The Yankees got a much-needed series win against the Red Sox over the weekend for just their third series win of the season. But things on this 10-game homestand don’t get any easier with the next seven games against the defending champions in the Royals and the team with the best record in the American League in the White Sox coming to the Bronx.
With the World Series champion Royals in town for a four-game series, Max Rieper of Royals Review joined me to talk about the Royals’ championship season, having former Yankees on the Royals, once again having a vaunted bullpen like the Yankees, Luke Hochevar’s career and expectations for this season following a championship.
Keefe: I would first like to thank you, the 2015 Royals and all Royals fans from preventing the Mets from winning the World Series. I have always said my biggest fear as a sports fan is a Red Sox-Mets World Series because someone would have to win and luckily I was just over a month old when that did happen in 1986 and wasn’t worried about it. The 2015 Royals will always have a special place in my heart.
After losing the 2014 World Series in Game 7, the Royals returned to the World Series to beat the Mets in five games. And the Royals didn’t just beat them, they absolutely devastated them with late-game comebacks and heart-breaking losses. It was beautiful.
My World Series drought is now six seasons and it’s looking like seven if the Yankees don’t turn it around quickly to even contend for a playoff spot this season. No Royals fan wants to hear about that though after a 30-year championship drought in Kansas City.
What was it like to finally win the World Series again? How did you celebrate?
Rieper: It was interesting, the way the Royals lost the 2014 World Series with the game-tying run just 90 feet away and Madison Bumgarner on the mound in relief on short rest, it might have been devastating for some fan
bases. But I think we were all so thrilled just to be in the post-season, it didn’t sink in how achingly close we came to winning it all until the next spring.
In 2015, the fans and the team were set on winning a championship from day one. And the Royals really had a magical season, the kind where all the breaks go your way. They got off to a hot start and pretty much coasted to the Central division title. Things looked a bit bleak in the ALDS against Houston when they trailed by four runs in Game Four, but with the way this team has battled back before, it wasn’t that big of a surprise when they stormed back. From the on, it seemed like the Royals were a team of destiny, and the Blue Jays and Mets were just speed bumps along the way.
The championship was just a great validation for sticking with the team for all these years. I have been a fan since the late 80s, so I witnessed two decades of absolutely terrible baseball. The championship was like an absolution, like the baseball world was welcoming us back to the club of having a regular baseball team, not a god awful embarrassment you were ashamed of.
Keefe: The Royals now have former Yankees Chien-Ming Wang and Ian Kennedy on their team. Wang, a two-time 19-game winner for the Yankees was the ace of the staff from 2005/2006 (depending who you ask) through 2008. Kennedy, was a top prospect, who had a weird parts of three seasons with the Yankees from 2007-2009 before bouncing around the league.
Now Wang is in the Royals bullpen at age 36 and Kennedy has been the Royals’ best starter this season.
What are your thoughts on the two former Yankees?
Rieper: I have been a fan of Ian Kennedy for a few years now, and the Royals have been linked to him several times, so it was no surprise when they signed him. However, even I was surprised by how much they spent on a guy with pretty underwhelming numbers the last few years in San Diego. Some of that is attributable to his flyball tendencies and Petco Park getting reconfigured so that it was actually a bit of a home run park last year. Moving to Kauffman Stadium should help depress those home run numbers quite a bit. He also played in front of an atrocious defensive outfield last year, so I’m sure he’s already glad to be playing in front of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Jarrod Dyson, perhaps the best defensive outfield in baseball.
Chien-Ming Wang seemed like a joke of a signing when the Royals inked him to a minor league deal last year. After all, he hasn’t been in the big leagues since 2013, was terrible last year in Triple-A, and is 36 years old. But apparently he went to pitching guru Ron Wolforth last year, and was able to increase his velocity into the low- to mid-90s. Dayton Moore has had a pretty good track record finding reclamation projects for the bullpen, and Wang could be another feather in that cap.
Keefe: The Yankees and Royals have had similar pitching problems to begin the season: the starting pitching has been inconsistent and the bullpen has been dominant. The Yankees and Royals easily have the top two bullpens in the game with Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, and now Aroldis Chapman, who is back on Monday, and Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis.
