Sunday, August 10, 2014

To Sung Woo, Thanks For Everything! Rany Jazayerli

How do I begin this story? How do I explain the inexplicable? How can I convince you that the greatest story for Royals fans in 29 years is unfolding before our eyes, and its protagonist lives a hemisphere away, speaks imperfect (but diligent) English, and had never set foot at Kauffman Stadium until this past Thursday?

I first became aware of Sung Woo Lee maybe eight or nine years ago. I didn’t know his name was Sung Woo Lee, I just knew there was a poster at a site named Royals Corner that I occasionally dropped in on – back when there was more time in my day and fewer options for the sports-minded reader – who went by the handle “KoreanFan”. He wrote like English was his second language, but he got his point across, and he was eternally optimistic at a time when hundred-loss seasons were something the Royals could only aspire to. I thought it was impressive that someone from Korea followed the Royals, but didn’t think too much more of it.

Years later KoreanFan joined Twitter as @Koreanfan_KC, affording him the opportunity to interact with other Royals fans more easily. And slowly, through osmosis, I picked up his general story: that Sung Woo Lee was from South Korea, had somehow become a Royals fan in the 1990s, and loyally stuck with the team even though he had no connection to the team or city whatsoever – I don’t think he had ever been to America. I’d answer a couple of his questions on Twitter at times and he appeared genuinely thrilled that I responded. He seemed earnest, polite, and perpetually optimistic about the team despite the many slings and arrows they threw at him. He was basically everything I’m not, in other words.

Over time he became a well-known and welcome part of the Royals social media community. His devotion to the team, despite the vast geographic and cultural and even chronological gap – he would frequently tweet during Royals games on the weekend even though it was the middle of the night in Korea – earned him respect, as did the fact that he never criticized the team, but also never criticized the critics. In one memorable exchange two years ago, Danny Duffy – who was as honest and open and heartfelt on Twitter as any athlete, which is probably why he had to finally quit it – offered to fly Sung Woo to Kansas City to see the team play.

Chris Kamler, who the world knows as @TheFakeNed, interviewed Sung Woo for his website in 2012, and you get the full sense of his personality and devotion there. Kamler ended the interview by once again needling Sung Woo about when he was going to finally fly to Kansas City to see the Royals play.

This summer, Sung Woo finally decided to take the plunge. Taking advantage of a job change, he was able to carve out ten days from his schedule to come to Kansas City, watch the Royals play, and maybe do a little sight-seeing and barbecue-eating while he was in town. He emailed Kamler and fellow Royals fan Dave Darby that he was buying his plane ticket and reserving his hotel room; they told him not to worry about transportation, that they’d pick him up and drive him to the ballpark and introduce him to Arthur Bryant’s and maybe the Negro League Museum while he was in town.

If the story had ended there, that would have been enough: three people who have never met, and can barely communicate with each other, bonding together like long-lost friends over a shared mutual interest in a crappy baseball team. A couple of guys were going to take a day or two off of work to show a complete stranger around town. Movies have been made with flimsier plots.

But then Kamler decided to have a little fun, and use his influence – and I use the term “influence” loosely for a guy who impersonates Ned Yost on Twitter and spends most of his time there making fart jokes – to publicize the fact that Sung Woo Lee was finally coming to Kansas City, and it would be great if other Royals fans would welcome him and make him feel at home.

He had no idea what he was getting himself into. None of us did. I tweeted Kamler on August 1st that since I wasn’t in town to see Sung Woo myself, I’d be happy to drop him a line and talk to him on the phone for a few minutes. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here – talking about the Royals with someone isn’t exactly a sacrifice for me. I’m just pointing out that nine days ago, the story of Sung Woo Lee was still something that only the Royals Twitterati knew about, and the only ambition any of us had at the time was simply for Sung Woo to have a good time while he was in town.

And then things got a little crazy. Kamler started pushing the hashtag #SungWooToKC on Twitter to get the word out. Kamler can run a hashtag into the ground – if something like, say, #CareerEndingTwitterTypos was trending, he’ll tweet out 37 career-ending Twitter typos in quick succession. Kamler is a social media pro, and has enough big names in the KC media world following him to get the word out a fair bit. But still: how many people, aside from us hard-core Royals fan types who even use Twitter in the first place, were going to care about some guy from South Korea who was flying to Kansas City to watch a few baseball games?

This is the point where we have to tip our cap to the Royals themselves. Shortly after Kamler launched #SungWooToKC, the Royals reached out to Lee directly and offered him to throw out the first pitch at Monday’s game. Coming from an organization that has made missteps with the way it communicates to its fan base at times, this was an incredibly gracious and classy move. When trying to piece together how this story went viral, it’s – almost by definition – impossible to tell what the tipping point was that made Sung Woo Lee a phenomenon. But being offered to throw out the first pitch had to have made a difference. As a media story, “hey, there’s this Royals fan coming all the way from Korea to watch his first game at Kauffman Stadium” is nice, but “hey, there’s this Royals fan coming all the way from Korea to watch his first game at Kauffman Stadium, and the Royals are letting him throw out the first pitch on Monday!” has a much bigger hook.

The media, the fans, the entire damn city took the hook. Kamler wrote about Sung Woo’s approaching trip, including his itinerary while he was in town, for Pine Tar Press last weekend. At that point, I just hoped that his trip might warrant a brief mention in the Kansas City Star or something. By the time he landed in Kansas City Tuesday afternoon, he had four local TV crews waiting at the gate for his arrival. The city has laid out the red carpet for him ever since, and the story just continues to grow.

For posterity’s sake, I’m going to do my best to summarize what has happened since, though to save time I won’t be able to link to everything. To get the full flavor, check out Sung Woo’s Twitter feed, or Kamler’s.

- Greeted by camera crews Tuesday afternoon, was on four local TV broadcasts that night.

- Was featured in the Star Wednesday morning.

- Took a tour of the Negro League Museum later that morning, featuring tour guide Bob Kendrick and an entourage of two dozen people.

- Gets featured at Deadspin and USA Today.

- Has lunch at Arthur Bryant’s.

- Is interviewed on 610 Sports that afternoon.

- Trolls the Best Fans In Baseball.

- Tours Boulevard Brewing Company that evening.

- With the Royals still playing in Arizona, he gets a shoutout from Danny Duffy – who, behind the scenes, also had a lot to do with Sung Woo’s story becoming as big as it has – on the Royals pre-game show.

- Got an email from Mike Sweeney.

- This is all still Wednesday, by the way.

- Appeared on 96.5 The Buzz Thursday morning. Was given a helmet signed by Billy Butler and a hat signed by Bruce Chen from the station.

- Is featured in the English-language Korea Times.

- Received a personal tour of Kauffman Stadium from the Royals, led by Jennifer Splittorff, who presented him with a SPLITT patch and one of her dad’s bobbleheads afterwards. Goes out on the field, touches the grass, picks up a bullpen phone, basically does everything short of hitting a double in the gap.

- Gets a personalized “SungWoo Lee” #23 Royals jersey, presented by Curt Nelson, the Director of the Royals’ Hall of Fame.

- Walks across the Truman Sports Complex to tailgate before the Chiefs’ preseason opener.

- Is presented with his own personalized #1 jersey by the Chiefs, gets tickets near the 50-yard line. Meets former players and current team president Mark Donovan.

- Friday was a pre-scheduled trip to see the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, so much of it was spent in the car. However, once there he managed to:

- Watch batting practice from next to the cage;

- Get invited into the clubhouse by manager Vance Wilson, who had heard about his story;

- Shake hands with every player one by one, and give Mitch Maier – back mentoring the baby Royals – a bear hug.

- Rode the Naturals’ pickup onto the field with their mascots.

