Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Royals Today: 4/23/2008.

Well, that really sucked.

If there’s one weakness I have as an analyst – humor me here, I know I have a lot more than one – it’s that no matter how hard I try, I always give early season results more meaning than I should. This is a weakness that carries over into other areas of life as well – in any kind of debate I’m always inclined to agree with the last argument. I’m a little too trusting of my fellow man, I think, when I should have my bulls**t detector on. That goes for small sample sizes as well as arguments. I know I shouldn’t have been excited when the Royals were 6-2, but I was. And now that the Royals have gone 3-9 since, it’s hard not to abandon ship. It helps to remember the words from that sage philosopher, Rob Neyer: “a team is never as good as it looks when it’s winning, and it’s never as bad as it looks when it’s losing.”

Which is a good thing. Because the Royals looked as bad as they ever have last night, losing 15-1. In their last five games, they’ve been outscored 46-15. The Tigers were outscored 44-15 in their first seven games and everyone (myself included) was openly mocking them; they’ve won 8 of 14 since and have crept to within 1.5 games of the Royals. Things turn around quickly in baseball. They better.

Small sample size or no, these guys are worrying me:

- I’m not that concerned about The Epic, even though he does have an ERA of 8.00 after five starts. He’s given up a couple more homers than you’d like, and his control hasn’t been there yet, but most of his problems stem from the .337 BABIP, which should come down over time.

But looking over the long term, keep in mind that after starting last season with a 1.91 ERA in his first nine starts, he had a 4.36 ERA the rest of the way. Breaking up seasonal stats by month and trying to explain the trend is usually a fool’s errand, as the best explanation is almost always “dumb luck”. (The main exception to this is with a rookie making his major league debut. While I haven’t seen research done on the topic – it’s probably been done, I just haven’t seen it – I’m almost certain that players, on the whole, need an adjustment period of about 100 plate appearances before they find their true talent level in the majors, and so an improvement after that point might be for real. Exhibit A: Alex Gordon.)

But over the last 11 months and 30 starts, Meche has a 4.90 ERA. Should we be concerned? In 182 innings over that span, he has 60 walks, 129 Ks, and 21 homers – not great peripherals, but not 4.90 ERA bad either. He’s given up 195 hits, which are more than you’d expect from his other peripherals. Like I said, I’m not concerned. And I still think he’s been an excellent signing. But it would be nice if he would put up a Game Score of better than 51 at some point – that’s his best score in five starts this year.

- We don’t have the equivalent of Game Score for relievers, so allow me to invent a completely useless stat on the spot: a “Dominant Outing”, or DO. A DO occurs when a reliever:

1) Does not surrender a run;
2) Strikes out at least one man per inning pitched;
3) Surrenders no more than one baserunner (walk + hit) per inning pitched;
4) Has at least as many strikeouts as baserunners allowed.

This is something you can figure out from the box score line.

1 1 0 0 0 1 is a DO. 0.2 1 0 0 0 1 is not.
1.1 1 0 0 0 2 is a DO. 1.2 1 0 0 1 2 is not.

This doesn’t have any analytical value at all; the point is simply to say whether a reliever has shown the ability to overpower hitters in a short outing. Joakim Soria, for instance, had 3 DO’s in his first five major league appearances – a pretty good sign that he had the potential to be dominant. Soria had 28 DO’s in 62 appearances last season; I suspect anything close to 50% is amazing. (Jonathan Papelbon had 30 DO’s in 59 appearances as a rookie.)

What worries me about Yasuhiko Yabuta isn’t that he walked four batters in less than an inning last Friday. It’s that in seven appearances so far, he hasn’t had a Dominant Outing, and really hasn’t come close. I want to see some sign that plucking him out of Japan hasn’t been a mistake, that he bears more resemblance to Takashi Saito or Hideki Okajima than to Masao Kida or Masumi Kuwata.

