Tuesday, June 10, 2008


If you're wondering why my posts are becoming rarer and rarer, tonight's game should explain why.

Trey Hillman may be a great leader of men. He may have a clubhouse presence that would impress Barack Obama. He may be a shrewd judge of talent. He may have any number of traits that will one day render him an excellent baseball manager.

But when it comes to in-game tactical maneuvering, he is a liability. Tonight, he absolutely, positively cost the Royals a win.

The Royals entered the top of the 8th with a 5-1 lead. They were playing the Rangers, not the Yankees. They had the home-field advantage. They set the first two men down in order. They had this game in the bag.

And Hillman pissed it away.

Michael Young walked. Joey Hamilton hit a routine groundball to Mike Aviles at shortstop. Aviles' throw was a little low, but did not hit the ground. Teahen could not hold on to it.

Mistake #1: What is Tony Pena on the roster for, if not to play defense with a four-run lead? Aviles was scheduled to bat in the bottom of the inning, but again, you're up by four runs - you want the defense in. Maybe Pena's throw is more on-line, and the inning is over. Admittedly, this is a small mistake. They will get bigger.

Mistake #2: With two on, two out, tying run on deck, Trey Hillman calls upon Brett Tomko.

How many runs does Brett Tomko have to give up, how many leads does he have to blow, before the Royals realize that he has no business pitching in a tight game? Tomko entered the game with a 6.34 ERA. It was not a fluke. Batters are hitting .298/.331/.506 against him. He has a 6.17 ERA as a starter. He has a 7.94 ERA as a reliever. He had a 5.55 ERA last year. There is no way you can spin the evidence in such a way as to suggest that he should be pitching in a tight situation. You gambled $3 million that Bob McClure could figure him out. It was a decent gamble, but it failed. Choosing to be in a state of denial is only making matters worse.

Milton Bradley doubled on an 0-2 count - classic Tomko - to drive in two. David Murphy singled home Bradley. It's 5-4, tying run at first base. Gerald Laird and Chris Shelton are due up next.

Mistake #3: Hillman calls on...Yasuhiko Yabuta.

Maybe Hillman was enamored with Yabuta's performance the night before, when Yabuta heroically earned the win by...retiring a single batter. I don't want to minimize his effort - he retired Bobby Abreu with two men on in a tie game - but still, he faced one batter. Even in the worst (non-Bonds) matchup the odds are better than 50/50 that a pitcher will retire a single hitter.

Anyway, Hillman suddenly felt that with four outs to go, with the tying run at the plate, the situation didn't call for his closer Joakim Soria, or his set-up man Ramon Ramirez, but instead, Yasuhiko Yabuta, he of the 4.91 ERA.

That's bad enough. What's worse - much, much worse - is that Hillman seems completely oblivous to the whole notion of platoon splits. When Bradley and Murphy (a switch-hitter and left-handed hitter) were due up, he called on Tomko, a right-hander who, like most right-handers, fares somewhat worse against left-handed hitting. With Laird and Shelton - two right-handed hitters due up - Hillman calls on Yabuta.

Here's how Yabuta has fared so far this year:

vs. RHB: .390/.463/.610
vs. LHB: .152/.235/.283

That's not a misprint. Even though Yabuta is right-handed, right-handed hitters have numbers that are literally twice as good as their left-handed counterparts across the board. The size of the discrepancy is a reflection of a small sample size, but the discrepancy itself is very real. Yabuta's best pitch (his only good pitch, really) is his splitter/changeup, and pitchers who rely on a forkball or changeup as their out pitch generally have reverse platoon splits - they do a better job of getting guys out from the other side of the plate.

Laird singled. Shelton singled, and Murphy scored the tying run.

From that point on the outcome was academic - I started writing this post when the game was still in the top of the 9th. I did think it was a nice touch that Ramon Ramirez struck out Josh Hamilton on three pitches with the tying run at third base and one out in the ninth, only to surrender the winning run on a passed ball immediately thereafter.

