Friday, February 29, 2008

Reason #15: The Pick.

Here’s something that Yankee fans can’t say about their team: the Royals have drafted in the top half of the first round every year since 1996. (So there.) Unfortunately, drafting that early is hardly a guarantee you’ll land a great player. It’s drafting guys like Dee Brown (#14, 1996), Dan Reichert (#7, 1997), Jeff Austin (#4, 1998), Kyle Snyder (#7, 1999), Mike Stodolka (#4, 2000), and Colt Griffin (#9, 2001) that led to the Royals continuing to pick early in the first round.

(Take a look at that list of players again. Six straight years with Top-15 picks, the last five picks in the Top 10. Two of those guys never made the majors – Stodolka still might, but as a hitter now. Snyder might be the best pick of them all; he’s 8-17 with a 5.45 career ERA. And you wonder how the Royals lost 100 games three straight years.)

But since 2002, the Royals have drafted Zack Greinke (#6, 2002), Chris Lubanski (#5, 2003), Billy Butler (#14, 2004), Alex Gordon (#2, 2005), Luke Hochevar (#1, 2006), and Mike Moustakas (#2, 2007). Lubanski might still be a flop, and it’s too early to say much about Hochevar and Moustakas. But the other three guys alone make this run of first-round picks a success. So with the #3 overall pick this June, with guys like Pedro Alvarez and Justin Smoak available from the college ranks, and Tim Beckham and Tim Melville out of high school, the Royals are in perfect position to add another Grade A prospect to their stable.

For all the talk about competitive imbalance in baseball, the reality is that the draft remains an incredibly powerful tool to reversing that imbalance…so long as that tool is used wisely. The Rays are proof that, if you draft with even some intelligence, eventually all that sucking is going to work in your favor. It’s not just that the Rays have drafted in the Top 8 for nine straight years, and have used those picks to draft Rocco Baldelli, B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, Evan Longoria, and David Price (not to mention Josh Hamilton, and there’s still hope for Jeff Niemann.) It’s that, drafting at the very top of the second round, they got first crack at the leftovers, and came away with Carl Crawford and top prospect Reid Brignac. In the third round, they got Wade Davis, and that round would look a lot better if 1) Elijah Dukes wasn’t a misogynistic, violent creep with a temper problem and 2) if they had signed Andrew Miller out of high school in 2003. Throw in 2004 fifth-rounder Jacob McGee, and five of the top six prospects in the best farm system in baseball are in this paragraph.

But you have to draft well. The Royals didn’t for many years, and they’re still trying to pick their way through the rubble. From 1994 to 2002, the Pirates drafted Mark Farris, Chad Hermansen, Kris Benson (#1 overall pick), J.J. Davis, Clint Johnston, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten (who they, alone among the 30 teams, decided to use as a pitcher after he led the NCAA in homers his junior year), and Brian Bullington (another #1 pick, who their owner forced them to take over B.J. Upton.) That’s how you continue to pick at the top of the draft every year. GM Dave Littlefield didn’t seem to learn, as he used last summer’s #4 overall pick on Daniel Moskos, a perfectly good college left-handed pitcher – a left-handed reliever. To the relief of Pirate fans everywhere, that final insult seemed to be, well, the final insult: Littlefield was canned not long thereafter.

The Royals’ draft efforts from 1996 to 2001 are the reason why the Royals continued to draft high from 2002 to 2008. But the draft efforts from 2002 to 2008 may enable this cycle to finally end.

Last year’s draft, the first one with Dayton Moore at the helm, looks very strong at this point. Moustakas looks like a good pick in the first round, albeit he’s not Rick Porcello. Second-rounder Sean Runion had a decent debut for a projectable high school pitcher, and third-rounder Daniel Duffy, a lefty out of a small California high school, was a revelation in rookie ball. Matt Mitchell, another pitcher from an out-of-the-way California school, was drafted in the 14th round and Baseball America wrote this winter that “the Royals might have come away with one of the steals of the 2007 draft.” The Royals gambled $300,000 to sign their 31st-round pick, Keaton Hayenga, at the deadline.

The Royals need to keep the strong drafts coming, because there’s simply no way a small-market franchise can become a contender without a perpetual supply of young talent. To their credit, the team (or more precisely, the owner) finally realizes that, and has authorized money to be spent both in the draft and in the international amateur market. The Royals can’t afford to waste the #3 pick this June. If they don’t, there’s a good shot it will be the last time they draft that high in a long time.


Just a heads-up: RotR will be going dark for a few days. I should be leaving shortly for Indianapolis, where I will be appearing with Joe Sheehan and Will Carroll from Baseball Prospectus, and John Gasaway from our new Basketball Prospectus, at the Marriott downtown; come out if you live in the area. Then this weekend Joe and I will be playing in a Stratomatic tournament in Indy. Yes, I'm a geek.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Reason #16: The Neighbor.

