Sunday, May 31, 2009

Week 8 In Review

It sucked. The end.

1-5 at home against your division is not the path to October baseball. It looks more and more like April was a fluke, a mirage, an outlier, whatever you want to call it. That team is gone, and apparently is not coming back.

It took the Royals 24 days to go from 7 games over .500 and 3 games in front of the division to 4 under and 5.5 out of first. And now they get to go play three games in Tampa (the Rays have scored the most runs in baseball this year) and three in Toronto (the Blue Jays are only 18-7 at home this season). The Royals are only two games ahead of Cleveland; there is a very good chance they will go from first place on May 7 to last place on June 7.

So I don't think I'll recap each game from the past week; they were all pretty much the same: lousy pitching, worse hitting and even worse defense. Let's hope for a better week this coming week, although I don't expect that to happen.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Party's Over

...and there's less and less to say.
(From "Highlands," Time Out Of Mind)

First off, let me apologize for not having a more regular posting schedule the last few weeks. Buying a house and packing for a move is rather time-consuming, I've found. Also, when you're a neat freak like me, having boxes piled everywhere really takes you out of your comfort zone. Finally, the Royals haven't been really inspiring lately. In fact, they've pretty much resembled our apartment the last three weeks: unorganized, discombobulated, upside-down, a work in progress.

So, allow me to address the last three weeks of Royals baseball thus: What the hell happened? On May 7, the Royals won their sixth game in a row to move to 18-11 on the season. Since then, they've won a total of five games, while losing 14.

Obviously, a collapse like that is a total team effort. No one or two players can make that much difference. As evidence, I present this chart, A Tale of Two Months (Offense Division):

PlayerApril OPSMay OPSDifference

As you can see, several of the Royals' regulars have had a tough month. Some of them should have been expected--Willie Bloomquist, John Buck and Alberto Callaspo were all over 200 points over their career averages. A dropoff was inevitable. Of course, now the pendulum seems to have swung too far the other way for a lot of these guys.

I see three big problems with the Royals' offense in that chart. First, David DeJesus is obviously struggling this year, even though he's been better in May. But DeJesus is only 29, and as far as we know, he's healthy. His career OPS is .775; there is no reason to expect him not to be around that this year. But in the short term, having a left fielder with a .670 OPS is not helpful. In fact, DDJ ranks 15th among AL left fielders in that stat. Since there are only 14 teams in the AL, this is bad news.

The second thing killing KC's offense right now is the possibly injury-related struggles of Coco Crisp. Remember, when the Royals were on fire in late April and early May, it seemed like Crisp was always on base; in fact, his on-base percentage in April was .371, which seemed promising, given his .247 batting average that month. It's true his OPS 125 points higher than his career average, but in May he's almost that many points below it. Crisp has missed the last few games with a sore shoulder; perhaps that has hindered him offensively. His last extra-base hit was a triple back on May 14. The good news is that Crisp's batting average (currently .233) is likely to rebound when he's healthy. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is only .248 this year; his career average is .309. So an important, possibly the most important, cog in the Royals' offense should improve from his performance this month.

The most baffling hitting performance by a Royal this year has to be Mike Aviles' freefall. Last year, when Aviles was called up and finally inserted in the lineup in Tony Pena Jr.'s place, the Royals offense improved greatly. The Royals put up better OPS numbers in the last four months of the season than they did in the first two. But this year, Aviles has done a terrific impersonation of Pena. TPJ posted an OPS+ (that's OPS normalized for league and position; 100 is league average) of 7. Yeah, 7. This year, Aviles so far has put up a 21. He did finally admit a while back that he's had a forearm injury this year; I hope that has been the source of his problem. I didn't expect him to duplicate last year's numbers, but I was hopeful the Royals would have at least a league average hitter at shortstop this season.

With the loss the Royals finished off while I was writing this, KC is now tied for third in the AL Central and three games under .500 for the first time this season. Sure, it's just three games, and the Royals are not as bad a team as they have played the last three weeks, just like they weren't as good as they looked the first five weeks. But I can't see them climbing back into the race. Detroit looks really good now, and I'm just waiting for the Twins to get hot. The Royals still need to improve their offense if they want to contend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Week 7 In Review

After Week 7, the Royals are 22-22. With the Detroit Tigers on a hot streak lately, KC is now in second place, three games back. The Minnesota Twins are 3.5 games out.

