Thursday, May 7, 2009

Game On.

(Remember to tune in this evening at 7 PM; listen live at Royals’ Assistant GM Dean Taylor is scheduled to be our guest this evening.)

I’ve always felt that for all the advantages that come with having access to a team, in the sense of being a beat writer or a reporter or at least having graduated from J-school, the biggest advantage of my lack of access – of being an outsider – is the luxury of being able to take a step back from the day-to-day minutiae of baseball, and analyze things from a distance. Perspective is hard to obtain from up close.

Well, this year I’ve started to shed the “outsider” label just a little. It’s been a tremendous opportunity to have a radio show and to have access to people inside the game. But it’s also made me so focused on keeping up with every Trey Hillman decision and the ebb and flow of every single game, every single day, that maybe I’ve been missing the big picture just a little bit.

So I took a step back after last night’s game and realized: dammit, we’re good. The Royals are 17-11, which as Bob Dutton pointed out is the first time the Royals are six games* over .500 since the end of the 2003 season. As Will McDonald points out, the Royals could lose their next 36 games in a row and still be ahead of their pace from 2006, just three years ago.

*: “Games over .500” is a very vague term in the way it’s used; some people will say a team that’s 82-80 is two games over .500, while others will say they’re one game over .500. The second answer is technically true, because a team that’s 82-80 is one game ahead of a team that’s exactly .500 (81-81). However, the first answer is usually what people mean. My personal method is to use “games over .500” to denote half-games – in other words, (wins – losses). When I want the second meaning, I’ll use “full games over .500”. At 17-11, the Royals are three full games over .500, which means if they play .500 the rest of the season, they’ll finish with (81 + 3 =) 84 wins.

All the hair-pulling over Trey Hillman’s decisions in April obscured the fact that the most important job for any manager isn’t pushing the right buttons in the late innings, it’s putting his players in position to succeed in the first place. And the best manager can’t win without the horses. The Royals have the horses. They lead the league in runs allowed. They rank only 9th in runs scored, but given that they’re fifth in the league in slugging average and in on-base percentage, they have the makings of at least a league-average offense. The Royals have won with less.

Zack Greinke gets all the press, and deservedly so. But the Royals have played better than .500 ball in the games that The Big Grein does not start. They lead the American League in Beane Count, a statistic that Rob Neyer invented years ago that distills a team’s performance to the two most immutable categories of the game, homers and walks. And yes, Rob’s put one foot on the bandwagon.

For all the talk about how the Royals have been winning games they never would have won in the past, the fact that the Royals won a couple of close games wasn’t definitive proof that they were a good team. Those of you who have been reading for a while already know this, but the hallmark of a good team is not the ability to win the close games – it’s the ability to win the blowouts. Winning one-run games is mostly a matter of luck; winning the eight-run games is mostly a matter of talent.

What was meaningful about the win against the Twins on Saturday, or against the White Sox on Tuesday, wasn’t that it they were the kinds of wins that characterized good teams; it was that they weren’t the kinds of losses that characterized bad teams. Specifically, bad Royals teams. More specifically, pretty much every Royals team from 1995 to 2007.

So we had, I thought, established over the last week that the Royals were not a bad team. But I looked at last night’s game as a litmus test for whether the Royals were a good team. Against another first-place team that seemed to be playing over its head, against a soft-tossing finesse pitcher who has sucked pretty much non-stop since the end of 2007, a good team would bust out the whooping sticks early and often.

Carlos Silva is exactly the kind of control artist who always seems to throw his best games against the Royals: before last night, he had a 4.10 ERA in 14 career starts against KC, and had walked just five batters in 83 career innings.

The verdict? The Royals grounded into two double plays and left five men on base in the first four innings – and still led 8-0. Sidney Ponson did his best Brian Bannister impression, and the three worst pitchers on the Royals’ roster held the Mariners to one run.

