26612532492_ece8547543_z

Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

From about 2009¬†on, I have regularly followed the Kansas City Royals minor ¬†league teams to keep track of the development of the prospects throughout the Royals farm system. Initially it was done to get a glimpse into brighter days, as the big league club was struggling and the likes of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Salvador Perez were all¬†being touted as the future of the organization. Luckily, I enjoyed keeping track of the future big league stars in the minors and have continued following the development of the Royals prospects. So while the Royals are now the World Champions of baseball, their farm system is still chugging away with a number of players who will end up contributing to the big league club. Today, let’s look at some of the players who are putting up good numbers down on the farm.

26352810231_638e25c96f_z

Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s begin with the Royals AAA team, the Omaha Storm Chasers. The Chasers are about 21 games into the new season and have gotten some solid hitting from their lineup in the first few weeks of the 2016 campaign. Jorge Bonifacio has been the big bopper so far, as he is currently riding a 10-game hitting streak into Saturday’s game. Bonifacio, the brother of former Royal Emilio Bonifacio, has been hitting at a .333/.341/.571 clip with 4 home runs, 17 RBI’s and 48 total bases. Bonifacio has had some competition though, as Cheslor Cuthbert has been tearing it up as well, hitting .325/.393/.584 with 5 home runs, 23 RBI’s and 45 total bases. But it hasn’t just been the hitters stealing the show for the Chasers so far this year, as Brooks Pounders is 2-0 in his first 4 starts, with an ERA of 2.25 and a WHIP of 1.20 to lead the Chasers pitching staff.

kc3

Meanwhile, let’s mosey on over to the Royals AA affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. The name on most people’s lips on this team is Raul Mondesi Jr, who is one of the Royals top prospects. While Mondesi has shown some decent power this year for really the first time in his career( 4 home runs so far, 8 total extra base hits), the early staple of the Naturals lineup has been former #1 Draft Pick Hunter Dozier. Dozier is hitting .299/.405/.627 with 5 homers, 14 RBI’s and 42 total bases. On the pitching side, the team has been bolstered by two guys I have talked about before, Alec Mills and Matt Strahm. Both have 4 starts under their belt so far this year, ERA’s under 2.00 and WHIP’s under 1.00 while striking out a combined 41 batters over 45 innings. I still think their future is tied to the bullpen, but so far they have been the horses of the Naturals’ rotation.

kc4

The final stop on this Royals minor league tour is Kansas City’s High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. A player who has been steadily rising on the Royals prospect board is first baseman Ryan O’Hearn. O’Hearn has been a ‘One Man Wrecking Machine’ in Wilmington, putting up a line of .366/.424/.707 with 7 home runs, 18 RBI’s and 58 total bases in just 21 games. On the pitching side, the Blue Rocks have been led by Pedro Fernandez, a fireballing righty who has been almost unhittable so far this year. Fernandez has struck out 23 over 22 innings so far this year, posting a 1.21 ERA and a WHIP just a hair over 1.00(1.03). These two players are the best prospects in Wilmington at the moment and I would have to think will be in AA before the year is up.

kc5

So a quick trip through the Royals farm system shows a number of prospects are putting up stellar numbers in the early going of 2016. It’s still too early to tell just how many of these players will end up helping the Royals, although one would think at least a few will see time in Kansas City before the season is over. What this shows is that while the Royals are one of the older teams in the American League, there is still youth in the minors that could be helping the team in the near future.