Hillman was instrumental in that, too. Yabuta had stayed in to face a couple of left-handed hitters after the game was tied, and after walking Brandon Boggs he got Ramon Vazquez to fly out and end the inning. Showing that he had learned nothing from the sequence of events, Hillman (or as we shall see, his proxy Dave Owen, not that it matters) let Yabuta pitch to Ian Kinsler (a right-handed hitter) leading off the ninth. Kinsler doubled. Yabuta stayed in to pitch to another right-hander, Michael Young, who moved Kinsler up with a grounder to second, and only at that point did Ramirez come in.

So Ramon Ramirez, he of the 3.30 ERA, who's clearly the second-best reliever on the active roster, was not deemed necessary with two outs in the eighth, a one run lead, and the tying run on base - but he was deemed necessary once the game was tied, and the go-ahead run was on third base with one out. (By the way, Ramirez came into the game having thrown four wild pitches in just 30 innings. Bringing him with a man on third base was probably the worst possible time to do so. But we're just piling on at this point.)

Oh, and Ramirez's platoon splits? Ramirez's best pitch is probably his slider, and pitchers who rely on their slider tend to have larger-than-normal platoon splits. Sure enough, against Ramirez LHB are hitting .309/.356/.364...but RHB are hitting just .182/.250/.218.

So let's sum this up: with a one-run lead, two outs in the eighth, the tying run on first, and two right-handed hitters scheduled, Trey Hillman had to choose between a reliever with a 4.91 ERA and a reliever with a 3.30 ERA, a reliever against whom RHB were hitting .390 and a reliever against whom RHB were hitting .182...AND HE CHOSE THE FIRST GUY?

Buddy Bell was an awful, awful tactical manager, but I'm willing to bet that I could go through his entire log as Royals manager and not find more than two or three games in which his moves cost the Royals a game as clearly as Hillman's tactics cost them tonight.

The shame of it is, if there's any attention placed on Hillman from this game, it's that he was thrown out arguing a questionable ball/strike call in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitch was probably a ball, and Hillman probably did nothing that warranted being thrown out. But the mere fact that the pitch meant anything all is absolutely, positive, 100% Trey Hillman's fault. If Hillman, or the writers covering the team, attempt to pin even a fraction of the blame for tonight's loss on the home-plate umpire, they're doing the team and its fans a disservice.

The box score says Yabuta took the loss tonight. It won't tell you that Hillman shoved it down his throat. But he did. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Draft Recap.

We all hope that the day will come in the not-too-distant future, say in 2012 or thereabouts, where the Royals will be once again looked upon as one of the best-run franchises in baseball. If I didn’t hope for that, I wouldn’t be wasting my time with this blog; if you didn’t hope for that, you wouldn’t be reading it. (Unless you’re one of those sadistic fans of another team, who enjoy watching us Royals fans squirm like ants being chased by a kid with a magnifying glass on a sunny day.)

Anyway, if that day comes, I think it is quite likely that we will look to Thursday, June 5th, 2008, as one of the pivotal days in the transformation of this franchise from hapless sad-sacker to perennial contender.

If that day doesn’t come, I think it is quite likely that we will look to Thursday as a gigantic missed opportunity, the day the Royals wasted some terrific draft picks on a bunch of high-risk players who never amounted to a thing, a re-living of the notorious Colt Griffin/Roscoe Crosby draft of 2001.

That’s how important Thursday was to this franchise. And that’s how much of a gamble Dayton Moore and Deric Ladnier took four days ago.

I’ve made my feelings about Eric Hosmer clear already, but I want to emphasize that my concerns are purely in the macro sense: high school first basemen have a generally awful track record in the draft, while college first basemen have a generally awesome track record, and there was a college first baseman of equal pedigree to Hosmer in the draft in the persona of Justin Smoak. But in a micro sense, well, I’m not a scout. Hosmer was not the consensus best player available when the Royals drafted, just like Moustakas wasn’t the consensus best player available last season. But neither player was considered a reach by any means; you could find a number of independent scouts who did think Hosmer was the third-best player in the draft, and he was considered one of the top 7 or 8 players available by just about anybody.