And that’s why I’m here to tell you: game on. This team is good, this team is for real, and it’s time to commit fully and hang on tight all season long. I’m not saying the Royals are going to win the division. But I’m saying that from this moment on, every game has playoff implications.

“Wait a minute,” some of you are saying, “how is this any different than 2003?” To which I can only say, “I knew 2003. 2003 was a friend of mine. This team, sir, is no 2003.”

Y’all remember 2003, don’t you? Tony Pena tossing a coin to decide whether Runelvys Hernandez or Jeremy Affeldt would start on Opening Day? Ken Harvey hitting walkoff homers? Mike MacDougal walking a tightrope every ninth inning? Everything about that season was surreal from the start. NO ONE thought, prior to the season, that the Royals had any hope of contention. Then they started 9-0, and 16-3, and even then the feeling wasn’t “we’re going to win”, it was “we’re winning!” The emotions that I recall were more about living in the moment than in expecting the winning ways to continue. They continued a lot longer than we expected, and when the Royals went into the All-Star break leading the division by seven games, you could actually start to believe that the magic might last into October. But it was still clear that they were winning with magic.

This year, even before the season began people around the game were talking about the Royals as a sleeper contender, to the point where it actually got annoying – the New York Times predicted the Royals to win the division. Those predictions weren’t made because people thought the Royals were well-versed in sorcery; they were made because people thought the Royals had a lot of talent.

Which they do. The Royals’ second-best starter is better than anyone in the rotation in 2003 – or in any year from 1998 to 2006. Their closer is one of the very best in baseball. Their leadoff hitter has a .363 OBP and catches everything in centerfield. Their DH does little but hit homers – but he does hit homers. Their first baseman is hitting .276/.370/.425 and is just scratching the surface of his potential. Their second baseman, batting 7th, is hitting .359 – and while no one thinks he’s a .359 hitter, a lot of people think he’s a .310 hitter. They have Zack Greinke. They have a pitcher who’s 5-0, 1.13 in Omaha and can’t break into the rotation. None of their players are pregnant.

The Royals are 17-11, and they’ve outscored their opponents by 30 runs, which projects to a…17-11 record. They’re winning even with one of their best players on the DL. In the last week, they’ve won games by bashing 11 extra-base hits around the park; by scoring eight runs in five innings off a pair of Quadruple-A pitchers (who were both sent down to Triple-A immediately after the game); by outlasting the Twins on the road with an 11th-inning rally triggered by four walks; by storming back from a 4-0 deficit after six innings with a five-run seventh; by rallying from a 5-1 deficit to the White Sox to win in 11 innings, even after the home plate umpire blew a call on the potential go-ahead run in regulation; and beaten Carlos Silva like the rented mule he is.

Oh, and somewhere in between Greinke threw another shutout.

And in the process of writing this, the Royals have won their sixth straight game. A night after their fifth starter allowed one run in 7.1 innings, their fourth starter throws six shutout innings, striking out seven. Tomorrow the nominal ace of the staff takes the mound. And then the day after that, The Greatest Show in Baseball rolls into Anaheim.

So yeah: it’s on. It’s most definitely on. The Royals are 18-11, they lead the division by 2.5 games, and unlike 2003, I’m not even excited about how they have played. I’m excited by how I think they will play. I think they will play well enough to contend, and maybe even win, the division. I think that it’s going to be the most enjoyable summer for Kansas City sports in a few decades. I think that many of the 32,713 kids who came out to the park this afternoon will be fans for life.

I think that the city is ready to embrace this team. Last night’s game garnered a 7.5 rating, the highest in the history of Fox Sports Kansas City. The previous highest-rated game was…the game before, with a 6.4 rating.

I think that we’re going to have a lot of fun over the next few months. I think that at some point, someone is going to see me walking around suburban Chicago with my Greinke jersey on and accuse me of being a bandwagon fan. I think that my wife is going to feel like a single mother in late September and October.

I think all of this will happen, but I don’t know. But I know one thing.

It’s on. It’s most definitely on.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Royals Today: 5/6/2009.