- Got on the field as a human bowling ball during a mid-inning promotion. He managed to knock over six pins.

- Got Maier’s autographed jersey after the game.

Saturday, he was back in Kansas City for his first chance to watch the Royals play live.

- Prior to the game he was the star of a massive tailgate party in the parking lot, where he met his adoring masses.

- Appeared on the Jumbotron in the middle of the fifth inning.

- Was a story on Sportscenter – SPORTSCENTER – after the game Saturday night.

- Appeared in studio with Joel Goldberg and Jeff Montgomery on today’s pre-game show. Montgomery gave him an autographed glove as a gift.

- Took part in the dance-off competition against Jimmy Faseler – whose spot as Everyone’s Favorite Royals Fan he usurped. Sung Woo won, of course. (Sorry, Jimmy.)

- Was featured at

Somewhere along the way he appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s gotten tweets sent to him from Jeremy Guthrie, Eric Hosmer, and Billy Butler (at least – there may be more.)

I managed to speak with him by phone on Saturday before he headed to the ballpark; I’m pretty sure I was more nervous than he was. He told me that he and his brother, Sung Jin Lee, who is also a Royals fan but not as involved on social media, would read Rob & Rany on the Royals back in the day and argue about the Royals afterwards. “I was optimist like you,” he told me. “My brother was like Rob, not pessimist, but…” he struggled to find the right word. “…realist.”

(A decade of Rob & Rany on the Royals, summed up by Sung Woo Lee in one depressing sentence.)

As an aside, do you know hard it was to be a Royals fan in South Korea in 1995? This was years before an MLB Extra Innings package existed, let alone and watching games over the internet. Sung Woo was able to watch the Royals play only rarely – he told me he saw most of their highlights from the satellite TV equivalent of CNN Headline News, a snippet here, a ten-second clip there. I lived overseas from 1984 to 1991 and it was almost impossible to keep up with the Royals – but at least I was already a Royals fan, and we came home to Wichita every summer from early June to mid-August. The level of devotion it took for him to become a Royals fan warrants every good thing that’s happened to him this week.

After we spoke, he had to take another phone call – from Jason Kander, the Missouri Secretary of State.

Tonight he attended a Sporting KC watch party at the Power & Light District – Sporting KC dropped by the tailgate yesterday to present him with one of their jerseys – and he’s a guest of the Hilton President hotel tonight. He’s supposed to be on 810 WHB in the morning. I believe he’s appearing on the Korean version of “Good Morning America” on Monday. And, of course, he’s throwing out the first pitch at Kauffman Stadium tomorrow night. Whereupon I expect he’ll get the loudest ovation heard at Kauffman Stadium since George Brett retired.

So, you know, just like your summer vacation.

At this point, I'm not willing to put any limit on just how big a story this can be, since I'm not entirely sure how this became such a big story to begin with. A feature on one of the national nightly newscasts? Why not? This seems like the exact kind of story that Diane Sawyer or Brian Williams would want to end their show with. A shoutout from President Obama? Well, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest is a huge Royals fan - I mean, it's in his Twitter handle. So who knows?

And really, if this story was just about how Kansas City opened its homes and its heart to a Royals fan from South Korea, that would be enough. It would be enough to feel for once an immense swell of pride at being a Royals fan, of being part of this community of people who paid back the devotion of a foreigner with the best of Midwestern hospitality. It would be a story we’d be talking about for years to come.

But of course, that’s only half of the story. Because the other half of the story is that ever since he arrived the Royals can’t stop winning. They were already on a hot stretch before he arrived, winning 9 of their last 12 games and handing the A’s their first home series loss in three months. But ever since Sung Woo Lee arrived at KCI Tuesday afternoon, the Royals have taken this to another level. They crushed the Diamondbacks that night, 12-2, hitting three homers with at least two men on base for only the fifth time in franchise history. The fifth inning that night was the first time the Royals had ever hit a three-run homer and a grand slam in the same inning.

Wednesday they edged Arizona, 4-3, with Mike Moustakas driving in all four runs; the next night they finished off the sweep, 6-2, as Jeremy Guthrie threw the Royals’ first complete game of the year. Friday the Royals returned home to play the Giants, and San Francisco should have scored five runs in the third inning – they had a stretch of six hits in seven at-bats – but Nori Aoki threw out a runner at third base (when Hunter Pence briefly overran the bag) and at home plate to end the inning, becoming the first Royal outfielder in over 40 years with two assists in one inning, and the Giants settled for only two runs. Butler and Gordon hit RBI singles in the sixth inning and the Royals won, 4-2.

And then yesterday, Sung Woo’s first game ever at Kauffman Stadium, the game was scoreless in the middle of the fifth inning. That’s when the Royals put his picture up on the jumbotron. The very next batter – Alex Gordon, leading off the bottom of the fifth – homered. The Royals would win, 5-0, as James Shields threw the Royals’ first shutout of the year. Prior to the game, Sung Woo had tweeted this out. His English was ambiguous – did “Go Royals… make it 5-0 today” mean he was rooting for them to win their fifth straight since he arrived? Or win today, by the score of 5-0? Decades from now, scholars will parse his tweet the way amateur historians watch footage of Babe Ruth’s called shot, trying to determine his intent.

The Royals won today, 7-4, with Sung Woo’s patron Duffy getting his second win since Lee arrived, after Duffy hadn’t won a game since June. Afterwards, Sung Woo waved a broom for everyone to see.

Today’s win was the Royals’ 15th in their last 18 games, meaning that – after not winning 15 of 20 games in more than 10 years when Dayton Moore made his infamous comment last year at the All-Star Break – they have now had three stretches of 15 wins in 20 games in the last 13 months. Today’s win was also the Royals’ seventh in a row, giving the Royals their second seven-game winning streak of the year, something they hadn’t accomplished since – wait for it – 1985.

And while the Royals have been winning, pretty much every team they’re trying to catch has been losing. When Sung Woo landed on Tuesday, the Royals had the seventh-best record in the AL, 1.5 games behind the Blue Jays for the second wild card. As I write this, they are in the catbird seat for the second wild card, at least 1.5 games ahead of every team chasing them. Their daily playoff odds, as calculated by sites like and Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs, have more than doubled in the last week. Their current playoff odds at sit at 59.2%, which is the highest number their daily playoff odds have been since daily playoff odds were invented.

And while those playoff odds include the possibility of a one-game winner-take-all playoff set against the Angels on the road just for the right to play in the ALDS, the Royals’ chances of avoiding the Coin Flip Game by winning the AL Central have risen even faster than their overall playoff odds. On the morning of July 31st – ten days ago – the Royals were five games behind the Detroit Tigers. That morning the Tigers traded Drew Smyly and Austin Jackson for David Price, while the Royals did nothing.

Ten days later, the Royals are a half-game behind Detroit. The Tigers lost three of four to the Yankees, and then after coming back to beat Toronto in the ninth inning Friday night, lost Saturday when Joe Nathan blew a one-run lead in the ninth and Joba Chamberlain gave up the walk-off hit in the tenth. Today they had a 5-0 lead through five innings with David Price on the mound; their lead was down to 5-4 in the ninth, and this time Chamberlain gave up the tying run. Had the Blue Jays finished off the rally there it would have been grand enough, but instead the Tigers and Blue Jays played ten more innings, exhausting both bullpens in the process, with the Tigers turning to starter Rick Porcello in the 17th inning – and the Blue Jays walked off in the 19th inning. The Tigers’ bullpen is gassed, they lost the series, and they lost both Joakim Soria (to an oblique injury) and Anibal Sanchez (a strained pectoral muscle) until September. Oh, and they don’t have a day off until a week from tomorrow.

