Friday, April 18, 2008

Royals Today: 4/18/2008.

My criticism of Hillman’s decision to pinch-hit for Gathright with Olivo has attracted a fair amount of response, not all of it positive. I stand by the point I made – that it was the wrong move to make – but dedicating an entire post to the move gave it a prominence that it didn’t really deserve. It was the wrong move, but it wasn’t an egregious one; it might have lowered the Royals’ chance of winning by 2 or 3 percent. I wrote about it because I happened to be at my computer as the ninth inning played out, and because it’s interesting to write about all the different factors that go into a decision like that.

It’s not as interesting to say “the Royals should stop running so much,” in part because it’s so obvious. But Gordon’s decision to try to steal second with the tying run at third base in the 4th inning probably lowered the team’s win probability by something like 5 percent. More importantly, this was just the latest in a series of low-probability baserunning decisions that have cost the Royals outs. Outs that have cost the Royals runs. Runs that have cost the Royals wins.

Consider this: at this moment, the Royals and Indians have roughly the same caliber of offensive stats. The Royals have hit .275/.325/.370 as team; the Indians have hit .241/.336/.365. The Royals have basically exchanged 5 homers and 19 walks for a pair of doubles and 27 singles.

Yet in the same number of games, the Indians have 74 runs, and the Royals have 55 – a difference of over a run a game. The Indians have hit a little better with runners in scoring position; they’ve hit .264/.399/.408 as a team, while the Royals have hit .266/.331/.331 in the same situations. That’s worth a few runs, but just a few. The difference is that the Indians have stolen 9 bases and been caught twice; the Royals have stolen 14 bases but have been caught nine times.

It’s not just the frequency of the caught stealings – it’s the timing. The Royals have been thrown out five times with a runner already in scoring position. Three of those were guys thrown out trying to steal third base (Gathright twice, Gload once), and twice they were guys trying to steal second with a runner already on third.

And then there’s all the outs made trying to take the extra base. According to Craig Brown at Royals Authority, the Royals have made 10 additional outs on the basepaths – either pickoffs or what I call “discretionary outs”, outs made when attempting to take an extra base. That’s a total of 19 baserunning outs, more than one a game. That’s insane.

You can argue that the Royals are still 9-7, so it can’t have hurt them that much. On the other hand, they’re just a game over .500 even though they’ve given up the fewest runs in the league, and every other team has given up 0.75 runs more per game. It’s a fair statement to say that the Royals have already cost themselves a game with their baserunning tactics. It’s time to end the madness. Hillman seems like a smart guy, and I’m confident that he recognizes that the costs of his running game have far exceeded the benefits. If he doesn’t, well, maybe I’m wrong about him.

- It’s been two weeks since the Royals foisted their team calendar on the world, and I still can’t get over this photograph of Mark Grudzielanek (scroll down.) Who took this photo? Robert Mapplethorpe?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Memo for Mr. Hillman...


Thanks for taking the time to read this. I know you're a busy man.

I really love the way you use everyone on your roster. I really love the fact that you manage without fear, that you're willing to use your backup catcher as a DH, or the fact that even after you've pulled your starting center fielder earlier in the game, that you're willing to pinch-hit for his backup with the same backup catcher in order to take a shot at an game-tying extra-base hit or even a go-ahead homer. Even if it means a potential defensive arrangement that involves Mark Teahen or Esteban German in center field if the game continues.

But if you're willing to make whatever move is necessary under the circumstances, can you at least take the circumstances into account? With one out in the top of the ninth, with the tying run at first base, you pinch-hit for Joey Gathright with Miguel Olivo, with Francisco Rodriguez on the mound.

Admittedly, Gathright has about as much chance of driving that run home from first as I do. But Gathright is a left-handed hitter. Olivo is right-handed. And Rodriguez, whose claim to fame is that he has one of the best sliders in baseball, has (like most pitchers with a great slider) a marked platoon split. In his career, LHB have hit .205/.300/.329 against K-Rod. RHB have hit only .166/.251/.265.

More than that, Olivo's success in the majors has been almost entirely against southpaws, against whom his career line is .293/.322/.532. Against RHP, he's hit .220/.258/.362. Gathright, like most speed guys, doesn't have a marked platoon split.

Look, I understand that you need more than an infield single to tie the game in this situation. With two outs, I'd almost understand this move, because the odds of Olivo knocking a double into the gap are almost as good as the odds that Grudzielanek would follow Gathright's single with one of his own to drive in the tying run.

