Saturday, March 22, 2008

Reason #7: The Hitter.

You would think that hitting ability and fielding ability would correlate with each other. Both activities require tremendous hand-eye coordination, after all. And by and large, they do. Even the worst defender in the major leagues would play shortstop in your local beer league, and even the worst hitter in the majors would be the most fearsome slugger in any amateur competition.

Still, every now and then you get a guy like Billy Butler, who holds a bat in his hands like it’s an extension of his body, and wears a glove like he’s never seen one before.

The Royals got a guy like Butler with one of their shrewdest draft picks of the decade. The team had the #14 pick in 2004, still the latest they’ve waited to draft since 1996. The 2004 draft was not particularly strong; I mean, Matt Bush was the #1 overall pick, and Bush’s career as a shortstop progressed so nicely that he’s now a pitcher (and a pitcher who just had Tommy John surgery at that.)

It was weaker still if you wanted to avoid the money and acrimony that would inevitably follow Jered Weaver and Stephen Drew. Every team drafting in the top 10 did, and aside from Justin Verlander at #2, not one player taken in the top 10 looks like a sure thing today. (The Rice trio of Philip Humber, Wade Townsend were all taken in the top 8, and now they look like the second coming of the Mets’ “Generation K.”) The second-best player taken in the top 10 was probably Homer Bailey. The third-best was…uh…Jeremy Sowers?

There were rumors before the draft that the Royals would select Boston College pitcher Christopher Lambert. Lambert would make it to #19, where he was popped by the Cardinals. His stock has since dropped to the point where last summer the Cardinals traded him to the New York Highlanders…er…the Detroit Tigers for Mike Maroth.

As Scouting Director Deric Ladnier would later admit, in their war room the Royals were sure about only two things in that draft: 1) there were no sure things, and 2) if there was a sure thing, it was that Billy Butler could hit. And boy, has he. He hit .373/.486/.596 in his pro debut, topping the collegiate-dominated Pioneer League in both batting average and OBP as an 18-year-old. (It was a good summer for Billy; he also met his future wife there.) It takes a pretty awesome performance in rookie ball to get labeled a “steal” three months after you were drafted, especially when you were taken in the first round, but it was pretty clear that Butler had a chance to be special early on.

You don’t want to get too excited too quickly, though – hitters put up spectacular performances in rookie ball all the time, and many fizzle out quickly. The greatest rookie-ball Royals prospect I’ve ever seen was Sergio Nunez, who in 1994, as a 19-year-old second baseman just off the plane from the Dominican Republic, hit .397 in the Gulf Coast League (no desert thin air to boost his numbers), walked 32 times against just 17 strikeouts, and stole 37 bases in 59 games. (I believe his batting average is the highest by a Royals player, at any level, in their history.) For one season, he looked like the second coming of Joe Morgan. The next year he jumped to high A-ball and hit .237; he topped out in Double-A.

Butler jumped to high-A ball the next year, and he was no Sergio Nunez. He hit .348/.419/.646, finishing in the top 3 in all three rate categories, before he moved up to Double-A at year’s end and hit .313/.353/.527. In 2006 he spent the whole year in Double-A and hit .331/.388/.499, winning another batting title.

He failed to hit .300 in 2007, but his secondary skills bounced back, and he hit .291/.412/.542 in Triple-A for two months and drew more walks than strikeouts for the first time. He spent the rest of the year with Kansas City, hitting .292/.347/.447. He will still be 21 when this season begins.

The Royals simply haven’t had a hitter as precocious as Butler in 30 years, and quite possibly, ever. Butler was an everyday player in their lineup at the age of 21, and in franchise history the only two guys who can say that are George Brett and Clint Hurdle. Brett famously never hit .300 in the minors, whereas Butler almost never hit less than .300, and his career line in the minors is a rather ridiculous .336/.416/.561.

I don’t have access to Hurdle’s complete minor league numbers, but he’s the only Royal ever to crack the starting lineup at age 20, and thirty years ago this month he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated (the headline was “This Year’s Phenom”,) so you have to figure he was pretty well regarded at one point. Actually, thanks to SI’s recent and greatly-appreciated decision to open up their vault, I can now link to the article from that issue. It looks like Hurdle hit .328 with 16 homers and 66 RBIs in Triple-A in 1976, at the age of 19. Yeah, I think that qualifies as a phenom. (By the way, that’s a great article to read, if only to contrast the cocky wild-eyed 20-year-old Hurdle and the guy who manages the Rockies today. And there’s a Rubin “Hurricane” Carter reference!)

