Saturday, May 3, 2008

State of the Royals: May 2008.

I had this idea of doing a summation of where the Royals stand at the end of each calendar month, only to find when I woke up yesterday that Sam Mellinger had pretty much the same idea. Which goes to prove that great minds think alike. Also, that Sam can be very annoying. (On the other hand, his take on the Bissinger mess was excellent. If you guys aren’t Buzzed out by now, I might give you mine at some point.)

Anyway, I figured I’d go ahead with one anyway. The Royals are 12-16, a .429 winning percentage virtually indistinguishable from last year’s .426 mark. Moreover, whereas last year’s team scored 704 runs and allowed 788, leading to a Pythagorean record of 74-88, this year’s team has scored 101 runs and allowed 131, which over the course of a full season would lead to a 60-102 record.

I wouldn’t be overly concerned. The Royals are not outperforming their Pythagorean record because of a flukish performance in one-run games. In fact, despite an excellent bullpen (and teams with excellent bullpens have been proven to do better-than-expected in one-run games), the Royals are just 3-3 in one-run games. They’re 1-5 in two-run games, so they’re record in games decided by two runs or less (4-8) is worse than their record otherwise (8-8).

The downfall of the team is that they’re 0-6 in games decided by 5 runs or more. That is a meaningful stat – the mark of good teams is that the ability to clobber the opposition – but the Royals’ inability to blow out their opponents may have more to do with their inability to score enough runs to qualify as a blowout no matter how good their pitching is. Twice the Royals have lost by 10 runs or more – take out those two games, and the team would be 12-14 with 98 runs and 103 runs allowed. In other words, the Royals are two games away from actually having a Pythagorean record that’s better than their actual record. Meanwhile, the Royals can’t have won any games by 10 runs or more, because they haven’t scored 10 runs in a game yet.

And that’s the crux of the problem. The Royals have scored 3.61 runs per game, and you can’t aspire to even .500 with that kind of an offense, no matter how good your pitching is. Put it this way: the sweet spot of run production is between 3 and 5 runs in a game. So far in 2008, the other 29 teams are 163-175 (.482) when they score between 3 and 5 runs per game. The Royals are 9-4. That’s an amazing record, and a testament to the quality of their pitching. The problem is that they’ve already played 10 games in which they’ve scored fewer than 3 runs, and they’re 1-9 in those games. (Also, they’re just 2-3 in games they’ve scored more than 5 runs, which is probably a fluke.)

You might remember, the Royals scored between 3 and 5 runs in each of their first 8 games, and were 6-2. Well, they’ve now gone 10 straight games without scoring between 3 and 5 runs; their runs scored have gone 1, 1, 6, 0, 8, 2, 2, 9, 9, 1. In six of their last ten games the offense has given the pitching staff no margin for error, and not surprisingly the Royals are 3-7 in that span.

- The pitching staff ranks 11th in the league in runs allowed per game, and despite what you might think, that’s not all Hideo Nomo’s fault. (If Nomo had given up 2 runs instead of 9 in his Royals stint, the Royals would still rank 10th in the league.) The pitching staff has been more schizophrenic than Sybil. Fourteen pitchers have toed the hill for Kansas City – five of them have ERAs under 2.40, seven of them have ERAs above 5.90, and only two (Bannister and Gobble) are in the middle.

Behold the power of the small sample size.

Taken as a whole, the team’s pitching staff gives reason for optimism. In 245 innings, the staff has walked just 81 batters (2nd in the league) with 181 strikeouts (7th in the league) and 25 homers allowed (7th in the league). The team ranks as poorly as it does in runs allowed because the staff has allowed 261 hits, ranking only 9th in that category, despite the fact that the Royals have played the fewest games in the league.

Early in the season I pointed out that the Royals ranked near the top of the league in defensive efficiency, despite no defensive upgrades that would explain such a ranking, and that the team’s defensive performance might be a fluke. Well, we have our answer: it was. The team’s Def-Eff is now .687, which ranks 3rd from the bottom in the majors, ahead of only the Pirates and Rangers. I didn’t believe the Royals top-five ranking was legitimate then, and I don’t believe their bottom-five ranking is legitimate now. The defense should do a better job of turning batted balls into outs as the season goes on, which means that we can expect the pitching staff to hold steady or possibly improve even as the weather warms up.

