Sunday, August 10, 2008

Weird Thoughts Late On A Saturday Night.

First off, many thanks to all of you for the wondrous outpouring of support that you have given me and my friend Mazen. It’s easy to search the web and come across forums and comment boards that make me double-check the locks on my doors and wonder what kind of country my daughters are growing up in. It is deeply gratifying to be reminded once again that the vast majority of Americans are wonderfully tolerant people who not only believe in our constitutional rights, but are willing to stand up in defense of the rights of every other American. I thank God every day that I was born here. I don’t thank my parents enough that they immigrated here.

And thanks to those of you who shared a different perspective as well. You have as much right to your opinions as I have to mine, and it’s not fair for me to expect you to see my point of view if I refuse to see yours. Social progress comes from a free exchange of ideas, and that can’t happen if free speech is muzzled.

So let us not speak of this again, and hope that there will be no reason for me to break into our regularly scheduled Royals coverage again anytime soon. (Or, God forbid, that I should have to write something like this again.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly in light of what I’ve been preoccupied with lately, I’m in a weird philosophical mood about the Royals. Maybe it was the sight of Kyle Davies proving, once again, that what limited success he has had this year has been the product of serendipity more than talent. Davies has a 4.66 ERA this season, and all things considered you’d take a 4.66 ERA from your fifth starter.

But even that modest ERA is deceptive. Batters have hit .298/.368/.477 against him this year, virtually indistinguishable from what they hit last year (.284/.369/.494), when he had a 6.09 ERA. The reason he’s been able to walk the tightrope this year – at least occasionally – is that while hitters are slugging .563 against him when the bases are empty, they have a modest .375 slugging average with men on base. There’s no reason why a pitcher should do that much better from the stretch than from the windup – if there was, pitchers would pitch from the stretch all the time. Davies’ performance is a mirage, one that seemed to evaporate before our eyes on Friday.

But my point isn’t that Davies is worthless and should be discarded like so many pitchers before him. On the contrary, my point is that Davies is clearly a pitcher with talent, and the fact that Davies – and so many pitchers like him – bounce around from team to team tasting only occasional success represents a failure of creativity on the part of major league baseball teams.

The Royals have another guy on their staff who, like Davies, debuted to much promise only to see that promise leak out over time. Robinson Tejeda had a 3.57 ERA as a rookie with the Phillies in 2005. His ERAs after that read 4.28, 6.61, and 9.00 (in 6 innings) this season before the Rangers designated him for assignment.

Tejada was used exclusively a starter in 2006 and 2007 even as he became increasingly ineffective. He’s been used exclusively as a reliever since he was picked up by the Royals, and you’ve seen how effective (if not flat-out dominant) he’s been ever since: in 21 innings, he’s allowed just 10 hits while striking out 23.

Tejeda fits the profile of struggling starter turned dominant reliever: a hard-throwing right-hander with control and home run issues. But the Royals have another converted starter in their bullpen who, like Tejeda, was picked up for nothing and has been a revelation after his career as a starter went up in flames. What’s interesting is that Horacio Ramirez is the polar opposite of Tejeda: he’s left-handed, pitches to contact, and keeps the ball down. Tejeda owes his improvement in the pen to the fact that he’s blowing hitters away a lot more; Ramirez’s secret is that he’s getting even more sink on the ball (his G/F ratio this season is an excellent 2.63, compared to a career figure of 1.68) while throwing nothing but strikes. In 24 innings he has just 11 Ks, but he’s surrendered just one homer and walked just one batter.

I can’t stress this point enough: relieving is easier than starting. It’s much easier to go through a lineup once then it is to go through it four times. It’s easier to air it out – or focus on hitting the corners and keeping the ball at the knees – for an inning or two than to pace yourself for six or seven innings. Some pitchers may benefit more than others, but almost every starter in the majors would perform better on an inning-for-inning basis if they pitched in relief. The difference isn’t enough to justify making your 200-inning ace into a 70-inning closer (the Joakim Soria debate revisited), but it is enough to justify taking your borderline #5 starter and seeing if he can become a quality setup man. As a general rule of thumb, you should never give up on a pitcher until you see what he can in relief.