Game 39: Tuesday, May 19
KC 6, Cleveland 5

At the time, this looked like a game that might get the Royals back on track. As they had pretty much every game the last couple of weeks, the offense looked lost for most of the evening. Royal-killer Cliff Lee looked like his Cy Young-winning self from last season, and the Royals trailed 5-2 going into the 9th. Although Lee had only thrown 101 pitches, and lefties Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen would be up second and third in the inning, the Indians put in closer Kerry Wood. It didn’t take long for the Royals to light him up: Jacobs homered, Teahen homered, Miguel Olivo walked (bringing his 2009 total to 2), David DeJesus tripled, Willie Bloomquist hit a sacrifice fly. Five hitters, four runs, one thrilling win.

Game 40: Wednesday, May 20
Cleveland 6, KC 5

For a little bit, it looked like history would repeat itself. The Royals blew a 4-2 lead and trailed 6-5 going into the 9th. The Indians brought Wood in again, and he struggled again. This time, it was control that hurt him, and he walked the bases loaded. But Teahen and DeJesus both struck out, and the Royals could not capitalize. I’m looking these numbers up on Sunday afternoon, but I don’t think the Royals have had a bases-loaded situation since then, so the numbers still apply. For the year, with the bases loaded, the Royals are hitting .167/.220/.278. That’s terrible, obviously. It could just be a small sample size (that only covers 41 plate appearances), but I can’t think of a reason why the Royals would do so poorly in that particular situation.

Game 41: Thursday, May 21
Cleveland 8, KC 3

A thoroughly forgettable game, even though Zack Greinke started for the Royals. Unfortunately, a weak offense and an ineffective bullpen let Cleveland leave town with two wins in three games. In fact, in a stretch where the Royals played all three last-place teams in the AL, they only managed a 3-6 record. That could sting later in the season.

Game 42: Friday, May 22
St. Louis 5, KC 0

Let’s see, ineffective offense (five hits, three walks)…check. Crappy bullpen work (two innings, three runs)… check. Loss…check.

Game 43: Saturday, May 23
St. Louis 5, KC 0

Essentially the same game as the night before, this loss put the Royals under .500 for the first time since April 11. After the game, the Royals sent starter Luke Hochevar back to Omaha, although he was at least decent in this start. The Royals will go with a four-man rotation for a couple of weeks.

Game 44: Sunday, May 24
KC 3, St. Louis 2

A solid performance all the way around…well, I suppose the offense could have done a little bit better, but at least they scored runs in this one. Brian Bannister was very good, pitching six innings and only allowing two runs. Apparently the Royals’ pitchers decided they needed to provide the offense as well, since Bannister singled to drive in the Royals’ second run. Actually, a couple of defensive lapses (a bobble by Jose Guillen in right field, a poor throw by Coco Crisp in center field) were partially responsible for the Cardinals’ runs. After those two St. Louis runs tied the game, the Royals got the lead right back on a hustle double by Willie Bloomquist and a single by Mike Jacobs. Solid relief pitching by John Bale, fresh off the disabled list, kept the Royals in the lead. Juan Cruz survived some scary moments in the 9th for the save.

The Week Ahead

Let’s be honest here. The Royals have really stunk for two straight weeks. In fact, since May 7, they’ve lost as many games as they did in the first five weeks of the season. It is a testament to the weakness of the division that they are still really in the race. Which means, if they can figure out a way to get back on track this week, the season may not be over yet. They have six home games against division opponents this week; first up, the team the Royals are chasing, the Detroit Tigers. Next, the Chicago White Sox. This is the time for the Royals to put up or shut up, so to speak, because after this, the Royals have a nine-game road trip against some very good teams.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Week 6 In Review

After Week 6, the Royals are 20-18. That puts them one game behind Detroit—actually, the Royals have the same number of wins as the Tigers, but have two more losses. Minnesota is now three games back, Chicago is five back, and Cleveland is 7.5 games back. The Royals, despite their recent struggles, are still on pace to win 85 games this year.

Game 33: Tuesday, May 12
Oakland 12, KC 3

A disappointing 2009 debut for Luke Hochevar, who only lasted two innings before departing on the wrong end of an 8-0 score. The A’s came into this game with the second-fewest runs scored in the AL this season. There wasn’t much to say about this one—blowouts do happen to everyone in baseball. It is a little disconcerting that Hochevar had such a bad outing, since the Royals really need him to develop, even if all he ever becomes is a solid third starter. Starting pitching is so expensive to buy in free agency or acquire in trade, a small-market team like Kansas City must develop as many pitchers as possible. Hochevar has shown flashes of ability; the Royals must hope he can become an asset soon.

