I missed you all. I hope the feeling was mutual.
I confess: I didn’t expect to be back already. I expected to take the blog off of hiatus when the Royals qualified for the playoffs again, but I didn’t expect it to be this soon.
I don’t just mean that I wasn’t that confident I’d be writing here again in 2015 – at least back before the season began, I was as skeptical of the Royals’ playoff chances as most pundits – but that I’m back with ten days still left in the season. I figured that if the Royals made the playoffs, like last year, it would come down to the final weekend of the season. The Royals are playing here in Chicago next Monday through Thursday, and I thought if I got really lucky, I might even get a chance to watch them clinch a playoff spot in person for the second straight year.
Instead, they just took care of business in front of a packed home crowd in Game 152, in the first series of a homestand which preceded an eight-game season-ending road trip. And as enjoyable as that moment was – winning their first AL Central in…oh, right – it was really just a coronation of the inevitable: according to FanGraphs, the Royals’ odds of winning the division cracked 99% on August 8th and didn’t dip below 99.9% after August 23rd. All of the drama and angst of the last month disguised the fact that what everyone was freaking about was how the Royals would perform in the playoffs. That the Royals would make the playoffs is something we’ve taken for granted since well before summer vacation ended.
Read that last sentence again and tell me how insane that would have sounded a year ago. Imagine if the Royals hadn’t made the playoffs last year, or even if they had lost the Wild Card game. I have to think we wouldn’t have been nearly as blasé about the fact that they all but clinched a spot in the ALDS round six weeks ago. For good or ill, 2014 changed everything. Almost all good, of course, but as I wrote for Grantland earlier this month, last year the Royals were Cinderella; this year they’re the stepmother.
Speaking of Grantland, for those of you who thought I wouldn’t write about the Royals at all when I put the blog on hiatus, you have some catching up to do.
Here’s what I wrote about the Johnny Cueto trade.
Here’s what I wrote about the Ben Zobrist trade.
Here’s what I wrote about the 2015 Royals, and Dayton Moore, and once again reassessing a general manager that I’ve spent countless words assessing on this blog over the last eight years.
And now I’m writing here, at least until the Royals are eliminated from the postseason, and then maybe we can pick this up again next September. I could get used to that.
We have a lot to cover. Let’s get to it.
- First off, I just want to thank all of you for your generous support of the Syrian people. In my last column, I asked for your donations to the Syrian American Medical Society, and I am pleased to report that even as donations continue to trickle in, we have raised a substantial sum of money – the current tally is $18,562. Donations have come from as far away as the Netherlands as well as U.S. soldiers stationed in Bahrain and Afghanistan, and from at least one prominent person in an MLB front office. Even as the horror in Syria continues to escalate, and the consequences in the form of a global refugee crisis continue to worsen, it has been very gratifying to see so many of you offer your support. I’m taking some donors to the White Sox-Royals game next Tuesday, and I owe a lot more of you a ballgame or lunch. I look forward to paying up.
Whether you are able to offer your financial support or not, you can make an immeasurable difference in the lives of some Syrians by pressuring your elected representatives to open the door for more refugees to be resettled in the United States. It’s the right thing to do, and you never know if the child of a Syrian immigrant may grow up to do something useless, like blog about the Royals, or something a little more useful, like creating the most valuable corporation on the planet.
- I’m not going to recap the season and rehash a bunch of stuff you already know about. But with the playoffs almost here, there are four main topics that I think haven’t been covered enough, all of which have playoff implications:
1) The importance of clinching the #1 seed has been highly overstated. The importance of clinching the #2 seed has been significantly understated.
Look, I’d rather be the #1 seed than the #2 seed, no question. Home field advantage in the ALCS is valuable. But it’s not that valuable. In fact, it’s not even the most valuable advantage to be gained from getting the #1 seed. The bigger advantage is getting to face the winner of the Wild Card game in the ALDS, which is an advantage for two reasons:
1) The Wild Card team will have a worse record than the winner of the AL West this season, and will probably be a worse team;
2) The Wild Card team will likely – but not definitely – have used their #1 starter in the Wild Card game, limiting their ace to just one start in the ALDS.
