Friday, July 1, 2011

Royals Today: Mid-Season Update.

Exactly halfway through the season, the Royals are 33-48, on pace for a 66-96 record, and all you need to know about this franchise is that the Royals have averaged a 66-96 record for the past 10 years. Honestly, a 33-48 record is about where I expected the Royals to be at this point in the season; I predicted that they would win 69 games, but I also expected them to be a better team in the second half of the season. If they pick up the pace even a little, they could win 70 games, something they’ve accomplished just twice in the last decade.

The shape of the team’s performance has to make you skeptical that they can accomplish even that. The Royals started 10-4, which means they’re 23-44 since – they’ve lost essentially two-thirds of their games for the last two-and-a-half months. Not even their annual dose of NL competition has helped; the Royals are 4-11 against NL opponents with this weekend’s series in Colorado left to play. From 2005 to 2010, the Royals were 58-50 in interleague play. In 2005 and 2006, the Royals went 19-17 against NL opponents even though they lost 100 games each season.

So yeah, there’s reason to worry that the Royals might be trending in the wrong direction. Then consider that the Royals have played 47 home games and just 34 games on the road so far. Then remember that the Royals have yet to play the Red Sox or Rays. Another 100-loss season is still in play. On the other hand, the Royals are playing much better than their 33-48 record. They’ve only been outscored by 49 runs all season; take out the Mazzaro game and their run differential is -32. Of their last 13 losses, ten of them have been by one or two runs. A preponderance of close losses is sometimes the fault of a leaky bullpen; in the Royals case it’s simply a matter of having rallies fall a run or two short.

Regardless, this season is less about wins and losses than it is about problems and solutions for 2012 and beyond. On that scoreboard, the Royals are doing a lot better than 33-48. While the well-documented problems with the Royals’ left-handed pitching prospects have people worried about the near future, let’s not forget that a pair of unexpected solutions have also presented themselves.

- Solution #1: Alex Gordon is hitting .293/.363/.479, in a down year for offense. He has 24 doubles, four triples, and nine homers – double those numbers, and you can see how impressive a pace he’s on. Thanks to Gordon, the Royals rank third in all of baseball in OPS from their left fielders, and they lead the AL by a country mile – the Yankees are second with a line of .264/.343/.418.

Gordon has also been a revelation defensively. His range has been fine – not outstanding, but certainly at least average. And his arm, of course, has been an absolute weapon. Gordon has 13 outfield assists in half a season. Thirteen assists is a good full-season total for any outfielder – in left field, it’s fantastic. In fact, Gordon has already tied the all-time Royals record for assists by a left fielder. Assuming my research is accurate, Gordon has tied Lou Piniella (1969) and David DeJesus (2009) with 13 outfield assists from left field. And there’s still half a season left to play.

Most importantly, Gordon has been healthy all season, missing only three games, all of them by manager’s choice. He leads the Royals with 2.8 WAR, and absolutely should be the team’s All-Star representative.

There’s always the chance this is a fluke half-season, but we’re talking about Alex Gordon here – the surprise isn’t that he’s playing so well, but that it took him until his fifth season in the majors to do so. Unlike his outfield mate Jeff Francoeur, Gordon has already shown the ability to fight his way out of a slump:

Opening Day – May 1st: .339/.395/.545
May 2nd – May 19th: .153/.219/.254
May 20th – Today: .315/.395/.521

There was some concern early on in the season that Gordon’s new-found production was coming at the expense of his plate discipline, and that once pitchers exploited his new-found aggressiveness he’d be in trouble. But Gordon’s patience has returned as the season has gone on  – he drew just eight walks in April, but 11 in May, and 14 in June.

In short, there’s every reason to think that Gordon’s performance is for real. Which means there’s every reason for the Royals to start thinking about offering him a long-term contract. The Royals have a policy of not offering contract extensions during the season, and in Gordon’s case I think that’s fine; even I would like to see him keep this performance up for a full season before I’m completely convinced. But if his final numbers are within range of where they are today, then locking up Gordon has to be the Royals #1 off-season priority.

Gordon is under team control for 2012 and 2013 as it is, but locking him for 2014 and 2015 – either through a 4-year deal or a 3-year deal with a club option – is imperative. Gordon will play the 2015 season at the age of 31. He’s a good athlete and takes very good care of his body, so I’m confident he will maintain his peak performance into his early 30s. The Royals have plenty of payroll space and can easily afford the 8-12 million dollars a year (depending on the length of the deal, options, etc.) that it will take to lock him up.