It seems like every team that wins the World Series becomes the formula for success and everyone wants to copy them. The Yankees always had a dominant bullpen in their late-90s/early-2000s dynasty and the Royals have boasted one the last two years in their World Series appearances.
I have been spoiled by the Mariano Rivera era ending and going right into this era, so it’s hard for me to know what it’s like for a fan base to be worried about protecting the lead. Are you ever worried with the back end of your bullpen?
Rieper: Royals fans were put in an unfamiliar situation to begin this season when Joakim Soria, who was anointed the eighth-inning guy, struggled mightily, which cost them some games. However, with the depth they have, they were able to reshuffle the order to give Kelvin Herrera the eighth, and go with Soria and Luke Hochevar in the seventh, and since then the pen has looked much better.
To have a great pen gives fans a feeling of invincibility, that if the Royals can just get to the seventh inning with a lead, the game is over. It also helps facilitate late-inning comebacks, which the Royals have been great at the last few years. However, the fan base does tend to get spoiled. Whenever any reliever gives up a run, some fans panic and think something has gone terribly wrong. You also have to wonder how long the invincibility can last. We know relievers can be volatile, and not even Wade Davis can be this obscenely good for this long. Can he?
Keefe: I used to love when the Yankees were playing the Royals and Luke Hochevar was starting because it meant about as close to a sure-thing for a win in baseball as you can have. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2006 draft spent six seasons as a starter for the Royals, pitching to an ERA over 5 and I could never understand why the Royals kept giving him chance after chance after chance.
In 2013, he became a reliever, pitched to a 1.92 ERA and struck out 82 in 70 1/3 innings. He had gone from failed starter to dominant reliever like so many had before him and it only makes you wonder why the Royals didn’t make this move earlier.
What has been like to watch Hochevar turn his career and change the narrative as a failed No. 1 overall pick?
Rieper: The evolution of Luke Hochevar is actually not that dissimilar to the evolution of Wade Davis. Davis was a throw-in to the James Shields trade, and expected to be a mid-rotation starter. He was god awful as a starter in 2013, and at the end of the year, the Royals asked him to work on relieving. He had some success in Tampa Bay as a reliever, but the Royals had no idea they had the nastiest, most dominating reliever in the game waiting in the wings.
Luke Hochevar started so many years mostly out of necessity, since the other options were has-beens like Sidney Ponson and never-weres like Sean O’Sullivan. Once they acquired James Shields and Wade Davis, they felt like they had a full rotation and Hochevar had run out of chances. It soon became apparent that in shorter stints, he could amp up his fastball and rely more on his bending curveball. Like many dominant relievers — including Andrew Miller — Davis and Hochevar had to first struggle as lousy starting pitchers.
Keefe: Last year at this same time, you told me about the 2015 Royals, “It’s still a team that worries me to due to its lack of depth among hitters, and the starting pitching woes, but the hot start has convinced me they could be in the mix all season and give us another exciting run.” Well, looks like you were right.
After the first championship in 30 years and back-to-back World Series appearances, the Royals are once again the defending AL champions. They successfully handled having a target on their back all last season and now have to play the same way again this season.
What are your expectations for this season coming off a World Series win?
Rieper: My expectation was that the Royals would be in the mix again, especially with no American League team seemingly pulling away from the rest during the offseason. The AL seems to be filled with mediocrity this year, especially with several teams I expected to contend — the Yankees, Astros, and Blue Jays — all off to slow starts. The Royals have been in a bad slump lately, but still find themselves around .500, with plenty of time to get back to their winning ways.
There are some red flags however. The areas where they were so dominant last year — the bullpen and defense — are still good, but not as dominating as they once were. The starting pitching has looked lousy other than Ian Kennedy. Their strikeout rate, while still low in the league, is much higher than it was last year. Lorenzo Cain was off to a terrible start until recently. Alex Gordon has a ridiculously high strikeout rate. Kendrys Morales has looked lost at the plate. Alcides Escobar is doing his best to prove he is not a leadoff hitter. Omar Infante looks just about cooked. They just don’t seem to be doing the little things they did last year to win games at a terrific clip. It is too early to panic, but it would not surprise anyone to see the Royals have some post-championship hangover in 2016.