Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Opening Day.

So…are we excited yet?

One of these years the federal government is going to wise up and declare Opening Day a national holiday, but that’s of scant comfort given that my idiot of a boss would not give me yesterday off. My frustration is only slightly dimmed by the fact that I am self-employed.

Somehow, once I got MLB.tv to work – which took until the fourth inning – I was able to steal a few minutes between patients here and there, and caught about half the game, including the entire 11th inning. Here are some thoughts:

- Could there have been a more happy sight for Royals fans than watching Alex Gordon golf a fastball 394 feet into the right-field seats? Up to that point, Justin Verlander looked like the Cy Young contender so many people think he is. Going into the sixth, his line was 5 1 0 0 0 6. But after Grudzielanek dinged him for a single, he fell behind Gordon 3-1, and threw a fastball over the heart of the plate. Gordon did what star hitters are supposed to when a pitcher – even a great pitcher – throws a 3-1 fastball down the middle. And Gordon suddenly had as many homers and RBIs as he did in his first thirteen games of 2007. Just 36 more, Alex.

- You had to be impressed with the Royals comeback, not just that Gordon cut the lead to a run with his bomb, but that they didn’t let up in the 7th. Verlander came into the inning with 89 pitches, and Teahen immediately worked him for a six-pitch walk. Gload then executed a perfect hit-and-run single to knock Verlander out of the game and expose the soft underbelly of the Tigers’ team: their middle relief. The Royals took advantage with a pair of singles off of Jason Grilli and Aquilino Lopez to take the lead. This is what good teams do: start a rally off a fading starter with a walk, and then when they get the opportunity to bat against guys named Jason Grilli and Aquilino Lopez, they don’t blow it.

- I am of two minds with how Trey Hillman handled his major league debut. There are two ways to evaluate a manager’s decisions: do they make sense, and do they work. The hyperaggressive strategies – bunts, steals, hit-and-runs – generally do not make sense, because the outs they cost are more valuable than then bases they gain. But how successful a team is at executing those strategies matters a lot. A team with an 80% success rate at stealing bases is helping itself; a team with a 60% success rate is not.

Tally up all the buttons Hillman pushed, and you have two steal attempts, two bunt attempts, and a hit-and-run. If he pushes five buttons a game, we’re in deep trouble. But look at the outcomes. Both steals were successful. Just a few years ago, sending anyone with Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate was just masochistic, but Pudge doesn’t have quite the arm he used. I still think sending Grudzielanek was a bad idea, but again, it worked. German was a no-brainer – Denny Bautista is one of the slowest pitchers to the plate in baseball – but it’s nice to see that Hillman saw that opportunity and called for the pinch-runner.

Gload’s hit-and-run worked to perfection, and his bunt in the 11th may have been pivotal. Ironically, the one move that didn’t work – Pena couldn’t get a bunt down in the 7th, and bounced into a forceout instead – was the most defensible decision of all, because the best time to bunt is with men on first-and-second (because you gain two bases with the bunt instead of one) and Pena’s such a weak hitter that, in a tie game, bunting there is probably the higher-percentage move.

Pena’s inability to get the bunt down cost the Royals a run, because Grudzielanek’s two-out single probably would have scored Buck from second if the bunt had worked. There’s a lesson here: as much as Hillman’s strategies may have helped win the game, it was the one gamble that didn’t work that almost cost the Royals the game. There’s a thin margin for error when you’re putting runners in motion, and Hillman needs to pick his spots judiciously.

- The one decision that Hillman can legitimately be second-guessed about is the decision to go with Brett Tomko in the 7th…and to stick with him in the 8th. I know a lot of people are mad that Tomko went out for a second inning, but I think the mistake is more fundamental than that. Even in the 7th inning, with a one-run lead, you absolutely need to send out one of your top three relievers. If you’ve made the decision that Tomko is the right guy in the 7th, there’s no reason to change your mind in the 8th. The question here is why does Hillman think of Tomko as equal or better to Yabuta or Mahay.

And you know what? I can sort of see the rationale. You’re not going to a lefty there, because the Tigers have a very right-leaning lineup. Five of the seven batters Tomko faced were RHB, including the first three. So it’s either Tomko or Yabuta – a veteran, but still, he’s making his big league debut. Or Nunez or Ramirez, who I like but the Royals have classified – for now – as back of the bullpen guys.

Anyway, Tomko didn’t pitch all that bad. He gave up the tying run on a Carlos Guillen homer, but faced the minimum besides that, striking out two. If he really hasn’t thrown that curveball in six years, then Bob McClure really is a genius.

