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.
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.
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.
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.
(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 “lazy front side.” In normal-people speak, his front arm is drifting off to the first base side, which isn’t 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’ 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.
(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.