Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Royals Today: The Relievers.

On to the bullpen, although first I need to back up and discuss Joey Gathright, who somehow got left out of my review of the hitters.

Gathright looked like he might be ready for prime time last season. He hit .307 and drew some walks, and it’s almost impossible for a guy with a .371 OBP and blazing speed to not have value. This year, he’s essentially the same player – he strikes out about every 7 at-bats and walks about half that often, he’s still hitting the ball on the ground more than 75% of the time – but the hits aren’t falling in. He has seven more at-bats than last year, but 11 fewer hits. A .300 hitter with speed can play every day with no semblance of power; a .250 hitter can’t.

The difference between last year’s .307 and this year’s .256 can probably be chalked up to random variance. The problem is that it’s more likely that last year was the fluke than this year. He’s a career .263 hitter, which is pretty unimpressive for a left-handed hitter who’s one of the fastest players in the major leagues. Someone like Ichiro Suzuki pads his average with a ton of infield singles, but the difference is that Suzuki also occasionally gets hits on balls that, you know, reach the outfield.

Gathright gets a bunch of infield singles too – and that’s all he gets. Most of the time he doesn’t even bother trying hitting the ball anywhere else – he tries to bunt for a hit more than anyone else in the league (last year only Willy Taveras bunted more often.) Only once in his career has he managed more than 10 extra-base hits in a season, and this year he has all of three. I mean, the guy has seven triples in his career of over 1100 at-bats. Tony Pena Jr. has eight triples in just over 700 at-bats – and Pena has neither speed nor power. Any ball down the right field line or in either gap is a potential triple with Gathright’s speed, so the fact that he has only seven of them gives you some idea of how rarely he hits the ball that far.

And if you have no power to speak of, at some point the opponents are simply going to dare you to hit the ball over them. It’s not just that the infield plays shallow on Gathright – the outfield can play at almost Texas Leaguer-depth. The complete lack of power also inhibits Gathright’s ability to draw walks.

Last season, Joey spent half the year in Omaha and in 60 games drew 43 walks and had a .457 OBP. But in the majors he’s drawn just 36 walks in 470 AB the last two seasons, because major league pitchers are going to throw strikes when they know the hitter can’t make them pay if a pitch catches too much of the strike zone. Plus, it’s hard to draw walks when you’re bunting on the first pitch. Gathright has seen just 3.4 pitches per plate appearance this year, down from 3.52 last season and roughly 3.75 before that. I thought he could become another Gary Pettis, who hit just .236 for his career but drew enough walks that he had a .332 OBP, but even Pettis had a twinge of power to keep pitchers honest. Gathright doesn’t. (Although Pettis struck out a ridiculous amount – he averaged 131 whiffs per 162 games – for a guy with no power. What a weird player he was.)

Gathright’s been terrific on the basepaths this year, but he can’t use his speed if he’s not on the bases, and he’s not going to get on base often enough to be effective if the only threat he poses is the threat of a six-hopper to the shortstop. He’s well-cast in the role of fourth outfielder, but that’s all he is.

Moving on…

Is it safe to say that Joakim Soria, barring an unexpected collapse, will finish with one of the best seasons by a reliever in Royals history? Consider this: only three times in Royals history has a reliever pitched 30 innings or more with a WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) of less than one: Jeff Montgomery in 1989, Dan Quisenberry in 1983, and Soria. That’s Soria last year, when his WHIP was .942, behind only Quiz’s .928 mark in 1983, the year he should have won the Cy Young Award. (In Quiz’s defense, twice he would have had WHIPs under 1 if you don’t count intentional walks.)

You know what Soria’s WHIP is this year? .705. Just three relievers in history have had a lower WHIP in a season with 70+ innings – Dennis Eckersley (in 1989 and 1990), Eric Gagne (2003), and J.J. Putz last year. (Although Mariano Rivera has a .677 WHIP this season himself.)

Soria is on pace for 42 saves, which won’t match the record of 45 shared by Monty and Quiz, but is awfully close – and pitching for a much worse team that those two toiled for. And Soria’s ERA of 1.43 would be the second-best by a reliever in team history, behind Montgomery’s 1.37 mark in 1989. (Little-known fact: Montgomery has the lowest single-season ERA of any AL pitcher with 90 or more innings in the live-ball era.)

