Sunday, October 26, 2008

Part VI: If I Could Only Turn Back The Clock when God and her were born.
(from "Shelter From The Storm," Blood On The Tracks)

Recap: The Royals woke up on the morning of Sept. 1 with a 57-79 record. They were 20 games out of first place and had just suffered through a 7-20 August, a pace that would make them 42-120 for a full season; yes, that is 1962 Mets territory. No one could have imagined that this same team would put together the franchise's best month since the glory days of April 2003. Yes, the Royals would go 18-8 in September, the best record in the majors for the month. That pace would get them somewhere around 110 wins for a full season. The hot September allowed the Royals to avoid a fifth straight last place finish. KC ended up 75-87, in fourth place, 13 games out of first.

Highlight: So many to choose from...two doubleheader sweeps, seven-game and five-game winning streaks, six wins by five or more runs...but the highlight might very well be a single game in Detroit on Sept. 24. After winning the first two games of the series, the Royals went for the sweep. Even better, a win in this game would put KC ahead of the Tigers and their $137 million payroll with three games left in the season. The much-maligned Brian Bannister got the start and pretty much mowed down the offense that was supposed to score 1,000 runs this year. Banny finished his year on a high note, scattering seven hits and only walking one in six innings. The Royals exploded for seven runs in the fifth inning and cruised to a 10-4 win. With wins in the next two games, the Royals wrapped up fourth place.

Lowlight: Um...the Royals lost three in a row from Sept. 7-10. That's about it.

MVP: David DeJesus had an outstanding month, hitting .388/.443/.565. His 1.008 OPS was only the second time this season a Royal regular (more than 50 AB) had an OPS over 1.000 for a month. The other? David DeJesus in June with a 1.039.

Cy Young: You could argue that Zack Greinke, Joakim Soria, Ramon Ramirez and even John Bale had slightly better months, but I am giving this to Kyle Davies. In one of the most promising developments of the whole month, Davies appeared to be a completely different pitcher than the one who scuffled through his previous major league stints. Davies went 4-1 in his five starts, with a 2.27 ERA. He struck out 24 while only walking seven; his prior K/BB ratio for 2008 was 47/36. On Sept. 15, he tied a career high with eight strikeouts, then tied it again two starts later. One of the most intriguing questions the Royals will have in spring training next year is whether Davies finally figured out how to pitch, or if he just had a good stretch. If it is the former, the Royals' rotation suddenly looks, dare I say, formidable.

LVP: Probably Miguel Olivo. Splitting time at catcher with John Buck (each played 13 games), Olivo only hit .231/.231./.346. Yes, his on-base percentage and batting average were the same. That's because he struck out 15 times and did not walk once. Heck, even Tony Pena Jr. managed to draw one walk in September. While Buck did not post outstanding numbers either, he clearly outplayed Olivo. Of course, the Royals could still stand an upgrade here, although there probably isn't any available in the free agent market.

Cy Yuk: Probably Brian Bannister, who finished a disappointing season with an up-and-down month. He was 2-2 in five starts, but his ERA was 5.86. Basically, he had three decent starts and two lousy ones. But the rest of the rotation was doing such a good job, Banny kind of stood out.

Reason to be excited for 2009: Such a solid effort, coming off such a terrible August when it would have been easy to pack it in for the year, is promising. Even though an 18-8 pace isn't really sustainable for a whole season for any team, it is something you wouldn't expect from a bad team. The best part is that the month was built on the success of guys like Davies and Ryan Shealy, not just the usual players who had success this season. For the Royals to advance and develop into a contender, they need more than Greinke/Soria/Aviles/Gordon; they will need Shealy and Davies and Luke Hochevar and, a little further down the road, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer to become good players.

