Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Royals Today: The Starters.

And now, the starting pitchers…

- At the All-Star Break, Zack Greinke has pitched almost exactly as much as he pitched all of last season – he’s thrown 124 innings and faced 515 batters this year, compared to 122 and 507 last year. And the rest of his numbers are nearly identical as well:

- 122 hits allowed last year, 120 hits allowed this year;
- 36 walks last year, 36 walks this year;
- 106 Ks last year, 104 Ks this year;
- 52 runs allowed (50 earned) last year; 49 runs allowed (48 earned) this year;
- He was 7-7 last year; he’s 7-5 this year.

His ERA is a little better this year (3.48 to 3.69), but the league average is also better, and Zack’s ERA+ is a little worse this year (123 to 127).

The biggest difference is that Greinke allowed 12 homers last season, but 17 this year. On the other hand, he’s allowed just 22 doubles this year compared to 35 last year. His splits against him in 2008 are .252/.304/.422; last year they were .265/.319/.427. His OPS+ against was 96 last year, 95 this year. Any way you slice it, his performance has been identical.

Except for one massive difference: last year, Zack made 14 starts and 38 relief appearances, throwing 44% of his innings in relief. This year, he has been in the rotation all year. Use the same pitcher as a starter and then as a reliever, and there’s no comparison: almost every pitcher will be much more effective in relief. As a starter last season, Greinke let opposing hitters bat .292/.346/.494, but as a reliever they hit just .226/.282/.332.

So while on the surface it appears that Greinke hasn’t had a breakthrough season, he has. Four years ago I called him the future of pitching – the future has finally arrived. He ranks 7th in the league in VORP among pitchers. He’s the new Curt Schilling or Ben Sheets, a guy who can give you 220 innings a year with a terrific strikeout-to-walk ratio tempered only slightly by his propensity to give up homers. Unlike Schilling or Sheets, though, Greinke has a pristine health record (well, physical health record), and the time off two years ago probably helped his arm. His mechanics are considered to be excellent. Much like Posnanski recently wrote about DeJesus, we no longer have to dream about the promise of Zack Greinke’s future. The reality of his present is pretty damned good.

And oh, yeah: he’s still just 24 years old. I don’t care what else Dayton Moore does this season – if he doesn’t have Greinke signed to a long-term deal by Christmas, then his efforts as GM this season will earn a failing grade.

- I think the general perception of Brian Bannister is that he’s been a disappointment this season, with his 5.24 ERA, and a 6.34 ERA since April 30th. I can’t say I’m disappointed, because I expected this – and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I wrote in this year’s Baseball Prospectus that Bannister was going to struggle in the short term as he made adjustments. The thing is, he knew he would have to make some adjustments, and made some of them before the season began – which led to his great April. He has struggled since, but there’s still a light at the end of the tunnel.

Bannister’s struggling this year because he’s giving up more homers (1.17 per 9 innings vs. 0.82 last year), and because he’s giving up more hits on balls in play (.293 BABIP this year, .262 last year). But here’s the thing: we knew – and Bannister knew – that his BABIP last year was probably not sustainable. And given that he’s a flyball pitcher who pitches to contact, his home run rate last season was probably unsustainable as well. Meanwhile, his walk rate is up, but just marginally (2.62 vs. 2.40 BB/9 innings), but his strikeout rate is up significantly (5.40 vs. 4.20 K/9 innings.)

Bannister was so successful last year in part because of an ability to keep hits and homers off the board that wasn’t really an ability at all. His performance hasn’t declined this year – it’s simply regressed. Meanwhile, the most important skill for a flyball pitcher is the ability to strike hitters out – and that’s a trait that Bannister has been overtly working on this season, to good effect. There was simply no way a pitcher with Bannister’s profile could survive as a major league starter with a strikeout rate of 4.2 per nine. With a strikeout rate of 5.4 per nine? Now he has some wiggle room.

