For the Royals, a Year Has Made All the Difference

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A year ago Friday, Mike Moustakas was hitting .152 with 4 HR, 17 RBI, nine runs in 139 plate appearances with just three multi-hit games and hasn’t homered in nearly a month (April 23), where he wrapped up hitting all four of his homeruns in an 8-game span. Eric Hosmer had one homerun, was hitting .285, but just a .722 OPS with 21 RBI. He wouldn’t hit his second HR until June 7.

Moustakas was on his way to Omaha that day, and I wrote about it at the time, praising the move, although it was the obvious thing to do AND bashed Dayton Moore and Ned Yost for their “no plan, plan” – waiting too long to do the obvious, such as keeping Luke Hocheavar and Kyle Davies in the rotation, keeping Jeff Francouer and Chris Getz in the lineup (http://kcsportsnation.com/2014/05/david-glass-dayton-moore-ned-yost-plan-plan/#more-5390).

Although, I stand by my statements about them sticking with players too long, when it’s obvious to everyone else that it’s not working, I couldn’t have been any more wrong about Moore and Yost’s plan. I had always been a big supporter of Moore. I believed Moore was doing things the right way, and that fans needed to be patient. When you were as bad as we were, it isn’t going to happen overnight. Moore had built the best minor league system in a LONG time in baseball. But, at some point, that had to translate to winning. As my friend Coop says, win games at the major league level. I was hard on Yost. He did contradictory things, made dumb decisions and I commonly said the Royals won in spite of Ned. But, he has greatly improved since the “the sixth inning is Aaron Crow’s” incident against Boston last year when Daniel Nava hit a grand slam. Of course, it your job is a lot easier when you had the starting pitching the Royals had the two years before this one and the best bullpen off all-time.

Moore had always been able to build a bullpen, but the position players coming up in the system had never reached potential. The speed and defense were there, too, but there was a piece missing from the puzzle.

Until now. The team that defied the odds by making the postseason in 2014 despite having the worst OPS in baseball, hitting the fewest HR, walking the least amount of times and having a near-bottom OBP, is now one of the best offenses in baseball – ranking first in hitting (.289), second in runs (210), doubles (90), triples (14), slugging (.437) and OPS and third in on base percentage (.338) and total bases. There still not hitting a ton of HR (32), ranking 24th in MLB, but it’s a lot more than last year – they have six guys on pace for 15 HR and four on pace for 20 or more – and the high double and triple rates have them hovering around the top in slugging. Quite the drastic turnaround. But, why?

Yost has repeatedly said that there is no value amount you can put on going to the postseason, both in terms of experience and confidence. Sort of a transition from “we think we can win” to “we know we can win.”

Hell, maybe he’s right. They started the season right where they left off 2014, winning seven in a row. Currently, the Royals have the best record in baseball (28-14), the American League’s best home record (17-6), winners of five in a row, seven of the last eight and 11 of the last 15. The team that many considered a fluke in 2014 (making the playoffs in 2014 with the offense the Royals had, was a fluke, and the Royals wouldn’t make it this year with a similar offensive output.), is now considered the best team in the American League – by a wide margin – and one of the best team’s in baseball. Unreal. It had been sort of a role reversal, with the offense driving the bus and the starting pitching struggling. Now, the Royals have had five straight quality starts, which featured a run of 27 straight scoreless innings from the starting rotation and tying a franchise record with 24 consecutive scoreless innings, with three shutouts. When the Royals get the starting pitching, they’re virtually unbeatable with the offense this season.

Back to the earlier question. Why is the offense all of a sudden a juggernaut?

Because, Moustakas and Hosmer. They’re the final piece of the puzzle. The future success of the Royals had always hinged on them, because, they always were the future. A lot of pressure on those shoulders. But, the offense is sizzling and those two are raking. Coincidence? I think not.

