Thursday, June 19, 2008

A Hero Is Born! (?)

Mike Aviles might be the biggest surprise of the Royals season so far, but to me, the biggest surprise of all is simply that he’s had an opportunity to play. Aviles wasn’t considered strong enough defensively to play shortstop regularly in the minor leagues. In Omaha the last two-plus seasons, Aviles has played 87 games at shortstop – but 66 games at second, and 144 games at third base.

In spring training, you could have told me almost everything that’s happened to the Royals so far this season – the 12-game losing streak, Jose Guillen’s streakiness, the Milton Bradley-Ryan Lefebvre peace summit – and I would have believed it. But Mike Aviles as our starting, everyday shortstop? That would have been tough to imagine. In hindsight, as always, these things are easy to understand. I didn’t expect Tony Pena to hit .154, but if you had to guess on Opening Day that some everyday player in the majors would be hitting .154 in June, who else would have come to mind besides Pena? Brian Bocock with the Giants, probably, but even he was just considered a stopgap until Vizquel returned.

So you have a team with a shortstop who can’t hit, and two shortstops who can’t field, and no obvious solution in the minor leagues. Put it that way, and you’d expect Aviles to get the call – only you couldn’t really expect Aviles, at age 27, to take another quantum leap forward with the bat. In 2006, at age 25, Aviles hit .264/.307/.373 in Triple-A. He improved across the board last season, hitting .296/.332/.463. This year, he hit .336/.370/.631, and is hitting .306/.333/.633 for the Royals.

You can’t expect this to continue. I was going to list his PECOTA projection from the start of the year to make my point, except it appears we didn’t even bother to run a projection for him (which is my fault, as I didn’t even bother to give Aviles a player comment in this year’s book.)

But when you take the air out of his Omaha numbers this year, his Davenport Translation converts his performance into a line of .273/.304/.495 in the majors. His defensive numbers are quite good, +7 runs…at second base. Factor in his performance with the Royals so far, after some regression you’re looking at a guy who will probably hit .270/.300/.460 or so. Is that worth giving up defense for?

When the alternative is Tony Pena Jr: hell yes. But don’t fool yourself: it’s a miracle that Dayton Moore has allowed Aviles to get this far. Moore believes in defense uber alles, and if you don’t believe me, ask Sam Mellinger, who reported a few days ago that Moore offered Billy Butler to the Mariners for Yuniesky Betancourt two winters ago. (Bill Bavasi, bless his heart, declined.) Suddenly, trading Eric Cordier for Pena doesn’t look so bad.

If Aviles keeps hitting, and keeps making the routine play, he’ll keep playing. But if he’s hitting .240 a few weeks from now and fails to come up with a play in a few key situations, don’t act surprised when another change is made. Aviles has fought an uphill battle valiantly for the last few years, but the summit has just come into sight.

This has been brought up in the comments section, but to pile on: in two straight games, Aviles has batted in the top of the eighth, and the Royals went to the bottom of the eight leading by one run. Tony Pena was not brought in for defense either time. I can not possibly fathom what would possess Hillman to decide he’d rather stay with his bat-first shortstop when he has a terrific defensive shortstop on the bench, he’s trying to nurse a one-run lead, and it is unlikely that spot in the lineup will come up to bat again?

Maybe Hillman has come to the conclusion that Aviles isn’t such a bad defensive shortstop after all. In that case, great – then why is Pena on the roster? He can’t hit, he’s not even a good pinch-runner. If you’re not going to use your glove, why is he here?

Which is why I think he won’t be here as soon as tomorrow, when the Royals return home and return to DH rules for the rest of the season. Butler’s flirtation with hitting .400 in Omaha will cease, and the Royals will hold their breath and hope against reason that 29 other teams will somehow not claim a .154 hitter off waivers.

I think the Royals should still keep their eye out for a long-term option at shortstop, which only continues a state of affairs that has been in place since Greg Gagne’s tenure ended. But if nothing else, Aviles keeps the Royals from making a move out of pure desperation. And personally, I think they should keep him at shortstop all year and see what happens.

Aviles is a player who has been overachieving his whole life. He’s undersized to begin with at 5’9”, 195 pounds. He went to a Division II school (Concordia College) and was the DII Player of the Year when he was drafted in the 6th round. He was forced to sign for the grand total of $1,000 when David Glass forced the Royals to penny-pinch and draft college seniors in the middle rounds. (Avilesdaily salary in the majors is greater than his signing bonus.) He has improved his production two straight years at an age (25-27) when most players have mostly peaked.

