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Mental Ward: On running hard and remembering Chris Young

Parsing a non-issue and a tribute to tall guys.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals have done several good things over the past week. The first of these good things would be that they have gone 4-2 over the past week and given a glimmer of hope to the idea that they could conceivably compete for a possible playoff spot maybe.

It has been a remarkable six weeks for Kansas City. On May 7th, they were sitting at 10-20, and I went on the Royals Review Radio podcast and basically said that, while it was too early to really push for a trade, it was something they should certainly be looking into.

All they have done since then is try and convince everyone that they can still do this thing. After starting with a .333 win percentage, the Royals have gone 27-17 to draw their record to an even .500, inching to within 2.5 games of Minnesota in the AL Central.

Kansas City was roundly thrashed by the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday, bringing their record back down to .500 and highlighting a couple of problems that have persisted despite the Royals improved record. Namely a lack of arms in the bullpen and a lack of hustle on the part of Lorenzo Cain to score a run on Eric Hosmer’s single.

A recap of the situation: The Royals were down 8-2 in the bottom of the eighth inning. With two outs, Lorenzo Cain reached base on an infield single to second, hustling down the line to beat the throw. Eric Hosmer came to the plate, and during his at bat Cain took second on defensive indifference.

On a full count, Hosmer flared a single into center field. He then tried to stretch the single into a double, and Cain slowed to a jog coming towards home, failing to score before Hosmer was thrown out at second. The play was reviewed, as it appeared Hosmer may have gotten in ahead of the tag. The call was upheld, Cain didn’t score, Hosmer was out, the inning was over, and Royals fans on the internet exploded like a white-hot supernova of sports takes regarding Cain’s lack of scoring.

Now, for something as pointless as this, we have to really parse it down to its bare essentials. If we’re going to argue about a meaningless nothing, then by god we’re going to ruminate on this dialectic until no one cares. So let’s get into it, lest we remember that the real world is basically on fire around us:

Does Cain scoring change anything?

Well, it changes the score. It adds to Eric Hosmer’s RBI total, and Cain’s runs scored stat. It also makes Kansas City’s horrific run differential look one less macabre.

In terms of the actual game? No. Eric Hosmer was still out at second, the eighth inning was still over, and the Royals would have moved to the ninth staring down a five run deficit instead of six.

Does Cain’s lack of hustle signify his lack of desire, his competitive fire?

No.

For starters, if Hosmer doesn’t TOOTBLAN at the keystone, then Cain scores. Second, the only reason Cain was even on base was because he hustled down the line to beat out an infield single to the second baseman. Third, major league players don’t full tilt the last 30 feet of home plate if there isn’t going to be a throw. There’s no need to do it. Fourth, Lorenzo Cain gets hurt. Frequently. Only once in his career has he played more than 133 games in a season. I’d rather he not blow out a quad on a pointless run in a sunk game, regardless of how poorly it makes him look.

And finally, let me reiterate that the only reason he was even on base was because of his hustle.

Okay, but it was a mistake right?

Yeah. It was. By a matter of degrees. It’s not so much that Cain slowed down, it is how much he slowed down. His gallop turned into a jog and then throttled down to a trot. He was busy figuring out why Eric Hosmer was sliding into second instead of standing on first. Or maybe he was contemplating the larger place of humanity on a sunny Sunday afternoon in June.

In the course of events for this game, and in a wider spectrum this season, it will end up mattering not at all. But yes. It was a mistake.


Speaking of mistakes, Chris Young. The reliever/spot starter of 2015 fame was designated for assignment by the Royals this week, drawing a close on Kansas City’s latest Bruce Chen-style experiment, wherein the club extends a multi-year contract to an aging pseudo-starter that gets by on sheer force of will more than pure arm talent.

Most people will remember Chris Young from the 2015 season, when he made 18 starts for the eventual World’s Series champions and carried a 3.06 ERA over 123.1 innings. It was a pretty good season from an oddity of a pitcher, a 6’10” power forward for the Vermont Congressman who threw in the high 80s on a good day.

He made two starts in the postseason, including Game 4 of the World’s Series. He was an unexpected contributor for the best team in baseball, and his production went a long way in buffing out some glaring weaknesses in the rotation. Other than Young, Edinson Volquez was the only regular starting pitcher to end the year with a sub-4.00 ERA.

It was, however, difficult then to see how the mists and magicks of Chris Young’s performance could possibly hold up. The ERA was nice, but the 4.52 FIP (and 5.33 xFIP) were cause for alarm, or at the very least apprehension. Guys who get by on doing one thing well tend to implode when that one thing stops going well, and Chris Young’s one thing was basically “throw mid-80s fastballs up in the zone and generate a lot of fly balls.”

Following the Plaza Parade, the Royals signed Chris Young to a two-year deal for $11.75 million, including the beloved mutual option for a third year. In essence, the Royals were paying market-rate for Young’s 2015 performance, hoping that it could be duplicated not once, but twice. And much like Michael Keaton’s opus Multiplicity revealed to audiences around the world, no copy is exactly like the original.

2016 may not have been entirely Chris Young’s fault. Back problems flared up and limited both his innings and effectiveness. But in short, the one thing that worked for him stopped, and there was nothing else to do but watch it unfold. His ERA jumped to 6.19 as his HR/FB rate went from 7.7% in 2015 to 21.4% that season. Back problems also plagued him, and the quality of his pitching went from the jovial expression of a trickster god nipping at the fringes of reality to the wan pallor of an underworld shade on the edges of Sheol.

2017 proved to be little better. The running joke in the Royals Review offices was that Chris Young was the human equivalent of a baseball white flag, a six-foot ten-inch capitulation to the Baseball Gods that the battle had been fought and lost. His ERA upon release was 7.50, and over the past two seasons his -1.5 WAR nearly doubled up the 0.9 WAR he provided in 2015 alone.

Late bloomers and recent converts will probably remember this most recent iteration of Chris Young, the gangly behemoth whose pitched offerings were parked more often than cars in Ray Adams’ drive-in movie episodes. A lot more will remember the 2015 Chris Young, a paladin in gold and silver who saved a floundering Royals rotation from the dragon of Jeremy Guthrie.

Both remembrances are valid and true, and Chris Young’s departure does what baseball has always done: remind us that life is beauty and cruelty, fickle and ecstasy, from one season to the next.