Game 34: Wednesday, May 13
Oakland 7, KC 2

The West Coast road trip came to a merciful end with the Royals’ fifth loss in a row. The Royals actually hung around in this one, but Brian Bannister left in the sixth inning with shoulder stiffness and the bullpen could not keep the A’s in check. Oakland scored two runs in the sixth and five more in the seventh to pull away. The Royals’ West Coast offense? Five games, nine runs, 33 hits, three homers (all solo), and only 12 walks. Not good.

Game 35: Thursday, May 14
Baltimore 9, KC 5

Six losses in a row. The Royals can add Gil Meche to their growing list of concerns. Meche only lasted 4 1/3 innings, allowing five runs on six hits and only striking out one hitter. In his last four starts, Meche has pitched a total of 19 2/3 innings, allowing 18 runs (16 earned) on 27 hits, with 13 strikeouts and 12 walks. Meanwhile, the bullpen struggled through this one too. After the Royals scored two runs in the fifth inning to pull within 5-4, Baltimore scored three more runs in the sixth off Robinson Tejeda and Ron Mahay to put the game away.

Game 36: Friday,May 15
KC 8, Baltimore 1

Finally! A win! A pretty easy one, too, behind another strong outing from Zack Greinke and a three-run homer from Miguel Olivo. Greinke pitched seven innings, holding Baltimore to one run on six hits. He did actually struggle a little, allowing seven baserunners in the first three innings. But after that, he was dominant. Mike Jacobs led off the fourth with a homer, then four hitters later, Olivo launched one into the left-field seats to break the game open. Kudos to the fans who stuck around through a rain delay of 2 hours, 30 minutes. With Greinke on the mound, a Buck Night promotion and fireworks scheduled after the game, the Royals had a sellout crowd. About 25,000 were there for the first pitch.

Game 37: Saturday, May 16
Baltimore 3, KC 2

The offense went back into hibernation, and a couple of soft Baltimore runs cost the Royals another game. I’d say starter Kyle Davies deserved better, but since he walked Brian Roberts leading off the game, then allowed him to steal second and third before throwing a wild pitch to let him score, and then put the eventual winning run in scoring position with another wild pitch, perhaps he didn’t deserve better.

Game 38: Sunday, May 17
KC 7, Baltimore 4

A weird game, but the Royals needed a win, so they’ll take it. Down 3-1 in the sixth inning, the Royals looked lethargic. They looked flat. They looked like they were on their way to another loss. They’d already committed three errors, thrown a wild pitch and only collected two hits. Their starting pitcher (Hochevar) had already been pulled from the game.

Then the offense had a mini-explosion, scoring three runs on four straight hits to take the lead. After giving it up in the eighth, the Royals pulled ahead for good, using a suicide squeeze (Coco Crisp bunting, John Buck running) for an insurance run.

I have to give Trey Hillman some credit for this win. First, pulling Hochevar in the fourth inning of a 3-1 game was gutsy. Hochevar had struggled, and there were two runners on, but I think most managers would leave him in. The fact that Hillman managed the game this way shows me he understood how badly the Royals needed a win. Teams that want to win division titles cannot lose three of four games at home to last-place teams. The bullpen rewarded Hillman with 5 2/3 innings of excellent pitching, only allowing one run, one hit, and one walk.

Second, Hillman picked an excellent time for the squeeze play, with Crisp batting. Crisp seems to be one of those players who just does everything well. He actually fouled off the first squeeze attempt, but did a great job on the next pitch to get it down.

Finally, although lineup construction doesn’t matter a lot in the grand scheme, Hillman did move Alberto Callaspo to the second spot and moved David DeJesus down to seventh in the order. Callaspo has been excellent so far this year (.341/.396/.524), while DeJesus has struggled some (.237/.288/.393). The move paid off, as Callaspo ignited the three-run fourth inning with a leadoff single, while DeJesus went 2-4 and scored two runs, including the eventual game-winner.

The Week Ahead

After an off-day Monday, the Royals will face the struggling Cleveland Indians for three home games, then start interleague play with a trip to St. Louis. The Royals need to make some hay against the Indians, and they have a chance to really bury Cleveland in the standings.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Mea Culpa

OK, I can't take it anymore. Last Wednesday I wrote a glowing piece about the Royals and their chances to contend. Sure, I prefaced it by saying lots of bad things could happen. But, down deep, I didn't believe that they would. Or at least that they would happen so soon.

Nine days and a six-game losing streak later, I'm here to throw myself at the mercy of the baseball gods. Obviously, my optimism was misplaced and an affront to baseball karma.

I can't believe I made this mistake. I've been a Royals fan for 26 years. I should have known better. I lived through 490 losses in the last five seasons; you'd think the optimism would have been beaten out of me by now.

