Don't Kill The Mellinger

Twitter Tuesday: It’s all about the Royals, pretty much

Royals right fielder Alex Rios (15) was congratulated in the dugout after he and Kendrtys Morales scored on a single by Alcides Escobar during the eighth inning Monday's baseball game in Minneapolis. The Royals won 12-3.
Royals right fielder Alex Rios (15) was congratulated in the dugout after he and Kendrtys Morales scored on a single by Alcides Escobar during the eighth inning Monday's baseball game in Minneapolis. The Royals won 12-3. AP

Only once before have the Royals won this many games to start a season. You might remember this. It was 2003 or, as it should always be known in Kansas City: The Great Fluke Of 2003.

That team won its first nine games. Then it lost, then won a bunch more games and before anyone realized what happened the Royals were 16-3 and in first place. Nobody thought this would, or could, last. That hot start, much like the entire season, was full of smoke and mirrors and unsustainable performances.

When the Royals won their first nine games of that year, a pitching staff that was so bad it started Runelvys Hernandez on opening day — that’s not a joke — kept a 2.22 ERA. A lineup that gave Ken Harvey, Desi Relaford, and a 35-year-old Brent Mayne regular at bats was scoring more than five runs per game.

Nosotros Creamos, they said, because belief was most of what they had.

Well, the Royals are white hot to start a season again, and even after last October, there is still a franchise history full of letdowns so there is at least some nail-biting about when the next monster is coming around the corner.

Before the season, I thought the Royals would finish second in the Central. I don’t know that seven games is enough to switch off that — though my friend J.P. Morosi did it after six — but I do think we all know enough to know this isn’t a fluke.

It is just seven games, yes, and there are few things that promote more overreaction than sports. But for a lot of reasons, I do believe that getting off to a good start was particularly important for these Royals. It is, of course, literally impossible for them to have gotten off to a better start.

They are off today — though I assume Salvador Perez is going to volunteer to catch both ends of a small college doubleheader in St. Paul to pass the time — with first place all to themselves. Because this is a completely serious exercise, I’ll point out the Royals’ magic number is now 155.

The reading recommendation is Baxter Holmes’ terrific profile of Rajon Rondo, and the eating recommendation is, well …

… that’s a fact. Happy hunting.

As always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

Things are getting weird here in Kansas City.

Well, let’s figure out some parameters here, because pretty much every hitter other than Infante, Gordon and Hosmer is on a hot streak.

Alcides Escobar has a hit in every game, and more than half of Mike Moustakas’ plate appearances have ended with him on base. Lorenzo Cain is hitting over .400, and Kendrys Morales is slugging .640. Alex Rios has five RBIs in his last three games, and Salvador Perez is on pace to break Hack Wilson’s single-season RBI record of 191. Then the pitchers. Yordano Ventura has a 2.31 ERA and is giving up fewer than one baserunner per inning. Edinson Volquez was nails in his first start. The bullpen is doing its cyborg routine.

So we should narrow it down a bit. I’m going to leave out Ventura and the relievers, mostly because I think we all have high expectations for those guys. And we’re going to leave out Rios, because he’s doing well, but not really on a hot streak when compared with what some of these other guys are doing.

That leaves us with Escobar, Moustakas, Cain, Morales, Perez and Volquez. I believe in Perez, but also believe that he’ll play too much for his offensive numbers to sustain. Out of the rest of the group, I think Morales will have the best season.

He is 31 years old, so he shouldn’t be at the point where he’s wearing down physically, and the explanation behind his bad 2014 season is totally believable to me. From 2009 to 2013, he was .286/.339/.494 with a 162-game average of 36 doubles and 30 home runs. I don’t expect him to match those numbers this year, but I do think there are a lot of reasons to believe he’ll be pretty good in the middle of a balanced lineup.

We saw a lot of the latter yesterday, particularly from the Twins’ middle infielders, and seeing other teams screw up always reminds me of a lot of Royals teams through the years. I wrote about this for the preview section, but if you have rooted for or followed the Royals for any length of time the defense they play now is a particular revelation:

“Players on opposing teams used to joke about singling to shortstop against the Royals when Angel Berroa played there. By 2008, the Royals had the worst defense in baseball according to FanGraphs’ Defense Runs Saved. The next year, they were nearly twice as bad.”

So I get the argument from that side. Ned Yost references that argument quite often when talks of how Andruw Jones’ Willie Mays route in center field became routine after a while.