Just take a quick look at the closers around baseball. Bobby Jenks was released – flat-out released – by the Angels in 2004, and a year later as closing for the world champs. Granted, his release was precipitated by being hurt, but the fact is that Jenks pitched for the Angels for five seasons, and made a grand total of three relief appearances. The man threw 100 mph and was wild as sin off and on the field – and the Angels never thought to try him in the pen. You would think the Angels would have learned from their experience with Francisco Rodriguez, who was a wildly inconsistent starter for three years in the minors, was moved to the pen to start 2002 and ended the year with a major-league record five postseason wins and a world championship ring.

Mariano Rivera never made a relief appearance in the minors; he was a solid prospect as a starter, but never showed a hint of dominance until he was moved to the pen. Joe Nathan started for two years with the Giants, with ERAs of 4.18 and 5.21. After one good year in middle relief he was packaged to the Twins in the infamous A.J. Pierzynski deal. And that’s just a look at the AL saves leaders. The NL seems to be the home of the broken-down starter turned closer – Brad Lidge, Kerry Wood, Salomon Torres, etc.

My point isn’t just that the Royals should hesitate to give up on Davies until they see how he handles a stint in the bullpen, although that’s certainly true. My larger point is that the inherent advantage to pitching in short stints presents a hell of a market inefficiency that a small-market team with nothing to lose could exploit. If 12-man pitching staffs are here to stay – and unfortunately that appears to be the case – why not use all that manpower to try something really radical? Why not make all your pitchers relievers? Take your three best starters and tell them they’re going to throw 3 innings or 60 pitches every third day. Pair them up with a good reliever – ideally someone who throws from the other side – who will be expected to throw 2-3 innings or 50-60 pitches every third day as well. Now you’ve got 5-6 innings covered in every game from 6 pitchers, and you can use the other 6 guys on your staff in traditional relief roles.

Your three best pitchers would be limited to roughly 160 innings in this kind of setup, but on the other hand, being limited to short stints probably means they’ll be 160 awfully effective innings. If Greinke or Meche know they’re only out there for 60 pitches, they’re going to be able to step it up a notch. And if three innings a start doesn’t sound like much, keep in mind you’re getting 54 starts from them.

By now some of you are thinking that all the stress I’ve been under the last few days has knocked a couple of screws loose. But not only is this idea not inconceivable, it’s not even that original: it’s already been tried before, albeit briefly.

On July 19th, 1993, with his once-vaunted A’s languishing at 39-49 and in sixth place in the AL West, Tony La Russa went to a three-man rotation of sorts. La Russa had a 13-man pitching staff at the time, which would be a little unusual today and was utterly unthinkable back then, and divided nine of the pitchers into three “groups” – Ron Darling was paired with Todd Van Poppel and Kevin Campbell, Bobby Witt with Mike Mohler and John Briscoe, Bob Welch with Kelly Downs and Goose Gossage. The other four pitchers were used as traditional relievers in the late innings.

Darling, Witt, and Welch were the traditional “starters”, but did not actually start the games, entering in the middle innings instead. Why? Because they would not have been eligible for the win had they started and thrown less than five innings. (Many thanks to this link for the exact details.)

The plan lasted for about a week, partly because of the resistance to the idea and partly because it didn’t seem to work. Looking at the names above, it’s obvious why it didn’t work – none of the pitchers were any good. The entire pitching staff consisted of longtime veterans who were pitching on fumes, or overhyped rookies who would never amount to much (I’m looking at you, Todd.) The A’s gave up the most runs in the league that year – which is why La Russa was desperate enough to try something that radical to begin with.

I’m not frustrated with the fact that the Royals would never consider such a move so much as I’m frustrated that no team in the majors would consider it. Say what you want about La Russa (I know I have) – as a manager he’s creative, and he’s original. The fact that we lament the “LaRussaization” of modern baseball – the incessant pitching changes, the pitchers who appear in 70 games and throw 40 innings – is not the fault of La Russa so much as it is the fault of so many other managers who, lacking any originality of their own, simply ape what the successful guy is doing.

