Saturday, September 6, 2008

Potpourri.

Before we get to the future of the pitching staff, a few bullet points on some recent developments:

- Trey Hillman has gone on record as saying that Miguel Olivo will be the primary starter behind the plate the rest of the season. This flip-flopping will almost certainly cost Hillman the election.

I understand his thinking; Olivo has played somewhat better than Buck this year, he’s thrown out a lot more runners, and if there’s any way to repair the rift between him and Olivo and leave the door open for Olivo’s return, it’s worth pursuing. But let’s not overstate Olivo’s case. He remains, as always, a one-trick pony: he mashes left-handed pitching (.287/.326/.598), but is unplayable against right-handers (.246/.265/.385). If Olivo is amenable to returning next year, an Olivo/Brayan Pena platoon might be the best internal option the Royals have, but having fought for more playing time all year, methinks Olivo isn’t going to quietly accept the short end of a platoon in 2009, especially given Hillman’s legendary communication skills. I hope Posnanski is right that Hillman is trying to make amends, because Hillman has apparently had a worse year in the clubhouse than he’s had on the field.

In the Introduction to “The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers”, James wrote, “There is one indispensable quality of a baseball manager: The manager must be able to command the respct of his players. That is absolute; everything else is negotiable.” I agree with James, which is why Hillman’s fondness for small ball strategies and Ross Gload, bizarre use of the intentional walk, and inability to get his hitters to take more pitches are small fish relative to the fact that his own players are mocking him behind his back. If Hillman doesn’t regain their respect – and once lost, respect is almost impossible to regain – his days as manager are numbered. And fair or not, the fact that Olivo is earning more playing time after blasting Hillman in the press for not getting a fair shake is likely to only add to the perception that Hillman treats different players differently.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that getting Olivo more playing time may help him move up the Elias rankings a little, as Olivo appears to be on the bubble for Class B free agent status, which would earn the Royals a supplemental first-round pick if he leaves as a free agent.

- As you will soon see, the pitching staff appears to have a much happier future than the offense. But you can never have too much pitching, and when a talented pitcher is available for free, you should pounce on him.

Such a pitcher has just become available, as the White Sox have just designated Charlie Haeger for assignment. If you’re not familiar with Haeger, here’s all you need to know in four words: he throws a knuckleball. A few more words: he throws a really, really good knuckleball. As I documented in this column, Haeger’s preternatural ability to throw the knuckler got him to the majors at age 22 – just two weeks older than Charlie Hough was when Hough became the youngest knuckleball pitcher ever to reach the major leagues.

Since I wrote that column, Haeger has regressed some. He spent the last two years toiling for Triple-A Charlotte, and after his outstanding 2006 season (3.07 ERA), he had a 4.08 ERA in 2007 and a 4.45 ERA this year. Even so, those numbers really aren’t that bad; this season, for instance, he allowed just 167 hits in 178 innings, with 77 walks and 117 strikeouts, and surrendered just 13 home runs. (The low homer total is a Haeger staple – he is as stingy with the homer as any knuckleballer in a generation.) More importantly, he doesn’t even turn 25 for another two weeks. It’s not an exaggeration in the slightest to say that he’s at least five years away from his peak.

The last knuckleballer before Haeger to get us all excited was Charlie Zink, who I ranked as the #50 prospect in the game after a promising 2003 season (and I received an incalculable amount of grief for ranking him so high.) Zink was bloody awful in 2004 and 2005, and mediocre in 2006 and 2007, before suddenly re-emerging with a terrific season in Triple-A this year and finally making his major league debut (one admittedly terrible start). Zink is still just 28; his best is likely still to come.

Haeger is just 24. He just had the highest ERA in the five seasons he’s worked with the knuckleballer, and it wasn't even a bad year. I wouldn't hesitate in the slightest to give him a spot in the majors next season in long relief; with a little more experience, he could be ready to be a #3 starter. As Charlie Hough told me when I interviewed him, “when you’ve pitched a thousand innings you’ll know what you’re doing.” Haeger has now thrown 781 innings with the knuckleball, so if Hough’s Law holds, he’s due for a breakout within a year or two. Zink came into this season with 741 innings, and finally reversed his four-year slide.