Meanwhile, though the Royals host the Oakland A’s for the next four days, after that their schedule turns cupcake-easy, as teams that looked like contenders before the season – Texas and Boston – have packed it in instead. The Royals play one of their subsequent 19 games (a make-up against the Yankees) against a team with a winning record. In fact, after Thursday the Royals have just ten games out of 42 left against winning teams – four against the Yankees, and six head-to-head against Detroit.

Maybe that’s why, at the moment, estimates the Royals’ playoff chances (59.2%) as higher than Detroit’s playoff chances (55.9%).

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that one of the Royals’ greatest weeks on the field in a generation just happened to coincide with one of the Royals’ greatest stories off the field in a generation. Probably it’s a coincidence. A rational approach to what’s happened would tell you that of course it’s a coincidence.

But I’m just about ready to take leave of reason when it comes to these Royals. You see, Sung Woo Lee has done something even more improbable than spreading Korean pixie dust all over the organization, turning them from pretenders to contenders in less than a week: he’s made me want to believe again. Let’s be honest: after being bruised and battered for two decades, I was finally shattered by the Myers trade, and I’ve had a hard time picking up the pieces. I still wasn’t fully healed. Even a week ago, when the Royals were starting to pick up steam again, I was just waiting for them to start losing once again so I could mock them.

Well, I’m done waiting for them to lose. I’m done with being cynical, at least for now, at least until I close up this blog after the season. For most of the past two decades, ever since I started writing about baseball, writing about the Royals has always been a battle between my heart and my brain. And rooting for the Royals has always been a battle between wanting them to win and wanting to be right. As you know, I and my analytical brethren see the game a certain way, a way that has been embraced by much of baseball, but a way that the Royals have been painfully slow to adopt. For 20 years, I’ve had to choose between victory and vindication.

All that seems kind of silly right now. Baseball isn’t a morality play. It’s not a war between the old school and the new school. Maybe it once was, but the war is over, and as part of the peace terms, the new school won acceptance, and the old school held on to its relevance. Billy Beane is taking the A’s to their seventh postseason in 15 years. Bill James has three world championship rings. Friends and former colleagues of mine work in the front offices of a dozen different organizations, including the Royals – and if I had been willing to give up my dermatology practice last year, I might have joined one myself.

So sure, if the Royals make the playoffs I’ll be proven completely wrong about The Trade, and look like an imbecile. I will owe some people an apology. It won’t be the first time. It won’t undo a generation of sabermetric advances in the game. It won’t render my entire career a sham. But it will be the first time in my adult life that I’ll get to see my team in the playoffs. That seems like a reasonable trade.

So I’m all in now. Besides, the trading deadline has passed, so the time for moves and decisions is over. Now’s simply the time to play the games and see what happens. To quote Julius Caesar, “the die is cast”. To quote Jake Taylor, “Well then, I guess there’s only one thing left to do…win the whole f****** thing.” I’m going to do my best to turn my analytical brain off for the next two months, and just enjoy the ride.

Either way, this week will have been one of the most special weeks in my lifetime as a Royals fan. Because you see, Sung Woo didn’t fly all the way here from South Korea to see the Royals win. He came here to be a part of Royals Nation. He came here to be part of a community. He came here to meet us. And an astounding number of people have returned the favor.

In the end, this really isn’t a sports story, or at least it’s not a story about sports themselves. It’s a story about what sports does to us. It’s a story about how sports can bring us to a higher place, about why we cling to fandom no matter how bad our team is playing or how far away they are. The reason we’ve all stayed Royals fans through a generation of sadness and failure is because the joy we took from being Royals fans wasn’t derived solely from their success on the field. It was from the joy of being part of something bigger than ourselves. It was from the joy that comes from connecting with others. Being linked together by sadness and failure is far better than not being linked at all.

It’s funny. For twenty years I’ve been trying to make the Royals play better by writing about them analytically, by bringing a scientific approach to baseball and using it to show what the Royals are doing wrong and how they could do things better. And for twenty years maybe I’ve been doing it wrong. Maybe science and intellect doesn’t work here. Maybe it works in Boston and Oakland and Tampa Bay, but not in Kansas City. Maybe what works here isn’t reason, but emotion. Maybe what the Royals needed wasn’t someone to explain to them that OBP matters, but someone who loved them so much that he’d fly 6,000 miles to see them play. Maybe what they’ve been missing isn’t talent, but a talisman.

Sung Woo Lee is that talisman. Chris Kamler and Dave Darby – and Kevin Robinson, Ethan Bryan, Jeff Huerter, and please forgive me if there’s anyone else I missed – brought him to Kansas City, and he’s brought us all together. He throws out the first pitch tomorrow night, before a series against the Oakland A’s, who are the antithesis of the Royals in pretty much every way, from offensive philosophy to focus on player development to, well, level of success. Maybe tomorrow night reason will win, as it usually does, and the Royals’ dream bubble will be pricked by the best team in baseball. Maybe emotion and narrative will hold off for another night. Either way, I’ll be rooting for the Royals to win. Sung Woo’s been rooting for us for 20 years and we didn’t even know who he was. Now it’s time for us to root for him.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Offense.

Oh, yeah, I guess I have to talk about the offense.

As you and I saw this weekend, it’s not so hot, and it’s not getting better. The Royals scored five runs while getting swept in a three-game series in Boston; about the best thing you can say about their performance is that at least Jon Lester didn’t no-hit them again. Today’s shutout drops the Royals to 12th in the AL in runs scored, and they're just eight runs ahead of the last-place Red Sox. (Yes, the Red Sox have scored the fewest runs in the league. No, I don’t know how that’s possible.) The Royals have scored 87 runs in their last 27 games. Maybe Dale Sveum isn’t a witch after all.

The Royals now have the 9th-best record in the AL, meaning that even with two Wild Cards in play they need to pass four other teams to make the playoffs. They are closer to last place (4 games ahead of Minnesota) in the AL Central than first place (7 games behind Detroit). They are nearly as close to last place as they are to the second Wild Card (3.5 games behind Seattle). Since their 10-game winning streak ended, the Royals are 9-17, which is to say, since their 10-game winning streak started, they are merely 19-17.

The winning streak not only looks like an enormous anomaly, it looks like it might have been the worst thing for the Royals in the long run. Had they simply played .500 ball for six weeks after they fell into last place on June 4th, the narrative of the season would still be that they have been enormously disappointing. The winning streak vaulted them into first place, into the national consciousness for a few glorious days, and took the focus off the front office at a critical time.

(And before you argue that the Royals are just unlucky because they’re 10-20 in one-run games, I’ll point out that they’re 12-5 in two-run games. For the season, they’ve been outscored by four runs, which is almost exactly what you’d expect from a 48-49 team.)

For purposes of this exercise, we will continue to treat the Royals as contenders, because their front office thinks they are a contender, and the question of whether their front office deserves to keep working will be left for another day. This is their last gasp, and I assume they will do everything in their power to turn the season around. Again.

Only…I don’t know exactly what they can do. Let’s take a look at their lineup regulars:

C: Salvador Perez. Hitting .282/.327/.432. Fantastic defender. Started the All-Star Game. Signatory to one of the ten best contracts in baseball. I think they’ll keep him.

LF: Alex Gordon. Hitting .269/.350/.421. Fantastic defender. Selected to the All-Star Game. Keeps himself in frighteningly good shape; the best lead-by-example guy the Royals have had in years. I don’t know if he’ll be a Lifelong Royal, but I wouldn’t complain if an effort was made to make him one. He’s not going anywhere.

CF: Lorenzo Cain. Hitting .297/.334/.413. Fantastic defender. Unable to play more than about 120 games a year, but the Royals are well-situated with a replacement to fill in the gaps, hiding his only weakness. He stays.