So here we go: I was wrong. This is not a good team. There is no way they win 90 games; they'll probably lose 90. Now they're doing teams bad things do to lose games, like throw double-play balls into center field, miss cutoff men, and walk speedy number 9 hitters to set the table for the top of the lineup. Oh yeah, and scoring 12 runs in six games. This will not be a fun summer for Royals fans; it will be the usual miserable, hot, long summer.

(Now that that's out of the way, let's hope this helps snap this losing streak.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Week 5 In Review

After Week 5, the Royals are 18-14. That’s technically good for second place, as they are percentage points behind Detroit. Both teams are three games ahead of Minnesota and Chicago.

Game 26: Monday, May 4
KC 3, Chicago 0

Simple formula. Zack Greinke + 3 runs = win. Once again, it requires a better writer than me to properly describe Greinke’s work. A complete game shutout, 10 strikeouts, no walks, only four hits. And two of those hits could have been errors. A David DeJesus homer was the Royals’ offensive highlight; they left 10 men on base.

Game 27: Tuesday, May 5
KC 8, Chicago 7 (11 innings)

A wild comeback win, capped by John Buck’s game-winning single in the 11th inning, gave the Royals a sweep of the White Sox. Kyle Davies struggled again, and the Sox got leads of 4-0 and 5-1 before the Royals came back, tied it, dodged a couple of bullets, blew a couple of chances to win the game, and finally emerged with the win.

Game 28: Wednesday, May 6
KC 9 , Seattle 1

The Royals jumped on Mariners starter Carlos Silva early and often, with three runs in the first and two more in the third. Sidney Ponson was solid for 7 1/3 innings, allowing eight hits but only one walk. Billy Butler, Mike Jacobs and Mark Teahen all had three hits. Just a great game all around for the Royals. A sign of a good team is the ability to win the blowout games; this game put KC at 6-3 this season in games decided by five runs or more. One-run games can often be decided by luck or using Kyle Farnsworth in key situations, but the good teams win big more often than they lose big.

Game 29: Thursday, May 7
KC 3, Seattle 1

Another strong pitching performance by a Royals starter; in this case it was Brian Bannister. Actually, Bannister struggled through the first inning, but didn’t allow any runs. The Royals offense scraped some runs together against longtime nemesis Jarrod Washburn, and were able to weather an unusually shaky ninth inning from Joakim Soria for the win. Afterwards, Soria said he was just rusty; the Royals had better hope it’s that and not an injury.

Game 30: Friday, May 8
Los Angeles 4, KC 1

Somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, the Royals offense apparently forgot how to work counts, lay off bad pitches, and hit. This was a frustrating showing from the offense, against journeyman starter Matt Palmer. To make matters worse, when KC did score a run in the sixth inning to make the score 2-1, they gave up two in the bottom of the inning when Jose Guillen failed to catch a fly ball near the right field line. Howie Kendrick took advantage, circling the bases for a two-run inside-the-park home run that put the game away. Royals starter Gil Meche deserved better, even though he wasn’t at his best (5 2/3 innings, eight hits, four earned runs—although if Guillen’s misplay had been scored an error, it would have been two earned runs).

Game 31: Saturday, May 9
Los Angeles 1, KC 0

Another frustrating outing for the Royals’ offense, resulting in Greinke’s first loss of the season. Not that he deserved it. Sure, he wasn’t quite at the 1968-Bob Gibson level he was at before, but still. Eight innings, four hits, no walks, five strikeouts, and one earned run ought to be good enough for a win. Royal hitters could only manage five hits and one walk against the Angels’ Joe Saunders.

Game 32: Sunday, May 10
Los Angeles 4, KC 3

The Royals completed their lost weekend with a bumbling, Bad-News-Royals inning worthy of their 2005 predecessors. Ahead 3-1 in the seventh, after Davies’ best outing in a while and an offensive explosion (compared to the first two games of the series, anyway), the Royals imploded defensively. Throwing error by Jamey Wright, a missed tag by Alberto Callaspo on a stolen base, and then somehow Miguel Olivo failed to catch a perfect throw from Guillen which would have nailed the tying run at home. Seriously, “catcher” is Olivo’s position, yet he sometimes seems unable to, you know, catch. Of course, the runner who advanced to second on this misplay ended up scoring the winning run.

