Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Royals Today: 4/21/2008.

Well, that sucked.

A sweep at the hand of the mighty A’s – don’t you ever get the feeling that Billy Beane exists purely to make life hell for Royals fans? – exposed the team’s gaping chest wound of a flaw for all the world to witness. Namely, the team can’t score runs, and if the starter has an off-day (like Friday), or the bullpen is less than perfect (like Saturday), or the defense lets a few potential outs drop in (like Sunday)…the Royals are toast.

In 19 games, the Royals have 63 runs. In 19 games, the Giants have 61 runs. And when you adjust for run elements and schedule – what we at Baseball Prospectus call “third-order” record – the Royals should have scored 64 runs in a neutral park against an average opponent. That’s the lowest mark in baseball – lower than all 16 teams that play without a DH.

That’s bad, folks. Really, really bad.

I’m not sure what the Royals can do to shake their funk. The only obvious move – other than, you know, finding a real first baseman – is that instead of starting Pena at shortstop and using Callaspo to pinch-hit when the Royals are losing, Hillman should start Callaspo and use Pena to play defense when the Royals are winning. Teams are extremely averse to playing the bat over the glove at shortstop, and understandably so. No less a sabermetric authority than Earl Weaver, whose book “Weaver on Strategy” should be absolute required reading for any new manager, advocates starting the glove and using the bat off the bench rather than the other way around.

(By the way, Trey, I’m serious about reading “Weaver on Strategy.” I’ll send you my copy if you want.)

Weaver made the excellent point that the glove is more useful at the start of the game than at the end of the game because your relief corps is likely to strike out more batters than your starters will, and so your starters will surrender more balls in play for your shortstop to handle. And he did manage the Orioles to six AL East titles, four pennants, and a world championship with Mark Belanger as his starting shortstop the whole time. Belanger hit just .228 with a .280 slugging average for his career, and like Hillman has with Pena, Weaver would pinch-hit for him whenever the Orioles were losing late.

Pena has a career .252 average and has slugged .337, but even so there are reasons why Hillman should be more willing to bench his glove than Weaver was. For one, Belanger was an absolutely phenomenal defensive shortstop, an 8-time Gold Glove winner, and that might be underselling him. Dan Fox’s defensive fielding system (called simple fielding runs, or SFR), which he unveiled at Baseball Prospectus just before he accepted a job with the Pirates, credits Belanger with an outstanding 262 runs saves over an average shortstop over the course of his career. That’s the highest of any shortstop in our database going back to 1957, including Ozzie Smith, although we’re missing data for some of Ozzie’s prime years. (In terms of runs saved per game the Blade and the Wizard are almost dead even.) Pena’s good; he’s not that good.

Plus, Belanger made up for his feebleness with his stick by not swinging it unless it was absolutely necessary; he walked about once for every 10 at-bats in his career, which is about the upper limit of a walk rate when pitchers don’t fear you at all. Pena has drawn 13 walks in his career of over 600 at-bats, so despite out-hitting Belanger by 24 points, Belanger has a 30-point lead in OBP, .300 to .270. Then there’s the fact that Belanger played in a much tougher offensive context than Pena; neutralize his stats to a 715-run context and his career numbers are .252/.330/.310. Do the same with Pena and he’s at about .240/.255/.320.

Most importantly, looking through the logs of the Orioles’ roster throughout the 1970s, it doesn’t appear that they ever had another option to start at shortstop that was comparable to Callaspo. Except once.

In 1972, Belanger had the worst season of any year between 1968 and 1978, hitting just .186/.236/.246. Not coincidentally, that was the only year in that stretch that Belanger didn’t get 300 at-bats in a season; he only started 86 times at shortstop that year, even though he does not appear (by looking at game logs) to have been placed on the DL at all. Instead Weaver gave a 23-year-old near-rookie his first real playing time, starting him 68 times at shortstop. Kid by the name of Bobby Grich.

It took Weaver a while to come around to the idea that the new guy should be starting; Grich only started six times in the season’s first six weeks, but he was in the lineup almost every day from May 24th on, playing second base on the days that Belanger was in the lineup. Grich finished the year with a line of .278/.358/.415, which was pretty damn impressive for a middle infielder in that era; he was an All-Star and ranked 14th in MVP voting. The next year Grich started every game at second base, won the first of his four Gold Gloves, and his borderline Hall of Fame career was on.

It so happens that 1972 was the only year between 1969 and 1974 that the Orioles didn’t finish first. But that’s hard to pin on Grich’s defense; the Orioles led the league with a ridiculous 2.53 ERA. I’m going to wager that the fact that Paul Blair hit .233 with 8 homers – and the fact that Blair led the entire outfield in both categories – may have had more to do with it.