- I’ve been a huge supporter of Leo Nunez the last few years, and now you know why. He absolutely blew through the heart of the Tigers lineup. He walked Sheffield on a full count, but otherwise was perfect, with three strikeouts, one of which came when he threw a 96-mph fastball right past Miguel Cabrera. All spring I’ve been worried that Nunez’s roster spot was precarious. If he keeps this up he’ll move up the totem pole in no time.

- How poignant was it that the Royals didn’t just beat the Tigers, they beat one of the ghosts of Royals past? Denny Bautista has the stuff of a shutdown closer, or even an ace starter. I know this because for one brief, shining moment, I thought Bautista would become our next ace starter. On April 8, 2005, in his first appearance of the season, Bautista allowed three hits and a single run against Anaheim in eight innings, walking none and striking out eight. It was one of the best games pitched by a Royal this decade; by the end of his start the Angels were so overwhelmed that they seemed to give up. His next time out, he gave up six runs and was knocked out in the fourth inning. Good luck with him, Detroit. You’ll need it.

- Let’s talk about the 11th inning rally for a moment. Once again, the rally started with a walk to Mark Teahen. (Remember, boys: OBP is a no-brainer.) Gload then puts down the bunt. Bunting in a tie game in the 11th inning is defensible only if you’re the home team and are absolutely certain that one run is all you need. Anyway, if your first baseman is bunting, that’s probably a sign you need a new first baseman. More than that, though – what’s the point of a bunt when Denny Bautista is on the mound and John Buck is coming up? Bautista is a Three True Outcomes guy – walks, homers, and strikeouts. Buck is a guy with pop but a low batting average. You’d be hard-pressed to find a matchup that was more unlikely to lead to a single.

Naturally, Buck singled. Hillman must have brought his rabbit’s foot back from Japan.

Teahen was nailed at the plate, but having watched the replay multiple times, I may be even more impressed with his speed than before. Teahen has received a lot of credit in certain circles – notably Posnanski – for being a fantastic baserunner, and the numbers as listed in the Bill James Handbook as well as Dan Fox’s research over at Baseball Prospectus bear this out. Once you get past the Carl Crawfords and Jose Reyeses that steal 40 bases a year, Teahen’s as good at taking the extra base as anyone.

When I saw that Silverio was sending Teahen around third, my initial reaction was that he would be out by 15 feet. He barely had rounded third when Inge let go of the ball. And yet it took a perfect throw from Inge – a strike from 220 feet away – to get Teahen, and it was a bang-bang play at that.

But here’s the hidden key on that play: John Buck took second base. Yeah, you’re supposed to move up when the throw comes home, but keep in mind: John Buck is a catcher. He’s slow. And Inge’s throw got to Rodriguez on the fly, and he was in shallow centerfield when he let go. I’ve watched the replays several times and, as best as I can tell, Buck had not reached first base when Inge threw home.

Given who the catcher was and how short the throw was, Buck could have been forgiven for holding at first. There’s only one way he gets to second: if he has second base in mind the moment he gets out of the batter’s box. If he holds at first, Pena’s bloop doesn’t mean anything, and we’re still playing.

It’s a little thing. But it made a big difference. Hillman’s been talking a lot about getting the little things right. If this is what he’s talking about, then amen to that.

- A final note to Joakim Soria: I love the slow curveball as much as anyone. But when the batter is something called “Clete Thomas”, who was the Mark Teahen of the Eastern League last year (that’s not a compliment) and is making his major league debut at the plate – you might want to dispense with the cute stuff and go after him, ‘kay?

Soria made a mistake, but then, what was so striking about him last year was how unflappable he was when something went wrong. He got a strikeout when he absolutely, positively needed one. And then Gordon, who hadn’t had a ball hit to him all day, makes a fine play to send 44,934 fans home disappointed.

Yes, it’s only one game. But that first game has always been the team’s Achilles heel. The Royals are now 15-25 in season openers, which I believe is the worst mark in baseball. Since 1985 they’re just 7-16.

If the Royals can beat the 179-year-old Kenny Rogers tomorrow, they’ll be 2-0. That’s not supposed to be particularly impressive; on average, teams should start 2-0 every four years. But for the Royals, it is impressive. In the last 28 years, they’ve started 2-0 exactly once: in 2003, when they went 9-0 and were the talk of baseball for four months.

So, I ask again…are we excited yet?


Ryan said...

We are excited.
We are very excited.
I'm figuring out how to work my powder blue Royals uni into my summer casual rotation in Chicago this summer. Bill Simmons' jersey rule be damned.

Jonathan said...

Absolutely ecstatic...I so wish that I could get you your blog at work. Screw the man who came up with Websense! Anyway, I love the blog! Sam Mellinger over at the Ball Star referred you once and I decided to take a look...Pretty awesome. Keep the good stuff rollin'...

Anonymous said...

I almost feel guilty for not paying to read this blog. It may be preventing you from being able to close down your office on Opening Day.

