Saturday, March 29, 2008
So it's like this...
The night the Royals won the World Series, I was in XXXXX, attending graduate school at XXXXX, and working on a group project with three brilliant, delightful, non-sports-loving women who were utterly ignorant of the epic significance of the moment, and completely indifferent to the fact that I was having my Arsenal-Finally-Wins-the-League-Fever-Pitch redemption moment in utterly alien surroundings. I'm hard pressed to come up with an analog, but the 65-year-old golfer who finally makes a hole-in-one on a day he's playing a round alone might come close.
Anyway, once I got the women out of my apartment, I was able to make numerous calls to my friends back in KC, many of whom were driving through Westport, going batsh*t along with most of the rest of the city. It was good hearing all the honking, but I deeply missed being there.
Long before Bill Simmons ever came up with a five-year rule, I reveled in the Royals championship for a good half-decade. As you well know, they used up all the honeymoon goodwill that they had accrued. I suffered through the summer swoons and the fall fades. And was even on hand when it got truly ugly. I was there on April 14, 1992, when we finally rose up from our 0-7 start (and immediately thereafter, of course, proceeded to go on another nine-game-losing skid), scratching out a 3-1 win over the A's. My buddy Rob and I had come up for the opening series, and had the will to live pretty steadily whipped out of us by that team. I saw a lot of Royals games in the early '90s, and talked a lot of Chiefs football while doing so.
Then came Hal McRae going middle-school on poor John Doolittle (and Alan Eskew taking the collateral damage), and the Royals finally getting it together and going on a run in August of '94 and then... the goddam strike, from which I still haven't fully recovered (and for which I still haven't forgiven baseball). From '95 on, watching the Royals has felt like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Even in 2003, I never believed, and my skepticism was so all-encompassing I couldn't
fully enjoy it. I felt like we were doing it with smoke, mirrors and blind faith. And, of course, I was right. I got tired of trying to root for over-age, underpowered has-been white first basemen who were supposed to make us more competitive. And I got tired of watching as the Royals struggled to decide on the shrewdest way to get rid of their best player on an annual basis.
In short, I went through a long period of disaffection similar to what Bill James suffered, only I didn't have a Red Sox job waiting for me on the other side. After 2005, I said Eff This and quit watching full stop. I didn't merely stop watching the Royals, I stopped watching baseball altogether. Didn't attend a game in '06 or in '07. Didn't watch any baseball on TV. Paid only enough attention to remain competitive in my geek baseball league, and in truth got very little joy out of that.
But, well, you know... what are you going to do? It's a long off-season for football and mock drafts from Mel Kiper only get a soul so far. Watching from a distance, I've seen little glints of things in this baseball team, facets to be heartened by and qualities to like in the team that I had completely forsaken and given up hope on. I find there's still something about seeing that big scoreboard from the highway when I roll into town (not at all diminished by the scoreboard being under construction). And it was nice to see Gil Meche work out, and to find out that Brian Bannister could be at once so young and so crafty, and to see Alex Gordon sort of come around (although the Brett comparisons just make me retch) and Billy Butler seems like he could be fun to watch and on and on.
So much against my better instincts, I have found myself giving a sh*t about my baseball team again. And only a month or so after I decided that it was okay to root for the Royals because I think I actually LIKE the team, and think the new manager has a chance to be good, I got your email announcing your blog. And you are now bookmarked and a daily read. Your optimism is both transparent and infectious (not dissimilar from how I feel about a certain football team), and your posts are both edifying and illuminating. I'm back on board. And should some time in the next 10 or 20 years they play a game that matters in October, I intend to be there."
He was still on the fence, as you can see. But this morning I received this followup note:
"I have two baseball caps. One is a Chiefs cap that's about 10 years old and hopeless frayed. The other is a US Soccer cap, maybe six years old, and in reasonable shape.
On Monday, I'm in Kansas City on business, and if one of those silly Sports Nutz type outfits has something in 7 3/8, I'm going to take the plunge. It's not a Greinke jersey, but at this point, it will have to do."
I don't know what's in the air this spring, but it feels...different this year. Yes, Hope Springs Eternal and every team has a chance on Opening Day and all that. But for the last decade, we all knew that the only time the Royals would have a chance was on Opening Day. This year, for the first spring in a long, long time (if you don't count the Fool's Gold spring of 2004), the Royals have given us genuine reason for optimism. It's an optimism that not only says they might have a chance to make things interesting this year, but an optimism that says that even if they don't make things interesting this year, they're going to be worth watching to see if they can make things interesting next year, or the year after that.
Dayton Moore and friends may not have put together a contender yet. But they've put together a team we can be proud of. They've put together a team that has begun to lure back at least one intelligent hard-core fan who sensibly stopped paying attention to them during their darkest years. For that, I thank them. But we still have miles to go before we sleep.
Friday, March 28, 2008
The tradition started last year, when over at Baseball Prospectus we unveiled a series of "Hope and Faith" columns, in which we made the point that every team in the majors has some of Bud Selig's infamous Hope and Faith, by constructing a scenario in which each team could, in fact, win the World Series. Some of these scenarios were more implausible than others, obviously, but none of them were impossible. I'm sure the Rockies ranked awfully high on the implausibility list, and they nearly won it all.
I got the Royals assignment, or rather I demanded the Royals assignment. I'm not sure I've ever enjoyed writing a column more. You can read it here - the column is one of our free ones, fortunately. Be sure to click on the podcast link at the end; by the time I finished the column I had completely convinced myself that the Royals were going to win it all, so I didn't have to summon much of my high school acting chops for that piece.
Anyway, I hope that whets your appetite for Monday, and for this season's preview, which I hope to post here Monday morning.
Using the mathematical skills that we at Baseball Prospectus are famous for, we can cross out the PTBNLs from the most recent trades, leaving us with:
Acquired: Ramon Ramirez
Lost: Jorge de la Rosa, Justin Huber
On paper, that’s a bad trade. The extenuating circumstance is that all three players were out of options, so in essence, what the Royals really acquired was Ramon Ramirez and a roster spot. I’d still rather have the latter than the former, but it’s closer now.
