Johnny Cueto will throw the first pitch of Tuesday’s night’s All-Star Game, and those words send Royals fans all around Kansas City and beyond shaking their heads.
Baseball has long since transitioned into a regional game from a national one, and among the consequences is hyper-awareness of what happens with your team and whatever the opposite of hyper-awareness is for what happens with other teams.
To baseball fans around the country, Cueto starting the All-Star Game is entirely reasonable. He has twice finished in the top four of Cy Young voting, including his terrific 2014 season in which he posted a 2.25 ERA while leading the league in innings, strikeouts, and fewest hits per nine.
In the last six years, here is the complete list of starting pitchers (at least 100 games, and at least 60 percent of them starts) with a lower ERA than Johnny Cueto:
That’s the entire list. Below Cueto you can find guys like Cliff Lee, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Felix Hernandez and, well, everyone else. He is having another terrific season now for the Giants, leading the league in wins (13-1), innings (131 1/3 ), complete games (four) and fewest homers allowed (0.4 per nine innings) with a 2.47 ERA.
Around the country, he’s a great pitcher at the top of his game.
But in Kansas City, of course, we remember him for being mostly terrible — a 4.91 ERA over 17 starts, including the playoffs — with the notable exceptions of the only two times the Royals really needed him to be good.
He pitched all nine innings of Game 2 of the World Series, giving up just one run. And he gave up just two runs while striking out eight and walking none over eight innings in the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS. Lose that night, and all of a sudden that wild comeback in Game 4 doesn’t mean anything.
In Kansas City, Cueto was a bad pitcher who never appeared anything close to comfortable, on or off the field. He blamed Sal Perez’s glove placement for his early struggles, and when he continued to struggle, said the bullpen mound in Toronto threw him off before a horrific start there in the ALCS. The next day, after seeing the comments, baseball officials measured the mounds and found them to be identical. The Royals shifted their World Series rotation around so Cueto would no longer have to pitch on the road.
I don’t know what went wrong for Cueto here. He never seemed to embrace the environment. The Royals pushed the story that part of his value was as a big brother type to Yordano Ventura, a fellow Dominican, but there was very little of that. Ventura’s turnaround last year actually began before the trade, when the Royals initially sent him to the minor leagues before Jason Vargas’ elbow blew out.
Ventura was upset, and from then on pitched with a purpose. If Cueto’s arrival had any impact on Ventura, it was much less as a mentor and more something for Ventura to see and feel, OK, I’ll show you who the real ace is here. The idea that Cueto offered much in the way of mentorship, or that if he did Ventura would’ve listened, is met with a chuckle by many around the team.
My guess is that Cueto simply did not want to be traded, that he was uncomfortable with his finishing kick toward free-agency being disrupted by something out of his control. The Royals’ exuberance and energy carried them to the world championship, but those were long-formed bonds and that type of environment isn’t for everyone.
In the end, it really doesn’t matter much, for either side. Cueto signed a $130 million contract. The Royals won their trophy. The team was good enough to make up for his shortcomings, and he was good enough to deliver the moments they really needed him.
But it is bizarre, and if nothing else a reminder that there are elements of every trade that are impossible to predict.
A former co-worker used to say you can write anything you want about anyone as long as it’s funny enough, and, well, my good sir, you’ve found a loophole in my Pokemon prohibition.
We’ll get more into the search for another starter here later, but the short answer: Felix Hernandez is not walking through that door.
Oh, hey, how’s it going! Thanks for reaching out. I was actually just working on another Scott Pioli column, but will be happy to take a break from my sleep-filled, kidless life to talk about this.
The thing about people is ... they’re crazy. And I used the wrong pronoun there. We’re crazy. All of us. The sports fans among us are even worse, and worse still about a team we follow.
The Royals are probably not going to make the playoffs. Probably not. But that’s been true all year. This is also true: teams can’t just completely back off because they are less than 50 percent likely to make the playoffs.
Two years ago, the Royals were two games over .500 at the All-Star break and people were blasting me for not writing that Ned Yost and Dayton Moore should be fired from their jobs and made to walk home barefooted. That team lost its first four games after the All-Star break, actually, including The Jonny Gomes Game, and ended up in the World Series.
Call it a fluke if you want, but at the All-Star break last year the Twins held a wild-card spot, and the Blue Jays were 4 1/2 games out of the division (and four out of the wild card).