You’d like to know with certainty that his career won’t disappoint like Hurdle’s did, and in your favor is the fact that Butler’s numbers as a rookie, .292/.347/.447, are almost identical to Hurdle’s best season, 1980, when he hit .294/.349/.458. On the other hand, offensive levels are much higher today than they were 30 years ago. Butler’s OPS+ last year was 105; not only was Hurdle’s OPS+ much higher at 120, but Hurdle’s OPS+ as a rookie (when he hit .264/.348/.398) was higher as well, at 108.

But hey, there’s a lot of space between Brett’s career and Hurdle’s. Butler’s not likely to end up like either player – for the simple reason that he can’t handle a defensive position. And it’s hard not to root for him. For one thing, his fielding skills are really the stuff of legend. He spent less than a year at third base, where one scout called him “the worst defensive player I’ve ever seen, at any position.” He then moved to the outfield…and as the story goes, in spring training two years ago, Butler was in the outfield and they were hitting fungoes out to him. It wasn’t going well – he was having all sorts of problems tracking fly balls. Suddenly he bolts in from the outfield and runs up to the coach hitting the fungoes to offer some advice. “You’re hitting the balls too high!”

How can you not love him after hearing that? Especially when you know that his defensive woes are not the product of a lack of effort. The man clearly loves everything about the game – he still has the boyhood innocence about him, the joy of playing a game and calling it work. He gets ribbed mercilessly in the clubhouse for being such a redneck rube, and I get the impression that all that ribbing – and the good-natured way he accepts all the abuse – is really a sign of how much the other players love him. He’s not Mark Quinn, in other words.

The main reason to love him is that, as clueless as he is in the field, he’s incredibly intelligent and intuitive at the plate. I think the best comparison for him is Edgar Martinez, a professional and cerebral hitter with great strike zone command and the ability to spray the ball all over the park.

Whether Butler makes it at first base or not is almost irrelevant; if he’s not DHing this year, he will be as soon as the Royals can find a real first baseman who can hit better than Ross Gload. His position may not be “3” on the field for long, but in the lineup, he’s the prototypical 3 hitter. Mike Sweeney is gone, but his replacement is not only on hand, it might be an upgrade.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Defending the Tenth

I remember the good old days – some of you might remember them as “January” – when, if Rob Neyer disagreed with my opinion (which was pretty much all the time), he’d respond in the little chat window that pops up in my gmail account, and pretty soon we’d have a dialogue, and the next thing you’d know another Rob & Rany would appear on his website.

Now, when Rob disagrees with me I get to find out about it the same way the rest of you do, in his column. Rob politely disagreed with my take that the changing economic climate that I talked about in Reason #10 is a good thing for small-market teams like the Royals:

“Are teams really smarter? Probably. But that doesn't help teams like the Royals. It hurts them. When rich teams throw stupid money at free agents it makes things easier for the poor teams. Not a lot easier; all that stupid money drives up payroll costs for everybody, rich and poor. But if the rich teams aren't overspending -- if they're valuing players correctly, and thus are willing to pay only a small premium for short-term success -- then where do the poor teams find their edge?

Jazayerli correctly notes that the gap between rich and poor is shrinking, due largely to various revenue-sharing measures. I still think a smart rich team has a massive advantage over a smart poor team.”

I’m not picking on Rob. I can’t, since many of you feel the same way. The comments on my post include: “For the forseeable future, small market teams won't be able to re-sign many of the great players they develop. They will lose out on the bidding for top free agents. They will be able to sign fewer good free agents than large market teams.

It seemed like your post was saying that for the [m]ost part significant economic disparity will soon be gone. I don't think that is even close to correct. The facts simply don't support such a contention.”

And this one: “One question. Wouldn't the money that's being spread to all 30 teams also increase the pockets of the large market teams? Since the revenue is equal in these situations, it does nothing to level any playing fields. It increases the amount all teams have to spend, on an even basis. Just because the Yankees don't immediately dump it into a crappy Juan Pierre type contract, doesn't mean they lose any ground.

The small market team definitely benefit in the short term by an influx of immediate funds, but the large market teams are reaping the exact same benefits as well.”