040615 spt marlins ae 12

(Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

The big story around baseball on Friday was that Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon had been suspended¬†for 80 games because he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Gordon had tested positive during Spring Training and had been appealing the suspension until he decided to drop the appeal on Thursday. There are a number of items of note to take from this suspension, whether it be the fact that Gordon doesn’t fit the stereotype of a PED user(although if you have been paying attention, when a pitcher like Jason Grimsley is in the Mitchell Report you know that stereotype isn’t always true), the question of why someone who just signed a new guaranteed deal would do anything to endanger¬†that, to why some people are questioning the validity of the testing done by MLB when it obviously seems to be working. All those topics are interesting(as are the five¬†Jayson Stark threw out there today) and well worth a discussion, but it’s not the direction I am going today. Instead, I want to focus on the narrative some so-called “journalists” are tossing out there. I was at work this morning and while listening to the radio, caught the NBC Sports Update, a small two minute look at sports news. They mentioned the Gordon suspension and then at the end of it said “…by the way, Gordon’s hitting coach is Barry Bonds.” Obviously, this rubbed me the wrong way, as it had absolutely nothing to do with Gordon’s situation other than to imply something about Bonds. What is even worse is that I have seen three different articles throwing the same insinuation out there. What has happened to journalism?

MLB: MAY 26 Marlins at Pirates

May 26 2015: PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

By no means am I sticking up for Barry Bonds here; I think most of us agree Barry probably did something he shouldn’t have, even if part of the problem was that baseball wasn’t testing anyone during that period. No, the whole issue is that this has nothing to do with Bonds, AT ALL. The implications by these “news outlets” is that Barry Bonds, a former suspected PED user, helped point Dee Gordon in the direction to use PED’s. That is just ludicrous and shoddy journalism at best. What has been taught over the years to journalists is to get your facts straight and lay out all the information that you have. That doesn’t mean point to a narrative that will give you more link clicks or put up misleading headlines to grab people’s attention and then have nothing of any actual substance. The fact that Bonds is Gordon’s hitting coach this year is merely a coincidence and means absolutely nothing to whether or not Gordon took something he shouldn’t. So the narrative pushed is that Barry told him “Hey man, you should take PED’s; they will make you a bigger star and pile up your numbers!”, which just seems crazy if you think about it. Even crazier is the fact these news outlets are throwing that narrative out there, completely killing any credibility they once had.

USP MLB: WASHINGTON NATIONALS AT MIAMI MARLINS S BBN USA FL

(Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY)

Even if you read the ESPN article I linked above, they mention Bonds. No facts to back up the possibility of Bonds getting in Gordon’s ear, not other Marlin’s getting suspended, nothing. This is where journalism is in 2016. So if any San Diego Padres player gets caught using PED’s, does that fall at bench coach Mark McGwire’s feet? If any New York Yankee tests positive, should we all point the finger at Alex Rodriguez? Just writing that made me shake my head because it is beyond ignorant to assume such a thing. This is what happens when writers are lazy and don’t have any actual facts but want to drive up the hits on their story. Just because one (suspected) PED user was in the same vicinity as someone who tested positive for these performance-enhancing substances doesn’t mean there is a direct correlation; it means that even with modern day testing and harsher penalties, these players still want to get an edge any way possible, legally or illegally.

kc4

The most ironic part of this poor excuse for journalism is that this is a big story even if Bonds’ name is never mentioned. Mentioning that last year’s batting title winner and National League All-Star tested positive for PED’s and would be suspended for half the season is a big story without dusting off the cobwebs and taking shots at Barry. This story is about Gordon and how even in the modern era of baseball, players still feel the need to endanger their spot in the game for the possibility of “getting one up” on the competition. The story can even be how MLB’s drug testing is working, catching up to seven players already this season. Instead, many writers take the easy way out and decide to use “shock journalism” to create their own narrative. The funny thing is, I wonder what Bonds would say if a player asked¬†him today if it was worth it for him to take an illegal substance to gain an advantage? He very well might say it wasn’t worth it since he has been shunned by the baseball Hall of Fame and in a lot of circles he isn’t viewed as the true “Home Run King” of baseball. Right there is why you don’t mention Bonds name in any Gordon story about his suspension. If you don’t know how Bonds feels about the subject at this point in time, there is no way to assume he has discussed anything other than hitting with Dee Gordon. That is what a real journalist would call a fact; maybe outlets like NBC and ESPN should look into that more often.

royals1

We are just a few weeks into the season and the Royals are standing atop of a very tight American League Central, as most assumed they would. It’s hard to get too worked up about much of anything this early(especially since number-wise everything is a small sample size), but there have been a few patterns that have shown a light on the performance of a few Kansas City players. I figured today we would take a glance at these few items while also taking into consideration where the team is at early in the season. What do the people say, onward and upward? Sure, let’s do that.

