Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Picking The 25.

So after all the hand-wringing in September, after all the panic, after going 11-17 for the Royals’ first losing month since July of 2014, the Royals finish the season in the same way they began the month: with the best record in the American League, with the #1 seed, and with home-field advantage in every round. They jettisoned their Achilles’ heel, which was apparently located in Greg Holland’s right elbow. They got Alex Gordon back, completing one of the best offenses (relative to the league) that the Royals have ever had. And they finished the season on a five-game winning streak, meaning that over the last two years, the Royals have now won 13 consecutive games played between September 30th and October 20th.

All in all, not a terrible way to end the season. If you believe that momentum carries over into the playoffs, then the Royals’ five-game winning streak means you can put their losing September in the rear-view mirror. If, like me, you don’t, then you can put your faith in the fact that the Royals won more games over the course of the entire season than any other AL team. (And given that the AL once again pummeled the NL head-to-head, the Royals’ 95 wins are probably more meaningful than the Cardinals’ 100.)

But the reality is this: the playoffs are a crapshoot. Last year the 89-win Royals beat the 98-win Angels and 96-win Orioles before losing to the 88-win Giants. If this year, the 95-win Royals fall to the 87-win Yankees or 86-win Astros, well, we can’t say that we didn’t have it coming. One silver lining from last year is that even if the Royals do fall flat on their face this October, no one can claim that this collection of players underachieved. They accomplished last year what you would expect this year’s team to do; if this year’s team earns the fate that you would have expected from last year’s team, they’re even.

And if this year’s team accomplishes what this year’s team is expected to do…well, Kansas City is lovely in late October. I learned that first-hand last year. (Although early November – Game 7 would be played on November 4th – would be a new experience.)

Enough foreplay. Let’s try to figure out the ideal roster.

Start with the ideal hitter/pitcher breakdown. At this point, it would be stunning if the Royals don’t go with a 14/11 split. It’s impossible to justify a 13/12 split, because you don’t need a fifth starter, so even with 11 pitchers you still have seven relievers; you’re not dropping a bullpen arm, you’re dropping Jeremy Guthrie. And with two off-days in every series, pretty much every reliever can pitch in pretty much every game. (The only two times in the entire month that a reliever would potentially have to pitch for a third straight day would be Game 5 of the ALCS and Game 5 of the World Series.)

On that basis, you could make a cogent argument for a 15/10 split, carrying just six relievers. I highly doubt that will happen, because the Royals rarely let any reliever throw more than one inning, and if you carry six relievers you’re either carrying six one-inning guys – meaning you could possibly run out of pitchers by the 12th inning – or you’re carrying a long man like Chris Young, in which case you only have five one-inning relievers. I don’t see that happening, particularly because the Royals have so many bullpen options that even whittling it down to six could be difficult.

So let’s assume 14 hitters and 11 pitchers for now. We’ll begin with the pitching staff. Yordano Ventura almost certainly starts Game 1, and Johnny Cueto probably starts Game 2. As if Cueto’s performance the last six weeks hasn’t been frightening enough, in his final regular season start he worked in the 88-91 mph range with his fastball most of the game. No one in the dugout, the front office, or in the broadcaster’s booth seemed the slightest bit concerned, and he did reach back to 93 as the game progressed, and finished off his outing by hitting 94 for the first time with his 100th and final pitch, so maybe he was just resting his arm a bit before the playoffs. That doesn’t explain the ten baserunners in five innings to a makeshift Twins lineup, but at this point I don’t think we have any choice other than to let Cueto take the mound in Game 2 and pray for the best.

Edinson Volquez presumably will start Game 3, and that leaves an interesting choice in Game 4: go with Kris Medlen, who since joining the rotation allowed 26 runs in 44 innings in 8 starts, or go to Chris Young, who had a stellar 3.06 ERA for the season – he was worth 2.6 WAR according to Baseball-Reference, making him the most valuable pitcher on the team other than Wade Davis – and after returning to the rotation at the end of the season, allowed four hits and one run in 11.1 innings?

I suspect they will go with Medlen, in large part because Chris Young is an extreme flyball pitcher, and Game 4 will be a road game, meaning it will be at either Minute Maid Park or at New Yankee Stadium, both of which are places where fly balls turn into cheap home runs. (This is also the case for Globe Life Park in Arlington and at the Rogers Center, making Young a poor choice to start any road game before the World Series.) It is true – if quite surprising – that Young actually had a lower ERA (2.52) on the road this season than at home (3.66). But it’s also true that the Royals did a very good job of spotting Young in ballparks that are tough to hit home runs in. In the two bandboxes (U.S. Cellular and Yankee Stadium) that he started at this year, Young allowed four home runs in 11 innings.

So my suspicion is that Medlen starts Game 4, particularly if the game is at Yankee Stadium, both because of the ballpark and because the Yankees are just crawling with left-handed hitters – counting switch-hitters they might start seven or even eight left-handed hitters in the lineup. Young, who relies on a slider, had a big platoon split this year, although his career splits are pretty standard. But Medlen, who has a very good changeup, actually has allowed a slightly lower OPS for his career vs. LHB (665) than vs. RHB (675). While hitters’ platoon splits generally regress to the mean over the long run, that is not true for pitchers – a pitcher’s platoon split is heavily dependent on his repertoire as well as his arm angle. The Astros are likely to start at least four right-handed bats (Altuve, Correa, Springer, and Gattis), making Young a more viable option against them.

And here’s something else to consider: what if the Royals go into Game 4 down two games to one in the series? And what if Cueto got bombed in Game 2? In that case, would you consider bringing Ventura back on three days’ rest to start Game 4, and then using Young at Kauffman Stadium in Game 5? If playing the Astros, I’d say no – you’re going to have to win with Young either way, so just let him start in Houston in Game 4 and let Ventura go on full rest in Game 5. But if the Royals are playing at Yankee Stadium, and the alternative is letting Medlen or Young pitch on the road in an elimination game…I’m just saying it’s something that has to be considered.

Regardless, Medlen and Young are both on the playoff roster, one as a starter, one as a long man. That leaves room for six relievers. Wade Davis pitches the ninth, and Ryan Madson – not Kelvin Herrera – pitches the eighth. (The Royals seem to agree; they had Herrera setting up for Madson on Thursday when they gave Davis the day off.) Herrera not only may have lost the eighth inning role – he might have ceded the seventh inning to Danny Duffy, who was brilliant in the pen: 8.1 innings, 4 hits, two walks, 12 Ks, no runs. Particularly against the Yankees, Duffy’s ability to shut down left-handed hitters could be one of the keys to the series.

Duffy gives the Royals an option they didn’t have with HDH last year – a left-handed relief weapon, which means that Ned Yost is better off positioning him to pitch when a run of left-handed hitters is coming up rather than pigeonholing him into a specific inning. Hopefully we’ll see Duffy anywhere from the sixth to the eighth, depending on the situation, with Herrera and Madson working around him. The Royals deserve to be applauded for not only moving Duffy to the bullpen when they did, but trying him as a one-inning relief weapon as opposed to a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency long man. I’m really excited to see what a healthy Duffy does as a playoff reliever.

His new role gives the Royals four elite relievers, which means there’s really no reason for any starter to go more than five innings in a game. I mean, if Ventura is blowing smoke and making curveballs disappear, I suppose you can stick with him into the sixth and seventh, and if the old Johnny Cueto magically appears, I’d consider it with him too. But there’s no reason – NO REASON – why Volquez or Medlen or Young should ever see the sixth inning.

That leaves two more roster spots, which clearly go to Luke Hochevar (3.73 ERA, 4.00 FIP) and Franklin Morales (3.18 ERA, 3.52 FIP). Hochevar and Morales are roughly equivalent to Jason Frasor and Brandon Finnegan last year. The difference is, thanks to Duffy, this year they’re the 5th and 6th options in the bullpen, whereas last year Frasor and Finnegan were 4th and 5th. Maybe this bullpen isn’t quite as dominant at the back end, but it’s even deeper than last year’s.

(This is another place where Greg Holland’s injury may be a blessing in disguise. If he were healthy enough to pitch, the Royals would have felt obliged to carry him on the roster, which either would have meant bumping off a better pitcher, or more likely, tempted the Royals to carry 12 pitchers and hobble their bench.)

That leaves us with 14 hitters, and the one real choice the Royals have to make. Eight guys are obvious: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Ben Zobrist, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Kendrys Morales. Drew Butera makes the roster because otherwise if Perez gets hurt all the pitches will roll to the backstop, and that’s not good. Jarrod Dyson will reprise his role as defensive replacement and pinch-runner extraordinaire if he’s not starting. Christian Colon will almost certainly be the utility infielder; he quietly hit .290/.356/.336 in the majors this year – his career line (granted, in just 168 plate appearances) is .303/.361/.382. The only alternative would be Cheslor Cuthbert, who has never played shortstop and has played second base for a grand total of 28 innings as a professional. So that’s not going to happen.