With last night’s win, the Royals’ total of GWWNHWITP (Games We Would Not Have Won In The Past) moves to three in the last four games, and four for the season as a whole (I would add the April 12th game against the Yankees, when the Royals started a three-run rally with two outs in the eighth.) I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m having more and more trouble discounting the way the Royals are playing as simply a hot start, or simply a one-man show.

As Sam Mellinger points out, the Royals are only 10-11 when Zack Greinke doesn’t start – but they’re 16-6 when Sidney Ponson doesn’t start. The best way to look at is this: when neither Greinke nor Ponson start, the Royals are 10-6. If the Royals can play over .500 when their 2-3-4 starters are on the mound, they’re going to be fine. Greinke is more good than Ponson is bad. More to the point, Greinke is more likely to pitch like he is than Ponson is to pitch like he is and stay in the rotation.

Last night, the Royals should have taken the lead in the bottom of the seventh, when home plate umpire Jerry Crawford blew a call at the plate when A.J. Pierzynski used his Jedi mind trick on him. (Seriously, how is that a player universally considered one of the dirtiest players in the game so consistently gets umpires to make calls in his favor? If I were an umpire, I’d call every close play against Pierzynski on pure principle. Then again, if I were an umpire I’d probably sucker-punch Pierzynski just for the fun of it.) Living in Chicago, I was forced to watch the White Sox feed of the game, which featured this exchange during the replay:

Steve Stone: “Pierzynski is in perfect position to make the catch, applies the perfect tag…” replay shows Maier’s leg gets in first “…and we caught a break.”

Hawk Harrelson: “I don’t know – Jerry Crawford is in perfect position to make that call.”

And that, my friends, is why Steve Stone is one of the best in the business. And why Hawk Harrelson is not.

- The Royals drew 11 more walks in the game (granted, two intentionally) and now rank 5th in the league in that category. Last night they scored the tying run in the sixth on a bases-loaded walk, three nights after they scored the go-ahead run in the 11th on a bases-loaded walk.

The Royals have three bases-loaded walks this season. They had five all of last year.

- Coco Crisp walked four more times. I’m running out of ways to describe how surreal this is to watch a leadoff hitter who spits on pitches two inches out of the strike zone. Crisp is just the fourth Royal this decade to walk four times in a game. (Alex Gordon set the team record with five last year – two intentionally – on August 30th. Like Crisp, he didn’t score in the game either.) Crisp also quietly tied a team record earlier this year by walking at least twice in four straight games, a feat last done by Jeff King in 1997.

He’s never done anything like this before, but at this point I’d be shocked if he returns to his previous career walk rates. Maybe there’s something in the water this year; one of the two players in the league with more walks than Crisp is Marcos Scutaro, who has 26 of them. Like Crisp, Scutaro has never drawn even 60 walks in a season before.

- You know whose plate discipline is even more startling than Crisp’s? Jose Guillen. Guillen has drawn eight walks in just 14 games. Guillen’s career high in walks is 41; he had 23 all of last season. He has a .414 OBP, people. How’s that portrait coming along?

- I’ll save more Greinke talk for another column - although Craig Brown as a nice column here about how Greinke is maintaining his stuff deep into games - but I did want to address the hysteria over Greinke’s ERA+, which is currently at 1170.

ERA+ is a wonderful stat, in that it adjusts ERA for the context of era and league and ballpark so that you can directly compare the performance of two pitchers from any point in baseball history. But ERA+ has a flaw which only manifests itself at the margins. This is not a flaw that is unique to ERA+. ANY statistic that involves dividing one number by another – in other words, any rate statistic – has this same potential flaw.

The problem with rate statistics is this: as the denominator in the formula decreases, the statistic increases at an ever faster rate – and when that denominator approaches zero, the statistic increases so fast that it quickly becomes unreliable.

An example may make this more clear. Consider three different pitchers, all of whom have pitched 240 innings in a season:

Pitcher A averages 16 innings per home run.