But with one out, a walk or an infield single puts the tying run in scoring position, and gives you two shots to tie the game, with Grudzielanek and - more importantly - with Mark Teahen, who's a left-handed batter with great plate discipline, the perfect weapon against K-Rod's suddenly-diminishing repertoire. (Witness what Alex Gordon had done to him earlier in the inning.) If Gathright gets on, the worst case scenario is that you have Teahen facing K-Rod where a single ties the game. And as a bonus, you get Gathright - representing the go-ahead run - on the bases. Anything in the gap and Joey might lap Buck home.

There is a time and a place where pinch-hitting for Gathright with Olivo makes perfect sense. But I had never seen a scenario in which it made sense to deliberately give up the platoon advantage in order to send up a free-swinging hitter with a career .220 average against RHP to face the hard-throwing right-hander with a nuclear slider. And I still haven't seen it.

We probably would have lost the game anyway, and frankly this is small potatoes compared to your persistent use of kamikaze baserunning tactics in defiance of overwhelming evidence that this is absolutely killing the team. (What were you thinking, letting Alex Gordon try to steal second with the tying run at 3rd base? Against one of the toughest right-handed pitchers in the game to run against? Two guys managed to steal a base against Garland in all of 2007. Six died trying. In Garland's career, exactly half of attempted steals have ended in failure.)

Again, I admire the aggressiveness of your tactics. But as you yourself have said, what you want in your hitters is controlled aggression at the plate. You might want to control some of that aggression on the basepaths as well. And tonight, controlled aggression might have kept you from sending an inferior option to the plate in the 9th inning.

Your friend,


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Reason #1: The Boss.

Like there was ever any doubt.

There’s little to say about Dayton Moore that hasn’t been said before, and probably said by me before. But nearly two years after he was hired, it is undeniable that the day the Royals hit rock bottom was the day before they hired Moore. (True story: there was a rumor going around shortly before Moore was hired that the Royals were prepared to offer the GM position to…Steve Phillips. For about 48 hours I was contemplating switching my allegiances to a less star-crossed ballclub. Like, say, the Cubs.)

Allard Baird was not, in the grand summation of things, a terrible GM. He made some terrible moves, to be sure. Some were of his own volition (Johnny Damon and Mark Ellis for Angel Berroa and Roberto Hernandez.) Some were forced upon him (Jermaine Dye for Neifi Perez.) But he also made some moves that were truly inspired. Baird traded Carlos Beltran for Mark Teahen, John Buck, and Mike Wood, a trade which has at various times over the years looked terrible, brilliant, and terrible again, but from where I’m standing today looks like an excellent trade given the circumstances. (Especially when you consider that a lot of analysts thought the Royals would have been better off going after the Angels’ star third base prospect, Dallas McPherson.)

When Baird became disenchanted with his options on which to use the #1 pick in the 2005 Rule 5 draft, he found an eager buyer for the pick in the Texas Rangers and extracted Esteban German from them. Joe Posnanski wrote a column the following day detailing his epic quest to figure out who the Royals were trading for – Baird had given him a few clues – and his disappointment when he finally solved the puzzle:

“You know,” I tell [Baird], “I spent an awful lot of time trying to figure out your mystery second baseman. I didn’t think I would end up with some guy I never heard of, Esteban German, who had four at-bats in the majors last year. I’m not sure that was worth it.”

It was worth it. A total of 89 players have batted 700 or more times in a Royals uniform, and German ranks 2nd with a .381 OBP, just ahead of Kevin Seitzer’s .380 mark. (I’ll let you guys use the comments to speculate over who ranks first, with a .385 OBP.)

My favorite Baird trade, though, was probably the time he suckered the Pirates – a few days after they had dumped Jason Kendall’s salary to Oakland – on the need for a veteran backup catcher. Benito Santiago played in six games for the Pirates before his career ended. In exchange the Pirates took on half his salary (a cool $1 million)…and Leo Nunez.

On the whole, Baird was a mediocre GM. He was absolutely hamstrung by ownership at times, but that can’t excuse the Damon trade, or picking up Matt Diaz but then designating him for assignment after he had hit .371 in Omaha, after hitting .332 and .354 in Tampa Bay’s farm system the two previous years. And it absolutely can’t excuse the 2001 draft, one of the most disastrous drafts executed by any team in history. Remember, David Glass opened up his pocketbook to sign both Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby. It wasn’t the owner who argued in favor of Bust One and Bust Two, it was his front office. (The sidenote to that draft was that the Royals’ third-rounder, Matt Ferrara, who played shortstop at Alex Rodriguez’s alma mater, wasn’t even listed in Baseball America’s draft preview as a potential Top-15 round pick. Ferrara hit .220/.301/.350 in his career, never escaped rookie ball, and was finished at age 21.)