Callaspo is no Bobby Grich any more than Tony Pena is Mark Belanger. But just as Grich gave the Orioles a shot in the offensive arm at shortstop while waiting for the second base job to open up (the Orioles would move Davey Johnson to Atlanta that off-season, just in time for Ol’ Davey to hit 43 homers the next year), Callaspo can help the Royals today by playing shortstop in anticipation of grabbing Grudzielanek’s job next season.

We don’t know for sure that Callaspo can hit at all; this is a guy who hit .215 last season, in almost 150 at-bats. But the early returns this year are positive, and anyway the sooner we know the better. Grudzielanek refuses to cooperate by getting hurt, and he’s playing well enough that you really can’t argue he should be benched. (Though J.P. would solve that dilemma by releasing him.)

By starting Callaspo you might also free up some playing time for Esteban German, who’s on pace to bat about 110 times this year. I’d like to say that Hillman’s a moron for not getting German more playing time, but what’s his alternative? The fact is that, between Callaspo and German, the Royals probably have two of the ten best utility infielders in baseball on their roster. German has that .381 OBP over the last two seasons we’ve talked about; Callaspo has hit .337 and .341 in Triple-A the last two years. Callaspo can play second base well and shortstop passably; German can’t handle shortstop, but can play third base and the outfield as well as second.

The situation screams “trade”, and the longer German goes without sustained playing time the more his trade value drops. Starting Callaspo every day means that you can use German as an early-inning pinch-hitter in addition to starting him in the outfield vs. LHP on occasion and at second base to spell Grudz on Sundays. Pena gets a pair of plate appearances and 18 innings in the field every week.

(Random trade idea: the Dodgers have expressed interest in German, but are understandably reluctant to part with Chin-Lung Hu. How about Ivan DeJesus? He doesn’t turn 21 for another week, he’s hitting .328/.446/.459 in Double-A, and the Dodgers are so flush with talent that they don’t know what to do with him. Plus, his dad was once traded for a prospect named Ryne Sandberg, and it would be poetic justice if Junior made the Dodgers regret letting him go the way Ryno did with the Phillies.)

- I know a lot of people are excited that the Royals called up Luke Hochevar, and I share that excitement. I liked what little I saw on Sunday, where he was outstanding for three innings and then got bled to death in the fourth. But keep in mind that Hochevar came into the season with 27 days of service time. He was called up on 21st day of the season, which means that if he stays on the major league roster all year he’ll have a full year of service time, moving his free agency up a year.

There are roughly 11 more days over the course of a season than are needed to be credited with a full year of service time, so Hochevar would have to go back to Omaha and stay there for about three weeks if the Royals want to keep him under contract through 2014. He’s the best option for the fifth starter’s role right now, and 2014 is a long time from now. Just remember that this is a decision that might cost the Royals in the distant future.

- A few days ago I pointed out the Royals’ great defensive efficiency and wondered if the improvement was for real given that the defense was substantially similar to last year’s. Well, I think we know now: it’s not. On Sunday the Royals struck out 12 batters in eight innings, did not surrender a homer…and still gave up 11 hits. The A’s had a .458 BABIP that day. For the season the Royals now have a .683 defensive efficiency, 12th in the league and worse than last year’s mark. The defense isn’t that bad, but the evidence that the Royals had taken a defensive leap from last year has evaporated.

- Growing up in the late 1980s, I watched all the movies your typical early teenager would watch, which meant I saw a lot of Penelope Ann Miller on the big screen. Along the way Miller somehow became the epitome of wholesomeness for me – it seemed she always played a sweet, innocent woman, sometimes ditzy and sometimes clueless, but never overtly raw or, ahem, mature. Looking at her IMDB page, the movies that stand out are Adventures in Babysitting (1987), The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992) and especially Kindergarten Cop (1990). I never saw Big-Top Pee Wee (1988) but I’m sure that fits in the same category.

So when I walked into a theater one day in 1993 to see Carlito’s Way, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Seems Ms. Miller decided that if she was going to be taken seriously as an actress, she was going to have to shed that sweet, innocent persona. She was going to have to go topless.

I was not prepared for this. It was like opening the new Playboy magazine and finding your 10th-grade English teacher inside. When the movie ended, what was on my mind wasn’t that Al Pacino gave his usual performance or that Sean Penn had just resurrected a career that seemed to have been in a tailspin ever since “Shanghai Surprise”…it was that I had just seen Penelope Ann Miller’s breasts. I was not prepared for this.

