in the 6th – have we all noticed that these two innings are when the Royals score pretty much all of their runs? So far they’ve scored 15 runs in this series and 9 have come in the 1st or 6th innings. The Royals seem to have two trajectories: get on the board early and play with a lead, or let the starter cruise through 5 innings and get to him on the third trip through the lineup.

With pitchers having a short leash before the third time through, this makes it imperative that we strike early off of both Peavy and Hudson. Get em on, get em over, get em in, and early. We won’t see a pitcher three times in the same game over the next two games.

That said, I’m guessing that these will still be the starters for this game, but it’s possible that we could see someone throw on short rest. The Giants have announced Hudson will start Game 7, but the Royals haven’t said who it will be. Could be Guthrie or Vargas (or Duffy?). My money is on Guthrie, but it wouldn’t shock me if Ned threw Vargas and had Guthrie ready to go as well at any sign of things going wrong.

The starters from yesterday will likely be available too. James Shields threw 94 pitches yesterday while Madison Bumgarner threw 117. I can’t imagine either of these guys would be the first options for middle relief – Volgelsong and Vargas, Duffy and Lincecum would likely make an appearance first.

If this series goes to seven games, it will be so interesting to see how Ned Yost manages. If I were him, I’d have Herrera/Davis ready for relief at the first sign of trouble and let them go until Duffy/Vargas have had enough time to warm up completely and come in to start an inning. Then, same thing – first sign of trouble, have the other one ready to get out of the jam. If we can dowse the fires as they happen, our bullpen is good enough to bridge available starters together to get to Holland.

Maybe elimination Ned will be the Ned we’ve all been hoping for all this time. He sure seems like he’s learned a thing or two about managing over the past few weeks.

So what are the odds?

Obviously they’re in San Francisco’s favor overall, but not as much as the coin flip method or Fangraphs would make you think. I’d say the Royals have around a 60% chance of taking Game 6 behind Yordano/Duffman. Game 7 is probably closer to a coin flip, but the game being at home tilts it slightly in the Royals favor too. I’d say it’s 60-40 and 55-45, Royals the favorites in both, which puts us at a 33% overall chance for the Royals to take both games.

We’ve already seen both of these matchups before, and the Royals won both of them. Why wouldn’t we expect them to do it again? But I’m getting ahead of myself. First thing’s first, and that’s win tomorrow. And the Royals are the favorites to do exactly that.

A parade could still happen this weekend, and I got chills just typing that out.

-apc.

PS – If you aren’t aware, that’s a Han Solo quote in the title…for all you people who used to be my friends.

World Series Game 5: A Quick Postgame Rant

I need to rant about Ned Yost’s performance tonight, but there are two things I need to address before I do so.

First, I have been a Ned Yost defender all year long. I don’t join in with the #Yosted banter because it’s mostly just hypercritical fans who like to gripe. I think Ned does a great job managing a clubhouse and getting the best out of his players. He understands the longview of the baseball season. He maintains his emotions and has proven now that he can motivate a team through 162 games and beyond. I think that has way more to do with managing than any strategic decision a manager ever makes or doesn’t make.

And I’m not alone. Dayton Moore agrees. Or maybe I agree with him. Back in 2006 when he was hired as general manager of the Royals, he had 5 points for what he wanted out of a manager. They are…

1. Communicate with the front office.
2. Earn the players respect.
3. Keep players focused for 162 games.
4. Keep players motivated for 162 games.
5. Keep politics out of the clubhouse.

…no strategy needed. Just facilitate a healthy and happy clubhouse for a whole season. That’s 95% of managing in my opinion, and it’s not easily done. It takes the right kind of individual to manage 25 or 40 grown men with grown egos. And let’s be honest, if any of us did 95% of our job well, we’d be pretty highly valued in our careers.

But Ned Yost isn’t valued in baseball. In the 2014 postseason, Yost has faced Bob Melvin, Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and now Bruce Bochy. All of those men are loved by their fans, city and by baseball. Ned Yost – a “dunce” according to the Wall Street Journal before the ALCS – has beaten them all. Even Bochy early in this series.

The issue with Ned? The extra 5% of his job is the most public. And he’s admittedly not the greatest at that portion of the game.

Yet I have continued to defend his managing, because I believe strongly in the other 95%, and have the ability to overlook the various “miscues” he has had this year. Even with those, Yost gets an unfair wrap because no one ever applauds the manager when they make the right choice. We only criticize when the manager makes a mistake.

We praise the ballplayers, but we point fingers at the manager. It’s a tough job and I don’t envy anyone in that position.

Which brings me to my second pre-rant point: whether Ned Yost makes the right or wrong choice, it is still the players’ job to produce on the field and at the plate. Managers only have so much control over the outcome of a game. Ned said it himself after he brought in Ventura in the Wild Card game – a decision that he now claims to have learned a lot from – just because it doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean it was the wrong move.

So before I take off here, I want us to all understand those two points. I have defended Yost because managing a ball club is much more than strategy, and the players ultimately dictate the success or failure of a team and its manager.

That said, I’m about to go off on Ned Yost’s managing in Game 5 of the World Series.

Bottom 4

The grumbling began in the bottom of the 4th, and the questioning began in the top of the 5th inning.

The Giants had already scratched 2 runs across. The first came in the 2nd inning when Hunter Pence led off with a single and went to second after Brandon Belt took what the Royals’ defense was giving him by beating the shift, dropping down a bunt single. Both runners advanced when Travis Ishikawa flew our to Jarrod Dyson – rough night – in deep centerfield. Both runners advanced, and Pence scored on a Brandon Crawford groundout to make it 1-0.

The second run came in the 4th off of three singles that managed to find daylight. Pablo Sandoval singled to left. Then Escobar alligator armed a groundball in the hole off the bat of Ishikawa. Then Crawford blooped one toward centerfield – Dyson, coming in hard, couldn’t get there in time and had to play it on a bounce. He didn’t field it cleanly allowing Sandoval to score from second.

Which is what started the grumbling. Fans were frustrated that Dyson was in centerfield instead if Lorenzo Cain, as if Cain could’ve made the catch and prevented the run from scoring. Which simply isn’t true. Centerfield is massive at AT&T Park, and if Dyson couldn’t make that catch, then Cain couldn’t either. Statistically, Dyson is actually the better outfielder, which is just hard to wrap our minds around since we have seen so much flashy brilliance from Lorenzo this fall. But it’s true.

However, Cain probably wouldn’t have bungled it off his mitt, so perhaps Dyson did allow a run. So be it. Ned went with his best defense and it let him down.

Top 5

The Royals had only gotten two hits at this point – one from Lorenzo and one from Salvador Perez – both singles. With one out, Omar Infante smacked a double to center, and the Royals seemed to be in business. Except up next came Dyson and Shields.

Some would’ve rather seen Josh Willingham, Nori Aoki or Billy Butler here instead of Dyson. A pinch hitter wouldn’t have gotten much to hit with the pitcher spot coming up next, and first base open. Pinch hitting for Dyson would’ve made a lot of sense, followed by the other one hitting for Shields next. You don’t get many chances off of Bumgarner, so it’s important to be aggressive when you have any slight ray of light.

Instead, Ned stuck with Dyson and Shields who both struck out to end the inning and the “threat.” Felt like a missed opportunity.

Bottom 5

Of course, right on cue, Ned turns out to have seemingly made the right call. With runners on 1st and 2nd and two out, Hunter Pence hit a shot to the gap in right-center. Lorenzo Cain, as we have come to expect, made great catch running back and to his right saving two runs and ending the threat.

It was a catch that Aoki or Willingham would never have made in the same position. Point, Ned.

Not only that, but Shields lasted another inning, saving the bullpen and keeping the Royals in the game.

At this point, thanks to Cain’s catch and Shields’ quality start, the “dunce” was done just fine.

Bottom 7

This is where the wheels really came off. The inning began with a double switch: Kelvin Herrera came into pitch, occupying the #7 spot in the lineup instead of Omar Infante, and now batting in the pitcher’s spot and taking over at second base would be Jayson Nix.

First of all, it’s baffling to me that Nix is even on this team over utilityman, Christian Colon. Nix still hasn’t tallied a hit since joining the Royals on August 30. He’s now 0-10 as a Royal. Meanwhile, Christian Colon is just as good defensively, faster on the bases, and hits the ball much better. Unless Colon’s finger wasn’t 100% following his injury, Nix has no business even being on this roster.

But here we are, and he is. And he was suddenly lined up to bat 2nd in the 8th inning. In Game 5. Of the World Series.

My biggest issue with the move isn’t Nix as much as it is the timing of the move by Yost. For some reason, Ned felt it was of the utmost importance for Herrera to throw multiple innings down 2-0, otherwise he would’ve just let Herrera takeover the #9 spot for Shields instead of pulling the double switch. If Ned had waited an inning to pull the trigger, he could’ve sent Herrera out for the 7th, pinch hit Billy for him in the 8th, and then brought in Wade Davis to start the 8th and done the double switch then.

Top 8

Instead, Yost sent Billy Butler out to pinch hit for Dyson and lead off the 8th inning. Billy saw 3 pitches, none of which were strikes…

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…yet they were all three strikes. Our best hitter off the bench was done after three crummy pitches.

Then up comes Jayson Nix in the pitcher’s spot. He’s the last infielder on the team, so you can’t pinch hit for him and he goes quietly flying out to left field.

Escobar struck out to end the inning. Pitiful all around.

Bottom 8

Nori goes out to play right and Cain moves to center, and Herrera comes back out to throw the 8th – which is still a dumb idea – and he promptly gives up two singles to Sandoval and Pence.

Which forces Yost to go to Wade Davis anyway, just with 2 on and none out. Wade struck out the side, but not before the Giants plated 3 insurance runs spearheaded by a Juan Perez double off the centerfield wall. Suddenly the game had been blown wide open. It was 5-0 Giants, which is how the game would end.

What I would’ve done differently:

1. Don’t double switch. Give Herrera the 7th and that’s it.
2a. Pinch hit for Dyson with Billy Butler.
2b. If he gets on, pinch run with Gore.
3. Pinch hit Aoki for Herrera. Sure, Aoki is 0-16 lifetime vs Bungarner, but hitless against MadBum is better than hitless against the whole league (Nix).
5. Finally, execute the double switch. Nori for Dyson (Cain moving to CF, Nori out to RF) and bring in Davis to start the 8th with his spot in 8 spot now occupied by Billy/Gore. That way Davis – who rested yesterday and has a day off tomorrow – could pitch his normal 8th inning and not come in later with runners on base.

The resulting lineup would have been…

Escobar – SS
Gordon – LF
Cain – RF-CF
Hosmer – 1B
Perez – C
Moustakas – 3B
Infante – 2B
Dyson – CF
Butler – PH
– Davis – P
Shields – P
Herrera – P
– Aoki – RF

Instead of this…

Escobar – SS
Gordon – LF
Cain – RF-CF
Hosmer – 1B
Perez – C
Moustakas – 3B
Infante – 2B
Herrera – P
– Davis – P
Dyson – CF
Butler – PH
– Aoki RF
Shields – P
– Nix – 2B

That way you get Aoki’s bat instead of Nix’s. You keep Infante in the game. You give HDH the innings they’re used to throwing. You would also save a bat for later on the off chance you happened to tie it up and things went later.

This is NL Managerial Strategy 101 here. It’s not complicated stuff, yet Ned Yost biffed on it entirely.

Of course, the players probably wouldn’t have come through anyway. The damage had already been done. But this sort of thing is the extra 5% that the manager needs to get right to be considered great. The manager’s job is to put his players in the best position possible to succeed, and Yost didn’t do that at all in Game 5.

Would we still be down 3-2 coming back to KC? Probably. But in a game that looks like a 5-0 blowout on paper actually came down to a handful of little mishaps. Championship baseball is in the details, and Ned Yost hurt his chances for the first time in a while.

-apc.

World Series Primer & Predictions: If baseball is designed to break your heart, why does KC feel like THIS?

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“[Baseball] breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall all alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.” – A. Bartlett Giamatti, Take Time for Paradise

And all the division winners shout, “AMEN.”

I have called Kansas City home for 28 years, and I’ve never seen this city so gosh darn happy. Happy and united. Content. Not remotely at odds with one another. The past few weeks have felt like some borderline utopian world. It’s like the whole city has a secret – everybody’s in on it – and we keep nodding to one another as if to say, “I know, man. I know.”

Royals.

I was in line at the register at Target over the weekend and realized I was surrounded. I did a quick 360 degree inventory of the store, and there was a Royals cap in every direction. The lady in front of me had blue and white fingernails. The guy one aisle over was buying one of those giant team magnets that stick to the side of your car. This team has transformed this city. It’s socially acceptable to end conversations with, “Go Royals!”

Maybe I just run in baseball circles, but this city doesn’t seem concerned with any other sport right now. The Chiefs beat the Chargers on the road Sunday. Fun, but that’s not what’s most important. K-State won in Norman. Mizzou beat up on Florida. KU had their Late Night at the Phog at the same time as a Royals game and had one of the lowest turn outs in years. Defending MLS champions, Sporting KC, clinched another playoff spot the other night too.

All of that is well and good, but it’s all back page news around here these days. It’s late October and the Royals have Kansas City’s full attention.

Basically, Bart Giamatti was full of it.

The World Series begins tomorrow night at Kauffman Stadium. It hardly feels real. Just typing that feels like I’ve made a mistake. I’m just certain I’ll wake up from this dream any second now. This isn’t real life.

The Royals haven’t lost a game in the playoffs. They “swept” the Athletics in the Wild Card game, 1-0. They swept the Angels in the ALDS, 3-0. They swept the Orioles in the ALCS, 4-0. No team has ever gone 8-0 in the playoffs before. This team is already historically successful and have out-performed even the most hopeful fans’ expectations.

Let’s do a preseason hypothetical, just for fun. What if we were all contestants on Let’s Make a Deal, and had the following scenario…

“You chose Door 1, and you’ve won an American League Championship! Would you like to keep your championship, or risk it all by choosing behind Door 2?!”

Royals fans everywhere would’ve taken the pennant, right? Why would we ever be greedy? Any success is better than our success in recent (and not so recent) years. The mere fact that the pennant was ours to have would’ve been enough.

Except now it’s not hypothetical…and we’re all getting greeeeeeeedy.

Which is exactly what we should be doing. We want more. Consolation prizes are for suckers. No one cares about the “also rans” or the “honorable mentions.” To quote the great poet Vanilla Ice, “Anything less than the best is a felony.” Kansas City deserves to be greedy – 29 years of futility has earned them that. This fan base has learned to be okay with coming up short. Moral victories are sort of this city’s thing.

Not this time. We want 4 more wins. That’s all it takes. Four more.

I can’t even imagine what this place will be like this time next week. I don’t even want to think about it. I just want to feel it when it gets here. There’s no such thing as heartbreak at this point. We’re past that. But we’ve also earned ourselves more than a moral victory, so let’s keep rolling, okay? Four more.

*********

Now it’s time for some Fall Classic predictions. Let’s get to it.

Prediction 1: James Shields takes a no-hitter into the 4th inning.

This goes for either Game 1 or Game 5. James Shields hasn’t looked sharp thus far in the post season. He’s been very beatable in his three starts so far. For some reason I think I’ll go against the grain this time around. With the strength of his cutter and change up, I think he’ll breeze through the Giants lineup early and avoid any hits until the second time through the order.

He’ll need to be on point, because Madison Bumgarner has been the arguably the best pitcher in the postseason. Hopefully the offense can scratch across a few runs for Shields.

Prediction 2: Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson get lit up for a combined 11 runs in their starts.

Peavy is on for Game 2 in Kansas City and Hudson ought to get the nod for Game 3 in San Francisco. Whether the Royals win Game 1 or not behind James Shields, they ought to be up at least 2-1 after three games with the way they destroy these two guys.

Check out the Royals team batting statistics against Peavy…

peavy

…and against Hudson…

hudson

Billy Butler, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon all destroy Jake Peavy. The Royals numbers against Huson are slightly less impressive, but Raul Ibanez has SIXTY-SEVEN career at bats against him. Since Ibanez’s role on this team is borderline player-coach, he should be able to prep the rest of the lineup on Hudson. Interesting to note that Ibanez absolutely smokes both of these guys. Which brings me to prediction 3.

