The Royals sure know how to kill a buzz.
Eight years ago, the Royals were the talk of baseball in early April. They started the season 8-3, the last three of those wins coming in succession on walk-off home runs, the last (by Rey Sanchez) provoking Denny Matthews' "What is going on?" call. They were tied for first place on April 13th, and spirits were high as they embarked on a nine-game road trip.
They lost all nine games on that trip. By the final series in Seattle, the team was playing so poorly that I was starting to wonder if they'd ever win again. They eventually would, and in fact would fight their way back over .500, reaching a high-water mark of 30-26 on June 5th. They finished 77-85 that year; those 77 wins are the team's second-most in the last 15 years. (Wow, I can't believe how depressing that sentence is, and I've covered them throughout those 15 years.) But the party was over early.
This year, the Royals were 8-5 and in first place on April 14th, 9-6 and a half-game out two days later. They've been outscored 57 to 18 ever since. They'll turn this around eventually - as Sparky Anderson said, "momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher", and Greinke toes the hill tonight. But once again, the Royals have killed the wonderful delusion that is early-season baseball before April is out. Thanks, guys.
- At what point does Hillman concede to common sense and start Callaspo over Pena at shortstop? Callaspo has more hits (9-8), more extra-base hits (2-1), and more walks (2-1) than Pena, even though Pena has more than twice as many at-bats (59-26). Callaspo also has yet to strike out this year, which is a nice trick if you can pull it off.
I've credited Hillman multiple times for being willing to pinch-hit for Pena with Callaspo in game situations. Well, last night, with the Royals down 2-0 in the ninth, Hillman let Pena hit against Cliff Lee in a situation where baserunners are paramount. Grudzielanek was unavailable, and I suppose you could argue you don't want to let Gathright or Gload bat against a LHP (except that Gload has hit LHP better than RHP in his career, and anyway, Hillman already showed he's willing to give up the platoon advantage when he pinch-hit for Gathright with Olivo against a RHP.) But why wouldn't you use Callaspo there? Callaspo's a switch-hitter, but in his brief major-league career he's actually hit LHP (.264/.316/.340) better than RHP (.226/.277/.289). He's 2-for-3 against LHP this year.
I'm not going to echo the sentiments of one Rob Neyer, who said of this move, "I think we have to start wondering if Hillman just isn't real good at this job." But it was a bad decision. Tony Pena is a glorified defensive replacement, and you'd think a team that's struggling to score runs as badly as the Royals are would recognize that.
- Can we stop with the "maybe Billy Butler can handle first base" talk until he actually makes a difficult play even once? Yesterday, he had only two chances that could remotely be described as difficult, and he flubbed them both. One was a hot shot by Travis Hafner that he tried to backhand, but misjudged the ball - it bounced a foot or two in front of where he thought it would go, so instead of bouncing into his glove it bounced off it and into right field. It was charitably called a hit, a scoring decision which loomed rather large for a while given that the play was the only thing keeping Brian Bannister from having a perfect game into the 7th inning.
The other was a groundball to his right in the 7th inning with a man on second base, an easy grounder that somehow went under his glove; Esteban German alertly backed up the play and Bannister did a terrific job of reaching for German's throw and getting a toe on the bag, barely preserving the out.
Yet to listen to the announcers, you'd think that Butler was doing okay out there, because hey, he's trying his best. I wrote in our Baseball Prospectus book this year that Butler "fields at a first-grade level," and it seems like everyone's taking that a little too literally. Hey, he can't field the position, but let's give him an "A" for effort! I'm waiting for Ryan Lefebvre to award him a gold star for not tripping over his shoelaces on the way to the bag.
The reality is that I'm less convinced that Butler will ever play an acceptable first base today than I was at the start of the season. The sooner we stop with the denial, the sooner we can focus on finding a real solution for first base, a solution which does not involve the words "Ross" and "Gload".