That leaves three roster spots and four options to fill them. Alex Rios is almost certain to get one of them as the starting right fielder. After a five-week hot stretch sandwiched around a bout of chicken pox – Rios hit .382/.387/.584 over a 24-game stretch – he finished the season in a 2-for-29 slump. Still, the Royals are convinced his overall line of .255/.287/.353 isn’t indicative of his ability. He did hit better from September 1st on (.259/.286/.424), and if you want to draw the line all the way back to the All-Star Break, he hit .267/.302/.400 in the second half. Even those numbers aren’t great, and his defense is below average, so I’m still not sure why they stick with him over Jarrod Dyson, at least against right-handed pitchers. But having started 23 of the Royals’ last 25 games after returning from his varicella-induced absence, it would be rather shocking for Rios to suddenly be benched now.

That leaves one of the following three players off the roster: Paulo Orlando, Terrance Gore, and Jonny Gomes. All three have their appeal. Orlando can do a bit of everything: he can pinch-run for you and give you excellent speed on the bases, if not necessarily an excellent base-stealer; he can come in for defense; and if he has to bat, well, his .249/.269/.444 line was better than Rios’ line overall.

Gomes does one thing: he hits left-handed pitchers. This is a highly useful skill. It is not clear whether this skill is still intact, however – Gomes’ slash line against LHP this year was just .221/.371/.412. And even if it is, it’s not clear how the Royals would deploy it.

Gore does one thing: he runs (and steals) the bases. This is not nearly as useful a skill as the ability to hit left-handed pitchers. If he enters the game as a pinch-runner, he almost has to be replaced by the next half-inning. Not only is he not ready to hit in the major leagues, he’s not particularly ready to field in the major leagues.

However, Gore does his one thing basically as well as any player in the major leagues does any one thing. He is the human incarnation of Ludicrous Speed. He is a completely useless waste of a roster spot unless and until a specific moment materializes that requires a man who has a very particular set of skills. And in that moment, there may not be a man on planet Earth more suited for it than Terrance Gore.

Someone has to be left off the roster, and I don’t know who it will be. I don’t know who it should be. Honestly, if I had to choose, I’d say it should be Alex Rios, because I’m not sure there’s anything that Rios does right now any better than Orlando, and Orlando has a substantial defensive advantage on him. (According to Defensive Runs Saved, Orlando was +8 runs in barely 600 innings in the field. Rios was -6 runs in 105 starts in right field.) Between Orlando, Gomes, and Dyson, the Royals could cobble together a pretty good right fielder and still have some options on the bench.

But if you’re going to start Rios, the choice of who to leave off becomes a lot less clear. Do you really need Orlando, who can do lots of things in a pinch but doesn’t do anything well enough to make you want to reach for him in an emergency? Do you really need Gomes to hit against a left-handed pitcher, given that unlike last year – when Josh Willingham pinch-hitting for Moustakas in the ninth inning of the Wild Card game saved the Royals’ season – it’s unlikely you’ll ever pinch-hit for Moustakas, or Gordon, or Hosmer, the three left-handed hitters in your lineup? Do you really need Gore when, by starting Rios, you’ve already got one of the five fastest runners in baseball on the bench in Dyson?

I think the decision is close enough that the best answer is simply “it depends”. It depends on the opponent: if you play the Astros, with Dallas Keuchel and Scott Kazmir and a left field fence that’s just 318 feet down the line, then you probably roster Gomes and maybe even start him in right field at Minute Maid Park when Keuchel takes the mound for Game 3. If you play the Yankees, whose only left-handed starter (C.C. Sabathia) just checked into rehab, it’s hard to see how Gomes will get into a game. It depends on the ground rules: in the World Series, where you need several pinch-hitters to bat for your pitchers in three of the games, Gomes would need to be rostered.

Like I said: the easy solution would be to take Rios off the roster and take your chances with everyone else. The Royals think they know better. Given their track record over the last two years, then, I fully expect Rios to come through with a crucial hit at some point this month. Given all the good hitters in front of him, he certainly won’t lack for opportunities.

The Royals always reserve the right to surprise us – remember, Jayson Nix was on the World Series last year over Christian Colon, and Nix has as many career hits for the Royals as I do. But looking at this roster, at least until Omar Infante gets healthy, there are really just 26 guys that merit any consideration for the playoff roster. One guy will get left off, and no matter who they choose, it’s hard to screw that decision up significantly. In terms of the personnel available to them, the Royals head to the postseason in as good a shape as they’ve been in all season.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Royals Today: Game 162 Preview.

As I write this, in the wee hours of the morning before Game 162, we know that the Royals have won the AL Central and will have home field advantage in the ALDS which starts on Thursday. Pretty much everything else is in play. We don’t know if they’ll have the #1 or #2 seed. Even if we did, we don’t know who the AL West champion is; while we know the Yankees will be one of the participants in the Wild Card game, their opponent could be the Rangers, Astros, or Angels, and the game may or may not be at Yankee Stadium.

We don’t even know whether we should be rooting for the Royals to have the #1 seed or not, because while it would be nice to have home field advantage for the ALCS, 1) penciling the Royals in to face the Blue Jays in the ALCS is quite the presumption given that 2) you have to win the ALDS first, and the Royals might be better off facing the Rangers as the #2 seed than the Astros as the #3 seed. Except that 3) the Rangers might yet lose the division anyway and 4) the Angels can’t be counted out just yet, not after the game of the year today, when they scored five runs in the top of the ninth to overcome a 10-6 deficit, with the winning run driven in by – who else? – Johnny Giavotella.

The fear factor of the first round depends on the team the Royals face, yes, but it also depends on the starting pitcher they are likely to face twice in the series. For the Rangers, that would probably be Cole Hamels – even though the Rangers have to turn to Hamels tomorrow to secure the division, meaning he wouldn’t be able to start on full rest until Game 2 of the ALDS. Because there are off days after Game 2 and after Game 4 of the ALDS, he could still start on full rest in Game 5 if need be. (I understand why MLB does it for scheduling reasons, to prevent too many days with four playoff games, but the LDS round is particularly punishing to teams with a lot of pitching depth. With all the off days, depth simply isn’t that important.)

For the Yankees, presumably their Game 1 starter will be Masahiro Tanaka, and Luis Severino would start Game 2, and either one could return in Game 5 if need be. Severino, in particular, is a wild card for me – he’s just 21 years old and has made just 11 major league starts, but his stuff is electric and he has a 2.89 ERA in those 11 starts. The Royals seem to have difficulty with rookie pitchers, maybe because they’re rookies, or maybe because they’ve simply never faced the pitcher before. They’ve never faced Severino.

But the guy who scares me the most is Dallas Keuchel. Partly, that’s because of Keuchel’s greatness – a 2.48 ERA, a league-leading ERA+ (161) and WHIP (1.017) – and partly that’s because of his style as a pitcher. He’s left-handed, and the Royals have hit left-handers worse than right-handers this year. However, that disparity has dropped dramatically since mid-season; through Friday’s game, the Royals had a .736 OPS vs. RHP, and a .729 OPS vs. LHP. Adding Ben Zobrist helped, but a big factor is that Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have hit left-handers very well in the second half. Moustakas, in particular, has hit lefties almost as well for the season (.272/.327/.475) as he has hit right-handers (.287/.353/.462). And Alex Gordon actually has a higher OPS vs. southpaws (.829) than right-handers (.793).

But I’m still nervous, because single-season platoon splits aren’t very predictive at all. In the long run, virtually all hitters will hit better against opposite-handed pitchers, and left-handed hitters tend to have larger splits than right-handed hitters (because they face left-handed pitchers much less often than right-handed hitters face right-handed pitchers). It’s possible, at the very least, that Hosmer and especially Moustakas have made adjustments against left-handers so that they’re not completely impotent against them. Keuchel still worries me, though, because in addition to being left-handed, he’s also a finesse guy that uses an opposing hitter’s aggressiveness against him. His fastball averaged 89.6 mph this year, which is amazing, that a guy who throws less than 90 could win the Cy Young Award in this era of high velocity. While I can’t find hard data to corroborate or refute this (if you know where to look, please tell me), my sense is that the Royals handle velocity very well; they don’t handle deception and breaking stuff nearly as well.

Regardless, everyone has had trouble against Keuchel this season. Yes, he has a crazy home/road split this year: 15-0 with a 1.46 ERA at home, 5-8 with a 3.77 ERA on the road. And yes, if he starts twice against the Royals, both starts will come in Kansas City. But again, single-season splits simply don’t come with a large enough sample size to be truly meaningful. Keuchel is a tough pitcher to face no matter what park he’s in.

The Royals may not face him twice, though, because he could start the Wild Card game on three days’ rest, and there’s no point in saving him for an ALDS matchup that may not happen. But the Astros had the chance to pull him early Friday night – they led 7-1 going to the bottom of the fifth, and 10-2 going to the bottom of the sixth – and still let Keuchel throw six innings and 99 pitches. Obviously, I’m biased, but if the Astros play in the Wild Card game at Yankee Stadium (and again, everything’s up in the air!), Keuchel would appear to be the perfect pitcher for that park – a left-handed extreme groundball pitcher is the antidote for that bandbox.