There’s another reason why the Royals need to keep Gordon around for the next several years, one that hardly ever gets talked about: he bats left-handed.

With Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas headlining the Royals’ farm system the last few years, the Royals seemed focused on getting right-handed hitters to protect Hosmer and Moustakas in the lineup. Two days before the Greinke trade, Moore was on radio talking about what they were looking to acquire, and while talking about the up-the-middle positions the Royals were trying to fill (catcher, shortstop, centerfielder), he specifically mentioned a “right-handed-hitting centerfielder”. This is why I took the Greinke rumors so seriously when Bernie’s Crew broke the trade – Lorenzo Cain fit Moore’s stated desire perfectly, and made me think the trade was nearly finalized when Moore was being interviewed.

The problem is that, aside from Hosmer and Moustakas, every other top hitting prospect in the system is right-handed. Alcides Escobar is right-handed. Billy Butler is right-handed. At second base, both Johnny Giavotella and Christian Colon (if he moves there) are right-handed. Salvador Perez is right-handed. Cain is right-handed. Wil Myers is right-handed. Even the low-level prospects with high ceilings, like Cheslor Cuthbert and Brett Eibner, are right-handed. Bubba Starling? Right-handed.

The best hitting prospects in the system who don’t bat right-handed? David Lough, who might be a fourth outfielder in the end. Jarrod Dyson and Derrick Robinson, who might be fifth outfielders in the end. Kila Ka’aihue and Clint Robinson, who are blocked with the Royals and no one takes seriously as prospects anyway. Finally, there’s the suddenly-interesting Rey Navarro, a switch-hitting middle infielder who just got promoted to Double-A the other day. And that’s it – you have to go down to the rookie leagues to find even a borderline prospect who doesn’t bat right-handed.

If you put together a projected Royals lineup for 2013, every hitter in the lineup is right-handed except for Hosmer and Moustakas. And Gordon.

C: Perez (R)
1B: Hosmer (L)
2B: Colon or Giavotella (R)
3B: Moustakas (L)
SS: Escobar (R)
LF: Gordon (L)
CF: Cain (R)
RF: Myers (R)
DH: Butler (R)

All things considered, you’d rather have more left-handed hitters in your lineup than right-handed hitters, simply because most starting pitchers are right-handed, so you’d rather have the platoon advantage more often than not. (Besides, most of the left-handed starting pitchers play for the Royals already.) You can survive with six right-handed hitters in your lineup, but it’s not ideal. Starting seven right-handed hitters is an invitation for abuse – every team in the AL Central will carry some low-slot right-handed specialist with the express purpose of carving up the Royals’ lineup.

There’s two take-home points from this:

1) The Royals need to figure out a lineup that splits up their three left-handed hitters, because it makes absolutely no sense to bat, say, Hosmer and Moustakas back-to-back followed by five right-handed hitters. At the same time, you don’t want any of them batting seventh. When you think about it, having Gordon in the leadoff spot makes a ton of sense. Gordon leads off, Hosmer bats third, Moustakas bats fifth, and you fill in the other guys as needed.

2) The Royals really can’t afford to let Gordon get away in two years.

- Solution #2: Five weeks ago, Felipe Paulino was a 27-year-old journeyman who had been traded for a washed-up veteran (Clint Barmes) and waived in the span of a few months. He had a career 5.93 ERA in the major leagues.

Today, if my life was on the line and I had to pick one Royals starter to win a game for me, Paulino wouldn’t just be my choice – he’d be the only choice.

It’s hard to overstate just how impressive Paulino has been. He entered the game on May 27th just minutes after he arrived at the ballpark to join his new team; he retired 13 of the 14 hitters he faced that night and the Royals won in extra innings. He’s made six starts since, and all of them have been impressive in their own way.

His last two starts may have been his finest work, even though he gave up nine runs in 15 innings. On June 23rd against Arizona, he gave up runs in each of the first four innings – and then retired twelve straight batters from the fifth to the eighth inning before tiring in the ninth. On Tuesday against San Diego, he gave up hits to five of the first eight batters he faced, and allowed three runs in the first two innings. He then pitched five more innings and allowed only an unearned run.

In the two starts, he walked just two batters, while striking out 15. If that’s how he performs when he’s struggling, sign me up for more struggles.

Since joining the Royals, Paulino has thrown 42 innings, and has allowed just 10 walks (one intentional) and two homers, while whiffing 36 batters. His peripherals are even better than his 3.21 ERA, and his ERA is easily the best in the rotation.

