Eric Hosmer

The Unbeatable Kansas City Royals

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — When I was columnist for The Kansas City Star, I would write an annual column where I predicted the Kansas City Royals to win the division. It wasn’t quite an inside joke … and it certainly wasn’t a serious prediction. It was, instead, my best effort to capture a little bit of spring hope in a baseball town that had been beaten up over the years. It’s that time of year for baseball hope. Every player is in the best shape of his life. Every manager is thinking pennant. Every fan is imagining that this will be the year this guy hits 25 homers and that guy strikes out 200 and the other guy gets 30 saves.

I think that’s the whole point with March baseball. The season — and grim reality — will come soon enough.

Well, the problem with writing the Royals’ hope column in the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s was simply that it was really hard to come up with an even remotely  plausible scenario where Kansas City won anything. They always needed so many crazy things to happen. They would need Chad Durbin and Jimmy Gobble to become stars. They would need Reggie Sanders or Juan Gonzalez to hold off the hands of time. They would need to win every single one-run game they played and to suddenly become a great fielding team and to magically start getting on base more.

After a while, I referred to it as “hitting on 20 in blackjack” hope. If you hit on 20 in blackjack, you might — MIGHT — draw the ace and win. It could happen. But it’s no way to go through life.

This year — warning: I’m about to break one of my major rules about baseball analysis and quote a spring training statistic — the Royals are unbeaten. They tied their first game of spring training (which, in itself, tells you how meaningless this all is) and they have won every game since. They pounded a split-squad Oakland team on Tuesday — battering the shell of Bartolo Colon for four runs in the first inning — to make it 10 victories in a row. “Everybody’s contributing,” Royals manager Ned Yost said after the game. “That makes it fun.”

Now, let me make this clear: I believe this 10-game spring training winning streak means almost exactly nothing. It means about as much as an NBA player making 20 three-pointers in a row during warmups or an NFL kicker making a 68-yard field goal in pre-game. It might buoy the confidence a bit. It might sell a couple more early season tickets. It might help create a more positive atmosphere in the clubhouse. But that’s it. The Royals began last year by losing their first 10 home games in the regular season — THAT means something.

But … hey winning 10 in a row is better than losing 10 in a row. And there is something exciting about this team. That exciting thing is, paradoxically, something kind of boring: For the first time in what seems like forever, the Royals don’t enter a season needing miracles. They don’t need some crazy-good year from Emil Brown or Dan Reichert, they don’t need supernatural comebacks from Chuck Knoblauch or Jose Lima, they don’t need for anybody to transform into one of the Avengers. Few are expecting the Royals to really compete for a playoff spot this year … and they might not. But for the first time in forever, they COULD compete without an inconceivable series of magic tricks and freak occurrences and James Bond luck.

For one, the bullpen should be dominant — especially in the eighth and ninth innings. The eighth is held down by Kelvin Herrera, whose name might not ring a bell yet, but who had the fastest average velocity in American League last year at 97.1 mph. He has already hit 100 this spring — he’s in shape early for the World Baseball Classic — and he dominated most of last season. The ninth is owned by Greg Holland, another new name to many, and he struck out 91 batters in 67 innings last year, and the league hit .194 against him after he became the closer. They have other guys in the bullpen — Aaron Crow, Tim Collins among them — who consistently throw in the mid-to-high 90s. “Where do the Royals get all these guys?” one American League scout asks.

The starting rotation has questions, certainly, but James Shields, Ervin Santana and Jeremy Guthrie all have been above average major league starters over their careers — and all have had good seasons in the not-so-distant past. Wade Davis was really good in the Tampa Bay bullpen last year and could be a very good fourth starter. The last time the Royals went into a season with just three starting pitchers who you might reasonably expect to be average or better was probably 1994.

*Kevin Appier, David Cone and Tom Gordon … to give you an idea how long ago it has been.

The lineup is young — which makes it both volatile and exciting. Alex Gordon is one of the better players in baseball, even if few people have caught on yet. Billy Butler hit .310 with 32 doubles and 29 homers last year. Young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were Top 10 prospects and have All-Star talent, and catcher Salvador Perez is probably the best throwing catcher in the American League at age 22 and he has been an offensive wonder in limited time. Of course, it can go bad — Hosmer had a shockingly bad 2012 season and Moustakas wore down and Perez was injured and hasn’t established himself yet. But, pretty much across baseball scouts love those three players. As the American League scout above said, “I’d start my team with those three right now.”