So the Royals could wind up with the #1 seed and a terrible matchup against a well-rested Dallas Keuchel in the ALDS, or they could face an Angels team that had to win Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday just to earn the right to play in Kansas City on Thursday. (The Angels’ starter would, I presume, be Hector Santiago, who is sort of a poor man’s Keuchel himself.) For now, just enjoy the show, and enjoy the rare spectacle of other teams fighting down to the wire for the opportunity to play the Royals.

I want to talk about what the playoff roster should look like, but I can’t move forward without addressing the elephant in the room: as if he was trolling me for writing glowing praise about his managerial skills this season, almost as soon as my last article went up, Ned Yost undid five months of evolutionary improvement to the Royals lineup and moved Alcides Escobar back to the leadoff spot. Never mind that Escobar has been one of the worst everyday hitters in baseball this season, and the absolute worst everyday hitter in baseball since the All-Star Break. Never mind that they had not one, but two prototypical leadoff hitters in Gordon and Zobrist. They won with Escobar leading off, and by golly they’re going to lead him off again.

With Escobar batting at the bottom of the lineup, the Royals had gone 6-11. Of course, the offense wasn’t the problem; until the last two games prior to ending the experiment, the Royals had actually scored more runs per game with Escobar batting 9th than when he led off. But apparently the collapse of the pitching staff in September can be blamed on the order in which the batters were arranged, or something. After the Royals scored two runs in two games against the Cubs and White Sox, Escobar was restored to his former place of glory.

And, of course, since Escobar returned to the leadoff spot they’ve won four straight. They’ve scored 19 runs in those four games, a healthy 4.75 per game average but not much higher than their 4.46 runs/game average for the season. They’ve won four straight because, you guessed it, the pitching: they’ve allowed just nine runs. It makes no sense, and Yost doesn’t even try to make the claim that it does. But whether it’s to preserve clubhouse harmony or simply out of superstition, the Royals will attempt to win the World Series by giving a .257/.294/.321 hitter more plate appearances than anyone else.

Obviously, I disagree, because I think this hurts the Royals in multiple ways. Giving Escobar more at-bats hurts, but so does moving Alex Gordon to the bottom of the lineup. It’s not simply that Gordon is a really good hitter and you want your really good hitters to bat more; it’s that he leads the team with a .376 OBP, and by batting him eighth, you are taking the guy in your lineup that’s most likely to reach base, and handing the job of delivering him home to…the two worst hitters in your lineup, Alex Rios and Escobar. If Gordon were more of an all-or-nothing slugger you could justify having him be the cleaner at the end of the chain of good hitters. And perhaps he’ll change his approach to do just that; he certainly has the raw power to do so. But his skill set is optimized to set the table, and the Royals just put their best tablesetter in front of two guys who don’t know how to clear it.

And then there’s the whole issue of taking the heart of your entire franchise, the longest-tenured player on the roster, the guy that everyone else in the clubhouse is told to emulate, an impending free agent that you really don’t want to lose next year…and demoting him to eighth in the lineup. That seems unwise.

But I can’t say with certainty that it is. Stuff goes on behind closed doors that we simply don’t know about. It’s possible that Gordon is completely on board with batting 8th; it’s even possible that he proposed the move himself. I just wrote about how good Yost has been this year (and in fairness, he’s always been good about this) at winning the confidence of his players, and maybe that’s the case again here. (The New York Times ran a very good article on Yost on this very subject the other day; just ignore the non sequiturs in the piece regarding analytics.) I can prove mathematically that the new Royals lineup hurts the team on the field; I can’t prove that it doesn’t help them off the field.

And it’s very easy to overstate the impact that a lineup can have. Let’s say that the difference between the new lineup and the old one is somewhere between 23 and 32 runs over the course of a season, which seems reasonable. That’s an enormous difference, between two and three wins a year. A free agent that was guaranteed to be worth 2-3 wins above replacement would cost you, on a one-year deal, something like $15 million. It stands to reason, then, that this simple lineup decision would cost the Royals $15 million over the course of an entire season.

And yet, in a short series, the cost can be quite minimal. 23 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a seven-game series; 32 runs over 162 games converts to exactly one run in a five-game series. The Royals are sacrificing one run per series for the sake of clubhouse harmony, or confidence, or voodoo. One run can decide a game, and one game can decide a series, but the odds are something like 95% that it won’t. It’s possible that the Royals will get that one run back in ways we can’t detect with this move. But even if they don’t: it’s one run. If the Royals lose a playoff game when Escobar makes the final out with the go-ahead run in scoring position, we’ll howl at the moon. For now, we’ll wait and see. It’s not like we have any choice in the matter.

Next up: figuring out the ideal makeup of the 25-man roster, and everyone’s role in it.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Final Week Prep.

Just one article in and already I have to issue a correction. Obviously, I’m rusty.

- Many of you pointed out that in my last article, I wrongly stated that in the best-of-five LCS era (1969-84), that home field advantage was awarded to the team with the better record. Apparently, as with the World Series, home field simply alternated between West and East divisions. While the 102-win Yankees had home field advantage on the 97-win Royals in 1980, the year before the 88-win Angels actually had home field advantage on the 102-win Orioles. This would explain the AAHHH format; the “advantage” was quite minimal, as the team without home field advantage would get to play one additional home game in the event of a sweep. My apologies for the error.

- After clinching their first divisional title in 30 years on Thursday, on Friday the Royals trotted out a lineup that would get a stern phone call from the Commissioner had it been fielded in March. Only two regulars (Ben Zobrist and Alex Rios) were in the lineup. Drew Butera was in the lineup – at first base.

The situation – late September, a team playing a bunch of bench players and September call-ups, a team that was probably half hungover, facing a really good power pitcher – had all the elements of a no-hitter. Rios avoided that ignominy by lacing a clean single in the seventh, but it was the only hit the Royals would garner on the day. This ended a streak of 427 consecutive games in which the Royals had at least 3 hits, a streak which started in May of 2013. It was the longest streak in Royals history, and the 25th-longest streak in major league history. (If you count the playoffs last year, the streak was 442 games, which would rank 22nd.)

I realize I’m a geek and care about this stuff waaaay too much, but I thought the streak was a neat representation of what the Royals are so good at – making contact as well as any team in history, making them almost impossible to no-hit. I mean, in that same time frame the Mariners got two hits or less in a game 16 times. The Dodgers got no-hit twice in the span of barely a week earlier this year. I figured the streak would come to an end eventually. I just would have like it to be in a game in which the Royals were actually trying.

Anyway, continuing where we left off last column, here are the other two topics of discussion I wanted to bring up:

3) While the worst thing that can happen to any team right before the playoffs is an injury, the Royals are constructed to weather an injury at almost any position on the field.

This really struck me when the Royals traded for Jonny Gomes, of all people, right before the playoff roster deadline on August 31st. It’s a testament to Dayton Moore and his staff that the way the Royals are built right now, if any individual player happens to get hurt, they can replace him and keep right on humming with minimal disruption.

The lynchpin to this phenomenon is Zobrist, of course, one of the most versatile players of the last 25 years; the only player I can think of in my lifetime who combined his offensive prowess with his ability to play both the outfield and the (non-first-base) infield well is Tony Phillips, who retired in 1999.

Obviously, if Gordon gets hurt, Zobrist is your new left fielder. If Moustakas gets hurt, Zobrist is probably your new third baseman, given that he has started a few times at third base in place of Moustakas against a tough left-hander. If Zobrist gets hurt…well, until two weeks ago Omar Infante probably would have won his job back, but it says something about how much the makeup of this team has changed that when Infante pulled his oblique nine days ago, knocking him out for at least the start of the playoffs, an injury which would have caused a significant portion of the fan base to celebrate back in July – don’t lie to yourself, you know it’s true – was met with a collective shrug.

At this point, I assume Zobrist’s replacement would be Christian Colon, who in his major league career – Small sample size alert! Only 161 plate appearances! – has hit .308/.365/.390. The Royals could do a lot worse. (And for five months, they did.) So if they have to move Zobrist to third base or left field, Colon would take over second base and the offensive hit would be contained.

If Escobar gets hurt, the Royals would lose a substantial amount defensively, but might actually gain on offense. I assume Colon would play shortstop and Zobrist would play second base, because at this point I doubt they’d rather keep Zobrist at his more comfortable position than flip-flop the two.

If Cain gets hurt, they’ll just slip in Dyson. If Rios gets hurt, they have several options, all of whom might actually improve the team: Paulo Orlando in right field, or Dyson in center and Cain in right field, or against a left-handed pitcher, they could gamble with Jonny Gomes out there.

If Morales gets hurt, then against a right-handed starter they could move Dyson to CF, Cain to RF, and Rios to DH. And this is where the acquisition of Gomes got me thinking about this: against a left-handed starter, whereas before they’d probably have played Orlando, Orlando doesn’t have much of a platoon split. Gomes does, and at DH his defensive inadequacies are irrelevant.

If Hosmer gets hurt, then Morales moves to first base and the above paragraph still apples.

