Saturday, April 5, 2008

Thoughts on the Game: April 4th.

We were going to lose eventually. It’s never fun to lose by one run, because you can always find half a dozen ways in which the game result turned on a split-second play or a questionable ball/strike call or a groundball with eyes. We beat the Tigers by one run on Opening Day, so call it even. And since the Tigers are more likely to be in the thick of the division race, so long as we’re all drinking the playoff Kool-Aid together you’d much rather have the win against Detroit.

I only caught the first inning of this game on TV, so most of these observations are off the play-by-play. Take them for what they’re worth.

- This was my first glimpse at the home broadcast (I watched the previous games on, which provided the Tigers’ feed) since Fox Sports picked up the TV rights. It’s obvious that the production values are higher, but what caught my eye were the commercials. I always thought the Royals’ commercials were the perfect synopsis of the team, because they were almost invariably poorly conceived and ham-handedly executed. Many of them were downright juvenile; it was like the team ran their commercials by a focus group made up of fourth-graders.

The commercials I saw today had an edge to them. Cue some foreboding music. Narrator speaks in a deep, gravelly voice: “Things change. It was the end of days for the Jumbotron. We brought it down” – as we watch Billy Butler taking batting practice – “with respect, and with batting practice” – as Butler’s home runs crash into the Jumbotron, evidently knocking it over.

I love the concept; it’s about time the Royals try marketing to grown-ups for a change. I have just one problem with the commercial: the special effects of the baseballs exploding on the scoreboard look like someone spent ten minutes on a Mac adding some video clip art to the scene. Come on, guys. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of making a commercial, don’t give us special effects that call to mind Luke Skywalker making his final approach on the Death Star.

- Man, Joey Gathright is fast. Bunt single, stolen base, run scored. That he was thrown out eight times in 17 attempts last season is just criminal. Someone needs to be fired for that.

- Man, Billy Butler’s hand-eye coordination is just sick. He battled Scott Baker for nine pitches in the first, at one point getting a piece of a fastball that was a foot inside immediately followed by a slider that was down and away. It’s getting to the point where his hand-eye coordination might be too good – he can hit just about any pitch, but he’s also swinging at just about every pitch. Butler was an OBP beast in the minors, and needs to get back to that.

- Of course, he finished the at-bat with a single right up the middle to plate Grudzielanek. He may not be an OBP beast, but he's a beast. Only, for the second time in three games, he was then thrown out trying to advance when the throw from the outfield was cut off. On Wednesday, the decision was defensible, because there was a play at the plate and decoying the cutoff man to plate an insurance run was a smart move. Tonight’s decision was not smart – Grudzielanek was going to be safe either way.

Teahen led off the second with a double which might have scored Butler, but you can’t really play that “what-if” game – for one thing, Gload’s flyout would have ended the inning and Teahen never would have scored. The one thing we know for sure is that the Royals would have had another out to play with. Would Joe Nathan have hung a slider to John Buck and given the Royals the lead? Probably not, but we won’t know because the game ended with him on deck. The most precious commodity in baseball are your 27 outs. The American League has already kindly alleviated you of the need to field, Billy – can we at least ask you to learn how to run?

- The Royals only got that second run thanks to a dumb decision by Matt Tolbert, the Twins’ rookie second baseman (no, I hadn’t heard of him either – Baseball America doesn’t list him among the Twins’ Top 30 Prospects.) With men on first-and-third, one out, Guillen hit a slow chopper to the second baseman, and Grudzielanek put on the brakes halfway between first and second. Tolbert chased Grudz back a few feet, but then instead of chasing him down he threw on to first, allowing Grudz to move up to second easily. You’re going to get one out either way – why wouldn’t you go for the lead runner? I’m not trying to be the fundamentals police here, but these things add up, a run here, a run there. This time, and roughly 40 times a season, one run decided the ball game.

- I don’t want to unduly alarm anyone, but the Royals scored three runs and have scored a total of 16 runs in 38 innings. More to the point, they didn’t draw a single walk tonight, and now have eight walks in four games. Neither Gordon nor Butler has drawn a walk yet. OBP, guys. No. Brainer.

- John Bale allowed ten hits and four runs in 6.1 innings, and struck out just two. Despite this, it looks to me like a pretty good start. He was a groundball machine – 13 groundouts to four flyouts, and seven of ten hits were on the ground as well, four of which were infield singles. He’s not going to give up four infield singles a game, not with this infield defense. As long as he keeps the ball down and it takes three hits to score a run, he’s going to be fine. If it’s going to take a sacrifice bunt and a sacrifice squeeze to score the winning run against him every time out, he’s going to win more often than not.

- It’s early, but Hillman seems to favor the set lineup. Four games in, and with the exception of Gathright taking over for DeJesus after David reinjured his ankle, the lineup has been identical in all four games. Hillman’s lineup against the lefty Kenny Rogers was the same as against all three RHP. I would have thought Hillman would have used Matt Tupman one time, if for no other reason than to let the kid play in a major-league game before he returned to Omaha, but Buck got all four starts in Olivo’s absence. This is neither a compliment nor an insult, it’s just an observation at this point.

- We’ve held our breath waiting to see how Hillman would handle this situation, and the answer is: for the first time all season, Tony Pena was slated to bat with the Royals losing in the 6th inning or later – Hillman pinch-hit for him with Alberto Callaspo.

