Thursday, May 22, 2008

Royals Today: 5/22/2008.

First off, thanks to everyone for all their nickname ideas - in particular, I think we got some good ones for Billy Butler now, and possibly Soria. I plan to do a roundup after the holiday and then we'll get to voting on them, but in the meantime I need to catch up on all the action.

Though speaking of nicknames...who would have thought that "Shake" (for Yabuta) would be the first one to show up in the Star? Anyone? Or did he already earn this nickname from somewhere else and I missed it?

- I tried to put on a brave face after the no-hitter, but if I were a gambling man, you couldn't have set the odds high enough for me to avoid betting on the Royals being swept. There we were, rolling along, having won 6 out of 7...and suddenly we're in Fenway park and history is being made at our expense. A better team would have bounced back. We all know from painful experience that the Royals are not that team.

During my preseason Top 23, I compared the Rockies in the World Series against the Red Sox to Homer Simpson facing Roger Clemens in the company softball league, because the National League was just so inferior to the American League. But I think the comparison is really between the Red Sox and every other team in baseball. In my lifetime, I'm not sure there has ever been an organization that so towered above every other baseball team in every way - financial, player development, statistical analysis, creative thinking, what have you - as the Red Sox do right now. Maybe the mid-70s Reds were like that, I don't know (though I'm sure that Poz's next book will have the answer.)

Still, it's one thing to lose to a superior team in their park, and it's another to get swept, and yet another to lose the first game on a no-hitter and the last game when you give up two grand slams. The Royals were a game under .500 on Monday; now they're 21-26 and a game out of last place. I'll say this: if these were the 2004-06 Royals, a series this traumatic would have sent them tumbling into a tailspin that would take them a few weeks to get out of.

The 2005 Royals had that 19-game losing streak, of course, but also had an 8-game and a 9-game streak. The 2004 Royals had a pair of 8-game streaks, and the 2006 Royals had an 11-game and a 13-game losing streak before the end of May, as well as an 8-gamer in September. Last year the Royals topped out at seven games twice, and they had a seven-game streak this April. Meanwhile, they haven't won six games in a row since April, 2003. (In 2004, they went the whole season without a four-game winning streak. That's nearly impossible, folks.)

So they need to stop things right here. As Sparky Anderson always said, "Momentum is tomorrow's starting pitcher." The Baseball Jonah takes the mound in Toronto tomorrow night. I like our chances.

- Speaking of Greinke, you have to feel good that for such a supposedly flaky guy, his pitching has been incredibly consistent this year. I'm not a fan of the quality start statistic*, but Greinke has 8 quality starts out of 9 tries, and the only reason he isn't 9-for-9 is that he only pitched 5 innings in one start. As the Elias Bureau has pointed out, Greinke's the first Royal to not surrender more than 3 runs in any of his first 9 starts since Appier started the 1992 season with 12 straight, a team record.

*: The reason I'm not a fan has nothing to do with the complaints some people have that it rewards mediocrity because 6 innings and 3 runs is a quality start. (These are the same people that love the save even though you can give up 2 runs in an inning and still get one.) No, I just don't like any binary, "yes-or-no" statistic. The stat divides the world into two categories: quality starts and non-quality starts. But what about dominant starts? Or disaster starts? There is an almost infinite range of "quality" that a start can take on - why are we separating them into just two bins?

The quality start had a place on the stat table 20 years ago, but today we have super-fast computers and the internet and and we can split data a hundred different ways - why should we rely on such a blunt instrument to evaluate pitchers? According to the quality start, the difference between giving up 4 runs in 7 innings and 3 runs in 6 innings is huge, but the difference between 3 runs in 6 innings and a complete game shutout is waved away. If you want to evaluate starting pitchers on a start-by-start basis, use Support-Neutral Wins and Losses - a great stat that calculates the odds of winning each start based on the number of innings and runs allowed, as well as park and league context.**

**: Hey, that was my first Pozterisk! And this is now my second!

- Hey, anyone know where Butler's bat is hiding? After his season-opening 13-game hitting streak, he's hitting .216/.298/.276 over the span of 33 games. It's almost enough to make one pine for Ross Gload. (Almost.) I've heard some griping that the Royals should send Butler down to find his stroke, but that's silly. The only reason to send him down would be for cynical purposes: to delay free agency. But since Butler was called up mid-season last year, sending him down for a few weeks won't have any impact - he's ours through 2013 either way.

A month in Triple-A might keep him from being a Super-Two player and therefore arbitration-eligible after 2009, but that's usually a difference of a few million dollars at most, whereas delaying free agency a year can potentially be worth eight figures. He's 22; he's going to have stretches like this. But his strikeout-to-walk ratio (26/19) is better than last year (55/27) - it's just that, for whatever reason, he's hit one homer all year. I blame Mike Barnett, but then at this point I'm prepared to blame Barnett for the Chengdu earthquake.