The pitching staff is even easier to cover because the Royals have a number of swingmen who can start or relieve, and because they only need four starting pitchers. Right now, the playoff rotation looks like Cueto, Ventura (in some order), Volquez, and Medlen (in some order). But if any of them get hurt, the Royals don’t even have to touch Danny Duffy, who appears poised to be quite the weapon out of the bullpen in the playoffs; they’ll just turn to Chris Young. Frankly, after Medlen’s last start, and after what we saw from Young this afternoon (pitching on the day after his father passed away, no less), you could make a strong case that Young should be in the rotation anyway.

I’ll confess that I haven’t really understood how the Royals have used Young in the second half of the season. Young stepped into the Royals’ rotation on May 1st and basically held it together for six weeks; over his first eight starts he allowed 12 runs in 47 innings. He then hit a rough patch, with a 5.09 ERA over his next eight starts, and the Royals demoted him to the bullpen when they acquired Johnny Cueto. This made sense; Young had worn down terribly last season, and the Royals wanted to keep his arm fresh for the playoffs. I assumed that they would return him to the rotation in September and if he pitched well he’d be a candidate for the playoff rotation.

But he became basically an afterthought for two months. Prior to today he had thrown just 12.1 innings in nearly two months in the bullpen, allowing five runs. Even after the Royals decided it was time to prepare Duffy for a role in the bullpen for the playoffs, they selected Jeremy Guthrie to replace him. It was only after Guthrie gave up nine runs in 2.1 innings on Tuesday that they decided to give Young another shot. And as he did in his very first start of the year, Young threw five no-hit innings before getting pulled because his arm hadn’t been stretched out enough to continue.

Chris Young is the first pitcher since at least 1914 (which likely means ever) to get pulled from a no-hitter after completing at least five innings twice in the same season. Young gave up no hits in a start (2) more times this year than Guthrie gave up no runs in a start (1).

Anyway, Young will probably get one more start this coming week, and if Medlen struggles again the Royals will have a tough decision to make. Complicating things is that you really don’t want Young starting in a park with short fences, and the Royals’ likely opponents in the AL playoffs (Toronto, New York, Houston, Texas) all play in cozy ballparks. That would necessitate using Young only for a home game, but at least in the ALDS, that would require him to start Games 1, 2, or 5, which obviously won’t happen. If the Royals don’t end up with home field against Toronto in the ALCS, Young might be a good choice to start Game 3 or 4 at Kauffman Stadium.

The point is, the Royals have depth in the rotation. If anyone goes down, they’re covered.

And the bullpen is so deep that we’re already seeing what happens when their #1 reliever for the last four years loses his fastball: everyone just moves up a slot, and their relievers for the 7th, 8th, and 9th innings are still Ryan Madson (2.24 ERA), Kelvin Herrera (2.70 ERA), and Wade Davis (0.97 ERA). For the 6th inning they’ll have to decide between Luke Hochevar, and Franklin Morales, and oh yeah Duffy throws 96-97 from the left side and since moving to the pen has allowed two hits and one walk while whiffing eight batters in 5.2 innings. Somehow, they’ll survive.

That leaves, then, exactly one indispensable player: Salvador Perez. Drew Butera is a fine backup catcher who plays excellent defense, has hair that I would kill for, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Kevin Costner’s dad in Field of Dreams. But his career offensive line, in over 800 plate appearances, is .186/.242/.268. His .206 batting average this year is easily a career best. He’s been worth negative 1.6 bWAR in his career. Salvy has his weaknesses, but he’s light-years better than any other option the Royals have behind the plate. It’s time to package his knees in bubble wrap from now until the start of the playoffs.

The #1 goal for the Royals right now, as it would be for any team wrapping up its division with over a week left to go, is simply to enter the playoffs with their roster at full health. It is to their good fortune that they appear to be that way for now – and the most important player who isn’t healthy might have just made the roster better by acknowledging his injury. If they go into the playoffs with their roster as healthy as it is right now, they’ll be in excellent shape. But it’s reassuring to know that Dayton Moore has built this roster so that if the worst-case scenario happens at the worst possible time, they’re as prepared as any team reasonably can be.

4) Very quietly, Ned Yost has had a TERRIFIC year as a manager, building on the adaptations he made late last year to be a solid tactician, while running the clubhouse damn near perfectly.

In my Grantland article earlier this month, I focused on how the success of the 2015 Royals forced me to rethink Dayton Moore’s legacy. I barely touched on how their success has altered my perception of Ned Yost, because believe it or not Grantland does hold me to a word limit, and the article was bursting at the seams anyway.

But Yost has had an excellent season as a manager, and like Moore, I think the evidence points towards Yost having changed and improved on the job rather than having been an excellent manager all along. I might argue that his success in 2015 has been less surprising than Moore’s. While even this past off-season – the time of year when Moore’s job is most visible – there was a lot of skepticism about the work he had done (Kendrys Morales? Edinson Volquez?), in Yost’s case his improvement as a manager started around September 14, 2014 – a.k.a. the Aaron Crow pitches to Daniel Nava game – and was evident throughout the playoffs. The question with Yost was whether he could maintain the improved focus that he showed last October for an entire season.

And I’d say he’s passed that test. First off: the Royals have continued what is now a three-season run as one of the greatest bullpens in major league history. Even with a terrible September (a 4.36 ERA so far this month; the highest ERA in any other month this year was 2.80), the Royals’ bullpen has a 2.72 ERA overall, the best in the American League. Here are the lowest bullpen ERAs among AL teams in the last 25 years:

2013 Royals: 2.55
2014 Mariners: 2.59
2015 Royals: 2.72
1992 Brewers: 2.78
2005 Indians: 2.80

Of the three lowest bullpen ERAs in the AL in the last quarter-century, two belong to the Royals within the last three years. In the other season, they were the only team in major league history with three pitchers that relieved 50+ times with ERAs under 1.50.

Yes, the Royals have an abundance of talent in their pen. Yes, they have a half-dozen guys who can throw 95. But at some point, doesn’t Ned Yost deserve credit for the fact that year after year, he gets great results from these guys? Look at the 2014 Mariners: they had one of the best bullpens in recent memory. This year, their 4.08 ERA is good for 23rd in the majors. Bullpens go up and down because relievers go up and down.

The Royals’ bullpen isn’t immune. Kelvin Herrera wasn’t great in 2013; Greg Holland was a shell of his former self this year. Wade Davis was a starter in 2013. But in 2013 Luke Hochevar was great. This year, Ryan Madson came back from the dead, and Franklin Morales made a successful transition to the bullpen. Brandon Finnegan went from college to the majors in three months and was a difference maker last year; despite being shuttled back and forth from Omaha to Kansas City this year, he pitched well when he did pitch. Being a successful relief pitcher is as much about confidence and fearlessness as pure stuff, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Royals have had so many successful relievers when they have a manager who is great about instilling confidence in his players – both in themselves and in their manager.

Yost has always been well-regarded for his ability to command a clubhouse, and insomuch as we can judge such things from the outside, it looks like he’s done a fantastic performance in that regard this year. The Royals have plowed through a number of distractions this season, not the least of which being that they brawled with four different teams before May was out and were being labeled The Bad Boys of Baseball. The players had each other’s back then and kept winning. They stuck with Yordano Ventura through his struggles and immaturity, and Ventura responded with the best performances of his career in August. Yost and the front office stuck with Mike Moustakas despite his struggles for the last 2+ years, and he responded with a new and vastly improved hitting approach this season. And so on.

There is one overarching rule that governs Ned Yost’s handling of his players: never, ever, ever criticize your players in public. Always, always, always, defend them to the hilt. It can drive those of us who watch the team crazy, because at times it seems like the Royals are refusing to acknowledge reality. But there is a method to the madness. The Royals’ players would run through a brick wall for Yost. And when he does finally have to acknowledge reality and break the news to a struggling player, he does so with a minimum of drama.

For all the fights the Royals had with other teams early in the year, there’s never been a sign of any fighting within the team. Yes, this is partly because Dayton Moore isn’t dumb enough to trade for Jonathan Papelbon, but still, this appears to be a clubhouse in which everyone gets along. And precisely because Yost will defend his players to the hilt, and because he will stick with a struggling veteran past the point of prudence, when he does have to drop the axe on a struggling veteran, he has done so without fear of a mutiny. Think of the players who have lost their job over the last six weeks: Omar Infante, Jeremy Guthrie, Danny Duffy, and most complicated of all, Greg Holland (before he finally consented to an MRI that showed his elbow was fried) – none of them have complained publicly about their demotion. That might not sound like anything special, but players are always the last to know when their time is up. That none of them popped off speaks well to the way Yost handled their situations.

The counter to that is that Yost probably cost the Royals a game or two by sticking with Infante and Holland and Guthrie as long as he did. To which I would say, when you have a double-digit lead in the division by the first week of August, you can sacrifice a game or two for the greater good of the team, getting your roster in the frame of mind it needs to perform its best in October. And as October approaches, Yost has made exactly the tweaks that we’ve been wanting him to make. Infante got benched (before pulling an oblique muscle which might keep him out the rest of the season). Guthrie is a well-paid cheerleader now. Holland not only lost his closer’s job, but was told he wouldn’t be pitching any meaningful innings, which is what finally prompted him to accept the inevitable and get his elbow checked out. And Alcides Escobar was moved to the bottom of the lineup, with the result that the Royals’ six best hitters now bat 1 through 6.