I don’t know how I ought to feel about losing Huber. I’m upset, but I’m not sure if I should be just annoyed or really, really angry.
“There are three things that always have to happen to make a team,” Royals general manager
“And for us, the way our club was shaping up, we just didn't see any opportunity for him to be on our team. He was out of options, and I just wish we had more time, because he had a terrific spring and we think he's going to be a good hitter. It just didn't work out.
“I hope he goes out and does great. He’s a terrific person, and he works hard and he cares a lot about the
I think the Royals recognize he can hit. They simply feel that he can’t hit enough to make up for his defensive shortcomings. And you know what? They might be right. Certainly, not every one-dimensional hitter who gets released turns into David Ortiz, who was released by the Twins in 2002, signed by the Red Sox in 2003, and has finished in the Top
For every Ortiz, you might have two or three guys like Jack Cust, who bounce around Triple-A for years before finally having a breakout seasons with their fifth major league team, a half-dozen guys who have to go to Japan to get an opportunity (Roberto Petagine, Tuffy Rhodes), and literally dozens of guys who, whether because they never get an opportunity or because they blow the ones they do get, never hit in the majors. Jeremy Giambi, anyone? Calvin Pickering?
Huber has hit well in the minors, but he’s only had one truly off-the-hinges campaign, 2005, when at age 22 he hit .326/.417/.560 between Double-A and Triple-A, won the Texas League MVP award and was MVP of the Futures Game as well. He’s been a .280/.350/.500 sort of hitter pretty much every season before or after 2005, and guys who hit .280/.350/.500 in the minors rarely become above-average first basemen in the majors.
The comparison that should scare Royals fans isn’t Ortiz, it’s Mike Sweeney, who let’s not forget came this close to being released by the Royals in Spring Training, 1999. (Jeremy Giambi pulled a hammy, which opened up a roster spot. I’m almost certain this was the most fortuitous injury in franchise history.) Huber and Sweeney are remarkably similar players, right-handed hitters with good bat control and line-drive power who started their careers as catchers and then struggled to find a position. Sweeney hit .310/.416/.548 as a 21-year-old in A-ball, when he played for
The difference is that Sweeney made it to the majors late that summer as a backup catcher, and after two months in Triple-A the following year, has been in the majors ever since. Huber never got that opportunity, but neither has he matched his performance in 2005 again. It could be that his bat atrophied; it could be that the Royals were right in thinking that his 2005 season was a fluke. But it’s telling that Huber’s career line in the minors, .289/.369/.495, is virtually identical to Sweeney’s: .278/.369/.497.
I don’t think this trade will come back to haunt us in 2008, because I don’t think the Padres really know what to do with him. They have Adrian Gonzalez at first base, and while they have a huge hole in left field, the reality is that Huber is not an outfielder, and it’s ridiculous to think otherwise. It’s even more ridiculous when you have an outfield the size of
As for de la Rosa, once again you could see this coming, and once again I don’t understand why the Royals spent the better part of two years trying to develop a left-handed pitcher with electric stuff and no idea how to control it, yet not once did the idea of trying him in the bullpen come up. I discussed this earlier about Joakim Soria, but the ideal starting pitcher to try in the bullpen is the guy with a ton of strikeouts, but who gives up lots of homers and walks. Ring a bell?
There’s a reason Dan Duquette once called de la Rosa “the Mexican John Rocker.” He wasn’t referring to de la Rosa’s penchant for ethnic slurs and anti-immigrant rhetoric; he was referring to de la Rosa’s stuff. You might have noticed that, before he set fire to his career, Rocker had a couple damn fine years for the Braves. As a reliever.
Soothing my frustration somewhat is that Ramon Ramirez appears to be the goods, and frankly I’m not sure why the
The nice thing about elbow injuries is that they usually only affect a pitcher’s availability, not his ability. Shoulder injuries can reduce a pitcher to a shell of his pre-injury self, but once an elbow injury heals (or is corrected by surgery) that pitcher can be back to 100%. Ramirez was outstanding this spring, and if he pitches as well as he did in 2006 he’ll be a revelation.
Even factoring in 2007, Ramirez’s career ERA is 4.45, and as has been reported in several places, his career ERA away from Coors Field is just 1.08. I wouldn’t read too much into that; he’s pitched just 33 innings on the road in his career. But that in itself is relevant, because he’s pitched 52 innings at home. A pitcher with a 4.45 ERA despite pitching 60% of his innings in Coors Field? And he’s only 26? Yes, please.
The rest of the roster seems to have fallen into place. While I had pretty strong suspicions that Huber wouldn’t make the roster, I was much more on the bubble with Leo Nunez, who I think is one of the most underrated pitchers in the organization. The acquisition of Ramirez may have pushed Nunez onto waivers, but thankfully, that appears unlikely to happen. Nunez hasn’t officially won a spot, but this quote from the Star is quite reassuring:
“He’s a guy with a power arm,” general manager
With Miguel Olivo’s suspension finalized (four games) and word coming that Jose Guillen’s suspension is likely to be commuted, here’s the Opening Day roster, best as I can tell:
Catchers: John Buck, Matt Tupman (holding the seat warm for Olivo)
Infield: Gload, Grudzielanek, Callaspo, German, Pena, Gordon
Outfield: Teahen, DeJesus, Guillen, Gathright
Starters: Meche, Bannister, Greinke, Bale, Tomko
Relievers: Soria, Yabuta, Gobble, Mahay, Ramirez, Nunez
That’s 24 players; once Olivo’s suspension is up the Royals can add a 25th player, which they have indicated will be a reliever. I think it’s nuts for any team to have 7 relievers and four bench players, but this would solve the sticky situation of what to do with Hideo Nomo: use his minor groin pull put him on the DL with a retroactive move, and activate him when Olivo’s suspension is over. If the dates don’t work, they could call up Ryan Braun for a few days or something, while simultaneously giving Nomo a chance to make a few “rehab” appearances in Triple-A and prove that he really does still have major-league stuff.