If, say, the Astros win the Wild Card game, then not having to face Dallas Keuchel twice is definitely a benefit for the Royals, given that they are a little weaker against left-handed pitchers. The same would be true with the Rangers and Cole Hamels. It’s not as true with the Yankees, as it’s not clear who their ace is – I assume Tanaka would start Game 1, but Luis Severino has been a sensation since he arrived from the minors, and on any given day their best starter might be Michael Pineda.
This, of course, assumes that the Wild Card participants can line up their rotation so that they can use their ace in the Wild Card game. Strange as this sounds, if you root for the #1 seed, you actually don’t want a five-team pileup for the Wild Card spot at the end of the season. You want teams to have the ability to use their best starter on Tuesday night so that he can’t pitch on Thursday against your team. If a team has to fight tooth-and-nail just to get into the Wild Card game, and so they use their #1 starter on Saturday (the next-to-last day of the season) in order to clinch a playoff spot, and somehow win on Tuesday anyway…they’ll have their #1 starter lined up to pitch on Thursday on regular rest.
So a lot can happen. In an ideal scenario, the #1 seed will face a vastly inferior team whose ace starter won’t be able to pitch until Game 3. But the ideal scenario doesn’t happen all the time.
But while I’d like the #1 seed, the #2 seed offers many benefits of its own. First off, you’re guaranteed not to face the #1 seed in the first round. Assuming Toronto holds off the Yankees in the AL East, they are the bear that no one wants to see – they have a run differential of +217, which is kind of ridiculous. Holding the #2 seed means the Royals don’t have to face Toronto in the first round – and more to the point, means that there’s a real chance they won’t have to face Toronto at all. Even the biggest playoff mismatch doesn’t give the favorite more than about a 65% chance of winning their playoff series, and in a best-of-five it’s rarely more than 60%. Assuming the Royals win their own playoff series, that gives them a 40% chance of facing a team other than Toronto in the ALCS. Which would be nice.
But the main advantage the #2 seed gives you is home field advantage in the ALDS. This is an important point to consider: home-field advantage is MUCH more important in the LDS round than in the LCS round or in the World Series, because 1) it is a five-game series and 2) the higher seed is awarded home field in games 1, 2, and 5.
That second point is key. Back in the days of the best-of-five LCS, from 1969 to 1984, the team with the better record would have home field in games 3, 4, and 5. Which meant that if the series went 3 games, the lower seed would have more home games (2) than the higher seed (1). In 1980, the 97-win Royals won the first two games of the ALCS at home against the 102-win Yankees before winning Game 3 at Yankee Stadium when George Brett made Goose Gossage cry.
(The 1980 Royals, by the way, were 85-46 and had a TWENTY game lead on the division at the end of August. They had a six-game lead on the Yankees for home field advantage. They then went 8-18 in September to cough up home field in the ALCS. And then they swept the Yankees anyway. Food for thought.)
But in the current HHAAH setup, there’s no way the higher seed can play fewer home games than the lower seed. Here’s a breakdown of which team gets the most home games, depending on how long the series goes:
3-game series: higher seed
4-game series: even
5-game series: higher seed
Now compare that to the traditional HHAAAHH setup of the LCS and World Series:
4-game series: even
5-game series: lower seed
6-game series: even
7-game series: higher seed
In a best-of-seven series, the only way the higher seed gets an extra home game is if the series goes a full seven games, which mathematically occurs 31.25% of the time (which matches up very well with the historical odds). You’d still rather have it than not have it, but more than two-thirds of the time it’s going to end up a moot point. But in a five-game series, the higher seed will end up with an extra home game 62.5% of the time, literally twice as often as in a seven-game series.
Barring a pretty epic collapse, the Royals will have at least the #2 seed. They will have home field advantage in the round in which it has the most value. There’s a 40% chance they won’t have to face the Blue Jays in the ALCS. And if they don’t, that means they’ll have home field advantage in the ALCS regardless of whether they’re the #1 or #2 seed.