Prediction 3: Raul Ibanez gets a hit in the World Series.

UPDATE: Ibanez was left off the World Series 25-man roster, so this prediction is pointless.

Thus far, Ibanez hasn’t even been on the Royals postseason roster. Josh Willingham has taken his potential spot mainly because Willingham doesn’t look straight out of a Just For Men ad.

But Ibanez’s numbers against the Giants pitching is way too good to leave him off the roster. If they want to add him, they’ll have to drop Tim Collins off the 25 man roster, which is doable, but going up against an NL team, relief pitchers will probably be at a premium. Which brings me to my next prediction.

Prediction 4: Danny Duffy logs multiple innings in this series.

Maybe a starter gets knocked out early. Maybe another game goes 18 innings. Maybe Ned Yost mismanages the whole pitchers-batting thing and runs down our bullpen in SF. I don’t know. I just really want to see our statistically best pitcher get into a game somehow.

Prediction 5: Eric Hosmer drops a homer into McCovey Cove. 

This is more hoping than predicting at this point. When I was in SF for my ballpark tour, we saw two HRs hit over our heads. I would love to see a #HOSBOMB land in the bay.

Prediction 6: The Kansas City Royals win the World Series in 6 games.

I’m confident in Shields in Game 1, but I don’t think he’ll be good enough to beat Madison Bumgarner. Bumgarner has been lights out this postseason. Ventura has been lights out. Vargas has only given up 4 hits in his 2 postseason starts (3 of them home runs), but I like his odds on the road. Guthrie has an ERA of 2.25 since the beginning of September and was awesome in Game 3 last week. It seems pretty likely that the Royals can come back home with a 3-2 series lead for Game 6 – Ventura vs Peavy, and Ventura takes us home with another gem. Which brings me to my final prediction.

Prediction 7: Yordano Ventura is the World Series MVP.

There it is. I have all the confidence in the world in Yordano. He has given the Royals a reason to celebrate since the beginning of the season. Every day he takes the mound, I feel like something magical is going to happen. It would surprise me if Yost allowed him to throw beyond the 6th inning with the strength of our bullpen, but it won’t matter. He’ll go 2-0 and won’t allow a run.

And once again, the Royals are poppin’ corks in front of their home crowd.

Four more. See you at The K.

-apc.

ALCS Game 3 Primer: Jarrod Dyson’s comments/confidence, why Jeremy Guthrie, and revisiting predictions.

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Yesterday was a long and dreary day. I spent most of it preparing for a tailgate I was mostly certain wasn’t going to happen. Sam Hartle from KSHB-TV had this to say about the feeling:

And while it’s close, the issue is that in that scenario, a weather cancellation causes joy. In yesterday’s case, the weather caused sadness. To me, it felt more like all of Kansas City was waiting to hear back from the doctor’s lab concerning some blood work.

Anyway. That was yesterday. And this is today. And there will be Royals baseball today. And tomorrow. But probably not Thursday.

Because, like Jarrod Dyson, I’m certain this series isn’t going back to Baltimore.

When the game got cancelled last night, my wife and I decided to grab dinner out in Waldo instead. From our table I could see three different TVs, and two of them had a headline concerning Dyson’s recent comments. PTI was debating it. ESPN was highlighting it. The Royals are everywhere, man.

If you don’t know, Dyson was interviewed over the weekend and made the not-so-outlandish claim that this series wouldn’t be going back to Camden Yards in Baltimore. The media, probably grappling for some sort of controversy surrounding the Royals, are milking the comment for every ounce of drama they can.

Can we all agree that this is dumb to make a big deal out of? It is. For two reasons.

First – realistically speaking – it makes a lot of sense: Royals are up 2-0 and need to win 2 of 3 at home. Two of the games are against the Orioles 3rd and 4th best pitchers, and the other one James Shields is starting for KC (this could all change if Ned Yost decides to throw Shields in Game 4 after the rainout). You gotta like the Royals’ odds to win two of those three. They’ll be favored in all three.

Secondly, and this is the bigger point – WHAT IS DYSON SUPPOSED TO SAY?!? When Andy McCullough asks Dyson if he thinks the series is going back to Baltimore, isn’t it just natural to express confidence in your team and say no?! As if Dyson is going to respond with, “Well, Andy, I’m not too sold that we can win two games at home, so chances are we’ll be back east for games six and seven…”

No way! Dyson answered like anybody else would: with confidence in his team to get the job done over the next few days.

Speaking of confidence, it’s remarkable that we are all so confident in Jeremy Guthrie going into Game 3. It was about two months ago that most of us were calling for a Shields/Ventura/Duffy/Vargas rotation with Guthrie in the bullpen or simply left off the postseason roster. Instead, we are giving him the ball in the ALCS without many – if any – qualms about it.

To quote Timon, the lovable meerkat from The Lion King, “…and everybody’s okay with this? DID I MISS SOMETHING?!”

What you may have missed is that the Royals sent Duffy to the pen instead because he apparently has some mechanicals issues in his windup and gets to jacked up on adrenaline in big games. You may have also missed a terrible September by Jason Vargas in which he went 1-3 and posted a 6.57 ERA. You may have also missed that Guthrie looked like a different pitcher in September too: 3-1 record with a 2.40 ERA. More on “why Guthrie?” from Fangraphs here.

Guthrie will be pitching against his former team, whom he has pitched well against in the past. The Orioles hit more HRs than anybody, and Guthrie gives up a lot of HRs…but he’s never given one up to the O’s. Interesting to note that Vargas started Game 1 of the ALDS against his former team too. Maybe Ole Ned likes his odds against former squads.

With the rainout last night, it’s possible that Yost could move Shields up to Game 4 if he wanted. It would also free up Shields to be available in the bullpen in case this series went 7 games. Personally, I’d let Vargas pitch tomorrow anyway – especially if we win tonight – to get him some confidence moving forward, and to keep this preferred ordering moving forward into the World Series.

All that to say, I’ve got a lot of confidence in Jeremy tonight. And a lot of confidence in the Royals taking care of business at home this week.

Okay last thing: let’s check in on my so-called “wacky” ALCS predictions.

Prediction1: Steve Pearce has a miserable ALCS.

Pearce is 0-9 in the ALCS so far.

Prediction 2: Kelvin Herrera gives up a singer to Adam Jones in Game 1.

I’d like to expand this to the whole series. In both games so far, Herrera has been in to face Jones, and has bested him each time. Let’s hope that continues. This is a key matchup, and I hope KC keeps winning it.

Prediction 3: Eric Hosmer regresses. Alex Gordon goes off.

This was certainly correct in Game 1. And certainly incorrect in Game 2. Gordon hit a HR and made a huge defensive play in Game 1. He went 0-4 with 4 Ks in Game 2.

Prediction 4: Christian Colon will be a hero.

Not yet, but there are more games to play.

Prediction 5: Royals advance in 5.

Looking pretty accurate so far. Let’s get it done at home over the next three days. See you at The K tonight.

-apc.

Image: Getty Images. Accessed here.

The Royals are up 2-0 in the ALDS. Thoughts after Games 1&2, and looking toward Game 3.

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The Royals are one win away from the American League Championship Series.

Just let that settle in. A week ago Friday, the Royals were spraying champagne in the visitors’ dugout at US Cellular field celebrating their first playoff berth in 29 years. It marked the end of an exhausting month duking it out with Detroit, Oakland, Seattle and Cleveland for the last remaining playoff spots. We were like Charlie Bucket entering Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory – others may have felt entitled to their playoff spot, but we’re were kinda just happy to be there.

I alluded to this in my post following Tuesday’s Wild Card win, but I’ll say it more explicitly here: I always thought we would lose the Wild Card game. From the beginning of this season, I thought this was a playoff team, but I didn’t think we were most likely to win the Central. And everything in my experience as a Royals fan speaks to the narrative of disappointment. Losing the Wild Card matchup would have been the ultimate disappointment. I expected it.

But they won.

Then they won again on Thursday thanks to incredible outfield defense from Nori Aoki and Lorenzo Cain and a huge 11th-inning home run from Mike Moustakas. Then they won again on Friday thanks to Yordano Ventura completely shutting down the Los Angeles Angels’ star-studded power lineup and another huge 11th inning home run – this one from Eric Hosmer.

One week. It’s been an exhausting one, hasn’t it?

Not sure about you, but I’ve averaged around 4 hours of sleep over this past week. I was at Tuesday’s game that lasted 4 hours and 45 minutes. Didn’t get home until 1AM, and I was so jacked up there was no way I was getting to bed immediately. Thursday night’s 11-inning affair finished up at 12:13PM. Friday’s ended at 12:26PM. Even then, it’s just not possible for me to sleep well (or at all) after such dramatic ballgames.

It isn’t purely sleep deprivation though, is it? It’s been emotionally draining too. This is the first time in MLB postseason history that a team has won three consecutive extra inning games. This is the only time a team to play three straight 11+ inning games too. Only five other teams have won three total extra inning playoff games before this year: 86 Mets, 91 Twins, 96 Yankees, 03 Marlins, 04 Red Sox.

See anything in common in that list?

Oh, just that all of those teams won the World Series. So there’s that.

The Royals have an opportunity to sweep the “best team in the American League” (although that’s open for debate at this point) tonight. They are 1 win away from playing in the American League Championship Series and 5 wins away from the World Series and 9 wins away from being 2014 World Series Champions. THIS IS REAL PEOPLE. IT’S HAPPENING.

It’s been a crazy, exhausting and thrilling week, yes? I don’t know how I can survive the rest of this month. And if I don’t, it’s probably already been worth it.

Vargas & Yordano

When I heard the news that Jason Vargas would be starting Game 1, I was not thrilled. Vargas had a terrible September: a 9.00 ERA in his last 4 starts of the season. I saw his final start in person in Cleveland actually. He doesn’t throw hard, so he has to rely on his pinpoint control, and he did not have it that night. I wanted Danny Duffy instead, but the Royals know their team better than I do. Apparently.

Because Vargas was great. He gave up just two hits in 6 innings. Only problem is both of those hits were home runs – one to Chris Iannetta and one to David Freese. But overall he was extremely effective and got us to the bullpen after 6. (With a little lot of help from the defense.)

And Yordano. Oh, Yordano. The dude is just insane. I’ve never seen him nastier. He was throwing straight fire. 102 with movement just isn’t fair. Before Friday, the most 100+ MPH pitches he’d thrown in one game was 5. Friday night, he threw 12. TWELVE different pitches at or over 100 MPH. He only threw 95 pitches, so that’s 12.6% of his pitches! I tell you what, it’s nice to have a rookie like that. Get him a contract extension ASAP.

Moose & Hosmer

These two were Dayton Moore’s poster boys. The first round picks in 2007 & 2008 were supposed to come in and change the landscape of Royals baseball for years to come. Unfortunately, they’ve mostly stunk. Especially Moose.

Moustakas had a stint in Omaha this summer. The team went on a giant winning stretch while Hosmer was on the disabled list in July/August. I’ve personally lobbied for both of them to be benched at some point this season. Christian Colon has played well in his time in the majors this year, and Danny Valencia did a fine job platooning with Moose before we traded him to Toronto. Billy Butler’s resurgence while Hosmer was out sparked lots of questions whether Hos would get his position back when he returned.

But wouldn’t you know it, the first two games of the ALDS are won off of 11th inning home runs from each of them. They’re the heroes of the ALDS so far.

I’m curious how Friday’s game impacts Moose’s career in the long term. We know he can hit – he does it in Spring Training year after year. He has always put so much pressure on himself to perform that his average slips around .200-.220. But the last few weeks we have seen a different Moose in my opinion. He’s amped up to play. He’s taking the ball to the opposite field regularly to beat the shift. He even pushed a bunt single down the line on Friday. Pure gold.

I have a sense – and we’ll see how this plays out – that Moose is more relaxed than he has ever been in his career after the home run last night. I’m betting that we continue to see a productive Moose throughout the playoffs and into next season. At least, I hope.

Ned & Holland

I’ve already addressed how annoyed I get with the Royals fan base hating Ned Yost. And he’s not flawless, obviously. But I think we just enjoy hating him at this point.

No one seems to be arguing about the lineup since Omar Infante got moved down and Cain moved up. The only situation that seems to get criticized now is the use, or lack thereof, of Greg Holland in the 9th inning in the last three games.

In the Wild Card game, with the Royals losing 7-6, Yost brought in Holland in the 9th at home before the Royals tied the game up in the bottom half. Makes perfect sense because if he doesn’t use him and we don’t score then you’ve neglected your best bullpen arm in the end.

In the last two games, with the game tied, Yost has chosen to go with Jason Frasor and a Tim Collins/Frasor combo. He kept Holland for the 11th inning in both games. Typically, in a tie game on the road, you’d throw your closer in the 9th, get three outs and make sure the game goes to extras. Use your best arms and resort to the lesser arms when/if you have to. No sense in throwing the game away by putting in a lesser pitcher instead.

But here’s the rub with that logic: you’re going to have to throw your worse arm if you want to win anyway. Even if Yost decided to throw Holland in the 9th, then Moose/Hosmer hits their homer in the 11th, he would then turn to Frasor and/or Collins for the bottom of the 11th. You’d rely on the same pitchers, just at different points of the game.

So, hypothetically, if Collins had blown it in the 9th, we’d all be blasting Yost for not bringing in Holland instead. Except, if he does bring in Holland and he’s successful, you’re going to have to trust Collins later anyway. It’s a half foot one way, six inches the other.

It boils down to preference, really. Would you rather save your best guy for when you have a lead or throw him to sustain the tie? The lesser-than-Hollands are going to have to throw at some point anyway.

Personally, I’d much rather see Holland in there in a save situation in the 11th than Tim Collins or Jason Frasor, and I think you would too. Wouldn’t we rather have a shutdown guy ready to go once we took the lead? A lead is a win with Holland out there still. A lead is still somewhat in question when turning to Collins/Frasor.

Note to Yost: keep doing what you’re doing with Holland. Also, proud of you for bringing in Davis in the 7th. And if Herrera is out long term, the answer is either lefty Brandon Finnegan or righty Jason Frasor depending on the matchup.

Looking Forward: Big Game James v. CJ Wilson

I have tickets to the game tonight at Kauffman Stadium (!!!!!!), and who else would you rather have in a potential clinching game than James Shields? Let’s take a look at the career splits vs current rosters…

Shields vs LAA, career: .279/.305/.525

Wilson vs KC, career: .252/.337/.459

The Angels hit Shields very well. Howie Kendrick especially: 14-26 (.538/.556/.855). In fact, it seems like anyone on this team who has faced Shields much has had some success against him.

Albert Pujols is 3-6 vs Shields. Mike Trout is 2-6…with a 3B and a HR. That’s a .333/.333/1.167 split.

Except Josh Hamilton. He stinks versus BGJ. I would not be shocked to see Hamilton get benched today. He is hitless so far in the series, got booed loudly during Game 2 in Los Angeles, and lifetime against Shields he is 3-25 with 11 strikeouts. Collin Cowgill is 0-3 lifetime against Shields, but played 44 games out in LF this season, mostly while Hamilton was out during September. If I were Mike Scioscia, I’d bench Hamilton for Cowgill.

The biggest difference is that Shields (3.21 ERA) hardly walks anyone while Wilson (4.51) walks a lot. Except the Royals this year finished dead last in the majors in walks taken. Patience at the plate (looking at you, Salvy and Lorenzo) will reap it’s benefits against Wilson. Wilson also pitches significantly worse on the road (4-8, 5.31 ERA) than at home (9-2, 3.82 ERA). So that works in our favor as well.

Shields is obviously the better pitcher, especially with Wilson pitching on the road, but I’m more nervous than usual with Shields against the Angels.

*****

Okay that’s enough for now. We’ll pick it back up after they sweep the best team in the American League tonight. But let’s be honest, are they still the best team?

I’m predicting a 6-3 Royals win.

Until then, I’ll be listening to Tech N9ne and J-Lo’s “Waiting for Tonight” on loop. See you at Kauffman. Let’s get weird.

-apc.

The Royals are headed to the ALDS.

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Tell me what the headline should be here. I have no idea how to communicate such an insane experience.

The night was an emotionally draining blur and this morning my voice sounds like Frogman from Little Rascals. It is with zero hesitation that I label last night’s 9-8 come-from-behind 12th-inning walkoff Royals Wild Card victory the greatest game I have ever attended.