- The Royals scored six runs in the opener (a season-high!) and were shut out in the finale, but I was probably more upset the offense's approach in game 1. If you don't believe me, please - please - read this. This concisely explains the single biggest flaw the Royals have had as a franchise since the early 1980s. The box score tells you that the Royals drew four walks against Carmona in five innings. The box score can't tell you that there could - should - have been much more. And given all the baserunners that Carmona put on base, even a few more baserunners might have led to a lot more runs.
- Lee, on the other hand, was just filthy - he probably would have shut out half the teams in baseball last night. He worked the inside and outside corners all night; I think he threw two pitches down the middle the entire game. He's been doing this all season; he allowed four hits and unearned run in 6.2 innings in his first start of the season, and that has been his worst start all year. Lee's last three starts have produced lines of 8 2 1 1 0 8, 8 2 0 0 1 8, and 9 3 0 0 0 9. That's not just impressive, that's downright historic.
In his last three starts, Lee has 1) pitched 8 innings or more, 2) surrendered no more than 3 hits; 3) surrendered no more than 1 walk; 4) struck out at least 8 batters. In the Retrosheet era (i.e. since 1956), do you know how many pitchers have met all those parameters in three consecutive starts?
None. Nada. Zilch. Zippo. Until Cliff Lee.
If you eliminate the strikeout provision, only two pitchers have had 3 straight starts with 8+ IP, <= 3 hits, <=1 walk. The most recent was Woodie Fryman, in 1966. The other was Sandy Koufax, in 1963.
- Those two pitches that Lee threw down the middle were the two pitches that Jose Guillen spanked for basehits. Guillen hit the second one about as hard as you can hit a baseball; when it came off the bat it looked like it would fall into leftfield for a hit, then it looked like it would carry to Dellucci, then it became clear that the ball wasn't following the normal rules of gravity and went over Dellucci's head, surprising him more than anyone. We've established, at least, that Guillen can hit fastballs down the middle with authority. The evidence is still out on the other 95% of pitches he'll see.
- Is anyone still even worried that Bannister is going to turn into a pumpkin? You can add this humble writer to the swelling ranks of the Cult of Brian. He was all-but-perfect through six innings, and while he lost it in the 7th, that was apparently because he was still hurting from the liner he took off his leg in the 6th. Anyway, Dellucci's homer was a 300-foot flyball that caught up in the wind.
That homer was the first Bannister's given up all year. Which is interesting, because despite what you may have heard, Bannister is not a groundball pitcher. ESPN.com lists his G/F ratio this year at 1.05, right around his career level of 1.06. The league average is about 1.2, so he actually has slight flyball tendencies. A pitcher who gives up that many flyballs can't sustain a home run rate of 1 per 33 innings - Brandon Webb would have trouble maintaining a home run rate that low.
Bannister has a few things working in his favor. He pitches in Kauffman Stadium, which is tough for home run hitters. He has shown the ability to limit homers before; his career totals are 20 homers in 236 innings, which is above-average. And, of course, he's Brian Bannister: he's the baseball equivalent of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is a physics concept that boils down to - my apologies to any physicists reading this for my horrible description - the idea that there will always be uncertainty in any physical measurement, because (for instance) in the process of trying to establish the exact location of a particle - let's say an atom - you will have to bounce energy off the proton in the form of a photon to establish its location, but by bouncing energy off the atom you will have changed its location.
In other words, the mere act of measuring a phenomenon changes the phenomenon. And the mere fact that Brian Bannister understands sabermetric principles changes those principles as they apply to him.
Now, I still don't think he can sustain his career BABIP, which is now .254 and dropping fast. But I think he has the ability to keep it below league average. More importantly, I'm not even sure it matters. So far this year, he's whiffed 18 batters in 32.2 innings, a rate of 4.96 per nine. That's still below average, but it's better than last year. And in those 32.2 innings, he's walked six (1.65 per nine) and allowed just one homer. He's actually ninth in the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
You give me a pitcher that doesn't allow walks and homers, and even if he doesn't have the ability to lower his BABIP you're talking about a guy who could be Carlos Silva or Bob Tewksbury. That's pretty valuable. If he does sustain a low BABIP to boot, you've got, uh, Brian Bannister. Well, you've got him if you're a Royals fan. If you're not, then buzz off. He's ours.