Saturday, March 8, 2008

Reason #13: The Kid.

Royals fans may long rue the final day of the 2006 season, the day the Royals beat the Tigers in 12 innings, completing an improbable sweep, one that coincided with the Devil Rays’ getting swept in their final series, tilting the ownership of the #1 pick in 2007 draft from Kansas City to Tampa Bay. I was watching the game on Extra Innings, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever rooted harder for the Royals to lose. Less than 48 hours earlier they held a 2.5 game “lead” on the Devil Rays for the first pick in the draft, and were playing the AL Central-leading Tigers. Suddenly they were in mortal danger of losing that pick, and as I have shown in the past, the difference in value between the #1 and #2 overall picks is the largest drop at any point in the draft.

In the bottom of the 11th, the Tigers had the bases loaded with one out, but with the winning run ninety feet away, Joe Nelson struck out Brandon Inge. He was immediately lifted for Jimmy Gobble, who struck out Curtis Granderson to get out of the inning. The Royals would score two in the 12th to win. That may well prove to be Joe Nelson’s final pitch in the major leagues. No truth to the rumor that he spent all of last season on the DL with an evil eye.

As bad as I felt at the time, I felt even worse about that day the following spring, when it became increasingly clear that 1) David Price was head-and-shoulders above the pack as the best player available in the draft, and 2) no one could agree on who was the second-best player in the draft.

But if there was a consensus #2 player in the draft, it was Rick Porcello, the high school right-hander from New Jersey who some have called the best high school pitcher of the decade. The Royals did not draft him. Worse still, the Tigers, who figure to be one of the team’s biggest roadblocks to a playoff spot over the next five years, landed him with the 27th pick in the draft, then signed him for a major-league contract worth about $7 million.

For the span of almost 24 hours last August, it appeared the while the Tigers had signed their man, the Royals were not going to come to terms with the player they selected at least in part because he was more signable than Porcello. Fortunately, Mike Moustakas accepted the Royals’ $4 million offer minutes before the deadline.

You have to wonder at least a little about an organization that thinks the proper answer to the equation “Rick Porcello” – “Mike Moustakas” = “Brett Tomko.” And the talk out of Tiger camp this spring certainly hasn’t made me feel better about passing on Porcello. In his first outing of the year, he retired all six batters he faced, didn’t let the ball out of the infield, and struck out Frank Thomas. In his second outing he wasn’t quite as dominant; a front office source told me “he looked a lot like Justin Verlander in his first camp.” And that was on a bad day. (And Verlander was 22 in his first camp; Porcello’s 19.) He could easily be in Double-A by the end of the year.

Having said all that, Moustakas isn’t exactly chopped liver. He’s a guy the scouts and the stats can agree on. The scouts love his athleticism (he served as his high school team’s closer and touched 97 on the mound) and a swing that’s perfectly tailored for power. The stats say that he set all-time California records for home runs in a season (24) and in a career (52) while hitting .577 as a senior. While we don’t typically put much stock in high school stats, the level of competition in California is pretty darn high, and a lot of major league stars have gone to high school there without ever hitting that many home runs. If Moustakas hit 24 home runs in South Carolina – hello, Roscoe Crosby! – I’d be a touch more skeptical.

The fact that Moustakas has already hit for prodigious power is important, because he doesn’t have the build that projects for additional power down the road (he’s a compact 6’0”, 195 pounds.) That doesn’t mean he can’t hit for power in the majors – Hank Aaron stood 6-foot even, and Willie Mays was 5’11" – but it certainly helps that he already has shown that skill in spades.

The negatives here are that Moustakas was very old for a high school draftee; he turned 19 less than a month after signing. By comparison, Josh Vitters (who the Royals almost took instead of Moustakas, and went #3 overall to the Cubs) is about 11 months younger. On the other hand, Moustakas had better numbers as a high school junior than Vitters had as a senior. Age is important, and an additional year of development can make an enormous difference at that age, but it’s not everything.

The other negative is that while Moustakas should hit well enough to hit at any position, no one knows what position that will be yet. The Royals are keeping him at shortstop for now, which is nice, but no one outside the organization thinks he’ll last at the position, and even a whisper that a minor league player will have to switch positions almost invariably comes true. This is one instance where his height serves him well – if Moustakas has to move, it’s because he doesn’t show the range for shortstop, not because he “outgrows” the position.