The Week Ahead

The Royals get their first off day since April 20 on Monday, then complete their West Coast trip with two games in Oakland. After that, it’s four games at home against Baltimore. Although the Orioles are in last place, they have had the Royals’ number in the past few seasons. The last time KC took the season series between the two was 2003; the Orioles are 27-9 against the Royals since, including a perfect 7-0 in 2007. Even better, the Royals put Soria on the DL after Sunday’s game; Luke Hochevar was called up and will make his 2009 major league debut Tuesday night in Oakland while Ponson will move to the bullpen.

This is a scary time for Royals fans, especially if they’re worriers by nature like I am. We’ve all seen this script before from the Royals; usually it results in a double-digit losing streak. If this team is really different, they will figure out a way to stop this before it gets out of hand.

I’m trying to talk myself—and, by extension, any other Royals fans who need it--off the ledge. Here are a couple of things to consider:

First, the Royals’ offense, even after a pathetic four-game stretch, still has an OPS+ of 101. That means they have a slightly-above-league-average offense. It may not sound like much, but the last time the Royals finished the season with an OPS+ of 100 or better was…well, I’ll let you guess. 2003? Nope. 1999 or 2000, when Damon/Sweeney/Beltran/Dye were here? Nope. 1993 or 1994, the last really good Royals teams? Keep trying. Actually, it was 1991. Yes, there’s a lot of season left, but this may be the Royals’ best offense in nearly 20 years. Assuming the pitching stays close to where it has been, the Royals should still be OK if they can keep the offense at or near the level it’s been so far.

Second, the Royals still have the second-best run differential in the AL at +27—their Pythagorean record is actually 19-13, so you could say they’ve been slightly unlucky. And KC’s actual winning percentage of .563 translates to 91 wins over a full season.

Third, if you’re into signs, as I finished that last paragraph, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” came on my satellite radio. Just take that for what it’s worth.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Feel Like My Soul Is Beginning To Expand

...look into my heart and you will sort of understand.
(From "Thunder On The Mountain," Modern Times)

I know, it's only 27 games in. There are still 135 games left. Lots of things can happen. There could be injuries or prolonged slumps or ineffective pitchers. Or one of the other AL Central teams could catch fire.

I don't care about any of that right now. I'm a believer.

After last night's crazy win, I'm throwing caution to the wind. I'm in. 90 wins? Sure, why not? Division title? You bet.

I'm telling you right now, this is a good Royals team. Not just "good for the Royals" (meaning 75 wins). Good enough to win the division.

I see signs. I see this team doing things good teams do to win. Things like the bullpen pitching seven innings and only allowing one run to pick up a struggling starter. Things like hitters working the count, fouling off pitches to get a hittable pitch or a walk. Seriously, 11 walks last night? Even in 11 innings, that's a staggering number for a Royals team, the first time they've had that many since June 20, 2006 (not that that was a good Royals team, but they were playing the equally woeful Pirates).

The Royals have specialized in losing the last few years, so I feel like an expert on the different ways they've come up with to lose: the Groin Kick, where they coughed up a big lead; the Generic Loss, where they maybe lose 4-3 but didn't really do anything awful; the Embarrassment, where they lose 15-3; and the Roll Over and Die, where the other team scored some early runs and the Royals' offense did little or nothing.

Last night looked like a classic Roll Over and Die. The Sox took a 4-0 lead, and I decided maybe the NHL playoffs would be a little more interesting. When I checked back in, it was 5-1 Sox, but the Royals had two on and Mike Jacobs at the plate. When his home run cleared the fence (not sure it actually ever landed), I thought the game might get interesting. Of course, then the White Sox answered with two more runs, and I mentally put this one in the loss column.

I forgot that the Royals had mounted a furious comeback just two days before in Minnesota. And that they had come back from three runs down to tie the score last Friday. Luckily, the guys in that first-base dugout didn't forget. They kept playing. No Roll Over and Die on this night. Not when they left the bases loaded in the sixth after pulling to within one run. Not when they had the go-ahead run thrown out at home in the seventh. Not when they left two runners on in the eighth, not when A.J. Pierzynski tripled in the ninth to give the White Sox a chance for a lead, not when White Sox thumpers Carlos Quentin and Jim Thome came up in the 10th with the go-ahead run at second base.

The attitude is different. It just feels different. The things I read in the Star (like this story or like Jose Guillen telling Zack Greinke, "Let's show the White Sox that we're for real this year" as related in this story), the body language of the players when I watch on TV or at the ballpark, and just watching this team battle--it just feels differently than any Royals season in a long time.