Ryan Shealy may deserve a spot, but he has options, and I see no downside to letting him go back to
What really stands out for me is that other than Tupman, who might play in one game before he’s sent to
The Royals have had exactly one winning April in the last 18 years, and one of the reasons for that is that every year the Royals start the season with two or three guys who have absolutely no business being on the roster, and it takes a few weeks for those guys to prove their incompetence to the Royals’ satisfaction. I don’t see those guys on the roster this year. I’m not saying the Royals are going to have a winning April, but I am saying they won’t be nine games out on May 1st, like they were last year.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Much like Will Leitch strutting his stuff in a Rick Ankiel jersey, I can think of no better way of proving my allegiance to the Royals than to wear the jersey of the one man who, for better or for worse, sums up the potential, the youthful exuberance, and the crushing disappointment that the Royals have embodied for so many years.
All things equal, I have always preferred to watch a pitching virtuoso than a hitting genius. No matter how locked in a hitter is, you have to wait around for eight other hitters to finish his turn before he gets another chance. When Greg Maddux or Pedro Martinez is on his game, though, he continues to paint his masterpiece pitch by pitch, batter by batter.
More importantly, pitching is action; hitting is reaction. Pitching is a thinking man’s endeavor – your effort is planned in advance, and the man who can throw the pitch that the hitter isn’t looking for is the man who will out-pitch his stuff. Maddux is famous for sometimes setting up hitters in spring training, deliberately delivering gopher pitches in March in order to gain an edge when he faces the same batter when the standings count.
The thing is, ever since the Royals traded away Bret Saberhagen, they haven’t had a pitcher who could overpower hitters with stuff or befuddle them with guile depending on his mood. Kevin Appier could do the former, and Jose Rosado could do the latter, but no one could both.
Until Greinke came along, and as a 20-year-old rookie threatened to re-invent pitching as we knew it. He threw 94 mph fastballs, he threw 88 mph sinkers with movement, he threw 82 mph late-breaking sliders, he threw diving changeups that rode in on right-handers in the low 70s, and he threw two different curveballs, a tight-breaker in the 70s and that ridiculous slow LaLob-like pitch that would get timed in the 50s and drop something like six feet out of the sky. And he threw all those pitchers with pinpoint command.
The most succinct description of his uniqueness came from Rob Neyer, who in one of Greinke’s starts wrote down the velocity of every pitch coming off the radar gun. By the end of his start, Greinke had hit every number between 62 and 94 with the exception of two. You don’t see that from seasoned veterans, let alone a guy who’s supposed to be drinking Shirley Temples.
We all know what’s happened since then, the bout with social anxiety and depression, the time away from the game in 2006, and the rather triumphant return last season, capped off with a brilliant two-hit, no-walk, 10-strikeout performance over eight innings against the White Sox on September 20th. Greinke’s game score for that game, 88, is the highest in Royals history for a starter who didn’t pitch at least nine innings.
The story that’s been missed is how Greinke’s pitching style has so radically changed from his rookie season. It started in 2005, when he battled with then-pitching coach Guy Hansen in spring training about how to approach hitters. It seemed Hansen won and the Royals lost: Greinke came out throwing a lot harder, but lacked the touch on his fastball, and after a promising beginning (a 3.09 ERA in his first eight starts) was taken behind the woodshed, with a 6.73 ERA and 189 hits allowed in 136 innings after May 15th.
Even as he regained his rookie performance level last season, he wasn’t the same pitcher. For one thing, his velocity was notably better than it was the last time we saw him. He was routinely hitting 96 in April, and after a shaky start got him moved to the bullpen, he became platonic friends with the third digit on the radar gun, coming close but never quite touching 100. His curveball came in around 83 with tight break and 12-6 movement.
The thing is, that’s all he threw. The slider was completely junked, which I guess I can understand given that it was his fourth best pitch. But he almost never threw his changeup, even when he moved back to the rotation in August, and he literally never threw his ultra-slow pitch. I know a lot of people think of that pitch as a gimmick, a show-offy trick pitch that really doesn’t do anything, but I disagree. He didn’t use that pitch as a show-me pitch; he used it to get people out.
Regardless, watching Greinke’s starts became must-see TV by the end of the year. This year, he’s a year removed from his psychological issues, he’s proven that he can be an effective starter again, and at 24, he’s ready to break out. He’s also just three years from free agency already, so it’s time for the Royals to cut off the tag and see what he can do.
I think they’re doing just that. As Bob Dutton reported earlier this spring, the streamlining of Greinke’s repertoire last season was not Bob McClure’s handiwork, it was his own. McClure has, on the contrary, been working with him to use all of his pitches.
McClure contends Greinke must learn to mix an increased number of off-speed pitches to his repertoire in order to succeed as a starter. Greinke is not only unconvinced. He admits to doubts in matter-of-fact candor.
“It’s always tough for me to believe something until I see it,” he said. “In the bullpen, I was so used to throwing a lot of fastballs and some sliders. When I was starting again, still, the fastball and slider were working.
“Mac keeps telling me, though, that I will have to use other pitches. And I know that. But until I see it, I won’t 100 percent believe it.”
I must confess to being shocked by this information. I mean, Greinke had the most diverse repertoire I’ve ever seen from a 20-year-old pitcher – wasn’t that his own doing? My friend John Sickels – I’ll never forget this – sent out a scouting report of Greinke when he was in Omaha, a few weeks before his major league debut, and described with some incredulity that Greinke was pitching to Triple-A hitters with a detached curiosity, changing speeds and varying his tempo just to see what would happen, like a junior high kid dissecting an insect to see what was inside.