kc1

Let’s start with last year’s MVP candidate, Lorenzo Cain. Cain was able to become an offensive force for Kansas City in 2015, but so far has struggled offensively in 2016. Some have pointed to his uptick in strikeout totals, like Hunter Samuels¬†did for¬†Baseball Prospectus Kansas City. As of Friday, Cain’s strikeout % is sitting at 28.6%, a major increase from last year’s 16.2%. While the K’s have been alarming, I have been pleasantly impressed with the patience Cain has shown at the dish. Over his career, the highest walk % Lorenzo has ever produced was 7.5% in 2013. Like most of the Royals, Cain just doesn’t walk much. But so far this season, he has upped his walk % to 14.3%, as he has walked 9 times in the first couple weeks of the 2016 season. Cain walked a grand total of 37 times last year, so he is already 1/4 of the way to that total. I have enjoyed seeing him be more patient at the plate and I think that also explains his strikeout numbers this year. If he is being more patient(and he is; Cain has increased his pitches seen per plate appearance this year, 4.27 to last year’s 3.79) than it seems just as logical that he is batting with two strikes on him more often. When that happens, you are bound to strikeout a bit more, as you are battling deeper into the count. It will be interesting to see what direction these numbers go throughout the rest of the year and they will be worth the time to occasionally check up on. I like that Cain is working the count more in his at bats, but you also have to realize when that happens there is a high chance that the strikeouts will increase as well. Hopefully Cain can learn to be patient while also knowing when to be more aggressive, as he has been known to do in the past.

kc2

Speaking of a Royals player whose strikeout totals are up, there is Alex Gordon, although I was wanting to talk about something else where “A1” is concerned:

It has fallen a tad, down to 40% as of the time of me writing this, which is still a very good percentage and shows when he gets a piece of the ball he is getting good wood on it. It seems by the numbers that Gordon has been hitting less fly balls(20%) while staying on pace with his ground ball percentage(40% so far this year, 37.6 last year). If you’ve watched a good portion of Royals games, you are probably shocked by these numbers. It just hasn’t seemed like Alex is stinging the ball so far this year. His hard hit % is down a smidge(26.7%) this year, but his medium hit rate is up(56.7%), so that could explain some of the line drive’s being hit by Gordon so far. The line drives also appear to be helping his BABIP, as it has risen to .379 in the season’s first couple weeks. I tend to think this is a good sign, as Alex is a notorious slow starter and these numbers tend to say that he is seeing the ball well. In fact, I might even go out on a limb and say we could be seeing an Alex Gordon hot streak in the very near future.

kc3

So we all knew Ian Kennedy would be this good through his first three starts in Royal blue, right? Um, sure. Go ahead and count me as one of the early¬†skeptics¬†of the Kennedy signing, but so far into 2016 he has proven everyone wrong. In three starts, Kennedy has thrown 20 innings, giving up only 3 runs and an ERA+ of 284. What is interesting is his strikeouts per 9 is on par with 2015 while his walks per 9 is only slightly below last year. You can probably assume part of Kennedy’s early success can be given to having the Royals defense behind him, as¬†he was stuck with San Diego’s awful ‘D’ last year. But it also appears as if pitching coach Dave Eiland made just a slight adjustment to his game plan on the mound this year that seems to have helped Kennedy:

So Eiland(who was also a coach in the Yankees system as Kennedy was coming up through the minors) has wanted Ian to keep the ball down and stay away from missing the ball up in the strike zone. One of Kennedy’s big bugaboo’s over the years has been a tendency to give up the long ball. It would only make sense that if you continue to miss higher up in the strike zone,¬†that there would be a greater chance of giving up some sort of extra base hit. Missing lower in the zone can cost you as well, but the percentages say it would be more likely to get a ground ball or a pop-up in that situation. I had made the comment back when the Royals signed him that I felt we would get some excellent starts from Kennedy as well as some stinkers and for the most part I stand by that. But if Kansas City gets more outings like he has thrown to this point than the bad ones, I don’t think anyone will complain. So far, so good for Kansas City and Ian Kennedy.

