2015 Preview: Kansas City Royals

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2015 season. Next up: The Kansas City Royals.

The Big Question: Why doesn’t anyone believe in the defending American League champions?

Popular sportsbook Bovada has set the Royals’ over/under win total at 80.5. FanGraphs projects the Royals to win 79 games. Baseball Prospectus projects the Royals to win 72 games. And even mainstream baseball writers, who tend to base their opinions more on gut feelings than statistical projections, more often than not peg the Royals for third or fourth place in the AL Central.

So what gives?

Well, for one thing the Royals came out of nowhere last season. They weren’t a trendy preseason pick to win the division, let alone the entire American League, and as of late July they were below .500 and there was talk of manager Ned Yost being on the hot seat. Instead he struck around, they went on a huge second-half run, and then he bunted his way into plenty of job security as many observers shook their head at the team’s playoff success.

All of that adds up to the perception, among some people, that the Royals were a bit of a fluke. Royals fans won’t want to hear that, of course, but no fans of a team that eventually proved to be a fluke–and plenty of teams have proven to be flukes–wanted to believe it before it happened. That’s how fans work.

Beyond that, the Royals lost three key contributors to free agency in No. 1 starter James Shields, designated hitter Billy Butler, and right fielder Norichika Aoki. Shields will be very tough to replace after logging 456 innings with a 3.18 ERA during his two seasons in Kansas City and the Royals had a 42-26 (.618) record when he took the mound compared to 133-123 (.519) when anyone else pitched. His replacement is Edinson Volquez, whose success with the Pirates last season was built on shaky secondary numbers and who posted a 4.94 ERA from 2009-2013.

Butler will be easier to replace, or at least replacing his 2014 production will be easy given that he had a career-worst season. Of course, as bad as Butler was while hitting .271 with a .323 on-base percentage and .379 slugging percentage the man Kansas City signed to replace him, Kendrys Morales, was even worse while hitting .218 with a .274 OBP and .338 SLG. Obviously the Royals are counting on Morales returning to his pre-2014 form, but the Twins and Mariners made that same bet last year and lost.

Aoki’s defensive struggles in the playoffs might suggest replacing him could be easy too, but he’s graded out well in defensive metrics and his .350 on-base percentage along with excellent strike zone control were much needed in a lineup that had just two other hitters with OBPs above .325. Alex Rios is his replacement and at age 34 his offensive production and defensive ratings have plummeted, but the Royals believe his poor 2014 was caused mostly by injuries.

Most of the great bullpen and outstanding defense remain intact, but losing Shields hurts, the replacements for Butler and Aoki are iffy additions to a lineup that already lacked reliable pop, and perhaps most of all few people seem to think the Royals’ deal with the devil is a multi-year contract. If they’re going to make another playoff run Yost and company will have to prove everyone wrong … again.

What else is going on?

  • Even if counting on Volquez backfires the Royals’ rotation could get a boost from a pair of young, high-upside left-handers. Danny Duffy looked good in his return from Tommy John surgery last year and should be able to increase his workload to 180-200 innings. Brandon Finnegan made a big impact in the playoffs as a reliever just months after being drafted out of TCU, but the Royals still think he has a chance to be a quality starter. Toss in the possibility of Yordano Ventura taking another big step forward at age 24 and young upside, not Volquez, might end up making up for the loss of Shields.
  • The three-headed bullpen monster of Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kelvin Herrera combined for a 1.27 ERA in 204 innings last season, which is insane. There is essentially zero chance of that collective performance being repeated, which is not an insult to those three amazing relievers any more so than gravity is an insult to something knocked off a table falling to the floor. During the regular season and the playoffs Kansas City won late-inning battles and close games because their bullpen was damn near perfect and perfect is hard to duplicate.
  • Signing former Braves starter Kris Medlen to an incentive-laden two-year deal as he comes back from a second Tommy John surgery could prove to be an important move if he emerges as a second-half rotation option. Who knows what Medlen will look like after having his elbow fixed again, but in 2012-2013 he threw 335 innings with a 2.47 ERA and 277/70 K/BB ratio.

Prediction: Same approach, with slightly worse results and a lot less magic on the way to 83 wins.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Koufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

Getty Images

“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.