by Kurtis Seaboldt
Royals fans were scratching their heads.
It was Monday, August 1, and the team was in Tampa, Florida. They had arrived on a gloomy flight from Arlington where they had just been swept in a four-game series against the Rangers. They had lost eight times in nine games and had just completed their worst calendar month in four years.
And they were doing nothing about it.
The trade deadline was hours away and the Royals, with a handful of attractive, tradable pieces were doing nothing. Weren’t buying. Weren’t selling. It seemed inexplicable. Dayton Moore had vaulted himself into the upper echelon of general managers by assembling a team that had been to consecutive World Series but the last six months had not been stellar.
Big contracts to keep Alex Gordon and acquire Ian Kennedy and Joakim Soria were not paying off. Gordon was hitting .206 and had driven in 16 runs. He had hit seven home runs which meant that he had driven in nine teammates. All year.
Kennedy had just allowed one run over seven in a loss to Texas but his 6-9 record and 4.23 ERA was nothing to shout about. Soria had an ERA over 4.00. The team’s closer, Wade Davis, was hurt. They weren’t scoring runs and they were giving up plenty. This season was over. Why not begin the building process for next year?
Then Danny Duffy climbed the mound at Tropicana Field and pitched the greatest game in Royals history, striking out 16 batters in a 3-0 win. Royals won the next night but lost three in a row before Duffy stopped the skid with a win over Toronto. Counting that game and last night’s win at Boston, the Royals have won 17 of 21. Their record in August is 19-7, completely reversing their 7-19 July. They are the first team since the 2005 Oakland A’s to follow a 19-loss month with a 19-win month.
The Royals, 12 back in the division and 8.5 back in the Wild Card when August began, are now just 5.5 back in the Central and 3 back in the Wild Card. Danny Duffy has vaulted into the Cy Young discussion, Kennedy built off his last July start and has a 1.11 ERA in August. Soria has not allowed a run in 11 straight appearances. Even Alex Gordon had a ten-game stretch in which he batted .432 and slugged .919.
The capper to this amazing resurgence has been the Royals’ bullpen. Minus Davis and Luke Hochevar, the bullpen only ripped off the longest scoreless streak in half a century with only one member who was in the pen a year ago. Kelvin Herrera was joined by Soria, Chris Young, Chien-Ming Wang, Brian Flynn, Peter Moylan, Dillon Gee and Matt Strahm in pitching more than 41 consecutive scoreless innings. Look at those names again.
Suddenly, Dayton Moore’s offseason looks a heck of a lot better. And his decision to stand pat at the deadline looks like borderline genius. The Royals still have work to do and there is little margin for error. But the hardest team in baseball to kill the last two seasons is within striking distance and there isn’t a team in American League that feels good about that.
By Kurtis Seaboldt
This is why you shouldn’t wait.
Late Saturday night, I got the idea to write a column about the Royals’ two biggest issues this season: their starting rotation and their offense. After back-to-back beat downs at the hands of the Astros, it made sense. But I like to have stats to back it up and that takes time and now, 48 hours later, I am writing what amounts to a “here’s what’s wrong with the Royals” column after a pair of impressive wins.
It’s not the best timing, for sure, but timing has never been my strong suit. So you’ll forgive me in advance for sounding like a wet blanket. Here we go (clears throat, covers head, looks for available escape routes).
The Royals will not make the 2016 Playoffs.
Wait! Don’t get mad! Let me put it another way. The Royals will not make the 2016 Playoffs if they don’t have a significant improvement in at least one of the two areas that I mentioned above. They must either get much better pitching or much more productive on offense. History – my guide in all of these matters – says it is so.
The Royals, as of Sunday night, were 14th in the American League in starters ERA. They were 13th in runs scored per game. Going back to 1999 – that’s the earliest season that MLB.com has sortable splits for pitching – fewer than half of the teams that ranked that low in either category made the playoffs. Way fewer than half. In fact, none of them made the playoffs.
The lowest that any playoff team ranked in starters ERA was 13th (1999 Rangers and 2001 Indians. The lowest that any playoff team ranked in runs scored was 10th (2004 Twins and 2008 Angels). Again, the Royals are 14th and 13th in those categories, respectively.
Now, the Royals could get to 13th in starters ERA and they could get to 10th in runs scored. But doesn’t solve the problem and here is the reason. The 1999 Rangers and 2001 Indians were both second in the league in runs scored. They made up for bad starting pitching by clubbing teams over the head with their bats. The Royals don’t do that.
The 2004 Twins and 2008 Angels were first (Twins) and fifth (Angels) in the league in starters ERA. They made up for a subpar offense by shutting teams down with their rotation. The Royals don’t do that, either.
If you could take away either one of the two problems, the Royals would still be left with a problem that no team has overcome. Either problem would be enough to sink a team and the Royals have both. This is not sustainable over the long haul.