MLB: New York Mets at Kansas City Royals

(Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY)

…and then there is Joakim Soria. There has been a lot of concern about Soria since Opening Night, when he struggled in his return appearance to Kansas City. Since then, Soria has had some great outings, some good ones and a couple of rough patches. Craig Brown of BP Kansas City recently¬†took a look¬†at some of Soria’s issues and the consensus was that he was having location issues as well as not missing many bats. The funny thing is that while he appears to be struggling, there are a number of factors that point to a little bit of bad luck. For one, batters are not hitting the ball hard on Soria. His hard rate % is only around 20%, which is the lowest of the Royals top four relievers(Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, and Luke Hochevar being in that group). In fact, if you’ve been paying attention, Soria has allowed a number of bloop and dink hits so far into the season which would also explain his BABIP of .375, which is ridiculously high for almost any reliever(to give you an idea, Davis’ is currently at .071!). His velocity has also been on par with past seasons, which is a good sign that any trouble that is occurring is easily fixable.¬†In fact, Dave Eiland might have already found a solution:

Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland called Soria into a room early Wednesday afternoon. Eiland had noticed something the night before and confirmed it by watching slow-motion video after the game, but he waited for emotions to settle to meet with Soria.

In baseball speak, Soria has a ‚Äúlazy front side.‚ÄĚ In normal-people speak, his front arm is drifting off to the first base side, which isn‚Äôt generating the guidance or power needed for his throwing arm. It is a problem, affecting both movement and location, but coaches would love for this to be the extent of their pitchers‚Äô problems.

So Kansas City is hoping this slight adjustment could solve most of Soria’s woes. It will still beg the question being asked: Should Kelvin Herrera be throwing in the 8th inning instead of Soria? The answer is ‘probably’ but the Royals have an unique situation here where they have such a surplus of arms that the options are plentiful. It sounds like the team will go with the guy who is pitching the best at the time, which could be Herrera, Soria or even Hochevar. The door isn’t closed on Soria pitching in the late innings, but it does appear that it will matter on who has the hot hand at the time. In other words, what inning he comes in for will all be determined on how Joakim is throwing ¬†at the time.
Salvador Perez, Kendrys Morales, Eric Hosmer

(AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)

The Royals currently inhabit first place in the American League Central and have the best record in the AL at 11-5, so things are going smashing for the defending World Champions. It’s still early so any issue at this point is purely minute and nothing to get too worked up about. It’s a long season folks and the Royals have only played about 1/10 of their games, so a long path is still ahead. It’s sunny in Kansas City and it appears the road for every other team in the league will have to run through the Royals to get to the big destination, the World Series. I have a feeling Kansas City will welcome the challenge with open arms; just a thought. We lost some royalty this week, but the “Royalty” in Kansas City is still chugging along.

 

kc1

When I initially started this piece, my plan was take a look at Mike Moustakas’ home run history, broken down by month each year. But as I took a deeper look at Moose’s 2015 home run numbers, something jumped off the page at me. After hitting either ¬†two or three homers for each of the first four months of the year, he exploded for five home runs in August and seven(7!) in September/October. When you add in the four home runs he has already hit through the first eleven games of this season, I have to ask a question: is Moustakas finally living up to his expected power potential?

kc2

While Moustakas was coming up through the Royals minor league system, the expectation was that he had a good chance of producing some great power numbers. Here is a scouting report back  in 2009 from MLB.com:

Plus bat speed and a good swing translate to outstanding raw power, though he showed more of it in 2008 than last year. He does have the ability to hit the ball out to all fields.

There was also this about his upside potential:

Middle-of-the-order run producer who is a constant home run threat.

Also, this scouting report of Moose back when he was drafted in 2007:

Moustakas can flat-out hit and has potential to hit for average and power.

He’s a left-handed hitter with serious power. He homered three times in this game.