I can say, without a trace of hyperbole, that this is the best sign yet that Hillman knows what he’s doing. Pena is a legitimately excellent defensive shortstop, but his game-winning blooper on Opening Day is the only time all season he has reached base safely. Callaspo is a marginal major-league shortstop; there are a lot of managers who simply would not pinch-hit with him for Pena under any circumstances because they feel the defensive hit is too great. Hillman is not one of those managers. Thank God.

- Jimmy Gobble. My goodness. You guys saw this; all I see is three lefties up, three lefties walking back to the dugout. Three lefties named Joe Mauer, Jason Kubel, and Justin Morneau. My goodness.

While many right-handed relievers were formerly failed starters, for whatever reason most of the lefty specialists in the majors were groomed as relievers in the minors or very early in the major league careers: from closers like Billy Wagner and B.J. Ryan to setup guys like George Sherrill and Damaso Marte to LOOGYs like Steve Kline and Trever Miller.

Gobble, on the other hand, wasn’t a full-time reliever until last season, his fifth in the majors. He really seemed to come into his own after he dropped more sidearm against LHB in late May. Now that he has a defined role, he might be ready to really flourish. I wouldn’t use an Arthur Rhodes comp – the reason it took Rhodes so long to move to the pen was because his stuff was so good that the Orioles were loath to waste it in relief. But Eddie Guardado might be a good comparison. Guarado was an immensely hittable starting pitcher at the start of his career, but he moved to the bullpen when he was 25 and soon became Everyday Eddie. Gobble, like Guardado, is a flyball pitcher who couldn’t strike anyone out as a starter but whose strikeout rate spiked in relief.

I may have said this before, but remind me again: why did we need to sign Ron Mahay?

- Ramon Ramirez completed the bullpen’s perfect day, which means that Carlos Guillen’s home run off Brett Tomko remains the only run given up by the bullpen in four games. Their combined line: 10.2 innings, five hits, one run, three walks, 16 strikeouts. As recently as 2006, the bullpen’s ERA for the year was 5.41. The ability to put together an effective bullpen on the cheap is one of the easiest ways to discern the good GMs from the bad ones. I guess that means you all know who’s going to be #1.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Thoughts on the Game: April 3rd.

(Thoughts on the Game(tm) is an unregistered trademark of Rany on the Royals. Any use of the term "Thoughts on the Game" without my express written consent will upset me greatly. There may even be tears.)


Three and oh. Five runs allowed in 29 innings, against one of the most feared offenses in baseball. Mark Grudzielanek is third in the league in batting average, Alex Gordon is tied for the league lead in homers, Joakim Soria is tied for the league lead in saves.

And Trey Hillman has won the first three games of his managing career. Hillman is the 15th full-time manager in the franchise's history, and even counting the interim guys, only two other Royals managers won their first three games. One of them was Whitey Herzog. The other manager actually won his first four games in a Royals uniform, a mark Hillman will try to match Friday night in Minnesota.

The other manager was Buddy Bell. Let's be excited, my friends, but not too excited.

- I caught about half of Greinke's outing, and he really seemed to be fighting it some. He threw a fair amount of off-speed stuff, which I liked, but the Tigers adjusted well to it, perhaps because had just spent the previous day being embarrassed by the pedestrian velocity of Brian Bannister. He pitched in and out of trouble all day - he worked out of the stretch against 14 of the 29 batters he faced, which is a ton when you consider that he faced a hitter leading off an inning seven times. He had a rare miscue on a sharp comebacker off the bat of Clete Thomas in the fifth, as the ball tipped off his glove and all hands were safe (a pure reaction play, not an error), which turned a potential inning-ending double play into first-and-second, one out. He got away with a couple hanging breaking balls, including one in the third that a younger Gary Sheffield probably would have parked in the seats instead of Teahen's glove. And for all that...he gave up one run in seven innings.

- It easily could have been no runs in six innings. I was surprised to see Greinke take the mound in the seventh; he had only thrown 88 pitches to that point, but given that he was working from the stretch all game, he had more wear on his arm than his pitch count would suggest, and it was the first start of the season, and it was a cold day. He gave up the homer to Inge, then got out of the inning when Grudzielanek climbed the latter to snag Polanco's liner - it was pretty obvious he was gassed. I don't want to make too much of this; the notion that we would question a manager for letting his starter throw 99 pitches would have been laughable even five years ago. But I think it's something to file away for later in the season, to see whether Hillman brought one of the bad ideas back with him from Japan.

- I thought Gordon would be the guy to break Balboni's record, but I didn't think it would be this year. His bomb today was even more impressive than on Monday, an opposite-field shot that cleared the wall to the centerfield side of left-center; I believe the measurement was 410 feet. His out in the 7th may have been most impressive of all; Gordon flicked a pitch to left field that looked like a can of corn off the bat, and Marcus Thames banged his head off the fence (luckily catching the padded portion) while making the catch. Apparently the wind was blowing out, but hey, it's nice to have a player who hits the ball high enough and far enough to take advantage of a tailwind. Just thirty-five more, Alex.

- On any list of the most important statistics to keep an eye on this season, you'd have to include "the number of Mark Teahen homers." If the Royals can get 2006 production from Teahen, they'll have one of the better #6 hitters in all of baseball. In three games, he's got a homer and a triple. The labrum tear that ended his 2006 may well have impacted his power last year, and now he's 18 months out of surgery.