- The offense is similarly schizophrenic, just at a much less ambitious level. Nine guys have played in 15 or more games this season. Four of them (Grudzielanek, Gordon, Teahen, and Butler) are hitting close to league average (OPS+ of between 97 and 114). Two guys (Buck and Gload) are doing poorly but not egregiously so (OPS+ of 82 and 83). Two guys flat-out suck (Gathright and Guillen, OPS+ of 52 and 46). And one guy is threatening to redefine offensive suckitude as we know it – Tony Pena’s OPS+ is 1, and he needed a two-hit game on Wednesday to get it out of negative territory.

Guillen’s performance to this point is the single most worrisome development of the season. He’s hitting .176/.212/.333. I realize he’s a streaky hitter, and you can argue that since starting the season 6-for-49 that he’s been on a hot streak the last 16 games. If .220/.258/.475 is Guillen’s idea of a hot streak, Dayton Moore just flushed 36 million dollars down the drain.

- You may not be happy with how the Royals are performing, but Guillen notwithstanding, if you’re a Royals fan you have to be happy with who is doing the performing.

Of the 13 men who have batted for the Royals this season, here’s how I would have ranked them at the start of the season in terms of their future importance to the Royals:


The first seven guys all project as starters in 2010; the other six are either free agents or probable backups at that point. So if you’re simply judging the Royals on how well they’re building a lineup for 2010, then you look at those top seven and you see two guys hitting extremely well in a small sample size (DeJesus and Callaspo), three guys hitting roughly as expected (Gordon, Butler, Teahen), one guy who’s a little disappointing (Buck), and then an outright disaster in Guillen.

Here’s the same thought experiment with the pitchers:


(Greinke ranks as low as he does simply because he’s a free agent after the 2010 season. If Moore hasn’t already broached the subject of a long-term deal with Greinke’s agent, he’s not doing his job.)

As much as I love what Nunez and Ramirez have done this year, the reality is that middle relievers are fungible – the fate of the Royals’ pitching staff rests in the hands of the first five guys on that list. Meche has been a disappointment. The other three guys have, each in their own ways, vastly exceeded what most people thought they were capable of, Bannister because everyone thought his rookie season was a fluke, Greinke because people questioned whether he had the mental toughness to succeed, and Soria because it was hard to imagine that Soria could pitch any better than he did last year.

Bannister has a 4.04 ERA and Greinke has a 1.47 ERA, but there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference in their real performance this season. Against Bannister, opposing hitters are batting .224/.273/.343; against Greinke they’re at .215/.262/.348. The difference is that Bannister had to pitch in Arlington the night there were gale-force winds blowing to right field, and that with runners in scoring position this year hitters are 8-for-22 against him. (Against Greinke, they’re 3-for-34.) They’re both on pace to be among the 15 best starters in the league this year.

It’s hard to judge Hochevar so far, but in five starts between Triple-A and the majors, e was outstanding in four of them. And quietly, he has shown excellent groundball potential; in his two starts in the majors, 24 of the 38 balls put in play against him have been grounders, which is outstanding.

As important as performance is health. And none of the pitchers (or hitters for that matter) have suffered any kind of serious injury.

The Royals may only be 12-16, but would you be happier if they Royals were 16-12 but they were doing so because Grudz was hitting .380 and Miguel Olivo had won the starting job behind the plate and had banged 8 homers and Brett Tomko was pitching out of his mind? I think not.

If you’re focused on the Royals’ chances of winning this year – and given how wide-open the division has been so far, I can’t blame you – then they’re performance this season, purely in terms of wins and losses, is disappointing. But if you evaluate the team with an eye to the future…well, the future of the Royals is, by and large, playing well.


Other subjects…Bob Dutton got some choice quotes from Hillman on the subject of pitch counts, and many thanks to Bob for following up on the topic. At this point, I’m not concerned. Hillman said, “I thought pitch counts are very relevant; I just think we hold onto them too closely.” In all honesty, he might be right. Baseball’s position on pitch counts has moved so rapidly over the past decade that it might be time to take a breather and re-evaluate.

I have no problem with a pitcher hitting 100 pitches regularly, and I have no problem with a veteran pitcher throwing 110-120 pitches regularly. Beyond 120, I do get nervous. But the reality is that, as Bob pointed out, aside from Meche’s long outing no Royals pitcher has thrown more than 111 pitches in a start. We’ll have to see how Hillman handles the staff as the weather warms up. But if the Royals’ pitch counts continue to resemble their April numbers all season, I will have no objections.

