Saturday, April 12, 2008
Last seen: April 10th, 2008, in the first inning. Twenty-six innings ago.
Prime Suspect: Jose Guillen, who after he drove in Mark Teahen with a double was seen walking away with the team's offense handcuffed to his bat.
Witnesses report seeing him holding the offense hostage on multiple occasions since: when he grounded into a double play in his following at-bat; when he struck out with two men on in the 8th; when he struck out with the bases loaded and one out in the fifth inning the following night; and most recently, leading off the 9th inning tonight with the Royals down by 2, after Joe Nathan fell behind 3-1, with thousands of fans on their feet hoping to get the tying run to the plate, Guillen swung at ball four - a pitch about an inch above his ankles - and grounded out.
If you come into contact with the suspect, please call the authorities immediately. Alternatively, feel free to arrest him yourself - he's considered armed, but definitely not dangerous.
- All my life, I've waited for a manager who thinks along with me. The wait may be over. I wrote a few days ago that Tony Pena should start with John Bale on the mound, but that Callaspo should start when Meche was on the hill on Friday. Hillman started Pena on Thursday, and Callaspo on Friday. I hadn't even gotten around to arguing that Jose Guillen needs to be dropped in the lineup posthaste - tonight Guillen was batting 5th, swapping with Butler. (If he doesn't get his act in gear by the next time the Royals face a RHP, I expect/predict he'll drop to 6th and Gordon will bat 5th.)
I also had not had time to argue that Joey Gathright, for all his speed, simply wasn't hitting worth a damn, and was a much better fit in the 9 hole (the classic AL strategy of the "second leadoff hitter", a strategy which has come to the National League in the form of the "pitcher bats 8th" gambit.) Tonight, Gathright batted ninth, with the suddenly ubiquitous Callaspo in the leadoff spot. It didn't work, at least if you count success as "scoring a run." But it was the right move to make. If you're not a Royals fan you might be wondering what the big deal is here. But if you are a Royals fan, you know how amazing it is to have a manager who makes rational and predictable decisions. Never underestimate the power of common sense. And never underestimate its rarity.
- The Royals have scored 33 runs in 11 games, and here are the seasonal batting averages of the nine guys in tonight's lineup: .333, .343, .316, .372, .133, .311, .111, .333, .214. Two-thirds of the starting lineup is hitting .311 or better. That the Royals have only scored 3 runs a game is testament to just how bad Tony Pena has been, and how much Guillen's struggles have killed the Royals in the middle of the lineup. But it's also testament to just how useless batting average is.
The Royals came into tonight's game batting .266, which is actually 2nd in the AL. But they had hit just 4 homers in 10 games, and walked just 22 times. Not only were they last in the league in both homers and walks, but their lack of secondary skills has been so bad that despite their lofty position in batting average, they were dead last in the league in both OBP and slugging average. Tonight they walked twice and did not manage an extra-base hit.
One of these years the Royals will learn that there's more to an offense than singles and stolen bases. One of these years.
- The day will soon come when we'll need to talk about long-term contracts for the likes of Gordon, Butler, and Greinke. But can we go ahead and get the team's MVP signed to a lifetime contract right now? You can have your Dave Duncan, your Leo Mazzone, your Bud Black. I'll take Bob McClure, thanks. The team's ERA is 2.82. (The defense has chipped in a .995 fielding average and no unearned runs.) The bullpen has allowed 4 runs - half of them charity offerings by Hideo Nomo - in 31 innings. (Weirdly, all four runs came on solo homers.) Come on, Mr. Glass - lock him up now. We'll even throw in some of Avron Fogelman's real estate holdings if it will seal the deal.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
- The Royals were due for a game like this, when the bats went silent and no amount of speed or manufacturing was going to change that. This ends a streak in which the Royals scored between 3 and 5 runs for eight straight games. According to my colleague Jason Pare at Baseball Prospectus, the Royals tied the longest such streak in their history: from April 14th to April 22nd, 2001, they also scored between 3 and 5 runs in eight straight games. (In 2001, they went 4-4. In 2001, they didn't have their 2008 pitching staff.)
The all-time record, in case you're interested - going back to 1957, when the Retrosheet database starts - is a remarkable 13-game stretch by the Expos from April 10th to 22nd. There's something about April. My guess is the cooler weather makes it less likely for teams to have a big offensive day.