- Hillman sent just one runner in motion today, and it led to a key insurance run. Gathright challenged Ivan Rodriguez, and despite a perfect throw made it just in under the tag. Would he have been safe a year ago? For all his speed, Gathright has had massive trouble with his basestealing technique in a Royals uniform; before today he had 19 steals and 14 caught stealings as a Royal. As a member of the Devil Rays, he stole 38 bags and was caught just 9 times. But this season, he stole 10 or 11 bases in spring training without getting caught once. One pitch after his steal, Guillen ripped a single to left. Gathright would have scored anyway on Butler's single, but you still have to be impressed with the sequence. Bob McClure is everyone's favorite coach, but we need to start sharing some of that love with Rusty Kuntz. Man, that's an awkward sentence.

- Soria has pitched in all three games, and while I strongly support the idea of using your best pitchers as often as is reasonable, in two of those games he protected a four-run lead and a three-run lead, and now he's almost certainly unavailable Friday night. With John Bale going the Royals are unlikely to get much use out of their lefty specialists, which means that Yasuhiko Yabuta will almost certainly be needed. That's fine, but I'd prefer it if a guy making his major league debut wasn't forced to do so in a tight game. Don't be surprised if Leo Nunez gets called upon if there's a save situation. It seems there is no cure for the thinking that a manager must use his closer to protect a ninth-inning lead, no matter how large. The best medicine is simply to have such a good bullpen that there's little dropoff when you send your #2 or #3 reliever out there in a tight spot.

- I didn't see Ramon Ramirez pitch, and he did give up a single (what was Sheffield thinking?) and a double. But the other two hitters he faced struck out. Remember, Ramirez and Nunez are supposed to be the last two guys in the bullpen. Remind me again: why did we spend $8 million on Ron Mahay? I know, I know - not every team is going to be as righty-heavy as the Tigers are. Credit to Hillman for doing the obvious: 29 innings against the Tigers, and every one of them was thrown by a right-handed pitcher. Everyone knows the Tigers' Achilles heel is their bullpen, but the heavy lean in their lineup is going to be a big problem for them against teams that can pump out power arms from the right side. The way the Royals are playing, this sort of tactical maneuvering by Hillman could well decide the pennant race between these two teams.

Is that being too excited? Well then, call me a hypocrite. Just remember to call the Royals a first-place team.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reason #2: The Manager.

(I meant to get to this sooner, but the Royals have been distracting me with their winning ways. So go blame them.)

I have no animosity toward Buddy Bell, and wish him well. He is, by all accounts, a decent and good man, devoted to his family, and there are a lot of star ballplayers you can’t say that about. I am happy he appears to have made a full recovery from throat cancer, and I hope he lives a long and healthy life.

That said, I remain as bewildered by the Royals’ decision to hire him as the day he was introduced as manager. I said at the time that picking Bell sealed Allard Baird’s fate as general manager, and I’m certainly not retracting that position. Bell brought some stability and integrity to the role after the wild Tony Pena years, which at their best brought us 92 days in first place in 2003, but at their worst gave us the spectacle of having the manager jump into the shower fully clothed to motivate his troops in 2004, then going so far as to guarantee the Royals would win the division when the team fell to 7-14 going into their game on May 1st at Yankee Stadium, where Pena and Baird decided was the perfect place for the immortal Eduardo Villacis to make his major league debut. (And, as it turns out, his swan song.)

Buddy Bell handled his departure with as much class as was possible, announcing two months ahead of time that he would not be returning for another season. Pena handled his departure with as little class as possible, abruptly resigning in the middle of the night rather than get on a plane back to Kansas City, where coincidentally a subpoena had been issued to question Pena’s role in the divorce of his neighbors. You can see where I’m going with this.

You have to wonder if Bell’s “retirement” was less his own decision and more a way for him to save face after it was clear to him that the Royals would not be bringing him back for 2008. He ostensibly resigned to spend more time with his family, and was to stay in the organization as a senior adviser to Moore. Then, barely a week after the season ended, he left to join the White Sox as their director of minor league instruction, a job title which sounds like it will involve a lot more travel than being a senior adviser.

If Moore really had planned to axe Bell after the season all along, then kudos to him. Bell brought gravitas to the manager’s chair, but not much of anything else. He also hamstrung the Royals in numerous ways, many of which we’re just learning about. (In a recent Flanagan column, John Buck all but fingered Bell as the person who made him give up his new leg kick last season – you know, the leg kick that helped Buck slug .600 in his first 40 games.)

In his place, Moore hired Trey Hillman, a candidate so off the radar that he wasn’t even rumored to be under consideration until after he had already been offered the job. I was at Disneyworld with my wife and kids when I read the news on my iPhone, which is appropriate, because it’s supposed to be the Happiest Place on Earth.

Hillman has one of the more eclectic backgrounds you’ll find in a big-league manager, which I won’t rehash here. I’ll simply point out that when hiring a manager, the GM has to decided between a fresh new hire – and you can never be certain about someone who has no track record of success – or a recycled manager, who’s only available because a previous employer found him wanting. Moore somehow found a guy free from either concern. Hillman may not have “major-league manager” on his resume, but two Japan Series appearances and one championship constitute a better track record than a lot of guys who’ve managed in the majors for years. (Like, say, Buddy Bell.)