I had to watch “Casablanca” when I was in college and at first I wondered what the big deal was, because the film was full of movie clichés – until it hit me that the reason so many scenes seemed clichéd was because so many of the movies I had seen had cribbed ideas from “Casablanca” in the first place. La Russa is sort of like “Casablanca” – its easy to look at his handling of his pitching staff and pan it as conformist, until you realize that it’s the other managers that learned to conform to him and not the other way around.

It’s easy to forget that baseball strategy from a generation or two was radically different than it is today. Fifty years ago, the notion of a “pitching rotation” didn’t exist: managers selected their starting pitchers based on the team they were facing and the park they were in, and if that meant starting Whitey Ford on 2 days’ rest, or letting him skip the series against the Senators and letting him pitch on 6 days’ rest instead, so be it. Thirty years ago, it was absurd to suggest that a team should use its best reliever in save situations only. Twenty years ago, the notion that your closer only came in to start the ninth inning was ridiculous.

Baseball strategy has evolved, but in the case of pitching strategy it has devolved – there are piles of evidence that suggest the straitjacket approach to pitcher usage is counterproductive to the whole goal of winning. Today it’s considered radical to use your closer for two innings; it’s considered unthinkable to go to a four-man rotation. One of these years a team is going to break out of the box and try something new, and it’s going to win them some games. It’d be nice if that team were the Royals.

Hey, I said I was feeling philosophical. And weird.

Anyway, on some level Dayton Moore does get it, because he’s the guy who put together this bullpen in the first place. Right now, six of the seven guys in the Royals’ pen have ERAs under three, and yes you read this sentence correctly. Two of them (Tejeda and Horacio) are failed starters who were picked up for free. One of them (Leo Nunez) is a converted starter who was inexplicably rushed to the majors by Allard Baird. Two of them (Mahay and Ramon Ramirez) were relievers before the Royals acquired them. And Soria, of course, was starting in the Mexican League when the Royals drafted him.

Relievers come from all walks of life, and pretty much the most inefficient way to acquire a good reliever is to pay the going rate for established talent. Compare this with Allard Baird’s approach, which included paying actual US currency to sign Ricky Bottalico, and which was followed by trading Johnny Damon to land Roberto Hernandez – well, there’s really no comparison.

Even as I'm writing this, Moore has proven again that he gets it, because he just sent Horacio Ramirez to the White Sox in exchange for a toolsy outfield prospect named Paulo Orlando. Orlando’s a Grade C prospect because he’s still learning how to hit (.264/.310/.412 in A-ball) and he’s 22, but as Grade C prospects go he’s got a lot of upside. He’s fast as hell, plays great defense in center field, and he’s from Brazil, and as you would expect from a Brazilian baseball player, he has a lot less experience than most guys his age.

Given that the Royals picked up Horacio for nothing just three months ago, they just got an intriguing outfield prospect for free. Josh Newman, another lefty recently acquired on waivers, takes Horacio’s place. Given the nature of relief work and Moore’s track record, there’s no reason why Newman can’t be equally successful.

29 comments:

Ron said...

This is a good example of why all pitchers should be starters at the beginning of their career. The succesfuls will be good starters, obviously. And the ones who fail can be moved to the bullpen and given a try there.

Making kids right out of highschool and college full-time relievers is stupid. This is what the problem with Soria right now. He's the best pitcher on the team and he's pitching 3 innings a week.

How does that make sense to anyone. Let him start and see what he can do. If he doesn't succede, he spend the rest of his career as a closer.

Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see if the Royals can salvage something out of Tyler Lumsden in this way as well. He's been a disaster as a starter the past two years in Omaha, but he was finally moved to the pen late this season and seems to be much more effective. He still throws hard, has good stuff, and is a lefty too. With his track record of success, he might have some value next season if Jimmy Gobble can't turn it around.

Old Man Duggan said...

I hope Lumsden can be turned into something valuable. At least Cortes seems to have made that trade worthwhile.