So there was a prevalent thought even back when he was in high school, that Moustakas could be a major power threat in the middle of Kansas City’s batting order. Even his minor league numbers showed a hitter with plus power, including 36 home runs in 2010 as he split time in AA and AAA.

kc3

Some of that power has translated over in the big leagues. Moose connected for 20 homers in 2012 with a slugging percentage of .412 and wrapped up last year with 22 and .470 respectively. In fact, the last two months of 2015 might have been a window into some of the power predicted by scouts before he was even drafted. Not only was there the 12 home runs during that span, but also 17 doubles and a slugging percentage of .562. So there seemed to be a change in philosophy in Moustakas from his approach at the plate early in 2015 and the numbers agree with that. Early in the season, Moose’s Fly Ball % hovered in the 30’s but jumped to the upper 40’s starting in July. His Home Run to Fly Ball % also jumped, from below 10% to 13.5% in August and a whopping 17.9% in September. A big part of his early season success was attributed to a philosophy of hitting the ball to the opposite field, as shown by his Pull % lingering in the mid to upper 30’s. August and September saw those numbers rise into the 40’s, while his opposite field numbers falling down into the 20’s. It definitely appeared on the surface that Moustakas¬†was trying to drive the ball more in the second half of the season, with definite success showing up over the last two months of the season.

kc4

It also appears as if Moose’s pitch recognition has improved as well. Last year it became very apparent that teammate Lorenzo Cain had figured out which balls he could drive and which ones he should just go with, leading to his best season to date. I tend to believe a big part of Moustakas’ success late last year and early this year can be attributed to better pitch recognition as well and realizing which pitches to pull and which ones to just go with. So far this year he has avoided rolling the ball over to second base and instead has taken those pitches the opposite way, while pitches that he can scorch(and let’s be honest, most of those are fastballs placed middle to in on him) he has been driving to the deeper portions of right field. Pitch recognition is sometimes a hard facet of the game to grasp, but when a player picks up on it, that normally means a whole new world has been opened to them.

kc5

So it is early into 2016 (and everything is a small sample size) but it does appear as if Moose’s approach at the dish is very comparable to how he ended 2015. Moose has opened up the new campaign with 4 home runs in just 11 games and his numbers show they aren’t too far off from the end of last year. Obviously his Pull % is higher(57.5) but the Oppo & Cent % are both close to his last few months of ’15, while his Fly Ball % is on par. There are a few numbers that are inflated by it being so early in the season(Moose’s ISO is up over .300 and his Home Run to Fly Ball ratio is a solid 26.7 over last year’s 11.2%) but some of those numbers will even out as more games are played and he racks up more at bats. With the advanced attention being paid to taking the ball deep though, that could also mean that Moose could approach the 30 home run plateau, which is very rare in Royals history. There have been only ten(10!!!) 30+ home runs seasons in Royals history, with the last player to hit that high water mark being Jermaine Dye(with 33) back in 2000. Billy Butler came close with 29 in 2012, but fell just short of adding his name to a list that includes Chili Davis, Gary Gaetti, Dean Palmer and the Steve Balboni, who holds the season mark with 36 back in 1985. So Moustakas will look to achieve something that is very rare in Royals history, but not completely impossible.

kc6

So if Moustakas increases his home run total this year and approaches or passes 30 dingers, is that a plus or a minus for Kansas City? I have to admit I am quite partial to the Moustakas that was flinging the ball all over the field early last year and something about “Oppo-Moose” stirs warm fuzzies in my belly. But I am also aware that Kansas City has longed for a power threat on their team for years now and they might have just produced one. Since this Royals lineup is filled with good, solid bats like Cain, Eric Hosmer and Alex Gordon, I tend to believe that having Moose provide more pop might help balance the offense out a bit more. If Mike can hit above .270 while still producing around 30 bombs, then it has to be considered a win/win for the Royals. If he is languishing around .250 or below then the extra homers are not worth it. I think there is a good chance we see a big season this year from Moustakas(as long as he can avoid injury; he did miss Friday’s game due to slight hamstring soreness) and while I don’t believe we will see him topple Balboni’s season best mark, I do think he could get close. It will be interesting to follow Moose’s power numbers this year and see how they progress. Will he trail off or continue to bomb away? We will know soon enough…