But because Hillman’s experience to this point came in Japan or in the minors, we really don’t know what kind of manager he will be. Will he be as aggressive as Tony LaRussa in using his bullpen, or ride his starters like Dusty Baker? Is he willing to platoon or does he prefer a set lineup? Does he like to put runners in motion or does he prefer to play station-to-station ball? We can’t answer those questions as definitively as we would like. Well, we could, if we had access to comprehensive statistics from Japanese baseball, were intimately familiar with the personnel over there, and were able to translate from Japanese to English fluently. If Robert Whiting is reading this, by all means, contact me.

So the jury is still out on Hillman. But a preliminary answer to all those questions I’ve raised appears to be, “yes.” Yes, he’s willing to be aggressive with his relievers, and he’s willing to ride his starters. He’s willing to platoon, and he’s willing to write the same guy’s name in the lineup every day. He’s willing to bunt and steal and hit & run if he needs to, and he’s willing to put up a red light if he needs to. That’s the one trait I’m most comfortable pinning on Hillman, and one of the reasons I’m so optimistic about his hiring: he’s adaptable.

He’s received a lot of attention for putting a lot of emphasis on small-ball fundamentals this spring, and a lot of attention for somehow winning Japan’s Pacific League for a second straight year with a team that finished last in the league in runs scored and most other offensive categories. But Hillman’s first Pacific League champion, the team that won the Japan Series, had a much more explosive offense – one of his two best hitters retired after the season, and the other left as a free agent. The Fighters offensive style in 2007 was in itself an adaptation to life without the heart of their order.

When the Royals hired Tony Pena as their manager six years ago, one of the other candidates under consideration – certainly the guy most Royals fans wanted hired – was Buck Showalter. What I find interesting is that Hillman reminds me of no one more than Showalter. A happy Buck Showalter.

Both guys started their managing careers in the Yankees’ farm system, and both had tremendous success right off the bat. Showalter skippered the Oneonta Yankees in the New York-Penn League in 1985 and 1986, with records of 55-23 and 59-18. In 1990, Hillman got his managing start, also with Oneonta, and went 52-26. Showalter’s minor league winning percentage is much higher – he managed only five years in the minors, and finished in first place four times. Hillman managed in the minors for 12 seasons, and finished first three times.

Both are hyper-prepared and detail-oriented to the point of being anal-retentive. When Showalter was hired as the Diamondbacks’ first manager, he took on such an overriding role in the organization that he involved himself in the design of the team’s uniforms. The KC Star had a quote from Hillman early in spring training, about the different lineups he was pondering for the team:

“We’ve actually have 20 already done but I haven’t typed the other five up and I have to redo the ones that have misspelled names. I hate misspelling people’s names.”

Um, yeah. He’s quite the perfectionist. As Joe Posnanski wrote in the Star in the newspaper’s massive baseball preview last Sunday – the day before Opening Day is always one of my favorite baseball days on the calendar for that reason – Hillman is obsessed about the little things. The Royals haven’t had someone who understood, let alone obsessed, about the little things in quite a while.

Here’s a snippet from Bob Dutton regarding David DeJesus that illustrates this perfectly:

“The coaches are teaching us that there are so many little key things that pitchers give away that you can take advantage of,” he said. “Like when you’re stealing, look at the back shoulder instead of just looking at the leg lifting.”

Ask DeJesus why he is only learning such skills now, and he shrugs. There is recognition of his own culpability, but he also points to a sea change in organizational approach.

But it’s where Hillman differs from Showalter that is particularly important. Showalter was a great X’s and O’s manager and always the most prepared guy in the room, but he has this tiny problem of not getting along all that well with his players. There’s a reason both the Diamondbacks and Yankees won the World Series the year after he was fired. He prepared his players to win, but his presence was also quite stifling, and major league hitters chafed under his constant presence – only after he was let go did the oxygen circulate back in the room.

Hillman shows signs of being Showalter v2.0, a guy who makes sure players do things his way, but also a guy who knows when to let up a little bit. As DeJesus continued:

“The difference around here,” he said, “is in the attention to detail. Everything (Hillman) wants, he wants to be perfect. If it’s not perfect, he’ll tell you, but also he keeps it light and fun. That definitely makes it a lot easier to go out there and play.”

The signature moment of the spring for Hillman came when, immediately after Ryan Shealy ended a game with a walk-off homer, he called the entire team onto the field and lectured them about running the bases for ten minutes. It had the potential to be a divisive moment for the team, having their manager lecture them like little leaguers in front of a large crowd immediately after they had won a game.

That’s a Showalter move. The aftermath, though, was equally important. Hillman spoke to Mark Grudzielanek for several minutes immediately afterwards; we don’t know what they talked about, but given that Grudz might be the most respected veteran on the team, you have to think that Hillman wanted to make sure that he and Grudz were on the same page and that such an incident would have the proper effect on the squad. Hillman declined to speak about the incident with reporters. And he never did it again. Presumably – hopefully – he didn’t need to.

A trait that most great managers share is that, when a player is giving less than full effort, they will upbraid that player up one side and down the other – but in private, and afterwards the matter is forgotten. Great managers know how to light a fire under their players without embarrassing them, and they don’t hold grudges. Great managers don’t have doghouses.

