Friday, April 25, 2008

Royals Today: 4/25/2008.

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.

Damn.

- 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.

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Rany, not to disagree about Butler, but to be fair he did scoop two throws out of the dirt in one inning on the last road trip.

That being said, I would suggest an easy short-term solution to the first base dilemma:

Sign Bonds, put him in left field, move Teahen to 1B, and Gload to the bench.

Combine that with Callaspo at shortstop, and the offense would surely move to middle of the pack in the AL, right?

Alas, I don't think Hillman would be for that; he seems to value defense like it's the 1960s or something. I understand why it's important for the development of our young pitchers, but I would argue that it's also important that said young pitchers get enough runs so when they do pitch well they actually get rewarded with a W once in a while.

Anonymous said...

Rany, not to disagree about Butler, but to be fair he did scoop two throws out of the dirt in one inning on the last road trip.

That being said, I would suggest an easy short-term solution to the first base dilemma:

Sign Bonds, put him in left field, move Teahen to 1B, and Gload to the bench.

Combine that with Callaspo at shortstop, and the offense would surely move to middle of the pack in the AL, right?

Alas, I don't think Hillman would be for that; he seems to value defense like it's the 1960s or something. I understand why it's important for the development of our young pitchers, but I would argue that it's also important that said young pitchers get enough runs so when they do pitch well they actually get rewarded with a W once in a while.

Anonymous said...

Good post Rany. I have two points to bring up, about which I haven't heard much discussion. First is about Hillman, I am starting to wonder if we all fell into the "staring at the sky" tactic...you know stand in a crowd and start staring up and pretty soon the whole crowd is doing it. Is that what happened when someone annointed Hillman as a good hire?? My point is, how could we have known? I confess that I haven't done the research, but prior to 3/31/08 has He EVER spent anytime on a major league field as a player or coach in the regular season?????

My second point is about D. Moore, and maybe its a similar point, did we annoint him too early?? Probably very early to tell and it looks like he has done well in rounding up some good young arms, but at what cost? Since this years hope is floundering beyond control, I looked to see what was happening offensively "down on the farm" and I found some disturbing news. Did you know that the OPS of the Royals AA, A+ and A- teams are .570, .626 and .610...good for last or next to last in all of their respective leagues. It looks like the cupboard is bare, when should we expect to see the results of Moore's plan on the OFFENSIVE side??????????

Anonymous said...

To anonymous, I'm not so sure anymore that Mark Teahen is any better than Ross Gload either! There's a power hitting first basemen in Japan right now, leading their league in homers, that I believe we all are somewhat familiar with...

I thought we had a glut of first basemen? Now we have none that can both field and hit? This is bizzaro world!

Anonymous said...

I want to thank both Rany and Joe Sheehan for pointing out how unbelieveable STUPID the Royals approach to hitting is. This has been driving me nuts for several years now, and it's good to know that I'm not the only one that sees how BAD their approach is.

Bearing that in mind, how in the HELL does Mike Barnett still have a job? The Royals SUCKED at offense last year under his instruction, and if anything they suck ever WORSE this year. Yes, I'm aware that not even Moses could turn bums like TPJ into a decent hitter, but what we're seeing out of the Royals hitters right now is UNACCEPTABLE, and UNEXCUSABLE.

I'm just some nobody, but I'm calling for Mike Barnett's head, and I won't rest until he is FIRED.

ChaimMKeller said...

Barring a surprising trade, we have two potential solutions at first base. The first is Ryan Shealy, who I'll admit isn't hitting great in Omaha, but it's clear his power is still there (4 HR so far this year), his defense wasn't bad, and he might be one of those guys who benefits from regular playing time.

The second, and more radical solution, is Esteban German. He is versatile enough to play there, and he'll also be a better hitter with regular playing time. No to mention he has the speed that Trey likes to use so much. I'd like to see the Royals try him at first for a while.

Ryan said...

If Grudz's back sends him to the DL, who do they call up?


Perhaps...Angel Berroa.

Laugh through the tears.
Laugh through the tears.

Todd said...

I am firmly on the Banny-wagon, and have been for some time. Is it just me, or does he seem to get better the more he faces an opponent? The guy is smart enough to learn from prior experience and remember a hitter's reaction to a specific pitch and/or location.

To reply to Anonymous, maybe I'm still searching the skyline, but I think you're wrong on both Hillman and Moore. Only time will tell, but thus far Moore has greatly improved the organization, both on the field and off, and I believe Hillman will be no exception.

royalsfanatic said...

Great new term "Banny-wagon", get moving and copyright that ASAP

Im quickly jumping on board with it, BABIP and K/9 be damned.

The more I watch Banny the more Im convinced that his cerebral approach, aka Greg Maddux, might hold more weight to his results than the stats we have started to cling to in projecting his success.

I could not predict a repeat of last years success looking at the above factors, but now Im thinking he just might outsmart us all....of the starts Ive had a chance to watch I just dont see batters putting that many good swings on balls and if he can limit his walks and keep the ball down the Bannywagon might need a trailer to accomodate extra passengers

Max said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Max said...