And if sticking with his veterans for a little too long didn’t help Infante or Guthrie or Holland snap out of their funks, it may have paid dividends with Alex Rios, who over the past six weeks has played like the Rios that the Royals thought they were signing up for. That doesn’t mean you just throw out his terrible performance before that – selective endpoints and whatnot – but given that Rios got his hand broken after a hot first week of the season and terrific spring training, it is at least possible that his struggles when he returned were partly the fault of some lingering pain and weakness. In any case, the Royals don’t have a clearly better solution in right field; I like Jarrod Dyson and would prefer to see him start against right-handed pitching, but as the playoffs start, if the biggest disagreement I have with Ned Yost tactically is over whether Dyson or Rios should start in right field, I’d say he’s doing alright for himself.

Yost hasn’t suddenly become a tactical genius; he still doesn’t pinch-hit enough, and sometimes pinch-runs at strange times, like wasting Terrance Gore to run for Kendrys Morales when Morales didn’t represent the tying or winning run in the 9th inning on Wednesday. But he’s no longer a tactical liability. And when it comes to the really important part of his job – the stuff that he does from 10 pm to 7 pm, not the other way around – Yost is exceptional. He’s talked about retiring in the not-too-distant future, but I hope he sticks around for at least another couple of years. Having become a truly excellent manager in the twilight of his career, it would be a shame for him to not put his new-found talents to use for a while.

Thursday, September 24, 2015


Hey everyone!

I missed you all. I hope the feeling was mutual.

I confess: I didn’t expect to be back already. I expected to take the blog off of hiatus when the Royals qualified for the playoffs again, but I didn’t expect it to be this soon.

I don’t just mean that I wasn’t that confident I’d be writing here again in 2015 – at least back before the season began, I was as skeptical of the Royals’ playoff chances as most pundits – but that I’m back with ten days still left in the season. I figured that if the Royals made the playoffs, like last year, it would come down to the final weekend of the season. The Royals are playing here in Chicago next Monday through Thursday, and I thought if I got really lucky, I might even get a chance to watch them clinch a playoff spot in person for the second straight year.

Instead, they just took care of business in front of a packed home crowd in Game 152, in the first series of a homestand which preceded an eight-game season-ending road trip. And as enjoyable as that moment was – winning their first AL Central in…oh, right – it was really just a coronation of the inevitable: according to FanGraphs, the Royals’ odds of winning the division cracked 99% on August 8th and didn’t dip below 99.9% after August 23rd. All of the drama and angst of the last month disguised the fact that what everyone was freaking about was how the Royals would perform in the playoffs. That the Royals would make the playoffs is something we’ve taken for granted since well before summer vacation ended.

Read that last sentence again and tell me how insane that would have sounded a year ago. Imagine if the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs last year, or even if they had lost the Wild Card game. I have to think we wouldn’t have been nearly as blasé about the fact that they all but clinched a spot in the ALDS round six weeks ago. For good or ill, 2014 changed everything. Almost all good, of course, but as I wrote for Grantland earlier this month, last year the Royals were Cinderella; this year they’re the stepmother.

Speaking of Grantland, for those of you who thought I wouldn’t write about the Royals at all when I put the blog on hiatus, you have some catching up to do.

Here’s what I wrote about the Johnny Cueto trade.

Here’s what I wrote about the Ben Zobrist trade.

Here’s what I wrote about the 2015 Royals, and Dayton Moore, and once again reassessing a general manager that I’ve spent countless words assessing on this blog over the last eight years.

And now I’m writing here, at least until the Royals are eliminated from the postseason, and then maybe we can pick this up again next September. I could get used to that.

We have a lot to cover. Let’s get to it.

- First off, I just want to thank all of you for your generous support of the Syrian people. In my last column, I asked for your donations to the Syrian American Medical Society, and I am pleased to report that even as donations continue to trickle in, we have raised a substantial sum of money – the current tally is $18,562. Donations have come from as far away as the Netherlands as well as U.S. soldiers stationed in Bahrain and Afghanistan, and from at least one prominent person in an MLB front office. Even as the horror in Syria continues to escalate, and the consequences in the form of a global refugee crisis continue to worsen, it has been very gratifying to see so many of you offer your support. I’m taking some donors to the White Sox-Royals game next Tuesday, and I owe a lot more of you a ballgame or lunch. I look forward to paying up.

Whether you are able to offer your financial support or not, you can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of some Syrians by pressuring your elected representatives to open the door for more refugees to be resettled in the United States. It’s the right thing to do, and you never know if the child of a Syrian immigrant may grow up to do something useless, like blog about the Royals, or something a little more useful, like creating the most valuable corporation on the planet.

- I’m not going to recap the season and rehash a bunch of stuff you already know about. But with the playoffs almost here, there are four main topics that I think haven’t been covered enough, all of which have playoff implications:

1) The importance of clinching the #1 seed has been highly overstated. The importance of clinching the #2 seed has been significantly understated.

Look, I’d rather be the #1 seed than the #2 seed, no question. Home field advantage in the ALCS is valuable. But it’s not that valuable. In fact, it’s not even the most valuable advantage to be gained from getting the #1 seed. The bigger advantage is getting to face the winner of the Wild Card game in the ALDS, which is an advantage for two reasons:

1) The Wild Card team will have a worse record than the winner of the AL West this season, and will probably be a worse team;

2) The Wild Card team will likely – but not definitely – have used their #1 starter in the Wild Card game, limiting their ace to just one start in the ALDS.

If, say, the Astros win the Wild Card game, then not having to face Dallas Keuchel twice is definitely a benefit for the Royals, given that they are a little weaker against left-handed pitchers. The same would be true with the Rangers and Cole Hamels. It’s not as true with the Yankees, as it’s not clear who their ace is – I assume Tanaka would start Game 1, but Luis Severino has been a sensation since he arrived from the minors, and on any given day their best starter might be Michael Pineda.

This, of course, assumes that the Wild Card participants can line up their rotation so that they can use their ace in the Wild Card game. Strange as this sounds, if you root for the #1 seed, you actually don’t want a five-team pileup for the Wild Card spot at the end of the season. You want teams to have the ability to use their best starter on Tuesday night so that he can’t pitch on Thursday against your team. If a team has to fight tooth-and-nail just to get into the Wild Card game, and so they use their #1 starter on Saturday (the next-to-last day of the season) in order to clinch a playoff spot, and somehow win on Tuesday anyway…they’ll have their #1 starter lined up to pitch on Thursday on regular rest.

So a lot can happen. In an ideal scenario, the #1 seed will face a vastly inferior team whose ace starter won’t be able to pitch until Game 3. But the ideal scenario doesn’t happen all the time.

But while I’d like the #1 seed, the #2 seed offers many benefits of its own. First off, you’re guaranteed not to face the #1 seed in the first round. Assuming Toronto holds off the Yankees in the AL East, they are the bear that no one wants to see – they have a run differential of +217, which is kind of ridiculous. Holding the #2 seed means the Royals don’t have to face Toronto in the first round – and more to the point, means that there’s a real chance they won’t have to face Toronto at all. Even the biggest playoff mismatch doesn’t give the favorite more than about a 65% chance of winning their playoff series, and in a best-of-five it’s rarely more than 60%. Assuming the Royals win their own playoff series, that gives them a 40% chance of facing a team other than Toronto in the ALCS. Which would be nice.

But the main advantage the #2 seed gives you is home field advantage in the ALDS. This is an important point to consider: home-field advantage is MUCH more important in the LDS round than in the LCS round or in the World Series, because 1) it is a five-game series and 2) the higher seed is awarded home field in games 1, 2, and 5.

That second point is key. Back in the days of the best-of-five LCS, from 1969 to 1984, the team with the better record would have home field in games 3, 4, and 5. Which meant that if the series went 3 games, the lower seed would have more home games (2) than the higher seed (1). In 1980, the 97-win Royals won the first two games of the ALCS at home against the 102-win Yankees before winning Game 3 at Yankee Stadium when George Brett made Goose Gossage cry.

(The 1980 Royals, by the way, were 85-46 and had a TWENTY game lead on the division at the end of August. They had a six-game lead on the Yankees for home field advantage. They then went 8-18 in September to cough up home field in the ALCS. And then they swept the Yankees anyway. Food for thought.)

But in the current HHAAH setup, there’s no way the higher seed can play fewer home games than the lower seed. Here’s a breakdown of which team gets the most home games, depending on how long the series goes:

3-game series: higher seed
4-game series: even
5-game series: higher seed

Now compare that to the traditional HHAAAHH setup of the LCS and World Series:

4-game series: even
5-game series: lower seed
6-game series: even
7-game series: higher seed

In a best-of-seven series, the only way the higher seed gets an extra home game is if the series goes a full seven games, which mathematically occurs 31.25% of the time (which matches up very well with the historical odds). You’d still rather have it than not have it, but more than two-thirds of the time it’s going to end up a moot point. But in a five-game series, the higher seed will end up with an extra home game 62.5% of the time, literally twice as often as in a seven-game series.