Hillman embarrassed the entire squad, as it were, but by doing so as a group, he made certain that no player would be singled out for his mistakes. It was a classic passive-aggressive move, making a statement in front of the fans and press corps and then refusing to divulge the specifics of what happened. It was sort of extreme, but it was a one-time event, and doing so made it abundantly clear that Hillman, in his first camp with the team, was the boss.

Other than that, he’s handled the diverse personalities on the team as well as could be expected. Managing Jose Guillen alone will earn Hillman his salary, and Guillen seems happy. He defused a potential crisis with Miguel Olivo when Olivo came to camp under the illusion that he was the starting catcher.

A few years ago, I came up with what I like to call Jazayerli’s Law of Fundamentals, which states:

A team's ability to execute the “fundamentals” is inversely correlated to the time spent discussing the importance of executing them.

You never hear the Yankees and Braves talking about how important it is for their players to execute the fundamentals – only teams like the Royals and Pirates. That’s not to say that good teams aren’t good at the fundamentals, because they are: good teams are good at everything. That’s why they’re good. The point is that when teams can’t stop talking about “fundamentals”, it’s because they’ve reached the point of desperation – they don’t know what else to do.

Hillman talked about the fundamentals a lot during the spring, and it remains to be seen whether that’s just the standard rigmarole that every new manager needs to say – a new manager saying he wants to focus on the fundamentals is like a newly-elected politician saying he wants to get tough on crime. If he keeps harping about it, then we’ll need to worry. My hope is that, like Bobby Cox or Mike Scioscia or Jim Leyland, he won’t talk about fundamentals as much in the future because he won’t need to: his team will have already proven they can execute them on the field.

Plus, the frequent references to bunting and offensive risk-taking notwithstanding, he seems to have a pretty good grounding in what makes an offense tick. From Bob Dutton:

“I’ve spoken to all of them about eliminating batting average and going to OBP,” he said. “Because OBP really is the statistic that tells you what your chances are of scoring runs.”

Uh, Trey? You work for the Royals now. We don’t believe in that sort of thing around here. From Dick Kaegel:

“I always set high, lofty OBPs for leadoff hitters and No. 2s. I’d like to go between .370 and .380 -- that's high. It’s really high,” Hillman said. “But if you have the ability to take as many walks as you can get, it sure does help. I think he can get there, if not to .370 or .380, then hopefully .365 to .370.”

Who is this guy? What’s this “OBP” he’s talking about?

And more importantly: where has he been all my life?

I imagine I’ll talk about this in more depth in the future, but the signature weakness of the Kansas City Royals going back to their world championship has not been their pitching – they had some great pitching staffs in the early 90s. It has not been their lack of power, which is at least partly due to their ballpark. It has been their inability to get on base, specifically their inability to draw walks. Even when they won the World Series in 1985, the team ranked third from the bottom in walks drawn. Since 1980, only once (1989) has the team finished in the top half of the AL in walks. Other than John Wathan, no manager since Dick Howser has put any kind of emphasis on plate discipline.

Until now.

Talking with Dutton, here’s Hillman on his offensive philosophy:

“OBP is a no-brainer,” Hillman said. “Get on base and have guys drive you in. Be aggressively disciplined in the strike zone, but take your walks. After that, it depends on what you’re talking about.

“If you’re talking about the middle of the lineup, which I consider three through seven, then I look for run production. So I go to slug (slugging percentage).”

OBP is a no-brainer.

Not, “I think OBP is underrated”, or “there’s this new-fangled statistic called OBP that I like.” OBP is a no-brainer. It’s obvious. Duh.

You have to understand, Trey: our last few managers were sort of no-brainers themselves. Buddy Bell played Angel Berroa every day. Tony Pena Sr. was the king of swinging at the slider in the dirt himself. Tony Muser used to bat Rey Sanchez second, at least until the Royals replaced him with Neifi Perez. (The Royals acquired Perez on July 25th, 2001, and sent Sanchez to Atlanta four days later. In all four games in between, honest to God, Perez led off and Sanchez batted second. The Royals scored nine runs in those four games and were shut out twice.)

It’s too early to know for sure. Hillman just made his first tactical decision in the heat of battle on Monday, although he's certainly off to a damn fine start. For all we know, he might fall under the spell of Ross Gload’s grit and toughness. (A hit-and-run, a bunt, and a steal attempt already? We may need to call for an intervention, people.) He might work his starters like the galley slaves in “Ben Hur.” He might enforce a ban of cell phones, iPods, and all other electronic devices from the clubhouse and endure a mutiny that would terrify William Bligh.

But from where I sit, he appears smart, resourceful, and willing to adjust. That alone distinguishes him from every manager the Royals have employed since at least John Wathan. It was under Wathan that the Royals last won 90 games in a season. I’m confident that at some point the Royals will do the same under Hillman.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Stay calm, people...

It’s just two games. It means nothing.

Tony Pena will not continue to bloop game-winning hits in extra innings.

Brian Bannister will not go the entire season without allowing a runner to reach third base.

Trey Hillman will not continue to get away with putting slow runners in motion with a low-contact guy at the plate to make something happen. (Yeah, Trey, you made something happen – a strike ‘em out, throw em out double play.)

Leo Nunez will not strike out Miguel Cabrera every time they face each other.

Billy Butler will not continue to rap out two hits a game.

Mark Grudzielanek will eventually show his age.

Joakim Soria will eventually give up a run.

The Royals will not continue to hit .333 with runners in scoring position.