- The pitching staff has a knack for knowing which days the offense is going to score some runs and picking those games to completely crap the bed. The Royals are now just 6-4 in games in which they score 6 runs or more. In games in which they score exactly two runs, they have the exact same winning percentage (3-2). I have no explanation.

- Is it time to stage an intervention? Hillman seems to have no understanding of what an intentional walk is supposed to be used for. He called for just his third IBB of the season, and like the second IBB of the season, he called for it in a completely inappropriate situation, and with completely appropriate results.

With men on second and third and two out, Hillman had Gobble walk Manny Ramirez in order to face Mike Lowell. I don't even know where to begin here:

1) Since dropping his arm slot last season, Gobble has a huge platoon split; LHB hit .241 last year and are hitting .091 this year, while RHB hit .319 and .389. So you walk a right-handed hitter to face...another right-handed hitter?

2) There were two out, so you're not gaining the possibility of a double play by putting a man on first. Many times you'll walk a hitter with one out because of the risk he'll drive in a run with a flyball or a slow grounder, but with two outs that threat wasn't there.

3) Worst of all, by walking Ramirez, Hillman was ordering the bases loaded - meaning the Red Sox could score a run with a walk, not just a hit. With Ramirez at the plate, they could only score with a hit.

In other words, roughly speaking the odds that Ramirez would drive in a run was equivalent to his batting average. The odds that Lowell would drive in a run was equivalent to his on-base percentage. Maybe Ramirez is the better hitter overall, but his career batting average is .312, while Lowell's career OBP is .343. And that probably overstates the difference, since Ramirez is 36 and has hit over .300 just once in the last four years.

The last time Hillman called for this move - when Aubrey Huff hit a three-run homer after Markakis was walked - I was willing to cut him some slack, arguing that he'll learn from his decision and won't repeat it. Well, he did. And I'm not cutting him some slack this time. One bonehead move is a fluke. Two bonehead moves are a trend. I don't want to contemplate what three bonehead moves constitutes, Trey, so don't give me a reason to.

- Bannister proved my point that his day/night splits are overstated, though I would have preferred it if he had waited for a night game to do so. He allowed 12 hits in 25 at-bats, raising his BABIP from .258 to .282, which is still a good mark. I didn't see the game live so I can't comment, but Posnanski pointed out that two of the singles that preceded Drew's grand slam might have been turned into outs if Tony Pena were playing shortstop instead of Callaspo.

There's no great solution to our shortstop problem, but I strongly feel - as I have for a while - that the best solution is to platoon these guys based on our starting pitcher, not the opponent's. When a power, flyball pitcher is on the mound - i.e. Greinke or Meche - fewer balls are likely to be hit to the shortstop, so Callaspo should start. The same goes for Tomko, especially since he's likely to give up enough runs that we need all the bats we can get. But when Bannister, who pitches to contact, or Hochevar, who's a strong groundball pitcher, starts, then Pena should as well. It seems to me that Hillman is making the decision of who starts at shortstop on any given day based on how frustrated he is with Pena's bat at the moment. He needs to make this decision proactively, not retroactively. Come up with a plan and stick with it.

- Man, Alex Gordon is this close to opening up a can of whoop-ass on the league, isn't he? Since May 6th, he's 19-for-55 (.345) with as many walks (12) as strikeouts. He's reaching the point where he just won't swing at the pitcher's pitch - if he doesn't like the pitch, he'll let it go, unless there are two strikes, in which case he'll foul it off and wait for the next one. For all the great hitters we had in the 1990s - Sweeney, Damon, Beltran, Dye - none of them fully embraced a take-and-rake approach. Gordon's on pace for 81 walks, but if he keeps up his current approach, he might get to 90 or more. Do you know the last time a Royal walked 90 times in a season? 1989, when Kevin Seitzer walked 102 times.

- Gordon may not even lead the team, though, because he's currently tied with Mark Teahen with 23 walks. Teahen continues to drive me crazy, because I can't get a good read on a guy with such obvious strengths (positional flexibility, baserunning skills, attitude, plate discipline) and weaknesses (power, average). If you don't have the latter two, the first four don't mean anything, but Teahen has hit for power before, and he did so when he was just 24. It's not unheard of for guys to have a power spike at 24 and then to never hit for power ever again, but it's pretty damn rare.

I don't know that there's a solution here. Some people would love to dump him and give his job to Shane Costa or Mitch Maier, but Teahen is just a few months older than those guys, and I'll take my chances with the guy who has shown he can hit in the majors over the guys who haven't. I think that, like Butler, Teahen is one of those guys the Royals just have to play every day and stomach the slumps, in the hopes that in 2009 or 2010 he'll make The Leap. Even if it means some lean stretches in 2008.

- It's great that Teahen can play first base in a pinch. Let's keep it that way.