I wonder if, on some level, Greinke was already suffering from some depression – that the reason he threw all those weird pitches in 2004 was because he really didn’t care what would happen. And because he didn’t care, he also wasn’t afraid of failure, and in a perverse way that’s exactly how you want a young pitcher to feel. So maybe the fact that Greinke needs to be reminded that he can't expect to keep getting hitters out with only two pitches is a reflection of the fact that his treatment for depression is working. That’s a tradeoff we’ll all take.
Nonetheless, if McClure can get through to Greinke, and get him to combine the approach that worked in 2004 with the improved velocity he has shown since then...he could kick some serious ass. So when the Royals took the field against the White Sox this past Sunday on WGN, I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Greinke pitch. I couldn’t have been more excited. Oh, the results were great – four hits, one walk, six strikeouts in six innings – but it was his approach on the mound that I wanted to see. It was everything I hoped for.
His first pitch of the game was a batting-practice fastball right down the middle, which even Jerry Owens can hit for a triple. Greinke went ahead 0-2 on Orlando Cabrera, but didn’t bury the curveball enough and Cabrera was able to score the runner with a groundout. Then after getting ahead of Jim Thome 0-2, he again left a curveball up to high and Thome blooped it to left for a double. I was starting to get worried.
But Greinke got out of the inning, and then he started to roll. He threw nothing but fastballs and curves the first two innings, but the curveball was the slow, 70s variety, not the harder curve he threw more of last year, and the difference in velocity on his two pitches was keeping the White Sox off balance. Then the second time through the lineup, he expanded the repertoire.
He broke out the changeup that we saw precious little of last year, and it was nasty. No, it was nasty. He also mixed in several mid-80s sliders as an out pitch – I thought it was a hard curveball, but post-game quotes indicated it was a slider, which is a reminder that 1) Greinke’s slider is more of a downer than a sweeper, and 2) I am not a scout. If memory serves, all four of his pitches – fastball, changeup, curveball, slider – resulted in strike three at least once during the game. Most guys are happy if they have one out pitch. On Sunday, Greinke had four.
He gave up a home run to Carlos Quentin on a fastball, and as long as he’s a flyball pitcher he’s going to be prone to the occasional big fly. But he has such superb control and such a strong ability to miss bats that he can still flirt with a sub-3 ERA even if he gives up 20-25 homers. Statistically speaking, the pitcher he reminds me of most is Curt Schilling, who in 2001 had an ERA under 3 even though he surrendered 37 homers. (That seems like a record, and it turns out it is – no other pitcher has allowed that many homers with an ERA under 3.)
As I wrote the other day over at Baseball Prospectus (sorry, registration required) Greinke and Schilling share another desirable quality: they both allow very few unearned runs. Schilling’s has allowed just .179 unearned runs per nine innings, the lowest rate in major league history for anyone with 600 runs allowed or more. Greinke has been even better: he’s allowed just nine unearned runs in his entire career, or .178 per nine innings, despite the fact that in his three full seasons in the majors, the Royals have finished second, first, and fourth in the AL in errors. As the average pitcher allows roughly .42 unearned runs per nine innings, that means Greinke’s ability to limit unearned runs is the equivalent of lowering his ERA by about 24 points. That comes out to about 5 runs over a full season, which isn’t chump change.
It helps that he’s a flyball pitcher, as flyballs don’t turn into errors as much as grounders. But also, he’s a fabulous defensive player himself – he would have been a third or fourth round pick at shortstop, and even though he’s a flyball pitcher, his range factor (1.78 plays per nine innings) is above the norm for a pitcher (1.65). And I’ve never seen him rattled by a misplay behind him on the field. He’s like the anti-Jeff Weaver in that regard.
If Bill Simmons can call Larry Bird the Basketball Jesus, I propose a new name for Greinke: The Baseball Jonah. Both were entrusted with a great blessing (prophethood for Jonah, four plus pitches for Greinke). Both struggled to convert their gifts into tangible results (the people refused to believe Jonah; Greinke lost 17 games in 2005.) Both did the unthinkable and walked away from their gifts. Both came to see the error of their ways, Jonah in the belly of the whale, Greinke while on hiatus from the team in 2006.
I can’t speak to the Biblical version of the story, but in the Islamic narrative, given a second chance, Jonah is wildly successful, returning to Nineveh and converting almost the entire city to the path of God. Let us hope that The Baseball Jonah is equally triumphant in the second act of his career.
There’s no reason he can’t be, because he absolutely has the stuff to contend for a Cy Young award, like, this year. Which is sort of nice, because the Royals’ playoff hopes for the next three years are almost entirely dependent in having Greinke turn into a Cy Young contender. He’s got the talent. He’s got an organization that didn’t give up on him when he was at his lowest. Now it’s time to see how high he can fly.
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Alright, so 2007 was a disappointment. And the Royals absolutely should have sent Alex Gordon to
We now know that the Royals were literally days away from sending him down when his bat came alive. So that four-hit game he had on June 7th ranks up there with Joe Nelson’s strikeout of Brandon Inge in extra innings on the final day of the 2006 season on the list of “good performances by Royals players that I really wish didn’t happen.”
Still, from that day on, Gordon hit .285/.330/.478. It wasn’t quite what we expected after his ridiculous performance in Double-A in 2006, when he hit .325/.427/.588, but it wasn’t far off. (Incidentally, Gordon’s one year in the minors was the most impressive season the local Wichitans had enjoyed since a 19-year-old Roberto Alomar hit .319/.374/.478 with 43 steals in 1987. I supposed Johnny Damon should be in the discussion – he hit .343/.433/.534 in 1995 – but Damon was called up to the majors before the season ended.)
(And why isn’t his nickname “Flash”, by the way? Isn’t that the law? According to Baseball-Reference.com, only three players with the last name of Gordon played in the majors for more than three years, and two of them (Joe and Tom) had the nickname. Not that I’m complaining. Calling him Flash because his last name would be just plain lazy, and we can do better.)