They will not continue to score two-thirds of their runs with two outs.

It’s just two games. It means nothing.

That’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last few hours.

It’s not working.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Opening Day.

So…are we excited yet?

One of these years the federal government is going to wise up and declare Opening Day a national holiday, but that’s of scant comfort given that my idiot of a boss would not give me yesterday off. My frustration is only slightly dimmed by the fact that I am self-employed.

Somehow, once I got to work – which took until the fourth inning – I was able to steal a few minutes between patients here and there, and caught about half the game, including the entire 11th inning. Here are some thoughts:

- Could there have been a more happy sight for Royals fans than watching Alex Gordon golf a fastball 394 feet into the right-field seats? Up to that point, Justin Verlander looked like the Cy Young contender so many people think he is. Going into the sixth, his line was 5 1 0 0 0 6. But after Grudzielanek dinged him for a single, he fell behind Gordon 3-1, and threw a fastball over the heart of the plate. Gordon did what star hitters are supposed to when a pitcher – even a great pitcher – throws a 3-1 fastball down the middle. And Gordon suddenly had as many homers and RBIs as he did in his first thirteen games of 2007. Just 36 more, Alex.

- You had to be impressed with the Royals comeback, not just that Gordon cut the lead to a run with his bomb, but that they didn’t let up in the 7th. Verlander came into the inning with 89 pitches, and Teahen immediately worked him for a six-pitch walk. Gload then executed a perfect hit-and-run single to knock Verlander out of the game and expose the soft underbelly of the Tigers’ team: their middle relief. The Royals took advantage with a pair of singles off of Jason Grilli and Aquilino Lopez to take the lead. This is what good teams do: start a rally off a fading starter with a walk, and then when they get the opportunity to bat against guys named Jason Grilli and Aquilino Lopez, they don’t blow it.

- I am of two minds with how Trey Hillman handled his major league debut. There are two ways to evaluate a manager’s decisions: do they make sense, and do they work. The hyperaggressive strategies – bunts, steals, hit-and-runs – generally do not make sense, because the outs they cost are more valuable than then bases they gain. But how successful a team is at executing those strategies matters a lot. A team with an 80% success rate at stealing bases is helping itself; a team with a 60% success rate is not.

Tally up all the buttons Hillman pushed, and you have two steal attempts, two bunt attempts, and a hit-and-run. If he pushes five buttons a game, we’re in deep trouble. But look at the outcomes. Both steals were successful. Just a few years ago, sending anyone with Ivan Rodriguez behind the plate was just masochistic, but Pudge doesn’t have quite the arm he used. I still think sending Grudzielanek was a bad idea, but again, it worked. German was a no-brainer – Denny Bautista is one of the slowest pitchers to the plate in baseball – but it’s nice to see that Hillman saw that opportunity and called for the pinch-runner.

Gload’s hit-and-run worked to perfection, and his bunt in the 11th may have been pivotal. Ironically, the one move that didn’t work – Pena couldn’t get a bunt down in the 7th, and bounced into a forceout instead – was the most defensible decision of all, because the best time to bunt is with men on first-and-second (because you gain two bases with the bunt instead of one) and Pena’s such a weak hitter that, in a tie game, bunting there is probably the higher-percentage move.

Pena’s inability to get the bunt down cost the Royals a run, because Grudzielanek’s two-out single probably would have scored Buck from second if the bunt had worked. There’s a lesson here: as much as Hillman’s strategies may have helped win the game, it was the one gamble that didn’t work that almost cost the Royals the game. There’s a thin margin for error when you’re putting runners in motion, and Hillman needs to pick his spots judiciously.

- The one decision that Hillman can legitimately be second-guessed about is the decision to go with Brett Tomko in the 7th…and to stick with him in the 8th. I know a lot of people are mad that Tomko went out for a second inning, but I think the mistake is more fundamental than that. Even in the 7th inning, with a one-run lead, you absolutely need to send out one of your top three relievers. If you’ve made the decision that Tomko is the right guy in the 7th, there’s no reason to change your mind in the 8th. The question here is why does Hillman think of Tomko as equal or better to Yabuta or Mahay.

And you know what? I can sort of see the rationale. You’re not going to a lefty there, because the Tigers have a very right-leaning lineup. Five of the seven batters Tomko faced were RHB, including the first three. So it’s either Tomko or Yabuta – a veteran, but still, he’s making his big league debut. Or Nunez or Ramirez, who I like but the Royals have classified – for now – as back of the bullpen guys.

Anyway, Tomko didn’t pitch all that bad. He gave up the tying run on a Carlos Guillen homer, but faced the minimum besides that, striking out two. If he really hasn’t thrown that curveball in six years, then Bob McClure really is a genius.

- I’ve been a huge supporter of Leo Nunez the last few years, and now you know why. He absolutely blew through the heart of the Tigers lineup. He walked Sheffield on a full count, but otherwise was perfect, with three strikeouts, one of which came when he threw a 96-mph fastball right past Miguel Cabrera. All spring I’ve been worried that Nunez’s roster spot was precarious. If he keeps this up he’ll move up the totem pole in no time.