Barring a pretty epic collapse, the Royals will have at least the #2 seed. They will have home field advantage in the round in which it has the most value. There’s a 40% chance they won’t have to face the Blue Jays in the ALCS. And if they don’t, that means they’ll have home field advantage in the ALCS regardless of whether they’re the #1 or #2 seed.

So by all means, root for them to get that #1 seed over these last ten days of the season. And then hope that whichever Wild Card team they face used up their ace in the Wild Card game. But don’t lose any sleep over it. The #2 seed is still an excellent position from which to win a pennant. And the Royals are already guaranteed home field advantage in the World Series should they get there.

2) While all the focus in September has been on a pitching staff that is in disarray, not much attention has been given to the fact that the offense is in its best shape of the season.

As you may have heard, the Royals are not playing well in September. Even after winning their last two games, they are 9-13, and may finish with their first losing month since July, 2014. They just won back-to-back games for the first time since September 2nd and 3rd.

And it’s not hard to see why: the pitching staff has sucked. The Royals have given up 126 runs in 22 games, a performance which brings back the halcyon days of 2005. It’s been a staff-wide effort. Of the 18 pitchers who have appeared in a game in September, just three have ERAs under 3.50 this month. Johnny Cueto got bombed. Greg Holland coughed up a win. Things have been so bad that Wade Davis has given up two runs! (One was unearned.)

This isn’t a great state of affairs, but I would submit that its impact on October is likely to be quite minimal. Jeremy Guthrie’s 15 runs allowed in 14 innings might smear the stat sheet, but will have no impact on a postseason in which he is almost certain not to be rostered. The same goes for Joba Chamberlain. And I would argue – in fact, I argued before it even happened – that Holland’s blown save last Friday night against the Tigers might have actually been the best thing that happened to the Royals. By blowing the lead and the game, Holland finally made it safe for people to admit that the emperor had no clothes. His fastball, which averaged 95.7 mph last season – how long ago that feels right now – started the year in the 92-94 mph range, but slowly ticked up until he was averaging close to 95 in July – and then his velocity totally cratered. It’s rare to see any pitcher lose close to 5 mph off his fastball in the middle of a season; it’s almost unprecedented to see a pitcher do that without pitching hurt.

After his last outing, the Royals finally admitted Holland was pitching hurt. Today, they finally admitted that he’s been pitching hurt since August…of last year. Now, let’s not make too much of this: Holland suffered a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament last August, and it was reflected in his velocity, which took a slight dip. But lots of pitchers keep throwing with a slight tear in the ligament. Luke Hochevar pitched with one for years and had a brilliant year as a reliever before his finally tore the following year. Masahiro Tanaka has been pitching with one for over a year now. Ervin Santana pitched with one for years…and an MRI years later revealed that the tear had scarred over. What the Royals did with Holland was neither wrong nor unusual.

In Holland’s case, though, the injury just kept getting worse. And at some point this August, presumably, the tear became unsalvageable. But so long as he was turning leads into wins, they weren’t going to pull him from the closer’s spot, which meant that the 9th inning of a one-run game in the playoffs was going to be entrusted to a guy who, on performance alone, was maybe the seventh-best pitcher in the Royals bullpen.

So while the loss Friday night hurt, the fallout from it has been all positive – at least for the Royals. (Although in the long run it might be the best news for Holland – at least now there’s both an explanation for, and a solution to, his missing velocity.) Wade Davis is the closer, not just now but through October. Holland not only is no longer closing, he’s no longer pitching. My worry all season was that even if the Royals took Holland out of the closer’s role, if all they did was swap him and Davis, it wouldn’t help things any, because they’d simply be swapping high-leverage outings in the 9th inning with high-leverage outings in the 8th. But now all the high-leverage outings will be going to Davis, and Herrera, and Madson, and maybe Hochevar and Morales and Duffy. The Royals’ Achilles’ heel the second half of the season just got armor plating.

Put it this way: would you rather have the #1 seed and the current iteration of Greg Holland as your closer, or the #2 seed and Greg Holland as your closer emeritus? I know which door I’d choose.

Really, all the angst over the pitching staff comes down to one person: Johnny Cueto. If Cueto is the guy who got lit up like the Griswold’s house at Christmas for five starts in a row, we’re in deep trouble. If he’s the guy he was before that, or even the guy he’s been in his last two starts, the Royals’ pitching staff is still in pretty good shape for the playoffs.

And the offense? Right now, relative to the league, the Royals’ offense is probably the best I have ever seen. Seriously.

All season the Royals have had an offense that was significantly improved from last year’s, with Mike Moustakas’ breakthrough, with Eric Hosmer having his odd-year bounceback, with Lorenzo Cain having his career year, with Kendrys Morales having the Comeback Player of the Year caliber season that the Royals thought he was capable of. The lineup went only five deep, but in 2015, five really good hitters goes a long way.

Then Alex Gordon got hurt, but the Royals quickly moved to replace him with Ben Zobrist, who – while a much more versatile player defensively – is almost eerily similar to Gordon offensively. Just look at their career numbers:

Alex Gordon: .269/.348/.435
Ben Zobrist: .266/.356/.432

So the lineup kept humming along as a good but not great offense. And then Gordon returned. And Omar Infante, whose .552 OPS was the lowest in baseball for anyone with 400+ plate appearances, got benched. And Alcides Escobar, who led off even though his .612 OPS is the second-lowest of any qualifying hitter in baseball, got dropped to the #9 slot. And suddenly, here’s what the top six hitters in the lineup have hit in 2015:

Alex Gordon: .274/.380/.434
Ben Zobrist: .285/.371/.465
Lorenzo Cain: .307/.363/.482
Eric Hosmer: .304/.367/.458
Kendrys Morales: .291/.355/.485
Mike Moustakas: .282/.347/.467

The top six hitters in the Royals lineup all have OPSes above .800. In 2015, that’s outstanding. There’s no superstar hitter in the lineup, and in fact these six hitters are almost interchangeable – each of them has a batting average between .274 and .307, an OBP between .347 and .380, and slug between .434 and .485. But there’s no weak link in that chain. The Royals come at you with one dangerous hitter after another, in a manner I haven’t seen before.

Salvador Perez, batting seventh, isn’t having a very good year, with a .258 average and a .280 OBP. But his 20 homers and .424 slugging average mean that he’s at least there at the bottom of this chain to drive home the many baserunners he finds. The Royals are still sifting through their options in right field, and have to hope that Alex Rios has figured something out, given that he’s hitting .384/.389/.593 since August 19th and .358/.368/.604 since returning from chicken pox on September 8th. But 1 through 6, at least, this lineup is fantastic.

All six players have an OPS+ of at least 115. The Royals have never had six players with at least 200 plate appearances and an OPS+ of at least 115. The Royals have had five such players just three times, and just once since 1980: the 2011 squad that had Hosmer, Billy Butler, and the Earls of Doublin’ outfield (Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur). The Royals had some superficially strong offenses around the turn of the century, when the league OPS was near .800 and Kauffman Stadium (thanks to outfield fences which were pulled in for a time) was one of the best hitters’ parks in the league. But when you let the air out of those numbers, the Sweeney/Beltran/Dye/Damon/Randa Royals lineup wasn’t as impressive as this one.

And not coincidentally, right around the time the Royals got both Zobrist and Gordon in their lineup together and moved Escobar down to the bottom, the team started hitting. They’ve scored 120 runs in 22 games in September, and that might understate their offense. Coming into tonight, they’ve hit .279/.331/.460 in September; the first two marks are their best since April, and their slugging average is the highest they’ve had in any month since September, 2011. They’ve hit 30 homers in September already; the last time they’ve hit more homers in a month was August, 2009.

The Royals have two weeks to get their pitching staff straightened out, and I’m hopeful they will. But the only thing they have to do with their lineup is leave it alone.

I’ve got two more topics I want to discuss, but I need to pace myself; you don’t run a marathon after sitting on the couch for four months. It’s good to be back. Be back again soon.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Goodbye. (For Now.)

(Disclaimer: this is a very personal essay. I want to talk about why I’m ending this blog, which means by necessity I need to talk about myself. If you are one of those people who think that I am an arrogant and self-centered writer, well, this piece certainly isn’t going to change your mind. There will be some navel-gazing here. I humbly ask that you give me the benefit of the doubt that I’m not writing this for self-aggrandizement, but because I feel obligated to explain myself to you, the reader.)

“You’re rooting for clothes when you get right down to it.”Jerry Seinfeld.

I just don’t have the time anymore. I wish I could give you a better reason for why I have stopped blogging about the Royals, but that’s the honest truth, and the evidence of that is that it somehow took me more than four months after my penultimate post to write this one. That wasn’t the plan at all; the plan was to say goodbye before the season ended, to write one last long, poignant article that explained why I was no longer going to write about the Royals by way of explaining why I started writing about the Royals in the first place, and everything that happened in the 20 years between those two points.