Every winter Nate Silver upgrades his PECOTA program in an attempt to make it even more deadly-accurate than it already is. (I shouldn’t be discussing this, but the
Second, he found that even when you control for all other factors, a player’s draft position (or, more precisely, signing bonus) has a significant impact on his future performance. This makes intuitive sense, but it’s something we often forget to think about when, say, Phil Nevin looks like a Quadruple-A player for the first seven years of his pro career before suddenly turning into a 30-homer 100-RBI guy, or when Jeremy Guthrie has a Rookie of the Year-caliber season after getting released by the Indians.
Gordon benefits from these adjustments as much as anyone: he had a much better second half (both offensively and defensively, although that won’t show up in PECOTA), and he was a #2 overall pick. Needless to say, his PECOTA is noticeably better than what you’d expect from last season’s numbers – his weighted mean is .269/.345/.463.
Besides, he just has the look of a franchise player, you know? His face never changes: he never looked scared or overwhelmed when he wasn’t doing well, and he never looked too impressed with himself when he was. Plus, he’s got a chin you could cut a diamond with.
He needs to draw a few more walks – what Royals player doesn’t? His batting average needs to be a lot better than .247, but batting average is the least consistent of all the major stats, and .247 is at the very low end of his true skill level. By year’s end he was an above-average defender at third, and he stole 14 bases in 18 attempts as well. He’s the closest thing to a five-tool player the Royals have had since Carlos Beltran.
The Royals don’t really need Gordon to be a five-tool player, though. They need him to be a pure slugger, and so the fact that he hit just 15 homers last year may be the most disappointing stat of all. But he did hit 36 doubles, and some of those should turn into homers this year. In fact, I’m willing to bet a lot of those doubles turn into homers. Why? Thanks to the Hit Tracker website, we have an estimate of the distance of every home run hit in the majors last year.
Prince Fielder, for instance, not only led the majors with 50 homers, but he also won the “Golden Sledgehammer” award for the highest average standard distance of his home runs –
It appears you had to have 18 homers to qualify for the list. This is important because Gordon hit only 15 homers, and we only have data on 14 of them. If it seemed like Gordon hit a bunch of absolute bombs last year, your perception is correct: the average length of those 14 homers was
When Gordon got a hold of one, he hit them as far as anyone in the majors. Now it’s just a matter of getting a hold of one more often. It may not happen in 2008, but I’ll go on record now and say that he’ll be the one to finally break
In 1985, Steve Balboni hit 36 homers and the Royals won the World Series. Neither has been the same since.
Thanks to Carlos Pena, the Tampa Bay Rays’ single-season home run record now stands at 46, meaning that every American League team has had a player hit more than 45 home runs in a season. Every National League team has had a 45-homer hitter except for the Marlins (42, by Gary Sheffield in 1996) and the Mets (41, by a number of players). Twenty-nine out of thirty major league teams, including every recent expansion team, has enjoyed at least one 40-homer season.
The thirtieth team is the Royals, whose list looks like this:
Year Player HR
1985 Steve Balboni 36
1995 Gary Gaetti 35
1975 John Mayberry 34
1987 Danny Tartabull 34
1998 Dean Palmer 34
Only five other times has a Royal hit even 30 homers in a season, most recently by Jermaine Dye, who hit
Balboni’s impact, I’m happy to say, reverberated around baseball. From 1986 to 2000 no team won the World Series with a player that hit 36 or more home runs that year on the roster, even though 43 such teams made the playoffs. I wrote a whimsical column on The Curse of the Balboni for ESPN.com during the 2000 playoffs. Unfortunately, just as The Curse was starting to gain traction – there were a few references to it in the mainstream media the following postseason – the Diamondbacks broke it (along with the more well-recognized curse of the Ex-Cub Factor) that October.
The Royals’ curse, however, continues. And in a perverse way, it gives us Royals fans something more to root for. Maybe the Royals won’t make the playoffs this year, but there’s always the chance that we’ll get a lot more excited than we ought to be about someone’s 37th homer of the season. Maybe it will be Gordon. Maybe it will be Billy Butler. Maybe Jose Guillen will surprise us all. Maybe we’ll have to wait until Mike Moustakas arrives, or for the college slugger the Royals will select with their first pick this year. Maybe the first Royal to hit 37 homers still waits to be born. But eventually it will happen. It must happen. Steve Balboni, you’ve been put on notice: your reign of terror will eventually come to an end.
(I hope you all liked that segue at the top of this item, by the way. I can’t be the only one who read The Westing Game in high school, can I?)
Monday, March 24, 2008
Bill James, obviously, needs no introduction, though that won’t stop me from writing one. I still have strong memories of the first time I picked up a Baseball Abstract, the 1988 edition (the last one he wrote) when I was 13. As astonishing as I found the book – the force of his words, the analytical approach to the game, the measured skepticism he brought to every topic – I was almost equally astonished to find out that this writer lived two hours from my home in Wichita, and was also a Royals fan. I mean, I lived in Royals country and I didn’t know any Royals fans, certainly none more passionate than I was.
As I collected the rest of his works and uncovered the rest of his treasures, I found that he had left a special treat for me, the Royals fan. I’m referring to his “History of Being a Kansas City Baseball Fan”, the 30-page article in the 1986 Abstract (the longest essay in any of his books), tracing the history of major league baseball from the first days of the Kansas City Athletics clear through until Darryl Motley caught the final out of the World Series that October. It’s the baseball version of the introduction to Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, starting from the most humble beginnings and ending on the most emotional crescendo imaginable. I try to read that essay again every year before Opening Day. I tell myself that if the Royals ever win the World Series again, I’ll try to write the sequel.
James has moved on to Boston, he now has a pair of world championship rings on his fingers, and now has his own website, and while I’m sure he has some residual affection for the Royals, I don’t imagine that he stays up at night wondering if the Jose Guillen signing will pan out. In his place, we’ve been blessed with another writer every bit James’ equal, and who writes about the Royals with more frequency, more passion, and – thanks to the internet – with much more influence than James had at his peak.