Reason we should have been worried about last place: Well, a good portion of the roster is still filled with dead weight like Tony Pena and Ross Gload, Kip Wells and Yasuhiko Yabuta. With a limited payroll, the Royals need everyone on the roster to be a contributor if they are going to have sustained success.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Part V: If I Could Only Turn Back The Clock when God and her were born.
(From "Shelter From The Storm," Blood On The Tracks)

I think I put off writing this one for a while. August was a brutal month to be a Royals fan. It looked like they would never win again, would certainly finish last again, and might even manage to lose 100 games, despite starting the month with a 50-59 record. It got so bad that we noticed heading into a game late in the month that the statue of Mr. and Mrs. Kauffman which sttod outside the stadium had packed up and left:

Recap: The Royals actually started the month well. They took two of three at home against the White Sox, including the 14-3 bombing that featured Miguel Olivo charging the mound against D.J. Carrasco and smacking A.J. Pierzynski in the back of the head. The Royals then took the first game of a series against the Red Sox before the bottom fell out. Lose four, win one, lose three, win one, lose seven, win one, lose four, win one, lose one. Yes, the boys in blue went from Aug. 5 into September without winning consecutive baseball games. A grim month, indeed. For August, the Royals were 7-20, ending the month in last place at 57-79, 20 games out of first and 8.5 out of fourth.

Highlight: Outscoring the White Sox 23-10 in two games was pretty sweet. Having one of those games on Fox's Saturday afternoon coverage (even if it was regional) and having a brawl in the other was even sweeter.

Lowlight: Well, those two wins were 29% of the Royals' total for the month, so there are plenty of lowlights to choose from. I think the lowest point was Sunday, August 17 at Yankee Stadium. The Royals, who of course have a rather tangled history with the Yanks, were playing their final game at the Stadium, which closed at the end of the season. Could the Royals summon up one final memorable game with the hated Yankees, a game worthy of those playoff meetings so long ago? No. This was the day when Brian Bannister hit rock bottom, allowing 10 runs (all earned) in only 1 inning pitched. Banny gave up six runs in the first, including the Yankees hitting for the cycle in that inning, before allowing four more in the second without recording an out. In all, he faced 16 hitters and only got three of them out. Yikes. The Royals ended up with a 15-6 loss.

MVP: Despite all the losing, there are some good candidates for this coveted award. Mike Aviles continued his solid season, hitting .339 in August with a .789 OPS. Before he was injured in mid-August, Alex Gordon compiled a .377 OBP, despite a .268 average, showing an increased grasp of the strike zone. Even the much-maligned Ross Gload put up a solid month, hitting .303 and driving in 10. Gload even became the answer to a trivia question: Who was the last Royal to homer at Yankee Stadium? But this honor should go to Billy Butler, who hit .330/.340/.466 for the month in 26 games. Billy also had three homers and 13 RBI, both second on the team. Not bad for a guy who was sent to Omaha in May.

Cy Young: Once again, this is pretty much a decision between Gil Meche and Zack Greinke. Joakim Soria actually looked human this month, so he's not really a factor here. Zack had a better ERA (2.48 vs. 3.49), but Gil pitched more innings (38.2 vs. 29). Gil did have one more start, though. Zack had fewer strikeouts, but a better strikeout-to-walk ratio. Let's call it a tie.

LVP: As you might expect, there are plenty of candidates here, too. Mark Teahen only hit .231 for the month, yet managed to lead the team in RBIs with 14. John Buck was brutal, hitting .116 and slugging .203 and striking out 24 times in 69 at-bats. But I think this has to go to Jose Guillen, because his bat was so important to the lineup, and when he struggled, the Royals did too. In 26 games, Jose hit .212/.275/.374. His .649 OPS was lower than Teahen's, Gload's, and even Mitch Maier's. Except the Royals weren't depending on any of those guys to bat cleanup every day.

Cy Yuk: Sorry, Banny. But 0-5 with a 7.76 ERA is not good. Giving up nine homers in 26.2 innings is terrible. Thankfully, this month was the last straw, and Banny seemed to realize his new style of trying to strike out everyone wasn't working.

Reason we should see an awesome summer ahead: Well, beating up on the White Sox (literally and figuratively) was nice.

