Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Intentional Walk.

Joe Posnanski wrote a typically great post about Trey Hillman's bizarre decision to intentionally walk Nick Markakis last night in favor of Aubrey Huff, which got me thinking about when the strategy should be employed. I think the intentional walk is over-utilized by some managers, but there certainly is a time and a place for it - for instance, when Casey Kotchman bats with a man on third and one out in a scoreless game in the ninth inning, as happened the other night.

As I see it, there are three primary advantages to the intentional walk:

1) To gain the platoon advantage;
2) To set up the double play;
3) To bypass a specific hitter in favor of a significantly inferior one.

Of the three, #3 is certainly the most important, but really, if you want to order an intentional walk at least two of the three conditions should be in effect, and ideally all three.

For instance, when Gil Meche intentionally walked Justin Morneau on April 11th, the game was tied, a man was on third base with one out, and Delmon Young was at the plate. Walking Morneau gained the platoon advantage and set up the double play. You could argue whether Delmon Young is "significantly" inferior to Morneau with the bat - certainly Young has tremendous potential, but he hit .288/.316/.408 last season, and he's doing worse this year.

He also hit into 23 double plays last season, which doesn't hurt. And after Morneau was walked, Young did just that to end the inning.

The amazing thing about Hillman's decision to walk Markakis last night is that the situation didn't meet any of the three criteria above.

Markakis, while an outstanding young hitter, isn't significantly better with the bat than Aubrey Huff. Last year Markakis hit .300/.362/.485, while Huff hit .280/.337/.442. This year, Markakis is at .279/.404/.473 to Huff's .271/.340/.474. Markakis is better, but not that much better.

Both Markakis and Huff bat left-handed.

There were two outs.

With two outs the only time you should consider an intentional walk is when 1) the pitcher or Tony Pena Jr. is up next, or 2) the batter is an extreme high-average hitter like Tony Gwynn or Ichiro Suzuki.

In the situation last night, with a man on second and two out, the only reason to walk Markakis and pitch to Huff is if you think that Markakis is much more likely to drive that runner home from second base, i.e. he has a much higher batting average in that situation. But Markakis is a good hitter because of his secondary skills, i.e. power and plate discipline, not because of his batting average. Over the last two years his average is, what, 15 points higher than Huff? And for that you put another man on base?

(Interestingly, John Gibbons' decision to walk Pena to face DeJesus met the first two criteria. But the decision went so far against the third one that it was still a dumber decision than Hillman's last night. By a factor of about a hundred.)

In addition to the three criteria above, a fourth factor is context. Namely, an intentional walk should only be used when the marginal impact of a single run being scored outweighs the marginal impact of additional runs. Even though the situation last night didn't meet any of the criteria above, you could make a case for the intentional walk if, say, the game was tied in the bottom of the ninth inning. In that case, the impact of a single run scoring is exactly the same as the impact of three runs scoring - you lose either way.

Again, the context here didn't make any sense for an intentional walk, because the game was in the fifth inning. And in the fifth inning, even in a tie game, there's no way to know how important the next run is. Sure, your offense might struggle to score the rest of the game, but they also might scratch out a few runs, as the Royals did last night. Walking Markakis to face Huff may have reduced the Orioles' chances to score at least one run in the inning, although even that is debatable. But there's no question that the walk increased the Orioles' chances to score at least two runs in the inning.

The only way pitching to Markakis leads to two runs is if he hits a homer, while Huff can drive in two runs with any extra-base hits (especially since the runners are going on contact with two outs.) Obviously, the latter is more likely than the former - Huff has averaged 62 XBH per 162 games in his career, while Markakis has averaged 22 HR per 162 games. There's also no way Marakis can drive in three runs, whereas (as we found out) there was a way for Huff to do so.

The irony is that that these are the only two walks Hillman has ordered all season, putting the Royals on pace to order 9 IBBs all year. The lowest total of IBBs in franchise history is 20, back in 1984. Based purely on quantity, it would appear that if anything, Hillman isn't using the IBB enough. There's the example of Casey Kotchman, when Hillman called on Jimmy Gobble to pitch rather than walk Kotchman and leave Ramon Ramirez in to pitch to Torii Hunter with the double play in effect, but I'm sure there are a few other situations when Hillman may have put the tactic to good effect.