I made the argument that the odds Hosmer will be a better hitter three years from now than Smoak is today still holds, but I’ve heard from a few people who have said, in essence, yes: Hosmer might be a better hitter in three years, particularly in terms of power. Smoak could hit .290 in the majors with 25-30 homers and 70-80 walks. Hosmer could hit .320, but he could hit .260 as well, and we have no idea how many walks he’ll draw, but he has true 80 power potential, meaning he could hit 40 homers in a season. The tools are there for Hosmer to become the best power hitter the Royals have ever developed. Between him and Moustakas, the Royals might actually have a reason to bring the fences in.*

*: Immediately after I wrote this, I came across this in a Jayson Stark column:

We're hearing that when the Royals renovate Kaufman Stadium, they might be redesigning more than just the concourses and luxury boxes. They're also talking about moving the fences in -- because that step might be their best hope of upgrading their offense any time soon.

“Nobody wants to go there and hit when it's 385 [feet] to the gaps,” said one baseball man. “So why overpay for some free-agent slugger when you can move in the fences and elevate your own guys' power? The way that park is now, guys hit the ball on the screws in those gaps and it doesn't go anywhere. It dies.”

If the Royals are really thinking about moving the fences in to help their offense, I’m going to have reconsider my support of our current management. The Royals have hit 37 homers this year, and given up 69. Does anyone in their right mind think that if the fences moved in, the Royals’ offense would benefit more than their opponents? The reason the Royals don’t hit home runs isn’t because of their ballpark, it’s because THEY DON’T HAVE ANY POWER. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can move the fences in 100 feet and Joey Gathright isn’t going yard.

The Royals tried this before, you may recall, moving the fences in 10 feet (from left-center to right-center) from 1995 until after the 2003 season. The Royals never ranked higher than 10th in the league in homers until 2003, when they managed to rank 7th. Meanwhile, their pitchers ranked among the four worst staffs in the league in surrendering homers five times in those nine seasons.

I refuse to believe that Dayton Moore is this stupid. I hope he will not force me to eat my words.

Back to the draft…if we’re looking at macro trends, the most compelling macro trend is this: teams that draft for signability over ability get destroyed. The most obvious example of this in Royals history was when the team drafted Jeff Austin with the fourth pick in 1998, instead of J.D. Drew. The Cardinals took Drew with the fifth pick; three months later he was raking in the major leagues, and by 2000 he was one of the best (if also most injury-prone) outfielders in the majors. Austin won two games in the major leagues.

Hosmer was not a signability pick. He was the very antithesis of a signability pick, actually – he’s a Boras client, and the number that was floated before the draft (Boras players always have numbers that magically float above their heads before each draft) was $7.5 million. That’s Porcello money. Hosmer may be a riskier pick than Smoak, but the mere fact that the Royals drafted the guy they wanted instead of the guy they compromised for is cause for celebration. Now all they have to do is sign him. And all he has to do is hit.

Whatever concerns we may have with Hosmer, he was just the first in a long series of high-upside players the Royals landed. Michael Montgomery, a supplemental first-round pick (and how great is that, to get a supplemental first rounder for David Riske?), is a tall high-school lefty with a projectable build, and whose velocity already spiked into the low 90s this season. He was the best left-handed pitcher in Southern California and he has projection – that’s a nice combination. Particularly since the best SoCal lefty in last year’s draft was Danny Duffy, who the Royals took in the third ound and already looks like a steal.