Miller was evidently not prepared for this either. Her movie career ended almost on the spot; her IMDB page shows no listings at all for three years, and pretty much everything since then has been on the small screen, including such highlights as “All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story” and “National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion.” I’m thinking she wishes she had the opportunity to work in an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie again. (Although she’s currently filming “Robosapien: Rebooted.” So she’s got that going for her.)

I guess I should have learned from this that you never know when sweet and innocent is just a cover. But I didn’t. Because I never in a million years would have expected to find a cursing contest between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan, two of the finest artists of that genre, being refereed by…Joe Posnanski.

Poz? The man I once called “Mister Rogers with a keyboard?” Using actual f-bombs in his writing? Debating the best place to position the f-bomb in a phrase? I need to lie down. The story that Mister Rogers ended one of his shows by saying “that ought to shut the f@!kers up” because he didn’t realize the cameras were still rolling was one of the great urban legends of my adolescence. But it was false. This urban legend is true. Joe Posnanski just hosted a Swear-Off between Scott Raab and Pat Jordan. (Or as I like to call it, “The Great American F@!k-Off.”)

You could tell that Poz almost immediately regretted using curse words (as opposed to merely quoting other people’s curse words), because in his next column he completely replaced all his curse words with $*#@%# punctuation marks, like he was writing a Beetle Bailey comic strip. But the cat’s out of the bag, Joe. Heed the warning of Penelope Ann Miller, lest you find yourself forced to make ends meet by writing B-movie screenplays in ten years. On the bright side, maybe you can get Miller to star in them.

(EDIT: It appears that some of you may be taking my playful jabs at Posnanski as genuine criticism. That's my fault, as unlike the subject of my jabs, I'm not a particularly gifted writer. So to be clear: I'm not trying to criticize Poz. I'm not offended by anything he or his guest writers wrote - the man placed enough "Parental Advisory" stickers on his post to satisfy both Tipper Gore and Lynn Cheney. I'm just having fun with him. Please. The man sh!ts - pardon my Poz - better prose than I write on my best days.)


Anonymous said...

Felt the same way about the Poz columns. I swear all the time, especially f-bombs, but somehow it all just felt inappropriate. And the contest I felt was pointless. It was like 2 schoolkids on the playground telling your momma's so fat jokes.

Curtis Ruder said...

Just as I was about to scream on Sunday afternoon as the nth dribbler squeaked through, I remembered what I thought when I first read our schedule. Four weeks ago, if you could have promised me 9-10 heading home, I would have been very happy with it.

There is much work to be done, especially on offense. But except for one inning, I have not been embarrassed to be watching the Royals. Which is something. (And even good teams have embarrassing innings like the fiasco Friday night in Oakland, right?

Rany said...

Hey, don't get me wrong: I enjoyed the Swear-Off tremendously. I just think it's incredibly funny that Poz would run it. Just when you think you know a guy...

kcghost said...

Penelope Ann Miller was the heroine in the 1994 flick "The Shadow".

Christian M said...

Poz let me down on that one...what was he thinking?

Anonymous said...

I think focusing on production from the 9 hole in a start Pena or Callaspo debate is like figuring out which crack to plug with your finger while the entire middle of the dam has collapsed. The Royals need to plug Butler in at first base and deal with any defensive problems, and they need to go out and pick up Frank Thomas. They have to get another solid bat in the middle of the lineup.

1 - Gathright/DeJesus
2 - Grudzielanek
3 - Gordon
4 - Thomas
5 - Guillen
6 - Butler
7 - Teahen
8 - Buck
9 - Pena/Callaspo

Unknown said...

Since I just read your interview on Mellinger's Royals blog, I will give the characteristic reprimand for not seeing you in a couple days now. I reload your site for updates more than any other site I think.

Since everyone seems focused on the part of your blog that doesn't have to do with the Royals, I'll talk about the part that does.

I spent the first 8 years of my life in Baltimore so I got to see Belanger and Weaver and even the last couple of years of Brooks Robinson. Your reference to Belanger brought back memories. Living there, I don't remember any of the fans really bashing Belanger that much although I was young at the time. They crucified Decinces(sp?)when he took over for Robinson.

The thing that I was getting to is that even though I'm not the stathead that you are Rany, I came up with the same basic conclusion on Pena and wrote a comment on your last post about it. I also have always looked at Weaver as one of the best managers ever btw.

Based on the lack of hitting of this team and the difference in fielding and hitting of Callaspo, I have seen no reason to make that change. So what if Callaspo is destined for second base. It's not like we wouldn't be able to stick Pena down to the minors. So he doesn't have any options left. Tell me the team that will claim him off waivers?

