Sam Mellinger

Mellinger Minutes: an NFL/GoT number that might surprise you, plus much Chiefs, Royals

Royals pitcher Danny Duffy gets a win in front of friends and family in California

Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy speak to reporters after a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Angel Stadium on May 19, 2019. Duffy, a California native, hadn't won as a big-leaguer in that ballpark prior to Sunday.
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Kansas City Royals pitcher Danny Duffy speak to reporters after a 5-1 win over the Los Angeles Angels in Angel Stadium on May 19, 2019. Duffy, a California native, hadn't won as a big-leaguer in that ballpark prior to Sunday.

You may know and certainly should not care about this, but I never watched a minute of Game of Thrones. Not a single one. This is not said as a boast, or as some tired contrarian stance. Just factual, and a way to set up the following:

I feel like I watched the show. I’m vaguely familiar with names and even characters like Jon Snow and Arya and I understand that lots of dragon fire has been involved. If I’m ever invited to a red wedding I will not attend.

Game of Thrones was not just a TV show, is the point. It was a cultural phenomenon and so ubiquitous that it would be difficult not to at least know something about it.

All of that is true. Also, somehow, is this:

I mean, come on. There are only 256 games in an NFL season, meaning the Game of Thrones finale — which was eight years and a reported $15 million per episode in the making and was one of the most discussed shows in the medium’s history — would almost have ranked in the top quarter of NFL games from the most recent season.

Some disclaimers are in order. This is live viewers only. Sports are almost entirely consumed live. Shows like GoT build enough of a following that lots of people feel like they have to watch live, but still.

Once the streaming numbers come in the GoT audience will be significantly bigger. Also, most NFL games are available on free TV. GoT requires an HBO subscription. That matters.

It’s also true that we’re not comparing the size of GoT’s audience to that of the NFL’s. We’re comparing one episode (the most watched in series history) to a single NFL game. Some weeks, NFL games draw more than 100 million people. And those games are three hours, not one. Also, the NFL draft drew 11 million live viewers, which isn’t far behind GoT’s climax.

Anyway, I think about this sometimes: the NFL is so monstrously popular that it is sometimes easy to forget how monstrously popular it is.

Nothing even approaches it. More people watch football than go to church. Many weeks, more people watch football than live in the nation’s 10 biggest metropolitan areas combined. More people watch football than have ever seen a cat video online.

I made that last one up. I think.

This week’s eating recommendation is Little Bill’s (jalapeño) pimento cheese and the reading recommendation is The Night the Lights Went Out by Drew Magary.

Please give me a follow on Twitter and Facebook and as always, thanks for your help and thanks for reading.

They’ll continue to wear out I-29 with relievers going back and forth, but that’s not what you’re asking.

The Royals are next to last in the American League in ERA. Defensive stats are generally believed to be less reliable than hitting or pitching numbers, and that’s particularly true in small samples, but it’s worth noting that the Royals are currently third in the American League (and eighth overall) in defensive runs saved.

That would indicate that the Royals’ pitching is even worse than these raw numbers: 14th in ERA, 14th in hits allowed, 14th in walks, and 13th in WHIP.

Now, the numbers have been a little better recently, with both performance and usage improving.

But, yeah. Still. The Royals have a very good defense, a wildly imbalanced offense that’s still grading out around league average, and a pretty terrible pitching staff.

It’s not hard to see where the problems are.

But I’m not sure who you want up. Kyle Zimmer has walked at least one batter in all but two outings in Triple A Omaha — the total is 14 in 17 innings. Josh Staumont has a 2.70 ERA in Triple A Omaha and is on the 40-man roster but he also has 18 walks in 20 innings.

Foster Griffin is interesting. He’s a significant part of why the Royals believe their farm system is better than the industry consensus — a 23-year-old lefty and former first-round pick with underwhelming velocity but effective movement.

He has a 3.53 in eight starts with Omaha, but his 21 walks in 43 1/3 innings are a bit concerning. He’d also need to be added to the 40.