And like Gordon, there are very good reasons to think Paulino’s performance isn’t a fluke. That’s because there are very good reasons to think that Paulino’s 5.93 ERA before joining the Royals was the product of terrible luck more than terrible pitching. In 223 career innings, Paulino had walked 90 batters unintentionally – not great, but not terrible – and had struck out 201. He had allowed 32 homers, but he wasn’t a flyball pitcher – his groundball percentage of 42% is about league average.

The bottom line: Paulino’s xFIP – which is basically a measure of what his ERA should have been, given normal luck – was about 4.25. And there was reason to think that he was capable of improving on that mark – his average fastball velocity has been over 95 mph every year of his career. Last year, only Ubaldo Jimenez and Stephen Strasburg threw harder among starting pitchers.

Since joining the Royals, Paulino hasn’t been lucky; it’s just that he’s finally pitched the way you’d expect a man with his stuff to pitch, and his ERA finally reflects the way he has pitched. After barely a month with the Royals, Paulino looks like Dayton Moore’s greatest find since at least Joakim Soria. Oh, and he’s under club control through the 2014 season.

Paulino’s emergence goes a long way towards making amends for the struggles of Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer and the injury to John Lamb. Combined with Danny Duffy’s step forward this season, the Royals now have two potential above-average starters for their 2012 rotation. Luke Hochevar drives us crazy, but he’s at least worthy of the #5 starter’s role, with some upside.

There’s a big difference between having three holes in your rotation and two. The Royals need to be aggressive in acquiring an established starting pitcher between now and next spring, whether it’s on the free-agent market (which is incredibly weak, but does include Edwin Jackson, who I like) or on the trade market (which I plan to talk about in a future column.) But Paulino allows the Royals the flexibility of only having to fill one rotation spot with a high-end acquisition, as the remaining rotation spot can either be filled internally (if Mike Montgomery rights himself over the last two months of the season, or if Aaron Crow gets an audition in the rotation and nails it) or externally by means of another low-cost low-upside signing along the lines of Jeff Francis or Bruce Chen.

Meanwhile, the Royals have more relievers than they know what to do with – Nate Adcock is the only guy in the pen who isn’t dealing, and guys like Kelvin Herrera and Kevin Chapman are already dominating in Double-A. The lineup features five obvious solutions (Gordon, Butler, Hosmer, Moustakas, Escobar), and in Giavotella and Cain, the Royals have two major league-ready hitters who could step in tomorrow and provide average production at second base and in centerfield.

I know it’s hard to look past the wreckage of another 95+ loss season. But the Royals are still well positioned to go into 2012 with reasonable expectations of a .500 season, and a shot at contending if everything goes right. They’re still well positioned to ascend to the top of the AL Central in 2013, and stay there a while.

As I write this, the Royals are getting destroyed by Colorado, 9-0. And you know what? It’s still a good day as a Royals fan, because down in Omaha, Mike Montgomery returned to the rotation after skipping a start and responded with 6.2 shutout innings in his best outing of the season. I know things look dim in the here and now. But I’m still convinced that light at the end of the tunnel really is the sun.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


I have very few rules in life, but one of them is this: when I get a direct message on Twitter from @sportsguy33 asking for my email address, I give it to him.

This morning, I made my debut over at Grantland, which you can read here. Hold on to your seats, but it's about the Royals. If you're shocked at how short the article is, keep in mind that my original draft was approximately 237,000 words. (Apparently there are these people called "editors" whose job it is to make your articles more concise. Who knew?)

If you're a regular reader of mine, then this column doesn't break a lot of new ground, but it's a good primer for the regular sports fan. And it was worth it if only to confirm that yes, aside from the Expos/Nationals, every other sports franchise in America has made the playoffs since 1986.

(It was cut from the original piece, but even more humiliating is this fact: between the four major sports, there have been 24 expansion franchises which have started play since 1986. EVERY ONE OF THEM HAS MADE THE PLAYOFFS TOO, with the exception of the Houston Texans, who have been in existence for all of nine seasons. All four baseball expansion franchises have been to the playoffs at least twice, and all four have been to the World Series.)

It's too soon to know whether I'll be writing regularly for Grantland or not; if I do, I'm sure I won't be writing about the Royals every time. So you'll still see me here writing regularly.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the piece. Since Grantland doesn't allow for comments yet, feel free to leave your feedback here.