- Tony Pena may be 1-for-27, but Hillman still hasn't allowed him to bat in a game the Royals were losing after the fifth inning. Callaspo hit a sharp liner that bounced in front of Robinson Cano and nearly castrated him; he's now 4-for-10 on the season, and you have to figure that if Hillman is smart enough to pull Pena from the game when the situation emphasizes offense over defense, he's smart enough to start Callaspo more and more at shortstop. Like, say, tomorrow.
- I thought signing Hideo Nomo was a publicity stunt more than anything, and I guess he proved me wrong. But having seen him pitch, I can't say I'm all that impressed. I don't think he broke 86 (and that's on the Fox gun, which means he probably was topping out around 65.) He's trashed the Tornado windup, but something about his delivery - he still has that herky-jerky stutter - must be deceiving the hitters, because he was still fooling hitters with a 74 mph splitter when he located properly.
Hillman's decision to send him out there for a third inning was quite stunning, and that's not hindsight - I was questioning the decision in real time. Nomo was trying to compensate for his lack of stuff by nibbling all night, and had thrown 41 pitches in his first two innings. I know he's a converted starter, but he's been working in relief for weeks, he's already thrown 41 pitches, and he wasn't exactly dominating out there in the first place - he had allowed two hits and two walks, without any strikeouts.
It's still a 3-run game in the ninth inning, and Mariano Rivera is 38 years old, so you've got a shot if you keep this game close. Ramon Ramirez has thrown a total of 11 pitches in the last five days. Why are you sending Hideo Nomo out to pitch another inning when he's probably gassed, and wasn't throwing all that well when he was fresh? Nomo almost got out of the inning - Damon had a homer that twisted just foul - but with two outs, he hung splitters to A-Rod and Posada, and it was like watching them hit off a pitching machine. I know it didn't impact the game, but come on, Trey - don't you want to see if you can break the all-time record for lowest bullpen ERA?
- If I were starting the Top 23 reasons over again today, I might have to make a place for The Comedian. In addition to being the funniest quote on the team, Mark Teahen is looking more and more like the player he was in 2006, when he was the best player on the team. He had three hits today, including a sharp single off a Joba Chamberlain slider. You have to tip your cap to anyone who can win a battle against Joba, who made Jose Guillen look like an amateur at the plate. (If I were starting the Top 23 reasons over again today, The Hothead would not be under consideration. Maybe not even the Top 123.)
- Speaking of Top 23...I hope to have #1 posted sometime this weekend. See, all that time I had to write about baseball before the season began now goes to actually watching baseball. Funny how that works out.
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Look, any team can start 3-0. And any team can start 6-2; the odds are about the same. (Using simple binomial theory, the odds that a .500 team will win its first three games is 1 in 8, or 12.5%. The odds that a .500 team will win at least six of its first eight games is 37 in 256, or 14.4%.)
But in eight games, the Royals have surrendered 18 runs. They have surrendered more than four runs in a game once. They have allowed one run or fewer in four of their eight games. The starting pitchers have a 2.88 ERA, and they’re being pwned by the bullpen with their 0.82 ERA. Almost as impressively, the defense has committed just one error in eight games, and that was simply an errant pickoff throw by Ron Mahay.
Five years ago, the Royals started 9-0, but four of those victories came against the Indians – who lost 94 games that year – and two more came against the Tigers, who went on to lose the most games in American League history. This year, the Royals have started 6-2 while playing Detroit – and their 1-8 record notwithstanding, that’s still a damn good team – and the Yankees a total of five times, winning all five. Both
So I ask again: are you excited yet? When I asked this a week ago, it was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Now? If you’re not excited, you’re not paying attention. If you don’t harbor at least a smidgeon of hope that the Royals could actually win the division this year, you’re a heartless cynic, a grinch, a doddering old curmudgeon who’s letting the eyesore of the last 13 seasons block the reality of the 2008 Royals that’s staring us all right in the face. This team can win. I don’t think it can win 95 games and run away with the division, but it can win 85 games and make things very, very interesting. Catch a few breaks here and there, and who knows?
The Tigers, the trendy pick to win the division, are already five games out. More importantly, the fact that they’ve started 1-7 is a strong (but not overwhelming) indication that they’re not going to be the juggernaut that many people thought they were. On paper, neither the White Sox nor the Twins looked significantly better than the Royals before the season began – and before the pitching staff turned back the clock 23 years.