And that was the problem: I didn’t have the time to write that article. I wanted to write about how much the game has changed over the last 20 years, how much smarter baseball teams have become, how much smarter the Royals have become, and how that’s made doing what I do – which, in a nutshell, is waiting for the Royals to do something dumb and then pointing fingers at them – so much more challenging than it used to be.

And if I had the time to write that article, I think it would have been a good one. But it turns out that I don’t. If I did, I probably wouldn’t need to stop writing about the Royals in the first place.

I started this blog in 2008, when I had two daughters, a five-year-old and a two-year-old. I now have four daughters, ages 12, 10, six, and three. When I started this blog, I had one main dermatology office in St. Charles, Illinois, and had just opened a satellite location that I worked out of one morning a week. In the seven years since, I’ve hired a physician assistant, opened another office way out west in Sycamore – it’s an hour from my house each way – and added three more employees.

But I continued to write about baseball at every opportunity. I couldn’t keep up the frenetic pace of blogging I established in 2008, but I managed to put up a column here at least once a week. The increasing demands on my time caused me to stop writing at Baseball Prospectus, my original home, almost entirely – but then in 2011 Bill Simmons dropped me an email asking if I could write an article on the Royals for his new Grantland site that had just launched, and what started as a one-off piece turned into a second article, and pretty soon I was being encouraged to write as often as I wanted for what was becoming one of the coolest websites in journalism, in front of the largest audience I ever had. (You will notice that I continue to write for Grantland when I can. I would be a fool not to. It’s a fantastic place to work.)

And then in 2013 I got the call that, in retrospect, I had spent the previous two decades working to get. The Chicago Cubs contacted me and asked if I would be interested in interviewing for an analytics position in their front office.

Let me rephrase that: The Chicago Cubs wanted me to work for them.

Let me reframe that one more time: The Chicago Cubs, run by Jed Hoyer and Theo Epstein, who had already won two world championships and ended an 86-year championship drought in Boston together, thought that I could help them in their attempt to accomplish the same in Chicago. More than that, the Cubs contacted me even though they knew I was a dermatologist and wouldn’t be able to work for them full time. Forgive me if I never get tired of bringing that up, because it was the moment that most vindicates the 20-year passion project that has been my baseball writing career. It probably always will be.

In the end, I didn’t get the job, in large part because the Cubs felt they needed someone who would be able to commit to the organization full-time. I completely understood their reasoning, and frankly remain astonished that they would even consider the alternative. Maybe they really didn’t consider the alternative, but simply figured that once an opportunity to work in baseball presented itself to me, I would be willing to walk away from my dermatology career to pursue it.

And if ever there was such an opportunity that I’d drop anything for, it was this one. I mean, it’s the Chicago Cubs. It’s a team that 1) is one of the most iconic franchises in American sports even though 2) it has a longer track record of continuous failure than any team, in any sport, possibly in human history. A Cubs world championship is the Mount Everest of the sports world – quite literally the most momentous achievement possible. And their front office sees the game pretty much the same way I do – I mean, even my not-so-bright ideas coincided with theirs. Oh, and I live 45 minutes from Wrigley Field.

I have many regrets about the fact that I couldn’t have made a different decision, but I have no regrets over the decision I made. As much job security as there is in medicine, that’s how little job security there is in sports. To throw away a practice I had spent a decade building to take a job that I could get fired from at any moment, possibly for outcomes that I had nothing to do with – that’s not a risk I could take, not with a wife and four kids to support. And that’s without even mentioning the pay cut up front.

I mean, you have to understand: I never set out to be a sportswriter. I’ve said this before, but if Herk Robinson had protected Jeff Conine in the 1992 Expansion Draft, or if he hadn’t traded Gregg Jefferies for Felix Jose, I may never have started writing in the first place. I started writing about baseball on rec.sport.baseball – the online bulletin board for analytic baseball nerds in the pre-web era – because I felt compelled to share my frustrations with someone, anyone, who would listen. The last 20 years have all been one happy accident for me.

But once the Cubs opportunity came and went after the 2013 season, I realized something. I realized that I had gone as far as I could go in baseball with just one foot in the game. Short of working for a major league team, I had accomplished pretty much everything I could have imagined accomplishing when I told Gary Huckabay in 1995 that yes, I would be happy to join him in writing a baseball book with no name, no publisher, and no market.

I also realized that as long as I kept one foot in baseball, it was limiting how far I could go with my medical practice. I had been slowly growing for 10 years, but very slowly, in large part because I was thinking about baseball when I could have been thinking about how to grow my practice.

So I decided it was time to fish or cut bait. On February 9th of this year, I formally closed on the acquisition of another dermatology practice in Oak Park, Illinois, a stone’s throw away from Frank Lloyd Wright’s studio and the setting for such classic movies as “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Rookie of the Year”. (Well, they’re classics for me…) So I’m now working out of three different offices while trying to grow my practice enough to one day hire more dermatologists to work with me.

If and when that day comes, I’m hopeful I can hand off enough of the workload to allow me to start writing more again. But at least for the time being, I’ve had to put my writing career on the backburner. I hope you understand.

When I first started this blog, I made the conscious decision to keep the web design simple and to eschew any advertising. This was, in retrospect, probably a mistake. I decided to keep from monetizing this site because I didn’t want to feel obligated to write about the Royals all the time – but it turns out I couldn’t control that compulsion even though I was writing for free. I don’t think this blog would have made me rich, but even a couple hundred dollars a month would have grown into like $20,000 by now. That’s on me.

But before I go, I would like to make an appeal to my readers for money. Not for me, but for the victims of the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen since World War II. As many of you know, my parents immigrated to America from Syria, settling in America in large part because the Assad family had set up a totalitarian dictatorship in their home country. Four decades later, the Assad family still had an iron grip on the country, and peaceful democratic protests in Syria as part of the Arab Spring in early 2011 were met with the most brutal and murderous response imaginable. The revolution was initially led almost entirely by moderate, non-sectarian protestors, who begged for help from the outside world when their non-violent protests were met with bullets, bombs, and eventually weapons of mass destruction outlawed by the Geneva Convention. While no help was given to moderate protestors, the initially-tiny extremist contingent was plied with weapons and cash from rich benefactors from the Gulf…and now it’s 2015, and ISIS is a global menace, while the Assad regime whose bloody, barbaric reign created ISIS in the first place is still in power, and the moderate rebels are either dead, in exile, or are barely holding on. It’s enough to make a man sick.

But I’m not here to argue politics: I’m here to ask for help for the victims of the disintegration of Syria. Of the country’s 23 million people before the war, nine million have been displaced from their homes, and four of those nine million are refugees in other countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. These people are left wanting for the most basic of life’s necessities: food, shelter, schooling for their children, medical care, freedom from fear. I feel a moral imperative to help these people.

So I have teamed up with the Syrian American Medical Society, or SAMS, a nonprofit, non-sectarian, humanitarian organization largely comprised of Syrian-American physicians who would like to give back to their native homeland. (The outgoing President of SAMS, Dr. Zaher Sahloul, is a friend of mine, and is one of the more remarkable people I know, traveling regularly to refugee camps and sometimes even into war-torn Syria at great personal risk to provide medical care and deliver supplies, and working to highlight the calamitous situation there to the American public, while also working as a full-time pulmonologist and critical care specialist here in the Chicago area.)

If you are so inclined to help, a donation of any amount to SAMS can make an incalculable difference in the lives of so many people, and I would be forever grateful for the gesture. Not to turn this into a Kickstarter campaign, but if you do make a (tax-deductible!) donation to SAMS, I’ll do something for you in return.

Here’s how this works: click on this link to make a donation. Select the amount you wish to donate, and designate where you would like your donation to go to. (Pick any program you wish, or just stick with the default of “most needed.”) After you enter your donation amount some more options will pop up. Then, under “Additional Information” you will see the question “What brought you to the site to give today?” – select “Dr. Rany Jazayerli”.

Fill out your payment information and click “donate now”. After your donation goes through, you should receive a receipt by email. Finally, forward a copy of your receipt to ranyontheroyals (at) gmail (dot) com. In return:

- For any donation of at least $25 – barely 5 cents for each of the 479 articles I have written on this site – I will personally email you a thank you note, to the email address you sent me the receipt from.

- For any donation of at least $50 – just over 10 cents an article – I will instead send you a handwritten thank you note by regular mail, to the address listed on your receipt.

- For any donation of at least $100 – less than 21 cents an article – I will instead call you by phone to thank you personally. (When you send in your receipt, please include the phone number you wish to call, as well as the days and times that work best for you.)

And for those of you who are willing to be especially generous with your charitable dollars, I have two more deals for you:

- For any donation of at least $300 – less than 63 cents an article – I will instead meet you at a restaurant for a lovely meal and conversation; we’ll talk baseball the whole time, or anything else you want to discuss. (We’ll go dutch, not because I’m trying to be cheap, but because I don’t want to subject you to my personal dietary restrictions.)