Pitcher B averages 80 innings per home run.

Pitcher C averages 240 innings per home run.

Looked at this way, it appears that the difference between Pitcher C and Pitcher B is far greater than the difference between Pitcher B and Pitcher A. But look at it the other, more traditional way:

Pitcher A surrendered 15 homers in 240 innings.

Pitcher B surrendered 3 homers in 240 innings.

Pitcher C surrendered 1 homer in 240 innings.

The raw difference between Pitchers B and C is just two homers, whereas the difference between Pitchers A and B is 12 homers. But the first method gives a false reading of Pitcher C’s ability because the method breaks down as homers approach zero. If Pitcher C had not surrendered any homers, then – like Greinke’s ERA+ before he gave up a run – his “innings per home run” would have been infinite.

Like I said, you can have this problem with any rate stat – which is why we have things like innings pitched and at-bat limits, so that someone who goes 2-for-2 doesn’t win the batting title and someone with a scoreless inning doesn’t lead the league in ERA. The problem with ERA+ and the example I presented is that the denominator isn’t expressed in terms of opportunities, but in terms of outcomes. If we reverse the formula – if we expressed their home run rates in terms of homers per inning instead of innings per homer – then the numbers look like this:

Pitcher A: 0.063 HR/IP

Pitcher B: 0.013 HR/IP

Pitcher C: 0.004 HR/IP

Which looks much more reasonable, and in fact, this is the way it’s normally presented (albeit in homers per nine innings, for obvious reasons).

Any stat which involves dividing by the outcome is prone to breaking down as the outcome approaches zero. When you extract the park and league adjustments from ERA+, the formula is essentially (league ERA/pitcher ERA). In this case, the closer a pitcher’s ERA is to zero, the closer his ERA+ gets to infinity. We can solve the problem by reversing the formula, making Greinke's ERA+ roughly 8, but custom has already dictated that with ERA+, like with OPS+, the higher the better. In this case, though, Greinke’s number is so high that it doesn’t mean much other than he’s been really, really good.

Sorry for the math digression.

- Brayan Pena cleared waivers, and I think it’s time I give up and admit that I’m out of my depth when it comes to figuring out which players are going to be claimed and which ones aren’t. You’d think that out of 29 other teams, one of them would want a 27-year-old switch-hitting catcher with a lifetime .303 average in the minors (and who has hit over .300 in all four of his seasons in Triple-A) making the league minimum. You would be wrong, as I was. I’m happy to have him. If he does nothing else for the Royals this year, he’s already earned all the ink I’ve spent writing about him with his game-altering pinch double against the Yankees on April 12th. I suspect we’ll see him again in September, if not sooner.

- I have a confession to make. I do a mean Guy Fieri impression.

- Finally, I’ve been meaning to address Luke Hochevar’s contract situation for awhile, and with Sidney Ponson making (hopefully) his last start tonight, now’s as good a time as any.

Hochevar came into the season with 1 year, 17 days of service time. The rules state that 172 service days = 1 full service year, so in order to keep Hochevar from being a free agent until after the 2014 season, the Royals can not afford to give him more than 154 days of service time this year.

Complicating things is that there are, I believe, 182 days (exactly 26 weeks) from Opening Day to the last Sunday of the season. This is why a player can get a full year of service time even though he’s not called up until a week into the season (see, for instance, Kerry Wood’s rookie year.)

Anyway, if you just count from the last day of the season and work backwards, the tipping point for Hochevar was May 4th. If the Royals had called him up before May 4th, then he would have qualified for free agency a year early. (This became a source of concern in the Jazayerli household when Gil Meche’s back acted up, and it looked like the Royals might need Hochevar to make Meche's next start – on May 3rd.) In other words, the Royals have no reason to keep Hochevar on the farm any longer purely from a service time standpoint.

