Saturday, September 13, 2008

Looking to 2009: The Pitchers, Part 2

I hope that one day, years from now, when the Royals are in a good place and we can all have a good laugh at the 2K Royals, we’ll look on September 12th, 2008 as the day the team’s persistent and criminal neglect of plate discipline finally reached its nadir. Last night, the Royals managed to rap out 11 hits and five runs with the help of a three-run ninth. The team sent 37 hitters to the plate. Yet somehow the Indians threw just 98 pitches in the entire game.

Thirty-seven batters. Ninety-eight pitches. It goes without saying that, for the second straight game, the Royals didn’t draw a walk – but they didn’t even see a three-ball count. They have six walks in their last seven games. And the beat goes on.

(And then there’s this gem from Dick Kaegel’s game recap: “Although Royals manager Trey Hillman was rather satisfied with his batters' approach, Lee found them a bit overanxious.”)

Anyway…we need to figure out who should occupy the last three slots of the rotation for next year. For the #3 and #4 slots, at least, my answers won’t be all that interesting: they’re the same guys who occupied those slots this year.

Brian Bannister has thrown 165.2 innings this year; he threw 165 innings last year, so we can make a pretty easy comparison. Compared to 2007, Bannister has struck out far more batters (106 to 77) and walked a few more batters (54 to 44). Do 29 more strikeouts make up for 10 more walks? I’d say so. Assuming that approximately 30% of balls in play turn into hits, then 29 more strikeouts = 29 fewer balls in play = 8.7 fewer hits. A few of those hits will be doubles and triples, but even if they’re all singles, you’d rather give up 10 walks than 8.7 singles.

It’s obviously not that simple. While Bannister’s altered approach this season has benefited his strikeout-to-walk ratio, it’s come at the expense of way too many fly balls. Bannister gave up 15 homers last season; he’s given up 27 this year, an enormous difference that can’t be chalked up to mere randomness. His groundball/flyball ratio, which was 1.13 last season – roughly league-average – has dropped to 0.95 this year, which is solid flyball territory. For most of the season, Bannister has tried to record more strikeouts by throwing to blow four-seam fastballs up in the zone past hitters. He has succeeded to some degree, but that success has come at too great a cost: four-seam fastballs with average velocity quickly become souvenirs if they aren’t located just right.

As Bannister has become more flyball oriented, not surprisingly, he has become far more dependent on his home park, as Kauffman Stadium is one of the best places for a flyball pitcher to ply his trade. Bannister actually has a lower ERA at home this year (3.55) than last (4.32). But last season, he pitched even better on the road, with a 3.48 ERA and just 7 homers allowed in 88 innings. This year, he has a 9.63 ERA on the road, and away from Kauffman Stadium he has allowed 14 homers in 62 innings.

(P.S. Remember all that talk about how good Bannister was in the daytime? His ERA in day games this year is now higher than at night, 5.89 to 5.76. As a general rule of thumb: when a player has a marked performance split in a small sample size for no obvious reason, the most likely explanation is no explanation at all.)

Bannister knows these splits as well as you and I, and so it’s not a surprise that after his 10-run debacle at Yankee Stadium last month, he decided that the cure was worse than the disease. He has stated he’s going back to using his two-seamer more often, giving up contact in exchange for power. He was doing much better with this approach until his last start, when he got dinked for 10 hits in Minnesota.

Which is, of course, the biggest difference between this year and last. Last year, batters hit .262 on balls in play; this year, they’re hitting .310. There was no way that Bannister could sustain his BABIP from last season, and it would be silly to act surprised that he hasn’t. The upshot of this is that Bannister really hasn’t pitched that much worse than he did last year. He’s given up a lot more homers, but otherwise his performance is the same. Of course, when you strip away the BABIP factor, Bannister didn’t pitch all that well last year to begin with.

Last season, I told anyone who would listen regarding Bannister that it was time to sell high. Now that the market correction has come, it’s time to buy low. I don’t think Bannister will ever be as good a pitcher as he appeared to be last season, a legitimate #2 starter. But I think he can be as good a pitcher as he really was in 2007: a league-average pitcher, a guy who can give you 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-4s.