Reason we should see last place coming: Everything that happened after Aug. 4: the injuries, the terrible offense, the terrible pitching, the questions about clubhouse chemistry and Trey Hillman's lack of respect in the clubhouse. By the end of the month, the Royals seemed about as far from being a contender as they did when they were losing 106 games in 2005.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

My Eyes They Saw A Better Day

(From "Paths Of Victory," The Bootleg Series Vol. 1)

Now that there's been a little time to reflect on it, I thought I'd explore What Fourth Place Means To Me. The Royals blitzed through September with an 18-8 mark, and managed to escape the cellar by one game over Detroit. It was the first time since the magical season of 2003 that KC did not finish last. Closing the season with such a good month allowed the Royals to reach the modest 75-win mark for the first time since 2003, only the second time since 2000, and only the third time since 1996.

Of course, most fans do not celebrate finishing fourth in a five-team division. But most fans have not endured the unending parade of suck that Royals fans have over the last four seasons. This team lost 310 games from 2004-2006, and 403 games from 2004-2007. Yep, an average of 101 losses over a four year period. The Royals finished a total of 138 games out of first in those four years. Heck, they finished a total of 48 games out of fourth place those four years! Damn right I'm happy not to finish last this year!

So there are two things to get excited about if you're a Royals fan: modest improvement to 75 wins, and an 18-8 September. I'd like to think that these both mean certain improvement in 2009, but I'm not sure I can say that. I looked through to find all the times since 1995 where a team improved by 20 games from one season to the next. I picked 20 because if the Royals want to win the division next year, a 20-game improvement is probably needed. OK, I found 19 such seasons. In only two cases did those teams have a winning September the year before their big leap: the 1997 Cubs went 13-12 and the 2000 Astros went 17-12. The 1998 Cubs were helped by Sammy Sosa's 66 homers; I can't imagine any Royal hitting 66 bombs next year. That Astros team was another oddity: their pythagorean record was actually 81-81, yet they only went 72-90. It's not a big surprise that they bounced back strongly the next year. The Royals' pythagorean record was 72-90, so I wouldn't expect a big bounce next year based on that.

Only two more of those 19 teams had even a .500 record the previous September: the 1998 Diamondbacks and the 2003 Cardinals. That Cardinal team ended the year at 85-77, then went 105-67 in 2004. The Royals aren't close to that caliber yet, so throw out that comparison. The Diamondbacks went 65-97 in 1998, their first year as a franchise. Then they added Randy Johnson, Steve Finley and Luis Gonzalez in the offseason and went 100-62 in 1999. I think Dayton Moore will do something this winter to make the Royals better, but I don't believe he'll be going on a shopping spree like that.

The road to where the Royals want to be will not be paved with quick fixes in the free agent marketplace. They will have to develop a lot of talent, and use surplus talent to trade for positions of need. For now, we have to hope that the excellent September the Royals had is a sign that the talent is developing at the major league level.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Part IV: If I Could Only Turn Back The Clock when God and her were born.
(From "Shelter From The Storm," Blood On The Tracks)

Finally continuing on with our 2008 month-by-month recap. The season is half-over, and it's now time for July.

Recap: The Royals struggled at the start of July, losing five of six in Baltimore and Tampa. The Rays certainly looked like the team that would win the AL East, outscoring KC 23-4 in the first three games of the series. The Royals got some payback in game four, scoring four runs in the 1oth after a rare blown save from Joakim Soria. The Royals split the next six games to reach the All-Star Break at 43-53. After the break, they won a series in Chicago, then were swept at home by Detroit, including a 19-4 loss in which Jimmy Gobble pitched one inning and allowed 10 runs. A split with Tampa and a road sweep of Oakland allowed KC to close out the month with a 12-14 record, and 50-59 overall, in fourth place in the division and 11 games back of first place.