I loved the decision to sign Yabuta, because while there have been a fair number of starting pitchers from Japan who turned out to be busts, the vast majority of relief pitchers have turned out well. Here’s a list of every native Japanese pitcher with 40 or more relief appearances (and no more than 10 starts) in the majors:

Shigetoshi Hasegawa: 124 ERA+
Masao Kida: 81 ERA+
Hideki Okajima: 225 ERA+
Akinori Otsuka: 170 ERA+
Takashi Saito: 240 ERA+
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 138 ERA+
Shingo Takatsu: 137 ERA+
Keiichi Yabu: 103 ERA+

While there have been other relief pitchers who washed out before they made 40 appearances, in almost every case those were marginal guys who weren’t expected to do much in the first place; Kuwata, for instance, was 39 years old and essentially unwanted back home. None of them were signed to multi-year deals, like Yabuta was. So of the eight guys to whom Yabuta can be directly compared, Kida was a mistake, Yabu has been barely average (though he was 36 when he came over, and also lightly-regarded), and the other six have been sensational.

Saito, in particular, ranks among the greatest free-agent signings in history. He was thought to be over the hill back home, and was so lightly regarded here that he signed for the league minimum back in 2006. Instead, he’s delivered a 1.88 career ERA to date in 149 innings, with 191 strikeouts and just 86 hits allowed – those are Playstation numbers.

Given the track record of Japanese relievers, it’s fair that we should expect Yabuta to be a solid-average set-up man at the very least. You can argue that the success of Japanese relievers has led major league teams to scrape further down the barrel, and you might have a point. Three relievers came over from Japan this winter. Masahide Kobayashi, who Yabuta set up for in Japan, has been okay for the Indians so far. The third guy, both in this paragraph and in reputation, is Kazuo Fukumori, who in three outings for the Rangers has allowed six hits and four walks in 1.2 innings.

So maybe the Royals reached for a reliever who’s not in the same tier as Okajima and Sasaki and the like. The problem is that they’re paying him like he is; you don’t spend 2 years and $6 million for a mop-up man. Credit Hillman at least for realizing before Opening Day that while Yabuta was signed to be a set-up man, the job belonged to Leo Nunez on merit. It’s still very early, but the signs are there that Yabuta may prove to be a waste of cash.

- Speaking of wastes of cash…Jose Guillen. My goodness. We heard that the possibility of a suspension was weighing on his mind. We heard that he just can’t hit in cold weather. Well, the suspension was waived over a week ago, and the weather here in the Midwest has been at least in the 60s for at least that long. And last night, facing a left-hander (Guillen hit .362/.433/.616 vs. LHP last year), he struck out four times in four plate appearances. He’s batting .165/.195/.291, in 82 plate appearances.

There’s no question in my mind that, whatever his performance has been, the Royals overpaid for Guillen. I say that because they were essentially bidding against themselves; there were never any other credible other offers for Guillen that were reported. I think it’s very telling that after hemming and hawing about the Royals’ offer, the minute the Royals dropped the rumor into the media that they were changing gears and trying to sign Andruw Jones instead – Guillen signed the next day. Given how quickly the market dried up after Guillen and Carlos Silva signed, I’m quite certain the Royals could have signed him for $8 million a year instead of $12 million. And they might have been able to go lower than that.

All that is money under the bridge at this point. What isn’t is Guillen’s performance, which is awful six ways from Sunday. It’s almost like he’s afraid to draw walks – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen him calmly take pitches until he had three balls, then start swinging at 3-1 and 3-2 pitches at his ankles or up at his neck.

I looked through his career numbers trying to find a month in which he batted this poorly with at least 50 plate appearances. Only two months come close: September 2005, when he hit .151/.264/.219 in 87 plate appearances, and April 2001, when he hit .203/.213/.220 in 61 PA.