Does this mean the Royals definitely will compete in 2013? Of course it doesn’t. They still need all the things teams need — they need to stay healthy, especially in the starting rotation. They need for some young players to break through and get better, Hosmer in particular. They need for some veterans to repeat what they’ve done in the recent past. They need some luck. But these are the things all teams need going into a season. As one Royals executive said Tuesday, “This camp feels more businesslike than any I can remember.” That might not sound like much, but having been around the Royals for a long time I thought what he was really saying was: “Hey, look, we actually have good players.”

Sure, Carlos Gomez is the problem in Houston

Houston Astros' Carlos Gomez (30) reacts after hitting a double in the second inning of a baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Tuesday, May 3, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)
Associated Press
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No one will claim that Carlos Gomez is playing up to his ability. He’s got a .634 OPS in the 65 games he’s played for the Astros between last year and this year. Not good at all.

Still, he seems to be taking an outsized amount of the blame for the Astros’ slow start to this year. I do a weekly radio hit on a Texas station and Gomez has been the talk for three weeks when the Astros’ troubles are mentioned. Today Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle spends a whole column going at Gomez, with the usual dash of “you can’t be flamboyant if you can’t back it up” sentiment often given to players like Gomez when they struggle but which is seemingly never given to players whose act is more “tough guy.” Funny that.

More notable: nowhere in the column is it mentioned that, overall, the Astros’ offense is above league average and that, in reality, it’s the pitching that’s killing them. Gomez may not be carrying his weight, but his teammates in the lineup are for now, as teammates do for every hitter at one time of the year or another. Meanwhile, Smith doesn’t seem to be writing columns about how three of the Astros’ five starters have ERAs above 5.00 and how the bullpen has been a disaster. Gomez, however, gets a “Rally Killer” subheading in reference to his performance in a game his team actually won, primarily due to the offense.

There’s also an unfortunate quote in the article. Specifically, Smith quotes Gomez as saying “For the last year and this year, I not really do much for this team. The fans be angry. They be disappointed.”

I’m sure that’s what he said, but it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the quote’s imperfect English fits satisfyingly into a column designed to rip Gomez and that it’s going to play right into stereotyping a certain sort of reader who has just HAD it with those allegedly lazy, entitled Latino players likes to engage in. For the record, its not uncommon for other players whose grammar is less than perfect to get [the bracket treatment] to make the mistakes less noticeable. Or, if the quote is less than clear or enlightening, to get the paraphrasing treatment and have his sentiment conveyed in keeping with the intent of the sentiment. I guess Gomez doesn’t get that treatment. He gets to be portrayed in such a way that a certain sort of reader will unfortunately interpret as him being too dumb or too lazy to learn proper English or something.

And no, it’s not just sensitive old Craig noticing that:

Empathy is the key word here, I think. Smith as no interest in portraying Gomez as a player who, like all players, struggles from time to time. He has to be the bad guy who is responsible for all of the Astros’ woes, it seems.

Puerto Rico official calls MLB’s likely series cancellation “an act of touristic terrorism”

Ricardo Arduengo -- Associated Press
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On Tuesday it was reported that Major League Baseball is on the verge of cancelling the upcoming series in Puerto Rico between the Marlins and the Pirates due to Zika concerns. Puerto Rico is not particularly pleased with that.

As this story from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review makes clear, their displeasure is being expressed in totally calm and rational terms:

“It’s an outrageous situation,” Rep. Angel Matos, head of the tourism commission for Puerto Rico’s House of Representatives, told the Tribune-Review. “The reality is that this cancellation is unfair, disproportionate, and makes our country look bad. It’s an act of touristic terrorism.”

I will grant that a cancellation wouldn’t be great for Puerto Rico. I will also grant that an expert cited in the same article claims that the odds of any players contracting Zika are very, very long. Indeed, he compares it to someone hitting 20 homers in a single game. Which, sure, Giancarlo Stanton is involved here so you can never totally rule it out, but it’s super unlikely.

But MLB, the union and the players involved aren’t in the business of dealing with the probability of disease contraction. They’re dealing with a bunch of players being really nervous about something vs. a two-game series in May that, while carrying big meaning for Puerto Rico, is sort of meaningless to them in a lot of ways, even if they won’t say so publicly. They’re weighing this a lot differently than tourism commission executives.

My guess is that it still gets cancelled. My guess is that, even if it does, Puerto Rico will survive this act of alleged “touristic terrorism.”

Yasiel Puig caught a big fish

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig looks to the dugout for signs as he steps out of the batter's box while facing Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Jordan Lyles in the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 24, 2016, in Denver. Puig drew a walk, the first of three in a row yielded by Lyles. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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I know I’m in the tank for Puig and have been for years now, but it’s a pretty fun tank so I don’t care.

Lately I’ve been taken with his hashtag game. Last week we encountered #PuigYourFriend. This one is not as good, but #PuigHungry is pretty solid too.

