Judging the Royals

The 2015 Royals: A scouting report from spring training

The Royals take batting practice at Kauffman Stadium Sunday, Apr. 5, 2015. Monday is the Royals' home opener against the Chicago White Sox. Eric Hosmer (from left), Jarrod Dyson, Mike Moustakas and third base coach Mike Jirschele chat during batting practice.
The Royals take batting practice at Kauffman Stadium Sunday, Apr. 5, 2015. Monday is the Royals' home opener against the Chicago White Sox. Eric Hosmer (from left), Jarrod Dyson, Mike Moustakas and third base coach Mike Jirschele chat during batting practice. The Kansas City Star

Someone recently asked me how I thought the Royals would do in 2015, and I confessed that I really didn’t know. I focus almost exclusively on the Royals, and that means I’m only vaguely aware of what other teams are doing. And since I don’t know what other teams are doing, I don’t know how the Royals stack up against those teams.

I was only at spring training for a week, but if you want to know the impressions I formed of the 2015 Royals while I was there and what I think about the coming season, here you go:

Pitching

James Shields has pitched nine seasons in the big leagues and has a lifetime ERA of 3.72. He’s thrown over 200 innings in a season eight times. Whatever you think of Big Game’s postseason performance — and his ERA jumps to 5.46 in those games — during the regular season, James Shields provided a lot of well-pitched innings.

Edinson Volquez has 10 years in the big leagues, has a lifetime ERA of 4.44 and has never thrown 200 innings in a single season, although he’s come close a couple of times. Since Volquez is basically replacing Shields in the rotation, the numbers would suggest that the Royals are taking a step backwards here.

Jeremy Guthrie has 11 seasons in the big leagues, has thrown 200 innings in a season five times and has a lifetime ERA of 4.23.

Jason Vargas has nine years in, has thrown more than 200 innings twice and a career ERA of 4.20.

So the Royals have three solid veteran pitchers at the back of the rotation, and that means a lot depends on the two youngest pitchers with the least experience: Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura.

Duffy has a career ERA of 3.67 and last season threw 149 1/3 innings — his most innings pitched in a season by far — so the Royals have to hope Danny stays healthy and can give them more innings.

Ventura is entering his second full season and has a career ERA of 3.22. Yordano threw 183 innings last year, but missed time on the mound for a variety of health issues. Once again, staying healthy and grinding out innings will be important.

Ventura will also have to handle the No. 1 spot in the rotation. Yordano’s got the opening-day start, and when you’re a No. 1 pitcher, you match up against other No. 1 pitchers — at least for a while. Eventually the schedule throws things off, but early on you can pitch great and still start your season 0-4 because you were facing the best the opposition had to offer. If that happens, a pitcher can’t freak out; he’s got to realize he’s throwing well and doesn’t need to change anything except who he’s pitching against.

As good as the bullpen was in 2014, it can be even better in 2015. Once Luke Hochevar comes back — assuming he can recapture his 2013 form — the Royals will have four dominant relievers at the backend of the pen, which means they can use them to protect a lead after five innings. Or the Royals can use Hochevar’s return to give Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis or Greg Holland a day off and still have three dominating guys to protect late-inning leads.

Of course, if someone gets hurt, that changes things, but people are constantly predicting that certain pitchers are going to break down; predict that a pitcher will break down often enough and you’ll eventually be right.

When James Shields came over to the Royals, I remember reading that Shields turning out 200-inning seasons like McDonald’s turns out cheeseburgers was a bad thing; surely Shields was going to break down. Of course if Shields hadn’t been able to consistently pitch 200 innings, that would also be a bad thing. (And people say the media is too negative.)

I’ve also heard predictions that Greg Holland is going to break down this season, but I also heard the same thing two years ago. Don’t misunderstand: Most likely Shields and Holland and every other pitcher in the world will eventually break down — Dan Quisenberry once told me it’s the only reason people stop pitching — but nobody knows for sure when that will be.

I’m not big on predictions (and I predict I never will be), but track records suggest that the Royals got a little worse in their starting rotation (Duffy and Ventura could change that) and will get a little better in their bullpen.

Defense

The Royals have six players who could conceivably compete for a Gold Glove: Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Alex Gordon and Lorenzo Cain. That’s a lot of excellence on defense, and defense makes things easier on the pitching and the offense.

To my eye, shortstop Alcides Escobar made fewer highlight-reel plays last season, but that might be a good thing. When guys make great plays it’s sometimes because they were positioned badly and they had to do something spectacular to get an out. When a guy makes a diving stop we’re often applauding bad positioning. If Esky is doing a better job of positioning himself — or being positioned by infield coach Mike Jirschele — that would explain things.

First baseman Eric Hosmer makes everyone on the infield better; his ability to stretch and handle bad hops saves his teammates errors and allows them to attempt plays that they wouldn’t even try with a lesser first baseman.

Mike Moustakas has been solid to spectacular at third, although once in a while his strong throwing arm has a mind of its own. (He once told me Hosmer owes him big time, because how would Eric ever win a Gold Glove if every throw was perfect?)

Left fielder Alex Gordon runs great routes and turns a lot of doubles into singles, and his throwing arm prevents a lot of baserunners from taking an extra 90 feet. It’s hard to measure things that don’t happen, but with Gordon in left field, a lot of bad things don’t happen.

