Buster Olney: Kansas City Royals

BumgarnerAP Photo/Jamie SquireMadison Bumgarner had a masterful performance in Game 1 of the World Series.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Royals have become America's team during the postseason, the team that casual fans are rooting for because of their energetic style and because, quite simply, they haven't been on this stage for a very long time.

But the difference in experience between these Royals and the Giants showed itself in a sequence of hitters in the third inning, in Kansas City's one serious opportunity to climb back into the game.

With the Giants leading 3-0, Brandon Crawford made an error and Mike Moustakas pulled a double into the right-field corner. The Royals had runners at second and third and nobody out and the top of their lineup coming up, and Madison Bumgarner and catcher Buster Posey faced a difficult challenge in trying to navigate their way without surrendering runs.

Alcides Escobar struck out just 83 times in more than 600 plate appearances during the regular season, but it had become evident in his first at-bat that when Bumgarner got ahead in the count, he intended to attack the shortstop at the top of the strike zone, and now in the third inning, he did this again.
Madison BumgarnerAP Photo/Jack DempseyMadison Bumgarner has an elongated delivery, which the Royals might try to take advantage of.
KANSAS CITY -- When San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner delivers the ball to home plate with a runner at first base tonight, the numbers that appear on the stopwatch of Kansas City Royals first-base coach Rusty Kuntz will indicate to him that the Royals should try to steal.

Bumgarner is 6-foot-5 and has the wing span of a condor, and if you think of his body like a catapult, the time required to remove the ball from his glove, draw his arm all the way back and then sling it toward home plate is relatively slow, no less than 1.3 or 1.4 seconds.

Kuntz has said during the course of the postseason that everything the Royals try to do is dictated by those numbers on the stopwatch: If the pitcher's delivery time is 1.2 seconds or more, Kansas City will run. But 1.3 seconds? In the Royals' world, that's like a green light.

But over time, Bumgarner has developed a speed trap.

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10 key matchups in the World Series 

October, 20, 2014
Oct 20
Bruce Bochy and Ned YostGetty Images, US TODAY SportsBruce Bochy and Ned Yost will match managerial wits in the 2014 World Series, which begins Tuesday.
Time to look at the crucial matchups to watch in the World Series:

1. The San Francisco Giants vs. the Kansas City Royals' track team

The Baltimore Orioles demonstrated that it's very possible to slow the Royals' baserunners with pitchers who deliver the ball quickly and with an unorthodox approach to holding runners on. Kansas City had just one steal in the American League Championship Series.

Some of Kansas City's baserunners never seemed completely comfortable in reading the intent of first baseman Steve Pearce, who would be five feet off the base and then retreat, sometimes for a pickoff, sometimes not. The Giants could have Brandon Belt do the same thing.

The Giants' starting pitchers, like the Orioles' starters, are generally effective in controlling a running game.

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A hero one step beyond 'unlikely' 

October, 17, 2014
Oct 17
Travis IshikawaThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesTravis Ishikawa would normally be out of a tight game in the later innings.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Jake Peavy’s eyesight is awful, and the truth is he sprinted out of the Giants’ dugout Thursday night not entirely sure of what he had just seen. Peavy didn’t know whether Travis Ishikawa’s long drive to right field had cleared the tin on top of the wall, or if it had ricocheted off the brick. He only knew that Ishikawa had mashed a ball beyond the reach of the Cardinals’ outfielders, far enough to score the game-winning run and win the pennant.

“I’m so proud of you!” Peavy screamed at Ishikawa, as he moved to embrace him.

“Get out of the way!” Ishikawa shouted while trying to dodge Peavy, unsure of whether he needed to avoid being touched by teammates in order to make this journey around the bases count.

Or at least that’s what Ishikawa and Peavy think he shouted; nobody could remember with complete clarity even a few minutes after, because of how overwhelmed they were by the moment.

Tim Hudson couldn’t recall exactly what Giants manager Bruce Bochy said to him when they hugged on the field, but whatever it was, Hudson was weeping with the realization that after 16 years in the major leagues, and after having his ankle dislocated in 2013, he will play in the World Series. Hudson started tearing up again as he started talking about the words between him and his manager. “I’m a marshmallow,” he said.

Buster Posey, the catcher admired by teammates because of how understated he is no matter how tense the situation, pumped his fists happily on the field, once, between hugs with teammates. Third-base coach Tim Flannery was crying. Mike Morse waved happily to someone he knew in the stands. The stoic Madison Bumgarner couldn’t stop smiling; neither could Brandon Crawford. Jeremy Affeldt shouted, randomly.