But for me, the Royals’ defense sticks out when, well, the Royals’ defense sticks out. I have a particular fondness for athleticism and speed showing up on a baseball field — this Royals team reminds me a lot of the 2008-10 Rays, who had Carl Crawford and Melvin Upton^ and Evan Longoria and were my absolute favorite Extra Innings team to watch — so watching Cain crash into the fence with a catch or Gordon coming in for a diving catch or Perez jumping like a cat on a ball in the dirt and throwing someone out is about the best thing I can see in a game.

^ You guys probably know the story, but the former B.J. Upton decided to go by his given name Melvin this year. His dad, also Melvin, was apparently known as Bossman so his son became known as Bossman Junior, and then B.J. Except for being known as Bossman, I can’t imagine many things cooler than being known as Bossman Junior, but, you know, it’s his name.

Some of this is probably that when the Royals make a good play in the field, it is nearly impossible to take it for granted the way the pitchers always tip their cap, the dugout goes bonkers, and, if you’re watching on TV, Ryan and Rex go nuts as the replay rolls over and over. It’s not normal, what the Royals do in the field, and I guess that’s part of why I’ve never quite gotten into Yost’s stories about Andruw Jones.

The kind of defense the Royals play is not the kind of defense that’s taken for granted. You can take routine plays for granted, but it’s hard to watch diving catches or Moustakas going to his right and throwing someone out from foul territory and thinking that kind of thing is normal.

Especially if you’ve been watching the Royals for any amount of time.

Alex Gordon.

I believe there are cases to be made for Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Yordano Ventura. Hosmer is just entering the prime of his career, and even if he signs a nine-figure contract somewhere when he hits free agency, he still has three years to put up some big numbers. Perez and Ventura have each already made impressions of different scale, and each are under club control for at least five more years.

This could be Gordon’s last season with the Royals — the best chance of him staying with the Royals, actually, would be if he has a bad year — but to me he represents so much of where this organization came from and is.

He grew up going to games at Royals Stadium, picking out the guys with dirt on their uniforms as the ones to model his own game after. His brother is named after George Brett, who would later say he was honored by comparisons to Alex — before Alex ever played a game for the Royals.

Gordon has been a phenom and a bust. He’s been a broken third baseman and an All-Star left fielder, a transition that in so many ways opened the door for the team to take this leap. He is the personification of the Royals’ emphasis on building from within, their history of giving their own prospects every possible opportunity to succeed, and of the current big league team’s strength of defense, athleticism, and versatility.

I don’t think it’s statue worthy, not yet, but nobody on the team has been better for this team longer than Gordon. By Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, Gordon is the eighth-best player in franchise history — ahead of Hal McRae, Dan Quisenberry, Paul Splittorff and others. If he were able to repeat what he did last year, he would pass Frank White.

Again, he’s certainly not there yet. But the gap could largely be filled by one of two things happening — the Royals winning a championship with Gordon at the front, or Gordon staying with the Royals through his mid-30s.

Ventura’s starts this season, to me, are the most anticipated the Royals have had since Zack Greinke’s Cy Young season. That was so long ago that Mitch Maier was playing center field, Yuniesky Betancourt shortstop, and Kyle Davies was in the rotation.

Ventura brings a different level of anticipation, of course. Sorry to quote myself here (again), but I can’t describe any better than I did with the column off the season opener:

“Watching him pitch is like going on a roller coaster that’s overdue on its inspection. You’re probably safe, but either way, it’s going to be a heck of a ride.”

When I wrote that, I was referring to the thumb cramp, which instantly brought back memories of him walking off the mound holding his elbow during the Astros game last year. I didn’t expect Ventura to then leave his next start with another cramp — mix in a Gatorade, Yordano — and I didn’t expect him to essentially pick a fight with the best player in baseball.

He is wildly talented, obviously, and a bit like a teenager behind the wheel of a car that’s probably a little too fast for him. The talent means the rest of it has to catch up quick, but the Royals are apparently going to have to fight this with Ventura, of keeping his mind on pitching and hydrating.

There’s an old saying in sports that you’d rather have a guy you have to turn the volume down on than the other way around, and that’s certainly true with Ventura. But, it’s also true that you’d rather not have your catcher have to walk your No. 1 pitcher away from a fight, like a dad taking his toddler away from a dog.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen it, the video of this is amazing:

Ventura is incredibly talented. But he should probably spend more time consuming electrolytes and less time trash talking.

We can all look at the same thing and see different things, which is part of what makes sports fun. I don’t see it as a chip on their shoulders as much as I see it as a team with more energy and excitement than, a) they know what to do with, and b), baseball culture is used to seeing.