But last night, he used the tactic in one of the worst possible situations, and the result illuminated his error in a very harsh light. I hope the negative feedback Hillman received won't make him even more reluctant to put up four fingers in the future. But man, I hope it makes him pick his spots a little better.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Stat Nugget of the Day: 5/9/2008.

(As always, dissemination of the SNotD with attribution is welcome.)

Despite a terrific start to his season, including a 1.25 ERA in his first five starts, Zack Greinke was not dominating opposing hitters in the strikeout category; he struck out no more than six batters in any of his starts, and more than four hitters just once.

That all has changed in his last two starts. Last Thursday, The Baseball Jonah whiffed 9 Texas Rangers in seven innings, but was sunk by two solo homers and the Royals' typically impotent lineup. This Wednesday, Greinke struck out eight more hitters in seven innings of work, and walked away with the win.

Striking out eight batters or more in consecutive starts is not a big deal. Or at least it shouldn't be. But if you're a Royals fan, you know how rare this can be for the boys in blue.

In point of fact: Greinke has become the first Royals pitcher to strike out at least 8 batters in consecutive starts this century. The last Royal to turn the trick was Jay Witasick, on September 17th and 22nd, 1999.

If Greinke strikes out 8 batters his next time out, he will become just the third Royals pitcher in history to do so in three straight starts. The first was Dennis Leonard, who did so in his last three starts of the 1977 season. (He would strike out just four in game 3 of the ALCS, but beat the Yankees anyway, bless his heart. Let's not speak about game 5.)

The second was Kevin Appier, who did so three times, once in 1995, once in 1996, and once in 1997. In 1996 Appier struck out 8+ hitters in five straight starts, and started that streak with three straight starts of double-digit strikeouts, the only such streak in team history. (In fact, only two other Royals - Bret Saberhagen in 1989, and Bill "Don't Call me Billy" Butler in 1969 - have struck out 10 batters in consecutive starts.)

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Wherein I weigh in on some of the debates taking place in the comments section, while wondering why Barack Obama doesn't just end this thing by naming Joakim Soria as his running mate. Because no one closes the deal like Jack.

- Should Soria have come in to pitch the 9th last night? I said no at the time, for the simple reason that he had pitched two nights in a row, and I really don't like the idea of using a reliever three nights in a row unless it's absolutely necessary. He did so once already this year, pitching on April 26th after pitching on both the 24th and 25th, but in that case he came in to protect a one-run lead.

I do think that teams do not use their closers in tie games nearly enough, and as a general rule of thumb that's an ideal situation to use your closer. Especially at home, because when a home game is tied after the 8th, it is physically impossible for a save situation to occur in the game - if the home team takes the lead, the game is over.

If memory serves, this is the first time the Royals were tied after eight innings since Opening Day, and Soria didn't come into pitch the ninth that time either. Of course, Leo Nunez did, and his two scoreless innings set Soria up to pitch the 11th with the lead. If Yabuta had pitched the ninth last night we'd have a legitimate beef, but let's be real: as good as Soria has been, both Nunez and Ramirez have been outstanding as well, and I'll take either of them in the ninth inning of a tie game without hesitation.

Credit Hillman for at least thinking about bringing in Soria (and regretting not doing so): "I could have made a better decision. I didn't put Soria in. Typical rule of thumb simply because it would have been three days in a row," Hillman said. "Ramirez has been pretty effective. Unfortunately, he left a ball out over the plate."

Talk is cheap, but if this means Hillman won't hesitate to use Soria the next time he's faced with a tie game, that's certainly good news.

- A lot of you have complained about Hillman using Gobble to pitch to Casey Kotchman with the go-ahead run at third and one out, given that Kotchman has hit LHP better (.313/.383/.403) than RHP (.268/.341/.438) over his career. It's a fair point, but not all LHP are created equal, and ever since Gobble went three-quarters against LHB last May, he's been much tougher on lefty hitters than their righty counterparts. Lefties hit .241/.325/.398 against Gobble last year, righties hit .319/.377/.532. Prior to facing Kotchman, Gobble had held LHB to one hit in 14 at-bats this year. Just as importantly, six of those ABs ended in strikeouts, and with a man on third, one out, and a great contact hitter at the plate, Gobble may have been the one guy who had a shot at keeping the runner on third. It didn't work out, but I understand the thinking.