I would expect Tim Hill back soon. Kevin McCarthy, too. They were supposed to be a big part of this bullpen. They each had problems throwing strikes, which caught the Royals by surprise. Jake Newberry will be back up at some point.

But, again. That’s probably not what you’re asking about. The Royals’ bigger problem recently has been the rotation, not the bullpen, and the major pieces there are in Class A.

Those guys are doing really well, too:

  • Brady Singer has 43 strikeouts and 10 walks with a 2.47 ERA in 43 2/3 innings.
  • Jackson Kowar has 44 strikeouts and 16 walks with a 2.72 ERA in 43 innings.
  • Daniel Lynch has 42 strikeouts and 11 walks with a 3.95 ERA in 41 innings.

But even the most aggressive timeline would have the first of those pitchers in Kansas City late next year or (more likely) sometime in 2021.

Most baseball prospects don’t make it. The ones that do take time.

Well, now that Chris Owings is playing less, Cal Edred is the Next Man Up as the fan punching bag.

The problems throwing strikes, and particularly from guys who have thrown strikes in the past, is concerning. Brad Keller is very much an Eldred guy, an important part of the future, and among the league leaders in walks. Something has to change there.

Jakob Junis and Jorge Lopez are probably swing guys on a good team, but their struggles are also a bad look.

Look, this pitching staff was always going to be difficult. It’s an awkward mix of younger guys trying to establish themselves and older guys trying to re-establish themselves.

I’m also a firm believer that when things go wrong coaches and managers take far more of the blame than they should. Players make the money for a reason, and I haven’t seen a petition to put Terry Bradshaw on a highway billboard for the hot starts from Hunter Dozier and Alex Gordon.

But we know how these things work. Eldred is thoughtful, committed, and respected. But other than Dave Duncan, all pitching coaches are temporary, so the status quo is untenable long-term.

Either the pitchers are going to perform better, or the Royals will bring in another voice. To be clear, I’m not talking about tomorrow or next week or even next month. But this is how these things work, fair or not.

I do!

I realize some of this is going to sound irrationally optimistic, which I have to be honest gives me some pause, but I think they have a chance to be competitive next year.

Look, I get it. Here is reality: they have the league’s worst record, the bottom of the order is hot garbage, and the rotation is a mess.

All of that is true!

So is this: they have one of the league’s youngest and potentially best middle infields, Whit Merrifield is a bankable championship level player, Alex Gordon might be really good again, their star catcher* is out for the year, and they have some internal candidates that could fill the most pressing needs.

* And there are some in the organization who believed Sal Perez was the team’s best player before the season.

In other words, the faces of much of what’s wrong with the Royals will soon be different. And the faces of what’s right with the Royals are mostly under long-term club control. Those two facts are important.

Two years is a long time, too. If things go as expected then Brady Singer will be starting games for the 2021 Royals. Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch might, too. Prospects are unreliable, like we talked about earlier. But prospects are also how teams like the Royals build up.

But by 2021, you would think Adalberto Mondesi is an established star. That Whit Merrifield is still productive and versatile. That Jorge Soler’s power has manifested. We’re working on a small sample with Hunter Dozier, but again, if that plate discipline is real then so is his production.

There are some power arms in the system that the Royals like, and even as teams are valuing relievers more the bullpen remains the one part of a team that can be changed quicker than any other.

This season is actually playing out generally how I expected: they’re going to lose a lot, but also be fun and interesting.

If that holds, then they’ll be in a spot to be more fairly and accurately judged by wins next year.

Depending on where you look, St. Louis has about 2.8 million people. Kansas City is around 2.1 million.

Maybe that doesn’t seem like a big difference, but it means that St. Louis is 33 percent bigger. Only Milwaukee is smaller among MLB markets.

So, there’s one reason.

The 2015 Royals were relentlessly likable. Most of the players came up through the system. They played with energy. They played with speed. They were plainly fun to watch, embraced fans, and had been a swing away from a world championship the year before.