All in all, I think Moore has done a lot to turn this franchise around in the time he's been given. His track record has been largely positive, and their minor league system is deeper, even if there aren't the stand out bats that we'd all like. If he just turns reclamation projects like Horacio Ramirez and Robinson Tejeda (fingers crossed) into prospect bats with upside, I'll be happy.

GTripp said...

I don't agree with the Soria shold start crowd. I do agree with Rany that if you have a young, dominant closer like Soria, he should be used for two inning saves just as often as one inning saves.

There's really no place in the Royals rotation for Soria, as long as Bannister is in Kansas City. Meche and Greinke aren't going anywhere, and Bannister will probably come back next year and fix whatever has made him so hittable this year -- that's three starters right there. Carlos Rosa should definately start the year in the rotation next year. That's 4.

Hochevar's future, I feel, will be in someones bullpen, and I think he will do very well there. But at the beginning of next season, he's going to be the Royals 5th starter. And that means that there's no spot in the rotation for Soria.

If, midway through next season, they wanted to flip flip Soria with Rosa or Hochevar, I could live with that, but I just don't see it happening, at least while Meche is still under contract.

Kevin said...

gtripp,
I remain in the try Soria as a starter camp. Contrary to Ron's implication, Soria WAS a starter prior to us getting him. So, let's see what he can do. Why can we do this? Because as Rany has said, and I think we all agree, that DM has shown a great talent at finding good relievers for nothing. He can continue to load us up with relievers and we can try some of these other guys as closers. I think that we have 2 candidates right now. Ramon Ramirez and Leo Nunez might both prove to be nice closers, especially in the ninth only type of role that we have today.

Ron Rollins said...

I wasn't trying to imply that Soria wasn't a starter before. I knew he was. It didn't come off correctly in the way I wrote it.

I jsut think that since he is as good as he is pitching 3 innings a week, I want to see how good he is as a starter.

With all due respect, GTRIPP, you can never have enough starting pitching. Adding Soria to the mix could only make the Royals better.

Ron Rollins said...

Sorry, that should have been Kevin, not GTRIPP.

My apologies. I was going to fast.

Sneaky Pete said...

GTripp,

I personally don't think you could be more wrong on your assessments of Hochevar and Bannister.

Bannister will never be more than a fourth starter. He's smart. He's likable. He's average at best. He gets too much credit simply because he is a smart guy that understands pitching. He's a great interview and people love him. We've been lulled to sleep by our infatuation with Brian Bannister. He just doesn't have the physical tools and stuff to match the intelligence. I wish he did. I like the guy and would love for him to be great. But I'm a realist.

Hochevar on the other hand, has tremendous stuff and plenty of room to grow. He's got a sinker that can be simply devastating. As long as he is aggressive and limits walks, I can see him pushing Meche for the #2 spot in the rotation.

To say he has a future in someone's bullpen is inane considering he is 24 years old and in his first full big league season.

My two cents. Discuss amongst yourselves.

Anonymous said...

C'mon Alex! C'mon Alex! Please don't strike out! Please don't strike out! All we need is a fly ball. C'mon Alex. C'mon Alex. Oh please, please, please don't stike out again. Not now! C'mon Alex. You can do it Alex. Oh crap!

Anonymous said...

Well, I've seen enough.

Gordon's a bust, time to trade him.

I mean, if he isn't god by now, why wait?

Anonymous said...

Well, I've seen enough.

Gordon's a bust, time to trade him.

I mean, if he isn't god by now, why wait?

ksuim4u said...

If there was one thing I learned during the Allard Baird "rush 'em to the bigs as quick as possible" approach to the pitching staff, it was that the element of surprise has a lot to do with the success and failure rate of pitchers. Countless guys seemed to come up, have 1,2,3, maybe even 4 or 5 good starts, and then go in the tank. I have had an idea for several years to turn all pitchers into relievers. My idea was somewhat different, but basically it involves not ever allowing a team to know who is starting until the dude walks onto the mound. Sure, you'd be able to eliminate 3-5 guys from the possibilities (since they pitched last night), but you'd still have 6-9 to choose from on a given day. I think it would be interesting, for sure.