Bannister learned this season that he can’t be something he’s not, that he can’t be a power pitcher just because he wants to be. But you know what? There are going to be times in the future when he needs a strikeout in a key situation. There are going to be times when he gets ahead 0-2 on a batter and decides to go for the kill instead of subject himself to the vagaries of the batted ball. If Bannister can go back to being the command-and-control finesse pitcher he’s always been, but apply the lessons he’s learned this year to dial it up a notch when he needs to, he’s going to bounce back just fine.

Now is not the time for the Royals to cut bait. If Bannister has another year like 2008 in 2009, then it will be time to find a replacement. I think it would be a mistake to not give him another opportunity to put the lessons he learned this year into practice.

Luke Hochevar is a very different pitcher than Bannister, owing to his excellent sinker, but his performance this year was equally uninspiring. In Hochevar’s case, he definitely deserves another year in the rotation, for a variety of reasons: his age (he turns 25 on Monday), his pedigree, and the fact that even in a rookie season in which he finished with a 5.51 ERA, he surrendered just 12 homers in 129 innings. Opposing batters hit .280/.345/.413 against Cool Hand this year, and those are not numbers which ordinarily lead to a 5.51 ERA.

In his last 13 starts covering 76 innings, Hochevar walked just 15 batters and allowed just 6 homers, but still had a 5.78 ERA in that span. That combination of control and sink is going to be successful in the long run no matter how few batters you strike out – that Chien-Ming Wang territory right there. In the short run, Hochevar did poorly because batters hit .338 against him with runners in scoring position. That number will inevitably drop, and so will his ERA. Give him another year of development – let’s remember, this was just his second full pro season – and some regression to the mean, and that ERA could easily drop a run-and-a-half next year.

The #5 starter could be any one of a number of guys. Kyle Davies hasn’t pitched all that well, but you’ll take a 4.70 ERA from your #5 starter any day. The problem is that Davies has been as lucky with his ERA as Hochevar has been unlucky; batters have hit .297/.366/.454 against Davies, which usually results in an ERA in the mid-5s. There isn’t much in Davies’ statistical profile that augurs for more success, other than his age (he’s six days older than Hochevar). I think Davies would serve well as a long man and spot starter, but I think he’s going to falter if given another rotation spot next year.

In his place, the Royals have a number of reasonably good options, and they also have Brandon Duckworth. (In 112 innings with the Royals over the past three years, Ducky has 59 walks and just 58 strikeouts, but has been reasonably successful because he’s allowed just six homers. He’s always been homer-prone in his career – he allowed 23 homers in just 135 innings for Omaha this year – so this defies explanation. Danger, Will Robinson!)

The reasonable options include signing a veteran starter – preferably not one named Brett Tomko – to a one-year deal; going with a youngster like Carlos Rosa or Daniel Cortes; moving Robinson Tejeda back to the rotation (though I personally think that’s a bad idea); or just holding an open tryout in spring training and hoping that someone emerges who’s capable of giving you five decent innings every fifth day.

Or, you know, you could move Joakim Soria into the rotation, a move which would be bold, have the potential for enormous returns, and have a limited downside, because you can always move him back to the bullpen if he struggles in the rotation. Naturally, this means the Royals won’t do it.

The most important point regarding the rotation is that in addition to having two true studs, the Royals don’t have any enormous holes to fill. They have two pitchers who represent a gamble for different reasons, and they have the usual mélange of somewhat unsavory options that every team has for their #5 starter. But they don’t have to go outside the organization for help. Not only that, but they have a number of young pitchers who are nearly ready to step into a rotation role.

Rosa could be ready as soon as spring training if he’s healthy; including a brief stint with the Royals this year, he whiffed 89 batters in 99 innings and allowed just 19 walks, but missed most of the season’s second half with a forearm strain. Cortes needs another full year in the minors, but he’s just 21 and could be a rotation anchor for much of the 2010s. And behind those two there are a number of second-tier prospects, like Blake Wood and Blake Johnson and Julio Pimental, one of who might elevate his game next season and become a legitimate option for the rotation. Then you get to the low minors, where the Royals have as much pitching as all but a few organizations in baseball.