I do think there’s some resentment toward the Royals from other teams around baseball. Some of that is that the Royals are a good team now, and a certain amount of this is going to come with the territory. Some of it, too, is that the Royals are a bit of a showy group, with guys coming out of the dugout for elaborate high-fives to celebrate home runs in the fifth inning.

I’ve said this since before I had the platform to say it to anyone other than my friends: baseball needs more of this, not less, and the culture of treating emotion like it’s some kind of weakness is tired and (a small) part of what’s keeping baseball from marketing itself better.

Particularly with these Royals, I think it works because it’s genuine. This is a group that hangs out with each other outside the clubhouse and outside the season. They have memories not just of an epic Wild Card game and big tab at McFadden’s but of bus trips around the Texas League together. Sal Perez hopping over the dugout railing to celebrate Eric Hosmer’s home run isn’t an act. It would be an act if Perez didn’t do that.

Basically, what I’m saying here is that I believe these minor little points of drama will be a story all year, because the Royals aren’t going to stop playing like they play, and the rest of baseball isn’t going to stop being annoyed by it.

I also think the drama isn’t nearly as big a deal as we’ll all make it out to be, but whatever. That’s probably a conversation for another day.

No.

Hell no.

Well, you’re asking the wrong guy. I believe with all of my heart and soul that baseball managers get FAR too much credit when things go well and FAR too much credit when things go poorly. I also believe that the criticism of Yost has been mostly overdone^ and that he is an average big league manager.

^ Notable exceptions include The Jonny Gomes Game, The Daniel Nava Game, and the Yordano Ventura In The Sixth Inning Of The Wild Card Game Incident.

He is not a dunce, and he is not Casey Stengel. He’s a big league manager with flaws and strengths, and a personality and worldview that are good fits for this group.

Really, I think there’s only one spot to hit Yost on now and we might as well get to it …

… so, last week, on Wednesday, Perez had a hell of a game. You probably remember it. Two hits, an RBI, threw out two guys on the bases. Afterward, he walked out to his locker with bags of ice on two parts of the same leg. If I remember right, he fouled a ball of his leg once, and took another foul tip off his flesh. It was probably about 11 p.m. when we talked. The next day, the Royals had a day game. After a few questions about the game that night, I asked about the next day. Might be a good time to take a rest, right?

Sal: “Oh, no. I feel good.”

Me: “Even a day game after a night game? A lot of catchers get those days off all the time.”

Sal: “But then we fly out to Los Angeles, and have the rest of that day off and then the morning the next day. And we have an off day on Tuesday.”

So, basically, that’s what this has come to. Perez sees a day game after a night game as one he should absolutely play, because then he can rest the rest of that day and a few hours the next day before squatting 130 times or so and taking all the requisite abuse that goes with catching a big league baseball game.

Ned is in a difficult spot here, and it’s something I think we can all empathize with. Perez is awesome, so you want to play him all the time. Then again, he has a major knee surgery in his past and a 2014 season that serves as a clear indication of how his production dips when he’s overworked. It’s probably something that a manager can never get completely right or, more accurately, something a manager can never be sure he’s getting completely right.

I believe Ned, despite everything he’s said about the matter, will overuse Perez again. I think that temptation will get the better of him, especially when Perez will be pleading with him that he feels good and wants to play.

I also think that in 2015 my biggest complaint about the Royals is that they’re likely to overwork their awesome catcher, and in 2014 my biggest complaint this time of year was that they didn’t have anyone on the big league roster who could play shortstop if Alcides Escobar needed a day off.

These are high-level complaints, much better than versions in the past, like, “Hey guys, Matt Stairs shouldn’t be your cleanup hitter.”

Well … he wasn’t that good. He had a very good 2014, but that was his third year in Class AAA. In 2013, he hit .276/.326/.379 in 92 games. He was also in a tough spot, an outfielder in an organization with lots of big league outfielders.

I do know two Royals scouts in particular who’ve been high on Orlando for years now, in part because he fits what the Royals are about — speed, smooth athleticism, good work ethic.

It’s a basic consensus that the 1977 team is the best in franchise history. Eleven of the 17 players in the Royals Hall of Fame were on that team. So was their manager, GM and scouting director. They led the league in doubles, triples, ERA, and fewest hits and home runs allowed. They were under .500 in mid-June, but won 69 of their last 96 games. Clint Hurdle, who is still likely the second most hyped prospect in club history^, debuted for the 1977 Royals when he was 20 years old.

^ Bo.

Also, George Brett his 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 home runs, and struck out 24 times in 627 plate appearances which, when you think about it, is pretty decent.

Yes, but the problem with your idea is that it makes too much sense, and would be a tacit admission that certain parts of college sports have outgrown the amateur model.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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