“They say it is always darkest before the dawn. The problem is that there’s no way to tell whether now is that darkest hour, only that it’s darker than it has ever been before.”
I wrote that line at the end of the Royals chapter in our annual Baseball Prospectus book, after the Royals had just endured the worst season in franchise history, their first 100-loss season ever – six years ago. At that point in time, while it did not appear that the Royals could turn things around quickly, it was hard to see how things could get any worse. What’s worse than a 100-loss season? Is there a color darker than black?
But of course, they did. Two years later they would lose 104 games, then 106 the next year, then in 2006 they became the first non-expansion team in over 50 years to lose 100 games in three straight seasons.
Then came last year, when the Royals won 69 games – their second-most wins this century! Alex Gordon got a standing ovation on Opening Day. His sidekick Billy Butler joined him a few months later. Zack Greinke made a triumphant return from his bout with social anxiety. Gil Meche was the rare free-agent signing that panned out. Joakim Soria was a Rule 5 revelation. If you squinted, you could see a flash of purple on the eastern horizon.
If it’s always darkest before the dawn, then we must be getting closer to sunrise, because it just keeps getting darker.
August 2008 will likely go down as one of the worst months the Royals have ever had. They are 6-19 with two games to go. After staying remarkably healthy for the season’s first four months, they’ve been blindsided by the law of averages. Their second baseman tore up his ankle the day after he wasn’t traded at the trading deadline (and just a week before an obvious trading partner presented itself, when the Diamondbacks lost Orlando Hudson for the rest of the season*). Their third baseman may be out for the year with a torn quad muscle. Their #4 starter is out for the year after somehow bruising his ribcage in the act of throwing a pitch. Their fourth outfielder – well, one of their many fourth outfielders – had his face smashed in by an errant pitch while trying to bunt. Their left-handed setup man – who was the best setup man in baseball through the end of July – gave up 8 runs in 2 innings before going on the DL with plantar fasciitis.
*: With tomorrow night being the deadline for teams to trade for players that will be eligible for the postseason, I think this is worth putting out there: why don’t the Royals trade Grudzielanek (while picking up the remainder of his contract) to the Diamondbacks for a PTBNL? Grudzielanek may not be ready to play until the end of September, but he should be ready to play in October, whereas
A month after Jose Guillen denied reports that he can’t stand Trey Hillman, Miguel Olivo went out of his way to confirm reports of the same. Oh, and Eric Hosmer, the Royals #1 pick, has been hit by crossfire in the astonishing Pedro Alvarez gunfight going on in Pittsburgh, and is out at least until an arbitrator rules on the case on September 10th. (Long term, I’m not really concerned – the odds that Hosmer’s contract is ruled invalid is infinitesimal given that everyone involved – Hosmer, the Royals, the MLBPA, the Commissioner’s Office – would prefer to keep Hosmer where he is. But it’s most certainly a pain in the ass right now.)
The Royals’ disappointing performance and stunning collapse forces us to re-evaluate what we thought we knew about a lot of players. But I’m not sure anyone’s reputation has fallen farther in my eyes than that of Hillman. Four months ago, you may recall, I was singing his praises, ranking him #2 on my list of reasons to be excited for the Royals’ future. Now? Well, let’s see what I wrote then, and what we think now.
- “[T]he one trait I’m most comfortable pinning on Hillman, and one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about his hiring: he’s adaptable.”
By “adaptable”, I was referring to his willingness to tailor different strategies for different personnel. He went to his first Japan Series with a great offensive team; he went to his second with a team with the worst offense in the league.
He has dialed back the kamikaze basepath approach a little; after stealing 29 bases (but getting caught 19 times) in April and May, the Royals have swiped 39 bases against just 15 caught stealings since.
Other than that, I’m not sure Hillman has proven that he’s learned one thing about his roster from Opening Day to today. He still hasn’t learned that Ross Gload is a joke of a starting first baseman. Gload is hitting .271/.315/.343 this season, with three homers – or one fewer than Carlos Zambrano has hit in one-fifth the at-bats. Despite that, Gload has already smashed his career high in at-bats, and is getting more playing time as the season progresses, not less: he started just 51 games the first three months of the year, but started 26 times in July and 21 already in August.