He was named the Royals’ minor league player of the year last season, but was neither given a September callup nor added to the 40-man roster. He was passed over in the Rule 5 draft. He got called up, inserted in the lineup for one day, then didn’t play for a week. He’s got his shot now, and he’s running with it. And I can’t help but think of another short middle infielder who moved the minor leagues slowly, and despite hitting .297/.378/.502 as a 25-year-old in Double-A was left off his team’s 40-man roster.

Only Dan Uggla was selected in the Rule 5 draft, won the starting job for the Marlins at second base, and hit .282 with 27 homers as a 26-year-old rookie. And unlike another 26-year-old rookie – the one we just traded to Los Angeles – Uggla has only gotten better since, swatting 83 extra-base hits last year and hitting .288/.371/.627 this season. He’s probably the second-best second baseman in the majors, even if he’s not the best second baseman whose last name starts with “U”.

I feel comfortable saying that Aviles will never be as good as Uggla is right now. I feel equally comfortable saying he doesn't have to be.

I’ve given Hillman a lot of flak for his bad tactical moves, and I stand by them. But tactics, by definition, take a back seat to strategy. The minutiae of tactical maneuvering means little if you can’t get the big-picture strategic decisions right – like, say, who your starters are. It seems obvious today that Mike Aviles should be the starting shortstop. And maybe, given how bad Pena has been and how few other options appear to be available, the Royals would have ended up starting Aviles no matter who the manager was.

But maybe not. If Buddy Bell were still here, he might have insisted that the Royals trade a low-level prospect for John McDonald or some other hitless wonder, and we would have started this cycle all over again. Hillman’s lost a few games with his decisions this year. But he won one back when Aviles went yard Tuesday night. And the more opportunities he gives his new shortstop, the more opportunities Aviles will have to win a few more games for us.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

NL, How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count The Ways.

In honor of the Royals’ first two-game winning streak in two weeks (and second such streak in a month), I’m going positive tonight.

The Royals are now 33-27 (.550) against the NL over the last four years. In that same timeframe, they’re 182-314 (.367) against AL opponents. Sixty games is a pretty substantial sample size, and in those 60 games the Royals have outscored their opponents by 46 runs, so their record is representative of how well they’ve played. How much would the perception of this franchise be altered if they simply had the good fortune to play in the inferior league? The general consensus of smart people who have studied the subject is that the difference between the leagues in 2006 and 2007 was on the order of 8-10 games. Which is to suggest that had the Royals played in the NL, they would have had a record of approximately 71-91 in 2006, and 78-84 last season. A lot more wins, a lot fewer Jay Leno jokes.

There’s a meme going around this year that the NL is starting to catch up on the AL, primarily because offense levels are so much higher in the NL this year, prompting claims that the NL has all the young hitting talent. That may be so, but color me unconvinced, and not just because the AL went 25-17 against the NL this weekend. I just don’t understand why we have to interpret the higher offensive levels in the NL this year as the product of good young hitting in the NL, as opposed to good young pitching in the AL. Scoring levels tell you nothing about the quality of play – an increase in scoring could be the result of better hitting, worse pitching, or both.

As I write this, a total of 22 pitchers have thrown 50 or more innings this season with a better-than-league average ERA (i.e. an ERA+ of over 100), and are no older than 25. Fifteen of them are in the American League. In descending order of ERA+, they are: Scott Kazmir, John Danks, Aaron Laffey, Felix Hernandez, Fausto Carmona, Gavin Floyd, Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, Ervin Santana, Chad Gaudin, Jesse Litsch, Greg Smith, Dana Eveland, Edwin Jackson, and Matt Garza. Only seven toil in the NL: Edinson Volquez, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, Scott Olsen, John Lannan, Chad Billingsley, and Jair Jurrjens.

So can we dispense with this idea that the NL is making a comeback? The dregs of the American League just went to the home of the NL West leaders and won two out of three, outscoring the Diamondbacks 20 to 7. A month ago they played the Marlins on the road and won two out of three. An extended run against the NL could be just the tonic the Royals need to right the ship. Three games in St. Louis against the NL Wild Card leaders? Bring it on. Especially since that means Bannister and Greinke both get to swing the bat, and that’s always fun.