If he can last even a few years at shortstop in the majors, sort of like Stephen Drew with the Diamondbacks, he’ll be an immensely valuable player. But even that seems wishful thinking. Third base would make a lot of sense, but that position is sort of taken for the next five years. He has the arm for rightfield, but you lose a lot of positional value if you move him there. There’s even been talk that, given his arm and build, he could move behind the plate. Moving a top hitting prospect to catcher is the baseball equivalent of day-trading on the NASDAQ – the one or two success stories (Brandon Inge, Michael Barrett) get all the buzz, while the 99% that crash and burn get swept under the rug.

That leaves second base, which at least one respected baseball man thinks is his best position. It’s a waste of his arm, and the injury rate among second baseman is almost as bad as among catchers, but the impact of a power bat at the position can not be overstated. Chase Utley, anyone?

I’d still rather have Price, and not just because he got a standing ovation in spring training – on the Yankees’ home field. (Granted, the Yankees play in Tampa…) I strongly feel there’s a window for the Royals to win the division in 2010, and Price not only will be in the majors by then, he might well be a Cy Young candidate. Moustakas will be 21 in 2010; he might be in the majors, but to expect him to be any more than an average major leaguer by then is incredibly optimistic.

But the Royals, at least for the moment, seem to have enough pitching. They certainly don’t have enough hitters. Moustakas might not be a better player than Price or Porcello, but he might prove to be the better fit for the Royals in the long run. No regrets here. At least not yet.


If you can’t get enough of the Brian Bannister Phenomenon, our buddy Jeff Passan has a terrific article that sums it all up.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Reason #14: The Thinker.

As a Royals fan, it’s really been quite amazing to watch over the past few months as the baseball blogosphere has picked up on what we’ve known since last season: that Brian Bannister is one of the smartest players in baseball, and certainly one of the game’s deepest thinkers.

A year ago, when the Royals acquired him from the Mets straight up for Ambiorix Burgos, even baseball insiders weren’t aware of Bannister’s intellect (or if they were, they didn’t think it mattered.) The immediate reaction from other front offices at the winter meetings was that the Royals got the short end of the stick, that they traded a potential closer for a potential #5 starter. The stats bore that impression out: namely, that Burgos was 22 years old and struck people out, while Bannister was 25 and didn’t.

There have been many advantages to being a baseball outsider for all these years. You’re not likely to be swayed by bias because you don’t know the players well enough to be biased one way or another, and you’re not likely to miss the forest for the trees because you’re not close enough to see the trees. (Bill James’ classic piece “Inside-Out Perspective”, which ran at the beginning of the 1984 Abstract, explains this phenomenon far better than I ever could.)

Only sometimes it helps to see those trees, because sometimes they tell you something of value. We may not have been quite so negative about the Bannister trade at the time if, say, we had had the opportunity to talk to Bannister for half an hour and found out what makes him tick. Though I think it’s interesting that the people who are baseball insiders – the guys who work in the game and know these players better than you and I ever will – were not any higher on Bannister than we were.

We quickly learned that we were wrong about Bannister, a lesson we thoroughly enjoyed. One of the better fringe benefits of a Brian Bannister start last season – the main benefit being that he, you know, generally pitched well – was getting to read some of his post-game comments. Most guys are cliché factories; Bannister talked likes he’s instructing kids at a pitching clinic. Smart kids at that.

We were intrigued; we wanted to find out more about the guy. We found out Bannister graduated magna cum laude from USC, and that none of his grades came in ballroom dancing (or accepting favors from an agent, then stabbing him in the back, for that matter.) We found out that in the offseason, he pulls himself away from the hunting and fishing pursuits that are mandated of all ballplayers long enough to run his own photography studio in Arizona. He’s like Curt Schilling without the blog or the ego.

We found out from Joe Posnanski’s blog that he reads Baseball Prospectus, and that he not only has familiarized himself with modern sabermetric analysis, but that he has dabbled in some statistical analysis himself. And then we – along with most every baseball writer – read this astounding interview he gave Tim Dierkes of If you haven’t read it already, I really can’t recommend it enough.

I’ve simply never heard a pitcher say things like “whether you like it or not, baseball is a game of randomness. We play outdoors (mostly) in changing elements and field dimensions, and each pitch results in a series of events that can go in either teams favor…Therefore, as a pitcher, I study and play to put the percentages in my favor more than anything because I know that I can't control the outcome in a single game or series of games, but over the course of a season or a career I will be better than average.” Well, maybe I have, but certainly never so articulately.