The argument that Hillman should have bypassed Kotchman entirely, given him the free pass and tried to get the GIDP with Hunter...yeah, I can see the point. I generally hate the intentional pass, but if ever there was a situation that called for one, it was this: winning run at third, a great contact hitter at the plate, just one out, and nobody on first base (i.e. the DP wasn't in order.) Hillman would have been better off leaving Ramirez into pitch to Hunter with men on first and third, betting on either a strikeout or a groundball.

Hopefully Hillman will consider an intentional walk the next time he faces a similar situation. But don't bet on it. Last year, Buddy Bell ordered 54 of them, or one every three games. You know how many times Hillman has called for the free pass in his first month on the job? Once. In fact, of all the tendencies that we label managers with - likes to run, likes to platoon, likes to use 7 relievers a game - I think this might be the one tendency that we can definitely pin on Hillman after just one month on the job: he's not a fan of the intentional walk.

Hey, if the alternative is the John Gibbons approach - the dumbest intentional walk of modern times - I'll take Hillman's approach, thanks. Tony Pena has as many intentional walks as all the Royals' opponents combined.

But about that one intentional came with Gil Meche on the mound on April 11th, and Hillman held up four fingers with Justin Morneau, a tough left-handed hitter, at the plate with a man on third and one out. The next batter, the right-handed Delmon Young, hit into a double play. I'm just saying...

- About Bonds...too soon. Signing Bonds only makes sense if you're playing for this year. As much as I love our pitching, and as much as I think Bonds can completely change the complexion of our offense, I'm not sure that adding Bonds makes us a contender. I am sure that adding Bonds will bring a level of media scrutiny to the Royals that they haven't had in a long time. That might not be a bad thing, in all honesty. But it's too soon. Plus, Bonds really only helps you if he can DH, and the jury is still out on Butler's glove.

Now, if the Royals are still 2 games out at the end of June, and if Billy Butler continues to play first base well enough that the Royals think he can play there every day...the calculus changes.

- Craig Brazell is leading Japan in homers? Good for him. That doesn't change the fact that he was a longshot to ever be a productive first baseman in the majors. Akinori Iwamura hit 44 homers in Japan in 2004. He hit 32 homers in 2006. For Tampa Bay in 2007, playing in 123 games, he hit 7. Baseball is different in Japan; the parks are smaller, the ball is smaller, and translating numbers from Japan to the United States is a job that bedevils even the brightest of analysts. Brazell wouldn't hit 7 in the majors; he'd probably hit 20 homers if the Royals gave him the everyday first base job. With a .250 average and no walks. I'll pass, thanks.

- One commenter wants Buck to sit in favor of Olivo, which I disagree with vehemently. I have a feeling that Buck is getting closer and closer to figuring things out. He looked terrible yesterday, but he might have won the game for us on Sunday with his approach - he walked in his first two plate appearances even though he was down 0-2 his first time up and 1-2 his second time up. His second walk enabled Olivo to score when Casey Blake threw Pena's grounder into right field. Buck is tied with Gordon with 11 walks, behind only Teahen's 14, even though he has about 75% of the playing time of those two. He's made incremental improvements in his plate discipline pretty much every year he's been in the majors. I remain hopeful that eventually the improvement in plate discipline will lead to an improvement in power.

- The lack of a left-handed starter has never even crossed my mind. This is a classic example of conventional wisdom harping on "balance" for no clear reason. There is no evidence that dropping a southpaw in between two right-handed starters makes the right-handers more effective when they pitch. I'll go a step further and point out that the lack of a left-handed reliever is not a major impediment to winning. The 1994 Expos had the best record in baseball without one. The Angels won the World Series in 2002, and the only left-handed reliever they had was the immortal Scott Schoeneweis, who moved to the pen after bombing out of the rotation at the end of June.

Platoon splits are important, but they're not important enough to overcome the simple fact that good pitchers get hitters out more often than bad pitchers do. The idea that you can't win without left-handed pitching stems, I think, from the fact that the Yankees have won 26 championships, and they won all of them playing in Yankee Stadium, a park that was death on right-handed power hitters for so long (and is still tough on them today) that left-handed pitchers thrived there, from Herb Pennock to Lefty Gomez to Whitey Ford to Ron Guidry to Andy Pettitte. The Yankees may benefit from having left-handed pitchers; ordinary teams in symmetrical ballparks do not, or if they do, the benefit is minimal.