When one person disagrees with what I say, the resolution to that conflict is easy: that guy is a moron. When multiple people disagree with me…well, I have to entertain the notion that I’m the moron. (To quote one of the great first lines in movie history: “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”)

In this case, I don’t think I’m the moron, I just think I didn’t explain myself very well. I don’t mean to state that because the Royals are now spending $70 million and the Yankees are spending $150 million, they can contend more easily than when it was $30 million and $100 million. The payroll ratio may have improved, but the payroll gap has stayed the same or even increased.

But it’s not just that the Royals have more money to spend, or that teams are getting smarter about how they spend their money. It’s that teams are spending less of their money on the talent they put on the field. And what this means, more or less, is that every team in baseball has the money to keep their own talent.

Rob argues that when rich teams throw money at bad free agents, that it helps poor teams because the rich teams are wasting their money. I disagree. When the Dodgers gave Juan Pierre $44 million for 5 years, it meant that the Dodgers had just set 44 million dollars on fire. That’s good if you’re a Royals fan. But it also meant that the market for even average outfielders just went way up – that’s bad if you’re a Royals fan. The Royals wanted Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones, and weren’t able to sign them because if Pierre is worth $9 million a year and Gary Matthews Jr. is worth $10 million, then the market value for Hunter and Jones was $18 million. Jose Guillen is probably overpaid at $12 million – but he’s a bargain compared to Pierre.

But if – and granted, it’s a big if – teams are getting smarter about spending their free agent dollars, then contracts like Pierre’s and Matthews’ are going to become less common. (It’s telling that both the Dodgers and Angels are suffering buyer’s remorse, to the point that both Pierre and Matthews may be fourth outfielders this year. That also means both teams understand the concept of sunk costs – something that wasn’t true in baseball five or ten years ago.) And if all 30 teams decide that it’s not worth paying half of A-Rod’s salary for a player that’s half as good, suddenly the market for middle-tier free agents is going to crater. You’re already seeing signs of this, the Lohse contract being the most recent example.

Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox can blow the Royals out of the water. But what if they choose not to? In other words, what if those teams, rather than continuing to increase their payroll into the $200 million range to insure they’ll challenge 100 wins every year, decide they can keep their payroll about where it is by cutting out the $5-10 million free agents and blending the occasional rookie into the lineup, and still win 92-95 games every year? The Yankees and Red Sox (and other big-market teams) may decide that reducing their playoff odds by maybe 15% may well be worth an additional $50 million in profit. Baseball is a business, after all. These teams can have their cake and eat it too.

I think we might be entering an era in which the distinguishing factor between large-market and small-market teams won’t be their competitiveness on the field, it will be their profitability off the field. Yes, a huge bidding war could erupt between the large-market teams and C.C. Sabathia might get $30 million a year when he hits free agency next winter. But I don’t see it. There was hardly a market this winter for Alex Rodriguez, for God’s sake. Teams seem to have reached the joint conclusion – and I don’t think it’s collusion, just multiple teams engaging in good business practices – that they don’t have to chase after every free agent that hits the market. And if they are confident that other teams aren’t pushing the market higher, there will be even less pressure to set the bar higher themselves. Revenues will continue to increase, at least in the short term, but salaries may not. Every team will be profitable – some teams will be immensely profitable.

Besides, the Royals aren’t really competing with the Yankees and Red Sox. Four out of 14 AL teams make the playoffs, which theoretically gives the Royals 28.6% odds of a playoff berth. But the reality is that they’re competing for one playoff spot, the AL Central title, which puts their odds at a still-acceptable 20%. And the great thing is, no matter how many games the Yankees and Red Sox win, they can’t reduce those odds any further.

So do you really want to argue that the Royals can’t compete in the AL Central? Well, their payroll last season was $67.1 million, which pales to the White Sox at $108.7 million, or the Tigers at $95.2 million. Even the Twins had a higher payroll at $71.4 million. The only team in the division the Royals outspent was…um...the division-winning Indians, at $61.7 million.