There is the additional concern of trying to keep him from qualifying as a “super-two” player, a player who’s eligible for arbitration before he has three full years of service time. The math here is a little tougher to figure out, because the line that separates super-two players from the other players with 2+ years of service time moves from year to year. Generally, the dividing line falls between 120 and 140 days of service time. That means the Royals would need to keep Hochevar down on the farm for somewhere in the range of 5-7 more weeks.

This would be dumb, not only because the Royals need him, but because the benefits of avoid the super-two pale to the benefits of keeping a player out of free agency. If the player’s any good, then the couple extra million he’ll make that first year of arbitration is nothing compared to getting to keep a quality player for another season. If he’s not any good, then that first year of arbitration isn’t going to cost you much anyway.

So root for a slugfest tonight – the Mariners are cooperating by sending Carlos Silva to the mound – and hope that the Royals pull out the game despite, not because of, Ponson. And maybe we’ll finally get around to the rotation we should have started the season with in the first place.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Zack Stat Pack: Start #6.

I’m reasonably certain that when I wake up tomorrow, I will discover that it’s actually April 7th, that the season has yet to begin, and that I just had this really vivid dream about Zack Greinke that I’ll be embarrassed to mention to anyone. Something about six straight wins to start the season, two shutouts, a franchise-record scoreless streak, an SI cover, a first-place team. I know: I have got to lay off the Mountain Dew right before bed.

But until that happens, I’m savoring the moment.

- Coco Crisp has been an igniter on offense and brilliant with the glove, but do you all realize that if Crisp had, say, Carlos Beltran’s arm, Greinke’s scoreless streak might be at 59 and counting? As brilliant reader Curtis pointed out, Crisp has figured into all three runs Greinke has given up in his last 59 innings:

1) The unearned run against Detroit came after Mike Aviles’ relay throw hit Gerald Laird in the back – but that throw would have beaten Laird to the bag if Crisp had hit Aviles with the cutoff throw sooner.

2)The first run against Toronto came when Vernon Wells singled in Marcos Scutaro from second with two outs, after Scutaro doubled. Scutaro reached second when he turned a routine single into a double by challenging Crisp’s noodle arm.

3) Scutaro scored again in the third, after drawing a walk and then going first-to-third on a single to center. Scutaro would have held at second against a centerfielder with a strong arm – and would not have scored on Alexis Rios’ GIDP.

Put a strong arm – not a howitzer, just someone who can throw the ball 200 feet on the fly – in center field, and Greinke is one inning away from breaking one of the most hallowed records in baseball. Saturday’s start in Anaheim, near one of the world’s media epicenters, would be a circus that would shame Barnum & Bailey. Maybe it’s better this way.

- Greinke threw a six-hit shutout tonight, and what’s ridiculous is that with a smidge of luck and a smidge better defense, he could have had a perfect game. Look at the six hits:

Hit #1: A groundball by Scott Podsednik that bounced off Alberto Callaspo’s glove into right field.

Hit #2: A.J. Pierzynski breaks his bat and fists a floater in no-man’s land in short center field, right between three fielders.

Hit #3: Scott Podsednik hits a fast grounder that appears to hit the lip of the infield grass, taking a funny hop that eats Billy Butler up, and Podsednik races to second with a double.

Hit #4: Pierzynski hits a line drive that bounces off of Mark Teahen’s glove for a single.

Hit #5: Alexei Ramirez golfs a pitch into short center field for a bloop single.

Hit #6: Jayson Nix hits a looping drive that lands a few inches inside the foul line (it might have grazed the chalk) for a double.

For the game, opposing hitters were 6-for-21, or .286, on balls in play against Greinke. For the season, his BABIP is also .286. The BABIP for the Royals as a team is virtually indistinguishable at .289. In other words, Greinke hasn’t been lucky this season. He comes by that 0.40 ERA honestly. Honestly.

Alright, so here’s a woefully incomplete list of all the records that Greinke is taking aim at:

- He’s the third Royal, after Bret Saberhagen in 1987 and Jose Lima in 2003, to win his first six decisions of the season. (Lima started 7-0.)