- How poignant was it that the Royals didn’t just beat the Tigers, they beat one of the ghosts of Royals past? Denny Bautista has the stuff of a shutdown closer, or even an ace starter. I know this because for one brief, shining moment, I thought Bautista would become our next ace starter. On April 8, 2005, in his first appearance of the season, Bautista allowed three hits and a single run against Anaheim in eight innings, walking none and striking out eight. It was one of the best games pitched by a Royal this decade; by the end of his start the Angels were so overwhelmed that they seemed to give up. His next time out, he gave up six runs and was knocked out in the fourth inning. Good luck with him, Detroit. You’ll need it.

- Let’s talk about the 11th inning rally for a moment. Once again, the rally started with a walk to Mark Teahen. (Remember, boys: OBP is a no-brainer.) Gload then puts down the bunt. Bunting in a tie game in the 11th inning is defensible only if you’re the home team and are absolutely certain that one run is all you need. Anyway, if your first baseman is bunting, that’s probably a sign you need a new first baseman. More than that, though – what’s the point of a bunt when Denny Bautista is on the mound and John Buck is coming up? Bautista is a Three True Outcomes guy – walks, homers, and strikeouts. Buck is a guy with pop but a low batting average. You’d be hard-pressed to find a matchup that was more unlikely to lead to a single.

Naturally, Buck singled. Hillman must have brought his rabbit’s foot back from Japan.

Teahen was nailed at the plate, but having watched the replay multiple times, I may be even more impressed with his speed than before. Teahen has received a lot of credit in certain circles – notably Posnanski – for being a fantastic baserunner, and the numbers as listed in the Bill James Handbook as well as Dan Fox’s research over at Baseball Prospectus bear this out. Once you get past the Carl Crawfords and Jose Reyeses that steal 40 bases a year, Teahen’s as good at taking the extra base as anyone.

When I saw that Silverio was sending Teahen around third, my initial reaction was that he would be out by 15 feet. He barely had rounded third when Inge let go of the ball. And yet it took a perfect throw from Inge – a strike from 220 feet away – to get Teahen, and it was a bang-bang play at that.

But here’s the hidden key on that play: John Buck took second base. Yeah, you’re supposed to move up when the throw comes home, but keep in mind: John Buck is a catcher. He’s slow. And Inge’s throw got to Rodriguez on the fly, and he was in shallow centerfield when he let go. I’ve watched the replays several times and, as best as I can tell, Buck had not reached first base when Inge threw home.

Given who the catcher was and how short the throw was, Buck could have been forgiven for holding at first. There’s only one way he gets to second: if he has second base in mind the moment he gets out of the batter’s box. If he holds at first, Pena’s bloop doesn’t mean anything, and we’re still playing.

It’s a little thing. But it made a big difference. Hillman’s been talking a lot about getting the little things right. If this is what he’s talking about, then amen to that.

- A final note to Joakim Soria: I love the slow curveball as much as anyone. But when the batter is something called “Clete Thomas”, who was the Mark Teahen of the Eastern League last year (that’s not a compliment) and is making his major league debut at the plate – you might want to dispense with the cute stuff and go after him, ‘kay?

Soria made a mistake, but then, what was so striking about him last year was how unflappable he was when something went wrong. He got a strikeout when he absolutely, positively needed one. And then Gordon, who hadn’t had a ball hit to him all day, makes a fine play to send 44,934 fans home disappointed.

Yes, it’s only one game. But that first game has always been the team’s Achilles heel. The Royals are now 15-25 in season openers, which I believe is the worst mark in baseball. Since 1985 they’re just 7-16.

If the Royals can beat the 179-year-old Kenny Rogers tomorrow, they’ll be 2-0. That’s not supposed to be particularly impressive; on average, teams should start 2-0 every four years. But for the Royals, it is impressive. In the last 28 years, they’ve started 2-0 exactly once: in 2003, when they went 9-0 and were the talk of baseball for four months.

So, I ask again…are we excited yet?

Monday, March 31, 2008

I Have A Dream.

(With all due respect to the original speech, the words of which move me still, and I pray always will.)

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest miracle season for a sports team in the history of our nation.

Two score years ago, a great American, whose name adorns the stadium in the shadow of which we sit for every home game, signed the Kansas City Royals into being. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Kansas City A’s fans who had been seared in the flames of utter incompetence. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their losing ways.

But forty years later, the Royals fan still is not free. Forty years later, the life of the Royals fan is still sadly crippled by years of bad draft picks and front office stupidity. Forty years later, the Royals fan lives on a lonely island of wins in the midst of a vast ocean of losses. Forty years later, the Royals fan is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself the butt of jokes throughout the land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.

In a sense we’ve come to this blog to cash a check. When the architects of Major League Baseball and the MLBPA wrote the Collective Bargaining Agreement, they were signing a promissory note to which every baseball fan was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all fans, yes, Royals fans as well as Yankees fans, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Hope and Faith.” It is obvious today that Baseball has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her fans of small market teams are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, Baseball has given the Royals fan a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient payroll.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank account of David Glass is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of Wal-Mart stock he owns. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of a winning baseball team and the security of long-term contracts for all of our young players.

We have also come to this blog to remind Baseball of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of drafting players based on their signability or to take the tranquilizing drug of a rebuilding plan. Now is the time to make real the promises of a winning team. Two-thousand-and-eight is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Royals fan needed to blow off steam and will now be content with not having the worst record in baseball will have a rude awakening if their team returns to more 100-loss seasons.