Its really hard to read Royals blogs and listen to Royals commentary today. People are just so knee jerk reactionary after a week of bad baseball. People, its one week of baseball. They've only played 22 games. Even really good teams have awful stretches of baseball. Take the longer view.

Its ridiculous that Rob already thinks Trey is awful at managing after just 22 games. What happened to the level headed, rational columnist I used to read????

I loved the pedigree that Trey brought. He had managerial experience, at a very high level. He worked in a very successful organization. He stressed OBA, believed in stats, felt platoons could maximize output, how many managers can you name that pay attention to that? Whether he is a good manager or isn't a good manager remains to be seen, but I'm not going to damn him after 22 friggin games.

Casper said...

Completely agree, Max. Rany, what happens when Banny has 3 bad starts in a row? Will you do an about face on him, as well? How did we go from the MLK-inspired speech about believing in the team to an onslaught of negativity in 3 weeks? Do we need to have Tony Pena Sr. call you up and remind you to "believe"? Lol...I can't believe I just quoted TP Sr...that pretty much destroys my credibility...oh well, at least I'm still pulling for the team and not kicking them while they're down. Not after 22 games, anyway.

Anonymous said...

2 thoughts....
1. Too early on Hillman. He's still trying to figure out what he's got (and hasn't got) and 22 games just isn't enough time to know.
2. Make Soria a starter NOW. We're wasting one of the most promising arms in the AL by making a closer out of him for a team that can't score enough runs to give him a game TO save. The guy's only pitched 8 innings so far... If the hitting and losing is going to be this bad, now is the time to let him try to start before this team gels and becomes a contender and the window to try it is closed.

Ryan said...

I think letting Nunez pitch all year from the pen as the setup guy to see how he does under a full year is a good thing.

The next year you try to transition Soria to a starter and put Nunez as your closer.

At some point this year, they're going to bring Davies' back up to start again, and perhaps De la Rosa as well.

Dan said...

A few things:

- I realize Lee pitched well last night, but not historically well. Amazing.
- The crowd obviously gets it. EVERYONE left at the game last night when Pena was announced in th 9th was demanding a pinch-hitter in that situation.
- That said, I've heard multiple people say that it's time to bring up Berroa and make him the shortstop. Evidently, time heals all wounds and people can't remember how utterly abysmal, putrid, and wretched he was for an extended period of time. I think he took 8 months off of my life during his time with the Royals. Can you please help everyone understand what an awful idea this is with statistical evidence? While Pena isn't the answer to any question with the bat, Berroa couldn't possibly be an upgrade, can he?

bfos said...

BABIP is likely the equivalent in the sabermetric world of AVG in the casual baseball fan world.

It is over-rated and over-simplified. If a pitcher can decieve a batter and make that batter swing and miss (ie. a strike-out pitcher). A pitcher can also deceive a batter and make that batter swing and create poor contact. Poor contact will put balls in play that will be more likely to be turned into outs. This is factored in even more for fly-ball pitchers as poorly hit fly-balls have less chances being hits than poorly hit grounders.

royalsfanatic said...

I think TPJ has received a pass from KC fans for the simple fact that he isnt Berroa, and that was enough.

Maybe we can just cry out "do-over" and get Keppinger back from the Reds.

Adrian said...

Hillman, like many baseball men, appears to value his gut as much as he values his brain.

Hillman said that Jose Guillen needed a "mental blow". There are so many connotations here. Perhaps he was referring to blunt force trauma.

Great, give Guillen a day off, but what has he done to prove he should be hitting ahead of Butler and Gordon besides sign a contract? Absolutely nothing! Yet, Hillman puts him in the cleanup spot, he grabs two of the Royals' three hits, and has probably solidified his hold on the four-hole for the next week.

Now, Trey can feel good about himself for giving Guillen a blow. Perhaps it's worked. What kind of blow does Yabuta get?

Ryan said...

Actually, looking at Omaha's stats, if they called up a middle infielder it might be Mike Aviles. He plays 2b, 3b, and SS and is doing well so far this spring.

Ira said...

After a rant like that, I'm sure you very much enjoyed that 5 pitch inning the Royals just managed in the second facing A.J. Burnett.

Andrew said...

I think Max is spot on.

Look folks, I know (trust me I do) that these past oh, 15 or so years have been rough. Hell the Meche signing was the first major move by the Royals that I have seen in years that didn't instantly screw them over.

Rob Neyer seems to have been absorbed by the "sky is falling" style of journalism that ESPN seems to be so proud of. Frankly, I think Hillman is going to be perfect for this team, anybody panicking after 22 games should be declared legally insane, along with the people that suggest that we sign Barry Bonds.

It takes a while to turn around the Titanic folks, I think if we all just take a collective chill pill for a while and watch this stuff play out, it'll all be good.

Gary said...

Yeah, what he said.

Scott said...