We do enough of this here that we should occasionally state for the record that any group of people as large as the fans of a pro sports team is far too large to definitively generalize, but there are elements of this that come off as spoiled, or perhaps defeatist.
They’re not always going to be like 2015, when the Royals boatraced the division and had the American League’s best record pretty much the entire way. And they’re not always going to be like 2012 and before, when the end of the story was always disappointment.
I’m not here to tell you the Royals will make the playoffs. They probably won’t. The nerds at Baseball Prospectus — and I say that affectionately — give the Royals an 8.8 percent chance. They have admittedly and consistently under-projected the Royals, so maybe in reality that’s a 20 percent chance.
Either way, particularly with the Royals’ context — we’ll get into that more here — it’s just not rational to give up on the season and want a massive sell at the deadline.
The only answer that matters is that these decisions are not made at the All-Star break. The Royals are seven games out of the division, and one of eight teams within 5 1/2 games of a wild-card spot.
It is entirely possible that by the Aug. 1 trade deadline — they moved it back a day this year — the Royals could hold a wild-card spot, be within a few games of one, or be something like 10 games out.
Assuming things stay relatively steady, my guess is they’ll add something relatively small. They don’t have the pieces to add anything big — Cueto or Ben Zobrist type moves — and they don’t have the motivation to sell anything big.
If they’re out of it at the deadline, they could trade one of the probable free agents — Kendrys Morales, Edison Volquez, Luke Hochevar, or Kris Medlen. I haven’t gone through the other contenders to see what they need, but lots of teams could use a bat (Morales), a veteran starter (Volquez), or a bullpen arm (Hoch).
I would be surprised if the Royals moved anyone if they were within eyesight of the playoffs, if only because two years ago they were in such a similar situation — middle of the AL pack, and a more tradeable piece in James Shields, plus the injury to Hosmer weighed on the team — and ended up in the World Series.
Lots of fans (and media, even if they won’t admit it now) wanted the Royals to sell, and were angry when they didn’t.
Also: without being convinced otherwise, a deadline sell would indicate to me that Dayton Moore did something he didn’t want to do. Wouldn’t be the first time, but still.
Maybe, but they’re also a healthy roster away from making the playoffs. Pete broke down the injuries here a few days ago, and that’s been the Royals’ biggest issue. That they’ve held their heads above water this long should be a source of encouragement, not disappointment.
Wade Davis is hurt, they’re getting nothing but Duffy from the rotation, and playing around injuries or underperformance to as many as six* of the nine lineup spots.
* Mike Moustakas is out for the year. Lorenzo Cain is hurt. Alex Gordon missed a big chunk. Omar Infante is cut. Alcides Escobar, even as he’s heated up recently, is on pace for more outs than any player since 1904, save one. And Kendrys Morales slow start meant they got virtually nothing from the DH for most of the first half.
There are no perfect teams, and no season goes the way you think it will in spring training. Still, that’s a lot of crap to navigate.
If they somehow added a dependable starter, it would certainly help, but they’d need health and better performance from a lot of other spots as well.
Three’s a good number, right? Three biggest disappointments:
Alex Gordon: Missed about five weeks, and has been characteristically honest about his performance when he’s played. He’s hit approximately 20 percent better than the league average over the last five years*, and has been nearly 30 percent worse than the league average in the first half of 2016.
* The hindsight folks are coming out about the contract, saying this was predictable, but last year he had his highest OPS since 2012, when he led the league with 51 doubles.
He’s striking out way more than every before, but there is some bad luck involved here, too. He’s hitting more line drives and fewer infield popups than ever, but he’s somehow getting fewer hits on the balls he puts in play than ever. His batting average on balls in play (.268) is actually 50 points below his career average (.318). I don’t know. Maybe that means it’s all about to turn around. Maybe it means nothing. He’s not pulling the ball as often as before. But either way, this is a place the Royals expected to be better.
Yordano Ventura: I know I wasn’t the only one expecting more than a 5.15 ERA. Did you know there are only 10 pitchers in baseball who currently qualify for the ERA title who’ve been worse? If you didn’t, that probably doesn’t surprise you.
Injuries: The Royals had some good luck with injuries last year, and particularly with the extra games of the last two postseasons it makes sense that some of that has gone the other way this year. But the Royals have put 10 players on the DL already, including stars like Davis, Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas. You can call that an excuse, but it’s also an explanation.