Joe Posnanski is the reason I decided to start this blog, because if he can write about baseball (and movies and pop culture and politics and whatever else catches his fancy) while still maintaining his Kansas City Star column and writing a book about the Big Red Machine (which will be hard-pressed to top his book about Buck O’Neil), then I figured I could blog about the Royals in my spare time. But Posnanski is also the reason I almost decided not to start this blog, because how the hell can I expect to compete with him?
Posnanski may not be the best sportswriter in America (although he probably is), and he may not be the best analyst in America. But no mainstream sportswriter understands the numbers of baseball – both what the numbers tell you and what they don’t tell you – as well as Posnanski. And no analyst comes within a country mile of Poz’s writing skills.
As far as I’m concerned there are essentially two poles of 21st-century sportswriting. I’ll call them the “Joe Sheehan” and “Bill Simmons” approaches. Sheehan is a walking “Elements of Style”; if I were an aspiring sportswriter in high school or college, I’d make sure I read every column he has written. There are certain aspects of writing that can’t be taught, but the technical aspects can, and technically Sheehan has mastered, as well as any sportswriter today, Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that “Genius is the ability to never write two words when one will do.” You could also call this the “Bill James” style; Sheehan was influenced by reading James as much as I was, maybe more.
Simmons essentially created an entire writing form out of whole cloth, to the point where people mock his conversational tone, his metaphorical leaps from sports to pop culture, and the length of his columns without ever realizing that they’re imitating his style at the same time that they criticize his work. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Simmons is the most flattered writer in America.
Posnanski’s genius, and the reason he might be the best writer of the three, is that he can swing from pole to pole with ease. He can write succinct, tight columns when he needs to – his story about Tony Gonzalez and Bill Belichick revealed worlds about both people in the span of about 900 words – and he’s proven from his blog that he can go on ridiculous tangents and tell stories that get better the longer they go on. The story of playing computer poker with his daughter had me in tears; “I think the tooth fairy has an ace” might be the punch line of the year.
You don’t need me to tell you how lucky we are to have such a great writer, whose favorite sport is baseball and whose experience as a fan of the 1970s Indians makes him uniquely qualified to write about bad baseball teams, end up a Kansas City lifer (we hope.) But you might need me to tell you that for all his brilliance, Posnanski is not the most important person in the Kansas City sportswriting scene.
No, the most important person is the guy who brought Posnanski to Kansas City, and the guy who has kept Poz in Kansas City despite many overtures from other, larger newspapers (I believe it was the Orlando Sun-Sentinel that almost lured him away at one point, though I could have that wrong.) Go to Kauffman on a typical day and ask ten fans who Mike Fannin is – I’ll be shocked if more than two know that he’s the sports editor at the Kansas City Star, and one of the most respected sports editors in the country.
If you knew nothing about Fannin other than the lineup of talent that he’s assembled over the years, you’d reach the same conclusion. We’ve discussed Posnanski. The other featured columnist is Jason Whitlock, and regardless of how you feel about what Whitlock writes, you can’t argue that he’s one of the most influential sportswriters in the country, particularly on issues of race, both inside and outside of sports. I don’t recall ever seeing Mike Lupica or Rick Reilly on Oprah.
The baseball beat writer, Bob Dutton, is currently president of the Baseball Writers Association of America. It’s hard for me to write about Dutton without at least a little bias; he’s gone well beyond the call of duty to help me feel as comfortable as possible in the oftentimes-unfriendly world of the major league press box (and clubhouse.)
Most of you are aware of the tension that has festered over the last 5-10 years between the traditional newspaper writer (i.e. members of the BBWAA) and, pretty much, anyone else who writes about sports. The simmering tension erupted into a full boil this winter when my friends Rob Neyer and Keith Law were denied membership into the BBWAA even though both write about baseball full-time for a national entity in ESPN.com. (To say nothing of my colleagues at Baseball Prospectus, including Sheehan, Will Carroll, and Kevin Goldstein, for whom writing about baseball is also a full-time job.)
Dutton, as the president of the BBWAA, handled the controversy as well as his position would allow. While he has no authority to tell other BBWAA members what to think, he has made clear that his position on BBWAA membership is to be as liberal as possible, a position best illustrated by the fact that for three years, ostensibly as the result of a weekly column I once wrote for the Topeka Capital-Journal, I held membership in the BBWAA, making me the only BP writer to hold membership. (I am no longer a member, unfortunately. And I was just seven years away from my own Hall of Fame ballot!)
Moreover, I’ve never once felt that Dutton has regarded me – or anyone who is writing about baseball – as anything other than a colleague. When I have some interesting nugget about the Royals that I want to share with him, he happily accepts it and more often than not it finds its way into the paper. When I ask him a question about the Royals, he’s more than happy to reply. When I needed someone to explain to me the protocols of locker room etiquette, he was happy to help, even though the time after the game ends is a whirlwind of stress as beat writers try to get quotes and finish their columns on deadline. (On only one occasion Dutton had to be brisk with me, in Detroit, as he practically flew down the stairs to the locker room after the final out. I found out when I got home that Tony Muser had just been fired.)
A few years ago we went out to brunch before a Saturday game here in Chicago and he shared stories about the team with me for three hours. On more than one occasion I’ve heard other people sum him up in one word, and that word is “professional.” It’s an appropriate word. He’s a pretty damn good writer to boot.
We’re just getting started. Four years ago, Fannin hired as the Star’s junior baseball beat/national baseball writer a kid barely out of J-school, Jeff Passan, who had been working for a paper in Fresno. Passan was hired 18 months after Wright Thompson, who had been working for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans. The year after Passan was hired, Fannin lured Elizabeth Merrill away from the Omaha World-Herald.