People will tell you that they never had a doubt, and that they knew the whole time the Royals had it in the bag. Those individuals should not be trusted. Save for a few strong innings when then Royals held a 3-2 lead, there was absolutely every reason to doubt before and throughout last night’s wild card playoff game. I spent the entire day worrying. I’ve never been so nervous in my life. I posted to Twitter yesterday afternoon that I was more nervous about the game than I ever was proposing to my wife. I joked that I was bringing an extra pair of pants to the game too…just in case.

That was a lie, obviously. And I’d also be lying if I said I never had doubt. And if you tell me you never had doubts when we were down 7-3 in the 8th, i question your grasp of reality.

Let’s begin with the end. Oakland had just taken the lead, 8-7 in the 12th. In the bottom half with 1 out, Eric Hosmer – who went 3-4 with 2 walks – lifted a ball to deep right. Sam Fuld and Jonny Gomes both looked like they might have a play on it against the wall. Instead, they collided in midair and the ball caromed off the wall for a standup triple. Christian Colon chopped a swinging bunt single and Hosmer scored from third to tie the game at 8-8. Colon stole second, and Salvador Perez came to the plate.

Again, zero reason to be confident here. Salvy had already come up twice with runners aboard and had failed badly. He continues to chase terrible pitches low and away. Throw him a slider down and out, and he’ll swing every time. For a guy who spends every day framing the strikezone he sure doesn’t seem to have a clue where it is. In the 8th inning, with the tying run on third base, Salvy had struck out on a pitch that wasn’t anywhere close. He looked awful.

Right on cue, he swung at a pitch a foot off the plate outside, and somehow that ball found it’s way between third base and Josh Donaldson’s diving glove. Colon scored from second, and the game was over.

Here’s a look at both pitches by ESPN Stats & Info…
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And with that swing the Royals won their first playoff game since winning it all in 1985.

The game took 4 hours and 45 minutes, and I’m certain I experienced every emotion possible in that span.

Kauffman was absolutely rocking. it felt like Arrowhead, honestly, and that’s no exaggeration. I’ve never been to a baseball game that loud. Not even close. When James Shields took the mound to start the game, the whole place was standing like a college basketball game. Someday I’ll tell my unborn kids for the 800th time how loud it was and they’ll roll their eyes and go, “yeah, yeah, we know dad.”

It was electric at the beginning and the end. But there were quite a few spots in between that were very very dismal.

The place was silent in the first after Brandon Moss hit a 2-run homer to make it 2-0 Oakland early, but sprang back to life when the Royals immediately responded with a run of their own when Billy Butler singled in Nori Aoki in the first. Then went back to bananas when my boy Lorenzo Cain doubled scoring Mike Moustakas and Hosmer singled scoring Cain.

If there was ever a point to “not have any doubts” this was it. The fans were all up in Jon Lester’s dome. The whole place was chanting, “Leeeeees-ter, Leeeeees-terrr,” and the A’s starter actually looked rattled. Going into the last night, Lester had owned the Royals over his career (1.84 ERA, 88 IP). They faced him three times between July 20 and August 12 in the midst of their crazy hot streak in July/August, and they lost all three games badly.

But the Royals finally got to him last night: 7.1 IP, 8 H, 6 R. Yet somehow he left the game in line for another win due to a suspect managerial move by Ned Yost.

With the Royals leading 3-2, Shields got into some trouble in the 6th. Fuld led off with a single and Donaldson walked. Two on, no outs. Shields had thrown 88 pitches, and has cruised through the previous 5 innings with the only blip being Moss’s HR in the first. In a regular season game, your ace pitcher would have the opportunity to work out of it himself. But in a winner-take-all game, Yost opted to pull Shields for – not Kelvin Herrera or Wade Davis, not Jason Frasor or Brandon Finnegan, not even lefty Danny Duffy – but young rookie starter Yordano Ventura.

I get the move. I do. And if it had worked, we’d all be talking about what a genius Ned was to bring in the young flamethrower. Unfortunately, Moss took a 97 mph fastball over the centerfield fence. They would add two more runs in the frame and make it 7-3, bad guys.

At which point, I gave up. The game was over and Ned Yost was going to get raked over the coals for it. Hope was nowhere to be found, and for the second time, the life had been sucked out of Kauffman Stadium. You could here every word coming from the mouth of every A’s fan. Royals fans could do nothing but watch their season slip away.

The song “Don’t Stop Believing” came on between innings, and it was almost comical how depressing things felt. The only ones singing along in my section were two over-served gentlemen down near the front, and two boys in the seats right in front of us.

Someone said something about things looking grim, to which one of the kids responded, “All we need to do is have everyone hit a home run and we’ll win.” The kid clearly didn’t know his 2014 Royals statistics, because no one hits home runs on this team, but he taught me a little about hope in the midst of despair.

It was the 8th inning when the rally began. Alcides Escobar singled and stole second. Cain singled him home. Cain stole second. Hosmer walked and the A’s pulled Lester for Luke Gregorson. Billy Butler singled and scored Cain, and moved Hosmer to third. Terrance Gore ran for Butler and stole second. A wild pitch by Gregorson advanced both runners. Hosmer’s run made it 7-6. Alex Gordon walked and stole second. Perez and Omar Infante struck out with the tying run and fastest guy in the league just 90 feet away.

The Royals had 7 steals in this game, by the way, tying a postseason record. The biggest of them all game in the 9th. Josh Willingham led off with a single and Jarrod Dyson pinch ran for him. Escobar bunted him to second. Then with Aoki batting, Dyson stole third – the biggest steal of the seven – we were 90 feet away. Aoki hit a sacrifice fly to right and Dyson scored to tie the game and send it to extra innings.

The “90 feet away” motif suddenly became a thing as the Royals put a man on third base in 4 consecutive innings – 8th, 9th, 10th & 11th – plating only Dyson.

A look at the three they didn’t score…

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…none of them scored. The Royals did a masterful job doing 3/4 of the manufacturing, but couldn’t get the guy to advance the last 90 feet on three different occasions.

Meanwhile, while the offense is stranding runners at third, the bullpen was doing it’s thing. Wade Davis pitched a scoreless 8th. Greg Holland pitched a scoreless 9th. And 21-year old rookie Brandon Finnegan threw 2.1 innings striking out 3. Gosh, he looks good. Finny was playing ball at TCU in the College World Series just 4 months ago, he was the Royals top draft pick this year and has been stellar out of the bullpen since the rosters expanded in September. He ka another reason the future is bright beyond 2014 in Kansas City.

Then in the 12th, the A’s did what we couldn’t: they moved a base runner 90 more feet. The runner was Josh Reddick, who walked to lead off the inning. Jed Lowrie bunted him to second and Jason Frasor came into the game and promptly threw a wild pitch. With Reddick at third – 90 feet away – former Royal, Alberto Callaspo, singled to make it 8-7.

This was the worst of the worsts for fans at The K. Inning after inning we had runs sitting right there and couldn’t bring them across. And to see Oakland succeed on it’s first try was really frustrating and positively deflating.

But the bottom of the 12th is history. Hosmer’s big triple, Colon’s infield single and steal, and Perez’s grounder down the line, and the Royals came from behind for the third time in the same game to defeat the Athletics 9-8.

And Kauffman Stadium launched into euphoria.

I high fived so many strangers my hand started hurting. I screamed and screamed and screamed. I ripped a set of blue beads I was wearing around my neck and chucked them 100 feet in the air and I have no idea what came of them.

On a night that I fully expected to be heartbroken, I was. Three times, in fact. But the joy in the end is all that matters. It was chaos.

Bring on the Angels. I don’t care how good they are or how impressive their lineup is or how many games the won in the regular season. None of those things matter in the playoffs.

But they have Mike Trout! And Albert Pujols! And Josh Hamilton! And…shut it. None of that matters.

What does matter in the playoffs? Pitching, defense and speed. And the Royals have all of those things.

I can tell you one thing: no one wants to play the Kansas City Royals. Other teams just don’t matchup for a must-win playoff game.

We’ve completed phase two of five. Phase one was to make the playoffs. Phase two was to advance to the ALDS. Three more phases to go. 11 more wins is all it takes.

See you at The K on Sunday.

-apc.

Game 30: Progressive Field, Cleveland

“So, what team do you play for?”

“The Indians.”

“Here in Cleveland? I didn’t know they still had a team?”

“Yeah, we have uniforms and everything, it’s great.”

Is there a sports movie out there that better resonates with the culture of a franchise than Major League does for the Cleveland Indians?

Rookie of the Year is about the Cubs, sure, but it’s a kid playing baseball and that’s not realistic. Same with Little Big League with the Twins only it’s a kid manager instead. And The Sandlot is about a group of kids, only one of which makes it to the pros and it only shows one play of him stealing home for the Dodgers.

The Kevin Costner Trio – Bull Durham, For Love of the Game and Field of Dreams – don’t chronicle an MLB season either, each for different reasons. Bull Durham is about a minor league team; For Love of the Game centers on one specific game at the end of a season; and Field of Dreams focuses on the 1919 Chicago Black Sox and a corn field in Iowa.

Other films are terrific, but don’t have anything to do with an MLB franchise: A League of Their Own, The Natural, The Rookie, for example. All great films, but only The Rookie has anything to do with the MLB and Dennis Quaid only faces a single batter and throws three pitches.

There’s also Fever Pitch……moving on.

The only two that you might be able to argue are Moneyball and Angels in the Outfield. Both chronicle an entire season with an actual MLB team. Moneyball certainly resonates, but the fact that it is based entirely on a true story and came out well after the events took place makes it less compelling for fans. Angels in the Outfield is fantastic. Danny Glover and a young Joseph-Gordon Levitt headline the against-all-odds-bad-franchise-miraculously-turned-winners plot line. It’s close, but not quite.

And then there is Major League.

Again, the point I’m making is not that Major League is the best movie ever. What I’m saying is no other baseball movie resonates with a team more than the Cleveland Indians.

The 1989 flick features Tom Berenger as washed up catcher Jake Taylor, Charlie Sheen as California penal system product Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, and Wesley Snipes as speedster Willie Mays Hayes. The clubhouse of misfits is predicted by every major newspaper to finished dead last. Naturally, they beat the Yankees in the last game of the season to finish in first.

The reason it resonates? Obviously there are many.

First, the city of Cleveland is very prominent. The movie is actually shot at Municipal Stadium in Cleveland – the “Mistake by the Lake” as they call it. By contrast, Angels in the Outfield wasn’t even shot in California, but at Camden Yards in Baltimore instead.

The Indians go form being nobodys to the talk of the cities. The movie continually cuts to the people of Cleveland themselves left to comment on the team. The construction workers comment, “Who are these f—ing guys?” and the grounds crew workers comment, “They’re sh—y,” and the face-painted Wahoos in the bleachers are continually called back as a way to remind us why baseball exists at all: it’s for the fans. Major League does a great job incorporating the fans and the city into the script.

Secondly, it’s not true, but it also isn’t inaccurate.

The whole “terrible for over four decades” piece is spot on. The last World Series victory for the Indians was in 1948 – 41 years before the movie came out. They still haven’t won it all since then either giving the Tribe the second longest draught behind the Chicago Cubs.

The whole “our ballpark is crumbling” piece is also spot on. Municipal Stadium was the worst. It was built in the 1930s as a multipurpose prototype. It held over 70,000 fans and was rarely, if ever, full. Even high traffic games of 30,000+ were half empty. It was billed to be Cleveland’s version of Yankee Stadium. Turned out to be cold and breezy right next to Lake Erie. It also had an asbestos roof.

It was so bad that during the 30s and 40s – back when the Indians were still competitive – they would play their weekday games over at tiny League Park, despite it being a much older venue (1891), and would only play at Municipal on weekends.

Tribe fans never knew a time of winning at Municipal Stadium. It was a venue synonymous with losing.

The city of Cleveland recently renovated the old League Park site that had been just sitting there since it closed in 1946. League Park hosted players such as Bob Feller, Satchel Paige and Cy Young. Babe Ruth hit his 500th home run there. The only unassisted triple play in World Series history was turned there.

The dimensions were awkward because the neighbors wouldn’t sell their property: 505 ft to straight away centerfield and 290 ft to right. To eliminate the number of home runs, they installed a 40 foot wall with a 20 foot chain link fence on top. A sixty foot wall. Crazy.

Some pics…
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The whole “going from worst to first” piece isn’t far fetched either. Because by 1995 they were playing in the World Series. They went again in 1997. They won the division 5 of 6 years between 1995 and 2000. Young players like Kenny Lofton, Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle and old veterans like Edsie Murray, Omar Visquel and Dennis Martinez in those days, and – wait, vets and rooks? That sounds just like Major League! Shoot, Kenny Lofton and Willie Mays Hayes might as well have been the same guy. It was like the movie came true.

But those American League pennants and division championships weren’t played at Municipal. In 1994, the Indians had left their massive and disappointing home for Jacobs Field, and they won right away.

Jacobs, aka “The Jake,” can even be seen as a Major League reference to Jake Taylor. (These days, it’s Progressive Field, aka “The Prog.”)

It’s like the movie was playing out in front of Cleveland’s very eyes. Just at a new and improved ballpark.

The Prog is alright, I guess. There are a couple unique features I liked: the left field wall is 19 feet tall so the ball plays differently out there than normal. For example, yesterday, Alex Gordon picked one up off the wall and gunned down Roberto Perez trying to sloooowly leg out a double. I liked the “Indians” script on top of the video board in left field, and I liked the smaller dimensions of the park. It’s only 320 and 323 to the left and right field corners.

But while the playing surface felt small, the ballpark did not. It didn’t feel as intimate as other parks. I’m not sure there was a foul ball to the upper deck the whole night (there probably were a couple, but not nearly as many as usual). I also wasn’t crazy about the video board itself or the asymmetrical overhang on only the third base line. Made for odd angles from my perspective behind the plate.

Progressive Field is clearly one of the oldest ballparks of the retro renaissance of ballpark design. It feels like the early 1990s…instead of the 1890s which is how “retro” is supposed to feel. It wasn’t bad. Just alight.

As a whole, the city of Cleveland has had some pretty crummy luck as a fan base. The Browns were so bad they packed up and moved to Baltimore (before being reestablished a few years later). They had their hearts ripped out by LeBron James and the Cavaliers a few years back. He’s “coming home” now, but who knows if he can actually bring them a championship. He is the Chosen One, afterall, right? The fans deserve a winner.

The Indians in their late-90s prime came close but never delivered. Tribe fans are a very passionate bunch. They cheer as loud as any group I’ve been around. They also seem close as a community – as a Royals fan, i understand this one; after enduring so much pain together, you can’t help but be close by the end.

They’re also loyal. Two examples of this: first, super-fan John Adams has been sitting out in the outfield bleachers since 1973 banging his drum for the team. Never missed a home game.

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There’s also this dude who’s been showing up dressed as a chicken this year because apparently there was a chicken in the bullpen earlier this year and the Indians won their next bundle of games. Ten, I think. I don’t really get it, he was so jacked up and he was talking so fast I couldn’t even understand him. Something about the lucky chicken being the only hope Cleveland has at this point.

That pic, by the way, was taken and tweeted by Joel Goldberg of Fox Sports Kansas City before last night’s game. That my dad with his hand raised. No idea who that other girl is.

I was there rooting for the opponent, so I was pretty annoyed by the group at times. As I left, I realized had they been playing any other AL team, I would’ve joined right in with their heckling. But they were talking about my boys! Don’t you taunt Hosmer! Get off Gordon’s back! And please please please stop chanting U-S-A when Aoki comes to the plate. (That was about the only thing they ever did that I was 100% not okay with.)

Interestingly, they dish t have anything bad to say about Lorenzo Cain. They probably recognize that he’s THE ABSOLUTE GREATEST.

Game Notes

Super frustrating night for the Royals. Jason Vargas was super bad. So bad that he may be last on the Royals playoff depth chart at this point. It’s between he and Guthrie.

Vargas had very little control, and for a guy who throws an upper 80s fastball, control is pretty dang important. He gave up 4 runs on 4 hits and 3 walks. He threw one pitch into the 5th inning and that one hit Michael Bourn who scored after Brandon Finnegan relieved Vargas.