So by all means, root for them to get that #1 seed over these last ten days of the season. And then hope that whichever Wild Card team they face used up their ace in the Wild Card game. But don’t lose any sleep over it. The #2 seed is still an excellent position from which to win a pennant. And the Royals are already guaranteed home field advantage in the World Series should they get there.
2) While all the focus in September has been on a pitching staff that is in disarray, not much attention has been given to the fact that the offense is in its best shape of the season.
As you may have heard, the Royals are not playing well in September. Even after winning their last two games, they are 9-13, and may finish with their first losing month since July, 2014. They just won back-to-back games for the first time since September 2nd and 3rd.
And it’s not hard to see why: the pitching staff has sucked. The Royals have given up 126 runs in 22 games, a performance which brings back the halcyon days of 2005. It’s been a staff-wide effort. Of the 18 pitchers who have appeared in a game in September, just three have ERAs under 3.50 this month. Johnny Cueto got bombed. Greg Holland coughed up a win. Things have been so bad that Wade Davis has given up two runs! (One was unearned.)
This isn’t a great state of affairs, but I would submit that its impact on October is likely to be quite minimal. Jeremy Guthrie’s 15 runs allowed in 14 innings might smear the stat sheet, but will have no impact on a postseason in which he is almost certain not to be rostered. The same goes for Joba Chamberlain. And I would argue – in fact, I argued before it even happened – that Holland’s blown save last Friday night against the Tigers might have actually been the best thing that happened to the Royals. By blowing the lead and the game, Holland finally made it safe for people to admit that the emperor had no clothes. His fastball, which averaged 95.7 mph last season – how long ago that feels right now – started the year in the 92-94 mph range, but slowly ticked up until he was averaging close to 95 in July – and then his velocity totally cratered. It’s rare to see any pitcher lose close to 5 mph off his fastball in the middle of a season; it’s almost unprecedented to see a pitcher do that without pitching hurt.
After his last outing, the Royals finally admitted Holland was pitching hurt. Today, they finally admitted that he’s been pitching hurt since August…of last year. Now, let’s not make too much of this: Holland suffered a tear in his ulnar collateral ligament last August, and it was reflected in his velocity, which took a slight dip. But lots of pitchers keep throwing with a slight tear in the ligament. Luke Hochevar pitched with one for years and had a brilliant year as a reliever before his finally tore the following year. Masahiro Tanaka has been pitching with one for over a year now. Ervin Santana pitched with one for years…and an MRI years later revealed that the tear had scarred over. What the Royals did with Holland was neither wrong nor unusual.
In Holland’s case, though, the injury just kept getting worse. And at some point this August, presumably, the tear became unsalvageable. But so long as he was turning leads into wins, they weren’t going to pull him from the closer’s spot, which meant that the 9th inning of a one-run game in the playoffs was going to be entrusted to a guy who, on performance alone, was maybe the seventh-best pitcher in the Royals bullpen.
So while the loss Friday night hurt, the fallout from it has been all positive – at least for the Royals. (Although in the long run it might be the best news for Holland – at least now there’s both an explanation for, and a solution to, his missing velocity.) Wade Davis is the closer, not just now but through October. Holland not only is no longer closing, he’s no longer pitching. My worry all season was that even if the Royals took Holland out of the closer’s role, if all they did was swap him and Davis, it wouldn’t help things any, because they’d simply be swapping high-leverage outings in the 9th inning with high-leverage outings in the 8th. But now all the high-leverage outings will be going to Davis, and Herrera, and Madson, and maybe Hochevar and Morales and Duffy. The Royals’ Achilles’ heel the second half of the season just got armor plating.
Put it this way: would you rather have the #1 seed and the current iteration of Greg Holland as your closer, or the #2 seed and Greg Holland as your closer emeritus? I know which door I’d choose.