Even some of Baird’s best moves, as they appeared at the time, lost their luster quickly. He traded Jason Grimsley for Denny Bautista, which at the time looked like the heist of the year. He traded Jose Bautista for Justin Huber. The Royals were supposed to get an above-average starter and a middle-of-the-lineup hitter out of those deals; instead they ended up with a lot of heartburn.

But it’s the team’s failures in drafting and player development that stung the most. There’s only so much talent you can acquire by swindling other GMs. When you’re a small-market team and you’re limited in how much talent you can buy, the only remaining option is to be an industry leader in the talent you develop. Under Baird, the Royals were always lagging behind others in that regard.

So in evaluating Moore, we have to keep in mind that it will take years before we can truly evaluate the most important part of his job, his ability to lead an organization that identifies, signs, and develops amateur players better than anyone else. Moore was hired a week before the 2006 draft, but Atlanta sensibly denied him the opportunity to assist the Royals in the war room, given that he had been preparing for that draft as a member of the Braves all spring. (Not surprisingly, that was a rather disjointed draft for the Royals. Hochevar emerged as a compromise pick at #1 overall, and second-round pick Jason Taylor was suspended for all of last season for off-field issues. Third-rounder Blake Wood looks awfully good, though.) It will be years before we can evaluate the 2007 draft and the players signed out of Latin America in the last two signing periods.

We can’t evaluate the results, but we can evaluate the process. The Royals added a third short-season minor league affiliate last season, and are one of only two franchises with that set-up. More teams means more playing time, more playing time means more players with an opportunity, and the more players with an opportunity to develop, the more likely you are to get lucky and find a diamond in the rough. Now that MLB has eliminated the draft-and-follow process, teams can no longer draft 50 guys, sign 20 of them, and then watch the other 30 play in junior college. If your 27th-round pick suddenly adds 5 mph to his fastball when he returns to campus, well, you’re out of luck. But if you signed that pick because you have a third affiliate to place him at, you’re prepared to reap those rewards.

The Twins, to pick an AL Central rival with a well-regarded player-development crew, signed only 22 of their draft picks from last season. The Indians signed 26, the White Sox 24, the Tigers 29.

The Royals? They signed 35.

Then there’s the fact that Moore has gotten Glass to open up the pursestrings for amateur talent in a way that Baird, for whatever reason, never could. The Royals signed five different players out of Latin America to six-figure signing bonuses, which is more Latin players signed to six-figure bonuses in the previous decade combined. (I’m almost certain on that, although the lack of data on bonuses to foreign players makes it impossible to check.) None of those players are likely to surface in the majors until 2011 at the earliest, but the focus on the long term is exactly the sort of thing the Royals have been lacking for the last 15-20 years, ever since Ewing Kauffman’s health started to fail and the Royals started making short-term moves to win him one more title.

The focus on player development ought to have a huge impact on the organization in a few years. In the meantime, Moore has done what many thought was near-impossible before he was hired: he has made the rest of baseball respect the Kansas City Royals again.

Moore was highly respected himself throughout baseball well before he became a GM. Baseball America named him the top GM candidate in baseball back in 2004, and the Red Sox had offered him their GM position when Theo Epstein briefly left the team the following year. But there was concern that the Royals would infect him with their stench of hopelessness. Instead, it’s been the other way around – Moore’s confidence, preparedness, and baseball intellect has rubbed off on the rest of the organization.

I knew things had changed in Kansas City when I was speaking to a scout right after the Royals signed Gil Meche. It wasn’t that the scout liked the Meche signing; like virtually everyone else in baseball, he thought the Royals overpaid. It was that the mere fact that Dayton Moore signed him made him reconsider. “He looks like a good #4 starter to me,” he said, “but if Dayton wanted him that badly…now I’m not so sure.”

That, my friends, is respect. And that’s respect that Moore had earned before he had done anything as a general manager. Eighteen months later, after the Meche signing – and many other moves – worked out better than almost anyone outside the organization had expected, that respect has only grown. Throughout baseball, throughout the Royals fan base, and certainly throughout this blog.

I’ll stop here, but hopefully I’ll be back later with an analysis of every significant move that Moore has made since the day he was hired. No doubt there have been some clunkers. It’s just that you have to sift through some real gems in order to find them.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Royals Today: 4/15/2008.