Objectively, Soria’s on pace for the third-best season by a Royals’ reliever, behind Quisenberry’s 1983 (139 IP, 1.94 ERA, 45 saves) and Montgomery’s 1989 (92 IP, 1.37 ERA). Soria has been better than everyone on an inning-for-inning basis – but he’s only on pace for 71 innings. Such is the role of the modern closer. The four pitchers who led the two leagues in saves in 2006 and 2007 averaged less than 64 innings. Twenty years ago, the four pitchers who led in saves in 1986-87 averaged over 98 innings.

It’s possible that modern closers are even more dominant than their predecessors on an inning-for-inning basis, but certainly not enough to make up for the massive drop in their innings. Which once again raises the question: would the Royals be better off with Soria in the rotation?

I don’t have a clear answer. Soria certainly has a starter’s repertoire. His personality is perfectly suited for a closer, but not in the sense that he gets all fired up to throw ridiculous heat for an inning, but in the sense that he never lets his emotions get the better of him. That personality certainly wouldn’t be a detriment in the rotation.

My biggest concern with a move to the rotation is simply that as dominant as Soria is, he doesn’t throw incredibly hard – typically topping out around 91 mph. His effectiveness stems from his diverse repertoire, some deception in his delivery, and above all his tremendous command. Those things should all translate well as a starter – but his velocity is likely to drop a little, and you have to ask yourself, how dominant can he be if he’s throwing 87-88? Greg Maddux won a bunch of Cy Young awards that way, but it’s not the typical formula for an ace.

I’d like to see the Royals experiment with Soria in the rotation before year’s end, now that it’s clear the Royals are not playing for 2008. I highly doubt this will happen, though. All I ask is that if Moore and Hillman are committed to Soria as their closer, that they use him like a 1980s style closer, not a 2000s style loser. I’m not talking about Goose Gossage or Dan Quisenberry, guys who threw 120+ innings a season and would come in to put out a fire with the bases loaded in the 7th. (Although that would be nice.) I’m just asking that they bring Soria in for the 8th inning on occasion, that they try to get 90-100 innings out of him in a season instead of just 70.

Soria averages just 15.5 pitches an inning, in large part because he faces so few batters per inning. The major league average is somewhere north of 17 pitches an inning – so right there, you can see that 90 innings for Soria is the equivalent of barely 80 innings for an average reliever in terms of the wear and tear on his arm. Soria doesn’t have a maximum-effort delivery and doesn’t appear to be at high-risk for arm injury. He is a Tommy John survivor, but on the other hand guys who come back from TJ surgery tend to have a “honeymoon” period of about 5 years when they’re very unlikely to suffer another elbow injury.

Hillman has shown some willingness to use Soria for two innings – he’s done so four times this year – but twice Soria came into pitch in a tie game in extra innings, and one of the time he blew the save in the 9th but came back to pitch the 10th after the Royals took the lead again. Only once all year has Soria come into pitch in a save situation before the 9th inning – May 31st against the Indians, after he hadn’t pitched in three days. He’s pitched the 8th inning three other times, but all three games were games the Royals were losing badly and Soria just needed some work.

Hillman has asked Soria to get more than three outs for a save just once all year. That’s a ridiculous misuse of resources. I wrote about this Sunday, but if Hillman didn’t use him for a six-out save then, he’s never going to use him. Hillman’s been pretty good about using Soria in tie games, something a lot of managers won’t do – he’s done so four times – but until he lets go of the reins a little and uses Soria in the 8th inning, he’s not going to get maximum value out of his closer.

One of the biggest arguments used against the idea of moving Soria to the rotation is that it’s been so long that the Royals have had a good closer, and the psychological impact of blowing those 9th-inning leads for the last 10 years can’t be understated. This is true – the Royals, from 1996 through 2005, had a .386 winning percentage in one-run games. That’s not just bad, folks. That’s the worst record over a ten-year span by a team in major league history.

But my reply to that is this: the problem with the Royals in the late 1990s and early 2000s wasn’t that they didn’t have any good closers. The problem is that they didn’t have any good relievers.