Back in the spring, when I wrote about Bannister as part of my spring training countdown, I finished my writeup with this exhortation to him: “Brian, if you’re reading this, just remember that the numbers aren’t saying you can’t remain effective. What they’re saying is that you can’t remain effective the same way. So while your efforts to keep your BABIP at a low level are laudable, focusing your efforts on getting more strikeouts is going to yield a lot more bang for your buck.”

I don’t know if Banny reads this blog, though of course if there’s one player who does, it’s him. But it really doesn’t matter, because Bannister is the one player in all of baseball who was most likely to reach this conclusion on his own. He’s actively trying to miss bats, and he’s going through the inevitable transition period as he learns how to do that without upsetting the other parts of his game.

I don’t know if he’s going to be successful. But I do know that he couldn’t continue to be successful with his old approach. It’s going to be very, very interesting to see how he performs in the second half.

- I can’t get a handle on Luke Hochevar. One start, he’s a strike-throwing, groundball machine; the next start, he’s the second coming of Scott Elarton. In 108 career innings, he’s allowed just 10 homers and 26 doubles – his career slugging average against is an impressive .409 – but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is a decidedly unimpressive 60-to-44.

I believe in him for two reasons. The first is that sinker. His G/F ratio is 1.86, which ranks 11th among the 121 pitchers in the majors with 80+ innings this year. As Nate Silver discovered a few years ago when he was tweaking his PECOTA formula, a pitcher’s tendency to be a groundball or flyball pitcher is an innate tendency that almost never changes over time. Saying that Hochevar is a groundball pitcher is almost like saying he’s right-handed; it’s not what he does, it’s who he is. By contrast, a pitcher’s walk and strikeout rates are much more mutable. Hochevar may not increase his strikeout rate dramatically, but he doesn’t really have to. His strikeout rate isn’t fantastic, but Chien-Mien Wang has thrived with a strikeout rate that’s even lower. (Hochevar’s sinker doesn’t compare to Wang’s, mind you.) If Luke can cut his walks by a third and keep the ball down, he’ll be a #3 starter at least.

I’ve never seen a study look at the issue of whether groundball pitchers have a tendency to peak later in their careers, but my guess would be yes. Kevin Brown had a breakout season when he was 31; Derek Lowe broke out as a closer at age 27, and as a starter at age 29. Wang was still in the minors when he was Hochevar’s age. Even Brandon Webb, who was an instant sensation, was 24 as a rookie – and just a year earlier had been a hittable and lightly-regarded prospect.

So there’s reason to believe Hochevar still has some upside, which he’s more likely to reach because of my second reason for optimism: his intellect. I haven’t dealt with him directly, but colleagues of mine who have were deeply impressed with his intelligence and self-awareness. I’ve said this many times before, but to reiterate: intelligence is vital for a starting pitcher. Good pitching requires a plan. Smart pitchers are more likely to be able to formulate that plan, execute it, adjust it on the fly, take feedback from it, and tweak that plan for the next start. As much attention as Bannister has received for trying to alter his approach as the season has progressed, Hochevar has been doing the same thing, both this year and last. It will be a long time before we know whether his plan is working, but I’ll always bet on the guy who’s trying to improve over the guy who’s coasting on his talent.

And remember: the guy everyone thought the Royals should have taken with the #1 overall pick, Andrew Miller, has a 5.66 career ERA. More surprisingly, given that Miller was considered an extreme groundball pitcher in college, his career G/F ratio is lower (1.62) than Luke’s (1.89). Yeah, yeah, in hindsight they should have taken Lincecum. But in foresight, they might have made the right call.

- Gil Meche, like the three pitchers above, is supposed to be a pretty smart guy. (And yes, Greinke is smart. He may come across as a flake, but I’m convinced that’s partly an act – and on the mound he’s a veritable pitching savant.)

But we’re beginning to see glimpses of the reason why most Mariner fans threw their hands up in despair for much of Meche’s tenure in Seattle. He’s got a ton of talent…but most of his career has been defined as a waste of that talent. This guy’s stuff is way too good for him to have a 4.71 ERA.