 

***

We wrote this piece (http://kcsportsnation.com/2013/04/real-2013-success-for-royals-hinges-on-cornerstones-moustakas-and-hosmer/) back in 2013. Then, much like 2014, both were struggling. Hosmer carried one HR into mid-June. He hit one on June 13, and five more that month. Eight more the next two months, hitting .320 over the stretch. We knew it was in Eric Hosmer. We had seen it in stretches. The question was, would he ever fulfill his promise for a prolonged period of time? Many projected Hosmer to finally have a breakout season in 2014 after his hot second half in 2013, but, instead he posted his lowest HR total of his career, failing to reach double figures (9). He did miss more than a month due to an injured hand, but he still posted a career-high 35 doubles. But, the production simply wasn’t there. His .270/.318/.398 slashline ranked 27th among MLB first basemen. Not good.

Under the bright lights of the postseason, though, Hosmer’s light shined the brightest, posting a .321/.400/.491 slash with 2 HR (one an extra-inning game-winner at Anaheim in the ALDS) and 12 RBI. And we wondered, would it carry over to 2015?

We thought it could. We projected him to produce his best offensive year (.281/.331/.461, 22 HR, 87 RBI, 78 R, 48 BB, 105 K, 8 SB, 36 2B, 2 3B) in our Season Preview, but it was a stretch to do so. It was proceed with caution. We spelled out the lack of arbitration cases for Hosmer and Moustakas here. Hosmer’s three-year average of .267/.325/.402, 13 HR, 66 RBI, 92 K, 47 BB, 13 SB, 28 2B, 3 3B was pedestrian. Entering his fifth Major League season, his career-best home run mark (19) came his rookie season, despite the fewest amount of games he has played (128) in a season, although 2013 was probably a better season (.302/.354/.448 – career best in all three areas). The 25-year-old is on pace for a career-best season (.313/.383/.527, 27 HR, 113 RBI, 41 2B), exceeding even our generous projections.

Moustakas started his 2013 much like he started his 2014 season, dreadfully, hitting .195 in April, .171 in May en route to a .215/.271/.327 first half and carried a 3-year average of .229/.285/.379, 16 HR, 56 RBI, 26 2B, 1 3B, 86 K, 31 BB, 3 SB into this season, with each year being worse than the year before. His career also started off in horrible fashion. He hit .263/.354/.316 in his first 16 games, but was woeful after, hitting .160/.198/.223 in July. He turned it around in mid-June and was hot all of September, where he posted a .352/.380/.580 slashline, hitting four of his five HR for the season and 12 of his 26 second-half RBI, and ended the season hitting .263, well above his career trends. He carried that into 2012 where started the season hitting .315/.375/.534 with 3 HR, 12 RBI in the first month of the season and received All-Star consideration with a .268/.327/.490, 15 HR, 47 RBI first half. But, just .218/.269/.345 until his May 22, 2014 demotion.

He spent just 10 days in Omaha, coming back before he should have because of a Danny Valencia injury. He slowly improved, hitting .235/.289/.377 with 11 HR, 37 RBI and a not too shabby K/BB rate (48 K, 23 BB) in 92 games. Counting this year’s amazing hot start, he is hitting .266/.320/.412 over his last 130 games, with 15 HR, 52 RBI, 24 2B’s. Not bad. Close to a 20 HR pace.

The power has always been there. He has the natural power-hitting swing. He displayed it in the postseason, hitting the five bombs, but still only hit .231 (.259 OBP). But, that’s better than the woeful .212 he hit in 2014. Much like we wondered with Hosmer, could Moustakas carry the postseason momentum into the regular season?

There ultimately was not much evidence after three and a half seasons in the majors to think that that Moustakas would ever hit for a decent average or provide enough power or run production to make up for the low average. We did project him to hit a career-best 25 HR, but just .243/.295/.409 with 64 RBI, 54 runs, 2 SB, 38 BB, 86 K, 26 2B and 1 3B. I would have been happy with that season. Mash homeruns and just not be the worst offensive third basemen in baseball. Pretty simple request.