The Royals’ third round pick, Tyler Sample, is another tall (listed anywhere from 6’5” to 6’7”) high school pitcher with power stuff – he was expected to go earlier. What I like about Sample is that he’s from Colorado, where the high elevation makes it difficult to get pitches to break, yet he nonetheless has a knuckle-curve that’s considered a plus pitch. While major league teams more or less have a grip on park effects as they pertain to statistics, I think they have a tendency to forget about them when scouting prospects.

(The worst case of this from the Royals’ perspective came in 2002, when the Royals took a college first baseman named David Jensen in the third round. This came at a time when we thought that teams were underrating the value of college hitters, and Jensen hit something like .400 his final year, so you’d think I would have liked the pick. I hated it – Jensen played at BYU, so he was doing all his hitting at high elevation, and owing to his Mormon mission he was nearly 23 when he was drafted. As it turned out, Jensen hit .225 with four homers in his minor league career and was released less than two years after he was drafted.)

So Sample’s a nice pick, especially since he’s already signed. But the guy everyone wants to see signed is Tim Melville, who the Royals took in the fourth round. I had just parked my car when I learned of the pick, which is a blessing, because I probably would have driven off the road had I found out a few minutes earlier. Melville started the season as a possibility with the Royals’ first pick, as he was considered the best high school arm in the country. He had a somewhat disappointing senior year, but was still considered a sure-fire first-round pick. Then his family circulated a report stating that they wanted Top 15 money to sign; when he didn’t go in the top 15, he started to slide.

First-round talents slide into the later rounds all the time for signability reasons. But if the Royals sign Melville, it will be the first time in the 20 years I’ve followed the Royals that they will have signed a first-round talent that fell in the draft for financial reasons. And they’re widely expected to have an excellent chance of signing him. For one, they didn’t take him in the 16th round, when teams will take a flyer on a top-rated player as a backup in case they have trouble coming to terms with one of their early picks. You don’t waste a 4th-round pick on a player unless you’re confident you can sign him, which means the Royals are willing to meet his demands. Comments from the family suggest they are more than willing to hear the Royals out.

I love this pick for another reason: Melville’s a local. The Braves have made a living the last 10-15 years by scouting the hell out of their backyard. Look at this list of local high school players drafted earlier this decade: Adam Wainwright and Blaine Boyer in 2000, Macay McBride and Kyle Davies in 2001, Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann in 2002. All six players were taken in the first three rounds out of Georgia high schools. Jason Heyward, their first-round pick last year from a Georgia high school, is probably one of the ten best prospects in the game today.

Not nearly as much baseball talent develops in the greater Kansas City area, but I’ve long felt that the Royals should focus on doing a better job of uncovering that talent than any other team. Some years there simply won’t be any local players worth drafting, but some years there are, and precisely because the lower Midwest is not a hotbed of talent, a lot of those local players worth drafting are available to draft late. So when Ryan Howard falls to the fifth round out of Missouri State, or his teammate Shaun Marcum is available in the third round two years later, or Ian Kinsler doesn’t get drafted out of Missou until the 17th round, or, I don’t know, ALBERT EFFING PUJOLS is available in the 13th round and played junior college ball within the borders of Kansas City proper – the Royals should be the ones swooping in.

Melville wasn’t a secret in the scouting ranks, but he’s a Missouri kid (and attended the same high school as Ross Detwiler, the #6 overall pick last year), so you’d like to think the Royals have scouted him better than the competition, they know more about his background, his work ethic, his intelligence than most other teams. You’d also like to think that they have a better chance of signing him. A first-round talent from California that falls in the draft and gets drafted by the Royals might think, “Sign with that loser team? Forget it – I’m going to college.” A local kid is more inclined to give that loser team a chance. Especially if that loser team is his loser team.

If the Royals sign Melville and Hosmer, they will have two of the twenty best players in the draft. That doesn’t guarantee a strong draft, but it’s a damn good start.