- For any donation of at least $600 – that’s $1.25 an article – I will instead treat you to a Royals game. I’ll buy the tickets. (If anyone affiliated with the Royals can set me up with discounted and/or free tickets for a charitable cause, that would be much appreciated.) We’ll talk baseball the whole time, or anything else you want to discuss.

A couple of notes:

1) These offers are NOT cumulative. A $100 donation gets you a phone call, but not a phone call, handwritten note, and email. A $600 donation means I’ll see you at the ballpark, but I won’t see you at lunch first.

2) For these last two offers, please note: the offer is for one person only.

3) Both at the restaurant and at the ballpark, I will entertain people in groups of up to five or six, so it will be you, me, and maybe three or four other people.

4) I’m thinking barbecue for lunch, or maybe a place like First Watch for a weekend brunch. I’m happy to take suggestions; I’m not the local.

5) As I only make it to Kansas City a few times a season, I can make no promises on when exactly we will meet – depending on demand, it may be 2016 or 2017 before we can arrange the logistics to accommodate everyone. I honestly have no idea how much interest you all will have at the higher levels; I wouldn’t be surprised if no one makes a $600 donation, but I’m hopeful – and more than a little terrified – that a few dozen of you take the plunge. If so, I beg your patience as I try to accommodate everyone into my schedule. Priority will be given based on when I receive your emailed receipt, so the sooner you donate, the better for you.

Phone calls and handwritten notes will probably be made in August and September.

6) I plan to see my lunch guests in the Kansas City area, and my ballpark guests at Kauffman Stadium. But if you are able to meet me in the Chicago area for a meal, or meet me at a Royals game here in Chicago instead, I would obviously be fine with that as well, and we would have a lot more scheduling options that way.

7) I reserve the right to get creative in order to make this work. I’m sort of operating on blind faith here that this will all work out, and I ask you to be patient with me. Thank you.

I’m saying goodbye, but this isn’t a permanent and final goodbye. I still care about the Royals, and as those of you who follow me on Twitter know only too well, I still care about sharing my opinions of them with anyone who will listen. After the magic of 2014, I can only say that I’m glad I didn’t close down the blog a year earlier. And I’ll tell you what: if they make the postseason again this year, I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of thoughts about them in the playoffs, thoughts that can’t be contained on Twitter and have too much of a niche audience for Grantland. Maybe I’ll make Rany on the Royals a seasonal thing that opens every October, like a pumpkin farm. Maybe I’ll even throw in a column if they make a big move at the trading deadline or a big transaction in the off-season.

Because October, 2014 made the seven seasons of mostly futile writing that came before it all worth it. I don’t want to wait 29 years for that rush again. I don’t want to wait 29 months for that rush again, even if that rush could end with the Royals being on the other side of some long-hapless underdog’s Cinderella story. The Royals have exceeded expectations this season – my own included – as much as they exceeded the nation’s expectations last fall, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult not to acknowledge that the front office may actually know what it’s doing. Last year may not have been a fluke.

The fan base has certainly acknowledged it, and as gratifying as it has been to see the Royals actually becoming one of the most feared and respected teams in the game, it’s just as gratifying to see Royals Nation rise up the way I always claimed it would if we just got a team worthy of our fandom. The record crowds don’t surprise me. The best local TV ratings in baseball don’t surprise me. The Royals’ complete and total domination of the All-Star voting…okay, that surprised even me. If Omar Infante is the starting second baseman in Cincinnati on July 14th, I will be as horrified as I am titillated.

Because for all the hand-wringing over how Royals fans are making a mockery of the vote, of how they’re forcing long-needed changes in the voting process to be made in the future, I’ve seen not nearly enough credit given to the Royals that it’s their fans – one of the smallest fan bases by population, though clearly not by passion – that have succeeded where no other fan base has. You can complain that the voting process needs to be tweaked, and I’ll agree with you – but first you have to tip your cap to the Royals for doing something that fans of the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, and 26 other teams were never able to do.

It’s a new chapter in the history of the Royals, and even if I’m not chronicling it on a daily basis anymore, I couldn’t be more excited to see where this leads. I’m not at all surprised by the passion of the fans, or by the emergence of a new generation of fans who finally have a reason to root for the Royals, but I was caught off guard by the emergence of one particular fan – my eldest daughter, who is now 12 years old.

I had already reconciled myself to the fact that none of my kids would be baseball fans; they hadn’t shown any interest, and let’s be frank: being a baseball fan can be exhausting, because they play every single day. There are a lot of other things you can do with the time you spend following a baseball team 162 times a year. This was just going to be something that Dad did in his free time, and they could find their own hobbies and interests.

My daughter watched the Wild Card game last September 30th, but went to bed in the sixth or seventh inning – it was a school night, remember. My wife told me afterwards that before our daughter went to sleep, she said she felt terrible for Dad who flew all the way to Kansas City to watch his team lose. (My wife, bless her heart, stayed up until the end, something she’s never done before.) The next morning my daughter woke up to the insane news that the rest of us digested over the course of two heart-stopping hours, and…I don’t know, but maybe something clicked that day. She watched every playoff game from then on. She celebrated with me when they clinched the ALDS, and then when they won the pennant. She was mad – she’s still mad – that I didn’t take her to the World Series. (I was rooting for the Cardinals in the NLCS in part because I was planning to drive down to St. Louis with her for one of the weekend World Series games.)

And then after a quiet winter – well, she wore her new Royals ski hat everywhere, and wanted to know why Billy Butler wasn’t coming back, and who are these new guys – the season started, and they started 7-0, and…well, I’m still having trouble processing it. I come home from work and she’s watching the Royals game on TV. She’s texting me at work asking for my MLB.tv password. She made a sign – “Salvy 4 Perezident” – when the Royals came to town to play the Cubs, and she was over the moon when Salvy saw her sign at the game and flashed her a thumbs-up. She told me before the season that Moustakas was her favorite player, and she never turns down an opportunity to say “I told you so” after Moose flicks another pitch to left field for a single. She’s already begging me to take her to one of the Royals games when they come back to Chicago to play the White Sox in three weeks.

She’s also playing softball for the first time, and it’s clear that watching Royals games on a regular basis has given her an awareness of the game that the other girls don’t have. She came home after a game once excited to tell me that she had been catching, and when the batter hit a foul pop-up, “I tore off my catcher’s mask just like Salvy does” and made the catch. Last week I attended one of her games – she had moved up to the leadoff spot – and before she went up to the plate she turned to me behind the fence and said, “I’m going to ambush the first pitch like Esky” before doing just that. (She grounded out to third.)

She watches the game from a different perspective than me; while I’m focused on statistics and strategy, she’ll say things like “why doesn’t Alex Gordon ever wash his batting helmet?” But baseball has grandeur; there are so many ways to enjoy it. The fact that she picked any of them is still something I have to get my head around. I mean, there’s no way to get around this fact: she’s a 12-year-old girl, and the Royals are her first crush. (Thank God it’s the Royals as a team, and not, say, Eric Hosmer.) And like any father of a 12-year-old girl on her first crush, I’m terrified that the Royals are going to break her heart.

She has no history with the Royals that doesn’t involve them being the best team in the American League. She has no memory of suffering, of sacrifice, of humiliation, and I want her innocence to be maintained. And at the same time, I need her to understand that it’s not this easy. I’m already steeling her for the fact that we could be the Angels this year, the team with the best record in the league over 162 games that watches its season end in the span of less than 72 hours because of a few unlucky breaks.

But for now, I’m content to enjoy the experience of rooting for a winning team, and sharing that experience with my firstborn. (My 10-year-old daughter doesn’t watch obsessively, but she asks how they do each day and wears her pink Hosmer shirsey all the time. Even my wife has started to pay attention, or at least she follows the Royals on Instagram.)

Before the season began, I intended to say goodbye for good when I wrote this article. Instead, I’m just going to say goodbye for now. I’m not going anywhere. And I just wanted to take this opportunity to say that, after writing about baseball for 20 years, and after blogging about the Royals for 15 years, I’ve learned that Jerry Seinfeld was wrong: we’re not rooting for clothes. We’re not rooting for laundry. We’re not even rooting for the players, and certainly not their manager, or general manager, or the analysts in their front office.

We’re rooting for each other.

And rooting for all of you has been one of the great joys of my adult life. And I intended to write that when I first announced that I was going to stop blogging about the Royals, before Sung Woo came to America, before the second-half surge, before Jarrod Dyson and Terrence Gore ran the White Sox dizzy, before Salvy got doubled up against Detroit, before that wonderful night here in Chicago when the Royals clinched a playoff berth, before the greatest game I’ve ever seen in person, before Aoki’s catch and Moose’s homer and Dyson’s throw and Hosmer’s homer and Butler’s steal and Wade Davis struck out the side and Gordon’s homer and Escobar’s double past first base and Butler’s sacrifice fly and Escobar knocked the ball out of Joseph’s glove. Before the World Series. Before Gordon held at third.

It’s been magical, all of it, and thank you, all of you, for sharing the experience of being a Royals fan with me. I’m still rooting for all of you. I hope that you’ll all still be rooting for me.