Updating y’all on our stat nugget from yesterday…the Royals have now allowed 33 runs in 13 games. Going back to 1982, here’s a list of every AL team which allowed 33 or fewer runs in its first 13 games:

26: 1988 Cleveland Indians, who finished 78-84, sixth in the AL East, and 8th in the league in runs allowed.

28: 1982 California Angels, who led the league in runs allowed and went 93-69, losing to Milwaukee in the ALCS.

28: 2001 Boston Red Sox, who finished 82-79, the worst record of any Red Sox team in the last decade. They also finished just 5th in the league in runs allowed.

33: Four teams: the 1985 Kansas City Royals (won a world championship, 2nd in the AL in runs allowed), the 1991 Red Sox (finished 84-78, 7 games out, and 6th in the league in runs allowed), the 2007 Red Sox (won a world championship, led the league in runs allowed), and the 2008 Royals.

So of the six other teams on the list, two won a championship, one lost in the playoffs, two finished a little over .500, and one lost 84 games. Half the teams finished 1st or 2nd in runs allowed, the other half finished around the league average. The Royals are following in the footsteps of some great teams...but also some mediocre ones.

Again, the mitigating factor for the Indians was that they played so many games against a hapless Baltimore Orioles team. The Royals have no such crutch; regardless what you think of the Tigers as a whole, you can’t deny that their lineup is formidable.

The Royals have had the weather in their favor; it’s hard to hit in cold weather, which is why offense is always down in April (and this has been a particularly cold April, which is why the American League as a whole has scored just 4.42 runs a game.) Back in the 1980s, the season started later and teams were not subject to early-April cold as much. (The 1985 Royals had only played 5 games through April 15th.) On the other hand, offenses were much less productive in general in the 1980s; the league as a whole scored 4.56 runs a game in 1985.

Thirty-three runs in 13 games is impressive no matter how you slice it. If the worst-case scenario for the Royals is winning 78 games, we’ll take it. But we’ll also hold out for the best-case scenario.

- It’s not all pitching. The team’s defensive efficiency is .737, which sounds amazing – last year the team’s mark was .689. But there’s a lot of confounding factors there. The cold weather that is keeping offense down also artificially inflates defensive efficiency. The median defensive efficiency right now is .7065, a full 13 points higher than last year’s full-season mark. Even so, the Royals, who ranked 23rd last season, currently rank 4th in the majors. Do we give Brian Bannister credit for that? If it’s true that he can manipulate BABIP in his favor, that would mean that the team’s defensive efficiency (which is basically the inverse of BABIP in the first place) would have improved through no fault of the defense.

And comparing this year’s defense to last year’s…where would such an improvement come from? The only significant difference between 2007 and 2008 is that Jose Guillen is in right. Guillen has a gun, but no one has accused him of possessing tremendous range. Has the fact that Joey Gathright played most of the innings in center made a difference? Alex Gordon got off to a horrible defensive start last year, and has been much more steady this year. But I don’t see an obvious reason for the Royals to have made this kind of improvement, other than the fact that what looks like defense may in fact be pitching. This will be a development to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.

- I love the fact that Hillman has twice used Miguel Olivo as his DH against LHP. Love love love. Olivo crushes LHP – his career mark is .293/.322/.532 – and getting both Buck and Olivo in the lineup at the same time makes the most of a catching “platoon” that involves two remarkably similar players. Essentially Hillman is platooning Olivo with Gload, with Butler moving from DH to 1B. This gets Olivo more playing time than your typical backup, without taking PT away from Buck. It also eases Butler into playing first base, giving the Royals the opportunity to evaluate him for full-time play.

The downside – and the reason I’m so impressed Hillman has made this move – is that your backup catcher is DHing, which means if your starter gets hurt you have to lose the DH in order to get Olivo behind the plate. It’s a minimal risk – how often does a catcher have to leave a game because of injury? – but that minimal risk is the entire reason why most managers are terrified of DHing their catcher. Most managers will always take the risk-averse option. On this point, Hillman has not, and last night his gamble led to a key 2-run homer.

- Now that we’ve properly massaged Hillman’s ego, can I make a suggestion? Can we please go back to 11 pitchers?

Seriously, this is ridiculous. You have a starting rotation which has given you over 6.6 innings per start. Hillman has shown a willingness to push the envelope a little with pitch counts; Bannister went 111 pitches Sunday and Greinke’s gone 107 pitches in back-to-back starts, which is nothing unusual in the middle of summer but a little aggressive at the beginning of April, in cold weather. The Royals have back-to-back complete games which represent a full one-third of the AL’s total of CGs all year. More than that, the Royals starter has completed five innings every time out, and has gone at least 6 innings in ten of thirteen games.