But there is something that I must say to my people: in the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for victories by drinking from the cup of boos and jeers. The marvelous new passion which has engulfed the Royals blogosphere must not lead us to a distrust of all our players, for many of them, as evidenced by Brian Bannister, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our support.

They cannot win alone.

And as they win, we must make the pledge that we shall always show up to support them.

There are those who are asking the devotees of the Royals, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Royals fan is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of the Buddy Bell Era. We can never be satisfied as long as Chip Ambres drops a routine flyball with two outs in the ninth to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. We cannot be satisfied as long as Ken Harvey gets nailed in the back by a cutoff throw. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are forced to watch Angel Berroa swing at sliders in the dirt. We cannot be satisfied as long as Ross Gload starts every day at first base. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until there are “no outs to go!”

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the dream of every baseball fan.

I have a dream that today, on Opening Day, Gil Meche will rise up against the mighty Tigers lineup and smite them like a vengeful god, hurling fastballs and curveballs and brimstone and fire until nothing is left of the batter’s box in Detroit but ruins for future generations to ponder.

I have a dream that one day in the clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field, the sons of Floyd Bannister and Steve Swisher will be able to sit down together - after the former has vanquished the latter four times on his way to a complete-game victory.

I have a dream that Zack Greinke, The Baseball Jonah himself, will announce his return to the entire nation this April with a brilliant, befuddling performance against the New York Yankees, becoming the first Royal in a dozen years to strike out a dozen batters.

I have a dream that the Royals will complete only their second winning April since 1989, and there will be a discussion of the team on “Baseball Tonight” for the first time since 2003. Steve Phillips will even be moved to say, “this team will go as far as Mike Sweeney can take them.”

I have a dream that John Buck goes back to his front leg kick, and belts 30 home runs this season.

I have a dream that George Brett starts attending games wearing an Alex Gordon jersey.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that David DeJesus wins a batting title.

I have a dream that Mark Teahen plays five different positions this season, and hits at all of them.

I have a dream that Rob Neyer sends me an email in June. “Rany, old buddy,” he’ll say. “Do you think we could talk about the Royals?”

I have a dream that when the Royals play the Cardinals this summer, a sea of blue will envelop the stadium. Busch Stadium.

I have a dream that Billy Butler launches a line-drive home run to left-center field against C.C. Sabathia with such velocity that Grady Sizemore will need medical attention to treat cuts sustained from flying shards of what used to be a Dodge truck.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that Alberto Callaspo goes three whole months without striking out. And when he does, the ball gets away from the catcher and he reaches first base anyway.

I have a dream that two thirds of the planet is covered by water, and the other third is covered by Tony Pena.

I have a dream that the Royals fill their hole at first base when Vanderbilt slugger Pedro Alvarez falls to them with the #3 pick, and he comes up in July and looks for all the world like Frank Thomas did in 1990.

I have a dream that Joey Gathright discovers a heretofore-unknown method for stealing first base.

I have a dream that the Royals stop regretting that they didn’t draft Clayton Kershaw when they had the chance, and that the Dodgers start regretting that they didn’t sign Luke Hochevar when they had the chance.

I have a dream that baseball bats speak only English when Yasuhiko Yabuta is on the mound.

I have a dream that at the trading deadline, Dayton Moore suckers another general manager into giving us the extra starter we need for the rights to Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby.

I have a dream that our second baseman turns double plays with such blinding speed that next spring the old Mazeroski's Baseball magazine will be revived under the name "Grudzielanek's".

I have a dream that Brian Bannister wins a game in August throwing nothing but a knuckler he learned on the bus ride over from the hotel.

I have a dream that the Royals win a crucial game in September when the Mariners forfeit because they’re just too damn scared of facing ex-teammate Jose Guillen.

I have a dream that Greenpeace launches a protest outside Kauffman Stadium, claiming that Joakim Soria’s cutter is contributing to global warming by cracking so many bats.

I have a dream that in his first year as manager, Trey Hillman shows the tactical genius of Earl Weaver, imparts the fundamentals like Bobby Cox, and utters post-game quotes like Casey Stengel.

And if the Royals are to be a great team, this must become true.

And so let victories spring from the fountains of Kauffman Stadium.

Let victories spring from the dark cavern that is the Metrodome.

Let victories spring from the blighted skyline around Comerica Park.

Let victories spring from the highest reaches of the upper deck at U.S. Cellular Park.

Let victories spring from the Mistake that used to be the Jake known as Progressive Field.

But not only that:

Let victories spring from the exalted monuments of Yankee Stadium in the Division Series.

Let victories spring from the rocky boulders of the Big A in Anaheim during the ALCS.

Let victories spring from the ivy of Wrigley Field in the World Series.

From every ballpark and stadium and field, let victories spring.

And when this happens, when our beloved Royals shock the world by winning the AL Central, when they run roughshod over the Yankees and Angels and Cubs, when Gordon lifts Zack Greinke into the air on a cool October night in Kansas City, we will be able to see the day when all Royals fans, fans in powder blues and home whites, lifelong devotees and bandwagon jumpers, those listening to Denny Matthews on radio or those watching the TV with the sound down and still listening to Denny Matthews on radio, fans in their homes in Missouri or on farms in Kansas, fans celebrating in bars in Westport or from the stands at Kauffman Stadium, will be able to join hands and sing in the words that every baseball fan lives their whole life waiting to say:

“Champs at last! Champs at last! Thank God Almighty, we are champs at last!”