Ultimately, I think that whatever improvement the Royals will make for next year will come on offense, and since the options for improvement through free agency are limited, the Royals will be best-served by trading some of their pitching prospects for immediate help in the lineup. The Royals have a ton of good pitching prospects, but no great pitching prospects; even Cortes projects as a #2 starter in the minds of most scouts. So the loss of any one or two of these guys is unlikely to be crippling. This doesn’t mean the Royals try to replicate their trade of Eric Cordier for Tony Pena Jr. Rather than trade a less buzzworthy prospect for a bandaid solution, the Royals ought to seriously consider trading Cortes or Rosa, or even someone like Dan Duffy, in order to get a legitimate, long-term solution in centerfield or behind the plate.

And ultimately, I think Dayton Moore is going to do something like that. Since he was hired he has spoken about pitching being the currency of baseball. Well, currency only has value if you spend it. Having diligently saved up for the past few years, it might finally be time to splurge a little.

38 comments:

Ron Rollins said...

I don't think Moore really understands about the currency of baseball, because he's bouncing checks everyday with Hillman as the manager.

GeorgeM said...

On the bright side, I just heard the lineup, and it sounds like we get to learn more today about whether or not Ross Gload can handle first base, and how well Shealey and KK can handle sitting on a crowded bench. I'm learning lots!

Aaron said...

Fire Trey Hillman NOW!!

danscottart said...

Wow. I hope some of these Hillman comments are tongue in cheek because it's way too early to pass judgment on him. His Bell-like treatment of the Gloak-KK situation aggravates me as much as anyone but calling for his job is a bit premature. I'm willing to give him another year to show he's learned something.

Anonymous said...

Rany, we need MORE TALENT, not just renumber the same pitchers 1-4 and then hope for a Soria conversion or a minor leaguer to actually develop.

Cortes, Rosa, and the rest can work in to the bullpen if/when they are ready, but I agree there is no reason not to trade 1-2-or-3 of Pimentel, Wood, Johnson, etc, for some big league talent... let someone else with a decent development record turn those guys into major leaguers, our organization seems incapable of improving anyone after draft day.

Anonymous said...

no kila in game 2

and a lefty going tormorrow so prob no kila again

Anonymous said...

and yet trey has somehow found a way to get 2 starts in the last 2 days for tony pena jr.

what an idiot

Anonymous said...

Rany is exactly right. The Royals pitching is pretty good. The lineup has multiple holes, so that is where all of the priorities are. Wasting money (or prospects in trade) on pitchers when what we really need is more offense would just be amazingly stupid. Go out and get Dunn, Burrell, Juan Rivera, Furcal or another good offensive upgrade. Trade some pitching for hitting. But don't go after a starting pitcher. That would be a real waste.

Anonymous said...

Obviously this is wishful thinking, but can we pry away Uggla or Holliday? I read an article somewhere today about the Rockies maybe getting rid of Holliday because of money. I know we're looking for an impact bat, and this would def. fit the bill if we have enough to get him.

Casper said...

Dost my eyes deceive me or did Teahen actually pull the damned bal to right field for a bomb tonight? Holy crap...it's going to be an early winter now...

Chris said...

I say sign Pedro to a 1 year deal to come in and be the closer next year, in an attempt to jumpstart his career. He is injury prone and pitching in the closer's role will reduce the amount of innings he pitches. He still has an excellent K/9 ratio. Then you can move Soria into the rotation. Meche, Soria, and Zach Attack in the front end of the rotation will at least allow the Royals to sniff .500 basball.

Antonio said...

http://www.baseball-reference.com/draft/?franch_ID=COL&year_ID=1998&draft_type=junreg

I'd love to have more drafts like this one. They found Holliday in the seventh round (when we were busy drafting Jeremy Dodson, of course)! Pierre was a very good player very briefly, which is never found out of our 13th round picks. The rest is full of spare parts like Freeman, Shealy, Amezaga and bullpen types like Hudson. I've been calling Ladnier a failure because we haven't been able to get late round picks like Holiday/Pierre throughout Ladnier's tenure. I'm glad he's gone now. It was time.

Anonymous said...

ballgame over....royals win....theeeeee royals winnnnnn!

Ryan said...