Passan is now the ridiculously-prolific national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports; he’s written 14 articles in March already, and it’s only the 24th. He was recently joined at Yahoo! by Jason King, who had started at the Star in 1998 as a prep sports writer but quickly moved up to covering college basketball and football. Thompson has become one of ESPN.com’s most prominent national features writer, and Merrill has also joined the Worldwide Leader.
Other reporters have moved on to newspapers with a more national exposure, like Ivan Carter, who covered football and basketball at the Star and now covers the Wizards for the Washington Post. But Fannin has kept the talent pipeline running fast enough to keep up with the talent bleed. Passan’s replacement, Sam Mellinger, has shown considerable writing chops, and his new blog has already become a must-read for Royals fans. (Even when he’s not interviewing brilliant and devilishly handsome bloggers.)
As Passan, who helped out with this timeline, says, “Every hire is Fannin’s. When it comes to spotting talent, he’s brilliant, and he’s even better at molding it.” When Whitlock started, he was – I have to be honest – pretty lousy. He then nearly got himself fired after taunting Patriots fans at a game in Foxborough; the highlight was the hand-made sign he stuck out of the press box window that said, “Drew Bledsoe: Gay?” If you had told me then that a decade later Whitlock would become one of the most recognizable sportswriters in the country, I would have said you were nuts.
But he is, and he worked hard to get where he is today. But I don’t think he would have gotten there if not for Fannin’s support, and this interview Whitlock gave to The Big Lead bears that out. Money quote: “I haven’t left the Kansas City Star because I’m treated well there, enjoy the freedom, love the city, the Internet makes the world much smaller and, most important, I have a good boss. Most sports editors want to be at home by 4 p.m. or three Martinis down by 6 p.m. My boss (Mike Fannin) likes to work. He understands what diversity is. It s not a bunch of different color faces. It s long debates and occasional heated arguments and forgetting about it the next day.”
I’m willing to bet that the Star has graduated more sportswriters to national acclaim over the past 3-4 years than any other newspaper in the country. Royals fans ought to be incredibly grateful that even though their team plays in a small-market, one-newspaper town, the sports editor guarantees the coverage of their team will continue to be top-notch. I’m certainly grateful, even though the one conversation I had with Fannin was the most awkward phone call of my life. (I called the Star in 2001 or 2002 trying to pitch my talents as an analyst who could write about the Royals from a statistical perspective. Fannin seemed to think that I was after Jeff Flanagan’s job.)
Cedric Tallis may have been the architect of the great Royals teams of the 1970s, but no one came to the park to see him, they came out to watch George Brett. As great as Fannin’s work has been behind the scenes, Posnanski – the George Brett of sportswriting – is the reason to open the paper every morning. As long as we have him, and the solid lineup that surrounds him, you can rest assured that even Yankees fans have reason to be jealous of us. I know a few of them, and trust me: they are.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Today I just want to catch up on all the happenings down in Surprise:
1) The Royals made their first trade of the spring, sending a PTBNL to the Reds for reliever Brad Salmon. I certainly see nothing wrong with picking up Salmon in the abstract: he’s been consistently effective in the high minors over the last three seasons, with 214 strikeouts in 212 innings, and held his own in his first major league audition last season (4.13 ERA, 22 Ks in 24 IP). He’s 28, but that’s hardly unusual for a middle relief prospect – most of those guys started their careers as starters, converted to the pen in their mid-20s, then spent a few years refining their repertoire in their new role before getting a shot. Salmon’s just eight months older than Neal Musser, and I don’t see Royals fans claiming Musser isn’t a prospect.
Salmon reminds me a lot, in fact, of Joel Peralta, who was picked up off waivers when he was almost 30, and has given the Royals two fine seasons in middle relief. Besides their age, the other thing they have in common is that both were essentially limited to situational relief because their platoon splits were so extreme. In his brief major league trial last season, Salmon held RHB to a line of .213/.294/.279, but LHB tattooed him at .310/.394/.586. His overall numbers were solid because he faced RHB more than two-thirds of the time. (He had similar, those less-extreme, splits in Triple-A.) Peralta’s line in 2006 was very similar (.234/.268/.403 vs. RHB, .338/.400/.613 vs LHB), so last year he brought out a new cut fastball Bob McClure had him work on, and he actually handled LHB better than RHB. If McClure can work the same magic with Salmon, the Royals will have made quite the pickup.
The difference between the two is that Peralta was picked up on waivers, whereas the Royals had to give up something for Salmon. Until we know what that something is, we can’t evaluate the trade. Some rumors have Blake Johnson going to Cincinnati, which would be a little disappointing – Johnson’s a legitimate prospect – but not heartbreaking. Johnson’s a polished control right-hander with average stuff, and while that can be a useful guy to have in the back of the rotation for a few years, it’s not worth getting upset over losing a slightly upgraded version of Mike Wood.
Who knows? It might turn out to be just cash. We were supposed to send the Reds a PTBNL for Jason LaRue, and unless I missed the transaction that never happened. Given the way LaRue played, I think they owe us a PTBNL. We’ll take Salmon and call it even.
2) Speaking of McClure, he apparently has Brett Tomko throwing a curveball for the first time in six years, and apparently it’s been good enough to be a difference-maker. (Though you wouldn’t notice that from his 8.59 Cactus League ERA.) I still think signing Tomko was a mistake, though I’m appreciative that his poor performance had Trey Hillman at least giving strong consideration to moving him to the bullpen – the days of the Royals throwing Jose Lima and Scott Elarton out there every fifth day just because they made a commitment to them are long over.
At the moment, Tomko appears likely to have a grip on the fifth starter’s role. The disconnect between his stuff and his results is pretty jarring; Joe Posnanski tells the tale of the scout who thinks Tomko could win 15 games this year. Tomko relies almost exclusively on hard stuff, so a pitch that comes in at a different speed could be particularly useful for him. If the curveball takes and Tomko has a good year, we ought to go ahead and sign McClure to a lifetime contract.