Anonymous said...

Rany, I think there is a possible issue with Yabuta - he was hit in the leg with a line drive late in spring training; perhaps that explains why Hillman went with Tomko.

If it were me, I would have gone to Nunez in the 7th. In addition, that would probably have been Peralta's spot - and probably will be once he is recalled Saturday.

I am still intrigued with the possiblility of Nunez in the rotation one day; that stuff is too electric not to at least consider it, right?

Anonymous said...

Good eye, Rany; I was actually surprised to see Buck at second on that play.

I noticed something else earlier in the game that surprised me more. Meche threw a pitch that got away a little bit on the first-base side, and I don't think I have ever seen a catcher move as fast as Buck did. It was like he teleported three feet to his right. I don't normally pay that much attention to catcher defense (because I stubbornly insist everyone else pays far too much attention to it), so I dunno... is Buck normally that nimble back there?

Collin said...

I was enthused to see Gordon get called out on that terrible strike 3 call in the 1st and come back and hit that bomb. Between his toughness and the obvious grit of Grudz (nailed on the hand with a fastball), this team has a tough mindset.

Even if this team only wins 75 games, I'm excited to watch their toughness manifest throughout the season.

Anonymous said...

So surprised that Teahan was thrown out but having seen the replay last night that was some kind of throw.

Rooting for the Royals this series. Really want Greinke to be excellent this year.

Anonymous said...

It's impossible to know if Grud would have gotten a hit if Pena gets the bunt down. It's conceivable that Detroit might have walked Grud to set up a force or a DP situation.

Anonymous said...

No hits for Guillen, but if he continues to throw like he did yesterday, his signing will have paid off.

Minda said...

Good call on how Buck getting to 2nd on the Teahen-thrown-out-at-home play was one of the "little things" Hillman has been preaching. It's great to see those things in practice now.

I've been trying to understand how Nunez is so tough. But with my limited Spanish and his limited English it was hard to get to the bottom of that last summer after that one spot start against Boston. This toughness has baffled me since then, but I hope it lasts, because his stuff is something to be respected, whether you're me (an admittedly awful batter) or Magglio Ordonez.

Anonymous said...

Goin to the game on Thursday. Let's hope I can take a big ol broom to the game and wave it around!!! Let's hope Hoechever pitches well in Omaha and can replace Tomko quickly!!

Anonymous said...

Great read, thanks for another year of Royals info. Very interesting stuff on Royals opening day history. I like Trey Hillman. He's like a real life version of Crash Davis in Bull Durham, a less than average player, but a smart baseball guy, finally making it to the show.
Thanks for carrying on and I'll look forward to reading your column. Man I love baseball!

Dave Farquhar said...

I'm extremely excited. I could only watch the play-by-play online and I missed a lot of the 11th. There was a lot to find encouraging here: The Royals battled back against a team many expect to be in the postseason, in spite of some calls not going their way and in spite of their pitcher not having his very best stuff. They wore down a star pitcher and exploited the Tigers' only weakness, their bullpen.

For longer than I care to remember, if there was ever one way for the Royals to lose a game, they almost always found it. There were plenty of ways they could have lost this one, and they won anyway.

If they keep playing like this, they won't necessarily win every close game like this one, but they'll be a fun team to watch.

Olentangy said...

Wow, and the Royals won yesterday despite Teahen clogging up the bases in the 11th. Amazing. Seriously, to have Trey Hillman understand that OBP is THE most important statistic is huge. I don't think we will have to endure having a guy that is batting .140 taking away at bats from the team's current leader in HR's like last year!

Unknown said...

Rany, thanks for writing my thoughts about the game out on your blog. I appreciate it. Sorry about the wife finally checking out the blog. It seems like the only time they pay attention is when you don't want them to. lol

Anonymous said...

Excited? You betcha!

The excitement would be enhanced, Rany, if we could see those last two reasons on your list. I suspect I know what they are (the Manager and the GM) but I've enjoyed the other 21 articles in the series, and have been eagerly awaiting its conclusion.

yy said...

Only one thing could make the day better, and that's if Ryan Sheely becomes the regular 1B and spends the season torturing Denny Bautista and the Tigers.

Dave Hogg said...

Banny's BABIP today: .111

Maybe he *does* know a secret.

Official Scorekeeper said...

Rany, thanks for the recap of the game. It was great to get your insights, since I was sporadically following the game on the Gameday play-by-play site and missed a lot of the real action. I was really dispairing when the Royals had one hit through the first 6 or so innings, and it was so thrilling to see them come back and win.

As I type, they're up 4-0 in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs - could this be as electrifying a start as 2003?

Ryan said...

Royals 4, Tigers 0.

This is fun.

Anonymous said...

This is going to be like 2003...but with an actually pretty good team this time.