This is a GD depressing time to be a KC sports fan right now.

B. said...

In response to Sonic,
Rany, this is not in the write spot, but I have done a poor job of keeping up with your posts. I am surprised you have never had Sonic. Mostly because we are about the same age and from Wichita. There was one at 13th and Maple, about a mile west of Towne West Mall.

Anyway the food is good for fast food and gives a wider menu selection than McDonalds and such. Their selection of ice cream treats is also much better than other fast food places.

Jack Campbell said...

I'm wondering about Shealy this morning. He's been doing well and suppose he continues that through the last game of the season. I don't think he's much of a tradeable commodity at 29 years old. And, at 29, 30 by next August (I think) he's at least 4 years out of step with Gordon (25), Butler (22), Aviles, Soria, and Greinke. That is, if we want to develop 'the core'. I've been taking less and less stock in 'the core' philosophy, it's probably a good thing to have players of all ages, and when those guys I just mentioned start hitting their prime in 3 or so years, if Shealy were over the hill we could just grab another 1st baseman. But if Shealy succeeds, as he's doing now, I still don't see a market for him and I can't see keeping him, Ka'aihue AND Butler on the roster. It's good flexibility to have, but I have this feeling one of the latter two players will be traded as only they will fetch something on the trade market. In other words, Shealy's good performance down the stretch just might save him a spot on the Royals next year. I just don't feel comfortably counting solely on him, nor do I like the idea of keeping Ka'aihue around on the bench (if you're going to start both Shealy and Butler, you'd better trade Ka'aihue and at least get something in return rather than let him rot on the bench). Just thinking out loud.

Anonymous said...

Rosa for Teagarden?

Kevin said...

Jack, I wouldn't worry about having everyone the same age. I think a team is better off to have a mix of ages. You need veterans to help/teach/calm the younger guys.

What do folks think of Olivo situation? As soon as he complained, they started playing him much more, which I thought they should have done since early in the year. It seems to me that Buck, who I think is fairly worthless, is a DM fave. So, are they just trying to increase Olivo's value to other teams? I have big doubts whether they want to keep him around.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps the Olivo playiing time thing is all about cementing his position as a Type B Free Agent which would allow the Royals to get a supplemental 1st Round pick???

I don't know either but that seems more likely. He simply doesn't seem like the type to let bygones be bygones.

Go Royals!!! C-ya, AusSteveW

Antonio said...

I'm considering the calming influence of old terrible baseball players to be insanely overrated. Almost as much as the "teaching them to play the right way".

"No, Alex Gordon, you buffoon! You don't throw a flag pattern to David DeJesus in this sport and you certainly don't want to take a lot of pitches in an bat. It doesn't count if you get on base without swinging the tall lumber. Do like me, Ross Gload."

Brendan said...

I know the Davies outing was against the Mariners...but maybe next year he could start to fulfill his once considerable promise....please? He's still quite young

Kevin said...

Antonio, I think you misunderstand me. Yes, performance matters first. I'm not talking about keeping old, crummy players around. I'm just responding to Jack's premise that maybe we should get rid of Shealy because he is 4 years older than the other "core" players we have. I think Shealy should stay or go based on his performance. I think you would have to say that the Red Sox definitely benefit from a mixture of young players and experienced veterans. As long as they are performers. They got rid of Manny primarily because he was no longer a reliable performer for them - not because of his age.

Anonymous said...

Among the many needs the Royals have is a catcher. What about Victor Martinez? With the emergence of Kelly Shoppach in Cleveland, Martinez would seem to be expendable. He had a miserable year, so that would be the time to trade for him. Certainly, the Rangers would seem to have some catchers to trade with Max Ramirez, Saltalamacchia, Laird, and Teagarden. I'd take any one of them, but Ramirez would be my #1 choice.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed that of Joey Gathright's 68 hits, 64 of them are singles? That must be some sort of record.

Brendan said...

responding to anonymous

I was also hoping to get a Cleveland catcher...though the one I had hoped for was Shoppach...in 2007 I think V Mart had 115 RBI...I don't think he will be available and Shoppach won't be available unless V Mart is healthy

Kevin said...