- Only Saberhagen had won his first six starts of the season. Saberhagen lost his seventh.

- Zack Greinke has thrown two complete-game shutouts. The rest of the American League has combined for…hold on, let me do the math…zero.

- Greinke has reached double digits in strikeouts three times this year. In franchise history, only three pitchers have ever whiffed 10 or more batters more than three times in a season: Kevin Appier (four times in 1995, five times in 1996), Bob Johnson (five times in 1970), and Dennis Leonard (six times in 1977).

- Greinke now has six double-digit strikeout games in his career, at age 25. Only five Royals have more: Leonard with seven; Tom Gordon, Mark Gubicza, and Bret Saberhagen with eight; and Appier, with 21. Greinke has a good shot at being second on this list by the end of the year. If not the end of the month.

- Greinke now has two starts this season with 10 strikeouts and no walks. No Royal in history has had two…in their career. Tom Gordon comes closest; he did so once on July 17th, 1989 – and also struck out ten without a walk on April 12th that year, only in a relief appearance that spanned 6.2 innings.

- Greinke has four starts in his career with 10 strikeouts and no walks. Every other pitcher to suit up for the Royals in their history has combined for four such starts: one by Gordon, one by Gubicza, one by Johnson, and one by Rich Gale.

Unfortunately, the otherwise-excellent Play Index at does not allow me to run queries like “lowest ERA for a pitcher six starts into a season” and “most opposing hitters brought to tears after an at-bat”. So this will have to do for now; if I find the time to raid the Baseball Prospectus database for more goodies, I’ll let you know.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Royals Today: 5/3/2009.

After last night’s epic win, I tweeted, “Looking for another reason to take KC seriously? There's no way we win tonight's game last year...or the year before...or the year before...” Then I read the game recap, where I learned that Zack Greinke was thinking along the exact same lines: “We never win these kinds of games here,” he said. “Along about the seventh or eighth inning, I was thinking, ‘If we win this, things have changed.’ ”

We won. Maybe things have changed.

If you’re not a Royals fan, you may have difficulty understanding just how frightening it is when we play the Twins. The Indians may have dominated us more over the last 15 years, the White Sox may be the target of more personal hatred…but in the late innings of a tight ballgame, no team fills me with more dread than the Twins – and no venue frightens me more than the Metrodome. I’m willing to wager that in the span of time when the Royals were saddled with the worst bullpen of all time (1998-2006, roughly), no team stole more games from the Royals in the late innings than Minnesota.

This series looked like another data point for the theory that the Twins just have our number. Joe Mauer finally returned to the majors on May 1st, just in time to play the Royals – and homers in his first at-bat, then doubles in his second at-bat, then grabs four more hits yesterday. Last night they responded to Royal runs in the second, fifth, and sixth with rallies of their own. After the Royals rallied to tie in the seventh and take the lead in the eighth, Juan Cruz started the bottom of the inning with a pitch that was about 15 feet outside, a fitting introduction to a 24-pitch outing which included two walks, a single, a wild pitch, a passed ball, and just ten strikes. I was tempted to shut off the TV after Delmon Young’s single tied the game; the odds that the Royals would pull this game out were too slim to justify watching it.

But they did. They did because David DeJesus made two great hustle plays in left field in the eighth inning. They did because Ron Mahay came in and finally looked like the pitcher he was during the first half of last season, retiring Kubel-Mauer-Morneau in order in the eighth and ninth, and working into the tenth. They did because Coco Crisp masterfully worked Joe Nathan for a 12-pitch at-bat to lead off the ninth, and even though he eventually grounded out, he set the tone for a grueling 25-pitch inning which insured that Nathan wouldn’t come out for the tenth. From Dick Kaegel’s writeup: “Bench coach John Gibbons turned to Hillman after Crisp’s at-bat and said: “All we have to do is keep seeing some pitches, and hopefully we’ll only see Mr. Nathan for one inning.’”