The return of Alex Gordon and the resurgence of Kendrys Morales’ left-handed power swing suggest that the problem on offense is the one more likely to be solved. There really isn’t much to point to as far as the rotation is concerned – although Ian Kennedy’s start Sunday against Houston and Danny Duffy’s gem against St. Louis Monday night are good signs.
One of the two must change and the change must be significant. If not, the defense of the Royals’ crown will end before October even begins.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
It was one of the worst road trips in the history of the Kansas City Royals. It wasn’t the worst, even if you go back just ten years – the Royals went 0-9 through New York, Tampa and Chicago in 2006 – but it was one-sided to a degree that has seldom been seen.
Even with their two wins, Kansas City was outscored on the ten-game trip, 51-20. Even with their two wins, the Royals’ road record is now 13-23, the third-worst in all of baseball.
This didn’t used to be a problem.
From 2013 through 2015, the Royals were 133-110 (.547) on the road. That was one of the best road records in the majors in that time span. In fact, it was the best road record in the majors in that time span. So what the heck is happening this year? Well, for one thing, their pitching on the road has been worse. Much worse.
From 2013-15, the Royals had a road ERA of 3.38, the best in baseball and easily the best in the American League – Cleveland was second at 3.72. Only seven teams had a home ERA lower than the Royals’ road ERA and all were in the National League. What has happened this season is nothing short of remarkable.
The Royals’ road ERA is 4.48, more than a run higher than their average of the previous three seasons. Much of that has been due to the alarming rate at which baseballs thrown by their pitchers have ended up over the outfield fence. The Royals have allowed 53 home runs in 36 road games this season. That puts them on a pace to allow 119 on the year, which would be the highest road home run total in the majors since 2000, during the heart of the steroid era.
The home-road imbalance has been even more pronounced for the rotation. Royals starters have a home ERA of 4.02 this season. On the road, it is 5.59. Opposing batters are hitting .272 and slugging .498 against Royals starters this season. Ernie Banks hit .274 and slugged .500 during his career. Royals starting pitchers have essentially turned every batter they’ve faced on the road this season into Ernie Banks.
The Royals’ starting pitching is on a pace to allow 101 home runs on the road this season. Over the last ten seasons, only 24 teams – starters and relievers – have allowed 101 road home runs in a single season.
The recent re-emergence of Danny Duffy gives the Royals and their fans some hope that the near future could be brighter. It better be. They can’t continue to win if it isn’t.
by Kurtis Seaboldt
The lead was 18 after one quarter. It was 31 at the half. After three quarters the lead was 40. The Cleveland Cavaliers put a beating on the Toronto Raptors Wednesday night. Their 116-78 win tied for the fifth-largest margin of victory ever recorded in a Conference Finals game.
It was an epic destruction. In fact, to find the last time a team won a Conference Finals game by at least 30 points you have to go all the way back to… last week. The same Cavs beat the same Raptors in the same Quicken Loans Arena, 115-84, in what was then the 14th-largest margin of victory ever in a Conference Finals game.
Things have been much closer on the Western Conference side. Well, maybe not much closer. The Thunder beat the defending champion Warriors by 28 and 24 in a three-day span earlier this week. It’s not a new trend. Well, not entirely new. It has been present all through this year’s NBA Playoffs.
There have been 76 games played since the playoffs began back on April 16, a day that saw Oklahoma City thump Dallas by 38 and saw Golden State hammer Houston by 26. Seventeen games (22%) have been decided by at least 25 points. Nearly one out of every four games has been decided by 25 or more.
For perspective consider this: In the previous three playoff seasons, there were only 16 games decided by 25 points or more. There have been 8 games in this year’s playoffs decided by at least 30 points, the most in a single year in NBA history. There were only two in 2014. Two. The Cavs have that many through five games of this series alone.
And there really is no concrete explanation for it. The best theory I’ve heard comes from Soren Petro. He says the NBA has become much more of a jump-shooting league and when those shots don’t fall for one team on a given night, it leads to a blowout. That makes a lot of sense. It's really the only plausible explanation that I've heard.
The only issue I have with that theory is that it didn’t happen in the regular season. In fact, there were fewer 25-point wins in the 2015-16 regular season (82) than there was in any season since 2011-12. There were 94 last year, 87 and 86 the two years before that.
So, what gives? I’m not really sure. The old joke about the NBA was that nothing matters except for the last two minutes. This spring, it has been the least exciting two minutes in sports.
By Kurtis Seaboldt
Four days from now, the 2016 Major League Baseball season will commence at Kauffman Stadium and the Royals will officially begin defense of their World Series title against the team they defeated for it, the New York Mets.