Do you want to know why the Tigers and White Sox had a higher payroll than the Royals? Because they had better players, and better players cost more to keep – not because they were able to afford more expensive players in free agency than the Royals could. This isn’t specifically true of the Tigers, who loaded up on guys like Magglio Ordonez and Ivan Rodriguez, but as I’ve documented before, the Tigers’ resurrection is pretty unique, and few people in history have the eye for talent that Dave Dombrowski has. (Besides, if you want to use the Detroit Tigers as your reason for why the Royals can’t contend, be my guest. The Tigers were the most hopeless team in baseball five years ago – suddenly they’re being talked about as a large-market team swinging with the big boys in New York and Boston. If they can do it, we can do it.)

The six most expensive players on the White Sox last year were Jim Thome, Javier Vazquez, Paul Konerko, Jon Garland, Mark Buehrle, and Jose Contreras, who combined made a fraction more than the entire Royals team last year. Buehrle was drafted by Chicago, and the other five came via trade (Kenny Williams is pretty unique in his own way.) These weren’t guys acquired in salary dumps either – Konerko and Garland had done nothing in the majors when they were picked up, Contreras was an overpriced mediocrity the Yankees wanted to rid themselves of, and even Thome was coming off a bad back and a lost season, and was a big gamble to acquire.

The Indians, on the other hand, won with a young, mostly homegrown team, and nothing keeps payroll down like young talent. Grady Sizemore made $916,667. C.C. Sabathia led the team in salary at $8.75 million; Paul Byrd and Kenny Lofton were the only high-priced imports at 7 and 6 million respectively. The Indians won the division because they did the best job of developing young talent in the division, and not only were they able to keep all their young players, they did so without breaking a sweat.

The Royals may well lag the other teams in the division in payroll for the next year or two, simply because they haven’t developed young talent that’s worthy of a big payday. (Or hopefully, talent that’s worthy of a big payday yet.) But the financial realities today are much different than they were in the early part of the decade, when Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon, and Carlos Beltran were all dealt away because the Royals couldn’t or wouldn’t pay them what they were worth.

Maybe the Royals wouldn’t be able to keep Carlos Beltran if he were about to become a free agent today. There’s always a chance that a potential Hall of Fame player is going to test the market regardless. The Twins felt compelled to trade Johan Santana because they weren’t willing to pay him $20 million a year…but on the other hand, they signed Justin Morneau to a six-year deal this winter, and Michael Cuddyer got three years. Anyway, if a team isn’t willing to offer a long-term deal to its best young talent years before free agency strikes, they don’t deserve to keep him anyway.

We’ll know just how able or willing the Royals are to keep their young talent a year from now. If Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Zack Greinke all get long-term deals that keep them in a Royals uniform for at least a year past their scheduled free agency, then you can be pretty certain the Royals have the money it takes to keep the talent they develop. Really, that’s all that you can ask for as a fan of a small-market team. If the team is willing to spend money to grab other team’s free agents…that’s a bonus.

Just keep in mind that the Royals gave out the largest new free-agent contract of any team in the AL Central…both in 2007 and in 2006. If that’s not a team that can compete financially, I don’t know what is.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Reason #8: The Voice.

I made the transition from fan to Superfan shortly after my 14th birthday, in August of 1989, when the Royals – on their way to winning 92 games, still their winningest season since 1980 – went on a nine-game winning streak against the White Sox, Mariners, and Angels. What made that streak special was that, for the first time in my life, I was listening to their games on the radio. (At least the ones that weren’t on TV, which in those days was pretty much all of them.)

I had no idea what a radio broadcast was supposed to sound like. I had no idea if Denny Matthews was the best or the worst announcer in the business. All I knew was that the voice on the radio described the details of the game in such a way that I could recreate the game in my own head with almost perfect detail. Which pitches were thrown, where they were thrown, how the infield was positioned, which way the wind was pushing the flags – all this information came through the set with perfect cadence, keeping me constantly informed without overloading me with information.

Listening to the Royals on the radio quickly became an addiction. I was only home in Wichita when school let out, as we still lived as expatriates in Saudi Arabia during the school year until I went off to college in 1991. But I would estimate I listened to 50 or 60 games between June and August every year between 1990 and 1994. It helped that the Royals were still competitive back then. Looking back, though, it’s clear that as much as I enjoyed the product, what really kept me hooked was the delivery.

I moved to Ann Arbor for medical school in 1995, and I remember the first time I heard a Tigers game on the radio. I tuned in and heard a broadcaster with an old, distinctive southern voice, the kind of voice perfectly suited for sleepy summer evenings sitting on the porch with a glass of Country Time in your hand. But within a few minutes I realized something was terribly wrong.