It’s a little-known rule outside Kansas City, but the locals all know: the Royals and the Chiefs can’t be competitive at the same time. Don’t question why. Nobody knows why. But they can’t. Forty years of history have borne that out.

I’ve put together a list below of the records of the Royals and Chiefs going back to the Royals’ first season in 1969. Games +/- .500 are also listed, but for the Chiefs I multiplied this number by four to account for the shorter season. By this method, a 10-6 season rates as a +16, the same as an 89-73 season in baseball. A 10-6 team is on the bubble, but will make the playoffs more often than not; an 89-73 baseball team is on the bubble, but would make the playoffs more often than not if MLB expanded the playoffs to 12 teams. A 14-2 team powerhouse equates to a 105-57 juggernaut in baseball. A 16-0 NFL team would be equivalent to 113-49 in MLB, which makes the Patriots the 2001 Mariners of football. Asterisks denote playoff teams.

(I apologize for the formatting - no matter how hard I try, I can't get the columns to line up, even in Courier font. If someone who knows formatting can help, please leave a comment. Thanks.)

Year Royals +/- .500 Chiefs +/- .500 (*4) Total
1969 69-93 -24 11-3* +32 + 8
1970 65-97 -32 7-5-2 + 8 -24
1971 85-76 + 9 10-3-1* +28 +37
1972 76-78 - 2 8-6 + 8 + 6
1973 88-74 +14 7-5-2 + 8 +22
1974 77-85 - 8 5-9 -16 -24
1975 91-71 +20 5-9 -16 + 4
1976 90-72* +18 5-9 -16 + 2
1977 102-60* +42 2-12 -40 + 2
1978 92-70* +22 4-12 -32 -10
1979 85-77 + 8 7-9 - 8 0
1980 97-65* +32 8-8 0 +32
1981 50-53* - 3 9-7 + 8 + 5
1982 90-72 +18 3-6 -12 + 6
1983 79-83 - 4 6-10 -16 -20
1984 84-78* + 6 8-8 0 + 6
1985 91-71* +20 6-10 -16 + 4
1986 76-86 -10 10-6* +16 + 6
1987 83-79 + 4 4-11 -28 -24
1988 84-77 + 7 4-11-1 -28 -21
1989 92-70 +22 8-7-1 + 4 +26
1990 75-86 -11 11-5* +24 +15
1991 82-80 + 2 10-6* +16 +18
1992 72-90 -18 10-6* +16 - 2
1993 84-78 + 6 11-5* +24 +30
1994 65-51 +14 9-7* + 8 +22
1995 70-74 - 4 13-3* +40 +36
1996 75-86 -11 9-7 + 8 - 3
1997 67-94 -27 13-3* +40 +13
1998 72-89 -17 7-9 - 8 -25
1999 64-97 -33 9-7 + 8 -25
2000 77-85 - 8 7-9 - 8 -16
2001 65-97 -32 6-10 -16 -48
2002 62-100 -38 8-8 0 -38
2003 83-79 + 4 13-3* +40 +44
2004 58-104 -46 7-9 - 8 -54
2005 56-106 -50 10-6 +16 -34
2006 62-100 -38 9-7* + 8 -30
2007 69-93 -24 4-12 -32 -56

A few notes:

1) The Royals have made the playoffs seven times, the Chiefs 12 times, but they’ve never made the playoffs in the same year. Assuming I’m doing the math right, the odds that two teams will make the playoffs 19 times combined over a 39-year span without ever reaching the playoffs in the same year is 0.49%. (The formula I used to calculate the odds was (39!/20!)/(39^19), if you care to know.)

2) The Royals’ all-time best record was set in 1977, the same year the Chiefs had their all-time worst record.

3) The Royals’ only losing record between 1975 and 1982 was 1981 – granted, they made the playoffs that year thanks to the minor-league split-season schedule MLB adopted after the strike. The Chiefs’ only winning record between 1974 and 1985 came the same year.

4) In 1986, the Royals finished 75-86, their worst record between 1971 and 1989. (Royals fans, read that again, and weep.) That fall, the Chiefs won 10 games and made the playoffs, the only time they had managed either feat between 1972 and 1989.

5) The Royals have finished above .500 18 times, and in those season the Chiefs have a combined record of 124-141-5. In the 21 years the Royals finished under .500, the Chiefs are 179-147-2.

6) The Chiefs and Royals have both had winning records in consecutive seasons only once, in 1993 and 1994. They have both had losing records in consecutive seasons only once, in 2000 and 2001.