SS: Alcides Escobar. Hitting .281/.317/.383. Very good defender. Under contract with club options through 2017 that would pay him $14.75 million over the next three years – combined. When your shortstop has a higher OPS than your team as a whole, your shortstop isn’t the problem. Or at least not your main problem. He stays.

Okay, now it gets a little more serious, in increasing order:

2B: Omar Infante. Only hitting .279/.317/.389, but he’s rebounded nicely after a miserable start, hitting .344 since June 8th. He’s in the first year of a four-year, $32 million contract, and is hitting almost exactly his career norm of .280/.319/.402, which is to say he’s exactly what the Royals should have expected. He’s also a massive upgrade from the likes of Chris Getz; it’s hard to see how the Royals can upgrade here, or why they should try.

1B: Eric Hosmer. Three weeks ago this was a much easier call. After hitting .320 through May 11th, Hosmer hit .186/.229/.266 from then through the end of June; my suggestion in early June that he be sent down to Omaha was being picked up by, well, pretty much the entire fanbase. But he’s now on a 16-game hitting streak, and is batting .424/.493/.627 in July. The overall package remains unacceptable for a first baseman, but the Royals refused to bury him when he was terrible; they’re certainly not going to give him a break now. Hosmer has not only played every game this year, he’s played every inning this year.

3B: Mike Moustakas was hitting .152/.223/.320 when he was mercifully sent to Omaha in late May. Since returning, he’s hitting .221/.284/.402. That is both 1) unacceptable and 2) a huge improvement, not to mention 3) about what Moustakas’ true ability is. The Royals could upgrade here, although there is the matter of Danny Valencia, who is hitting .373/.397/.525 against LHP this year; if the Royals do upgrade, they would probably want just a platoon bat so they could continue to let Valencia do what he does best.

This doesn’t leave a lot of options; the Royals probably aren’t going to pay what it will take to get Chase Headley out of San Diego, and it’s not clear that they should. The obvious fit here is Luis Valbuena, who is hitting .246/.331/.408 for the Cubs, and who is eminently available. But Valbuena wouldn’t be THAT much of an upgrade on Moustakas, and he’s under contract for two more years after this one, driving up his price for value that the Royals aren’t really looking for.

Anyway, we know this ain’t happening. Moustakas, like Hosmer, was selected by Dayton Moore’s front office in the first round. They can’t bring themselves to admit they made a mistake on Bubba Starling and Christian Colon; they’re not going to bring in someone to take Moustakas’ job.

RF: The Royals would be happy for someone to take Nori Aoki’s job; they’ve been disappointed with him practically since Opening Day. He’s hitting .255/.324/.316 with defense charitably described as “creative”, so it’s not hard to understand why.

I could see the Royals going for a name player here, possibly Alexis Rios, who is hitting .302/.330/.435 and could be a free agent in three months. (He has a club option for next year; at $13.5 million, he’s on the fence as to whether it should be picked up.) But Rios won’t be cheap either, and again, I’m not sure he’s a significant upgrade. His defense is below-average, and as I’ve written several times, Jarrod Dyson’s defense is so far above average that his overall value is higher than Rios, or Marlon Byrd, another name that’s rumored.

I don’t understand why the Royals won’t simply embrace their identity and go with the All-World Defense outfield alignment of Gordon, Dyson, and Cain. Against lefties, Aoki can start over Dyson; even this year Aoki’s hitting .348 against southpaws, and while it’s extremely unusual for a left-handed hitter to have a “true” ability to hit lefties better than right-handers, Aoki’s batting style is so unusual that it might actually be the case for him.

Oh, and just for the record: Jarrod Dyson’s .351 OBP leads the entire team. The Royals, as they have pretty much every year since I was in kindergarten, desperately need OBP. Replacing him for a guy like Rios or Byrd, who would add power but subtract baserunners, seems like treading water. Trading away prospects to do so seems like a mistake.

DH: And finally there’s everyone’s favorite punching bag, from Caller Todd on line one to Ned Yost. Billy Butler is hitting .269/.320/.348. He has three home runs. He has grounded in 14 double plays. He was Jayson Stark’s pick for the AL Least Valuable Player in the first half. He’s been terrible.

I’m not completely convinced he’s done, but I’m growing more convinced by the day. Yeah, he’s only 28, and even slow overweight unathletic guys usually can hang on until they’re 30. But while Butler isn’t unusually overweight, he is unusually slow and (seemingly) unathletic; even at his best he had literally one baseball skill. I wish it wasn’t so, but this looks like the beginning of the end for Butler. Remember, this slump didn’t come out of nowhere – last season he hit .289/.374/.412, his lowest batting and particularly slugging numbers since 2008. He kept his on-base percentage high by being more selective at the plate, but now that pitchers don’t fear his power anymore, they’re just pouring strikes over the plate and he’s been unable to adjust.

Ben Grieve was Rookie of the Year at age 22. At age 24 he hit 40 doubles and 27 homers. That winter the A’s traded him to Tampa Bay in the three-team deal that brought Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez to Kansas City and sent Mark Ellis and Johnny Damon to Oakland. As usual, Billy Beane picked the perfect time to trade Grieve; at age 26 he hit just .251/.353/.432, and he was done as a full-time player by the time he turned 27.

Billy Butler hit .313 with 29 homers just two years ago. It doesn’t seem like he should be done. I don’t want him to be done. But he might be done. And with a $12.5 million option for next year looming, his time in Kansas City is almost certainly done.

So the question is, can you improve upon him? If the question is “can you improve upon his performance in the first half”, the answer is unequivocally “yes” – Butler is a below replacement-level player this season, and that’s the very definition of what replacement level means. But they don’t need someone better – they need someone MUCH better, is why futzing around with Raul Ibanez is so pointless. This is where Rios or Byrd would fit better, if they just slotted those guys in at DH and left Dyson to roam the outfield.

The rumors that the Mariners are still interested in Billy Butler seem too good to be true, but it’s been well known that the Mariners have had their eye on Butler for years; their interest in him was compared by a trustworthy source to Dayton Moore’s interest in Jeff Francoeur, which is to say it’s almost inevitable that he’ll end up there in some capacity at some point. Maybe my dream of snatching Nick Franklin away from Seattle is unrealistic, although there’s no question they’ve soured on him. But if the Royals can get something – anything – for Butler at the same time that they replace him with an upgrade, they should do it. Yeah, Butler may help Seattle, and the Royals are chasing Seattle in the standings, but given the way he’s hit this year he’s equally likely to hurt them.

Speaking of Franklin, there’s the guy I argued over the winter represented his absolute upside: Ben Zobrist, who is out there, and given his ability to play all around the field, would be the perfect solution for the Royals, who could trade for him first and figure out where he played second. But Zobrist 1) may be paired in a trade with David Price to extract maximum value and 2) even on his own would be very expensive. Would you give up Miguel Almonte and Sean Manaea for him? If you were fighting to keep your job, you might. And given the unpredictability of pitching prospects, you might even be justified.

But the trade market fits the Royals as poorly today as it did three months ago when it was clear they needed to beef up their offense if they wanted to contend. There just aren’t that many hitters out there worth acquiring, and the positions that could stand an upgrade the most are the positions where the Royals have the most invested in their incumbent.

As I speculated they would last week, they went out and made a small trade for a middle reliever, grabbing Jason Frasor from the Rangers in exchange for Spencer Patton. Frasor has accomplished the neat trick of being a middle reliever who’s never had a bad year; in 11 seasons in the majors, he’s never had an ERA above 4.58, and he’s had an ERA under 3.7 in six of the last seven years. Patton has pretty numbers in Triple-A, or at least a pretty hit total – he had allowed just 26 hits in 46 innings. But he had also allowed 22 walks and 9 home runs, and he’s 26 years old; he’s 18 months older than Tim Collins. He’s a fair price to pay.