But what makes the interview special is Part 3, when Bannister not only states his understanding of DIPS theory, but points out a potential flaw in the theory that he can exploit. For those of you who are not familiar with DIPS theory (or BABIP), I recommend this column. Essentially, Voros McCracken argued seven years ago that the ability to prevent hits once contact is made (except for home runs) is entirely in the hands of the defense, and the pitcher has no ability to influence opposing hitters’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That theory has since been adjusted to state, essentially, that the pitcher has very little ability to influence opposing hitters’ BABIP. In modern baseball, the average BABIP is about .300, but can range from .270 for a team with a tremendous defense to .340 or .350 for a team with the equivalent of Billy Butler at every position. And even the best starters in baseball might be able to sway that figure in their favor by no more than ten points. It’s probably the most important sabermetric advance so far this decade.

Here, I’ll let Bannister explain it: “I think a lot of fans underestimate how much time I spend working with statistics to improve my performance on the field. For those that don't know, the typical BABIP for starting pitchers in Major League Baseball is around .300 give or take a few points. The common (and valid) argument is that over the course of a pitcher's career, he can not control his BABIP from year-to-year (because it is random), but over a period of time it will settle into the median range of roughly .300 (the peak of the bell curve). Therefore, pitchers that have a BABIP of under .300 are due to regress in subsequent years and pitchers with a BABIP above .300 should see some improvement (assuming they are a Major League Average pitcher).

Because I don't have enough of a sample size yet (service time), I don't claim to be able to beat the .300 average year in and year out at the Major League level. However, I also don't feel that every pitcher is hopelessly bound to that .300 number for his career if he takes some steps to improve his odds - which is what pitching is all about.”

Bannister goes on to say that his idea for improving those odds is that, because BABIP can be shown to fluctuate depending on the count, a pitcher who can induce more contact in 0-1 or 0-2 counts will have a lower BABIP than a pitcher who typically falls behind 2-0 or 2-1 before contact is made. It’s a simple concept, and one I had given a fleeting thought to in the past, but to the best of my knowledge Bannister is the first person – pitcher or otherwise – to articulate the idea in print.

I can think of only one other time when a baseball player came up with a new theory for baseball analysts to think their teeth into, and that was when Sean Burroughs argued that among left-handed hitters, guys who also throw left-handed tend to develop power earlier (think Ken Griffey Jr.) than guys who throw right-handed (think George Brett.) The problem with Burroughs’ hypothesis was that the evidence to support it was minimal, as I discovered in this column. (The best evidence that his theory was wrong, unfortunately, turned out to be his own career.)

Bannister, on the other hand, turns out to be right, or at least partially right. It’s true that a pitcher could lower his BABIP by getting into more favorable counts (i.e. throwing more strikes) – but it turns out the effect is quite small, on the order of five to ten points at most.

And this is important, because Bannister owes much of his success last year to his own BABIP, which at just .262 was one of the lowest marks in the majors. (I believe it was the lowest mark of any qualifying starter, though I can't confirm that.) I have no doubt that Bannister has the ability to get the most out of his ability, as it were. But I refuse to believe that he can sustain a BABIP that low, for the simple reason that no pitcher in the history of baseball has sustained a BABIP that low relative to his league and team defense.

So we arrive at an impasse. As Bob Dutton put it recently, “There is a certain irony to it. The Royals pitcher most likely to understand the reams of quantitative analysis so dear to baseball’s burgeoning sabermetric community is the pitcher whose future draws so little love from its conclusions.” Those conclusions are this: that a pitcher who strikes out just 4.2 men per nine innings, as Bannister did last year, can not succeed consistently unless he does one of two things: he has impeccable control, or he is an extreme groundball pitcher who rarely gets nicked by the home run. If you have the first, you can be Carlos Silva; if you’re the second, you can be Scott Erickson. (If you’re both, you can be Dan Quisenberry.)

Bannister is neither. He walked 44 batters in 165 innings last year, which is very good but not in the Silva category. More worrisome, he’s actually a little more flyball-prone than the average pitcher; his career groundball/flyball ratio is 1.06, while the major-league average is around 1.20.

So I maintain that if Bannister pitches like he did last year, his effectiveness will almost certainly diminish in the long-run, and he’ll be hard-pressed to maintain even a league-average ERA.

But there’s the rub: if Bannister pitches like he did last year. Bannister’s pitching acumen will not allow him to maintain a .262 BABIP, or anything close to that. But it will allow him to improve in those areas where a pitcher really does have control of his destiny: his ability to limit walks and homers while striking out more batters.

In all the talk about how Bannister is a finesse pitcher because he didn’t strike anyone out as a rookie, what’s lost is that, in the minor leagues, his strikeout rates were far better than average. In 2004, he struck out 134 batters in 154 innings; in 2005 it was 142 Ks in 154 IP, including more than a man per inning (48 Ks in 45 IP) at the Triple-A level. For his minor league career he had 365 strikeouts in 417 innings, or 7.88 per nine. That’s not Dwight Gooden, but it’s not Jeff Ballard either.