Consider this little fact. What percentage of teams have at least one reliever on their roster with an ERA under 3? I’d say the vast majority of teams do – relievers vary so much from year to year that even marginal relievers will occasionally have an ERA in the 2s purely by chance. And for most of their history, the Royals did. If you define “reliever” as anyone who made 40 or more relief appearances, the Royals had a “good reliever” on their roster every year from 1981 to 1994. Until 1995, they never went more than two seasons without a good reliever – and only once (1979-1980) did they go more than one season without a good reliever.

Until 1995. Starting that season, the Royals didn’t have a single good reliever on their roster…for 12 straight years. You would think, in one of those years, they’d have a reliever who lucked into a good year, or whose teammates bailed him out a few times to keep his ERA down, or hell, someone who just gave up a ton of unearned runs to make his ERA artificially low.

I mean, for God’s sake, the Rockies, playing in the best hitters’ park ever created, have never gone three straight years without a good reliever. The Royals went an even dozen. With the kind help of my Baseball Prospectus colleague, Bil Burke, I can tell you that in the divisional era (1969-onwards), the Royals’ stretch of 12 consecutive years without a reliever with a sub-3 ERA is twice as long as the next-longest stretch. Four teams went six straight years without a “good reliever” – the 1972-77 Angels, 1982-87 Twins, 1993-98 Twins, and 1999-2004 Devil Rays. No team had a stretch of longer than six years – except our boys in blue.

Last year, finally, the Royals broke that streak. Soria had a 2.48 ERA, and he didn’t lead the team; David Riske had a 2.45 ERA. Jimmy Gobble’s 3.02 ERA (little known fact: 2007 was the last time Gobble recorded an out) was the third-best ERA in the bullpen – and the third-best ERA of any Royals reliever in 13 years.

This season, Soria is on pace for the first sub-2 ERA since Steve Farr in 1990 – and so is Ron Mahay. Ramon Ramirez had his ERA peek just over 3 after surrendering his first run of the season, but if he throws a scoreless inning his next time out his ERA will drop back into the 2s. Leo Nunez should get to 40 appearances if he stays healthy the rest of the season, and his ERA is 1.69. The Royals could conceivably end up with four relievers with an ERA under three. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Soria were moved to the rotation, the Royals have three different candidates to replace him that have all pitched better than any other closer the Royals have used since the strike.

So this argument that the Royals can’t afford to move Soria because it’s been so long since they had an ace closer, and they shouldn’t mess with a good thing…I don’t buy it. The Royals have more quality options in their bullpen than they have since I was a teenager. There are a number of compelling arguments why they should leave Soria alone, but the fear of what happens to the ninth inning should not be one of them.

Reviewing the other relievers quickly:

- Ron Mahay has been, in a word, studly. His 1.78 ERA is just shy of the team record by a left-handed reliever (1.73, by Tom Burgmeier in 1971.) He has no platoon split to speak of – lefties are hitting .225, righties are hitting .223. He leads the bullpen in innings pitched, an amazing achievement for a left-hander. He’s been an absolute revelation.

Naturally, this means that the Royals are contemplating trading him. On paper, it makes sense. There are always contenders in need of a good lefthander in the bullpen (unlike, say, second base, where the market for Grudzielanek is nearly non-existent), and Mahay should fetch some decent talent. The fact that he’s signed for 2009 is a plus; realistically the Royals can’t expect to contend next season, so the value of keeping him for next year is outweighed by the value he’d bring another team.

The biggest reason not to trade him is this: these are baseball players, not baseball cards, and baseball players do not take kindly to being treated as such. Mahay signed a contract to pitch for the Kansas City Royals. He did so as a free agent, meaning he was free to sign with any team, and he chose Kansas City. Implicit in that contract is an understanding that Mahay will not be sold off at a profit at the first opportunity.

Obviously, players know that trades are part of the game. Any pre-free agency player is fair game, and so is any player in the final year of his contract. But if a team trades a player in the first year of a multi-year contract, they run the risk that the next time they want to sign a free agent, that player will say, “why should I sign with you when I might have to pack up and move in six months?” If the right deal comes along, the Royals should take it. But it has to be the right deal, or they run the risk of hurting their future forays in the free-agent market for a modest short-term gain.