But if the Royals are going to replicate their whiz-bang second half from last season, they’re going to need more than a reliever. They need offense, and it’s no easier to figure out where they’re going to get that offense today than it was in May. Maybe they’ll surprise me and deal for Zobrist, or Chase Headley, or someone who at least has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order hitter for the next three months. But, well, it will be a surprise. And if this is who the Royals are, after getting swept in Boston thanks to a combination of managerial and lineup failure, then writing columns about who the front office should go after suddenly seems a lot less relevant than writing columns about whether their front office should just go.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Rotation.

I may or may not have been wrong to put the front office on the hot seat last month, but as time goes by it’s becoming harder for me to argue that I wasn’t wrong about Jason Vargas. Despite not calling one of the best pitchers’ parks in baseball home for the first time since 2007, Vargas is doing what he always does: give up about a hit an inning and a home run every nine innings, and make up for striking out a below-average number of hitters with very good command. His FIP this year, which calculates his expected ERA based on his walks, strikeouts, and homers allowed, is 4.10. Last year, it was 4.09. In 2011, it was 4.08.

But his ERA this year is the best of his career at 3.31, and it’s not close – his previous career high was 3.78. Some of that is luck – batters are hitting .232 with men on base compared to .277 with no one on – but most of that is defense. Nine pitchers have thrown 35 or more innings for the Royals this year, and all nine have a lower ERA than FIP. As a team, the Royals are a lowly 10th in the AL in strikeouts, 7th in homers, and 5th in walks – but rank 3rd in fewest runs allowed. It can’t be emphasized enough – so much of the credit given to the Royals’ pitching staff is actually owed to their defense.

Specifically, their outfield defense. With the standard caveat that defensive numbers are unreliable and half a season is a small sample size, here are the players who have saved the most runs defensively in the AL this season according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved metric:

1. Josh Donaldson  17
2. Alex Gordon     17
3. Lorenzo Cain    15
4. Jackie Bradley  12
5. Jarrod Dyson    12
6. Leonys Martin   12

Keep in mind, Dyson has played less than 400 innings in the field, not even 50% of the games the Royals have played this year. You can make a compelling case that the Royals have the three best defensive outfielders in the league.

This raises a number of issues – like why the hell, exactly, are the Royals screwing around with Raul Ibanez – but for purposes of this column, it’s a reminder that the Royals’ rotation isn’t nearly as good as it looks. And that’s okay, because while the rotation isn’t great, it is perfectly designed to play to the Royals’ strengths. The Royals play in a ballpark that takes away home runs, and they have an outfield that takes away doubles and triples. That’s a setup perfect for a flyball pitcher, and Vargas is just such a beast – his career groundball rate of 37.5% is significantly lower than the league average of around 43-44%.

So while Vargas isn’t as good as he looks, 1) he’s still roughly a league-average pitcher and 2) his pitching style is perfectly catered to the Royals’ strengths. Which is pretty much exactly what the Royals claimed when they signed him. We’re only half a season into a four-year contract, and there’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. But for now, this looks like a shrewd move by the Royals, and my criticisms of the signing look to be in error.

(Having said that…how good would Phil Hughes look in the Royals’ rotation right now? Hughes has a higher ERA (3.92) than Vargas, because he’s pitching in front of a defense that’s nearly as bad as the Royals’ defense is good. But his FIP is 2.62, thanks to a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10-to-1 (!). He is quietly one of the breakthrough players in the major leagues this year; if he was pitching in front of the Royals’ defense, he’d probably be an All-Star. If I was wrong to think that signing Vargas was a bad idea, I wasn’t wrong to think that signing Hughes was a better idea.)

Thanks to Vargas, and thanks to the Royals finally developing two quality starters in Ventura and Duffy after not developing even one in the previous eight years, the rotation is in good shape overall. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t use an upgrade, because after getting pounded for 14 runs in 8 innings in his last two starts, Jeremy Guthrie has a 4.56 ERA. With this defense, that’s unacceptable. I expect him to do better in the second half – Guthrie is actually pitching better than he did last year, with a higher strikeout rate and the same rate of walks and homers. But last year he was gifted with an incredible and unsustainable split between runners on base and the bases empty. As much I want to #EmbraceTheLuck, the thing about luck is that it usually ends. Guthrie’s not a bad pitcher, and he’s easy to root for, but if the Royals want to contend, they need better from their fifth starter.

And then there’s James Shields. I know some people don’t want to face the uncomfortable fact that if he were pitching as well as he was expected to pitch, the Royals might well be leading the Wild Card race right now. But he’s not. His 3.65 ERA isn’t terrible, albeit not nearly an ERA worthy of an ace. But Shields’ ERA is deceiving, because he’s allowed nearly as many unearned runs (12) as the rest of the pitching staff combined (15). There’s plenty of evidence that the distinction between earned and unearned runs in modern baseball is pointless and silly; Michael Wolverton’s article originally published 10 years ago remains relevant today.

Factor in those unearned runs, and Shields has allowed 4.48 runs per nine innings – in front of the best defense in the league. (And if it doesn’t make sense why we give Shields credit for a good defense here but don’t cut him slack when the defense makes errors behind him – it’s because there’s no difference between, say, Alcides Escobar booting a groundball for an error and Escobar being unable to reach that ball before it goes into left field. When the Royals aren’t making errors, they’re getting to more balls than any other team in the league. For whatever reason, Shields is allowing more runs to score after an error than anyone else on the team.)

This is why Baseball Reference credits Shields with the grand total of 0.6 WAR this season. (By comparison, Kelvin Herrera has 1.0 WAR despite pitching just 39 innings.) Meanwhile, in Tampa Bay…you know I had to go there…Jake Odorizzi has a higher ERA (4.01) than Shields, but has allowed just one unearned run all year. And the Rays’ defense isn’t nearly as strong as it used to be. Baseball Reference credits Odorizzi with 1.0 WAR.

Yeah, Baseball Reference thinks Odorizzi has had a better season – despite pitching 30 fewer innings –  than James Shields. You might recall I wrote this in my Grantland column immediately after The Trade, in one of my rare lucid moments that wasn’t blinded by rage: “And if the Royals traded six-plus years of Wil Myers for seven combined years of control of Shields and Davis, this would almost be a fair deal…Ah, but the Royals also threw in three other prospects!”

And that’s the rub. Sure, Myers hit poorly for two months this year and then hurt his wrist. If the Royals had traded Myers for Shields and Davis straight up, you could make a strong case that the trade made the Royals a significantly better team in 2014, and that’s enough to justify it.

But they didn’t. They gave up Jake Odorizzi, who – by at least one measure – is outpitching James Shields. And is making the major league minimum. And is under contract for the next five years.

Here, let’s draw up a chart comparing what the Royals acquired and what they traded away. Start with 2013.

Acquired: James Shields (4.1 bWAR), Wade Davis (-2.1 bWAR), Elliot Johnson (0.7 bWAR)

Total value acquired: 2.7 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (1.9 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (0.3 bWAR), Mike Montgomery (DNP), Patrick Leonard (DNP)

Total value lost: 2.2 bWAR

By this measurement, the Royals gained a grand total of a half-win in 2013…and spent roughly $12 million in extra salaries to do so.

Now 2014.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR)

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR)

(By the way, how bad was Wade Davis last year? So bad that even accounting for his performance this year, he is still below replacement value overall with the Royals.)