A pitch would be thrown, and all I’d hear was “ball” or “strike.” I had no idea if the first baseman was playing behind the runner or not, whether that foul ball was lined into the seats behind the first base dugout or drifted lazily in the upper deck. I remember vividly the broadcaster telling us the pitch was popped up and that the shortstop was moving under it…and then five seconds later telling us the ball landed way back in the seats. And in between, we had no idea that the popup was in foul ground, let alone whether it was catchable.

A few minutes later I realized I was listening to Ernie Harwell.

I’m sure I caught Harwell on a bad day – I would later be introduced to other Tigers announcers, and Harwell on a bad day was better than almost all of them. Harwell, I should point out, really is as nice as they say; it’s hard to find someone in Michigan who has a bad word to say about him. (The one time I ran into him in the Tigers’ press box area, he boomed out a friendly “hello!” from down the hall before I was even close enough to recognize who he was.)

But if I hadn’t been convinced already, that’s the moment I realized what a gem we have in Denny Matthews.

Don’t listen to me. Listen to Bill James, who years before I ever heard Matthews’ voice had this to say about him, in the 1983 Abstract:

“Among the pleasures of being a Royals’ fan, few rank any higher than turning on the radio each evening to receive the 7 o’clock greeting of Mr. Denny Matthews. My goal about each team is to try to bring to light something about the team which is not generally known. After years of post-season play [editors’ note: this book is 25 years old] with basically the same team, not much about the Royals has slipped through the network of the country’s information services. [editors’ note: again, this book is 25 years old] But behind their microphone, all but unknown to the nation, sits one of the most skilled and gifted men that the craft has ever produced.”

James spends the next page-and-a-half explaining, in far better terms than I ever could, what makes Matthews such a great announcer. If any of you readers have ambitions of becoming a broadcaster in any sport, it’s absolutely essential reading.

The Royals canned Matthews’ partner, Fred White, after the 1998 season. White didn’t deserve it; he wasn’t as good as Matthews, but he was better than 90% of the announcers around the country. The problem, if there was one, was that they had exceedingly similar styles. Every radio and TV broadcast in the country seems to pair a play-by-play guy with the ex-jock that mixes rare bursts of insight with a long stream of clich├ęs and non-sequiturs. Matthews and White provided very little contrast, which was fine with me. I’m not listening to the set of an NFL pre-game show; I’m listening for someone to describe a baseball game to me, and they both did it very well.

Anyway, White was replaced by Ryan Lefebvre, and for the first year or two Lefebvre was awful, or at least awful by the standard of what Royals fans were used to. But then a funny thing happened: broadcasting game after game with one of the greatest broadcasters in the country, Lefebvre improved. He learned the nuances of the craft from one of its masters, and over time he started to sound more and more like Matthews while still retaining some individual flourishes. He started engaging in witty banter with Matthews during downtime – and with the Royals over the last 10 years, there have been plenty of 12-3 games that needed filler in the late innings. The generational gap between the two added just enough tension to make it interesting. I don’t live in Kansas anymore, and I don’t have summers off, but I do have XM radio, and I do have a 30-minute commute, and I’m just as sure to listen to the Royals in my car as I was 15 years ago.

Lefebvre won’t be working with Matthews anymore, because the Royals have been so pleased with his occasional forays onto the team’s TV broadcasts that they’re moving him over to that side permanently. Paired with Paul Splittorff, this has the potential to give the Royals one of the best TV tandems in the majors.

Splittorff has been doing color for the Royals for something like 20 years, which is amazing when you consider how many different play-by-play guys he’s been paired with. The PBP guys generally sucked, which is why there were so many of them, but Split is as serious a student of broadcasting as he was about pitching, and is one of the better color men around. (I’ve never been able to figure out how Splittorff won 166 games – most in team history – despite striking out 100 batters in a season exactly twice. One of my favorite pieces of stat trivia of all time: Paul Splittorff has more career wins than Sandy Koufax.) He’s also willing to call out the home team when they do something wrong, a trait found in precious few ex-jocks. Split and Lefebvre have worked very well in their brief times together in the past, and I’m excited to see how they do over the course of an entire season.