The Royals won because after Mahay gave up a double to Brian Buscher leading off the tenth – which just missed clearing the fence – it was the Twins who, for a change, had problems with the fundamentals. Carlos Gomez, one of the fastest players in baseball, fouled off two bunt attempts before harmlessly flying out to center. And the Royals won because Trey Hillman decided to see what all this talk about using Joakim Soria for more than one inning was about, and brought him in to pitch in the 10th inning of a tie game. They won because after a wild pitch moved Bruscher to third, Tony Pena (who had apparently already broken the hamate bone in his left hand) made a nice play on a grounder to hold the runner at third, and then Billy Butler made a nice player on a grounder down the line.

But mostly, they won because after a half-decade of talking about the importance of on-base percentage, the Royals have finally figured out how to use the walk as an offensive weapon. Crisp didn’t swing at any of the six pitches he saw in the top of the 11th, the first three and the last of which were balls. Willie Bloomquist showed bunt, but pulled the bat back twice on pitches out of the strike zone, and realizing that there was no point bunting on a pitcher who couldn’t throw strikes, worked his own five-pitch walk. Butler grounded out, but Mark Teahen pinch-hit and walked on four pitches. R.A. Dickey relieved Craig Breslow and got John Buck down in the count, 1-2, but Buck worked the count full, fouled off two pitches, then took ball four to drive home the go-ahead run. Callaspo then hit a slow grounder to plate another. Against the best control pitching staff in baseball, the Royals had scored two runs, in the 11th inning of a tie game, without benefit of a hit.

Maybe things have changed. Much like this game went a long way towards eliminating doubt that the 2003 Royals were in it for the long haul, the fact that the Royals had the last word in a game that had ten lead changes tells me that they’re not going away anytime soon.

- Thanks to scoring 34 runs in their last four games, the Royals now rank a respectable 10th in the league in runs per game. A few days ago, there was a big disconnect between the Royals offensive stats and their run totals, due primarily to a poor performance with runners in scoring position. The team’s performance with RISP has evened out, as it tends to do, with some nice work the last few days.

The Royals have scored 112 runs and allowed 96; according to BP’s Equivalent Runs, they “should” have scored 114 runs and allowed 97. The difference is immaterial. The team is playing well because they should be playing well.

- You want to know the biggest single reason why the Royals are playing better than last year? The Royals have drawn 86 walks in 24 games; they rank 7th in the league in that category. The last time the Royals ranked in the top half of the AL in walks? 1989. Before that? 1980. I’m not saying the Royals should be putting Kevin Seitzer in their Hall of Fame yet. But it wouldn’t be a bad idea to start working on the portrait.

- The man leading the Royals’ foray into the land of plate discipline is Coco Crisp, who has 17 walks already. I’m as shocked as anyone. Crisp’s career high in walks is 50 – he’s on pace to get there before the All-Star Break. On the one hand, when a 29-year-old player is on a pace to basically double his career high in a category, you have to suspect it’s a small sample size fluke. On the other hand, walk rates are one of the most stable statistics in baseball. Guys hit .400 in April and .200 in May all the time; drawing 17 walks in a month and four walks the next is a much rarer event.

Crisp certainly has the look at the plate of someone who is looking to work the count at every opportunity. If you knew nothing about his track record, you’d think he absolutely could draw 100 walks in a season. But it’s hard to just ignore the track record. I mean, Crisp played for the RED SOX the last three years, a team for who plate discipline is akin to a religion, and never walked in even 10% of his plate appearances. Could Seitzer have really found a way to get Crisp to double his walk rate?

- If Crisp does draw 100 walks this year, he’ll be the first Royal to do so since, again, 1989. Who did it that year? Kevin Seitzer.

- Alberto Callaspo. My God. Batting average is subject to a lot of variation, but still – he’s hitting .382, he’s second in the league with 11 doubles, and he’s struck out just four times all year. He’s not going to hit anywhere near this well all season – one of the best hidden indicators of batting average is line drive percentage, and Callaspo’s mark of 18% this season is right around league average – but he’s a legitimate .300-plus hitter. He’s also spent all but two games this year batting 6th or lower in the lineup. Is there any legitimate reason why Callaspo shouldn’t be batting third?