Seems like a big gap – the Royals picked up 2.6 bWAR and traded away 0.3 bWAR. But wait! We have to account for the fact that in order to fill the void in right field caused by Myers’ departure, the Royals traded Will Smith for Norichika Aoki.

Acquired: James Shields (0.6 bWAR), Wade Davis (2.0 bWAR), Norichika Aoki (-0.7 bWAR) = 1.9 bWAR

Traded Away: Wil Myers (-0.7 bWAR), Jake Odorizzi (1.0 bWAR), Will Smith (0.5 bWAR) = 0.8 bWAR

So far this season, the Royals have picked up about one extra win because of the trade – and spent roughly $19 million in extra salaries to do so. Even if you factor the Aoki/Smith deal separately, the Royals have spent an extra $17-18 million to pick up 2.3 additional bWAR. That’s higher than the market rate for wins if the Royals had just signed a free agent instead.

And next year, while the Royals will have Wade Davis on a $7 million option, and a draft pick for Shields, they will have lost Myers, Odorizzi, and Smith, all of whom will be making around the major league minimum again in 2015. And again in 2016. Oh, and Mike Montgomery, who’s having his best season in the minors since 2010, and Leonard, who’s hitting .288/.375/.489 as a 21-year-old in high-A ball.

And keep in mind that while I like to use Baseball Reference’s WAR stat because it’s convenient to use, if I had switched to Fangraphs’ WAR metric – which takes into account not just runs allowed but a pitcher’s peripherals – the results wouldn’t have changed much. Shields looks much better by fWAR…but so does Odorizzi, who has struck out 116 batters in 101 innings this year. That would be the highest strikeout rate in Royals history for anyone with 90 or more innings.

The Royals claim that Shields adds incalculable value in the clubhouse, and I agree. I agree that he adds value, and I agree that we can’t calculate it. Shields may indeed deserve tremendous credit for Danny Duffy’s turnaround, if his example has helped Duffy realize the value of harnessing his emotions on the mound and not losing his cool. It’s also possible that Shields deserves only a small amount of credit, and the true credit goes to that outfield defense, as Duffy is even more of a flyball pitcher than Vargas (career groundball rate of 35.7%). Maybe Duffy has realized that if he pitches to contact, Gordon and Cain and Dyson will run it down, and that’s why his walk rate is more than a third lower than it was prior to this season.

But to justify The Trade, you pretty much have to hang your hat on the notion that Shields is single-handedly the reason why Duffy and Ventura are two of the best young starters in the league this year, because you can’t justify it with his performance on the mound. Now if Shields goes into Anaheim on the final Monday of September and shoves it for seven innings against Mike Trout and Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton, and Wade Davis then comes in and overpowers the Angels in the eighth, and the Royals win the winner-take-all Wild Card game…well, that victory alone may justify anything and everything. But right now, I remain about as convinced that it was a bad trade as I was 19 months ago. If the Royals do make the playoffs this year, they probably would have made the playoffs had they not made the trade. And if they don’t make the playoffs next year – or in 2016, or 2017, or 2018, or 2019 – they might well have made the playoffs had they not made the trade.

Getting back to 2014, the question is whether the Royals would be best served by making a trade for a starting pitcher. I’m of the opinion that any trade which makes the Royals a better team this season has to be explored, but as we saw on Sunday, the Royals don’t have to be desperate here. Bruce Chen stepped in for Jason Vargas and was solid if not spectacular, and the Royals won. This shouldn’t have been a surprise despite Chen’s lofty ERA; he is the one exception to the ERA-is-better-than-FIP rule this year. He actually has a lower FIP (3.14) than Vargas, but has a 6.46 ERA thanks to a ridiculous .402 BABIP. That’s a fluke; he’s pitched all of 31 innings this year, and I remain confident in his ability to be the perfect swingman, capable of filling whatever role the Royals need him for competently.

The Royals have what every contender needs: six viable options for their starting rotation. As we saw when Aaron Brooks was called up, they sure as hell don’t have seven. And only four of those starters are guys you really want to see on the marquee in September. But with Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel off the market, and a dozen teams looking at David Price and Cole Hamels and every other halfway-decent starting pitcher on the market, I fear that the cost of upgrading the rotation is simply too steep for the Royals to pay. But I wouldn’t particularly upset if, in the next two weeks, they find a way to prove me wrong.

Monday, July 14, 2014

State Of The Royals: The Bullpen.

After doing their best over the last generation to send me to an early grave, the Royals are now trying to kill my professional reputation. Almost immediately after I buried them in the Kansas City Star and put the front office on double-secret probation, the Royals went on their longest winning streak in 20 years. When that streak had concluded and the Royals were atop the AL Central at the 70-game mark since before the AL Central even existed, I had no choice but to start the embarrassing yet exhilarating process of taking back all the mean things I had written about the team over the past two years.

Naturally, they then got swept at home by the Mariners, beginning a stretch in which they went 8-13, and lost six straight against the two teams they need to beat most, the Mariners (for the Wild Card) and the Tigers (for the AL Central) before winning yesterday. So I think it’s safe to say that I have no idea what’s going on with this team, and I should stop making any kind of predictions about them.

If you want to be pessimistic, you can focus on the fact that as bad as it has been for the Royals recently, it could be – should be – a lot worse. The Royals have won more than a few games this year either because their opponents gave the game away or through sheer dumb luck. The quintessential example of this is the opening game in Toronto on May 29th, when Salvador Perez hit a routine ground ball to shortstop Jose Reyes with the Royals losing and two out in the ninth. But Reyes bounced a routine throw to first base, Jarrod Dyson motored around from second base to tie the game, and the Royals won in extra innings.

Exactly one month later, the Royals won the rubber game at home against the Angels when in the sixth inning Albert Pujols was thrown out stretching a single into a double – no, that’s not accurate, he was thrown out sauntering a single into a double, because he apparently confused Alex Gordon with Alex Trebek and couldn’t be bothered to even slide into second base. It was the kind of Little League baserunning that would have caused a riot in the press box if, say, Yasiel Puig had done it, but because it was St. Albert, it was pretty much ignored even though Erick Aybar hit a home run two batters later. This meant the game was tied in the ninth instead of an Angels lead, and then Howie Kendrick muffed the pivot on a potential inning-ending double play ball by Perez, and Omar Infante hit the walk-off single one batter later.

And then there was Wednesday’s game in Tampa Bay, in which the Royals had stranded a hundred baserunners and appeared doomed to lose the rubber game just ahead of the crucial four-game series against Detroit. With two on and one out in the ninth, Perez skied a high fly ball that managed to travel 338 feet – into Crawford’s Corner down the left field line, where the fence at Tropicana Field juts in sharply, and turned a ball that would have been an out in 13 other American League parks (I’m guessing it would have hit off the Green Monster in Boston) into a game-winning home run. It might be the shortest over-the-fence home run of such import in Royals history. (It was only the 27th home run in team history that turned a deficit into a lead in the ninth inning or later, so that statement isn’t as outlandish as it sounds.)

And proving once again that the notion of momentum in sports is an absurd fallacy that should have been abandoned generations ago, the Royals followed up their biggest win of the season by coming home and getting spanked by Detroit, 16-4, their most lopsided loss of the year.

That’s what the pessimists will say. An optimist will point to the Royals' 10-18 record in one-run games and make the convincing argument that the Royals have simply been very unlucky in close games, and given that they have maybe the best one-two relief combo in baseball, there’s no reason why their luck can’t turn around in a heartbeat.

There’s validity in both arguments, which is why they cancel each other out. The Royals have outscored their opponents by five runs all season, which leads to an expected record of 48-46. They are 48-46.