Indians starter, Trevor Bauer, wasn’t much better, but he got luckier, honestly. The Royals hit him hard for the four innings he pitched, but couldn’t catch a timely break. The Royals outhit the Indians 10-7, but the Indians outscored the Royals 6-4.

The Indians, however. Got a very timely hit off Vargas in the first when Yan Gomes launched one over the centerfield wall in the first inning.

Salvador Perez continues to swing at everything thrown his way. He struck out twice with runners on first and second. Thanks Sal. Infuriating.

Moose hit two opposite field line drives with runners on base. Both were directly at the left fielder. The ball didn’t bounce the Royals way from the beginning.

This is not how I anticipated the Tour ending. In my mind, this game was going to be the grand finale. It was supposed to end with the Royals clenching a playoff spot or moving into first place. Detroit was supposed to lose on Tuesday and the Royals were supposed to finish the sweep on Wednesday. Instead, it will happen today if Seattle loses and KC wins.

Sometimes things just don’t go the way you think they will. To probably over-spiritualize it, you have one plan but God has another. Life isn’t a movie like Major League…even though this Royals season and this crazy Ballpark Tour have at certain points.

More on the Royals later. For now, it’s time to wrap this post – and this series up.

What a thrill it has been. I can now say that I’ve been to all thirty ballparks in the same season.

Now it’s time to get to writing the first draft of my book. I’m going to be taking all 30 teams and writing a chapter on each. Some chapters will focus on my experience at the game, others will focus on the team’s history, others will focus on what’s it’s like to be a fan of each team. I’m going to utilize this series as the notes/framework for the final product. So if you want a sneak peak, go back and read through all of the posts!

Okay. Signing off for now. More to come soon.

Thirty ballparks down. Zero to go.

Up Next: The Royals make the playoffs.

-apc.

Game 29: Comerica Park, Detroit

Disclaimer: I’m not going to sit here and act like I’m thrilled about last night’s outcome. The Royals desperately needed the Tigers to complete the 9th inning collapse. It was exciting, but the White Sox couldn’t finish the job.

Having said that, let’s see how good of a job I can do reporting on the Tigers and Comerica Park.

The Detroit Tigers have been around since 1894 as a part of the Western League. The rest of the teams in that league have either dissolved or moved to another city. The Milwaukee Brewers became the St. Louis Browns became the Baltimore Orioles; the Kansas City Blues became the Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins; the Grand Rapids Rustlers moved to Cleveland and eventually became the Indians; the Souix City Cornhuskers became the St. Paul Saints became the Chicago White Sox; the rest of the league was dropped in 1901 when the American League was created.

But the Detroit Tigers remain. They joined the American League that year, and in 1912, they built their home for the next 87 years: Tiger Stadium.

Tiger Stadium was located in the Corktown neighborhood just a couple miles west of downtown, and was demolished in 1999 and replaced by Comerica Park. The demolition of one of baseball’s iconic ballparks was a very sad day for the city of Detroit and baseball fans around the country.

Tiger Stadium used to stand with Wrigley Field (1914), Fenway Park (1912), Ebbets Field (1913), Comiskey Park (1910), Shibe Park (1909), Forbes Field (1909) and Griffith Stadium (1911) as parks built during the glory days of ballparks. Obviously Fenway and Wrigley still stand today. Forbes, Griffith, Shibe and Ebbets were done away with decades ago. Comiskey is a heartbreaker because it certainly would still be standing if it had only waited a few more years to see what Baltimore did at Camden Yards. Instead they’re stuck with The Cell – aptly named, really.

The Tigers were the last of the bunch to tear down their historic park, but they’re the only ones of the demolished group to survive to the retro-ballpark movement. They don’t have any excuses.

The old park site is still a green field at the corner of Trumbull Street and Michigan Avenue. We* stopped by and walked out on to the old infield. I toed the rubber where Bob Gibson pitched in the World Series of his historic 1968 season when he recorded a 1.12 ERA. He allowed 49 runs all season in over 300 innings.

* – By the way, I should mention that I invited my parents to join me for these last 4 games. That’s what I mean when I say “we.”

After a dominating Game 1 performance, Gibson lost his next two starts as the Tigers defeated the Cardinals for their third of their four championships. They haven’t won since leaving, despite winning the American League in 2006 and 2012, and the division the last three years (and potentially four if they can hold off the all-but-guaranteed-to-win-it-all Royals). I’m guessing we’ll be talking about some sort of Curse of Tiger Stadium about 50 years from now.

Here are a couple shots of what it looks like today. The first and last are what it used to look like.
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Notice the gate entrances in the old pics and the outfield flag pole.

Actually, with the way Detroit is headed, it might be way sooner than 50 years. No city has been hit harder by the down turn in the US economy than Detroit. The population has plummeted in recent years: $1.8M in 1950; $1M by 1990; $900K in 2009…and less than 700K today. Downtown is old and crumbling, the automotive industry is in a tailspin – just this morning an employee at our hotel told me that the Cadillac is separating from GM and leaving Detroit for New York. Another 700 Detroiters out of jobs and likely out of town. Hard times in Motown.

At least the baseball team gives them something to cheer about these days. Back-to-back and reigning AL MVP, Miguel Cabrera first and foremost, and a pitching staff featuring three Cy Young winners: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and newly acquired David Price.

Now, don’t get me wrong, Comerica is a beautiful park with lots of nods to the ballparks of the past. The massive flag pole in center was originally in play when the ballpark was first built, just like Tiger Stadium. Unlike most ballparks, they have a dirt path between home plate and the pitching rubber, a nod to a time when grounds keeping wasn’t as advanced and the amount of travel of pitchers and catchers would wear a track into the grass.

The brick beyond the 424′ centerfield wall is a nice touch. It features the names of past Tiger greats such as Ty Cobb, Al Kaline, Hank Greenberg, Willie Horton, Hal Newhouser, and Charlie Gehringer face the field of play. Behind the wall are statues of these same players doing what they did best. Naturally, Ty Cobb is shown sliding spikes up.

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In the book, this chapter might end up being about Ty Cobb. We’ll see.

The craziest thing that happened at the game last night: two fans in our section got hit in the head by foul balls. One was sitting right next to us in our row. In the second inning, a ball off the bat of Semien popped over our heads just nipping the edge of the upper deck and caroming straight down at us. The guy didn’t take cover in time and it hit him just above the eye, splitting his brow, requiring a few stitches.

Then again in the 8th, with Rajai Davis batting, a ball came up over our heads bounced off the face of the third deck and came rocketing back off toward home plate and hit a woman in the same spot as our neighbor. She left with out any blood, but a noticeable black eye.

The fans are surprisingly close to the action at baseball games when you think about it, but in all the games I’ve been to in my life, I’ve never seen anything like that.

In more positive news, two other foul balls came our way and landed a few rows below us. Two different men caught them and handed it to young boys nearby. Bravo, gents. Well played.

I’ve never gotten a foul ball by the way. I’ve been to around 50 ball games this year, and haven’t even been involved in a scrum for one. I’ve had players and coaches toss me a ball, but I’ve never pulled an actual gameplay ball.

On to the game notes, because that’s what’s most exciting here.

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Game Notes:

This game was a lot of scoreboard watching, which might explain how multiple people weren’t paying attention and got hit by foul balls. Going into the game, the Tigers sat in first place in the AL Central. One game up on the Royals. A loss would allow the Royals to potentially move into first if they won.

They also sat with the same record as the wild card leading Athletics who played later and three games up on the Mariners who are fighting for the last wild card spot.

This game was a pitchers duel for the first 6 innings. Scott Carroll battled the Tigers potent lineup through 6 innings giving up the first run of the game off a Davis single to start the 7th, and a throwing error by the catcher as Davis tried to steal third.

The Royals, meanwhile, were winning big. The game finished 7-1, but the were up for the majority of the game, so Tigers fans knew this was a necessary win.

Things got away from the White Sox when they pulled Carroll after he let the leadoff man on in the 7th. Belisario came in and got the lead runner at second on an attempted sacrifice bunt, but an error by Semien on probably an inning-ending doubleplay groundball to third allowed the inning to continue. The Tigers would score two runs and take a 3-0 lead.

But the real drama came in the 9th. David Price had a 4-hit shutout going and Tigers manager, Brad Ausmus, sent him out to complete the game. Adam Eaton singled softly up the middle and the Sox’ rally was on.

Ausmus came out to talk to Price. With Joe “Every Save’s an Adventure” Nathan warm in the bullpen, it looked like Price was done and Ramirez-Abreu-Garcia, all righties, would face the righty Nathan instead.

Except the fans didn’t want it. The Tigers’ bullpen has been absolutely terrible all season, and the fans wanted Price to get the CG SO. They hollered and yelled and booed at the idea of trusting the anyone in the bullpen with this game, let alone Nathan. This is the same Joe Nathan who flipped of the fans a few months back. There’s some emotional strain in the relationship, it seems.

Ausmus, whether influenced by the fans or of his own accord, opted to stick with Price.

It was the wrong choice. Price gave up two more runs and the game was tied. Let’s be honest though, Ausmus faced a lose-lose situation. Nathan probably wouldn’t have done any better. Speaks volumes to how little the Tigers think of their miserable bullpen. I mean, there’s nobody out there better than a tired David Price? No one is better fresh than Price is after 8 innings? I really don’t know if there is.

Finally, Nathan came in and got Suarez to fly out to center with the bases loaded to end the rally.

The White Sox brought in Jake Petricka to face the Tigers in the bottom of the 9th. Due up: Kinsler-Hunter-Cabrera. It wasn’t shocking what happened next. Kinsler singled. Hunter walked. Cabrera singled and Kinsler scored. Game over.

The Tigers rely almost exclusively on starting pitching and power hitting to win ballgames, and this game was no different. The Tigers maintained their 1 game lead in the Central. Their magic number is 2 to make the playoffs and 5 clench the Central with 5 games left.

Also, just for the record…

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Twenty-nine down. One to go.

Final stop: Cleveland Indians.

-apc.

Photo cred for the last two here and here. All others are mine.

Game 28: Rogers Centre, Toronto

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

In the early 90’s, while other kids were slicing through defenses as Bo Jackson and Walter Peyton in Tecmo Bowl, I was bunting and stealing with Tim Raines and Vince Coleman and launching home runs with Matt Nokes and Darryl Strawberry in RBI Baseball.

There were only 10 team options on the original game: California, Boston, Minnesota, St. Louis, Houston, New York Mets, Detroit, San Francisco, and the American and National League All-Stars. Those were your only options. Before each game, after you selected your teams, the game would play the first few measures of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was always somewhat annoying because I was ready to play ball and was forced to sit through the song. I would still press A repeatedly, trying my hardest to speed up the game…it never helped. But I did it anyway.

A few years later, I picked up RBI Baseball 3, which featured every MLB team with expanded current rosters, past playoff team rosters, and much thinner ballplayers. I remember being so excited to play as the entire Montreal team because Tim Raines was the only player from the original game from the Expos and he was so fast. I also had a strange affinity for Marquis Grissom, Montreal’s centerfielder.

I remember opening that game, inserting the cartridge – probably pulling it out and blowing into if a dozen times – then selecting Montreal (subbing in Grissom off the bench), sitting and listening to the Star-Spangled Banner…

…but what was this other song?!?

You mean when I play as the Expos, I’m forced to sit through two anthems? Well, so much for playing as the Expos* ever again. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

* – As this tour is drawing to a close, it’s dawning on me how disappointing it is that Montreal doesn’t have a ball club anymore. That crazy fan base deserves one. Maybe if they host another exhibition series next year I’ll make the trip up for an epilogue/bonus Chapter 31.

Unless you chose the other Canadian team to play against. Then you only had to listen to one song and could play ball sooner. Brilliant!

That team was, obviously, the Toronto Blue Jays. And while I was busy playing them in RBI Baseball, they were busy ruling the baseball world in the early 90s.

The Jays won two consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993 with contributions from Roberto Alomar, John Olerud and his helmet, Dave Winfield, Jimmy Key, Paul Molitor, Juan Guzman and, of course, Joe Carter, who hit a walkoff HR to take home the Series in Game 6 in 1993.

Things are done a little differently north of the border. The French Canadian influence isn’t nearly as heavy in Toronto as it is in Montreal but things remain just a tiny bit different from baseball on the other side of the border.

Baseball games are liturgical. There’s an order of events that takes place at every game that the patrons are familiar with. It usually goes something like this…

Around 15 minutes before gametime, there is a ceremonial first pitch or three. After some announcements about how charitable the team is, starting lineups are announced. Then “all rise and remove your caps for the playing of our National Anthem.” Then some kid gets called upon to shout out “Play Ball!”

Fast forwarding through goofy gimmicks like the Kiss Cam, Ball Shuffle, Flex Cam, Grounds Crew Inning, Trivia Contests, the Jump Around Cam, Condiment Races*, etc., to the 7th Inning Stretch where we all stand up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and usually “God Bless America” too.

* – For those of you dying to know, Mustard won the 2014 Championship in KC. Relish led all season and then choked down the stretch. Ketchup fell on his face in the finale. You’ll get em next year, Relish,

Each team has it’s own flare to their liturgy. The Angels use the Rally Monkey. The Rays have their cowbells. The Nationals spell out N-A-T-S after each run scored. The Royals play “Kansas City” and sing “hey, hey, hey, hey!” after each home win.

But as a whole, a baseball fan from anywhere can enter a different ballpark without feeling disoriented to what’s going on. There’s an order that we’ve all learned over our years as baseball fans. And even beyond that, there’s a way for us as fans to engage in the rituals offered by the game. Chanting. Clapping. Rally caps. Throwing back home run balls. Booing Robinson Cano.

Toronto was disorienting at two major moments. The first we’ve already talked about: the Canadian National Anthem, “O Canada.”

The second occurs during the 7th Inning Stretch. Rather than rolling straight into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the Jays have their own song with choreographed calisthenics that comes first called “OK Blue Jays (Let’s Play Ball!). It goes like this…

You’ve got a diamond
You’ve got nine men
You’ve got a hat and a bat
And that’s not all
You’ve got the bleachers
Got ’em from spring ’til fall
You got a dog and a drink
And the umpire’s call
Waddaya want?
Let’s play ball!

Okay (okay)
Blue Jays (Blue Jays)
Let’s (Let’s) Play (Play) Ball!

I’m not one to typically judge cultural differences, but that song is weird and you’re throwing off the entire rhythm of the game. Just do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Sheesh. (Just kidding. Kinda.)

All that to say, it’s an obvious connection to how different communities engage in a worship gathering. What are the rhythms of baseball as a whole, but how does each team orient their practices around these rhythms. Fascinating stuff.

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The Rogers Centre was once the newest and most impressive ballpark in the game. It was built in 1989 as the SkyDome and was the first retractable that worked. The Expos’ Olympic Stadium was supposed to open up but never worked properly, but the SkyDome preceded every other working retractable roof: Houston, Arizona, Seattle, Milwaukee and Miami, It was a modern marvel: 22 million pounds that could slide open at the flip of a switch and get 90% of the seats in the sun.

It was closed last night, which was disappointing, but otherwise Toronto was a terrific host.

The place is huge and embedded among the buildings of downtown Toronto. It has the feel of a basketball or hockey arena more than a ballpark from the outside. And the proximity of the surrounding structures made it impossible to get a picture of the entire park from outside.

It’s right next to the CN Tower, the skyline’s giant space needle. When the roof is open, the Tower can be seen looming above the outfield.

There’s a hotel inside the ballpark too, which is pretty sweet. Imagine sitting i your hotel room and watching the game happen outside your window. Almost wish I’d sprung for a room but it’s hard to beat $8 tickets behind the plate.

With the roof closed, the interior is cavernous. I read somewhere that the peak of the dome is something like 300 feet above the playing field, which allows for 5 levels of seats, not that anyone was sitting up top. It holds 49,282 fans.

The other thing I noticed that was a stark contrast to American teams: it was very evident the ballpark attendants do not care at all where fans sit. Everyone was right behind the plate, myself included. Our tickets were in section 521. We sat in section 120. Nearly every fan in the place was packed in the lower level and just kinda picked whatever seat they wanted with no argument from the staff.

In nearly every other park, you can’t just waltz down to the lower level without some sort of questioning or permission from a staff person. Even at the most sparsely attended games most section attendants require the correct ticket when it comes to the lower level seats. Chalk it up to good ole Canadian passivity, probably.