- Ramon Ramirez just surrendered his first homer of the season, and has surrendered just two homers in 80 innings away from Coors Field in his career. Strangely, he’s not a groundball pitcher at all. This leads to the suspicion that his HR rate is a bit of a fluke, which it probably is. The more telling stat is that away from Coors Field, his career ERA is 2.24. There’s not much fancy about Ramirez – he throws a good fastball and an excellent slider – and he’s a good bet to remain effective. Just keep in mind that, like most pitchers with his repertoire, he’s susceptible to left-handed hitters, who against Ramirez hit about 80 points better than right-handers across the board.

- I don’t have much to say about Leo Nunez – you can’t conclude much about 21 innings, excellent though they were. I will say this: it’s good to have him back.

- Jimmy Gobble sucks.

Not enough for you? Assuming his season ends shortly – we can only hope – he will finish with the highest ERA ever by a Royals pitcher with 24 or more innings. In second is Don Wengert, 1999 (9.25), followed by Dan Reichert, 1999 (9.08). Just missing the list because of my arbitrary cutoff is Albie Lopez in 2003, with a 12.71 ERA in 22 innings. (Remember what I said about having bad relievers? Yeah.)

- Horacio Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda are just the most recent examples of why you should never, ever give up on a pitcher entirely until you’ve tried him in relief. Tejeda had a wee problem throwing strikes last night, but in 12.2 innings since he joined the team, he has struck out 14 and allowed just six hits. Horacio hasn’t walked a single batter in 15.2 innings. Just as importantly, both pitchers can work two or even three innings when needed, which is vital for a team that’s prone to having its starter knocked out of the game early. I think the idea of moving Horacio back to the rotation (and optioning Bannister) is ludicrous, though. At his best Horacio was a #4 starter, and he wasn’t always at his best. If we can turn him into a quality long reliever from the left side, that’s more valuable than anything he’s likely to give us in the rotation.

- The new kid who pitched last night showed a lot of potential. His fastball only touched 90, but he came with a three-quarters delivery and his arm has whip-like action that should make him tough on right-handers. He froze Ivan Rodriguez with a nasty curveball, and anyone who can strike Pudge out looking has some potential. He also showed some fine leather on the mound. And best of all, pitching in the AL, he won’t have to hit.

Yeah, the notion of using Tony Pena Jr. on the mound is crazy. But then, so is the notion of using him at the plate.

31 comments:

tilly uhlich me so hard said...

Thanks for the great analysis.

Hope we are all still "feeling better" this year. Despite being in last place, it "feels better" this year. Despite getting our head kicked in again, it "feels better" this year. It is a matter of degree, maybe we are getting our head kicked in a little less.

Well, it is. Two games better. Go Royals, in 10 years, this will be some product.

JP said...

While we're talking about the worst relievers in Royals history, although Albie Lopez was bad, I remember Graeme Lloyd most from 2003. Looking at the stats now, I accept that Albie Lopez was worse. But Graeme Lloyd ate my soul, because we got him from the Mets, where he was a good reliever, with a 3.31 ERA. After we got him (that same season, mind you!), he posted a 10.95 ERA in 12.1 IP. If you want to make me cry, force me to look into his game log with the Royals in 2003.

Brett said...

The only thing crazy about using Tony Pena Jr. as a pitcher is that if the Roylas ever wanted to trade him, an AL team would be the only option. NL teams wouldn't want a pitcher who's that bad when he has to bat.

Anonymous said...

What's the contract status for Horacio Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda?
It seems like I've seen that Horacio is a FA at year end?
Is Tejeda entering his first year of arbitration?

Anonymous said...

One comment on Mahay. My bet is he is loving the prospect of a trade to a contender. Professionals play for two things; money and chmapionships. While we would like to believe a player wants to play in KC for the bar-b-q, the school districts or the quality of air, it just isn't true. In fact, I would take your point and reverse it. A player can sign for the Royals for slightly above market value and then know that if he performs well for half a season, he will be traded (with multi-year contract in-tow) to a contender. That would be an incentive to sign!

Brandon said...

Pena didn't know how to use Graeme Lloyd, and Lloyd just didn't deliever. Remember that Lloyd was once brought into the game in the 3rd inning when Appier got hurt. Eventually Pena didn't use him for 18 games in a row (and didn't use him in a game that we came within 8 runs of winning)

In 16 games that Lloyd pitched in as a Royal, the Royals lost 15 times.

