So it's come to this: the Royals start the longest homestand of the season by getting seven brilliant, shutout innings from their fifth starter...and it's completely wasted. For the fourth time in their last 23 games, the Royals were shut out. They've scored one run four times in that span, and two runs four times. Which means in 12 of their last 23 games, the Royals have been held to two runs or less. They're 2-10 in those games.
It's driving me nuts, because a month into the season, it's possible to argue that the Royals have built a championship-caliber pitching staff. The team has a 4.37 ERA, but that number is a little deceptive because they've given up only 5 unearned runs all year, tied for the fewest in baseball. Unearned runs are partly the responsibility of the defense - and the Royals have made just 12 errors, also tied for the fewest in the majors - but also partly the responsibility of the pitchers - good pitchers surrender fewer unearned runs as well as fewer earned runs.
More than that, if you just look at the 10 key pitchers on the roster - the current rotation and the five most important relievers - those guys have pitched 85% of the team's innings, and more than 90% of the team's relevant innings. The combined ERA of those 10 pitchers is 3.51, which is sensational. The fact that John Bale, Yasuhiko Yabuta, Joel Peralta, and Hideo Nomo have allowed 42 runs in 41.1 innings is almost irrelevant. One of those guys is gone, one is hurt, and the other two are pitching in strictly low-leverage situations (or will be, given how Peralta pitched after entering a 1-0 game in the ninth tonight.)
But the offense is still on pace to score 559 runs, and nearly a fifth of the season has been played. The pitching staff is good enough, and the division is weak enough, that if the Royals had an offense that ranked, say, 10th in the league in runs scored, they ought to be in contention all season. Instead, they're still struggling to keep pace with the Giants on offense, and they're struggling to stay out of last place (though still just 2.5 games out of first.)
Dayton and Trey have to do something. I propose:
- Fire Mike Barnett. Immediately. I haven't discussed the performance of the hitting coach that much because I'm not really sure how much impact a hitting coach can have.
I have rarely been more excited as a Royals fan than the day the Royals hired Jeff Pentland, famous for turning Sammy Sosa from brain-dead hacker into a patient power hitter. Here are Sosa's unintentional walks, from 1996 to 2002: 28, 36, 59, 70, 72, 79, 88. His home run totals over that span went 40, 36, 66, 63, 50, 64, 49.
We used to think that the former begat the latter, but 1) Nate Silver's PECOTA research has shown that many times it's the latter that drives the former, i.e. as a hitter hits for more power, pitchers are less willing to challenge him, leading to more pitches out of the strike zone and more walks; and 2) the general consensus is that the key to Sosa's power surge lay in something other than improved plate discipline.
In retrospect Pentland's impact on Sosa may have been overstated. Anyway, Pentland was a bit of a flop in Kansas City, although among the Royals of that era it's impossible to tell who was a legitimate flop and who was simply a victim of awful circumstances.
Hitting coaches may or may not be able to significantly help a team, but I believe they are able to significantly hurt one. Barnett is hurting the Royals. He was hired as hitting coach on May 1st, 2006, and the Royals finished that season 12th in the league in runs scored. Last year they were 13th. This year they're 14th. If Barnett stays around another year I'm convinced they'll find a way to finish 15th.
Managers are, for the most part, not wholly good or bad - they all have strengths and weaknesses, and the man who is a poor fit for one team might be a good fit for another. I suspect hitting coaches are the same way. Barnett was the Blue Jays' hitting coach from 2002 to 2005, and they finished in the top five in runs scored twice in those four years. (On the other hand, they still fired him after the 2005 season anyway.) Regardless, this is a results-based business, and someone needs to take the fall here. If Jose Guillen's contract wasn't guaranteed, I'd vote for him. But it is, so Barnett needs to go.
- Can we get Callaspo and Gload more playing time? Please? Callaspo is on pace for 199 AB, and German is on pace for 94 - all season. Yeah, he's 1-for-18; who cares? Do you trust 18 at-bats of data, or two seasons worth of evidence that says he's the best on-base threat on the team? I've talked about platooning Callaspo and Pena based on who the Royals' starting pitcher is, and stand by that still.
I think Hillman is coming around to the fact that Gload is not an everyday first baseman - tonight's the first time in five games he started over there - but platooning Gload and Olivo isn't enough. Why not start German at first base against RHP? German has only played one game at first in his career, but he's played all over the infield and outfield, so I hardly think it would be a difficult adjustment. (Jose Offerman, like German an OBP fiend who played a marginal second base, was moved to first base by the Royals and was an absolute defensive stud over there.) Who would you rather see at the plate in a tough situation - Gload or German?
Dayton blew it by not foreseeing the traffic jam of talent in the middle infield before the season began and not trading German when his value was at his highest. He can't compound it by letting one of the game's best utility players scrap for playing time all season.
- Add another hitter. I'm sorry to keep saying things I've said before, but the Royals don't seem to be listening, so...why do we need 12 pitchers? Hillman has so little faith in Yabuta that he has openly talked about optioning him to Triple-A. The rotation has averaged 5.99 innings per start, 6.08 innings per start if you take out Bale's three starts. Last year, by comparison, the Royals' starters averaged just 5.48 innings per start; in 2006 it was 5.24 innings per start.
So compared to the last two years, Royals' starters are getting roughly two additional outs per game - an extra 100 innings a year. A 12-man pitching might make some sense when your starters are going five-and-dive, but the current rotation might be the best one the Royals have had this century, especially if Cool Hand turns out to be for real. Jimmy Gobble is still on pace to throw fewer than 30 innings all season. Do we really need a 12th pitcher that bad?
The problem is that whoever the Royals call up won't do the team any good unless Hillman adjusts his roster approach to take advantage of the guys he already has. If he can't find a way to make use of German's talents, fat chance he'll use some Triple-A lifer in the right role. In an ideal world, the Royals would call up Mike Aviles, who's hitting .347/.375/.694 for Omaha, and can play shortstop badly and second base and third base passably - he's German with fewer walks and more power. Or they would call up Shane Costa, who's hitting .330/.368/.591 in Omaha, the third straight year he's absolutely raked in Triple-A. In an ideal world, the Royals would pinch-hit for Pena at every opportunity, sit for Jose Guillen against hard right-handers, find a way to get Callaspo's bat in the lineup every day.
The Royals are dead last in the league in runs scored, and the 14 hitters who are on the roster today are the only 14 hitters who have played for the Royals all season. Common sense dictates that when your hitters aren't hitting, you might want to try new hitters.
When the Royals score 3 runs or more this season, they're 12-7. Hell, they've won two of the four games in which they've scored just *2* runs. It's criminal to waste this much good pitching. If Dayton shakes things up a bit, if he can just coax the offense into scoring a few runs in every game, the pitching staff could keep the Royals in contention well into the summer. But hope is not a strategy. And neither is playing Tony Pena every day.