Kevin said...

Ron, I think you misunderstood me. Yes, I agree with you we should try Soria as a starter. They need to start having him pitch in longer relief appearances to push his endurance up and then move him into rotation late this year, seems to me. We're not trying to win the division, why not work on our talent development.

Bart said...

Has anyone researched how much successful pitchers are as relievers vs starters? Is there anyway to project how a certain pitcher would do? I ask because if relieving is easier, how much worse will Soria be as a starter? I'm just wondering if there's any way to estimate the upside.

Casper said...

I think Sneaky Pete sums it up nicely regarding Banny and Hochevar. I really, really like Hochevar's upside. I don't know that he'll be able to push anyone for a number 2 spot until he learns to control his sinker so he can limit his walks, but I think even despite this he'll soon push for a number 3 spot. I think the light will turn on for him next season some time and we'll all be very impressed. But Banny...like Sneaky Pete said, great guy and love his intellect but all the smarts in the world is just drop in the bucket compared to natural ability, which he doesn't have. He's one of those maximum-effort guys that a lot of us have probably read about - he has to give 100% every single time out to be able to be competitive, whereas say someone like Lincecum (sp?) can just let it fly and ability takes care of the rest. Banny probably would make a terrific pitching coach when he's done though. If he can even rub off on Hochevar and Davies in even the smallest manner than we're the better for it.

Casper said...

...I mean't "then", not "than"...

Isaac said...

I think that trade of Horacio was a big mistake. Big. Huge.

Horacio has spent his first year in the bullpen and been a rousing success. So we trade him. Now, trading him, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. What is bad is what we got in exchange.

Look at our offense people. What does it not do very well about as much as anything? Get on base. It is worst in the league and has been all year. We have just traded an above average reliever for a guy who is doing everything he can to break .300OBP at the single A level. It's my guess that we never see him in KC.

Many say to me that relievers grow on trees. DM has done the best job in trying to prove that in the moves he has made but it still isn't true or else middle relievers wouldn't be such a hot commodity come the trading deadline. What happens when DM strikes out a couple of times in a row with relievers? Where are we at that point?

I don't mind getting rid of Horacio but if you can't get more than this in return then you don't do it.

BTW, everyone might as well get ready for Pena bobblehead day because with today's performance, which he has about a 2.25% chance of doing based on his average, he has just extended his time with us. I guess Kaaihue will have to suffice with hitting his HRs off of AAA pitchers and get settled in, in Omaha. He'll be there a while.

sneaky pete said...

I guess I don't mind the HoRam trade all that much. We traded a guy who is under contract through the end of this season for a raw, young prospect who by many accounts has the tools to be really good someday. Let's be honest, we aren't going anywhere this year and there is a good chance Horacio wouldn't resign here. We might as well get something for Ramirez. For a guy with his track record, I think we got a fair deal.

Anonymous said...

Isaac, middle relievers are such hot commodities at the trading deadline because of a few different factors: (1) Most teams that are looking for middle relief help have had at least an injury or two in their bullpens (or are concerned about pitching depth); (2) middle relief is a fairly cheap fix that most teams think will get them those extra 4-5 games for the rest of the season that may make the difference in the playoff race...the Sabathia's of the world are always going to cost more than the Mahay's, so more teams are more willing to give up a marginal prospect to land a solid middle reliever than to give up a near-can't-miss prospect or two for a rent-a-player; (3) many teams don't place much emphasis on middle relief, figuring that they can try a few guys in the first half, and if they don't work out, they'll grab the hot middleman du jour at the deadline (IF they're still in contention).

Identifying good middle relievers seems to be one of Dayton's best skills (thus far). And for a small market team trying to rebuild its farm system, signing random free agent relievers before or in the middle of the season, and then turning them into prospects, is a great, economical way to make up a lot of ground quickly in the farm-system-restocking game.

marbotty said...

A little late to the party, but just wanted to say you totally nailed it in the 538 article.