- When The Baseball Jonah was a rookie, I compared him to Bret Saberhagen as much for his precocity as for his pitching style, which was all about control. But I think the obvious comparison now is to Curt Schilling. I already connected the two together a few weeks ago when I mentioned how the two pitchers are among the stingiest in baseball history at giving up unearned runs. There’s a good reason for that. Greinke is on the verge of emerging, like Schilling, as a pitcher with a fantastic strikeout-to-walk ratio, but who can be beat with the long ball. Greinke’s last outing (7 4 2 2 0 9, 2 HR) looks like it was ripped right out of Schilling’s game log. Schilling didn’t become vintage Curt Schilling until he was 30 years old, but then, Greinke has always pitched with the moxie of a much older man.

The Schilling approach happens to be perfectly suited for Kauffman Stadium. Greinke lost on Thursday because he gave up 2 solo homers, because he had the misfortune of pitching in Arlington. Kauffman Stadium is one of the toughest home run parks in baseball, which neutralizes Greinke’s biggest weakness.

- It’s easy to diss Hochevar for not being Tim Lincecum or Joba Chamberlain. But on draft day, 2006, the consensus #1 player in the draft was neither Seabiscuit nor Joba. It was Andrew Miller.

Today, who would you rather have?

Hochevar was a disappointment in the minors last year, mostly because of a high ERA, but his peripherals were pretty good. Throw in his three good starts in Omaha this year, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors is 166 to 55, a tick better than 3 to 1. In 23 major league innings, he has a 3.86 ERA and has allowed one homer.

Miller, on the other hand, has a 6.57 ERA in 100 major league innings, including a 9.12 ERA this year, with 48 hits surrendered in just 26 innings. True, Miller had better minor league numbers, and no question has been hurt by being rushed to the majors. And yes, the Marlins defense has done him no favors this year.

But still…would you trade Hochevar for Miller right now? I’m not saying I wouldn’t. I’m just saying I’m not sure I would. Of course, Hochevar might get rocked by the time you read this.

- You are working on a long-term contract with Greinke’s agent, right, Dayton?


Anonymous said...

An interesting post on Ball Star raised this question:

When Bannister or Grienke pitch, why not let them bat and DH for Pena?

I think it's worthy of consideration.

Anonymous said...

Cause they can't. AL rule only allow the DH to be used for the pitcher. How unfortunate.

Adrian said...

Besides not getting hits, Guillen is also not getting hit. Among active players, Guillen is tenth in times hit by pitch. He was fourth in the American League a year ago and led the National League in that category in 2005. Yet he has zero this season in 118 plate appearances. He should, following last year's rate, have at least two. Is he standing further from the plate? Is he now afraid of the ball? Has he stocked up for Cinco de Mayo?

Unknown said...

Well Rany, I think you went and jinxed Hochevar. He gave up a HR tonight.

As far as pitch counts go, I stand right where you do for the most part. I have no problem with even having a pitcher start an inning with 100+ pitches. If it gets to over 120 and you haven't pulled him yet though then I get worried. Also, if you are going to run a pitcher for 115 pitches then he should probably not go that far in his next start. I think Greinke has gone over 100 in all but one or two of his starts and I have no problem with that at all.

I think that Guillen will turn things around. I haven't gotten the idea that he is going to be a problem in the clubhouse to this point so I have nothing against him and hope that he will get things going. He's not Tony Pena Jr.

Ryan said...

I think they should DH for Guillen.

EddieK said...

Did any of you come across this quote in the ESPN article on the Failure Dynasties? "Billy Butler hits like Ichiro, even if it also looks like he ate Ichiro." -Jonah Keri, ESPN

Dallas Tucker said...

um... jinx Luke? I don't think so. That was an outstanding outing, and I would not trade him for Andrew Miller right now. His stuff looks way better than I thought it would. If he can corral the walk numbers, he has a chance to be dominant.

Anonymous said...

I was told you can use the DH for any position on the field but its most commonly used for the pitcher. Can we get a ruling on this?

Matt the Dragon said...

From the Official Rules:

Rule 6.10 (b) A hitter may be designated to bat for the starting pitcher and all subsequent pitchers in any game without otherwise affecting the status of the pitcher(s) in the game.