The additional upside here is that this takes Bob Davis out of the TV booth. Davis was as bad as Matthews is good, and I have no idea how he lasted this long. (One of the unsung highlights of last season was reading Bill Simmons’ diary of Daisuke Matsuzaka’s major league debut, and being incredibly amused by his reaction to finding out he was stuck with the Royals’ broadcast. Yes, Bill, we had to put with Davis every single game.)

The downside here is that this puts Davis in the radio booth. This may not be as bad as it sounds; I’ve heard from a lot of people that Davis is much better suited for radio than TV, or at least that he does a good job covering Jayhawks’ basketball on radio. I guess we’re going to find out how good Matthews really is. He’s already in the Hall of Fame; if he can elevate Davis to the level of a passable broadcaster, we’ll have to invent a new award for him.

The one regret I have with Matthews is that I’ve never really heard him call a meaningful game. There were the 14 wins in a row in 1994, when the Royals were in the hunt all the way until the strike killed the season. And there was 2003. But other than that, the Royals have simply never been closer to the playoffs than they were during that nine-game winning streak in 1989 that got me hooked in the first place.

Matthews’ style doesn’t exactly lend itself to animated theatrics; he’s no Dave Niehaus. The most excited – maybe incredulous is a better word – I’ve ever heard him was at the conclusion of this game on April 11th, 2000, when Rey Sanchez hit a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to improve the Royals to 7-3; it was the third straight game in which the Royals won on a walk-off homer. (Brian Johnson hit one in the 12th the night before; Johnny Damon led off the ninth with a homer the day before that. Incidentally, those three games are what brought the term “walk-off” into the baseball lexicon. That’s right – the Royals are responsible for making “walk-off” popular, and more incredibly, they were the ones hitting them.) I believe Matthews’ call after Sanchez’s flyball floated inside the left-field fair pole was, “What is going on?” That’s about as animated as he gets.

So far as I know. Of the many, many, many things I plan to enjoy if and when the Royals start contending again, getting to listen to an excited Denny Matthews ranks high on my list. Matthews is no spring chicken; he’s been behind the radio for the Royals since day one, and even though he was just 26 when he started, he turned 65 last November. Let’s hope that the Royals turn things around while he’s still around to enjoy it. And while we’re still able to enjoy him.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reason #9: The Closer.

Joakim Soria was not the greatest Rule 5 pick of all time. He may not have been the best Rule 5 pick of last season, depending on whether or not Josh Hamilton can continue to tear baseballs and demons apart. But man, you’d be hard pressed to find a Rule 5 pick who, from the moment he first stepped on the mound in spring training, had people saying, “how the hell was he available?”

He was available only because he had spent essentially his entire career in the hinterlands of baseball: Mexico. The relative lack of Mexican representation in the major leagues is an interesting story, and I don’t know the reason why – consider that the population of Mexico in 2005 was estimated at 103 million; by comparison, the Dominican Republic had about 9 million. Mexico isn’t as baseball-crazy as the Dominican is – no country is – but it’s a popular sport there. Yet only 16 Mexicans appeared in a big-league game last season. Canada, with about 32 million people (and for whom baseball is a game you play during the three months a year that the ice melts), had 17 players in the majors last year.

I wonder if part of the reason is the fact that Mexico’s population supports its own summer league, the only independent summer league in any country in the western hemisphere. You would think that having their own league would help Mexico develop major league-caliber players, but so many of the teams play at high elevation that it warps the game. It’s very difficult for hitters to develop proper habits when they never see quality breaking pitches because of the atmosphere. Only five of the 16 Mexicans in the majors last year were hitters, and none of them are good hitters: Geronimo Gil, Humberto Cota, Alfredo Amezaga, Oscar Robles, and Juan Castro. On the other hand, if you can survive the high elevation as a pitcher, adjusting to sea level in the US must be a piece of cake – and the pitchers include Yovani Gallardo, Oliver Perez, Oscar Villarreal, Luis Ayala, Dennys Reyes, and Esteban Loaiza, all guys who have been successful in the major leagues. And Soria.

Anyway, with Soria you didn’t have to wait until spring training to know that the Royals had pulled off a huge coup. The Royals almost didn’t get him in the first place; there was a growing buzz about him at the winter meetings even before the draft, and there was some talk the A’s (who had worked out a deal with Tampa Bay to select the first pick) would take him. Instead they took Ryan Goleski. Thanks, Billy – you owed us one. Forty-eight hours later Soria threw a perfect game in the Mexican winter league, and the hype had begun.

