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
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
- 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.
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.)