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The kid in this picture was terrific the whole game. Just going crazy after every half inning. Later, the woman standing next to him won $4,300 the 50/50 Raffle. But that’s all I have to say about that.

Toronto seems likes a great city. Of what I saw of it, it felt a ton like Chicago – right on the Lake, lots of sprawling suburbs, and you can even see the city from across the lake just like you can Chicago from Gary, Indiana. It’s a big city, and s beautiful one. But what really made it a great experience was the game itself. So let’s get to that now.

Game Note:

The Blue Jays are on the verge of elimination, but they opened up a series against the Seattle Mariners last night who are right in the midst of the Wild Card race. They are currently the first team out of the AL playoff race, and last night’s game pushed them another step out of contention.

Tonight’s matchup is R.A. Dickey against Felix Hernandez. This marks the third time I’ve missed seeing King Felix pitch by a day. Instead we saw James Paxton for Seattle and J.A. Happ for Toronto. Happ was solid through 7 innings. Paxton was not solid and didn’t make it through the 3rd.

This one was a blowout.

The Blue Jays lit up the Mariners for 14 runs on 16 hits. Former Royal, Danny Valencia got them started early with a bases loaded triple in the 1st, and a 5 run 3rd made it a 9-1 game early.

Jose Bautista, aka Joey Bats, had a day: 3-3 with a HR, BB, and 3 runs scored. He also had a great day on defense. He threw out Logan Morrison from the warning track as Morrison tried to turn a single into a double, and he had a Web Gem snag diving across his body in right-centerfield.

The Jays hit two more homers – Kevin Pillar in the 6th and Anthony Gose batting for Bautista in the 7th.

Happ got into a bit of trouble in the first and allows Austin Jackson to score before working around runners on 1st and 3rd with 1 out. The Mariners hit two solo HRs late in the game – Seagar off of Happ in the 6th, but the other off the bullpen in the 9th by Denorfia – and scored another in the 8th to make it less embarrassing, but the Jays hit the ball hard all night and won 14-4. The Jays side of my scorecard was very busy.

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The Mariners fell further behind the Royals, Athletics and Tigers for the wild card spots. Either the Royals or Tigers will win the AL Central, and two of the other three will take the WC spots. Seattle is beginning to look like the team left out.

On the road back to the United States now. See you soon, Detroit.

Twenty-eight down. Two to go.

Up next: Detroit Tigers.

-apc.

Game 27: PNC Park, Pittsburgh

Welcome to the Steel City.

I once took a buzzfeed quiz titled, “What Color Lightsaber Would You Weld?” I got Orange. According to BuzzFeed, I’m a “conflicted” individual who “gravitates toward the light side” albeit “begrudgingly,” and despite being “morally good” I probably will have a “brush” with the dark side of the Force at some point. And while those quizzes can sound strangely accurate…what a bunch of malarkey, really.

What I know for a fact: the City of Pittsburgh would weld a yellow lightsaber.

The first thing you see the moment you emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel: yellow bridges everywhere. Not sure what the exact count is, but there’s somewhere in the vicinity of 8 million yellow bridges surrounding The ‘Burgh.

Okay, so technically the bridges are “Aztec Gold” but I wasn’t fortunate enough to have the 64-pack of Crayons as a kid. Proud member of the 24-pack here. The City of Bridges’ official colors are black and gold.

Pittsburgh is the only city to have three professional sports teams wear the same colors. The Pirates, Steelers and Penguins all rock the black/yellow.

Sunday marked the final home game of the Pirates regular season, and the Pittsburgh faithful came our strong to support the Buccos. PNC Park was packed with black and yellow fans – 38,650 of them – ready for their team to make a final push toward their second consecutive playoff appearance. It’s all but certain at this point thanks to collapses by Milwaukee and Atlanta. The National League playoff teams are nearly certain: Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, Pirates* and Giants. It’s just a matter of seeding at this point.

* – I picked the Reds instead of the Pirates in the preseason. Otherwise, my NL Picks were correct. *Throws down controller. Thumps chest.

Pittsburgh era are loving the team’s recent success under Clint Hurdle. It’s been a while (22 years and 40 lbs of Barry Bonds ago) since the Pirates have had success of any kind, let alone two seasons in a row.

The Pirates were established in 1882 and won seven championships: two in the National League in 1901 and 1902, and five World Series titles in 1909, 1925, 1960, 1971 and 1979.

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Four of the five World Series teams feature a star player who is now immortalized as statues out side of PNC Park.

IMG_9894.JPGHonus Wagner (top-left) – The Flying Dutchman. Probably the greatest shortstop of all time, he was the best player on the 1909 World Series team. He’s also the face on the most expensive baseball card of all time: the 1909 T206. Won 8 batting titles and was one of the original six Hall of Fame inductees.

Bill Masoroski (top-right) – Maz hit the only Game 7 walk off home run of in baseball history (Joe Carter’s for Toronto was in Game 6, but was a walk off HR, just not in an elimination game, by the way). In 1960, at home at Forbes Field, he launched a solo shot over the 406′ sign in left-centerfield. The outfield wall remains where Forbes used to be on the University of Pittsburgh campus. The Cathedral of Learning, a gorgeous skyscraper on campus, used to loom over the ballpark behind the left field corner.IMG_9798.JPG

Roberto Clemente (bottom-left) – According to my dad, Clemente collected his 3,000th career hit on the last day of the 1972 season. He passed away in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico that winter en route to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua. The main bridge utilized walking to and from the ballpark is now named after him.

Willie Stargell (bottom-right) – Pops. Stargell was a big hulking guy who hit 475 home runs in his career. He was apart of the 1979 “We Are Family” a World Series winning Pirates. Once, in Montreal. Stargell hit a homerun that cleared the fence in right field left the yard at Jarry Park and landed in a public pool.

The day Pops died was the day PNC Park opened: April 1, 2001. Prior to PNC, the Pirates played at Three Rivers Stadium, which as the name suggests, was positioned at the point where the Ohio, Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet downtown. The days at Three Rivers are likely considered the glory days around Pittsburgh. Those 1970s were good times with the Pirates winning two championships and Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers – who shared the space – winning three Super Bowls. Today, Heinz Field and PNC Park sit on both sides of the parking lot where Three Rivers Stadium used to sit.

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PNC Park is breathtaking. The park sits on the river-walk of the Allegheny right across the Clemente Bridge from downtown. It has a distinct old ballpark feel after decades of cookie-cutter multipurpose life at Three Rivers. Old Forbes Field can be seen in the details – the nook in centerfield, the old-style vertical lighting system, and the blue seats are all Forbes-inspired. the scoreboard is modeled off Forbes as well with it’s red/green/blue lights signifying outs, base runners and top/bottom of the inning. It’s a fun flare that’s somewhere in between the manual Wrigley/Fenway scoreboards and the high-tech video scoreboards in newer parks.

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With the pennant race in full swing, I spent a lot of time watching that scoreboard update. Royals won, by the way.

I had really high expectations for PNC Park and it entirely lived up. You’ll find it near the top of my rankings when this whole journey is over.

The Pirates sure don’t like the Brewers, whom they played yesterday. The two are division rivals. They especially hate Ryan Braun, the Brewers’ right fielder.

Braun got caught using performance enhancing drugs last year ago, but his offense was especially egregious because of what had happened the year prior. A test had come back positive, and he got off on a technicality and ripped the MLB for accusing him falsely. He was made out to be a victim of a mistake by the league.

So then when he turned out to be guilty a year later, he fell doubly hard. He cheated, lied about it, got away with it, kept cheating, got caught again, and really looked like a dummy.

Something interesting about baseball is the amount of discipline involved in the game. It takes hours and hours of training to become great and stay great at the game. In fact, discipline is such a part of the game that seemingly anyone who works hard enough at getting better can play professionally. There’s no toleration for cheating the discipline of the game.

I wonder if there’s a conversation to be had here about the role of spiritual disciplines and baseball. How do we make connecting with God apart of our daily/weekly/annual rhythms?

Maybe a better example would be Barry Bonds, since he began his career in Pittsburgh.

Just like baseball, there are no shortcuts in our dialogue with God. You can’t just check a box. It’s an ongoing commitment that requires regular disciplines. It’s not a finish line as much a new start.

Okay. Gotta wrap this up it I’mm be late for my next game tonight at the Rogers Centre. To the game notes!

Game Notes

Yesterday’s game was all about Pirate’s starter, Vance Worley, who spun an absolute gem. He threw 82 pitches in eight innings of shut out ball. He threw first pitch strikes to 21 of the 27 batters he faced.

The only run of the game came in the 7th. Andrew McCutchen, the undisputed star of this team, and one of the best players in baseball – hit an infield single. Two past balls later and he was standing on third base. Russell Martin singled scored McCutchen. That’s all the Pirates needed.

Hurdle called on Tony Watson in the 9th who got his first save of the season. I would’ve stuck with Worley personally, but he was pulled for a pinch hitter in the 8th.

Watson made things interesting giving up a leadoff single, but thanks to a baserunning blunder by Carlos Gomez, he got out of it clean and shut the door.

Bucs win 1-0. Raise the Jolly Roger.

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Twenty-seven games down. Three to go.

Up next: Toronto Blue Jays.

-apc.

Game 25: Tropicana Field, St. Petersburg, FL

“Oh, you should’ve been here last night.”

At least 4 people told me that during my time at Tropicana Field last night. Why? Well, for starters, they won on Tuesday night, 6-1. It was the second straight win against the Yankees, and since more than half of the fans in attendance were Yankees fans, a series win is a very satisfying thing.

It was also another stop on the Derek Jeter Farewell Tour. The Rays presented him with a kayak with pinstripes, apparently. Personally, I’d rather get the BBQ sauce set that the Royals gave Paul Konerko last night instead, but maybe #2 does more kayaking than the average person. Multiple times over the weekend the typical DER-ek JE-ter *clap, clap, clapclapclap* chant spread throughout The Trop.

So the Yankees fans kept telling me I’d missed the ceremony. Rays fans kept telling me that I’d missed a butt-kicking. I kept jokingly responding with, “a pox upon me for a clumsy lout,” as if I was going to adjust my itinerary to see Derek Jeter get honored. Again.

Tempers flared that night as well when Derek Jeter got hit in the hand in the 8th inning. Both dugouts were warned. Yankees manager, Joe Girardi went off and got tossed. Then the Yankees retaliated and hit Kevin Kiermeier in the next half inning and the dugouts emptied. There wasn’t a brawl, but a lot of jawing at one another while coaches restrained angry players.

But that was Tuesday. Last night was Wednesday. Let’s talk about Wednesday in St. Petersburg.

The Trop isn’t a miserable place, but it also isn’t great. The main entrance and concourse feels like a shopping mall, and you can’t see any of the game through the concourse. The grandstand is one giant bowl and the vendors don’t provide any visibility into that bowl unless you get back to the seats. There are TVs everywhere though, so that’s nice.

The seats are bright blue, which is kinda refreshing and cool, but about 1/5 of them are covered with tarps because the Rays hardly ever come anywhere close to selling out. Unless the Yankees are in town, which they were yesterday, it’s typically a pretty desolate place to see a game.

The worst part about the Trop: the outfield grass. The AstroTurf in Tampa Bay is uuuuuuugly. It’s splotchy and black and streaky in places. It looks greasy and wet in large swaths across the outfield. While most clubs have gorgeously maintained lawns, the Rays basically have an ugly stained carpet. The warning tracks are fake too.

The infield dirt, however, is real, thank goodness.

There’s a giant aquarium tank in the center field stands too. You can touch the rays with your own hands – two fingers, along the wings, according to the tank attendant. They’re rubbery. I didn’t like it.

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Despite this being just the Rays 17th season as a franchise, Tropicana Field is 25 years old. St. Petersburg spent a decade trying to lure a baseball team to come to Florida, and the giant white dome was one of the major moves they made in hopes of landing a team.

The experience bringing the Rays to Tampa Bay was quite the roller coaster ride.

In July 1988, there was a vote that nearly passed to move the Chicago White Sox to St. Petersburg. They had been in talks with the Twins, Mariners, A’s and even the Tigers as their ballparks were growing older to move them to Florida. Talks with the Twins progressed somewhat too, but obviously didn’t work out. In 1993, they tried to land an expansion team, but the Marlins were awarded to South Florida and Rockies to Colorado instead.

At one point – and this is just crazy to think about – the San Francisco Giants even signed paperwork to make the move from crumbling Candlestick Park to play at The Trop. Thankfully, Major League Baseball blocked the move. Can you imagine a world where the Giants play in Florida?*

* – Probably exactly what people were saying when the Giants and Dodgers moved west in the first place.

Finally, the roller coaster of possible suitors ended in 1998 when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays became a thing.

Originally, they wanted to be the Stingrays, but there was another team in Hawaii already called that and Vince Naimoli – the penny-pinching paranoid micromanaging former owner of the Devil Rays – didn’t want to pay the measly $35k it cost to purchase naming rights. So they went with the Devil Rays instead.

A story just to get an idea of the kind of guy Naimoli was: he created a strict No Outside Food rule as to force patrons to purchase everything inside the park. Naimoli enforced this rule extremely well: he would roam the stands himself and if he found someone with outside food, he would ask what gate they had entered through and immediately fire whatever employee was assigned to that gate, no questions asked. Once, a bus of senior citizens came to the ballpark and a woman in a wheelchair was found with a granola bar in her purse. When she was asked to throw it away, she explained that she was a diabetic and needed it to stabilize her blood sugar level. When they wouldn’t budge without her ditching the granola bar, she opted to wait in the bus for 4 hours until after the game was over. That’s the sort of penny-pinching we’re talking about.

There was lots if immediate backlash to the name. The public hated it and they hated the color scheme/logo even more. Naimoli held a public vote between the Devil Rays and Manta Rays. When the voting opened, Manta Rays was winning in a landslide. Slowly and mysteriously, the gap narrowed, and about the time it was almost 50-50, the polls closed and Devil Rays was declared the winner, which was fortunate for Naimoli because all that money spent on “Devil Rays” gear would’ve gone to waste.

Vince Naimoli just didn’t get it. He made his millions by buying failing businesses, slashing all extraneous positions and expenses, and resurrecting it by doing things as extreme as forcing employees to reuse Post-It notes.

As the owner of a baseball franchise, this didn’t translate. The Devil Rays’ didn’t even have a company email account during the majority of his tenure. Everyone had to email from their personal AOL, Yahoo!, or Hotmail address because Naimoli was too cheap to pony up and pay for company email. And the worst part was that everyone was so afraid they’d get fired, no one stood up to his antics. They lived in fear.

The quality of ownership was reflected on the field. The Devil Rays were absolutely dreadful.

While the process of getting a team was a roller coaster, the Devil Rays first decade of existence was anything but. It was more of a flat line. Between 1998 and 2007, the Devil Rays finished dead last in the AL East every year but once, and that year they finished second to last. They lost 90+ games all ten years and 100+ three years.

They were an absolute embarrassment and the laughing stock of Major League Baseball.

So, in 2007, they exorcized the “Devil.”

No, I’m not calling Naimoli the devil. Chill out, you guys. I’m talking about the name change. They dropped the “Devil” and simply became the Rays. And while the team still embraced the sea creature as it’s namesake, it was also an allusion to the other meaning for the word: a ray of sunshine.

Brighter, sunnier days were coming. And soon.

It was time for a change. There was a new philosophy of Rays Baseball. One that centered around defensive analytics and being comfortable going against the grain of baseball tradition. In the same way that the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball thinking redefined how to win in baseball, the Rays needed to do the same. Otherwise, they’d always stay behind the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East.

And while I wasn’t calling Naimoli the devil, he did decide to step out of his role as owner. There was a new ownership, new GM, new marketing, new color scheme, new logo…and a new manager who was the perfect match for this new era of baseball at The Trop.

Joe Maddon was hired by the Tampa Bay Rays and he is NOT your traditional manager. He isn’t afraid to push against orthodoxy and do things managers aren’t supposed to do. For example, he doesn’t like to utilize a traditional closer. Instead, he will bring in his best reliever at the most crucial point. If the bases are loaded with 1 out in the 7th, he won’t hesitate to pitch the guy who usually throws the 9th.