Highlight: The Royals had some nice moments in July, with the sweep in Oakland, a series win in Chicago and even Tony Pena's scoreless inning pitched in that Detroit blowout. But the game I mentioned above in Tampa might have been the best. This was one of those weird "wraparound" series, where the teams play Friday-Monday rather than the normal Friday-Sunday. So this Monday game was also a day game. Gil Meche started for the Royals against Matt Garza. Meche allowed two runs in the first, but the Royals immediately tied it in the second on a David DeJesus triple, then took the lead in the third on a Ross Gload single. Meche kept getting in trouble, allowing seven hits and four walks before being pulled in the sixth inning. Ron Mahay came in to strike out two hitters to close that inning. Ramon Ramirez finished off the eighth inning after Mahay allowed a double. When Soria came in for the ninth, the game looked to be over. After all, the Mexicutioner was 23 for 24 in save chances coming in. But Tampa's Carlos Pena slammed a one-out homer to tie the game. Soria worked around a single to preserve the tie. In the 10th, the Royals got two on against Tampa's Dan Wheeler. John Buck stepped to the plate and promptly launched a drive down the left field line that was good for three runs. Mike Aviles followed with another homer, and the Royals were able to survive a solo home run in the bottom of the inning for a hard-fought win against a team that frankly had made the Royals look like a minor-league team for three games.

Lowlight: Well, those first three games in Tampa were pretty bad. But when you lose by 15 runs at home, that's downright awful. On the 21st, KC returned home from a series win in Chicago, and were pounded by the Tigers, 19-4. Luke Hochevar was pretty good for the first two innings, then gave up five runs with two outs in the third. The Tigers tacked on two more in the fifth and one in the seventh before Gobble was called in with the bases loaded. Gobble walked Pudge Rodriguez to force in a run, then got the last out. But, oh, how horrible that eighth inning was for Jimmy Gobble! Single, single, double, wild pitch, single, single and a three-run bomb by Gary Sheffield to make it 15-0. Gobble seemed to settle down, getting the next two hitters out. But then Hell started back up, as Gobble's control vanished. Walk, single, walk, walk, and Gobble was mercifully pulled. Leo Nunez came in and allowed a double and single before getting the final out, making Gobble's line 1 IP, 10 R, 10 ER, 4 BB, o K. This outing also caused Gobble's ERA to jump from a lousy 7.99 to an unbelievablly bad 11.31. After this outing, Gobble went on the disabled list with a bad back, although you'd be forgiven for thinking extreme suckitude was the actual problem. As a side note, Tony Pena pitched the ninth inning, retiring all three hitters he faced, including a called strikeout on Pudge Rodriguez.

MVP: John Buck had a good month of July, but Mike Aviles was far and away the best hitter the Royals had in July. In 25 games, he hit .330 and slugged .524. He had three homers, 13 RBI, nine doubles, a triple and scored 14 runs. The only downside was that he only got three walks.

Cy Young: Ron Mahay was almost unhittable in July, but since I gave this to him and two other relievers over Gil Meche for June, let's give it to Meche this time. In six starts, Meche was 3-1 with a 3.05 ERA. In 38 1/3 innings, Meche struck out 24 and walked 11.

LVP: Well, as hot as Jose Guillen was in June, that's about how bad he was in July. In 21 games, he only hit .162, with one homer and 10 RBI. Of his 12 hits, nine were singles. And of course, Jose wouldn't walk--that's what wimps do. Guillen walked twice in the whole month. His .446 OPS was lower than Mitch Maier's, Ross Gload's, and Joey Gathright's. Of course, it was still better than Tony Pena's, but by this point in the season nobody expected Pena to ever get on base again.

Cy Yuk: An ERA of 27.00 for the month is hard to ignore, but we've picked on Jimmy Gobble enough. Let's go with Luke Hochevar, who went 1-3 in his five starts with a 7.67 ERA. In 27 innings, Hochevar gave up 32 hits and only struck out 12.

Reason we should see an awesome summer ahead: The continued hot hitting of Mike Aviles, the continued excellence of the back end of the bullpen, and the continued solid pitching of Gil Meche.

Reason we should see last place coming: Seriously, those first three games in Tampa were awful displays of baseball. Outscored 23-4. Outhit 35-15. Three errors in the first game. Those three games made it seem like there was a vast difference in the talent level between the East-leading Rays and the Royals.