Not to toot my own horn – oh, who am I kidding, of course I’m tooting my own horn – this is what I wrote about Soria in last year’s Baseball Prospectus: “When contemplating Mexican League statistics, it’s important to remember three things: 1) While ostensibly a Triple-A league, the level of competition actually falls between Double-A and High-A; 2) The league, as a whole, is a tremendous hitters league, even more so than the old PCL; 3) There is tremendous variation in altitude between teams, which makes park effects extremely relevant. The first two points make it virtually impossible for hitters to cross the Rio Grande, but the third makes the adjustment for some pitchers surprisingly easy. Soria played in Mexico City, which at 7,300 feet is 2,000 feet higher than Denver. As a result, his translated ERAs are actually better than his actual ERAs. He was drafted based on a scouting impression, but his statistical impression is just as good.

Soria was available because Padres GM Kevin Towers made a huge mistake by not listening to Randy Smith. (This may have been a first, someone making a mistake by not listening to Randy Smith.) Smith, the Padres’ Director of International Scouting, was (in Towers’ own words) “begging me to keep him” before the Rule 5 draft. As he said later, “I guess I should have listened to him.”

Soria made his debut on April 4th, in the Royals’ second game, with two men on base and the Royals down by two. He walked the first batter he faced, then gave up a sacrifice fly and a popout to end the inning. Two days later his name was called again, this time to start the 8th inning just after the Royals had broken a 1-1 tie with two runs. He allowed just a harmless single in a scoreless inning. Two days after that, Soria came in with two outs in the 7th, two men on and the Royals protecting a 2-0 lead; after walking the first batter, he stranded the bases loaded on a foul out, then pitched a perfect 8th inning.

And two days after that, Soria was so dominant in the eighth inning that Buddy Bell sent him out to pitch the ninth with a 6-3 lead; Soria retired the side in order again, striking out the last two hitters. Soria was the de facto closer from that point until Octavio Dotel’s return from the DL, and then returned to the role after Dotel was traded.

I suspect it’s highly unusual for a pitcher – any pitcher, let alone one who had never pitched above A-ball in the United States – to be utilized as his team’s primary setup man in his second major league outing. But to get the closer’s job in just your fourth appearance? That’s almost literally unprecedented. The only pitcher I’m aware of who earned the role more expeditiously was Salome Barojas, who was anointed the White Sox closer in spring training in 1982, despite the fact that he had never pitched in the majors. Five games into his major league career, Barojas had five saves; he finished with 21, which exceeded the total number of saves he would earn (14) in the rest of his career.

Soria’s a testament to good scouting – Louie Medina saw him in Mexico and lobbied the Royals to draft him even though he had virtually no American experience – but he’s also a testament to the power of statistical analysis done right. Soria’s translated numbers with Mexico City in 2006 (his Davenport Translation) rendered an EqERA of 3.49, which is simply amazing given the steep difference in difficulty between the Mexican League and the majors.

Soria’s success is the product of an excellent cut fastball, a changeup that he hides very well and rides in on right-handed hitters, and with two strikes, the occasional sloooow curveball that he apparently borrowed from Zack Greinke. (Here’s an outstanding analysis of Soria’s repertoire.) And he throws all his pitches with precision. As one AL Central front office source told me after getting a look at Soria in April, “he’s the Mexican Zack Greinke.”

In terms of pure stuff, there’s really not much difference between the two, and the Royals considered moving both of them to the rotation late last year before splitting the difference, moving Greinke while leaving Soria alone. If anything, Soria’s a victim of his own success. He was so good in relief last year, and the Royals have such a long history of brutal closers stretching back to when Jeff Montgomery lost his stuff, that they don’t want to mess with a sure thing.

The question is: should they? It’s the classic dilemma in modern baseball: do you take a pitcher that has proven they can succeed in a high-leverage relief role, and move him to the rotation, where he might give you three times as many innings?

Soria threw 69 innings last year. Factor in two additional weeks that he spent on the DL for precautionary reasons more than anything else, and you figure he’s good for 75-80 innings as a reliever. Projecting any starter for more than 200 innings is risky anymore, so let’s say that he’s worth 200 innings in the rotation.