That team essentially went wire-to-wire as the best in the American League, and eventually completed a remarkable path from punchline to parade* by winning the World Series.

* Drink.

That team drew 2,708,549 fans — the most in franchise history.

That total would be the Cardinals’ lowest since 1997.

So, there’s another reason.

But, you might say! You are a handsome and smart sports columnist but in this instance you are confusing the chicken and the egg!

To which I would reply: thank you for the kind words, and let’s talk about that.

The Cardinals have had an absurd run of success — 12 playoffs in the last 19 seasons. They have one losing season this century. So, of course attendance will be higher.

The Royals had a team that went to Game 7 of the World Series and it drew (slightly) less than 2 million fans.

You know how I feel about calls for fans to buy tickets — it’s up to the team to make themselves worth it, not up to the fans to provide benefit of the doubt.

But, still. That’s something, especially in a sport where local revenue is king.

Nobody wants to hear it, and they shouldn’t, but building a winning team in Kansas City with major league baseball’s economic model remains one of the most difficult challenges in American sports.

It’s not as bad now as it used to be, but the Royals still aren’t able to buy the best players without an owner willing to bankroll losses, and now they can’t even overspend on amateur talent with the sport’s limits in place.

This is Dayton Moore’s 13th full season as general manager. This will (almost certainly) be his ninth losing season.

He’s made moves that have backfired, like the Trey Hillman hire, or the Jose Guillen contract, or Chris Young’s second contract, or the Matt Strahm trade, or (and to me this is the biggest) not being more decisive about whether to win or rebuild after the 2016 season.

But the Royals remain the only small market world champion since 2003, and have played in the same number of World Series as the Dodgers since the strike.

The problem has been in building something sustainable, and the reasons for that have been discussed here and other places plenty. Too many misses in the draft, too many misses in free agency, and too many opportunities passed on or whiffed.

David Glass only committed to building up the organization’s infrastructure with Moore’s hiring, but even now wants the team to break even financially.

As best as I can tell, the Royals have two general paths to win. The first is to effectively tank and hit on high picks and build around that core. The second is to be more efficient than the other 29.

Either way, if we’re talking about franchises that should be jealous of the Cardinals’ historic success the list is going to be pretty long.

Maybe I see it a little different, and maybe this is me projecting. But I don’t think people hate on him a lot. I think people respect his talent and career, but the jokes are too tempting.

Dwayne Bowe’s career is probably under appreciated. He played on four teams that won four or fewer games, and only two that made the playoffs. It’s tough to celebrate anything from those years too much.

But he was a monster on the field. Big, wide, strong and an enormous problem after the catch. He played two years with Alex Smith, by FAR his best quarterback. The others he caught touchdowns from: Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen, Quinn Gray and Damon Huard.

Leading the league in touchdown passes with Matt Cassel as quarterback is an audacious achievement. In his first four complete seasons Bowe averaged 77 catches and 1,085 yards for teams that didn’t really want to throw the ball.

He also did stuff like this:

And this:

But it’s also fine to be honest. It always felt — right or wrong — that Bowe could’ve been better. That he could’ve worked harder, or been more focused. He dropped too many passes, and sources have said he ran the wrong route on a crucial play late in the Chiefs’ unfathomable playoff collapse against the Colts. Those things are hard to forget.

Plus the importing story, the marijuana arrest and asking the cops if Sonic was still open, the apology to “the Clarks,” misspelling Jovan Belcher’s name on a tribute t-shirt, I mean, come on. Some things stick.

On a more tangible level, Bowe also (through no fault of his own) came to represent some of the Chiefs’ cap problems after one of John Dorsey’s first major moves as GM was to sign Bowe to a $56 million contract.

I don’t know about the ring of honor. I’d have to look closer at that, which would also mean talking about how Carl Peterson remains an inexcusable snub for the honor, and also that the Chiefs should probably consider not doing one every year.

I think I’d end up agreeing with you, that he should be in. But I also think I’d believe there are others who should be ahead of him in line.