The bottom line is that the Royals have not played well enough to make the playoffs, not even the Mediocrity Parade that is the second Wild Card race in the American League. If they continue to trend downward, they aren’t that far away from restoring the narrative that it’s time to blow everything up, including the front office – they are merely four games ahead of the White Sox and Twins, who are tied for last place in the division. But let’s assume that they’re still in it for this season, which is reasonable given that 1) they’re only 2.5 games behind the Mariners, who hold the final Wild Card spot right now, and 2) this front office is all-in for 2014, so unless and until they get fired, the Royals will be buyers, not sellers, at the deadline.

But with the All-Star Break upon us, it’s time to take an unflinching look at where the Royals are, how they can get better, and whether they can be good enough to win. Let’s start with the bullpen.

A year after posting the lowest bullpen ERA (2.55) by any AL team since 1990, the Royals’ bullpen ranks a mediocre 7th in the league with a 3.62 ERA. No position in baseball regresses as fast as relievers do, and we can’t be surprised by this.

What is surprising is that the two guys the Royals were most counting on haven’t regressed at all; they might even be better than expected. Greg Holland hasn’t been quite as good as last year; he’s given up more walks, hits, and home runs per inning than last year, and his ERA has jumped over 50%. Of course, it’s “jumped” from 1.21 to 1.82, and he’s surrendered fewer than one baserunner per inning. Last year, Holland had the highest strikeout rate (40.4%) in Royals history (min: 30 innings). This year, he has the third-highest strikeout rate (39.3%) in Royals history.

And the second-highest rate in Royals history (40.3%) is currently occupied by his set-up man, Wade Davis. Davis replaced Luke Hochevar, who was outstanding last year (1.92 ERA, batters hit .169/.227/.306 against him), and has been even better, with a 1.13 ERA and an opponent’s line of .112/.221/.112. Going back to last September, when he moved back to the bullpen, Davis has not allowed an extra-base hit in 39 straight games covering 43.2 innings.

With the caveat that the Play Index only allows you to search for consecutive games, not consecutive innings, here are the longest streaks without allowing an extra-base hit by a reliever that I was able to find:

Pitcher         Year        IP

Greg Cadaret    1988-89    47.1
Frank Linzy     1967       46.2
Larry Andersen  1990       45.1
Terry Forster   1978-79    44.1
Frank Williams  1986-87    44.0
Wade Davis      2013-14    43.2

Larry Andersen’s stretch was so impressive that the impending free agent middle reliever was traded during it for a prospect named Jeff Bagwell.

It’s much more difficult to search for starting pitchers, so it’s possible that a starter has had a longer stretch. But I can’t rule out the possibility that, with another week of dominant pitching, Wade Davis will have gone longer without giving up an extra-base hit than any pitcher in major league history.

So the difference between this year’s bullpen and last year’s bullpen isn’t the 1-2 guys. It’s everyone else. What distinguished last year’s bullpen wasn’t simply that Holland and Hochevar were so good, it’s that literally no one was bad. And I mean literally no one: 13 pitchers made more than half their appearances out of the bullpen for the Royals last year, and every one of them had an ERA of under 4, all the way down to Everett Teaford, who threw two-thirds of an inning. This year, 13 pitchers have made more than half their appearances out of the pen, and six of them have ERAs above 4. (And that doesn’t include Aaron Brooks, who made one start and one relief appearance, and sucked both times.)

Louis Coleman had a 0.61 ERA last season. He has a 7.48 ERA this season. The Royals aren’t blowing leads in the 8th and 9th inning; they’ve lost just one game all year that they were leading after seven innings. But they’re getting killed in the middle innings, and in tie games. They’re 5-10 in games that are tied after six innings, and have a losing record in games that are tied at the end of every inning between the second and the seventh.

They have two other effective relievers besides Davis and Holland in Kelvin Herrera and Aaron Crow. My skepticism in Crow’s ability is well-documented, and he gave up two home runs to the Tigers Saturday night – he has a 2.75 ERA, but just 21 strikeouts in 39 innings, and that’s not sustainable. I have much more confidence in Herrera, and he has mostly justified it this year – he has a 2.08 ERA and hasn’t allowed a home run all season. He’s not pitching quite that well; his once pinpoint command is gone (16 walks in 39 innings), and while his fastball has lost a bit of velocity this year, he’s throwing his changeup a little harder, which isn’t a good combination. Still, he’s a very good seventh inning guy.

The problem is that in today’s game you really need two seventh inning guys, and you also need a lefty. Thanks to Tim Collins losing the strike zone this year, the Royals don’t have either. Collins is back in Triple-A, and while he’s dominating hitters down there, he continues to walk enough guys (six in 12 innings since his return engagement there started two weeks ago) that the Royals justifiably have no confidence that he can get hitters to chase his stuff if he returns to the majors. Collins’ absence means that a contending team is actually going with Francisley Bueno as its #1 left-hander out of the pen. The Royals claimed 38-year-old Scott Downs off waivers and have already given him important innings. Bruce Chen could have an important role as a lefty out of the pen, at least once Jason Vargas returns from his appendectomy.

But in the meantime, the Royals have a real need for one more good reliever in their bullpen, which is why they turned to Yordano Ventura in a key spot yesterday, a wise if unrepeatable decision. The lack of that extra reliever was glaring on Tuesday against Tampa Bay when the Royals entrusted Bueno to keep a 2-1 deficit from expanding in the eighth inning. (Kelvin Herrera was the obvious man to pitch there; afterwards the Royals claimed he had tightness in his shoulder and wasn’t unavailable.) A cynic would point out that they had the perfect guy for that role in Will Smith, who they traded to Milwaukee to get Nori Aoki for one season to fill the void in right field created by the…but we’re not going to go there. (And in fairness, after having a 1.36 ERA through the end of June, Smith gave up 9 runs in 2 innings in his first three appearances of July, taking the loss in two of those games and blowing a save in the other. I’d still love to have him on my team for the next five years.)

It seems kind of galling that the Royals, who had a historically good bullpen last year, would find themselves needing to trade for a reliever the very next season. But that’s the nature of bullpens, which are, after all, made up of relievers. The good news is that unless you’re trading for an elite closer-type guy, you can usually get a reliever of some utility at the trading deadline for a minor prospect. (We should know. The Royals have dealt many such relievers away over the years, and with rare exceptions – Collins himself in the Kyle Farnsworth/Rick Ankiel trade – haven’t gotten anything substantial in return.)

If the Royals have truly given up on Collins, you would think that he alone would bring back a highly useful reliever. Collins, keep in mind, is still just 24 years old – I mean, he’s younger than Michael Mariot. He’s under club control for three more years after this one, and even at arbitration-enhanced salaries, he’d be a heck of a guy to take a flyer on for a rebuilding team that’s looking to deal a quality reliever in his contract year.

Whether the Royals deal Collins – who I would miss, both for his unique physical characteristics and for his consistently above-average performance – or go the more conventional route of trading a second-tier prospect, I fully expect them to acquire a reliever sometime between now and the trading deadline. It’s almost de rigueur for a team that fashions itself a contender to make a deal for a reliever in July unless that team has a truly elite bullpen. Last year, the Royals had one. This year, they don’t. Last year, they won most of their close games. This year, they’re not. One more reliever might not change their fortunes, but the Royals can’t afford not to take the gamble that it will.

Friday, June 20, 2014

We're Going Streaking!

If you want to understand why the Royals fan base is so jacked up, it boils down to one thing: This is the team Dayton Moore wanted. This is the team Moore promised was the payoff for our patience. The 2014 Royals, the culmination of The Process, are in first place at the 72-game mark of the season for the first time since 1980.