kc1

In 2015, Edinson Volquez was the rock of the Kansas City Royals rotation. While Yordano Ventura got the attention for his fiery fastball and his antics on the field, Volquez was the true ace of last year’s pitching staff. It should be no shock that whenever manager Ned Yost needed a solid start, especially early in a playoff series, he went to “Sexy Eddie” to get the job done. What was intriguing was the increase in Volquez’s velocity in the playoffs, as October seemed to give him a big shot of¬†adrenaline. In fact, during the postseason Volquez saw a velocity bump, from an average of 93.8 mph during the season to 95.2 mph in the postseason. It didn’t change Eddie’s game much, but the extra tick in his fastball was helpful. After two starts to this 2016 season, Volquez seems like he has changed up his game a bit with a little bit of that velo hanging around. So is Volquez a different pitcher this year? I decided to dive in and take a look.

kc2

Before we begin, I feel I should state how this is based purely off of just two starts for Volquez, so we are definitely dealing with a small sample size. Just remember this as we look at the numbers that they could change with a couple more starts tacked on later this week. Okay, onto the numbers. It has seemed to me through Eddie’s first few starts that he has really been utilizing his off-speed stuff more and it has elevated his strikeouts. Looking at the Pitch F/X data, Volquez has been throwing his fastball pretty close to his normal rate(12.0 to 12.3 last year) while usage of his change-up isn’t too far off(23.4 to 24.7). The differences seem to lie in his sinker and knuckle-curve, one he is throwing more and the other he is throwing less. Volquez has thrown the knuckle-curve less(21.5 to 24.1) so far this year, although it has never been a big weapon in his repertoire. The sinker on the other hand is being used more and it shouldn’t be surprising.

kc3

If Volquez has an “out-pitch”, it would be his sinker. The key to Volquez’s success truly relies on his ability to induce grounders with his sinker and let the Royals defense handle the rest. Last year Volquez used his sinker at a higher percentage than at any other time in his career, a solid 38.9%. So far this year, he has upped it to 43.1% which seems to signify how comfortable he is in not only throwing the pitch but also the trust in Kansas City’s elite defense. Not only is Volquez throwing this at the highest frequency of his career, he is also throwing it at the highest speed. In his two starts this year, Eddie is averaging 94 mph on his sinker, which is slightly higher than the 93.8 mph he was averaging in 2011 with the Reds, a season where he only threw the pitch 17% on average. It will be interesting to follow and see if this trend keeps up or it fades a bit as the season wears on. What will also be interesting to follow will be the upward velocity tick Volquez has seen since October.

kc5

It was discussed quite a bit during the playoffs that Volquez saw an increase in his velocity, with most chalking it up to a surge in adrenaline from playing in the postseason. But early on this season, it seems some of that velocity has stuck around:

volquez velo chart

As you can tell from the chart, Volquez has seen his velocity spike over 95 mph quite often with a few pitches even coming up on 97.5 mph. Now, this could very easily be a situation once again of a pitcher being pumped up for a big matchup, as he did throw on opening night against the Mets. But with even a small bit of continuity from last year, one does have to wonder if there was a small adjustment in his delivery that pitching coach Dave Eiland found that has increased Volquez’s velocity. This is yet another item to keep an eye on as the season unwinds, especially since the velocity has an instant effect on his other pitches, including the sinker.

kc6

Volquez is only two starts into this 2016 season, so obviously it’s a little early to get too excited about a slight adjustment in a game plan. What the stats are telling us at this point though is that Volquez could very well be in for an even better 2016 and it’s worth keeping an eye on. The Royals don’t need Volquez to go out and win a Cy Young Award to be successful, but any increase in production this year would be a bonus. Volquez has always been known as being a pitcher with great stuff but the inability to completely harness it. If he is able to reign in the inconsistent losses¬†of control, we could be looking at a banner season for the man we call “Sexy Eddie”.