Let me tell you a story from a different sport. I've been a KU football fan for years. No, really. Like, since I was 8 or 9. Obviously, I saw lots of bad football except for a few years in the 90s and then the middle part of this decade. Until 2007, when KU had a year for the ages, losing one game all year and winning the Orange Bowl. We try to go to one or two games a year; our game that year was a 55-3 dismantling of Florida International. I'd heard all the badmouthing about KU's schedule that year, and there was plenty of it for the rest of the year. But when I saw that team in person, I realized that it didn't matter who they played, that was a damned good team.

I'm starting to get that feeling about this Royals team. They probably won't be as dominant as that KU team was, but I believe now that they can stay in the race all season. Get ready, Royals fans. This should be a fun summer.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Will I Be Able To Count On You?

...or is your love in vain?
(From "Is Your Love In Vain," Street Legal)

Is the Royals' offense sustainable?

At the beginning of this season, I think most Royals fans felt pretty good about the team's pitching. Sure, no one was happy with the presence of Horacio Ramirez and Sidney Ponson in the rotation, and most fans were wary of Kyle Farnsworth in the bullpen and the middle relief in general. But with Gil Meche and Zack Greinke at the top of the rotation and the hope that last September's Kyle Davies would show up this season, plus Joakim Soria and Juan Cruz at the back of the bullpen, there were reasons to believe the pitching could keep the Royals in the race.

That meant the pressure was on the offense to improve from last year. In 2008, the Royals finished 12th in the 14-team American League in runs scored, 12th in on-base percentage, 12th in slugging percentage and 13th in home runs. Dayton Moore gave up two solid relief pitchers to add centerfielder Coco Crisp and first baseman Mike Jacobs, hoping the former would be an improvement in the leadoff spot and the latter would add some slugging ability. There was some skepticism as to how improved the offense would be, since Jacobs only had a .299 OBP last year, about the same as noted free-swinger Jose Guillen's .300.

The Royals are 25 games into 2009. That's still a small sample size, I think. But I also think we can draw some conclusions. Or at least look at the numbers and see if there are any reasons to be optimistic about the offense.

In those 25 games, the Royals have scored 119 runs. True, about a third of that has come in the last 5 games (41 runs). But teams will have good and bad offensive stretches, just like individual players. These will even out over six months. In the first five games of the year, the Royals only scored eight runs. But 49 runs in 10 games sounds a lot better.

Anyway, the Royals are now averaging 4.76 runs per game. The league average is 5.13 runs per game, so the Royals are about 7% below average.

In 2008, the Royals scored 691 runs, an average of 4.27 per game. The league average was 4.78 runs per game, so the Royals were about 11% below average. So the Royals are doing better so far this year. Also note that the Royals are almost at last year's league average.

When I noticed that, I wondered how this year's league average compared with recent years. The answer is, so far scoring in the AL is up. Way up. AL teams are averaging 5.13 runs per game this season, an increase of 7% so far. Going back to 2000, the AL has scored 4.92 runs per game on average. Last year was the lowest RPG number since 2005. It's probably still too early to say that this year's scoring increase is permanent or what the causes may be. But it does look like the Royals still have work to do; I don't think that's a surprise to anyone.

On the other hand, the Royals have only allowed 101 runs so far (thank you, Zack Greinke!). Thus, their expected win-loss record, using the Bill James Pythagorean theorem, is 15-
10. So the Royals really haven't been a fluke. So far, they really have been a .560 win percentage team. By the way, that would be 91 wins over a full season. I don't believe the Royals are that good, especially since I don't expect the pitching to stay this good. But there are reasons to expect the offense to improve; the question is whether that will offset the pitching staff's theoretical dropoff.

Right now, the two best OPS (on-base pct. plus slugging pct.) numbers on the Royals belong to Willie Bloomquist (1.020) and Alberto Callaspo (1.001). A 1.000 OPS is considered tremendous; last year, Albert Pujols led baseball with a 1.114 OPS. Obviously, Bloomquist and Callaspo are not Pujols and are not going to sustain this for an entire year. But to me, the exciting news there is that the players the Royals are counting on to carry the offense are not the ones playing way over their heads.

Mike Aviles led the team with an .833 OPS last year; this year he's at .539. Now, it's doubtful Aviles will be as good as he was last year, but I do not believe he is this bad of a hitter. By comparison, Joey Gathright's OPS last year was .584, and he had no power whatsoever.

David DeJesus was second on the team last year at .818. This year, he's at .663. In four of the five years DeJesus has been a regular, his OPS has been above .763. I expect he will improve as well.

And so it goes. Alex Gordon had a .783 OPS last year; he was only at .507 when he got hurt. I would expect improvement there. Jacobs has a career .813 OPS; he's at .742 right now. Billy Butler has a career .752 OPS; he's at .731 right now. I think Butler has even more room for improvement--he's only 23 and should be on the upswing.