Really, all the angst over the pitching staff comes down to one person: Johnny Cueto. If Cueto is the guy who got lit up like the Griswold’s house at Christmas for five starts in a row, we’re in deep trouble. If he’s the guy he was before that, or even the guy he’s been in his last two starts, the Royals’ pitching staff is still in pretty good shape for the playoffs.
And the offense? Right now, relative to the league, the Royals’ offense is probably the best I have ever seen. Seriously.
All season the Royals have had an offense that was significantly improved from last year’s, with Mike Moustakas’ breakthrough, with Eric Hosmer having his odd-year bounceback, with Lorenzo Cain having his career year, with Kendrys Morales having the Comeback Player of the Year caliber season that the Royals thought he was capable of. The lineup went only five deep, but in 2015, five really good hitters goes a long way.
Then Alex Gordon got hurt, but the Royals quickly moved to replace him with Ben Zobrist, who – while a much more versatile player defensively – is almost eerily similar to Gordon offensively. Just look at their career numbers:
Alex Gordon: .269/.348/.435
Ben Zobrist: .266/.356/.432
So the lineup kept humming along as a good but not great offense. And then Gordon returned. And Omar Infante, whose .552 OPS was the lowest in baseball for anyone with 400+ plate appearances, got benched. And Alcides Escobar, who led off even though his .612 OPS is the second-lowest of any qualifying hitter in baseball, got dropped to the #9 slot. And suddenly, here’s what the top six hitters in the lineup have hit in 2015:
Alex Gordon: .274/.380/.434
Ben Zobrist: .285/.371/.465
Lorenzo Cain: .307/.363/.482
Eric Hosmer: .304/.367/.458
Kendrys Morales: .291/.355/.485
Mike Moustakas: .282/.347/.467
The top six hitters in the Royals lineup all have OPSes above .800. In 2015, that’s outstanding. There’s no superstar hitter in the lineup, and in fact these six hitters are almost interchangeable – each of them has a batting average between .274 and .307, an OBP between .347 and .380, and slug between .434 and .485. But there’s no weak link in that chain. The Royals come at you with one dangerous hitter after another, in a manner I haven’t seen before.
Salvador Perez, batting seventh, isn’t having a very good year, with a .258 average and a .280 OBP. But his 20 homers and .424 slugging average mean that he’s at least there at the bottom of this chain to drive home the many baserunners he finds. The Royals are still sifting through their options in right field, and have to hope that Alex Rios has figured something out, given that he’s hitting .384/.389/.593 since August 19th and .358/.368/.604 since returning from chicken pox on September 8th. But 1 through 6, at least, this lineup is fantastic.
All six players have an OPS+ of at least 115. The Royals have never had six players with at least 200 plate appearances and an OPS+ of at least 115. The Royals have had five such players just three times, and just once since 1980: the 2011 squad that had Hosmer, Billy Butler, and the Earls of Doublin’ outfield (Alex Gordon, Melky Cabrera, and Jeff Francoeur). The Royals had some superficially strong offenses around the turn of the century, when the league OPS was near .800 and Kauffman Stadium (thanks to outfield fences which were pulled in for a time) was one of the best hitters’ parks in the league. But when you let the air out of those numbers, the Sweeney/Beltran/Dye/Damon/Randa Royals lineup wasn’t as impressive as this one.
And not coincidentally, right around the time the Royals got both Zobrist and Gordon in their lineup together and moved Escobar down to the bottom, the team started hitting. They’ve scored 120 runs in 22 games in September, and that might understate their offense. Coming into tonight, they’ve hit .279/.331/.460 in September; the first two marks are their best since April, and their slugging average is the highest they’ve had in any month since September, 2011. They’ve hit 30 homers in September already; the last time they’ve hit more homers in a month was August, 2009.
The Royals have two weeks to get their pitching staff straightened out, and I’m hopeful they will. But the only thing they have to do with their lineup is leave it alone.
I’ve got two more topics I want to discuss, but I need to pace myself; you don’t run a marathon after sitting on the couch for four months. It’s good to be back. Be back again soon.