And the Royals weren’t finished with their high-risk, high-upside approach. Their fifth round pick, John Lamb, is another SoCal left-handed pitcher who probably would have gone in the first two or three rounds, but was in a car accident in February that left him with a stress fracture in his throwing arm, and while surgery wasn’t needed, he’s been in a cast ever since. Ask the Phillies if they regret taking a chance on Cole Hamels after Hamels suffered a broken arm in high school. If Lamb heals fully – and there’s no reason to think he won’t – this is another great upside play.

For the second year in a row, the Royals took a Puerto Rican high school player in the sixth round. Last year it was Fernando Cruz, who lobbied to be included in the draft even though he was a high school junior (I think he completed his high school requirements), and this year the Royals took Alex Llanos, a toolsy outfielder who like Cruz will play his first pro season at age 17. The combination of age and tools is a good gamble at this point in the draft.

The draft adjourned for the day after six rounds, which meant that teams picking at the top of the draft could work the phones Thursday night and Friday morning to see what it would take to entice one of the players who had dropped because of bonus demands to sign. Which makes the Royals’ seventh-round pick so intriguing: Jason Esposito, a third baseman from a Connecticut high school, has committed to Vanderbilt. The Commodores have become the Stanford of the decade, the college team that almost always gets to keep its recruits as much for the school’s academic reputation as for its athletic one. Esposito could easily get away, but the timing of when he was picked makes me hopeful that the Royals had time to evaluate his signability and draft accordingly.

The Royals continued to mix in a bunch of high school picks with some junior college players; they took only one player in the first 14 rounds who will be 21 by the end of the year. That player was their second-rounder, Johnny Giavotella, who played second base at the University of New Orleans when he wasn’t starring in the cast of “Jersey Boys.”

Giavotella was a strange, strange pick. He was taken with the 49th pick, though Baseball America ranked him 127th overall. That’s not necessarily worrisome, but I just think it’s astounding that Dayton Moore and Deric Ladnier went so high school-heavy that they took just one college junior among their first 15 picks…and that player was a 5’8” second baseman (the shortest player in BA’s top 200) who doesn’t have power or speed but plays above his tools and works the pitcher in every at-bat. (He walked 53 times this year, against just 25 whiffs.)

He’s been compared to Dustin Pedroia without the glove and Dan Uggla without the power; the comparison I like the best is the one to Chuck Knoblauch without the speed. Knoblauch won a Rookie of the Year award in a year when he hit .281 with a single home run…but he walked more than he struck out, and played heady defense, capped off by arguably the most important decoy play in major league history. Knoblauch’s listed at 5’9”, 170 pounds, but eventually developed into a guy who hit 45 doubles in just 109 games in 1994, and then reached double digits in homers four times in the next five seasons.

Other picks I like: 16th-rounder Derrick Saito, a 5’9” LHP out of Cal Poly who can nonetheless bring the heat, but dropped in the draft because of some late-season struggles – he has LOOGY potential if nothing else. 18th-rounder Carlo Testa was a two-way player at Belmont and is a quality outfielder for that late in the draft. 20th-rounder Shawn Griffin was a senior pick out of Tennessee who had great numbers in college. And then the legacy picks, 17th-rounder Jacob Kuebler (Alex Gordon’s cousin) and 29th-rounder Beau Brett (George’s nephew), who are both good picks for the round if they can be signed.

At this point, you have to give the draft an A for effort. Their first six picks are all guys who easily could have gone in the first two rounds; if they get them all signed, the Royals will have as much depth in the low minors as anyone. In particular, given the amount of pitching the Royals already have on the farm, if they add Montgomery, Sample, and Melville, then in the words of Kevin Goldstein, “If they sign all of the pitchers, they could have one of the better collection of arms around.”

But high school pitchers will break your heart. The Royals took 11 high school players, 3 junior college guys, and the lone college junior in their first 15 picks. It’s feast or famine, folks. This draft could turn out to be one of the best in team history; it could turn out to be a complete dud. If nothing else, though, at least it gives us something to talk about. And anything that distracts us from what’s going on at the major league level has to be a good thing, doesn’t it?