7) This balance seems to have fallen apart in recent years. Between 1969 and 2000, the “combined” records of the Royals and Chiefs fell between a band of -25 and +37 every single year. Since 2001, the combined records have fallen outside that band every year – generally on the low end, although in 2003 the teams had their best combined year ever, as the Royals stayed in the playoff hunt into September and the Chiefs had another one of their “13-3, undefeated at Arrowhead during the season, lose at Arrowhead in their first playoff game” specials. Not that I’m bitter.

8) Last year was the worst season for a Royals/Chiefs fan in history.

There's a formula known as the Spearman Rank Correlation Coefficient, which allows us to determine how two separate entities are correlated. Using this formula, the correlation coefficient between the Chiefs and Royals record over the last 39 years is -0.31, which means they tend to run in opposite directions by a significant, though not overwhelming, margin.

There’s no obvious reason why these two franchises always seem to be headed in different directions. The Chiefs had built a dominant team in the old AFL, but the front office kept an aging team together for too long (sound familiar?) and the team fell apart at the same time that an incredibly savvy Royals’ front office was building a terrific base of talent through the draft and lopsided trades. The Royals stayed at least competitive right until their Ewing Kauffman, one of the game’s great owners, passed away in 1993, but it took the Chiefs until the late 80s before Lamar Hunt, one of the NFL’s great owners, finally brought in a competent GM in Carl Peterson and let him make whatever changes were necessary in order to build a winning team again.

The Chiefs lost their way in the post-Schottenheimer years, save for a brief renaissance under Dick Vermeil (that came crashing down from years of draft neglect last season). But just as Lamar Hunt brought in Carl Peterson, David Glass brought in Dayton Moore, and the trajectories of both teams have once again reversed. Even before this most recent, disastrous football campaign, my brother and I agreed that, the way each team was headed, the Royals were likely to reach the World Series before the Chiefs reached the Super Bowl.

Rooting for the Royals and Chiefs over the last 15-20 years has led to two very different experiences, but with one thing in common: they both led to heartbreak. The Chiefs are going to need some time to regain their footing, although recent comments from Clark Hunt, who inherited the team from his father, give us reason to hope. In the meantime, let’s hope that one team’s winter is another team’s summer.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Interlude II.

First off, a warm welcome to those of you who were led here by FoB (friend of the blog) Bill Simmons. The amount of support I’ve received from the rest of the baseball blogosphere has been deeply gratifying. This site has now been linked to by both and Deadspin, which might actually be illegal.

In honor of my first appearance in a Simmons column, here’s an email that I sent to him immediately after the Patriots lost to the Colts in the AFC Championship game a year ago. In light of recent events, I think the comparison bears repeating.

“The parallels between the 1996-01 Yankees and the 2001-06 Patriots are pretty eerie, when you think about it:

1) The Yankees won four championships in five years; the Patriots won three.

2) Both teams won their first championship with a squad that really wasn't all that impressive. The '96 Yankees had nothing on the '98-00 version, just as the Patriots' 2001 team looked nothing like the 2003-04 squad.

3) Both teams were huge underdogs in their first World Series/Super Bowl and won stunning victories. The Yankees lost the first two games - at home - to the Braves, who were the defending world champs and looked like they would be the team of the 1990s. The Patriots weren't given a shot in hell against the Rams, who won the Super Bowl two years prior and looked like they were in the midst of a dynasty run.

4) Both teams had an off-year the following season, then started Year 3 on a bad note - the Patriots got blown out by Buffalo, 31-0, and the Yankees started the 1998 season 1-4 and rumors were swirling that Joe Torre was about to get canned.

5) Both teams then went on truly historic runs of dominance. The Yankees went on a ridiculous 60-16 tear after their 1-4 start, finishing with 114 wins and tacking on 11 more in the postseason. The Patriots would go 35-3 after the loss to
Buffalo that included a 21-game winning streak.

6) Both teams had developed an aura of invincibility just as their run was about to end. The Yankees made it to the World Series in 2001 only because they came back from a 2-0 deficit against Oakland in the first round (and only won Game 3 because Derek Jeter made a smart play and Jeremy Giambi forgot to slide), then had to face the Mariners - who had broken the Yankees' own record for AL regular season wins with
116 - and dispatched them in five games. The Patriots had to go on the road to face the 14-2 Chargers and all-time TD record holder LaDanian Tomlinson, and won even though the Chargers had nearly triple the rushing yards and Brady threw three picks.

7) Both teams had their run of dominance end on a rare failure by one of their signature players, the Yankees when Mariano Rivera failed to hold a one-run lead in the ninth, the Patriots when Tom Brady threw an interception on a two-minute drill.