Sure, some of the important Royal hitters are doing better than you would expect--Jose Guillen and Mark Teahen, to name two. The funny thing is that Guillen hasn't even really had one of his hot streaks yet. Due to his injury, he's only played in 12 games and may just be getting back in the groove (he hit two homers last Monday and one Sunday). Guillen's average, OBP and slugging percentage are all up from last year.

One thing that has helped Guillen and the entire Royals offense is an increase in walks. KC had a pitiful walk total of 392 last year; that was last in the league by a wide margin. Enter Coco Crisp. He already has 17 walks after only drawing 35 in 118 games last year. Butler has 12 walks after getting 33 last year in 124 games. Might an understanding of the strike zone be the last step before he starts to hit at a level the Royals expect? Teahen has 10 walks compared with 46 last year in 149 games. Even better, his strikeout rate is down--he's on pace to K 90 times after 131 last year. Even free swingers like Jacobs and Guillen are on pace to have better walk totals than they did last year. As a team, the Royals have 86 walks: that's a pace for 557, which would have put them seventh in the league last year. Seventh is where they are so far this year.

It will be interesting to see if the improved plate discipline continues. I don't know if it's the work of new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer or what, but it is a good sign so far. And I think it will be a good indicator of the Royals' chances to show continued offensive improvement. In turn, that offensive improvement is what they will need to stay in the race all year. The pitching is good enough to win; the offense looks like it can be.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Week 4 in Review

After Week 4, the Royals are 14-11. That's good for first place in the AL Central, a half-game ahead of Detroit. This is the Royals' latest appearance atop the division since 2003, and the latest they have been three games over .500 since the end of the 2003 season. For comparison's sake, in 2006 it took the Royals until JUNE 4(!) to get 14 wins.

Game 19: Monday, April 27
KC 7, Toronto 1

Another good outing from Brian Bannister, although it was a bit odd. Banny only gave up one hit in seven innings, but walked six. He said the rainy conditions made the baseball slippery and harder to control, but that put a different spin on the ball and apparently made it harder to hit. Obviously, I wouldn't recommend Banny or any other pitcher walk six guys in seven innings, but in this case it worked out. The Royals used two homers from Jose Guillen and a three-run blast from Miguel Olivo to cruise to victory.

Game 20: Tuesday, April 28
Toronto 8, KC 1

Gil Meche struggled from the start of this one, and eventually left in the fourth inning with lower back stiffness. By then, the Blue Jays had a 5-0 lead and the Royals' offense was back in hibernation. Kind of embarrassing, since Toronto starter Scott Richmond is a 29-year-old rookie who spent three years pitching in the independent leagues (just like the Kansas City T-Bones!). Baseball is a funny game, indeed.

The thought of Meche missing time with an injury is concerning, but he turned out to be well enough to start Sunday's game against the Twins. The Royals will have to hope Meche can keep going out there every fifth day. At the beginning of the season, it looked like the Royals had three pitchers they could not afford to lose for any amount of time: Meche, Zack Greinke and Joakim Soria. Soria is already fighting a sore shoulder and hasn't pitched in almost two weeks.

Game 21: Wednesday, April 29
KC 11, Toronto 3

The offense bounced back in a big way, and Zack Greinke gave up his first earned run of the season. Billy Butler had a game to remember, belting two homers and adding a single and a double. Five other Royals had two hits each, while Greinke cruised after giving up a run in the first and another in the third. The Royals blew the game open with two runs in the fourth and four more in the fifth, which is plenty of runs with Greinke pitching like he is right now.

Game 22: Thursday, April 30
KC 8, Toronto 6

This was a crazy game. John Buck hit two triples. The Royals turned six double plays a week after a game in which they hit into six double plays. And the Royals won the four-game series against the AL East leaders. Kyle Davies struggled again, but he did show a knack for getting ground balls when he needed them. The Royals led 8-2 after the fifth inning, and then held on through some shaky bullpen work. The Jays scored one run in the sixth, another in the seventh and two in the eighth before Juan Cruz picked up his first save of the season. It was the first save for a Royal not named "Joakim Soria" since last September 4 (Ramon Ramirez got that one). On an optimistic note, Cruz's appearance in the ninth inning makes me think Trey Hillman at least has figured out Cruz is his second-best relief pitcher.