Rany, I loved your invocation of the Uncertainty Principle. I suggest you go back and re-title your piece on Banny from "The Thinker" to "The Uncertainty Principle."

Ryan said...

Anyone that intentionally walks Tony Pena, Jr. deserves to lose.

Isaac said...

I agree with the attack on Pena and it was nice to see some honest to God stats to back it up. He was picked off third tonight in a truly awful move. At the same time he also laid down a bunt on the first pitch for the first time that I can remember.

I agree with Ryan that the Blue Jays deserve to lose simply by issuing him a IBB. There is never a situation where that is warranted and my only fear was that he was going to start swinging at some of those pitches.

Regarding Bannister, I didn't think he would repeat last year's numbers but at the same time I thought he wouldn't be as far off as the stat heads did before he came out with that interview that initiated the Cult of Brian. He will have his bad outings because, unlike many pitchers, he has to be perfect to be successful. Fortunately, he has the ability to be just that way most of the time he goes out to the mound. I also agree with Rany in that his BABIP is low not by a freak of nature but by the way he pitches. No, I don't think it will remain at the point it is now but I do think it will be lower than almost everyone in the league if not everyone. Despite his low K/9IP numbers, he still has a K/BB ratio of 3 even. That's good for anyone who isn't named Santana or Soria. His low HR totals also benefit him and is not all that unexplainable when you look at the fact that very few hitters get good contact off of him. This also applies to the low BABIP.

Since Royals baseball has been full of stupidity for so long and still looks like it is at this point of the year, it is a true blessing to watch a guy who wins with his head.

BTW, anyone who wants Bonds is nuts. Without the roids he wont be the same.

Gary said...

Perhaps the finest play in the field I have ever seen. All is forgiven.

Casper said...

The Royals have won 2 in a row! Quick - everyone back on the bandwagon!

Anonymous said...

Now I have the benefit of watching Sat. nights game after reading your negativity about TPJ, but starting Callaspo over Pena is clearly not the answer. Defense is and has to be a core competency for the Royals. I think you pointed out how the Royals hitting stats are worse than most NL teams. So TPJ's offense is analogous to a pitcher who bats in the NL (although he hits better than most)and you see that it's the other 8 who are a big part of the problem.
It's easy to say this in hindsight, but I think we lose both Fri. and Sat.'s games if not for specifically Tony Jrs defense--and that's despite his error which makes it even more impressive.

Anonymous said...

God, your blogs are depressing. If you were my only source of news about the Royals I'd be convinced we'd never win another game and might as well pack up the team and move them. Ugh.

What exactly is "the wonderful delusion that is early-season baseball"? That it's early-season baseball and will we therefore suck from here on out because we had a losing streak, or that it's early season baseball so it's hard to make a prediction this early about how crappy or non-crappy we are? And still more whining about TPJ.

Ryan said...

Meche threw 129 pitches today.

WTF?

Anonymous said...

They need to let Butler play first base more often than not. How can he be expected to learn the position if he doesn't play there? So what if he flubs plays now and then? It's not like the Royals are going to make the playoffs this season, so we might as well trot him out there most of the time. I figure his bat will win more games than his glove will lose.

Anonymous said...

ryan, Meche only threw 85 pitches (or somewhere close to that) his last start, so it's not that bad.

Anonymous said...

Question: How good/bad of a defender is Mike Aviles? I just looked at the AAA numbers and he is racking down there. They have him listed as a SS. Will he be able to play there in the Majors?

ksuim4u said...

The word that I keep hearing on Aviles (and I've never seen him play except a couple innings in Spring Training) is that he's not all that great with the glove. He's hit well at every level, but he's earned (fairly or not) the reputation that his ceiling is a MLB utility guy. If we had been able to flip German to the Dodgers before the season began, he might be on the team now... then again it might be Shealy too...

ksuim4u said...

Addendum - If Grudz ends up on the DL, we should DEFINITELY call up Aviles over Berroa. I'd rather have unproven than proven to be horrible any day.

Anonymous said...

Rany,

The scoring decision was irrelevant. Once Hafner reached base, whether by hit or error, the perfect game is over.

Gary said...

Bradford Doolittle wrote an excellent article in the Star today. "KC's Offense Lacks Discipline"

Not only does it answer the "why can't we score consistently?" question, but it addresses the silly idea that pulling in a big bat (like Bonds) is going to answer the problem. It also gives some insight into what we can expect from this team, which is about what we've seen. Finally, it speaks to the job that Hillman was hired to do and seems to be trying to accomplish. Very good read.

I know that this is just one guys opinion, but I think he has some very interesting insight...and I happen to think he is spot on. I only hope he is completely off base with Dayton Moore's philosophy on how to develop plate discipline.

Charles said...

Living in Northwest Arkansas, I rarely get to see the Royals on television but every time I do Tony Pena makes at least one play that saves a run. He is such a defensive asset that just a few more hits would even things out. I like seeing Pena in the lineup because I like to see great defense.

Anyway, like everyone else I love the blog and enjoy checking it daily.