Ask Ned Yost about managing the 2017 Royals and he says he’ll lead the same way he always has: He’ll turn his players loose and let them play their game. But this season, the game those players play might look quite different than the one that Royals fans are used to seeing.
Yost says that outside of Raul Mondesi, he called for no more than five sacrifice bunts in 2016; the rest of the time it was players bunting on their own. But with more power hitters in the lineup now, it’s likely you’ll see fewer bunt attempts; you don’t sign Brandon Moss so he can bunt the ball.
And power hitters tend to be slow runners, so you’ll probably see fewer steal attempts.
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Once again, that’s not something Yost calls for; he says he doesn’t even have a steal sign. He trusts base-running coach Rusty Kuntz and his players to steal in high-percentage situations and counts. But with a slower lineup, there will be fewer favorable running situations.
And without Jarrod Dyson or someone like him on the bench, Yost won’t have that late-inning pinch-run base-stealing threat.
With more power and less foot speed, pitchers will be more likely to work around certain hitters in certain situations; walk a power hitter, and most of the time he’ll clog the bases and force his team to play the game 90 feet at a time. If the Royals’ power hitters hit home runs, Royals fans should also see more walks.
Yost says he might call for a hit-and-run to get something going, but he won’t micromanage. The Royals believe in teaching their players how to play and then letting those players play their game.
The Royals have Gold Glove-level defenders all over the field, and that simplifies Yost’s job immensely. The two positions he might have to worry about late in games are right field and second base.
The Royals are saying all the right things about right fielder Jorge Soler, but the fact that they’re tinkering with having Alex Gordon play right field and Soler play left when they visit parks with lots of room in right suggests the Royals have concerns about Soler’s range.
That probably means Yost will run a defensive replacement out to right field when the team has a lead in the late innings. If the Royals are behind, they’ll want Soler’s bat in the lineup to put runs on the board; if the Royals are ahead, they’ll probably send someone else out to right field to play defense.
If Raul Mondesi is the second baseman, he’s the Royals’ best defender at that position. So Yost won’t need a defensive replacement late in games. But if Cheslor Cuthbert or Christian Colon play second, and Yost has a better glove on the bench, he might send a defensive replacement out in the later innings.
But a revolving door at second base makes things tougher on first baseman Eric Hosmer and shortstop Alcides Escobar. Those guys need to know what ground balls the second baseman can get to and what ground balls they need to go after, and having different guys playing second won’t help matters.
The starting rotation
As of this writing, the starting rotation is Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jason Vargas, Jason Hammel and Nathan Karns.
Of those five pitchers, only Vargas and Kennedy have averaged as much as six innings per start over their careers. The deeper the starters go in the game, the less that’s required from a bullpen that might not be as dominant as it has been in the past. So pitching to contact, using the defense and keeping pitch counts low will be important.
If the starters can pitch deep in the game, they can hand the ball directly to the most dominant relievers at the back end of the Royals’ bullpen. If the starters can’t go deep, Yost will be forced to use more middle relievers.
In 2017, a lot of games are going to be won and lost by what happens in the sixth and seventh innings.
According to Yost, managing the bullpen is about 85 percent of his job. And in 2017, this is where things might get challenging.
Set roles are easier on everyone. When Kelvin Herrera had the seventh and Wade Davis had the eighth and Greg Holland had the ninth, everyone knew when to warm up, when they would enter the game and how long they’d pitch.
And limiting a reliever to one inning means he can punch the gas and throw his best stuff. Wade Davis went from being a so-so starter to a beast in the bullpen when he was given a set one-inning role.
If the Royals can come up with three dominant relievers, that will make Yost’s job easier. If he can get the starter through six innings with a lead, Yost can hand the ball to his killer relievers and the game is pretty much over.
Roles can change once the season begins, but right now it appears Kelvin Herrera will close in the ninth inning and Matt Strahm will have the seventh or eighth. So the Royals need Joakim Soria — or someone else — to step up and be that third dominant reliever.
If the 2017 Royals don’t have three shutdown relievers, things get dicey.
For example, if the starting pitcher leaves the game after 5 1/3 innings and Yost has just two dominant relievers at the back end of the ’pen, he has to mix-and-match his way through the next 2 2/3 innings to get to his setup man in the eighth.
Mixing and matching means finding matchups that favor your reliever, so Yost might use three pitchers to get three outs ... and that can get complicated in a hurry. You have to make sure you have the right reliever warming up at the right time, and you can’t let them warm up too long or you’ll burn them without ever getting them in the game.
And during the regular season, don’t expect Yost to ask for more from his best relievers.
Start asking a reliever for more than one inning and he might not be available the next day. Keep pushing that reliever for more innings and more pitches, and you’re going to burn him out. You might get away with that in the playoffs; after all, the finish line’s in sight. But do that too soon during a 162-game season, and the reliever and his team are going to pay a price.
You don’t start sprinting in the middle of a marathon.
Royals fans are likely to see a team this year that hits more home runs, walks more often, strikes out more often, bunts less and attempts fewer steals. And if the bullpen can’t find three lockdown relievers, Royals fans will see Yost use more relievers to get through the middle innings.
Even though he says he’ll manage the same way he always has, different players play different games. And in 2017, Royals fans will see a very different team.