Among them, Ishikawa struggled to catch his breath.

On the last Wednesday of the regular season, the day of Game No. 158, there was no thought that he would play a meaningful role in the postseason, let alone play left field. He has been a first baseman for almost his entire career, and 23 days ago, he had exactly zero career starts in left field in the major leagues.

But the Giants were desperately seeking a solution in left field, having learned the last week of the regular season that Angel Pagan would miss the rest of the season and the playoffs. Gregor Blanco was needed in center field and Juan Perez had performed poorly in September, and in conversation with Bochy, Giants general manager Brian Sabean suggested that he try Ishikawa, who had a handful of outfield starts in the minor leagues. Bochy, with nothing to lose, went along with it and found a left fielder in the last hours of the regular season -- a decision that had gone well right up until the third inning of Game 5 Thursday night, when Ishikawa misread a line drive by Jon Jay.

The potential for another crushing defensive mistake like that loomed in Bochy’s mind into the middle innings. He had usually pulled Ishikawa out of games in the sixth or seventh inning, and as he and bench coach Ron Wotus shared thoughts in the eighth inning, Bochy decided that he was going to give Ishikawa one more at-bat and then replace him with Perez.

One more chance for Ishikawa. One more swing. And when he hit the ball

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10 crucial matchups in the ALCS, NLCS 

October, 8, 2014
Oct 8
Jarrod Dyson and Caleb JosephGetty Images/USA Today SportsJarrod Dyson and his aggressive Royals are set to take on strong-armed catcher Caleb Joseph.
ST. LOUIS -- Ten key matchups in the AL and NL Championship Series that begin Friday and Saturday, respectively:

1. The Orioles vs. the Kansas City running game: This is like a steel-cage match within the main event. The Royals have run aggressively in the postseason, with 12 stolen bases in 13 attempts, including seven in their wild-card game against Oakland. Terrance Gore and Jarrod Dyson are setting new standards for brazenness.

But the Orioles are excellent at controlling the running game, and with the layoff before the start of the ALCS on Friday, you can bet O's manager Buck Showalter and his staff are preparing for the Royals' roadrunners. They already have some great countermeasures in place, such as:

Chris Tillman: Nobody steals against him because he delivers his pitches to the plate so quickly. Opponents have tried to steal 13 times on him over the past two years and have been successful twice. To repeat, that's two steals in 13 attempts.

Caleb Joseph: The catcher has a great arm, and during the season he threw out 23 of 57 baserunners.

Wei-Yin Chen: He has allowed just nine steals (in 13 tries) over the past two years.

The Royals' best chances may come against the Baltimore bullpen, using Gore and Dyson. Teams try to run on Darren O'Day because of his unconventional delivery (10 steals in 15 attempts over the past two seasons), and there have been only six attempts over the past two years against Andrew Miller (with four steals).

No team stole more bases than the Royals did during the regular season, while only seven teams allowed fewer steals than Baltimore.

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Victor Martinez and Russell MartinGetty ImagesFree agents-to-be Victor Martinez and Russell Martin should be in demand this offseason.
Lockers are being cleaned out these days, first in Oakland, then Pittsburgh, Detroit and Anaheim. Goodbyes are being said, perhaps temporarily or maybe for longer than that.

Victor Martinez's season is over, and maybe his time with the Tigers is finished as well. Russell Martin got a standing ovation in the last inning of the wild-card game last week as the Pirates' season waned to a close, and the fans chanted his name, but nobody knows if he'll be back.

Both will be highly coveted this winter, and with multiple suitors, and while the Tigers and Pirates are expected to pursue their respective veterans, the bidding could be extraordinary.

Martinez is coming off a season in which he was arguably the best pure hitter in the majors, batting .335 with 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 70 walks and 42 strikeouts. Nobody had a greater ratio of walks to strikeouts, and it wasn't even close. Martinez will turn 36 in December and will be viewed as a DH-only player by some teams, at a time when the industry generally is veering away from full-time DHs.

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10 key matchups in the wild-card games 

September, 30, 2014
Sep 30
Jon Lester and James ShieldsGetty ImagesJon Lester and the Athletics take on James Shields and the Royals tonight at 8:07 p.m. ET.
Ten crucial matchups to watch in the AL and NL wild-card games:

1. The Royals versus the Jon Lester mystique

The left-hander's performance in the postseason last year established him as one of the best October pitchers of his generation. In 13 games over eight series in his career, Lester has a 2.11 ERA, including his work last fall, when he allowed just six earned runs in five starts. This is part of the reason Oakland traded for him; he can thrive on the big stage. He embraces the challenge of the postseason, writes Susan Slusser.