(Emphasis mine.)

TychNine said...

Just a thought...
At what point does not having a left handed starting pitcher in the rotation put the Royals at a disadvantage (especially against teams that can stack up LH). With sending De La Rosa to Colorado, I don't see anyone (outside of Bale. maybe) that can step in and be effective in the Royals' immediate future. I understand the value in sending your best arms to the hill every day (night), but in my opinion the Royals will be faced with a measurable disadvantage by not having a lefty in their top 5 (or 8 including AAA). I am not certain, but I would say it is safe to assume the Royals are the only AL staff without a LH SP in their mix. Without having been much of a concern so far this season, with the great starts the Royals have been getting, I don't think anything needs to be done immediatedly, however, I do believe it should be at least an area of concern?

Thanks Rany. I love the blog.
Go Royals!

Anonymous said...

The Twins do not currently have a left-handed starter.

Aaron said...

Meh. You pitch your best pitchers, regardless.

TychNine said...

After some quick research I found these teams without a left hander in their rotation.

American League (2.5)
1. Toronto
2. Kansas City
3. Minnesota
-Liriano soon

National League (2)
1. Cincinnati
2. Los Angeles
3. Houston
-Wandy Rodriguez (15 day DL)
4. St. Louis
-Mark Mulder (15 day DL)

I would like to find what kind of average left handers are hitting against these teams, and if there is any statistical evidence to suggest that an all right handed staff should be a concern. Again, just a thought?

Side note:
De La Rosa's first start for Colorado was rocky to say the least. His line:

4IP, 9H, 9ER, 3BB, 4K, 20.25 ERA


Sumajestad said...

I'm a little bit concerned about the power shown by Gordon and Butler. If they both only project to have 20 HR ceilings, the Royals are going to need to find some other bats from... somewhere. Other than Moustakas, they certainly aren't in the minor leagues. Butler's and (especially) Gordon's HR tendencies could change very quickly, but it's not like both have really been lifting balls into the outfield consistently so far.

Gordon's .358 BABIP also seems unsustainable. Assume, instead, that he owned his 2008 BABIP numbers (.303). If my math is correct, he'd be hitting about .250 right now, rather than .291. This, of course, also brings his OBP and SLG down, and all of a sudden you're left with a rather disappointing start.

Rany, you said that we should be glad that we're not winning because of a hot streak by an old vet.- and I agree with you there, I really do- but should we still be excited if a young player is excelling because of a lucky start?

Let me say also that I don't know whether or not Gordon has really been lucky; I'm just putting the idea out there.

Unknown said...

As "ez duz it" pointed out, the Blue Jays don't have a left handed starter, and they have the second best ERA by starters (3.49) in the AL, along with being tied for the second most wins by starters (14) in the AL.

Anonymous said...

Was Bale upset that his arm wasn't responding or did he just get the news that his rotation spot was gone?

John said...

MLB Rule 6.10(B) states that the DH can bat for the pitcher, but not another fielder. Sorry. You also lose the DH if the pitcher goes and plays another position.

Shelby said...

I'd be fine with a 60-102 record.

Nathan Hall said...

I don't really understand the logic behind the idea that not having a left handed starter hurts you. True, some teams are better against right handed pitching, but then, some teams are also better against left handed pitching, and you aren't usually going to be able to juggle your rotation for the matchup. Even if you have 1 lefty in the rotation, that team that can gang up on RHP is still going to get to do so 4/5 of the time.

I guess it might matter if the bullpen were lefty-deficient (ours isn't), or if you had to win a 5 game playoff series against a particular team with lots of potent left-handed hitters. But I just don't understand why it would matter much over the course of the regular season.

TychNine said...

Again, just a thought...

I was unsure of whether or not there was any statistical evidence to suggest a benefit of having (or not having) a lefty. It just seems built into the traditional baseball minds that having a left hander in the rotation is a necessity. It is clear with only 4 teams not possessing a left hander in their top 5 that this is the popular logic. With so much emphasis placed on bullpen matchups later in games, I guess I just don't understand why you would not at least have a lefty going every 5th day. I just wish I had some definate evidence to make a case one way or the other.

Kelvin said...

Rany do you ever write anything after the Royals win a game? You are sounding more and more like Rob Neyer every day on here.... snap out of it. Until you do your nickname is definitely Oscar (as in "The Grouch")