And that’s why, while I’m a little leery of Bannister in the short term, I’m confident that he can make the adjustments to continue being an above-average starting pitcher in the long term. Put it this way: let’s say that Bannister can’t keep his BABIP at .262, but has the ability to keep his BABIP at .290, about 10 points better than league average. In that case, if his strikeout rate rises from 4.2 per nine innings to 7.04 per nine innings, he will surrender the exact same number of hits that he did last season.

The question is, can he do that? Most pitchers increase their strikeout rates in their second full season, but a leap of that magnitude is rare. On the other hands, Bannister’s strikeout rate last season appears almost as flukish – given his minor league resume – as his BABIP was. I don’t think he’s going to strike out 7 men per nine innings, but 6 or 6.5 is not unreasonable. Combine that with excellent control and even an average strikeout rate, and you’ve got yourself a heck of a #3 starter.

Brian, if you’re reading this, just remember that the numbers aren’t saying you can’t remain effective. What they’re saying is that you can’t remain effective the same way. So while your efforts to keep your BABIP at a low level are laudable, focusing your efforts on getting more strikeouts is going to yield a lot more bang for your buck.

I don't mean to brag...

But since a few of you asked

SS Derek Jeter Was on base something like 3 times a game
RF Jack Cust The bat was more than worth the glove
3B Chipper Jones First-round pick obliterates RHP
CF B.J. Upton Team took off when Upton took over in CF
LF Barry Bonds The bat was more than worth the glove
C Russell Martin Steal of the draft in the 7th round
1B Prince Fielder Yes, Prince Fielder batted seventh
2B Dustin Pedroia Made all the plays in the field

CF Carlos Beltran No on-base against RHP, so I benched him
1B James Loney +11 in the clutch, an absolute monster PH
3B Ryan Zimmerman Crushes LHP; I platooned him with Chipper
OF Alex Rios Jack Cust’s glove and platoon partner
OF Norris Hopper Every team needs a PH who can lead off
C Brian McCann I think he batted twice in the tournament

SP Tim Hudson Second-best starting pitcher in the set
SP C.C. Sabathia Couldn’t turn him down in the 19th round
SP Roy Halladay Someone had to pitch 5 innings every 4 days
SP Derek Lowe Someone had to pitch 5 innings every 4 days

LRP Rafael Perez The best lefty reliever in the set
LRP George SherrillA poor man’s Rafael Perez
LRP Ron Mahay The token Royal (well, new Royal)
RRP Manny Corpas Closer who gets RHB and LHB out equally
RRP Russ Springer Death to RHB, acceptable against LHB
RRP Lee Gardner A poor man’s Russ Springer
RRP Joaquin Benoit A mirror-image of Lee Gardner

The team started slow, losing its first two games, before finding its footing, but was just 10-8 and two games out of a playoff spot with four games to go. I then benched Beltran for Upton and unleashed a monster. I swept my final four games to win my division, dismantled my semifinals opponent three games to one (albeit two of those wins coming in 13 and 14 innings), and winning the finals four games to one. For the tournament the team was 21-10; while I haven’t counted up the numbers yet, I’m guessing that Cust and Bonds combined for about 25 homers.

I’d like to say that this is no big deal for me, that I’ve won tournaments before, but I haven’t, and I’ve played in probably 20 tournaments going back to 1993. You need a good team, but you also need a lot of luck. Joe Sheehan, drafting in a different division, ended up with a remarkably similar team and went 9-11.

It was a fun weekend.

Let’s tie this into the Royals somehow…we played 8-man drafts, which means 200 players were drafted, but only two of them played for the Royals last year: Joakim Soria, who’s one of the best relievers in the set, and Brian Bannister, a late-round starter. Gil Meche is on the bubble; he’d probably be taken in a 10-man draft. Greinke might get taken, although he’s a few innings shy of qualifying as a starting pitcher. John Buck should have been taken, and almost certainly goes in a deeper draft. That’s it.

It’s not quite as rigorous as Joe Posnanski’s “Championship Caliber Guys”, but counting up the number of players worthy of being drafted in a Stratomatic tournament isn’t a bad way of evaluating your team’s chances. The average team has about seven players picked. The Royals had two. That’s going to have to change this year. I’ll put my money on Meche, Greinke, Soria, Gordon, Butler, Buck, Guillen, and one of the lefty relievers for next year.

Back soon with a continuation of the countdown.