He hasn’t learned that you can’t waste a roster spot on a .164 hitter who you don’t even use for defense. In the Royals’ last 44 games, Pena has batted just 20 times and played a total of 53 innings.
And he hasn’t learned what I cheekily named Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals a few years ago: A team's ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them. That’s all we heard in spring training: how, after years of trying to master the fundamentals without success, that now we had a manager who really, truly, honest-to-God, no-my-fingers-are-not-crossed, knew how to teach the fundamentals.
- “Hillman talked about the fundamentals a lot during the spring, and it remains to be seen whether that’s just the standard rigmarole that every new manager needs to say – a new manager saying he wants to focus on the fundamentals is like a newly-elected politician saying he wants to get tough on crime. If he keeps harping about it, then we’ll need to worry. My hope is that, like Bobby Cox or Mike Scioscia or Jim Leyland, he won’t talk about fundamentals as much in the future because he won’t need to: his team will have already proven they can execute them on the field.”
Instead, the 2008 Royals may be the worst team in major league history when it comes to catching popups. That’s saying something, given that their competition includes the 1996-2007 Royals.
- “Plus, the frequent references to bunting and offensive risk-taking notwithstanding, he seems to have a pretty good grounding in what makes an offense tick. From Bob Dutton:
‘I’ve spoken to all of them about eliminating batting average and going to OBP,’ he said. ‘Because OBP really is the statistic that tells you what your chances are of scoring runs.’”
“Talking with Dutton, here’s Hillman on his offensive philosophy:
‘OBP is a no-brainer,’ Hillman said. ‘Get on base and have guys drive you in. Be aggressively disciplined in the strike zone, but take your walks. After that, it depends on what you’re talking about.
‘If you’re talking about the middle of the lineup, which I consider three through seven, then I look for run production. So I go to slug (slugging percentage).’”
Um, yeah. About that OBP thing, Trey.
Last year, the Royals drew just 428 walks all year, ranking 13th – next-to-last – in the league in that category. In 2006, they managed to draw 474 walks, good enough for 10th in the league. By Royals standards, 2006 was a rousing success: since 1981, the Royals have ranked higher than 10th just five times in 27 years: 1988, 1989, 1997, 2002, 2003. The Royals haven’t ranked in the top half of the league in walks drawn since 1989.
There wasn’t exactly a high bar for Hillman to clear this year. But somehow he managed to do the limbo anyway. Through 134 games, the Royals have drawn just 328 walks this year. That puts the Royals on a pace for 397 walks, which would tie the 1983 team for the fewest walks in franchise history.
By comparison, every other team in the majors has drawn at least 364 walks. Except for the Mariners, every other AL team has at least 398 walks, which is to say 12 AL teams already have more walks than the Royals are on pace to finish with a month from now.
Since the 1983 Royals, just five teams have finished a full season with under 400 walks: the 1993
And keep in mind that pace is likely to drop, given that the team’s most patient hitter, Gordon, is out for a few weeks if not the entire season.
On Sunday, the Royals drew five walks in a regulation game for the first time in almost exactly a month – since July 25th. Not coincidentally, they won the game by four runs, the only game they’ve won by more than a single run since August 3rd. (They can’t even get full credit for this one, though, since one of those walks was intentional.) They picked up on cause-and-effect so well that in their four games since, they’ve drawn four walks – combined.
I guess when Hillman said that OBP is a no-brainer, he meant that only people with no brains think it’s important.
Hillman’s not going anywhere for the time being. Dayton Moore’s approach is so deliberate that he hasn’t even gotten around to firing Mike Barnett yet, so Hillman is sure to get another year to show that he can turn pretty theories into hard reality. But a tenure that started with such promise six months ago has turned out to be a disaster. And as Hillman goes, so go the Royals.