But a different narrative has developed recently among some evaluators: that Lester is not comfortable throwing to first base. He allowed five stolen bases over his final three starts of the season, including four to the Mariners on Sept. 14. The Royals do not hit homers and they don't draw walks, but they led the majors in stolen bases -- by a wide margin -- and figure to be aggressive on the basepaths tonight. Manager Ned Yost will look for chances to put pressure on the A's defense, from the first inning onward, and in a game that might have very little scoring, this could be difference-making.

More on Lester's unwillingness to make pickoff moves: Among the 498 pitchers with at least 15 innings pitched this season, Lester was the only one who didn't attempt a single pickoff throw. There were 619 pitchers who attempted at least one pickoff throw this season. Lester threw almost 220 innings without throwing to a base.

Lester allowed 16 stolen bases this season, the fourth-most of any lefty in baseball.

Geovany Soto could start at catcher … even though he has not worked with Lester in the past.

2. The Athletics versus their collective psyche

The A's got into the playoffs as the second wild-card team, saved by a safety net that wasn't in place as recently as three years ago.

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Final-day decisions for playoff contenders 

September, 28, 2014
Sep 28
Pittsburgh PiratesJustin K. Aller/Getty ImagesDespite a loss Saturday, the Pittsburgh Pirates remain alive for the NL Central crown.
This final day of the scheduled regular season should be something that Major League Baseball dreamed about, because even after seven weeks of spring training and 182 days of play, six teams -- 20 percent of the clubs -- don’t know where they will be Monday:

• With a St. Louis Cardinals loss and Pittsburgh Pirates win today, there would be a playoff game to decide the NL Central in St. Louis.

• With a Detroit Tigers loss and a Kansas City Royals win today, there would be a playoff in Detroit.

• With an Oakland Athletics loss and a Seattle Mariners win today, there would be a playoff game in Seattle.

The value of the second wild-card spot and the one-game wild-card game has fully manifested. The Tigers and Cardinals are desperately trying to avoid that one game play-in, and if they win today, they’ll get a few days off. The Pirates and Royals -- both long shots to win their respective divisions a week ago -- now have a real chance to avoid the one-game play-in game and are pushing to the finish line.

And the Mariners are somehow still alive, even after losing every game Sept. 20 through Sept. 24 and experiencing a near total collapse of their pitching. Somehow, Oakland still hasn’t clinched, despite needing just one more victory to avoid the greatest collapse in baseball history. The Athletics have a lot at stake, anyway, and are facing historical infamy.

But having to put everything on the line today will cost each of these teams, so even for those that succeed, the burden moving forward will be even greater

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10 days, 10 burning questions 

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
Jon Lester, Matt Shoemaker, and Norichika AokiAP ImagesA trio of key cast members for the production of the season's 10 final days.
KANSAS CITY -- Ten days left in the regular season. Ten burning questions.

1. Will Oakland pull out of its flat spin?

The Athletics have surrendered 15.5 games in the standings to the Angels in 39 days, which might otherwise seem impossible if you weren’t watching the Athletics play. Oakland faced a possible sweep Thursday, with Nick Martinez on the mound for the Rangers -- this is a pitcher who allowed 52 walks in 122 1/3 innings going in. After Texas scored four runs in the top of the first against Sonny Gray, the Athletics saw a total of 19 pitches in the first two innings against Martinez.

When stuff like this is happening

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Time off was transformative for Duffy 

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
Danny Duffy Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter previously trying to overpower hitters, Danny Duffy now displays more nuance to this game.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Rehabilitating an elbow after Tommy John surgery can be the working definition of monotony, and Danny Duffy's experience was no different than that of many who preceded him. When he was going through the process at the Kansas City Royals' facility in Arizona, he would arrive at the ballpark by 9:30 a.m., finish all the work he was allowed by midday, and then hang out by the pool.

The early evenings presented the best part of Duffy’s groundhog days; he would head to the same restaurant for Mexican food, always ordering carne asada to enjoy from the same seat, and he would watch the other Royals do what he couldn’t wait to do again: play baseball.

“I didn’t miss a game,” Duffy recalled. “As painful as it is to watch knowing you can’t play, it’s important to stay on that learning track.”