As with Bannister, let’s break down his peripherals to see where the problem lies. Compared to last year, Meche’s strikeout rate has held (6.50 last year, 6.58 this year). His walk rate is up a little (2.58 to 3.14), his homers are up a smidge (0.92 to 1.05), and his BABIP is up almost imperceptibly (.298 to .302). Last year opponents hit .263/.314/.397 against Meche; this year they’re at .269/.326/.429. In all honesty, he’s not pitching that much worse than last season, certain not enough to explain a jump in his ERA of over a point.

The biggest difference between The Epic of 2007 and 2008 is that last year, Meche turned it up a notch with runners in scoring position, allowing a line of just .233/.298/.355. This year, he’s been hit hard in those situations, with a line of .286/.353/.490. That’s the difference between a guy who strands 65% of the baserunners he puts on (and makes the All-Star team) and a guy who strands 55% of his baserunners (and has a below-average ERA).

The difference in Meche hasn’t been his skill level, just his timing. From start to start you don’t know if you’re going to get the guy who strikes out 10 batters in a start (as he did June 15th) or the guy who strikes out no one (July 2nd). But for the season as a whole Meche hasn’t been all that much worse than last year. The problem is that a lot of us thought last year might have been a springboard to bigger and better things, possibly heralding a breakout to #1 starter status a la Jason Schmidt or Chris Carpenter at the same age.

That hasn’t happened, and that’s unlikely to change. But Meche has been exceedingly durable (he tied for the league lead in starts last year, and is tied again this year), and if nothing else, a pitcher who gives you 34 starts with even a league-average ERA is a heck of a commodity. Even at $11 million a year, Meche has positive trade value if it ever came down to that.

- I have precious little to say about Kyle Davies. He’s also just 24 – him, Hochevar, and Greinke were all born in a six-week span in 1983 – and he has the best ERA of his career so far, but 1) a 4.59 ERA is nothing to write home about, and 2) his ERA is a fluke. It seems like all the injuries along the way have robbed Davies of his fastball – he’s averaging barely a strikeout every other inning, and even in Omaha wasn’t missing very many bats. He makes for a very capable replacement starter, but he should represent no roadblock whatsoever when the Royals feel Carlos Rosa is ready for an extended audition, ideally at some point in August.

- I haven’t had time to cover the minors in any detail this year, but suffice it to say that the Royals have as many quality starting pitching prospects as they’ve had in a long, long time. The overall depth of starting pitching in the organization, including the major league level, is probably the best it’s been since the Royals traded away Bret Saberhagen after the 1991 season. This was Dayton Moore’s stated priority when he was hired, and so far he’s come through in spades. Rosa has excellent stuff and the numbers finally reflect that this year; Dan Cortes is still the best pitching prospect in the system and he’s just 21; Blake Wood has a big-league future, if not in the rotation then certainly in the pen; and in the low minors Dan Duffy is proving last season was no fluke. That’s to say nothing of Julio Pimental (who pitched in the Futures Game) or Edward Cegarra, who’s starting for Wilmington at age 19, or the promise of newer draft picks like Michael Montgomery and Tyler Sample and Sean Runion.

Dayton Moore has tried to make a splash the last two winters by signing premium free agents to eight-figure contracts. This winter, I predict he’s going to make a splash by taking advantage of all this pitching depth to trade some of it for a middle-of-the-order hitter.

- Another housekeeping note: due to overwhelming demand, I’ve decided to move the ballpark meet-up at U.S. Cellular Park from Saturday to SUNDAY, July 20th. You don’t necessarily have to email me to confirm – just show up at the park as follows.