That leaves the Indians, who were my pick to win the division before the season began, and who are 2.5 games out at the moment. In the Royals’ favor is the fact that the Tribe’s bullpen has looked very vulnerable so far and C.C. Sabathia has carried his postseason struggles from last October into 2008. In the Indians’ favor is that, you know, we’ve played exactly eight games. I’m not advocating that anyone kidnap Grady Sizemore, stuff him in a box and ship him to Azerbaijan by UPS ground. I’m merely stating that the Royals’ playoff chances may hinge on whether Sizemore spends the summer enjoying the beautiful vistas of the
On to the notes:
- I needed to come up with a name for these random postings and stick with it. I thought about “The Daily Royal”, except that would imply I was writing, you know, daily. So I’ll steal a column name from my friend
- Trey Hillman is living a charmed life. He sends Zack Greinke out there on a cold, miserable, wet day in April, with weather reports so bad that the Yankees didn’t even bother to go with scheduled starter Ian Kennedy to start the game, preferring instead to go with a reliever (Brian Bruney) and mix-and-match the rest of the game. The game not only doesn't get rained out, it goes a regulation nine. Despite battling both the Yankees and the elements, Greinke goes eight shutout innings. Remember when people said Greinke’s issues with depression meant that he didn’t have the mental toughness to succeed in the majors? Be happy Allard Baird and Buddy Bell didn’t listen to that claptrap. Greinke’s next two starts come against
- For the second straight start, Hillman left Greinke in one inning too long. Greinke gave up a single and a double in the eighth, but a well-timed DP saved some runs – and just as importantly, some pitches on his arm. I’m glad the game has evolved to the point where forcing his starter to throw 107 pitches on a cold, rainy day is about the worst a manager is allowed to do anymore.
- Someone please inform Hillman that Jorge Posada was removed from Tuesday’s game after six innings because of a dead arm. Be sure to let him know that Jose Molina, his replacement, has thrown out 41% of attempted basestealers in his career, and 43% (79 of 185) of aspiring thieves over the past five years.
Apparently, Hillman did not notice, because after running crazy on Posada (four steals in six innings, three by Gathright, two on pitchouts), Hillman gave Ross Gload – Ross Gload! – the perpetual green light. With one out in the seventh, Gload took off for second before Ross Ohlendorf committed to the plate, and was somehow safe at second when Jason Giambi had trouble handling the pickoff throw. On the very next pitch, Gload lights out for third base – Molina had him dead to rights. Gload came into the game with eight steals – in his career. He’s a first baseman. Suddenly he thinks he’s Rod Carew?
Today, Alex Gordon (who at least has shown the ability to steal effectively in the past) was thrown out trying to steal second, and an inning later, Gathright (after stealing second) was thrown out trying to steal third even as Grudzielanek worked a walk. That cost the Royals at least a run. Eventually this kamikaze basepath commando approach is going to cost the Royals a game.
The Royals are now 10-for-15 in stolen bases, which is below the break-even point, and this doesn’t count the many, many baserunners eliminated because of overaggressiveness once the ball was put in play. The stolen base has a place: it’s a great tactic when limited to your best baserunners, and when utilized against weak-armed catchers or pitchers who are slow to the plate. Gathright vs. Posada? Good. Gload vs. Molina? Bad. Very, very bad. Come on, Trey. You’re smarter than this.
- John Buck, meet fountain. Fountain, meet John Buck. From 439 feet away. Through the rain. It’s just one swing, but it’s been a long time since any of Buck’s swings showed off the light-tower power he’s capable of.
- Can we all agree that Jose Guillen should bat no higher than 6th until he gets his average over .200? A 3-4-5-6 of Teahen, Butler, Gordon, and Guillen breaks up the lefties and righties nicely, and gets Butler’s insanely hot bat directly behind Teahen’s new-found patience.
- Speaking of Teahen…he walked three times tonight, and the Royals as a whole drew six, after five yesterday. Maybe it was the Twins’ pitching all along. But Teahen now has more walks than any two teammates combined, and more than that, it looks like it’s deliberate. He simply isn’t swinging at pitches that aren’t strikes, and seems to understand how important it is for him to get on base batting ahead of Guillen/Butler/Gordon. Teahen may very well be the fulcrum around which this lineup sinks or swims, and so far he looks a lot closer to his 2006 form than 2007.
- Tony Pena’s ugly blooper that won the game on Opening Day is still his only hit of the season. Bale goes tomorrow, and Pena should be out there for his defense. Come Friday, it’s time to give Alberto Callaspo another shot.
- Okay, now this is getting weird. The Royals’ run totals this year: 5, 4, 4, 3, 4, 3, 5, 4. I’m trying to find out if the Royals have ever had a stretch like that; I’ll let you know if I do.