I just hope this isn’t ruined by word that he’s hired some social media professional to curate his feed. It’s possible and maybe likely, but I just don’t want to hear about it if it’s the case:

 

And That Happened: Wednesday’s scores and highlights

Cleveland Indians starting pitcher Corey Kluber delivers against the Detroit Tigers during the first inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Ron Schwane)
Associated Press
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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Indians 4, Tigers 0: Corey Kluber with a five-hit shutout in a game which ended in a tidy two hours and nineteen minutes and featured only three pitchers in all. It’s like it was the 1970s or something.

Red Sox 5, White Sox 2: Sox win!

OK, I can’t just leave it at that for the second day in a row. David Ortiz hit a two-run shot for what ended up being the winning runs. It was Ortiz’s 509th career homer, which ties him with Gary Sheffield for 25th on the all-time home run list. Ortiz is on a 36-home run pace. In the past two seasons he’s hit 37 and 35, so it’s not unreasonable to think he’ll get there. If he does pull that off, he’ll pass Sheffield, Mel Ott, Eddie Matthews, Ernie Banks, Ted Williams, Frank Thomas, Willie McCovey, Jimmy Foxx and Mickey Freakin’ Mantle to end up at 17 on the all-time list. That’s some pretty rarified air. And Gary Sheffield.

Reds 7, Giants 4: Zack CozartBrandon Phillips and Eugenio Suarez each hit homers in the second inning as the Reds put up five on Jake Peavy in the frame and went on to avoid the sweep. The Giants’ top three starters have ERAs of 3.61., 3.32, and 3.03. Their fourth and fifth starters have ERAs of 7.00 (Matt Cain) and 8.61 (Peavy). The Giants are in first place. If they’d gotten anything from the back end of their rotation so far they’d be in first by more than a mere half game.

Cubs 6, Pirates 2Ben Zobrist hit a three-run home run and Anthony Rizzo hit a solo shot. The Cubs sweep the Pirates to win their seventh of eight games. They have a six-game division lead already. Juggernaut, much?

Cardinals 5, Phillies 4: The Cardinals scored twice in the bottom of the ninth, capped off with Matt Holliday‘s walkoff single. After the game Holliday said “we needed it . . . this was one we needed to win.” That seems weird to say in early May, but given that the Cardinals had lost five of six and the Cubs are threatening to run away with the division, it’s not a crazy thought.

Mets 8, Braves 0: Steven Matz pitched two-hit shutout ball into the eighth and Lucas Duda homered twice. New York has won 10 of 12. I’m still of the view that the Braves fire Fredi Gonzalez today. I just feel like that’s a thing that’s gonna happen.

Angels 7, Brewers 3: Mike Trout tripled and homered. Remember when, in the first week or two of the season, people were asking if Trout was OK? He’s now hitting .317/.400/.596 and a 41 home run, 127-RBI pace, so yeah, he’s OK.

Nationals 13, Royals 2: The Nats scored six runs before Stephen Strasburg had to throw a single pitch. They had 10 runs by the time they stopped batting in the third. Most of the afternoon, then, was mere formality. Kris Medlen was both shelled and betrayed by his defense, giving up nine runs, six of which were earned. In two home starts he’s allowed sixteen runs, thirteen earned.

Mariners 9, Athletics 8: Seattle led by two, then trailed by four then came back with five runs between the sixth and seventh innings to take this one going away and to complete the sweep. Dae-Ho Lee hit two bombs for Seattle.

Rockies 2, Padres 0: Eight shutout innings from Tyler Chatwood. The game’s two runs scored of a fielder’s choice and a sacrifice. Feel the excitement.

Yankees 7, Orioles 0: CC Sabathia looked like the CC of old, as he pitched seven shutout innings. The Yankees’ bats finally came alive. Brian McCann drove in three so I guess he came alive too. Total resurrection game for the Bombers. If THE BOSS was still alive . . .

Blue Jays 4, Rangers 3: Russell Martin with a walkoff single, giving the Jays two walkoffs in a row against Texas. Pitcher wins and losses don’t mean much but as a whole the Rangers bullpen has nine losses on the year and that’s not really great or OK.

Marlins 4, Diamondbacks 3: Giancarlo Stanton homered but he’s more than just a power hitter. Check out the hose:

Tomas was called safe, but replay showed that Stanton got ’em.

Rays 8, Dodgers 5: Steve Pearce hit a go-ahead, three-run homer and Brandon Guyer, Steven Souza Jr. and Curt Casali each hit solo shots. The Dodgers were 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

 

Astros 16, Twins 4: Jason Castro homered and drove in four runs. Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa both homered and drove in three. It’s the first time all year Houston has won consecutive games. Dang.