The game is at 1:05 CDT, and the plan is this: we’ll meet outside of Gate 3 at 12:15 PM SHARP. At 12:30 SHARP, we’ll head to the ticket office and purchase the best tickets available for a group of our size. Looking at the White Sox’ attendance this year, the only Sunday game that sold out was against the Cubs, so I think we’re safe there. Worst case, we’ll find some scalpers and split up into groups. If you’re coming to the game but already have tickets, drop by and say hi.

I’ll be the tall pasty guy with the Royals cap and the white Zack Greinke jersey. If there’s any change in plans – inclement weather, the Sox graciously provide us with a luxury box, whatever – I’ll post it here, so check here before the game just to be safe.


Anonymous said...

If Greinke is smart, who is dumb? Is the base line for this sort of judgement Manny Ramirez?

I used to believe Greinke was smart, but (like the rest of us, I think) I was basing this off of his pitching ability and on the assumption that his interviews were more or less a gag.

Well, it's been four years now, and Greinke has matured from a "crafty" wiz kid into a power pitcher with great control. I don't think he's really fooling hitters so much anymore as he is simply beating them with quality pitches.

As far as the interviews go, if Greinke really was brilliant, you'd think he would accidentally state something eloquently once or twice in four years' time.

And I could be wrong: the man could be a socially uncomfortable diabolical genius; I just think something other than a great fastball needs to be presented as evidence.

Anonymous said...

It's hard to count on Ben Sheets for 220 innings even though he's done it in the past. He's Hardenesque. Please don't compare Greinke to Sheets!

Anonymous said...

p.s. this is a GREAT blog Rany!

RoyalPrick said...

Does Greinke have a nickname yet?

Was "The Savant" in the mix?

Anonymous said...

Pasty? Really? I've never seen a picture of you, Rany, but I always expected that you had a dark, Middle-Eastern type of complexion.

You seem down on Davies, but one thing you can say about him that is true of no one but Brian Bannister - he has already earned us back what we paid for him. Meche still needs to give us 3 more $11M worthy years, Luke might not have been worth the only #1 draft pick in Royals history, and the five-year Greinke odyssey has has so many ups and downs, who knows where it's going next. Davies, at least, only cost us two months' service of a closer who was not as good as Joakim Soria, I think he's given us more benefit than that.

And, I might add, there's always the slim chance Ambiorix Burgos can still make something of himself. Whereas no matter what, Dotel, the closer we didn't really need, was only ours for two months.

Anonymous said...

And, I should add, he got injured almost immediately after he was traded.

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

To see a prime representation of Zack Greinke, the soft-spoken lawn-care specialist, watch Casey Affleck in "Drowning Mona"

My fear is that Moore sees Zack as a prime representation of his "pitching is the currency of baseball" philosophy and decides to get 3 prospects for him. This is the type of guy you want to acquire and then keep on your team; the type of guy for whom you want to trade.

I hope Moore knows when to stop tinkering and let his GM-ing play itself out.

Anonymous said...

Rany, wouldn't the sizable drop in Meche's groundball rate (from 46.8% to 39.1%) indicate a change in performance, especially where it has led to a sizable increase in line drives allowed (from 17.8% to 22.7%)?

djclung said...

unrelated to the article about pitchers but has anyone looked at ryan shealy lately???? hitting .300 with 14 hr's why isn't he starting at 1st right now, lets try to get something from the affelt trade!

Anonymous said...

The royals future lies with grienke and hochevar. bannister will be nothing but an average pitcher, and meche much the same. if only the royals had another pitcher with 4 above average pitches, great poise, and a nifty nickname in the organization? perhaps a player that works a different, less useful current role? Maybe this player could be from our neighbor to the south?

Anonymous said...

Rany -

Can you weigh in or the "trade, or not to trade" debate concerning Greinke? Curious to hear your thoughts on that (mine are concise: "no").

Thanks for providing me some quality diversions from work too! :)

Nathan Hall said...