Since May 21st, Jimmy Gobble has a 15.85 ERA (with 27* earned runs in 15 1/3 IP)

[BR has him giving up 26 runs and 27 earned runs, which doesn't seem possible]

Gobble has walked 17 and struck out 8 over this time.

From April 4th to May 18th, he had a 3.86 ERA with 12K and 4BB in 9 1/3 IP.

So, in all reality, he should probably have his arm checked out as a precaution. Or Trey screwed up Gobble's head big time with some pitcher-handling skills that he learned in Japan.

Andrew Hoien said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Andrew Hoien said...

Rany,

Not to nitpick your fantastic post, but Curt Leskanic had a 1.77 ERA for us after we aquired him from the Brewers in 2003 (albiet in 27 games). His overall ERA for 2003 was 2.22 with 53 appearances between Milwaukee and KC.

Link: http://www.baseball-reference.com/l/leskacu01.shtml

Anonymous said...

Another reason Soria's non-blistering fastball might work in the rotation:

Shaun Marcum.

I've seen him pitch 7 inning shutouts without ever touching 90. He was a college reliever and SS, I believe.

Brandon said...

"he should probably have his arm checked out as a precaution."

Gobble was sent to the DL today with back strain.

Looks like keeping him out for 45 pitches is a great reflection of how Trey learned to manage pitchers in Japan.

ChaimMKeller said...

Tony Pena and Matt Tupman are the perfect battery (until proven otherwise).

Brendan said...

Gobble is on the DL with a bruised ego.

Mike Fast said...

Rany, great article, as usual.

I'm curious about the data behind your assumption that Soria would lose 3 or so mph off his fastball in a starting role? The only study I've seen on the subject, by Dan Turkenkopf, found no change in fastball speed between starting and relieving.

For that matter, to look at your two examples of pitchers moving in the opposite direction, Robinson Tejeda was averaging 94-95 mph as a starter, and that's where he is as a reliever, too. Same for Horacio Ramirez, around 89-90 mph both as a starter and a reliever.

Nathan said...

Although his stuff is completely different from Soria's, Joba Chaimberlain is another pitcher who didn't seem to lose much when returning to the rotation.

Isaac said...

A few questions for you Rany so I hope you read this. Have you heard of a situation similar to the Royals where they purposely put a player on the DL in order to bring a player they just sent down back up? I find it awfully funny that they placed Gobble on the DL and not on the first train out of town. Have they stitched AAA into Musser's uniform? Why have they not given him a chance when we have pitchers like Gobble?

At the beginning of July, it looked as though Aviles was cooling off drastically. In the first seven days of this month, Pena started three games. Aviles went 3-5 on July 7th and hasn't looked back since. Other than that first week of July, since June 25th Pena has started not one game. In the two games he has gotten to the plate in, we won one 9-1 and lost the other 19-4. We have won three one run games and he has been in none of them. We have been in three additional games that have been save situations and Pena has been in none of them.

Therefore, my question is why the hell do we have him? He has only one possible value that I can think of and that is as a late inning defensive replacement. We aren't even using him in those situations anymore and he only is appearing in blow outs. The Royals can't possibly be worried about someone grabbing him off waivers can they? Why do they think we would not be able to stick him in the minors? Why are others who are performing in Omaha not getting a chance while Pena who's value doesn't match that of a utility player is sitting on the bench?

I think you already answered my other question which was why is Gathright still on this team? A guy with a .307OBP and no power should not be starting on a team with serious offensive woes.

Anonymous said...

What's the contract status for Horacio Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda?

Horacio will be a FA at the end of the year. It looks like Tejeda will still be pre-arb as he will have about 2 years and 90 days of service time, not even enough for "Super 2" status.

ac said...

What Isaac said! Amen, brother!

Matt S said...

Serious question: are there any blogs out there that get close to the kind on intelligent analysis you get here and on Royals Review? You'd think there would be because the Chiefs have such a huge fan base.