- Just FYI: I'm supposed to be on with Nate and Steven over at 810 WHB tomorrow (Wednesday) morning at 7:30 CDT. Assuming I wake up in time. If I sound like I just rolled out of bed, well, I did.

- I don't know where else to put this, so I'll put it here. I bought my brother Roukan the Nintendo Wii last summer - it took forever to find one - but Roukan is a hard-core gamer, and the Wii just doesn't hold much appeal to people who need the hyper-realism of Call of Duty or the insane graphics of Halo 3. So it collected dust for six months until he gave it to me to play with my kids - Cedra, my oldest, is five and was clamoring for one. It's been a huge hit with my family; I came home from work the other day to find my wife battling Cedra in Mario Kart while our two-year-old Jenna looked on, which is the first time I've ever witnessed my wife playing a video game of her own free will.

Anyway, Cedra figured out the Wii Sports bowling game that comes with the console pretty quickly, and this weekend my in-laws came over. We thought it would be funny to let Cedra embarrass her grandparents by beating them in a video game - granted, she had practice, but it's funny anytime an adult loses to a five-year-old in any endeavor. But I was a little worried she might be nervous, playing in front of so many people, with her parents egging her on.

My fears were unfounded. She shot a 224.

Two twenty-four. She nailed five strikes in a row at one point. No subtlety, no spin, just a grip-it-and-rip-it approach - and she shot a 224. Granted, the game is not particularly challenging, but the next morning I felt compelled to play on my own for half an hour, working on different spins and ball placements, and the best I could do was a 205.

Is this unusual? Is there some trick to this game that I haven't figured out, or should I be signing my daughter up for the Junior Wii Bowling Championships (and if they don't exist, create one)? I thought I had another 7 or 8 years before I faced the specter of losing to my own progeny in a video game, but now I'm already feeling like I'm washed up.

On the other hand, I can totally obliterate her in Mario Kart.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Royals Today: 5/5/2008

So it's come to this: the Royals start the longest homestand of the season by getting seven brilliant, shutout innings from their fifth starter...and it's completely wasted. For the fourth time in their last 23 games, the Royals were shut out. They've scored one run four times in that span, and two runs four times. Which means in 12 of their last 23 games, the Royals have been held to two runs or less. They're 2-10 in those games.

It's driving me nuts, because a month into the season, it's possible to argue that the Royals have built a championship-caliber pitching staff. The team has a 4.37 ERA, but that number is a little deceptive because they've given up only 5 unearned runs all year, tied for the fewest in baseball. Unearned runs are partly the responsibility of the defense - and the Royals have made just 12 errors, also tied for the fewest in the majors - but also partly the responsibility of the pitchers - good pitchers surrender fewer unearned runs as well as fewer earned runs.

More than that, if you just look at the 10 key pitchers on the roster - the current rotation and the five most important relievers - those guys have pitched 85% of the team's innings, and more than 90% of the team's relevant innings. The combined ERA of those 10 pitchers is 3.51, which is sensational. The fact that John Bale, Yasuhiko Yabuta, Joel Peralta, and Hideo Nomo have allowed 42 runs in 41.1 innings is almost irrelevant. One of those guys is gone, one is hurt, and the other two are pitching in strictly low-leverage situations (or will be, given how Peralta pitched after entering a 1-0 game in the ninth tonight.)

But the offense is still on pace to score 559 runs, and nearly a fifth of the season has been played. The pitching staff is good enough, and the division is weak enough, that if the Royals had an offense that ranked, say, 10th in the league in runs scored, they ought to be in contention all season. Instead, they're still struggling to keep pace with the Giants on offense, and they're struggling to stay out of last place (though still just 2.5 games out of first.)

Dayton and Trey have to do something. I propose:

- Fire Mike Barnett. Immediately. I haven't discussed the performance of the hitting coach that much because I'm not really sure how much impact a hitting coach can have.

I have rarely been more excited as a Royals fan than the day the Royals hired Jeff Pentland, famous for turning Sammy Sosa from brain-dead hacker into a patient power hitter. Here are Sosa's unintentional walks, from 1996 to 2002: 28, 36, 59, 70, 72, 79, 88. His home run totals over that span went 40, 36, 66, 63, 50, 64, 49.

We used to think that the former begat the latter, but 1) Nate Silver's PECOTA research has shown that many times it's the latter that drives the former, i.e. as a hitter hits for more power, pitchers are less willing to challenge him, leading to more pitches out of the strike zone and more walks; and 2) the general consensus is that the key to Sosa's power surge lay in something other than improved plate discipline.