He missed half of the 2001 season with an injury, but from May 1st to the end of the year he did hit .329/.393/.500, albeit in just 84 plate appearances. And in 2005, in a full season he hit .303/.350/.519 through the end of August before going into a tailspin. So I guess you can hold out hope that Guillen has shown a history of playing like utter crap for a few weeks and then hitting like an All-Star the rest of the way. That light bulb better turn on soon, or the comparisons to Kevin McReynolds may turn out to be hopelessly optimistic.

(Late update: apparently Guillen’s not in the lineup tonight. Hillman can read the numbers as well as we can.)

- For those of you with satellite radio, I’ll be appearing on my friend Jeff Erickson’s show tomorrow (Thursday) morning at around 11:05 CDT. I imagine we’ll talk about the Pennsylvania primary and the impact of high oil prices on the global economy. Also the Royals.


Dallas Tucker said...

Yeah, Guillen has sucked pretty hard. Just think... we could have had Andruw Jones... and been worse!

Anonymous said...

If the Department of Homeland Secuirty finds that Jose Gullien's real name is Juan Gonzales can the Royals release him and get their 12 million back?

Anonymous said...

I'm not with eveyrone else about Meche having "great" stuff. He might have had great stuff before Lou Pinella put his arm into a meat cleaver but now he has above average stuff with average control. I posted several weeks ago that I would have looked to shop Gil last winter. I hope I'm very wrong but I'm afraid his first month will be the highlight of his Royals career. We shall see. BTW, why exactly is Bonds not a Royal? Blocking Gload? Too many walks? Clogs up bases ala Dusty Baker? Bad apple (unlike Jose Guillen?) Go Royals. One more thing, Hillman is getting really chippy with the local media about their "tough" questions. If you can't handle the KC media your in the wrong profession. Heres hoping Trey can adjust on the fly and be the leader the team needs.

Anonymous said...

It's not just the beginning of the season that blinds us, it's whenever we can look at a number and go "wow!" and get excited.

I remember back in '86, the Royals called Mike Kingery up from Omaha. Howser, apparently having had enough of his Darryl Motley/Lynn Jones platoon in right, immediately plopped him into the lineup (hitting third, no less!). He immediately went off, starting his career with a 9-game hitting streak. Six games into the streak, he was hitting .478/.520/609, and if you remember the insanity over Bo Hart in St. Louis a few years back, you've got the idea. The last three games of the streak were all one-fors, though (although game 9 featured his first big-league homer), and when the streak finally ended, he was down to .359/.381/.538.

And then next thing you know Howser's got a tumor in his head and Mike Ferraro's in charge and it all went to hell. The streak ended two days after the all-star break; Kingery pretty much stopped hitting immediately afterward (indeed, five games after the streak ended he was sporting a mere .706 OPS).

That, sir Rany, is when I learned not to trust such numbers. It was a painful lesson.

Anonymous said...

Is this where Royals fans can come for counsling and to drown our sorrows.

I feel like I'm in a bad relationship. They were doing so good and then they went on a 7 game skid. It's not like they've even been close in any of them.

Anonymous said...

I'm still holding out hope because it just seems that our offense has to get better. From watching these guys, it seems that with a lineup of DeJesus, Gordon, Butler and Teahen we should be hitting better. We aren't (obviously) but we should.

Greinke and Bannister should keep us in games and "put us in a position to win" most of the time. I have high hopes that Hochevar will do the same. That leaves Meche and Rotation Pitcher #5 (currently Tomko). Meche may not ever be a sub 4.00 ERA guy again over the course of 30 starts, but he should keep us in games as well. The #5 guy? Well, we are the Royals and we're rebuilding.

Now the key is those "keeping us in games" times. Last night we were down 2-0 to Cleveland and Cliff Lee. It may as well have been 200-0 because we were not going to score against Lee. Hell, everyone cheered when we got a single off him in the 9th. As though we just hit a walk off HR. Someone in this offense has to start hitting... someone.... At what point to we start pointing fingers at Barnett?