The analogy isn't perfect; for one thing, today's game wasn't the Super Bowl. On the other hand, it was Pats-Colts, which is a more compelling matchup than any game involving an NFC team. The fact that
Boston didn't come under a terrorist attack eight weeks ago also stretches the analogy a bit.

Nevertheless, it holds. And just as the Yankees gained even more respect for the way they went down swinging even in defeat, I have to say I hold the Patriots in higher regard now than I did 24 hours ago. That they made it to within 60 seconds of a Super Bowl with Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell as their best receivers, with a rookie kicker, with the roster devastated with injuries, with half the team recovering from the flu...that's a bad-ass performance. There's no shame in that.

But just as the Yankees learned, in the ensuing years, what the rest of baseball already knew - that winning a championship is very, very hard, even if you have the talent to make the playoffs every year – I have a feeling the Patriots are going to struggle to win another Super Bowl again with this collection of talent.”

A year later, and you can add one more piece to this analogy. The New York Yankees became the first baseball team to choke away a 3-0 lead in a playoff series, to the Boston Red Sox. The Boston – well, New England – Patriots became the first NFL team to lose their first game of the season in the Super Bowl, to the New York Giants. In this analogy, Dave Roberts’ Steal = David Tyree’s Helmet Catch.

The Yankees have gone to the playoffs every year since 2004, but the aura of invulnerability is long gone, and their solution to their repeated playoff failures has been to throw more and more money at the problem. It remains to be seen how the Patriots respond to their most recent loss, but I will be shocked and ridiculous impressed if they rebound from this to win another Super Bowl.

Moving on…I had a couple of sources from front offices around the league comment on my previous entries. One source stated that I shouldn’t be so sure that Justin Huber would be picked up off of waivers if he doesn’t make the roster out of spring training. His point was that the Rangers just snuck Chris Shelton off their roster, and no other team bit on him.

It’s an interesting comparison. Shelton’s two years older than Huber, and only hit .269/.381/.420 in Triple-A last year, but on the other hand he actually has two major league seasons on his resume which say he can hit, 2005 and 2006, which is two more seasons than Huber has. I stand by my original point, which is that given the alternatives at first base (or DH if Butler shows he can field the position), Huber might be the best option to play even if he did have options.

Anyway, it appears we’re going to find out if he can clear options or not; the Royals have just announced that he’ll be playing solely in left field this spring. I was starting to get worried there – it’s been months since he’s been asked to change positions. His one hope here is to make the team as a replacement for Jose Guillen while the latter serves his suspension, and then to hit like gangbusters for the first two weeks. Hey, it worked for Mike Sweeney in 1999.

Another source disagreed with my evaluation of Luke Hochevar, deriding him as having “average starter stuff at best, and I don’t see an out pitch there.” He made the very valid point that Hochevar’s velocity has never approached the numbers he was hitting on the gun for the independent Fort Worth team he played for right before the draft.

I completely agree that the Royals made a huge mistake in overemphasizing their most recent impression of him before the draft. Teams get into trouble all the time drafting a player based on a few well-timed good months, and conversely, guys who have a disappointing junior season (or senior season of high school) turn out to be draft steals more often than not. One of the best draft picks the Royals ever made was Johnny Damon, who was talked about as a possible #1 overall pick before his senior year, then let the pressure get to him and hit so poorly (he failed to hit .300 that year) that he fell to the 35th pick in the draft. The Royals signed him, he batted .349 in rookie ball, and there’s been no looking back. For an example of a guy the Royals drafted based entirely on his senior year performance, I give you two words: Colt Griffin.

But I still think Hochevar has the stuff to be at least a #3 starter. He might not have an out pitch, but he makes up for it by throwing four pitches that are at least average. He started for the Royals on the last day of the season and hit 90-91 on the gun, with good movement. But more and more I’m warming up to the idea of apprenticing him in relief, so long as the team has the roster space to accommodate him while not losing one of their other young arms.

Finally, Jorge de la Rosa appears to be making one of the strongest early impressions in camp, and the Royals plan to start him in place of Brett Tomko in the spring training opener this week. I think de la Rosa’s arm is way too lively to give up on, and for the life of me I can’t understand why no one has broached the subject of using him in the bullpen. You’ve got a lefthander who throws in the mid-90s but can’t throw strikes? Doesn’t the bullpen seem like the perfect tonic for a guy like that?

I’ll touch on this more later, but this yet another reason why I strongly dislike (I’m tempted to use the word “hate”) the signing of Ron Mahay. Suddenly the Royals have three left-handed relievers projected to break camp with the team (including Jimmy Gobble and John Bale), and they still have Neal Musser and his 0.49 ERA in Omaha last year lying around. They didn’t need Mahay, and now they’re in a situation where de la Rosa either gets a rotation spot or gets a one-way ticket out of town.