Yes, Pena is the better fielder but so far, I have not seen Callaspo as being so bad that he is not someone you would want to stick in the field. Simply the fact that he doesn't strike out and Pena doesn't walk would make up for any fielding difference.

A final point about your post. I think that using defensive efficieny as a relevant stat this early in the season is more or less useless. Too small a sample size to really say anything about it at this point I would think. Also, I think the fact that we are not making errors on the balls we do get to is a plus if our def eff does not change. In addition, with Pena not even touching some popups hit to him that has to change our def eff by like 150 points or so.(just kidding)I'm kind of surprised you used such a stat at this point in the year.

chrisc said...

I agree, the Royals should go after Frank Thomas and start him at 1b everyday.

Anonymous said...

Wow, felt the same way about Penelope Ann Miller and her breasts showcase in Carlito's Way.

Just shocking! Shocking!

Unfortunately, unless she's featured in Poz' movie debut soon, that'll be my lasting impression of her. Shocking ends to innocence.

Anonymous said...

The great things about stats is you can use them to prove any point you want. The truth is Royals as good as they have been the first half of April are doing it right. Behind Pitching first, Offense second. Unlike in 2003 when we won all of those 10-9 walk off games to start the season. This team seems to be building for the long haul and there is hope brewing for the future. The games that Billy played at first base this season I didn't see anything wrong with his play. He seemed like he was in control of himself. Now he probably wouldn't of gotten to a couple of balls that Gload did, but I for the life of me can't figure out what the facination is with Gload. I would much rather see Barry Bonds DH than Frank Thomas. And playing Thomas at First Base would be a joke. For the few games a year that we play Interleague games, Bonds could play left Field and we can still play Butler at first. Teahan could move to Center.

But this team is reminding me of the 94 Royals. The last great Royals team we saw in KC. Pitching was the key that Year behind David Cone and Kevin Appier. With Guts and Grit with the G-Men Giatti and Gagne. Speed on the bases with Coleman and McRae. All we are missing is a true leader behind the plate like McFarland and this team would be very similar to the '94 team.
Hal McRae never got the credit he deserved for that team. If my memory serves me right we were only 2 games out of first before the strike hit.

Anonymous said...

I hate it when intelligent analysts who actually understand baseball statistics draw any conclusions from two weeks of data:

"A few days ago I pointed out the Royals’ great defensive efficiency and wondered if the improvement was for real given that the defense was substantially similar to last year’s. Well, I think we know now: it’s not."

What do we "know now" after two weeks? We didn't "know" anything after one week. We don't "know" anything after two weeks. Maybe we should wait until we have a statistically significant sample size before we try to draw conclusions? You think?

Shelby said...

Hey Anonymous (if that is your real name): I'm no statistician, but I'd say 1/12 of a season is statistically significant.

Shelby said...

Furthermore, when a polling agency takes some sort of nationwide poll, their sample size is something on the order of 1000 - 5000......far, far less than 1/12 of the nation.

Granted, their means of making data statistically significant involves, among other things, demographic considerations. This is unnecessary for deriving statistical truth from baseball teams and such, though, so perhaps my analogy isn't, erm, analogous.

Anonymous said...

Hey Shelby, before you submit your opinions on other people's statistical views, you might want to make sure your OWN figures are correct. Unless the Royals are playing 228 games this year, they are actually a lot further than 1/12th done with the season. After two more games, they'll be more than 1/8th of the way finished.

Shelby said...

Okay Anonymous, my mistake....if that's the case, then the sample size is much larger, so then my argument seems stronger.

1/8 of the season.....how is this NOT a significant slice? How much data do you think is needed in order to make a meaningful inference? 50%? 75%?

"September 1st, 2008----Baseball experts have finally seen enough of the Royals to declare that their pitching staff (is/is not) effective this season."

Anonymous said...

Statistical Significance

You can't compare one eight of a baseball season to how a political exit poll is conducted, for one simple reason:

The baseball season is dynamic, with the compisition of each team, the schedule, and other factors having the potential to drastically alter the outcome of future contests.

The political exit poll, on the other hand, is a RANDOM sample of a statistically significant number of voters. This can easily be accomplished by the proper sampling of a FAR smaller # of voters.

You could accomplish the same thing in baseball, if at the END of the season, you RANDOMLY selected x number of games and extrapolated a season W-L record from that.

My point is that using the FIRST 18 or 20 games played is NOT RANDOM - no more so than polling the first x number of voters coming out of the polling place would be.