Zink is still with the Red Sox, because the Red Sox know just how valuable a knuckleballer can be (if memory serves, Tim Wakefield is their longest-tenured player), and they know how difficult the pitch is to master. The White Sox’ impatience can be our gain, and the only cost is a spot on the 40-man roster.

What’s the downside? Sure, the knuckleball is a novelty pitch, but what’s wrong with a little novelty for this franchise? To the best of my knowledge, the Royals have never had a knuckleball pitcher in their history. They’ve also never had a 40-homer hitter in their history. Some traditions are not worth keeping.

Do it,
Dayton. I think we can find a way to survive the loss of Jeff Fulchino.

21 comments:

Isaac said...

Do you truly believe that Hillman could be fired before the season next year? How about before the 2010 season? Knowing the difficulty that GMs have had in getting rid of players or managers they have hired (cough cough) Tony Pena (cough cough), I don't think Hillman can be bad enough to have that happen.

Regarding respect. I agree with you there. I also think that his playing of Olivo is nothing short of him begging for his forgiveness. If he knew what he was doing prior to Olivo's outburst, then why is he changing it because of the outburst? If Hillman lacks that much confidence in his own decisions of who plays, how can he possibly get the respect of his players? If I was Tony Pena, I'd start complaining about playing time immediately.

As far as the knuckleballer goes, do you honestly think one pitcher, regardless of what he throws, will improve our pitching that much? You seem to be treating this guy like he was the next Soria.

Two years ago when DM was hired, I felt we would be moving in the right direction yet we remain just as stagnant as always but with higher expectations. Some mention 1990, and that was a killer season for me, but this year has to be the most disappointing season we have ever had for me. It's not that we aren't winning because we weren't expected too. It's because we are not improving. In fact, this year must be the worst baseball I have ever seen from a Royals team and that is no easy task.

jonfmorse said...

We've been discussing Olivo's contract status on RR all season, and here's what we know:

1) Olivo was signed as a "free agent," but he was not an actual "free agent" as defined in the CBA. He was released outright, and thus his services were available.
2) There is a dual option.
3) Olivo will be one day short of the service time requirement for free agency, which would prevent him from filing for free agency under normal circumstances.

So, unless there's an exception for players who have previously been outrighted and then signed by a new club, we don't see how the Royals can claim a compensatory pick should either the team or Olivo decline their mutual option.

Isaac said...

I don't know the answer to that but it is very interesting. That compensatory pick can be a very valuable thing as we saw with the Riske pick this last year.

Anonymous said...

Posnanski wrote a rare good column today on Hillman. I thought he was right on the money and I hope Hillman reads it. The Royals have had a knuckleballer by the way. Bruce DalCanton threw the knuckleball.

Anonymous said...

I think Hillman just lost his job with this Olivo move unless front office told him to do it. He is crazy, and the inmates are running the asylum.

Anonymous said...

I think rany and a lot of people are way too hard on Hillman. People seem to forget that you need talent to win. It's not rocket science and managers are overrated anyway. Get the guy some talent to manage and then judge him all you want. You can't make chicken salad out of chicken sh*t. There are so many posts from rany in the past just bashing this guy... probably because he wants to be in Hillman's shoes. Jealously maybe? I would venture to say so.

Eric said...

There is no way to be too hard on Hillman. He is worse than Buddy Bell, amazingly enough. He probably lost half of his team before the season even started. His arrogance and defensiveness have been hard to stomach, and why in God's name he never came out and publicly rebuked Jose Guillen for any of his inexcusable behavior is absolutely beyond me. If Hillman was fired tonight, I would give Dayton Moore credit for recognizing his mistake and doing something about it. But that won't happen. Do you know why? Because in Kansas City, bad baseball is accepted. Bad baseball is excused. Bad baseball is the norm. It is the culture of the Kansas City Royals, and Trey Hillman has taken that culture to a whole new level. I agree with other folks who say this is the most disappointing season I've been through so far, and the quality of baseball play has been absolutely deplorable.

Isaac said...