But at the arrowhead forums, maybe one post in 10 isn't either unbridled rosy optimism about the draft or complete vitriol for every single move Carl Peterson has ever made. It would be nice to find some balanced intelligent discussion on the Chiefs like what seems to be abundant for the Royals. thx

Matt S said...

OOPS - I meant to say Chiefs' blogs in that first sentence.

Bill N said...

Rany,
I suggest nicknaming Pena: "TP-K" after his punch out of I-Rod. It is also a near perfect description of his hitting so it is appropriate no matter where he is playing.

Isaac said...

Bill: LOL, that was funny.

Rany said...

Responding to Mike Fast:

Hmmm. That is interesting. I was not aware of that study before, and I must say that those results are...shall we say, counterintuitive.

If I'm reading the study correctly, there is a difference in velocity between starting and relieving, but it's on the order of only 1 mph or so. But there is a more significant impact on the movement of pitches - this may be a concern for Soria because his fastball has natural cutting action which is one of the keys to his success.

I must say that I'm not completely convinced by this study, given that multiple 5-star analysts (Nate Silver, Tom Tango) have shown that there is a dramatic improvement in performance when a starter moves to the pen. There has to be some reason for this, doesn't there?

And anecdotally, you can point to Tejeda and Horacio, but the two most significant examples in recent Royals history of pitchers who moved from starting to relieving and back are Jeremy Affeldt and Greinke. Affeldt threw 91-94 as a starter at the beginning of his career - but in the pen he'd hit 96-98. Greinke tops out around 94 as a starter the last two years - he also hit 96-98 as a reliever. Those numbers are subject to massive variance depending on whose radar gun is used, obviously. Pitch F/X data is probably not available for Affeldt's Royals tenure, but we should have some data for Zack.

It's an open area for more study, certainly. If Soria can maintain his velocity in the rotation, so much the better - I support a trial as a starter either way.

Anonymous said...

"Lower back stiffness" is Royalese for "severe case of the sucks."

Mike Fast said...

Rany,

I don't count Dan's study as the last word on the issue, but if there's another study on it, I haven't seen it. I don't think we really know why pitchers tend to perform so much better in relief.

I imagine for some pitchers it is a case of improved velocity, but that seems to be far from universally true. I know Tango talks sometimes about the difference being due to being able to throw harder in relief, but as far as I know that is an assumption, not something he has studied.

It seems to be an open question for research about which skills and types of pitchers transfer well from starting to relieving and vice versa.

I looked at Greinke's PITCHf/x data last year, and he lost 1-2 mph when he went back into the rotation, from 94-98 as a reliever to 92-97 as a starter.

I'd like to see Soria in the rotation if only to see that great curveball more often.

Casper said...

I'm absolutely staggered that Mark Davis isn't mentioned once in anyone's discussion of terrible relievers in Royals history.

lew said...

Rany, great stuff as usual. I would love for someone to write about the recent moves regarding Gordon. Bein pitch hit for then sitting (they guy has started nearly every game). Is he in Hillmans dog house and if so why?

Jay in Houston said...

just read the braves are willing to trade francouer. do the royals have anything to offer that they would consider for him? i know we have more than our fair share of low OBP outfielders and hitters in general, but at least francouer has proven to be a solid run producer.

he's definitely better than anything we have outside of dejesus/guillen.

plus he's pretty solid defensively from what i've heard.

with jeff being a brave, i'm sure dayton has heard this news. i just hope GMDM at least inquires about the asking price.

then, if we haven't yet given up on teahen, we can shift him to 1B full-time or relegate him to a 4th OF.

your thoughts?

tza said...

it's good to have a closer.

AND - the Royals are undefeated with Maier starting in center!

paul said...

tza- we know it is good to have a closer. and we have one: his name is zach grienke. the guy just doesn't have the makeup to be a starter. i think he would be a great closer. the royals need soria to be a starter and they need him to be a great one.
IT HAS BEEN FAR TOO LONG SINCE THIS TEAM WAS RELEVANT. SOMETIMES SOME MOVES NEED TO BE MADE!!!or the royals can keep plodding along at this pace and they'll go 70-90 every year.

Shelby said...

am intrigued by and agree with what Jay in Houston said.

Anonymous said...

http://www.kansascity.com/sports/story/722113.html

Melky Cabrera For Bannister? I'd like to hear your take.