- Willie Bloomquist. Um, yeah, I didn’t see this coming either. Before the season, the one reason to be a little intrigued about Bloomquist was that last season, his walk rate spiked, as he drew 25 walks in under 200 plate appearances and posted a very solid .377 OBP. My feeling was that the Royals would beat that out of him in quick order, but instead he’s maintained that discipline, already drawing eight walks. Throw in his defensive versatility and clubhouse presence, and that justifies a roster spot. Then add in a fluky batting average and some accidental power, and suddenly you have a guy who’s winning games for the Royals.

I mean, this next phrase is inarguable: Willie Bloomquist willed the Royals to victory last night. He singled in the first to set up a run. He homered with two outs in the fifth to tie the game. After hitting into a fielder’s choice in the seventh, he stole second base and then scored on Butler’s single. In the ninth he singled again, stole second again, but was stranded at third base. In the 11th he was sent up to bunt, but walked instead to key the three-run rally. It might not last for long, but for now: all hail The Golden Spork!

(That still doesn’t mean he has any business starting against a right-handed pitcher, mind you.)

- Can we all agree that the Sidney Ponson Experiment has failed? Please? Yes, Ponson has pitched well in three of his five starts – but the other two starts were so bad that he still has a 7.16 ERA. Meanwhile, Luke Hochevar is trying to become the Zack Greinke of the Pacific Coast League – after last night’s seven-inning shutout he’s 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA. Is common sense really that rare a commodity in the Royals’ front office?

“We looked at the video,” Hillman said. “We see stuff. Hopefully, sooner than later, it will play out. I plan on him making his next start if that’s the question.”

I think we have our answer.

- Should we be a little worried about Juan Cruz? It’s not just his performance last night, it’s the fact that in 11.1 innings, he has just six strikeouts. For a guy who had 158 Ks in 113 innings the last two years, it’s something which warrants watching.

- There is a body of evidence which suggests that when it comes to platoon splits, all hitters are essentially equal – if one player shows a larger platoon split than another, it’s likely due to pure luck.

I can only assume this evidence did not take into account the curious case of one Miguel Olivo.

Olivo is having a pretty awful year overall, but once again he’s hitting lefties: he’s 8-for-26 (.308) against them with a double, triple, and homer. The problem is that he’s 3-for-27 against RHP with 13 strikeouts. Watching Olivo, it’s pretty obvious the reason for the discrepancy: the man is completely hypnotized by the slider. He can neither identify nor lay off it.

Statistically speaking, Buck is a similar player, but his approach against RHP is much, much better, and I hope that Hillman eventually adopts a platoon of sorts, starting Buck against RHP and Olivo against southpaws (with Buck occasionally DHing). Olivo’s career line against RHP is .222/.258/.365. There’s no reason to give those numbers relevance any more than necessary.

- Finally, from the “Awkward Moments in Radio Broadcast History Department”: this week’s podcast is here. Towards the end of our interview with Keith Law, my connection to the studio suddenly died. I quickly called back in, and when Keith was still talking about Mike Moustakas when I finally got re-connected, I was hopeful that no one would notice my absence.

But then Keith finished his sentence, and there was a pause for a second…two seconds…five seconds, before my co-host Jason Anderson finally rescued us by saying, “I completely agree.” What I didn’t know was that just seconds before I got re-connected, Keith had started his sentence by saying, “Rany, I think this kind of up your alley too” – setting me up for a reply which never came. You can hear this exchange around 39 minutes in, if you’re the kind of person who, you know, holds up traffic to look at car accidents.

Also, this is a good time to point out that I should be making regular appearances promoting the show every Monday morning on The Border Patrol with Steven St. John and Nate Bukaty, usually a little after 9 o’clock.