Dwayne Bowe: terrific talent, highly productive and occasionally spectacular, but surrounded by incompetence most of his career and a few nothing-to-do-with-football moments that just won’t leave the mind.

The field, and I think you might be joking, but I’d happily take this bet with anyone.

But before we get into it, I assume you’re asking because Fan Duel recently released these odds:

Mahomes should absolutely be the heavy favorite. He won it last year, his first as a starter, with absurd numbers and somehow honestly swear-to-goodness left some plays on the field.

Tyreek Hill’s status will effect this, one way or the other. He’ll almost certainly be suspended, but if it’s less than a full season and the Chiefs keep him then Mahomes will have the sort of opportunity (?) that MVP voters love to watch. If Hill is cut or suspended the entire season then that opportunity (again: ?) is only amplified.

Mahomes is young, ascending, wildly talented, and paired with a head coach who really might be the perfect fit. The Chiefs are currently the (slight) Super Bowl favorite, so their games will be Big Deals nationally. He’ll have every chance to make the case.

But I’d emphatically take the field for a few reasons. First, math. There are just way too many potential answers to the question.

Second, human nature. We tend to want the new thing. That was Mahomes last year, but now he’s the reigning MVP and I’ve always believed there’s a subtle bias from voters and fans to want something new.

We pick things apart. Last year, for instance, those interceptions at the end of the Rams game were OK because he was just learning and getting going.

But let him throw an interception at the end of a standalone nationally televised game on a bad idea executed poorly and watch the #taeks come in. They will be aflame.

Just looking at that list, Dak Prescott could be good value. Andrew Luck, too. Maybe Ben Roethlisberger or Deshaun Watson. I do think we’re so quarterback focused that it will be hard for someone else to nudge their way in, though Saquon Barkley could be an interesting candidate if the Giants somehow get going.

Also: do not take gambling advice from me.

Not very?

If we’re isolating this to talent, and not factoring in the difference with coordinator Steve Spagnuolo replacing Bob Sutton, then any perceived improvement basically comes down to what you think of Steve Nelson and Bashaud Breeland.

Kendall Fuller is back. Charvarius Ward figures to replace Orlando Scandrick as the No. 3 corner, and you might know what I think of Ward, but I also recognize that the performance of corners and in particular young corners can be extremely volatile year-to-year.

So, what is your opinion of Nelson?

I have a guess. Most Chiefs fans seem to think he was garbage. And I get it. Only five corners surrendered more catches, and only one more yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He was also called for 11 penalties.

But I always thought Nelson was better than most. What I saw, both watching live and again on video, was a man let down by scheme and who often gave up catches despite very good coverage.

He also made a lot of plays. This is just one, but symbolic of what I’m talking about:

Context is important. In part because the Chiefs offense scored so much, their defense faced more passes than anyone else in the league. Nelson defended 113 targets in coverage, most in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus. Kendall Fuller was fifth, and Scandrick eighth.

It’s natural to remember the completions more than the misses.

But if we’re going to be fair here, it’s worth noting that Nelson’s 76.8 passer rating against ranked 16th among 81 corners who played at least half the snaps.

To me, Nelson was tough and relentlessly competitive. He took his share of losses, and isn’t a great player, but if Sutton deserves a lot of the blame for the defense’s struggles the last few years (and he does) then that should be accounted for when we’re judging players.

That’s particularly true of the corners last year, because they were given no help from scheme, and even less from a safety group that needed to be shot directly into the sun.

But, anyway. Enough about that.

The question is whether Bashaud Breeland is a certain upgrade. I know the Chiefs didn’t see it that way last year, though some of that had to do with questions about health.

He only played seven games for the Packers, and I haven’t gone through it in depth, but from what I’ve seen and people I’ve talked to he’s an average player with the potential to be better than that.

He’s a limited athlete (by the supernatural standards of NFL corners, anyway) but a willing tackler and smart player. Anyway, it’s tough to project with the injuries he’s been dealing with.

The Chiefs have him on a short prove-it deal. Breeland lost a $24 million deal when the Panthers failed his physical, so the Chiefs should be getting Breeland’s best and most motivated brand of football.