He’s been so much more than that this season. He increased his career average eight points to .244 in less than two months. He went from the worst offensive third baseman in baseball for three straight seasons into one of the best third basemen and Yost said that he and the organization had NEVER seen anything like it in such a short turnaround. He is now a completely different hitter. We thought Yost was an idiot for hitting Moustakas No. 2 for a few opposite field knocks down in Arizona when there was nothing in his career that indicated he should be hitting anywhere other than the bottom third of the order. But, because now, all of a sudden, everything the Moore/Yost dynamic duo touches turns to gold. Every reclamation project or free agent signing picked up exceeds expectations and every decision Yost makes, even if it makes no sense or has no justification – like hitting Moose second – still works. Because, Ned (this is now a positive connotation and not the opposite, it had always been prior). So, of course hitting Moose No. 2 worked.

Worked wonders. Moose went 2-for-3 with two opposite field hits, including a homerun, on Opening Day at the K against the White Sox. He continued to beat the shift until most teams have essentially given up on it, for the most part. His average has not dipped below .300 all season. Currently, hitting .335, he ranks sixth in the American League in batting average and all No. 1 at his position. Compared to his position:

  • Second in runs (26) in the AL and fourth in MLB
  • tied for third in doubles (11) in MLB, second in AL
  • Third in MLB in OBP (.387), first in AL
  • Fourth in SLUG (.494), second in AL
  • 3 in OPS (.881), first in AL
  • Tied with Toronto’s Josh Donaldson in highest WAR (2.3) among 3B

He’s only on pace for 15 HR, 57 RBI, but at this point, who cares if he keeps hitting like he has? He’ll never be a run producer and I’ll be OK giving up some of the batting average if it translates into HR, because we still need that guy who will be a consistent threat to visit Dong Town.

Whoever took the old Mike Moustakas, you can keep him. I’ll take this new one. I’ve never seen anything like it in such a short time in my years as a baseball fan and I will continue to wonder why he hadn’t decided to beat the shift earlier in his career when it was blatantly obvious that it’s what he needed to do.

Combined with Hosmer, who had been mostly a light-hitting first baseman minus a few hot stretches, they arguably were the worst offensive corner infield duo in all of baseball (OK, that take is probably a bit strong). Now, Moustakas is experiencing an unprecedented turnaround and Hosmer, the guy who we labeled a James Loney/Casey Kotchman-type of guy, is quite possibly the best corner infield in the game. Hosmer ranks No. 1 in his position in AB’s (166) along with Toronto’s Edwin Encarnacion, whom he is tied for first in the AL with in runs (29), first in the AL in doubles (11) and steals (3), tied for first in MLB in triples (3), second in the AL in hits (52), hitting (.313) and WAR (1.7), OBP (.385), third in AL in SLUG (.530) and OPS (.915), fourth in the AL in RBI (30). Oh, by the way, he’ll win another Gold Glove.

This is whom we thought they could be when they came up. This is what we needed them to be for our future. The longer it took, as Scott Boras clients, the closer they were to leaving Kansas City. The future is now. And, it’s better sooner than later for the Royals. Both have legitimate chances to be All-Stars (perennial for Hosmer). It appears I was wrong about Moore and Yost’s plan as all the Royals did last year was win baseball games at a high rate starting in late July and rode that momentum all the way to the postseason – to the World Series. We know how amazing that run was and how it ended.

That plus being wrong about Moose, as were many others, I’ve never been more happy to be wrong. Add in Hosmer’s emergence as a superstar and others performing above career norms, the Royals have a legitimate 10 dudes (Salvador Perez, Hosmer, Moustakas, Alcides Escobar, Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, Edinson Volquez, Chris Young, Wade Davis and Greg Holland) who are All-Star candidates. And who will be the manager in the 2015 Mid-Summer Classic? Ned Yost. Why? Because he took the Kansas City Royals to the World Series. He and Moore are reaping the rewards of their loyalty to a fault. And, for that, we thank them. Fans are coming out in droves, Win game and we’ll fill the stadium, they said. They were right. 32,000 per so far in 2015.

Keep proving me wrong.

#ForeverRoyal

 

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