3) The reason Tomko’s the fifth starter is that John Bale has, against all odds, all but won the #4 starter’s role. I didn’t think this was likely, but I don’t think this is a mistake either. As I wrote in our book this year on the subject of a move to the rotation, “Given his strong peripherals, it’s not as crazy as it sounds.” And moving a 34-year-old who has made nine starts in the majors – all of them five years ago – sounds awfully crazy. Even in Japan he was used almost entirely in relief, at least in 2005 and 2006 (I don’t have stats for 2004.)
The reason I like this move is twofold. One, Bale struck out 42 batters in 40 innings last year, and surrendered just one homer. He missed the first half of the season with injuries and was slow to get started in July; he walked six batters in 1.1 innings in a memorable July 24th outing. From that point on, he worked 36 innings, and walked just 10 batters against 38 whiffs. I’m not expecting that kind of performance out of the rotation, but 180 league-average innings is a possibility. Secondly, moving Bale to the rotation was the only way to eliminate the logjam of lefty relievers that the Royals had created for themselves with the signing of Ron Mahay. Now the Royals can go with Mahay and Gobble, and still have spots open for five right-handed relievers. Soria and Yabuta have guaranteed spots, but that still leaves three spots open, which means the odds are much better that the Royals keep Leo Nunez instead of exposing him to waivers.
4) One of those bullpen spots may well go to Hideo Nomo, and you can’t deny that’s awfully cool. A month ago I said the signing of Nomo was mostly a gimmick, but I did say that there was a small chance he could get a shot to show us his famed splitter would work well in relief. Well, he’s only topping out at 87 on the gun, but the splitter is working so well that he’s still striking out over a man an inning. It might mean taking advantage of Peralta’s final option, but why not see what he has left?
5) After getting ripped from here to Salina for even suggesting that Alex Gordon might bat 7th, Trey Hillman is now talking about batting him 3rd. That might be swinging the pendulum too much the other way – I thought the whole problem last spring was that the team put too much pressure on the kid, and now we want him in the 3 hole? Anyways, rumors have the lineup going like this:
CF L DeJesus
2B R Grudzielanek
3B L Gordon
RF R Guillen
DH R Butler
1B L Gload
LF L Teahen
C R Buck
SS R Pena
It’s a decent lineup from a pure ranking standpoint; the only quibble I have is that Teahen should move ahead of Gload. But I don’t like the idea of going R-R-L-L when you can easily go R-L-R-L; in today’s game, the proliferation of relievers means that avoiding a run of LH or RH hitters might be a more pressing priority than bunching your best hitters together. Given these nine players, here’s the Rany on the Royals-approved lineup:
CF L DeJesus
2B R Grudzielanek
LF L Teahen
RF R Guillen
3B L Gordon
DH R Butler
1B L Gload
C R Buck
SS R Pena
You can’t do anything about having Buck and Pena bat back-to-back, but frankly if Hillman’s any kind of manager he’s going to pinch-hit for Pena against a tough RHP in crucial situations anyway.
6) The trade rumor mill is churning, and Bob Dutton sends a pair of good ones our way. “One has the Royals discussing a deal to send utilityman Esteban German to the Dodgers for right-handed pitchers Jonathan Meloan and Miguel Pinango.”
Me like. Me like very much. German has been a great asset to the team the past two years, and represents one of Allard Baird’s finest moves. But his defense is legitimately bad, and with Alberto Callaspo around the Royals really have no need for another player who can fill in at second, third, and the outfield. Callaspo plays better defense, might be able to fill in at shortstop in a pinch, and is comparable with the bat, plus he’s five years younger.
But the reason you make this trade isn’t to get rid of German, it’s to get a hold of Meloan. You don’t normally want to trade for relievers, given how easy it is to scour one off the waiver wire or from the husks of failed starters. But Meloan could be special. Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus both rated him as the #8 prospect in the Dodgers organization, which is amazing for a reliever in one of the game’s deepest farm systems. He throws a good sinking fastball and a slider that Kevin Goldstein calls “plus-plus” and “a true wipeout offering.” Between Double-A and Triple-A last year he threw 67 innings, allowed 36 hits, 27 walks, and struck out 91. The stuff calls to mind Jeff Nelson, and his numbers resemble vintage (2000-01) Nelson, but with better control.
I’d do this trade in a heartbeat just for Meloan. Pinango is just gravy, and not that processed gravy you find at Old Country Buffet – he’s a polished control pitcher who could be a down-rotation starter for a few years if everything breaks right, perhaps comparable to the rumored-to-be-headed-out-of-town Blake Johnson.
And a not-insignificant bonus is this: if German gets traded, that opens up another roster spot for a hitter. Assuming the Royals are comfortable with Callaspo as their only utility infielder, this opens up a place for Justin Huber to stick around. At this point, it might be his only hope.
Next? “The other rumor has the Royals agreeing to pay half of shortstop Angel Berroa’s $4.75 million salary in order to send him”
Done! Where do we sign? Oh, you mean we get something in return too?
“to Washington for right-hander Zech Zinicola.” Zinicola’s a relief prospect of modest means, more famous for his ZZ initials than for anything he’s done on the mound. But really, does it matter? Someone is offering to give us $2.375 million dollars. Who are we to turn that down?
7) Looks like Billy Butler’s going to be the DH. I’m really not broken up about this at all. It would have been great if he could handle first base, but it’s not a secret that he simply can’t play defense worth a damn. He’s going to be a full-time DH soon enough, and by putting him there now, the Royals have no choice but to confront the fact that they really don’t have a first baseman who can hit. If that forces their hand into selecting Pedro Alvarez or Justin Smoak in the draft, so much the better.
8) Nothing’s official yet, but you might want to keep the weekend of July 25th-27th open. The Rays come to Kauffman Stadium, giving us a look at what happens when a youth movement is done right. Hopefully they won’t be the only attraction at the K that weekend. More details when they’re available, probably not for a while.