So, you asked a question. I think the Chiefs will be better at corner. I see Ward as an upgrade over Scandrick, if nothing else, and Breeland has a chance — a chance — to be better than Nelson.

But the group remains thin, and enough uncertainties exist that I don’t think anyone should be making grand declarations. For all the problems last year, their corners stayed healthy. If that changes this fall it could get bad quick.

My guess is that it’ll be Anthony Hitchens, Darron Lee, and Damien Wilson getting the most snaps.

They really like Lee’s ability to cover, and he profiles as a good fit for the will position. Hitchens’ production in Dallas was in a 4-3, so the Chiefs are hopeful he can get back to that. Damien Wilson is thought to be a reliable tackler, if a bit undersized. He should be the sam, and I’m not going to all-caps it because that always makes me feel attacked and this is my safe space. Thank you for your support.

Dorian O’Daniel could mix in there, especially in passing downs. I thought he showed well in somewhat limited snaps last year, but these things are hard to project, particularly with all the change on defense.

I’m curious what happens with Reggie Ragland. He became expendable by the Bills in part because they switched to a 4-3. He was OK in 2017, then struggled last year. Assuming the Chiefs want Hitchens for the bulk of the MLB snaps we may not see much of Ragland. He’s a candidate for a training camp cut.

But, anyway. Those are all mostly guesses, done two months or so before the start of camp.

Eh, 15 percent?

They last won two league games in 2008, an astonishingly long time, and so long ago that those wins included Colorado and Missouri.

Last year they beat TCU by one and played K-State and Texas close. Les Miles will and should talk about having more talent than people realize. He will and should talk about changing the culture, and that if he can help flip what people inside the program believe is possible (and acceptable) then they’ll find success sooner than anyone expects.

But color me skeptical.

David Beaty was justifiably fired, and Miles is the most competent coach they’ve had in years.

But the problems are about more than just the coach. Miles and AD Jeff Long have been smart in adding layers of support, both in recruiting and coaching. That will help but the truth is that KU is still behind most of the programs it wants to be peers.

To me, success would look like more competitive games in the league (they lost six times by more than 14 points last year) and better recruits and a little more belief. Achieve that in year one, then maybe in year two with improved talent and feel for what’s needed we can talk about winning multiple conference games.

Probably the latter.

College basketball teams are volatile, and even outside of Devon Dotson and Quentin Grimes we don’t know exactly what the roster will look like.

Will Silvio De Sousa return? Will Jalen Wilson sign with Kansas? What about RJ Hampton?

There are a lot of moving pieces here, and it’s conceivable that Kansas could win the league even without either Dotson or Grimes.

But the word that I’m reacting to with my answer is “lock.” I don’t think the fourth-place team one year can lose its most productive player and be a lock the next year, barring extreme circumstance. This isn’t extreme circumstance.

Because ... lock?

Texas Tech is losing a lot, but that was the consensus a year ago, too. Iowa State will be good again. Baylor brings a lot back.

I’m expecting Grimes to go, Dotson to come back, and De Sousa as probably gone*.

* NCAA.

That would mean a wicket guard-big combination with Ochai Agbaji presumably improving (especially with consistency) on the wing.

I assume that would make Kansas the preseason favorite, but I’m sure it would not make them a lock.

Woof.

OK. Let’s try.

PG: Fred VanVleet

SG: Jordan Clarkson

SF: Andrew Wiggins

PF: Marcus Morris

C: Joel Embiid

Thought about going big with Willie Cauley-Stein at power forward, and Josh Jackson could be subbed in for Clarkson, and I wish we had a more established point guard.

But, I don’t know. If we play through Embiid, rely on Morris for toughness, Clarkson and Wiggins for some playmaking and VanVleet to rise ... that’s a borderline playoff team, right?

I think about the aliens a lot, and often in a way of wondering how in the sweet hell I’d explain to them what I do for a living, but sure. I can take a stab at this too.