Three biggest surprises:
Danny Duffy: Even as a vocal member of #TeamDuffy, who thought he should’ve been in the rotation at the start of the season ... well, I didn’t expect this. Duffy is giving up 1.065 baserunners per inning. A partial list of starters who’ve given up more: Noah Syndergaard, Jake Arrieta, and Zack Greinke.
Duffy is striking out 5.53 batters for every one he walks. The full list of pitchers with worse ratios: everyone by Clayton Kershaw, Syndergaard and Josh Tomlin.
Whit Merrifield: Some of the regression that some of us were predicting could be happening right now. Merrifield is batting .218/.256/.282 in his last 19 games after batting .339/.356/.496 in his first 27. But, still. He’s been a more than capable replacement for Omar Infante (his defense is overlooked, but he turns the double play very well) and his versatility allows Ned to more easily and comfortably give guys days off.
Cheslor Cuthbert: I mentioned this on the Border Patrol, and they looked at me like I turned into a purple sea lion, but just aesthetically, Cuthbert has a little bit of Albert Pujols in him, right? I repeat: just aesthetically. There’s something about his swing, particularly the follow-through, the way he finishes with his left arm. The big chain probably helps, too.
Let me repeat: just aesthetically.
But as a player, he’s been pretty good, too. Looks like he belongs. Last year, I wrote a story about how the eventual world champs were built and mentioned that Royals officials considered Cuthbert untouchable in a trade. I remember some people questioning why that would be, but I think Cuthbert has shown. He’s still only 23.
Speaking of Cuthbert...
... no, and for a few reasons. First, Cuthbert’s current OPS is about 50 points below what Moustakas was doing when he was hurt, and about 70 points below what Moose did last year. Let’s not get carried away.
Assuming Morales plays somewhere else next year, the Royals could presumably carry Cuthbert on the big-league roster and get him somewhat regular time by using a rotating DH.
If you’re talking about the long-term, I’ve always thought it’s unlikely the Royals will sign Moustakas, though not as unlikely as it is with Hosmer. The Royals need to be selective with who they invest in beyond the initial six-plus years of club control, and constantly turn over established players for less expensive options.
Assuming Cuthbert continues producing, this looks like an opportunity to do that. But, again, you asked if this changes the Royals’ plans and I just don’t know they ever planned on keeping Moustakas after he hits free-agency.
To that same point, if they feel like they can make a fair deal and keep a player they believe in and see as such a big part of their team and personality, I don’t think Cuthbert’s relative success would keep them from doing that. There’s room to play both, is what I’m saying, particularly if Hosmer signs for $150 million somewhere after next season and the Royals finally go to the rotating DH.
Well, there’s actually not anything in the system that you’d bet big on. Miguel Almonte has pitched out of the bullpen in a difficult season. Brooks Pounders made seven starts in Omaha, and Alec Mills has some talent, but most of the high-ceiling arms — Foster Griffin, Nolan Watson, Scott Blewett, and some others — are in the lower levels.
A guess on the season opening rotation:
Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Ventura, Brian Flynn, and a pitcher who is currently employed elsewhere.
Predicting the Hall of Fame probability for a 26-year-old is a fool’s errand, which means I am the man for this job. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor has Perez at a 29, with a score of 100 indicating a likely Hall of Famer.
Those types of things can change quickly. Perez gets three points for All-Star Games, for instance, and two for Gold Gloves, plus bonuses for being in the playoffs. He’s caught 606 games, and in James’ system would get escalating bonuses starting at 1,200, and even more if his batting average stays up.
These are merely predictors, of course, nothing hard and fast. We can play this game by many different rules. In this version, we compare Sal through age 26 to Yadier Molina (who I believe will be in the HOF) through age 26 ...
Sal: 2,456 plate appearances, .279/.307/.440, 101 OPS+, 79 homers, 320 RBIs, four All-Stars, three Gold Gloves (doesn’t include 2016, obviously).
Molina: 2,458 plate appearances, .269/.327/.365, 82 OPS+, 35 homers, 263 RBIs, one All-Star, two Gold Gloves.
It’s interesting that they have almost the exact same number of plate appearances (with Perez having another half-season’s worth to come, obviously) and that Perez is this far ahead statistically and with awards. Molina was a late-bloomer offensively, and while Perez’s defensive reputation is terrific, Molina is generally seen as next-level.