On top of that, the top six men in your bullpen have allowed 4 runs in 29 innings 1 run in 26 innings. They’re lights out. Joakim Soria, Leo Nunez, and Ramon Ramirez – the Hispanic Panic (if you’re the other team) – have combined for 14.1 scoreless innings, with 8 hits, 2 walks, and 19 Ks. All six guys are fully capable of protecting a one-run lead in the ninth or keeping a game tied in extra innings if the need arises.

So why do we need Hideo Nomo, or any pitcher in that slot? Jimmy Gobble has thrown all of 2 innings this year – two devastating innings, I might add. He’s on pace for 25 innings all season. If we can’t find enough innings for Gobble, what do we need Nomo for?

Bring up another hitter. It could be a lefty hitter to pinch-hit when one of the catchers is stuck facing Pat Neshek or some other sidewinding righty in the late innings. It could a be righty slugger to pinch-hit for Gload or Gathright or DeJesus against a LOOGY. It could be a third catcher if Hillman really wants to be aggressive about playing Buck and Olivo at the same time. Whoever you bring up is going to have some value. Which is more than you can say about the Royals’ seventh reliever at this point.

(Having said that, I must concede that if you’re going to have a four-man bench, the Royals would be hard-pressed to come up with a better one than the one they have. Gathright plays everywhere, and can come in to bunt or pinch-run. Callaspo compensates for the lineup’s biggest weakness – Pena having to bat when the Royals are losing – and between him and German the Royals have two guys who can play everywhere but catcher. Olivo has already proven he can do more than just play when the starting catcher needs a break.)

- I’m supposed to be on with my friends at 810 WHB, Steven St. John and Nate Bukaty, tomorrow (Wednesday) morning around 8:30. If you’re interested.

- Dayton runs tonight or tomorrow morning. I promise.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Stat Nugget of the Day.

(Every once in a while I will come across a statistic regarding the Royals that I think is worth sharing with a larger audience. While I post it here on my blog, I also welcome all of my media friends to disseminate this in their respective mediums; I only ask for proper attribution. So Sam, Bob, Joe, Jeff, my friends at 610 and 810 and elsewhere: feel free to use the Stat Nugget of the Day as you see fit. This one’s a doozy.)

It’s the 1980s all over again. The Royals are wearing powder blues, they’ve got a winning record, and they’re winning with stifling pitching and just enough offense. The Royals are 7-5 despite the fact that they’ve scored just 38 runs in 12 games, just 3.17 per game. They’re 7-5 because their pitching staff has allowed just 32 runs.

In 12 games, the Royals and their opponents have combined for just 70 runs, or about what you used to see in a single series at Coors Field.

How unusual is this? According to my colleague at Baseball Prospectus, Jason Pare, no American League team has started its season with no more than 70 runs scored in its first 12 games in the last 17 years. Only three other teams have done so in the last 25 years.

Those teams?

The 1991 Cleveland Indians, with 65 runs (29 for Cleveland, 36 for their opponents.)

The 1988 Texas Rangers, with 68 runs (24 for Texas, 45 for their opponents – 15 in one game.)

We’ll get to the third team in a moment.

These teams rank where they do only because their offenses were so terrible – they both gave up more runs than the Royals have. The Royals are doing this with their pitching – they have a ridiculous team ERA of 2.58.

In fact, according to another Baseball Prospectus colleague, Bil Burke, in the last 25 years only three AL teams have allowed fewer runs in their first 12 games than the Royals. (The 2007 Red Sox also gave up exactly 32 runs in their first 12 games.)

Two of those teams are the 2001 Red Sox, who allowed 27 runs, and the 1988 Indians, who allowed just 25 runs, and just 26 runs in their first 13 games, on their way to starting 11-2.

(In retrospect, it’s obvious why the Indians pitched so well – seven of those games came against the Orioles, who you may recall started the season 0-21. Cleveland allowed just nine runs in those seven games. On the other hand, the Royals got to face the Tigers three times. Wow…did I just compare these Tigers to the 1988 Orioles? I guess I did.)

But just one American League team in the last 25 years has both allowed fewer runs than the 2008 Royals and seen fewer combined runs in its first dozen contests. That team allowed just 27 runs and scored 35, but courtesy of three extra-innings losses was just 6-6 in that span. That team would still be at .500 in mid-July before heating up as the season went on. That team had a mediocre offense but a pitching staff deep and talented enough to lead it to a world championship anyway.

That team was the 1985 Royals.