Anonymous, the won-loss record is really very secondary. It means very little compared to the decisions that have been made by Hillman. Those are the things that bother me. I don't consider myself knowledgeable to the extent of someone in the game by any stretch. When I see a certain play called and scream bloody murder before it is carried out, and then watch it be unsuccessful, something is wrong. Hillman has done this more times this year than any I can remember. Major league baseball players have the talent to run when they hit the ball, catch popups, etc. They have failed to do these things at a striking rate. The talent on this team has very little to do with my disgust for Hillman.

Casper said...

I agree,with virtually all of you so far. I thought Hillman was going to be a savior of sorts when we hired him. I know not to heap that sort of expectation on any one person, regardless of the circumstances, but he just came so damned highly regarded that I figured that it was just finally our time to turn things around. But no, he truly has been a much worse manager than Bell, and I freaking hated Bell as a manager. Seriously, like uber-hated him. And I think Hillman is worse. It just makes me wonder if my time and energy as a fan is just being wasted. I've been a casual Cubs fan for years, thanks to my Grandpa...maybe it's time to become more than a casual fan, because I just can't keep dealing with this sh*t. Someone said in this thread that losing baseball has become acceptable in KC. It's never been acceptable to me, though. And I'm almost out of ways to trick myself into caring anymore.

Anonymous said...

Posnanski speaks the truth.

Wabbitkiller said...

The Royals would be STUPID to not take a flier on the Knuckleballer. What most people fail to realize is that not only does the Knuckler throw hitters off ont he day he pitches, he can screw them up for the next game too, especially if he's followed by a hard thrower.

The Royals have preached about thinking outside the box, here their chance to prove it. Besides, it's not like they can't make room for him on the 40 man roster because THEY CAN.

Anonymous said...

I am pretty sure Bruce Dal Canton threw a fair amount of knucklers when he was with the Royals. Later on, I think the Braves actually had him throw knucklers in batting practice before they played Wakefield when Wakefield was in Pittsburgh.
I think Olivo would certainly want to sign up to catch Haeger! (grin)

Bob McWilliams said...

I am pretty sure Bruce Dal Canton threw a fair amount of knucklers when he was with the Royals. Later on, I think the Braves actually had him throw knucklers in batting practice before they played Wakefield when Wakefield was in Pittsburgh.
I think Olivo would certainly want to sign up to catch Haeger! (grin)

Antonio said...

Exactly WHEN does that thinking outside the box occur?

Chuck said...

Too many wasted at bats by the royals this year. Pena getting 200 at bats is criminal. If your a sub 700 ops, you should not be an everyday player. Gload, Gathright, Pena, Buck. Four players almost everynight that are wasting at bats. It tough to put points on the board with that. I don't really see any solutions in the free agent market. Sign pitching. At least its tradeable when we are out of contention. Its September now. Let the kids play Trey. Its not like they are stealing at bats form any potential hall of famers.

Steve said...

I like the idea of running a knuckleballer out there. The Royals seemingly already have a pretty solid future rotation in the works, but I think a major problem this year with the rotation has been a lack of variety from our starters, constantly sending righties to the hill. We had a grand total of three starts by left-handed pitchers this season (all a part of the infamous John Bale experiment).

The possibility of the Royals finding a suitable left-handed starter on the free agent market next year is unlikely. Sabathia and Oliver Perez should be the top lefties available and both should command high dollars outside of the Royals' reach, especially considering other roster spots the Royals will likely have to fill through free agency. Bedard might be available via trade, but at what cost?

Despite the fact that Haeger is another right hander, the pitching style is so different it could work wonders in a staff the Royals would send out next year. What is there to lose? As one commenter posted previously the knucleballer is going to mess with hitters not only in his own start, but in starts to follow. Sign Haeger, put him as your number 5 starter with Greinke as your number one. I think this makes Greinke even more effective.

It would be interesting to look at stats of starters that have pitched games immediately after some of the more recent successful knuckleballers and if the stats are any better in the same pitcher's starts not following a knuckleballer.

Antonio said...

He doesn't have to be Soria. He just has to make more sense economically/strategically/athletically than any of the lower wrungs of the pitching staff that we currently have.

Anonymous said...

The Padres nabbed Haeger. Should be interesting to see him with Peavy and Young and whoever else comes after.

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