- Juicy rumor from Jayson Stark that the Royals might consider - or at least should consider - trading DeJesus. It would be hard to let him go from an emotional standpoint, but it's something the Royals absolutely need to consider. I've been saying for a year now that neither DeJesus nor Gathright have much value outside of centerfield, and it's a waste of resources to keep both players when the Royals have other holes they need to fill. DeJesus, in particular, is a league-average player and has a very favorable contract, and that's worth a ton on the trade market. It would be a risk to go with Gathright every day, but can it be any worse than going with Pena every day? If the Royals can get a young shortstop that can actually hit, they need to pull the trigger. Atlanta would have been the perfect destination this winter (for Brent Lillibridge), but with Mark Kotsay playing well for them now, that ship has sailed.

- While John Buck hasn't had a great year, it seems once or twice a week he'll be up with a man in scoring position and poke a single to left to bring the run home. So I decided to look up what he's hitting with runners in scoring position. He's an amazing 14-for-28, an even .500. Somehow, he only has 13 RBIs, because with a man on second only, he's 5-for-9 but only two of those singles drove the runner in. With two outs - when runners are moving on contact - he's just 4-for-14, but with less than two out he's a ridiculous 10-for-14.

Last year, remember, he hit just .179/.257/.326 with RISP, and in fact was so poor with men on base that the Royals thought it had something to do with his new batting stance (you know, the one that allowed him to hit 10 homers by June 4th) and made him give it up, with the result that he didn't hit in any situation the rest of the way.

The point here is that if clutch hitting was a skill, John Buck wouldn't go from hitting .179 with RISP to .500 from one season to the next. The ability to hit better in clutch situations does not appear to be a repeatable skill. In other words, his performance this year has been a fluke. A useful fluke, but still a fluke.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What Did I Miss?

So, I just got back from Cancun a few hours ago...did I miss anything?

Aw, *&%$@!.

And $%&*#.

Also, &^*%@.

I got home from the airport in time for the seventh inning, which enabled me to witness the Royals being no-hit for the first time in my lifetime. I had long taken it as a point of pride that the Royals had only been on the losing end of a no-hitter once, and that pitcher - Nolan Ryan - would prove to be the most likely pitcher to ever throw a no-no, given that he'd go on to throw six more.

For all the indignities I have suffered as a Royals fan, this was one I - and any Royals fan under the age of about 40 - had managed to avoid. There were some close calls, certainly. Just last year Mike Sweeney (in his first at-bat in three months) singled in the ninth to end Scott Baker's bid, just after John Buck had walked to end the perfect game. Luis Alicea ended Todd Ritchie's bid for a no-hitter in the ninth back in 2001, for which I've long been grateful. And of course there was Greg Gagne's notorious infield hit in 1994 on which the umpire made a questionable call, denying Bobby Witt the perfect game.

Thirty-five years is a long time for any team to go without being no-hit. It was, in fact, one of the longest streaks of any active team. The Yankees haven't been no-hit since Hoyt Wilhelm shackled them 50 years ago this September, but only because a few years ago the rules committee disallowed no-hitters of less than nine innings, taking away Melido Perez's six-inning, rain-shortened effort in 1990. A Yankee conspiracy, no doubt.

I had a feeling tonight would be different, if only because we were playing the Red Sox, who may not be the New York Yankees, but are certainly the New Yankees - they (and their fans) act as if good outcomes are their birthright, and what makes them even more insufferable is that they back up their bravado every time. The game was at Fenway Park, which is as big a home-field advantage as anywhere in baseball. They had already gotten the requisite defensive gem - that was a hell of a catch by Jacoby Ellsbury, who's not even the best centerfielder on the team (he moved to left in the 9th to make way for Coco Crisp.) And most importantly, Jon Lester was dealing.

If the streak must end, I'm glad it ended at the hands of someone who has been through as much adversity as Jon Lester. Will Carroll, himself a cancer survivor, has admitted to breaking down in tears after the final out. The uncomfortable visual image of a crying Will Carroll notwithstanding, if a no-hitter can bring that much joy to the hearts of so many people, I'm happy to oblige.

Anyway, I much prefer the symbolic embarrassment of a no-hitter to the very real and tangible embarrassment of finishing in last place year after year. The Royals are still 20-22, they're still just 2.5 games out of first place. This one might hurt more than a 6-4 affair, but they all count the same in the standings. In 2004, the Braves were on the receiving end of a perfect game from Randy Johnson; they still won their division. The year before the Giants won 100 games and the division even though they were no-hit by Kevin Millwood along the way. The 1999 Diamondbacks also won 100 games, but were skunked by Jose Jimenez. In 1997, the only two teams that were no-hit that year, the Giants (Kevin Brown) and the Astros (Francisco Cordova), both finished in first place.

Of the previous 16 teams that were no-hit, five went on to make the playoffs. If we win 70 more games this year and sneak away with the AL Central, will anyone care if we get no-hit the other 50 times? So let's start a new streak tomorrow. Let the Red Sox celebrate tonight - we're still just a win away from tying this series up.

In the meantime, Dayton: your offensive crisis just hit Defcon 2. If only there was a Hall of Fame-caliber hitter just sitting around, waiting to be signed, that we could just drop into the DH spot...