First, I’m pretty certain the aliens will have a hard time understanding any sports teams.

Like, I think the aliens could wrap their alien brains around the idea that sports are fun. They’d get our interest, because exercise is important, and it’s a good way to be social and meet people. They’d absolutely understand why so many kids play sports, though they’d have some biting questions about how much money and self-worth we put into youth sports.

But, yes. Then they’d have some questions about Kansas City sports.

I would tell them the Royals play the sport that Kansas City has loved the longest, but they play it well the least. The Chiefs play the sport that Kansas City loves the most, and their new quarterback is amazing* but their last championship is months away from joining AARP.

* I’d be curious they’d admit he’s one of them, actually.

And I would tell them that Sporting plays the sport that Kansas City loves the least, but they generally* do it well enough to have changed a lot of minds.

* Not at the moment.

Then the aliens might ask why people root for these teams, and I would start with an admission that we humans tend to care WAY too much about sports. I’d definitely try to set some of this up by throwing most soccer fans in foreign countries straight under the bus. I’d do the same with SEC football fans, as well as MANY youth sports coaches and parents.

So if the scale had been properly manipulated, I would tell the aliens that Kansas City is a proud place. That people here often feel ignored and dismissed. That people here are almost always from here, and those that aren’t quickly feel like they are anyway.

I would tell the aliens that in that context, these teams are a way to feel connected. When we move away we often check scores to see how things are going. It’s a way to make new friends and get together with old ones. We don’t have an ocean, and when the teams win it can feel like the only time the rest of the country notices Kansas City.

It’s all patently ridiculous, of course, and much of it is exaggerated.

But maybe the aliens will buy it. They won’t know better.

Buddy. I could make this work.

Ideally, the answer would be something like “exercise” or “reading” or “otherwise making the world a better place.” But realistically, there are a lot of potential answers here.

I could rip off 50 hours eating nachos pretty easily. I would absolutely love to try 50 hours of golf lessons, and let me be clear. I don’t golf, and when I do am not at all good. But I’ve always been curious about how quickly a guy can improve something like that.

Same basic premise would hold for playing pool, for instance. Or studying computer programming.

I’m quite sure I’m missing the point of your question, but I feel like I’m on a bit of a roll now, so smoking various meats. Trying to build a shelving system in my garage so that it looks a little more like adults live there and not just 83 preschoolers who have the run of the place. I could fish for 50 hours, which might be long enough for me to confidently tie my own line.

You know what I absolutely would NOT want to do for 50 hours? Play Fortnite. And I don’t mean this in the “oh I could never be bothered because I’m too sophisticated” way.

I mean it like this: I’ve never played Fortnite, but know enough people who have, and have listened long enough to know I would be sadly and awfully and irreversibly hooked if I put in 50 hours. After the experiment ended, I’m pretty sure I’d stop doing stuff around the house, would ignore the kids, and just grunt at my wife as I wore one of those microphones and streamed with 14-year-olds from China or whatever.

The unknown.

And I don’t just mean not knowing if your roof is going to collapse, or what the hell all those wires in the basement ceiling are for. Our house will be 100 years old next year, and the inspection report weighed as much as a Volvo. We knew what we were getting into there.

More than all of that, the unknown for me is how to fix stuff. And whether I should try. And if not then who should I call? The unknown is whether I should buy a warranty, or whether that money would be better put toward the kids’ college. Or what I should do with that letter that comes every few months promising full sewage line protection for like $5 per month or whatever.

Honestly, I spend a lot of the time just feeling in over my head with this stuff.

I’m better than I used to be, and the plain truth is the type of place we wanted we could only have by owning anyway. We’ll live there the rest of our lives, or at least as long as we can still climb stairs. It’s the best and smartest investment we’ll ever make. So, no regrets. But, lots of feeling in over my head.

This week, I’m particularly grateful for triblend t-shirts. Remember the dark ages, when we didn’t know any better and we draped ourselves with stiff cheap cotton and thought it was comfortable? Thank god that nightmare is over, you know?

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.

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