He breaks unwritten rules. One time in a game against the Rangers, Maddon intentionally walked Josh Hamilton to pitch to Marlon Byrd with the bases loaded. He didn’t care that it let in a run, the score was 7-2 at the time, he just believed that they were more likely to get Byrd out than Hamilton. Unlike the Naimoli era, ther is no fear in Tampa these days.

In 2007, the new leadership didn’t do much. Why? Because they didn’t feel it was important to win immediately. They could’ve worked hard to put the best team they could out on the field. Instead, they decided to take their time, flip some assets, and play for the future.

“Trust the process,” became their motto.

Royals fans are now familiar with this phrase – their own period of ineptitude, Dayton Moore started utilizing it as well. And now, 8 years later, they have fruits to show for their patience.

But for the Rays, it was much quicker. As in immediately. In 2008 – very next year – the Rays won the American League Championship and advanced to their first World Series. Worst to first.

Granted, spending a decade in the basement had produced a solid crop of young draft talent that was ready to emerge in the majors, but this was a different team – a different franchise and fanbase – than it had been.

The fans are a mixed group. On the one hand, there’s a youthful party vibe to Tropicana Field as might be expected for a young franchise. However, with the large number of retired individuals living in the Tampa area, there seems to be a segment of elderly fans too, but the majority are a raucous bunch.

One of the moves the new management made was to make it fun to come to The Trop. This meant summer concert series and goofy promotions. The most popular was Cowbell Night where fans received cowbells as an homage to the SNL, Blue Oyster Cult skit with Will Ferrell and Christopher Walken. The cowbells stuck and are now around at every home game.

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I was sitting out in right field for most of the night, and there, right in front of me, was Wil Myers. Myers was traded to the Rays two years ago along with Jake Odorizzi in exchange for James Shields and Wade Davis. It was a hotly contested move at the time, and one that seems to have actually paid off for the Royals and the Rays…assuming the Royals don’t blow it down the stretch.

Myers is smooth and casual and makes the game look easy. He made a leaping catch up against the wall last night that most players can’t make.

“Oh, to be young,” says Ichiro, probably. The Yankees right fielder spends literally every spare moment in the field bending and squatting and stretching out to make sure he is as loose as can be. At his age, he can’t walk out and play like he could when he was Myers age.

There was at least a buzz around the place – something that exists only depending on the opponent and/or promotion. Sadly, most of the buzz supported the rival Yanks.

Anyway, all that to say, it was an…okay experience. Not sure what the theme is here yet. Probably something about leadership and communication and fear. I have some ideas but I’ll have to flesh them out a bit before I write any of it down.

For now, some game notes.

Game Notes:

The game was a good one. Both starters pitched well to start the game. Alex Cobb, who nearly threw a no hitter against these same Yankees in his last start against them, retired the Yankees in order the first time through the lineup. He worked around a lead off single to start the fourth, and had 0 runs on 1 hit through 4 innings.

In the bottom half, the Rays got on the board first when Evan Longoria – the most prized of those many early draft picks through the years – hit a solo HR to center field. 1-0 Rays.

Brandon McCarthy started for the Yankees, and he needs to thank his defense for the win last night. In the first inning, Ben Zobrist led off with a single, and then David DeJesus scorched a grounder up the middle that looked destined for the outfield “grass.” Instead, it ended up in second baseman Brendan Ryan’s glove as he dove up the middle. If that ball finds green, it would be 1st & 3rd, nobody out. Instead, it got Zobrist with a 4-6 fielder’s choice. DeJesus got thrown out trying to steal second soon after, and McCarthy, somehow, only faced three batters in the first.

After Longo’s bomb, the wheels started coming off for Alex Cobb. Slowly in the 5th, and then entirely in the 6th.

The 5th started with Cobb hitting Chris Young with a pitch, who scored on a Chase Headley double. Headley then score himself when Ryan doubled two batters later and the Yankees took the lead, 2-1.

Then in the 6th, Cobb gave up a single to Jeter and three walks. Amazingly, the Yankees only plated one run as Jeter tagged up and scored on Myers dazzling play in right field. The Rays got 1 back when DeJesus led off with a triple in the bottom of the 6th, but that was it. Yankees took the final game i the series 3-2 and avoided the sweep.

Twenty-five down. Five to go.

Up next: Miami Marlins.

-apc.

The Florida-Lake Erie Tour

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It’s the grand finale.  The home stretch. It’s the final countdown.

This six-game stretch marks the final six games of Ballpark Tour 2014. I can’t believe this crazy experience is almost over. This has been one of the most insane experiences of my life, and I’m really excited to take these posts, stories and experiences and compile them into a book to share with you all!

First up are the two Florida teams – the Rays and Marlins – on Wednesday and Thursday night.

Then the following Sunday, I’m flying up to Pittsburgh, renting a car and circumventing Lake Erie over the next four days. Pirates, Blue Jays, Tigers and Indians. Here are the projected matchups…

  • 9/17 – New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay (McCarthy vs Karns/Cobb)
  • 9/18 – Washington @ Miami (Fister vs Hand)
  • 9/21 – Milwaukee @ Pittsburgh (Peralta vs Worley)
  • 9/22 – Seattle @ Toronto (Paxton vs Happ)
  • 9/23 – Chicago White Sox @ Detroit (??? vs Price)
  • 9/24 – Kansas City @ Cleveland (Guthrie vs Salazar)

September baseball is awesome, and it’s going to be so cool to be in these ballparks in the midst of some intense playoff races. The Florida games aren’t nearly as thrilling as the games up north – The Yankees are a fringe Wild Card team, but barring a giant push they’re basically out of it, and the Rays (my preseason pick to win the division) are toast. I was most excited to get to see Giancarlo Stanton in Miami, but he got hit in the face with a fastball on Friday night in Milwaukee and is done for the season. He was a legitimate MVP candidate on a team that had a lot of hope moving into next year. Hopefully it doesn’t effect him long term – absolutely devastating to see happen.

But the Lake Erie games – oh man. While the Cardinals seem to have the NL Central all locked up, the Pirates and Brewers are both in the hunt for Wild Card spots so that Pittsburgh game will be intense – the Peralta/Worley matchup is a good one too. Toronto is a fringe Wild Card team too but they’ve been on a tear lately. They’re playing Seattle who is right in the thick of the race along with the Royals, Tigers and Athletics. (As a Royals fan, it should be real easy to root for the Jays to beat the M’s.)

Less easy to do: root for the Tigers in any capacity. This might be the first time I blatantly root against the home team when my favorite teams aren’t the visitors. Who knows? Maybe the Royals will sweep the Tigers over the weekend and completely change the narrative. Anything can happen in a week in this game.

Kind of a strange pitcher carousel happening: during the offseason the Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Nationals whom I’ll see pitch against the Marlins on Thursday. The Nationals traded Nate Karns to the Rays during the offseason, who I’ll see Wednesday (although they may throw Cobb instead). Then this season at the trade deadline the Tigers traded for David Price from the Rays, and I’ll see him pitch on Tuesday in Detroit.

To recap: Fister DET to DC; Karns DC to TB; Price TB to DET.

I end my tour in Cleveland, where I get to see my Royals one more time! I’m hoping the Royals will adjust the pitching rotation which would make Vargas start instead of Guthrie, but regardless, this is going to be a blast. In a perfect world, the Royals would clench a playoff spot while we’re in Cleveland and we can celebrate there. I’ll be the one hoisting Lorenzo Cain up on my shoulders after he steals home to win the game. Probably dreaming. It’s looking like it’ll come down to the final series in Chicago instead. Phooey.

Then I drive the two hours back to Pittsburgh and fly back to KC. Tour over.

Keep an eye out for post game blogs next weekend. It’s going to be near impossible to balance the Tour with the Royals season. Thankfuily, it all collides for Game 30 in Cleveland. Oh man it’s going to be nuts.

Thanks for following along everyone. Stay tuned for writing updates over the offseason! Aaaahhhh!!

-apc.

Photo cred: Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail.

The Royals are 80-66. Thoughts from second place.

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Unfortunately, things are playing out exactly as I predicted in my worst-case scenario to make the playoffs post from last week. The Royals were 79-62, and they’ve since gone 1-4 in three games against the Tigers and two games against the Red Sox. I thought they’d take 1 of 3 in Detroit, which they did, and I was very uncomfortable entering this weekend. But I never expected them to look this bad. With the exception of James Shields’ start on Wednesday, this team seems to have lost their identity entirely.

Yesterday was tough. Not only did the Royals lose, but the Tigers and Mariners both won too which toppled us out of the AL Central lead and into a tie with Seattle for the final playoff spot. And Seattle won the season series against us, so we’d have to go there to play a one game playoff to see who got to go play Oakland in the WC matchup…assuming the A’s don’t continue their own miserable collapse.

All that to say, the Royals fell 0.5 game behind the Tigers yesterday (1 full game if we assume we’re going to lose the game we’re already losing 4-2 that we finish in Cleveland next week). We’re in second place for the first time in 31 days. It’s been a month since we were chasing the Tigers. We’ve caught them twice already – once in June and once in August – and we’re going to have to catch them a third time if we want to avoid the miserable One Game Wild Card Experience.

Lately – actually, the entire season – I’ve found myself playing the role of a stabilizer in conversations I’ve had with other Royals fans in person and on social media. This fan base is so negative, and for good reason. We are fully prepared to have our hearts broken again. I’ve found myself being the one to say things like, “It’s a long long season, and there is so much time to improve,” and, “I still believe this team can win 85-90 games again this year,” and, “It’s amazing to think that the best is yet to come.” You can say that I’ve been overly positive to this point, and that’s possible, but ultimately my goal has been to insert reality into an emotionally scarred and emotionally driven set of fans. And those are all realistic statements, I think.

But last night, for really first time this season, the reality has me very nervous.

The season isn’t long anymore. There are only 16 games left and the magic number is 17. And this team will surely win 85-90 games, but will that be good enough to beat out Oakland and Seattle? And I’m suddenly uncertain as to whether the best is not yet to come. Could it’s already be behind us?

So that’s where I’m coming from this morning. That said, here are a few quick thoughts on the 80-66 Kansas City Royals.

The next 16 games will go 1 of 2 ways.

Last night felt like one giant exhale. This team has been fighting to maintain their spot in first place and has slowly been getting tense. They don’t look comfortable. They look stiff at the plate and they’re playing uncharacteristically awful defense.

After the final pitch last night, it felt like that tenseness left them. Alex Gordon looked relaxed – albeit frustrated – in his post game interview. Yost mentioned that he may need to adjust the lineup, perhaps allowing a bit of flexibility into his managing. In my mind, this team was able to exhale in a way they haven’t been able to before. They’re not holding tightly to first place anymore. They’re in a different place – specifically, second.

In my mind, that exhaling has two possible outcomes over the next 16 games. That exhale may have meant they’ve given up. They fell out of first and they’re done. A couple days ago, Hosmer mentioned, “We can’t fold. We’ve come too far to fold.” Fans responded, “Well, that is exactly what a folder would say.” It’s possible that the movement from first to second place means they’ve admitted the gig is up and they’re going to fold.

Or, the exhale allows them to loosen up and play the game the way they’ve played it for 146 (and a half) games to this point. Have they been too fearful of staying ahead of Detroit that they’ve been a detriment to themselves? Maybe they’ll be able to make some adjustments – mental adjustments and lineup adjustments – that can propel them forward over the last 16 (or more) games.

I get the feeling that it will be the latter. The question will be whether they tighten back up again once they regain the lead and potentially make the playoffs. Don’t play like you have a lead. Play your style of baseball one game at a time. Loosen up, boys.

Yost might adjust the lineup.

I’m so tired of Lorenzo Cain batting at the bottom of the lineup. Sure, he’s my favorite player on this team. We should probably all know this by now. If not, there you have it.

But it’s just insanity. LoCain has led the team in batting average all season. He has the second highest OPS behind Alex Gordon. On the other hand, Omar Infante is dead last among the 9 daily position players in OPS. As I posted to Twitter yesterday, why would you want a guy batting .254/.290/.344 in the 2 slot while there’s a guy batting .299/.335/.410 in the 8 slot? Beyond that, Infante will get around 100 more at bats than Cain over this whole season – why wouldn’t you want the better of the two hitters (and better base stealer) to get the most ABs?

So at minimum, Lorenzo needs to move up and Infante need to move down. If it were me, I’d just swap their spots in the lineup.

The other thing that I wouldn’t mind seeing is Billy Butler back at first base for a game or two. File that under “Things I Never Thought I’d Say in My Lifetime.” Some people have blasted Hosmer’s defense lately and have begged Yost to put Billy back out there because they think he’s the better defender. That’s absurd. Billy wouldn’t have made those near-diving stops that Hosmer couldn’t quite make either.

I’d like to get Billy back out on defense because – as odd as it seems – something was unlocked in him when he started playing both sides of the ball. Billy Butler the First Baseman batted .284/.344/.468 between July 21 and August 31 while Hosmer was injured. Before he moved to 1B, he batted .269/.320/.348, and since Hosmer has returned, Billy has hit .059/.059/.118. Something happens in Billy Butler offensively when he enters the game on both sides of the ball.

So I wonder…can we either let Hosmer DH or have him come in off the bench late in the game as a pinch hitter and for defensive purposes? Even though he jacked one last night, it’s not like he’s a must-have in the lineup at this point. Especially considering how well the Royals played without him in July/August.

If I was making a lineup, this is what it would look like…

Aoki RF*
Cain CF
Gordon LF*
Butler 1B
Hosmer DH*/Willingham DH
Perez C
Moustakas 3B*
Infante 2B
Escobar SS

The * denotes a left-handed batter. It maintains the L-R-L-R lineup, and puts them in a better position overall.

The question mark here is how Josh Willingham fits into the picture. If he’s healthy, which apparently he’s not 100% right now, I’d start him in the DH spot over Hosmer and maybe flip flop a couple guys to maintain the L-R-L-R. Maybe Billy jumps back to DH occasionally, but he’s proven to be a much better hitter as a first baseman.

It’s complicated and layered and obviously dependent on pitching matchups and health, but I’d love to see this used as a base lineup.

Finnegan, Frasor and Holland.

If there’s a brightside to the game from last night, it’s that Greg Holland threw an inning and struck out the side. His velocity was down a few MPH – hovering around 93-95 rather than 95-97 – but his slider was gorgeous. I get the vibe that the training staff didn’t want him to fully uncork his fastball. At least I hope that’s what the deal was.

Regardless, it was great to see Dirty Greg in the game.

Another positive development over this not-so-great stretch of games is that two of the “other” half of the bullpen – the non-Trifecta guys – have emerged as being able to hold things down in a close game: Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan.

Finnegan has now pitched to 8 batters and has retired all of them. Three of them strikeouts. He made his debut against the Yankees in the Bronx and was stellar. Some of the names he has faced and retired: Derek Jeter, Carlos Beltran, David Ortiz, Yoenis Cespedes, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mark Texiera, and Martin Prado. Also John Ryan Murphy. (Who?) Finnegan can suddenly be a very valuable lefty in this bullpen.

Jason Frasor has established himself as a better-than-Crow option. Especially with Holland’s lingering shoulder issues, moving back Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis to the 8th and 9th innings and slotting in Frasor in the 7th feels very comfortable to me.

A few weeks ago, I was getting really nervous about the rest of the bullpen. Today, not so much. Bueno is good enough. Crow is good enough. As long as we don’t see Scott Downs, I’m feeling good about things.

Please, please, please, can we have some plate discipline?

This team’s lack of plate discipline is infuriating. I understand that we are putting the ball in play, which is better than striking out, but the Royals are dead last in the MLB in walks and it’s not even close: 335 in 5474 plate appearances. That’s 6.1%. Compare that to the Athletics’ 9.2%. It’s just maddening how this team can’t be patient at the plate.

Gordon leads the team with 58 walks, but even that is sort a skewed figure because teams are pitching around Gordon to pitch to the rest of the team. Gordon has 13 walks since August 24. Why? Because Billy Butler (or Salvy) is coming up next and he’s batting .156 over that same stretch. Why pitch to Gordon when Butler is an automatic out?

Next on the list: Nori Aoki (39) and Billy (38) which ranks them 105th and 112th in the league in walks. Then Moustakas (31). The rest of the everyday players haven’t cracked 30. Which simply isn’t acceptable.