The world's in a sorry state of affairs right now, and we need high-profile guys like you to stand up. Thanks for doing so.

marbotty said...

A little late to the party, but just wanted to say you totally nailed it in the 538 article.

The world's in a sorry state of affairs right now, and we need high-profile guys like you to stand up. Thanks for doing so.

Paul-I will believe "Soria as a starter" till I die said...

I kinda like Rany's idea for pitching. "Wins" comes to mind. I don't know how Meche/Grienke/Whomever would feel about either A) Not getting wins or B) Not starting the games.

On the other end, they might enjoy getting all of those extra wins if they came into the game and pitched the 4th-7th innings. There would be plenty more decisions giving someone like Grienke a pre WWII record of something like 24-16.
Oh yeah, and for those of you that say leave Soria as the closer b/c "if it isn't broke, don't fix it" I say, we're much closer to last place than first place. Does one think that the Royals will be a playoff team in the next 5 years with Soria as the closer? The answer is proabably not. But Soria as a front line starter with 2 other above average starters? I say, I'm skipping work that day to go watch the Royals in the ALDS!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the other anonymous. I know we are going to give Gordon another try to get better at hitting lefty pitching and he might end up getting respectable at some point in his career. I was at the game Sunday and knew when they started throwing lefties at Gordon it was over. Gordon just simply cannot be counted on in late innings to deliver when there is a left-hander on the mound. At let me just say I truly saw the difference between Hillman and another manager of greater talent like Gardenhire. Meche finally runs out of gas in the 7th after loading the bases. Mauer and Morneau up next. Who does he bring in? RAMIREZ? IS Gobble that bad in the doghouse? Fortunately Mauer forced a run on a grounder, walked Morneau intentionally, and then struck out Kubel. On the other hand when MINN got in trouble in the 8th Gardenhire brought in a ol' Denny Reyes to pitch to Gordon and Gload. Although Reyes gave up a passed ball (I blame Mauer) and Lamb got drawn off the bag on Gload's grounder which scored Pena Reyes should have got out of inning unscathed. Gardenhire then went to Crain to get the righty/righty matchup against Buck and got him out too. Elementary stuff when protecting a lead right? In the 10th Gardenhire put Breslow in knowing three of the next five hitters were lefties. What happened? Gordon strikes out and Gload grounds out with runners at second and third. I just don't understand why Hillman kept throwing righty after righty at the Twins considering their power source hits left on that team.

Kyle said...

Very interesting Rany. I'm sure there are simulators out there that this can be tried on. I used to play Baseball Mogul alot, and I think this can be swung there, it'd be difficult there. Surely there's some computer model that can run these situations out, right?


If there is one that you know of, I'd love to get a copy and toy around with ideas like this.

Kyle

Kevin said...

I believe that Gobble is still on the disabled list. And, even if he isn't, he deserves to be in the doghouse. When he comes on the mound I tense up and know we're going to lose.

Anonymous said...

OK atomic Doh! I should have seen Gobble on the DL. Might explain Hillman's lack of options...

Kevin said...

I'm wrong too at least sort of. He pitched in Omaha last night doing a rehab assignment - Gobble that is.

Check out this quote from Hillman. "If we're not going to have the availability of his services, there's no sense of keeping him on the active roster, but today was a good day for him," Hillman said.

This quote wasn't for Gobble it was for Mahay who is also hurting. But, I'm not sure why they don't think this way about Pena. Do something with the guy. I really think they should send him to the minors and make him learn to hit.

The argument that he's going to get claimed on waivers is really weak. Paul Byrd just cleared waivers to go to Boston. Adam Dunn just cleared waivers to get traded to Arizona. Umm, I'm pretty sure Pena can clear waivers.

Brendan said...

Here's hoping the Royals put the spoils on the Yankees season this weekend! Now is as good a time as any to stop the bleeding from the past week. Let's get back to 10 under .500

On a positive note: Hochevar has only given up 10 home runs this year and his whip is 1.47.

Brendan said...

p.s. the sooner Ross Gload is gone the happier I will be.