Game 23: Friday, May 1
Minnesota 7, KC 5

Let's hope this will be the end of the Sidney Ponson experience. Look, he's had a couple of nice starts. But he's also had two lousy ones and a mediocre one. His ERA is 7.16 after this debacle, where he gave up nine hits and seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. And I can't ignore the fact that the Royals are 0-5 when he starts, but 12-6 when anyone else starts. There's a reason he was a free agent during spring training. But for some reason--OK, it's keeping him from reaching arbitration after this year--the Royals refuse to bring up Luke Hochevar to take Ponson's spot.

Even more frustrating than the continued employment of Sir Sidney, the Royals managed to get some offense against usual nemesis Kevin Slowey (4-0 lifetime record against KC with a 2.16 ERA before this game). Yet because Ponson couldn't hold the 2-1 lead and 5-5 tie he was given, it didn't matter. I also don't understand why Hillman let Ponson pitch to Justin Morneau with the game tied in the fifth. The Twins thoughtfully set up their lineup with three lefties in a row (Joe Mauer, Morneau and Jason Kubel. Yet, after the Royals battled back to tie the score at 5-5, Hillman let Ponson face all three of them in the bottom of the fifth. He walked Mauer, gave up a homer to Morneau and a single to Kubel. I'd like to know what made Hillman think Ponson had a chance of getting any of those guys out. I am not fond of the Royals' lefty bullpen options, but at least play the percentages, man. It may not have mattered, as the Twins bullpen dominated the last four innings.

Game 24: Saturday, May 2
KC 10, Minnesota 7 (11 innings)

As crazy as the Thursday game against Toronto was, this one probably topped it for sheer oddity. The teams combined for four errors, and the Royals had three wild pitches and a passed ball. Willie Bloomquist hit his first homer in almost two years. Miguel Olivo had a triple. The normally solid Twins bullpen walked four hitters in the decisive 11th inning, including the winning run. Which means the Royals actually walked four times in one inning. Soria came into the game in the middle of an inning, saved the game by getting out of a man-on-second, one-out situation, and then closed things down. The Royals overcame deficits of 3-2, 4-3, and 6-5 managed to hold on after giving up a 7-6 lead. This is precisely the kind of game the Royals used to lose all the time. Maybe it's a good sign they won this one.

Game 25: Sunday, May 3
KC 7, Minnesota 5

Here's another kind of game the Royals used to lose all the game at the end of a road trip, tough game the night before, Royal-killer on the mound. In this case the Royal killer was Scott Baker, who nearly threw a perfect game against the Royals in 2007. Baker came into this game with a 5-2 record, 2.60 ERA and tidy 52-7 strikeout-walk ratio in his career against the Royals. And he was his usual self in this game. Through six innings, Baker did not allow a hit and had only given up one walk, to Guillen. Meanwhile, the Twins had scored four runs against Meche, although a couple of errors had helped them.

But in the seventh inning, everything changed. Bloomquist broke up the no-hitter, Mark Teahen singled, and Guillen homered. The Royals kept up the momentum with singles by Mike Jacobs and David DeJesus, followed by a double by Alberto Callaspo for a 5-4 Royals lead.

It seems like I pick on Hillman's decisions a lot. I suppose that's because the ones he screws up are more noticeable. It does seem like those usually involve the bullpen somehow, meaning they are more game-changing. I don't really have a problem with most of his lineups or how he doles out playing time, although I do wish Buck would catch a little more often. Overall, I would say Hillman does an average job--maybe a C+ or B- grade. This digression leads me to praising his bullpen usage in this game and even the previous one. Note that these were both close games and Kyle Farnsworth did not see action in either. This is progress. Also note that Soria came into last night's game in a high-leverage situation (winning run on second) even though it was not a save situation. And even though he threw 19 pitches last night, Hillman did not hesitate to let him close this game. But even before that, I liked the fact he used Horacio Ramirez in the seventh to face the lower part of the Twins' order and then the lefty thumpers in the middle. Ramirez gave up two hits, but did not allow a run. Then Jamey Wright pitched a perfect eighth inning; rather than use Cruz (who struggled in the previous game), Hillman used Wright, who has been a pleasant surprise so far. The Royals added some insurance runs, and Soria closed out the game and series win.

The Week Ahead

Well, after I was worried headed into last week, I feel a little more confident about this week. It should be an interesting one, with a four-game homestand before the start of a West Coast road trip. Two games against the White Sox to start, and then two with Seattle and three in Anaheim. Obviously, the first two games of the week are big, with the White Sox one of the teams in the AL Central dogfight. The Mariners are having a good year so far, leading the AL West. The Angels are struggling but are still a talented team. If the offense can keep up the good work (41 runs in the last five games), this could be another good week.