Or, we could compare Perez to the three modern-ish catchers already inducted through age 26:
Gary Carter: 3,344 plate appearances, .267/.339/.452, 117 OPS+, 126 homers, 444 RBIs, three All-Stars, one Gold Glove.
Carlton Fisk: 1,342 plate appearances, .274/.344/.496, 134 OPS+, 61 homers, 164 RBIs, three All-Stars, one Gold Glove and a Rookie of the Year.
Mike Piazza: 1,592 plate appearances, .322/.375/.557, 151 OPS+, 92 homers, 304 RBIs, three All-Stars and Rookie of the Year.
All of these players are much different than Perez. Piazza had a terrible defensive reputation but thrived on slugging, Fisk played well into his 40s (made an All Star team at 43), and Carter was an offensive force for much of the 1980s.
Perez is ahead of everyone’s pace on All-Star Games and Gold Gloves, and if his offense this year is the new normal — it would make sense for him to be coming into his peak at this age — he’ll build his case fairly quickly.
The biggest question, and this has the chance to ruin any hope, is longevity. He plays more than any catcher in baseball, and he’s so big, with a body type scouts have long thought might push him to first base or DH at some point. If that happens, Perez’s value dives, and his Hall of Fame candidacy is judged on a higher standard.
So, the shorter answer: if he’s not still catching at age 30, he probably doesn’t have a chance. If he’s still catching at 34 or 35 and continues this trajectory, he’s got a good chance.
This is so strange. Besler is the face of the franchise in many ways, or at least as much as a defender can be the face of a franchise. He’s terrifically accomplished, a hometown kid, smart, personable, eager, the whole bit. He even had that header to beat Columbus in the 91st minute a week ago.
And he’s been a healthy scratch two games in a row.
And Sporting is, apparently, better for it.
Besler will probably start the game in Chicago on Wednesday, if for no other reason than the quick turnaround from Sunday’s game. But after that it gets interesting.
There are so many ways to look at this. Besler is handling the situation like an absolute pro, at least outwardly, and he deserves to be commended for that. It can’t be easy.
Sporting is playing its best soccer of the season without Besler in the back, which is worth examining. Soccer is, as much as any other major professional sport, a thoroughly team game. It’s not always the best players who win, but the players who play the best together. If you follow the Premier League, you saw an all-time example of that this season.
There’s also the idea that Peter Vermes is pulling this off. I’d forgotten about this, but your boy Sam McDowell reminded me that Vermes didn’t start Benny Feilhaber in the regular-season finale last October — and Sporting won a game it had to win.
Vermes is doing things that most coaches and managers in most sports would not do, whether by lack of creativity, guts, courage, security, whatever.
It’s a heck of a thing, really. But it’s impossible to argue with the results Vermes is getting.
You just blew my mind. I am terribly unfamiliar with NHL’s system, so let’s stick with baseball, the NFL, NBA, and MLS.
How about baseball players, used to the strongest union in America, being owned by the league and having virtually all their salaries depressed like in MLS? Or basketball players going from a world in which Matthew Dellavedova — who might start for the Bucks next year! — makes $9.5 million a year to the brutal world of the NFL?
But my favorite would be NFL players, with the inherent dangers and demands and impersonal nature of that sport, be given the guaranteed contracts of baseball or the NBA.
Owners would have to lose some arrogance, and the league would have to lose a lot of arrogance. It would change everything. Roger Goodell couldn’t be such a dislikable stuffed suit who is apparently allergic to reality.
I would like to see that world.
The first thing we should all do is recognize the ESPYs are dumb — a made-up, unnecessary awards show put together because a sports network needs programming during baseball’s All-Star break.
I don’t care about the ESPYs, is what I’m saying, and I don’t understand why anyone would.
All of that said, I don’t think your question here is necessarily saying anyone should care. Just that this is A Thing, that ESPN has made it A Thing, and now there is attention that Mizzou has to handle one way or the other.
Mizzou — as an institution, program, and coaching staff — should underplay this as much as possible without insulting it. Nobody at Mizzou should speak of this unless asked, and then only in vague, gracious, and — most importantly — let’s-all-move-forward ways.
The biggest takeaway from this remains that college administrators are scared, and do not want the unpaid labor to realize its power. Mizzou would be doing itself and other schools a disservice by celebrating this in any big way.