Lorenzo Cain also covers a ton of ground in center field. They had to widen the warning track in Kauffman Stadium because a guy like Cain covers so much ground with a single stride that he wasn’t getting enough warning after hitting the dirt track in the outfield.

I haven’t seen Alex Rios enough to know how he plays, but I do know that Nori Aoki had a tendency to play deep and didn’t have the throwing arm to consistently make that work. Nori also ran some interesting routes to get to a baseball. Some of his routes looked like they belonged in the Chiefs playbook, so that might be part of why the Royals think Rios will be a defensive upgrade.

Omar Infante didn’t do a lot that was spectacular at second base and at times was hampered with arm troubles. Omar also had the disconcerting tendency to forget to cover the bag at times, and the Royals lost some outs when a runner rounded second base too big and nobody was there to take a throw to trap him off base.

Catcher Salvador Perez has incredible physical talent, and his throwing ability kept a lot of baserunners from even attempting a steal. Pop time is how long it takes a catcher to catch a ball and get it down to second base. 2.0 seconds is about average in the big leagues; Sal can do it in 1.8.

Perez is big enough that he can keep a pitch between his knees and that makes those pitches look more like strikes; catch the ball outside your knees and it look more like a ball. Sal’s also strong enough to “stick it,” which means holding a 100-MPH pitch in place and not letting the ball’s velocity carry the mitt out of the strike zone.

At times Perez’s pitch-calling can be an issue: As I recall (and right now I have no idea where I left my car keys last night), Sal once called a first-pitch fastball to every hitter in the Yankees lineup and Ichiro Suzuki — hitting seventh — saw the pattern and launched that first-pitch fastball over the right-field wall. You can’t fall into predictable patterns against smart hitters.

If you see Perez running through multiple signs without a runner on second, it probably means he’s letting the pitcher call the game: Here are all the signs, and you decide what you want to throw.

Nitpicking aside, the Royals should once again have a spectacular defensive team.

Offense

In general, the Royals don’t walk or strike out much; they’re usually not at the plate long enough to do either one. They also don’t hit a lot of home runs, and that means that they need to string good at-bats together to score. Pay attention when the Royals get runners in scoring position; pitchers tend to throw a lot of off-speed stuff when that happens, and the Royals will sometimes expand the zone and chase pitches that aren’t strikes.

When I saw Hosmer in spring training, his swing looked smooth and calm. Last year Hosmer’s swing could get big and violent in hitter’s counts; he’d miss or foul off the pitch and then still be up there having to deal with off-speed stuff. I asked Eric about that this spring and he said he and hitting coach Dale Sveum had been working on taking a more controlled hack, but the key was to not “get big” in fastball counts. Pay attention to what Hosmer does in 1-0, 2-0, 2-1 and 3-1 counts — that might be the key to his season.

Back in Surprise, Mike Moustakas was using his first round of batting practice to hit the ball the other way; he says he’s going to try to take advantage of overloaded shifts on the right side and hit it where they ain’t. But Mike also said the same thing last spring training and then went back to pulling in the regular season. In Moose’s case, pay attention to the defensive positioning when he comes to the plate — if the left side is open, does he take advantage of that? There may be times Mike still wants to pull against a shift — particularly if it’s a right-handed pitcher he hits well — but at other times he probably needs to take that single to left. Do that enough and teams won’t shift.

In 2014, Lorenzo Cain had 142 hits and wound up with an average of .301. But if you saw all those 142 hits, you know that Lorenzo had a lot of weak groundballs and soft flares mixed in to that .301 average. Give Cain credit for hustling and turning those jam shot grounders into singles, but you’ve gotta wonder if Cain got lucky or 2014 was a performance that can be repeated.

Alex Gordon will be Alex Gordon and probably be solid through hard work. Omar Infante is a lifetime .276 hitter, but after he took a fastball to the jaw in 2014, the Royals second baseman hit .247 the rest of the way. Alcides Escobar is good enough at short that you’ll take whatever he gives you at the plate ,and last year that was .285, but he didn’t walk much. No clue what Alex Rios will do — anyone can look up his overall numbers — but I didn’t see enough of him in spring training to get an impression of where he is right now — same thing for Kendrys Morales.

Salvador Perez caught an insane amount of games in 2014, and as that number went up, his batting average went down. When catchers get tired, they feel slow at the plate, and when they feel slow at the plate they have to start their swing early to catch up to the fastball. And when they start their swing early pitchers can throw off-speed and make them look silly.

By the end of the season a pitcher could throw a slider in the other batter’s box and Sal would take a hack, especially if there was a runner in scoring position. In fact that’s pretty much how the Royal won that Wild Card game.

And if Ned Yost keeps his promise and catches Sal in fewer games, that means more at bats for Erik Kratz, a career .219 hitter.

Base running, the short version: As long as Rusty Kuntz is in charge of base running, the Royals will be pretty good in that department.

In conclusion, I don’t have one

OK, I could go on (I have already), but that’s what I think going into the season. To me the Royals look like a team that should win more than it loses, but I’ve got no idea if they make the playoffs and if they do, how deep they can go. Of course, injuries and luck could change everything. And I might be just flat wrong about what I think — it wouldn’t be the first time.

If you made it this far into this scouting report, congratulations. This season I’ll be on Twitter during every game. You can follow me at @leejudge. I’ll also post something at least five times a week on Judging the Royals.

And happy Opening Day.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

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