I agree with djclung that we should promote a minor league firstbaseman and see what he can do. I'm just not sure it should be the 28-yr-old Shealy, who is having a good year in AAA, or 24-yr-old Kila Kaaihue, who is hitting .304/.453/.609 with 23 HRs in Arkansas. Kaaihue hasn't hit lefties yet, but I think he at least deserves to be part of the discussion when trying to fill the void at 1B and field a competitive team next year.

Speaking of which, I wouldn't be surprised to see the Royals sign a free agent bat rather than trading for one. We know they're still willing to spend money, because they tried to sign Andrew Jones and Tori Hunter last off season, and money wasn't the reason they failed to do so. Mark Teixeira would be a fantastic fit, if one of Shealy or Kaaihue doesn't show enough this year to earn the job. Also, Orlando Hudson is one of the ten or so people in the world who might be a defensive upgrade over Grudzielanek at 2nd, and he can hit too. My dream Royals linup for next year features both those players, which I think would make this a really good team. Moore seems capable of making that kind of splash, and that's one reason to be excited about 2009.

I agree that signing Grienke should be a higher priority, though, of course.

Anonymous said...

Teixeira! Wow, that would be great. And, there's no if about it. There is nobody in the organization that is capable of making us question inserting him at 1B if it were able to happen.

Anonymous said...

Teixeira would be a perfect fit on any team. I cannot see the Royals paying the 18-19 million a year he will probably get. I think the Mets and Yankees will both be looking to sign him. Maybe next year we will see the .280-.290 20/20 Alex Gordon? Obviously, that won't be a panacea but it would sure help.

Anonymous said...

Off topic, as well, but since some discussion about potential free agents seems to have found its way to these comments about Rany's post on Royals' pitching, I'd like to attempt to make a case for Adam Dunn. Here's why:

He's in his eighth season in Cincinnati, with a career line of .247/.381/.521, so he hits for power and draws walks. With 26 home runs at the break, Dunn is 14 shy of recording his fifth-straight 40+ home run campaign, and he has drawn more than 100 walks in five of his previous seven seasons with the Reds (and he currently has drawn 69). Sure, he strikes out a ton, averaging 1.12 Ks per game over the span of his career, but his offensive punch would really bolster the middle of the Royals' lineup.

He could play either left field -- with DeJesus in center, and Guillen or Teahen in right -- or first base.

This past offseason, as far as I know, I was one of the first fans to really trumpet the potential free agent signing of Torii Hunter.

This year, I would love to see KC make a serious bid for the services of Adam Dunn. I agree that Teixeira will likely end up wearing pinstripes, and Dunn is the guy to go after with an attractive offer.

Go, Royals! Thanks, Rany...

Anonymous said...

good post, not sure if anyone noticed, but you forgot about Joey in the bats section. Was that on purpose??

Nathan Hall said...

By the way, great post on the Royals starters, Rany. I bet the reason a lot of the comments don't have a lot to say about them is that we all agree with you. Zack is an ace whose reputation hasn't quite caught up with his performance yet, so now is the time to sign him up long term; Hochevar and Meche can contribute to the rotation of a good team; like most teams, the 4-5 spots are more about hope than performance at this point. I'd really like to know, however, what you think of eventually moving Soria to the rotation.

Shelby said...

Re: Adam Dunn

Might his strikeouts go up and walks down facing AL pitching? Honest question.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that "Eliot Ness" be Zack Greinke's nickname. If the name hasn't been suggested already.

I was listening to a Royals broadcast a few weeks ago that suggested that only 4 Royals pitchers have made it through a game with 10 strikeouts and no walks (assuming I heard that correctly). In any case, the broadcaster noted that all 4 of these pitchers, Greinke included, last names began with the letter 'G'. Which led to commentators to refer to the group as 'G-Men'.

As I am sure everyone knows, G-Men often times refers to goverment agents, like the FBI. The most famous G-Man that I can think of is 'Eliot Ness', who had the added benefit of being 'Untouchable'. I think it fits perfectly for Zack Greinke.

Anonymous said...

Along came Wild Billy and his friend G-Man duded up for Saturday night!