- Allowing just 18 runs in an eight-game stretch seems almost historic, and it might be. But last year, over an eight-game stretch from June 24th to July 2nd, the Royals allowed just 19 runs. (And three of those games went extra innings.)
Which is to say: eight games means something, but not everything. Any team can start 6-2. Let’s get excited, people. But not too excited. (Yet.)
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
- The bullpen is ridiculous.
- The edict to take more walks has, um, been slow to sink in. The team went an entire series in Minnesota without drawing a walk, and while the Twins emphasize control with their pitchers more than any other team in baseball, that's still sort of sad.
- Six games in, and Gil Meche has been the worst pitcher so far, which is less a reflection of him than the rest of the staff. Meche and John Bale are the only two pitchers (out of 11) with an ERA above 2.70. I am impressed.
- The offense has somehow made up for a lack of punch with incredible consistency. Runs scored in the first six games: 5, 4, 4, 3, 4, 3. Three to five runs is a team's sweet spot for offense, but that's a little ridiculous. Amazingly enough, the Royals also had a stretch last season (May 1st to 6th) where they scored between 3 and 5 runs in six straight games, but nonetheless that's a pretty rare feat. More to the point, if they continue to score 3.83 runs per game, they're eventually going to score so few runs that not even their pitching staff can bail them out.
- Joakim Soria is filthier than Jake Peavy's pitching hand. He closed the game out on Sunday by striking out the side on 12 pitches. It's probably not the most dominant inning in Royals history (Jeff Montgomery once struck the side out on 9 pitches, an event that is literally rarer than a no-hitter) - but it's close. He struck out Justin Morneau, who I'm told is a well-respected hitter, on three pitches: a fastball on the corner low and outside, 91 mph; a changeup to the exact same spot that dropped six inches at the last moment as Morneau swung over it, 84 mph; a slow, looping curveball to the exact same spot that Morneau was about 3 feet in front of, 68 mph. That's three pitches, thrown to the perfect spot on the outside edge at the knees, at three different speeds and with three different trajectories.
It's strange to say this, but Soria resembles the rookie Zack Grienke more than Greinke himself does. The Mariano Rivera comparisons are suddenly sprouting everywhere - Buster Olney had a good article on this at ESPN.com - but while Soria throws a great cutter, he's the exact opposite of a one-pitch pitcher. And the more I see his repertoire, the more I think he could be equally successful in the rotation. It will take some cojones for the Royals to mess with success. Especially this much success.
- After raving about Hillman's use of Callaspo as a late-inning pinch-hitter for Tony Pena on Friday, Hillman went one better the next day and started Callaspo at shortstop against Livan Hernandez. The results were mixed; Callaspo tripled, scored and drove in a run, but also was unable to snare a line-drive off the bat of Matt Tolbert cleanly leading off the sixth, which keyed a 3-run Twins rally. Pena's advantage with the glove almost exactly balances Callaspo's advantage with the stick, which means the Royals will get the most out of the position by mixing and matching their talents. Using Callaspo to pinch-hit when the Royals are losing late (or using Pena as a d-rep when they're holding a lead) is obvious. Beyond that, Callaspo is a switch-hitter, and so should start against "hard" right-handed pitchers - RHP who have bigger than normal platoon splits.
But more than just platooning based on the opposing starter, Hillman should strongly consider "platooning" Pena and Callaspo depending on his own starting pitcher. When Bale starts, Pena should always be out there - Bale is the sole left-hander in the rotation, and a groundball pitcher to boot, which means a ton of balls to the left side. But the other four starters are all right-handers, and three of them (Greinke, Bannister, and Tomko) are flyball pitchers, meaning the Royals could start Callaspo and not suffer all that much defensively.
As I write this, the Royals have secretly replaced Brian Bannister with Daniel Cabrera. Through four innings, The Professor has walked four and struck out five, and he's already thrown 84 pitches. He seems to be fighting the cold, the Yankees hitters, and the umpire all at once - and he's battling them to a draw so far.
The Royals have returned the favor, with four walks of their own. You know it's a weird day when the Royals end a streak of 125 consecutive plate appearances without a walk - and the streak is broken by Pena.
- Finally: Rock chalk, Jayhawk. I believe this is the first championship of any significance for the locals since Wichita State won the College World Series in 1989. That was so long ago that the starting catcher for the Shockers was Eric Wedge. Yeah, that Eric Wedge.