Surprisingly, Salvador Perez is the worst of the bunch. He swings at everything. Everything. A few days ago, he saw 12 total pitches for the whole game. That in itself is startling. But he swung at 10 of them, and only 1 of them was a ball.

But it’s a team wide issue. Last night, the Royals 1 through 6 hitters saw a total of 15 pitches between the 5th and 6th innings. Allen Webster (who?), on his third trip through the lineup, only had to throw 15 pitches against Aoki, Infante, Gordon, Butler, Hosmer and Perez. They only saw 50 pitches between the 5th and 9th innings! That’s over half the game!

Somehow, there needs to be a way for them to balance their put-the-ball-in-play-and-don’t-strikeout philosophy with a be-patient-up-there-for-a-change philosophy. They’re making it too easy on opposing pitchers, especially ones like Allen Webster who we should absolutely light up. Also, considering our bullpen advantage, wouldn’t we want to get the games to the bullpen faster for both teams? No wonder Detroit’s bullpen has found success against the Royals. We haven’t had to face them as much and when we do, they don’t have to throw as many pitches to get out of the innings.

All that to say. Take some pitches. I’m looking at you, Sal.

Skipping Guthrie’s next start? Yes, please.

I was looking ahead at our remaining schedule last night after the game. We have one off day on September 18. Conveniently, the 19th would be Jeremy Guthrie’s next start following tonight. At this point, he is without a question our worst starter (assuming Duffy returns on Tuesday), so I propose that the Royals skip his next start and move right on to Vargas on the 19th instead.

The second benefit of doing this is that it would line up Vargas and Shields to throw in a tiebreaker or Wild Card matchup if necessary. If the Royals don’t skip Guthrie, then he would be lined up for Game 163 if necessary. Which is absolutely not okay. If the royals season comes down to one game, Guthrie is not who we want on the mound.

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That’s all I’ve got for today. Let’s go get some runs for Guthrie tonight and turn this slump around.

-apc.

Photo cred: Peter G. Aiken, USA TODAY Sports

The Royals are 79-64: Stop Blaming Ned Yost.

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What’s with y’all hating on Ned Yost?

It’s as if some of us aren’t even aware there’s a 40-man roster full of options available to be the object of our blame. It’s all #Yosted, all the time.

Maybe somewhere in the Tony-Tony- Buddy-Trey era, we all grew accustomed to miserable managers in Kansas City. Maybe my Royals fandom has blinded me to reality. Or maybe I’m just a dummy when it comes to managing in baseball.

But from where I’m sitting, the Royals are in first place, and Ned Yost is doing a fine job managing this team.

The more I interact with fans in person and online – both locally and across the nation – the more I realize there are certain “fans” out there who – no matter the year, the record, or the men in the dugout – will always, always, hate the manager.

If you aren’t tracking with the type of “fan” I’m talking about, you might want to check the mirror.

Reminds me of that brilliant Michael Caine line from Dark Knight after he tells the ominous story involving Burma, a bandit and a ruby the size of a tangerine:

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

When Jeremy Guthrie got lit up for I-forget-how-many runs in 2.2 innings on Monday, there was a segment of fans who immediately jumped on Twitter to blame Ned Yost for leaving him in too long. They ignore the errors by Hosmer and the lazy throw by Infante and the unfortunate BABIP* luck the Tigers had rolling that game and they hunt for something to blame the manager about. And I’m sorry, too long!? Since when is 8 outs too long? Besides, if Hosmer and Infante make those plays, it’s possible the Royals were out of the third with no damage. Why is it far fetched to believe that Guthrie could still work his way out of it?

* – BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) measures the percentage of in-play balls are hits vs outs. It’s partially a “how lucky did they get with their contact” metric.

No. The blame is on Guthrie and Hosmer and kind of Infante. Not Ned Yost.

Also, God forbid we give credit to the Tigers when it is due.

Then last night, when Jarrod Dyson got picked off second base for the 2nd out in the 9th, that same segment of the fanbase decided to hop right back on the #Yosted Express. Which I flat out don’t understand based on the inning I saw.*

* – I should mention that the 9th was the only inning I saw. I know nothing of the Rajai Davis HR or the J.D. Martinez HR. I don’t even know how we got the two runs we did. We had our youth ministry kickoff event yesterday so I was busy having a shaving cream fight with a bunch of teenagers. Sometimes life serving Jesus really isn’t as difficult as we make it out to be.

The score was Tigers 4, Royals 2. With no outs, Nori Aoki and Infante had nearly identical hits off Tigers closer Joe Nathan: slappers to the shortstop that they both beat out for infield singles. Infante, representing the tying run, was pulled for speedster Terrance Gore with Alex Gordon coming to the plate. A smart move from Yost.

Alex got up 2-0, then hit an ultra high foul ball a country mile barely out of play. It was the best pitch Alex saw probably. The next pitch, Nathan missed his spot – catcher was lined up low and inside, but his pitch was 18 inches to the right, accidentally painting the outside corner instead. Alex took it for a called strike. Then, since he had accidentally thrown the perfect set up pitch, he went back to what he was trying to do originally and threw a nasty breaking ball down and inside. Gordon struck out.

Which meant Salvador Perez was coming up with 1 out. Suddenly the double play is possible, but Yost still likes Salvy’s odds to hit in two runs. But Salvy – who has embarrassingly bad plate discipline these days – chased a breaking ball low and outside. Take a pitch for a change, Perez.

That’s when Yost decided it might be best to get some speed on second instead of Aoki, so he sends Dyson out there to run for him.

I love this move for three reasons:

  1. If the Royals do manage to score, it’s better to have Dyson in the outfield over Aoki for defense. Any good manager would make that switch anyway, why not benefit from Dyson’s wheels in the short term too?
  2. If Dyson and Gore can steal or start a hit-and-run, it eliminates the double play and keeps the game alive.
  3. Joe Nathan is already a complete train wreck out there mentally. Adding Dyson to the mix can only jack with his head more. A closer should never care about baserunners. His job is to mow down hitters, but Nathan was clearly wetting his pants out there worrying about Dyson. Besides, Yost is all about getting in guys’ domes.

Nathan was clearly worried about Dyson. I’m not sure he paid any attention to Salvy at all, which is an added bonus for him at the plate. If Nathan stays worried about Dyson taking third base, then Salvy can just sit back and wait on a fastball. Any breaking ball would only add to Dyson’s chances to steal. I wonder if he had thrown home if Salvy would’ve had the green light when Dyson and Gore took off. A rattled pitcher is not an effective one, and Nathan was noticeably so.

It’s a situation where the entire ballpark knows two things: he’s going, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. All it takes is the right jump and Jarrod’s speed will take him the rest of the way, no problem.

Then the unbelievable happened: Dyson bailed him out. Nathan pulled a slow inside move and Dyson bit on it, breaking for third, immediately realizing his mistake.

In baseball circles, we call that a TOOTBLAN: Thrown-Out-On-The-Bases-Like-A-Nincompoop.

In a 4-2 game with the tying run on first and winning run at the plate, Jarrod Dyson got picked off of second base, and I wish I could say he hasn’t become somewhat of a liability on the bases, but he has. He’s a weapon, for sure, and I love it when they pull the trigger on him – he just doesn’t seem to come with a safety.

You can argue that Yost shouldn’t trust Dyson with such a task based on his recent history, and in retrospect it’s really easy to make that declaration. If you want to rip a managerial decision, fine. But don’t wait until after it fails to point the finger.

How about this nugget: in the last 8 years, 46 baserunners have tried to steal on Joe Nathan, and only 2 of them were caught stealing. No pickoffs either. (Thanks, Rany.) That’s a 95.6% success rate. Suddenly it seems like a no brainer to run, and if Salvy grounds into a double play there to end the game or if Gore goes first to third on a single and can’t score, and we lose 4-3, we’ll all be throwing around the flip side of this convo wondering why Yost didn’t steal against Nathan when it’s so common!

As I tweeted the moment Dyson got picked off, no one ought to be blaming Ned Yost for that pickoff. The fault is Dyson’s alone. From my perspective, Ned played it exactly right in the 9th, and Dyson crapped the bed.

Sal struck out on another ball a foot low and outside to end the game. Just like that the threat was over.

And wouldn’t you know it, but the world is all over Ned Yost again for getting cute trying to do more than was necessary to get runs across.

To which I have to ask…have you seen the 2014 Royals?! Their offense is atrocious, yet they are one of the most efficient teams in baseball when it comes to getting baserunners across. It’s different every game – sometimes it’s a stolen base, or a hit-and-run, infield hits galore or a sacrifice – but somehow they have managed to manufacture runs when they’re needed.

The Royals are where they are right now because of moved exactly like the one last night.

The manager can only do so much. It’s up to the players to execute, and Jarrod Dyson failed to execute his role last night.

Has Ned Yost made mistakes? Absolutely. He’s fortunate to have the Triforce at his disposal because I don’t think he knows what he’s doing with anyone not named Herrera, Davis or Holland. Crow instead of Frazor. Scott Downs over anybody with at least one functional arm. There are times when he starts Raul Ibanez over Billy Butler and Josh Willlingham in the DH spot.

When he makes a legitimately bonehead move, I’m happy to pounce on him with the rest of you. I’m not above dropping a #Yosted when the situation calls for it. He makes mistakes; all managers do.

But when the Royals make the playoffs and Ned Yost wins AL Manager of the Year (which he will if they do), I don’t want to hear people saying he doesn’t deserve it. If you’re in that camp, I feel sorry for you.

Maybe a trip to the playoffs is just what we all need to remind us that it’s entirely possible for a Royals manager to be capable of leading this team to success.

And if that happens, I’m sure there will still be some ready to burn Kauffman to the ground at the next hiccup – when we lose in the ALDS/ALCS, likely – because these are “fans” who are more in love with hating the manager than in love with the Royals themselves.

Blame Ned all you want, but he deserves much better. And so do the 2014 Kansas City Royals.

-apc.

Photo came from the fellas over at Kings of Kauffman. Couldn’t find the original source, but I’m betting it’s The Star.

The Royals are 79-62. So let’s talk completely in hypotheticals about the final 3 weeks of the season.

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The Royals’ Magic Number is 19.

The Royals went into New York this weekend and made it very clear who the better team is without the offense doing anything to help out. The pitching was lights out – as usual* – it was the defense that was the difference in both wins. Yankees made 4 errors over the weekend and all three Royals runs in their two wins were unearned.

Over three games NY outscored them 6-5, yet KC won the series.

* – Side note: I’m becoming aware of the fact that I’m taking the Royals defense and pitching for granted. Whenever I watch another team play, it’s startling and embarrassing to watch at times. Most Royals fans haven’t experienced that feeling…ever.

On Friday, Big Game James Shields was absolutely dominant going 8.1 innings of shut out ball, with only 3 hits against him. He struck out 6. Michael Pineda was impressive himself even without any pine tar on his neck.

The only run in the game came in the 3rd when Alcides Escobar took second base on a Chase Headley fielding error. Nori Aoki singled him in on the next at bat. Wade Davis got his first career save with an ailing Greg Holland. Royals win 1-0.

As I said in my last Royals-related post, I think Danny Duffy is the ace of the future for this team (okay, along with Yordano Ventura), so it hurts to see him go down with shoulder soreness. He threw one pitch and that was it. He never looked comfortable warming up – he kept shaking out his arm after every toss – and Salvador Perez knew immediately that he wasn’t good to go.

Let’s hope Duffman only misses 1 start. I don’t want to see Guthrie pitching in the playoffs. Shields, Vargas, Duffy and Yordano is the rotation we want.

Liam Hendriks came in and pitched…just not well enough. He went 4 innings and gave up 4 runs (3 earned) on 7 hits. Casey Coleman gave up two more runs. The Yankees won 6-2 on what turned into a throw away game after Duffy left.

The bright side from Saturday: rookie Brandon Finnegan looked terrific in his MLB debut. Six batters up, six batters down. We haven’t seen the end of him.

Then Sunday, Yordano Ventura looked as good as ever: 6 innings, 0 runs, 3 hits. He continues to have short lapses of focus and will occasionally walk some guys. It’s strange – he’ll look totally dominant, and then throw 4 straight balls that aren’t even close. Probably just a product of being young.

The Royals’ offense continued to do next to nothing, 2 runs on 7 hits, but with this pitching staff/bullpen it was all they needed. Crow and Herrera both threw scoreless innings and Davis got his second career save.

They also spoiled Derek Jeter Day at Yankee Stadium, which no one really feels bad about, right?

Which makes the Royals 79-62. The Tigers won Sunday night, so the lead in the AL Central is 2 games. Royals are a .5 game behind Oakland for the top Wild Card spot, and 1.5 games up on the Mariners in the second WC spot.

ESPN has the Royals playoff odds at 83.4%. Fangraphs has them at 76.1%.

So let’s quickly project out the final 3 weeks of the season – 6 series – and see what we need to do. I’m going to lean heavily on the “but what if we stink” side of the convo. Our remaining schedule…

Sept 8-10: @DET
Sept 11-14: BOS
Sept 15-17: CWS
Sept 19-21: DET
Sept 22-24: @CLE
Sept 25-28: @CWS

The two series against the Tigers are the most important. In my mind, if we take 4 of those 6 games, the rest of them hardly matter. That would put us 3.5 games up. But for the sake of this, let’s say we go 2-4 in those games.

Sept 8-10: @DET (1-2)
Sept 11-14: BOS
Sept 15-17: CWS
Sept 19-21: DET (1-2)
Sept 22-24: @CLE
Sept 25-28: @CWS

Now let’s look at the two CWS series. Assuming we hit Chris Sale in both series (9/15 and 9/26 by my count), the only other pitcher our guys could struggle with is Jose Quintana, who we’ll face twice too. Let’s say we lose both Sale games, one against Quintana, and one randomly against Danks/Carroll/Noesi.

Sept 8-10: @DET (1-2)
Sept 11-14: BOS
Sept 15-17: CWS (1-2)
Sept 19-21: DET (1-2)
Sept 22-24: @CLE
Sept 25-28: @CWS (2-2)

The Red Sox series actually worries me. I don’t want any reminders of that Fenway series after the All-Star Break. In that series, we faced Buchholz, De La Rosa and Lester; thankfully, Lester plays for the Athletics now so that offsets the fact that we had to face him twice with Oakland at least somewhat. By my count, we’ll face the other two next weekend in KC. Plus we apparently stink at home in sold out games, which those will be. Let’s say we lose both of those and win one of the other two against “TBA”…

Sept 8-10: @DET (1-2)
Sept 11-14: BOS (1-3)
Sept 15-17: CWS (1-2)
Sept 19-21: DET (1-2)
Sept 22-24: @CLE
Sept 25-28: @CWS (2-2)

At this point, I’ve been super negative on our odds, so let’s say we win 2 of the 3 actual games against the Indians. The fourth game is the make-up from the other day. We are already down and will likely lose that one.

Sept 8-10: @DET (1-2)
Sept 11-14: BOS (1-3)
Sept 15-17: CWS (1-2)
Sept 19-21: DET (1-2)
Sept 22-24: @CLE (2-2)
Sept 25-28: @CWS (2-2)

So, worst case scenario (realistically) puts us at 8-13 the rest of the way, which means we end the season 87-75.

As of this post, Fangraphs lists the following projected wins for the A’s, Tigers and Mariners…

Oakland: 91.7
Detroit: 88.7
Seattle: 88.5

…so in a realistic worst case scenario, we would miss the playoffs by 1.5 games, and the division by 1.6. Highlights the importance of these games against Detroit. Going 3-3 the rest of the way puts us in a great position, but 4-2 against the Tigers all but seals up the division. We’ll look at that in a minute.

All that to say, 10 more wins should do it. That would put us at 89-73 and above the projected finish of both SEA and DET. With the caveat that at least 3 of those wins probably need to be against the Tigers.

Of course, that’s not what I think will happen. I see this being a 91-win team at the end of it. The weekend home series are the scariest based on our recent history in such games. I actually think we will win 2 of 3 in Detroit this week and 3 of 4 in Chicago to end the season. Going .500 over the rest of them would mean 12-9, or a 91-71 season.

The question, for me, is when will we clench?

Our magic number is currently 19, so any combination of Royals wins and Tigers losses that add up to 19 clenches it for us. If we take 2 of 3 this week, that makes the number 15.