A lot can happen in three weeks of baseball, but what has happened in the last three weeks of baseball is almost unprecedented in Royals history, which is why I can take the lede to a column I wrote for the Kansas City Star on June 1st and tweak a few words to make it mean the exact opposite of what it meant then. I’ve written many things that look ridiculous in retrospect – but it usually takes a lot more retro than this.

You might recall that as a sop to the organization I finished my column with a caveat – “Moore deserves a little more time to turn this season around — if the team goes on a stretch where it wins 15 out of 20, as the Royals did last year, they might lead the wild-card race and quiet their critics.” The team didn’t go on a stretch where it won 15 out of 20 – it was already in such a stretch, starting the day that Dale Sveum was hired as the team’s new hitting coach on May 29th.

Along the way they won 10 games in a row for the first time since 1994, the second time since 1978, and the fifth time in franchise history. (By comparison, the Royals have lost ten games in a row six times – just since 2005.) I wouldn’t argue that it’s the most unlikely winning streak in team history; I think the 9-0 start to the 2003 season was more unlikely, coming from a team that had lost 100 games the year before. But I don’t think any winning streak in the history of the Royals has changed the narrative of the franchise quite like this one has. On the morning of June 7th – 13 days ago! – they were 29-32 and tied for last place. Yet tonight I’m writing this column from the press box at Kauffman Stadium, looking out at what I believe is the first sold-out crowd I have ever witnessed here – a sold-out crowd to watch a first-place baseball team.

And it’s time for me to acknowledge that…well…I’m not saying I was wrong – about the Royals, the Shields trade, Jason Vargas, a lot of things. It is June, after all, even if the deliriously festive mood among Royals fans – and the incredulous reaction from the rest of baseball – would have you believing it’s late September. But I have to acknowledge at least the possibility that I was wrong. Very wrong.

The funny thing is that the standings are not all that different from what I (or a lot of observers) expected before the season began.

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Kansas City  39  33  .542  ---
Detroit      37  32  .536  0.5
Cleveland    37  36  .507  2.5
Chicago      35  38  .479  4.5
Minnesota    33  38  .465  5.5

I projected the Royals to win 85 games before the season, which at the 72-game mark would project to a 38-34 record – they’ve literally won one more game than I would have expected. The Tigers are two or three games behind where I expected them to be, but I thought they were vulnerable before the season – I saw them as maybe a 90-92 win team. Honestly, the most surprising part of the AL Central standings are that the White Sox and Twins are so close to .500.

But of course here are the standings on the morning of May 19th:

Team          W   L  Pct.   GB
Detroit      27  12  .692  ---
Kansas City  22  21  .512  7.0
Minnesota    21  21  .500  7.5
Chicago      21  24  .467  9.0
Cleveland    19  25  .432 10.5

It’s when you look at the standings from a month ago that you realize the real story of the AL Central isn’t the rise of the Royals – the Indians have actually played better (18-11) than Kansas City (17-12) in that span – but the collapse of the Tigers. Detroit has followed a 27-12 start by going 10-20 since. That, to me, might be even more surprising than what the Royals have done. I didn’t expect the Tigers to play .692 ball all season, but I also didn’t expect the three-time defending AL Central champions, who had the best record in baseball a month ago, to lose two-thirds of their games for the next month.

And so here with are, 90 games left in the season, the Royals and Tigers essentially tied. The two teams represent a fascinating contrast of styles, both in terms of the way they were built – the Royals largely from within, the Tigers mostly through trades and free agent signings – and in terms of strengths and weaknesses. The Tigers have the two-time defending AL MVP in Miguel Cabrera, an almost equally terrifying Victor Martinez, and an excellent rotation in which Justin Verlander is suddenly, and clearly, the worst starter. The Royals have a good rotation that looks great because it’s backed by the best defense in the game; excellent team speed; and a bullpen that has been as impervious as the Tigers’ bullpen has been leaky. This could be a fascinating pennant race because it’s as much a referendum on baseball philosophy as it is a clash of two equally-matched baseball teams. (Just watch: the Indians will wind up winning it.)

There are still reasons to think the Royals are the underdog here, for the simple reason that, objectively speaking, they’ve been a little lucky. I’m not just referring to the first win in this 15-of-20 stretch coming after Jose Reyes made a bad throw to first base on what would have been the final out, or the last win in this stretch coming when Alex Gordon’s routine grounder hit the second base bag and took a crazy bounce, allowing Eric Hosmer to score in what turned out to be a one-run win. Although those certainly count.

What I mean when I say the Royals are lucky is this:

The Royals are hitting .261/.314/.372. They’ve scored 304 runs.
The Royals’ opponents are hitting .252/.315/.383. They’ve scored 286 runs.

The Royals are allowing more offense than they’re generating – pretty much the same OBP, and a touch more slugging. (The Royals have hit for a higher batting average, but once you’ve accounted for OBP and slugging – remember, batting average figures into both of them – there’s no advantage to a higher batting average.) Yet they’ve outscored their opponents by 18 runs. Some of that may be team speed; the Royals have stolen 31 more bases than their opponents while being caught only five more times. But that’s a difference of three or four runs, which might make up for the slight edge in power but no more. The Royals are, on paper, a .500 team.

The Tigers, meanwhile, have hit .272/.325/.431; their opponents have hit .259/.322/.409. Again, the Royals have an edge in speed, and these numbers don’t take into account the Royals’ amazing ability to throw out baserunners from the outfield. But at least on paper the Royals are the slightly inferior team.

But they don’t play games on paper, and they’re only slightly inferior. And the Royals have one additional asset the Tigers lack – a farm system capable of bringing back premium talent. I don’t get the Jeff Samardzija rumors at all; it’s not just that it might take someone like Ventura or Duffy to get the deal done, but that I’m not even certain Samardzija would represent that much of an upgrade on the five starters the Royals have now. (Keep in mind that I still consider the NL to be an inferior level of competition, and am always leery of players who move to the superior league.)

If David Price is available, then yeah, everything is on the table. I just don’t think the Royals need to waste valuable farm system resources on pitching when they still have an acute need for a hitter. The Ben Zobrist rumors intrigue me; Zobrist is arguably the most underrated player of the last decade, and from 2009 to 2013 ranked third in all of baseball in bWAR. They also frighten me – he’s 33, having an off-year that may or may not signal a real decline, and you know how I feel about the Royals trading with Tampa Bay. But he would fill a need at the one position the Royals seem willing to upgrade – right field, with the added benefit that 1) he could fill in at third base if Moustakas continues to hit .170, or second base if Infante gets hurt again, or pretty much anywhere else on the diamond; and 2) he has a club option for 2015, which would give the Royals another year to develop a long-term solution (hopefully Jorge Bonifacio, who is hitting .225/.295/.332 in Double-A but is only 21) at the position.

Dayton Moore has indicated the Royals are still a few weeks from making any big moves to upgrade the team. That makes sense if the Royals need more time to figure out where their needs are – but it’s pretty clear what this team needs, and it’s pretty clear that even one less win that is the result of waiting a month to pull the trigger on a trade could make the difference between playing in October and going home early.

But at least we’re talking about who the Royals need to acquire instead of who they need to deal. A few weeks after we were talking about what we could get James Shields, we’re talking about who the Royals would have to give up for David Price. Yeah, it’s only June. But if you think being in first place in June doesn’t matter, you need to see what I’m seeing right now, a packed house at Kauffman Stadium watching a first place team. Thanks to Alex Gordon, Danny Duffy, and yes, the Tigers, this season is turning out to be a hell of a lot more fun than we thought it would be a month ago. I’m going to hold off on proclaiming the Royals’ greatness, or flogging myself for daring to question the wisdom of the Shields trade, for a while longer. Let’s just enjoy being in a pennant race for now. For now, that’s enough.