In retrospect Pentland's impact on Sosa may have been overstated. Anyway, Pentland was a bit of a flop in Kansas City, although among the Royals of that era it's impossible to tell who was a legitimate flop and who was simply a victim of awful circumstances.

Hitting coaches may or may not be able to significantly help a team, but I believe they are able to significantly hurt one. Barnett is hurting the Royals. He was hired as hitting coach on May 1st, 2006, and the Royals finished that season 12th in the league in runs scored. Last year they were 13th. This year they're 14th. If Barnett stays around another year I'm convinced they'll find a way to finish 15th.

Managers are, for the most part, not wholly good or bad - they all have strengths and weaknesses, and the man who is a poor fit for one team might be a good fit for another. I suspect hitting coaches are the same way. Barnett was the Blue Jays' hitting coach from 2002 to 2005, and they finished in the top five in runs scored twice in those four years. (On the other hand, they still fired him after the 2005 season anyway.) Regardless, this is a results-based business, and someone needs to take the fall here. If Jose Guillen's contract wasn't guaranteed, I'd vote for him. But it is, so Barnett needs to go.

- Can we get Callaspo and Gload more playing time? Please? Callaspo is on pace for 199 AB, and German is on pace for 94 - all season. Yeah, he's 1-for-18; who cares? Do you trust 18 at-bats of data, or two seasons worth of evidence that says he's the best on-base threat on the team? I've talked about platooning Callaspo and Pena based on who the Royals' starting pitcher is, and stand by that still.

I think Hillman is coming around to the fact that Gload is not an everyday first baseman - tonight's the first time in five games he started over there - but platooning Gload and Olivo isn't enough. Why not start German at first base against RHP? German has only played one game at first in his career, but he's played all over the infield and outfield, so I hardly think it would be a difficult adjustment. (Jose Offerman, like German an OBP fiend who played a marginal second base, was moved to first base by the Royals and was an absolute defensive stud over there.) Who would you rather see at the plate in a tough situation - Gload or German?

Dayton blew it by not foreseeing the traffic jam of talent in the middle infield before the season began and not trading German when his value was at his highest. He can't compound it by letting one of the game's best utility players scrap for playing time all season.

- Add another hitter. I'm sorry to keep saying things I've said before, but the Royals don't seem to be listening, so...why do we need 12 pitchers? Hillman has so little faith in Yabuta that he has openly talked about optioning him to Triple-A. The rotation has averaged 5.99 innings per start, 6.08 innings per start if you take out Bale's three starts. Last year, by comparison, the Royals' starters averaged just 5.48 innings per start; in 2006 it was 5.24 innings per start.

So compared to the last two years, Royals' starters are getting roughly two additional outs per game - an extra 100 innings a year. A 12-man pitching might make some sense when your starters are going five-and-dive, but the current rotation might be the best one the Royals have had this century, especially if Cool Hand turns out to be for real. Jimmy Gobble is still on pace to throw fewer than 30 innings all season. Do we really need a 12th pitcher that bad?

The problem is that whoever the Royals call up won't do the team any good unless Hillman adjusts his roster approach to take advantage of the guys he already has. If he can't find a way to make use of German's talents, fat chance he'll use some Triple-A lifer in the right role. In an ideal world, the Royals would call up Mike Aviles, who's hitting .347/.375/.694 for Omaha, and can play shortstop badly and second base and third base passably - he's German with fewer walks and more power. Or they would call up Shane Costa, who's hitting .330/.368/.591 in Omaha, the third straight year he's absolutely raked in Triple-A. In an ideal world, the Royals would pinch-hit for Pena at every opportunity, sit for Jose Guillen against hard right-handers, find a way to get Callaspo's bat in the lineup every day.

The Royals are dead last in the league in runs scored, and the 14 hitters who are on the roster today are the only 14 hitters who have played for the Royals all season. Common sense dictates that when your hitters aren't hitting, you might want to try new hitters.

When the Royals score 3 runs or more this season, they're 12-7. Hell, they've won two of the four games in which they've scored just *2* runs. It's criminal to waste this much good pitching. If Dayton shakes things up a bit, if he can just coax the offense into scoring a few runs in every game, the pitching staff could keep the Royals in contention well into the summer. But hope is not a strategy. And neither is playing Tony Pena every day.