Now, I want to make one thing clear. I’m answering the question that was asked, about how the school should handle it. The players should celebrate it, and if I was a football player at another major program, I would absolutely take notice and be encouraged about the power it shows.
As the saying goes, with power comes responsibility, and it’s on the players not to abuse that power. They can’t threaten a boycott or strike just for chocolate shakes or whatever. It has to be real, and it has to be personal, and it has to be something they are genuinely willing to sacrifice over.
This is a good time to point out the most effective way for college athletes to be paid would be for men’s basketball or football players to strike. I don’t think it will ever come to that, for a lot of reasons, but you can see how it might get to that point over time.
I know I’m supposed to say the Cardinals, for the Best Fans In Baseball thing, or the Raiders, for the Everyday Is Halloween thing, but not really.
The part about Cardinals fans that is annoying is when they root for themselves, but there are elements of that in every fanbase. And the Raiders fans who wear spikes or whatever are just following the lead of Al Davis.
If I get blindly annoyed at someone for just liking a certain team, it’s more of the bandwagon thing. The Warriors are about to get a lot of that. The Heat had a lot of it after LeBron went there.
If you’ve been a Cubs fan for less than a few years, I am probably judging you.
Did you know that Hunter Dozier hit .213/.281/.349 at Class AA last year? Or that he’s struck out three times as often as he’s walked in Omaha this year?
He looks the part, and he has some power, but there are still flaws that could be exposed.
The biggest problem for Dozier right now is where he would play. He’s primarily a third baseman, though he’s played a little left field the last two seasons. That means he needs an injury at the big-league level to get a chance.
He’s a bit of a late bloomer — he’s a year older than Cuthbert, for instance — but young enough and with all the tools to believe he can be a good big leaguer.
But as it stands right now, he doesn’t have a place to play.
I tend to play this mind game with sports and athletes quite often. Some of you do too, I’m sure. It is a what-if game putting athletes in different situations and trying to imagine how their careers would’ve been different.
This game is most interesting, to me anyway, with quarterbacks. Tom Brady walked into an absolutely perfect situation. A defense to carry him early in his career, arguably the best coach in modern NFL history. Alex Smith, to choose one example, walked into an absolutely awful situation. Dysfunctional franchise, drafted before he even turned 21, a revolving door of bad coaches, a botched shoulder surgery.
What if they traded places?
I don’t know the answer. My guess is that Smith’s reputation would be far different now, in part because I’m guessing he’d have won at least one Super Bowl. Brady is talented and smart and cunning and all the things you want in a quarterback, so I’m sure he’d have done just fine for himself, but how much of that is from the environment his NFL career grew up in?
Just locally, we have some good games like this with the Royals. What if Bo Jackson never played football? What if — and you can read all about this in the Art of Scouting — the Royals kept the scout who a year after leaving signed Mariano Rivera for the Yankees?
Speaking of the Yankees, they picked higher than the Royals only twice in the years between 1992 and 2014. Well, in 1992, the Royals had Derek Jeter first on their board and thought they had a chance at him. The Yankees took him sixth, and the Royals settled for Michael Tucker 10th.
What if instead of the greatest organization of the era, Jeter came up in the worst?
That game works well in the NBA, too. What if the Hornets kept the draft rights to Kobe Bryant? How different would his career have gone? What if the Pistons or the Nuggets or the Bucks or the — ahem — Warriors won the 2003 draft lottery and took LeBron? How different would those franchises be?
I think about that with Duncan, too. The Celtics — under Rick Pitino — essentially went all-in on winning the 1997 lottery. They had the highest odds, but the Spurs — who were in the lottery because David Robinson missed essentially the entire previous season — won and instantly had the NBA’s best pair of big men.
Duncan went to the perfect place for him. The serious Spurs, the unpretentious San Antonio, and the brilliant Gregg Popovich. Duncan was clearly talented and smart and motivated and hard-working enough to succeed anywhere. He would’ve pulled any franchise up. But I do think it was a perfect marriage, one that allowed the rest of us to see the best possible Duncan.
Duncan, to his credit, has always seemed to accept this. Basketball fans were better off for it. He’s the greatest power forward in the history of basketball, and even so, might still be underrated for his consistency, relentlessness, competitiveness, and accomplishments.