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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.