Appropriately, the man who will take the ball for the Royals is the same man who took the ball in the last game these two teams played in last year’s Fall Classic, Edison Volquez.
The 32-year old right-hander enters his 12th big league season as the club’s #1 starter. Forget Yordano Ventura’s catchy nickname; Volquez is this team’s ace, and rightly so. He led the club in innings pitched and ERA and tied Ventura for the club lead in wins.
The Royals know what they have in Volquez. But what else do they know?
Ventura is coming off of what was, as a whole, the worst season of his short career. His 13-8 record was fine but his ERA jumped from 3.20 in 2014 to 4.08. However, a look at his 2015 game log is encouraging. On August 6, he had an ERA of 5.29 and a record of 6-7. Over his last eleven starts, Ventura was 7-1 with an ERA of 2.38 with 81 strikeouts in 68 innings. His 6.43 ERA in the post-season was an eyesore that got covered up with a championship.
You’d like to think that the shenanigans of last year are a thing of the past but the Royals have basically shown that they aren’t quite sure themselves by removing him from a potentially heated confrontation with the Mets in the opening series. Which Ventura shows up in 2016?
Ian Kennedy is an innings eater. That’s about all the Royals know about him at the moment. He averaged 194 innings over his last six seasons and made at least 30 starts in each of them. Some of his numbers from 2015 show signs of promise. He was just 9-15 and had a 4.28 ERA but his WHIP was decent, his BB/9 was pretty good and his K/9 was the best of his career, a career that includes a 21-win season.
Dayton Moore and pitching coach Dave Eiland have done a very good job of taking pitchers like Kennedy and getting them back on track. But which Kennedy shows up in 2016?
Chris Young was one of the best stories in baseball last season. Signed during spring training, all Young did was go 11-6 with a 3.06 ERA. But he’s only thrown more than 125 innings once since 2007. He’ll be 37 on May 25. How much can he give the Royals in 2016?
Kris Medlen may have been an even better story last season. Coming off of his second Tommy John surgery, he had not pitched in the majors since 2013. He didn’t pitch for the Royals until July 20 but was huge in the second half, first as a bullpen guy and then as a starter. But, he pitched just 58 innings last season. How many can he pitch in 2016?
Veteran Chien-Ming Wang apparently found the Fountain of Youth in Texas and is suddenly throwing in the mid-90’s. Again, he fits the bill as a Moore-Eiland reclamation project but there is nothing to show but promise at this point.
With the exception of right field, the Royals are set around the diamond, as set as they’ve been in three decades. The bench has a good mix. The end of the bullpen looks as loaded as ever. But their rotation has a lot of questions to answer. Let’s hope the answers are good ones.
By Kurtis Seaboldt
A year ago, Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas arrived at the club’s spring training home in Surprise, Arizona, with a new approach to hitting. Some time next week, he will return there with something else: A new contract.
The two are not unrelated.
The Royals avoided arbitration with Moustakas late Thursday by inking him to a two-year deal reportedly worth $14.3 million. He will earn $5.6 million in 2016 and $8.7 million in 2017. His ability to duplicate the break out season that earned him this new deal would greatly aid the Royals’ ability to duplicate their World Championship.
I think he can do it.
Moustakas exploded onto the national scene during the Royals’ amazing 2014 postseason run, bombing five home runs. Many hoped that was a sign of things to come in 2015. Then Moustakas showed up in the desert and talked about going the other way. It seemed odd because, in the view of most observers, he was willfully sacrificing what he could be (a power hitter) for something he had little chance of becoming (an opposite fielder hitter with pop). Then he began rifling singles and doubles into left and left center.
He continued this transformation – almost unheard of at this stage of a players’ career – into the regular season. He hit .356 in April and on June 24, he was still sitting at .328. Then came what would charitably be called a swoon. He was named to his first All-Star Game but he took a 13-game slash line of .128/.222/.149/.371 with him on the plane to Cincinnati. The bloom was off the rose.
It was simply, really. He had made an adjustment and it took the league a couple of months to counter. By late-June, they had. He needed to counter, as well, and he did. Boy, did he ever.
After a 45-game stretch in which he hit just .176 and saw his season average drop to .269, Moustakas regained his footing. Over the last 37 games, Moustakas’ slash line was .328/.378/.642/1.021. His numbers fell off during the postseason but the sample size is small.
Mike Moustakas turned 27 last September which means that he’ll be 27 on Opening Day. That is the age where many players have a breakout season when it comes to power. He could stand to get in better shape but that’s the only issue I have with him. He plays great defense. He is a leader in the clubhouse. And he has already shown the confidence to completely blow up everything he had done in his career and remake himself as a player.
He may only be here for two more years and it appears more than ever that the Royals are throwing everything into 2016 and 2017. Mike Moustakas will clearly play a very big role in how well that plan goes. I think he has what it takes to come up big.