Now factor in leverage. A closer’s innings will be necessarily more valuable than a starter because (presumably) he is being leveraged in situations where a single run allowed has far more impact on the game than it would in, say, the first inning of a tie game. Fortunately, at Baseball Prospectus we have a statistic to measure that, conveniently called Leverage. Soria’s Leverage was 1.53 last year, so roughly speaking you can argue that his 69 innings were as important as 69*1.53=106 innings from a starting pitcher would be.

But Soria’s Leverage last year reflects the time he spent in middle relief as well as his time as the closer. The Leverage of the other four closers in the division last year ranged from 1.59 (Bobby Jenks) to 2.09 (Joe Borowski). A typical closer has a Leverage rating between 1.7 and 1.8. So Soria’s 75-80 innings in relief would be the equivalent of about 135 innings as a starter.

Then you have to account for the fact that, almost without exception, all pitchers will be more effective in relief than in the rotation. This is not a controversial statement, but the size of that difference might be surprising. Research that Nate Silver did as part of his annual improvements to PECOTA showed that, if you hold all other factors equal and move a reliever into the rotation, his ERA will rise a full 25%.

Now, Soria had a 2.48 ERA last season; tack on 25% and you’re at 3.10, and a starter with a 3.10 ERA is a damn sight more valuable than a reliever with a 2.48 ERA, Leverage be damned. But what if Soria’s true talent is more in the 3-3.5 ERA range? Would you rather have a closer with an ERA of 3.20, or a starter with an ERA of 4.00? In that case, you’d still want the starting pitcher. According to Nate, in fact, “a 2.00 ERA closer is roughly as valuable as a 3.69 ERA, 200-inning starting pitcher.”

Not all pitchers improve equally when moving from the rotation to the bullpen. As Nate found in a subsequent article, there are certain factors that make it more likely that a starting pitcher will blossom in relief. Those factors are 1) a high strikeout rate; 2) a high walk rate, i.e. poor command; 3) lots of isolated power, i.e. a flyball pitcher who gives up homers.

In other words, a pitcher with great stuff and little idea where the ball is going should see more improvement, moving from the rotation to the bullpen, than average. Nate brings up the examples of Bobby Jenks, Jonathan Papelbon, and J.J. Putz as guys who took to the bullpen like a fish to water. Conversely, that means that such a pitcher who was already in the bullpen would struggle more than average if he was moved to the rotation. For that reason, Nate argued against the idea of moving Papelbon back to the rotation after his rookie year (an opinion the Red Sox eventually agreed with, and an opinion that was borne out last year.)

But look at Soria. Soria had a terrific strikeout rate, 75 in 69 innings, true. But he also had phenomenal control – just 16 unintentional walks in 69 innings – and was almost impossible to hit for power; he surrendered just three homers, a triple, and eight doubles all year. His isolated power against was just .077, which is less than Tony Pena Jr’s isolated power (.089) last year. Soria is the antithesis of the Rick Vaughn closer stereotype – his strikeouts were the result of movement and placement, not from just blowing the hitters away with high heat. He would seem to be, in other words, the type of pitcher that would adjust better to the rotation than most relievers.

I understand why the Royals are keeping him in the bullpen, because it’s just so easy to look at him and envision a young Mariano Rivera on the mound. There are some visual similarities, and of course Soria has a great cutter, and like Rivera he used that cutter to just saw off the bats of left-handed hitters last year (they hit just .167/.217/.229 against Soria, which is filthy). And like Rivera he gave up very few extra-base hits.

But we shouldn’t be making momentous decisions like this based purely on his superficial similarities to one admittedly unique pitcher. Rivera has thrived in the bullpen as essentially a one-pitch pitcher, but Soria has four good pitches, he’s young, he’s worked as a starter for most of his pro career, and there’s a lot of statistical evidence to suggest he will adapt to the rotation just fine.

The Royals need their security blanket for now, so they’re leaving Soria in the closer’s role, but they have not shut the door on him returning to the rotation in the future. Unfortunately, time will shut that door for them soon enough. Assuming the Royals aren’t actually in a pennant race in the second half and can afford to experiment for the future, they need to put Soria in the rotation for the last month or two of the season and see what they’ve got. Worst-case scenario, in 2009 he goes back to being the team’s first bona-fide closer since Jeff Montgomery. Best-case scenario…the Royals have something even more valuable than a bona-fide closer.

In whatever role they use him in, he’s a joy to watch. Good thing we’ll be watching him in Kansas City for the next five years.