If both teams go .500 between meetings (DET 3-3, KC 4-3) that would put our number at 8. If we win 1 of 3 at home against Detroit: 6. If we win 2 of 3: our magic number would be 4.

Which means the clencher will likely happen sometime +/- a day or two around September 26 in Chicago. Coming down to the wire. The season ends on the 28th, so we don’t have much wiggle room.

I’m going to be in Cleveland on the last game if that series on September 24. Watching the Royals win the division in person would be a dream come true, but I think I’ll miss it by a couple days.

But if we win the two series against Detroit, there’s a borderline decent chance I’ll get to see the Royals clench in Cleveland. If the split, it’ll be that weekend in Chicago.

And if we lose the next two series to Detroit………actually, I don’t want to talk about that right now.

-apc.

Photo: John Sleezer, KC Star. Original.

Game 24: Target Field, Minnesota

Did you know Ted Williams played ball in Minnesota?

I didn’t until this past week when @Baseball_Photos tweeted this picture on Monday evening. I would’ve found out sooner or later, I suppose; I have The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams sitting on my bookshelf, waiting to be read. This rotten seminary reading keeps getting in the way. (Just kidding. I love it…occasionally.)

ted-williams-millers-rare-photo1At age 19, Ted Williams (right) spent the entire 1938 season playing for the Minneapolis Millers, the Boston Red Sox AA affiliate. In his year in Minnesota, he hit .366 and slugged .701. As the youngest guy on the team, led the team in every offensive statistical category: games played (148) hits (193), doubles (30), triples (9), homers (43), and at 6′ 3″, 205 lbs, he led the team in those categories as well.

Willie Mays (35 games in 1951) and Carl Yastrzemski (1960) spent time in in a Millers uniform before their pro debut as well. The Millers have their roots as far back as 1885 as a part of the Western League.

On the other side of the Mississippi were their rivals: the St. Paul Saints.

The Saints arrived in St. Paul in 1894 when Charles Comiskey bought the team and moved them over from Souix City, Iowa. They joined the Western League as well and the Minneapolis/St. Paul rivalry was established. But following the 1899 season, Comiskey’s club joined the newly formed American League, and moved the club away to become – you guessed it – the Chicago White Sox.

In 1902, both the Millers and Saints became charter members of the minor league American Association. By the late 30’s the Saints would become affiliates for the White Sox and later the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. Roy Campanella, Lefty Gomez and Don Zimmer were a few of the players to come through St. Paul during those years.

The East-West rivalry between the two ball clubs ran for 59 years between 1902 and 1960. Both teams won multiple league championships. In fact, Minneapolis and St. Paul had the two highest overall winning percentages over that 59 year span:

The played 22 games against one another every season. Sometimes on major summer holidays – Labor Day and Fourth of July, for example – the teams would play home and away doubleheaders. They would play in the morning at one ballpark, and then the fans and players would travel by streetcar to the other side of the river for an afternoon game in the other team’s park.

As expected, the two cities grew to hate one another. Violence would break out in the cities following these ballgames (1923 was apparently the worst of the brawls) The cities kept trying to 1-Up one anthers buildings. In fact, in the 1950s, both cities built brand new ballparks – separately – in hopes of reeling in a Major League team. There are even rumors that they would kidnap census takers so that the other city wouldn’t overtake the  other in population.

In 1960, both the Saints* and the Millers packed up and left town. The Millers became the Seattle Rainiers, and the Saints became the Omaha Dodgers.

* – The Saints returned to St. Paul in 1993 and are there today as a part of an independent league. They’re owned by Mike Veeck (son of Bill Veeck) and BILL MURRAY!!!!!

Why the moves? Because the MLB had just awarded the area with their first Major League ball club: the Washington Senators were moving from D.C. to become the Minnesota Twins.

Technically, it was the Millers who had reeled in the big tuna. The team settled on the Minneapolis side, but without the Saints, St. Paul was going to have to root from across the river. And by the late 1960s, significant healing had taken place between the two.

The team name itself was an intentional move to unite the two groups. It isn’t the “Minneapolis Twins,” but the “Minnesota Twins” – in fact, they wanted to call them the Twin City Twins, but that was too repetitive so they included the whole state. They commissioned a freelance illustrator from St. Paul named Ray Barton to create the team logo for which he got paid a whopping $15.

Target-Field-St-Paul-Minnie-HandsToday, that logo is featured prominently at Target Field. In straight away center field, a giant state of Minnesota borders two goofy looking men and a river with a bridge over it. The men are both wearing baseball uniforms – one with an “M” on the sleeve and one with an “S” and a “P” and a “T” on the chest – and they’re reaching across the river and shaking hands. They’re the real Twins – Minnie and Paul – the two cities united together by this new team.

Now, I’m not going to act like the arrival of Major League Baseball has completely reconciled the ill will on both sides of the Mississippi. There is still significant social segregation. There are strong tribal identities as well. But the arrival of the Twins truly united a previously hostile relationship. Regardless which side of the Mississippi someone lives on, they can come together and cheer for their Minnesota Twins.

The entire Twins franchise is founded on principles of reconciliation and hospitality to one another. How about that? I think I’ll center on that for my book. I’ve already got a good start here.

Baseball. Bringing people together. Cities, even.

Okay. Moving on. Let’s talk about Target Field.

IMG_9344It was built in 2010, and is basically perfect. It features tons of sandstone: the exterior, the section faces inside the park, even the top of the dugouts. It has oversized statues of five Twins greats at each of the gates to the park. Harmon Killebrew extends his gorgeous swing in front of Gate 3. Kirby Pucket celebrates his 1991 World Series walk off HR in front of Gate 34. Kent Hrbek stands outside of Gate 14. Rod Carew has his bat cocked awkwardly outside Gate 29. And Tony Oliva swings outside Gate 6.

Gates 3, 6, 14, 29 and 34? Weird. Those are all retired Twins numbers. Hmm.

“Wait, what about Bert Blyleven?! Where’s his statue? His number is retired too!” His wasn’t retired until 2011, the year after Target Field was built. But his #28 is out beyond left field with the others. (Circle me, Bert!)

The final retired number: 10, worn by Tom Kelly who – despite his overall poor winning percentage (1140-1244, .485) – managed the Twins to World Series championships twice (’87 & ’91) in his 16 years with the team (1986-2001).

There’s a giant Gold Glove outside the park as well. Fans get to climb up on to it and get their picture taken. There’s plaque of all the past Twins Gold Glove winners with it.

The Twins haven’t had many Gold Glovers, but the ones they have won it a bunch. They have 41 total GGs over their 53 years as a franchise, 30 of which are from 5 guys: Jim Kaat (won 11 GGs with the Twins), Torii Hunter (7), Kirby Puckett (5), Gary Gaetti (4), and Joe Mauer (3).

Target Field seats 42,000, but it feels like way less. The ballpark feels very intimate. The lower sections extend much further back than the upper decks, which are basically just stacked on top of each other up high and very shallow. I heard that the ballpark was constructed within 4 city blocks, a 2-by-2 square, so everything feels squeezed in on top of the action. Not in a bad way at all, but in a comfortably communal way.

That Minnie & Paul logo in centerfield is awesome too. It does all sorts of light up dancing moves when the Twins do different things on the field. It goes bizerk when they hit a homer. a line traces the MN border when a run is scored. It blinks when the pitchers strike someone out or throw a scoreless frame too.

And when the Twins win – as they did on Wednesday night when I was there – the T and the S blink off and on so it flashes TWINS, WIN, TWINS, WIN.*

* – Ever noticed how the letters W-I-N are the only letters underlined in the Twins logo? So subtle. So brilliant.

I went to the game with my friends Jourdan and Jeff. Jourdan interned for me at Jacob’s Well a couple years ago, and Jeff, her husband, is a pastor at a church called Mosaic in East St. Paul. The mission for their church centers on hospitality: Stranger, Guest, Host. Extending themselves out of the church and into the community around them. I’m sensing a theme here.

I want to write something about lakes and mosquitos and snow somewhere in here too, but I’ve already spent too much time on this post. Time to get to the game wrap.

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Game Notes:

The Twins were playing the White Sox, and John Danks got spanked. As I wrote in my pre-trip post on Tuesday, the Twins have historically owned Danks – Joe Mauer especially. In fact, basically everyone but Kurt Suzuki bats really well off the Sox lefty, which would explain why Suzuki sat out that night.

The Twins lit Danks up, as expected, for 7 runs on 11 hits in 4.2 innings. The guy was absolute meat and the Twins hit the ball hard all night. The bullpen wasn’t much better for the rest of the game either. Overall: Twins scored 11 runs on 19 hits which meant Twins fans saved 19 cents per gallon at SuperAmerica gas stations on Thursday. Sweet.

Eduardo Nunez went 4-6 and was a HR short of the cycle. Kennys Vargas hit a 429 ft bomb to LF. The other Eduardo (Escobar) went 3-4 with a triple and a walk. Minnesota batted around in the 5th inning – the inning that chased Danks from the game – and my scoresheet ended up looking all messy and gross.

Of course, that could’ve also been because of the rain that kept rolling in and out. It caused one short rain delay at one point lasting maybe 15 minutes. I continue to have really good luck when it comes to weather on this Ballpark Tour.

Trevor May got his first career win. Previously he was 0-4 in as many starts with an ERA over 10. He was working great through three innings but started laboring a bit in the fourth and fifth. He gave up 3 runs in 5 innings, but after the Twins batted around, those runs pretty much didn’t matter anymore. Twins win. 11-4. That logo was extremely busy.

Twenty-four down. Six to go.

Up Next: Tampa Bay Rays.

-apc.

The Royals are 73-58. Some thoughts on last night’s unbelievable game.

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Unbelievable game last night. Just unbelievable.

For 8 innings, the Royals could do absolutely nothing agains Ricky Nolasco and the Twins. Three singles through eight innings. The pitiful, underachieving offense seemed back.

Danny Duffy had left the game angrily after 6.2 innings of 4 hit, 1 run baseball, and could be seen shouting into his jersey in the dugout. Another gem spun by Duffman only to get zero run support. Again.

And then, just like that, the game was completely different.

Alcides Escobar, number-two-hitter-extraordinaire, led off with a weak pop fly that fell in for a single. Then Alex Gordon – an actual MVP candidate these days – took a 0-1 slider over the right field fence.

Royals walkoff, 2-1. They remain 1.5 games up on Detroit in the AL Central. Their magic number is 31.

Lots of takeaways from the game last night. Here are a few…

Alex Gordon is an absolute star.

We have a legitimate MVP candidate in left field. Mike Trout is his only competition – and he’ll probably win it still – but it needs to be stated that Kansas City has one of the best in the league playing in front of them day after day.

And I don’t think we even realize it. We are so used to snoozefest warm bodies filling in the lineup I think we miss the reality in front of our eyes. We are so used to seeing Ken Harvey and Neifi Perez and Dee Brown out there that it’s almost hard to notice that there’s a star out in LF.

Number 4 will join 5, 10 and 20 above the Royals Hall of Fame soon enough, and I think last night just woke up this fan base to the reality that Alex Gordon is a star.

Danny Duffy is the Royals ace of the future.

At the beginning of the season, we were all obsessed with Yordano “Ace” Ventura. And I still kinda am. He’s the sexy pick for the future Royals ace.

Last night’s game showed me that while Yordano Days are going to be just as exciting in the future, the true #1 on this team is eventually going to be Danny Duffy.

Duffy’s year has reminded me a lot of Zack Greinke’s 2009 Cy Young campaign. Gem after gem after gem, and absolutely no run support from the offense. They’re similar guys too. Emotional guys. Both stepped away from the game for a time. They even kinda look alike.

On August 24 of Greinke’s 2009 campaign, he had a 2.44 ERA with a record of just 11-14.

On August 27 of Danny’s 2014 season, he has a 2.47 ERA, yet is just 8-11.

We’ve spent a lot of this season worrying about how we’ll ever manage to survive after James Shields is gone this winter. With Duffy, we’ll be just fine.

The Royals defense remains insane.

Escobar might have made the new best play of the season. Ball in the hole. He picked it to his right, leapt in the air and threw hard across his body to first.

And Billy “suddenly playing both sides of baseball well” Butler made the pick look easy at first. Billy also had a great grab on a pop up in foul territory up against the stands. He made the catch, and then tripped and rolled over a sliding Christian Colon. Great play, albeit kinda awkward still.

Growing up, I was always a defense-first player. I was a pitcher and a shortstop and had zero power. I’ve never hit a homerun in my life, but I’ve thrown a lot of strikeouts and fielded a lot of grounders and turned a bunch of double plays. Those are what get me excited because I know what it feels like.

So to see this team field the best defense in the AL for the second consecutive year is a dream. I love it, and it remained insanely awesome last night.

Denny Matthews is Marty McFly.

How did he do that?! If you haven’t heard his call after Gordon’s walkoff jack, here’s the link: http://ow.ly/ALdXo.

“If this is your year – and a lot of signs for the Royals point in that direction – then these are the games that you win.”

Sure enough, right on queue, Gordon does his thing and makes Denny look like Nostradamus.

Nostra-Denny.

It’s like he has Marty McFly’s Sports Almanac from Back to the Future II. It’s sometimes like he knows what’s going to happen. If Denny picks the Cubs to win the a World Series next year, then something is up.

I truly love listening to Denny Matthews talk about baseball. He’s a genius. Few people know more about the game than Denny does. He has brilliant insights, and I’m amazed by his intelligence.

Denny Matthews is also George McFly.

This is maybe a stretch trying to make the BTTF connection, but as brilliant as Denny Matthews is, his calls are exceptionally boring.

Denny’s call on Gordon’s homerun was as bland as they come.

I mean, c’mon, Denny. One of the most exciting moments in the last 28 years of Royals history. Arguably the biggest moment since 1985. Yet somehow he acts like it was the most pedestrian event ever. Zero emotion. No passion. Completely straight faced and flat.

This has always bugged me about Denny. He doesn’t get me to feel anything at all. Toss in some drama, please! I get that he’s a no-flares announcer, but I want to be able connect with his call as a fan – not a know-it-all emotionless robot.

Again, I love listening to Denny talk baseball. Brilliant. I’m just asking for a little energy. Any energy, actually.

Finally, some thoughts about Ned Yost’s post game comments about the fans.

Woke up this morning excited to read the local headlines and national articles on the Royals’ night, but was so disappointed when I saw Ned’s postgame comments about the fans.

The media has painted Yost as “ripping” and “dumping on” the fans. He wished there were more people there to celebrate with the team. He talked about how he thought there would be more people. It was packed Monday against the Yankees, and he remembers how it was in Atlanta in 1991 when they were in a pennant race. He thought it would be bigger.

I have no issue with his plea to the fans to get out to The K. He just wants to share in the fun.

But you can’t compare our fans to other franchises’. It’s not fair and we take it personally.

The Royals have done the fans no favors over the past 28 years. We are a wounded group, and we have every right to take it personally when you talk even remotely bad about us.

I don’t think it was Ned’s intention, but when he says he “remembers how it was in Atlanta,” Royals fans hear, “Braves fans are better than us.” And yes, it was packed out there on Monday, sure, but there were arguably more Yankees fans than Royals fans. So we also hear that “Yankees fans are better fans than us too.”

Yet this is the same team that had “Let’s go, Royals!” chants going in Colorado and Texas last week! It hurts to hear that we aren’t the best fans.

But at the end of it, we are simply a fan base that doesn’t know what to do with first place baseball in August. We have plans on weeknights. We have lives. We have normally moved on to the Chiefs and the new school year by now. We don’t naturally program Royals Baseball into our lives at this point of the year.

So I guess my two thoughts about Ned’s comments are…First, we take it personally when we’re compared to other fans. Second, it’s because we’ve spent the last 28 years living in a miserable narrative.

All that to say, these are exciting times. If we maintain first place, the attendance will slowly creep up. This Labor Day weekend will be huge. Games against Detroit will sell out. And the closer we get to the postseason, the more people will show up. But a Tuesday night against the Twins isn’t going to change how we’ve grown to experience this team.

Last night was incredible. And it’s only late August. Things are only going to get more exciting. It’s amazing to think that the best is yet to come. For the first time in my life, Royals Baseball is back in KC, and I’m still learning how to orient myself to this new lifestyle.

Go Royals.

-apc.