I'm not sure if Victor Martinez was injured this year or what - haven't paid attention. But, while watching Royals on MLB.com when they were in Cleveland we had the Cleveland announcers. Shoppach was playing and the announcers said, "I think they should give Shoppach about 90 starts next year to preserve Victor."

If we chase a catcher, which would be really nice in my opinion, I think we should try to get a young, healthy one.

Chuck said...

I heard on a royals broadcast that Mark Teahan was averaging the most picthes per plate appearance for a Royal. The broadcaster then said that Hillman was trying to get Teahan to be more aggressive and swing more often. I was dumbfounded. Look at Nick Swisher a player with a High OPS and a low batting average. Swisher takes more pitches than any player in MLB. I think the Royals as an organization should look at teaching more plate discipline. Swisher and Teahan have similar power numbers but Teahan strikes out a ton. We will see who will be in the league longer.

Next years pitching is another question. If the royals spend any money this off season it should be on pitching. Good pitching is a commodity in baseball that you can always trade away. I'd rather see money thrown at a true number one starter. It would be hard for the Royals to get to attract one of those guys. I'd rather see money spent on pitching than on low ops position players. Gil Meche and Guillen have very similar deals. Teams in a playoff hunt would be knocking down our doors for Meche. We couldn't give Guillen away. don't get me wrong. Guillen is a fine player but we got a player that drives in runs but doesn't take walks. An 800 ops is guillens glass ceiling.

If your pitching is good and you don't waste at bats,(below 700 ops for 150 abs), You can be good without great offensive players. The royals consistently roll out up to 3 players a night that are wasted at bats.

keith jersey said...

On the offensive side, the Royals are trotting out something that resembles a major league lineup everyday now and they are scoring and winning. By eliminating the give away at bats at 3 spots in the order (Gload, Gathright, Pena, German, etc.), the offense is actually looking pretty decent. Amazing what eliminating automatic outs can do to your team.

Anonymous said...

Rany, what are your thoughts about the Royals' recent surge, or are you waiting for the next loss / questionable Hillman move to say anything?

Kevin said...

Certainly I like the winning and the hitting is definitely better lately. However, let's contain ourselves. Remember these wins have come against Cleveland and Seattle. The next two weeks will prove tougher.

Hillman lucked out yesterday. He pinch hit Gathright for German. I couldn't believe it. It was late so I can understand putting him in for a defensive upgrade of German but I would get him in by pinch running him for German if he got on, or simply subbing him in after the inning. I guess Hillman thought he was playing the odds by putting a lefty batter out there against the righty pitcher. But, still, freaking Gathright? But, lo and behold, he worked a walk which caused my jaw to hit the floor. Gotta give Gathright credit but I still hope they get rid of him.

Anonymous said...

Kevin,

Not to be rude, but what you just posted is exactly the reason I think we a Royals fans need a vacation.

The Royals have won 7 in a row, longest winning streak in 5 years. The offense is coming around, Shealy is murdering the ball, Soria is dominating again, and the starters are looking good.

However, instead of enjoying the moment, people are too busy going "it won't last, it'll get harder in X days" then whining when it does.

It's as if Royals fans REFUSE to be happy. As if they wait for things to wrong to say "Told you so!"

Poz wrote one that it's easy to be negative about things because on the average, you'll be right more often if you predict negative thingds. i.e. the Royals' streak won't last, they'll struggle against the Sox.

Why does it matter if it's the Mariners? They fielded a full team. What about the Indians? They're in third, and they have some gentleman named Lee.

Why is it that unless the Royals beat the World All Stars 100-0 the wins "don't matter" or are "meaningless". Who cares? They're about to win 70 games for only the third time this decade, and might win enough games to not lose 90. It's progress. Maybe not as much as we wanted, but progress nonetheless.

Why can't Royals fans actually be positive. Why do we only hear from them (Rany included) when things go wrong? Why is it that no matter the good, Royals fans find a way to throw cold water on it?

Lighten up people. Enjoy the ride.

Or just go back to screaming for Hillman and Moore's head like a rabble with no brains.

(I have my money on the latter.)

Antonio said...

The offense is coming around.

In game 146, the offense is coming around. I see the revival!

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