This was a crucial part of Duffy’s mental and physical makeover, and when he takes the mound against Cleveland on "Sunday Night Baseball" (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), the Royals will either be a half-game ahead or behind Detroit in the AL Central. Duffy is well-suited to bear the responsibility of the moment.

Duffy ranks fifth in ERA (2.47) among all MLB pitchers with at least 130 innings. That's a little ahead of Corey Kluber and Jon Lester, a shade behind Johnny Cueto.

He absorbed a lot while eating rice and beans in baseball purgatory. Before that, Duffy was renowned for his big arm, but also for what he did not know about pitching efficiently, about controlling his effort.

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K.C. bullpen overwhelms, as a routine 

August, 18, 2014
Aug 18
Wade Davis, Salvador PerezAP Photo/Charlie RiedelNow a member of the bullpen, Wade Davis brings extra velocity.

The Royals' bullpen got some needed relief Sunday, in the form of 12 runs of offense. So Greg Holland wasn’t required to crank up and do the thing that's his equivalent of Superman jumping into a phone booth, and Wade Davis didn’t have to ease his way into his work. Kelvin Herrera, who hasn’t allowed a run in almost two months, did take an inning, his fastball reaching 100.2 mph, his sinker averaging about 95 mph.

“These guys are something to watch,” Royals bullpen coach Doug Henry said Sunday morning, and Henry gets to see them up close, all of their habits, their different routines.

The Kansas City bullpen is probably the difference

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Why team-friendly deals make sense 

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
Matt MooreAP Photo/Orlin WagnerRays starter Matt Moore left Monday's game early with elbow soreness.
The Rays aren’t sure whether starter Matt Moore will need surgery, as Marc Topkin writes. But given what we saw the other night, with Moore recoiling from a pitch the way that Braves starter Kris Medlen did in March, it would surprise no one if it turns out he faces Tommy John surgery, and an uncertain future.

Looking back, it’s a good thing Moore signed that $14 million deal back in 2011.

Many of baseball’s best young players have been taking deals that buy out their first or second years of free agency, with an option year or two attached. Chris Archer did this recently, locking himself into a six-year deal that could become an eight-year deal and guarantees him $25.5 million. So did the Pirates' Starling Marte, who signed a six-year, $31 million deal.

This has spurred a lot of debate within the industry if the players are conceding too much, if they are leaving money on the table.

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Ervin SantanaAP Photo/Ben MargotThere really isn't a logical fit for free agent Ervin Santana at this point.

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Ervin Santana fired agent Bean Stringfellow, according to Dionisio Soldevila of ESPNDeportes, and he will represent himself. It's hard to know exactly what will come out of this at this stage in the winter, with so many teams essentially operating with a closed budget.

There were teams interested in Santana in a moderate-sized contract early in the offseason -- something in the Ubaldo Jimenez salary range, three years at $35-plus million or four years at roughly $50 million -- but at that time, the asking price for Santana was over $100 million.

The Kansas City Royals, who had approached Santana about an extension in September, loved him last season, but it's unclear whether they have enough dollars to woo him back.

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Tanaka deal won't set off FA dominoes 

January, 22, 2014
Jan 22
Ubaldo JimenezBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty ImagesIt's looking more likely that Ubaldo Jimenez's best offer will come from the Indians.
Masahiro Tanaka has reportedly agreed to a record-setting deal with the New York Yankees, and the expectation will be, in some circles, that the winter freeze will finally end and the phones will start to ring for Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza and others.

But what if this isn't the case? What if the bidding on Tanaka is almost completely isolated from the rest of the pitching market, as some team officials strongly suspect?

"I'm not in the camp that thinks [Tanaka] is related to the others," said one evaluator. Rather, he said, what will generally happen is that it will come out that "most of these guys were asking for too many years, and too much money."

The Los Angeles Dodgers, who wanted Tanaka, have a spot to fill in their rotation, but they might well pass on Garza, Santana and Jimenez.

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Top 10 teams in the majors 

December, 31, 2013
Miguel CabreraMark Cunningham/MLB Photos/Getty ImagesWith Miguel Cabrera no longer out of position, the Tigers should be even better in 2014.
As 2013 becomes 2014, here's a look at the top 10 teams in MLB.

1. Detroit Tigers

Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League -- by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors. The Tigers won the AL Central for the third straight year, and again they couldn't win the World Series, losing to Boston in the ALCS. And since the end of the season, Detroit GM David Dombrowski has gone about the business of plugging the holes.

He allowed Jhonny Peralta to depart, cementing Jose Iglesias' spot at shortstop.

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